Life and Death on the Farm
Natural Farming and My Flock of Rhode Island Reds
Three years ago, after I had established most of the perennials that I was intending to purchase in, I decided that it was time to bring in some chickens. Of course it wasn't entirely an easy decision to bring new life onto the farm. We are all vegetarians here, but we eat eggs and when it boils down to it, I believed that chickens would be a net gain for the soil fertility. There was also the hope that they would reduce bugs, particuarly ticks, the only bug I really care about, and that they would provide a modicum of entertainment during the dull times.
Watching the chickens grow from little puffballs of golden feathers to big unruly birds was a pleasure. We started out with 16 birds, that is, 1 rooster, and 15 hens. For over a year they pecked away the grass, and grasshoppers, and lived the normal lives of a completely free range chicken flock. In the summer the chickens couldn't keep up with all the greenery and bugs, although certain changes to the landscape were clear, but it was in the winter that their impacts were the clearest, as they consumed and composted nearly everything they would want over the span of about half an acre. They dug some holes and exposed plenty of dirt but ultimately they didn't destroy the land, as chickens cooped in a small aread always will.
The main drawback of truly free range chickens is the tendency for poop to congregate in the areas that they most often interact with humans. It is a certain drawback for sure, but there are solutions I have been considering such as the paddock shift system. Rotationally grazing the chickens of course adds more work, and another investment in fencing of some sort, but is a good solution to the issues of land degredation or poop everywhere. The other drawback of course is the occasional rooster attack. I am a peaceful man, but when I get attacked I get vicious. There have been no shortage of times I had to show the rooster his place on the farm.
After about a year and a half disaster first struck when a fox slipped in under the fencing. Free range chickens have another drawback. Not confined to the predator proof shelter that I built, animals capable of evading our deer fence could potentially pick off the flock at their leisure. Our rooster was tough, and large, but ultimately still just prey and unable to protect the hens adequately. Big spurs and a watchful eye are not a match for a large determined fox. We lost two hens before I ran outside in my pijamas and chased him around the yard flinging rocks until he found the hole he came from and ran off. I repaired the fence and waited with my .22 to see if he would return again, but never chose to dig under the fence and come back.
As I said, I am a vegetarian but I full well will kill vermin in my house, or predators threatining my animals. I have never treated my chickens as pets, but compassionately as farm animals. I was lulled to sleep by the peace and ease achieved until that day and wasn't paying constant attention to the dangers in the yard, and therin lies the rub. If you raise farm animals, and you feel for them, even if they are not pets, you have a constant obligation to their safety, likewise if you derive income from the animals. Farm life is not really a part time endeavor, and if you don't butcher your animals it is a lifetime commitment to the animals.
After the fox, I was once again faced with the question to allow them to free range or not. I specifically built my chicken coop to allow them to be left in the coop for long periods of time. The shelter is 8 foot by 16 foot and half of it is indoors, and half of it is outdoors, both nearly 100 percent predator proof (not bears or the most intelligent of foxes or raccoons).
After I was confident that I had plugged the gap in the fence and the fox was not returning I released the hens once again unsupervised.
Despite the notion that Rhode Island Reds (the feactory kind) are not normally interested in becoming mothers, one of our hens went broody in her second year. The first time she took her eggs the full way, but something went wrong. While some of the eggs hatched, I suspect another hen or probably the rooster attacked the newborns and ultimately none of the lives were salvagable.
But good old Floppy Magoo (only the chickens needing identification received names) wouldn't be detered. She tried again the very next day and this time I removed her to another shelter. She sat on six eggs and five eggs hatched. Ultimately four of those five eggs turned into rooster, pretty much defeating the purpose of my allowing Floppy to brood the eggs. Of course the other option for acquiring laying hens is to purchase them, at which time the baby roosters are sent into the chopper and dog food mill (not exactly natural, but certainly easier to keep a clean conscience).
Watching the chickens grow and learn from Floppy, and eventually break off from their home unit and join the flock full time was a pleasure.
