6 Apr

Sage drills a hole for the spile

The days become a little bit warmer, and the nights a little bit shorter. The snow slowly begins to melt, a bit of greenery hidden beneath the snow shows its withered and wrinkled leaves to the sky again.  The Crow returns, cawing loudly to his friends that winter’s end is nearing, and a lone moth flits through the cool air on a sunny day—-Its maple syrup time!!  That’s right, all those signs mean that the sap is about to, or has already started to run.

Maple trees gather light with their large crowns of greenery all summer long. They use the photosynthetic process to convert light, to sugar. In the fall, life drains out of the leaves and the produced energy is stored as carbohydrates, deep in the soil within the root system.  (this is why larger crowned trees in suburban lawns make sweeter sap-larger crown= more photosynthesis)  When the signs of late winter mix with the earliest signs of spring, and most ideally, the nights drop below zero, with the days sunny, above zero and with low pressure and a high ceiling…the sap runs at its best, and brings all of that sweet carb goodness up the tree and travelling towards the buds.

Sage gently taps in a spile

About this time, is precisely when we, like many many a rural Canadian in our path before us, intercept the flowing sap, on its way upwards, and gather a wee bit of it for ourselves.

Making maple syrup isn’t very hard to do, and I encourage ANYONE who has a big sugar maple or two in their yard to give it a try.  When I lived in the city, I had two very large maples, which I tapped and made some fine syrup from.  Suburban trees typically throw sweeter sap than their forest counterparts, due to their ability to gather light without much competition from other trees, and to spread their roots far and wide, and gather water and nutrients without competition. (don’t get me wrong though, a little competition between trees in a forest is a healthy thing!)

On the pictures above, you see Sage, who at nearly 8 years old is very keen on making maple syrup. When I fit the drill with the correct bit, he can drill the hole himself, and set the spile.  He needed a little help to connect the tubing, but his contribution on tapping day was of significant help.

Here we have a fuzzy sort of close-up of Sage’s hand catching the first drip after setting the spile.  We use what is called a health spile-not entirely sure why it is called that, but it is much smaller than the old fashioned metal types with the hook to hang the bucket on.  These smaller spiles can be set into slightly smaller trees, and the amount of time it takes for a tree to cover over the hole with new tissue is a lot less.  This is a lot better for the tree, and less invasive.  Its true, we may not get quite as much sap per spile, but I’ll settle for that.  Before setting the spile, we spray and wipe it with a hydrogen peroxide solution to disinfect it.  We also spray sawdust out of the hole in the tree with the same solution.  We DON”T use any nasty chemicals to keep the holes in the trees open, we do however, hope for a good run, and try to time the tapping accordingly.

We may have missed the boat on that one this year, as it was such a terribly cold march.  We tapped during March break, and had we tapped a week or two earlier, we may have gotten the earlier run at the beginning of March.  We were holding out for a bigger run…but it never really came. (tapholes just go ‘off’ after a few weeks, if you aren’t using any chemicals in them) Never the less, we did get away with a little syrup.

old taphole or woodpecker?I’m not entirely sure, if this old hole here is from a tap of yester-year or if its from a yellow bellied sapsucker, or a woodpecker.  Either way, I must be careful not to install a new tap within 6 inches of it.  Its a good rule of thumb, and prevents too much ‘scar tissue’ from forming in any one place on the tree, resulting in a tree being ‘tapped out’.

So here, I’ve got a basket full of tapping supplies.  The heavy black line (same stuff you use on your well line) is the main line.  Our run here is rather simple,

since most of the trees we’re tapping are all in a row, on a hill (how convenient!).  We’re setting up the single main, with feeder lines running directly into the main.  For more trees or longer distances, we’d need to run branch lines, into which multiple feeders run,  into the mainline.  Our mainline terminates in one spot where a large food-grade plastic drum sits as the sap reservoir.

Before tapping day-trees are marked, measured and guide strings are in place.Here is our little sugarbush before tapping day.  Each tree was sized up in the fall-tagged as a sugar maple, measured and labelled as to how many taps the tree could support (this depends on the girth of the tree).  Many of our trees are one-tap trees; they are only large enough to support one.

Here’s my little helper again, holding the main line in place for me, while I straighten it out and cable tie it in place.

