What the Muck?!

When we sold our herd of goats last winter, we knew that we’d eventually try to move our ducks and chickens into the goat run. For one, we hated the thought of two sheds and a large, lovely pen sitting empty. For another, our flock was getting picked off, one by one, by predators; the whole free-ranging thing was backfiring big time.

The sheds were pretty clean when we moved the birds in. They probably could’ve used a clean-out, but moving all the birds in was a big enough project, so we skipped it.

That was last summer.

Since last summer, we have taken in 15 ducks and a handful of chickens from a friend who couldn’t keep her flock.  Adding those to the survivors of last summer’s massacre, we’ve currently got about 30 birds.

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Shit, shit everywhere…

Chickens roost; ducks don’t. This means that the chickens are pooping throughout the night in one spot while the ducks are pooping throughout the night in a different spot. THIS means that there has been poop everywhere, every night, for over a year.

Today, I started mucking out the coop.

I think it is safe to say there are few jobs as stinky, filthy, exhausting, and totally gross as an overdue coop muck-out. I would venture a guess that a septic-tank-clean-out-gone-awry would be right up there, but even that probably wouldn’t be quite as horrifying.

After about an hour of pitchforking pee- and poop-soaked hay into an ENORMOUS PILE outside the coop, I had only managed to dislodge roughly one-third of the putrefaction. At this point, however, I realized that I only had enough pine shavings to cover the area I’d completed and, were I to keep going, the floor of the coop would be bare until I could get more.

This was a weak and lame excuse to stop working and I saw right through it. Regardless, I took myself up on the opportunity to quit, covered the freshly-cleaned out section with lovely pine shavings, and stood back to admire my half-assed workmanship.

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Keep left.

I quickly realized that after one night of roosting above the clean and lovely bit that was mucked, the chickens would immediately undo much of my work. Since this particular corner of the coop is a favorite egg laying spot, I put up a chicken wire fence across the roosting bars on that side to prevent any nocturnal fecal vandalism.

Of course, I’ll have to finish the job sooner rather than later. While it is hard to work up much enthusiasm for such a task, there is a great sense of accomplishment when it’s finally done.

And, for some reason, the EXACT SAME muck, when moved to a new location, holds untold wonders for the stupid, stupid birds.

Sigh.

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A Mite Hungry

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Peaceful, bucolic shot of one totally annihialated hive

My hives died this winter.

This is the first time since starting my hives in 2013 that they haven’t survived and I’ve been anxious to know what killed them.

Bees in this country are generally in a hurry to be obliterated by one thing or another. If they’re not huffing pesticides in the big apiaries like teenagers around a bong, then they are prone to infestation, starvation, freezing, neglect, mold, moths, and mice–among other things. Those last three are typically not the cause of death, but rather opportunistic pseudo-parasites that move on in once the hive is already compromised or demised.

I once thought I lost a hive to wax moths and was informed that no, I lost a hive due to my own negligence and the wax moths would like to thank me for my inadvertent generosity.

Going into the winter this past fall, I ensured that my hives all had plenty of honey (the rule of thumb is 70-100 pounds of honey per hive) and even topped each hive with a bee patty for good measure in case it was a particularly mild winter and the larvae were peckish.

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She died searching for something to eat – also a typical threat from our teenagers

But here’s the thing about winter bees: it doesn’t matter how much they have to eat if they aren’t close enough to the food.

I knew this and yet I left the honey super on the bottom of the hive, rather than moving it up one. I was figuring the bees knew where it was and would situate themselves accordingly.

I was, once again, figuring wrong.

A sign that your hive may have starved to death is comb filled with “bee butts.” This will be a tremendously sad, bummer of a discovery if you love your bees as I do. The bees will be face down into the comb, having died during their desperate search for a snack.

img_1451While the Bee Butt Factor was high in my hives, there was also a small (but not insignificant) amount of white debris at the bottom of the hives.

While this could just be crystallized honey, and I think that it is, it could also be evidence of varroa mite infestation.

Varroa Mites are also known as Varroa Destructor, but whenever I hear that term, I envision a giant tick-like creature wearing a cape.

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I am Varroa Destructor.

Varroa are tiny little sinister dickheads who have absolutely no respect for personal space. They may be the most insidious of all parasites in their methodology.

To enter a hive, varroa literally hitch a ride on the body of a drone and enter right through the front door in a totally sinister piggyback ride. Once inside, the mite will seek out some young, sexy nurse bee and attach itself to her, sucking her blood while biding its time.

When bee larvae is eight days old, they emit a pheromone signal to let the nurse bees know it is time to cap their cells. The problem is that this same signal is registered by the mites as a signal to enter the cell, which they do, snuggling down into the royal jelly beneath the larva. If that weren’t despicable enough, the mites actually use a snorkel-like feature to be able to submerge themselves entirely and still be able to creepily breathe.

Once capped in the cell, the mite will begin eating the growing larva and laying eggs. There

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Stolen internet picture of two mites on a bee

are about five eggs laid–the first one being male and the rest female. These siblings then mate WITH EACH OTHER, making demented little inbred, cross-eyed mites, and emerge from the cell having mortally wounded the larva inside and embarking on their journey of Really Gross Destruction.

So, taking everything into consideration, I’m more convinced that I lost my hives due to Sloppy Beekeeping Resulting in Starvation than Sloppy Beekeeping Resulting in Varroa Mites.

I really need to work on my sloppy beekeeping.

Luckily, Friend Maggie Who Doesn’t Kill Bees is willing to help! She is going to set me up with a nucleus colony this spring so I can restart my hives and, if that weren’t enough, she is going to ensure it is a robust nuc that can potentially be split this summer.

I will try not to kill them.

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…like I killed them.

 

 

 

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You Gonna Eat That?

img_1292We have about 32 assorted birds on applewood farm at the moment.

We also have a casual restaurant that generates a generous amount of food waste.

Turns out, birds LOVE restaurant food.

Chickens love it; ducks love it; guinea fowl love it.

img_8016-lI’m sure geese would love it too, but we’ll never know because geese are jerks and they’re not allowed here.

It takes us about two days to fill a five-gallon bucket of food scraps so, every other day, the birds get their usual feed supplemented with everything from vegetable peelings and stems to leftover bread and french fries.

As long as there are no alliums (birds HATE onions, garlic, etc.) or citrus (also much-despised), the flock is noticeably uplifted on Bucket Days.

And, as long as the bounty is well-distributed all over the coop run, the birds seem to do an excellent job of sharing the goods. Everyone who wants some, gets some.

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Olga, rethinking her life choices

Except for Olga.

Olga lived for the past year in the rafters of the garage barn, along with the vast majority of the rest of the chickens. When something started killing all of our birds last spring, we modified the old goat run into a coop and moved all the remaining birds in.

Everyone stays there happily. That’s where the food is. That’s where the water is.

Olga, however, won’t be fenced in. She, apparently, needs to be free.

So she escaped the confines (and the warmth and the food) for a life on the road. Living on her own, she forages for bird seed that falls out of the feeder and, we imagine, is wicked thirsty most of the time. Typically, we find her lingering around the outside of the enclosure she rejected, most likely looking for a way back in.  God help us, however, if WE try to put her back in. She will raise the dead with her squawking and screaming and the neighbors will call to make sure someone isn’t being murdered.

Some nights, after everyone has settled in and Olga is back on her garage barn roost, we’ll grab her and carry her back to the coop. Invariably, though, she just finds a way out. We’ll keep doing it because we want her to be safe and cared for, but she’ll likely just keep escaping because that’s what she wants.

img_1298Everyone else will continue to enjoy the thrice-weekly goodies which, to this day, she has yet to taste.

Yum.

 

 

 

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Like Water Off a Duck’s Back

Recently, a friend approached me about taking in her ducks and chickens.

She was getting ready to move and her new digs wouldn’t allow for poultry. I mentioned that we had plenty of space for birds since our flock had been largely wiped out last spring, so it seemed a perfect solution for both of us.

Earlier this month, we had this text conversation:

Her: Were you serious about taking my ducks?

Me: How many are there?

Her: 11. I’ll buy you feed.

Me: If you could help with feed, we could totally take them. Are they Pekins?

Her: 3 Runners, 1 Pekin, 1 French Toulouse Goose, 2 Mallards, 2 Rouens, 1 Swedish, and I’m forgetting someone. There are about half a dozen chickens too.

