Monday, March 1, 2021

Chick Shopping in Late Winter

Our last batch of chicks were Buckeyes (reddish-brown), Buff Orpingtons (golden) and Cuckoo Marans (black and white).

My favorite shopping event just may be Chick Days at the local feed store.

In February, the store takes chick orders, and in early April, an employee drives to the hatchery to pick up chicks.

When we first ordered Buckeye chicks from a preservation center nearly 20 years ago, the chicks arrived by mail. The postal worker called me at 6 in the morning and said my chicks had arrived, and no, I did not have to wait until 8 a.m. when the post office opened to pick them up. After the mail delays I've experienced in the past six months, I wouldn't want to risk mail-order chicks.

For years, we kept 25-30 Buckeye hens and several roosters and raised our own chicks. Sometimes hens sat on eggs. Usually, we incubated a batch of eggs as in insurance policy. This resulted in a beautifully uniform flock and hens and roosters everywhere.

And then I got sucked into Chick Days.

(Okay, keeping a breeding flock is a lot of work and resulted in more roosters, eggs and work than I wanted to deal with. And shopping for chicks is just so much fun.)

Here are the Three Truths about Chick Days

1. There are so many chicken breeds and so little time. When I walk into the feed store, I tell myself that we are only getting 12 chicks, and Randy said he wanted more Buckeyes. Then, the clerk hands me pages of chicken breeds. The number of Buckeye chicks I'd planned to order dwindles to four.

At home, we have five hens: one Buckeye, one Cuckoo Maran and three Buff Orpingtons. I like the Cuckoo Maran and her lovely chocolate colored eggs. The Buff Orpingtons have a 100 percent survival rate on the farm. Somehow these golden hens have evaded foxes and hawks. I'd get both breeds again, but there are so many other choices.

2. Egg envy is real. A few years ago, a friend opened up her carton of eggs collected from her chickens. There, in the carton were chocolate brown, tan, light green, bluish green, white and brown eggs. It was a sight to behold. At home, my carton contained uniformly brown eggs (still quite beautiful, but quite monochrome).

3. A long, gray winter makes me seek color. Our hens free range in the sheep and horse pastures. I wanted hens that stand out against the grasses.

And, in the end, I went with colorful feathers over colorful eggs. Here's what I selected:

Four Buckeyes (mahogany feathers and brown eggs)

Two French Blue Copper Marans (slate gray with copper heads and necks, and dark brown eggs)

Two Silver Laced Wyandottes (black and white feathers and brown eggs)

Two Rhode Island Blue (a cross between Rhode Island Reds and the black Astralop and brown eggs)

Two Oliver Egger (a cross between Black Maran and Americana and green eggs). 

What would you choose? If you want to see the choices, check out the Mount Healthy Hatchery catalog.

Monday, February 15, 2021

While I've been Inside...

After snow blanketed the farm a few weeks ago, my outside time has consisted mainly of hauling hay and fresh water to chickens, sheep and horses, skiing the 17-acre pasture with the dogs and walking the quarter-mile to the mailbox.

I needed a change of scenery. 

When the winds died down Sunday morning and temperatures hit 17 degrees, I clipped into my skis. I planned o explore other parts of the farm, the crop fields and woods, and possibly see some wildlife.

My first stop was a farm field planted in a radish cover crop, that apparently doubles as a winter food plot.

The deer unearthed and ate forages. Judging by the number of radishes unearthed, I'm pretty deer don't like radishes. Rabbits, though, love radishes. I found lots of radishes with rabbit tooth marks.

I also found coyote tracks, which didn't surprise me, as I've heard them singing in the pre-dawn hours.

After skiing around a couple of fields, I made my way down the farm lane to the woods, a place I skied the past weekend. I was surprised to see my tracks still there, and so few other tracks.

The woods was proof that wildlife don't spend the winter months binging on Netflix. 

As I skied around the corn field, I marveled at the deer's ability to locate corn cobs under the blanket of snow.

A deer interrupted those thoughts and almost made me lose balance on the skis. She jumped out of the fencerow and into the field about 40 yards from me. Skinny, she was not. Had she been the deer eating corn through the winter?

What I found near the pond, though, really made me scratch my head.

Some critter had dug up and broken apart hedge apples. I'm unsure whether the hedge apples were on the picnic table before the dismembering, or if a critter wanted to have a picnic in style. Upon getting home, I did a little research and concluded this was most likely the work of squirrels who love to eat the seeds, and are apparently okay with leaving a mess behind.

Finally, I skied around the pond. Temperatures haven't been above freezing for two weeks, so I'm sure a thick layer of ice covers the pond. While there are animal tracks around the edges, only one set of deer tracks goes across the pond. Possibly a deer in a hurry?

As I made my way back home, my coat unzipped and my hat off, I thought of something I'd read earlier in the week. If you wait until the weather is perfect, you're going to spend a big chunk of your life waiting. I'm so glad I turned Sunday into a perfect day.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Does Anyone Follow Plan A?


Did you say alfalfa? The flock in February.

I'm a list maker.

I'm a planner.

I don't know why I have sheep.

On this week's to-do list: separate pregnant and non-pregnant ewes. Move the non-pregnant group to the big barn.

For much of the fall and winter, the ewes have lived as one big flock. They grazed on the pasture and ate first-cutting hay. A few participated in the daily dog training ritual.

Now that the ewes are in their third trimester, they get a break from dog training. More importantly, they get a feeding upgrade. Alfalfa hay is added to their rations.

The non-pregnant ewes do not get alfalfa hay. They don't need the extra calories, and alfalfa hay is expensive.

When I separate the flock, the pregnant ewes remain in the sheep/horse barn. The non-pregnant group move about, depending on the weather. If it's not raining, snowing or blowing sideways, they hang out in the pasture with the pine trees. When the weather is bad, I move them to the other barn that is big and spacious and has neither electricity nor running water.

Fun facts about sheep: When the weather is cold, they eat a lot more hay. When the pasture is snow-covered, they eat a lot more hay. When sheep eat more hay, they drink a lot more water. In fact they drink gallons of water. Water weighs about 8 lbs. a gallon.

We received our first ground-covering snow for the year on Sunday. With temperatures staying below freezing, it's stuck around. When looking at the weather report to determine the best day for sheep sorting, I saw this: 9 degrees, 7 degrees, minus 2 degrees.

Visions of frozen water buckets danced in my head. When temperatures dip to the single digits, buckets of water freeze in less than an hour. Without heated water buckets, it becomes harder to ensure sheep have fresh water.

And, so I made new plans.

Because alfalfa hay was readily available this year, I'd bought more than I planned to use. I'd hoped this would be the year I had alfalfa bales left over. Whether that happens is still too early to tell.

However, I'll be using those extra bales in the coming week to supplement the entire flock with alfalfa hay. The entire flock is staying together until temperatures climb above freezing during the days. They'll stay in the sheep/horse barn that has both electricity and running water. And I'll try not to cringe when I feed the non-pregnant ewes expensive alfalfa hay.

Living on a farm, I've learned that plans are great, but drought, flood, winds, and cold snaps can change them in an instant. Maybe that's why I have sheep, horses, cats and dogs. They've taught me to adapt and to keep adapting rather than getting set in my ways.

How much do sheep like alfalfa? Enough to run over me while I'm putting it in the feeders. Bubba moves them to another pasture so that I can feed.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Lambing Season

What is your view of lambing season?


Or this (video of lambing simulator and what can go wrong).

When we bought sheep 15 years ago, my lambing knowledge came from oral stories and books.

The oral stories mostly consisted of freezing nights in barns assisting ewes with births; one friend told of weak newborn lambs falling into water buckets and drowning.

The books weren't much more optimistic. They illustrated the many wrong ways a lamb could try and enter this world, and all the ways lambs and sheep can die.

"It's amazing any lambs live," my husband said.

Needless to say, I was pretty apprehensive about that first lambing season.

But during the first lambing season, we didn't experience that. The ewes often gave birth in the night, and we walked into the barn to find a ewe with her newborn lambs. It was a few years before we actually witnessed a birth or had to assist a ewe.

Over the years, we've had a few bad births. I've pulled a few lambs. We've had stillborn lambs and one or two deformed lambs. This may happen about 5 percent of the time. What usually happens, though, is that the ewe gives birth to twins or triplets, cleans them off and encourages them to nurse.

But, I'm all for learning more about sheep and lambing season. So last week, we watched the Ohio State University's lambing webinar. Again, we learned of what can go wrong, and how we can assist a ewe. (The video of the lambing simulator is well done).

I now have a re-stocked lambing first aid kit and have just the right amount of optimism and apprehension to start lambing season.

