Recent goat miscarriage: possible causes & implications

In the background of all else going on this winter, we’ve been quietly considering and addressing some concerns with the goats, which came to a head on Thursday night with a miscarriage of three kids. We’re writing up a long description and discussion of these events and our analysis of them for multiple reasons: for our own records and use, for the openness about our successes and problems that is quite important to us, and for the use and reference of other small farmers seeking the same answers online that we so often do. We know that such openness has the potential to make us look like bad managers, but the reality is that sometimes bad things happen in farming. Analyzing the situation and reflecting on things we might have done differently is one of the ways we learn to do better in the future. And if this is helpful to others in a similar situation, then we deem it to be information worth sharing.

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Drought & long-term animal management decisions

Our exceptional drought continues, with only .02″ of rain over a weekend widely forecast for 1″-2″. Rainfall for the year is now about 10″ behind average, and the reality is worse given the very high evapotranspiration rates due to high temperatures and low humidity. While some rain from Isaac would be welcome (too much at once will cause soil erosion, crop damage, and other problems), it won’t be enough to change the overall picture and the damage already done. In these conditions, we’re faced with making a number of significant decisions on how to manage our goats, chickens, and pigs for the rest of the year and through the following year(s). Our animals are an integral part of our farm management (and our personal lives), but as we’re not sure conditions can or will recover before sometime next year at the earliest, we need to make some short- and medium-term changes. Here are some things we’re facing and contemplating. Continue reading

What’s stealing our eggs?

We recently encountered a new problem with egg production; the answer should have been obvious. We’ll blame it on how busy we’ve been, but we were (embarrassingly) slow to figure out what was going on, in spite of a number of very clear clues. At least we’ve learned something, and this is a problem that should fairly easy to troubleshoot in future. Read on to solve the mystery. Continue reading

Comparing egg production models

This post is part of an ongoing, fascinating discussion/debate between ourselves and a mid-scale organic egg producer from Wisconsin (commenting as “Mac”), sparked by a comment thread on our earlier post about small-farm egg economics. Read that post and thread first, to gain the context of the discussion and the two farm models under discussion. My latest response simply became too long to be a useful comment and stands well on its own as a comparative analysis of the two models, so we’re published it here for further discussion. Also coming in a future post is a long discussion of our justifications for raising heritage breeds and doing our own breeding, something Mac also initially challenged.

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Economics of small-farm pastured eggs

We’ll be selling eggs to off-farm customers for the first time in 2012, having expanded our laying flock to 35 hens. In past years we kept up to a dozen, which laid enough for our own household and some for workers, but this year eggs will be available to CSA members for $6/dozen. That’s higher than anyone around here is used to paying, so I thought I’d share the economic modelling that led us to this price. For reference, our friends at Happy Hollow Farm in Moniteau county came to the same conclusions, and are selling their certified organic eggs at $6/dozen as well. Our eggs are not certified organic and should not be referred to as such, though we absolutely refuse to feed out anything containing GMOs, whether chicken feed or food scraps.

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Winter holidays

Christmas is a quiet time here; it’s not a major holiday for us, so we mostly enjoy it as a cultural reason to make traditional foods like German Christmas cookies and relax for a couple days. We exchange a few gifts for tradition’s sake, but tend to feel that our lives and actions throughout the year mark our beliefs far more strongly than an isolated flurry of stress and consumerism (we view New Years resolutions the same way).

The winter solstice has a more direct meaning as farmers, marking the literal transition into winter, though also the beginning of increasing day length again just when we’ve finally started to slow down. We celebrated that on Wednesday evening with a small group of friends and a visit from Joanna’s parents.

The farm animals are settled in for winter as well, in solid buildings that will keep them in comfort through the weather to come. Whatever your holiday preferences and plans, may they mean as much to you as a quiet house, warm fire, and good food mean to us. Merry Christmas and all other holidays from all of us at the farm.

