27 June 2014

National 24-Hour Challenge 2014: Ride Report

Way off this blog's typical subject matter, but ultramarathon cycling has been a longtime passion of mine --- and in recent years has helped forge an important connection with my kids. Although it has nothing to do with farming, I wanted to share my "ride of a lifetime" experience participating in the National 24-Hour Challenge earlier this month.

The event is billed as a "personal best" challenge, not a race, and it's been held for over thirty years now. Riders come from all over the country, and from overseas, but most of the 300 or so participants live in Michigan or other Great Lakes states. The idea is to ride as many miles as you can in 24 hours, from 8am Saturday to 8am Sunday. Take as many breaks as you want, but the clock never stops ticking. Does that sounds intriguing? Crazy? Actually, it was an absolute blast.

And this is what I looked like at the end:

After every major cycling event, I try to write up a personal "ride report" while my thoughts are fresh. Years later, when I'm preparing to participate in that event (or a similar event) again, those notes often prove invaluable. My hope is that some other aspiring 24-Hour participant will find this report, and find my experiences useful. Be forewarned that I have deliberately included much more detail than a typical published ride report would include, and it is significantly longer than any other post I've put up, but I wanted to share everything that I wished I could have known before going off to participate in my own first N24HC.

Here we go:

24 June 2014

Wildlife

When a person begins raising livestock, it's remarkable how swiftly one's attitude toward wildlife --- especially potential predators --- changes. Overnight, "cute" becomes "Quick! Don't let it get away!" Especially after a time or two of witnessing the mayhem that those "cute" little critters are capable of inflicting. I'll never forget the mornings I've followed a trail of blood and feathers into a field, trying to locate the spot where a predator finished off his victim.

Several years back, when we were living in Illinois, our farm was separated from a small housing development by about a mile of open fields. One morning, while driving along the road running in front of that development, I noticed a new homemade sign. It read, "SLOW! BABY FOXES", and had an arrow pointing down to a culvert where a mother fox had made a den. My first thought was: Whoever made this sign so doesn't have livestock. My second thought was: I wonder how many of my chickens the mother fox will make off with to feed these babies. My third thought was: I wonder how many of my chickens these babies will make off with once they grow up.

Fortunately, we haven't been hit with predator strikes any time recently. But I did spot a raccoon in a large tree across the street a couple of nights ago, peering across at our farm, so I suppose it's just a matter of time. (I didn't have a clean shot at him, and he wasn't on our property anyway.) And while Homeschooled Farm Girl and I were out on a long bicycle ride this weekend, we saw a mother raccoon with six little ones run across the road in front of us. I made a mental note to re-bait and re-set our traps once I got home.

Needless to say, I got a smile out of this article that I recently stumbled across:

A man was biking to work one day when by the side of the road he noticed a poor fox that lay dying. Here is his account of what transpired:


I'm sure the person who posted it thought it was heartwarming. The overwhelming majority of people who commented on it certainly did. I'm also confident that few -- if any -- of them raise livestock.

And I suppose on one level this is a heartwarming story --- but don't blame me for being conflicted. I'm just hoping the fox in question gets to live out the rest of his days being cared for in a very secure zoo or other wildlife facility. Far from my farm.

17 June 2014

Chickens: Ten Weeks Later

Been awhile since I've posted, but spring is a crazy busy time on the farm. Butchering the meat chickens has been my biggest job lately, and we're finally down to the last handful. I find it's best to butcher no fewer than four and no more than six meat chickens per day. Fewer than that, and it's hardly worth the time it takes to set everything up, clean / sterilize the eviscerating table, etc. More than that, the scalding water begins to get too cold, my shoulders begin aching, and the flies really start to swarm.

I butcher the biggest chickens first, starting at about eight weeks of age. Most of them are males. After clearing them out, the pens become more spacious for the remaining birds --- and the females in particular have the chance to reach more of their growth potential. I don't weigh the fully-butchered birds, but each one gives us plenty of meat. Enough for our family and two guests, or enough for our family plus leftovers.

