Farm Club

2018/05/06 deej 0

The first rule of farm club is..  please do in fact talk about farm club. Tell anyone you know who might be interested. Encourage other people to start their own versions – maybe we can make it into a movement.

Farm club is a combination of a (hopefully) practical co-op for food sharing and an attempt at a real-world version of a gifting/barter economy. The idea is that members offer “shares” in whatever they produce, along with what they need back to keep producing the thing, and other members sign up for those shares.

So in our case, we produce eggs. We’ve tried selling them directly, either for eating or hatching (we have roosters, the eggs are fertilised), but it’s hard. Working full time and trying to do a weekly or fortnightly egg delivery run is hard; working full time an hour to an hour and half commute away from home and trying to maintain social connections, and spend time with my kitties and my geese and my chickens, have a little bit of time to myself to write or read or play, AND doing a weekly or fortnightly egg delivery run is well nigh impossible. I just don’t have time, or the energy.

Plus, chickens aren’t machines. They don’t lay an egg a day all year; they molt, or a fox comes past and tries to get in (and fails, but still, it does them a frighten), or the weather turns cold or gets too hot, or something happens in their little chickeny brains and they stop laying. Or they find a cache of delicious bugs or something, and they go berserk laying like they’re mental (2 eggs a day from some of the hens, for no apparent reason). To reliably produce enough eggs to sell, we need to actually over-produce, which means we then have an excess to try to sell (but then we have the same problem of supplying the demand once we generate it) or to use up ourselves (our diet is already egg-heavy, we really can’t effectively use any more).

Thus: farm club. It’s a variation on the idea of people jointly buying and owning a cow or goat, and all taking a share of the milk produced by the jointly owned animal (this idea has been used by people wanting raw milk, because while it’s illegal to sell raw milk for human consumption, it is legal to use the raw milk form your own animal).

In this version, we’d offer a number of bird-shares for eggs and farm club members could sign on for one or more of these egg shares. Each share is equivalent to a half dozen eggs a week, and the ‘cost’ of your share covers the feed for producing those eggs (either directly as chicken feed, be that commercial grain-based feed or fruit & veg e.g. excess fruit from a loquat or lilly pilly tree, or in $$). We’d set a day and time (and frequency) that farm club members could come and pick up their eggs (thus sorting out our distribution issue) – for us it would be one Sunday afternoon per fortnight (Fresh eggs will last up to 3 months in the fridge, a fortnight won’t hurt them or you). If the chickens aren’t laying, or are laying less than usual, we’d post an update saying that there are no eggs that week, or that there are limited eggs.

 

farm club spreadsheet

* One standard 10L bucket  of fruit/veg scraps is approx 2 kg, but feel free to bring more if you want. Best options are greens (celery tops, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce), fruit (lilly pillies, loquats, strawberry tops, bruised bits of mango or peach, the seedy bits from the middle of melon, watermelon rinds,apple cores) or chook-friendly vegetable scraps (cooked beans, corn cobs, the seeds from pumpkin or cucumber, peas or green beans, cooked potato or sweet potato). Leftover cooked rice, barley, couscous or pasta is also okay. No citrus or onion please, and nothing mouldy (those should all go into the compost).

I haven’t worked out all the bugs from the idea, but I think it has possibilities. For example, as we start producing more things, farm club will get different types of shares that members can sign up for – and maybe even some different types of shares that other members produce.

Check out the Farm Club page – it’ll be updated as we work the idea out further. 🙂

The Ethical Omnivore

2017/01/27 deej 0

Some philosophy to start the day. 🙂 This may be controversial, you have been warned.

 

I disagree with veganism on ethical grounds. Not the veganism which is based on some (incredibly rare, but real) allergies or food intolerances to any sort of animal protein, but the sort which is based on an ethical regard for animal welfare. I have quite a lot of vegan and vegan-tending friends, and I know this’ll touch a nerve for most of them, but – I still think it’s true.

