poultry

You are currently browsing articles tagged poultry.

Roosters are the boon and the bane of the farmyard. As protectors of the hens, they are fierce contenders. Face off with a rooster asserting his territorial rights and you quickly learn the meaning of  “macho.” We have knocked roosters ass over tailfeathers in such confrontations, then had to run away after an even more determined counterattack.

Clyde was that kind of rooster. He let you know he was a master of the universe–his universe–from his first early morning wakeup calls to his defence of his flock. You didn’t mess with Clyde on his turf if you knew what was good for you.

We are using the past tense here because the coyote that nailed Clyde Saturday night apparently didn’t get the message. When Louisa discovered the remains, all that was left of our rooster was a sad little pile of feathers. Louisa was crestfallen at the death of a kindred soul.

We would never have called Clyde a friend exactly, but he did earn our respect. You know New Hampshire’s license-plate motto, “Live Free Or Die”? Well, Clyde managed to do both.

Which raises a broader philosophical question that we are currently wrestling with around here.

If open-pasture grazing for Clyde and his hens–instead of being cooped up in a smaller enclosed run–means you are also prey to predators, is freedom worth the price? In other words, suppose the slogan was, “Live Free and Die.”

We are well aware that this goes beyond chickens, but we’ll stick to the issue at hand for now. We sell most of our hen’s eggs at a nice little profit. But now, with Clyde gone, we have to decide whether to get another rooster and keep the flock at its current size–about 100 hens–or cut back, keeping the remaining hens in our more confined upper chicken run, and skip the new rooster. We’d be trading some profit for some peace.

Around here, this is not all that philosophical. Last night, for instance, when the interns  went to lock the hens and other birds into their houses for the night they were startled by a large barred owl that came swooping down out of the trees. The owl was casing the henhouse. It was a dramatic entrance, but it would have been curtains for a stray chick.

In a similar situation the late Clyde would have shooed his hens under the cover of a tree or under the henhouse or some other protection. (If you need a better picture of what we are talking about here, consult the April 28 post, “Farm Guide” for an aerial view of the farm and its various sectors.) Then Clyde, tough guy that he was, would have probably challenged the owl, and maybe driven it away.

On the other hand, experience has taught us that Clyde and his ilk–that is to say, roosters in general–can be a pain. Last year, when one of the interns went into the chicken yard to gather eggs, the rooster jumped him and ended up sitting on his chest. Roosters, with their testosterone overload, seem to get in everyone’s face and they never shut up.

Some women we know would say this is a gender situation not necessarily confined to barnyards–or roosters. That’s another philosphical debate we’ll skip. We’ve got enough on our plate right now.

Any ideas?

Persephone

Tags: , ,

Louisa’s turkey and chicken pen sometimes has a frenetic air to it, with chickens squawking, eggs laid hither and thither, turkeys wandering around, and everyone pecking at everything and making a racket. Maybe it is just so many loudmouths in one spot, or perhaps it is the everpresent threat of a marauding hawk or eagle swooping in for a quick kill that keeps things on edge, but chaos seems to dominate.

But something odd has been happening in the pen lately–the place seems steeped in serenity. (Reminds us of an editor we once knew who concocted a headline for a slow news day: “Tranquillity Ran Rampant in Yonkers Yesterday.”) The turkey hens are gently rolling their eggs in the henhouse to keep the pre-hatchlings happy. Chocolate, the lone Tom, is leading the young turkey poults on expeditions around the pasture and spelling the hens on the eggs. Even the chickens seem to have calmed down a bit now that summer is showing its face.

Of course, a couple of days of sunshine in June and a bit of peace and quiet doth not always a summer make, and we’ve certainly fallen for this dodge before, so we’re not breaking out the flip-flops just yet. But if this be summer, bring it on.

The latest news is a new pair of goslings that Louisa has added to the fowl pen.

Newcomers

 The young geese seem to be fitting right in, pecking lazily around the yard and mingling peaceably with the rest of the birds, making sort of pre-gooselike honkings at passers-by. We’re not sure of their sex yet–they’re still in that fuzzy asexual stage–but we’re hoping that eventually they’ll breed and add to the farm’s feathered collection. Already, their honks have changed the tone of the pen’s music.

