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From Scratch-Home Made chicken food- an easy, healthy alternative to commercial feed

Since moving to the farm three years ago, I’ve completely changed the way my family eats.  Gone are packaged, processed foods, chips, and anything junk like.  We eat a lot more fruits and vegetables, whole foods, only local and in season, raise our own eggs, chickens, turkeys and pig for meat.   So why is it that it was only a few months ago that I noticed the long list of ingredients on the bag of processed chicken food that I’ve been using?? Lots of recognizable ingredients, and many not, all crunched up and magically glued together into pellet form. I started wondering if that was really the best I could do for my poultry, and decided it probably wasn’t.  I set about researching poultry dietary needs, looking for recipes and trying to find information on home made vs. commercial feed. I only found bits and pieces, not solid pros or cons, and many recipes, each one different from the next, and none of them very clear or easy to follow.  Feeling overwhelmed and unsure, I spent months reading everything I could find.  When I was down to my last bag of commercial feed, I set my self doubt aside and just jumped right into choosing ingredients, measuring and mixing, watching what the chickens liked and how they reacted (quality of poop, egg production, general appearance, signs of hunger or health issues).  We’ve been using this new whole feed for 5 weeks now and I am finally confident enough to share the results and the recipe with you!

The first thing I considered is that back in the day, there weren’t feed stores all over town for people to buy their “complete” feed.  These were people who depended on their chickens for food, not just as backyard pets, so clearly there are alternatives to feed pellets, that have been around forever.  I was really disappointed in the scholarly literature that I read. Almost always, they cautioned against experimenting with feed and just sticking to the “complete and tested” commercial feeds.

My best, first break came in Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia Of Country Living.  She encouraged readers to grow their own animal feed and poo pooed the idea that commercial feed is the only way to go!  She didn’t provide a recipe, so much as a blue print of what chickens need. For proper growth and egg production, a chicken’s diet needs to be 17-20% protein. Traditional feed contains corn and soy, which have their own issues (GMO) and corn is high fat and low protein. So why feed it to the chickens at all? I decided to eliminate both corn and soy from the mix. This way, I can buy conventionally grown ingredients and not have to worry about Franken foods. (I choose not to go organic because it’s cost prohibitive for my operation. I don’t want to sell $8 a dozen eggs, I want to offer affordable, fresh and healthy eggs.)

Protein comes in SO many forms and ideally you can offer the chickens a variety of sources. Wheat, Oats, Barley, rye, sunflower seeds, milk products (expired milk or yogurt), eggs, meat, worms and bugs all offer good protein.  Another source is fish meal. Hard to come by and very expensive, I decided against this. I really wanted the fish meal used for gardening to be the same thing, and from what I learned, it is, except that the way they process it isn’t fit for chickens AND they risk exposure to heavy metals. If you know a fisherman, getting their cuttings would be a score!  I’ve read that chickens need animal protein and that they don’t. I know how mine love to go after little mice and frogs, which leads me to believe that they’re into it, but I think they can be healthy without adding animal protein to their feed. (ps- bugs and worms count as meat) Because my chickens don’t get out into fresh pasture, often, I do think they would benefit from more bugs, so I’ll soon be breeding Black Soldier Fly larvae as a supplement for them. Yup, maggot farming. Mmmm.  We also give the chickens everything left over when we eat crab, as well as the entire chicken carcass after we make stock. THEY EAT THE ENTIRE THING!  Legumes, if you can find them in bulk, are a great source of protein. It’s not cost effective for me with 50 chickens, but if you have just a few in your backyard, it’s totally worthwhile to feed them dried lentils or peas (fresh peas, and their leaves and pods, too). You can cook them first, but it isn’t needed.

Greens need to be a part of the chickens daily diet. This is a hard one to mix into the dry formula, but if they are ranging around, or you give them plenty of weeds or kitchen scraps, they should be ok. I also put a flake of alfalfa into their coops every few days.

Vitamins and supplements. A really important thing to remember is that chickens don’t have teeth. They have a hard gizzard, against which they grind their food to digest it. For this to work, they need to be eating little pebbles, sand, or other grit.  If you’re feeding whole grains, you should assume that they can’t get enough grit in their foraging, and should give them some. Because they also need selenium and minerals, I chose a grit with minerals that’s readily available at the feed store. I started out mixing it into the feed, but it was heavy and didn’t mix in well. Now I just throw handfuls of it into the run every other day or so. Same goes for Oyster Shells, which act as grit and also give them the calcium that they need to produce hard egg shells. I put some in the feed, too. You can mix these 2 together and have a dish always available for them, but my chickens always spill it, so I just avoid the middle man.  I also use Flax seed. It has lots of Omega 3 and makes their feathers gloriously shiny!  Kelp is another one. Super expensive ($84 for a 50# bag) but used sparingly, so it’s ok. Kelp is full of minerals. I use just a little to top dress their food. They go nuts for it! Oh, and don’t forget vitamin D (which is added to feed!). Chickens need a little sun every day.

