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!)

 

Uncertainty

Spring showed itself today in the form of a warm, breezy afternoon. With the new season, comes the longing for chicks. I keep stealing glances at the Tractor Supply, and searching baby chick pictures on Google. Its an addiction. No, really- there is something called “chicken math” which is basically a giant excuse chicken owners use to get more chickens. For instance, if I had 20 chickens, but three of them were roosters and five were no longer laying eggs I would reason that instead of 20 chickens, I had 12, because roosters and old hens don’t count. So really, I need 8 more hens.

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I find that this way of thinking is extremely tempting as pictures of fuzzy chicks fill the screen. And I think. What kinds would I get? If I could of course… I go onto hatchery websites and fill up my online “cart” with different breeds, pretending that I am chick shopping. Then comes the scheming… If I just got three more, and expanded the coop slightly then I could…

You get the point. You also probably think I’m crazy.

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But something besides chicks eats at the back of my mind. Mr. Edith has been mating with all three hens for the past few weeks. As you know, he is a large beast. I observed (its not as creepy as it sounds) him mating with Mary, who is quite a big hen, and he completely pinned her to the ground. A gust of air seemed to whoosh out of her, followed by horrified squawking. Mabel, a very small girl, has a bare patch on her back, exposed to the air. So does Cora. And his spurs are developing right before my eyes.

Edith is becoming a real rooster. Not the cuddly buddy he was earlier this year, though he still lets me pick him up and pet him. And he is doing some damage to my hens. Or, his hens, rather. I know he would die for them, he is gentle with humans, and even does the mating dance for Cora. But I also know that he would be better off with more hens to mate with- more than three.

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With these thoughts in mind, I feel immediately guilty. How am I supposed to tell if this is just greedy me trying to make room for more chickens, if this is cruel me getting rid of an animal for doing its purpose, or if this is practical me looking out for the safety of my hens. My mind is certainly troubled. The very last thing I want is for him to end up being processed and butchered. He is such a fantastic animal! And he is so very good to me and his girls. Mr. Edith has even grown on my parents, and his crowing is music that soothes my soul. Any advice from my fellow chicken owners?

Once again, I am at a loss on what to do.

On the bright side- I’m now getting three eggs a day! Mary, the new egg layer, produces a gorgeous light brown-shelled egg

 

Gender roles, cannibalism and a new egg

This morning I woke up with my eyes watering and feeling completely congested. Outside it was -10 degrees Fahrenheit, and I decided that today was not a good day for dealing with high school. So here I lie on the couch, my nose causing many tissues to be used, hoping that this nasty sickness will go away as  soon as possible. In my boredom I picked up a Gardener’s Supply Company catalog and flipped through the glossy pages of seedlings and perfect tomato plants. A utopia of successful gardens.

I looked outside at the large amount of snow and groaned at the groundhog’s poor choice to extend winter.

 

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As I looked through the catalog, I couldn’t help but recall the lesson we learned in Sociology class a few weeks ago about gender roles in the media. Every single picture in the catalog involving actual gardening depicted a middle aged woman smiling joyfully during the summer afternoon (at times hand in hand with a child). All of the pictures of men either involved building the garden beds, or washing cars… interesting.

As you well know if you’ve been keeping up with the blog, I’ve been having a rough time with the chickens. Today is no exception. For the past week I’ve noticed the hens pecking at Edith’s comb. Blood is splattered all over the coop walls from him shaking his head, and one night I saw it was dripping down his neck feathers. Yes, thats right, my chickens are now cannibals.

So, how to stop this behavior? Well I discovered that the bag balm I’ve been smothering on Edith every night to prevent frostbite has been hindering the affect of the Blu-Kote (the blue stain/antifungal formula that is used to prevent pecking). The Blu-Kote was just coming off, and the hens then saw the blood underneath and continued pecking. Because I had a night above freezing, I didn’t apply bag balm. Instead, I carefully dabbed the comb with Blu-Kote, and let it sit over night. Since then it has stayed on- problem solved. For now.

I feel bad for them, because all they have to do during the day is walk around a small dirt run. To enhance their time I’ve been scattering their food on the ground so they have to hunt for it. I’ve also dropped a few leaves of kale every once in a while, as well as cracked corn (chicken scratch) to keep them warm. Of course, I have to go easy on the treats, because fat chickens have multiple health issues.

Another recent issue is the reappearance of excrement on Cora’s vent feathers. I have to get to the bottom of this issue (no pun intended), and figure out why the feces keep building up in her feathers. Its quite a hassle to remove the mess, as it involves warm water, gross hands, and a chicken in the basement.

Finally, I have one more announcement. Two days ago, I strolled into the coop and opened the nest box looking for Cora’s usual brown egg… and found…

THIS

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MABEL LAID AN EGG! And its white!!

Scatter Brained

Scatter brained is the only phrase that can describe me right now. With the start of school, everything has been busy, busy, busy. I get up at 6:00 AM, take care of my chickens, get dressed, eat half of a half of a bagel (I’m never hungry in the morning), jump in the car with my neighbor, drive to school, and show up slightly disheveled and unenthusiastic. Everyone in the whole school congregates in the cafeteria, then the bell shrieks and we trudge to our assigned homerooms. We chatter sullenly about how done we are with school, and did you get that math homework last night? No? Good, me neither.

The bell shrieks again, and we are off to the first of our many classes. My days are ruled by ringing bells and swarming hallways. When I get home, I sit down on the table, and do homework till 7:00 at night. Than I eat. Than I continue doing homework until 10:00, 10:30, or 11:00.

Then repeat.

Posting on my blog is a little guilty angel on the back of my shoulder, reminding me of shirked responsibilities. So I apologize for my recent absence! My blog isn’t the only thing I haven’t been able to pay attention to. I haven’t visited my garden in two weeks, I only see my chickens twice a day. I’m not a fan of this schedule. Today I decided I had enough with homework and spent the day with my chickens, making up for lost time. I free ranged them for a little, fed them a little chicken scratch, and just enjoyed the activity. I’m expecting an egg from Mary in the next few weeks!!! Very exciting! I also noticed Edith doing the mating dance for Mary (lowering one wing and strutting around in a circle), and this morning he attempted to actually mate. Mary was not pleased, as anyone could tell from the squawking and flying feathers. She escaped his attentions, but that didn’t stop me from feeling terrible for her.

Well, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my homeworkless night. I’ll keep you updated on the Egg Watch. I promise I won’t forget about you!

Here are some pictures of what I’ve been up to