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Winter has come upon us, and with it snow, rain, an awkward array of both, and time. Time for rest, recuperation, and maybe most importantly: reflection. Sure the goats need feeding, and the wood needs splitting, but the time for computer and calendar work is at hand. Some may find it a tedious chore, but I personally find it one of the most exciting and rewarding times of the year. The other seasons seem to whiz past at exponential speed. Spring brings sunshine, warmth, and workable conditions; Summer proves even busier with irrigation, harvesting, and the constant search for shade; Fall seems to slip by the swiftest due to its demand of hasty harvest and winter prep. We enter the last leg of the race with one opponent in mind: Winter. But when the frost and frozen ground and snow finally win, and they do always win, it is time to admit defeat, hope there’s enough wood in the shed, and reflect.
That is what I’m here to do today. I want to share all the things that transpired this year, both accomplishments and failures. Being a numbers guy, I’d like to start off with a few totals for 2016.
As many of you may know, this was our first year raising goats.With it came a bounty of smaller goats, many a gallon of milk, as well as pounds of cheese. To be exact though, we had 11 kids from 5 does, 9 of them being doelings. We brought in 483 gallons of milk, and made 242 pounds of cheese with it! Not too shabby if I must say so myself.
On the poultry side, we dressed out 517 of our own broilers(which were sold out by December). That’s over one ton of meat! Along with that, we harvested 52 pounds of raspberries, 56 pounds of asparagus, and 155 pounds of strawberries. We do average more on strawberries, but we replanted all of our towers, so I was impressed to break 150 on first year plants.
That about wraps up last year, but now it’s time for the big question: what’s new this year? For one, we need more chicken. We are planning on doubling production of poultry this year, bringing us up to a whopping 1000 birds. Can we do it? We sure will try.The raspberries will come up with even more vigor this year, being their third year, and the blackberry canes I planted last year should also provide us with a decent amount of berries(enough for a few batches of jam at least). We will be milking 6-7 goats this year rather than last year’s 5, which means more milk and cheese. With it, hopefully a new weekly cheese will find its way into the rotation. I am also hoping to reseed our small pasture this winter in hopes to create some diversity out there. The grass really loves the goat and chicken manure, but the only varieties left are orchard grass and fescue which have just taken over, so some reintroduction of a few more varieties will help balance things out and give the goats some new flavor to their summertime snack.
With that I have to tend to the fire and go feed the animals. Stay tuned for our next post.
It’s been a little while since we’ve posted anything. So here’s a little blurb on what it’s like owning a Great Pyrenees and how having Chewy has helped our farm.
Many people have already met Chewy:
He’s really quite lovable and fluffy. We first came across the breed of Pyrenees in Montana at a sheep ranch and several places here in Colorado have the same breed to protect their land or just to have these beautiful dogs. Our main reason to have Chewy around is to keep predators away from our chickens. So far, he’s been doing a wonderful job.
Life before Chewy was quite a struggle in the meat bird season. Foxes, skunks, and raccoons all felt they had a feast on their hands when it came to eating our chickens. We would wake up some nights with losses of 15 or more birds and several injured. We would have to sleep in awkward quarters of the house for a good shot at these rascals in the wee hours of the night to protect our birds.
Also, I have always wanted a dog. The first time I came into contact with a Pyrenees, it was determined that I have one of my own. However, Jake was a little more hesitant at first. Guardian dogs can be great but sometimes they’re a whole new job to take on. Depending on their training, they can be aggressive, extremely territorial, and aloof towards humans. Or they can be of little help, wanting to play all day, unsure of what their purpose is and get distracted easily. Still, staying up and/or waking up all throughout the night through the summer was already becoming tiresome. So we put the word out there and weeks later we were driving to Durango to pick up Chewy from a co-op farm that had decided to hang up the hat. We brought him home the same night and the rest is history.
Fortunately, his previous owners did a wonderful job raising him to be a friendly farm dog. One that does his job well but is great around people. He was 18 months when we got him and is slightly smaller and underweight for his breed. He has some different characteristics from other Pyrenees, but has all the same natural instinct. He has also been his own share of work, in a different way than we expected. We found out his back left knee has a torn ACL. And with tons of research, discussion and inquiries from different people we decided to help his injury with a series of Prozone injections. Long story short, he has a funky walk but he is still out and about loving life, his home and his job. Having a livestock guardian dog has been eye opening. It’s taught me the difference between a working dog and a pet, but how important it is for dogs of certain breeds to truly have purpose. Our farm feels complete since the arrival of Chewy. We have only lost one chicken to a predator that was scared away before they could haul the bird away. He is always happy to see us, he is respectful of boundaries and people are able to come and go on our property without having to worry about a large dog being aggressive towards them. I always wanted a Pyrenees, but really we just needed a Chewy.
