Wrong Direction Farm

Chicken Mobile Home, Part 3

We wrapped up work on the Chicken Mobile Home (truth be told, there are a few details to finish, but it probably is as finished as it is going to get).  If we get a string of warm, dry weather we’d like to paint the plywood, but that’s a bit of finesse that is rarely lavished on projects around here.

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We installed a used stadium dome cover we bought online.  These covers cost about twice what the heavy duty tarps sell for at home improvement stores, but at 35 mil thick versus 10 mil for the tarps they are a better value.  The only problem we had with the cover was that it seemed to have some built-in curvature and we weren’t able to stretch it as tight as we’d like.  The resultant wrinkles are a little unsightly but they are unlikely to affect the performance or longevity of the roof.  We don’t sweat the aesthetics too much, nor do the chickens.DSCF0659

All our equipment does double (or more) duty, so before we even started using this for its intended purpose of sheltering pastured laying hens, we repurposed the mobile home as a temporary brooder for 200 broiler chicks.

Doing what Cornish Cross chicks do best:  eating.

Doing what Cornish Cross chicks do best: eating.

We put a delaminated scrap sheet of OSB under the chicks since we weren’t sure if they would have trouble with the slatted floor.  Within a few days, they had all figured out how to manage with the holes and now they all freely venture off the solid floor onto the slats.  Once these chicks start to feather out and toughen up, we’ll move them to the field pens and rehome the laying hens to this mobile home.

Basking in the glow of heat lamps.

Basking in the glow of heat lamps.

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Red Wattles, Charles Darwin, and Pork Jowls

The original caption was "Fig. 4.—Old Irish Pig, with jaw-appendages. (Copied from H. D. Richardson on Pigs.)"

I was surprised to see a drawing of a pig with wattles in Charles Darwin’s The Variation of Animals & Plants Under Domestication.  Here is the accompanying text:

Another curious anomaly is offered by the appendages, described by M. Eudes-Deslongchamps as often characterizing the Normandy pigs. These appendages are always attached to the same spot, to the corners of the jaw; they are cylindrical, about three inches in length, covered with bristles, and with a pencil of bristles rising out of a sinus on one side: they have a cartilaginous centre, with two small longitudinal muscles; they occur either symmetrically on both sides of the face or on one side alone. Richardson figures them on the gaunt old “Irish Greyhound pig;” and Nathusius states that they occasionally appear in all the long-eared races, but are not strictly inherited, for they occur or fail in animals of the same litter. As no wild pigs are known to have analogous appendages, we have at present no reason to suppose that their appearance is due to reversion; and if this be so, we are forced to admit that somewhat complex, though apparently useless, structures may be suddenly developed without the aid of selection. This case perhaps throws some little light on the manner of appearance of the hideous fleshy protuberances, though of an essentially different nature from the above-described appendages, on the cheeks of the wart-hog or Phacochœrus Africanus.

Since I’m not aware of any other extant pig breeds with wattles besides the Red Wattles, I was interested to dig into this topic a bit more.  One Google led to another and I discovered that George Romanes pointed to this passage in one of his papers arguing for a broader understanding of speciation than could be explained by Darwin’s emphasis on natural selection.  If Romanes or Darwin had known about the genetic work of Gregor Mendel, they would have been able to put the pieces together sooner, but that had to wait a few decades for the Neo-darwinists to synthesize the disparate bits of knowledge.

I had a hard time getting Cyprus, our Red Wattle boar, to stand still for the picture.  His wattles are about 3-1/2 inches long and nearly and inch in diameter.

I had a hard time getting Cyprus, our Red Wattle boar, to stand still for the picture. His wattles are about 3-1/2 inches long and over an inch in diameter.

My only contribution to the debate between Darwin and his immediate successors is that I’ve discovered that some non-wattle-bearing pigs have a vestigial cartilage in their jowl.  As I trimmed the jowls from some Yorkshire pigs (definitely a non-wattle breed) I found a small gnarl of cartilage.  In Red Wattles, this would be where the wattle roots to the cheek.  Thus far, I’ve only found the wattle cartilage on two pigs who shouldn’t have had it.  Most other Yorkshires didn’t have any sign of a cartilage, but it is possible that I may have overlooked it if the tissue was small enough.

The wattle trait doesn't pass on to all offspring, but this sow is an F1 cross between Red Wattle and Berkshire.

