Friday, February 25, 2011

Soccer fans on the farm?

I have an exhibitionist on the farm.

I didn't notice it immediately, but she caught my eye the other day as she went dashing by like a streaker at a soccer match. Her bare pink backside shockingly exposed.

One of my hens is plucked to perfection. However, after some quick research it appears it is not uncommon at this time of year. I checked her for parasites, and she has none. Just a plucked clean bald area.

She is feeling "cooped up" it seems.

Chickens at this time of year begin to crave the freedom of summer, and the chance to roam far and free. They tire of the enclosed run area, and want a good leg stretch.  How do you explain to them that there is still a foot of snow on the ground, and that their legs are no match for the ice blocks that still litter the grass?

And so, in her boredom - she plucks herself.  I suppose it started with one feather and then another, and over time perhaps she kept trying to even things out. But now she has a bald spot.  She is a Golden Laced Wyandotte, and I am told that it is common for this breed. I wonder why? Why not the Red Sex Links, or the Barred Rocks?

I have begun to think of ways to keep them amused. Yesterday it was whole green peppers, today some whole lettuce heads. Something to bat around the enclosure like a soccer ball for fun.

I mean, since she seems to mimic the soccer fans, I thought "why not?"

I have begun to see a business opportunity in "chicken toys".  Whole warehouses full of toys to amuse your snowbound chickens.

Spring can't come soon enough - for the hens or I!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Double Trouble

Here we are at not even a year, and we have already ventured into equines....sort of. The donkey's have arrived. Yes, that's plural.  There goes my spring wardrobe fund!

We drove out to see the young female donkey, and upon arrival and inspection we discovered she was "less than perfect".  As a young foal she was kicked by a goat, and her left eye is "crooked".  It did nothing to hamper her cuteness, and we were hooked. So onto the trailer she went. I make that sound so simple. In real life it took several tries, a lot of encouragement, some pushing, and pleading. Donkey's we discovered, do not like to be told what to do.

Back on the road we went, albeit a little late, to go and see the second donkey. En route, we discussed the pros and cons of keeping a Jack.  Jacks have a terrible reputation, which you can read about here in the Jack files, and I was a little hesitant about keeping one.  But this young fellow was currently being socialized by four young girls. Surely I could handle him as well?

My dear sweet fireman pointed out that I handle our bull just fine, and that we would simply have to follow the same rules of respect with a mature Jack.

The discussion kept my mind off the snowy icy roads, which was a good thing. I am sure that there were several points on the journey which would have convinced a novice road tripper to turn back.

But we had an appointment and so we carried on.  We arrived three hours late, to meet the most endearing Jack. He was so docile, and led well. The girls fawned over him, and he accepted their fussing without the slightest of worry. We were hooked once more.

Getting him onto the trailer was a far simpler task, with the help of the girls and the encouragement of the Jenny he loaded quite quickly.

Once home, getting them off the trailer and into the barn was another feat, but somehow we managed. With some treats and encouragement, we lured them into the barn.

It's only been a day now, but it's amazing how they have already come to know which of my pockets the treats are in. We have called the Jenny "Clover", and have renamed the Jack "Radar".  Clover ran from me for most of the morning, but this evening she actually ran up to me - delighted to see the treat lady!

And so our equine adventure begins!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Peep Peep Peep

One thing that I love about becoming a part of the farming community is that for the most part, folks are super helpful and make you feel like you are welcome.

The chicken community is no exception. I have met some fantastic folks through online forums, and it was through such a forum that I met a lovely couple who breed all sorts of different chickens. What I was most excited to learn is that they breed Americauna chicks, the blue egg laying breed.

How could I not get some?

So I made the trek - over a two hour drive - and bought home four teeny chicks. They are the most adorable creatures, and I truly hope they are all hens. I keep calling them my "future egg layers".

Thus far, they seem to want to eat, sleep, eat, sleep, and peep. There is a lot of peeping. In a small farm house with a limited ductwork system, the peeping can be heard in every room. Last night I thought we had crickets in the house, but no - it was my peepers in the basement.

