Thursday, November 3, 2011

Goodbye Goats. Farewell Chickens.

This morning I found my white cheesemaking smock freshly laundered, with a new hairnet in the pocket too, hanging on the usual hook in the cheeserie. Something about the smell of another household's laundry detergent makes items smell so much cleaner than my own. There was a certain irony to this fresh start to the week, as it was actually my last day at the farm for the season.

Diana keeps a seasonal herd, meaning her milking goats (and heritage Jacob Sheep too) stay on their natural breeding cycle. Unlike so many dairies that stagger the breeding of the herd to maintain uniform milk production over a year, a seasonal herd is quite the opposite. All the does are bred in the fall (October at this farm), carry their young through the winter and kid in late winter or early, early spring. The herd produces milk from the birth of the offspring through the end of fall. This method provides milk, and cheese, that is indelibly marked by the changes in the seasons and a short respite from twice-daily milking for the farmer and herd alike while the girls are dry.

this is, generally, how it feels
And back to the clean smock in the cheeserie - milk volume decreased to the point that required cheese production only twice (no longer three times) a week, and the CSA ended as well. With less milk, less cheese and fewer deliveries, there wasn't much justification for an extra hand on the farm. As a special treat for my last day, and a warm reminder how much I'd learned in a short five months, I was tasked with hauling and pasteurizing the milk that morning, as Diana headed into town to wave her daughters goodbye on the bus. It was an honor to feel trusted enough to undertake the alchemy of transforming three hundred and twenty some pounds of raw goat milk into delicious and tangy fresh cheese. Even better to feel confident through the process.

The learning curve has been steep this summer and fall, and I have been grateful to learn so much about basic cheesemaking, animal management and farm systems from the perspective of a small scale dairy. I especially appreciate the introduction to the policy, politics and regulations surrounding small scale dairy in Wisconsin. Oh, and eating lots and lots and lots of cheese. And, of course, a small amount of knowledge gained reminds me of just how much I have left to learn.

mingling in the barn
The introduction to goats and cheese is, of course, the main reasons I ended up here. But in every new situation, there is always comfort in that which is already known. For that reason, I flocked to the chickens in my early days at Dreamfarm, all 250 Americaunas, Bovans, Leghorns and someone else that just slips my mind at this moment. The girls live in four separate houses on pasture, fenced in from predators by circles of electric fence that stopped being electrified as the season wore on. These pasture raised ladies warm my little heart. Partly because these egg layers are the one thing I've had previous experience with, and also because layers are the only enterprise I've always placed on my own farm (of course, in my future planning mind). The truth is, the Dreamfarm chickens became my summer security blanket. They enchanted me and brought oodles of laughter. In return, I loved them.

At the end of each farm day, after the 'clean clothes' work in the cheeserie was through, we'd head to the great outdoors for the afternoon chores: feed and water the young goats, hogs, cattle, chickens, bucks, cats and dogs; collect eggs; give whey to the pigs and haul alfalfa to the feeders for the milkers. And then it was time for the second milking of the day. I was always drawn to the chickens, and happily re-filled extra waterers, collected the feed, grit, egg basket and cheese scraps into the cart to ramble down the hill to the hen's valley. At each hen abode we replaced waterers, moved and refilled the outdoor feeders, replenished the contents of the grit bowl and headed inside to collect eggs and survey mischief. The mayhem progressed through the season to include: pecking laid eggs, laying eggs outside the nest boxes (floor, below the roost, corners, tall grass...), brooooooooding and escaping. I'd like to note that these ladies take the art of escape to a new level. Part boredom, the search for better bugs and the chicken humor conspiracy - these girls spent more time outside the fence than inside.

chicken house one
There is just so much to love about chickens, it's hard to imagine a farm without them. There's a good reason why every farm doesn't have a laying hen enterprise though: despite all their value measured in humor, hand warming, feather donation and beauty - it's hard to make a profit with small-scale egg production. Between ever increasing feed grain prices, the cost of day old chicks or pullets, cartons and (heaven forbid!) your time, the five dollar price tag for a dozen beautiful orbs at the farmers' market may not cover the true cost. Sigh. Of course no farm enterprise should exist beyond the planning stage without black in the bottom line, but it's hard to image grassy green fields, cloud-pocked blue skies and classic red barns without the feathered trouble makers in the picture.

A few reasons why chickens earn their feed, even when they don't earn their keep...a list...

chicken house two
The way the ladies flock to the nearest edge of the fence and squawk hellos at the first sound of  the afternoon chore cart wheeling down the hill. I feel like a rock star each time. The football player-like squat and run-in-place of the Bovans, so tame! Instead of running away from you, these girls run toward you, crouch and then prepare to be picked up. The lack of tailfeathers on the Americaunas as they begin to molt, they don't seem embarrassed one bit. The brooding ladies, the same few every time, who huddle in their nestboxes to hoard the clatch's eggs. They don't know there is no rooster on site to fertilize the gems below their warm bodies, but they persist. Each time they make an evil sounding hiss, and either peck my hand or escape out the skinny space behind the nesting boxes when I reach in to collect the eggs under their rumps. It's the same drama, on repeat. Of course, there are the rebels, truly free range, who live in the barn. They snack on cat food, scratch for maggots in the barn floor straw, mingle with the the sheep and deposit eggs in the haymow. I've caught two nesting for the night in a small tree, quite a sight to behold at dusk. Of the highest importance is the fact that chickens give us eggs, the daily basket of white, buff, chocolate, pale blue and olive green prizes bouncing in the cart as we travel up the hill. A miracle for which I thank them (in person) endlessly. 

