Two years strong and planning for our first CSA

We have reached our two year anniversary!

We have done so much and learnt a huge amount in the process. People have been absolutely wonderful and supportive with the journey we’ve had and the philosophy we follow. It has been great to see just how excited children (and quite often, their parents) are when they come for a visit, with our little goats being the highlight for most.

Now that the weather it turning for Winter, we have let the chooks take over the garden patch … and I can tell you that 60 ish birds can strip half an acre VERY quickly. They’ve done a great job clearing out all the slugs and critters while liberally spreading their leavings without me having to do so. Win-win!

Reflecting back on the last year, I would say that I regretted not installing a more robust irrigation system … something worth remediating this Autumn.

Even though the season is coming to an end, with our online sales stopping, we have kicked off the planning of a Community Supported Agriculture programme or CSA. Check it out on our page Our 2016 Spring-Summer CSA. Now that we have a comfortable crop rotation happening and have identified what crops we will be offering as part of the CSA, there is a whole raft of communications, information packs, labels and packaging that needs to be organised and sourced.

Thank you to everyone who has helped make this little geek of a farmer happy. All I can hope is that everyone has the bravery and opportunity to follow their dream. For me, it took several years of planning, lots or research and even more mistakes, an appreciation of the small things that are on offer from people and a truely amazingly patient husband to get me there.

Even though my hubby seriously dislikes my goats, his assistance in all things mechanical or powered by a motor has seen me recover quickly from my bouts of frustration when things need fixing or (usually) I’m stuck unable to start the darn thing.

Thank you everyone.

A request for training

The last few months for us have been beyond hectic. So much so that this little blog has fallen to the way side due to us simply falling into bed at night from sheer exhaustion.

We’ve sold our excess produce at the Foragers Market in Bulli several times, raised a new batch of little egg birds, fended off foxes, broke new ground in our market garden, been asked multiple times to train different groups of people and taken on a full time role managing a very large IT service (you can’t take the techie out of me). Just crazy!

Last week, we met up with a couple who are passionate about permaculture (like us) and who would like to swap a few hours of work a week with knowledge and training of what we have accomplished. Why not! I said.

So today was the beginning of a practical experience “brain dump” for them. Given that we didn’t go around with pen and paper, these blog posts will serve as a reminder for them on what we accomplished and a summary for you out there about what you can do yourselves.

The morning started out with a run down of what they wanted to learn. We decided to start with a bottom up approach and start with soil … the building block of a healthy eco-system and a brilliant market garden. We looked at the difference between sandy loam, pure compost, different mulches and heavy reactive clays (our primary soil type here). We touched on our “lazy” composting technique along with the how and why it works for us. We also explored our experimental, onsite composting piles and the importance of replacing nutrients from another source if you are selling produce from the land.

Next we started looking at some of the different guilds we had set up. Our key discussion points were around our Plum, herb and Tower of Jewels (Echium) planting and those of our Apple, Artichoke and Foxglove planting.

We then had a walking fruit salad by visiting some of our apple trees as a snack then headed back to the house to start preparing our upgraded chicken tractors (see our original Chicken Tractor soil fertility post) for our new generation egg birds. While our trainees assembled some new, stainless steel treadle feeders, I finished rolling out some dough for bread rolls for lunch, then had a break for morning tea.

The upgraded chicken tractors were secured from fox attack and nice fresh straw was added in, we transferred 35 of our 10 week old chicks to their new pens to grow out before being introduced into the chicken caravan in a couple of months. We’ve learned the hard way that the young birds quickly learn to squeeze through the mesh of the electric fence surrounding the chicken caravan and prefer to escape and scratch in the market garden. Sorry girls, you’re going to be somewhat incarcerated until you fill out some more and you get too big to fit through the mesh! Enjoy your home under the old pear tree for a few weeks.

Once we were happy that they figured out how to use the treadle feeders and that the water was set level, the guys set about harvesting some snake beans. They learned the correct technique for harvesting beans to ensure that the subsequent crops are not affected, then we had a break or lunch.

