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.


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.