Meat Birds 2018, Part 1


Unhappy with the way most chicken was raised, I started growing out our own meat birds for the freezer. Our birds have more than a square foot of living space (organic regulations, which are more generous than standard, are 1-5#/sq.ft. indoors and 2-5#/sq.ft. outdoors). Once feathered and out from under heat lamps, our birds are in open-bottomed pens that are moved at least once a day to produce a clean, well exercised bird; a lightly fertilized field without manure run off concerns; and delicious meat. 



 Every year I tweak our system. A few years ago I switched to a Freedom Ranger hybrid, which extended our grow out period by 2 weeks. The following year I ordered all males so the birds finished the same week. The longer grow out forced me to get our chicks even earlier so they can finish on the lush May/June pasture. After reading a study linking feed freshness and consumption, I started picking up my feed weekly instead of every other week. Our local , organic feed mills are small so I know the feed is fresh. 

This year I added a bowl of starter sized Gran-i-Grit. I feed GG to our egg birds to make sure their crops have a good supply of grit for grinding grain, so it made sense that the meat birds chicks would benefit too.



Starting the chicks in the barn is another change this year. Inclement weather and strong predation put my birds at risk last spring. The sheep are In the field already, so I have room to let the chicks feather out in the barn. Because they do not have greens underfoot, I have been bringing them weeded greens from the garden. Last year I moved our donkey into the field with the chicken pens to help guard against predators. I may encircle the pens with electrified net fencing to deter predators too.

So far our biggest change this year, brooding the chicks in the barn, is working well. Last night’s torrential rain and strong winds didn’t harm the chicks and neither this past week’s higher temperatures. 

I’ll keep you updated as the season progresses. 


Fall Chick Hatching

Why hatch chicks in the fall? 

This year I want to raise my own replacement egg layers. Laying hens usually start laying eggs when they are about 6 months old. We anticipate that the fall hatched chicks will reach maturity in the lengthening days of spring. Chicks hatched in March, mature in the September; shorter day length results in hormonal changes which limits egg production. Even though I extend the egg laying season with artificial lighting in the coop, I would rather have a whole summer season to select my best layers for overwintering.

Until now I have purchased hybrid layer pullets (a young hen, ready to lay) from a nearby supplier. The hybrid pullets arrive with trimmed beaks; this keeps the birds from pecking each other in crowded conditions. Although hybrids have managed well, our hens have plenty of space so beak trimming is unnecessary. The hybrid pullets also have larger combs and are subject to frostbite in the winter, which can limit the hen’s vigor. The Dominique chicks we are hatching have smaller combs, more suitable for a Pennsylvania winter.

Another reason to raise my own replacement hens is more “observational”. The livestock that thrives here is livestock that I have raised or is from farms utilizing similar management practices. High quality feed, plenty of space to move and the company of the flock, selected for calm temperament, builds a foundation for productivity and thriftiness.


Fall Lambing


Lambing in the fall instead of spring fits our household calendar, our sometimes drought prone summer pastures and our desire to market Easter lamb.

Into middle age, with adult children living out of town and with interests that take us adventuring, the flock must be “leave-able”.  Lambing season, when I stay close to the barn, dovetails well with projects that we tackle during our mild fall weather.

On our thin soil, our pasture regrowth usually slows in mid-summer, especially in dry years. By breeding the ewes in early summer, when the grass is lush and finishing the ewes’ pregnancies on the more robust fall regrowth, we can take advantage of the growing cycles of our pasture plants.

And finally, lamb is a traditional meat for spring holidays. As a seller, I have more options for marketing if I am prepared to sell finished lamb in early spring.

With flock management practices in place to boost our success, we begin our first fall lambing season. 



Grape jelly


Grape Jelly: unsprayed Concord grapes, sugar and pectin

The Concord grape vines were here when we moved to the farm. They have survived droughty summers, hungry birds and my rookie mismanagement. Delicious for eating right off the vine and baking into a crumble or crisp, I thought it was time to try jelly this year. Our Concord grape jelly was made in a local, commercial kitchen, operated by two dear sisters. The jelly has a full grape-y flavor without being cloyingly sweet and the texture is smooth, not rubbery like a gum eraser. Each 8 oz. jar costs $3.

Breeding for fall lambing

Raising lamb for the spring market takes advantage of our lusher spring and fall pastures and increased market demand. Historically, our pastures bounce back after the heat of summer; this regrowth coincides with the ewes' increased nutritional demands in late gestation. The warmer ground in the fall also extends our lambing area beyond the enclosed barn to the surrounding barnyard, which allows us to increase the ewe flock if we wish.

One of the drawbacks to fall lambing is lower conception rates, even with sheep like our Katahdins that will breed out of season. To bring our ewes into heat in early summer we are employing a teaser, a vasectomized ram. Exposure to the teaser ram's hormones brings the ewe flock into a synchronized heat cycle. After we remove the teaser ram and introduce our active ram, the flock should breed successfully. I am not sure how all of this will work in reality, especially in this first year. To increase our chances for success, our spring lambing season was a little earlier than usual to allow the ewes to recover and our new secure fencing enforced weaning of the spring lambs. As always, I am hopeful and look forward to a second 2017 lambing season.

 Duncan is handsome but his offspring were not so he stays on the farm as a "teaser" ram.

Duncan is handsome but his offspring were not so he stays on the farm as a "teaser" ram.

Lambing 2017


Lambing began in the dark nights of the new moon; now, two weeks into lambing, a full moon lights my way to the barn.



During my regular barn checks, I watch the ewes for signs of lambing. Ewes may become restless, dig in the bedding, yawn excessively, stare at the ceiling with heads thrown back, and lick their lips. I also watch the ewes that move away from the flock to be alone.


With few exceptions, the ewes manage the birthing process with little interference. It is those few exceptions that keep me on guard. One ewe needed help with a lamb presenting with only one foot forward and a twin pushing from behind. Another ewe, needed her first twin lamb protected from an over zealous ewe that wanted to claim her baby. (That overly hormonal ewe did have her own lamb in 5 hours, within the confines of a secure pen.)


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Grape Filling for Pie, crumble or cobbler

When we bought our place here in the Muncy Hills, it did not have running water or other modern amenities, but it did have an apple orchard and two Concord grape vines. The hardy grape cultivars endured my how-to-take-care-of-grapes learning curve and now are reliable producers. Compelled by roadside signs advertising "Grape Pie" in the Finger Lakes and our family's love of fruit pies, my internet search for a recipe led me to a blog post by Chism Heritage Farm. I love reading the story of Aunt Marian and with adjustments made to her pie filling recipe to accommodate for our preferences, we enjoy all of the fragrant grapes from our sturdy vines.

Grape Pie, with notes outlining my adjustments.
5 1/3 c Concord Grapes
1 1/3 c Sugar (I usually add about 1/3c. less of sugar since the grapes are usually sweet enough)
4 T Flour (because of the celiacs and my preference for a clear fruit pie filling, I use instant tapioca to thicken my filling. I measure the amount of filling and follow the directions on the side of the box for blueberry fruit pies.)
1 1/2 t lemon juice
Dash of salt
1 1/3T Butter
Remove and save the skins from the grapes.
 I squeeze the pulp right into a small saucepan.
Put pulp into a saucepan without water and bring to a rolling boil.
While hot, put through a strainer to remove seeds.
 I usually put the strained pulp right into the bowl with the skins.
Mix strained pulp with skins.
Mix with sugar mixture (and flour, salt and lemon juice) and put in crust in 9" pie pan.Dot with butter
 Instead of the flour, I add the correct amount of instant tapioca. I stir it and let it sit for 15 minutes, per the instructions on the tapioca box.
Bake at 400'. At this point, the filling can go into a pie crust or under a cobbler or crumble topping.
For a crumble I butter the baking dish before adding the filling and top with a nut/oatmeal/butter/sugar topping. I do not add spices to the crumble topping but I sometimes toast the nuts before chopping them. 
If the filling is for a cobbler, I stir my final  grape mixture in my cast iron skillet. When spooned on top of hot filling, cobbler dough doesn't seem to get "gummy" on the underside when it bakes in a hot oven.

The prepared filling freezes well.

Why Geese?


Why geese?

What value can geese add to a small homestead or farm?

