Archives for posts with tag: chickens

Who’s Chicken, Now?

A.V. Walters

Emus aren’t, by nature, guardian animals. They’re actually pretty skittish and, if you want them to guard a herd, they need a proper introduction. Emus are very social animals, but they need to learn who is part of their flock, so they’ll know who isn’t. Gatsby and Kelvin have been running-off anything that comes into the yard, such that we can’t always tell if they’re being nasty, or just overly-friendly. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference.

I once had a cat that seemed gregarious and friendly but, at that time, I didn’t have many visitors in my life. Then, when people would come over, the cat would disappear. It turned out that he was petrified of anyone but us. It’s taken years to get him to be comfortable around visitors and strangers. (Rick may argue this point because this cat will still scoot away from him, when he walks into the room.)

And so it is with the emus, they are very comfortable around us, and most of our friends. So, we thought that they were generally, friendly emus. And, well they are, but only within their comfort zone. When strangers come by, they can be a little nervous, and potentially dangerous. That’s the good news… and the bad news, about emus. If they know you, you’re family. If they don’t know you—you are a potential enemy.  As we’ve said before—they’re not real bright. It’s kind of a binary system, they’re either on, or off. If an emu is afraid, then you need to be a little afraid. You need to pay close attention if they start to hiss or huff. Because, not far behind that, is an instinctive, and potentially devastating, kick.

It’s not just with people. The emus are comfortable with our cats; they grew up with them. But they clearly make the distinction between ours and the feral cats from the dairy, next door. Those cats get run off (I suspect with some glee.) It occurred to me recently (when a visitor earned himself a solid hiss) that our emus needed finishing school, so to speak.  So, we decided to start small.

Since there is the possibility that the emus may be guarding chickens, it was a small enough place to start. First, we put an empty cage in the yard, for a few days—that garnered some interest—and soon enough, it became part of the landscape. Then, two days ago, we dropped a couple of chickens into the cage. The emus were wary, to say the least. They scooted around, wide-eyed at the new arrivals’ cackling. (They do seem to be particularly noisy chickens.) We gave it an overnight, and the following day, we opened the cage.

Here come the chickens

Here come the chickens

Now, these emus are teenagers. They’re not yet full sized, but they’re a lot bigger than a chicken. But when it comes to new experiences, they’re still just babies. The emus headed to the far side of the yard. Then, after watching from afar, they slowly inched closer to size-up the new invaders. The chickens are full-gown and about as bright as… well, chickens. They, in contrast, are totally nonplussed by the emus. The emus alternate between being cool about chickens, and being spooked. They walk around like it’s no big deal, but if a chicken corners them, Kelvin, in particular, reacts like her life is at risk. Even though she’s the bigger of the two, she is also the most jumpy. (Boy, does she take after her mother, or what?) For his part, after an initial nervous phase, Gatsby invited a chicken to “dance” (doing the characteristic, emu drop and roll.) The chicken was non-responsive—clearly ignorant of the emu rituals of engagement. I can only hope that the emus aren’t put-off. They’ve managed to share food dishes and yard without serious incident. So far, we’re calling it a success, in a measured sort of way.

Who's stalking whom?

Who’s stalking whom?

Clearly, it’s a good thing we recognized the need for this. These emus have some manners to learn before they head out into the world to take on their security work. We don’t want to raise thugs, after all. We’ll start here, quietly with chickens and, in a week or so, we’ll trade up to goats. Goats, you ask?  Well, Elmer has a couple of goats that were left behind by tenants (this is typical, Elmer) and they’d be perfect for hardening off a couple of flappable, emu trainees. In a few weeks, maybe they’ll be ready for sheep.

Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread

Rick nods to Elmer, noting that we have two cats, two emus, now, two chickens and soon, two goats. He says that if we start building a boat, anytime soon, people should pay attention to the sky.

chick-n-emu 4

 

Voters and Chickens:

Rights (or the lack of) and Repercussions

A.V. Walters

The Chickens have the floor…

Our emus may have to adjust to a different future that I’d imagined for them. It all goes back to a wacky election in 2008.

