Archive for the “The Farm Report” Category

Here’s the brief version of the latest chapter in the chicken-killer story:

#$%@ing @#$% *&@#$% @#$$#@!!

Glad I got that off my chest. Now for the longer version.

My theory about a weasel turned out to be tragically (for the chickens) wrong. We spent Friday afternoon closing gaps around the door into the chicken yard, but still had a dead chicken on Saturday. So I figured it had to be a weasel or some similar critter that can squeeze through 2 x 4 inch openings in the fencing. We spent Saturday covering those openings with chicken wire. I also set a trap outside the fences, figuring the weasel would find he couldn’t get into the chicken yard and go for the bait.

I went out Sunday morning to check. Nothing in the trap. Well, okay, maybe Mr. Weasel finally gave up.

Then I went into the coop and found another dead chicken. (For those of you keeping score at home, that means we’ve lost more than 30 chickens in the past few months.  The entire older flock disappeared first.)

Okay, I said to myself, there’s no way some critter burrowed into this Fort Knox chicken yard without leaving evidence of the break-in, so what the …?

After I finished sharing my expansive vocabulary with the nearby trees and wildlife, I remembered some bank-heist movie I saw years ago. The cops were going batty trying to figure out how a master thief had escaped the bank. They couldn’t find the route. The punchline was that he’d never left. He was simply hiding inside the bank and waiting for the investigators to give up and leave.

Son of a …. we’ve been trying to keep a critter out, but the critter is already in. It probably burrowed its way under one of the wooden pallets in the coop and set up living quarters.

Fortunately, I’d finally had the good sense to put my trail cam inside the coop on Saturday.  Sure enough, I got some mug shots:

Not a weasel.  Another @#$%ing raccoon.  Now it all made sense. I was mystified as to why the electric fence surrounding the coop wasn’t discouraging the chicken-killer. The fence hadn’t been disturbed, so I had visions of a critter either squeezing through and taking the shocks or jumping over it.

Nope. The critter didn’t care about the electric fence because he was already inside the coop, living in a basement apartment and coming up at night for water, chicken feed for an appetizer, and a fresh chicken for the main course — all provided free of charge by us. It also explains why the predator never wandered into my trap, which I’d set outside the electric fence. His dinners were inside the electric fence, and so was he.

I imagined two scenarios if we lifted the pallets and exposed Rocky Raccoon’s den: 1) he attempts to run to the fence and dig his way out while I blow him apart with a shotgun, or 2) he charges and attempts to bite me while I try to blow him apart with a shotgun without blowing my own foot off with a shotgun.

Being the sensible sort, Chareva suggested a third option. She’s been planning to move the surviving chickens to fresh ground anyway.  She pointed out that to avoid an up-close-and-personal showdown with the raccoon, all we’d have to do is build the new chicken coop in one day and move the chickens. Nothing to it.

So that was our Sunday. We’ll eventually want a whole new chicken yard, complete with nets overhead, so we stocked up on materials at Tractor Supply and Home Depot. We plan to double the height of the fences this time and string the nets 10 feet over our heads.

But that’s later. Sunday’s goal was to build a secure coop. Fortunately, the shell was already in place. Back in the spring, Chareva had created an arch with cattle panels as a trellis for green beans. She intended all along for that arch to be converted to a new coop.

The gaps in a cattle panel are too big to keep out predators, so the first task (after pulling down the beans) was to cover the entire structure with 1 x 2 inch fencing.

Then we covered the whole thing with a tarp.

When we do get around to building a new chicken-yard, it will have a door. In the meantime, we had to rig one for the coop itself. It’s not easy to see in the photo below, but Chareva also staked down some fencing in front of the coop to discourage predators from burrowing under the door.

I cut 2 x 4 planks and attached braces on the ends for roosting perches. With that done, the last task was to move the chickens out of the yard that now features a basement apartment occupied by a nasty tenant. Since the electric fence is portable, we positioned it between the chicken yard and new coop and let the chickens wander, then moved the fence closer and closer to the new coop.

I counted the surviving chickens. There are only nine, which means we lost 15 from that flock. Good grief.

Thanks to all the reinforcing of the chicken yard, Rocky Raccoon VI is probably locked in there now. With the chicken dinners gone, he’s bound to get hungry in the next day or two. So I set out what I hope is his last meal – a can of cat food in the trap, with no electric fence to discourage him from going for the bait.

 

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One chicken-killer down (the raccoon we trapped last week), but still one to go. After Rocky Raccoon V was sent to raccoon heaven, we lost three more chickens, but all were eaten from the middle. Raccoons typically tear the head off and eat some breast meat, then leave the rest.

