One Month Too Long

I haven’t hugged a chicken in more than a month.

So much has happened since my last blog post, I have no idea where to start! I trudged through college applications and standardized tests, spent days running back and forth to the mailbox looking for college acceptance (or rejection) letters, and experienced the subsequent joy– and disappointment– upon ripping open said envelopes while standing at the foot of my driveway. I turned 18 in a different country, chose my college on the day of the decision deadline, graduated from high school, interned at a sheep farm, and spent a summer in a strange purgatory of dread and excitement awaiting my first semester of college.

Which brings me here, perched on my Twin XL bed, thinking of my chickens and scrolling through old blog posts.

So many of the unknowns that I was dreading have been solved– I know my roommate, my suite mates, where my classes are, and how to avoid being demolished by skateboarding ruffians. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult transitioning from a school of 500 students to a university twenty times that size. But the more I become accustomed to life here, the more excited I get for my future.

A small farm-camp that I attended in fifth grade began this farm obsession– this desire, and need, to be a part of the farming community in some way. It got me hooked on the local food movement, and gardening, and– most importantly– chicken-keeping. Through my chickens I’ve learned about the responsibilities of animal husbandry. Their injuries and illnesses over the years introduced me to the world of veterinary medicine, and the joy of solving the puzzle to heal the animal.

These past few weeks have been about attempting to solve my own puzzle. What got me started on this passion, that ultimately shaped my college choice? And how do I want to incorporate it into my career?

To be more specific, I’m trying to decide between two pathways to my passion for farming. Ironically, neither of them are to become a farmer!

I am currently on an Animal Science track, with a pre-veterinary concentration. For a long time now I have thought seriously about pursuing large animal veterinary medicine. In theory, it sounds perfect– I’ll get to work within a farming community, traveling to various establishments healing animals and helping farmers raise their creatures responsibly and sustainably. A modern James Herriot, you might say.

But my gaze keeps wandering over to Food Systems, which incorporates several disciplines to study the problems of– and solutions to– the way food is farmed and distributed to society. Within the major there are various concentrations– from animal science, to food insecurity and injustice, to policy. It would allow me to study a little bit of everything that I love. I’d be able to work with farmers to help steer our food system away from industrial agriculture, and towards finding a way to grow food sustainably (and making sure everyone has access to it). In many ways this major is a direct application of all my passions. But I have no clue what I’d do with it.

Animal Science and the Pre-Vet track is neatly laid out for me. I’ll struggle through heavily science-based curriculum, apply to vet school, and– if I get in– get my doctorate in veterinary medicine, with a clear career upon graduation. Food Systems seems more murky, and less practical.

And so these things go back and forth in my head all day. I listen to my parents assure me that it’s only the first semester of freshman year, but I’m a planner. I like to know where I’m going, and what I’m working towards.

Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll know what I’m meant to be studying until I’m shoulder deep in a cow stomach (next week’s lab topic).

 

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Every Night is Spa Night

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone ❤

I have once again emerged from my hibernation! As I write this I am perched on my couch as close as possible to the pellet stove. I keep stealing resentful glances at Far From the Madding Crowd, a copy of which is next to my elbow, daring me to read another chapter. Per usual, I waited until the very last minute to read it- and now it mocks me with its yellowed pages and old-book-smell.

I thought I should give you an update about life here on the micro-farm, since I haven’t written in far too long. Nearing the end of August I read an article online about dealing with bumblefoot in chickens. For my non-chicken-keeping peeps, bumblefoot is an infection below the skin on a chicken’s foot. It is marked by lots of hot swelling and a dark, circular scab. I dread it so because, left unattended, it could cause sepsis (as with any infection left untended), but to fix it you have to surgically remove the scab and the “kernel” of infection deep in the pad of the foot. Look it up on Google images if you want to be thoroughly disturbed. I tend to avoid this type of article, since it makes me feel guilty and neglectful when it recommends giving daily foot checks to prevent the infection from occurring- which I have never done. Before you make a tsk-tsk noise, it’s hard to catch a chicken that would rather not be caught. It involves lots of running in a bent over position, lots of feathers, lots of screeching, and lots of stress. Then, once one has the chicken, I had no idea how to go about looking at its feet. It is no small matter to turn a struggling chicken upside down.

But this particular night I felt inspired by that insidious anxiety that only comes with the realization of neglect. I snatched Mabel off of the roost after dark, and flipped her over before she could squeak out a squawk. My headlight shined onto the bottom of her foot and- sure enough- a circular black scab adorned the center of her footpad. Numbly I replaced her on the roost, and returned inside to strategize.

Step one was to calm myself down- she clearly had lived with this infection for quite a while and was unlikely to drop dead in the middle of the night. But what I found on the internet was not promising. Every solution pointed to cutting into her little foot to remove the scab and pus (gross, I’m sorry if you just ate. Maybe don’t look it up on Google Images after all)- needless to say, I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of having an upside-down and bloody chicken in my sink with her foot cut open and lacking anesthesia. Nope.

In the morning, I called and made an appointment with my chicken vet for the last day of summer (what a way to end vacation!). When the day came I wrangled poor Mabel into Boris’s old dog crate, put her in the trunk of my car, and drove us to the clinic myself (an interesting experience, considering I’m not the most confident person behind the wheel). But with help of Mabel’s occasional squawk we were able to make our way there and back without gliding into a ditch or into an unfortunate tree.

