Back in Gen Pop

For those who have been following the saga of Henny Penny, our intrepid Buff Orpington who made up her mind to hatch a brood of chicks out of season, yesterday brought a new development: I decided to move her back to Gen Pop from Ad Seg (that’s prison lingo for “general population” and “administrative segregation.”). She’d been in the upstairs (hay loft / basketball court) portion of the barn, confined to a 4′ x 8′ chicken tractor with her brood since mid-November. The chicks are now seven or eight weeks old, fully feathered, and no longer need her body heat to stay warm even on the bitterly cold (single digit temp) nights we’ve been having here in Michigan. And even if they did need her body heat, they’re now much too large to fit under her wings. She liked playing mother hen, and clucking the brood around the pen, but I could tell she was getting cabin fever with the confinement. Once I dropped her through the trap door and into the main portion of the barn, she went running off without so much as a backward glance.

The chicks, however, are going to remain upstairs for awhile. The big issue is water: they aren’t big enough or coordinated enough to jump onto the edge of a bucket or 40 gallon water trough and get themselves a drink. In the past, we’ve had many chicks their size plop right into the bucket or trough and drown. At this age, they really ought to be taking their water from a ground-level dispenser, and the big ones freeze solid within hours of being filled up. The six of them don’t seem to mind hanging out together in the upstairs pen, and I can easily keep them supplied with a quart jar of warm water each morning. Even though their jar freezes each night, it’s a simple matter to take it in the house, thaw it in the sink, and refill it for them.

Water is definitely the biggest struggle on a farm in the winter. We’ve never been comfortable with the electric water heater units that can be placed in big troughs of water; it may be an irrational fear, but there’s something about placing an electrical appliance directly into water that makes us nervous. And at least in the sheep area (which the ducks and geese and chickens also have access to), we can go through 40 gallons of water before it freezes. The big problem is getting the faucet and hose unfrozen, so we can fill the trough back up. It is critical to disconnect the hose as soon as you finish using it, and drain all the water out before winding it up; otherwise, the water freezes in the hose and the whole thing has to be taken to the basement of the house to thaw. The faucet, on the other hand, always freezes solid. Fortunately, it’s very close to the ground, so only a small portion is sticking up and needing to be thawed. About every other day or every third day, I take a quart of very hot water out to the barn and pour it over the faucet until enough internal ice melts and it can be opened. Sometimes it requires a bit of shaking to dislodge the rest of the ice, so the water can flow freely, but we’ve always been able to get water eventually.

Simply having a barn with water is a huge blessing, and if you’re looking for a farm of your own this is definitely a feature you should check on. Our old farm did not have water in the barn, meaning we had to carry five gallon buckets from the house; needless to say, this got real old real fast in the dead of winter. (We had a rainwater collection system to supply the animals with water in the summer, but had to drag a hose from the basement if the rainwater ever ran out.) If, for some reason, we ever had to move to a different farm…I’m not sure I could go back to having a barn without running water.

With weather reports indicating another arctic blast is coming in tonight, I’d better stop typing and get started actually filling water troughs and battening down the hatches in the barn…

Lost Lamb

We lost a lamb to what was almost certainly pneumonia overnight. He’d developed a terrible wheezing hack in his lungs last night, and was struggling to catch his breath. He hadn’t seemed that bad earlier in the day, and I’d wanted to give him a chance to beat it on his own; the sudden nose-dive at 10pm caught me by surprise. I told Mrs Yeoman Farmer that I’d take him to the vet if he survived the night…but that has turned out not to be necessary.

Losing an animal as valuable as an Icelandic lamb is always a big disappointment, but the incident has led me to reflect on a couple of thoughts:

First, animal deaths have gotten much easier to take — and now cause much less emotional distress — than when we we first began farming. The very first animal we lost was a baby chick from our initial batch of broilers. MYF brought it inside when it was having trouble standing up, and we did everything we could to keep it going, but it just wasn’t meant to survive. I remember feeling a sense of personal inadequacy, like I’d failed in some fundamental way. That sense of personal failure would grow more intense when we lost more valuable animals — like the time I fed what turned out to be poison hemlock to our baby goslings, and four of them keeled over dead in the brooder within minutes of each other. The worst of all was when we lost fully-grown sheep to worms or white muscle disease; these were mature breeding stock, and to see them go down was a big blow.

As time has passed, it’s not so much that I’ve become calloused or hardened to the deaths of animals…but rather that I’ve grown to realize that unexpected deaths are simply a natural part of life on a farm. We certainly work to take good care of the animals, and don’t neglect them, but sometimes deaths still occur despite our best efforts. It isn’t a personal statement about us, and I’ve grown to learn not to take it personally. Instead, this morning, I turned to the 13 healthy lambs and gave thanks that we still have so many — and that this is the first lamb we’ve lost in well over a year.

