Posts Tagged ‘setting hens’

Wednesday, March 3:

For twenty-five minutes yesterday morning, while the sisters chanted an Easter alleluia and the sunrise warmed faintly the sandstone behind the altar at Our Lady of Sorrows, clouds of snow fell horizontally beneath a clear sky.  Our weather knows no limits.  Referral to our records of past years confirms our memory of warm March days and sunny Aprils, but such are not the offerings of Anno Domini twenty-thirteen in this little corner of the Beautiful valley.

Isabel, the down cow, is still getting up, but we fret to have her out with the animals in the big pasture.  Any question about the superiority of their fodder to our first- and second-cutting square bales is settled by one look at the conditions of the various animals.  The animals on pasture at the monastery hardly look as though they have come through a winter at all; they are solid , stocky animals with thick , fluffy coats.  The three lactating cows which have spent the winter on hay in the home pasture are craggy, scraggy old girls with accumulations of mud and manure on their legs despite the clean bedding we lay down for them.  We are serious in our intention to keep them all on stockpiled grass at the monastery this winter, if only we can work the kinks out of our portable milking house.

The patient Sussex hen who has laid a clutch of eggs in the corner of the wall by the greenhouse is impervious to all discomforts.  She has been there almost two weeks, with yet another week to go if she is to hatch those eggs.  The boys building the summer kitchen first noticed her from the vantage point of the loft of the new building; being wise to the ways of little girls they did not share their knowledge, but left the hen to her delusions of invisibility.  Cowboy, the blue-heeler pup (inelegantly known as “Squirt”), crashed through the English ivy one day and stumbled on her; but not even his shrill conversation was enough to drive her from her post.  When the little girls finally discovered her their too-zealous urge to make her comfortable by crowding in close and offering her food, water, pregnancy books and fruit coolers nearly gave her a disgust for the whole business, but the girls were persuaded in time that the Sussex was better equipped and informed than they for the hatching of hen’s eggs, and now they, and she, observe one another from a distance, and slant-wise.   We fervently wish her luck; it was with the hope of getting hens which could hatch their own eggs that we first bought the Sussex flock.

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Wednesday, June 27:


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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Saturday, March 3:

Isabel is in heat, proving, if we needed proof, that she is open – in cow talk, she is not carrying a calf.  This is bad news, but not unexpected, since she has given evidence of heat this winter twice already.  A cow which is not with calf will not freshen in the spring, and her milk production cannot be expected to stay high in the second year of her lactation.  This is less dire news than it might be.  Isabel is in a sense an invalid cow, one which would not have survived her own inanition without help, and knowing this we have a young cow in the wings to take her place.  Baby Belle, our stand-in, was bred to a sire which throws small offspring, which we hope is the reason she doesn’t look very fat.  Yes, for those who are wondering, we could palpate her to find out for sure if she is bred, but we can get the same information by being patient, and Baby is a little jumpy.  Anyone who starts groping around with an arm up to the shoulder in her interior might just be asking for a dislocated shoulder.

Another hen has been making a nest in the laying boxes, so we have put her in the suite under the first broody hen and given her a small trove to hoard.  Her clutch will not hatch for twenty-one days, but her sister upstairs will know the results of her labor at the end of the week.  We have small expectation of this first effort, since we did not candle the eggs we gave her, as we should have done after a week of incubation.  This omission is typical of our efforts; we are steady of application, but our attention to detail lacks something.  We began this life without training, as a pleasure and a defiance of the modern wisdom that it could not be done.  Now we believe in it as a fact of nature, the permanent substratum over which our national industrial and economic house of cards is built. When that blows a gasket, or comes down in a prevailing wind, the land and the animals will still be there, to bear a cooperative living to whomever is still there to steward it.

Fine snow is sifting down on the brown forest floor and on the choppy, muddy pasture where the cattle are wintering.  The walk we were about to take is postponed – indefinitely.  Friday, in contrast, was a clear grey, dark, bare hills humped like shrugged shoulders surrounding the stark architectural beauty of the steel mill.  When we came to the Beautiful river twenty years ago, the mills seemed to us tangles of rusty iron oozing toxicity.  Have they changed, or have we?  Jolting down route seven in our old American-made four-door with the brown hills overlooking us like tolerant giants, overlooking with the same tolerance the modern sculpture of the mills, we feel less inclined to judge.  On this day the mill appears quiescent, its mists blowing the other way, and the side toward the river blazoned with the name of a company headquartered in Germany.  When we have completed the list of our errands, combined and truncated to conserve fuel, we will come back up the river to park our rusty chariot on the farm’s gravel drive, and the quiet of the brown hills will close around us as it has closed over centuries of mankind in this valley.  Who are we to name the tenants of the hills?

White snow falling thickly carpeted the hills as I wrote; blizzarded, thinned, ceased.  Now the pale sun shines from a blue sky onto snow already melting.

Maybe we’ll take that walk after all.

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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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