The Polar Vortex and a Lesson in Control

“Ok,” I said, “tell me why this wouldn’t work.”

John, God bless the man, was standing in my chicken coop with an ice breaker, chipping away at the mass of chicken shit and ice that was preventing the coop door from closing.

He looked over before replying.

“Tell you why what wouldn’t work…?”

“What if, instead of creating a horse stall in the center aisle, we bed it down, close the aisle off on one end, and let all the llamas in there.  Then we could give the llama stall to four of the horses.”

The Polar Vortex was approaching with anticipated -55 degree wind chills (thank God for 10 day forecasts), and I had been racking my brain for the best way to shut all of the animals inside the main barn and out of the elements.  This was my third or fourth proposal and the one that I believed had the most potential.

“What about the hay you stored at the end of the aisle?” he asked.

“Let them eat hay!” I replied.

<<<>>>

I spent three days getting myself and the barn (and my house, and the guesthouse) ready for the onslaught of cold.  Last Monday evening, I moved the llamas, shut in the ponies, battened down the chicken coop, bribed the cats to stay in the tack room, and brought in only partially willing horses.  (You know what isn’t much fun?  Trying to catch an off-the-track thoroughbred race horse in the dark, through a foot and a half of snow, who has no interest in being caught.)

I fed extra hay.  I triple checked stall locks.  I prepped, and prepped, and prepped, but as I turned off the barn lights that first night, and the weather closed in, I still wondered how the next few days would play out.

Those who know me in real life know that I have some issues with control.  I plan.  I research.  I try to micromanage my life and create something that I can exert my will upon.  I want there to be reasons for things, and I want to know all of those reasons.  (And, frankly, I want to be able to argue with those reasons if I disagree with them.)

I struggle with both anxiety and depression (the uppers and downers of mental health).  Neither condition is debilitating for me; I have relatively mild doses of each, and it’s uncommon for the depression to get so bad that I don’t want to get out of bed or for the anxiety to get so bad that it feels like my skin is crawling and that I want to scream, but they still exist as realities in my life.  (Side note, did you know that “The Scream” by Edvard Munch likely depicted the artist’s panic attack?  I used to not get the painting, but now, I FEEL it.)  Sometimes I think they combine and create an unnatural need to control my environment under the false belief that if I control things enough I can keep bad things from happening.

Maybe.

…It’s a thought.

I could hear the wind howling as I laid in bed Monday night.  It cuts off of the river in the winter, straight up the hills and across the ranch, bringing a stinging, icy chill.   I laid in bed, trying to reassure myself that I had done everything I could, that the weather would come regardless, and that what happened from here was beyond my control.

My anxiety whispered in my ear that night as I tried to sleep, creating a parade of imaginary problems that marched in front of me one by one.

“What if all the water lines freeze?”
“What if one of the animals freeze?”
“What if one of the animals gets sick?”
“What if one of the gates get unlocked?”
“What if one of the critters die?”
“WHAT IF ALL THE CRITTERS DIE???”
“WHAT IF I SLIP ON THE ICE ON THE WAY TO THE BARN, AND I HIT MY HEAD, AND I FREEZE AND DIE???”

*Pause*
*Deep breath*

“What if absolutely everything I’m worried about right now is beyond my control?  What if I can’t do a damn thing about it?  What if I try to get some sleep?”

<<<>>>

The next morning, with straight temps hovering around -20, I made my way back out to the barn.  The llamas had obviously had a party in their center stall, and enjoyed the access that living in the center of the barn gave them to my goings on.  They constantly pushed the not-quite-shut feed-room door open to check on me while I was in there.

About half of my autowaterers had frozen up, and I spent half the morning hanging and filling water buckets to replace them.   But everyone was mostly ok.  We spent the next few days doing mostly ok.  Mostly ok, but bored.  Mostly ok, but stir crazy.  Mostly ok, but chilled.  Mostly ok with deathly cold just on the other side of the barn door didn’t seem so bad.

<<<>>>

Last week, I reopened the barn to the combined rejoicing of everyone who had been shut inside.  Two days ago, I found one of my chickens dead in the coop.  My vet supposed her to be a victim of the cold.  A delayed victim, but a victim nonetheless.