Here’s the recipe that I came up with. Note that it changes and flexibility is good. If, for example, one grain price suddenly goes sky high, just drop it until it comes down. Variety is the spice of life, anyway, right? All ingredients should be purchased whole, not cracked, crimped  or rolled. Once the shell is broken, they start to go rancid and lose nutritional value.

-3 pounds Rye (this is grass seed to normal folks-but get it at the feed store, for quality assurance)

9 pound Barley

9 pounds Oats

9 pounds Wheat (winter red is best, if available)

4 pounds black oiled sunflower seeds (sold as bird seed)

3 pounds Flax

2 pounds Oyster Shell

mix everything together in a plastic bin or feed sack, until well distributed.

Prices vary from area to area, so I’m not including very detailed costs here. 50 pound grain bags are about $15-20 here, 20 pounds of Flax is $22, 50# rye is $36, 30# sunflower seeds are $25, oyster shell is $10 for 50#, grits about the same.  I believe I’m paying slightly more than I was for the commercial pellets, plus I get to eliminate corn and soy, and all the other ingredients I don’t want. My egg production DOUBLED in these 5 weeks, even during a bitter cold snap that lasted a week. Before some hens were missing feathers and looking ragged. Now they have full, bright and shiny coats! Also, I’m using less feed than I used to. Consider the difference in humans, between eating processed food, and whole food that our bodies have to work on for a while…same goes for chickens. Where I was going through three 50 pound bags a week, I now use about 5o pounds of whole food per week. I’m using this food for the chickens, turkeys and geese, all with great results!

As I mentioned, I’m going to be farming BSF larvae to supplement their diets. I’ve also started making fodder, which is a genius way to increase their nutrition and reduce your feed bill. All you do is sprout some of the grains (takes about a week for them to become a solid mass of roots, seed and grass), then feed them.  The conversion is crazy, something like 2 pounds of grain becomes 13 pounds of fodder. This method is literally saving some cow farms in the midwest!  I’ll have more info and pictures on this soon… For more information on alternative, natural chicken keeping, I highly recommend THIS BOOK.

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Olivia, Some Pig

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing…after all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die…By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

I woke up before dawn this morning, nightmaring about Olivia. I dreamed that we had moved to a new house and had no pen for her, so she was spending her last day in our concrete basement.  She was like a prisoner, and I cried because she had no mud.  Her last day of life and she couldn’t do the thing she loved so much, to root and roll around in a muddy wallow.  She sat slumped in a corner. I had a huge basket full of colorful vegetables, Kohlrabi, big fat carrots, kale and squash.  All her favorites. I kept bringing her armloads, trying to make her happy.  She started snorting, then I heard someone call my name and woke up, relieved that it was just a dream.

A lot of people have said that I shouldn’t have named her. Naming her isn’t what makes this hard, and I don’t regret doing it at all.

I love Olivia. I love bacon. In my family, if you really love someone, you make them a pork roast for their birthday dinner. The words, “this would be awesome with some bacon in it…” are common around here.

Olivia at 12 weeks

Raising Olivia, I’ve learned that there is so much more to eating pork, than how tasty it is.  Being nice counts.

She’s been petted, patted, belly scratched and well fed.  She was able to live a life the way nature intended, going ears deep in a muddy bog, then napping in the bed she made of straw.

Knowing that Olivia spent the last year and a half being adored by, not only by me and John, but by hundreds of kids and parents, and even blog or Facebook followers , all of this counts.

As Joel Salatin would say, Olivia has lived a great life, and had one bad day. In my mind,  The good life outweighs today, the bad day.   I don’t have to be here when the ranch butcher comes. I could just let him in, pay him, and go get a  pedicure.

Olivia, yawning before a nap

But I won’t.

In order to bring this full circle, to follow my core values, I have to take part in the end of her life. It will, easily, be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I’ll spend the 45 minutes, or so, that it will take, giving silent thanks to Olivia for all the joy she brought to the farm, and the meat that will feed my family for the next year.  And I’ll try to not to cry, but will let myself, if I need to.

