backyard chickens, cooking, farming, homemade, homesteading, raising turkeys, turkeys

Raising Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner

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When we decided to raise our own turkeys it seemed like something we should have been doing already.  Thoughts of a huge Thanksgiving dinner complete with our own bird ran through our minds.  We had several years of knowledge with other types of poultry,  so we dove right in.  Once we started our research, we found that we would need to order our turkeys fairly early and that a local farm store would be a better option than mail order.  Mail order required a 6 bird minimum and shipping was very expensive.  Because room is at a premium on our homestead we opted for the farm store, their price per bird was less, and they only had a 4 bird minimum, perfect for our needs. We also chose broad breasted whites, due to the fact that they had the best feed conversion (2:1), and grew the quickest.  Now that the birds were ordered, we jumped in with both feet.  Chickens can spread disease to turkeys, so they would need to be kept separate from our chickens.  We understand that there are varying theories on this, but since it was our first experience, we opted for the separation method. We would need to build a separate coop and run.  We settled on an 8×8 coop to give the birds plenty of inside room. And, as we are sure any homesteader will agree, it could also offer us possible future animal or storage space. A 20×20 run with 3′ fencing was also constructed.  We covered the building of the coop in a previous blog, so if you are interested check it out. IMG_3157

When we picked the birds up from the feed store, they peeped the whole 30 minute ride home in the car unless music was playing.  Once home, we settled them into the brooder in the garage we normally use for chickens.  The brooder had a heat lamp to keep them warm and cozy.  They also loved food.

It wasn’t long before we learned our first lesson about turkeys,  they can fly.  They also liked to be outside the brooder.

You know you are a homesteader when you come into your garage and find turkeys scratching, pecking, and pooping in the middle of the floor.  Moments like these always make us smile and remind us that we are not the ones in control.  After several days of the turkeys going rogue , we knew it was time to be moved out to their coop. IMG_3233

They were so happy with all the new space, but most of all they loved the roost.  We also kept a heat lamp in the coop until they had all of their feathers.  Once they were in the coop for a week we started letting them into the run.

At first they were timid, but they soon found their favorite spots to scratch and lay.  As they grew a bit more, we learned more turkey lessons, how they like to roost outside and a 3′ fence is not high enough to keep them in.  At dusk the toms would fly up and roost on the tallest point they could find just outside the fence.  Every night we would have to pick them up and put them inside.  This became more and more difficult as they pushed over 20 lbs.  On occasion they would all decide to fly over the fence and forage in the lawn, they never went far and just like when they escaped in the garage, it made us smile. Walking in the yard and finding a small flock of white turkeys enjoying their life and gobbling is something we became accustomed to.  After 4 months it was time for the turkeys to go to freezer camp. img_4057

We had processed chickens before, so we were confident we could handle the job.  Dispatching a 23 lb turkey is a 2 man job, you will also need a much bigger scalding pot than the one you use for chickens, so plan accordingly.  Lesson learned. The butchering went well and was much easier than we imagined.  The turkeys dressed out at 23 lbs each. img_4058

We used shrink bags and froze 3 turkeys for future use.  This also required a bigger pot than we were used to. Again, lesson learned.

We decided to cook one right away as we had never had a fresh turkey in our lives.  The beautiful bird was brined and placed in the smoker, it was a tight fit but we made it work. img_4159

We also were able to smoke it over apple wood , that we had saved from pruning our apple trees.  After 8 hours of smoking our turkey was done. img_1417

We were amazed by the juiciness, and how different the texture of the meat was compared to ones we had bought from the store.  Because this first bird came out so well, we are confident that this year’s Thanksgiving bird will be amazing.  When we place it on the table surrounded by our family, it will be the fulfillment of a dream that is American as apple pie, and another reminder that learning on the homestead should never stop.  We will never be connected to the meal on our plate more than this Thanksgiving.  And when someone asks us to pass the turkey, we will know exactly what we are feeding our family, and that our food was raised happy and healthy right on our own small, but mighty, Homestead.

