Friday, December 31, 2010

Egg Count 13

I've had a chance to tally the egg count for December, and so the final data for an entire year in eggs. First, the month.

During December, the 315 hens of Ecotone laid a total of 353.04 dozen, or 4,236.48 eggs. Along with the cold, the increase in the number of eggs laid has increased the amount of grain the hens ate, up from last month to 78.55 pounds of grain per day. That works out to a grand total of 2,435 pounds of grain, or 6.90 lbs. per dozen.
The daily average for the month of December, then, was 11.39 dozen per day, or 136.66 eggs per day, which is a monthly rate of lay approaching 44% -- not bad for heritage breed hens!

Above and below are photographs of several eggs from a single day of lay in the flock. Note that the extra-large one had two yolks, while the smallest had none at all. It does indeed take all types!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Snow Piglets

On December 12th, the household and friends of farm member and philosopher Sarah Tyson visited the farm. Braving the snow from Nashville, they came to visit the piglets, but helped sow winter pasture seed in the falling snow and collected the day's eggs as well. Below are some photos from the day.
At first, Rambo was the only pig with enough manners to come out and greet the visitors. Well, he may have simply thought we represented the coming of more food. Either way, it was good to see him.
Because they came to visit at a time with piglets from Sadie - who is by far the more gentle and predictable of our Red Wattle sows - they were able to go inside the farrowing hut and visit them under the warm glow of the heat lamp.
Only after everyone left did momma pig and piglets venture out to sniff around the snow. And, indeed, there was food for all!
Above the seven piglets root around the water, with the runt at the front right.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group

I'm honored and humbled to report that I've been elected to serve a three-year term on the Board of Directors for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG). For the last twenty or so years, SSAWG has been promoting sustainable agriculture across the South, both with behind the scenes policy making, as well as with an annual practical skills conference.

This year the conference will be held in Chattanooga, TN from January 19-22. Early registration is due by December 20. This conference is by no means for farmers only. There are lots of folks there who are simply interested in farming, learning a bit more, and making agrarian friends across the region. If you're at all interested and have the time, I highly encourage you to consider attending. Next year the conference will be in Little Rock, so it's as close as it'll ever be! If you can't make it to the conference, but are otherwise interested in supporting sustainable agriculture in the South, you can make a tax deductible contribution to the organization here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Piglets 3

On Sunday December 5th, Jonathan and Hugh came over for the always fun chore of "working the piglets." And as is the case with most things on the farm, this second time around was much easier. After luring Sadie out of the farrowing hut, they blocked her re-entrance with an old door while I went in and quickly put the piglets in a carrier and made my way out the back.

The trick is to keep the piglets as close to the ground as possible while you're picking them up. When their feet are off the ground, they scream. When they scream, momma gets upset. When momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

While one piglet mysteriously disappeared on their second night, there are seven happy piglets remaining. Thus, out of Sadie's second litter there were 4 females and 3 males, with the ever-present runt being a male. We notched their ears and wormed them all, and castrated the males.

In other news, I've traded two gilts from this litter for two Berkshire gilts from Trew Organic Farms in Ocoee, TN. This will allow us to do some crossbreeding for hybrid vigor, which will be good for those hogs destined for the table, as well as have piglets for sale more regularly throughout the year. Out of this litter, though, we're keeping the rest to feed out for ourselves and several folks who have already indicated an interest. Ruby, however, is most certainly pregnant, as her milk began dropping early this week, and so I expect we'll have another litter very soon.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Egg Count 12

The egg count for November was 280 dozen, or 3,363 eggs, from 315 hens, which works out to an average of 9.34 dozen per day. Thankfully, this represents a significant turn around from the last few months. During November, the Ecotone hens ate 1,850 pounds of grain, or 61.67 pounds per day. If you're following the ongoing grain to egg ratio, this is .55 lbs. of grain for each egg, or 6.6 lbs. per dozen. Like the egg count more generally, these numbers reflect a welcome return to the price of a dozen eggs being lower than their cost.

To some, this turn around may seem counter-intuitive. As you may know, the number of eggs a hen lays over the course of a year is directly related to the number of hours of daylight. As we approach the equinox and the days continue to get shorter, in other words, the number of eggs naturally wanes. Because we've had such low numbers over the course of the summer, and because Animal Welfare Approved allows supplemental light not to exceed 16 hours a day, we decided to experiment with this option.

