The Roving Rototiller

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March and that lion

Spring, yes, spring is here.  You know the old saying about how March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb?  In this part of the country, March never seems to get past the thrill of being a lion.  It prowls across the valley on giant puffy stormcloud paws, roars its rain against the roofs, bats houses and trees playfully with sixty-mile-an-hour gusts of wind.  The only lambs around here are the ones shivering underneath their mothers' bellies, wishing they'd been born in April, which is a much nicer month all around.

Of course, we really, really do need the rain.  I may grump about it--leaning against the window, peering out through the descending gray curtains, bitterly regretting that leak in my right barn boot--but we honestly need it and it is a blessing.  I just wish, sometimes, that it wouldn't choose to bless us all at once.

We're on clay out here; good, thick, water-resistant stuff with a heavy leavening of iron oxides that gives it the staining power of raspberry jam.  Although the ground gets pretty thirsty during the long dry heat of summer, and sucks up the winter rains like a Labrador retriever after a day on the trail, by March it's full up.  During the last storm I looked out across the pasture, which is largely a natural drainage basin surrounded by higher ground, and observed water flowing out of the shallow hillside and forming a lazy, wandering stream across the lot.  There must be some fairly extensive, tightly-packed layers of clay buried in that hillside.  When digging the garden, we've encountered some deposits dense and fine enough to make a rustic potter dance with delight, but it sure can turn a shovel blade.

There are cows on that pasture, although they aren't our cows; the landlord and the rancher down the road came to an agreement last spring, and the result has been Natural Weed Control, Large Scale.  We really did have a pretty serious weed issue before, with nearly nine acres of unused pasture rife with buried treasure:  old real estate signs, fence posts, sections of log, rusty metal hardware, and in the center of the largest field, a gigantic glorious snarl-up of several hundred feet of four-strand, heavy-wire-and-carbon-fiber-post fencing that must have served some purpose in the distant past before it all fell down and the weeds grew over it.  All I know is, it sure tore the stuffing out of the disker that the landlord hired to turn the weeds under two summers ago, and it would have been a grade-A leg-breaker for the cattle if we hadn't clued the ranch hands to its hidden presence.  It was so buried and overgrown that human hands couldn't budge it; the men finally wrenched it free with a tractor.  Currently there are about thirty cows and one bull roving around out there; they appear to be a mixture of Herefords and longhorn crosses.  The calf count is up to twenty, I think.  It could be higher; they're pretty squirrely.

But oh, that mud.  The top end of the pasture looks like it's been used for a bombing range.  The mud up there is at least eighteen inches deep.  Cows, of course, will churn up the ground; they really can't help it.  When the ground is saturated and there are pockets of slippery clay everywhere, several hundred pounds of animal stilting over it on four narrow sharp hooves has an effect rather like a lawn aerator.  Each hoof is placed with extreme care, particularly where the ground slopes, and as the weight goes onto it it sinks well out of sight.  Then, when the cow wants her hoof back, the mud doesn't want to let it go, clinging and resisting until the cow, with an aggravated snort, yanks her foot free.  Schhlorppp.  And again, and again, and again.  These girls are going to have amazing leg muscles by summer.

The calves are another story.  They skitter right over the top of it, using momentum and their lighter weight to full advantage.  Lucky little devils.

The mud of the chicken yard is a lesser creature, although still worthy of respect.  Chickens can do a real number on the ground too, with their enthusiastic scratching and trampling.  Once they have destroyed the turf, the water just pools wherever there's a shallow depression, and those pockets can slurp a boot right off your foot if you're not careful.  I've actually had less trouble with that this winter, since having a hole in one boot means detouring around anything that looks puddlish or squelchy.  But it's slick as ice out there; one foot placed wrong and there's some serious laundry to do. 

Currently we are enjoying a warming spell, which has me throwing windows open everywhere.  The barn is getting a much-needed airing, and the pockets of damp that form on the dirt floor--oh, such a bad idea, a dirt-floored barn on a slope, but you use what you have--are reluctantly firming and drying.  In another few days I'll need to check the birds' feet for the little earthen balls that tend to glue themselves to their claws as they scratch in the drying clay.  In the meantime, we'll enjoy this sign of local spring:  a brief respite from the tyranny of the mud.  I expect there will be a few more storms as we get into April, but the cycle has turned at last.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Those darn boys

One of the biggest problems with keeping chickens is dealing with the roosters.  Of course you can have a flock of hens that lay faithfully without ever seeing a rooster.  Chickens have been selectively bred for centuries, and one of the traits that has been universally encouraged is the hen's propensity to lay eggs whether or not she has a rooster.  The eggs aren't fertile without a rooster, of course, but tell that to the hen.  For that matter, if she's not genetically inclined to broodiness, she will not give a solitary darn about fertility of the eggs she works so hard to produce. 

