Meat Birds 2018, Part 1

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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. 

 

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 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.

 

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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. 

 

Grit

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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.

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Planning 2014, part 2

   During this winter planning time we evaluated the pros and cons of all farm ventures, especially poultry with its high labor and feed demands.      Buckeye chickens      Beyond their eggs and meat, our heritage breed Buckeyes earn their keep by voraciously seeking out pests, avidly tossing around the compostables and efficiently setting eggs and rearing the next generation of birds.      In an effort to increase the size of our Buckeyes for the table, we purchased another breeding line this year (ordered chicks to start another for 2015) and will follow the protocols of the Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s,    Chicken Assessment for Improving Productivity,      . Heritage breeds grow slower, do not need higher protein, more expensive feed and raise their own replacements. Buckeyes work year round, allow me to control more of the input costs and if correctly managed, I can add breeding stock to the list of products we can sell. My biggest challenge will be in finding a market for non-broad breasted heritage breed chicken meat.      So, the Buckeyes stay on the farm with a plan to improve the quality of our flock and add breeding stock to the products we produce.     

During this winter planning time we evaluated the pros and cons of all farm ventures, especially poultry with its high labor and feed demands.

Buckeye chickens

Beyond their eggs and meat, our heritage breed Buckeyes earn their keep by voraciously seeking out pests, avidly tossing around the compostables and efficiently setting eggs and rearing the next generation of birds.

In an effort to increase the size of our Buckeyes for the table, we purchased another breeding line this year (ordered chicks to start another for 2015) and will follow the protocols of the Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s, Chicken Assessment for Improving Productivity, . Heritage breeds grow slower, do not need higher protein, more expensive feed and raise their own replacements. Buckeyes work year round, allow me to control more of the input costs and if correctly managed, I can add breeding stock to the list of products we can sell. My biggest challenge will be in finding a market for non-broad breasted heritage breed chicken meat.

So, the Buckeyes stay on the farm with a plan to improve the quality of our flock and add breeding stock to the products we produce.

 

   Cornish Cross meat birds      The Cornish Cross meat chickens I raised last year were delicious and added to the fertility of our fields but  after 8-9 weeks of daily moves of the open bottomed pens and organic feed, they were not large. Cornish Cross birds are very efficient at converting grain to meat, but with the slower weight gain, possibly due to their consumption of lower calorie grass and exercise in the uncrowded pen, and the fixed costs of purchase and processing, they did not pay for themselves. I am on the fence about raising Cornish Cross chickens again. The meat was tasty and the bones produced beautiful stock, but there are plenty of local farms raising broad breasted hybrid chickens more efficiently than Lilac Hill. If I have enough customer interest, I will raise one batch of meat birds but will  commit to raising them for 10 weeks to attain a larger size rather than crowding them in a pen or restricting their access to pasture.     

Cornish Cross meat birds

The Cornish Cross meat chickens I raised last year were delicious and added to the fertility of our fields but  after 8-9 weeks of daily moves of the open bottomed pens and organic feed, they were not large. Cornish Cross birds are very efficient at converting grain to meat, but with the slower weight gain, possibly due to their consumption of lower calorie grass and exercise in the uncrowded pen, and the fixed costs of purchase and processing, they did not pay for themselves. I am on the fence about raising Cornish Cross chickens again. The meat was tasty and the bones produced beautiful stock, but there are plenty of local farms raising broad breasted hybrid chickens more efficiently than Lilac Hill. If I have enough customer interest, I will raise one batch of meat birds but will  commit to raising them for 10 weeks to attain a larger size rather than crowding them in a pen or restricting their access to pasture.

 

   Ducks      We like ducks. They are comical additions to the farmyard and with less feed than chickens, produce meat and eggs that  are tremendous.       As a saleable product, duck has drawbacks. With their 28 day incubation period (chicks incubate for 21 days) and sometimes seasonal laying period, hatchery purchased ducklings cost at least $2 more than chicks. Processing a duck costs $3.50  more than a chicken and if the timing is not correct and the bird is starting to molt, the product is not as pretty.      Beyond cost, many cooks do not have experience with preparing duck meat so finding a market for pasture raised duck is harder than for chicken or turkey. My kitchen has been my lab as I search out approachable recipes for cooking duck that is tender, crisp skinned and not greasy. Thanks to my latest recipe book purchase,    Duck, Duck, Goose   , my cooking  results have become more foolproof.      Locally sourced, pasture raised, organic grain fed duck meat is limited, so if  I can find cooks interested in trying duck, ramping up our duck flock may be a good venture for Lilac Hill.      As much as we appreciate our rare Saxony ducks, they may not fit  our future production needs. As much as I would like to continue in conservation efforts for Saxony ducks, I am not sure if I can afford to keep a purebred flock.  I do have a new Saxony drake who should give us a few years of service, which combined this year’s best Pekin drake, selected from the meatbird ducklings I ordered for this season, I may be able to breed a “farm duck” that lays reliably and hatch out our own Pekin x Saxony duck eggs in an effort to control costs.     