I mentioned that we needed to turn a few of our roosters into dinner, and our guests decided that they wanted to help and learn… so they learned how to calm the birds, slaughter them humanely, pluck them, evicerate them and de-bone them over a couple of hours. Lots of work!

Once we had cleaned up the meat and rinsed it, we used our post hole digger to quickly dig a couple of holes to bury the feathers and carcasses.

Phew! What a day. Thanks guys for your willingness to get involved and learn things that that most people are too afraid to tackle. I hope you enjoy your ethically grown and much loved rooster pieces. Remember to wait until next weekend to cook them so they are no longer in rigor mortis.

Caring for pasture raised chickens … electric netting, chicken tractors and chicken caravans

There are many different ways to house your chickens, but when your aim is to ensure that your birds get access to plenty of fresh pasture daily, there are a few problems that need to be addressed: Predator protection, Portable Housing, Feeding and Watering.

Predator Protection

We are located in the Sydney basin (in Australia). What that means is that we have to contend with a rather large population of feral foxes, wild dogs, bored neighbourhood dogs, a few native hawks and a resident pair of Wedge Tailed eagles. Just a few things 😉

While we have had the occasional loss of a bird to a hawk, we noticed that they only seemed to prey on the smaller birds. So this was easily remedied by ensuring that all our birds are in an enclosed “avery” until they are at least four months old. Plus the hawks are hesitant to attack anything too densely packed together, so keeping the chickens close to each other is important.

Our resident Wedge Tailed eagles are actually more scavengers, preferring a carcass to a live bird. So the loss of a live chicken to these guys was negligible. The Wedge Tailed eagles easily carried off our geese that the fox killed one night … we were at the house deciding where to bury the 3 geese carcasses and an eagle came in and took off with one while we weren’t looking!

That only left us with how to deal with the four legged predators … and found that we had to  make a decision on a portable fencing solution. After copious amounts of research, we decided to try out electric netting fences. We have tried two brands of electric netting fence so far and they each have their pro’s and con’s. Here is what we found…

Thunderbird Electric Poultry net:

Pro’s: Lightweight, has steel post step-in’s that don’t bend or warp,

Con’s: Easily tangled, lean pullet breeds can squeeze through the holes

Recommendation: This netting solution has one live wire and an earth, which can conveniently be any of the steel post step-ins. While this is the lightest net, the vertical stays between live wire are not very rigid and cause the net to tangle easily when moved; when moving it at night (which happens usually during Winter) this can be frustrating. The biggest problem we had though was that the smaller pullets could easily squeeze between the holes. Now we’re now talking bantams here, but rather leghorn pullets, which are quite lean birds but not a small bird. Because a birds’ feathers are essentially made of keratin, they are insulated from the effects of the electric pulse. This was a major issue for us, as the birds learned very quickly that there were lots of yummy tidbits in the garden beds nearby. Also, we were alternating the use of the Thunderbird net and the Kencove net in moving our birds. On the night that we were using the Thunderbird net, a fox did manage to get into the enclosure and slaughtered 24 meat birds inside one of the chicken tractors. We’re not sure how it got in either as the fence was operational on all lines. Finally, customer support was non-existant from Thunderbird. When we wrote tot he Thunderbird team … no one even bothered to respond! For these reasons, the Thunderbird Poultry net gets a big “NO” from us.

Kencove Starternet:

Pro’s: Light weight, difficult to tangle, small holes in fence, can be run as either a live wire and earth or a double live

Con’s: has plastic step-in’s which warp easily (but these are about to be replaced free of charge by our supplier with a new solution), more expensive.

Recommendation: Although the cost of the Kencove product was $60 more, it has paid this back by ensuring that the chickens do not have access to our growing beds. There is nothing more frustrating than finding a few chickens happily dust bathing in freshly prepared growing beds or pecking out fresh pea sprouts!  Also, the fact that the stays between the live wires are more rigid ensures that the fence does not tangle as easily as the Thunderbird netting solution. So the Kencove Starternet gets a big “YES” from us.

