Chicks Dig Me…and I Dig Them Back
Farming is hard.
And I have a feeling Chickenman is going easy on me.
Shoveling the wood chips out of the brooder house to get ready for the imminent hatching of the chicks.
The brooder house hasn't been used for a long, long time, except by scorpions and geckos, and really big black spiders. Oddly, the more I'm on the farm the less these things scare me. I think before I was scared because it was all so unfamiliar. I'm starting to trust my instincts a little more, and I'm starting to be more cautious in a way that makes sense. For instance, I try not to shove my hands blindly into dark spaces or endow nature with any kind of feminine, loving vibe. I mean, I love Nature, but I think ultimately it's unrequited.
Feeding and watering the chickens in the morning, collecting eggs in the evening.
There were only a few casualties. I dropped one egg, and the other got cracked against my overall buckle. Which technically means I dropped two.
Modern chickens can't live on grass and insects alone, so even pastured chickens eat a percentage of grain. There are about 12 feeders for each flock, and my job is to fill them up with fresh grain. The first time I fed the chickens I was surprised by how much they crowded me. Apparently they've done this before. Everytime I accidentally stepped on one or nudged one, I was all, "Excuse me, miss...I'm sorry, pardon me..." Kind of like Porky Pig in the movie theater in the old Warner Brothers cartoons.
The second time I fed the chickens I was much less gracious. I pushed them off the feeding barrels in what I previously would have considered to be a rude manner. Now I was doing it in the interest of time. I actually thought of Temple Grandin's account of workers in slaughterhouses, how workers who have to slaughter animals on a daily basis tend to either become automatons or full-on sadists. Does it start like this — a vague impatience and an interest in completing my job?
Chickenman talks about considering the chickens externally. I think this means to see things from their perspective. He has a way of not forcing things. This intrigues me. Once when we were moving the flocks I was trying to herd the chickens with The Rake. I know that sounds bad, but it consisted of tapping The Rake behind the chickens with the purpose of herding them into their new patch of pasture.
However, I was going about it all wrong. "Don't go for the single ones, you'll never get them in that way," he said. Instead I should think of the chickens as a single organism, and tap The Rake in front of me, going back and forth in a line. "If you're getting frustrated," he said, "just let it go. You can't force it."
This is a difficult lesson.
Catching the roosters at night and transferring them to the other flock.
"Have you heard of how some farmers grain-finish their animals, to fatten them up?" Chickenman was carrying four roosters, I was carrying two.
"Yeah." Jesus, these suckers were heavy.
"Well, I hen-finish my roosters." Chickenman puts his roosters in the flock with more hens so they can have their pick, with less competition. Apparently this makes them fatter, I'm not sure why — although I'm assuming that it is probably similar to that "happy weight gain" that we humans get when the lovin' comes easy.
Roosters have to be caught at night. Chickenman wanted to show me the Chicken Whisperer way. All of the hens and roosters were huddled together. "Walk up slowly," he said. "You'll know the roosters because they peep their heads up." He told me to focus my attention on the whole group, not just the one I want, or that rooster will be onto me and will start running. He told me to maintain that "soft focus" and reach out to grab their feet and hang them upside down.
It was astoundingly easy.
I was surprised by how warm the rooster's feet were. They look kind of scaly and seem like they would be cold, but they're not. They're as warm as a bath. When I caught the roosters and hung them upside down, they were completely submissive. I expected a struggle. Chickenman said they don't have much of a choice; there's not much they can do when they're upside down. I was also surprised by their heaviness. The hens were lighter, though they looked the same size.
I did feel a pang of guilt when I tossed them over the fence to their new home. A few of them didn't seem to land so comfortably, and sort of laid there, stunned. I rationalized that they would be comforted later by all of those wanton hens, who would just be begging for...rooster. Ahem. As Potato Non Grata has told me — sometimes the puns are just too obvious.
Moving the newly hatched chicks from the incubator to the brooder house.
Oh. My. God. They are so cute it is pretty much unbearable.
I got an email from Chickenman telling me that the chicks were hatching. I was scheduled to come over the following morning.
I could barely sleep that night, I kept thinking about them. I've been checking in on them, giving them water. Mostly I've been thinking about them.
The plan is to follow these chickens through their lives, from eggs to their final destination — my plate. It was Chickenman's idea, but I wasn't far behind. I wasn't counting on them being so utterly and ridiculously cute.
Chickenman said he thought I was going to jump out of my skin when he saw me, I was so excited. I went to check on them first thing. They were all in the brooder house, except for the ones that were still in the incubator. There were quite a few of them, certainly over 150. I transferred about 30 of them over to the brooder house, marvelling at their cuteness.
I thought they would think I was their mom, because I was the first thing they saw. Just like in that Anna Paquin movie, with the geese. I was relieved when Chickenman told me it would take a lot more than that. I can barely fathom killing my own chicken at all, much less one that thinks I'm its mom! I'm an ethicurean, not Medea.
Seriously, can I do this? At least I have eight months to mull it over. Which, by the by, is a much longer lifespan than a factory-farmed chicken, who is lucky to make it to eight weeks. Although I suppose if you live in a CAFO, a shorter life is a good thing.
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