Ducks

We like ducks. They are comical additions to the farmyard and with less feed than chickens, produce meat and eggs that  are tremendous.

As a saleable product, duck has drawbacks. With their 28 day incubation period (chicks incubate for 21 days) and sometimes seasonal laying period, hatchery purchased ducklings cost at least $2 more than chicks. Processing a duck costs $3.50  more than a chicken and if the timing is not correct and the bird is starting to molt, the product is not as pretty.

Beyond cost, many cooks do not have experience with preparing duck meat so finding a market for pasture raised duck is harder than for chicken or turkey. My kitchen has been my lab as I search out approachable recipes for cooking duck that is tender, crisp skinned and not greasy. Thanks to my latest recipe book purchase, Duck, Duck, Goose, my cooking  results have become more foolproof.

Locally sourced, pasture raised, organic grain fed duck meat is limited, so if  I can find cooks interested in trying duck, ramping up our duck flock may be a good venture for Lilac Hill.

As much as we appreciate our rare Saxony ducks, they may not fit  our future production needs. As much as I would like to continue in conservation efforts for Saxony ducks, I am not sure if I can afford to keep a purebred flock.  I do have a new Saxony drake who should give us a few years of service, which combined this year’s best Pekin drake, selected from the meatbird ducklings I ordered for this season, I may be able to breed a “farm duck” that lays reliably and hatch out our own Pekin x Saxony duck eggs in an effort to control costs.

 

 

White Pekin Ducks

In spite of the greater costs of raising duck, I have ordered Pekin ducklings with the hope of finding interested customers. With daily moves in opened bottomed pens, the ducks will fertilize the pastures as they feast on bugs and greens. I’ll feed the ducks organic feed. I assume that  like the meat chickens I raised last year, our grow out time will be longer than advertised due to our ducks’ exercise and varied diet. Unlike the Cornish Cross hybrid chicken whose quick growth limits its longevity, a Pekin duck is a sustainable breed that can be kept as part of a home flock. As the ducklings grow I will select the best Pekins to add to the Saxony flock. If all goes well we can experiment next year with crossing the faster-growing-Pekin with the more-egg-laying Saxony.

 

 

If you have any interest in poultry from Lilac HIll Farm, please contact me.


 

Dinner over a year in the making

"I had delicious fried chicken at work. Can we make fried chicken?'.......
"How many chicks should we order from Joe?"....
"What are dimensions of this portable coop? When can we pick up the metal roofing? What size welded wire should we buy?"......
"Are the chicks feathered out yet?"....
"Did you already move the chicks ?"
"Did you already move the meat birds?"
"Do they need more water?".....
"Can you pick up another bag of feed?"...
"Do you want any birds cut up?"...
"What issue of Cook's Illustrated had the recipe?"....
"Is it ready yet?".....
"Yes it is!"
The results of this yearlong quest for a delicious plate of fried chicken was totally worth it.

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Roasted duck

With roasted duck on the Christmas dinner menu, I was able to try a recipe from Duck, Duck, Goose, by Hank Shaw. I already knew that roasting a whole duck is more complex than roasting a chicken because duck legs and thighs must cook to a much higher temperature than the breast meat. Hank Shaw states that the difference is about 40'. To deal with the difference the breast meat is cut off the bone in the middle of roasting the bird.

 After bringing it to room temperature,trim the excess fat and remove the fat pockets from between the skin and meat. I will save and render the fat later.

After bringing it to room temperature,trim the excess fat and remove the fat pockets from between the skin and meat. I will save and render the fat later.

 Pierce the skin all over without damaging the flesh. This will allow the skin to crisp during cooking.

Pierce the skin all over without damaging the flesh. This will allow the skin to crisp during cooking.

 Rub with lemon and salt. Place the lemon and a trimmed garlic head in the body cavity.

Rub with lemon and salt. Place the lemon and a trimmed garlic head in the body cavity.

 Roast on a rack in a 325' oven.

Roast on a rack in a 325' oven.

 Remove from the oven when the breast meat reaches 130-140'.  It took about 45 minutes to reach 130". In the future I will probably allow the temperature to reach 135'. 

Remove from the oven when the breast meat reaches 130-140'.  It took about 45 minutes to reach 130". In the future I will probably allow the temperature to reach 135'. 

