I’m writing this while the feelings are still fresh. Today was tough. A toughie. ‘Operation: Move Chicks to Pasture’ was a bust. ‘Operation: Keep all 151 chicks alive to lay their first eggs’ has been a bust.
This morning was not a bust. No, I woke up, well rested, had marvelous dreams. The sun was out, air chilly, but invigorating. I walked into the living room, a beautiful space, floor to ceiling dark brown wood (don’t know what kind), and looked out over my glorious flock. “Today’s the day,” I proclaimed – to myself, to whomever might overhear, to the chicks, to the universe at large. Yes, today was to be the day I moved the chicks to pasture. I’d prepped their transports the night before, repurposed wooden boxes used for shipping peanuts, so that in morning we could get straight to the business.
Eighty-three chicks later (the most I managed to fit into the boxes), we were out on pasture, familiarizing ourselves with the new digs. And beyond. It quickly became clear the chicks were still too small to be contained by the poultry netting I’d put up. By ‘quickly’ I mean, only after I’d let all 83 chicks out. The next several minutes were me trying to decide whether I ought to just let them be or take them back to home base. I couldn’t make up my mind, so I let them go on for the time being, and made my way back to the house.
Now, let’s pause a moment, you and I, to quickly review the method by which I managed to get these chicks into the boxes in the first place. Step 1) I made sure they were hungry, real hungry. Fed them later than normal so they’d be sure to all come running for food; 2) Once they all congregated in a hungry frenzy around me, and with my boxes pre-placed, I dexterously grabbed up chick by chick, held them ’til they calmed, then placed them in their boxes @ four chicks per box – I’m sure all that sounds simple enough, but once they catch on to you, the whole thing goes from ‘pick a chick!’ to – this: Step 3) ‘freeze, pretend you’re a statue, wait for it… wait for it, there they come, that’s right, closer, yes, toward the food, closer… closer…. GOTCHA!’ And then they go, ‘EEK, EEK, EEK!’ wildly flapping their wings and thrashing their talons all about, poor panicked creatures that they are. Which is when, Step 4) you press them firmly against your chest, reassure them everything’s going to be just fine, that you love them (which is the truth), and then safely stow them away in their travel box.
Okay, fantastic, now that we’ve covered ALL THAT – ahem – all that, I’ll get back to where I left us off. Back to the house. Well, I pulled the truck up back by brooder base, that’s home base, but specifically the chick’s home base (they’ve got their brooder set up there, it’s real nice and cozy) and decided, heck, I really ought to bring those chicks back here, it’s too soon. And heck! I ought to get a full count on all the chicks we got here because I’d say we’re about due on a count. So, two hours later, I’ve got 80 chicks boxed back up and loaded on the pickup. Three are accounted for, but not boxed, a slippery trio, not keen on getting handled no more by that big fleshy fella. So, I let them know I’d be back and shuttled their siblings on home. Pause for a quick snack – a farmer must also be fed – and then off I went to collect the slippery trio. Not much to tell there, I get them up against the main pasture gate, which I’ve got fitted with chicken wire, and it’s game over. I get two at once, walk them back, then return for the final hold out. Repeat the ceremonial chicken collection dance: She flaps, I dive, she squawks, I’m on my back, she’s in my hands, I stand, press her against the chest, reassure her: “there, there, sweetie,” I say, and tuck her into my cardigan. We walk back home in silence. Cool, calm, collected.
Sounds like a happy ending, but we’re not done. I’ve still got the chicks in the boxes because I want to count off the remaining chicks. I walk around their brooder/coop space, and it’s not reassuring. I’m coming short by 20ish. To be certain, I’ve got to get the rest of the birds boxed up and counted. Repeat this morning’s ritual. Rather, attempt to repeat this morning’s ritual. I get another twenty boxed up, and from there I can count the rest by eye.
126 chickens. We started with 151. Gut punch!
Today has not been an easy day, and ending it with 126 chickens, that’s 25 less than we started with when we put them outside, just plain sucks. I know I lost three to my puppy Pyrenees. That was upsetting, unexpected, but a quick Google search taught me you can’t trust your guardian dog until they’re two years old. Okay, no surprise there then. But come on! 25 birds gone? Where? Who? When? WHHHHHHY?????
I thought we had the predator issue under control, but it sure don’t appear to be the case. We have foxes on the property, I’ve seen them with my own two eyes, and several hawks, to boot. I’ve got this fantastic photo saved on my phone that tells me how to identify ‘what’s killed your birds?’ Apparently, hawks kill and eat chickens on site. Foxes will go on and take the whole bird and leave. Now, these chicks of mine (one day yours – yum!) are still small enough that I can imagine a hawk could scoop one up and fly away with it easy. So, moving forward, I’ll be ‘treating’ for both. The plan is four posts at each corner of brooder base (which is much more than just the brooder, fyi, fear not), and chicken wire all around. Up top we’ll have to put up netting of some kind, to keep the hawks out.
Quick moment just to say, I do not believe in killing predators. They have as much right to live as we do, as our livestock do, and are an essential part of keeping our ecosystems healthy. I will not be hunting them out and down. I support only techniques that discourage their presence, but allow them to continue to live and thrive. Example: for hawks, encourage the presence of ravens. Hawks don’t like ravens, ravens don’t like hawks. For foxes: guardian dogs.
Now, the only issue I have with this detective work of mine is that I already have a guardian dog! And he’s been with the chickens every day since they’ve been outside. I’ve caught him twice with dead chickens, and once, yesterday, not in the act, but noticed a spot of blood on his face that was not his (a face that was not his, or blood that was not his? Hrm). Now, I simply cannot imagine that he’s responsible for all 25 missing chicks. I do know that the chickens are, at present, able to move freely from their space, protected by both dog and electric netting, through and beyond the netting. This, I am certain, is a problem, which will be remedied with the posts and chicken wire.
So, shucks. Venting feels good, but today was truly a disappointing day. I got angry, I got sad, and I’m tired now. My goal for the farm’s inaugural (love that word) CSA egg-share was to get 50 families signed up. That’s 50 families committed to eating honest, sustainably and humanely raised eggs. From South Carolina’s first sustainable kosher farm. I hoped for 50, and now I’m not sure I’ll be able to provide. After the posts and chicken wire are up, I think I’ll be getting more chicks, another 50 or so, to make up for the losses, and I’m pretty darn sure I can manage zero of those with the next brood. I’ve learned, and continue to, a tremendous amount. That’s why I’m not on the floor howling in agony right now. Thank goodness we’ve got brains for learning, and spirits to keep us keeping on, huh?
And I hope that by my sharing this account that you too will be encouraged. Encouraged to know you’ve got yourself a farmer committed to doing his best by his livestock, and in so doing, his best by you, to bring about some measurable and positive change to the way our local community understands and consumes its food. Thanks for being a part of the journey. My best to you, always.
The Kessler Miller Farm