THE BALLAD OF WHEEZY MCSICKY PANTS - A Post by Luke

Man, chickens can be nasty. A few weeks before butchering our broilers we removed one guy from the pen because he was breathing weird and getting pecked to death by the rest.

They have this thing for identifying weakness. It must go way back. I bet they're hardwired to assume a predator is always close by. So if one of them stumbles, well, better stick it to him so everyone else has time to get away.

We took that broiler and quarantined him in the chicken run beside the layer coop so he could catch a break and get healthy. Healthy enough so we could eat him. Man, humans can be nasty.

At first we called him “Sick Chicken.” Then “Sicky.” Then “Wheezy,” or “Wheezy McSicky Pants.” But mostly we just called him “Wheezy” for short.

When Wheezy got quarantined he acted a little squirrelly. But he's a broiler. So once it dawned on him he was getting a massive portion of food all to himself...dude was OK with being put up in the Executive Suite all alone.

The kids loved him. Wheezy was by far the most kid-friendly chicken on the property. He'd waddle right up to the boys, tap their boots with his beak, then tilt his head up as if politely asking for more food.

   Note: Not Wheezy - image taken from internet. But it looks exactly like Wheezy. So much so that I wonder if Wheezy had an online life I was not aware of

 Note: Not Wheezy - image taken from internet. But it looks exactly like Wheezy. So much so that I wonder if Wheezy had an online life I was not aware of

 

The layers, however, were less than kind. They instantly recognized the aberration in their midst.

Among them there's a firm pecking order. It's a complex hierarchy not at all based on size or aggressive tendencies. How it gets shuffled out is beyond me. But it's obvious there's an agreed upon power structure at work there. And all of them hated Wheezy.

He was bigger (but wider, lower). Yet every chance they got they'd chase him down. Only his physical size prevented him from getting picked apart completely.

Poor Wheezy. I guess what we did was kind of like saving someone from an office full of jerks by dropping them in the woods with a bunch of angry loggers.

But seeing Wheezy in close with the layers really highlighted their differences. Now, in our defence, it's not like we backed the truck up to Monsanto and asked for their freshest batch of Super Chickens. But we did get our broiler stock from a major distributor that specializes in fast growing meat birds. So Cornish Crosses are not genetically modified creatures per se...but...

Look at it from above for a second. Wheezy was an industrial chicken. Our layers are all random heritage breeds. It's hard to see them together and not think of Wheezy as Frankenstein's creation. (...100% Mary Shelly original version).

I mean...he tried! He lived in an abandoned cabin beside the villagers (we put him in the old layer coop beside the main birds). He poked around, explored. He tried to learn about his own kind. He appealed in vain to his creators - we had no answers, we pushed him away. But he kept returning. He kept trying.

Wheezy was just this lovable little juggernaut, desperately trying (and failing) to fit in.

  “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!...Alas, I did not yet know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.”

“I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers – their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how I was terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!...Alas, I did not yet know the fatal effects of this miserable deformity.”

Here's what happened on slaughter day.

 

To give you some context, previously Anna and I had offed 3 roosters last November, then 3 more the following spring. So six birds total. On this day we had 40 birds on deck. So pitter patter, let's get at'er.

Last fall we used an axe and a pot of water boiling over an open fire in the snow. It took all day.

Yes, some time was wasted on looking for non-existent avian genitalia. But now we knew better. And this time we had technology on our side.

Our neighbours that helped pen our llama dropped off their scalding pot, kill cones, and power plucker. So we were geared up. We'd also woken up good and early, had plenty of cartoons lined up for the kids, and a bottle of rum on the kitchen counter to keep momentum going.

We got to work.

My job was to kill and pluck the birds. Anna was cleaning and bagging. I walked each bird to the kill station holding it close to my chest.

Now, everybody tells you to carry the birds upside down by their talons. This is supposed to let the blood rush to their heads and cause them to pass out. I gotta say I don't believe this. They don't like being flipped upside down and held by their feet. They panic. And that overrides any urge to pass out, as far as I can tell.

So I picked them up gently and held them close to my chest.

Listen, I won't get too descriptive. I understand a lot of people might think we're monsters for offing a bunch of living things. Sure. I get that. I also admit to eating a few thousand Chicken McNuggets before the age of 15. I also pass chicken trucks on the highway blasting along at 120 km/h with hundreds of birds crippled in the wind.

Those birds aren't coming from pleasant environments, and they certainly aren't ending up at a place where they're at least held a moment and thanked before they're killed quickly.

Anyway, I struggle with it. I do. But I'm not ready to give up meat. And I don't want to feed my kids animals that were swamped in fecal matter and treated rough. And I can't become a Jainist because...it looks really hard.

So here we are. Butchering day. We're into the rum at about noon.

But now I'm really getting my groove on with the chicken plucker. Once you get your rhythm down these birds de-feather in no time.

A chicken plucker is just an electric motor spinning a tumbler of rubber pegs. You dunk the bird in the scalding pot, swish it for ten seconds, then pass it over the tumbler of rubber fingers and the feathers just fly off. It looks very releasing.

The bird gets transformed from this wet dead thing into a really appetizing, epicurean substance. Yeah it's hard, it's uncomfortable to get it to that point. But cruel? I don't know. In the moment it's more like alchemy. You've taken one thing and with a bit of flash and drama turned it into something else.

OK. That's a deeper observation I formed in retrospect. In the moment I was rolling each bird over the tumblers singing this song under a hail of wet feathers. But I'll choose to remember it on several levels.

At about bird 35, I slapped a freshly plucked carcass onto Anna's evisceration station and said to her, “Look at this. We've just decapitated a pile of chickens in our driveway and nobody cares.”

“Actually, our neighbours helped. They dropped off the gear.”

“Yeah. But what I'm saying is, it's not at all weird. Nobody's walking by wondering what the hell is going on, or if we have a license to do this.”

“Yeah. That's a beautiful thing.”

“Yep. I think it is.”

I kissed my wife, then went back to dunking chickens in power ballads.

It was a full day.

Even with all the awesome gear we still had to finish up with headlamps. Bird 40 got done way after the kids were in bed.

We cleaned up, dumped all the crap, then hosed off the stations and were about to head in for the night when we realized something...

We forgot Wheezy!

He came waddling out of his pen looking like he'd just gotten up from a long nap, wondering if there was any more food to be had.

“Crap! We'll do him tomorrow,” we both agreed, then went to bed.

But who feels like butchering one more chicken after doing 40 the day before? So a week passed. Then another. Now Wheezy was sleeping in the main coop (albeit behind the door, away from the rest). He was getting hand fed by the kids everyday. The layers were picking on him less. He was wandering more.

We let him go where he wanted.

To see him bustling through the overgrown weeds beside the coop was sad and kind of heart warming all at once. He moved like a fat tourist that got lost on safari. A little glad to be away from it all, a little proud and determined to forage for himself what was needed to make it through another strange night.

Over dinner one evening we asked the kids if we should butcher Wheezy. They kind of hummed and hawed. We told them Wheezy is a broiler, and broilers don't live that long. But after saying that, I thought...says who? Broiler farmers? What's stopping this bird from just going on? Who says he's ten weeks into his eight week lifespan?

It's one of those things you hear yourself saying as a parent then immediately think, I'm saying that as a parent.

But before I could correct myself, Bohdan said,

“I think we should just let him live it out.”

It was nice to hear. And we all agreed. OK, so Wheezy was going to live it out.

Of course soon after we said that it became obvious Wheezy was breaking down.

His respiratory condition was gone, but now he was huge. Most of our broilers came in at around 5 lbs, cleaned. Some were 6. They all looked like turkeys. Wheezy, with his personal food supply and a few extra weeks of growth, looked like a miniature emu.

