Chickens for Meat

You may have guessed from the tone of the Rabbit Report post that Justin and I have been looking into other types of livestock to raise for meat. We plan to do a pig or two later in the year but this spring (this week, in fact) we’re getting some broilers to raise!

We did a lot of research before diving in (you’re so surprised, right?) and I thought I’d share some of the info and resources we found to be most helpful.

Breed

We’ll be raising colored broiler hybrids. These birds are hybrids developed specifically to grow quickly enough to be economical while also growing slowly enough to be healthy and flavorful. These chicks will reach butchering weight of 5-6 lbs in 12 weeks.

We decided to go with hybrids over heritage birds mainly because of economics. Heritage chickens would take nearly double the time to grow out. As to the type of hybrid birds, we emphatically decided against the Cornish X Rocks (Cornish Cross). We got the opportunity to see some in person last summer and they’re just heartbreaking. They grow so quickly that they can’t stand or walk easily, they don’t feather out completely, and they have health problems because their muscles grow faster than their bones and organs. Basically they’re franken-chickens and I feel that their existence is inhumane.

Colored broilers were developed in France in the 1960’s to fill the need for flavorful humanely raised chicken on a commercial scale. This article is really interesting if you’re looking for more info.

Also, I’ll say this to allay some concerns we’ve heard, colored hybrid broilers are created through cross breeding, they’re not GMO.

Hatchery

We ordered our chicks from Moyer’s Chicks. We don’t have any first-hand (or second-hand) experiences to draw on with mail-order hatcheries so we picked Moyer’s because their hatching dates lined up with our schedule. I’ll keep you updated with our experience, good, bad, or ugly after the chickens arrive.

Food

We’ll be feeding the chickens a mix of organic soy-free broiler feed (19% protein) and organic whole wheat berries. We decided to add whole wheat to the rations because it significantly reduces the cost of feeding the chickens overall (in our case) and because we found a research study which showed feeding up to 75% whole wheat (or barley) caused no drop in growth weight or food conversion ratio but did improve organ health. So, cheaper for us and healthier for the chickens – no brainer. This article from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association gives a good overview of whole grain supplements for chickens.

Accommodations

We’ll be brooding the chickens in the rabbit shed until they’re ready to go outside full time (around 4-5 weeks). Then, we plan to put them in a tractor surrounded by electric poultry netting. A similar set up to this. We’ll also be building our own electric fence controller (more about that in a future post) from scratch to save some cash.

We are expecting our 35 broilers on Tuesday or Wednesday of this week (eek!) I’ll share some photos when they arrive as well as more specifics on our set-up and raising process. I am also dutifully tracking all of the expenses going into this meat chicken operation so I can share how much this project will actually cost us.

We’re pretty excited, wish us luck!

Soil Testing

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Last fall, Justin and I attended the WNC Garlic Fest (super fun!) and we picked up a soil testing kit on a whim. Despite our best intentions, the kit sat untouched until last week when Justin and I finally took some samples and got to testing.

The kit we got was pretty straightforward and easy to use. It came with clear instructions, supplies to perform the tests, and some good information about the soil conditions required by common vegetables. The only thing not included in the kit was distilled water.

 

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The pipette was included with the kit, the trowel and water we supplied.

 

For our tests, we took 4 samples. One from our current garden, one from the area to which we’d like to move the garden, one from our herb bed, and one from our front-most field (we’ll do another test from this field after pigs have grazed it).

We knocked out the pH tests first. This test was instantly gratifying. We put a little dirt into the test box, filled it with distilled water, and dumped the contents of the pH capsules in. I expected our samples to run fairly acidic because our clay soil is supporting some impressive pine and cypress trees which favor acidic conditions. I was surprised to notice that only 2 of the samples were very slightly acidic and one was even slightly alkaline. I’m pretty relieved that no major corrections will be needed in the pH department.

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The tests for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium required a bit more time. The kit called for dissolving 1 part soil sample into 5 parts water. We used some old pineapple jars with lids for this.

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Ideally, you wait anywhere between 20 minutes and 24 hours for sediment to settle out of your dirt-water and use that liquid to fill the test chambers. We waited more than 24 hours for 2 of the very orange clay samples to settle out, but they never did, so the accuracy of the potassium test (in which the liquid was supposed to turn orange) is in question.

The results for the phosphorus and potassium tests were encouraging, we seem to have plenty of those nutrients for growing veggies. However, the nitrogen levels were abysmally low. Our actual test results are below.

