Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Here Chick Chick Chick

I have recently been asked to post a couple of stories I wrote a few years ago when I lived on the farm. Thankfully my DH kept the link to my website so I could go find the stories and as requested. Here they are.
"HERE, Chick, chick, chick
As I did not want to lose a year of chicken raising, I convinced the family that it would not be a bad idea to raise a few chickens in our gym till we moved to the farm. They would be outside at 4 weeks, and how badly could 210 chickens smell up a school, especially when locked in the farthest corner of the 36x36 gym? I prepared for the birds by building a 2-foot high, 8x16 foot brooder with aluminum foil lamps and plenty of chopped grass for feed and bedding. Countless hours were spent researching the best organic feeds until finally a good variety of grains and proteins had been mixed to develop the perfect feed for my birds.
Early one morning in May we picked up our first batch of chicks. 100 meat birds and 50 dual-purpose heritage breed layers. They were cute, chirping happily, and adapted quickly from their 1 square foot box to the large brooder and atmosphere of love.
They received their first breakfast of boiled eggs, hand picked and chopped chickweed, spinach, grass and other herbs, plus a smattering of cloves and kelp over the grain mash. I watched them happily chase each other and then while they slept, measured the distance from their sleeping bodies to the lights to be sure they weren’t too close or too far away. I’d spent 3 days prior to their arrival trying to adjust the temperature of the brooder, and had many a grey hair sprout over the discrepancies between the three thermometers I had bought that insisted it was 80, 94 and 101F all in the space of 4 square inches. After throwing two out and hoping the third was accurate, I laid underneath the lamp for hours to get used to the feel of 95F temperature with the hopes that I would be able to tell, with the sweep of a hand, how warm it was. As my hand was obviously not heat sensitive, I ended up going with the recommended “wait till the chicks come and see if they are huddling under the light, piling in corners or just around it”. I agonized over whether the genetically modified ping pong sized head on a basketball size body chickens would still have the instinct to know that they would fry if they were too close or freeze if they were too far away from the light.
The chicks had 2x the amount of room needed and looked so energetic and happy. They sat on my lap when I was in with them, ate feed out of my hand, came when I called or tapped the side of the box and only caused heart failure a few times by sleeping so soundly they all looked fried.
Could chicks die from SIDS? Why isn’t there more information on the sleeping habits of chicks? I can’t be the first to wonder these things. While researching these concerns on the internet, I would take frequent breaks to check the chicks who had learned to hold their breath while I watched, just so I could not determine if their little chests were rising and falling. With a little help from professionals, I was encouraged to talk while entering the room, so they would wake up and start chirping before I could see their not moving stretched bodies and assume they were dead.
After 3 hours of happy frolicking they started crowding under the lights. The booklets said not to lower the lights more than 18 inches, but I was getting dangerously close to the 6 inch height and had concerns about spontaneous combustion, and the packed green grass bedding that was steaming from the heat and moisture. The only consolation was that the gym was all concrete and bricks and could not burn down.
Even at the 6 inch height, the chicks were not happy. The thermometer I had kept was most obviously lying to me, and I knew I would have to cover my 8x16 foot brooder with something to keep the heat in. Trellises came off the garden wall and were laid across 2x4s for a makeshift roof that could support sleeping bags and towels. Ahhhh, the chicks were finally moving away. . . to crowd in the corners and smother each other in their attempts to get as far away from the heat source as possible. The lights were suspended on ropes slung through roof supports 18 feet up in the air, and as my arms are not 4 feet long to reach across the brooder, the only way to raise or lower them was to crawl underneath the trellis, scoot on my back to the light, wriggle a hand through a hole in the trellis, and tie the rope higher while supporting the light with my gloved hand. Thankfully the chicks had not been in there for more than a few hours or my scooting may have been more slippery and lubricated than it was. While I did not get any sleep that night for checking on the breathing and sleeping habits of the chicks, with a bit of fiddling, a lot of scooting on my back, and a little encouragement, I did get them to sleep the proper distance from the light.
