“We only have chickens,” that is what I keep repeating to myself as we work each day in the snow covered landscape that has become the chickens grazing grounds. In Maryland we are use to more green than white. Chickens eat twice as much food, if not more, when the temperatures drop, which led to a shortage of feed. There has been little melt so I am now debating on whether to remove snow from around their houses so they can get to some green. The ground immediately around their houses is frozen, brown and dotted with chicken droppings.
Chickens do get frostbite just like humans, their waddles, combs and bottom of their feet are mainly susceptible to frigid temperatures. We selected Rhode Island Reds for two reason’s they are a recovering species on the Nature Conservancy List and they are hearty winter birds, hearty enough for Rhode Island’s weather. We have taken necessary precautions and done the best we can. There is only so much you can do before nature takes over, which is the angst producing part. Eggs laid closest to the doors often freeze and break, tempting the birds to peck at them.
Being a humane farm is better for the animal, its workers and the product produced. The eggs are selling well and we need to step up supply. We have twenty-five new layers getting ready to start to lay. We got a call not to long ago from a customer that was very appreciative of our eggs stating they are the best he has ever tasted. I have kept that voice mail for it is cherished, humbling and fortifying for our mission. However, being a humane farm at times like these is physically and mentally exhausting, expensive and dangerous. Yet gratifing and uplifting when we make it through another day.
There is Fer Coadee, added to this sub-freezing weather. With the chickens closed for the night, she gets to come in. During the day, we have had temperatures and wind chills in the single and minus range. Coadee is a longhair English Sheppard; she has a doghouse loaded with straw and pine shavings. I know she uses it, because I see her emerge when I come home. That still does not ease my mind; I already know that I tend to anthropomorphize so I work extra hard convincing myself that she is okay and will be okay until we get home.
Once home she is the first to be inspected for sign of frostbite or ice stuck between her toes, then I go out to the birds. We have three horse trailers that hold all the birds; each house has a heated water bucket, light and heat lamp. We use an intelligent plug that turns on when the temperature drops to 34 and goes off when it hits 42. That saves on electricity but if you never get to 42 the heat lamp stays on which drives costs up.
Last Tuesday the real temperature was minus four degrees without winds. I was able to stay home and waited until around noon. It was still freezing out, but the trailers are not large enough (given humane standards) for all the birds to walk around inside. I went out and opened the door’s wide enough for a chicken to exit and secured them in place. It was a very bright day so I was not concerned as much about hawks as I was dogs. Every so often Coadee would go out and watch the birds. For their part, the birds would come out look around and go back inside. As more ground shows the foray outdoors gets, extended. They are no dummies, they know it is cold and the house gives them reprieve. The upside is once I feed them they all come in and I can close them up for the night and I can end my day earlier. We do not have it as bad as the ranchers that lost so many of their animals in the blizzards. As I said we only have chickens, however, when I read something like that it hits home and my heart and prayers go out to them.
Remember the next time you are at a farmers market, it might be bright, sunny and warm but right now as I write this, it is minus four degrees(outside).
Buy Local: It might be the only choice our future generations have.
Pearl of Wisdom: When you are holding a basket with 50 eggs in it, do not throw the Frisbee for the dog.