In the past 2 months we’ve had two hawk episodes with our laying ducks. 2 too many. Nothing happened to the ducks, but we can’t have hawks dive bombing the ducks and freaking them out. Freaked out ducks will not lay eggs, and we need them to lay those precious eggs!
The first incident happened in October, while we were in the midst of harvesting our last group of Bubsters (our organic broiler chickens who grow so massive we gave them an affectionate “brand” name.) Hawks are stealthy. Turkeys are observant. The turkeys all started to chip-peep-click in a 40 bird chorus, and I looked over at them to see what the commotion was. Sometimes the cat would sneak through their pasture and they’d make that same inquisitive noise. This time all the turkeys’ heads were turned to the sky, and as I looked up, following the angle of their dark huge eyes, a hawk flew low over me, towards the duck barn. Oh NO!!! I screamed and ran in the direction the hawk was heading. My hands and shirt were covered in feathers from plucking the chickens, I started yelling as loud as I could, and then I saw the hawk completely drop straight down, out of sight, falling from the sky directly to where the ducks were paddocked. As I rounded the corner by the duck barn, a mass of chocolate colored ducks were all grouped on one side of the paddock, a swaying portion of electronet on the other side. The hawk had dive bombed them, but must have taken off immediately and hit the electronet on his/her way back out. There was no evidence of duck harm, and then I heard the crows complaining in the pine forest. The shape of a hawk way up above the woods was heading away. Nothing was in it’s talons being carried off, thank god. The crow family was chasing off the hawk! Thank you turkeys and thank you crows!
The second hawk episode came a few days ago. Things have been going swimmingly with our ducks, and we have a nice routine now. The barn is opened at about 8:30, they all go streaming out to the paddock and I collect eggs and re-bed the barn with straw or hay while they stretch their wings and take duck naps beneath the apple trees in the morning sun. As I reached into the nest boxes that morning, the unmistakeable sound of 280 ducks in a panic came. I dropped the eggs in my hand and raced outside to see the ducks in the same formation as the other hawk attack, grouped together on one side of the paddock. And then I saw him. Sitting there, on the grass. In one instant I absorbed his size, feather coloration and the obvious fact that this was a fucking hawk sitting in the ducks’ paddock. I yelled and ran towards him, and he took off. That was enough, we had to do something. It was time to get some guardians.
Geese are known to be excellent watchdogs. So far, the pair of Toulouse geese we got are doing well- although they seem reluctant to eat, which has me worried. I’d sprouted wheat and rye berries for them, as the man we got them from said to do, and mixed in some of our duck feed. But they didn’t appear to even look at it. Last night I put the bowl near where they were hanging out, and this morning it was tipped over, yet appeared to be untouched. Hmmmm. I’ll try to give them some greens today.
We’ve been pondering the addition of geese to the farm for a while. Our friend Heidi has a gaggle and absolutely is smitten. I always thought they were loud and aggressive, and have been rather intimidated by them- they look like anima-trons, and that just freaks me out. But, geese can live on grass, and have been one of birds we’d like to try raising for meat, a “new” grass fed meat. So, here we go!
These two are very quiet, very calm and stunningly perfect looking (aka creepy). We have a male and a female, so we might be able to hatch our own goslings next spring! Toulouse are known to be an excellent forager and a delicious eating goose, but not necessarily great mothers to their offspring. That’s ok, we can take care of incubating and hatching their eggs, if we get any. I’d be wonderful to hatch our own, as goslings run 8-20 bucks a piece to purchase, due to the fact that geese are strictly seasonal layers of small numbers of eggs. If we don’t get fertile eggs, it won’t be the end of the world- they are doing a great job already. This pair of geese is just what we needed to feel safer about our ducks being outdoors during the day. And they were cheaper than a $300 Livestock Guardian Dog- we traded a home cured smoked 15 lb ham and a Twenty for them!
I shouldn’t be restless in December! But I am. We are spending a lot of time trying to figure out our constantly evolving game plan for next year. Planning makes me want to do stuff. Can’t I just relax and enjoy the time “off?” Sort of, but I want to get going already!
