National 24-Hour Challenge 2016: Ride Report

Father’s Day weekend, I again headed out to Middleville, Michigan (about 90 minutes west of here) for the National 24-Hour Challenge. It’s not technically a race, but rather a “challenge yourself to do your personal best” event. It draws hundreds of people from all over the USA, and from other countries. Lots of fun, very festive, and something I look forward to each year.

This was my third time riding, and long-time blog readers will recall my ride reports from 2014 and 2015. The 2016 ride report, which follows below the break, is much longer than a typical blog post — and way off the blog’s usual focus. I put together these long write-ups mostly as a set of “lessons learned” that can be reviewed the next time I’m preparing for a similar event. I am sharing this one here largely for the benefit of other cyclists who might be considering taking the plunge and trying something crazy, and are led to this page by a Google search for information about the event.

But even if you’re not a cyclist, and have no interest in trying something crazy, I hope you find the story entertaining.

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Mother Duck Delivers

I mentioned in a recent post that we had a mother duck on a nest in the barn. She’d hunkered down fairly high up in the hay bales, and could sit very still. We didn’t even know she was there for a couple of weeks, at which point we began keeping an eye on her.

This past Saturday, the eggs began cracking open and little black-and-yellow ducklings began emerging! We could hear them, and occasionally could catch a glimpse of one or two, but she wouldn’t let us get a good look. We decided to let her stay on the nest, and continue hatching as many as she could hatch, until the initial hatchlings got adventurous and began wandering off the nest. Because the nest was so high off the ground, if a duckling fell from the surrounding hay bales there would be no way for it to get back to the nest. It would be certain to get picked off by a cat, if it didn’t starve or freeze to death first.

Sunday morning, we decided it was time for Mother Duck to move. Ducklings were emerging from under her, and running around on the hay bales. It would be only a matter of time before one took a tumble. The problem was what to do with her and the brood. As fun as it would be to watch her lead them around the yard, that would surely end in disaster. She had a total of eight ducklings, which is a lot to keep track of. And ducks are not nearly as attentive to their broods — or as good at keeping them in line, or frightening off the barn cats — as hens are (at least in our experience). Every time we’ve let a mother duck free-range with a brood, the ducklings have rapidly disappeared.

I’d just butchered the last of the meat chickens, so we had a tractor pen free in the garden. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me move it to a new place with lots of weeds. We made sure the waterer was full, and that there was grain in the feeder. We then went back in the barn, found a box with a good lid, and grabbed Mother Duck (who was very displeased, and tried to nibble me to death). Once we secured her in the box, I scooped up the eight ducklings and put them in with her. We then carefully carried the box out to the garden pen, and turned them all loose.

She’s been doing a great job with them. All eight were still alive this morning. We definitely want her to brood them, raise them, and teach them how to be ducks — but it’s best for all involved that this happen in a controlled environment.

Mother Duck

BTW, Mother Hen has continued to be outstanding. Her five chicks have been thriving. Visitors to the farm have been having a blast watching them do their thing. I wish we could give Mother Duck the same freedom, and perhaps we will at some point. But for now, it’s critical that the little brood get firmly established in a safe place.

Chicks on the Move

A few hours after putting up yesterday’s post about the newly-hatched chicks, I heard a distinct sound coming from the barn: “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” It continued for a long time, very loud, echoing across the yard. I knew it could be only one thing: a chick. The only question was whether it was one of the original four, or if there were a fifth chick that had gotten stranded on the way out.

I made a quick check of Mother Hen, and she still had four. The “cheep!” was still coming from the barn. Must be another.

I headed up to the barn, to try to catch the chick. It was standing in the entryway, making its noise through a crack in the bottom of the barn door. As soon as I reached the barn, however, it scurried back toward the hay bales. It scooted between two bales, into a place I could never reach it, just ahead of me. Don’t you know I’m trying to help? I thought.

I went back to work, giving the chick time to re-emerge. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I could hear the forlorn call. I approached the barn more stealthily this time, but the chick still beat me into the hiding place. These things sure are fast for being so little and so young!

Homeschooled Farm Girl joined me a moment later, and I explained what was going on. We sat down on various hay bales to wait. It didn’t take long. As soon as the chick emerged, the two of us managed to disorient it enough so we could drive it into a place where we could catch it. I carried it down to where Mother Hen was foraging with her brood, set it down gently, and it ran to her. It began following her, and the other chicks, as if it’d been with them all day. To my great relief, Mother Hen welcomed the chick (sometimes they peck at and reject a newcomer). It never again strayed from the brood.

It’s really amazing, watching the way a mother hen teaches her little ones to forage. She scratches something up, calls the chicks, and then points out to them what they’re supposed to peck at. I managed to shoot this video yesterday evening:

Later in the evening, we had a hundred new bales of hay to stack in the barn. Unfortunately, no one checked to see if Mother Hen had brought her brood back to the old nest first. After piling up quite a wall of hay, which almost sealed off the nest from the rest of the barn, I finally remembered to look to see if she was there. Yes, indeed. She had settled in with the chicks under her, clucking reassuringly to the brood.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I cleared the best path we could for her, with a little tunnel through the hay bales. We weren’t sure she’d be able to get out, but we hoped it would be enough.