 Carve off the breast meat and tent with foil. Return the roasting pan to the oven and cook until the thickest part of the thigh reaches at least 165'.

Carve off the breast meat and tent with foil. Return the roasting pan to the oven and cook until the thickest part of the thigh reaches at least 165'.

 Using some of the rendered duck fat, sear the skin of the breast cutlet until evenly browned.  Although the recipe did not call for it, I cooked the meat side of the cutlet too.  

Using some of the rendered duck fat, sear the skin of the breast cutlet until evenly browned.  Although the recipe did not call for it, I cooked the meat side of the cutlet too.  

 Salt and slice.  Since there were only four of us at the table, we did not wait for the legs and thighs.  The recipe recommends cutting them off the carcass and searing them too.

Salt and slice.  Since there were only four of us at the table, we did not wait for the legs and thighs.  The recipe recommends cutting them off the carcass and searing them too.

If other recipes in Hank Shaw's book are as delicious as last night's roasted duck, Lilac Hill's plan to increase the size of our duck flock is a good one.

Saxony Ducks: Winter 2013

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It is easier to keep the ducks within the fenced vegetable garden over the winter. It is a short, fairly flat walk from the water spigot to the garden gate. "Short" and "flat" makes my twice daily trips with buckets manageable during the iciest part of winter. Ducks submerge their bills in water to clear their nostrils after they gobble feed or sift through dirt. Eventually their water buckets are a muddy mess, demanding twice daily water changes.

Within the garden they are separated from the four-leggeds who would be happy to push through fences to eat duck feed. The garden soil and mulch offers tasty tidbits for the curious ducks too.

 

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It took a couple weeks to find straw bales to edge the lower garden fence. These bales will act as a fence this winter and a mulch for the asparagus next summer.

Two pens rest on raised garden beds. The ducks can seek shelter in these pens, but if they are like our previous Saxonies, they will  settle in the open air. Once breeding season begins I will use the pens for breeding groups.

To keep the Saxonies busy I'll lace the pile of garden trimmings with corn kernels, putting the ducks to work turning the compostable waste.

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Getting to know our Cornish Cross chickens

Cornish Cross chickens are not genetically modified organisms (GMO's) but hybrid birds developed by crossing different parent birds with the goal of encouraging specific characteristics.   Our CX birds have strong beaks, white ear tufts and since this is a rooster, a larger comb than the pullets. 

 

Over the years, hybridizers have focused on creating a chicken that has a broad breast and rounded leg.  To support the quick growth, CX chickens have very stout legs and broad feet. Since CX birds are not overwintered and because the goal is a nice meat portion, they do not have excess feathers. Since these chickens do not have the protection of a feathered breast, it is very important that they sit on a clean, fresh surface free from excess droppings or wet bedding.  On grass, with daily pen moves, we have avoided sores and ammonia burns.

Even though the Cornish Cross hybrid was developed to grow meat quickly in a broiler house setting, they adapt well , even thrive in a pasture setting.  Natural day/night cycles, fresh air, plenty of space in the pen, bugs and clover to supplement the organic feed  and daily moves onto fresh ground  all contribute to a healthy and perhaps a smaller broiler.


 

Chicken tractor dolly

With tutoring and shared welding equipment, thank you Steve and Pat, the dolly to lift the end of the chicken tractor and roll it is complete. Unfortunately the pen is still too heavy for me to lift. Until we make design modifications I will remove the tops to reduce weight.

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Cornish Cross, 1st Day Out

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After 23 days on wood shavings in the coop near the barn, the meat birds are out on grass. Thanks in part to a diet that included scissor trimmed greens and time spent digging in the dirt outside the coop, these chicks immediately started running around the new pasture coop, searching for bugs, scratching the ground and eating clover and bits of grass.

Honestly, I am surprised by the "chick-i-ness" of these hybrids birds. I had expected more lethargy, not the not the mad dash for the best bugs and tidbits on the pasture.

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Choosing to raise broilers with organic feed

Another plan hatched during our time away from the farm in July was the decision to raise broilers, that according to Wikipedia, are chickens bred and raised specifically for meat production. Until recently I had only raised broilers to fill our own freezer, particularly last year when we did not process many ducks.

Lilac Hill needs the fertility that moving poultry across a field daily can bring. I have witnessed that one pass with a poultry tractor improves the density and variety of grasses and legumes in a field.

In the next few weeks we will construct a Salatin style tractor. The plan is for a larger and lighter pen than the multipurpose pen with egg boxes and integral feed hopper that we have used in the past. We will start with one tractor and dolly, building more next year if there is a consumer demand for chicken, guineas or duck.

