Spring? Are you here? No?

Woven Meadows Dairy 2Spring is coming, despite the continuing snowfall. We can tell because Shadow has started shedding her winter coat. Her transition from winter to summer fur is dramatic. It always makes us nervous because it’s so sudden and happens when it’s definitely not warm enough to be thinking about spring! And yet, her body knows, and her thick fur sheds readily with thin buzz-cut looking fur left in its place.

Another sign of spring is that the ducks are getting more and more …. chatty. Our Muscovies don’t quack, they hiss. It’s a Muscovy thing. Usually they’ll hiss when something has alarmed them. It could be that the dogs have wandered in to the barn (something we don’t usually let happen), or a duck from our laying flock has entered the Muscovy flock, something like that. Every morning this week the Muscovies have been up in arms! They are hissing and flapping and clearly agitated. The first time, I finished putting the milker on Dana, and walked over to the ducks, tucked behind the tractor, hissing and carrying on. I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. There were no intruders, no oddities. Then I realized, the ducks had circled to hiss encouragement (or not) to the two drakes in the middle trying to gain top-drake status. Spring is coming. The drakes want first mating rights.

Despite the snow, there are chore times when after bundling up in multiple layers, we find ourselves shedding coats, gloves, and hats in the barn as we work. It’s getting -dare I say – hot! Even so, one morning early this week I woke in the dark (time change:: curse you!) and stumbled through getting dressed. I Woven-Meadows-Winter-2014stoked the fire, layered up in outerwear, put together the milker while filling a bucket with warm water (to thaw the inevitably frozen rabbit waterers), and made my way to the back door. The red outer door, you know the one? It was stuck. The freeze-thaw cycle had caused ice to adhere to the back door and it was impossible to open. Feeling discouraged and sad I made my way back in to the house as quietly as possible, snow pants sh-sh-shing as I walked.
“Josh,” I whispered, “I can’t get the back door open.”
Groggily he got out of bed. He had done his share of morning chores and was looking at a very long day at his off-farm job that day.
In pjs he went out to the back door, yanked, then pried the door open with a mattock lying close by, and the door was open. He grabbed a handful of the nearby salt and flung some on to the ice before making his way back to the warmth of our bed.
So it’s not quite spring weather yet. Or maybe this is spring weather.

This time of year, we’re numbering the days by remaining haybales. There are about 80 second cut bales and each cow eats about a bale a day. This gives us about a month of second cut hay left, not enough to see them through till new grass. Fortunately we have plenty of first cut bales, some of which are fairly good quality for a first-cutting, and while they are not preferred by our milkers, they are munching them down grudgingly as we attempt to spread the second-cut-yumminess into the spring.

A Wholeshare order is being placed on March 31st. We’re half-way to the minimum order, so if you’re interested in ordering, go add your items! At the farm the ducks have been generous – so come pick up chickens roosting (2 of 2)yours! We are out of chicken until our first batch this coming summer (see? Spring is coming if we’re talking about our first batch of chickens for this season!). However, we still have whole ducks and all the pork you can imagine! Speaking of pork, if you’re interested in a half or a whole, we have some pigs that are almost ready. Let us know if you’re interested!

The eternal winter

Our first Wholeshare delivery arrived at the end of last week. There was much excitement in this house! We had been holding out, waiting for things like peanut butter, apples, oranges, and sugar. Click here to join our group. The next order will be placed on March 31st with delivery scheduled for April 4th (coincidentally also the day we’ll be celebrating one of our daughter’s third birthday!!). I checked this morning and there are already some splits started – broccoli rabe, basil, rosemary, and celery – so definitely Puppies-109add yourself to a split if a whole order of those items (or others!) are overwhelming. Feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions about Wholeshare.

The puppies successfully moved to the barn – but their house-loving-momma isn’t so excited. Fortunately she’s really committed to her puppies and continues to care for them well. The puppies opened their eyes this week and they are softer than ever.

Puppies-101The snow has been terrific – inches feet of snow with lots of gusts leading to huge drifts – some drifts as high as our waists! It’s funny how the wind works, in some places the wind kindly plowed our driveway, in other places the drifts are impassable.

On the creamery front, our contact at the farm lending agency we’re using, has said she plans to have our application complete in the next week. Fingers crossed!

Snow or no, the ducks know that spring is coming and are ever-generous in their laying. Because of this, First-snow-storm-2012-3we’re able to package some up in the popular 9-packs we had last year. We still have some 1/2 dozen packages – but if you know you love duck eggs, feel free to pick up a nine-pack instead (or as well?).

Josh has plowed multiple times, so no worries coming up the driveway to collect your farm goodies!! See you soon!

ps this is a farmer’s market week! Josh will be at Plattsburgh’s Winter Farmer’s Market on Saturday from 10am-1pm with artisan bread, pork, chicken, eggs, duck eggs, and duck. The market is held the first and third Saturdays of the month and is located at 52 U.S. Oval. The market is usually in the community room, a small room tucked in the back left hand corner downstairs. Sometimes it gets moved within the building, but keep wandering around – you’ll find the farmers and all their yummy locally grown and raised offerings!