On June 22, I was invited to a stakeholders meeting for small scale poultry producers to create a framework of regulations to allow small-scale producers in the state of Colorado to process and sell their own poultry. Recently, a bill passed that allowed the sale of poultry raised processed on the farm to be sold to individuals, and called for this group to create laws that would allow producers to sell to retail outlets such as stores and restaurants.
At this meeting there were members of Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the USDA. There were small producers, a restaurant representative, an insurance agent, state officials, USDA Certified Poultry Processors, and other individuals all there to discuss what they would like to see come from this bill to allow Colorado to move forward with small-scale poultry production. Out of the producers at this meeting, I was easily the smallest scale farmer in the room, but had plenty to bring to the table, especially regarding mobile processing. I was also the only person physically present that was representing the Western Slope. Coming to this meeting was important for me because as a small scale producer and a processor, I want to make sure that we are being supported by our own state. Although Delta County and the North Fork Valley are full of smaller scale farmers- we also have the highest concentration of organic family farms in the state, and want to stay that way. There are regulations and laws that protect people that raise other meat- such as red meat, pork and other livestock, but up until now there has been nothing regarding poultry at the state level without having a facility certified by the USDA. Sadly, creating a USDA certified plant as a farmer of such a small scale is just not worth it. Plus, there isn’t one for 3 hours from here and at least one mountain pass at over 10,000 feet, which would mean certain death for the birds. This meeting was in hopes that we could make it legal for poultry producers that are not USDA certified to be able to sell at the retail level.
It’s great to be able to sell our chickens to individuals, but with the farm to table movement and the drive to support local economy, this could be the first open door for small farms to be able to sell chickens to restaurants, markets and other retail vendors. This being the first meeting, there was not much to solidify what we might see- but stay tuned. Hopefully, in the near future, you’ll be able to see Gray Acres poultry in a Colorado restaurant.
One of our main products, now that we have a small herd of dairy goats, are various types of goat cheese. Two types that we currently make are chevre and feta. Chevre is actually french for goat’s cheese, and is very creamy and fluffy. We serve the cheese in jars where it is used to spread or crumble. We also make feta- and like most people who enjoy a nice fancy salad or like pairing it with crackers, our goat cheese feta is great for any occasion. Feta is a little more acidic compared to chevre, and it is a harder cheese. Also, in comparison to chevre, it has a longer shelf life.
A common comment about goat cheese for the general population is the overall flavor and smell. There is a risk when processing goat milk that the product you are making has a distinct “goaty” taste. Not to toot our own horn, but our processing methods and consistent cleanliness of our cheese making has been a big selling point for our cheese. Most customers and tasters have told us that the goat taste that is normally found in goat cheese is nowhere to be found in our cheeses. Also, we are told that our the flavor and consistency of our cheeses are widely enjoyed.
The purpose of this blog isn’t really to just talk about how good our cheese is, but really to share our hurdles and accomplishments we’ve already had since taking on this enterprise. I have been working for Lamborn Mountain Farmstead for a little over two years and have learned the trade of cheese making from them. Since it was originally done at their farm, I had the comfort of having their wisdom and guidance by my side whenever I was making these prodcuts. However, now that the goats and business have moved over to my farm, I had to dive in with both feet and learn how to do all these things on my own environment. Honestly, it was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Simple things such as temperature control, pH levels and proportions of culture and rennet were all obstacles I had to overcome to get into the groove of making cheese.
The first couple times I made chevre, my wife and I found that it was too grainy- definitely not the creamy consistency we were used to. We found that this insulated box that I designed to keep the cheese warm was essentially re-cooking the cheese. Since the wash room for the dairy can get quite cold, I over-corrected with the temperature regulated box. The chevre had the right flavor, but it cooked too long or got too warm resulting in a spongy cheese that we needed to fix. Then, with the feta, I somehow got a mushy result the first time I made it at our place. I speculated that maybe I didn’t use enough rennet, but I knew the cheese was fine. I deducted that it was the brine, so I looked online and asked around to find that it was the pH balance of the brine that I needed to work on. I tried some remedies such as vinegar and calcium chloride that could lower the pH and help firm up the cheese. All in all, so many little things happened before I honed in my skills. I’ve had multiple food grade thermometers break, I’ve been so distracted that just being one hour off schedule resulted in a fairly different cheese, and I had to figure out how to drain and age my cheese consistently.
