An ode to the feeder pigs.

In July, when the sun had long since gone down but heat still somehow thickened the air, I would peer into Jane the Sow’s stall to check for signs of farrowing. Night after night I would put my palms on her massive stomach and feel her piglets kicking and moving. She was my first pregnant pig, and I eagerly absorbed all of her behaviors and logged them in my head for future use. She was drinking more and more, and excess froth often collected on the outside of her mouth as her due date came and went. Then, on the Monday after the 4th of July, our entire farm crew found eight tiny piglets, milling about in the hay at the feet of a very tired looking Jane (the picture above was taken at this very moment). To my dismay, I wasn’t on animal crew that week– I remember standing at the gate staring at them in absolute wonder, hearing my veggie manager call my name but not quite registering that I had to leave them.

A week later, they were not growing very well. I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to look like, but had a feeling that something was not quite right. That next Monday, we found a dead piglet on our weekly farm walk, its tiny spindly body stiff and cold– my first death on the farm. Two more piglets died that week. On the second death, we did a necropsy in the field. I was planting fennel with the vegetable crew when my manager called me over and asked if I wanted to see a necropsy… She knew I was more in love with the animals than vegetables and grains, and allowed me to step away and observe even though it meant sacrificing a worker on a rare sunny day. The afternoon sun shone in my eyes as I peered at the tiny pig cadaver resting on a piece of cardboard on the back of our farm truck. A local professor was there with gloves and scalpels, and slowly she peeled back the layers of skin and tissue to expose the kidneys, stomach, heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. His stomach was so full of milk it seemed like it was about to burst. So they were eating… but why were they eating so much at once? On that abnormally hot day, we decided that Jane was likely only producing milk during the cool evening hours, forcing her piglets to gorge themselves to the point of death.

During the weekend that followed, one of the animal crew members noticed Jane was refusing to let her babies nurse. She was turning on them, stepping and crushing their tiny toes. My coworker immediately whisked the piglets into a dog crate with bedding, and went off in search of milk replacer. Each morning and night we mixed a big bucket of liquid that smelled suspiciously like a vanilla milkshake, and poured it into pans for the piglets. They would stand at our feet and scream in elation, eventually diving into the pans headfirst. They only came up for air with the greatest of reluctance, their snouts dripping with the warmed milk. Jane was moved to a woodlot, and spent the rest of the summer in the shade of old trees, chewing on multiflora rose and walnuts.

The piglets grew fast, their shoulders broadened and their limbs thickened. We developed relationships with them, against our better instincts, and gave butt scratches and belly rubs each day during chores. Two of them were sold to a farm in New York, to be used as breeding stock. I tried to get them to take my favorite, but she was smaller and more meek than the rest. As I left to begin my academic year, I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to be at the farm for their processing date– I had forgotten that I agreed to farm-sit during winter break.

This winter I found the feeder pigs as much larger, more rowdy versions of their baby selves. They still rolled over for belly rubs, but were not afraid to try and topple me over to get their grain. They would eagerly nip and my pants, and occasionally attempt to fit my shoe into their mouths. Knowing that they would be processed within the month caused me no small amount of pain– a small part of me wanted to simply feed them and get out of the pen, without stopping for a scratch or tummy rub. But as I slowly develop into a farmer, and find my own ways to cope with such things, I have learned that every animal should be treated with the same volume of love, compassion, and respect, regardless of their purpose on the farm– no matter how much pain and sorrow and guilt it may cause me, their caretaker. And so after chores I sat with them, and I scratched them behind the ears and talked softly to them and administered belly rubs upon request, while at the same time compartmentalizing my sorrow and guilt to provide the best possible life for them.

Yesterday we loaded them onto the trailer, and this morning my manager brought them to the processing plant. Their lives were filled with safety, love, affection, lots of delicious food and a pasture to run around in, followed by one bad day. In a month, they will provide sustenance to a family, or a member of our meat CSA. Their existence will have had purpose, and meaning. I know all of this, and I am proud of the work that I do, but it is hard.

