Bird Brains!

DSCN2630.JPG

Here’s a great photo of the farm flock. Black Jack, our breeding Ayem Cemani, is keeping watch over his divers harem of hens. In this flock you’ll find Delaware heritage hens, Americana hybrids, Speckled Sussex, Road Island Reds, Buff Orpington, and hybrids galore. Our last hen hatched (brooded by a hen on a nest) chicks are folded into this flock now, and the upcoming birds to add will be the young chocolate layers, including the Barnavelder and Marans.

DSCN2602.JPG

Here they are, my dark layers. I’m excited to move them in to the main flock after I finish constructing another roosting stand. For now, these young hens live in The Sun Chair 2000. It’s still alive and kicking as a young hen movable coop. It will not be enough insulation for the winter, so these ladies are headed to the main coop next week. They are bright and alert, feasting on the last radish pods in this garden plot before transitioning to layer hen feed.

DSCN2635.JPG

The newest chicks at Leafhopper Farm were hatched in the incubator and are thriving in their new larger enclosure, protected in the garage. They’ve been loving the fresh greens I hand pick for them each morning, and will grow up fast, so I need to plan a better portable coop system to transition them outside once they are a little larger. With cold weather coming on quick, it’s time to build some more shelter for young animals at Leafhopper Farm.

DSCN2626.jpg

Can you spot the wild bird? Dryocopus pileatus is a resident in our forests, and it’s great to see him feeding on the Alnus rubra. Here’s another parting shot:

DSCN2627.jpg

Bonus if you caught the fungus photo bombing the picture. Birds of many feathers are thriving at Leafhopper Farm!

Form and Function

Transition spaces are always important parts of a landscape. Often, they are edges, where forests meet fields, outside moves inside through the edge of a building, or stepping up or town topography. Fences, doorways, and stairs are features of these transition places, and should be designed with solid form and function. At Leafhopper Farm, budget is crucial in all building projects. With a little creativity, materials are sourced on site as much as possible. It leads to some whimsical shape in useful forms. After a year of using these initial designs, it’s good to take a moment in assessing the success, and possible improvement on initial conception.

DSCN2609.JPG

In these stairs, a lot of loose cedar and large cement blocks were near-by in a pile. Location, location, location! The sidewalk (above right) comes to an abrupt end and the ground drops off over four feet. With a little gravel and a lot of additional rocks, these stairs were set. The sidewalk comes from the driveway and connects to our cabins. There is also a spigot (bottom right) to water the greenhouse and other gardens nearby. To the left out of frame, there are two cisterns which have not yet been utilized and are part of our cistern project which is in need of enhancement.

What’s next? For this stair, more clarity to the steps for easy use, and drainage improvement around the lower stairs which T section with a trail connected to bath house and parking. The space is used daily, and being high traffic, there are many systems present. Even the plants are intentional. A Yellow Egg Plum Prunus domestica stands just behind the cedar limb handrail. The plan is to turn the tree into the handrail and offer east fruit picking for a late summer snack. In the bed around this plum are Comfrey Symphytum officinale, who will chop and drop for a few years to establish a fertile bed around this wonderful fruit.

IMG_6602.JPG

Here’s a completely different perspective of that staircase looking towards the pond where two Hooded Mergansers Mergus merganser are resting on the water. The handrail may look a little haphazard, but it works well as support to anyone headed up or down and also will be the trellis for the Prunus. There is decoratively bright and low maintenance Stone Crop Sedum reflexum between the rocks on the steps. We’ll continue to amend the area with good plants, many of which are both edible and medicinal.

I’ve mentioned in past posts about how sculpting the spaces around Leafhopper Farm allows evolution of space through an artistic lens. This transition area is a perfect example of that process. The dead wood will be replaced by living wood, and stone will slip under an evergreen blanket of useful plants, offering habitat and food for all around. It’s good to see these paces coming into use.

