Learning From Loss and Counting our Blessings Out at Our Happy Homestead

It’s chick hatching season out at Whit’s Acres, and with it has come a month full of anticipation, expectation, stress, life and loss.

egg on new straw

Each time we hatch a new batch of chicks, I’m reminded just how fragile and precious life is.

I am always amazed at the privilege and responsibility we have to help bring new life into this world.

It doesn’t always go as planned.

Sometimes things go wrong.

Life and death decisions are made.

Lessons are learned.

New insight and understanding is gained.

I think there’s something inside of just about every human being that says, “If there’s something I can do to save a life, I have to try!”

Yet, there is truth in the way of nature.  I know.

Out of the eleven eggs that were viable in our incubator, we have five brand new healthy, happy, incredibly cute chicks — now that’s something to celebrate!

five new chicks

On the other hand, six of the baby chicks didn’t make it.  Four died in their shells.   The other two?  Well,   I couldn’t just stand by and watch them struggle hour after hour, not being able to push out of their shell.

Oh, I’d read all of the books and forum posts that said to “Never help a chick that is struggling to hatch out of its shell — if it can’t make it out on its own, then it’s not going to be able survive if you help it out.”

But, I’d also read a few posts and watched a couple of videos of people saving these struggling chicks, and testifying to how that chick would have surely died if they hadn’t intervened and how it was now thriving with the rest of the flock.  Oh, sure, these kinds were the exception, but something inside of me kept telling me I had to try.

So, I did.  One of the little chicks who’d been struggling for over 24 hours to emerge from its shell finally arrived, exhausted, after I helped finish “Unzipping” it.  He only lived for about an hour after he hatched.  The other chick managed to live for nearly a week.  He had problems from the very beginning – a ruptured air sac, spraddled legs,  but I kept hoping that he’d improve, and so I continued to care for him, hand feeding and watering him, isolating him from the other healthy chicks and comforting him by holding him in my warm hands and making him a fuzzy “sleeping buddy” to comfort him when I wasn’t around.  It was so cute to watch him nuzzle his head under those yarn pom poms, like a baby chick snuggles under the mama hen.  But it wasn’t enough.  He was just too weak.  I was sad to say good bye, but thankful to have known him and to have learned a little more about animal husbandry in the process.

little runt

Sometimes I think, “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this farm life.”

There are no guarantees.

There are so many struggles.

It’s a difficult, sometimes stressful life.

It doesn’t always go as planned.

But every loss is an opportunity to learn…

And, every success is a  reminder of the great and wonderful blessings and privileges God has given us out at our Happy Homestead, Whit’s Acres.

Unexpected Plans and Directions

“Well, I wasn’t planning on it, but…” seems to be the story of my life.  I wasn’t planning on having a large family, or being a stay-at-home mom, or homeschooling, or becoming a farmer, or a vegan, or a buzillion other things that I am or do right now.  But, over the years,  I’ve learned to live by this biblical truism:  “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.” – Proverbs 16:9 NLT

This past week,  I unexpectedly inherited a flock of ten new mixed breed chicks from my cousin, a small farmer and an expert hatcher.  I was not prepared for their arrival.  I had no food, shelter, or bedding for them.  In fact, I wasn’t even sure I wanted them, now that we’re not eating very many eggs anymore.

We already have a flock of four Rhode Island Red hens that provide us with one or two eggs per day — not enough to keep up with our old eating habits, but sufficient enough to provide a quick snack for one of the kids when they’re craving an egg burrito, or to add into my baking mixes whenever I don’t want to take the time to make a “flax egg“.

Originally, “the plan” was to rotate out two hens every year — as the laying rate of the older hens declined, they’d be culled and replaced with new layers — so that we’d always have four laying hens.

But, now that we’ve adopted a more vegan lifestyle, we’ve decided to amend our plans a little…

The older flock now occupies the space where the goats used to live.  The “new plan”  is to plant a small orchard inside  and let the hens live in symbiotic co-existence with the trees: tilling and fertilizing the land, while feeding on dropped fruit and other insects that the trees attract.

The new, little chicks are being kept separate from the older flock, right now.  Eventually, when they get big enough, the plan is to let them occupy the larger pen, as well, to help with the tilling, fertilizing, and pest control.

We know that the new flock is probably going to have a few roosters, and we don’t quite have a plan for them yet.  With our first flock of Rhode Island Reds (ones we hatched ourselves), we ended up with three roosters out of  the seven chicks that hatched.  At the time, we were not living in a place that allowed roosters, and so they ended up on our dinner table (in the form of brick hard fried chicken).