 

This is not about not wanting to eat dead animals. I get that. I understand the idea that killing an animal or having one killed for our benefit, when we don’t actually need it (vegetarian proteins are entirely adequate for human health) is a bad thing. I especially respect people who say that they couldn’t personally kill an animal, and as such they think it’s wrong for them to eat meat. I feel a lot more comfortable eating my own animals – animals which have had good lives, have been fed well and given as utopian an environment as I can manufacture for them, and which I know for a fact to have been killed painlessly and with as little stress as is humanly possible. I don’t feel good about eating an animal which has suffered for my benefit. I literally call traditional intensively raised chickens “torture chicken” to my friends & family, to make them think about the difference in the lives of higher welfare and free range birds. I’m increasingly inclined to only eat animals which I have raised, or which have been raised by people I trust to give them the kind of life I would want them to have.

 

I even understand not wanting to take advantage of animals which are raised to produce milk, or eggs, or leather, or honey. Dairy cows arguably have a worse life than beef cattle do, and dairy calves are usually killed very young (and not even as veal for human use – we’ve gotten so fussy that a lot of dairy calves aren’t a good enough grade for use as human food, so they’re mulched or made into pet food) to keep their mothers producing more milk for human use. Male chicks from chicken farms breeding laying birds are ground up alive to make high-protein meal, which is often then fed to the layer and breeder birds. Overbreeding of honeybees has led to such weak queens that the hives’ immune systems are weakened and the hives are susceptible to diseases and parasites which add to Colony Collapse Disorder (although not as much as neonicotioid pesticides do). So don’t think I don’t get it. I do. I would miss honey, but if I thought bees would be better off if I gave up honey, I would do it. (I gave up tuna because I feel bad about eating endangered species which can’t be farmed, even though it’s really delicious and I do miss it.)

 

But there are two problems.

 

First – refusing to engage with animal-based agricultural industries means that your preferences about the welfare of the animals no longer affect the decisions of the farmers keeping those animals. You are effectively arguing that everyone should be vegan, otherwise your choice makes very little difference to the animals whose health and happiness you are concerned about.

 

Second – humans and our various associate species (domesticated animals) made an agreement a long time ago, between their ancestors and ours. We agreed to provide them with a good life, an easy life of always-available food and water, safety for their babies, and what medical care we could give. In return, they agreed to provide us with the products of their bodies – meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, wool – and with companionship, support, and labour. But while we have the option to get out of that agreement, they no longer do. They rely on us entirely, and so we are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire species as well as their individual wellbeing.

 

When we refuse to use animal products, we make it economically unviable for farmers to maintain the species who produce them. And we owe those species. We owe them care and food and an easy, good life for their descendants, forever. Because we have changed them through domestication to the point where most of them can no longer survive without us, we cannot in good faith simply abandon them. If we no longer need them, then we will no longer keep them, and they will become extinct. How many people would really keep pet cows, goats, or sheep if milk and meat and wool weren’t a factor, or chickens if we couldn’t eat their eggs? Enough to maintain genetic diversity in the species, and keep it alive? How many people even have enough space to consider keeping that sort of pet? How many people keep pet horses (not including horses kept for riding, or for pulling carts of various sorts for human recreation)? Horses, which are intelligent, loyal, genuinely affectionate companions equivalent in many ways to a dog. There are very few pet horses which don’t also serve a purpose through their labour.

 

I think it would be a tragedy to allow these species, in all their diversity, to go extinct. We would lose something intensely human by losing those old relationships with our associate species. I think we are responsible for them, and as such we should work to breed healthier animals which live well and don’t produce obscene amounts for our benefit at their expense – but that are still useful to keep. Heritage breed chickens which lay every couple’ve days are healthier and happier than battery-bred birds which lay every single day and live half as long because they use up the calcium in their bones to make egg-shells. Heritage breed sheep and cows are often smaller and friendlier than the modern types which are bred for pure production potential, and we should be keeping those breeds if we can, and maintaining them. We should care if our pork comes from heritage breed free range pigs, or factory farmed animals which can’t be free ranged at all because they get such bad sunburn if they go outdoors. We should care if our chicken comes from heritage birds which mature healthily, or from cross-bred “broilers” which are killed at six weeks old because if they live any longer they are literally crippled (broken legs, crumbling bones) by their muscle growth outstripping their bones ability to hold them upright.