On November 27th, Jonathan helped run electricity through the pasture to the hens (and pigs), and we successfully installed several CFL lights on a timer. I began the hens off slow, giving them an hour or so of extra light at both ends of the day. As of today, with sunrise set for 6:51 a.m., and sunset scheduled for 4:34 pm., we're just barely getting 9 hours of daylight. Three weeks after installing the lights, the hens (and I) are getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to sleep at 6:30 p.m., which gives them roughly 14 hours of light. Thus, the eggs.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Day Late, Plus Eight

On Monday, November 29th, Sadie gave birth to eight healthy piglets. Not wanting to disturb them too much, I lifted back the tarp covering their house only a little bit, so the resulting video is a little dark.

That morning, C.J. was in the process of getting the farrowing huts ready for the next round of piglets when he realized he hadn't seen Sadie yet that day, and that the other pigs were standing at the fence looking anxious. Realizing what was afoot, he went back into the woods where the pigs are eating this year's mast and - sure enough - Sadie was in labor with two piglets already having been born, under a nice oak tree and right next to several old, discarded tires.

With rain and freezing temperatures approaching within hours, the panicky new farmer began running around trying to figure out what to do. After first preparing to move mom and babies into the fancy farrowing huts he built for them, the plan changed; he now decided to take the hut to them. With the help of Jim and Jonathan Smith - the dynamic father-son neighbor duo that has helped C.J. so much over the last two years - they carefully lifted a lighter shelter over Sadie and her now seven piglets. They were then covered from the rain, just beginning to fall from the sky, and extensions cords provided the electricity for the heat lamps to ward off the chill from the night to come. The eighth soon followed.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Good Husbandry Grant

I'm happy to announce that Ecotone has been selected to receive a grant through the Animal Welfare Approved Good Husbandry Program. This grant - awarded at $5,000 - will enable the full and timely completion of a poultry mobile processing unit (MPU), scheduled for debut at the Tennessee Organic Grower's Association meeting in March 2011.

For the interested, find below the details of the grant proposal. In the service of transparency, I will also begin to track its expenses and construction, both as an exercise particular to this project, as well as an initial step toward a more comprehensive policy of open accounting for the farm generally. Finally, throughout are some recent photos of the farm this fall, as well as three photos of the unit at Foothill Family Farms in North Carolina that sparked this idea, and is the basic model on which we'll proceed.
The goal of this project is to complete a poultry mobile processing unit (MPU) to be made available subsequently for rent to regional farmers wishing and willing to process their own animals, on their own farm, in a welfare oriented way. Currently there is only one small-scale poultry processor in a five state region.
For both homesteaders and farmers, then, this MPU will serve a direct and vital need, and will be the primary vehicle for the new agrarian coalition F.L.A.G., or Farmers for Local Animals and Grain, which aims to promote local food sovereignty and the transparency of farming practices and marketing claims.
Over the last year, in cooperation with two other local farmers, we have acquired the following items to complete this project: a 28' double-axle trailer, a rotating scalder and plucker, and a stainless steel evisceration table. In addition, we have built several iterations of slaughter cones, to be attached in an exchangeable way for different size poultry. Funding from this grant will facilitate the completion of this project, including major renovations to the trailer. The outcome will be the regional availability of a major piece of agricultural equipment for which there is a direct and vital need.
Mobile processing units are of significant benefit to farm animals. Without the enormous stresses associated with transport - catching, caging, moving, and unloading - the MPU is especially beneficial to poultry, which are often caught the night before, overnighted in transport pens, and unloaded hours later, many miles away, by people working as quickly as possible. With a MPU, it is conceivable that birds never even have to leave their enclosures on pasture.
The MPU, moreover, will be a classroom on wheels, and inevitably be a space for the agrarian education of farmers and eaters. As we have seen just with this equipment on the farm, both producers and consumers are eager to learn how their food is raised and prepared and, in turn, to learn how to raise and prepare their food. In short, this MPU will enable people to eat and live in ways that are beneficial to themselves, their neighbors, and the lives and places that sustain them both.
Once the already significant expenses of this project are recovered, the MPU will improve the viability of Ecotone by providing an alternative source of income through rental and processing services, and an ongoing means for agrarian education, which is one of the primary aims of the farm.
As a cooperative project, however, the MPU will have a much more significant and widespread effect. By enabling local farmers to process their own poultry, on their own farms and in welfare oriented ways, not only are the expenses and stresses of transportation to the nearest facility in Kentucky eliminated, but one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for building local food economies will be available for use by the general public. In short, this grant will improve the viability of many farms throughout the local and regional food-shed.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Egg Count 11

The egg count for October was 130.44 dozen, or 4.21 dozen per day, from 319 hens. If you've been keeping up with the count, then you know that this represents a significant turnaround from last month. It seems that the main problem concerned the hens not getting enough of their vitamin and mineral supplement mix, Fertrell's, which had been offered free-choice since the transition to organic feed grains.

