Thought I’d toss in a picture of our Weather Rock (at least that’s what we call it) Took some doing to haul the thing over to the barbecue pit – couldn’t begin to guess what it weighs but there was no picking it up……but Bruce ever up to the task when I get a hair brained idea (that’s a really cool rock, we should put it by the barbecue pit to sit on!)… rose to the task with some fence posts to roll it over and a couple of jack-all’s to get it up onto its ‘legs’. So….the deal is – when it’s wet, it’s raining. If it’s warm and covered in cats, it’s hot out. Covered in snow – winter. Missing – tornado! Run for cover!
Well staying on top of this blogging thing is proving not so simple – at least at this time of the year. We are madly run run running around trying to get ready for the inevitable snowy season when there’s not much fun in trying to accomplish anything outside. So more canning, drying, potatoes dug up and stored, we’ve been building like crazy on a lean-to for the horses to stand under should they wish to get out of the wind/snow/whatever. The pregnant heifer arrived safe and sound and not much interested in getting a halter on…..but some rocking and rolling and banging about in the trailer by Bruce while we all stood wondering exactly who was going to come out the door with a halter on – (I soooo have to remember my phone has a video feature – the things I miss!), and at last they were out. Daisy Duke (apparently if you have a dairy cow it must be called Daisy) – took Bruce on a multi-directional tour of the field and the drainage ditch before he finally got her into through the gate where of course, she promptly stopped charging about and stood glaring her annoyance with him. Not to worry though – Bruce has a way with animals and inside of a week or so they became fast friends. Might have something to do with the bucket of dairy ration, beet pulp and oats he feeds her every morning 🙂
So – part six. I like to call this particular winter the WINTER of WIND. It seemed, as the snow flew and drifted, and flew and drifted, that the wind literally never stopped. Everything shook, and rattled, and thumped. Getting water out to the litter of pigs was a CHORE. Many many buckets, plowing step by step through big drifts of snow, all the way around to the outside pen, where staggering with exhaustion you would start pouring the water only to have the damn wind blow the water six feet in the other direction. Then you would stagger back to the house, fill the buckets again and start over.
Hammy, now having long since weaned her litter, was cycling through progressively stronger heats – every few weeks she’d start chasing Bruce around the pen, charge up behind him and toss him onto his face, grab onto his plaid and yank and tug her frustration until nearly every thing he owned for clothing was in shreds. We needed to find a boar – the sooner the better. This wasn’t the simplest of tasks – not many people keep a boar unless they’re breeding several sows, and even then, many farmers now use AI. Boars come with their own set of demands. Good feed, strong pens and someone who isn’t afraid to deal with them – it’s a commitment considering you only need him to do his job a couple of times a year – and in Hammy’s case – we needed a BIG boar. After no small amount of searching we finally found a fellow that owned a really big boar that he was okay to part with. His sows all being young, he now wanted to move a younger boar into his system. We took the drive (together this time) and met the big guy. And he was big. Stocky. Armor plated shoulders. Tusks. Thankfully – very mellow. We made arrangements for his owner to deliver him – paid him extra to keep feeding him until we could manage yet another quick alteration of a building to put him in, and off we went.
As it so happened, delivery was to take place Christmas Day. We plowed out a lane for the fellow to back the trailer through and went about our chores intending to be organized when he arrived. By the time we got to feeding the pigs, Hammy was in fine form once again – tossing Bruce this way and that as he tried to maneuver food and water around, chewing on his plaid – as far as we were concerned, the big old boar couldn’t arrive soon enough. Bruce tossed her a bale of hay to distract her – not ten seconds later she charged out of the shed with a big leaf of the stuff jammed between her teeth and ran straight to Bruce as if to say ‘See? I have hay! We can make a nest!’ I thought it was hilarious – Bruce, not so much. Finally – truck and trailer arrived, backed down the lane and came to a stop at the gate. Hammy’s reaction was immediate – she stopped chasing Bruce and ran over to the gate, heaved her behemoth bulk up, rested her front hooves on the top of the gate and focused her beady little eyes on that trailer and froze in place. She knew exactly who was in that trailer – we all did – the ripe smell of testosterone nearly dropped us all in our tracks – seemed the boar knew exactly who was on the other side of the trailer door as well. Gate open, trailer open, Hammy marched herself straight to the middle of the pen, her offspring ran for cover and big old boar marched straight over and climbed on. In five minutes it was over.
