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Posts Tagged ‘chicken house’

Sunday, March 11, 2012:

Spring is putting its nose through the climactic door with the full moon.  Today temperatures reached into the sixties, the sky was almost cloudless, and consequently all our winter-bleached faces and arms are wearing red, and stinging just a little. We prepared raised bed number two last week and put hoops over it, and tomorrow we’ll begin sowing spring lettuce and carrots. Baby Belle is due to calve this month, and some of the steers will go out to their summer pasture.  Already the south pasture is showing a mist of green, and the animals must be fenced off it to let the young grass get some height to it.

The Sow’s Ear came to us seventeen years ago today.

Some noises can wake you out of a sound sleep.  For a mother, one of these is the sound of a child beginning to retch.  This can rouse a woman from a sound sleep and materialize her with a bath towel in her hand in a room one floor and two closed doors away, in time to catch vomit from a child too sick to make it to the bathroom.  Every mother knows that while it is disgusting catching vomit in a towel, it is much more disgusting having to wash it out of bedsheets at two o’clock in the morning.  The ringing of a telephone can move a toddler to light speed, especially if he has previously been forbidden to answer the phone.  And for the farm wife, the squawking of a chicken in fear for its life can cause her to rocket from her warm sheets like a rising pheasant and sprint through a dark house vaulting furniture, bringing up barefoot in the snow against the back fence from which she has a more-or-less clear view of the chicken house.

Such was the event of last Friday night.

We straggled in in shifts Friday night, all tired and fuzzy-minded from the second day of pig butchering.  Little wonder S-4 and Mom, unofficial custodians of the chicken house, forgot to shut the poultry door.  It is an easy matter to close it, most nights, the small door being hinged at the top, and the hook and eye closure being released by pulling a handle and string which run up the back of the hill to the woodshed behind the house.  Fifteen steps from the back door, on the west side of the woodshed, and a quick yank results in the satisfying thump of the door closing.  It is a model of technology which is commensurate with its job.  But, as I say, Mom forgot about it.  We washed off the worst of the smells and stains, set all the alarm clocks in the house for an early hour, and fell into our beds and a sound sleep.

Four o’clock ack emma something goes off outside like all the Iroquois in the New World roasting a convention of Jesuits.  From vague pig-dreams of scraping sausage casings (find more on this uplifting subject under Pig Butchering) the farm wife passes instantaneously to a state of multiple awarenesses, of her unclosed chicken house door, of her neighbor the fox on the ridge of the south hill, that she is half-way down the basement stairs, and that, once she pulls the string and shuts the fox in the chicken house with the poultry, she is going to have to get a gun and go shoot the bloodthirsty canine.  Something she has often expressed, vehemently, a desire to do, but which would go better on a full stomach and a beer, not in pajamas and bare feet in half-an-inch of snow.

She reaches the fence in a state of adrenal shock and leans over the frosty honeysuckle.

The night is silent as the tomb and the chicken door is closed.  The full moon would reveal such in any case, but as it happens the timer for the chickens’ night light has gotten bumped and no one has bothered to set it right.  The sixty-watt bulb which is glowing through two layers of six-mil plastic sheeting on the windows also shines dimly through the hens’ door when it is open, and it is not open.  It is demurely, completely, and properly closed.  And, as I say, the night is without a sound.

What am I doing down here in my pajamas?

Already almost asleep again, the farm wife falls back into bed with some notion that the three tom cats who keep our rodent population in submission must have been testing their yowls again.  Darkness descends on body and mind, for about three minutes.  Then the Iroquois attack is renewed.

Not being taken so completely by surprise, this time the farm wife is able to assess the noise as coming not from the back of the house, but from the west side, and she investigates through a window.  The moonlight, as has already been observed, is at its best and brightest, and the front yard reveals two rat terriers in a state of some excitement.  Also more of the blood-chilling noises.  With a whispered command to the four-year old Sherlock who has joined her to go back to bed and be quiet, she takes the cold stairs for the second time.   The frosty gravel drive is like knives to bare feet.  The dogs want to play.  The noise has stopped again.  But, nattering up and down on the wrong side of the white picket fence in the moonlight is one adolescent Rhode Island Red, somnambulating.  And nothing to show what she is doing there.  She seems to be unharmed, and with a sleepy logic which will later evade me, I shove her into one of the dog houses on the porch, block it up with an abandoned sled, and go back to bed.  And, believe it or not, to sleep.  I confide my nocturnal adventures to S-3 when we meet over the milk bucket in the morning, and then forget about it.