On October 12, I began to mix the Fertrell's into their feed by hand. On that day the count was 1 dozen total. By October 14, the total count had climbed to 2.5 total. A week later the count had risen to 5.5 dozen. By the end of the month, the total daily egg count was close to 10 dozen.
This is really sort of remarkable. Over the last two weeks of October, once I began to hand-mix the Fertrell's into their grain ration, the number of eggs laid by the Ecotone hens rose by almost 1,000% a day. Cumulatively, from October 12 to the end of the month, there was a 866% increase in the number of eggs laid on the farm!

Even with these numbers, the feed conversion ratio remained rather high. For the month of October, the average amount of grain it took for each dozen eggs was 12.27 lbs per dozen, or just over a pound per egg. This put the cost of each dozen eggs from Ecotone at $3.68. Given the last two months of significant costs and very few eggs - where the average cost of a dozen was $11.60 - this is no doubt encouraging, but still some tough accounting.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Lessons in Leverage

The art of raising pastured poultry requires frequent moving. Once each flock of chickens has spent a few days in one location, with their two roosting tractors and one nesting tractor as the center of their world and a ring of electric netting defining its perimeter, they've had enough time to scratch and peck through almost every inch of their territory, gleaning nutritious bugs as they go and depositing precious fertilizer. Then it's time for fresh ground.

Moving the roosting tractors and nesting tractor used to be a frustrating and daunting activity requiring two people, back when we were using flimsy little warehouse-style dollies. Now that CJ has custom-welded these fancy new special dollies (in red) with a five-foot wheelbase and curved spot where the base of the pen sits snug, he is able to move them by himself, realizing a major goal in hen husbandry.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cluck Old Hen

Upon recommendation of the Pastured Poet, I began to sing this song to the hens in the morning and evenings as a greeting. It seems to be working. The eggs seem to be coming back.

I got a hen, pretty good hen.
She lays eggs for the railroad men.

Sometimes one, sometimes two.
Sometimes enough for the whole dang crew.

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing
Ain't laid an egg since away last spring.

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall.
Ain't laid an egg since away last fall.

Well, perhaps it's my melody, or perhaps it's due to the fact that on October 12th I began to mix in the organic (non-Methionine) Fertrell's that was being offered free choice until then. That day, I mixed in roughly 25 pounds of the Nutri-balancer to 100 pounds of feed per flock. The total egg count on the 12th was 1.25 dozen. Two days later on the 14th, the count jumped to 1.25 dozen per flock, which is more than we've collected in day for months.

On Sunday, the 17th, still waiting for the other formula of Fertrell's to arrive, I went ahead and mixed in another 15 pounds per 100 pounds of grain for each flock. That day, the count was 1.83 dozen for Flock A and 2.33 dozen for Flock B. Yesterday's total egg count was 4.83 dozen.
So stay tuned out there! Eggs will soon be rolling your way! Until then, the return of hens clucking outside my window is a welcome sound indeed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Radical Agrarianism 3

Next week the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (C.I.W.) will bring to Nashville the Mobile Slavery Museum, which documents contemporary agricultural slavery in the balmy fields of Florida. On Monday the museum will be parked on Alumni Lawn on the Vanderbilt campus from 9 am to 4 pm. Check out this article, and the links above, for more information. Eat local. Live free.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to Read a Chicken

As always with ongoing experience, new hypotheses emerge. Lately I'd come to think that the egg problem was nutritional in nature. The problem, I thought, either had to do with the size of the grind itself - the most significant evidence for which is the fact that industrial operations do it, and because it costs more to do so, you gotta figure there's a reason for it - or that the hens were not getting enough of their vitamin premix and calcium. Since the transition to organic grains, these supplements were offered free choice only, or not mixed in with their regular rations. The Fertrell's Poultry Nutri-balancer premix is formulated for 60 pounds per ton, and it was obvious that they weren't ingesting it at that rate.

Also with the transition to organic, we switched over to the organic formulation of the Fertrell's itself, which is identical to its non-organic counterpart expect in containing a synthetic version of the amino acid Methionine. This amino is crucial for laying hens in particular, and is only found naturally in animal proteins, e.g., insects, frogs, rodents, worms, etc., that the birds consume on pasture. (Remember: chickens are not vegetarians.) Currently there is a USDA exemption for Methionine in organic production simply because there is no available alternative on the market.

