Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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9/9/2014

Monday, August 18th

Hammering

This week’s morning chore was to feed and water the broilers after they’ve been moved. I used to carry buckets that were about half full of water but I’m pleased to report I’m now up to ¾. Woohoo. After breakfast, it was back to turkey processing. We did another 135 turkeys and were done by very late morning.

Once the birds were done, we headed over to the rental farm we were working on last week to finish putting up the fence. The posts were in and it was time for the wire mesh to go up. We attached the wire to a tool called a fence puller and the tractor was used to pull the wire taught while we all pounded staples into the posts to secure the mesh. I was never known for my hammering finesse, which led to Joel coming over to ask what exactly was I doing. I believe he said it looked like I was trying to hit a baseball, but my swings were too small, so maybe he was referring to bunting. I was a bit sheepish that my hammering was so bad that he came from fifty yards away to see what was going on, so I don’t exactly remember what was said. Either way, I got a hammering lesson and it turns out I wasn’t using my wrist enough. After my lesson, I had what Joel referred to as a “hammering breakthrough” and the rest is hand tool history.

After a late lunch, I helped box up the birds then worked in the freezer with Eric, our apprentice manager, to stack the turkey boxes. It is getting to be a tight squeeze in there with all the turkeys so he needed someone who didn’t mind climbing over boxes to move things. It’s nice to get the turkeys all situated and prepped in time for the pre-Thanksgiving rush.

Tuesday, August 19th

After feeding and watering the birds, we set out to do more chipping and firewood stacking at one of the properties Polyface is renting. It seems like we do a lot of chipping, which we do, but it is an important part of creating and maintaining pasture. At several of the rental farms, we are trying to create and/or expand pasture areas and with all the available intern power, we have been focusing on these projects.

Later that afternoon, we went to watch while Daniel and apprentice Jonathan installed a cistern at one of the other rental farms. The issue we were having with this particular parcel is that when the cows would drink water, the existing well was not pumping fast enough to refill in time. The cows would get tired of waiting and knock over the trough, which is annoying and means they would have to wait while we right the tank and fill it before they can drink. The cistern will store the well water in the event that the cows drank the trough dry and will keep everything full and running as it should.

Wednesday, August 20th

Guardian Dog

Today was a new station on the processing line for me. I got to try my hand at legging. This station entails taking the birds from the kill cones, putting them in the scalder, moving them from the scalder to the plucker, keeping an eye on the plucker and scalder to make sure the birds are in there for the right amount of time, removing the heads and legs and sending them down the line to the gutters. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but it ended up being a lot of fun. I was telling some of the other interns this reminded me of waitressing. You have to pay attention and make sure nothing gets ignored. Missing a beat will send you completely into the weeds and then you bottleneck the line. Not cool. All in all, I picked it up quickly and really enjoyed myself. Legging is another position I’ll be campaigning to get again.

After packaging all the broilers for freezing, we got to go with Daniel and his son to go pick up a guardian dog puppy and a lamb for his son’s flock. We met with the breeder who explained to us how the dogs are trained, which was very interesting. Essentially, you put the puppy with the sheep and let them live together for about a week or so. You then take the dog and put him by himself. When you visit him to administer care, you do not fuss over the dog. The point is to make the dog lonely. When he goes back with the sheep, he will be so happy for the company that the dog/sheep bond is reinforced. You leave them together for another week or so and repeat the isolation process. You should only need to do this a few times until the dog’s bond is to the livestock as opposed to people. At this point, you can be friendly with the dog, but the dog shouldn’t want to leave the flock to be with you. This training process may seem a bit cold hearted, as nobody likes to think of a lonely puppy, but the dog is there to do a job, not be a pet, and needs to be trained as such. I think Daniel brought us so we could understand the importance of not patting and playing with the puppy in this formative time. He is a cute puppy, so sometimes it is hard to drive by and not run over and say hi, but it is the right thing to do.

Thursday, August 21st

On Thursday, I got the chance to do restaurant deliveries with Richard, our driver. It was a great experience. We left Polyface at about 7:30am and headed to Charlottesville, VA and ended the route in Harrisonburg, VA. What I found especially interesting was to see what types of goodies the different establishments had in their walk in refrigerators and freezers… beautiful produce and wonderful smelling sauces, among other things. I was hungry by the second stop. It was also exciting to the irrepressible saleswoman in me to see the variety of businesses that deal in local and sustainable food. This really is a movement, people, and there is money to be made. Farming can be profitable!