You see, in that year, animal rights activists put a referendum on the California ballot that would forever change the way chickens are kept on farms in our state. The measure was poorly defined, and the drafters were a million miles from anything in the world of chickens or eggs or economic realities. Still, the objective was to decrease the level of “cruelty” in livestock agriculture. Who could be against that? With some measure of bitterness, I note that that same election cycle produced another measure that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in our state. Here we are, over four years later and to date we haven’t sorted out either one of these issues. Chickens given rights, people losing rights! Only in America!!

On the same-sex marriage issue, we are leaping into the future. In part because of the unfairness in the Proposition 8 law, the public dialogue has changed radically. One by one, states are stepping up (as well as the international community) to ratify human rights, ending discrimination in our antiquated, marriage laws. Sadly, in California the situation remains unsettled because actual law moves more slowly than public opinion (and that may be a good thing, sometimes.) This deplorable referendum has worked its way up through the appellate courts and into the highest court in the land. I can’t say the chicken situation is working out so well, either.

Everyone would love to know that the chickens (or eggs) they eat come from some warm and fuzzy, loving farm-home. Modern farming, especially livestock, isn’t warm and fuzzy. Large scale farming is even less so. Since the Chicken Rights referendum wasn’t specific about how chickens should be kept, litigation immediately ensued. (How ironic, a “what came first” thing—the rules or the legislation.) So, farmers waited for instructions. While we’re moving towards an ascertainable standard, the deadline for compliance looms, and many of the older farmers are just closing up shop. What is clear is that the chickens need more “personal space” and elevated wire cages may soon be a thing of the past.

Elmer’s been watching the issue since that election. He’s attended the poultry conferences and seen the new, demonstration equipment. He’s lived on a chicken farm for his entire life and has watched poultry and egg production methods come and go. “Cage free is the future,” he says, “And that’s what we had when I was a kid!” He shakes his head.

“When the cages came in, it was supposed to be the wave of the future. The elevated, wire cages solved a lot of the problems—the waste dropped through the cage for easy removal, the feed was delivered to the troughs along the cage and the eggs rolled forward on the wire chute for easy gathering. Since the chickens weren’t standing in their feces, a lot of the diseases we dealt with, in the past, just disappeared. It was clean and modern.”

The downside to the economy of scale was, well, the scale of it. The press for more production led to overcrowding, and some kinds of wire cages were harmful to the chickens’ feet. Now the consensus is that chickens should be back on the floor, they should be cage-free and should have material (greens, straw or shavings) for “scratch.”

The new law won’t solve the issues of scale and size, and disease becomes a bigger concern. Given the new (and still unclear) restrictions, and the high costs of labor, the commercial solutions offered are high tech and expensive. Nobody wants to see egg costs go to $6.00 a dozen—which we sometimes see here from organic “boutique” farms. The operations challenges remain the same, waste removal and disposal, food delivery and egg collection. The industry is pimping gorgeous equipment—rolling (conveyor) floor beds, automatic feed dispensers and egg collection, all the bells and whistles. And the cost for an operation the size of Elmer’s? Try a cool, half-million dollars. It’s so high, that the only way to make it work is to seriously expand production. So this law, while well-meaning, will drive small producers out of business, and create even bigger factory farms. Good news for chickens?

Elmer is experimenting. He could retire if he wanted but instead, he’s going back to “chickens on the floor.” He’s cutting and bailing his own hay and straw for scratch and bedding materials. He’s resurrected old brooder boxes from over sixty years ago (farmers never throw anything out.) He’s modifying his manure collection system, using bedding materials for absorption, and thus minimizing the frequency of full removal (as relocating the chickens for cleanup is stressful to the chickens.) In short, he’s going back to the kind of farming they practiced when he was a boy. He’s mindful that he’ll need to keep an eye out for any increase in disease and, even at this experimental stage, he’s seeing a increase in predation

Chickens in elevated cages are relatively safe from predators. Elmer’s barns are designed for cage operations, with open sides for ventilation. On the open floors, especially where the chickens are given some access to open-air yard areas, he’s seeing a return of raccoon losses and fox and coyote problems. Even with his small scale experimental operation, he’s losing a chicken a day. This too, is like the old days.

