Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Poultry

Duck Hunt! (Hoo boy, do we know how to have fun!)

Remember when Duck Hunt was just an Nintendo game? It’s your lucky day! Duck Hunt is now available in real life, right here at In the Night Farm.

[No animals were harmed in the making of this game.]

You see, when Ironman and I brought home our box of fuzzy ducklings, there were a couple things we didn’t know. First, ducklings eat three times their own weight every 24 hours (or at least they seem to, judging by the feed bill). Second, Khaki Campbells and Rouens are not flightless. The breeder pamphlets say they are, but I assure you, it’s a lie.

Just ask me how I know.

What’s that?

Okay, I’ll tell you: Because I’ve seen them do it!

A couple weeks ago, when I went to Chicago and left Ironman in charge of the farm, he came around the corner to the fenced (but not roofed) duck yard and startled up a couple of Rouens. One lingered nearby and he nabbed it, but the other was last seen on a wobbly flightpath into an oncoming thunderstorm.

Tonight, I did the same thing. Came around the corner, and up went a Khaki Campbell. She flew northward over the horse paddocks and disappeared. Well crap, I thought. Those buggers are worth their weight in gold, after all they’ve eaten! Better keep them locked in their indoor pen until we can get a roof on the yard.

I resigned myself to the loss of yet another member of the poultry brigade (it’s been a rough year for chickens, too), collected the eggs and mail, paused to inspect the garden, and climbed wearily up the to the main level of my farmhouse.

…and I heard a duck. Quacking. From beyond the horse pens.

Well, what did I have to lose? I trotted back down the stairs and through the pasture, circling around behind a patch of weeds at which all the horses were staring curiously. Sure enough, there was little Khaki, a female, panting and obviously distressed by the unintended separation from her flock.

I approached slowly, sure my chances of catching her were close to nil, and was surprised to get within 6 feet before she panicked. She blundered against a nearby fence, flapping and squawking, the managed to slip through.

Dang it! I hurried around to the sheep pens, where there’s a spot of fence strong enough to climb over without tearing down the wire or getting zapped with electricity, and caught up with Khaki near the stallion paddocks. She didn’t seem to want to fly, but watched me warily, waddling away and occasionally skimming along with her wings outstretched and flapping if I got too close.

Right then. Nice and easy does the trick. Feeling like a large and unwieldy sheepdog, I herded her carefully up the path toward the gate, wondering what on earth I’d do if I managed to get her through. The fences seemed to guide her, but a long stretch of open land lies between the paddocks and the poultry housing.

As it turned out, that was one bridge I didn’t need to cross. Khaki waddled right past the gate and into the round corral I use for training horses. I managed to direct her to the uphill side, where the panels are set into the hill and the earth shored back with planks to make a solid wall about as high as Khaki’s upraised head.

Still unwilling — or too unfit? — to do so, Khaki scrambled back and forth as I weaved to stay ahead of her, repeatedly blocking her path as though she were a fractious filly. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering how hard the neighbors were laughing.

Slowly, slowly I crept nearer. Near enough to…

GRAB!

Missed. Blast! Khaki slipped through my hands and scuttled away — but blessedly, she didn’t fly.

On my second try, I got her. Pinned her wings right to her sides and gathered her against my chest, where she rested without a struggle, peering up at me with a shiny, button eye. She sleeps safely now amid her flock.

Maybe I should add duck wrangling to my resume. I think I will. Who wants to work for an employer without a sense of humor?

Besides, cool I am not, but if you’re in the market for a renaissance woman, I’ve gotcha covered.


Make Way for Ducklings

I let the ducklings out of their nursery on Saturday. They now have the run of the indoor section of the main duck pen (but not the outdoor duck playground, which isn’t cat-safe). The indoor section is about 12′ x 5′, mostly covered, with plenty of shelter from the wind. And, it’s adjacent to the nursery pen so the ducklings can still get under their heat lamp as necessary.


They’re huge already! At only about 2 weeks of age, they have more than quadrupled in size, and the 16 of them plow through over a quart of 20% protein flock-raiser mash daily. I have to play close attention to their water supply, too, as they must have it to keep their bills clear of debris, and they splash and drink plenty.

Here they are exploring the new digs. They particularly enjoyed the few tufts of grass that survived the duck-pen construction project.


