December 2016 Newsletter
What's Going On at the Farm
For December 2016
Where did the year go? It seems like just a couple of weeks ago we were starting out a new year. I won't lie and say that this past summer was a cake walk, it wasn't. The record heat affected everything from the growth of our pastures and hay field, the fertility of our boars, farmers market attendance, and overall personal attitudes; its hard to be all smiles and happy when your about to melt. But the heat aside, except for Mathew, we had no major storms hit the area and even the thunderstorms didn't have the amount of wind associated with them that we have seen in the past.
In the dead of winter we did see a considerable increase in the death loss in our chicks. We expect to see an increase due to the stress of shipping the chicks in from the hatchery up north but not to the extent we saw late in November, December, and January. In early January, Jesse and I built a new brooder house and we began using a new probiotic, the death loss dropped and we are now averaging 8% which is 2% below the commercial chicken industry standard and 7% below the national pastured standard. We have our fingers crossed that we can maintain this mortality rate throughout this winter.
During the year we raised several flocks of Red Broilers in additition to our standard Cornish Rock Cross. These birds were delivered in our meat shares, sold at the farmers markets, and sold to the local restaurants; we received good reviews on the taste of the birds but some commented on the smaller breasts and longer legs. The birds are also not as uniform growing as the Cornish Rock Cross which complicates things for us here on the farm a little. We have worked with our hatchery for almost 2 years on alternatives to the Cornish Rock Cross in an attempt to grow a better tasting, more hearty bird and have tried several different crosses. The red birds that we have in the pasture now are doing well and are meeting our expectations regarding growth and heartiness; we'll have to wait awhile longer before we can evaluate the taste. One thing I can say for sure, they are a lot more aggressive than the Cornish Rock Cross and won't hesitate a minute to peck you if they feel threatened.
This year we raised more turkeys than we ever have but were only able to reserve, for Thanksgiving, roughly the same number as we have in past years. Originally we planned on greatly increasing the number of birds we would offer for Thanksgiving but ended up having to change our plans due to the demand for our ground turkey and turkey sausage. We're not complaining, its just that we never imagined demand for our ground turkey products would have grown to this level. This was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
We are also having a hard time scheduling enough processing time to meet our demand for Thanksgiving turkeys. Our processor is one of the only facilities between VA., NC, TN, Ga, and SC that processes birds for small growers like us. Its hard to get processing time when people are coming in from 5 states to process birds all for 1 day. We decided it was best to just limit our Holiday production rather than get involved in all the last minute ruckus at the processing plant.
When all is said and done we will have raised over 1,100 turkeys this year. The birds were received from the hatchery year round and free ranged their whole life once they were taken out of the brooder. This did provide us some serious challenges at times but allowed us to maintain the inventory we required to meet our customer and chef demand. All that aside, they are absolutely beautiful strutting around in the field no matter what time of year. On Monday we took the last turkeys to the plant for processing but have another flock of 125 birds in the brooder ready to come out.
Another bright spot was our beef. Starting this summer we began selling beef to a few local restaurants and at the Port Royal Farmers Market in September. We have been pleased with the response and expect this part of the farm to grow in 2017. On the downside, Annie's cousin decided to sell the "new ground" which means we lost 26 acres that we planted annually in millet or sorghum Sudan and cut for hay. We knew this was coming and have taken some steps to combat the loss, but will have a hard time making up for the loss of that much hay. I guess we will have to do a better job of growing grass here in the summer and winter grazing in the winter. The alternative is renting land away from the farm but that has a lot of downside in transporting the required equipment to and from the field. I can't count the amount of time we spent on tractors going to and from the "new ground" which is 5 miles away from the home farm. The best alternative is to work on our pastures and do as much farming as we can on the 74 acre home farm, the 10 acres of adjoining land that we rent, and the 20 or so acres at Bubba's that we farm.
We made a lot of changes in our hog operation this year. We started out in May by purchasing a new Berkshire boar, a new Duroc boar, and 4 Hampshire gilts that we added to our existing Tamworth herd. Late in the summer we culled out a few sows and expect to cull a few more older sows in upcoming months. We want to remain between 24 and 30 sows but want to bring the overall age of the herd down a bit. We still have a Tamworth boar and several purebred Tamworth sows but our goal is to cross breed and improve certain traits in our herd. For some reason, in nature, a mixed breed is always healthier than a purebred; the same goes with hogs. Because we don't use antibiotics, overall herd health is very important to us and is a big reason why we have begun cross breeding our hogs.
