Overcoming my fear of chickens

Chicken Fear 18 (Apr 2018)

I resisted for a long time, refusing to be the one to buy chickens. I had made myself clear, that while I was not against chicken per se, they did freak me out and I did not feel comfortable around them, at all.

“A hen would never hurt you”, was a common response to my chicken fear. Then a pensive pause and a story of that one hen that was a bit off kilter. There is always that story and it never assuaged my fear, rather reinforced the fact that some chickens are plain crazy and not just cockerels.

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Early days in front of the coop designed and built by Kevin and our girls.

My fear is a childhood fear. I wasn’t always afraid of chickens, but after being chased by my two of my grandmother’s chickens and my grandfather’s fearsome cockerel I put my foot down. I tried facing my fears as a child and spent a couple of months working in a chicken farm, but it didn’t do a thing for me.

There is something about their beady eyes, combined with sharp looking beaks and the way they look at you sideways with one eye. It gives them a slightly crazy look and you never know what they’ll pick at next.

I lost the battle and finally bought six young hens that need to be fattened up a bit before the eggs start coming. The good news is that I can finally say I have almost fully overcome my fear, not only can I touch them and pick them up, but I actually enjoy feeding and minding them. They know me by now and I can call them they come running from everywhere to check for whatever treats I have brought them.

My fearlessness has come as far as me teaching them to climb up the steps to the hen house. It is hard to imagine a sillier situation, me catching a chicken in the dusk, setting her at the steps and both pushing and encouraging her up the steps. Of the six only one was a bit slow on the pickup and thankfully I had to do the exercise just once; they now go into their coop by themselves every evening and we just make sure to close the door after them for safety.

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The fearsome creatures show no fear of Roisin.

With another type of pride, I can also tell you that our dog has quickly learned that the chickens are not prey. They easily walk around Bella without her paying them too much attention. Bella’s love for chasing birds and in particularly magpies had me worried, she never really fully eased up around the ducks and could not be trusted around them on her own. The chickens seem to be a different thing, she does herd them at times, barks when they spread out too much for her liking, but never gets any nearer than three feet.

The only ones that have had to be taught matters around the chickens are the cats and it is lucky that they are not full-blown hunters yet. At least one of them has understood that the chickens are out of bounds and we’ll do some work on the other one still.

The downside of fowl on the farm has been the fox attacks. I lost my laying ducks last Christmas, just as they were about to start laying seriously. I have now also lost three chickens and one left on the edge; this one has been amazing and has fully recovered. She still has bare areas on her back stained with the blue antiseptic liquid, but after being cooped up a week in a cat box she was more than ready to get outside and properly stretch her legs. I’m thinking of calling her Blue, although when she gets her new feathers I don’t know if I’ll be able to distinguish her from the rest.

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The spunky hen Blue, showing little effects of the fox attack last month.

I immediately got another three chickens and I’m being stricter with the closing in at night, also checking the doors which gave the fox easy access to the coop.

You want to have your fowl as free as possible, but at the same time a bit of incarceration keeps them safer. It’s a hard balance. I might just have to get an alpaca, I’ve heard that they are very protective, even of chickens. Wonder what Kevin might say about that, considering he was a bit lukewarm of the purchase of pygmy goats.

A most interesting thing is that we have a hen that regularly lays eggs with two yolks, imagine my surprise the first time I cracked an egg into my frying pan and this happens regularly. I haven’t figured out which one yet, but she is definitely a keeper; this is after all a house of twins.

 

Lambing crash course

The lambing season is over, the last ewe rounded up a shaky and eventful season with an unsupervised easy birth of twin lambs. The ewe was brought into the shed during the heavy snowfall a few weeks back and didn’t seem to be in a hurry and I almost started doubting myself and wondering if she was ever going to lamb.

This year we’ve had three twin births all in all, two went without a bother and one required very hands on intervention. On the day we noticed that one of the ewes was restless, bleating repeatedly, separating herself from the flock, alternating between laying down and squatting.

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Lambing was rounded up with an easy birth of twins.

After a couple of hours, with the help of a good neighbour, we got the sheep into the shed. It was time check her and possibly pull out the lamb. The hours of waiting did not go to waste, I devoured articles on the internet reading up on lambing, birth positions, pulling lambs, sheep anatomy, birth hygiene and so forth.

When it was time to check on the lamb, I had my nails trimmed, arms washed and disinfected, latex gloves on and plenty of lubricant just in case. My experienced neighbour had the sheep pinned in the pen and asked me if I wanted to check on the lamb or if he would, and there was no doubt of my response

“Of course I’ll do it”, I said and kneeled at the back of the ewe and put my hand in to check on the lamb.
“Make sure that if you pull two legs it is the legs of the same lamb and not a leg of two separate lambs,”, says my neighbour and I feel myself blanching. How in the world would I be able to figure that one out?

