Archive for March, 2011

First, my apologies to Irving Stone, for taking liberties with the title of his novel, to Hollywoood for playing off a classic Charlton Heston flick, and to Michelangelo because this post has absolutely nothing to do with him or with his life.

Now that we have that out of the way:  I am emotionally drained and it’s only 6:30 in the a.m. on Saturday.  Yesterday morning’s events are well documented (eloquently by Brittan and briefly by me), but the effects and aftershocks linger.  On the one hand, our tragedy is nothing compared to what the people of Japan or Libya or a hundred other hot spots are enduring, but it is wearying nonetheless.

I first saw the killing fields last night after getting home from work when we went out to collect eggs.  The pasture is littered with feathers.  As we walked the fields looking for signs of which direction the intruder may have come and gone, we also found the spot where our last predator (the same one?) consumed his rabbit.  It was an emotional walk.

As I gathered the eggs from the pen that had been attacked, I noticed a hen just standing there, unable to move.  Brittan had told me there was an injured hen, so I was expecting something.  What I found was a chicken that was sliced open from stem to stern, exposing her organs.  I had to put her down immediately.  It’s so different than processing chickens.  I was crest fallen.  Brittan wept openly.

A few minutes later B spied another hen cowering behind a stump in a corner of the field.  As I picked her up I could tell she was in shock.  Upon examination, we found she had been bitten from behind.  She had several large puncture wounds, but we had hope we could nurse her, so we brought her home as we have done with sick and injured animals before.  We put her in a large dog crate with bedding, food and water.  Brittan also applied antibiotic cream to her wounds.

The hen ate a little and nestled down for the night.  This morning, it appears that Brittan’s assumption that the chicken’s hips are broken appears to be true.  The hen can’t get up.  We’ll give her a few more hours to see what happens, but I fear that I will have to euthanize her before the day ends.  Sigh.

These are not the images of farming we had considered when we first leaped headlong into this lifestyle.  But they are a genuine, and all too frequent, part of the picture.  Sometimes, the emotions of farming are harder than the work itself.

There is, however, another side.  As we were following the killer’s path along a roadside fence line, a car pulled up and a cheery mother and daughter greeted us with, “Hello again! Remember us?  We stopped last week and talked to you about how we love your animals.  It was pouring rain?  Remember?”  It was the rain that made me remember.

“We really love having you all here.  The animals are such a delight.  It’s especially fun watching the chickens range all over the fields.”

We smiled and thanked them, then made some small talk.  After a few moments, they drove on down the street towards their home while we carried a traumatized hen and a carcass back to the truck.

Upon arrival at the house, one of our customers, who’s family have become friends, was waiting on the front porch to get his bi-weekly order of eggs and to take some rabbit meat home for his daughter’s dogs.  We talked at length about work, weather and how good real eggs are.  It was a pleasant break in a difficult afternoon.

While Brittan was nursing the injured hen, I went out to the truck to dispose of the dead one.  I opened the front door to discover a small SUV in our driveway.  The driver was a very nice young lady we met the week before when the environmental educators came over for a work project.  She was bringing us some bucket containers for gardening and a tray of native honeysuckle to plant as pollinator attractors.  How nice is that?  In return, I gave her a dozen eggs and a promise to provide her some tomatillo plants in a couple weeks when they are ready to go.

God moves in mysterious ways.  Yesterday was such a bad day for us, but it was fringed with random moments of joy.  I thought of those moments this morning as I bottle fed our two wiggly, affectionate, baby goats.  They wag their tails, jump in my lap and snuggle down for a good meal, and I think about all the blessings that cushion our challenges.  Someone once said, “There are people who complain that God put thorns on roses, while others marvel that He put roses on thorns.”  I guess I’d rather marvel than complain.  The agony is conquered by the ecstasy…every time.

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Black Friday

No, I’m not talking about the shopping day after Thanksgiving, but today.

Like any other day it started out peaceful enough.  I arrived at the farm at about 9 a.m. for chores.  During the week I get the privilege of completing morning chores alone.  I like it that way.  I can take my time, complete the tasks in the order I want to, give everyone a good scratchin’ behind the ears, and talk to them as I wander over the farm.  Its peaceful and this time of year it’s absolutely beautiful.