  • Geese are quick growing and can produce a large bird for the table.
  • Geese are vegetarians and love grass and clover.
  • Carcass quality is improved with some additional feed according to Dave Holderread, but geese can be raise will little additional feed.
  • Geese produce more than meat for the table. Their livers are the primary ingredient in foie gras, down can fill a pillow or provide insulation for winter mittens, quills are valued by historic reenactors, and goosefat, with its high smoke point, makes beautiful oven fried potatoes.
  • Geese are excellent guardians. When traveling along a bike path I once saw a goose in a freshly bedded pen next to the door of a rural homestead. As we rode by the dooryard, the goose "honked" our presence--a perfect alarm.
  • With their large feet, flocking behavior and vegetarian diet, geese are an excellent livestock choice for small places that want to start and benefit from small-scale mob grazing.

2016 is not the first time we have tried raising geese. With some changes in management, I hoped to overcome some of the challenges I faced when raising these affable barn yard creatures in the past..


Interested in cutting your own meat?

A few months ago I culled some lambs that had not grown well. The $65/lamb-slaughter, cut and wrap fee, seemed too high for the amount of available meat. Instead, I paid the $25/lamb, slaughter fee, brought the carcass home, searched youtube, followed along with an online video and cut, wrapped and froze our own lamb. In addition to the usual chops and roasts, I saved every bit of meat for  winter stews and had bones to make rich lamb broth. With a bit of seasoning and a quick saute, slices from the boned legs have been the perfect addition to summer dinner salads.

Before this kitchen experiment, I had no experience cutting meat but with sharp knives, the youtube video and the knowledge that all my mistakes were going into sausage- I was able to tackle the job. My greatest fear was that the process would somehow be disgusting or bloody; it wasn't. Breaking down the carcass and dealing with each section, kept the whole job manageable. Honestly, I liked the work.

The second week of August we have two sheep going to the butcher which provides another opportunity to hone my butchering skills. If you would like to try your hand at preparing your own meat, you could join me in the kitchen.

So what's it going to cost?
---$5.25/pound x the hanging weight   
---$25 slaughter fee

Because the meat will come from a pasture raised sheep over a year old, the meat is "mutton". Our mutton has not been greasy or strong-flavored, but because it is mutton, the price per pound is less than lamb. 

If you are interested or have questions, contact me.






Birds do not have teeth or rumens to break down grain or greens for digestion.

A gizzard is an organ found in the digestive tract of some animals, including birds, made of thick muscular walls. With the help of previously swallowed stones, the gizzard grinds food.


This year I added Gran-i-grit to all our birds' diets to make sure they can utilize all the nutritional value from their grains and pasture.


Murphy, Flock Guardian


After a week of rain, it was time to tag Mab's lambs (born 4/30) and transition them into the pasture with the flock. Because I inadvertently left a gate open, the transition from lambing jug to flock was very accelerated. Mab brought her lambs up through the yard and towards the grazing flock. Once the electric fence lines were moved, Mab took her lambs into the paddock.

For Murphy, flock guardian, the lambs, especially the ram-lamb, were intruders and he got to work.  With a calculated race around the paddock, he moved his flock to the far end of the field, then with nose and hoof, shoved the ram-lamb away from Mab and her ewe-lamb. Ears back, hide quivering, Murphy looked fierce, especially next to the week old lamb. 

As the flock moved to welcome Mab back to the flock, I moved to calm Murphy. If you drove by that day, you would have seen me waving my coat to get Murphy's attention, pushing the ram-lamb towards his mother and positioning my body between lamb and donkey. (I'd like to think I was a calm, quiet shepherd; honestly, there was a wide gap between my aspirations and reality that afternoon.)

With my hand on Murphy's back, we followed the newest members of the flock around the paddock. Mab contentedly grazed, ewe-lamb by her side while Murphy followed the ram-lamb, as he wandered though the flock and occasionally sprinted away from the shock of the electric fence.

I stepped back when Murphy settled: ears turning at every sound. not pinned back; eyes following the lambs, not wide and wild; nostrils sniffing in the lambs' direction, not wide open and snorting; and hide smooth, not twitching. Murphy walked up to the ever calm Mab, sniffed her and the ewe-lamb and then followed the wandering ram-lamb into the middle of the flock. Now that the ram-lamb was not an intruder, Murphy nudged the lamb towards its ewe, and kept the flock away from the trio as they got accustomed to grazing together. 

