Saturday, September 8, 2007

Here Chicky, Chicky, Chicky!!!

The more I looked at Daddy with the chickens, the more I thought about the chickens in my own life.

I think the first thing I remember about them was at Grandpa Phil's and Grandma Mae's. Seem odd I separated them like that? Well, there is a reason, you see they both had their own chicken house. IMAGINE THAT!? Most people have two cars, two bathrooms, two kids, two pets, and two mortgages but two chicken houses?

When Grandpa had his stroke, his chickens were sold and later, the land on which it stood was sold. I vaguely remember him coming in from feeding and gathering and changing his jacket. He was followed across the dewy cross by one of two marmalade cats. Yes, they each had their own cat.

Now, there is a reason for that; I learned it the hard way. Grandma Mae would NOT let me in her chicken house. She said the fowl were used to her and if anyone else went in, the chickens would be frightened and would not lay eggs. I would have thought the natural predators like skunks and weasels would have frightened them more than a little kid that liked to sing to the flock.

I was a curious one. One day, when I was in kindergarten and Grandma was busy, I went into the house. Oh my, there were chickens flying, feathers aloft, and lots of noise. And of course, she heard the commotion and came to find out what was happening. Grandma Mae was not one to punish nor was she the kind to say, "I told you so". She simply said, "Now you know what happens". And I did not forget.

I have no clue what they did with all the eggs from that flock of Leghorns. I don't even know how many she had. I just know that they were good 'layers' and the chicken house was dark. I will tell you that if I was a chicken, I would want some sunshine. Certainly she must have let them out. Yes, I am remembering she did. There was a high fence, (called chicken wire), and she dumped scraps and peels from a pail into the lot and the chickens would come to feast.

Let's fast forward. We lived on a hobby-like farm in the mid to late fifties. Mother wanted chickens that laid brown eggs. There was a small coop on the residence. My parents must have agreed to get 100 Rhode Island Reds. Probably because they laid brown eggs. The coop was made ready by white washing the walls and disinfecting it after which fresh oat straw was added. The coop faced south with lots of windows for sunshine. Mother had cleaned the windows to perfection and in the middle of many dinners questioned how they could poop on the windows.

The chickens arrived. They were not at this time, in a pen. Another agreement seemed to be that the chickens would give the Rockin' R a 'farm like' look as they pecked at the ground all over the farm. I am sure mother expected them to peck south; they pecked north and where pooping in the grass and grazing between the trees near the road. For some reason, they really liked to do business on the concrete slab under the clothes line. The romance was over and the chicken wire went up.

Then! One day, she gathered 89 eggs out of 100 chickens! That set off some sort of signal to get MORE chickens. Mother stated it would give her something to do! She would have some of her own money!

To understand chickens, one must know that old flocks and new flocks don't mix. They will peck each other until they bleed. If a hen has a blow out, which means she passes blood while laying an egg she is in for certain doom.

To prevent this from happening, all the Rhode Island Reds were sold as a group. The chicken coop was added on to from the east and from the west. Now, we had granary, chicken coop, egg room, and barn, all attached just like in Canada! Thank goodness the house wasn't attached also. Keep in mind that this chicken project was for Mother to have her own money. My dad was Mr. Fix It. He would do what ever it took to make her reach her goals.

It wasn't so late but it was dark and cool. I am thinking it was in the fall. Three pick up trucks with wooden camper shells pulled into the circle driveway and honked the horn. Three hundred chickens had just been delivered from Middle River. I don't remember what happened to them. Maybe they were sick. I just know mother was not happy.

THEN! She decided she would get 1,000 Leghorns, because they were the best layers. But she wanted to start with babies. The chicks were delivered by Land O Lakes in cardboard crates with holes the size of quarters all around the size. The chicken coop nursery was fitted with warming lights, automatic watering units. It would be a brooder house until they were older. Oh, they were so cute running around peeping and eating. It was a healthy group. Mother was proud of her babies.

And then, one day, the automatic watering system went hay wire and ran over. When I came home from school, several of Daddy's construction crew was there, shoveling out drowned chicks and rounding up what were left. It was a sad day. The dog, Troubles, ate several and became a chicken thief until Daddy tied a dead chicken around his neck.

So with a portion of them gone, and the coop completely dry, the birds were turned loose in the coop and watered without the advantage of the automatic sprinkler. The pullets grew to laying stage and started producing. They pecked at each other, so Daddy had a guy named Mr. Haney come out and debeak them.

