26 August 2015

Summer Surprises Continue (Updated)

In the upstairs portion of our barn, not far from where a mother duck recently made a nest and hatched eleven ducklings, one of our Buff Orpington hens also hid a huge stash of eggs and went broody on them. How well hidden? She'd been there for weeks, and we didn't even know it.

That changed yesterday afternoon, when Homeschooled Farm Girl happened to hear a chick peeping. She was outside the barn, on the ground level, so it's pure luck that the sound carried that far. She did some investigating, and eventually tracked down the source. Way up here, behind the hay, in the northwest corner of the barn, hatching was in progress:

It's a bit hard to get the full perspective, but I'll walk you through it quickly. See the horizontal support beams, running along the barn wall? You can see two, and there's a third that's hidden, behind the hay. The nest is on that support beam, about three feet off the floor, behind the stack of hay to the left. Until this morning, hay bales were stacked all along that wall. We had to pull the bales out, just to access the nest. Here it is, with the eggs that didn't hatch (note the stack of hay to the left, and the barn wall to the right):

It was an incredibly secure nest. The hen had squeezed in there, and did have a pathway out through the hay bales. Even when they're broody and trying to hatch eggs, they take periodic breaks to get food and water. The problem is, the nest was too secure. There was absolutely no way the chicks could get out. They couldn't follow Mother Hen through the hay - the climbs and jumps needed were far too large. Worse, they were in danger of falling off the support beam, and landing back behind the hay bales.

This morning, once we were reasonably sure the hatching process was complete, one of our kids captured the loudly-squawking-and-clearly-upset Mother Hen. I somehow fished out the eight chicks she'd hatched, and carried them down to the barn floor. We then carefully set Mother Hen with the chicks, and put some layer feed down for them. Happy, excited clucks followed, as she demonstrated for her brood what needed to be done with this wonderful stuff we'd put out.

I'm guessing the nest contained eggs from multiple hens. Either that, or Mother Hen had been bred by multiple roosters. There are a couple of chicks that look like purebred Buff Orpingtons. Two others are black. The others are white, or a mix of white and black. Doesn't matter. Their eggs will all taste the same when they're old enough to start laying.

We let the Hen and her brood wander around the barn, and the grass outside, for a couple of hours. It was clear, however, that eight is at least a few too many for her to keep track of. Plus, it's a pretty cool day. For safety, we packed her and the chicks up, and moved them to the same garden pen that the mother duck and her eleven ducklings have been occupying.

So far, the two broods seem to be getting along. The pen appears to be plenty big for both groups.

Who knows what surprises we'll find in the barn tomorrow...

Well, that didn't take long.  At about 6pm this evening, Homeschooled Farm Girl came and found me again. She could hear another chick peeping, up in the barn, near where the nest had been. "I think there were nine," she announced. "The other chick must've fallen down behind the hay."

The two of us went back to the barn, flashlight in hand. I could hear the chick, too, but it was WAY down behind the hay. We began excavating bales, which toppled over into a haphazard pile in the middle of the barn. No matter. Those could always be re-stacked.

Eventually, we moved enough bales so we could shine the flashlight into the tight little space between the remaining hay bales and the floor. And there, way in the corner, under some cobwebs and lots of loose hay, was a tiny white chick. I reached down and scooped it up.

The first thing I noticed was how chilled the little thing was. We immediately took it out to the pasture pen in the garden, to rejoin the rest of the brood. It tottered toward Mother Hen, who did not peck at it or show any other signs of rejection. That's a good start.

Here's hoping that Number Nine is no worse for the long isolation, and hits the garden ground running with the rest of the brood. So far so good.

19 August 2015

Duckling Update

The ducklings I posted about earlier this week continue to thrive with their mother duck, safely inside a garden pen. This definitely looks like it was the right move.

If anything tragic befalls the mother duck later this week, perhaps we can locate an about-to-deliver-kittens barn cat as an emergency surrogate. Seriously, the video at this link is amazing.

17 August 2015

Duckling Surprise!

