Surprise!!!

Our black Easter egger hen has been missing. Naturally, there was some concern about this. I said she was probably fine. Actually, I believe my exact words were “I wouldn’t be surprised if she shows back up with a bunch of cherps in tow.”

Nailed it. 

A rather impressive number, too!

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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!

Reducing feed costs through forage based pasture

Some time ago I sat down and did the math. If we don’t get any more birds and they stop growing (some of them are four inches tall), they will consume roughly 2,000 pounds of prepared chicken food in a 12 month period. That’s 40 50lb bags at roughly $13 each for a total of $650.

Honestly, that’s not terrible considering the number of eggs, chicks, and meat we get both for ourselves and (eggs and chicks only at this point. Talking to you, USDA!) others. But I’m convinced we can do better. 

Initially I thought the best way would simply be to grow our own in the form of wheat, buckwheat, barley, corn, sunflowers, and peas. And I am doing that, but there’s a substantial space requirement and length of time before any gains are made, so it’s not perfect. So far I’ve just got those tiny patches next to the rabbit run. 

While the grains grow, what can I do? If only there was a way to make the birds feed themselves… 

Oh wait, there is! While chickens lack the ability to digest grass, they do love the bugs that live in and around it. They do love tender young leaves. And the geese will gladly mow the grass,  as evidenced by the back yard (pictured above post geese). So I should plant a new lawn! Not just any lawn, but a mix that will meet most of their nutritional requirements!

Hmm. There are seed loving birds all over the lawn. Cross fencing it is!

To be clear, I am not doing this in the most ideal way. So if you are starting out, plan ahead and do everything I did, but before you got the birds and not in the summer heat!

Followers may recall that when we moved in here almost exactly one year ago, the entire front yard was rock hard, dry, dusty, and all around useless. Couple straggly bits of grass and a few dandelions. Other than that, it was tougher than some roads I’ve driven. If that’s your starting point, you’ve got to improve the soil. 

In Earn your keep, animals, I talked about using straw mulch in the chicken yard. Short recap. They scratch it up into tiny pieces, which adds moisture retaining organic matter, and poop all over it to add nitrogen. Well, after a few heavy rains and quite a few bales of straw, they did an admirable job. There is now a nearly one foot thick layer of rich topsoil. Plus a bunch of straw. 

Raking it back to expose the topsoil left me with quite a pile of straw/soil mix. Basically it was mostly soil but about 1/3 of it was very finely chopped straw.  Just gonna call it mulch from here on. I initially purchased two bags of seed. A forage blend and a pasture grass blend. 

I sprinkled the forage blend at probably 1/4 the recommended seeding rate and lightly covered with the mulch. That was followed by a generous sprinkling of the pasture seed followed by another layer of mulch. 

The layering put the first seeds at their recommended planting depth without having the grass seed too deep. It also protects it from birds. Songbirds. Chickens can still get it if you don’t keep them out. Ask me how I know. 

If you’re doing this at the right time of year, you won’t need to water it often. I’m doing it in the summer so I water it every day. Well planned, McFarmFace. But it only took a week for the forage blend to sprout!

Rye came up first, followed by vetch. Then the pasture grasses and the forage peas started in. But no clover. The bag said clover. What do clover seeds look like anyway? Hint. They’re the super tiny ones that fall to the bottom of the bag so you don’t get any if you grab from the top. 

Yeah, so added clover afterwards. And while I was at it, got a whole bag of a different kind of clover because biodiversity is awesome. Also cool, this company inoculates the seeds for you so  nitrogen fixing is taken care of!

I also fenced off a section of the back yard and basically did the same thing there, just working around the tufts of grass that hadn’t been eaten. In hindsight, probably should have pulled those if the birds didn’t like them. Ugh. Next time. 

It’s been a few weeks now and the front yard is starting to look almost like a yard! The back section has clover (I grabbed from the bottom of the bag that time) and rye coming in. 

While all this gets established enough to tolerate grazing, just gotta keep on buying commercial food. I also plan on setting up more temporary cross fencing and starting other sections. One piece at a time, I’ll transform this into pasture. I’ll keep you updated along the way!

Of note: with the exception of a few vitamins, we estimate that a combination of wheat, barley, peas, black oil sunflower seeds, and buckwheat will meet all the nutritional requirements for the poultry. We will be growing those for actual feed. The yard will contain ryegrain, Austrian winter peas, common vetch, buckwheat, Dutch white clover, medium red clover, pennlate orchardgrass, annual ryegrass, tall fescue, and perennial ryegrass. With any luck, this will mean a lot less prepared feed, and no lawnmower. I’ll post updates to this periodically. I was quite perplexed at how very little information there was on this topic online. 

Meat Rabbits does mean meat. 

First thing first. If you don’t want to read about raising animals for food and all that it involves, just go ahead and stop reading. If discussing the humane slaughter of animals for food is going to upset you, don’t put yourself through that. 