Getting some cow love this winter

Shadow, our cow that birthed a stillborn calf last winter, and threw a premature calf this winter, is being milked twice a day to encourage her production. The other two cows are only milked in the morning, but ADITL-207Shadow is not only milked in the morning with the machine with the rest of the herd, but she’s also milked in the afternoon by hand. That milk is then given to the barn cats or the pigs or chicks. Shadow surprised me when we first started milking her by hand by licking me, enthusiastically. This would be fine if her tongue were not so strong or persistent. Crouching for 10 minutes or so, the time it takes to hand milk her, gives Shadow plenty of time to shower me with affection. Affection that is so enthusiastic that I’m nervous I’ll tip over. In these temps that hover between -10 and 20, the warm wet of cow kisses leads to an icey snowsuit. Just thankful that said snowsuit has proved to be waterproof so far.

The beef cows are doing well and growing big quick! It doesn’t feel like almost two years since Libby and DITL 11-216Chance were born (and the two additional beef cows are around the same age). But it’s true. They’ll be two in June! We’re considering having one USDA processed for those that don’t want to commit (or don’t have the freezer space) for a quarter of a cow. The USDA processed beef will be sold by the cut and will be processed at Locust Grove, where we have our pigs USDA processed. For those that do want a quarter of a beef cow, we’ll be figuring out pricing and deposit amounts soon!

We pulled out seeds this week and plan to start those early early crops soon. Like most years, we have very ambitious goals but animals take priority which means no promises on the gardens success.

The puppies continue to grow every day and are this close to their eyes opening! Josh set up a shelter for the puppies and Eden in the “horse” barn and we will be moving them to the barn in the next day or so.  Eden is leaving them more frequently and it’s interesting to watch her meet their needs while also attending her own.
If you’re interested in a puppy, please let us know. We plan to give priority to farms looking for a livestock guard dog. If you’d like more information about the Great Pyrenees breed, just shoot us an email! We love working with our Pyrs and are excited to add a few more to our group on the farm, providing protection to our poultry, primarily.

At the farm right now, you’ll find chicken and duck eggs. Remember that we sell chicken eggs by the dozen and duck eggs by the half dozen – so be sure to grab the right container. In the upright freezer next to the cooler there is USDA packaged pork – including bacon – but you might want to keep that a secret for yourself :) . There is also still chicken and duck available in the inner upright freezer.
Give the back door a knock if you need anything (not the red door – we can’t hear that one being knocked! Come right in to the mudroom, just don’t mind the mudroom’s ample shoe collection that seems to have grown every time I walk through!)

Ice, Cold, Snow, and a little more of the same

We knew Eden, our female Great Pyrenees was expecting some time this week. On Monday while Josh was at work (which is when the disasters excitement always happens on the farm), Eden’s puppies began their life in our unheated not-garage, behind the cooler and upright freezer. After Eden easily birthed 6 pups, cleaning each thoroughly, I moved the puppies in to the slightly-warmer mudroom and added an electric radiator. With much encouragement, Eden followed and got back to the motherly work of cleaning up her babies. They were all mewing, but no one was latching for milk yet.Great-Pyrenees-Pup
After an errand that demanded I be away from the farm for a few hours, I returned home to find two more puppies! Eden birthed 8 puppies in all. Sadly we lost one early in the week, but the remaining seven are as active as puppies so young should be and plumping out nicely. We’re planning to sell all but two, preferably to other farmers needing livestock guard dogs. In the meantime we are melting in the goo of cute puppyness. We are very impressed with Eden’s mothering and her instincts all around. We’re always counting to make sure everyone is accounted for. At times one or more puppy finds themselves behind Eden. But we’ve also seen Eden use her tongue and nose to scoop them up over her back to land in front of her among its siblings. It appears that there are 2 females and 5 males. Three are all white and 4 with badger markings.

An example of disasters that befall the farm when Josh is away for his two 10-hour days at his off-farm job: we have one turkey left from our overall frustrating turkey-year last year (first the turkeys never arrived from the hatchery … it didn’t get better in terms of our success with turkeys after that). So we decided to keep the one remaining turkey as she is a heritage breed and look for a tom and another turkey hen or two. In an example of a friend of a friend of a relative … Josh’s parents  accidentally tracked down 6 hens and one tom. This was so unexpected and we were so excited. The turkeys came home in a cattle trailer borrowed from Josh’s parents to use to bring pigs to Locust Grove, the closest USDA processing facility. The turkeys became roommates to the ducks and all was well.
One day, recently, one of those warmer days, Josh decided to let the turkeys and ducks out of their coop. The ducks returned home, but the turkeys decided to bunk in the hayloft. And the next day we had to retrieve them from under the three massive evergreen trees at the bottom of the driveway. We returned them to the hayloft, assuming it was a cozy home that they would be happy to return to and would give them some space from the ducks. Within days the turkeys had moved on, all but our original. By the time we realized the tracks were covered with fresh snow or blown away. So we’re back to our lone turkey, that we’re calling Rosie.

The warm patch of weather melted the ice aggressively, but not enough. With the warm Woven-Meadows-Winter-2014weather came plenty of snow (yes, warm weather = snow), which made the ice-coated ground much easier to walk on. But the temps have dipped even colder (although not as cold as it was) and the frigid wind that came with that cold temp has blown much of the snow off of our drive and farm roads. That brief melt filled in the very few rough patches in the ice, and our walkways are slick than slick. It’s treacherous – we’ve fallen many many times this year as we go about chores. It’s all part of the routine these days!