In case you're wondering why virtually everyone raises some version of Cornish Cross chickens for meat, and uses other breeds pretty much exclusively for eggs, here's a good picture of the size difference after ten weeks between a meat chicken and an egg chicken. I don't need to tell you which is which:


Here's another look inside the pen:


In the past, I would simply leave each butchered bird whole and freeze it that way. That's fine if you intend to roast each bird whole, which we used to do. But as time went on, we found we much preferred cooking the chickens in pieces (whether on the grill, or in some other way). Also, a cut-up chicken takes up a lot less room in the freezer than a whole chicken. Bottom line is, I'm now cutting each bird up into pieces as I butcher it. All the pieces go in a big pile as I work, and then I sort them at the end. In each gallon-sized freezer bag, I put: two drumsticks, two thighs, two wings, and two breasts. I tend to skin the breasts, but leave the skin on the other pieces. All the remaining carcases (and necks, and feet) go into a really large turkey-sized freezer bag, to be used later for soup (one big bag of carcass scraps makes one pot of soup). Then I take all the hearts and livers and put them in their own small package. It's taken years to settle on this approach, and for all I know I may refine it further next year, but for now it's perfect.

And freshly-butchered-and-grilled chicken sure tastes perfect. This was our Memorial Day dinner:


So, I should finish up butchering the last of the chickens in the next couple of days. Then we'll turn the egg pullets loose in the barn (they should begin laying this fall). And it'll be "mission accomplished" for the chicken tractors in the garden. (Fortunately, we didn't lose a single bird to predators.) Mrs. Yeoman Farmer will be able to plant her squashes very soon.

Note in the pictures above just how thick the grass is inside the pen. That's what it looks like when the pen is first moved to a new patch of ground. Now see what the ground looks like that they've already gone over (this view is looking north; our hay field is the long grass just beyond the garden fence):

No wonder it's called a "tractor" system. Here's another shot, looking the other direction, showing the other pen:

Just imagine how great those squashes will grow in this nice rich soil. Squash soup and roast chicken...now there's a combo for this fall.

07 May 2014

Gosling Adoption 2014

Last Thursday morning, we got a shipment of ten White Embden goslings from Murray McMurray Hatchery. There are cheaper sources, but we've been impressed with McMurray's service and quality. Above all, their website makes it very easy to know which birds are available on which days, and exactly when to expect those birds to arrive; other hatcheries are decidedly behind the curve on this. Given that we were raising a series of different types of birds, and planning their arrival around a couple of out-of-town trips, having a firm grip on the timing was worth a few extra dollars to me.

One gosling did die in the brooder over the weekend, but we had nine strong survivors as of this morning. The brooder, with its heat lamp, is an important way to get young birds off to a good start. It also gives a chance to get several days worth of high protein feed into the birds.

During colder times of the year, baby birds can spend up to two weeks in there as they develop feathers. We had a pretty chilly weekend, but things are now warming up, so today looked like a good opportunity to move the goslings outside.

They're still not feathered, of course, but we've found that the adult geese do such a good job mothering them...if the temperature outside is reasonable, the goslings will generally be fine. The mother geese "know" when it's too cold, and lead their little brood into the barn. At night, they draw the goslings into a tight bundle and keep them warm.

For the actual gosling turn-over, I first drove all the mature geese into the pasture. (We have more mature geese than usual, because I didn't get them all butchered last year. Thank the early, nasty winter for that.) I then brought the goslings out in a cardboard box, tipped the box over, and let the goslings stream out.

What happens next is always so much fun to watch, words don't really do it justice. The mature geese go into an absolute frenzy, surrounding the goslings, honking and shaking their feathers, as if conducting a fraternity hazing. This year, I managed to catch the event on video. (Apologies for the shakiness and rapid zooming in Part 1; I was still trying to figure out the controls on my new phone. I was also trying to follow them into the pasture.)

In Part 1, the goslings have just streamed toward the mature flock, and the flock goes crazy welcoming them:



Part 2 shows the middle and end of the welcoming ceremony. After this, the whole gaggle heads deep into the pasture to continue bonding:


As of right now, they're all still at the far end of the pasture. Almost all of the mature geese are busy grazing on fresh green swamp grass. The best, most reliable, most dedicated mother goose (a Gray Toulouse) has again volunteered for primary gosling duty: she has gone up on the sunny ridge with her little pack of yellow fuzz, where she can no doubt keep a watchful eye on everything.

