Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Farm life changes us

It's interesting to note the many ways we change when we move from suburbia to a farm (no matter how small or hobby-farm it may be.)

I am still a stay at-home mom, but my life, and my general appearance is very different. I no longer wear makeup (as a general rule), because when you're out doing chores in the high heat of summer, makeup just runs down your face and into your shirt. I no longer bother to grow my nails or polish them, because when I'm working with the horses or cleaning a chicken pen, they get dirty and torn. I keep my hair simple - long and straight, because it's easier to pull up and out of my face so I can see when I'm trimming a hoof or collecting eggs. I have a lot more work clothes than dressy clothes, because I spend so much more time getting dirty than I do lunching with ladies or going to wine tastings.

Our priorities change too. A couple of years ago, my mother asked me what I wanted for my birthday. In years before we owned a farm, my mother would spoil me with a lovely art print, or piece of collectible pottery, something beautiful, but inherently impractical. That time when she asked, I told her what I really wanted was about ten tons of pea gravel to put around the barn to improve the drainage there. She was amused, but didn't really understand (Mom was ever a city girl, despite her father being such a lover of livestock.) Now for gift-giving occasions I ask for things like a power washer, or a new incubator, things like that. No flowers or perfume or jewelry for me, thank you, stick to things I can use! Oh, I still have pretty dresses and jewelry I can wear if I chose to, but the opportunities for such are fewer, and farther between now, and I can honestly say I don't mind a bit.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More on perspective changing

Living on a farm makes one rethink many things. Before we got involved with farm animals on a day to day basis (when we lived in Duluth), we lived in a small house in the suburbs. I was then (as I am now) a stay at-home mom. Our house was kept pretty clean, the only real dirt brought in was by the children and the dog, and it was easily handled. I remember being somewhat pie-eyed when we first began taking lessons at our friend Cynthia's house, and her buddy Leigh Ann teasing me about it, saying "still not used to the dirt that comes with farm life yet, eh?"

Fast forward five years to farm life here in Kentucky, and it's a whole different ballgame. Dirt is just a part of living on a farm, especially in this area of the Bluegrass, where it doesn't snow much, and mud becomes a whole season in and of itself. Rubber boots are mandatory now, each one of us has at least one pair, plus the shorter rubber shoes for when we're not walking in the deep mud of the pastures. It doesn't snow much here, so when we get precipitation, it's Mud Time.

Despite my efforts, dirt comes in the house. Mud in Kentucky laughs at the idea of a doormat.
We have whole separate sets of clothing in which we do chores, so that when we go to town we're not wearing mud, or blood, or feces of some sort (owning animals means you invariably have one or more on you at any given time.) I remember when we had babies in Saskatoon, I prayed for carpeting over our hardwood floor. Now we have carpeting, and I'm thinking of ripping it all up and just going to hardwood (Cynthia, I know you're smiling, you with the glorious tile floors in Duluth.) I had to purchase a Dyson vacuum just for animals in order to truly get the carpets clean in this house (the Great Dane and three indoor cats don't help, I suppose.)

But all in all, one does become more tolerant of good clean dirt. It's almost impossible to keep out, and unless I want to spend my entire day cleaning (I'm not that kind of girl, Martha does not live here), it's going to be here if you come to visit. Just how farm life is. Keeping baby chicks in the basement over the winter doesn't help either, they tend to shed as they feather-in, and chicken dust floats all over the place. It's part of the price we pay for being here and living this wonderful life.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The National Animal Identification System, or NAIS

As a small hobby farmer, you would think I have nothing in common with large factory farms. In theory, that would be correct. But in reality, we have one large connection, and that's the National Animal Identification System.

It's a complicated notion that sounds simple. Identify every animal on every farm, ostensibly to be able to track the progress of disease, and find its source, should it occur. That's a laudable goal, but the manner in which the USDA is implementing the program they've developed is nothing short of draconian.

I don't want to get into a huge discussion about the NAIS, there are lots of websites with excellent information about it, no need to reinvent the wheel. Go to www.nonais.com for an overview of the system that will make your hair curl. But I will give you my brief take on the plan.

The premise is simple. Each farm which has livestock is given a number (trackable by GPS.) Each animal on each farm is given an individual number at birth, and then any time any animal goes anywhere off the farm, the movement of that animal is reported to a centralized database. So if illness in a horse, let's say, shows up at a show, the USDA could track all the movements of the horse, and find all of the other horses which had been exposed to the disease, and deal with them. Each farmer must tag or otherwise electronically identify all his animals, at his own expense (and the RFID chips that are being proposed are not cheap, costing between $2 and $5 each, depending on species.)

