Archive for the Category ◊ Philosophy ◊

Author: paul
• Saturday, December 08th, 2012

At Dragonwood Farm, we sell eggs.  Pretty pretty eggs, inside and out.  Except when we don’t, which is pretty much from mid-October until around the middle or end of January.  This confuses people sometimes, because most other farms around here continue to stock the local food co-ops with eggs, so why doesn’t Dragonwood?

Demonstration of proper safety procedures with Dragonwood poultry.

The answer is tied up in another aspect of Dragonwood’s egg production… our happy, free-range chickens.  The sticker on our egg cartons says “truly free-ranging happy chickens”, and we stand by that.  More than once, a customer has looked at that claim and asked “How do you know whether they’re happy or not?”  The answer’s not all that easy to fit in a nutshell, so let’s try a long blog post instead.

This redhead is a happy chicken.  That’s her little coop in the background, our Chick School, where we raise our free-ranging chicks.  She’s an Auracauna pullet, about 3 months old, and just about ready to be moved out of the chick coop into her new home, one or the other of our two big coops.

Chick School is our boarding school for chicks.  It’s a safe place, with an elevated chick home (so we can see under it and they can hide under it) and about 500 square feet of netting-covered outdoor classroom for learning to free-range.

She’s been free-ranging by day since she was just a few days old… after about 2-3 days on our porch in a box, we move them into the Schoolhouse with a brooder lamp hanging from the ceiling that allows them to adjust their temperature at night (closer = warmer: these are autosensing, autoadjusting smartchicks, no thermometers needed).  During the day they run around in the outdoor classroom scratching and nibbling and learning about bugs and seeds and grasses and lamb’s quarters.

Mrs. Buff and Puff perch at the schoolhouse door with some of their younger charges.

The school has two full-time teachers.  Mrs. Buff is Head Schoolmistress, she’s a big Buff Orpington hen, and her assistant is a half-pint black bantam hen named Puff.

These two rule the roost, take the attendance rosters and above all else keep their eyes out for trouble.  Especially hawks flying overhead.  These two are dedicated teachers, and they run a tight ship, nobody gets out of line.  Very often.

Unless I come into the yard.  We two-legged folk are welcomed and shunned at the same time.  We are known for our largesse (local mill chicken feed in the morning, garden greens and the occasional grasshopper or tomato hornworm at odd moments throughout the day), but also for our attempts to herd and scoot them out from under the schoolhouse at dusk and into the schoolhouse for the night.  Peep!  Squawk!  So they jitter back and forth between running to us and away, many times a day.

Pullets and meat birds, free-ranging in the extended campus at Chick School.  Extended campus has no net covering, but is fenced to keep them out of our lettuces.

Pullets and meat birds, free-ranging in the extended campus at Chick School. Extended campus has no net covering, but is fenced to keep them out of our lettuces.

During the morning feed, I always try and feed thems that wants to by hand.  I get a small crowd who prefer eating out of my hand to picking it up from the ground or the feeders.  And in every crowd there’s one or two who like the daily contact more than normal… and that’s how this happened.  Two days ago she hopped onto my back and perched on my shoulder and then clambered down onto my forearm and ate from my hand.  Today, in the rain, she started eating from my hand with everyone else, then I watched her leave my hand and walk around behind me.  Sure enough, up onto my back again, but then Hey! up another notch.  Glad I have my dad’s old shit-resistant Elmer Fudd on.  After a minute or two (and after the self portraits), since she wasn’t getting any food up there, I saw her upside down face peering in at me from my hat’s bill.  I bent down again and she hopped down and ate from my hand again with everyone else.

So that’s part of the happy chicken answer.  There’s a lot more to it though, and it helps answer why we have no eggs to sell, so I’ll keep going.

WHY MY HENS NO LAY?

It’s common in the chicken egg farming business to maximize egg production in several ways.  I’m not going to belabor the “what does free-range really mean?” question here… our chickens truly live out of doors, foraging for much of their daily caloric intake, mostly only going inside to lay eggs in the nesting boxes or get a cool drink or to roost at night.  But even farmers with great free-ranging practices still push their chickens hard to maximize egg production, because if the hens don’t lay, ya get no pay!