He returns to the house twenty-five minutes later with the milk and the report that there are in the barnyard one dead RI Red, and one on the injured list.  Speculation is that the miniature horse Bridget, who is never happy if she is not annoying someone, must have knocked the chicken door shut in one of her forays into the poultry yard.  Fifteen of the layers have spent the night on the chicken house steps.  Some local predator, ‘possum being my favorite candidate since the corpse is undamaged, if an undamaged corpse is not an oxymoron, has made a raid on my birds.  The dead and wounded may not be the only casualties; other birds may be missing.  The chicken which I found sleepwalking on the parking area is still a puzzle; how, frightened from sleep in the middle of the night, did she move herself seventy horizontal and fifteen vertical  yards, not to mention at least three fences, to the north?

To those who know chickens, this implies both more decision and more resiliency of purpose than is commensurate with the chicken psyche.

The four hogs hung in at one-thousand seventy-three pounds, and were some twenty-two hours in the processing.  The hams and sides are brining, and the freezers bulge with pork.  We grilled chops for dinner to celebrate.

We spend our time in funny ways, but we eat really well.

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Monday, February 20:

   The moon is nearly dark, and day after tomorrow is Ash Wednesday.

Last Thursday the mild weather – forties – gave us an opportunity to clean out the chicken house.  Three inches of sawdust on the floor had frozen in the cold nights so that the hens could no longer stir the litter, and manure had caked on the surface.  Hens perching on top of the broody boxes left an inch of manure up there, too, and the nesting boxes needed new straw.  Pushing a wheelbarrow was a beastly chore, especially in four inches of thawed mud and uphill, but we hauled out the shovels and forks.  In the bottom nesting box a small hen was couched down in a circle of straw; her beady eye and quivering wattles reminded me of Mrs. Wallace, my fourth grade homeroom teacher, reprimanding whisperers around the SRA box.  Established in due course in one of the broody boxes, she immediately began making a nest, and accepted ten eggs without hesitation.  Today is day five of what appears to be consistent brooding of the eggs.

Eleven hours of daylight mean more eggs in the nests the last week or two.  From a tantalizing three or four a day in December, we are now achieving a not-to-be-despised twenty or so average per day.  Once we raised only Rhode Island Reds, heavy layers of large brown eggs; at the moment our flock has representatives of at least five breeds of chicken, including one Brown Leghorn, one Comet, maybe nine Speckled Sussex, and about a dozen Black Australorps, in addition to the Reds – and I may have missed one or two odd ones.  That’s what happens when you take in the orphaned and the homeless.  Livestock breeders frown upon such cavalier cross-breeding, but if the Sussex hen who is setting — now on eleven eggs — will hatch out some of them, I will feel one step closer to success, cross-breeds or no.  We would like to declare our independence from the hatcheries and their incubators.

This could be a success.

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Tuesday, December 13:

   In the Roman calender this day is the feast of Sta. Lucia, an early Christian martyr.  The young Franciscan priest who said mass at seven fifteen was vested in red, and we broke meditation to whisper anticipation of our morning cinnamon rolls, which turned into afternoon ones because the morning was so full.  Normal things, mostly:  laundry and dishes and the daily chore of lighting a fire under the big copper kettle outside and cooking ten gallons of swill for the pigs and chickens.  A trip to the recycle bins, a stop at the library, another to post Christmas cards, and it was almost eleven, and just time enough to roll out the dough, spread it with soft butter, cover that with a thick layer of brown sugar and cinnamon, roll it, slice it, and set it to rise, before the wolves were howling for their lunches. 