When I came out to the barn early this morning to start on chores, the hen was still back on the nest. Then, about an hour later, HFG came to my office with good news: the hen was out, with all the chicks. They were already behind my office again.

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We went watched them forage for several minutes. It really is fun. I could watch them all day.

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Hatching Time

One of the most-fun things about having a small farm, with free-ranging livestock, is that the animals get to be themselves. For the poultry, that includes making a nest, collecting some eggs, and hatching a brood. Because we tend to collect all the eggs we can find each day, that means the mother bird has to pick an out-of-the-way spot we won’t easily discover.

This duck, for example, has been on a nest for weeks. She built it high on a stack of hay bales, where we had also piled a few bags of unprocessed wool. I didn’t discover her until she’d been there for a while. You can tell from the large number of feathers that this is definitely a nest she’s constructed and prepared for hatching. When birds just lay eggs, without intention of hatching, they don’t go to this much trouble.

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She’s been so quiet, and so motionless, you wouldn’t even know she’s there. (And that’s the idea — she certainly doesn’t want predators coming in for an easy kill.) But try to approach any closer than I did for this shot, and she will puff herself up and start hissing like  a goose.

I don’t know if her eggs are even fertile (we do have several drakes running with the flock, but you never know for certain). She may just sit there for weeks, with nothing to show for her efforts. Given how long she’s been there already, I’d have expected ducklings by now. But we’ll see.

The chickens tend to be more reliable setters and mothers. A few weeks ago, one of our Buff Orpington hens built a nest between the hay bales and the barn wall. Unlike last year’s crazy hen, who built a nest so deeply back in the hay that her chicks weren’t even able to get out, this one planned an exit strategy. And this weekend, she hatched the chicks. Homeschooled Farm Girl, who had recently discovered the nest, noticed the development and let me know. (HFG also confirmed that the hen had a way for the chicks to get out of the nest).

This morning, Mother Hen emerged from the barn with her brood. She’s been taking them all over our back yard, away from the other animals. Just a few minutes ago, she was behind my office building. I wanted a picture, but she saw me coming — and took cover. It’s amazing the way she uses various clucks, with differing tones and cadences, to give orders to the hatchlings. Even at just a few days old, they seem to know what they’re supposed to do. When Mother Hen sounded the alarm, they all scrambled after her into the burdock. I got as close as I could, with her clucking protests the whole time about my nearness, and managed to get this picture:

Hen with chicks

Note that there are three orange chicks that look just like her. There’s also one black chick, hidden in the shadows. She was either bred by multiple roosters (we have a number of them, of different breeds), or a Barred Rock hen found the nest and deposited an egg in it before Mother Hen went broody.

Doesn’t matter to her. They’re all her chicks, and she’s doing a great job with them so far. With just four for her to take care of, I’m inclined to let her free-range with them for now. When hens get too big of a brood, we find it works best to isolate all of them in a garden pen. But my preference is always to let them continue to range free. After all, that’s what makes small-farm life so much fun.

 

Dying for Revenge

I’m a big fan of mystery novels, so was quite pleased to receive an advance reading copy of Dying for Revenge, the first in a planned series of “whodunnits” by Barbara Golder. It’s an excellent, well-paced story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The deeper I got into it, the more annoyed I became by outside interruptions; I really did not want to put it down.

Golder’s protagonist, Dr. Jane Wallace, is unique in that she’s not a sheriff or a police detective, but rather a regional Medical Examiner. She also holds a law degree. This gives a really fascinating perspective on the story’s murder investigations. Dr. Wallace has a number of tools at her disposal, has an excellent understanding of the law, and of course works with law enforcement, but she does not have direct access to all the tools that the state police or a sheriff’s department might have. When the bodies begin dropping, Dr. Wallace must use a variety of forensic techniques (medical and otherwise) to identify connections between cases — and then must convince skeptical local law enforcement authorities that particular deaths are indeed the work of a single killer.

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I had some good early suspicions as to who the killer was, and the story includes enough clues for the attentive reader to form a good theory. The story also provides good plausible alternative theories. We — along with Dr. Wallace — have to follow all the clues before we can figure out which theory is correct. There are plenty of twists along the way. And remember, because Dr. Wallace is “only” a medical examiner, she can’t arrest a suspect or bring someone in for questioning the way a police officer could. When law enforcement doesn’t agree with her, and doesn’t want to cooperate, she has to pursue the suspect a little differently. The way she accomplishes this is really fun to read.

I’d add that the killer isn’t the only bad guy in the story. The way Dr. Wallace goes after some of these secondary villains — again, sometimes without the direct assistance of law enforcement — is quite satisfying.

