Archive | June 2016

Battle of the Rattle Victory

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Last June I wrote about the weed called Yellow Rattle and how it was a plague in my hayfield.  I had to bushhog and lose the first crop of hay last year.  That didn’t kill the rattle.  So I went through the entire field pulling the weed by hand.  I must have collected a couple bushels of plants.  Most were still blooming when I pulled them so they didn’t get a chance to seed.

All the work was worth it!  This year I found only a handful of plants in the field, less than what I’m holding in the photo above.  What a difference!  We just cut the first hay crop and it’s now safely in the barn.

While the battle of the rattle appears to be a victory, the hay is still at the mercy of the weather.  With an open winter and a dry spring, the grass is stressed and growing poorly.  We got only half the hay we need for the winter from the first cut.

Day after fine, sunny, warm day is not helping the second crop grow.  We need rain.  The ground is drying out.  Dust everywhere.  The grass is struggling and has gone dormant in areas of the lawn and pastures.  The forecast calls for rain this afternoon, fingers crossed!

Saving A Milk Snake

Early this spring I startled a small and very colorful snake in my barn.  It was about 1.5-2 feet long, cream color with red blotches outlined in black, a juvenile Eastern milk snake.  Such a beautiful creature.  I have no fear of snakes, even with my early history living in North Carolina.  Rattlesnakes and water moccasins appeared in the yard or the small brook near our home.  As with most animals, I respect and admire snakes.  I even like to hold them.

The little milk snake is very welcome in my barn as it will hunt mice, young rats and voles.  Rodents are a constant trial here on the farm.  Over the weeks since I spotted the young snake, I observed holes made under floor sills and assumed the slitherer was doing its job on the rodent population.

Today I went in the barn to let the chickens out for free-range time.  A poor snake that looked very much like the one above was trapped.  It lay on its back, hopelessly tangled in plastic netting used to contain birds.  At first I thought the snake had died, but when I came near it struggled weakly.  This was an adult milk snake.  Either the young one I saw earlier had grown up, or this was one of its parents.

I got some pruning shears and began clipping the netting.  The snake seemed to understand that I was helping.  At first it tried to go forward, and then back up, all to no avail.  It was completely snared in heavy strands of plastic.  So it stayed perfectly still as I worked.  As the constriction lessened, the snake pulled itself out of the net, but did not move away.  It waited expectantly.

Finally, I noticed a thin bit of plastic net still tightly embedded in the scales and encircling the neck.  The snake calmly lay there as I pushed to get the clipper blade under the plastic. That must have been painful, but the snake didn’t move.  When at last  the tourniquet released, the snake slowly slid off behind a door where it rested, flicking its tongue at me.  I hope it was catching my scent so it could identify me in the future as the good human.

Feather Picking and Chicken Coats

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Hens with bare backs from feather picking

Most anyone who has kept chickens knows that the terms pecking order and hen pecked have roots in real life.  The dominant hens in the flock pull the feathers out of all the others.  Every hen plucks the rooster’s beautiful hackle and saddle feathers because they flutter and catch the eye.

Feather picking is not a sign of missing nutrients or over-crowding.  It is the way dominant hens control the other birds in the flock.  If the most aggressive pickers are removed, others just step into their places.  Chickens are not nice animals, they are vicious, hierarchical creatures who have evolved a very tough society over millions of years.

Some believe it is the roosters who pick the hens bare, but it is mostly the other hens–in my experience.  Rooster feather damage is seen on the elbows of the wings and at the top of the head.  You can tell which hens are the feather pickers because they tend to have the most feathers.  In the photo above, the dominant hen is the silver at front left.  She is mostly feathered and is also wearing a chicken bit.  Some of the other hens participate in feather pulling, but she is the worst culprit.

