Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture pt 4: unleash the embden!

Seems to be the topic of the summer, eh? Well, it seems to be a success so far!
While patch 3 is growing in quite nicely, patch 2 has been deemed ready for the geese.
So we turned them loose! Honestly, it was far less dramatic than we were hoping for. But still cool. They enjoyed it. But I really think the turkeys enjoyed it more.

But ultimately, the point is that they were eating a renewable food source. The geese eat a ton, and that adds up.
But here they are, eating something we grew ourselves. Something that will keep growing and keep feeding them. And that's what this whole experiment was about. More to come on this!


Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture part 2: dearth of information!

While formulating my plan for turning the yard into pasture, I stumbled across an interesting problem. No one seems to have done it before. 

Now, to clarify, I mean no one seems to have done exactly what I was planning. Plenty of people have created pastures, or even seeded a pasture with just forage crops. Or grew a forage blend for their chickens. But not the way I was wanting. People created whole new pastures with grass, or an entire field with turnips, or grew forage greens in trays for confined birds to pick clean. 

I could not find any source for information on a mixed grass and forage pasture specifically designed for poultry and waterfowl. It was even difficult to find info on when new pasture could be grazed!

Piecemeal, I’ve been able to find a few things and I want to share them here for anyone considering a similar project. 

First, it can be done! Best time for it is in the spring while there is still some rain in the forecast but it’s starting to warm up. Most forage crops do need to be planted deeper than grass so I would suggest two separate sowings for that purpose. Keep them moist until germination and don’t let it dry out until it’s well established. 

What constitutes well established? Well, it depends on the plant! Now this was one of the toughest bits to find so I definitely want to share! From the university of Georgia’s college of agricultural and environmental sciences, for most forage based crops, you should wait for a specific height before a first grazing, and then only allow it grazed down to a specific height before a recovery period. 

Here is a screenshot of a chart provided at their page. Another super useful tip that wasn’t easy to find is the “pluck test.” 

Yeah. That’s it. “Pluck test.” No further description provided. Basically everyone talking about it assumes you already know about it. Like it’s some common knowledge farmy thing that everyone knows. Can I get a facepalm?

Ok, so enough vague references and one blurry zoomed too far out picture, I think I’ve figured it out. So you’ve got your tillered (grass with multiple blades coming from the plant or something like that) grass plant. Grab a blade of it and pull. If the plant starts to uproot, it’s not ready for grazing. If the leaf just comes right off without disturbing the roots, then it’s ready.  In my photo you can see that the blade of grass severed when I tried to pull. That particular plant is ready for grazing. 

Was that sooooo difficult to write, other bloggers and authors???

Others recommended 6-8 weeks of no grazing to establish, but of course that would vary based on soil quality, what kind of forage you planted, what you’re planning to graze, and how much water and sun they’ve received. I feel height plus pluck is the best route. 

If you do a quick Google or YouTube search for growing forage for poultry, you’ll mainly find city dwellers growing patches or trays of this stuff for their birds. They are allowed to eat it all the way to the roots and then it’s replanted. 

I want a stable pasture that will reduce my feed costs while giving the birds something to do. If you have any additional insights, you know where the comment button is!

A day in the life

The other night I didn’t get off work until after 4, which means home around 5. Sucks but it is what it is. 

My lovely fiancée makes a point of making dinner for me each night so I can avoid fast food or needing to cook after a 10-12 hour shift. So she was up for a bit in the wee small hours. 

At around 8, she wakes up and makes sure all the animals have food and water. That’s the chickens and turkeys out front, the goose water out back, the rabbits’ food and water, the chicks in the brooder, the dog, and the cats. Then she goes back to bed for a few hours. All told, she may get a full 8 hours of sleep on a good day, but it’s in 2-3 chunks. 

She helps me get ready for work before she does some work around the house such as cleaning, both inside and out. She often cleans the chicken coop for me because I rarely have the time during the week. She handles the shopping and usually has to go to multiple stores. 

She also plays with the puppy so she doesn’t get bored and chew on things (the puppy, that is), and socializes the baby animals so they don’t act feral with us. Her shopping is masterful and we eat as if our foodbudget were twice what it is. 

She does all this while being pregnant. But most people don’t see the work she does. When they call or visit they just see that it’s done and either assume I did half of it, or that it’s quick and easy to do. But here’s what I would like people to remember. We have 16 chickens, 4 turkeys, 3 geese, 11 rabbits, 3 cats, 4 chicks, 1 turklet, and 1 very large and demanding dog. They are all healthy, happy, well fed, and tame. The house is clean, and we eat well. I could not have this homestead and this life without her. In a way, we both work full time. 

I am well aware of how lucky I am to have found her, and absolutely do not take her hard work for granted. But I’d really appreciate it if people didn’t assume she sleeps and shops all day. 

It’s a McFarmFace birthday!

Of course, planning ahead as I do, I didn’t request my birthday off. Oops. Oh well, got a good weekend planned. But that’s not what I want to talk about today!

