No amount of scholarly research can substitute for the power of experience. Experiential knowledge teaches us a great deal about ourselves in the process of learning. Although we need both, our experiences should guide our decisions for scholarly research and help us to filter out the necessary information. This past year, as we embarked on our first foray into raising pastured meat chickens and egg layers, we learned by fire the many sides of animal husbandry. We pride ourselves on the care of our animals, especially our beef, which we have raised with diligent care for many years.
This year when it came to raising our meat king chickens, we lost about 15% of our flock due to a variety of factors. We were broken hearted, confused, and unsure of the answers. We regularly checked the temperature, rounded the corners of the brooders, blocked any drafts, fed them regularly but still we found suffocated chicks, chicks with malformed beaks and feet, and bloated chicks. It was dumbfounding, We had read about an “acceptable” loss of 15% but in our minds, 0% is acceptable and nothing more. On the other hand, we lost 1 out of 60 of our heritage laying breed chicks. Clearly, something has happened along the line of selective breeding that has affected the robustness of meatkings immune systems. However, we are happy to report that we didn’t lose a single bird to heart failure, broken legs, or any other condition from the age of 4 weeks to the end of their life cycle. With an increase in production around the corner for us this Spring, we’re hoping to greatly reduce the level of loss with our chicks.
Winter, that glorious season, has presented it’s own challenges. Namely, the cold. I learned very quickly that although our heritage breeds are cold hardy, frostbite can become a serious concern with the exposure of their combs and waddles to frigid air. We’ve kept our laying hens confined to their winter housing until this cold snap passes. Some of my roosters have a bit of frostbite, so we’ve applied some vaseline to the tissues to protect them from further damage. Will it work? Chicken forums tell us yes. The verdict from experience still isn’t out yet. On top of that, we’ve completely insulated the chicken barn with fiberglass insulation and vapor barrier. Not my choice in terms of eco-friendly insulation but something had to be done to provide better care for the birds. The final step will be to add some lighting to retrofit the building with electricity, since solar power seems to be out of the question, so that when our birds go to pasture in their eggmobile (portable chicken coop) this Spring, we can set up our brooders.
Everything requires planning. I’ve learned from four years of teaching mathematics that the best lessons are those that are well planned. The same applies to farming. The best ventures are those that have been mapped out for success. Undoubtedly, we will run into challenges and issues along the way. However, we are good at thinking on our feet so when troubles arise, we’ll problem solve and collaborate to find solutions. The key is caring. You need to want to go beyond suitable care and provide all the requirements for comfortable housing, proper diet, protection against predation, water, and flock management.
I have always been a proponent of learning by fire. When opportunities arise to allow us to learn by our experience, we enter into problem solving situations without pre-conceived notions and rigid ways of thinking. This affords us a great deal of flexibility to problem solve. I have never aspired to be a one way only type of thinker. As a youngster, I often fell victim to criticism, from one person or another, and as a result I lost my way in a maze of self-criticism and perfectionism. Eventually, I couldn’t get out of the starting gate in the pursuit of knowledge because I feared failure. Our new approach to farming has allowed me to express my creative side, overcome my fear of disapproval or not measuring up, and find pride in my/our successes on the farm. I’m proud of everything each of us have done over the course of this year. Looking forward to more of the same in 2014.