Free-Ranging Broilers

I just returned from dropping off our first batch of 25 broilers at the butcher shop. It feels so nice to drive back into the farm and see less birds hanging around by the coop and water. Less birds means less work, feed, and manure!

We released our broiler chicks, gosling and ducklings from the brooder at 3 weeks of age to have free-range access to our farm.4When we raised our broilers last year, we kept them in a pen and moved it twice daily to new grass. We also allowed them access to feed all the time. This time, we decided to allow them to free-range, and only allow them access to purchased feed twice daily for about 30 minutes.

Allowing them to free-range is not only easier for us to manage, but it allows them more opportunity to use their legs and get exercise. Restricting access to feed encourages more foraging, while slowing their growth so they don’t grow too big for their legs and become immobile. Our broiler flock this year was all feathered out and healthy looking, as compared to last year where many birds were missing feathers.12It took about 2 extra weeks for our broilers to reach butcher weight since we restricted access to their feed. Rather than being ready by 8 weeks, our chickens needed 10 weeks to reach their full size.

We witnessed our free-ranging broilers eating grass and even running! Based on our experience last year, I wasn’t sure if either of those things were possible until we saw it for ourselves. Besides the intense desire to eat and eat and eat, our free-ranging broilers behaved much more like a normal chicken should and they were better able to express their chicken nature.36We got all set up to butcher chickens ourselves this year as we did last summer, however we got 2 birds into the job, and the chicken plucker stopped working.

Nobody wanted to hand-pluck so we hauled them over to our butcher and paid for the pros to finish processing our broilers. We really have to admit it is so nice to drop off a flock of chickens and pick them up all nicely wrapped and ready to cook.

That just may be our new method of operation!

We should raise one more batch of 25 broilers this summer in order to be set with chicken for an entire year. Nothing beats a juicy, home-grown broiler on a hot grill in the summertime!5

Spring Chicks

Last week was like Christmas morning here on the farm.  Once again Ryan brought a brown, peeping box home from the post office.  The kids get so excited for “chick day.”  Everyone gathers ’round the box and anxiously waits for Ryan to open it up, revealing little fuzzy yellow fluff balls within.  WP_20170405_07_14_20_Pro[1]Even though this is our third batch of chicks, we cannot believe how tiny and adorable they look.

We are not adding new laying hens to our flock this year, so these are all meat birds.  We ordered 25 broilers, 5 white Pekin ducks, and a pair of white goslings.WP_20170405_07_20_17_Pro[1]

Unfortunately, very soon after arrival, one of the goslings started exhibiting some troubling behavior, and within a few hours it was dead.   Although we’ve only been farming for a year, we are no strangers to loss.  It is always heartbreaking to watch something struggle for life.  We feel helpless, not fully understanding the problem or solution, and questioning our level of intervention.  Not only do I hate watching an animal suffer, I have to guide my kids through it, who are also watching and wondering.  They have many questions and I do my best to answer them.  My honest answer is usually “I don’t know.”

We made up a special box for the gosling in the house with a heat lamp, warm water and clean bedding, away from inconsiderate brood mates.  Every few minutes we’d dip its beak in the water so it wouldn’t dehydrate.  Elijah was monitoring the gosling and remarked, “I don’t like watching it suffer.  It would be better if it just died.”  Indeed, I felt relief when we peered into the box for the last time and found the gosling had finally died.

On a more positive note, I am amazed how resilient and hardy 99% of the chicks and ducklings are when we receive them.  They arrive hungry, happy and healthy.  They immediately begin eating, drinking and growing.  Besides the unfortunate gosling, we have not lost a single animal in this batch.  We have never had sickness or disease go through our free-ranging flock.  WP_20170405_07_39_29_Pro[1]

The chicks, ducklings and remaining gosling continue to grow every day.  These are all “commercial” breeds that grow large quickly.  In two more weeks we’ll release them from the brooder to begin grazing and free ranging on the farm!

Although we just experienced some snow here, new chicks in the brooder is a sure sign of a long-awaited spring.

Becca

My Basket Runneth Over

When winter began, our egg production dropped so very low.  We were getting maybe 2 eggs a day, despite feeding 40+ hens, not to mention ducks, guineas, and really big turkeys.  That’s a lot of expensive chicken feed!

