Getting Ready for Sandy

October 29, 2012

L to R: Opie, Birch, Henry, Dorrie, Katika, Fee, Stewart, and Moxie

I spent the weekend preparing for the hurricane, getting in a hay delivery, filling water troughs, collecting and battening down loose items in the barnyard. I don’t expect major flooding issues here on the farm but am bracing for winds. My biggest concern is keeping all the animals safe, of course, and within fencing if the power goes out.

My problem is that I currently have too many animals to fit comfortably in the barn in a storm. I have two cows, a bull, a yearling heifer, three calves, a horse, seven chickens, two geese, sixteen sheep, and a cat.

In the photo above, I am feeding the large livestock hay on the stony crest of the cabin knoll paddock, to fertilize it. [Doubleclick to enlarge.]

I have sold six sheep, taken nine lambs and five pigs to the butcher, and made arrangements for ten more animals to leave in the next ten days. But that doesn’t help me now. So I am trying to be creative. The horse and cattle, poultry, and cat all fit in the barn. The sheep are now in the barn paddock, which I can power with a battery charger if I have to — but which I am not 100% confident is coyote-proof. I may use cattle panels to pen them at night under the run-in shed. If worst comes to worst, I will bring them into the barn aisle and lock the doors.

Like everyone else on the East coast, I’ll be glad when this storm is over.

Thoughts on Rye

September 7, 2011

Above is the front fender of the brush hog, covered with rye seed heads and loose kernels.

For some time I had wondered why my enormous back field, thick with rye, was not crowded like a New York City deli at lunch hour with wildlife eating the grain. Last summer deer (and my horses) jumped the fence repeatedly to demolish my much tinier plot of wheat. The deer did not seem interested in the rye. Did they not care for pumpernickel? Were they waiting for pastrami?

It was not until I was wading through the dense, waist-high stand that I began to get a clue. Ow! This stuff is really sharp and scratchy! When I looked closely at each seed head I realized that the kernels of grain were protected by long, stiff, painful needles.

Anything grazing on this might as well be munching on a porcupine.

The only exception I’ve seen are field mice and meadow voles. Hundreds of the tiny creatures, fat with rye, have scampered away from the roar of the brush hog. Perhaps my cutting has become a small part of the ecosystem, for on my last day of mowing I noticed a redtailed hawk circling hopefully overhead.

When you’re buying in grain, bag by expensive bag, it’s maddening to have a field full that only wild rodents will eat. Reading a memoir from 1910, I learned that in the past farm hens would scavenge fallen rye from around the shocks. I cut a bundle of rye and carried it back to the barn. My chickens trampled it underfoot in their rush to their familiar Blue Seal pellets. Oh well.

It occurred to me that rye might mostly be useful as livestock forage when it’s still young and green. However I have now read about ergot, a fungus to which rye is susceptible, that when ingested by animals (including humans) causes convulsions, hallucinations, mania, and black gangrene in the extremities. In the middle ages in Europe, ergot poisoning was believed to be a communicable disease and called St. Anthony’s Fire. The mania was the cause of many accusations of witchcraft, and ergot poisoning loosely associated with bubonic plague.

Perhaps I will skip the idea of feeding rye to anything.

However, on the plus side: I had wanted as much “litter mass” (growing stuff to chop and let rot as mulch) and as many roots in the impoverished soil as I could get — and in this the rye has been spectacularly successful. A single bale of straw costs $6 and I have an entire field of it!  Bales upon bales. Yes, the mowing is a serious commitment but I’ll get that done eventually.

Meanwhile the blades of the brush-hog have acted as a flail, shaking the ripe kernels loose from the needles and straw. In many places the ground is covered with seeds. Each day finds more crows, ravens, and wild turkeys pacing the mowed area, gobbling the loose grain. (And if I should see a large maniacal bird, I shall know it’s been dining on rye.)

As it is raining this week I’ve returned the brush hog until my leg heals and the skies clear.

The Axe-man Cometh

August 6, 2011

DH has one job on the farm. He has always been the axe-man with turkeys. I can’t hold the really big birds and chop their heads off.

For these jumbo chickens, Jeremy, the new boy at the rental store, had sharpened my axe. I ran my thumb over the wicked edge of the blade.

