Friday, July 30, 2010

Guinea Fowl

Pearl Guinea Fowl
When we moved to our farm Kentucky in '03, one of the things I was sure I wanted to get was guineas. As a child growing up I would often visit my mother's family in East Liverpool, Ohio where the family has a gentlemans farm. My grandfather was particularly fond of horses and poultry (as was his father), but by the time I was older had sold most of his birds except the guineas and several mean geese.

I adored the guineas, for their ugly charm and their amazing noise. (The mean geese are worth their own story one day.) My grandmother used to say the sounds they made reminded her of a rusty gate hinge (those are the quiet noises, they make very loud ones too!) But I wanted some, if only to remind my of my grandparents, and the summer of '04 found me looking for guineas of my own.

We found a breeder in Indiana who had some for sale, and drove over there to pick up some young birds (called keets.) We brought them home, and set them up in a chicken tractor to get used to being here. Guineas have to be penned in a new place for at least four to six weeks before you allow them to roam, or they just take off.

Once we set them loose, they adjusted to free ranging and became a constant source of amusement. Guineas are not the smartest creature on the planet, and we joke that they share one brain amongst the entire group, which is why you often see them chasing each other about, for hours at a time!

Our farm has considerable road frontage, and behind our own 45 acres is another 102 which is mostly pasture and woods like ours. Across the road is our neighbor John, who has a dog named Darla. So where did the guineas decide to roam? Not behind the house, where there was freedom and safety aplenty. No. They decided to cross the road, and go play in Darlas' yard. Darla, being a dog after all, decided she found them very tasty indeed, and I could hardly be mad at her for eating them, as they were in her yard!

In the process of their daily jaunt across the road, one day several of the guineas were hit by a car and killed. The girls and I saw their bodies as we were returning from school, and I pulled into the top of the drive and got out to pick up and dispose of the bodies.

Behind us had been a pickup truck with a local hunter driving (we could tell he hunted because he had dog boxes in the back.) He pulled into the drive behind me and got out, and asked "Are those yours?"

"Yes" I replied quizzically.

"What are you going to do with them?" He asked.

"Um, I'm going to throw them away." I responded.

There was a long silence, me standing holding the dead guineas, him looking and them and then back at me. Finally it hit me.

"Do you want them?" I asked.

"Well, they sure do make good eating" he replied, "can I see them please?"

I handed the dead bodies over. Now, this was essentially road kill, right? I know people eat guineas, and their meat is actually a delicacy. But I've never eaten road kill, and wasn't going to start with birds I considered pets.

The hunter said "Yes, I'd like them if you're not going to eat them, they're in ok shape."

I told him he was welcome to them, and he drove off with the dead guineas in his truck. I shook my head, and continued down to the house, smiling to myself, and explaining to the girls what had happened.

Young guineas stuck on the roof.
To this day, we still haven't eaten one of our guineas, I just can't bring myself to do so. We have eaten a number of our chickens, but the guineas just have too much sentimental value to me to try. Whenever I look at them, I feel my grandfather smiling down at me from heaven, laughing at their antics. So from us at least, they're safe. From Darla, well, when it comes to her, they're on their own.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ch-ch-ch changes...

My oldest goes off to college this fall, and it will mean changes on many levels for us all. She'll be attending the DAAP (Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning) school at the University of Cincinnati to study graphic design (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree it seems.)

Aside from the usual emptying-of-the-nest issues all families and parents face when kids go off to school, those of us who live on farms also have to deal with losing our chore helpers when our fledglings spread their wings and fly out into the world.

This has made me reassess just how many chickens I need here on the farm, and how many breeds I will want to work with. When breeding purebred chickens you need at least one pen, if not many, for each breed. Ideally you have several breeding pens and maintain several separate lines for each breed. And each pen needs to be chored individually, of course.

Losing half my chore force to the wider world means cutting back. In the past we've worked with many breeds of chickens: Leghorns (Brown and White), Ameraucanas, Marans, Orpingtons, Dominiques, Silkies, Dutch Bantams, Cochins, Olive Eggers (a strain of which I created myself, known as the Charlottes, from the Six Feet Under characters Charlotte Light and Charlotte Dark), and of course, Buckeyes.

