Cooking a Heritage Turkey

We’re having a slightly different sort of Christmas this year.

A few months back, close friends called and said, “we’re coming for Christmas!”  “Great!” We replied.  A few weeks ago, as we started to make preparations, we thought, “What the heck.  Let’s see if our favorite farmer down the road has any turkeys left.”

Adele and Michael Gelling raise heritage livestock and garlic.  What could be better?  We LOVE watching their beautiful Narragansett turkeys grow up; they’re such mellow, friendly, and stunning birds.  We’ve often come home from a visit scouring our yard for a spot we could tuck a few.  No luck so far.

This year, we were in luck; there were a couple of turkeys left, though the smallest she could do was 15lbs.  We thought we’d be 5 adults, and would be able to make a suitable dent in that much meat.

A week or two later, we got the text–our dear friends couldn’t get away and weren’t going to be able to make it down after all.  So sad.  And slightly daunting–what would we do with our big bird?

Last week, we got a text from another friend, who was travelling with his blended family of 6 across the island for Christmas.  Could they stop in on their travels for a quick visit?  “Great!”  We said.  “How about a turkey dinner?!”

So yesterday, December 23rd, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner.  We went all out: our potatoes and rutabagas from the garden, stuffing made with our potatoes, apples, onion and bacon.  Brussel sprouts, gravy, Skipper made a pumpkin and an apple pie (both from our garden), and of course, the bird.

First things first: It was the best turkey we’ve ever eaten.

Second things second: we were incredibly confused about how to cook it, based on all the contradictory information on the interwebs and other various sources.  So we took a deep breath, combined some of the better tips and instincts based on cooking our roosters over the last year, and dove in.  Because it turned out SO well, I thought I’d share, and because we likely cooked our turkey days before anyone else, I thought it might be helpful to get the recipe out now!

Roasting a Heritage Turkey

The big goal is to end up with crispy roasted skin, a cooked-though bird, and super-moist meat.  Not an easy balancing act.  The trick with non-supermarket poultry, according to my new bible, The River Cottage Meat Book, is to do a hot initial sear, and then a longer, low-temperature roast.

We started with a very fresh, never frozen turkey (15.6 lbs).  Obviously not everyone can do this, but I’m sure it made a difference!

Chefs roast a bird that is dry and at room temperature.  After our bird sat in the fridge for more than 24 hrs (which also makes a difference with a fresh bird), we took it out of the fridge, dried it off, and let it sit on the counter for an hour or so to warm up.

The next key thing is to add fat to the bird which helps to crisp the skin and to retain the moisture.  So the Skipper buttered the dry bird, and then added salt, pepper, and herbs.  We also quartered a couple of our apples and stuck them in the cavity (my father always used to do this with oranges, which is also delicious).   Butter inside and out.

Then we realized that our turkey wouldn’t fit in our roasting pan.  Luckily, because it wasn’t actually Christmas yet, the neighbours had something we made work.

The turkey then went into a preheated, 400 degree, hot oven for 20 minutes.  Then, to the hot pan, we added a half-cup or so of white wine, and on went the roasting pan lid, tightly.  We turned the oven down to 325.

Recipes had varied as to how long to roast a turkey, from 20-30 minutes per pound.  With 15 lbs, though, that’s a huge range!  There’s also some debate about what the final temperature of the turkey should be, with the USDA guidelines at 180, but many cooks saying this is WAY too hot, and a guaranteed way to get a dried-out (though safe to eat!!) roast.  Chefs argued for 160-165, especially if you were comfortable with the provenance of the bird, which we were.

We decided to go with 20 mins per pound, and aim for 165, and see what we ended up with.  That math would have given us 5 hours, and we were expecting our guests at 5pm.  So we put the bird in at 12pm, and then decided we’d check on things at 3pm or so, to see if the turkey needed basting, uncovering to crisp or brown, etc.

At three o’clock, we pulled the bird out and uncovered it.  It was stunning!  The skin was crispy and had pulled away from meat in places.  The meat looked juicy, and there was lots of yummy smelling juice at the bottom of the pan.  We stuck the thermometer into the thickest parts of the meat–it was off the charts!  The bird was way over 180.  Ummm, that meant it was done.  2 hours early.

We crossed our fingers that the high temperature didn’t mean a dry bird, texted our friends to see if they could come a little sooner, and left the bird covered in the pan to rest while we pulled together the side dishes.

An hour later, our friends were here, and we had 8 hungry people to do justice to the most succulent, moist, flavourful turkey any of us had ever tasted.  And today, as Skipper and I nibbled on leftovers, we can report that even after a day in the fridge, the meat is STILL MOIST.  Amazing.

So tips we’ve learned about cooking heritage turkey:

Free-range, heritage birds have less meat and more bone for their weight compared to their fattened counterparts.  This throws the cooking times off.  Be warned!

Next time, we will again do the hot initial sear, and we will again cover the bird for the rest of the cooking, after adding a little liquid to the pan.  But Skipper says next time he would lower the heat even more, down to 315 or so.  We’d still use 20 mins per pound as a general guideline, just in case (especially at a lower heat), but again, we’d plan to check the bird early, after 10-15 minutes per pound.  Our bird took 3.5 hours for 15.6 lbs.  But the point is that there is a lot more variation in the heritage, free-range birds, and you can’t just plug in a formula.

