The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Regaining tranquility

Stalking a roosterThis week has been a bit rough for me.  Mark and I had hoped to slip away from the farm for a long weekend in order to watch one of my favorite cousins-in-law graduate from my alma mater, and as the date approached, my dreams grew more and more vivid.  I was reenacting my own graduation, walking through research labs, and doing everything my subconscious told me my alma mater might have wanted me to do with my degree.  None of the dreams ended well.

Meanwhile, in the waking world, we were struggling to get the farm in shape to be left alone for a few days.  Wednesday, it all came to a head when I saw deer damage in the garden for the first time in six months (maybe the result of the power outage?) and one of our homegrown chicks keeled over for no apparent reason (probably a delayed reaction to chilling a couple of days before, also during the power outage.)  We were both running on empty already, and reluctantly decided to just stay home.

Catching a roosterI often find tranquility in the chicken pasture, but for the last month, I've been barred from entry by our rooster.  Once a gentleman, now he had decided that I was a competitor to his wives' affection, and he flogged me violently every time I entered.  I'd been saving the rooster's demise until after our trip, figuring he could guard the harem while we were out of town, but now there was nothing to stop us from putting his head on the block.  Thursday morning, Mark tried to catch the rooster with a blanket --- watching the farce cheered me up immensely, but the rooster remained uncaught.  When heavy rains produced an early dusk, we tried again, this time with Mark plucking my nemesis off the perch.

Holding a roosterRed blood on green grass, a patient Lucy sitting on the sidelines, the two of us thanking this vibrant rooster for his healthy meat as we plucked his feathers, then hosing myself down in another rainstorm as the rooster's bones simmered on the stove.  There amid the blood and smell of hot, damp flesh, I realized I was happy.

Our chicken waterer kept our rooster healthy until his last day.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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"There amidst the blood and hot damp flesh I realized I was happy." Sounds like the beginning lines to a novel Charles Bukowski or something.

You know, it's not a chicken processing if Mark doesn't bleed. Did he get scratched this time too?

I'm sorry to hear you've had a rough week. And I wish you could have gotten away for the weekend. I'm not sure how things are coming along over there, but one would think a few days out of town wouldn't be anything you couldn't catch-up from when you got back. Of course, 'Tis the season and I've read about your legendarily brave deer.

Take care of yourselves!


Comment by Everett Fri May 27 09:12:38 2011

It's not so much the catching up as worrying that the deer would get in and the chicks would keel over while we're gone.... Nothing bad really does seem to happen while we're gone, but I'm a world class worrier. We'll get away to somewhere closer with less memories involved eventually. Something like our trip to Asheville to meet up with you two --- that one was a really fun trip and no worry involved!

No blood this time, thank goodness! I think Mark has developed a healthy respect for roosters' spurs....

Comment by anna Fri May 27 09:40:02 2011

Your alma mater thinks you're doing exactly the right thing with your degree. (And I feel perfectly confident speaking for it.) Come on sweetie, this is the college where the career center helped someone become a clown.

Glad the wicked rooster is dead, sorry you didn't get away for the weekend, glad you're feeling better.

And I like the picture of you eating strawberries.

Comment by Heather Fri May 27 12:02:37 2011

It's nice to be able to understand some of the emotional issues that arise from farm life. Thanks for the glimpse into your personal thoughts - although I devour the more technical posts with much enthusiasm, it's a welcome change to read this.

Sarah from Boulder Creek, CA

Comment by sarah Fri May 27 12:43:23 2011

Heather --- I'm glad to get the okay from our alma mater via you. :-) I think that envisioning Ben's graduation flashed me back to my own graduation and all of the choices I had to make then. I'm very glad I ended up where I am!

Sarah --- I'm glad to hear that readers who don't know us personally aren't bored by my occasional angst. The farm is 95% wonderful, but it is true that being responsible for all of those lives can feel daunting at times.

Comment by anna Fri May 27 17:07:07 2011

We are actually looking at possibly purchasing a farm in NE Tennessee, in the area called Kyles Ford in Hancock County to be more exact. Is this anywhere near you? I think you have mentioned that you are in SW Virginia?

Sarah in Boulder Creek, CA

Comment by sarah Fri May 27 18:41:23 2011
That's just over an hour away from us, and, coincidentally, is right where my brother is renting an underground, solar home at the moment. If you do move to the area, we'll have to get together and meet in person!
Comment by anna Fri May 27 19:48:16 2011

One method of controlling territorial roosters (I have not tried this personally, just read about it a homesteading magazine) is to throw things at them when you enter the pen. According to the article, after a few days of condtioning by throwing beanbags at the territorial roosters, they will move you up in their rankings and no longer attack you.

Like I said, I didn't try this personally, but you might think about it if you have a particularly nice rooster you want to keep for breeding.

Comment by Eric Burke Sat May 28 09:34:12 2011

I've been doing a lot of reading on problematic roosters, and it sounds like your method would mostly work. However, what some people say (I have no experience with this either :-) ), is that training the rooster to think you're top of the pecking order means it won't fight you...most of the time. A lower pecking order rooster, apparently, will always keep trying to move up the ladder, so at random times, the subdued rooster will still attack.

What's supposed to work better is to train the rooster not to think of you as a rooster, by tossing in a bit of food to sidetrack it or something when it tries to attack you. The folks who talked about this method made a lot of sense, but it seemed like a lot of work if we weren't sold on the rooster's genetics. However, like you said, if we had a prize rooster otherwise, it would probably be worth working to keep him from attacking in order to keep him in the flock.