Enjoying an ear scratch, Spring 2012

It’s later in the day now. The butcher came out right on time. I won’t be giving a graphic description of the process because it seems disrespectful to Olivia and anyone reading this.  (If anyone is planning to raise a pig for harvest, and wants to discuss, email me) Suffice it to say, I wasn’t prepared. He worked so fast. The shot went off while I was mid thought. My eyes filled with tears and I made a (too) loud gasp. The first 10 minutes were really difficult and I was swearing that I’d never do this again.  All of the animals knew that something was going on. They just know.

I’ll be spending the rest of the day doing hard farm work (which always makes me feel better) and trying to keep the trust of the other animals, who are very suspicious, now.

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It’s zucchini season, again!

I swear, next year, I’m only going to grow ONE plant! Instead I have 8 or 10 and they’re going nuts, as squash tends to do. I’ll have more recipes to come, but here’s one, from the “Clean” program book, that I really like.

Zucchini Mushroom Soup

2 tbsp olive oil

8 oz pack chopped mushrooms (like Crimini or Portobello)

1 onion, rough chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 large zucchini (I used one that was about 5 pounds! Maybe peel it, as the skin was kind of bitter at t his size)

water as needed

1 bay leaf

sea salt

black pepper

fresh chopped rosemary, sage, thyme or parsley (I just took branches of each from my garden and let them simmer in, then removed, along with the bay leaf)

The original recipe also calls for 6 cups of mushrooms and 2 cups of cauliflower. I used the XL zucchini, instead, because using them up was my goal. It also called for coconut oil, but I didn’t have any.

1. Heat oil and saute mushrooms and sprinkle of salt. Cook 3-4 minutes until light brown.

2 stir in onions, garlic and zucchini and cook 3-4 minutes more.

3. Add bay leaf and other herbs enough water to just cover the vegetable. (I kept it a little lower, I like thick soups) Bring to a gentle boil.

4. lower heat to medium-low and cook for 12 minutes.

5. Remove herbs, if you used branches, and the bay leaf.  Puree with a stick blender (or in the blender, after it cools). Season with salt and pepper. For a richer taste, you can add 1/4 cup of almond milk, but I didn’t.

John says it tastes like stuffing, which it kind of does because of the herbs. Working on the cleanse program, I made a big batch of this and put it into pint jars to eat all week. I made a few adjustments from Frank Giglio’s original recipe.

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“Live Simply So Others May Simply Live”~ Mother Theresa

I think of this quote all the time. I ain’t no Mother Theresa, but I sure did admire her work and her good heart. The words that she left behind are inspiring every time I read them.

Today I was talking to a store owner. She used her iPhone to scan something and I commented on how cool it is to be able to carry your business in your pocket like that. I totally reject upgrading my phone or paying for a data plan. I’m really not that kind of business. I don’t want to be on call, reachable at every minute of the day. It’s sort of like answering the phone on the first ring when that cute boy calls. Not my M.O.

We started talking and she said, “I don’t know how people ran businesses in the old days…” She says she carries her business in her pocket, checks emails while doing errands, is constantly on the run, working her ass off and barely keeping her head above water.

“How” she asks, “did they do it without technology?”

Hmmmm, how indeed. I’m not one to preach and never give my opinion unless it’s asked for. On the way to the car I told John, “DUH!”. In the “Old days” our “needs” were much smaller. We knew the difference between needing and wanting and were willing to sacrifice and save for the things we wanted. We NEEDED food, family, shelter, something to wear. We didn’t NEED the newest edition of the iPhone, or cable tv with 100’s of channels, a closet loaded with clothes and shoes, or a new car every time we got bored with the old one. In the old days, we weren’t worrying about keeping up with our friends (or the Kardashians), or making our business number one above the rest, or who Emily will choose on the Bachelorette tonight.

We were too busy growing food, hanging laundry, teaching our children manners, conversing with our neighbors and making the things we needed to live a comfortable life. We got up with the sun and worked without state mandated breaks and lunches because we had strong work ethics. We needed them in order to take care of our families.

Of course, the cost of living was much lower then, but so was the pay. I consider all things equal there.

My family (ok, me, but my family has gone along) has pared down to the bare minimum of living expenses. We cut the cable over a year ago, use things until the die (and take care of them so that’s a long time), shop second hand almost exclusively, and never hire people to do things that we can do ourselves.

