One of our founding farm principles is the constant movement of livestock to fresh ground. Often referred to as rotational grazing, we use an approach called Holistic Planned Grazing. This method helps to manage the complexities of animal, plant, and wildlife needs on pasture by planning every move in advance on paper. This is especially important for maintaining the balance between ruminants and grass and constant movement is essential for ruminant health. A ruminant is a mammal that obtains its nutrients from plant matter through microbial fermentation in their rumen a.k.a stomach. Common ruminants are sheep, cattle, goats, deer, bison, and elk.
Grassland ecosystems the world over have partnered with ruminants to create symbiotic relationships in order to grow and maintain plant life-cycles and diversity. The harmony between animals and plants isn’t always apparent but it is there nonetheless. For example, ruminants in drier ecosystems where the soil biology slows down or stops due to lack of water facilitate mineral cycles by breaking down vegetable matter inside their rumen, freeing the minerals and nutrients contained within. The minerals and nutrients are then returned to the grass ecosystem in a form that the plants can use, and the cycle begins anew. Grass feeds animals feeds grass.
Cycles like this hinge upon constant movement. In nature the constant threat of predators forces the ruminants to group together, trampling the standing grasses and turning over the soil. This heavy impact on the land makes the trampled grass unpalatable to the ruminants and this is compounded by the fouling of the ground with manure as they graze. This in turn attracts irritating insects like flies forcing the grazing animals to move onto fresh ground.
Regrowth happens almost immediately after the ruminants move away to fresh grass. The many hooves have broken up the sod and pressed grass seeds into the topsoil, helping to establish new plants that are genetically unique and better able to adapt to challenges. Short cropped and trampled grasses now cover the soil maintaining moisture by reducing evaporation and creating opportunities for other plant species like clover or plantain to begin growing, adding diversity to the grassland.
To recreate this type of grazing system on our farm we need a few key elements. First in order to control the animal movement on the pasture and to bunch them up we have replaced predators with electric netting. This netting is light, easily moved and when electrified it keeps the livestock in place and keeps coyotes and bears out. The other important element is planning on paper. Knowing in advance where and when each paddock move is made creates a map that encompasses our farm physically and over time. When we plan in this manner we ensure that our animals are in the right place at the right time.
When I first started farming about five or six years ago I could get organic whole grains in 50 pound sacks locally. This was great because it created the opportunity for me to mix my own ration for our chickens, as I’m sure a number of backyard flock owners love to do as well. With a small flock it was easy to mix and use 3-4 hundred pounds at a time and feed it out over a month or two. But after a short while the 50 pound sacks dropped, unannounced, to 40 pounds. The price remained the same. Then access to the whole grains came to an abrupt end altogether without any clear cause. Frustrating to say the least. We were forced to start feeding processed feeds in 40 pound sacks because that was the only available organic feed. It worked for a short time, but the quality was questionable and the price was too high to make a profit.
Certified organic feed can be a challenge to get at the best of times, especially for us at our small scale. So our next step was to push our production up to the next price break. We increased our production by adding more Turkeys and egg laying hens so we can order 1000 pound of feed at a time. That way we could use up the feed in a reasonable amount of time, because unless the feed is in a whole grain form it loses its nutritional quality over time. This worked well and we were able to build a productive small farm business.
But once again after a short while our access to the 1/2 ton sacks came to an abrupt end without clear cause or warning. We found out the day we tried to order our next batch of feed. The only option’s now for organic grains are to go back to getting grain in 40 pound sacks (not an option) or jump up to the now 3 ton minimum, meaning we have to order no less then 6000 pounds at a time. Wow, thats a lot of feed! We can and do feed this much in the course of a season but the hard lump to swallow is where and how to store this amount of grain. When you are at the scale we are, you just have to take it as it comes and is just the nature of running a small business. But it would seem that the mantra of “get big or get out” is still strongly with us today in agriculture.
As noted previously in the post titled “Broilers”, traditionally chickens were separated into different classes defined by age. Youngest to oldest the classes are: broiler, fryer, and stewing hen. Here we will focus primarily on the fryer.
Traditionally fryers tended to come from farms that specialized in egg production. In advance of industrial hatcheries (where one can order just female chickens) eggs were incubated and hatched on farm, leaving the farmer with an excess of males to do something with. And herein lies the rub; it’s likely that fifty percent of the eggs hatched will be male chickens. Sure, the farmer keeps a few of the best for breeding purposes, but the rest are fattened and sold, helping to make the farm become a little more sustainable. The farmer has had to find a niche market or create one.