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Feather picking culprit

Chicken bits are loops of metal that attach into the nostril holes and go in the mouth, like a horse bit.  This is supposed to prevent the hen from grabbing feathers by keeping the jaws separated.  it doesn’t work for very long.  The hen quickly learns how to position her beak to catch feathers using the bit.  Also, the metal is very soft and the beak soon wears through until the mouth can close again.

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Bit clinching pliers, new bits and a used bit

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The hen’s beak quickly wears through the soft metal bit

A hen doesn’t need all her feathers to survive, but they are nice for preventing sunburn, keeping warm and keeping cool.  Naked hens are also unsightly.  There are breeds of featherless chickens.  These are food birds and having no feathers makes cleaning their carcasses much easier.  I think these birds are pretty pitiful and ugly.  I prefer my hens with feathers.  So, what to do about those bossy hens and feather picking?

Once the problem starts, a chicken keeper must act quickly or feathers will disappear in no time.  Within a week, a hen can be going bald.  There are dozens of remedies for feather picking.  I’ve tried many of them.  Bits don’t work.  I won’t try blinders, which impede the vision right in front of the chicken wearing them.  My free range birds need to see as well as possible in the event of predator attack.  The various concoctions recommended for smearing on the victim chickens don’t work well.  The chickens end up cleaning off a lot of whatever is put on them.  The bully hens also either develop a liking for the taste, or they just ignore the coating, because the picking continues.

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Hens wearing their new coats

I’ve found what seems to be working best for my flock:  chicken coats.  These provide a barrier that protects the feathers.  Many variations on this idea are available.  People knit, sew or crochet little jackets, vests or sweaters.  Chicken attire is cute and probably works ok, but cloth can be hot and gets dirty fast.  A wet, soiled scrap of fabric is unhygienic.  I don’t want to have to continually catch the birds to change their clothes.

A product called Chicken Armor is available and I ordered a bunch to try.  The little coats are made of vinyl so they are lightweight and strong.  The material can be hosed off, if necessary.  It does not absorb water so the chicken stays dry.  The coat fits loosely over the back to allow good air circulation. You slip the chicken’s wings through the arm holes and set her free.

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Hen with hand made coat.  Note the feather loss at the wing elbows, that is where the rooster stands when he mates.

Before I ordered the Chicken Armor, I made a coat out of a thick, waxed paper and duct tape.  It was somewhat heavier than the vinyl version turned out to be, but it did stay on and worked well.  The hen who wore it started growing new feathers right away.

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New feathers growing in under the coat.

So far the coats have done a good job.  A few hens manage to get them off.  After putting them back on once or twice, the coats stay on.  The hens actually seem to like their clothes, it must feel nice to get the blazing sun off the back.  And to not have feathers ripped from them.  The coats have a roughened upper surface so the rooster can get a grip for mating.

I will need to put some coats on the roosters as well.  All the hens enjoy pulling the boys’ feathers.  My roosters are so kind they will allow their feathers to be yanked out.  Here is a link to the Chicken Armor site to learn more:  http://www.chickenarmor.com/

I have not received any consideration for endorsing this product.  I’m sure the company has no idea I even mentioned them.  When I find a superior product, I like to share.

 

Barn Friends

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For a couple hours every week I volunteer at the local animal shelter, helping with a program called Barn Friends.  These cats are all feral or nearly so.  They have no human socialization.  Most have been trapped and brought to the shelter where they are neutered, have any injuries treated and are given vaccinations.  Then they all go in a community room set aside just for them.

a10When a cat first arrives in the room, it is terrified of everything.  It hides in one of the many holes.  Some are so poorly socialized with other cats they must be placed in solitary cages.  These ones will attack other animals and humans.  To feed and clean them, an inner plastic crate is kept in the cage.  A pole is used to push the crate against the wall to contain the cat when the cage door is open.  Most caged cats spend the majority of time hiding in the crate.

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The cat on the floor is Natasha, an older, friendly girl who can’t be trusted.  She purrs one second, lashes out the next.  She is the boss in the room.