I will buy Cornish Cross chicks, generously made available by a local poultry farm. Thanks to Joe's success I know that his supplier breeds a chick that does well here in central PA. Cornish Cross chickens are a broad breasted hybrid, not a genetically modified organism (GMO), developed for fast production and efficient use of feed. Removing their grain ration at night and making fresh pasture available should moderate their growth and reduce the incidence of overly large birds with underdeveloped skeletons.

As well as grasses and legumes, fresh daily with each move of the pen, I will feed certified organic starter feed and pastured poultry grain mix from Bucky Zeigler. The cost of organic feed is twice that of the local feed mill's blend, not an insignificant amount. I believe that in a bird that grows from a handful of fluff to a butchered out, 4-7 # bird for the table in 56 days, feed and what it is made from matters. I do not want to eat meat that was grown on feed with even acceptable levels of pesticide residues, so organic feed it is.

Eli Reiff will butcher, bag and vacuum seal the chickens in October. For those who wish to cut up  and bag their own birds, arrangements can be made in advance.  I like the ease and delicious taste of one our own roasted chickens. Thanks to the pasture pen arrangement, the meat is not overly fatty and without the industry wide practice of injecting the carcass with water, our birds are as plump coming out of the oven as when they go in.  

Honestly, I do not like the looks of the Cornish Cross chickens, they are not sleek and dark reddish brown like my Buckeyes.  Yet in spite of their looks, their chicken pecking and scratching and their prodigious amount of manure will benefit our fields which will in turn better feed our sheep and cows and eventually us.

Contact us to reserve your birds or ask any questions.

Ducklings are hatching

Yesterday three Saxony ducklings hatched under the Buckeye hen. The hen makes cooing noises as she sets on the emerging babies. By tomorrow she should finish her setting.

The Saxony ducks have their own pen

While away from the farm last week we "rethought" our Saxony flock. Yes, ducks are still part of Lilac Hill; their comical manner,  thrifty nature, and delicious meat benefit the farmstead.

Building the flock while filling the freezer is slow going. Building a customer base interested in duck eggs and meat is also slow going.

We have only 3 ducks for our two drakes, the fourth duck disappeared late last winter, giving us over a dozen eggs a week. Because the girls will drop an egg whenever and wherever the mood strikes, finding the eggs, when they free range is a bit tricky.

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I prefer to have Buckeye hens set the duck eggs.  After hatching the hens are excellant mothers, raising the ducklings on grass in open bottomed pens. With hens I do not need to monitor temperature and humidity for 28 days in the temperamental incubator. Chicken mothers protect ducklings from cool nights and summer downpours and teach them to hunt tasty tidbits in the grass. Encouraging broody hens and buiding pens for setting will be components of our future duck venture.

I usually place nine eggs under a Buckeye to start the 28 day incubation period.  The last two hens have hatched 5 ducklings.  The clutch due to hatch later this week has 6 remaining eggs so hopefully we will have  similar success (but remember the adage," don't count your chickens before....).  The literature recommends that I spray the eggs with water regularly when set by a chicken but I do not like to disturb  setting hens often and when outisde in a pen the ground seems to provide enough moisture. 

The small scale of the duck project during this 'duck-management-learning-phase' does not fill more than our freezer but there are benfits to the duck flock beyond  food, pest control and soil fertilization. Due to their efficient use of feed, their rich dark meat and large eggs are economical. Applying the lessons I learn from this small flock will hopeflly minimize costly errors as we increase the flock size.

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Once we decided that ducks are staying on the farm, we needed to come up with a better system for collecting eggs and keeping the ducks out of the pool.  The terraces I carved out of the hill passed the barn are in dire need of fertilizing, especially if the lush orchard of my dreams is to be achieved. So with 20 new t-posts, 100' of 3' high fencing , another 100'+ of scavanged pieces of fence, zip ties and fence staples we created a pen for the ducks.  It is large enough for the small laying flock and with  the addition of duck waste, old hay and pulled weeds  the soil should slowly improve. Because it is behind hi-tensile fence, the ducks and their feed are protected from the attentions of the four-leggeds - donkey, beef and sheep, and I do not have to construct and deconstruct the annual winter duck pen.

The ducks will still free range, but under supervision, at least until the pool is covered.

Settling another hen

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I gave another Buckeye hen a clutch of 10 duck eggs on 6/14. I placed the hen and eggs in the triangle coop under a lilac shrub with morning sun and shade the rest of the day.