There are people out there that might think of me, and livestock farmers in general, as evil. One morning this fall, a new “friend” in my orientation group said to me… “how can you raise animals for meat and eat them? I just don’t see how that is any different than murdering and eating humans.” I don’t think anyone has made me more angry than this particular vegan did– I vividly remember taking a swig of stale coffee and launching into an uncharacteristically hostile tirade while the rest of our breakfast crew gazed at their plates of soggy french toast.

All I can say is that through my work I am able to have a direct relationship with the food that I eat. Whenever a piece of meat (or milk, or cheese) enters my mouth, the only thought in my mind is one of deep gratitude for the living being that made it possible for me to eat and live. We are raising heritage breed animals the way that animals are supposed to be raised– with room to run, to interact and play with members of their own species, to experience the sun, and wind, and mud (in the pigs’ case, anyway).

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart. As I made myself a cup of coffee, my phone vibrated, and a picture of a tiny calf appeared on my screen. It was a message from my manager– Gemstone, the beef cow I walked to a new stall last week, gave birth to a healthy baby bull calf. Keeping with the theme of “G” names and rocks, we named him Geode, Geo for short.

It sounds cliché, but with death comes new life on the farm. It is a painful but beautiful reminder of how important it is to remember where our food comes from.

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Routine

Happy New Year! I wrote this a few days ago, and given that one of my resolutions is to create more blog posts, now seems like a good time to send it out into the WordPress universe.

The tinny noise of my alarm wakes me up and I stumble down the stairs towards coffee. I am the first person awake in the house, because the pellet stove is cold and forlorn looking, as is the coffee maker. I fill both with their respective fuel and wait by the stove until its low humming becomes a streak of orange flame. Once I have begun to feel human again, I put on my coat and scarf and give my chickens fresh water and access to their run.

By the time I make it into my car, and begin to peel off the layers of glossy frost on my windshield, the sky has become a pastel yellow shade with streaks of lavender clouds. I arrive at the farm in my old Subaru, and put on my muck boots covered in.. well… muck? and begin my morning routine.

The grumbling of Buddy and Dodge, our resident rams (that serve absolutely no purpose, but have been here so long that it feels impossible to send them to get processed) greets me first. Then 30 hens circle at my feet, cooing and impatiently squawking as I give them fresh water.

Pure pig pandemonium awaits me on the other side of the farm, each sow with her own personality that I have come to respect and appreciate…

There is Jane, the mother sow who is so sweet to humans but can be testy and quite rude to her fellow pigs. She simply waits for the grain bucket to approach, snorting inquisitively perhaps, but overall has an air of calm about her.

The three feeder pigs are in the stall beside her, and they await me by the electrified wire screaming at the top of their lungs. Once I enter their enclosure they begin to nibble at my legs, and experimentally throw their weight into my body (I think they view my entire being as a bucket of grain, and their sole mission in life has become to topple me over). It seems like only yesterday that they too were tiny piglets– now they are probably about 300 lbs, and will be processed next week.

In the next pen is the pregnant sow Mabel, who has massive teeth and extremely large, floppy ears that give her the appearance of an 800 lb mutant rabbit. Mabel is the quietest of the sows, and an excellent mother to her piglets, however everything scares her. She has been known to leap over fences with the grace of a stallion if someone talks too loud or unwittingly sneaks up on her. I am always careful to hum or play a podcast out loud when I approach her, so that she knows where I am at all times.

Beside Mabel are the six feeder piglets born on Labor Day. They line up side by side and serenade me with squeals and– lately, to my surprise, barking– that pauses whenever I leave their line of sight and resumes immediately upon my reappearance.

Finally, in the most spacious pen with the largest paddock is Duke, Ethel, and Roxanne. Duke is our resident breeding boar, a gentle soul who has fathered all of the piglets on the farm for the past two years. Earlier this summer, I used to dread entering Ethel’s pen… After being cooped up with a raucous litter of piglets all winter long, she had become ornery towards her caretakers and would try and push us over with her gigantic body during feeding time. Having had no experience with pigs, Ethel scared me a lot. But soon after my internship started we moved her out into an open grassy paddock, with a massive mud wallow and plenty of nutritious pasture plants, and I quickly realized that she was simply an extremely enthusiastic pig. Now I step into the paddock and call “Etheeeellllllll” and I immediately hear screaming from inside her stall. Then she rounds the corner, and upon seeing me, barrels towards me at a speed that seems physically impossible given her size (still screaming, of course). When she reaches me she usually begins running in circles around me, while Roxy and Duke approach with slightly more tempered enthusiasm a few moments later. As long as I get them their food in a timely manner, they refrain from knocking me– the giant grain bucket– over and headfirst into the mud.