Me: I’ll take ’em all but the goose. I hate geese.

Me: Hate hate hate

Her: Okay. Maybe I can find another home for him.

Me: Hate

Her: Yeah, he’s a dick. His name is firefly.

Me: All geese are dicks. His name should be Asshole.

img_1080So, with the ground rules being established, we proceeded with the adoption process.

She crated up all the birds and delivered them to their new home on applewood farm.

Having only had Pekins previously, I wasn’t familiar with all these other duck flavors. It took all of about 30 seconds for me to fall completely in love with the Runners. Unlike regular ducks, these guys stand up straight and run instead of waddling. They are hilarious and goofy and Jim Henson would have had a field day anthropomorphizing them.

The only discernible difference between the Mallards and the Rouens (that my untrained eye could find) was that the female Rouen has a splash of vibrant purple on her wing tips. Otherwise, I’d be hard-pressed to tell one from the other. The Swedish, on the other hand, looked like a Pekin that had a bottle of ink splattered all over it. The whole gang won me over fairly instantly; I guess I’m a duck girl.

It took about two weeks for the new ducks to settle into their surroundings.

At first, every time we went in to feed or water them, all ten of them would be huddled in their coop. If we went into the coop to flush them out toward the feed and water, they would flail spastically into one another, stumbling and running out the door. The minute we would come out of the coop, however, the whole motley crew would hurry back inside without ever getting anything to eat or drink. I had to hope they were finding sustenance when we weren’t looking.

The chickens had none of these issues.

All of the hens immediately made themselves at home in the coop and yard, scratching and pecking and behaving an awful lot like chickens.

img_1082We’d been alerted that, while unremarkable in every other way, one of the hens required something in the way of human affection as often as possible.

This particular bird will come right up to you when you’re filling a waterer or a feeder and simply stand nearby awaiting her cuddle.

We, of course, are happy to oblige.

Aside from Snuggle Chicken, the only need the birds really have that require much from us is The Watering.

Without a natural water source available to them or us, we have to drag our Extraordinarily Long Length of Hose from the house to the coop every time they need water, which is always. In the summer, we can leave the hose out and simply provide water as needed. In the winter, however, if we don’t roll the hose up in the cellar, it will freeze overnight and make it impossible to use. When the hose is set to “Impossible,” we must resort to lugging five-gallon buckets of water from the house and that, my friends, sucks really hard.

Ducks without water are unhappy ducks.

There’s not much they love more than swimming and bathing and splashing. Keeping a bath in freezing temperatures is generally impossible, so we try to do the next best thing…

img_1061We literally just stand and hold the hose while the ducks take turns walking through, or standing in, the blast of water.

The longer we do it, the more puddles and rivulets form from which all of the birds quite enjoy drinking. Nothing quite rivals the spray of the hose, though, and the ducks are impressively equitable–ensuring that everyone who wants a turn gets one.

Once I saw how much they enjoy it, it really just served to make me feel badly on days when my schedule wouldn’t allow for Sprinkler Time.

img_1057But, today is Christmas and I don’t have anywhere else to be. If anyone needs me, I’ll be down at the coop, watering the ducks.

 

 

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I Need to Get This Off My Chest

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Since I started blogging back in 2012, I’ve only written one non-farm-related post. That was right after my best friend, Maggie, died suddenly. She and I had made it a habit, sometimes verging on a game of literary Tag, to include one another in our blogs, so it seemed only proper to write about her one last time.

Now, I’m compelled to venture away from farming once again.

Sometimes stuff happens in life and we are utterly out of control. My recent breast cancer diagnosis has had this effect on my life, making everything a little more difficult in the immediate and promising to make everything A LOT more difficult for a bit in the very near future.

I am hoping to get the surgical portion of this program over with in the next couple of weeks, moving on to the reconstruction portion right after that, and then easing into the I-used-to-have-cancer-but-I chopped-off-the-offending-appendages-and-now-things-are-pretty-much-okay portion of the process with grace, style, and possibly a sassy new hairdo.

As someone who had two home births to avoid even the suggestion of a hospital or doctor invading my personal space, I am heading into foreign territory, to be sure. I am, however, surrounded by a community that has proven to be so overwhelmingly supportive and loving that I feel about as lifted up as any human has a right to feel.