So far it’s looking like we’ll be continuing to experiment with an assortment of pastured small livestock, like guineas, meat ducks, geese, heritage chickens, as well as the rabbits & goats. And we’ll be raising more laying ducks, because we love ducks and we love duck eggs. We’re going to be attempting to create a mobile duck egg palace and trialing a different heritage breed called the Welsh Harlequin in this set up. Our Khakis are a bit too nervous to handle a mobile situation, and we want them to be comfortable. A mobile coop is necessary because we can’t crunch more and more and more ducks into our duck barn, and we cannot afford to build another permanent (read- expensive) duck barn for a new flock. A mobile coop, or a several of them, combined with electronet, will hopefully be a perfect solution. We shall see. And we have to wait meanwhile….ugh.
In this restless time, I spend time watching the animals, and doing alot of thinking. I am so happy to be here doing this! I can sit and watch our ducks all day, their shapes and actions are mesmerizing. I’m completely entranced with the geese, who are doing well and are getting into a routine with us. I cannot wait to have more geese! When I bring them their bucket of water after the ducks have gone in for the night, the pair takes turns dunking their whole head and neck deep into the bucket, rocking back on their webbed heels to splash the water onto their backs. Quite a sight. I’ll try to calm down, and be grateful for the time to enjoy this relatively still time of the year.
Blessings to my husband. He, and only he, could point something out to me. I do not have to be a slave to the goats. We’ve been examining all our farm activities and trying to hone our sights on what makes us actually be able to stay here farming. Focusing on our “mothership” as Joel Salatin talks about in a recent ACRES USA article. We cannot stay here if we cannot make a living.
Next year, we’re scaling back on milking goats, and building the meat goat aspect of our farm. This is due to the fact that distributing our homemade cheese came under inspection. It is not legal in this state. It’s a major bummer, because we have amazing cheese and we know because we eat it and make it to our own high standards. Meaning, we make cheese that is safe to eat, as we eat it. But the government doesn’t care about that standard. They want all dairy operations to play by the same rules. I can see that is fair, but it is not right. However, we are not willing to fight this fight, or risk our farm to fight it. That has to come from the people who want to eat these types of homeade, artisan products. See Farmageddon, the movie, now on Netflix.
I have diverted from my story. We were looking closely at all aspects of our farm for 2013; ducks, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, pigs, guineas, geese, heritage roosters, and goats. I found myself “defending” milking the goats as an integral part of our own food source. But honestly, we don’t drink milk hardly at all, and we do not eat THAT much cheese. Certainly one goat would serve our personal needs. (Luckily we can still milk goats for our own consumption!) So, as I was talking about continuing to milk 6 goats next year, bottle feeding the milk to goat kids, maybe a calf or 2, or slopping it to some hogs, Andrew brought up the fact that this activity took up many, many hours of my time every week.
Of course I resisted this, as I am a very contrary person. Milking goats has been a constant part of my life for the last 8 years. I realized all these players in our farm DO have to be looked at with fresh eyes. There are things we do that are purely homesteading aspects of our farm, these are our hobbies. Things we enjoy and benefit from, but not necessarily part of our farm’s bottom line. Goats are on the edge. They don’t cost much to keep, now that we have a solid group of mommas who represent my work of developing the best of the best low maintenance goats. But if their milk or milk products cannot be legally sold, it does not make sense to milk that many goats if we don’t need all that milk. The mommas can do what they naturally do, which is provide milk on-tap to their kids, as nature intended.
For now, this is the plan for the goats in 2013. They will feed their kids. And at the end of the fall, the kids will be harvested for meat. It does not make sense to milk the goats and then feed it to pigs. While pigs would grow well and fat on goatmilk, spending that much time harvesting pig feed does not make any sense, if we put some kind of dollar value on my time. When we need milk, I’ll separate a momma from her kids overnight, milk her in the morning, and then join them up again. I could do this once every few days to supply the milk I need to make soap and for our own use.
