As you can tell from our long hiatus from blog posting, the growing season has officially begun! Everything that has happened to us in the past month is worthy of about 20 blog posts, but I recognize that we will never get around to writing them all so I have decided to sum things up as best I can.
Last time we posted, the yurt had been raised (with lots of help from friends and family- Thank you all!) and we were getting ready to move onto phase three of our living quarters this year. We waited to transfer our stuff into the yurt until after a rainstorm so we could make sure that it was watertight. Rain came. The yurt stayed dry! Amazing! This is unfortunately not the end of the story. As the rain continued (and continued and continued) a few drips appeared here and there. Nothing a few strategically placed buckets couldn't handle. Then, one day the drips increased to the point that we decided to at least move our bed out of there and back to the cabin. When I went back to check the yurt later that day the entire floor was flooded.
Rising to the challenge, we decided that our best option for waterproofing would be to cover the whole thing with plastic, which we did with lots of help from the Mazzeis. Here is a picture of our new,improved yurt. In some ways the ropes actually make it look a little bit more authentic. Go figure.
The story ends happily with us back in the yurt and no more floods (keep your fingers crossed for us please). Phew.
You know how in my first post about chickens I mentioned that none of our chicks had died yet? Well, they continued that way until they were nice and big and just about ready to eat. Then, one morning Jean-Paul was greeted at morning chores by one chicken that was lying down, unable to get up but still alive. We brought the sick chicken inside to get warm, tried to get some food and water down its throat and kept an eye on it. A few days later the chicken was no worse, but had not shown any improvement so we put it down, thinking that if it was sick it would be better to kill it before it spread anything.
We then kept watching our other chickens carefully and started adding some apple cider vinegar to their water. Some people say that this helps to prevent coccidiosis, a parasite that chickens sometimes get and may have been the reason for our sick chick. Everybody seemed ok until a couple of weeks later when Jean-Paul again had an unpleasant surprise in the form of a dead chicken. At this point, I called our local Extension Agent and she suggested that we could take the dead chicken to the necropsy lab at UMaine to find out what was wrong. As Lincoln said, it's kind of like CSI, but for chickens.
To our relief, the lab results showed no horrible contagious diseases or parasite, but rather that our chicken had pnuemonia caused by a "crop problem". The crop is located at the base of the esophagus and is essentially a little food storage tank. When food is available, the chickens can eat a bunch all at once, but then store it in the crop to be digested over a longer period of time. Apparently our bird had a blockage of grain in the crop which then somehow caused it to get pnuemonia. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot that can be done to prevent this problem. Just cross our fingers and hope the other birds have better digestive systems.
Onto the sheep. They are wonderful and cute and I love them (and yes, despite all of that I am still going to eat them). I mean, they are definitely not the perfect children or anything: they sometimes try to push through the fence, get tangled up, and then escape and go leaping off across the field; and thus far they don't have a shelter because they have pretty much destroyed the two shelters that we have tried to put in there by jumping on top of them (it's tricky to make a shelter that is light enough to move twice a day, but sturdy enough to withstand sheep playtime). Despite their foibles they are fun to have around because they are helping to mow and fertilize the hay field, and they are just adorable.
The one with the most outstanding personality looks a little bit like an Ewok so we named him Wicket. Sticking with this Star Wars convention, the others are Jaba, Chewbacca, and Storm Troopers number 1 and 2 (we can't tell those two apart yet). Can you guess who's who?
For a while there we thought that all of our hard work was either going to be devoured by slugs, drowned in 6 inches of rain, stifled by sod, or just remain stunted for lack of nutrients in our soil. However, just in the last week or so things started looking up. While Morgan, Cole, Parker and I were weeding the brassicas yesterday I even found some tiny heads of broccoli forming!!!
All in all, it's been a pretty exhausting month. I'm not gonna lie: I've cried a lot and sometimes it is hard not to want to just give up. This is when it is really good to have a partner in crime: when I am ready to throw in the towel, JP is there with hugs and reassurance, and when he is overcome by pessimism I bring on the optimism and am ready to figure out how to get through our most recent crisis. But it is definitely hard sometimes. I think this is the appropriate time to say: c'est la vie, right?
HEY! We have made it through half of the year though! Amazing to think about really. That means there is time to double the adventures that we have had so far this year. Hmmmm....Should I be happy about that? I think so. We've learned so much already and though I am sure there will be more challenges to come, perhaps the second half of the year's adventures will be a little less traumatic and a little more fun.
Happy Summer Everyone!
So much has happened in the last couple of weeks that we are going to need to write four or five blog posts in order to catch you all up, but perhaps the most exciting event was the arrival of our first batch of chicks!!! Back in March (or perhaps it was February?) I ordered chicks from Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Reinholds, Pennsylvania. Most of the meat birds raised these days are Cornish Crosses which have been bred for intense meat production (especially on the breast) at the expense of hardiness and foraging ability (because why would they need to forage if we are only feeding them grain?). So although large breasted meaty birds have a certain appeal, we decided to go with Freedom Rangers. Our chickens are supposed to be great pasture birds and have a wonderful flavor that makes it worth the extra few weeks they take to grow. We will certainly report on whether or not that is the case.
