I haven’t left the farm for “time off” since July 2015. Prior to that excursion, I think I’d only been on vacation once since I moved onto the property in 2010. The only reason I decided to try vacationing in 2015 was that my ex was still living here. (Honestly, I kept asking him when he was leaving and he kept dodging the question.) Since we shared livestock duties, I knew I could trust him with the animals. My trip was a disaster–I wasn’t in the right space to attempt relaxing–so I ended up returning home after 3 days instead of staying the full week. It was a mistake. Surprising the ex wasn’t a good idea–he wasn’t the only one surprised. Rather than a happy homecoming it resulted in the complete destruction of what little remained of our relationship.
So, with some serious trepidation, I’m once again attempting vacation. This year, two of my nieces both achieved important life goals; Missy graduated with her MBA and her sister Danielle is now a Level One Som. When I asked them what I could send to commemorate their accomplishments, they demanded a visit. So I’m off to Chicago while my renter Derek tends to the critters. I wrote him instructions and thought I’d share them with all of you. Here’s what’s ahead of him for the few days I’ll be gone.
Dawn: Only the Sheep and Pigs get fed in the morning
In the house:
Wash both of the blue pig food buckets with a bit of soap. Take a quart of yogurt from the refrigerator and put a pint into each bucket. Go to the barn where you may meet Spots, the barn cat, at the cat food feeder. She likes to be petted as she nibbles, but she’s pretty shy and it’s possible you may not see her at all.
To each pig bucket add 3/4 green scoop of sprouted seed and 3/4 green scoop of Hog Pellets. There’s a wooden spatula that you can use to mix this as it’s much easier to dump out when it’s mixed.
Take a small white bucket and mix together about 1/3 of the green scoop of sprouted seeds and 1/4 of the green scoop of granulated hog food (brown garbage can). This is the sheep’s morning treat and goes into their blue trough in the orchard. Leave the front gate of the orchard open so they can graze in the netted area until you have released the rest of the crew. If you let the out, I guarantee you’ll have unwanted helpers.
On the way to the turkey barn, open the duck coop, open the chicken coop. At the barn, only open the three front doors. Leave both back doors closed and locked.
By then, Boinker will have escaped the pig coop and be running along the tape, waiting for her breakfast. Fill the two troughs that you have hopefully remembered to leave outside the tape the night before (otherwise you have unwanted and pushy piggy helpers) with the contents of the blue buckets. Do not bring their food troughs over that tape until you have released Oinker from the enclosure. Be sure to push the door of their coop as wide as possible so there’s less chance of a pig locking turkeys into the coop at some point during the day. There’s a line of baling twine there that I use to tie the door open attached to the chain link panel behind the door. Return over the tape another time for your filled troughs and place them inside the tape line a few feet apart. The girls will tussle a bit as they settle into their own troughs. The turkeys will swiftly come to help the pigs eat their breakfast and that’s fine.
Back at the turkey coops most of the birds should be out. Pull the red metal gate over the open door of the middle, main coop. It leans against the fence and stays in place without being fastened. On the brooder coop, pull the inner gate over its entrance, then rotate the outer gate (the one that’s tied with baling twine to the pins) over the inner gate, lifting its end onto the concrete so that edge is even with the inner gate edge. Using the chain on the inner gate, connect the chain link gate to both of the metal gates. The staggered gates keep the sheep from breaching the coop and stealing turkey food.
Hopefully by this time all the turkeys in the roosting coop (the one with the double doors) have “flown the coop”. If they haven’t, you can use a branch or something branch-like (I’ve been known to use electric tape stakes) to encourage them to exit. You cannot stand in the doorway and do this as they won’t fly over you, so (keeping an eye out for turkey bombs) you go into the coop to the door that connects the roosting coop to the main coop and gently tap the birds as you urge them toward the middle of the roosts. As they move, they’ll arrange themselves so they can fly out. Standing any other place in the coop will result in a bird trying to press through the wired air gaps near the ceiling and panicking. This can cost you 10 minutes as you wait for it to calm down and exit. Once all the birds are out, you can close the double doors and, once all the doors are closed and gated, you can open the back gate of the orchard and release the sheep.
Take your buckets back to the barn and leave them near the food. Your morning chores are now done. This usually takes me about 20 minutes.
4:30 PM: Feeding, watering and putting all the animals away
All the animals get fed in the evening. You start with the contents of the dogs’ bowls. If they haven’t eaten everything from the previous night, you’ll take the leftover meat down to the barn and divide it evenly between the two pig buckets. To each bucket add 3/4 green scoop of sprouted seeds and two good-sized handfuls of fermented pig food from the white bucket topped with the upside down metal trash can lid.
Next, find the two little white buckets. For the sheep, put the same proportion of feed as the morning: about 1/3 of the green scoop of sprouted seeds and 1/4 of the green scoop of finely ground, unfermented hog food. For the ducks, put approximately ½ cup of sprouted seed and ½ cup of turkey food in their bucket. Feeding starts with the sheep and the ducks. It’s best to separate the process into two trips otherwise you’ll have unwanted helpers and spillage plus thievery will occur.
Sheep & Ducks
The water tub for the sheep won’t need to be changed while I’m gone unless the turkeys or other birds have fouled it. The sheep don’t actually drink from that tub. It’s there “just in case”.
Take both buckets and go to the back door of the orchard. The sheep will be waiting for you in that generally area, since everyone on the farm knows that evening means time to eat. When they see the buckets, they’ll come running. If they don’t notice you, call “Sheep!” and they’ll be right there. Once they enter the orchard close the gate behind them. You may have to step inside a bit to get them past the doors. Know that if you don’t close that gate, you’ll lose them. Fill their little blue trough with their treat. They’ll love you if you throw them any fallen apples you find in my garden…HOWEVER, be sure to lock the gate between the garden and them or catastrophe will ensue.