In actual practice, such a system would be a nightmare for the small farm owner. Any time I go on a trail ride with my horses, any time we cross over the land of another farmer, or enter any show ring, or public place, each and every one of those "movements" would have to be recorded, by me. My horse would have to have an expensive microchip implanted (which some studies have shown cause cancer, especially in light-skinned horses, of which I have two.)

So let's say I go out on a ride, travel just four miles down the road. I pass twelve farms. Each movement onto a farm, then off the farm, has to be logged (hard to do while riding, but I suppose I can write while my horse walks.) On off, on off. For each farm we cross, and each horse we're riding (we like to go out as a family.) So for four horses, which go on and off twelve farms, that's a total of 26 individual movements per horse (have to count on and off our own farm), times four, for a total of 104 movements. Each must be entered into the central database with the day and time (possibly including minute!) All for just one simple trail ride.

Under the NAIS as it stands now, we'd have to do that with every single animal we own, anytime they leave the farm, (and return, if they do.) And it gets even more silly when it's applied to animals such as chickens. Under the current draft proposal, each and every chick will have to be tagged, with a multi-digit number (something like 12 or 14 digits), identifying it for life. Now anyone who knows anything about chicks (especially bantam chicks) knows there's no possible way to do this. Any such tag would be much too large for a tiny chick. And chickens would tear the tags off each other, even if we could figure out how to get them on. I hatch between 100 to 300 chicks a year, how on earth will I be able to log all those numbers and report any movements such birds make? Even if I had the time to do so, how would I afford the cost for that many animals? It's not like I'm getting rich selling chickens, I assure you.

The program gets really interesting when it compares how an individual farm, such as ours is, fares against the big factory farms such as those owned by Purdue and Tyson. Those corporate giants are permitted to log whole barns full of birds with just one number, under the logic that they all move "as a lot" through the chain from hatch to slaughter. Very convenient (and cheap!) for them.

The system as it is proposed is overwhelming for small farmers. Many folks like us feel it's a move by big corporate farms to put the small farmholder out of business. Many are concerned about the loss of genetic diversity which would come if only the big factory farms were left to raise animals for the food chain. Not to mention the fact that in most, if not all cases, incidences of bird flu are directly attributable to the large factory farms, not the small farmholder (who generally raises his animals in ways which are much more humane and easier on the immune system than factory farming.)

I don't want to rant forever here. I do encourage all of you to read the following blog for some interesting information about how past government administrations have impacted our environment and health by allowing the FDA and USDA free reign with our food and livestock. See this link for some interesting comments, and if you'll pardon the pun, food for thought:


I encourage all of you to do some research before you vote this fall, and make sure the person you're voting for is going to do the right thing for you, your children, and (without sounding too preachy), our planet.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The things we do...

Sometimes I wonder, even about myself. One of the things I do here is raise various breeds of chickens. One breed I am working with now (for my daughters) is Silkies. They're cute (if you like that kind of thing) and fuzzy and appeal to most folks. One aspect of them is a problem though; they have what's known as a "vaulted" skull, which basically means they have holes in their heads.
(See this link for photos to illustrate what I mean: http://www.browneggblueegg.com/Article.html)

The problem is, because they're chickens, they get easily startled, and are prone to bonking their heads. Without skull plates to protect their brains, a head bonk is a serious thing for a Silkie, often resulting in neurological damage, and a condition known as "Crookneck." This refers to the tendency of an injured bird to screw its neck around and look up at you upside down and backwards. It's really rather pitiful to look at.

Last fall I purchased an expensive breeding cock bird in order to get a particular color in my flock. The male is Splash, which means he has two copies of the Blue gene, or BlBl. In order to get Blue birds (which is what I want), I breed the Splash male to my Black females (who have blbl, or "not blue") to wind up with Blues (Blbl.) Blues are lovely, a soft grey, and a color I work with in my Dutch as well (modified by the Cream gene igig, which is likely more than you wanted to know about chicken genetics.)

At any rate, I've hatched several Blue chicks this spring, and at least two of them are pullets (young hens) which is wonderful. What's not so wonderful is that one of them has bonked her silly head, and I am now treating her for crookneck. I even; ((gasp)) took the chick to the vet, something I would never do with any other breed. I felt rather stupid and foolish, but he was very nice, and gave me the prednisone I needed to treat her with. I am also supplementing her with B and E vitamins and putting Arnica gel (a homeopathic remedy) on her head, which is working really well. With some luck and time she should completely recover, and as long as I keep her in an area where she won't re-bonk her head, she should never have any further problems.

But I do wonder at myself sometimes. I mean, going to the vet with a chicken is something I never thought I'd do. Just goes to show you, never say never.