Seductive Spring Garden Trap

I was seduced. Yes, definitely… against my will (i.e. my better judgment). The warm sunny days worked their magic on me.  I KNOW better than to plant a garden too early in the season.  It’s really an exercise in futility to try and outwit the “weather gods”!

Transplant starts

Spring Starts for the Garden

Yep, I went down to our local nursery (key word there is “local” nursery)… and perused among their garden starts.  Trays of tiny plants just waiting to be snapped up and placed into a warm nurturing environment so they could explode into growth, providing me with feeling of satisfaction of having something growing.

When I asked at the counter for some assistance in finding some “Sweet 100” tomato starts, they chuckled and said, “Don’t you think you are just a couple months to early!”  It’s too cold  at night and they will just shrivel up and die with the first frost.

Season extension

Simple Greenhouse- Hog Panel

But boy did that tune change when I said the magic words…. greenhouse. Lovely, lovely, warm, protected, sheltered greenhouse.

Now mind you… nothing fancy.

Just an ol’ hog panel (it’s 16 ft length arched over to form a tunnel) with some heavy-duty plastic over it and some coverings placed on each end.

Not fancy but definitely functional. We did build some raised beds (lined with chicken wire to protect those delicious roots from munching gophers) to plant into.  In a raised bed the soil warms a bit earlier which gives another advantage to planting in the greenhouse.

Inside a hog panel greenhouse

Simple Season Extension - inside

So, while I did “buy” transplants way too early, by the time I got home, my better judgement did kick in and instead of planting into the ground  I placed my starts in their temporary waiting place. And sure enough, that night for the first time in weeks, the nighttime temperatures dropped into the 20’s!

I’ll be watching the weather report closely.

But I did exercise some common sense, and MOST of the starts that I purchased, are for cool season. Peas, snow peas, spinach, kale… all things that can handle a light frost.

The warm season starts will need a longer stay in the greenhouse… but  if I do move them out a bit early there are some short-term solutions!

A gallon milk jug, with the bottom cut out, makes an excellent in place micro greenhouse.   They provide some protection from frost as well as a slightly warmer environment that is plant friendly. Just be careful to NOT cook the plant on days that get really warm.  Nice thing about the gallon milk jug… you can just take the cap off and presto! you are venting the extra heat. Talk about cheap and easy… instant success.

mini greenhouse - Milk Jugs

Gallon Milk Jugs for mini greenhouses

Pastures… never enough!

We are on the look-out for pasture…. always. We drive by fields that have lush growth and nothing happening on the land… and salivate.

Pasture for livestock

And I’m a city girl turned “farmer’s wife” in my older years… We’ve just been doing this for about 5 years, but my world view has changed dramatically.

Someone said one time to Jim & I, that once you start working with livestock, you will never look at land / grasses/ weeds the same way again.

By God, they hit the nail on the head with that statement. We don’t see weeds: we see succession growth, nutrients, and value the diversity of plants and what it brings to the soil and animals!

Those black dots you see in the picture, to the right of the brush pile… are our rather short Lowline Angus! They are taking advantage of some really rich diverse pasture. We use simple electric net to fence to manage where they graze.

We’re always looking for land that we can trade for grass/forage management… with the use of our mini Lowline Angus. Our cows add back fertilizer & bacteria that enrich the soil, leaving it healthier.

Sequenced growth

sequenced growth pattern

Did you know that there is a certain sequence to growth on land… if a field is burned there is a whole sequence of plants that grow. From those that can deal with the dead top (burned), and send down deep roots to pull up nutrients hidden in the depths of the soil.

Those plants bring up the “goodies” and then other plants take hold, using those nutrients. The soil is enriched and the new growth will eventually shade/kill out the original plants.  There is a progression of various grasses, shrubs, plants, and then eventually trees.

If you are VERY knowledgeable about the land, you can tell what nutrients are missing by what kind of plants/weeds are growing!

It’s actually all about the soil and its microbial base

An underground world of activity!

It’s the microbes in the soil that do ALL the real work… breaking down, releasing nutrients, and aerating the soil.

Plants can’t get to the nutrients locked up in the SOM (soil organic matter) until the microorganisms break it down into simple compounds so that it can be absorbed by the root hairs.

