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Farm News

November 30: Enjoying the rain, despite the skunk

We never thought we’d be grateful to be slipping and sliding in the mud on a cold day, but last weekend was a welcome change from the summer and drought! The rains over the last two weeks have altered the face of our farm, as the rye grass springs up and brings green back to our pastures. It will take many months, even years, for the land to recover from the damage the drought caused, but it’s a start.

On the downside, we won’t have any eggs this week and possibly next week as well. A skunk has been sneaking in and killing chickens, and we finally managed to catch him at it. Unfortunately, he sprayed right under the chickens’ nests, so the entire area stinks! Egg shells are porous and absorb odors, so we won’t have any eggs for sale until we can get rid of the smell. For now, our dogs are enjoying eating the eggs.

We will have lamb available, so come by our booth and get a leg of lamb for a special holiday meal or perhaps a lamb breast to slow cook for a satisfying dinner on a cold night.

November 3: The chicks are growing up

It was graduation time this week! Our baby chicks aren’t babies anymore — they’re finally big enough to move in with the adult chickens and become part of the regular flock. It will still be a while before they are laying eggs, but they’ve started getting settled in and are enjoying going out in the pasture with the big chickens.

We also moved the guineas in with the main flock. Guineas are an African game bird that make wonderful “watchdogs” for the flock because they are very territorial and raise a ruckus at any strangers (human or animal). They are excellent bug hunters and will eat ticks and even fire ants. They’re also very good flyers and are loving having more space to roam.

Because the summer was so terribly hot, the hens were stressed and our egg production was very low. This fall has been so pleasant, we’re actually seeing a slight increase in our egg collections despite the shorter days (usually shorter days means fewer eggs). We’re looking forward to having more eggs available for you as the young chickens start laying.

October 27: Hormones in your meat? Not with our lamb!

In a move that has escaped public scrutiny, the government recently increased the levels of hormones that are legally allowed to be present in your meat, both beef and lamb. For lamb, the allowable levels are now almost twice as high as they were before:http://aglaw.blogspot.com/2011/10/hormone-levels-in-beef-and-lamb-does.html

The factory farms use hormones to increase the rate of weight gain and to force their animals to become and stay pregnant despite the stress they are put under.

We never use hormones on our sheep, nor do we use antibiotics. We provide a low-stress, natural environment for the ewes and rams, ensuring good fertility without the use of drugs. The lambs grow up on their mothers’ milk, grass, hay, and alfalfa. All of the sheep have free access to Redmonds’ salt, a natural mineral mixture, diatomaceous earth, and kelp meal. This means that your meat is both drug-free and nutrient-dense.

October 20: Cooler weather and pasture rescue

The cooler weather is such a relief. I’ve opened up all the windows, and Mike has gotten his second wind to work outside. Building fence is absolutely horrible in 100+ temperatures — in this lovely fall weather, it becomes tough, but satisfying, work. Mike is putting up several new cross-fences so that we can rotate our pastures better and take advantage of any fall or winter rains to help our land recover a bit.

And as I celebrate the sight of some green growth again in our pastures, I’m setting a new batch of EM (effective microorganisms) to brew. Brewed, or activated, EM is a wonderful inoculant to improve the health of the soils, and we’ll have it ready and waiting for the next rain (which we’re praying will be soon). This drought is far from over, but we’re doing everything we can to help our soils and plants come through in the best condition possible.

September 30: Storm brings mixed emotions

This past Monday night, we eagerly watched the storm developing west of Temple. “Please, please let it hold together and bring us some rain!” When the reports of hail came in, we looked at each other and agreed we’d be happy to take hail damage simply to get some moisture.

And then the storm drew close enough for us to watch it from our porch. We saw a lightning strike spark a fire a few miles away, as one of the clouds took on a reddish glow from the flames. Our prayers became two-fold — please bring us some rain and don’t cause a fire on our farm. As we sat and watched the storm and lightning come closer, we thought through contingency plans of how we could fight a fire and protect our animals.

We were very lucky. We got 1/2″ of rain that night and no fire came near us. The fire we had seen was small and quickly contained. But this drought continues to take a harsh toll on us and all the farmers in Texas, and it is far from over.

Thank you for supporting our area farmers by shopping at the farmers markets. And please consider donating to the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s disaster relief fund at http://www.tofga.org/donate (check the “disaster relief” box).

