Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Self reliance in chickens, part 2: breeding

From left to right:  Tiny, Blue, and Winnie
Let's talk about a self sustaining chicken flock.

What we want in a flock

We eat eggs for breakfast every day.  Usually 8 or 9 a day between the three of us.  We need 12-15 young-ish hens to get this number reliably;  we currently have 13 hens, ranging from around 4 years to less than 1 year.  For the past month or so we are getting between 5 and 9 eggs a day:  some hens are not pulling their weight!

But then again, we're transitioning from a rescue/adopted flock (ex-commercial laying hens, which are past their prime) to a younger, mixed breed flock.  We'll probably continue to adopt a few rescue hens once in a while, but I'm planning on most of our chickens being no more than 3 years old.

Rather than buying chicks every year, a better way to self reliance is breeding our own replacement hens.  We don't want to invest in fancy equipment (mainly coz we're broke), so we need one or two of our chickens to go broody on us.  And we need a cockerel.

Cockerels

It just so happens we've got a cockerel.  In fact, we've got three!  But there's another little issue, and that is proximity of neighbors.  Crowing cocks are loud--really loud, especially early in the morning (4 am anyone?).  We've discovered the no-crow collar which works pretty well on one cockerel, is less effective on another;  and the third, well, he seems to have worked out how to get around it because while about half his crows are muffled, the other half are pretty glorious.

Actually, everything about this third cockerel is glorious.  He's big, handsome, has a magnificent comb and wattle, is wonderfully proportioned, and has all the best instincts:  he finds food for the hens, is always on the lookout for predators, and is ready to defend the flock with his new spurs.  And he's got a very healthy libido.  The other two cockerels don't even compare.  His name is Winnie, and we think he is a Maran.

We want to breed Winnie if we can.  He was a strong, fast-growing chick, has good instincts, and is mostly friendly:  he's got great genes.  We've got a few laying hens we'd like to breed as well:  big and friendly, and good layers.  What we don't have is a broody hen.

Broody hens

We've never had a hen go broody.  Nearly all our hens have been commercial laying hens, and that instinct has been bred out of them.  We have three young hens of different breeds this year;  we hope one or two will go broody next spring/summer.  If we don't have a broody hen, there's no point to keeping a cockerel--let alone three!  Which leads us to...

Chicken dinner

We will be eating at least one cockerel.  Maybe two, maybe all three.  If we get a neighbor complaint about crowing, Winnie's going in the pot, and the next cockerel can step up to his job.  In fact, Winnie's been a bit aggressive towards the six year old (but not to me or the husband) and though we're working on this, if he can't be friends, he's dinner.  To tell the truth, he looks like one tasty bird.  I'd be sorry to kill him--but not sorry to eat him.

And if we manage to breed our own chickens, some of them--surplus cockerels--will also be going in the pot.  And we'll probably be eating some older hens in the future, to make way for younger ones (we won't be eating rescue hens:  it sort of defeats the purpose).  Raising our own meat is one of my self reliance goals.  Chicken, provided we can breed and raise it ourselves, is a great way to fulfill that goal.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Self reliance in chickens, part 1: feeding

Old English Game cock, appropriately named Tiny:  he's miniscule

Let's talk about self reliance in chicken food.

Bought feed

Since I have begun tracking chicken feed (a few months ago) it seems we regularly buy 40kg of feed per month.  At the moment we buy the premium layers pellets;  when we bought the cheaper pellets, our hens began laying soft-shelled eggs--we prefer the higher quality for good eggs.  It's about £22 per month (compared to about £12 a month for the cheap feed), to feed 16 chickens, not all of whom are laying (three cockerels and two young hens).

Actually, I just did the math, and it's approximately what we would pay for the same amount of eggs at the store (slightly more expensive than the cheapest caged eggs, a bit cheaper than cheapest free range).  Certainly our eggs are better quality than store bought eggs, even free range, so it's still a good deal.  However, if we could save a bit of that money, it'd go a long way towards self reliance.

Other food

Our chickens eat more than just feed, however.  They get regular access to sections of the lawn and garden.  They eat grass, weeds--in fact they prefer most weeds to grass:  our lawn is pretty much weed free now!  They also eat all kinds of bugs and slugs, snails, worms, woodlice, beetles...  And they eat the leaves off some of my plants if they can get them, both vegetables (not allowed!) and perennial ornamentals like roses, mallow, bamboo, daylily.