Including me. I can't get anywhere near close enough for a picture now. Here's what I managed to snap when they were closer to the barn:
Why so blurry? Because these guys are in constant motion. Especially when they see me coming.

01 May 2014

How Did You Dispose of Your Christmas Tree?

Put it out for municipal trash pick-up? Burn it? Compost it?

We bought ours a couple days before Christmas, and got a terrific deal. 

Then, when the Christmas season ended, we fed that tree to the goats.
They loved it. And recycled it into milk.

25 April 2014

Fortified

Every spring, the most frustrating battle we fight is with raccoons. They're coming out after a long winter, many have litters of young to feed, and they're all hungry. And our young birds make the perfect prey: small, utterly helpless, and delicious.

For the last two weeks, we've had 56 baby birds in a secure brooder in the barn. It's a 4x4 foot plywood box, two feet tall, with half the roof also of solid plywood. The other half is chicken wire, to allow fresh air, but even that wire is securely tied down most of the time to keep it cat-proof. (Think Sylvester and Tweety Bird; the barn cats love to hover on top of the brooder and gaze longingly at the young chicks inside.) Inside the brooder is a heat lamp, high protein (21%) poultry starter feed, and a two gallon watering fount.

Most of the birds themselves (40) are cornish cross chickens, the most common commercial meat breed. They'll be ready to butcher at 8 weeks. The other 16 are a light-colored egg laying breed; with the light-colored feathers, they'll be easy to distinguish from the black-and-white Barred Rocks we raised last year. If we didn't alternate colors, and always raised the same egg-laying breed, we'd never be able to tell how old the mature hens are. After two years, their productivity drops dramatically and they need to go in the soup pot. By staggering the breeds, we always know which batch of hens is due for butchering.

Anyway, we tend to move the chicks out to pasture pens at 10-14 days of age, when they're feathered well enough to do without the the supplemental heat. We make the call as to the exact day based on the weather. If it's sunny and warm, and no rain is forecast, they can go out as early as 9 or 10 days. (Birds we raise in the summer go out very early.) But if it's in the mid 40s or 50s and dreary, as it is this week, we give them a few extra days to feather up.

Yesterday was moving day. Our pasture pens are 4-foot by 8-foot, two feet high, with solid plywood running the length of each long side. The frames are 2x2s or 2x4s, but we tend to use the former a lot more than the latter; 2x4s are overkill, and make the pens too heavy. I used to cover the short ends of the pens with chicken wire, but the raccoons (remember the raccoons?) would simply rip the wire open. I've since covered all those short ends with an additional layer of small-mesh wire material. The smaller holes do unfortunately keep more insects out, but that's a tradeoff we're willing to make for raccoon protection. The tops of the pens consist of a full sheet of plywood, ripped in half. One half is screwed down to the frame; the other half just lays in place, weighed down by a couple of large rocks and/or by a bucket of chicken feed, until I need to open the pen to tend to the birds.

Note also the raccoon trap, baited with ground corn, set just in front of the pens. (We used to bait the traps with chicken or other meat, but we ended up catching barn cats every time. Corn is ideal because raccoons like it, but cats don't.)

The Yeoman Farm Children helped me haul two pens from one garden area, where the birds had been last year, to the area where Mrs. Yeoman Farmer wants them this year. She identified a substantial swath of ground, currently covered in weeds, that won't be needed for planting until late in spring. That will give the chicks several weeks to clear the weeds, all the while getting fresh greens in their diet as a supplement to their high-protein grain --- and dropping lots of nice fertilizer onto the garden beds. It's the perfect "tractor" system. We let the chicks mow down everything growing under the pen, then move the pen one length onto a new patch. And so forth. When they're really little, it takes the birds several days to clear everything; later, they'll easily clear the 4x8 area to bare ground in a single day. We would ideally let the chicken manure break down for a longer time, but MYF intends to use this area for squashes this year; squash goes in late, and isn't as sensitive to "hot" manure as --- say --- tomatoes are.

