April has been a busy, varied and full of learning month! (It feels like we always say that but maybe that is how a new project goes!)
- The wrap up of our pasture raised chicken experiment
- Our first Farmer’s Market
- March/April being wedding season in the Midlands so many guests, and a number of long weekends
- Change of season
Pasture Raised Poultry
Mid-April saw the wrap up of our pasture raised poultry. The lifespan of a factory farmed chicken is usually around 35 days. We took ours to 6,5 weeks. Technically the breeds of birds usually raised for meat grow to be very large chickens so they get to the size of an average chicken around this time.
We enjoyed being able to provide as healthy and happy a life as possible, watching these chickens sun themselves, munch like mad on the new grass when they were moved twice daily, have a dirt bath on warm days and chase flies and insects.
Pasture Raised Poultry enjoying sunshine, grass and all the good outdoor stuff!
We have continued the search for the best quality feed to supplement the grass and insects, ensuring our chickens have a balanced diet. We have also considered the possibility of future on-farm processing to minimise the stress on the chickens. Our nearest processor is 1,5 hours away. We are up at dawn to load the crates and transport the chickens. This is a horrible experience for the chickens and not what we feel is in line with raising them ethically. So that thought is to be continued….
We have continued to learn LOADS during this time and have enjoyed the learning process, although tough at times. You can read more about our initial learning here
Pasture Raised Poultry Pre-Orders
We aimed to pre-sell as many chickens as possible, and opened orders at a very low sign-up price. We hoped to sell half of our chickens and keep the other half for us, our staff and for use in the guesthouse. However, we were amazed at the response and sold almost all of our chicken! We are left with 4 whole birds and 5 packs of portions! We are very grateful to all of those people that supported us in our first run!
The effect on the pasture of grazing chickens – and this is after they’re moved twice a day
When we started this experiment, we were anxious to run two batches in case we couldn’t sell enough and wouldn’t have enough freezer space. However, due to the overwhelming response, we have decided to run another batch. We feel we are really pushing it doing another batch because the end date will be mid to end of June which is the middle of Winter. We had aimed to have all of our chickens off the farm before the first frost – which we have succeeded in doing. But now if we run another batch, they may well experience frost! We take comfort in having seen many farms overseas (Europe/America) running chickens right at the end of Winter when there is still snow on the ground and also chances of frost. Our winters are much milder so we are hopeful the chickens will be ok, especially since our days are warm and sunny, and as the weather gets colder, they will be getting bigger and their feathers thicker. They only move outside once they have their adult feathers anyway. We have changed our structure to accommodate the possibility of cooler nights by moving the pens closer to the house so they have more shelter. We will also be able to run a cable with heat lamps into each pen at night so the birds will have warmth. We are looking at covering the pens fully (right now they are half open mesh and half roof) so that there is more protection. We will let the chickens out of their pens into a fenced off area during the day (using electro-netting as protection) to compensate for the loss of sunlight. At night, they’ll be locked back into the pens under the heat lamp. The pens currently provide sufficient space and grazing for the birds to be inside all day and night, moved twice a day, and still are considered free range. However, we want to offer them a bit more space and more comfortable bedtime conditions.
To ease the transition from the brooder to pasture, we used the infrared heat lamps for a couple nights to allow the chickens to acclimatise. In Winter, we will probably have these lamps on every night.
This is another level of experimentation but that is also why we are only doing 100 birds at a time – knowing how birds finish at different times of the year is important in planning our enterprise going forward. We had a very, unseasonably wet April, which did not help this last batch. Chickens hate 2 things – wet and wind. So that was good learning for us: we expected the warm, calm April days to be ideal but the chance of late rain proved otherwise. But we need to try at various times of the year to know which time is best. Our next batch of chicks arrive this coming week so May will be filled with a whole new adventure of meat chickens! Last month, we recommended the podcast series Grass-fed Life. One of the episodes featured Greg Burns of Nature’s Image farm. He says that there is a short cut to success but there is no shortcut to being successful; you might succeed once but there is no way to being successful other than through experience. And this is so true. Raising 500 chickens in one month means that you have formed a knowledge base for the conditions of that particular time of year. Raising 5 batches of 100 chickens at different times of the year gives you much more information to work with and learning in more varied contexts. We are all about careful planning, data collection, research etc., not just deciding to order 100 chickens on a whim with no understanding for the enormity of the task at hand.
Enjoying the sunshine and fresh grazing
Meanwhile, our backyard chickens continue doing what they do, crowing, eating, scarifying and sanitising in the orchard. They seem to be on strike at the moment with 1 egg a day between 10 laying hens!!! The geese remain within the chicken coop for now for safety. We are hoping to begin to use the geese as grazers again following behind the broiler chickens as the grass grows exceptionally well behind them due to the intense fertilisation. We need to build the geese their own safe enclosure to do this.
We also attended our first Farmer’s Market in April. For most small scale farmers, this is the place to sell produce, every Saturday! Farmer’s Markets are no easy feat! It took us two solid days (easily 15 – 18 hours) of both of us preparing – harvesting, wahsing, packing, labelling produce; designing and printing adverts, labels, price lists and then the general organisation of gazebos, chairs, tables, cloths etc. Up early to pack the car, and a long day in the sun followed by more unpacking! But it was an exceptionally fun day!