The cats may never fit into a house situation, but they do very well in barns.  Volunteers like me go in the room and visit with the cats.  We work to socialized them so they can one day be released to adopting farms with large, warm barns.

The adopters feed and care for them and the cats are socialized enough so they will allow humans to approach and catch them for vaccination or medication.  This program helps to reduce the unhealthy, over-breeding feral cat population and gives farmers the pest control they want.

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This kitty was in a cage one week ago, but is now calm enough to be out with the others.  He doesn’t trust sufficiently to take my treat on the floor in front of him.

Cats can spend several months in the Barn Friends room before they are social enough to find a new home.  I have been working with this program for a few months now and have already seen many good endings.  Wild, frightened cats that cannot be touched and shrink into the holes to hide when a human enters the room become outgoing and leave for a barn.  Last week six of the little friends I made left.  This is success!

 

Some cats become so friendly they can be adopted to a regular home with a family, as a long-haired sweetie did just a couple weeks ago.  When I first met her she preferred smacking people to loving them. Some cats can never be trusted with a family.  They will purr one moment then turn and bite the next.

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This boy has come to tolerate having his head scratched with my finger, the one behind him will only allow stick touch.

Volunteers need to be very careful around the feral cats or they can be injured.  My lifetime of close association with cats and experience as a vet tech helps me understand feline psychology enough so I rarely get scratched or bitten.

Domesticating a wild cat takes patience, respect, great calmness of spirit, a knowledge of feline body and verbal language, inventiveness and a certain amount of courage.  A cat becomes socialized when it trusts humans.  Trust comes from predictability.  The cats must learn what to expect from a human and the human must behave in a calm, non-confrontational way at all times.

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Like many new arrivals, these two squeeze together in one hole

The kitties are given names by the shelter that are written on Tyvek collars around their necks.  I am not able to get close enough to read most collars so I have my own names for them.  I have to guess at the sexes of many and still don’t know some.

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Two weeks ago when she arrived this cat allowed no approach, she ran and hid.  Now she holds her ground in a bed, lets me scratch her with the stick and accepts treats from me.

The first step toward domestication for a feral cat is becoming accustomed to having a human in close proximity.  Just being in the room and talking to them helps.  For a new arrival, watching the other cats interact with humans helps.  Many of the animals will attack any hand that comes near.

Because tolerating human touch is an important part of socializing, the cats are touched with sticks or back scratchers.  At first this is hard for them.  They shrink away or try to run.  Some will attack and bite the stick.  Once I am able to scratch the top of a cat’s head with the tip of the stick, the animal will slowly allow more contact.

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This kitty I think of as Growly.  It may be female and has been in the shelter for a couple months.  It has come a long way from the defensive animal I first met.  Now it plays with string and purrs, though it still growls frequently.  It plays and growls at the same time, silly.  This week I patted its back end with my hand for about 30 seconds before it realized what was happening and moved away.  It spent several minutes washing the area I touched.  Getting rid of the human smell, blah!

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Growly likes head scratching

The fastest way to win a cat’s trust is to get them to play.  This helps them relax and understand the human is not a threat.  Most cats can’t resist a piece of string being pulled or flicked nearby.  So I got a wood dowel, drilled a hole in one end and tied a long string to it.  I left a short bit of string at the tip of the stick.

The first instance of play for many cats is when they feel that bit of string tickling them and try to catch it in their teeth.  Once they start to play, it is a quick path to friendship.  The stick is long enough to reach the cats in the cages.  Even the most wild and aggressive animal responds to gentle touch.

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Second week for this one and he is getting quite playful but still very wary

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Most cats love to have the tops of their heads, sides of the faces and their chins scratched.  This one can’t resist a good chin rub.

When a cat is comfortable enough to leave the shelter of their hiding hole and come out on the floor or to an open perch, the change from feral to social really begins.  When a cat vocalizes and comes to greet me as I enter the room, I know that little furry friend will be leaving soon.