“Don’t suppose you need him back huh?” I wondered aloud – Hammy being our only sow now meant big old boar had nothing left to do. I was certain he wasn’t going to have to try twice.
“What you need,” the fellow offered, “is a couple more sows.”
Of course we kept him. He turned out as we expected, to be a mellow sort, pretty old, liked lots of scratches and enjoyed the company of Hammy and family – often we’d come out in the morning to find the entire lot of them piled up like cord wood, keeping warm. We decided, being as we had a boar, that it might be worth our while to keep one of the girls from the litter, raise her up for a bit and have the old boar service her too. One in particular, seemed to me anyway to be a prime example of what a gilt should look like. She was a good size, good conformation, bigger than the rest of the litter, easy to get along with….we named her Charlotte and made up our minds to start a new generation with her. Seemed we were now truly into the pig business.
As the winter wore on, and the wind continued to blow and blow, the temperature continued to drop and drop. We kept the house warm, braved the miserable weather and nervously waited for the inevitable ‘something’ to happen – would the water system freeze up? Would the piglets gain enough weight? Would we be able to actually get out of the driveway to get to work? Would we actually be able to stay on top of the business of farming or would we simply drop from exhaustion. Come sometime the end of January or maybe it was the beginning of February things started to go awry. Sitting in my recliner one night, listening to the wind howl and actually feeling the house shake hard with the gusts – I caught an odd movement out of the corner of my eye. Not sure what I’d actually seen, I put my book down and studied the North wall – I knew I was probably tired and simply seeing things, but for a moment I could have sworn – it had moved. Another mighty gust of wind – I watched in disbelief as dry leaves began fluttering into my house. Truly baffled, I stood and walked the whopping fifteen feet over to the wall and directed my gaze to the top of the wall where it met the ceiling – to find it wasn’t actually meeting the ceiling any longer. With each big wallop of wind, the entire wall backed away from the house a couple of inches, dead leaves escaped from the attic and found their way to freedom on my floor. As the wind changed direction, the wall suctioned itself back against the house, as it blew hard from the South again it separated itself from it’s mates and tried to head out into the yard.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t all that surprised with this new development – I was long since used to new and unexpected findings anytime we did even the smallest of jobs on the house. Still – discovering the North wall wasn’t actually attached properly……well it wasn’t something I wanted to find out in the dead of winter. It did answer a question that had been rattling around in my head though – I had always wondered at the odd construction – the two rooms on the South end of the house seemed to me to have been added on after the fact – and after some thinking on the issue of the flapping wall, it occurred to me that when the house had been hauled down the old road from the dairy farm next door, it was entirely likely the two room add on had simply fallen off – and after placing what was left of the building onto the cement foundation, they’d simply returned to fetch the rest of the house and stuck it to the backside of the place. In my tired line of reasoning anyway, this explained the hurriedly constructed North wall that was now trying to take leave of my house. Regardless – there was nothing to be done for it until spring – it wasn’t like you could go buy a big bag of nails and stick the thing back to the house – I decided that worse case scenario, should we come home from work to find the wall out in the yard and the contents of the house fluttering about the place, I would simply pick up my coffee pot, a few changes of clothes and march across the yard to the wee cabin at the end of the goat shed and survive the winter over there. Farming/homesteading – whatever you want to call it, makes practical people out of us all – besides – there were more pressing issues at hand, in the form of a barn full of two legged fowl that seemed under the spell of some weird planetary alignment.
This is almost another story in itself – but as it all went down about the same time – here goes.
As mentioned at the end of my previous post, we had decided to get into the meat bird business – actually, as a farmer around here, you can get into any raising of food business you like. Once word gets out that you might be thinking of raising chickens, selling eggs, goats, sheep, rabbits – it matters little what you decide to raise – there is no shortage of people lining up to buy your efforts. Most people in this area raise beef – so of course they’re not going to buy beef from you – though people who aren’t farmers are happy to do so. We picked meat birds because for one, I want our own chicken in the freezer. We already have our own eggs, and we are already selling so many eggs we find ourselves limited out on customers – people are now on a waiting list for eggs if you can believe it.