Monday, January 18, 2021

When Breakfast becomes the Bed

After raking hay from the barn floor, I place it in a tub. It'll be breakfast for Lily, the pony who believes no blade of grass should be wasted.

The barn cats, though, have another idea.

Trick and Roxie snoozing in the tub.

The tub makes a perfectly warm nest when overnight temperatures drop below freezing.

So, I let sleeping cats lie and feed Lily other hay.

Barn cats find many spots to snooze. They settle on top of the hay stack where they can overlook the horse and sheep stalls. Sometimes, they nestle in a crevice between the bales. But their favorite spot is the tub filled with hay. 

As days turn to weeks, their spots in the tub begin to resemble nests. They become deeper and deeper, and now their bodies are level with the hay.

 I no longer consider turning their bed into Lily's breakfast.

In the dead of winter, when days are short, and when pandemic and rioting fill the daily news, I take great comfort in seeing the barn cats curled up and warm in their nests, like two yolks in an egg shell.

I tell the cats they can nest there until mid-March. That's when I'll need that tub to be both bed and breakfast.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Fragility of a Single Egg

When you have five hens, and it is winter, and cloudy days stack up one on top of the other until they reach 10 in a row, eggs are a rarity.

On some days, I find no eggs. On others, I find one, never two or three or four.

Protecting that single egg seems so much harder than a clutch of eggs.

In the summertime, when eggs are plentiful, I place them in a coffee can that also serves as my vessel for carrying scratch grain, horse feed and sheep minerals.

But a single egg gets lost in a coffee can. It's easily overlooked and, if lucky, left on the counter in the barn or a fence post. If unlucky, it's knocked over or covered in grain.

A single egg fits neatly in a winter coat pocket, where it's forgotten until hit with firewood or a flake of hay.

When I find a single egg, I cup it in my palm and carry it to the barn where I look for a safe spot to place it while I finish evening chores.

I don't place it on the counter in the barn where a slightly bored and always hungry cat would bat it around, until it fell to the ground and became cat food.

Instead, I nestle it in a bird's nest that I found in the yard and kept because it was lined with pony hair, and I found it charming.

A chicken egg looks ridiculous in the tiny nest.

But I always notice it as I'm turning out the barn lights in the evening. I carry it into the house and place it in the egg carton.

I have six single eggs now--enough for an omelet.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Golden Reminder

 Counting chickens is easy these days.

We're down to five: three Buff Orpingtons, one Cuckoo Maran and one Buckeye. (Yes, I'm eyeing the chick calendar for more in the spring, but that's a story for another day).

A month ago I took down the poultry netting around the chicken yard because the area had become a muddy mess and poultry netting sags under the weight of snow. I hoped that whatever was munching on my chickens had been discouraged by the electrified netting and changed her hunting patterns.

"Go free," I told the hens as I opened the gate to the chicken yard and allowed them access to the sheep pasture. If I lost another hen, I'd close them back up in the chicken yard.

The hens went about their merry way, pecking and scratching. In the afternoon, they hung out in the barn and clucked at me for scratch grain. 

When I went in the barn yesterday, only four clucked at me.

A Buff Orpington was missing.

So, I did my walkabout, looking for feathers and wondering what got her.

I found no feathers and found no hen.

Could she possibly be laying an egg?

At this time of year, with short days, the hens don't lay eggs often. I was averaging an egg a day earlier this month, but hadn't found any eggs for over a week. I lifted the lid to the nesting box, and found no hen nor no egg.

So, I went about my chores, bummed that I'd lost another hen and that I'd have to confine them to their chicken yard. While walking the dogs in the fading afternoon light, I looked toward the chicken house and saw three Buff Orpingtons. Where had she been hiding out?

After feeding the dogs, I went back to the chicken house where the hens were roosting for the night, and counted five chickens.

The chicken house has nesting boxes on both sides.

Then, I walked to the side of the chicken house that houses nesting boxes that the hens haven't used for over a year--and that I haven't checked for weeks. There I found 10 eggs, including one that was clean and still warm. Apparently the hens (wanting a change of scenery?) had walked across the chicken house and chosen a new nesting box, and for the past few weeks had been laying eggs there.

The Buckeye hen in the nesting box.

And, so I was reminded on this late December day, when the sun rarely shines bright and always sets too soon, and when a pandemic dampens the holidays, that there are glimmers of hope and joy--even if it comes as finding the "missing" golden hen and eggs.

Merry Christmas all!