Today I decided to start my chores with the baby chicks as they noisily greeted me with much chirping and squawking, which I interpreted as “hurry up and feed me lady!”  As I pulled the tarp from the front half of the brooder box I noticed an unpleasant smell, and one I’m most familiar with unfortunately.  The smell of death.  I peeked inside the box and to my displeasure I saw four Barred Rock chicks laying dead in one corner of the box.  Donning my gloves I picked each of them up, examining them to see if they had been pecked to death, or if there was any deformity on them.  Nope.  All seemed perfectly intact, but flat as can be.  I can only assume they were squashed during the night as the chicks huddled together to stay warm.  Sadly I placed their little bodies in the bin and decided that’s just nature’s way.  I don’t like it, but I must accept it.

Moving onto the tasks at hand, I scooped haystretcher into buckets for the bigger animals and filled my water bottles for the rabbits.  Feeding went along as normal – quiet and smooth.  No one seemed distressed in the least and I listened as the cows munched their grain and the birds tweeted a sweet melody in the chestnut tree.

Since our predator attack on Helen and her babies a few weeks back I’ve been especially nervous over the rabbits.  While the rabbit rangers are sturdy they are obviously no match against a determined and hungry dog.  And so it shouldn’t be any surprise that I now experience a bit of trepidation as I make my way to the rabbitry twice a day.  However, today, as with everyday, all the bunnies were happily munching grass as I strolled up to feed and water them.  I took my time checking on Nibbles and her two-week old litter of kits.  She’s been such a good mom to them, and has been exceptionally tolerant of my pawing around in her nest box twice a day, peeking in on her wee ones.  I swear, I coo and fawn over them as if they were my own babies.  Baby bunnies are just the cutest little things anyway and I adore every litter we have.

As I headed back to the barn to retrieve the watering buckets I mentally ticked off my chore list.  Chicks, done.  Donkeys, done.  Sheep, done.  Cows, done.  Goats, done.  All that was left was to free and water the hens.  As I picked up the two 5-gallon buckets of water and headed toward the hen pasture I gazed to my left at the pen full of beautiful Buff Orpingtons.  Their light caramel feathers glistening in the morning sunshine always brings a smile to my face.  Their clucking let me know they were eager to be set free to enjoy the variety of grasses, weeds, and bugs that a chicken loves to munch.

But before I fully entered the pasture I glanced over to the Red Ranger pen and noticed something wrong.  There were what appeared to be two dead chickens entangled in the poultry netting, and a spray of downy feathers strewn just outside of the netting.  That wasn’t a good sign.  I set one of the buckets of water down and decided the Buff’s were just going to have to wait to be set free while I attended to the Ranger pen first.

As I made my way toward the pen, trying my best not to slosh too much of the water out of the bucket and down my leg and into my shoe I noticed a chicken loose and wandering around the pen somewhat dazed.  She appeared to be hurt, but still upright and walking.  I wondered what had happened, and silently thanked God that whatever it was it appeared to be relatively minor with just a couple of dead chickens.    By this point I’d reached the poultry netting and I deposited the water bucket in front of the two entangled birds.  As the bucket hit the hard ground with a thunk I saw that it was actually three dead birds in the netting and not just two, and their heads were lying a foot or so away from each of them – necks laid bare and skinless.  Oh, well.  Every farmer experiences loss…..I guess this is just gonna be one of those days.  Little did I realize that it was really going to be one of those days…….

I walked around the net perimeter toward the loose chicken and easily scooped her up.  Her breast was wet with what I assumed to be saliva from the animal that had attacked her and her sisters.  As I pulled my hand away to assess the damage I noticed that she had a gash in her breast and was oozing.  Great.  Just great.  As I set her over the fence and began to push the net fencing posts back into the ground I glanced, for the first time, at the actual Ranger pen and suddenly realized that it was alarmingly quiet and empty.  Yesterday there were nearly 30 birds in the pen, and now it seemed that less than half were there.

It was at that moment that my heart jumped anxiously in my chest as I quickly glanced around the perimeter of the pasture hoping that I had missed a gaggle of loose birds roaming around hunting and pecking for food.  But there was nothing.  Just empty space.  I walked around the Ranger pen looking for the point of entry or exit.  There wasn’t anything obvious.  I dropped the door and the girls that remained began to filter out, as they do every morning.  I couldn’t believe it.  Someone had obviously gotten into our chicken pen and stolen our birds.  I guess the ones that got caught in the netting were casualties…..and then my eyes caught a disturbing scene.  Dead birds.  A whole line of them.  Strewn along a small culvert that splits the pasture in half.  There must have been a dozen of them, their lifeless bodies mangled and deposited in a careless fashion.  As I gaped in awe at this atrocity my heart sank like a large stone thrown into a pond.

