The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Freedom Ranger Meltdown

September 11th, 2016 by Ed Bruske

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Wow, it’s been four months since I last posted. I wasn’t meaning to take such a long hiatus–just wasn’t inspired to write, I guess, and the days, the weeks, the months drifted by in the routine of farm chores.

The grass has been growing like crazy this year, with plenty of sun, rain and favorable temperatures. That keeps me busy mowing and tending to one of the farms most odious tasks: trimming the weeds that grow up outside our electric perimeter fence. Foliage on the electric wires draws down the charge on all our fences. Never a less agreeable task was ever invented for the livestock farmer than slashing through that tangle of growth in the heat of summer.

Otherwise our critters have been doing just fine, what with all the lush pasture to munch on. Our big buck goat–Tigger–has been off with the sheep since July and he’s as frustrated as ever. He’ll have to wait till November to rejoin his own kind. Our two rams, meanwhile, have the orchard all to themselves. The goats still line up every morning to beg for grain on their side of the farm. Some things never change. And of course we are still making hourly rounds of the laying hens, trying to get the eggs before the hens eat them.

Yes, I think you could safely say we have passed the summer in a dreamlike state of sameness. Until, that is, customers all of a sudden stopped ordering our Freedom Ranger broiler chickens.

We started this business three years ago, brooding chicks in the basement and raising them to broiler size inside big cages–“chicken tractors”–that we move around the pasture behind our house with a couple of dollies. Twice daily we feed and water the birds, moving the “tractors” to fresh grass, for about 11 weeks when we kill, pluck and eviscerate them and sell them to eager clients.

Selling broilers has been the biggest money-maker on the farm. We did so well our first two years that this year we compressed our schedule so we could raise even more. Sure enough, we had a record month in June. But then something very strange happened. The customers that we email every month to announce the latest broiler harvest suddenly stopped responding. It was like someone flipped a switch: One day I sent emails to dozens of clients just like always, expecting the usual flurry of replies, only to be greeted by almost complete silence. Only a handful of our most loyal customers continued to order chickens.

As you might imagine, this creates problems. In order to have 11-week-old broilers available on a monthly basis during the growing season, we have to order chicks on a monthly basis far in advance. At any given time, we have 150 birds in various stages of development. And once you start, you can’t very well just stop. Consequently, any chickens that don’t get sold have to be stored somehow for consumption later–presumably by us, since people typically don’t order broilers during the winter.

We are very quickly building quite a stockpile of unsold broilers in our basement chest freezer and even after cancelling the order for chicks we had intended to sell in November, we still have 100 chickens growing in the field. I wonder if we will be able to eat them fast enough if they don’t get sold, or whether we’ll have to order a new chest freezer to hold them all.

It’s not like our broilers are very expensive, either. At $3.99 a pound for heritage birds grown on pasture without chemicals, hormones or GMOs, ours are priced below market. Why enthusiasm for them suddenly fell off the charts, I have no idea. But that’s the hazard of any small business. There are definitely changes to our business model in store for next year–like asking customers to order in advance before we purchase our chicks.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a juicy, delicious, all-natural chicken, we’ve got plenty. Just drop us a line.

 

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So Long, Buddy!

May 15th, 2016 by Ed Bruske

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We sold our ram Buddy to a local couple and I was sorry to see him go. We purchased him as a yearling from our friend Ashley and her father in December 2013 and he did his job well building our flock of sheep to the point where we don’t have any room for more animals to overwinter in our paddock shelter. I’ve got my fingers crossed that all these critters–sheep, cows, goats–will find enough to eat on our 12 acres of pasture.

Fact is, we didn’t need two rams and Buddy leaves behind his friend Tucker, a pure-bred Dorper ram. My wife and daughter drove more than four hours across New York to fetch Tucker and four female Dorpers as part of my plan to build a herd of hair (as opposed to wool) sheep, thinking that in our dotage we wouldn’t want to be saddled with shearing chores. Dorpers shed.

Turns out, it’s not expensive at all to hire someone to shear the sheep and what we traded for is a breed that grows hooves at lightning speed, meaning we now face the back-breaking task of trimming hooves on a regular basis.

Still, I figured there may be some demand for purebred Dorper lambs for meat and breeding purposes, and as long as Buddy’s on the property we can never guarantee his genes won’t proliferate. Not that there was anything wrong with Buddy’s genes. He’s a Romney-Corriedale mix and as you can see from the photo he grew into a mighty handsome fellow. I know his new owners will make a happy home for him with their small flock.

In just the few short years I’ve been livestock farming I’ve learned that letting go of animals is one of the hardest things. They say you shouldn’t name them, but of course our teenage daughter does. She named the Friesian ewes I bought shortly after moving here after her friends. She finds names for the lambs and for all the goats as well.

We anthropomorphize–project human traits onto our animals. And when you’ve been around them long enough, they do seem to develop personalities. One of the older ewes will seek you out on your pasture walks to scratch her head against your leg. Another follows you around, begging for a bit of grain. The alpha female goat will let you know vocally and in no uncertain terms when she has a complaint.

Buddy was very territorial at first. He’d come running and try to head-butt you if you stepped into his turf. But he settled into a relaxed older gent who spent most of his time off to himself or lounging with his pal Tucker. He had a face that came straight out of a Winnie the Pooh story. Scratch his chin and he’d love you with those big, dark eyes. We’ll miss him.

 

 

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