Everyone is anxious to hear about a creamery update – and we’re anxious for there to be something worth saying! We’re in talks with a local lender. Initially we were told they would let us know within a few weeks. And then a few months. And every few weeks we are asked for one more piece of information, and that should be all. But then a few more weeks pass and we’re asked for another document. We’re considering going directly to FSA at this point. This is the year we really want the creamy up and running.
eggs-in-straw
In December 100 laying hen chicks arrived. This is a little backwards. Usually we get chicks in the spring and they start laying in the fall. But our current flock is less than 40 hens is going on three years old and people want EGGS. So the chicks that arrived in December should start laying in the spring – and then we’ll be hunting down all those who have begged us for eggs in the last few months. With more daylight the chickens and ducks have been laying just a little bit more.

At the end of this week we participated in Cornell Cooperative Extension and Adirondack Harvest‘s Food From the Farm event at the Oval in Plattsburgh. This is our second year participating in this annual event. It’s always a heartwarming affair with the gym full of farmers and people interested in locally grown food.
Thank you to all who made it to the event and came by to chat. We loved catching up with friends and meeting so many new people too!

At the farm right now, you’ll find some eggs (if you’re lucky, there may even be a half dozen or two duck eggs) and a re-stocked upright freezer with USDA packaged pork. There is also still chicken and duck available. Just be careful coming up the driveway (although it seems leaving has been more challenging for people than coming – but we have become quite adept at helping people get un-stuck out of the driveway!). If we’re around, we will try to make time to let you peak at the puppies too!

A Tale of Two Testes: The Boar Taint that Ain’t

pastured pigs‘Tis the season – for pork, that is. Still following a tradition of starting piglets in the spring and early summer (raising them through the warm months, and finishing or fattening them on the abundance of fall), many local Adirondack farmers are now harvesting and selling their hogs for pork, ourselves included. Now is one of the best times for consumers to fill their freezer with a whole of half hog, raised and butchered as they like. Probably no surprise here, but half of those hogs are female, half male. And of those males, probably most are castrated. But our male pigs are not.

If you find yourself asking “so?” then you probably aren’t familiar with “boar taint.” When we first started raising pigs, anyone with even third-hand hog-raising experience would tell us “you can’t eat a boar!”, adding that “it’ll taste like [I kid you not] piss” or other choice words. Why? The male hormones produced by a boar can make the meat taste so foul and rank as to make it virtually inedible. Hence the long-standing practice of castrating male piglets – making a cut into either side of the scrotum, pulling out the testicles and cutting them off and out. This transforms the “boar” into a “barrow” (the bull/steer distinction of the porcine world). Plus, many say, barrows grow faster than boars.

As it turns out, taint ain’t so simple. (Taint/t’ain’t – nice wordplay, right?)

Yes, boar taint is real, and when present, it makes the meat smell and taste awful: about 75% of consumers can detect and taste boar taint (meaning 25% of you all are off the hook though!), but 75% is a pretty good reason to eliminate taint one’s pork. Hence castration (usually physical, but sometimes chemical/hormonal).

fall animals-118However, hold the scalpel: taint is present in only about 20% of boars and male pigs. This means 80% of male pigs are being castrated unnecessarily. Taint is also differentially present according to breeds: Durocs seem to have the highest levels if incidence, while lighter colored breeds like Landrace and Yorkshire have it less. This is the genetic basis to boar taint. There are also management factors, which have to do with what causes taint. Why should we care? (This is the $64,000 question after all.) I’ll get to that.

So what are the causes of boar taint? Two compounds which can be deposited in the fat of growing pigs can cause the off-smells and flavors in the meat (really just the fat) down the the road. One is androstenone, a pheromone produced in the testes, but also the adrenal glands; the other is skatole, produced by bacteria in the intestines. These can be chemically (objectively) measured, in addition to being tasted by many (a subjective measure).

fall animals-120Regarding skatole, and noticing the root of the word, “skat-”, clues you in that this has to do with feces. Skatole can be produced from pigs inhaling or ingesting their own feces, which is prone to happen with pigs raised in cramped conditions. Turns out, raising hogs on pasture virtually eliminates the risk from skatole taint, a combination of having more space as well as access to high-fiber vegetation. Even after just two weeks on pasture, a hog previously with skatole will no longer have it afterward. While skatole can be present in barrows and gilts (female pigs) as well as boars, steroids produced by the boar inhibit the breakdown of skatole, so they accumulate more of it. Hence castration reducing this taint factor.

Androstenone is produced by the boar’s testes, a pheromone with a urine-like odor, which can be deposited in the fat as the boar matures. This factor in boar taint seems to be less effected or controlled by management and diet, and simply more linked to genetics and sexual development. So, again, typically castration to the rescue.

We’ve steadily been harvesting boars here on our farm, and thus far have had no complaints. Did we luck out? Some advice for minimizing the risk of boar taint is to harvest at 6-7 months of age, or under 200 to 225 pounds live. Our first set of hogs that we brought to the USDA processor were more like 8-9 months old, and their hanging weights were 220, 200, 190, and 175 pounds (the formers two being the uncut males from the bunch, the latter two the females). Add 40-50% to those numbers for the live weights. This means that those 220 and 200 pounds hanging-weight males were around 300 pounds live – a pretty far cry from the recommendation of 220-pound slaughtering. They also lived with the females, and being raised over the winter, (unfortunately) did not receive as much pasture forage as we would have liked – only in the first few months and then again the last month-and-a-half or so of their lives. But they did get some whey over the winter, which reputedly helps as well.