Today, we processed three rabbits. We limited ourselves to three because we’ve never done rabbits before and didn’t want to be overwhelmed. Honestly though, it was far easier than I’d expected. It’s still never enjoyable to end a life that you’ve cared for and raised for weeks, but we found what may be the best way for us. 

First, the three largest of the rabbits were placed in their own little pen near where we would process them, and left there for a couple hours. This served two purposes. It meant they were less likely to have a completely full bladder (and that worked great for two of three!) and most importantly, they had time to relax before slaughter. We wanted them to be calm and at ease. Not just because adrenaline can affect taste, but because we do care for them. 

Now I’ve read dozens if not hundreds of opinions about the best method. I’m not going to list them, but we chose a pellet gun. Crosman air rifle. 1000 fps at full power. We chose this method because of how fast it is. The shot is into the brain and the rabbit is out almost instantly. No struggling, no noise. It just drops. The rifle is quiet enough that it doesn’t even startle the other rabbits. Nibbling on grass and everything goes black. 

All in all, it was quick and quiet, and we like that. The fiancée made quick work of the meat, and was pretty proud of how it turned out!

I’ve saved the hides. When we process the other three, I’ll teach myself to tan them. Apparently the best way to store them is rolled up in a ziplock bag in the freezer. 

I was really worried that this would be harder than the chickens, but ultimately the rifle made it much quicker and easier. There’s no indication they felt anything at all, which is very important to me. And now I know I can handle it, which is also important because we are planning on having more animals. 

Though it was difficult for me, it was totally worth it. We had one for dinner last night and it was absolutely amazing. We will be needing more rabbits!

I bring you photos of dirt!

That’s right, photos of dirt. Ok, so there’s a little more to it than that. 

Of our fenced in areas, we have a lot of cross fencing. We can isolate the dog from the front chicken yard. We can isolate the front from the side and back, the garden from the back, etc. It’s astoundingly useful. 

Anywho, the first area mentioned doesn’t get a lot of use now that Vasi is growing up. She spends every night roaming the entire front, side, and back yard. So I figured I should put it to good use. 

The geese have pretty much mowed the entire back yard. So for now they are in a temporary pen outside the yard where the grass, clover, and plantain have gotten tall. So, starting with the dog area, I’ve decided to plant a forage lawn. 

I got two bags of seed. The first is a pasture grass blend for our region and the second is a forage blend of field peas, clover, rye, buckwheat, etc. 

You may recall that the entire front yard was dry, dusty, rock hard and dead when we moved in. The chickens have done a marvelous job of rejuvenating it. It’s now rich, dark soil. 

So I raked up the straw mulch and loosened the topsoil. I spread the forage blend first, covered with the dirt/straw mix I’d raked up, then pasture grass, and more of the dirt/straw mix. 

Well, that was a week ago. And things have begun sprouting!!! With the dry, hot weather we’ve been having, it needs a lot of water. Not the ideal time to plant a lawn, but the geese are rapidly outgrowing what we’ve got. Got to plan ahead for their continued growth. I also cross fenced a section of the back yard and planted it. 

Also, my wheat is starting to form seed heads!

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!

Naming livestock

Some advice I’ve gotten since well before even purchasing our land was don’t name your animals. I suppose that for most people, once you name an animal, it becomes a pet rather than food, and it’s harder to kill an animal you love. 

But here’s the thing. We love all our animals. The chickens, the turkeys, the bunnies, the geese, and whatever else we end up getting. They get petted and snuggled (sometimes whether they want it or not!) and treats every day. Maybe this does make slaughter harder, but we both believe that it’s important to love these animals. After all, they’re losing their lives so that ours can continue. If that doesn’t deserve some love, I don’t know what does!

We started this venture largely to control what we eat. Factory farming is not sustainable, no matter what the agricultural giants would have you believe. It poisons the land and makes the food worth less to your body. The healthiest food comes from healthy and happy animals. As such, we work to make sure our animals have the best lives they possibly can. And that includes snuggles from time to time. 

Sold out for the season!

The last of the turklets have been reserved for sale! We have three that we will keep for ourselves. One for more eggs next year, one for our thanksgiving, and one to sell for thanksgiving. 

I honestly wasn’t sure for a while there how many we would end up being left with, and I’d planned on keeping more of them. But for our first season selling birds, this isn’t bad at all. The animals have essentially covered 3/4 of their costs for this month and that’s a pretty big deal. 

I don’t expect Diane to lay any more eggs. She seems rather determined to sit on an empty nest for now. Though we are trying to break her broodiness. 

We’ve got more Bielefelder eggs set under Chipmunk, and the bunnies will do what bunnies will do, but I think beyond that we are done adding animals for this year. Time to focus on clearing and fencing the pasture and getting fruit trees in the ground and vegetable garden patches cleared.