After feeding everyone, I take advantage of their contented munching and give each pig fresh water, often breaking the icy crust on top with a nearby rock. I toss a healthy armful of hay in with each pig, which provides them warm bedding to nestle into at the same time as a tasty snack. By the time I’ve finished tending to the chickens and the cows, they usually have settled into a joyful stupor, either lazily chewing a mouthful of hay, or emitting thunderous snores.

This is my routine while I watch the farm that I worked at this summer so that my supervisors can take some well-deserved time off. So for two weeks it is just me, manning the metaphorical fort, trying to make sure no one dies or runs away or both. When I was offered this opportunity to work during winter break I was so excited– I am beginning to realize that this entire semester I have been comatose, shrouded in Academia, and someone just poured the pigs’ water bucket over my head. I feel awake, but exhausted, and worried but so incredibly at peace.

Chores take me about two hours. Chores take other workers and students about forty minutes. Does this make me seem inefficient? Perhaps, though I should say that I never put in the full amount of time I spent with the animals on my time card… It doesn’t seem right to be paid for the amount of time I spend simply enjoying their company. But when I do chores, every single animal gets fresh water. Every single animal gets clean bedding and hay to chew on. I spend a moment watching each pig, each chicken, and each cow to check for any potential issues. I check every wire of every fence to make sure they are carrying enough charge. I am thorough because I care, and because I so deeply appreciate and value the opportunity to participate in these animals’ lives.

 

 

 

A Year in Review

Its 2016, and now seems as good a time as any to reflect and review this past year.

January A year ago today we brought Mary to the vet for her “cold”, and she got dosed with antibiotics in the eyes and nose for a week. When that didn’t stop her constant sneezing and coughing, we picked up some Baytril pills and shoved them down her throat for another harrowing week. I paid for all of it, and scheduled the appointments (the first time I felt like a real, responsible chicken mama).

With a lot of help from my mother, we managed to dose Mary with both the eye/nose drops, and the Baytril pills until she was completely healed and returned to the flock. And that’s when I noticed Edith’s comb, which was lightly frostbitten. That night I began applying Vaseline to his head, and continued to do so until spring to insulate it from the cold.

His comb quickly went from “mild” to worse, as you can see in the pictures.

At the end of the month I learned that my coop cleaning regimen was flawed, and that the waterer (which I kept inside on the pine shavings) was making the shavings damp and creating a humid, disease-breeding environment. Though I couldn’t move the waterer outside because of the heater set-up, I did a deep clean of the coop.

February Edith’s frostbite got worse and worse as winter deepened in the Northeast. Despite the application of Blu-Kote (a blue stain/antiseptic that prevents pecking) my hens began pecking at Edith’s comb. The appearance of blood only encouraged the hens, and blood was splattered on the coop walls, and on his own feathers. Mabel laid her first egg, a lovely white color.

March I am struck with “chick fever”, where all I think about is more fuzzy chicken babies gracing my brooder. I begin to contemplate Edith and his place in my coop when I see him constantly mating with the three girls. Mabel and Cora begin to lose their feathers on their backs, and Mary lays an egg.

I plant some lettuce, flower, and pepper seedlings, which never really sprout (much to my frustration).

My eagerness for spring is dampened by the continuous snow and cold weather, and I despair that spring will never come to New England. Edith’s comb finally falls off, leaving a small, neat little wedge in its place.

I ordered, and mended, a chicken saddle for Cora, and deep cleaned the coop (again). I noticed two scabbed over gashes in Mabel’s side (presumably from Edith’s mating) and snatched her from the roost. After much squawking, and lots of flying feathers, I covered her wounds with Neosporin and Blue-Kote, and returned her to her peeps.

