what summer?

Up until 4 years ago, when I worked at the co-op, I had the blessing of access to free “cull” vegetables galore from the produce department. This was produce that was past it’s peak and deemed non-saleable. For those 12 years, I rarely had to buy organic vegetables or fruits- cull was a perk of the job. Now, as a farmer, I should have as much garden fresh vegetable content in my meals as I want, right? Nope. We’ve decided and confirmed that there are some necessary big changes coming for our lives and farm next year.

I remember fondly the 2012 gardening year. OMG did we have amazing bounties of EVERYTHING. Then 2013 happened, and while the garden didn’t turn out too bad, it was our first extremely late spring experience, and it was extraordinarily hectic and stressful. I’d gotten used to a frost free date of May 10th, and we weren’t able to plant until after June 1st.

Then this spring and non-existent summer happened, and it’s been the most awful vegetable growing season for us. Once again, our gardens had a very late start, it being such a soaking wet and extremely cold spring. This summer never really happened, at least it was not like I remember real summers being. We’ve had many, many nights at around 50 degrees and barely any vegetables thrive in that kind of cold. Even in the hoophouse the tomatoes are just not rocking it. They have plenty of fertility, but without long periods of heat, they are just sitting there. The other morning I was picking the few fruits we have, and they were condensing- a sign that they basically were at refrigeration temperatures over night. Grrr. The cold temperatures have allowed pests and plant diseases to flourish. For instance, zucchinis are usually a summer pest themselves, but after battling the squash bugs for over 2 months, my plants are all dead or dying. I think I got three 5 gallon buckets full, from about 100 feet of plants, total over the “summer.” That is pathetic. I had planted them with compost, and mulched the crap out of them as well. The bugs and powdery mildew took advantage of the plants’ weakness in the cool, and they won.

Having a garden that is not producing bountiful amounts, and we need 15 “servings” of at least several vegetables each week for our CSA boxes, is extremely stressful. I could shrug my shoulders and be like, oh well, but I cannot do that. We want to provide huge amounts of food for our CSA members. I bear all that stress and feelings of failure on my shoulders, and that’s not how I want to spend my life energy. The climate change effect has really taken the wind out of my gardening sails.

The one brilliant idea and solution we had for next season was to work with my youngest sister to have her start taking over the veggie side of our farm. She’s a vegan and has spent the past year WWOOFing around the world on farms. It wasn’t “start to end of season” experience, but she had more exposure to professional vegetable growing techniques than we’ve ever had. The idea I contrived was we’d incubate her, she could have her own business on our land, and do the thing we do not specialize in so much. However, now we’ve all decided, based on her desire to keep traveling and not being ready to settle down yet for a while, that that’s not going to happen next year. So we’re pulling the plug on our current CSA box setup going into next year. No more vegetables for CSA, we’re just going to raise proteins. It’s the only responsible and sane thing to do. I don’t think any of our current members will disagree with us- we are just not that great at growing veggies and especially so in this changing climate. There are skilled vegetable farmers who specialize in and know all the organic tricks to coax bounties from annual vegetables. It’s just not our skill, nor passion. As I have declared before, I most love raising animals and making them happy.

One super frustrating thing about not having a surplus of vegetables is that we don’t get to eat hardly any of them; it all has to be saved for the boxes. Once again I am scouring the co-op cull box when I can, after dropping off our CSA share boxes. Ridiculous, right? I hunger for vegetables! Being an ex-vegan, I am used to planning meals around them. Now days, we are eating much more meat than I’d ever have expected, because we raise it and have plenty of it. We ARE good at raising happy, healthy pastured animals, and damn they are ridiculously delicious. I am not complaining, just trying to explain another aspect of how frustrating this all is, and why we’ve made the choice we have.

I am very excited to just focus on the animals we enjoy raising and the products we raise exceptionally well. Over the next month, we’ll hammering out all the details for our 2015 Protein CSA offerings. Our garden next year will just be a homesteading garden for our own use, with a few crops grown in larger quantities (like garlic, greens, wildcrafted goodies, herbs) that we can offer for sale when we deliver our Protein CSA products. Big changes ahead, and a huge relief to stop trying to fight against the single largest stressor in our lives.