On-farm hog slaughter setup

 We’ve slaughtered and processed our own meat on-farm for years, primarily goats, deer, and poultry, and have found that these animals are fairly straightforward to deal with. Hogs, however, take a lot more work, care, and preparation to do properly, and there is remarkably little detailed information online to guide others like us who are independent-minded in learning such things. After doing our first smaller pig last year, we wrote up lots of ideas and observations on how to make things run more smoothly in the future, and followed these notes in setting up our slaughtering system this year. While we need more practice in the actual killing process (hogs are harder to kill cleanly than goats or poultry), we were very happy with the efficiency and practicality of our processing setup this year, and so offer this photo tour of the infrastructure & setup we used to allow just two of us to do this work effectively.

Note: this is not a post on how to kill and process a hog. We’re still working out our favorite methods, and with only two of us, taking step-by-step photos is quite impractical once we’re bloody and busy. This just shows how we arranged the job and the tools we used, as a guide to others considering similar work.

Above is this year’s hog, a full-blooded Berkshire we purchased post-weaning from JJR Farm, which raises certified organic pork about an hour south of us. We got him in May and kept him on pasture throughout the summer and fall, feeding out a certified organic feed along with as many vegetable scraps, dairy whey, and on-farm byproducts we could generate. We’re ironically grateful to the Missouri Department of Agriculture for their idiotic no-feeding-commercial-pigs-vegetables ruling, as this guy alone ate every scrap we produced and still powered through lots of grain; we’re too efficient in our vegetable handling and didn’t generate nearly enough waste to cut the grain budget for even one pig, much less several. We don’t know his live weight when butchered, but the carcass minus head and guts weighed around 210 lb, so probably in the mid-high 200s total (head and guts are large and heavy).

 Above is an overview of our processing setup; most of this will have closeup photos following. We waited for a series of days with daytime temperatures a bit over freezing, and nights just below, to keep the meat cold while handling outdoors. This cloudy day was ideal, as even cold sunlight heats what it touches. From left to right:

Scalding tank in which whole carcass is dunked to loosen hair before scraping.
Heating fire behind tank, heats water and cold farmers.
Temporary cattle-panel pen in which actual killing happens
Large stainless-steel sink for rinsing small intestines.
Stainless steel work table for scraping and handling carcass.
Plastic table for holding tools, soap, and other needs.
All-weather hydrant with soap and hose.
Tractor with bucket & chains for handling a heavy carcass with only two people

Note that the whole area is set up along an open, linear plan that allows the tractor to move forward and backward unimpeded. This very important for clean and practical carcass handling, as it needs to be moved from killing pen to scalding tank to work table, then eventually up to the main barn for hanging, and having open ground makes this easy, quick, and safe. You don’t want to be bumping into things with the tractor or the carcass. We actually ended up moving the work table just in front of the scalding tank (as viewed in the photo) as a more convenient location to scrape the carcass, requiring less tractor movement.

 Assorted useful equipment, from left to right: Pots and tubs for useful scraps (heart, liver, etc.), jar for collecting clean blood for blood sausage (didn’t happen this time), knives & sharpeners, sanitary gloves and band-aids (in the interest of preparedness), bell scrapers for removing hair, burlap sack for dunking in hot water and spot-scalding difficult bits of hairy skin, sausage stuffing attachments (helpful for flushing water through the small intestines which we clean for sausage casings), salt for water that the small intestines are temporarily stored in after an initial flush, towels, vodka for dulling hog’s senses prior to killing, soap & sponge, matches for fire, reference book in case just in case.

Not shown but also needed: A string to tie off the bung. We found that we needed more containers than we had for holding organs, tongue, jowls, ears, fat scraps (to be rendered for lard), and various other tidbits (such as the bladder, which we initially saved but didn’t end up using because we found insufficient information on how to handle it). The knives shown are not sufficient for sticking a full-grown hog; one with a long, solid blade, preferably double-edged, would be ideal (this appears to be a good example). 