All in all, these little battles just helped me realize how proud I am of being able to do this part of my job. Of all the things that I do on our farm, cheese making is one of the pieces I am most proud of. It’s a true depiction of the work we do from start to finish. From the quality of living our goats have to produce good milk, to handling it properly once they are milked, to creating a food that people enjoy so much that I can go through about 5 lbs a week for my customers. It is something we have found to be fun to work with and we are grateful to even be able to provide such service and product.
When cars pass our house we get a lot of “rubber-necking”. Drivers, bikers and runners even stop when they see us working outside to yell through the fence and ask us about our vertical towers. Some people have thought we were housing bees, others ask if they are tomatoes, but a good amount of people know that they are strawberries and just like to ask about how we came up with the system to grow them. It’s definitely different, seeing as most people’s experience with strawberries are in vast fields usually involving some weed barrier and fallow rows. Not us though. Seeing as we only have a tad over two acres, we strive for efficiency when it comes to space.
This will be our third year growing strawberries. The pots were acquired while I was still an intern from the Living Farm. Over a decade had past since they had been used to grow strawberries hydroponically (without soil) and had been sitting in a shed until I brought up my interest in strawberries. There was also the conduit that held them up in the greenhouse. I fashioned a free standing structure, mixed some soil, purchased a thousand plants, and enlisted some friends to help with the planting, and voila, the plants were starting to grow.
This third season of using this system for growing strawberries is quite pivotal for me. Most wise growers have advised that at least three seasons are necessary to really know a plants tendencies. On this third season we will also be expanding our system by adding more towers using PVC pipes (since the pots are REALLY expensive).
My first year went fairly well in regards to yield and market, considering the set-backs I faced. Installing and using the watering system took some trial and error, which resulted in a loss of about 25% percent of the crop right off the bat. After I figured how much water the plants needed, then came the problem of keeping them fed. The pots themselves were meant for hydroponics, which is a method of growing plants in a growing medium as opposed to soil. Because of this, they are highly efficient in regards to space, but there are two sides to every coin. One pot is essentially an 8 inch cube and fits four plants. This math doesn’t quite add up unless you are feeding the strawberries constantly. So again by trial and a good amount of error, I started to feed them after their leaves yellowed and they didn’t flower. Finally after a few weeks, I dialed in the feeding system (compost tea and organic fertilizer) and then it was off to the races.
The whole crop produced a bit over 100 pounds of berries, which were mostly sold to one of our local co-ops: The Old River Road Trading Post. What I couldn’t sell I froze and later turned into jam which was also sold there. They also made wonderful Christmas gifts. After the season, we put the plants to bed by down-stacking the towers and mulching the pots.
Year two proved to run more smoothly, although not without it’s own pitfalls. I replaced the plants that had died off in the first year with runners that were overwintered in a greenhouse, re-stacked the towers, and the season began. I had the watering down this year and had assumed that I would remember the tea mixture, but something went array in the first feeding of the year and the plants got set back almost a full month. Once they recovered though, the plants – especially the second year ones- really produced. We grow a day-neutral variety of strawberry, which means that unlike single season strawberries, they will fruit as long as there is enough warmth. We usually get 3 to 4 big harvests per season.
After re-configuring my tea mixture and a fairly decent scuffle with slugs and earwigs through the early spring, we harvested over 300 pounds of berries. This time, we sold our berries in other local markets which included Delicious Orchards and Lizzy’s Market. In 2015, I had some friends start a food distribution company called Farm Runners, who can be found here. It was just in time too, because I had almost saturated the local market, and they were more than willing to take any berries I had.
Surely year 3 would prove to be the smoothest, and I am sure it will be, but it has already proved to be a bit challenging. This winter, I attempted to over winter the plants without down-stacking and mulching, which worked until everything started to thaw out. Here in Western Colorado, we are prone to pretty intense winds in the spring, and I just didn’t keep track of the moisture content, and the plants dried out and almost all died. This wasn’t too terrible, since I was already planning on replanting most of them anyway. Most of the pots had become over grown, with the average one holding 12 plants. Imagine 8 more roommates in your already cramped studio apartment. As of now, they are all planted and ready for the season, and so are we.