Turns out that if you transplant certain trees/shrubs, etc., and bring some of the soil where they were grown, you get a higher/quicker success rate.  It’s because the plant has a symbiotic relationship with the microbes in the soil where it has grown.  It decreases the stress on the plant to bring some of it’s “micro-buddies” along to help it reestablish itself in a new area.

Questions for Interns…

We ask our students two questions in particular:

1) WHAT is a weed? and 2) What value do weeds bring to our garden?

The usual response is… ugh, anything that is ugly, doesn’t produce something we can use, etc.

For me, a weed is simply something that is growing where you don’t want it, at that time.  My weed may be your delicacy! Did you know nettles are highly prized for great food value, and cattails have a myriad of food and health properties? Not to mention providing a habitat for beneficial insects that will actually protect your plants.  And sometimes the weeds attract the “pests” to them, taking them away from the plants we want to produce (aphids for example).

2) What value do they bring?

Depending on the timing… they preserve the top soil, they prevent erosion, bring up nutrients into the soil, help dry out the soil after the rains, or conserve moisture by shading the bare soil, when they die, their roots die and aerate the soil as well as release nutrients back.

A garden totally lacking in “extra plants” can be very sterile.  When I go out and pull weeds I remind myself of all the value they have brought.That way I don’t resent the “extra” work I have to do.  Instead of thinking I’m a poor gardener or lacking in focus by keeping my garden pristine… I have come to have a certain appreciation for weeds. It’s just part of the process.

And WHEN is it time for them to go? When they compete too strongly with the plants I’m growing for food.  When they are  shading out others, taking too much moisture, or choking them to death (good ol’ bindweed… wraps around the stem and climbs up reaching for the sun… but can choke the plant to death!!!).

At that point a weed must go; and often replaced with a good mulch which works wonders, and as it degrades, IT returns good stuff to the soil, as well.

Sunny California…

Darn those lovely little yellow blossoms

70-80 degrees F…in Febuary, no less! It’s the end of the month; we’ve had very little of our “winter rains” and lots of sunshine.

My little season extension greenhouse, that was meant to provide us with winter crops and an early start for cool season crops… has been a bit too warm.

Darn it, my cool weather broccoli is flowering instead of producing heads for my dinner table!

tolerant of the warm winter weather!

Lucky for me, the spinach, green onions, and strawberry plants are more forgiving of all this warm weather. They are humming along just fine.

But our simple little greenhouse, we actually have to open the door to cool it down… and block the entrance so my chickens don’t have themselves a feast in my “special greens”!

They just LOVE to sneak into the greenhouse.

This is such an awesome post (and it’s comments!). I think it speaks to what matters in life… relationships, not things. Let me know what YOU think!

How’s YOUR grocery bill these days?

“It must be wonderful to not have a huge grocery store bill!” I’m told many a time, by people who know we have a full-cycle farm (i.e. milk, meat, chickens, gardens, etc). I laugh and tell them that at this point, I don’t pay the grocery store, I pay the feed store!  WE won’t REALLY have it together until we can feed our livestock.

Fresh from the home garden

We bought some apples (a health food right?) at a small market, rather than buying junk food .  Took one bite and had to spit it out… you could taste the chemical coating on the apple.  I don’t know if I’m getting more sensitive or if it’s getting utilized in heavier doses.

I know that I’m reading you can no longer wash the stuff off… it’s absorbed systemically.

Producing your own food, overall it is NOT cheaper;  just a lot, and I mean, a lot better quality.

Quality in value and in taste... and probably even more importantly… not exposed to so much “crud” that is used to produce industrial food (neurotoxins, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc). Upfront it’s not cheaper but we won’t have the same health issues, and as those costs are sky-rocketing, we are saving tons of dollars long-term. Not to mention, just the additional quality of life in not being sick.

Because it's the better choice!

Buy Fresh, Buy Local

OK here’s my spiel: find an organic farmer/market/CSA.  Not because they need it, but because YOU need it, especially your children! Most of this “toxic crappola” did not come on the scene until the 1980’s and has escalated since then. An occasion hit of “crap” our systems can generally detoxify and cope with.

It’s the day in, day out constant onslaught that is creating the epidemic of chronic diseases.

We are working toward becoming a “sustainable” farm, meaning that the farm will provide for our needs in general.  Not everything.  Traditionally one would trade for other services/products. But all the same, farms were not mono-crops.

