Managing Barn Cats

When we do tours of the farm I am always surprised how often the topic of barn cats comes up. Even though they seem to be a secondary aspect to a farm which primarily produces food, people seem to recognize the necessity and challenges of keeping cats around a farm.

Above (left-right): "Jonathan & Jonathan" (we can't tell them apart), "Booger" (for an unfortunate natural marking on his nose), and "Kelly" the black tortoise shell. Our daughter, Liliana, names all the animals on the farm. You' would have to ask here how these names were derived.

Above (left-right): “Jonathan & Jonathan” (we can’t tell them apart), “Booger” (for an unfortunate natural marking on his nose), and “Kelly” the black tortoise shell. Our daughter, Liliana, names all the animals on the farm. You’d have to ask her how these names were derived.

First, let me begin with the “Why”. Why even keep cats on a farm? Our father has preached on this topic since we were kids. There is a sort of cosmic equilibrium between cats, snakes and mice/rats. If that equilibrium gets out of balance horrible outcomes will ensue. If you have a farm you certainly have grains and vegetables around which attract mice/rats (m/r). The m/r in turn attract snakes. Snakes are good, and even welcome on our farm, up and until the point where our children are naming the copperheads. So, we bring in the cats to reduce the m/r and thus reduce the snakes.

It all seems straight forward until you get one of these populations out of balance. We have looked up in the rafters of our barns in the past and literally seen 100’s of mice at night. We have over-reacted and found ourselves looking up in the rafters a few months later and seeing dozens and dozens of cats. I honestly cannot say that an over population of cats is any less sanitary than an over population of m/r.  I also speak from experience when I say a poorly managed population of cats can spiral out of control just about as fast as a population of m/r.

So, we have learned to live with cats…, and m/r…, and even snakes in small controlled populations. If all is in balance we have very few issues with m/r and we might find one snake per year in one of our barns, maybe even just one every couple of years.

This brings us to how we manage barn cats. We have tried to adopt stray or feral cats on numerous occasions. Our county even has a $10 barn cat adoption program. 100% of the barn cat “adoptions” we have tried ran away within days of release. As noble an idea as it is, we no longer do it. We simply don’t have the time to invest just to watch our investment run off into the woods never to be seen again. What has worked for us very well is to find weaned kittens (any variety will do) and bring them to the farm young. We keep them in a large crate for one week (in the barn) with water, food and litter, and a box with an old towel. We then move all those components to a location where we want them to stay and allow them begin exploring and making the farm their home.

At around 5-6 months of age we round up the cats and take them all to get fixed – hence the population control. Our county has a low-cost neuter/spay program for $35/cat. We pay an extra $5/cat for a pain medicine shot not only because it helps the cat cope, but equally it keeps the cat groggy, less stressed and easier to handle on the way home. We do not purchase cones of shame, no-lick sprays, monogrammed cat sweaters or catnip-stuffed mice toys – avoid the up-sells. Back to the farm and back to the large crate for a week with all the former items for some time to heal and not chase things around. After that they’re good to go – official barn cats!

If you don’t fix the cats they will breed like rabbits (I’m not too sure that saying shouldn’t have been “breed like cats”). Here’s what will happen; the females will find an obscure place to have their litter. Her kittens will be wild due to their lack of imprinting with people and it will be very difficult to catch them to get them fixed, and the cycle will start all over. The males will mostly run off looking for other females, except for the “new” males who will all of a sudden show up looking for your females. The remaining males will darn near kill each other competing over their territory. All that goes away if they are fixed. Calm, easy-going mousers with no drive to kill each other or run off somewhere.

We feed our cats only once a day and not too much. Fat, lazy cats are no use to us, they belong in window sills in the city. While we don’t expect them to live on m/r alone, we do expect them to work for their keep. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “if a man will not work he shall not eat.” We believe this verse should also apply to cats.

Jonathan and Booger enjoying their morning grub.

Jonathan and Booger enjoying their morning grub.

We keep a lot of chickens on the place and here is what we have discovered about combining cats and chickens. Cats should first be introduced to mature chickens, preferably a large, possessive rooster with a flock of hens. This fella will do more for training a barn cat about respecting chickens then you ever could. We have never had a barn cat mess with a mature chicken. Having said that, we do not let our cats near chicks, as they will make short work of them. Most chicken breeds around 6 weeks old (with some protection) seem to be fine – our cats rarely even give them a moment’s attention. We do employee electric net fences quite a bit in our operation so that is also a factor.

We are also careful to keep cats out of seedings and plant starts as well, as those will quickly become litter boxes and sunning beds. We once had a couple cats play for some hours in a germination chamber and destroyed half a season of tomato and pepper starts.

So, for better or worse cats are something we believe belongs on a farm. While they do not directly produce anything profitable, they are a key management tool in helping to keep some balance in the life of the farm …and our 6-year-old daughter loves them; probably more than they want to be loved most of the time.

