Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Going to the Birds

by Zinta Aistars

With one of my six little girls 

Going into my second year of living on this 10-acre farm called Z Acres in southwest Michigan, I find myself expanding, little by little, what I do here in terms of farming. Mostly, I seed and raise and sell words. I work from home, running my writing and editing services, Z Word, LLC. That's my focus. I do, however, care about the organic lifestyle; that's a big part of why I moved here from suburbia. I believe in the local food movement, the sustainable and simpler lifestyle, and when I can raise my own food, that's the way I go.

With my second summer here of gardening, I've enjoyed raising my own vegetables. This past summer, I nearly tripled the size of my first summer's vegetable garden. I've grown heirloom tomatoes, lettuce greens, cabbage, squashes and zucchini, cucumbers, eggplant, carrots, basil, kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green peppers, radishes. I have also enjoyed a tremendous bounty of apples from the old apple tree, an almost overwhelming harvest of blackberries, and my first strawberries. My freezer is now full of applesauce and jars of blackberry preserves as well as frozen berries to keep the upcoming winter months sweet. I've been enjoying apple crisp and apple pies and apple cakes and breads. Few things satisfy more than growing, harvesting, cooking one's own food! Nothing tastes better.

Patch and Pasture in Battle Creek, Michigan
As I traveled to a friend's poultry farm in Battle Creek, a charming five-acre farm called Patch and Pasture, run by Shirley and Dave Wyllys, it occurred to me that I might expand my farming efforts to include eggs. I buy chickens and turkeys from my friends, and often I pick up a carton of fresh eggs ... why not get into some of this "chickening" myself? I certainly have the land for it, and since I mostly work from home, I can also be on hand to care for chickens. Not least, nothing beats the flavor and nutrition of fresh farm eggs. Not even the organic eggs I buy at the health food store or farmers market compare to this kind of freshness.

I'd been eyeing the tool shed on my property for some time now for its chicken coop potential. My son and his lady and her son came out several times over the summer to work on converting the tool shed to a coop. While part of the shed remains open for storing my gardening tools, another section is now closed in for chickens, complete with nest boxes my son salvaged from an abandoned old coop we found on the land. Apparently, Z Acres has had chickens living here before. My son cleaned up the old nest boxes, two rows of them, and installed them in the tool shed, now coop. Then came the fencing and chicken wire for an outdoor area, and a small door where the chickens could be released to free range for a few hours each day. Perfect!

I turned the calendar to October. This late in the year, only one type of chicken is available at Townline Poultry Farm in Zeeland, and that's the place to which anyone who deals with poultry in this area has pointed me. They ship, but I knew I didn't want live animals shipped to me in boxes (that often leads to a percentage of dead animals on arrival), and Zeeland is not so very far from me. In October, only ISA Browns are available, but that was fine with me. ISA Browns, I've learned, are an excellent chicken for beginners like me, a brown hen that is friendly and easy to raise, and a very prolific brown egg layer.

My friends, Shirley and Dave, have been giving me great advice on raising chickens. They've also been kind enough to loan me a chicken feeder and waterer and a red heat lamp to keep the chicks warm. I purchased a 50-pound bag of chick feed from them and they tossed in a coffee can full of grit. By beginning of March, Shirley said, I could expect my first eggs. How exciting! Just in time for Easter and my first grandchild ...

Meanwhile, I would have half a dozen chicks to raise over the winter months, and to keep them warm and close for observation, I decided to start them off in the little greenhouse attached to my farmhouse.

If one of the greater challenges of raising chickens is to keep them safe from predators, I knew I had plenty on Z Acres. I am surrounded by marsh and field and woods, and wildlife is plentiful. Predators interested in sharing my poultry would be coyotes, fox, hawks, raccoons, opossum, and any number of other hungry creatures. My son had done an excellent job of securing the coop with reinforced fencing and securing the edges of the area with metal strips and cement blocks. He did it all with salvaged materials, too, bless his heart and hands, so the coop had cost me nothing. But while the chicks were small, I decided to keep them inside, both for my comfort and theirs. As they grew, I would eventually move them outside to the coop.

