I almost died tonight. The pigs almost ate me. I could see it in their eyes- they were sizing me up, contemplating whether or not the effort of bringing me down would be worth it. I would be nothing more than a tasty side dish after they knocked the feed bucket out of my hands and trampled me into the mud. They were probably wondering just how much they outweighed me by these days, (nearly 200 lbs each), when I tripped. It wasn’t pretty.
The sun seems to set impossibly earlier each day in the fall, and it was fully dark at 8:00 when I finally made my way out to the barn tonight. An LED lantern dangled from my middle finger as I gripped a five gallon bucket filled with food and water in each hand and shuffled my way to the pig pen. I could barely make out their snouts in the moonlight, but could hear their snorts and glimpsed their tap dancing feet as they anticipated their dinner arriving…finally. Evening chores are typically done around 6pm, so you can imagine what a ruckus a 2 hour delay at meal time might create- especially when you’re dealing with animals that are known for their voracious appetites.
It was either luck, the counterweight in each hand or the will not to become hog food that kept me upright. I stood less than an inch from the electric fence wire, arched back and eyebrows, with an upheld pail in each outstretched arm as both pigs snuffled around me looking for dropped morsels. As I caught my breath, I noticed the wire bouncing behind me. I must have bumped it with my jeans.
What could have been left of me
It was a good reminder that these little piggies that we brought home only 6 months ago are not so little anymore. And they aren’t sweet lovable pets. No, I don’t think they would have really tackled me to the ground and started eating me alive. But they are in this relationship for the food. And so are we.
Just a few more weeks and we’ll see who comes out on top.
Five long months of waiting. In comparison to the 11 months that alpacas carry their babies for, or even the 9 months that humans do, I guess 5 months is not an unreasonable amount of time to sit around twiddling your thumbs while you wait for a baby goat to arrive. But it sure felt like it.
What I didn’t think about when we first decided that we wanted a dairy goat of our very own, was that we weren’t just signing up for the responsibility of that one animal’s care. The dairy industry has a cute but demanding by-product. Babies. It seems obvious when you think about it- in order for an animal to make milk, she must first become pregnant. Then she has to carry the baby successfully, deliver the baby, feed the baby and then FINALLY we can (probably) take our share of whatever milk is leftover.
Luckily I didn’t think it through too much before shelling out the cash for the first doe in milk I came across. (Who, by the way, just so happens to be a perfect fit for us. Just didn’t want you to take my sarcasm as a statement of disappointment in our choice. Violet is as sweet as they come. And so is her milk!)
Stumbling upon an available doe already in milk, without a wee one sucking her dry, seemed like a perfect opportunity to buy the goat and get the milk for free. What I didn’t realize was that that milk supply was going to need to be replenished sooner or later. Most dairy goats are only kept in milk for 10 months out of the year. They are bred in the fall, while still in milk, and then dried off about half way through their pregnancy so that their bodies can devote all of the energy needed to growing a baby (or 2 or 5). Goats like to multiply.
That meant that we had also just signed up to be breeders. Wait, what?
I was not qualified to be a breeder. Breeders are supposed to be knowledgable and experienced in the breed that they’re working with. They’re supposed to have long term goals and gut feelings about pairings that have yet to take place and kids that have yet to be born. I’m also pretty sure that it’s a requirement to be able to deliver a breech baby with your eyes closed and one hand collecting colostrum before you can officially call yourself a goat breeder. Okay, well, if nothing else, you’re supposed to be breeding with the primary purpose of making more quality animals. Aren’t you? I just wanted milk. Crap, I was in over my head.
Although we had had a couple of pet wethers before, we had never had a registered animal, and had most certainly never had plans for breeding. This whole new world of possibilities, choices and responsibility for creating life was overwhelming.
Things like the careful selection of a sire, tracking heat cycles, transporting the doe to the buck on just the right day (which for me meant calling out of “real” work on “the day”, and driving for 3 hours with a screaming goat the back of my truck), monitoring the pregnancy, making sure vaccines were given at the proper time, helping to deliver the baby (NBD), raising the kid, and then deciding what was to become of the kid after it was raised were all things that I learned about on the fly. Had I stopped to think through all of the details of what our future entailed before I jumped right in, I probably would have frozen with fear and inadequacy on the spot.
But sometimes that’s how you learn best. And it’s certainly how you find out if you want to do it again. For me it was exhilarating. The anticipation, the planning, the not knowing exactly what you would get. I got hooked.
This year I’ve put a lot more thought into a breeding plan and have sought out proper baby daddies for each of our girls ahead of time. (Is that proper goat-breeder terminology? I think so. Probably.) I don’t want to be a backyard breeder cranking out poor quality animals just because I like goat cheese. I respect the level of expertise needed to do this properly and I intend to do the best I can to add useful animals to this world while still being mindful of our ethics and purpose. I know it will be a work in progress as I gain experience and knowledge. But isn’t that what life is all about?
