Although it is still the middle of a dark, snowy, and cold winter, we are busily planning our production for this coming season. This will be our second year offering a bulk chicken buying program. The program helps us to know ahead of time how many chickens we’ll need to raise this year and offers you a significant savings off the retail cost in exchange for your pre-season commitment. The program is very flexible, allowing you multiple options of amount of chicken, cutting and packaging, and delivery or pickup. As always, our chickens are raised outdoors on pasture, moved to fresh grass each day, fed a non-GMO grain ration, and processed by hand on our farm in our state inspected facility. Here’s how it works:
Chicken FAQ's - Do you have questions about our practices? Here are some common ones:
Q: You say your feed is non-GMO - why not organic feed?
A: Great question! We tried organic feed in the first half of last season and were really disappointed with the birds' health and vigor and growth rate. It turns out a certified organic feed is required to limit the amount of synthetic amino acids to a level below the requirements of these fast growing birds. In the future, we may pursue this again, using a custom feed mix with organic grains. Here's an interesting article explaining this issue in more detail. attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=336
Q: You process the birds on your farm - do you use disinfectant (chlorine bleach) in your chill tank water?
A: No. Our chill tank contains only purchased bagged ice and water from our well, which is tested annually for bacteria and coliform as part of our certification process. Our well water is treated with a softener and a UV disinfection system. We do clean our chicken processing equipment including scalder, plucker, tables, cutting boards, sink, etc by washing, rinsing, and then spraying with a dilute bleach solution.
Q: Are your chickens free-range?
A: We would not describe them that way. With our pastured layers, we find that a day-ranging system, with a stationary house, feeder and waterer, and a larger fenced area for the birds to roam, causes an uneven distribution of manure, leaving some areas under-fertilized and others burnt by the high-nitrogen content of the chicken manure. The system we use for meat chickens strives to provide a high quality of life for the chickens and also a regenerative effect on the land. The chickens are housed in a 10' x 12' bottomless pen, which is moved to fresh grass daily. This keeps the chickens from returning to their own manure and it provides an even distribution of nutrients that the grasses can readily absorb and use. The short-duration, heavy grazing and scratching effect of the chickens, followed by a long period of rest, results in a beautiful, rich pasture with lush grasses that draw deer and other wildlife in winter to dig under the snow to graze.
Ever since we moved here full time in Spring 2014, we have dreamed of having the resources to use all of our property for farming. We had been to Polyface Farm and seen Joel Salatin’s cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys regenerating his land, creating idyllic beauty and prosperity and this was our vision as well. We began the first season, taking over our yard (3/4 – 1 acre) for our vegetables, bee hives, laying hens, broiler chickens, turkeys, and rabbits. As we outgrew the space, we began using a small field, perhaps 1/3- ½ acre, in front of our house, alongside the driveway. Wanting to raise even more broilers in 2017, we set our sights on the rest of our 43 acre property.
We have lots of woods and two fields to choose from. One field is more easily accessible from our dirt path, but had not been mowed in more than 20 years and much of it was going back to woods. An awesome friend brought over her tractor last year and brush mowed it, but there is still not much grass and lots of stumps and stubble. The other field has been maintained by neighbors who have cut hay off of it for years. It is off of the main path down a narrow foot path on the other side of a stream bed with no vehicle crossing. We settled on the second option, thinking the grass quality would provide better forage for our chickens.
Not owning a tractor, we brainstormed for months about how to overcome the obstacles of accessing the field and keeping it mowed. Finally, we built a very makeshift bridge by filling in the stream bed with stones dug out of the garden and covered them with recycled pallets. Each miserable, enormous stone we labored to excavate from our garden, I said was an awesome addition to our rock collection for building our bridge.To keep the grass cut, we ordered a sickle bar mower attachment for our BCS. It was expected to arrive in one week, but took five weeks. Our BCS had only had a rear tiller attachment in its 20 years and was seized and would not rotate to accept a front attachment, requiring a trip to the shop and more waiting.
Of course, the project was on the back burner, getting brief bouts of attention, but not a major focus, until our deadline loomed – chicks in the brooder that needed fresh grass for their pen in a matter of weeks. We buckled down and got to work on this latest crisis.