Most people look at me like a crazy person when I ask them if they would like some Kombucha, but it’s becoming quite the popular drink. I personally make my own Kombucha every week and I’m currently experimenting on flavoring it different ways. The steps to make it is super easy, if you already have a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). Instead of re-creating the wheel, here are some great visual steps and informational posts from Tremendousness
An interesting tool we have, since our home isn’t quite climate controlled, is this nifty little insulated box that Jake made. Originally, the idea was for making cheese so it can set in a climate controlled area. For now, I use it to let the Kombucha ferment almost perfectly with a heating pad that we set between 70-75 degrees.
Calamity had quite the eventful Sunday. We were expecting her to give birth about three to four days from today. However, when we woke this morning, we could hear Calamity’s consistent yelping from our bedroom. It sounded like she had reverted back to her old yelling habits. We knew she was due anytime now and we figured the sounds were because of her discomfort.
We went about our day, just as we normally would. Jake went off to do chores, I went to church to help with Sunday school, and impeccable timing goes to our good friend Corey Baron who decided to come visit for a few days during her spring break. We all would’ve predicted today would be just a simple day- we were even hoping to plan a hike with this beautiful weather.
Jake was working at a neighbor’s, while Corey and I had brunch at home. We decided to go for a short walk to enjoy the weather, but before we did, we passed by the goats and something seemed a little off with Calamity. Sparing the brutal details, there was evidence coming from Calamity’s body that made it very clear she was ready to give birth. I gave Jake a call, he said not to worry, even if she was early, it would take a couple hours. Corey and I went for a walk, chatted with the neighbors and when we got back, Calamity’s “evidence” turned into much more. She had a large bubble just waiting to emerge from her. Again, I called Jake, he assured us he would be home in time. Meanwhile, Corey and I grabbed a seat and waited just in case Calamity would surprise us. As we watched carefully, we could see a little white ear in the middle of her bubble and we could hear her pushing, trying to let this little creature free. Jake finally got home and with some coaxing he was able to help her get her firstborn out. Sadly, we could tell right away that this baby didn’t make it. For a little bit, we all were bummed out, hypothesizing what could have gone wrong, why Calamity lost a firstborn kid for the second season in a row. Last season, Calamity only gave birth to one kid and it too did not make it alive.
Surprisingly, we noticed that she pushed again and another ear was popping out of her. Calamity was so out of energy that we could not get her to push long enough to give birth to a second kid. The time between giving birth to her firstborn and the second became a concern and Jake had to intervene to help this little one if it had a chance. I had to hold Calamity still while Jake manually pulled a baby goat out of Calamity. Almost immediately, Corey and I thought that the this second one was dead too, but thankfully Jake had more hope (and experience) and got it dry and breathing within minutes. We were so excited that right away we started snapping pictures, I told Corey that she could name it and we were just all so relieved that the first time watching a goat give birth wasn’t all for naught. While we were in the midst of all the excitement, Calamity gave one more push that I thought was afterbirth, and suddenly another kid came out! We had no idea that Calamity could be pregnant with three babies, and the third one came out alive as well!
Safe to say, Calamity did a great job being a mama, and although we lost 1 out of 3, it was quite the success! Today was such a learning experience, with so many unpredictable things that come our way. We had all the ups and downs of farming and the natural life cycle of animal husbandry all wrapped up in a couple of hours. Stay tuned to keep up with all our first time farming adventures.
This year, we added some new permanent family members to our farm. I work for a farm called Lamborn Mountain Farmstead, run by James and Carol Schott. James had a career a large scale goat dairyman for many years, then retired with his wife to Paonia in 2008. While I was still interning, I would go up to the Schott’s farm to irrigate and milk the goats early in the morning and take care of their 35 acres when they would go out of town.
After my first year, James underwent shoulder surgery, which resulted in me milking and irrigating every day. Nearing the end of the season,James and Carol approached me about taking over their small goat herd enterprise. By then, I had stopped interning, and Sharon and I had purchased the farm already. The decision seemed like an easy one, and after a couple of meetings, we scheduled the move for February, 2016. As for the logistics of the transfer of ownership, we decided that I would purchase all the equipment (stanchion, pails, totes, supplies) and the goats would be traded for milk over the years.
In February, after building a barn, milking parlor and transforming our basement into a washroom and kitchen, we welcomed our herd of five does and two bucks- Bert and Buck that we keep for breeding. They are quite the addition to our farm, and we are excited to see what they have in store for us this season.
Meet the Herd:
Gwen- an Alpine, the oldest, but the spunkiest. She is twelve years old, cunning and sneaky, but the most consistent milker. Age has had no effect on her energy, nor her plans for escape, so she definitely keeps things interesting.
