Friday, February 23, 2007

The Chicken or the (Easter) Egg

Leaping Lamb Farm - colored eggs and dad's grave in MA 4-2-07 002

The question was this. "Do chickens see in color?" We hadn't been on the farm that long and it was an honest question. You would think Gisela and Dave and Janet and Nancy, all owners of chickens, might have known the answer, but they shook their collective heads. It had never come up, this question. Why did it matter if chickens could see the color of the worms they ate or the flowers they scratched out of neatly planted garden borders and window boxes? Even if they only saw in black and white the damage was the same. I sighed, mostly about the dead flowers.

I did ask the question with good reason. I thought I might have found a loop-hole in my newly acquired farming practices. We had inherited ten chickens when we moved to our farm and several of them had the bad habit of hiding their eggs. My mentor, Gisela, had shown me how to substitute white plastic eggs every time I raided the laying boxes in the chicken house. This made the hens think their nests were undisturbed, so they kept laying in the same place. The other option was to always leave an egg or two in the nest, marked with an 'x'. The next day the marked egg was removed and a newly laid egg marked.

Always remembering to carry a marker was a problem. The marking thing was not going to work. The plastic egg deception seemed reasonable, nothing like a little switcheroo as payback for the plants. Until the day my last fake-out either disappeared or was crushed underfoot. I don't remember the circumstances, but I did foresee a trip to the farm supply store for more plastic eggs.

Talk about sticker shock. The price of white plastic eggs was $1 a piece! I was remembering my city days when I was sure we had not paid more than $2 for an entire dozen plastic Easter eggs. This was rural living robbery! I coughed up for several of the fake eggs to tide me over ... until Easter, close to five months away. Since there was no consensus about chickens seeing in color, I figured if the chickens took exception to green, blue, pink and orange eggs, I could always dip them in some left-over white house paint from the workshop. For the first time, I was actually happy to see early merchandising in the grocery store for Easter, right after Valentine's Day.

In March, with the longer days that chickens like, the laying boxes on our farm were decorated with a myriad of pastel colored eggs. I decided to reserve the blue, green, and orange eggs for later, as they seemed a bit bright for the trial run. Would the gloom in the chicken house mask the pastels of the plastic? Did it even matter? Apparently not. The chickens laid where there were plastic eggs and they laid where there were none. In fact, it may not have mattered whether I had fake eggs in the boxes after all. The two wilder chickens with the bad habit of wandering off and reappearing with a brood of ten to twelve chicks had been killed the previous fall trying to defend them. The rest of the girls seemed perfectly happy to use the supplied boxes filled with clean straw.

I inherited new chickens this past winter. The colored plastic eggs have mostly been kicked from the nests and lie under piles of straw in the corners of the coop. Even the extras I took trouble to collect and place in egg cartons on a shelf in the coop have been scattered across the floor in some scuffle from the winter. It seems like years ago I wanted to know if chickens saw in color. In the end, it didn't really matter. We always had more eggs than we could eat, even when a hen or two would sneak off.

The Easter eggs are almost funny now too. I mean, I have a chicken that lays blue-green eggs all on her own! No plastic infusion molding technique. No need for dye tablets dropped in a glass of vinegar. No need to wait for Easter. But, beautiful, large, perfect blue-green eggs, standing out against the speckled browns, the light tans, and all varieties of eggs I collect each day. And, when you crack the shell, they look like any other farm-fresh eggs with the tell-tale rich yellow yoke of birds that free range on a diet of bugs and grubs mixed in for good measure.

These days I have a different question about chickens. "How do you keep them from jumping in the window boxes and scratching out the young, spring flowers? Spilling dirt across the entry way? Digging up perennials just peeking above the soil?" The chicken yard gate is shut; the fence has been scoured for holes. I guess it's time to sit out with a cup of coffee in the morning after feeding to find the way out ... and maybe use some of my extra, colored, plastic eggs for target practice!

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lambing 'Season'

Honey Grove - MarchApril 06 (lambs, Loocie, masks) 013

Lambing 'season' is almost here again. We actually experienced a suprise mini-season at the end of September, but the planned births will start at the beginning of April, if my calculations are correct. This will be my fourth year and it needs to be better than the third, last year. When I look back at year one and two, my ignorance was lucky and thank God the ewes lived, as well as their tiny charges. Once I had taken a lambing class and had a better idea of what I was doing, that is when all hell broke loose. Last year was a small disaster in lambing at our farm.

I hadn't thought to write of this because the death of newborn lambs is so sad and so final. It is even more final when we drive their small remains up the logging road, in the back of the Gator, to a steep ravine, where we throw them down into the tall ferns, the trees, the pitched forest floor covered with rotting wood and pine needles. This is the way we keep the predators far from our farm and our baby lambs, but it's brutal and doesn't seem to account much for the small lives I held in my arms, if for only a short time.