The line was ran up the the top of the hill and anchored on an ash tree.  Ash is a companion tree to maple, and they often grow together.  In our little sugar bush, we have White Ash, Red Oak and Sugar Maple as the dominant canopy trees.  Its true that we did thin a few of the ashes out to let a little more light in for the canopy, but we reserved the largest Ashes to create mast (seed) for the turkeys and deer to eat, for re-seeding and to maintain natural biodiversity in the forest.

Once the main line is installed, we then set about tapping the rest of the trees and connecting their feeds into the main through 5-way connectors.  All this stuff is kind of like playing really big lego in the woods!  Everything just snaps together and clickety-click, we’re collecting sap!

This is a nice shot of my ‘system’. The yellow flag marks the tree as a maple.  The one next to it is also a maple, but is not big enough to tap just yet.  The spile feeds in and connects to the mainline just down hill from the tree.

Sampling the drips while he waits for this line to be connected!

After all this tapping action, we ended up having to wait nearly 2 full weeks of cold weather before we got any significant running.

And when we did–I plum forgot to take a picture of us boiling off with the large evaporator pan graciously loaned out to us.  I did take a pic of our little finishing pan.

Once the sap has been reduced to a nearly done state, you remove it from the large pan, and ‘finish’ it in a smaller pan, where you can control the heat a little more.

We sugared the old fashioned way, in an open pan over a wood fed open pit fire.  Local stone holds up the pan.  The chimney is key, to direct as much smoke and ash away from the boiling sap as possible. I try to lean old scraps of sheet metal up against the pan, to keep the smoke inside the fire and direct it up the chimney.  Its pretty low-tech, and more labour intensive to keep the fire going well, but it works.  Remember, people have been doing this for thousands of years, even before we had metal pans and utensils.  One important thing I recommend is that if you try making syrup, to use a wood fire and a shallow pan.  I’ve seen a few people use turkey fryers and rocket stoves, soup pots….and it takes 12 or more hours and a lot of fuel.  You need an even flame and large surface area to evaporate effectively.

Filtering the sap before finishing

We double filter our syrup- we filter it once before it hits the finishing pan and then again, before bottling.  I find this key to making good old fashioned syrup the low-tech way, and still acheiving a quality product.

Our syrup has a nice reddish amber tint to it. The official grade is “Ontario Amber”.  I like amber syrup and feel it tastes more ‘maplely’ than the light syrup…but light syrup is apparently more desired by others…and worth a little more $$.  Light syrup comes from the beginning of the run, and as I mentioned, we inadvertently miss judged our timing (and had a

"Ontario Amber"

crummy March for maple!) missed it, and caught the end of the run, where the darker, amber syrup is made.

And there you have it!  I’d love to post a picture of the finished product, but for now, the rural internet is telling me that I cannot upload any more pictures and I’ve been painstakingly working on this post for THREE HOURS!!!

So lets just close by saying this; Should you happen to “Swing into” Severn Bridge this coming weekend….you might just find for sale a VERY limited quantity (as in bottles in the single digits!) of our finest Amber Maple Syrup, made the old fashioned way on the homestead right here at Severn Sunset Eco-Farm!


Hens for Sale!!

3 Feb

These are some of the hens currently available through our Hen Share CSA.

Yes, these are all different hens, even though some of them look the same (they are sisters!).  The white/black ones are Columbian rock crosses, the black and gold ones are a strain called Harco and the solid reds are Road Island reds.

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We like to have a flock of several different breeds, as it helps us to better care for the hens.  By having different coloured hens, we can pick out individuals and track their care a little easier than if they all looked the same.

This is the same reason we use colour coded beaded anklets for identification, as opposed to the usual numbered leg bands.  The coloured beads mean that we can pick out certain birds from the flock, observe them, catch them for a checkup or monitor egg production very simply, without having to catch 5 birds and chase (read stress out) the whole flock around just to figure out who we’re looking for.  Or to put that simply, we can identifiy individuals at a distance without having to catch them and look closely at tiny numbers.

Each bird has a letter code, consisting of 2 parts.  The breed designation and the colour beads.  Lets take RIR-OPO for example.  Her breed designation is RIR, representing Road Island Red. Her beaded colour designation is OPO, representing Orange-Pink-Orange.  Lately, I’ve been calling her Opo, she’s a little bit of a chatterbox and likes to hop in the feed pail at supper time.