Ho. Ly. Mo. Ly. That just about sums up my thoughts on our first spring on our first attempt at a real homestead. Wow. It’s a lot of work. I’ve heard those words uttered before- yeah yeah, farming is hard work. Obviously. It’s manual labor and any type of physical job can be considered hard work. What I didn’t realize was just how constant and time consuming hard work can be. It’s not just that you’re tired and aching and sweating. It’s that you’re emotionally invested in October already- when you envision fields of corn stalks, pumpkins as far as the eye can see and a Thanksgiving feast made from all of your own ingredients. But. It’s only June. And all of that produce is sitting in a paper bag on your kitchen counter in the form of seeds that arrived in March, when you still had energy to be excited about them.
Well, June came and went. It was the longest, but shortest, month I’ve ever seen. Does that make sense? It seemed as though everything needed to be done at once. The ground needed to be prepared, the seeds needed to be planted, the seedlings transplanted, the perennial gardens weeded, the strawberries and asparagus needed harvesting, the pregnant goat might be going into labor any minute, the fence needed to be fixed, the eggs in the incubator were hatching, the egg production in the barn was exploding, the turkey hen was setting on eggs- or was she?, the lawn needed to be mowed, the compost pile turned, the animal pens cleaned out and the chicks in the grow out pen needed to be moved into a larger space. Plus my husband (and muscle and mechanic and father to my children and support system) went to Alaska for two weeks. There was that, too. (And just so that it doesn’t sound like I’m looking for a pity party too much, we won’t mention the full-time job, 3 dogs or 2 children that require at least a little bit of my energy. Or the annual summer/birthday party that was looming at the end of the month.) Okay, I mentioned them. Pity me. Thank you. I may have overdone it by promising 10 gallons of homemade ice cream and much of the rest of the menu. It was my own darn fault and I learned my lesson. I digress.
The days got longer in June. Which was a blessing and a curse. There was so much to do that I needed the extra daylight- but that also meant that there was no excuse for bagging in early and getting a full night’s sleep. Once we got home from work and school, the goats were milked, the eggs collected, the animals fed and the dogs exercised, there was still more that needed to be done. The gardens needed to be weeded and watered, the kids needed dinner and a bath and we were overdue for a phone call with Grandma. Some of it got done, some of it didn’t. We ate spaghetti more than I care to admit and the kids weren’t always sparkling clean when they were tucked in much later than usual. Our gardens are smaller than they were in my mind, but they are larger than they were last year. It’s progress.
And then there was the haying. I was lucky enough to be inducted into the haying team on a cool spring day, picking up first cutting bales in our family’s field. With all of the help and excitement it hardly seemed like work. But I know it will get worse. (And to be fair, Harley, his parents, and grandparents did the second batch without me on a much hotter June afternoon.) The hot, humid days of summer are growing the grass just fast enough to ensure that we’ll be out there again before the autumn breeze arrives.
Between the rushing and planting and milking and watering and harvesting and cleaning, there is an ever so small window for fulfillment. But it is there. It is evident. And it persists. The reward is in the sun-warmed strawberry that you grab as you walk by the garden that is perfectly ripe- and you just can’t pass by without tasting it. It’s in the spinach salad that was washed by the rain from the thundershower that swept over your property to relieve you from watering after dark (again) and then kept on going. It’s in the raw milk yogurt that you toss into your lunch bag as you’re heading out the door, and then allows you to think about home and how you miss it during your lunch break while driving in the company car. And most of all- it’s in the smiles and giggles of the children as they play with the baby goat. It’s in the developing muscles you see in your son as he pushes his mini wheelbarrow around the yard. It’s in the flower that your daughter hands you from amidst the weeds she’s helping you to pull. It’s in the sense of pride that you have when you finally lie down at night to count your blessings. Dirty feet and all.
When you’re breeding and raising chickens for dual purposes (for meat and for egg laying), there comes a time when you need to decide which purpose each bird will be geared towards. Since males don’t produce eggs, it’s pretty clear who the layers will be and who the eaters will be. It’s a bummer to be born male in the farming world. Unless of course you are of exceptional breeding quality- then you’re rockin’ with the ladies.
We usually separate the two groups around 8 weeks old. By then you can usually pick out the roosters from the hens and can see any extreme personality characteristics that you would want to weed out of your laying flock. (We have a couple of young hens that might be put back out with the roosters if they don’t calm down a bit. Hey, we’re a laid back family around here. Gotta keep the energy level peaceful or you’re out of luck.)
