11.2.2014 The 2014 Chicken Dance

I admit it. I hit the wall in October. I was tired. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. I got behind in just about everything. I haven’t even consulted my meticulously planned calendar of “what to do when and where” in over three weeks. I couldn’t bear to see the hole I dug for myself. But somehow I got product to market each week. I’m still four flats of lettuce behind, but there’s room in the garden now. And there’ll be more in the morning. We are going to get our first real frost tonight and it’ll come in tandem with the first freeze of the season.

This year has really been mostly about the garden, but I continue to have critters in my care and a month ago, I bought 11 pullets from a fellow vendor at the market. She had gotten them from an Amish farmer. I think the pullets are Golden Comets (they look a lot like my Red Sex Links) and they were supposed to be 16 weeks old when I got them. I didn’t realize until I got them home that they had been beak trimmed. Some farmers cut the sharp tips from the end of the chicken beaks so the birds can’t hurt each other. Apparently there’s a developmental stage chickens go through where they can get cannibalistic when kept in close confinement.

The trimming can be done with dog nail clippers or a heated clipper that cauterizes the beak so that it never regrows. No matter how it’s done, I don’t approve. When I first got the birds home, they couldn’t eat out of a hanging feeder; I had to put their feed in a trough. Happily, they’ve learned how the hanging feeders work. They also didn’t know that lettuce, tomatoes and watermelons were for eating. But the other chickens have shown them how to forage all the garden treats I bring them.

And they were terrified of me, of everybody and everything, in their new home. I am happy to report that after a month, that’s changed too. They know the tractor is no big deal. The dog is no big deal. And they know people bring them yummy things to eat. They are underfoot anytime I go into the run or the coop, clamoring for treats. They are Apriori chickens now, and these beak impaired chickens will lead a pretty good life.

But with the predation problems I’ve had this year, there’s no pasture time anymore. That means all my chickens live in the coop and the attached fenced run. It’s designed for no more than 30 birds. So bringing in 11 new birds meant that the slackers had to go.

Last weekend, we butchered the remaining Speckled Sussex and the Silver Gray Dorkings. Neither breed ever performed well for me. The Sussex eggs were always on the small side and the Dorkings had a good egg laying run in early spring and then not much at all for the rest of the year. So now my flock is the new Golden Comets, plus the chicks from last fall – a good egg laying mix of Leghorn, Australorp, Cuckoo Marans, Ameracauna and Red Sex Links. I also kept the old gray Easter Egger from my original flock. She’s four years old, she doesn’t work much, but she does work and she’s in great health so she stays.

Sadly, I had to say goodbye to Thundermuffin and Momma Orpington. Both had fallen ill. Thundermuffin would have good days and bad days, but in the last week of his life, he was feverish and couldn’t support his own weight. He spent a lot of time sleeping in a nest box. Roosters only hang out in nest boxes when they don’t want to be bothered.

Momma Orpington filled up like a water balloon. I don’t know if she was egg bound or was suffering from massive organ failure. Her plumbing just wasn’t working.

Putting those two down was tough. I cried and stayed with them until they breathed their last. Then they made the short trip to the apple orchard where they were buried beneath two new trees.

Putting Hootie down – not so hard. Aggressive roosters have no place here and he was a mean one. Really mean.

So now I have no roosters and the farm is a much quieter place. I miss the crowing.

Back in August, my little Squatch went broody and I got 6 eggs from a fellow vendor at the market for her to set. (Apriori eggs aren’t fertile. Thundermuffin wasn’t reliably virile.) I moved her into the barn where she set her nest in the dog crate. One by one, she tossed eggs out of her nest, eventually keeping only two. Over Labor Day weekend, one of those hatched. She’s been a great mother to her little peeper. And that’s what we call it – Peeper. Except that Peeper is now two months old and is bigger than his mother. I had hoped Peeper would be a roo, but it’s looking like a pullet more every day.

After six weeks of mothering, Squatch started laying eggs again and the day we did the culling, Squatch and Peeper got relocated back to the coop. It was a little chaotic in the coop for about a week. No rooster. The beak challenged pullets mixing with the rest of the flock for the first time. Little Squatch and her Peeper trying to fit in. But things have settled down now. I’m not sure who’s in charge down there now, probably one of the DLF’s – they are bossy things.

So after all that, I am finally going into a winter with no welfare chickens. The pullets I purchased a month ago started laying this week. All of the older birds, save one or two, are done molting. So theoretically, I have 24 laying hens and Peeper. One decent rooster would be nice. But we’ll do without for a while. The best part? Chickens aren’t a major loss center this year. Actually running a small profit. Only took me four years to figure out how to do it.

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