“Doing” just one thing would exhaust your soil over time, whether crop or a particular livestock.  Just raising corn, just raising pigs would overload you: you would pull out too much of one thing, and dump to much as waste, of one thing, to be healthy.  Farms that did that would eventually exhaust the soil (or contaminate it), people would move on to new territory. The “westward movement” was a significant part of that process with all the “new world” land available.

Think of just eating french fries, or just broccoli, or just chicken. UGGH. That would get old real fast. I think it’s a built in safety mechanism. Your body won’t let you eat just one thing, on purpose. It’s the satiation factor. You know how the first chocolate chip cookie, out of the oven, is heavenly… but by the 4th one you’re starting to feel FULL (OK, so for some of us it’s the 10th cookie)!

home produced

Typically, in the 1800’s, there was the family garden (food raised to be utilized by the family) and then the main crop that would be used for selling (cash trade) and then food raised to be utilized by the livestock.

People often ask why we focus so much on miniature/compact livestock. Mini-horses, mini-cows, & mini-milk cows, in particular. Historically at least one third of a farms products went to feed the livestock.  That means if you had a 3 acre farm (which we basically do), one acre would be in full production just to feed the animals that would provide your power labor such as transportation, pulling a plow, hauling things, or provide meat, milk, butter, cheese, etc. The other two acres are what supported the farm.

Stored hay, for the off season

The problem in the USA is that bigger is better, except when you have to feed it!

Then the food bill goes through the roof, either in terms of producing it (maybe half the acreage would have to feed the livestock instead of one third), or purchasing it.

By downsizing our larger livestock we feel like it is more cost effective in general plus the supporting costs are less. Less fencing, housing, trailer size, pasture damage due to weight, etc.

How much is an acre of land valued in California (an hour north of San Francisco)? An easy $100,000 acre. If we try and feed our livestock from our land… can you imagine covering the cost of $100,000/an acre to produce feed.

Smaller livestock mean lower food needs! We manage much of the cost by importing feed grown on much “cheaper valued” land.  But it used to cost us $5/bale of good feed and now it’s up to $15-20/bale.  In FIVE years.

We americans have been so spoiled in the last 50 years… typically one third of a family’s income in OUR country, went for food.  That dropped to less than 10 percent ! Those “extra” dollars went into buying other things (house, clothes, toys – childrens’ and electronic)! It provided a huge growth factor in our economy… but it was “bought” at great long term personal cost. The economic value of land near a city went through the roof. The farming land itself was turned into strip malls and housing developments.
Be glad you are an american though, as many other countries have reached the point where more than 50% of their income goes to food… if it is to be had.
A full load... 120 bales

Moving the Hay

We reached a turning point, as the cost of oil escalates.  Currently we spend about 10 calories (energy, fertilizers, fuel, transportation) to produce ONE calorie of industrial food.

The REAL questions is NOT, “Why is organic food so expensive”,  but “WHY is industrial food so cheap?”  But I don’t think industrial food is going to be “cheap” much longer…

And that “grocery bill” is going to get a heck of a lot more expensive. Cultivate your local farmer… he may be the best value to be had, in the near future!

Something different…

If we look at our history, and I mean real history, not just the last 10,000 years, we can see how changes have affected our physical make-up. Why the obesity epidemic has occurred. We can see how the draconian changes in the last 50 years in our food systems, have dramatically altered the impact food, or rather food-like substances, on our bodies.

The Real Food Revolution is a medically backed clip on some food issues I have suspected for years. The science is finally developed enough (and clear of the politically/corporate influence) to provide some real data.

Take a close look at that last figure on the graph… it’s all happened in less than 50 years!

Dr. Lustig, out of UC SF, has published around the same topic. His presentation is a bit heavier on the science, but very, very watchable. He has a great sense of humor which probably explains why it has had over 3 million hits, and continues to grow; Sugar, The Bitter Truth. In his talk he includes a discussion on the toxic effects of “high fructose corn syrup”.

Calf on the loose – A Subverted Milking session

Chocolate is usually quite amenable to going into the milking trailer, and if she seems to balk a bit… a little shake  of a scoop of grain has her right up to the head stall & feeding trough! Not today… she hemmed hawed up to the entrance, and then backed off.  Her tongue reached out as far as it could to dip into the scoop but no amount of tempting her, would get her to come in.  And then I looked a bit closer. UGGGGH.

milked out

Deflated udder

When one wants to milk the milk cow, it really helps if she has some milk to give! I realized that Chocolate’s calf had been left in the paddock with her, with the morning feed, instead of being left in the main pasture.  We have mom & calf together at night.  At just under 4 weeks I want the calf to be able to nurse during the night and early morning, when it is cold.