As I gathered the cold bodies of each of my girls I felt numb.  All I could do at this point was pile them up in the back of the truck and figure out a way to dispose of the carcasses.  Most of the girls had been decapitated and their bodies left intact.  One had been eaten – all but her spine and feet.  Many had been mangled as if they were shaken apart once they were dead.  Their soft, downy feathers clung to the dewy grass as sticky reminders of their cruel end.  Each bird I picked up was unique.  Some were dark chestnut red, others were speckled, some were a light taupe color, and all had their own personality.

These chickens were our partners on the farm, and they were my friends.  Every morning when I would let them loose  to roam their enclosure I would sit on the watering bucket and chat with them while they pecked away at bugs or scratched the ground looking for grubs and worms.  Some would stay close to me, pecking at my trousers or untying my shoes.  I would sit and watch the morning sunlight glisten off their shiny feathers as they did what chickens do best.  And every night I would thank them for their eggs and congratulate them on a day’s work well done as I’d put them away for the night.  They have pens to protect them.  This…this senseless killing is not supposed to happen.  They’re supposed to have been protected.  Obviously I’ve failed them.

The emotion of it all didn’t hit me right way.  Oh I was disgusted and a little bit angry over the situation, but not emotional.  It wasn’t until I deposited the last bag of silky birds into the freezer that the tears began to flow hot and easily down my cheeks.  I was angry, yes, but the sadness was overwhelming.  I know that we raise these animals for food, and so their end will come eventually.  But this is not the end I had planned for them.  A night of terror and mauling was not what I had hoped for them.  These girls were true partners in our farm and our family as much as being just a piece of our livelihood.  I respect these animals and hope that I show that in the quality of life I can provide them while they are alive, as well as in their deaths.  Today I failed them.  Today the only way I could show them how much I cared for them was to stoically gather their lifeless bodies from the pasture and silently pledge to dispatch this predator before it can do any more harm to the girls that remain.

Today is  not a good day to be a farmer.  It is indeed a black Friday.

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The Predator Returns

Received a call from B this morning to let me know that a predator or predators got into one of the chicken tractors and wreaked havoc.  I think she said she had collected about 15 carcasses of laying hens.  Most had been decapitated.  Only one had been partially eaten.  It seems the chickens were scattered over a good portion of the pasture.  This is not good.  I’m thinking one or both of us will be sleeping in the truck with a shotgun for the next couple nights.  We will also electrify the poultry netting.  These things happen to all farmers, but that is small consolation.  We are very upset at the thought of our animals being traumatized then randomly assassinated.  Some of these girls were excellent egg layers.  All of them were our partners.  Sigh.

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Last evening when we went out to the farm to collect eggs and shut up the chickens for the night, we got a bit of an annoying surprise.  Oh, the chickens were fine.  As a matter of fact, none of them had escaped.  That’s pretty rare.  Usually I have twenty five or thirty following me (well, the feed bucket, really) to the chicken tractor.  Last night, though, everyone was close to home.

The surprise came when we went to check on the rabbits.  The babies are about 10 or 11 days old now, so B likes to check on them frequently since a few have started wandering and they need put back into the nest because they aren’t strong enough to hop back in.  Anyway, as we walked up the hill, we spotted one of the rabbits lounging outside her ranger.  She was still inside the perimeter netting, but definitely loose.  As we got closer, we discovered that all the rangers were open.  Also, there was a section of the netting that has been disturbed.  Someone had come in and opened every one of the top doors on the rabbit rangers.  Potentially, we could have lost every rabbit.  We don’t know whether it was a prank, or of someone thought they were agents of PETA and releasing all the rabbits back into the wild.  White rabbits running free are not, I repeat NOT safe.  They are targets for every predator that wanders by.

So, we had to get the trailer, load up all the rangers and rabbits and mover them to a different pasture.  Too bad, because they were on a great mix of grass, clover and blackberry brambles.  It was very frustrating, but it’s one of the hazards of being suburban farmers.  It’s way too easy for knuckleheads to find access.  Fortunately, none of the bunnies was hurt or lost.  Everyone was safely moved to a new neighborhood.

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What a wonderful afternoon!  Yesterday, about 1 p.m. we hosted a group of environmental educators from around GA who had been in Kennesaw for a conference.  They wanted a tour and a work project as a part of weekend.  Be and I were more than happy to participate.

