One of Those Days

Life on the Domestead is definitely not all days like the dreamy one last week. Nope. And yesterday was one of the other kind. Every step of the way.

It’s been raining like crazy here, which is good for lots of reasons, but it’s been hard on my animals.  For one, we’d hoped to move the Freedom Rangers into the tractor this past weekend.  They’re young still, but mostly feathered out.  Our tractor has a roof and enclosed walls at one end and can be equipped with a heat lamp, so they can still be warm but also starting roaming around and get access to a lot more real estate. But we didn’t feel great about putting them out right before we were supposed to get a week-plus of torrential rain. So they’re still in the brooder, which is getting pretty darn cramped. Not ideal.

Also, poor Jasper is stuck in a pipe stall that is flooded on two sides, and even the part that doesn’t have water running through it is getting very swampy. I feel awful. I’ve talked about needing pasture for him before, and this is a big reason why. It’s really not good for horses to be standing in wet mud all day, especially horses with feathers around their feet that can trap bacteria and get infected. So when I went to feed the horses yesterday morning, I ended up spending an hour trying to redirect water and shovel out the wettest mud. It felt futile, but I had to do something. It also meant that I went about the remainder of my chores very sweaty and damp and imbued with the powerful aroma of horse pee. Hardly a catastrophe in and of itself, but just unpleasant enough to send a person’s mood downhill.

Then we had a vet appointment for the goats to see who was pregnant. This is ascertained by ultrasound. It’s an expense that many goat breeders elect not to incur, but being bred or not will affect the price of the does we want to sell, so it’s worth it for us. Except it turned out that, even after spending several weeks with the buck, only one out of our five does was actually bred. So frustrating! It’s a long drive to the breeder and I have to borrow a truck to do it, so it’s not something I’m looking forward to doing all over again. And I’m really disappointed because we were hoping to have three does in milk and two does sold by June. Now that whole plan has to change. Grumble grumble.

And to top it all off, I discovered that one of our new hens has gone droopy. Droopiness in chickens can mean a million different things, from the mild to the fatal.  She’s currently camped out in the kitchen for observation, electrolytes, and some warmth and we’ll just have to see how it goes.

kitchen chicken

Right now it’s lightly snowing outside my office window. Winter in Northern California is not over yet, and a life of milk and honey is feeling a long way off.

 

A Proper Wet

I wake to the song of a soft rain patting against the panes of the skylight. The huge pentagonal window crowning the top of the dome is filled with dove gray light. I wonder if it is leaking again. A little orange dog sighs deeper into the covers next to me, and the Fella snores on like a man who’d worked hard until midnight, because he did.

Despite the coziness, it isn’t hard to pull myself from the bed. There is no chill in the room, as there has been every morning for many weeks. I put on the old clothes I’ve been wearing all week, a pair of once-fashionable jeans, now too big for anything but humiliation by chicken poop and horse muck. An Americorps sweatshirt (earned by my sister, inherited by me). A pair of thick socks that perfectly fill the inside of a pair of work boots, such that feet don’t dare to slip. Lola watches from the blankets.

First things first, a pot of coffee is set to motion by muscle memory while my mind wanders. I wonder if I should bring the horses in? Then a vivid image of my hand, buried in the thick, red and white fur of Jasper’s neck. But he’ll be wet, of course, having spent the night in the big outdoor arena where he can stretch his legs. I smile at the thought of his legs, tree trunks with fluffy boots. Then I think of fresh, dry hay falling down onto the inevitable mud accumulated around the manger in the arena and I frown. I’ll bring the horses in.

However, before that, there are 40 hungry chicks waiting for their next infusion of protein. With a quick sip of strong coffee to clear the mist from my eyes, I head for the mud room to pull on my muckboots. Right now the mud room is full of heavy bags of organic chicken feed. There is a better place for them to be than here, emptied into the large metal barrels outside the garden gate, they just haven’t quite made it there yet. Another important, but not quite important enough, task awaiting completion. Boots on, I head to the greenhouse.

The cheap sliding door on the cheap (actually free) little greenhouse opens with much resistance and objection. It wants me to smash it, but then what would I do? More hassle. Best not to take the defiance of inanimate objects personally, I remind myself.