It resulted in being a very unimportant point, the lamb had his head down and was trying to come out neck first. I pushed the lamb back in, pushed up his snout, got hold of his legs and started pulling. I don’t know why we think we need to pull straight out, with my neighbour’s guidance I learned that I needed to pull down towards the legs.

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The ewe we lost and her orphan lamb.

My mind was incredibly focused during the birthing, I felt no worry or stress, instead images of lamb birth positions and anatomy passed through my head as I tried to visualise the whole process. I also kept thinking of my own experience giving birth naturally to my twins and it made me wince every time I lost hold of the little hooves and had to dig for them again.

The lamb came out, warm from the womb, but we quickly saw it wasn’t breathing. We tried rubbing it with a clean towel and clearing his airways, I even swung it by the legs in a half circle to make sure all the mucus was out. It was of no use; the lamb was dead.

At the time we had an orphan lamb (a story for another day), my neighbour asked me to rub the dead lamb onto the orphan, to see if the ewe would take it on. It was no good and the ewe kept pushing away the orphan. As we were contemplating a second, quite gruesome solution where you skin the dead lamb and cover the orphan with the skin to fool the mother, we realised something.

In the middle of this ER scene from revival tactics to possible organ transplant, we realised we should first check if the ewe had more lambs coming. The orphan was put back in his pen and I prepared for another vet experience.

On with new gloves and as I examined the ewe I felt two little hooves pointing towards the exit. I grabbed hold of them and pulled a beautiful live lamb out. To be sure to be sure, I checked for a third one but none was present.

I fretted for days that my hygiene precautions might not have been up to scratch or that my lack of experience would result in the ewe would getting an infection or some other horrific internal injury.

We may have lost a lamb, but I am delighted to report that the mother and her second lamb are strong and healthy.

This is the first time I had to pull lambs in such a fashion, and as I have been saying, the more I know the more complicated the farming seems to get.

A busy beginning – the 2018 lambing

Lambing season 18 (Mar 2018)

You would think that I would have written a load of blog entries for this year considering the amount of farming adventures that have happened, but it is just because of these adventures that my time has been eaten up.

We are almost done with our lambing, we have lost our ducks, we have bought chickens and pygmy goats, dealt with a surprise storm that brought a surprising amount of snow. I’ll break all these adventures up into blog entries, because most are unique experiences worth reading about, nothing out of the ordinary for most farmers, but worth noting regardless.

The first twin lambs born this year.

The kids and I were abroad over Christmas and New Year, and we slightly jolted out of our holiday bubble when Kevin called to tell us that our first lamb had been born, a few days after the new year. We fretted slightly as we were not present to mind the lamb, my daughter got reassurances that her dad had indeed put the ewe and new born lamb into the shed. When we got back the lambing came in regular intervals, one ewe after another.

There is a surprising aspect of farming that I had not expected, the more I learn the more complicated it gets. I am able to deal with more problems and issues, but they seem to be appearing more often than before. For some reason we haven’t had much trouble with the lambing previously, but this time round there has been more intervention needed than ever before. As always, the intensity of the learning curve for me is staggering and exhausting.

As we only have a modest flock of sheep, the new born lamb and mother are brought into the shed, to better be able to observe them and to increase the lamb’s survival rate in the cold winter months. Getting the ewe to move away from the birth place is not always the easiest thing to do, but I have over time learned a few tricks. I make sure the mother and lamb get time to bond before I grab the lamb with a bit of hay, which slightly masks my scent, and entice the ewe to follow, stopping every few metres to make sure she gets to sniff her lamb and continue towards the shed.

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Not the best of mothers, but we still got her going.

Apart from the bonding with the ewe the next thing high on the list at lambing is making sure the lamb gets the colostrum, the first milk, rich in antibodies and nutrients. This first milk will define the lamb’s growth and health, and I spend plenty of time making sure the lambs latch on.

One of the ewes was under strict supervision this year, last year she showed a significant lack of motherly dedication when she continuously walked away from her lamb distracted by greener grass, you can read about it in my post “Farming reality slapped me in the face”. The dehydrated and weak lamb died in my arms as I tried reviving it. Looking back at the pictures and knowing how she’s acted this year, I can conclude that she didn’t let the lamb feed enough as well.

The only reason she was kept is that she is one of my daughter’s pet lambs and hand reared by them. As she was a first-time ewe, we agreed that she would get a second chance. So, once she started showing signs of oncoming lambing, she was put into her own pen in the shed. The lamb had to be pulled out but was healthy and strong. I noted that the lamb wasn’t drinking yet but decided to give them the night before I intervened.