Hens want to follow a seasonal pattern for their laying that’s based mainly on the length of daily daylight, and to a lesser extent on temperature. In addition, after a hard season of laying eggs, chickens molt… for a period of a couple months they lose most of their feathers, lose a good bit of weight, and internally and externally have a rejuvenation period that gets them ready for a new laying season.

So a flock as a whole lays the most eggs in the spring and early summer (increasing day length),with peak egg production before the summer solstice, and then gradually declines toward laying the fewest eggs during late fall and early winter.  For our hens, that means egg production falls from about 50+ eggs per day (from 80 or so hens) in May to only about 5 eggs per day (2-8 daily range) in late October til early January.  But since the winter solstice is quite early in what we call “winter”, we see an uptick in the ladies laying by early January.  By late January we’ll be back up over a dozen eggs a day (enough to sell a few dozen each week) and rapidly rising from there, even though it’s damn cold out there.  The days are getting longer! Let’s lay!

A molting Speckled Sussex.  "Whatta you looking at?"

A molting Speckled Sussex. Whatta you looking at?

But a lot of farmers seem to feel this long resting period is unnecessary.  And this whole molting business, can’t modern agriculture do something to fix that too?

Length of day solution:   Let them have light!  The solution seems easy enough… they want light? Give them light!  By turning on lights in the coop, and carefully adjusting the length of “day” for hens, farmers can shorten the downtime and get more eggs out of the ladies.

Molting solution:  Force them all to molt at one time.  Hens don’t all molt at the same exact time, so a given flock will have a lengthy downtime, even with artificial lighting.  A common practice for decades on commercial farms is to withold food in the autumn to starve the chickens and stimulate the molting to start.  Yep.  Starve them, no rations for a week or more.  It’s not a pretty thought to most of us.

There’s another way to minimize or eliminate completely the molting problem.  And that’s to sell “stewing hens”.  It works like this:

1.  In the late-summer or fall, you divide your existing layer in half: keep the best layers, get rid of the lesser half.  Cull and sell these birds as “stewing hens”.

2.  You replace the culls by purchasing ready-to-lay pullets in the early fall (or raise them yourself, from eggs laid four-five months previous).

3.  Thus while the existing flock molts, the new hens take up the slack, giving you eggs to sell during the winter (do keep those artificial lights on, though).

4.  In the spring you’ll have the older birds starting their new laying cycle as the pullets slow down.  Keep track of who’s who because then…

1. Repeat the cycle by culling the older birds and the weaker of the last year’s new hens.  Replace with more new pullets and keep it going.

So… you never have any birds older than about 18-20 months (two cycles of laying with one molt).  You only keep birds while they’re at their most productive.  And you sell eggs all year round.

The Dragonwood Happy Chicken Way

Puff and a youngster, inside the schoolhouse.

Puff and a youngster, inside the schoolhouse.

For us, molting and winter downtime is just part of the life cycle of our ladies.  We don’t do any of those stimulation tactics up there!  Oh, on a really cold winter night we might turn on a heat lamp… we have done that a few times, but just for the warmth.   We feel that artificially stimulating the hens to lay more eggs than their bodies tell them to probably shortens their lives, and that’s not what we’re aiming for.  We know our older birds can keep laying daily right up until the last few weeks of their lives… we’ve watched it happen.  They molt when they want to molt, and they take as long as they want to doing so.

We raise new birds every year, putting them through rigorous training with Mrs. Buff and Puff.  This year enrollment was roughly 20 from chicks we hatched (here’s Puff with one of her younguns) and 30 more from chicks we purchased, plus another 30 meat birds that graduated early (yum).  Then after graduation we integrate the new pullets with our existing flocks.  We lose up to a dozen or so birds each year from predators, and another dozen or two that die from natural causes.  So far our flocks have grown a little each year, and our oldest hens and one rooster are more than five years old now, and still laying (the roo lays hens, not eggs).  The pecking order in each flock fluctuates a bit when we integrate new birds into them (from Chick School’s graduating class), but the social order survives and life in the coop goes on.