A CaringBridge page has been started and maintained by my excellent and funny brother and a YouCaring page has been started and maintained by my lovin’ man. The mind-bending generosity of family, friends, and acquaintances has gone a crazy-long way toward helping us handle the financial burden that such illnesses bring (political rhetorical side question: How broken is our healthcare system when we are forced to resort to crowd-funding for life-saving surgery?). 

Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.

All of this is by way of explanation as to why there will likely be a dearth of farming blog posts from me this summer. It’s a terrible time to abandon the farm, literally and literarily, but sometimes these things can’t be avoided.

I’ll catch up with y’all once this whole ordeal is over and I’m back to my old self (with the notable addition of a gravity-defying replacement rack), but now I just need to get this off my chest.

 

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Hand-Hatchlings

A couple of our hens went broody a little over a month back.

Because chicken eggs take three weeks to hatch, it isn’t uncommon for additional eggs to be added to the original clutch along the way. The sitting mama will leave her brood to eat or drink and another hen may seize the opportunity to lay an egg right into the broody’s nest.  The problem here is that the new additions aren’t on the same schedule as the original bunch and, once hatching begins, the late joiners can be left behind.

This is what happened to us.

Brahma Mama hatched out four of her eggs, waited a day, and then moved off the clutch to start to teach her new hatchlings how to scratch and peck and be generally chicken-y.

We knew the remaining three eggs had to be within a week of hatching, so we quickly moved them into our incubator to give them a second chance and, a couple of days later, they started pipping.

Pipping is when the chick starts to break through the shell.  Once pipping starts, the chick will usually emerge fully within a few hours. It is important to pay attention, however, because sometimes the chick doesn’t emerge but, instead, gets stuck inside the egg and can’t get out. If it takes too long, the membrane just inside the shell will become tough and rubbery and the little chick won’t ever be able to get out–it will die in the shell.

The rule of thumb is 24 hours. From the time of the pip, if the chick hasn’t hatched in 24 hours, it really isn’t going to. When that happens, it’s time to hand-hatch.

IMG_5804Hand-hatching is, essentially, unwrapping the new chicklet. This requires patience, a steady hand, and the dexterity of a mouse surgeon. The work is incredibly delicate and the possibility of damaging the chick-ball inside is super high.

Starting at the pip-point and holding the egg in a warm washcloth, you carefully peel away the shell entirely around the circumference of the egg (“unzippering”). Once the shell is removed, the thin membrane between the shell and the chick is carefully unzippered as well.

I use flat-tipped tweezers to avoid puncturing the bird and frequently clean them in warm water. I dab the tips before going back for more membrane, however, to avoid inadvertently putting drops of water into the chick’s beak and drowning it (yep, that’s a thing).

Once the membrane is fully unzippered, the “cap” of eggshell is gently removed. At this point, if the chick is animated at all, I will place the uncapped egg back in the incubator and allow the chick to finish hatching on her own.

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Chick-ball

One of our incubator rescues hatched entirely on her own, but the other two needed to be fully hand-hatched.

The difference between chicks hatched naturally (under a chicken) and chicks hatched in an incubator is fairly significant. Add to that the insult of not even being able to break through an eggshell unassisted and you’ve got yourself a pretty unimpressive start to life.

The best possible next step for the hand-hatchlings is to be adopted by a recently broody hen, but this is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Since we had a recently broody hen handy, we thought we’d give it a shot.

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Fluffing out

Placing the damp and bedraggled chicks into a brooder (a container lined with pine shavings under a heat lamp) for about a day allowed them to figure out how to use their legs and fluff out a bit.

The next night, when Brahma Mama and her four chicks were settled in and calm, we took the three brooder chicks out into the yard where they were set-up in our chicken tractor.

We carefully tucked each chick, one at a time, under the Mama and watched for a few minutes to ensure that she didn’t immediately reject them and start pecking at them or hurting them. Since the evening was pretty chilly, we needed to make sure she would allow them under her or else they would definitely have died overnight from exposure.

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Safe and content

Everything seemed alright at first, so we left them alone.