I can assuredly tell you that none of the new roosters are in any danger of ending up in the stewing pot this time!  Most likely, we will keep one for breeding future flocks and for defense of the flock, and sell the others.  As egg production increases, I will sell off the surplus,  and as new chicks are hatched, I will sell those, too.

Well, now, that sounds like the makings of  a pretty good plan, doesn’t it? Time to sit back and watch where the Lord directs my steps.  It may not be exactly where I plan, but I love the life story He’s written for me so far!

Shall I add chicken farmer to the list of things I never planned on? 🙂

A Homeschool Project We’ll Never Forget!

About three years ago, we had the privilege of  hatching our own chickens.  It wasn’t anything we’d ever planned on doing.  It  just sort-of happened, one day, as we were handed a carton-full of fertilized eggs from a friend at church who thought we might enjoy doing a little “homeschool project”.

Wow! What a project that was!  I don’t think I’ll ever attempt to do it again, but it was an experience I don’t think any of us will ever forget…

We scrambled, at first,  to get our own homemade incubator built.   It was a really crude one, made out of a plastic tub,  25-watt light bulb,  a small dish of water, and a thermometer.  The first problem we encountered was that we couldn’t get the temperature up to the, minimum, 99 degrees necessary for supporting life.  Matt had the genius idea of using aluminum foil to line the inside of the tub, though.  Eventually, we were able to settle in on a steady internal temperature of 101 degrees.  Humidity was another issue we weren’t prepared to deal with.  Instead of purchasing a wet-bulb thermometer to determine the relative humidity within in the incubator (which needed to be between 50 and 55%), we’d bought a simple reptile terrarium thermometer, only showing the temperature.  But, we didn’t want to spend any more time or money getting the eggs going, so we just trusted that the amount of water we were using would provide the right amount of humidity for the eggs to develop.

Once the eggs were in a secure environment, we headed to the library to find out what we’d need to do next.  We brought home a handful of books on raising chickens and the crash course began…

On day seven, we “candled” the eggs.  My daughter, Keilah, and I took them, one at a time, into the bathroom, turned off all of the lights, and held a flash-light underneath each one.  While cupping it in my hand, we looked to see if there were any signs of vital life coming from inside of the egg.  We looked for something in the shape of a “comma”, as shown in day 7 of this chart created by Jill Hixon and the University of Illinios.

To our wonderful surprise, the first egg we candled showed a little chick,  swimming around in the egg!  I brought the other children in, one at a time, so they could witness the incredible spectacle.  They all had the same reaction: “Whoa!”

We candled the remaining seven eggs and found that six had embryos moving around just like the first.  One of the eggs, however, was different than the rest.  It was dark and cloudy.  We couldn’t see anything moving around inside of it.  We picked it up and looked at it several different times, at several different angles, but never saw anything but a cloudy, dark mass.

“It’s a bad egg”, I told my daughter, Keilah.  “We’ll have to get rid of it.”

“Why, mommy?” she asked.

“Because it might explode if we leave it in with the other eggs”, I told her.

“Oh.  Okay”, she said.  “But, I want to see what it looks like”, she added.

“You do?” I answered.

“Yes”, she shot back.  “Can we break it open and see what’s inside?”

“We can.” I said.  “Just not inside.  Let’s go outside and do it, in case it smells bad.”

“Okay”, she answered.  So we grabbed the egg, and a paper plate and headed out the door.

We set the plate down on the ground and cracked open the egg — and wouldn’t you know it?  There it was — a tiny, see-through, comma-shaped chick embryo, with a humoungous eye staring right at us, and…it was still alive!  We could see the little heart beating right through its transparent outer tissue!

“Oh, mommy!” Keilah shouted.  “We’re murderers!”  “We killed that baby chick!”

“Oh, honey”, I reassured her.  “We didn’t know.  We checked and checked that egg and never saw any sign of life in it.  It didn’t look anything like any of the rest of the eggs.  It was cloudy and dark and we couldn’t even see the baby in there.”

“We’re still murders!” she insisted.

“I’m sorry”, I said.  “There was just no way to tell.”  “But, look at this, isn’t it amazing?” I responded.  “Now we know what all of those other chicks look like right now.”

“Yeah”, she replied.  “They all have really big eyes!”

“They sure do”, I affirmed.

A little saddened and disappointed that we’d lost one, but astonished at what we’d just witnessed,  a real-live, baby chick at seven days old, we went back inside to tell everyone else what we’d just witnessed. (It didn’t seem to bother them as much as it did, Keilah, perhaps since they heard the story second-hand.)  Jacob asked if he could see another “egg in the bathroom” again.  We took another look at one, and then went on with our day.

