Symbiosis on the Farm

If you have been following WPP on instagram, you may have noticed a recent picture of a chicken standing on my heifer, Black Licorice. I titled it “Symbiosis in the Barnyard.” Symbiotic relationships are incredibly important on the farm. In order to keep animals healthy and ensure that their environment mimics what life would be like for them if they lived on the open range in the wild, symbiosis is an absolute necessity.

You have probably seen nature documentaries of animals such as water buffalo with wild birds perched on their backs or buzzards hopping around a pack of lions chowing down on their prey. Birds of all kinds are crucial to success of the ecosystem whether they are cleaning up after herbivores like cattle or sheep or carnivores like lions and tigers.

Chickens, in this case, serve in their vital role in a couple of ways. The cattle are not only tolerant of the chickens, but are practically blind to the chickens! This has upsides and some serious downsides. The simple downside: Chickens are mighty prone to getting stepped on by the blundering giants who have no clue that stomping on chickens is not going to go well for the chicken. Thankfully, chickens are pretty quick to hop out of the way in most cases. The positives of this awesome relationship are numerous though!

Chickens aren’t vegetarians. Did you know that?! They are serious omnivores and eat a huge variety of foods. Chickens nimbly peck at seed heads on the pasture plants but also scratch around for insects. The most fun to watch is a a chicken carefully snatching gnats out of the air! When chickens snag a bug too big to swallow in a single bite, they will essentially play “keep away” with one another as they try to find a safe space to break apart the bug and much down their prize. But how does this apply to sheep and cattle?!

Well, herbivores make a lot of poo. Fibrous grasses and legumes are digested quite efficiently by these animals, but it still makes for lots of raw fertilizer. What likes poo too? Flies. Flies are quick to lay eggs in cow patties. Dung beetles also get to work on breaking down the excrement. Chickens have an innate understanding of this and go searching for the little critters that have found their way into the piles. Chickens scratch apart the piles of poo in search of any bugs they can eat. Sure, it sounds gross, but this is what chickens were designed to do.

In addition to eating the fly larva and other bugs, the act of scratching the patties up means that the grass it has smothered can see the light of day again and allows the ground to more easily absorb the nutrients from the poo. It leads to a healthier pasture and fewer insects that will bother the sheep and cattle. Chickens will not just eat insects from the poo, but also eat them off the backs of the sheep and cattle and generally help keep them away.

Even the sheep are known to allow some back scratching from some brave chickens from time to time! During the winter, the sheep have thick, warm coats that insulate them so well that snow generally doesn’t even melt and freezing rain will form ice on their backs. The chickens are keen to lend a helping hand by pecking the ice chunks off the backs of the sheep for some water and even scratch snow off the sheep. Now, while the sheep don’t need this, it certainly seems that they don’t mind. I think they might even enjoy a nice chicken back scratch!

On a farm that allows symbiotic relationships, everyone benefits! The chickens get easy, healthy food and gain some extra daytime protection from hawks who are less inclined to snag a chicken with such large body guards. The herbivores deal with fewer insects and less stinky poo. Even the pasture benefits by being able to absorb the nutrients more efficiently! It’s a good life when they can all enjoy it together!


The Beginning of Everything Part 2: Navy Seal of Chickens

I had my chickens “secured” in what might be confused with a homeless person camping out in the back yard. A blue tarp covered a small space enclosed by chicken wire. After a few weeks, my father grew suspicious of the tarp and goes “what’s that?!” I knew I was had. I answered honestly: “uh, chickens.” I thought about giggling maniacally and just bounding off. I didn’t. He was flabbergasted, but there wasn’t much he could do now. He threw his hands up and walked away.

My chickens needed a real home. They couldn’t live in a shanty town forever. I set about designing a coop and preparing the materials. Surprisingly, despite my father’s objections, he decided to aid in the construction of the coop. Mere hours later, with only slight frustration and disagreement, we finished the coop and I painted it a rustic barn red. I was delighted. It had a nifty sliding door with a handle, two windows, a side access door so I could clean it out, two nesting boxes with an easy opening to collect eggs, and a little ramp for the chickens to scamper down.

Building the coop was actually the easy part. I had no idea. I figured I’d just catch them and put them in. I hadn’t yet learned that they are darn near blind at night and generally just stand still, hoping you go away and don’t decide to eat them. No one told me how to herd them! No one teaches you the art of gracefully engaging in chicken snatching. It would be another year before I learned about poultry hooks and fashioned one for myself out of an old metal coat hanger.

Chickens are fast. And agile. Freaking dinosaurs that they are, maybe now you’ll think of the T-rex a little differently. I doubt he struggled to get around. His little arms get mocked, but I’m sure he was crazy fast and agile too like his miniature current-day versions. A chicken will outrun you. They will dart into small spaces and around corners like their little life depends on it. (They think it does) I didn’t plan on eating them, but after running around the yard after them, I sure was thinking about it.