An egg-centric farm’s production of chicken for meat just couldn’t compete with farms focused primarily on producing broiler chickens. With a larger size, heavier weight, and rapid growth, the broiler type breeds quickly outpaced the egg-oriented chicken’s marketability for eating. Egg-focused birds, on the other hand, are small, light-weight, and place their energy into preparing to lay eggs instead of growing flesh. Because of this, in order to reach the the 4 pound market weight fryers need more time to grow. At a couple weeks older than the broiler, fryers are in the 14-20 week age range. They have had more exercise in the extra weeks needed to mature and have become more flavorful but are a little less tender.
With a firmer texture to their meat, grilling is no longer an optimum cooking method. Grilling is high heat and tends to dry out food. When applied to a fryer, this is a recipe for inedibility. Because of this they need a different cooking method to be rendered into a quality meal. Frying is the best method because the breading keeps the moisture in the meat. But there are many other delicious recipes. For instance, chicken cacciatore is also a wonderful way to utilize fryer chickens; seared in hot olive oil and then cooked in tomato sauce with olives and onions until tender and served over pasta. In this method the chicken cooked slowly in liquid helps the meat to soften and most importantly provides the opportunity for the flavors to marry. Fryers prepared in this way are hard to beat. Below is another possibility and is one of our favorite recipes.
Casserole-Roasted Chicken with Vegetables
This is a one pot dish and is a wonderful way to prepare a fryer chicken. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Estimated baking time: 1 hour and 15 minutes for a 3 pound bird.
A 3lb fryer or roaster chicken
2 Tb. butter or olive oil
1/4 Tsp. salt
10-15 small fingerling potatoes
3 large carrots, cut an inch and a half thick
5-7 cloves of garlic
3 to 4 tarragon sprigs
Put chicken out at room temperature so that it can warm up before roasting, about 1 to 1 ½ hours is best. Place a casserole pan on the stove top and melt the butter. Season the chicken with salt and stuff the tarragon into the cavity. Once the butter is hot, place the chicken into the pan and sear on all sides. This could take 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from heat. Remove the chicken from the pan. Add potatoes and vegetables, then place chicken back into pan on top of the vegetables. Place the casserole pan into a preheated oven and bake until the chicken reaches 160 degrees. Pull the pot from oven and let the chicken rest for 10 minutes. Serve and enjoy.
Once upon a time the cookery and consumption of poultry was dictated by the turn of the season and fostered by tradition. Chickens were harvested at the various mile markers in a bird’s growth. At 8-12 weeks of age you would have broilers, 12-18 weeks fryers, and anything over 18 weeks stewing hens/roosters. Each mile marker represents a niche. Traditional American farmers have had different strategies of poultry production to access the local market niches. Egg producers would meet the fryer and stewing hen niche because they use smaller-framed birds that grow muscle slowly and were a way to phase out spent egg-laying hens. But some farms focus on raising meat-type chickens, birds that grow flesh faster and more evenly, are able to reach the class size of broiler the fastest, and retain a tender texture.
This is the first in a three part blog series and we will begin by focusing on the broiler. Broilers are commonly 8-12 weeks of age and will range between 3/4 to 1 1/2 pounds each. As this is the tenderest class, it is where industrial agriculture has focused its attention and is the only type of chicken most of us have eaten. With the advent of climate-controlled housing, large scale industrial farms are able to produce broilers in the 4 to 5 pound range in as little as 8 weeks. Take my word for it, that is fast! However fast isn’t always best. Sure it is good economically speaking, but if that is the only goal one misses out on the other benefits provided by slower growth, namely greater flavor and nutrition.
We have found raising chickens outdoors on pasture pushes the maturation of our birds into the 12 week range and adds flavor. The best way to cook these birds is to grill them. We won’t be providing a recipe with this post because almost everyone knows how to grill and enjoys grilled chicken their own special way.
Any sheep, goat, or cattle operation needs to provide feed for their animals through the cold winter months when the grass is growing slowly or isn’t growing at all. That’s where having a big, dry barn comes in. Traditionally this problem is overcome by cutting grass in the spring and summer months, drying it, and putting the now “hay” in the barn to store it until winter. This is often referred to as “putting up hay”, most likely because the hay is kept on the second story of the barn.
Modern hay farms use two essential resources to grow hay in our area; water and petroleum. Pastures are heavily irrigated to maximize numerous cuttings, similar to alfalfa in production. The grass is mowed using heavy equipment (typically tractors) and baled to bring in the harvest. A very efficient system.