They also get any garden trimmings, including vegetable garden trimmings:  if I cut a lettuce or cabbage I'll give them the ragged outer leaves before taking it inside.  They get most of the weeds I pull, and can pick over leaves off any prunings before I toss them in the compost.

This other food is season dependent;  in summer they can hardly keep up with the grass on the lawn, while in winter they eat it down to bare earth;  I keep them on the beds--or in their permanent pen--for the most part in winter, to save the lawn.  While there is some growth in winter, there's not enough to give the chickens much of it;  this translates into more bought feed.

Other options

What else can we do to cut down on bought feed?  This time of year is good for gathering and storing food for us people, but how about food for the birds?  Here's some ideas I've been thinking and/or reading about:
  • Wild blackberries:  we pick these for ourselves, but a lot are wormy.  Chickens don't mind!
  • Other wild fruits:  apples, rosehips, sloes, hawthorn berries, etc
  • Dried leaves of their favorite weeds:  dandelion, clover, dock, etc.  These could be gathered and dried in bunches in the garage, and added to feed, either dry or reconstituted
  • Make silage out of grass clippings or weeds to feed in winter
  • Collect wild acorns or other nuts (crush with a sledge hammer before feeding)
  • Collect seeds of other weeds:  dock, nettle, goosegrass, etc
My goal is to reduce their feed by half per month.  That's one bag of layers pellets.  I guess I better get to work!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Taking compost up a notch

For several years I stopped composting--traditional compost, that is.  When we got our chickens, we discovered they could break down our usual composting materials much more quickly and easily than the compost bin ever did.  The bin went empty for a while, and I just gave everything to the chickens;  even stuff they didn't eat broke down very quickly thanks to their scratching and manuring.

However, I dusted off that old plastic compost bin last year to fill with excess chicken bedding (manure and straw).  Our flock numbers have been creeping up, and while I usually like to pile their bedding onto an empty garden bed, in the summer I had too much bedding and not enough beds!  So the composter got excess summer bedding, kitchen (and fabric, and paper) scraps, and a bit of our urine.  The chickens still got everything else.

This year I'm ramping it up again.  We have even more chickens (current count is 16..!).
Compost pile
I've built a second composter, made from scrap materials I had laying about (an old metal fireplace guard, wired into a square-ish shape), and filled it with leaves, bedding, and a few random garden trimmings.  It will also get the above mentioned scraps and urine.

Both composters are in chicken areas, and I will let the chickens do the turning for me;  I've already let them have the older pile (in the plastic bin), and they've happily flattened it for me over the course of a couple days.  I'll let them scratch it over for a few more, then pile it back in the bin for more cooking.  The newer wire bin has already begun breaking down;  I'll let the chickens scratch up that one very soon.

If I can, I will add a few more composters to my system;  right now one composter is next to the coop and the second is just outside the permanent chicken pen.  We keep almost all our organic (aka compostable) material on site, and get plenty of garden trimmings from fast growing perennial weeds such as elder, blackberry, and nettle in addition to the summer bedding:  I think we have enough material to fill at least one more bin, possibly two.

In fact, we have a third pile already:  part of the chicken's permanent pen is the site of our old, now drained pond;  we've been throwing extra garden waste in it for two years, so it's functioned as a big compost heap too.  The chickens certainly enjoy scratching it up to search for bugs, and it's got a thick layer of soil/compost under the top few inches of fresh material.  This heap doesn't heat up like regular compost; maybe I could make my third bin here, to get things cooking.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The slow pace of gardening

Will these raspberries ever ripen?  (they did eventually)
I want it now!

The main allure of gardening for me is the promise of fresh, tasty food.  Carrots pulled up and eaten raw, pie made from my own pumpkin:  whatever it is, it tastes better when I grow it myself.  It seems to take so long though.

I'm glad I sowed the chard and kale this spring, but it's been hard waiting for the next vegetables to ripen (zuccini and runner beans).  An outbreak of slugs and a freak rabbit attack took out more lettuces than I was prepared to lose, and waiting for the next batch to grow up is agony--we need salad!  Those onions are very nearly ready, and at this point, I just want to get them up.