September 22: Rain and alfalfa treats

We’re very thankful to have gotten a bit of rain this week. The way this drought has been, even a quarter inch feels like a lot! It settled the dust and broke the feeling of unending dryness and heat. Now if only we could get that rain every week.

The horses and cows were getting a bit pushy at alfalfa-feeding time, making it difficult to ensure that the sheep got enough. So we started a new system — the lower part of one of the interior gates is left open, so the sheep can wander freely but the horses and cows can’t. There were some temporary difficulties because the sheep had gotten used to associating the sound of the truck with alfalfa, since Mike used the truck to take it out to the pasture. So for a while, every time he tried to drive down the driveway, the sheep would mob the truck, looking for alfalfa! Picture Mike trying to shoo away 70+ sheep away from the truck, all of whom are positive that he is coming out just to give them their alfalfa ….

Luckily, our sheep are quick to learn, and they soon figured out that they would get their alfalfa in the evening near the house. It works great overall, although it is a bit noisy in the house when they all come up and start baa-ing for their evening treat.

September 16: Fires and disaster relief

As if the drought wasn’t bad enough on its own, Texas farmers are now faced with the destruction from the fires. The Bastrop fire is the largest and best-known, but fires have sprung up all over the state. We’re very grateful that no fires have been close to our farm, but we know others who have not been so fortunate.

Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has set up a disaster relief fund. Please consider donating to help Texas farmers manage through the twin disasters of drought and fire: https://www.tofga.org/2011/09/12/donate-to-disaster-relief-fund-2

August 25: The history of our sheep

It’s hot, it’s dry, and it’s taking many long hours of hard labor and lots of money just to keep our animals alive and in good condition. So in order to keep our own spirits up and to avoid depressing our newsletter readers, we’re going to take a look back at earlier days for this week’s farm news.

Why sheep? The history of our farm…

Our trip into sustainable farming began academically, with Dr. Dick Richardson introducing Judith to holistic management and Acres USA. Inspired by what she read, Judith traveled to Wyoming for a seminar and came back filled with wonderful plans. Top among them was that we should get goats for “natural weed control” (at the time, we had only horses, who disdain weeds in favor of grass). So, when we moved back to Austin, we promptly bought several goats.

Within 3 months, Judith was nagging Mike to sell the dratted animals because they were escaping from all the fences and breaking into the barn on a regular basis. Mike held out longer, but finally agreed.

Having failed miserably with the goat experiment, our next foray into raising animals other than horses was with chickens. After some initial success there, we decided to expand the farm to ruminants again. As with our chickens, we wanted to be breed our own animals so that we had control over the conditions from the first day of their life and could select for animals that would do well in our conditions. A breeding herd of beef cattle required more acreage than we had at that time. So we looked at sheep, small ruminants who are very efficient at converting grass to meat. And while they might not be the weed-eating machines that goats are, they do eat a fairly significant percentage of weeds, making them an excellent choice for a multi-species farm with horses.

But what kind of sheep? If we raised traditional breeds, we’d either have to learn to sheer (which neither of us was inspired to do) or pay someone more to sheer the animals than we’d get from selling the wool. We soon discovered that there are breeds of “hair sheep” that shed out their wool every spring. As a significant bonus, these breeds have a milder tasting meat than the traditional wool sheep because they don’t develop as high levels of lanolin in their skin (lanolin is what gives wool sheep that strong and often greasy flavor).

There are two common breeds of hair sheep used in this region – Dorpers and Katahdins. We chose Katahdins because they have better parasite resistance (making it easier to raise them without chemical wormers) and because they typically finish better on grass (while Dorpers are more often fed grain to put on weight well). After learning a lot of lessons with our first two batches of lambs, we bought 5 ewes and a ram and started breeding in 2004. “Baa-Baa” the ram is still the head of our flock today, and he was joined by “Big Guy” last year to bring in new genetics.

Our Katahdins are a joy to raise. They are much calmer than many other breeds of sheep, a trait we encourage by handling the lambs as much as possible. Both rams and many of the ewes will walk up to us to ask to have their heads or backs scratched. The best time of year is when we have new lambs, who seem to develop springs in their legs around the second or third day of their lives and go bouncing around with unadulterated joy of living. Mike in particular has a talent for gentling the lambs and coaxing the braver ones to play with him as if he were an overgrown lamb himself. Each year teaches more about these animals and how to be good caretakers.