Self sufficiency. Lots of homesteaders talk about it. Preppers shout about it. But is it really attainable?

Are we self sufficient? Well, we have fruit, nut, and berries. We have a sizeable garden, and four types of livestock for eggs and meat. But we get electricity and water from municipal sources. So let’s say we get solar installed and our own well dug, and we can grow or raise all we need to eat. Does that make us self sufficient?

I don’t know how to make solar panels so I will rely on others to do that for me. I can raise my animals but I learned that from others. There is not a single aspect of my life that is independent from the rest of the world. Self sufficient is an illusion. Even if the only thing we get from others is knowledge, they earned it before us. 

That’s sort of the point of society. And it’s not just a human construct either. Many animals have discovered safety in numbers or cooperation increase their odds of survival. Primates teach skills to young and protect weaker members of the group, geese migrate at the pace of the slowest bird, and fish move as a single unit to discourage predators. 

I’m not saying that the skills and habits that we generally call “self sufficiency” are in any way bad or useless to have. On the contrary, I gain great satisfaction from growing my own food and raising livestock. In the event of an emergency, I know my family will be fed. In the meantime, we are healthier for the food we produce. But in recent years I’ve seen something approaching paranoia regarding the way society works. 

We are stronger together. When we divide ourselves into arbitrary groups based on skin color or religious beliefs, it weakens us all. Yeah, it got a little preachy there. But hey, it’s my birthday!

Another busy weekend

Whew! This weekend isn’t even over for me but I’ve gotten quite a bit done. 

First, I played with the goslings. It’s taxing work, but somebody’s got to do it. They need to not be afraid of us. 

Next, I got some more planting done. We had a packet of sunflower seeds for snacking as opposed to the black oil seeds I already planted, and a little packet of purely decorative ones. Got those in, along with some buckwheat. 

Then beans. And why yes, that is in the middle of the yard. I ran out of other places. But being by the deck means I’ve got a great place for a trellis!

Then there was a bunch of little projects and cleaning up. The rabbits have the nest boxes back, as we figure at least one is probably pregnant now. By the way, like my little rabbit barn? We figure it gives them more space out of rain, and that front board can help contain the very young babies. 

Speaking of babies, they’re getting big! We will probably only keep six of them for the freezer and sell the rest as pets or breeding stock. 

The rat bitten turklet is completely recovered and back outside, though we are triple checking it goes on the roost at night. In the meantime, I’ve installed an anti rodent skirt to the coop. I’ll do a post just on that soon. 

The geese are starting to get real feathers, and are spending every day outside. The pen keeps them confined until they’re big enough to not get through the fence. 

And finally, it’s been consistently warm and dry for long enough that I felt I should water everything. And with the soil darkened, I could see much more clearly that the salad garden is actually doing quite well! That spinach was nearly invisible before watering. 

Same with the lettuce! Several varieties of loose leaf and I’m even doing some butterhead lettuce this year. And the radishes. I wasn’t even planting more radishes, but I found old seeds and figured I’d give them a shot. 

The tension is on…

It’s building up. The tension is increasing. It’s straining… soon it’s going to… spring!!!

Seed starting is well under way here. We have a full tray of tomatoes and one of peppers. We’ve also started several 4″ pots of leeks and scallions, plus some sunflowers. 

The latter we could have waited and direct planted, but we will use a lot of them so we figured we’d get an early small crop and just keep planting throughout the season for an extended harvest. 

In about a week it’ll be time for the Brussels sprouts and broccoli to be started, and not long after that, the garden itself will get some seeds. 

Looking at the amount we have already started, and the huge stack of unopened seed packets, it’s clear I will need to clean and prepare at least two more garden beds. The alliums can’t go next to the legumes and the sunflowers can’t go next to anything. Wait, three. Asparagus. 

Seems I’ve got my work cut out for me!

Backbreaking labor

Well, the labor was harder because of my back. But I did manage to get quite a bit done in spite of that. 

First, I made a better gate for the rabbit pen. It’s just 2×2 but the corners have angle brackets and there’s a diagonal brace for stability. 

At the top is a simple clip to close it, and at the bottom is a pin going down into a pipe to prevent any larger animals from pushing it open. 

Look at the happy bunnies running around their big ole home! They aren’t phased by rain or snow but really enjoy the twigs and wood for shelter. 

Also got the lights up! Not exactly a homestead or farm related chore, but it sure does brighten the place up at night!

And finally, I built a chicken plucker. It’s not the big drum style I’m going to build, but it’ll do the trick in the meantime. It’s pretty simple. Four pairs of rubber fingers on a 4″ pvc pipe end cap secured to a threaded rod. 

Stick it in a drill and away she goes! We will be trying it out probably next weekend. The one non Bielefelder rooster has to go. He’s the only one causing trouble. But while at it, might as well cut down on feed costs for the birds by taking a couple other roosters for the freezer. Will do a plucking post soon. 