 

We went to several restaurants, high end grocers, butchers, bars and even a bakery delivering Polyface meats and eggs and produce and dairy from some neighboring farms. We didn’t get back until about 5:30, but it was a really fun day.

Friday, August 22nd

Forestry Lesson

After chores, we interns had the opportunity to have a forestry lesson with Joel. Dan’s and my property in New Hampshire (www.SugarRiverFarmNH.com) has a lot of woods that need some attention, so this seminar was of special interest to me. Joel took us up the mountain to an area that needed some thinning, explained to us what to look for in a tree to keep for lumber vs. ones you should use for something else. We then went through and thinned this section of forest, letting in much more light for the remaining trees. One important tip Joel shared with us was regarding epicormic growth. When a growing tree is suddenly exposed to lots of light, dormant buds will begin to sprout on the trunk, which ruins the tree. He explained to us that you take the diameter of the tree you would like to keep (for example, 8”) and convert that to feet (8’). Using said tree as a center, you make a circle around the tree with an 8’ radius. You do not cut anything within this 8’ radius, otherwise you subject your tree to epicormic growth. Any trees you leave become what is called a nurse tree, but you can remove brush and any other undergrowth.

Joel was explaining to us the importance of forestry and land management. He realizes that people have a hard time maintaining a forest as everyone needs to be profitable sooner rather than later and forestry is a long-term plan. His solution is to use your forests for your pigs. Pigs love the forest, especially the acorns one can usually find in them. You can then use your forests in a profitable way until your trees are ready to be harvested. As a nature lover, I really identify with wanting to steward my forests and I am glad for Joel’s monetary solution. I also got to use Joel's chainsaw. !!! Don't be jealous. Just kidding. :) Those of us here know how dearly Joel loves his chainsaw, so receiving a chainsawing lesson from the master then being allowed to use his chainsaw is an honor.

That evening, we went up the mountain for a small Polyface cookout, which was really nice. There is a beautiful view of the valley from the spot we chose and we roasted hotdogs and made s’mores over the campfire. It was a really nice way to wrap up the week.

We are getting close to September! Almost one month left! I hope you all are enjoying these posts as much as I am writing them. See you next week!



9/8/2014

Monday, August 11th

turkeys

My morning chore this week was to move the broiler shelters. The moving of the shelters went very well aside from that the birds didn’t seem to want to move. The way the Polyface shelters are set up is that one side of the pen is poultry wire and the other side is enclosed. The birds generally like to move towards light, so pulling the shelter from the poultry wire end is generally pretty easy and the birds move along with you. This week, due to the way the shelters are situated, we were pulling from the enclosed end so the birds would need to move towards the darker end, which they don’t usually like to do. The way to remedy this is to have someone else with you on the other side of the structure to help move the birds along. If there is nobody available, you just have to move the shelter very slowly. Fortunately, this wee I was paired with Erik, one of my fellow interns, as I was the mover and he was in charge of feeding and watering the birds after they were moved. I liked having him there, as the moving went along much faster.

The rest of the day was spent stacking wood, doing some work in the freezer trailers Polyface stores their inventory in and setting up a spigot on the water system upgrade Eric, our Apprentice Manager, and Daniel Salatin have been working on.

That evening we interns were invited to meet with the Salatin family, namely Joel, Teresa, Daniel, Sheri, Apprentice Manager Eric and his wife Leanna to discuss our future plans. This is the point where you would let them know if you were interested in applying for the apprenticeship position or if you had any other ideas you would like to run by them. We had had a few days to mull this over prior to the meeting and I took some time the weekend before to sit down and organize my thoughts. I had known shortly into the internship that I most likely would not pursue the apprenticeship for a few reasons. First was that I miss Dan and my family and I wasn’t prepared to be gone for another year. I am also really excited to get home, start working on my own farm and get to full time marketing my own products. I did ask the Salatins, however, if they would be allright with my teaching classes about what I had learned here, to which they were very supportive. The Polyface systems are very simple and can be applied in both rural and urban settings. I’m not sure if people really understand how easy it can be to try a bit of farming and I feel compelled to get the word out.

