Even with all our new lambs, we can't forget about our cows and their calves from this summer and fall. In fact, we're expecting new calves within the next month! This British-American White Park calf was born this summer but still nurses. Since we raise cows for beef, we don't ever milk them; instead, we let their calves drink mom's milk to grow big and strong. On a dairy farm the calves would be taken from their moms at birth so that humans could milk them instead. Below is a Belted Galloway calf from this fall also nursing on mom.
With two new lambs born this morning, we're now at 43 lambs! This mamma, Irene, and her two babies, Squeak and Isaac, are still my favorites though. Irene is super friendly, and her son Isaac has inherited her calm, inquisitive demeanor. Squeak, however, is Irene's adoptive daughter; another successful lamb grafting! These two siblings are some of the bigger lambs and have been leading the ever-growing pack in playful romps: running circles around moms and doing figure-eight loops through the nursery pen. People who braved the snow yesterday afternoon to come to our lamb viewing time got to see first-hand how playful the lambs have become.
The Island has hosted domestic poultry operations since the European settlers arrived in the mid 1600’s. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a wonderful collection of papers from Maurice Delano who ran Owen Farms, which had a national and international reputation between 1905 and 1930. While Owen Farms raised 6000 birds for meat and egg production, its fame came from its “fancy” poultry operation, which shipped show birds all over the country. In Delano’s own words “I breed the best buff and white Orpingtons, white Plymouth Rocks, white Wyandottes and small comb Rhode Island Reds in America.”
The modern broiler industry has historic roots here in Massachusetts. A gentleman named Robert C Cobb Senior purchased a farm in Littleton in 1916 and a decade later was leading the industry as a breeder of Barred Plymouth Rocks, part of the parentage of the highly popular and hugely successful Cornish-Rock cross. In the 1940’s Cobb was breeding a line of white birds knows as White Rocks and paired this with a male line from Vantress. The company was very successful and well respected, and was (is) a major global influence. In 1974 the Upjohn Company purchased them, and Tyson Foods acquired the Vantress line, and in 1986 Tyson and Upjohn formed a joint venture known as Cobb-Vantress. They have continued to grow and are, in fact, one of the three dominant suppliers of breeding stock. The commercial industry is a pyramid structure with the primary breeders (producers of purebred grandparents etc.) supplying a ‘broiler breeder’ or parent stock farm. There the raising of the actual parents takes place, and the eggs from this generation goes to the hatchery (like a Murrray McMurray in Iowa) and from there to ‘grow-out’ farms everywhere, including here on the Vineyard.
The Farm Institute has raised broilers for the past few years, reaching a peak of 1800 in 2011. Due to many influences (staff revolt, cost of grain, our changing philosophy and perspective) we reduced to 600 for the last two years, and for 2014, we might do only 100. What’s that about? After all we have our own inspected and licensed facility and we process our birds with a combination of staff, volunteers and some of the well-trained folks from IGI’s mobile unit. That cost is very reasonable, our birds taste great, sell well and provide a teaching point….or do they?
We started raising the Cornish Rock crosses in ‘chicken tractors’ similar to the idea popularized by Joel Salatin. The goal is make a movable structure that provides shelter and an enclosed area (‘pasture’) for the birds. The chores are basic: food, water, and moving the birds and their structure to a new area of pasture. We would have anywhere from 4 -6 of these mobile homes operating at once. As I got more familiar with this operation and spent time just observing (the number one most critical livestock skill) I got uneasy. Farm Manager Julie was instrumental in addressing one of our concerns: this breed of chicken simply wasn’t adapting to the outdoor life. The Murray McMurray blurb for this bird sounds pretty good: "This is the most remarkable meat producing bird we have ever seen. Special matings produce chicks with broad breasts, big thighs, white plumage, and yellow skin. The rapid growth of these chicks is fantastic and the feed efficiency remarkable.” However, in our experience they seemed a bit indifferent to their outdoor life and mostly liked to sit down. The lineage was designed for indoor commercial production where, in an environmentally controlled life, they could gain rapidly, convert efficiently and go to slaughter on a highly predictable schedule at a uniform weight. Not a good description of life at TFI.