We did not brine our bird, and opinions on this for heritage birds varied.  But given that our bird was so fresh, and so potentially tasty, we were worried about over saturating the turkey with water and salt.  After all, in theory a good quality, traditional turkey shouldn’t need to be altered too much to add flavour where there might not be any…We have no regrets.  We think that keeping the bird covered while roasting with extra liquid took the place of brining, and was much simpler.

So there you go!  Hope that helps someone else have a very merry turkey-mas, and whether you’re having a turkey feast, or, as we’re doing tonight, a Ukrainian wheat-free vegan Christmas even dinner, have a wonderful holiday.  On to the garden goals of 2013!

The Homestead Takes Shape: Spring Projects 2012

Funny how everytime I disappear from blogland for a while, it seems that everyone else is slowing down too.  Have we all been busy with Spring Frenzy getting the planting season up and running?

There’s been far too much going on here to fit it all in, but I thought I’d post this little photo essay to show a little of what we’ve been up to.  I’ve written before about our journey over these past few years: year 1 we mostly observed the property and brought some of the interior of the house up to snuff.  Year 2 we re-did the raised beds and brought chickens into our lives.  Here we are in year 3: we have been steadily shifting the rest of the property, which was mostly ornamental gardens, into more food production.  We’ve moved shrubs, taken down trees, and built more raised beds.  AND today we should be hatching out our SECOND batch of chicks with our mama Blue-Lace Red Wyandotte hen!  The garden is alive and thriving (mostly), and we’ve been eating greens all of May.  As of June, we’re adding turnips and new potatoes to the homestead diet, and peas and strawberries will be next…Now all we need is the heat to arrive to shift us from spring to summer! Click on any of the photos to see them in more detail.

Before: Spring 2010

 

The new raised beds we built last year (2011). One of the big spring projects you can see just behind them, under the large apple tree. We dug up and rearranged blueberry plants, then added an everbearing strawberry and an asparagus bed in front of them.

 

A couple of notes about this photo: you can’t tell that these new beds overtake and use up the bit of lawn that was there before, and you can see the new hop supports towering over the whole garden!

Hop Alley

I know I need to do a whole blog post on the Skipper’s Hop Project.  A happy homebrewer, he ordered organic hop rhizomes from Left Fields Hops, which grows hops for the famous Crannog Brewery.  He has, if I remember correctly, Galena, Mt Hood, Cascades, Chinook, and Centennial–good West Coast intense flavours.  In year 3, hops plants reach maturity and go crazy.  So Skipper has installed a 16 foot-high support system, complete with pulleys, so that they can grow in a controlled fashion and be harvested “easily.”  Stay tuned for how things turn out!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the garden…

New raised beds where ornamental shrubs used to be…
Skipper took down the tall cedar that’s in the middle of the Before pic, which let the sunshine back into the middle of the garden. Then he built a new 6’x8′ bed.

 

The late spring crops are underway:

Summer Brassicas on their way…

 

And in the coop behind them rests our Broody Mama Hen…

Her first batch, which hatched out at Easter, is now 10 weeks old!  (Pics are from a week ago, though) We have 3 sleek pullets and 2 wee roos, who will go to Freezer Camp in another 6 weeks or so.

Ginger, one of our newest pullets…

The 10-week-old crew was hatched from a mix of purchased Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte eggs (2 of which produced pullets) and our own eggs from Australorp and Silver-Laced Wyandotte hens, fertilized by a Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte Roo.  We ended up with the two Silver-Laced Roo and one Australorp-cross pullet, known as Cocoa Bean.  As we waited for Hen to go broody again, we wrestled with what we we would hatch out next–really the decision about where we wanted to take our flock.

Having essentially 4 breeds in a flock of 10 was not always easy, and we wanted to get down to two breeds at most.  But how to choose?!  In the absence of a decision, we simply collected some of our own eggs again to keep on standby just in case.  When the time came, I suddenly realized that we might have inadvertently solved the problem: if our eggs were crosses of our best egg layers (the Buff Orpington and Australorps) with our favorite temperament and prettiest birds (BLR Wyandottes), the crosses might end up being the best of both worlds!  So that’s what’s under Hen right now.

Report to come once the chicks arrive–stay tuned!

 

 

 

Life, Death and Roosters

On Sunday, we culled a rooster.

This was our big handsome Roo, a beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster, who has been leader of the backyard flock for the last several months.  Roo was an excellent leader; he protected his hens from eagles and ravens and hawks and was always tame and calm around us and all our visitors.

So why did we kill him?  Because once Hen went broody, Roo started acting very aggressively toward our second rooster, Percy, who is Hen’s sweetheart.  We let it slide for a while; Percy had lots of space to get away, and there were no serious injuries.  We suspected that one of the two roos in our small flock would have to go (2 roos to 7 hens is too many, generally speaking), but they had been getting along well for months without issue.  While Hen was ensconced in the nest box, Percy was the odd man out, and we actually wondered if he might have to be the one to go.

But when the chicks hatched and started running about happily, Percy became an awesome Papa, and Roo started acting aggressively toward Hen too.  The choice became clear.

Why did we kill him?  Why not just rehome him, or sell him?  Because my views and values around death and eating meat have been transformed by raising livestock, even on this tiny scale.

