Today was one of those days that makes us glad to be farmers. Our first lamb of the year was born early this morning. The weather was balmy. I was able to get in the garden to prep beds for peas, lettuce and spring turnips while the kids played in the sandbox and pulled one of their pet ducks around the yard in a red wagon. As I was raking mulch, I watched an assortment of birds—turkeys, chickens, peacocks and guinea fowl–stretch themselves out in the sunshine at the edge of the tree line. They were all glad for the warm weather too.
I mused about the unique qualities of each breed of animal that we keep on the farm. Probably many people never think about the breeds of the animals that provide meat, eggs and dairy for their table. A cow is a cow, and a chicken is a chicken, right? Not quite.
One of our goals here is to provide a haven for a few rare heritage breeds of livestock. Rare heritage breeds are usually a type of farm animal that was once favored for certain qualities, or developed and used in relative isolation in a certain region of the world, but has since been all but forgotten as farmers switch to raising newer, higher producing breeds. We feel it is important to preserve old breeds of livestock for two reasons: First, as a genetic insurance policy. Once a breed becomes extinct, those genetics are lost forever and can never again contribute their qualities to agricultural production. Second, to preserve history. When people visit historic Mount Vernon, for example, they get the chance to see George Washington’s home and belongings preserved for posterity. They also get to see heirloom plants in his gardens and historic breeds of livestock on his farm that look like the plants and animals that he himself raised. Plants and animals cannot be preserved in a museum. They are living and breathing and can only be preserved by farmers dedicated to raising and breeding them to preserve their unique qualities.
So, we love our heritage breeds, that is obvious. But I realized I have never expounded on the qualities of more modern breeds developed for commercial production. Huh, you say? Yes, you read that right. I have no problem with modern commercial breeds of livestock, only with the ways in which they are often used on industrial scale farms.
For the sake of discussion, let us compare two types of chickens that we keep here on Crowfoot Farm.
The beautiful Dorking chicken has been around since the time of the ancient Romans. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were common on American farms and were considered an excellent table fowl. They are very hardy, handle cold temperatures well, and start laying very early in the spring–late winter, really—earlier than most other chicken breeds will when kept only in natural light (day length affects chickens’ egg laying cycle and so farms will sometimes use artificial lights in the henhouse to “extend the day” and keep the hens laying all winter long). Dorkings are also very smart and some of the best I’ve seen at evading predators. They retain their natural instincts and will hatch and expertly rear a brood of chicks out in the field, protecting them from predators and the elements. They also prefer to forage for their own food rather than sit around the grain feeder and are an excellent choice for homesteaders looking for a self-sufficient bird requiring little upkeep to provide a few eggs and some meat for the table.
On the flip side, Dorkings lay many fewer eggs per year than newer breeds that have been selected for their egg production. They tend to drop off production later in the year, and their tendency to go broody causes them to lay fewer eggs as well. And while Dorkings are a heavy breed, their eggs tend to be small—closer to medium-sized than large-sized as most people have come to expect from chicken eggs. They require a lot of space for free-ranging and will all but quit laying if kept too confined. That’s fine if they live on a farm with space to roam, but they would not be a good choice for a small urban coop. And while they are free-ranging, they will often decide to hide their nest in the bushes rather than lay eggs in the henhouse where they can be found. Dorking have become so rare that those who keep them pretty much have to produce their own replacement birds on the farm. That is a good thing to do, but it will further contribute to a lower number of eggs produced by the flock in a year as eggs are used for incubating and if hens are used for the hatching and rearing, they will stop laying for the duration. Breeding replacement birds on the farm also contributes to management costs because of the time and complication factor. If a farmer purchases replacement Dorking chicks, he can expect to pay $5-$6 per day-old chick. What does all this mean for the egg consumer? When you factor in the time and expenses to the farmer, a dozen medium-sized Dorking eggs is really worth around $8.00 or more. A homesteader raising food only for his family may be able to just “let the chickens do their thing” without worrying about numbers, but a farm of any size in the business of selling eggs really doesn’t have that luxury.