There were originally 5 pigs in the bunch, and one of them, also a male, who refused to get on board the trailer come slaughtering day appointed himself the hog for our June pig roast. This means this boar grew another month and a half, getting bigger and older to around 10 months of age, and quite heavy indeed! But that was also more time on pasture, pretty much alone (there were some weaners next to him), and he ended up getting a lot of whey and milk to eat/drink.

Presumably their genetics played a role too. These pigs were roughly half Large Black, half Tamworth, with a smidgeon of Hampshire in there I think. We’ve also butchered a Yorkshire boar and a Tamworth-something boar in the past which have turned out find as well. The stars of genetics, management, and feed all aligning? Most recently, a 3/4 Large Black 1/4 Tamworth boar went to the freezer, taintless again. This one was also big, hanging at 200lbs and around 8.5 months old. Most surprising, though, was that we later learned this fellow was in fact sexually active (a bit of brotherly love with his sisters…), as one of his sisters which went to the butcher a month later turned out to be well along in pregnancy, meaning at around 6 months old there was breeding going on.

But if we are playing Russian Roulette each time we raise a boar, why do it? Why not just castrate? Most obvious is the humaneness issue – not castrating avoids a stressful and painful procedure for male piglets, usually done by the farmer rather than a vet with the use of anesthetic. Of course, ethical issues like humane treatment can be a good if not central selling/buying point for many consumers.

Which leads to economic reasons as well. Castration takes time for the farmer. And if the cut gets infected, this could require medical treatment, setback in weight gains, or even death for the pig. Plus, it turns out (studies attest, in one form or another), barrows actually grow slower than boars, and/or require more feed to reach the same weight (i.e. barrows are are less efficient growers). Plus, compared to boars, pound for pound barrows are fattier, while boars are leaner and thus have more muscle, more meat. (They also tend to be longer, and – pop quiz – longer hogs mean what (proportionally)? That’s right, more bacon!) Finally, for anyone raising their own breeding pigs, not castrating males gives you a pool to pick potential breeders from; castration closes that door early on.

Presumably we are doing something right with out management (e.g. housing and diet) – something which others interested in raising boars can do as well – we can continue these practices, but genetics are less easily controlled. It highlights the need to continue to source feeder piglets from sources that have proven not to present boar taint in the past (i.e. in slaughtered boars), and/or to continue raising our own from established taint-free lines. It is also possible, when or if bringing in new blood, to have that boar tested while live, through a blood test (which can chemically measure the levels of androstenone and skatole present, and correlate to the levels detected by smell and taste) or even, as Walter Jeffries has done (http://sugarmtnfarm.com/2012/03/20/have-your-pig-and-eat-it-too/) take a tiny biopsy and test it. Somewhat anecdotal, and a bit research-based as well, it seems aggressive, dominant boars tend towards higher levels of boar taint. So by selecting for docility and friendliness, one may indirectly select for less boar taint potential as well – both good!

fall animals-114In researching and writing this, I did get to thinking – if we can get by without castrating boars, can we do the same for bulls (and rams or bucks, if we raised those)? The answer here seems: maybe. The good news is that rams and bulls are even less likely to have off-tasting meat than are boars. There’s also a different procedure available to castrate a ruminant – they can be non-surgically banded. Or if using surgery (for a bull), it can be easier to justify, economically, having a vet perform it, with anesthesia, since the cost of that procedure applied to a bull calf will be spread out over many more pounds of meat in the end (anywhere from 5 to 10 times that of a pig; this is what we’ve done with our bull calves to date).

The exception to the male-taste issue may be a ram during rut, the breeding season when hormones run high (or a goat buck, which can stink to high heaven). But there are management issues too. Consider lamb: typically born in the spring, they could grow and finish on grass through the summer and be butchered in the fall, on the smallish size. However, if you want lamb on the larger end, you need to keep them through winter. But then you only have a couple months in the spring before the rut starts later in summer, so its not really worth holding over the winter if you only get a bit of grazing in before the rut. So making a ram lamb into a wether provides more flexibility for slaughtering times (if rut-flavoring holds true). But for fall-finishing spring-born lambs, castration is not necessary.

Bulls also present a management issue, but not so much regards breeding directly – rather, bulls can be dangerous, and they can start being so well before fully grown where you’d want to harvest them. There’s a truthful adage to “never turn your back on a bull” – never mind a whole herd of them. A 200-300 pound possibly aggressive young boar is one thing; a 1500-2500+ pound bull is quite another (I imagine Kristen Kimball at Essex Farm would agree, from reading her The Dirty Life…). But there are benefits as well, like leaner meat in bulls compared to steers and faster or more efficient rate of growth. I would suspect that temperament is heritable, so perhaps one could select more for docile bulls (but friendly, docile bulls are also known to be closet aggressives, surprising you when you don’t expect it!). So will we ever raise bulls for beef? I can’t yet say.

Floppy-5In the meantime, we’ll continue to raise – and promote – boars destined for pork, and if you join us in that, more (bacon) power to ya’!

Small-farm “egg-onomics”

Free range organic eggsWe sometimes receive wide-eyes or raised eyebrows when we answer the question “how much are your eggs?” Our pasture-raised, free-range, organic-fed hen eggs, we reply, are five dollars per dozen. Since supermarket eggs can sometimes dip below $2 per dozen, it may indeed be hard to comprehend how there could be such a price difference – they’re more than twice the price! Nor is it uncommon to know of a neighbor or road-side sign advertizing a dozen eggs from a backyard flock for two to three dollars per dozen, further supporting the idea that eggs are and should be cheap.