One of the most-fun aspects of raising free range poultry on a small farm is that the birds are truly able to behave the way God designed them. That includes foraging, swimming in the swamp, mating, making a nest, and sometimes even successfully hatching a clutch of eggs.

You never know when you'll come out early in the morning and get a surprise like this one: 
One of our Ancona ducks, leading eleven new little ducklings all over the barnyard. When I first came out, she was foraging under the apple tree. No doubt she was looking for windfall fruit and the little bugs that come with it. Soon, she and her little pack of ducklings moved on to the pear tree to do the same.

I smiled, watched them for awhile, and then put some grain down for her to eat. Interestingly, even though I walked away and gave her plenty of privacy, she had her own plans. She never touched it; instead, she led the ducklings all over the rest of the property.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I had a discussion about the best course of action. Should we just let the mother duck do her thing? It's super-cute having a mother duck roaming the barnyard with a bunch of little ones. Who couldn't watch this for hours?

However, cute as it is, leaving a mother duck to her own devices --- especially with more than a handful of ducklings --- has seldom turned out well for us in the past. Anconas are a good all-purpose breed; they lay a significant number of eggs each year, forage well, and still have good brooding / mothering instincts. That said, their ducklings always seem to start disappearing after a few days. With the mother preoccupied by the large brood, it's easy for a barn cat to pick off a straggler. Or for a straggler to fall into a hole that's too big to get out of. Or to get lost in the tall weeds. And so on. And so forth.

We decided it made most sense to capture the mother duck, and all her ducklings, and move them into a pasture pen in a fallow portion of the garden. These pens are 4x8, so the little ones have plenty of room to scurry around. The pen gives them security, and allows us to keep feed and water in front of them all the time. Inside that pen, there are plenty of weeds and bugs for them to snack on. Plus, their droppings will fertilize the garden for next year.

Mother Duck objected to our plan, and tried to escape, but she was easy to catch. She didn't want to run away from her ducklings, and the ducklings were slow. I snagged her next to the barn, HFG scooped the ducklings into a box, and we carried them all out to the garden. Within a few minutes, they'd settled in and were again gathered around Mother Duck.

The other advantage of doing it this way: we'll be able to keep track of the new ducklings very easily as they get older and feather out. We need to cull some of the other ducks this fall, as they're getting on the older side and their egg production is slowing down. Once the new ones have matured and grown their feathers, we'll gender-check them. We'll likely butcher most of the new little drakes, but keep all the females. We'll then cull a corresponding number of old females before turning these new ones loose in the barn.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, of course. But with the whole brood now safely in a garden pen, I feel very confident about their safety and long-term survival.

07 August 2015

Seattle to Portland 2015

I try to get out to Seattle at least once a year, to catch up with family and old friends. Whenever possible, I time the trip to coincide with my favorite ultramarathon cycling event: the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP). It's an unbelievably well-organized ride, with an extremely scenic (but relatively flat) course, which draws 10,000 participants every year. Most take two days to cover the 206 miles, but some of us crazies prefer to go the whole distance in a single day.

Why? I've done the two-day ride. Once. And, quite honestly, I think it's easier to just keep going and pull all the way through to Portland before stopping. It's a lot easier than riding a hundred miles, sleeping in a tent or on the floor of a church basement (if you're not lucky enough to book a motel room, many of which sell out the summer before the event as soon as the dates are announced), and then getting up the next morning and climbing back on the bike and riding another hundred miles. I've done lots of hundred miles rides in my lifetime. I can't remember a single time I woke up the next morning, even after sleeping in my own bed, and thought, "Hey! You know what would be a great idea? Going out for another century ride!" Some people mitigate this on STP by going past the midpoint on the first day, even as far as 140 or 150 miles, before stopping for the night. Still...I'd rather just be done with it and enjoy waking up in Portland. But to each his own.

Every year, after getting home, I put together a ride report / write-up of the trip. I've tried to include a number of details that would be especially relevant for other "out of towners" who may be considering going out to the Pacific Northwest for this terrific event. All of that follows, after the break.