Meanwhile, the rest of the farm is preparing for our annual garlic-peeling party tomorrow evening. Despite the gloomy note of our previous post the party is on. We have about 16 rows of hard-neck garlic left in the field. Louisa and the interns will pull those plants at the last minute and pile them for peeling in the yurt meadow. Rebecca and the interns are already hunting up their favorite garlicky recipes for the accompanying potluck, and our local musicians are tuning up to entertain. By sundown, we expect both the garlic peelers and our barn loft will be stuffed.

Hardneck Garlic

The thing about garlic is that it is both strong and delicate. This crop was planted last fall and over the winter we’ve lost about a third of it to bad weather and mould. Most of our guests will go away from the garlic peeling with seconds–bulbs that are fine to eat but have taken up too much moisture to hang in the barn and must be used now. The rest we will haul up into the barn loft where it will hang in the rafters and dry. As it does it will gain strength, reaching its peak potency by the fall and winter.

There is something civilized and reassuring about gatherings like this, with neighbors and friends, grownups and kids, all sitting in a big circle on the meadow on hay bales and blankets, spending an early summer evening working on something so tangible while trading news, gossip and recipes. There will be music and tables loaded with good food. For us, the season tends to divide itself with these events, almost as much as by the weather and crop cycles themselves. 

We are not always such a harmonious bunch of course, and to be sure this year’s cool, wet spring has created its own set of frictions and frustrations, both down in the turkey pen and out in the field. But warmer weather and the promise of filling the barn loft with bunches of garlic that have passed through many patient hands seems to smooth things over and bring out the best in everyone.

We’d like to believe this sense of peace and harmony will hang around for the rest of the season. But like the weather and the crops, nothing can be taken for granted around the farm.

This week, we’ll be happy with a single wondrous evening of rampant  tranquillity.

Persephone

Tags: ,

This post by Louisa has been one of the most popular posts on our farm site–www.persephonefarm.com–so we decided to hijack it and make it a guest post here and on our Farmer’s Guide page. If you have any comments or questions, please post them to this site.

Persephone

—————————-

“There are two main groups of turkeys in the world of agriculture. Turkeys that carry the broad breasted gene, and heritage turkeys, older breeds developed before the introduction of broad breasted varieties. Broad breasted types are the kind that everyone is familiar with and have eaten for years. They cannot mate naturally and are all artificially inseminated. Most information about raising turkeys refers to these birds.

Over the last few years I have had several groups of heritage turkey hens raise their own babies. I tried to find information about how to enable this to happen, and other than Barbara Kingsolver’s brief description in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I found very little to go on. As heritage turkeys become more popular to raise, I thought other people might benefit from what I have learned, through trial and error, knowing that the every season I refine my methods as I learn more about what is amenable to them.

I was given twenty bronze chicks that a friend had raised to six weeks old in his basement, several years ago in April. I fenced a pasture to six feet about one acre in size. This keeps the birds in, gives them plenty of room to forage, and keeps dogs and coyotes out (most of the time). This pasture has several large trees and a couple of shrubby areas for cover. I also run about 75 laying hens in this area. I put a low fence between the birds, which the turkeys can cross but the hens cannot so that they won’t eat up the more expensive turkey food.

I built them a semi-portable house with sturdy walls and a tight door to keep raccoons away at night. I read that turkeys liked an open sky to roost so I added two roof panels with clear plastic corrugated roofing and two screened windows for ventilation. Most of the time they will go in of their own accord, but not as reliably as chickens. In good weather they will sometimes just squat on the ground at night. When this happens I have to herd them into their house, for fear that raccoons will eat them, and this is the biggest pain about raising turkeys.

They are gentle on the pasture and forage well but I also feed them high protein organic turkey food. They do not eat nearly as much as chickens, but eat more during their peak growth period. When I have small poults in the run I give them 28% protein game bird starter. Turkeys need this extra protein to grow well.

When female turkeys are ready to mate, they hang their wings down and get kind of droopy, or squat down before the toms. The toms puff up, fan and vibrate their tails. Their heads turn blue, their necks red, and they huff. They will walk on the hen’s backs to mate. This is called treading. I have heard this described as hard on the hens but I have never seen any signs of damage or discomfort. To anyone who has watched a rooster in action this is positively gentle and kind.

That first season, just when I was getting ready to butcher them for Thanksgiving, two of my hens started to lay eggs along one of my fence lines in a clump of grass. I was afraid to move them and also afraid that something would eat them at night. I built an elaborate fenced thing with a tarp rigged over them to help them out.