The benefit to sexing the birds at this age is that they tend to blend in better with an established flock than older (or younger) birds do. Juvenile birds are young enough to know better than to challenge the adult birds’ status and the adults tend to give them more wiggle room when they accidentally step into their space or try to eat first. The term “pecking order” is popular for a reason- chickens are quite particular about their hierarchy and don’t like to have it challenged.
Although there are some obvious standouts in the crowd, it can be difficult to determine exactly which birds are male and which are female at 8 weeks old. The roosters aren’t crowing yet and the hens are still about the same size as they boys. But there are some identifying traits that you can pick out if you look closely.
The first thing I look at is the comb. Males tend to have a much more prominent comb that tends to stand out like a red flag. Likewise, the wattles (the red fleshy bits of skin under the chin) tend to be larger and brighter on roosters. They serve to keep the chicken cool in hot temperatures and also to attract potential mates. However, since we’re dealing with mixed breed chickens, and some have single combs and others have rose combs or pea combs (chicken genetics article coming soon!), we can’t always go by this trait alone.
Another very helpful part of the body to look at is the leg. Roosters will have thicker, sturdier legs and in some breeds (such as the Barred Rock, below) they are even a different color from sex to sex. If you’re still not sure, you can check for the start of a spur on the ankle. Males will have a small nub that is the start of a spur (the long talons that are used in cock fights).
In some breeds (again, see the pair of Barred Rocks below) the males will have a brighter coloring than the females. In the wild we see many species of birds that have brightly colored males and drab colored females. It is thought that the bright color of males helps to attract mates while the dark color of the females camouflages them while sitting on a nest. This is less true in domestic/farmed animals, but is sometimes selected for (as in sex-linked breeds) to make sexing at an early age easier.
Lastly, you can look at the plumage itself. Males tend to have longer tail feathers that stick straight up when they strut. (But again, this varies by breed.) One of my favorite things to look for is one of the hardest things to see at such a young age. The HACKLE! As a fly tier, the hackle is the most valuable part of the rooster. The saddle hackle is located on the side of the bird, just behind the wing. The neck hackle is, of course, located on the neck. Hens have shorter neck hackle that can be used in smaller fly patterns, but the roosters have the long, beautiful saddle hackle that is sought after for streamers and wet flies. (Or for hair accessories, if that’s more your speed.)
There are a couple of other giveaways too if you’re paying close attention- like the muscle tone or heft of the body when you pick the bird up. And although these guys aren’t quite crowing yet, they are getting close. When I picked this champagne-colored guy up he made a deep throaty croak. Bummer. Rooster. I’ve had my eye on this one (below) since the day he hatched, hoping it was a hen because he seems to be a mix of Buff Orpington and White Cochin. Both are breeds known for their broodiness and good mothering ability. I was sure this was our next great nanny. Apparently not.
So I did my best. From what I can tell there are 14 hens and 15 roosters. Amazing how that 50/50 thing works, huh? I may have made a couple of mistakes. Time will tell. (That’s how we ended up with 2 roosters this past year- one boy didn’t start crowing until the week following D Day for the other roosters. Brat.) The hens moved into the barn with the established girls and met their parents for the first time. Surprisingly we’ve had very little issues with them getting along. Maybe it’s because they know they’re family (mmm…no, probably not). Or maybe it’s because we have enough space for them to keep their distance if they like. But I imagine it’s mostly due to the age that we introduced them and the breeds/personalities that we keep. Good karma, I guess.
The boys are doing just fine all alone. We wouldn’t be able to keep them all together forever, even if we wanted to, because they will eventually start picking fights and trying to prove their masculinity as they enter adolescence. Boys. When it starts to interfere with their quality of life they’ll move to the freezer. Until then, they’ll enjoy a new patch of grass, weeds and bugs each day to keep them busy.
Windy, our 1 year old Saanen goat, is the first mammal that we’ve ever gotten pregnant on purpose. (Well, besides me, of course.) In fact, she’s the first animal I’ve ever owned that has even been capable of becoming pregnant. Even my pet rabbits have been spayed and neutered. Most of the people in the pet world today (the world that I come from) are very pro spay/neuter- especially here in New England. In recent years, we’ve done such a great job of promoting sterilization in the northeast that it’s almost impossible to find a mixed breed puppy that has not been imported from another part of the country. Go us! The problem of overpopulation and unwanted pet litters is slowly becoming a thing of the past.
But the problem that lurks on the other side of that achievement is one that never occurred to me until recently. About 5 years ago, to be exact- the time when my husband and I decided to start a family. I had no direct experience with anyone or anything that had been pregnant or had given birth. Nada. Sure, I knew people that had babies, but I wasn’t close enough to them to hear the nitty gritty details of how it felt to have another living being inside of you, or what actually happened in the months leading up to labor and delivery. I had a lot of research to do.