27 July 2015

How the [Old] Goose is Cooked

What to do with an old goose that has escaped the butcher's knife for several Christmases running? Geese are most tender at the end of their first year, and so we try to get all of a year's hatchlings butchered in the late fall of that same year. That gives them plenty of time to get to a good size, but not enough time to get old and tough. It also means they can get virtually all of their nutrition from pasture, and won't have to be fed grain over the winter.

Yet, every year, it seems that winter hits in full fury before I manage to get the last gosling butchered. There are few things as miserable as standing out in the bitter cold, or a November rain, trying to pluck a goose before one's face and fingers go numb. So, every year, a handful of lucky geese have gotten to survive to see another spring.

And that was okay, up to a point. When we'd get a new batch of goslings, in April or May, we had a whole gaggle of adults all set (and eager) to adopt those goslings and raise them for us. It was only necessary to brood them under a heat lamp for a few days. We'd then turn them loose, and stand back as the adults swept in to take over. After several minutes of the most obnoxiously loud honking you've ever heard, the initiation would be complete. The new goslings were full members of the Fraternity of Goose.

Ever watched a pair of wild Canada geese taking care of their goslings? The adults stand guard for predators, chase off any interlopers, and make sure the young go where they're supposed to go. Now, imagine a whole pack of geese doing the same thing, out in our pasture all summer. It's great fun to watch.

Then, this past winter, things got completely out of control. We were up to 15 adults being over-wintered, and they were eating us out of house and home. Something had to be done. But what? We'd read in Carla Emery's classic Encyclopedia of Country Living that it was best to allow a mature goose to live out its life and die of natural causes. They weren't worth butchering, she said, because they were "as tough as shoe leather."

We believed her.

Emery's book is a fantastic resource, but with 15 adult geese that weren't finding any natural causes to die of, I knew I had to come up with some kind of creative solution. And after a bit of research, I found it: brine.

An experiment with one goose confirmed it, and we've been following this method ever since with great success. We didn't even buy a new batch of goslings this spring; this year, all we're going to do is clear out the old ones.

Here's what we do:

1) Butcher the goose as usual. My preferred method is to tie a piece of bailing twine around both legs, suspend the goose upside down from a nail on a beam in the downstairs part of the barn (dirt floor), slit its throat, and let it bleed to death. Once it's dead, I dunk it in a large pot of scalding water to loosen the feathers. I then hang it back up on the nail, and pluck the feathers (stopping from time to time to dunk the bird in hot water again when necessary). The carcass is then transferred to an outdoor table, where I clean and eviscerate it. Lungs get tossed to the barn cats. Heart and liver get set aside to be added to other poultry hearts and livers (for "heart and liver night"). The other internals are tossed, along with the head, tail, and webbed feet.

2) Instead of freezing the carcass whole, as we do with a young one that we intend to roast, I next carve the goose into pieces: wings, legs, thighs, breasts. The breast meat is the only piece I remove from the bone. I don't remove the skin, because it has a nice layer of fat trapped in and under it.

3) The remaining carcass, including the long neck and other stray pieces of meat (especially the back) gets put directly into a large soup pot. After adding a few similar carcasses from meat chickens that'd been butchered earlier in the summer and frozen, we add water and get a pot of soup going.

4) The goose pieces are rinsed and then put directly into a large Crock Pot. I use a quart jar to measure out just enough water to cover all the pieces. Usually it's 3 quarts. I then add one quarter cup of salt to the Crock Pot for each quart of water, and stir everything up until the salt is totally dissolved.

5) The heavy brine will preserve the meat all by itself, because no organisms can grow in that environment. However, just to be sure, I like to put a lid on the Crock Pot and store it in our extra refrigerator. There it sits for at least a couple of days, with the salt and water penetrating deep inside the meat.

6) Early on the morning of the day we intend to feast on the goose, I pour the brine water out of the Crock Pot. It's important not to dump this salt water in a place that will kill vegetation, or into a drain that goes into a septic tank (where it could kill the bacteria that process septic waste). I then add a half cup or so of apple cider vinegar to the Crock Pot, along with an onion and some spices (basil, thyme, rosemary, etc).