I'm also starting to wonder if roosters just start getting spunky around a year old. This rooster was so polite until his birthday! Makes me think that it wouldn't hurt to just trade out your rooster every year once your last set of eggs is under the broody hen or in the incubator....

Comment by anna Sat May 28 13:20:21 2011

I believe your rooster got more aggressive partly because of the flock additions. Your chicks upset the balance, whether he was being more protective or felt threatened. Also age doesn't help.

I found that you can't train a rooster. I've almost beat mine after it has attacked me but he always feels the need to try me every so often. But never show fear, run away, or back down. You can kick at them if they attack you but I don't think I would throw things at them. You can kill a chick by a strike to the head.

This being said, I believe every good flock needs a Rooster to be happy.

Comment by Erich Sat May 28 18:36:16 2011

Your experience with becoming the top rooster backs up what I've read --- it works most of the time, but you'll still be attacked at intervals. I think that I'd rather do away with a rooster like that or take the time to rehabilitate him so that he doesn't think I'm a chicken. :-)

That said, I think you're right about the benefits of having a rooster in the flock. I've got my eye on our "tweens" --- the month old Black Australorps. I figure we'll keep one of the cockerels as our new rooster, but I haven't figured out how we'll decide which one yet. Maybe we'll let the ladies choose?

Comment by anna Sun May 29 07:49:46 2011

We lost our rooster to a fox attack recently, and are also looking to the upcoming "tweens" for the next flock rooster. I have 3 australorp cockerels to choose from, and have also been wondering how I might make that decision.

We've got 4 australorp pullets, so I was thinking I might build a new pair of pens just for selective breeding. I'd put two hens and a rooster in each, and see how they fare. I'll pick the smallest/least attractive/most unlucky cockerel for the pot.

Going forward, I would then keep select trios in the breeding pens so I can influence the genetics - the best layers (and winter layers!), the best foragers, most hardy, etc. Probably have one trio in one pen, and a broody hen sitting on eggs and then raising her chicks in the other.

I'll have to do more research on how other small-scale chicken breeders manage their pens.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Sun May 29 20:00:03 2011

I am glad you found joy in your day.

Your nightmares and discussion about possible teacher expectations remind me of a time when I was sitting in my teacher's office trying to sort out my plans for the future. The pressure eventually got to me and I broke down and cried "I just want to grow plants!" It was kind of pitiful, but a very informative moment in my life. My professor politely discouraged me. Yet, here I am 4 years later remembering that experience with pride.

Comment by Sara Sun May 29 20:05:34 2011

Darren --- I'm sure there are more up-to-date books about chicken breeding available, but I've been enjoying perusing some of the out of print chicken books from a hundred years ago. I can't for the life of me remember where I read this, but I seem to recall reading that fertility declines with such low hen to rooster ratios. It sounds counterintuitive, but I guess I could see how the hens would be less healthy since they are constantly being mated by the rooster. That said, my memory is notoriously bad if I don't write things down, and I didn't write that down.... I hope you record all of your experiments on your blog so I can learn from your efforts!

I think we're going to stick to easier methods of choosing good birds --- by culling the duds and choosing eggs from hens who we like. Granted, the big problem with that approach is that whatever rooster we choose (randomly) will make up 50% of the gene pool of our flock, so if he's no good, we're shooting ourselves in the foot. I guess another option would be to keep two roosters in the flock and then cull one if and when it becomes clear that he's a dud, but I'm leery of feeding two "freeloaders." Mark's also a bit worried about inbreeding, so we might find a way to bring in an out-of-farm rooster every year so he's not mating with his siblings.

Sara --- Sounds like you were called to your current life, just the way I feel I was. In my more sane (waking) moments, I know that it doesn't matter what my professors or society want me to do since I'm doing the work I want to do.

Comment by anna Sun May 29 20:42:37 2011

Yeah, I'd like more hens per rooster as well, but I only have 4 Australorp pullets to work with for now. I'd like to keep two roosters to avoid inbreeding and give us a little genetic diversity.

There's a technique called "three times in and once out", where you keep two flocks. Keep the best pullets from the first generation of chicks, and breed them back to their fathers. Then keep the best from that generation, and breed them back to their grandfathers. Keep the best pullets from this generation, but this time also keep the best cockerel from each flock as well. The two flocks have been separate up to this point. Now, swap the two cockerels between the flocks. Repeat for another three generations, then swap cockerels again.

This is apparently an old system that has been used for hundreds of years to keep small flocks of chickens without causing the problems of inbreeding.

Each generation's "reject" pullets could be kept as egg-layers (as could the previous-generation's mothers) if you wanted decent egg production as well. The older layers could be eaten as young ones join the laying flock, and there's probably potential to sell your surplus chicks and pullets as well.

I'm planning to put colour coded leg bands on the breeding hens and roosters so I know which flock they're from. Then I can let them out to free range most of the time, and just confine them when it's breeding time. You probably wouldn't have to do this if you had decent pasture fences and a rotation system - you'd just have two pastures in use at any one time.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Mon May 30 19:31:49 2011
I hadn't read about this method, but I like the simplicity of it! We have two coops with separated pastures, so it would be pretty simple for us to keep two flocks apart. Of course, then we'd have to keep two roosters. Hmmm... Thanks for the points to ponder!
Comment by anna Tue May 31 13:56:07 2011
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