Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Great Turkey Experiment

2015 was the year of the "Great Turkey Experiment".  We started with twelve little balls of fluff the beginning of May and concluded with eleven freshly dressed turkeys chilling in a kiddie pool about seven months later. Even raised on pasture, turkeys consume a lot of grain and require daily shelter moves frequent rotations of their paddock. A few adventurous ones would fly over the electric netting and roam the farm until we rounded them up and herded them back home. Most days the rogue escapee would hop themselves back in as the sun was going down. They enjoyed each other's company and instinctively roosted together on top of their shelter at the end of the day.

I was confident I could provide the daily care of these birds, but I knew I could not butcher them. Fortunately one of our Amish neighbors, Mr. Stutzman, agreed to perform the deed the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. On Monday night we all walked quietly into their pen under the light of the full moon and calmly caught each one and ushered it into a large dog crate. On Tuesday morning Elliot and I loaded them into the back of the truck and delivered them to the Stutzman's - a mere mile away. We returned five hours later to catch David and his wife bagging the last of the birds. They looked enormous and impeccably done. I was thrilled!

We raced home to weigh them and get them on ice as pick-up time was looming. The four hens ranged in size from 7 - 11 pounds and the seven toms were between 16 - 18 pounds. Fortunately there were turkeys to meet the requests of all of the customers. Pick up went smoothly and everyone hefted away their farm-fresh turkeys in good spirits. I was relieved, but still anxious about the final test. How would they taste? After all those months and for the price of $6/lb, I wanted them to be the best turkeys they had ever prepared!

On Thanksgiving Day, the reports started trickling in. Here are some customer photos and feedback.

The legs were much longer than a "regular" turkey. The proportion of white meat to dark meat was much more even. This is due to the fact that they lived a typical turkey life strutting around and getting daily exercise.

Many used the giblets for stock and stuffing.

Several customers brined their birds with the typical salt and water then added other ingredients like peppercorns and brown sugar to enhance the flavor.

Here's an amazing trussing job, straight out of the Joy of Cooking!

Most agreed that the cooking time was much shorter than a store bought bird. Watching the temperature of the turkey seemed to be more critical than watching the clock.

Everyone assured me they would buy another bird next year. 

Was it a success? Yes. Did I make money? Well, yes - if you consider $2/day fair compensation. As with many projects on the farm, it was more a labor of love. I told my family several times over the months - mostly when herding pooping turkeys off the deck- to smack me over the head if I mentioned turkeys again next spring!

When you are able to raise such an amazing bird and put delicious local food at the center of a holiday table, you start to forget the challenges.

There are some things I need to tweak and I had to turn many people down. But this winter will give me a chance plan for next year's batch!

Thanks to Laura Wolf, Bonnie Riggan & Mike Havercamp for sharing your dinners with us!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Fall on the Homestead

Fall has been gentle and glorious here in Iowa. The pastures are still green and the parkas are still buried in the closet. There is much daily activity on the farm as it is a season of beginnings and endings.

Several Golden Egg customers mentioned their desire for local pasture raised turkeys. After a bit of research I decided to give it a whirl. We started off the month of May with a small flock of heritage turkeys. Heritage birds are different from your run of the mill commercial bird. They take much longer to mature - up to seven months- and they are able to breed naturally.Turkeys grow quickly and they soon found themselves outdoors plucking up grasshoppers. The eleven of them spent the summer moving around the pasture with the safety of their little cattle panel shelter and some solar powered poultry netting. They also spent a fair amount of time on the deck, on the trampoline and in the raspberry patch! Heritage birds are great flyers. Fortunately they are easy to herd and prefer to stick together. (Unlike chickens!) As Thanksgiving draws near, so does the end of their time here on the farm. They are beautiful birds enjoying a wonderful life. I am hopeful that the the families that purchase them can taste that!

We added two new goats to our herd as well. They are not for the dinner table, but I hope their milk will be. Natalie won an Alpine doeling from the Iowa Dairy Goat Association this summer and we bought another sweet little doe to be her friend. Our Nigerian dwarf does, Luna & Lolo, just ended their date with a handsome buck. They should have kids in March and then I will be able to milk.  I am looking forward to some adorable goat kids jumping around and trying my hand at making cheese. More on that excitement in about 150 days!

The other exciting beginning here at the farm is the arrival of our new five year old appaloosa llama, Sunny. Natalie and I hijacked a friend's minivan and drove her home. How can anyone resist a polka dot llama? She and I are learning how to work together. Right now I call her a "guard llama" but I hope she will one day read Llama, Llama books with kindergarteners. Rich just shakes his head....

Life on the farm is dirty and tiresome and amazing and a gift all at the same time. This life stretches me to learn new skills, meet interesting people and be a part of the thriving local food system here in Johnson County. I celebrate each sunrise over the pond that I am surrounded by incredible beauty and blessed with an amazing family and loyal loving friends. Blessings to all of you!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Chickens in the Pasture

We (mostly Rich!) have been working away at creating a pen to allow the hens to be kept on fresh pasture which allows them to be raised in a cleaner, healthier environment. Pastured poultry is raised the old fashioned way; on fresh green pasture and wholesome grain. Most poultry was raised outdoors until the 1950s when large confinement operations became the norm. An outdoor range produces a high quality, farm-fresh, all-natural product. The hens still receive organic grains to provide a balanced diet.

The most logical house design for us was a cattle panel hoop house. It's light enough to move yet heavy enough that it won't blow away - we hope! The pasture pen has three cattle panels bent inside a wooden frame. Wheels in each corner make it portable. (The wheels might require some further engineering!) It's covered with a recycled billboard tarp.

Inside the pen there are nesting boxes for egg laying and roosting bars for perching at night. They have a fenced in front yard. Later this week there will be electrified fencing in place connected to a solar charger. That will provide a spacious range for the girls and also keep them protected from any four-legged chicken thieves. My older flock of twenty-five hens is beta testing the pen. The old coop is being converted into a brooding house for 100 chicks arriving later this week. More on that to come!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A basement full of barley

These sprouts are seven days old. 
One of the challenges winter presents is providing fresh greens for the hens. After much research, I decided to experiment with sprouting barley.
All sprouting requires is some seed, containers and water!  I chose barley because it is a fast growing cold weather crop - perfect for sprouting in my chilly basement.

Sprouting increases the protein, vitamins and enzymes in the seed which makes it more digestible, requiring less grain. In seed form it contains 12% protein but sprouting boosts that number up to 15%. Sprouts are filled with chlorophyll, omega-3 and beta-carotene resulting in more nutrient dense eggs. The other wonderful thing about sprouting grains is that it increases the volume by almost six times! That 50# bag of organic barley seed becomes almost 300# of fodder in just nine days.

The process is quite simple. I start by soaking one pound of barley overnight. The next day I rinse the seeds and spread them into trays about 1/2 inch thick. The trays are watered twice daily and a new batch is started each night. The trays have holes and are elevated on one end to promote good drainage.  I water from the top and it runs from the upper trays down through the rest of the containers and into the floor drain.

 I am still experimenting with the amount of seed to sprout to meet the needs of our flock. I plan for the sprouts to be a nutritious winter supplement and a productive activity for the hens. I hope to decrease my feed bill and increase egg productivity. I intend to grow some longer sprouts into fodder that I can offer the goats as well. It's good therapy to have a basement full of green in the heart of the winter.

The girls enjoyed their first offering of sprouts!