 Main stainless steel work table (purchased at restaurant auction), sharp carpenter’s saw for bone work, buckets for blood (collected for soil fertility reuse) guts and other nasty bits, all-weather hydrant with splitter, hose, and nozzle. The splitter allows for hand-washing at either the hydrant or at the end of hose. There’s a bar of soap tied into a clean piece of scrap silk long underwear; this keeps soap accessible & suds form right through the cloth (pantyhose works best but we don’t have any).

 Scalding tank and fire. We weren’t sure how well the seams on this old tank would hold up to direct heat, so didn’t build the fire directly under it, but just off to the side. The tank is propped up on concrete blocks so we could shovel hot coals underneath and thus manage heat better. This works quite well and allows maintenance of a nice fire at all times to warm the cold workers. Next year, we might add one more course of blocks to allow a higher coal heap; it got a little tight under there. We were also concerned the tank might be just a bit small for our large hog, but it fit perfectly. Setting the water level about 2/3 full also worked just right, enough to submerge the carcass but not to slosh over meaningfully.

We prepped a double log cabin fire structure the day before so we could get the fire going with little effort in the morning. The firewood is mostly cedar scrap, both log ends and leftovers from on-farm milling, that produce a nice hot burn. We easily kept a good fire going most of the day, but let it die down when the tractor had to drive by so there would be no problems with stray sparks/embers. We positioned the fire relative to the rest of the work area with the forecast of a gentle north wind (photo is looking SSE), expecting the smoke to always blow away from us. Instead, as we should have known, the topography of our narrow valley meant that for much of the day the local smoke was blowing east instead, right into our scalding tank and scraping location. Figures. The shovel and rake shown were used to rake and move coals as needed. We monitored tank temperature (you want around 145F) with a small soil thermometer inserted into a hole in a cedar plank, which floats happily on the surface and gives a good reading. It took about three hours from initial fire starting to get the water to temperature. We actually overshot a bit, but cold water from the hose took care of that problem.

 At left, .22 rifle and bucket of aromatic cedar sawdust (we have lots left over from milling). The latter works well for soaking up blood and odors, especially once the day is done, to help prevent too many predators and scavengers from descending on the farm. The rifle is used to shoot the pig prior to sticking (cutting vein in throat to allow proper bleedout). This is harder and more complicated than the straightforward killing of a goat or chicken; we’re still not expert with this step. Quick version: it takes more than a quart of vodka to put a full-size hog to sleep (or we soaked it in too much corn), we haven’t found a .22 to have the stopping power with a hog that it does with a goat, despite many references to the contrary, and we need a longer sticking knife. I got the cut basically right this year, but my knife wasn’t long enough so it took several thrusts to get deep enough.

At right, tractor bucket with chains set up for hanging/transporting carcass. The hooks at each end of the chain can either go into a back-leg hock (hanging the animal vertically head-down, for blood-draining and gutting), or if you tie each pair of legs together first, the hooks go into the rope-tie, hanging the animal horizontally with its back down, perfect for transport, dunking in the scalding tank, and setting down on a work table for scraping. We fumbled with the rope a bit while trying to get the legs tied together properly; the rope broke once or twice, and getting a good knot around a tapered leg took longer than it should have. Next year we might try some straps that can be cinched down quickly around the legs. Also note the stump under the bucket; tractor hydraulics only hold their strength when the engine is running, so if you want the bucket off the ground with the engine off, you need to prop it up safely (I did this time so I could work on chaining the bucket just right without getting a faceful of exhaust). We leave the engine running whenever the carcass is hanging; I don’t trust any props to hold up nearly 300lb of pig with us anywhere nearby; diesels burn very little fuel while idling and it’s a worthwhile safety margin.