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backyard chickens, carpentry, chickens, farming, homemade, homesteading, turkeys

Building a Turkey Coop

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So many times on the homestead projects are born from necessity.  When we want to plant a new crop, or raise a new animal, there is always an investment to make.  Sometimes its as simple as a trellis for beans, other times its an 8’x8′ turkey coop.  This project was born several months ago when we were at the feed store. There were chick order forms laying on the checkout counter.  We took a quick look and to our surprise they also offered turkey poults. (baby turkeys)

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We had been interested in trying to raise our own turkeys for the the holidays, but shipping was always an issue, so this was a golden opportunity for us.  We did some research after placing the order and found out that the turkeys would need a separate area because disease can be passed from chickens to turkeys.

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When we began designing our turkey’s coop,  we decided to make it a more generic structure that could also be used for other purposes, just in case the turkey rearing didn’t work out.  We also wanted it to fit our homestead and look good.  We designed it to match our chicken coop.

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We finally decided on an 8’x8′ structure, which would allow us to use it as storage in the off season, or maybe a small barn for a couple of sheep.  Since we chose the same roof design and materials as the chicken coop, our next stop was Porosky Lumber.  img_2978

My good friend Scott is a purveyor of both fine hardwood and beautiful rough cut hemlock.  He also makes beautiful cutting boards, wood art, and is one of the best conversationalists you will ever meet.

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Scott loaded us up with some of the most gorgeous 12″ boards and 3″ battens you have ever seen.  These will be used for the exterior of our coop.  It also has some natural rot resistance which was a bonus.

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We began by framing the floor from 2″x4″s and used some pressure treated for runners that would contact the ground and would also allow us to move the coop if necessary.  After squaring the frame up by measuring diagonally from corner to corner we added 3/4 inch cdx plywood for the floor.

We framed the walls adding openings for doors and windows.  After this we mocked up our rafters.

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We then cut all of our rafters and made the frame for the roof.  We installed the corner boards on the frame to stiffen the structure before we climbed onto the roof, which we covered in 1/2″ cdx plywood.  We also framed in the gable ends and added framing for vents on both sides.

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We then covered the structure with those beautiful 12″ boards

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Next we installed the soffits and capped the fascia, and installed the metal roofing. We also had an unexpected guest. (Take a look at the upper window/vent)

The next step was to cap and trim the windows, and install 1/2 inch hardware cloth into the windows and vents to keep out predators.  Finally, we installed the battens ripped them down to 2″ for aesthetic purposes.

The last thing to do was build the doors.  We used the same hemlock boards so that everything matched nicely.

img_3103We now had a great looking addition to the homestead.  This building is versatile, and is built with quality materials that should last for decades.  We can’t wait for our little turkeys to move in.  They say that “necessity is the mother of invention”, and that is certainly the case on the homestead.  Over and over we take on new projects that not only make us use our bodies, but also challenge our mind.  Innovation is still alive and well on the homestead, and every time we take on a new challenge, we are rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction that we can’t find on a screen.

backyard chickens, cooking, duck eggs, ducks, farming, homemade, homesteading, raising ducks, recipes

Maple Bourbon Smoked Duck, what “farm to table” means to us

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The term “farm to table” is another one of those terms, in our opinion, that is way over used and frankly, not even used properly. If we were to define our way of homesteading, we would say that the term, “farm to table” applies. On our homestead, we have ducks and chickens. (Our ducks were introduced to you in an earlier blog, so look that up if you did not see it) In all farm or homesteading life, most of the animals serve a purpose, such as eggs from the hens and ducks as well as their meat.  Last fall, we hatched 14 ducklings and ended up with a total of 7 males and 7 females.

As in life and nature, too many boys are not a good thing! Frequent fights and domination can cause quite a ruckus in a flock of ducks. So the tough decision has to be made, it was time to thin the flock. We have a friend that already had a female duck that mentioned that they wanted to get another duck for a mate. So of course, we offered one of our boys and they gratefully took it off our hands. As for three other males, we carefully, and as respectfully as possible, butchered them. No other details necessary here. They went into the freezer for a later meal.

Easter was fast approaching and in thinking of what we had in the freezer for our Easter dinner, we remembered the ducks. One of our favorite ways to have any of our fish or meat is brined and smoked. We have yet to perfect our home-built smoker, so in the meantime we use one that is a part of our gas grill. The wood we use for smoking is apple wood, and yup, you guessed it, from our small orchard of apple trees.