The wattle trait doesn’t pass on to all offspring, but this sow inherited the genes.  She is an F1 cross between Red Wattle and Berkshire.

This makes me wonder if all pigs (or if at least some other domestic breeds) carry unexpressed or partial genetic coding for wattles.  I also wonder if the lack of a wattles in most breeds is a mutation away from wattles rather than the conventional idea (shared by Darwin in the above text) that wattled hogs have a unique mutation away from the general pig population.  Needless to say, there isn’t much research money flowing into Red Wattle genomics, so I don’t expect to get a scientific answer.  Its just an idea to play with while I feed the pigs.  Yeah, I know…  It doesn’t take much to amuse me.

First Flower of Spring

Today I spotted my first flowers of the year.  I found these flowers in wet, low lying woods.  I believe these are Anemone hepatica, although if anyone wants to disabuse me I’m willing to listen; I’ve never been a competent taxonomist.

Nothing flashy, but still heartening to see after a long spell of looking at monochrome vegetation.

Nothing flashy, but still heartening to see after a long spell of looking at monochrome vegetation.

The snow is entirely off the fields, with only small patches in the shady spots.  All over sprouts are beginning to emerge.  The pastures are a few weeks from having anything substantial for the animals to eat, but the inch-long blades of grass are harbingers of our grazing season.  The pigs and cattle are biding their time eating hay, looking longingly over the fence at the tiny green shoots.

The pigs are still eating hay, but the time for them to get into the back pastures and woods is getting nearer.  Hang in there, hogs.

The pigs are still in the winter yard, but the date for them to get into the back pastures and woods is getting nearer.  Hang in there, hogs.

Hot Dogs

It has been a long time since we’ve had hot dogs in stock, but today we picked up a batch from the butcher.  Of course we’re excited because these hot dogs showcase our great ground pork (sorry, you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want pink slime).  But we’re also pleased to announce that our butcher is making these dogs with certified organic spices.  So you get a satisfying hot dog and a list of ingredients that doesn’t leave you with any doubts about whether this is wholesome or not.  Try finding that combination at the grocery store…

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I should have snapped a picture of these hot dogs after we grilled up a package, but they were gobbled up too quickly.

Here’s another plug for our new online store, order your dogs here!

Boring Woodpeckers

Pileated woodpeckers spent the early part of the winter boring out some of the Aspen (Poplar or Popple) trees behind the house.  I’m not sure what influences their choice of trees.  The trees they chose don’t look much different than their unscathed neighbors, but obviously they have very specialized knowledge about what they are doing. From January though a few weeks ago these holes were covered in snow, so they couldn’t have provided the birds with winter roosts.  The choice of such spots suggests that these were exploratory feeding holes as the woodpeckers searched for bugs.

Woodpecker Holes

One curious observation is that all the holes were all located low on the north sides of the trees.  I’m not sure if the northward placement was intentional or if things just worked out that way.

These birds are pretty efficient at removing material.  Note the wood chips at the base of the tree.  They break out big chips, roughly the same size as those that come out of a commercial wood chipper.

These birds are pretty efficient at removing material. Note the wood chips at the base of the tree. They break out big chips, roughly the same size as those that come out of a commercial wood chipper.

Chicken Mobile Home, Part 2

We are pleased with the way the new mobile chicken coop is shaping up.

Doors

We don’t anticipate using the front door much since egg collection is all done from outside.

We welded in new angle iron floor bracing, then installed slatted floor.  The floor is only rated for 10 pounds per square foot, so working inside the coop requires us to carefully keep our feet over the steel bracing.  The weight restriction won’t be a problem for the chickens, but I am wary about its ability to withstand clumsy humans (myself included).

The cats approve of the floor, especially if there's a discarded sweatshirt on top.

The floor is strong enough to support sunbathing cats.

Walls are up, hoops are up, doors are installed.  We went all-out and bought an automatic light-sensing door.  It cost $225 for the door and battery, but it will be worth it if we can eliminate the chore of opening and closing the chicken coop each day.

The two five foot sections on the right are the external access to the nest boxes.  The two foot section on the left is a storage cabinet for egg brushes and empty egg cartons.

The two five foot sections on the right are the external access to the nest boxes. The two foot section on the left is a storage cabinet for egg brushes and empty egg cartons.