Tuesday, August 12th

Tuesday was one of the first really rainy days we’ve had during my internship time here at Polyface. After moving the broilers, most of the group was given the morning off while fellow intern Josh and I were able to help with buying club load up. I have written about buying club load up before, but it is really fun and I enjoy doing it. By the time we were finished, the weather had improved and we worked on repairing some of the broiler shelters in anticipation of new chicks. We then got the afternoon off, which I was very excited about and appreciative of. I took that time to find some wifi, submit my blogs to Mother Earth News and buy some new work gloves. I have a sneaking suspicion that my constant poison ivy is coming from contaminated gloves, so it was high time to upgrade.

Wednesday, August 13th

After morning chores, we worked on processing about 165 broilers and 100 turkeys. We did the chickens first because they’re easy and then prepped for the big birds. Turkeys are, as you can imagine, three to four times the size of a broiler and the processing time is about double. It took me a few birds to get used to the new ergonomics of working on these guys, but in the end everyone was doing well.

After lunch, we bagged the birds, weighed and inventoried them and boxed them up for freezing. This sounds simple, and technically it is, but it can get interesting quickly. I was at the end making and labeling boxes, packing birds in them, then shuttling boxes to other interns who were running them to the freezer and replacing the full box with a new one. Where one can only fit two to four birds per box and birds are flying down the line, it was pretty fast paced trying to keep everything organized. I like that this intern group likes to work quickly because we were all able to form a pretty efficient system without too much of a huddle and get everything done by mid afternoon.

After turkeys, fellow intern Tim and I went with apprentice Miriam to gather chicks from the brooder to put in the shelters Josh and I had prepped yesterday. I really like putting chicks out because they always look so happy when they first get out on grass while they bumble around looking at bugs and pecking at seeds. They get used to grass very quickly, so I like to make a point of watching them while this is all new and exciting to them.

Thursday, August 14th

fence postsAfter working with my broiler buddies this morning, Tim and I were assigned to dig post holes at the fence line we have been working on at one of the Polyface rental properties. I had mentioned earlier that we haven’t had much rain and the ground is pretty hard, hence the application of water to the existing holes. These holes were new and needed to be at least 30” deep, so this took a long time. It actually took most of the morning… But at least they’re done! I keep mentioning how much I have learned to love machinery and I felt like renewing my vows after those holes were finished.

I spent the rest of the afternoon picking up a tractor from the repair shop with apprentice Hannah, going back to the fence project to see the progress then heading back to do evening chores.

Friday, August 15th

Friday was more turkey processing. We ended up processing about 135 turkeys that morning and I was on the gutting station. Josh and I had the chance to go with Eric to a freezer facility about forty minutes away to store some of our inventory. The turkeys need to be stacked a certain way to allow for proper freezing and to do that, we needed to remove a decent amount of product from the Polyface freezers and store it somewhere else.

After lunch, we interns boxed up the birds using our system from Wednesday and were finished very quickly. Eric seemed very proud of our cooperative effort. We finished up chores a bit early and as a group went to the fair and watched a demolition derby. If you have never been, you really need to go! We had a great time.



9/8/2014

 Excluder on Box

At its simplest, a queen excluder is a mesh divider between the brood box and the honey super in a hive. The mesh is sized so the worker bees can pass through easily but the larger queen can not squeeze through.

Queen excluders may be made of plastic or metal, occasionally with a wooden frame. The material is a matter of personal preference. The plastic excluders are a bit less expensive; the metal ones will be more durable over the long run.

Why Use a Queen Excluder?

It may seem counter productive to keep the queen from some parts of the hive. She is the queen after all. In this picture you can observe a good reason to keep the queen from the honey super. Note the darker cells in an arch pattern near the bottom center of the frame. This is brood. The queen placed eggs in these cells. Since the cells are capped, we know that the developing bee is somewhere between 8 and 21 days old. Workers have stored honey in the rest of the frame which appears as a lighter color. This is a normal pattern and fine in the brood box. But when it comes to harvesting the honey, let's just say no one wants a pupae on their biscuit.

