Thursday, August 30, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: Katahdin Hair Sheep

Let me just say this ... our Katahdin Hair Sheep flock is really a work in progress ... but, with that in mind I do think that they will eventually become a slightly bigger part of our operation than I envisioned. Lamb and beef are two things that I only have a few times throughout the farmers market season at this point, but I would say that are at least as many or even more people that ask for lamb each week! Plus, I think they fit well with our grazing system and on our farm.

Now, why do I call them a work in progress? Well ... let me just say that they are not exactly trained to the electric fence yet (including the electric netting). This is our second year with the sheep and I can't exactly say that we have been rotationally grazing them, but I can say they cover the acres very well and do graze on different species of forage than the cows normally do. From reading other people's accounts on raising sheep I think I just need to really focus on getting them used to the hot wires.

As I mentioned the demand has been fairly high for lamb meat and we have not had any problem selling what few cuts we have. In fact I've had quite a few people interested in ordering whole lambs and that will probably be something we begin in the next year or so, but for now I like the idea of getting as many people hooked on our lamb meat as possible! The downside though is that the way we raise our lambs it is very seasonal market. With our spring born lambs and fall processing we really only have them available for a couple months each year.

One option to spread the availability out a little bit would be to have fall born lambs and winter them over on hay, but I'm not sure if I like that idea because there would be extra hay costs incurred that don't exist with spring lambing. Which makes me think that selling whole lambs and taking reservations throughout the year for the fall would be the best possible market strategy for the farm.

I am pretty sure that there will be sheep and lambs on the farm for years to come (as long as we get all the wrinkles ironed out), but there are a few things I would like to try/explore. As I mentioned I may try some different breeding schedules, but I would also like to look more closely into the St. Croix breed if I can find some. I will also admit that I need to learn quite a bit more about the different cuts and how to prepare them! All in all though I'm pleased with the sheep.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: Dexter Beef Cattle

The great thing about this year is that we have had an extremely severe drought which has led to grass that decided it didn't want to grow back as well ... hay that is scarce and expensive ... and lots fun in the heat! No really ... I think it is fairly obvious that it has been a difficult year in many places and as bad as it has been here there are probably areas that have had things worse. So, we are just plugging away with our Dexter beef.

When the farm began ... and really before the farm began ... I was working towards having the grassfed beef be the centerpiece enterprise of our farm. I read a lot of books on raising cattle, managing grass, management intensive grazing, and so much more. In fact the very first livestock we purchased were the Dexter cows and calves. I really wanted beef to be my focus, but once we really got going and moved to the farm it quickly became clear that the beef was going to be a small side enterprise of the larger farm business.

The reason is very simple ... land! We only have a total of 40 acres and from there probably only 25 or so acres are available for grazing (minus the woods/buildings). Those 25 acres will allow us to do a few beef each year (along with our Katahdin lambs), but with our limited grazing land right now it will never be a centerpiece. And, as things stand right now I don't see renting more land as a viable option ... so our purebred Dexter beef is a smaller part of our farm.

Now that I have that all out of the way ... how are things going? Grazing started out well this year, but it quickly became apparent that the grass would not be growing back. That along with my injury has meant less rotational grazing and more scrambling for grass! Nevertheless the cows and calves seem to be doing well and since we have had only bull calves for the last couple of years we should have more beef offerings the next couple of years.

I believe if you look over some previous posts you would see that I was beginning to question the Dexters because they don't produce as much meat as other cattle their size (Lowlines for example). I have been having some serious thoughts about at least crossing in some more beefy lines. Just this past Saturday though I think I ruled that out at the farmers market when I had multiple customers come up asking for beef and were disappointed that I was out because they said it was the best they had ever had! For now ... we're sticking with the Dexters.

There is my quick rambling on our Dexter beef ... if you have any specific questions I would love to share more!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Reading & Listening :: Books & Podcasts

If you happen to follow Crooked Gap Farm on Facebook you may have already heard about my stupid leg, but if you don't ... let me just say that I tore my achilles tendon making an explosive play on the softball field (and recording an out) over a month ago. Since the fateful game I've worn a splint for a couple of weeks preparing for surgery ... had surgery ... and now have been in a cast for two weeks with four more weeks to go. After that hopefully a walking cast (that is what the doc said) for maybe six weeks followed by physical therapy.

All of that introduction was to say this ... I have to spend more time sitting down than working on the farm and have recently been scouring iTunes and Amazon for things to listen to and read. So, I'm hopeful that there are still people reading this blog after nearly a year of missing posts because I could use any reading or listening suggestions you have. I'll do my part as well and share a few that I've enjoyed lately.

Books ...

  • The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer by Joel Salatin :: I've actually read this one in the past and have re-read it as well. You all may have heard of the author (sarcasm intended), but really it is a good read. As a side note I haven't read it yet, but have listened to a few podcast episodes feature Mr. Salatin discussing his new book Folks This Ain't Normal.
  • Storey's Guide To Raising Rabbits by Bob Bennett :: Honestly this is my son's book, but since he started in the rabbit business this year I figured I should do some reading as well. Even though we are raising our rabbits outside on pasture this book covered a lot of basic information and at least gave me an idea of what I was getting into.