Last month a chicken developed a medical issue. Based on my own knowledge and a bit of research it seems to me that she had what I would term "an impacted egg" by which I mean that she had an egg obstructing her vent. A day or two after I noticed this the other chickens (presumably) or roosters attacked her. I found he bloody and cowering in the coop that night and brought her away from the flock. After trying several things to help her, she passed away in the sunshine. The second hen I raised looking into my sympathetic face as she died hopefully onward to peace or adventure.
Living on a farm, where I take lives into my hands on a daily basis is a hard and challenging thing. It makes me realize the true sociopathic nature necessary in politicians. I often run up against problems achieving personal desires that most people take for granted their ability to accomplish because of obligations to the land. Every night at dusk returning to my coop to close the big door to the outdoor section of the coop is an obligation I have made for myself. Providing them with food and security beyond the coop, are all obligations I feel to the chickens. Of course that is coupled tightly with both quality of life for the chickens and myself. Leaving the chickens cooped up constantly day after day is no life for them, and that matters to me. It complicates further when much my happiness or contentment is also tied to the land. It is a very tenuous balance of work, pleasure, and obligation.
Death the inevitable driver of existence is a requirement, and when mankind removes himself from nature he forgets the shocking regularity of death in the wild. Mankind is not an animal in every way. We forget that things like cancer and murder are very real and normal impulses of nature, that they take away our loved ones the same way some vicious being entered my yard yesterday and slaughtered 13 of my remaining 18 chickens.
I have over time gotten used to the notion that the farm animals would die at a higher rate than they would if I made them super protected human pets. It lessens the shock of finding corpses all over my property, but it will never desenistize me entirely to the circle of life. I loved those chickens that died, even the rooster I fought with so many times. They annoyed me immensley some times following me around the yard, pooping in front my doors, walking under my feet, and relaxing rather than foraging, but they were still my friends, family, and workers.
With their deaths the several remaining chickens are locked away in the coop for safety. I don't feel for myself. The eggs are a perk of my life not a requirement. The chickens were in their third year anyway and while egg production was still good, it was not ever going up. I in fact believe a lot of people who tell you that third year laying hens are worthless are partly just trying to justify their abuse of the chickens in one way or another. Chickens are not egg laying machines and should not be coaxed into producing all seasons if you don't want to break them.
Some chickens have survived and hopefully they can carry on the lineage of my first flock into the future. There are always silver linings, but what I really feel for are the chickens. Too stupid to properly flee they felt immense fear and died yesterday, and that hurts me as the Buddhist or Fransiscan that I am inside. It makes me think of all those other nameless beings and ignored humans suffering and dying daily the world over. It is sad, and sometimes the human mind plus the reality of nature is sad. Saddness.
Stuck in the Middle
Nature is what she is, cruel and kind beautiful and bold. Sometimes I dislike the fact, the responsibility of the life forms, plant and animal that require my constant attention for their survival. In my life prior to farming pursuits I was a no impact sort of person. I strove to not impact other life beyond mere interaction with it. My philosophy grew as I went along and I now believe impacting the environment in a positive way is a modern requirement for an ethical life. But sometimes I wonder if I would be happier in a more carefree life. That is the burden of those who seek wisdom however. Life will never be bubblewrappable.
As I have moved along in my management techniques I have more and more removed elements that require my attention in favor of systems that subsist by themselves. And my dedicatetion to natural farming causes many more losses on the farm, but I know it is better. I know that these chickens lived greater lives than any factory farmed chicken. I know that the eggs produced have been equal to eggs not required from brutalized factory birds. I know that the nature of farming is both life and death and to create real change in the world we must constantly use our human intellect to weigh best land management techniques.
With this form of natural neglect, sometimes, comes more death than is easy to process. This form of agriculture requires the constant adjustment to what goes on and learning and working to make the system better and more resilient. Now if you will excuse me I have a dozen friends to bury.