I grew up in a pretty normal urban North American environment, I think.  We had the occasional pet–fish, rabbits, later a small dog.  As a child, I found my goldfish periodically belly-up  in the fish bowl, and gave up after a few replacements.  One of our rabbits disappeared–probably thanks to a raccoon–the second one was (I hate to admit it) released (to become one of the contributors to the urban feral rabbit pestilence!).  The dog was found another good home when it no longer fit my parents’ lifestyle.

One of my grandfathers died when I was a child, and I vividly remember everyone crying at the funeral.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience of death.  I ate meat until I left home, but being vegetarian was nothing radical in 1980s and 90s Vancouver, meat in-and-of itself had no relationship with death for me, and my reasons for giving it up had only peripherally to do with animal rights.

In other words, I don’t think I had much exposure to or gave much thought to death as I grew up, nor did I feel the kind of regular, close attachment to animals that might make me feel like their deaths were inherently a horrible thing.  Death was an abstract, as was food, really, until just a few years ago.

Coming up to 4 years ago now, my father died of cancer at 57.  He was diagnosed a few years before that, and he embraced living every day of those few years he had left.  Some of the time, as he headed out with friends and family for another round on the golf course, I would forget that he was sick at all.  I remember distinctly, though, coming home one Thanksgiving and feeling with great and highly uncomfortable clarity that he and my mom had come to a deep level of understanding that he was, in fact, going to die, and I wasn’t at all there yet.

We all spent a lot of time together, in his final weeks; it was a precious and blessed time that has left me with many legacies thatcontinue to unfold.  One of those was a different understanding of death.

You see, Dad was diagnosed with a very rare cancer about which very little is known and about which very little treatment could be offered.  Fairly quickly, he was left on his own, outside of the usual cancer treatment industry, and he died at home, peacefully in bed, on his own terms.  It was the best of all possible passings, from my point of view.

In his last weeks, we talked about the fact that not so long ago, having a family member close to death and then dying in a bedroom at home would have been a normal part of life.  Just like being born at home was the normal way to be born, dying in an upstairs bedroom being cared for by one of your children and their family was the only option.  Most traditions even include a time of the family sitting with the dead body in the home while visitors pay their respects.  But when we started outsourcing seniors’ care, we also largely outsourced death, and for me, at least, death then became something strange and abstract and foreign, something that existed only in my imagination, and as such, something potentially horrifying and troubling.

Another of my father’s legacies, I now know, was the  gift of being open to the mysteries of Life and the universe and the spirit.  He was a minister, and I was raised Christian, although I wouldn’t categorise myself that way now.  His death shoved me back into spiritual journey, and I have found myself returning to many of the vaguely Buddist beliefs that shaped my worldview in my early 20s, particularly non-dual theology: the belief that God is not an old man on a mountaintop ( 🙂 ), but instead is the divine life energy present in all things.  In my mind, God is simply Life (with a capital L), creativity in its most basic desire to explode into every possible material experience.

Life is clearest to me in the garden.  Life is growth and then decay, and death might simply be the point at which life decays so much that it becomes life again.  I plant a seed, it grows into a plant which flowers in order to reproduce.  As soon as it flowers, however, the process of decay begins until the plant finally dies, at which point the decomposers take over and turn the plant into the food and soil that become another plant’s life.

In the garden, death is so clearly a necessary, transient, beautiful, and enriching phase.  There is nothing scary or horrifying about it–without the death which is the harvest of my vegetables, I would have no life.

When we first got chickens, I had no real plan for the roosters.  We talked about buying pullets–already sexed females ready to start laying–but decided to raise straight-run (unsexed) chicks to make sure that they would know us and be comfortable and tame around us.  From the beginning, the chickens were intended as a kind of pet, though certainly of a more independent kind!  I had vague ideas about letting hens live out their natural lives with us when they got too old to keep laying, and even more vague ideas of what roosters might be for; we certainly didn’t intend to keep any of them, at first.  Eat fertilized eggs? Gross!  I had equally vague understandings of chicken sex and anatomy! 🙂

As our chicks grew up, we found ourselves with the unsurprising percentage of 7 boys to our 7 girls.  We had to put one rooster down early because it developed physically lame and began to suffer.  We had no idea what we were doing, but going to a vet was not an option, and the internet was a fount of information.  Nonetheless, that death was not easy or peaceful, precisely because we were such amateurs.  The next two roosters we found another home for.

After that, though, we had to suck it up.  We started to understand what “flock management” meant.  We were the flock keepers and we had to do what was best for the health and well-being of the whole group, which at the time included younger chickens that were being hurt by rooster #4.  It was time to get comfortable with “processing”.  The Skipper fashioned a “killing cone” (the chicken is placed upside down through a cone so that the head pokes through–death throes are contained, the jugular is easily accessible, and upside down, the bird is comfortable and relaxed), took a deep breath, and we said goodbye.  The Skipper, who once worked as a commercial fisher, commented that this shouldn’t be any different than killing the thousands of fish that had crossed his path over the years…but of course it was.

That roo was packed up into the freezer, but it was a few months before we felt prepared to eat him–to bridge that gap between individual animal and food.  I had started eating small amounts of meat by this time, and I had small pieces of that roast bird as well.  I was starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating meat, although I still was (and am) uncomfortable with leaving the category of vegetarian.

