Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The golden path to the chickens

Here are some photos I wanted to share of the beautiful crotalaria growing up beside the path to the old "Chickshaw" coop with the baby chicks in it. I hadn't been this way for a little while because all the animals are on the other side of the garden.

Walking between the sweet-smelling yellow plumes of flowers is like walking through a living veil. Other lovely little flowers like daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosa, if I've spelled it correctly) and goldenrod and false foxglove are tucked away preciously in the perfect places as though they were planted with thought to their different colors.

A word on crotalaria: It is supposed to be a deadly poisonous plant (one of Ethan's ex-coworkers was afraid to walk through a field of it in case the toxins "seeped into his skin"). Ethan's grandfather, who was a soil scientist, said it was planted as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop. It isn't native, but there are so many insects that are attracted to it, it must have naturalized.
We haven't really seen the poisonous side of it yet. The sheep and goats are eating a lot of it and they seem fine. I've noticed they intentionally graze on it even though they are out free-ranging on 40 acres with other tasty grasses and legumes available, but they just like it for some reason. I've decided to trust their tastes. I was really worried when they were eating black cherry leaves, but it's still their favorite plant and they have survived a whole year so far (they even eat the dried brown leaves off the ground).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Beautiful Autumn

It is so beautiful out at the farm right now. The goldenrod and crotalaria are like a golden haze in the fields between the trees. The lovely black cherry trees are changing to fall colors and look like graceful aspens. The photos don't do it justice. They have missed the vibrancy of the yellows and the bright, clear blue of the sky. And the air has a beautiful dry aromatic quality and everywhere it smells sweetly from the flowers. I have been so enjoying the days working out here.

Surrounded on all sides by oaks it reminds me of some secret realm of faery. If anyone would like to come hang out with us sometime to enjoy the autumn wilderness, we are there most days except Mondays. Drop us a line, we'd love to have some company, only you must wear long pants and good shoes because it is very spiny.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Sheep

We've had the sheep for a while now, but I wanted to post some photos of them because when I tell people we have hair sheep they are mystified. When Ethan suggested we get hair sheep rather than wool sheep (before I knew better) I imagined a very ugly animal. This is not the case--they are very lovely. They are perhaps a little stupid, but very docile and easy to handle (underfoot most of the time). They like it when I scratch their backs. The nice thing is that they need no shearing or tail docking. They are still lambs but will be ready to breed next March.

baby chicks out

The baby chicks are out! They are in the old chickshaw coop. They are cowering in the corner because they are so terrified of the camera. They seem very happy to be in such a large place now.


Here's our new donkey, named Java, but for some reason I always want to call her Mocha. She's Karen and Ed Sherwood's old donkey. Apparently she liked to nurse on the milk cows so they had to sell her, which was just when we were looking for a donkey.

I realized we needed a guard animal one day when we got out there and there were three dogs and a goat running about on the driveway in. The guy who owned them came and got them saying, "The goat's the best dog of all of them." He also mentioned it was the only goat he had left after the coyotes ate all the others.

This was the second time a neighbor has told me about coyotes eating all their goats. There was even an old coyote burrow on the property. After what we went through with the chickens I just couldn't bear the thought of getting out there with my children and finding Ellie or Nougat devoured by a pack of coyotes. So we HAD to get a guard animal.

After looking around online I noticed donkeys were cheaper than Pyrenees dogs, and Karen just happened to be selling Java, so it all worked out.

We are very pleased with all the manure, which she makes little piles of and it is easy to collect and compost. She is very docile and loves the children. The other day she followed Mirin all over the place because he had a handful of alfalfa. We are wondering if we can train her and use her for draft. It would be nice to have a donkey to lug the feed out to the chickens.
It took her awhile to warm up to the goats. Today is the first day she is out with them. Before she has always tried to kick or bite them. Hopefully they are all there tommorrow.

Friday, September 18, 2009

New Chickies

This is little late in coming--but we were swamped a month ago when they were hatching out.

Our own little chickens have hatched. They are all mixed-up mutt chickens, and are very pretty as a result. We figure the white-ish ones are the Auracauna rooster's babies and the black-ish ones are Steve McQueen's. Most are black, so obviously the Auracauna rooster can barely get a sperm in edgewise, but he still managed a few. There are two very lovely silvery ones that look like a Barred Rock/Silver Spangled Hamberg cross. One of the silvery ones looked like a little bald eagle when it was newly hatched.

We got to watch them hatch. Right before the eggs hatched we could hear the babies peeping. A few of the eggs started to hatch but didn't make it out for some reason. We have 14 new babies now. They are already fairly grown up and look like little birds rather than fluffy little chicks.