Plus the weather was changing. Nights were colder. Not by much, but definitely no longer summer. Remember – these broilers have barely any feathers on their underside, and they can't roost. So he was on the ground. He had bedding, but still, it must have been affecting him.

Then one day, I can't remember what happened exactly, but Anna met me in the city and we traded vehicles but she forgot to give me the house key. And because we're always putting off little things like “make more than one house key,” I was locked out when I got home.

But it was sunny and I didn't feel like breaking in. Plus I'm always busy doing something, so it was nice to just sit for a minute on the side of my truck and watch the chickens.

We've got more birds and breeds now than can be counted at a glance, so it took me a while before I noticed Wheezy was missing.

He wasn't far.

I found him dead in the weeds beside the coop, belly up and a little purple looking. He was simply dead. None of the other birds had pecked him.

I texted Anna to let the boys know what happened, and where he was.

When they pulled up, Bohdan popped out of the car and told me like he was the one breaking the news.

“Dad,” he said, matter of factly and just a little excited, “Wheezy's dead!”

“I know,” I said. “He's over here. Want to take a look?”

“Yeah. Where is he?'

So we all walked over and had a look.

“We should bury him so coyotes don't get him!” Bo said.

“OK,” I said. “Let's do that.”

“Oh – Dad! Let's put him in the pet cemetery, with the rest of the animal pets!”

We've got a pet cemetery on our property. (Yes we do).

It's just a bump in the grass beside the treeline of our pasture, marked by a couple of lawn gnomes and some solar lights left by the previous owners. There's a bunch of pet graves there. Last summer we sprinkled our Vancouver cat's ashes around that spot.

So I grabbed a shovel and went out with the kids to dig a grave for Wheezy.

We live in a Marsh, so there was two inches of topsoil and the rest was wet grey clay. I dug a hole about a foot around, a foot and a half deep. It was already filling up by the time I got the last clump out.

We walked back to the bush beside the coop. I picked up Wheezy and carried him upside down by his talons to his grave. There was no panic now, so I didn't feel like I had to hold him close to my chest.

As I dropped him in and packed it down, the kids looked on and gave him this little farewell:

“Goodbye Wheezy!”

“Goodbye!”

“...he got to live it out.”

Plants vs. Chickens


So it turns out keeping 50 roosters in a 10' x 12' rolling pen was no big deal. I thought they'd have torn each other apart by week two, but I was wrong. I thought maybe they'd find the thing a little cramped, but I was wrong about that too. I'm no chicken psychologist, but they seemed pretty content just eating and sitting, then maybe wobbling around a bit and eating some more.

Here's where they lived (not on our driveway, of course). It's called a “Chicken Tractor.”

 

 Chicken Tractor

Chicken Tractor

That's what it's called. I didn't design it, I just built a version of it. And yes I think that name is misleading.

it's just an open air pen on wheels. Throwing the word “tractor” in makes people think there's some diesel-belching machine dragging it across a field. And pairing it with “Chicken” makes it even more confusing. Are chickens driving a tractor? Is it a tractor powered by chickens? Is it a tractor used to harvest chickens? Now I'm confused, and I've been using the thing all summer.

It couldn't be more simple. There's an open patch and a covered patch. The chickens grazed and pooped all day, then in the evening we moved it by hooking a dolly under the front and pulling it forward one length. It only took a couple moves for the chickens to get what was happening. Then they'd scurry forward with the pen in anticipation of more food.

They had fresh grass, fresh air, and fresh water. Anna also brought them troughs of feed throughout the day as they needed it. And by moving them constantly it kept their poop from toxifying their lungs and burning holes in the ground. They ended up producing the perfect amount of fertilizer. Just look what it did to the grass:

  Chicken Poo.  Mother Nature's Magic Marker.

Chicken Poo.  Mother Nature's Magic Marker.

 

So yeah, the rolling coop works. Any worries I had came from my misconception that layers and broilers were interchangeable. Not so. Comparing layers to broilers is like comparing wolves to pugs.

Every morning our layers erupt from their coop and bolt across the yard with the same degree of focus seen in the main party from The Lord of the Rings. Our broilers, on the other hand, looked like a bunch of guys who've spent way too much time watching The Lord of the Rings.

Our layers are heritage breeds. They're pretty much one tick down from wild grouse. (Don't quote me on that. I'm just basing this on aesthetics and my own backyard observations).

Broilers (Cornish Crosses) are the world's most popular industrial chicken breed. They grow big fast. Really, really astonishingly fast. It's kind of like when your kid gets one of those hatching dinosaur eggs you have to soak in a bowl of water. A couple days later you're making breakfast and you notice there's a sponge triceratops flopped out onto the counter beside the coffee maker.

Every morning gave us a silent “whoa, wait...what?” moment when we went to feed them. We didn't take progress photos with these birds like we did with our layers. We didn't have to. You could pretty much watch them grow hour by hour.

Reading up on them I came across someone who called Cornish Crosses “feathered piggies.” That's a little gross, but not totally inaccurate.

A few times after feeding them I'd crouch beside their pen and watch them eat. They were ravenous. They'd gorge themselves, then waddle over a couple inches and plunk down in the grass. There was no rooster vs. rooster aggression like with our layers. They all had the same calm, glassy blue/green eyes. Their feathers never fully arrived. And each of them had shockingly warm, pink underbellies and gigantic feet.

Actually, their warmth was the most disturbing thing about them. You could feel their body heat through your work gloves. It was weird. You could actually feel their metabolism working, feel them converting feed to mass and heat. It was like they were already pre-warmed, just waiting for that last bit of work it would take to turn them into a meal.

It was all really...easy? I'm hesitant to say it was totally easy. Because it definitely wasn't hassle free.

Here's a ridiculous moment:

About a month in we lost a few birds to a big storm. Of course it rolled in while my parents were over for lunch. One moment we were all enjoying ourselves around the dinner table, the next we were stuck under a typhoon. 

Water was just pouring off the roof and pooling around the house. I had to run around in a lightning storm like an idiot with a rake over my head, madly trying to scrape our eaves troughs clear from the ground (because we have no ladder).

My folks watched from the window, holding their grandchildren. At this point I'm pretty sure they're just happy I've lived long enough to procreate.

So I got that cleared, but then the downspouts started gushing like a fire hose. I looked over and saw the chicken tractor in a low spot in yard.  Now the birds were in a panic, all drowning in one massive puddle. I stuck my head into the house and shouted for Anna to come help me save them.

She jumped into her rubber boots and ran out there with me. The rain was coming down in sheets, it's fully cracking lightning over our heads, and the first thing I do is grab the shelter from where I shouldn't and immediately slice open my thumb.

Now I'm dripping blood, there's water and blood just running down my hands, and I've thrown open the top hatch of the chicken tractor so I can pull out the feed trays so we can move the thing, and one of the chickens manages to escape.

I grabbed him as he skittered across the roof of the pen, (he wasn't hard to catch – they were all pretty plump by now), but then as I dropped him back in I noticed my thumb had been pumping blood all over him. 

What happened next kind of played out in slow motion: A fat white bird covered in blood, tumbling down into a cage of hungry wet chickens, this one anointed creature looking up at me accusingly, then disappearing beneath a flurry of feathers and wings.

I dove back in.

“There's a bird covered in blood!” I shouted.

“Why are you sucking your thumb!” Anna yelled.

“My thumb's bleeding!” I yelled, popping back up.

“Your thumb's covered in chicken poo!”

“Fuck!”

I popped my thumb of of my mouth.  She was right. I was covered in a lot of chicken poo at that moment. I'd been crawling around inside the cage getting the trays.

“We're making bad decisions!” my wife shouted at me amid bolts of lightning.

“You're right!” I yelled/agreed. We closed the hatch and ran back to the house.

We lost a bird that day. But neither of us got hit by lightning or contracted histoplasmosis, so I'm going to call that a victory.

