Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Lessons I learned from Rocky

On a farm like ours, animals come and go pretty regularly. That's what happens when you raise meat. Now I know tonight is a processing day, and that we'll butcher a dozen or so chickens, but the broilers are eating machines without much personality, not at all like the heritage breeds we raise for eggs. But there are always certain critters that find a way into your heart, and that's what made yesterday a bit sad here. Our Barred Rock rooster, Rocky, passed away. It was sad, but expected. Rocky was five years old, a very senior chicken. His legs were thick and scaly, he had lost most of his comb to frostbite over the winters, and his tail had turned from black and white bars to nearly all white. Over the past week or so, I'd noticed his legs seemed to be hurting him and he wasn't getting around very well, so I've been sort of mentally preparing for the end.

Rocky was the first rooster I ever really got to know. Roosters have a (generally) well-deserved reputation for being nasty creatures. They will jump up and spur you, even drawing blood through a pair of jeans. Your size doesn't intimidate them at all. When I first began coming to the farm with Dan, the layers had been sold off and not replaced, as the farm was on a temporary hiatus, so the coops were silent. When we got married in July of 2007, his parents bought us a few unusual wedding presents, ones that would help us to a fresh start here on the farm. One was a Dorset ram, and another was a starter flock of chickens. Betty & Dan went and picked out a nice assortment of started pullets, around 4 months old. (I would have gone too, but I still worked away back then.) They brought back a few Red Star hybrids, some Buff Orpington hens, a few Ameracaunas who lay the beautiful blue-green eggs, and some Barred Rocks. Of the 22 birds, all were hens except for one rooster. Although Betty has had enough bad experiences that she really does not like roosters, it was decided that one would be good. That rooster eventually became known as Rocky.

In the five years he ruled the layer flock, he never once challenged me, nor did he ever act aggressively towards anyone. I could turn my back on him in the coop while I collected eggs without fear. Now I have had many roosters come into my life after that, and there were plenty that got mean. Rocky taught me that I didn't need to put up with that, and the mean ones never stay long. Even with chickens, you can (and, I would argue, should) breed for temperament as well as production traits. It was a hugely important idea- breeding males shouldn't be crazy and mean. It's one that has largely been lost in modern agriculture. For instance,most dairies do not have a bull, all their cows are bred by artificial insemination. That way, anyone can breed to the most productive bloodlines. It doesn't matter that the bulls are extremely dangerous, as the farmers using the bloodlines never have to deal with the ornery beast. Another downside is that the breed becomes excessively inbred, losing its genetic diversity. In addition, I do think it matters how you treat the animals- if you approach the animal expecting it to hurt you and behave accordingly, I can't help but think that that expectation will affect the animal's behavior. Reassured that the rooster didn't have to be mean, I took the same approach of cautious trust with the other farm males. The ram, the boar, the mini stallion, and even our Dexter bull have all been known to eat treats out of my hand. I don't trust them all the time, because sometimes they do act up. But I've learned that if you get to know your animals, you can read their moods, and it's completely possible to interact with a big boy of whatever species without expecting (and getting!) the worst.

It was a good decision to get a roster with our starter flock, because although hens will produce eggs without a male around, the eggs will not be fertile. In the spring of 2008, we decided to try incubating and hatching our own eggs. Without Rocky, it wouldn't have been an option. I'll never forget the experience of the first time, the worry, hope and anticipation that we would be able to hatch our own little chicks. I didn't even live at the farm yet, but I rushed home from work on the expected day to see the eggs had started cracking from the inside. A few hours later, we would have peeps in the brooder pen under the soft glow of the heat lamp, and we would go to sleep the next few weeks hearing their chirps from the spare bedroom across the hallway. That was years ago (as well as thousands of chicks ago), but thinking about it always makes me smile.

To me, Rocky was a kind of living link to my pre-farm self. He and his hens were a real introduction to agriculture for me. And he was just a cool chicken. He defended his girls to the best of his ability from night time marauders, and greeted us with his crows each morning. The barnyard is a little quieter here without him, but I have kept one of his sons to replace him. In that way, I hope his docile genetics will always be a part of the farm. 

 
 

First Cutting

 A very important thing happened over the weekend...we put up our first cutting of hay! The weather was perfect for enough days for us to cut the entire upper hay field, as well as part of the field by the neighbor's woodline. Dan and the horses cut the hay Wednesday and Thursday, and by Friday it was raked and dried, and we were ready to put the “new” John Deere hay loader to the test. Dan and I were very excited to see how it would work out in the field. I was so excited, I snapped this picture of the first hay coming up onto the wagon.


Considering the hay loader hadn't been used in over 60 years, this was pretty exciting to see. There were a few bugs to work out and bolts to tighten, but that was expected. Overall, it worked wonderfully and, even making the necessary adjustments out in the field, Dan and I were able to put up 4 wagonloads that evening. Since the next day was Saturday, I was busy with customers at the stand, but Dan was able to do a bit more work on the hay loader to get it in perfect working order. To me, it's simply amazing the way he can look at a piece of equipment, and despite having no manual or prior experience with a machine like this, he's able to see what needs to be fixed and make it work. By the time I had closed up for the day, the hayloader was adjusted and the hay had been raked with the side-delivery rake. We put up a couple loads, and then help arrived. Dan's father, Tom, didn't want to miss the hay making fun, so he and Dan went back out into the field and put in a few more loads, bringing the day's total to six. The weather Sunday was great as well. Dan's brother Matt was here to help as well, so there wasn't really room for me on the wagon, leaving me the equally important jobs of photographer and person in charge of lunch. Here's a picture of them hard at work- Tom is driving the team, while Matt & Dan use three-tined hay forks to move the hay forward and pack it in for an even load.



All in all, we made 14 wagonloads of hay off the field. That is a very good yield, and we're expecting to make another cutting later this summer. While we were also hoping to make hay off of the other field, we just didn't have time to do it all, and Monday brought rain, ruining the hay. But it was the least nice of all the hay, so it was the last priority. Just mowing the field was good for it though, so perhaps we'll still be able to make the second cutting from it also. Even without that hay, we still have a barn full. This is just one side- and we put hay in both mows. The picture shows Tom forking the last of the hay off into the mow, after the trolley system had done most of the reloading. And having Tom in the picture gives you an idea of how very large the haystacks are!



To a farmer, there are few things as exciting or important as getting the hay in. The amount & quality of the hay determine how many animals we'll be able to support over the winter. On our farm, it's also one of the major keys to the sustainability of our methods...we use the horses to power the machinery to make the hay. We feed the hay back to the horses as they provide the power for our fields. The horses turn the hay into manure, which is used to enrich both hay fields and gardens. In a system like this there is no waste. No exhaust fumes, no need to buy foreign gasoline or expensive and toxic chemical fertilizers. It's why, to me, even though it's always 90+ degrees, doing hard and sweaty and dusty work in the sun, haymaking is a beautiful thing. And nothing smells like summer goodness to me like a barn full of freshly cut hay. If I could find a way to bottle it, I would!  

 
 
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