We are not trying to produce some elitist egg which only the wealthy can afford, nor intending to price-gouge anyone. Rather, we are trying to produce the healthiest eggs in the most ethical, sustainable fashion, at a fair price.

There’s a lot that goes into the cost of producing an egg, and since we’re at the point of business planning, to develop and grow our farm, I took the time to perform an “enterprise analysis” on each of the components of our farm, including our egg production from our flock of pastured, free-range, and organic-fed hens. Putting together an extensive tally of all the costs that go into producing our eggs yielded some surprising insights, and proves invaluable for understanding our profitability (or not…). For readers who are fellow farmers (even at the “backyard” scale), this might help inform your own pricing, while readers who are purchasers of eggs (of whatever type) might more fully understand all that goes into producing those eggs in that carton.

So here goes, full disclosure ahead!

barred-rock-hen-in-grassThe way I performed our analysis was first to add up all the costs that go into a single laying hen over its lifetime, which I set at 2.5 years. It takes about 5 to 6 months for a newly hatched chick to reach laying age, when it will then lay for about a year, take a break while molting, and then produce again for about a year (at a lessened rate) until molting again (at which point we would butcher the birds for stewing hens, because production levels subsequently drop further and the bird would no longer pay its keep).

chick-in-grassFirst, the costs of the chicks. I figured about $3 per day-old, sexed chick, delivered to our farm. Of course, not all chicks make it through the brooding phase, so factor in a loss (say, 10%), and the per-chick cost is $3.33. That chick is also going to need some bedding, a heat source, a waterer, feeder, and of course a place to live. Once it reaches about 4 weeks, it can go outside to begin its pastured, “free-range” life – I say “free-range,” because our chickens are not completely free-range, and the reason for this is that we have foxes and coyotes and the like who happen to love chicken. So we raise them outside in portable electronet fencing. We set up a temporary paddock (if using one roll of fencing, we can get a 40′ x 40′ space, but we sometimes combine multiple rolls), and move the birds to new paddocks when they have done a good deal of pecking, scratching, and grazing, which is about once per week with our current numbers. They also have portable shelters. We raise the laying hens in the same manner, just in a different shelter (we’re currently using a gutted camper!) and separate paddocks. In the harsh winters, the birds have to come indoors, where they’re supplied with deep bedding).

chicks-with-feederNow, the costs of all that equipment gets both spread out across how many birds it can service (e.g. a waterer can serve 50 hens, while the brooder heater, since it is used for broilers, ducks, and turkeys throughout the summer, might serve 500 birds), as well as how many years it can be used. Added up, I estimated $3.60 going into the equipment and bedding costs of raising a laying hen from chick to “retirement.” There was also the $3.33 cost per chick, so we’re up to $6.93 – but haven’t yet touched the costs of feed.

Going by both what I’ve read on the matter, and what our own record-keeping affirms, it takes about 16 pounds of prepared feed (starter and grower) to raise a chicken to laying age. Afterward, a hen consumes 0.2 to 0.25 pounds of feed a day. Now, we do raise our birds outside on pasture, and we do see them scratching and pecking and grazing, so doesn’t that cut down on feed costs? I can’t say it does by much. For one, it takes energy for the birds to do that work; for another, grass is not easily digestible by poultry. They can acquire a wealth of vitamins and minerals and other healthy compounds from foraging, but not a whole lot of extra calories it seems. (I have read that pastures really high in legume content, such as clover and alfalfa, will provide much of the protein a chicken needs, allowing the grower to feed lower-protein, and thus cheaper, feeds, but our pastures are not at that point right now. Alternatively, really low densities – like 10 birds per acre, would be enough, but then you’d need a pretty extensive perimeter fence or good livestock guard dogs, and enough acreage for a profitable number of birds.)

So, for the two years where a chicken is laying, it will need about 180 pounds of feed, plus the 16 pounds bringing it into hen-hood. We feed certified-organic feed, and when we buy it by the pallet, this year were able to get it for about $23 a bag. The price for smaller quantities at the feed stores seemed to be about $24 to $26 per bag, so we were able to save a couple bucks there. Non-organic, conventional feed seemed to be in the $12 to $14 range, if I recall, so a bit more than half the price.

Now brace yourself. Remember our non-feed costs were $6.93 per bird? Well, the feed costs come out to $90 per bird! So feed costs around 1200% more than everything else combined. Put differently, even when you manage to save money on your equipment and chick costs (say, you throw together a $200 shelter instead of a $400 one), relative to feed those savings really aren’t much. Feed is the predominate expense, and would be the biggest place to save, if you can. We already buy it in bulk by the pallet load (1 ton), albeit still in bags. The next step would be having bins to purchase feed in bulk delivered by the grain truck, but of course those bins costs something too. But you also need to feed that feed quick enough, else you lost a lot of quality. Which means you need more birds, a larger scale, more land, more labor, all while maintaining the integrity of your sustainable practices…plus a large enough market to buy those eggs.

Other potential cost savings include purchasing whole grains and feed components (e.g. shell corn, whole barley, soybean meal, mineral mixes, etc) and grinding/cracking/soaking/sprouting your grains and making your own mix. Again, more storage needed, and probably a grinder of some sort, but you probably would have the freshest, highest-quality feed, and so may save some on the amounts needed. (Buying whole grains by the bag seems to be worse than buying milled feed by the bag – the few times we’ve purchased whole corn or “scratch,” it was pretty much the same cost as the milled feed!)

