6 June, 2013

This year, people, this year.

Inside the last month I’ve felt kind of like we were The House Of Death. My rehab project goat Chism didn’t make it — the vet thought he was too far gone by the time he got to me for me to actually save, and I wound up having to have him put down. Then we lost Barachiel, our big black long-tailed Sumatra rooster, and yesterday we lost Captain Crooked Toes, our ginger-red standard Old English Game rooster.

Chism’s death was a blow, and I’m still grieving him. He deserved better, and it hurts hugely that I wasn’t able to save him. I ended up having to take him to Tidewater Trail Animal Hospital since the goat vet couldn’t make it out here for a couple days when I called. Dr. Andi sent him on his way with love and kindness while I scratched his special very itchy spots on his face. They’re normally dog and cat vets, but came through for me in a big way on this one and I can never say enough about their professionalism and compassion and wonderfulness.

Barachiel and Captain Crooked Toes were smaller blows, but still. They weren’t even on the list of “Roosters I Would Like To Drop Dead And/Or Put In The Freezer In Plastic Bags”. They were both gorgeous, but more to the point they were not only gentle with their hens but valiant in the flock’s defense. Both of them have gone up against hawks who were trying to prey on the flock, pitting their rooster selves against predators designed for killing while the hens got away. The only bright spot is that the standard Old English Game hen just hatched five chicks, and two of them look to be children of Captain Crooked Toes while one looks to be from Barachiel, so provided the little fluffballs make it to maturity we haven’t lost their genetics entirely.

Death is a part of agriculture as old as the first human being ever to domesticate an animal, but for me at least it’s never an easy part. Even a rooster destined for the fridge is an individual who deserves care and compassion, and every death deserves to be honored. Especially when it’s a death for my benefit, for that matter. But being human it’s hard not to get attached at least a little bit, and these three deaths were all so wasteful.

3 June, 2013

The Case Against Purebred Livestock

The more I work with chickens and goats (and dogs for that matter), the more convinced I am that the designation “purebred” for animals is not only useless but harmful, and that livestock shows, in which animals are judged for conformation rather than production, are a poison to agriculture.

There’s certainly a case to be made in favor of purebreds, in that they can be very predictable in terms of appearance, behavior, and important measures like feed conversion (the amount of food an animal needs to produce milk, eggs, meat, wool, or some combination thereof). But the downside is that limiting the gene pool artificially is actively harmful to populations.

In goats, we’re starting to see a problem in Nubians because of the G6S mutation, a recessive that can cause a goat to fail to thrive and then drop dead suddenly at quite a young age. Scientists estimate that 25% of the population of Nubians has it, and so far not nearly enough breeders are testing for G6S status on their Nuban herds, which means it can pop up unexpectedly. For the small breeder for whom each animal is a friend and pet as well as milk producer, the emotional impact can be terrible. For commercial dairies, it can represent a serious loss of income to have doelings start dropping dead.

Among chickens, you see formerly productive breeds that are no just feathery lawn ornaments. The Buckeye, for instance, was bred to be a thrifty, hardy free-range bird that required minimal human input to put meat and eggs on the table. Extensive breeding has made it a bird that is more comfortable sitting in coops eating pellets from a feeder rather than a wily hunter of bugs and seeds. When I went looking for a free-range Buckeye flock to try and bring some actually useful Buckeye genetics in, I couldn’t find a single one within range of me, and there were perishing few nationwide.

The popularization of the incubator, brooders, and wide availability of pelleted feed, along with the growing crop of people who just want a couple hens for the back yard, means that the chickens our great-great-grandparents knew are hard to find. Incubators allow every single egg to hatch, even those that produce weak chicks who need coddling in a brooder. Likewise the coddling in a brooder allows chicks to live that don’t have the physiology to handle local weather conditions, diseases, and parasites. These chicks grow up to be the chickens who need constant deworming, climate-controlled coops, and other interventions to survive. Which is all very good and well if you want a couple hens for your backyards while relaxing on your Blue Oak Patio Furniture. When you want meat and eggs for your table that sort of chicken is not terribly useful.