Chickens are very sensitive to sunlight.  The hours of daylight (or lack thereof) affects their egg production.  Because Minnesota becomes very dark in winter, with the average hours of daylight below 9 in December, our chickens simply weren’t getting enough light to trigger egg production.  We decided it was time to install a light in our chicken coop.  Ryan installed a standard light bulb with a light sensor, so it kicks on everyday when the sun begins to set, and turns off automatically after 4 hours.

The light bulb did the trick!  Our hens are ramping up production.  Every morning the kids bring in a handful of eggs when they go out to do morning chores.  I go out midday and my jacket pockets are stuffed with eggs by the time I’m making my way back to the house.  Ryan goes out in the evening and returns with his pockets full of eggs, too.  We are getting almost 2 dozen eggs a day!  wp_20170203_15_41_25_pro1

Even our Bourbon Red turkeys have begun laying eggs!wp_20170203_18_26_22_pro1  So today, as I’m walking back to the house with my pockets packed with farm-fresh brown eggs, I decide it’s time to begin selling our extra eggs.  My egg basket simply cannot hold anymore eggs and we’re eating all we can!

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All ready for market!

It sure would help offset the chicken feed bill!

 

Becca

Winter Water Solution

Winter is my least favorite season of the year.  We’ve already experienced periods of severe arctic temperatures (-27 degrees!) and time spent outside has been reduced only to what is necessary to complete basic animal chores.  I prefer to spend the bitter-cold months of January and February under a blanket with a mug of hot tea in my hands.  For the animals, though, having access to clean, fresh water in liquid form can be a real struggle in winter.wp_20170105_14_08_55_pro

Having the pond makes the water solution for our bird flock pretty simple during winter months, as long as the pond is kept from freezing. We purchased an electric de-icer to place in the pond to prevent the water from freezing.

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To keep the ducks from dirtying the water over winter, Ryan placed a cattle panel over the pond to keep them out, while still allowing access to drink. 

We are no longer using the typical chicken waterers for our flock, which eliminates time spent filling them in sub-zero temperatures.wp_20170105_14_07_49_pro1

 

We also purchased a de-icer for the water tank in the sheep and cow pen.  Last year we had to break up the ice that formed on their water each day with a 2×4. Then, we’d pour very hot water into their tank to melt the remaining ice and keep their water in a liquid state for as long as possible. The de-icers have gone a long way in making animal chores easier this winter.  wp_20170105_14_08_36_pro

We are still experiencing one problem: we have to refill the animals’ water daily and we don’t have access to an outdoor water source in winter as the spigot and hose are frozen. Ryan is forced to bring two 5-gallon buckets into our house, fill them with water from our bathtub, then haul them out to fill the pond and water tank. He usually has to repeat this several times until everything is replenished. In case you are unsure, he can confirm this task is not enjoyable, while I can confirm it usually disrupts the kids’ bath time schedule.wp_20170103_18_55_20_pro1

The simple solution to this problem is to dig a well near the barn with a hand-pump that will allow us to fill buckets outside, saving the hassle of an icy trek to and fro with heavy buckets.

Digging a well will be an added expense for our tight budget, but we’d like to explore the possibility of completing the project this year. We’ll begin this spring with getting some estimates. I will love having a hand-pump well not only as a solution to the winter water problem, but year-round as a back-up water source. Currently, we are dependent upon electricity to power the well that supplies water to our home. We had the power go out last fall for several hours and we couldn’t flush a toilet or wash our hands. (We ended up traveling into town and eating our dinner at a restaurant, partly because I wasn’t able to finish cooking it in my electric oven, and partly so we could have access to a bathroom!) I will feel very relieved and comforted with the addition of a new well on our farm, knowing we will always have access to fresh, clean water, independent of the power supply.

Becca

Guinea Fowl

Over the past few months, we’ve gotten to know a thing or two about farm life with Guinea fowl. They are not our favorite bird on the farm but they are interesting, none the less. They differ from more common poultry species in more ways than one.wp_20161019_13_14_37_pro