The voracious chicks swarm the newly filled feeders exactly like insects. They’ve successfully cleared the cute stage and entered into the awkward, ratty, stinky stage. I’m glad. They’ve all survived babyhood, and there’s nothing about them that would make a person feel bad about tucking into a chicken dinner. Everything, therefore, is going according to plan.

Next I head around the house and up the back path to the goat barn and henhouse. I take in the new crop of buttercups cresting the hill and I happily think, Welcome. In February, the blooming flowers and the already-drying ground were just signs of a broken winter. But since then there’s been snow on the ground, ice-cold nights, and a respectable amount of rain. The world has righted itself, for the most part, and I can enjoy the proper wet of this warm spring rain in March, buttercups included.

The hens are up, but not too sure about coming outside yet. They discuss it among themselves, in their worried, judgmental voices. I move on to the goats. They’ve heard my footsteps, and I can hear Lily and Hank the wether stirring themselves from their soft bed of straw in the upper stone barn. But before I let them out, I let myself into the lower section of the paddock, where Lucy and Willow are snuggled into the small wooden barn. “Good morning girls,” I coo, as I peek at them through the window. I am pleased to see they don’t even get up, because only a few weeks ago these does acted as wild and ungentled as a couple of mustangs. I couldn’t touch them, which was not a favorable condition for a couple of hopefully-bred dairy goats. Even less favorable for does about to be sold to a new home.

But goats are wicked smart, and a few weeks of routine good mornings and tender scritches on their shoulders and these two girls now take my presence as something approaching comfort. Enough so that when I open the door, instead of bolting past me they simply look up from their piles of straw and wait for me to come in and pet them. Hallelujah!

Once Lucy and Willow are fed and watered I close the gate behind me and go back to the stone barn where Hank and Lily are now quite ready for their breakfast, thankyouverymuch. I can’t help but love these two goofy ruminants more than all the others. No problem with skittishness here, they will crawl into your lap if you let them. Which, given that Hank weighs close to 100 pounds, and Lily still smells a little like buck piss from her romantic vacation, I don’t recommend. I give them both scrubs and fill the manger and that’s good enough for now.

Time to head back to the house for another gulp of coffee before the half-mile (round trip) walk to the horses. A couple of red shouldered hawks are making a racket above me and I look up to the magical sight of the pair mating in a branch right over the top of the house! That explains all the fannying about in the treetops over the last few days.

Lola is excited now, because racing off ahead of me along the dirt road to my uncle’s house is by far her favorite part of the day. We will be having a 14th birthday party for her in just a few weeks, but she bounces like a puppy through the wet grass before skidding to a stop to investigate a pile of coyote poop or leave a message at a well established canine pee signpost along the road.

The air almost feels steamy now. The rain has stopped and the gray-blue clouds tumble through the pale-blue sky. There’s a magic moment along this road when the civilization of my house and the civilization of my uncle’s house are both entirely out of view, and it’s nothing but the road, the meadows, and the oak trees. To have a moment like that in my daily routine is such an incredible blessing, and even without deliberate mindfulness to remember to appreciate the simple things, it never ceases to take my breath away.

There are five horses to feed. My own oversized beast, who looks like a Shetland pony with a glandular disorder or a flame-eyed medieval warhorse, depending on the angle, is always at the rail with an eager look. My best friend’s gray mare, Shasta, is always close by, usually employing her refined and elegant face to scowl at me for never being fast enough with her breakfast. Then there’s the near toothless old racehorse, who is surprisingly feisty for a horse on the far side of 30, and gets a special mash to gum on. Also, my uncle’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly intimidating Andalusian stallion, with whom I have almost no connection, despite having brought him his breakfast every single day for the last two years. I am simply a serving girl to him, and he makes sure I know it. Lastly, a dainty little mare, almost kitten-like, in her curious sweetness. She’s doesn’t really have a name, so everyone just calls her ‘baby.’

After all are tended to, Lola and I head home, to finally have our own breakfasts. The  sky continues to gently churn. More rain on the way. Bluebirds and towhees dive from the trees and a breeze catches the water drops from the leaves and sends them showering down to earth.

