Brooder Health Matters

There are things we apply to our livestock that we just don’t care to apply to ourselves because we are biologically different. For example, our cows can metabolize grass. We can not. But there are lots of biological similarities. Women won’t menstruate if they don’t have enough fat. Cows are the same. And I would love to share my observations about herd behavior in the airport vs. in the feedlot but I’m afraid it would not be well received.

Instead I’m going to talk about the chick brooder. Learning to brood chicks is BY FAR the most important thing to learn as you raise birds. If your chicks don’t get a good start in life, if they are wet and cold and catch pneumonia early on, they will never amount to much and you won’t have a quality product to sell. We don’t raise chickens for the companionship, we raise chickens because we treasure meat, eggs and manure. Any old bird will give you manure but to get the meat and eggs, the bird has to be healthy. To have a healthy bird, you need health in the brooder.

This post was inspired by an article I read about the recent increase in average human height. The article indicates that a lack of infection allows the body to focus more energy on growth. That seems pretty obvious. And that is the reason mainstream livestock production uses medicated feed in high-stress, high-density housing. So what’s a farmer to do if he wants to use the same animals used by the industry but deviates away from medication of any sort?

To raise a healthy Cornish Cross chick to the finish line in 6-8 weeks requires a healthy brooder environment. In February we took delivery of 303 birds, 3 were dead in the shipping boxes. 300 birds went into our brooder, 296 came out 3 and a half weeks later. In years past we have done better and we have done worse. The worse is always our fault…either because we neglected security and a cat got into the brooder or because we were not attentive enough during a cold snap and a group of chicks somehow got wet and died of hypothermia or piled on each other. A dead CX chick costs me around $1.20 and a couple of days of feeling bad and kicking myself. I can’t spare the cash or the emotions so we work pretty hard to keep them alive.

This year we brooded our chicks in the pig nursery in 300 gallon tanks. In a water tank there are no sharp corners for chicks to pile up in. Nobody gets crushed. There are no drafts. The pig nursery is a big, insulated box so cold weather and rain were not an issue and if the power had gone out we could have placed a kerosene heater or two in there and kept the space warm enough. The real trick was keeping enough fresh bedding under the birds to keep them clean, dry and healthy.

brooder health 1

I can’t overstate the importance of fresh bedding in the brooder. CX chicks poop a lot. Like, a lot lot. We used enough sawdust to completely fill each 300 gallon tank over the course of three weeks…obviously we scooped out a large portion of the bedding along the way.

To get started we put 5 or 6 buckets of sawdust and one 5-gal bucket of horse manure in each brooder space. The horse manure gives something for the chicks to scratch and pick at while inoculating the rest of the bedding pack. We are shooting for at least three things. We need clean, dry chicks, we need to feed and entertain the chicks (lots of tiny bugs live in the litter) and we need supplemental heat from the warm, composting bedding. To get this done we would add a bucket or two of fresh sawdust every day. Toward the end we were adding bedding twice each day. Every day the chicks would put down and scratch in a new layer of manure. Rinse and repeat.

By doing this we were keeping the chicks warm with heat lamps in an insulated building in brooders that were completely draft free. Beyond that, the chicks were warmed by the growing, living mass of compost beneath them. All we had to do was make feed available, keep the water clean and add in fresh bedding. Then, as a final benefit, we got three large loads of broiler litter to spread on our garden.

Obviously, animal health is a primary concern ranging far beyond chickens. Calf stress at weaning causes all kinds of performance problems. There are techniques we employ to minimize stress…everything from castrating pigs before they are 5 days old to weaning pigs by removing their mothers, not by removing the pigs. Lead, don’t chase or beat your cattle. Don’t yell in the corral. Keep your mouth shut, learn to read and leverage animal behavior.

So, OK. That stuff is not hard to understand. Is there a human application? Heck yes! Ever seen a politician work a herd of humans?

This is where I get myself into trouble. I’ll side step slightly by saying there are things we should monitor about our own environment and behavior to limit stress and disease. We don’t do this because we are concerned with maximizing human growth potential but, instead, simply because we are concerned with our own health. I want to raise animals without antibiotics and I don’t want to use them either. Not that I am some sort of science-doubting luddite (far from it), but because I would rather prevent a disease than cure it.

Is your brooder (home) a cold, sloppy mess or a warm, healthy environment that encourages development? Do you put yourself (or your children) in situations where you receive verbal or physical abuse (unhealthy workplace or bad public school)? Do you get regular sleep? Do you eat a variety of healthy food or do you eat wheat and sugar at every meal? Do you skip a breakfast now and then to throw your body a curve ball?