Sample (1/17/16) pH Nitrogen Phosphorus Potassium
Proposed Garden 7 Depleted N0 Sufficient – Surplus P3 – P4 Sufficient K3
Garden 6.75 Deficient N1 Adequate P2 Surplus K4
Front Field 6.5 Depleted N0 Sufficient – Surplus P3 – P4 Adequate K2
Herb Bed 7.5 Depleted N0 Surplus P4 Adequate K2

If you have any questions regarding our soil or the test, let me know in the comments. Otherwise, I’ll be researching ways to boost our nitrogen levels for this summer’s growing season…

Why We’re Not Selling Our Eggs

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Invariably, one of the first questions I get when I tell people that we have laying hens is “Do you sell your eggs?”. I usually tell them that we don’t have enough extra to sell; which is quickly followed by an offer to buy them if we ever do have extra. This is a very encouraging sentiment to a chicken keeper, but I don’t see us ever selling our eggs for several different reasons.

We don’t produce extra eggs. We went into our laying hen venture with a lot of research and analysis behind us. Our chickens are not kept as pets or as a hobby, we got them specifically to produce eggs. We learned about the different production rates of the different breeds and we only got enough chickens to produce the amount of eggs that our two-person household will use. A lot of folks have a collection of chickens as pets or as a hobby, so they may end up with more eggs than they can use. I am by no means knocking that, but our aim was to only have as many layers as will feed our family.

Our state regulates off farm egg sales. Unless I sell my eggs from my house (in the middle of nowhere) or from a roadside stand “near” my house (in the middle of nowhere) I would have to do the following in order to adhere to South Carolina’s regulations.

  • Weigh or Size each egg
  • Candle each egg (to check quality) and assign a grade
  • Wash each egg according to USDA standards
  • Keep the eggs refrigerated at 45 degrees (or lower)
  • Label each carton according to USDA labeling requirements

That’s a lot of work for a small scale chicken keeper to unload some eggs. A violation of these regulations is treated as a misdemeanor and can be punished by fines and/or jail time.

Our eggs are worth more than people want to pay. This is the heart of the issue, in my book. Due to our nationally subsidized food system, people tend to have a perspective which undervalues what eggs (and countless other food items) are worth. The going rate for ‘farm fresh’ eggs according to the internet and local data seems to be $3.00/dozen. I figure our eggs ought to sell for at least $6.00/dozen.

The whole philosophy of our farming/homesteading endeavors is that we want the best quality organic food for cheaper than we can buy it at the grocery store. This means that our chickens eat USDA certified organic feed in addition to foraging in our yard for half the day. Here’s the breakdown of that $6.00/ dozen price.

We go through $30.00 of feed per month and produce an average of 75 eggs per month. That’s $0.40 per egg or $4.80 per dozen. This doesn’t even include the capital investments of the chicken coop, feeder, and waterer, or the time spent caring for the hens daily, or the 6 months of the chickens’ lives that we were feeding them before they were old enough to lay, or any time spent jumping through regulatory hoops to sell them legally.

The equivalent eggs in my grocery store (certified organic, pasture raised, and antibiotic free) retail for $6.00/dozen; and our eggs have a leg up on the grocery store eggs because ours are fresher (not having been stored and transported anywhere).

A lot of resources, time, and labor go into producing eggs (which are legally sold) and due to decades of government subsidies, a lot of folks just can’t fathom paying that much money for eggs.

So, to make a long story long, we’re not selling any eggs at the moment.

 

Farm Reads

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It tends to be a bit quiet on the farm January through March. The chilly air, wind, and precipitation make it the perfect time of year to sit in front of the fire, read, and dream about the cool stuff you’re going to do in the upcoming growing season.

There is an overwhelming sea of books, ebooks, and magazines out there on the subject of farming/homesteading and I’ve found that it can be difficult to sort through the nonsense. So, today I thought I would share what resources I’ve found to be really helpful in planning for spring, summer, and fall on the farm.

Landscape Architectural Graphic Standards: Leonard J. Hopper, RLA, FASLA  This book is a godsend. We have been trying to come up with an overall plan for responsible management of our land and this book on landscape architecture contains everything you’d ever need to know about site management and landscape planning. It details how to construct a driveway or road, how to calculate the shade value of a tree, how to divert water from structures, etc… I’d definitely recommend investing in this book to anyone with acreage to manage.

The Holistic Orchard: Michael Phillips   I’ve just started reading this book but let me tell you, it’s really interesting. It reads a bit like a text book, but in my opinion, that’s a plus (the more you know, right?). There’s a lot of science in this book as this guy’s approach to orchards focuses on creating the healthiest environment for your trees as possible. He goes into great detail about the ecology of the trees and their pests. Definitely a fascinating read so far.