We feed them well, give them a lot of freedom (one flock has it’s own pasture, the other its own woods), and let them feed us in turn.  What eggs we don’t eat ourselves are sold to friends and market shoppers who value darn good food.  In fact, that’s the real nature of Dragonwood Farm.  We grow food that we like to eat, and share what we grow with others.  We try to grow it all with love and care, from the choices we make with our soil and land to the very headgear we wear (photo at top).  Our goal is to have truly happy chickens, because that makes us happy.  That’s why we’re here, and you’re welcome to share with us.  But not til after solstice.  Hang in there another couple months.

“The people who give you their food give you their heart.” - Cesar Chavez

Postscript: In case it’s not perfectly obvious from reading this post, the Dragonwood way is not the most cost-effective way to produce eggs.  We feed lots of chickens for months of non-production!  But we end up with some of the very tastiest eggs from some of the very happiest chickens around.  At a price that’s affordable when you want really good eggs. See you in the spring!

Author: paul
• Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

The winter of 2012 has been anomalous here in southeast Michigan.  Warm, warm, warm.  All winter long.  It’s a little frightening, knowing how we need cold freezes to kill back certain pest species, to reset the clocks for certain plant and crop species.  It’s a little frightening, knowing how temperatures help regulate tree bud production, so that they don’t erupt too early and the little fruits get frozen off by late cold snaps.

But I’m a science guy.  I wanted to know HOW warm it’s been.  Is it my imagination, or did January feel more like February?  Did we just skip January’s weather altogether?  I want data!

So I got some data.  Bottom line: We did skip January.  And more.  Let’s go over things a bit, starting in December and running til March 11, when I started gathering this data (hence, my spreadsheets stop there, unless I do an update sometime in the future).

About the Data:

I went online, and used a variety of sources.  Because there are lots of sources to choose some, including some very local ones (like the Adrian Airport, just a few miles south), it was tough.  But in the end I chose to report on weather station KDTW, which is at the Detroit Metro Airport, because it has a long historical record (back to 1874).  And this report is not so much about our precise weather at Dragonwood, so much as about the weather all of us here in the Midwest have been through of late.  I downloaded daily temperatures and made plots.  You could do this too.

Perspective:

Let’s look at a graph of southeast Michigan year-round average temperatures.

What do we see? In round numbers,

1. Summer peak daily average temp is around mid-70s.

2. Winter peak daily average temp is around mid-20s.  This is about 50°F lower than the summer.

3. In the fall and spring months, temperatures fall and rise quickly, about 10-12°F each month in Sep-Nov, and Mar-May.

What we don’t see?  How much monthly variety there is from year to year. Answer? Not that much.  The majority of months average within 2-3°F of their long-term average.  It’s a fairly rare month that is as much as 4-5°F above or below average.  On the average, roughly 80% of months fall within about 4-5°F of the normal, leaving those extra warm or extra cold months as outliers in the top or bottom 10% of records.

Example: this past November 2011 at KDTW, average temps were 46.6°F, which was 5.1°F above normal.  That was the 5th highest November average temperature in 130+ years of record keeping.  So November was really warm, as Novembers go.

Quick Overview:

Warm winter.  Really warm.

December: 5.4°F above normal (12th warmest on record):

So, what do we see?  First, the “normal” green solid line is the mean average temperature across the month, just like the imaginary line down the middle of the annual graph for KDTW up above.  Just eyeballing it, you can see that the average December “normal” temperature is about 30°F.

The daily data is the three wiggly lines representing daily high, low and mean (average) temperatures for last December.  Again, it’s easy to see that it was a warm December.  I’ve added a “2012 averaged” red dashed line that is a rough estimate of how much warmer than normal the month was.  Detail: it’s an 11-day moving average line, meaning the value represents the average of that day plus those of 5 days before it and the 5 days after it.  For the month as a whole, we averaged 5.4°F above normal (normal is 30.1°F).

January: 5.1°F above normal (17th warmest on record):

January average daily mean temp is 25.6°F.  January 2012 however averaged 30.7°F, a good bit higher.  In fact, astute readers will note that the January average temperature was actually just a tad warmer than the normal December is supposed to be.

We skipped January, in weather terms.

February: 4.5°F above normal (12th warmest on record):

February is normally almost as cold as January: just 3°F warmer, averaging 28.1°F.  But this February was a whopping 32.6°F, again being warmer than the average December, let alone Jan or Feb.