However, our slaughter tally was less than stellar. We ended up with 40 birds from our initial 50. That's a pretty poor margin. I hate to admit this, but hey guess what? We're newbies.

So we made some mistakes. 

Every bird down was a blow to our confidence as well as our pride. I think we lost two as chicks in the brooder, that's normal. A couple were rolled over by the pen as we moved it (everybody does that once. There's two of us, so we did that twice). 

But then we lost a few more to bad weather and poor tractor placement (See above. Initially I tucked the pen up against the treeline thinking it would help shelter them from the wind. But it was in a low spot where water pooled easily. After that lightning storm/puddle mishap we moved it to a field where it was high and dry. All good after that).  

Anna put in tons of time in everyday. She made sure they had enough feed, enough water. Cleaned out their trays, carried buckets back and forth.  Cared for them.  Occasionally I'd top them up when I got home or move their pen.  Really this one was all her.

But still, by the calendar these birds only took eight weeks to grow. Now let's take a look at our tomatoes.

When there was still snow on the ground I had to build a light station and a rack in the basement so we could get a head start. Then we nurtured our sprouts for four weeks. Don't touch the little hairs! Adjust the lights, split them up a bit, make sure they're not crowding each other, then shift the lights again. Stop touching them so much! (How am I supposed to move them without touching them!)

Then after May Long we put them in the raised bed garden. Also – a raised bed garden had to be built.  Soil was brought in.  Our wheelbarrow broke.  At that point a normal family would have paused to find a working wheelbarrow.  For some reason we figured we'd just finish hauling the dirt using a toboggan and a discarded novelty chariot. 

  Note: normal family not pictured

Note: normal family not pictured

That worked until the toboggan burned out and the chariot busted.  So we finished it gulag style, running dirt out in a chain of Home Depot buckets.

Then once they were in we thought, crap!...did we plant them too early? We had a pretty cold night...are they all dead? They're looking a little yellow. Yep, they're definitely all dead. Nope – now they're coming back. But there's actual nubs of tomato now, so we need a deer-proof fence to protect them. So I pull up some old fencing from the field and we wrap the beds in a metal grid. But then they cling to that and flop right off the side of it. So now we have to poke them back and tie them off. Meanwhile...are they getting enough water? Too much? How are they coming along? I think they're almost ready to pick. Why are you picking one now?! Leave my tomatoes alone!

OK, you get it. Here's the point: It's now six months since we first starting dealing with tomatoes. And it's just paying off. But these birds? We bought them in a cardboard box, I built a thing out of 2x4s and wire for them to live in, and they pretty much grew themselves in eight weeks. And now we have meat for the winter.

Both are important.

All I'm saying is, if you ever see the zombie apocalypse looming at you on the horizon...chickens first and salsa later. 

Don't worry. These birds will take care of themselves. Just get busy welding that protection cage onto your Subaru.

 

Mama Llama Drama - a post by Luke

A llama is a giraffe mixed with a camel, wrapped up in a teddy bear cloud. And not one part of it gives a fuck about you.

“Nothing about this animal makes sense...” Anna's brother Sterling says. We're stalking it across our neighbours field for the 3rd time in 24 hours. The llama's sort of trotting now, but also sweeping its head low and side to side like a brontosaurus as it runs.

“I don't care anymore,” I tell him. “Listen...if I get close enough, I'm tackling it by the neck. You hear me? I'll need you guys to pile on.”

“Sure,” says Leaf, widening his approach. Trying to redirect it toward our pasture. “That's kind of how they shear them anyway.”

So that's the scene.

Me, my wife's brother, and my good friend of 20 years. The three of us crouch-sprinting toward a puffball Chilean horse in a field of fresh clover.

Fuck! I'm so mad at this thing.

But let's go back a day.

I got home from work, jumped out of the car and threw my fists in the air.

“Llamas!” I shouted at the kids.

“Llamas!” they shouted back.

Then I burst into the house.

“Llamas!” I shouted at Anna.

“Llamas!” she called back.

We'd been counting down for about a week. Six days til llamas! Four! Two more sleeps, then llamas! Llamas tomorrow! Then finally...llamas today! Whoo hoo!

Whoo hoo indeed.

But on the day of, I was late getting home. Plus Anna's family was visiting and Leaf just arrived, so we had dinner then I walked out to the pasture to take a look.

I quickly realized something was wrong. This is because I have the ability to count to two.

Two llamas. We have two llamas. So how come I see just one?

“Umm,” I said, returning to the house. “...I'm pretty sure we're missing a llama. The big one. The mama.”

“What?!!” said everyone at once.

Next thing you know we're out in the pasture, fanned at arms length, combing the grass like it's a body search.

“No way she's still here,” I said.

Anna texted the previous owner.

“She says to look everywhere, see if she's lying down.”

“She's not lying down. There's only a couple pockets of bush and we've been through them like four times now. Unless she's ninja'ing herself between them while we're looking, she's gone.”

“Impossible. No way she jumped the fence!”

“I can't find any breaks,” Sterling said, finishing another walk of the perimeter.

“Well, something must have spooked her.”

“The pigs?” I asked.

“She's used to pigs. They had pigs.”

“It must have been the pigs. But why'd she leave her baby?”

“I don't know,” Anna said. “It doesn't make any sense!”

More searching, more texting. Another walk of the fence. But nothing seems out of place.

No carcass, no blood, no breaks in the wire. Nothing weird at all. Just one baby llama casually grazing, three content pigs pushing each other around in the mud, and a handful of concerned humans shuffling across four acres of prairie grass like each sweep of the foot was going to magically uncover a 6'4”, 200 pound, snow white camelid.

At the end of another search Anna and I met in the middle of the pasture.

What...the...fuck!!!” we said in unison.

Then we called it. Everyone back to the house. Time to put the kids to bed.

But I slipped out as they were falling asleep and walked to back of the pasture. Climbing up onto at set of corner posts I scanned the property just as the sun was setting.

This is crazy, I thought. All of it.

Our land...140 acres of weird marsh, creek, poplar forest, cat tails, swamp, and tall prairie grass. Look over there - I haven't even set foot on that part of it yet, and we've been here a year. And now there's an adult llama out there somewhere. How the hell am I supposed to find it?

This was supposed to be our 'livestock guardian.' A Western South American pack animal that's not at all afraid of central North American predators (coyotes and bears), who loves hanging out with small Scottish ruminants.

What?

Also, it's capable of surviving a wide spectrum of climates, can eat pretty much any vegetation and barely needs any water. So theoretically this thing could just wander forever.

Then I started to wonder...what if we don't find it? Are we just going to catch glimpses of it over the next decade or so? Is it going become our own personal Princess Mononoke forest god?

  If so, that's definitely going to freak out the kids.

If so, that's definitely going to freak out the kids.

By now the sun had set and my “wildly glancing in all directions while my imagination gets the best of me” strategy hadn't produced any results. So I gave up and walked back to the house.

I passed the pigs. They were plunked down in a new spot for the night, tucked under some shrubbery and snoring. I'll admit I'd become emotionally attached to them. Somewhat. They are peaceful creatures (when kept well fed). They just want to eat and snuffle their noses through the dirt and look for more stuff to eat. They're fast and happy and seem nearly invulnerable for the amount of tumbling abuse they inflict on themselves daily.

It was dark enough now to see the first couple stars, and I cheesily wondered what it's like for them to be out here alone on a night like this. They kind of looked like they were camping out. Did they care that it was a beautiful, clear night? Does that matter so much when you'd be just as happy sleeping through a thunderstorm in a pit of your own piss? (That you dug with your nose?)

I don't know. I think we project our own feelings on these animals too much. Either way, I'm glad we gave them full run of the pasture up til now. Even if they did freak the shit out of the llamas. Commercial pigs get like 10 square feet to live in. We gave them 4 acres. Each day they wander about like wild boars, then pick a new spot to flop down for the night. That's got to count for something.