And here we have the Red Sex-link Chicken, also called a Red Star or a Production Red. (Sex-link types are called so because their color is differentiated by sex, making it simple to tell males from females at hatch.) Technically not a breed, the Reds are a hybrid type of chicken bred by crossing Rhode Island Red roosters with White Rock hens. (Similar hybrids such as the Black Sex-link and the Golden Comet are also bred by crossing similar breeds.) Foundation stock for Reds have been selectively bred to favor their egg laying capabilites and minimize other characteristics such as a heavy body requiring more feed, or natural mothering instincts that will cause hens to go broody and stop laying eggs for a time. Selective breeding is achieved through the natural reproductive processes, not bio-engineering. As a hybrid, Reds would not be a good choice for someone looking to breed their own replacement birds, unless they wanted to maintain separate flocks of breeding stock. So one downside is the need to rely on commercial hatcheries to provide replacement birds at around $2 per day-old chick. Most of the time, Reds will not sit on a nest, so they shouldn’t be expected to hatch and raise chicks. They are also a very light weight bird that certainly can be eaten, but doesn’t yield a very meaty carcass. Simply, they were bred for one thing—laying lots and lots of eggs—and they do that very well. A Red hen will use her ration of feed very efficiently to lay 300+ eggs per year. That is great news for the farm in the business of selling eggs and the consumer who likes an affordable dozen. And who is to say that the Red hens running freely around our farm are any less happy than the Dorkings?
Many old breeds of livestock are multi-purpose (meat & milk, or meat & eggs, or meat, milk & fiber, etc.), well suited to an era when most farms were small, diversified family farms that were more or less self-sustaining. Newer breeds have been developed to excel in one area of production. Red Sex-link hens excel in egg production just as Cornish-Rock chickens excel in meat production. Jersey cows excel in milk production while Angus excel in beef production. Such production is wonderful when achieved responsibly, not at the expense of the animals’ health and happiness, the nutritional value of the end-product, and not to mention flavor. High performing animals need plenty of good quality feed (forages, and grains if appropriate to the species) to maintain their health and vitality, and deserve fresh air and space to roam just as much as their heritage counterparts. Multi-purpose breeds are useful, especially to farms looking to achieve self-sufficiency, but do not excel in any one area of production. There is nothing wrong with using livestock that are extremely efficient at converting their feed into products, but we would be on shaky ground indeed if we lost all of our old breeds and only had high-production breeds. One example is the commercial broad-breasted white turkeys that are very efficient at producing meat, but cannot breed naturally (hens must be artificially inseminated) and are much more susceptible to disease than heritage breeds of turkeys.
So I don’t think it is fair to call one breed of animal good and another one bad. I have talked as many people out of raising Dorkings as I have sold starter flocks to. I believe it is important for people to know their breeds and choose something that will be a good fit for their farm and their needs. Likewise, consumers well educated in the various types of livestock are empowered to shop for their preferences with confidence and achieve a greater appreciation for the food on their table.
While the ground is frozen and all the world is painted in shades of gray and brown, we like to dream about the “perfect” garden that we will have this summer. We go through our stash of seeds and figure out what needs to be ordered. The colorful seed catalogs provide hours of entertainment, and as I draw out my garden map for the year, the children have fun creating a “paper garden” by cutting out pictures of flowers and vegetables to glue on the map.
My gardening skills, such as they are, have developed through an odd assortment of influences. My parents gave me a little patch of dirt to play around with as a child and for that I will be forever grateful. Working on an eighteenth-century farm all through my teen years and half way through my twenties taught me the gardening practices of our ancestors. I suppose that is why I don’t mind using a hoe instead of a tractor. I had some wonderful mentors at that farm over the years. I read a lot. John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, and The Mulch Book by Stu Campbell, are a few of my favorites. Kevin thinks it’s pretty weird that I can read a book about mulch from cover to cover and love it. But the great thing about gardening is that you get a chance to start over every year, and every year the garden gets better and better.
I am sure that every gardener has their own way to plot out the garden, and over the years I’ve developed a system that works for me. Once I have my list of everything I want to grow, I sketch out a quick map of the garden (mine has twelve beds). Then I get out my old garden maps going back three years and mark on this year’s draft where I had various plants before. To make it easier, most plant varieties can be grouped into families—tomatoes, potatoes and peppers are in the Nightshade family; Cucurbits are the cucumbers, watermelons, muskmelons, summer and winter squashes and gourds; peas and beans are Legumes; Brassicas (or Crucifers) include kale, turnips, collards, cabbages, and broccoli. To minimize plant diseases and keep the bugs guessing, I avoid planting vegetables of the same family in the same garden bed for at least three years. (Still, the squash bugs and cucumber beetles do catch up with me in the summer, so I have found that a small flock of guinea fowl are indispensable in the garden for insect control.) Once I have the previous plantings marked, it is easy to begin filling in where I will plant this year’s crops.
