Wednesday, June 28, 2006

It's a girl!

Carmen's sister, Odette, gave birth today to a BIG baby girl! She weighed in at 3 pounds, 14 ounces, which is big, especially for such a petite mama! Healthy Nigerians can be as small as 2 pounds, and they frequently are that small when there are quads, but this little girl had no competition for nutrients, and she grew quite large! Her mama looked so big, we thought she'd at least be having twins, possibly triplets. She was born this morning. I wasn't here, but both my daughters were there for the exciting event.

Sorry, but the only picture they got of her face was this one -- she must have been about three minutes old and is still quite wet.

This is Odette's first freshening, meaning she's a first-time mom. Her udder is quite impressive, so we think she's going to rival big sister Carmen in the show ring. Unfortunately, there aren't many shows left this year, but that's okay. I'm sure she'll do even better next year. Margaret suggested showing her this weekend, but there's no way I'd show her only three days after she's given birth. She needs time to rest, relax and get to know her baby. Most mama goats make the motherhood thing look so easy.

Names ... Odette is named after a character in the ballet Swan Lake, so we're going to name all her babies after ballets and ballet characters. So far, the only thing I've thought about is Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutracker. Any other ideas?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another busy weekend ahead

Did you ever wake up one morning and say, "Oh, no! What have I done?" I've been feeling like that all day today! Last week, I was obsessing over the kids in my writing classes, and I was thinking about the farm show on Saturday and the goat show on Sunday, so I had absolutely no time at all to think about what was coming next. What's next? This weekend, we are sponsoring our first goat show. I only attended my first goat show two years ago, so I'm kind of wondering how I wound up actually sponsoring a goat show now! (Yeah, right ... how did I ever wind up on a farm after a lifetime of living in the suburbs?)

Sponsoring a goat show is kind of like throwing a huge party combined with a serious meeting. There is serious stuff to be done, but you're hoping that everyone has a really good time. We have over 50 goats pre-registered, so we're hoping to at least break even financially.

I have a friend coming from Chicago who will be helping, and he'll be staying with us. A goat breeder will also be staying at our place, so that's two house guests arriving on Friday. Mike has been working hard to get Jonathan's bedroom finished, so that the guest room can finally be a guest room. One guest will get the guest room, and the other will get the media room in the basement. It's not completely done, but there is a futon in there, and it's pretty private. No one will have to sleep on the couch!

To do list for this week: Clean the house, move Jonathan out of guest room, clean guest room, clean the barn, clean the yard, mow the yard, pick up friend at train station Friday, pick up judge at O'Hare on Friday ... I know there's more!

Today's picture was taken by another goat breeder at the show on Saturday when Carmen was named grand champion. If she wins grand two more times, she'll be a permanent champion, so in theory, she could be a champion by the end of the weekend, but I'm not holding my breath. Judges have their own preferences, even though it's supposed to be totally based on the scorecard. Even if Carmen doesn't ever become a permanent grand champion, she'll always be my little baby, and she'll always live here on Antiquity Oaks.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Busy weekend

It started last week, actually -- the "busy" thing. I spent the last two weeks teaching two writing classes for middle school. The creative writing class was wonderful. It included 10 kids who loved to write and wanted to be there. The writing fundamentals class was a nightmare. It included 14 kids who hated to write and didn't want to be there. You can probaly figure out the rest! I'm so glad I homeschool, and so are my children. When I was telling them about the antics of the kids who hated to write, they didn't find the actions humorous, and they were glad they don't spend five days a week witnessing such behavior.

Saturday, we were at an historic farm helping to celebrate 1860s Day. I was dressed up in my 1860s work dress, and I did a couple of soapmaking demonstrations during the day. We sold a lot of soap and yarn. My daughter had been invited to spin, but she was at a goat show. The day was pretty hot. Temps were in the 80s, but there was an occasional wind that helped make it feel better. I am amazed that I'm really not any hotter in five layers of clothing than in modern clothes. Yeah, I was wearing five layers ... drawers, half slip, chemise, dress (lined bodice), and apron.

Margaret called me around noon to let me know that one of our goats, Carmen, won grand champion senior doe! I was especially excited because she was born on our farm.

Sunday, I went to the goat show and joined my daughters. Although Carmen didn't win that day, her daughter won grand champion junior doe! We were at least as excited about Lizzie winning as we had been about Carmen winning the day before.

Today's picture was actually taken more than two years ago when Carmen was born. She almost died at birth, and she wound up being our first house goat. She was spoiled rotten and hardly knew she was a goat. I wound up keeping her for sentimental reasons, thinking she'd be a runty little thing forever, but she grew into a beautiful doe! As I was looking for pictures, I realized we haven't taken any this year. We certainly need to remedy that situation now!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Wilderness in my backyard

When we first moved here four years ago, it was desolate in spite of the grass and centuries-old trees. There were frogs croaking in the pond, but nothing else. There were squirrels scampering about, but few other wild animals. I guess we must be doing something right, because in the past year, I have seen more wild animals than I ever knew existed in Illinois.