7) I put a lid on the Crock Pot, set it on "High", and let it go all day, occasionally stirring the pieces of goose. As it cooks, the fat melts off the meat and makes a wonderful sauce. [ALTERNATIVE: if you're up late the night before, you can start it going overnight on "Low," and turn it down to "Warm" whenever it's clearly done.]

8) At dinner time, I remove the meat, which is by now so tender it's falling off the bone. We arrange the meat on a platter, toss the bones and skin, pour the liquid into a gravy boat, and serve. Any leftover meat and gravy can be added directly into the soup pot (which by now has of course been finished cooking, and has been sitting in the refrigerator, for a day or two.)

We prepared an old gander this way, for yesterday's Sunday dinner, and it was absolutely delicious. This is probably the third or fourth of the old geese I've done so far this Spring / Summer, so there's still a whole bunch more to butcher. We'll most likely over-winter three females, and get a fresh batch of goslings in the spring for them to adopt. At least there's no rush; at this point, they're simply eating grass out in the pasture and not really costing us anything. I just want to make sure I get them done before it gets too cold this fall.

Looks like we'll have lots of good eating between now and then.

22 July 2015

Hanging with the Flock

As summer wears on, the sheep pasture tends to get increasingly well-grazed. That's especially true this year, for a couple of reasons. First, we had a bumper crop of lambs. With 37 animals in total, that's really pushing our pasture's limits. Secondly, we've had an extraordinary amount of rain. That would usually mean more growth for grass, but the pasture is in a low-lying portion of the property. That has led to flooding, and occasionally to the formation of a temporary pond / swamp where they would normally graze.

Meanwhile, the grass in our yard has been going gangbusters and we've had to mow it nearly constantly. On occasion, we've tried bagging the lawn clippings and feeding them to the sheep. They usually eat some of those clippings, then quickly tire of it and leave a large amount to rot.

The sheep can't simply be turned into the yard to graze. We have several fruiting bushes and brambles that would be destroyed in minutes if the sheep had at them. The key is to let them into the yard for short periods of time, and to supervise them while they graze. Any time they make a move on the raspberry bushes, or the grape vines, they get chased back to the lawn. Here they are, spread out behind the house, in the early morning shadows (click any photo to enlarge it):
Note the clothesline down in the corner of the yard. Soon after taking this picture, I lugged a basket of laundry down there and continued supervising the sheep as I hung it up to dry.

The backyard lawn is a nice mix of grass, clover, and plantain. The sheep love it so much, I've begun leaving a wide swath of it uncut when we mow the rest of the lawn. They also enjoy munching on windfall apples under that large tree.

Other parts of the backyard are pure weeds and are difficult to cut even with the lawnmower. Here, several sheep are going to work along a retaining wall near the barn, where we used to have a woodpile. It's hard to describe just how much fun it is to stand in the yard, watching this.

These two close-up shots give a better sense for how tall the weeds are in that area, and how thoroughly the sheep have stripped those weeds of their leaves.

By far, the sheep are most helpful in going after the long grass along fence lines. Rather than wasting time trying to trim that grass with a weed-wacker, I can let the sheep fill their bellies taking it down for me.
 The sheep don't always behave themselves, and groups of them sometimes make a break for the "off limits" vegetation. It doesn't usually take much to drive them away, and get them back where they're supposed to be.

I typically let them out twice a day: once in the early morning, before going to work (sometimes while still enjoying my coffee), and again in the evening, at the end of the work day. Standing out in the yard with them, watching them do their thing, is a wonderful mind-clearer. It's a thousand times better than sitting in freeway traffic, commuting to and from a job in the city.

16 July 2015

The Milkman Cometh

When Little Miss Sweetness made her dramatic arrival two years ago, she had a gastric issue which required immediate surgery. She would end up hospitalized for the first month of her life as she recovered. She also had a heart defect, which would require a separate surgery a few months later. (All these issues are now behind her, and she's a thriving two year old.)

