This week we moved the cattle from the front of the farm to the back end, about a half mile. Rachel does most of the summer day-to-day cowgirl work and I help with the big moves and roundups.
Moving the cattle doesn’t involve much of the TV tropes of whip-cracking and shouting. Not even a “yippie-kay-yay.” We’ve learned that moving cattle can be done without much drama, either on foot or gently motoring behind them on the ATV. The most important parts are (unsurprisingly) thorough planning beforehand and calm, purposefulness during the move. Cattle have a deep instinct to migrate in herds and recognizing this helps us consider the flow dynamics of the group. Some gateway shapes cause them to slow down, some changes in direction cause them to spread out. Over the years we’ve learned how cattle react, and I suppose we’ve learned how we react, so most of the time the cattle go where we want them to go. Most of the time…
Movement is one of the key things that makes Wrong Direction Farm unique. Our farm is always on the move. Nothing stays in the same place because in nature nothing is static. We’re always looking for ways to keep our animals on the best grass.
Our chickens shelter, but not in place. The idea of putting large numbers of animals in the same place for long periods of time is what drove agriculture into its dependency on pharmaceuticals. So our chickens move, and we need to make sure their shelter can move with them. The need for shelter changes for chickens as they grow. Just after hatching we keep them in insulated, heated brooders because they can’t regulate their own body temperature yet. After that early phase, once they begin to feather out, they require less heat but still need some protection from the elements, and they especially need protection from hawks, eagles, owls, coyotes, foxes, rats, racoons, opossums, neighborhood dogs, feral cats, and bobcats. On our farm the raptors are the most predatory. So to give them access to fresh grass while protecting them from hungry beaks and teeth our chickens live in portable open air shelters.
I just finished building the third chicken shelter. I built it from greenhouse hoops we bought from a neighbor and I’ve got to say, this is our best yet. This shelter is taller, better ventilated, more accessible, and includes a few crafty design features to speed up our daily chores.
I need to build one more of these this year, but I’ll wait a little while before getting into it. These shelter-building projects consume a lot of time so I’ve got to take care of a few other things that have been neglected while working on this.
This spring one of my farm efficiency projects has been the standardization of all trailer hitches on field equipment. We have five little utility trailers we constantly move on pasture for water and feed buggies for the poultry, plus another trailer frame that holds the turkey shelter. Four of them used four different types of 2″ ball couplers, one used a 2-5/16″ ball coupler, and another one used an ag-style pin connector. All of the ball couplers were getting worn out, with several requiring hammers or screwdrivers to engage and disengage the worn out lock mechanisms.
So I’ve had enough of that mess. No more ball hitches. Henceforth they are banned. I chopped all the couplers off and replaced everything with lunette rings. The tractor’s three point hitch now uses one pintle hook for everything. It is amazing how a trivial little project like this makes each day so much better when I’m not fighting with my equipment (well, I’m still fighting with other broken equipment, just not this equipment any more).
Today we brought this group of little chickens out of the brooder and set them up in the field. Between the strong cold wind and the nightly freezes, we had to give them some help.
To block the wind we tarped the end wall. Our chickens get exposure to American consumer culture, with a Blade Runner movie billboard for a roof and a McDonald’s billboard as a windbreak.
We also rigged a propane brooder hover heater in the shelter. It isn’t cost effective to run it full time, but I think for future shelters I’ll incorporate heaters in each one. That should go a long way in improving chicken comfort in early spring and late fall.
We bought an old greenhouse from a farm in town. Over the last week we’ve taken it all apart and brought all the hoops back here. Having the project site close by was convenient, allowing us to peck away at the job as we found time in breaks in the weather and between other tasks.
The greenhouse was built in 1989, and although it has been uncovered for more than ten years most of the galvanizing is in decent condition. Greenhouse frames that I’ve found from the 1980s tended to be built from stouter steel pipes. Most newer ones are engineered right to the limit with thin walled pipes. I’m sure the newer ones are fine, but I like the confidence I get from things being a little overbuilt. Belt and suspenders always.
We disassembled all the hoops and things look pretty good. A few of the purlin pipes are bent but all of the hoops are properly curved with no kinks or twists. Aside from some obstinate rusty bolts the process was straightforward. The only real challenge was dealing with all the saplings and wild grapevines that had grown up inside the old framework.
Now that we have the hoops here, we’re waiting on some highway guardrail material to be delivered later this week, and then we’ll begin building some new portable shelters for chickens.
April is such a strange month. The weather simply reaches blindly into the grab bag and pulls out whatever comes to hand. Lately the selections have favored snow, rain, and howling winds. We and the rest of the farm are tensed up, ready for the explosion of activity that characterizes May through November. But in April we remain crouched and twitching, waiting.
The number of chickens on the farm continues to increase. We have three batches of chickens at various stages of development, from one week old to five weeks old, all in all about two thousand chickens. Every year for the past seven years we’ve doubled the number of chickens we raise. Talk about the effects of exponential growth… We’re getting better at it, but the work and the expenses sure pile up with alarming rapidity.