I attempted to catch them in broad daylight with a friend. Together we worked to corral these seven mini dinos. One darted into a clump of weeds and we thought for sure we had her. We both advanced on her location and I quickly threw my hands into the weeds. Nothing. We shoved the weeds apart. Nothing! We had both watched her leap into the weeds to hide, never seeing her leave that spot. Minds blown, we resumed our efforts with the other six. Suddenly, she was with the group! Then and there, we named her “Navy Seal,” beyond impressed with her ability to suddenly disappear.

Long story short, they eventually made it to the coop. They protested initially. But they soon found their new digs to be quite cozy and settled in for the final weeks of summer. They provided me with a few eggs after a few months of confused head scratching. I had wrongly assumed I had bought fully matured bantam hens. I could not have been more wrong. Three of them ended up being roosters and none of them were fully grown OR bantams. Obviously, I had more reading to do if I was going to be a chicken farmer of any sort.

The Beginning of Everything: Part 1-Auction Chickens

No one tells you anything about herding chickens. It’s like no one has ever had their chickens get loose before. Like I’ve mentioned before, I read a lot about chickens before getting them. Not one mention of herding the little dinosaurs. No author was ever like “if you’re chickens escape from their pen, here’s what you do.” Why do I keep bringing this up? It can’t be that hard, right? No, it’s not, once you know how they think.

When I came home from college, a switch got flipped somewhere in my head. I don’t know what happened, honestly, I don’t. I basically declared “I’m getting chickens.” So that’s what I did. I went to the small livestock auction, nervous as heck as this was my first auction ever. I got myself a number card and started perusing the auction floor, deciding the ones I’d be bidding on. I had decided I wanted bantams, which are basically just small breed chickens. However, I really had no idea how small or large a bantam was. Seeing these chickens in the flighty, feathered flesh, I had no idea what I was in for.

Bidding time came and it was like they had painted me red and tied neon lights to me. I had obviously never been to an auction before and I could see that knowledge written easily on the auctioneer’s soft smile and quick nod when I timidly raised my card. I went back and forth a few times with another bidder as I quickly attempted to decide how much these birds were really worth to me. Suddenly my bid was the winner and I was given the number of the cage of birds and the cost. I went away to pay and get my boxes, eager to take home my prize.

By the time I came back, all the animals had been sold and the bidding was over. I walked back and forth among the cages looking for my newly acquired chickens. I grew concerned as I looked, being unable to find my chickens. I began to panic a little, thinking someone had taken them. Finally! I found them! Uneasy and unsure of myself, I began the process of loading them up. I managed to get three in the box before one bounded away from me.

The little bugger went under the cages and every time I ran around one side, it darted away. I grew increasingly self-conscious as she evaded capture. An old, quiet farmer came to my rescue and deftly snagged her and put her in the cardboard box. He smiled and said “here” as he reached for the box. He took out a knife and cut a few air holes in it and then helped me load my last four chickens.

I was giddy on the ride home. I had my chickens! I’d done it! Two new experiences were had that day: Bidding at an auction and being the proud owner of 7 chickens. I truly had no idea what was in store for me, not in the next few days and certainly not in the next few years. I was entirely unaware of the brand new trajectory I had just placed myself on.

Ten Things Books Don’t Teach About Being a Farmer

Despite everything I’ve read in books and online, I’ve found that there’s just some things that books either don’t even bother to mention or they are dead wrong! So here’s a list of things I’ve learned that no book bothered to tell me before I jumped in with both feet into the farming world!

1. There’s a method to herding chickens. Yes, they can be herded, but no one tells you this. Chickens have a “flight zone” like other prey animals and running is NEVER the answer. Unlike some animals, arms and sticks can be enough to move a chicken, just a little show of spirit fingers can even do the trick to push a bird a touch more in the right direction.

2. A book once told me that I could stick a bucket on a pig’s head and then maneuver said pig with its tail. This is a LIE. I had the crescent-shaped bottom of a bucket bruise on my thigh for a solid three months to prove how wrong this was.

3. Like I’ve mentioned before, snakes LOVE hanging out in the warmth of the hay bales. No one thought to bring that one to my attention before I nearly ended up with an arm-full of baby garter snakes!

4. To teach a rooster that you’re in charge, you have to be the more aggressive creature. There’s no kindness in the world that can change the mind of an aggressive rooster. Some birds will never change their minds and you’ll forever hear the steady stomping of feet behind you as a nasty roo attempts to catch you off guard before leaping into the arm and slicing open your legs. I’m not sure if any creature is quite as mean as an un-trainable rooster out for blood.

5. Sheep love chin scratches, but they love back rubs even more. It’s a pretty silly experience to have a ewe swaying back and forth nearly lulled to sleep by a back scratch.

6. Groundhogs can and will devour your entire crop of lettuce, spinach, kale, and beets in a single night. A rabbit will spend a week eating your carrots from the tops down to the very tip of the carrot so cleanly that you’ll wonder if you imagined that you were growing carrots there in the first place.

7. A chicken can jump straight up more than two feet without every spreading her wings. She use this skill to steal an english muffin right off your plate when you go out to enjoy some chicken tv on a cool spring morning.

