Encounters 2

I’m the kind of person who likes to learn and grow. I can give myself grace for mistakes and try to do better. When I do something foolish like, oh, I don’t know… leave the chicken coop open too late and end up sharing a visit with a skunk, for example, (just off the top of my head) I learn from that experience and do things differently.

Well, a couple of Fridays ago, I was in a bit of a hurry because we were celebrating my son’s birthday by going out to dinner, and we were going to the Indoor Market the next day and I still had some jobs to get done, but I desperately wanted to go to the Urbana Contra Dance, so I was snorting around crossing things off the list in a hurry. I was proud of myself–I made a big point of getting those chickens in and getting that door shut before we went to dinner.

Afterwards, I scooted back to my list. Then it was 7:45pm and the dance started at 8 and I was still labeling some packaging when Anna saw me and took pity on me. She told me ‘Get outta here!’ and that she would finish my jobs for me. “FANTASTIC,” I said, “Can you please check the temporary electric fence for the chickens and make sure it isn’t shorting out anywhere?” “No problem,” she said and I was GONE!

Cut forward to 11pm. I’m driving home from the dance. (It was wonderful.) Suddenly I think, ‘Yes, I put the chickens in, and yes, Anna checked the fence, but what about the eggs? I never asked her to collect eggs!’ Sigh.

So I get home and I drive out to the coops and I collect the eggs in the first coop without incident, then I decide to get the eggs from the second coop.

Now, I’m going to remind you that I had just had a run-in with a skunk not long before that–well, not a run in, it didn’t spray me–a close call. And, also I will tell you skunks are actually lovely, gentle creatures. They are gorgeous and timid and would be so fantastic if they didn’t love to eat eggs so, so much and if their defense system wasn’t quite so powerful. Back in my twenties my dog got sprayed once and it took us FOREVER to get rid of the smell.

We’ve had skunks out here for quite a while, but they really only come out at night and they are annoying but not threatening. For the most part we don’t really even notice them except during the spring when love (and pheromones) are in the air.

(But they do give me an adrenaline rush every. single. time. I see them.)

So back to the story, I had just had a close call with a skunk and it’s 11 at night and I thought, ‘I will protect myself by driving my car back by the coop and leaving my headlights on.’ So I did that forgetting that chickens are sensitive to light and wake up or fall asleep kind of like flipping a light switch, so by putting my headlights on the coop, I managed to wake up EVERY SINGLE CHICKEN in the place.

So now it’s 11pm, I’m collecting eggs, every chicken in the place is yelling at me about how much they love snacks and flying down from their roosts and I’m counting eggs. I clean out one nest box and get to the next nest box. I got about 11 eggs out of there when I realize I see a nose!!! We have roll away nest boxes so I am opening a flap at the back of the box to collect eggs, but I can’t see in the front of the box. I stick my head around to the front and WHATDOYOUKNOW?!IT’SANOTHERSKUNK!!!!!

I knew that skunks don’t usually try to eat chickens, but with every bird in the place flapping and squawking and generally enjoying a little nighttime chaos party, I thought we were going down–someone was going to annoy the skunk and get us all sprayed.

What to do? What’s the best plan?

I admit it: I left the skunk the rest of the eggs, told the girls “It’s every man for himself!” and hot-footed it right back out of the coop.

So basically, if you want to know how many eggs does it take to fill up a skunk, I can tell you a reasonable guess would be 7.

It’s fun in the country!

Encounters 1

Oh friends! Our new system of letting the chickens out in a fenced area has given me a little learning curve!

It’s nothing new that I have evening chores with the birds. Of course I collect the eggs, I check to make sure they’re all looking healthy, I bring them water if they need it and just generally check in with them. I’m not a very time-focused person, though, and with our previous system I might get out there late or I might be early and it didn’t really make much difference.

🌙 🐓 😴

A couple of weeks ago, though, we had pretty much just switched to this new system of letting them out so I didn’t really have it in my head that I needed to be timely getting home and getting the door shut. I went out to dinner with some of the most fabulous people in the world (former co-workers) and I was having a fantastic time, so it was 8:30 by the time I left.