First we cut up some fallen trees blocking access from the neighbor’s property and hired him to cut the field with his tractor and brush hog. This left a lot of uneven clumps of tall grass and piles of clippings that we wanted to remove prior to offering it to the chickens.
Here is Shawn with a small push mower, bagging the clippings. We took turns mowing and driving the side-by-side with the cart hitched on the back to dump the grass we bagged. I was a little dismayed at the poor quality of the pasture that was visible after it was cut short. Thin, brownish-yellow patches of grass, worn out.
Because the pasture was not ready earlier in the season, we decided to build our new pen in halves, expecting to run the first batch of broilers in our yard, then dismantle it and move it to the back field once we had the grass under control. Here is the pen broken down and the first half loaded.
Here it is arriving safely in the back pasture.
Here is the heavy half. I walked behind it up the path to yell when it threatened to slide off and reposition it. It looked like it was going over on several occasions, but somehow it stayed upright and arrived intact.
Here it is reassembled.
The next day we got some great news! The sickle bar mower was ready and we picked it up and went to work. This tool is so powerful! It destroyed the rest of the grass we wanted to cut in around an hour. Also, the clippings were very easy to rake up because the sickle bar makes long pieces rather than little bits you get from a rotary mower.
On Tuesday night, we crated the three week old chicks and settled them into their new home just in time to clean out the brooder for the next batch that arrived at the post office at 8 AM Wednesday morning.
Each morning and evening when we drive the side-by-side into that field to feed and water the chickens and move the pen to fresh ground, I feel absolutely elated that we did what seemed impossible not long ago. I am dreaming of the bright green, revitalized pasture grasses these chickens will help us create and the ruminants we will one day rotationally graze here. Shawn asked me why I am always so nauseatingly optimistic. I’m not really, but these four farming seasons have taught me that farming and small business ownership deliver so many soul crushing kicks in the teeth that when you get a victory you have to soak it in and bask in your accomplishments for as long as possible. After all, there is likely something around the corner just waiting to knock you down to earth again.
What a wild week on the weather front! We had a forecast of 1-3" of snow for Friday, which caused us to jump into action on protecting our two beds of spinach that had just germinated in the last few days. Thursday night we built two low tunnels from 1/2" electrical conduit, bent into hoops and driven into the soil, then topped with greenhouse plastic. These tunnels are very versatile and could be covered with shade cloth to grow cooler weather crops during the summer, or with insect netting to protect crops from pests. After a freezing cold Friday, we had a beautiful, sunny weekend and the tunnels had to be opened on both ends for ventilation!
Another new technique we are trying this year is landscape fabric. I have heard and read a lot of good things about this fabric providing excellent weed control and lasting for many seasons and today we set out our first section and transplanted four different varieties of lettuce. We made a wooden template, then used a torch to burn holes in the fabric at the correct spacing for the lettuce. Of course, the fabric only works for transplanted crops, so we are focusing on better bed preparation using a broad fork for our direct seeded crops like spinach, radishes, and carrots.
Another recently completed project is our second rabbit tractor. This one went together faster and better after we learned about cage clips. These clips come with special pliers to bend them around wire, joining two sections. The silver bunnies you can see in the back tractor are part of a litter of five Silver Fox rabbits that we purchased recently, along with their mother, Coco.
I'll leave you with a few photos of my favorite sign of Spring - bulbs!! Can you see the bee feeding on the hyacinth in the right hand picture?
Many people know they can save money purchasing a whole or half cow or pig directly from the farmer, but what about chicken? This year we will offer customers significant discounts by purchasing chicken in bulk and paying upfront. The program is very flexible, allowing you multiple options of amount of chicken, cutting and packaging, and delivery or pickup. As always, our chickens are raised on pasture, in movable open-bottomed pens, fed a non-GMO grain ration, and processed on farm. Here’s how it works:
1. Decide how much chicken your family will need for the season. We offer small (70 lbs,) medium (110 lbs,) and large (150 lbs) packages.
