Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Chickens Come & Chickens Go…

This month has been really, really busy with life in general, off-farm work obligations, Jewish holidays, an art exhibition, and a special farmgirl’s eighth birthday. On top of all that, we got new chicks!

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Here’s the backstory…

Animals all over our neighborhood relocated this summer as a result of extensive and ongoing road and sewer work. After spending the second half of the season watching seedlings get trampled to the ground, giant half eaten tomatoes left to rot, and corn eaten off the cob while it was still on the stalks 5 and 6 six above the ground, we bought a trail cam. The Spurgeon General caught a series of images that shed light on the nightly garden parties happening out back.

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Three raccoons torment a rat in a trap.

 

In addition to the raccoons, skunks, and opossums that were eating our crops, we had rats. Rats?! They nibbled on tomatoes on the vine and they dug tunnels under our chicken coop and shed. The tunnels were so prolific they shifted the flow of water around the chicken run causing rain to seep in, creating the first foul smells we had related to chickens in the three years since we started keeping them. It was time to (temporarily) clear the coop so we could rid the rats by taking away any food source and shelter the hens were providing.

We spent a lot of last winter talking about the next step for our hens. They were approaching three years old (the average age heritage birds’ egg production seriously slows down – from November 2017-March 2018 we got ZERO eggs) and we always said we wouldn’t keep chickens that weren’t laying. But what then?

We had a few choices – kill them and bury them, butcher and eat them, send them someplace to retire, or give them to a friend to do… whatever she pleased. I personally had no interest in eating them. On the small scale we farm, the hens were our pets as much as our farm animals. They ran to the back door for treats when I opened it and followed me around when I called them.

I’ve learned a bit about chickens these past years. Meat chickens are slaughtered anywhere between 21 and 170 days old (that’s 3 to 14 weeks). This is surprising for folks who regularly who eat a lot of poultry. Noone wants to think they are eating such young creatures, but we are… Our hens were over 3 years old. You do the math. They were old by meat eating standards so even if I wanted to cook our girls, they would only be good for stock or stew and I don’t care nearly enough about either to do the work it would take to clean them for that. And, again, I couldn’t imagine consuming them myself.

In the end, we felt fortunate that Stratford Ecological Center agreed to take them. They would retire on a “real” farm with a bunch of new chicken friends. Maybe…

When flocks of chickens mix, the pecking order is disrupted and has to be renegotiated. The one time I tried to add girls to our mix so difficult to watch – like mean girls in a school cafeteria, but with blood – that I vowed never to do it again.

Also, Stratford has roosters and I couldn’t help thinking in putting our girls in with them was like putting 50 year old women in a brothel. As expected, they were spotted and stalked from the moment they were introduced to their new home.

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Check out the beautiful white breasted cockerel – far side of the fence – scoping out our girls, near side, moments after they made their debut on the scene.

I was also reminded at drop off that they could be culled anytime, as early as this week. And still I left them there.

I have spoken with many friends and family about this scenario. Many of these folks are poultry eaters, few chicken keepers. I like to think they learned something through our conversations – about the chickens they eat and the hens that lay their eggs. Most thought I did the right thing taking them to the farm to retire. You gave them a chance to live a little longer, they contended. You didn’t kill them, they applauded. But at what cost? And at what quality of life?

I have long loved Stratford as a place children and families in Central Ohio can go to learn how food gets to their plates, and how a small group of people can preserve a piece of land in the midst of a real estate development boom. But the current space they have setup for their chickens pales in comparison to our backyard full of trees and flowerbeds to forage and take dust baths.

I’m grateful for the time I had with R2D2, Dot, and Golden Honey. I appreciate every egg they laid for us. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the strength to kill them quickly and peacefully, to be the cause of their “one bad day.”

 


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More Stories of Life and Death on Our Little Farm

[Warning: This, like my posts about rabbits and voles, includes discussion and images of dead animals. Vegans beware.]

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Our first flock of hens are nearing the end of their productive egg laying years. As such, we’ve been having lots of conversations around the farm about what comes next, and seeking advice and options for how to make room for a new group of ladies. In the meantime, and after a long cold winter with many days when they didn’t want to leave their sheltered run, I’ve been letting our girls roam around the yard from dusk ’til dawn.

Leaving them out on their own while I’m not in the yard with them has always been risky. We’ve had our share of predatory visitors over the years – hawks, fox, feral cats… But those risks don’t seem worth worrying about much anymore. I figure if their time earth-side is limited one way or another, they should enjoy their days as much as possible.

Still, it was with a heavy heart that I found this old biddy Thursday afternoon. All signs point to death by opossum. The only thing I’m having trouble understanding is the time of day it happened. Right around 3:30 in the afternoon. And so, for the time being, the other ladies are on fairly strict lockdown.

As usual Thompson, our farm dog, found her first. He nudged her with his nose and I joined him to investigate. We have lost chickens before, but all to what seemed like heart attacks or some other internal failure. This was the first time I saw evidence of attack. The first time I saw bloody entrails and flesh resembling what you’d find at the butcher shop. I took a moment to examine the wound, to look at her insides now that they were on the outside. This brought me one step closer in understanding the creatures that have been sharing our yard. Somehow, in death, I felt closer to her and more responsible for her than ever before.

I picked her up without any hesitation and pet her one last time. Then, in keeping with Jewish tradition of burying the dead as soon as possible, I said my own silent blessings of thanks for the time we had with her as Dan, a neighbor, and I buried her.

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Postscript: Shout out to our friends at Two Blocks Away Farm and Foraged and Sown for their support and council during this event.

 


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Field Report: April 6, 2017

It’s been a busy week and getting busier everyday. Here’s a quick look at what’s been happening on the farm.

Chicken run unwrapped! The girls are very happy to have the air flowing again.

…very happy hens.

The work table and area was emptied and out for spring cleaning.

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Unearthed a mouse corpse in the process.

New CSA member John Grimes helped us move one of the two compost bins. One more to go.

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Spring garlic planting experiment…

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.…with help from Mia Grimes.

Transplated radicchio and kale with new CSA member Benn Vaughn.

I planted a green onion vortex.

 

 

 


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Our Little Ladies

Five years ago, I started seriously exploring the possibility of getting a backyard chieckn flock. I was also pregnant and told by my very wise husband that I couldn’t get chickens and a baby in the same year. (I’m sure someone reading this has proved it’s possible, but I think he was right where we were concerned.) Tonight, I’m typing to the mostly sweet sound of our two-week old ladies cheep-cheeping away in the basement.

We got 6 chicks – 2 Buckeyes, 2 Dominiques, and 2 Golden Wyandottes. We chose these breeds for their hardiness, productivity, and variety of feather patterns – I wanted a flock with some visual diversity…

It’s been an amazing two weeks watching them transform from sweet little puff-balls with feet and beaks to the gawky teenagers they are now.

Day one. Undeniably cute and fluffy.

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Feathers coming in…

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Thigh muscles developing…

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And necks stretching.

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It’s been a lot of fun watching them explore the great outdoors,

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And make new friends.

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Looking forward to reporting on their progress another two weeks from now. By then, they might just be living outside!