March: ??°F above normal (?th warmest on record):

March normal average temp is 36.9°F at KDTW.  So far we’re well above that, and the month is nearing the halfway mark, with nothing but warm weather forecast.  Normally, this is maple sap weather, with nice warm days, but good freezes on most nights.  And you can see two good freezes, the second one around March 9-10.  But that looks like the end of our season.  Without further nightly freezes, there’s no sap to flow from our sugary friends, and with extra warm days the maple buds get ready to bloom and end the season altogether.

Note: Observant readers will note that I can’t have a valid red-dashed moving average line for the March 6-11 end of the graph, because I would need data from March 12-17 in order to calculate it.  So just ignore this… I’ll post an update in April with the full month of data for March.

Quick Look at the Region:

Here’s a look at December temperatures across the US.  The top map is mean temperature: SE Michigan is running about 35, and it’s the expected cold-in-the-North pattern.  But it’s the second map below that shows what it means.  For each tiny point on the map, the colors indicate how much warmer or colder the area was in December compared to “normal” years (monthly mean temps).   In short high numbers (red and brownish colors) mean hotter than normal temperatures.  Roughly two thirds of the country had a hotter than normal December.  The Dakotas and Minnesota were about the hottest.

There are other maps for the other months, but this post is too long already.  Go look them up yourself in the links below.  Short story: we stayed hot.

Summary:

I think the best way to look at this winter so far is this:  Spring has been shifted backward nearly a month.  It’s mid March now, the peepers are peeping madly, the robins woke us up this morning, the crocuses are well displayed, and I got buzzed by a honey bee yesterday.  This is all a bit early for us.

On the plus side: the deer had an easy winter, and didn’t chew up our young fruit tree branches like usual.

On the flip side: the fruit trees might bud too early and get nipped by a “normal” frost (ie., if the fruit trees bud early, it doesn’t have to be a “late” frost to nip the buds.  Even a regular frost can do the job.

There’s probably fifty plus and minuses we could do here, but I’m done.

Enjoy the nice weather.

Postscript:

As I post this it’s March 13, and we’re clearly in a very warm spell that will kill our maple season.  No freezes since last Friday, none in the forecast.  So the maple sap run will definitely be over for us… hope you got started early this year (our maples started dripping in late January! we got tapped on February 4, two weeks earlier than ever for Dragonwood).  I’ll follow up with a full March report later, in April.  Remind me if you don’t see it.

Oh!  And don’t forget if you haven’t been there, the USDA released their new Plant Hardiness Map a few weeks ago (here’s a write-up about it from Mother Jones), and it’s interactive this time, click to get your own state map.  Our farm?  Surprise!  We’ve moved from Zone 5 to Zone 6 (a more southern, warmer zone).  Here’s the direct link to the map at the USDA.

Data Reference Links:

1. US Temperature Anomaly Map (from NOAA):
http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/tanal/temp_analyses.php

2. Monthly Climate Report For DTW Airport, Detroit (by NOAA; 12 months available):
http://forecast.weather.gov/product.php?site=NWS&issuedby=DTW&product=CLM&format=CI&version=1&glossary=0

3. Seasonal Weather Averages Plot (available for many localities, from Weather Underground):
http://www.wunderground.com/NORMS/DisplayNORMS.asp?AirportCode=KDTW&SafeCityName=Southgate&StateCode=MI&Units=none&IATA=DTW&MR=1

4. History Data (Weather Underground) - really powerful ability to bring up nice graphs of the temperature and other weather facts for just about anywhere in the U.S., with customizable date ranges.  BETTER YET: at the bottom of each page is a tabular version of the data, and a link to get it all as CSV (comma separated variables) that you can plug into a spreadsheet, like Open Office (what I used):
http://www.wunderground.com/history/

5. Historical local daily averages and record high/low temps (NOAA) - this is for DTW Airport, but other places and other dates are available.  Look around:
http://www.crh.noaa.gov/dtx/display_climate.php?file=records_DTW_Dec_inc.htm

6. NOAA Climate data from all over the U.S. - this is the site that leads you to #5 above.  Just click an area on the map, then click the tab for “Local Data/Records” and follow links to the data you want.  Different areas have different kinds and amounts of data, depending on the local weather recording stations:
http://www.nws.noaa.gov/climate/

Author: mandyrose
• Sunday, January 15th, 2012

A week ago, it was around 50 degrees…..in southern Michigan, in January.