We installed ten feet of roll-out, community-style nest boxes.  The roll-out feature is new for us, so we’ll see how that works.  We covered the nest box floor with a outdoor doormat sliced in half.  All the roofing is offcut scrap from last fall’s barn repair project.  If we decide to add more chickens next year we can easily build another row of nest boxes down the right side of the trailer.

Roost poles fit loosely into joist hangers for easy removal for cleaning.

Roost poles fit loosely into joist hangers for easy removal for cleaning.

Remaining items:

  1. Paint the plywood in a few weeks when the weather is above 50 degrees and dry.
  2. Build a roll-up tarp wall for the back of the coop.
  3. Install flashing over the top of the nest boxes.
  4. Install the roof covering.
  5. Add a few wood steps to the front of the trailer.
  6. Install birds.

Notice Anything New?

We added an online ordering system!  Click the Order link at the top of the page or just click here.

We dragged our feet for a few years on this, but we think this is something that makes sense for us now.  It was hard getting over the fact that 5% of our sales would go to website fees.  But we’re hoping that the convenience makes it so easy for customers to order, that they just can’t help but increase their volume and make up for that lost revenue.  So go buy something!  We’ll wait while you go do that.

For our customers who typically buy beef and pork by the half or whole, we’re going to get that ordering process moved over to the online store, but we haven’t finished that bit yet.  If you want to place a bulk order in the meantime, just email us.  We still have a few June half pig orders available, but we are very close to being sold out.  The next bulk orders won’t be available until September, so get in touch with us right away if you want a porker for your freezer.

Spring Fence Tuneup

This weekend we anticipate bringing in a number of calves from the farm next door, so it is time to fix up the little L shaped paddock we use as a receiving yard for new cattle.  The plan is to let them stay there for a few days while getting used to the new location, then bring our cattle up to meet them.  There will be some scuffling, pushing, and shoving as the social order is worked out, but we expect that they will all adjust and be ready to function as a cohesive herd by the time the grass starts growing in early May.

But first things first:  it is time to make sure the electric fence is ready.  We don’t want to repeat last October’s fiasco where the brand-new cattle discovered that a portion of the electric fence was disconnected.  We want their first encounter with Ol’ Sparky to be memorable.  Cattle are easier to train to electric than pigs.  Just one or two zaps tells them all they need to know about fences.

The top connector has been burned away and the stainless steel on the connectors and the knife is severely pitted.

The top connector has been burned away and the stainless steel on the connectors and the knife is severely pitted.

I’ve been disappointed with the electric fence cutout switches I’ve been using.  I contacted Kencove to see if they have had other customers experience problems with arcing and burning due to poor contact between the blade and the base.  They just recommending squeezing the connection tighter, but the design is inherently weak right where the connection needs to be tight.  I’ve tried cleaning the surfaces and squeezing the connectors without luck.  Supposedly this is a heavy duty switch, but I’m not impressed.

I added dielectric grease to all the connections.  I tried to find information on whether there are any problems using it on fencing systems (10 kV, short pulses), but I was unable to find anything.  So I tried it anyway.  I can always clean it out if it is a problem.  I'm hoping it will help prevent corrosion.

I added dielectric grease to all the connections. I tried to find information on whether there are any problems using it on fencing systems (10 kV, short pulses), but I was unable to find anything. So I tried it anyway. I can always clean it out if it is a problem. I’m hoping it will help prevent corrosion.

Kencove sells a different knife switch that has what appears to be a better design.  I’ve had one of these installed right at the energizer for four years without problems, so I ordered a big batch and started replacing my burned out switches.

The new switches have different spacing between the lugs, but there was enough slack in the wires to allow me to install them without any major rewiring.

The new switches have different spacing between the lugs, but there was enough slack in the wires to allow me to install them without any major rewiring.  I squeezed a gob of dielectric grease in the knife grooves for good measure.

I’ll have to give it at least a full season to tell if these switches are better, but I’m happy with the results so far.  After I reenergized the fence, I inspected each switch.  There was no arcing or loud snapping.  I had to put my ear right up to the switch to hear the snap from the pulse, so it seems we’re off to a good start.

Selling Feeder Calves

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This winter’s bottle calves went to the auction.  I didn’t get a picture of them in the ring because I was too busy scribbling weights and bids.  They were 21 to 23 weeks old and right in the 450-550 pound sweet spot for pricing.  As the cattle get heavier their price per pound declines, so each additional pound becomes less valuable even though adding those pounds to the cattle isn’t any cheaper.