 

So I think we should, generally, eat less meat. Maybe even less dairy (or at least we should be willing to pay the actual costs of production for dairy products – and other foods). But I think opting out of consuming or using animal products at all is not actually the most ethical decision. I think it’s a much better option, ethically speaking, to be very aware of where your food and clothing comes from and to actively support farmers who are offering their animals (and plants!) a good life and high welfare.

 

I hope this sort of idea encourages people to think about their food choices more carefully. If you don’t want to consume animal products, that’s your choice, absolutely. And if eating animals or animal products squicks you, totally don’t do it. But if it’s an ethical choice, maybe you could think about how ethical it actually is, and how you could do the most good for animal welfare through your purchasing and consumption choices.

rotational high density grazing – small scale

2016/11/21 deej 0

I’ve ruminated at length about the pros and cons of goats (adorable miniature milk goats, and there are even Nigerian Dwarf goats in Australia now!) and sheep (ah the possibilities of non-tree-eating ruminants). I’ve talked about getting a house cow (still in the long term plan) and considered the cost versus difficulty versus milk quality and quantity of various breeds of all these animals. I’ve considered alpacas (beautiful silky suri fleece to spin) but decided that in the short term they’re too expensive for the returns they offer, and not friendly enough to get one just as a pet.

 

As an aside, my (extensive) spreadsheet indicates that, for me, the best of these would be goats, for milk and meat production: Anglo-Nubians (or mini Anglo-Nubians), Nigerian Dwarf goats, or even Boer goats. A highland or Dexter house cow is also quite plausible, even including the cost of buying feed, and Dorper cross sheep are plausible too. Alpacas cost more to keep than the value of their products per year.

 

But cattle, goats & sheep aren’t small scale livestock. You could keep a pet sheep or goat in the back yard, if you have a reasonably large back yard and a sympathetic local council, but you really couldn’t graze said pet using only said back yard. You’d need to buy in feed in the form of hay, grain, and pellets or other commercially produced food, and probably supplement with weeds and prunings as well. Rotational grazing on a small scale requires small livestock. Guinea pigs or rabbits are a good choice, and their poo is very good for gardens and lawns (low nitrogen so it can be used without being composted first). My choice for small scale rotational grazing, however, is geese. (Although I am planning on getting some guinea pigs as well, as soon as we’ve built a guinea pig tractor to keep them safe from predators).

 

My adorable goslings (affectionately called “gooselings”, and named Tarragon, Cersei, and Jamie) are starting to get their adult feathers now. They still have baby-fluff, and they still make cute little baby-goose begging noises to encourage me to bring them food, but they’re getting big. Each one is easily 2 kg now, and they’re growing every day. We rotated them (i.e. moved their run) yesterday for the first time, and the spot where they were is grazed and trampled and covered in goose poop. So – success so far.

 

The three geese are enclosed in a 4 x 4 m run, originally sold as a dog run. It’s 1.8 m in height, fenced all the way around with chainlink fence, and has a heavy duty bird net as and add-on roof to keep aerial (and climbing) predators out. The floor is open, so at night the geese are locked into a goose kennel to keep them safe form digging predators like foxes. They currently have a 10 L bucket of water, but we have a small pond for them which will go in soon. They get to graze all day, plus they get an armload of weeds and fresh grass and kitchen greens every morning, and a small allocation of chicken scratch mix. They seem to be pretty happy. Geese, like other grazing animals, tend to spend most of their time grazing and digesting. Geese can actually digest at least some cellulose, although it seems to be by mechanical means as they don’t appear to have commensal bacteria like the rumen species of ruminants. Ducks are similar, although ducks make more of a mess with their water, dabbling and playing in it until they create mud muddles.