 Brood in Super

How To Use a Queen Excluder

Before adding a honey super, place a queen excluder on top of the brood box, then set the honey super on top of the excluder. This will act as a preventative before the queen starts laying eggs in the super.Excluder on HivePlacing Excluder

If you have not previously installed an excluder and notice brood in a super, carefully examine every frame in the super. Ensure the queen is not on these frames. If you do find the queen, gently  move her down into the brood box. Then install the excluder between the brood box and honey super. 

All is not lost if you do find brood in the super. Simply install the excluder, wait until the bees have hatched, let the house bees clean out the cells and hope they will refill with honey. If they do not refill these cells, the rest of the frame can still be harvested but the yield will be slightly less.

Why Not to Use a Queen Excluder?

More experienced beekeepers often do not use queen excluders in their hives. Bees may build comb on the excluder, blocking some of the access to and from the honey super. The larger drones may attempt to pass through and become stuck, again blocking the passage. Either of these situations will decrease the honey production.

When not using an excluder, the beekeeper should keep watch for where the queen is laying new eggs. Boxes can be rotated in the stack if necessary to keep the queen from climbing into the honey super. This technique is typically used in the early spring and keeps empty cells above the queen.

Given the operation at Five Feline Farm as hobby level beekeepers, it is far easier to prevent the problem in the first place. We are now adding queen excluders at the same time as the first honey super. This is the first year any of our hives had brood in the honey super, so we have learned another step we wish to take. 

For more information about Five Feline Farm and our activities, head over to our website www.FiveFelinefarm.com or check out our Facebook page. If email is your preference, drop us a line at fivefelinefarm@gmail.com



9/3/2014

Propane Stove

I do most of my tomato canning in August, when temps are peak. And I don’t choose to have air-conditioning in my house. That’s a personal choice, and here’s another: who says that big hot canning pot needs to be in my house heating things up? Nobody! Homesteading takes vigilance, always rethinking the norm and making logical decisions that might not be the mainstream way of doing things. Like cooking outside. And definitely, canning outside. That canner makes the house hot in a hurry, and it’s all pretty messy. Do it outside! Find a good space for your portable canning kitchen, either by the house or garden-side. I tend to set up solo canning or canning with a couple friends near the house, ideally on the covered porch. Big canning parties are set up out by the garden, because there are more tomatoes and mess and demand for space involved.

Canning on the Porch with a Friend

When I am canning in smaller batches, alone or with a couple friends, my outdoor kitchen consists of a campstove or two and propane tank and maybe a table. These are sessions I like to have near the house, so I can do other things while simmering tomatoes to thicken for hours. If it’s not a terribly hot day, I’ll simmer the tomatoes on the kitchen stove and reserve the outdoor propane campstove for the canner, just out the door nearest the kitchen. The canner creates the most heat in the house, and it heats up much faster on the campstove. Mostly, I want that canner on the back deck near the kitchen. I’ve also set the whole thing up right in front of the house or on the porch, where the mess won’t stress.  The great thing about this portable setup is that you can setup wherever you like and you will figure out which is the best scenario for you, and how it changes with each project. It depends on the weather, the participants involved, the simmering time, where the kids are, and what else is going on that day.

Canning by the Garden with a Group

Victoria Mill

When I have a large group canning session, we’re set up out at the garden in the open barn. It’s covered for some shade. This could be a pop-up or tarp next to the garden, so that a team of pickers can keep bringing bins of tomatoes straight from the vine. Dump them into coolers and rinse with the hose. Drain right into the grass. Folding tables or scrap wood tables are set up with multiple cutting boards for quartering tomatoes. Juice runs down the tables and it doesn’t matter. The tables can be hosed or wiped off. The Victoria Mill churns tomatoes into skinless puree, making its own drippy mess that doesn’t matter out there. Tables hold several camp stoves for the simmering tomatoes and the canner. For one canning party, several people brought their campstoves and we were cranking out the jars.  On days like this, we like to pull out the Mega Canner. It’s a half whiskey barrel and it holds 19 jars, compared with seven jars in a standard canning pot.