The ducks will not stay penned

The ducks' portable coop is in the farm field with the chicken's eggmobile. enclosed with electrified chicken netting.  They have plenty of food and water. After herding them into the enclosure each evening, I find them roaming the farm in the morning. Since they do not cause much damage,although I need to check the young melon plants in the hoop house where I saw them during this morning's downpour, they could stay out, BUT I do need their eggs.

Not sure what the next step is.

Hens setting-May edition

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I have two hens setting, one nest of Saxony duck eggs and the other of Buckeye chicken eggs.

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I like to have a hen raise ducklings in an open bottomed pen, keeping the babies warm and tended until they feather out.  An open bottomed pen on grass is so much cleaner than the raised mesh floor in the barn pen and the  mess of duckling splash enriches our thin soil. As long as the hens stay broody this summer, I will continue to set nests of duck eggs. Come July I will evaluate the success of my hen-raising-duck scheme and decide if an incubator full of duck eggs is necessary to fill the freezer.

The nest of Buckeyes is also necessary to hatch replacement layers, roosters and chicks for sale. Broody hens do not lay eggs so chicken eggs are scarce but the ducks keep the egg bowl full for breakfast and baking.

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Perhaps I should keep a larger flock of layers next year with an eye towards naturally hatching ducks for our freezer.

Ducks in the orchard

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The Saxonies are the first farm animals in the orchard this spring. Because it is mating season, the dark headed males must be separated so one drake and a pair of hens are within the hog panel enclosure. Since the testosterone driven drakes prefer to keep tabs on eachother while defending their harem, the other trio remains nearby. The hog panel corral is not an ideal pen since it is awkward to move but it will work until breeding seson runs its course.

Buckeye hens setting Duck eggs

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The two broody Buckeye hens have nests of their own.This pen in the chicken coop was originally designed for brooding chicks, and it has worked very well,with rafters above for hanging heat lamps, solid walls to ward off cold drafts and a welded wire top for protection. It is also an ideal location for setting eggs.  The hens are secure from predation and undisturbed by other Buckeyes. Thier proximity to the barnyard is convenient since duck eggs should be misted daily when under chickens to maintain the higher humidity needs of developing ducklings.

As for the rest of the Buckeyes, they are day ranging through the yard and fallow gardens. Once springtime yard clean up begins, the avid foragers (read, scratching, digging birds) will start their pasture rotations behind electronet or in the chicken tractor.

The four winter hatched chicks and their mother hen roam the yard as well.  They tend to stay away from the other Buckeyes, except at night in the coop, and patrol the garden and asparagus bed.

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Three geese off to butcher

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The American Buff geese have had a less than stellar stay on LHF due to my inexperience. I added geese to the barnyard in an effort to raise an economical bird.  Geese are grazers so with plenty of pasture, I should be able to stock the freezer with high quality meat. Seasonal egg laying, cut short by an early spring; two geese sharing a nest to the detriment of gosling safety; low fertility which could be due to the youth of our gander;and terrible parenting skills when out on pasture left us with one gosling surviving to adulthood. Now, before breeding season is the time to reevalute and adjust my flock management to reflect my two short years of experience.  The three smallest geese are heading to the butcher today which will leave us with three geese and one gander reducing the number of females the gander must cover. Since males and female Buff geese look identical and my skills at vent sexing are rudimentary, I'll wonder if I have a gander in the flock until hatching time. This year each goose will have her own nest shelter.  I will break up any attempt at sharing a nest to protect hatchlings from 4 webbed feet. If the cooler weather holds. I will delay setting by removing early-laid eggs in the hopes of the geese setting fertilized eggs. And I will confine the flock to mowed pasture to protect the toddling, waddle of goslings who get lost easily in longer grass.The four remaining Buffs in this morning's misty fog.

Cleaning out the duck pen

After their unsuccessful attempts at hatching and raising ducklings, I closed the duck house to the badling (Badelyng, Badling a brood of ducks. Example: a badelyng of ducks, 1486) this summer. With cold weather forecasted, it was time to cleanout the duck pen. 

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Like all but one of our shelters, this pen is transportable, easily schlepped to edge of the field with the Subaru. By unscrewing two fasteners the long wall can be removed for raking out.

Like the battery operated driver that assembled the pen, this Subaru with its 222,000+ miles on the odometer, is a workhorse on the farmstead. It carries feed, fencing, sheep and goats and pulls the heavier shelters. With its homemade rack on the roof, it can also carry two kayaks.

Ducks working for the farm

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The Saxony ducks play a significant role in creating this "integrated farmstead". As I clean up the dying vegetable matter and before planting garlic in the garden, the ducks avidly search out bugs and larva. The picket fence confines the brace and keeps them from setting in the road to watch the geese.BTW, much of the greenery remaining in the garden is buckwheat.