A Farm Story for May 14, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm
We are in the thick of getting spring hay. If the weather allows, this weekend will be the 3rd in a row that we will go to a gentleman’s hay field as he is baling and gather hay to put up in our barn. Although we do have a few other farmers who bale hay, store it in their barns and then deliver it in huge round bales as we need it, it is also important that we put up as many square bales as we can when we can get them. The hay we’ve been getting lately is fresh oat hay which is a treat for everyone. It is green, fragrant and apparently quite tasty. The sheep, goats, donkey and cattle love it and the chickens follow closely behind to gather the little bits of oats that fall off.
With the trailer and the pickup truck we can haul 100 bales at a time. As the hay is being baled, we drive between the rows of finished bales, tossing them on the trailer and then stopping every ten bales or so to stack them. When the children were younger they all helped. Al, the boys and I all loaded hay while our youngest, Katy, drove the truck. She was only 8 or 9 when she started driving in the hay fields. She stood on the floorboard and steered. The truck idled rapidly enough that she barely had to use the accelerator. She would step on the brake when we hollered at her. That was the only time she ever got to “drive” so she was enthusiastic about what was really a quite boring task.
When we found out a few weeks ago that we could go for hay, it dawned on us that we did not have any children in the house to drive. They all have their own families, jobs or college. I mentioned that to my precious friend who offered to come out to the country to help. She laughed that she didn’t think she’d be a lot of help but I knew it would be great for her to drive while Al and I threw bales. We headed out to the farmer’s place on a Sunday afternoon. When we got there we were surprised to see a few extra fellows just standing around. Al asked which row to start on while I rooted my work gloves out of the truck. When the farmer saw me putting on gloves he was surprised and told me I didn’t have to do that, he was paying these fellows to load hay. I asked him again if he was sure and his response was, “I’m paying these boys to load hay, not to stand here and drink my beer.”
With lots of help we quickly loaded the first 100 bales. Al tracked down the farmer so that we could pay and leave. He told us to go on home and just pay after we got the second 100 bales. We ran home and spent a good hour loading the hay into the barn. Our friend who was there to drive offered to help with some unloading and we gave her a pair of gloves. We all lugged hay into the barn and then sent her on her way, knowing that I could drive the truck while the beer-drinking help loaded hay. The next day I called to check on her and she said she thought she was fine until she went to pull open her sock drawer and realized how sore her fingers were from lugging each of those 60 to 70 pound bales by just a pair of twines. I don’t end up with sore fingers but I do have very tender forearms for the next few days after toting hay. It seems the soreness goes away just in time to start hay gathering again. We currently have 400 bales in the barn and we’ll see how much more we can get over the next few weeks.
Filling the old barn with hay has slightly complicated my egg duties. The hens, who are totally free range, assume we have simply set up dozens more potential nests for them. I now carefully walk through the old barn peering at every bale I can in an effort to find freshly laid eggs. There are a few spots where I scale the bales so that I can see the highest perches. I am gathering about half a dozen stray eggs a day. If I find a spot that I don’t recall seeing empty the day before I give that egg to one of the pasture dogs. I don’t want to take a chance of gathering an egg that wasn’t laid that day.
I also know that little Tootsie Pie, one of our oldest dogs, is squeezing under the door of the old barn and grabbing the eggs that are closest to the ground. She’s been such a good girl for years and years so that I can’t begrudge her a spare egg or two a day. I know that she’s been gathering when I find a broken and cleanly licked egg shell on the barn floor.
The hens have been laying like crazy lately so I don’t miss an egg or two that goes to one of the dogs. Although we have plenty of nesting boxes in several different places around the farm, it seems there are some favorite boxes that up to 8 hens will use in a day. Their favorites seem to be those with an attractive view or where there is a nice breeze even on a warmer afternoon. I sometimes find two hens crammed into a single box. I don’t know how they do it but they rarely break the eggs piled underneath them.
I am always intrigued by the different personalities of our chickens. We have over 20 breeds of birds and they do have certain temperaments that are specific to their breeds. Our Buff Minorcas and our Buckeyes are probably the most laid back. I can easily reach down and grab one of them. They just quietly watch as I reach under them to retrieve an egg. We have a few Rhode Islands that are absolutely vicious when it comes to protecting the eggs they are setting on. If you look at my right hand and arm you will find my war wounds and bruises I’ve gotten reaching under them. A few will peck but just as many will grab my skin with their beaks, hold tightly and twist as they pinch. They will also try to protect that nest box next to them, reaching out of their box to rap at me as I reach into the neighboring box. I had one old hen who died a few years ago and there are many days I think of her as I am battling these gals. She would see me approach her nest box, would stand and step aside so that I could easily reach under her for her egg. I have no idea why she did that but I was always surprised and grateful.
We’ve also had chickens within the same breed with totally different personalities. Over 12 years ago we ordered a variety of birds and ended up with two Phoenix roosters. They were very attractive birds with long showy tails. One was white on black while the other looked just like him except that his white markings were more cream colored. We came to refer to the rooster with the white feathers as Satan’s cousin. He had bright red eyes. He would stalk us, waiting for any opportunity to flog us with his nasty spurs. The rooster with the cream colored feathers barely looked up as we walked by but we learned to be wary whenever we saw either of the Phoenix fellows. I still have scars on my legs from the one fellow. Both fellows finally died of old age – our policy here is to let everyone live out their lives to the fullest- but I must confess it made egg gathering a lot easier when Satan’s cousin finally expired.