Anyone signing up for membership with the Hen Share gets to choose their own hens.  For the most part, its just a matter of personal preference for looks, or who is available…but you may want to choose a particular breed if:

you or your kids are planning to enter your hens in the local fair

|Yep, we can arrange to help a limited number of interested members do this, and we would really like to encourage anyone with kids to try this out.  Being involved with the local agricultural fair is a key part of rural communities and goes a long way to helping sustain local agriculture and food networks by bringing farmers and community members together.  Its also a really great way for kids to learn about agriculture, and perhaps see an aspect of their community they’d never looked at before.

Categories listed at the fairs usually contain Road Island Reds (and a slew of others!) but not the Columbian Rock crosses or Harcos.

If you’re hoping for a meaty soup pot at the end of laying season

The Columbian Rock crosses are without a doubt the heaviest and meatiest of the varieties available to the Hen Share at this time.  At 2 years of age, when the hens are considered spent, I can’t say that they’d make a meal as tasty as our grass fed poultry,  but they’d certainly make for a meaty soup.  That isn’t to say that the others wouldn’t….these girls would just average another pound or more of meat per bird than the Harcos or Road Islands.


I’m grasping for some special reason to add why you’d choose a Harco over another variety…..and I just don’t know.  They are really great layers, healthy, cold hardy, intelligent and nice to look at, and as chicks are absolutely adorable.  I have no real complaints about them in any way. Indeed Harcos make up the bulk of the flock here.

Perhaps I’m a little prejudice against them as they’re a cross bred variety. I have a soft spot for heritage breeds (which Harcos are not), and feel that they have an important place on the modern homestead, as they have through the years.  We had actually ordered Plymouth Barred Rocks and the hatchery was unable to fill our order, so the Harcos were subbed in.

They do have an interesting gold lacing pattern on their chest feathers which is nice- Sage (my son) often says that they’re wearing necklaces!

I guess what I should say, is that there’s no reason to not choose a Harco as your Hen Share hen!

Hen Share CSA at Severn Sunset Eco-Farm

3 Feb

A CS What?

To Kick off the new year (ya, we do that in February!) we’ve decided to incorporate a Hen Share CSA into our farming vision.  In a nutshell, CSA stands for community supported agriculture, or community shared agriculture.

The classic model would be that of the market garden vegetable CSA, where the members pay a set fee, up front at the start of the season.  The farmer uses the up front fees to cover up front costs of seeds, equipment, spring time greenhouse heat bills, labour at time of planting ect.  The membership then receives a box of vegetables each for a set number of weeks during the season.  The membership and the farmer share in both bountiful bumper crops and in shortages during droughts.  It usually balances out at the end, since when one item does well, others faulter, depending on the season.

This all leads to sustaining viable local economies, through the money staying in the community, healthy local, high quality, fresh food, and greater customer appreciation for how food is produced.

Its all very happy and fuzzy really, and CSA members are usually delighted by little ‘suprises’ tucked into their boxes from time to time.

With the onslaught of the local food movement, CSA co-operatives began popping up all over the country, and it is now common for CSAs to be set up for all kinds of farm products, including meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables, berries, flowers, herbs, and of course eggs!

So the Hen Share CSA at Severn Sunset Eco-Farm is born!

We’re now accepting memberships for our Hen Share CSA in Bracebridge and Orillia!!

Enjoy wholesome, fresh Grass-Fed Organic eggs

from your own Free Ranging Hens, without all the work!

The Hen Share CSA at Severn Sunset gives you the opportunity to do just that.  You own the hens, and pay a monthly boarding fee. We feed them, care for them, house them, and turn them out onto our fresh green pastures to graze every day.  In turn, the hens provide wholesome, Free Range Organic eggs, which you enjoy at no additional fee.

How does the CSA operate?

You will be billed your boarding fees on a bi-weekly basis.

Board fees for one hen will be billed at a rate of $2.75 per week.   You will be entitled to the eggs from your hen so long as your account is current.  You may choose to obtain your eggs weekly, or bi-weekly depending on what works best for your family.

How are hens cared for on Severn Sunset Eco-Farm?

At Severn Sunset, we aim to produce the best food possible and we

do this by providing what we feel to be the best possible care for our charges.  We feel that chickens are entitled to a safe, weather and predator proof house, un-crowded space to roam, daily access to fresh pasture (in season), the company of others of their kind, clean dry bedding, fresh clean water and Ontario produced certified organic feed.

