Murder In The Barn: An Over-Dramatic Farm Story

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All is not as it seems…

It’s often said that if you hear your chickens raise their “alarm call”,  you’d better go check things out because something is probably trying to kill them.  Four times this past month they’ve sounded the alarm and every time I’ve gone out to the barn/woods/pasture to save them, the coast was clear.  So this morning when I heard them screaming from the barn I decided to ignore it.  It’s a long run out from the house and I wasn’t about to fall for their trickery again. Plus I wasn’t finished with my coffee.

IMG_3468After about twenty minutes I walked into the barn and saw a few hens pacing around in the first stall.  They were nervously looking at the ground, then at me, that back at the ground.  Pure white feathers were everywhere like someone had slashed open a pillow and walked around the barnyard with it.  Even worse, these feathers belonged to Mary White, a fine snow-colored hen who lays blue eggs…and she was nowhere to be seen.  I put on my detective hat and began to comb through the evidence. Unfortunately it told a tale of horror.  Whoever the predator was, he first attacked Mary White outside on the South side of the barn.  She ran inside for cover, through a small opening and into the “chicken kitchen” feeding area.  The foul beast also ran inside and cornered her to continue his violent assault.

IMG_3471After he subdued poor Mary he dragged her back through the kitchen door, across the stall, and under the rear wall to the outside.  A long trail of feathers snaked through the pasture, up the hill, and under the fence next to the woods.

IMG_3473From there the trail went cold and somewhere in the dark forest the distant scream of a chicken echoed in the shadows.  Back inside the barn I reassured the animals that the danger had passed and everything would be fine. But I had seen this type of carnage before and knew the killer would soon be back.

To be continued…

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Naturally Delicious

WP_20150909_11_00_37_ProAs predicted, allowing the chickens to have unfettered access to the fields (and mainly the deep woods) has resulted in a much deeper orange yolk.  This is a reflection of what they are eating.  They’re hardly touching their supplemental feed and grains and instead are choosing to eat naturally available food consisting of greens and bugs.  I’ll gladly beat a dead horse at this point. What would you rather eat:  eggs from chickens raised in giant production houses where they never go outside (at the same price we sell them for, if not higher), or eggs from chickens clearly living their life as nature intended?  You don’t always need “Organically Raised” or “Slow Food” labels to make your choices. Get to know your local farmer, learn how they raise your food, then draw your own conclusions. IMG_3181

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No Fences

A large section of land behind our property has been sold. It’s far enough away that we won’t see any future houses, so no big deal. But what is a big deal is that hunters and their dogs who once had access to that area will no longer be allowed to hunt there. IMG_2579  One of the main reasons we’ve been using portable pasture fencing in the first place is to protect our flock from the hunting dogs that would inevitably wander out of the woods from late summer through early winter, sniffing for and tracking deer.  By no means am I against responsible hunting. Dog hunting has been a tradition in this area for over 300 years and even though I don’t engage in the sport I have a deep respect for local traditions.  We’ve had a few close calls over the years with dogs trying to eat our hens but the poultry netting saved the day.  Without the prospect of roaming hounds I’ve decided to go back to totally free-ranging the birds.IMG_3149 It will be less labor-intensive for me, and the chickens will have access to the forest which is teeming with the natural protein sources they prefer. Look for your egg yolks to be that beautiful dark orange color.  That means the hens have been eating an all-natural diet, ensuring a delicious, rich flavor with tons of nutrients!

 

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Your Eggs, Your Right To Know

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We rotated the chickens to a fresh pasture a few days ago. So for anyone who bought eggs at this past Tuesday’s market, here’s where your food is coming from!  This week’s pasture is further away from the woods, with plenty of breezy, high shade provided by the pine trees.

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As the weather heats up the hens will seek the shadows and spend the hottest parts of the day there.  Also included in this week’s pasture are the last of this Spring’s wild blackberry crop. Not unlike a human, the egg-layers tend to pick the fattest, juiciest berries first.

