Saturday, June 25, 2011

Cock-a-doodle-doo (sort of)

OK, so you know about the horrible chicken massacre that happened on our farm a few weeks ago.  A raccoon (we’re guessing, due to the carnage left behind) took out 7 of my mature hens and my little bantam rooster.  A sad day for all, and I have to say, not only am I bummed about having to once again buy store-bought eggs, but I also miss hearing the sweet, pint-sized cock-a-doodle-doo of my little Mr. Noodles.  And apparently I’m not the only one in the barnyard who misses his crow.

The other morning, I was out feeding the goats and chickens as usual, when I heard a rooster crow.  Now I wasn’t completely surprised by this as we have a whole chicken yard full of young pullets and as any experienced chicken owner can tell you, just because they came from the pullet bin, it doesn’t mean they’re all girls.  In fact, there’s a roughly 10% error rate in the sexing of young chicks, which means that approximately 1 in 10 pullets will actually turn out to be cockerels, aka roosters.  I already have my suspicions about a couple of the “girls” and I’m guessing one or two will start crowing any day now.

But the odd thing about the crowing I heard the other morning was that it seemed to be coming from the chicken yard where my 5 survivors of the chicken massacre are living, all of whom are mature hens.  At first I thought maybe one of the young chickens was crowing and the sound was echoing off the metal wall of the hay barn making it sound like it was coming from the back yard.  So, I watched and waited and within a few minutes, there it was again.  Only this time, I could see the source of the sound and by golly, it was coming right out of the throat of my 2 year old Sicilian Buttercup HEN!  Yes, I said hen, as in girl.  And I know she’s a hen because as recently as a month ago, she was laying eggs in the dog house we use as a shelter in the young chickens’ yard and being that she’s a flyer, I know she’s the only mature laying hen that had access to the dog house at that time.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I saw her throw back her head and let out what was clearly, although maybe not completely full-throated, a cock-a-doodle doo.  I have to tell ya, I about jumped out of my skin!  All kinds of things went through my head in rapid succession:  Am I that dense that I haven’t realized for 2 years that she was a he and not a she?  Did my neighbor’s rooster sneak into my hen yard and it just happens to look just like my old hen?  Is it possible to have a trans-gender chicken? 

So, I told my tale to a number of people and had an interesting conversation with my 15 year old daughter about Chaz Bono and his gender re-assignment, and then once my curiosity got the best of me (and my schedule freed up to allow me the time to), I did what I often do when I have a question... I “Googled” it.  I typed in the words, “can a hen become a rooster?” and voila, I had my answer!

According to, the explanation is as follows:  Not a fully functioning, sexually active, egg fertilizing rooster, but they can assume the characteristics of a rooster when the flock has no male to take on the duties of guarding the flock. The Alpha hen can guard, protect and crow (almost) just like a rooster under some circumstances.”

Well, I’ll be darned, I do believe Miss Sicily just misses Mr. Noodles as much as I do.

Life Lesson:  We all grieve and compensate in different ways.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Early Delivery

Two years ago our first kids were born on the farm, Snickers and Milky Way.  Their dam is a Nubian and their sire a Nigerian Dwarf, making them Mini Nubians, a relatively new and experimental dairy goat breed.  The goal of the Mini Nubian breed is to end up with the classic long ears and Roman nose of the Nubian in a smaller, compact size – easier for kids to handle and well, just cuter!  This year we bred Milky Way to a 4th generation Mini Nubian buck in hopes of making good progress toward the ideal breed characteristics.  The timing of this breeding was tricky because we had a family vacation planned for the first week of June, and then summer camps starting June 13th, so we were trying to have kids born somewhere after the vacation but before the camps started.   Goats go into heat about every three weeks and their gestation time is 5 months, so last fall we charted Milky’s cycles carefully and when she went into heat mid-January, we rushed her out to the breeder who is about an hour from our farm. 

Now to add further complexity to the situation, the breeder was getting ready to go out of town and gave us a 45 minute window of opportunity to get the job done before he had to leave.  Between the cold temps, the rush to get the deed taken care of, and the fact that this was Milky’s first experience with the breeding “facts of life”, I figured the odds of her conceiving were pretty low.  But what the heck, might as well try.  So, imagine my surprise when we had her ultrasounded two months later and learned she was indeed pregnant with a due date of June 13th – the first day of camp!

As winter turned to spring, Milky’s belly got bigger and rounder and she began to develop an udder.  She’s always been a chubby little goat, but by the end of May she was a wide as she was tall.  She looked and acted great, with a healthy appetite and plenty of energy.  Pregnancy seemed to agree with her.  While we were on vacation in early June, the pet sitters who were milking our other doe, Skittles, each evening felt sure they would show up to milk and find babies in the stall, even though they weren’t due for another week and a half. Luckily, she didn’t have them while we were away.  I just hoped they’d come a day or two early as the idea of running camp while babies were being born felt a bit overwhelming.  Plus my brother and his family were visiting from Cincinnati and I hoped they’d get to meet the new kids before my brother and nephew had to head home on the 14th

On June 9th, four days before the official due date, I turned Milky out to pasture in the afternoon and she happily trotted out there and munched away on the grass as usual.  At 5:00, I brought her in for the evening and fed her some hay.  This is normally Megan’s job, but she was at an amusement park with some friends so I filled in for her.  Milky ate the hay with gusto and acted and looked as normal as could be.  I had to go to a 4-H meeting at 6:30, so Brian was in charge of milking and bottle feeding the other baby that evening, with some help from Molly.  He went out to do that around 8:00, looking in on Milky Way before he commenced to milking and all looked fine.  But a few minutes later he heard a loud, alarming bleat coming from Milky’s stall.  He ran to check on her only to find a tiny little kid on the ground!  In a panic, he yelled for Molly to grab some towels and frantically dialed my cell phone number.  It rang alright, but no one answered as it was sitting on my desk recharging instead of being with me at the meeting.  They were on their own!   Molly quickly got the towels and rushed to the stall in time to help catch and dry off a second kid while Brian again dialed my number and then called my mom.