 

For the back yard grazier (person who keeps grazing animals), geese are a pretty good choice. Unlike chickens, they won’t scratch up the grass or destroy a garden bed (although they will eat vegetables if they can get to them,. and may strip bark from young trees if they’re bored or hungry), and they don’t create messy mud patches like ducks. They also don’t destroy trees the way goats and sheep can – geese can strip bark off young trees but are very unlikely to kill a tree, and can’t reach to eat the growing tips of the branches. They can be noisy, and aggressive if they feel threatened, but they’re reasonably smart and can be trained to be quiet on command. There are also Muscovy “ducks” (actually they’re more closely related to geese, and also eat grass and do not create mud puddles), which don’t make any noise louder than a quiet sort of hissing sound or a soft trilling coo like a pigeon. Muscovies not only eat grass, they also eat insects – including flies. So they’re a definite win for the smallholder or backyard farmer. Geese and muscovies lay eggs seasonally rather than all year round like chickens, but the eggs are edible and delicious. If you have males and females (and thus fertilised eggs) you could also let the mother hatch them for some more baby birds. Or hatch some in an incubator, although that’s a little trickier than chicken eggs because the humidity needs to be just right.

 

Basically, grazing poultry are a pretty good choice for people with relatively small areas to keep them – especially if you have trees to fertilise. They don’t produce milk or wool, but they do produce eggs in spring (and up to 3 times per year for muscovies), and of course they produce fertiliser in the form of goose poop, building up the soil and recycling carbon. If keeping animals for meat is your thing then that’s also an option. Both geese and muscovies are very well regarded as meat animals, producing a flavourful, dark meat. If you do decide to kill one of your birds, obviously do it humanely using either controlled atmosphere killing (with nitrogen, not carbon dioxide – carbon dioxide will cause the sensation of suffocation, whereas nitrogen is undetectable and the bird just falls gently asleep and doesn’t wake up) or another humane method (such as beheading with a very sharp axe).

Pilgrim (or Settlers) Geese

2016/10/13 deej 0

Geese aren’t everyone’s idea of a great back-yard animal. I’ve heard all the stories – they’re noisy, vicious, aggressive, messy, horrible hellbeasts. But I have a confession to make: I’ve always kinda wanted to have geese. Since well before I saw the film Fly Away Home (about a little girl who rescues a nest full of orphaned Canada geese, and raises them, teaching them to fly and eventually leading them on an  epic microlight journey as she teaches them a safe migration route for their annual migration), I thought geese were adorable. I didn’t have any latent desire to have chickens (although since getting my first hens, I’ve discovered that I love keeping chooks, and I really miss it when I don’t have them around), but geese are different. I have no idea why 🙂

This week, my very first goslings hatched. I’ve had four Pilgrim Goose eggs in the incubator for the last month (goose eggs take 26 – 35 days to hatch), and three of them have hatched. Given that geese are well known for being difficult to hatch in an incubator, and even commercial farm advice is to hatch them under a broody mother goose or under a muscovy duck, that’s a pretty good hatch rate. I was desperately hoping at least two would hatch, because geese are flock critters and form very strong flock bonds – having a lone goose is cruel and very bad for the goose. So three is fantastic. It looks like at least 2 of them are girls, too (I can’t quite tell for the 3rd). Since geese can live well into their teens, sometimes longer, that means that if I have a pair of girls I can find them a good (unrelated) gander in a year or two and start breeding my own goslings.

The domestic goose (Anser anser domesticus) of Europe, North Africa and Western Asia is descended from the greylag goose (Anser anser), while the domesticated goose of East Asia (Anser cygnoides domesticus, commonly called the ‘Chinese goose’) is descended from the swan goose (Anser cygnoides). The two types of domesticated geese can interbreed, and many flocks include both types, and/or hybrids. There is evidence of domesticated geese in Egypt over 4,000 years ago. Pilgrim geese, sometimes known as Settlers Geese in Australia, are an autosexing breed – males are white, while females are darker, with grey and white or brown and white plumage. Pilgrim Geese were bred in the 1930s in America, and are probably derived from a few European breeds of autosexing geese. They’re generally mellow and calm natured, and for being good foragers and good parents (laying 20 – 50 eggs per year). Like all geese, they have good eyesight, good memories, and they prefer to have a set, calm routine. When there isn’t something riling them up, they aren’t usually that noisy, either.

