Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Things happen

I guess I jinxed myself.  I do tempt fate, as it were, but I think that is standard operating procedure for anyone who tries to make a living growing food.  We got into a new market that is willing to take our eggs. 

Just in time, coincidentally, for the layers to slow down production in keeping with the loss of day light hours.  We thought we could deliver about ten dozen a week.  They originally asked for one hundred and twenty, so I had to temper expectations on one hand, while at the same time, plan for expansion in the other. 

Then the layers dropped down to about five eggs a day, about the same time we started losing birds to a hawk.  Coadee was outside but we still lost them.  We started putting her on a lead by her house.  But that was not happening all the time and I got lazy about making her stay around the chickens.  The other problem was we lost Floppy.  She was the oldest layer and was the one that would warn the others when danger was in the air.

I got to the point, with Coadee, were I would put bailing twine under her collar and attach the other end to a pole outside of her house.  All she has to do is walk away and the rope would come out from under her collar.  The thought was she would stay until an intrusion.  Which she actually does, except, this practice was not a daily ritual.  So when a hawk landed on a barren tree outside of the chicken pen, Coadee was not around to distract and run it off and Floppy was not there to screach.

Today, I just happen to go outside, Coadee comes around the house and we head to the pen.  I wanted to close the door of the chicken house to keep heat in the house.  I climbed over the electric fence and saw a grey hawk on top of what I presumed to be a dead layer.  I immediately started throwing things at the bird.  None of which seem to phase it.  I throw a rod, chicken wire, wood blocks (2) and an orange peg.  The only thing that scared it off was a large block of wood used as a chock for the wheel on the chicken trailer. 

It flew into the trees near its catch.  I went to the house to retrieve my gun.  The dog for some reason was aware but was not barking or trying to distract the bird.  I do not think she knew really what was going on, or I was too distracted with the task at hand but she was not the dog I had seen before.

I returned with the rifle saw the bird in the tree and aimed at the bottom of the tree.  I fired, it flew to another tree, I fired it flew further away; I just kept that up until it was gone.  Hawks are a federally protected species as well as it being illegal in the state of Maryland to kill a hawk so I did the next best thing. 

I then turned my attention to the layer.  I picked her up, took her over to the compost pile and correctly composted her.  With each and every one we thank them and return them to the earth that nourished them so that they can in turn nourish the earth.  It makes me feel humane, in light of my failure to provide a safe humane existence for my charge. You learn when growing food that things happen.           

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Humane Farming and the Neighbor's Dog

Are you still considered a humane farm if you shoot your neighbors’ dog for eating your layers?  We lost two of our newest layers on Christmas Day and two from the second youngest group, two days later.  It seems that the attacks are from a dog and because we live in a relatively populated area, our thought is that it is a neighbor's dog.

Once again, the hens that stayed inside the pens were not hurt.  We had one layer from the newest group that would fly out of the pen but would not fly back in at sundown.  When we got home from our real job, I would walk out in her direction and this hen would start walking towards me.  When we met up, she would just hunker down I would scoop her up and put her in the crook of my arm.  She would just be cooing away as I walked back to the pen and house.  She was content to have the ride and body warmth.  Once in the pen she would then go into the house and I would close the door.  I no longer have to look out for her; she is one of the missing.

We have already gone through a dog attack and nursed four injured birds back to health and laying eggs.  We had to take them out of "organic" status but it still made us feel good that we could nurse them back to health.  That time when I saw the dog, I got my gun and had the dog in the cross hairs of my scope.  I just could not pull the trigger and when I did, I aimed in front to scare the dog.

I shot so that dirt would kick up and startle the dog off.  We knew who the owner was but we had not really met these people.  I went and stopped by their house to talk to them.  I introduced our farm and myself and told them how I had seen their dog with one of our chickens.  They were very apologetic and offered to pay for the chickens.  Problem was I did not really know how much we spent on the bird and what revenue loss it represented. I had the statistics just not the costs.  If I focus on cost  much, it gets discouraging.  Therefore, I did not know how much we were out, so I told them that it would not be necessary but that I only ask that they keep their dog on their property.

I explained that County law allowed me to protect my livestock and that I had had a chance to shoot the dog but chose not to, “this time”.  We as humans exhibit micro-expressions.  These are our true feelings coming out as expressions on our face before our brain takes over and governs how we are to react in any given situation.  Nevertheless, there is that split second where you can see the persons’ true feelings, if you are looking.  My statement had the effect I wanted it to have, mainly fear.  Then anger took over and the husband started to get aggressive.   

Remaining calm was my secondary objective; my primary objective was to make them aware and understand the possible consequences.  I wanted them to know that there was a possibility that if they let their dog out, to roam free, it might not come back.  I explained that we are a humane farm and shooting an animal was the last thing we wanted to do, especially knowing it could be a family pet.  As an aside, I said “Each hen lays about eight-hundred eggs in a life time and that we sell a dozen for five-fifty each.  That does not count the cost of feed and care associated with the hen," I added.