For the first two and a half weeks of her life, LMS got all her nutrition intravenously. Only slowly did the hospital staff allow her to transition to breast milk; even then, it had to be delivered by NG tube, so she wouldn't have to work hard sucking - and so the amounts could be strictly measured.

However, from Day One, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer's milk supply was as abundant as it'd been with any of our other kids. So, as she sat by LMS's side in the NICU, day after day, and week after week, she pumped. And pumped. And pumped. For one stretch, she was regularly producing 50 to 60 ounces per day.

One of my jobs was to walk the filled-and-labeled 2.7oz milk bottles down the hall to the hospital milk room, where they would be frozen. My other job was to scoop up another handful of empty bottles, and bring them back to MYF.

Little Miss Sweetness barely dented that supply of frozen milk by the time she was discharged. When the hospital milk room packed all those little bottles into Styrofoam coolers for us to take home, we were astounded at the sheer volume. The five coolers took up virtually the entire rear-most cargo portion of our minivan! I think I muttered something about being glad we had so many chest freezers back at the farm. We were going to need them.

And the milk didn't stop coming. The doctors didn't want LMS to nurse directly, or even exert herself sucking from a bottle, until she'd had the heart surgery and made a full recovery from it. So, with the NG tube in until at least November, MYF had to keep pumping. I made bulk purchases of larger milk freezer bags on Amazon, which were soon filled and added to our stockpile. I started wondering if we might also need another chest freezer.

LMS eventually had her heart surgery, made a strong recovery, and got the green light to begin nursing directly. She picked it up right away, much to our relief. And just in time: the pump had gotten so much use, MYF had literally worn it out and the thing was now falling apart.

What to do with all that milk in the freezer(s)? We had one 9 cubic foot chest freezer packed to the gills with nothing but milk, with the overflow stuffed into other freezers wherever I could find space.

We didn't want to get rid of all of it; there was no guarantee that MYF's milk supply would remain high enough for long enough. The "strategic reserve" gave peace of mind that we'd never have to buy formula. Still, barring a true catastrophe, it was far more than we would ever need. We wanted to donate at least some of it to a family that could get some good use out of it.

But how could we find that family?

MYF began making calls. The nearest milk bank was a long ways away, and wouldn't take our milk anyway (understandably, because MYF hadn't undergone a health screening, etc). The local crisis pregnancy center, which supplies formula for mothers who need it, didn't know any mothers who wanted frozen breast milk. The local adoption agency didn't know any adoptive mothers who wanted it. None of our friends had recently adopted a baby. No one knew anyone who'd recently adopted a baby.

So, the milk sat. And sat. And sat. We were now sure we would never need any of it for Little Miss Sweetness (who was rapidly becoming Big Miss Sweetness), but it was still not clear what we should do with it.

Finally, this spring, through word of mouth, we learned of mother-to-mother milk sharing networks. One of the largest is called "Eats on Feets," and seems to operate primarily on Facebook. Mothers needing milk can post requests, as can families with milk to donate. People then connect through private messages, and arrange to get the milk from donor to recipient. In addition to the national Facebook page, there are numerous state-specific and region-specific chapter pages. This makes it easier to find local donors and recipients, so milk need not be shipped.

I browsed the Michigan listings, looking for families-in-need-of-milk that weren't too far from us. Some of the requests were very simple, just giving a name and location. Others gave a fair amount of detail about the travails the family had been going through, and the lengths to which they were willing to drive for milk. It's impossible to read these without being moved, and without wanting to help. I felt guilty that I hadn't done more, sooner, to find this organization.

I sent several private messages, through Facebook, to mothers who'd posted requests for milk. (At this point, I wasn't sure I was comfortable putting up a post announcing that we had milk. Perhaps it's because I'm male, and virtually 100% of all posts were by mothers. I don't know.) Some never responded at all, most likely because FB segregates messages from "non-friends" into what's essentially a spam folder. If you don't check it, you don't see those messages. Others did respond, but either (1) decided we were too far away, (2) had just gotten a freezer full of milk from someone else, or (3) didn't feel comfortable using milk as old as ours.

I waited for the just-got-a-freezer-full people to contact me back, but that didn't happen. So, the milk sat.