2. Decide how many dates you would like to receive chicken. Butchering will take place on the following Sundays: June 11th, July 9th, July 29th, August 20th, September 10th, and October 1st. You may split your order over all six dates, if you would like all fresh chickens or don’t have much freezer space. Or, you could condense your order into a minimum of three dates, if you have a smaller order or would prefer to make fewer trips.
3. Determine how you would like your chickens. We can offer either whole ready-to-cook chickens, or cut to your specifications for an additional charge of $2 / chicken. Hearts, livers, gizzards, and feet are also available upon request.
4. Decide on fresh or frozen. Fresh chickens can be cooked right away, or you could cut them up and package them to suit your needs. Frozen chickens will allow you more flexibility to pick up on your schedule.
5. Select your pickup or delivery option. Fresh chickens can be picked up at the farm or delivered to your home no later than the Tuesday after butchering day. Farm pickup times are 5 PM – 8 PM. Delivery time is by appointment. Delivery area is limited to a 25 miles radius from our farm in Rockland Twp, Venango County, PA (see map below.) Frozen chickens can be picked up at the farm, picked up at a Farmers’ Market we attend, or delivered to your home beginning Wednesday after butcher day. For those customers picking up at the farm, you will also be eligible for a 10% discount on any of our other products on pickup day, including eggs, rabbit, and vegetables.
6. Send your deposit. Cash, checks, or PayPal payments are accepted to hold your spot. The remaining balance is due upon receipt of your first order of the season. When I receive your deposit, I'll call you to confirm your reservation and take your cutting and pickup or delivery choices.
7. Call the farm with your questions at (814) 498-2127. I know this can be a bit confusing with all the available options, so please give me a call if anything doesn't make sense to you.
Wow! Many weeks have passed since I have written about this week on the farm. I haven't been short on things to say, just short on time to write.
We've been working hard on our plans for the 2017 growing season. The biggest change for the coming year will be the grand opening of our state inspected poultry processing space. The building project has been underway for over five months, with the design phase stretching back more than a year into 2015. We are expecting the construction to be complete in just a few more weeks, at which point we can schedule the inspection!
The chickens, in crates, will be staged on the left side of this photo. On the covered patio, Shawn will kill, scald, and pluck. Then he will pass the birds through the window to me, where I will eviscerate and place them in an ice water bath to chill. Indoors, we will also have room to cut up and package the birds after chilling and store our freezers with the finished product. The interior has a sealed concrete floor sloping to a center drain. We have painted the block with washable epoxy paint and a drop ceiling with cleanable food service tiles is in progress. The regulation also allows us to use this space for washing vegetables and making processed foods such as canned goods, bone broth, and pesto. (Obviously not at the same time as chicken processing!)
It is a bit ironic that we have made this massive financial and time commitment to on-farm processing, when both Shawn and I really dislike butchering. Neither of us come from a farming background and even though we now have three years of experience, each butcher day is still emotionally and physically difficult. A friend recently told me that the death of our pets is so shockingly painful because our emotions toward other people are complicated, while our feelings towards our animals are simple; just love. We have experienced this to a degree with livestock animals as well. They are seemingly innocent and it feels bad to take their lives. Part of the choice to raise livestock is truly enjoying these creatures, which makes the work of taking care of them each day pleasant.
I have experimented with vegetarianism in the past, but my research as well as my personal experience has led me to believe that a healthy human diet includes meat. In his book, The Mindful Carnivore, Tovar Cerulli relates an experience doing battle with a groundhog that led him to give up gardening and purchase lettuce from the farm down the road. However, he realized that the farmer down the road had to deal with the same pests destroying his crops. His epiphany was that he was simply outsourcing his killing, there is no such thing as a cruelty-free diet, and that we are all part of the food chain. (This is a really thoughtful book that I highly recommend - it can't be reduced to two sentences as I've done here!)
If there is no such thing as a cruelty-free diet, we want to make the lives of our meat animals the best we know how, up to the last moment. On-farm processing is crucial to this goal for many reasons. When we process on farm, the animals spend their last night comfortable in their normal housing, not in a crate. We are able to crate them just prior to butchering. They do not have to travel in a vehicle, causing stress and fear. Every time I see a truck on the highway hauling poultry or read about a crash of one of these trucks, I know that my discomfort on butchering day is worth it to keep my birds safely off the highway. Just prior to slaughter, we stage the birds comfortably in the shade and provide a screen so they do not watch other birds being killed. We handle the birds gently to keep them calm and reduce stress and fear. Finally, we constantly refine our kill to be as quick and painless as we know how.