He asked me today if I thought emus could guard against raccoons. In an instant, I saw the writing on the wall (or the broad side of a barn door.) It burst my bubble— the image of our emus patrolling the open range with sheep. I don’t know how emus would react to raccoons—but they’d be good guards against foxes and coyotes. A quick online search reveals no firm information on the emu/raccoon dynamic. It makes me a little sad to think of Gatsby and Kelvin guarding a chicken barn. But, on a farm, we do the work that comes our way. So, we shall see.

It’s that time of year again…that time when we roll up our sleeves to volunteer as amateur builders (well, I’m an amateur, but Rick’s a pro) and spend a couple of weekends fixing up the homes of seniors and those on fixed incomes, so that they can remain comfortably in their homes. Rick and I are House Captains on a big project this year–so for the next week or so, there may be scant activity on the blog. Bear with us and our aching muscles. We have an entire yard to transform, two porches to rebuild, a bathroom to remodel. wiring to upgrade, a chicken coop to build, a garden to put in, fences all the way around….it will be transformative for all. But don’t worry, it’s not just us. This organization (Rebuilding Together) recruits a zillion volunteers for the ‘big day.’ Our project alone will probably have 40 volunteers who show up, work gloves in hand, ready to pitch in. (And we’ll need them.) On a large project like this, one day isn’t enough, so Saturday we met with 15 volunteers to set the fence posts. We cleaned up a lot and cut down some out-of-control trees (so there can be sunlight in the garden.) One of our volunteers yesterday was 83! (He’s worked on several of our projects and he works so hard he puts the kids to shame.)

This week is planning and logistics. Then, next Saturday our army of fresh-faced, muscle-flexing, angels will descend on the site and, by days end, our exhausted crew will go home with amazing images of before and after dancing in their heads. It’s incredible what you can achieve with good will, doughnuts and coffee! See you soon when things are under control and Rick and I can return to our own dreams of building a future.

Don’t worry about the emus–they’re thigh high now and spending their days munching away on the greens in my front yard.

Egg-Napping—The Quest for Emu Survival

A.V. Walters

Emus have lived on this farm much longer than I have. I didn’t even know they were here until after I’d been here for about eighteen months. Then, I walked into an unusual scenario—After visiting my family for the holidays, my return was delayed by a Midwestern snowstorm. Because Elmer was watching my house, I gave him a call to let him know about the delay. He told me to drop by his place when I got home—the farm had Christmas surprises! Well, it certainly did—Elmer had a new puppy, he’d learned he was expecting another new grandbaby and, in a corner of his kitchen, was the strangest little bird—a baby emu.

The little guy was clearly sick. I asked Elmer where he’d got this little critter. He responded that he was a chick from the emus. Apparently, years earlier a friend had gone into (and quickly out of) the emu business, and he’d given Elmer some of the leftover emus. It turns out that ranchers here use them as guard animals for their sheep. It’s not so much that the emus like sheep, but that they really hate coyotes. So these emus have been living quietly across the road where most of the sheep are kept.

The emus on the farm have never bred successfully. Emus come from Australia, where the winter climate is more forgiving than in Two Rock. Their breeding cycle is triggered when the days start to shorten, and while that’s fine for Australia, here, our emus end up with vulnerable little (figure of speech) eggs and chicks at our coldest time of year. The chick in Elmer’s kitchen was the only survivor of the clutch–the rest all froze. So here was Elmer, in early January, with a living, but very sick little bird. I asked him what he was going to do with it.

“Hand raise it, I guess.”

“Yeah, what do you feed it?”

“Dunno, I’ve been giving it milk.”

Elmer, it’s a bird! Whatever made you think to give it milk?”

“Well, it’s a baby.”

And this from a chicken farmer! With that, I sat down in front of his computer and Googled “Baby emu feed.”

“Elmer, it says here to feed them kale and finely diced apples. And they need to be kept warm, really warm for a couple of weeks.” I was still busy peering at the screen when he handed me the box, emu baby and all.

“Here, you take him. You’re better at the computer research stuff.” (I should have seen the obvious connection, myself–computer research and raising baby emus.)

And so, I’ve been the Emu Lady ever since.

I set up at home with the first emu baby. He was pretty sick, and only lived a couple of days. But by then, I’d become the patron saint of baby emus. I did the research and we decided on a strategy of “emu assistance.” That is, trying to help the emus to raise their own.