Finally, shortly before the Fourth of July, I decided it was time to make a post of my own on the Eats on Feets board. Within hours, I had three separate mothers contact me. I filled them in as to the age of the milk, and none was troubled by it. We arranged public meeting places at times that would work for us and for them, at gas stations just off the freeway.

What a joy it was to pack the milk back into those Styrofoam coolers the hospital had sent us home with! I packed and delivered roughly one-third of the milk one evening to one of the fathers, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the other two trips. The last of these was to deliver to a mother who'd invested in an enormous amount of freezer space, so she took every remaining ounce I could find in every one of our freezers. This is what the back of our minivan looked like, just before MYF pulled out:

It's wonderful having our freezer space back. And it's even more wonderful knowing that we've been able to supply three families with something so valuable, it can't be purchased in any store.

14 July 2015

National 24-Hour Challenge 2015: Racing the Rain (that never came)

Last month, I again went out to Middleville, Michigan for the craziest of cycling events: the National 24-Hour Challenge (N24HC). This was my second time participating. Last year's ride report has many more details about the basics and logistics of the event itself; you may want to review that if you're not familiar. The event begins at 8am Saturday, and the challenge is to see how many miles you can ride before 8am Sunday. My story from this year's event continues below the jump.

08 July 2015


As much as you try to plan what happens with the garden or livestock, farm life is full of surprises. Our laying hens are completely free range, and we keep a few roosters in with them. The roosters are around as much for entertainment as anything else, and in their spare time they keep busy making sure the hens stay fertile.

After a rooster mates with a hen, all the eggs she lays for some period of time are fertile. Of course, because we gather them every day, those fertilized eggs don't develop. It takes several days of near-constant warmth, from a hen or artificial source, for enough development to take place to even be visible when the egg is cracked open.

Then, sometimes, a hen gets a mind of her own about those eggs. She begins laying them in an obscure, out-of-the-way place that we humans never check. After accumulating several eggs, she goes broody and sits on that nest. She emerges from time to time, just long enough to get something to eat and drink, and then she's back on those eggs. With enough other hens in the flock still running around in a big crowd, the farmer will never even miss her. She might even be joined on the nest by another broody hen. Nobody misses her, either.

And then, one morning, the two of them emerge with the results of their broodiness.

One of the Yeoman Farm Children discovered the new arrivals in the upstairs portion of our barn, where we keep the hay (and were animals seldom go, but which the birds can get into if they really try). The hens had picked such a good spot for their nest, wedged between the hay bales and a barn wall, they'd gone completely undetected. They were clearly very good mothers; any time a person or barn cat came close, they'd fly into a tizzy, puff their feathers, and make all kinds of loud noises. We left them alone, and after a few days of exploring the barn they took their tiny brood outside. Again, any time one of us came close, they raised loud objections. Watching the four birds roam the property around the barn and behind my office was more entertaining than anything on television. Especially fun is the way the hens will cluck and point something out (like a bug or piece of grain) to a chick, who then scrambles over and pecks it up.

I snapped the photograph above on June 25th, when the chicks were about a week old. Shortly thereafter, something happened to the black chick. It could've wandered into the high grass, or fallen victim to any number of other perils; we don't know, because we simply never saw it again.

The yellow chick, on the other hand, is still going strong. He/she is beginning to feather out, and is keeping up with the two hens as they forage all over the place. Note how alert both of them become, as soon as a human comes near:

They continue to retreat to their nest behind the hay bales each night, and are scratching through fallen hay scraps early each morning by the time I come out to the barn. I've begun putting a small amount of chicken feed in a bowl for them. As soon as they see it coming, their clucks change to an excited rapid-tempo.

It's also interesting the way the two of them have both remained so dedicated to the chick. There doesn't seem to be a rivalry; it's a cooperative venture. In the past, when multiple hens have hatched broods around the same time, we've seen an alpha hen take command of all the chicks --- and then the other hen(s) have lost interest and gone back to the general laying population.

Who knows what surprises might emerge on the farm next week. In the meantime, we'll continue enjoying this one!