Keeping an eye on things!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Continuing the dark tale...

I find it much easier to write about the tragedies of last year while enjoying the opposite effect this year. I am happy to say we are up to 50 chicks and 5 ducklings in a 5 week span, and have another 50 + 30 to hatch. By hatching only a dozen a week, I can minimize the loss should anything happen to the incubator, eggs, or the brooder heat. It is also much easier to house them in groups based on age.

But enough of that happy, positive, things are looking up talk! We have a story wrought with sadness, frustration and life lessons to finish! Carry on.

Now where was I?
Oh yes, Neville.

 Neville was the first Royal Palm turkey on the farm, and I fell in love with him at first sight. They are a beautiful bird, bred for show not really for meat, and when in "turkey love" their faces turn a brilliant blue and their waddles apple red.  Due to the popularity of the breed, I  purchased 18 fertile Royal Palm eggs which I incubated with the intent of raising, breeding, and selling them.  Naturally, they were in the incubator when the temperature problem happened. Out of 18 eggs, 2 hatched, one died almost immediately leaving me with one tiny bird that I rested all my hope on. If it was a female I could at least pair her with Neville and have chicks next year. Three weeks later she was killed by a visiting dog.
After suffering yet another crushing defeat, I was determined not to give up, so an order for 6 turkey chicks was promptly placed to the nearest hatchery, and after traveling 2 1/2 hours we were once again proud turkey parents. The hatchery threw in another one for good luck, so 7 adorable little 2 day old poults began our new flock. Three weeks later a torrential rain drowned 4 of them while they huddled together in the false safety of their enclosure. Once the water subsided, the big birds were allowed out to free-range. That's when the fox got Neville.

How much can one Heeby Jeeby Mom take??!!

Obviously much, much more. One by one, the chickens began disappearing. There were no feathers on the ground indicating an eagle attack, no headless carcasses hinting at a raccoon invasion, so who was the culprit? Then, we saw it. The bushy red tail and the tall pointed ears carrying away the 10th hen of the week in broad daylight. That little bugger, along with a few of her closest friends and relatives, succeeded in thinning our flock from 40 hens, 8 roosters and 21 ducks,  to 18 hens, 5 roosters and 16 ducks. Several of the birds were attacked, killed, and left under a tree. Almost like the foxes were killing for sport rather than hunger. How they achieved killing a full grown Tom turkey is still beyond my comprehension, but nonetheless it happened. Then, strangely, they were gone. Just like that.

With 22 hens no longer laying eggs, sales were drastically cut and I could no longer fill weekly orders. Three egg clients had to take their business elsewhere. Heeby Jeeby Hatchery could not offer the 9 different breeds for sale that we had advertised, and our selection of chicks for next year would be slim. Basically, we were starting over.

Things had to start looking up! Nope. Memorial weekend our precious buck, Reddick, died of congestive heart failure. He had always had a cough and had been checked for every possibly cause, but it finally took its toll on him. Red was a tri-colored mini Nubian and was exactly the right size for our farm. Not too big, sweet tempered, and would have produced small, beautiful babies that were of registered stock. Naturally, the does had already kidded and were not even close to coming into heat again, so Red never got the chance to strut his stuff. We buried him next to Cherry, our first milk goat, on the hill overlooking the farm.

Oh, speaking of hills, we had our hay cutting cancelled. Twice. Then one no-show. So now we have no hay, now way to cut it, and a field turning to straw.

OK enough of this! It's even more than I can take and I lived it. Thank God above that He also decided enough was enough and we began to see blessings emerging from the darkness.

  • A farmer down the road contacted me and needed 6 hens to replace his flock. I had 6 hens without roosters that I was keeping strictly for egg production. 
  • A young girl contacted me wanting a black Shetland ram to breed with her white ewe. I had 2 black ram lambs for her to choose from.
  • A couple messaged me needing a new rooster and 2 ducks for their flocks. Guess what? I had a rooster without hens, and 2 ducks needing a home.
  • I advertised for hay equipment within budget, small enough to fit my little tractor and in 5 minutes had a phone call with exactly what I needed for a ridiculously low price.
Coincidence? More like divine intervention.

Then the biggest break of all...a friend called and asked if I had tried the huge swap meet near the caves to sell my wool products. I told her that I had never thought of selling there, but that I had wanted to visit and had never got around to it. "We sell out every year", she explained, "Including all of our goats." Ding Ding Ding. The bells went off in my head. I began frantically researching the swap meet known locally as Jacob's Cave Animal swap, and discovered that up to 50,000 visitors go through there every selling season. Hundreds of vendors sell everything from Tupperware to rifle targets, and small farm animals are the biggest draw. 