So the lifetime costs for one laying hen is about $97. Since we can consume the “retired” birds as stewing hens, some value is reclaimed there (a three-pound bird selling for however much per pound), but there is also a butchering cost, so the recovered value might only be $6 to $10.

eggs-in-strawHaving considered the expenses, the next question concerns income, and that revolves around how many eggs are to be produced, and in turn the price at which they’ll be sold. While commercial layers may top 300 eggs per year, I don’t think our birds reach that, since we have standard breeds as well as hybrids, who aren’t cooped up in a cage with no room to move… I figure about 250 eggs in the first year, and 150 in the second, for a total of 400 eggs, or 33 and 1/3 dozen.

Now we can spread the lifetime costs of the hen over the number of eggs she’ll produce. Per dozen, the non-feed costs come out to just $0.21 per dozen. The feed costs, on the other hand, are $2.70 per dozen! Add in the costs of packaging (we do have to buy many cartons new) at about $0.35 per carton (and that was buying a year’s supply…), while subtracting the stewing hen credit, and we wind up with a per-dozen cost of $3.08 to produce for sale a healthy egg from our free-range, pastured hen.

Selling that dozen at $5 then, our profit margin on a retail dozen is a bit under $2 (and for our CSA-egg subscriptions, the margin is even less). Remember, no labor has yet been factored into our costs. For how many chickens? We currently keep about 50 layers at a time (half first-year and half second-year layers), along with the replacement set raised over the summer. So if we spread out the 400 eggs a chicken will lay over its total life (not just its productive life, but over the time it is growing and molting as well), which at 2.5 years is 900 days, for a little less than half of its days actually producing an egg, multiplied by 50 hens, we get on average a little under 2 dozen eggs a day. So our average profit per day is just $4. I’d like to say we average half an hour of work per day for all the laying chicken and egg related tasks, for a wage of $8 per hour, but that might be overly generous and optimistic… The pastured/free-range aspect of our production takes the most labor (moving birds, shelters, and fencing is time consuming), but that is the key to the nutrition and quality of pastured eggs.

pastured laying chickensIf, for arguments sake, we increased our flock to 100 birds, doubling production, to bring in $8 per day, we probably would not spend twice the labor, so we’d have a better rate of return…but we’d also need more customers or outlets for those eggs, which might include wholesale, which might require grading (candling) each egg, which would be sold at a reduced cost, which would cut into the margins…you get the idea!

Supposing we fed conventional, non-organic feed, the feed costs per dozen, again, over the life of a chicken, would be around $1.45. With the same capital costs, that would be $1.66 per dozen. So this is probably the ballpark costs of the backyard flockster selling eggs (they probably get by with all reused cartons), though the smaller scale may allow more use of kitchen scraps, and more space for the hens to forage for bugs, worms, clover, and the like, so costs are reduced some. But selling, or buying, those eggs at just $2 or $2.50 per dozen is not providing much profit to the backyard chicken keeper, more of a supplement to their costs, for the fun of keeping chickens and supplying their family with healthy eggs.

Thus the price discrepancy with mass-produced supermarket eggs. When someone’s raising thousands of laying hens, their capital costs might not be any less than ours (indeed, it might be more), but the sheer volume of feed purchased is going to reduce their feed costs substantially, and probably their labor per bird or egg will be less as well, through more automation. If an egg is an egg is an egg, there’s really no reason NOT to purchase those $2 per dozen eggs. pastured hensWe’re pretty sure, though, that our pastured eggs are healthier and produced in a more ethical fashion. By the way, certified-organic eggs in the grocery stores seem to be about $5 per dozen as well, but that doesn’t mean they were pastured or free-range…

So there you have it – our small farm “egg-onomics.”

Jersey Calving :: stillbirth

**graphic pictures of a cow calving that ends in a still birth**

*graphic meaning there is blood and a cows birthing parts shown in pictures*

First note: Shadow, the cow, likes to roll in poop. That’s our guess. Hope, our other cow, is clean. Her coat is thick with its winter growth and soft to the touch. Shadow has dried scales of poop all over. We assume that she poops, realizes it’s warm, and lays right down in the warm wet slime. So not only is she ejecting a bloody mass before the calf … she’s also covered in poop.

You can’t say you weren’t warned!

We weren’t sure how to share this story. Sometimes we will start telling someone about chicken processing … and the person will interrupt to say they need no more details. That’s a whole other blog post – but in light of that we wanted to respect our community and the details people may or may not want. This would have been a struggle with or without the end result because birth is bloody and messy (and so is farming) and some people cringe at bloody and messy. These people tend not to be farmers. And then farmers get stuck in their own farming world and forget that the rest of the world isn’t used to side stepping fresh poop in the pasture, swiping mucous from newly birthed piglets, or work with hands detailed with fine lines detailed perfectly with tiny dirt granules.

But after posting on facebook, it seemed clear that even if people aren’t milking cows regularly, or finding a perfect nesting spot for a broody hen, or bidding on the perfect cow … people are interested in what authentic sustainable farming is like in the day-to-day.

So here it goes:

Shadow was bred on a Wednesday. On a Saturday, we bid on her, and brought her home. She never showed signs of heat (mooing, jumping on the other cow, or us!, etc) so we assumed she was bred, she was pregnant, she “had settled.”