By the time I got home at 9:00, I noticed the light on in the barn and found no one inside the house, so I moseyed down to the barn.  Imagine my surprise when I found Brian and Molly along with my mom, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, and Megan and her friends (just back from the amusement park) all standing around the stall, with two kids on the ground and Milky still pawing the ground and looking uncomfortable.  Within a few minutes of my arrival, she pushed out a third kid and I quickly jumped in a started helping Molly dry him and the others off. 

When all was said and done, we had two new bucklings (Mikey and Charlie) and a doeling (Galaxy), a tired and bewildered but attentive new mom (Milky Way), and a reluctant but relieved first-time midwife (Brian!).  And Molly did such a great job in the midst of all the excitement that I feel certain she is ready to have her own doe bred next year and take care of her first kids.  As for me, although I missed seeing the first two kids born, it was great to know that everyone else could pitch in and take care of things so well without me.  And I got a kick out of listening to Brian’s frantic messages on my cell phone the next day.

Life Lesson:  You can only plan so much!

Monday, June 6, 2011


When we first considered moving from our suburban neighborhood to a rural property, one of the things we were concerned about was how we would be able to take vacations and get away once we had farm animals to care for.  I mean, finding a pet sitter or a boarding facility for a beloved dog can be tricky enough, but when you have 5 horses, 9 goats, 22 chickens, a llama, 5 cats AND a dog – well, you see the dilemma.  Yet, it was important to us not be tied to the farm to the extent that we couldn’t get away for a ski weekend or take a family vacation each year.

And I figured, I’m a creative problem solver; where there’s a will, there’s a way!

One of the first things you figure out when you live in the country is you’d better know and befriend your neighbors.  On our street there are 10 properties of approximately the same 5 acre size.  Eight of us own horses, so we often rely on each other to help out when needed.  There are times when we may not see or talk to a neighbor for months at a time, other than a wave from the distance, but if a horse gets loose, it’s amazing how quickly someone spots it, rounds it up and puts it back where it belongs.  We’ve done this for just about every neighbor at some point, and they’ve done it for us.  And we always offer and are willing to feed and care for their animals when they have a need, so when it’s our turn to ask, the favor is often reciprocated.

Another thing you learn is that there are plenty of folks out there who would love to live on a farm, but probably never will, and they are often happy to “play farmer” for a week to get a fix for the country life.  We’ve had whole families as well as single friends who have been willing to come for a weekend or even a couple of weeks at a time and take care of all the critters in exchange for the chance to experience and enjoy the rural life.  In fact, Brian and I did this for some newlywed friends of ours almost 25 years ago.  We stayed on their farm and took care of their horses and house pets while they went on their honeymoon, and I still credit this experience with being one of the reasons we eventually ended up living this lifestyle ourselves.

So even as we’ve accumulated more and more animals and our feeding and care routine has become more demanding and involved, we’ve always been able to get away for a much needed change of pace or family down time at least a couple times a year.  But it’s not easy.  I spend hours making arrangements, typing up notes, worrying about details, and generally stressing out before each and every trip.  My “farm notes” has grown from a single page of instructions to a 7 page Microsoft Word document and sometimes I need a vacation just to recover from planning for the vacation.  But I feel really lucky that there have been so many willing (and even eager) friends and neighbors to step in and help out so we can occasionally take a break from the daily responsibilities and get away. 

This past week our family went on a vacation and I spent a good two weeks preparing notes, recruiting and training helpers, moving animals around to make things as simple as possible, and getting everything in order.  Just as I finished all the preparations and had all 4 helpers lined up, we found out that the place we were planning to go (Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons) was having unusually terrible weather with snow, road closures, avalanche warnings, flood warnings, etc.  Somehow this just didn’t sound like the trip I had envisioned when I’d started planning it months ago.  But since I had all my pet-sitters in place, I knew for sure we were going on a vacation somewhere.  I just really wanted to go somewhere that felt a little more like summer.  So, the morning we were supposed to leave, I completely shifted gears and decided to head south to Mesa Verde and the Four Corners area instead.  I cancelled hotel reservations up north and booked a hotel for our first night in Cortez, CO.  I thought we’d get down there and then plan the rest of the stay.  Risky, but with a wonderful weather forecast in that area, I figured how far wrong could we go.

Luckily, I was right and we ended up having a fabulous time visiting some parts of Colorado we had never seen before.  I guess for most people planning the vacation itself is where they spend all their time and energy, but for me, that’s the easy part once the animals are cared for!

Life Lesson:  Make good plans, but then be flexible