The Hazards of Backyard Hens

Updated

You probably already know that my family and I have been experimenting with some small scale farming. You can even read about some of our adventures here

Lately I have been looking at changing our life. Much, if not all of this is still up in the air, but there will have to be some changes. Since I still don’t know what those changes are going to be, I really can’t talk about them here, but here is what I did want to talk about.

Today my lovely wife sent me a link for a DIY HEPA filter. Our newest son is having some breathing issues so we are experimenting with things that might help him out a bit. The HEPA filter is just one of those things. I would send you the link but really it is just a box fan and a decent HEPA filter from the hardware store. It looks like a great idea and we are going to give it a try.
This DIY video lead to other DIY projects, Solar heaters and alternate heating systems and then eventually to this one entitled Off-grid, handcrafted life on Oregon farm & workshop I am not going to embed that video but I did want to share the link for those of you that are interested.

Shortly after we started this whole farming business, we found the video below which is really rather funny. And it is meant to be. About half way in at about the 1 minute 20 second mark she started talking about how chickens are a gateway livestock. Watching the above video today reminded me of how far from that gateway livestock we have come, and things that I would have thought nuts a few years ago but don’t think are that far out there now. It is that last line that gets me. Before you know it…

here is the update
Today, I looked at plots of land in the midwest. Seriously looked. With no current job prospects in the area, I seriously looked.

Anyway, enjoy the video. It really is very funny.

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Where our Food Comes From

WARNING – This post contains some graphic content about livestock, if you are squeamish about that sort of thing please consider skipping this post. You have been warned.

If you look closely at this picture you will see that the thing I have around me is a baby sling.  There is a baby in there, but I am also using it to help me hold the apples I pick. I am such a good dad. Here baby, hold these apples that are bigger than your head. This weekend we took another step on the journey toward knowing where our food comes from. I know there are people out there, who have to know where every bite they put in their mouth comes from. To them I say, if that is what makes you happy, great, but that level of research would drive me crazy. I also know that there are people out there who have no clue about where anything they eat comes from. I know it is likely fake but there is that picture out on the “interweb” of the person saying, “hunters are cruel you should just get your meat from the store so no animals are hurt.” Like I said I am pretty sure that is fake but have seen somethings that are akin to that level of ignorance. We are hopefully somewhere in the middle.

Over the last few years we have tried to become more aware of where our food is coming from. From little things like joining a local CSA so we where know where 1147618_630976346935963_1482921706_o[1] our vegetables are grown, and going to the farms to pick our own fruit (that we can can / freeze and store for later use) to bigger things like getting together with several families to buy an organically raised grass fed cow. Along those lines we also have been raising our own chickens for eggs. We have toyed with the idea of raising “meat” birds but as of yet we have not done that.

Crew_working_DSC02345As I have talked about before, this year we also worked together with a group of families to have our own vegetable crop, working about two acres of land. This was a pretty eye opening and a great learning experience for us because, as much as we have tried to have vegetable gardens in the past, we have never really been able to make them work. Working with other people has really helped, at least for me. It has taught me all those things that we were missing before. Sure we still made some mistakes and I am sure we will continue to make some, but it was a great learning experience.

This year we also bought some sheep. We bought them specifically to use them for meat. There were never any illusions that they would be around for a long time or that they were pets. Our children took to naming the animals things like Lamb Chop and Leg of Lamb. I don’t know if that means we have rather demented children or that they were really aware of what was to come and this was there way of dealing with that.Photo 2013-01-03 15.35.25 Either way, that is what they did. We have had a lot of fun and a few frustrating times during the year learning how to raise these critters. Never let it be said that it was boring. We had to deal with the inevitable death of a couple of them, (there is a saying that I learned this year, if you have live stock you will also have some dead stock,) animals die and that is just the way things go.

sheeptransport

Knowing all of that I was still not really looking forward to the end of the year when we would need to slaughter them. Let me get it out of the way right now. Yes, we did do it. Yes, I was the one holding the knife for at least one of them. And YES, we did it as humanely and as quickly as we possibly could. DSC02308 I was very nervous about it. I had never really tried to do anything like this before. I had never really thought about all the logistical details of it. The hows and wheres and how much of it. But, When it came right down to it, I was able to do it.

I won’t go into all the details but I want to recount a little bit of it because it was pretty eye opening for me, and as stressed as I was about it, it really did work out ok.

WARNING – This post contains some graphic content about livestock, if you are squeamish about that sort of thing please consider skipping the rest of this post. You have been warned. Don’t worry there are no pictures beyond this point.

I knew all year this past weekend was coming. I knew that it needed to be done. I was aware that I would have to do it. I was ok with it all in theory. But when it came right down to actually making the cut that would kill the sheep, I was pretty darn nervous about it. So the week before I did a lot of reading. I watched some pretty graphic videos on youtube, and learned as much as I could about the whole process. I had a pretty good idea of what needed to happen before you killed the animal. I had a pretty good idea of what needed to happen after we killed the animal to get it ready to cut up and put it in the freezer. It was just the actual killing that I was really worried about. I stressed for almost two days straight about it. I worried about how I was going to be able to do it. I thought about all the different methods and tools. It should come as no surprise that I was very nervous the first time.

