Bramleigh Manor guesthouse, in March splendour
Certainly has to be beginning our pasture raised poultry enterprise!
Gorgeous Summer to Autumn days
Pasture Raised Poultry
It has taken us about a year to get our minds ready to raise our own food. Growing your own food in the form of vegetables and fruit is one thing, but raising animals for food is another. We have kept our backyard flock of chickens who are named and lavished with love, while knowing the new chicks have a specific purpose. A large driving factor was our growing knowledge about the origin of much of the meat we consume, and the life lived by those animals. We decided that we would rather provide a happy, albeit short, life to chickens knowing they only experience one bad day.
We have learnt soooooo much through raising these chicks. We were very grateful for the experiences we have had raising backyard chicks and chickens as we felt we could go into this experience knowing a little about the mannerisms of chickens, things to look out for and how to make the environment as suitable as possible. For those who followed our blog last year, you will remember that we raised an orphaned chick in our bathtub in October. That experience was also incredibly helpful in preparing us for the broilers!
Chicks snacking away on their first day
We bought the chicks from a hatchery as ‘day-olds’, carefully transported them home and welcomed them into their new brooder. We cornered off a section of the workshop with shutterboard, filled with wood shavings. This area was ventilated but could also be protected from drafts. We had 3 heat lamps that had been on for 24 hours to make the brooder warm before the arrival of the chicks. We dipped each chick’s beak into the water as they entered the brooder to encourage them to drink. Initially we had to monitor the temperature of the brooder very closely. The chicks needed to be fed 5 times a day. This has slowly reduced to 3 times a day over the last 2 weeks and they were moved out onto pasture at 17 days old so that they can enjoy grazing grass and foraging for insects, eating a more natural diet. It was sweet to watch their first experiences of grass and how they all stretched out in the afternoon sun. From day one, they instinctively knew to forage for food. If one chick pecked at a piece of sawdust that was larger than the others, or vaguely resembled an insect, he would chirp and run around excitedly, with the others following behind. Now they can do the same thing, but with an actual insect as the reward!
Under Elliott’s watchful eye!
The chicks are enclosed in large pens that provide protection from predators, and shade. These pens are moved daily to provide fresh grazing. It is also more hygienic for the birds while their grazing and fertilising builds up the quality of our topsoil and grass for future grazing. Our dream is to get two goats this year to follow the broiler pens as the grass will now grow exponentially. This is an example of using animal impact to develop topsoil, and why eating meat can benefit the environment, when done ethically, sustainably and carefully managed.
First a few chicks were weighed in our makeshift scale as they left the brooder to get an average weight. Next they were transported in batches of 15 out to the pens on pasture
Experiencing grass and sunshine for the first time!
While small scale farmers are able to do this, there is a lot in this process that relies on large scale commercial producers. Firstly, being able to buy a batch of 100 chicks. It would be possible for us to hatch our own one day if we had the equipment (incubators etc) but our success rate would likely be very unpredictable. Before that even, ensuring we can obtain 100 fertilised eggs! Secondly, being able to purchase the large quantities of feed required. Although we only have 100 chicks, this is very much a scalable enterprise. At three weeks old, these guys are eating 1,5kg of feed three times a day! Imagine if we had 600 chicks. We would ultimately like to source our own ingredients and mill our own feed one day, to ensure quality and that we know what has gone into the feed. It was quite a scary exploration looking into chicken feed! Another concern raised was whether these chickens could be considered “free range”. Now there may well be some farmers who honestly raise chickens that have access to unlimited areas and large spaces, but in an enterprise for profit, we would not be able to do that. We would have far too many losses from predators given our location. Secondly, if chickens are given free range, their meat can become quite tough as they build muscle. A lot of energy goes into their hunting for food and moving around, more than into the development of meat. The food to weight conversion just doesn’t make sense. The chicks we bought, and most chicks that are bought from hatcheries, are bred to grow into large birds so they grow very quickly and need a lot of feed. But are these free range chickens? Well, in South Africa, industry standard to be considered free range is that for every square meter, you can have 15 chickens! Despite being in their pens, our chickens will have, at adult size, 7 per square meter. So in fact they can be considered free range, although they are seemingly confined…or protected, depends how you look at it;)
The broiler pens – the first nights were unseasonably cold so we rigged up the heat lamps to give the chicks time to adjust
The other exciting development this month was the installation of a bee hive box. We had made contact with a company looking for sites for hives as they produce honey based products. Out of the blue they arrived and were happy to trial a bee hive on site here. We are really hoping the bees move in and we can expand the number of hives. Our ‘rental’ for the site is in the form of a percentage of the honey produced. But the best effect is that there will be more bees around for pollinating our crops, and just the general benefits of being able to conserve and grow the bee population.