One of our strategies was to delay breeding until later in the season, so that the babes would come at a warmer time. Unfortunately this required separating the randy couple. With sheep to move from pasture to pasture, farmhands (with good intentions) can’t seem to remember about the emus. The fence and gate protocols were a bit much–the process was like trying to chaperone teenagers. Let’s face it–emus may be dumb, but they’re faster than we are. Well, so much for that tactic.

It’s been three years now, with no luck. We’ve gone from no live young at all, to achieving success in viable chicks, only to have them succumb to coyotes, foxes, freezing cold, and just plain stupidity. (Like the emu baby who hatched and promptly hung himself on the fence of his enclosure that we put up to keep it safe! Who knew you had to baby-proof an emu pen?) So this season we had a new strategy. We were going to combine delayed breeding with a time-honored tradition—incubation. A friend of Elmer’s gave him emu incubating equipment. He’s all concerned that it’ll use too much power, but the tide is against him and we’ve fired up and tested the incubators.

So, earlier this month we decided to check on those wily birds, figuring it was about time to get them on opposite sides of the fence. Too late. When we walked up to the pasture we saw only one emu. Mrs. Emu. That’s a sure sign that Mr. Emu is off sitting on a clutch of eggs! (With emus, the male is the caretaker parent. The female is basically a nervy, promiscuous hussy.) Sure enough, we walked up the hill to the pond to find Mr. Emu happily sitting on his new clutch of nine eggs. (The photo was taken just before we grabbed the goods.) They were early this year. By weeks. Well, that’s when we knew it was time to fire up the incubator.

Today was the big day. After a series of delays—real teenagers, neck injuries, late tomato harvests and elections—we were finally ready. It was anticlimactic, really. Mr. Emu was his usual genial self. I plied him with apple treats and, while he was snacking, I reached under him and removed the eggs, one by one. Rick wrapped them in a Mylar space-blanket and towel, and we stole off with his family! When we left, he was oblivious to what had happened, and was still gobbling down the apples. (Did I mention that emus weren’t real bright?)

So, the eggs are now safely stashed in the incubator—calibrated and set. (In the other photo, you can see some of them sitting in the rack.) We numbered and weighed them. (Weight is one method of observing chick progress—during the process they lose weight as they lose water mass.) They weighed in at 20 to 23 ounces, each. Emu eggs are big. We’ll have to do some guessing about the “due date” as those sneaky emus got ahead of us. The normal egg gestation is 53 days, but who knows when they got started. Taking their eggs will likely result in a second effort by the emus and, a second clutch of eggs. We’ll try to keep our eyes open, this time. If it’s late enough, we’ll let them try it on their own. Otherwise, they’ll be more eggs bound for the incubator. Sometime around Christmas we’ll know if we succeeded with any of the emu babies, on this first batch.

But then what will we do?

A.V.Walters

We have settled into our normal summer weather pattern. That’s warm (80s) days and cool nights, fueled by ocean fog. It slows down the garden some, but makes this valley extremely livable. You can watch its magic, just before dusk when the winds from the west sweep in a low ‘cloud’ layer, that’s really high fog. Some evenings the sunlight streams in, below the fog, and its raking light illuminates the fields, revealing things you never see in mid-day.

This pattern lets us reap the benefit of old-fashioned air conditioning—we open the windows at night and close them in the morning before the first glimpse of sunshine. It keeps the house in the 60s and 70s, regardless of the daytime highs. Each day the overcast, fog really, clears by about 10:00 am. This gives us marginally shorter daylight exposures, and, sure, that makes for a slightly longer number of days to harvest. It’s worth it. Because our daytime temperatures are also mediated by the ocean, we don’t get the blistering summer temperatures of the inland valleys. It keeps the grapes away. The grapes like really hot days.

Now, doesn’t that sound catty? The NorthBay area, famous for it’s stellar wines and acres of rolling vineyards, has agricultural flair, but sometimes lacks the depth of real farming. It is boutique and/or corporate. Throughout the north bay counties our organic farmers and Farm Trail participants keep it real. It’s only my opinion, but to keep the farm atmosphere, I think the investment side needs to have a stake in the game. Put simply, I like to see dirt under the fingernails. Elmer doesn’t do dirt, but, at an age when most would’ve retired, he still sweats the details of chickens and sheep. If the coyotes yip and howl at night, he wakes up to listen—are his flocks at risk? And he’ll roll out of bed to pull on his jeans and shoes if there’s something to be done about it.