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The wild Kitten

One of my special buddies is a very small, young black and white cat.  She is not far from kittenhood.  When we first met she screamed at me, hissed, spit and threatened with claws if I came within a couple feet of her hole.  Within two weeks she was playing with the string.  It took a month before I could touch her with the stick.a14

Now I can pat her back, scratch her all over and tickle her belly with the dowel.  She comes down on the floor to play with the string and follows me when I play with other cats, trying to get at the string.  She is still very skittish, frightens easily and runs for cover.

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Kitten getting very close

Lately she has been so absorbed in play that she doesn’t notice how close she comes to me.  She will suddenly realize I’m only inches away and retreats in a hurry.

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Yikes!  Too close to a human!!  She ran away right after the camera clicked.

She always comes back.  Soon she will let me touch her, I think.  This week I tried, but she clawed me, nothing serious–just a warning.  I call her Kitten.  Such a cutie.  Wish she could come to my farm, but she would not survive in our barn.  Too many coyotes and foxes in the neighborhood.

It is very rewarding to see a wild cat change into a Barn Friend and know they will be able to find a warm, comfortable home.  Working to socialize feral cats is very fulfilling.  I hope to continue with this program for a long time.

 

Chick Update

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The third hatch of Ameraucana chicks finished this morning.  Currently there are 14 babies.  Very cute and alert little guys who are already eating the chick mash.  I’m glad to be done with hatching for this year, it is a chore.

The first two hatches are growing well.  They spend every day free-ranging around the barnyard.  The first hatch from 4/19 has eight young birds, including a beautiful silver pullet (right front.)  It is hard to catch these guys long enough to get a good photograph.  Here I slowed them down with some scratch grains for a pose.a4

a3The second hatch from 5/14 has thirteen chicks.  They are growing fast and have nearly completed their first fledging.  These little guys are real adventurers and even harder to capture in photos than their older siblings.a2a5Here the two hatches mingle at the feeders.  The older chicks chase the younger ones some, but they are getting more and more tolerant with exposure.  By fall they will be one big flock.  I must set up the feed stations inside pens with narrow entries so the adult chickens can’t steal the food.

Garden’s In

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After much weed pulling, tilling and fence installation, the garden was ready to plant last week.  It took two days to get all the seeds in the earth.  The weather has been so dry for so long that the dirt was like talcum powder.  I watered after planting to give the seeds a start.

The weather forecast was for rain over the past weekend and through most of this week.  Happily, we finally got a good soaking yesterday afternoon and overnight.  It poured!  Now the sprouts will start to pop up.

g2It is time to set the last of the plants in the garden:  the tomato and red pepper seedlings.  These came from a greenhouse last week and have been hardening off outside in the shade, preparing for the harsh conditions in the full sun and open air.  The tomatoes already have flowers!  The variety is Early Girl, a nice medium-sized tomato that is very early.  Usually I get my first fruit by mid-late July.  Yum, can hardly wait for that juicy, home-grown taste!

Way to His Heart Meatloaf

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When I want to make my husband happy with one of his favorite meals, I cook up my special meatloaf.  It always warms his heart.  I have a secret to keep the meatloaf juicy and tender:  beef bouillon.

My Meatloaf

2 lbs lean ground beef, I use grass-fed ground round

1 egg

1/4 cup ketchup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

1 cup warm water

1 cube beef bouillon

2 drops liquid smoke, optional

Put the bouillon cube in the warm water to dissolve.

Place beef, egg, ketchup, spices and onion powder in a mixing bowl.  Add a couple drops of liquid smoke for a barbecued flavor, if desired.  Mix together with nice clean hands until all the ingredients are well blended.  Pat the meat into a greased loaf pan.  Pour the bouillon over the meat.m2m3

Bake for 1.25 hours at 350F.  Drain off the liquid and thicken with flour to make gravy.  Serves four.   Meatloaf also is great in leftover sandwiches.m4