On-farm processing also allows us complete control over the safety and quality of the final product. I eviscerate each chicken by hand, taking care not to break the intestines and introduce contamination to the meat. Each carcass is promptly rinsed clean and chilled in an ice water bath to rapidly bring the temperature down and discourage bacterial growth. During packaging, we perform a final quality check, making sure the carcass is cleaned well and no feathers are left (Shawn is fanatical about no one wanting to see feathers!) Our equipment is cleaned and sanitized frequently and thoroughly. Finally, rather than making a waste stream or pollution, on-farm processing allows us to recycle all wastes through composting, returning nutrients to our soil.
Despite the difficulties of butcher day, on-farm processing is our best choice for humane treatment of our animals, product safety and quality, and returning nutrients to our land.
The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity, with harvesting, planting succession crops, our first butcher day, and a visit from a predator. We've only had a sprinkling of rain the the last ten days and the new crops of spinach and radishes are growing very slowly. We can provide some irrigation, but don't want to run our well dry.
Last Sunday we butchered our first batch of broiler chickens. We had purchased several parts for our scalder because we struggled with the pilot going out in the middle of processing several times last season. The new parts solved our problem and the day went smoothly despite the high temperatures. We started very early, catching birds at 4:30 AM, and were finished and cleaning up by noon. We spent the evening making cut-ups and packaging.
On Monday night, we lost two of our beautiful turkeys to a predator. A livestock animal is raised on a farm to be eaten, but in exchange, the farmer provides a cushy life compared to life in the wild, with a guaranteed steady supply of food and fresh water, shelter from the elements, protection from predators, and a quick and merciful death. The feeling that we failed to uphold our end of the bargain and protect them properly is the worst of the shock and sadness. We made some emergency fortifications to their shelter which have been effective so far, but have not kept me from nightmares that send me outside in the middle of the night with a headlamp checking that they're safe and scanning the wood line for the green shine of predator eyes in the darkness.
Several members of the laying flock have been sitting on eggs for weeks, but none had successfully hatched a live chick until Wednesday morning when I checked under the mama hen and found this tiny peeping creature. I am hoping for a female, and we will be able to tell as soon as the feathers come in. The cross of a barred hen and our Partridge Cochin rooster produces females of a solid black color and males with the barred pattern of the hen.
Have a wonderful 4th of July!
These last two weeks marked the beginning of harvesting vegetables for the Northwest PA Grower's Co-op CSA and attending the Franklin Farmer's Market. We've really enjoyed all the great people we've met so far and all the gardening and cooking talk! As we harvest crops, we'll turn the beds over and plant succession crops to have a supply throughout the growing season.
Last week, we moved our laying flock and all of their housing to fresh grass. An important aspect of giving livestock a more natural life is to raise them outdoors. We use portable electric net fencing to let them roam a bit, but keep them safe from predators. Last year we had some visits from bears and foxes! This fencing also allows us to easily move the birds to clean ground once they have fouled their current area.
One disadvantage of electric net fencing is that the strength of the charge can be reduced significantly if the grass is not kept short. The fence needs to be moved to mow the line, then put back in place.
A new batch of broiler chicks arrived, and the first batch is growing well. Can you see the two darker colored birds in the lower right hand corner? These are young roosters from our laying flock, hatched for us by a family with a lovely flock of Buff Orpingtons.
The rabbits are getting really big. We bred our doe again and plan to wean these young ones sometime this week. Our pasture pen is under construction, to be completed this coming week.
Today we moved our turkey poults to their pasture home. This is always a great day because the birds seem so happy and excited to have more room and be outdoors exploring. They will stay inside the shelter for around one week to be sure they know it's their home, then they will range inside a fenced area during the day.
Have a wonderful week!