Raising chicks presents a few challenges when one does not have electricity. First of all, chicks are supposed to have access to 90 degree temperatures during the first few days of their lives. Usually, a brooder (the first home for the chicks) will include a heat lamp which solves that problem. With no electricity a heat lamp was not an option so we decided to use buckets and jars of hot water both underneath and inside the brooder. You can see in the picture below that the brooder is on legs so that there is space underneath for the buckets and some insulation to attempt to keep heat in
I can report after about a week that the hot water method does seem to be working, but the first couple of days were pretty rough. At first, we only had buckets underneath the brooder and the temperature just didn't seem to be rising high enough. We got the woodstove really cranking, attempting to warm up the second floor (which is where the chickens are because that is where the most light and space is). Unfortunately, the heat doesn't want to rise in our house (no vents to let the air move around) so in order to get it hot upstairs it had to feel like a sauna downstairs. It was ridiculous. I can't think of a time that I have ever been so sweaty in April. We actually decided to pick up our bed (just a foam mattress) and move it into the back of the van because it is way to hot in the house to sleep. The things we do for love, right?
Anyway, we finally filled a couple of jars with hot water and put them right in the brooder with the chicks. This immediately raised the temperature and provided them with a choice of temperatures (closer to the water=hot, farther away=cold) which is ideal. We did have to get up multiple times the first couple of nights to make sure the water was staying hot and the fire was going in the stove, but as their temperature requirement decreases so does the need for nightly check-ins. Phew.
Ok, enough business. I know you all just want to see pictures of chicks so here you go!
On Friday, April 13th I got two exciting phone calls: one from the post office telling me that they had a box of chicks for me to come pick up, and one from my best friend Elly who had given birth to a beautiful baby girl the day before! I was somewhat overwhelmed (in the best way possible) as you can see from the silly grin on my face in the picture above (the only part of my face you can see which in some way is appropriate to how I was feeling).
When I walked into the post office the windows weren't open yet, but I could hear our chickens chirping like crazy on the other side of the wall. The woman who brought them out to me seemed very relieved to be rid of them. They were quite loud. Interestingly, she also commented on how great it was that they were all alive and said that a local business had been ordering a bunch of chickens lately and they were all arriving dead. The first indication that we made a good choice in our breed and source of chicks.
Books that I read and people I talked to said that it would be completely normal to lose a few chicks in the first couple of days. Some may get sick in transport; some might get squished if the birds are cold and try to pile together to stay warm; some might not find the water in their new home and die of thirst (not particularly bright these birds). That said, I was fully expecting a few deaths, but so far our birds have been doing nothing but growing at a ridiculous rate. The first day and night the little chicks would kind of sprawl with legs outstretched and heads in strange positions while sleeping and it was very hard to tell the difference between sleep and death. In fact, when I got up at 3am to check the brooder temperature that first night I had a bit of a shock looking at them lying like that. The temperature was just about 90 degrees and I was debating about changing the water but in my groggy 3am state I decided that either they were dead and it didn't matter, or they were sleeping really soundly and I didn't want to disturb them. In the morning all 26 of them were up and about and eating like crazy. They have since learned to sleep in a more civilized manner thank goodness.
Though they are still incredibly cute and fun to watch, our chickens have already lost some of their infant charm. Partly this is due to the fact that they are swapping fuzz for feathers, but mostly I think it is the way that they attack my hands every time I feed and water them. Seriously, these guys are fierce! Makes me a little nervous actually. Especially considering they are only going to get bigger. We are hoping it is just that they are ready to forage and think that our hands are delicious insects that they can eat. Speaking of which, the chicks have come in handy for dealing with a little ant problem that has arisen in the house. Catch an ant, put it in the brooder...instant chicken frenzy.
Happy spring everyone!
With yurt construction wrapped up, Jean-Paul and I were ready to pack up the van (again) and head east to begin Phase Two of our big adventure. Before heading out though, we helped Dad slaughter a few chickens to pare down the flock a bit. I think that there were about 13 hens and 1 rooster, but we were only getting 4-6 eggs per day so obviously a few of the ladies weren't pulling their weight and had to go. But how to know which hens were laying and which weren't?!?!
Well, Dad found an article from Backyard Poultry (a magazine to which he subscribes) which explained how to tell if your hen is laying eggs. Here are the signs according to them: somewhat less yellow legs than hens that are not laying; a bright red, waxy comb; a moist vent with supple skin; and something about the pubic bones that I can't remember. The first hen that we pulled out seemed to exhibit all of these signs, but Dad said "well, I'd like to get rid of this one anyway." so on to the chopping block she went.
My favorite part of this slaughtering endeavor was the method for heating water that you can see in the picture above. Yes, that is a flame weeder pointed at a trash can full of water. Brilliant...and terrifying.
The only step we didn't get a picture of here is the plucking, which is too bad because that is really where the magic happens: when you turn a fully feathered chicken into something that looks like what is in your freezer. It is also very messy and the feathers stick to you fingers which makes it very difficult to take pictures.
We found quite a few partially formed eggs (and one fully formed!) during evisceration indicating that the Backyard Poultry methods worked! oh..wait...
As it turned out, the oldest hens (and thus the best candidates for slaughter) seemed to all still be laying, but perhaps now that they are out of the picture, the newer hens will step up to the plate. Only time will tell.