Until dark, I saw Murphy circling the trio, repeatedly nosing that meandering ram-lamb back to Mab's side. The next day the flock was a seamless unit and Murphy's new adversaries were a few stray Guineas that appeared in our fields.



The middle of lambing season


At the beginning of lambing, the barn was a quiet place with the ewes eating and resting. Watching for restless behavior and counting heads was pretty straightforward during my regular barn checks. Now that about half of the ewes have lambed, the barnyard is busy place. 

After the lambs and their mothers leave the lambing jugs they are moved to a barn stall with its own paddock. In the small paddock and with a few other lamb/ewe families, the lamb-ewe bond is strengthened. The lambs and their dams learn to find each other in this temporary small flock. The transition is not always smooth and I occasionally have to go to the barn to move a  bleating lamb around a corner to her frantically calling mother.

Once I am sure of the lamb-ewe bond, I move the families in with the larger flock. Fortunately the first ewe to lamb, Mauve, is also my fiercest mother and under her protection, her lamb moved safely within the flock. The first night Mauve and her lamb were in the barn, most of the flock slept outside to avoid Mauve's protective foot stomping.

Last night there were three lambs in with the larger flock. Each ewe staked out her own area of the barn for her lamb. The still expecting ewes were resting together with only a few outside. 

Watching the widening, expectant ewes; the just born lambs stand so quickly to suckle after birth; the lamb/ewe families as they bond and the flock as it integrates new members, is fascinating. For me it just does not get tiresome, even as slip into my Muck boots for another barn check.


Lambing jugs

 First lamb in the new lambing jug.

First lamb in the new lambing jug.

As our flock has grown, so has our need for more lambing jugs. A lambing "jug" is a small pen that a ewe and her lamb/lambs are housed in after lambing. In this small space, separate but still near the flock, the mother and lamb bond. The lamb learns the sound of its mother's nicker and how to nurse away from the jostling of the flock. The ewe/lamb bond is very important for the  success of the lamb, especially when the flock is turned out onto pasture.

We cut panels from our local ag' supply store with 4"x4" openings to length then "stitched" them together with spiral posts from Premier. The backbone of the jug pens is an uncut 16' panel. The spirals make a perfect hinge for the front of the jug and a clip latches the front door closed.

A bucket hook holds the water safely off the ground, away from the curious lamb. The welded wire hay feeder was an add on item I ordered from D-S livestock when we bought our handling system last November. It hooks over the wire panel (or a wood board). 

If all goes well, ewes get two days in the jug; new mothers and groups of twins or triplets get a few extra days before they rejoin the flock.


Watching the ewes


It is in the last few weeks of gestation that lambs do most of their growing. By watching the sheep for changes in behavior, I can sometimes ward off lambing complications.

So when I go out to check the ewe flock, what am I looking for?

  • First thing I do when I leave the house is to listen. Generally the sheep are quiet; if the sheep are noisy, I need to find out what has them upset.
  • As I approach the flock I look at it as a whole. I want to see that all the girls are near to each other. Stragglers may be sick or out of sorts. If the stragglers do not join the flock as I approach, I need to get closer to check for signs of discomfort.
  • I count the sheep to make sure no ewe has wandered away.
  • I observe the ewes' ears. Katahdin ears usually stick out to the side and move to better hear my approach. Drooping ears can be a sign of illness or pain.
  • When the sheep stand first thing in the morning, I like to see them give a big stretch, almost like a cat, which signals good health.
  • When I can get a hand on the girls, I wiggle my fingers through their hair feeling for prominent bones. Too much bone and a ewe needs more feed.
  • I watch the back ends of my ewes. When the ewes are lying down, I check for early signs of prolapse. I look at the girls' udders to make sure they are filling evenly. I also watch for any discharge that can be a sign of impending labor.
  • Before lambing, hollows sometimes appear in front of some ewes' hipbones.
  • Feeling for signs of labor I check the fullness of udders and the loosness of the ligaments at the top of the tail head. 

With less than two weeks until lambing, I check the flock a few times during the day and once after dark. Next week I will start the late night and early morning barn checks.



