Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What the hay?

After running out of hay this spring, we ended up buying one bale at a time from local feed stores. That meant we paid 'retail' price and had to take whatever they had left, which Stella didn't find too tasty. With all the extreme weather ruining crops and land being put into corn (thanks to the ethanol boom) even the feed stores had a hard time keeping decent fodder in stock. So even though we had gotten 30 bales of hay in not too long ago, we figured it was a good idea to 'be prepared'. We called Farmer Ben to see what he had left. Here's the hayfield. It's a mix of mostly orchard grass, a common hay species in the PNW, and some alfalfa, which isn't so common here. Alfalfa is a legume (in the protein-providing pea family) which grows best in the hot summers of Eastern WA.
Bet you didn't know Subaru made a hay wagon! These bales were fairly small, so 4 fit inside and we put one on top. Farmer Ben and his crew got a laugh at our 'operation', but it was fun driving around the field like real farmers.
Not so long ago, I didn't really know much about hay, just that hay was livestock food and straw was for bedding. But when you go to the feed store, or call up a hay farmer to buy hay, you need to have a little more knowledge about the various kinds and qualities of hay. At least if you don't want to sound like a total greenhorn.
Hay is the generic term for a certain group of forage plants that are cut and dried for long term storage. In the PNW you most commonly find orchardgrass as the barebones cheaper local hay. Sometimes you get timothy grass, as that was often recommended by the state agriculture department as a good forage/hay crop to plant with red clover (more on using USDA publications for research in a future post). Our own bitty pasture still has clover and timothy from its previous life as the home field for the bigger 'stead. Last summer we cut loose hay with a scythe and put it up the old fashioned way.
Then you have grass/alfalfa mix. As we learned recently, it's available locally, but more often trucked over from east of the mountains. Alfalfa has a higher protein content than grass which is necessary in winter months when there isn't much growing. It's also "stemmier" depending on which cutting you get. The roughage helps keep a cow's digestive system functioning properly and generates more internal heat. A grass/legume mix is good because too much legume can cause problems like bloat in cattle and be too nutrient-dense for some horses. This spring we ran out of good hay and were left with very poor quality grass hay from last summer. We ended up buying straight alfalfa bales from the feed store to custom mix so Stella would get enough protein. (Grain as a supplement feed/treat is also a source of protein and helps get the critter used to dealing with humans.)
And lastly, straight alfalfa. We don't buy much of it, but it's nice to have a few bales around for really cold weather.
Once you learn more about what species go into your local hay, then it's time to learn about "cuttings". Most hay-producing areas can grow and harvest more than one crop each season. So the earliest batch of grass will hopefully be ready to cut when there is enough dry/warm weather to keep it from being ruined by rain. It can be kind of iffy here in Whatcom county, which is why so many people are using baleage, where the grass is made into giant round bales, covered with plastic and allowed to ferment, kind of like sauerkraut for cows. The tall silos you see on older farms were used for making silage. The fodder is compressed in the silo and ferments there. This way the grass can be harvested and stored quickly in bad weather.
Second cutting hay is generally bulkier, as it has had the benefit of warmer, drier weather, and sometimes irrigation. There may be a bit less nutrients though. This is good cow hay - roughage plus nutrition.
And in a good season a third cutting is harvested. There is usually a lot less of it, maybe 25% of what you get in a first or second cutting, but it is very nutrient-dense in comparison since the plants are tired of being cut down and working hard to complete their lifecycle (i.e. flower and go to seed) before winter, just like lawn grass. This makes good horse hay, and a nice cow hay if you want to boost the nutrition a bit.
It's really fun to have all these options for custom blending Stella's food. And learning about hay is the first step to knowing where much of our own food comes from. Hay is more than scratchy, allergy-aggravating dried grass; it's a magical transformation of sunlight (via chlorophyll) into meat, milk and manure.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Plan it, and it will rain...

We're all set up for the big BBQ, and it's started to lightly rain. A perfect day in the pacific northwest. More updates as the evening progresses...

Here we are a few hours later. I think the final headcount was 25 people. Naturally, it continued to rain most of the evening, but everyone seemed to have a good time anyway. Meat was grilled, mead was spilled, dogs ran amok, and Stella frowned at all those hard-hearted guests who didn't bother to feed her.

The rain tapered off enough for the night shift to sit around the fire and help us quality-control check the beverages. We never did get around to making smores.

