Because of Course it Did


dome snow 2018

After months of unseasonably warm weather, it snowed yesterday. And of course it did, because yesterday was when 40 Freedom Ranger chicks were meant to be delivered and tucked into the cozy brooder we’ve set up in the greenhouse.

Not sure if it was weather related, but the delivery was delayed by a day.  Naturally, there was no explanation provided, and no phone call or number to call. I was frantic, given the freezing temperatures, and spent the day running around trying figure out where the chicks were and when they would actually be delivered. By nightfall I simply had to give up and hope some mail carrier didn’t just leave them on top of someone’s mailbox in the snow (these are the bleak and absurd thoughts one has when the customer service is so bad you start wishing they’d hurry up and bring out the drones!) But the chicks arrived safe and sound this morning.  I was the only one worse for the wear.

chicks 2018

Still, because of the snow and whatnot, it was a little dicey trying to get the brooder warmed up enough. The brooder is actually a huge livestock tank (a rubber one, which retains heat better than aluminum or steel) with a custom screen over the top for protection. And an old blanket over that for insulation. It’s in our greenhouse right now, and, thank goodness, working just fine.

There’s more rain and snow in the forecast. This is a good thing, I keep telling myself.  We need H2O, in whatever form. And so long as we can get them safely through the cold days, more water means lusher grass and fatter bugs for the chickens when they’re old enough to go outside. We just gotta hang in there!

Luck and Work

chickens 2018

I know I’m lucky. Not everyone with a yearning to grow vegetables and raise animals gets to do it. I have access to land, a lot of infrastructure like irrigation and garden beds and a small barn already in place. Not to mention a house to live in! I am so fortunate that my circumstances match my passion.

It doesn’t mean I don’t also have to work. I work a lot.  I have to work a job at an office away from the homestead in order to keep the lights on. And on the weekends I work on the property, rehabbing barns and coops, prepping the garden, shoveling horse manure. The Fella and I haven’t had a vacation away from the place of more than two days in years.

You can be lucky and hard-working at the same time. You can be fortunate and also dedicated. You can have privilege and still have to get up in the morning and get it done.

This post was supposed to be about six chickens. And I guess it still is.

On Sunday the Fella drove about an hour up the mountain to meet someone from the local agriculture email group who was giving away chickens. Our layer flock was decimated by predators and was eventually whittled down to one solitary hen. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of starting over with chicks at the same time as I start a meat-bird flock, because the meat chicks grow about three times as fast as layer chicks, and I didn’t want to have to deal with separate brooders and timelines and the long wait for eggs. So when a gal from the ag group said she wanted to divest herself of six perfectly good three-year-old layer hens, I was on it like pitch on pine.

Now the hens are back in the coop. They’re healthy and friendly, and there hasn’t been a single wayward peck or squabble between the new ladies and our old hen. Chicken people will understand what a miracle that is. We already got an egg, even! Did we just win the lottery or what?

And yet, this weekend was also a lot of hard work.  The barn rehabbing, manure shoveling, and so on. We did it even though the Fella’s back was hurting and I had a cold. We did it even though it was the weekend and we’d worked our jobs all week and would be back at them again on Monday. Luck and sacrifice, privilege and responsibility.

I wouldn’t be able to live the life I get to live if my great-grandparents – people I never met – hadn’t had the means to buy a chunk of land they themselves never lived on full-time. It was a second home for them. Now, by ‘home,’ I mean a literal shack, where the water had to be carried in buckets from a hand-pump well down a steep gully, the meals cooked on a wood-fired stove, personal business done in an outhouse, and no electricity for any of it. They worked hard to be here. My great-grandmother hand-built a huge rock wall, still standing today, with rocks big enough give a lumberjack a back-ache. That was hard, hard work. But it was still a second home. A luxury.

My grandfather became a professional musician. He went through World War II in the U.S. Orchestra. He supported a family of seven from his salary at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Just try and tell me that becoming a violinist with enough chops to play with the LA Phil didn’t involve hard work. He kept the property as a vacation place for the family, and my dad and his siblings and cousins spent summers here hunting and hiking and also carrying buckets of water up the steep hill. The cabin was still just a shack. The outhouse just as stinky.

My dad was able to go to the University of California. He also got drafted during Vietnam. He built houses for a living before going to graduate school. It was he, along with my mother and their college friends, who finally moved to the property full time. They built their own houses, using recycled materials and whatever else they could afford. They still carried buckets of water. But they had this land. They worked hard, and they were lucky.

Now there’s me. Sitting on top of so much hard work, and so much luck. My family has been affluent enough to pass land down through generations. Not everyone gets to have that. I happened to be born white, to college graduates, who inherited a piece of land down a dirt road in California. I won the lottery the day I came into this world. I am not self-made. Yes, I work hard, even when I’m tired. I shovel manure on my weekends and feel like the luckiest woman alive.


Chicks on the Way!

chicks day day 11

I placed our order with the Freedom Ranger Hatchery for 40 red broilers yesterday! Very excited to raise up some more pastured chickens. We skipped it last year due to everyone being so busy, not to mention the ‘pasture’ was basically a mud puddle right up until summer. When I found myself buying pastured chicken from another local farm last fall I really felt the sting of that decision.

This will be our fifth round of chickens! Over the years we have done a little experimentation with different hatcheries, breeds, order sizes, feeding methods, and whether to vaccinate them or not. There’s a lot to tweak! For example, we found that by far the Freedom Rangers have the best survival rates and quality of meat over other broiler breeds and heritage breeds. They’re a hybrid, meant for eating, so they’re not going to reproduce very well or become your favorite pet chicken. There’s something romantic about the idea of raising a real heritage breed on our homestead, but the romance wears off when the birds start attacking and killing each other and take twice as long to grow out! Horrible!

Also, although I’m not against vaccines, we thought we’d try ordering unvaccinated chicks after reading an article about how rare Marek’s disease is and how easy it is to remove it from your flock if it turns up. For those of you who don’t know, Marek’s is a viral neurological disease that causes paralysis and death. It’s ghastly, and it requires you to cull the chicks when they start showing symptoms. We lost 5 or 6 chicks one year from it, and between the financial loss and having to break a tiny chick’s neck, getting them vaccinated is well worth the 5 or 10 cents a piece it costs.

Another thing we’ve learned over the years is that we can actually switch from the more expensive, higher protein chick starter feed to the regular adult feed a few weeks earlier than we’d read.  In fact, we found that both reducing protein earlier and also limiting access to food by not free-feeding actually produced healthier chickens and better yields.  That’s because these chicken will eat and grow themselves to death if given the chance.  Their legs cannot grow as fast as their muscle, and they become crippled. Supplements can help with this problem, but we’ve found that slowing things down a bit is still essential. We’re happy to let them grow for two or three weeks longer to reach market weight.

Things we don’t tinker with: organic feed from Modesto Milling, and access to pasture. Those components are a must for our little chicken operation. The chicks start in a nice cozy brooder until they turn from fluff to feather. Then, still peeping, they go into a fortress-like chicken tractor with a heat lamp to keep things comfy at night.  Once they’re tough enough, we open the door of the tractor and let them forage during the day, safely contained in an electric fence. We’ll move the whole set up periodically to give them access to fresh grass and forage.

Over the years, we’ve learned so much about how to raise a flock of broilers up right. I know we have even more to learn. For those of you who raise chickens, what tips and tricks have you picked up?