Well, tomorrow is the last day of 2019 and I'm sitting here reflecting on all that has happened here on Windmill Hill Farm. This was a big year for us as I launch the website, started this blog, and grew our customer base to outside of just family and friends. It feels like we officially became a "farm" this year but I can't help but still feel a bit like a farm imposter. My sister was recently at the local farm market store and was chatting with the owner. The owner asked her where she got her turkey this year to which my sister replied: "Oh, Windmill Hill Farm". The owner then replied "oh yeah, I've heard of them from some other people saying good things about them". HA! I couldn't believe it, maybe we are a real farm. We raised over 120 birds, had our first litter of angora rabbits, fenced in a pasture, and added a new extra-large poultry tractor to our set up. Big things happened here so why do I feel like there's so much more to be done? Well, because there is.
Farming never stops. You never reach a point where you've optimized everything and can just sit back and follow the procedure from then on. We've been at this for a few years now and I still feel like we make "rookie" mistakes, except they aren't rookie mistakes they only seem like they are. By that I mean we've made mistakes that after the fact were obvious and made us feel stupid. But that's part of the process of becoming a farmer. Maybe I'll never feel official and that's okay but I want to make sure that every year I reflect on what we did right, what we did wrong, and what I want to accomplish next year. So here is our 2019 year in review.
We had A LOT more birds on the farm this year. Last year we raised 50 Freedom rangers and 16 Cornish X's. In 2019 we raised 65 Freedom Rangers, 50 Cornish X's, and 16 turkeys. We also brought in a new batch of 10 chicks to replace our laying hen flock. We sold somewhere around 40 birds which was huge for us. We foolishly bought an additional batch of chicks that were supposed to be Jersey Giants to raise alongside our final batch of Freedom Rangers. This resulted in a catastrophe and our last batch of rangers were not sold out to customers due to their small size and reduced numbers. The temperament of the Jersey Giants did not mesh well with our meat birds and we suspect they brought in some sort of virus that made that batch of chickens not as healthy as we typically see (side note, we had a bird tested by Ohio State's Veterinary division as a precaution and no serious illness was found so we are confident going forward all of our birds will be healthy).
Things to do different
I'm always looking for ways to reduce our overall operating costs without compromising our principles on animal welfare and overall quality. One thing I saw as needing improvement was our electric bill when we had chicks in brooders. Having several heat lamps running is not only dangerous it's also costly. I pride myself on being a 100% LED and energy-efficient household so when I see the electric bill spike I'm automatically trying to track down the culprit. Going into 2020, we are going to invest in brooder heating plates. These are adjustable height heating plates that the chicks snuggle under for warmth. This more closely mimics their natural behavior of snuggling under a momma hen and also uses considerably less energy at just 42 watts vs a 250-watt heating lamp.
We raised our 50 Cornish X's in an outdoor pen with a makeshift roof. For 2020, I plan on doing just about everything different from the Cornish. I plan to raise only 30 Cornish next year as our customers seemed to be more interested in the Rangers. We had an issue with two much size variation with the 50 birds. Some were over 4lbs while others were barely 2lbs. We think this is because too many birds were competing for food and water. To correct this issue we plan to do two batches of only 15 Cornish at two different times. I'm also going to raise them for 1-2 weeks longer to see if we can get a bit more size out of them without compromising their health. I'm also going to build a low cost, most likely PVC, tractor for them. I've seen videos and read a few books about people raising Cornish X's on pasture so we are going to give it a go vs raising them in our pen again.
For our Freedom Rangers, I was pretty happy with our process this past year so I think the only I may play around with is the specific Ranger breed. The hatchery we usually purchase from has developed another Ranger breed that is supposed to have some white feathers mixed in with the red, presumably this will make them a bit cleaner looking when plucked. They also claim to grow a tiny bit faster which means we may be able to shave a week of time off of their growth schedule. Overall I've been very happy with the Freedom Ranger so if this new breed isn't all it's cracked up to be I won't be upset.
Last but not least is the turkeys. We did enjoy raising our first batch of turkeys and several family and friends enjoyed our birds for their Thanksgiving feasts. We raised mainly Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys with a few heritage Narragansetts. I've concluded that we will not raise heritage turkeys again. They simply take too long to grow and are impossible to keep on your property unless you have them in a fully enclosed pen all the time which to me defeats the purpose of having them. Our Bronze turkeys were able to free-range in our fenced pasture, were easy to corral up into the poultry tractor at night, and matured to big 20+lb turkeys in about 3-1/2 months. Everything about them was easy so we will be doing 6 Broad Breasted Bronze turkeys and 6 Giant White turkeys next year. We will also raise them later in the year to get their processing time closer to the holidays.
