Saturday, December 8
Moving the Flock
Today was moving day for our chickens. They had worn out their enclosure area, and we decided they needed greener pastures. We didn't move them far at all, but it was still a bit of an ordeal. We needed to get the chickens into the coop, hitch it up, move it, move the fence, and then set the tarp, feeders, and roosts back up. Oh, and it was 40 degrees and raining.
Icy-cold rain pelted us as we scrambled after our chickens. They may be small, but those birds are fast. After 10 minutes, seven chickens had taken shelter beneath the coop and refused to budge (even when gently prodded with a 2-by-4.)
So we just left them. Many of them are molting, and we didn't want to stress them out if we could help it.
The next step was to move the electric fence into its new position. First, we had to mow the grass where the fence would be placed. (When the grass grows up and touches the fence, it saps its electrical charge.) With the matted wet grass, the mower had it's work cut out for it. But we got a path cleared, and began to tug up the fence.
The fence is composed of two sections. One end of each section stayed in while we rotated the other end around. In this way, we basically turned the enclosure inside out. Following the mowed trail, we pressed the fence stakes into the saturated clay.
At this point, the loose chickens could have made a break for the wide wilderness, but the rain and our bustling kept them huddled under the coop.
Concetta maneuvered her car into place and hitched up the trailer. Then, she began to move forward very slowly. The chickens scattered at once.
Lillian and I were prepared for this, though, and we carefully herded the little wayward flock into the new enclosure. One buttercup slipped through our legs, but she simply hid near the nesting boxes. We herded her back to her family just as Concetta got the coop into place.
We opened the door and released the flock, and they joyfully streamed out. Ignoring the rain, all of them began combing the fresh grass for bugs and tender shoots. All of them, that is, except one.
This poor girl is deep into the molting process. She's basically naked, so the rainy cold is no place for her. She took one step outside and turned around.
I can only imagine how she felt, because I had on overalls, fleece, leggings, a raincoat, wool socks and duck boots, and I was cold. I think my dad was wearing everything he owned. He had the right idea.
My fingers ached as we moved the nesting boxes and tarp into their new position. I just gnawed on the knots to get them undone.
We tied the tarp to the external rafters of the coop and sloped it down almost the ground. In that shelter, we set the nesting boxes on some planks to elevate them from the wet ground. The chickens checked out the lean-to but were soon back out in the rain, enjoying the abundance of food.
My fingers had gone from aching into numb by the time we carried in the perches and water bowls. When we had built the coop, we had set up the watering system using the gutter and red toggle cups. The rain barrel has done a good job collecting rain, but the chickens haven't quite figured out how to drink from the red cups. It's alright; so much of creating a farm is learning and adapting. For now we've been using bowls and a classic water feeder to keep them hydrated.
Since a large portion of the flock is molting, egg production is down. Molting is an annual process in which the chickens replace worn feathers with new ones. It's necessary but exhausting for them. Feathers are mostly composed of protein, so chickens can't produce feathers and eggs at the same time. Concetta has been supplementing their diet with dried meal worms and black oil sunflower seeds. She's been bringing handfuls directly to the naked chicken to make sure she gets enough protein.
Bed building is always happening on the land. My cousin Grant has been helping Concetta bring in trailer-fulls of soil and lay it out in rows. On top of the soil goes hay and grass. Between the rows, we've begun placing thick layers of leaves. Fall is a great time for gathering organic matter. We've hauled in about 2 dozen bags of leaves for the garden paths and the compost pile.
Concetta brought comfrey from our home garden and planted at the heads of many of the beds. Comfrey is a broad-leafed member of the Borage family with beautiful white-lavender-blue flowers.
Concetta separated a few large plants into many smaller pieces. Comfrey doesn't mind this at all, and each piece will grow into a healthy new plant. And this hardiness isn't even the best thing about comfrey.
Comfrey is the perfect new garden plant because it considered a "dynamic accumulator."
This means that the plant gathers and stores nutrients at a high concentration and in a form useful for other plants. Comfrey is aided by a long taproot (see picture below) which can accesses deeper nutrients. When the plant dies, it's taproot rots and helps aerate the soil. But the most useful part of the plants are the leaves. Chock-full of nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium, comfrey leaves are excellent additions to composts. Even living comfrey has been said to improve soil health.
Some of the evidence for comfrey's renown may be more anecdotal than empirical. But it's a beautiful plant, and I'll be the first to admit that no one understands every part of the complex ecosystem of gardens. If comfrey seems to help other plants flourish, its worth keeping nearby.
Our comfreys are currently stubs in the ground. Concetta gave their leaves to the chickens for a healthy snack. Comfrey is a perennial that dies back in the winter, so it would have lost its leaves anyways. And we didn't want to leave tasty green leaves out in the open. We don't want the deer to think our garden is an open buffet. We've already seen hoof-prints in the driveway. We'll get fences up by the time new greens unfurl in spring.
The new chicken enclosure is the location of future blueberry beds. Our flock will prepare the soil by shredding the grass and fertilizing the earth. Then we'll move them onto the next place.