Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

When Bad Chores Happen To Good Farmers.

Posted on | January 16, 2011 | 4 Comments

Not every day around here involves newborn goat kids or picking the first sweet snap peas off the trellis.  Sometimes we are following a trail of blood drops into the barn to discover a goat with her eyelid split open. Or applying butt salve to the rear end of the guardian dog after he broke into the chicken coop, ate 20 half-developed eggs from under a broody hen, and developed a fur-searing case of the trots.  Or spreading 30 wheelbarrow loads of manure in the corn rows.  Don’t forget about leaving bloody patches of skin and clumps of hair behind in the perilously thorny blackberry plot after the fall pruning.  Of course, not all the bad chores involve blood and poop.  For example,…….um.  Well, one time…… huh.


Sometimes bad chores just happen to good farmers.  And this time I needed to stem the flow of layer pellets to our flock of 3 year old hens.  Usually the hens and I trade layer pellets for eggs.  But I think the hens had forgotten that arrangement.  At first I made excuses for them—they were molting, the hours of daylight were decreasing, they had a hidden nest somewhere, they were under stress because the red tailed hawk had recently paid a too-close-for-comfort visit, they were too busy watching Dr. Phil to take care of egg-laying business in the morning.  But when the cold weather hit and the ladies started demanding more food for zero production, it was time to reassess our relationship.

All of the 3 year old hens were placed in the back room of the barn to be culled.  Cull is a word that originates from the Latin word “colligere” meaning “to collect.”  If you’re city folk, you’ve probably never heard anyone say “cull” because nobody uses the term to mean collecting of anything.  It’s lingo used by farmers to mean selecting those animals to be sent to slaughter or killed.  We use this lingo because city folk don’t like to think anything that they are eating had to be killed first.  And farmers, who spend a lot of time raising and growing things, don’t like to think they are killers.  So we don’t call it killing.  We call it “culling”.  Which is socially acceptable and even close enough to the real word that I can remember what it means.  Unlike “freshen” which refers to when a goat gives birth.  Or when she comes into milk production. Or when she gets pregnant.  I think.  Which illustrates the problem with using farm lingo, which is that sometimes nobody knows what the hell we’re talking about, including us.

But butchering these chickens wasn’t the worst part.  After all, the farm hands (children) and I have developed a system.  Young children are for catching and carrying.  Older children are for tying chickens to the monkey bars and assisting with the knife.  If you aren’t raising 4 children on your farm, you may have killing cones or other commercially touted means of hanging chickens.  Believe me, a regular set of monkey bars works great and is nice and strong for the skinning session.  Which reminds me, the skinning part isn’t so bad either.  Lots of people ask me why we skin our poultry rather than pluck them.  To which I respond, “Have you ever plucked a chicken?”  If they are city folk, then I’ve said enough.  If they are other farmers and start explaining the process of building a whizbang plucker or setting up huge pots over gas flame to scald, then they’ve said enough.  If I wanted to build something in order to butcher chickens would I be using the kids’ swing set?

I don’t even mind processing the meat.  We come inside, change our clothes, bleach ourselves and the kitchen counters, and start rinsing, cutting, dividing, and sealing.  The worst part is the sibling rivalry over who gets to press the buttons on the vacuum sealer.  Or maybe if a friend stops by to chat and only after she’s gone do you see your reflection in the window and realize you have blood splatters on your forehead.  Which is why most of my friends don’t stop by without calling.

I have to admit that the truly awful part is the burial.  Sooner or later I have to haul all the leftover bits and pieces of carcasses, feathers, and feet down to the garden.  Using the chickens as fertilizer is all part of our biodynamic system–inputs and outputs all contained in the farm cycle.  But digging a death trench for the body parts of your hens is a drag.  Never mind back-breaking work.  This time, Middle was assigned to be my helper as the older children were pulling up a dessicated wire fence for me and Little was gaily skipping rocks in the pond (Little is the youngest and feels free to flaunt his posh position as “the baby” at will).  I broke ground with the shovel, Middle cleared large clumps with the trowel, and we agreed to divide the handling of dead chicken parts equally.

By the time were sweaty and grimy, the last part had been covered with soil, and we were tamping down the dirt mound with the shovel, I felt it was time for moment of shared emotion.

“Whew,” I said, “I think burying dead chicken parts is one of the worst chores we have to do around here.  Don’chya think?”

“I don’t mind it,”  Middle shrugged,  “Except for their creepy dead eyes.”

Pleased at this chance for communion and enlightenment, I nodded.

“I feel the same way.  As a matter of fact, people have felt that way about seeing the eyes of dead things for years and years and years.   Medical practitioners still close a person’s eyes after death and I think they used to put pennies over dead people’s eyes a long, long time ago.”

His face brightened and I felt relieved at being able to lighten his emotional load after such a grueling task.  Sometimes kids just need to know that they aren’t alone in their feelings.  That we understand.

“Hey,” he said, “Speaking of pennies, do you think maybe I earned some money for helping you with this?  I mean, since it’s one of the worst chores on the farm and all.”

Eh.  I gave the kid a dollar when we got back up to the house.  I figured he deserved it just for being so quick on the draw.  Now, if I could just get the thought of those creepy dead eyes out of my head…….


4 Responses to “When Bad Chores Happen To Good Farmers.”

  1. Erika Robbins
    January 17th, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    Not one of my favorite jobs either–and I have to do it all by myself! Although I make my life easier & put them in a cage the night before–and DON’T let them loose trying to get them out of the cage! 😉

  2. L. Treat
    January 17th, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    You say it. I like that. I haven’t had to cull any of my chickens yet but I am gathering my strength for it. I am determined to bravely participate in the reality of the food I eat. Good for you.

  3. admin
    January 17th, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    Erika, I still remember that day and chasing down that rooster who was determined to live to see another day! Too funny!

  4. katherine
    January 19th, 2011 @ 3:01 am

    The first time my kids saw a dead animal on the farm I was busy with a very live calf. They said, “Mom, you’d better come over here.” (yeah, yeah, I’ll be there in a minute) “Mom, I don’t think this goat is alright.” (I’m coming. I’ll be there in a minute) Then my daughter sighs, “Well, I’ve seen the look that does not see.” I stood right up and walked over to the goat. Dead as a doornail.

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