   In Europe there is a traditional sweet roll called, we believe, a luciakattern — ? – prepared for the breakfast of this day.  Twenty-some years ago we found a recipe for it, along with a description of the ceremony for its distribution, which includes girls with wreaths of lighted candles on their heads.  Having no girls at the time, we did not have to make up our minds whether to risk burning their hair off, and by the time we had daughters we had already come up with our own traditions.  We are not by nature adventurous about foreign foods, so it was easy to substitute cinnamon rolls for the luciakattern, and we keep the candles on the table, where we can enjoy them without risk to the girls’ coiffures.  Our traditions, festive though we find them, have to fit into the rhythm of seasonal work and the comfort zone of a mother who sees her children taking enough risks to life and limb in the course of our daily farm work without absolutely tempting fate.

   Demands of the university are beginning to wind down and the men were outside for several hours today making room in the big garage for two of the three deep freezers presently lodged in the basement.  Lumber and scrap metal were shifted down the hill, and equipment shoved around.  Electrical bills have been outrageous, and, always slow to respond to stimulous, we are, after hosting furnace/freezer duels in the basement every winter for twenty years, taking advantage of the low temperatures to help ice down the masses of beef and pork we are putting up.  The second of three steers is hanging in Barry’s barn, almost ready to cut and wrap, and if Nature can help freeze it, more power to Her.

   The buck S-4 brought down a week ago is now marinating in a witches’ brew of every spice and sauce in the kitchen, and will go into the dehydrator in small batches over the next few days.  We sorted the winter squash and pumpkins, sadly few because of last summer’s plague of squash bugs, and brought up one that was compromised to cook for dinner.  A single pumpkin, deceptively round and bright orange, was found to be in an advanced stage of decomposition, and the boys launched it off the back of the hill as a sort of wet pinata for the chickens’ pleasure.  Large-scale, long-term food storage requires regular quality checks to prevent spoilage from spreading. 

   The spring tank on the back of the barn is running at a good rate, and the floating thermometer reads just at forty degrees.  S-3 and 4 plumbed the new pig nipple through the back barn wall, only to find that the instructions for theuse of the three-foot length of pipe heater we bought to keep it from freezing warn against flexing the element or wrapping it around the pipe.  As the extension for the nipple is only eight inches long, this leaves us with almost two and a half feet of element we have to find something to do with.  We have had no experience with electric pipe heaters, but are pretty sure that if we don’t use one on the galvanized metal extender it will freeze.  We are also thinking of floating a stock tank de-icer in the spring tank if it looks like freezing in January or February.  The use of these gadgets will be worth the compromise with technology if they help keep running water in the pig pen for the bulk of the winter.

   The moon is past full, standing out brightly against a slate-blue early morning sky and setting two hours after sunrise when no one is looking any more.  At five o’clock this morning it poured over our frosted fields in a silver wash like snow.  Isabel steps painfully over the barnyard where the pocked mud is frozen hard as iron, and we could use a few inches of snow to cushion her footing.  The sliding manger, really just a roofed hay-rack on skis, is pushed around the pasture to ensure even distribution of waste hay and manure; it too will be much easier to move once we have a base layer of snow on the ground.  The hens don’t like snow, and put themselves to bed early in this cold weather; eggs are getting scarcer.  It’s about time to eliminate the remaining three-year-olds, and put up some canned chicken and broth for hot soup on cold days.

   Some chores are full of satisfaction.  The Rube Goldberg chicken house door closer — sixty foot of string through a series of staples and eyebolts, with a  wooden handle at the end on the woodshed — gives a most satisfying thump when you yank it.  This, we consider, is an appropriate application of technology.

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Friday, November 25:

  At long last we see the end of the spring project.  For the better part of a month it has absorbed our spare energy and time, what there was of it, and now at last it is about done.  The process of transforming a wet place on the side of the hill into a stream of running water flowing at the rate of four or five gallons a minute has been long and uncertain.  Deep ditches miles long had to be dug and tiled (“tile” here means perforated pipe, like in a french drain system).  The part most fraught with difficulties was the plumbing of intake and overflow and cleanout pipes into the settling tank and stock tank; as Shawn observed, when you cut holes in the bottom of a barrel, you just have to expect it to leak.  We will post a more detailed account of how the project was carried out when we get time, and we apologize in advance that we are not more committed to picture-taking, but we mostly forget until the interesting part is done.