 Killing pen made of four cattle panels with T-posts at the corners, tied together with baling twine. We left one panel end loose so it could be swung out as a gate (to get him in and us out), and secured it with a bungee. Next time we’ll probably place T-posts at the halfway points, too, as a full-size hog can easily push through an unsupported 16′ panel if you’re not watching him (which I was). It’s also helpful for the panel nearest the tractor/work zone (foreground in this photo) to be able to come off quickly, so you can drive the tractor in as soon as the hog is down and chain him up for maximum bleed-out. Next year we’ll use bungees instead of string on that side, too, to make this faster/easier. Alternatively, hog panels would allow easier access as they’re much lower than 4′ cattle panels. The tractor bucket could be rested on one so it’s ready to go if you drop the hog in the right place.

Preparations also involved gathering/preparing/purchasing a few things that aren’t photographed, but here’s a list for reference: Butcher paper, freezer tape, lots of regular salt, a little curing salt (pink salt), brown sugar (for curing bacon), diesel (for the tractor), proper food-grade containers for curing bacon & hams. We also put cattle panels across the front of the barn (to keep dogs/coyotes out), hung a scale off of a rafter, and hung a singletree off of the scale. A couple of old feed bags under this setup kept blood from dripping onto the gravel.

For reference, here’s the order we work in:
– Shoot & stick hog.
– Hang by back leg(s) to bleed out.
– Hang by all legs to scald, using bucket to raise & lower carcass so that water sloshes all around it.
– Set carcass horizontally onto work table to scrape  (can turn tractor off since weight is on table).
– Remove head when scraped (usually needs extra work separately to remove hair). We’ll often also do some work on loosening the gullet and front-end tubes through the neck cut before hanging for gutting (see below), as it’s much easier to do this on an even table than with the carcass dangling over you.
– Hang by back legs again for gutting; set large tub below carcass to catch guts as they fall out; we work from back to front (top to bottom). This helps keep everything clean, since we salvage many organs and the lower intestine for sausage casings. You could also do this while the carcass is on its side on a table.
– Hose out carcass thoroughly (hung from back legs if previously working horizontally).
– Transport to overnight hanging place, still using bucket. We were able to carefully transfer the quite-heavy carcass from the bucket chains to a singletree (rod with two hooks) chained to a barn rafter while keeping the carcass suspended, rather than setting it down on the ground and hooking it up to a pulley before hoisting. This kept the carcass off the ground, and didn’t require the use of a rope pulley which works fine for 140 lb goats but which we were unsure about for a much heavier hog.

At the end of daylight, with two people working, we had the carcass scraped, gutted, cleaned, and hung; casings emptied, rinsed, and temporarily stored in salted water; and the working area cleaned up and liberally covered in sawdust. After dark, we got the small intestines fully cleaned, scraped, and packed in salt for sausage casings without staying up too late. That’s with a relatively slow start, as we didn’t even get the fire started until around 8:30am (hog went down a little before noon), given the demands for milking & other morning animal chores, and just not feeling the need to be too hyper about rushing the work.

For various parts of the next week, we cut up the carcass, started the hams and bacon curing, boiled bones & scraps for broth and chicken food, froze the bulk meat, cleaned interesting bits like the head and feet, rendered fat for lard, and so on. But the methods and setup described above let two people kill and clean a large hog on a long but not unreasonable day that was efficient and methodical.

Busy week

This has been, and will be, an especially busy week for us. We had intentions of continuing the Food Preservation series with posts on root cellaring, fermentation, and cheesemaking, but those will have to wait. Here’s a brief look at this ultra-busy early winter week on the farm.

The week’s forecast clearly showed perfect butchering weather, a set of stable days with highs in the low 40s and lows around freezing. Time to slaughter the pig. We spent much of this day setting up the infrastructure and plans for this complex task: set up killing pen, prepare scalding tank & fire site, set up processing tables/knives/soap/etc, prepare gut buckets & other containers, prepare hanging location in barn, set up tractor for carcass transport, clean kitchen, etc.