By the end of the first week, I had run out of weeds and needed to mow the lawn again for fresh clippings. How much fun it was to watch them come running to scratch around the fresh piles of grass and spread it for me – I didn’t even mind the extra mowing when it was for them.
My daily hunts for new greenery and weeds soon led me to a stash of chickweed at the back of a storage shed. I proudly cut them a sizeable amount, which they lit into with zest. Mother came in to watch and asked where all the chickweed had come from. With the enthusiasm of a archeologist sharing a dig site, I explained my source and her face went pale, “You’re kidding?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I sprayed the weeds there yesterday morning.”
I went as white as her, and she crouched to observe the chicks while I jumped in the brooder and assumed the many poses of a contortionist, scooping up handfuls of the weed while pulling greenery out of as many beaks as I could reach. Beaks that were not appreciative of me stealing their treats, whose owners were scurrying to the nether regions of the brooder as quickly as their legs could carry them, while I – flat on my back - wiggled after them as quickly as my shoulders could scoot under the 2 foot high roof. Thankfully there were no deaths and before I took a much-needed shower, my family got a few more lectures on the many reasons we should not be using chemical sprays.
Within a short while, I was adding bedding daily, but the gym started to smell like a never emptied but well used outhouse in a provincial campground. I couldn’t seem to keep the bedding dry, and the little chicks were no longer cute and fuzzy but stinky and half naked with their real feathers coming in. You could smell when I had gone down to check the birds breathing, as the “eu de cluck cluck” perfume wafted back down the hall into the rest of the house. When exposed to constant comments from family members on the smell of chicken litter, I reminded them of the one thing we could be thankful of - I had laid a tarp under the bedding before putting the chicks in, so none of the smelly mess would permeate the tile in the gym. For some reason this did not excite them.
The next shipment of chicks was coming out of province and included 50 dual-purpose layers and 10 silkies. I picked them up at the bus depo and found they had been in transport for 18 hours and were a bit stressed. As I was now an expert with 2 weeks of chick experience under my proverbial belt, I gave them their feed and told them to keep a stiff upper beak and they’d be fine in a couple days. Within 3 days several chicks were dead. A week later the death toll was 18, and there was nothing I, chicken farmer extroirdinaire, could do to stop it. I was given a dozen different reasons for the deaths – I had given them too much water at first, not enough water, not enough vitamins, too many vitamins. Thankfully they had included many extras, but it still did not cover the cost of the chicks, and I was not about to use the voucher they had given me for replacement chicks from them. I might be a tad slow, but I’m not a sucker for punishment - or so I thought.
It was getting crowded in the gym, so I sent the layer chicks outside to the 4x6 toolshed with a small run around it. They were having the time of their life, but I can not claim the same. My time was spent trying to contain the little escape artists as they wriggled through holes and flew over fences books had said would be high enough to contain them. The meat birds needed to go outside also, as they were almost 4 weeks old and quickly outgrowing the brooder - to put it simply, with 160 birds in the 8x16 brooder, there wasn't the recommended 2 square feet per bird. We had had some fairly nice weather, so I put the meat birds outside in their 8x8 pasture pen, and they seemed to adapt to the outside climate fairly well. Well, they did all right until that night when the temperature dropped, and we had a freezing rainstorm. At midnight I went out in pajamas to surround the pen with layers of plastic, lay in the slimy manure on my back to put another heat lamp under the 2 foot high pen, and tried to get the chicks to think positive thoughts while they huddled in the pools of freezing water. I did have a fleeting thought of bringing them in the house, but it was very fleeting. I did my best and went back to bed – after a shower of course – to wake up to the same weather. One chick was dead, but the rest seemed to be keeping warm.
At 5 weeks they were running around free range following their surrogate mother (me) wherever she went. In a strange way I was enjoying the attention and had developed an attachment to these mindless, sun-burnt beasts.