Fortunately, we have the internet these days. Or perhaps that’s unfortunate, depending on where you choose to look for information on said internet. (Note to self- do not follow links to birthing videos or read horror stories of labors lasting longer than 36 hours while you are in your third trimester. It’s too late to turn back and it isn’t a helpful way to stay positive about your impending future.)
Needless to say, I learned a lot about pregnancy in a short time. But reading about the gestation period, measuring the growth of my waistline and comparing the current size of my growing baby to common fruits and vegetables just wasn’t the same as having witnessed an actual pregnancy before. People didn’t used to be so isolated from the natural way of things in the past. The way it used to be included numerous pregnancies surrounding each family, even if it was the animals in the barn doing most of the birthing.
Animals can teach us so much about the way of life. Yet in recent decades, we have changed our relationship with our animals to such a degree that our experience has become more about control than reflection or learning.
It is frowned upon to leave your pets intact. Veterinarians, trainers and rescue workers alike spout the many good reasons to alter your animals at an appropriate age. For years I have done the same, (and I will continue to do so, but with the word pet clearly annunciated.) There are too many uneducated owners and not enough responsible homes to start hailing the praises of leaving the family dog or cat unaltered. (For more information on spay/neuter risks and benefits take a look at this article by the Veterinary Information Network: http://news.vin.com/VINNews.aspx?articleId=27205) But…
There is something to be said for witnessing the miracle of life in person before you go through it yourself, or with a loved one. And I don’t just mean watching a chicken hatch from an egg (although that’s pretty cool too). In mammals, the entire process of gestation, fetal growth, labor/delivery and finally nursing and nurturing a newborn is amazingly in-depth. Being mammals ourselves, there is a lot to be learned from other mammals that experience a similar reproductive cycle. And if there is a purpose for encouraging an animal pregnancy (like to produce more high quality animals , and/or to produce milk) then it is not irresponsible to do so. In fact, it can give us a glimpse into a part of life that we have grown unaccustomed to seeing, and therefore are uncomfortable with. Knowledge and experience are at the basis of building a comfort zone. No one should have to go through a pregnancy without having some knowledge and experience of what it entails. Goats and sheep and pigs and cows may not seem to have a lot in common with us humans in this area. But I beg to differ.
I have watched Windy closely over these past 4 months as her belly has grown along with her adolescent body. She has filled out, gotten taller (and certainly wider) and the lanky legs that she toppled in on are now solid and square beneath her. She holds her head a little higher and moves a little slower as she learns to find her new center of balance. Since she is shaped more like a swollen tick than an elegant deer these days, you might imagine that she isn’t quite as agile as she once was. But surprisingly, she manages to jump around just fine. (She moves much more naturally than I did at that stage of my pregnancy.)
I know the day that she conceived and I know the day that she is due. I have a mental calendar that checks off weeks and months as May 29th (the day that we expect her to deliver) approaches. We still have a lot to learn about livestock and this will be our first live birth experience here at home. (Luckily we have some great support from friends that do have experience, in case we run into any problems!) I don’t know if Windy has any idea what her body is going through at the moment, or what the inevitable end to this experience will be. But I do know that nature will take its’ course and instinct will kick in when she needs it most. That’s more than I can say for most people’s experience in modern day hospitals.
For now I am soaking up the calm before the storm. I am spending time watching her grow and feeling her belly. Each night as I feed her her grain and ready her for a place in the milking stand, I revel in the stolen glimpses I get of her baby bump undulating in the dim light of the barn. Each time I feel the kid kick or shift suddenly, I remember how it felt to have my own baby adjusting inside of me. It was scary and uncomfortable and amazingly wonderful. I am so very grateful that I am able to relive those feelings by sharing our animals’ experience first-hand. I only wish I could have learned from her earlier or was somehow able to give her a glimpse into what was to come. But experience builds strength, and strength builds character. Our hope is to experience this together for many more years. By then, our character should be unshakeable.
The sun was shining, my windows were down and I was singing along with the radio as I drove to my good friend’s house in the next town over. I was a senior in High School and I was feeling a little wild and free after getting my license and starting to become more comfortable behind the wheel of my “new to me” 1988 GMC Jimmy. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Time and traumatic events have a way of skewing your memories so that you aren’t really sure what exactly happened in the moment. But you do remember how you felt and your mind does it’s best to fill in the details once you’re ready to process the actual event. This is how I remember the moment that changed my view on eating meat forever. You’ve been warned.