Here I am, being mocked for drinking water! As you can see by the droplet on the camera lens, the rain came & went the rest of the night. We ended up going lights out around 2:30.

And the Seven Trees inaugural shindig's final departing guest got to gather her own souvenir eggs. Tubby, Neil & Boldy weren't too thrilled with the interruption, but that's a hen's life!

Our thanks to everyone who braved the weather and long drives to eat, drink and be merry with us. If we manage to recover from this shindig soon, we might actually start planning another one!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Rainy Day BBQ?!?

Sure, why not!
The forecast for this Saturday has taken a turn for the worst, but we'll still have the grill fired up and the homebrew chilling. The potato-digging contest might be more of a mud-wrestling event depending on rainfall, but a little heather mead will ease the pain.
Speaking of heather mead (yup, the batch featured in a previous post for blowing some corks) we opened an intact bottle tonight and it is fabulous! Normally mead takes a couple years to be at its best, but this was started last summer and is ready now. It has a gallon of local honey to 4 1/2 gallons water, plus a secret ingredient - heather flowers and plant tips. We're always experimenting with traditional, ancestral brews, and this one is a winner! Seems that the corks blew because the yeast wasn't quite finished with all that honey when we bottled it. So the intact bottles have a nice nectar-like sweetness with a tiny bit of fizz.
Weather-hardy visitors to Seven Trees this weekend should be prepared to channel their Viking ancestors!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Guest blogger: Neil the Ameraucana hen

Here I am, getting ready to make my first blog post. I figured out a great way to get those humans to carry me into the house so I can work on the computer! I just hunker down and stand still when they come near and they can't resist picking me up. My telepathy skills must have improved too, because this time they brought me in and set me right in front of the keyboard like I wanted.
Who would have thought those mean old Red Stars would actually do something nice for someone else! But here's Boldy picking flies off Stella's face. Sometimes they even nap together. At least it keeps her too busy to steal all the scratch and chase me out of the dust bath.
The people were all excited about this big chunk of charred raw meat. Something about it being the best steak they've ever had. It came from one of those shaggy Highland cattle Stella was telling me about. The veggies looks pretty good though, right out of the garden, like we hens get. Only the humans never put dressing on ours - go figure! Here's the corn patch, with lots of nice ears on it. The old biddies were talking about how they got to help till up the garden this spring and eat all the bugs they could catch. Rumor has it the humans will be looking for a fall work crew to get things in shape before winter. Mmm mmm! I love turning under all that Stella-compost to hunt for creepy-crawlies.
Speaking of compost, I'd better signal the humans to get me back outside before I...

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Not-so-bonnie heather!

Uh oh! The swirling clouds of fruit flies in the pantry tipped us off to a horrible surprise....Two bottles of heather mead had popped their corks! Luckily the box absorbed most of the overflow, but it was still quite a clean up. A couple more corks are showing signs of failure, most likely because we made do with smaller ones before we bought our handy-dandy floor corker. Another issue is that our pantry isn't as cool as a cellar, so the mead is a bit more lively than if it were cooler. Another reason to get that root cellar made! Hopefully the intact bottles will be tasty. Intrepid homebrew tasters will find out at the up-coming BBQ. Are you coming? RSVP!
Now here's a cage-free egg! Peeps keeps laying in the hay mow, managing to fly over the partition even with clipped wings. Everyone else lays their eggs in the nest boxes. Go figure...
And Crichton, hiding out under the rhubarb. I was trying to make my way to the back of the garden to take pictures of the amaranth and spooked him out of the potato patch. This rhubarb was from a neighbor and accidentally got tilled up this spring. Now it's back with a vengeance!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

You are what you eat - Eggs

The eggs these hens produce are legally labeled 'cage free'. Is this the image that pops into your head when you look at egg cartons in the store?

Or is something like this what you think you're paying premium prices for? Happy chickens scratching around a run or barnyard with room to engage in natural chicken activities....

What do all those marketing slogans mean anyway? Turns out, not much in terms of happy chickens. Animal welfare claims on egg cartons are currently unregulated in the United States, enabling producers to use phrases such as “animal-friendly” or “naturally-raised” even if those eggs come from birds confined inside tiny wire cages. Here are some definitions to clear things up a bit:

Cage Free: The label "cage free" does not mean there are any standards or auditing mechanisms behind it. As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage free" are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in some of their natural behaviors such as walking and nesting. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Debeaking is allowed, but forced molting through starvation is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Naitional Organic Program. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.