Mega CannerThe optimal outdoor kitchen has four table spaces. Keep in mind that when I am canning by myself, I work in my house or on the porch, with the canner on a portable campstove just outside the house. It can be that simple. But here I will share how I set up an outdoor canning kitchen for a crowd of helpers. The first table is a prep table—set up with cutting boards and knives, bowls and maybe a food mill like the Victoria Mill. The second table is for the stove tops. These are propane camp stoves. A single burner one is good for the canner, because it hogs the other burner anyway. A double-burner is good for two pots of simmering tomatoes. Having one of each is ideal, so there can be two pots of tomatoes going, maybe at different stages of puree, and the canner pot. Or make yourself a Mega Canner! The third table is a filling station, for filling the jars. This is a clean space with a ladle, a pouring funnel, a clean rage to wipe jar rims, a chopstick or such for running along the edges of each to release bubbles, boiled lids and rings, and tongs for transporting the jars to the canner. A jar of lemon juice and a measured tablespoon should be on this table--add a tablespoon to each pint jar of tomatoes to add some acidity for protection from botulism. The fourth table is the cooling table--for setting out hot jars to cool. Hopefully this table can be protected by cover and shade. Ideally this has some towels on it, to cushion the hot jars coming out of the boiling canner. If possible, leave hot jars here for 24 hours to cool before transporting elsewhere. Always consult a canning guide for safety guidelines and instructions on canning. Ball has always been the guide for canning.

If you are done with tomatoes, you can still incorporate these ideas for applesauce making. The heat in the house might not matter as much, but you might really appreciate the extra space with an outdoor setup and keeping the mess outside. Imagine if canning day didn’t take over the family kitchen space! Make the outdoor canning kitchen of your dreams, or keep it as simple as a propane campstove. 

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. They will be making a presentation about weeds and bugs in your organic garden at Mother Earth News Fair Sunday September 12. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News  and blog.houseinthewoods.com, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to HouseInTheWoods.com.



9/2/2014

Monday, August 4th 

This week’s morning chore was to work with the rabbits. Polyface’s rabbits are housed in a few different spots; the Racken, which is the hoophouse where the older laying hens sanitize the rabbit droppings, the big barn and in Hare Pens, mobile rabbit shelters placed in different central spots on the farm. My duties entailed feeding and watering all the rabbits in the Hare Pens and in the barn. When those were done, I’d check in with Hannah, our apprentice in charge of the rabbits, who was usually in the Racken feeding, breeding various pairs, keeping records and checking on the new babies. Some days I’d need to fill the bulk feeders for the hens that live in the Racken and other days entailed gathering comfrey leaves to feed the rabbits who aren’t on pasture. I really liked working with the rabbits. They’re quiet and cute and a nice way to start the day.

After breakfast, Hannah and I went to pick up calves at a farm about an hour from Polyface. I was really excited to go partly because I am a big fan of Hannah, but I also wanted to check out another cattle operation. This particular farm had a really nice sorting and loading area all under roof and the calves very calmly loaded up onto the trailer. Originally, I had been a bit apprehensive about how it would be hauling twenty +/- 500lb calves over an hour on the freeway, but they were well behaved the entire way back. Once we returned to Polyface, we sorted out the heifers from the steers, weighed them and gave them a new ear tag. Since the calves were so calm, it was a good chance for me to learn how to remove the old tag and put a new one in through the existing ear tag hole. We then brought the steers up to join the Polyface herd while the heifers went to a different herd at one of the rental properties.

Tuesday, August 5th

Tuesday was a comfrey day for the rabbits. After giving them their feed, I would take two five gallon buckets and harvest comfrey from one of the several comfrey patches on the farm. I like giving the rabbits their greens. It gives me a chance to check on each one and get to see the new babies.

The rest of the day we spent chipping, stacking and unloading wood. I did notice we were messing around with some logs that had these peculiar looking vines on them which I believe lead to a rip snorting case of poison ivy that manifested a day or so later. Oh well, such is the life of someone with sensitive skin. It was a good day and we got a lot done, but I was definitely tired. And itchy.

Wednesday, August 6th

Canning

I canned my first green beans with Teresa Salatin today! Yay! But more on that in a moment. We started out the day processing about 450 birds and I was on the quality control station. We check the birds for stray feathers the plucker may have missed, the odd lung or windpipe that was left behind and basically give the carcass the once over to make sure it is ready for market.