My friend lived on a little farm in New Hampshire when we were growing up. Her dad built the house that she lived in, which was surrounded by fields of flowing grass, a small stream and several significant old trees. Behind her house they had animals- a miniature horse, some chickens and pigs. It was beautiful. But I was completely naïve to farm life at the time, and didn’t take much interest in the animals outside other than to peek in on them every now and then when I visited, oohing and aahing at their cuteness. Occasionally I’d try to give their miniature horse, Rascal, a scratch from the other side of the fence when he was feeling friendly.
From time to time they had baby piglets at their house and my friend and I would go out to the pen by the roadside to watch them play. The mother pig usually got up from her spot in the dirt to come over to check us out (probably to see if we had brought any snacks for her) and then would lose interest and mosey around the pen snuffling through some random mounds of soil. The piglets would bound about, continually re-excited by their siblings’ sudden animation. If you’ve ever seen a piglet play, you know that it’s hard not to crack a smile when you watch them propelling themselves over obstacles as though their backbone was made of solid steel and their two front feet were bound together. It’s almost like they resemble the tiny pink plastic children’s toys that come in a standard “farm animal” set instead of the other way around, since they seem to gallop without moving any joints at all. (And if you’ve never seen piglets at play, let me direct you to this adorable video on YouTube for 4 minutes of uninterrupted grinning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFkhaRUN_Q4)
While we were oggling the babies, the mom seemed to savor the “me” time that came with our diversion. I can’t say for sure, but think I remember replaying this scene several years in a row with the same mama pig. As I grew up, focused on my seemingly very important life, she lived her own. She watched the seasons change. She lay in the sun and felt the breeze. She grew babies in her belly and nourished them with her body. And probably just at the time that she needed a break from all of the chaos and attention that a litter of piglets created, they would go off to their new homes and she would be left in peace again. I try not to anthropomorphize animals too much, but I do like to imagine what makes an animal content and how they would choose to live if allowed to decide. I like to think that most animals on family farms have it pretty good.
Fast forward to teenage Christy, out for a drive to visit her friend on a beautiful sunny day. I don’t remember if it was summer or fall. I don’t remember what we had planned to do. The rest of what I thought was important at that time fell away. Because that’s when my view of that picture perfect country road turned a corner and showed me something I had never expected to see.
There she was. Momma pig. Hanging. Her back legs were chained to a backhoe bucket that was lifted in the air. Her throat was slit so that her head hung disconnected from her motionless body.
It was like someone had just punched me in the gut while my heart attempted to run back home, where it was safe from such carnage. I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. They wouldn’t do this. Why would they do this? This was supposed to be a place where babies were born and the grass grew and the birds sang. There wasn’t supposed to be an end to that fairytale fantasy. Especially not an ending like this.
That’s where my memory ends. I don’t remember if I actually got to my friend’s house that day or where else I went, if I didn’t. But that image will haunt me for the rest of my life. And you know what? I’m so glad it will.
I don’t like that memory. I don’t really want to visualize that moment ever again. It was traumatic and heart wrenching and terrible. But at the same time it was real and raw and honest. There was no shame in the taking of that life. It was done out by the roadside, on their own property, in the grass and sun and breeze. Looking back now I can appreciate the reasoning behind why she was butchered and how. I can also filter some of the emotion that I felt that day to see how it was probably as good a death as that pig could have experienced- never having to board a trailer bound for a slaughterhouse or wait in a holding pen in a new place, stressed and anxious about what her lied on the other side of the trap door. What I hold onto most about that experience is the message that it sent to me.
I always knew that meat came from animals. I knew that animals had to die in order for us to eat them. But I didn’t want to think about it and never really had to. Growing up my parents did their best to protect me from the cruel aspects of human nature. Many parents do. I respect that. But I’m not sure it’s how I want to raise my children.
I feel as though shielding our children from hard truths is setting them up for a traumatic event like this to happen to them later in life. No, I don’t expect my four year old to wield a knife and butcher a pig on his own as a right of passage. I don’t even expect him to witness it, or hear about it in detail, until he feels emotionally ready. But I do want him to understand it. I want both of our children to see an animal’s entire life cycle- the birth, the learning to walk, the playing in the dirt, the days spent lounging in the sun, the cold winters when they’re burrowed in shelter, the highlights and low points that come with growing up and sometimes growing old. And yes, ultimately the death of the animal. Especially if they are going to be eating the meat from that animal.
It’s a hard balance to give your child enough information to understand that death is a natural part of life, but not so much that you create someone who is numb or uncaring. We’re doing our best.
After my own traumatic episode, I took some time to think about what I had seen and how I felt about it. Why was it hitting me so hard? I had eaten pork for my entire life up until that point and I respected my friend’s family and the life that they had given that sow.
