As a farmer for an operation as small scale as ours, any loss is a great loss. We currently run a small batch of laying hens that we picked up from a local hatchery across the state near Nampa. We were excited and eager to pickup a batch of what we originally ordered to be twelve. Eleven laying hens and one Plymouth Barred Rock Rooster to keep the ladies protected and eventually breed.
It was a mixed flock that we decided on mostly by egg production numbers and appearance. The rooster was chosen all because of his looks. I particularly liked the longer tail feathers the male Barred Rocks can get. Their temperament was also of interest, out of the three breeds we chose: Plymouth Barred Rock, Buff Orpington and Rhode Island Red. When we picked up this group we ended up receiving thirteen birds, two of which became dueling brother roos. We received more than what we planned for and kept them all alive and well through injuries, pecking incidents and tourist dog attacks.
Concurrently with this flock, but not together, we raised a small flock of meat birds with this layer flock. These birds were Big Red Broilers and we raised half for twelve weeks then butchered them. The others we raised for a couple more weeks to add weight, then butchered them.
It has been an all new experience for us.
We used to live in a small condo community in the suburbs of Orange County California. There was no way we could have farmed chickens in our backyard, despite having one of the larger yards in our small community. Ashley made the best of our yard space and gardened the patch of dirt we did have. We composted all our organic kitchen waste. I had longings to raise some meat birds and some chickens for eggs. Chicken tractors, coops, feed ratios became an all consuming thought once we came up here the year before we moved. When we first visited, to see if it could even be a possibility that we could live in the country, we started discussing chickens.
I think our minds had been made from the outset that if we left the tedium of Southern California, wherever we ended up, we would get chickens. We may be poor, but at least we'll have fresh eggs to eat daily, if nothing else.
Fast forward to today, we are knee deep in this years meat bird flock. We're raising a new batch of pullets to merge with our current hens of the original batch from last year. By the end of this year we will more than double our original flock numbers and expand our egg color variety by three new color shades from white to dark chocolate brown.
As a farmer, we want this variety for ourselves and our members. The eggs are all very high in Omega fatty acids, vitamins and trace minerals, but the variety in color adds something unique to our cartons.
A Season of Loss and Lessons
It has been a tough go this season. In our meat bird season we decided to go with a new breed. The Ginger Broiler variety was a bird that would take one more week above the twelve weeks of our last breed, but we read that it was high elevation tolerant and a lot of the reviews seem to have positive experiences when it came to temperament.
There are marked differences with this breed other than the extra week in raising them. This breed only came in a straight-run (unsexed) meaning you could get either roosters or or pullets. Last time we ordered straight hens due to temperament issues with the males of that breed based on reviews and articles. This time we didn't feel the need to be so cautious due to the fact that roos for the Ginger Broiler are supposed to be more soft tempered.
We took the dive and tried the new breed just to see the difference in raising these. I have to give credit to the hatchery. We ordered so many that they sent additional birds, but one was dead on arrival. Several seemed weak from the outset and a few died shortly after we transferred them to the brooder. They seemed to die from what appeared to be water belly or a weakened legs that didn't allow them to eat or move and they died. All in all we lost about twelve in the first two weeks. Then we slowly transferred them into larger brooders while I overbuilt a large chicken tractor yielding about one hundred square feet.
Once we got them out into their new gigantic chicken tractor, one of the pullets died, attacked by some of the more aggressive of the flock. We respectfully buried her in the Earth so the land can reclaim the nutrients to feed the grass and trees.
Simultaneously, the new layer flock suffered the loss of a Blue Gem during the brooder phase. Finally, we currently have a sick meat bird that we put in our chicken clinic hutch to recuperate and medicate. After running our numbers, I've determined our mortality rate at a whopping 21% this season so far, that we hope to turnaround on our midsummer batches of meat birds. Those new batches will be a return to the Big Red Broilers as this breed (Ginger Broiler) has proven to not be adapted to our high mountain valley conditions.
With all this loss, we are experiencing, it has been the opposite of our first season. Our first season was a 100% success rate with all our birds. The loss has come in waves, but there were days we just expected to see a dead chick no matter what we did. After a record setting winter this year, we were unrealistically optimistic at what our success rate was going to be.
This brings me to our latest tragedy at the farm. After a fun filled and much celebrated Summer Solstice that was peppered by a sunny sky with warm, but light temperatures, we returned to the farm after taking a break to discover the tragic loss of one of our original mature hens.
A Significant Blow
Hatched in Caldwell and picked up with care, she sat on her mom's lap with her sisters on the whole ride back to Bear Lake. This particular Rhode Island Red, we usually called Red warmed our hearts after she got caught up in some fencing and we cut her free to rescue her last year. We aren't sure what happened, suffice it to say her death could have totally been an accident by her or another bird. She appeared to be entirely unscathed except for a broken neck.
Predators, normally would also take a piece of the bird leaving a bloody area where the chicken was. She seemed entirely intact, but upon examination and checking her bones, it seems her neck was broken through an undetermined way. Where she was found, she could have fallen into or another bird could have landed on her accidentally killing her. There is no way to tell, which adds to the feeling of loss this death already brings us at the farm.
She was a great hen and a strong producer for us, albeit a bit clumsy and awkward. Although we love her and cried for her, we buried her on her farm with respect, love and dignity that she deserved.
As a farmer, you hate to have to cull any of your flock or livestock, especially if you don't have to. The least of which is the need to cull an animal for the need of ridding the flock of negative traits, qualities or klutzy behavior of an accident prone hen. Still, Red may have inadvertently eliminated herself from the flock's gene pool, leaving us with her stronger more stable footed sisters, thus ensuring they carry stronger more agile traits to the next generation.
In the end, her death may have been a self sacrifice to the stronger more lasting quality of this farm's flock. Red may have contributed the biggest lesson to us, that with growth comes some sacrifice.
Our layer flock will more than double this season if the rest of our birds survive to eighteen weeks. On top of a year marred by high mortality and variable loss, we take appreciation for the opportunity to learn from this great loss and apply those lessons while we move forward.
Red would want us to move forward to care for the rest of the flock. I like to think she's still running around the grass, chasing flies and her sisters around.
Planning for Loss Means Planning to Grow
When you're raising animals as part of your farm operations, you must account for some type of loss regardless of what you are farming. This means, every year, you either need to breed out your animals or acquire more for your herd or flock to account for this loss.
We have been planning on expanding our layer flock and meat bird production since we finished last years effort. While the loss of Red is significant right now as it cuts our egg production, we have more pullets that will be maturing to laying age as early as August and I'm sure next year's farm plan will include a few more pullets to add to the layers in case of additional loss.
With livestock, loss is a hazard of the profession. We keep moving forward, we persist, not because it is paying the bills right now, but because it will pay dividends in the future for production and serving the members of this farm.
Even in the most painful loss and grief we experience, there is a lesson in the experience. We need to allow ourselves to feel that loss, allowing it to pass through us in whatever fashion seems fitting, but we must not let this loss define our ability to grow and persist at trying to be the best at what we do, nor must we let this loss define who we want to be. It is these trying times that grows the farmer fully into the calling. Humans need adversity to grow, it is baked into our very spirit and at the core of our experience.
We've lost a hen, but gained a new perspective and now we will use this experience to learn from and continue the growth that we started.
Thank you Red, you will be greatly missed and loved. We'll see you on the other side, in fields of green under big clear skies without threat of hawk or foe at the big farm in the sky.