   The long warm autumn is giving us time for a lot of cleanup work we don’t usually get done before snow flies.  The chicken house, built this summer and sided with clapboard, but not battened, got its cracks covered with batten boards and its windows covered with six mil plastic sheeting.  This, and the dry floor, should mean cozy chickens this winter, and I’m trying to forget for the moment that they need to be culled soon.  Culling chickens, around here, means we try to determine which hens are not laying, and can them.  Literally.  Old laying hens are butchered and put up in mason jars – perfect for making chicken enchiladas.

   The new woodshed – not to be confused with the old woodshed, still doing duty outside the basement door – is not only keeping next winter’s wood dry, but provides a roof to keep the weather off our rare luxury, an old but seaworthy pop-up trailer which has many times paid for itself in saved hotel bills when some of us have to travel.  The trailer has been stored previous winters in the lane in the woods by the creek, where the local squirrels were sure to find it sooner or later and maybe move in.  In the big new barn – it was a summer for construction, because of the sawmill we acquired last November – hay and feed and pigs will keep dry and warm.  Isabel and Baby Belle and the steers will probably lounge in the middle bays of the barn when the truck isn’t in the way, which will make a mess, but what is a barn for?  And the running water to the pigs will mean someone can keep his feet dryer when feeding them this winter.

   The gardens have actually been cleaned up, and two low tunnels and one high tunnel are protecting carrots and lettuce for our winter use.  The low tunnels are just six mil plastic over hoops of wire or PVC, and the high tunnel is plastic over stock panels, high enough for a person to walk into.  We made sandbags out of woven plastic feed sacks containing about ten pounds of sand, rolled like a jelly roll and tied in several places.  These are used to weigh the sides of the plastic sheeting on the low tunnels, and seem to do the job of holding it down very well.  To harvest the vegetables inside, we just move a sandbag, lift up the plastic, and reach in.  Since we seldom get as much as two feet of snow laying at a time, we think this won’t be too inconvenient.

   Today was warm and beautiful and we took the opportunity of the men being off work for Thanksgiving to backfill the ditches on the hill and move the potatoes into the cooler of the two root cellars.  In the one we call “the cave” some of them were already getting little sprouts, which we rubbed off as we sorted them.  Any that looked compromised we put in a bucket to cook for the pigs, but there was less than half a bucket of these.  We are going into the winter with about six hundred pounds of good potatoes, which should carry us well into next summer, without touching the potatoes set aside for seed.  Stored food gives one a feeling of security.

   On the frivolous side, we piled up all the scrap lumber and trash wood we had flung into the bonfire pit, and we are ready to bring in midwinter with a blaze big enough for the cops to see it in town.  We like their visits; they are an intelligent force, only stopping by to say hello in a disinterested way.  This year we hope they come while the doughnuts are still hot.

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Friday, October 21:

   Picking green beans in the cold they snap off crisply in your fingers like they do when they come out of the refrigerator.  I stopped before I got to the end of the first row, but I think I have enough to give to the TOR’s tomorrow when the boys serve for Bishop Zubik.  There must be about fifteen sisters living in the big house, so it takes a lot of green beans to go around.

   The weather has been overcast and drizzly for a couple of days now, and the cold has soaked into the bones of the house.  The fire we lit this morning had to be nursed through the day; whenever it was let to die to coals, the house cooled off too much.  Armloads of firewood have to be carried in from the woodshed out back and stacked in the iron-pipe woodrack in the basement to dry and warm before tomorrow morning when the fire will be relit.  One chunk is curly maple, shimmering under the basement’s incandescent bulb like tiger’s eye.