Growing a Sustainable Diet: Cindy Conner  This book focuses on gardening rotationally with an emphasis on soil care using composting and cover crops. This would be great for folks who don’t have access to manure to supplement their soil or for vegetarian/vegan gardeners who want to avoid animal inputs. Super interesting.

Canning for a New Generation: Liana Krissoff  I love this book. It’s full of modern and interesting canning recipes with plenty of info for the beginning canner. The photos are crisp and beautiful and recipes and suggestions on how to use your canned food are included. Plus, none of the recipes require a pressure canner. I made the recipe for Whole Jalapenos with Honey and Allspice and they’re pretty freakin’ awesome.

Raising the Homestead Hog: Jerome D. Belanger Because we’re planning to get a couple of pigs this spring, we’ve been trying to learn as much as we can about caring for them. Almost every website I visited in my search referenced this book as a ‘must have’ for the beginning pig farmer. It covers pig breeds, building pig enclosures with salvaged materials, growing your own feed, home butchering, and smoking/preserving your pork. It covers so much ground, it’s definitely a valuable resource.

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Sow True Seed 2016 Catalog This is where I’ll get all my seeds and planning information for my summer and fall gardens. I’ve talked about this company before, but they’re local, sustainable, heirloom, and their seeds are super high quality so they’re definitely worth another mention. Sow True Seed’s annual catalog lives on my coffee table because it’s referenced so often through out the year.

Taproot Magazine  Taproot is a magazine full of inspirational stories, art, photography, and crafts centered around intentional living. There is so much wholesome content for folks interested in food, education, community, art, and sustainability. It doesn’t really help me plan my season but it warms my farmy heart and keeps me inspired so I think you all should check it out.

What are you reading these days?

Camper Update: Demo

Our camper refurbishment job is moving along at a snail’s pace but at this point (with all the projects on our to-do list) I’m happy with any forward progress I can get. The demo phase of the renovation went rather quickly. We did find significant damage from water leaks which is what we’re working on repairing now.
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Most of the water damage was found in the bathroom area. The roof, window, and some of the plumbing was leaking there which caused a lot of the structure to rot. Pretty gross. The floor also had some damage from water leakage. The last picture shows the rear-most section of the plywood subfloor which we removed because the damage was pretty severe.

Our general plan of attack has been to remove, repair, and replace. We’ve removed the old paneling, cabinetry, floor, and ceiling. We are currently repairing any rotten/damaged bones of the camper. Our next step is to replace the electrical systems, insulation, plumbing, paneling, cabinetry, and upholstery.

For now, the camper looks like this, waiting on the next phase of the plan.

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Rabbit Report

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I originally wrote this post as an update on our meat rabbits (no babies – surprise surprise). But as I was working on the post, I realized that our rabbit operation is just not working out. The numbers aren’t there to support our meat rabbit venture.

We had no litters in 2015. That’s an entire year of feeding and housing breeders with nothing to show for it. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took listening to several podcasts about farm management and record keeping before it occurred to me that our meat rabbit operation was maybe not worthwhile.

The reason we wanted to raise meat rabbits in the first place was because they were supposed to cost less to raise than meat chickens. Theoretically, a rabbit takes only 8-10 weeks to grow to eating size and 5 of those weeks are spent nursing; so really, you only pay to feed the growing rabbits for 5 weeks at a maximum. Whereas, chickens grow out for 8-12 weeks (depending on the breed) and you’re stuck feeding them the whole time.

This sounds really great, right? Well, the research we did prior to getting rabbits was all based on feeding commercial rabbit pellets. For us, the whole point of raising our own food (vegetables, eggs, and meat included) is that we would have access to the fresh organic food we want to eat at a cheaper price than the grocery store. So, that means feeding our animals organic food. I don’t have access to organic rabbit feed in my area so I did some research (feedipedia is a cool site) and bought some feed grade organic grains and seeds to feed the rabbits.

The rabbits seemed to do just fine eating their whole grains but the one litter we produced on the farm took 22 weeks to grow out. That’s obviously way longer than we anticipated. After some googling, we found that a grow out period of 5-6 months is not uncommon for rabbits which are not fed pellets. This clearly raises the cost of raising meat rabbits significantly.

Compared to chickens, rabbits as meat producers do have some really great qualities. They work well if you live in an urban or suburban area – they don’t make noise or take up much room. But, we live in a rural setting on 25 acres so those qualities aren’t a boon to us.