After this revelation, I looked at the herd and decided to slim it down. We certainly don’t need to have 6 or 7 milkers. And we do not need to keep a buck year round either. I sold the buck we bought to breed the ladies for what I paid for him. Then I made a harder decision- Desti had to go. She is a Nubian goat, and would bring a good price. Desti went to her new home the other day, where she’ll be coddled and appreciated as a home milker. The family came from 5 hours away to pick her up, telling me about the miniature donkey she’ll have for a buddy. I’m glad to know she’ll be able to give to that family and have a more peaceful life, as she was the underdog in my group of goats and got bullied a bit.
I am looking forward to this change. Really going from one extreme to the other. A year ago I was planning to be knee deep in milk and making a ton of cheese. I did do that from January until October, and it was insane. So much cleaning and milking and cheesemaking, and we couldn’t legally sell the fruits of that labor. This story is put out here to explain that sometimes you really have to take a look at where your time is spent, and if it pays you back for doing it. There is nothing like the fresh creamy chevre or salty aged feta from my goats’ milk, but you have to look at the big and entire picture with any farm venture. We know they are amazing products, but until we get an angel investor to build a entire Grade A dairy and cheesemaking setup for us, we’ll be keeping these lovely edible goatmilk products for our own use, on a super small scale.
I remember helping wash dishes in the church kitchen where I went to school, and this one particular staff mug is entrenched in my memory. As I dried it off with a cotton dish towel, I read the message printed across it: “The best part of being a teacher is ….June, July & August!” In my adolescent brain, I thought it was very funny, in a way I couldn’t quite understand. I remember telling my Dad about it. He said, and I quote; “That’s terrible!!!” Well, why? Teachers work hard and they should be able to enjoy the fact that they get the summer off. Maybe my poor, working-stiff father didn’t like the fact this mug flaunted the fact that teachers don’t have to work every single week of the year. I don’t know.
I’ve been thinking about how funny it would be to say “the best part of being a farmer is December, January and February!” But it isn’t true! It’s the time of year where I just want it to be green again. The winter, it is such a crazy-making time of year. We keep going over and over plans for the coming season, but then come to the realization, once again, that we have to wait months before we can do any of it. It’s excruciating.
True, our work load is reduced, the pressure is off (sort of,) but I just want to be doing things, herding chickens in at night, harvesting kale & carrots, listening to the sweet corn growing, and popping seeds in the ground. It is not an easy transition to this winter shut in…. our indoor time. Lots and lots of indoor time. If we didn’t keep animals over winter, we could go on vacation, if we could afford such a thing. But a vacation would only be a distraction from the fact that we cannot actually be farming right now. All we can do is keep fine tuning plans for the coming season. It will come faster than I feel right now, I know that for sure – I hope anyways.
Here’s the plan so far:
end of Feb: receive and brood new ducklings.
late March: hope to be all set with our CSA sign ups for the year. receive and brood meat ducklings, bubsters, guineas and heritage chickens. build mobile coops. start seeds! begin work on duck barn expansion, depending on weather. set up new paddocks for egg laying ducks.
April: goat kids begin to arrive. Time to make lots of goatmilk soap. garden garden garden.
May: Open house time! CSA delivery begins, ducklings and other poultry move out to hayfield in mobile coops, gardening-o-rama, move egg laying ducks into new home.
June: gardens continue, brood thanksgiving turkeys
Late June: harvest meat ducks and bubsters and guineas, have open house with fresh meats for sale, receive and brood next batch of meat ducks and bubsters, haying is done. gardening continues.
July: move thanksgiving turkeys to hayfield. gardening continues. Canning begins.
August: move 2nd round of meat ducks and bubsters out to hayfield. gardening continues. canning continues.
Late September: harvest meat ducks and bubsters. host an open house with fresh meats etc for sale.
November: harvesting of thanksgiving turkeys and goat kids. big days for the farm with our turkey customers coming out.
I know there are a gazillion details I am missing, but this is due to the fog of winter.