Chicks and Tractors

Chick hatching season is upon us and, so far, we’ve got 11 new chicks bopping around the farm.

All the hens seem to go broody within weeks of one another, so we tend to see a sudden drop off in egg production every May and June.

Mama and her solo chicklet

Mama and her solo chicklet

One of the hens was sitting on a clutch of six eggs.  The first egg hatched and she stayed on the remainder of the clutch for another day.  Then, she took her solitary little yellow ball of fluff and left.

And she never came back.

The problem here is that the remainder of the eggs are undoubtedly fertile and are most likely only a day, or possibly hours, from hatching.  Being abandoned at this stage of the game ensures their shell-bound death.

The upshot being that that hen sucked.

So, we dusted off our incubator, fired it up, and placed the remaining eggs inside.

Within a day, we had three more chicks (the two remaining eggs ended up not hatching – one wasn’t fertilized and the other wasn’t fully developed).

Since Sucky Mama camped out in our mud room with her solo chick, we thought it might be worth a shot to introduce the remaining three to her and see if she would take them in.

We brought her all three, placed them nearby, and waited.

After about a minute, she moved toward them gently and, just as all seemed like it might go pretty well, she began pecking at them viciously.

In the safe zone.

In the safe zone.

Removing them as quickly as possible from Sucky Homicidal Mama, we created a little space for them indoors with food, water, and a heat lamp.

We knew we had a couple of days before they’d be ready to go outside, so we went to find our old chicken tractor to see what sort of condition it was in after being abandoned for almost two years.



It wasn’t in good condition.

It had largely been reclaimed by the earth and, when we went to lift it, pretty much fell apart and laughed at us for thinking we could use it safely.

And then it laughed some more.

Time to build a new chicken tractor.

We happened to have a few spare pieces of 2×4 in the garage and some old 1″ pvc from last winter’s mini hoophouses.  These made the structure of the tractor over which we simply draped some 1″ chicken wire that we secured with staples and zip ties.

side note: There is nothing in the world more useful than zip ties.

DSC_0150The end product looked WAY better than its predecessor and we were pretty stoked to move the abandoned chicks into their new digs.

The chickies will stay here, learning how to be chickens in a safe and protected environment, until they have feathered out and are at least half as big as the others.

Without the benefit of a mama hen to show them the ropes, this is a necessary precaution that will keep them alive and well.

And, because Karma is a swift and merciless bitch, Dave found Sucky Homicidal Mama’s only chick having drowned in one of the mini troughs we keep for chicken/dog/cat water.

Which is why, as the old saying goes, you should never ditch your eggs before they hatch.

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A Swarm in June

Trying to take the bees away.

Trying to take the bees away.

A friend of ours found a bee swarm on a sapling in his yard and asked if we might, pretty please, come take it the hell away.

Another friend of ours just had all her beehives decimated by a bear, so this seemed like a no-brainer problem-solving mission.

All we had to do was go get the unwanted bees and bring them to where they’d be appreciated.

That’s all.

Easy, right?  Ha.

Bees tend to swarm in early June.

But, let’s back up a moment.

As winter settles in, all the male bees (drones) are booted from the hive to conserve resources.  In the spring, they are reared again and the hive comes back to full capacity with a select handful of new drones expected to mate with the queen and start the cycle over again.

Bees communicate through pheromones which are produced by workers, drones, and the queen.  These are shared when members of the colony feed each other, thereby passing the pheromone (and information) from bee to bee.  The queen produces her very own, Extra Special Queen Pheromone which attracts the workers to her and gets them to do all the stuff she wants them to do (draw comb, forage for pollen, and tend the brood, specifically).  Since everybody in the hive knows that they can’t survive without the queen, they’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to keep that lady happy.

Because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

In May, when temperatures start to warm up, the newly-repopulated hive becomes more and more crowded until a large portion of the worker bees lose contact with the queen. When they reach this point and are no longer receiving her pheromone signals, they believe they are queenless and are motivated to create a new queen.

This is when swarming can happen.

