Saturday, July 26, 2014

Keep Raising Chickens

I received a message today from a reader who recently lost many of her chickens to a predator. She was deflated and frustrated, mostly because it had taken so much to get to a point in her life where she could raise chickens in the first place. To finally get to that point, build the coop, save for the birds, raise them up, and have one stroke of poor luck take them away was a huge blow. I emphasized, as I knew that plight. It's hard getting to a chicken-friendly life and even harder keeping the birds alive without a Fort-Knox level coop. She explained she didn't have the money to build a fortress or even replace the chickens. Now it's just a big let down.

To those of us who spend our days with animals or have grown up around livestock, we sometimes forget what a huge step it is to take on something like chicken care. It is a huge responsibility, and a shift in how we live with animals. Most of us understand the pseudo-parenting of cats and dogs, but chickens (to most who keep them) are not pets; They are employees. Animals you raise with care and temperance with the intention of feeding and keeping safe in return for food. With chickens it is either meat or eggs, and both of those outcomes can turn into a fox dinner without much notice.

To those of you struggling with such losses I urge you to not let it get you down. In the words of Joel Salatin, "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly first!" and I am a firm believer in that. If you lose your first flock (my Siberian Huskies ate my first chicks in my Idaho kitchen) do not beat yourself up over it. There isn't a single farmer, homesteader, or chicken keeper that didn't make mistakes when they started. Anyone who is taking chances and taking on new things makes mistakes. I have made many and have lost rabbits, sheep, chickens, and turkeys to those mistakes. It is not a good feeling, you will be told you are a failure and should stop, but it is a part of this life and a part of farming. Do not listen to your inner demons or the know-it-alls on Facebook. Where there is livestock there is deadstock, as the saying goes. You, Ma' Nature, or Murphy's Law WILL make things happen and they aren't all good. You need to know that any animal you take into your life will at some point die. That is part of the story, as it ever has been. Some die to be our food, some die of old age in their sleep, some feed the fisher cats, and some simply fall over for no reason but a cold snap after a bad cold. You can be a vegan with a vegetarian housecat on vitamin B supplements and that cat will die not matter how much Reiki or acupuncture you throw at it. All living things are on a clock, and when you begin homesteading there are MORE CLOCKS. There isn't a person reading this with animals of their own that doesn't have a story to share of losing livestock or a beloved companion. So understand you are not alone, you are not a bad person, and you are now another of the nodding heads at the feed store. Crap happens.

The point is to learn from your mistakes and to always improve. If you lose your birds in one night then do some research. Find out on forums online or at your local poultry club or extension office what caused the deaths and how you could prevent them? I recently lost a lot of chicks to a rat that chewed through a plywood brooder in ther barn. Next week I am getting more turkeys. Guess what? The brooder is being cleaned out, stapled all over with hardware cloth, and blessed before I set another poult or chick in there. There are many inexpensive and clever tactics out there, from blinking Christmas lights in July to radios blasting talk radio into the night (my own birds have never missed an episode of This American Life). It can all help. Just don't give up. And don't you dare let people tell you to stop raising animals because you made a mistake. If you need more validation read "The Dirty Life" by Kristen Kimball to see what can happen in the first year of a new Animal Farm. Her story has sick pigs, gored steers, infected cattle, escaped horses, the works. But that was their first year as a full-diet CSA and now a decade later they are still at it, wiser, leaner, and better. I am just grateful Kristen wasn't blogging then. She would have an earful from all the "experts" online.

Here's the bottom line: raising livestock means you will experience loss. There is no avoiding of it. There are stories I hear in hushed tones at the auction barn or in the hardware store. Folks dealing with all sorts of problems, predators, diseases, and bad decisions. Most of them have the good sense not to write about it on the internet but they are all learning. And when I talk to folks like my Hay Man, Nelson, who is nearly 80 and knows cows the way I know my own hands... I see what the endgame is. There is a point where you figure it all out and that is worth the effort. Till then, know husbandry is not perfect. People are not perfect. Be forgiving of yourself and do not give up. And most of all, understand that patience is part of the process.

Keep raising chickens.

P.S. If you are a part of Clan Cold Antler, start reading the clan blog starting tomorrow: big news there, personal news, long journey, play-by-play.