Poo Chapeaux

The new hens have a roosting arrangement in our little coop that was causing some unfortunate befoulment (befowlment?) of their food and water feeders. Et voila!

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A new use for 99 cent turkey roasters!

And while I was tending to the ladies’ toilette, I decided to try a new, and quite lovely, method of deterring mites and other pests from the next boxes. In addition to the usual pine shavings and diatomaceous earth, I added some of this:

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It’s a mixture of lavender, rose petals, chamomile, mint, and eucalyptus. Who knows if it will work, but the coop smells heavenly, which is reason enough to use it. Just spiffing things up for the girls. Pourquois pas?

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!

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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?

Happy Trails and a Magic Moon

When the alarm went off at 5:00 a.m., I had finally reached a deep sleep. But my dreams were strange. I was in New York City, a place where I lived about 20 years ago. Of course it was bizarro-dream New York, but the grey, crowded, anonymous rush of the setting was somewhat accurate. I was with friends. We were at a media event for the renovation of a crumbling old ballroom, and I stood there, looking out onto a mish-mash of crumbling stone, scaffolds, and giant screens projecting futuristic advertisements. In casual conversation I told one of the hosts that I didn’t like being there, and he muttered some eye-rolling dismissal. Then suddenly, we were out somewhere on Long Island, swimming in the ocean.  It was soupy and warm, the way the Atlantic always feels to someone used to the frigid brine of the Pacific. And there was a bright red tide, like the color of red clay, beginning to envelop us. No one else was alarmed but me.  I was trying to get into a boat, when a rogue red wave loomed momentarily over me, before crashing down.

And then I woke up. And went outside to look at the Super Blue Blood Moon.

Super Blue Blood Moon 2018

I’m no dream expert, so I have no insight for you on what might be going on in my subconscious. But it should come as no surprise that the red moon made me feel weird under the circumstances and rather than say some meaningful pagan prayer or other eloquent expression of reverence to it, I just went back to bed.

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This past Sunday my best friend and I went on a wonderful trail ride.  It was a big deal. My friend’s horse — a mustang cross — shines on trail rides. She’s level headed and sure-footed, just like you’d expect from her breeding. She’s the leader, and you know she could go all day.

Then there’s Jasper. Oh, Jasper. He’s sure-footed enough. Despite his hulking size, his frying pan feet do very well through the muddy fields, rarely breaking the surface, like snow shoes. But no one has ever called Jasper level-headed. That horse can get himself worked into such a state over the smallest, silliest things. The distant sound of a gun firing. A startled dove. A pine cone falling from a tree.  All of these are potential death-omens to him. And once he been set off, it’s nearly impossible to bring him back down to earth.  We finish the ride with him soaked in sweat and blowing, all because of the gremlins lurking in his own mind.

He’ll always be a little bit off. This excitability is the most logical explanation for how such a beautiful, relatively young horse could end up being fired from his job on an Amish farm, rescued at an auction after everyone but the kill-buyers had passed him up, and then returned to the rescue after he scared his first adopter out of having horses altogether. He’s a lot to handle, sure. But he’s mine now and I’m committed. He’s not going anywhere.

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Back to the trail ride. It was a breakthrough. Jasper was calm and cool the whole time. He was clearly enjoying himself, as we wended our way down familiar trails and bushwacked some new ones. Such a joy! And it really crystallized in me something that I’ve been pondering about this big, skittish horse for a while:  He needs more space.

I rent a stall for him at my uncle’s barn, but no pasture space is available. I try to get him out as often as I can, but at maximum that’s only twice a week, especially in winter. The poor fellow is bursting at the seams in there. Of course he’s a ping-pong ball when I ride him. But the day before this particular ride, I had the opportunity to turn him out into the large arena, and he’d been able to stretch his legs and take in a bit more of the world for a full 24 hours before I’d asked him to get to work. The result? Relaxed, cheerful pony. Of course there were a few minor spooks. We’re still talking about Jasper, here. But he calmed down right away and kept moving forward, happy to go where I asked. And let’s be clear, a ride like that isn’t simply more enjoyable, it’s also a much safer one.

So that settles it. I’m going to have to build him a pasture. Don’t know where, don’t know how, but I have to make it happen.