On the way home I realized, “Oh! I still need to shut the coop!” so I hurried straight out to get those chickens dealt with. I went over the fence, walked in, shut the door. I decided to count the chickens just to check in–I don’t do that every day, but…new system, good idea to check. Part of the chickens like to perch on the roost, but a bunch of the girls like to sleep on the collar ties (basically the rafters of the coop). So I walk in and I’m counting: 1,2,3,4,…etc. etc. …35, 36, 37, 38- I stick my head around the plastic “wall” we have up as a windbreak and keep going.

1️⃣2️⃣3️⃣…

As I get around the corner of the windbreak and am on the roost side, I see something small flit out of sight on the opposite side of the coop. What was that?! I pull my head back over to the nest box side of the windbreak and what do I see, but a frantic looking SKUNK trying to understand why the gaping wide opening it came through isn’t there anymore.

🚪 🐓

That’s right, frantic skunk because skunks LOVE eggs, which I have only now come to collect AND because I have just blithely shut the door on my way in, so what I have basically done is LOCK MYSELF IN THE COOP WITH A SKUNK.

🦨 ❤️ 🥚

Oops.

So now I’m standing on the side of the coop the farthest from the door. The skunk is between me and the exit and coming around the coop toward me. I’m calculating at what point in the trajectory we collide, whether or not the smell would get in the eggs, and how much tomato juice costs. And mostly I’m just thinking OH NO! OH NO! OH NO!

🍅 🥤 🍅 🥤

To get to the door I would typically walk down the nest box side of the windbreak. The only problem is that is going to put me within three feet of the skunk.

Now I’m calculating how long I can live in the coop with the chickens and the skunk and who I know that could bring me food. Would the fire department consider this equivalent to a cat up a tree situation?

Finally, I decide I need to do something. First, I decide that I don’t want to startle the skunk, so I start talking to it: “Hi, Skunky! I am over here. I am about to move toward the door. Do not mind me, I am a friendly person…!” Next I decide to try my luck on the far side of the windbreak next to the roost. I work my way over to the door side of the world and squeeze my arm through a gap between the windbreak and the wall. Now my plan is to flop the door open and let the skunk out, but I’m not strong enough to push it all the way open from where my hand is (next to the hinges), so I just hold the door for a moment and hope for the best. After an awkward moment I decide to check on progress and sure enough the skunk was gone.

So basically, I just held a door open for a skunk.

Anyway, needless to say since then I am much more careful about getting that door shut on time. Once was enough for that little adventure!

The Coop Scoop

One of the aspects of raising chickens that we have spent a ton of time thinking about is coop design. We want to make sure the birds are comfortable and happy, but we have a noticeable number of predators around here, and we’re also not young and spry (so we need something efficient/that won’t make us bust a gut).

Anna went into this enterprise wanting to use mobile coops. Some advantages to a mobile coop are that (1) it allows the birds to have access to fresh grass (or whatever you put it on–the bottom of the coop is just open) (2) it provides protection from hawks and aerial predators (3) you don’t have to round up the birds at the end of the day (4) you can have mesh in the summer and plastic in the winter to help maintain temperatures for the birds (5) everything happens in that one spot, so egg collection is easy. We built a tall coop so that we can walk right in, and the birds enjoy roosting on the collar ties since they enjoy sleeping as high as possible.

These factors are great, and we have really appreciated them, but there are downsides as well: (1) chickens are blinkin’ efficient, so they quickly eat or chase away the bugs and munch down all the yummy greenery they can eat, so (2) they have to be moved frequently and (3) [whispering] it’s kind of a pain to move our big coops.

While Anna has been mulling over ways to improve our systems, she got to attend Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) in Wisconsin, and ran across the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance (Link: https://www.regenagalliance.org/). She was so inspired by the ideas presented that she took a trip to Minnesota to get more information.

Now these people are a big deal. They are doing amazing things. Their big goal is to build regenerative, equitable, and socially just agriculture. Here’s what they say on their website: “We are focused on scaling up a systems-level regenerative poultry solution that restores ecological balance, produces nourishing food, and puts money back into the hands of farmers and food chain workers. To do so requires a completely new supply chain that integrates grassroots organizing of farmers with physical infrastructure and other regeneratively stacked enterprises.” Their website is full of information–especially the blog, and it’s an inspiring read for sure. If you like the idea of improving the fairness and sustainability of the larger industry of poultry, check it out and even consider making a donation to their work: https://www.regenagalliance.org/donate.