Which brings me to the second point: We have lost far fewer lambs in Michigan than we did in Illinois. And we haven’t lost a single mature sheep here, whereas we lost a few of them in Illinois. MYF and I were discussing this, and we think there are three main reasons:

  1. Hard Water. In Illinois, we didn’t have water pipes leading out to the pasture. Unless we ran three long sections of hose from the house to a stock tank (a huge hassle to do every day), we had to rely on rain water for the sheep. We collected plenty of rainwater off the barn, stored it in an enormous water tank, and released it into the sheep stock tank as needed. We realize now that this ultra-soft water may have been fine for watering a vineyard or supplying poultry water, but the larger mammals would’ve benefited from the iron and other trace minerals in well water. Here in MI, our water is very high in iron, and we have pipes in the barn. Pretty much all the water our sheep and goats drink comes from that well. Not surprisingly, we haven’t had a single case of anemia here — whereas in Illinois we lost many lambs that way.
  2. Mineral. Here in Michigan, the sheep come into a nice secured barn every night; in Illinois, they’d had more simple pasture shelters. It had been very difficult to ensure a steady supply of supplemental mineral. Here, they have a mineral feeder in the barn that never gets rained on and never gets knocked over, and I keep an eye on it every morning — and am constantly filling it. I am buying much more mineral here than in IL, which is a good thing — it tells me that we weren’t using nearly enough of it before. I’m convinced it’s contributed greatly to our flock’s overall health.
  3. Pasture. We have a much larger grazing area here for the sheep, and the grass is much longer. In Illinois, they’d eaten it down so low, they were constantly grazing in their own droppings as they looked for fresh grass. Here, they have lots of long grass and leafy brush to feast on, so they’re never ingesting parasites that may have passed through their droppings. This leads to the parasite chain being broken or at least greatly weakened.

Farming and animal husbandry are a constant learning process, and require frequent adjustments. Often, it’s trial and error (and experiences of failure) that are the best teachers. The lamb we lost overnight will almost certainly not be our last, but I’m trying to keep the focus on how far we’ve come and how much healthier our flock is now…and what practices will help keep us on that upward trajectory.

Creative Water

I recently posted about “making lemonade” from a busted drainage tile. Although it’ll take some work to fix, I wrote, at least the puddle of standing water means I don’t have to haul water to chickens and ducks.

Water is an important issue on every farm, and we were shocked to discover something remarkable about our house: it has no outside hose hookups. None. The first day we moved in, I walked around and around the exterior of the building, looking for a place to put the hose. Zip. Zero. Nada. And there were no hookups on any of the outbuildings. I had to hook the hose up in the basement. If we need water outside, there are two options: string the hose up and out the back door of the house, or haul it out of the basement in five gallon buckets. As you might imagine, the first year we were here both of those options got really old. Really fast.

The nice thing about hauling five gallon buckets of water all over a five acre property is it gives you plenty of time (and incentive) to think of a better way of doing things. None of the outbuildings even have water running to them, so digging trenches from the house and laying pipe would’ve been a big hassle.

But I started to notice something. Every time it rained, there were puddles on the ground. As long as those puddles lasted, I didn’t have to haul water. I began celebrating every time it rained, and praying the puddles would last as long as possible. And I wished I could have puddles all the time.

Something inside my head clicked. Rainwater. Save the rainwater and make it last. How can I save the rainwater and make it last? WATER TANKS! Hook up a good set of gutters on all the outbuildings, run them into enormous water tanks, attach a valve to each one, and presto! Instant puddles, any time I want one!

This photo shows the 1500 gallon tank we hooked up on the back of an old garage. My first vineyard borders this building, and a flock of ducks has the run of that area. Notice the yellow handle at the bottom of the tank; that’s how we open the valve and let water out. There is a hose attached to that valve, so I can run water downhill to anywhere in the vineyard. And with a hose extension, I can reach the sheep stock tanks in the pasture. (BTW, note the organic compost heap next to the tank.)

There is a similar 1500 gallon tank on the big barn, and a 1050 gallon tank behind my office building. They are far and away the best investment we’ve made, at least as far as my back is concerned. Each one was only about $300 or so, but the biggest challenge was finding a way to get them here. The solution was to hire a neighbor who has an enormous flatbed trailer; for $50, he went with me to the farm supply store 18 miles away and helped me haul them home.

An absolute bargain, any way you look at it.

Busted Pipe Lemonade

You know that expression, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? It happens all the time when you live on a farm. The lemons, anyway. Making lemonade is where you need to get creative.

One example: in July, we get inundated with Japanese Beetles. They wreak a horrible toll on grape vines, to the point where I wonder why I bother trying to grow grapes organically around here at all. I’ll post more about it in July, but we’ve developed a partial solution: put out lots of pheromone traps, drown the beetles we catch, and feed them to the chickens. Free protein!

More recently, we had a piece of drainage tile break. It’s one of those plastic pipes, buried about 2-3 feet down, that helps drain the property. I noticed a big puddle developing in a certain spot, and from time to time bubbles would appear. When that spot never got dry, I knew the water had to be coming from below. I got out a shovel, and spent some time excavating the area. Eventually, I found the tile—and, sure enough, could feel a small hole in the top of it. As soon as I’d bail all the water out of the hole, more would bubble out of the pipe. Grrrrr.

Eventually, I’m going to have to dig a much larger hole and expose the whole pipe so it can be fixed. But for now, I’ve been trying to make lemonade. With this constant puddle of water, I don’t have to take water to the chickens and ducks! At all!

Or so I’ve told myself for the last couple of weeks. Now, my wife has reminded me of two things: (1) kids have a remarkable way of falling into puddles of water, and two feet is plenty big enough for drowning; and (2) standing water is a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. She wants my lemonade puddle gone. Yesterday.

Looks like the Yeoman Farmer will be getting his shovel out again this weekend…