If you have any thoughts or tips regarding barn cats we would live to hear about them. Just share your comment below or email us.

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Big Time! Cartermere has a Commercial

The guys at Bamboo Grove Creative came out to the farm a while back and did some filming with their new drone. We thought they were just going to practice capturing a bit footage from the air, but they surprised us with an awesome commercial. We have showed this to some friends and family and everyone has been absolutely impressed.

I can’t say enough about the professionalism and experience of the guys at Bamboo Grove Creative. I would highly recommend them if you are looking for any custom marketing media.

Thank you Anthony Anderson for the spectacular work. You’ve made us look like rock stars!

A Case for “Closed” Genetics in Yard Birds

From the onset of our layer operation we planned to implement a concept that Polyface Farms had employed with the genetics of their forage-based rabbits; line breeding, or “closed” genetics.

The concept is rather simple and straight forward… begin with a specific population of animals and do not allow any outside genetics to enter that population. The objective is to produce over multiple generations a farm-specific breed which is hearty, highly productive and carries particular strengths against the bacteria, parasites, diseases, climate and predation of the micro-environment that makes up our farm. It is an expensive experiment in that one has to allow nature to do her culling in order to find where those strengths lie within the population.

For our egg production we began with 225 birds (200 hens and 25 roosters). We purchased seven heritage breeds of chicken. We were looking for specific traits to impart within the flock, namely heat tolerance (after all our farm is in North Texas) and laying rates. We wanted breeds capable of producing 300 eggs a year. We chose: Rhode Island Red, Speckled Sussex, Black & Gold Sex Link, Buff Orphington, White Leghorn and Black Australorp. These represented the first generation of our egg layers, after which we closed the door to any new outside genetics.

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Hunter Carter with one of his “girls”.

Over the first 18 months we experienced the expected higher losses, losing close to 50% of our flock. Some of the loss was attributed to our learning curve and management practices. We have always had small backyard flocks, but there are plenty of new dynamics with a larger flock. We also lost some to predators, but this is also part of the process… one bird leaves the coop looking up while another leaves looking down. The hawks take advantage of this weakness. For the record, we do attempt to protect our flock from every predator we can, but nevertheless, this natural loss does serve to refine the flock and naturally reduces a population through attrition of weaknesses.

 

 

We are now on our third generation of birds. Our hatch rates are up to 85% and in our latest generation we have had a mortality rate of 0%. Albeit, the birds are only 2 weeks old, but they are proving to be hearty in every way. They were running within just a few days, sparring, flying and roosting on our lower nesting box roosts within a week. They have a vigor, strength and pep we have not seen in any of our previous generations.

In order to keep up with egg demand we have now consolidated all of our laying birds into a larger operation. This new operation is in essence a farm within our farm owned by Hunter Carter, affectionately dubbed “Hunter’s Huevos“. This operation will be able to grow up to 600 birds and supply Cartermere with 35-40 dozen eggs per day. The only genetic factor yet to be seen is our laying rates. We are currently at 57%, however this is not too bad for the heat of our summer months, and we currently have a number of pullets still beginning to lay so rates continue to tick up each day.

Through this process, in 10 years we hope to have a fairly standardized “mutt” layer which is a heavy producer and extremely hearty for our farm. We’ll provide an update in a couple of years on our progress.

On the Farm with the Chefs

Yesterday we were privileged to have a group of chefs and cooks out to the farm from CBD Provisions and the Joule Hotel Banquets. Everyone got their hands a little dirty with a number of chores.

After taking a short tour of the farm, we harvested mixed summer squash, zucchini and pickling cucumbers.

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Wyndom, a cook at CBD Provisions, showing off one of the coq au vin roosters prior to processing.

Everyone took part in our weekly chicken processing as well. From kill, to scalder and de-feathering, evisceration and washing. This activity was important for both the farm as well as the chefs and cooks, because Cartermere is currently supplying CBD Provisions with aged roosters for a special “coq au vin” dish. It’s important for the kitchen to know how the birds are prepared at the farm, as well for us at the farm to understand if there are any aspects in our processing that impact the end result at the restaurant.

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Executive Chef Matt Ford at the helm preparing lunch.

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CBD Provisions team prepping for lunch.

After the work was completed the chefs and cooks did what they do best. Everyone came together and prepared a wonderful lunch. We had grilled Cartermere grass-fed lamb, mixed potatoes and onions, sauteed summer squash and a spectacular cucumber and heirloom tomato salad.

We also open a few Cartermere Farms’ pickle jars to get the chef’s opinions on this year’s “vintage”, and finished the day with a round of homemade limoncello which we make here at the farm for friends and family.

All and all, a great day at the farm! This is why we love the restaurants with whom we work.

Thank you guys for coming out and experiencing what we do. It was a pleasure to get to know you all better.

 

Is it too late to plant rice?

I know as a farmer it must be breaking some cardinal rule to complain about rain, and at the risk of having this very post forwarded back to me in late August; I must say I am fed up with the endless torrential downpours we have experienced this Spring!