Last year, with MYF pregnant and largely out of commission, we reduced our garden planting substantially. We had a large, 24 foot-by-50 foot patch where pens could be moved all spring and summer. The pens with various batches of birds went around and around that area, wiping out every new little clump of weeds almost as soon as it appeared.

When MYF was finally able to inspect the area last fall, she was blown away by how completely the birds had devastated it. And by how much manure the birds had provided. After a winter of sitting and breaking down, it's going to be an excellent garden bed this year --- once we clear out the weeds that are already coming up thickly in that nice, fertile soil.

Back to this year's birds. Each pen is twice the size of the brooder, so all 56 chicks could have easily fit in a single pen with plenty of room left over. However, they grow so fast, that pen would've become crowded quite quickly. Instead of catching half the birds and moving them in a couple of weeks, it was much easier to simply divide the birds while I already had them caught now. We put 20 Cornish cross and 8 layer pullets into each pen, and they should have plenty of space for the next eight weeks. (Once we butcher the meat chickens, we'll turn the pullets loose in the barn with the other layers, and then move these pens to some other vacant garden plot and use them for turkeys.)
But then, learning from experience, I added some additional fortifications against raccoons. Last year, we lost more than two full pens worth of baby birds to multiple raccoon strikes; the most frustrating was the night when a raccoon wiped out a pen of very expensive baby turkeys --- and only THEN turned to the grain in the trap and got caught. After the first couple of strikes, I'd added the steel mesh. So, the next raccoon simply dug his way UNDER the side of the pen, came in, and massacred everything he could find. What to do about soft garden soil? Feeling like I was back in a Cold War arms race, I hit upon the ultimate defense: a foot-wide strip of plywood, laid flat along every edge of every pen, and weighed down with large rocks. (One sheet of plywood, ripped into four equal strips, sufficed for each pen.) At last, success! Moving each pen was now a bigger production, but we didn't lose a single bird to predators the whole rest of the year.

I was tired yesterday, and thought about saving some of the plywood strips for today. Especially since all the big rocks also needed to be moved. But as evening approached, I thought better of it. I'd simply seen way too many dead birds, and had invested way too much time and effort into the current batch. So, I put in the extra 15 minutes of toil and made sure every pen was fully fortified against the enemy. (Yes, this really does feel like war sometimes.)

Over the course of the evening, all the way up to midnight, I made a number of trips out to the garden to check on the birds. All were fine. No sign of any predators. But still, this morning, I held my breath as I went out to make my first inspection. To my great relief, everything was exactly as I'd left it the night before. Every bird was alive and active. And while it would've been nice to have caught a raccoon, even the trap was undisturbed.

And so it goes. I'm just happy that another season of poultry production is off and running, and that we're just six weeks away from our first backyard barbeque feast.

14 April 2014

Thank God for Good Vets

It can be hard to find a good large-animal veterinarian. We were fortunate to have one just around the corner from us in Illinois, and who didn't charge a fortune to come see us at the farm. Here, it took us awhile to locate a good vet who can see the livestock, but we did at last find one; most of his practice is dogs and cats, but he has good experience with farm animals. He will come out on farm calls, but it's a fairly steep charge. Since every one of our animals is small enough to fit in a vehicle, we find it makes most sense to drive the 14 miles to his office.

A year or two ago, one of our excellent dairy goats, Thistle (or, as our four-year-old called her when he was learning to talk, "Fissle"), developed a cancer of her eye. A sizable tumor began consuming the eyeball, and it was one of the most unsettling things we'd ever seen. We were really afraid we might have to put her down. The vet said not to worry; he'd seen this numerous times before in various types of livestock, and knew just what to do. He put her under anesthesia, and in very short order (1) removed the entire eyeball and (2) sewed her eyelid shut. The next day, Thistle was home on the farm and feeling fine. She's certainly one of the more bizarre-looking animals, and has only half her original sight, but is otherwise none the worse for the experience. She remains a gentle doe who takes good care of her kids and gives us lots of milk. With the added bonus that she's now much easier to catch --- you just need to sneak up on her from the "blind side."