Our big red Roo on Sunday was our 4th culling in about 6 months, and the process is starting to feel familiar; we are gaining confidence.  A friend–another vegetarian turned farmer–has asked us to come up to her place and show her how it’s done, and I think we were glad to go through the process ourselves one more time before sharing what we’ve learned.  This time round, we got orgainzed in advance; we knew what to expect and had learned from previous experience how to prepare.  As I helped gather materials and scrubbed the kitchen clean, I felt like I was going through another set of rituals that would have been commonplace not so very long ago (and which probably still are in many homes).  The cleaning and gathering felt appropriate to the weight and significance of the death to come and to the gratitude and humility I feel for the life-sustaining food that the death provides.

The preparations went smoothly, and I felt confident and sure.  Until it was my turn to go and collect Roo.  I got the birds into their run and put out their evening scratch, knowing that when their attention is on the ground, I can easily pick them up.  When I got everyone settled and went to pick up Roo, though, all my breath left me and the world tilted a little.  It is a powerful and uncomfortable feeling, that knowledge that you are leading an animal to death.  And so it should be!  Like saying grace before a special family gathering, saying a blessing and a prayer for forgiveness and gratitude seems the only appropriate thing to do–regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  I took a deep breath to steady myself, and from then on, the rest of the process was straightforward.

What I’ve taken away from these cullings most of all, I realize, is that although death is the part of the process that we dread, the part we have to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for, the part so culturally loaded, death is in fact not the biggest part of culling.  Death, in our backyard circumstances, is extremely quick and painless: there is only a split second between alive and dead.  And now that we’re more sure of what we’re doing, there was probaly no longer than a minute between Roo blissfully eating his favorite food with his harem, and no longer being alive.  We should all be so lucky!  Compared to the hour of getting all the equipment assembled and the kitchen ready, then the hour of plucking, butchering, and disposing of the intestines, feathers, blood, etc (which I bury in the garden for lucky plants and micro-organisms to convert into more food), the actual death is the easy part!

Perhaps the biggest shift for me over these years since my father passed away and in the months of being so intimately tied to death on our wee homestead, is that I now understand in a visceral way that death is not just not an end–whether you believe in spirit or not–but that death is also not necessarily a tragedy.  When there is suffering, death is a gift.  Death was welcomed by my father; he was ready to go.  When we kill an aggressive rooster, it is a gift to our remaining flock.

For the first time in my life, I can also say with deep honesty that I am not scared of death, whether of a loved one or of my own.  Skipper and I were talking not long ago about cancer, heart disease and other dreadful ways that people we know have died over the past year or so.  He asked, as we have contemplated over the years, about how I would cope with him getting sick, how could we prevent one disease or another.  I realised in that conversation, that it no longer mattered.  Death WILL happen.  No matter when or how I or the Skipper go, it will be too soon in our life together.  The remaining partner will grieve deeply, then have to find a way to carry on, if one of us has been left behind.  Those are the truths of life; the details don’t seem that important anymore, and I’ve realized that there’s no need to live my life in fear of them.

So why did we kill big, beautiful Roo–such a proud and handsome creature?

Because he was starting to harm the flock and needed to be removed.  Because he had the best of all possible Roo lives here, and although we may have been able to find another place for him to live out his days, it’s more than likely that place would not have been as nice as this, and that’s not good enough.  Because if we had left things as they are, the two roosters would have eventually fought each other to death–Nature’s way of sorting out excess males is often brutal, painful, prolonged, and humiliating.  Because, although selling him is technically another option, roosters are not economically valuable–even high-quality heritage birds go for as little as $10.  A breeder might have taken him, but it’s more likely that he would have become food for some other family.  The 4 lbs free-range, pastured chickens that we buy from local farms around here periodically cost $14 +.  Roo dressed out at over 6 lbs.

Most importantly, though, we processed him ourselves because doing so meant his stress-free life continued right up until the moment of death; because we know his death was quick and painless;  because the meals that he will provide for us are as sacred–unique and not commodified with a price tag–to us as his life was; because his body will feed us and the garden, generating new life on the homestead.  And because, for me, this has become the ultimate definition of ethical eating.

Backyard Flock’s Broody Hen Adventure: Easter Hatch 2012!

We have no idea what we’re doing.

Back in February, Skipper and I started to muse that if our favorite Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte hen went broody in the spring, we might let her hatch out some chicks.  How adorable it would be to have her lead chicks all over the yard!  Not long after that, and well before we’d had a chance to think through the logistics, Hen went broody.

We considered our options in our small set-up.  There weren’t many.  We tried moving Hen to a brooder in the workshop.  She wanted to be back with her flock, and she returned to her nest box.  We decided, what the heck, collected some eggs and let her sit in the nest box.  The other hens, after some protest (not laying, then laying UNDER the coop), went back to laying in 2 nest boxes instead of their usual 3.  And we waited.

Hen was an awesome broody.  She sat devotedly, but also took care of herself.  She would get up, eat and drink, take a walk and stretch her wings, take a dust bath.  On a nice day, we would let her out of the run by herself, and she would spend twenty minutes or so stretching and flapping and walking around the whole yard before returning to sit on her eggs.

When we decided to leave Hen in the nest box, we started thinking about how the chicks would manage when they hatched.  They needed a ladder!  This was our first concept of how to hatch chicks in the coop:

Note "curtain" duct-taped up to give Hen a little more privacy. 🙂

Eggs take 21 days to hatch, in theory.  But in reality it can take 20-23 ish, and there are always reports of extremely early or late chicks that still make it.  20 days was April 4th, the earliest date for the first eggs that we put under Hen (the majority went under her about 12 hours later).  That Wednesday came and went, as did Thursday, day 21.

