03. April 2016 · 1 comment · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags:
Tomas, recovering from war wounds.

Tomas, recovering from his war wounds.

Last summer, Lucy, our female Ridley Bronze turkey, left for the best part of five weeks. She returned with a poult, a tiny, adorable creature that Don quickly named Thimble. You can read the story here. As Lucy’s first poult of the summer had met an unfortunate end, she took deliberate and protracted steps to protect this one. The term “helicopter mum” comes to mind.

Helicopter mum.

Helicopter mum. Notice Lucy’s protective stance.

We hoped, and then hoped some more, that Thimble would be a girl. Otherwise, he’d probably challenge Tomas, our male Ridley, for dominance. By December, however, it was clear that Thimble was not a girl.

“We have to take him to Hilts,” said Don. Hilts is our butcher, in Norwood.

“How can we possibly do that to Lucy’s baby!” I countered. She’d never forgive us. (It’s true that we tend toward anthropomorphism here. But it’s equally true that chickens and turkeys are sentient beings. Everyone who keeps a small backyard flock knows that.)

I should point out here – although it’s just interesting rather than relevant – that Tomas may not be Thimble’s dad. We have a large wild turkey population around here. Lucy is adept at finding them and they her. Occasionally, she disappears for a night in summer. Thimble has a smaller frame and he just looks different to other Ridleys we’ve raised.

Happy family, last summer.

Happy family, last summer.

About a month ago, we noticed Tomas and Thimble becoming increasingly aggressive to one another, albeit mostly vocally and in posture. But one day we found a forlorn and bloodied Tomas and a triumphant, strutting Thimble. Poor, vincible (a lost positive?) Tomas.

Tomas (L) and Thimble (R) - sizing up the competition.

Tomas (L) and Thimble (R) in March – sizing up the competition. At about this time, Lucy’s maternal behaviour evaporated, interestingly. She’d done her job and successfully raised her poult to adulthood.

So Thimble got banished to the turkey compound at the top of the hill while we figured out what to do with him. He has a big tree to perch in, a thousand sq. feet of grass to scratch and graze on, and a shelter with a perch to sleep on. Unfortunately, all he really wants to do is have another go at Tomas. He spends hours pacing along the fence and occasionally manages to fly out for another attack on his step-dad. This can’t continue.

We don’t want to take Thimble to Hilts, but we haven’t managed to find a new home for him yet. So if you’re interested in adoption, please get in touch. You’ll need good references, and we’d like visiting rights.

Oh, and it’s probably best if you don’t live in downtown Toronto. Most of your neighbours will not appreciate your new family member, and you won’t even have eggs to win them over with.

This year's heritage turkeys, beautiful as ever.

This year’s heritage turkeys.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been raising chickens and turkeys for more three years now. We love our life here and get countless hours of pleasure from our chickens and turkeys. The only downside is that we can’t leave the farm together for more than a day. But we were rescued this summer. Don’s brother Julian and his daughter, Imogen, visited in July, and we left them with the farm for a week when while we toured upper New York State. We fell in love with the Adirondacks and the Hudson Valley, took lots of photos, and made new friends. Thank you Julian and Imo for your generous gift (and so sorry you got “skunked” while we were away — beginner’s luck, lol!).

Our pet Ridley Bronzes prefer to sleep on the roof of the chicken coop, but if the weather is really terrible, they'll go inside.

Our pet Ridley Bronzes like to sleep on the roof of the chicken coop.

Later in the summer, two of our hens got broody and produced an impressive set of new chicks: a sweet little poult from Lucy and 11 chicks from Brodie.

We didn’t get our wish that Lucy’s poult be a girl, and, by mid-November, sweet little Thimble had grown into a hulking male. Probably not good to have two toms, as, sooner or later, Thimble may try to become alpha male and fight Tomas for dominance. If so, we’ll either be looking for a new home for the youngster or we’ll be eating turkey for Easter. But at the moment, the family is doing just fine (see left).