We NEVER use any steroids or antibiotics, GMO feeds, pesticides or herbicides.

Hens in our care are kept in a natural sized flock group of roughly 60 birds.  The hens are free to roam, feed, drink, dust bathe, nest and perch at their will.  In the winter they are housed in a secure coop, which is both insulated and ventilated.  They have access to a roofed and fenced outdoo

r run, which is sheltered from the wind, and shoveled out from snow.  They are bedded in clean dry straw for warmth and hygeine, water is kept from freezing using electric water heaters, and the indoor coop temperature is maintained to keep the chickens comfortable.  Eggs are collected from the nest boxes multiple times per day, cleaned and boxed ensuring that all eggs collected get into the fridge in a timely manner.

In summer, we allow the hens to freely range and graze on fresh pasture all day.  This year we aim to move to a portable pasture model hen house, where the hens will live in a lighter, airier summer home, surrounded by a large electric safety fence to keep out predators, and allow grazing w

ithin the large fenced area.  In this model the house is moved weekly to ensu

re adequate pasture rotation, access to fresh forage and clean ground underfoot.

How do I sign up?

To become a Hen Share CSA member, you must pay an annual, non-transferable membership fee of $2.00.  This helps to cover some of the membership administrative costs, such as labour, paper, and legwork.  Your membership fee is renewed annually, a process which helps us keep up with the membership, and keep our filing system current.

Once you are a Hen Share CSA member, you are then able to purchase hens available for the CSA at a rate of $5 per hen.  You may purchase as few or as many as you require to meet your family’s egg consumption needs. Hens lay six eggs per week.  If your family requires one dozen eggs per week, then you would need to own two hens to fill your need.

All CSA hens are identified by a colour coded ankle bracelet.  When you purchase your hens, you will receive a picture of your hens, and information including their date of hatch, breed and colour.  If you’d like, you may name your hens.  You are welcome to come to the farm and visit your hens, see their surroundings, and see how they are getting on

Thank you so much for your interest in the Hen Share CSA at Severn Sunset Eco-Farm!  Please contact us at any time for any questions, further information and to join!

*We’re currently accepting memberships in Orillia and Bracebridge*

Severn Sunset Eco-Farm

Heather and Andrew Johnson


Chicken Processing (not for the light hearted!)

25 Jan

We knew our chickens were grown, when they reached that 15 week age mark. Their meaty breasts fully covered their chests, and their large thighs look, well like I could envision them roasting on the BBQ.

*Most* small farmers in Ontario, including those whom are only raising meat for their own family, take their chickens into an abbatoir for ‘custom processing’, where the birds are stunned, killed, cleaned, soaked and wrapped up in plastic- then you pick them up and take them home. Sounds easy right? Wrong.

I’m not really sure of the definitive answer as to why, or feel that I’m at liberty to say why I feel that it has happened…but our govt has been one by one, closing down these small rural abbatoirs which process birds for small farmers. That means they are few and far between.

Now I know, that in the future, if we want to sell any chicken at ALL, it absolutely has to be prepared at an abbatoir, and receive its official stamp.

But for our purposes, we were once again inspired by (my hero and soon to be yours) Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. In his writings, he encourages folks like us who are producing grass fed organic poultry to do the processing themselves.

Why? Better humanity, happier animals, less suffrage, less cost, and if those things don’t convince you, bottom line is- Better product.

Instead of chasing and catching all our birds, packing them into a shipping crate (chickens must be packed snug and safe for travel or they ‘bounce’ around and get injured) driving them in a vehicle for an hour or two or more, unloading them to sit and wait ‘their turn’….

We opted to simply remove the birds from their restful position in the evening, gently turn them upside down into a ‘killing cone’, use a sharp knife, and the whole process is over very very quickly. This is commonly agreed upon as the most humane way to kill a chicken. One minute happy- next minute gone.

The resulting meat does not contain a large amount of lactic acid created by a stressed, suffering and struggling animal. This means higher quality meat.