Meanwhile, people like to pay premium prices for “purebred”, show-quality chickens, or even just purebred rare chickens. Often these birds are the product of extremely limited gene pools. While some people will assert with a straight face that inbreeding does not affect chickens, they are either lying because they want to sell you poultry or they’re woefully ignorant. Loss of genetic diversity will get you chickens who fail to thrive, drop dead mysteriously and unexpectedly, who have poor feed conversion rates, and who are so damn stupid they won’t even come in out of the rain (nota bene: show quality silkies are NOTORIOUS for this).

Part of the problem, a big part of the problem, is that people are raising livestock for pets these days. Our ancestors avoided the pitfalls of inbreeding by ruthlessly culling any animal who didn’t perform and putting it on the dinner table. Today’s “homesteaders” are often unwilling to cull this hard, and that goes triple for people who are hoping to cash in on the craze for expensive rare breed livestock.

And therein lies the rub. While it’s important to preserve these reservoirs of genetic diversity, it’s equally important that they not be degraded into uselessness by a refusal to cull animals that don’t perform by removing them from the gene pool one way or another. Otherwise we just wind up with more sad fat Buckeye chickens sitting in cages at shows, unable to fulfill the promise of their ancestors.

6 May, 2013

I am the chicken grinch.

Every so often, someone writes to me to ask my advice about keeping chickens. Their goals usually boil down to “we want eggs” and sometimes also “we want to teach our children where food comes from.” These are admirable goals, even if the second one is rather dishonest — the eggs in the supermarket do not come from pet hens in backyards but from battery farms where the hens have a space about as large as a sheet of paper. I will go on record as saying I don’t think its a good idea to spring the realities of factory farming on your three-year-old, but neither do I think you need to outright lie.

Anyhoo. This has become more common as the backyard chicken thing takes off, although I think it’s now reached critical mass, and these well-meaning people often have some really drastic misconceptions about what keeping your own chickens means. I am then left with the unenviable position of pointing out all the problems with their plan.

1) You will certainly get fresher eggs, but unless your hens are free-ranging and the majority of their diet coming from pasture and bugs, the nutritional profile of the eggs from your hens is going to be pretty much the same as the ones you get in the supermarket. Free-range eggs are lower in cholesterol and higher in omega fatty acids, but eggs from a hen who lives in a coop in your back yard and eats commercial chicken feed with the occasional snack of kitchen scraps are not free-range hens.

2) Your eggs will not be “hormone free”. Hens in commercial egg farms are not treated with hormones to make them lay, as there’s no need. You can force a hen to lay by manipulating the level of light to which she’s exposed, which is what commercial egg farms do. Dairy is another story entirely.

3) Your eggs will be free of antibiotics. Some commercial egg farms do prophylactically treat hens with antibiotics. They need to because their hens are living in miserable, high-stress conditions. So as long as you’re not treating your hens with antibiotics, your eggs will be free of them. Keep in mind, however, that your hens may get sick and need treatment. They may get worms and need treatment. If you withhold treatment they need in the name of organic breakfast eggs, you’re an asshole.

4) You will not make money on chickens. You just won’t. You cannot compete with the economy of scale that commercial producers can leverage. It will cost you more to keep 3 or 4 hens at home for the eggs than to just buy your eggs at the grocery store, even if you are buying organic free-range eggs. I used to keep a spreadsheet amortizing the cost of feed and chicken facilities over the number of eggs produced. It got too depressing when it bottomed out at around $1 an egg, so I stopped.

You will also not make money selling offspring from your chickens. You are competing with the big hatcheries, and the people who will pay serious money for chickens are not going to want yours unless you have dedicated yourself to building a reputation on the poultry show circuit. This will take you years. There is no financial incentive to keeping chickens on a small scale.