Of Brodie’s brood of eleven, one didn’t make it and two were roosters. If you’ve ever spent time around roosters you’ll know that they’re seriously over-sexed. Too many roosters is stressful to the hens and can also be physically damaging. So the roosters had to go, and we took them to Hilts in Norwood along with the Christmas turkeys. Three years ago, I couldn’t have written this with equanimity: the roosters became delicious coq au vin!

Brodie with some of her chicks.

Brodie with some of her chicks.

But we still had eight new egg layers from Brodie, for which we are grateful. She really is a good mum and took great care of her babies until they were at least twelve weeks old. They began laying in mid-December, and despite the short days we now have a reasonable supply of eggs. And because of our warm fall, the chickens have snacked on lots of grass and their egg yolks are still deep orange in colour.

Happy New Year from us all at Chase Farm.

Happy New Year from Chase Farm.

What does next year hold? More eggs and meat chickens for sure, but we’ll also harvest our first hops. Building the hop yard has been an enormous amount of work, so it will be fun to reap the benefits. We already have volunteers to help us string up the bines (hops grown on bines, grapes on vines; more on this in 2016). And what’s more, craft brewing seems to be the new big thing in the County, and we’re excited to be a supplier of local hops.

So 2016 will be another year of fun opportunities for us; I hope it will be for you, too. Happy New Year from all of us at Chase Farm!

 

Lucy fluffs up her feathers, making a comfy spot for her poult.

Lucy fluffs up her feathers, making a comfy spot for her new poult.

In case you don’t know this yet, our permanent flock includes two Ridley Bronze heritage turkeys: Lucy and Tomas. If you can imagine having pet turkeys, that’s Lucy and Tom. Turkeys are curious and social. Tomas follows us, closely, around the farm; Lucy used to not be far behind. But Lucy has had a tough summer, reproductively.

To our surprise and delight, she went broody in June, sitting on just a few eggs. Turkey eggs hatch 28 days after the hen starts incubating them – a week longer than chicken eggs. We gave Lucy exclusive rights to the lower level of the chicken coop for this coming-of-age event. After about a month, Lucy brought out a beautiful little poult. The other eggs didn’t hatch.

But about a week later, Lucy’s poult died, the result of Tomas stomping on it. (Don was witness.) We were aghast. It’s hard to think it wasn’t deliberate, unless Tomas is completely clueless. Lucy laid low for almost a week.

Male turkeys display like this all the time, but females seldom do. Lucy's is a protective stance. She didn't want us close to her poult.

Male turkeys display like this all the time, but females seldom do. Lucy’s is a protective stance. She didn’t want us close to her poult.

At the end of July, Lucy moved out. She’d come back occasionally for a visit and a good square meal, but just for an hour or two. Then, in early September, she brought back a new poult, causing great delight and excitement for her humans. Unlike domestic turkeys, heritage ones haven’t lost their instincts. We know Lucy’s had at least one fling with a wild turkey, and we’re pretty sure this poult is the result of another.

And another big question: is the poult male or female? We won’t know for another couple of weeks, when differentiating behaviours start to appear.

Lucy had been pretty casual with her first poult, but this time she’s super-protective. Now around two weeks old, the poult is seldom more than a foot or two from mum. They spend the night in one of our fields, perhaps where Lucy’s nest was, but come back during the day. Their main activity is foraging for weeds and insects; when they’re resting, Lucy fluffs up her feathers and the poult hides underneath her. Yes, you can spend a lot of quality time watching turkeys. Who knew!

And what's wrong with standing on your plate?

And what’s wrong with standing on your plate?

So far, other than providing food and water, we’ve left Lucy and her poult to their own devices. On one hand, the poult may be half wild and not enthusiastic about living within the confines a farm; on the other, I’m not sure I’ll be able to resist the urge to protect them from the predators around here and from the cold winter. When we started farming, we could never have predicted such dilemmas. Nor could we have guessed how these simple, natural events could enrich our lives.

Our Best Mom award goes to Brodie, one of our original Rhode Island Reds. Two years ago, she hatched three chicks, but this year she hatched twelve!