Excuse me while I tell the parrot that I no longer mind his squawking.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


My brain has become an incredible sponge these days. In addition to reading several books that will help me be a better leader in my day job (yes dear reader - I do have a day job to support my farm habit!) I have also been learning about pigs, chickens, cows, solar energy, pasture management...and donkeys.

I must confess, I am facinated by the donkeys. 

It could harken back to the days when I was in love with all things horse, and adorned my bedroom walls with pictures torn from horse magazines. I used to look forward to the summertime, when I could attend "horse camp" - although truth be told I seemed to get along better with the horses than the campers.

Donkeys on the whole are quite intelligent, and whereas a horse will flee from a predator - donkey's will rise to fight one. Using their sharp wee hooves they will clobber the beast to death.  All the while, raising the alarm so that the farmer is roused from his slumber and can come running down to the barns. 

Seems like a fairly decent alarm system.

The Ontario government recognizes the use of donkey's as herd guardians, and suggests the following guidelines for introducing them to your livestock. 

What has become apparent is that they are herd animals, and do best in pairs. I like this idea - but it also doubles the cost of care.  I am hoping that our cattle will keep her from feeling lonely. From the reading I have done, a Jack (an ungelded male donkey) is more dangerous than a bull.  

You can read more about Jacks, Jenny's and Gelded males here   This site also has a great page called the Jack files. It's a scarey read - and certainly makes one think twice about keeping an ungelded male. 

Having said that, in our search we have come across a Jack for sale who is a sweet fellow. The question is - at two years old will the "Jack" behavior still exist even if he is gelded?  

I suppose in the end, Noah had it right. We all do better in pairs.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Garden in a Jiffy

There is nothing more pleasurable than sticking your hands into soil. It takes me back to a time when I could sit for hours and watch ants as they crawled about their hill, or lie on my back watching clouds as I listened to the buzzing of bees.

Perhaps that's why I have always loved to have a garden. It simply gives me an excuse to play in the dirt!

I have tried many garden planners in my day, but this one is hands down the best.  Mother Earth News is giving a free 30 day trial, how can you go wrong? Even if you hate the planner you will still walk away with a great plan for this year. I like it because it will save last years plan and allow for rotational growing systems. It certainly simplifies things. Plus they give instructional videos to help those less technical.

So with my plan underway - making sure there was extra corn, carrots, potatoes and squash like plants for all of the critters on the farm - I started my Jiffy pots.

I have 3 packs of Jiffy pots, each with 72 pots. That is 216 plants for those of you who like me, need a calculator.  I thought that 216 plants was MORE than enough for my garden. I mean, really - we all know that 216 plants actually means 1,895 weeds.

But then the garden planning software told me I needed more plants for my plan. And clearly the software is WAY smarter than I am - so I bought two more packs of Jiffy pots. Bringing my grand total to 360 plants.

This is going to be one hell of a garden!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Something Blue

Prior to being an owner of laying hens I thought all eggs were white and brown. I had no idea that there were dark chocolate coloured eggs, blue eggs, olive eggs, or green eggs. 

Having said that, Dr.Seuss did tip me off as a child, but I guess I didn't believe it!

I never tire of collecting the eggs.

It's like each hen gives me a wee gift in the morning, and in return I shower them with fresh greens, homemade breads, and cornmeal.  My barred rocks routinely come up to say hello, and they appreciate a head scratch even on the coldest of days.    Like a school of fish, they all come running to me as I enter the coop. I simply can't wait for the spring to arrive, so that I can let them out of their winter home - and allow them to run freely around the yard.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

We need a plan

So where to begin in developing a farm plan? There are a number of excellent online resources. By far the best resource is an online Farm Plan software, offered for free by the University of Minnesota.

This software not only walks you through the development of a Business Plan, it also provides tips and resources for the plan development. A huge hats off to the University of Minnesota for developing this software, and for offering it FREE to farms everywhere.

