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State of the Farm: July, 2023

We’ll start with the bad news. All of our chickens have been killed.

This happened a little over a month ago but I haven’t brought it up. It takes a little time to process this scale of loss. This is not an emotional loss like that of a dog or cat—these chickens are livestock: egg layers with meat at the end. We treat them well but they are not pets.

We had 5 adult chickens. These were our main egg layers. We were considering “retiring” them—meaning, turn to meat—in the fall. But we hadn’t fully committed to that decision. We had 2 Delawares and 3 Bielefelders. The Delawares were great. Good layers all year round except when molting. The Bielefelders were more problematic. They weren’t great layers and they had a tendency to be “broody”—hens that would sit on eggs trying to hatch them. We had already tried letting one of those broody hens actually hatch a collection and that failed.

In addition to the 5 adult chickens, we had 8 young chickens ranging from six to eight inches in height. These were to be the replacement chickens. The plan was to retire the Bielefelders—they really weren’t producing and, maybe, try to get the adult Delawares and the young Delawares to live together.  The last idea was tricky as chickens have a tendency to peck intruding chickens to death.

We had moved the adult chickens to our auxiliary coop and put the young chickens in the main house.

So, it’s early June and my wife comes in quite upset: all of the chickens are missing or dead. There is one largish chicken corpse left in the main coop and two bodies left in the auxiliary coop.

We’d had a major incursion about ten years ago when a bobcat tore apart the PVC framed coop I’d built. At that point we’d had four survivors: two in the PVC coop and two that had been safe in auxiliary coop. I had torn down the PVC coop and built Stalag-17, that main coop, and reinforced the auxiliary coop. I figured I’d learned my lesson: when you build something resembling a farm, to nature it looks like a great buffet. We’d already refenced the main garden and topped it with an electric wire to keep out deer on the top and rabbits on the bottom.

I even reinforced the main coop with hardware cloth to keep out mice and such.

Upon investigation, we found one corner of the main coop that I hadn’t covered with hardware cloth. There we found scraps of feathers. From the evidence, we concluded we’d been attacked by a family of weasels: the right size and the right behavior. The largest youngling just wouldn’t fit through the fencing.

The auxiliary was a bit tougher. The weasel scenario didn’t seem to apply since these chickens were ten to twelve pounds: much too large for the fence gaps. I finally found a corner where some of the old chicken wire had rotted away and the predator had enlarged into a hole.

We’ve had chickens for close to thirty years. As I’ve mentioned, this isn’t the first-time nature came calling. But this time is different.

Our son moved back in to the house last year and stayed with us. Up to that point, we’d been having a daily breakfast of eggs. For the two of us, this almost exactly matched the chicken egg output. But he can’t eat dairy and, to me, eggs without cheese are not worth eating. On top of that, my wife went back into the office three times a week after the first of the year. Commute times being what they were, this precluded breakfast of any kind, much less eggs. The eggs stacked up.

My son moved out in the spring and we started making a dent in the eggs. We also made some egg bread and other egg-based treats. But we were still producing more eggs than we were consuming.

Now, we have no eggs coming in at all.

The chickens aren’t a lot of work but they are work. They produce a material we don’t eat as much as we used to. There’s a certain minimum number of hens we need for them to survive the winter and that minimum produces more eggs than we consume. Added to that, the chief impediment for us to travel is the chickens. The greenhouse only takes a minimum of effort in the winter. The garden is only active during the summer.

Over the last few years, the maximum time we can leave the homestead is a week. While this is fine for some locations, it doesn’t make any sense to travel all the way to, say, Greece with that constraint: 1 day travel there, ½ day to recover, 1 day travel back, to get 4.5 days of visit. When we visited China for nearly three weeks, it took a great deal of planning to get someone to take care of things while we were gone.

So, we’ve been discussing whether we want chickens at all. That’s going to be a discussion over the next year and we’ll make a decision next spring.

This is a big deal. We used the chickens a lot. They were a mechanism of recycling green waste (weeds and such) and kitchen waste. We cleaned out the chicken coop for the manure. They gave us meat and eggs. All of that is gone if we decide to discontinue them. It’s a lot to ponder.

But the rest of the garden is doing very well.

The picture above shows the main garden: cabbage, cold weather crops, beans, melons, tomatoes, basil, peas, turnips, and sugar beets. The Japanese beetles  have made a come back this year. So far, they haven’t eaten everything down to the bone like they did previous years. But it’s been raining so much I haven’t been able to spray properly.

While the whole peach family didn’t blossom this year, we did get blossoms on paw-paws, apples, quinces, pears, and grapes. Then, a strange little freeze came through in April and burnt the growing plants selectively—one part of a tree had frostburn and another part of the tree would be fine. All of this was near the main road.

The main house never registered a temperature for an actual freeze but we’re about thirty feet higher than the road and the other side of the road is lower still. My hypothesis is that area got quite cold at the road and below but that didn’t get up to the trees. Then, a truck drove by or a light, morning breeze and strands of freezing air wound over the lower property.

Anyway, looks like we lost the paw-paws.

The June rains were warmer this year and the fruit trees and grapes loved that. Then, warm rains came and everything liked that. We’re on a hill so the water didn’t pool anywhere and the slope isn’t so great that we had washout. We packed the last of this year’s chicken manure around various plants and were richly rewarded. The grapes that have been low producing the last couple of years told me that this is what they were waiting for.

And the potatoes are huge. We planted about twenty pounds of seed potatoes and we’re hoping for a five-fold return. That’s the hope anyway.

There are some funguses that I need to watch. Several raised beds have strong, and poisonous, mushroom crops and there is some kind of brown wilt on the grapes. Some spraying is required and I’ll do that as soon as we get a string of sunny days. There are some beds that look like they have a nitrogen shortage so more manure needs to be distributed. We were going to plant some pumpkins but the stores didn’t have varieties we wanted so that moment has passed.

So, aside from the chickens, it’s been good so far.

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