Co-Brooding Continues

If I could take a quick break from the depressing events of Saturday and Sunday…I’m happy to report that our two mother hens continue to co-brood their eleven chicks as a team. It’s really remarkable to watch, and we’ve never seen anything like it. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else has had multiple hens brood their chicks together like this.
Unlike the intrepid and fiercely independent hen who insisted on staying outside with her brood even in the pouring rain (naturally, so far from the barn door that she couldn’t be moved indoors even if she’d wanted to go, especially not with six little chicks who’d be going every which way once we picked her up), and who paid for it with her life, the co-brooders have been good about coming in at night. The first couple of days they needed a little nudging, but now they bring the brood in on their own around dusk.

Lots of fun being able to look outside my office window at the garden and see this:

We Lost Her

After staying up until midnight last night trying to comfort Nera in her long labor, I finally decided to get some sleep. I guess I just got to the point where I had to admit there was nothing I could do except pray and hope nature resolved whatever issues were going on inside her body. She’d had five successful lambings, two of which were triplets, and the other three of which were twins — so I knew her body was capable.

Before calling it a night, I did don a latex glove and feel inside her birth canal. The lamb was very clearly in “launch position,” with the head and hoof exactly where it was supposed to be. I could put my hand all the way around the lamb’s head. I just couldn’t get the lamb to budge. I suspected, from her size and shape, that she had triplets in there. The other two must’ve been somehow pinning the one that was set to launch. She kept standing up and laying down and changing positions, so I hoped that would get the lambs to move around.

It didn’t. I woke up at 5:30, with first light and birds chirping, and wanted to go back to sleep. But all I could think about was Nera. By 6am, I was dressed and in the barn…and examining her dead body.

I suppose it was inevitable that this happen at some point. Icelandics are very easy lambers, and almost never need assistance; it’s a trade-off for their smaller size. But “almost never” is different from “never.” To put this loss in perspective: This is our eighth year of lambing. We’ve had over 80 lambs born. This was our 48th delivery. And the first time we’ve had to even think about getting help for an ewe. This is also the first time we’ve lost a mature ewe to any cause.

Still…I’m just sick about losing Nera. She was one of our best ewes and mothers, always had plenty of milk, and provided wonderful black fleeces. And she was one our earliest sheep, born to Dot (the leader sheep and queen of the flock) in our second year of lambing.

A more practical problem is what to do with her body. She was big, and even bigger with three lambs inside her. Back in Illinois, we had a friend who let us dump large animal bodies in a huge vacant field he owned. We have 15 acres here, but the trick is getting the body far enough away from everything else — and the hay in the hayfield we have to cross is something like 3 feet high. But with a heat wave forecast to be moving in later today, we need to get the body away from the barn fast.

I’ll leave you with this photo, of her 2007 lambing (the last in Illinois):

She was a real blessing. And will be truly missed. We are grateful for all the years we were allowed to have her.

Late Night Lambing

To intervene or not to intervene? That’s the question I’m struggling with now, at nearly midnight on a Saturday night. One of our best and most reliable ewes, Nera, has been in labor literally all day…and she hasn’t progressed much at all in several hours. Been checking on her every 15 minutes or so lately, and her contractions/pushing are definitely getting more intense, but there’s still very little “forebirth” portruding from her rear end.

I am loathe to put on a latex glove and reach inside her, for a whole host of reasons. Icelandic sheep usually need no assistance with lambing, which was a big plus when we selected a breed nearly eight years ago. We’ve now had 47 lambings, and over 80 lambs born to us, and we’ve never had to assist a ewe. I realize it happens all the time in James Herriot’s books, and he makes it sound easy/routine, but I have no idea what I’m doing in there. I could easily do more harm than good…cause her birth canal to tear, or yank a lamb in a way that kills or disables it. And yet…if her birth canal is blocked for some reason, I need to clear it.

I did put a gloved finger in a couple of hours ago, and could feel the hardness of a lamb’s hoof. That’s good. They always come out hoof/snout first. But I don’t want to put my whole hand in and start grabbing or pulling. If we were still in Illinois, I’d probably give the vet a call. He lived less than two miles from us, and we had his home number. He’d at least have some advice, and could tell us what to look for that indicated he needed to come. But here, the closest large animal vet is many miles away. We’re pretty much on our own.

This is Nera’s sixth delivery, and she’s always had twins (3 times) or triplets (twice). She’s an experienced pro, yet not ancient. I know I shouldn’t be worried about her. And yet…I am. That’s the thing about being a shepherd: you grow to deeply care about each member of the flock, as an individual. I can scan the flock, and instantly recognize each sheep by name. Nera’s been with us a long time, and we’ve hoped to have her for several more years. Which, I suppose, is why I’m still up and worrying about her at midnight. And kneeling next to her and trying to comfort her as she gathers herself for each new contraction. Because I know that even if I go to bed, I won’t be able to sleep.

Time to shut the computer down and go check on her again. And, I suppose, try to get some rest. But I’ll be going straight to the barn to check on her first thing tomorrow morning.

Freezer Fun

When you’re raising most of your own meat, freezer capacity is essential. After butchering 25 broilers, 10 lambs, 20 ducks, plus some geese and turkeys…you need to have a place to put it for the next year. We have two good-sized chest freezers in the garage, and a smallish one in the basement. We keep lamb and goat meat in one of the big ones, birds and garden produce (peppers, etc) in the other big one, and a mix of things in the small one.