Because there is no space in a colony for more than one queen, and because over-crowding can motivate a swarm, the old queen will leave, taking about half the colony with her.  This group goes in search of a new home, which can take hours or days.  Since the queen is not a particularly strong flyer, she will need to stop for breaks and THIS is when people tend to see large swarms of bees on tree branches, doorways, cars, etc.

These potentially daunting clusters are merely the queen bee taking a pit stop and her colony surrounding and protecting her.

From this resting place, scout bees will go off in search of new digs and the swarm will tend to stay where it is until that new spot is found.

Our friend’s sapling happened to be this swarm’s resting place.

So, the other night, armed with a bee suit, a smoker, a bee brush, a hive super filled with drawn comb, a bee patty, and a rubbermaid container with a tight-fitting lid, I went to get that swarm.

Getting the main cluster into the box was the easy part (the bees didn’t really see that coming, so they were moved before they had a chance to assess the situation). It was the remaining bees that were the trouble.  They’d dispersed and scattered, making a catch of any significance pretty impossible.

2,432... 2,433...

2,432… 2,433…

This was when I started collecting bees one by one, allowing them to crawl onto my hand and then placing them into the bin.

It would be a gross understatement to say that this exercise required a display of patience and calm not typically exhibited by this particular beekeeper.

But it was also really, really lovely.

The sun was setting and the bees were being rescued and the world was silent except for some crickets and, of course, the bees, and everything was pretty gosh darned great.

I didn’t want to leave any bees behind, so it was important to be peaceful and methodical.  By the end, I felt reasonably sure I’d gotten almost every bee.

A bear-proof fortress.  Maybe.

A bear-proof fortress. Maybe.

From the swarm site, I drove with my friend’s new hive to the site of the most recent Bearmageddon and did my best to set up her hive with the new bees.

In a day or two, I’ll go back with a frame of drawn comb that has eggs and brood in it.  This will give the bees what they need to make a new queen.

That is, if they’re still there.

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Slow-Roasted Pork

The piglets were born on Saturday and by Sunday night, the weather had gotten really cold.

After finding one little one dead on Sunday morning, we needed to ensure that the remaining nine were as protected as possible insofar as we could interfere.

We could pretty much only interfere by making sure that their shed was protected against the overnight chill.  With temperatures dropping into the low 40s, those little guys would need more than just Mama to keep them going.

Once again, it was a job for Farmer Dave.

Dave is pretty great at ensuring that the animals have what they need to make it through the cold.

He started by hanging a sheet where the larger cracks would potentially let in rain or cold and, over that, draped a huge tarp to cover almost the entire face of the structure. Once that was done, he brought a couple hay bales to block openings around the shed, and then hung a heat lamp.

This was a good start, but it wasn’t enough.  The piglets were still visibly shivering and a visibily shivering piglet (while ADORABLE) is not one that’s going to survive.

The next step was to affix two space heaters to the wall, high enough that Mama couldn’t reach them, but low enough that the heat would reach its intended targets.

Hay and Heat Lamps and Space Heaters... Oh My!

Hay and Heat Lamps and Space Heaters… Oh My!

This step made me panic because I was sure that a) the heaters would fall and set the hay on fire and burn the shed down and kill everyone inside or b) the heat would rise and go out the top of the shed and never reach the piglets and they would die.

Dave patiently tolerated my worrying and went so far as to demonstrate the automatic turn-off function on each heater when tilted sideways.

So, then all I had to worry about was it not keeping them warm enough.

Toasty warm ramshackle mess

Toasty warm ramshackle mess

The last step was to bring bath towels to stuff into gaps in the side wall where we could feel the heat escaping.

The end result was the most ramshackle looking mess you ever saw.

But it totally worked.

Despite our electric meter spinning like a levitating graphene (look it up), we could rest easy knowing that these nine little piggies and their big, fat mama would make it through this cold spell.

That's one hot mama.

That’s one hot mama.

At one point, Mama even moved the whole gang over toward the doorway.

Evidently, she needed to cool down a bit.

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Coming Full Circle(ish)

Girl Pig had her first litter yesterday.

Sophie and I were hanging clothes on the line when we heard what was clearly Two Pigs Fighting coming from the pig shed.  I ran to investigate and found Girl Pig in a tussle with Boy Pig and it seemed like intervention was in order.

