Cow-dog, meet your flock

Some of the six kinds of heritage turkey poults we are raising this year.

Some of the six kinds of heritage turkey poults we are raising this year.

I think we have been here before. The turkeys are not deterred by the elecronetting, not one bit. So despite concerns about Blackhead Disease, they are free-ranging about the homestead. I hope the 8-foot fence contains them when they get sent to work in the Bluebird orchard, but before they go, they will be getting a wing-clipping insurance policy.

Getting a little too cosy with the man won't save you in November, but that feather pattern might. These are R's favorites.

Getting a little too cosy with the man won't save you in November, but that feather pattern might. These are R's favorites.

Turkey behavior is nothing like a large chicken. They don’t squabble as much (but when they do, it’s over food and it’s not pretty), they stick together, and they are much more friendly. I can get them can’t stop them from following me around the property when I’m doing chores. And they make a piercing trill as they wander about.

Not so favored that they get to eat off his plate.

Not so favored that they get to eat off his plate.

The turkey attention was kind of fun at first, but dining al fresco chez Ranch has its drawbacks lately.

Just checking, buddy - don't see no turkey on that plate.

Just checking, buddy - don't see no turkey on that plate.

R never did finish his dinner, after removing turkeys from his person and then washing his hands at least a half dozen times.

In the glass: grapefruit sparkler and Hendricks gin.

In the glass: grapefruit sparkler and Hendricks gin.

By now it is getting darker. The turkeys were angling to roost on the porch for the night. We finally had to turn out all the house lights and turn on their brooder lamp to get them to go into the Chickestoga. They need that big red light, like a Christmas decoration or a section of Amsterdam, to find their way home. I’m going to try to shift them to a solar patio lamp so they’ll go to roost once we move them.

Carson is in time-out for nipping or barking or some other puppy crime.

Carson is in time-out for nipping or barking or some other puppy crime.

We are having a heat wave. We don’t have air conditioning. We’ve been working hard and by sunset, we are spent. The next night, Carson wouldn’t stay quiet through dinner and the turkeys were relentless in their companionship. So R and his puppy needed a little break.

The turkey poults want to be in the middle of everything we are doing.

The turkey poults want to be in the middle of everything we are doing. Clean glass, blood orange soda and Bulleit bourbon

That private moment didn’t last long.

If he wouldn't try to herd the flock, they'd be sitting on Carson's back by now.

If he wouldn't try to herd the flock, they'd be sitting on Carson's back by now.

Carson handled the confusion really well.

Herded up under Carson's deadly cowdog stare.

Herded up under Carson's deadly cowdog stare.

I think we got ourselves a good’un, so long as we don’t wreck him with our own inexperience as puppy handlers. When he grows up a little more, he’s going to have another job added to his chores: keep the birds off the porch.

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Mid-summer census (out-of-control, again)

Yellow Girl, an American Buff goose, tends her day-old goslings

Yellow Girl, an American Buff goose, tends her day-old goslings

13 Red Ranger Broiler chickens
1 hatchery free cockerel of unknown variety, named Bonus
13 heritage turkey poults of 6 varieties
11 layer hens
17 layer ducklings, Metzer Golden 300 Hybrid Layers and Welsh Harlequins
8 adult American Buff geese
7 American Buff goslings (1 did not survive the first few hours)
3 Nigerian Dwarf goats
1 McNab puppy to herd the flocks
1 big grey cat to rule them all

That’s 75 mouths to feed and 9 water bowls to keep filled. Not to mention kiddie pools and improvised puddles for the baby waterfowl. Last year’s census was high and I said I wouldn’t do it again this year. Yeah, right.

It won’t be this way for long. The Red Rangers are on their way to freezer by Fourth of July. If Bonus acquires some manners and the hens are well-disposed, he will move into the layer coop for the time being. The turkeys will summer down on the Bluebird orchard, providing essential grasshopper control until their date with destiny in the fall.

The fate of the geese is up for debate. I said to R last night, they are the right bird for us in five years. Yes, they are obnoxiously assertive and loud, but we knew that getting into it. If they were in Bluebird, that might even be a feature. They are also stately and convert grass into soil fertility as non-stop mowing machines. I love watching them play in their kiddie pool and swim in the irrigation canal. But we need them in the orchard, and they love the taste of young sapling bark. After they girdled a few young trees, they were ousted from where we need them the most.

The ducks are an experiment to see if they can fill the niche of the geese and the laying hens. We happily discovered this spring that we preferred the taste of goose to chicken eggs. If the duck eggs are similar, we’d score that as a win. The duck literature suggests they will lay more, lay better in the winter, and for a longer lifespan than the hens. And they lay at night, which means reliably in their shed. The damn hens are up to their trick of hiding eggs again in the orchard. What we don’t know is if the ducks will perform pest control as well as the hens, and how destructive they are. We are hoping they live up to their reputations because they are terribly fun animals to have around.