Debeaking takes place as a welfare measure to reduce excessive feather pecking and cannibalism in a stressed bird population. In some countries, such as the U.S., debeaking is considered routine. In others, it is presented as a last resort where alternatives are considered. "Beak trimming", is a process by which parts of the beak of the chicken are trimmed. Many variations of debeaking are used. Most commonly, the beak is shortened permanently, with the lower beak somewhat longer than the upper beak. The pain is comparable to having a human fingernail removed by the quick of the nail; it is acute, yet brief and after a few minutes the bird behaves normally. Mr. Haney used something hot; you could smell the burn beaks.

It was Easter and some in-town family gave their children a chick. Well, the chick grew up and they didn't/couldn't keep it so they gave it to Daddy. Now, even with no beaks to peck the stranger, poor Henry had to hide to be safe. He had been raised with people and whenever you went into the coop, he would fly at your head. Henry became our dinner.

By now, the chickens were laying on a regular rate. Mother would gather about three egg baskets a day, and an egg crate which holds oh, about 30 dozen, I suppose. The eggs were placed in cardboard molded shape surrounded by lighter cardboard which separated each egg. We were probably gathering nearly a case a day. Egg prices were between 25-30 cents a dozen for good, clean, grade A eggs. Mother would certainly get rich on egg prices!

Now, I want to remind you that this was mother's plan. But mother was worn out and angry at Daddy. She went to Crookston, complained just enough to get into the San. She'd had TB before and this greasy looking doctor wasn't going to let her out for six months. She figured she would get out in a few days; she came home in April.

Daddy, Greg, and I were on our own. We had an eleven room house, 25 horses, one steer, five pigs, and a few hundred chickens. It would be one of those learn by experience of a lifetime. It was time to grow up, be responsible, and make certain the stock was cared for. I would do what any farm kid did, just get things done and waste no energy whimpering about it. I could tell those chickens that my grades were in the barnyard but to them I was the person with the feed and water. I was the one who conned them out of their eggs.

Daddy made a deal with Greg and I. We could have the profits from the chickens if we fed and watered, gathered eggs, and brought them to market. To keep the operation going, we would need to buy feed out of profits. Well, that is NOT what happened.

I cleaned a lot of eggs. We would run out of pails before I would clean. I was not studying Latin; I was trying to figure out how to clean a monstrous amount at one time. So, I started putting the baskets in the shower off the mud room near the back door. That would wash the crap off them. Then, I would just have to wipe them. That worked great until the grade A eggs became grade B or less because I had washed the natural protective finish off.

The egg check was supposed to be shared. Greg, who was driving, would go to the plant and get the check on Friday at noon. That meant he got the check. I would go Saturday and it had already been picked up. So I asked the lady when is the check ready if the eggs are brought in on Monday. She said Thursday noon. I cleaned all the eggs on Sunday night and Daddy would take them to town on Monday. I started going to the store and getting it at noon on Thursday. Greg and I had a rag tag down right fight about it. The fights over the egg check didn't last long. The mash ran out, we had spent the money and the chickens were sold. The coop was cleaned out and made into a pony barn.

I didn't think I would ever touch another chicken. When I was in high school, I had a friend named Barb. Her mother, Marjorie invited Barb and I along to help dress chickens. Barb said okay and although I agreed, I did not know what dressing fryers meant. That is, until we got there. It meant killing the chickens by cutting off their heads, pulling off the feathers, and making them ready for Marjorie to do the finish work. This was going to be an all day process. We were going to do 100 birds!

Well, Barb and I had been out the night before and were a little hung over and a little out of it. Barb knew how to do this and put that chicken on the block and came down on its neck, separating the head from the body. Barb's ability was just as great as Grandma Mae's chopping skills, the chickens did, indeed, run around with their heads cut off. Barb let me try, all I got was a little of the beak. I did my own debeaking, just like Mr. Haney!!

Next, we were supposed to go into the barn, put the chicken between our legs, squeeze our legs together, and pull off the feathers. The chickens were still warm and the odor was terrible. Barb probably did five to my one. There were two boys there, one was named Royal. He kept saying, "Watch me". The feathers flew. He did 10 to my one. The other boy just leaned against the barn door and looked suave in his bib over alls.

Tomorrow: Sunday dinner.