Daisy- a five year old Saanen. She is the biggest goat in our herd and was the only goat that was not bottle fed as a kid. She can be flighty at times, but produces the most milk. She is my favorite to milk and will usually nibble at my hat or beanie if she’s done eating.
Calamity- enough said, her name is pretty self explanatory. To say that she was vocal as a kid is quite an understatement, and she was a terror to train on the stanchion. Although, now that she has grown into maturity, her name-sake is almost ironic. She is a two year old Nubian, one of our sweetest, and will hopefully ramp up production this year.
Gertie and Duchess- they are the youngest, both yearlings. Gertie, the most curious and friendliest, is Gwen’s kid and Duchess, who appears to follow slightly after her mother, Daisy’s. This will be their first year of stanchion training and milking.
I’ve known these goats for some time, but all the decision making will be new to me. It’s a pretty big step for us, especially since we haven’t had any breeding livestock until now, but like I said, we’re pretty excited.
I am already writing another post to clarify how meat can be processed from being raised on pasture to ready in your fridge. This post will be in my point of view, as a farmer’s wife and as a person that has little to no experience raising her own food. Ironically, I am the only person in my family that has not spent some of her early life on a farm in the Philippines, so naturally my parents never expected me to be their only child that has chosen to live on a small farm. Now that I am here there is a lot that I have learned from my husband, from other experienced farmers and my own first hand experience.
I will address some common questions about how chicken is labeled. The more options out there regarding chicken, the more questions are raised about what all those options mean.
Please keep in mind there are no absolutes when it comes to food and how it is raised, there is always more to the story than we know and I will do my best to describe Gray Acres Farm and our methods. This is not an end all, say all type of informational post, especially with how other individual farms may use these methods.
First common question is: is there a difference between laying chickens and meat chickens? The answer is yes.
- Laying chickens are several different breeds that if raised from chicks, the hens will begin laying eggs around 6-7 months old. Examples include Barred Rock, Araucana,and Rhode Island Red.
- Laying chickens can live up to 5 or 6 years old
- Most laying chickens are solely raised for eggs, after several years some people may choose to process laying chickens for meat, but their meat may vary in taste and tenderness depending on how old they are.
- Broiler chickens (known as meat birds) can also be several different breeds, but there are not as many breeds as laying chickens. Examples include Freedom Rangers, Jersey Giant, and the breed we’ve chosen to use, the Cornish Rock Cross.
- Broilers are usually raised for 8-14 weeks and then processed for meat.
- Broilers naturally grow faster than laying chickens due to their breed, so they are processed before they lay eggs.
- Broilers are raised for meat, so they do not show the same characteristics as laying hens such as roosting, wandering, constant scratching for food. .
We are also often asked if our chickens are free-range. Here is a USDA definition of free range poultry:
In the United States, USDA free range regulations currently apply only to poultry and indicate that the animal has been allowed access to the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside.
Our chickens are not free range, but they are ALWAYS outside. They are pasture raised:
HFAC’s (Humane Farm Animal Care) Certified Humane® “Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated. We are a 2.3 acre farm and we raised no more than 130 birds at a time last year. We raised a total of 300 birds, cycling through batches every 8 to 9 weeks.My husband built 8X8 ft. “chicken tractors” which housed 30 to 40 birds at a time, that he modeled after Joel Salatin’s tractors in “Pastured Poultry Profits”. We guarantee the birds have fresh grass and water, and supplement with a NON-GMO chicken feed from Sonrise feeds LLC, a local feed company. We are not certified pasture raised, but we think the numbers speak for themselves.
We can only tell you how our chickens are raised. When purchasing your own food it is important to do your research and understand the meaning behind the labels and certifications. We spend our summers (including our wedding day) prepared to protect our livestock. Before we found Chewy, our Great Pyrenees, my husband would sleep on the porch or near our window with our rifle to take care of any raccoon, fox, or skunk that may have taken a liking to our broilers.
As a teacher (on a teacher income), I understand that buying good food can come with a price. One that sometimes people refuse to pay. From staying up late nights to protect them, waking early to provide them their meal for the day, and spending full days butchering them in a humane manner, a lot of hours go into these chickens. Our farm has a story and so do our livestock. We are a small business out to support other small business as well, which also affects our costs- because we want to fairly pay for our NON-GMO feed that comes from good people that are also working hard to provide our valley a service. The going rate for a pound of Doritos is $4.11, maybe some chicken would be a tad healthier than a bag of chips?If we really stop to think about how we approach food, should we consider how food ends up at this price?