Blogger treebeardshollow said...

cheers to that!anyone who raises anything is silently and sometimes unknowingly, saying...bring it!

July 26, 2014 at 8:39 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Boy you said it, Jenna. Until I started living in the country, I never realized how much of the bucolic life involves carnage. But for every chicken that was picked off by a predator, there are many newly hatched chicks to take it's place. You really learn that nature is about balance and loss is tempered by new life and it's real. It's life. :)

July 26, 2014 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger Mim said...

I've lost count over the years of critters lost to predators regardless of my locking them all up in the evening....sometimes they struck when the sun hadn't even gotten close to the mountain to set behind! And yet I cannot help but to keep on replacing them! Today, seven hens arrived via a friend who raised them up but doesn't want to deal with him ( he's in his 80's and not in the greatest of health.) I shall share my eggs with him :)
Yes....goats too....two left here, my very first one and a late comer...if nothing else, they are free entertainment!

July 26, 2014 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger Mim said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

July 26, 2014 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

You hit the nail on the head with this column. I lost meat chickens last summer and some layer pullets this summer to fox and some hens to the hawk. When my male GSD was alive, I didn't lose any to canid predators. I'm in the market for another male GSD puppy. There are still pullet chicks and turkey poults available and the canids aren't as crazed now that they aren't feeding a litter.

July 26, 2014 at 9:14 PM  
Blogger PansWife said...

If you need to restock, you should check with local animal shelters and rescue groups. Some people start raising chickens and then decide it's not for them, they often give them up to animal groups who put them up for adoption. Sometimes there is a fee, but for chickens it is not very much. Our local shelter recently had a bunch of chickens and rabbits available, probably rejected Easter gifts.

July 26, 2014 at 9:27 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

Panswife raises a good point: shelters (especially in urban or suburban areas) have birds folks abandoned all the time, for prob close to free.

There are no chicken shelters in Washington County though!

July 26, 2014 at 9:32 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

We just lost 15 keets, my first big loss since we got animals. They found a teeny hole in the fencing and they all fled. They left on the night of the recent tropical storm and we couldn't find them before dark. We found them the next day, all dead. They weren't harmed by predators, they died of exposure. Your entry helps me see that these kinds of losses can be expected from time to time and the best I can do is try to avoid them.

July 26, 2014 at 9:36 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

Having just lost 75% of our small flock to a bobcat, I can empathize with your reader. And it really stinks that she can't afford to replace her birds. I do have one piece of advice, if she's reading this--stalk Craigslist. Sometimes people are moving or are raising chickens where they aren't allowed and have to get them out quick when the HOA cites them for it. I've seen cases like that where people are selling all their birds cheap or even giving them away. If her area has a chicken swap/livestock swap facebook group--same thing applies there.

July 27, 2014 at 12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our 15 chicks are spending their first night in their new coop tonight, and we are a bit apprehensive about what we will or won't find in the morning. Visions of all brands of maladies and pitfalls are dancing in our heads, so your post couldn't have been timed better. Thanks!

July 27, 2014 at 2:27 AM  
Blogger Ngo Family Farm said...

So very true, all of it! I was especially struck by your analogy of more clocks! Ha! Yes. Thanks for writing this.

July 27, 2014 at 2:48 AM  
Blogger Jo said...

Great, great post and the addition of Joel's talk put it over the top.

July 27, 2014 at 8:15 AM  
Blogger Sonya said...

Don't give up! I purchased 8 hens a year ago and I'm down to turned into a he instead of a she and the other two become huge problems so I needed to pull my big girl panties up and deal with it. I've done a ton of things wrong,learned a million things along the way and can't wait for what the next year holds in store..hopefully a lot less of the learning curve and more of the maintaining

Don't give up..just keep trying.

July 27, 2014 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger Ohiofarmgirl said...

around here we say.... "not every body makes it, and not every body gets to stay." the Way of Things is hard but it's all part of the experience and makes you a richer person for it - not money-wise but wiser. and you are just right, you can do everything 100% perfect and you'll still have loses. the point is not to let it defeat you. i hope your new pal keeps on keepin' on.

July 27, 2014 at 1:50 PM  
Blogger Chris Davis said...