Ironman has left town for a few weeks. (He has a cooler job than I do.) By the time he gets home, the first of the Pekin drakes will be nearly ready for slaughter. I’ve never cooked duck before, but understand it must be done properly for good results. Time to start reading up on the subject — I’ll keep you posted.


Poultry To Go

Check out this portable poultry coop:



I found it on CraigsList. The seller wanted $150.00, which seems a fair price when you figure in materials and labor, but Ironman and I are going to build our own using this as a model.

The dimensions, as posted in the ad, are 9 feet, 9 inches in length, 4 foot base width, and 30 inch height. I imagine it’s fairly heavy, and indeed the ad states that the seller moves it around with a tractor. No problem there; it just so happens that I have a tractor.

The primary purpose of the portable coop, as anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s excellent book The Omnivore’s Dilemma will know, is to be able to move your birds safely around the farm so they can forage for fresh plants, insects, grubs, and whatever else they fancy.

You know, real food. The things poultry was designed to eat, instead of the grain-based, packaged feeds that practicality demands for the bulk of their calories. When the chickens and ducks eat real food, the eggs they lay show up on our table with a proper balance of nutrients. That’s a prize worth the investment of a bit of time spent with a screwdriver and staple gun.

And, there’s another advantage. Ironman and I have been wondering for a while what would be the best way to house the guinea fowl we’d like to introduce to the gardens of In the Night Farm.

Squash bugs and grasshoppers have been a real problem in years past, and we’re loathe to use poisons to control them. Chickens will gladly consume the pests — but they’ll scratch up the plants in the process. Not good.

Guinea fowl, however, are reportely excellent garden hunters that snap up insects without harming the crop. They can also be quite loud when disturbed — but we figure that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Out here in the the country, it’s nice to get a heads-up when someone drops by.

Thing is, one buys guineas as tiny and defenseless keets that should be raised near the area in which you intend them to spend most of their time as adults. Constructed using a tighter wire weave than was chosen by the Craigslist seller, our portable poultry coop should make a suitable guinea nursery before returning to its usual duties.

Ah, the projects. They never end. But then, neither do their rewards.
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Related Posts
Practically Impossible, The Challenge of Sustainable Living


Sheer Quackery

Are these not the cutest things ever?

They’d better be, because they’re a bloody nuisance! I spent more time last week than I care to admit chasing loose ducklings around my master bathroom. The little buggers may be only a few days old, but they’re quick — and good heavens, can they scream when separated from their buddies!

As you might expect, I have a better reason for raising a flock of ducklings than cooing over their downy wings and teeny, duckbilled yawns, or even the adventure of midnight duckhunts involving reaching around one side of the toilet while attempting to block any escape route with a convenient trash can. No, Ironman and I have decided to raise ducks for eggs and meat.

Duck eggs are slightly larger and higher in cholesterol than chicken eggs, and their shells have a smoother, waxier appearance. (I know this because we bought a dozen from the local co-op to make sure we liked them before investing in duck housing and stock, which totaled about $300.) They taste quite similar — perhaps a touch milder and richer — but the difference is as subtle as that between the eggs of chickens on different diets.

As for the meat, well, I’m all for any option that will spare me conventionally raised products. Unfortunately, for reasons I discussed long ago in this post, our ducks will still eat a fair amount of grain, though I’ll do my best to get some real food down their gullets as well. At least they won’t be pumped full of antibiotics.

After doing some homework on duck husbandry and deciding to go ahead with the project, Ironman and I built a duck shelter and playground next to the chicken coop and chicken yard. (I think it turned out pretty well, myself!)


Next, we stopped by a local hatchery for a box of ducklings. Because ducks are only sold straight run (not sexed), we had to buy extras in order to ensure that we’d get enough females to keep for our breeding flock of 8 or10 ducks and 2 drakes. The extra drakes will make some lovely meals in 9-14 weeks. (Sorry, boys.)

I selected breeds based on the characteristics that were most important to us: egg production, meat quality, and mothering instinct. The yellow ducklings are Pekins. They’ll grow into white-feathered adults that are large, quick-growing meat ducks. The brown ones are Khaki Campbells, which are renowned for their egg laying capacity — up to 300 eggs per duck per year! The ones with striped faces are Rouens, which are good egg layers and reliable setters to boot. They’ll be responsible for raising future broods.

