How we do the state fair

Mouse has been waiting for three years to show her poultry at the state fair and she is finally here, waiting in line to be called for Showmanship.

That’s when I learn that after Showmanship, the birds won’t be judged in their cages but will be called up breed by breed to be judged individually at the table.

My head has been hurting all day. I’m not sure if it is dehydration, stress or if I just needed a cup of coffee. I just want to go lie down, but finally it is her turn and we sit and watch her talk to the judge even though we can’t hear a word she says.

“He said it was impressive. At the start, he told me no one knows salmon faverolles so if I did well, I would get a good placing. And he said I got a purple!”

Then came more waiting with a young lady who was going over every word the judge said, looking for some hope that maybe she got the champion.

Purple and ninth place. I can see she is a little disappointed, but purple at the state fair is nothing to be ashamed of and she is one of the youngest in a class of about 40 competitors.

And my headache is growing and I’m holding a chicken Mouse has finished grooming so it won’t mess up its feathers and I can’t believe how heavy a chicken can get in an hour. Or how much my head can throb. I get a frozen coffee with a chocolate covered espresso bean and for a moment, it feels like my headache is going to clear up.

But then it gets worse and I start sweating and the world goes a little swimmy.

Mouse gets a purple for both her Salmon Faverolle pullet and cockerel and they take Best of Breed and Reserve Best of Breed. Her Welsh Harlequin drake only gets a red but the duck gets a purple, Best of Breed and Best of Class. I’m proud of her, but I can’t leave soon enough.

And as soon as I step outside, I throw up. Over and over and over.

And my seven year old Bug, who has an extreme phobia of anything related to vomit or nausea ever since she saw her baby brother throw up after the accident, ran away.

Like as in a full out, adrenaline-charged, panic stricken sprint across the park with no regard for direction or obstacles or traffic or whether she would ever be able to find her way back to her family again. And when you are throwing up outside the sheep barn, it is a little hard to do much of anything else.

So my thirteen year old Mouse had to take off after her and it was all she could do to catch up with her, tackle her and hold her until we finally caught up.

And that was how we spent the much anticipated day at the state fair poultry show.

A barnyard adoption story

Mama was an australorp . . .

australorp hen

. . . who hooked up with a red laced blue Wyandotte. It was nothing serious. She knew that. After all, he had at least fifteen other hens that she knew about. It wasn’t going to last, but who could resist that tail?

blue laced red wyandotte rooster

But then the unthinkable happened and she didn’t know what to do. She wasn’t ready to be a mother. She wasn’t sure she knew how to be a mother. So she did what everyone else did and hopped in the little box in the corner, sat down and laid her egg.

No one really knew what happened to all the eggs that were laid there. They were laid and then became somebody else’s problem. Everyone liked it because it was discreet (even if everyone knew there was only one reason for going in that room) and within a few hours the problem just went away.

So mama australorp hopped in the little box and laid her egg. She covered it lightly with a loose blanket of straw and cried loudly as she left, but her problem was gone.

But then along came the Welsh Harlequin. She was a beautiful duck with only one desire in the world: to become a mother.

But her drake had been killed in a vicious dog attack the year before so she was unable to have any children of her own. She saw the hens going in and out of the box in the corner. She knew what it was for. And it always pained her to see them treating such a beautiful blessing like a problem that needed to be disposed of.

Until one day she decided to do something about it. After the australorp ran out crying over the problems she had brought upon herself, the Welsh Harlequin went in and sat.

broody Welsh Harlequin

And sat. And sat. And sat. For three weeks, she sat leaving only for an occasional drink and a little food. But mostly, she sat.

Until finally, she became a mother.

Welsh Harlequin duck

And though her baby didn’t look anything like her, to her mama heart, it was the most beautiful duckling in the world.

Jake kills a chicken

I lock up the barn at the end of a long day. I’m ready for it to be over. I was ready for it to be over when I woke up. And the whole day was beset with challenge after challenge after challenge, leaving me fighting back tears most of the day.

It was a hard day and then Jake killed a chicken.

Bug saw it and brought me the dead pullet. I was angry, unsure of what to do, so I smothered it in hot sauce with a bit of wasabi intending to feed it to him and knowing it wouldn’t work but feeling like I had to do something. I walked up to him, a chicken walked by and I saw him change from overgrown teddy bear to lightning fast predator in an instant.