 After lunch, when we usually bag and sort the birds, I got the opportunity to work with Teresa, Joel Salatin’s lovely wife, on canning green beans. I had never canned before and had asked if I could help if there was any that needed to be done. Initially, we snapped the beans and made them into bite site pieces. We then washed them many times in cold water, put them into clean jars, put ¼ teaspoon of salt and added boiling water. By no means is this a recipe on canning or a tutorial, since I’m definitely a newbie. The cans then went into Teresa’s pressure canner. (I want one of those!) Canning was a lot more straightforward than I was expecting and I’m looking forward to canning more.

Thursday, August 7th

Rabbit duty got a little less cute today. It was rabbit processing day. After chores and breakfast, Hannah and I picked seven rabbits (The number is based off pre orders placed through restaurants and buying club. Sometimes it’s more than thirty and other times it’s only a few.) and brought them to the processing shed. I then learned how to dispatch, skin and gut a rabbit. I have rabbits of my own (Don’t worry guys, I’m not going to eat you.) and I anticipated that it would be difficult to butcher such a cute little fluffball, but it wasn’t.

Hannah’s rabbit processing set up and procedures are pretty simple. The rabbits are taken from their crate, hit with a pipe on their forehead to quickly stun then and then bled out. We then put their feet into these little slipknots that are already hung from the ceiling, remove their skin and organs, leaving the livers with the rabbit and bag them up for clients. Hannah can process three rabbits in the time it takes me to finish one, but she gave me the chance to work on three of the seven. I ran into trouble separating some of the joints, but I think that I will get more proficient with practice. As I write this, I’m envisioning the surprise many who know me will feel reading that I have butchered rabbits. I have always been a big animal lover and had lots of pets, so I’m sure this new skill seems odd. I take comfort, though, in knowing that the process by which the rabbits are butchered is fast and low stress. These bunnies are for food, not for pets, and the way I can express love for them is to provide them with a good life and a quick departure.

We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing for a fence line installation at one of the rental properties. Some of the other interns had dug holes for the fence posts while I was chipping on Tuesday and every day since we have been filling the holes with water. We haven’t had much rain here and the ground is really hard. This can make post pounding difficult and annoying, so adding water really helps.

Friday, August 8th

After chores, we interns processed about 500 chickens. This Friday was fresh bird pick up at the farm, where people can pre-order fresh birds and come to the farm to buy them. I was on quality control again and between everyone, we were finished with the birds by noon.

After lunch, we packaged the birds, setting aside some for those who had pre-ordered. I then went with Hannah and Will, a fellow intern, to move some cows across a road on a property Polyface is leasing for grazing. The move went well but once the cows were in their new pasture, we noticed some party games from a kid’s birthday were still out in the field and had to haul them out. I'm sure the people driving by were wondering what the three people in the cow pasture were doing carrying a water balloon catapult through a herd of steers. It's always something.

Saturday, August 9th

This was a weekend where I was working, hence the Saturday entry, but it ended up being a great day. After chores, fellow intern Greer and I were given the chance to work on our tractor skills and were asked to take the feed buggy up to the Eggmobile and fill the feeder. I still need to work on backing up, because it took a few tries to get the buggy close enough to where the arm of the buggy would reach the feeder, but we were excited we got this done without any supervision/intervention. After our glorious tractoring, I went with Hannah to pick up peaches from an orchard about an hour away. The families of Polyface end up buying seasonal produce in bulk and setting it aside. We picked up eight bushels (a lot of peaches) but they smelled so good I bought some for myself. I enjoyed seeing another farm business and the amount of customers they had for their peaches. It gives me hope for my and Dan’s farm enterprise.

The afternoon was spent with Miriam, one of the apprentices, setting up a shade structure for the cows at one of the other rental properties. Since it was the two of us, it took longer than normal. (We usually have about four people helping.) Once we got back, I gathered the eggs and we wrapped up with enchiladas at Daniel and Sheri Salatin’s.

Polyface

I hope you all are enjoying reading about how things are going. Next week will be a lot of work with turkeys, so check back in if you’re looking to talk turkey. (Sorry. Bad pun.)



8/30/2014

Free Range Poultry Confined

One of my routine screening questions when a person approaches the APPPA booth at a trade show or calls the office is, “Are you raising poultry on pasture now?” Many times, I get an affirmative response, but the person substitutes free-range for pasture.

What Does ‘Free-Range’ Mean?