The grass under the snow is green, but it hasn’t started growing yet. The cattle are eager to trade in their winter hay bales for fresh grass. We’d like to turn the chickens out to pasture, but things are too snowy and sloppy. For now, the oldest chickens are sheltered in an airy hoophouse with sawdust and loose hay underfoot. The younger chickens are still in the heated brooders as they are still too tiny to be out in the chilly, wet world.
Tomorrow the sun should come out again and the snow will melt. I think we’ve got at least another two weeks before meaningful grazing can begin. In the meantime we’ll do our best to keep the critters out of the mud and just keep watching for that magic moment when the grass begins to grow.
The year officially begins at Wrong Direction Farm with the first hatching. And so this week we were excited to hear from our hatchery that they had an order cancellation, and they wanted to know if we were interested. Of course we were. We had to scramble to get the brooder running, schedule a last minute delivery of three tons of organic chicken feed, and call for a propane tank refill for the heaters, but everything came together just in time and we were ready when the chicks arrived. And so our farming new year begins.
All six hundred chicks have been doing well. This batch appears to be in great health, with zero mortalities thus far. They are zippy and bright eyed, except of course during nap time.
Meanwhile, we’ve got plenty of activity going on setting up new brooders. This morning several neighbors came over and helped get the last trailer down the steep hill and into position on the terrace. Then we pulled the reefer units off and now I can begin refitting the trailers as new brooders.
The last few weeks have been crazy ones on the farm, so I need to let you all know how things stand on inventory and ordering.
But before that, I want to thank you all for your orders. It is good to know that so many people turn to us to put food on their family table. In times of quarantine, food is probably the third most important priority for folks, at least according to my informal surveying. Apparently the new Maslovian hierarchy for people stuck in their houses looks something like:
- Toilet paper
If we can’t be number one, at least we’re in the top three.
Order volumes have been running about five times higher than they were this time last month. We’re doing everything we can to keep up with the pace of orders, and we’ve been putting plans together to ensure that we can keep you supplied.
The rush to get orders out the door has exposed some weaknesses in my setup. Some of the weaknesses are just due to the cramped packing space that prevents me from being efficient. But most of the weaknesses are the ones I bring. Too much of the system depends on me being sharp while focusing on too many details. If my customer service responses haven’t been spectacular, or if I’ve made stupid errors in packing orders, I apologize. The past days have given me some good ideas for ways to do things more efficiently and more effectively, and I expect that the lessons learned will continue to help improve the order packing and delivery system.
Here are a few notes on inventory:
- Beef inventory is the strongest. Pork is also in pretty good shape. Different cuts may go in and out of stock temporarily. We sometimes have more in our second freezer, but we don’t always have the time to pack orders while also ensuring that all the shelves in the packing freezer stay fully stocked.
- Chicken may run out this week. We have more in cold storage, but we haven’t yet been able to schedule a time to retrieve it. At the current sales pace, even after we restock, we will eventually run out of chicken before the 2020 batches are available. We raise chickens on pasture for their health, and in order for them to get the benefit of green grass, we can’t raise chickens year round in our climate. We are planning on ramping up the number of chickens this spring.
- Ground turkey supplies are strong. We hope to have some turkey breasts listed online within the next week (just as soon as we get them back here in our freezer), so even if we are out of chicken breasts there will be some turkey breasts as an alternative.
Thanks. Be well.
I live on two different planets simultaneously. It is reassuring to look outside at the spring returning. The ice is all gone from the pond, and little bass are swimming in shallows. Buds are swelling. Yesterday, I watched a Cooper’s hawk circle the pasture, dive, and reascend with a vole in it talons. The complex biological system of our area is beginning to reinvigorate.
And of course I’m surrounded by many layers of panics. Order volumes are higher than ever so packing orders and restocking freezers is a nonstop project. We’re working on backup plans to ensure packaging materials and supplies stay in stock. Chickens begin hatching in a few weeks. We’re trying to keep the kids on track with school work from home. We aren’t getting enough sleep, and we sure aren’t getting enough done.
I’d like to be the sort of guy who could talk honestly about finding peace in hard times. But I don’t possess the level of equipoise to which I aspire. The following poem by Wendell Berry speaks from the perspective of a person I’d wish to be. But somehow I never manage to “go and lie down”. The closest I come is stopping for a minute to look.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things: And Other Poems
I think the core of the challenge is in finding what to do with my admiration for “wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” I wonder if it is possible to truly live as a human in this chaotic world without forethought of grief. Forethought of grief is probably the most quintessentially human cognitive process. Maybe a little forethought of grief would have saved the vole from being eaten by the hawk. We do well to contemplate wild things and to find instruction in the instantaneity of their lives, but as with any moral axiom, this is only one piece of the balancing act of conflicting ideas and ideals we must simultaneously hold in our heads.
Somehow we need to consider the lilies of the field while also considering the chickens in the pasture, the orders on the farm website, and the broken starter solenoid on the tractor.
All the best to each of you as you keep walking the impossible path between prudence and panic.