“Her body probably couldn’t recover from the shock,” she told me when I mentioned my one casualty.

I cradled the hen’s dead body in one arm and hiked out into the woods a ways.  That’s what I do with them; it’s become a weird ritual for me.  I laid her behind a tree, far enough away from my barn that she won’t draw attention to my living birds, and I said a quick thank you; my hens do a job for me that I like to acknowledge.

Something–a raccoon or bobcat or coyote–will take her body and eat it.  Nothing will be  wasted.

<<<>>>

Livestock teach you to take 100% responsibility, while acknowledging your complete lack of control.     It’s a hard lesson, this realization that all the planning in the world can’t guarantee an outcome, the realization that the world spins on in its own way regardless of our intentions for it.

It’s also lovely, because sometimes acknowledging your smallness reminds you to settle into it and let go of your illusion of control.

When the cold comes, you do the best you can and let go of the rest.  Settle in, and know that warmer air is on its way.

 

 

 

 

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A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken

Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens.  Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot.  I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.

I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder.  There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so.  (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age.  If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.)  But, when you get right down to it,  I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary. Continue reading “A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken”

Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs

 

Let’s be honest.  You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.

They free-range.

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They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.

Each one has her own little personality and habits. Continue reading “Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs”

The Trouble with Turkeys

Do you guys remember my three little turkey peeps from last year?  The ones we rescued from the feed store when it became clear that they were quickly destined to be dinner?

We lost one little peep (my favorite) to his birth defect.  We lost another to a predator.

But one of the little peeps survived.

And he isn’t so little anymore.

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Arthur

Meet Arthur of Camelot. Continue reading “The Trouble with Turkeys”

That moment when you realize you’ve gone from “chicken lady” to “crazy chicken lady”

I never thought I’d spend so much time thinking about poultry…

When we agreed to buy the ranch, I begin mentally preparing for the chickens.  I bought books; I read blogs; I meticulously picked out the breeds I wanted.  I read articles about why chickens should only eat organic feed (for the record, even I don’t eat all organic feed…).  I read about all the ways predators can get to your flock.  I read about parasites and natural worming vs. chemical worming.  I started following Fresh Eggs Daily, Garden Betty, and DIY Diva, soaking up every last bit of chickeny knowledge they had to offer.  Continue reading “That moment when you realize you’ve gone from “chicken lady” to “crazy chicken lady””

The true cost of an egg

Out here on the ranch, we are at the peak of our egg season.  Most of my fully grown hens lay an egg a day during the summer, which equals 5 to 6 eggs per day.  In the fall, my little ones will start laying as well.

In the winter, they lay far fewer eggs.  We have chosen not to artificially light our coop, which means our girls take their natural “break,” molting and slowing down their egg production for the season.

Next summer, I will be swimming in eggs.  With a dozen chickens joining our flock this year, hopefully all hens, I will be getting well over a dozen eggs a day.

Beautiful, fresh eggs from spoiled rotten chickens.
Beautiful, fresh eggs from spoiled rotten chickens.

Many of you know that eggs are at a premium right now, with the avian flu taking out millions of commercial birds at a time.  Additionally, California is finally legislating more humane conditions for laying hens; if you ask me, that’s a step in the right direction, but it will also require an increase in egg prices.  (God willing, other states will follow suit.)

All of this is just to say that, for the first in any sort of recent history, commercial egg prices are starting to creep up close to organic prices.

Continue reading “The true cost of an egg”

And…this is winter.

The snow falling outside my office window in the Heights probably means many things to many people.  For me, it’s a gently falling reminder that old man winter beat us back to the ranch.  We still aren’t moved back out there.

Just a few days ago, temperatures hovered between 55-60 degrees in our little corner of the planet.  Now we’re in the 20s, complete with two days of snow.  Illinois is like that, almost specializing in drastic weather changes that come in the night.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been expecting the cold.  Our winter supply of hay–minus one flatbed load that we still need to pick up–is safely tucked away, either in barns or under tarps.  Our grain room, likewise, is nearly full.

