Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chestnut fed beef?

A comment from the previous post- my answer started getting long, and it dawned on me it would work best as a post-

"Hello, my name is Elinor. I am a farmer from MN and today I read this article.

"This story fascinated me! I wanted to learn more about chesnuts and see if there were any growers in Minnesota.

"What do you folks do with leftover chesnuts?

Hello Elinor, and welcome. Many thanks for the link to the chestnut fed beef story, we'd missed that. After googling it, I can see why; as far as I can tell there's only one farm selling it right now- and they're in Australia.

The farm in Florida is just feeling their way into it. Reading as much as I could on the Titania Farm beef; they mention having to learn how to feed it to the cows, which concerns me slightly. The well known problem of cattle eating acorns is a major reason we have not tried it; while acorn poisoning in cattle is usually attributed to tannin related chemistry, I've also heard that if cattle eat too many acorns they can get gut blockages from the rather indigestible acorn "shells". Chestnuts have shells that are quite similar to acorn shells, and while the nuts themselves have virtually no tannins, the shells certainly do.

So- there may be a serious learning curve to it all- it would be good to go slow.

On the positive side- we have been feeding chestnuts to ruminants here, pretty much daily, over the past few months. Our Icelandic sheep came "trained to corn"- a common practice. Icelandics in particular don't usually need supplemental feed, but giving them a little corn at regular times keeps them trained to come to you, and the promise of the treat can be used to lead them, from one place to another. They're pretty good on rough feed- they eat Japanese honeysuckle, wild parsnip, and prickly ash- by preference, not just when the pasture is low. So I decided to try- just a little- chestnut in their diet, and see how it worked out.

At this point, I've replaced the corn entirely with chestnuts- in this case, very old, very sprouted chestnuts from cellar storage; and the sheep jump on them with exactly the same enthusiasm they do corn; it's candy to them, apparently. Still not feeding much, though; the equivalent of a 1/4 cup per animal per day; this is just for training. While we intend to eat lamb someday, that day is not in the next year; we're building the flock; so there's no push to fatten them. No signs of a bellyache anywhere, at least.

Those nuts in the cellar are our "leftover" nuts- a small supply we didn't get around to selling last season. We've also tried, a little, to work on chestnut fed pork, a much more common practice than feeding them to beef. The attempt did not last too long; primarily because of logistics. Picking up nuts, storing them, then feeding them to pigs - is just really expensive, from the human labor input aspect.

It will make far more sense to let the pigs pick up the chestnuts for themselves- someday. But the problems of containing pigs on pasture are not trivial of course, and again, we've been stymied there by a shortage of labor. It's on our list of things to try soon- but it also needs to be done in a fashion which does not damage the trees, and hogs are notorious for rototilling pastures. But- it was one of the reasons we got sheep- we intended to learn how to use moveable electric mesh fencing, with the pigs in the chestnuts very much in mind. We're getting used to moving the mesh fence, and it really is pretty easy. Pigs coming soon.

One thing that concerns me about the stories from Australia- I'd like to see the nuts they're feeding their cattle. My guess is that they are actually chestnuts; but that's not a given. Particularly when dealing with other dialects. In the UK, when a person says "it's a chestnut tree", about 95% of the time they mean it's what we would call a buckeye, or horse chestnut; genus Hippocastanum, not Castanea. What we call simply "chestnut", they call "sweet chestnut" or "Spanish chestnut" - never mind that chestnuts were brought to England by the Romans.

And in Australia, it's worse; it's not impossible they have a grove of Castanospermum, Moreton Bay Chestnut; which is in fact native to New South Wales, where that farm is located. The info on Moreton Bay Chestnut states that "The seeds are poisonous, but become edible when carefully prepared by pounding into flour, leaching with water, and roasting." But- lots of things can be fed to animals that would give us a tummy ache; I'm just not sure about this one. The fact that one of the chefs talking about the chestnut fed beef attributes some of the characteristics to the "oils" in the chestnuts, makes me wonder-

"Compared to wagyu, it's a little bit leaner and the marbling is not as pronounced. "It's slightly younger beef but the thing I noticed is the texture. It's got this quite buttery, silkiness to it which comes from the the oils in the chestnut," he said."

Chestnuts are unusual among nuts in that they are very low in oil, an almost negligible 5% or so dry weight. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Moreton Bay Chestnut, which is actually a member of the legume family, had more oil.

So- some of that doesn't quite add up. Which doesn't mean the beef isn't terrific. I think we should find out! But we do have a lot to learn, from harvest on through feeding.

Friday, October 7, 2011

More wind; more good press-

We have a new aspect to the chestnut harvest: the Armor Warning Flag is flying today.

If you have to be among the chestnut trees, for harvest or any other reason- you really better be wearing armor; head, face, shoulders, legs, feet and hands. The trees are throwing bombs, all over.

The high winds are not funny for us, at all; particularly combined with this record hot spell; it's making the chestnuts ripen all at once, drop fast, messily, with leaves and burrs hiding them, and subject to rapid drying (which is NOT good for chestnuts) from the wind and hot sun.

So, we're trying to pick up nuts working just on the north sides of the trees; away from their target areas, today. Can't afford to just not pick them up; we need them for all the reasons there are.

The good press bit: today, Oct. 7, the Rochester Post Bulletin is running two stories on neohybrid hazels, that are nicely complementary. Take a look- if you go on line, you'll need a subscription to see the entire article. Or- pick up a copy of the newspaper, if you're anywhere in the region here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Urgent harvest

The weather has been weird all year- and while it hasn't been urgent for the tree crops before; the heavy rains early, record heat later, record dry September, early frosts- all have been tolerated well; we're getting slammed now by - again, near record heat; and high winds.

The chestnuts in particular, ripen and drop rapidly when the temperature hits 80° in October. It always does, and is usually welcome, to get the crop in. Right now, though, we've got a string of 80° days; and a wind warning up for tomorrow.

That's not only going to have the trees throwing nuts far from the normal drop area; it's going to be ripping off leaves and burrs, making the harvest all the more tricky.

So- we're in "max" harvest mode; dark to dark. Not much time for anything else for the next few days.