So yesterday I spoke with the poultry nutrition guru at Fertrell's, Jeff Maddox, and after describing the situation he identified the following two potential problems. The first concerned the temperature at which the soybeans are roasted. For cattle and other ruminants, soybeans are typically roasted at 270 degrees for 20 minutes. For poultry and pigs, however, the temperature must be higher for longer, ideally at 300 degrees for at least 25 minutes. The second potential issue was indeed a Methionine deficiency, which he diagnosed through the hens occasionally eating small, fluffy feathers that have fallen to the ground. (Again, think about lacking adequate animal proteins, of which feathers are nothing but.) Jeff recommended switching back to the original Fertrell's formula.
Also yesterday I went up to get this month's feed from Windy Acres. Mr. Farris takes his beans J&M Farms in Guthrie, KY, which is an organic dairy that has the only known independent roaster in the region. And, indeed, after speaking with the folks at J&M this morning, they're roasting the soybeans between 245 and 260 degrees. So either we're going to raise the temperature adequately, or roast the beans and keep them warm for a longer period of time. Temperature recommendations are 270 degrees for 25 minutes, 260 degrees for 35 minutes, or 250 degrees for 45 minutes. As for the Methionine, I've ordered the original Fertrell's formula, and it should be in within the week. (Incidentally, we also get the Fertrell's and the other minerals we use on the farm from the folks at J&M Farm.) Alternatively, Jeff said, the Methionine requirement can be met with 25 to 40 pounds of fish meal per ton, but this is not allowed in organic production.

In addition to these changes, I'm moving the hens through the pasture fairly quickly to get them in place for the winter. Once bivouacked I plan on introducing some lights to extend the appearance of day light and so induce them to lay. Animal Welfare Approved standards allow such artificial light, not to exceed 16 hours total per day. I have until now resisted this option as a husband, instead wanting to allow the hens an "all natural" laying cycle with the seasons. But people want to eat farm-fresh eggs year round, and its seems like many farmers do this just to pay the feed bills on heritage breed hens. Otherwise, I'm told, you're just keeping pet chickens. I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Egg Count 10

The egg count for September stands at a grand total of 31.55 dozen, or 1.51 dozen per day. The worst month yet for eggs since the first flock of hens began to lay last September. And rather than bemoan the obvious, I thought I'd just post some recent photos.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Machine

Well after almost a full year of research, thinking, and financial planning, the machine has arrived. This tractor is a new Mahindra 4025, with 40 horsepower, 2 wheel drive, and loader. I purchased it at Highland Rim Tractor in Goodlettsville, which has been selling Mahindra tractors for 35 years. While Mahindra is an Indian company, this tractor was assembled with American labor at their assembly in Chattanooga with several significant American parts, such as Bosch pumps.
In 2009 Mahindra was the best-selling tractor in the world, and to thank all those past customers the company was offering a manufacture's discount that made this machine quite affordable. Indeed, it was almost cheaper than a used one, and with a 5 year warranty was hard to beat. As Jerry pulled the tractor off the trailer this morning, he told me to take good care of it and my kids will be driving it. And while I'm certainly going to do that, I don't think I'm going to jump to any conclusions about the next generation's agrarian aspirations. Until then, I'd stay out of them bushes!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fieldnotes 1

Just a few notes from the farm. As you may have noticed, the availability of Ecotone eggs continues to be very low. The hens continue to lay less than a dozen eggs per day, total. As I've suggested several times, this is primarily due to the heat, both the early and sustained abnormally high temperatures, and the late and continuing days with average highs in the 90's. For each flock, its consequences have been different.

For the year old hens, I think the stress of the heat triggered an early and prolonged molt. While the Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons seem to have molted almost entirely, the Barred Rocks just appear to be entering the last half. Egg laying naturally tapers off and ceases during molt, and usually lasts about 4-6 weeks. Many industrial egg farms discard hens as soon as they enter their first molt because it's simply more economic to do so. Not only do they not have to feed them for all those days they're not laying eggs, the industrial hybrid hens they use lay upwards of 350 eggs a year, and have at that point just about laid their productive lives away.

For the pullets, I think the heat has caused a different, more complicated effect. To develop normally, growing pullets need a specific protein to fat ratio in the first six months of life. If pullets are either too fat or too skinny when they begin to lay, their metabolism is disrupted such that they'll never really lay to their potential. As I indicated in Egg Count 9, one consequence of the heat is a diminished appetite. In the summer, therefore, the crude protein of the ration should be increased so that they are eating the same amount of protein even though they are eating less feed overall.