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There’s also plenty of greens and bugs for them to dine on and with all the coastal showers we’ve been receiving, hopefully we’ll get some good mileage out of this pasture before we rotate the girls to a new spot. IMG_2854

 

 

 

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Birds of a Feather

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The Silver Spangled Hamburg

“Sprightly…good forager…one of the snappiest, most alert breeds…look after themselves well in the field”.   Any one of these descriptions are desirable for a chicken in a free range environment but add all of them together and you have the Silver Spangled Hamburg, my favorite chicken breed so far.

And alert they are, when they’re not kicking up leaves looking for a natural source of food they’re scanning the skies for hawks and eagles.  If danger approaches they’re the first to give the alarm and head for cover which alerts the rest of the flock to do the same. They have a small body size which allows them to be good fliers and they lay a nice sized white egg.  If a stray hunting dog wanders in from the deep woods I’ve seen the Hamburgs fly well over 200 yards into a tree, all without ever having to land on the ground every 30 feet like other hens do.

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Roosting outside for the night

Their only weakness?  They hate to be confined in a coop for the night, preferring instead to roost out in the open which leaves them vulnerable to raccoons, possums and especially owls.  One morning last week I found one dead in the field with its head missing, the calling-card of an owl. Needles to say the other Hamburgs wised-up and are now roosting safely in the coop.

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Reinforcements

Back in October I ordered another 50 chicks to add to the flock. They’re already two and a half months old and should start laying eggs by the end of February. At first the eggs will be small but by the time the farmers market starts in April the eggs should be a nice size. The first two months of their lives are spent in a small brooder in the barn where they are sheltered from cooler temperatures and drafts, things that can quickly kill a small chick with immature feathers.  WP_20141209_16_23_55_ProA few weeks ago I moved them outside to a “chicken tractor”, essentially a large pen with no floor. WP_20141209_16_24_33_ProThis is a great setup as I no longer have to change poop-filled pine shavings every 5 days, all we have to do now is grab the handles on the chicken tractor and move it over 8 feet till it’s on fresh grass. The manure they leave behind will fertilize my lawn from spring until fall. Keep in mind no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides have ever touched my lawn. Just good old-fashioned chicken mud and I will have the greenest grass for miles around. At night this time of year when temperatures can dip down  into the 20’s and even the teens I’ll wrap old sheets around the open sides of the pen to block the wind, and their own body heat along with a heat lamp (if needed) will keep them warm. Plus, they’re able to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air at a very early age.

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Missing Egg Mystery

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A White Leghorn about to enter No-Man’s Land

Without explanation three weeks ago egg production dropped down to almost 20%.  Hens will naturally decrease their laying each fall as the the amount of daylight decreases, but this was way beyond the seasonal slowdown. Something else had to be going on. My first hunch was that they might be laying them inside the vine thicket that’s covering the giant fallen oak tree behind their coop.  I showed up with a set of loppers and hacked my way into the vine-covered fortress the best I could, but being 6 feet 4 inches tall I can’t go into all the small spaces that a chicken can.  I found no eggs but at least I left with something: a multitude of thorns embedded in my skin from all the brier vines and raspberry canes. Not easily deterred I showed back up at night with a powerful flashlight so I could once again (from a safe distance of a million thorns) crouch on the ground and scan for hidden eggs. Still nothing. I chalked it up to a slower than usual fall egg-laying season, and that was that.     Until a few evenings ago.     We noticed some of the chickens were missing from the coop at night and with the assistance of the previously mentioned flashlight, found some of them roosting inside the thicket. While we searched for more hens something caught our eyes…dozens of dirt-covered eggs all over the ground, far inside where no human could reach.  The following day I came back with my loppers and harvested what I could.  I could only reach fifteen but I’m convinced there are many dozens still hidden from our sight.  Once I move them off this pasture I’m going to mow down all the vines, collect the rest of the dirty eggs, and let the dogs have them.

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A few of the hidden eggs

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