Friday, October 28, 2011

Farm Story for October 22, 2011

Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm,

It is hard to believe that our terribly hot summer has come to an end. We had gotten into the routine of watching the livestock lay in the shade while we scurried around to keep water troughs full. We also fed a lot of hay as the drought kept our regular grass from growing. Now it is time to begin thinking about our winter routine. And a big part of that winter routine is also feeding hay. We are very blessed to have a few good hay men who work with us to guarantee that we have hay available. As we’ve been using square bales this year we’ve stored most of our hay in the old barn. The old barn was on the property when we moved here thirteen years ago. There was also a three sided shed in the pasture we use for the donkeys as well as a nice Mennonite-built stable with five big stalls and concrete walkways. We appreciate all of the buildings but the old barn has certainly become a special place since we’ve been keeping it stacked full of hay.

We have mostly used the stable when we needed to house livestock. The old barn does not have a true foundation so that there is a gap between the bottom of the walls and the ground around it. That gap is great for letting a nice breeze through on a warm day but sure lets the cold air in on a nippy day. At lambing season that can be a problem as the tiny lambs nap in the chilly breeze. They are also subject to unwanted visitors. There is no point in trying to keep chickens out. They either wander under the barn walls or hop through the big opening above the half door at the back of the barn. We do not allow the chickens around the newly born lambs as the chickens peck at them, finding the dangling pink umbilical cord a tempting target. Some of the older sheep mothers will stomp and push at the chickens but most do not. We learned during our very first lambing season that it is better to double up ewes and lambs in the stable than to let the lambs risk a chicken attack. Although we’ll occasionally lock up a cow or adult goat temporarily, the old barn is mostly storage.

The dogs have dug out ruts to make it easier for them to slip in and out. Unfortunately the dogs have dug some holes right at the base of two of the doors so that we have to step carefully in and out so as not to twist our ankles. The pits are even more challenging when we cannot see where we are walking because we are carrying big bales of hay in to stack. I tend to be careful the first dozen or so times through the door and then my mind wanders and I trip in the hole, usually falling forward onto the bale I am trying to carry. I am alert for most of the rest of the unloading after a good scare.

Since the first hay cutting in spring we’ve kept the old barn almost totally full of hay. We do have one set of chicken nesting boxes in the old barn where I gather eggs daily but the hens have also gone about making plenty of new nests in the hay. I have found a few and check them regularly for eggs but whenever we are climbing up high to move hay and find eggs we feed them out to the dogs. The enormous Anatolian Shepherds love to climb the hay bales in search of their own eggs. They get an extra treat when they can corner a hen up on the bales. She will scream and spread her wings before jumping down in a cloud of hay dust and feathers. The dogs will jump off of the top of the bales trying to snag the hen in the air. The hen rushes out under the gap at the floor and is gone while the dogs go back to exploring. On a few occasions I’ve entered the barn to find a tumbled down mess of a dozen bales or so. The dogs are large enough to throw a stack of bales off balance and then ride the crashing pile to the floor. We have only had one fatality from these mishaps. I found a dead chicken under a bale pile. Although there is a slim chance it died from natural causes, my best guess would be that it was a victim of many eighty pound hay bales tumbling down.

I like to keep a water bucket filled in the old barn just in case a dog or goat spends much time inside. The scattered falling hay recently turned our bucket into a nice rat trap. The bucket ended up right next to a few bales. Some of the hay scattered from the bales ended up floating in the water bucket. I imagine the rats who had been busy eating the remaining oats out of the oat hay couldn’t tell the difference between the bales they were scurrying across and the hay floating on the bucket. One morning we found five rats drowned in the water bucket. We cleaned the bucket and disposed of the rats but right before bedtime I scattered some new hay in the water. There were no animals inside who needed to drink from the bucket. The next morning there were three more dead rats. I tried again the next night but did not catch any more rats. I doubt the rats wised up so prefer to think we put a good dent in our rodent population.

Just two weeks ago I was thrilled to find a big hunk of shed off snake skin next to the water bucket. The size of the piece of discarded skin that I found made me believe we have at least one five foot long black rat snake living in the old barn. I am thrilled! We much prefer the snakes to help control rodents rather than to have to put out traps (other than my bucket, of course) or poisons.

Right now the stable is a safe home to twenty two new layers. A friend wanted to order some chickens but only wanted a handful of them. The standard chicken order for newly-hatched chicks that will need to be shipped is twenty five. The fellow ordered Buff Orpingtons but only wanted a few so we bought the remainder once they were two weeks old. The pretty yellow birds now have their own stall in the stable where they scratch in the dirt and practice perching on a few cement blocks piled in the corners. These past few nights they have all appreciated the heat lamps that hang in the center of the stall. We had to move a few hens who had slipped into the stable out because we found that they had flown into the chick stall and were making trouble. There were two young hens who were taking turns holding the little ones hostage while the hens ate their feed and drank at their waterer. The big hens had plenty of their own food and water but I believe they were enjoying being bullies. I noticed one of the hens pecking the little ones on the tops of their heads every time they tried to leave the corner. Those two were swiftly removed from the stable. I imagine they are now picking on someone their own size in the old barn.

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