Jim does the early morning feeding (ah, what a husband!) before he heads in to work.

Usually, the mom & calf are separated (calf left in the main pasture), and then I milk mid-day, or thereabout. Her udder has filled and there is a “pressure” that needs to be relieved.  Between the grain, high-end hay, and the udder pressure, she is usually very happy to get milked. But not today; in the rush, the calf and mom were together and I’m sure his tummy was quite full ’cause Chocolate’s udders were pretty deflated.

calf on the loose

Calf, tummy full of milk!

Discretion is the better part of valor!

I decided this was one battle I did not need to fight.  But as I was getting Chocolate BACK into the pasture, the calf slipped through the gate, to the outside.  OK… chase the calf, or finish with Chocolate. Whoops, here comes Bessie.

Decided the calf would not go far from mom… so dealt with getting Chocolate back into the pasture. All without Bessie slipping past me… she would LOVE to go to the milking trailer for all those goodies… but she hasn’t delivered yet, so no go. As a standard jersey she was very used to getting grain, in the old days.

So let’s see… here I am, dancing around with three cows trying to get them elsewhere. I just take a deep breath and laugh.  The sun is shining, the momma hen is out with the chicks, and the day is good.

And then…

Under Mick's watchful eye, baby chicks

Phacelia checking out the chicks

My current assistant (10), a young chicken entrepreneur(she has a flock of 9), has stopped by to see what is going on, on the farm.  She volunteers to help me out.

Sad that she doesn’t get to help me with the milking, she is more than happy to help me collect eggs and socialize the calf!

One of the best parts of the farm, letting kids (and adults) have the “experience” of a farm.  Our chickens are free-ranging (oophs, watch where you step!), the mini-horses, and the cows are fair game for interacting with.  Only the hogs are kept contained; one boar and two gilts. (Gilts are female pigs that have never birthed piglets. After they have their first litter they are called a sow.)

But back to the calf… he is having the time of his life running up and down the fence line that separates him from his mom. But oh, what things to explore.  He’s checking out the turkeys, the benches, the chickens, and down to the mini-horses. After 30 minutes of playtime, he’s quite easy to “walk” to the gate.  I barely get it open and he slips through, back to mom.

Phacelia making friends!

Calf socialization in progress

Interestingly, cows have pressure points and if you know the “points” you can move them fairly easily, as long as they are not scared! It’s important to move slow and be MELLOW! You just stand about 45 degrees to the left or right of the REAR of the cow, and move slowly toward them. They will move away, generally in a straight path. How close to the rear of the cow depends on how well they know you.  So the calf is “in training” and he responds very traditionally to the “pressure points” and we are able to walk him to the gate entrance.

We went on a round-up one time… a real-life cattle roundup, to bring the cow-calf pairs in from the range.  It was time to brand, castrate, vaccinate, etc.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 cows.   All the horses were brought out and everyone mounted up (except me… I was helping with the medical supplies) & 92-year-old grandpa, just recovering from heart surgery, was in charge (but NOT allowed back on a horse, yet). He was one tough guy… and quite together! This was his cattle ranch.

kids, adults, all have "jobs"

All hands on board to help out

A 4×4 was sent out with its usual load of hay, which brought the cows into the vicinity.  And then the horses surrounded the cows and moved them into the paddocks. Gates closed… sorting and work began.  James & I just looked at each other. We could have done the same thing, without the horses.  Just pressure walked them into the paddocks. But as someone pointed out… NOT NEAR AS MUCH FUN for all the horsemen (kids, etc). It was a big annual event/party. And the chance to practice roping & cutting skills. The horses were definitely a BIG asset when it came to catching and pinning down the calves.

bringing a calf down

Round-up in action

On our farm, we do things a bit differently.

  • We don’t brand… we ear tag.
  • We don’t vaccinate because our livestock don’t travel (no fairs, shows, etc) so they are not exposed to “bugs”.  If there was something endemic to where we live, we would vaccinate. The horses do get vaccinated for West Nile, spread by mosquitos, which has shown up in our area.
  • To convert bull calf to steers, we band when they are very young.

