May has been fairly quiet in the guesthouse but busy on the farm and life in general. We have had nearly three weeks of visits with family – lots of family visiting us this month as well as a trip down to Plettenberg Bay; unfortunately the reason for our trip was sad but it is always special to see family. It has been great to connect and feel that support again. And now, although we feel a bit behind, we are launching back into work for the last push before Winter. Winter is generally quieter in both the guesthouse and obviously on the farm so we are trying to make the most of this time. The weather this time of year is glorious! Frost has been late so the evenings are chilly, but not unbearably cold, and the days are warm and balmy. (edit: we had a full frost last night!)
The trip to Plettenberg Bay allowed us the opportunity to visit a farm we have been interested in for a while, based in George: Red Barn Free Range Chickens. A very informative tour with the owner, Lindy, and leaving laden with delicious produce from the farm shop, gave us a great boost of knowledge, and confidence in what is possible as a small and ethical but also, profitable producer. 2000 laying hens, 500 meat chickens a week, a farm shop featuring a variety of locally sourced products, beef, duck, dairy, and deliveries as far as Cape Town – these guys know what is what!! Check it out: https://redbarn.co.za/
Elliott also celebrated his first birthday on 25 May!
Pasture Raised Poultry
Last month we explained that we would be starting a second batch of meat chickens. We hadn’t planned on doing a batch in Winter but we had had an overwhelming response to our first batch and sold out completely! We were worried about running these chickens on pasture 24/7 going into Winter but we have been lucky with the weather so far – we have not had very heavy frost; the frost has mainly been along the stream and lower lying areas.
We decided to run this batch in our orchard so that they are more protected but that we have the option of running infrared lamps in their houses at night, should there be a need. The first batch of chickens, raised in April, were on pasture near our workshop. This area had lush and delicious kikuyu grass. But, with the deposits of large amounts of fertiliser from the chickens, this grass has grown like crazy and we are having to spend so much time mowing it because we don’t yet have grazers – which is a waste of resources. We can still see the impact of Batch 1 on our grass – where the kikuyu that was in between the pens has started to turn brown, and there are clear patches of green and healthy grass still where the pens had been.
These chickens will leave a legacy in the form of impact on the land, as well as food, so we can be doubly grateful to them!
Chicks nice and toasty in the brooder for the first 3 weeks
Running Batch 2 in the Orchard means that this valuable nutrient goes into the soil in a productive area.
Chickens are very good for fruit trees – their dirt bathing and scarifying action around the base of the trees tends to disturb any disease cycles.
We are hoping that, come Spring, we will see the benefit of these chickens in the orchard. We can use our layers and/or geese as the grazers, should we need. We are wanting to expand our orchard, planting more trees in a larger area but also planting vegetables and nitrogen fixing trees/shrubs within our existing orchard layout so the chickens will hopefully also help in preparing these areas.
3 week old chicks packed into crates, loaded on the back of the tractor, and ready to move to greener pastures
We have enjoyed watching these chickens go mad every morning when they move onto fresh grass and just start munching away followed by a snooze in the sunshine! What a life!
The pens in the orchard (under Elliott’s watchful eye!), and chicks enjoying the new sights and sounds of life outside
Last month we shared that we have been considering on-farm processing. While this has not yet become reality, we found another processor who seems to be more in line with our values. It still means we have to travel with the chickens which is not something we want to do long term, since this is stressful for the birds but also adds to the production costs. At the moment, this new processor only does whole birds so it means our offering is temporarily limited, but we believe it is currently the best decision for raising our chicken ethically. Know your farmer, know your food.
We have stuck to batches of 100 chickens for now, since we have introduced new variables each time – obviously Batch 1 was a steep learning curve, and Batch 2 has been in a different season, a different feed, a different location etc. and we are still building confidence.
We didn’t want to suddenly scale up to 500 for example, and then things go wrong and we lose a huge investment. With our current search for an ethical processor and best quality feed, there is still a lot of background work to this enterprise underway.
With each iteration, we gain confidence and knowledge to be able to scale up wisely.
We are currently running the numbers to find our ‘sweet spot’ with the number of birds we should run per month with what is manageable in terms of our current setting – infrastructure, number of chicken houses, space, labour, time, access to feed, processing as well as considering our available market. Transport is a big factor for us currently with the processor being a fair distance away and how many chicken crates we can fit per load. This farming story is not just about the animals but all the business decisions behind the scenes!
Frost along the stream at the bottom of the garden
We have taken a lot of criticism for our decision to run small batches but all businesses start somewhere. We have also had some incredible positive feedback from farm tours, blog followers, and most importantly, our customers.
Our backyard layers have continued happily in their new coop, unfazed by their new view of the broiler pens as they progress through the orchard! We were finally able to confirm which of the chicks that hatched in December were roosters and they have found new homes. The hens are now laying more regularly so life seems to be settling again in ‘Broody Manor’! For those who follow our blog, you may remember reading about the orphaned chick raised in our bathtub last year October. We were very excited to see that she is now laying!
Buff Orpington chickens (the breed of our rooster) tend to mature later, and only lay around 9 months old. But they are bigger chickens, bred for both meat and eggs. Crossed with either indigenous chicken breeds or Boschveld breeds in our flock, the offspring are productive and hardy.
We have been bouncing around ideas about incubating and hatching our own eggs to raise an egg laying flock for Spring… watch this space
‘Chicky-Lick-Lack in her nesting box, and the roosters ready to be moved
Most of the Market Garden is winding down for Winter rest. Our winter crops of carrots, beetroot and the last of the lettuce as well as microgreens are continuing for now. We were very excited to hear about a local guy with welding expertise who is making and selling custom broadforks! We featured this tool in September – similar to a large garden fork but with two handles on either side; the actual fork part has a wide bar for standing on and long thin tines. Through careful technique and shifting of body weight, the tool breaks up the soil but, without the hard muscle work, it is not an exhausting activity. We used a homemade version similar to the Roebuck Fork (check out this cool farm in New Zealand http://www.roebuckfarm.com/).But we are now proud owners of a new broadfork – local is lekker!
We have been weeding and softening the beds with this tool before putting the beds under organic matter for decomposition during rest.
We are looking forward to our winter break coming up that will give us some time to plan for Spring and Summer. But for May, that’s all for now. See you next time!