On Good Friday, we started to see some action–heard some peeping, and then saw our first chick emerge!

As the big day approached, though, we had started to realize that the ladder was not going to work.  Day-old chicks would not be able to get up and down.  Where would they eat chick food or get water? If all 9 eggs hatched, how would they all fit with Mum in the nest box?!  How would the rest of the flock react to these little bodies running around?  How would Mum react to the rest of the flock getting near her babies?!

I did some research on how folks raise chicks with the rest of the flock in the coop, but most of the time people who do this have lots of space, and simply partition of a section.  Our 4×8 coop is tight for our flock of 9 as it is…Then I saw it.  The chick condo!  Skipper built a platform coming out from the nest box, complete with security edges, so that the chicks could walk out from Mum and get to food and water.

Chick Condo V. 1.0: Note hardware cloth to keep the big birds from being too curious and to keep the chicks in...

By Friday night, Skipper announced that we had twins!

Saturday morning, though, was very sad.  Skipper went down early to check on everyone, and found that one of the twins had made it, but the other had not, and a third chick, that we had heard peeping under Hen the night before, was lying crushed underneath her.  We couldn’t be sure what had happened, but that night had been a very cold one–frosty and below zero celcius.  It was possible that the wee one had just not been able to keep warm enough overnight.  That morning was still chilly, and we knew there were more chicks on the way.  We set up the heat lamp in the coop, over the platform, which meant that the first chick could now be comfortable when s/he left the nest, could get to food and water, while Hen hatched out the rest of the eggs.  As the next chicks emerged all dry and fluffy from under Mum, we gently brought them out of the nest and dipped their beaks in the waterer.  Before long, we had 5 happy, active chicks racing around from the nest to the warm spot under the heat lamp.

By Sunday morning, Hen had left the nest.  She had given up on the last 2 eggs hatching, and sure enough, when we checked them, there was no noise or movement.  We gave up on them too.

But once Hen was up and moving around, the limitations of our set-up quickly became obvious.  For one thing, the heat lamp was too hot for Hen.  She would jump down off the platform, which we had anticipated, thinking that she could get to food and water and move around.  But we hadn’t thought about how much Hen would want the chicks with her!  She desperately wanted to show them around the coop, introduce them to the food and water, to scratching and running.  She would jump down, scratch about, find food, call excitedly and the chickies would all run to the edge of the condo.  At one point, I went to check on them and saw that there were only 4 chicks!  Hen was sitting on the floor of the coop, and luckily the 5th chick was tucked safely underneath her.  No idea how it got down there!  And of course, it had no way to get back up! Back to the drawing board…

After contemplating our options once again, we decided to repurpose our wire brooder and move it into the chicken run.  The brooder was at least a bigger space, on the ground, had room for food and water, and in the run would be predator-proof.  With a few alterations, it worked great.

Then we had to decide whether to separate the new family from the rest of the flock, and if so, how to do that in our limited space.  For the first day or two, the new family slept a lot and seemed happy to stay in the brooder.  We shut the rest of the flock out of the run for an hour or so each day and let Hen and the chicks get out and explore.  Watching them all in the dust bath was a hoot–until one of them got lost underneath her!  We let the flock back in and watched closely to see what would happen.  Although they were all mostly ok together, one chick did get pecked, and all the big birds were extra curious about the food that might be in the brooder…and I fussed like the mother hen, worried that the babies would get stepped on or lost in the big run.

So here’s what we have set up now:

Brooder V. 5.0: Skipper has fenced off the portion under the coop and running back by the ramp. Happy flock!

This is working great at the moment.  The chicks are growing fast, and my hope is that in another week or so, we will start experimenting with taking down the fencing and having everyone mingle.  The chicks, now a week old, are racing around, digging and scratching, and have no trouble following Mum from quite a distance.

The learning curve for all of this has been steep this week, but we knew this time around would be.  Our loose plan is to do this again, so we’re really figuring out the process before we build (and by “we”, I mean the Skipper of course!) anything more permanent for brooding chicks with a broody hen.

What we’ve learned so far?

I’m pretty sure that our poor-ish hatch rate is because we didn’t keep our eggs cool enough.  The books say, keep the eggs at “room temperature” “on the counter in the kitchen.”  The problem?  Our woodstove and open-plan living space.  Our kitchen stays at about 25 during the day, is very dry, and gets a lot cooler at night.  Not a great place to maintain the integrity of an egg!  So next time, we will try for a bigger batch of eggs, and take better care of them while we wait for the broody to take over.  On this hatch (although its hard to tell exactly yet), it looks like the eggs we bought are largely the ones that became healthy chicks–those are the ones we kept cooler and were fresher.

I don’t think we’ll go back to brooding in the house ourselves.  The natural way is SO much better, despite the bumpy start.  It’s amazing to see the chicks in the hay and dirt so quickly, and handling ordinary temperatures so young!  They are getting so much richer a chick experience than we could ever give them.  There’s no heat lamp outside, and the chicks don’t seem to care at all.  They tuck under Mum at night, and whenever they need to warm up.  Otherwise, they are out on our 10 degree days with seemingly no trouble at all.  They have no need for vaccinations or medication, because they are building their immune systems on the deep litter in the run–eating dirt, flock poop, and all the low levels of bacteria and micro-organisms.  I keep a little apple cider vinegar in their water to keep their probiotics up, and so far so good.  Their environment is in every way superior to living on a shelf-liner in our bathroom!