Portable Housing

Choosing to keep your chickens on pasture makes housing much more difficult than just erecting a shed. One of the main reasons we chose to raise our birds on pasture is that the birds don’t sleep in their own excrement and have fresh clean pasture available to them each day. This reduces the potential for parasities and bacterial infections to affect the flock as their home is clean, fresh pasture and not soiled bedding.

We have tried two methods of portable housing for our chooks. Both have been home made to meet a particular purpose at the time: The Joel Salatin style chicken tractor and a trailer converted to a chicken caravan.

Chicken tractor:

If you have read any of Joel Salatin’s books, you will see that he is willing to share with you all the trial and tribulations of keeping animals according to their natural rhythms. His chicken tractor was excellent. Now while he has stated that foxes don’t like change and won’t dig under a chicken tractor that is moved daily … they must have a different breed of fox in the US because the foxes here don’t give a toss how often it is moved … if it can be dug under then it will be! We lost a few birds on our first trial night …. so added a wire skirt around the tractor. This needed to be pinned each day which proved time consuming. We then teamed up the chicken tractors with an electric fence …. HEAVEN! The perfect solution.

Here are a few of our meat birds and Plymouth Rocks in their tractors.

Our Plymouth Rocks teenagers checking out the crazy person who might be bringing tidbits to nibble.
Our Plymouth Rocks teenagers checking out the crazy person who might be bringing tidbits to nibble.
6 week old meat birds on pasture inside their chicken tractor
6 week old meat birds on pasture inside their chicken tractor
Chicken caravan:

We increased our laying flock to a little over 100. In doing so, we needed to have a portable solution for lots of chickens which was off the ground in Winter so the birds did not freeze at night … hence the idea of the chicken caravan.

There are multiple solutions out there. Even some amazing commercial ones which have solar powered chicken excluders on the nesting boxes to ensure that the eggs are clean. While these solutions are time saving, we just couldn’t justify spending around $10K for a portable chook house. So we built one instead for a fraction of the cost.

Here are a few images to describe what we did. The downside of the chicken caravan is that you need a vehicle to move it around any great distance. It can be pushed around by hand if you are only moving it a short distance though.

Feeding

Chickens are gluttons! If you left a bag of feed out for them to eat from, they would scatter the entire bag everywhere within minutes, searching for their favourite morsels. Plus, if you are using pelleted feed, this would quickly dissolve easily with assistance from the morning dew.

Chickens need to be rationed in their meals. Always provide enough food for them to be happy, but not too much that it is wasted. For our 100 egg birds, we have found that the perfect amount of feed for them is around 5-6kg of feed per day. The rest they get from the pasture (insects and vegetation).

We use stainless steel treadle feeders in our enclosed pens, but these are cumbersome to keep moving around. We have also used plastic automatic feeders, but these are susceptible to cracking when left out in the sun for extended periods.

For our field birds, we use large plastic trays. We fill four trays (each holds around 1.5 kg) and sprinkle on Diatomaceous Earth as a wormer and Cocchidiosis treatment. These get placed inside the electric fence every morning and they are mostly empty by evening. Yes, they scratch some out on the ground but they clean it up during the night when they get peckish.

Watering

There are so many different solutions out there for watering and we have tried many. For us, we have found that the best solution are two to four 15L stainless steel waterers. We are looking at a barrel system for the upcoming summer months as the chickens need lots more water then.

Ants are highway makers … just on a different scale.

Have you ever stopped to wonder at the different little insects around you. There are just so many with a huge variety of niches that they fill. For us, ants have always been a fascination, none more so than meat eating ants.

We have several different colonies of ants on our property. Meat, nectar and plant eaters alike. Whenever we have a chook die (this happens occasionally), we make an offering to the meat ant nest for a day and then bury the carcass at nightfall. It is amazing how quickly they can strip the meat off a chicken to the bone (or near enough)! Within a couple of hours, most of the visceral area is gone and you end up only needing to dispose of bone and feathers. The perfect little recyclers from our point of view!