DSCN2610.JPG

This raised bed, just below the stairs, has come to life with tomatoes and cucumber. The bed is now established and will be joined by another for next Spring’s planting. Small production spaces are scattered throughout Leafhopper, offering a myriad of places to cultivate food and medicine. Small personal veggie patches are also developing about dwellings on the property and add so much to the richness of this land.

DSCN2611.JPG

Having the support of other growers and stewards here at Leafhopper Farm adds to the form of space and anchors function in production. That’s what this farm is all about, and it’s a delight to continue hosting space where people can sculpt what inspired them too.

 

Not A Game of Cat and Mouse, But Close

11010010.JPG

Yes, in broad daylight, a Bobcat Lynx rufus stalks along the Zone 1 western fence line. Last week we had a night attack on our chicks and one was predated. This daytime testimony leads me to think the cat was the culprit. Here again, we catch her in the night on the same path.

bobcat.JPG

Though she is a resident of our area, I cannot say with 100% confidence it was she who predated our chick, but highly suspect. In this shot, only a few hours earlier, someone else had moved through the same game trail.

deer_catstalk.JPG

Thought the year and month are wrong, these photos were taken in September of 2017. Almost one 1/2 hour later to the minute, the cat came through, though heading in the opposite direction. Still, the deer and cats are out and about, stalking one another and moving in the shadows of darkness. This doe is older, not one of the young I wrote about in the previous post. She’s mature, and moving through at many different times, like the cat.

11150043.JPG

This picture was taken almost two weeks after the Bobcat came through in broad daylight. She’s familiar with the trail and feels confident to move through at this time.

A neighbor of mine has been watching the deer for the past few months and noted that he had seen a lack of deer activity in the past month. At Leafhopper, they have been active continuously. The same neighbor said he’d seen a Cougar Puma concolor stalking the area several times, and assumed it had pressured the deer into hiding. This could be why the mature does are moving around the farm during the day. The Bobcat might also be stirred up by this unusual activity and responding as well.

This is all speculation, what I can confirm is the animals being present at these times through trail camera documentation. I can’t stress enough how important it is for land owners to utilize these cameras. My neighbor was seeing the odd animal, but not fully aware of nocturnal activity. With a mounted trail cam on active game trails, the vigilance to see at all times is met. I’ve learned so much about the land and who is utilizing it when. The information is priceless. I hope I never see a Cougar on the trail cams, but if it is on the land, the camera will get it one day.

In the mean time, I’m happy to know Bobcat and Black-tail are thriving on the edges, and predation can be addressed by creating stronger protection zones for my chickens. I never blame the wildlife for it’s success in feasting off my production, but I do recognize my responsibility to protect my livestock and keep a vigilant awareness of predator encounters. Next year the farm will have a dog again, and I’ll have piece of mind around the Zone 1 perimeter. Till then, trail cams can tell me when and where the wildlife wants to come through, giving me opportunity to buffer game trails and keep my chicks away from hungry cats on the prowl.

Oh Deer!

DSCN2589

It’s Fall at Leafhopper Farm, and the wildlife is moving through at a much higher rate as it stocks up for winter. I’ll post a few stories about our visiting friends and the challenges of hosting open boarders at the farm.

In blending domestic with wilderness, there are fluid transitions across the landscape where nature cross pollinates and sometimes predates on carefully stewarded systems. Fruit trees are the most vulnerable, that and young native plants put in as part of our restoration work here on the farm. They are after apples, but seem just as pleased with the prunings from our pear trees. Luckily, all the fruit is in for the season, so these Black-tail Odocoileus hemionus have to look elsewhere for the sweet treats. They are still drawn to our clover pasture, and nibble along the edges, hoping to remain unseen.

DSCN2592

Today I drove them out of the driveway three times, and wish our tenant with the archery permit would hunt this young buck. Our Game Management Unit (460) dictates buck only hunting, which means all the ladies are safe, unless someone has a nuisance permit, or other special tag. The buck is a small spike, but for an ethical hunter, that’s a great amount of meat to bring home to the larder. If he’s still wandering around during my chosen season (modern firearm) I’ll take time to stalk him, but the chances of him still being out in broad daylight by them will be slim.

