Bandaid or Hatchet

Paging Doctor Cluck, white courtesy phone…

I grew up on my parent’s farm.  We didn’t come from a long line of farmers, or really consider ourselves farmers.  At some point in his life, my dad decided he wanted to learn to farm and so he did.  He and mom had a house they renovated and some acres and regular jobs.  Along I come, the bundle of awesomeness, and they upgrade a bit.  They find a larger farm and dad is farming something like 300 acres (mostly state land through some sort of leasing agreement).  Both parents are working regular jobs, and renovating this shell of a farmhouse, not to mention raising me and eventually my sister.  I mention this for two reasons, firstly as a bit of an explanation to some of the folks who ask why I’m always working on stuff, the work ethic, the constant need to be busy.  It’s just in the blood, or as I like to say ‘I blame my parents’.

The main reason I bring this up is that we had some animals on the farm.  We never really considered ourselves farmers, I think because we didn’t come from farming backgrounds and because my parents had non farming careers.  Gentleman farmer is the term, I believe.  Anyhow, so we raised or boarded a variety of animals:  chickens, turkeys, springer spaniels, horses, meat cows, my sister…  And I can recall the occasional visit by the vet.  He’d pull up his weird pickup truck with all the doors and cabinets on the back and in his waist high boots be checking on the animals.  I never really took his contribution to the farm to be that significant until more recently in my life.  This was mostly because I was so young, and we never really had major issues with any of the animals, at least that I can recall.  We got out of farming by the time I was a teenager, so perhaps those memories are lost to time and “college”

Long story not so short, here on the homestead, I’ve had some issues of late.  A visiting dog mauled two chickens, and one of the younger ones has taken to having a bum leg.  So I wanted to take this blog post and talk just a little about some of the joys of being an Emergency Poultry Medical Tech, or as I’m classifying chicken medical treatment: ‘Bandage or Hatchet’.

What value do you place on a creature under your care? Especially if it is destined to end up on your table?  How much time, effort, or money do you invest for a few more weeks of life before its due date is reached?  It’s one thing if the animal is a beloved pet or it has a lifetime of production, be it milk, eggs, wool, etc etc.

Case #1:   Fatso.  Cornish Cross is a fast growing meat bird breed.  They are specifically bred to go from egg to freezer in just a few months.  Most of those chicken breasts to see in the supermarket are Cornish birds.  A year or so ago, I picked up a few chicks for the novelty of giving them a try.  Only a few survived, some got picked off by predators, some just disappeared, but Fatso survived and maintained.  Seemed an unfair reward to eat her after making that far.  Plus she is amusing, if the other birds are nimble butterflies then Fatso is a tank, lumbering and imposing.  But when she gets up to speed, you best get out of her way.  Plus the thought of keeping as breeding stock outweighed her meal value.

When the visiting dog attacked her, I was luckily not far away, and able to intervene quickly.  A lot of feathers were torn out, and it looked like her only main injury was that her vent was prolapsed.  That receded/inverted after a few minutes.  There were some scratches, but she was placed in isolation, given some electrolytes and a place to rest.  It wasn’t till a day or so later it was noticed that she wasn’t moving that much.  And when she did move, she heavily favored one leg.  So leg or hip injury.  She was kept in isolation for a few more days and then reintroduced.  I was unsure about putting her back in general population but it actually seemed to encourage her to move more, that struggle for food.  It has been a few weeks, and while her walking is getting better, those injuries do take time to heal.

Case 2:  Jennifer.  Generic White chicken.  Jennifer seems just as good a name as any, she seems to like it, but she won’t wear the name tag.  She was mauled by the same dog, but on a different day.  Said dog is no longer allowed on the homestead, and I had a very serious conversation with the owner.  This mauling was significantly worse, feather were tore out all around the neck and shoulder, and around the tail.  Most of the skin from the back of the neck was gone, and there was a slice in the shoulder several inches long.  In that slice I was able to see grass sticking out, this indicated to me that the crop (a sack for holding food) had been pierced.  I surveyed the injuries and took numerous photos so I could consult with a vet friend of mine who deals with farm animals.  Jen was placed in isolation with all she could need and given some time to rest and recover.  The prognosis was not good; recovery from such wounds and punctures was a long and difficult one.  Those questions I asked above? Those ran through my head.  Do I put her out of her misery? Is she actually in pain or is that just my human projection?

Three times I walked out to the isolation area with my hatchet; three times I prepared myself to end this life that was my responsibility to safeguard.  I would not call this a deeply soul searching moment, but one can take it as a bit of a blow to see an animal that you are a steward over, that looks to you for shelter, food, and safety and that you have failed in some regard.