We are still figuring out whether and how we might be able to fit with what they are doing, but in the meantime, we are exploring changing some of our practices. We are interested in working toward their idea of raising chickens under a canopy of trees and woody perennials.

As a first step (with many more steps before we are close to their model), we are experimenting with having temporary, mesh fencing around our coops to let the birds have a larger space with more flexibility. If this goes well and we can keep the hawks out of them, we hope to move toward a permanent (or at least less temporary) fencing option that would be large enough to give the birds plenty of cover and forage.

In the meantime, it’s just a delight to watch chickens out being chickens.

A gif of white and brown chickens taking dirt baths all cuddled together. A flashing green caption says Time for a DIRT BATH!

It’s windy today! It has me flashing back to March when this happened:

a photo of a movable coop that has flipped upside down from the wind. You see the open bottom of the coop at the top. Chickens are in front of the coop scratching in the dirt. The windbreak in the middle has a broken spot and the coop is clearly not squared up any more.

The wind one night in early March took the “mobile” part of our mobile coops too seriously! Anna said I should post about it at the time, but I was too frazzled to get my thoughts together. Now hearing the wind today made me remember that I should put this up.

That day, I woke up to my aunt saying, “Laura, you’ve got some chickens loose.”

Sure enough, I walked out and the whole crew were out.

A gif that shows chickens out of the coop, the upside down coop, and chickens sitting on the inside roof of the coop which is now on the ground.
“Where are we supposed to roost?!”

We actually were incredibly lucky because most of our flock of 60+ birds survived! Sadly, we did lose one hen because something fell on her, but it is astounding to me that so many made it through fine and all stayed together.

Here’s what it looked like when we flipped it back over:

We had to use Sweetiepie (that’s my name for my skidsteer) because we were worried that chickens might run back towards us and get hurt if we rolled the coop over in an uncontrolled way. (Also, it was really stinkin’ heavy and we wouldn’t have been able to physically do it anyway, but let’s ignore that part.)

Look how gorgeous that sky is in those pictures. It looked so innocent by the next day.

Anyway, the coop is a bit worse for the wear, but it’s functional. We have made a couple of changes (for example, how we attached the roost and now we put a tiedown over the top that connects to two of those metal things that screw down into the ground for a little extra peace of mind).

Never underestimate the power of the wind on the prairie!

The Long-Overdue but Possibly Unanticipated End of the Saga of Buying the Truck

Well, we figured out that we needed a truck, and started looking in all the usual places: Craigslist, Autotrader, Used Vehicle Dealerships, Classifieds, Cars.com, random Googling, neighbors garages*, etc.

*That part is a joke.

Turns out, just like everything else since this pandemic started, trucks are real spendy.

We found some potential candidates, so I drove an hour to try three of them. No go.

Then a different day drove 45 minutes to try another one. Little bit of a mixup with that one. (Got excited about the price of one truck when I thought it applied to a different truck that was pricier. 🙄)

Then the whole crowd got in on trying a truck that was jacked up so high we had to help each other up—turned out to be a little too much truck for us.

Finally, we found a dump truck to try in Homer.

On the way, the dog played the trick she likes of opening the electric windows because she is SO FUNNY*, so I put the window lock on. A few moments later, she suddenly SHOT FORWARD from the back seat barking like she was scared of something.

*Sarcasm

After a confusing moment of investigation, it turned out to be a bee, which flew on to Anna’s leg. Anna leaned down to get it off her leg only to discover that I had accidentally window locked her hair in place and she couldn’t lean down.

Cue ridiculous kerfluffle that eventually ended with the bee back outside, the dog back in the backseat, no injuries, and the two of us laughing until we were crying.

On that note, let’s go buy a truck.

We got there and the truck was HUGE and stick shift. It had…uh…been a while since I had driven stick, and I didn’t want to jam the gears in front of the truck owner, so I begged Anna to be the one to test drive.

The truck was big for us, but the price was good and the allure of a dump truck was really hard to resist every time I thought about shoveling horse crap.