It's like this all over the garden.  I'm waiting.  Waiting some more.  Doing a bit of sowing and transplanting, and then another bit of waiting.

Some days I go out and just sit next to my vegetables.  I have a chair on the patio (near the containers and onions), or I can sit on a railway sleeper (next to the kale and cabbage).  I admire my big tomato plant in a pot, growing plenty of little green fruits.  I inspect the cabbages for caterpillars.  I hang out with the chickens, or wander over and watch the goldfish.  I enjoy the sunshine:  it's nice.

So while I wait, I'll work on my suntan, and maybe catch up on some knitting.  I might even have a nap.  Not much to do except relax, until those vegetables are ready.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Thoughts on food supply

So much chard:  July 2016
I recently read an article on the BBC about food shortages in Venezuela, with people going hungry all over the country.  It gave me pause for thought;  it's not beyond the realm of possibility that it could happen to us one day, too.

Only a few winters ago we had major disruptions to our personal food supply because of heavy snow.  The roads were unplowed and we couldn't get out of our driveway for about two weeks, and the only store within walking distance ran very low on food as they couldn't get deliveries for a week or so. 

At that time, we didn't have much extra food in the house.  It was the middle of winter, and nothing much was growing in the garden (we had a few potatoes left, but they were under 18 inches of snow).  We managed, and I had to get creative with what supplies we had (canned salmon, olive oil, and pasta, anyone?), but if a similar situation happened, I'd prefer to be more prepared.

So, what to do?  Stored food is good, particularly a variety of foods.  We don't want to eat pasta over and over again (we don't eat it any more anyway).  Stored garden foods are great, especially if they're minimally processed, such as dried, pickled, or kept in cold storage or a root cellar.  Then there's food on the hoof, as they say:  animals that can give or become food (eggs, milk, meat);  though animals need food too, and if there's a people food shortage there's probably an animal food shortage.

I don't have a lot of stored food now, as we've gradually eaten our stores over the past year, and not replaced much.  I'm also trying to set aside some of the garden harvest every week:  recently it's either air-dried or frozen greens, though I've dried some peas too.  Even extra eggs can be pickled to set aside for the winter (the husband says they're nice but I've never tried them).

It must be terrible to send your children to bed hungry, and to not know when your next meal will be.  It could happen to anyone:  a job loss, a natural disaster, or even freak snowstorms.  It can't hurt to have a little extra food around, and to grow some yourself:  you never know when you might need it. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cooking from the garden: rhubarb

Rhubarb and garlic pickle
Let's talk rhubarb.  This is a vegetable most often treated as a fruit.  It gets cooked with loads of sugar to make it palatable.  I'll admit, I find it hard to resist a sweet rhubarb crumble or pie, but we don't really eat those any more.  We treat rhubarb as the vegetable it is.

So what to do with this sour vegetable?

There are many recipes floating about for savory treatment of rhubarb.  My favorite is to simply chop it small and add it to a stir fry.  Usually it cooks down to a mush and adds a sour tang that complements soy sauce.  I add it to stews too:  it adds a nice note to the broth.

I have made a delicious lacto-fermented rhubarb and garlic pickle.  Simply chop up rhubarb (peel it if stringy) and garlic, cover with water, add salt (1 tablespoon to 1 L of water), and let ferment on your countertop for about a week, or until it tastes good.  The first time I made this, I ate the whole jar!

I'm experimenting with two other new-to-me recipes: pickling in vinegar, and wine making.

I started a few jars of rhubarb with garlic and various spices in vinegar.  I won't open them until winter, I think.  If they're truly dreadful, at least they were pretty cheap to make--I only bought the vinegar.

I have also begun a batch of rhubarb wine, made from my mother-in-law's rhubarb.  I've never had it before, and it'll probably be a six months to a year before I actually get to taste it...but I got the recipe from John Seymour's The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency.  He has a very enthusiastic section on homebrewing, and I hope to try a few more of his suggestions.  Here's hoping the wine lives up to its recommendation--I've read elsewhere that it's horrible, so...
Pink rhubarb wine, bubbling away (elderflower in background)
I was given two batches of rhubarb by a neighbor recently, and it was just so much rhubarb!  I froze a big ziploc bag full to use later.  There's only so many rhubarb-thickened broths you can eat.  I even made steak and rhubarb pie.  Yes I really did (and it was awesome).