Can we visit your farm? Biosecurity

Ah, the farm. A glorious expanse of space. Fields of lush green grasses, and wildflowers dotted with cows serenely grazing. A peaceful and tranquil place to lie on a summer day and listen to the sounds of insects hard at work.

It's hard sometimes to remember what lurks below the surface. We have only recently begun to think about biosecurity, and the steps we must take as new food produces to ensure the safety of the food we produce, and ensure the health and wellness of our livestock.

Biosecurity at the farm level can be defined as the day to day practices that prevent the movement of disease-causing agents onto and off of the farm. We have to look at all aspects of "farm management", such as disease control and prevention (e.g. closed herd, vaccinations), nutrient management and visitor control. Tracing and tracking the movement of livestock is recognised as the most important biosecurity measure for most diseases, but many important hazards can be carried on contaminated clothing, boots, equipment and vehicles. This means that the single most important way we can reduce biosecurity risks is to limit the flow of visitors, particularly to fields/barns/and barnyards where animals are housed.

Issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot and mouth disease, avian influenza and Newcastle disease are very real, and can be transferred from farm to farm on shoes and clothing.  All visitors to our farm need to understand the possible risk they present when entering a farm, and what precautions need to be taken when visiting. Visitors can unknowingly bring harmful agents onto a farm via contaminated clothing and footwear, equipment and vehicles. 

So what are we doing?
  • We have implemented a "no visitor" area in our barnyard, signage will advise visitors that they are entering a biosecure area.
  • All visitors must "Check in" at the house and we have begun to keep a record of farm visitors, including contact information.
  • Visitors must advise us if they have visited another farm within the last 7 days.
  • If visitors have been to another farm, we provide them with footwear to wear on our farm if they have to go down to the barnyard area.
  • We limit contact with our livestock.
  • We wear "off farm boots and clothing" and remove it when we enter the farm. It is stored in an outbuilding away from the barns.
  • Visitors must wash their hands before and after contact with our livestock.
We get many requests to have "parties" on the farm, but friends and family now understand that in order to be a part of their food chain, we need to ensure the safety of their food.  In the end, it means being able to offer them farm fresh naturally raised beef, pork and chicken - without the risk of disease.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Help for New Farmers

Part of jumping into farming with two feet is that you tend to spend a lot of time treading water and not really getting anywhere.

We have been on this farming adventure for 8 months now - and while it feels like decades, our chequing account is slowly taking a beating. So we realized that we needed to get serious about the "business" side of farming.

A quick google search turns up tons of resources for new farmers. In the province of Ontario (where we reside, in the great country of Canada) there are the following places to start:
 We are now signed up to take a workshop in Environmental Planning, and a Business Management for Ontario Farmers workshop. Out of this we hope to have two action plans, one for our environmental planning and one for our 3-year Business Plan. We have also been hard at work developing our biosecurity protocols. PHEW! Please remind me again why people call this a "hobby" farm?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Which do you prefer?

Maybe I should just flip a coin. In the end, I think the decision would be a whole lot easier.

Donkey or Llama?

We need something to stay in with the pigs at night when we eventually get them. It's funny really, farming is such a snowball of events. First, we will get pigs. But they need hay and grain, so we will fill the barn with hay and grain. But the grain will bring mice. So we need more barn cats. And the pigs need protecting at night, so we need a livestock guardian with them... see what I mean?

We do have two amazing livestock guardian dogs, but they come in the house at night. So we need something that lives in the pasture.

Donkey's are great because they sound the alarm, and are fairly easy to keep. However like a horse they require winter stabling. They also need a visit to the farrier on occasion.

Llamas don't require winter stabling, but don't really "raise the alarm".  I have also been told they spit and get quite a strong odour - however they are low maintenance.

I thought about simply going on the cute factor, donkey's do seem cuter. However that does seem to take the seriousness out of the decision.

I do have a fondness for donkey's, and I suppose part of that comes from my love of horses - but I don't want to be biased.

Maybe we should just get a camel.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Rainbow Bridge

It's amazing really how dogs find a way to get right into your heart. They have a way of always knowing what it is you need, whether it's a quiet companion at your feet, or just a head on your knee.

