Well, we've had enough hibernation, time to get going, eh? The animals sure seem to be echoing this sentiment. The other day, the crafty, small sow broke out by pushing the water trough onto the fence, thereby flattening it to the ground. Henceforward she trotted into the warm chicken coop greenhouse and startled a few girls, who took their space, as you can see. At this point, I come out the house to see mister double avocados swaying his hips across the flattened fence. I didn't know he was following his madame, I just figured he was going for the chickens' feed, so in an effort to head him off I grabbed a scoop of feed and closed the door! As I poured it in the pig's pen to lure him back in, I hear some crashing sounds and see crafty sow smash through the bottom of the door!!! What blubbery bulldozers. It was just some plexi-glass type of material, so it didn't hurt her, not that much seems to! The boar especially likes to smash into stuff - mostly other pigs who give a grunt of consternation in return, but bearly more than a rumble of annoyance in even the most cataclysmic-looking T-bone collisions. I learned that punching the side of the sow with his snout actually helps her ovulate! But he is a little excessive sometimes. Hopefully cabin fever leads to the conception of many piglets!
We forgot to ask the original 15 Mama Hens what they thought about a horde of chirping, chipping and chapping young chickens in the midst of their rebelious teenage youth being insufferably imposed upon their placid existence... and we must say, despite the impropriety of our actions, the 15 Mamas handled it with distinction and aplomb. For the first day we would often find the Mamas huddled together, clucking and cooing, and these farmers can only imagine what was said..seeing how our ears were burning feverishly!
The Meat of the Matter
We are raising a mixed flock of meat birds and laying hens, with the intent to pasture. Hence, the desired qualities in our flock were strong pasturing/foraging instinct, good egg-laying capabilities, a unique mix of egg colors, winter hardiness for the hens, and fast growth for the male birds. We decided on two breeds strictly for raising as meat birds (Red Rangers, Buff Orpington), two breeds strictly as layers (Amberlink, Americana), and three breeds we got as 'straight runs' (Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Brown Nugget, Jersey Giants). A 'straight run' is just a mixed gender group, which tend to be more male dominant in numbers. For pictures of most of these breeds, head to the slide show at the bottom of the blog.
Our goals around pasturing chickens are to increase the life experience for all the chickens (fresh air, sunshine, constantly shifting pasture for cleanliness, etc.), to help keep feed costs down by providing consistent access to a grass/clover pasture blend (it is estimated that a chicken can get up to 25% of their diet from pasturing), and improving the health of the pasture by the chickens built-in fertilizer maker (how's THAT for a polite way to speak of poop?!)
However, we have found they are incessant consumers of feed, and if there is even a short break in feed supply, they voraciously attack the food when it comes again. So while perhaps better than the Cornish Cross, they are a still a fast growing bird that has very high food/energy needs. Unfortunately, because we are raising them co-mingled with the young laying hens, we don't have a good understanding of exactly how much food they are consuming per growth rate.
(more professionally known as the feed conversion ratio)
((more personally known as.. HOW much did we pay to raise that bird??))
We are using an electrified fence similar to what was discussed in the pig blog post, though this netting is taller, with smaller openings, and delivers a much more mild shock. Though truth be told, we have found they basically ignore what is outside the fence when there is so much food, freedom and fun to be had inside the fence!
If any of you ever find yourself in the need of moving 100 chickens from one place to the next, let us give you this piece of advice; do it at night! Chickens are flighty creatures, who don't like to be chased, and especially not captured. After the chickens have set-up shop for the night and have gone into a snoozy doze, they rarely stir as you pick them up and bring them to their new home. This also helps them to adapt better to a new home as they wake up in a new space. We then kept them locked-in for the day so they got a strong sense of homey protection, especially as they were sung to sleep by Coyote's Song.
We will continue to watch and learn the woodland way, so you can expect more plant geek babble from us farmers through the year. As well, as we develop our Vision Page, you will be able to find a more in-depth discussion of our woodland management strategy. For now, enjoy the images below, as these farmers need to get ourselves back into the field.
We were seeking a breed that had a strong instinct for livin' la vida Pasture, and boy did we find some pasturing fiends in this lucky lil' group of 7. They love rooting around, eating grass, and stealing each others grubs. But most of all, they love their Pig Palace Grandeur! (see video) This was the visionary brain child of Farmer Rye.
The pigs will play an absolutely vital role in the Fresh Starts Farm operation. We will use their natural tilling power, combined with their desire to leave their manure wherever they go, to enhance soil fertility in our fields. As we look to expand our current vegetable production area, we will be putting that land into a succession of cover crops, running pigs through to eat and till up the cover crops, seed in more cover crops and repeat the cycle. Over the course of the season this will help to reduce weed/grass population in that area, while adding great fertility. As well, we also have close to 40 acres of clover/grass pasture which the pigs will rotate through.
Watch these lil' guys in action below!
However, it is not only in our grass/clover pastures and cover-cropped future vegetable production areas that these little pigs have a role. For on our 160 acres we have 65 acres of woodland that are filled with Oak Trees. For those of you familiar with the infamous acorn-finished Black Iberian Pigs in Spain, I am sure the salivary glands are running full steam ahead. For those not familiar, let's just say there is something mystically delightful in the relationship between acorns and mouth-watering pork. Our woodlands have a wonderful mix of Northern Red Oak, White Oak, Northern Pin Oak and Burr Oak. We aim to slowly move towards running the pigs through the woodlands in the Fall to feast upon the fallen acorns, and producing a regionally re-known pork product.