One confession though:  after straining off the boiled rhubarb for my wine, I plunked the mush--this was before adding yeast--into some strawberry jam I was making for teacher gifts.  So I did make a sweet rhubarb-y treat after all.  Boy was it tasty! 
Strawberry rhubarb jam

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Preserving

Blackcurrants, July 2016
In the past, most of my preserving has been jam.  I actually made jam this year:  strawberry rhubarb, and we gave three out of the five small jars as teacher gifts;  and I promised the six year old we'd make one jar of blackcurrant jam.  But we really don't eat much jam these days as it's just too high sugar.  Instead, I'm on a quest to preserve our fruits and vegetables that's more aligned with our low carb eating habits. 
"Don't make a silly face!"
Freezing

Freezing is one of the simpler methods I use to preserve my harvest.  I froze our morello cherry harvest, and have been freezing excess leafy greens.  It's nice to be able to pop open a freezer bag and have a little parcel of greens to drop in a stew or casserole.  Freezing's downside is that it's vulnerable to power failures and limited in space;  our freezer is pretty small, and it's where I keep our monthly supply of milk, containers of homemade stock, and extra meat (I buy a lot if it's on special).  There's not a lot of room for much else.

Drying

A goal this year is to make a food dehydrator.  Initial experiments with drying on a tray in a hot car have been disappointing.  I don't think the car actually gets hot enough for long enough (after all, this is a rainy, rainy island)--so a solar dryer may not be feasible either.  I've oven dried things like apple rings in the past, but it takes ages--like all day!  I can't be hanging around watching apples dry (I tried overnight but they got a little too crispy).  At least I can air dry herbs on trays on top of my fridge pretty successfully.  I'm doing it with mature peas (in pods), too.  I'll have to work on my dehydrator ideas a little longer.

Fermenting

Though I've not been doing it long, I occasionally lacto-ferment vegetables like cabbage into sauerkraut.  I love the sour taste of kraut and other fermented vegetables:  especially if fermented with garlic.  I've done carrots, cauliflower, rhubarb, green beans, chard stems.  Nearly everything has been good--though my fermented kale was a bit of a slimy disaster.  Vegetables preserved this way can last a long time, though I usually keep them in the fridge after fermenting for a week on the counter.  This slows fermentation:  otherwise they just get more and more sour.  I recently used a jar of fermented green beans which were a full year old, and they still tasted great.  Pretty soft by this point, though, as though they'd already been cooked.

Then there's the other kind of fermentation:  alcohol!  I like to preserve the bulk of our wild harvested apples this way.  Since we don't cook/pastuerize the apples or juice, the minerals and other good stuff stays in it, preserved in the alcohol.  I even let some of it convert to vinegar, which has the same good stuff--and is legal to give to children!  Actually my homebrewed apple cider vinegar tastes pretty good and I use it interchangeably for white wine in recipes like beurre blanc.

Bottling

I prefer not to cook the life out of my harvest, so pressure canning is not in the agenda.  Jam is also out, and bottled fruit too (again too much sugar).  What's left?  Pickles!  I don't have much experience with pickling vegetables, but this is the year I have a go.  So far I've put up a small jar of chard stems with garlic, and a few jars of rhubarb with garlic.  I won't be opening them until winter.  Other pickle possibilities:  onions, cucumbers, zuccini, green tomatoes, beans.  I can't guarantee all (or any) of these will be pickled, but if I do, here's hoping they're edible. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

July garden recap

Lettuce variety: rheines des glaces? not positive
I wanted to update how my new-to-me gardening method, a la John Seymour, is going.  As July is the designated month for ceasing vegetable purchases, how did things go--and more importantly, what did we eat?

Roots

I harvested my garlic and put it to cure in my garage.  Smells good in there!  We had a few heads fresh.

We had a few carrots here and there from the planters.  They don't get much bigger than about 3-4 inches as the planters aren't too deep.  Still, small carrots are better than none and they taste wonderful, especially raw.

A few green onions have found their way into salads and stir fries.  I don't have many, as the slugs seem to like the seedlings a lot (and every other root crop, to be honest).