Podcasts ...

  • Farmcast :: This one is hosted by Tim and Liz of Nature's Harmony Farm. During each podcast they discuss different items that have recently come up on the website and share some of their experience. I enjoyed their previous farm podcast and this one is a good listen as well.
  • Chicken Thistle Farm CoopCast :: I stumbled on this podcast a couple weeks ago looking for something to listen to while keeping my foot up so it doesn't swell to twice it's size! It covers the happenings on Chicken Thistle Farm located in New York. The raise some livestock and have a CSA garden among other jobs and farm ventures. A good listen and a nice perspective.
  • Joel Salatin on Inner Compass :: Search is a wonderful thing on iTunes, and it was a search that led me to this interview with Mr. Salatin. This is actually a video podcast of a local PBS show I believe. Although it took a while to download in town it was fun to watch.

There you have a few suggestions from me ... I would love to hear other suggestions!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Virtual Farm Tour :: Pastured Poulet Rouge

Pastured Poulet Rouge Chickens
A few people have asked about the possibility of a "virtual farm tour" that would catch people up on what is happening on the farm. I thought that was a great idea, so for the next few posts (I'm trying to be non-committal hoping that the blogging sticks this time) I'm going to share some of the details of our farm ventures. The first one I thought I would tackle is our pastured Poulet Rouge meat chickens.

Right now we are raising a slow growing naked neck Poulet Rouge breed that fits well in our pasture based system and is full of flavor. It is part of our farm values to help raise and preserve heritage breeds (the naked necks can be traced back to at least 1810) and these chickens help us stick with those values while providing a great bird.

If you have been hiding under a rock this summer I need to inform you that Iowa and much of the country have been experiencing a drought. Along with the lack of rain we have also been experiencing extreme heat, but I have been very pleased with the natural hardiness of our birds ... not losing any with the heat (although the predator losses is a different story). This natural ability to withstand the elements has always been one of the reasons behind our breed choices and breeding selection.

Last year we raised one smaller batch of this bird and so far this year we have/are in the process of raising three groups of about 50-75 average. The birds are being raised on grass in the orchard and they seem to be voracious foragers. Along with their forage we are feeding a 21% protein corn/soy ration that has a Homestead Feeds Chick-En-Egg Concentrate pack added for minerals (it is hormone free and animal byproduct free). During the first batch of chickens our protein level was not as high as it should have been and I noticed that the birds grew slower than expected ... that is now fixed and seems to be working better. We have used the Homestead line of feeds now for almost two years with the hogs and I've been pleased with it.

We process all of our birds at a state inspected facility which allows us to sell at our Farmers Market and on-line cooperative. The other exciting thing about the current processor is that they air chill the birds so they don't soak up a lot of water weight and the meat retains a great texture and flavor. I will say that we are very lucky though to have such a processor so close (about an hours drive).

The downsides ... it does take these birds about 14 weeks to finish out and the rate of growth does seem to be all over the place depending on the bird. We also need to finish building more portable chicken wagons, but that is just one of the many things on our ever growing list! Overall I believe they are good fit for us and I plan on continue raising them and working to build a market for the birds.

One thing that I always tell people though is that I have found that the animals that are born on our farm do better than the animals that we bring to the farm. With that in mind we are very seriously considering raising and selecting our own breeding stock so that we can incubate/hatch our own meat birds. I'm not sure that it will happen, but it is something that interests me quite a bit! If anyone has any thoughts or book recommendations on that subject I would love to hear them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This is a Blog Post :: Not a Test

Lately it sure seems like “the beginning farmer” has become “the quitting farmer”. And although I did not quit farming, it is very much evident that I did quit writing. I spent the last week or so writing and re-writing a post explaining why I drifted away from the blog and sharing the farming experience, but after reading it over and over again I think it is just best that I say ... I quit blogging about the farm journey and now I would like to start again ... yes ... that seems much easier!

Crooked Gap Farm is rolling along much as it was last time I wrote (I think). We are still raising beef, lamb, pork, chicken, and laying hens ... and we are still selling direct to customers and friends through half/whole sales, the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, the Iowa Food Coop, and random deliveries and on-farm sales. The hogs are still very much still the centerpiece of the farm and are living up to their definition as “mortgage lifters” (although we’ll see how that lasts with the current drought). 

The farm is also still very much in “beginning farmer” mode and I would be lying if I said that there were plenty of things that aren’t as far along as I would like them to be. It just seems like there is always an emergency that pops up and keeps us from doing the long-term projects that we would like to be accomplishing. But, I know for a fact that is just typical farm life and nothing special. 

So, here is a post on my blog ... the first in a very, very, very long time. I’m not making any promises on when or if there will be another blog post (I did just delete a folder of blog posts I had planned on putting up last time I said I would begin blogging). But, let me just say this ... I do want to write again ... I lost my drive to write and I would like to bring it back ... to share the farm.
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