Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.


Posted on | February 27, 2015 | 3 Comments

I love the big barn.  Unlike most barns, it originally housed up to 300 ducks at a time.  So it was built with a wooden frame and only enclosed with hardware cloth.  Ducks are messy and smelly and the best way to keep their living conditions sanitary is to allow lots of sunlight and fresh air.

Ducklings returning to the barn, wet and dirty from a swim in the pond

Even then it’s a challenge.

Ducks "gargle" with their food in their water trough. Enough said.

But when we switched from commercial duck production to homesteading, we moved the goats into the big barn, reserved their smaller digs for the kidding barn, and made some changes.  Sections of the big barn were divided off for milking, grain storage, and creeper feeding to keep the fat pony out of the feed troughs.  A room was made to act as a chick brooder and another room was created that opened into the pasture for poultry just learning to free range.  A small pen was set aside for animals that were sick, medicated, or in quarantine.  And we continue to divide the space with cattle panels as needed.  Cattle panels are wonderful for temporary changes.  But the hardware cloth remained.  The Other Half attached fence boards about 4 feet high to the sides of the main room shared by the goats, sheep, and pony to keep them from standing on the hardware cloth and bowing it out.

The main room when it is empty and waiting for fresh hay. Waist high walls for for goats, sheep, and pony.

But the rest of the barn sides are still hardware cloth, open and exposed to sun and air on 3 sides.

Bruno, upon his arrival. He was contained in the shelter of the barn milk room but still able to scan his new farm and meet his new charges through the safety of the hardware cloth.

Which is why I love my barn.  It has all the comforts of a traditional barn.  Dirt floors covered with drifts of loose hay and hills of soft powdery soil mixed with assorted droppings.  Cobwebs gathered in corners and swooping between roof beams in broad strokes.  Spare boards and T-posts leaning in corners, overturned buckets acting as seats and stepladders.  But my barn is flooded with morning sunlight, witness to the rising moon each night.  Whether in darkness or light, I sit at the milk stand, scoop from feed barrels, haul water buckets, and count heads of the herd and flock, protected from the elements yet still a part of it all.

Any barn is enough to make a morning person out of the most hardened night owl.  Because there is something special about the barn after the morning milking and feeding.  The chickens preen their feathers and scratch at specks of sunlight under the watchful eye of the rooster, shaking off the night’s confinement.  The duck rubs her face and bill across her wax gland, oiling her plumage to a shine.  The dairy goats, content with their udders empty and their bellies full of grain, settle into nooks and corners to chew their cud.  The sheep and pony pick through the morning hay, crunching heartily.  The Great Pyrs come to the freshly filled water trough and guzzle cool water before laying out to sleep off their night shift.

There is nothing but morning birdsong as sparrows and wrens flit through the surrounding trees and the sounds of the barn at peace.  Soft rustling in the hay, chickens muttering by the nest boxes, the occasional swishing tail or scrape of a hoof.  Later on, the animals will wander out of the barn, exploring their pastures, foraging for acorns or leaves within reach.  But right then, at that moment, they are just enjoying the morning.  Fed, watered, sheltered, content.  At peace.

Because I am a child of spring and a woman of summer, I also love my barn during the heat of July and August afternoons.  Should I wander into the barn on a humid, airless day in search of a pitchfork for the garden or a hose clamp for a water repair job, I will find it still and sleepy.  Dust motes drift on filtered rays of sunshine.  Carpenters bees and dauber wasps drone in the rafters.  The slightly metallic scent of well water wafts from the trough.  A pig drowses in a cave of cast-off materials.  Like mornings, summer is a time of plenty.  Worries and wants are few in the barnyard.

But if I had to guess (and anthropomorphize), the animals’ idea of a perfect day in the barn is very different from mine.  For them, the rainy days of fall and spring are Barn Appreciation Days.  Goats don’t do mud.

Rainy days bring the whole gang inside to hang out.

And as the critter mingle, warm and dry, rain pounds on the tin roof and the storm drenches the woods.

This, then, is the meaning of shelter.  A meaning we have almost forgotten as we exit our heated and air-conditioned cars, under the cover of our dry carports and garages, and dash into our heated and air-conditioned homes or offices.  A meaning the members of the barnyard know all too well as they watch and wait for the weather pass by.

So I wasn’t surprised to see that the front pasture was empty when we woke yesterday to the shocking arrival of 8″ of snow.

No one had ventured along the fence line by the driveway either.  Or what used to be a driveway.

As I staggered through the crunchy drifts of snow with the dogs’ morning biscuits clenched in my mittens, I saw the first signs of life.  The Great Pyrs were unmoved by the cold.  Still on guard in the dusky dawn.  I love those dogs.

The sheep ambled out as I approached the gate.  Woolies aren’t afraid of snow either.

I don’t care for trudging through knee-high snow on the way to the barn.  I dislike trying to manage gates and clickers without exposing my bare fingers to the cold.  I despise trying to empty frozen water buckets without also breaking the buckets.  But I enjoy throwing back my hood and finding my charges warm and dry after the blizzard.

Even 8″ of snow cannot defeat my barn.  There was nothing but a bit of white dusting on the hardware cloth.

The chickens milled comfortably about in the straw….

….at least, the ladies that weren’t already getting down to business.

Despite the chilly temperatures, the turkey must have slept at ease, for he was busy patrolling the entrance to the barn.

Everywhere I checked, as I filled water pails and spread out grain, I found animals casually awaiting their breakfast.  Unbothered by the winter storm.

Even the newest arrival took the snow in stride.  From a safe vantage point inside.

I paused in my chores, admiring the barn and its sacred work.  For shelter and safety is the divine charge given to the farmer, taken up by her in exchange for the milk and meat, eggs and fiber, given in return.  I sat on the milk stand for a moment, appreciating the beauty of the snow.  As long as it was safely outside.

Then I headed back to the house to take care of my other “flock.”  Because it was perfect packing snow.  Our snowmen have changed over the years.

Snowman 2007

Snow robot 2015

Pretty and I went with a nautical theme.  Since I am counting the days until I go to the beach for my my birthday with a group of friends.

Can you say "ocean front hot tub....

 ....while watching the dolphins" ?

....while watching the dolphins"?

Middle settled for making a snow fire pit.  Which the kids enjoyed after dark.

The Other Half kept busy setting up the generator, keeping the freezers frozen, and hauling wood to keep the wood stove running.  Because we lost power after the storm and we’re headed for 36 hours without it.  Good thing his job comes with a beer allowance.  Keeping his “herd” sheltered is a lot of hard work.  And I can’t wait to go to work this week.  At least we can flush the toilets there without having to turn off the fridge first.  As long as the nighttime crew remembers to leave the faucet dripping so the pipes at the station don’t freeze.  Y’all will leave the water dripping, right people?  People?


3 Responses to “Sheltered.”

  1. Ellen
    February 28th, 2015 @ 6:57 am

    Beautiful writing. And I love the sner-maid!

  2. Andrew Ovenden
    February 28th, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    You must been reading Thoreau lately.

  3. Aunt Ro
    February 28th, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

    Perfect description. GMa and GPa would completely relate to this post. Am rarely envious of the ‘younger’ generation, but you got me with this post. Brings back so many childhood memories. Thank you.

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