So the previous summer, we get an order of fifty meat birds – we figure twenty for us, the rest to sell. We have them sexed – we want only roosters because they’ll grow bigger. We’re not even close to slaughter date when a neighbor way down the road puts in an order for a hundred. A hundred! We’re on the money train now……. I make him prepay a large deposit – I don’t care if he’s a good neighbor. Next thing you know somebody else wants to order fifty – you can see where this is going. We sit down and start thinking about this – we figure by careful calculation and timing we can cycle one hundred meat birds a month through our barn, allowing for twelve weeks of growing, slaughtering every long weekend and so on….. (insert retrospective maniacal laughter here).
So with some fast rethinking on the layout of the barn, we come up with five separate ‘areas’ to accommodate all of these mighty fine meat birds as well as two batches of laying hens – the old ones and the new up and comers – and away we go. Now I hadn’t processed a chicken of any sort since I was a kid – and even then, I was relegated to plucking only. Bruce, if I’m not mistaken, hadn’t processed any at all – but what the heck, we’re game. We buy a plucker. We come up with a scalder. We sharpen our knives, drag a table out to the back yard, construct a place to hang them and bleed them out, fill some barrels with ice water to drop them in for an over-nighter so the rigor mortise will fade before we package them. Come the day – bang on twelve weeks, we set up and march out to the barn and grab our first two chickens, visions of fifty plump tasty fowl packed in barrels by the end of the day.
One would think, by now, I would have snapped out of my delusional way of thinking about the job of farming – but no – I had not. It wasn’t long though, before the reality of the situation had set in. First off, it took some lengthy fiddling to figure on the best scalding temperature. Too low a temp, the feathers don’t come off. Too hot a temp and the chicken is half cooked before it gets to the plucker. Secondly, it took some definite fiddling for Bruce to figure out how to run a chicken over the plucker without actually dismembering it and still get the feathers off. Thirdly – I had forgotten how tedious it was to fuss with all the pin feathers and those weird little fine hairs that seem to be all over the darn bird. Thankfully, as luck would have it, my mom and my nephew were up for a visit and we had extra hands to help. Still – the end of the day arrived and we had managed to process a whole whopping dozen birds. That’s it. An entire days worth of slogging in the heat and we had twelve birds processed. I wandered out to the barn and stared at the remaining thirty eight chickens and seriously wondered if there was something wrong with my head.
As Bruce was off the following day and I was at work, he and my Mom gamely carried on without me and at the end of that particular day things had gone much better. One thing he had discovered, was once in a barrel of ice water overnight, the pin feathers and the fine little hairs simply wipe right off the bird. By the end of the fifty birds we were in full swing – Bruce and I by ourselves could now process a chicken in six minutes flat – that’s from snatching the bird from the barn to plunking it in the ice water. Things were looking up – for the moment.
Now with both of us working full time, there weren’t a whole lot of days left in the month to get things done – long weekends were taken up with chicken processing, the other weekends were taken up with running around like idiots trying to stay on top of everything else. The house project was at a standstill, the plumbing was at a standstill, in fact most of our time was spent shoveling chicken dung, washing eggs, processing chickens, feeding Hammy’s litter of piglets, tending to goats – did I mention we were doing chickens? I recall sitting for a break one weekend, staring at the back yard like I’d never seen it before, feeling absolutely numb from all the work.
“I don’t want to do another damn chicken.” I finally made the statement.
“Me either.” Bruce replied, just as weary.
But we were committed – we had taken deposits, we had made promises for chickens on this date or that date and people were waiting. There was nothing to be done for it at least until we managed to fill all the orders we had taken and figured out a way to turn down orders that were still coming in. By winter, we did manage to back off enough we were only doing batches of twenty five birds at a time – more manageable than fifty, much more manageable than a hundred. We moved the whole processing issue onto the back porch by the old beat up cook stove we’d managed to get for next to free, and managed to stay warm while the wind howled and the snow piled up around us. In the interests of time we drew the line at saving and fussing with the innards – my theory at that point was if somebody wanted the liver, the gizzard, the heart and the neck, they were welcome to come pick through the mess themselves and fuss all they wanted, and no – I wasn’t going to give them my warm spot by the stove to let them do it.