I know you may not see the problem. Who can argue with free-range? But I’m not a member of the American Free-range Poultry Association. And there’s good reason for that. The mainstream implementation of free-range is anything but ideal, and it typically violates the visual of a flock of chickens foraging across an open range. It short, it has about as much meaning as the “natural” label.

Yes, I’m talking about free-range CAFO chickens and turkeys, and it’s a real problem that the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) get away with labeling their products as free-range with nothing more than access to the outside.  There is no mandate to make the birds go outside.

Since becoming APPPA’s mouth piece, I’ve made the pasture-raised difference one of my key educational issues. Like most obfuscated issues in food, this starts with marketing. The marketing problem of pasture-raised versus free-range is a very simple one, and people who produce poultry and people who eat poultry should do well to understand the nuances.

Free-range is a USDA label which basically means the birds have access to the outdoors and consequently they aren’t raised in cages. That’s a broad definition and it’s abused by the large poultry integrators who cater to consumer intent with a government sanctioned production loop hole. Free-range implies a bird on range or pasture, but it’s not actually required.

In some cases, a CAFO organic broiler might not get access to the outdoors until they are six weeks old. That’s move out day for most of those young meat birds.

For those of us who have raised meat birds, especially Cornish Cross, we know that the longer we wait to introduce them to pasture, the less likely they are to venture into the grass, let alone graze. A typical pastured poultry farmer will have a meat bird on pasture between two and four weeks, where it lives and forages the majority of its life on fresh, green grass, giving life to the free-range ideal.

Are Free-Range or Pastured Poultry More Nutritious?

For the broiler nutritional study APPPA conducted in 2013, I sampled a non-organic free-range CAFO broiler along with another free-range organic CAFO broiler for some comparative numbers. There were several key differences compared to the pastured samples. The pastured samples showed elevated levels of vitamins D and E, whereas the free-range samples were negligible. Depending on the feed type, the pastured raised samples had an omega 6:3 ration of 3:1 (non-soy feed) or 8:1 (soy feed) compared to 11:1 for the two free-range CAFO samples I purchased for the test. Vitamins D and E and the omega profiles are a few of the often-cited differences in grass-based production systems.

This is part of the story we tell about our products, and it’s the type of things that sets our meat and eggs apart from the status quo. People can quibble about what the differences mean, but they can’t quibble with the repeated clinical demonstrations that pasture-raised poultry has unique qualities.

Marketing Pastured as Free-Range

What about pastured poultry producers who market their products as free-range?

Sadly, this is a reality that many producers must realize. I’ve heard many stories from pastured poultry producers who have had problems selling pasture-raised in the past because their customers wanted free-range. The romantic visual of chickens or turkeys free ranging in a pastoral field, unencumbered by any boundary, gets in the way of making informed decisions.

Producers need to draw a line and ask themselves the tough question, which goes something like this. “If I raise a superior product on pasture using a managed rotation that benefits the poultry, the land, and the customers, then why market that superiority using the same terms found in a commodity CAFO chicken?”

Thankfully, this marketing trend is changing, and consumers are asking for pastured poultry by name with an increasing frequency. Consumers are wising up to the difference, and I field an increasing number of questions throughout the year from people who turn to APPPA’s members in search of pasture-raised chickens, eggs, turkeys, and more.

Producing Pastured Poultry is More Than Chicken

Going through the expense and labor of producing small flocks on pasture demands a different descriptor than the watered down free-range reality. Joel Salatin gave us that label in the 1990’s. It’s called pastured poultry and it embodies the difference between the CAFO chicken and the local pasture-raised kind.

I typically boil pasture-raised down to a very simple idea. The birds are given fresh, green grass as part of a managed rotation as seasonally appropriate. The nice thing about pastured poultry is that there is no central body defining what pastured poultry is and there’s no conventional poultry integrators claiming to produce broilers, eggs, turkey, or anything else on pasture. This is a point of difference that should be marketed.

The lack of a centralized, and therefore controlled, definition is that it inspires innovation. That innovation creates a number of production models and housing methods that can be adapted to meet the circumstances of breeds, farms, and geographies.

Free-Range is Not Manageable, in Most Cases

Unless you’re rotating a free-range flock of hens through 50 acres or more for pasture cleaning, I’d argue that there is nothing manageable about turning out a flock to run through the barnyard at-will. The 50 acres is a number borrowed from Joel. I can say with certainty that free ranging is not suited for a couple of acres.