Last week we closed the window we accidentally left open – the 4 x 5 inch openings in a gate – so whatever is getting in there now, it’s a small critter. Based on comments from readers and some online research, the best guess is a weasel. I wondered why a weasel would need to eat so many chickens, but then read online that weasels can’t store much body fat and therefore need to eat nearly half their body weight per day. Yup, that would make a critter hungry for a constant supply of chicken dinners.

The most obvious entry point for a small predator was the gap around the door Chareva uses to enter the chicken yard. So on Friday, we closed those gaps with some additional wire. I was of course hoping that did the trick.

Nope.

Last night one of our Rottweilers jumped the fence (she does that now and then) and ran off barking in the direction of the chicken yards. When she announced her presence at the front door of the house later, she smelled a bit like skunk. Being an incurable optimist, I figured perhaps our predator was a skunk and it had wandered into my newer, bigger trap. Perhaps the dog got too close to the trapped skunk and was hit by a bit of spray.

Wrong again. The dog probably was reacting to a chicken-killer, but there was nothing in the trap this morning, and Chareva found another dead chicken in the coop. When I read online that weasels 1) are small and 2) can release stink bombs that smell like skunk, I became more convinced it’s a weasel that’s still killing our chickens.

So we spent a good part of today turning the chicken yard into a poultry version of Fort Knox. The fencing on the uphill side of the chicken yard came from a big dog pen the previous owner left behind. The gaps are 2 x 4 inches – again, enough to keep out raccoons, but perhaps big enough to let in a weasel. So we had to cover that entire fence with chicken wire. We also went around and attached chicken wire everywhere there was a gap more of more than two inches.

Man, I hope this works. Just a few weeks ago, there were 24 chickens in that flock – and that’s after the older flock disappeared, mind you. Now it’s down to 14. I put my trail camera inside the coop, but I hope all it captures is chickens sleeping peacefully.

If not, I may be sitting in my car out by the coop at night with a .22 rifle on my lap.

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I believe we finally got rid of one chicken-killer.  I wasn’t convinced there was just one predator going after the flock because of how the chickens were killed.  Some were headless with meat missing around the chest and neck.  From what I’ve read online, that’s a typical raccoon kill.  But others were eaten from the middle.  The online guides say that’s likely a possum or a skunk.  Also, we were losing them at the rate of one every day for a while.  I can’t imagine one predator being that hungry.

Anyway, this has a been a real head-scratcher.  Chareva kept looking for signs of burrowing under the fences.  I kept setting my trap with no luck … although the trap was moved a couple of times and some of the cat food I use for bait was gone.  Probably some critter reaching in from the side instead of going inside.

When we lost two more chickens from the young flock last week, I declared war.  First thing we did was get out the electric netting we used before we built the chicken yards.  We surrounded the coop with it.

The next day, Chareva found the net knocked over and another dead chicken.

What the @#$% kind of animal isn’t afraid of an electric fence? I wondered.

So we bought a bigger trap with a better mechanism.  I put it inside the chicken yard, hoping a predator would be tempted to go for the easy meal.  No takers yet.

Fortunately, we also bought two traps that are steel tubes with a spring.  Put bait inside the tube and set the trap, and if a critter reaches in for the bait, the trap springs and closes on the paw.  I set one of those traps near the very young flock (which amazingly hasn’t been attacked yet) and another inside the other chicken yard where the older flock resided until they all disappeared.  I had a suspicion at least one predator was coming through that yard.

Sure enough, I went out to check on Saturday morning and found a raccoon in the empty chicken yard, snagged by a paw.  It’s been my job to send the predators to predator heaven – four raccoons, four skunks and one possum since we started raising chickens — but I said to Chareva, “One of these days, you’re going to have to kill a critter while I’m out of town at a conference or something.  You want to just get it out of the way?”

She agreed, so I gave her a quick refresher lesson on my .22 rifle, then she took care of Rocky Raccoon V.  He was by far the biggest of the five we’ve had to kill.  Well, no kidding.  He’s been feasting on chicken dinners.  I’m pretty sure that’s also why he didn’t go into my old trap.  It would have been a tight squeeze.

Unfortunately, we lost another chicken on Sunday.  Like I said, it’s probably more than one predator doing the damage.  The good news is that Chareva believes she spotted where they’re coming in.  The chicken yard has a gate at the far end that we don’t really use, and she thinks the openings are too big to stop predators from squeezing through.  So she reinforced the gate with chicken wire.