 

When our friend Heidi left on Sunday, she took the last 9 of the adult geese with her back to Iowa. She’s a goose lover and we had decided that breeding our own goslings just did not make financial sense. The first year from 40 adult breeder geese, we got 20 goslings. This year, even set up with better pasture and nests, they only managed to hatch out 14 babies. It will make much more sense to buy goslings from someone else next spring, even though they are quite expensive, for us, they are totally worth it to buy and not breed. I would highly recommend gosling raising though. What darling birds! Our 14 goslings hatched out 3 months ago, are now full sized, but still filling out. Going from beebee peep talking to honking. So adorable! If you are interested in raising geese, this is my “Gorgeous Grass-fed Goose” article, which was published by ACRES magazine this past March.

The Gorgeous Grass-fed Goose

By Khaiti French, Living the Dream Farm

As an Eco-Farmer, are you looking for a delicious and grass-based source of meat, eggs, healthy fat and even insulating down? You may want to give the amazing goose a try on your farm. We had a tremendously excellent experience raising them for the first time in 2013. I’d like to share what we learned.

My love affair with the goose began with our first goslings. They really impressed me with their uniquely personable ways. Even at 1 day old they were responding to my every coo with their chatty little whistle song, stretching out their neck and talking back in their little goosey way. Their baby down feathers had a texture of the softest stuffed animal toy you have ever held, it was impossible to not snuggle them! We kept our precious goslings in DIY plastic brooder tubs in our house for the first couple weeks. Goslings are rather messy as it is in their nature to splash around in their water as they bathe and clean out their beaks. It doesn’t make sense to deny them this, but using a washable tub that’s easy to switch out and clean helps manage the mess. We used giant Rubbermaid tubs lined with a piece of a paper feed bag and covered with wood shavings, and made a screened opening in the lid to attach the heat lamp to. Having an extra brooder tub works great because you can then move the babies out of their messy brooder and into the fresh one, and just switch over the top with the heat lamp over. To clean, simply dump the nutrient and carbon rich contents in the compost, spray out the tub and set in the sun to dry. Goslings are very hardy birds, and after the first week, they didn’t really need the heat lamp except at night when the house was cool.

Our gorgeous goslings grew extremely fast, weighing nearly a pound in 2 weeks! We fed them an organic 22% protein chick starter with a little Diamond V Yeast Extract for extra B vitamins, as well as several handfuls of greens and grass each day. We brought these to them in their brooder until they could go outside and gather it themselves. They didn’t need to be taught to eat greens, as it comes naturally to them, and the minerals and vitamins help them grow healthfully. The amount of green material they could eat each day, even as babies was impressive, and their poops came out a deep dark emerald green!

At not even 1 month old, they were huge and getting more awkwardly proportioned. Their “big goose” feathers began to emerge from their down, and it was time for their first foray into the great outdoors. We started “hardening them off” by bringing them out to a chicken tractor during the day. They went crazy grazing all the grass they could get their beaks on. We brought them back into the house at night for about 2 more weeks, until the nights were warmer. All this handling of the youngsters really keeps them bonded and used to you and easier to work with.

When the warm summer nights arrived, and the goslings had a good amount of their adult feathering, we kept them loose in an electronet paddock near our house during the day, and put them into a chicken “tractor” at night inside the electronet. You do need to make sure the electronet is electrified and their introduction to it is supervised, otherwise they can get confused and tangled up in it because they will try to chew on it and might try to run through it when they get hit by the shock. They are very intelligent and will figure it out very quickly. Putting them into a covered enclosure at night for the first month prevented any owls from attacking them in the dark hours.