Free Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free range" for some poultry products, there are no standards in "free range" egg production. Typically, free range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Free Roaming: Also known as "free range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage free. There is no third-party auditing.

Natural: This label has no relevance to animal welfare.

Omega-3 Enriched: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

United Egg Producers Certified [note: this was formerly called "Animal Care Certified"]: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even fully stretching their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.

Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions.

You can see that all these labels still allow producers to treat chickens rather cruelly. Even the "Certified Humane" designation permits debeaking. The next time you head to the grocery store for a dozen eggs, why not reconsider buying into a system that charges you extra for a 'happy' label while continuing to mistreat animals? Take some time to look for local egg producers and tour their farms. Our county puts out an annual Farm Map which has 11 farms selling eggs direct to the public. Maybe your county has something similar. Or try asking around at your local Farmer's Market for egg producers. We can find farm fresh eggs, laid by hens kept the old-fashioned way, for $2.50-$3 a dozen. Not only are the hens kept in better conditions, but we're helping keep food production local and in the hands of real farmers instead of agribusiness. Not to mention eggs from barnyard hens taste so much better than any you can buy from the store!

Want more info? Check out these sites for an in-depth look at egg production - Egg Industry and Circle of Responsibility, and an editorial about one man's search for humanely-produced eggs.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Mid-summer garden

The potato patch is no longer the lush jungle it used to be. The right-most row of reds, which now looks like a dust heap, provided around 100lbs. of potatoes. Still more to harvest from the 2nd row, and the Buttes are using the last bit of photosynthesis as the tops die back to keep on growing. You can see the little corn patch to the right, coming along well, and back center with the red tops is the amaranth.
The new contender for garden jungle are the tomatoes. No matter how often we wade in to sort them out, as soon as our backs are turned the vines are leaping over the twine and kntting themselves into an impenetrable barrier. Lots and lots of green tomatoes forming, so the canner and dehydrator will get a workout soon.
Stew is supervising our pre-BBQ clean up. He still thinks he's getting a trip to the beach, but he'll have to make do with a romp around the yard with Fergus today.
The squash pit. The orange one in front is a potimarron, a French variety that is supposed to taste like a cross between pumpkin and chestnuts. Behind them are the delicatas, and furthest back are the long island cheese pumpkins. Still not sure about the squash harvest this fall. The weather has been so strange we'll be happy to get any.
And the biggest watermelon in the greenhouse so far. There are a few more forming up, but this one seems the most happy.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

In a pickle

Here are the latest batch of pickles - beets and refrigerator pickles. Both are really easy to make, and only take a little patience to wait til they are pickled enough to eat. The recipe we use for the fridge pickles works great for cukes, carrots, green beans, onion, garlic, peppers & green tomatoes. We use the gallon jars our honey comes in for these, but you can use smaller mason jars too. The beets are more of a sweet pickle, but we add 3/4 tsp of salt and grind the spices with a mortar & pestle to get the best flavor.

Another day's harvest - green & yellow wax beans, maybe a couple pounds, cukes, and two giant carrots. We only did 6 cuke plants this year (we had 18 last year and got swamped with cukes). We will probably plant more cukes and green beans next year though, as we just might have gotten the whole pickle thing figured out finally. Most 'official' canning guides call for water bath processing them for long enough to sterilize. They may be sterile, but they aren't as good. We're experimenting with traditional food preservation methods and planning to try very little processing to keep the flavor and texture. If it worked for our foremothers, it will work for us. This book, Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation is a great source of ideas for old-fashioned techniques. We already started lacto-fermented kraut and chard stems using recipes from this book. When the tomatoes ripen, we'll try sun-drying and packing in oil, along with other recipes in the book.