But one of the most amazing skills that these little guys have, is their ability to transform their environment at will. A trail of meat ants on the move can easily create a visible path in only 2 days! These little guys, by sheer numbers, tread down a swathe in grass that would put weed killer to shame. For those of you who have never witnessed this, here is a pic of the little guys on the move… at the end of their trail was a wild bird. Pretty impressive!

A trail of meat ants has trodden this path in only 2 days!
A trail of meat ants has trodden this path in only 2 days!

Go you little good things!

Being the accountant, the marketing manager, the supervisor and the labourer all at once!

When people think of farming, they think of wonderful farmers markets, great produce and friendly people. Very few consider what goes on behind the scenes to get the produce to them.

This week was a hectic once for us with lots of milestones achieved, but it meant that we had to wear the hat of accountant, marketing manager, supervisor and labourer all in one week!

So here is a run down of our mad-cap week…

We got our logo revamped!

Our little mouse needed some inspiration, so we took her to our local graphic design studio and the guys at Avenue de Flaunt came up with some awesome ideas. So bye-bye little blind mouse and hello cute little field mouse. Pity we didn’t have three blind mice to work with!

Little Field Mice Pty Ltd logo
Our old logo. We didn’t realise it looked blind without the pupil!
littlefieldmice
Our new logo. We love it!

 

 

We started prepping our beds for Winter

The start of Autumn sees us clearing out all our old and tired tomato plants and their trellises. We burn all the dried up plants to reduce fungal disease in future crops, a job that Master 7 truly enjoys (there must be a little pyromaniac in every child as Miss 5 is now wanting to learn how to help with this).

Once the beds are cleared, we add wheel barrow loads of fresh compost straight from one of our compost bins, some ash, trace elements, rock dust, chicken manure and plenty of dried lawn clippings …. then its dig, Dig, DIG!

*Phew, glad its not high Summer*

We started planting our beds for winter crops.

Once all the digging is done, We form up our beds and lay down irrigation pipe. This then gets turned on for a test run and to both moisten and settle the soil before planting.

Where the water drips out is where we plant our new seedlings. All plants can’t stand oxygen at their root zone … this causes them to die back. We always ensure that our new seedlings go into moist ground and then get watered in afterwards as well. This helps settle them into the soil and removes any air holes in the soil surrounding the roots.

This week we planted out…

  • Lettuce (red, green and bronze oak leaf; endive; mini cos; red and green coral; red romaine)
  • Fennel
  • Sorrel (green and red veined)
  • Basil (sweet and mini greek)
  • Brassicas (broccoli; broccolini; cauliflower; pak choi; red russian kale; tuscan kale)
  • Carrots (purple; white; yellow and orange)
  • Parsnips
  • Strawberries
  • Garlic (Monaro purple; Italian purple; Italian white)
  • Herbs (curled and flat leaf parsley; sage; rosemary; thyme; lemon thyme; oregano; garlic chives; nasturtium;
  • Onions (red)

We got some new hens delivered to our farm.

We are very strict with bio-security and only source our new breeding stock from eggs which we incubate and grow on ourselves. Our only exception to this is our meat birds, which are grown in a climate controlled and sterile environment then shipped straight to us within 24-48 hours of being born.

Since the devastation of a lot of our breeders due to the local fox population, we have decided to introduce ten new hens to our flock. They have been treated for external and internal parasites so that they do not pass any untoward problems onto our stock. These girls will be placed into their breeding pens shortly.

We started building chicken tractors 3, 4 and 5.

As the breeding season will be coming around soon, we have started to build some new Joel Salatin style chicken tractors. It will start looking like a fleet soon. Can’t wait till they are finished.

We will have one breeding pen each of Plymouth Rock, Araucana and Barnevelder. There will also be a meat bird pen and then a growing pen for all the chicks we hatch older than 6 weeks. Then with our move to our new farm on the horizon, the chicken tractor fleet is set to boom!

We introduced our resident hen to the garden

When our hens go “clucky” (that is they want to sit on and hatch eggs), we schedule their hatch with one of our incubators. That way she can adopt a few extras for us.