Julie introduced birds to the Farm that have many names: Kosher Kings, Barred Rangers, Colored Rangers, Freedom Rangers, Silver Barred, and so on. It was difficult to follow the genetics through the name changes but it was immediately apparent that these were a better breed for what we were doing. It yielded a more ‘bird-like’ carcass, a more reasonable breast:thigh ratio and they wanted to forage! Here’s what Murray McMurray has to say about these birds: "The breast meat is in natural proportion to the leg meat. It has yellow skin, shanks and beak with dark red feathers showcasing black highlights. An excellent forager, the Red Ranger is able to withstand the free range or natural living environment very well.” (Other sources are JM Hatchery and Freedom Ranger Hatchery. There is a good article here:http://www.themodernhomestead.us/article/cornish+cross+alternatives.html). So, a much better bird for us, and we really liked how they performed, and tasted. However, to be honest, they were not popular with the restaurants who wanted the larger breasted birds and the higher ratio of white meat to dark meat. Our local consumers and families were quite pleased, however.
Yet, we were still uneasy. Chickens are omnivores, just like us. One of the popular talking points about ‘pasture-raised’ chickens is that they’re out there in the pasture, just eating away. Yes, they eat the bugs and grubs they can find, peck at the tender young plants, scratch and act decidedly chicken-like. But, they still need to be supplemented with protein, energy, minerals and vitamins if we want them to grow efficiently - grow meaning: lean meat deposition on healthy bones. So, just like pigs, we buy a complete feed for them and offer it free-choice while they’re in their single-story ranchettes.
So, we buy the chicks from off-island and transport them here. We place them in outside shelters, move them frequently and process them humanely, right here on the farm. But we also purchase about 80% or more of their nutrient needs and import that to the island as well. And that feed, while blended to our specifications by our good friends at Ventura Grain in Taunton, is based on grains and proteins grown back in the Midwest.
This winter Julie and I reviewed all this. We decided that this year we’d raise enough birds for Meals in the Meadow, and continue with our heritage turkeys but we would exit the broiler business. We shared our thoughts with other members of our staff at regular meetings and at lunch. I was really pleased that the vegetarians on staff were professionally neutral and objective even though you could see them straining with the effort. We looked at it financially (selling $20-$30 frozen birds requires someone who is willing to buy a $20-$30 frozen bird) and at our labor commitment. We puzzled about the educational opportunity - what did kids learn about broiler birds? What would they miss? Objectively, would the (absolutely endearingly fabulous) turkeys substitute for whatever was learned from the chickens? And, what about all those ‘pasture raised locally grown’ conversations?
Financially, the economics mimic those of the pigs I wrote about before, with the exception that the birds do a far better job of converting purchased feed to meat. So, there is some money to be made, depending on the bird weight and breed, probably $5 and more per bird. But, for us, it is more about the educational process and finding the right fit between the Katama Farm’s grassland and the animals we choose to raise. So, for now, we’ll park the tractors and tend to our sheep and cattle. I’m doing my best to ignore the goats that keep showing up.
So far, seventeen of our fifty-five ewes (female sheep) have given birth and the nursery pen is bouncing with lamb energy. Come feeding time, the barn is turned upside-down with sheep scrambling to get to food and lambs calling to their mothers through the confusion. Meanwhile, the majority of our flock has yet to lamb and they calmly wait outside the barn door for dinner to be served. Here is a group of our Katahdin hair sheep soaking up the winter sunshine while they patiently wait. Notice the big ol' pregnant belly on the center one!
Welcome new lambs! Fourteen and counting. We had one orphan lamb who we successfully 'grafted' onto a new mother. This means she adopted him as her own and is now raising him along with the son she gave birth to. Here they are hanging with mom while she has some dinner.
We welcomed six new Katahdin mamas-to-be this week, can't wait to meet their lambs!
The Katama plains have a decidedly lunar feel to them in the winter especially with a light snow covering. When I stand on TFI’s porch and look south, it’s pretty barren. At least the fields on my old farm in Minnesota had trees to break the wind and create landscape lines. The only bump on the ground here is the curved white and silver metal housing for our pigs, and the brownish lumps of large hay bales. Here the Atlantic-iced wind is insistent and invasive, constantly looking for exposed flesh and thin fabric. So, it’s a perfect day to visit the pig dormitory and see how they’re doing.
Farm hands Samantha and Elana have provided our 10 pigs with a dry and wind free shelter, an abundance of affection, and plenty of space for rooting around. The pig feed is always available, and right now they’re eating plenty. They’re comfortable in the cold and many farms, especially in the midwest, use an outdoor pasture system for their sows. (Here’s a good article if you’re interested: http://www.thepigsite.com/articles/1119/outdoor-pig-production-an-approach-that-works).
However, we’re trying to get these 10 porkers to market weight, somewhere between 210 and 250 pounds live weight would be fine. But the weather works against us now, something that farm manager Julie and I were nervous about when we bought this group about 4 months ago. It was unusual to find a nicely started group of 10 at a good price so we took the risk - and now the bet is turning against us a bit.