Over morning coffee and tea, DH asked me my plan. I explained that these birds were quite large, but I was thinking… I outlined a scheme involving baling twine. DH looked dubious. “I’d better come down and help you.” It was clear he thought I’d chop my hand off. Though I can cover most things by myself, in this case I was relieved. The birds were so heavy I grunted to lift them.

There are ways to slaughter poultry that can be handled by one person working alone, but they involve either slitting the throat or piercing the brain with a knife thrust through the mouth. Either way is too hard on me emotionally, as the goal is to have the bird slowly bleed to death. I once attended such a slaughter and when a supposedly dead rooster convulsed under my hands almost ten minutes later I was near tears, and told myself, “Never again.”

I prefer the quick death of an axe blow. I am not confident about much, but I am fairly sure that when the head is in one location and the body in another, the brain is no longer sending or receiving messages of pain or fear.

DH and I coordinate times. He ducks out of work and meets me at the farm at the stump I set up as a chopping block. He gets out of his car, picks up the axe, and dispatches each chicken as I hold it. Once I pointed out that an arterial spray had splattered his good pants with blood. He smiled. “Oh, nobody will notice.” Then he is gone.

It takes me a little more than half an hour to scald, pluck, gut, and wash each chicken. These birds are too big for my scalding pot. They fit in, but only by displacing all the water. So I heat the water to 150° on my stove and then scald them in the kitchen sink and pluck them over a trash bag. The dogs wait eagerly for the gutting, as I always toss them the hearts and kidneys as I work.

The first day I did six birds. After evening milking, barn chores, watering the sheep, and supper, I was still chasing down stray pin feathers at 9 PM. Since then I am trying to do two a day. It is slow, but not as overwhelming. The chicken pen is gradually getting quieter as the bullies make their exit.

I weighed some of these roosters with my digital lamb scale. Dressed out, they average ten pounds! They barely squeeze into a two-gallon freezer bag. They will be good eating over the long winter.


July 2, 2011

If it weren’t for the gigantic, ponderous bag, the ropes of mucus dripping from her vulva, and her occasional groans of discomfort, I’d be starting to wonder if Katika were not pregnant after all.

She is now a week overdue and I’m feeling a hundred years older. I’ve given up on making any predictions. I’m just putting one foot after another and plodding through the rest of my chores.

I don’t have energy left for a lot of emotion. On Thursday a grain delivery was unexpectedly delayed. I had to feed the meat birds chicken scratch, rather than pellets. I knew the change would upset them, and sure enough, when I went into the barn to check Katika, one of the Cornish Rock hens was drooping. By now the pellets had arrived but it was too late. I held the hen to the water but she would not drink (Cornish Rocks drink copiously in order to process the tremendous protein load they consume). I could see she would not revive from the stress.

I wasn’t going to waste another chicken. I carried her behind the barn, chopped her head off with a quick blow of the splitting maul, and bled her out. In under an hour she was scalded, plucked, gutted, washed, and cooling in my refrigerator. I hate to kill anything but in this case I barely reacted. And though generally when DH is away I don’t bother to cook, I roasted the chicken last night and served it to myself with Caesar salad. Delicious.


Getting Tired

June 30, 2011

The anticipation of Katika’s calving, the worry, and the broken nights are wearing me down.

Yesterday I managed to lose both my cell phone and my camera. I always carry them. The weather was cold and wet so I was wearing two pairs of coveralls, and my guess is that the camera and phone fell out of my pockets unnoticed while I was working in the rain somewhere on the combined thirty acres belonging to me and to Betty. I’ve looked everywhere with no luck. I hate losing things.

*   *   *

Still no birthing action from Katika. I keep thinking, “This is it!” and it never is. Last night at 10 PM her ears were icy. In fright I gave her a tube of CMPK to ward off milk fever. This morning her ears are warm but — no calf. I have only one tube left and the store to buy more is an hour away. I hope I haven’t made a bad mistake.

It has been less than a week but feels like forever that I’ve been staring at Katika’s black sides, counting out her breathing. I’ve been up in the night so many times I have stopped climbing all the way into my coveralls and just slip my arms in, leaving the legs to fall behind me like the tails of a frock coat. I started to laugh at midnight, driving to yet another cow check, thinking of being stopped by police: GROUCHO MARX IMPERSONATOR ARRESTED IN PAJAMAS.

