Friday, December 4, 2009

Chicken Story

So here's what happened with the chickens.

We went to see this guy named Doug who lived on two acres with about 150 chickens, three goats, two cows, two dogs, a wife, and two grown children. He was a really nice fella. He walked around his property with us for about two hours showing us his operation and answering our questions about raising chickens. During our visit, my friend Jesse called me, and Doug even took the time to talk to Jesse on the phone and answer some questions for him. I'm really glad Emily went with me because she came away from the whole experience with the realization that it doesn't take a whole bunch of time and money to raise chickens. She also really surprised me by helping me load the chickens into the car. We didn't bring a camera with us, but I still have a perfect picture in my head of the way she looked holding a chicken upside down by its legs in either hand and the look on her face. It was Emily, through and through. She was like a child who really wanted to go play in the mud but didn't want to get wet and dirty, finally succumbing to the peer pressure and the look of having a really good time. She was a bit standoffish toward toting the chickens around on her first trip from the coop to the car, but by the second trip she was an old pro, proving me (and probably herself) wrong that she would never make a good farmer's wife.

We left that day with 13 chickens in tow and no idea how we were going to keep them. (Are you starting to see a pattern here? Yeah, we're learning.) We thought the feed store was closed already for the night, and we knew we didn't have an adequate long-term shelter for them. I only realized the feeding would be a problem after we had parted company with Doug, so I called him back for advice, and he said they should be alright until the morning since he had just fed them. Still, I wasn't content to know that I didn't have a plan in place to feed my new avaian constituents. Luckily, Tractor Supply Co was still open, so we stopped there and bought some layer feed. Much to our surprise, however, being the green city folk we were at the time, when we let the chickens into our dirt-floor shed and started clearing out the clutter lying on the ground, the chickens went absolutely nutty cleaning the bugs out of the place! There had been some old bags of concrete, plywood, and other things sitting in the shed for a long time, so the insect populations thriving in these little hidden crevices. The funniest part was when I removed a piece of plywood that was leaning up against the wall and walked away. Seconds later I began to hear, "knock...knock...knock knock knock...knock knock...knock." I went back to look, and our rooster was massacring a community of crickets that had made their home on the wall behind this plywood.

About ten days after we brought the chickens home, we had to leave town for a few days. We asked around at church for someone to watch our animals for us and found a lady who thought it would be a good idea to have her kids help out. We had them over to see the animals before we left and show them where everything was, and we left some written instructions for them in case they had forgotten anything. Two days into our trip, we got a call from the lady saying one of the chickens had died. It was just dead on the ground in the shed. No marks, no body parts, just a dead chicken. I thought it was a normal part of raising animals of any kind to have at least some kind of mortality rate, so I didn't think much of it at the time, especially since there was nothing I could do about it anyway.

As a little side story, the lady called and told my wife the chicken had died, who then told me, who then asked my wife, "What did they do with the chicken?" My wife said the lady didn't know what to do so she had left the chicken in the shed, to which I replied, "Did it not occur to you that it is not good for chickens to live around animal carcasses so you should ask her to remove the chicken from the shed?" to which my wife replied, "No, it didn't occur to me." My sweet wife--she's a baby tank and a hard worker and an excellent lover and very intelligent and thoughtful and kind and and and--but she's not a scientific thinker at all. She said, "Do you want me to call and ask her to go back to the house and get rid of the chicken?" to which I replied, "Uh, YES!" She called back a few minutes later to ask the lady to remove the carcass, but she told us that she had spoken to her husband on the phone who also said it wasn't a good idea to leave the chicken in the shed, so she was already on her way back to the house.

See?! We men are good for something!