A bedraggled Mr Pickled, rogered-out?

A bedraggled Mr Pickles, Rogered-out?

We were concerned that only a few of the eggs Brodie was sitting on would be fertile. Our rooster, Mr Pickles, has looked bedraggled for about six months now. He’s been seriously moulting, and we were afraid he was too weak for his conjugal responsibilities – boinking all the hens at least once a week to keep their eggs fertile.

The first of Brodie's twelve chicks, hard to see in the bright sunshine, but sweet as sweet can be.

The first of Brodie’s twelve chicks, hard to see in the bright sunshine, but sweet as sweet can be.

I should mention that when one hen goes broody, for three or four days all the others lay their eggs in the box she’s sitting on. I find that really interesting: one hen hatches her own and everyone else’s eggs – a surrogate mum. It makes sense when you think about it, because sitting on eggs for 21 days, leaving the nest only once a day to eat and drink, is hard on the health. In survival terms, better to run down the health of one hen in the flock than many.

(Having figured this out in previous years, we made sure Brodie had her own supply of food and water in her little hatching coop.)

Brodie resting with some of her chicks.

Brodie resting with some of her chicks.

Brodie’s chicks hatched almost a week ago, and all are doing well. As an experiment, on hatching day two, Don slipped in a day-old Cornish Rock from our new meat flock. Brodie and the little yellow chick looked each other up and down, and mum offered it a snuggle under a wing. As I’ve described elsewhere in this blog, CRXs are an entirely different breed of chicken, selectively bred to eat almost non-stop. At six weeks of age, they weigh five pounds. It’s interesting to watch this little CRX getting raised like a regular egg-laying chick. We’re looking for signs that it will behave differently to its cohort. Yes, it’s preprogrammed to be an eating machine, but will nuture modify nature? I’ll report back!

Only ten days to go to the summer solstice; this post is so overdue! Lots to do here, and a few things slid off the table, including the Chronicles. So I’ll confine this summary of the last two months to our birds, then write about other Chase Farm adventures in coming weeks (hint: hops).

Two of our fluffy Cornish Rock chicks.

Two of our fluffy Cornish Rock chicks.

Following our values, this year we’ve switched to certified organic food for our meat chickens and turkeys. For the last two years we’ve been feeding them antibiotic-free and GMO-free feed. This year we took the big leap upwards, and it is a big leap as the feed costs almost twice as much. I wish it weren’t so, but we’ve had to raise our prices. (Can anyone explain to me why organic chicken feed costs so much more than non-GMO?) Most of our customers supported our move, but we understand why not everyone can come along. We’ll shop around aggressively and see if we can find a better price on the grain for next time.

A Barred Rock chick, a couple of days old and almost as light as a feather.

A Barred Rock chick, a couple of days old and almost as light as a feather.

We’re also increasing the size of our egg flock to 18 from 12. I’ve always loved Barred Rocks as a breed, with their black and white patterning. Another favourite is Ameraucanas, the hens that lay green eggs. So I bought three of each from Performance Poultry, a supplier we’re incredibly lucky to have in the County. These adorable babies are four weeks old now; we hope they’ll be laying by the fall.

A Barred Rock hen; don't you love that chic black and white patterning.

A Barred Rock hen; don’t you love that chic black and white patterning.

As we increase our own flock, I’m delighted to see so many other people in the County raising their own laying hens (and even meat chickens). People are learning more about the horrible lives of factory-raised poultry and looking for alternatives. Eggs from small farms can never supply the demand from cities, but widening interest in the humane treatment of farm animals will eventually influence supermarkets and their suppliers to pay attention. That’s our hope, anyway. It seems to me that change happens mostly from the bottom up, when enough people demand it. Are you with me?

 

08. April 2015 · 1 comment · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags:

I’ve been procrastinating about writing this, as the results of my little lettuce grow-op experiment have been, well, dispiriting. Although, the tiny tots were still alive; I was hopeful.

Chetwyn Farm's barley shoots, growing profusely.

Chetwyn Farm’s barley shoots, growing furiously.