Pig slaughter: Start the fire to heat the scalding water (and to keep us warm), kill the pig when the water is ready, scald & scrape the carcass, remove & process guts (separating useful organs like heart, liver, small intestine for casings, etc.), begin processing head, etc. Got the carcass hung and all the infrastructure cleaned up as dark fell. Spent evening cleaning & scraping small intestines for sausage casings. Below right, carcass hanging in barn with cattle panels to keep dogs/coyotes away. Sans head and guts, this still weighed in around 210 lb.    

Pig processing & cold snap preparation. Morning, worked on cutting up and freezing pork, such as this slab above left. Processing includes skinning sections we don’t want hide-on (we leave hide on bacon & ham), scraping fat from hide for lard rendering & sausage making, cleaning up head for head-cheese, separating cuts for immediate freezing (ribs, shoulder, sausage scrap) and those for curing (ham, bacon, jowl). Afternoon, did necessary farm work for seriously cold Tuesday night (low 20s forecast), including covering spinach beds, harvesting remaining daikon radishes, harvesting lettuce, greens mix, & beet greens, bringing in hoses & other plastic items, moving all unfinished pork sections into coolers for cold protection (both hams & one side). Evening, make leberkaese (German liver loaf), continue processing meat, especially starting cuts curing for planned Saturday smoking session. Cleanup takes a long time each night, as we have to wash everything including tables and counters.

Planned work: return our visiting breeding buck to his home farm after a month’s sojourn with our ladies, transitioning the rest of the herd from their pasture shelter to their winter barn (below left) with new paddocks set up. Continue processing pork (hopefully finish, including getting hams curing), other farm work if time allows. Likely work on putting together first CSA email & member survey to begin direct prep for January distribution; we’re rebuilding our website to make it more CSA-centric and are testing some new programming and content. May start rendering lard.

Expected to be a reasonably warm day (50ish), so harvest & wash some root crops (carrots, parsnips), try to finish building the new chicken shed (below right) to be done by Friday evening given weekend plans. Collect bedding pile from final goat pasture shelter & start new compost pile. Continue work on CSA needs, lard rendering, etc.

Finish chicken shed if not done, fill gaps with lots of other winter farm cleanup (mulching overwintering crops, compost pile maintenance). Given forecast for extremely cold weather coming Monday, with weekend pretty much shot for work (see below), there will be plenty of prep work to get done.

Spend morning smoking pork & bacon, cooking, baking, housecleaning, and otherwise preparing for exciting overnight visit from long-unseen friends. Afternoon arrival stops all work, then host dinner for visitors & several local mutual friends, doubling as birthday celebration for Joanna.

See off visitors in morning, then host more friends for lunch who are moving to Wyoming and leaving us 16 laying hens, hence the need to finish new chicken shed by Friday. See off those friends mid-afternoon and get ready to host local author Emma Marris & family for dinner, in honor of her fantastic new book Rambunctious Garden.

Collapse and enjoy a cold day with a warm fire after one wildly busy week.

Fall farm status & projects

Fall is just as busy, and sometimes feels busier, than summer. The growing areas are managed just as much, with the addition of all sorts of other cool-weather seasonal projects. Slowly things calm down as given areas/tasks are finished for the year, but it really takes until nearly Thanksgiving for us to feel the effects. Here’s a wordy look at some of the different things we’re doing this time of year on our very diversified farm. Though it seems like a lot, we enjoy most of it, and it all ties into our fundamental goals of personal independence, active outdoor work, and excellent food.