A lot has happened here over the last two weeks! Last Tuesday, we had a plan to head over to visit with Shelly at Old Time Farm and pick up our heritage bronze turkey poults. I was puttering around setting up the heat lamp in the brooder and getting the feeder and waterer ready when someone pulled up the driveway. It was a neighbor, asking if we wanted to catch a swarm of honeybees. We had discovered a few weeks ago that our colony had died, so we decided to go for it. Shawn went after the swarm, while I went to get the turkeys.
These turkeys hatched during the first week of May. Heritage turkeys are quite slow to develop compared to the Cornish Cross chickens we raise, so they will need heat for at least two more weeks and will not go onto pasture until they are eight weeks old. They are really good at flying at this age. When I opened the brooder lid to freshen their water this morning, one flew right out! Fortunately she didn't go far and let me scoop her up.
Prior to catching the swarm, we had placed an order for a package of bees, so once we knew we would have two colonies, we had to hurry up and finish the second hive we had started over the winter. We completed it the evening before the post office called to tell us the bees had arrived. These hives are top bar hives, where the bees build their own comb according to the use of the cell (brood, drones or worker bees, and honey and pollen storage.) If you look closely, you can see bees flying in the rays of sunlight.
A lot of progress has been made in the garden as well. The danger of frost finally passed and we planted out 175 heirloom tomato starts, as well as eggplant, bell peppers, basil, green bean and corn seeds, and more lettuce and green onions. We are very much looking forward to the farmers market next Saturday. It looks like we will have radishes, spinach, romaine lettuce, and cilantro, as well as garlic stored from last year.
The tomatoes! We planted Cherokee Purple, Costoluto Genovese, New Yorker, Orange Strawberry, and Sugar Lump.
This week the broiler chickens were big enough to leave the brooder and we moved them to their pasture pen. They have a lot more space, shady and sunny spots, and fresh grass and bugs to eat. We move the pen daily to keep them off their own manure. In a few weeks this will also produce the most amazing electric green grass!
The baby rabbits are now three weeks old and they have left the nest box and are hopping all around the hutch. I think four will be all white like Mama Brandi and two look like they have brown nose, ears, and tail, like Papa Brody. They seem to be driving Mama Brandi crazy, trying to nurse constantly. We will wean them in two more weeks. We also have plans to build a pastured rabbit shelter that we can move daily to provide a more nutritious diet and more natural setting during the warm months.
The weather was not very hospitable this week. Lots of rain and then a cold snap for the weekend. We managed to get the grass cut on Monday, but I wasn't able to till any more because of wet ground.
The chicks are growing well. Can you see their wing and tail feathers growing in? They've gotten big enough to graduate to larger capacity feeders and waterers. And all six rabbits appear healthy and strong. Their fur started to come in on Wednesday. When I checked on them, I was initially alarmed at their change in color from pink to grey until I realized it was a fine layer of fur. Their eyes should open some time this week.
All the starts in the greenhouse and under the grow lamps are looking strong. I can't wait to get those tomatoes in the ground - hopefully next weekend if the weather looks favorable. On the right is salanova lettuce in red leaf and green bibb varieties. One improvement we've made this year is to start transplants in soil blocks, rather than using plastic inserts. The soil blocks hold more soil and we don't have to purchase or store additional plastic ware. We've also heard that they establish faster when transplanted.
If you're in our area, we plan to be at the Franklin Farmer's Market this year on Saturday mornings. We will begin either Memorial Day Weekend or the first Saturday in June, depending on how much product we have available.
Have a wonderful week.
This week babies came! On Friday, we received our first order of day old Cornish Cross broiler chicks. If I raise a million chickens, I don't think I'll ever become immune to their cuteness.
Today, our rabbit Brandi had her babies. I was very anxious since she had lost her first litter, but she did everything right this time. I checked on her nearly every hour all weekend, and when I came out around 1:30 PM today, she was in the nest box with her new babies. Within a few more minutes, she had moved them to the back of the box and covered them with her fur. I believe there are six of them.
Papa Brody, on the left, appears completely disinterested as his offspring enter the world in the hutch next door. :-)
We harvested our first microgreens on Wednesday. They made tasty salads with a little spicy in the mix. We also planted a bed of kale and swiss chard and another of potatoes. I made some progress on building another beehive, which I hope to finish up this coming week.
Have a wonderful week!
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