Killing cone

Killing cone

Of course, I stress again, this group of chickens we slaughtered for our own consumption only. We made the cone from a piece of sheet metal and attached it to the barn door. You can buy stainless cones from the US, that are suited to a higher tech operation, as well as automatic scalders, and pickers which will allow you to do many many birds all at once-in many states farmers are allowed to process meat on their farm and not have to ship live animals in large numbers anywhere. So even though we support this ethic for our own consumption, and encourage other folks to raise and process their own meat, selling any meat processed on site is out of the question here.

After the ‘job’ is done (Andy’s job that is). I get to dunk the bird in near boiling water. This melts the fats around the feather follicles and makes for easy feather removal. We didn’t save any of the feathers, but in the future, perhaps I think I should save some from the hen meaties, as they are really fluffy soft feathers and could make a nice pillow. (grass-fed organic feather pillow?)

We used a canning pot on the BBQ for dunking

When cleaning your own birds outside, like anyone who hunts knows, the concept is that the fewer surfaces, the fewer place for bacteria to cling. Where you see me picking feathers from this bird, I am on a metal table which I sterilized prior to placing the bird on it. Since my work surface is surrounded by air and not walls, where things can cling, the likelihood of encountering any bacteria is greatly reduced, and I only had to sterilize one small surface. This also means since its a small surface, I can quickly clean it again and again, without taking too long to do so.

My first chicken picking.

The place you select to do your cleaning and killing should ideally be fresh grass which you haven’t been using for pasturing, and where your dog hasn’t been ‘frequenting’. A sunny day where the UV has been shining on it would also be ideal. Putting the cone on the barn door wasn’t ideal, but it was convenient and made things quick. Since the birds went in the hot water after, we were comfortable with that.

Here are our first two birds, processed and ready to go. And me, ready to take them out to a friend’s (Reed Curry), who had invited us for a harvest dinner.

First grass-fed chicken we raised and processed on our farm

Let's go to dinner!

Did I mention that friend is a Chef? Yep, that’s right-we’re extremely fortunate that our first taste of the grass-fed chicken we raised ourselves was prepared by a bonafide local foodie chef. How lucky is that? I must say though, there were many many dishes that were to DIE for at that dinner (The proscuitto and poached eggs served over micro greens, oh my!).

Now, I definately learned something the first time I cooked one of our chickens myself. It was a lot better the second time. Because this breed has denser meat, if you cook it like a white rock it ends up stringy. Low and slow is the key. And its the key for any grass-fed meat really, as you don’t want to destroy all the nutrient qualities with the cooking process. The NEXT time I cooked a chicken it was superb.

So slower to raise, slower to cook. Slow food in its essence.

And what do I mostly think about the processing? I think that we became a lot more connected to our food, to the way that we treat our animals, and even though it was difficult to do (if you enjoy slaughtering, its probably not mentally healthy for you to be doing it),we did it, as we felt it was the very best we could do for our animals, for our health, for our family. We started with these animals from day old, and tended them carefully each and every day, saw them right through until the end…and say…guess what we had for dinner tonight?

Grass-Fed (pastured) organic chicken

24 Jan

_____________Enter The Heavy Dual Red Meat Chicks______________

If you read my last post, you might remember that when we brought on our first batch of chicks, half of them were what I described as ‘meat birds’.

Before we made the move to Muskoka at the end of May, we had hemmed and hawed over whether or not we should take on the task of raising a flock of chickens for the freezer, since we had so much going on with the renovations in the house. We needed to place our hatchery order many weeks in advance, and not knowing how things were going to go…it was a hard choice to make.

Many times, especially in the first few weeks, and when the larger feed bills came in as the birds grew, we would have some regret. But the learning experience has been incredible, and I know now that we are confident in our abilities to raise up several hundred this year.

Meaties at 2 days. The yellow are males, the red females.

The usual breed of meat poultry in Canada and the USA is commonly called “White Rock”. They’re actually a cross between two breeds-white rock and cornish. In the US they call them cornish cross.

The common white rock breed grows fast. Insanely fast. Commercial broiler growers who produce ‘factory farmed’ white rocks (the chicken commonly available in grocery stores and restuarants) in large, crowded (by my standards) chicken barns raise them in batches of 6-8 week turnovers. Currently this produces a carcass weight of nearly 7 lbs in that time.