August 18: Farm News: Preparing for rain

It’s hard to find the silver lining in the lack of clouds, but we’re trying. We’ve had a lot of problems with sheep and even cows getting stuck in the mud of our largest stock pond. There’s no water to drink, and the surface of the ground has been hard, but underneath was several feet of sticky mud that quickly mired the animals who tried to cross in search of a little green growing grass. So while we haul water from town for the animals to drink, we also had to keep rescuing them from the mud pit.

With the continuing heat and drought, the pond finished drying up enough for us to hire a bulldozer to dig out the mud. So we no longer have a quicksand pit, and our large stock pond wll be 6 feet deeper when it does finally rain.

Now all we need is that rain ….

August 11: Farm News: The heat continues, but the chicks are happy

The heat and drought are exhausting everyone on the farm, both human and animal. We spend a lot of time simply trying to keep everyone alive, between every-other-day trips to town to haul 1,000 gallons of water and hours on the phone searching for hay sources. This week, the chickens started to show signs of bad heat stress, and we added a mister and fan to their hen house. So they go roaming the pastures in the early morning, eating bugs and weeds, and then come back to their house to try to stay cool throughout the afternoon. The sheep, cattle, and horses follow a similar pattern – grazing in the morning and late evenings, hiding in the shade the rest of the time. We’re praying that this weather breaks soon.

The new chicks seem the most resilient to the heat, a bit surprisingly. We’re not taking any risks with them, though – they get a mister and twice-a-day iced water to keep them happy. They continue to be a source of amusement as they zoom around the brooder house. At this size, they look like little balls of fluff flying around it – you can’t really see their legs when they’re in a hurry. Their wing feathers are starting to show, making them a funny mix of colors and patterns. It’s a beautiful mix of birds, from the Black Australorps (currently black and white fuzz, destined to become a glossy green-black) to the Rhode Island Reds (a burnt orange fuzz that will darken to a deep red) to the mix of guineas – white, lavender, and a beige striped that will become pearly grey.

August 4: New chicks!

When we first started farming, we made a commitment not to feed soy to our chickens. We have several reasons, including concerns about GMOs and the fact that soy isoflavones can inhibit the thyroid and throw people’s endocrine systems out of balance. (You can read more about the issues with soy at http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert)

But farming without soy is very difficult. Back in 2003, we were the first and only chicken producer in Texas going soy-free, and it was impossible to find pre-mixed feed for our chickens. We also knew that we would face significantly reduced production because modern chickens have been bred to perform on a high-protein diet premised on cheap soy.

So we started our farm by hatching 200 eggs from Beneficial Farms, a biodynamic farm in New Mexico that had been breeding chickens to do well on non-soy feed: http://mesatopfarm.com/bepa.html In the years since, though, we lost all of the original bloodlines due to predator problems. We’ve stayed soy-free, but have bought chicks from hatcheries to keep going.

When we moved to the new farm, we decided it was time to restore our breeding flock. So we brought in more eggs from Beneficial Farms and hatched them out this spring. Those beautiful young chickens have now “graduated” and moved into the main chicken house.

Keep in mind that when you hatch eggs, you typically get 50% roosters. But you only need 1 rooster for every 8 to 10 hens to get fertile eggs. So we’re going to do first-generation crosses with hatchery-bred hens, to bring our ratio into line. Which is a long way of saying – we have new baby chicks this week 🙂

The new babies, bought from Ideal Hatchery right here in Cameron, include 10 guinea keets (who are destined to become our tick-fighting brigade), 20 Rhode Island Red pullets, and 20 Black Australorp pullets (“pullet” is the term for a baby female chicken). These cute balls of fuzz are having fun exploring the brooder house, while we bring them iced water twice a day to keep them cool.

So what do we feed? The basis of our chicken feed is certified organic wheat, bought from a farmer in San Angelo. Depending on availability, we supplement with chemical-free sunflower seeds, field peas, and/or GMO-free corn. The chickens are free to range on our pastures all day, and are also supplemented with a natural vitamin/mineral mix, oyster shells, kelp, and diatomaceous earth.