A few days ago, I spotted a turquoise bird clinging to a cattail by the pond. I've seen so many different colored birds recently. We are now frequently visited by Canada geese, egrets and wild ducks. I've seen blue jays, robins, cardinals, woodpeckers of different varieties and black birds with yellow wings and red wings. I saw a yellow bird not very long ago.

This evening as I was eating dinner, I looked out onto the pond and thought to myself, if I were suddenly paralyzed and unable to walk, I'd want to spend all my time in front of those big glass doors. I'd want a sketchpad or canvas and paints to record what I saw. The scene on the pond changes from one minute to the next, but it is always beautiful and always entertaining. There just aren't many places where you could always be guaranteed a view like that.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Simply delicious!

Sorry I didn't get a picture of my dinner ... it wasn't a gourmet meal, but it was satisfying beyond the taste and appearance. The salad came from our garden: lettuce and radishes. The dressing was homemade ranch made with our own buttermilk and my mayonnaise, which was made with our fresh eggs. The quiche was made with our fresh spinach, milk and eggs. This evening I need to mix up sausage for tomorrow's breakfast. I'll add some garlic, sage and salt to our ground pork, and in the morning, Mike will make breakfast for us. It'll include our own sausage, eggs, biscuits made with out buttermilk and gravy made with the sausage pan drippings and our milk.

Tonight's dinner came at a great time ... just when I was feeling that we couldn't do anything right.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Challenges of small farms

Last Thursday, we took 28 young roosters to the processing plant in Arthur, IL. That sounds more elaborate than it is -- it's a little white building that looks like a house from the outside. It's run by the Amish and inspected by the USDA. Inside, it looks like a commercial kitchen. We drop off crowing roosters in the morning and pick up chicken in plastic, shrink-wrapped packages in the afternoon.

My oldest daughter and I took the chickens down there last week. While there, we had to fill the truck with gas. Suddenly it dawned on us that it had cost us $1.50 for each chicken to drive them down there! That's a huge chunk of profit out of chickens that are being sold for $3.25 a pound for whole or $3.50 per pound for cut-up. Heritage chickens don't weigh as much as commercial breeds. These averaged 2.5 to 3 pounds each. The purchase cost of the roosters as day-old chicks was $1.39 + processing cost of $2.50 per chicken + the gasoline = more than $7 per chicken before the cost of feed! (And no, that does not even include anything for labor, so we worked for free all these months raising the chickens.) Since these chickens ate a lot over the four months it took to grow this big, we were really depressed for the whole drive home. It wasn't this bad a few years ago. We weren't buying specific breeds. If you are willing to take whatever heritage breed the hatchery has left over, they can be as cheap as 40 cents each. The cost of gasoline has doubled in the past four years, and the cost of processing has increased by $1 per bird.

Commercial chickens grow to this size in only six to seven weeks, so how can we possibly compete? Forget competing! How can we possibly make a profit with slow-growing chickens? We obviously cannot take them to the processor unless we have at least 100 at a time. That would cut the cost per bird to around 50 cents per bird for transportation. If we could process the birds on the farm, we could eliminate the entire transportation cost and the processing cost. If we didn't buy chicks from a hatchery, that would save even more. Right now we only have a few new chickens raised on the farm each year because our hens don't set that much. We'd have to use an incubator for hatching eggs if we wanted to raise a lot. Then half the chicks would be hens, so we couldn't hatch 500 chicks unless we wanted 250 new laying hens every year. (Hens are even smaller than roosters, so aren't really practical for butchering when they're young.) Processing chickens on the farm is not practical since it takes us 45 minutes to butcher a single chicken. It would have taken us days to process 28. Plucking is what takes so much time, and a mechanical plucker costs close to a thousand dollars, which we can't afford.

I can understand why our customers say they can't find products like ours anywhere else -- no one can stay in business doing what we're doing. So, what do we do? Obviously, we need capital to buy a commercial incubator and a mechnical plucker. We'd also need a commercial kitchen to process the chickens. We're researching incorporating as an S-corporation, an LLC or a not-for-profit. I was surprised to learn that agricultural business in Illinois can be not-for-profit. I guess they know how little small farms can make. If we incorporate, we can sell stock. If we become a not-for-profit, people can buy memberships. There is a lot to research and a lot to consider, but one thing we're discovering is that the farm of the 1800s cannot survive in the 21st century.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Frustrations of free-range geese

Before I started keeping a blog, I didn't think we did much around here. People would express surprise at how dedicated we were or how much we worked, but I pooh-poohed their comments, thinking that if they really knew how little we did, they'd be disappointed. Now that I'm keeping track of "stuff" by writing, I am realizing that we are really busy around here -- and I don't even write about half of it. I usually just write about a particular theme for each entry, something that kind of stuck out in my mind about what we did that day.

