The Unexpected Lessons From Raising Chickens

New Coop 3A few years ago, this city girl met a boy who had always wanted to have a small farm. We decided on pasture-raising chickens for their eggs because we eat a lot of them and we wanted to make sure they were humanely raised. We looked forward to our hens living out their lives with us on the farm.

We thought that by raising chickens for eggs as opposed to meat, we would avoid the ugly specter of death. But just a few weeks into our first batch of chicks, we found out just how wrong we were. Chicks are fragile, and it doesn’t take much to tip the balance from healthy to sick. It was then I understood that I would never know everything, and something would die because of that.

I would never know everything, and something would die because of that.

You think that reading books and scouring the internet will be enough, but then you realize nothing replaces first-hand experience. Finding local veterinary care for livestock, especially birds, is difficult, so we provide much of the care instead. For two days in a row, we woke up to find a lifeless chick that just a few hours earlier seemed perfectly healthy. What were we doing wrong? Were there signs or symptoms we missed? Thankfully, the deaths stopped at two, but we were never able to figure out what happened.

A few calm weeks passed. Everyone was happy and healthy. All was right with the world.  So, of course, you give yourself a mental high-five and say to yourself I got this. And that’s when nature will remind you who’s in charge. Think you’re doing your best to keep the chickens safe? A black snake will come to show you the design flaws in your coop and a chick will die because of it. Mother Nature teaches me humility nearly every single day and it’s what motivates me to do better. We’ve become acutely aware that we cannot control nature, but with time we’ve gotten better at managing within the system.

You must embrace the brutality along with the beauty; there is no avoiding it.

When I first pictured life on our farm, my mental image of nature was cute baby chicks, flowers, and beautiful sunsets on the pastures at the end of the day. And there is absolutely all that. It’s why we wanted to do this. But now I’m acutely aware that the natural splendor has a price. Our farm is surrounded by woods filled with hawks, owls, foxes, raccoons, snakes, and everything else in the natural world that loves to eat chickens. Mother Nature does not take sides in this eternal struggle between predator and prey. Sometimes the chicken escapes to safety and sometimes the hawk gets a meal. And sadly, there are also times when the farmer must catch the fox to protect his flock. It is a responsibility that we accept as caretakers of these animals. Like many things in this life, nature is a duality. You must embrace the brutality along with the beauty; there is no avoiding it.

Everything is temporary.

20170614_191345All this reminds me that everything is temporary. Every life on this farm is finite and a gift. Knowing that is why we love others and why their loss is so heartbreaking. This past March brought two families of foxes to our farm. Despite all our best intentions and precautions, they took half of our flock to feed themselves and their growing pups. We came to dread closing up the coop each night because the headcount would confirm we had failed again that day.  But as defeated as we felt, we dealt with it and learned from it. We reestablished our flock and had the excitement of welcoming new life here in May. I now know the pain of any setback will not last; just as I now know that ease and good fortune we are enjoying this moment will change. And knowing all this, I do not feel regret, but gratitude for the ability to experience it all.



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