I called Townline Poultry Farm to check on chick availability. October is their last month of the year to sell chicks, and they were selling fast. I was told to come early on Monday morning to pick up a few before their shipments went out. I wasn't about to miss my last chance of the year. I set my alarm early on Monday, October 21, and I was up before dawn. I was amused at myself to realize how excited I was ... what fun this would be! And work, too, no doubt, to watch over more living beings on this farm, along with my dog and two cats. I take that with a strong sense of responsibility.

Other than the advice friends have given me, the books I'd read, a few videos I'd watched, I was still very new at this, and I was feeling a little anxious ... would I know what to do? what if a chick got sick? would I be a good chick mama? I was so excited!

Light was just breaking apart the dark sky into pale slivers when I pulled into the hatchery in Zeeland. I was the only one there buying just a few chicks; all the others were being packed into tall stacks of boxes with air holes, readied for shipment. The building was filled with a sweet peeping, and I fell in love with the tiny chicks the moment I saw them placed into one of the boxes for me. I took six. Six tiny beings, fluffy and yellow, downy soft, peeping and pressing against each other for warmth and comfort.

They peeped in their box on the car passenger seat all the way to their new home at Z Acres, and I smiled all the way home. What a grand adventure this would be. Along with my own vegetables, I would now have my own fresh eggs on the farm, and if all goes well, who knows, maybe next year I will increase my number of hens and bring on meat chickens to raise, too.

My poultry farming friends had allowed me to spend a day on their farm recently and help in the processing of meat chickens. I learned about the last moments of a farm chicken's life, how humanely it could be done, and how the skin was softened in hot water for easy plucking of feathers. Shirley taught me about dressing a chicken, every step, until the chicken was ready to go into a bag and into the freezer. I learned to identify and remove windpipe, lungs, heart, intestines, liver, kidneys, gizzard. (I also learned that I love chicken and turkey livers, so delicious!)

I even got to participate in the preparation of the two turkeys I would take home for the holidays. The entire process was much cleaner and easier than I had expected, although I had to admire Shirley's practiced hand at the eviscerating while I bumbled away at cleaning the birds, making ragged cuts, tearing the delicate skin. Like anything, practice makes perfect, but I was sure I could learn to do this, some day, as smoothly as she. And, when Shirley and Dave visited Z Acres, they agreed that I had the facilities for it.

For now, these six little girls, peeping and chirping. These would be layers, never eaten. I brought them into my kitchen, where old chow pup, Guinnez, and old cat woman, Jig, and little spark plug, Grasshopper Azi, gathered around me to see what I had brought home. No, not lunch, guys and girls. I made introductions to Guinnez and Jiggy, but Azi was scooted outside for now. That little tuxedo girl is all too young to control herself, and she was a huntress extraordinaire, bringing home sometimes three or four mice a day to drop on my doorstep in great cat-pride. I wasn't about to trust her around these tiny birds.

Guinnez and Jig, however, my two senior citizens, gave the chicks a curious sniff. Guinnez tried to pat one chick on the head with his big paw, but as gentle as he tried to be, that was a big paw ... and I laughed, pulling the chick away to a safe distance. The chick was actually attracted to their furry warmth and seemed interested in a snuggle. But once I had examined each of the six chicks, said my hellos, I prepared their place in the greenhouse. A very large old cooler would do just fine. I had hung the heat lamp over it, placed the waterer at one end and the filled chick feeder at the other. Hay was spread throughout the cooler for their comfort. In they go. With a peep and a chirp, they huddled and then toddled about exploring. I dipped each chick's beak into the water to teach them to drink, just as I had been taught, and smiled at the sight of each one catching on. They tipped their heads back to let the water run down their throats and then drank a bit more. They pecked away at the chick feed.

Great! I can do this! At first, I was checking on those chicks every few minutes. Still alive? Still alive. Until I relaxed. We would do just fine.

By day two, day three, I was amazed to see how quickly the chicks were growing. They were visibly taller, legs longer, more sure on their chicken feet. I brought in handfuls of grass, dandelion greens and seeds, a few flowers and even nabbed a bug, and they all gathered around the goodies and went for it. Nice. You six chicks, you are going to be fine hens someday. And I'm going to be a great chicken farmer ... with fresh eggs for breakfast every fine morning.

1 comment:

  1. This may develop into quite a good book someday! I am truly excited for you and your new little peeps. Can't wait to read the next episode! Enjoy them for the rest of us out here who aren't quite that "brave" yet.