Here's our first blackberry pick of the year. Last summer, the berries were plentiful, but not very sweet. The sun and rainfall need to balance out just right for a sweet juicy harvest. So far we're looking at a ton of fat luscious berries this year. Can't wait to make pies & cobbler! And finally, all the hens are starting to lay. Some in the nest boxes, some on the coop floor, some under a bush in the henyard, and some in the hay mow. Rather than pen them up to force them to lay where we want, we'll just keep checking all their favorite spots each day. It's fun to have an easter egg hunt all year long, especially with such a colorful variety of eggs. The two smaller ones (front and right) are from Peeps and Poops, the Black Stars. So now we have 7 hens, 3 different breeds, providing good food for us. The eggs are sitting in about 10 pounds of barley that our neighbor grew and harvested. We pondered brewing with it, and baking with it, but I htink we'll seed most of it in the pasture for Stella to enjoy. Barley matures fast and makes an excellent grazing crop. And anything she misses will reseed for next spring. We'll save some back for spring seeding in our hoped-for grain patch.

Plans for the Seven Trees gather are moving right along. The first invitations went out (more to come), and we'll be picking up the Highland beef for the burgers this weekend. Hopefully we'll get RSVP's soon, so we can make sure to have enough food, drink & fun for everyone.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Chores, happy helpers, harvest!

Too bad I couldn't include the lovely smell that went with this particular chore. Our septic has a filter in it that must be dug up, extracted and hosed off every 6 months to a year. Next time I do this I plan to build and install a riser, so I don't have to dig it up -- each and every time. The system started draining better as soon as I was done this time, so it was definitely time. It's always something right?
30 bales of hay unloaded up front had to be hauled to the barn in the background here and stacked, but fortunately I had my happy helpers to jump on and off the bales chasing each other, and generally being in the way. It was actually quite entertaining. The kitties were also very helpful in this department though I did not capture either of them on film. For some reason everybody loves when we bring in hay... always incessantly smelling it, and generally all over it in some way or another. All I can figure is it has the exotic smell of grass from a couple miles away, and maybe residual odors of mousy activity from the time it spent in a barn elsewhere. At any rate... it's always a big hit around here.

Here's a happy harvester indeed, with a few fat onions in hand, basket of fresh picked tatties at her feet, and standing next to the tomato "trees" as we like to call them, owing to their height. The garden has been gifting us well this year with bounty and everything seems beyond happy with cow Stella's composted manure and a few applications of nettle tea, which is all the additives we've ever applied.

What to do after a hard day of hay bale bound and chase? Well... you get the picture. Note the toothy grin on this canine! It's a farm dog's life...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

You are what you eat

Ever wonder why we go to such bother to raise our own chickens, eggs, milk & hopefully beef, when it's simpler and cheaper to buy these products at the grocery store? A brief look at factory farming was enough to start us on this path (in addition to just enjoying the animals themselves). For starters, it's called 'factory farming' because the animals are kept in industrial conditions. Here is a definition from Sustainable Table:

"A large-scale industrial site where many animals (generally chickens, turkeys, cattle, or pigs) are confined and treated with hormones and antibiotics to maximize growth and prevent disease. The animals produce much more waste than the surrounding land can handle. These operations are associated with various environmental hazards as well as cruelty to animals."

The cheap chicken that has become so ubiquitous to the dinner table in various bits, pieces and stages of pre-cookery is generally raised with no more floor space than the size of a sheet of paper. It is crammed in with other birds so that none of them have room to move. Their beaks are usually cut off to prevent them from hurting each other (or themselves) and they are kept in the dark. Add to that the constant dosages of vaccines, antibiotics and hormones that make their way into our bodies and water systems. Read more about it here - What is a Factory Farm?

Another thing to keep in mind is that most "store-bought" critters are fed some horrible things - poop, body parts, garbage, plastic, blood, road kill, even euthanized pets! All completely legal. Cows are fed chicken bedding, and "...pig carcasses can be rendered and fed back to pigs, chicken carcasses can be rendered and fed back to chickens, and turkey carcasses can be rendered and fed back to turkeys. Even cattle can still be fed cow blood and some other cow parts."

I'll spare everyone the actual pictures of factory farms and descriptions of what all the manure and dead animals they generate does to our environment. See for yourself here Animal photo gallery and here Animal waste "treatment".

Not everyone can grow their own meat. You might want to try keeping laying hens (they're legal in many cities). But everyone can make an effort to look for farmers raising healthy happy animals for meat and eggs. Here are a couple of places to start looking - Eat Well Guide and Eat Wild. Also try your local farmer's market. This site is a good place to look if you're not sure where to find them - Local Harvest.

Upcoming posts will talk about why just buying "organic" isn't always a guarantee of quality food grown in healthy ways, and also get into the nitty gritty of raw milk vs. cooked milk.