The trouble is, it's so easy to end up with a rooster.  Although there are a few breeds of chicken that have color-coded chicks, making it easy to ensure that you are buying only the gender you want, most of them aren't nearly so accomodating.  To help their customers out, many hatcheries offer chicks that have been inspected and sexed.  These judgements are accurate between 90 and 95% of the time . . . and believe me, that five to ten percent rate of "oopsy" will crop up.  Some hatcheries also will throw in a free chick or two, and even though they may be pulled from the box of unsexed chicks, darn if they don't tend to be roosters.  There's also the phenomenon of the itinerant rooster who one day hops over your fence and makes himself at home in your flock.  Often he is wily, refusing to perch with the others at night and bolting from the yard the minute he sees a net.  In short, roosters happen.

Our first roosters were, in a word, legion.  When starting out with chickens, we placed an order with a well-known hatchery.  To meet the minimum order size of 25 chicks--the hatchery's way of guarding against the chicks getting chilled while in transit--we split the order with a co-worker.  The hatchery then made a kind-hearted effort to maximize customer service.  To keep the two groups of chicks distinct, they shipped them in a two-chambered box and "filled in the gaps" on each side with carefully-marked Red Star rooster chicks.  Instead of twenty-five chicks, we received fifty.  That was one noisy box, let me tell you, and a very lively one with one hundred little four-toed feet stampeding around in there.  The local USPS sorting center phoned us at half-past midnight when it reached them; the man was laughing so hard he could barely articulate.

It was a gesture of great generosity by the hatchery, but when those little Red Stars started growing by leaps and bounds, we quickly learned that roosters are not all sweetness and light.  Even when immature, chickens compete with one another for dominance in many unkind ways:  pecks, shoving, sneak attacks, and sparring.  Roosters take all of these behaviors and amp them up by a factor of two to ten; the losers may then go and take it out on lower-ranking birds, including the hens.  In two brief months, we had a serious problem on our hands, one that was ultimately solved by first separating the Red Stars into another pen, and then giving them away to a neighbor who promised to be quiet about turning them into chicken dinners.

But we still had too many roosters:  five, to be exact.  Only one of these was due to an error on the part of the sexing inspector.  One, an Andalusian, was a bird we had ordered.  The second Andalusian and the Easter Egger were "bonus chicks."  The last was the lone Red Star that had had too decent a personality to send off with the rest.  After putting word out among the local chicken fanciers, we found homes for three of them.  At this point I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that the matter was settled.  The remaining pair--Blue the splash Andalusian and Conrad ("The Terrible") Sussex--seemed to have reached an agreement that they would share the twenty-three hens between them.  We decided that we rather liked having roosters around.  They keep order within the flock, they guard the hens, and they are very pretty to look at.  And the recommended rooster-to-hen ratio is one rooster per ten or eleven hens.  We had the perfect balance.

But on Valentine's Day we went out to discover both birds dyed in holiday scarlet, rolling across the sand in a tangle of angry feathers.  The sad truth was, even having an abundance of hens wasn't good enough to smooth things over between these two.  Since then, I have observed that situations like this one seem to depend largely upon personality.  Some roosters are more territorial than others.  When neither rooster is willing to back down, you get an ugly fight.  But if one bird eventually turns tail, then it's all down to the winner.  If he's smart, he'll let the matter go, and permit the loser to remain within the flock.  In my flock, if the winner decides he wants to kill his opponent, he will be summarily removed from the gene pool, one way or another. 

I dealt with the matter that day by separating the two permanently.  Blue went on to become the flock patriarch, and when we lost him to dogs I incubated a set of eggs and ended up with four daughters and two sons of his.  The sons are Jake and Elwood, both sporting the blue coloration and handsome carriage of the Andalusian breed.  Unfortunately they hate each other with a fine old passion and had to be separated, creating a need for yet another pen. 

