Could we change our attitude, we should not only see life differently, but life itself would come to be different. ~ Katherine Mansfield

Friday, March 20, 2015

10 Reasons Not To Get Chickens

This is not going to be a popular post. I know that. But I'm writing it anyway.

First off, I love my full-grown chickens. They are fun to watch, they give us an ample supply of ridiculously delicious eggs, and their daily banter adds a nice level of legitimacy to what we are trying to do here. And I don't mind cleaning out their coop...that much...but maybe that's because we're coming off of a winter of deep bedding and "cleaning" consists of a quick turn with the rake and a new layer of straw.

But on the whole, chickens are bit gross. They are like small, feathered toddlers with no care for where they poop, or if they eat said poop, or the fact that no matter what someone else has to clean up all of the poop. They don't play nicely and are known to draw blood. Sometimes they yell just for the fun of it. "Egg song" is a euphemism for a sound akin to a goat learning to yodel. And when you have to go somewhere and are running late, one of them is always hiding somewhere on the property refusing to join her sisters in the safety of the fenced run.

Again, I like chickens. I HAVE chickens. We have 12 in the coop and 6 in a brood box in the basement. But for all of the "OMG! Baby chicks in hats!!!" posts on Facebook, and the adorable fluffy butts posing in teacups on my Instagram feed, someone has to tell the whole truth about chickens, and it's not all lavender coop spray and gourmet omelets.

Top 10 Reasons NOT To Get Backyard Chickens

1. Baby chicks are only cute for 3 days. Then they lose their feathers and hit that awkward teenage phase that does not discriminate between species. We call them "punk rock chickens" at this stage, but my mom cut to the chase when she asked when they stop being ugly.

2. It takes between 6 and 12 weeks, on average, for a chicken to fully feather and be able to live in an outdoor coop. Our coop is insulated but not heated, and we got the babies early this year, so we have a minimum of 8 weeks with 6 chicks in the laundry room. Despite daily doses of fresh bedding and a full clean-out every 3 days, our laundry room reeks. Chicken shit smells terrible. I wish this article was scratch-n-sniff. 

3. When raising chicks indoors, prepare for a layer of yellow dust to cover everything in the immediate vicinity. If air can touch it, so too can this nuclear fallout of sawdust and (of course) poop particles. Our laundry room doubles as a storage room, and everything has to be cleaned and disinfected when the girls move out.

4. Baby chicks poop in their food. And their water. And your hand. Food (wasted) and water (now brown sludge) need to be changed multiple times a day. When you see a cute picture of a baby chick on someone's living room floor, or their kitchen table, you need to know that right after the picture was taken there was a person desperately googling "how to get chicken poop stains out of carpet." Dummies. 

5. Chickens aren't really pets. If you name your chickens and turn them into pets, take a few minutes to think about what becomes of them when they stop laying eggs. A chicken typically peaks in egg production at two years and then drops off. Backyard chickens who get a break in the winter (read: no artificial light in the coop to prolong laying) can lay strongly into their 5th year, but can live 8 years. So then what? Will you keep an ever-growing flock of geriatric chickens who don't produce? Will you harvest and eat the chickens? Will you really be able to sit down to the table and serve a bowl of chicken noodle soup starring the meat formerly known as Goldie?

6. Once chickens are outside, you still have to clean up their poop. Chicken poop is "hot" and needs to be aged before you add it to your garden. We built a $6 PALLET COMPOST BIN to house all of our poop and used pine/straw bedding before we mix it into the garden in the spring. Quick note -- the girls love digging through this mess of yuck when they are let out to wander, so the current bin is not even close to being as clean as it was in the "look what we built!" post. Thank goodness we hid this mess in the trees.

7. Chickens can only be left on their own for a few days, and that is if you have adequate, predator-proof space, a coop that doesn't require you to open and close the door, and a way to disperse clean food and water while you're gone. Or neighbors who don't mind helping out in exchange for eggs. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does add another level of planning to the family vacations.

