Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Chicken Run and a Catch Up.

I was reminded yesterday that it's been a very long time since I'd written an update and since today I have about an hour to spare I'll let you know everything that's new at the farm.

Good morning! I've missed writing to you but with the regular growing season things can get a bit busy and I seem to simply put off writing until days and weeks go by and I realize you must think I got eaten by the turkeys. So here's a month by month account of what we've been doing.

September saw the kids back to school, Jordan for his last semester as  he will be graduating early, and Meghan started band. After much testing and deliberation she's playing the trumpet which is great because she likes tooting her own horn and we own a trumpet so we don't have to pay for the rental. It seems to be going well, and I have to say that listening to a beginner trumpet is much more pleasant than listening to beginner violin or bagpipes :)  I think August or September was when we found a kitten in the ditch and took him in and named him Apple because he was found under a crab apple tree. He's growing into a lovely cat and is a good mouser. I took him down to the chicken barn last week and he was in and out in less than a minute with a nice fat mouse. I'm going to make a small ladder that goes to the loft so he can hunt up there too.

October was the month I went to BC to see my friend Deanna. Her GoFundMe info is a few pages back. She's still fighting strong and had the boys again this past weekend. It was so hard to leave them, I miss them a lot. I've known Kasen since he was very little and the other two boys were born into my arms practically. I got pneumonia and bronchitis while I was away and again when I returned home so I've been joking that I've spent more money on medications in the past month than I did in all the 12 years prior. Everyone in the house got quite sick, even Chris who was stationed in New Brunswick, with the notable exception of Kate who had a 2 day sniffle and that was it. October also held Thanksgiving and marked the end of our first Farmers Market season. And what a way to go out! We had a huge gift basket to give away, lots of sales, and people were already sad that they'd have to wait until December to see us again. First frosts happened as they always do but our beets and some of the garden greens were still doing well in the garden.

November came and went in a bit of a blur. You'd think that with the market over for the season things would calm down, but they merely changed gears. We could have sold so much more last year if we'd only had the production so we took out our goal sheets and sat down to make plans for the next five years. We always work in a plan that looks forward five years and then adjust it as needed. It's normally what we do January 1st each year but given that we knew we were going to look at expanding it meant applications, research, planning, more research, and lots of phone calls to experts.

One of the big capital investments we want to make next year is a greenhouse. But last year, as you know, we got over 16 feet of snow. Many greenhouses collapsed and farms lost their livelihood. So we needed to make sure that we understood how to mitigate the potential collapse, check out the different engineering and styles of greenhouses, and then find a manufacturer in Canada who understood the demands placed upon a greenhouse in the Maritimes. In our case the problems are wind shear and snow loading. We're now working closely with Multi Shelter Solutions to arrange for the greenhouses and tunnels we'll need for the future. They've been lovely and to help out the community garden they're giving us free shipping if we take a tunnel and greenhouse at the same time. Which is a $500 savings. It allows us to get the tunnel for the community garden and have the greenhouse operational for starts early and to get some early crops in the ground. As you know, we always have a supply of seeds on hand so there's no waiting for orders to arrive and in fact Veseys catalogue is now out, yay!

Novembers two biggest happenings were our visit to FarmWorks gentle dragons yesterday (fantastic!) and The Chicken Run. I'll talk about the Chicken Run first. As you probably know most of the worlds chickens used for commercial egg production are raised in confinement. In the case of Nova Scotia, your eggs are likely coming from one of the farms associated with Egg Producers of NS and their hens are raised in cages. These are known as battery hens. 4 hens to a small cage is the norm and this makes for the most economical way of having chickens. There's not a lot of room needed, you can stack chickens multiple cage units high, there's no bedding material just the wire of the cages. and the only other things needed are water and food. Eggs are laid, roll out of the cage for collection and are then washed, graded and sent to your local supermarket. It's one of those things that we tend to put out of our minds as humans, that our eggs that are 30 or 50 cents cheaper than at the farmers market, cause suffering to the hens.

Now you might wonder how I know this and you've often heard me say to look at the results and then judge for yourselves, right? Well we had the opportunity thanks to a local chicken rescue, to re-home some old (old by commercial standards means 12-18 months) laying hens who were destined for slaughter. They've reached the peak of their usefulness and now are considered 'spent'. What they really mean is it's not worth it economically to feed them any more. Which is fair enough. Eggs are a controlled commodity and therefore big business. What that means for us smaller producers is something entirely different though so when Beckie Penman and I had the opportunity to get some of these layers for $1 each, we agreed that we would.

I'll be adding lots of pictures to the end of this post so go have a look, but I'd like to tell you about their behaviour their first night home, right out of the box. The hens were very wobbly on their feet, there are a few suspected broken wings and there are a couple who look so injured and shell shocked that I didn't think they'd last through the night. They have trouble walking due to their massively overgrown toe nails and the fact that they've never been able to really walk around much or stretch their wings since they were chicks. They are used to being huddled together in small spaces and so we have some corners of the barn set up with wooden slats over it to provide 'protection' and a sense of security for these newcomers. It's helping to prevent piling and panic. We found that talking consistently and quietly has helped, we move slowly in the barn when collecting eggs, and we  simply don't rush so we have time to observe them properly, especially any birds that are isolating themselves in the corners.