Cooped up part deux 

Well, had to make some changes to the design because having the door on one side just wasn’t going to be stable enough. The roof kept pushing the walls outward. Call it a lesson learned. But two new sheets of plywood and some creative use of a saw later, the coop is structurally finished!

The door is actually two parts that can be opened and closed separately. Why? Why not. The girlfriend assisted me with installing the roosts and getting the roofing felt attached. Of course the roll of felt was a couple inches narrower than the roof panels, so we cut one piece into strips and that handled the peak and whatnot. 

Now what’s really funny is how much work it was to get the chickens to accept this as their new home! I closed the old coop to try to force them to use the new one. They just milled around the old one. I actually had to pick each one up and place it in the new one. And even that didn’t work until it started getting dark out. 

The roosts are 2×4’s running parallel to the right and back walls about 2.5 feet up. The floor is covered with wire mesh, then plywood, then wood shavings. Overall it’s quite soft and springy to walk on. We will be using the deep litter method to manufacture compost for the garden. 

While I’m working this week, the girlfriend has volunteered to paint the exterior for me. We are going with red, and the neighbors have some white trim they’re giving us so it’s going to look pretty nice! Just have to track down some shingles now, and the electronics for the automatic door if I can find any time soon. But for now, the growing birds will have more space, better roosts, and much better ventilation. 

Keeping animals for food 

There is a huge disconnect between the living breathing animals on farms across the country and the items we eat in America. Commercially raised animals are often kept in horrifying conditions simply to make them grow as big as possible and quickly as possible. The side effects of this are gut wrenching. 

Yet, most people don’t seem to want to know where those chicken nuggets or steaks came from. They’re quite content believing that the meat from the supermarket lived on the farm where Charlotte spun her web. This bothers me. Cows packed into feedlots stand knee deep in their own waste, which then runs across the soil into our rivers. Chickens never see natural light and grow so big that their legs break when they try to walk. And every time we buy meat based solely on price, we encourage this. 

It has been said that the most rebellious thing a person can do is grow their own food. Our food system is so tied up in money and politics that it can be difficult to break free from it. But by raising your own food, whether a garden or livestock, you are able to control what you put into your body, and how it lived. 

There is a cost to this, though. I don’t just mean money. On Labor Day, I slaughtered my first chicken. More than that, it was the first time I’ve ever intentionally killed an animal (not counting bugs and the like) except fish. It was really hard to do, and I felt a bit shaky afterwards. I’m told that gets better over time. But even though I had to actually take that life, I feel comforted knowing that this chicken lived a full and comfortable life. It had sunshine and rain, and a big yard to scratch and peck, chasing bugs and plucking huckleberries. 

My girlfriend has done this before and helped me, also handling most of the dressing of the bird. One thing that struck her was that we did not find a single parasite. No fleas, no mites, nothing. This was a healthy and happy bird.  

So by raising our own food we have not only begun the process of eliminating herbicides and unneeded antibiotics from our bodies, we have stopped funding the factory farm system that is so cruel to animals. The initial investment is tough, but in the long run we save a lot of money and become healthier. Then there’s the undeniable fact that it tastes better this way! 

Seasonal eating habits

Sometimes you just really want strawberries. That’s why I have three varieties (2 wild, 1 everbearing) that will be used as groundcover in various places. But what if you want strawberries in January? Let’s be honest, we all buy produce out of season and complain about the prices. But when you’re trying to live off your land as much as you can, this is a very important habit to break. 

We are in the heat of late summer and the veggie garden is full of tomatoes and peppers and that’s awesome. But a few short months from now, that’s going to stop. That’s when most backyard gardeners start spending more money at the grocery store again, and the gardens get a ton of mulch. 

But there are many crops that can grow through the fall and even winter. Just last week I scattered the remaining lettuce, spinach, and arugula seeds I had leftover from spring. I can munch on those greens all the way through November. When I get the kale planted, that will grow all through the winter here. 

Broccoli, cabbage, and most other kole crops can overwinter for a spring harvest, though some of them need a little protection. My broccoli struggled through this summer but as the nights are getting cooler here, it’s started growing again. 

But sometimes you really want tomatoes and berries in the winter. That’s where the age old art of preserving comes in. I’ve already mentioned the dehydrator. Today, we received two boxes of apples from my sister and a few pounds of Asian pears from our neighbors. All together, we probably got at least fifty pounds of fruit. Obviously, we won’t eat that before it spoils. 

Apple chips! Apple butter! Apple pie filling for the holidays! And I think I might try a small batch of pear wine. My sister recently got a pressure cooker she now uses for canning so she gave us her old water bath canner. Between hot water, hot air, and a freezer, we will spread this fruit out for the next few months. 

Eating seasonally will save you money, but it doesn’t necessarily mean only eating things that are in season. With the various methods available for home preserving, we will have apples, pears, tomatoes, strawberries, and huckleberries for months after they stop being ripe outside. But by knowing what is in season and focusing more on that, a lot of money can be saved. 

Moving in the summer limited what we were able to do for this year. But next year is going to be like the land of milk and honey.