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. 

 
 

Are You OK?

When an animal suddenly has a change in its behavior, it's always something to take note of.  Frequently, it's your first or only warning of sickness.  It also can indicate when things aren't right in the environment or that a baby is imminent.  A week or so ago I noticed one of my hen Bourbon Red turkeys looking kind of droopy, laying on the ground with her wings spread slightly.  I thought perhaps she had something, like baler twine, wrapped around her leg, so I walked over.  She let me pick her right up, but there was no sign of injury or anything amiss.  Still, turkeys don't normally allow humans to touch them, so I was concerned.  But when I turned back from the feed barrel with the scoop in hand, all turkeys were bright, alert, and ready to eat.  I couldn't tell which was "droopy hen".  I was a bit relieved, since appetite is usually the first thing to go when critters get sick.  The next day, the "droop" had spread.  Two hens were down.  Again, they would let me touch them without getting up and running away, but acted fine a few minutes later.  I mentioned it to Dan, and he replied that he too had seen this going on.  

As I did chores, I kept thinking about my hens.  What could be wrong?  Then I remembered a suspiciously similar story, involving the very same breed of turkey, in one of my favorite books- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She too, had seen this...just before the birds started to breed.  Her description of toms that strutted continually since fall mirrored my own Gobbles, who struts to impress the mail lady, feed buckets, and any & everything else.  The hens hadn't really shown any interest in this display, and now seemed more likely to show their own mating behavior when humans are around.  Guess both sexes have imprinted on us somewhat, since we've provided them with food and cared for them since hatching.  But spring is coming, the days are lengthening, and although I wasn't sure when turkeys would begin to lay eggs, the timing is definitely right.  So I stopped worrying and hoped for the best.  The turkeys have started to figure it out.  Gobbles is taking an interest in the ladies instead of whatever might be laying in the yard.  When one of the hens flew down from the roost in the pine tree into the chicken run, she and Gobbles seemed so frustrated that they were separated by the woven wire fence. It was as though they were star crossed lovebirds and he had eyes for no other hens, at least for a little while  They are making somewhat awkward attempts to breed, and I'm optimistic that we'll have fertile eggs this spring.  

This is hugely exciting, since we'll be hatching our own poults for the very first time.  99% of the turkeys raised in the US are the broad-breasted variety, which grow so much white meat that they physically can't even reproduce on their own.  They are more of a variety that a true breed, since they cannot mate naturally.  Each and every egg has to be artificially inseminated. So our biggest dilemma now is to decide if we'll take the eggs from the Bourbon Red hens to put in our incubator or let them try to sit on them naturally.  I'd like to perpetuate turkeys that have a good maternal instinct, which has been bred out of so much domestic poultry, but at the same time there is a possibility the hen will give up halfway through sitting and we won't have any babies.  Which might not be a huge deal to a hobby farmer or someone looking to raise their own food, but we've set our hearts on offering only heritage breed turkeys for sale here at the farm from now on.  Incubated eggs would still be 100% farm-raised and another thing we would be able to do sustainably.  It would cut out a cost (of purchasing poults), which is always a good thing for a business, and avoid the huge hassle it turned into when dealing with a certain mail order hatchery last year.  Most likely, in the end, we'll compromise and take most of the eggs at first, then leave some to the hens and see what happens.  Like the geese and peafowl, turkeys only lay enough eggs for one brood per season/year.  If you take a few eggs and put them in the incubator, the hen will lay a few more, until she thinks she has enough to make it worth her while to sit on.  Once she begins sitting ("going broody") she stops laying.  That's it.  No more eggs til next year.  So snatching a few at first actually has a reasonable chance of extending the laying season and the total number of eggs.

But it is the season to begin watching for eggs of all kinds, and I can't wait to turn on the incubator and start Hatching Season 2011.  Dan spotted a duck egg in the creek today, so the Pekins are beginning to lay.  But I'm hoping they pick a less waterlogged spot soon, so we can collect & hatch the eggs.  We didn't have ducklings last year because our male was killed by predators over the winter.  We got some new ducks late last year and should be good to go.  Duckings are so cute!  We've also had a nearly complete lack of chicken eggs as we got rid of our unproductive older hens before winter set in.   While I had replacement chicks in September, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to mature and begin laying, so I'm anxiously awaiting Barred Rock, Delaware & Ameracauna eggs to start soon.  The other hens we have are more showy and not known for laying as well through the winter. Those would be our Blue Cochins & Golden Phoenixes.  These birds will go broody and hatch their own chicks during the warmer months, which is fun, but we hatch out plenty in the early spring in the incubator.  The longer days are a signal to start laying and I've found a few Phoenix eggs in the past few days so we'll be setting soon. (Yes, I really can tell what breed of chicken laid the egg by the shape, size & color!)  So we'll be hearing the soft peep of downy chicks in another month or so, which is always amazing! 

 
 

Cow Madness

We're getting ready to have beef for sale again.  We've been planning on offering it for sale for the 4th of July weekend, so that means Happy and Louie will be leaving us in a matter of days.  Although we'll still have Fiannait and Baby Buzz (who's not really a baby anymore except in personality!) it's always sad to see half the herd leave, so we've been looking for new cows.  There is always so much going on at the farm that we just weren't able to get them in the spring when there are plenty for sale, but we saw an ad in a local paper offering feeders.  We contacted the owner and took a ride after we closed the stand on Saturday to check out the calves- one Angus and one Hereford/Angus.  Both are heifers, and black, with the cross also having a white face and small horns.  We were able to have them delivered on Sunday, and after being chased by Ponyboy and Louie for a few minutes upon arrival, they seem to have settled in nicely.  I'm told they are tame enough that they would come up to be scratched or petted at their previous home, so I'm sure our two new girls will be eating cookies or a stale bagel from my hand in no time.

Speaking of cows, those of you who have been following this blog know we got a Dexter heifer last fall in hopes of having a milk cow.  Although the sellers thought she was bred, either she didn't take or something happened, because w didn't get a calf this spring.  However, we're still so glad to have Finni, as she's just full of life and personality.  You just don't get that with the average Angus or Holstein in our experience.   Dan and I had just begun to discuss what to do when I got an unexpected email from the couple we bought her stating that they have a gentle bull for us to use.  They had offered to loan us one when we bought her, so I'm anxious to see how this will work out.  A bit on the nervous side too.  

Breeding animals means being around large, powerful males.  Working around boar hogs or bulls is actually considered a hazardous job in PA which means the farm worker must be over 16 to do so.  Even male horses (stallions) or sheep (rams) can and have killed people.  So it's best to use caution.  On the other hand, I truly believe that the way animals are raised and treated makes a huge difference.  I like to think that my boys are trained by friendship and respect, not fear. My boar, Wilbur, gladly lets me scratch his head.  My ram, Rambo, has charged at me at a full run many times, but always stops.  I'm never scared because I can see by the look in his eye that he just wants to beat the ewes to the cookies in my pocket.  Of the four horses, Ponyboy is the shyest and least aggressive.  (It probably doesn't hurt that he's a mini among big girls.)  But these are my animals and I work with them daily.  However, when we went to look at Finni and the other cows for sale, we walked among the whole herd, including bulls.  All were calm as could be, even in close quarters.  It also helps that Dexters are small and even I could see easily over all of their backs.  And we're dealing with reputable breeders, so I believe it to be a gentle bull, which should lead to an adorable, gentle baby calf!    

 
 
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