First I lost a ewe to a hernia caused, I now know, by large lambs pressing on her internal organs. Then we experienced the ewe with the prolapse. Why was lambing season starting so badly? Was the ram the cause, or something else? We had used Toby this year, a stocky Suffolk ram, with the manner of a favorite dog. I hadn't noticed his confirmation, but I suspected he was throwing large babies and large multiples besides. My ewes were experienced at birthing and things seemed to be starting terribly wrong.

I decided to bring the girls in close to the barn so I could keep an eye on them. I set the barn sheep stalls up with clean hay and heat lamps in preparation for new lambs. Just to get them in for a night or two of warmth. Just to get them established with their mothers, before they became a part of the flock.

A year later, I don't remember the easy births from last spring, only that there were some. I exhaled with relief when I could count strong babies holding close to their mothers' sides. Strong enough to stand within the first minutes. Hard to catch within the first 24 hours to put iodine on their umbilical cord, to give a shot of Bose, to dock tails and castrate, if necessary.

It was the others I remember more. The multiple births up to four, when one or two or three would start to fail within the first 12 hours. Hardest were the ones that lasted several days. The ones where I interceded with tubing, with milking their mothers for the colostrum, with placing them on soft beds of straw, with holding their small bodies in my arms and caressing their small heads.

There was Poodle. I called him this because he was so small and black and looked just like a miniature poodle. I called him this because I was so sure he was going to live. He had a gimpy leg and three siblings who pushed him out of the way in his search for milk. I milked his mom, something most ewes are not keen to allow, and fed him from a human baby bottle bought from the grocery store. Then, I would chase the other lambs away and hold him up to his mother's teat. But Poodle was so small he could barely reach. The day he became too weak to stand, I brought him into the house and placed him in a box in the kitchen, surrounded with blankets and old sheets, a heating pad and light to warm him. I held him on my lap with a bottle and felt his will to live ebbing. The next morning, when I snuck down to check on him, he was dead.

Then there was the lamb I tubed and bottle fed and held to his mom. And worried over for several days after they had been outside with the flock and I had found him weak and wobbly one morning at feeding time. I brought the ewe and her lambs back into the barn. Why, when I went to feed this lamb did his jaw seem hard to open? Why was he always standing away from the others. Was I imagining a stiffening in his body? I scoured my Sheep Raising book for answers and came upon one that horrified me. Was I seeing signs of tetanus? The book mentioned the problems of raising horses and sheep together. There was likely tetanus in the soil.

I tried to feed again and the lamb's mouth seemed wired shut. He was uncomfortable when I tried to place the nipple between his lips. The diagnosis, if correct, described an agonizing death. No hopes of survival. I needed to end the pain, but I couldn't face shooting such a small animal. I lay him across my lap and placed a plastic bag around his head. No struggling, just shallow breaths becoming less frequent until they stopped. It was a sad end to a short life, but better than the alternative. Another lamb for the ravine.

There were others that failed last spring. Some never took a first breath despite repeated brisk rubbing of their bodies or swinging in the air to clear the lungs. The huge ones invariably survived; their smallest siblings never had a chance. One was suffocated by a mom lying too close; another abandoned to become a bummer by a mother who only had eyes for one lamb, not two, despite a week-long attempt on my part to convince her otherwise. Of course, one feels like Mary Had A Little Lamb when this baby thinks you are its meal ticket and walks into the house, goes nose to nose with the dogs, and becomes the little darling of visitors to the farm who love to hold a bottle for him. Peter Rabbit. We named him Peter Rabbit because he had floppy ears...once I was sure he was going to live.

Lambing season is almost here. The ewes are looking fat and hungry all the time. We have a new ram we hope throws smaller babies. He's a different breed, a Katahdin, we brought in last summer with eight Katahdin ewes. They are known as hair sheep because they shed their wool, instead of having to be shorn. The breed are known as easy keepers, with good hooves and uncomplicated births. I was attracted by the promise of uncomplicated births.

We need a better season than last. I am hoping my old, wool ewes will have an easier time this spring and we will have an orchard full of leaping lambs by May. Lambing season is part of spring on the farm, filled with new life to match the greening of the grasses. It shouldn't be a deadly time, except that life and death seem so inextricably linked on a farm. Lambing 'season', a special time of year, when hope is eternal and little lambs remind me of the characters in the classic books my mother read me as a child.

(Peter Rabbit loved to follow me around. Here he is going nose to nose with Bezel. Not sure the cat really appreciated the close quarters.)

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
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