Rettland Farm

Rettland Farm

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Open Minds, Please

Maybe it's because I have kids, and the fact that their generation will lead statistically shorter lives than mine, as a result of their diet, is absolutely harrowing to me.

Maybe it's my ongoing frustration with the current commodity based food system, and it's governmental enablers, that automatically makes me cheer for someone who tries to change it.

Maybe it's because I think it's a big step forward to have someone criticizing "Big Food" in primetime on a major network, even though "Big Food" was happily featured on the commercials during the shows.

Maybe it's because I've heard about health care ad nauseum in the past year, and the largest contributor to the future costs of said healthcare will be obesity. (Aside: In light of that little factoid, wouldn't it have been wise to address the food system as part of health care reform? Not according to our fearless leaders...or their puppetmasters)

Whatever the reason, I think Jamie Oliver deserves some appreciation, some attention, and maybe just an ounce of respect, for tackling America's obesity epidemic.

Yeah, I'm talking to you, lunch ladies of Huntington, WV. He's not going to put you out of a job, or cut your pay. If anything, his way might give you all opportunities to show your real culinary skills, beyond opening boxes and adding water. Quit being so damn stubborn and self concious.

And you too, DJ Whatever-your-name-is. The whole "I have a God given right to eat crap if I want to" tough guy routine looks fake--if anybody is pandering to their audience for ratings here, it's you. Oliver isn't making you look dumb--you're doing it to yourself.

So, thanks J.O. You wouldn't have been my pick to deliver this message, but I sure am glad you're delivering it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Extreme Makeover, Rettland Edition

"We're a-movin' on up! (Movin' on up!)
To the top! (Movin' on up!)
Of a De-Luxe apaht-ment, in the sky-hy-hy!"

Yup, that's what my broilers are singing this week. Yes, I know it's hard to believe that my chickens are singing the theme songs of sitcoms from thirty years ago, but when they caught a glimpse of their new digs, they just couldn't help but channel old George and Weezy...

For two years now, I've been raising pastured broilers in what has become the "standard" housing model for pastured poultry, most commonly known as a "Salatin Style" pen, named after the Godfather of pastured poultry, Joel Salatin. And as much as I admire the beautiful simplicity of Joel's portable pens, I saw room for some improvements. So I redesigned it a little. Ok, I redesigned it a lot. But you're still the man, Joel!

Raisin' the Roof...

I needed to add height to the Salatin pen (which are only about 2 feet high), for a few reasons. Most important was air circulation. During the summer heat, especially when the birds were fully grown, the air inside seemed stale and stagnant. Since the goal here is to provide a better environment than a typical confinement house, I needed to improve air flow.
Another issue with the low height occurred when it was time to catch the birds on slaughter day. Picture me, army crawling inside the pen, among 100 freaked out chickens, at 6 am, on dew covered grass, trying to catch birds. Yeah, not a day at the beach for me, but even worse--it was VERY stressful on the birds. It seemed really dumb to spend 8 weeks trying to keep stress to negligible levels in these birds, and then blowing it by having them go completely nuts during the last hour of their lives.

So, I went with the hoop house idea that I saw on the web, and outfitted it for broilers. The almost-6 foot ceiling allows me to walk in almost upright (which the chickens are used to by slaughter day since I walk in every day before that to feed them) and calmly corral the birds in a corner. To solve the ventilation issue, the high ceiling, coupled with the open end and sides, draws fresh air into the house by a sort of natural chimney effect.

Unsafe at any Speed...

The other big issue was moving the old pen. The problem was that occasionally a chicken wouldn't move along fast enough, and would get pinched between the pen and the ground. I couldn't always see to be sure that the birds were out of the way, again as a result of the low height.

Well, the "Rettland Pen" is high enough off the ground that a slowpoke chicken won't get mushed by the pen--it will just pass over him. Rubber skirts keep the chickens in and the predators out while the pen is stationary, but floats over the lazy chicken while the pen's in motion. Even though the chicken is now out, and needs to be caught, at least he's not hurt.

Wet Weather Equipped

Lastly, I needed to be able to deal with wet weather, since Pennsylvania's new climate seems to include at least 2 monsoon seasons per year. When we have so much rain that the ground is saturated, the results are disastrous for the chickens. In the Salatin pen, they have nowhere to go. My choices at that point are to either let them wallow in the mud, or catch all of them and move them indoors somewhere. I usually opt for the latter. You can imagine how that goes...and the language involved.

So I added a perch that can fold down in wet weather, so the birds have somewhere to get out of the mud. When the ground is dry, it folds up out of the way, so the birds can graze as usual.

Time will tell if the "Rettland Pen" is a vast improvement over the Salatin Pen. I'm sure there will be bugs that need to be worked out, but this guy seems to be satisfied. For now.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Making a Break from GMOs

Over the winter, I reached the conclusion that it's time for me to change the way I feed animals on my farm. Since I started raising critters for direct sale, I've maintained diets for pigs and chickens that were free from antibiotics and other growth stimulants. I've even replaced commercial worming medicines with all natural, organic clays that, as far as I can tell, do as good or better at keeping pigs worm-free than the toxic commercial stuff.
However, since I've depended on purchased grains for at least some of my animals' feed rations, I haven't been able to say with certainty that my products are raised without the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). And over the past year or so, that has really started to bug me...
What are GMOs?
In agriculture, GMOs are plants that have had their DNA modified by adding genes from other plants (or animals) into the plant's DNA to give it a trait that makes it resistant to herbicides or insect pests.
These transgenic crops have been in commercial use since the early 90s, and they have taken over the market so swiftly and completely that it is hard to find seed for things like corn, soybeans, cotton, even sugar beets, that aren't transgenic seed. So even if the farmer is uncomfortable with the idea of GMOs, he doesn't have a whole lot of alternatives to using them, if he wants to grow those affected crops.
What's my problem with GMOs?
I have lots of problems with GMOs. The one that worries me most, and the reason for my decision to go GMO free, is the safety issue. The manufacturers of transgenic seeds have gone through the motions and received approval to market them from the federal government, but that's absolutely no consolation to me. (An interesting aside--Europe and many countries in Asia ban the use and sale of GMO crops. Why not the US?) Even if their approval wasn't a result of more corporate-government hand holding, the amount of time spent researching the effects of GMOs was far too short to be conclusive.
The true effects of GMOs on the environment and ecosystem, on the health of livestock, and most importantly, on the health of humans, won't become known for decades. Like so very many things going on today, the truth will only become obvious when viewed through the lens of history. And I'm no longer willing to sit around and wait for that revelation.
So, as of yesterday, I began phasing out the use of GMOs in the diets of my animals. I started by planting oats, which I will use to replace some of the corn in my current ration. It will take me almost a year to become GMO free, since I will have to grow literally all of the feed my animals consume myself. I will need to formulate new diets that use things like oats, and also wheat, rye, barley, and GMO free soybeans for the pigs and chickens. This may mean that it takes longer to grow the animals to their usual slaughter weights, and it will definitely cost more to do so.
But it's the right thing to do, for them and those of us who eat them.