And I threw the dead chicken at him as I yelled that I was taking him to the pound.

Though he has killed before, I had never seen him do it. When he is with me, he doesn’t pay that much attention to the chickens.  Sometimes he pricks his ears and sometimes he shows more interest than I like and once, the day before, he charged one but not with that kind of intensity.

And now, after locking up the barn, I look back at the house and the day isn’t over. I still have the dinner dishes. I still have a list of things I know I should do and I know I probably won’t. I think about pushing it all aside and just going to bed because I want the day to be over and I’m just done with it all.

I look up at the stars and think how they once filled me with wonder. That night . . . the night Tiggy died . . . there were stars. The most spectacular shooting star streaked across the sky as we lost sight of the ambulance on Highway 2 on the way to the trauma center at Bryan LGH in Lincoln.

It was beautiful.

My husband saw it as a sign that God was in control. No matter what happened, He was there. I have had difficulty even looking at the stars ever since. They are still beautiful. Out here, the night sky can be breathtaking. But to open myself to that kind of awe, I have to open myself to the fountain of grief that boils alongside it and it is easier not to take notice.

And it is eleven at night and I don’t want to go inside so I sit in the grass by the barn and stare at the sky. I find Orion on the western horizon. Leo is further to the north. I find the Milky Way playing peekaboo behind wispy strands of clouds and part of a song runs through my mind.

“. . . the stars are his handiwork, too . . . “

Jake leaves the porch to come lay down next to me. He puts his big head in my lap and I hold him there, stroking his fur. It is warm and silky in spots and rough in others. He needs brushed out, but I run my fingers through the dirt and bits of grass and hold my big puppy Jake as I watch the stars.

“Oh, Jake, what am I going to do with you?”

We’ve sat like this before, on my front porch looking out at the cedar trees that mark the northern edge of the cemetary where my son is buried. His fur has caught too many tears to simply give up and give him away. And it catches them even now as I hope that I am not forced to choose between him and the poultry that plays such a strong part in our plans for this property.

And Jake has no idea why I am sitting out here in the dark but he knows I need something to hold onto so he chooses to lie here with his head in my lap rather than returning to the pot of left over oatmeal sitting on the porch.

And I’m sorry I got so angry at him, but I know it was partly fear. Fear of the problem getting worse. Fear of losing him. Fear of having to make a choice.

And the day ends more challenging than it began.


Helping your chickens survive the summer heat

Summer has made its arrival here in Nebraska with the heat index bringing us into triple digits. This can be deadly for chickens who can’t sweat to cool off. We’ve lost one broiler chick and the rest of our flock hangs out in the shade, wings lifted away from their bodies and panting.

Helping chickens survive the summer heat

As the heat increases, chickens slow down. They forage less and chase each other less. Layers may stop laying and meat birds may stop gaining weight. All of this signals heat stress which can be alleviated with some simple steps.

1. Select the right birds for your climate.

The most important part of keeping your flock healthy is to start with birds suited to your area. There are heat tolerant breeds, cold tolerant birds and birds that aren’t tolerant to any temperature extremes whatsoever (like broilers). Don’t build your flock based solely on looks, egg laying potential or what is available at the feed store. Know their preferences. Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart is a great place to find this information. At the very least, this will help you devise a plan to help your birds through temperature extremes they are not well suited to.

2. Plan your chicken coop with the climate in mind.

A roof slanted toward the summer sun will absorb more heat. A well-insulated coop will retain more heat and humidity. A coop built off the ground allows air flow under the coop, helping to keep bedding dry, thus reducing the humidity (and the smell!) A screened window (or hole covered in chicken wire) can make a huge difference on a hot day, as can free access to the outside where your birds have a choice between the coop’s shade and the summer breeze.

3. Water, water, water.

Warm water is better than no water, but on a hot day, keeping a steady supply of fresh, cool water will go a long way in helping your chickens manage the heat. Throw in some ice cubes to help keep it cool a little longer, especially if you need to be gone for a few hours during the heat of the day.

4. Know the signs of heat stress.

Your chickens will pant when it is hot outside. This is natural and does not necessarily mean you need to rush out and buy an air conditioning unit for their coop, even if you are hitting high temperatures. Except for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, our flock forages all day and shows no particular signs of actual stress. Our layers are laying well and our pullets are continuing to grow at a nice pace despite the triple digit heat. Basically, you need to know your birds and what is normal for them. You should be concerned with a bird that does not react normally. A struggling bird may also lay down in the dirt with wings held loosely and legs stretched behind them. This is an awkward position for a bird to take, particularly a prey species that normally is ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. When getting rid of excess heat becomes more important than fleeing from predators, it is probably past time to bring the bird inside and give it a cooling bath.