According to Frey’s Hatchery (Ontario’s primary supplier of chicks to the small farmer) the average weight of these birds at 7 weeks over the years is as follows: 1957-2 lbs, 1986-4.5 lbs, 1999 6.3 lbs. These little fellas have been bred and bred and bred to produce birds which grow so fast that their internal organs cannot keep up with them. Heart attacks (also known as flip over disease) and death from heat exhaustion (at normal summer temps which ordinary chickens are fine with) are normal. Anyone who farms these birds expects a certain amount of loss at the chick stage and a certain amount of loss at the 5-8 week stage as well. What bothers me most about these birds is that they don’t feather out very well, and I feel that they cannot protect themselves from temperature variations, sunlight and pests as well as a feathered bird can. Its very un-natural the way they grow. I feel that they have been bred to too much an extreme. They don’t walk around as much as regular chickens, and I’ve heard them described as ‘having no will to live’. Doesn’t seem like a good thing to me.

Why do people still grow these birds?? Because we are accustomed to a soft, fatty, mild tasting chicken which doesn’t require much skill to cook.

We went a different route, and opted for a variety known as a heavy dual purpose red. These birds take 15 weeks to become table size. They also have a firmer, meatier flesh, with a richer flavour. They are also hardier, healthier and more active. According to grass fed poultry expert (and my personal hero) Joel Salatin, the longer an animal takes in healthy nutrients and pasture (read, older animal) the more nutrients that are available in its meat. So by raising this slower maturing breed, and raising them on pasture we are producing meat for our family which is not only more filling, but healthier, and like all grass fed animal products, richer in Omega fatty acids.

Dual purpose at 1 week of age

Meaties at 1 week of age

We're gonna fly the coop! Perhaps they're wanting to get on that pasture already!

We started our day old meaties out in the brooder under heat lamps, the same way most chicks get their start in life. We fed them certified organic chick starter, and used natural sand as a grit. You can get a commercial chick grit, and all the grits are an even size. Giving them sand with various sized grains gives them different options, which I think they seem to intuitively know what they need to grind their food.

In order to prepare them for their future as a grazing chicken, when they were 3 days old, we began to add a little chopped timothy grass sprinkled on top of their feed. They relished it! Another thing they relished were mosquitoes. The bugs would fly into the light from the heat lamps at night, and the chicks would crane their necks, jump into the air and catch them! With all the mosquitoes here in Muskoka I was starting to wonder if we our chickens would be grass-fed or mosquito fed!?!? Either way, I figured they were in for some good eats.

____________________The Chicken Tractor______________________

It was 9 years ago-I think even to this month (that was January 2002) that I first heard the fabulous phrase “Chicken Tractor”.

It was Dr. Anne Clark, professor of the first organic agriculture class in Canada (yep I was a student in that class) who stood at the front of the room and began the lecture with a copy of Joel Salatin’s (my hero, remember?) Pastured Poultry Profits movie in her hand. She wrote the words “Chicken Tractor” and “Egg Mobile” on her board (I can barely remember if it was a white board or a large pad of chart paper).

She started by saying “this is really important”. I envisioned a chicken sitting on the seat of an old red Massey Ferguson, and another chicken driving some sort of egg shaped car-like something out of a Richard Scarry kids book. And the information that I learned in her next two lectures and by watching her movie- have now had a profound impact on my direction in life- these things led me to have an interest in intensive pasture management through rotational grazing.

Now, don’t be scared off by the word ‘intensive’ as its actually a very ecologically light form of agriculture. The intensive part is through the way the grazing occurs- the animals are kept on a smaller than usual piece of pasture for a short period of time where they graze it right down- and then they’re taken off and moved on to a new piece. (ordinarily animals are kept on a large pasture only moved 3 or 4 times a season, if that)

The first piece of pasture is rested, and given time to regenerate wholly. Grazing it right down encourages the new growth and the resting period allows regrowth undisturbed by additional grazing. This lets the plants send out runners and go to seed and results in a healthier lusher pasture. The sun zaps the manure with UV and sterilizes it, and any potential parasites. The animals move onto new fresh clean ground, and have new fresh food to eat.

You continually cycle the animals and pasture around and eventually come full circle. Depending on what your pasture size, and regeneration rate is, this might take anywhere from 1 month to several years.

Its a beautiful system really.

And with chickens this is accomplished through the chicken tractor.

Our first Chicken Tractor in action

The chicken tractor is a large portable pen, which is predator proof, provides protection from the elements, allows for ample air circulation and has an open bottom to allow for grazing.