If we ever build another coop, we’ll build in an area that can be flexible for brooding.  But in the meantime, we can do this in our small set-up, with a little resourcefulness.  There are lots more stages in this process to come, though, so we’ve got a fair bit to figure out yet.  Like, what will we do when this batch grows up?!

And, yes, we’re kinda hoping that in another month or so, Hen or another hen will go broody, and we’ll get another chance to apply what we’ve learned.  By the end of the summer, we will either have a staggered flock or a replacement one.  At least that’s the plan!

The Vagaries of Spring

It’s officially spring and usually in these parts, we’re well into cherry blossoms and pea sprouts.  This year, though, has been full of fits and starts.  I don’t know whether the universe is in the erratic throes of birthing a new and transformative season, or whether mother nature just can’t make up her mind about what she wants!

The weather has been wild.  One day full of sunshine and the promise of gentler times ahead, the next day we experience every possible weather combination all at once: gale force winds, rain, sunshine, snow, hail…

The greenhouse seeding has begun, and onion sprouts and early brassicas in their soil blocks are coming along on their heat mats.  It’s time to start the tomatoes, basil, and other warmer summer veg inside.  It’s long past time to get the ultra-early spring crops in, the garlic, fava beans, peas, radishes, but we’ve alternately been busy getting the bones of the garden back into shape and hiding from the weather by the woodstove.

Speaking of the garden’s bones, big changes are afoot…

Trees are coming out and being heavily pruned back

 

A large bed of blueberries is being reorganized and becoming a larger perennial bed

Blueberry bushes were moved to the back of this bed, a couple were added, and in front are everbearing strawberries and asparagus. Yum!

 

And more shrubs and trees are being moved to make way for new veggie beds.

See the stump? That was a large cedar tree. Now it will let huge amounts of sun onto the veggie bed in the foreground, and the space left is big enough for a 6 x 8 growing bed!

 

In the picture above, you can also see where we will add a small deck; it will extend from the pond, which you can just see at the top, and extend over the concrete circles in the foreground.

On the right side of the garden, the shrubs are going, going, gone…

Before..
During...
After! Enough sunny space for 3 more 4 x 8 veggie beds! We're also expanding and planting up what will be a flower bed in front here, to soften the view and attract birds and bees.

 

And then there are the chickens.

The first sign of spring on a homestead, it seems, is a broody hen.  Triggered by the warming days and lengthening daylight, a hen will start to want to sit on her eggs and hatch out chicks.  Even though we were planning to honour that process, if the opportunity arrived, we weren’t at all prepared when our favorite hen, Hen, one day wouldn’t get out of the nest boxes and stopped laying eggs.

Once we decided we would let her go through the process, there was much to do. According to all reliable sources, a broody hen needs to be on her own in a safe place, away from other chickens, to hatch out her chicks.  So first we had to find such a place!  After much debate, we decided on a corner of the shop, which isn’t far from the coop, and would be sheltered, quiet, and predator-proof.  We set up a pen with a comfy nest in a corner under the window.  Then, under cover of night, as suggested by every source we could find, we moved her from the coop to her new “broody pen.”  She was completely asleep, and didn’t even move when we rearranged her in her new nest.

In the morning, however, when I went to check on her, she flew out of the box and headed back toward her flock.  I let her back into the yard, and after socializing for a bit, she went back into the nest box to sit!  Hmmm.  Try again.

The next night, we moved her again.  This time, we thought, we’ll just keep her closed in for a day or two until she settles down.  The next morning, she seemed perfectly content in her new space.  Until she decided she was now ready to go home.  Once she started flapping around and being generally distressed, we didn’t have the heart to not let her out, so back to her nest box she went.

That day, we decided that our goal is to work with nature, and that clearly, when you fight nature, you generally lose one way or the other.  So that night, we just lifted her up in her nestbox and put the eggs in underneath.  Chicks are due April 4th-5th!  Then we’ll have to deal with the logistics of chicks in the coop with everyone else.  Or maybe Hen will come around to the idea of being moved, with her chicks, to a safer spot.

What eggs is Hen sitting on?  We would have liked for Hen to have hatched out some of her own eggs, but she stopped laying before we figured out we needed to keep some out of the fridge!  So supplements it was.  I bought some more Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte eggs from a local breeder.  We are also using some of Patti and Selma’s eggs.  They are Silver Laced Wyandottes, who have also been mating with out head Roo, who is a Blue-Laced.  Apparently when you cross Blue-Laced Red with Silver-Laced (which is black lacing of white feathers), you get something called a Blue-Laced Silver, which is blue lacing around white feathers!  Sounds gorgeous, so I have my fingers crossed…

Being plunged suddenly into research about broody hens and hatching eggs has opened my eyes to this whole other question of sustainable, non-industrialized livestock.  I knew that no commercial breeds (of pretty much any animal) are able to reproduce naturally.  One reason conserving heritage breeds is so important is that it preserves genetic diversity, but the other reason is that the quality of animals being able to reproduce and raise their own young has been bred OUT of livestock over the decades.

I hadn’t really come to terms with what that meant on the ground today though, until going through this process.  Many poultry breeds, even heritage breeds, are now unreliable brooders and mothers.  Even notoriously broody breeds, like our Buff Orpingtons, will GO broody, but may not be able to follow through and sit long enough to actually hatch out eggs.  Or they will hatch them but have no interest in raising the chicks.