Turkeys are a different experiment that is going better than expected. The Bluebird orchard is 3 acres of grasshopper haven right now. We’d need close to 50 chickens to patrol that amount of ground, and they really only do that for a few weeks, between the brooding and the harvest time, because they’d have to be meat birds-we don’t have room wintering over 50 more chickens. Turkeys seemed a better fit: they will forage well, grow slower, harvest when it’s cooler and easier work, and I prefer to eat turkey anyway. With some trepidation, as all the book-reading says they are really hard to get to survive the brooding phase, I ordered a Thanksgiving weekend special (not joking, you have to reserve heritage birds early) last fall. We lost 4 of 17, which I gather is not terribly by turkey standards, although my goal is 0. Now that they are out and exploring their world, they seem pretty robust.

The one concern is that turkeys can catch a nasty protozoan from chickens which gives them Blackhead disease. For chickens it’s not much of a problem but is deadly bad news for turkeys. Supposedly it takes 3-4 years to clear the land of the protozoan eggs, although earthworms can be a vector. Bluebird hasn’t had any chickens on it at all. Right now, we have the turkeys on a patch right outside the front door that was lightly trafficked by the meat birds over the last year, but it’s not pristine. And who knows how far earthworms travel? We are crossing our fingers and have some treatment on order just in case.

Then, surprising us all, Yellow Girl hatched her nestlings a week ago. We have been struck by 1) how healthy her chicks are, 2) how she’s doing 95% of the work of raising them, and 3) how they are eating mostly free grass. Every time we get chicks out of the brooder and onto real ground, they explode with vitality. Maybe it’s the sunlight and fresh air, or maybe it’s getting to express all of the instinctive behaviors, or maybe it’s the contact with the microbial biome. I have no idea why, but real ground matters and we try to get them out as quickly as possible. This spring has been colder and wetter than normal and we’ve had the birds in the brooders much longer than I like. Not the goslings-they’ve been out with Yellow Girl since day one.

So where this is going, if we like working with these animals, is that we will select “our” homestead turkey and duck heritage breeds, let them do their natural breeding to maintain the flocks, re-home the geese, and let natural attrition reduce the layer hens to zero. I say I can let the geese go, obnoxious bullies that they are, but I still kind of like them. And then there’s Red, our first hen that’s kind of a pet. And Bonus, who is going to be useless but strikingly beautiful. Will practicality prevail? It hasn’t so far. But the winter reality is that keeping water from turning to ice in 9 bowls is absurd, so something will have to give. I’m holding off the decision until fall-possibly the day after Thanksgiving.

(Slate would like to suggest that we could immediately eliminate the puppy bowl. If Slate were doing the cull, Carson would be the first to get the ejection slip. Sorry Slate, you’ll get used to him.)

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Eight o’clock and already the best day ever

A lull in Slate and Carson's battle for King of the Orchard Rock Pile.

A lull in Slate and Carson's battle for King of the Orchard Rock Pile.

It is 100% certain that Slate did not want a puppy. A partial list of Slate’s resentments: The house smells like puppy. The puppy eats his treats and is so stupid it still isn’t housebroken. It cries in the night, barks at Slate and gets all of his people’s attention. Luckily it has a cage.

So we are in the midst of teaching basic etiquette to a 9 week old McNab cow dog we named Carson. Adding yet another species to the ranch is something we debated all winter and it came down to needing the help. If all we can train Carson to do in the herding department is to hold the goats back when we open gates, he will earn his kibble. I think we can get him to do much more in time. Slate, however, is not willing to be his test herding subject. Why Slate hasn’t just popped him a good one and settled the pecking order is a mystery. I kind of wish he would provide the clarity I can’t about the dangers of cats.

At the same time, last night was a conjunction of seriously bad timing. R had to go back to the lab, our 12 hour irrigation turn started at 6 pm, and we are in the midst of testing the new irrigation system for the Bluebird orchard, meaning it was in a precarious state for receiving and distributing water without damaging the new pond (more on that later) or getting water onto the county road. Here’s how last night went:

  • 4:00 pm Open headgates to empty pond to swales
  • 6:05 pm Spill water to neighbor to empty our ditch so I can set dams
  • 6:30 pm Set two dams in the ditch to water trees in the Kingbird Orchard. Feed geese, goats, ducklings, turkeys, meat chickens, layer hens. Carson “helps” but gets tethered off so he won’t chase chickens.
  • 7:30 pm Heat up my dinner. Try to convince overstimulated puppy to eat and wind down. A gander is freaking out because he has been separated from the goose with new goslings after the flock tried to attach the mother. Gander proceeds to honk with fog horn regularity for most of the evening.
  • 8:47 Sunset. Close up the chicken coop.
  • 9:00 pm Put Carson in his crate. Pull first dam.
  • 9:30 pm Call R. Cell phone tower having issues (again!) but we manage a short debrief. Carson falls asleep.
  • 10:00 pm Slate deigns to come in for the night.
  • 12:00 am Wake up Carson for house-breaking. Take lantern and pull second dam, sending water to Bluebird.
  • 2:05 am Moonrise, but heavy cloud cover.
  • 2:45 am Wake up Carson for second trip outside. Thwart Slate from slipping out. Gander starts honking again. Raining.
  • 4:45 am Wake up Carson for third trip outside. Put him back in his crate. Drive to Bluebird to close valve to swales, begin refilling the pond.
  • 5:05 am Attempt go back to sleep
  • 5:15 am Slate claws me in the back, purring, to let me know he thinks it is certainly light enough to go outside.
  • 5:30 am Approximate Civil Twilight. Let Slate out. Cloudy but not raining.
  • 5:45 am Wake Carson up. Take him on a leash to Bluebird to check on the pond level in the daylight. Slate follows us down the road to “his” orchard. Slow walk as Carson locks onto 2 deer in the field.
  • 6:01 am Official sunrise.
  • 6:10 am The pond is 18″ from the upper outlet. Check swales: all filled in the night.
  • 6:20 am Carson tries to climb on Slate’s rock and falls off. Inflow to pond starts to taper off as the neighbor takes the water. In a parade of the absurd, all three of us walk back up the road to the house.
  • 7:00 am Regular feeding and watering resumes. Carson refuses to eat in his crate. Like a toddler who is AFRAID OF MISSING OUT, he doesn’t want to get tricked into a nap. Spills his water bowl for the second time on the floor. Move food bowl to the porch, which he empties.
  • 8:00 am Eat breakfast on the porch. Slate takes up a chair opposite the puppy. Carson falls asleep on the bottom level of Slate’s cat tree, having already achieved another milestone in his record-breaking attempt for Most Consecutive Best Days Ever.

There might be a nap in my future. There might not. The gander is still letting the world know he is upset. We get to do this again in mid-July, when our next night turn comes around. By then, Carson’s streak will be close to 100 best days ever.

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Are you my mother?

American Buff goose and her gosling

American Buff goose and her gosling

After two failed nests from Orange Girl and Pink Girl, we didn’t have much faith in Yellow Girl*. She started brooding much later than the others and in the most awkward location next to the goat pen. But she did it! Eight adorable goslings are sheltering under her wing and occasionally coming out to explore. The goose census just doubled overnight.

*We named the males after American presidents, with the intention of naming the females after their respective first ladies, once they paired up. It was a good plan, but didn’t account for the polyamorous antics of the first year geese. So we still reference the females by their colored leg bands. Only a DNA test would show which president gander begot any of those goslings, although randy Jack (Kennedy) certainly could claim a large measure of the credit.

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Bacon and eggs, homestead-style

Canadian bacon

Homestead cured Canadian Bacon

Erica’s Canadian Bacon recipe is the bomb! R has made it twice. Both times he smoked the meat for about an hour then finished in the oven. I use it in my mac-less cheese casserole (ham and veggies with cheese sauce for a grain-free comfort food taste of traditional mac’n’cheese). We sliced it thinly and put it in a Chicken Cordon Bleu riff casserole I made up. Casseroles are good for R to take back to the big city, but hard to find recipes that aren’t loaded with pasta or rice to bulk them up. We’ve pretty much cut out the grains for 3 months and I crave flavor, not carbs. This Canadian Bacon is not your limpid grocery product and we can’t get enough of it.

Eggs

Goose and chicken eggs on the breakfast griddle. The chicken egg weighs about 2 ounces and would be graded large as a grocery store egg.


Then there are eggs. The hens and geese are maxing out their female reproductive organs right now. The geese should be winding it up for the season soon. Two are sitting on nests. At first it was one nest, but they subdivided and are sitting side-by-side when the one can be bothered to remember to sit. There could be babies this weekend. There could be all duds if they keep neglecting their eggs. We ate a bunch of them while we could. We found that you need to cook them slower and lower temperatures, and the flavor is much richer.

 

About half the people we gave them to didn’t like how rich they were. The other half couldn’t get enough of them. I like them a lot. So much in fact, that we have some layer ducklings on order. Duck eggs fall somewhere in between goose and chicken in terms of richness and they produce better in winter and for longer than the hens. If they lay as promised, we might retire most of the chooks. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be testing recipes for duck confit. R says he lives in a restaurant. Start with quality and don’t screw it up, that’s the best way to cook.

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