Starting a soup:  Cubed celeriac stand in for both celery and potatoes at once.  Browning lightly in a little chicken fat or olive oil starts laying the foundation for flavor depth in a good soup.

Starting a soup: Cubed celeriac stand in for both celery and potatoes at once. Browning lightly in a little chicken fat or olive oil starts laying the foundation for flavor depth in a good soup.

I got all riled up about it.  Granted, it was hard to complain….getting around without snow is so easy, less fuel use for heating, chickens laying in record numbers for this time of year, and digging in the garden as though it was October.  I generally try to avoid complaining about the weather, and I find wonder and joy in weather changes, season changes, and day-to-day differences.  However, I found myself longing for snow and worrying that it wasn’t cold enough.  After a super-hot summer, and ground that still hasn’t really appreciably frozen, in January, (I easily dug carrots and leeks today), it can be a little scary to contemplate the climate changes I believe I’ve seen in my own back yard.  What if every year increases in temperatures the way this past year increased over the year before?

Next ingredient - some of our lovely leeks, dug from the garden earlier today.

Next ingredient - some of our lovely leeks, dug from the garden earlier today.

But now, with the temperature in the teens this morning, and the longed-for snow covering the ground,  I feel a little better.   Waking to the brilliance of sunlight reflecting off snow, and filling the house with light is a welcome change from the two months+ of warm but sullen grey skies and ground.  Even though I could still dig vegetables out of the garden, we came in with bright-pink faces from the cold.   Settling down with seed catalogues and a cup of tea feels much more in-tune with my expectations for this time of year.  And soup is a frequent quick meal.

One thought that has struck me this winter was to contemplate how much more food I might have grown if I had known the late autumn and early winter would be so mild.  I’m missing lettuce and spinach.  In our hectic fall, I passed the usual dates for re-sowing these greens, and figured I might as well not try.   Turns out, they would have

Some of our piddly carrots - small, yet brilliantly-colored and amazingly sweet.  Sliced carrots, a chopped onion, and minced garlic all get added to the pot.

Some of our piddly carrots - small, yet brilliantly-colored and amazingly sweet. Sliced carrots, a chopped onion, and minced garlic all get added to the pot.

done well.  We’re not suffering for salad, we do fine substituting cabbage, endive, baby chard, tatsoi, and baby kale for other raw greens.  But lettuce and spinach would be a welcome touch of luxury.

My next thought was that if we are indeed experiencing warming of climate, there is even less reason for us northerners not to grow our own food.  There is even less reason to ship in food from milder climes, when well into December, (and now even January) it is possible to harvest greens and roots - even without a hoophouse.  If you cannot grow your own, you can buy it locally.  Support and pay for local farm goods, and more farms will come into being, increasing availability even more.  And at the same time, we will be working to reduce what food transportation contributes to global warming.

Growing our own food or purchasing it from someone close by, and learning how to cook it solves so many problems at once.  Last month, a study determined that eating commercial canned soup for just five days raised urine BPA levels 1221%. The lining of the cans contains this chemical, leaching it into food. “Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor , which can mimic the body’s own hormones and may lead to negative health effects. Early development appears

When the veggie mixture is lightly browned and softening, I deglaze the pan with a little white wine.  This really rounds out the flavor and makes a soup delicious, but it can be omitted.  All the veggies added to this point are only the ones that need time cooking - the roots, mostly.  Save the delicate things for later.

When the veggie mixture is lightly browned and softening, I deglaze the pan with a little white wine. This really rounds out the flavor and makes a soup delicious, but it can be omitted. All the veggies added to this point are only the ones that need time cooking - the roots, mostly. Save the delicate things for later.

to be the period of greatest sensitivity to its effects, and some studies have linked prenatal exposure to later neurological difficulties.” (Wikipedia)  As a midwife, you can guess how that makes me react.  Why do humans tend to take a nourishing food and ruin it?  (Unfortunately, it’s not just soup.  BPA is also found in many other food containers, cans, lids, and the lining the metal canning lids that many of us use to preserve our food at home.  The price of lovely Weck jars still makes them prohibitive to me - but they would be a safer solution for home canning.)