Since hay can be expensive, we try to buy as little as possible. We figure the less reliance on off-farm inputs, the better. This may be a drop in the bucket, but the less demand we have for hay the less demand is placed upon the resources named above. But most importantly, ruminants by their very nature are grass-harvesting machines and will do the job without using any of those valuable and costly resources.
By dividing our pasture into smaller paddocks and planning the amount of grass the sheep self-harvest, we have shifted our attention away from micro-management of our livestock to the holistic management of our pastures. This method contributes to healthier animals and grasslands because our sheep spend little time in any one place. Through better land management this season, we didn’t have to feed hay until the 1st of December.
Time spent with family can be one of the most enjoyable things we do. The dynamic relationships between siblings, parents, and grandparents are essential, bonding us together.
Over time I have come to realize that these relationships are equally as impactful on the lives of our livestock. Bonds between livestock aren’t always the most apparent and can easily be overlooked.
Current agricultural practices compartmentalize livestock, sacrificing these bonds for the sake of production. Typically, males are kept in small paddocks alone or with other males with little to no contact with the rest of the herd until breeding time. Females are then left to live in groups to raise the young until the juveniles are artificially weened, as young as two weeks of age. The juveniles are kept in groups of like-age after being castrated, dehorned, and in the case of sheep having their tails docked. This method of separating livestock is used whether it’s sheep, goats, cows, chickens or pigs. These production systems are based on the assumption that we know best how to care for each individual group of animals at any given age. But this attitude doesn’t account for the desire and ability of the animals to care for themselves.
On our farm, we have found that if provided the opportunity our sheep will fill their roles in the herd. Ewes happily manage all of the lambs’ needs, including naturally weening them, teaching the lambs what is good to eat and what is not, and what the lamb’s overall place is in the hierarchy of the herd. Learning herd manners is deepened though interactions with our ram because as the boss he keeps the male lambs in check (they can get really rowdy). The ram also provides protection from predators for the whole herd and teaches the next generation what to watch out for. These are bonds and dynamic relationships that we just can’t teach.
By keeping all of our animals together all the time we hope to strengthen the herd through family values.
The ideal cover for our chicken house needs to be water-proof, create shade, be light-weight, and not disintegrate in direct sunlight or pollute. Challenging in its own right but add to that a shoe-string budget. This makes it nearly impossible to meet all the criteria. However.
Four to five times per season, we order our feed in bulk and it comes in giant 2000 pound sacks that are made of woven plastic mesh. Needless to say 4 to 5 sacks a season really start to build up, taking up room in the barn.
In the quest for an alternative, I hit on the idea of using these sacks for chicken housing. It could be a win-win. They are roughly 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide and our houses need a 8 x 12 foot roof. The real ah-ha moment came when I realized that if I cut the sack in half on one side and remove the bottom, the sack laid out flat becomes 4 x 12 foot tarp. Two sacks and you’ve got a roof!
Now I realize that this is pretty close to what we were previously using. But they meet many of the criteria (including lasting a lot longer then the tarps we used previously) and most importantly we are taking potential garbage and giving it a second life (I would rather use it on a chicken house then send it to the landfill). But best of all it’s free.
It’s not all roses however. It has one glaring fault. It’s not water-proof. Which seems silly if it’s intended use is to store grain, even if temporarily. To remedy this problem, we used 5 mil clear plastic that does degrade in sunlight and placed it underneath the sack. This means that water doesn’t get into the chicken house, but the feed-sack tarps keep the plastic from degrading in the sunlight.
Viola! New chicken house cover!
As you can see from reading through our earlier posts, most of our attention is focused on the chicken. But equally important is our small, cloven-hoofed, sunlight-harvesters raised in conjunction with our poultry; also know as sheep.
The breed we raise is called Katahdin. They function as the grass mowers, water conservationists, worm habitat enhancers, and mineral recyclers, as well as being just all around fun in our fields. Focusing our management on our grassland eco system instead of on the sheep helps us to achieve these things. We mob them up (keep them in closer together with electric nets) and keep them moving (restrict the amount of time they have access to a given paddock).
Referred to as a hair sheep, Katahdin shed their wool coats naturally every summer and are a nice fit for our Mediterranean-like climate.
Because this type of sheep sheds it wool, they have less lanolin wax (a water-proofing substance that wooly sheep create to protect themselves in wetter climates). Less lanolin makes for mild, delicious meat.