A few chicken antics deserve more than just a few words...

I am convinced, after this season, that these fine fowl have sufficient brainpower to create and enjoy a specific breed of chicken humor. It looks something like this. Knowing full well the farmers prefer for the chickens to overnight in the houses, and that regular efforts are taken to accomplish this, the flock conspires and nominates one to three lovely ladies to escape for the day. The job of the escapees is to lure the farmer into chasing them in a completely futile attempt to catch the girls and return them to their house. Imagine a full grown adult, running in circles (or zig zags), slightly bent over, and using an enticing voice for "Here chicky-chicky. Come on, I know you want to come back to me." The remaining hens inside the fence congregate at the fence line to enjoy the entertainment and squawk with delight. I try to negotiate compromise every afternoon, to no avail.. I am sure this is how they contrive their daily giggles.

Beyond the laughter conspiracy, it has been well noted that some chickens eat the eggs in their very own house. As the season progresses, this phenomena seems to worsen. At first, I would find a wet, yolky mess in the bottom of a nesting box. Most likely a sign that someone acquired a taste for egg insides, through an accidental crack or intentional peck. Then the yolky mess increases, someone is acting intentionally. Next, a few brave souls swarm the egg basket at collection time. As the season wears on, they peck at the eggs in the basket, despite the presence of a large human shoo-ing them away. Then the procedure turns to ultimate mayhem - a mix of shoo-ing, protecting eggs as they are placed in the basket and breathlessly crossing your fingers to avoid cracking any extra shells through the chaos.

chicken house three
And some of the eggs that avoided being pecked, and ended up in the basket and safely back to the house were huge. Huge. Early in my time at the farm, I noticed some extremely large eggs during harvest. Really big eggs. I mean, bigger than the biggest jumbo egg you see in the grocery store. Too big to fit into a carton without cracking the shell. Upon preparing these eggs at home, I had the great joy (over and over) of discovering two yolks slip out of one shell when cracked over the hot cast iron pan. A wonder indeed. Many other people were eating these eggs and noticing the joy of the double yolk. Then the questions started. Diana and I pondered chicken twins while down at the farm, Nikki and I wondered at home, and regulars at the farmers' market starting asking questions too. Why two yolks? Why are the eggs so big? Can chickens have twins? Of course, this brought on research and instant proof (a la YouTube) that indeed both yolks in a double yolk can be fertilized to form two chicks. Two totally separate chicks. Twins, in fact, in most cases. Phew - mystery solved and the spellbindingness of chickens increases, and I still can not restrain my excitement when I see a double yolk in the pan.

{Just a warning, there's a graphic description of the nature of nature below. Skip the following paragraph if you don't like to hear about death or anatomy. Do read on if you are fascinated with how nature works.}

Toward the end of the season, as the afternoon shadows came sooner and steeper, and the landscape burnt with the fire of yellow leaves, predator attacks in the chicken valley increased. I'd notice a puff of feathers outside a fenced area, or inside. On one of my last chicken runs, Diana slowed the tractor as she passed me en route to the barn just long enough for me to hear, "There was a predator in the chickens." I could see the explosion of white feathers, like the contents of a burst pillow, that tipped her off at the last chicken house of the day. I wasn't sure what to expect up close. I did see, though, a gaggle of girls, her very own kin, swarmed around the feather pile. As I swung my leg over the fence, a leghorn ran toward my feet, depositing a detached head, comb and all, at my feet. Walking up the short hill to the bird's remains, and shoo-ing away the hovering ladies and insects, I instantly saw  the chicken body was cleanly slit open, an exact gash top to bottom, exposing. Most likely caused by the sharp talon of a predatory bird. (I don't know my birds well, so I call these birds "large birds of prey I should know the name of"). I bent over in amazement, in awe of this first person internal anatomy lesson, the chest peeled wide open. I knelt down to inspect further, in absolute amazement. And then I noticed it. A peek of white buried, giving way to a view of a wholly formed egg still inside this recently alive hen. It appears she was stopped before she laid today's egg. This is a picture my mind will not soon forget. Stark, beautiful and still miraculous.

{P.S. It's ok to start reading again if you took a time out.} 

chicken house four
I could, clearly, go on and on about the chickens. The goats too if given enough time. For now, my white cheesemaker smock, freshly washed, will hang on the hook in the cheeserie for the last few batches of cheese made this season. My farm boots flipped upside down on the boot rack outside the mudroom door. This may be the end of one season, but undoubtedly not the end of the stories and farm planning. I am so excited to return for more next spring, in time for February's kidding season - with so much more to learn in the second go round.

- - - - -

In the mean time, I get to warm my writer's chair, steep plenty of tea and dream for the farm-to-come. The short days of the winter months will be filled with writing, the other job that keeps me plenty busy, snow adventures and farm planning.

Keep posted for (with much hope) more frequent posting in the months to come. Brewing updates, cider press stories, quince detective tales, the vegan footprint and a peek at the use of agricultural plastics - just a few of the topics on deck - and, of course, more farm stories. The Pens to Pasture series will hit the blog soon, along with at least one other regular feature. And, if all goes as planned, the blog will get a smidge of a makeover. Fun times ahead indeed.

Enjoy the transition to winter, and the snow where you already have it. As usual, we love your comments and are happy to write about any (food related) topic you request.

No comments:

Post a Comment