|LICKETY SPIT FIBRE FARM||
The second batch of chickens has moved from the barn to the tractors vacated by group #1. This group seems split between roosters and hens, so we've separated the groups in the tractors: boys with boys and girls with girls. If the young roosters are anything like young alpacas, they start noticing the ladies at a young age! We don't want any fighting in the tractors as the boys develop so keeping some "bachelor flocks" will hopefully keep the aggression to a minimum. No ladies to fight over.
It's all come down to this day. The day we take the 64 chickens we've been moving, watering and feeding every day to the processors. Let me say that by 15 weeks old, the 64 of them eat a whole 25kg bag of food every 1.5 days!
I have been dreaming about the logistics of it - how to catch and load the chickens, how long will the drive take and how to minimize their stress during the trip? And so we wake up at 4 am and coffee in hand, go to catch chickens. We allow ourselves 1 hour to load them but it only takes 30 minutes. I squat into the runs, shut the door to the coop and so catch the birds in the run itself. It's still very dark out, so they aren't very active, but the odd one does fight me for freedom. We load them 10 to a crate so they aren't crowded, load the crates into the van and then go get ready (my clothes are so covered in chicken poo from kneeling in the run that I strip on the deck and leave my clothes outside).
The drive takes 1.5 hours, and we arrive in Wallenstein at Country Poultry Producers.
I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly hadn't expected a lineup. You register at the office, go back to the farm driveway and around the back of the barn and join the lineup. And we are are this distance away from home because there are not very many abattoirs that deal with small flocks anymore. So we are one of many that have come from all over.
Most everyone else has brought their cages in the back of pickup trucks. We brought the van, so that the birds would be protected from sun and highway debris as we travelled. It was a good decision because a motor has broken on the line and we're just waiting. Our chickens are sheltered from the hot sun by the van, and with the doors open they don't seem too hot. But the birds in the crates before and behind us have ben left out in the sun, crammed into their crates, hot and cranky. We eavesdrop, also, and discover that most of these birds had been loaded into their crates the night before. So it has been well over 12 hours since they had water, or stretched, or could walk even. They are sad and angry and pecking each other. Our girls seem calm enough and aren't panting - the meat inspector says they look great.
We talk to the meat inspector for a while, gaining some knowledge about poultry processing. I notice a hen hiding behind some crates at an open door, who eventually comes out of hiding and starts pacing on the loading dock. The meat inspector says that birds often escape. When I look back to the hen, she has jumped on top of a pile of the crates. Soon a group of Mennonite boys bring the broken motor out the door and the chicken jumps to the highest pile of crates and disappears. Of course I am rooting for the chicken, as hypocritical as that might seem.
The men behind us have come from Alliston and we exchange notes on feeding, predators and the benefits of various breeds.
The man in the pickup truck in front of us has spent his whole life living in the town next to the one I grew up in (which interestingly is only 20 minutes from the processors).
Finally the new motor is installed and the action begins. The trucks slowly start to pull forward.
If you look closely at the photo you can see a DIFFERENT hen running through the corn field - another escapee. As our van inches up to the loading dock, I imagine a whole colony of escaped chickens, living in the corn field.
The next 10 minutes is unsettling for me - unloading the crates quickly enough to keep up with the young Mennonite boys that pull the chickens from the crates and send them down the line. It's reassuring to know the chickens won't be sitting in their crates on the loading dock waiting to be noticed, but I hadn't expected to be so.... immediate.
Off we go to spend the day keeping busy while they do the invisible work of transforming our flock into future meals. I am really excited to hear what our customers think of our birds after so many weeks of work. After seeing the condition that the other birds showed up in, I am convinced more than ever that people should only eat what they know. I want people to come to our place to see how we raise the eggs and meat because then they know what they are paying for. Conversely, if they were to see how "inexpensive" poultry is raised.... well we would have a lot more customers.
On Michele's flyball tournament weekends, I cover the kennel for her, as well as doing the barn. This morning I clearly didn't lock the gate to the pasture properly after I put the boys in their paddock - the determined sheep managed to bust it open and were out in the fields faster than you could cry fresh grass. The alpacas, of course, quickly followed. Nothing would entice them back to the barn - not friendly calls and the shaking of a pail of pellets, not me trying to herd them up with arms outstretched and pitchfork waving.
At Michele's recommendation I ran home to get Duke, my extremely senior Great Dane, to help me herd them up. Duke has yet to learn to ignore the barn animals, so I spent the run back to the field explaining how gentle he had to be. Yes, I talk to my dog, and it helped take my mind off the fact that the animals were in the field unprotected (and Elsie had been taken in broad daylight, so my fears aren't unfounded). And he was AWESOME! He moved out and stretched the leash as far as it could go so we converged on the sheep almost like experienced shepherds! My concern was that we not spook the sheep, who were accustomed to the furtive darting of border collies and who were going to be getting a laid back guardian dog any day now - I didn't want them to have a fear of big dogs in their presence. He was a natural - he was alert and intent without being vocal of pulling on the leash. The sheep finally decided he was serious about them moving up to the barn, and they ran up. The alpacas were easier to convince - perhaps they had watched the sheep and decided to follow suit.