Since I had already perfected setting up the farm stand for the farmers market, adding a pen to house a few small ruminants and a couple of duck carriers would be easy peasy. What I found at that swap meet was a family of vendors who spend a week selling, chatting, eating, and sharing everything they can with their neighbors. No one goes hungry. No one has a bad day. No one is a stranger. Never have I had a more enjoyable experience selling farm animals! People from near and far come to the swap, and each one is looking for something specific. The wool was a huge hit and I was able to sell it raw and unwashed to several visitors. Who knew?! Poncho became the talk of the swap after passers-by noticed him "working the sheep" through the fence. Then the newspaper showed up and did an interview, showcasing Poncho and the wool roving I had just hand-carded during an impromptu class. 
Lily even had her day in the spotlight as the "How to Milk a Goat" lead star. Twice a day, shoppers would stop and gather around the milking stanchion watching as we demonstrated the finer points of goat care. Lily was only too happy to comply as long as the feed held out. 

So what did all of this teach me?  Life on a farm, even a little hobby farm, is not always picture perfect. Animals die, get sick, get hurt, then are born and bred to start again. Things break, fall apart, and you learn to fix them and carry on. Just when you think you "can't take no more" take some more. But most important of all, God is good. I learned from each of these lessons, and have a greater appreciation of all things farm related. So now...

  1. The incubator has been adjusted and is working fine. 
  2. The remaining three turkeys are big and healthy, and are opposite sex so babies should be happening this year. 
  3. I purchased a beautiful little Pygora buck (Pygmy/Angora) to add to the fiber mix and to produce fuzzy babies. At least 2 of the 3 goats are now pregnant.
  4. The sheep have been confined to their large run for the last three weeks, and yesterday we welcomed our 1st set of twins for the year. Without hiking up a mountain.
  5. I have reserved not one, but TWO swap meets; June and October. No more trying to scrape by at little markets (Though of course we will still try!).
  6. I pick up my new used hay equipment next month so we can cut/bale/store and sell our own.
Farming is hard. Farming is heartbreaking. Farming is wonderful and joyful and beautiful. 
Farming is life.

Happy farming everyone.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

And so it begins...again

Hello fellow farmers. It's me, Heeby Jeeby Mom. Remember me?

It has been one year since my last post. Why so long? This story is not a nice one, in fact it is quite dark and dreary, so grab your favorite beverage, take a comfortable seat, and ready yourself for an epic tale.  I like to call it "Farming faux pas" or "Tough lessons, big losses". To drive the point home I have even added some wonderful life lesson quotes that are familiar to each of you. Ready? Here we go.

Last January, I set up the incubator as normal, clean and ready to hatch dozens of eggs to jump start my Spring profits. Strangely, only 1/3 of the eggs survived the first 3 weeks of incubation. Out of that 1/3 (approx 13 eggs) 2 hatched. 1 died. Curious, but not unheard of, I started over. 48 eggs in the "bator", temp was perfect according to the digital readout, humidity steady at 65%, HJ Dad and I took a short trip to visit Alexa in Louisiana. Four days later we returned home to obvious signs of a power outage, and 48 ruined eggs. Here we go again.
Now I am 30 days behind schedule with one chick to sell. The blessing was that the ducks had started to lay again so with 2 dozen duck eggs and 2 dozen chicken eggs newly set in the incubator, I started over...again. In years past, even when using our own home made crude incubator, our duck hatch rate was 98%, chickens about 92%. Fast forward one month, we get 6 chicks, 5 ducks. The other eggs in the incubator died.
Here is an image of a fertilized egg, with proper veining and the "eye spot" of the embryo clearly visible. If an egg is unfertilized, there will simply be a yolk sloshing around inside the shell.

Now let's compare that to a dead egg.

Image result for candled eggs blood ring      
In both of these examples, you can clearly see the blood ring which indicated early death due to bacterial growth within the egg. Bacteria is introduced when the "bloom" or "cuticle", (the protective coating on every egg shell) is somehow compromised. This can be through a hairline fracture,  rubbing or washing the egg, or incubating at an improper temperature. Fun fact: The U.S. is the only country that washes its eggs. One of the most common ways for bacteria to enter an egg is by washing the "bloom" off the outside of the shell. That is why we must refrigerate store bought, pre-washed, production raised eggs. Farm fresh, right from the chicken's butt eggs can be stored on the COUNTER TOP for up to ten days with NO ILL EFFECTS. I have heard all the arguments. "You'll get salmonella!" "There is poop on that egg!" You wash the egg shell off before you use it. Duh.

Back to the story.

I never wash eggs before I incubate them. There is no possible way all of those eggs had hairline cracks. had to be the temperature, but the incubator was only a year old; I was stumped.  We were now well into the month of March and all of my online competition had already been selling newly hatched chicks for over a month. I did some internet research about poor hatch rates, and determined the temp was a little low. Here we go again with another 48 eggs and an extra 0.6 degrees Celsius on the thermometer.  Do I really need to say it? 11 out of 48 eggs hatched. I was over it.

