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Chickens

One Full Year

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One Full Year

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All has been quiet on the blog front but on the farm things keep buzzing along. It's winter so the grass isn't growing, the hoop house is full of chickens so there are no veggies in sight but the laying hens are still giving us eggs and we have a freezer full of grass-fed lamb so we head over every week to the West Seattle Farmers Market. We are so happy to be apart of a very vibrant community of farmers, food producers, and dedicated market shoppers. It's been nice to make connections with people as passionate about healthy food as we are, and it has motivated us to do even more in the coming year. We have also had fun recipe testing and writing so we have recipes to share with market shoppers that work well with our grass-fed lamb. We've tried to find or create recipes promoting the nose to tail eating that we appreciate and also work with cuts that people are unfamiliar with or tend to shy away from.

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Despite having a booth at farmers markets and loyal customers, I still can't quite believe that we made it through one full year of farming. Technically we moved in the year before but we were just fencing and learning how to take care of our sheep so we didn't really feel like full fledged farmers yet. It wasn't until we started having food to bring to markets that it really started to sink in that we did it. We went from city slickers who had a couple raised beds, bee hives, and a gaggle of laying hens to full time farmers with hundreds of chickens, almost 40 sheep, 12 head of cattle in our care, plus turkeys and pigs, and a not so small market garden where we grew an array of fruits and veggies in. It still blows my mind that we produced thousands of pounds of food for ourselves and hundreds of other families with a small amount of resources and only a couple months of interns on the farm. We also finished a quite massive irrigation project in the middle of our growing season and with three little boys under 6 years old it means that Farmer Matt was left with the majority of the work (farm related anyway). So how do we do more and keep a sane family life? The internship model didn't work out because we didn't have the proper amount of time to teach people that had no experience. So for the upcoming season we are hoping to find an apprentice that has at least a couple seasons worth of experience working on farms and is passionate about starting their own farm-- someone who really wants to see and take part in the nuts and bolts of what takes to start a farm from the ground up. Farmer Matt read Joel Salatins' book "Fields of Farmers" and it inspired him to rethink about how we teach on the farm and not give up entirely on helping inspire future farmers. (I am hoping he writes a review of the book for our blog because the model Polyface Farm has could really revolutionize sustainable farming.)

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Our biggest hurdle besides the fact that we have a limited amount of land and hands on the farm is that we have no buildings. There were horse shelters here when we moved in and we modified them so we now store hay there. We built a small three sided shelter for the sheep during the winter and there is one shipping container where we keep tools, poultry feed, and fencing. Spring can have extremely harsh weather in the Kittitas Valley, so last winter and spring we raised our chicks and pullets in our hoop house. We had to move them out early so we could get vegetable starts going and even with many heat lamps set up in the chicken tractor we lost dozens to cold weather. Luckily there is a National Conservation grant for sustainable farms to obtain large hoop houses so we started the process and hope that it might be the answer to our space issues and be a great place to grow even more heirloom tomatoes.

So what are the plans for next season? We are going to double the amount of laying hens we have. People love our eggs as much as we do so we want to try and keep up with demand. We will also raise more Red Rangers chickens and heritage turkeys, not a huge amount but the right amount for our rotational grazing farm model. This year we raised pigs on pasture just for ourselves and one other family but we might raise a couple more next year for sale. We are currently breeding our Scottish Highland Cattle and would love to increase our breeding stock but think we are at capacity to also have enough forage for them through the growing season. I am very excited that sometime in the Fall of 2014 we will have grass-fed beef for sale for the first time.

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Our next big project is to come up with a value added product using the vegetables and herbs we grow that would complement our grass-fed meats and also make our farm more financially sustainable. Small farms like ours that don't have unlimited resources really count on things like jams, hot sauces, and spice rubs to bridge the gap and make farming viable.

I can't list everything we learned this last year but I can show you a little clip of  highlights of our first year of farming.

Looking forward to starting our second year of farming and all the things I am sure we will learn, experience, and enjoy. Happy New Year to you and yours from everyone at Green Bow Farm!