It was while we were cycling through our last two batches of winter meat birds through the barn, along with the two batches of layers that it all came to a head – as it was bound to do at some point. The first problem – the old layers. The last and largest pen at the end of the barn was housing fifty free run layers. Now it wasn’t that they were old old, but we had always only kept our layers for one laying cycle – then off to the stew pot they would go. I won’t get into the genetics of laying hens, or the scientific messing around that’s been done with the hybrids, but I will say there are two basic types of layer. The ‘heritage’ dual purpose calm happy hen that lays an egg every day or so, give or take, gets along with the other hens other than the occasional pecking order squabble, and there’s the hybrid, high strung, lay an egg every day or else, bitchy, mean, nasty, cannibalistic, egg eating layer. The latter were the ones we had presently housed in the end of our barn. Because of our huge volume of egg orders, we had unthinkingly switched to this particular breed for production production production. Stupid stupid stupid.
The pen next over, housed twenty five meat birds that still had a month to go, and would have been fine where they were excepting for pen number three, which housed twenty five new ‘heritage’ layers (we learn quick), were taking up the space where the twenty five new meat birds were supposed to go as they had graduated from the small brooder room to the bigger brooder room where they were now so over crowded they were piling on top of each other and some were simply dropping dead from the stress. Every time Bruce went out in the morning to do chores he would march back into the house two hours later and announce, with an increasing amount of ticked- offedness , that he’d had do pluck another dead meat bird from the batch of new ones.
At the time, I had barely had a glimpse of the meat birds – I was too busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on with the fifty layers at the end of the barn. For starters, I was only getting four or five eggs a day out of them – didn’t matter how many times a day I managed to get out there, before or after work or ten times a day on my day off – the wretched things were beating me to it. They had actually taken to hovering around each others behinds, waiting for the inevitable egg to appear, then pouncing on it by the dozens like something out of a bad Hitchcock film. The other odd thing going on, I had originally put down to Bruce being distracted. I’d go out to collect eggs and find ALL of the sawdust on the floor in a huge pile up against the south wall of the pen, leaving the floor bare. I assumed Bruce had scooped up the manure and simply forgot to spread the shaving back out across the floor, but after a week of this I finally found time to say something.
“Honey it’s nice you’re scooping out the layer pen in the morning, but you really gotta spread the shavings back out – no point in cleaning the floor in a chicken pen and leaving it bare.”
“Oh yeah – I forgot to mention it – I’m not cleaning out the pen – the layers are scratching all of the shavings up against the back wall. All of them. Every morning I go in there, every single scrap of sawdust has been scratched into a pile at the back of the pen. This morning I go in and all the food has been scratched out of the trough and piled in the same place.”
“What?! Seriously? What? Why?” I’m looking at him like he’s lost his mind.
“You tell me,” he shrugs. “They’re freakin’ dinosaurs those birds. For all I know they’re protecting themselves from some weird lunar event to the South or something. You know, you should maybe ought to take a picture – I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The out of this world behavior went on for another week at least – and yes, I did take the camera out and get a picture finally – there’s nothing so strange as standing in a pen of laying hens and trying to decipher why on earth they would take to spending such an inordinate amount of time at such an enormous task – and it was – at least in our minds anyway, made clear when an article appeared in the local paper along with a photo of a once in a lifetime planetary alignment that apparently if one had the time and a telescope – could be seen in the Southern sky on a clear night. I actually clipped the article from the paper and stuck it to the photo of the layer pen – no one would believe me without proof I figured.
So now I have a barn run amok. Fifty layers that are terrorizing each other and eating eggs – that is when they’re not playing at being zombie chickens and moving several cubic yards of shavings to the South wall, twenty five meat birds that are due for more space, twenty five new layers that don’t seem to be afflicted with the zombie sawdust moving virus, and twenty five new meat birds that can’t find room to breath or move and have taken to marching over top of each other and squishing the hapless bird on the bottom. Bruce is trying not to snap. I’m trying not to snap from listening to Bruce’s ‘another dead chicken’ monologue in the morning. Something had to give. Finally – a day off. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, watching the North wall sway and thump sway and thump, puzzling over the barn/bird issue and staring at the thermometer. It’s thirty five below – not counting the wind chill. I try ten different ways to figure out where to move birds, where not to move birds, which birds I should move where and end up at the same place – there is not enough room in the barn for all those birds. It occurs to me I could take the twenty five new layers and simply hang them up and slaughter them, field dress them for the breast meat and can it up. Then I would have a pen for the new meat birds – but I quickly dismiss the idea, there’s no sense in killing the new layers, they’re not even old enough to start laying yet. It then occurs to me to do the same to the fifty bitchy zombie layers – but it’s thirty five below – the idea is entirely unappealing – fifty is a lot more than twenty five. I drink more coffee, I stare some more at the thermometer. Wait. A. Minute. Wait. A. Minute! It’s thirty five freakin’ below out. That’s it!! I will open the hatch on the back of the layer pen and when they all run outside, slam the hatch shut and they will simply, go – to – sleep! Genius!