8. Chickens will ruin your yard, if you have one. They will peck the ground bare. We have a 200 square foot run, and the prairie grass was gone, never to return, within a week. The 5-acre property holds up much better to the voracious attacks of a dozen hungry hens, but I will say that they have eaten more than their fair share of decorative plants and flowers and I'm pretty sure they gobbled up $100 in wildflower seed that I scattered in the fall. Bitches. 

9. Some chickens are cleaner layers than others. Again, the multi-colored pictures of glossy eggs that people love to post on social media have been rinsed of mud, straw, small feathers, and our ever-present pal, poop. A chicken only has one exit hole, and sometimes she'll multitask. 

10. If you are able to free-range your chickens, which I fully recommend, you may lose a bird to a hawk, or a loose dog, or a fox. So far we've been lucky and we only let the girls out for a few hours a day when it's full light, but I know it's a risk. Less risky, but more probable, is the appearance of chicken poop, that ever-present through line of raising poultry, all along your driveway, in the yard, and (inevitably) on the bottom of your shoe and tracked throughout your home. Good thing I've already googled how to get chicken poop out of carpet.


Still want chickens? Then congratulations! You made it through the shit list (ha) and are ready for the reality of backyard chickens. If you're now questioning the endeavor and want to go back to a time of ignorance, skip the real baby chicks and bliss out HERE.

Either way, happy chickening. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Our first baby goats

Nothing prepared me for this hobby farm adventure as well as becoming a mother. Long before I was spreading goat poop in my garden, shoveling chicken poop into the compost heap, or tracking the heat cycles of a doe (yeah, dwell on that one for a minute), I was wiping secondary boogers out of my hair, cleaning vomit from my bra, and changing pee sheets in the middle of the night. The days of reading a book in a park and getting my nails done were long gone before I found myself breaking an amniotic sac and freeing a baby goat.

Which I did. 99.9% of the nation was watching the Seahawks lose the Super Bowl and I was given a reprieve by the arrival of the two tiniest, most perfect baby bucklings I've ever seen.

I'm getting ahead of the narrative a bit. Per the previous prep post, Ella was in the garage pen and we were ready. The night before her due date I spent a few dawn hours with her in what I can only equate to the caprine version of Braxton Hicks. Faker. Going into Sunday morning, February 1st, the birthing accoutrement was prepped, I had a nice pile of animal husbandring clothes ready, and we had a set schedule of checking Ella every hour on the hour. And then the stupid game started and family arrived four doors down for the party.

Who can guess where this is going?

1 pm - Ella obviously stretching but not otherwise uncomfortable.
2 pm - Ella still stretching, tail erect, visible tightening but nothing too intense.
3 pm - Checking on my own kids, making sure they are fed and fine, visiting with family and friends; Gabe is on his way home from errands and promises to stop by the house to call in an update.
3:20 pm - A call comes in to my parents' house. My dad answers. All we hear is Gabe yelling "Baby goat! Baby goat!"

I race home and there in the hay is our little Finn, being cleaned up by his mama.

All this prep and I'd missed it! But joy -- another one is headed out! Appropriate clothing be damned, it's me in yoga pants and a sweater, body-deep in bloody hay, breaking open an intact amniotic sac and wiping fluid from our little Archie's nose and mouth before placing him in front of his mama. Ella was a champ, delivering quickly and efficiently on her due date.

Then, it was time to teach them how to nurse. A quick aside for humans and goats -- this is not a process that every animal just naturally knows how to do and takes it up with aplomb on the first try. I may be anthropomorphizing, but Ella's expression was an easily readable "WTF?!" as I made her stand and subject herself to the head-butting and weak attempts at suckling exhibited by her babies. Gotta say, after two rough starts of my own, I was pretty patient during this potentially frustrating process. Babies and new moms are so dumb!