I have since learned that if they nest in an inconvenient area, you can just move the eggs to a straw filled house and they will change their nesting location readily. The hens share nests and multiple hens will lay in one nest. The hens will bury the eggs, which are larger than a chickens egg, more pointed on one end and speckled, and will carefully pull bits of straw over them just so. The hens won’t sit on a nest until there are fifteen to twenty eggs in a nest.

One year, I created three nests and kept the numbers such that they wouldn’t sit until all three had enough eggs. It was less than ideal having them hatch in December that first year, but usually they do this in the spring. Another year, I had hens sit on unfertilized eggs for a long time, so they do not know not to do this.

When the toms have access to the hens during full-swing laying, there can be problems. The toms have stomped on the eggs deliberately to break them all. Also I have had the hens refuse to sit while the toms are around. When I removed the toms, they sat the next day.

It starts with one hen getting the idea to sit and will dabble a bit at first, getting up and spending the night on the nest. After several days, she will get serious about staying on the nest and soon all of the other hens will join in. One of the interesting features of heritage turkeys is this communal nesting. If the hens are not allowed to join together, everyone does poorly.

At first, I thought that a sitting hen would like privacy, and they do from toms and humans, but they need to be together. They will hurt themselves trying to get together and the babies will die more readily. The sitting hens like to have access to pasture and will rise once a day to eat and drink a give a large poop, then return to the nest after twenty minutes or so. The hens seem alert and nervous when sitting so I try not to scare them off the nest and pretend that I don’t see them. They like the idea that they are hidden. I keep dogs and loud people away from them at this time.

After 28 days or so, the babies will start to hatch. Over the next two days, they will emerge. Late hatchers tend to die and after a couple of days the hen will move off the nest a bit, keeping the babies under her wings. I put small feeders and waterers near them so the mom and babies do not have to go far. The babies can get lost and die so I try to make it simple for them and keep a look out for strays peeping pitifully when I am around. The moms will not leave a group of chicks to find one lost chick. In my climate this is usually in April or May so the weather is a bit warmer and the chicks have a better chance at survival. I remove the unhatched eggs after a few days because they really stink.

I have tried keeping the families confined (for their safety, we have a lot of raptors and predators), and let them take their chances in the open pasture. I have had by far greater success with letting them free, way less dying babies.

Heritage turkeys have lots of learned behaviors, unlike chickens, which are more instinctual. Turkeys imprint on their moms or on the person raising them, sometimes both. Day old poults, from the hatchery are rather expensive, need a lot of teaching and tend to die. I found that by having the hens do all the work, it was more manageable for me.

Sometimes, the game bird starter is old or deficient in vitamins and the baby birds develop leg problems. As soon as I see this happening, I put a tiny pinch of vitamin electrolyte powder in their water that I buy from my local feed store. This seems to clear up the problem really quickly. After a week or two I stop giving it to them and they have done well.

As the birds get older I clip the flight feathers on one wing to keep them from roosting in the trees. Unlike chickens, they will need to be clipped several times that first year, as the feathers tend to grow back. If they roost in trees they tend to roam the neighborhood and could fall to predation or get lost. Also they are hard to catch and manage. Turkeys are really good flyers and can jump very high. I clip the right wing for the ones I intend to eat and the left wing for the breeders. This doesn’t hurt them if you do not clip to close to the wing but it does make them very lopsided fliers.

Turkeys gain weight and get larger for nine months or so. I often choose my butchering date based on what people want rather than their prime size. Christmas is probably better than Thanksgiving for size. The toms are much larger than the hens. I like having the hens in my freezer as they are a good size for a family meal with some leftovers. A lot of people like a smaller turkey. I butcher them myself and they are somewhat harder to manage than a chicken because of their size and weight.

My turkeys come running when I enter the pasture and will pick at a shiny button or a shoelace but never attack. They will run after a running child, which can scare the kid, but for the turkeys it is kind of a game. They are interested in people and new things. My neighbors visit the turkeys often and they are a destination in my small town. People will honk their horns at grown turkeys to make them gobble. Kids like to scream at them. I try to discourage this because it bugs me. I would not consider raising heritage turkeys to be exactly profitable, although people will pay a good price for them, but it is fun and interesting. With each season, I learn new things to have greater success at raising them.

I hope this helps others who might like to try this project. We are busy at the farm so I can’t respond to your comments or emails about this subject.

Tags: , , ,