I knew that a family of foxes resided at the end of the town limits, which was only half a mile away, so I was keeping an eye on them and counting my birds nightly – not an easy feat when they are all white, look alike, and mill around in a disorganized fashion as soon as you begin to count. One night at around 1AM, the Lord woke me up and told me to look out the window. I saw a saliva dripping shadow circling MY chickens. I let out a hollar, called the dog and took off down the hall wishing I had a gun and knew how to use it. My initial shout had woken the family and continuing yells for “get a gun!” brought them running. I let out the Great Dane who circled the house, caught the scent of the fox and took off after it. The dog and fox hit the layer chick’s wire pen, tangled in the wire, and the fox gave a spine tingling scream before climbing the fence and taking off down our village main street. I could see the fox had no idea of returning, so I called the dog, who to my surprise actually came back. I set up my cot outside and proceeded to spend the rest of the night out there, peeking my head out of the sleeping bag every 5 minutes to make sure there were no predators lurking about. By morning I knew that I was not going to be able to sleep inside ever again, so I set up camp with my 4 man tent that fits one human adequately. From that day till we moved to the farm, I lived outside in the cold, bug infested prairie, freezing at night and trying to sleep in the suffocating heat of the morning while the sun had the audacity to come up at 4AM and say, “GOOOOOOD MORNING!” The dog had decided the night of the attack that it was too scary to sleep outside and remained in my room on her bed, only coming out to make the rounds before she went to bed, and then to raise her head at me when I got up at 5AM to crawl into my bed in the house, hoping the daylight would keep the fox away. It worked, and I didn’t lose a single bird, though I am sure I lost several years of my life.
When the chicks were 6 weeks old, we loaded the 210 birds plus beds, sofas and brick a brack into a 29-foot bison trailer to relocate everything to the farm. We did the move at 8PM to avoid the heat of the day, and I spent another 2 hours trying to convince a horse that won’t go into a trailer at the best of times, to step into a dark trailer that was teaming with squawking birds. It didn’t work, so the horse stayed while we went to the farm and unloaded the birds into their house at midnight.
The next morning I realized I quickly had to do something about the living quarters of the chickens – there were no windows in the small tool shed and the temperature soared to over 100 degrees in the early summer sun. I spent one frenzied day putting up t-posts and stretching chicken wire around them to give the chicks their well deserved greenery and exercise area. A day after the pen was together and everything moved to the farm, I collapsed due to stress induced illness - oh the joys of the simple, peaceful, healthy, farm life.
Around November the laying breeds started laying - what a surprise! Inside the existing barn, I had built those 60 birds a 11x24 coop with lovely designer nest boxes. I gave them 6 rows of roosts, thick straw for bedding, feeders for oyster shells, organic grains, compost, and dirt, and then insulated the one exposed wall with straw bales that reached within 6 inches of the ceiling.
Oddly enough, after improvements to the coop, the chickens production dropped drastically. I knew our winters could be hard on the birds, especially as I had no supplemental lighting or heat, but it was getting ridiculous. Some days I would get 58 eggs, and some I would get 15. Field glasses in hand, I began following birds around and found a small nest with 23 eggs in the hay pile by the barn. Then I started noticing other birds wandering and found hoardes of 30 and 40 eggs deep in the recesses of the large hay and straw piles which were too far away for chickens to reach – or so I had read. Eggs in hay mangers, in corners of stalls, loafing barns, buckets, holes in walls, under nesting boxes and in every hole they could find in my straw wall. I watched one fly to a tiny ledge in the straw wall, scratch herself a hole between two bales, turn around and lay an egg. Another mentally challenged bird flew up, clawed her way in between two bales and laid an egg while the rear half of her body was sticking out in space. I watched that egg and many others drop 4 feet onto the floor while the bird was convinced she was hidden and laying an egg in the straw instead of mid-air. The straw that broke the camel's back (or my back) was when I saw a hen sitting up on top of my straw bale wall. I could not fathom how she climbed up there and was sitting in a tiny 6 inch space between the straw bale and the ceiling! I got a stick and shooed her down, only to find 3 other hens were up there also. I climbed up the wall and grabbed a couple eggs from the nest while giving the hens the “if looks could kill you’d be dead” glare. The next day they were up there again, so I chased them down again and sat to observe how they were getting up there. They would pace back and forth and finally get up the nerve to fly the first 4 feet. When their feet hit the straw they start scratching and pulling themselves up with their beaks and claws while flapping and squawking – in essence, scaling the wall. I decided to eliminate the stress and just tear down the bale wall. I grabbed the top bale by the string and pulled at the wall to start the whole thing tumbling. As I looked up, a heavy rain of 50+ eggs showered down on top of my head and into my arms. The chickens were laughing their heartiest, and I was not at my best covered in raw egg yolk, for the freshest eggs seemed to have been laid up there and had not frozen solid yet. Of course being slimed with fresh eggs is preferrable to being knocked unconscious by frozen ones, but I only realize that now.