We arrived home two days after the chicken died. The first thing I did was to check on the chickens. When I walked in, I was a bit angry about what I saw, I'll have to admit. It was night time and the lamp had been left on, so my first thought was, "Oh, they left the light on all the time, so the chickens never slept." Then I noticed the water pot had chicken crap and flies in it, so then I thought, "...and they never changed the water." The next thing I noticed was that the feeder was no longer hanging from the ceiling but was instead sitting on the ground, AND the stack was completely filled, so it was going bad collecting dirt and feathers. I cleaned and fixed things up and thought about the whole thing. First of all, I didn't leave specific instructions about how much food to give the chickens, so they just filled it to the top. Makes sense, right? That's my fault. Second, the water pot was almost always knocked over when I went to check on the chickens the first few days, so the fact that there was water in the pot at all was evidence that they had paid attention to the water pot. The fact that it was--a pot--and the fact that I hadn't made better arrangements for a clean, secure water source for my chickens was, again, my fault. Third, the light was left on, but they said they turned it off every night, so I was willing to let that go since it's really not that big a deal. And, last and most, I went out to check on the chickens again two hours after I got home, and another chicken had planted face into the ground dead.

I got the big idea that perhaps placing 13 chickens in a shed with no sunlight or ventilation for two weeks was a bad idea--which was MY bad idea, and not the fault of the sweet people who agreed to come to my house to care for my animals twice a day for four days. I immediately moved all the chickens out to the goat pen where they began the next day eagerly scratching and hunting for food. I have lost two more chickens since the move, but none for improper accommodations. One was killed by an unknown canine assailant after she left the safety of the pen, and another disappeared the day after we moved the chickens into the pen. I think she either ran away to live with the neighbor chickens or got eaten by a dog. It's weird, though. I never found a carcass, but there were Barred Rock feathers spread around the yard--and not very many of them--not enough to make it look like there had been a struggle or any *YUK YUK* FOWL play!

I have since learned that ventilation is very important. Duh. What land-lubbing vertebrate can survive without fresh air? See...these are the important things mankind has forgotten in our "advanced" state. We think we are so advanced with our technology. We think nature is "primitive" and that people who live close to nature are somehow backward, but I for one think that...oh, I'll save it for the next blog post. So the chickens are definitely very well ventilated. In their pen they foraged for food for a couple weeks in addition to feeding off the layer and finisher feed I combined in their feeder. Then I had a talk with my best friend in the whole world Jesse, who has two chickens. He told me about how he kept his chickens in their little pen for months until one day he decided to let them out in the forest in his yard to free range and eat a natural diet of bugs and vegetation. The results, he reported, were healthier chickens as evidenced by their deep red-colored, enlarged wattles and the fact that they didn't begin laying until he let them free range. And the icing on the cake from a poultrykeeper's perspective is that they snuggle up together on the rail of his front porch at night. Even though he lives a stone's throw away from the downtown area of an established suburban city on an acre of land with no fence on a two-lane road, his chickens go to the forest to eat and then go to the porch to sleep. They don't run away, and the predators in the neighborhood are so domesticated they wouldn't know what to do with a chicken if they found one--much like the predators in my neighborhood, I've found. Of course he still has his pen for what it's worth, but it's not like his chickens wouldn't survive without it.

The next night, I was out bottle feeding the baby goats before going to work, and I was worrying about what I was going to do to feed and house all these animals when I said, "Ya know, all kinds of birds and four-legged animals survive in the forests all over the world without any human intervention of any kind. With the human interventions of food and shelter, they become loyal to a place and that becomes their home. So...number one, this 20' pen is a pathetic excuse for faith in nature. And number two, this 20' pen is going to cost me a whole lot more money and time than free range goats and chickens would."

So, I ripped off my shirt, beat my chest, screamed into the darkened forest thick, stood there for a minute thinking, "Man, that was overboard," then then stooped down to lift up the bottom of the chain link fence to let all the animals out into the forest.

It has been, gosh, at least two weeks. That was before Thanksgiving. I have fed my adult goats and all the chickens nothing except a daily refreshing of the waterer and a couple small scoops of cracked corn and sweet feed in the last week or so once a day in the morning when we go out to feed the baby goats.

My results?

My goats and chickens are all still alive. It's near freezing here at night, and my goats don't use the shelter I built for them--even when it's raining. My chickens stay inside the fence most of the time, but even when they don't, they stay in the general area. And, the best part is that my chickens have begun laying, too! Last night I picked up the first two eggs from my free range chicken operation and gave a great big ol' "YAHOOOO!" for each one even though it was two in the morning.

This is healing.

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