Life on the farm is tough. If you have any experience, have read the stories or have been keeping up with the blog, this is evident. The fall was hard on the flock. In the the span of about a month we lost countless hens (all heavy layers). This led us to two very important realizations.
Option 1) With the flock getting picked off at a rate of at least one per week, we were not going to have any left, especially going into winter when the hawks are even hungrier. Hawks are our biggest predator and impossible to control. Because they are ‘birds of prey’ and subject to the Migratory Bird Act. The federal fine for illegally killing hawks come with a $10,000 fine, 2 years in jail and seizure of the weapon used. And then there are separate repercussions from the state. There are permits that you can get if you can prove you have taken measures to protect your animals and that they are impacting your farm financially. But, while I now hate hawks with an incomprehensible burning passion, I just cannot kill one. So option one is off the table.
Option 2) Get a guard animal. Donkeys are supposed to be great for guarding large animals. They are often used to guard cattle and sheep and are great at controlling larger animals such as canines (foxes, coyotes, wolves, dogs, etc.) but they really could care less about the ones that are cleaning us out, the opossums, raccoons and hawks. So the next bet is a guard dog. We did quite a bit of research and decided that we wanted/ needed to get a Great Pyrenees. Deciding to get one is significantly harder than finding one. Luckily I had some friends, Noah Ranells and Ben Bergmann of Fickle Creek Farm that I knew had have litters the past two years. They have a very large and divers farm in Efland and depend on their Pyrenees for their livelihood. I called, emailed, had friends put in plugs for us and just plain BEGGED for them to part with one for us. Things had become dire on the farm. We finally connected and they agreed to sell us a 2+ year old dog named “Clarice”.
She is SO sweet. But she is first and foremost a GUARD DOG.
She is adorable, sweet and a damn good guard dog!
Clarice took quite a while to warm up to us, but she has come a long way. While she is not exactly a lap dog (and in no way should be – she is first and foremost a guard dog). But she loves ‘belly-rubbies’ a good scratch behind the ears. That is, if you can catch her. Se loves to play the good, ole “catch me if you can” and will finally fall on the ground roll over and expect lots of love.
Most important, we have not lost a single chicken since her arrival. Again, we were losing about one a week. We were so convinced that we were on our way to losing the entire flock, we placed an order for 19 chicks to replace the flock. Well… we currently have 17 adults, 19 1-month old chicks and then seven 2-week old biddies. Yes, if you do the math… that makes 43 chickens. FOURTY-THREE CHICKENS!!! In 4 locations on the farm. Things are a bit complicated and time intensive!
It is that time of year! The daffodils are up, the redbuds are flowering, my winter garden is bolting and of course: IT’S BABY CHICK TIME!!! On April 2 we received 19 little angels.
* PEEP * * PEEP * * PEEP *
(Our first ‘peep’ into the box of fluffy adorableness)
I always forget how fast they grow. When they arrived Monday they were tiny little puff-balls. By Wednesday they had all of their primary and secondary wing feathers. Friday they are working on tail feathers! Oh… and we are working on flying now, so get ready.
And let’s not get caught up in all the cuteness and forget about everyone else! Colonel Woodford has had his hands full with the ladies. All sixteen of them. Sooooo many ladies, so few hours in the day. Egg production is pretty dang close to maximum production. We are collecting somewhere around 11 eggs/ day. Not bad. Being realists, we know a few of the girls don’t lay or lay very erratically. When the spirit moves them. There some that we just can’t cull.
So let’s stop for a moment and take a headcount.
19 chicks + 17 adults = 36 chickens
Some may think that is a lot of chickens. And some might say that is TOO many chickens. And I could not agree more.
So there are a lot of things you need to know about chickens. I’m just gonna drop a couple nuggets on you for now.
1) Araucanas/ Americanas (the blue egg layers) really don’t like the ‘boundaries’ that theegg box presents. There are some that think they are not particular where they lay their eggs. However, I go with the other camp. The ones that think they are the most secretive, finding the tiniest, littlest, darkest, dankest, most out of the way, “oh… they’re never gonna find them here” place to lay.
2) There is nothing meaner than a broody hen.
Well… luckily the meanest f the crew, the hateful spinster Queen Mary decided to go broody last week. She’d sit on anything – anywhere. We’d drag out of her daily hidey-hole and put her up at night. Next day she’d find another spot. That is just what broody hens do. Guys you know, ‘chicks’ and their hormones… So you can imagine our surprise when the perfect storm came together last weekend and Mary found a clutch of 7 blue eggs to sit on. Funny thing – the day after we found Mary and her 7 blue eggs, mysteriously there were no blue eggs in the laying boxes. So I risk life and limb, go into the dark, dank, corner of the barn (also the same corner that I wrestled THE snake), gently lift the Queen and find that while she was taking a little break, some of the girls snuck in and laid another 2 eggs in her clutch. So she is now sitting on NINE eggs. Let us revisit our math.
19 chicks (hatched) + 17 adults + 9 “Mary clutch” = 45 chickens
So instead of gathering around the water cooler Monday mornings and hearing all about Susan’s crazy aunt with like 50 cats – you know, the one that was just on Hoarders – you can talk about US. And ALL of our chickens. At least we can eat chicken. Well, I guess there are some cultures where they do eat cats and dogs. Probably tastes like chicken. So we have come full circle – that there is NO difference between us and Susan’a crazy aunt… great.
Let’s end on some cuteness!
Since the whole point of a cold smokehouse is to cold smoke stuff I needed to make that happen. So I got a couple of pieces of pork, one butt, one picnic, and started the curing.
I made a cure of 3 parts salt, and 1 part light brown sugar and a good helping of black pepper. I coated the pork generously with the cure and placed it on a wooden rack on top of a lasagna pan and put it in the refrigerator for about a week.
After a week a lot of liquid ran out, as it was supposed to, and I brushed off the first cure and added another coating and back into the fridge for another week.
After the second week, I brushed off the second coating and put it in the fridge, but this time at 55 degree, so the cure could penetrate the meat completely. After two more weeks I removed the pieces, strung them up, started the fire in the pit and hung them about 3 feet over the flue hole in the house.
I started at 8:30 am on Saturday and went until dark on Sunday. The finished Water Oaks Farm prosciutto crudo below. And it is really tasty, if I do say so myself.
After building a smokehouse the obvious next step is smoking things. The goal was/is to do preserved type meats like hams, bacon, lox that kinda thing. But after a little research some of those things take a few weeks to cure before you can put them in the smoker. So I tried something a little quicker while my pork cured (for another blog post).
I started with 5 whole rainbow trout that were about 3.5lbs total weight.
I then filleted them getting 10 fillets and about 2.5lbs total weight (which I thought was pretty good)
Next I mad a brine of room temp water, 3 parts kosher salt, 1 part light brown sugar, a good bit of cracked pepper and a lot of whisking and put the fillets in for about 3 hours.
I moved on to 6 beautiful wood duck breasts my buddy Thomas brought down and gave me. I Made basically the same brine but since they were skinless I added some olive oil and vinegar, plus a bit more pepper and a bay leaf.
After 3 hours of soaking, took everything out, patted dry and it was off to the smokehouse. I set up a rack running the width of the house about 5 feet up. I got a little smoky grill as the fire pit and added charcoal and wood blocks (mostly oak and hickory) and got the house up to 150 degrees. I added to the fire keeping it at 150 and the smoking went on for about 4 hours until the fish was done. The duck was only to about medium-rare (which is what I was going for.)
I vacuum sealed the fish and half the duck. Then cooked up the remaining duck in a pan with some dried cherrys and wine and served with Lisa’s pickled carrots. Both are delicious.