We have received 7″ of rain in the past four days and there is another 7″ forecasted during the next week or so. Year to date we have had 21″ of precipitation, which is approximately 60% of our total annual average – in only four months!

We try to look at the positive aspects of our farm – one huge one being our beautiful lake with abundant water for our crops and animals. After all, our lake is in our namesake: “Carter” & “Mere” (“lake”). Our name literally means Carter’s Lake. What can be a blessing can also become a curse on occasion…

Our lake has now flooded over half our vegetable plots. All our onions and potatoes are under water and much of our melons, squash, beans and okra have been washed away. We literally have wild geese and carp swimming throughout or vegetable plots and we can now navigate our boat into our high tunnels. The road to our property is underwater and the lake level has breached our first spillway. It’s a mess here!

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The rain has also begun to affect our livestock. Our sheep have now been confined to about half their normal pasture and the lush grass they were enjoying is now largely under water. While our layers don’t seem to mind the rains, it does just about ensure every egg will need to be hand washed in these muddy conditions. Our pastured meat birds even found themselves in a pickle, becoming stranded out on a point as the waters rose. We had to wade out and rescue them before their island submerged.

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It is yet to be seen how this will affect our summer crops. The onions and potatoes will likely only last a short time under water and it will probably take many days for the waters to recede, should we even get a break in the rains. The tomatoes are just inches away from being under water and they hate “wet feet”. Many of the other crops have been washed out. Looks like it’s going to be a difficult summer for our vegetable availability.

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Geese in our vegetable plots. The plots which are not yet under water have been washed out.

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Our pump house is now just a feature jutting out in the middle of the lake.

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Our onions could still bee seen peaking out of the water yesterday – they are now completely underwater.

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Mud boots aren’t much benefit in this much water.

Honey bee swarm season is upon us

Yesterday afternoon we were called by a neighbor who had a bee swarm in a tree near her house. We promptly headed over and captured the colony, and it got us to thinking this might be a good subject to address this time of year.

In the Spring as bee hives begin to swell with increasing numbers of workers in preparation for the nectar flow, often the accommodations becomes too crowded. A well managed apiary addresses this by offering the hive additional room or by splitting the hive into two independent colonies. Every now and then, however, the bees naturally split and the mature queen takes 50-65% of the hive with her to find a new home. This activity is called a “swarm”.

A swarm often looks like a miniature cloud of migrating birds ebbing and flowing low through the air in a big blob. Below is a picture of the swarm we caught yesterday beginning to consolidate into a cluster on the tree branch (left side of the tree). cartermerefarms_swarmcapture1They leave the old hive and normally take up temporary residence only a few 100 yards from their previous home. Here they cluster around the queen in a ball about the size of a football and begin sending out scouts to find a suitable new location to build their new hive. The cluster is normally only around for 24-72 hours before they all take off and head to their new permanent location.

This is when people often find bees in their attics, soffits, porch columns, etc. If you see bees clustered near your home it is best to call a bee keeper quickly; not only for the sake of the bees, but also the sake of your home. Bee swarms are very easy to remove, while established hives within your home can be expensive. Here at Cartermere, if a swarm is easily accessible we currently capture them at no cost because we want the bees. Some other bee keepers charge a modest amount to remove them ($50-$75). We strongly recommend not calling a traditional exterminator when you have a swarm in your yard. Call a bee keeper. They’ll be cheaper and they are interested in the welfare of the bees.

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Once we have prepped our woodware (hive box and accessories), we spray the cluster of bees with simple sugar water to calm them. While the hive box is held just below the cluster, we give the branch a quick jolt and the cluster falls into the box.

With the bees captured we begin replacing the remaining frames into the hive where the workers will start pulling their wax comb for the queen to lay her eggs and get the next generation of honey bees up and running.

After closing the hive we leave it below the tree until dark when all the scouts are back inside. We go back and pick up the hive at night and move it to one of the apiaries at the farm. When the girls awake in the morning they come out to find their new environment.

cartermerefarms_hiveIf you happen to find a cluster of bees in your yard in the NW Collin County area, please give us a call and we’ll do our best to promptly come and make them a part of Cartermere Farms.

 

Liliana feeding one of our bottle feeder lambs.

Liliana feeding one of our bottle feeder lambs.

Welcome to Cartermere Farms’ new blog!

We have launched this blog to establish a platform for articles and information of greater detail than what we typically post on Facebook or our main Website. In keeping with our commitment to transparent farming, we will post here our trials and successes, our plans and projects, our experiences and our discoveries. Our hopes are that others might benefit from our journey and that we may as well learn from those who peer into the goings on of Cartermere.

We will do our best to educate (through our mistakes as much as our accomplishments) and to that end we invite any information that rounds out or complements a post. Replies can be left here or we can be reached via phone or email.

We welcome you to follow us, to comment, to engage us. In the meantime, we’ll keep digging and growing.