If we exclude the cost of mileage picking up the milk from the bottling plant (since my trips there were always part of my normal driving) and only count the actual cash outlays for purchasing the calves, hay, bedding, supplies, etc., we made a $575 profit per calf.  When we calculate all the labor (sorting out the fresh from the spoiled milk at the plant, loading the truck, unloading the truck, thawing frozen bottles, opening milk bottles, feeding twice each day, manure cleanup, chipping ice in the water trough, carting empty milk jugs to the recycling bin at the dump, and general time spent working with the calves), all that work amounted to a before-tax wage of $9 per hour.  And consider this:  $9 per hour represents the payout in a record cattle market.

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Loading up milk. This was an especially good haul – larger containers, whole milk, and no leaky bottles.

This works out for us because we have access to a small supply of near-expiration or “gently” expired milk.  The simplistic solution to making more money is to add more calves.  The problem is that we can’t count on more milk than we currently get.  If we raised more calves then we’d have to purchase feed (either as milk replacer or calf grain ration, neither of which are appealing options), eating up most of the profit.  Chasing bigger profits would involve more risk as the margins tightened.  We have enough low-margin enterprises that we don’t need to make the calf-raising project one of them.

What are we going to do with this windfall?  Buy more cattle of course.  We’ll use the proceeds from these four Holstein steers to buy three weaned Angus steers from our neighbor.  A year and a half from now those steers will be ready for butchering as grass finished beef.  Get your orders in now!  Just kidding, we’re not quite ready to take orders that far in advance.

Chaurice Sausage

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Here’s another sausage recipe we’ve made a few times and enjoyed:  Creole Chaurice Sausage.  The recipe comes from the Times-Picayune Creole Cookbook from 1904.  Andouille is the Creole sausage that everyone’s heard of, but a well-made chaurice deserves as much recognition.  Its name indicates Spanish roots related to chorizo.  Chorizo has evolved along divergent paths, so chaurice doesn’t taste like the more commonly available Mexican chorizos, but it does share similarities with some Spanish fresh chorizos.

I ran into one issue of ingredient ambiguity.  I don’t know for sure what they meant when they required red pepper (later referred to as pimento).  I am pretty sure they weren’t talking about the pickled mild cherry peppers that get stuffed into olives.  In fact, the small dosage strongly implies that the intention was to use a powdered ingredient.  Following the Creole-Spanish connection again, they could be referring to pimentón (similar to smoked paprika) or pimientos (sweet bell peppers).  I went with Smoked Paprika, but do what you like.  No Creole ever scorned smoking; so even if this isn’t canonical it’s still good.

What else changed?  (1) I increased the salt.  (2) Instead of mixing lean pork and fatty pork, I just use our standard 70/30 ground pork.  But extra fat wouldn’t hurt.  (3)  I’m using cayenne that probably isn’t as hot intended.  Rachel and I love spicy food, but the kids are only coming around to it slowly, so we need to increment the heat in imperceptible steps.  (4) I added beer.  You don’t need it, but all sausage benefits from some kind of booze.  One for the sausage, one for the sausage maker.  A friend joked with us that whenever she reads online recipes, she sees comments that say “I made this recipe, only I substituted x and y and z“.  By the time the substitutions are all listed, there isn’t anything left from the original.  Well, maybe mea culpa for that meme.  But I still think this is consonant with the original recipe.

When I first read the recipe, I was stumped because the garlic content was so low.  Then, in looking at other recipes in the cookbook I realized that the “clove” is actually what I’d call a head or a bulb.  The cloves in my recipe below are true cloves (the little pieces, not the whole head).   Speaking of garlic, most sausage recipes need a lot of it.  Peeling garlic is a tedious task; or it was, until I found this tip.  To think of all the hours I’ve spent peeling, peeling, peeling…  Nevermore.  Just smash, shake, and done.

Chaurice Recipe

Ingredients:

10 pounds ground pork

3 large onions, minced

12-15 garlic cloves, minced

5 Tablespoons Kosher salt

1 Tablespoon ground black pepper

1-1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1-1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

3/4 teaspoon allspice powder

2 sprigs thyme, minced

5 sprigs parsley, minced

3 bay leaves, minced

6 ounces cold beer (or ice water)

Procedure:

Mix the pork with the dry ingredients, then add the minced herbs and beef and mix again.  Stuff into sheep or hog casings.  Let sit overnight in refrigerator to self-marinade and to dry down a bit.

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