For us, with the guesthouse, it is not possible to go to Farmer’s Markets every weekend but we have also been very fortunate in that we are able to sell directly to many customers. Both of us worked in the village for a number of years in careers that saw us building relationships with many people – Andre as an Internet Service Provider at the time, and Kait, working in a school. We have been able to use this network but also have made new connections along the way. We supply to one local collector, the VegBox Company. They buy produce from local farmers and resell to local customers who place a weekly order. We have been supplying our sourdough stoneground pizza bases to VegBox so we were invited to have a stall at their annual market. We decided to use the opportunity to showcase our veg and take pre-orders for the pasture raised chicken. We were so blown away by the support, encouragement and interest from our local community! We basically sold out of everything and took enough pre-orders for chickens to have sold out before we even had the birds processed! Thank you to our locals and to VegBox for such an exciting day!
It was a big step for us as Bramleigh Farm, but also for us a couple united on a project.
Our Market set up
Farm to Fork
Meanwhile, back at home, we had full house in the guesthouse on the day of the market so we had to arrange for a house sitter to be available to hold the fort for us. We have made a wonderful connection with another small scale grower in Nottingham Road who has plenty (actually more than us!) experience in hospitality and trained as a chef. It is a great development for our business as we cannot be all things to all people so having someone who can assist every now and then, especially with meals is very exciting! This has brought the opportunity of running Farm to Fork events into reality and we are busy planning one soon…stay tuned!
Business realities… entrepreneurship
We feel quite catapulted ahead in the business so far this year. It has been very exciting and interesting. Long may it last! There are times when we feel we are scrambling to keep up, making decisions on the fly that need to be re-evaluated later due to failure, times when we feel on top of things, times when we feel overwhelmed, and times of excitement. But this is true of any start-up business. Any start up entrepreneur faces the same ups and downs of defining a niche product, competing in the market, re-evaluating the business, becoming ever more efficient, the financial strains and fears. Again though, we keep evaluating every decision through the framework of social, environmental and economical benefit. As we mentioned last month, we are evaluating our business through the systems thinking of Holistic Management, 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. For example, sure, economically the guesthouse is a sound business. But as a young couple, socially, it can restrain us, and doesn’t make as positive a contribution to the other two factors in our decision making (social and environmental). Not to say we will close the doors tomorrow, because it certainly provides the cash flow needed to sustain us living here as well as providing capital to invest the farm, but the social impact needs to be considered too. It will ultimately become one of many smaller enterprises being run here at Bramleigh so that it is not front and centre, relied upon largely to cover the bills but that we can diversify and spread the load across multiple enterprises, so should one fail, or have bad month, we have a back-up. If we look at Nature, every plant and animal has had to diversify to avoid direct competition with its neighbours, or has developed its own niche. In a single meter in any natural habitat, you will find at least 10 different plants with different shaped leaves, some long and thin, some short and stubby, some with fur, some silky, each with a different way of dispersing its seeds to continue its species. And that is what enterprise stacking is all about!
Brave little chick, standing on the gander’s foot to get at the food!
The Market Garden
And lastly, a quick market garden update: The market garden has kept itself ticking over. We are still suffering the effects of the late planting due to the hail in November that destroyed our entire crop, as well as trying to improve the fertility of the soil. Our soil is very depleted and in poor condition but we are starting to see some improvement, just from having had plants in the soil – the roots release sugars, proteins and carbohydrates that attract different microorganisms that in turn release enzymes that make soil nutrients available to the plant, depending on what the plant is calling for. The cycle repeats continuously with the ultimate function of stabilising the soil and creating a beneficial environment again. This is the benefit of mixed crop planting, with each plant calling for different microbes and nutrients. Last month we planted our last crop to see us through winter – carrots, onion, and beetroot will simply go dormant and hold nutrients in the root – while also sowing baby leaf spinach and lettuce that prefer cooler temperatures. In the coming weeks we will plant kale and chard for the same reason. The beds that will not be in use have been covered with cardboard that will disintegrate slowly and protect the soil from the harsh frost, direct sunlight etc during winter as well as ensure there is no open, bare soil. Nature is modest, she doesn’t like to be left bare! However, we used cardboard we had on hand but to buy enough cardboard to do all the beds would have been over R4000 so that experiment was quickly ended! The beds are now being covered with the sawdust from the brooder that housed the baby chicks last month. This is full of fertiliser (aka poop!) and will decompose into the soil and provide some nice fertiliser for next season. Some beds are covered by plastic sheets in an effort to ‘solarise’ – basically suffocate any weeds that try to grow, but at the same time the weeds will keep the soil soft by their root action and then decompose back into organic matter for the soil. We could plant cover crops over winter but since our fertility is so low, we have an abundance of weeds that appear in infertile soils that can do the job for us.
And other than that, we are enjoying the beauty of Autumn, the exquisite colours sharp against the reliable greenery of the indigenous forest, the natural cover of fallen leaves that protect and prepare the soil, stable weather, warm sunny days, clear starlit nights… and the approach of the cold fingers of winter…..