I’m not against vineyards, but when I head inland and see those valleys covered with endless rolling fields of vines, I wonder just who is going to drink all that wine? And, from a gardener’s perspective, monoculture often means too much of a good thing. I believe in diversity.

These past four years have been telling for the grape growers. In this economy, who can afford twenty-dollar bottles of wine? It’s been a boon to cheap wine drinkers, but has put the squeeze on the vineyards. As the high end wines lost market share and reduced their ouptut, the quality vineyards have been forced to sell their grape juice to some of the lower end producers. For the savvy shopper, that spells pretty damn good wines at very reasonable prices. (She smiles as she licks her lips.)

Still, I like that our valley’s climate has kept us in more traditional agriculture. Even though we have great soils, our cooler climate makes real crop/vegetable farming a challenge. So these rolling hills are still host to chicken farmers, rangeland for beef cattle, and dairies.

A dairy is a strange kind of range. Around here we see old-fashioned dairies, where the cows primarily eat grass and the size of the operation is limited to how far a cow can walk twice a day. The dairy next door rotates its fields, and has extra land for harvesting hay. That hay feeds the cows once our dry summer hits and the green drains out of the landscape. We watch out the windows as the cows move from field to field, and every night and morning head in for milking, like city commuters. Right now the only green grass in sight is in the very bottom of the valley, which currently is crowded with cows.

The garden is in. Now we just water, weed and wait. We are behind, but I’m not worried about it. It’s not like last summer, when the fog lasted through the days and the garden just didn’t mature. Even with our late start, things are perking along nicely. We’ve had a couple of crook neck squash, tomatoes and cucumbers so far, with the promise of many more—copious flowers and many many baby green vegetables in sight. It’s a nice time to pause, count our blessings and catch our breath. After all, in a few short weeks we’ll be starting in with some of the winter vegetables, and there’s harvesting and canning to come. For now, we can let the bees do the work.

A.V. Walters

Henrietta

When I first moved to the farm I’d been in the city for 29 years. I was viewed with gentle humor as a kind of exotic transplant. You know, Big-City professional with a ‘tude. It took the garden as a way for me to earn my chops. In the meantime, I was an avid observer of the dynamics of this small farm. I have come to believe that everything in life is personal.

Shortly after I arrived, the farm took in thousands of “used” chickens. (“That’s right, folks, these babies have had only one owner and only laid on Sundays!”) Elmer had a chicken-farmer friend who was retiring. These days that usually means that a small farm is going out of production. The college-educated children of farmers have little interest in farming. More and more, farming is being relegated to agribusiness, by default.

So, the chickens were transferred to one of our empty chicken houses. More often than not, I don’t understand the movements of livestock around farms. Cows, sheep and chickens are on the move all the time around here and, aside from the obvious management of grass length, I understand little of it. But this chicken transfer was a simple move; as a recent transferee to the farm myself, I understood it very well. It was a busy day, trucks with trailers stuffed with chickens in cages, rolling up the lane for most of the day, then deadheading back down the road to the retiree’s farm, empty cages bouncing and clattering, to collect more chickens. As I’ve since learned is often the case with a big transfer, a number of chickens usually escape. It takes a few days to round them up and get them back into cages.

That same day I was having a water problem. I didn’t want to bother Elmer in the middle of so big an operation, so I laid low until after the trucks had made their last run. Things go from full speed to dead pretty quick on a farm. When the work is done, the day is pretty much done. By the time I went looking for Elmer, the place was deserted. I checked the house, several of the chicken barns, even Number Four—but no Elmer.

Finally, I peeked into the chicken barn where the new chickens should have been settling in. Hardly. Chickens don’t like changes to their habitat and the barn was a cacophony of poultry, with feathers flying as chickens reestablished the pecking-order in their new digs. The cages in the chicken house hang about hip-height, and another tier above that. Now, below that, scores of the escaped chickens were roaming the floor, clucking up at their caged compatriots. Some jumped, wings flapping, in vain attempts to get back into the cages! I stood in the opening of the barn’s rolling door, flummoxed. If ever I thought chickens were smart—this cured me of that notion. Other than the escapees, there was not a soul in sight. I watched those loose chickens in their desperate antics, crestfallen. It flew in the face of my own recent flight to the country. Those dumb chickens wanted back into their familiar confines! (And let me tell you, the familiar for an egg-producing chicken is not a pretty thing.) Still, there is that old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” I recoiled from any message that might lurk there, for me.