Knowing she was pregnant and likely close to pigging out, I figured she was trying to nest and he was ruining it for everyone.  I managed to get him out of the shed, but he kept getting back in.

The third time I got him out, I noticed that her mucous plug was coming out and that’s a clear sign that piglets are imminent.

I called Dave for back-up.

Dave arrived quickly and wired off a small area around the shed to keep Bubble and Boy Pig out of the newly-minted Maternity Ward.  This gave them the shed-in-the-woods and the lion’s share of the pig run, leaving the old shed and a small bit of land for the new mama and her litter.

Gimme four!

Gimme four!

She immediately started nesting and positioning the hay to prepare for birth and within ten minutes, the first piglet was born!

Girl Pig was definitely surprised by the proceedings.

It was fascinating to watch her agitation and uncertainty after each of the first four piglets were born.  They came out roughly 15-20 minutes apart, and it seemed to take New Mama the better part of the first hour to digest what was happening.


She had a break of almost an hour between #4 and #5, but then she found a comfortable position, settled in, and easily birthed the rest.

Within hours of birthing the piglets and placentas (pigs have two), all of her offspring were nursing and doing really well.  We saw no signs of a runt or of any deformities–an unusually high success rate for a first-time mama, for sure.

Of the ten, beautiful piglets, there was one who didn’t survive the night.

The one that didn’t make it was moved aside by Mama.

While this is totally to be expected (newborn piglets can fail for a number of reasons), it still totally bummed me out, so I went to go visit the rest and watch them nurse for awhile.

Aside: If you are in a bad mood, please feel free to stop by to watch the piglets nurse. I promise you will feel better after doing this.

Bubble and Boy Pig, in lovely exile

Bubble and Boy Pig, in lovely exile

Girl Pig was born right here last August and has now made a litter of her own.  It’s a very cool thing to see happen.  It’s important, however, that we keep Bubble and Boy Pig away from these guys for the first few weeks lest jealousy, aggression, or other piglet-harming behavior arise.

This is especially important because Bubble is also pregnant, but isn’t expecting for about another month, give or take.

Ideally, we’ll keep Bubble separated from Girl until she also pigs out.  At that point, we’ll finish Boy (his work here is done and it’s time to move on to porkier endeavors) and allow the ladies and their offspring to start having playdates.

Oh yeah.

Oh yeah.

In the meantime, we’ll be snuggling piglets.

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The Right Wing

It was an otherwise peaceful, sunny day when it happened.

Since none of us actually saw it happen, we’ve had to piece together what most likely happened, and take it from there. Because by the time any of us saw Fluffers, he was, to all appearances, dead as a rock and being eaten by the dogs.

Sophie and I were on the deck when she said, “What have the dogs got?”

I looked and saw Charlie and Darwin nosing into what appeared to be a completely dead duck. I screamed to Dave that the dogs had killed one of the ducks and we ran to see what the heck could possibly have happened.

Now, our dogs are dumb and goofy and sometimes spazzy, but they are not bird killers. They have lived for years harmoniously alongside a great many chickens and have never threatened a single one. So this was confounding. What would have made them do such a horrible thing?

When we got the dogs away from Fluffers, we saw (to our immense relief) that he was not dead, but merely injured on one side. Upon closer inspection, we found a decent sized puncture wound under his right wing but other than that, nothing.

But Chatters was nowhere to be found.

And THAT didn’t make any sense because the two ducks spend all their time together, constantly waddling, side by side, around the farm.

So, when we heard Chatters all the way on the other side of the farm honking for her man, we started putting the pieces together.

“Hey, Dave?”


How much do I suck?  Thiiiiiis much!

How much do I suck? Thiiiiiis much!

“Remember that hawk that was incessantly flying overhead about ten minutes ago?”



And we realized that the most likely narrative was this:

Duck. Down.

Duck. Down.

Fluffers and Chatters were tottering along on the other side of the farm when the hawk who had been studying the free-ranging flock for SOME TIME swooped down, grabbed Fluffers (puncturing him with a talon in so doing), made it to the other side of the farm where he could no longer take the weight, and dropped him, creating a movement that captured the attention of the dogs who came running to investigate.