At about 2 1/2 months of age, they moved out to our hayfield in an electronet pasture with a flock of young heritage cockerels. This was a great combo, as the goslings grazed the grass down, while the chickens scratched up the turf, revitalizing and fertilizing the pasture. The goslings were extremely voracious grazers. Because they had an earlier introduction to the electronet, we never had a problem with them chewing on it or flying over. They just kept away from the edges of their paddock. The chickens roosted at night in a horsetrailer we’d modified into a mobile coop, and the geese could go in there if they wanted as well, but we found they never needed or wanted to, unless it was to get at the chickens water bucket! They were such hilariously boisterous birds, and especially enjoyed racing around the horsetrailer in a group with their massive wingspans extended, plowing through the flock of chickens. At 2 – 3 months old, they were large enough that they didn’t need to be enclosed at night, as long as they were surrounded by electronet to keep away 4 legged predators. We moved the whole set up about once a week. The group was fed whole organic grain, but the chickens were much more interested in eating the grains than the young geese were. It was fascinating to see the geese growing into such big, healthy and robust birds and wonder how they could do that without eating tons of grain. A grass fed miracle bird!

The goslings were a joy to raise over the summer and into fall, to herd to their new pasture, to sit with, to watch swoop around with their new adult honking sounds, to feed, to sing along with. Our flock of hand-raised geese were always polite and never lived up to the “mean goose” stereotype. Raising them was just wonderful, but I’d only tried goose meat once before, so I was very excited to taste what my beauties had grown.

In our state, we’re allowed to process and sell poultry without a license or inspection as long as we don’t exceed 1,000 birds a year and we sell direct to the final customer on the farm, meaning we could not sell our geese to restaurants or deliver them to customers. We harvested the young geese the week before Thanksgiving on our farm. To collect them and avoid stressing them, we gently herded them up a ramp into the horsetrailer and they kept calm in that familiar place. I picked one up at a time, we told them how good they’d been and thanked them, then slid them into a large and deep killing cone and cut their head off with a very sharp knife. They bled out immediately and thoroughly and then we scalded them for about 40 seconds in a large vat of very hot (180 degree) soapy water. They have two layers of feathers that are very resistant to water, because they are WATERfowl! We used a dowel to ruffle the feathers and get the hot water to penetrate through the heavy layer of down, which loosened the follicles pretty well. Scalding is a fine art, and takes patience and care to do perfectly. Scalding eliminates the laborious dry plucking that we first tried, it took my husband 3 hours to dry pluck 2 geese! After scalding, we used a rented Featherman Plucker, which removed about 75% of the feathers if the scald was successful. Some of the birds we carefully re-scalded and sent through the plucker again. There was still quite a bit of plucking to finish by hand, but we always expect that, especially with waterfowl. The main feathers left on the bird were the breast feathers, and that’s where the down cache is, so we saved all of those handplucked breast feathers for later projects.

Eviscerating our geese was thrilling, as these birds had more gorgeous golden fat than I would have ever believed. Pigs with wings I tell you! All this fat from grazing and very little grain! It was a tight fit to get my hand in to pull out the organs and intestines. Their livers were not engorged, but a deep delicious red. There was about a pound of fat attached to outside of the intestines, and I carefully stripped that off to save for rendering. Pastured Goose fat is such a delicacy, and extremely healthy for you as it is high in mono and poly-unsaturated fats. Perfect for roasting big slabs of cabbage in a cast iron pan or frying potatoes and root vegetables. The meat is divine- rich, dense and beefy. My first bite actually reminded me of the texture and flavor of a braised pig heart, absolutely finger licking delicious! The skin makes for a satisfying crackling, and after roasting, I found each goose rendered out over a quart of gorgeous golden fat into the roasting pan. This I poured into jars to store in the fridge.

We sold the dressed birds at $8/lb, which was comparable to the goose prices in specialty markets. We charged more since we fed them all organic feed. Each bird weighed between 8-11 lbs at approximately 6 months of age. The customer reviews of our pastured goose have been outstanding so far, and we are already reserving “Goose Shares” as part of our CSA offerings for next season.

Some breeds of geese will grow even larger- the Embden is known as the main meat goose and they can dress out at 15 or more pounds in 6 months. I have heard some stories that they are a more aggressive goose, which may only apply to the adults. I feel that stereotypes do not always meet up with true experience, and if you raise your goose babies up by hand. with care, respect and love, any breed be a very rewarding and delicious experience.