But let me back up just a little bit. The day we chose turned out to be bitterly cold. I think the actual temperature was 15 degrees F, with a wind chill somewhere near 2 degrees. There were several families coming to help, (all with nearly no experience, one family had done this one time before with help from a local hunter friend.) The older children and I got the barn and the garage cleaned up, and separated the ones who were going to be killed from those who were not, and started the game of waiting for everyone else to show up.

I am not afraid to admit that this was an anxiety laden time for me. And in the end I could not wait until everyone was there, and we started without them. If for no other reason than the rest of us were freezing waiting for them. I had my hand on the knife for the first one, and was able to get over my anxiety, with a few short prayers, both for the sheep and for myself.

When everyone did finally show up, we were just really getting started and were debating where and how to take the next step. That first one was like slaughter by committee. As much as I dreaded the killing part, I dreaded this part more. The families we worked with, are really great people. I like them a lot, but in an already stressful situation (and I know they were somewhat stressed as well) and with the very cold weather (did I mention it was snowing pretty hard as well) it just made things worse. I was very relieved when after we had worked through about 2/3rd’s of the steps with the first one, we felt confident and had a plan with how to deal with the other two, and it was decided as a group that we could work in parallel. That meant I could step away from the “committee” somewhat and work with a much smaller group getting the next two sheep ready.

All in all three sheep were killed and prepared for butchering. All of my older kids (except for the one off doing a scouting activity) were involved to the level that they were comfortable. Some just watched and some dove right in and helped, and all learned somethings. I was very proud of all of the kids, especially the ones who were a bit squeamish abut the whole thing, and stayed out there for it anyway. The two middle ones even got some hands on experience with working with very sharp knives. (And from that I only ended up with two very small cuts.)

In the end, I am glad that we did it, glad that we did it as a group, even glad that I was scared and was able to get over that. We still own two sheep that will likely be slaughter later in the year, (next month more than likely.) And some how we started out the day with four sheep at our house, killed three and now have four sheep and a goat. Someone will have to explain that math to me one day. But all in all it was a pretty successful day. I am pretty sure that we will continue to raise sheep next year. Like everything else we have learned some lessons (like not trying to do it on the coldest day of the year) and we will do some things differently next time, but it was a positive enough experience that I am willing to repeat it.

Thanks to everyone that helped.

-Jeff

I Herd That

DSC02308Recently I read a post by one of my friends and co-founders of Flying Island Press, Zachary Ricks called Going Straight. Before you read on, I am going to ask you to go read his post, most of what I am about to say is not going to make sense unless you do.

Ok you read it right?

No?

I’ll wait.

We’re good now right?

Before I get into this two deep let me say two things.

First, my farming experience has come as an adult. I don’t think it lessens it, but it does make it different. My experience is also on a much smaller scale, you might call it hobby farming, heck you might even call what I am doing just goofing around. Whatever you want to call it, it is different than what he has experienced.

Second, I am going to use some humor here. I am not in anyway meaning to lessen the message that Mr. Ricks is sending. He has a good message here and I am hopefully going to add to it and not take away from it. We are both using the farming metaphor to describe life, and well that just lends itself to some pretty humorous things. Not the least of which is the idea of two “old men” arguing about which kind of farming is a better metaphor for life.

Mr. Ricks starts with the premise that if you are going to get anywhere in life, if you want to reach your goals you need to look straight ahead and plow your rows straight by keeping your eyes on your goal. If you do then you will make nice straight lines. While I was reading this, I could not help but think about the very small amount of “creating rows” I have done. First, I will say that I have never done this with a tractor. All of our farming has been done by hand. The biggest power tiller that you can rent from your local supply store is the largest piece of equipment that I have used on our farm. That being said the tiller (and yes I know that is different than disking and that is different than plowing but hey I gotta start somewhere) I have used on the 3+ acres that we messed with this year, yanked me around until I was sore even after days of trying to pick the rocks out of the soil, and I never had anything that looked like a straight line. When we went back and use the furrower the story was much the same. Then we had a string guiding us and I was still all over the place. I guess it does not mean that we had a bad field, just that we had one that didn’t have straight lines as hard as we tried. So while I like the idea of keeping your eyes on the end of the field and getting straight to your goals, it is not something I really have any experience with.

Well one of the reasons that we make straight lines in our fields is that we want to be able to use equipment in helping us to continue the growing process. We want to have it help us spray the crops to keep the weeds down and of course water. If your lines aren’t straight, then when you run your equipment through you’re going to run over some of your crops.

What does this have to do with life? Simple. If you don’t keep your eyes on where you are going and keep your “lines straight” you are going to have a hard time later, some of the work that you did in the past will get lost, because you didn’t do it in the right order, or it was off track. You might even waste time redoing things because you didn’t understand enough to have done it right in the first place. You might find yourself at the end of the field, (the end of a project) only to realize that you plowed the wrong field. These are very real dangers, and very good reasons for keeping your eyes on your final goal.