As I plot out my beds, I keep in mind some helpful companion plantings. For example, carrots and marigold discourage bean beetles so I always sow a bed of carrots in the spring and then in summer till rows in it for planting beans interspersed with marigolds. A row of okra provides a sturdy windbreak for delicate pepper plants. Radishes sown with the beets sprout and grow quickly, marking the rows of the slower growing beets and leaving room for them to grow after the radishes are pulled.
I consult the Farmers Almanac for the best planting dates throughout the spring summer and fall and plan my calendar accordingly. I try to allow myself at least one or two back-up dates for each crop in case something comes up and I miss the first good planting date. As I work, I take into consideration how long each crop will take to grow to harvest. With careful timing I can usually get two and sometimes three crops out of a single bed over the growing season. I’ve also learned to mark ahead of time on my calendar when I need to clean up and prepare beds so I have them ready on planting days. Right about now, my spring calendar is looking pretty busy!
I’m sure there are spreadsheets and apps for doing this sort of thing on the computer, but I still prefer pencil and paper. I know I’ll be carrying my garden map in and out over the season and sometimes forget it in the garden to get rained on. It’s kind of fun to pull out all those dirty old maps in the winter time and renew the warmth and vivid colors of summers past in my memory.
We’ve come full circle and it’s time again for reflecting and for making new plans. One thing I’ve learned is that amid the hum of day-to-day farm life, I am not good at finding the time to sit down and compose my thoughts! I am so sorry for dropping off half way through the year last year, and promise to keep you better informed throughout this coming year. Kevin has promised to help me–after all, he is the writer in the family.
The new year comes at the perfect breaking point in the cycle of the farm year. Crops have been harvested and gardens put to rest under a thick blanket of mulch. Our poultry numbers are reduced to just our breeding birds, and we have a break from butchering for a while. The movements of our herd of cows and sheep slow as the pasture grasses have gone dormant. They enjoy stockpiled grasses, made sweeter by the frosts, in the pastures for while and then when that’s gone it’s hay until the pastures bounce back in the spring.
All in all, this last year was a good one on the farm and we have a lot to be thankful for. We’re thankful for the ground and the animals that feed us, and for the chance to work in God’s beautiful creation alongside our children. We’re thankful for all of our wonderful friends, neighbors, and loyal customers who help make it possible for us to grow good food.
A few milestones of the year included the completion of our new barn, establishing a truly workable rotational grazing system for our herd, and a sold-out and very successful chicken CSA season. This was our best year yet for hatching Cotton Patch geese, we lost no sheep to parasites, we celebrated the birth of a healthy Brown Swiss heifer (future milker), and harvested enough to put up food for the winter. Yes, we have a lot to be thankful for.
Trials of the year included losing our brooder house to a fire, swarms of cicadas damaging newly planted fruit trees, and losing half of our flock of laying hens as well as some ducks and turkeys to foxes. But that is farming. We do our best to guard against disaster, but the truth is that in working with the weather, plants, animals and nature, there are more variables than can be counted. Anyone who farms will go through similar tribulations, and often worse. The most important thing is to keep optimistic and learn from our experiences. It’s the only way to get better at what we’re doing.
We sat down as we do every year this time and took a hard look at what’s working and what’s not. It takes years to work out a perfect balance for a diversified farm, and there are many areas in our farming operations that can use improvement. Imbalances must be corrected or this ship is going down. This year we’ve concluded that we need to build a better chicken house and fencing for our laying hens to improve the productivity of the flock. I need to quit shearing sheep off the farm so I can give our family’s vegetable garden the attention it deserves and find the time to plant those blackberries I’ve been dying to put in for years. And we need to reduce the number of hogs that we raise. We expect a lot out of our pastures with a constant rotation of cattle and sheep, chickens, turkeys, geese and hogs, and well, some of them look tired. Hogs are by far the hardest on the land. At the same time, we realized that in order for us to justify the cost of maintaining breeding hogs, we would need to increase our pig numbers. With the piece of land we’ve been privileged to steward, that just isn’t going to work, so the obvious best choice is to discontinue breeding and go back to raising only a small number of purchased hogs each year. That was a hard decision, since we love our “Crossabaw” pigs so much, but it was the right one and we feel good about it. We’ll be able to focus more time and resources on the poultry and will be able to offer more shares in our chicken CSA than we ever have before.
So here’s hoping for our best year yet, and we hope you’ll come out to see us!
“Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: “Love. They must do it for love.” Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide.” –Wendell Berry