While I learned this interesting bit of ration reasoning a bit late, for most of the hottest part of the summer I did hand-mix cracked, roasted soybeans into their feed to achieve the effect. To determine whether it worked or not, however, we must wait until it cools off. If it did, their delay is a rather superficial problem and should correct itself when average ambient temperatures fall below 85 degrees. If it didn't work, the delay might indicate a more significant problem, which could amount to something akin to a "crop loss" for this season's laying flock. Who knew there could be such a thing in chicken farming?!
In any case, just know that for any day above 90 degrees, it's pretty certain there will be very few eggs. During those few days recently when highs were in the 80s, for example, the hens responded in kind with only a day or two lag in laying. And so as long as such temperatures are in the forecast, I forecast a continuing dearth of eggs. For those who find the craving for eggs insatiable regardless of the season, or for those who receive eggs through the Bells Bend CSA and are approaching the end of the season, there are, then, a couple of options.

First, and above all, if you have an Endless Egg Basket account with us (i.e., if you've paid for a certain number of dozen ahead of time), and would like to begin to get eggs from another source, please know that at any point I am more than happy to refund the balance on your account in full. If you'd like a refund, or just to know the status of your account, please just drop me an email. Second, of course, is the grocery store. Might I recommend a new local food shop on 12th Ave South I recently discovered, Greenlight Market and Deli, which has local pastured eggs of roughly the same quality for sale. Finally, if you're a member of the Bells Bend CSA and would like to continue receiving eggs beyond the end of the vegetable season, know that there will be several similar drop-offs or delivery routes for the winter months.

To all those loyal Ecotone egg eaters out there, thanks for your patience and concern for the hens' well-being! To all those folks who are on the waiting list for regular eggs, thanks for your continuing interest in Ecotone eggs! While I apologize for misjudging the number of eggs that were going to be available this summer, I don't think I could have anticipated such temperatures into the third week of September! But there is one thing on which I'll venture a forecast: when the leaves begin to fall in earnest, the eggs will again begin to roll.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Animal Welfare Approved

On Monday September 13th, Rob Stokes of Animal Welfare Approved came to Ecotone to conduct a first annual audit of our farm and facilities. And while it's not yet official, I'm very pleased to report that we did quite well. With the exception of castration - their standards require 7 days or before, and we did it around 14 days - there were no significant problems. And this, he told me, was especially impressive with our laying flocks. Most folks apparently have some work to do with their chickens before being approved, and all he advised us to do was lower a waterer a bit and not to stuff the nests too full with straw. Below is some information from their website, the link of which is above, that I edited a bit for the blog.

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) was founded in 2006 as a market-based solution to growing consumer interest in how farm animals are raised and desire to know where their food is coming from and how it is produced. AWA grants the use of its logo to farms that are annually audited and found to comply with their rigorous animal welfare standards. Seeing the AWA seal on meat, dairy and egg products gives consumers a way to identify products originating from farming systems that take animal welfare seriously, and it gives farmers a way to show their customers how they farm. Crucially, this certification comes at no charge to farmers. Because AWA is not financially dependent on farmer fees, they are better able to remain unbiased and transparent in auditing and certification.

The AWA standards are the most rigorous and progressive animal care requirements in the nation, and the only requiring animals to be raised outdoors, on pasture or range. Continuously ranked as the “most stringent” of all third-party certifiers by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, AWA standards have been developed in collaboration with scientists, veterinarians, researchers, and farmers across the globe to maximize practicable, high-welfare farm management. AWA’s standards incorporate best practices and recent research and have been adopted only after rigorous review. The basic premise of all the standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being.

To accomplish the goals of the Animal Welfare Approved program, all standards address every aspect of each species’ lifecycle needs from birth to death. Animal Welfare Approved works diligently to maintain a farm’s ability to be economically viable and the standards have been proven to be achievable by the vast majority of farm situations. Animal Welfare Approved reviews its standards annually, updating them as needed to incorporate new research and on-farm findings.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Egg Count 9

The egg count for August stands at 43.65 dozen, or 1.41 dozen a day. Not only is this the lowest number of eggs since I began such an accounting, it also includes this year's flock of pullets, which are now 30 or so weeks old and should be well into laying. That 1.41 dozen per day average, in other words, is from roughly 300 laying-age chickens.
Of course, if you eat Ecotone eggs on any kind of regular basis, you already knew this. For the entire month of August, egg availability was at an all-time low. As I've suggested before, the ultimate source of the problem is the heat. But it's also just part of the deal when you remove chickens from climate controlled buildings and put them outside on pasture. By controlling the temperature and regulating the light, industrial egg farms maximize the number of eggs a hen can lay, which leads to physiological burnout and culling within the first year, and is the ultimate source of cheap, plentiful eggs year-round. Powered by petroleum and seasoned with salmonella, naturally.