I’m not sure exactly when my dad told me that he was buying a cut of pork from that friend’s farm. But in my head it was as soon as I walked in the door from that drive. I got upset and accused him of paying for that pig to die. Being put in a very hard position, he did his best to calm me down, saying that it really wasn’t any different from meat that you buy at the grocery store. “You’re right” I said (although I disagree now that I know more about the process and the difference between those two life cycles). “I just won’t eat any of it anymore.” I put my foot down and sealed it with seething teenage outrage. And I stuck to it. I did not eat pork again until just this past fall- 15 years without even a taste of “the other white meat” (or of beef).
My primary reason for not eating beef or pork was that I just could not imagine being able to condemn or kill a pig or a cow for the sake of taste. I did not need it to survive, and felt better about myself for excluding it from my diet. I had other feelings about different types of meat (like poultry and seafood) and really searched within myself to decide if I could kill the types of animals that I ate, if it came down to it. I’ll get into why I have recently changed my mind about pork and how I’ve adjusted my attitude towards meat in general at another time.
But the overriding lesson that I’ve taken away from this life experience is easier to see in the big picture. If I had been prepared for what I was about to see that day by the roadside, and understood the reasoning behind the process, I don’t think it would have affected me like it did. That’s what I want to change for my children. I want to enable them to make their own decisions based on knowledge and experience. I want them to search within themselves and ask questions and find answers. I want to support them in whatever decisions they whole heartedly believe in. Jacob and Kalina have known the animals that provide the meat that is served at the dinner table. They know that we don’t just go out and buy a hamburger because we haven’t taken the time or energy to raise and process a cow. And I try to involve them in decisions about what type of meat (if any) we should eat. They may end up becoming vegetarians, as many of my friends that grew up on farms have. That’s okay. They may choose to eat one type of meat and not another. That’s okay. Whatever they decide, it will be the right decision for them.
I know that my parents took my outburst and radical decision personally, which I still feel badly about. But even then it was not about anything that they did or didn’t do. It was a personal choice based on my individual ideals. I hope that they realize now that they gave me the inner strength to make that type of life altering decision and nourished the deep seeded care for animals that drove me to it. It is because they cared so much that I put such significant weight on that one choice. I hope that I can give my own children the same level of conviction in their values while building their knowledge that they base them on. Pursuing truth and asserting individuality are foundation behaviors that we will cultivate with all our hearts.
Okay, here’s a disclaimer. You must be 18+ to read this post. Or at least have had “the birds and the bees” talk before you go any further. No, there aren’t any risqué pictures or pornographic descriptions. But let’s just be up front and say that this is a post about reproduction at it’s most basic level.
So. There we were. It was awkward for all of us.
I had just finished my morning routine in the barn and entered the turkey pen to refill their water bucket and make sure that everything was okay. I do this everyday- smash out the ice that has frozen overnight and pour the remainder of my 5 gallon pail full of water back into it.
I was thinking that it was strange that none of the turkeys were out and about, as the tom typically greets me at the door, strutting his stuff, with the two ladies not far behind. I had barely staggered into the shelter when I noticed them. They were on the ground, just beyond reach of the morning sun’s rays beaming in from the east. The tom was perched atop one of the hens, shifting his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. The hen was about as flat as she could get with almost 30 lbs. of poultry on top of her 15 lb. frame.
Now- before I go on, you must know that this is not a regular sight on the farm. Turkeys are not as prolific as chickens (or rabbits, or goats, or just about any other farm animal.) They come into season only once per year and are much more private in their “activities” than other animals. In fact, the Broad Breasted White turkeys that are raised on commercial farms are too large to physically reproduce at all, and must be artificially inseminated. There is visible sexual dimorphism even in wild turkeys, and the females are sometimes injured when a much heavier male attempts to mount a smaller female. We’ve had Standard Bronze turkeys for several years now, and one of the reasons we like this breed is because they can reproduce naturally. But making baby turkeys is no easy task. We made it all the way through breeding/nesting/hatching last year, which means that there was obviously some successful reproduction going on behind the scenes, but I had not witnessed it first hand.
I didn’t know what to do. Continue with my chores as if I hadn’t seen anything? Slowly back away and leave them to it? Pull up a seat and peep on our tom? But they still needed water. And hey, this was exciting stuff- I don’t care how weird it sounds for me to admit that I was curious about how it all went down.
So I froze. I stood very still, not quite making eye contact with either of them, even when they looked back several times to see if I was still there. The tom continued stepping back and forth on the hen’s back, making some slightly worried noises, almost as if he was fretting about how to continue. This went on for a good five minutes, and I was starting to wonder if the hen was able to breathe alright under all of that weight. As much as I wanted baby turkeys, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt in the process.
It seemed pretty obvious that this was new to them. These turkeys were born last spring and had never gone through a breeding season before. The courtship was done, the time had come, and neither seemed to know what to do next. Now it was getting really awkward.