The usual size measures 10 x 12 ft and 2 ft high. There are many different types, sizes and styles of chicken tractor, and they can vary somewhat from farm to farm and region to region

Since we knew that the design created by and popularized by modern alternative agronomy guru Joel Salatin of Polyface farms(remember, he’s my hero) was functional, sturdy yet light enough to facilitate ease of use, and had been proven through years of usage, we decided to pretty much re-create his design as precisely as we could.

It all seems so simple, and indeed in its design it is- but it was through MUCH trial and error primarily by Salatin and mistakes repeated by many of his followers that some of the concepts came about. For instance, metal roofing material is used on the sides and top. Some folks have used less expensive and lighter plastics, unfortunately the result can be elevated temperatures under the roof and a ‘greenhouse effect’ as the plastic does not reflect the sun as the metal does. Some folks built their too heavy, and it was too difficult to move, so it didn’t get moved much. Some folks built theirs with a light plastic framework, or a peaked roof that caught the breeze, and it blew away. Some folks used poultry netting (chicken wire) in an area with high predator pressure and get high losses of birds to predation.

Some of the things we did slightly different than Salatin was to make the entire roof removable. This made it easy to service the birds in the rain and access all parts of the pen- but it also made it a little heavier. We also used 1″ hardware cloth in the mesh spots as we have a high predator (raccoons, skunks, fishers, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, weasels, snakes, foxes, lynx) pressure in Muskoka. We also added a skirting of mesh all around the bottom, which we held down with boards. This added a little to the time it took to move and service the tractor each day- but we lost NO chickens at all.

Andy and cousin Pat building the chicken tractor

Building the Chicken Tractor with Cousin Pat

You can get a good idea of the size of the tractor in this picture, where for some reason, Andy’s cousin Pat is inside the tractor (grass-fed Pat?). There’s a goodly amount of room inside.

Grass-fed Pat?

We installed an automatic watering bell hanging inside the tractor, fed by a bucket placed on top. Salatin does this as well, and it has several advantages. The water stays cleaner, as the chickens (which are determined to foul their water) are not able to get their petit derrieres into the bell, as it swings if they hip check into it. We also are able to clean it quickly and easily, it rides on the top when we move the tractor, and its fast to add more water into the reservoir.

Sage and cousin Pat load the 3 week old meaties into their new home

Generally speaking the chores went like this- 8:00 am, take lids off, remove feed trough, insert dolly under backside, move tractor forwards, replace trough, feed chickens, wipe waterer, water chickens. 3 pm add extra water on hot days. 8-9 pm feed chickens. The late night feed is actually eaten at 5 am.

The chickens were happy, active and bright. They caught on right away what the routine was, and were excited to be moving onto fresh pasture each day. Then they started flying. Salatin you see, raises only white rocks, as they supply customer demand. White rocks, are slow, lazy, rotund little guys that (as I said before) have little will to live, or wander far from their feeders.

Our meaties however started flying out when the lids where opened. Then they would quickly return to the safety and comfort of the tractor, but be unable to get back in. So we learned how to round them up….its quite a sight if you ever get to see farmer Andy out there in the morning coralling his chickens back to their pen calling ‘come on chicken, come on’. The high school kids got quite a rise outta that I’m sure, as their bus went by.

Which reminds me- people seem to love the chicken tractor. I can’t tell you how many times people out walking (we live in cottage country, remember!) would stop to look at the chickens, and cluck to them, or make cock-a-doodle sounds, until they saw someone watching that is!!

Grown out meaties

That pic is the meaties all grown out- the cocks crowd to the front to see you when you get near. And that pretty much sums up how we intend to raise any other chickens in the future.

We’d like to do more of this variety, as we feel they are a more viable and healthy breed, and live a better life due to this. However we may go ahead and try white rocks in a tractor, due to customer acceptance of that bird. We’ll have to see how it goes on that end.


23 Jan

Our first group of baby chicks arrived June 29. They were a dozen specialty chicks, Ameraucanas (which lay blue eggs) and Cuckoo Marans (which lay dark eggs the colour of chocolate). A week later we picked up our first BIG batch of chicks. 43 egg laying chicks and 50 meat producing chicks.