We bought six of each breed, but two of the Rouens didn’t make it. One died within hours of leaving the hatchery; the other held on for a few days but eventually succumbed. I’m not certain whether this is because Rouens are a more delicate breed, or because the Rouens we bought were a day (or even a half-day) younger than the others and couldn’t quite compete. Thankfully, the remaining four are doing swimmingly.

Speaking of swimming, there’s no question that these guys know they’re waterfowl. They certainly love fouling their water! Ducks have no choice in the matter, actually; they require water-sloshing to clear their nostrils and throats of sticky food-mash. Nevertheless, this tendency was a bit of a problem during the few days they lived in (and sometime out of) a blue wading pool in my bathroom. Try as I might, I could not keep their pine-shaving bedding dry for more than an hour at a time.

So, they’re outside now, in a 3×5 foot, cat-proof section of the duck pen. I put them out there yesterday after much internal debate regarding whether they’d be able to handle the lower temperatures and spring winds. They’re only six days old, after all, and haven’t the benefit of Mama’s toasty underbelly to keep them warm.

The 250-watt heat lamp proved sufficient, however. I checked on them this morning, after a windy night in the low 30’s, to find them yawning and preening, stretching their tiny, web-footed legs, and looking sweeter than any chocolate duck that ever found its way into my childhood Easter basket.

Betcha they’ll be just as tasty, too.

(On the subject of tasty poultry… I finally have my desktop computer fixed, which means I can edit photos again, which means that I was able to upload a photo of my Hottie Hen with a Pig Pizza — recipe and photo here.)


Practically Impossible: The Challenge of Sustainable Living

You’d think that owning on a farm would make sustainable living relatively easy. Grow a garden, raise some livestock. Hoe and weed, water and feed your way to health and self-reliance. After all, this is how most of the world’s population has lived for thousands of years! Sadly, these days, the simple life is anything but.

Take my latest research on natural chicken feeds. Motivated by Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explains the myraid benefits of eating eggs and meat from chickens that eat as nature intended, I’ve been looking for ways to eliminate commercial layer pellets from our hens’ diets.

Feeding poultry a natural diet eliminates the use of (and the need for) antibiotics such as coccidiostat and results in food products whose nutritional content is properly balanced. Like most livestock raised en masse, chickens that eat typical commercial feeds take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3’s. In livestock and the humans who eat it, this balance should be tipped the other way, in favor of omega-3 fatty acids.

Balanced fat consumption leads to lower rates of heart disease, cancers, and mental degeneration, so I’d like to know that the small quantity of poultry and eggs I consume represents an appropriate nutritional profile. Hence, my interest in feeding chickens like nature intended — as hunting and gathering omnivores. It’ll only take one acre per chicken.

One acre per chicken?

Let’s see. One acre per chicken…fifteen chickens…Call the real estate agent, Honey. Looks like we need to buy the property next door!

So much for keeping my hens nourished without supplemental feeds. Surely, I thought, there’s a way to feed them naturally without quadrupling our mortgage.

As it turns out, there is. I’ll need: a wide variety of living plants, wild seafood, additional protein in the form of grass-fed meat and milk, nuts and seeds, varied grains (freshly cracked, of course), boiled soybeans or other legumes, sea salt, and oyster shells for calcium.

What? I can’t afford wild salmon for myself, let alone for my chickens!

And it isn’t just the chickens. Raising healthful lamb requires irrigated pasture or extensive range, quality hay, and oats. Pesticide-free gardening means losing part of the crop to insect damage. Irrigation requires electricity to run the pump. Rototilling large plots requires gasoline. Even our organic fertilizer started out as expensive horse hay, and this year’s diesel prices will drive that bill even higher.

And so, in an attempt to fund a more sustainable lifestyle centered around local foods, we are forced to drive nearly forty miles into the city to work. Gas costs us a fortune these days, though we carpool whenever possible and make no gratuitous side trips. We bought a motorcycle to cut back on consumption, at least when the weather cooperates. (I took my first ride on the new bike the other day. Ye gods, I’d forgotten!)

Day after day, I am appalled by the expense of trying to do the right things to spare our land and bodies from the behemoth of our industrialized food system. Why do you think most poultry growers, whether commercial or gentleman farmer, buy pelleted feeds? Twenty-five bucks will buy you a month’s worth of scratch grains and layer pellets for a flock like ours. It’s easy, too! Just open the bag, scoop, and serve.