8. That same chicken will then be the most adorable creature on the planet and hop onto the bench next to you to fall asleep resting against your thigh in the sun.

9. You aren’t a shepherd or a farmer or even a person. You are the magical being that brings food. Your mere existence, whether you are carrying a bucket or not, will rile the animals up into a mooing, baaing, clucking frenzy. They will all come running to sniff and stare at you to determine whether the magical food bringer has an offering. Once it has been decided that you have let them down, they will ignore you. Unless you walk away. Then it’s obviously to go and bring them food, so they must remind you exactly every 4 seconds by screaming while standing next to the gate.

10. Being a farmer is the most frustrating, sad, invigorating, exciting, relaxing, fun, exhausting, and rewarding profession that has ever existed. From the loss of nearly the entire batch of broilers to heat stroke to the 6am lambings that go so smoothly, you didn’t even need to help and from the freshly tilled ground waiting to produce for the season to the early mornings spent chasing a loose cow or sheep around the country side, farming is never dull. Farming evokes the entirety of the emotional capacity of the human existence and rewards the farmer in the most unique and delicate ways possible.

Every Precious Drop

Setting out on my own. A rented farm. Fresh ground to manage as I saw fit. It was exciting. Who am I kidding, it was exhilarating! I had farmed my parents land and worked out a deal with a neighbor to start raising broilers, but after three years and no room left to grow, I knew it was time. Besides, I really wanted some pigs and mom said “no” before I even had the words all out of my mouth. I had managed to sneak chickens onto the property, so I can’t complain. I grew quite a little operation in those first three years. It was a safe place to start.

But I needed to expand, so off I went! The rented farm was lush with opportunity and I was downright giddy to get started. Before long, I was raising 4-6 pigs per year. I hit some some struggles with the broilers. Predators are always hungry. Especially when they have young to feed. But I learned, built stronger defenses, worked some offense. The layers were working their magic and I grew my flock from double digits to triple. Somewhere in there I had amassed over 100 chickens for the purpose of laying eggs to sell.

Things were going okay as a young farmer, just getting her feet wet. But that dried up one day when the well pump failed. Due to extraneous circumstances and a strangely wired house, it was impossible to get the pump going again. For two long years, I muddled through. I lugged six 5 gallon water jugs from my second floor apartment to the truck to trek to the farm. In the winter, I carried these jugs through three feet of snow. In the summer, on especially hot days, I made three trips instead of two, bringing a grand total of 90 gallons to the farm rather than only 60 gallons.

I put a stop to my broiler operation as 100 broilers will go through 15-30 gallons per day. Predators took care of my laying flock, bringing me well under 50 hens. Between fledgling red tailed hawks being trained in the art of the buffet line of chickens, raccoons, and some extremely hungry foxes, the flock was hit hard. I allowed my hen numbers to stay low, taking care of the problems mother nature had thrown my way (thanks Abel!). I had fewer animals to water, but I still had crops to water.

Getting seeds to germinate is hard without adequate water. Carrots hardly grew as frequent, even watering is absolutely essential those first few weeks. With only 5 gallon jugs, it was impossible to water them well enough. I didn’t have enough time to drive back and forth from the farm into town and back, filling all those jugs and water all those crops. Half never even sprouted from the ground the first year. The second year, I planted less and grew more.

But I’m stubborn, I must admit. If I couldn’t have broilers, I’d get sheep. Three or four of them wouldn’t drink much and I was growing fewer crops, so I had some wiggle room. So I sprung for a ewe with two lambs and later found Sam the Ram to join the show. Then I thought, “why stop at sheep? I have these ruminants, why not add some calves?!” So I did. I found two calves, a heifer and a steer, both around one month old. Maybe stubborn isn’t the word for it. Crazy might be better served in this context.

Word came later that year though that I needed to move on. Might my water woes be over?? Indeed. I found a safe haven for my creatures, a place to grow some veggies, and watch water flow from a hose again. Those two years without water taught me some valuable lessons though. I don’t take water for granted like I used to when it flowed so easily from the hose at my parents’ home. Even now, at this third farm (fourth if you count my childhood home), every drop is precious. If the hose leaks, a bucket goes under the leak to catch it or I find a new hose. If I can collect some rain water, I do it.

I know how much my animals drink on hot days and cool days, in the middle of winter while eating hay and the long days of summer when they are on the wet, green grass. I know how much the broilers will drink in the shade compared to full sun all day. When water flowed freely, I just filled up the water bowls without thought. Once that water stopped though, I had to bring out the calculator while watching them drink every drop to make sure they would always have just enough. Even now, I don’t pick just any day to plant, I watch the weather and wait. When rain is fully expected that night or the next day, you will see me in the field, planting madly all the seeds I can when the time comes. Tonight, I’m watching the weather to see when I’ll be planting my spinach seeds.

Snakes! Don’t Run Away!

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!

This giant girl easily found her way up this tree.

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.

This is post-eviction. Thanks to the first snake’s damaged tail, I know that they were two different snakes.

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.