My wonderful, shiny new husband unexpectedly lost his job last week, so I’m the rainmaker until he finds another one. That’s scary, but because we have been frugal we have some reserves to hold us over. Even then, I think this is a good time to simplify even more and focus on living a good life with what we have.

This week, I’ll be sharing lots of inexpensive recipes that can be made with food you may have in your own backyard (or farmer’s market). Recipes that won’t make you feel poor. In fact, they’ll make you feel happy and healthy! (no Top Ramen!)

Ready, set, GO!

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Here a Turkey, There a Turkey- A birth story

We raise turkeys that are a cross of Bourbon Red and Midget WhiteImage

The two hens lay daily and last month, one of them started sitting on the nest steadily. I was so busy with other things, that I just ignored her. Normally, I would take the eggs and put them in the incubator, not trusting her maternal instinct (or the other turkeys) because when this has happened in the past, eggs got broken, chicks got suffocated or pecked to death. It’s brutal in there! This time I just decided to let nature take its course.  I didn’t even keep track of how long she had been sitting (it takes 3 weeks to hatch a turkey). Last week, on the last day of Farm Camp, an Aunt had come along to pick up the kids and see the farm. She was standing near the turkey pen and said, “oh, one of them just escaped”. Given the size of our turkeys, this isn’t possible, so when I went over to see, there was a tiny little chick that had just popped through the fencing! She hatched one! Then I looked inside and saw another, later another…ImageImageImageImage

And so, it seems, that our sweet Mama does have the mothering instinct! Unfortunately, the other hen is the complete opposite and pecked one of the babies to death, so we sequestered the new family. We have three live chicks, so far and 8 eggs still under her.  So exciting! And another magical day at Farm Camp!

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The Magic of it All- the day we watched a Monarch Butterfly hatch!

From the day that John and I first  saw it, I’ve always felt a strange vibe, here on the farm.  When we first pulled in we immediately rejected it. The house was in the middle of a remodel. The old fridge was on the deck. There wasn’t a garage. The yard was all dirt and weeds, scattered with huge piles of garbage. No.

But then we got out of the car and walked around a little. There were glorious old walnut trees and lots of flat sunny property. The old white fence was charming and all I could see was the potential of it. Plants and animals and happy kids everywhere. Fast forward 2 1/2 years and my vision has come true!

The tagline on my website was, “Where little miracles happen every day”.  Now, I’m not at all religious, but I so believe in the magic of miracles. The first little sprout coming out of a seed. The little chicks that peck their way out of their shells, even the child, who doesn’t like vegetables or animals, realizing that they, in fact, do.  My days are filled with these subtle, magical moments,

Other times, the magic just slaps me upside the head.

Last month, I was so excited to see 2 caterpillars chomping away at my Butterfly Weed

(Asclepias-the favorite food of the Monarch Butterfly). Image

I rushed to check their coloring and it looked like they were Monarchs, but one can never be too sure.

A few days later, after filling their bellies (it really happens that way, just like The Very Hungry Caterpillar!) I found both had spun into beautiful cocoons, hanging from the broccoli plant that I was about to pull for the season. (so it remains).  I watched them for days, making sure the birds didn’t get them. I was excited to share them with the after school kids, who joined in the daily wellness checks.

Then, on my wedding day, I went out to pick flowers for a bouquet. I love the yellow stalks of flowers on the now-going-to-seed broccoli plant, so I carefully looked for a branch that I could cut without disturbing the cocoons. With one snip  I had, of course, cut the branch that one of them was on.  This, honestly, was the biggest moment of stress on our wedding day!  I felt terrible!  John helped me to set it up, without disturbing it, in a vase, tilted at the same angle that it had been, and we set it in the house for safe keeping. Image

Farm Camp started last week. On the first day, I was excited to share the cocoon that was still outside, with the kids.  Without mentioning it, I read them this book (which is one of my very favorites) ImageThen I told them, in a whisper, that I had something special to show them, but we had to sneak-walk over and be very quiet and still. They all did an excellent job of following, sneakily and excitedly, over to the broccoli, where I looked, and looked, and couldn’t find the cocoon! I was so bummed. Maybe it had hatched and I missed it.  Maybe the Blue Jays got it. Luckily, I had the one in the house, so I ran up to get it. When I picked it up, I noticed that the black and orange of wings was visible through the now clear cocoon!  We set it up on the table to watch it. “Maybe” I told the kids “it will hatch while you’re here this week! Wouldn’t that be cool!?”

Of course, I didn’t expect that to happen.