*   *   *

My heifer Moxie was in heat yesterday. I had been so sure she was already pregnant that I hadn’t even bothered to separate her from my teenaged bull, Duke. They cavorted romantically all day long. I checked my gestation calendar and if Moxie was bred successfully this time, she will be due April 10, safely after we return from Florida. So that’s one worry off my plate.

*   *   *

Yesterday I found one of my Cornish Rock chickens dead. It had been fine only an hour before. The meat birds are six weeks old — almost at the end of their unnatural lifespan — and I’m sure it died of a heart attack. Cornish Rocks are so fragile it is eerie. Knowing this, and hoping to raise 25 to maturity, I had bought 35. Three died within hours of bringing them home. Now I’m down to 27.

This bird was plump and still warm. My brain was a little sluggish but it seemed a waste to put it out for the coyotes. I brought it home, plucked it, gutted it, and popped it in a stew pot. I’m sure it is fine — and if I were marching with Rogers’ Rangers in the French and Indian War, I’d be thrilled to have it — but because it didn’t bleed out, the flesh is dark. I am boiling it for stock and will feed the meat to the dogs. They watched me eagerly as I gutted it yesterday and have already snapped up the heart and kidneys.

*   *   *

In the midst of the tiredness, there are still delights. I’d told Allen that I’d spotted a mallard and her ducklings on his new pond, which was exciting enough.  But last evening at dusk I saw the birds again and got out my binoculars. It is not a mallard hen, but a hooded merganser, with six chicks.

(The above is not “my” hooded merganser — no camera — but looks just like it.) I was thrilled.

a male hooded merganser

Hooded mergansers nest in hollow tree trunks, like wood ducks. They are diving ducks that eat small fish. I’m guessing this mama is feeding her babies my tadpoles. Having a hooded merganser raising a family at Fairhope Farm makes me happy.

*   *   *

DH leaves at 4 AM tomorrow for a week. I believe this will be the first time I have been alone without children for more than 24 hours since before Lucy was born. I will have to buy another $19 Tracfone today.

Rhodes and Dodes

June 10, 2011

My chicks are now four weeks old. They outgrew their brooder box long ago and I moved them to my small 4′ x 8′ chicken house.

As you can see, though they were almost indistinguishable as day-olds, the white Cornish Cross meat chicks are already more than twice the size and heft of the five golden Buff Orpington layer pullets. And you can also see why. The meat chicks have two goals in life: eating and drinking. After that they are content to sit. This is ideal for weight gain but is rather sad to see in any animal.

The elderly mother of a farmer I know called Cornish Crosses “dodes,” short for dodos. It is true that the brains seem to have been bred out of them. Thick-witted and slow, they lumber from feeder to waterer on tree-trunk legs that barely support their bodies and often sit down abruptly to rest. In comparison the Buff Orpington chicks seem bright and quick, veritable Rhode Scholars of chickendom, scampering nimbly through the shavings, scratching and investigating in curiosity.

I am very gentle with the poor little dodes.

In a commercial set-up they would have only three weeks more to live. After that, not only does the feed-to-meat conversion equation begin to tip in the wrong direction, but the birds begin to die of heart attacks. Their legs also give out. Poor little Frankenbirds.

I don’t think my Cornish Crosses will grow quite as quickly as commercial birds raised in warehouses, because I hope to put mine out on grass in a portable pen, a.k.a. chicken tractor, to give them a taste of life with sunshine and grass and bugs. The pens are moved every day so the birds are always on clean ground with fresh grass. The farmer Joel Salatin made these movable pens famous.

Here’s a typical Salatin-type chicken tractor. It is a flat enclosure about 18″ high and roughly 8′ x 12′ in dimension. Half is covered with metal roofing and half with wire. The bottom is open to the grass.

Salatin, however, is in southern Virginia, not in the cold, wet, and windy Adirondacks. I have been pondering what modifications of the basic concept — enclosed, movable, open-bottomed shelter — I will need to make for my birds’ comfort and safety. We have had so many torrential rain storms recently that sandbags are common on local sidewalks and houses are being lost in mudslides. Meanwhile I’m picturing the whole thing carried away in our ferocious winds.

Whatever I come up with, I will be building entirely out of scrounged materials so those factors too come in to play. As I go about my chores I find myself staring at the various oddments of wire, roofing, and lumber I have stashed in corners, thinking furiously.

The chicken tractor will be next week’s project.