Broodiness, even in the burgeoning backyard flock world, is largely treated as something to be broken.  When birds want to sit on eggs, they don’t lay their own, and thus their primary purpose for the homestead is gone.  Many people look at the bottom line with their birds, and base decisions on the economics of whether the eggs are paying for the feed.  If not, the hen is culled.  So broodiness is a pain in that context.  And I’m not judging.  If all of my hens were broody through spring and summer, I’d be annoyed too!  Or if I had an urban flock without a rooster, again, the instinct to brood might be a big source of frustration.

But consistently eliminating the broody trait has left us vulnerable and reliant on electric incubators and industrial scale hatcheries, completely removed from nature’s free and reliable process.  Once again, when we take on a process that nature provides, we have to simplify the process to imitate it, and we require massive resources to imitate it so insipidly.  Where will we be when our food doesn’t produce itself, and we have no fossil fuels to produce its weakly simulated cousin?

So, the grand experiment continues.  We have no idea if this will work out, no real plan on how or if to expand our flock.  But Life, in the form at the moment of Spring, clearly does have a plan.  And we’ll try our best to keep up!  Go Hen!

The Winter Homestead

Winter is a strange season in the temperate climate of the wet coast.  Despite predictions of one of the coldest winters on record, so far this has been quite a mild one.  We’ve had many frosty, icy mornings; many nights we’ve brought the chicken’s waterers indoors overnight so that we can replace the frozen ones in the morning.  But we haven’t had any snowfalls materialize as yet, and we’ve had many weeks of dry weather.  The fall was so dry, in fact, that I actually started to worry about whether our ground would get saturated enough to get through the summer drought!

The shortened days of December were tough; it’s a tiring time of year for me.  But it was brightened by the fact that we were still eating 90 % of our food out of the garden and out of storage, and I made it though the darkest night of the solstice.

As we hit the middle of January, our produce habits have reversed–I’m down to my last few small onions, the potatoes are already sprouting (not in a cold enough spot), I dug up the last turnip today, and the Skipper came up with what he thinks were the last 2 parsnips earlier in the week.  The chickens finally got underneath the row cover veil that has kept the salad greens safe for the last few months, and they demolished the last of the arugula and spinach in a matter of hours!  I didn’t begrudge them their opportunity for a last real feast of greens; I’ve resigned myself to the reality that our own foods have become the supplement to the store-bought staples for the next few months.

But as the days steadily get longer, marked by the extended times that the timer to the automatic door of the chicken coop get set to, the spring chores are looming, and the countdown to the planting season has begun.

I’ve done my seed inventory (taken stock of what I have on hand from the previous 2 years), and made my list.  Thankfully, this year my list is quite short–I just need to top up a few veggies that gobble up seeds like peas and spinach and add some of the crops we want to expand, like everbearing strawberries and asparagus.  I’m thinking the most efficient way to meet my needs this time might be heading to a local Seedy Saturday rather than paying shipping charges for just a few seed packets.  Although I love the idea of the big seed swap meet-up, I found the one in the city way too big and overwhelming a place to actually buy seeds the year I went.  But I needed a lot of everything then; now I’m just looking for a few specialty items.

The sun shone today, and I wandered around the yard trying to assess everything that I want to do.  There is lots of pruning to get to, lots of clearing out and digging up.  We want to take out a couple of trees, and there are some large trellises that are falling apart that we will likely just take down as well.  I have a feeling that those large moves will change the whole feeling of the garden’s space so much that I’m reluctant to plan any more until I actually see the new layout.  It’s exciting to get really stuck in and feel how much space we really may have here, but it’s a dauting amount of work, too, especially tucked into weekends.

So it’s an odd time, winter here; not really a season for rest–though there is a month or so of that, thank goodness!–more of a time of a delicate tension between indoor work, eating lots of soups and slow-cooked meals from the foodstuffs in storage, and feeling the pull of spring just a few weeks away.  Our first year here, February was really fine, as it can be, and I planted peas under cover in the first week!  I likely won’t be that eager again, but at the turn of the month I will need to get digging out anything that needs to be moved, spreading manure and compost, and starting the early seeds on the heat mats in the greenhouse.

With 2 years under my belt, I feel like I’m settling into the seasonal cycles more fully.  I’m no longer disappointed to be eating from the grocery store, as I know with some more practice that will become less necessary.  I can feel that window of dependency shrinking each year, and though I know we won’t be fully meeting our needs again until May or June, the fresh food will start to creep back into our diets much sooner than that.  Asparagus, chives, parsley, rhubarb, nettles…there’s so much to look forward to in the coming months.

We culled a rooster last weekend, and that felt like a primal winter thing to do as well.  As the core flock settles in for the winter, we’re also thinking about what broody hens the spring might bring!  We have no specific plans for chicks, but we’ll see what happens…our neighbour today was talking very soundly about allowing the hens to hatch out whatever chicks they like and then using the results either for replacement layers or for meat birds.  Which means strategizing about our space again…Oh to have 3-5 flat, green acres! 🙂

So here I am, in the dreamy paradox of a west coast winter evening.  We’re warm by the woodstove fire inside; the chickens have their feathers puffed up and are snuggled up together in the coop.  We’re measuring out the winter staples for a few more months, while wishing for a few warmer days in the coming weeks so that we can work outside getting ready for the burst into growth that’s just around the corner.