We took some extra time with Finn because he was so much smaller (1 lb, 10.1 oz to Archie's 3 lb, 1.9 oz), but even he eventually made his way from Ella's collar to her udder and got the hang of it.

We finally gave Ella some molasses water and grain, put iodine on the babies' umbilical cords, and then left the new family to get to know each other without the presence of our paparazzi. Superbowl schmuperbowl, it's Pare Down for the win.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Getting ready for the KIDS!

We are in the crazy final days of prep before our first kidding. I haven't been this beside myself since I cranked out my own kids! I've dreamt goat births for the last three nights, with last night being the best - a perfectly beautiful Nubian doe (weird that I am dreaming the wrong breed) stepped out of her mother and into my lap, ready to play. If only.

In an effort to offset my fears, I've decided to do what I do best - rely on my inner nerd and do some research. A lot of reading, and asking questions, and then more reading.

The best resources I've found:
  • My goat breeder and vet. I'm so lucky to have gotten these goats from Lil Bleats, and a breeder who is so willing to share her knowledge. I'm equally lucky that our vet doesn't mind working a goat lesson into every visit. 
  • The Fias Co Farm website. This is the absolute best source of information on the web, and I encourage you to donate to the site if you find it as useful as I have. 
  • Real books. From the store. Books you can read, mark up, and then have on hand during the kidding, even if all you can do is hug them to your chest and feel more capable by way of osmosis. "Raising Goats Naturally" by Deborah Niemann is my favorite text, along with "Storey's Guide to Raising Diary Goats." Brad Kessler's "Goat Song" is a moving memoir about embarking on a life with goats - such beautiful, candid writing; it made me love my own goats even more.
Speaking of my own goats, let's get to the nitty gritty here at Pare Down.

This is our pretty Ella before she lost that girlish figure. She's still a little wild, but has reached the point of tolerating us and will love us soon enough. She was bred on 9/2 and 9/9, so with a standard 145-day gestation for miniature goats, she is due 1/25 or 2/1. I'm pretty sure that this will be our first and last winter kidding - everything is harder in the snow.

(Side note: After sliding around our icy, hilly property for a few weeks I just discovered YakTrax for my muck boots. How did I not know about these? Google them if you don't already own a pair!)

Next, I needed to assemble my own Goat Kidding Kit for the big day.

We have the following on hand:
  • Surgical soap wash for hands and instruments, if needed
  • Iodine replacement spray for sterilizing (haven't decided yet if we are dipping the navels)
  • Old bulb syringe from my babies, in case we need to clear noses of birth gunk (it's a technical term)
  • Surgical scissors (please, dear sweet baby universe, don't make me have to use these for anything)
  • Emergency tubing and colostrum replacer (ibid)
  • Old feed bags and pee pads to catch the goo (things are getting real now!)
  • Clean towels, paper towels and tiny hairdryer (to help mama clean and dry these babies in the bitter cold) 
  • Kid coats made of second-hand sweatshirt sleeves
I'll have warm water with molasses and grain on hand for the Ella when she's done, and a shot of something stronger for Gabe and myself.

Now, where to kid? 

Our goat shed is small, with most of the space being taken up by hay bales for winter insulation, so Ella will be kidding in the milking barn (formerly known as "the garage"). We've set up a pen using a dog exercise kennel and fresh hay. 

This is the cleanest it will ever look. We've also tricked it out with a small space heater for super cold nights. No need for a baby monitor - we'll be able to hear Ella AOK, as our bed is directly above the garage...which is equipped with excellent acoustics.

Scout and Rascal are looking forward to having a visitor to keep them company at night - Ella is their favorite goat since she's the least likely to head butt them when they want to hang out.
So...Ella will start sleeping here this weekend to make sure that she's used to it. It's tricky, having 3 goats. If she can't stand being by herself, we may bring little Tess up as a sleeping companion and leave Lucy alone in the shed.

Nothing to do now but wait. This will get easier each time. Um, right?