Back at the house Anna and I stayed up a while and talked. Strategized. Tried to figure out what went wrong. But all we came up with was more weird scenarios. None of which even remotely made sense.

Theoretical Highlights:

1. Coyotes killed it in the hours between 4 and 6pm. Left the baby. Ate a full grown llama leaving nothing behind. Then jumped the fence. All without disturbing the pigs.

2. Neighbor boys shot it. (...with .22s? Is that even possible?). Dragged it across the field, then covered their tracks and tossed it clear over the wire, not damaging or disturbing a single blade of grass or leaving a drop of blood behind. Pretty impressive for 12 year olds.

3. A bear jumps into pasture at 4:30pm. Eats llama whole. Naps. Sneaks away just as I approach at 6.

4. Pigs spooked Mama Llama. A brief fight ensues. During the melee she kicks off the back of a pig and tumbles over the fence, then runs for her life leaving her baby behind.

5. Chupacabra.

OK. When shit like this starts to seem possible, it's time to get to bed.

But around four in the morning I found myself staring at the ceiling loud enough for it to wake up my wife.

“What's up?” Anna asked.

“We're shitty farmers.” I said.

“We're not shitty farmers.”

“We are. We are shitty farmers. We're not even farmers. What are we? I don't know. We say we're going to do something, then we race to get it done. Lets get llamas! We had llamas for like 6 hours before managing to fuck that up.”

“It's not our fault.”

“Who's fault is it?”

“...I don't know. We'll figure it out tomorrow. Always do. What can we do now?”

“Nothing.”

“So then just go to bed.”

I thought for a moment, then reset my alarm.

“I'll get up early and fix the gate. At least that way if the mama comes back you and Sterling can get her back in without too much fuss.”

“See? That's something.”

“Sure. That's something.”

I laid back down.

“I still think we're shitty farmers.”

“Goodnight.”

So my alarm goes off and I'm out there at dawn. Dew on everything. Me plodding along again in rubber boots, cordless drill in hand. The grass decorated with a thousand glimmering funnel shaped spiderwebs.

The pigs were still asleep. I could see their grey sides heaving in the same spot I left them last night. The baby llama was out in the middle of the pasture, chewing grass. I got the gate done then walked out to talk to him.

“Hey bud,” I said, me and him standing about normal human conversational distance apart.

“What gives?” I asked. “Where's your mama? You see where she went? What direction she head in?...Everything alright?”

I don't know if you've ever had the chance to question a baby llama, but it feels about as productive as interrogating a sock puppet.

“OK then,” I tell him. “Yeah. Hope it all works out for you. I've got to get to work. Enjoy the grass.”

Back at the house, I notice Anna's got this typed out on my computer:

“Where you going to put that up?” I asked.

“At the corner store.”

“We're going to look like idiots.”

A minor marital ensues, but long story short – who cares if we look like idiots, we've lost a large animal so let's just eat our pride and do what we can to get it back.

Annnndd it turns out my wife was right.

Before she could even pin the notice to the cork board the girl at the store said, “Oh! so-and-so were just here. They saw a llama at their place this morning as they were leaving. They left a note. Was it white?”

Score!

Now, this part of the story unfolds without me being around. So cue up yakety sax  and I'll recap in fast forward:

Anna and her brother chase the baby llama around the pasture. They try to get it into the shelter but fail several times. Then they look up and see the mama llama just staring at them from the other side of the fence. She's back! So they hop the fence and try to herd her toward the gate. But then she see the pigs, makes a 'click-click-click' noise and bolts across the road. Anna sprints after her but looses her in the bush. Then our super awesome neighbour friend shows up with her van and they all pile in and the chase is on. They drive to the farm it was seen at that morning, pile out, and discover the llama sitting alone in a meadow like some beatific deity. But of course when they get close enough to grab it, it bolts again and they have to pick themselves out of the turf and run after it. However this time they manage to herd it toward our property. But as they get it to the gate our three happy pigs come tumbling out of the brush and click-click-click, she's gone again.

“So it is the pigs,” I texted from work.

“Yep.”

“I'll move them when I get home.”

We kept their old enclosure, so after work Sterling and I banged together a temporary (and final, as they were due to get butchered in couple days) pig pit. After transferring the pigs we got in the truck and headed to that farm the llama kept returning to.

And man, I could see why. Puts our place to shame. Just a beautiful spot tucked into the woods. Nice folks, too. And they've got a real menagerie. Goats, ducks, cattle, and yep – another llama.

Our llama was at the far side of their fencing, just sitting there, calm as can be.

This was the first time I'd seen her and I was totally stunned. It was like I had no compartment in my brain to file this experience. Had I even seen a full grown llama before? I must have, but I couldn't say when. In a petting zoo? Now here's one sitting on the edge of the bush. And it's ours.

Impossible. We own a llama?

“Whoa, she's huge!” I said.

Getting up she was a little funny looking. Disarming, really. And so top heavy. Like 75% neck and fluff. Her legs seemed comically undersized. Stick-like and jointed weird, like her knees were a little too low or something. She looked 6'2” sitting down and 6'4” standing up.

Even still...so weird and calm. Alien and beautiful. And that's our llama. How is that possible? How can anyone can just own a creature like this? She looked like the physical embodiment of compassion.

So there we were. Ushering it toward a barn. Humans using teamwork. Walking it past a pair of cows, a flock of ducks, and a gaggle of flabby goats.

I wonder what these creatures think of us, I really do. What are we to them? We must seem like fumbling, relentless, omnipotent beings which pour out a never ending supply of food. What would the equivalent be for us? Imagine if one day on your way to work you came across a glowing rift in space that just gushed snacks and shelter and pillows and television. 85% of our population would probably just park themselves in front of it and call it a day. The other 15% would have to be tracked down.

I was lost in thought. It was a good thing Sterling was there. He's a magician. (An actual magician). Once we got the llama into the barn he utilized some pretty amazing slight of hand to slip a harness onto her, and we were back in business. The llama business. We should be pretty clear by now, we were excelling at.

We apologized to our neighbours for all the trouble, but they were too kind. Happens to everybody, they said. They just couldn't believe she cleared the fence.

Same with the previous owner.

“No way she jumped the fence,” she texted. “Not possible! Your fence was better than ours!”

As we left their property our neighbours said something that really stuck with me.

“All she's ever known is her previous farm. Then she was stuffed into an animal trailer and shot down the highway. Now she's let out here and everything's different. She's got to be freaking out, that's only normal. For her this is like landing on Mars.”

We got back to our place and walked her and her baby to the shelter, then locked them in for the night.

And what did it feel like for us? Success? Victory?

Nope. More like a wrong turn corrected by several other chaotic jerks of the wheel. We talked about selling them.

Then we went inside and played board games while I googled “how high can a llama jump” on my phone. I watched footage of a llama in the UK  setting a world record by clearing a 3'8” bar. That can't be right. Our fence is 4'. What gives?

The next evening we decided to let them out again. With the pigs removed and the commonwealth record for llama jumping firmly established, we figured she'd be fine. So I unscrewed the 2x4's from the shelter entrance. (The shelter was 90% finished, so “unlocking” them required us removing a zombie-proof criss crossing of plywood and mud soaked lumber.

“OK, she's doing alright...” Anna whispered.

We were in full David Attenborough mode now: “The mother llama scans the pasture for potential threats to her child. Finding none, she returns to grazing. And thus begins a new chapter in their lives...”

“She seems calm,” I said.

“I fucking hope so,” Anna sighed. And we went to have a bonfire.

About an hour later my Spidey-Senses were tingling, so I went back to check.

Both were grazing. Nothing weird at all.

But then something made the mama raise her head and tense up. Oh shit, I thought. Then she did her 'click-click-click' noise and bolted for the corner.

No no no no! She's going to jump! She's going to jump! There's no way she can...