They are terrified of the camera, if you can't tell from the way they are fleeing to the edges of their little chicken tractor coop. Maybe it's Steve's genes, but this batch of chicks seems unusually flighty. They are terrified of everything for about 10 seconds--including their food, until they realize it isn't going to eat THEM.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

So now we know what "clean" means

Not that we didn't before--but here's what happened:

We went to look at a Jersey cow. It was unreasonably cheap, but when we got there we saw why. The poor cow was in a dusty lot being fed some poor-looking hay and "total mixed ration." She was very thin and bony and had pus oozing from the back quarter of her udder from mastitis. I felt so sorry for her--particularly about the mastitis (I've had it before myself). She needed to be wormed and milked and fed properly, but the guy told us "It's just too much trouble for a glass of milk. I'd rather just go down to the corner store."

The people who were selling her also wanted to show off their pigs to us once we had told them we had pigs as well. So we followed them to our house to look at their pigs. In the front of their house they had an incinerator going that was burning what smelled like plastic, and probably worse. Behind that was a small, squalid and dirty pen holding an enormous hog--nearly as long as our car. A smaller mother hog was there too, as well as some medium-sized pigs about as large as our pigs are now who had gashes on them from the big boar (named "Fat boy") and running about underfoot were some weak and dirty little piglets which had the same painful look on their pitiful little faces that you see in photographs of suffering children from the third world. You are never supposed to have all those pigs in together--the little ones can be crushed and don't get enough to eat. The man was obviously very proud of these pigs.

I came away from that place feeling contaminated and totally creeped out. Looking around our farm I have a new appreciation for it. I realize at last that my perfectionist judgmentalism is uncalled for.

Not that our farm is really dirty anywhere, but there are half-finished projects laying around, black bags of leaves we scavenged for mulch, some broken toys from the children. I am constantly and vigilantly picking up little bits of trash we track in--such as kombucha bottle tops, string from feed bags, pieces of wire and rope, etc. I had pangs of guilt when we had to wait for a weekend to move our pigs to a new pasture because it was getting muddy around their waterer, or when the baby chickies needed to be moved out, but again we had to wait for a weekend when Ethan could help. Even having the chickens in one spot for a week seemed like it was asking too much of the grass and the birds. There is always the doubt, "Are we really doing this the best way or the right way?"
But it seems so petty now, having seen the squallor that is possible. I have renewed pride and pleasure in the beauty of our farm and the health of our animals.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Chicken Dilemma

Unfortunately I don't have any photos today, but I wanted to at least post an update.

We have been hard at work with some big changes and laying the foundations for autumn plans.

Our egg chickens were attacked over a couple weeks by hawks which dined very well those weeks and knocked out all but 16 chickens. Our dear chicken Henny Penny, the oldest and favorite chicken, was the first to be eaten. We tried the plastic owl, visual diversions, moving the coop, brush shelters. The poor chickens would be found dead underneath the coop, or under brush. Obviously nothing was working. Finally I switched our turkeys, who were getting a little large for their broiler coop anyway, to our old "Hell-on-Little-Wheels" coop and moved the poor chickens to the broiler coop which is very protected and has a solar-electric charger with electrified wires on the outside, just in case the raccoons or coyotes get any ideas.

I was initially against this move at all costs because the chickens are now confined, which means less grazing, less freedom, and I was worried the quality of our eggs would go down and the chickens would be stressed. But now that we have been using this production model rather than the "Chickshaw" coop, I see the many benefits, some of which are a great relief to our sore backs. I think we are going to continue to keep our chickens this way and even build some more.

The benefits are:

1. We only drive out once a day and so save time, money and fuel. We are able to stay out longer because I don't have to run back to town to put the baby down for a nap or start dinner, and as a result have been getting a lot done.

2. No more worrying about the Learning Disabled chickens that couldn't remember how to get in the coop and became raccoon and owl bait.

3. No more struggling with the useless ElectroNet that sags and doesn't work. Seriously, there was a photo in Mother Earth News showing an idyllic little homestead with a moveable chicken coop surrounded by ElectroNet--we counted only 11 chickens inside the fence and 8 running around outside, which is about how well it worked for us, too. At the end there they found they could pile up on a corner to ground it out and just walk over (they all had clipped wings--a big pain).

4. Chickens get moved DAILY rather than weekly. This means they get fresh grass every morning and this helps to spread out their manure better and lets them really work the soil. The old coop could only be moved with great effort or by both of us, but this coop is a breeze to move. I can move it while nursing Rosie in the backpack. As far as diet, I think they are getting more bugs and green grass this way.

5. They were far more stressed out as total wild-free range birds because of the enormous number of hawks here with voracious chicken-eating habits. To daily see one or more of your coop mates messily devoured before your eyes each morning is not the idyllic free-range chicken scene we normally picture. I am less stressed because they are safe, and they seem much more relaxed.

So we are back to moving the strongest-man contest coop over tall grass and cactus with the bizarre poultry menagerie inside (ducks, chicken, turkeys), but at least our chickens are safe.