April I continue my scheming for more poultry, treat Scaly Leg Mite in Mary by soaking her feet and covering them in Vaseline (which smothers them), and become ecstatic at the sight of new life in the garden. My tomato seedlings sprout (nearly all of them), and I bask in the warmth of spring.

June I had a bit of a panic about the health of my chickens. I was worried about Edith, who had a bald patch on his head (I suspected mites), and Cora’s messy bottom, Mary’s supposed Scaly Leg Mites. Finally I posted about it, and you (my readers) told me to calm down and gave me reasonable solutions and explanations. Thank you for that! With the start of summer, I began my fruitless job search.

July With the start of July I finally realized that Edith was not a good fit for me and the girls. In a heartbreaking matter of days, amidst preparations for my trip overseas, I posted an ad for him on CraigsList and got multiple responses. We (my father and I) selected a “no-nonsense” New Hampshire farmer with a free range flock of about twenty hens. And off Edith went, an animal I raised from a baby. I disappear from the blog for three weeks in which I had one of the best experiences in my life.

August I return from an amazing trip and review it in great detail. I take a plane from Boston to London, where I spend three days exploring the city with my aunt and uncle. We then took a smaller plan from Luton to Inverness, and then drove up to a tiny coastal town called Thurso. There I stayed for the rest of the month, seeing the gorgeous Scotland scenery, meeting kind people, and relaxing in my aunt and uncle’s lovely home. I learned so much about myself, and can’t wait to go back when I get older.

September I reflect on how I got to where I am today

October I find worms in my chickens droppings- ick! I quickly treat it with Wazine and some pumpkin, and see immediate improvement

November I prepare for winter, both mentally and physically, despite the continuing mild weather.

This year has had its ups and downs, each forcing me to grow and learn. In just a little more than one year I will be out of high school, and I don’t think anything could prepare me to face the world better than my chickens have. I can’t wait to see what this new year will bring.

A year in review

Preparing for the Winter

First off, I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving! Even if you aren’t from the US, I hope that you have an abundance of things to be thankful for. I am certainly thankful for you, my readers!

Things have been quiet in the coop, and I fear I am suffering from a bad case of Writer’s Block. For those reasons, I have not written in a month. Mary has finished her molt, as you can see from the gallery below. Her feathers are new once again: her feet and bottom a cream color, the rest of her body covered in a caramel hue, with black lacing around her neck, tail, and on her wing tips. Cora is just about finished- she laid an egg for the first time in a month yesterday, which is a good sign! Her feathers are almost all a burgundy color, except for the black tip of her tail. Poor Mabel, however, is looking very rough. There are patches of bare skin starting at her throat, and while the spot on her back is completely covered, she spends her afternoons huddled from the winds below the coop.

It was around a year ago today that a huge blizzard hit my town, and I had to transfer the three girls and Mr. Edith to the big coop in the snowy night! Its crazy to think that it is in the 50s today, and drizzling. I’m certainly not complaining… I’m afraid I’m looking at this coming winter with dread. I won’t be forgetting the “cold” Mary suffered from, nor finding poor Edith with his comb completely black and feathers covered in blood. Though I do think I am far better prepared, with a whole year’s experience by my side.

To prepare, I’d like to do one big coop cleaning before it gets too cold to wash the floors. I’ll wipe down all the surfaces with white vinegar, scrub the waterer and feeders, and scatter diatomaceous earth on the floor and run. On top of this, I’ll lay down a thick layer of pine shavings to keep them warmer. I’m considering spreading some sort of material on the run- right now it’s simply dirt and sand, but I think a bit of straw or maybe even leaves would keep their feet from freezing.

Despite the hardships that come from a winter with the chickens, I’m so glad I have them to keep me busy. Before they entered my life, I found it difficult to sit inside all winter without the benefits of my vegetable garden. Until then though, I will enjoy the mild weather, the still green grass, and the evening free-range sessions.