Other changes we made in the hog operation included some new hog pastures, changes to our sow gestation pasture, and changes in our sow management procedures; we no longer run sows in a large herd but rather have them in small, 4 to 6, sow groups.
One of the things we had high hopes for this year was the move to non GMO feeds. We worked very hard on this for 2 years before finding a reliable source for our feed ingredients. We polled our customer base and felt certain that we had enough support to make this move successful. Because of the lack of non GMO corn and soybeans grown in the South, we had to bring these ingredients in from Ohio, Iowa, and Illinois; transportation alone added a lot to already overpriced grains. There was also additional testing that had to be done to insure the grains were non GMO which also added to the cost. With the support we felt we had, we pulled the trigger and committed to a large quantity of non GMO corn and soybeans and had our local mill use these ingredients to make our feeds. It quickly became apparent that we had overestimated the support and needed to bring in some additional market customers if we expected to make this move work; we had already raised prices to offset the increased feed cost and didn't want to have additional price increases. Our restaurant customers didn't support the move because it increased the cost of our product and they were already feeling the pinch from an oversaturated restaurant market. That meant the burden of making the switch work fell squarely on the shoulders of the farm market and meat share customers. Unfortunately, after 6 months, it was determined that we could no longer continue losing money and contacted our sources to say we would not be renewing our agreement. The last of our non GMO feed was recently received at the farm and we will no longer be considered non GMO in upcoming weeks as we run out of the Non GMO feed and begin using GMO feeds.
When we started farming using sustainable methods and raising our animals on pasture, we tried to work hard to control the things that we could and not worry about the things we couldn't. We could control the use of antibiotics and animal proteins in our feeds and decided not to use them. We could control the quality of the pastures that our animals lived on and ate and chose not to use chemical fertilizers. We could control the way these animals lived their life and how they were treated while on the farm and taught all of our high school workers how to properly handle and treat our animals. It was also important to us that we be as environmentally friendly as possible. After we ended our agreement with the farmers in the Mid West, we realized that it was probably meant to be since it sure wasn't environmentally friendly hauling grains from the Mid West when there were local grains that could be purchased to make our feeds , even if the grains were GMO. Hopefully things will change and non GMO grains will be grown in SC making it possible to meet our goals and revisit the possibility of becoming non GMO again.
Our meat share program is ending one of its most successful years. Our member numbers remained steady while the local vegetable growers, and national growers, saw a large drop in CSA members. December is the last month for both 3 month and 6 month shares; the drop dates vary depending on drop location. If you are interested in becoming a member, please go to our website and sign up. Both 3 and 6 month shares begin in January. with invoices going out after the Holidays.
The next several weeks will be very busy on the farm. The plant is booked solid with BBQ hogs beginning the week of December 11 which means we have to get everything processed that we need to meet our customers needs for the rest of the month before the 11th; we did sneak in an additional chicken processing for the 14th which will help us a ton. There will be a lot of time spent making sure the farm is ready for cold weather; pipes have to be wrapped and antifreeze checked and added to all the trucks and tractors. Propane heaters must be checked and broken heaters replaced; propane tanks filled and put out in the chicken pasture. Chicken tractors have to be re-tarped and some need more extensive repairs that will take several days to complete. We also have to find time to work on the engine overhaul job on the 900HC that we have had to put off due to lack of time; we've had the parts for a few months but no time to work on it.
As we do every year, the family will meet to discuss this years successes and failures and decide what we need to concentrate on next year and what direction the farm will take in future years. These meetings are even more important now that we have begun transitioning the farm over to Jesse and Amy. We realize the full transition is still several years away, we hope, but it is important that we begin working on their vision of the farm today and begin taking the steps needed to make their vision a reality. We will discuss the results of these meeting in our January newsletter.
The final Summerville Farm Market day for us will be Saturday December 17; the market will reopen again in April. Annie is planning to do the every other week pre-order drops as she has in past years; make sure you are on the list for notifications.
We will continue to be at the Port Royal Market every Saturday from 9 until noon weekly; this is a year round market.
We sincerely hope that you and your family have the most joyous Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year. Please remember why we have a Christmas season and don't forget to teach the young ones about the true meaning of Christmas while teaching them about Santa.
Thanks for your continued support of our farm.
Annie, Marc, Amy, & Jesse