Peering into the darkening expanse of feathers and dust, I yelled out, “Run Chickens! Now’s your chance, make a break for it while you can!” It fell on deaf ears. Mostly.

Out from behind a rack of tall cages, stepped Elmer, his eyebrows knitted quizzically. “What are you telling my chickens?” he laughed. I blushed, relieved that the cool, dark of the barn kept this secret. Elmer shook his head, still chuckling. I decided to pretend that the only words I spoke in that chicken barn were about my water problem. He nodded and said he’d get up to the tank-house to fix it.

Most of the chickens were retrieved and repatriated over the next few days. All but one—a feisty little hen that eluded capture. Apparently, she’d taken heed of my message, made a run for it and wouldn’t let anyone near her. On a farm that houses tens of thousands of chickens, no one is going to waste a lot of time and effort pursuing just the one. Over the following weeks she grew fat and bold, feeding on spilled chickenfeed and bugs. Over time, her feathers filled out. She preened in the sun on the apron of the barn. We saw her frequently as she made her rounds. She became the talk of the farm, as one tenant after another alerted Elmer, or the farmhands, that there was a chicken on the loose. They’d nod, “Yup.” A loose chicken will usually fall prey to any number of hazards. There are dogs, foxes, hawks and coyotes around here, any one of which will gladly make a meal of a fugitive chicken. Still, she survived.

After about a month, this hen settled in the garden area around Elmer’s house. It became sport to spot and collect her eggs. Emboldened by freedom and the realization that no one was after her, she started hanging around the farm shop, especially when the farmhands took their breaks. They fed her treats from their lunches. They took a poll to name her. Some of the suggested names were getting crazy. Well, after debate, Elmer took the farm-owner’s prerogative and put his foot down on the matter. The chicken would be Henrietta.

I watched this unfold with some measure of mirth. Here this one chicken had, by force of stubborn personality, managed to elevate her status from escapee to pet. She made it personal. One of the farm hands brought her raw sunflower seeds. They argued such things at break-time like whether it would be okay to feed her popcorn—you know, because of the salt. They were teaching her to catch treats tossed in the air. The best of it was that everyone saw the humor (not to mention the irony) in it—a chicken farm with a pet chicken.

One day Henrietta mysteriously disappeared. Not a trace, no evidence of “foul” play. Folks would ask each other if they’d seen Henrietta.  Everyone kept an eye out. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise; we all knew the risks. But still, nary a feather to be found. And it did seem odd, since she generally stayed so close to where people were. As you would expect, her absence sounded louder than her presence ever had. Break-time talk lapsed back into the work at hand and any funny story of the day. (Farmers are such gossips!)

We have a guy on the farm, Bill, who works the chicken houses. He mostly keeps to himself and doesn’t come down and hang with the other hands at break-time. He’s developmentally disabled and is more comfortable taking his breaks in his quarters, or out wherever he’s working that day. He’s nice enough, but shy, and uncomfortable trying to keep up with the ribald conversations in and around the shop. Well, about a week after Henrietta’s disappearance Elmer mentioned it to Bill. He nodded, “That loose chicken? Yeah, I finally got her.”

“What? You caught her? What did you do with her?” Maybe Elmer’s tone was a little too strident. Bill, who thought he was just doing what he was supposed to, got defensive and flustered. “I put her back in the cages.” “Which cage?”

“I dunno—over in Number Six, somewhere.”

Elmer couldn’t exactly be angry. A farm hand had put a loose chicken into a chicken cage. It’s what’s supposed to happen. How was Bill to know that this was no ordinary chicken? It had never been explained to him that Henrietta was now a pet chicken. I know that Elmer spent some time looking, walking the aisles between the cages in Number Six. I think most of us did. You’d think she would have been easy to spot, but it’s difficult to tell one brown hen from all the other brown hens, in a barn with thousands of other chickens. Whatever it was that was special about her, she didn’t stand out when you were peering through the wire.