This situation was one of those that we had not planned for or thought of way back when we talked about farming.  Like so many other aspects, you just do not know until the situation presents itself.  I flashed back, to a time when I was living in the city.  I remember one Thanksgiving Day, I was sixteen and someone knocked at our front door.  The person turned out to be the owner of a car that had hit my dog.  He had stopped his car, after he hit the dog, to render aid.  He saw the address on his collar realized he was close, came to the house, and told us.  My dog, which was still a puppy, was lying on the lawn five or six houses down.  I went to retrieve him, picked up his soft lifeless body and brought him to the back yard.  I got my dad’s shovel and started digging.  Tears streaming down my face, I lost track of what I was doing because after some time my father came out.  He asked if I was okay.  He knew I was not but seeing what I was doing, he asked if the hole I was digging was deep enough.  At the time I guess my thought was, as long as I kept digging then Chevy would still be with me.  He was under my care and his death was squarely on my shoulders.  He had gotten out underneath the fence where the rainwater culvert was.  I wrapped him in a blanket he used to sleep on and gently put him in the ground.  I carefully put one handful of dirt at a time over top of his small body.  He ended up being the last dog I ever owned.  I did not tell my neighbors this. I just wanted them to think there was the possibility that their dog would be shot if he was caught poaching our chickens.  We have not seen the dog since. 

The indications from the four we lost recently are that of dog attacks.  The rooster had tail feathers missing (which we found on the ground) and what looked like a bite mark.  We found one dead in the pen, which we think was injured outside, but was able to get back inside before she expired.  With hawks, you usually find bunches of feathers and little else.  With a dog you usually find an injured hen or four with more missing.

When presented with the decision before, I could not kill a dog.  If I see it, I will try to catch it to find its owner.  This time I will know and accept compensation.  If I cannot catch the dog and I do not recognize it as being from around here, I will have to face that bridge when I get to it.

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Herding Chickens

We've lost more chickens in these past two months then we have in any other contiguous 60 day period.  I guess we are lucky though, we almost got to three years before having to deal with our first large casualty loss. Fortunately, we know why, we know how and we are trying our best to reverse the course.

We've lost eight productive layers, two to a combination of age and sub-freezing temperatures (I know your asking, how they can be old and be productive egg layers? But, they were and that’s the cool thing about RIR.  They lay prolifically the first two years, as do most chickens, but then they start to decline as do most chickens, but not as fast.  So, instead of getting an egg a day, you get an egg every other day or every three days.  They just keep laying.)  

We were told that the kind of hawks we have need a nice glide path to get to their prey.  So with that in mind we try to place the pen with as many obstacles around the radius as possible. Within a week we lost six of the youngest because they got to be too free range.  We have landscaping such that we can provide between one-hundred and eighty and two-hundred and seventy degrees of tree cover for the hen houses and fencing. 

For three years that has worked.  This past winter though we got over six feet of snow, although it melted within three weeks the third flock got use to having no fence.  Now they just fly over the net and really roam free and it is a problem on two levels, safety and nutrient management.   Safety hit home Saturday morning.  We were heading out to plant and I saw a large clump of feathers.  By the time we got to the production garden we saw three more piles of feathers.  Before closing them up that night we took count and came up two short.   The next three days four more were picked off by a family of hawks.  They weren't getting the chickens in the pen, they were picking off hens that were roaming free.

We put up seven foot deer netting around the pen in an effort to keep them in.  We knew they could fly but clearing a seven foot fence, we thought was out of the question.  That worked for less than twenty-four hours.  Much to our amazement they flew up to the top of the netting balanced themselves, then flew away from the pen.  If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I just stood there slack jawed.  We were left with cutting their wings.  They are not debeaked and they looked like they enjoyed the little flights they took so the decision was not made lightly.  Then again when it comes to death the feathers can be sacrificed.  For the most part the hens tend to stick inside the pen.  There were at least nine so now we are down to three.  If we could keep the three in thew pen that would be great.

The other problem, but slight when compared, is keeping them concentrated in one area to maximize their soil nutrient potential.  We rely on them to provide the right amount of nutrients per square foot of space they occupy.  If they are roaming all over the place they are fertilizing all over the place.  When contained, they are on grass for a couple of days then moved to fresh grass.  Because the root system is not deep when the chickens get moved onto new grasses they eat the rye and hairy vetch and tear the ground apart scratching and digging.  We are left with fine loamy soil that is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potash.

There are those three that just refuse to stay and we’ve marked them as the “Three Stooges”.  Each time they get out we would clip there wings and put them back.  After about three days of this we decided on behavioral conditioning.  If they flew out they got put in the barn stall with food and water.  We kept them there for a couple days and then put them back with the flock.  Our hope was to get them to dislike the barn and want to stay outside.

First day back outside they lasted maybe an hour in the pen.  Even though we have a lot of RIR we’ve only clipped the wings of three birds, so they are kind of easy to tell apart from the others.  The first one came out, she got her wing clipped a little more and placed in the barn.  Then we found another out of the pen by the strawberries.  We did the same thing, clipped a little bit more of the feathers and placed her in the barn stall.  A bit later as I was working in the barn the third stooge showed up.  I kid you not; I heard the clucking, turned around to see the last one inside walking to the stall.  I opened the stall door and she just walked in and joined Mo and Larry.  So much for behavioral conditioning and trying to change them. 

So by losing eight birds our egg production has dropped an average of six eggs a day.  Every two days we lose a dozen eggs, which hurts.  However, to date it seems our effort in protecting the birds is paying off.  We have not lost any more hens but you never really know until you count them at night and close the door.  Of course we still have three that are potential hawk food but we are trying our darnedest to stop that from happening.

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