Right then, I had to take one of the girls to the bathroom. While we were there, I heard my name being called, and excited shouting. Three other girls came running to say that the butterfly was hatching, RIGHT NOW!  I was sure they were kidding me and said so, but they grabbed my fingers with their tiny hands and dragged us back down to the safe spot we had made for the cocoon.

And, guess what..

.ImageImageImageImageImage

It took hours for it to un-crinkle and spread its huge, beautiful wings.  So we moved it to the sun and watched while we had lunchImageImageImage

And when it finally flew away, one of the kids burst into tears! I thought he had been hurt, but he said he was sad because his Mommy was going to miss it. (and I felt that little tug in my heart, that miracles always cause). We kept a close eye on it, and his Mommy got here just in time to see it take flight and go off out of sight.

I did find the other cocoon, which hasn’t yet hatched. Hopefully, another group of kids will get to see this little miracle at Peaceful Valley Farm!

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Easter Eggs Au Natural-recipes for natural color

Today, we dyed eggs with natural, food based colors and had some really great results. I will admit, that some of them were woefully slow and not too eggciting in the color department, so I added a few drops of food coloring to take them up a notch. This is what we got, using Blackberries, red Cabbage, Spirulina, Paprika, and beets. Fill a 1/2 pint jar (or equivalent size cup) with the food stuffs, chopped up, pour boiling water over it, and let sit about 1/2 hour. Add 2 tbsp of vinegar. For Paprika (which was my fave color) used 2 TBSP Paprika, to 1/2 pint water + vinegar. For the Blackberry colors, smoosh them up.

Au natural takes longer, but the colors (especially on our already multi colored eggs) are beautiful!

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Bad News/Good News- the story of two ducklings

The bad news is that over the weekend we lost power for 5 hours, during the day. It was the most rain and wind we have had in ages and I’m always thankful for the rain. This time of year, I’m in full hatch mode, filling my incubators with fertile eggs. I ended up losing about 12 dozen eggs, in various states of incubation, some only a few days from hatching.

In the past, when this has happened, I tried SO hard to save them. Then, I had some that had just hatched, some in progress. I slept, some, on the couch, with the dog, so I could keep stoking the woodstove, which had eggs, in towels, in casserole dishes piled all around it. All I got in the end was a poor night’s sleep (although Emma Bean is a GREAT snuggler) and a bunch of dead chicks.

This time, I had one Aracona duckling that had hatched a few minutes before we lost power, and one that had started pecking its way out. I covered all the incubators with towels and watched the ducklings progress. The first one was doing ok, not shivering yet, and starting to fluff out. But the second one was stuck in it’s egg. It was starting to get clammy in the incubator and he was struggling to survive with only a tiny hole pecked through.
I started a big fire, finished the pipping by breaking the shell open, removing all the egg goo left on the duck, and toweling it off. Then I put a rack on the wood stove, a towel on a casserole dish, and the just born ducklings in the towel, wrapped up like a little sauna tee pee with a small hole in the top, on the rack. I’d let it sit there until the glass held some heat, then put it on the hearth for a while, over and over again, for 5 hours.

This time, for my efforts I got this

Welcome to Stormy and Windy, who spent the remainder of the evening curled up on my shoulder, under my hair, snoozing!

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A hunting we will go- the misadventures of a farm cat

We have farm cats, as all farms should.

They kind of suck at their jobs. My favorite one, Carlos,

disappeared a few months ago and miss him terribly. He was the fierce killer of rats and gophers. Tigger, the tabby, is 11 or so years old, and just not quite fast enough to catch the beasties.

And Bindi, the gray one, well,this is how she hunts.

Do you see the fierce teeth on that gopher?? (insert Monty Python quote here). It almost got away, but I pushed it back to her with a stick. It grabbed onto the stick and wouldn’t let go!

In the end, she ate the whole thing-teeth and all. While my eager Farm Campers cheered her on.

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By the stick, or by the carrot

LOOK AT WHAT I HAVE GROWN, PEOPLE!! 

These are my first carrots, and to say I was giddy when I plucked them from the dirt would not be exaggerating.  They are small to mid-sized and oh-so-sweet and almost buttery!  I fed the tops to my sweet lambkins.

Now I have to try not to obsess about the best use of them, and just MAKE use of them. (It’s a common mistake I make…I grow something that’s so special and fabulous to me, that I wait for the perfect way to use it.   The end result, too often, has been a soggy mess of organic goodness in the “rotter”, AKA the crisper in the fridge.)

There are many more carrots, in all sizes, shapes and colors, to come, so forgive me in advance for my excitement!