So I left her to recover for a few days in isolation, and one morning when I went in to check on her… well, she escaped.  She escaped and rejoined the flock, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with any kind of private treatment.  As far she was concerned, she just had a hip new haircut.  And now, a few weeks later she seems to have made a full recovery, to the amazement of myself and my vet friend.

Case 3:  The Wee one.  I ordered a bunch of chicks this winter, arriving near the end of February and raised indoors till early may.  They have been moved out and integrated with the main flock quite well and I’m happy with how well they are getting along.  One day a few weeks back I found one of them sitting in the dirt, I presumed just enjoying the warm day.  But it didn’t skitter off when I walked up to it.  I discovered it to be paralyzed, its legs seeming lifeless.  I put it in isolation and began some research online.  There are cases where some birds can get diseases that will causes this, though most are inoculated early on from it, or aren’t susceptible from it till much later in life.  I suspected botulism from a piece of rotten food, but that usually passes in a few days.  I did read that sometimes, young birds can slip a tendon, and upon inspection and comparing the bird’s two legs, it felt like something along those lines.  On the good leg the leg muscle gently tapers down to the ankle, but the other leg it ends rather abruptly.  This makes me think the tendon tore and rolled up, rendering the leg totally useless.

So, a gimpy bird, what to do?  It’s able to move a little bit, using one leg and its wings for locomotion.  But what kind of life is that?

The joys of growing your own food, raising livestock, knowing they are treated with respect and love is coupled with the heavy sadness of having to make some unkind decisions.

Chicken Aerial Defense Web Deployment

run

This is my coop and run.  Don’t judge, it was built for nearly nothing but time.  It houses a variety of poultry, and usually only does so in the winter and at night as the kids get to free range during the day.  It is split in two parts, a small bit that goes off the back of the coop (including below the coop) and the Annex, which is the larger area predominately pictured.  The Annex was added on later and is occasionally used to isolate birds that are injured or are with young.  Usually i will close off the Annex in the warmer months to allow grass to grow so there is something for the kids to eat if i have to keep them in the run for a few days.  But i digress.

One of the biggest troubles a poultry owner will have is predators, and aerial ones are the toughest.  You can deter ground based ones, or live trap them, or put up fences to dissuade them, but aerial ones are a bit tougher to deal with.  Some, like hawks, are protected by law so your options are a bit more limited.  And while the kids are out free ranging they are more exposed, but i’ll cover that a bit later.  While they are in the run, they need some cover to keep the locals from swooping in for the free buffet.

When i first built the run and Annex i ran those cross pieces and put some of that cheap plastic tree netting over it.  It worked fine.  Chicken wire did as well, except for when your hat would catch in the low hanging bits of it.  The problem would come when winter would sweep through and we’d get one of those nice wet, heavy snows, and the netting would become a solid, heavy sheet of snow.  It wouldn’t break, but it would stretch, and sometimes those wooden crosspieces would break (or the screws would).  There’d be squawking, screeching, netting and wood frozen to the ground, a real mess.  Then there would be complaints filed anonymously (presumably by the chickens, the ducks aren’t really the complaining type), piles of chicken poop left strategically where i walk, dirty looks, hushed whispers.  It was just ugly.

So this year I thought i’d try something a bit different.  It’s a technique i saw when i had worked in the Caribbean, used to keep seagulls out of picnic areas.  Along one edge of the Annex (test area) i put a coated inch and quarter deck screw in every 12 or so inches.  Along the opposite edge i did the same, adding one additional screw.  Then starting at one end of one edge, i ran some bright green braided fishing line, Bravefishermen Super Strong Pe Braided Fishing Line 60lb (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00MYN0G1E/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o03_s01?ie=UTF8&psc=1), from one screw, across the run, to the opposing screw and then back to the next one.  I’d pull the line a little snug, but not too tight, as it isn’t necessary, and every few screws i’d wrap it around the screw a few times to keep it from slacking a bit too much.  The spool was 300 meters and was just barely enough to do the full Annex.  The offset of screws at the other end forces the lines to open up and cover more of an area.  And while birds have a great sense of eyesight, the green should help to deter any that might want to divebomb in for a snack.  And i’d like to see snow pile up on this.   And if any of these lines break, it’ll be super easy to fix.

line3line2line1

Outside of the Run:  There are many methods for helping keep the kids safe when free ranging, the most effective is a person, but who wants to be a chicken shepherd?  Some large farms train dogs, but here at Handy Homestead i use two approaches with mixed success.  The first is cover, so long as the birds have places to hide, they won’t be quite as vulnerable.  The roosters will keep an eye out and when they sound the alarm a bit of cover can really save their nuggets.  The second is other poultry, in my case, geese.  Geese are jerks, annoying and loud.  But they are large, mean, and very protective.  I have seen them chase off some predators simply by employing their natural ‘jerkness’.  Guinea fowl can help too, but man are they annoying.

 

-Tommaso