Anyway, I went to the garage this afternoon to take some lamb shanks out to make stew for tomorrow’s dinner. Hadn’t even intended to check to other large freezer, but on a lark decided to look and see if a stray round steak had ended up in there; I needed one for later in the week. To my horror, something in that other freezer had malfunctioned. The light was on, indicating it had power, but the meat was nearly all thawed!

I got Mrs Yeoman Farmer, and together we took a closer look at the meat. Fortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot left…but what we had was special and we’d been saving for guests: three nice heritage turkeys, a big broad-breasted turkey, three big geese, and a couple of small ducks. While the meat was too far thawed to be re-frozen, it was still cool. We smelled it, and it’s definitely not yet spoiled.

So…guess who’s now running both ovens and the crock pot, and will be until late this evening? And has a kitchen that smells like Thanksgiving? Our plan is to cook all the meat today, bone it, put some aside for this week’s meals, and freeze the rest in gallon sized freezer bags in the basement. We’ll throw all the bones into large pots, and let them simmer all night making turkey and goose soup.

Needless to say, I put those lamb shanks back in the freezer. We’re going to be feasting on turkey and goose all week. We also called a couple of nearby families that have several kids; they each took a turkey off our hands.

As frustrating as it is to lose this much special meat, particularly because I butchered all of it myself, I’m thankful it wasn’t the freezer with the lamb and goat; that one is very full. It’s fortunately just a relative handful of birds, and I’m grateful we discovered the malfunction before the meat spoiled. Had this happened just a few weeks later, that freezer would’ve been full of broilers and ducks. Glad it happened now, while I can go shopping for a new one.

Without a Trace

Farming is an ever-continuing reminder that “the Lord gives, and the Lord takes.” Life is a miracle, and a mystery. And we are not the master of it.

We’ve had several entertaining weeks of watching our intrepid hen raising her chicks. She only lost one of the seven (when Scooter got a little enthusiastic about herding the chicks for her), and the remaining six were fully feathered. She insisted on sleeping outside with them, every night, regardless of weather. At least two different times, she allowed herself to be soaked by thunderstorms…but the chicks remained cozy under her wings. Really inspiring, actually.

I got to where I looked for her every morning when I came out to do the chores; she had a couple of favorite places she’d take the chicks to begin foraging at first light. Then, during the day, I’d sometimes watch the whole brood go past my office window.

Anyway, I came out this morning…and there’s now no sign of her or the chicks whatsoever. None. No dead bodies. No pile of feathers. But no hen, and no chicks. (The two co-brooding hens are also sleeping outside, in a different place from where the original hen hung out, but they still have all eleven of their little chicks.)

I hope she’s just lost in the hay field or something, and soon finds her way out. But I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I doubt we’ll see her again.

And yet, as upset as I am about her disappearence and losing those chicks, I can’t stop thinking about this

And the Lord said: Thou art grieved for the ivy, for which thou hast not laboured, nor made it to grow, which in one night came up, and in one night perished.

… and being grateful that all the human members of our family are safe, healthy, and accounted for. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Each of us is worth more than every hen and every chick ever hatched. And being watched over accordingly.

Worth reflecting on today, I think.

One Big Goosie Family

We let Lucy Goosie try hatching some eggs, but (as expected) she seems to have failed. Our backup plan was to buy some goslings, brood them, and then turn them over to the geese to raise.

That seems to have been the ticket. We’ve had 15-20 or so goslings in the brooder, and then in a pasture pen with ducklings, for a couple of weeks now. But that pasture pen is getting crowded, so today I decided to try releasing ten goslings into pasture with the adult geese.

Our big hissy gander immediately stepped forward and claimed the goslings. Lucy Goosie wasn’t far behind. The goslings, for their part, have been stuck in their new parents’ gravitational pull all day. Remarkable how deep the instincts run, in both the adults and the goslings: the adults sense that these little creatures are “theirs,” the the goslings somehow know to follow the big geese and not the big ducks running around in the same pasture. And the big ducks, for their part, are showing no interest at all in the goslings. And, just like in the wild, both the goose and the gander raise the young together as a joint project.

Loads of fun watching the adult geese leading their new little brood around the pasture, grazing. I’m going to release the rest of the goslings tomorrow.

Double Brood!

In the last few days, we’ve had two more Buff Orpington hens hatch out their broods. (For those curious, the other hen with chicks continues doing very well; all her chicks are fully feathered and thriving.) These two new hens went broody at the same time and made their nests right next to each other. Not surprisingly, their eggs all hatched together as well.

What’s fascinating is that the two hens are now co-brooding the eleven chicks between them. We’ve never seen this kind of behavior before. We’ve had one aggressive hen steal chicks from a passive hen, but never seen two hens cooperate and stick together to raise a brood. Hens are usually very territorial, and chase interlopers away. So, it’ll be interesting to see if they continue co-brooding, or if one gives up altogether, or if they split the brood and go their separate ways.
They emerged from the barn this morning with the eleven chicks, and went right to work foraging at the woodpile. Lots of bugs and worms there. (Note the chick to the far left has a worm in its beak.)
If you look closely at the photo below, you can see a worm in front of the white chick. One of the hens is trying to point it out and tear it up.
Here is a close-up of the fuzzy little chick working on that big worm, once he figured out what Mom was getting for him:

Finally, I’ll leave you with a short video of the two hens scratching up the dirt and the chicks going crazy for it. Interestingly, they are totally ignoring a bowl of high protein crumble that I put out nearby. These guys know where the really good stuff is.

I could sit out and watch them do this for hours.