  1. Noisy.  Guinea fowl are very loud, vocal birds. We live on 10 acres, with a decent amount of privacy, but I’ve wondered what the neighbors really think about our Guineas. (At times I hope they don’t realize all the racket is emanating from our farm, which I know is futile.)  When we walk across the homestead, the Guineas will begin to sound the alarm, their little hairless necks outstretched, their beady eyes fixed upon us and their beaks repeating the same siren over and over, as if we are a sudden threat they haven’t seen every single day of their lives.  Maybe they’ll eventually grow comfortable with our presence? They are equally watchful of other predators and the chickens respond to their calls, seeking cover when one sounds the warning call.
  2. They fly. Our domestic chickens, turkeys and ducks can’t fly. They can run while flapping their wings, but they don’t make much vertical progress. Guineas can actually transport themselves into trees and on roof tops. They love doing this, too. For some reason, they enjoy scratching and sliding across the top of our metal barn roof. I think they are taunting the chickens. 🙂  Although they can fly, we usually see them on the ground, foraging and dust bathing.  They never attempt to leave our farm.wp_20161022_15_21_42_pro
  3. They learn. Since we raised the Guineas with chicks, our Guineas are a bit less wild than Guineas raised separately. They’ve been chicken-ized, so to speak and each evening they would join the chickens on the roosts in our coop. We knew we had a good thing going as many people can’t get their Guineas to roost in a coop. As long as the Guineas were in our coop at night, they would be safe from nocturnal predators. One evening, the back door to the coop was closed, which happens to be the entrance the Guineas are accustomed to using.  Since they couldn’t get into the coop via the back door, they decided to go rogue and roost in the trees. Once they’re up, there’s no getting them down. All we could do was hope they would use the coop the following night and we made sure the back door was open. No such luck. They continued roosting each evening in the treetop. Alas, they had discovered wild living and we were not going to be able to reign them back in. So be it. We accepted the possibility they were going to get picked off one by one. A few uneventful weeks went by, until one day, unsurprisingly, I stumbled across one beautiful, white polka-dotted Guinea wing lying under a tree. Something had finally killed a Guinea. “One down, thirteen to go,” I thought. However, since that night, our Guineas have returned to roosting in the coop! Could they have been scared enough from the attack to make the decision to seek shelter each night in the coop? I’m very astonished that those little bird brains could put two and two together. Or is it purely coincidental? You be the judge! I’d like to think they learned a lesson about living the wild life and decided to return to the safety of the fold.wp_20161019_13_16_22_pro

There are plenty of ways these birds behave similarly to chickens and turkeys, too. They will establish the pecking order just like chickens do. I’ve read Guineas can be bullies, which we’ve seen on occasion. Every once in a while, a group of Guineas will gang up on a chicken and pull out some feathers. The chicken appears relatively unharmed by these confrontations. They’ve never gone after one of our older chickens nor have they challenged the turkeys, so they seem to know their limits. They are by no means at the top of the pecking order. (That position resides with our turkey, Lucky. She’s the matriarch of the barnyard and she makes sure all new-comers know it.) I’ve also seen the Guineas scuffle a bit amongst themselves, though usually they get along fine.

We are interested to see if we notice a difference in our wood tick presence next spring. Guineas are reputed to be skilled tick hunters, and that alone would be reason to keep them on the farm. Last spring we couldn’t walk through the woods or stray one foot from the mown grass surrounding our homestead without finding wood ticks all over us. We would happily trade our wood tick population for the Guineas’ vocal outbursts. wp_20161019_13_16_09_proWe enjoy watching them forage in tight groups, their bodies resembling soft polka-dotted turtle shells. They add some visual interest to the barnyard and as long as they’re pulling their own weight with tick service, they’ll continue to have a place in our flock.

Becca

 

Lost and Found Eggs

Sometimes it feels like an Easter egg hunt around the farm.  We have been noticing for the past couple weeks that our egg production has been low.  We assumed it was either because of the reduced hours of daylight (chickens lay the most eggs when the days are long) or because we recently switched our chicken feed, or a combination thereof.

Elijah happened to mention to me that he saw a Dominique hen coming out from under our front porch.  I had blocked the entrance to this space earlier this summer, thinking it would be the perfect spot for our hens to waste a whole bunch of eggs.  Apparently, this Dominique had found a hole I had overlooked.  Now Elijah suspected the hens had a hidden nest under there so he grabbed a flashlight and peered under the porch.  “Yes,” he said, “there are hundreds of eggs under here!”  I quickly texted Ryan, who was on his way home from work, that we had a project to complete after dinner this evening.

wp_20161010_18_23_50_proNo, this is not a cute but elaborate Halloween decoration.  This is Ryan halfway under our front porch trying to gather all the eggs.  He removed the steps so he could get access all the way to the back of the porch.  It took a while, but he raked out all the eggs from under the porch.

wp_20161010_18_54_07_proThat’s a combination of duck and chicken eggs.  Some are clearly very, very old, while others look quite fresh.  We have discovered the mother of all nests.