Look, I’m a computer guy who pretends to be a farmer. I am not pretending to be a health professional, a nutritional therapist or even a lifestyle coach. But are you aware of the average level of health in your community? Are you above or below the average? Does your shopping cart look like the average shopping cart?

If you need a little help making changes in your home brooder I encourage you to follow my wife’s blog. She regularly (well, maybe not regularly) writes about her continuing efforts to limit household clutter, encourage emotional development and enhance our health. If you have a problem with your chick brooder, feel free to ask.

CrossFarm 2014

In a prior life I did the main page Crossfit Workout of the Day (WOD) every day. I write about this from time to time. Speaking from experience, the main page Crossfit WOD is not for normal humans. All these years later the main page WOD has been accelerated to the point that it’s not even for exceptional humans. It is made for super-humans. Truly elite fitness. But 10 years ago I couldn’t wait to knock out the main page WOD and post my results. I should also add that Crossfit came along at just the right time in my life. If you think I write about Crossfit too much…well, please understand there is more going on here than just push-ups.

Let me summarize what I believe Crossfit is. Crossfit is for everyone. It calls itself the sport of fitness. In short, they put up a workout 3 days out of 4 to measure your own ability to perform work in time. (The fourth day was a rest day and there was usually some suggested discussion topic ranging from history to liberty to economics.) In a normal workout you might deadlift 300 pounds 21, 15 and 9 times. In between deadlifts you might have to do 9, 15 and 21 handstand push ups. Yeah. Handstand pushups. But it’s not enough to just pick up the weight and stand on your hands. The workouts are designed to be completed quickly. You wouldn’t think of lifting 300 pounds as a cardio workout…until you try to lift 300 pounds 21 times in 30 seconds. Total intensity followed by rest. You learn very quickly where your body is weak, where you want to quit and when you really need to quit. Crossfit is for everyone…but you probably need to scale it back for your fitness level, age and ability. Don’t believe me? Pick up a grandchild. That’s a deadlift. If you don’t do it correctly you will probably injure your back.

There was a time when my hands were covered in callouses from deadlifting, the pull-up bar and from gymnastics rings. I became monstrously strong in a short period of time. But as much as I admire the program and its benfits, I don’t crossfit anymore. I have a farm.

I reached a point in my Crossfit career where I wanted to do more than just the main page WOD. I would practice skills like juggling or tumbling. I cut a big oak log out of dad’s woods to carry on my shoulder as I walked through my neighborhood (true story…total dork!). I would use a rotary mower to mow the grass while wearing a weight vest…for time. Yeah.

But things are different with a farm. Now I walk/jog to the barn, grab a 60 pound bale of alfalfa, deadlift, power clean and rest the bale on my shoulder then walk a half mile over an obstacle course, up and down hills to feed the cows. And because I’m almost late for work I have to do this work for time. I have to make decisions about firewood. Should I make one trip up the hill with one big log or should I make 10 trips up the hill with firewood-sized chunks? And because I have 10 other things to do today this too is for time. I pull up fence posts, drive in new fence posts, string electric fence all for time. Then it’s back up the hill to the house in time to fill a wheelbarrow or two with wood to stack next to the wood stove before it starts sleeting (for time). I have to process 100 birds for time. Water the chickens for time.

carrying hay

Everything is for time. Crossfit measured my ability to perform a given amount of work in time. Farming is only a little different. Not only do I have to work hard, I have to get my work done or something might die! But Crossfit also emphasized the importance of rest and proper nutrition. (Clearly this had an effect on me. It’s why we started growing our own food!)

In one of my very first posts on this blog I referred to the action of the livestock working our soil as Crossfit for the farm. The cows, pigs and chickens create a varying and seasonal but intense pattern of disturbance and massively increased microbial action after which the land recovers, heals and becomes stronger than it was before. The varying workload involved in caring for the animals seasonally keeps me both fit and entertained. The hardest part is limiting sugar intake so I can recover more fully between workouts…I mean…chores.

Let me state clearly, I’m not for or against Crossfit. I promise you, the main page WOD is not for everyone. It is probably not for you. It’s for the athletic elite. But if you are planning to move to a farm to begin your adventures in agriculture, I strongly encourage you to consider your physical condition. Maybe find a program that not only builds strength but also builds endurance. ’cause you’re gonna need it. Also pay attention to your diet, rest and sleep cycles. The whole farming adventure can be stressful. Lack of sleep or proper nutrition only compounds the issue.

Cattle Mineralization, Nutrition and Human Weight Loss

Yes. Human weight loss. I’m going to write a post about feeding cattle and how I feel that is analogous to human weight loss. How’s that for ambition? I think there is enough here to chew on for a bit without going too deep on the topic.