Maude is one of our original Katahdin ewes. She has given us 6 lambs and raised 8, accepting a set of 8 day old twins when their mother died. This is her fifth breeding season and I believe she is bred. She is calm and very maternal, "un-weaning" lambs as they move through our summer grazing paddocks. Last year, a day before her own lamb arrived, Maude tried to "steal" new lambs from their mothers-herding the lambs into a corner and pushing the actual mothers away. Until I moved Maude  and her equally maternal flockmate Mab, into their own pen, the usually quiet flock was unsettled-ewes running in circles and lambs crying for their mothers.

A ewe that steals lambs puts her own soon-to-arrive lambs in danger by feeding the first milk, colostrum, to another lamb, leaving her own lambs at risk. Without the nutrient dense, antibody rich colostrum, a lamb's survival rate is decreased.

This year I am keeping an eye out for overly maternal behaviors and will pen Maude or Mab with a companion before the flock is upset.


Cream Legbars




 3 week old Cream Legbars

3 week old Cream Legbars

 Into the coop brooder under heat lamps.

Into the coop brooder under heat lamps.

Last year a neighbor told me of his new-to-his-coop breed of auto-sexing chickens. These birds are not sex-linked, a first generation hybrid of two separate chicken breeds, but a breed of chickens that produced visually sexable birds. 

An auto sexing breed of chickens is a practical addition to a small farm that wants to breed their own flock replacements. 

  • After they are fully feathered roosters can be separated from the pullets and fed a grower feed for earlier processing. 
  • Juvenile roosters are easier to manage as a group, away from the pullets and mature roosters. When I select the next generation of roosters from the juvenile group, it won't be the more aggressive, could-stand-up-to-the-mature-rooster-in-the-flock boy that makes the cut.

Recently imported from the UK, we will be breeding our Jill Rees Cream Legbars for productivity, hardiness and mothering ability. That the Cream Legbars lay pastel eggs and have a wild pompadour sprouting from the top of their heads is just a bonus.


Lamb shanks

From a 2010 NPR article
If someone asked you what part of the lamb the shank comes from, you'd probably guess right: It's the lower part of the leg, from the knee down. The kneeward part is the meaty part; there's practically nothing as you get toward the hoof. As in any animal, the most-used muscles are the toughest ones. 

In spite of being "one of the toughest cuts," shanks can be the centerpiece of a simply seasoned braise. Quickly seared in a hot pan, then braised (cook slowly in liquid in a lidded pot) at a low temperature, it takes very little effort to bring a richly flavored meal to the table. When the meat is cooked, I usually remove it from the pot and cook down the braising liquid to make an easy sauce to top the meat.

Keeping track of lambs


Last year I started using colored lamb ear tags. With color coding, I was able to keep track of sire, and that a lamb was a single, twin or triplet. From afar, I was able to compare Burgess' lambs (blue sire tag) and Duncan's (purple sire tag). Early on I did not worry if a lamb with a lime ear tag was a bit small, after all it was a triplet.

In the past,ewes and their lambs were marked with one (single), two (twin) or three (triplet) lines to quantify the type of birth. This year I will paint the dam's ear tag number to their lambs' backs to aid in quick, from-across-the-barn assessments. This will be helpful early on when lambs can get separated from their ewes and later in the spring when they are first out on pasture.



Ground lamb

 Grilled lamb burgers with crumbled goat cheese

Grilled lamb burgers with crumbled goat cheese

Growing up we did not eat lamb so learning to cook the lamb we raise, beyond chops or a leg roast, has been a learning experience.

I have discovered that in all the recipes I have attempted, ground lamb can replace all or part of the ground beef. As I experiment with Middle Eastern, North African and Greek recipes, their spice blends compliment the delicate lamb flavor. As much as I like my mother's old family "Meat Mixture"  recipe for stuffing a pumpkin, substituting ground lamb for her choice of ground beef balances the earthy pumpkin flavor. Since family lore says that it is an old recipe, I wonder if beef was a modern concession over lamb, mutton or a mixture of different meats.

For those accustomed to cooking with imported lamb from Australia,New Zealand or feedlot fattened meat, our grassfed meat is leaner and to my taste, milder. 

If you want to try lamb in a recipe of your own, give me a call.