Thank you. This helps. I will try again, but not till February, when hopefully I will be able to use my tax refund to build my "Fort Egg-cellence." My last chicken will be going to a friend this week, since I don't have anywhere to keep her. They were only 14 weeks old and I raised them from eggs. Thankfully I never thought of them as pets, but having them sure did make me happy. I'll try again. Seriously, thank you so much for this.

July 27, 2014 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger Bex said...

Having lost my first ever flock of chickens to some unknown (very hungry) predator(s) a few years ago, I can sympathize. But, then I reinforced what I had with what I could gather, and had a flock of chickens that died of old age. And I agree about stalking craigslist. I wound up giving away my last flock of chickens for free with all their supplies just because I needed them to be gone.

July 27, 2014 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger FurryGodmother said...

I live in Hawaii so it was not fox or hawks or even a mongoose that got my Silky Chicks( my birthday present). They didn't even last a day. They were in a small plastic dog crate in a gated PVC dog pen. My border collie who never touched a feather on my adult Silkies (obtained as adults) had her prey drive kick in big time with the peeping and erratic movements of the chicks. I spent an hour with her showing her that her role was to "watch the chicks, not eat them". But as soon as we went upstairs she broke into the pen, bashed in the crate and ate them.

I now keep my pet bunnies (who my dog is great with, and will any future chicks) in heavy duty, welded-metal dog crates. After reading Jenna's post I found a site that tells folks what to use to house pet foxes under the assumption that what keeps them in will keep them out. LOL! Might be useful to those of you you with a coop small enough to fit into a large dog run:

Do note that they say young foxes of small fox breeds can squeeze through chain link fences so you need the runs with much smaller openings.

Good luck with your pets and stock, folks!

A Jenna fan in Hawaii...

July 27, 2014 at 8:05 PM  
Blogger kandy Gray said...

stupid fox! im down to 6 girls and it is too late in the season to get any more before winter.... well, chicken t.v is over, they get to stay in their run now. its big, but they are MAD and let me know it every time o come out my door. i sometimes imagine i can understand what they are saying when they squawk...and it is not nice...

July 27, 2014 at 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your fences need to be horse high, pig-tight and bull strong!

July 28, 2014 at 1:14 PM  
Blogger Maggie in Tally said...

My ex lost 13 to a bear this summer over the course of 4 days. In FL, bears are a protected species, so no retaliation unless the bastard is chewing on your leg and then you gotta be able to prove you didn't start it. *sigh* Will build Stalag Chicken this winter and perhaps try it again in spring.

July 28, 2014 at 1:43 PM  
Blogger Maggie in Tally said...

My ex lost 13 to a bear this summer over the course of 4 days. In FL, bears are a protected species, so no retaliation unless the bastard is chewing on your leg and then you gotta be able to prove you didn't start it. *sigh* Will build Stalag Chicken this winter and perhaps try it again in spring.

July 28, 2014 at 1:43 PM  
Blogger KirstenJL said...

Yep. You lose some and you win some. I started with chickens 3 1/2 years ago and amazingly enough, I still have all the birds I started with. But in the meantime, I've had losses to a raccoon, a rat, a hawk, and this year, flies. My chickens occupy a fuzzy zone among pet, project, and livestock. I've spent 100's at the vet to save a couple, and I've eaten a couple more. They all have names and the losses hurt. There's always something and the learning curve never stops. Don't give up!

July 30, 2014 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger David E. Galloway said...

The reader that Jenna mentioned is a close friend of mine. She has a huge family and lives on a shoestring budget (like many of us), and won't be able to rebuild the coop and run and buy new chicks until next year. I thought that some of the locals in our community (Greenville, SC) and maybe some internet homesteaders who have gone through the same situation might be willing to chip in a few bucks so we can get the Davis family back in the chicken business. If you can, please consider visiting and making a donation. We have a few handmade perks available as well.

July 30, 2014 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger simonelovesdesign said...

Thanks, Jenna, for this encouraging post. Your book, Made from Scratch, inspired me to raise chickens, and this post will keep me going. I started the process of raising chickens this past February. Out of 7 hens, I lost 5. It's been a heartbreaking and disheartening experience, but I'll keep trying because, as you wrote, "People are not perfect. Be forgiving of yourself and do not give up. And most of all, understand that patience is part of the process."

July 31, 2014 at 10:21 PM  

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