Here goes.

We recently bought the Hayless Wintering in Florida DVD set by Jim Elizondo. You may think $119 is a bit high for a movie but if you feed 25 fewer small square bales of grass hay the first year you have broken even. You may also think that since he’s in Florida and you’re not he has nothing to offer you. You would be wrong. Anyway, in that DVD Jim says cattle can overeat by 40% trying to get enough of a specific mineral they are lacking. I want to spend some time on that idea.

Cattle know what they need. It is not uncommon for cattle to select a specific mineral they want from an array and just pick the ones they need and in the quantity required. That’s the whole concept behind the Free Choice Minerals programs and you can see it at work in one of our favorite youtube videos about milking cows (skip to 7:45):

But let’s say minerals are in short supply. What’s a cow to do? Well, this grass over here has a small amount of X in it so I’ll just eat more of it. As much as 40% more than the cow needs to maintain condition. Jim says he has seen cattle with scars on their sides from overfilling the rumen and tearing the skin. Those cows were seeking better mineralization.

If the cow had sufficient nutrition it wouldn’t be eating that extra feed. Another cow would. You with me on this? If this is true, you could have 40% more animals on the same forage and land if the cattle were getting proper minerals. In fact, FCE says the cow can overeat by 50%!

Read that again! That’s money in your pocket!

Jim goes into detail on working with the existing pasture to improve nutrition and mineralization over time. He says he offers a source of protein supplement when feeding lignified pasture (dead, brown, old grass) to cattle…usually flax seed meal as bean meal is almost all GMO. That may go against the grazing ideal we all have in our minds but when seeking to improve pasture health (the real goal) you have to enable the cattle to thrive. The added protein helps the rumen to digest low-protein, dried grasses. Play with the cards you are dealt. Supplement carefully where needed to maintain nutrition levels over time, making the best use of what is available. This applies to our meal planning at home…working with what we have in terms of ingredients and in terms of budget.

So what does this have to do with human weight loss? Well, maybe nothing. But maybe everything.

Click image for source.

If cattle can overeat to make up for a lack of nutrients can we do the same? Do we do the same…even without realizing it? Would you suggest the average American is thin and eats food that in nutritionally dense in small quantities or would you say we, as Americans are overweight, eating nutritionally poor food in large quantities? Is it possible that we are consuming some portion of those calories, not simply because we crave fat, salt and sweet, but because our body is telling us we need something that we aren’t getting elsewhere. So we eat more. And the extras that come packaged with that whatever we are looking for don’t simply pass through as unnecessary excesses. Some of them deposit themselves in, around and under us.

This came to mind in a conversation with my lovely bride who, without any real effort, is losing weight. Now, maybe our data is off and she has a tapeworm or a tumor causing weight loss but assume with me that she is as healthy or more than the average 30-something woman with four children. What has changed?

For the last year Julie has been taking a very high-quality vitamin supplement (the FDA says I can’t tell you the name cause speech isn’t free). I noticed her jeans were getting baggy and we started paying more attention to what was going on. She says she needs to eat less at a meal to feel satisfied. Otherwise, she is limiting (not eliminating) wheat. We cook with bacon grease. There are still cookies or brownies in the house from time to time. We still drink wine and hard cider and the occasional soda. But mostly she eats high-quality foods we grow or purchase, drinks water or coffee and takes her vitamins. For exercise she walks to the cows and chickens and picks up at least one feed bag every day of the week. All of that has been essentially the same for the last 4 years. The switch from a multi-vitamin to (no free speech) was the only real change.

Maybe I’m mistaken but it appears to me that paying attention to nutrition and mineralization can not only increase our livestock health and carrying capacity, it also puts my already thin wife into even smaller jeans and makes better use of our food budget.

For the sake of disclosure, I am switching to FCE’s mineral program right now but I stand to make nothing by mentioning their product nor by linking to a scale manufacturer. My wife does sell the vitamins she takes and would be happy to sell them to you. But I wrote this post out of a sense of amazement, not seeking sales.

Cheesy Potato Soup

Cheesy Potato Soup is one of our family’s favorites.  With our plethora of potatoes right now we have this soup at least once a week.

Start with homemade chicken broth made from Chism Heritage Farm Chicken backs and necks.

While the broth is finishing up fry a pound of ground pork.

Next add about a 1/4 cup of sausage seasoning.  (You could just use a pound of breakfast sausage.)

Filter about 8 cups of the chicken broth.

Use the broth to cook 8 large diced potatoes.