Every day, I am upset with what our species is doing to the world we live in, the food we ingest, the chemicals we instill in the bloodstreams of our unborn fetuses.  I am trying to do my small part by refusing to participate with at least some of it.  I wish more people would join those of us who are making these choices.  Maybe it sounds silly to talk about changing the world by growing and cooking your own soup, but maybe it doesn’t.  Because every time each of us purchases something like canned soup, we consent to waste, pollution, and chemicals in our food.  If you buy it, if you eat it, you have agreed to it, you have helped put off demanding that manufacturers must change.  I am not suggesting I am perfect - there are many ways in which I am still too complacent.  There are many days I am exhausted from late work hours and feel forced to resort to food I haven’t grown or cooked.   But I’ve got the soup down, at least!   Here’s a recipe that starts with pre-made chicken stock, and

Adding more flavor:  For this soup I added a pinch of tumeric, a very light sprinkle of cayenne, and generous amounts of dried summer savory and parsley.  We dried the peppers, savory, and parsley in the food dehydrator.  Savory has proven easier to grow in quantity than thyme, for me, with a similar flavoring.

Adding more flavor: For this soup I added a pinch of tumeric, a very light sprinkle of cayenne, and generous amounts of dried summer savory and parsley. We dried the peppers, savory, and parsley in the food dehydrator. Savory has proven easier to grow in quantity than thyme, for me, with a similar flavoring.

pre-cooked beans. (Many blogs cover how to make broth or stock, so I won’t - here is a good one, for example.)  Except for salt and tumeric and sweet corn, every ingredient in this soup was grown or harvested by us, on our land.  Most of them are doable for a backyard gardener.  Most of them can probably be obtained locally in most northern areas, unless you are in a food desert.  No cans were opened, all garbage from the making of this soup could go onto the compost pile.  This is not my once-a-week local challenge meal - this sort of eating is daily fare for us whenever possible.  If nothing else - learn to make soup.  A pot can provide meals for days, and keep chemicals out of your food.

What is this??  This is what good homemade broth looks like!  It's got lots of healthy gelatin in it.  A couple of our excess roosters went into the making of this broth a couple days before.

What is this?? This is what good homemade broth looks like! It has gelled nicely. A couple of our excess roosters went into the making of this stock a couple days earlier.

Adding the cold broth to the soup pot. Add some water too, and bring the whole thing to a simmer.

Adding the cold broth to the soup pot. Add some water too, and bring the whole thing to a simmer.

The stock is steaming - now is the time to add some precooked beans.  These "Snowcap" beans grew in the backyard garden, and they are better than anything I've ever eaten from either a can or as a purchased dry bean.  Add precooked beans closer to the end of cooking, so they don't fall apart.

The stock is steaming - now is the time to add some precooked beans. These “Snowcap” beans grew in the backyard garden, and they’re better than any beans I’ve ever bought from a store. Add precooked beans near the end of cooking so they don’t fall apart.

Add the delicate vegetables closer to the end of cooking, after the stock has been bubbling for awhile and the root veggies are cooked through.  Here, I added kale picked frozen from the garden today, and some frozen sweet corn.  Other things to add now would be green beans, peas, or broccoli.

Add the delicate vegetables closer to the end of cooking, after the stock has been bubbling for awhile and the root veggies are cooked through. Here, I added kale picked frozen from the garden today, and some frozen sweet corn. Other things to add now would be green beans, peas, or broccoli.

Finished soup!  Chopped chicken was also added near the end of cooking.  This soup can be stretched over several days, by adding some more water and seasonings and another vegetable here and there.

Finished soup! Chopped chicken was also added near the end of cooking. This soup can be stretched over several days, by adding some more water and seasonings and another vegetable here and there.

Author: paul
• Sunday, January 01st, 2012

I’m not counting chickens before they hatch, I’m counting eggs as they’re laid.  It’s less than a fortnight past solstice, and already the egg count is starting to rise.  No, we’re not getting dozens a day yet, and it’s not enough to put out the newsflash bulletins for everyone to start putting orders in for eggs.  But it’s definitely an uptick and numbers, and the color mix of our daily eggs has changed.