I think on this some – I don’t want to be mean to the mean layers – but after some consideration I decide that having them simply go to sleep never to wake up, isn’t such a bad way to go. I have lots of canned chicken, it’s too cold out to slaughter and field dress fifty layers, if I chase them outside, in a few hours they’ll be frozen solid and come the weekend I’ll simply pick them out of the snow and take them off to the landfill.
With a definite sense of purpose, happy that I’ve come up with a solution, I dress for thirty five below and head out to the barn. I march into the layer pen with a screw gun and unscrew the back hatch, fling it aside to let the sunlight in and stand back – let the stampede start – chickens love to be outside.
No, they don’t. At least not in thirty five below weather. All fifty of them make a run for the opposite end of the pen, all fifty of them huddle together and stare at the giant cloud of cold air billowing in the hatch and coming at them like an all consuming fog of death. This is going to be a little more work than I thought. I snatch a couple of unsuspecting chickens and march across the pen and toss them outside. They promptly toss themselves right back inside. I get behind the herd and start flapping my parka like a giant down stuffed navy blue bird of prey and run after them. They promptly scatter in all directions – all except out the hatch, that is. I crouch down a little lower and try again – now the flapping hens and flapping parka are creating a cloud of shavings and feed dust that’s three feet off the floor. I’m starting to sweat and starting to cough, the layers are starting to get wise to this fake coughing hacking bird of prey. I get rid of the parka, I rig up a temporary hatch that I can open and close in a big hurry, I toss my scarf and gloves aside and get down to business. Lunge for chicken, snatch chicken, open flap toss chicken outside close flap. One chicken down, forty nine to go. I dive, I lunge, I snatch, I catch, I toss, open, close – I can barely see two feet in front of me for the dust. The more layers I catch and toss outside, the harder the remaining layers are to catch – more room for them to run and they’re not stupid – soon I’m coughing so hard I think I’m going to pass out, the ‘berry picker’ squat I’ve resorted to in an effort to corner the last of the birds is killing my legs. I drag my t-shirt up over my nose so I can breath and looking no doubt like a deranged ninja get back to work. Finally! Last bird out. I collapse against the hatch in case they storm the temporary door like a horde of ticked off Vikings, and look around with no small amount of ‘hah!’ Pen empty! In no time flat, I had the entire barn sorted out – everything back to normal, no overcrowding, no egg eating, no planetary alignment issues. Feeling like I’d just managed to split the atom, I head back to the house to get on with the rest of my day. Better yet – I won’t have to listen to the ‘another dead chicken’ monologue again!
Two days later, I’m trudging through the snow drifts with Bruce, packing water out to the pigs along the back of the barn. It’s a beautiful sunny day out – one of those crystal clear winter days where the sky is brilliantly blue, the wind has stopped blowing for a change, no sign of more snow. We’re just coming up to the end of the barn when I hear it.
I stop. I let go of a hundred pounds of water. I stare at the back of the barn, squinting against the blinding white of the snow in the sunshine. I look at Bruce who has finally stopped plowing through the drifts as he realizes I’m not moving.
“What was that?” I’m still staring at the back of the barn.
“One of your dead chickens.” he said with a very straight face.
“What!?” I plowed through the snow towards the fence for a closer look – squinting through the blinding glare of the sun on the snow I was sure I seen more than one head bobbing around. “How many are still alive?”
“Well……most of them, maybe all but two or so.”
“Seriously?” I simply couldn’t comprehend this. “But what are they eating?”
“Well they’ve scratched their way to the dirt – probably last summer’s chicken scratch…..look,” he could tell I was dismayed by the result of my solution to the chicken problem in the barn. “I keep telling you – they’re freakin’ dinosaurs – I mean they survived the last ice age – what’s a little thirty five below?”
Finally I trudged my way back to my water buckets. “So you’ll slaughter them on your day off?”
“Sure. You want the breast meat or the legs and thighs too?”
“I’ll can up the breast meat – assuming the wind doesn’t dismantle the house in the meantime.”
Up next? Not sure – but I’ll come up with something 🙂