Hens are natural Mum’s and they make the funniest noises. Now that her little ones are more than 2 weeks old, they are smart enough to listen o their Mum (mostly) and are at a lower risk of falling down a crack in the ground and dying (yes, this happens).

On the first day out in the garden, the hen only ranged around 3m from the shed she calls home. But once she saw us pulling up the tomato trellises, her curiosity was obvious … and calculated. As soon as we sat down for lunch …. she had called her brood over and was happily showing them how to scratch out bugs and insects from the soil. A few times knocking a chick over in the process due to her enthusiasm.

She makes a different noise for her chicks for different reasons; when intruders approach (like us or the cats), when there is a predator spotted, when there is a nice tidbit of food, when its time for a nap or sleep (yes, chicks sleep during the day just like all babies). It’s quite entertaining to listen to.

Here is a picture of her in the garden near our sweet potato and berry patch.

Hen and chicks free range
Plymouth Rock hen free-ranging with twelve two week old chicks

 

… then we did some tractor shopping.

We have been on the look out for a small tractor for our new farm for the last few months. Now that the land has settled, we can start looking in earnest as we have somewhere to store it now. 🙂

Checking out tractors is like checking out cars … if you don’t know what you want to begin with, you’ll only be attracted to the new and shiny gadgets.

Raising meat chickens … they’re not a dumb as you might think!

We have started growing pasture raised meat birds. Essentially, they are a commercial breed of meat chicken which we get as day old chicks. They come specially “packaged” and shipped to us within 24 hours of hatching. Here is what they look like in their little shipping box on arrival. A whole box of cuteness if you ask us!

Chicks - day old in box
50 one day old chicks in delivery box

We then introduce them into our brooder. It is a fully enclosed box which rats and other nasties cannot get into. They have a heat lamp, light, plenty of litter  (added to every second day to reduce smells), two feeding stations and two watering stations. There are no draughts and we control the temperature daily, slowing ‘hardening’ them down to be accustomed to lower temperatures. Here is a pic of them in their little brooder…

Chicks - day old in brooder
Day old chicks in brooder box. Protected from predators and draughts with plenty of access to feed and water.

Because these little guys are near our home, they get used to noisy children always handling them and learn quickly that if you approach an extended hand you usually get some nice tidbits. Unlike meat birds raised in sheds that run away from people, these little critters come up to you.

Here is one of our hand fed stars. You can already see good breast development on her. She is very inquisitive and loves being handled … mostly because she knows there is always a treat (or six) involved.

Chicken - 5 week old meat bird
Our children learn how to safely handle chickens. Even the chicken learn that it is OK to be held, just as this 5 week old meat chicken is being done. No running away from these capable little hands.

At the end of their second week, they graduate to our large brooder. It gives them more space to move around with a heated bench at the back under cover and a sunny lounging area at the front where they can eat or just lay down in the sun.

Here are some of our 5 week old chicks (combination of meat birds, plymouth rocks and mixed breed egg layers) snacking on some azolla  which we grow for them.

5 week old chicks snacking on Azolla. They love it!
5 week old chicks snacking on Azolla. They love it!

Once they reach 5 weeks, they are put onto pasture in our Joel Salatin inspired chicken tractors. We have modified the design slightly by adding some skis to the bottom plate to make it easier for us to pull along the ground rather than use a dolly system. It works a treat! Here are the cheeky little ones at 6 weeks of age. They were just moved to fresh pasture. Look at how much more feathered and chunky they are since the last photo. Only 8 days difference in these images!

Chicken - 6 week old meat bird
6 week old meat birds in chicken tractor

There are only 20 birds in this tractor. It is one of our future breeding pens so is smaller than most. We will be stocking these pens with 12 chickens and one very lucky rooster in the next breeding season!

So remember, when you buy your next chook for dinner, have a think about how they were grown and if they were happy. We know ours are. And while it is sad to say farewell to them once they reach eight and a half weeks, we know that they have been fed the BEST diet with a variety of insects, grain and fresh grass. Go you little chooks!