You would think that I would have learned my lesson, but no.  The following summer I took a wild hair and bought a wide variety of chicks from the local feed store.  Some of these were of famously broody breeds, like Mahogany, who I mentioned in the last post.  That led to home-grown chicks the following year, and naturally chicks always come in either male or female.  I re-homed most of the resulting roosters, but somehow there always seemed to be one or two extras that I really didn't want to get rid of.  Maybe they were prettier than the rest, or had good personalities, or sported some other trait that I liked.  But sooner or later it would come down to a decision:  either get rid of the extras, or build another pen.

So how's that working out?  Umm . . . yeah.  Currently we have eight extra pens, each with its own rooster, plus the main flock.  Of the pens, two house bantams, one contains Polish and other crested breeds, three contain "interesting mix" birds, and one is for Quercus the Eternally Confused.   Jake reigns supreme over a small flock in the south pasture, definitely the plushest accomodations in the place.  And poor old Elwood is living in the nursery, having recently been ousted from the alpha spot in the main flock by a younger rooster.  In his place I installed his son Baron, who has been patiently awaiting this day for some time.  He rules the flock with an iron claw but tolerates the presence of the two junior roosters.  That's . . . let me see . . . one dozen roosters.  Plus Hoppy, in his wheelchair.

And no, roosters don't crow only at sunrise.  I sure hope our neighbors continue to be good-natured about all this.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It must be spring . . . .

Chickens can't read calendars, but their internal clocks are pretty darned good.  Two nights ago I discovered Mahogany lurking in one of the second-tier nest boxes. 

Mahogany is a bantam Partridge Cochin just coming up on her third birthday this summer.  She is one of our smallest hens, and our most fervent brooder.  Experience has proven that Mahogany will not, in fact, give up on brooding once that little timer in her head has gone "Ding!"  Every March I find myself facing her down in a nest box atop a pile of adopted eggs, her orange eyes glaring and russet feathers a-poof.  And she doesn't believe in waiting until the weather warms up; she goes broody early and beats the rush.

Two years ago she went broody for the first time, in early March.  We were having a bitterly cold spring, and I fought with her for nearly six weeks.  Every night I would take her eggs, and the next night she would be back, glowering, beak set with determination.  I lectured her on the subject of inappropriate climates for raising chicks.  I pleaded with her to just wait another month, maybe two.  I pointed out that the flock was plenty big enough already, and we frankly didn't need new chicks.  The barn lacked a broody chamber.  And so on. 

Mahogany wasn't having any of it.  She tried changing boxes several times, which let her in for some serious grief when a bigger hen decided she wanted the box Mahogany was in.  She tried using the little box off to the side that only one other hen ever wanted.  Although she preferred to adopt the biggest clutch she could find, she did make a brief try at boxes that only contained two or three eggs, but when that didn't work she went back to the big clutches.  She eventually tried defending her nest from me, but she's a very gentle soul and her heart clearly wasn't in it.  At last came the night that I reached in to take her eggs, and Mahogany made no move to protect them, only uttered a heartbroken little clucking cry. 

It shattered me.  All of my resolve fell away like a sand castle under a big wave.  I let her keep her eggs that night, marking them with a pencil in case she accumulated more from the other hens.  And that weekend we built the nursery, a 5'X3' fully-enclosed chamber in the most sheltered corner of the barn.

Mahogany raised up three beautiful chicks that season, and was as happy as a clam.  The next spring I moved her into the nursery after only five nights of argument, whereupon she sat her clutch of three and adopted three other eggs "orphaned" by a hen who started setting, then abandoned her clutch.  In the fullness of time she presented us with a merry mixed bunch of chicks:  one Belgian Bearded, one bantam Cochin, Ag, and his golden-laced sister Aurie.  Once again, she was the most contented bird in the flock.  Other broody hens get anxious, or irritable (the Beardies in particular will take your hand off); Mahogany gets super mellow.  She's a dedicated mother, and I have to say that her chicks tend to have good personalities, however much "nature versus nurture" applies to chickens.

So, two nights ago, and there was Mahogany in her box--same one she chose last year.  When approached, she put up her hackles and uttered a peremptory "Keeeerrk!", then shuffled herself even lower in the box.  I put my hand underneath her and found that she had settled onto two eggs and the egg-shaped rock that has served us so well in the past as a decoy.  I sighed . . . and shrugged, and moved her and her rock into the nursery.  I know when I'm beaten.

Last night I gave her a quartet of "test" eggs:  I've been saving eggs from one hen in particular in case someone went broody, and these eggs were a little too old (at 10-16 days) to be viable.  So far she has been sitting tight, and soon I'll be giving her a clutch "for real."  And Mahogany will, once again, be doing what she loves.