Meanwhile, we decided it was time to deal with the nets.  I originally propped them up on poles with plastic bottles at the top.  Seemed like a good idea at the time, and it did work for a couple of years.  Then the net finally frayed just enough to slide over the bottles.  As a result, walking around the chicken yard – say, to collect another dead chicken – was a pain in the butt.  Try bending over and walking under low-hanging nets, and the derned things yank at your hat, your ears and your glasses.

Chareva suggested we try running a strong cord or wire from pole to pole.  That way the pressure wouldn’t all be on the spot where the net sits on top of the pole.  Cords would also prevent the net from sagging between poles.

We weren’t quite sure how we’d connect the cord to the poles.  Sometimes coming up with a solution is just a matter of poking around a hardware section and waiting for inspiration.

I had the inspiration at a Tractor Supply store when I saw these tent stakes.  We’d taken a section of a pole that I’d cut down two years ago with us, so I knew the stake would slide into the pole.  The cords would easily slide through the tube on top of the stake.

We cut away the plastic bottles and slid a stake into each pole.  Then we strung Paracord through the tube and connected the poles to the fence and to each other.

Now we can walk around in there again without ducking in most areas.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to walk around to pick up any more chicken carcasses.

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To our American readers, I hope you had a good Fourth of July.  And to the rest of you, I hope you had a good Tuesday.

Those green beans Chareva didn’t bother to re-plant this year are still growing like crazy.  Here’s today’s haul, along with today’s haul of tomatoes.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that we’ve got a clever chicken-killer going after the younger flock.  We didn’t mind so much when the older flock started disappearing.  We were already wondering when it would be time to let them go.

But as I feared, once the predator was in the habit of enjoying chicken dinners on the Fat Head Farm, he decided to find his way into the chicken yard where the young egg-layers live.  It’s annoying to lose productive chickens, and doubly annoying because we can’t figure out who the critter is or how he’s getting in at night.

Chareva has checked the fence several times.  I’ve set my trap, but haven’t managed to catch the little @#$%.  I guess it’s time to set up the trail cam and least get a mug shot.  Based on what I’ve read online, the likely culprit is a skunk or a possum.  Raccoons usually leave most of the carcass behind.  The recent chicken victims have been mostly eaten.

One of the little joys of living in the sticks is being able to legally make big boom-booms with guns and explosives.  We had a much bigger group on hand for the Fourth of July this year than we did last year.  Chareva’s parents live here now, and she had two nephews and a niece in town visiting, along with their mothers.  Here’s a brief version of the show we put on last night.

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I haven’t posted a farm report in quite some time because I was working like a madman on the film.  But Chareva’s been doing plenty of gardening, and we’re starting to enjoy the results.

Last year, Chareva had visions of walking inside the chicken moats and plucking green beans from overhead.  She made that vision a reality.  This year she didn’t even bother to plant green beans.  And yet we seem to have more of them than last year.  In fact, they’re kind of like last year’s okra and the previous year’s zucchini, meaning the girls are already tired of seeing green beans at every meal.

In the picture below, those are sweet potatoes and cantaloupe on the left.  The center row is where she’s growing tomatoes, basil, peppers, swiss chard and carrots.  On the right, she’s growing squash.  The big leaves over the moat are the green beans.

The tomatoes aren’t ripe yet, but they’re coming along nicely.  I’m looking forward to those.  Nothing like fresh tomatoes in the summer.

Over by the yard that enclosed the older chickens, she’s growing okra, spaghetti squash, asparagus and potatoes.

Speaking of the older chickens … well, there are no more older chickens.  We’ve been wondering what to do with them, since they weren’t exactly egg-laying machines anymore.  They don’t make good roasters at that age, so Chareva was thinking perhaps we’d start turning them into soup stock.

Some wily predator saved us from making a decision.  The older chickens started disappearing one by one a couple of months ago.  Now they’re gone.

I set a trap several times, but only managed to catch two small skunks who probably weren’t the guilty parties.  Chareva looked all around the yard and tried to figure out where a predator was coming in.  We still can’t identify the weak spot.

Fortunately, we haven’t lost any of the younger flock yet.  They’re doing fine and providing plenty of eggs.

Meanwhile, the very young flock that’s part of Alana’s current 4-H project is coming along nicely.  There are a couple of bantam roosters in there who crack me up.  They have that rooster strut, but they’re so small, it’s like being threatened by toddler.

One of the pleasures of living in the sticks is having my own shooting range out back.  There’s a huge hill behind my hanging targets, so I don’t worry about bullets flying a mile into someone else’s property.