The math is pretty simple: they’re probably eating 10 pounds a day each of an antibiotic-free feed that costs us about $0.25 a pound delivered. And they’re also probably not gaining very much as most of the feed energy is going towards just keeping themselves warm. It's the cost of cold weather maintenance and outdoor living. At their current age and growth pattern they are capable of gaining over 2 pounds a day if inside a temperature controlled barn or outside during warm weather. Now, they're probably gaining less than a pound a day and some days maybe just standing still. I still have my old nutrition software programs and I could calculate energy partitioning, temperature and windchill and be precise, but that’s what my eye tells me, and there isn’t much I can do about it anyway. Their off-island date is in early January, they are dry and healthy and warm and they will taste just fine, with a nice ribbon of fat. It's just the economics, like all farming.
Here’s how the economics look, using basic cowboy math: they’re each eating about $2.50 worth of feed a day to gain maybe a pound. That pound of gain will yield about 50% in retail cuts - not including the head and trotters - and let’s say that the average price at retail for TFI pork is $9.00 a pound. So, at this stage of growth and environment we’re spending $2.50 to get about a $4.50 return. Of course, there’s a lot more costs that need to come out of that $4.50. There’s the original purchase price (about $100 each) and the equipment repairs and the transportation and cost of processing and so on. Plus labor. In warmer weather the cost-of-gain numbers look much better until it gets too hot, and then the rate of gain slows down again as they'd rather be in a mud puddle (pigs can't sweat) than anywhere else.
All this is going through my mind as I am scratching behind the ears of the large white one. She’s rolling her eyes around and I can tell she is trying to choose between two very piggish thoughts: how to fall down on her side so I can scratch her belly and how she can get me to fall down so can determine just how edible I am. In the meantime the other 9 are still comfortably sprawled inside the small quonset. If they were cold, they’d be piled on each other, which is fine when they weigh 20 pounds or less, and not so good when they weigh 200. They are all looking expectantly at me - more food? special treats? gonna fall down? - but my inspection tour is over, except for the waterer.
They need 3 gallons or more a day, each. We have water tanks and frost-free hydrants, but the hoses freeze and the tanks freeze as well - we don't have electricity running out to all the fields - so there is plenty of labor with either hauling water buckets or chopping the ice in the water tanks or thawing the hoses. (In the midwest you could find kerosene heated water tanks on auctions; haven't spotted one around here.)
I'm not sure if the pigs, smart, playful, destructive, tasty, are impressed with the winter sunsets here at The Farm Institute but today is spectacular and they have a perfect view.
I head back to the building over their rooted-up field, careful not to stumble.
I thought I’d follow-up on the turkey info with a few final thoughts –
This year we processed 126 birds and their average weight was 12.30 pounds.
We sent out a survey to people that bought our birds this year, and got an impressive response rate. Please note that none of the responses came from TFI staff or are linked to us, although all staff (minus two vegetarians) took home our turkeys to their Thanksgiving tables.
When asked, “Did you enjoy your turkey- on a scale of 10, with 10 being the best turkey ever” we received an average of 9.4.
When asked, “What their favorite part of the turkey was” we received such responses as “perfect”, “juicy”, “outstanding”, “the dark meat-intense flavor” and our personal favorite “OUTSTANDING!!!”.
We appreciate your feedback on the question "What was your least favorite part of the turkey" which included "trying to cut off the neck" and "size" among other responses such as "nothing was bad" and "all good".
We also got some thoughtful suggestions for improvements, mostly related to notifications and pickup, and we’ll implement those for sure. We’ll look into a cryovac machine for further protection. We greatly appreciate all the feedback we’ve received and look forward to feeding your family again next Thanksgiving, or for the upcoming holidays (we still have a handful of birds available)!
Now that I’m completely stuffed and also staring at many days of delicious soups and sandwiches, it seems a good time to reflect on how that 16.66 pound Standard Bronze heritage breed turkey, got to be so delicious, or, as Jan Burman writes:" It was the juiciest, tastiest bird I have ever tasted. "
Sometime pretty soon I’ll sit with Julie, the Farm Manager, and review how we did this year with our turkeys and what we’ll plan on doing for this coming year. Technically speaking there are 10 heritage breeds we can chose from, but not all of them will be available when we need them delivered. The heritage breeds aren’t simply delicious and good sellers, they’re really fun to watch grow. Compared to commercial breeds they seem to thrive with an outdoor life and are a big attraction for visitors. They live in various locations on our pastures, fenced in with electrified netting. They’re moved to fresh areas frequently as they eat the bugs and plants and worms - and, it is easy to see where they’ve been. The diet of fresh greens and insects and whatnot helps flavor them, but they can’t get much more than about 20% of their daily nutritional needs from their outdoor life, so they’re supplemented with a complete feed.