So, I decided to visit our neighbours Ted and Shauna, who have an alpaca farm and grow greens to supplement their alpacas’ diet. In contrast to ours, their growing cycle, seed to harvest, lasts a single week, and their alpacas get to share a tray of two-inch-high barley shoots every day. How do they do it? So far, our greens wouldn’t keep even a mouse happy for 60 seconds.

Pippa at the salad bar.

Pippa at the salad bar.

Eager to find out, I got to Chetwyn Farm just before feeding time. Ted and Shauna’s setup consists of four shelves, wide enough for about four trays of seedlings. No special lights – just ordinary fluorescents, plus foil to reflect light back onto the trays. A simple watering system on a timer distributes water to the top shelf. Each shelf is angled so that the water drips though to the next level and finally into the sink. All really ingenious and low-cost.

It’s a bit late in the season to build a system here (audible sigh of relief from Don), but I did find a practical takeaway for my basement op: leaving the lights on 24/7. Sounds brutal, doesn’t it? Don’t my little lettuces and kale plants deserve a decent night’s rest? Well, not if I want to harvest them before the end of the decade.

This Sunday's salad. Shhh.

This Sunday’s salad. Shhh.

And so the new regime at Chase Farm began, a week ago. The arugulas objected almost immediately and are going to seed. Everyone else is happy though. I plan to harvest the three lettuces this weekend. They could be bigger, but we’ll just eat them really slowly. As for the kale and bac choi, in a few weeks I’ll harden them off and plant them outside under the cold frame. The kale should be huge by mid-summer. I’m excited.

Credit where credit’s due: you’ll definitely want to check out Chetwyn Farms and the Shed, CF’s lovely little farm store. Not only do these well-fed alpacas produce soft, luxurious wool, they also supply the contents for the beautifully packaged “Shed Shit,” a very local and super-healthy alternative to Zoo Poo. Personally, I think the secret’s in the daily greens.

Sandy Stubbert.

Sandy Stubbert.

Farmers need holidays, but what do you with the chickens and turkeys? Can’t take them with you (although it’s amusing to contemplate it).

Gentle Jack, huge paws and huge heart.

Gentle Jack, huge paws and huge heart.

If you have family close by, or neighbours who love chickens, you’re in clover. We don’t, but we’re very fortunate in our dear friend in Kingston, Sandy Stubbert. Sandy loves farm animals, and we trust her totally in looking after our feathered ones. And looking after Sandy is her super-dog, Jack.

Sandy the singer-songwriter.

Sandy the singer-songwriter.

Thanks so much Sandy. We are grateful indeed.

Incidentally, Sandy is also a singer-songwriter, an accomplished musician and a web designer who can be contact via:

http://music.sandystubbert.com
http://www.facebook.com/sandystubbertmusic
sandy.stubbert@gmail.com.

My own website, this blog, and both my sons’ websites are all her work.

26. February 2015 · 1 comment · Categories: Gardening · Tags:

Santa came through: a grow light, a 150 watt Sun System. If all goes according to plan, we can have home-grown lettuce all winter, I told myself. How hard can it be? Ha.

The seed tray sitting under Don's frame.

The seed tray sitting under Don’s frame.

By mid-January, Don had built a sturdy and functional stand for the light and my seed trays. I got my hands on seeds for two kinds of lettuce, arugula, pac choi, and kale. I carefully and lovingly planted them, placed the seed trays under the light, sprayed the trays three or four times a day (the gentlest way to water), and waited. A week later, every single seed seemed to have sprouted. A week later still, I had a tray of gangly, weak stemmed, proto-veggies. In trying to avoid burning the seeds, I’d hung the light way too high. I started over.

February 26, about 3 weeks after replanting. We may actually be able to eat these one day.

February 26, about 3 weeks after replanting. We may actually be able to eat these one day.

At the second attempt, germination wasn’t going so well. But what did grow looked promising. And today, three weeks after re-seeding, I transplanted them. We’re so excited! They’re mostly kale, the most virtuous of all vegetables. Only three baby lettuces – so much for my fantasy of harvesting spring mix until May.