But just to give you a sense of the economics of such a month on a small farm, I ran the numbers on feed costs. For chickens as for people, one by-product of the heat is a diminished appetite. Daily grain consumption was down to .15 pounds of grain per hen, or a total of 1,326 pounds for the month. Of course, grain is the same price whether they are laying are not, and given the month's totals, that puts the cost of each dozen eggs from Ecotone at $9.06, or .75 cents an egg. Given how many dozen eggs were laid in August, the feed to egg ratio this month was roughly 30 pounds of grain per dozen, or 2.5 pounds per egg.

Monday, September 13, 2010


The last piglet finally found a home! After several folks saying they wanted her but backing out, the final gilt from the first litter moved to Pink Guitar Farm in Bon Aqua, Tennessee. These lovely folks are transplants from California, moving to the glorious southeast for more space, one can only assume cheaper land, and, above all else, plentiful water. Last year, they also bought a pair Narragansett turkeys from us, which they still have and are hoping to raise poults from next year. Here's the gilt talking through the fence to her new boar-friend.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

David Bradley Redux

A few weeks ago, after having long grown tired of trying to start the David Bradley to do small chores around the farm, I loaded her up in the truck for a ride. A neighbor down the road had recently placed a sign out front advertising work on small engines, and so I stopped by to see if he could or would work on my old hand tractor.

Jack, of J&R Machine Shop, had recently moved to Tennessee from New York state to help care for his grandson, and was more than willing to have a look at the antique workhorse. And well, wouldn't you know, he immediately fell in love with the thing. He even offered to buy it!

He got the engine running smoother than perhaps it's ever run, and just for fun (i.e., for free!) worked a few days on the aesthetics of the old machine. Here are some photos that show the refurbishments, shiny and sleek, so that maybe - just maybe - Jennifer will begin to think my tractor's sexy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Egg Count 8

I've finally had a chance to look at July's egg count, which is the lowest since high winter. In total, the hens of Ecotone laid 1,623 eggs, or 135.25 dozen.

At the beginning of the month we transitioned both laying flocks to a certified organic grain ration, grown locally by Mr. Alfred Farris of Windy Acres Farm in Orlinda, Tennessee. Combined with the high quality of this grain, the low metabolism of one flock coming into molt (they pretty much stop laying), and the high heat of summer, feed consumption dropped considerably from previous months.

The approximately 300 chickens of both flocks, that is, ate 1,638 pounds of grain, or 52.86 lbs. a day. If you're following the ongoing accounting, that's 12.12 pounds of grain for each dozen eggs, or roughly a pound an egg. While the shape of these numbers hasn't been as sad since last winter - amid all that snow and silence - the hens nevertheless managed to contribute $66.27 of net income to the Ecotone economy.
Given how little I've been working outside because of teaching and the heat - about half an hour a day for the hens - that's roughly $4.28 an hour for my time to work with these chickens and their eggs. Not bad, really, for the chance to live, work, and learn at Ecotone: an experimental farm in the service of, among other things, a metaphysical riddle. But with the month's seasonal pressures and structural changes (i.e., the organic transition), this fact is in fact a pleasant surprise. And the eggs are pretty good too.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rules of the Wrangle

Well, all but two of the piglets have made their way to new homes! Over the last two days, folks from as far away as Kentucky and North Carolina came to Ecotone to pick up these fine little hogs, some for breeding and some for feeding.
Of course, catching them in the field is easier said than done. After having several sessions of pure farm folly - picture us running around the pasture trying to catch them by hand - I came up with the idea of a trap constructed with T-posts and pallets. The first person to come by saw the trap function in all its glory. With one drop of the door, I caught all the piglets. The second attempt, however, did not go as well. Here are some rules for piglet wranglin' that I came up with in the hours after the first piglets left, trying to catch the rest.

1) Porcine Patience: Patience is the first rule for dealing with pigs. You cannot force pigs to do anything they do not want to do. Period. Pigs are intelligent. They understand what you're up to, especially if they've seen it before. Now I cannot speak to the capacity for long-term memory in pigs, but I do know that it lasts for at least several days. The second round of piglets were surely aware of what was going on, refusing to go into the trap and making themselves scarce in the bushes. By this time they had also had plenty to eat, and so were that much less inclined to cooperate.