Maybe it’s just the excessively warm spell we’ve had this December, and not the passing of solstice at all.  It’s definitely clear though that some of our layers are back after their molt… we haven’t see a blue or green Auracauna egg for a month now, and in the last three days two of the Auracaunas have started laying again, nice big eggs.

We love how big the eggs are from the older birds.  We love having older birds around, actually, and not just because their eggs are among our largest.  Our two flocks have great leadership, both from the roosters and the hens.  A couple months ago now we took the thirty or so new pullet hens and their roos from their chick-to-pullet-coop and split them up and introduced them to their permanent flocks… the new Welsummers went west to the bigger flock, and the Cuckoo Marans to the east flock.

Having older birds and a stable flock/coop situation allows newcomers to settle in quickly.  There’s some initial confusion and a bit of put-you-in-your-place pecking, but that’s why it’s called a pecking order.  New birds come in near the bottom of the order, and work their way into a comfort zone.  Everybody finds a place, and within a short time, everybody knows everyone else and things are fairly settled socially.

Brunch with friends in the snow.

Brunch with friends in the snow.

I read once that 50-60 birds in a chicken flock is about the most that they can handle well, because more than that and their little chicken brains can’t keep track of the social structure and civilization breaks down.  We haven’t pushed the upper limits of that range too much;  our west flock is around 70 right now.  But it’s very clear that everyone knows everyone else, and they all understand the pecking order.  So I think the maximum reasonable Facebook friendslist for chickens could actually be much higher, given a comfortable coop and roosts at night and plenty of room for free-ranging during the day.  Not such teeny chicken brains after all.

Back in November, there were three Barred Rocks from the east side flock that refused to stay in their fenced pasture, and kept escaping to greener pastures.  The west flock has better fences, so after a week or so of this, we simply took the lead escape artist and carried her back to the west flock, setting her on a perch after dark so that in the morning, she’d find the new water, food and “friends” before setting out for the day’s foraging in new territory.  We’ve found this a pretty reliable way to introduce birds to different flocks, that they always seem to find their way back to the coop after waking up there.

Two more escape artists headed for the West Flock.

Two more escape artists headed for the West Flock.

In the morning at roll call, the escape artist found she’d fallen a few notches (plummeted, more like) and needed to find her new place.  Everyone in the West Flock knew this was someone different and yet someone who could belong here.  There were no death struggles, just don’t-stand-so-close-to-me messages and minor display-fight skirmishes.

Our wild/tame Tom turkey (who lives outside the flock in the trees, but spends all day with the west flock chickens) knows instantly who any newcomers are and quietly chases them around the hen yard, walking along with his long strides causing them to hop and run a little and behave themselves.  After an initial chase, Tom leaves the newcomers alone most of the day unless they get into skirmishes (which they do).  He’s our cop, breaking up all the fights, or trying to by sticking his head in and getting between skirmishers and *peenting loudly at them.  I don’t think the peenting does much, it’s not a very threatening sound, but he’s getting to be so massive that he’s definitely imposing.  He takes this job seriously, always picking out who he thinks is the troublemaker and targeting him/her specifically for little snakelike jabs with that big head of his.  So the newcomers learn fast to work their way up the ranks gradually, and not set off The Big Guy too much by being too much the social climber.

And it works.  We have happy flocks.  Whenever there’s a singleton newcomer introduced to a flock on either side, the process seems about the same.  Brief universal shunning, a few short spats, begrudging acceptance into the lowest tier, and gradual tolerance of the newcomer and a place on the roosts at night with opportunities for social advancement, given time.

Are you my neighbor?

Are you my neighbor?

It’s not a bad system.  Better than some human ones I’ve participated in.  Similar to several of them, more humane than a couple.  I think it’s closer to being a newcomer in high school than to being a new professor in a mid-tier academic department… the latter situation can range from uplifting to downright horrifying, depending on the roosters in that flock.  I’ve seen it both ways, occasionally at the same time in the same department.  Being now a bit removed from the daily academic environment affords me the luxury of looking back and seeing it with new eyes.

Roosting neighbors

Roosting neighbors

Overall, I loved being a professor.  And now I love being with my chickens even better.  Happy New Year.