Cows gestation is 279-290 days with 280 being the average. At 287 days, Shadow still hadn’t calved, and Jerseys tend to be a few days earlier than other breeds. A very kind farmer who is relatively nearby was posting on our fb wall asking for updates. She offered suggestions and knowledge around calving, particularly with Jerseys. Hope’s calving had come suddenly, before we expected and with beautiful drama – but with no intervention from us.

With Shadow it was a checking-every-day-keep-waiting situation. We were all anxious to meet our newest addition to the farm and anticipation was high.

The morning of, Josh and Del checked before going off to preschool and I checked again while doing chores (approximately 1.5minutes after Del and Josh checked).

During afternoon chores, I noticed something different. There was definitely contractions and opening of Shadow’s vulva.
My mom missed a calving in June and didn’t want to miss this one. Josh shook his head in disbelief as I went to tell my mom that Shadow would be calving soon.
“It’s probably still hours away,” Josh informed me.
“I know,” I replied.
“Are you just going to wait here the whole time?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.

So my mom came out and the kids came out intermittently.
There were frequent reminders that they needed to move slowly and quietly to respect the birth process. I even insisted Noah remove his red coat fearing it would stress the cow. Don’t they see red or something? Upon finding out about this, Josh laughed and the next time Noah came into the barn, I told him he could leave his coat on.

It was cold, but warmer than the 20 below temps of the previous few days. Shadow moved to the farthest point she could from Hope … who was happy to be left with all the hay to herself. Shadow is the alpha cow out of the pair and has a habit at the edge of the manger, pushing Hope further and further to the side … Hope not realizing she can walk around Shadow and have 3/4 of the manger that is not being blocked – or maybe she just doesn’t want to bother moving. A few times Hope wandered over to Shadow (leaving behind that coveted hay) to take a sniff at Shadow.

We waited and waited. There would be some progress and then in between contractions that progress would slowly be pulled back up inside of Shadow. There were frequent dashes to the house to call for Josh to come look. We were always told it was this or that, nothing to worry about.

Did I say it was cold? I was thankful to be out of the take-your-breath-away wind. Del’s hands were cold. Josh turned on a heat lamp we had ready for the calf for Del to put her hands under. The grownups were thankful for the dull heat the lamp gave off too.

A small splash and more of the water has come through as well as blood. This baby is coming!

At this point I was running into the house to ask what that black bulge is! It looks like NOT hooves – front hooves are what should appear first.

Josh said it was the bulge of the bag of waters. Forgetting that there had already been a terrific splash, I was comforted by this “knowledge” and returned to the barn to watch the two-steps-forward-one-step-back birth progress.

At this point I wasn’t sure what we were seeing. With the gift of hindsight – it’s the bottom of the calf’s chin with one leg bent back at the ankle – all still in the membrane.
“I think it’s going to be big,” Josh said, “that’s why it’s taking a while.”
“You can tell that by the nose?” I asked incredulous.
“Yeah,” he replied nonchalantly. “Bigger usually means bulls. I bet it’s a bull.”

When any creature is birthing I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that there is actually a living breathing being at the other end – we (or maybe just I) get so caught up in the business end of things. So here is Shadow up and in labor. There were some shots of her “crazy eyes” but this was more a funny look when she was trying to see what was going on back there, not a funny look because she was contracting.

Back to the business end of things … see the eyelashes along the eye lid? This was the point when I asked if we should help. Maybe we should be clearing the nose and mouth so the calf can breathe? Josh, now resigned to staying in the barn until the end, explained that the calf was still attached to the placenta and didn’t need to breath yet (indeed, probably couldn’t breathe, given all the pressure on its chest).
It looked like Shadow wanted to stand again. This was what was causing the retreat of the calf between contractions. Josh reasoned that if she stood at this point, the calf would fall out.

Remember the two steps forward and one back? At this point Shadow STOOD UP! And the calf did not fall out, much to our amazement. Evidently Shadow decided it would be more comfortable to be on the other side of the stall.

And then she laid back down. Do you see the calves nose?

My mom was holding her breath with every contraction. We knew the calf would be named Snowflake so we were encouraging Shadow and encouraging Snowflake verbally.

And then she stood back up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I know you probably don’t want to interfere, but you could go and pull now” Josh suggested.
I was in that stall before you could say: “pull.” I was anxious to DO something.
With the next contraction, I pulled hard. It seemed I didn’t help move the calf any further along.
With the next contraction, same thing.

I noticed the calf’s tongue hanging out of it’s mouth, blue-ish in color.
“Josh,” I said, “I think the calf is already dead. It’s tongue is sticking out.”
“Probably about half the births I’ve seen the calves tongues are sticking out like that,” he replied reassuringly.
Before the next contraction Josh slipped through the gate and came by my side. He held firmly to the calves legs and at the next contraction pulled it free of it’s mother.
He moved away as I ticked the calf’s nostrils and tried to feel for a heartbeat.
The calf lay still.
I started to feel myself shake all over.
Suddenly the barn felt MUCH colder – or maybe the cold just suddenly started effecting me.