Cost per plant? Per leaf? Don’t even think about it. There must be an easier way. Maybe Don should build a greenhouse next!

 

Our two Slate Blues surrounded by Bourbon Reds.

Our two Slate Blues surrounded by Bourbon Reds.

Call us crazy – you wouldn’t be the first – but we found our heritage turkeys exquisite, and with their curious, social natures, they always made me smile. Here are photos from yesterday. Today, we took the turkeys to Hilts in Norwood, the place of no return. The trip to Hilts is always made with a heavy heart, but this morning was unforgettable for another reason.

One of nine Bourbon Red toms.

One of nine Bourbon Red toms.

It had to be the worst driving day in a long time, but today was the only “spa” day at Hilts. We left the farm at 5 am, apparently well in advance of the salt trucks. Black ice, freezing drizzle, fog, and quite a few cars and trucks in the ditch. After about 20 minutes of driving with our hearts in our mouths, we pulled over and waited for the salters/sanders. Despite the added traction, the two-way trip took six hours.

Thomas, perhaps the most photographed Ridley Bronze in Ontario.

Thomas, perhaps the most photographed Ridley Bronze in Ontario.

At least the afternoon drive – yes, the same day – to pick up the turkeys is much easier, in a balmy six degrees and the Subaru, instead of the old red truck + trailer.

Thank you, Don, for your steely concentration and driving skills.

Our Blue Slate tom, the largest of the turkeys, only began displaying this past week.

Our Blue Slate tom, the largest of the turkeys, only began displaying this past week.

Two of this year’s turkeys earned a reprieve: One hen managed to evade us all yesterday afternoon and evening, thanks to awesome flying and predictive skills. Another earned my affection earlier this year. Yes, a very cuddly turkey. Who knew.

So now our turkey population is four: Thomas and Lucy from 2013, and this year’s Bourbon Red hens.

And customers start arriving late this afternoon to pick up their turkeys. All in a farmer’s day.

Chickens shed feathers continuously – you’ll always see a few around the coop. But they get really serious about it in the fall, when they replace a visible proportion of their old feathers with new ones – a glossy, warm coat for the winter.

This Chantecler's late-ish moult has coincided with this week's sub-zero temperatures.

This Chantecler’s late-ish moult has coincided with this week’s sub-zero temperatures.

This is moulting, and apparently all birds do it, though mostly in private, off in a tree somewhere. But chickens have no privacy. They stand around looking cold, scruffy, and forlorn, sheltering from the cold autumn wind. Spiky new feather shafts poke through patches of bare chicken skin. (That’s got to hurt.) They lose their joie de vie. And as feathers are made mostly of protein, growing new ones means diverting protein from egg production. The girls stop laying eggs.

Lucy, mid-moult, looked half her normal size and hung out in the chicken coop to keep warm.

Lucy, mid-moult, looked half her normal size and hung out in the chicken coop to keep warm.

Most of our hens are through their moult now. They’re bursting with gorgeous new feathers, glossy ones, fluffy ones. They look awesome. During the worst weeks of the moult, I was collecting one egg a day at best. Now we’re back at four or five (out of 15 chickens), despite the cold, short days.

Poor duckie! Her new feathers are growing through the spiky-looking shafts you can see in the bald spots.

Poor duckie! Her new feathers are growing through the spiky-looking shafts you can see in the bald spots.

Friends from the Chicken Chat group sent me photos of some of their moulting girls. Carrie gets off lightly this year, as her hens are only six months old. Lindsay’s Dorothy lost a few feathers around her neck – usually the first place to moult. So did John’s Eenie and Meeni. Susan’s Duckie, as you can see from the photo, went through a pretty dramatic transformation. At Chase Farm, one of our most thorough moulters was Lucy, our 18-month-old Ridley Bronze turkey.

Moulting is not the only reason for feather loss: stress will do it, too. A story for another day: Mrs. Pickles, our most stress-susceptible chicken. Yes, stress can be devastating for all of us!