DSCN2593

Black-tail Deer are infamous for going nocturnal during October. They know the hunting times and lay low during the “boom-stick” period. It would be such a gift to harvest a deer from the land that I tend. There is plenty of room for deer to move through the property, and with planning, game trails will be established with more intention, to keep deer away from the gardens, but offer them comparable brows in the thicket down by Weiss Creek. Accepting wildlife on the property, and working with them in a natural setting, allows more abundance for everyone.

Eggs and Roosters

dscn2570.jpg

Eggs of every color at Leafhopper Farm. The hybrid hens are starting to lay, our first farm bred and raised chickens! Once the dark egg layers mature and begin laying next Spring, we’ll have chocolate’s too! It’s amazing to see so much diversity in the eggs, and such a mystery as to how this happens; until you start looking at chemistry!  All eggs start out white (calcium carbonate) and then, depending on the breed of chicken, pigments deposited on them as the eggs travel through the hen’s oviduct cause the tint.

It takes a hen 26 hours to lay an egg, and the shell is completed in the first 20 hours of the laying process. Genetics determine which chemicals tint the egg shell.  Ameraucana birds deposited oocyanin pigment on the egg. Never heard of oocyanin? Well, it’s a byproduct of bile production. Bile helps break down food, especially fats, and is green in color. This pigment permeates the egg shell resulting in the interior and exterior of the egg being a washed out green color which looks blue. Bile also assists in the breakdown of red blood cells.

That same blood cell breakdown is responsible for chickens that lay brown tinted eggs. Protoporphyrin is a byproduct of hemoglobin, the protein holder in blood. In this tinting process, the pigment does not penetrate the interior of the egg, but tints only the surface of the egg, which is why brown eggs are white on the interior. This is the most common way eggs receive color, and includes speckling as well. You can wash off the tint with vinegar or rub it off with sandpaper.

In the case of an Olive Egger, (like my hybrids) a brown pigment overlays a blue egg shell, which gifts us a green egg. Many of my young laying hens are mixes, so it’s no suprise that olive eggs will continue to show up at Leafhopper Farm. Take time to look closely at your egg shells to see the pigment differences. If you have ever dyed an egg with food coloring, you see how the porous surface of the shell takes on pigment so easily.

On the other end of eggs are the roosters. The guys don’t get a lot of press, and I thought I’d take a moment to talk more about how the rooster has evolved in our domestication and later industrialization of chickens in our commercial agricultural practices. Eggs hatch out 50-50. That’s a fact the poultry industry wishes it could manipulate, like everything else about the chicken we know today, but mother nature is a compelling woman, and with good reason. In mass production, “Sexlink” is the closest “solution” commercial hatcheries can use to at least sort chicks. In an egg business, roosters cannot produce, and are therefor disregarded (killed) as chicks once they are sorted from the flock. Whenever you see “chicken meal” in things like dog food, you’re buying those baby rooster chicks in their most valued industrial form. It’s sad, but true.

In our attempt to streamline animal husbandry for our industrial convenience, we’ve lost some knowledge on how to better utilize roosters. In France, the once cherished Capon (castrated rooster) has been lost to us. Yes, there is a way to castrate a rooster; the bird then becomes complacent, stops crowing, and gains a fair amount of weight, putting it right up there with any commercial meat bird in pound for pound muscle mass fit for human consumption. This practice was abandoned as it is a type of minor surgery to the young cockerels. A Rooster’s scrotum is located below the middle of the back inside the main cavity of the bird; not hanging down conveniently, like most other livestock. Because it took some finesse, it lost support as the assembly line pushed chicks into sortable genders to save costs and time. Sexing by color removed the need to raise roosters at all and changed the industry overnight.