We did extremely well with the chicks-most folks quote a 10% mortality rate due to how delicate they are. We lost only one- and it was sadly one of the specialty ameraucanas. That particular one seemed a little ‘soft’ in the body- she/he died on day 3. Of the large group we lost NONE!!! Some people say it was beginner’s luck–I think its because we chose a healthy, sturdy varieties and paid a lot of attention to them. The major heat wave certainly helped keep those chicks warm all day too!

Me and my specialty chicks! That's Fluffy, the yellow chick in front.

These chicks were SO adorable, and the weather so nice we had a lot of photo ops!

Andy and chick

Everyone poses with the chicks! Andy with a Harco Black Sex Link

Out walking

Getting her feet steady on the Muskoka landscape

In the brooder

The brooder I built worked really well!!

I enjoy so much that with the farming lifestyle has come a lot more opportunity for our son Sage to be around animals. With supervision of course, I feel that animals can provide children with so many learning experiences, especially the importance of being gentle, respecting life, nurturing, responsibility, and of course about the cycle of life.

Sage gently holds a young chick

Heritage Breed Hens arrive on the Farm

23 Jan

Once we had begun to settle onto our new farm, it was time to bring home our hens. While we sold our old house and moved, our friends the Cassels-Illing family cared for our 12 heritage breed laying hens. Our good old girls were former urbanites, living in the backyard of our ‘suburban farm’. Moving to the country was a pleasure for them, as they had never been able to range on pasture before (they had a large outdoor pen, but hens cannot be turned loose in the city!). The deal was that we he helped our friends to build a coop, and then they got to keep half of the chooks.

Here’s Andy with our 6 good old girls shortly after they arrived.

Andy with his girls-Snowflake & Copper(speckled sussex) Dominique(dominique),Big Buffy (buff orpington), Winnie (Wyandotte), Vera (barnevelder)

After a couple days of ranging on the new pasture, our girls settled in and gave us these!

Our first day of eggs on Severn Sunset Eco-Farm!

For 2 months, we had been eating local and fresh eggs, from hens fed conventional feed and kept in confinement. They weren’t the eggs we were used to. Of course that day we had an ‘egg off’. Here is 3 of the ‘contestant’ eggs in our frying pan on our hot plate. Can you guess which is from our hens?? (HINT: Grazing and organic feed make for healthy eggs rich in Omega 3s and B vitamins)

Its an Egg-Off!

Here is the woodshed that we converted into a chicken coop. You can see the roofed area of the winter run that we had started to frame in off the back. Its really solid, with a concrete floor so nothing will dig into it, quite predator safe.

The woodshed we converted to chicken coop.

Here’s the inside of the Shed before much construction begins. I had already sealed the floor and began to put vapour barrier plastic over the drywall. This is to try to protect the drywall, should we ever ‘reclaim’ the building for a non-agricultural purpose.

Chicken coop before interior construction

These are some paintings that Margot, the last owner (prior to the skateboarders) to farm here had painted on the wall. I covered them, but didn’t ruin them in any way. The one of the log cabin is still visible. I wondered, was this how she envisioned the first folks who farmed here? There are even chickens pecking in the yard. The one of the horses has a lot of detail of the tack and gear used. Upon eventually meeting Margot (she’s really nice) I learned that she is quite the horse woman.

The entire coop building is 10 x 13. I built in a double small pen area of 5×4, which can be used for brooding (raising under heat lamps) chicks or housing a small group of hens. The lower pen opens onto the outdoor run, so it can be fenced off separately for breeding, or introducing a new group to the main flock.

The main area is 10×8 ft. I built the perches up high with a droppings board underneath them. Hens do most of their pooping while they are roosted at night. I keep sand on the board and clean it out like a litter box once a week. This really helps keep the moisture down in the coop. Below, There is dry straw, in a deep litter system. Having the droppings board also means that poop won’t ‘rain down’ on the feed and water containers and it maximizes the use of the floor space. 80 sq feet is enough for 80 hens, to use as a sleeping space. We have about 60 hens right now, and I feel that’s a better sq ft ratio for sleeping than 80. The run is more than triple the coop size; but mostly, (when there is not deep snow!) the hens range wherever they please.

Building in the nest boxes


Panelling the chick brooderThe Good ol' girls in the coop for the night on ther first day hereSnowflake's egg-VERY first on the farm!