However, Dying for Revenge is much more than just a mystery novel. It’s an inspirational story, with a complex protagonist who’s experienced a great deal of personal suffering. The particulars of these sufferings and losses are revealed gradually and naturally over the course of the story; Golder strikes a good balance of piquing the reader’s curiosity about Dr. Wallace’s past, while also satisfying the reader’s curiosity bit by bit. We come to really know and understand her. Even when she lashes out and does something selfish, or says something that we sense she’ll regret later and have to take back, I found myself cheering her on and saying “Darned right!” — because I understood her, and why her reactions were exactly the right ones for her character. As the story unfolds, and the protagonist begins to change and grow, I found myself cheering on those changes as well. The character development seems natural, and fits perfectly with what Dr. Wallace experiences over the course of the novel’s events.

A good novel also takes you to a new place, immerses you in it, and gives you the sense that you’ve truly lived there for a while. Dying for Revenge takes place in and around the resort town of Telluride, Colorado; I’ve never actually visited it, but by the end of the story really felt like I knew my way around. The next time I’m in Colorado, I want to make sure I see it in person.

The way the story itself is told is a bit unusual. We see the action through the eyes of several different viewpoint characters, most of whom narrate events in a third person voice. Dr. Wallace’s character, however, narrates events in a first person voice. I mention this as something for readers to be aware of, because it is so unconventional — and could be confusing if you’re not ready for it. I personally would have preferred that the story’s narration and viewpoint been kept more consistent (i.e. all third person or all / virtually all first person). YMMV, however. Other readers may find the viewpoint mix gives the best of both worlds: the first person narration allows them to identify more deeply with Dr. Wallace, while the third person narration allows them to witness actions Dr. Wallace is not present for.

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and getting to know Dr. Jane Wallace. My only disappointment is that the next nine installments in the series aren’t available right now.

Dying for Revenge is available in print from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in Kindle format.

Surprise Caboose

We’d thought lambing was done for the year. Most of them arrived in early to mid April, with one delivery in May. That’s usually about as long as lambing goes for us; any ewes who haven’t delivered by then, probably aren’t going to deliver at all. Icelandic ewes tend to come into heat in the Fall, not in the dead of winter.

Yesterday, we got a surprise. Pachelbelle, one of our older ewes (and one of the few remaining sheep that came with us on the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois) delivered a beautiful little ewe lamb.

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As you can see in the photos, the new lamb is very healthy and alert. She’s already following her mother out to pasture and back.

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Given the five month gestation period, Pachelbelle must’ve been bred the first week of January. What most likely happened is that she came into heat earlier, but was either (1) missed by one of the rams, because they were so preoccupied with breeding other members of the flock or (2) bred, but didn’t achieve a pregnancy, so came into heat again.

The absolute latest in the year we’ve had a  lamb born is August, when one of our very old ewes truly surprised us. In her case, extreme age seems to have thrown off her normal reproductive cycle; we thought she was past being able to lamb.

Our oldest current ewe, Conundrum, is now now the same age (twelve) as the one who made an August delivery a few years ago. Conundrum didn’t lamb this spring. So…who knows what surprises may still arrive this summer.

Hard at Work

Spring on the farm brings an unbelievable amount of work: new little animals to tend to, a garden to get prepped and planted, grass that’s constantly in need of mowing … Add to it the professional demands of an election year, and I’ve barely had time to come up for air in the last month. I even spent Saturday and Monday of Memorial Day Weekend in front of my computer, delivering analyses for a client. I reminded myself that this is all part of of the “package” of being self-employed. When there’s work, it needs to get done. I can take my own three-day weekends (or, heck, three days off in the middle of the week) when there isn’t work that needs to get done.

Right now, on the farm, even the new Cornish Cross meat chicks are hard at work. They just don’t know it. (They also don’t know that they’re going to start getting butchered this week, but that’s another story. And another task that I’m somehow going to have to fit in.) Our garden is so large, it takes a while to get the whole area planted. That means we’ve had a good-sized section that is still sitting fallow, and has been pushing up nothing but weeds. And that’s a good thing, because it’s provided an excellent place to run a chicken tractor.

This is what the garden looks like when I first arrive in the morning. Notice all the chickens, lined up, waiting to get moved to fresh green stuff.

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The first thing I do is remove the rocks from the lid (the half that isn’t screwed down), and flip it over. I then pull out the feeder with supplemental high-protein grain (far left), and the waterer (still inside the pen in this photo). Note the foot-wide strips of plywood around the perimeter, held down with rocks. Those are to keep raccoons from digging into the pen.

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This is how things looked inside the pen, a moment  earlier, before I pulled the feeder out. The white bucket has fresh water, to refill the waterer.

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I then remove the protective plywood strip at the end, and drag the pen forward one length. Look how eagerly the chickens are already going to work, eating those weeds. Right after taking this photo, I replaced the feeder (and the newly-filled waterer).

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After moving the pen, it becomes clear just how much damage the chickens can do to those weeds in a single day — and how much manure then can leave behind for the garden. We’ll of course let this fresh manure sit for a while, and work it into the soil, before planting in this part of the garden. (BTW, most of the remaining weeds you see below escaped eating because they were under the feeder or waterer.)

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All I need to do now is move the protective plywood strips and secure them with rocks. And that’s it. I’m done with the chickens for the day. But their work is just getting started. They’ll be busy munching on weeds, fertilizing the garden … and getting closer and closer to their optimal butchering weight. They don’t know it yet, but in a few more days their work here will be done.