Maple Bourbon Glazed Smoked Duck

1 duck, 2-3 lbs

Cracked black pepper

The Brine (also great for chicken and pork)

4 cups of cold water

¼ cup of kosher salt

¼ cup maple syrup

1 oz of bourbon

1 tsp cracked black pepper

The Glaze

¼ cup maple syrup

1 tbsp bourbon

Whisk together the brine ingredients until the salt is dissolved. Pour over the duck in a large bowl. If you don’t have enough brine to cover the duck, don’t panic, just add a little more water. We also use a trick here that we learned from making sauerkraut. Place a small plate over the duck in the brine and it helps to keep it immersed and to keep it from “floating”. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours.

About an hour before cooking, soak the apple wood chips in warm water.

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After 6 hours, remove the duck from the brine and rinse the duck inside and out thoroughly with cold water. Place the duck on the smoker rack, and season simply with a sprinkle of black pepper. (let the smoke do the seasoning for you!) Smoke the duck according to your smoker’s directions with the wood chips that you have been soaking. We smoke ours at about 225 degrees for 2 hours or until the internal temp reaches 165 degrees. (There are varying degrees of duck “doneness”, this is just our preference.)

After the first hour of smoking, mix the glaze ingredients. Brush the glaze over the duck, then brush again every 15 minutes. After the agonizing wait for your duck to be done, remove from the smoker and enjoy!

So there it is, the epitome of “farm to table”, or in our case, “homestead to table”. We strongly believe in treating our animals, which also become our food, with dignity and respect from their births all the way to nourishing our tired bodies from the homestead life. It’s not any easy life, but the rewards are countless. A meal in our house never goes by without thanking the animals for giving their lives for us, or thanking each other for the time spent caring for the animals, gardening, canning, freezing or preserving, and cooking the meal.

backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading

The Reality of Life on the Homestead

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Homesteading shows on television give you a glimpse into the reality of life on the homestead.  There are trials and tribulations along the way and the don’t always work themselves out.  The reality of living this life style is that animals and plants must give their lives to allow us to live.  Nature can be cruel and everything does not go as planned all the time.  When our pigs go to the butcher we are thankful but a little sad. When we come out in the morning to do chores and a predator has taken one of our flock we are angry and sad. And when we have to cull an injured animal we are just plain sad.  It is not a lifestyle for the faint of heart. Things die and that’s the way it is. So last week when we had a chick born with what looked to be a birth defect we knew what the outcome could be.  Its leg was twisted and he couldn’t walk.  It flopped around and couldn’t stand at all. IMG_2585

We searched the internet for answers.  Chick leg problems are common, but this was not the typical problem.  We decided to put it in a separate incubator to stay warm while we made a plan.  This was a normal homestead situation, often you have to come up with a remedy to a problem that is unique.  Whether it is fitting plants into a garden or building that pasture fence in your special location, you have to make the decision because you are your own boss.  So we decided to set the chick up in the incubator with a towel on the bottom so it was soft and it wouldn’t hurt itself, and could also get footing if it tried to walk.  We gave it a very shallow water dish so it wouldn’t drown, and a bit of food. The poor thing would just flop all over the incubator.  Tracy decided it would need food and her motherly instincts took over.  She mixed some food with water and fed it with a medicine dropper.  She would hold it to make it comfortable and feed it several times a day.  Just like a newborn baby,  the chick would let us know when it was hungry or needed something. Things did not look good so we tried to splint the bad leg but that made it worse.  At one point, we even found the chick soaking wet and cold from falling in its water and used a hair dryer to warm it up and dry its feathers.  Every morning we would check on it, expecting the inevitable.  After a few days we looked into the incubator and noticed it was standing braced up against the wall.  We were so happy to see this progress.  The problem was as soon as it was away from the wall it would tumble over.  We kept up with the feeding and watering, we even named it little foot.  The next day we were holding it and noticed it was using the injured leg to push down.  We saw this as a great sign.  The chick was also eating and drinking so we became optimistic.  The next day it ran across the incubator and stood up on its own.  It was still wobbly, but was actually standing.  By the next day it was running around in its space and chirping. The chick wanted out.  We moved it to a small brooder and it seemed to be doing well.  It could hear the other chickens, and would call to them. So finally we put it with the other birds.

