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.

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!

Self-Sufficiency and a Pretty, Beige Dress

When I think about what my life might look like, if I were the sole supplier of all of the Whitaker household food,  I get a vivid picture in my mind of pioneer life — in particular the Ingalls’ family from  Little House on the Prairie.  I picture myself in a pretty, beige work dress with a white apron (just like “Ma’s”), hectically following behind a horse-drawn plow, sweat dripping from my brow.  I’m working from sun up to sun down, plowing the fields, sowing seed, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, butchering, and preserving food hour after hour, day after day, year after year, with no end in sight.

In some ways, I’m enchanted with the thought of returning to that past civilization and a time that seemed much simpler and slower.   I’ll admit that I  have a very romanticized, if not idealized view of those days.  However, when I think about all of the work it took to get a full course meal on the table, I don’t think I really want to go back there.  I honestly find great pleasure living in an industrialized, technologically advanced society and taking advantage of the modern conveniences that come with it —  flour that is already ground,  butter that is already churned,  and chickens that have already been butchered, de-feathered, gutted and skinned (I have to leave the story of our rooster butchering for another time, but suffice it to say, it’s definitely not something we’d want to be doing on a daily basis, now that we have intimate knowledge of the process).

Perhaps I’m looking at this all the wrong way, though.  Maybe providing more of our family’s food has more to do with the future, than the past.  According to John Seymour, author of The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, “Self-sufficiency does not mean ‘going back’ to the acceptance of a lower standard of living.  On the contrary, it is the striving for a higher standard of living; for food that is fresh and organically grown and good; for the good life in pleasant surroundings; for the health of body and peace of mind that comes with hard, varied work in the open air; and for the satisfaction that comes from doing difficult and intricate jobs well and successfully.”   It is  “accepting complete responsibility for what you do or what you don’t do”, and it means “husband[ing] the land wisely, knowledgeably, and as intensively as possible”.  Well, that doesn’t sound too archaic!

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to completely replace all of the food we buy from the grocery store, but, according to Mr. Seymour, my success won’t be measured by attaining full-fledged independence from all outside sources; victory will be found in the “striving” (and, I venture to guess,  even in my infinite failures!

In striving for self-sufficiency, will I ever grind my own wheat, churn my own butter, or butcher, de-feather, gut, and skin my own chickens?  It’s possible.  Given that we’ve ventured into goat raising  it is likely that, by this time next year, we’ll be eating our morning cereal with fresh goat’s milk, buttering our toast with homemade goat butter, and feasting on homemade pizzas topped with freshly processed goat cheese.  Doesn’t that just sound so fantastic and dreamy?  Can’t you just picture me waltzing out to the goat pen, beige dress fully girded, blissfully milking our two highly cooperative goats…okay, now we’re approaching fairy tale status.  Seriously, though, some of it might actually happenafter all, all things are possible with God!

Thus, as I endeavor to provide more of our family’s own fresh, organic, home-grown varieties of food, and reflect upon the nostalgic past – a time when self-sufficiency was just a normal part of everyday life, I am thankful that I live in an age where convenience is affordable, and grocery stores abound.  As food prices continue to rise, the future state of our national economy becomes more uncertain, and our family faces the real possibility of  living off of  those meager unemployment checks, I’m even more eager to pursue self-sufficiency.  Growing and producing more of our own food,  will, at the least,  better prepare us and make us more able to withstand these coming economic challenges.  But, heck, if all goes really well, it’s feasible we may never have to set foot inside of another grocery store again!  When that day comes, you can bet I’ll turn my attention to eliminating the next budget category… clothing.  I mean, really.  How difficult can it be to grow and process a few bales of cotton?  — Well,  at least just enough to make myself a pretty, beige dress.