The Older Brother’s Middle Son and his family paid us a visit last weekend, along with my mom.  The Middle Son is a Ranger School graduate who served two tours in Iraq and also served as a shooting instructor.  So whenever he suggests we go out and shoot, I’m happy to oblige.  It means free lessons from a pro.

While shooting a 9mm pistol, I made a beginner’s mistake: I let my left hand drift up too high on the grip.  Whoops.  On my next shot, the slide ripped through my left thumb behind the knuckle.  It actually didn’t hurt all that much, and I thought at first it was a scrape.  Then The Middle Son saw the blood and said, “Uncle Tom, I think you might need stitches.”

Luckily for me, The Middle Son’s wife is a nurse practitioner who’s stitched up countless people in emergency rooms.  She looked at the wound and said yes, I would need four stitches.  She offered me a choice: she could stitch me up herself, or I could go to an emergency room.  The catch is that she didn’t have any medical supplies with her, which meant no anesthetic.

Given what a visit to the emergency room would probably cost, I elected to go with the kitchen-table treatment.  She told Chareva to find her thinnest sewing needle and some unwaxed dental floss.  That’s a photo from the procedure below.  I didn’t mind the pain, but as you see, I elected not to watch.  I also asked The Middle Son to hold my arm in case I flinched.

The Middle Son’s Wife also offered to call in a prescription for antibiotics.  I don’t like taking antibiotics, but I remembered what happened when I got a little sting on the arm back in 2012.  As you may recall, my arm ended up looking like this:

Yes, I said, I’ll take the prescription.  So I’m on antibiotics now.  When I’m done with the pills, it will be time to start a course of probiotics to rebuild my gut bacteria.  So it goes.

Fortunately, I’ll also have plenty of fresh vegetables to provide some probiotic fibers.

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The weather in our part of Tennessee has been, uh, interesting lately. We had a spell in February when the daytime highs reached 70 degrees. Then we had below-freezing days again, including one day with snow.

I assumed that was an unusual weather pattern. But shortly afterwards, I happened to be listening to a book titled Jack Hinson’s One-Man War, which tells the true story of a Tennessee farmer who was a Union loyalist during the Civil War … that is, until two of his young sons went hunting in the woods one day and were captured and executed by Union troops who assumed they were guerilla fighters – simply because they were carrying hunting rifles. After that, Mr. Hinson became a sniper who terrorized Union troops for the remainder of the war. He killed dozens of officers – including the lieutenant who ordered the execution of his sons.

Early in the book, the author mentions that “as often happens in February in Tennessee,” the days were as warm as June days in Iowa. The Yankees assumed spring had arrived and abandoned their heavy wool coats and blankets. A few days later, “as often happens in Tennessee,” winter returned and the Yankees were fighting battles in freezing rain and snow – without their wool coats.

Okay, so the “unusual weather pattern” has been around for at least 150 years.

Along with the wild variations in temperature, we had a tornado touch down in the area one day, and a couple of hellacious thunderstorms with high winds. Last Sunday, I was yanked out of a deep sleep by a BOOM! that seemed to rock the house. Boy, that one must’ve hit pretty close, I thought. Then I went back to sleep.

Turns out the BOOM! knocked down a big ol’ tree.

And as you can see, it landed rather close to the house.

Well, I can’t complain. Shift the angle a few degrees, and that tree would have bashed in the window of my office upstairs. Instead, it landed just outside Sara’s bedroom window. Naturally, the girls had to climb out the window and onto the tree.

So in addition to a film to finish, I now have a big-ass tree to cut up. It’s a pine tree, so we can’t use it for firewood. Chareva wants to save some of the long, heavy branches to serve as barriers around the chicken yards. Perhaps the local predators will be discouraged from digging under the fence. I’ve had to shoot two chicken-killing predators in the past few weeks, so I’m all in favor of discouraging them.

I also have to cut up the tree that fell in our side field awhile back. That one will become firewood.

Meanwhile, Alana took delivery of a new batch of chicks this week.

Some of them are Bantams, which means they’ll grow to perhaps a pound-and-a-half and look something like this:

I asked Alana what purpose a flock of itty-bitty chickens is supposed to serve. It’s not as if we’ll make big breakfasts from their eggs. She ended the discussion with “I wanted Bantams because they’re cute.”

Cute, sure, but I don’t envision them putting up much of a fight against predators. I’d best start cutting up that pine tree to provide Chareva with reinforcements for the chicken yards.

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