2) Time of Day: If you must wrangle pigs, do so at dawn or dusk. Trying to convince them in the heat of the day, when it's not feeding time and when their preference is to wallow in the mud, is futile. Approach porcine when they're hungry and when it's cool.
3) Have a Plan: Do not simply start working with pigs without a plan. By the time our piglets left, they were a healthy 35 lbs. of pure muscle. If you grab one, have an idea about where you're going, and who's helping.

4) Do Not Attempt Alone: Following the previous rule, it is silly to try to work with piglets alone. The adult animals are slower, and know that you represent the Platonic forms of Corn and Soy. Piglets, however, see humans differently. To them we are unpredictable, strange, and scary. Though sometimes we show up with goodies too delicious to resist, often we show up with other, less pleasant, ends in view.

5) Respect the Sow: Most of these old-style pigs, raised outdoors on pasture, retain strong maternal instincts. Some even build elaborate nests of brush and sticks and whatnot. When attempting to retrieve piglets, treat the sows with the utmost respect. They weigh around 400 lbs. each, and are seriously committed to their piglets. Talk nicely, and try to explain what's going on. But if this doesn't work - and we all know reason has its limits - get the hell out of her way. No matter how sweet she is normally, liking her ears and belly scratched in the mud, when you're trying to get her babies, she's trying to get you. They go for your knees, and with a good bite could really do some damage. So respect her. Thank her. And you'll be back on her good side in a few days. With plenty of food.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Raised Jawbones

On the night of July 4th, Cletus went missing. He wasn't there to greet me at dawn, and he wasn't around to guard the hens at night. He was gone. We assumed he got spooked by all the fireworks, but I saw him late that night after much of the bang had already blown up all those bucks.

After not returning the first night, I began to walk the woods between our place and the interstate, crisscrossing my neighbor's place several times in several ways. Along the way, with Ozark in the lead, we came across a full bovine skeleton. My eye fell upon this bone, which I immediately recognized from a Billy Collins poem I'd read that morning.

This love for the petty things,
part natural from the slow eye of childhood,
part a literary affectation,

this attention to the morning flower
and later in the day to a fly
strolling along the rim of a wineglass -

are we just avoiding the one true destiny,
when we do that? averting our eyes from
Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat?

The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone from the infinity of death,
nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.

So why bother with the checkerboard lighthouse?
Why waste time on the sparrow,
or the wildflowers along the roadside

when we should all be alone in our rooms
throwing ourselves against the wall of life
and the opposite wall of death,

the door locked behind us
as we hurl ourselves at the question of meaning,
and the enigma of our origins?

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

when ultimately we are meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

banging way on nothingness itself,
some with their foreheads,
others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of

- "No Things," Balistics (2010)

I found Cletus a few days later through the vet's office. A very nice neighbor had found him on the morning of the 5th, scared and limping, and was taking very good care of him. Everyone, but especially Daisy, was happy to have him come home.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The 11th Commandment

Even though it's longer than all the others combined, I thought this suggestion for an 11th Commandment, quoted by David Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007), was appropriate:

"Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from erosion...and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail this stewardship of the land...thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from the face of the Earth."

- W.C. Lowdermilk, Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years, Agricultural Information Bulletin 99 (1953), U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Egg Count 7

The egg count for June stands at 179.5 dozen, or 2,154 eggs. That's an average of 5.98 dozen per day. With roughly 135 hens, eating about 50 pounds per day, that's 8.36 pounds of grain per dozen on average.

Even though we're in the midst of the longest days of the year, with rising temperatures the hens have slowed down laying considerably. It turns out that eggs are not simply dearer in the winter, but in the summer as well. Raising animals outside, on pasture and with the seasons, means following its cycles of activity and resource availability. Summer is slow. Take naps. Stay cool.
Some of you may have also noticed that the eggs are a bit smaller than normal, and that their color has lightened significantly. Interestingly, both of these changes are in response to the heat, and should vary throughout the season. I hope you find these variations charming, interesting, and perhaps even meaningful. Every egg is a unique gift from an individual hen, and for me their differences represent this utter specificity of the edible, the radical particularity of food. As Mr. Berry says, "when you quit living in the price and start living in the place, you're in a different line of succession."