I dragged the straw out, and told the chickens they could freeze for all I cared. The family got a good laugh, and I was able to appreciate the humor the next day while I put another bale wall up to stop some of the wind and protect my poor shivering birds. I covered it with chicken wire and stapled it everywhere to keep the birds out. For a few weeks production was up, then it started dropping, and I could see a couple birds were flying to the rafters and then hopping over the wire to lay eggs on top of the bales.
My first mistake was when I climbed up the chicken roost to get at the birds to chase them down. While I had been standing on the roost support, nothing happened, but when I stepped onto the end of a roost (which was not nailed down), the opposite end popped out of it’s slot, and I fell backwards onto the rest of the roosts. Being 2x2’s, they were more than willing to snap and allow me to fall straight to the cement floor unhindered. I had just been adding fresh bedding to the coop but had not made it to the area under the roosts, so there was little to soften my landing. I admit to less than kind thoughts towards the birds while I stared up at the ceiling and lay in fresh chicken manure. After regaining my sense, I got up, chased the chickens with a piece of broken roost – which made me feel better – and tore down the wall I had spent hours making.
Production did not go back up as the conniving birds had learned to lay elsewhere. So, I studiously moved all my hay piles from the barn where they were convenient to feed, to behind the pasture which would make daily hauling a necessity. I decided to lock the birds up for a week so they would be forced to lay in the nest boxes. That lasted 2 days before their sad pacing up and down the fence plus mournful eyes made me realize how cruel I was being.
On the recommendation of many chicken owners, I covered thel nest boxes to darken them and make them more inviting, but it resulted in the reverse and the hens refused to step near the black hole where who-knows-what was hiding. I put golf balls in the nests to encourage laying in the boxes and discourage eating their own eggs (in case that’s where the eggs were going), and they started setting and tried to hatch golf balls. So, I took the golf balls out and set them in an empty eavestrough which was resting on top of the nest boxes. The chickens showed off their new talent of balancing on a 3-inch eavestrough while laying eggs amongst the golf balls. The golf balls went out the door, and the chickens went on strike till I gave them back a few golf balls to humour them.
They still insist on laying eggs in other places, but I’ve learned to find the hiding spots and leave them locked up for a few extra hours in the morning, so they at least limit their laying to the barn. Or at least, they have finally fooled me into thinking they are laying their eggs in the barn.
Well, I'm exhausted from reading my adventures (I can't believe what a short memory I have as reading it was like reading a new story to me), so
Signing off
Heather, Ben, Emily, Franklet, Tia, Mocha, and Becky

1 comment:

Lynn said...

So now, who is Becky? Have I missed something? I haven't responded to your questions yet, we've had the flu for 2 weeks! I'm in the midst right now, and so is Andrew. David has been terribly ill, but on the mend. Peter is much better, and hopefully Jim and Jonathan won't come down with it at all. Talk to you soon!