Goats Grazing

Some of you have been concerned  that the goats don’t have hay in their hay rack. Poor starving goaties.

Right. Not exactly.

If I kept hay in front of them all the time, they’d never step outside of the stall. As it is, fed just one nice big, leafy, second-cutting hay flake a day, there’s a lot of resting and cud chewing going on.

Pip and Caper don’t get any grain at all. They are wethers – neutered males – and are very prone to dangerous bloat and urinary tract issues if they eat too much rich food. They complain. I ignore them. But, I am happy to take them out to the margins of the meadow, where their most favorite foods grow. Fortunately, what they want, I don’t. They eat brambles and white pine saplings.

Today, while the goats grazed, I let the Gems out. They, too, love the food in the woods, and all of the hens were busy, heads down and bottoms up.

That is, all but Agatha. She, of course was following me and looking at the camera.

Go eat, Agatha!

Speaking of eating – I’ll be making 14 butter pie crusts this weekend. By Monday I’ll have a pie crust-making tutorial up on this blog. I’ll also be posting a Luscious Chocolate Pie recipe. Stay tuned!

When Will My Hens Start Laying?

When will my hens start laying?

This is a question I get all the time.

And then I get asked, Why have they stopped?

The answer begins with, It Depends.

IF you have early spring chicks and IF you have production breeds, your new pullets will begin laying at four months. However, some of the old-fashioned breeds, especially the large, heavy ones, take a long time to mature. They might not begin to lay until they are 24 weeks old, which might bring you up to autumn, when daylight hours are shrinking and the weather turns cold. Not optimum for laying. So, your new hens might not lay until February.

My Gems (so-called because I’ve named them all after fancy rocks) hatched on April 25. They are 7 months old. I’ve been getting 3 eggs a day for the last month. That’s only 3 eggs from 12 healthy pullets. But I’m not worried. They’re animals, not machines. This summer there was a stretch of brutally hot weather. No one wanted to eat. Then at the end of last month there was a freak snowstorm. That could put anyone off their schedule. And then there was the stress of a humungous bird hunting fish (for all the Gems knew that Great Blue Heron could have been hunting chickens!) and landing on their barn and scaring the bejeezus out of them.

Things have calmed down. I think the heron has migrated south. The hens are eating. We’ve had some lovely sunny days. I collected five eggs from the Gems today! I also got one from my Golden Comet, Philomena, who is older, and molting, but she’s a hybrid who just doesn’t stop.

I am very pleased to see these eggs. I need 35 eggs to make the pies for the Pie Party. I’ll have enough for a second Rhubarb Custard Tart.

As to why your hens have stopped laying, well, it depends. Around 18-months of age, all hens molt – some more dramatically than others – but they all have to put their resources into making new feathers, not eggs. This stage can last for only a few weeks, or up to two months. The molt usually occurs with the onset of winter, shorter daylight hours and cold temperatures, all of which signal the birds to stop producing eggs. I usually see the egg laying pick up again by February or early March.

A sudden stop in laying is often due to stress. Perhaps there’s a predator around, or you’ve added to or depleted birds from the flock causing social upheaval. Perhaps there’s a lot of noise with construction going on next door. The weather can stress out hens, too, especially prolonged periods of extreme heat (cold rarely bothers them.) Or, maybe something is stealing the eggs. Snakes, skunks, and other animals will take eggs. Maybe one of your hens has learned to smash eggs and eat them (you’ll usually see a mess if that happens). Sometimes a hen goes “broody” which means she sits in a nesting box but doesn’t lay a thing. Sometimes a hen has a glitch in her system or an injury and she doesn’t lay at all.

A gradual reduction in egg production is usually due to age or poor health. It happens to all flocks that are allowed to keep going past 18 months (when commercial farmers cull their old stock and start fresh with new). Philomena is a hybrid, designed to lay day after day for two seasons. She’s now into her third. I get three eggs a week from her, not the six from when she was young, and they’re thin-shelled and misshapen. But they’re still good for baking. Her twin, Agnes doesn’t lay any, nor do any of the other old girls in the flock you see on the HenCam; some haven’t laid an egg for years. It’s a flock of retired chickens. I’d be surprised if the oldest – Eleanor and Edwina (who are seven and have been toddling around for years) make it through the winter. (Although that’s exactly what I said last November.) At least I have the Gems this year and enough eggs for my pie party. It looks like they’re revving up the egg production, but I don’t know if they’ll keep laying through the dark days of winter. It depends.

(note – although keeping a light on at night does increase production, I don’t bother. I’ll give the girls a break for a couple of months. My barns have big, sun-facing windows which encourage early-spring laying. More about winter care in this FAQ.)