But, now what?  What do we do with all these eggs?  The eggs that were obviously old and disgusting went right into the trash, along with any that were cracked.  I picked out a few handfuls of eggs that looked clean and fresh.  The others I suspected weren’t rotten, but may be old enough that we don’t want to bring them into the kitchen, so I crushed them up for the chickens to eat.

I brought my select few eggs into the kitchen to do the “float test” to confirm their freshness.  The float test is based on the fact that eggs are porous.  Over time, more air enters the egg, and will cause the egg to float in water if it is old.  If the egg is fresh, it will sink to the bottom of a bowl and lay on its side.

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Fresh egg

An egg that is edible, but not extremely fresh will sink, but it’s broad end will stick up towards the surface.

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Not very fresh, but still suitable to eat

All the eggs I brought in either sank completely or the broad end raised slightly.  The one shown above was the least-fresh of the bunch.

 

I hated to throw the rest of those eggs in the trash and to the chickens.  It is a terrible waste of food and money.  Ryan built an amazing nesting box and these birds take every opportunity to lay elsewhere.  We’ve found much, much smaller nests around the farm and have to continually search the homestead for hidden nests.

The whole time we were gathered around the porch watching Ryan pull handful after handful of eggs from its depths, a Buckeye hen kept coming around the corner to watch us.wp_20161010_18_40_19_pro  Reminds me of a criminal returning to the scene of the crime! wp_20161010_18_40_41_pro Sorry, little red hen, consider yourself busted!

As the sun sank and the sky darkened, Ryan repositioned the porch steps and filled every hole with either pumpkins or cement blocks to prevent the hens and ducks from accessing their not-so-secret-anymore hideaway.  This is a temporary fix, of course, until we have the time and daylight to install a permanent barrier, such as chicken wire, behind those steps to cover any possible entry point.  I sure hope to see an abundance of eggs in our nest boxes once again.

Becca

 

 

Benefits of Ducks on Family Farms

I love ducks.  I feel blessed to have a duck flock and for my children to grow up around them.  WP_20160818_15_35_28_Pro.jpgIn fact, if I was forced to choose only one species of poultry for my farm (a choice I’d hate to make), I may very well choose ducks.

But, why?

  1. Ducks are adorable. WP_20160818_15_10_43_Pro.jpgThis is a fact. They are adorable as day-old ducklings, and they are one of the few creatures on this earth that retain close to that same level of “adorable-ness” even as adults. There is something about their little, beady eyes, their waddle, how they shake their little tails and their excitement over water that I think would cause even the grumpiest old hermit to crack a smile.
  2. Ducks are entertaining.  When it comes to water, ducks are fun to watch. During a rain shower, we watched our ducks stand under a drizzle of water coming off the roof. Some were succeeding in catching this water mid-air in their rapidly-striking bills while others just tipped their heads up and basked in this stream of fresh, cold water pouring on their heads and washing down their backs. They looked so relaxed and content that I’m sure it felt like the equivalent of a hot shower after a really long weekend with no running water. We actually paused our dinner to watch it.
  3. Ducks are a good choice for efficient eggs and meat.
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    Eggs from our ducks. The black and gray eggs come from our Cayugas, while the Anconas and Blue Swedish lay creamy-white eggs.

    Chickens cannot match the feed-to-egg ratio that ducks possess. Ducks can survive on very little purchased feed compared to chickens, given they have access to plenty of green spaces daily. The Khaki Campbell (KC) duck can lay up to 300-340 eggs each year.

    KC duck
    Khaki Campbell duck and drake http://www.metzerfarms.com

    This matches the better-known egg-laying machine, the White Leghorn chicken, but ducks can lay years longer and on less feed.  For those interested in self-sufficient farming and homesteading, the duck would be the obvious choice for egg production.  For meat production, the Pekin breed is the fastest-growing, heaviest meat duck and Cayugas are a good heritage dual-purpose duck, providing eggs and meat, though not the best at either.

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    Our calm and gentle drake, a Cayuga

    Now that we know how much we love ducks and their eggs, I’m excited to expand my flock next spring with a handful of KC ducklings.