But we are able to do things this way because we are a very, very small operation. Size changes the methods of operation. Size, numbers, skills, tools at hand, staff, temperament, all factor in.  On each “farm” there is a lot of trial and error, to find the best fit. Farmers and ranchers are real life problem solvers on a daily basis, which of course, makes things quite interesting!

Here on The Heritage Farm, we’re still fine tuning our operation.

This morning, we are a little low on fresh milk and cream… but we had a VERY satisfied calf yesterday, I’m sure! But I’m learning… and fine-tuning our set-up.

Sex on the Farm

It can be difficult to warn people that ours is an “X-rated” farm.  Our farm animals do the “wild thing” at the drop of the hat!  Sex is so prevalent on a farm… and an important topic to be able to discuss.

six piglets getting the colostrum, after birth

Piglets delivered and nursing well

We’ve had many an intern turn red and start stuttering when we have to discuss the topic of breeding and mating.  As if it were magic! Our interns are generally, bright, well-educated young people who want to learn organic farming.  We are one of the few farms that offer livestock management as well as the organic gardening aspect. And yet, SEX, is still a forbidden topic.  But the mating management is critical to the success of any farm.

We try to get over that barrier pretty quickly.  We are involved in utilizing high-tech methods to improve livestock for the small, low-tech farm. We want livestock that can survive WITHOUT vets, medicine, special diets, or extraordinary support.  To do this we sometimes use artificial insemination (A.I.) & embryo transfers (E.T.) to get where we want to go.  Thus it is important to monitor their reproductive cycles.

Lowline Bull, Herd Sire

Lowline Angus Beef, full-bodied, grass-based genetics

We are working on returning to the “grass genetics” that allow livestock to thrive on their historically natural forage.  We use DNA testing to identify markers for food efficiency, as well as observation.  You can have two cows, eating from the same pasture.  One will be fat and the other will look scrawny.  The fat one is better at converting her food to meet her needs AND build a reserve. She is a survivor, and it will cost less to support her.  Her’s are the genes we want in our pool.  As long as she has a good temperament. Temperament trumps… be nice or you are off to freezer camp!

In nature, it make take years for those poor survival genes to be weeded out.  In our herd, we cull those animals and don’t allow them in our gene pool.  We have very mellow animals that are generally easy to work with.

Jim tells the interns, “Cows are really a lot like women! They cycle every 21 days, they get bitchy and they get lovey-dovey.” And it is actually true.  One cow will start licking another, and nuzzling, comforting her. You know she is getting ready to ovulate.  Another cow may bawl and bellow all day.. she is really ready to ovulate. Interns have to learn to watch for standing mount. When a cow allows another cow to mount her, without moving away, we know she is ready to breed! (i.e. she will ovulate within 12 hours).

If you know your cows you can figure out what is going on.  We have to identify when they ovulate so that we can do our intervention (A.I. or embryo transfer), or just mark down on the calendar so we know when to expect a calf if she has been exposed to a bull.  Our goal is to get a bull  & cows, who carry the DNA markers we want to encourage, and then eliminate the need for AI or ET. But at this point the numbers are still small.

The current success rate in embryo transfers, in the industrial cattle industry, is 30-40 %.

Our success rate is close to 90%!

We do NOT use hormone injections or patches to bring on a cow’s cycle. Instead we watch for her natural cycle and work with her.   Of course it helps to have a top-notch vet versed in the skills needed. And we pay close attention to the cows diet.  We add kelp meal, selenium, and diatomaceous earth for the micro-nutrients she may need.

We follow our beef cows, our dairy cows, pigs, and poultry.  The goal is to understand the natural behaviors and work with them to breed stock that can survive in the real world.

Such show-off, our tom turkeys

Heritage Bronze Turkey Toms strutting

I was shocked to hear that the turkey one buys in the store… are so large breasted that they can NO LONGER reproduce on their own.  They must be AI’ed to reproduce.  That, to me, is a very precarious situation.  We use A.I. but our goal is to NOT need it. Our heritage turkeys are quite capable of doing their “job”!

I’m reminded of the story of the special dairy cows in Cuba.  There was a line of dairy cows that were so productive that all the dairies used them.  The problem was… when they no longer had access to the special diet that was needed to produce those prodigious amounts of milk, they were in big trouble.  Besides no longer producing volumes of milk, they could NOT even survive. Not on pasture alone.  That line died out.