5) There are only two ways to ensure you do not get roosters: either don’t keep chickens, or only buy adult hens. Vent sexing is 80-90 percent accurate, so even if you buy from the commercial hatcheries, you may still end up with a rooster or two. This leads us to another hard truth: as my friend s. e. smith stopped just short of saying when covering this, the name for extra roosters is “food.”

Even people like me, who live in the country and want roosters because we have a self-sustaining dual-purpose flock only need one rooster per ten hens. There is not a large market for pet roosters. It doesn’t matter if he is the sweetest rooster ever, if you tenderly hand-raised him for 8 weeks in a brooder in your spare bedroom, whatever reason you’re trying to convince yourself of. He is a surplus rooster, and the word for surplus roosters is “food.” If you are going to keep chickens, if you are going to hatch some eggs to teach your children about the miracle of life, then you have to come to terms with that.

You can try to sell your spare rooster. If you price him too high, say over $5, the odds are very slim anyone will buy him. If you price him under that, the odds are good that the person who comes to get him is going to eat him. If you can’t handle that, then hatching your own chickens or buying them as chicks is not for you. Stick to buying adult hens.

6) If a breed is “rare” then the odds are the gene pool is small and unhealthy. Someone is going to be upset with me for saying that, but it’s sadly true. Blue-laced red Wyandottes, a very pretty chicken, are the type I’ve seen it in most recently. They have a hard time thriving as chicks, and even as adults seem prone to mysteriously dying at a higher rate than other chickens.

People will try to tell you that “inbreeding doesn’t matter” with chickens. These people are at best misguided and at worst consciously lying to you. Chickens that have been relentlessly linebred for a particular look will have problems with fertility, with thriftiness, and with hardiness. You will end up babying them along and they’ll still drop dead at an alarming rate. THe problem here is that to keep an inbred line of animals healthy, you must cull relentlessly for fertility, thriftiness, and hardiness. Most people don’t. Beginner chicken owners are better off with a common breed purchased from a large hatchery, where egg-laying productivity matters, unless you want to have to coddle your chickens along for not much return.

If you truly want chickens who can thrive free-ranging with minimal human intervention, look for a flock of farmyard mutts. Local predators will have done the culling if the farmer didn’t do it herself.

7) The very last brutal disillusionment I have for would-be chicken owners: hens are loud. A hen’s egg-song is often just as loud as a rooster’s crow, and goes on for a lot longer. A hen will yell the characteristic “BWOCK BWOCK BGAWK” for as long as five minutes straight without ceasing. There are individual variations, of course, just as there are individual variations in pitch, length, and volume of rooster crows. But you should probably let go of the idea that you’re going to be able to keep chickens in an urban or suburban setting without your neighbors noticing.

5 December, 2012

Tiny little surprises

Another long gap — I’m coming up on finals week at school, plus getting orders sent out for the Holy Goats Etsy shop. No rest for the wicked, and all that.

But I couldn’t resist sitting down to tell y’all about our most recent adventure. As I’ve mentioned, we’ve had hawks in the area. Several chickens have gone missing, and after an incident three days ago with a sharp-shinned hawk who tried to take a hen and subsequently got his feathery butt kicked by our Old English Game rooster, they’ve been on lockdown again. They are not amused.

Among the chickens who were missing was one of our favorites, the little bantam Easter Egger hen named Beauty. She’s been a prolific and reliable little layer although flighty and skittery and disinclined to hang out with human beings. We just assumed that the hawk had gotten her, paused for a sad moment of silence, and moved on.

Until yesterday, when as I was setting up for morning milking, Daniel called to me from over by the woodpile. “I found out where Beauty’s been!” he said. “Come and see really quick!” I walked over, and there was our little missing hen, being followed by a teeny tiny chick, still young enough to have the egg tooth on its beak.