Final harvest
As much work as regular weekly harvests for market and restaurants are, there’s a large pulse of salvage work that comes with the hard freezes. We are very serious about minimizing waste, and refuse to just dump or abandon food we worked hard to grow. It takes extra time to strip most of the usable immature peppers, green tomatoes, and more from plants; bring in all winter squash and other crops; and do what we can to preserve them. From freezing and canning lots of relishes and preserves, to regular batches of food dehydration, to simple space management in our storage areas, fall harvest creates a lot of extra work. Below, a small portion of the pre-freeze harvest extravaganza

Growing area cleanup & prep
As individual crops finish for the year, any remaining plant material is pulled out and either fed to the animals (e.g. beans, peppers, corn/sorghum) or hauled off for composting (e.g. tomatoes, zucchini). Below right, frost-killed tomato plants waiting to be pulled along with their trellising. Irrigation lines are pulled, drained, bundled, and stored in the barn rafters for next year. In some cases we’ll spread and incorporate aged goat manure, depending on the past and future crop & fertility rotation in that bed. We don’t like any growing areas in bare soil for long, so when possible beds are either planted in winter cover crop like rye, vetch, and/or oats; or mulched with straw or aged leaves. We’re moving aggressively to limit our off-farm straw purchases, so raking fresh and spreading aged leaves becomes a more important fall task every year (see below).
Leaf mulch collection
Mulch is a very important aspect of our farm management, especially as we refuse to use plastic sheeting for weed control (too much oil, too much money, too much waste). Natural soil covers like straw or leaves help retain moisture, suppress weeds, add organic matter to the soil, and protect against winter freezing of soil and winter crops. We’re trying to limit our off-farm straw purchases for financial and agricultural reasons (last year we spent $1,000 on local straw, which carries a lot of obnoxious weed seeds and is still grown under conditions not entirely known to us). So every year we spend more time in the autumn woods, raking tracts of leaves into piles which are allowed to sit for a year, gently decomposing into a much denser, nutrient rich material that is more efficient to collect, handle, and spread. This leaf mold (after being aged for a couple more years) also forms a core component of our homemade potting mix (again saving money). Above left, a lovely pile of this condensed material.
When we calculate the time we spend raking and managing leaves, compared to the off-farm cash flow of purchasing large amounts of straw, it comes out close to even, without considering the side benefits of (a) a clean, known source for the leaves with few weed seeds and no unknown additives, (b) better soil nutrients from decomposing leaves than straw, (c) less fossil fuel use for short truck runs of leaves from our own woods than the large machinery needed to plant, harvest, bale, and transport straw from off-farm, and (d) a more reliable commodity that’s less subject to price, weather, and demand fluctuations.
General cleanup
There is a surprising amount of overall cleanup to do on the farm before winter comes. Collecting various tools, hoses, and other items that might be sitting around; moving equipment under cover; collecting and stacking T-posts, trellis panels, and other infrastructure; collecting all bits of trellis string; staging hay and feed where we want them; preparing winter quarters for animals; tool maintenance and storage (cleaning, sharpening, oiling, etc.), and more.
Overwintering crop planting
There are many items that can be, or need to be, transplanted or seeded in fall to achieve the proper growing season. Garlic is an obvious example, but there are various other alliums (some onions, garlic scallions), greens (collards, kale, sorrel), and others (strawberries) that we manage in the fall for spring or even summer harvest. Winter cover crops are another important category. So even while the farm overall is shutting down, we’re still putting new crops in the ground into November. Below left, a decent stand of oats that will eventually winter-kill into soil cover. Below right, ex-pepper and -edamame beds that have been manured and readied for fall garlic planting next week.
Seed saving & cleaning