It was a pretty great exercise, and a huge relief - plus I was only 10 minutes late opening the kennel!
We are getting a Great Pyrenees dog to guard the herd. We had thought the new fencing was enough but clearly the coyotes can either climb or they got through some depression in the ground that we haven't found yet. Most of the Alpaca owners that we know have guardian dogs (or llamas!) so we decided on a Great Pyrenees. We visited a breeder, Val Toth of Glenire Acres Farms, who breeds working dogs (and shows them) and have selected Vicky.
Vicky is a 1 1/2 yr old who has been with the sheep on Val and Les' farm, so hopefully she will acclimatize to our herd quickly. The alpacas have been around guardian dogs, so it'll just be a matter of getting the sheep used to the dog!
The "Pyrs", as Val calls them, are bred to protect the herd at all costs. We're hoping that she is going to prevent any more heartbreaks. We won't get her for a while, based on scheduling, so in the meantime the animals are staying in the paddock, much to their disgust.
Our little lamb, Elsie was killed by a coyote today. It's so sad that I can't talk about it.
The view from the hay wagon. I remember being a kid and helping Mr. Martin pull in the bales of straw, working all day for the reward of riding the hay wagon through town after we were all done. It seemed like the very best paycheque ever!
Yesterday we picked up 100 bales of straw from a field down the road. I road on the tractor to the field, but got to ride the wagon back. I realized I'm far more cautious as an adult than I was as a kid - I kept an eye on the impatient Sunday drivers who tended to fly past us alarmingly. What happened to plodding Sunday drivers? And we were moving with a tractor - Mr. Martin's wagon was pulled by a horse.
Then 2 hours of unloading the bales and getting them up and stacked in the loft. Hot, sweaty, prickly work but so satisfying that we're set for winter.
At 3 weeks the chicks have all their feathers and they practice flying. They also like to get up onto things to roost. They also like to play fight, to figure out their position in the flock. But like all kids, the fighting stops when the food comes out, or when they are chilly and want to huddle together for warmth. The summer hasn't been that warm, so the heat lamp is often on during the night, and we'll find them sleeping together just outside the ring of direct heat from the overhead lamp. Then morning comes and they're squabbling again.
We still feed Elsie a bottle, only now it's 3 times a day. Michele had just finished feeding her, and put the empty bottle on the ground.
Elsie picked it up, as if to make sure it was all gone.
Last night Shauna-Marie showed signs of labour.
Today, she was in full labour when I went to work. Michele and I were beside ourselves with excitement, to see the little cria that we had been waiting so eagerly for.
Michele called me around 10 to say that the cria had been stillborn.
It's impossible to believe. Dr. Sherry says it can happen - the mom gets jostled and the placenta detaches. I worry that I'm doing something wrong. It's just been the worst spring ever for birthing.
The cria was a female. Shauna-Marie stayed with her all day, and at night we buried her beside Buckwheat.
Shauna-Marie and Daisy keep crying for her. It's just so sad.
We have been trying to decide what to do about the males. The barn isn't really set up to accomodate males and females - they live in too close proximity for either group to be completely relaxed. And we have 1 yearling male that has been living with the females as he hasn't gone through puberty yet. Or so we thought.
Last week he started to try to mount a few of the females. Dr. Sherry examined him when she came out for Buckwheat, and thought that perhaps he might be on the cusp of puberty. He is still too little to live with the males, who are not only much bigger than him but are also quick to get into spitting contests with each other over the females. His fleece seems quite good (not that we know for certain since the results of our first shearing are still in the garage!) so we didn't want to sell him, but we didn't want to risk him with the males. And we certainly couldn't have him living with the females. So we got him neutered. It seemed the best solution - he has a good personality and is comfortable with humans. He should grow into a good sized male, which will be good in terms of the amount of fleece he grows. And neutering him should only improve the fleece itself.
Dr. Sherry and her vet student did it outside today on the grass by the paddock. He was sedated and then Michele said it was a quick procedure (I was at work, of course). He came to shortly after and by the end of the day showed no ill-effects. He gets a couple of sprays of blu-kote a day, to protect the incision from the flies and dirt but otherwise it seemed pretty straightforward. We are both really relieved that one potential problem has been eliminated.
A sheep farmer meets an urban gardener. Fleece ensues.
The Reading List
*Animal, Vegetable, Miracle