The garden wasn't a total loss this year but it was far from what I had planned on. I harvested a lot of tomatoes, some nice beans, some okay sweet corn, some small but tasty carrots, but that's about it. My biggest problem was our very wet and cold spring that seemed to last until July. I started almost all of my plants in my basement under grow lights which worked great. However, when spring didn't come in early June as planned I found myself with growing nursery plants that had nowhere to go. By the time I planted my garden my zucchini, onions, pumpkins, squash, and all of my herbs had outgrown their containers and were dying. I hoped and prayed that they'd rebound once planted in the ground but no dice.
Things to do different
I'm still going to start my plants in the basement but I'm going to be prepared to upgrade them to larger containers as soon as June hits if it's not warm out. I'm also going to switch up the locations of the plants within my garden. I think my pumpkins and squash largely failed to grow due to the number of roots in the soil where they were. We recently rototilled that section for the first time and it seems the pumpkins and squash couldn't take root. I plan to plant other crops with shorter root systems there next year to see if they can take hold.
I'm going to grow WAY fewer tomatoes next year. I have no idea what I was thinking. I put in 70+ tomato plants, 20 of which were for sauce. I don't even really like tomatoes but I was convinced we'd want a lot of tomatoes for some reason.
My sweet corn grew well but I waited too long to pick it and the flavor and texture weren't great. I'm going to try a different variety and harvest it sooner next year.
Overall I got some nice beans from my garden but I'm only going to grow bush beans in 2020. Again, I'm not sure what I was thinking growing a whole bunch of pole beans with nowhere for them to climb. They ended up climbing all over the garden fence, pulling it down, and all over my corn stalks.
As for my onions, I'm going to start them in larger seed starter cells as a fellow farmer pointed out the ones I was using were far too small which likely hindered their growth. I've been trying for years to grow onions from seed. Every year I learn something and get a little closer to getting it right.
My overall goal is to have a variety of vegetables stored either in the freezer or canned for winter 2020.
This year was a big year for our rabbitry. We added two resident rabbits to our lineup, our star of the barn "Hershey" and his soon to be girlfriend "Honey". These rabbits are both pedigreed and with Hershey being a chocolate and Honey being a chocolate agouti, I feel confident that we will be able to produce some beautiful chocolate babies in 2020.
We also had an addition of 8 little bunnies, courtesy of Hershey and Mable (my black tort female). Mable was a fantastic first-time mom and while I've heard plenty of horror stories of rabbit births gone wrong, her birth was uneventful and all 8 babies were healthy and went on to their new homes in mid-summer.
Things to do different
I'm still formulating my overall plan for the rabbits but I think I'm going to need to breakdown and build them their own "barn". Right now I have 4 resident adult rabbits in our general barn/garage/woodshop. It's not an ideal place for rabbits but we've been making it work. I'd love to have a small building where they are away from any noise or excess dust. I'd also like them to have a window in which I can install a small AC unit to keep them cool in the summer. Right now I have to fiddle with a bunch of fans and frozen ceramic tiles to keep them cool on hot days.
As for planned breedings, Mable is currently pregnant (or so I assume) and is due in mid-January. This will be my first winter litter so I'm both nervous and excited. After this litter I don't plan to breed Mable anymore as I'd like to stick to pedigreed litters, specifically focusing on developing Chocolate Giants. This is where Honey comes in. Honey was born in May of 2019 so she is still a bit too young to breed. I plan to breed her in February which hopefully means the coldest weather will be behind us when she gives birth in March. I'm seriously considering keeping a nice male out of that litter as I often think about how ruined my plans would be if Hershey passed away suddenly. The breeder who produced Honey will have the pick of the litter so I will have to see what her plans our before making that decision anyway but taking on an additional resident male rabbit is definitely in my plans at some point.
I'm planning on adding 2 Southdown Baby Doll sheep to our farm in the spring of 2020. I have a personal goal to develop my fiber spinning skills and would love to blend some nice wool of my own with the angora wool from the rabbits. We will perhaps pursue breeding these sheep in future years but that's down the line.
I'm going to venture into the front pasture for raising our chickens. Right now we've been rotating our poultry tractors around the back pasture and it's worked well but we have a whole additional acre in front of our house that is unused. I've been doing a lot of research into regenerative agriculture and would love to document the transformation on this land. My plan is to do a soil test as soon as the ground thaws and then test again in 2021.
Principally, my goal for 2020 is to further establish Windmill Hill Farm as a real farm. I want to grow our customer base and become a staple in the community for good, honest, local food. I'd also like to get to the point where we are making a bit of profit from our efforts but I'm fairly realistic that may not happen until further in the future.
We are thrilled with the progress we've made and can't wait to see what the future has in store for us!