Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Hardest Decision

I am a bit behind on posts. We just finished three days of steady wind and rain, dropping an impressive 6" of rain on us. Coupled with the 7" we got last week, we are in official "Wet Spring" territory. Oh, I can't wait for Mud Season to be over.

But the real topic of today is the goats. In my last goat post, I discussed that a dear reader and friend was going to take the three buckling kids once they were weaned and wethered. Right after that post, I took all five kids and momma Jolene back to the breeder to get the kids disbudded. The kids handled the somewhat disturbing procedure very well, surprisingly well... well, let's just say better than I did.

The breeder, whom I deeply respect for her decades of goat knowledge, looked over my doe and then made me an offer. She had pet homes waiting for boys, Jolene was going to have trouble keeping all five fed, I could trade the three boys for an older doeling who was on the bottle. The older doeling would be weaned in three short weeks, leaving Jolene to only feed the two remaining girls, making the demands on her body more reasonable. The boys would be in a good home, not eaten, and the offered doeling is of considerable breeding. Better breeding than any of my other goats, actually.

I didn't have days to think about it because the new homes were open the next day and the boys would go to their new homes immediately. I had to decide then. It took me long hours to reach a decision, loitering around my breeder's farm, weighing the scenarios. I made the decision to make the trade, handed over the three boys, picked up the new doeling, and cried continuously all the way home.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, this was a total coup. I traded three "useless" mouths to feed for a very nice girl, one which would have cost more cash than I could afford if I had to pay for her outright. Jolene would have a much easier time only raising two girls. I would have the potential to get milk from her sooner and expend fewer resources raising goats that were not invested in this farm.

From a personal perspective, however, I was devastated. Not only did I go back on a promise to a friend -- that the boys were hers -- but I went back on a promise to myself and to the goats. When I ventured into breeding, I promised that I would be responsible for all the lives I brought into the world. Collateral damage in the milk industry is all the unwanted males, not unlike the laying chicken industry. I promised those boys that they would never be sold on craigslist for $25 so some stranger can come, hog tie them, and carry them away, terrified, to be butchered in a strange place. Male goats, in this economy, are often only good for food. If it came to that, I would put them down myself, after they had lived a summer and experienced the joys of the sun, the grass, and living a life. Some breeders opt to put the males down at birth. I consider that a waste of a life. Let them live, and in growing, let them then feed my family so they are not forgotten, or wasted. I won't pretend they never existed.

Anyway, I did not sell the boys on craigslist, but I also did not personally vet their new homes. I trust my breeder not to lie to me, that they were in fact good homes. And there's no way she would make the swap just to later eat the boys, so I do know they were destined to be wethered and turned into pets.

Jolene grieved for three days, while still attending to her girls like the wonderful mother she is. And I grieved with her. I grieved for my friend who was so excited to meet the boys. I grieved for the always painful separation of mother and baby. And I grieved for my personal loss of innocence in how to raise animals on the farm. Sometimes the best decision is the hardest decision.

A startling reality of farming, one I had not fully appreciated, is how expendable 50% of the population is. I work in a male dominated field, in a slightly misogynist country, and despite my strong feminist roots, I harbor a lot of my own prejudices. But on the farm, girls rule. Of the 40 something animals I currently keep, only three are males. Only one is intact and actually fulfilling his biological imperative: the rooster. Brego and my one male dog are attractive, useless animals. Even my hamster is female.

I have since followed up on the boys and they are doing well. They took to the bottle just fine and went to their homes. Their new people were so thrilled and excited to raise them. They will be ok.

Introducing.... Katja!

As for the new girl, she is exceptional. As a bottle baby, she views me as mom and took no time in being cute and adorable and wormed her way into my broken heart. All three girls will be registered, tattooed, and spoiled rotten.

First born girl - Adalaide!

Second born girl - Freya!

Jolene and Amy along the bottom. From left to right - Freya, Katja, and Adalaide.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Off Balance

If you are looking for some happy sunshine, best look past this post. I've been busy and Spring is sorta kinda happening, so life has been pretty good. So I've been coasting along -- la, la, la, la, la -- with my biggest worry being how soon can I start drinking my goat's milk.

My readers keep me on track though by sending me news articles in the mainstream media about our impending food crisis. The little signs are everywhere: disappearing bees, antibiotic resistant staph, deforestation, pesticide runoff, unusual growths linked to GMO foods. There's a groundswell of support for the local and Organic movements, but there's still so far to go.

Here's a couple of articles to zest up your day:

EPA officials said they are aware of problems involving pesticides and bees and the agency is "very seriously concerned."

The pesticides are not a risk to honey sold to consumers, federal officials say. And the pollen that people eat is probably safe because it is usually from remote areas where pesticides are not used, Pettis said. But the PLOS study found 121 different types of pesticides within 887 wax, pollen, bee and hive samples.

Um, yea. Probably safe. Forget that we are going to lose crops to lack of pollinators, the food the pollinators produce is toxic.