I figured that maybe I was giving them stage fright, and decided to be on my way. I swapped out the water as quietly as I could and started to back out of the shelter.
And then…he did it. He left his contribution to the next generation atop her back- where there was no chance of the sperm ever meeting up with a developing egg. Ever.
Was it a height problem? An anatomy problem? An inexperience problem? I don’t know. But I do hope they figure it out on their own. Artificially inseminating a turkey is not on my to-do list.
Since then I’ve been making lots of noise when I approach the pen. “Hello! It’s just me…here to change your water! Hope I’m not interrupting anything…” I haven’t had any other awkward moments since.
But, there was a little glimmer of hope this week. A single egg lay in the corner of the shelter, behind an old window. The light shone through the glass, as if to highlight this first egg as a sign of fertility and potential success. We added some straw to that corner of the shelter and hoped that it would encourage her to return. I found another egg there today. Time will tell if these eggs are fertile, if the hens become broody, and if we will have baby turkeys this spring, after all.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to give the tom a knowing wink and an encouraging nod each time I exit the pen.
“Look Mommy, a bird!” Kalina has been pointing out Robins sitting quietly amongst the branches and hopping effortlessly along the rock walls as we’ve been going about our business this past week. I can’t say that I would have noticed their appearance if it wasn’t for her innocent observations. I guess the old saying “out of sight, out of mind” rings true.
This time of year- the time in between winter and spring- comes and goes incredibly quickly. New Englanders have a way of clutching onto winter far longer than we should. It’s not that we want to. We just know better than to trust a few warm days here and there. March is still known as mid-winter for us, and not until the first crocuses creep through the soil do we admit to ourselves that spring might just be coming, after all.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the preparations for the coming change in seasons, as well as with the voice in the back of your mind wondering if you have enough sick days to take any more snow days, if you’ll have enough wood stacked up to get you through another cold spell or how long your ragged winter gloves will hold out. But while we’re busy appeasing the worrier in all of us, we sometimes miss the subtle variations that only this short time in limbo has to offer.
But the children don’t. The animals don’t. The plants don’t.
One of my favorite things about having young children is gaining their perspective. They don’t have to worry about all of the things that adults do. They’re too busy watching and listening and learning to worry.
As I was trekking up the small hill on the way to the barn this evening, my mind was filled with thoughts of how unpleasant all of this mud was and what a mess the 2 feet of snow was going to make of the yard as it melted. And then I looked behind me.
I saw two sets of tiny feet, covered with shiny rubber boots, stomping in the puddles and making waves. I heard two tiny voices laughing and sharing observations about the little river that has suddenly taken over our walking trail. I saw three happy dogs, playing exuberantly in the late afternoon sun and digging in the sandy slush that today’s warmer temperatures uncovered.
They weren’t worried about tomorrow, or thinking about how beat down they were from the frigid winter that we are still in the midst of. They were fully present. They were enjoying the now. They were having fun.
I took the hint. I put my bucket down and grabbed my camera. I sat in the snow and got soaking wet. I absorbed the smell of the earthy mud and the metallic dripping water. I threw the ball and watched the sunset with some of my favorite people (and dogs).
Chores can wait. We can wash our clothes. Tomorrow’s potential snow storm is tomorrow’s problem. I’m busy today.
This post was shared on The Homesteaders Blog Hop:
I didn’t start out as a farm girl. I like to call myself an import. That sounds fancier than a wanna-be farmer or a naïve, middle class white girl. But really, that’s what I am. Or at least that’s who I was. I grew up as a pretty typical American, I would say. We had pets (but not animals…I’m told there is a difference), shopped at the grocery store, went to work/school and came home to our family.
I had (and still have) parents who love me and did all that they could to bring me up to be an upstanding, well-educated citizen. I’ve had some great experiences and have learned a lot about life, love and the world around me as I’ve grown into the current me. My parents are two of the most important influences I’ll ever have in my life. I wouldn’t change a thing about the way that I was raised or where I came from. But that doesn’t mean that that’s where I want my story, or my growth, to end. And I’m sure they don’t either.
In the more recent years since I’ve become an adult, I’ve become a wife, a mother, an adult daughter (there is most definitely a difference when you add the adult part there), and a professional. With each new chapter of our lives we learn a little more about ourselves and what type of “wife”, “mother”, “daughter” or “professional” we’re going to be; which subset within those groups we belong to, and which we want no part of. Some times in our lives require us to be more focused on one area or another. But ideally, we want all areas to be fulfilling and meaningful.
We all want our lives to be full of purpose. That’s the age old question, right? What is the purpose of life? Don’t worry- I won’t tell you that I have that one all figured out. But I have seized the essence of the question and am holding on for dear life. Literally.