And, yet, the cold hit yesterday, and I found myself running around like mad trying to tie up loose ends.

I ran from store to store. At the first, I picked up a heated base for my chicken water, a sinking heater for my horse trough (the one from last year is toast), and cracked corn.

The cart that served as evidence of how woefully underprepared we were.  I wonder how many carts like this went through check out yesterday.
The cart that served as evidence of how woefully underprepared we were. I wonder how many carts like this went through check out yesterday

Then to another store for winter gloves that stand a chance against ranch life.

Back at the ranch, I noticed a shivering alpaca, just one, so I dug the winter coats out of the feed room

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This one was too big…and pink.
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Midnight Idol is probably our oldest alpaca, and the tiniest. This coat fit him very well, and it probably wouldn’t fit anyone else.

Eventually, several of our animals will be in coats, but I prefer to wait to put them on until they act cold.  The more they regulate their own temperatures without help, the better.

We also dug out heat lamps, and, before leaving for the night, we shut our old men into their stall with their very own heat lamp.

Today, we will head out again, buying posts at Lowe’s for a pony shelter that needs to go in yesterday and winter clothes for Jeremiah.  (Do you believe he went through all of last winter without a heavy winter coat?  Said that if he bought one, winter won.)

And so begins another season out at the ranch.  Hopefully, the big snows hold off for just a bit longer, and we can get moved back out before the roads get icy.  We shall see.

Also, since I’m new at this one, does anyone want to share some friendly advice for keeping chickens nice and cozy?  I have two that have bald(ish) backs from getting picked on, and I’m afraid of frostbite.

No…I’m not going to eat them. (On keeping chickens that aren’t going to end up on your table.)

I didn’t go with Jeremiah to the farm this morning.  Partly, that’s because as he readily points out, I don’t do mornings.  (That’s not entirely true, I just don’t do mornings as early or as well as he does.)  Also, we were expecting Mr. Raccoon to be trapped in the live trap we set, and, while I know exactly what has to be done and why, I didn’t really want to be there to see it.

I suppose I’m something of a “bleeding heart.”  The other day, I found three baby mice and their mama in a feed bin…and I carried the bin across the property and out to the woods to let them go.  Last fall, when a baby raccoon was living in the horse barn (and regularly messing with Jeremiah’s stuff), I disallowed shooting it.  It was, after all, only a baby.   (Now I’m vaguely concerned that my kindness directly translated to the later killing of my chickens, but luckily, I can never actually know.)

Recently, a friend was incredulous upon learning that I have no plans to eat my chickens.

“So, you’re not going to raise and slaughter your own meat!?!?”

He seemed almost annoyed by this…

…I’m still not sure why.

Don’t get me wrong, I have IMMENSE respect for ranchers who humanely raise livestock, fighting against the factory farming trend that is almost exclusive these days.  Such people should be applauded and supported!  However, I am not one of them.  (If you’re interested in reading updates from such ranchers, check out a girl and her chickens or Full Circle Farm.  I really enjoy reading both of their blogs.)

Why am I not one of them?  For one thing, adding meat animals to my current menagerie would take up even more time.  Time, for me, is at a premium.  Also, they would take up space, also at a premium.  The farm is not my job, it’s my home.  I really don’t want to change that.

Additionally, if it’s not clear already, I get attached to my animals.  I’m not sure why I’d want to take on MORE WORK to raise slaughter animals when I know for a fact that it isn’t something I’d enjoy.

Finally, while we’re by no means vegetarians, we really don’t eat much meat.  To accommodate the meat-eating that we do, I have no problem paying a premium for local or independently certified humane meat.  I buy my beef from family, and I’m still trying to work through the beef quarter I bought last fall!

All of this said, I’m still not sure why it’s a problem or, even worse, why people are annoyed that my chickens might actually die of old age…

Just to clear things up, I thought I’d write a post about why I have chickens, even though I don’t plan to eat them.

Some of my chickens have names.  This one, for example, is Lucy.
Some of my chickens have names. This one, for example, is Lucy.

I thought about writing this as a list, but as I tried to start, I found that the reasons are fairly holistic.