IMG_7108

Sexlink is a great genetic trait, but not 100% accurate. I spent last weekend helping a fellow farmer cull roosters out of her laying flock. The boys arrived as part of the “sexed” clutch from the hatchery, which never gives a guarantee on gender. Though the vast majority of chickens are hens though this sorting method, some males still end up in the flock and eventually, you’ll have to deal with them. These roosters ate up a lot of grain, especially as adults. Capons would eat a lot too, but they would be putting on the weight, where as these roosters still have that charged up testosterone eating up the massive caloric intake for prowls and aggressive encounters with other males. Capons don’t fight, and live peacefully together in their shared neutered state. A rooster can be put in with them no problem, even mixed together with other hens, and there will be no fighting. The Capons are not putting off pheromones to trigger the aggressive response from the in-tacked males.

I have a friend who has spent a few years learning how to turn a rooster into a capon, and she’s agreed to start teaching me when I have a batch of young roosters to castrate. You have to operate when the birds are young, and there is risk of mortality, usually due to infection after the operation, so this is not a job for the faint of heart. However, this practice is not abusive, and to me, is a heck of a lot more humane than grinding chicks into chicken meal. Remember, 50% of the chickens hatched are male, period. There is no genetic modification or quick fix to this biological circumstance. For the smaller farmstead, Capons make sense. Also, if you have backyard chickens in a neighborhood which does not allow roosters because they crow, a Capon would be quiet and easy to integrate into your flock. He would still be a protector to the hens, and offer you great meat if you wanted to harvest him later on. If you’re hatching your own farm flock, the Capons would keep the male half of your clutch useful.

As of now, I keep my roosters not in breeding away from the flock of hens in their own bachelor coop. I feed them minimal scratch grain and all the fresh pasture they can eat. In late fall, I butcher them. It would be much better production on the farm to Capon the crew of young males and keep them in the flock as my meat birds for the year. I’m going to work with my friend who knows how to safely operate, and hopefully have the skill to pass on as well. Sustainable practices are the name of the game, and no matter who came fist, the chicken is the end result.

 

Herb Harvest

DSCN2572

It’s that time of year! We’re harvesting the last of summer flavor in herbaceous growth around Leafhopper Farm. Our Kaffir lime Citrus hystrix recieved a little pruning and the leaves will make a great seasoning once dry. The essential oil can be used in perfume making. Because the fruit is so small, it’s rind is the coveted flavoring, as the pulp flesh is so minimal. Citrus is a very luxurious flavor to have on the farm, and this tree comes inside during the winter for pampering during the cold months.

DSCN2574

In the herb gardens, trimming back new growth to “winterize” the plants promotes better growth next Spring. It also means we have a lot of biomass to process and most of it will go into the dehydrator. Herbs are best fresh, but for long term use, drying is one of the better ways to  DSCN2575

Culinary Sage salvia officinalis is a recognizable kitchen herb with aromatic sensations that send the mind down memory lane. Once established, this popular herb will offer flavor for years to come. In ancient times, it was used to ward off evil. Now, its one of the most common herbs used in culinary arts. The smell alone stimulated the mind and opens the senses. A bundle placed in a room will fill the space with a cleansing aroma. At Leafhopper Farm, sage is used to flavor the wonderful meat we raise.

Another well known herb growing at Leafhopper Farm is Oregano Origanum syriacum.
This herb we know today in Italian cuisine, originated in The Middle East. Oregano was one of the main herbs used in the flavoring mix known as Za’atar, which also includes basil, thyme, and savory. At the farm, Oregano goes into our homemade tomato sauces. This plant is great as a marginal species, meaning it will grow in rocky places, including the edges of our rock lined gardens. It’s a touch of green on otherwise barren rock, adding warmth to the beds and utilizing space less ideal for flora demanding heavier fertility in the soil.