Saturday was a typical farm day in so many ways. First, we weren't able to do all the outside chores we wanted due to rain. It poured all day long. So, we did mostly inside stuff, continuing to work on our house. We also had company -- a couple of friends from Chicago who wanted to help with farm work. The rain outside changed it into a social day for us. Then around six in the evening, Mike came inside, and I knew from the look on his face that something bad had happened. Someone had run over two of our young geese. One of the buff geese and one of the white embden geese had been killed while crossing the road. We live on a gravel road. No one should be driving faster than about 30 miles per hour, and most people drive much slower past our place because they enjoy watching the animals. Many people slow to a crawl or even stop so they can get a closer look at the animals. It's rare to have an animal killed by a passing car. Over the past four years, we've lost two chickens to passing traffic, so it was a shock to loose two geese at once.

Knowing that they would have been worth $100 each at maturity, it was depressing on two levels to see them dead. Knowing that these geese had not been dead very long, it was not hard to decide that we needed to butcher them. At least we'd get something out of it. We realized quickly that the buff was not fit for human consumption because the body had been destroyed, so Mike just cut off some breast meat for the dogs. The other goose did not look like it was too badly damaged. There was a tire track across one wing, but it otherwise didn't appear too messy. As Mike worked on plucking, however, he realized one of the thighs was broken. He also learned that it's true what they say about plucking waterfowl -- it's hard! He spent three to four hours plucking. Then when he cut open the body to remove the intestines, he came upon the sad realization that the internal organs were destroyed. So after all those hours of plucking, he realized we could not use more than the breast meat and legs.

I've never cooked goose before, so I looked up goose recipes on the Internet. Currently, the legs are marinating in red wine, and the breast meat is marinating in buttermilk. Tomorrow, we'll cook them.

Friday, June 9, 2006

Make hay when the sun shines!

There are so many meaningless cliches in our language, but after moving to a farm, I am starting to appreciate what they really mean. We've had so much rain this year that the pastures and the hay field are growing like crazy. Many of the pastures have grass that's knee high.

The challenge then becomes getting the hay cut and baled when it is not raining. If you cut hay and it rains, the hay can mold, making it unsuitable for animal feed. We have another farmer cut the hay because we don't have the equipment. He was going to cut it two Mondays ago, but it started raining then, and it rained for six days! Sunday was finally sunny, and the forecast showed sun, so that's when he cut it. Today he baled it, and that's when our work begins! We had to clear a space in the barn to hold all 177 bales! Mike and the girls did the stacking, which is the messiest, sweatiest, dirtiest job on the farm. Stacking grass hay (which this is) is much better than stacking alfalfa hay, because alfalfa has little leaves that can fall off and stick to your sweat ... and itch.

The baby ducklings are doing well. They don't like staying in a cage. They want to follow just about every animal they see, including a barn cat! It reminds us of the children's book, "Are You My Mother?" They have no idea who their mother is!

Today was very busy before the hay was even cut. We moved the bucks back from across the creek. With the grass being so tall on this side of the creek, there is no reason to keep the grass trimmed around the electric fences across the creek. (Tall grass on electric fence will make it short out -- not work.) It's enough of a time-consuming job to keep the fencelines clean on this side of the creek.

After moving the bucks into one of the pens in the barn pasture, we moved all 24 sheep to a new pasture. That was easier than we expected, but Monet was very intimidating. Katherine and I have both been rammed by him, and at one point I foolishly turned my back. Margaret and Katherine both screamed, "Mom!" when they saw him put his head down and start running towards me. I screamed and jumped and turned around and stared him down. I don't think he really likes to ram people when they're looking. He's always done sneak attacks.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Your mama is a ... ?

Earlier today I signed on to post a story about a chicken hen who'd adopted baby ducks, but Blogger was down. Now, I'm posting about baby ducks that we've adopted! There was a duck setting in the barn, and apparently her eggs hatched within the last 24 hours. Today, Katherine discovered a speckled sussex chicken hen being mama to the seven ducklings. This afternoon she went to check on them, and all seven babies were wandering through the grass of the near pasture with no mama in sight. She picked them up and put them in a box for the moment. She is now working on creating a brooder for them.

Brooder sounds so high tech. It's nothing more than a safe place for the babies to stay, and there is a heat lamp to keep them warm. I swore I would never again raise baby ducks in a brooder, because they were the messiest birds we ever raised. We bought 15 ducklings four years ago, and within a few days, I was counting the minutes until one month had expired. Brooder-raised ducklings can't go into the water before they're a month old. They are not producing their own oil prior to that time. If they are being raised by a mama, her oil rubs off on them, and they can swim safely without getting hypothermia.


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