What’s Going On Here?

Take a look at this photo.

Sweet, huh? There’s one of the Rhode Island Reds, cuddling up with her friends.

Don’t jump to conclusions.

I fully believe that animals have emotions and are thinking beings. However, I am careful not to interpret their behavior based on my skewed perspective as a human. We all look for that “aw, how cute” moment. YouTube is rife with videos that are supposedly of adorable happy dogs, but they are actually fearful, grimacing pets. A smile is not always a smile.

And this is not a hug.

Ruby is on the top of the pecking order. She doesn’t have a motherly, coddling bone in her body.

The prime sleeping position is on the highest rung of the ladder. Ruby was late to get to her rightful place. She was busy laying an egg. By the time she hopped up, the perch was full. She tried to shove everyone out of the way. Roosting birds are hard to move. Ruby almost fit. She squeezed in all but her wings. And so Ruby ended up in this rather ignominious position. After a bit more jostling, wings were tucked in and all went to sleep.

Knowing that it’s an awkward position and not a hug does nothing to diminish the pleasure I get from this moment or these animals. On the contrary, I appreciate the pure chicken-ness of them. Who they truly are is endlessly fascinating. I don’t need my hens to hug each other. I’ve seen plenty of examples of friendships amongst my flock. There’s always something going on – the challenge is in understanding it.

Thinking About Pie

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I know that many of you are planning menus and writing shopping lists. You’re thinking about turkey, stuffing, and maybe a green bean casserole. I’m not thinking about any of those foods. It’s not that I don’t love a classic Thanksgiving dinner, but over the years circumstances have kept me from creating that fabled groaning board in my own home. I don’t have nearby family to invite over. Our friends have their own commitments and can’t fill the seats in our dining room.  We’ve tried staying at inns, going to a community pot-luck, and having a scaled-down version for the four of us. None of those alternatives felt right to me.

Eight years ago, facing yet another sure-to-be disappointing November, I sat myself down and thought hard about what I truly loved about Thanksgiving. It wasn’t the turkey, and it wasn’t the need to relive childhood memories.What I wanted was a house full of people and the casual, relaxed, hanging out at the table that happens at a food-centered, home-centered holiday. It dawned on me that I could have that without the Thursday dinner. I came up with my own unique tradition – one that features my hands-down-favorite part of the Thanksgiving menu – I invented the Sunday After Thanksgiving Pie Party.

Woman’s Day Magazine got wind of it. Perhaps they read this post, or this one. In any case, the current issue of the magazine

carries an article about unusual Thanksgiving traditions, and my pie party is featured.

This weekend I’ll be writing up my final detailed lists. Shopping list. Prep list. Pies I can freeze list. Last minute list. I have to be organized. I’ll be making about fifteen different pies. None will be pumpkin. Here’s what I’m thinking of so far, but this list will change before I start baking. Chocolate Pie, Lemon Pie (my recipe is online at Woman’s Day. Their editors added a 1/4 cup of sugar to my recipe. I do like my lemon pie on the tart side), Peach Almond Gallete, Rhubarb Custard Pie, Apple Cheddar Crumble Pie, Chocolate Pear and Ginger Pie, Tollhouse Pie, and Banana Cream Pie. On the savory side there will be Butternut Squash and Feta Pie, Chicken Pot Pie and a classic Quiche Lorraine.

Are you making pie? I’m open to suggestions. My lists aren’t finished yet.

The Goats Get A Beard Trim

Some goats have beards. Mine do. Pip’s gets really, really long.

In the winter, when he drinks, it turns into a beard popsicle. Pip has a thick winter coat that keeps him toasty warm, but I can’t imagine that having an icicle hanging from his chin is comfortable. So, before winter truly sets in, I trim off the goats’ beards.

Goats hate having their beards tugged. To cut a beard, you have to hold the end with one hand and wield the scissors in the other. The goats try to avoid getting haircuts. Their behavior reminds me of when my son was three and he shrieked and twisted in the barber’s chair.

Lollipops worked for Daniel. I tried distracting the goats with parsley.

I got a few snips in, but they eat fast.

I put some hay in their manger.

I had to rethink that. Obviously, I couldn’t reach their chins. I moved the hay over and snipped some more.

I tried using my clicker and target stick. But, I didn’t have enough hands to manage the target, the clicker, the treats, and the scissors. I need a target I don’t have to hold!

Finally, I did manage to whack off enough of their beards to get the goat boys winter-ready.

When one has goats, one must maintain a sense of humor. After all, the goats never lose theirs.