Anna told the guy we liked it, but it might be too big. Offhandedly she asked whether he had anything smaller. It just so happened he did! He told us the only thing was he hadn’t planned to sell it, so he didn’t have it ready to go. Still we could test drive it if we wanted.

We test drove it, and he was right—it wasn’t in as good of shape, but the size was manageable (still big) and THAT is how we ended up buying our truck.

The drive home where it conked out on the side of the road is a different story, but maybe not for the website… One tow and it trip to the mechanic, and it’s good as new. Well, maybe not new… Actually definitely not new.

Anyway, look at that beauty dump!!!

2021 Oh Yeah…

You know how little kids will tell you that they can count to 100 faster than you and challenge you to a race and then it comes time to count and they say “One, two, skip a few, ninety-nine, one hundred”? Uh.. that’s pretty much how this update is going to go! Nobody wants to hear the complete, unabridged saga of how the past nine months has gone! 🤣😂

So it’s been a while since I posted. Turns out starting new projects can take ALL your time.

Current blogging position *

*Note: I wouldn’t be sitting on the ground in the coop if I hadn’t just moved it. Chickens are adorable AND chickens are gross.

Chickens are nosy.

We have 3 baby goats now and the world’s most crooked goat fence. Also irrigation that’s *almost* finished. A propagation house. More baby chicks! Potatoes, zucchini, carrots, artichokes, and ALL the weeds! (Thanks, transition-from-conventional-farming!) We have a big pile of horse poo. We have an old skidsteer named Sweetiepie. We have 9 trillion mosquito bites. We have exciting numbers of ladybugs. We have half of our trellises. We have huge to do lists, and oh, did I mention? ALL the weeds.

Anyway, we’re hanging in there. Learning up a storm and hanging on tight to this adventure!

Raised Beds

The land we’re using for vegetables has been planted to corn for years and has been a low spot that floods for most of that time. Converting it to vegetables is a bit of a project.

One of the tools we’re using is raised beds. The benefits to raised beds for us are mostly three things: 1. Water management 2. Extending the growing season by a week or two because they should heat up sooner and 3. It provides walkways so when we work out there we can reach things without compacting the soil, which means less need for tilling.

Just to clarify for folks who aren’t used to it: in this case raised beds just means plowed parts with lower dirt walkways—no wood or built-in hardware is involved!

We’re using the BCS (an Italian-built, walk-behind tractor) to first dig a walkway with a rotary hoe, then to go back and till the bed.

This year, of course, is a lot of set up. Next year it should mean we need a lot less tilling.

Seasonal change

Well, we’ve got more planted (trying to squeeze just a little more produce out of this wacky year, but a lot of things are winding down.

Pumpkin, onion, delicata, spaghetti squash, zucchini and the melons are all finished or close to finished.
This picture is from several weeks ago when we planted, but we’re sneaking in some broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli leaf, and lettuce. Come on, babies, you can do it!

Still working on getting other parts of the field ready for winter, of course. #OngoingProject

But some cover crop and insect rows are putting in an appearance. Love to see that borage and buckwheat.

Horse Fertilizer

Switching from conventional corn/soybeans to veg is a process and one big aspect of it is trying to build the soil back up.

We have 1 3/4 acre that we’re working with and ideally we would like to have about 10” of manure on the whole thing, which means we need a ton of crap.

We found some names on the UIUC Manure Share website: https://extension.illinois.edu/lfmm/manure so we could start this little project.

One place we found is working out. It’s a horse farm, and we have started the process of taking their pile. OF COURSE, this is a transition year, so we didn’t have any equipment ready. They let us borrow a horse trailer. We went out there with 2 muck tubs and 2 shovels and started working on the pile.

Spoiler alert: It turns out you don’t get too far that way.

Still, look at all these worms—this is fantastic!

(Don’t focus on the fact that I took a close-up of poop) LOOK AT THE LOVELY WORMS!! (Let’s move along.)

For the second load, they used a loader to get it on there, so we only had to shovel it OFF the trailer this time. Still, if you have ever seen the business end of a shovel it may not surprise you to learn that we were inspired to buy a beautiful, old dump truck!!

  • …Drumroll
  • …Fanfare
  • …Singing choir of cherubs,
  • …Etc.

I will try to post the epic saga of buying the truck soon, but in the meantime, I can’t WAIT for load number three!!!