First, however, we need to order them. We’ll buy more than 100 for 2014, but that’s an easy number to use, so Julie will pick out the breeds she wants, check for availability, and place the order for delivery in the spring, counting back from Thanksgiving and allowing for the time they need to grow. All the heritage breeds are different from each other in expected final weight, rate of gain and even yield. This is a far cry from commercial birds where predictability of final result is an essential part of the breeding program. (Want to know more? Check out George Nicholas, founder of the birds that bear his name and dominate American turkey production. He got started in the 1930’s in Sonoma County, CA)
The prices for 2014 are already posted, and they look to be over $10.25 a poult - a baby turkey - when 20 or more of a ‘straight run’ are purchased. That means we’ll get a mix of males and females -toms and hens - when they arrive. Calling the male a ‘tom’ is supposedly because Ben Franklin was mad at Thomas Jefferson for not naming the turkey the American bird…
So, we’ll invest over $10 a poult plus freight to MV, and hope they all arrive alive. If they don’t we either absorb that loss, raising the price we paid per bird, or a good company will give us credit - on next year’s order. If a poult dies 4 or 5 or more days after arrival, we usually have no recourse - so our price per bird goes up and we have less meat to sell.
The young birds need a constant temperature between 95-100 degrees the first week. We have a special ‘brooder room’ for them with heat lamps, electric heaters, etc. They have multiple waters, feeders, the floor is covered in paper shreds - its a nice place to be a poult! Over about a 4-6 week period the temperature gets lowered in stages until they are feathered and ‘hardened’ to regular temperatures. During this period they have a special ‘starter’ diet high in amino acids, energy density and vitamins and trace minerals. And high in price as well. No antibiotics are used at TFI.
From the brooder room they head outdoors to the pasture. They have a big sheltering roof that moves with them, and they are free to range, roost, forage and make noise - they are really vocal, and have some amazing sounds they make besides ‘gobble gobble.’
While we firmly believe in raising turkeys this way, it adds to the expense in a few different ways. First, since they are no longer in a controlled environment their ability to convert feed to weight changes, almost on a daily basis. Birds raised in confinement barns are in a thermo-neutral environment - it’s always the same temperature, it doesn’t rain, etc. Birds raised that way have predictable results and can convert feed to body weight at about 3 pounds of feed (or less) to 1 pound of gain (‘gain” here isn’t just edible meat, it is the whole bird). For large scale producers that means their feed costs are about 65% of total costs. For heritage breed turkeys, that feed conversion ratio can easily double - meaning twice as much feed for equivalent gain. And, since our birds can run around, they consume more energy just for ‘maintenance’ than caged birds do. In addition, TFI as an educational working farm so another measure of efficiency is impacted - feed wastage. As you can imagine with feed for commercial producers representing 65% of costs, they manage the feed delivery system very tightly - wastage being kept to 2% or less. However, for us feeding the birds is a chore we share with our campers, so we get spills, ripped bags, etc. Since everything is outside, we also get wind and rain loss, as well as treating the occasional sea gull. Best estimate for wastage under these circumstances? 10% or more.
So, more expensive to buy and more expensive to feed. Slower to grow, more labor involved. And, since we do all our own processing, more labor and time and equipment.
Cost of poult, average, delivered: $11
Cost of feed, average, delivered: $.30 per pound
Total feed disappeared, per bird, average: 100 pounds (includes wastage)
Feed cost: $30
Average dressed weight: 12 pounds
Our cost before processing: $40 per bird or an average of $3.33 per pound
And, this is BEFORE any labor charge, equipment charge (on an annual basis we spend about $500 in repairs and maintenance just for the turkeys), or processing charge (we process for three days due to the high volume of turkeys).
Now, to end this I could easily give you the cost comparison for barn-raised conventional turkeys. But, frankly, that’s irrelevant to us as we’re not going to raise birds that way, no matter what. Let’s just say that yep, they sure are cheap, and there’s a reason for that, but that’s another note, for another time. But with the happy Thanksgiving feeling persisting, and the refrigerator promising more, it’s enough to share some information with you about how this all happens. As always, we welcome comments and questions.
Jon Previant, FARM Institute Executive Director