Geese are grazing animals, more like sheep and goats than like chickens. With access to good pasture, they need little or no supplementary feeding, although if there isn’t plentiful pasture they can be fed grain like other poultry. They will (apparently) eat hay, but only if it’s wet, as the dry hay is difficult for them to eat. Goslings should be fed grass clippings from 2 weeks of age, to help with the development of their gut flora – feeding grass earlier than that is also ok, as long as gosling starter crumble is also available. Young geese grow very quickly, and need a high protein (around 28% protein) feed for the first 4 – 6 weeks). Feed for goslings cannot contain any medications or pesticides/herbicides, as their livers can’t process these chemicals. Adult geese will happily graze pasture or weed gardens (they avoid some cultivated plants, but cannot be trusted around lettuce and similar salad greens), or they can be fed grain or poultry pellets and grass clippings. If pasture is not available, geese must be provided with grass or greens such as lettuce. They also need plenty of fresh water – like ducks, they need to be able to submerge their entire heads to clean their nostrils. Geese do not need water to swim in unless you want fertilised eggs (they mate in the water).

Domestic goose breeds can weigh up to 10 kg at maturity, although there are smaller breeds (such as the Pilgrim Goose, which weighs from 5 kg up to 7.5 – 8kg), and they lay up to 60 eggs per year. Chinese Geese tend to lay more eggs than the European breeds. All geese (wild and domestic) are seasonal layers, and only lay in spring, usually starting in August or September in the southern hemisphere. A goose will generally lay an egg a day during the breeding season, and will go broody and sit on her eggs when the clutch reaches 5 – 15 eggs. If the goose-keeper steals the eggs, the goose will keep laying.

Goose eggs are large and hard-shelled. They weigh 120 – 170g each, and are both edible and tasty; the flavour is slightly different to chicken eggs. Like duck eggs, goose eggs are richer than chicken eggs, and when cooked the yolk texture is slightly denser. If you want to hatch them in an incubator, it will take 26 – 35 days, at 37.5 degrees C. Once the goslings begin pipping and trying to hatch, it can take up to 3 days for them to emerge form their eggs – be very careful if you decide to help them out, since (just like chickens, and any other bird) if the chick is still connected to the egg, breaking those blood vessels can cause serious injury. (That said, I did help my gosling out of their eggs, by gently cracking the shell so they could get out more easily – I was afraid that the egg membranes would dry out too much during hatching and they wouldn’t be able to get out. I’m an anxious bird-parent.). The humidity requirements are complex, with two options:

  • For a wet incubation, the humidity should be 50 – 55% until day 27 (or until the first pipping), then increased to 75% until hatch.
  • For a ‘dry’ incubation (which means you can incubate chicken, quail, or guinea fowl eggs at the same time), keep the humidity at 20 – 25% for the first 14 days, before raising it to around 60%. From day 7 onwards, mist or sprinkle the eggs daily with tepid water; after day 15, every 2nd day you should submerge the eggs in warm water (37.5 degrees C) for 1 minute. Form day 7 the eggs should also be cooled (taken out of the incubator) for 5 – 10 minutes, increasing to 15 minutes per day after day 15.

Geese which are hand raised and regularly handled do, apparently, become very tame. They recognise individual humans (and dogs, etc.), and will raise an alarm if a stranger approaches while being perfectly happy to let ‘their’ humans approach. The only exception is egg laying season, during which the males will aggressively protect the nesting females from any intruder. Female geese may lunge at a person to protect goslings, or if on a nest full of eggs. Other than that, geese are fairly docile; they can be easily herded, as they tend to move directly away from an approaching human. There is no need to run (geese can injure themselves if forced to run) or make noises, just walk slowly towards the geese and they will move away as a flock. As an aside, when catching geese, never grab them by the legs, as their leg bones are easily broken; instead, grab the goose by the neck (gently), either by hand or using a shepherds crook. If picking up a goose, make sure to keep the wings controlled, as geese are very strong and can injure a person if they hit them in the face with their wings.

In spite of the fact that a goose is quite a large bird, foxes (or dogs or cats) can and will kill one if they get the opportunity. Because of the risk of predators, geese should be locked into secure housing at night just like any other poultry, and should be protected with secure fencing. Goose housing should have either a solid or slat floor, and a fox-proof door to lock the birds in at night. Fresh absorbent bedding such as wood shavings (in an 8 – 10 cm layer) will help maintain dry conditions and keep your geese clean and healthy (but do not use any scented bedding or anything containing eucalyptus, because it can kill goslings!), and you should provide nest boxes. Goose houses should allow 1 sqm per bird. Other than safe housing, geese need some shelter during hot, summer weather, and if you get snow or severe rain and storms, they’ll need shelter from those too. Aside from night time housing for predator protection, you can free range geese without a problem (remember that you can easily herd them, like chilled out sheep), or you can keep them in a fenced yard. If geese are kept in a yard, you should allow 2 sqm per bird, although larger is better. You should provide 15cm of feeder length per bird to prevent competition for food, and clean, fresh water deep enough for them to submerge their whole heads.