And here's some fun about antibiotics in our meat:

Experts estimate that up to 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are given to healthy food animals on industrial farms to grow the animals faster and compensate for often crowded, unsanitary conditions.
You know, I used to think that eating sustainably and ethically raised food was trendy or expensive or a fad. But now, I feel like we must eat this way if we are going to find our way through to correcting the balance.

From front-page politics, to our food supply, we are so out of balance. Whatever happened to moderation? To thoughtful, rational discourse? To solving problems holistically, with an eye to longevity and the future, instead of "Me, Now"? Instead of maximizing production in our food system, how about we maximize health -- human, animal, and plant?

I feel... trapped. On my very small farm, I spend all my time caring, nurturing, observing, experimenting, improving. While the world comes crashing down around me, I plant my seeds, I feed my chickens, I milk my goats. What more can I do?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Great Chicken Experiment

Here on Five Acres Farm, our goal is to produce good quality food in line with our personal belief system. A lot of words can be used to describe what we do: sustainable, renewable, self-sufficient. But these words are bolder and grander in meaning than the actual act. At the end of the day, we just want to eat while "doing no harm".

Last year, I ordered 20 meat chickens to raise and butcher. Unlike our resident layer flock, these birds are hybrids, often called colored broilers or Rangers, and are seen as an alternative to the much maligned Cornish Cross (rightly or no). They grew to impressive size in a mere 10 weeks and they are, quite honestly, the tastiest chickens I have ever eaten. Seriously, I am spoiled now.

I am a big fan of the Rangers, but the problem is, I still have to order them and have them shipped across the country every year. And in trying to minimize diesel miles for my food, that is one recurring expense I hoped to remove. And so we've started a breeding program to breed two flocks: A self-reproducing meat flock that tastes as good and produces as well as the hybrid Rangers, and a true "heritage" layer flock, restoring some of the breed characteristics lost from the mass produced hatcheries.

Life is never simple though, and learning to farm is all about making compromises. If I truly wanted to raise the *most efficient* meat bird, I would continue buying the hybrid Rangers or Cornish X birds and have them shipped to the farm every year. With feed conversion ratios around 2.5 to 1 (2.5 lbs of grain to produce a pound of carcass), they cannot be beat. And using less resources is always a good thing. However, my goal is not necessarily to make the most efficient meat, but the most... appropriate meat. I want a bird that can live to adult age, happy and healthy, that will put on weight on forage, that will breed easily and run/fly from predators. In short, I want a true small farm bird that doesn't need to be intensively managed. Oh and if they could lay golden eggs, that would be great, too! :)

A Speckled Sussex Hen

I mentioned two flocks before: a meat and a layer flock. But if the genetics of a heritage layer flock could be revived, they may become blended into a single flock. For example, we've chosen to focus our layer flock on Speckled Sussex birds, which were once heralded as excellent layers AND a great table bird, with hens reaching a hefty 6.5 lb live weight (4.5 lb dressed). The three Specked Sussex hens we have now, derived from hatchery stock, don't even come close to this size. It seems the Sussex breed has been able to maintain its true Dual Purpose label in both eggs and size in other color varieties (such as the Light Sussex) but not so in the Speckled variety. The Speckled coloring is much better suited to a free-range small farm environment where they blend more easily into their surroundings. A giant white bird might as well be wearing a dinner bell against a backdrop of pasture and leaves and so they aren't really an option.

To kick off this breeding program, we've order/reserved 4 batches of either chicks or hatching eggs from some pretty impressive Speckled Sussex breeders. One line won first place in a Kentucky fair for Large Fowl - English, which is pretty unheard of for that color variety. We will select for size first and then work on refining the color pattern, combs, and eliminating the curly toes prevalent in the breed. It will take many generations, but it's also a good investment. People are willing to pay top dollar for an excellent bird, and so perhaps this flock will start to pay for itself if we are careful.

In the meantime, we still need to eat. Although I am not opposed to eating scrawny culls, I still love -- LOVE -- my giant ranger birds. I can easily get 4 meals for two adults out of every bird and that's before we start making stock from the picked over carcass. As a comparison, I recently ate a culled Wyandotte rooster (butchered at 16 weeks) and we both polished off the 2.5 lb bird in a single sitting.

The Sweet Meat

So I would like to have the best of both worlds until the Speckled Sussex birds become meat-worthy. And for that, we have our ace in the hole: Sweet Meat. Sweet Meat is the pullet we retained from last year's Rangers order. She was the extra they threw in and after we processed her 20 siblings, she was spared and sent to live with our laying flock. Even though she is currently 12 lbs, she gets plenty of exercise and a ranging diet and she's managed to avoid heart attacks or limb problems (prevalent in the meat breeds once they pass butchering age) and has started laying quite nicely. Current layers, you are on notice!! We use our current Wynadotte Rooster over her and she has produced some nice "hybrid" chicks. They are not as fast growing as true Rangers, but they were also born on this farm. Time will tell (actually, 6 weeks more will tell) how they dress out, but they might just keep me satisfied.