Rabbits also happen to be a very easy animal to butcher at home. Since moving to the farm, we’ve acquired the facilities and the skill-set to butcher large animals so we don’t necessarily need to raise an easily butchered animal.

Ultimately, we’ve realized that the benefits of raising meat rabbits over meat chickens don’t really apply to us anymore. Since we’ve been unsuccessful over the past year and a half, we’ve decided to move on from meat rabbits. We’ll be selling our bunnies and their cages/tractors and accessories.

On paper, this all makes perfect sense and I am absolutely not about to keep these rabbits as pets; but I’m sad to see our rabbits go along with the cages and tractors we’ve built. I feel like we’ve come along way in our meat rabbit journey and I’m pretty bummed it hasn’t worked out.

As cliche as it sounds, it’s true that until we started producing food, I had no idea the time, effort, and resources that go into each and every item we consume. What I didn’t expect was the spectrum of emotions involved in food production. The hope and optimism felt when a garden is planted. The horrible sadness of losing a laying hen raised from a chick. The helplessness of being at the mercy of the weather. The excitement of new animals coming to live on the farm. The ever-present sense of responsibility for each little life in your care that helps to sustain your life.

I guess it’s all part of the job. Despite all of that emotional baggage, I do love and believe in this farmy way of living. While we’re moving on from our meat rabbit venture, we will be moving toward raising other livestock for meat. I’ll keep you posted with any new developments.

 

How Justin Learned Morse Code

I meant to share this a while ago, but the bustle of the holidays got me off track. Our neighbor runs a HAM radio podcast and Justin was a guest a few weeks ago talking about how he taught himself Morse Code. All of Justin’s resources for learning code are in the show notes. Head on over to the Fo Time podcast site to check it out!

Source: Ham Radio: CW for the Newbie w/KI4WFJ Episode 41

Looking Forward in 2016

We are really looking forward to this year. Justin and I have got a lot of exciting things on the docket for the farm in 2016. The following are our 2016 projects (in no particular order).

  • Buy a tractor! We’re looking at Branson tractors around the 35 horsepower mark. This tractor will allow us to accomplish a lot of projects we’ve had on our list like re-grading our driveway, transplanting some mature trees, digging a root cellar, creating some hugelkultur beds for an orchard and building some additional structures around the property. It will also make our regular chores much easier – being able to till the garden in 15 minutes instead of 3 hours sounds great to me!
  • Create a privacy hedge. This is a project where the tractor will be indispensable. Our front-most field is full of mixed evergreen trees (leyland cypress and juniper) about 10-15 years old. These trees are growing haphazardly in a field we’d like to convert to pasture. We hope to move these trees to our property line along our driveway to create a privacy hedge.
  • Raise Pigs. This is something Justin and I looked into doing last spring but we were unable to figure out how to provide water and shelter so we could rotationally pasture them. We stumbled across this video in which those solutions are neatly and simply presented. So we’re going to re-create those ideas and raise us some bacon! We plan to graze the pigs over the front field after the trees are removed. Theoretically, the pigs will root around and loosen up the soil in that field and their manure will provide some much needed fertilizer. After they move through, we’ll smooth the field with the tractor and seed grass.
  • Finish our camper. Justin and I have used our Christmas break to continue working on our camper. We’ve found a lot more rotten wood in the structure, so this project sort of spiraled into a huge undertaking. I plan to write a post soon to share where in the project we are. We definitely want to have it finished soon, though.
  •  Expand and move the garden. We’d like to shift the garden toward the center of the field where it’s now located. The edge of the field where it is now fades from rich dark soil to sad sandy soil. Everything we planted along that edge of the garden was just stunted and unproductive.
  • Grow A LOT of corn. In 2015 we grew a test stand of corn to see if it was something we wanted to do. Well, we got about 5 cups of dried corn from our 1 little seed packet! We made some polenta from that corn over Christmas break and it was SO GOOD! We plan to plant the remaining 4 cups of corn we grew last year and hopefully we’ll have heaps of awesome field corn come fall.
  • Re-roof our mudroom and bathroom. This was a project that was supposed to happen in 2015. We got a quote to have that 200 square foot section done and that quote came to $3,000.00. So after I finished choking, we decided we were going to learn how to roof and do it ourselves.
  • Renovate the bathroom. After our roof is done, we plan to renovate the bathroom. The plan is to finish the camper first so we can use it’s bathroom while the house’s bathroom is being finished.
  • Finish the mudroom. The mudroom project has stalled since we discovered the roof leaked in there. We definitely didn’t want to add drywall to that room if there was a chance that it could be ruined. Once the roof is replaced, the mudroom should be a fairly quick project to finish.
  • Build a carport. We are in great need of a carport. All of our cars are over 10 years old and 2 of them have mystery leaks so we really need somewhere to keep them sheltered from the elements.

