May 29, 2009

week from hell

This past week has been one of those weeks that has made us question why we're doing this.
For starters, we're broke. This time of year we have to get a half ton of chicken feed every week which costs about $400 and there's no money coming in because the first batch isn't ready to butcher yet. We have a total of 700 birds who need to be fed 2-3 times a day. We are extremely lucky to have some family who really believe in what we're doing and have helped us financially. But that doesn't feel very good. We know we will eventually get there but we want to at least be pulling our own weight.
So last week we got low on chicken feed. Getting feed is not a simple process. First, we have to drive to a local farm to buy roasted soybeans. Then we bring them back to the farm and weigh out what we need for the batch of feed. We then weigh out the 6 different minerals which go into the feed. All of this gets loaded onto the truck and taken to the feed mill where they grind it with their corn and oats. Then we bring it back to the farm and unload it.
Now, 2 things can severely interrupt this process and those would be rain and lack of money. The fact that it rained all last week and the fact that we were low on money forced us to put off getting feed until the last minute. Once Nate finally got feed and brought it back to the farm, we noticed that it looked different. It seemed lighter, fluffier and like it had too many oats. I should mention that our poultry have very specific nutritional requirements and exact calculations of protein percentage are taken into account for every batch depending on which type it's for (layer, meat bird, turkey). So Nate called the feed mill and asked the guy if he remembered exactly what he put into the feed. He thought he may have added 30 extra pounds of oats but didn't think it was a huge deal. This particular batch was for our new little laying hens who are just a month old and who, by the way, we love very much.
So we gave them the feed and 24 hours later, disaster hit. First we noticed that one hen had an anal prolapse so severe we had to make the decision to cull/euthanize her immediately to end her pain. We have never seen anything like that before and we just thought it was a fluke. A few hours later we see that a few of them were being pecked at and had bloody spots where their feathers were pulled out. So we started grabbing them and treating them with a natural ointment. They also seemed frantic and were making lots of noise for some reason. Then we noticed that almost all of them were bloody and some looked really sick. We looked at each other and immediately it clicked... it was the feed. They weren't getting enough protein so they were trying to eat each other's feathers (which are primarily made up of protein). Once chickens get the taste of blood, they start habitually pecking eachother. Plus, we found out that too many oats can be really bad for their digestive systems which is what happened to the poor little hen we had to kill. We quickly grabbed the feeders and pulled them out. Nate weighed all of the feed he had gotten and realized that we had 200 more pounds than we should have, meaning that the feed mill added 200 pounds of something extra which seriously affected the protein percentage. At this point we had run out of broiler feed also so we had given some of this feed to the meat birds. So we ran and pulled those feeders out too. Since we didn't know what the extra ingredient was, we couldn't correct it so we have 700 pounds of feed which we couldn't use. We gave everyone feed from our adult laying hens for the night and Nate was able to go get a new batch the next day which they didn't charge him for, but only after a few hours of trying to get the truck to start. I scrambled a bunch of eggs to give them a protein boost and we put salt in their water to break the pecking habit and all is well with them now.
One person's mistake could have cost us our entire flock. For this reason, we want to buy our own grinder and eventually grow our own grains so we can do it all ourselves..... but that is thousands of dollars away.
While all that was happening, it was down pouring meaning several trips in the rain to put the sides of the chicken shelters down. We had just moved the lambs outside permanently and they haven't quite figured out that they should go under the shelter to get out of the rain. So they're standing there soaking wet looking terribly sad and pathetic. It took all I had to not run out there and scoop them up in a fuzzy towel and bring them inside. They're sheep, after all, and have been living outdoors for thousands of years. Tough love.
We were scheduled to slaughter our first batch of meat chickens on Thursday. There was much to be done to get set up and ready for that but we were dealing with feed and a rain crisis instead. So on Wednesday, we're scrambling around to get everything done in time; set up and clean equipment, set up awning over equipment, set up hoses, sharpen knives, get aprons and gloves organized, clean chill tanks, make ice, check propane for the scalder, fill the scalder, etc. Plus, we have to catch and crate all of the birds the night before to get them off of feed. So it's 10:00 at night and we're out in the dark catching birds, hauling heavy crates onto the truck which of course, wont start again. After a few tries and some cursing, it starts and we make it home by 11 at which time we have to feed ourselves and get some sleep. We spent all day yesterday butchering and were very grateful to have some help but it was a long, long day and we got home at 10pm. We still have another 80+ birds to slaughter on Sunday. And then we have to move the next batch outside to make room for the 3rd batch which arrives next week. By far, the butchering process is the hardest job. It takes so long and is so much work. After they're all slaughtered and processed, they have to be shrink bagged, weighed, labeled and frozen. Oh, and then we have to clean the mobile processing unit, deal with the leftover chicken "stuff", lugging it over to the compost pile. We HAVE to find more help for those days otherwise we wont be able to keep this up. We do this once a month until May-October.
At this point we're wondering if maybe we should rethink things and not have poultry be our main 'thing' since it costs so much to feed them and it's so much work. I would love it if we had enough other money making stuff going on that we could just do a few batches of meat chickens a season instead of 1600.
We got home late last night and were so tired we could hardly stand and we ached so badly from being on our feet all day. Our hands sore and almost numb from gutting 126 chickens. We're starving having eaten nothing but a few random handfuls of snacks and.... it starts to pour. And I mean POUR. I'm standing in our kitchen with tears streaming down my face praying for the rain to stop so we don't have to run out and save birds.
Someone was on our side as the rain soon subsided and everyone was dry and alive this morning.
No money, no feed-then the wrong feed, sick and traumatized birds, truck problems, weather-related stress, rushing to meet deadlines...the list goes on. The stress was palpable to put it mildly and it was all we could do to keep it together and try to support each other.
Today is another day and so far, no crisis. Why can't all of the animals give us a day off and find their own food and keep themselves alive?

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