A quick scour of the area turned up her nest. We’d put the top half of a covered litterbox down to offer some shelter to free-ranging chickens, and she’d laid her eggs and brooded right there, within six feet of the door to the bantam pen. Evidence suggested that two or three eggs had hatched, and that Beauty had scuffled with something in defense of her brood but only managed to save the one. We felt that especially since he’s a singleton, she had a better chance of raising him that we do, so gently herded the two of them into a little pen and set them up with food and water and shelter and straw to snuggle down in. They were doing fine this morning when I looked in on them.

26 November, 2012

Well that was exciting.

Yesterday was the monthly Total Goat Stall Renovation, which involves removing approximately 60 cubic feet of used bedding from the goat stalls and moving it to the compost heap. During all this activity we noticed a hawk calling repeatedly — it was pretty unusual, since in our experience they’ll call once or twice and then shut up, presumably for fear of attracting crows.

At any rate, we finished up and went back inside and I happened to glance out the back window while taking my boots off just in time to see a hawk swoop in. I immediately pulled my boots back on and ran outside to find the hawk on the ground with a 12 week old Speckled Sussex pullet pinned. Feeling that the life of a pullet was worth more than my dignity, I ran straight at it yelling obscenities, at which point the hawk took off and the pullet scooted into a hollow log.

As the hawk hit the trees finally the crows saw it and began their usual raptor persecution routine, FINALLY. I dumped the pullet out of the hollow log and checked her over, she was totally fine. Lost a few feathers but no serious injuries, evidently the hawk hadn’t hit her with any of its talons and hadn’t had a chance to get its beak on her.

The chickens are now on lockdown for an undetermined period of time. This morning when we came out not just the adult hawk but a juvenile were sitting in the oak trees, patiently waiting for us to let their breakfast out. Hahaha, hawks, joke is on you. There’s two little hens who don’t sleep in the pens that are in danger, but the rest of the flock is safely locked up for now and I’m thinking of setting out feeding stations with all kinds of snacks preferred by crows.

11 June, 2012

Life goes on

It’s still sad times here at the Manor. I keep thinking I need to check on Aida and give her meds or food or fresh water and of course, I don’t. Wherever she is gone, she definitely does not need me to pill her anymore. The other critters don’t miss her much, since she went out of her way to not interact with them unless it was to yell angry Siamese curses at them, but the people sure do.

But life goes on, as the title says. Tomorrow the eggs in the incubator go on lockdown, with hatch scheduled to start the 15th. I’m hoping for a good hatch out of these eggs, they are my beautiful Feltner line Pumpkin Hulseys. The little brooder is currently full of Old English Game Bantams who will need to be moved to the big brooder, which will be set up in the shed, in order to make space for the new little guys.

Josie’s babies are growing like little quadrupedal leaping weeds, getting braver and more ambitious in their shenanigans by the moment. Miss May, my gentle giant of a Nubian, is an excellent Auntie who tolerates their hijinks right until they decide it would be a good idea to nurse from her capacious udder, at which point she sends them off with a lazy swing of her massive head. Esk and Annabelle, on the other hand, seem to be more intrigued by the notion that here are two goats smaller than them that they can pick on. The babies are too fast for them though, especially now that Esk and Annabelle (Annabelle especially) are beginning to get heavy with pregnancy. Annabelle, in fact, is getting huge with still half her pregnancy to go.

In other news, I need to pick out what classes I’m taking next semester and register for them so I can finally graduate with my Associate’s, which I shall then follow up by getting a bachelor’s degree. In, um, something. Maybe history. Maybe English. I have not yet decided.

5 June, 2012

I still can’t say I’ve killed a chicken.

If discussion of butchering and processing chickens (although nothing graphic, I promise) is likely to bother you, you should probably stop here. I’m even sticking this under a cut tag, although some feed platforms don’t honor those, hence this warning up top.

