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Archive for the ‘setting hens’ Category

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.

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Tuesday, September 25:

The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold.  The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.

Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden.  Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence:  whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit.  The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small.  The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat.  They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.

The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers.  Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately.  The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning.  The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.

They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining.  We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped.  Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay.  These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they?  The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen.  If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers.  If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay.  So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.

We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.

There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately.  And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs.  And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.

We killed a snake by the pond today.  S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it.  I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead.  It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.

Moral:  if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.

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Wednesday, June 27:

Barely.

We are awake at seventeen minutes past midnight.

We are up keeping a close eye on a kiln we started at just before noon; we will probably be up until at least four in the morning.  When you are pushing something to 2,300 degrees you can’t just go to bed and forget about it.  This kiln has a lot of market pottery in it, and some bowls we made to pay our friend Dan of Windsong Farm for coming out and telling us how to set up the power to run the kiln, and we are anxious that the work should be a success.

No rain.  The pastures are going dormant, the cool-season grasses and warm season alike turning brown and ceasing to grow.  There are about six more paddocks we can make before we have to put the animals in the barnyard and give them hay, keeping them off the forage which their overgrazing would set back.  They will not like to be shut up, even as poor as the forage is at present, but taking care of our pasture now will mean the best chance for it to make up when the rain does come.  The second cutting hay in the meadows is coming on, and although it is still short its quality looks pretty good, so we still hope to have enough for winter without buying any in.

The two remaining pigs on milk are getting very large and will be ready to go to the butcher almost immediately.  This leaves us with a problem to solve:  we have to have a new set of piglets ready as soon as we truck these off, to utilize all our extra milk, buttermilk, and whey.  Our usual provider of feeder pigs will be at the farmers’ market tomorrow, and we will ask him if he has any young pigs coming on.  In addition, we are sending out letters of inquiry to all heritage pig breeders we can locate within a couple-three hours of us.  The Tamworth breed looks like a good homestead pig, and we need a sow and a boar from different bloodlines.  This is liable to run into some money, even buying young animals, as we must. Still, the next step to food security, it seems to us, is to raise our own animals from birth.  The feeder piglets will go in the pen in the big barn, while the breeding stock can have its own quarters in the calf barn, to avoid any unnecessary sharing of germs among them.

The girls took four chicks from under the latest broody hen; a rat got two others, and one more had an incompletely-absorbed yolk sac and only lived a couple of days.  Some tears; mortality is a regular event on the farm, but always pathetic when it is small and fluffy.  Small people want to know if animals go to Heaven, and why God makes them if they don’t.  We hug the small person and assure him that since God is Love, and we love the animals, there must be in them something of God which is immortal.

Hope that’s not heresy, but to tell a child that his love is gone forever is to tell him the Universe is a place of hopeless sorrow.  Better to tell him of the love of God and straighten out fine points of theology when he is older . . . the perfectibility of Man is tied up with the fate of the Universe.

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