While the potatoes are cooking, saute 1 onion and 1 pressed garlic clove.

When the potatoes are tender (usually takes about 20 minutes), mash the potatoes.

Add your spices.  This time I used about a handful of herbs I pulled from our garden.  I chopped up the basil, oregano, and thyme and added it to the soup.

Next, add about 2 cups shredded mozzarella.

and 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese.

Pour in about 2 1/2 cups of milk.

Stir soup consistently till cheese is melted.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

This makes a large batch of soup.  It fed my family of 6 last night, today for lunch and there is enough to send in Farm Steward’s lunch tomorrow.

I Can’t Afford to Eat Well…and Other Lame Excuses

Eating healthy food doesn’t cost more money.  It costs more time but gives you more time…time to live…past your 60’s.  As food prices have fallen, health care costs have risen.  Correlation does not equal causation but I think the two are linked. Here is my lovely bride with more to say on this topic.

“It’s just too expensive to eat healthy.”

My reply was that in the long term eating cheap is very expensive – it costs you your health and medical care is only getting more expensive.

As I thought about that conversion I wish I had taken it a different direction.  I don’t believe it does cost more to eat healthy food, even in the short term.  What are some of the items in your shopping cart this week?  A bag of chips usually will cost $3/lb, Cheerios – $4/lb, Oreo’s – $5/lb, candy bars  – $8/lb.  Compare that to a Chism Heritage Pasture Raised Chicken – $3/lb or raw milk from grass feed dairy cows – .75c/lb.  How much money do you spend on food that isn’t nurishing you? Cheap and easy food is not real and sustainable food.  Just because you can chew it, swallow it, digest it and maybe even like it does not make it real food.

In America we spend less on food than any country in the world.  This cheap food is not only causing people to be malnursihed but it also effects our soil.  Joel Salatin in Folks, This Ain’t Normal says, “Don’t people understand that a cheap food policy will create a cheap farmer policy?  And a cheap farmer policy will create a cheap landscape policy?  And a cheap landscape policy with create a cheap soil policy?  No civilization can be any healthier environmentally or economically that it’s soil.  No health care system and no bank bailout program can compensate for a bankrupt soil policy, which is exactly what a cheap food policy creates.”

Our family is still developing good eating habits.  We certainly have some issues we need to work on but we have come a long way.  Eight years ago a typical day’s menu for my children looked something like this:
Breakfast:  cold cereal (absolutely nutritionless and full of sugar) with pasturized 2% milk (from who knows what farm)
Lunch:   peanut butter and jelly on cheap bread
Dinner:  hamburger helper with canned refridgerated rolls and a can of green beans

Today there is no boxed cold cereal in my house.  Breakfast is usually eggs and bacon, fruit salad with cottage cheese or oatmeal.  My kids still love peanut butter and jelly but I make the bread and jelly.  Dinner is usually a meat with vegetables but no bread.  We do buy different food but eating healthy is not just about going to the store and buying different groceries or just shopping the perimeter.  Healthy eating starts with a different approach to food.  You don’t just buy pre-packaged food that is labeled “healthy”, you buy quality ingredients and cook them.  There is no way around it, if you want to eat healthy you have to cook.  If you don’t have the time or desire then you have to pay someone the cook for you.  That sounds very expensive to me.  The great thing about this approach is that it can lower your food budget while giving you more time with your family in the kitchen.  Go to the library and read Nourishing Traditions The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats and Folks, This Ain’t Normal.  Both books will give you a desire and a direction toward real food.  Then get into your kitchen and help your farmer make the world better with just your plate and fork.  Stop watching TV and cook something!

I’m still learning, but I’m learning with my kids and it’s great.  Old habits die hard but we can form better habits in ourselves and our children.  Chime in below and let us know where you have found the most success in your healthy kitchen efforts.

Here are a few sites we rely on to help us in our efforts.  Expect this list to grow.
The Healthy Home Economist
Nourished Kitchen
The Nourishing Home

Cross…Farm? Diet and Exercise for Alternative Agriculture.

People always ask me, “Chris, how do you get it all done?” then say, “It must be nice to be so young!”

First, I don’t get it all done.  Though it used to sound old, it is nice to be 35.    There are things we can do to make the work more manageable at any age though.  First I have to be strong enough and take care of my health.  Second I have to eat right to have enough energy and take care of my health.  Finally, I have to take care of my health.  You with me so far?


We’ve been tightening our belts this spring.  Our winter insulation has been obliterated by our work routines.  If I don’t tighten my belt my pants fall off.  Nobody makes shirts that fit me well.  My large shoulder/small belly ratio is far outside of the sizes offered by mainstream manufacturers.  The result is my shirts fit my shoulders and arms well but at the waist it looks like I’m wearing my dad’s shirt.