(more…)

24 April, 2012

Antici…

…pation.
Josie is enormously pregnant and filling her udder, but not showing signs of imminent labor, like softened tail ligaments. The suspense is killing me as I anxiously await my first goat kids!

Meanwhile the garden is growing like a very leafy army, the chickens and quail are laying like mad, the latest set of eggs hatches in nine days, and we’ve begun collecting eggs from the Old English Game bantams again to set as soon as the incubator is empty. Which will be in six days, since I picked up a second incubator to use for hatching.

The magnificent Miss May continues to give us 3 quarts of milk a day, and I’m getting quite good at cheese making. The chevre May and I produce is frankly amazing, if I do say so myself.

I am woefully behind on pictures and have plans to correct that.

Anyway, if you’re in the area on May 5th, come on out and see us at the big Gilmanor sale, where we’ll have baby crele Old English Game Bantams to brighten up your yard or cop!

28 March, 2012

Learning new skills, exciting signs of self-sufficiency

Yesterday we trimmed Josie’s front hooves. As it turns out, goats are about as thrilled at having their feet done as dogs are about getting their toenails trimmed. So I’m working on finding a treat that goats cannot resist so I can get out the clicker and clicker-train my goats to at least stand still for foot trimming if not actually enjoy it. So far Esk and Annabelle have refused apples and baby carrots; I need to try those on Josie who is a less picky eater than they are. They were also highly skeptical about their pelleted feed until they saw Josie start eating it, so if she will nom the carrots and apples I may have a hit.

In other news, we sold eggs for eating and then the proceeds mostly paid for siding for the goat house, which is a nice feeling. So far the livestock have basically been a drain on resources, but I’m hoping with me home and able to dedicate more time to things like egg sales and hatching baby chickens to sell (not to mention sales of baby goats) that they will become more self-supporting.

In other other news, I have today, Thursday, and half of Friday left before I am free of my job. I am pretty excited. So far my plans involve a lot of sleeping.

26 March, 2012

And my little empire grows…

Made arrangements today to get Annabelle and Eskanazi bred this spring for fall babies, so there will be milk and cheese this fall! Unfortunately I can’t sell it, not having access to USDA-approved dairying facilities (or the money to build my own — anyone want to give me fifty grand? Didn’t think so.) but Daniel and I will be well-supplied with dairy products.

Meanwhile the ten bantam Sumatras and two Madagascar Game Fowl in the big brooder will be moving outside in another week or so. They’d go out today except that the temperature tonight is supposed to drop down to around freezing and they’re not old enough to handle that yet. There’s eggs in the incubator due to hatch in two weeks, we set a dozen from Merlin and his ladies so we should have a good set of bouncing baby crele Old English Game Bantams. Another set will go in the incubator at the end of this week — the other ‘bator doesn’t have a turner, so I’m waiting until I’m off work as the eggs will need to be turned by hand. Then when it’s time for the eggs in the Brinsea incubator to go on lockdown, they’ll be moved into the non-turning incubator and the eggs in it will move to the one with the auto-turner, and life will be much easier.

May 5 is the big chicken and small animal swap at Gilmanor Farms, so the crele OEGBs we hatch, all but one of the distinguishable banty Sumatra roosters, and the random bantams I had picked up to keep a lone banty chick company last hatch will be going up for sale there. I’ll probably also have a couple adult silkie roosters in blue. The swap is at 12187 Chewning Rd, Glen Allen, VA 23059, if you’re close enough to get to it and looking for poultry or small livestock (someone had a pony last year!) then you really ought to stop by and take a look. There’s a lot of sellers there with all kinds of things ranging from chickens to pigeons, cage birds to livestock guardian dogs, goats to ponies… Despite the misleading title of “swap” it’s actually a market, and you can purchase animals with cash money.

In other news, I’m seriously looking forward to being off work at this point and just going to school. It’s going to make life much, much easier on me, I tell you what.

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