She jumped it.

Popped right over the fence like a deer off a springboard. Right while I was watching. Cleared it like it was nothing. Unbelievable.

“Llama's out!” I shouted, running by the fire. “Llama's out!”

“WHAT!?!” Anna shouted. “No fucking way!”

“Put the kids in the house!” I yelled behind me. “Where's Sterling and Leaf?!”

“They're inside!”
“Get them! Grab the drill! Open the fence! We'll push her back! Fuck!”

So that brings us to the clover field and the sweeping, bronto-necked, world record smashing mama llama.

Eventually we did push her back. Got her to the gate, led her in, then spent another 20 minutes corralling her and her baby back into the shelter.

“Well, here we are again.” Anna shrugged.

“Now I swear,” I said. “The next time I open this shelter it's so we can load her into an animal trailer. I am so done with this thing!” (I said that, but with f-bombs every second or third word).

Here's what really killed me:

Most farmers are shitty carpenters. Sorry! Take a look around. I see a lot of crappy fences out there. Drive anywhere rural and tell me I'm wrong. Crappy fences are the norm. (But I get that now too – there's a lot to do.)

Now here I am with my own farm. I have a decent carpentry background and I build a nice sturdy fence. For everything we've done here, I've researched what the animal needs and then completely overbuild it. Like with the pigs. They don't care about the fancy house they've got. They have a puddle and shrub. Done. You think the chickens care that I built them a guest cabin?

Well, actually yeah. The chickens really like their house.

But the point is I built a good fence. And what does this thing do? Doesn't read the playbook and pulls off an impossible leap (twice!), instantly nullifying all my hard work.

That burns. That's my serving of humility right there. I'll never criticize another fence.

So what else could I do? I sat by the fire and drank heavily.

It's either sell the llamas or raise the fence, I thought. And who raises a fence? I don't think I've ever seen a single farm fence that was over 4', no matter what the animal. I can't add a couple feet to our fence. I can't. Who does that?

Mid downward spiral, Sterling lit off the fireworks he brought from Alberta. And I don't mean he sparked a couple of roman candles. This was a trunk load of pyrotechnics.

He was darting around, lighting box after box as all hell broke loose above him. Meanwhile, the chicken tractor was just a short distance away and all our plump, sumo roosters were probably falling over each other having heart attacks.

The pigs were going mental. They panicked hard, ran a few tight laps inside their pen as each rainbow starburst shrieked and exploded above them. Then they plunked down in the mud and took in the show. Probably fell back asleep.

This is crazy, I thought. All of it.

Crazy is going from a 700 square foot apartment in East Vancouver to 140 acres in rural Manitoba. Crazy is thinking we can raise pigs just because our neighbours say it's easy. Crazy is buying llamas off of Facebook. But crazy is what we do.

So you know what? This llama and her baby are here now. They're part of our farm. We're in this together.

Tomorrow we're building a bigger fence.

  Hey llamas...jump this.

Hey llamas...jump this.

Rooster Soup - Post by Luke

We eat a lot of rooster here. I didn't see that coming. But what else are you going to do with them? We're only in it for the eggs.

According to my knowledge of the poultry industry (which consists of a single viewing of that one scene from Baraka 20 years ago), it's a harsh life for chickens. Roosters in particular. I think most of them are flat out disposed of in industrial situations. But again, what do I know.

Around here we try to keep them around for as long as they can stand each other. They have this spatty, fraternal existence for a time (even roosters raised together from birth are battling from the get go), but when they start cockadoodling and turning their attention to the ladies, well, it's time for them to shuffle on.

We've been getting these random batches of unsexed chicks so it's always a crap shoot. Our very first farm purchase – 3 Light Brahmas – all turned up dudes. Then the Plymouth Rocks worked out to be an an even split of 3 hens and 3 roosters. We went back to the lady that sold us our Brahmas and got 8 birds – 7 of which are now showing to be roosters. So what gives? Is it rigged?

 chicken hat

chicken hat

Most farms will sell you either sexed pullets or a random grab. I love the random grab. It's like a carnival game. If it's a big farm the chicks are set up in giant pallet boxes (exactly the same as Superstore uses for watermelons). You get to scoop in with a fish net and choose your brood.

Random grab is cheaper because everyone's looking for hens. Now, being the weirdo over-thinker that I am, I thought I'd read up on how to sex chickens so that the next time we go I can beat the house.

This is going to be awesome, I thought. I'm going to learn how to sex chickens on the fly. I'm going to become the poultry Rain Man of rural Manitoba.

As it turns out though, it's not really the thing you want to view as a YouTube tutorial. Or rather I did once and immediately found myself thinking...you know what? I'd rather just cut the head off a full grown bird.

I'll start by saying chickens are not like you and I, and you can stop reading now if you're not willing to get anatomical.

Here we go.

Chickens (birds in general) don't have visible sex organs. This was news to me. And to my wife as well. Last fall when we slaughtered our first roosters we thought maybe we'd made a mistake.

“You know, I'm not finding any chicken penis,” Anna remarked, wrist deep in a plucked and gutted bird.

“Hmm, curious.” I said. “And what the hell is that?” I pointed to a set of dark clustery matter with tubes draping off it. “..ovaries?”

“I think that's the gizzard.”

“Isn't the gizzard in the neck?”

“No, the gizzard is close to the stomach.”

“Where's the stomach?”

“Already in the bucket.”

“I'm going to do some reading,” I said, and left my wife to further chap her hands on pulled viscera in the bitter November cold.

So here's how it works (chicken style). And don't act like you already knew this.

Both male and female chickens have a single bottom orifice, oh-so poetically termed “the vent.” The vent is dual purpose. If the chicken needs to take a dump (also dual purpose – they excrete a mix of solids and liquids every squat), a flap behind the vent flips up, and it takes a dump/leak. If it's time to propagate, the flap drops the other way and allows access to a channel for conception.

Now here's where I really feel bad for the rooster. All they do is rub vents. Briefly, frantically. Even snails get a better sex life than that of the proud rooster.

But back to my hopes of sexing them on the fly. It turns out you'd need David Copperfield level skills to pull that shit off in front of a middle aged Mennonite woman who's been raising chickens her whole life. And here's why. 

OK...sorry. I didn't finish that article. Lost me at “Chick defecates as author spreads vent.”

Seriously, it must be hard enough to be born into this world as a food pellet, but then you get folded in half and vise-squeezed until your pimple of a genital shows? (Or doesn't?). Sorry, nope. Just hand me the goldfish net. Yes we brought our own cardboard box.

So that's the dance we do to get our Layers.

We also just picked up 50 Broilers. Again, a first for us. So of course we power through, building stuff based off pictures on the internet, all the while maintaining only a cursory awareness of what's actually happening. (It's called “going for it.”).

  Side note - the Chicken Tractor I built was nowhere near as complicated as that cloning chamber I made 4 years ago:

Side note - the Chicken Tractor I built was nowhere near as complicated as that cloning chamber I made 4 years ago:

Then at dinner one night (we were having rooster soup, it was fantastic), I entertained the notion of keeping one broiler back from the slaughter. Maybe just throw it into the coop for the winter.

ANNA: “Why would we do that?”

ME: “Why not? Just to have one white egg layer.”

ANNA: “Well, we can't do it this batch. They're cockerels.”

ME: “So they're unsexed?”

ANNA: “No, 'mixed' is unsexed.”

ME: “So we've got sexed pullets.”

ANNA: “No, pullets are sexed. Cockerels are sexed too. We've got cockerels.”

ME:“...OK. Now I'm confused. Are they unsexed or are they pullets? I thought we got a mix. Didn't we get a random grab?”

ANNA (sighs): “There's no 'random grab' with Broilers. Actually, there's no 'random grab' at all. That's just what you call going to a farm and getting unsexed pullets.”

ME: “So what do we have then? What are our Broilers?”