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The road we travel

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The road we travel

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H on a farm hike

We have been working on putting field fencing up around the perimeter of the farm for over 9 months and we finally finished this week. I would say it's time to celebrate but there are too many things to accomplish to get the farm fully functioning before we can crack open the bubbly. The fencing will help us utilize all of our pastures and we will be a little closer to fully realizing our rotational grazing farm model. One other step in this process is getting a more efficient irrigation system installed. The farm has received two grants for the project but because of the sequester everything has slowed down dramatically. I am not complaining because I feel incredibly grateful to even have the grants and there are so many other things that have lost their funding that are much more essential. We had been planning on breaking ground this month but we are still in the review part of the process. The grants will allow a small farm like ours to use all of our pastures and to grow good quality grass during the months of the year we don't have any precipitation. Right now when we use our irrigation water it runs through a series of ditches and most of the water gets wasted and over waters creating bad quality grass that is not good for foraging. Most of our precipitation comes during the winter months so being able to use a small amount of water during the dry months in an efficient way will make it possible for us to practice our grass based farming in a way that needs fewer inputs (feed for chickens and hay for sheep) from off of the farm.

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Bella and Wyandotte Rooster

Another way to practice rotational grazing that creates healthy soil and healthy food is to have the right amount of animals grazing for the size of the farm. Right now we don't have quite enough animals to keep up with all the grass we are growing. We are adding on one more flock of laying hens, expanding the number of breeding sheep we will have year round, and looking for a couple bull calves to raise. So what else makes us different from conventional farms besides the fact that our animals are not caged and we don't spray pesticides on our pastures? We keep the number of animals we raise low to create healthier soil by not over grazing and in turn the soil gives us healthier eggs, meat, and someday milk. We produce less food than a conventional farm and we will do it by using fewer inputs (subsidized soy and corn feed) and instead use our own labor moving animals around on pasture. So we produce less food and we need more man/woman hours to do it. What does this mean? It means in no way can we compete with the prices that conventional farmers sell their food for. They are basing their farm models on an economy that relies on cheap subsidized feed and that doesn't give them much room to care about the health of animals and people. In every aspect of our farming decisions we take into consideration the health of the animals, the farm as a whole, the people who eat our food, and the long term health of the environment. So how do we accomplish all of this, farm the way we want and make it economically sustainable? We will have to spend time educating people, taking the time to talk to them about the way we choose to farm and why it is worth their hard earned money to pay more for food. We will also have to make sure we are paying close attention to economic forces and utilizing all the resources we have at hand. It is also why we pay close attention to the breeds we choose. The Icelandic sheep are tri-purpose which means you can get Fiber, Milk, and Meat from them and it will make our farm that much more economically diverse. When we pick a breed of Cattle we will make sure we have one that grazes in a way that will work best with our farm model. We will also be growing the vast majority of our own fruits and veggies (utilizing all the great compost we were able to make with a winters worth of sheep manure) this year and selling what we have in abundance at the farmers market along with our eggs and meat.

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Now that all of our serious business is out of the way we can move onto all the great moments from our first lambing season. It's technically not over because we have one ewe still pregnant but I can't resist sharing this special time with you. In addition we have our bottle fed lambs back and a shelter set up for them near the house. We moved the other sheep into a small paddock nearby so Lulu could keep an eye on everyone and well the grass was starting to look like it needed some four legged mowing anyways.

First two lambs

Bottle Feeding

Evening Grazing

Lu and Ram Lamb

Sheep with beehives

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Chicken Palace

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Chicken Palace

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What once was a vintage hay trailer has been turned into a mobile chicken tractor for our 150 Golden Sex Link laying hens. We liked the simplicity of our old chicken tractors ( City Chicken, Country Chicken) but we quickly learned that they didn't move easily over our rolling and rocky pastures. We wanted more eggs to sell to our community, so we were going to need a larger chicken tractor. Why do we bother moving the chickens around so often? Access to fresh grass and bugs makes deliciously rich deep orange yolks, and a more nutrient dense food. I would also like to think it makes for happier chickens and ultimately a more sustainable farm not being as dependent on feed. So the better question is why don't all chickens have access to fresh grass and bugs? Photo Feb 18, 4 39 34 PM

The first day of work Farmer Matt had some help from a couple of our favorite farm boys, but he was quickly abandoned for a  more interesting pasttime on the farm like making and jumping in mud puddles. Using the Hay Trailer as a foundation will really make a huge difference in where we can bring the tractor but also how much labor we will have to put into constantly moving them around to new pastures. The current chicken tractor has to be moved slowly and carefully in order to not crush any chickens and if you hit a patch of rocks everything has to stop in order to lift the tractor over the rocks or to physically remove the rocks in some cases.