Running Through The Woods

There is a trail right up the street from my home that winds up and around a little mountain. Its soft dirt takes you through streams, over snaking tree roots, and past rocks deposited by glaciers long ago. If you look carefully through the branches, rolling farmland is slightly visible. Before the 1600s, Abenaki Native Americans walked through its forests, hunting deer and fishing to supplement their tribe’s food. Since Monday I’ve begun running through its two mile long loop every day (except Thursday). I’m ridiculously out of shape, and have to stop at the bottom of each steep slope to catch my breath and snap a few pictures. But there is something about running through the woods that frees my soul. After a long day of school, and a long frustrating evening of keeping Boris from destroying everything, moving among the trees makes me feel in control. The sound of my shoes pounding the dirt and mud, squirrels rooting around in the undergrowth, and birds singing fills me with exhilaration. I think I’m addicted to trail running!

***

Right now I’m taking a break from another deep coop cleaning. Several chicken-keeping resources recommend cleaning out the coop with vinegar when scaly leg mites are discovered. The chickens have been locked outside, and the walls have been completely scrubbed down with a vinegar-water solution, then rinsed with plain old water. Then I gave everything a spray down with Manna Pro Poultry Protector, just in case it actually worlds. Ugh I am so disturbed by spiders- there are a few hanging out (literally) in my coop, or there were… I got a huge broom and just kept swiping it out their webs while closing my eyes. I must have looked crazy, and definitely made quite the racket. Its strange. I’m fine with all other insects- In fact, I’ve been known to rescue the beetles, lady bugs and crickets from the pool by hand. But show me an arachnid and I’m running in the other direction.

I got a late start to the cleaning because my hens kept insisting on occupying the nest boxes. Mabel camped out in there for an hour, and then Mary simply would not settle for the make-shift outdoor nest box I made. She kept throwing herself at the walls of the coop, until I relented and opened the door and she strutted in triumphantly. She then settled herself in the box, and glared at me, as if daring me to try and move her. Just for fun I took the Mabel and Cora’s eggs and put them next to her chest feathers. She promptly rolled them underneath her mass of fluffy feathers, tucking them in cozily with her beak. Of course, she lurked in there for another forty minutes, and an extra fifteen minutes even after she lay her pale brown egg. *Chickens*…

I think I’m going to post an ad for Edith on Craigslist, and see if I get any offers. I’d only give/sell him to a home where he would be well cared for until an old age. Its probably naive of me to look for such a place, but I want only the best for my little fellow. He is just so incredibly good at being a rooster, but my hens look like they’re in pain. Despite the hen-saddles, their shoulders have become raw and pink. He basically crushes Mabel and Cora under his weight because he’s so huge. So if I can find a place with a few more hens, and a bigger space, wouldn’t it be selfish to keep him? We will see. There is no harm in looking… right?

It was a long day…

I cleaned out my coop today. What a production that was. I locked the chickens out of the coop at around 12pm with their container of water and feed. I scraped out every last pine shaving with a giant snow-shovel, swept the floors, and mixed a solution of half vinegar-half water. With that I took a little scrubbing brush and wiped down the roost. I also tried getting rid of the horrible blood stains splattering the walls, but I don’t think that stuff is coming off any time soon… It looks like I converted it into a slaughter house or something. Well, maybe its not quite that bad.

I proceeded to rinse off the vinegar solution, and spray every last nook and cranny with Manna Pro Poultry Protectant. To be honest, I have no clue if it actually works or not. Its hard to tell with the chicken blogs scattered across the internet because they are constantly advertising for their sponsors. So basically I fell for their trap and purchased some at the Tractor Supply. As I was spraying, the nozzle fell off, and the bottle part went careening towards the ground. The liquid sloshed everywhere, and I lost about half of it. Ugh.

I opened every single window and aired the coop out a bit. As it dried I dragged a pallet over to the driveway and began scrubbing a waterer with the vinegar solution. I’ve been meaning to sanitize it for months, since it was the waterer Mary used when she was ill. I put it inside their coop, sparkling, along with all of the shavings and feeders, etc…

All of this took from 12pm to sunset. As the sun sank below the trees in the distance, I sat back and watched my chickens interact. The chicken saddle is continuing to work wonderfully for Cora, so I made a mental note to order one for Mabel, whose back has scraggly bald patches. That’s when I saw the gash.

