Archive for April, 2012

Piglets!!

The piglets have arrived, several weeks later than expected, but in large numbers and without a hitch!  This is my first farrowing, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am to have all piggies on the ground and past those first few fragile days.  As with all but the basic farmyard medical care, I feel highly underqualified as a swine midwife!  Though the majority of farrowings require no assistance at all, the possibility of an abnormal parturition has been keeping me on the edge of my seat!  As much as I appreciate youtube, wikipedia, and google, I so wish times were different and farming was still a craft passed down from wise elders to young upstarts like me!  I could then focus my energy on innovating and improving existing methods rather than wasting all this time reinventing wheels left and right!

If I’m wasting time and money, at least I’m learning how to research, how to make a tough decision in the face of opposing opinions, and even how to suck it up and face a failure.  One failure I’m so grateful not to face this season has been piglet death from crushing or inter-litter violence. Most hog raisers not only keep adult sows separated for farrowing, but even separate the mother from the piglets with farrowing crates or creep barriers.  furthermore, they keep the mothers in high-tech barns, feed them specially formulated feeds with a precise balance of minerals, vitamins, and nutrients, and start the piglets on supplements and “scientifically formulated” feed within days of birth. As in most fields of modern farming, hog production standards largely replace the role of nature with human meddling.

Taking a gamble that these heritage breed pigs could care for themselves and their babies far better than I could, I took none of the usual precautions, leaving the sows out in their pasture with their usual companionship, choice of hutches, and unsupplemented, unmeasured meals of sprouted whole grains and spent grains from the brewery. While confidently explaining my reasoning to skeptics, I was secretly suppressing a great deal of apprehension over breaking with convention and taking these risks.

I do think many pastured hogs are raised in this hands-off way, but I haven’t been able to find any detailed information about these sorts of alternatives to conventional hog husbandry. My go-to book on pastured hogs mentions how piglets thrive in a free-range environment, but just a few pages later suggests bringing each sow into a heated, predator-proof barn with a creep division for farrowing! When there isn’t even congruity in a single work of a single author, you can imagine how tricky it is to choose the best husbandry methods from the conflicting chaos of the internet!

Thankfully, my “do nothing farming” technique worked out for the best, we’ve got great sows and good luck, and we haven’t lost a single piglet.  The first few hours of Peggy’s labor certainly made me question my decision to forgo the creep dividers though!  I’ve read that 20% of piglets are lost to crushing by their mother, and with the first hours of that first litter, it was very clear why those numbers are so high!  As a rookie mother, Peggy was confused and frightened, and kept jumping up and stampeding around any time a piglet squeaked or squealed or grunted. Several of her piglets got solidly kicked, squished, or flung about, and it was incredibly nerve-wracking to watch.  One poor little fellow got the poop squished right out of him by his freaked out mom, and took several very long minutes to get back on his feet.  Thankfully those newborns are rubbery and tough as nails, and though a few had near death experiences, all bounced back, and Peggy settled into a very gentle and spatially aware motherhood. Both sows are adorably careful with their foot placement and put so much effort into arranging the piglets in a safe group before plopping down for a rest.

By day four, the two litters were fully integrated and I don’t think any of the pigs remembers or cares who belongs to who.

If it’s not in the Storey’s Guide..

..just give up!  It’s undiagnosable by mortals, and the internet will just confound you.

I euthanized a fayoumi rooster chick today because ADR (Ain’t Doing Right) had progressed into full on seizures, and he seemed to be suffering.  Yesterday he was staggering around and running into walls and sitting really strangely, so I separated him into the hospital box and gave him plenty of food and water. This morning he was in the corner doing summersaults and enduring severe “ataxia and disequilibrium.” Not pretty.

Sure that google would provide me with a quick, easy answer, I’ve since discovered that he could have been suffering from one of many different disorders/diseases, caused by a huge variety of deficiencies and infections, and treatable in a zillion different ways.  Torticollis, aka “wry neck” seems like a likely diagnosis, but can be caused by: head injury, vit A, B1, pyridoxine, or manganese deficiency, focal granulomas,  avitaminosis A, avian encephalomyelitis, arenavirus infection, organophosphate toxicity, vestibular disease, and the list goes on, and on, and on…  So I really have no idea how to best prevent this in the future or treat another ailing chick.  Sigh.  So glad I’m not an avian veterinarian!