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Another thing we wanted to improve upon for ease of use were nesting boxes that you could access them from outside the chicken tractor. This will make collecting eggs that much easier, and when you are collecting over a 100 eggs a day every little bit counts.

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One thing that Farmer Matt added (that I love) is folding roosting racks that hook onto the ceiling. This is especially handy when you are ready to clean the chicken tractor. One of the designs we looked at had an open floor so that the chicken manure would go directly onto the ground but it wouldn't work with the hay trailer we had found and we were worried about predators having easy access at night.

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The last couple of details were two sets of doors, one for the chickens and one for humans. Of course we provided a nice little removable ramp for the chickens to have access to all the green grass and bugs. We  close the chicken door at night in order to keep them in the tractor for moving the next morning. We're pretty happy with the results, so are these two little future farmers who did quality control inspections on every inch of the tractor. We are going to be moving the chicks into their new home very soon because they are quickly out growing their enclosure in the hoop house. We need to take advantage of the warm temps in the hoop house and get some vegetable starts going pronto!

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New Arrivals

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New Arrivals

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I had this absurd notion that once the baby arrived everything would calm down and we would have many days of quiet and rest. There is no such thing on a farm, especially one with so many animals depending on you every day. Our family of 4 has now become 5 and we're all in love. It's as if the new little guy can sense how busy we are and has decided to be the most easy going baby he possibly can be. He spends most of his days eating and sleeping while we juggle how to get everything done both inside and outside of the house. We have been fortunate to have Matt's mom here for the last several weeks so now that I am all healed up and she is headed home the real test begins.

We have been playing around with the sheeps feed and mineral supplement, because of where the Icelandic sheep originate they do better with a much higher amount of minerals than most sheep. The more we learn about natural care of the sheep it seems as if you can keep their reproductive health at its optimum, prevent illnesses and parasites all through the right balance of minerals. Our fingers are crossed that they're all healthy enough to breed and that we'll have many lambs running around the pastures come spring. All due to the second new arrival on the farm.

The Ram made its arrival at the farm about a week after we came home from the hospital. He is at least twice the ewes size and with his huge coat of black wool a formidable presence on the landscape. Their first moments of being introduced were like a small dance, the flock fled his approach and then slowly approached him as a group and fled again. This little sequence was played over and over again. They eventually got used to each other but Lulu, our pyrenees puppy, is still skeptical and doesn't want to be in the temporary paddock we set up for the Ram's time on the farm. Luckily there is still a large part of the paddock that Lulu can have to herself and one of the shelters for her to sleep in at night.

The farm was covered in four inches of snow yesterday and we started to worry because the hoop house where the chickens will winter is still not done. The side vents are finished and the wiggle wire we used to frame the plastic arrived and was installed around the door frames but we are still without doors. The chickens didn't seem to mind the snow and it mostly melted away by the afternoon so hopefully we can get them into their new shelter before the real deep freeze sets in.

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Animal Update

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Animal Update

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We have had our Icelandic sheep for almost three months now and where they once would run away from us as soon as we let them out of their shelter in the morning they now calmly hover around waiting for food. This is our breeding flock so their natural forage has been supplemented with a little bit of grain to get them up to weight for pregnancy and birthing. That and we are still working on fencing and growing enough quality forage to keep them in green pastures year round. Some of them were incredibly small since there were at least two sets of twins but now most of them have more than doubled in size and we feel comfortable bringing a ram to the farm in the next month to start breeding. The main challenge with them has been to keep them in fresh green grass. The pastures closest to their shelter were soon not enough so we fenced in our front yard and with the use of a temporary fence rotated them around our almost two acre yard while trying to keep them out of our garden and about a hundred trees we have planted since we bought the property. The temporary fence did not keep a couple of the more daring sheep in so we were constantly chasing them out of the garden and back into their fenced area. We were finally able to make the fence a little hotter which for the most part has kept them in. Two of the smaller sheep were injured after a 55 mile an hour windstorm blew fencing material into their pasture and they got tangled up in it and wounded their legs. Matt spent weeks bandaging them up and giving them medicine. They were spending so little time foraging that we were worried they weren't going to make it but they are now completely healed up and enjoying their second rotation around the green grass in our yard.