We save our own seed for a growing list of crops & varieties, and many of the tasks related to seed saving occur in the fall. Some seeds (such as dill and cilantro) were collected over the summer, set aside during the busy season, and now need to be winnowed with a fan to sort the seed from stems, dust, etc. Summer squash seeds need to be scooped out from the hard, winter-squash-like baseball bats that we intentionally allowed to grow to absurd size, even as we shuddered each time we looked at the monstrous overgrowns (or realized that we could still sell them for $1/each at market…). Melon seeds that we set aside from perfect melons, rinsed, and left to dry need to be packed up. A selection of the best onions that we grow need to be selected and set aside to replant for seed next year. Tomato seeds from a variety that we really like need to be fermented and saved, just in case we can’t buy more seed for it. Our winter-keeping tomatoes need to be set out carefully on shelves to store, so we can save seed from the longest storing ones come mid-winter. With some crops, such as cowpeas, the seed and the food are one and the same, and a nice selection of seed simply needs to be separated out from the eating supply. Below, saving summer squash seeds from a mature specimen.
Every fall and winter we work to clear more overgrown land (mostly cedars), seeking both to bring pasture back into production and to generate the lumber and firewood we need to maintain and build the farm. Much of this work also has environmental benefits, from increasing bird/wildlife habitat and plant diversity to decreasing soil erosion through thicker ground cover once the dense cedars are gone. Last year we had an extra push to get started on logging, as I needed fresh lumber to build our goat/dairy barn before winter weather arrived. This year I have a similar goal, to build a bigger and better chicken house that can accommodate our growing flock. I have a milling date set with our portable sawmill folks at the end of the month, and need to get enough ground cleared and enough logs down to be ready for milling, then construction. This includes pouring the foundations while nights are still mostly above freezing. There are many more areas to work on over the winter, but the chicken-shed-specific work has a high priority right now. Below, the future site of a long-term chicken house and pasture.
Goat breeding
If you want goat milk, you have to get goats pregnant (rather, a buck has to). We try to breed our goats in November, aiming for an April kidding date. This involves hosting a buck for a month, as goats only go into heat for a day or so every three weeks. Pasturing the does with a buck for a month generally gives us two shots at successful breeding. We don’t actually have to handle the herd much differently, but it is another management item to pay attention to this time of year.
Butchering preparations
As on all traditional farms, fall and early winter are meat season. We do all our own meat processing on the farm, because we don’t want to pay anyone else to do it, like the ability to make cuts just the way we want, can use more of the interesting parts this way (like saving hog casings for sausage), and minimize any stress on the animals since there’s no transportation or fear. We’ll only be doing one goat kid this year, as the other two are does which we intend to breed as future milkers. But there’s a much larger pig than last year, several rounds of developing roosters, and one or more deer once the season opens in mid-November (given how many we’ve seen in the last few weeks, I’m quite antsy for this). Prepping for this work includes making enough freezer space for all the meat, ensuring we have freezer paper and other supplies on hand, and watching the weather for appropriate multi-day conditions. We also try to have most other weather-dependent farm work done, so we can take advantage of butchering weather without competing needs.
Firewood moving/winterization
Just getting the house ready for winter takes a bit of time. Collecting and moving firewood into position, having the chimney swept, moving storage foods (onions, potatoes, garlic, apples, etc.) into the back rooms which we don’t heat and which stay at a nice stable 40 degrees all winter, changing out sets of seasonal clothing, etc.
I’ve been putting extra time into making rounds of hard cheese to store over winter; we already have more wheels of these waxed and aging than years past, with up to two more months of milking to go. We also freeze milk to get us through the non-milking months; this works well enough for basic cheeses, yogurts, and baking.
Normal farm work
 Among all this seasonal stuff, we’re still harvesting regularly for biweekly market and weekly restaurant sales, including all the container washing, produce handling, calling around, etc. that accompanies these jobs. There’s still weeding and watering to be managed, various daily chores, and so on. Like I said, fall is just as busy as summer, just with shorter days. Longer nights can mean more sleep, but also unintentionally late nights as we stay up trying to get cooking, office work, and housework done now that daylight is too precious to waste. That’s life.