While the group was dominated by female members, both genders were represented and there was a good age mix as well.  It was especially encouraging to us that there were so many young educators.  That means there are two coming generations of students and young people who will be taught some sensible and sustainable concepts regarding their food and the earth.  That possibility is encouraging.

This group was willing and able to work.  Since it’s a bit early in the year, our primary project was spring clean up and getting raised beds ready for the season.  The group jumped in and got to work weeding, turning over earth in the beds and spreading mulch.  It was with mixed emotions that I noticed one young lady hop up into the back of the truck to start shoveling out mulch.  I say mixed, because it was great to have the help and it was nice to see someone other than myself climb up into the truck bed, but it was somewhat discouraging to see how easily and quickly she was able to make the transition for ground to truck.  My middle aged frame creaks and groans and struggles to make the transition.  She just hopped up.  Getting old.  Bah! Humbug!

After making short order of taking care of garden prep, including an awesome job of weeding our strawberry bed, the team was ready to leave the burb and head out to see the farm.  I think there were 8 or 10 cars in our parade.  We made quite an impression snaking our way through the neighborhood.  I think it was worth the drive for most of them.  Everyone spent loads of time at each paddock enjoying the animals.  And the animals were very cooperative.  A pair of escapee chickens wandered in an out among the visitors making an especially happy impression.

Our visit concluded with a trip to see the rabbits in their rabbit rangers, followed by a walk back up the hill to our vehicles.  The group asked for and shared a great deal of information with each other and with us.  B and I learned a great deal and were sorry to see the visit end so early.  It is our hope that the educators had half as much fun as we did.

A highlight of my day was one young lady saying, “We can so do this at our house!”  That’s the point.  Everyone can do something, even a little.  Some can do a great deal.  The future is local.  It is sustainable.  It is natural.  And it is TEAMWORK.

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While out at the farm this morning, unloading feed and hay, Brittan flagged me down from the rabbit pasture and asked me to hurry down.  It seems that our rabbit does, Nibbles and Amber had kindled overnight.  It was a bit of good news, bad news.  Both girls had built beautiful nests.  Amber, though, had only had one kit and she killed it.  I won’t disturb you with the details, but she did and ever so effective job.  That’s two litters in a row she has rejected after building super nests and giving birth with no trouble.  That is not good at all.

Nibbles, on the other hand, has 6 warm, snug little bundles in the comfort of her nest box.  I checked on them just a few minutes ago and they are warm and wiggly, just as we would expect them to be.

It was Nibbles sister, Helen that was taken by a predator over the weekend.  We will likely keep a doe from this litter and name her Helen II.

I never get tired of new baby animals around here.

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It’s been a dark weekend here in the burb.  First, we’ve lost several of our chicks.  It often happens.  We expect it, but its still sad watching the little fluff bundles just give up.  They are well fed and watered.  It’s plenty warm.  Some of them are just not strong enough to make it.  Interestingly, all the fatalities have been barred rock chickens.  None of the Rhode Island Reds have succumbed.

But the real horror came today when we went out to the farm to do chores.  Since we had left some stuff at the house, I ran back to get it.  On my return I noticed B standing on a hill side above the rabbit rangers, looking around like something was very wrong.  Something was wrong.  Since I was a long way away, I quickly phoned her.  She replied with one word, “Predator!”

“What do you mean?”

“Something tore open Helen’s ranger, front and back and she and both babies are gone.”

I hurried out to her, and she showed me the mangled rabbit ranger.  She also pointed out that it had been moved.  A few minutes later we did find one of the young rabbits hiding out in a burn pile.  Brittan also found a white rabbit tail.  from the size of it, we agreed that it was Helen, the mother.  There were no footprints despite the fact that it rained all night.  There was no trace of the third rabbit.

We have no idea what did it.  It was strong enough to tear open the front and back of the ranger and to move it about a foot.  The pens weigh 40 lbs or so.  I don’t think a fox or cat could have done that.  It almost had to be a raccoon or dog.  I don’t think a raccoon would have dragged off the rabbit.  It would probably have eaten part of it on the spot and left.  So, I’m back to dog (or coyote).  Brittan just suggested a weasel.  Could be, but I don’t know if there are any in the area.

So, we have a mystery.  We will keep our eyes peeled and our firearms loaded.  We’re just hoping is was a runaway dog, who has since wandered home.  Time will tell.


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