So that’s the list. Wish us luck – it’s a long one. We’ll keep you updated with our progress. Cheers to a happy, healthy, and productive new year!

Our DIY Rabbit Tractors

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Our bucks, Jefferson and Riddick are pretty pumped about these tractors I’ve got to share today. Jefferson has been living in his for a few months now and Riddick just moved out onto pasture this Thanksgiving weekend.

The design of these tractors was sort of inspired by our chicken coop. They maximize grass exposure, while keeping the rabbits safe. With the nest box on stilts, they have a safe place from predators and the elements without losing any grazing area. We’ve only used them for our bucks so far but we plan to eventually move the does out into tractors as well.

While hammering out the tractor’s design, we wanted to make sure that the rabbits wouldn’t be cramped. Conventional rabbit wisdom concludes that rabbit cages should measure 30″ x 36″ giving the rabbit 7.5 square feet of space. These tractors (24″ x 36″ with a nest box of 24″ x 12″) give the rabbit 8 square feet. Yay for more room! I’ve also found that these tractors are easier to get the rabbits in and out of – my arm is not long enough to grab a rabbit out of a 36″ wide cage (I learned that after building 2 all wire 30″ x 36″ cages: #forethought).

Because I’ve not found an abundance of useful information out there in internetland about grazing rabbits in tractors, I thought I’d put together a materials list, some pictures, and info about how we put our tractors together.

Click through for the details.

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The Wood Heating Project

When we first looked at our farmhouse there was no heating and air present. No central HVAC, no natural gas lines or propane equipment, nothing. Fortunately, in the state of South Carolina, mortgage lenders require there to be a permanent source of heat in the home. Some of you may remember the hustling involved in getting our two PTAC units (similar to this one) installed before closing on the house – our real estate agent, sure does…

The mettle of our PTACs was determined pretty quickly once winter set in. For those of you who are unfamiliar with heat pumps, (the method of heating our PTACs use) they work very efficiently until the outside temperature hits 35 degrees. This article provides a decent overview of heat pump technology. In South Carolina, our temperatures in the winter will regularly drop below 35 and stay there. When this happens, our units, like many heat pumps, switch over to electric heat which is absurdly expensive to run.

That winter in 2013, we ended up shutting off the living room, office, and the entire second floor from the rest of the house. We only heated our bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom. We eventually got a kerosene heater to supplement, but we still ended up paying right around $300.00 per month to heat 1/3 of our house…

A chilly Bella our first winter in the farmhouse.

After making it through the colder months, we were quite determined that the upcoming winter would NOT be a repeat of The Winter of 2013.

After being told by two different heating and air companies that our only option for central heating involved $15K and ducts running all over the exterior walls of our house, we decided it would be prudent to research wood heating. I came across this article and was pretty well sold. After thorough research (we are quite stereotypical members of Generation Y), we bought ourselves a good quality wood-stove and were able to have it installed right before Christmas last year. It’s been a game changer for us.

We LOVE our wood-stove and have had a great experience using wood to heat our home. The wood-stove heats the entire house so comfortably and provides us with that cozy ambiance that no propane, gas, or electric heater can. Our electric bill in the winter has gone down to $100.00 per month using wood heat.

However, I will say that wood heat is not all roasted marshmallows and cozy toes. There is a lot of work involved in heating with wood as compared to other heating methods. Our routine has involved sourcing firewood (we get ours for free from friends and from Craigslist), we then drive to the site, use a chainsaw to chop the wood into 18″ rounds, load those rounds onto our trailer, drive home, unload the trailer, split the wood, and then stack it for drying.

This is a holzhaus, it’s how we dry our firewood. This round is 10 feet in diameter. We would definately recommend this stacking method. You can read more about it here.

After one full season of heating with wood and another winter approaching, we’ve concluded that despite the work involved, wood heating is something that we’ll be doing for the foreseeable future.

Final Notes:

  • To mitigate some of the work involved in wood heating, you can buy split and dried firewood. The seller will usually deliver it to your house and sometimes, they’ll even stack it for you. Craigslist, word of mouth, and roadside signs are good ways to find firewood for sale.
  • All Firewood is NOT created equal. Different types of wood will burn in different ways. Read more here.
  •  ALWAYS burn dried/seasoned firewood. Burning wet wood can cause a buildup of creosote in your chimney/flue which can cause a chimney fire. Wet wood also burns very inefficiently.