We were asked to provide vacation backup for some friends; to milk their daughter’s blue ribbon milking goats.  What struck me as terribly funny (funny sad)… when we milked the goats, we had to pasteurize the milk before we could give it by bottle, to the kids the mother goat had given birth to.  The line was so inbred that an organism was in the milk which could damage the babies if they drank milk straight from the mother.

Our farm is focused on the sustainable. It’s a pretty precarious situation to get into if you make yourself dependent on livestock that can’t survive in the real world

When the price for oil shoots up, the agriculture prices supported by oil must increase.  What happens to the price of food?  We’re working to unhook from that price lock.

Beef has gone up 17% in the last two years, and looks to go higher in the coming years.  The beef herds are the smallest they have been since the 1950’s. Between the price of feed and the lack of water, cattlemen have been unable to support their herds and have reduced their stock.  Our Lowlines don’t need feed (grain), they flourish on forage/grass.

So interns come to our farm and learn about the economics of livestock management… at least on a small family farm. Included in that is learning about the sex life of cows… and most importantly, how to talk about it!

another Lowline Bull

Another Herd Sire

Practicing eating!

Caught a picture of our little bull calf.  His muzzle was dripping with milk but he slipped around mom, up to the hay feeder where all the cows were munching away.  He nuzzled up to the feeder and took a bite to check out what everyone was up to.

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At this age, he is beginning to practice eating forage.  He still does not get much nutrition from it, but his gut is being colonized by the bacteria he will need on board, to help digest the cellulose (tough fibers). That’s what makes ruminates (cows, goats, sheep, etc) such useful creature.  They can take forage on land unusable for crops, and convert it to food.

At birth, the four parts of the cow’s stomach are not “active”.  Milk is shunted to the last stomach; the only one that can absorb nutrition from the milk. A calf lifts its head up to nurse, which shuts off the entrance to the other sections of the stomach.  Calves that are fed from a bucket, with their heads down, do NOT shut off that entrance and tend to be very sickly; despite getting milk. They are NOT getting the food into their system.

Commercial cattlemen finally figured out they needed to raise the bucket up and the calves would be much healthier. Such a small observation of how mother nature works, made a huge difference in the health of calves off their moms.

Calf stomach compartments

As small amounts of milk & microbes, from the practice chewing/eating gets into the rumen, it becomes colonized with the different microbes that will handle different types of forage. A different group of microbes for grass, for alfalfa, for orchard grass, or teff, or blends. Once all the areas are colonized, the four compartments have very specialized functions. After eight weeks the calf’s rumen should be fully functioning. The rumen, his bulk storage container where food is first inoculated with microbes to break it down, will grow 25 times larger from birth to adulthood.

One of the things we do is transition any feed changes slowly, over a week or two, to give the microbes a chance to catch up! Otherwise we end up with cows with very “liquid” deposits!

Food/Forage management by poop analysis, would be a “polite” way to put it.

Fresh Eggs, European style

In La Jolla, San Diego (yuppie-ville to the MAX), at the hugely popular farmer’s market, I made the mistake of asking the gentleman who was selling farm eggs, if they had been refrigerated.

Several Hens use the same nest

He lit into me,“You crazy americans, why do you want to refrigerate your eggs! We NEVER do.”

After a minute or so of this tirade he wound down, and I said to him, “I just wanted to make sure they had NOT been chilled”.  His feathers no longer ruffled, we exchanged dollars for eggs and I went on my way… amused that he was so fanatical about the issue, but understanding totally where he was coming from.

It’s amazing that all of Europe is not dead or dying considering they consume raw milk and eat eggs that have NOT been refrigerated. And eat fresh veggies and meat that don’t have a USDA approved stamp on them. OMG, don’t they understand how dangerous they are living.. .

uh, wait… I think,.. yes, didn’t I just hear… now… they live longer… and healthier than us americans. With much lower obesity rates, heart disease, or diabetes. What are they doing different? How can that possibly be?

But back to the eggs…

Obviously 100 years ago they did not put eggs in the fridge.  What changed? Why were eggs suddenly going “bad” if they were not retrieved twice a day and immediately washed and put in the fridge?

A little biology… eggs stay fresh enough kept at room temperature (warmer and cooler than that actually) for a minimum of two weeks and probably longer than that.  At least fresh enough for a broody hen to collect her eggs (i.e. lay them) over a two-week period, and THEN start to “set” on them.