Lulu, our six month old Pyrenees puppy really has two families, the one that feeds her and plays with her but the one she spends the most time with is her sheep who she also spends her nights with. She is still figuring out that the sheep are not puppies and have no desire to play with her but when it comes to guarding them she is all business. It's hard to believe that she won't be a fully mature guard dog until she is two because her instincts and willingness to stand her ground are already so strong. We are also hoping to bring a sheep herding dog to the farm but we will wait until next year to start that project.

Lulu's instinct with the chickens isn't as helpful as it is with the sheep. She hasn't injured any yet but she loves to chase them around and we have seen her mouth around a couple of the older hens. The 37 Bard Rock chicks we got in the mail are now almost fully grown and should be laying eggs within the month. We think there at least 10 roosters in the bunch and have heard the beginnings of crowing early in the morning. We have only had one rooster up until now and the prospect of 11 cock-a-doodle-doos at 6 am is not very exciting so there might be some Coq-au-vin in our future.

We lost one chick on it's trip from the hatchery to the farm but none since we brought them home, we have not had as much luck with the turkey pullets we brought home at the same time. Three died during the over 100 degree weather we had this summer and 4 were very lethargic with foot deformities so we decided to cull them, which left us with one. It was a hard decision but we didn't want to see them in pain anymore. Lulu's vet said it was pretty common in turkeys that are non-heritage breeds but we also did some research and found the foot deformities are related to a magnesium deficiency. We really want to have turkeys for our family and friends next year so we found a hatchery that specializes in heritage breeds and we will look into putting together our own feed recipe that will focus on any deficiencies our soil might have. It was a huge disappointment to lose so many but one of what I am sure will be many hard learned lessons we will experience over the next several years of starting a farm.

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School of Rocks

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School of Rocks

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We knew it was going to be challenging to start a farm from the ground up while raising two, soon to be three, small children at the same time but it is more challenging then we could have ever imagined. In exchange for 14 hour days full of household chores, animal chores, and larger projects like fencing and irrigation we get the luxury of time. When we lived in the city we juggled two different work schedules and tried to work opposite schedules so we could afford childcare.  We didn't have many days off together and we definitely didn't share all of our meals as a family. We haven't gotten to the point where we can get much done as a group on the farm but we have found a couple of things that work.  Out of necessity we decided to move the chicken tractors together.  We had been grazing the chickens on the grass in the front yard but once the sheep had cleared out some taller grass in the paddocks we just fenced we decided to move the chickens out there and move the sheep onto new pasture. This involved using the tractor because moving the chicken tractors by hand more than several yards is a back breaking experience. So with one child on Matthew's lap while he drove the tractor and one child with me keeping the chickens moving forward we slowly made our way at .7 miles per hour. Then we hit a bump in the road. We were almost to our destination when we hit a large rocky area that was  impossible to get the chicken tractor over. We got out our digging bar and small shovels and got to work. Who knew that two little boys would think digging rocks out of the dirt was just about the best thing they could be doing? They would have done it all day if it didn't start to get hot but there is plenty of more rocks to move and we even have a need for them because there is a long section fence that doesn't meet the ground where the land slopes so they also helped me move the small ones and alternate them on either side of the fence to keep our animals in and the coyotes out.

With one chicken tractor move under our belts we decided to try it again but this time we were moving the chicks. I would like to say it went smoother but the chicks were much more challenging.  They seemed determined to get squashed underneath the tractor. Harlow, our 4 year old, was a huge help moving a box of turkey pullets along and keeping them from tipping over while I used a broom to keep the the chicks moving along and we managed to keep them all alive and unharmed.  We have a long way to go before we can actually spend a significant amount of time doing work together but we're slowly getting there at about .7 mile per hour.

At the end of the day when all the animals and boys have been put to bed we collapse in our chairs outside to enjoy the cool air and lately we have been watching as thunderstorms move across the valley. The last one was so tall (35,000 feet) that they could see it on the other side of the Cascade Mountains in Seattle. Here is one of our pictures of that storm.

Cliff Mass has some great photos and things to say about the mammatus clouds on his blog.