Goose used to be the festive roast of choice in Europe; the meat is darker, richer, and more succulent than turkey or chicken, similar to duck. Goose fat has historically been rendered and used to cook other foods (goose-fat potatoes are amazing!), and the technique is coming back into fashion – you can buy tubs of goose fat in most supermarkets now. Goose quills were the feathers used to make pens before the fountain pen and ballpoint became common, and goose down is still u sed to stuff pillows and duvets. Geese will mow your lawn (and fertilise it at the same time) and weed your garden, and they’re smart enough to make pretty good pets too if you take the time to tame them and teach them that you’re not a threat and are rather a source of treats and happiness. They don’t need much from you in return: a safe place to sleep, clean water, and a bit of food to supplement their grazing.

In summary: geese are awesome, and goslings may be the cutest fluffs that ever fluffed. Ask me again in 6 months when my goslings are adults 🙂

For more info:

Chicken culling

2016/09/08 deej 0

A quick warning for anyone who is squicked by reading about killing animals – this post is about death. Specifically, the death of chickens (roosters). There are no graphic pics, however.

 

Wyandotte rooster from Wikimedia commonsOne of the parts of keeping pet chickens that isn’t so often talked about is what to do with the extras. The hens who’ve stopped laying, the roosters which inevitably hatch from about half the eggs you or your broody mama chook incubate. If the birds are pets, you can simply keep hens who’ve passed their laying years – but most people don’t. Councils restrict the number of chickens you can keep, and most people keep chickens for the eggs as well as the companionship so unproductive hens aren’t worth keeping. And roosters – well, most councils won’t let you keep them at all, and even if you can have them, having more than one or two is a noisy and unproductive pain in the rear.

 

We do have some roosters, because we want fertilised eggs to hatch more chickens, and because roosters are the last line of defence for your flock against foxes. Sometimes a devoted rooster will actually drive a fox or hawk off before they take any hens, although the rooster often doesn’t survive the conflict. However, there’s a limit to how many roosters we can keep, and the ones which try to peck me when I feed them are always going to be the first to go. So last weekend, we held a rooster cull; we killed, bled, plucked and gutted the two extra roosters (known for the last few weeks as Pecky McPeckyface, and Bitey McBiteyface). One gold laced wyandotte, one white silkie.

 

The lessons from this cull were as follows:

  • The nitrogen controlled-atmosphere-killing mechanism is vastly superior to using an axe. (We’re out of nitrogen at the moment and haven’t had the cylinder refilled yet, so we used the axe method for the first time. Leading to me being splattered with chicken blood as the newly headless bird jerked around and spurted blood everywhere. Not fun.)
  • Plucking really isn’t that big a deal if you’re only doing one bird at a time and can finish before full-on rigor mortis sets in. Dipping the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers is not necessary.
  • Naked Neck chickens have advantages other than being better suited to hot weather than most breeds. Plucking the neck of a fully feathered bird is tedious, and Naked Necks also have fewer pin feathers. (The last time we killed a chicken, it was a naked neck, so this time provided a good comparison.)

 

roast chicken and vegesThe birds sat in brine overnight (10% brine, with some added rosemary because the flavour really does settle into the muscles). The Wyandotte went in the freezer, but the silkie turned into roast chicken for dinner last night. The flesh wasn’t as dark as I expected (silkies have black skin, flesh and organs – it’s a genetic trait called fibromelanosis), but it tasted delicious anyway. K used a Jamie Oliver recipe which called for an entire lemon in the cavity to infuse the bird with lemony goodness, and it was amazing.

 

 


Rooster pic sourced from Wikimedia Commons: File:Golden_Laced_Wyandotte_Rooster.jpg

1 2 3 5