On day 14, we candled the eggs again to check for viability and see how they’d grown.  It was a much different sight this time, as you can see from the chart above.  Instead of a tiny, comma-shaped, figure that had plenty of room to move around, by day fourteen the chicks occupied nearly all of the space.  When we brought them into the bathroom to candle, we were happy to see that all of the babies were still alive and kicking!  In just one short week, if everything continued to go well, we’d be seeing them face to face, I told the kids…

Seven days later, just like clockwork, I heard the first “pip” (the first time the chick pokes a hole in the shell to breathe the outside air).  I walked over to the incubator and noticed that one egg had a hole in it.  There was no movement, however, and I wondered if the chick was all right.  I looked at the thermometer and was shocked to see a reading of 112 degrees!  I knew that the chickens’ body temperatures were going to go up when they got ready to hatch, but I had no idea when it would happen or by how much it’d go up.

“Oh, no!” I thought.  “They’re fried — I killed them!”

“How could we have come this far to lose them now?” I queried.  “Lord”, I prayed.  “Please don’t let them die!”

I quickly threw the lid off of the incubator and wafted in the cooler, outside air.  The temperature instantly fell back into the “safe” range, but I still wasn’t sure the chicks were all right.  I removed all of the aluminum foil from the sides of the plastic tub, firmly put the lid back in place, and waited to see what would happen next…

I was relieved when, a few short minutes later, another chick made its first pip, followed by another, and then another.  I’d also discovered, after doing some more research during that short time, that the reason I wasn’t seeing any other movement from the chickens was because they needed to rest for three to eight hours after their first pip to acclimate their lungs to the outside atmosphere.

The first chick made its first pip around 6 p.m. in the evening, and didn’t start its second phase of pipping until around ten o’clock.  It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen!  I thought, when chickens hatched, they just created a big hole in one spot and pushed themselves out.  Not so!  Did you know that they peck, in a straight line, all the way around the egg, dividing it perfectly in half, and then use their feet to split it apart?  Well, they do!  And, they don’t do it all at once.  They chip away, a little at a time, taking long rests in between.  It can take six or more hours for them to break free from the shell, and when they finally do, they spastically flop around a couple of times and then lay flat on the floor, completely exhausted.  A few minutes later, after regaining some strength, they’re up on their feet again, flopping around wildly, disturbing all of the other chicks who are still trying to break out of their shells.

I learned that it was not good to let them do this, so I  quickly moved each new chick, after it hatched, into a separate brooder, where it had more room to move around and finish drying off.   It was not the perfect birthing environment, but, hey! –They actually all survived!

I stayed up all that night and well into the next day to watch over all of the births, move the newborns into the brooder, and help them take their first drinks of water.  I figured that, the time from first pip to the last chick being born was thirty-one hours — more time than I’d spent in labor with all of my four children combined!  I was exhausted.  I thanked God that all seven were alive, despite all of the things that could have gone wrong over the span of twenty-one days.

The kids were astounded when they woke up to find a couple of newborn chicks in the brooder and a few more, still in the incubator, vigorously working to push themselves out of their shell.  I’m so glad that they got to witness the entire growth, development, and birth process.  They learned to recognize the moment when the chick was just about to emerge from the egg, were able to capture it on film, and invited a neighbor over to watch it happen along with them.

Of  the seven chicks that were born, three turned out to be hens, and four were roosters.  We kept the three hens to use as ‘layers”.  The four roosters?  Well, that’s the topic of another story.

I’m thankful that we had the opportunity to have participated in this “homeschool project” and see it to its completion.  It was an educational experience that we’ll never forget, and one that will never be rivaled by any textbook!

She’s Ba-ack!

in case you were wondering, here’s the hen that was recently attacked.  Looks like she’s made a full recovery – tail feathers and all.

Not only that, but I think she’s decided that she will never be a victim again.  And, she doesn’t just take a “don’t come near me, or else!” stance.  It’s more like a Chuck Norris, “Make My Day!” attitude as she now charges at anyone who enters the pen,  chases them around, and pecks at their legs and feet.  This even includes  me! How quickly she seems to have forgotten who took care of her day and night, and nursed her back to health.  I have to admit, I’m a little afraid of her now — she packs a mean peck!  I had to hurry up and snap this shot -see how she’s headed straight for me???