As of this fall, we'll be down to just one breed, Buckeyes in large fowl and bantam. It's an odd thing to contemplate, but must be done. I work from home doing several part-time jobs as well as the farm gig, and with just my younger daughter to help with chicken chores (DH does the horse chores), there's just no getting around the need to reduce our numbers.

At our highest numbers we likely had about 200 birds (not including chicks that were hatched and shipped to others.) That's a lot of birds to chore, especially when they are in many separate pens. My goal is to get things thinned down to about three pens, and a couple of smaller cages.

I had my eyes opened to this requirement last summer. DD#1 was away at an art seminar for two weeks. During that time, DH and DD#2 went back to Ohio where my family has a farm. They took the truck and two of the horses with them, and I stayed home with all the critters. Doing chores all by myself for the first time made me appreciate my husband even more than I do (he stays home and does chores when the girls and I go out of town.) It also made me realize that 3 hours of chores every day just wasn't going to fit into my work schedule (that's how long it took to feed and water everything twice a day.)

So sadly, I'm selling the last of my Dutch bantams. I love them dearly, but their temperaments do not allow me to keep them in a large flock the way I can with the Buckeyes (the males fight too much.) I've found homes for many of them, and know I can place the rest well with people who will appreciate them. But it's hard to give them up.

This fall will be bittersweet on several levels and while much will change, the rhythms of farm life reassure me that much will remain the same. As Bowie said in that song from all those years ago:

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same.

As I turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer means extra males

Summer usually finds us with a plethora of young chickens, many of whom will not stay here forever. With poultry, a good ratio is about one male to every ten females. However, Mother Nature doesn't let us hatch them that way, more's the pity. Often the ratio hatched is about 50/50, sometimes more one way, sometimes more the other.

The problem begins when all the teen-aged roosters (which we term cockerels in the poultry world) start to have their hormones kick in. They get randy. They get obnoxious. They get over-eager and make pests of themselves to the females. And too many of them can actually gang up on a poor female and in their stupid exuberance, kill one. So they have to be thinned out.

I had a long call yesterday from a woman who had purchased chicks from me earlier this spring. She was in the midst of deciding which males to cull, and needed help. (Culling can mean any number of things, but bottom line, it means remove from the breeding pens.) She wanted to know how she was supposed to determine which young males to keep, and which to cull.

We went over a number of areas to look at, aided in part by the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection, which lists the various characteristics of the various breeds. There are specific traits that should be adhered to, and following the Standard is always the first place to start.

But reading about characteristics and applying that info can be two different things. And the best way to learn how to do so is to have an old-timer teach you first hand. But not all of us are lucky enough to have such mentors available, so we turn to others and the Internet for info.

The breed club for which I am Secretary/Treasurer, the American Buckeye Poultry Club, has a copy of the breed standard for Buckeyes (the breed we are focusing on here at the farm now.) If you're a member of the club, you can read it here. If you're not a member, you can always check your Standard (and if you don't own a Standard, get one!)

Another organization, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, has published a step by step process by which you can assess young birds for good meat qualities and rates of growth, see it here.

Between the two, one can usually figure out which males to keep, and which need to go. We sometimes butcher our own extra males, as Buckeyes make great meat birds. Sometimes we sell some of the extras to a friend who has a market for them in a larger city nearby (yellow-skinned birds appeal to certain ethnic markets it seems.) But one way or another we winnow the numbers down. Right now we have three adult males who preside over a pen of about twenty five adult females, along with about nine young males and twenty or so young females. More than ideal, but they all get along well, and don't overbreed the hens, so they're ok for now.

Later in the summer I may rotate out the oldest male, or put him in a pen with some of his great-granddaughters, to linebreed for some reinforcement of his excellent qualities. For now, the remaining "extra" cockerels have the run of the pen, and are living life pretty large. They have more than half an acre to roam, bugs to chase and eat, and cool shade under the big oak and ash trees. Live doesn't get much better for a chicken these days. Come fall, things may change, but for now, Life is Good.