As much as I would like to, I simply cannot afford to feed my chickens on soybeans, seafood, and hand-split corn. In this instance, like so many others — purchasing enough land to grow our own crops, installing solar panels and a propane refrigerator, even building the oh-so-sensible root cellar — converting to sustainable living is a proposition that implies tremendous financial strain.

Some people manage it. You can read their stories at the Backwoods Home Magazine forum. I suspect, however, that the majority have either lived long and well enough to free themselves from debt — including home mortgages — or are not trying to create a self-sufficient homestead while preserving and promoting a rare breed of horse. Reading the BHM forum is, for me, both inspiring and discouraging.

So, what now? Shall we move back to the city to eat factory farmed poultry and pesticide-laden, chemically-fertilized, genetically-modified broccoli while we wait for cancer to set in? Or, shall we, like other small farmers across our nation, continue to struggle against the economic and political tide?

A horse trainer in my area likes to say, “Start where you can, not where you think you should.” I find that his advice applies to more than just horse training — it’s useful in our progress toward sustainable living, as well.

For now, I’ll hand-pick a daily bucketful of weeds and grass for my hens. I’ll save them vegetable scraps from the kitchen and check prices on bulk legumes at the grocery. I’ll even look into the cost of canned wild fish. While I’ll still buy pelleted feeds, I’ll restrict their use as much as possible.

This decision, like replacing a truck with a motorcycle but still commuting to work, represents a compromise between practicality and perfection. Such choices are often unsatisfactory, but for now, for us, “ideal” isn’t an option. Surely doing our best is better than doing nothing at all.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know how we’re going to make this small farm work.

…but I also don’t know how to give up.


This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Be sure to drop in and see what else is on the menu!


Playing Chicken

In the Night Farm’s chicken coop consists of two sections. The first and largest is known as Harlem’s Harem.

Harlem is our rooster.


A Non-Bearded White Crested Black Polish (we think), Harlem showed up in a friend’s urban backyard last summer. Why yes, of course we have room for another animal.

The second section of our chicken coop is known as the Broody Bay. When a hen decides to set a clutch of eggs, she is said to be “broody.” A broody hen stops laying and eats and drinks little until her hormones get out of the way — typically by raising a brood.

Last fall, my lovely Sooty hen, a small Black Australorp, turned broody. We let her set, and four of the eggs hatched.

Three of Sooty’s chicks grew into beautiful cockerels. I am sad to say will also be tasty cockerels. But, if I’m going to eat a little meat now and then, I want it to come from critters that haven’t been stuffed full of chemicals.

Note: For an entertaining, intelligent, and enlightening read about the origins of most American meals, pick up a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Anyway, when you live on a farm, you learn not to name some of the animals.

Sooty’s only pullet (young female hen) did get a name. Henrietta, who sports a small crest like her daddy’s, now lives in Harlem’s Harem. Her eggs are easy to identify by size and shape, so if she gets broody, we won’t accidentally let her raise any inbred chicks.

Right now, Penny is the broody one.

Penny was Travis’ prize in the Great Chicken Caper of 2007. This was an unpublicized event in which we responded to a Craigslist ad for free chickens — as many as you can catch. Let me tell you how many that is: Not Many.

Anyway, we’ll let Penny set a clutch of Aracauna eggs soon. Though relatively non-descript in appearance and unenthusiastic winter layers, heritage Aracaunas are a favorite of mine for their beautiful, blue-green eggs.

Seeing as we knew almost nothing about chickens when we bought (or, in Penny’s case, caught) them last year, we were lucky to get some that go broody. Many chickens, including some strains of Rhode Island Reds and Sex-Links, have had their brooding instinct bred out of them in the name of increased production.

Vegetables aren’t the only things losing ground to hybridization for factory farming. Heirloom chickens, also known as heritage chickens, are getting harder to find. Smarter, hardier, more disease-resistant, and longer-lived than their modern brethern that are often incapable of reproduction without artificial insemination, heritage chickens are trying to make a comeback with the help of dedicated farmers and the American Livestock Breeds Conservency.

Don’t worry — I’m not an alarmist, nor even a standard-issue liberal. I’m just another small-time farmer observing that our national obsession with hybridized plants and animals incapable of procreation puts us on a crash course with Fate. Perhaps the sustainable, local, and organic farming movements help us swerve in time.

All the more reason to let Penny raise Aracaunas.