I entered the office with some trepidation, worried that my bank account would be swiped clean with an expensive foot surgery. Instead, however, The Chicken Doctor told me to change my roost. Apparently the little 2×4 we had them on was giving her a pressure-sore that wouldn’t get better unless we gave her a roost with more surface variability. He also said to check my other hens, guaranteeing that they, too, would have the infection. Then he gave me a tube of foot cream (for the hen, not me). My instructions: rub this into her feet every night for eight weeks.

I’m pretty sure my widened eyes clearly expressed my thoughts, which generally consisted of: Whaaaaaaattttt???? And then: How?????

And so, my friends, every night I picked each hen off of their new roost (because you know all three of them had it) and gave them a nice foot massage. For the first six weeks, it seemed like nothing was happening- but then, one night, I picked up Mabel and Mary and their scabs were no where to be seen. I’m still working on Cora, though.

The lesson you should take away from this, chicken-keeping friends, is that picking up your hen for weekly foot checks might be a hassle- but it’s certainly less of a hassle than giving them a foot massage every night for two months. And if you do have hens that suffer from bumblefoot, and aren’t comfortable with cutting into their feet, I will happily share with you the name of the foot cream my vet sold me (because it actually works!)

 

A Step in the Right Direction

Okay, so where did I leave off? Oh yes, the part where I talked about shoving pills down my chicken’s throat. As daunting as it sounds, it actually wasn’t that terrifying. Probably because my mother did most of the work for me…

Here is how it went down. Every morning and night I brought Mary out of her cage in the basement and wrapped her in a towel. She hated having her feet wrapped up, so I let her just stand on my legs. After we gave her the eye and nose drops, my mother grabbed her head with one hand and pried open her beak with her fingers. Then with the other hand she placed the pill in the back of her throat and withdrew while I massaged her neck. We split the pill in two pieces and gave it to her one half at a time. She certainly didn’t like it, but cooperated nicely enough.

And it seemed to be worth it, because Mary’s symptoms have stopped completely! Saturday night I returned her to her flock mates, and hoped that her body would readjust to the below freezing temperatures without a hitch. As far as I can tell, it did! Photo Jan 11, 9 41 57 AM

But of course, what would any event in my chicken keeping life be, without a catch? Sunday morning I noticed that Mr. Edith has quite the frostbite damage on his comb. Poor guy! The tips of his comb and wattles are a black color, and the back end of his comb is pale. A sure sign of frost bite. So what now? Well last night I applied Vaseline to his comb and wattles, which is supposed to insulate it from the cold. I have to admit, it was an extremely odd experience. He just sat there, looking at me while I put petroleum jelly on his head. Now, I wait and see what happens. I’ll watch for signs of infection, and wait for the tissue to heal itself.

This has been a really rough winter. These past events have really made me question myself. What exactly have I done wrong? What do I need to do better? I’ve already started to clean their coop more often, I make sure their water isn’t dirty in the mornings, I opened more windows… What exactly am I doing wrong, that other people are doing right? I know plenty of people that raise chickens, that don’t have the large amount of problems that I do.

Part of me feels guilty, like I’ve done something horrible. All I can think of is… what bad thing will happen next? The simple joy of being with my chickens, of loving them, seems to be over with the season change.

I can’t wait for spring.

To the Vet

Happy New Year everyone! Yesterday, Mary and I celebrated by taking a car trip to the vet. I filled a big cardboard box with pine shavings, jabbed many holes into the sides for ventilation and breathing, and plopped a very displeased chicken into the bedding. I shut the top and gently put her securely in the back seat, with me sitting next to her and my father in the driver’s seat. I brought along a bag containing…

  • A journal of Mary’s observed symptoms for the past week
  • The bag of Duramycin 10
  • The Tylan 50
  • Chicken scratch and mealworms
  • Chicken feed
  • A towel (to keep everyone’s wings where they were supposed to be)

We received a few curious glances as we carried the big, hole-punched card board box into the tiny office, but were directed quickly to the examination room. The technician/ assistant gently placed Mary on a towel and pet her while the vet introduced himself, and took a closer look at the annoyed, fluffy, and sneezing chicken on the table. He placed his stethoscope under her wings to listen for rattling (which he didn’t hear), looked at her eyes and nose with a flash light, and even shoved a swab down her throat (though I have no earthly idea how he got it down there). After examining the throat swab results, he determined that the bacteria wasn’t there in horribly large amounts, which could be due to the Duramycin 10 I’ve been medicating her with.

He explained that this could be bacterial and require antibiotics, or it could be viral and run its course. There could just be something stuck up her nose that will break down over time and stop her sneezing and watery eyes. He decided to give me antibiotics to administer with an eye-dropper. He showed me how to grab her head and tilt it just so to angle a drop of the medicine in each eye and nostril. Yikes, she was not a fan. She struggles and shakes her head and whimpers, and it is extremely stressful, but I’m sure its a bit less stressful than giving medicine orally with a syringe.

Something terrifying did happen, however. When he plopped the antibiotics into her nose, one after the other, she didn’t have time to clear her air-ways. So I watched as she squeezed her eyes tightly, with her mouth gaping wide open, and saw her stiffly tilt forwards, as if she was dying right before my eyes. But she quickly recovered, shook her head and moved on.

I also got a probiotic powder to put in her water to replace all the beneficial bacteria that the antibiotic was killing.

Every morning and night for five(ish) days I’ll have to give her the antibiotic, and put her through the traumatizing event. I just hope it works!!

Mary

Mary… long before her trouble-making started