How bird watching helps our chickens

We keep our chickens truly on range; they have a large fenced-in yard but are otherwise unrestricted during the day (we lock them in a secure shed at night). This gives them all the room they need, but doesn’t protect them from aerial predators, which can be a real problem (chicken is a much easier, and tastier, treat than most wild game). Many folks raising chickens on range end up using various forms of moveable enclosed pens, so that the chickens are on open ground but still protected (and restricted) within that pen. As avid birders, however, we’ve been able to observe and predict many aspects of hawk behavior, allowing us to manage our chickens more effectively on range while minimizing restrictions and losses on our farm.
For example, in our location, only certain types of hawks bother our birds. Summer resident populations of Red-shouldered Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks seem to ignore our birds; we’ve never knowingly lost a chicken to these hawks, though they’re present nearly every day and certainly capable of taking one. All the hawk losses we know of have come from Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, almost always during spring and fall migration as new and hungry hawks move through the area. Knowing the difference between these hawks, by sight and by call, helps us decide what to do with the chickens. A Red-shouldered circling directly overhead is no problem; hearing a Red-tailed scream, even far away, may have us heading for the chicken yard to chase them under cover. Interestingly, the chickens themselves seem to have learned this. The dominant rooster, who watches over the rest of the flock, will ignore a Red-shouldered’s call too, but will react strongly to a Red-tail.
Paying attention to migration patterns also helps. For example, we know that September is a peak time for migrating hawks, and we are always more alert for hawk behavior (and chicken noise) during that time. In past years, we’ve found that once a migrant announces its presence by taking a chicken, it will continue to hang around looking for another one (smart bird). Locking the chickens under cover for a few days will eventually convince the hawk that no more meals are to be had, and it moves on.
Toward that end, our main chicken shed has an enclosed run attached, made of old chain-link dog kennel panels that we’ve picked up here and there at auctions and garage sales. Though it’s hard to see in the photo above, this is covered by a mixture of cattle panels and other fencing, just enough to keep a hawk out. Most of the year, we just leave the doors open on this so the chickens can come and go as they please. During hawk season, we can shut the doors, giving the birds some room to move around while keeping the hawks out. It usually only takes a few days. This approach is ugly as sin, but effective and flexible; we can easily take it down or rearrange it as necessary, unlike a more permanent structure. We do intend to build a better and more permanent chicken house/run in a different location this winter, but this setup has worked very well for the first few years of experimenting with chicken management.
Another aspect of chicken protection involves raising young birds to maturity. We’ve had several batches brooded by good hens, and also started incubating our own this year. Younger/teenage chickens are by far the most likely to get nailed by a hawk. Like human teens, they think they know everything but have no clue, don’t listen to their wiser elders (like the roosters that tend to warn of hawks), and thus are vulnerable to threats the adults are better at avoiding. So we take extra care to protect, or restrict, any young birds we have around during migration season, because they’re far less likely to stick to cover and pay attention to what’s overhead.

Simply paying attention to bird behavior on the farm can pay real dividends. This past Friday, while working on market harvest on our main field, I heard an odd noise and glanced up to see what looked like a Cooper’s Hawk land in a tree over our pond. I investigated (having binoculars with me) and was able to get very close to this beautiful and often hard-to-observe bird. They have a subtle call, which I’ve learned to identify; it can be the best alert to their presence since they like to skim through woods and otherwise stay hidden. These guys are really neat birds, but absolute death on chickens (they also have a reputation for raiding bird feeders and picking off snacks in front of horrified suburbanites). Having noticed the farm’s first migrating hawk of the fall, I was able to go get Joanna and chase all the chickens in under cover, where they’ve been restricted the last few days (it was hanging around the field again on Sunday). Without close attention to bird patterns, we likely wouldn’t have known it was there until a chicken went missing.

Protecting our layers from hawks is particularly important this year, as we’ve begun expanding our flock through on-farm breeding. We purchased a basic incubator, and have hatched several rounds of eggs from our existing layers (a mix of Black Ameraucanas and Rhode Island Reds, with roosters of both breeds). These birds, like the young ones shown above, should give us a good batch of chicken meat for the winter (we haven’t had much in the past few years) as well as a larger supply of eggs so we can offer at least some to 2012 CSA members. Thus we’re happy to combine the enjoyable hobby of birding with the practical value of paying close attention to the farm’s wider ecosystem and applying such knowledge and observations to better farm management, such as only restricting our chickens when we really need to.