     

  4. Duck eggs have benefits over chicken eggs.  Duck eggs are larger than chicken eggs and richer in vitamins, protein and Omega-3 fatty acids.
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    Duck egg on left, chicken egg on right

    The shell of a duck egg is a little thicker, allowing them to stay fresher longer.  Since they contain more albumin, cakes and breads made with duck eggs are fluffier and rise higher. Also, people with chicken egg allergies may be able to eat duck eggs. But how do duck eggs taste? Like chicken eggs! I can’t tell the difference at all. A couple members of my family can detect a slight difference, but I’d like to give them a blind taste test and quiz them on which is which. 😉

     

  5. Ducks are low-maintenance. WP_20160818_16_07_36_Pro.jpgThey need water, no doubt. One could raise ducks with just a simple chicken waterer, and the ducks would live, but for ducks to thrive (and provide buckets of free entertainment) throw a kiddie pool on the ground or dig a pond, then pull up a chair to enjoy.
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    The necessary preening after a swim

    Besides access to water, they need shade during the day and protection at night. We keep our ducks in a coop at night to protect them from coyotes, foxes and mink, otherwise they free-range the homestead and we haven’t lost a single one. They have their favorite hang-outs and never stray far from the area near our home and barn.

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    Foraging around the homestead

    Supply a small amount of feed and you will have yourself a happy flock of productive, useful ducks.

  6. Ducks eat destructive garden bugs, like the Japanese beetle.  Many people use ducks in orchards and gardens for natural pest control, while their manure fertilizes the plants and trees.  They’ll forage small plants and even amphibians and reptiles around the farm.
  7. Ducks are kid-friendly.  You don’t need to worry about your ducks bothering small children.  You may need to worry about your children bothering the ducks, though.  Unless raised as a single pet, ducks form bonds with each other and avoid human contact.  I let the kids hold a duck once in a while, but I don’t allow them to chase them around the farm often.

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    Ancona ducks (black and white) resting with a Cayuga (black)
  8. Ducks warm your heart. There have been a couple instances where the ducks have surprised me with their seeming ability to care emotionally for others. WP_20160818_15_10_09_Pro.jpg

Ready for story time?

One day as I was putting dinner on the table, Elijah alerted me to a duck situation. I took one look out the dining room window, at my motionless Ancona duck lying flat in some grass while her flock mates happily played in a puddle, and I announced she was dead. She sure looked dead. I was disappointed, sad and confused. She happened to be my favorite duck, and she was perfectly fine but an hour ago. I went out to her and I could tell she was still alive, but barely. She made no attempt to flee from my presence, nor when Ryan pulled up in his vehicle, mere inches from where she lay. I figured it was a matter of time, and although it sounds ridiculous, I placed my hands on my poor little duck and prayed for her to be healed. Still, she lay there. I hoped she wasn’t suffering, and if she was to die, that she would do so quickly. What surprised me is, suddenly, a couple of the other ducks began gathering alongside their failing member. It seemed as if they were comforting her. One laid her neck over the top of the sick duck, while another snuggled in beside her. I was touched that they noticed her condition and now I can’t help but believe ducks care how others in their flock are feeling. While that is the point of this story, I want to tell what happened to the sick duck.  I decided that if my duck pulled through, I’d name her Mirabelle, because her recovery would be a miracle. We gently moved her to the coop where she’d be safe and a couple hours later, Mirabelle was standing and preening her feathers. Shortly thereafter, she had fully rejoined her flock. Lately Mirabelle has been providing us with an egg almost every morning and I’m so happy to have my favorite duck back, quacking and waddling, where she belongs.

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Mirabelle, good as new

The next incident that gave me new respect for ducks happened just last night. The chickens and ducks were gathering around the entrance to their coop as the sun was sinking in the evening sky.  The roosters seemed a bit frisky, both challenging our red broiler cockerels and jumping on a hen or two.  I guess one of our Blue Swedish ducks wasn’t going to stand for anymore unsavory behavior at this late hour because when one of our hens began squawking in response to our rooster, the Blue Swedish launched an attack against him.  She chased him off the hen and ran him a few yards away.  He wisely kept his distance while that duck stood guard, her body positioned between him and the hens, her beady eye fixed upon him.

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Blue Swedish duck

All I could do was exchange disbelieving glances with Ryan.  I’m still trying to figure out why this duck cared one way or another about the hens, as they typically don’t associate much at all.

I love sharing this farm with our ducks. They add interest, charm and entertainment.  They provide us with delicious, large eggs and meat for the table.

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Ducks in a row

They are thrifty and efficient, making them a clear winner for anyone who wants farm-fresh goodness with low feed costs.

 

Becca