Though this isn’t saying much, I may be the strongest I have ever been.  But I’m not as healthy as I have ever been.

Years ago, when we lived in town, we were avid CrossFit athletes.  A typical workout is something like run set distance, lift heavy objects, climb a rope, rinse and repeat, completing the work in a minimum of time.  The workouts vary greatly so your body never quite adjusts to the workload.  It’s always hard.  The time factor is genius as it forces you to crank up the intensity as you compete with yourself in an effort to get better.

CrossFarm (lol) requires we walk, run or bike 1/4 mile to the broilers on pasture carrying a feed bag or pulling a wagon loaded with feed bags, lifting and pulling chicken tractors, carrying buckets of water and returning to the house…often for time as we try to beat a coming rainstorm, sunset or other deadline.  Like the Clean and Jerk, I have to lift a heavy bale from the floor, lift it onto my forearms and launch it into the air accurately placing it high on the pile fast enough to stay ahead of the my father and son who unload the wagons.  We have to run through the brambles, up and over the hills, over and over again trying to find that silly pig that escaped when we were trying to load the trailer for market.  We squeeze, grip, jump and roll when the horse we are riding bare back decides it’s time for him to kill us…lol.  There are shooting events, late night electric fence troubleshooting and all-night hide-and-go-seek games with the cows.  There are ample opportunities for strength on the farm.  Intensity is added by the fact that there is so much to do and so little time to get it all done…or when we suddenly find ourselves being outrun by a 400 pound bulldozer/pig…that decides to turn and run after us!  But…

Exercise is not enough!

The work accomplishes only a portion of the change.  We are busy.  We do work hard.  But we also try to eat well.  In fact, that’s why we started farming.  We were looking for sources of clean food and found the best solution was to raise it ourselves.  We recently fell into the busy trap and found ourselves selling the best chicken in the world to our customers and stopping for a pizza between church and chores.  Late nights lead to sleepy mornings and there’s nothing quite like a sugary, caffiene-laden soft drink to get you started in the morning.  It’s a real problem for me.  Add to it the cookies and desserts that accompany social gatherings and suddenly I’m not feeling 100%.  My allergies are acting up.  I just feel run-down.  I’m strong, yes.  I’m burning calories, yes.  But, I’m not healthy and my runny nose is the proof.

CrossFit forced us to eat well.  If we didn’t eat well we wouldn’t be able to recover between workouts.  When we were in the Zone my allergies disappeared, my blood pressure dropped, my waking heart rate was low, my cholesterol was awesome.  Recently I got busy and allergies have returned.  I’m realizing the shortcuts I have been taking in recent months come with a cost.  It’s time to clean up my diet.  Not just to skip the sugar but to add in lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut.

I know better than to treat my body this way.  I’m not living up to my own expectations.  This post is part confession, part line in the sand and, I hope, part encouragement.  Want to feel better?  Modify your diet and add in a dose of intensity to your activity.

Changing your diet

We found Nourishing Traditions to be the best challenge to our notions of a healthy diet.  Their recipes are historically normal but are nothing you’ll read in current magazines.  Also, spend some time researching the Paleo diet.  Both of these will rock your diet and may help you tighten your belt as well.  Most of it comes down to avoiding processed grains.  It turns out Cheerios aren’t part of a nutritious breakfast at all.  Breads, grains and pastas may not be the best things for your health…though the government recommended them as the base of our diet for years.  Pasteurized milk may not be such a good idea.  Everything is upside down.

Energy Levels and Rest

I need to maintain a high level of energy.  I have a full-time job and a full-time farm.  That means I have to make time to rest.  Yesterday (Sunday), I got up early and did my normal chores then I took a nap.  After my nap I went to lunch at my in-laws…and took another nap.  I was feeling so good after that I picked up our milk at the dairy then drove home to watch a little Star Trek with the kids…and took a nap.  Then it was dinner, a few more chores and an early bed time.  If I don’t make it a point to rest on the weekend I risk shorting my employer, my chickens or my children.  Any of those would be a disaster.  Many of us fall into the trap of maintaining social relationships and work by sacrificing sleep.  That’s not sustainable.  Weather managing pastures, work schedules or intense workouts we have to allow for recovery and rest.

Work with intensity, eat right and rest.  If any of these are lacking you will suffer.  Your farm will suffer.  Your customers will notice.  Finally, if you want to try CrossFit scaled for mere mortals, scaled versions of the workouts can be found here.  Thank God because I’m not as young as I used to be.