ANNA: “We've got cockerels. Roosters.”

ME: “Roosters! We've got 50 Roosters! Why did we do that?”

I'm thinking - holy crap, roosters are loud. And 50 of them! In 2 weeks they're going to sound like a chicken version of this.

50 Roosters!

3 Roosters are annoying. And constantly, causally violent. It's like a miniature avian version of some 80's Van Damme movie playing out on your front yard. Lots of posturing, lots of kicking, and in the end everyone's messed up and who really cares.

That's with 3. Now 50!

ANNA: “Why are you looking at me like that? I've thought this through.”

ME: “Please explain.”

ANNA: “These are Cornish Crosses. They're not heritage breeds. They're meat birds. It takes 8 weeks until slaughter. They're different. They don't get to that stage. We just feed them, pasture them, then process them. They're cheaper than hens and they grow bigger. So it's win/win.”

ME (not fully convinced): “...Ok.”

Ok, so we're going for it. But on this one I'm a little skeptical.

50 Roosters.

That's like watching all 3 Expendables movies on repeat, on a wall of TVs. Everyday. Until you snap.

Maybe I should have made this thing an octagon.

 “ None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you...you're locked in here with ME!” 

None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you...you're locked in here with ME!” 

A Fence Post

First I want to thank all of you that contributed in some way to this project. Through the kickstarter, or with your encouraging words, or your sweat and hard work here on the farm, we couldn't have finished this without your help!

According to every sheep book and blog out there, ensuring you have a good fence for your sheep is the first thing that any sheep farmer should focus on. Having never built any sort of fence we spent a lot of time this past spring researching, planning and pricing out fencing options. I highly recommend this book about building fences and what type is best for your livestock, it was an incredible resource to us.

 We all took a turn with the inaugural first fence post!

We all took a turn with the inaugural first fence post!

Our land is beautiful and diverse, and also very wet - so trying to decide where we could actually keep a small flock of sheep with good pasture, while also working with (rather than against) our natural ecosystem became the focus.  There is evidence that at some point horses or a few cows were kept in the pasture area behind the house, but the grass was very overgrown and only a few rotting fence posts and rusty wire were left to show for it.

We decided to build a 4 acre perimeter fence with pressure treated wood posts, and field fencing.  We decided to go with the field fencing because it will be the most effective at keeping predators out (we are hoping) and keeping our flock in. We will then use moveable electric netting fence to facilitate the rotational grazing that we plan to do.  

 Luke, his brother and dad working on the back fence together!

Luke, his brother and dad working on the back fence together!

In order to keep costs down, and to finish it quickly we organized a 'barn raising' type party with Luke's family.  On fathers day weekend family all convened on our property and helped us dig holes, pound posts in, and get all the equipment out to the pasture.  I was absolutely amazed at the hard work, and the willingness of everyone to help out. Even my 2 year old niece was helping bring water bottles out to the field!  The collective, familial coming together was incredible, not only was the bulk of the work completed in one day, but it was a beautiful thing to see three generations of family working together, Luke was even using his grandpa's mallet for pounding the posts!

 Luke and his brother using pounding posts.

Luke and his brother using pounding posts.

After all the posts were in the ground, Luke and I spent the next two weeks stretching the fence and securing it to the posts. We attached a temporary gate from the portable pig pen, and the pasture is secure.  Our three pigs are now enjoying unfettered access to the pasture (for a few more weeks) and we are one big step closer to bringing the sheep home. 

 Stretching field fencing wire for the fence.

Stretching field fencing wire for the fence.

The next step is to build the three sided sheep shelter, and then we will be ready. We have just returned from a week vacation to celebrate my parents 40th wedding anniversary, and now we are ready to get back to work!

 It was wet and muddy, but we finished the pasture fence and we celebrated!

It was wet and muddy, but we finished the pasture fence and we celebrated!

Arrivederci Figaro - A post by Luke

 

 

Arrivederci Figaro

 Figaro 

Figaro 

So our cat is dead.

Probably really, really, very dead at the time of my writing this. I'll have to go back a bit to explain.

May Long Weekend. Around one o'clock in the morning the first thunderstorm of the season hit. And it was a good one.

We slid out of bed and went to the windows to watch it roll in. A classic Manitoba Mega-Storm, coming from three directions at once. Stirring, mountainous thunderclouds. Jagged flashes of lightning just ripping these sharp moments of daylight. And meanwhile, on the ground, all of nature is in panic. Even the forests look like they're trying to uproot themselves and run.

Then it got scary close.

A simultaneous burst of thunder and lightning -BOOM!- and I'm thinking...it hit our property! It probably lit up a tree!

I stuck my head out a window to check.

Crap! Was it was the bat house? Did I just take out my own shed?

 Bat house on the old shed

Bat house on the old shed

 

I just installed it that day. I had to laugh. What a lightning rod! What was I thinking? But no, another flash and I could see the shed was fine.

Then I thought - was it the pigs? Did it hit the pigs?

Another flash and I could see they were fine too.

Now I'm just being ridiculous. It probably wasn't that close. Besides, if lightning hit a pig I'm pretty sure I'd be smelling that.

So I stopped acting crazy (for the moment), and we stayed up to watch the storm. It was a beautiful thing. And somehow the kids slept through it.

Crawling back into bed, Anna mentioned Figaro was still outside.

“He's probably so scared,” she said.

“If it gets bad he'll just crawl under the truck,” I said, and went back to sleep.

4:45 AM. Figaro's crying outside on the porch.

Well, buddy, if you want to be an outdoor cat you have take the good with the bad.

Here's some back story:

Our cat isn't fixed. We got him from a barn litter down the road. Bo picked him out himself. We'd already lost one cat moving here.

I thought that was going to be rough on the kids. I mean, as a parent what are two traumatic things you present to your children? How about the loss of a pet and moving. We did that back to back. Literally. Thursday: your cat's dead. Friday: this is your new house.

But you know what? Our kids were champs. They spent the day cuddling their old cat and feeding him treats, then we let them say their goodbyes and we took him away to get put down. Sure, some feelings came later, but even that had less an impact than I anticipated. Then the next day we got to our land and the kids took off like they just pole vaulted the Berlin Wall.

 the first day at our new house (June 2015)

the first day at our new house (June 2015)

 

No harm done! This parenting thing is a breeze.

Anyway, weeks before this storm Figaro had been impossible.

Whining at four in the morning to be let out. Disappearing for days. Coming back limping and scratched.

Most of the time he healed up fine, but once it was so bad we had to take him to the vet.

We showed up after-hours and the crew there tried to guilt us into paying $865 for an emergency surgery he didn't need. (Cuts and scratches. All good in a couple days with a simple puss-suction and shot of antibiotics. Still, 280 bones).

But he kept going out. He wanted to stake his turf. Or meet some lady-cats. Or fight coyotes. Or whatever it was he was doing. He was relentless, insistent. And really, really annoying at 4 in the morning. So we let him go.

“I think someone around here's got a lot of barn cats,” I said to Anna. “That's what's going on. Figaro's trying to infiltrate a pack and he's getting bounced.”

“So what do we do?”

“It's like an arms race. We've got to get more cats. Our crew's got to be able to take on their crew.”

So the next day we went out and picked up about nine dozen cats.

No, actually we're rational adults so we didn't do that.

But there are a lot of farms with wild cat populations. Ours isn't one of those (yet). So what can you do? We just let him go and hoped that he'd have enough sense to stick close to home.

Anyway, back to the whining on the porch – May Long.

I tried to ignore it, but then there's this other noise.

Crap! He's in a fight with another cat! On our turf!

I leaped out of bed and ran to door. I got there just in time to see both cats rolling away under our vehicles.

I raced back to the bedroom and flicked on the lights. My wife was not impressed.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Figaro's in a fight!” I shouted. “He's in a fight with that cat he's been scrapping with! And he just got jumped on our porch!”

I threw on the first two pieces of clothes I could find then ejected myself from the house. As I flew out the door I thought I heard my wife say,

“...so?”

I saw a long handled shovel leaning against the garage. I grabbed it and jumped into the woods.

The cats were really tearing it up. It wasn't hard to find them but it was impossible to stay close. They were pinballing off tree trunks. How were they even moving that fast? Both of them were on their sides, kicking the crap out of each other. Just this unstoppable blur to chaos and noise, bouncing off trees and throwing up mulch.

Figaro was giving it pretty good to the other cat, but every time the other cat hit Figaro all I could think was, “Vet bill! Vet bill! Vet bill vet bill vet bill!

That, and, “I have a shovel! I'm going to end this!”

“Anna!” I shouted back at the house, “They're over here!”

Somewhere, way off in the distance I heard my wife say,

“...what are you doing?”

I was tumbling through the woods now, in the rain, desperate to keep up. Wet poison ivy everywhere, but I'm smashing through branches, hopping over junk piles...I'm getting close!

They rolled out onto the pasture path and I stumbled out after them. Shit! They're headed toward the neighbour's section! I'm going to lose them!

A rock pile line separates our land from theirs. For a moment I thought, I'll just hop over it and keep after them...

But then I stopped myself.

Because...you know what? I haven't met these people yet. And this would be a bad introduction - 5:00 am, crashing through their property, wearing a dark hoodie and some random pants, swinging a shovel in the rain and screaming “Figaro Figaro Figaro!

I could actually get shot doing this.

So I crouched by the rocks and listened, trying to track where the battle was heading.

At this point Anna walked up behind me, sensibly dressed for the weather.

“Hey crazy farmer,” she said, “What do you think you're doing out here?”

“I'm just...” I started to explain, gesturing with the shovel in the direction of cat-fight.

“You're just what?”

“I don't know,” I shrugged. “I guess I go nuts when something wakes me in the middle of the night.”

“I'll say.”

“I'm probably covered in poison ivy.”

“Yeah you probably are.”

As we walked back toward the house I stabbed the ground with the shovel.

“What are you doing, tough guy? You see a mouse?”

“No, there's a root or something. A rock. I hit it with the lawn tractor today. I thought I'd poke it. See what it was.”

“You're still acting crazy.”

“I'm still acting crazy.”

Back inside I dumped my clothes at the door and took a Dawn shower. (Pro Tip: Dawn dish soap neutralizes poison ivy. Kind of.). Then, smelling like an old lady, I crawled back into bed and tried to justify my actions.

“You just have to let them work it out.” Anna said.

“Oh, and is this how we choose to parent?” I asked her.

“It's our cat,” she told me.

“Well I had to do something,”

“Yeah but, what do you think you were doing out there?” she asked.

“It's called Direct Action,” I taunted. “Feel free to sit on the sidelines with your moral certitude while I'm out there making a difference in the world.”

“Enough...go to bed.”

But by now it was fully daylight and I couldn't sleep. All I could think of was my cat out there, getting his ticket punched.

A year before we moved I read Jonathan Safran Foer's book “Eating Animals”. I liked it, but I can't say I agreed with all of it. (There's a part where he illustrates the species divide by contrasting the global mania for the polar bear cub Knut by highlighting the fact that almost everyone in the crowd is eating a hot dog. Ok...)

Myself, I'm still putting it all together. And I rarely have a tidy argument anyway. I think it's possible to care for animals and eat them. And I don't say that with a shrug. Everyday I get a better sense of what that means. The author of that book can visit a slaughterhouse, but we're keeping pigs. Those are two very different things.

So I kind of spiral off in my head along those lines, thinking about my cat, our lives, wondering how my kids are assimilating all this life and death and change, meanwhile getting just enough non-sleep for it to be annoying when my alarm goes off.

Now I'm beat. It's early. I didn't get any rest. I probably got a good case of poison ivy, and somehow I got talked into working through a long weekend.

But as I start the car and head to the highway, some hero at the oldies station decides to play this song.

And for a second I feel alright. I feel like I'm starting to get it.

That, or maybe I just fucking love Tom Jones.

 We will miss you Figaro.

We will miss you Figaro.

Jurassic Marsh - A post by Luke

Feeding pigs is a riot.

We've got this routine now where we let them out of the pen first, they do a few quick laps around their fencing (these things move insanely fast), then suddenly they realize all the food is on the inside and they panic to get back in.

These guys truly value food over freedom. And I love them for it. Just watching them eat is a joy. They give it such an effort - just a wild mess of chomping, slurping, inhaling.

  Party Pen

Party Pen

Temperament wise though, they are a little complex.

Maybe it's their closeness to humanity I find unsettling. Because, come on, it must be said – a big pink pig is weirdly Caucasoid.

It's a little too close to home. Looking at their hairy trucker necks as they dive into their bowls. Watching them grunt and headbutt each other like linebackers. And, yes, the way they eye me over with familiar intelligence.

Axing the first round of roosters wasn't all that hard. Seeing three headless birds strung up in the woods beside a cauldron of boiling water over a makeshift fire was oddly beautiful. It was like a renaissance painting. But when it comes time to butcher these pigs I'm not sure what to expect.

But that's later. Today I got here-and-now problems.

Like their house. I don't know what I was thinking.

I over-built the thing. Everybody was telling me pigs don't need anything. Just string up a tarp and throw down some electrical wire and they'll be good. That's what I was told. Did I listen? Nope.

Instead I built a movable pen and a gave them a silver and black gambrel roof living hut to chill out in.

The pen gets moved everyday to give them fresh grass. That's fine, I'm good with that. It's moving their hut that's a chore. Every day, it's like Anna and I have to deadlift a go-cart out of the mud. It sucks!

  No!...Problem!

No!...Problem!

One day we're going to cripple ourselves in that pen and the pigs are not going to be running to the house to dial 911. I read Oryx & Crake.

Meanwhile, back in Chicken Town, our new batch has reached that awesome awkward stage of growth which totally proves chickens were once dinosaurs.

I mean...come on! Check it out:

  Artist's rendition of an Archeopteryx

Artist's rendition of an Archeopteryx

  Blackie, my Black Copper Maran, AKA the backyard Archeopteryx.

Blackie, my Black Copper Maran, AKA the backyard Archeopteryx.

Seriously! Does your pug reach a stage where it looks just like a woolly mammoth? No. Does your phenomenally expensive pond of koi do anything other than flick algae and gape at the air? No.

I bought this bird for $3 and it looks and acts like a freaking dinosaur. Do you get how cool this is? I get to sit on a lawn chair while these things dart around my feet and corral bugs like a pack of freakin' velociraptors.

  Fierce!

Fierce!

Well it's all a matter of perspective.

To the kids it looks like this:

flock of dinos.jpg

But to me, it feels like a mix of this and this:

 

 

 

Drive or be Driven

Early on in our relationship we had a rule - drive or be driven. This prevented the clichéd marital arguments over directions, whose route is fastest or other ridiculous driving issues. There are many times when one of us announces that we will be driving - knowing that we won't be able to resist the mutually agreed upon expectation of keeping ones mouth shut if not in the drivers seat.

 

So today we began 'staking' out where our perimeter fence will go for our first flock of sheep.  I thought to myself that learning how to put up a fence (a very important fence) with your partner could potentially be a disastrous situation.  I suppose the fact that neither of us have ever done this before kept our 'need to be right at all cost' in check. 

 

 staking out our fence

staking out our fence

Maybe it was the mutual feeling of 'what are we doing' that prevented us from turning on one another. We are in this together, and this new adventure has really been all about recognizing our little team of two (and sometimes four depending on how helpful the boys are). 

I'm a pretty optimistic person, actually, perhaps maybe I'm a mash-up of an optimist and dreamer. I'm pretty sure that anything that can be thought of can actually be accomplished. It's a great mix cause my man is a realist, and a damn hard worker, so we balance each other out. I dream up big huge things and he brings me back to earth and makes them happen.

"I think it's straight - it looks straight to me - maybe move it a little to the left" 

We got stakes in the ground, we have a plan, we have a 'barn raising' party planned for two weeks from now. Luke's awesome family is all going to help us put in over 210 posts. I'm spending all my spare time reading this book to help me figure out how to actually put in a fence. And I'm trying very hard to keep my mouth shut and let my husband do the 'driving' on this one.

 

 

 

 

Picking up Chicks

Luke and I will be sharing the blog posting over here, this one is from him.

 

Last night Anna and I had a few drinks to celebrate her reaching her Kickstarter goal, then we picked up some chicks on the internet.

Inebriated online shopping used to mean that maybe a week later a few books from Amazon showed up. Having a farm definitely changes that sitch.

Example:

Last February I was away for work. I was in the middle of nowhere celebrating the end of the job, Anna was at home celebrating having almost made it through 4 weeks of solo parenting.

I got a text from her.

“I think I found someone with Tamworth/Berkshire pigs!”

Me: “Ok.”

Anna: “I think we should get them!”

Me: “It's February.”

Anna: “We'll pick them up in March!”

Me: “March is still cold.”

Anna: “They'll be fine!”

Me: “Do I have to build anything for them?”

Anna: “No! Not right away! We'll put them in the chicken pen!”

Here's the other thing - last summer we fenced in a 16' x 24' chicken run, thinking that without it our birds would just wander off and be lost forever. But we quickly realized that they just like to putz around the yard all day and return to roost at sunset. Now the only place they never go is the chicken run.

I thought for a moment.

“Ok, sure. Let's do it.”

And sure enough, a few weeks later we're dumping a trio of piglets out of a dog kennel into our chicken run.

 The pigs in the 'temporary' chicken run.

The pigs in the 'temporary' chicken run.

 

Man, now that I think about it - that “chicken run” is the real impulse purchase enabler. It's a very convenient, safe holding pen for pretty much anything smaller than a bison. I can already tell it's going to be the on-deck circle for a parade of weird animals for years to come.

But anyway, back to the chicks.

I've been on a quest to find some Black Copper Marans. They look like black leather, bad-ass witch craft fowl, and they lay these deep burgundy snooker-ball eggs. I'm actually ashamed of how badly I want these birds. Which is funny, because a year ago I knew nothing about poultry. Now I'm this amateur chicken nerd.

 Luke and his Black Maran chick!

Luke and his Black Maran chick!

Here's the run down:

We currently have two main breeds - Rhodebars and Cream Legbars. The Rhodebars have almost cat-level intelligence, but the Cream Legbars are nearly void of cognitive functions. They're painfully dumb, but they can fly. Well, in short bursts anyway. But it's also like they kind of forget that they have the power of flight. Which offends me. I mean, it would be like I had a jet pack but never used it. They mostly prefer to awkwardly speed-walk away from danger, but if they're cornered they'll burst straight up into the air then cruise off like little Apache helicopters. Whereas when you approach the Rhodebars they just crouch and sort of shrug, letting you pick them up, quietly accepting their fate.

For a while we also had Light Brahmas, which kind of look like a cross between your basic white chicken and the Wampa creature from The Empire Strikes Back. We bought them unsexed and all three of them turned out to be roosters, so, yeah, they were fun for a while but then they were in our freezer. Which was also nice.

We've recently added a half dozen Plymouth Rocks to our flock. We had seven, but one night when they were still little puffballs in our brooder they ganged up on the smallest one and mercilessly pecked it to death. It's unsettling when cute things kill. But you scoop it up and walk off into the woods and then come back and make sure the remaining adorable little peepers have enough grain bits and fresh water to make it through the day.

Anyway, last night we did finally get a line on some Black Copper Maran chicks. Problem is, the guy only had like 3. I think that left us a little jonesing. So we went ahead and ordered another 10 Brahmas from the lady we got them from last year. Then placed an order for 30 broilers in June. Then talked about that Peacock we saw at the auction last weekend. Because hey, why not? We've got that pen.

 

 

 

I might be crazy

Usually I'm on the right path if people in my life think I'm a little crazy. Protesting big oil in the middle of Alberta, going to University after barely graduating from high school, moving to Europe to nanny for a family I've never met, trying to stop the olympics from destroying people's homes, opening a yarn store in the middle of a recession. The list could go on, but all of these 'crazy' ideas have always resulted in some life changing experiences and realizations, so I welcome the accusation that I may be crazy. Which is exactly what happened last week.

"You are crazy Anna. Buy a tractor" 

Said my dad (the former grain farmer), in response to my description of seeding my pasture without any sort of machinery - by hand, in 16' by 16' sections.

"Well I don't have the money to buy a tractor, and I'm not really sure if this is going to work anyway, but I think I will keep trying"

So this is where I'm at.  My Kickstarter has almost reached its goal - which means that in 2-3 months I will actually be starting a sheep farm. I've never been a farmer before.  Actually, I've never really even had a garden before. So yes I may be crazy.

 

I have spent the last year mulling over 'what next', I don't do well without a plan. I think I read every book there is to read on 'grass farming' and 'restorative agriculture' and 'small farming' and 'sheep raising' and after a random conversation with my bestie (Caitlin ffrench) the idea of a fibre farm and CSA was born.

"This is perfect, this is exactly what I'm meant to do.  How quickly can I buy some sheep?"

I could see it on my husbands face when I told him the idea - the look that says, "Well, I better not stand in her way.  I better get on board - my wife is a little crazy"

So I started this crazy plan. We didn't buy this property with livestock in mind per se. We wanted a few acres to eventually have sheep, but we were mostly attracted to it because of the acres and acres of forest and 'explore potential'. This means that some work will need to go into preparing it for livestock.

 Our portable pig pen and our pastured pigs.

Our portable pig pen and our pastured pigs.

 

So obviously the answer is to buy three pigs that we will rotate around the pasture in a 16 foot by 16 foot pen that moves (sort of) on a set of skids, and let them root up all the old dead grass, poop all over the ground and fertilize it, and then replant pasture seeds that will hopefully grow into a beautiful lush pasture that our sheep will then graze - all with zero experience and no machinery!

 

Well, the pigs are totally fulfilling their role - they have done a bang up job of tilling the soil, and the bonus is that they get to be outside, run around and do what they are inherently born to do (root) and they will taste good too (yes we plan to butcher the pigs and enjoy their meat all year long). 

Then I purchased a bag of pasture seeds.  I have to tell you - people in Manitoba are so damn friendly, the guys at Patterson Grains spent hours helping me craft a perfect mix of timothy grass, trefoil, clover and alfalfa that will all do well in my very wet pasture. I drove home with enough seed to plant 20 acres and I think even some hesitant thumbs up from the farmers who will go home and tell their families about the crazy girl who plans to plant an entire pasture by hand.

So I started planted, I made a 'harrow' from an old pallet and big fat nails weighted down by bricks. It didn't work as well as I hoped, the damn nails keep getting caught on all the roots and the heavy soil. So instead I settled on using a rake.  This is how it goes:

Move the pig pen.

spread the manure and rake the ground like crazy.

re-rake the ground and try to bury as much of the seed as possible.

stare at the sky and hope it rains, or stops raining depending on the week.

repeat.

 

So last week, I walked out early one morning to feed the pigs and I swear I almost started crying - the most beautiful little green sprouts poking their tiny heads out of the dirt. I may be crazy, but this also may just work!

 New growth in our pasture!

New growth in our pasture!

 

Footnote: Although my dad's comments are the impetus for this post, I have never felt anything but unconditional support from my family for ALL of my crazy ideas. Love you dad! After-all you are the original 'crazy.'