While this helped us both feel immeasurably better about our dogs, we realized what a harrowing experience it had to have been for poor Fluffers.  He was visibly shaken (and visibly shaking), bleeding a little, and walking with a decided limp.

DSC_0051We sequestered the reunited pair in their coop for safety (and peace of mind) and will keep an eye on how he heals over the next week.

And in the meantime, I’m keeping my slingshot loaded and ready.

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I’ve never been a fan of water birds.

When Dave suggested adding ducks or (gasp!) geese to the flock, I was resolute.  I was adamant that there was NO WAY we’d get birds that are that messy. The sheer volume of poop would be more than I could handle, to say nothing of the mayhem to be unleashed on what small amount of water we actually have on the farm.

Besides, we couldn’t properly care for water birds.  Without a real pond for them to swim in, what would be the point of even trying?  They are water fowl, after all.  Plus, what’s messier than a pair of ducks?  Maybe a pair of teenage boys playing paintball in a port-o-potty.  Otherwise, not much.

So, when my friend cried out for help because her beloved drake was being regularly beaten by one of her roosters, naturally I volunteered to adopt him.

Apparently, I’m inconsistent and unpredictable like that.

Fluffers, the Drake, and his main squeeze, Chatters.

Fluffers, the Drake, and his main squeeze, Chatters.

My only request was that she also throw in a lady duck to make sure he wasn’t lonely {It was a Noah’s Ark kinda thing).  So, she showed up one morning with a pair of ducks who are now calling applewood farm home.

Another friend recommended separating the ducks from the chickens for at least a week.  This is fairly standard protocol for any new birds being introduced to an existing flock.

The new duck turf.

The new duck turf.

Since a good portion of our chickens have taken up residence in the garage/barn, our smaller coop has largely been used for egg laying and not much else.  This gave us a ready-to-inhabit duck abode, complete with fence and door.

All that was missing was somewhere for them to swim.

Enter: the kiddie pool.

And the pool was never clean again...

And the pool was never clean again…

I have to admit, watching these two havoc-wreakers frolick in the pool has brought me around utterly on ducks.

They get in that pool and splash and dunk and play with everything they’ve got and it is crazy adorable.

And while it is true that I’ve changed my mind about these two water birds specifically, I still maintain a firm “hell, no!” when it comes to geese.

I think.

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It’s a Start

Since we skipped spring and went directly to summer, things here at applewood farm have been even less organized than usual.

Typically, there is a period of weeks between the last frost and the incredibly hot Dog Days of summer.

This year, not so much.

We planted seeds back in late March and early April.  These have been germinating and becoming seedlings at varying rates depending upon what was planted and when.

Tomato starts demanding immediate attention.

Tomato starts demanding immediate attention.

The plants that really take off quickly demand transplanting sooner as well.  This means that we have to have our transplant locations (raised beds, gardens, etc.) ready and THIS means that we have to be organized and have more than one hour a day to dedicate to the project.

Lately, time has not been so much on our side.

Between the restaurant, the cheese shop, the farmer’s market, the firehouse, and the pigs/chickens/goats/bees/dogs/cats/children, there hasn’t been a great deal of time for such frivolities as ensuring that our future food is planted in the ground where it can grow.

Something had to give, so the first line of defense was to stop caring for the children.  At 10 and 14, they’ve had a good run and now they’re on their own.

Good luck, kids!

The rest of the creatures still need a little assistance, so Dave graciously cut back on firehouse activities a bit and lo-and-behold! stuff started getting transplanted!

Moving day.

Moving day.

In the past week, we’ve managed to get half the tomato beds planted, a flowerbed started, the back garden filled with squash seedlings of several varieties, the cucumbers and peas in and trellised, the brussels sprouts planted, two raised beds built, five existing raised beds seeded, and all the lettuces and leafy greens started as well.

Plus, I got to mow the lawn for the first time this year and not much makes me happier than that.

Future delicious food.

Future delicious food.

There aren’t a lot of jobs more satisfying than getting the gardens planted.

Hopefully, this year will prove as bountiful as all the ones preceding it.

Hopefully, all these little seedlings will be delicious food before too long.

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