I began to consider keeping chickens when I realized that we were, for sure, buying Eagle Ridge.  Part of the reason I do not eat very much meat, and part of the reason I am so intentional about the meat I do buy, is that I know way, way too much about factory farming.  It’s horrifying when you look into where most of our meat comes from.  And this knowledge comes with implications; for me, I had to rethink what I eat.  (For example, I do not eat pork products.  I gave that up when I realized what hog confinements really were.  I also don’t eat veal due to the usual conditions they’re raised in.)

And, I realized, laying hens are not immune to the implications of factory farming.  Not enough space, unhealthy conditions, and drastically shortened lives are the rule, not the exception.

I knew I didn’t want to raise my own meat, but I knew I could handle raising my own laying hens.

I now know EXACTLY where my eggs come from, and that’s rather lovely.

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Unexpected bonuses?

Chickens are freaking hilarious!  I love watching their antics, and I have found that I generally enjoy keeping them.  (Plus, compared to my other critters, they are remarkably low maintenance in the day-to-day.)

–AND–

They thoroughly enjoy the leftovers that would otherwise go to waste.  (Less wasted food!  Yeah!)

Can anyone explain why it is people would take issue with all of this?

The great chicken massacre of 2014 and the buttressing of Cluckingham…

Alas, there is sad news to report from the Palace of Cluckingham in the Kingdom of Eagle Ridge.  We have known since the loss of our most treasured subject that a foul marauder was afoot in our territory, but we naively believed it to reside solely outside of the fortress walls (barn…).  Alas, nigh three days ago, we were proven wrong when two more subjects were found dead, this time within our fortress walls.  They had been cruelly snatched from their home, drug out from among their kin, and devoured.

Their temporary home deemed unsafe, we doubled down on our efforts to complete their permanent residence.  By the setting of the sun, Cluckingham Palace was deemed secure, though still unfinished.  One by one, our remaining subjects were carried across the Aisle of Barn and into their new home.  They rejoiced and set about their regular tasks of eating, scratching in the dirt, and making noise.  And we, their devoted leaders, slept soundly that night, believing our chickeny subjects to be safe from harm.

We should not have slept so soundly.

The dastardly fiend who had so cruelly murdered her kin struck again, this time killing our second to last speckled sussex.  He was more clever in his ill intent that we had believed, and he had pulled our temporary defenses (wire stretched across where the door will go) away from the rest of the Palace.

This time he left tracks and fur.  We then knew our enemy.

Sadly, the King of Eagle Ridge (Jeremiah) was away, leaving me, the almostfarmgirl Queen of Cluckingham home alone to discover the aftermath of the slaying and to defend my defenseless subjects.

My defenseless subjects
My defenseless subjects
More defenseless subjects
More defenseless subjects

With no King in sight, I did what any Queen under siege should do.  I reinforced the defenses of my subjects, and I called for my Allies to aid me in their protection.

Lady Gabriella was the first to come to my aid.  Using zipties, we tightened the temporary wire down, leaving no gaps through which our dastardly predator (a raccoon, in case you were wondering…) could enter to terrorize our subjects.

Lady Gabriella at work
Lady Gabriella at work
Zipties reinforcing our defenses.
Zipties reinforcing our defenses.

Then, Sir Hezekiah, the user of power tools, screwed in boards along the bottom, for we could not allow the enemy to dig into the Palace.

Finally, I called upon my Sir Kent (my dad – who by the way grew up on a HUGE working farm…erm…I mean kingdom…) to walk the perimeter of the Palace to look for weaknesses in our defenses.

Securing a window that he identified as a fatal flaw in the safety features of the coop.
Securing a window that he identified as a fatal flaw in the safety features of the coop.
Read: Stop taking pictures for your blog and hand me a washer...
Read: Stop taking pictures for your blog and hand me a washer…

We baited a trap for the foul beast who has claimed the lives of four of our dear subjects but have not caught the villain.  However, since the buttressing of Cluckingham Palace, our subjects have been safe from harm.

And, I assure you, loyal readers, the days of the dastardly raccoon are numbered.