They came home on Friday night and by Saturday afternoon we'd collected 3 or 4 dozen eggs. They just lay them wherever on the floor, consequently I stepped on at least a few hidden in the litter. Today is Tuesday morning so they've been here now for a few days and so far we've had no casualties. There is still some picking going on and a pecking order being established, and our poor naked chickens still look naked, but they're much more mobile, exploring the barn, eating well (the feed amount eaten each day is increasing) and drinking their special water that looks like orange Gatorade according to my children. I explained that it's full of electrolytes and vitamins to help them recover from the stress so in effect it is like Gatorade for animals but without all the sugar. I mixed a special feed for the chickens taking into account that they need some extra heat and protein to re-grow feathers and muscle mass and get their strength back. Their bodies aren't in terrible condition, they're just basically bald, pecked and don't have strong muscles. Their diet consists of soybean meal, cracked corn and lay mash and it's balanced at 23% protein. As they regrow feathers and become more lively I'll be reducing that and introducing pellets. But one thing at a time. They're eating and drinking well now and it didn't take long. All you really need with chickens is someone to lead the way and they'll all follow. The hardest time for them was learning to drink from a regular waterer instead of the nipples they'd used previously, but they seem fine now. I put the food not too close to the heat lamps and thought there would be a pile of chickens three high in that corner but instead they are now content to scratch around, explore, peck the walls and door, eat and drink whenever they feel like it, and they're getting used to the shorter days and cooler nights. We leave the red bulb heat lamps on at night but of course we use natural light and that means instead of the 76 degree barn with 14 hours of artificial light they're now getting a chilly unheated barn (except the lamps) that the sun shines into and warms up the shavings on the floor but only for about 8-9 hours a day. We're 3 weeks from the shortest day of the year, and while I can definitely add light to the barn, I want them to moult and take some time off from laying. They've earned it.

Our plan with the hens is to gradually let them gain some strength before introducing them to any of the other chickens. We want them to have the ability to jump, fly a little from perches, have some colour return to their combs which you can see from the photos look like giant floppy combs drained of colour. Even in the past couple of days the colour has improved and some are standing more erect. I'm not 100% sure why but maybe the higher protein diet and vitamins. I'll get more photos as time goes on. In the early Spring I'll have introduced the other young hens I've raised this year and  they will all be ready for an increase in light to get them laying again. The hens will have what was the sheep pasture last year and it's a good size for a pasture raised flock. It's also got the barn ideally located in the centre and we'll rotate the sheep onto a different field next year. The turkeys will be down by the river. I have arranged for egg grading so now I can sell to restaurants and stores if I want since obviously I'm going to have a lot of eggs, and we're applying for a commercial turkey licence so next year will be very poultry focused in the fields down near the river.

This week we're going to be doing nail trimming. Some of the nails on these ex-battery hens are over an inch long and that poses several problems for the hens. It's going to take us a while to trim the feet of nearly a hundred hens but with some extra help I think we should be able to get the first trimming done in one afternoon. It will need to be followed up with another trim in a month. The reason we can't just trim them all it once is that the chickens can become very unbalanced by such a bog change, but more importantly that the quick (the blood vessel inside the nail) grows to an unnatural length as the nail grows and to cut the nails too short could cut into the blood vessel. We don't to stress the birds and more that they've already been, so using a bright light to see where the quick is will help us avoid cutting them by accident and it will shrink back as the nails get shortened. Once the hens are allowed outside in a few months their natural scratching behaviour will keep them short for the rest of their lives. We rarely have to do anything to the feet of our other birds because they free range but the turkeys we got a few weeks ago both came with scaly leg mite so that is something to look for in birds you buy or are given. It's easily treated but takes time.

Yesterday we were able to meet with some of the good folks at FarmWorks. What a great organization! It's a partnership effectively, between investors and local food businesses from primary producers like us (farmers) all the way to restaurants and processed food manufacturers. The goal is to both keep investment money in the local economy and to increase food security for all Nova Scotians. As you well know, sustainability is something we're very interested in and we're ready now to take our farm from our little self-sufficient holding to actually making a living. I really want Steve here more than he is now. And it would give us the opportunity to diversify a little into the bakery. Ah well, one job at a time. It's better to do one job 100% than two jobs half as well. FarmWorks is super interesting so I'm going to ask permission and then tell you more about it tomorrow if that's ok.

Well friends, my hour is up. Time to put another log in the fire and go play with my new kitchenaid mixer that Steve and Chris my son got me for Christmas thanks to a 40% off sale and a $50 rebate coupon I had. I'm feeling very blessed!

Love to you all. Stay warm, healthy, eat your veggies and do something nice for a stranger this week would you? Even if it's just buying a coffee for the person behind you in line in the drive-thru.

Pics to follow: technical difficulties

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