PS –  Lots of people on the forums I’ve been browsing were much kinder and more generous with their chicks, and did not simply pull off their heads on day 2. One concerned chicken guardian even drove his bird 50 miles to see a specialist, clad in it’s own personal chicken diaper.  It’s odd, but sweet, that people treat their poultry like I would treat a dog. Also, I just read that some breeds of chickens (silkies, polish, etc) can have their brains on the outsides of their skulls?!  Seems ridiculous, but actually would explain some of the questionable decision making I’ve witnessed around the farmyard…

Easter Babies and Other Poultry Ramblings

Did you know that parents actually buy their children baby animals for easter?? In 2012??  I had thought that was an idiotic fad from decades ago, and surely modern parents weren’t that irresponsible and selfish and shortsighted.  A family just brought their week old ducklings to us because they had “worn out their welcome” in the bathtub. What the hell was the plan there?  Were they just going to keep four full grown ducks in a townhome bathroom for the next ten years?

This family bought ducklings for the sole purpose of entertaining their small children with no thought to the needs or intrinsic value of those animals. They then dumped the ducks after the waning interest of their brats no longer outweighed the effort of caring for them.  I cannot tell you how much this disgusts me and how conflicted I was to provide a good home for these little creatures and thus participate in the lesson that those children were learning. A lesson that living beings are toys, to be bought on a whim and disposed of when convenient. That you are only responsible to yourself and your desires. That you can grab, squeeze, and toss around small, fragile creatures if you find it enjoyable.

On the other hand, free ducks for me!  And they’re pretty darn cute too.  We were planning on getting ducklings this spring, but had been too busy to get our order together.  Peter and I had decided on runner ducks and cayugas, but these little guys will probably do just fine for our purposes. Their dreadful first owner was unsure what breed they were, but got them at Murdocks, so we’re guessing they’re one of the really popular breeds like Khaki Campbell.  In which case they’d be excellent egg layers and decent parents.

As I have a nasty cold, I had zero energy to set up anything special for the ducklings, so popped them in with the 6 wk old laying hen chicks. The chicks are a month older, but only a little bit bigger.  They have all the same requirements as the chicks other than a water tub to frolic in, but the ducks can wait until monday for a bath, and I really don’t want to deal with stinky wet straw in the mean time.  Unfortunately, our one adult duck Jeffery, who was a very handsome cayuga, disappeared late last week, so they won’t have a mentor in the barnyard. I’m afraid my new automatic chicken door may have been confusing for him and left him locked out overnight, easy bait for any passing carnivore.

The chicks and ducklings quickly got over their initial wariness of each other, and have been getting along without a hitch. The ducklings were fascinated by the chicks’ feathers and gently pecked at them whenever they were looking the other way. The chicks kept following the ducks around, curiously pecking at their webbed feet. Very cute!

You hear a lot amongst backyard poultry keepers about flock drama and even violence, but we’ve been incredibly lucky with that at RBR.  We introduce new birds with very little precaution, just tossing them into the hen house after dark and letting them figure out introductions and pecking order in their own time.  In general, the resident birds seem too preoccupied with their chickeny pursuits to take much notice of the new staff members.  I did have to rescue one new rooster from turkey tom Lord Granthum’s bullying this week, but he seems to be a listless and strange rooster, so Lord G might have had  flock health in mind when he targeted the new fellow.

When it comes to social violence, the meat chickens are, of course, a completely different story. As they’ve had all their intelligence bred out of them, they’re left with nothing but irrational, barbaric weirdness. Any comrade with a speck of red, some missing feathers, or any other potential sign of weakness is mindlessly canibalized, one tiny beakful at a time. Oddly enough, three of the birds this summer got large burn wounds from the tractor, but none of them suffered the same cruelty from their flockmates as the other injured chickens. They must have an adversion to barbeque.

How the three victims recieved their burns remains quite a mystery.  Considering the tractor is on for about fifteen minutes every three or four days, it’s perplexing that the engine ever got hot enough to burn the scalp off a bird.  The only warm parts are a solid 8″ above chicken hopping height, and these little monsters are about as good as flying as I am.  Perhaps they strapped on their little climbing shoes and chimneyed themselves up between the tire treds and three pt hitch, and then wedged their heads up into the engine block… and then waited for someone to come start the thing up. Like I said, irrational, barbaric weirdness.