My mum's wee Maltese died today.

There was no signs of illness, he just passed away in his sleep at the age of 4. My mum came home to find his tiny body curled up on his favorite bed, peacefully asleep forever more.

My heart broke as she began to pour out her pain and it travelled across the miles of telephone cable, I could here in her voice the love she had for that tiny bundle of fur, who would steal things to be naughty and then bring them back again knowing he would get a treat.

Yes, he was spoilt. In a sense, he was her last child. Not long after my younger brother left the nest, the little dog arrived. My step-father is not a dog lover, but eventually he grew to love "Just this dog. Just our dog", and I would see him sneaking the best bits of meat to the dog who was not allowed to be fed from the table.

I had no words to offer her that would make it all right, and for a change I was the parent - offering promises that this too would pass and the pain would lessen every day.

He was a great dog. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Make Hay When the Sun Shines

It seemed simple enough in the beginning. The farm has hayfields which have been cared for very well over the years, and are a healthy mix of Timothy grasses, clover, and alfalfa – with a smattering of cowpea mixed in for good measure. Conceivably we could take three cuts if the weather conditions favour us this year. Our idea was to get into a calf/cow operation and keep a small herd of cows.

However, we are beginning to wonder if haying our own land makes economic sense.

A cattle farmer pointed out to us that depending on the type of operation we foray in to (calf cow, stocker, yearlings etc.) it may put more dollars in our pocket to buy hay.

Initially, I objected to the idea. Buy hay?!!! Why would I buy hay when I could grow my own and with a little sweat equity fill my barn for the winter? However, as time went on, I began to explore this interesting idea.

Perhaps a calf cow operation with a hay crop is not the best option for small farmers.

Let’s look at some numbers.

We have a 50 acre holding, with about 28 acres in hay and 12 acres in pasture. (The rest is a mix of residential area and hardwood forest).

If we decide to go the route of putting away our own hay, that leaves us with only 12 acres to pasture livestock on during the summer months. Depending on the type of operation we chose, it would conceivably allow us to pasture 1 cow per acre during the early summer months, and 1 cow per 2-3 acres during the dryer months. So we could only keep 5-6 cows. (We are fortunate that our fields never get too dry as we are located above an aquifer.)

Our 28 acres of hay, with 3 cuts, may give us 60-80 five foot rounds. If we have a calf/cow operation a 1300 lb. dry pregnant cow in good condition needs to eat about 27 lbs. of hay per day to maintain her and grow her calf during the winter months. (But accounting for “spillage” or wasted hay, that figure becomes more like 35-40lbs per day.) For a small herd of 5-6 cattle, one round bale per day and a half is a good estimate. This means that we would have about 4 months of hay from our own fields, and we would then have to buy hay to make it through the remaining 3 months.

This scenario works if several factors are true.

1) That we invest money to buy a round baler and a hay bine

2) That the quality of the hay we pull from our fields is good

3) That we have some sort of structure to store round bales in. This would require buying a coverall building of some sort.

Now let’s look at the second scenario. In this scenario, we could choose to pasture cattle on all of our available pasture land. This would give us 40 acres of pasture and hayfields. If we rotational graze, we could conceivably keep 20-25 (or more!) cattle over the summer months. If we choose to go with a yearling plan, we could send ALL of the cattle to market in the fall and have an empty barn come winter. This situation would mean that:

1) We don’t have to buy a baler or a hay bine

2) We wouldn’t need anywhere to store a large amount of round bales

3) We would have less upkeep over the winter months

4) We don’t have to worry about the quality of our hay – when we buy hay we simple buy the best

Each option creates money in the bank for the farm, and it’s important to think about all aspects that will impact your return on investment. (Will grain be required for cattle? Veterinary costs? Fencing requirements? ) Market values for cattle need to be measured against the expected outcome, and in the end a the most profitable solution will emerge.

It’s kind of appealing to think of going with scenario two…as it would mean less work in the summer months and far less work in the winter months.

An interesting idea indeed.