Summer just wouldn’t be summer without barbeque sauce-smothered chicken smoking on the grill. The smell of grilling chicken is very pleasant and I often feel as if I’m missing out when I catch the smell occasionally filling my neighborhood.
Food is often extremely enjoyable prepared in the proper manner with the right tools and knowledge. From the time the ingredients reach your kitchen until it’s plated and on the table, thought and care have gone into every detail because a meal is a shared experience.
A quality meal’s story doesn’t always start at the grocery store or the farmer's market, but increasingly in a backyard garden or a small farm, and in our case in our grassland pasture. <
This is how we grow chicken, truly free-ranged. Grass, sun, wind, rain, and a little perspiration help ensure that our birds are healthy and happy.
The winter solstice has come and gone, marking the slow return of the growing season, and we are starting to get a few more eggs each day. A chicken lays about one egg each day depending on a number of factors like food consumption, temperature, and health. But the most important influence on this process is the number of hours of sunlight each day. We most definitely have warmer and longer days, but it’s not yet time to put the chickens out to pasture.
During winter we have housed our chickens in a large, warm, hoop house allowing the pasture the time it needs to recover for the next growing season. Keeping them in a hoop house during the coldest months also has some convenient advantages; it’s dry, warm, and safe– everything a chicken could need to feel secure on a snowy day. I find I get a deep feeling of satisfaction each time I see the chickens enjoying themselves, running, jumping, and scratching around in the hoop house. As it happens, this is a chicken’s favorite activity in summer, scratching around in the soil and crowns of plants looking for bugs or whatever else they can find (they are very curious).But in the late fall every year it becomes necessary to take the chickens off pasture.
The grasses and bugs are no longer flourishing and will start to hibernate as winter sets in. When we house them during the winter months we manage the chickens with a deep litter system. A deep litter system is an old farming practice that focuses on creating over the length of winter a deep bed of composting grass hay, straw, peanut hulls, wood chips or any carbonic material the farmer has on hand. This bedding mix absorbs all moisture and wastes produced by the chickens. Then we use their natural instincts to our advantage by having them when scratch around in the bedding, injecting oxygen into the composting mixture (think self-turning compost). Once oxygen has been added to the bedding it starts to compost, which creates heat and keeps the chickens warm through the winter.
“Nothing is guaranteed in life.” This statement really became clear this season with all the challenges we have had to face. Between the skunks killing everything in sight and the mistake I make when buying feed this year, I couldn’t help but wonder if we could take much more. We haven’t taken out any loans to start Able Farm, but instead we pinched pennies and saved up the capital to start-up and most of this capital is tied up in the animals we raise. This created some real stress when animals started to turn up dead.
In January I bought 1,000 pounds of organic feed and had assumed it would be the same price in May, five months later. I didn’t know this but the price of corn was on its way to making history as the highest it has ever been (I’m told by the local feed dealer), pushing it out of my price range. What to do? I had chickens and turkeys coming in the mail any day. I decided to buy what I could afford. In an attempt to reduce food costs and circumvent an ongoing frustrating relationship with our local feed distributor, I bought the feed in bulk (which comes in a giant 1,000 pound sack). I brought it home and unloaded it into our storage containers and started to feed it out to the chickens and turkeys. Little did I know that the food had antibiotics mixed into it. No one mentioned this to me when I bought the feed; instead I found out three weeks later when I happened to notice a small tag stapled to the sack , and right there on the tag it read “medicated”. It also spelled “the end of our season,” since all of our capital was tied up in tainted feed.
As if the feed disaster wasn’t bad enough, suddenly I started to find broken eggs and dead chickens every morning and evening. I couldn’t figure it out because the perimeter fence is electrified and let me tell you it hurts! One night as I was walking through the pasture, with grass up to my chest, I came upon a little black and white…. something. Oh crap! A skunk in the middle of the trail staring me down! Now no one I know wants anything to do with skunks, let alone trying to kill one. But something had to be done, before the little devils killed all my chickens. I guess the skunks don’t care if the chickens have been eating antibiotics.
I didn’t want to use a live trap because what would I do with the skunk? Let it go down the road for some other poultry owner to deal with. Nor did I want to use a killing trap (inhumane) and I can’t use a gun–the skunks come at night and I could hardly imagine running around in the dark trying to shoot skunks. This wouldn’t exactly engender neighborly affection. I resorted to one of the very best friends of farmers everywhere the shovel! It makes quick work of any situation. One by one the skunk population began to decline, but not before they ruined my turkey season by eating ¾ of my young turkeys.
This summer growing season was hard and costly and one I will be happy to put behind me. But that’s part of the risk of farming. Growing food in an environmentally responsible manner is the right thing to do. But it isn’t always easy.