The one with the worst burn injury was named, in a fit of creativity, “Burnt Head.” We decided we’d be cited for animal cruelty if we sent her off to the packing plant, so she was spared her original purpose in life, and is now laying eggs with the rest of the permanent flock.  It’s quite incredible she survived at all, considering her breed’s marvelous apitude for unjustified expiration, but she’s trucking along and adding a bit of novelty to the hen house.  Her once horrific wound has healed into a nickle-sized, featherless, black yamaka, which is surprisingly unnoticable if you’re not looking for it.  She’d burned the skin off right down to the bone, so the healing process gave her quite a face lift as her body recruited skin to cover the gap.  This left her with an especially blank look which rather accurately reflects her intellectual limitations. Much more noticable than the wound or her wrinkle-free visage is her bizarre gait, which strongly suggests she has out grown the expected carrying capacity of her frame. If you took an obese toddler, strapped him into shoes three sizes too big, splinted his knees so they wouldn’t bend, and then pushed him down a rocky hill, I imagine it would produce a similar effect.

Meat birds were so damn time consuming partially because of their stupidity (you are all quitting your day jobs to get into the poultry business now, right?). Rather than starting the tractor up and simply pulling the chicken shelters forward, a second staff member was required to chaperone the birds, physically moving them out from under the tractor tires and away from the shelter as it crept oh so stealthily forward.  As if their creditor had come to haul off their double wide, they’d park in front of their shelter, refusing to waddle out of the way.

Caitlin does an exceptionally evocative performance as a chicken getting smushed by it’s mobile home.  She perfectly captures the apathetic disinterest as the edge overtakes a foot, an ankle, then the mounting confusion as an entire leg is appropriated, the flicker of alarm as the bird finds itself trapped, a fleeting attempt to actually move as a wing tip disappears under the unrelenting approach, and finally squawks of panic as some fragile modicum of self preservation rises from the depths of the chicken soul.   If rescued on time – and we’re kinder-hearted than I make us sound, so all but two were rescued – the bird then immediately sits down in relief and exhaustion inches away from the shelter that just assaulted him, and will undergo the same sequence of confusion and trauma with all the wonder and helplessness of watching the moon fall to the earth. The only solution is to toss birds out of danger more quickly than they could wander into it, so tricky with hundreds of creatures determined to be irrational!  Caitlin and I got good at gently tossing multiple birds with one scoop and also at driving the tractor insanely slowly.  Suffice to say, I never choose chicken if there are other menu options!

This week was s…

This week was so CRAZY. Last week was so CRAZY!  The remaining three of us on staff here are thus in various states of illness, which is bumming me out on this totally gorgeous day.  It’s sunny, but cool like a real spring morning. Would be utterly perfect for a long trail run with my four legged athletic trainer.

I’m not sure why they don’t just assign teenage border collies (always plenty looking for homes) to people who need to lose weight.  If the guilt of having a dramatically sad dog isn’t enough motivation, there’s also plenty of poking and pacing and staring to make inactivity very uncomfortable. With a more prolonged  period of laziness, I can only imagine the crescendo of destruction!  Thankfully, I’ve been able to advert the financial ruin of eaten shoes during these days of sickness with meaty bones, peanut butter kongs, and the ball thrower at the dog park.

Wilbur’s new found obsession with fetching can be obnoxious but really comes in handy when he just needs a few extra miles.  When I first adopted him he wouldn’t even put a ball or frisbee in his mouth, no matter how exciting I tried to make them seem.  He just wanted to play with other dogs and meet new people and sniff about. Now he gets too busy retrieving to even bother with greeting strangers.  He’ll even give playful friends that “Off your childish games; I’m working here” look that he was on the recieving end of just a few short months ago!  Luckly he hasn’t completely forgone socializing and still acts goofy as can be with some of his best buddies like Buster and Lacy.

Why I love to farm, Part IV

Checking in on the meat chickens one morning this summer, I found several drowned in the water hole. At first I assumed it was just a fluke. Perhaps a terminally ill chicken had staggered down to quench his thirst and bought the farm just as he leant over for a sip. One of the other early victims had obviously been put there by the weasel, as he was missing his head but otherwise intact. Admittedly the hole was steep on one side, but the other three sides were gently sloped. And at two or three feet wide, it wasn’t exactly the English Channel. A conscious chicken making any effort what-so-ever couldn’t possibly manage to drown with outsome stunning stupidity.
 