The morning after the ewe kept going around in circles trying to avoid the thirsty lamb. When I checked the ewe’s udders and could feel that they were hard with milk and slightly hotter than they should be, intervention was now necessary.

The ewe was pinned against the wall and I pushed the lamb towards the teats. This also not the easiest thing to do, you’d think the lamb would throw itself with gusto and drink up easily: no, lambs dislike being pushed into the teat and you have to patiently guide it that direction by slowly bumping the lamb’s bottom. Thankfully the lamb latched on and emptied a teat but would not empty the other. Fearing a possible infection due to milk stuck in the teat, I had to hand milk the ewe.

Now, let me tell you that milking a cow is a lot easier as you can get a right hold of the teat and use your full hand to squeeze out the milk (see my post on hand-milking Raw milk in the house). You’d be lucky to get three fingers around a ewe’s teat and milking by pinching is fairly hard work. As this milk was possibly high with colostrum it went into the freezer, as a precaution for future complicated lamb births.

Little Emmy  loves visiting the lambs.

I have taken a good few rounds of pinning the ewe, two to three times a day, for us to feel more comfortable that she will let the lamb drink it’s fill. After a few days it was enough that I got into the pen and she’d let the lamb suckle; today I was happy to see that the lamb was suckling away without my presence in the pen. I did have to milk the ewe again, a few days after the birth, and that milk was used to do the white béchamel sauce of a very tasty lasagne. I might not want to drink the creamy and thick sheep’s milk and there would not be enough to make cheese, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to waste it either.

We are still undecided it she will have to go, once she’s out on pasture we will have to continue to observe her unreliable mothering instincts. It is touch and go and would be completely go except for two facts; one, she is one our girl’s pet lamb, two, she actually has really good fleece for spinning and wool projects (read our post on wool adventures, Making use of all my wool). If not for these two points she would be sold as she requires a lot more work. She will not ever be let out into pasture until we are confident that the lamb can almost fend for itself or at least be strong enough to demand a feeding.

Winter calf sales

Calf sales 2017 (1)

The time to face more farm realities has come and gone, our lovely calves have left the farm to an unknown destination. It has gone full circle, we now need to scan our cows and check who is in calf. We know that Oprah will be calving around the 5th of May next year, but the others are still in question.

The weanling calves were fattened up a bit before a tour to the mart, a bit of extra feed they didn’t have to share with the cows. Apart from that they spent evening to morning with their dams. They still take a bit of milk, but there’s not much left to be honest and most of their diet is the same as the cows.

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Atlas and Goldie on their last few days on the farm.

The mart is as always, a bit or a roll of the dice, although you will get a good idea what the prices are. It is hard to gauge, you will find plenty of pure stock buyers and sometimes not that many farmers. The market of course also depends on the time of the year.

We were probably a bit late with our sales, while our calves got a chance to bulk up a bit, it is slightly out of season for farmers in terms of filling up in stock. Our cattle are outdoors, while most beef cattle will be put in for the winter to avoid losing their bulk. While this makes more commercial sense, we are happy enough for ours to be outdoors as not only does this facilitate our work, but is a more natural state for the cattle.

It is still not hassle free, even in Ireland there is a shortage of grass this time of the year. The fields still look green, but the grass is short and sparse. Our cattle get a supplement of silage, which are large round bales of wet or damp cut grass wrapped in plastic. It doesn’t rot but rather has a slightly fermented smell to it and is often warm at its core.

Cows and calves together would go through one bale in 3-4 days, while the cows alone stretch it out to about a week. This is another aspect of farming, the break even and profit margin. Do you keep calves over the winter and hope for better prices? Will the higher price cover or eat up the cost of supplemented feed? Would you keep a calf ,the right calf, raise it and hope it gives good stock in the future?

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Nuti, a placid and food greedy little heifer.

These questions do batter my city girl sensibilities, but are of course part of farming reality. It is also a great learning experience to look at your food in the eye, to consider the quality of their lives, to make choices about what you eat.

So my four beautiful calves went to the Ennis mart on a Tuesday, but no joy, the prices weren’t good enough. They were sold las Saturday in the Sixmilebridge mart, at prices that were marginally higher. But again, the calculation of feed and time settled the sale. There was no point bringing them back, hoping to sell them privately, feeding them, but still having them loose bodyweight in the cold temperatures of the season.

As said, the prices are always hard to gauge. Funnily enough the lighter bull, 270 kg, went for a higher price than the heavier one, 300 kg. It could be the colour, the shape, the similarity to other bulls bought by the beef buyer or farmer. My girls, the heifers, went cheaper than the bulls, which is something I need to look into as they both were better quality stock. At the end of the day though, bulls carry more weight than heifers once they are bulked up properly.

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All tucked into the trailer on route to the mart.