The other chicks were a little bigger, but it began nipping tails and pushing his way into the food.  We hope that the little one will continue to improve but we know that life is very fragile.  We love to see it running with the big boys and girls and can’t wait to see what a pretty bird it will become.  Life on the homestead or anywhere else is never guaranteed.  Living this life style brings that fact home to us time and again.  It makes us appreciate our life and it makes us  appreciate where our food comes from and the animals that provide it for us.  You can never take things for granted and it really makes us understand how delicate the original homesteader life was.  One bad crop or a sickness going through their animals could also spell death for the original homesteaders.  We learn so many lessons from our homestead life style and we even come out on top once in a while.  Little foot is a great reminder that sometimes prayers are answered, and there never is a good time to give up.

backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading

From Rooster to Baby Chicks, New Life on the Homestead

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Although it is still cold, spring has been in the air on the homestead.  We have been starting seeds, making maple syrup, and our rooster has been active making baby chickens.  We keep a small flock of chickens for egg production.  Usually we have enough eggs to avoid buying any from the store.  Last year one of our hens went broody (sitting on eggs to hatch them)  so we bartered for a few fertile eggs from our good friend and put some under her.  Only one of the eggs hatched and as luck would have it, the little chick was a rooster.

We really didn’t want a rooster, but we kept him anyway.  He grew into a beautiful bird and we decided that this year we would hatch some of our own eggs.  We try to keep our hens about three years or so and then rotate them out.  Three of our hens are due to go to new homes, so this was a great way to replace them free of charge.  It also allowed us to learn a valuable skill that could keep our flock self sustaining, and we would no longer be slaves to mail order hatcheries or the over-crowded chick confines of Tractor Supply.  We started by looking for a used incubator on Facebook’s marketplace. Immediately we were offered free incubators to either borrow or have.  We were so grateful. It is wonderful how homesteaders always come together when one of us has a need.  We tried to set up the incubator in our partially heated garage, but we could not get it up to the accurate temperature of 99.5 degrees F.  After some thinking we set it up in our mud room, because it was out of harm’s way, and has heat.  We let it run for a few days and adjusted the heat to 99.5 degrees and added water to the bottom tray for humidity.  We then collected eggs as soon as they were laid so that they were still warm. Which, by the way, if you live in the Northeast like us, is not always an easy to find a warm, just laid egg. They sometimes get cold very quickly with our ever fluctuating temperatures. We placed the eggs in the incubator and wrote the date on them in pencil.  Eggshells are porous and ink can bleed into the egg killing the chick.  We turned the eggs three times a day by hand, rolling them a quarter turn each time.  Some incubators come with a fancy, automatic “turner”, but our experience is that turning them by hand works the best. Chicken eggs take about 21 days to hatch and on day 18 we stop turning them.  Knowing that the big day was coming soon,  we got our brooder ready for the upcoming births.  We took an old plastic pond and put some bedding in the bottom.  We then hung a heat lamp about 18″ above the bedding.

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It is important to be sure the lamp is secure and not just depend on the clamp.  We had a friend who nearly burned down his house when his lamp fell into the dry bedding.  We give the chicks enough space to move away from the lamp if they are too hot.  It is easy to tell if your lamp is in the right place once you put the chicks in.  If they move away its too low, if they huddle together it is too high.  We also get their food and water ready.  Finally day 21 came and we could hear peeping in our incubator.

We looked in the incubator, there were no chicks, but we could see some of the eggs wiggling a bit.  After a few hours  we could see a tiny beak pecking a hole in the egg.

A few hours after that we had our baby chicks.  We left them in the incubator until they were dry, and then we moved them to the brooder.  They seemed much healthier and livelier than the chicks that we have had mail ordered and we have not noticed any pasting up (poop getting bound up).  Our homestead was now a little closer to being self sufficient, and we went to bed that night of the first, and hopefully many more births-to- come, feeling very grateful to be able to continue our homesteading lifestyle.

Just like most things we do in homesteading, it is a learning process. We always ask ourselves, “how can we improve?” ” what can we do differently?”, but with raising our own chicks, the answers to both of these questions are clearly evident when we witness the hatching and birth, and then hold a baby chick in our hands for the first time. It never gets old and you realize that you have done exactly what Mother Nature intended, with a little help of an incubator, of course. And that early morning crowing from the rooster that you once loved, then hated, you suddenly love again. Thank you, Mr. Wing!