Monday, June 28, 2010


Just over a week ago, Jonathan and I went up to Windy Acres Farm in Orlinda, TN and picked up the newest resident of Ecotone. Lila is a four month old 3/4 Dutch Belted and 1/4 Milking Shorthorn calf, and will produce roughly 2-3 gallons of milk a day when she's mature.
Lila came to live with us for two reasons, the first of which is to move ahead of the chickens and pigs in the pasture rotation, eating the tall grass down for the critters to follow. The second reason, of course, is to provide milk and other sources of protein to the humans and other animals on the farm. Since arriving at Ecotone, Lila has stayed in the backyard, hiding behind the dove aviary during the heat of the day, and venturing out only in the evenings to graze and provide the occasional "Mooooo".

Monday, June 21, 2010


Speaking of eating free, I'm happy to report that we're now participating in the Food Reclamation Project, a program organized through Hands On Nashville. Vendors at the Nashville Farmer's Market support the project by donating their "less-than-prime" produce (read: flawed, mostly superficially, thrown away due to our fickle industrial food aesthetic) to a group of volunteers who further sort it into human-grade quality and not. The former is then delivered to local feeding agencies and homeless shelters, while the lesser quality foodstuffs are reincorporated into the local agro-ecology.
Until recently, most of this food was directed to local community gardens for composting, which is one great way to remove organic material from the waste stream and put it back into the food cycle. Now, however, we are coordinating with the project to pick up this busted, bruised, and slightly moldy (but sometimes astonishingly perfect!) food two days a week for the Ecotone sounder. Last week, I could barely fit it all in my truck!
As you may know, pigs are remarkably similar to human in digestive anatomy. With single chamber stomachs they are omnivores, and are well-known for eating most anything and everything you put in front of them. This, of course, doesn't mean that they should or would eat those things, if given a wide variety from which to choose; but it is why they are traditionally considered unclean to eat. But it's also exactly why pigs were domesticated: because of their remarkable ability to turn all or most agricultural by-products into edible animal protein. Whether it was compost from the garden, whey from the dairy animals, or scraps from the kitchen, pigs are a crucial part of the feeding ecology for many smallholders and householders - that is, those subsistence agriculturists comprising three-quarters of the world's population.
In this sense, I've been thinking about how this project in general, and the pigs roles in particular, are good examples of gleaning, an ancient set of practices associated with the common rights to gather the remainder left in a field after harvest. Needless to say, all the pigs at Ecotone are happy to oblige in this role, and sometime in the future - after we've helped turn that so-called waste into protein - we'll return it to the project in the form of food.

Radical Agrarianism 3

Wendell Berry now appears ready to go to jail in civil disobedience against the proposed national animal identification program (NAIS). You can hear him here.

Eat free or die!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Working the Piglets

Last Thursday, Ben from Pleasant View Mill came down to the farm and taught Jonathan, Jennifer, and I how to "work" hogs, which includes ear notching (for ID), worming (only as necessary), and, of course, castration. We worked the 8 piglets from Sadie's litter, of which there was one female and seven males. We castrated all but two of the biggest males, and so have one gilt, two boars, and five barrows for sale out of that litter.
We also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Ruby to let us do the same with her litter. As I was sealing her in the farrowing hut to gather the piglets without being killed by an angry sow, she jumped out over the top, screaming like a dinosaur the whole time! Needless to say, it was sort of scary, both because she was clearly upset, and I was afraid of her hurting herself. Once out, however, she barked loudly, calling her piglets together, and off they went into the bush for a full day and a half before I saw them again. We plan to try again in a few days. Of the six piglets in this litter, I know from observation that there are at least two gilts, maybe three, and we'll castrate at least one of the males.
If you're interested in getting a piglet out of this litter, please do consider sending a deposit soon, as they're going fast! For feeders, please send $50 per hog as a deposit, with the remaining $50 due at pick-up. For breeders, please sent $100 per hog as a deposit, with the remaining due at pick-up. The prices for breeder quality stock are $250 for gilts, and $350 for boars. I am interested in trading piglets for unrelated stock as well.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Egg Count 6

The May egg count stands at 238 dozen, or 2,856 eggs, which is just under 8 dozen per day. The number of hens in Flock #1 has dropped slightly this month, and the heat seems to have slowed them down. Instead of the hens laying all the eggs before early afternoon, they appear to be breaking up into two groups, one finishing before late morning and the other beginning in the late afternoon. Because Flock #2 has yet to start laying, I don't have any firm numbers on the feed to egg ratio this month. Here are some photos my friend Scott took during his recent visit to Nashville and the farm.