Just under Mabel’s wing was a big cut, dark in color, being concealed under what little feathers she had left. If this had happened earlier this year, I would have burst into tears while thumbing through my “raising chickens manual” thing. But after all I’ve been through, this didn’t seem quite that bad. Once again, I find myself remarkably unprepared. All I have for a chicken first aid kit is Neosporin, some syringes, Tylan 50, Duramycin 10, Blu-Kote, and eye dropper and some paper towels. Since my parents didn’t particularly want to host another chicken in the basement, I had to venture out to the coop at dusk to deal with it.

Now, if you don’t remember, Mabel really doesn’t like people. “Doesn’t like” is a total understatement. She ran away for three days because she doesn’t like people.

Wanted chicken

Mabel is a free-spirit, meant to be admired from afar. These traits are rather unfortunate in this particular situation. Under the cover of darkness I crept into the coop and quickly snatched the unsuspecting bird from her spot sandwiched in between Mary and Cora on the roost. She started squawking, and struggling, kicking and flapping, all at the same time. I held on for dear life, holding her football style with her head underneath my arm. Finally she gave up, her little heart beating rapidly. I lifted her wing, and saw a mostly scabbed over wound with some dirt on it.

I syringed some warm water over it, rubbing gently. Before I could smother it with Neosporin, however, Mabel escaped from my grasp and began to systematically beat herself against the walls and windows of the coop. She knocked over my water, scattered my paper towels, and clucked in a panic to Edith, who is throwing himself against the chicken wire in an effort to rescue his hen. He clucks angrily at me, Mabel wails at me, and I am covered in dirt, pine shavings, and water.

As she continues to struggle I ask, out loud,

“What are you even trying to accomplish?”

She glares at me, and I tackle her little self as gently as possible to the coop floor. Once I have her under control I quickly cover her in Neosporin and Blu-Kote, then drop her in the pine shavings below. She fluffs up her feathers with as much dignity as she could muster, and returns to her spot on the roost.

It was a long day for both of us.

Cleaning

I’ve been doing a lot of cleaning lately, something that is very rare in my life because I hate every second of it. But some cleaning is absolutely necessary, as I found out last weekend. For a week, whenever I entered the coop a strong smell made me want to gag. People will tell you that chickens are foul and dirty creatures, but this is simply not the truth. Sure, they poop a lot, but if they are well managed, the smell isn’t all that offensive. So when I walked into that gross, chemically smelling coop, I knew that it was in need of a good cleaning. But the weather lately has been far below freezing, so if I tried scrubbing it with water, it would freeze to the sides of the walls. Instead, I settled for a thorough dry cleaning.

I took a much needed trip to the Tractor Supply store, and filled the shopping cart with more layer pellets, a bale of pine shavings, a soft brush and a stiff-bristled brush, as well as a spray bottle that supposedly protects the chickens from poultry mites and lice (I thought I saw a poultry louse on Edith the other day). The next day happened to be unseasonably warm- a balmy 35 degrees, and out the door I went.

I started off by scooping out all the soiled shavings with a big snow shovel. It worked great! Then I got every last piece of shaving out with a broom and the stiff bristled brush. After this, I scraped off any remaining excrement with a mini flat rake. I took out the poultry parasite spray and used it according to the directions (I sprayed all surfaces, in the corners and cracks, nest boxes, etc…

While I waited for that to dry I refilled the food container and scrubbed down the waterer with warm water and the soft-bristled brush. By this time, the coop was pretty much dry (I had left all the windows and doors open), which allowed me to fill it with four to five inches of pine shavings. I am lucky enough to have a water heater, which I prop up on concrete blocks to prevent fires from the pine shavings. This also raises it above the pine shavings to prevent them from dirtying the water. Unfortunately, when I removed all the shavings, the wood was wet and the shavings underneath were caked to the wood. I wish I could keep the water outside in the run, but there is no way to thread the chord through the hardware cloth at the moment.

After this whole ordeal I let the chickens back in to their new, fresh smelling, home.