I saw a quote recently that really hit home.
Living a life of purpose is up to interpretation, in and of itself. But for me, a life of purpose means finding something that you believe in whole-heartedly and standing behind it in all that you do. Sometimes that something can change throughout your life. I know that there are many things that I’ve jumped on board for on and off over the years.
But this whole farming thing is different. There has been a running theme throughout my maturation that has really stuck with me- which lives are worth living, which lives are worth maintaining, and which lives are worth changing? I think these questions apply to all life forms, and since life is the basis for all else, it’s worth being dramatic about.
Being responsible for life and death on our little farm, and witnessing the entire life cycle first-hand, is as close as I’ve come to really understanding the depth of those questions. Each life (whether plant or animal) has such a unique path that it takes. There is no way to explain the feeling that comes with watching so many lives in detail. Except…maybe…living. Having these experiences on the farm has allowed me to cope with, and appreciate, other areas of my life. It magnifies struggles, milestones and celebrations. I think having this little farm has made me a better wife, a better daughter, a better mother and a better professional.
This life of sweat, dirt, blood, exhilaration, sacrifice and thriving- it’s representative of life itself.
I don’t want to be stuck in a cubicle, wrapped up in paperwork, oblivious to the meaning that can be found in all that we do. I want to be thinking. I want to be feeling. I want to be living.
One of my big “things” in keeping animals is providing an environment where they can remain mentally stimulated and practice natural behaviors daily. Just as exercise and physical activity are good for our physical health, problem solving and using all of our senses is good for our mental health.
Think about how nutty you would go if you were stuck in a tiny room day in and day out, without enough room to stretch your legs or turn around. Then add, on top of that, nothing to read, no new sights to see, and your only social interaction was being stepped on or over by the other people squished into that tiny room with you. What kind of psychosis would that lead to?
Unfortunately that’s just the kind of life that laying chickens in a typical battery or large-scale factory farm experience. They never have the opportunity to enjoy life, and even worse than that, their caged lives are dragged on for over a year for laying hens. At least in meat birds (who live a similarly awful life, but also have to deal with severe physical ailments), their torment is over after just 6 short weeks of life.
But there is another way to raise chickens- the right way, in my humble opinion. And that way includes caring for their mental health as well as their physical health.
During the spring and summer months it’s pretty easy to provide a stimulating environment for your animals. Just give them access to the outdoors and they find plenty to do, all on their own. There is green grass to peck at, bugs to chase and dust to roll in. What more could a chicken want? But when it comes to the winter months, especially when the temperature is subzero and the snow piles up above their shoulders, we’re sometimes forced into keeping them confined to a smaller (more boring, but more comfortable) space than they’d like. When the air temperature is above the single digits, we typically leave the top half of the barn door open so that they can fly up and out if they like, but they rarely do. Chickens are pretty wimpy when it comes to snow or rain.
So what do you do to manage their sanity? It’s actually pretty easy. The answer comes from asking the right question- “what would the animal typically be doing, if given the choice?” For chickens it’s probably scratching around, looking for food. A close second might be dust bathing or, if the opportunity presented itself, mating. That’s about it. No rocket scientists in the chicken world. But hey, who am I to judge? Whatever floats your boat.
If foraging for food is what you like to do in your spare time, then that’s what we’ll let you do. Any time our chickens are indoors for any length of time (whether it is their choice or ours) we set up a mini treasure hunt for them in their pen. At least twice a day we toss some kitchen scraps into the straw so that the hens have to “hunt” for their treat. Today we just so happened to have some black beans in the refrigerator that needed to be used up, so that’s what they got. (It’s just a nice side benefit that they look like little black beetles hiding amongst the roughage. Maybe that will train them to be Japanese-Beetle-hunting-assassins come summertime- I can’t stand those things!) But since chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything that people do. When we’re lacking kitchen scraps, they get a scattering of cracked corn to keep them busy.
Another nice winter treat is a bowl of whey left over from cheese or yogurt making. Over the summer, the pigs drink most of the whey that turns up as a byproduct of making cheese from our raw goat’s milk. But during the winter, the chickens have fewer competitors on the farm and they could use the extra protein boost, so they’re the lucky winners of the white gold.
We also keep one corner of the pen loose with sand/dirt so that they can bathe when they feel the urge. And of course our resident rooster keeps the ladies busy. I’ll spare you from an image of that.
But why stop at wild animals for environmental enrichment? Are domesticated animals any less worthy of the opportunity to behave naturally? They may have weaker drives than their wild counterparts, but that should only serve to make it easier for us to entertain them.
To me, having a healthy animal requires more than just adequate nutrition and loads of medication. It’s a whole package deal. And that package is at least 50% psychological. Let’s start giving that other half some attention too.