Monday, May 7, 2007

My Work: Lenny's Girls - Part 2

We had chickens and it was beginning to sound like a real farm.

Every morning I opened the back doors of the van to let them out. Then I’d fill their feeder and waterer and shovel any grain spilled onto the floor of the van out into the yard along with kitchen scraps. The pullets wouldn’t touch the spilled grain inside but would dive after it in the yard. I guess presentation is everything.

Grit went into their feed because chickens don’t have any teeth to grind their grain. They swallow small stones that gather in a small sac called a crop in their digestive system. The grain they eat goes into the crop where it’s ground up against the stones by muscular action.

Our pullets became hens when they began to lay after twenty-five weeks. They continued for a full year before their first molt, when they lost their wing feathers and fell out of production for six weeks or so. After the molt they lay for another year, but never at the level of the first year. Laying hens make their eggshells out of calcium, so I added oyster shell for calcium to their grain. I could tell which hens were laying well because making egg yolks pulls carotene out of their bodies. Their feet and beaks turn grey instead of orange.

We learned about diseases like blackhead, bluecomb, and bumblefoot; feather-pulling; egg eating; winter lights to keep them laying and petroleum jelly to keep their combs from freezing. Like most things, it turned out to be more complicated that I had thought.

One disaster happened when our Labrador pup, Major, got into the yard one day while we were gone. He reminded us that he was a bird dog when he proudly dropped Lenny’s rival rooster at Susan’s feet when we returned. We weren’t nearly as proud as he was, especially when we found six more dead layers in the front yard, wet from dog slobber.

Another time the sheep broke into the grain shed and ate a whole bag of our 100% organic grain. The original idea was for meat chickens to clean up after the sheep and now the sheep were trying to push their way to the head of the line.

It was Charlotte’s job to collect the dozen or so daily eggs. I always liked eggs, but I didn’t really know what a good egg was until I started getting them fresh, not factory-raised and one or two months old. Our eggs had thick shells that took a good whack against the side of the pan to break, then they stood up and stared back at me with their richly deep yolks like big orange eyes.

Lenny grew into a magnificent red-combed strutter twice as big as the hens. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, but he took care of his girls. He shooed them inside if a hawk flew over and kept a wary eye on Charlotte when she gathered eggs. It was worth keeping a wary eye on him, too. When a friend from Los Angeles visited with her children, ages five and seven, they all wanted to gather eggs. We never turn down help, so I gave them the egg bucket and drove the tractor out to the drive shed to hitch up the mower.

On the way back, I saw our friend standing in the driveway with her head down and spots of blood on the ground. She had bent down to peek into the laying boxes for eggs and Lenny flew at her with his spurs up in the air and nailed her good. It was pandemonium as she fought him off while trying to get her kids out of the van so Lenny wouldn’t nail them, too. We laughed about it later, over omelets, but even a simple task like gathering eggs contains some surprises on the farm.

No comments: