My twice daily task, moving the broiler pens and loading them back up with copious amounts of food and water. The go through both immensely fast; faster than any of my other animals. Their growth and therefore their respiration are far greater than most chickens. They need water to digest their food, just like any of us and they eat more food per pound of body weight than most all of us. Out their backside then comes more waste than all of us. This demands that they be moved twice every day to a fresh 100 square feet.
So, on this particular day, the older group of broilers had the luck of being up by the locust, maple, and cherry trees. It’s cooler there. I think they enjoy that. They are very toasty creatures as they get older. Chickens are already warmer than us, but broilers put out even more heat, their little hearts beating so fast to pump blood to all the growing muscles. The bugs are different too. Fewer crickets. More pill bugs. Diversity is good. Even chickens like different snacks now and then.
I took the food pans and set them up on top of the pen. Pulled out the waterer and set it aside. I slide the wheels under the edge of the chicken tractor and then pushed it into a new area. I slide the wheels back out and set them aside so I could move the younger batch of broilers once I had finished up with these guys. I turned to refill their water and heard a shuffle and flapping of wings and sharp squawks from the pen. I spin back around and see the birds splayed out in a semi-circle, giving something the side-eye, nervously inching away, yet keeping their heads steady.
I’m intrigued and confused. What could make them act like that suddenly? I came to a conclusion before even needing to see it: A snake. For sure. Chickens and snakes are not usually on the best terms. Although it could have been a toad as I do have some mighty big fellas hopping around the farm slurping up slugs. But they would have seen a toad. Snakes are better at lurking. I’m sure he wasn’t keen on suddenly being stepped on though! Sure enough, it was a small garter snake, curled and ready to strike these, to him, terrifyingly large adversaries. Thankfully, my poultry catcher was nearby and it is shaped much like a snake pole. I reached in and pulled out the little guy and set him free to slither back to a safe space.
But this little garter snake hasn’t been the only snake to grace my presence on the farm. The first snake was actually a four foot long black rat snake with a broken tail tip. He made his way high up into a tree with amazing precision. I was very impressed with his abilities and snapped multiple pictures of him as he wound his way up into the tree to lounge on a thick, horizontal branch for some thorough sunbathing. I was cautious while walking under that tree once it got windy that even!
The second snake was another giant black rat snake, IN MY HOUSE. Yes, not even joking. He stayed in my ceiling, showing just a part of himself out of a small section of my ceiling that had been removed for renovations. It only took me 24 hours from the moment I saw him to the moment I managed to fight him out of my ceiling with the aid of my poultry hook. He wasn’t too pleased at his eviction and fought with all his might to stay. Once I finally wrestled him free, I took him up to the field and released him to go back to catching field mice and rats.
Finally, the most alarming snakes I’ve found this year on the farm haven’t even been in my house or very large. This winter, I secured my sheep and calves 8 hay bales weighing 600lbs each. Covered under a huge, white hay tarp, this hay has stayed green and dry since February. It only took until July before my hay became a den of snakes. The flakes that come off these bales is 3×4 feet and the hay is double stacked. Pulling a new flake from the top bale means reaching up into the hay tarp above my head and blindly pulling the flake down towards myself. This time, it also meant I had pulled a nest of young garter snakes down too. Thankfully I didn’t try to ease this particular flake of hay down and simply let it drop. The snakes went all about my feet, fleeing to new dark spaces. I kicked the hay flake a few times before quickly throwing it over the fence. That wasn’t the last time snakes came pouring out, but at least I was prepared after that shocking incident.
After all these stories of snakes, I can hear you asking me, while shaking your head, “why wouldn’t you kill them?!” Long story very short: Rats are terrible. Where there are livestock, there is livestock feed. Where there is livestock feed, there will be rats. But if you have snakes, (along with a solid feed management plan), rats and mice are kept to a minimum. Two rats can create a happy mischief (applicable name for a group of rats, huh?) of 1,250 rats in one year. Delightful, isn’t it? So, I am a steadfast advocate for snakes. Snakes may eat chicken eggs, but it isn’t a common experience. I’ve never yet lost an egg to a snake. But I’ve lost eggs to rats. Snakes may look scary, but they just want to sun bathe and eat mice and rats, so I’m willing to share my space with them.