Crew_working_DSC02345While I don’t have any experience plowing and making strait rows, one of the things that I do have some experience in, is herding animals and pulling weeds. For me, while the idea of keeping your eyes on your goal makes a lot of sense, I find myself having to make sure that not only am I headed in the right direction, but also that the animals that I am trying to herd are going there as well. That means taking my eyes off the end goal. That sometimes means running around side to side to keep the strays from wandering off. It means some turning my back on the goal so that I can run back and get a sheep that has decided to be stubborn. It is these side trips that can, from time to time, tell you if an animal is sick, tell you if you have missed a spot where they could graze, figure out which ones of them are the leaders (if you don’t know already,) and in general get a good look at your animals. Some times you even learn that you and a new sheep needed a bath.

These side trips in life, let you know what you are missing. You might find things that interest you, they might give you ideas about future projects, or help you to realize that you have a problem. While you always want to keep an eye on that end goal, you don’t want to be chasing “sheep” all day, some times it is good to move from side to side and look at things from a new angle. You might just find out something about yourself that you didn’t know before. But you to want to keep an eye on where you are going so that you don’t end up getting completely side tracked and not making it to your goal.

As for the weeds, well, while you are down on your hands and knees pulling weeds it is a good idea to know where in the field you are, but over all that can some times make things worse. If you have ever worked on a really large project, one that felt overwhelming, you likely know the virtue of just keeping your head down and moving forward, because if you look at the end goal too much you will get depressed because it seems too far away. Along with not letting your self get overwhelmed, there are things that need a level of detail that you can’t give them if you have only half your focus on them. If you are weeding along with your eyes on the end of the field, to make sure that you are in your row, then you might start pulling up the plants that you are there to weed around. Sure, it might mean that you accidentally change rows, or that you reach the end of the row before you realize it (won’t that be a pleasant surprise,) but it also means that you have given the little details the level of attention they need.

If you look closely to this picture you will see that the thing I have around me is a baby sling.  There is a baby in there, but I am also using it to help me hold the apples I pick. I am such a good dad. Here baby, hold these apples that are bigger than your head.I don’t think any one way is right. Mr. Ricks points out that not keeping straight means that it will take you longer to reach your goals. He is right. Some times it feels like it takes way too long to move the sheep from the barn to the pen only a hundred feet away, but as I said some times it gives you a new perspective. Then again some times it is just down right annoying. When you are trying to get ready for work and need to get the sheep moved, the chickens fed and the children all up and started on their day before you get yourself out the door.

Can life be described as one farming metaphor or another? Likely not. I guess what I am saying here is that you have to be flexible. Everything in your life is likely there for a reason. If that means you get to make nice straight rows, awesome. If that means that you spend a while running after sheep, or down on your hands and knees in the dirt, well that is part of life too. Keep open, keep flexible, and don’t get discouraged if your life is not always straight, you can do better next time.

Thank you to Zachary Ricks for the great post, and wonderful ideas. You can learn more about him and what he is up to at his site Mad Poet Files Trust me you want to keep an eye there, beyond being wise, he is also a wonderful story teller. His book Battle Hymn is awesome and I am eagerly awaiting the next one in the series.

The Hobby Farm and the Real Hobby Farm

sheep_DSC02339When we moved from central Florida to Westen New York, one of the reasons we moved here was because we wanted to be able to do some small scale farming, or at least have a garden. We have tried various times to make this work and always had some trouble. I think most of that trouble was that we were not really willing to put in the work that it required to get it done, and our results showed.

This year, I think that we have what would officially qualify as a hobby farm. We have chickens, sheep and now a small garden plot. I think and hope things are a bit different than they have been in the past. First, we have other people relying on us to keep the sheep alive, and second we have kind of a model to follow, even if that is kind of our own model.

Four of the six sheep we are hosting belong to folks who belong to our little collective farming project. We all come and work one piece of property and we will all get a share of the crops. It works out pretty well. So there is that motivation. We have to make it work because other people are expecting us to.

But the model that we are following is a little different. Like I said, part of the reason that we likely failed in the past was the amount of work. We were not prepared for it, and not willing to put it in. This year, we are working on the collective hobby farm and getting an idea of what needs to happen. I call this the real hobby farm because while we are using about a 1/3 of our 5 acres for farming and most of that is dedicated to animals, they are using 4+ of their 5 acres. They are using it for various crops. But by putting in the work there, the work that we have to do on our own small garden plot seems almost negligible. Sure the sheep and chicken require work, the middle children and I get up early every morning to go tend to their needs, but it is not a lot of work to feed and water the chickens, or to move the sheep from the barn to the field where spend their days.

Alright, the work that we did yesterday on our own plot did not seem negligible, it took us almost all day, to carve out the plot and get things planted all by Crew_working_DSC02345hand , and only with hand tools. We decided not to try to rent a tiller or any of the other power tools that we normally use, so everything was done with shovels and a pickaxe. It was slow, hot and hard work but I will be honest it really felt good to get it done. I am a bit sore from the two days of work (between 6 and 8 hours each day) but it really kind of feels good. Besides getting out and working with the kids is always a lot of fun, not to mention good for all of us.