When we checked back an hour later, all seven chicks seemed to be safe and content with Mama.

This is definitely the best-case scenario as not all hens will even care for the chicks they hatch themselves, much less interlopers looking for a quick adoption.

It’s been over a week now, and all seven babes seem equally healthy and hardy. There are four yellow birds and three black ones and I genuinely could not tell you which were hand-hatched at this point.  That would not be true if the mama hadn’t taken them in–they’d be behind the others both physically and developmentally in a way that they just aren’t now.

IMG_1429And, of course, they are ridiculously cute (but they’d have been that either way).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mother’s Day Brunch

After about 25 years in restaurants, I can safely say that Mother’s Day brunch is the worst possible shift the industry has to offer. It is stressful for a number of reasons, but mainly because EVERYONE thinks that THEIR mother is somehow older, more frail, more needy, you name it, than everyone else’s mother. We actually had a script in the last restaurant that employees could use as Mother’s Day approached to tactfully deal with people who had “extraordinary” needs for that particular Sunday brunch.

So, waking up on Mother’s Day and not having to even think about working that unenviable shift is a gift in and of itself. The farm, however, had it’s own little Mother’s Day surprise today.

As it turns out, something is eating our chickens.

It started about two weeks ago when, in the middle of the night, the dogs woke us up in an insane frenzy of barking.

The middle-of-the-night barkfest is not an exceptionally rare occurrence, but this one was different. There’s a quality to the barking that is more desperate when THE THING triggering the barking is unusual. This amped-up howling roused us, and got us out of bed and to the windows. It was hard to see whether anything interesting was out there, but the dogs weren’t calming down, so we keep looking.

After a few minutes, I saw one of our Brahma hens careening, full bore, out of the coop (which we only then realized we’d never closed up for the night) followed immediately by what was, presumably, a hungry fox.

Dave grabbed some shoes and a dog and ran after them, following a trail of feathers, only to arrive at the scene of the crime in time to find a freshly-dead hen.

That was the first one.

We really felt that was largely our fault for having left the coop open overnight. It was a veritable poultry buffet in there and any predator worth his or her salt would have accepted our inadvertent invitation to eat our chickens.

The next one happened right in the middle of the day, though.

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*poof*

Sometime between Dave going out to the hoop house to water the seedlings and me getting on the tractor to mow (about an hour, mind you), something made off with another bird.

This time, there was no carnage, just a tell-tale scattering of feathers where mere moments before there had been a bird.

So, that was the second one.

Now, here I will interrupt the story to explain that we are currently in the midst of Broody Hen Season. This occurs every spring when, one by one, certain hens decide that they are going to hatch some eggs and nothing anyone says or does is gonna change their minds.

For the past couple of weeks, two of our hens (one Brahma and one Olive Egger) have been sitting on eggs in the garage barn.  The Brahma set up camp in the back of a dog crate and the Olive Egger hunkered down on some eggs in a cat carrier on the floor. They chose these spots, rather than in the relative safety of the chicken coop, because they are complete and total morons.

Of course, the dog crate and cat carrier are in the top five of Favorite Places for Hens to Lay Eggs these days. This means the broodies have monopolized valuable real estate and the laying hens have to find new digs. The only way we can prevent the laying hens from simply climbing in with the broodies and laying right into their egg clutches is to close the carrier doors until after everyone has laid her eggs for the day. At that point, we open the little gate doors for the broody mamas to be able to come out for food, water, and pooping.

We leave the carrier doors open overnight and then close them back up in the morning when the process begins again.

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Not brunch

When I went out this morning to open the coop and close up the broodies, all seemed well. The dogs had been calm overnight and so I had absolutely no preparation for what I was to find when I went into the garage barn.

Brahma Mama was alive and well and sitting on her clutch in the back of the dog crate, but the cat carrier was overturned. There were FEATHERS. Everywhere. There was such a profound magnitude of chicken shit it looked as though there had been a well-attended Teach Your Chickens to Shit in a Giant Pile seminar overnight in the space.

The overturned cat carrier was chicken-free and the egg clutch was cold and no longer viable.

Someone had gotten themselves a free Mother’s Day brunch and I imagine the Olive Egger felt briefly like a tortured restaurant worker.

At least it was a short shift.

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