Which brings us to Button, the mother of Thistle. She had twin kids about a month ago, and has been producing an outrageous amount of milk. We're talking basketball-sized udder, with teats like great big sausages. Plenty for the twins and us.

Anyway, late last week, Button got some sort of scrape on her right teat. It wasn't too big a deal, and the Yeoman Farm Children worked around it when they milked. We treated it with salve, and it was scabbing over. Problem was, the scab began growing and blocking the milk hole. This meant it had to be opened up a bit for each milking. Which was fine...but on Sunday morning we found the hole simply would not open. We tried everything we could, but didn't want to hurt her; we were concerned that scar tissue might be forming.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer called the vet, who was willing to see Button on a Sunday --- but there would be a substantial "emergency fee." We were grateful for the option, but knew Button would be fine (if a little full) until Monday morning.

The plan was to get Button packed up and to the vet as close as possible to his 8am opening time; he sees walk-ins from 8-10 on most mornings, so we wanted to be first in line. Unfortunately, as Homeschooled Farm Girl and I were moving Button out of the barn to our van, the goat's engorged teat caught on a piece of fence and tore the skin. Great. One thing after another. Now quite worried, and somewhat delayed, we sped off to the vet.

We turned out to be second in line, and got in to see him after just a short wait. Must be interesting being a country vet; the person ahead of us was an elderly lady getting her pet dog's toenails trimmed. Then us, with a dairy goat with a torn teat! Anyway, the vet was a bit taken aback at first by the wound, but then got right to work computing how much anesthesia Button would need. He gave her a little shot, she collapsed in a heap, and then I helped the vet lift Button onto a work table.

First order of business was to clean the teat and bathe the cut with some sort of antibiotic cream. He then needed to drain the teat, which he did by inserting a catheter and then putting a bowl under it to catch the milk. After all the work we usually have to do, expressing milk, it was amazing to see the stuff all come running out like through a faucet. I even joked that we'd better not let our children see this process, or they'll ask if they can start catheterizing the goats every time they go out to milk.

With the teat going flaccid, and with me holding Button's leg so she wouldn't interfere with his work if she twiched, he began suturing the cut closed. He explained that he was leaving plenty of loose skin, so the teat would be able to expand with milk. It took him just a few minutes to get everything done.
Then, since the anesthetic still had Button nearly entirely knocked out, he took advantage of the opportunity to give her hooves a good trimming. "It's a lot easier when they can't kick!" he joked.

This whole time, my daughter had been sitting in the quiet waiting room, doing school work. Once Button awakened, the vet and I called Homeschooled Farm Girl back and explained the situation. Button would need to be milked several times per day, to make sure the re-opened teat remained open and didn't scar over. This would need to be done gently, taking care not to stress the sutures. And we would obviously need to keep Button totally separated from her kids for the next ten days or so.

HFG happily volunteered to take on the management of the situation, all the way from milking Button to bottle-feeding that milk to the twins. Needless to say, it's very gratifying whenever one of your children takes that kind of initiative, without any kind of "bargaining" or questioning what might be in it for her. It just needs doing, and she wants to take charge of it.

So, after a wild morning, we're all back home on the farm. Just another crazy day in our life.

11 April 2014

Spring is Officially Here

This morning, it got sunny and warm enough to actually hang laundry out to dry. There were times this winter when I wondered if this day would ever come again.

Hanging laundry is not only cheaper, but there's nothing quite like the fresh smell and feel of line-dried clothes. I've missed it. Hanging and bringing in laundry is usually the job of our 11 year old, but today I wanted to do it myself. Funny how little things like hanging the first load of laundry of the year can bring such joy.

When we bought the house, there was no clothesline set up. That kind of surprised us, as most places out in the country have clothesline structures --- even if they may need some of the actual lines replaced. A few years ago, we invested in a Breezecatcher rotary clothesline and have been extremely happy with it. It has tons of drying space, and I can usually get two sizable loads on it. Even fully loaded in a strong wind, the structure has stayed secure (it helps that I set the receiver for the vertical pole in concrete). The pole itself can pull out of that receiver, and the arms neatly folded down like an umbrella, when winter comes and it's time to pack everything up. Sets back up in just a couple of minutes. I like the rotary design because you can stand in one spot to hang or take down the laundry, and just rotate the whole structure as you work. There's no moving up and down the line, as you would with a traditional setup. It also has a much smaller footprint than a traditional clothesline.