Now I have 14 chicks and 9 ducklings. Four chicks and 2 ducks are born with deformed legs. None of these survived past 2 weeks of age. In 6 years of incubating chicks that has NEVER happened. When you do the math and figure I get an average of $3 per chick and $5 per duckling...I was out $500 give or take a few. That also meant my plans to use that money for farm improvements and animal purchases was gone. Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.

The beginning of March through the end of April is also lambing/kidding time at D'Ranch, the big animal counterpart to Heeby Jeeby Hatchery. Rowdy gave birth to three gorgeous kids: two boys and a girl. Without a doubt the best mother on the farm, she nursed all three with no issue and kept them safely by her side.
 Petunia was next. Her Nubian twins, one boy and one girl, were picture perfect. Although her mothering skills are seriously lacking, and she would wander off and leave the babies unattended for hours, they grew to be healthy perfect kids.

 So far so good; I was starting to imagine profit recovery happening. March is typically "monsoon season" in Missouri, so keeping these babies warm and dry is imperative for their survival the first couple of weeks. The sheep did not get that memo. When it rains it pours.

There are two accessible shelters on the farm, and one large dry barn. Where do the ewes lamb? 300 feet up the side of the hill, under a tree, in the dark, in the rain. Those beautiful little Shetland ewes did not disappoint though! The first to lamb was Daisy, the brown and white ewe, and she graced this world with the most beautiful set of triplets you have ever seen. They looked like panda bears; the boys almost identical twins, the girl the absolute opposite coloring like a negative/positive photo. I trudged up the muddy hillside in that freezing rain three times carrying babies and finally dragging mama down only to have her run back up after the babies were tucked away in the straw.
What could she possibly be looking for? She ran back to the birth site and that's when it struck me: she was protecting the afterbirth like another lamb. Typically, ewes will eat the afterbirth which gives them a major boost of vitamins and energy to begin recovery and milk production. Only after I trudged yet again up that muddy hill and recovered the entire thing, placing it in the trailer with her, would she settle down and begin taking care of those babies. Nature is crazy sometimes.

Things were looking up. 
One week later, tragedy struck.

The babies and their mama were safely tucked away in the horse trailer with straw bedding to keep them warm and dry. Generally this is a perfect solution when lots of animals are birthing at the same time. The trailer can be cleaned and restocked for the next birth weekly, and the families moved to the barn. Easy peasy. I never realized the death trap I had surrounded them with.

Each morning I would check on the babies and make a point of touching and petting each one to ensure they were friendly and easy to handle. The morning the last of the crippled ducklings died, I made my way as usual to the horse trailer with a heavy heart, hoping the lambs would cheer me up. What I encountered was so horrific it brings tears to my eyes even now as I write about it. One of the beautiful boys had somehow caught his head in a piece of looped twine on the side of the trailer and hung himself trying to get free. Daisy was bleating for him and nudging his little body, but could get no response. I did everything I knew how to revive him, and finally after rocking his tiny body in my arms for what felt like hours, I wrapped him in a woven feed sack and carried him away. Sometimes the most important life lessons are the ones we learn the hard way.

If any of you reading this have twine looped anywhere your animals can reach, CUT IT. If I had simply followed that advice and left the cut ends dangling instead of looped, I would have prevented an unnecessary death.  Twine is essential on the farm, we all know that. It is used for everything from fence mending to tie downs.  Getting rid of twine is not the answer, storing it properly is. 

The same day as the tragic accident, Buttercup gave birth. 300 feet up the side of the hill, under a tree, in the rain. At least it wasn't dark. Danged sheep.

Both of her boys were black, just like their daddy, Coffee. Although Coffee also sired Daisy's babies it was obvious his genetics won out in this round. One day later, Gizmo also gave birth to twins, one boy one girl, also black only with bright white spots on their heads like their mama. That one was a complete surprise and I couldn't help but feel that God was helping to mend my broken heart by giving me such a wonderful gift. 

By the end of April, all of the animals were again roaming freely on the farm, including the chickens and ducks. This is the time of new growth, new bugs, and freshly turned soil. Neville, the Royal Palm tom turkey, was one of the most animated when it came to scratching and fluffing the wet ground looking for worms and grubs. I had just picked up 18 fertile turkey eggs to hatch, and was looking forward to giving Neville a mate while profiting from selling the others. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Let's consider this a chapter ended, or rather an intermission. Too many tragic narratives tend to bring the reader down so until the next time we meet, read the comics, tell some jokes, watch your favorite comedian to lighten the mood...because this dark tale has only just begun.

Happy(ish) farming everyone.