I suppose I’ll just have to keep working with her: picking her up, holding her, petting her, and letting her know that I’m not the enemy.  In time, I hope she’ll return to being the sweet, docile little hen that she was before the attack.  Until then, I’ve learned my lesson:  no more open-toed shoes and bare legs inside the pen for me!

Our First Harrowing Hen Experience

I was awakened, before dawn, this morning to the sound of a cackling chicken.  It wasn’t the normal, “Hey, look at me, I just laid an egg!” happy cackle.  It was louder and squawky-er.  And, it wasn’t at the right time — it was still dark out.   “Oh, no!” I thought, “I think the hens are in trouble”.

I  jumped out of bed, hobbled, half-awake, over to the window and pulled back the shades to see what was going on.   It was really dark.  I thought I might be able to see the shadow of something moving, especially if it was large, like a coyote, but  I couldn’t see much of anything.

About that time, Matt woke up and asked me what I was doing. “I think something’s got the chickens”, I told him.  “I don’t think they got locked up last night.”  (Locking up the chickens is one of the kids’ daily chores.   Even after six months of living at our new homestead, it is still not a chore that the kids have gotten into the habit of doing.  Every night I have to remind one of them to go do it.  Unfortunately, last night, even I forgot).

Matt quickly pulled a flashlight out of his bedside drawer, opened the window, and shined it out onto the pen.   “Do chicken’s eyes glow?”  he asked.  “I don’t know”, I said.  But, I wasn’t going to stick around and take any more time to decide if they did or not.  I started for the door when I heard Matt express his concern. “Hold on”, he said. “Let me get my gun.”  Now, before you think his decision was a little hasty, let me tell you that wild coyotes are known to roam around these parts in packs.  The creek that runs along the front side of our property is their main water source.  In the past couple of months, they’ve killed chickens at two of our neighbor’s homes.  I’ve seen their scat near the fence of our hen’s pen and, about a week ago, I saw a young one walking alongside the creek in front of our house.  Matt wasn’t about to let him finish off our prized egg-layers!  So, armed with a flashlight and a gun, we headed out to to the pen — Matt leading the way, of course.

As he approached the pen, he flashed the light all around, hoping to scare off whatever was inside.  There was nothing there.  Next, he searched around for the chickens.  “Here’s one”, he said, shining the light on a heap feathers, “and there’s another.  That’s two dead!”  “Do you see anything else in there?” I shouted, never having left the safety of the front porch.  “Oh!” He yelled back.  “There’s one [chicken] walking around.”  I decided to start making my way towards the pen.  “What about inside the coop?”  “Do you think whatever got ’em might still be in there?”  I asked him.  He walked over and shined the light all inside of the coop, but only saw two of our other hens, still roosting.  Whatever had gotten the chickens was now gone.  “Wait a minute!”, Matt exclaimed.  ” What’s that moving over there?” It was one of the chickens that he thought was dead.  Maybe it had just been playing dead, but now she was up and walking around.  “She has no tail!”, he said.  “I thought she was  missing  her head!”  “Well, how many are there, then?” I asked. We counted them.  Two outside of the coop, and two inside of the coop.  That makes four.  All accounted for.  “Then, what’s that over there?” Matt asked as he walked over with the flashlight to check out what he thought was a dead hen.  “Oh.  It’s just a pile of feathers.”   That must have been where the battle had taken place.  Poor chicky — it was evident that she’d taken a pretty hard beating. Matt went over to where she was standing to see if he could determine the extent of  her damage.  She didn’t appear to be bleeding anywhere, or to have any gouges or cuts on her body.  She did give out a small cry when Matt picked her up, but we didn’t know if it was because she was hurt or scared.   We decided that there was nothing else we could do for her until the morning.  Matt gently picked her up and carried her back to the coop, along with the other hen who was outside, and  locked them back in the coop with the others.

When morning came, I went to take a closer look.  Feathers were everywhere!  Our little, attacked, hen was just standing in the corner, looking pretty dazed.  Even with all of the feathers that she lost, she still looked pretty fluffy, except for her backside, which was completely bald!

I’ve read that chickens are pretty resilient.  I hope it’s true.  I hope she makes it through this and bounces back, as healthy as ever.  We”ll be keeping a close eye on her in the meantime, though.

We may not ever know what kind of animal got into the coop last night.  We don’t think it was a coyote, but a smaller animal, like a cat or a fox, and we are concerned that he will be back.  So, tonight we’ll make sure that the girls are securely locked up in their coop and pen.  The only sound I hope to hear coming from their pen, from this time forward, is the sound of a proud chick letting us know that she has breakfast waiting for us.