Important: Birds will acclimate to the heat over time. If the weather has been warming slowly over the last month, they may get through a heat wave with nothing but shade and some extra water. If the heat comes on suddenly, they will need more attention from you, but some of your cooling efforts can be scaled back as time goes on. Too much intervention can actually make it more difficult for them to acclimate to the heat.

5. Provide shade. And lots of it.

If you do not have shade, your chickens will tend to stay in the coop where air circulation is not as good. A shady spot in their run will provide much more relief from the heat. We have a dog house on one side of our run and a tarp spread out on the other side, though neither are of much use since most of our birds fly over the fence anyway. Instead, they hang out in the corner of an old barn, in the lilac hedge or in our windbreak. Free ranged birds know the coolest spots in their range. You just need to find where they’re going and make sure they don’t have too far to walk to get to their water.

6. Pay attention to the changing position of the sun.

This is particularly important for pastured poultry. A pen in a shady spot in the morning may trap them in full sun in the afternoon.

7. Start making ice packs.

Gallon milk jugs filled partway with water and frozen or Ziploc style baggies full of frozen water work great. Overheated birds will park themselves next to their makeshift air conditioning and drink the condensation as it forms. A pan of ice cubes will also be appreciated, though they are likely to foul them up rather quickly.

8. Mist your chickens.

Chickens don’t sweat, but a fine misting of their feathers will help cool them as it evaporates. Mine run too fast for me to spray them so I figure they aren’t that bad off. I’ve read of chickens who will stand near a sprinkler to take advantage of the spray, though, so it is definitely something to consider.

9. Mist your hen house.

This might bring up your water bill a bit, but consider running a sprinkler or hose over your chicken coop. The water itself will cool the building and the evaporative effect will further contribute to the cooling. If your birds free range like ours, this likely won’t help much but then your birds will also have far more choices of where to go to keep cool.

10. Provide wet sand for them to walk through.

The moisture will help cool their feet and legs as they walk through the sand.

11. Provide a good dust bath.

If you have chickens, you know they love nothing more than a good dust bath. They fluff their feathers, rub their wings and even roll in the loose dirt, trying to get the dust through their feathers and down to their skin. Dust baths help relieve itching, control parasites and are thought to help cool birds. At any rate, they certainly love them and all that feather fluffing has to be good for releasing extra heat! Sand or loose dirt in a shallow container (like a kitty litter pan) is perfect if you don’t have a section of your yard your birds have already turned into a dust bath site.

12. Provide a fan.

Air circulation will help your chickens significantly, especially if they’re locked in a coop for a day. Chickens keep their body temperature around 106 and, well, they’re like little heaters when they’re shut up together. Ventilation and a fan can help keep the coop from getting hotter than the outside temperature while also reducing the humidity.

How are your birds faring this summer? What have you done to help keep them cool? Most of our flock seems to be doing fine, while the broiler chicks are showing signs of stress. It has been a challenge keeping them cool. I just moved them off a table and into a larger, more ventilated pen on a concrete floor hoping to give them a little more relief. They certainly do like their ice packs! If it weren’t for the fact they are my daughter’s 4H project, I would never try raising broilers in the summer.

Free chicken treats, or Organic June bug control

I left the children’s water table under a porch light the other night and woke to my walkway carpeted with June bugs.

I thought what any chicken owner would think: FREE FOOD!

My chickens were delighted. So the next night I made sure the water table was parked there and placed a bucket under our other porch light. Suddenly I’m motivated to fix the other two outdoor lights we have.

What’s more, June bugs are a bit of a pest, defoliating shrubs and trees in early spring. By mid summer, their grubs are ready to start damaging your lawn and even your vegetable patch.

A healthy lawn is usually able to handle a mild attack of June bug larva, but they can become a problem when conditions are dry (as they usually are here in Nebraska come August) or if the larva population is just too large. My chickens are doing their part to keep the numbers under control!

I may even go sweep up all the beetles that crash land on my sidewalk and patio. I think they’ll store nicely in a bucket until morning.