When the calves were leaving in the farm and I could see them placidly munching away at the hay in the trailer, I did feel regret. I thought back at the effort Goldie’s birth was (read “A life or death situation”), and how happy I was at the easy arrival of the others. A farmer in the mart looked at me and noted that these calves were right pets and very placid. He laughed when I agreed and said it would be all fine once I had the check in hand. Not really true for me, I have to say.

Since I’m not planning on becoming a vegetarian, I can take pride in the care my calves got. I also thought back on my childhood in Africa, where cattle are protected, loved, cared for and eaten with a natural attachment and detachment that the modern world has lost. Cattle is food, fortune and status in Africa, where one aspect doesn’t diminish the other. You enjoy your status, use your fortune and eat your food.

Now is the quiet time until the new arrivals next spring. Better enjoy it while we can.

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Goodbye my lovelies, we will miss you!

 

 

Making use of all my wool

Spinning and felting Oct 17

With the help of a friend of mine I have taken up a new hobby, spinning and felting. Thanks to the loan of a pair of hand carders and the spindles I bought years ago, I am now producing the beginning of uneven and bumpy yarn. My kids enjoy it as well and together we are slowly, very slowly, using up one of the sheep fleeces we have.

As I explained in a previous blog (see post Shedding the winter coats) sheep fleeces are considered a waste product and are pretty much useless. Unless you have some fancy and exclusive mohair sheep and particularly if your sheep are intended for meat or dairy, the price you get for the fleece will only about cover the cost of the shearing.

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A real spindle for my yarn. Great fun!

I have recently been baffled by some interesting opinions on sheep shearing online, where some animal rights activists have classified it as animal abuse. I guess you can only have this opinion if you haven’t seen the relief on the sheep after shearing on a hot day (Shedding the winter coats), or if you’ve had to deal with flystrike and maggots in the fleece after hot and humid weather (don’t miss post Disgusting sheep chores). A good shearer is quick, efficient and careful, the fellow we use is all that and taciturn to boot, you won’t even get a grunt out of him and the sheep are as meek as…well, sheep. Sheep are fully domesticated animals, which really just means that they cannot live in the wild without the help of humans. There are of course breeds that are better at this, but it does not apply to most of the breeds you see in the European countryside.

While I meant to get the fleeces to the mill for a few euros each, I kept forgetting. Instead I have sacks of fleeces waiting to be used and no time better to start at the “Spinning Day” in Ennis. Attended by a whole group of local spinners and a friend of mine who had promised to give me the first rudimental skills, so my girls and I got two of what I hoped where my best fleeces and got a lesson with both the spindle and the spinning wheel.

According to the women spinning there, the fleeces were not bad at all, they were of fairly long and soft fibers. I had rinsed one of the fleeces a couple of times and laid it out to dry in my polytunnel, the other I brought with me in its raw state. I did give one away to another local spinner, she was delighted with the gift.

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A drop spindle, easy to bring anywhere.

The spinning is very relaxing, there is something almost hypnotic about it and it can be hard to stop. My kids enjoy it as well, and since I’m not worrying about creating the perfect yarn they are welcome to spin at any time, of course it usually turns out they want to spin when they see me doing it, particularly after I have prepared a good few skeins (carded pieces of wool). We’ve decided that the yarn will be used for a Christmas knitting project, so I better get more wool spun.

The other thing I tried my hand at is needle felting. Being a right Pinterest addict and a bit of imagination, I was able to figure out the basics of this craft, which is another addictive and hypnotising pastime. It is exactly what it sounds like, you literally shape wool by compressing it into shapes with a needle, which you punch through the wool endlessly. You can add colours and shades, to create whatever you like. Have a quick look at Pinterest and you will be amazed at the creations. I will for now show of my first project, a tiny unicorn made with my own sheep’s wool with fancy coloured mohair wool added to it, just for the effect.

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My first attempt at needle felting. A bit lumpy but not too bad, if I can say so myself.

I love learning new skills and there crafting something with your hands is incredible relaxing and therapeutically, but there is also something sad about old-time and traditional crafts. There is one thing all the spinners at the event were in agreement on, spinning doesn’t pay. Many of them used their beautiful wool for different projects, whether this be hand knitted jumpers, scarves or other clothing items. These are items that have a sentimental and artistic value, but few people could imagine paying for the time spent on such a project. That is true for most crafts, unfortunately.

Regardless of the economical imbalance of crafting, there are few things that give such gratification as creating something from scratch. For me it goes even one step further, it is to be able to appreciate all aspects of my animals and farming. I have reared and cared for these sheep, they have provided meat for me and now I can say that I have not wasted any part of them.

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Me and my sheep bestie, simply called “The kind one”. Its time to give her a proper name.