Hive with a view
The other exciting development was the installation of the next phase of our solar power system! Andre traded consulting time for batteries and an inverter, and his dad very kindly bought the solar panels. Thanks to Genset and Solar, these were installed on the workshop roof last week…and just in time! Our Eskom cables were stolen a couple nights ago and we had a number of guests checking in for the Easter weekend! Andre was able to do some rewiring to send power to the guest rooms so that they could have lights and heat the geysers. It was a huge stress! I think it took 10 years off our lives!!! We were so incredibly grateful for the solar! Luckily power was restored after 21 hours so we were able to continue running off of solar but with Eskom as a backup for high demand appliances such as geysers, and during the night. Soon we will add the third phase and be able to run fully off grid!
Second phase of solar power being installed
The guesthouse has been very busy in the last three weeks… we started off the month with some quiet weekends so we were able to enjoy some hikes and explorations on the mountain, with beautiful views. Since then we have had very few days without at least one room of guests. This has not been without its challenges but on the whole we have had some very lovely people, lots of encouragement and interest in what we are doing.
The bad news this month was that we lost half of our geese to a caracal. Last month we were so excited as the geese had begun to adventure around the farm, grazing, even visiting the dam. We first lost a gander, and thought he may have found a mate? Then one of the Mommy geese went missing so we immediately locked them back in their camp, only to find each day another going missing. One night we heard a huge commotion and went running out to discover a caracal in the camp! The remaining 5 geese are now locked up in our chicken run (the new and improved chicken run after the caracal was taking chickens!). We have also put up a poultry fence with an energiser so the fence will give a shock when touched. This should hopefully keep predators out but will also be useful for keeping goats contained one day! It is a very sad reality to this game to lose animals, especially when we started with so few and they became like pets. As you scale up, there are too many to distinguish. Two aspects to this particular situation that are saddest for us – 1. One of the ganders was extremely friendly and would follow us around like a dog! He was sadly taken by the caracal so we feel his loss like a pet. 2. Both breeding females were taken. We are not sure yet whether the father will be able to reproduce with his offspring, or whether the siblings can reproduce? We need to look into that more. With chickens it is fine, provided there is only one male.
“Bertram” … all we know is, we look forward to seeing all these animals in Heaven one day!
We have been working through a Holistic Management framework, developed by the Savory Institute. It has been good for us to get some ideas and important elements of our vision out on paper. Although we have done loads of planning (words cannot describe how many hours worth of planning!) it is helpful to do it according to a framework, with specific questions, as it draws your attention to perhaps otherwise unstated expectations. We are grappling with some ideas comparing what Bramleigh lends itself to, vs what we want to do with ourselves, how we see our vision playing out. Some tough things to consider. Holistic Management is a systems thinking approach to managing resources. Using the framework, you analyse the purpose for which your business was developed, resources (physical – as in land and equipment), people, money, what your life/business looks like now, how you’d like your life/business to look like in the future. Setting goals and objectives and actions needed to get to a quality of life you have defined, while building an environment that can sustain that quality of life. By identifying the systems available to you, and the tools you will use to manage each, you can monitor every action. Decisions are made according to whether they pass or fail certain criteria, relevant to your business/operation, to ensure decisions are economically, socially and environmentally sound. Originally developed with farming in mind, this is a useful framework for any business and so helpful for life. Farming is a lifestyle. There are elements that we have to take on, changes to our lives and priorities that have been made to do this, while at the same time, running a guesthouse also requires a shift in priorities, sacrifices and benefits that create a lifestyle. We have to marry the two, as well as the other work we engage in – solar consulting and teaching. We have also grown to acknowledge the difference in working for your business, and working on your business. At present, we both work for and on the business – developing each enterprise, with the steep learning curve of each, but also the marketing, accounting, record keeping, bookings, staff management, stock management etc. We are realising that this is unsustainable long term, if we are to create a viable business.
Much of the advice we receive for our decisions comes from an incredible podcast series entitled “Grassfed Life”. This series has given us SO much insight into the nuances of the farming lifestyle, of various enterprises, information to consider for each enterprise, management and marketing while also so much advice for life in general. All the idea of generating profit on pasture. It is hard to explain how much this type of farming teaches about life because we work so closely with nature and natural processes. If you have an interest in setting up any kind of small scale farming enterprise, whether full time or part time, we HIGHLY recommend this podcast! Alongside our heroes: Curtis Stone (The Urban Farmer) and Richard Perkins of Ridgedale Permaculture.
We will leave it there for this month so you can explore some of those great resources!