I’ve tried free ranging a few chickens by turning them loose to run the farm and neighborhood. They’d return to the barn to roost at night. The result was neighbor complaints, poop everywhere, scratched up flower beds (or gardens), holes where grass used to be, disappearing hens, and an endless list of potential downsides that appeared on a regular basis.

The free-for-all-free-range method was not manageable. My land recognized no benefits from controlled grazing; the birds overgrazed their favorite areas which eventually denuded those areas, and I still had a coop that needed purchased bedding and cleaning. And who knows if I ever got all my eggs.

One year, I recall we lost a Speckled Sussex only to have her reappear two weeks later looking like she escaped a fox’s mouth. My only guess was that she laid a clutch of eggs somewhere on the perimeter of a neighbor’s property and then went broody.

Advice to Customers

I’ve long held the position that people who seek free-range poultry and eggs are really seeking pasture-raised. That’s my belief, and I’m sticking to it.

The best way to ensure you get what you want is to shop someplace where you can ask the farmer questions because relying on a label alone to authenticate your purchase can be a deceiving game. I’d recommend you look for pastured poultry farmers in your community. Pastured poultry will live a majority of its life on pasture and will be rotated to fresh green grass in a managed (i.e., deliberate) way that benefits the bird, the land, and the eater.

Ask for pasture-raised.

Mike Badger is the director for American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA), leading the organization’s mission as a nonprofit educational and networking organization dedicated to encouraging the production, processing, and marketing of poultry raised on pasture.



8/29/2014

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Late summer is the time to be on the lookout for robber bees. Robbing behavior is when foraging bees from one hive enter and rob resources from another, usually weaker, hive. If not prevented, or if not stopped once robbing has begun, the robber bees can completely empty all the stores from the target hive, causing it to starve. Even if the target hive survives, it can be greatly weakened and its remaining bees may become extremely defensive and difficult to manage.

Why Does Honey Robbing Occur?

Robbing occurs during a dearth of nectar. In Middle Tennessee, that can mean before the flowers begin blooming in the spring or it can mean in the height of summer, after the spring bloom and before the fall bloom. The bees have little to forage on and are drawn to the smell of honey in neighboring hives. If the bees can successfully challenge and overcome the guard bees, they will enter the hive and begin robbing. They will then return to their own hive to recruit more robbers. If not stopped, a frenzy of fighting, killing, and robbing will ensue. Soon you may have piles of dead bees and torn-up wax in front of a doomed hive.

How to Prevent Honey Robbing

You can help to prevent robbing by leaving enough honey on all colonies to get them through the times in your area when flowers are not blooming. If you’ve harvested all of their honey, they will be starving and will be more likely to rob nearby hives. If you open the hives to feed them during a time of dearth, the smell of the sugary syrup or honey can incite robbing. At these times, it’s best to minimize your activity in the bee yard, getting into the hives only when absolutely necessary. Using a screen to reduce the entrances can help the guard bees by decreasing the area they must defend without restricting airflow through the hive in the summer.

Sometimes beekeepers mistake orientation flights or swarming for robbing. In orientation flights, the bees are young, fuzzy bees, and they are numerous but calm in their back-and-forth flights in front of the hive. Robber bees are older, slicker bees, having worn down the “fuzz,” and will behave in a frenzied manner, fighting with guard bees on the landing board and in front of the hive. When swarming, bees will be exiting rather than entering the hive and will flying enmass around the queen--not fighting with one another. Once they leave the hive, most of the activity will be high above the hive and not at the entrance. Swarming takes a matter of minutes whereas robbing can go on all day.

If you see robbing in your bee yard, you’ll want to stop it immediately. Cover the hive with a wet sheet (this has worked well for me when I’ve had to do it). Reduce the entrance or screen it up completely for a day or two. Some people suggest taking the top cover off the stronger hive so that the bees will have to stay home and defend their own hive. This seems extreme and I have not tried it; however, I but might consider it if I couldn’t stop the behavior otherwise.

If you hive that has been robbed and left very weak, it may be best to combine it with another hive before winter.

Like other disasters in the apiary, robbing is easier to prevent than to stop. And at the risk of sounding like a broken record (if you follow my blog), it’s another good reason not to harvest so much honey from your bees that you have to feed them!












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