But it was not a fluke. Turns out stunning stupidity is an indemic afflication of meat chickens. I’d make a joke here about large breasts sapping energy for brain function, but have some lovely friends with big bosums, so will restrain myself. Soon I was fishing out five or eight a day. I’d approach the watering hole with a few plastic fence posts, drag out the floaters and then poke around the bottom for sinkers. As unplesant as chicken fishing is, you had to be thorough or a chicken would suddenly rot just enough to become boyant, and you’d be explaining to a family of New Jersey suburbanites why the animals’ drinking water was full of bobbing corpses. Not great for meat sales.
 
Once retrieved from the depths, I was supposed to walk the chickens out the the bone yard in the back end of the nature preserve for the wildlife to enjoy. They had a real hoot with the forty chickens killed by that bear, and decorated the surrounding forest with a festive sprinkling of chicken feet. But a long trek to the bone yard with ten to thirty pounds of dripping wet dead bird just sucks on a hot summer day, so I got a lot of practice winging them as far as possible into the downwind patch of willows. I found it’s essential to keep the release smooth or you lose all the momentum of your wind up when the leg pops off.
 
Wait a minute, what does this have to do with loving to farm? I love to farm because I have to solve bizarre problems, which is interesting and challenging and humbling. There is nothing written in any text book about how to prevent chickens from drowning themselves in a puddle, so I was forced to tap into my creative juices. Turns out my creative juices were not flowing very freely after three months of unchecked ranch chaos, so my first idea was to install ramps. I had lots of old boards on hand and thought that maybe if they just had something solid under their poopy little dinosaur feet, they’d be able to walk to safety.
 
The next morning I was greeted by more carnage, and many of the bodies were actually wedged under the ramps. Apparently, swimming chickens not only can’t navigate ramps, but find them particularly deadly. I rearranged the ramps so they were lower in the water and added boards entirely blocking off the side of the puddle with the steep drop. I suppose if my options for the future were limited to death by weasel, bear, coyote, owl, illness and consequent butt pecking from my flock mates, or – at the ripe old age of 10 weeks – a knife through the roof of my mouth, I might also jump into a pond. If it wasn’t depression, perhaps aggression was responsible for the drownings. There you are, waddling over for a drink, and that bitchy chicken who pushed you out of the feed tough at breakfast is leaning over the edge, oblivious to your approach. Just one clumsy hip check to bump her over the edge as you casually toddle by and you’ll be sitting on as much breakfast as you want to tomorrow! (physically sitting on food while you eat it is the perferred poultry method of gluttony)
 
The next morning I found the barricades had been ineffective. It wasn’t lemur-like suicides or a rash of murders to blame. Evidently, the chickens were strolling in the shallow end for a drink and finding themselves unable to compute an exit strategy beyond ever forward, up and onward.
 
And… here’s where the real creativity came in! I was standing there chicken fishing in a dejected manner when my favorite community service volunteer looked up from feeding birds and asked me why I didn’t just cover the hole with chicken wire. Why indeed? Because I was not thinking outside the box, and chicken wire was not inside my box. I landscape stapled some mesh fencing over that puddle, and never lost another bird to drowning. As convinced as I was by that point that they were drowning just to spite me, I was surprised that not a one figured out how to get it’s head stuck in the mesh or at the very least break a leg. All this goes to show that a fresh perspective is worth a lot of chickens. Also, never underestimate a sassy highschool delinquent.
 
Haha, just you try to keep me from throwing myself into the lethal depths, I dare ya

Tip of the Week

ImageNever order Lamb Masala the same day you butcher a goat.  Yes, you’re worn out and hungry from all that butchering, and yes, lamb masala is one of the world’s most deliciously satisfying meals, but it somehow tastes just like freshly eviscerated goat smells.  You will get a tad queasy and may find yourself sighing as you remember the tragic fate of your goaty friend.

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Dedication

This blog is dedicated to the many animals who have blessed my life and taught me to be a happier, kinder, and more reasonable human being. Image