Chicks hatching over two days

They are fresh enough to develop into quite healthy little chicks. I’ve actually seen them do that! Just amazing.

After two whole weeks, without being washed or put in the fridge!

When an egg is laid it has a coating called “the bloom” which is anti-bacterial in nature, and helps protect the future embryo.

When we collect the egg and wash it, we actually remove that protective layer.

Eggs are then placed, in the industrial industry, in a fridge because now the egg DOES need to be protected…  and chilling it prevents bacterial growth.

Eggs are an excellent media for bacterial growth… they use them to grow vaccines, etc., in the medical world.  If eggs are washed they are at risk of being infected with bacteria. Hot water, opens the pores the of egg… and each egg has 3-6,000 pores that enable a chick to exchange O2 & CO2 while it is developing. Those pores now become “freeway systems”.

And what does putting the eggs in the fridge do, washed or not washed? The egg is chilled and when taken out of the fridge moisture condenses on the shell (basic physics here). That moisture can conduct bacteria.

Salmonella bacteria endemic in the commercial populations

Commercial eggs, even so-called free-range, cage-free, pastured (those descriptions have been

Cage-Free Hens, commercial style

pretty much co-opted by the egg industry) are raised in huge numbers (up to 20,000 hens in a laying house). They are collected, washed, packed, and chilled to go to market. Commercial eggs are fighting an ongoing battle with Salmonella while getting their eggs to market.  Markets that can be hundreds of miles away… and if the trucks were NOT refrigerated, the temps in the summer could get very, very high. High enough, long enough, to trigger the deterioration of the egg itself, or incubate bacterial growth.

I can’t imagine the industrial costs to do all this… a refrigerated truck? But they MUST do it, because the risks are so high.

Farms that have 50,000 thousand laying hens (yes, 50,000 or MORE) must follow specific rules to decrease the risk of Salmonella bacteria, in their eggs. Some 600 hundred farms were to be inspected in 2010-11 . Salmonella is endemic in the commercial egg production population. Egg products (yolk, white, etc), with the shell removed, must be pasteurized. Some large  egg producers are fighting the salmonella problem by pasteurizing ALL their eggs (shell & all).

You should NEVER eat commercial eggs unless they have been well cooked, to protect your family. My mother would get sick even if the eggs were cooked… G.I. upset every time.  We finally figured out she could eat real farm eggs without any problems.  Every time she came to my house, she could eat the eggs, without later running to the ladies’ room.

Down on the Farm

What do I do if I get an egg with “stuff on the shell”? I wipe it off gently.

If it’s totally yucky I wipe if off with a damp room temperature dishcloth, and use it ASAP. If I’m really short on eggs (think winter)… those eggs I might put in the fridge and use them immediately, when I take them out.  I would NOT take a whole carton of eggs out, put them on the counter for a while, and then put them BACK into the fridge. Not if that protective bloom has been removed.

Actually, in my setup for the most part, the eggs would go into the pig bucket because they are extremely high in nutrition and are prized for the food value they give our pigs.

 At our house, we keep things pretty basic.  Eggs are collected, kept at room temp, dusted off but generally NOT washed. Any suspect eggs (very dirty or cracked) go to our pigs. NO WASTE, I just love it!

Teaching the chicks, finding food!

Our hens also get their real diet…. i.e. NOT vegetarian.  They run around freely, for the most part (to the dismay of a neighbor occasionally) and eat bugs, worms, etc. as well as a layer feed. They choose. We do protect garden areas, or a neighbor, by putting up an electric net that encourages them to go elsewhere.  They could jump the fence if they wanted to, but for the most part choose to meander where it’s easy to go.

Backyard Chickens are the way to go!

I encourage everyone, raise your own hens! They are great waste disposals; eat just about everything, give you fertilizer and eggs. You don’t have to have a rooster (hens still lay, just the eggs won’t hatch!). Put down a bed of straw to absorb any odors. It makes a great garden amendment when it breaks down, along with the fertilizer  mixed in, from the hens.

If a hen goes broody, let her set on her infertile eggs and after a couple of weeks trade them out. At night, slip some chicks from the local feed store, under her and let her raise them up. GREAT entertainment and fun for kids, dads, moms, & neighbors.

It’s incredible how good fresh eggs are… commercial eggs are  a bland watery substitute for real food. Can’t raise your own… seek out a local farmer who is and support them.  You will get much more for your food dollars, I assure you!