4 week old chickens. Sweet Meat hybrid behind, Speckled Sussex/Wyandotte cross in fore

Our Wyandotte rooster is not exceptional and so he will be replaced, hopefully with a big strapping 9 lb Speckled Sussex rooster from our breeding program. If all goes according to plan, Sweet Meat will continue to thrive and we will get to see her chicks from that pairing which should grow even better than the ones from our Wyandotte rooster. And then another milestone will be reached on this farm: a full cycle, from birth to table, entirely on this soil.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring 2.0

We are just entering Year 2 of this five year voyage to grow/raise/barter locally for 70% of the food we consume and so I thought I would start at the beginning (again) with seeds.

Last year, we raised our seeds in little seed trays, nestled in an electric blanket to keep them warm, and placed by the window to give them light. The seeds germinated, but after that explosion of Good, things quickly turned to Bad. No matter where we placed the trays, the young seedlings never got enough light. They grew long and stringy and failed to thrive, even after patiently waiting four weeks or more. I eventually just placed them in the ground or the greenhouse and within days, they were growing again, but we'd lost a lot of time in the trays.

This year, I actually did a little research before jumping in and found that up here near the Arctic Circle (not really, it just feels like that some days), you cannot actually get enough light to start seeds in early spring. That kind of sunlight only comes in summer. In spring, you need to add supplemental lights. And so we dutifully went down to Lowe's and picked up a $20 shop light and installed it over our seed table. We did keep the electric blanket from last year. I can't afford the seed warmers just yet. Maybe for Spring 3.0.

So far, I have been very impressed with my modest investment in lighting. The baby plants are thriving and no longer stringy and weak. They are even starting to get their "real" leaves, a feat never achieved before being placed in the ground last year!

Florescent bulb worshipping seedlings (kale and onions)

In other ways, the farm is coming to life. The garlic is up and the asparagus patch has been de-mulched to allow the sun to entice the spears to the surface. Our 23 hens gave us 20 eggs yesterday. It's going to be a good year.

Did you see what I just did there?? I made it an entire post without mentioning the goats!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Busy Busy

Things are starting to heat up around the farm, both literally and figuratively. I've been away on business and upon my return, we were hit with another wind storm. Nice.

But life on the farm keeps humming along. We've started our early green seeds, harvested some overwintered arugula, made pasta and bread with some local heritage wheat I scored.

Oh, and I've been playing with some goat babies. Congrats to a dear reader, S, who will be taking all three boys for her own three (human) kids. I am so happy they will be loved in such a good home. I am retaining the two girls for my own small milking herd.

Jolene continues to be an excellent, and prolific, mother. We have not had to supplement additional milk yet and her patience knows no bounds, as this video will show.

I hope to start posting about some other fun farm topics in the near future, but in the short term, enjoy the goaties!

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I am away on business, but I wanted to post my morning picture of the goat babies. All five are doing well and Jolene is being a good momma and still able to nurse them completely. This picture is of the middle and youngest boy and the oldest girl, but all five are bouncing around at this point. All healthy and happy. Just happy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Kiddos!

On Monday, March 8, 2010, we hit a milestone at our little Five Acre Farm. My goat, Jolene, gave birth to five -- FIVE! -- kids. It was not the easiest delivery. In fact, it was quit touch and go for the last two kids, delivered over an hour after the original three had been dried, fed their colostrum, and given their Bo-Se shots. Jolene was in labor for a long time and to say she was uncomfortable is putting it rather euphemistically.

In the end, I had to soap and lube up and pull the two errant kids out, by hook or by crook, in order to save the doe. Horse showing has nothing on the kind of pressure you feel trying to grab a limp, slimy leg of a long overdue and presumed dead baby goat while feeling vainly for the still missing head, elbow deep, while your doe is screaming frantically and the vet on the phone is trying to explain to you that you are not, in fact, in trouble because goats don't have five babies. That's pressure, people. Miraculously, both kids survived my rather abrupt welcome into the world and now we have five healthy, thriving kids and one very sore, very tired goat momma (and two sleep-deprived humans). But it could have been worse, and for that I am always thankful.

Jolene will not be able to nurse all five without assistance so instead of receiving milk from my goat, I will be buying milk for my goat(s). Delicious irony, to be sure, but not as delicious as that glass of goat milk that will be a long time coming. I will need to start supplementing feeding in the next week as the kids' demand increases until they are weaned, at around three months of age. Then Jolene's milk is all mine! Mine! Muahahahaha!

Between the storm and the quintuplets, the 2010 farm season is beginning with a bang. Let's hope it gets more dull before someone gets killed, figuratively of course.

But really, all people want to see are pictures of cute goat babies, so let me wrap up the monologue and just say: Sometimes being a farmer is scary (storm, screaming doe in distress) and sometimes it is Beautiful (first suckle from the first kid born on my farm).

Jolene with all five babies.

First born - A boy!

Second born - A girl!

Third born - A boy!

Fourth born - A girl!

Fifth born - A boy!

The original three, all dried and looking for their soon to be born siblings.

House goat in a basket.