Monday, May 17, 2010

past, present and future

Living on a farm has a profound effect on the way you experience time. Respecting its importance is critical. After awhile, you fall in sync with its rhythms - you wake up one day and find that you know just what's supposed to happen and when.

I must at once look to the past, act in the present and plan for the future. Case in point, I have already planned my fall garden - in May. I know just what will go in, and where, and roughly how much. I've ordered seeds where necessary. This is important here, because seeds for fall transplanting must be started as early as June in some cases (hello, peppers!). Put it off, or get caught off guard, and you've missed the boat. How do I know this? I've done it before. I determine what to plant and when to plant it by looking back - recalling what has worked well in the past, what was a bust, and what may have been a missed opportunity. Time moves quickly around here, and stands still.

There will be some additional expansion of the garden this fall, and that's probably where it will stay for awhile. We've finally gotten a grip on things around here, and aren't anxious to over-extend ourselves right away. There is a temporary moratorium on new projects. As we head rapidly into the dog days of summer, the spring garden is going strong, also marching through its time-honored phases. The onions are done and curing. The Greens Age has passed. We've bid farewell to the lettuce and radishes - we barely remember salad. The legions of squash and beans are upon us now, and tomatoes and peppers are visible on the horizon. I sincerely hope that just behind them, just beyond my sight, are eggplant and melons. They would be most welcome.

We're still contending with a pretty serious snake problem, which means no spring ducklings this year, but for the one - the lonely survivor from the last hatch. He's holding his own. We're fairly certain he's a he. This gives us mixed emotions - if the one surviving duckling were a girl, we'd be thrilled as it would give us another future mother, increasing our odds of boosting the duck population. If a boy, well, then we get to eat it, which was the whole point of the exercise. It's hard to say which option we prefer at this point. Not that it matters - we get what we're given.

Little Bridget is now weaned, and still with us. We're also transitioning the girls to a once-daily milking, so that we may have some semblance of a social life again. Two milkings a day was never part of the plan, but sometimes plans don't go along with you, do they? We frankly can't cope with the volume of milk that two milkings a day provides. A gallon a day for two people? Honestly, even WE can't eat that much cheese. Between the copious amounts of milk and all the overtime the hens are clocking these days, we have the world's luckiest dogs. They know better than to complain about much of anything - they know how good they have it.

I have a bit of garden maintenance to do over this long weekend, but the bulk of my plans involve planning. These are the days when we look back over our year, take lessons from it and decide how to move forward. Each year has its challenges, and yet we come through, always with something to show. The thermometer outside is telling me, "It's time to stop now. Sit down, pour a cold drink and take stock. The cycle will begin again sooner than you think, so make your plans."

That thermometer is wise.

Monday, May 10, 2010

happy meal

Thus concludes our first experiment with raising broiler chickens! I can finally say that all things considered, it was quite a success. We suffered some heavy losses in the beginning, but ultimately I'm not at all unhappy with the outcome.

These are Freedom Ranger broilers from JM Hatchery. Because we got two shipments and processed them in two batches, their age at processing time varied between 10 and 12 weeks. Their dressed weights appear to be mostly between four and a half and five pounds, and they had a nice amount of fat on them. They started out in a brooder, of course, and we moved them outside to a pasture shelter after a few weeks. They got moved onto fresh grass every one to two days and therefore had some forage to supplement their grain ration. We also supplemented them with goat's milk during their last few weeks. We ran some numbers and concluded that it cost us approximately $1.50/lb to raise these birds. When you consider that I've been paying $4.29/lb for comparable pastured chicken, that wound up being quite a good deal! It took four people of varying experience levels about ten hours to process thirty-one birds, and that's without the aid of a large drum plucker. All these facts and figures didn't mean much, however, without knowing how they'd taste...

The verdict is in - they taste AMAZING!

The fact that the expense was quite manageable and the extra work was minimal makes this an endeavor worth repeating! For a few minutes a day and one or two long days of processing, we can have delicious, healthy, humanely raised chicken right from our own backyard, for less than the price of supermarket chicken. Few things we've undertaken here have made me more proud than this.


If you're curious about the butchering process, there is an excellent tutorial here. We do it essentially the same way, with a few minor changes to suit our particular circumstances. Be sure to follow that by checking out this post.

As for the way I cooked this bird, I brined it for a couple of hours in a simple brine of water, kosher salt and sugar, and then roasted it according to this recipe (scroll down past the mushroom soup recipe). Again, I make a few small changes, but this is a wonderful and pretty much fool proof way to roast a bird.

Friday, May 7, 2010

down to one

Please forgive the silence around here - it's springtime, and that means our attention is needed more outside the house, and there's less time available to spend here at the blog. There is plenty going on, although it's been a week of mixed emotions.

Our second hatch of ducklings was small to start with - only six, which is a very small number for the prolific Muscovy ducks. We suspect that due to our unusually cold weather earlier in the season, some of the eggs may have frozen. We lost one of those six ducklings very early on - in the first couple of days. This is not unusual. The other five have been growing and thriving, and all was well until this week. Another one disappeared earlier in the week. I just found it this morning, inside the duck house, half-buried in the bedding. I don't have any idea what happened to the poor little guy. Betty has been sleeping outside with the babies at night, and we were worried that it had been taken by a predator - most likely a raccoon. Not wanting to risk any more of them, we closed them up inside the house last night for safety. Words cannot express the dismay I felt when I opened the door this morning and only one duckling came out. I searched inside the house, and all around the yard, and...nothing. Where did they go? What happened to them? I honestly don't know. My suspicion is that they wandered out through the wire enclosure during the night and were unable to get back in. Betty wouldn't have been able to go out after them, and they'd have been helpless in the grass. I feel beyond awful.

We've been expecting some bunnies as well. They were due to kindle around mid-week. I went out Wednesday afternoon to check on everyone and was excited to see that mama rabbit was inside the nest box! As I approached, however, something just didn't look right. The poor thing had died, presumably during labor. Two babies had been born, but were dead as well - the rest never made it out. I have no idea what happened here either, and between losing the rabbits and the ducklings, it has been a very dispiriting few days.

As usual, though, it hasn't been all bad. Our other duck is working on a new clutch of eggs, and we have another rabbit that's due to kindle in a couple of weeks. The garden is looking great - even the flagging beans are starting to rally - and the goats and chickens are producing in abundance. We processed the first half of the broiler chickens last weekend, and I could not be more pleased with the results. I'll write a full post on that soon. I know some of you have been awaiting a bee update, and I'll give that in a separate post as well. For now, I need to remind myself that weeks like this come along from time to time, but it's hard not to beat myself up. All I ever want is to do right by my animals - to give them a safe and happy life - and it crushes my spirit when I can't deliver even that.

**UPDATE** - I now know what happened to the ducklings. I just opened the duck house to find all the new eggs gone, and a snake (caught red-handed, I'll spare you the details). It has been dealt with, but I know there are more out there.