Ed Bruske in 2006 as a DC Master Gardener.

Guest Update by Ed Bruske

Readers, I once worked with Ed Bruske and others to organize Washington, D.C.’s first-ever Master Gardener group, only to see it forced to dissolve by the city’s frankly corrupt Extension agent. 

Ed later moved his family to Upstate New York to start a farm, and guest-posted here about that adventure.  I recently asked for an update, and as I say in the title’s parenthetical, it’s best suited to readers open to the truth about farming with animals. Susan

It’s been eight years since we traded our D.C. urban garden for a small livestock farm on 22 acres in upstate New York and this is today’s headline: We survived!

And I have the scars to prove it.

After total emersion in eviscerated chicken gore, still-born lambs, a starving cow, hens that devour their own eggs, goats paralyzed by malevolent microbes, chucking hay bales in waist-deep snow–all the hilarity and excruciating travails of diversified farm life–I offer a few cautionary bullet points for those itching to jump into Carhartt coveralls and start their own family farm business:

Meat chickens can be plucked by hand, but I don’t recommend it.

The conventional broiler industry relies on the Cornish Cross chicken variety, bred to grow fat really fast. We chose Freedom Rangers, from a family in Pennsylvania, a chicken slower to mature but packing meat more succulent and more intensely flavored.

After arriving in the mail, the chicks spend four weeks in a brooder, then are transferred into the field to live another seven weeks in “chicken tractors”—heavily fortified cages with no bottom that are moved daily so the birds can forage in fresh grass.  When the birds reach the appropriate size, I take them two-at-a-time to a killing station where, after a quick slice of the carotid artery, they bleed out into a bucket before they are scalded in a 140-degree tub of water to loosen the feathers for plucking, then handed over to my wife to be gutted, cleaned and bagged for sale.

One of our first investments as newbie farmers was a $600 mechanical chicken plucker that looks like a stainless top-loading washing machine except the drum is lined with rubber “fingers” that pull the feathers off the scalded chickens as the drum spins. It works great until it doesn’t. Shortly into our second season, the machine refused to start. When I called the dealer for a fix he simply shrugged and said, “Sometimes you just have to replace the motor.”

Out of shear pique, I refused to replace the motor and started plucking our Freedom Rangers by hand—around 250 per season. The result is beautiful broilers for our customers but really sore hands for me. The joints on the left are especially tender: I will probably never master the guitar.

When neutering boy lambs, make sure you get the job done.

We don’t have a warm place for sheep to give birth or even a barn. They make do with a south-facing, three-sided shelter that works just fine for everyday living even in the bitterest winter weather but we try to time births for April when things start to warm up. That means keeping males and females separate until around November when the five-month gestation period would begin.

Our breeder ram spends summer in the orchard but we typically have several male lambs out on the pasture with their mothers until they get big enough to send to the butcher in the fall. As a precaution, we neuter them not too many days after they are born. We follow a conventional method: banding their testicles. As you can imagine, this is a delicate and sometimes maddeningly difficult procedure. And if you miss your mark…well, nature will eventually take its course.

That’s exactly what happened a couple of years ago when one of the boy lambs slipped through the banding process intact. When I later realized my error, I figured he was still too young to cause a problem. I was wrong. The females started giving birth in January when the ground was snow-covered and the temperature around zero. Most of the lambs survived, but to keep them alive we had no choice but to put them up in our basement until they were big enough to stay with their mothers.

There was a lot of bottle feeding, then we re-introduced the lambs to their mothers where they spent the daylight hours. At night we brought them back to the house. It was quite a frolic, the little lambs trotting behind us up the driveway from the paddock at the end of the day. In the morning, we drove them back to their moms in the back of the Subaru.

In fact, not all the mothers accepted their lambs after the initial separation and we had to continue bottle feeding those until they were old enough to graze. Amusing, maybe, but not a routine we’d want to repeat.

Get a gun.

As one of my blog readers quipped, “If you’ve got livestock, you’ve got dead stock.” Animals are always falling sick or lame and sometimes the most humane thing is to put them down.

We are particularly vexed by parasites that infect our goats. We love goats. They are so clever, curious and loving, almost like dogs. But they are also ruminants, meaning they graze, and that’s where they become infected with a particularly nasty bug called meningeal worm. It’s spread by deer in their feces, picked up by slugs, then passed to the goats. It’s called “meningeal” because the larvae worm their way into the goat’s spinal cord and eventually the brain, disrupting the nervous system. There’s no testing for it, but you know your goat has it when it starts limping or can’t walk or is walking in circles with an odd tilt to the head.

There’s also no surefire treatment for meningeal worm, meaning often there’s no way to save the afflicted animal. Sending them to the great pasture in the sky is always a sad occasion.

Finally, when your wife tells you the milk cow is looking too skinny, believe her.

We raised our Jersey cow Emily from a yearling heifer and she gave great milk as well as producing excellent calves that made the best beef you’ll ever taste raised exclusively on natural pasture and mother’s milk. Emily became family.

After years of book learning about grass farming my operating premise when we started our farm had been that the animals in our care would survive on what they foraged on our 12 acres of pasture. That’s what they evolved to do, right? Not necessarily, it turns out. One Thanksgiving in the middle of a record cold snap I found Emily laying on her side in the paddock, unable to stand. She’d been nursing two calves that summer—born in successive years–and my wife had insisted she looked like she wasn’t getting enough to eat.

Emily had always been thin. But as she lay there helplessly, the vet pinched a fold of Emily’s hide and concurred with my wife: Emily had literally given body and soul to her calves. Modern cows, she said, are just not bred to survive on their own.

We tried for weeks to nurse Emily back to health, used a sling and the tractor to try and get her back on her feet. But it was no use. Finally, there was nothing more to do but call the local cow disposal crew and say goodbye.

And that was the hardest lesson of all. Emily, I’m sorry. We still miss you.