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Animal Farm

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Animal Farm

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This week has been full of thunderstorms, double rainbows, and getting to know our 13 Icelandic Sheep.  They were a little worked up after making the long trip from Whidbey Island in a little trailer Matt had made for them. We were also a little nervous not having found a Llama to guard them so we made one of the horse shelters as secure as we could and breathed a sigh of relief when we woke up in the morning to find them all there and ready for us to let them out on the grass. They are warming up to us a little bit but still a little camera shy.

The chicks and turkey pullets have doubled in size since we got them just a little less than a month ago. Between them growing out of their watering trough and having lost one turkey during the triple digit weather we hoped they would fair better outside in their chicken tractor with some added protection from tarps.  They seem to be enjoying their extra freedom and rolling around in the grass. They are also learning how to use a water feeder with nipples, which we had to switch the older chickens to also because so much of the water was getting tossed out when we have a windy day in the valley.

We have also adopted a young rooster from one of the Seattle Urban Farm Co-op members and although he has grown much larger than our hens they still spend most of the day bossing him around. He is a dapper young man with some of the most beautiful plumage I have ever seen. He's been slowly working on his rooster crow and what once sounded like a dying seal now sounds like the real thing. His first call of the day is usually around 4:30 am.

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Don't fence me in

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Don't fence me in

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The sheep are coming in less than a week and Matthew has been working long hours making our fencing more secure for the sheep and putting in new fence posts and gates. The fencing will be an added security measure to keep the sheep in their pastures along with the temporary fencing we will use to practice more intensive rotational grazing. It is also a way to keep the wee ones out of the two ponds. Luckily there have been some calm, not too hot days to make the long days easier and of course some little helping hands.

It all started with the first new fence post that the gate secures to alongside some impromptu sculpture that the little hands made when they were tired of helping.

Then came the all important H-brace, three wooden posts and wire, that create an anchor for the rest of the fencing and also attach to the gate.

Once the H-brace was finished and he secured the pasture fencing to it, he attached the end of the fencing to a bracket he made that was hooked on to the tractor's bucket and pulled it tight against the old fence posts. Then all that was left was to secure the new fencing to the old posts. So simple, right?  I'm glad my job was just to explain it to people.

The week would not be complete without some pictures of the napping Chicks and Poulets. I love it when they sleep in a heap, when they sleep in pairs, but especially when they fall asleep in their feeder(which we didn't get a picture of but trust me it's adorable).

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Chicklets and Poulets

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Chicklets and Poulets

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We received a call at 5 am this morning that our chicks and turkey poulets had arrived at the post office.  We knew they would be arriving in a small box and that they will have been without water or food for 24 hours so before anyone had coffee or breakfast we rushed down to our local USPS where our friendly postal woman Diana was keeping them safe on a table with boxes full of other peoples chicks. This is our fourth brood of chickens but it still feels like Christmas morning anticipating their arrival and getting to hold our fuzzy little feathered friends for the first time. The kids got to help me free them from their tiny box and put them in their new home, which is an old watering trough for the horses that used to live here. Our farm family now includes 25 Bard Rock Hens, 5 Roosters, and 8 Bronze Turkeys.

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City Chicken, Country Chicken

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City Chicken, Country Chicken

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As we move ahead getting our family settled at the farm we also have 1 dog, 2 beehives, 10 hens, and one adopted Rooster to  trek over the mountain pass and find new homes for. The beehives have been nestled into a corner of an old horse corral. The dog has found at least a dozen new napping places, but the chickens need a whole new home. Their old city home was a part of a garden shed that could not be moved and wouldn't be practical for the rotational grazing we are interested in practicing on the farm.

We need a new kind of home for them in the country, one that's more mobile and easily moved to greener pastures every week or so. Something inexpensive that we can easily replicate because we are also going to have a new brood of chickens and turkeys coming at the end of the month. We need a Chicken Tractor. We originally saw some at a slide show and lecture that Joel Salatin gave at the Mother Earth News Fair. We liked the concept but we wanted something with a little more space for the chickens to roam around in and perches for them to roost. There are a lot of Chicken Tractor designs out there but most of them are too complicated and expensive and we eventually will need to build a half a dozen or more. We finally found one on Rainy Creek Pottery and Poultry Farm's website. They used inexpensive livestock panels to create a hoop and wood to create a lightweight sleigh like base and door frame. We had some salvaged wood to make the nesting boxes and perches, then all that was left was to put their feeder and water in there.

Now our City Chickens are officially Country Chickens

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