Maincrop onions are still growing, as are beets and celeriac:  three baby beets, a couple onions (but no celeriac) eaten in July.
Lord Leicester peas
Peas and Beans

The peas were good and we had a few meals off them.  I left about half the pods to dry for winter use.  Next year I hope to grow an early variety for eating fresh, and the maincrop for mostly drying.  The variety I grew this year, Lord Leicester, was entirely from my own saved seed.  I would like to try a sugar snap variety too, but maybe that's too many peas for my small garden?  Can we have too many peas?

Our first three runner beans came in July.  They also grew from my own collected seed.  We definitely can't have too many runner beans.

Broad beans still growing for saving seed:  none eaten.

Brassicas

Well, the main vegetable for July was kale (and chard--see Miscellaneous).  We ate it pretty much every other day!  Generally chopped up into a casserole or similar one-pot meal (curry, stir fry, stew, etc).

I also picked a few newly sprouted Brussels sprouts leaves, from last year's plants gone to seed.  I cut down the biggest plants but left the two smaller ones, as they had a lot of good regrowth.  I don't know if they'll make new sprouts, but the leaves are like cabbage, which is good enough for me.

Cabbages, broccoli, and pak choi growing well:  none eaten yet.  I went out every evening to rub off small caterpillars and eggs.  Hope those cabbage butterflies are done laying them now...

Miscellaneous

The chard has been outstanding and on days we didn't eat kale, we ate chard--cooked exactly the same.  I also dried chard leaves on trays on top of my fridge, and both pickled and fermented chard stems with garlic. 

We had some good lettuces in July;  the variety I've grown is an iceberg type.  I think a stray rabbit snitched one, but we had several salads off the rest, and even had full regrowth from one. 

We also had a couple of random potatoes, accidently dug up with the garlic:  good sized and tasty.

Tomatoes growing and setting a few fruits.  Remaining pumpkin and squash plants (one each) flowering.  Zuccini flowering, but still small and sad from early slug damage, so my hopes are not high.  Chicory seedlings keep disappearing in not-so-mysterious circumstances.  None of these eaten in July.

Fruit

I picked a lot of cherries for the freezer from my small morello tree, but didn't get a single one off the sweet cherry tree:  the birds got them all, even after netting it.  There were only a few cherries to begin with, but still!  We got a handful of berries from our other soft fruit:  raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, strawberries, blueberries.  Our six year old ate most of them.

Plums still small and green but apples growing well and coloring up:  none of these eaten yet.

Perennials and Herbs

I only picked a few stems of rhubarb in July and have finished harvesting for the year.  The six year old still eats a fresh sorrel leaf here and there, but nobody else does (sour!).

I dried a batch of mint, a few stems of oregano, and have used both rosemary and tarragon liberally.  We also had chopped nasturtium leaves a few times in stews, which make a nice flavor;  I dried a bunch too, as an experiment.

The newly planted asparagus and artichokes are mostly not dead yet (that's my measure of success);  chives and garlic chives small but growing:  none of these eaten in July.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

July 2016 Food Totals

Morello cherries, netted
Vegetables:

116 oz chard
17 oz peas
18 oz lettuce
5.5 oz spring onion
52.5 oz kale
7.5 oz mizuna
3.5 oz nasturtium leaves
35.5 oz potatoes
8.5 oz carrots
6 oz Brussels sprouts (tops)
1.5 oz onion
4.5 oz beets and greens

24 garlic bulbs

Total:  276 oz, or 17 lb 4 oz

Does not include garlic (it's still drying out and hasn't been weighed), or fresh herbs (tarragon, rosemary, chives) which were too small an amount to weigh, i.e. less than 0.5 oz

Note:  I weigh all my vegetables after preparation:  peeling, trimming, etc.

Fruit:

78 oz morello cherries
2 oz blackcurrants
15 strawberries, 16 redcurrants, 16 raspberries, 13 blueberries

Total:   80 oz, or 5 lb

Eggs:

Total:  185 eggs (from 10 adult hens)
Total feed bought:  2 bags layers pellets

Preserves:

5 small jars strawberry rhubarb jam (strawberries picked at local farm, rhubarb from mother-in-law):  now all eaten or given away
1 small jar pickled chard stems with garlic
2 medium jars pickled rhubarb with garlic (rhubarb from neighbor)

Homebrew:

4 L rhubarb wine begun brewing (rhubarb from mother-in-law)
1 L elderflower champagne brewed:  now all consumed (sweet and fizzy, but not very alcoholic)