   All this wood was gathered, split, and stacked a year ago in a long rick at the bottom of the driveway, where now is the new woodshed the men built this summer.  When the new woodshed was undertaken, the cured firewood was brought up in the back of the pickup, and ferried around the house in wheelbarrows.  It has to go through three gates to the old woodshed out back, but then it will be only ten steps from the basement door, close for the morning’s fire.   Seven feet high and nine deep, and twenty-three feet from end to end, the old shed holds about a winter’s wood.  A full woodshed is like a wall between the family and the cold, each log stored heat to be released slowly; all except the occaisional chunk of curly maple which will instead be given to knife and sawblade.  On the rosary shelf in the living room is a bent wood box made of maple rescued from the woodpile; and another box, small, square, and carefully joined in dovetail, is in the study.  When opened, it plays Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, thinly.

   Early as we go down to move the cow’s paddock it is already getting to be dusk, because of the cloud cover and our position under the hills that close our valley the south and west.  We stop at the chicken house.  For fifteen years this was a simple shed-roofed structure of scrap materials, fourteen feet by twenty, soggy with mud in wet weather; this summer it was replaced with a warm, dry pole-barn, small but with sawdust litter on the wooden floor and ample roosts for the laying hens.  Pausing here we trip the string that unhooks the chicken door and allows it to swing closed.  The luxury of that string is still fresh on us, as it was last Tuesday when I was reminded at eleven o’clock at night that the hens hadn’t been shut up yet.  Dangling from the last post at the back of the bread oven shed, only twelve steps from the back door, is the wooden handle S-5 whittled for his creation.  A single tug against slight resistance, then a give, and the comforting thump of the hen door swinging down and wedging shut.  All the hens, and two arrogant roosters, are shut in for the night, away from the curiosity of fox and raccoon and ‘possum. 

   We shift the cow’s paddock daily to new grass, striving always to enclose with her in her corral of electrified twine just as much sward as she will make good use of in a day, no more.  Best results to be obtained if the cow will eat, step on, defecate on, or urinate on, every step of each paddock.  Grazing this way imitates the movement of large herds of wild ruminants.  Isabel is about as far from a herd of wild ruminants as you can imagine, but grazing her this way is having a remarkable effect of our five acre pasture.

   This hillside is about the worst land you can imagine for grazing anything, short of a Walmart parking lot.  It is steep and rocky.  Six years ago the previous owner had the hillside above it logged by people who were no doubt driven out of central America for their barbaric logging practices, and these people, in addition to leaving the woods an impenetrable tangle of lopped branches and wild grapevine, made concrete out of the clay and shale of the pasture.  When they left, the regrowth consisted largely of tough, hard-stemmed weed varieties unpalatable to livestock:  ironweed, ragweed, milkweed.  We grazed our animals there in spring and fall, when the growth was young and tender enough to interest them, but winter and summer we had to supplement with hay.

   Now, one year into our rotational grazing, the bare ground is almost completely covered, much of the growth being clover, timothy, and orchard grass.  We have not planted these varieties.  Joel Salatin discourages tilling and planting pasture in favor of allowing the native species to come into balance under the influence of rotational grazing; Gene Logsdon points out that in Ohio Dutch white clover will come without planting. Such has been the case here.  Some of the grass seed has been imported from our hay meadows via the hay we bring home every summer.  Fed out over the winter in our sliding manger, it passes through our animals and leaves seed spread over the pasture.

   Tonight S-5 and I only have to pull half the fiberglass posts and leapfrog over the lower half of Isabel’s fence.  We unhook the polywire and reel it up, then flip back the ratchet so the line will feed out, fasten it to a new section of fence, and stretch the new paddock.  With two people working, it takes about five minutes, including pulling the water tank down the necessary twenty-five feet so it will be included in the new paddock.  Moving paddock must be done every day, but every time the cow is rotated across the pature, the forage is being improved:  manure and urine are spread over the entire field, and the cow is grazing forage varieties evenly, not over grazing her favorite forages and leaving others to grow until the preferred varieties are crowded out.  How many things can you do in a day that you are absolutely sure are good for the world?  The man who rotates his cattle leaves the world a better place.

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