Josh and I pulled it under the one light bulb that was on in the stall to get a better look. Shadow mooed and followed quickly. Josh rubbed it’s chest brusquely. When there was no response, he lifted the calf by its hind legs in an attempt to drain any fluid that might be causing the non-responsive calf. Josh laid the calf down gently as Shadow slid her large rough tongue across the trunk of the calf, cleaning off the birth remains. Josh picked up a piece of hay and tickled the calf’s nostril. He touched the calf’s eyeball. Nothing. He felt for a heartbeat and felt nothing, as Shadow continued to clean her offspring.
“Is it a boy?” I asked.
Josh checked.
“Yep,” he said. “Let’s go get the kids to bed and then we can come out and milk Shadow.”

We left cow and calf – one caring for the other even after death – while we went to care for our own children who were cold and tired.

Chickens roosting

I briefly explained that we have “kennel chickens” in the barn, right across from the cows. This time of year everyone is snug inside somewhere to some extent.

For the most part, they wisely roost on the relatively warm wooden log that is in their “coop” for that very purpose.

But a few of them think the stone foundation is more cozy. What’s funny is that you don’t notice them at first (it’s much more dim in the barn at night than it appears in the picture below). But then you notice one, then another, and another, and another.

So fun to see their preferences emerge.

Where do your chickens like to roost?

Pork: Farrowing

Our two gilts, Toppy and Floppy are sisters and both spent time with a Large Black Boar named Templeton of Caton Acres fame.

Templeton didn’t quite have the how-to of his role over the summer, apparently, because one afternoon recently Josh noticed that Floppy was definitely not “settled”. She was loud and jumpy and screaming “MATE ME!” We made a quick (and slightly desperate) call to our friends at Caton Acres and through a quick cooperation among farming neighbors borrowed a truck and trailer and got Floppy over to Templeton speedy quick.

Templeton has had some practice since we last had him here at Woven Meadows and if Floppy isn’t pregnant now …. well, I’d be impressed.

But Toppy is another story. She’s smaller than Floppy and just as lovable – or perhaps more so because she is definitely settled. We noticed that her previously flat belly is now lined on both sides with sacks to hold milk for upcoming babies. We’ve read that this is an indicator of piglets arriving within a week or two. We’re not certain when she bred (unlike Floppy!) so she has a due date range. When we saw her body preparing for her piglet’s arrivals we frantically pulled books off the shelf for a quick review on farrowing (pig birthing). We’ve read it all before but never farrowed piglets on our farm before.

As with everything – some of the information is helpful, some is sad (docking tails?!? ugh.), and all of it adds to our arsenal of information should we need to assist Toppy. I am hopeful that she will be a competent mother to her brood.

In preparation we moved her to the chicken barn. It’s warm(ish – it’s still January in the North Country, after all) and there’s wonderful soft bedding to root around in. We laughed as she dove into the dry bedding sprinkled with chicken litter before providing her with a thick bale of stiff hay for her to make a nest with (which the chickens promptly fell in love with also). Before leaving, we made sure to give her lots of scratches behind the ears – which lead to her falling to her side in relaxed bliss on the soft bedding.

Love this girl!

And tomorrow Floppy is returning to our farm for us to fall in love all over again with her!

Dairy: Creamery List of Needs

Way way back in the beginning of the beginning with Woven Meadows our goal has been cheese (with some bacon and eggs thrown in for good measure!).
This is the most complicated part of our farming goals as it involves a purpose-built structure that complies with Ag and Markets extensive guidelines.

One of the requirements is a double stainless steel sink for the creamery (where the cheese is made) and one in the milk House (where we clean the milking equipment). We were able to get a double sink for a steal last summer … and we just found a second sink on craigslist – perfect for the creamery!

Here is a list of all the additional supplies and materials we need for the farm creamery. We’re hoping to begin construction as soon as the ground thaws!

Whenever possible we’re seeking out used equipment for a more economical project. In some cases, used is not practical as this equipment is much to large for our purposes as it is designed for much larger farms.

Construction:

  • Hot Water Heater
  • Ventilation
  • Washable Walls (such as fiberglass reinforced panels)
  • Drain
  • Wiring
  • Light Fixtures
  • Concrete
  • ICF

 

Parlor and Milk House:

  • Milking System
  • Cleaning System
  • Bulk Tank (where the milk is cooled and stored before it’s moved to the cheese-making vat … this is the one we’re looking at right now)
  • Hand-wash sink
  • More cows :) – given what our pasture can sustain at the moment we are planning to start with 4 additional cows for 6 total. After a few years of improvement (chickens going through the pasture, for example) we anticipate maxing out at 10-12 cows that we’re milking.

Creamery:

  • Vat pasteurizer (essential for fresh cheeses; cheese under 60 days old must be made with pasteurized milk required by Ag and Markets) (We plan to get the vat pasteurizer from Micro-Dairy Designs.)
  • Curd Cutting Knives
  • Cheese hoops
  • Transfer Pump (this moves the milk from the milk house to the creamery)
  • Draining Table (table on an incline where cheese can be pressed or hung above and the whey flows away from the cheese)
  • Press (to press the whey out of the cheese and consolidates the curd)
  • Hand-wash sink
  • Work Tables
  • Two-bay stainless steel wash sink
  • Shelving (for storage of cheese making supplies)
  • Supply fridge and freezer (to store rennet and cultures for cheese making)
  • Cart

Aging room (this may be an attached room to the creamery or it may be a walk-in cooler and is where the cheese ages):

  • Shelves
  • Cooling Unit (the cool-bot is an option we’re keeping in mind)

If you have any of this lying around (a sink, perhaps?) or no of someone who has any of these supplies or materials they may be interested in parting with – let us know! So excited to bring yummy cow milk cheese to the North Country!