 

Breeding vs. Raising

We started our goose experiment in early 2013 with an adult breeding flock of Pilgrims and Toulouse geese. I would caution anyone from starting in any new livestock endeavor by getting breeding stock, hoping that they will produce offspring. Not only is there a sharp learning curve in breeding animals, but you also have to care for and feed the adults year round and that can get very expensive. If you don’t have offspring as a result of your investment, it can be very frustrating and discouraging. I’d encourage anyone thinking about raising geese to start by supporting someone locally who raises geese and knows what they are doing. If you want to order goslings via a hatchery, be sure to reserve them ASAP as they often book fast and sell out. A $7 gosling seems pricey, but she’s totally worth the price, as you’ll be saving a good chunk of change by not feeding adult breeding stock. You may fall in love with geese like we did and then it might be the time to investigate the financial viability of adding a breeding program to your production of pastured young goose.

However, it still looked promising to breed geese and raise up the youngsters to sell for the Holidays. With a large pen set up in our hoophouse, we brought the adult geese home to our farm, visions of hatching out 100’s of goslings dancing in our head. We decided to keep them together as a flock because it would be simpler and there is a thought that geese mate for life and make their own pairs. However, we found if they are kept in a group during the breeding season, there is violent squabbling and lots of extra-marital affairs taking place. Separating your pairs or trios into separate pens before breeding season begins (by February) is essential to bond them in that pair for the season, and to have success with the females sitting on their nest, incubating and hatching youngsters for you.

The geese began to mate and lay eggs in March. I collected the eggs several times throughout the day to ensure they didn’t freeze. After researching the controversy over washing hatching eggs, I decided I would clean the shells if they were dirtied. I saved the eggs up for 3 days and then filled our incubator in one big batch. After incubation began, fertility proved to be excellent with the embryos developing visibly in the first 5 days. Things were looking promising. The geese kept laying eggs, and I found some people with incubators to incubate eggs on a barter – they would keep of half the goslings they managed to hatch out. We’d be spreading the genetics of these geese out into the world as well, which is critical for heritage breeds to thrive and continue on. But we still had more eggs coming every day, so we started selling fresh goose eggs for eating to some of our retail accounts and due to their novelty size, they were a hit! Honestly I don’t think that goose eggs are that delicious, I’d compare them to a gigantic chicken egg. I definitely prefer a duck egg on toast myself. The thing with selling goose eggs is that although we could sell them for $3 apiece, quick reviews of the cost of feed for just one female goose shows that a $3 goose egg times the 3o or so eggs per year she’ll lay won’t really cover her feed bill for the year, let alone pay you to take care of her. Even though geese can grow and nearly live off pasture, in a cold climate they will need to be fed some grain to survive and do well through the breeding season. There are some breeds of geese which are much more prolific at egg laying, but all geese are strictly season layers, usually ceasing egg production in May. They keep on eating year round though. Selling the surplus eggs once our incubators were maxed out made sense, but as a main business focus it would be foolish. If each $3 egg can become a $90 organic goose, that’s where goose breeding can become a viable business.

Slowly I came to the sad realization that the embryos in my incubator were dead after the initial good start. They just stopped developing after the first 2 weeks. Many things can cause this, but having our goose eggs in others’ incubators seemed to spread out the possibilities of success. We didn’t know if it was because I’d cleaned the eggs, which is controversial, or if something went wrong in the incubator. I stopped cleaning the eggs and that next batch of eggs hatched out at a friend’s place better with 12 goslings arriving in the world. 12 babies out of 60 eggs is not too impressive. The last group of eggs in their other incubator hatched out 20. So that was that. As I researched, I found out this was a very common problem for anyone trying to hatch out goose eggs artificially. They just don’t do well in incubators. We ended up with 42 lovely goslings out of over 300 eggs, 21 of which were ours to raise after the incubating barter.

We love raising geese so much and we will keep growing the audience for this succulent, delicious and low carbon footprint meat and healthy fat source. We have the flock of adults and will try this again, now that we have learned that we need to set them up ahead of time in separate pens. We’ll sell the first month’s goose egg production for eating in order to stimulate the females to continue laying. Then once the weather warms, we’ll attempt to let nature do it’s thing and hope the female geese can successfully sit and hatch their own eggs, bringing us our next round of beautiful goslings to raise on pasture.

 

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