*note to birders: I know that only woodcocks are said to “peent”, yet this unique and seldom used vocalization of the turkey reminds me of peenting (search “peenting” and you can hear woodcocks on YouTube), although it’s far from being the same call.  Someday I’ll record this insistent, nasal warning the turkey makes and post it.  Meanwhile, I’ll call it a peent.

Author: mandyrose
• Friday, November 25th, 2011

This blog is not abandoned.  :)

It didn’t even go off my radar, get forgotten, nor did I take a deliberate break from it. I am a diarist at heart, and most days this fall when I’ve been in the garden, bringing in the harvest, or walking in nature, I have composed a blog post in my head.  The trouble is with the time it takes to transfer from thought to paper or computer.

I thought of a blog post as we wrapped up the final market day, and switched our focus from feeding other people, to preparing our own winter food supply.

Our table last day at the Westside Farmers Market - incredible celery, leeks, and celeriac this fall.

Our table last day at the Westside Farmers Market - incredible celery, leeks, and celeriac this fall.

I thought of a blog post as the first frosts hit and we started to say goodbye to the garden, and began to light a fire in the woodstove daily.

I thought of a blog post as we dug potatoes, and more potatoes ….and more potatoes.

Tiredly, I thought often about posting about the sanctuary I felt in the garden, even if for only half an hour of twilight at the end of a frantically busy work day.

Last big harvest before frost.

I thought of a blog post as I walked through a wooded patch, hearing the birds, noticing how green the moss looks after a rain, when everything else has turned into winter browns.

I thought of a reactionary blog post every time I listened to news about Occupy Wall Street, “consumer confidence”, anti-consumerism, and the Plastic Ocean.

I composed words in my head about our harvest as it filled every bin, bucket, and tray we had, as we worked in the rain and by flashlight to bring the last of the perishables in by the first hard frost.

But with all this doing, our hands have been a bit busy for blog posting.  I am continually thankful and amazed by the enormous amount of food two people working two other jobs can produce from a tiny little plot of land.  We grow so much of what we eat now.  Eggs, chicken, greens of all sorts, beans, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, celery, celeriac, rutabega, squash, popcorn, apples, berries, herbs, onions, garlic, leeks, radishes, carrots.  Our own pickles, krauts, jams, sauces, cider.  So much to write about, and so little time to write!

Remains of the market garden

Some people call us a farm.  Some are amused that we call ourselves a farm.  Some get grand ideas in their head of how we must live and what the garden looks like, imagining an orderly organic utopia.  Sometimes their silence when they come to visit seems to tell of their disappointment.  We are small.  The “market field” is just a big messy garden.   The shutters are falling off the house because most days, we’re too darn busy or exhausted to fix them.  Our furniture is mismatched, and our kitchen needs remodeling.  This is what it looks like to live as much as we can right now from a patch of land, trying to reduce the need to buy, to turn less garbage loose into the world than we might. This is what it looks like to make do, purchase less, grow more, work hard.

Digging potatoes, and immediately replanting the bed with endive seedlings - just barely visible at the top of the photo.

And yet, somehow, we manage to grow enough beautiful produce to sell to others while feeding ourselves.    Somehow, we had an enormous Thanksgiving supper where the only store-bought ingredients I used in the cooking were milk, butter, cream cheese, salt, pepper, flour, arrowroot powder, olive oil, vinegar, anchovies, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, sugar, and wine.  There was so much joy and pride in roasting the 10 lb 3 oz “turkey” chicken who grew running around in our back yard, and so much peace and fulfillment in carrying baskets of greens and roots in from the garden, rather than braving the crowd at the grocery store.

The promoters of monoculture farming retaliate against the rise of interest in local food.  They try to win support by saying we can’t feed the world with small farmers, local produce, and organic techniques.  Yet I don’t see how 7 billion+ people will eat sustainably without digging up our lawns to grow chemical-free food.  I’m thankful for those who grow their own, or support others who do.   I’m thankful for the shoppers I know who are trying to buy less, buy locally, and use less plastic (in all senses of the word).  For me, Thanksgiving is about celebrating what bounty we can produce, rather than what bounty we can buy.  It’s about celebrating the wonder of being able to grow our food.

Happy Thanksgiving!