DSCN2576

Italian Parsley Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum is another great herb for flavoring your food. For some, this particular flat leaf parsley is a little too strong, but when dried, it mellows out and becomes a very approachable taste. When prepping the plant for Fall, I spent time thinning the roots. The Parsley root is tenacious, and new plants spring up from developing root stock as the plant expands. When thinning, simply dig up the roots and pull some off the main plug. I got about five new plants off the mother, and planted them out in new beds. The Italian Parsley will be cultivated into a well established herb that Leafhopper Farm can sell in future.

DSCN2577

You can transplant off all the herbs I’ve mentioned so far by pulling off some root stock and replanting it. If you would like to cultivate more roots, simply bend over a branch of the living plant, bury it into the ground, and wait. By next Summer, that buried branch will put out new roots under ground and you can dig it up next Fall to plant out and expand your herb gardens. You can even pot the new root stock in pots to grow inside year round.

Herbs are a great way to begin farming for cash; everyone loves adding fresh flavor to their food. To sell dried herbs, you have to invest a little deeper to accommodate regulations. Each state has laws dictating how “value-added” products are controlled, and more inspection/certifications are necessary. The fresh plant can be sold as normal produce. However, if you are selling potted stock, you are operating a nursery and must have a nursery license. For now, Leafhopper will enjoy using the herbs on premises and continue to plant out new stock to develop enough product for future sales. A “you pick” herb garden will be a charming addition to the farm’s demonstration agricultural systems.

DSCN2578

Though our Cascadia Hops have already been featured in their own segment, I wanted to give a shout out to the plant and it’s use on the farm as an herb. Herbs are plants used for food, flavoring, medicine, or fragrances for their savory or aromatic properties. This would put hops in the herb category! These flowers will be dehydrated, and then could be used later for beer and or other flavoring. The dried flowers can be used as a tea to help relax, or burned as an incense.

Meal-worm Update

DSCN2555.JPG

The Meal-worms are growing exponentially here at Leafhopper Farm! We’ve doubled our output and are now in the height of growing season. Worms are plentiful by the end of summer, having all the warmth of several months to speed up metabolisms and uptick reproduction. They will continue to breed through the winter, but without a constant heat source, our output will be much lower by the end of winter into early spring. Our production is not up high enough yet to justify and fully heated system. The worms are worth the effort though, and as we raise the number of birds in our home flock, we’ll grow our worm farm to match.

The work that goes into these bugs is so minimal, sometimes I forget they are there! As more space becomes insulated and habitable, we’ll create a special set of shelves for our worm farm in which a constant temperature will enhance production, bringing our numbers to sustainable levels as a feed for the home flock. Winter bugs will be most valuable, as the natural world outside is usually too cold for bugs to thrive. Layer hens need constant protein, even in winter if you would like to keep up your egg production.

Meal-worms are worth your time, as a staple for poultry, and as a healthy protein source for you! Diversity of diet keep out immune system healthy. Bugs are eaten as a staple in many other countries, and there are some great native bugs almost everywhere you live. Make sure you know what the bugs were eating before you partake. It is possible to flush a bug’s system by keeping them captive for a few days and feeding them fresh greens. In an urban setting or near chemically treated spaces, bugs will not be present; they were exterminated. That’s an indicator for you to think about. If the chemicals are killing life, they are probably not so good for your life. Small exposures add up too, and the soil has a history you can test. Know what’s in the ground before you grow.

Leafhopper Farm meal-worms are fed organic materials only, though sometimes “stale”. Before I ever plan on selling them commercially, I would have the bugs tested for protein content and other trace minerals for consumer consciousness. Most meal-worms you buy in pet and feed stores come from China. I promise you those worms are not full of good things. Meal-worms can eat styrofoam and live just fine on the petroleum based fodder. That does put a damper on eating them as a healthy snack. If you really like feeding your pets meal-worms, or supplementing livestock grain, buy some organically raised worms and start a little farm. The worms are safe to handle and could be a pet themselves. No water necessary, just add minimal fruit, veggies, and grain.