Update: Turkey & the Hen, pt 2

I’ll be dang.  That turkey Hen, after a full week, is still sitting on her eggs*. I say her (almost) eggs because we actually put her eggs under the hen, and gave her fresh chicken eggs to sit on.  If she was gonna run off and visit the “guys” I wanted to be able to save her chicks.  Chicken chicks are pretty easy for us to get, but not turkey chicks, so if we lost  her “chicken eggs” it was not quite a disaster for us.

But, she is finally hanging in there.  I peek in every day (sometimes twice) just to make sure… and she just looks at me. Doesn’t get flustered at all.  The hen gets pretty grouchy at me if I try to check her eggs. She rustles up her neck feathers and tries to peck me if I get to close.  She’s definitely into protecting her (turkey) eggs. Her eggs were actually moved to the incubator, along with some turkey eggs as there were too many eggs for her to sit on.

The Alternate Surrogate – an incubator!

A couple of days ago we had a surprise in the incubator, the hen’s eggs are starting to hatch!  A constant churp-churp-churp alerted us to a hatching chick.

We’ve been struggling a bit with the incubator, at the start, to make sure we had the temp in the right range… 99-100 degrees F, so I was SURE we had killed off the developing chicks. Nope, tough little guys.  It turns out they can tolerate short periods of temps down to 90 degrees for hours. It may slow the hatch but high temps (103  F) for even 30 min, will kill the embryo.

Temp & Humidity Levels

We bought an instant read digital thermometer with a probe that went into the incubator.  It would give us the internal temp and the humidity level.  Things you need to know… and difficult to actually find out WITHOUT opening the top of our little incubator. Every time you remove the top you alter the very things you are trying to keep stable.

The little funnel you see in the top of the lid gives us access to putting water inside to increase the humidity level WITHOUT opening up the unit. The humidity inside the unit needs to be in the 55-65% range or else the growing embryo’s get too dry and stick to the membrane inside the egg.

We use an automatic turner in our forced air incubator. The mother hen normally turns the eggs multiple times a day, to keep the embryo from “sticking” to the internal membrane. If the eggs are NOT turned consistently you end up with a very poor hatch rate. Years ago we started out turning them manually but as soon as we could afford to add the “turner” we did. You are supposed to stop turning the eggs for the last three days, but out little hatchling did just fine.

Automatic Turner w/eggs

You can see the chicken and turkey eggs (light speckled eggs). They are placed in the slot with the large rounded end up.

There is an air pocket inside the egg as well as the yolk, the clear ‘white”, and the embryo surrounded by a white layer. Did you know that the yolk is NOT the chick? It is the food the chick will use while it is developing. Just before it actually hatches, it draws the rest of the yolk sack into its gut, and uses it for food, for the first couple of days, after it is hatched.

Chicks do not need food or water the first two days, which allows them to be shipped all over the country, from hatcheries. They draw on the yolk reserves for their energy needs.  Now, of course nature did not design this process for OUR use… so why does it work that way?

People are often astounded when I tell them that Hen’s do NOT sit on their eggs right away. But instead, lay eggs for up to 1-2 weeks before sitting.

Think about it.  A hen, at most, lays one egg a day. If it takes 21 days to hatch a chick, and she was sitting on 10 eggs, starting from the day she laid the egg, she would have chicks born over 1-2 weeks.  How could she keep her unborn chicks warm AND take care of her new chicks.

Momma Hen with her new chicks

Actually, she lays a clutch of eggs over a couple of weeks, and THEN she sets.  That way all the eggs are “warmed up” beginning at the same time.

They generally hatch over a two-day period (maybe some were at the outer edge and weren’t quite as warm so the hatch is slightly delayed).

As the chicks begin to hatch they stay under mom to keep warm.  After two full days she will then leave the nest. Any eggs that have not hatched, are left.  It’s time for mom to take care of her new hatchlings. The oldest chicks have two days food supply on reserve but after that mom needs to show them how to scratch and eat/drink.

So, contrary to public opinion, eggs do NOT have to be kept refrigerated to be fresh. If an egg can sit in a nest for two weeks and still be “fresh” enough for mom to set … and hatch out a clutch, I bet they are still good eggs.

In Europe, it is unheard of to put eggs in the refrigerator… you must WARN people, by law, if you do that.

What’s the deal?  I’ll address those issues in my NEXT post!

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