Anyway, I'm just happy that spring is here at last!




09 April 2014

One Plucky Lamb

The "lame lamb" described in the previous post has made a remarkable turnaround from yesterday afternoon. It seems spending several hours in a basket next to a fire, combined with a stomach full of warm milk, has done wonders for his health. By this morning, he was bleating like any other lamb --- and climbing out of the laundry basket. He reared up, put his front feet on the top of the basket, and then toppled the thing over.

I gave him about 3oz of goat milk first thing this morning, with a bit more cod liver oil, and then moved him outside to a portable dog cage within the sheep area. (These dog cages are incredibly handy as "holding pens" for confining various small livestock, including birds on butchering day.)

A few minutes ago, I went back out to check on him. I'm not sure he likes being demoted back to "sheep", but we're glad to have him out of the house. He sucked down another 3oz of milk, and definitely has the whole bottle thing figured out. Looks like our 11 year old will be able to take it from here.

I'm still not sure what this lamb's long term prospects will be. Note how bad his right front leg looks:

He's getting around surprisingly well, despite that bum leg. And I'm hoping that vitamin and mineral supplements will help improve it. But at least we know we're doing everything in our means to get him off to the best possible start.

08 April 2014

Lambing Hits a Speed Bump

We'd been having such a smooth lambing season. Going into Saturday, we had five lambs from three ewes, plus a tiny stillborn triplet. We'll call it five. Saturday evening, we got twins (one male, one female) from one of our seasoned ewes, Licorice.


Then, Sunday night, one of other other ewes delivered twin males. Both are doing great. But note that one of them has a white tuft on the top of his head; it indicates he is descended from one of our truly terrible rams ("Buddy"). By far the meanest, most dangerous animal we've owned. Though Buddy was culled and butchered many years ago, his "mark" still manifests itself from time to time. To be safe, we make sure we butcher any males which are clearly descended from him. So...this little guy may be cute now, but we know his ultimate destination will be the freezer.

This morning was when we hit a speed bump. A yearling ewe, Cleobelle (so named because she's of the "Belle" line and because her eyes look painted like Cleopatra's) delivered a cute little male lamb --- but then promptly ignored him. Didn't even bother licking him off all the way.

As you can see, the rooster appears more interested in him than his own mother does.

He did manage to get up --- sort of. His front legs aren't working well, and the trouble appears to be with the tendons. His back legs are fine, but up front his knees buckle outward when he tries to stand erect. He can scoot around pretty well on his knees. Problem is, Cleobelle is completely ignoring him. We tried putting him on a teat, but it didn't work. We could barely get Mom to stand still, and the lamb had a lot of trouble latching on.

We debated whether we should try to rescue him, or if we should simply euthanize him. After all, it's quite possible the ewe "knows something" about the lamb that we don't; we've found that the mother animals' instincts about which offspring to reject/abandon often turn out to be based on a fundamental defect. In the end, though, we decided to at least give him a shot. Every little creature here deserves that. Our 11 year old even offered to make this his "project." If nothing else, it'll give him a sense of responsibility.

We cleaned the little lamb up with warm water, then patted him down with towels and worked him over a bit with the blow drier. I gave him some colostrum replacer, but he didn't swallow it very well. We also "drenched" him with 5cc of cod liver oil, by slowly squeezing it out of a syringe at the back of his tongue. Mrs Yeoman Farmer found that remedy in one of her books; it's supposed to help with tendon problems. I then fed him some goat milk, again by dribbling it out of a syringe, because his suck didn't seem very strong. By now he was pretty worn out, so we made him comfortable in a basket by the fire.

It's been a few hours, and he doesn't seem to be responding very well. I have my doubts that he'll make it through the night. But at least we'll know we did all we could to help him, and that we at least made his short time with us as pleasant an experience as possible.