Wednesday, October 3:
We are cleaning the gardens for winter and prepping the beds of cold-season spinach, lettuce, and carrots at the same time. Late beans entangled with butternut squash vines ramp across the middle of the garden and catch at our hoe and rake; bell pepper plants, always late bearers, huddle shiny and dark green at one end of a row we are planting to spinach. We will leave them there until either, 1) frost kills them, or 2) we get sick of freezing peppers. We can go on planting spinach all winter, so the space will not be wasted. The zinnias bordering the center path in the big garden are still blooming, but their hot bright summer colors have been frost-burned to the muted shades of ‘seventies décor.
We are watching Baby this week for signs of heat; it has been three weeks since she showed her fertile state by mooing – once – and escaping the morning milker to race up and down the lane, hiding first in the Park by North creek, then in the pine grove along Jeddo’s run. Pursued by one red-faced, fuming six-foot son, recaptured, and restored to her paddock, she remained restless all morning, pacing the long fence of polywire and rubbing on everyone who came near her. We called the COBA technician who lives in the neighboring town but he was two counties away at a cattle show, and we knew we would miss that heat. We do not mean to miss this one if we can help it and we called Drew, the A.I. guy, to give him advance warning that This Is The Week. We hope.
Chickens in every possible state of maturity are everywhere right now, and their requirements would be wearying to the little girls if they had any idea that weariness was an option. As it is, it isn’t. There are three flocks combined in the hen house: the three-year-old Rhode Island Reds whose reckoning day is coming; the fall flock from last year, which replaced the thirty-five spring pullets the fox took away; and the five or six young chickens hatched in July in the white barn by a motherly Sussex hen. These birds receive crumbles and cracked corn in the morning, milk and swill at noon, and are laying abysmally. Some are deep in moult; others are old and spent, ready to furnish the main ingredient of a pot pie. A few succeed in evading the little girls and laying in some hidden corner of a barn loft, where they hope to keep their eggs and hatch them themselves like Jemima Puddleduck.
Then there are the broilers, more than a hundred of them, fat and draggled, their pink skin showing through the white feathers because they grow so fast their plumage cannot keep up. These birds are bred for weight gain and large breast size, are fed a commercial non-medicated crumble and will be butchered around eight weeks; by ten weeks they begin to die of heart failure, their bulk increasing faster than their internal organs can keep up. We raise broilers in sliding cages, moving them onto fresh grass daily. We enforce a regimen of exercise, putting their feed at one end of the pen and water at the other so that they have to move around a little if they want to live.
In the small brooder by the hen house nine barn-hatched chickens wait to be introduced to the barnyard flock. With them and dwarfing them is the young turkey we picked up at auction, a tom which has been kept all summer with whichever was the youngest flock at the time. There had been another turkey, a female, but she proved delicate and passed into the other world. The remaining turkey seems to have appointed himself bodyguard to all the young chickens on the farm, and he will get the run of the barnyard when this penultimate group of chicks does. And finally, the flock of replacement pullets is four and a half weeks old now, well-feathered, and acclimating to the barnyard in a sliding pen, or “tractor”, where it can see and be seen by the mature hens, but cannot be pecked and need not compete for feed with bigger more aggressive birds. These young birds will not be installed in the hen house until all the old Red slackers have been put up in the pantry for winter soups and pot pies. These last two flocks are fed a mixed-grain ration, but will graduate to cracked corn and swill when they move in with the older flocks.
And all the chickens on the farm get a significant percentage of their free-choice proteins from the fresh raw skim milk or buttermilk which comes to them daily care of Baby Belle and Isabel.