How about you?  Can you smell the spring yet?  Or are you in one of those strange places that has yet to see winter yet?

2011 is Dead; Long Live 2012!

So ummm…I know.  It’s been almost a month.  Ummm..there’s been some, you know, stuff going on.  Lots of it is great, much has involved deep thoughts, and most of it I’m just not up for posting about.  Though I suspect many of these goings on will come up in future posts as new lessons get applied in the new year.

It was a busy end to the teaching semester, as always.  I have now embraced and accepted that I do not get any time off before Christmas, but that I will often get a week off between Christmas and New Year’s, like everyone else.  The new semester has now begun, but there is a little bit of easing in this week; ironically, I need to catch up on my sleep!

Some highlights of the holiday season:

Our good friend yarnsalad came to stay with us in early December as she waits for her immigration to the US to go through.  Poor thing has been trying to reunite with her husband in North Carolina for 7 months!  I’m mindful of Sharon Astyk’s belief that in an expensive-energy future and a potentially depressed economy, many of us may find ourselves either on the move or bringing more people into our households.  Though that cause does not apply here, the temporary addition to the family is a useful exercise to see how our household resources can stretch.  So far, reasonably well–the new woodstove means we can absorb some increased energy use, the garden and eggs have meant we can absorb some extra food costs.  Friend is more than happy to contribute time and labour, chicken sitting, baking and general good humour, and offers other supplies as she can afford them.  So far, everyone is happy with the arrangements.  But it is a bit of an eye-opener.  One person of simple needs doesn’t sound like it would have much of an impact, but as YS put it, in a household of 2, “I’m 50% more!”  We’ll miss her lots when she finally gets her “go-date.”

Our Christmas rituals:

Since my father passed away a few years ago, and since my family moved in a couple of different directions, the Skipper and I have struggled a bit to find the right balance of Christmas celebrations.  We decided to let go of gifts altogether several years ago and have never looked back.  We have a couple of people that we put together a special little food basket for–this year it was all from the garden!–and we did buy one small present for my young nephew.  But other than that, Christmas is Skype calls and good food and maybe a bird-watching walk.  Some years we have tried joining extended family for their Christmas feasts, other years we have tried doing nothing Christmas-related at all.  This year, I think we got the balance right, but mostly because Christmas fell on the weekend!  Christmas eve morning, I went outside and gathered some cedar boughs and holly, and made a centerpiece with a candle on the dining table.  Later that day we brought a jar of homeade sauerkraut to the Ukrainian-themed dinner with my sister’s wonderful in-laws.  We came home late, sated with family, friends, and fabulous food.  The next day we slept in, built a fire, had a lovely breakfast, Skyped with the family, and then went for a sail in the bay in the sunshine.  Then we came home, warmed up by the fire and made a dinner of lobster, bread, cheese, and a salad from the garden.  Heaven!

Getting organized for the New Year: When we moved into this house, we got the main parts of the house painted and changed lights and other small fixtures.  Then we went outside and never came back in!  My office has been one of the rooms that never really got any attention.  This past week, I decided that needed to change.  I hemmed and hawed over paint colours, did a MASSIVE cull of my books, and cleared out a closet.  There’s still more to do, but the walls have been painted, the furniture rearranged, and a peaceful workspace created.  Hurray!  As long as I don’t open the closet which houses the “to-file” piles… 🙂

Garden Reflections:  I’ll try to do a more detailed year-in-review garden post soon.  But suffice it to say, we continued to eat 90% of our produce out of the garden through the end of December.  I’m so proud!  My most important realization (besides plant earlier, plant more!) is that had my winter cabbages and brussel sprouts and broccoli actually produced something (they were a total bust), we would have little trouble meeting our veg needs well into the new year.  As I had a fantastic spring/summer brassica crop, the winter garden will get my more detailed attention in 2012.  A very attainable goal that will make such a difference!  The garden resources will last another month, supplemented with the grocery store; we’re still eating a little salad, a few turnips and parsnips, a bit of kale, and several leeks.  The storage onions are just about gone, the potatoes are sprouting already (!), and the apples are going soft in the garage and desperately need processing, but there is a TON of garlic, lots of tomatoes, green beans, pickles, berries, and some crab and salmon.  And then there are all those Christmas leftovers and the desire to pare down after all the holiday overeating!

Looking ahead to 2012:

I have no real resolutions, per se.  But we have no shortage of projects that we are considering: in the interest of making our existing veggie beds more productive and potentially adding more, we are contemplating taking down a few trees and digging up several big shrubs.  We need to add some wood storage and improve the chickens’ “summer pasture.”  And there are a number of home improvements to be done.

The biggest shift for me in the year ahead though is psychological.  I have finally become permanent faculty in the university here (hurray!!!), which has opened up the possibility of real financial stability and security.  I say the possibility, because the Skipper would REALLY like to make some big changes in his work life, so the overall picture may not change much!  But the shift in my position has calmed a lot of my “project for the future” energy, and I’m recalibrating.  I suspect there will be a future post on “Why I will not be Becoming a Farmer.”

In the meantime, we have chicken chores to get to–a rooster needs culling and the rest of the flock needs worming.  But the poultry are happy and reasonably content this winter, and we’re still getting 3-4 eggs a day from our 7 layers.  We’re ALL looking forward to longer, brighter days.

Happy New Year to your flocks and families!