Once the sheep are eating, take your buckets out the back gate of the orchard, being sure that the gate is locked behind you. Sometimes Tiny, the ewe, will get confused and try to follow the empty bucket and you. Just push her back inside the orchard and close/lock the gate behind you. Go to the duck coop and open the door closest to the pond–the one over the metal ramp/trailer tailgate that the ducks use to enter their house. You’ll need to lightly press your shoulder to the door to open the latch. Inside, you’ll find a white plastic tub closest to the ramp and a small metal dish behind it. This arrangement is critical. For some reason, if the ducks can see the metal bowl it will startle them and they’ll hesitate about entering their house. While you’re looking in the house, check for the orange tabby who finds that house the perfect place for his afternoon nap. Chase him out if you see him.
Empty the tub and refill it with pond water, then replace it. If there’s any food left in the metal bowl, dump it on the ground then refill the bowl from the bucket you brought with you. Replace it behind the tub. The ducks will swim close to watch you as you do this, commenting all the while. Close the door and return with your buckets to the barn for the next round.
Turkeys/Chickens & Pigs
By this time, the turkeys will be flocking toward their coops, anticipating their daily ration of sunflower seeds. Back in the barn, you’ll fill the larger of the two small white buckets to the top with sunflower seeds from the open bag. Take this bucket and the pig buckets (and two bags of turkey feed if it’s time to refill the trash can at their coop) to the turkey coop.
Strew the sunflower seeds in the barren area between the brooder coop and the pig enclosure. Call Tom and make sure he gets a pile in front of him. Hold back about 1/8th of the bucket for the stragglers and chickens who want their seeds in the area near the gate to the brooder coop.
Once the seeds are distributed, open the gates on the coops. Push the red gate flat against the main coop wall so it’s not in the way when you can latch the chain link gate. It’s important to get the big gray gate as close to the front of the main coop as it will go (it confuses the birds), but the smaller, inner gate can stand open wide.
Using the white bucket, collect chicken (and turkey, if any) eggs. Right now the chickens are laying eggs behind the bales at the wall between the coops, although there is sometimes one egg under the leaning board opposite those bales. Collect whatever you find, then go to the chicken coop. The girls have been laying in the far corner of the coop. Once you have the eggs, be sure to put that bucket where Moosie can’t get to it.
By now the pigs are screaming for their dinner so you might as well feed them. Take their troughs outside the tape and fill them from the buckets, then put their troughs inside the tape again. While they’re busy eating, go into their coop and dump out their water trough (through the chain link, since it’s heavy). Bring the trough across the tape to the area where I left the triangular door. It’s capping the hole in the mound.
Returning to the turkey coops, collect all the waterers and put them near the pig waterer, then return to collect the feed bowls out of the coops. You’ll replace the bowls in the coop in the exact places they came from–this prevents birds from roosting over them and making a mess in the food–but in case you forget where they go, here’s the arrangement. There are four bowls in the brooder coop and five bowls in the main coop. The bowls in the brooder coop are arranged equidistant down the central aisle. In the main coop, you’ll put three of the largest bowls near the wall between it and the roosting coop, arranged near but not under the roosting pipe. The fourth bowl goes near the wall between the brooder coop and the main coop, back behind the two pallets supporting the ends of the western roosting pipes. The final, smallest bowl goes at the back of the coop in the isolation area, near the square water bowl beside the back door.
Dump whatever remains in the bowls onto the dirt/hardpack areas at the front of the turkey coops, then bring all 9 bowls to the metal food/trash can. Each bowl gets two scoops of food in it except the odd, flattened metal container from the brooder coop which will only hold a little more than one.
Once the food bowls are in place, encourage Tom (if he’ll let you) into the main coop first so he is sure to eat. Tommy II usually follows him in.
Back behind the coops, empty the bird waterers, rinse and refill to the top. Before you replace them, rinse the mud from the pig waterer, then replace it in their coop. Bring the hose under the tape (which works sometimes and doesn’t work others, so don’t touch it), push it through the chain link–it’s not long enough to go in through the coop door without crimping–and begin filling. Keep an eye on the porcine girls. One of their favorite games is to pull the hose out of the trough and run with it. This is why I feed them before I fill the waterer.
While their water trough fills, replace the turkey waterers. By the time you’ve finished doing that, the pig trough will be full. Turn off the hose and close the back door to the main turkey coop, make sure the big double doors on the roosting coop are closed, then open the back door to the brooder coop and find a nice long branch. Congratulations, you’re ready to herd turkeys.
Start with the youngest ones, who will be gathered along the exterior of the long wall of the brooder coop. The little guys want to go into that door you just opened. Trying to herd them to the main door is futile. I call “Come on Moms and Babies!”, which, surprisingly, works. Most of the little ones will enter. Once those headed in that direction have entered, close that door. Remember, what goes in comes back out just as easily.
At this point I guarantee you’ll have anywhere from 2-8 young toms in the pig enclosure, moving toward the far fence. Why they do this is a mystery; they just migrate that direction while all the rest are going back into the pasture near the chicken coop. So I usually go after them first, directing them back to the main coops before I start moving the bulk of the flock. Sometimes, these wayward fellows will enter the main coop right away, sometimes they’ll join the others in the pasture. Getting them all in one place is the goal.
While you off hunting down the rogue males, about a quarter of the birds will have made their way into the coops. Leaving the doors to the main coop and brooder coop open, I go to the farthest birds in the pasture and begin guiding them toward home. The birds know which coop they want and will direct themselves to the right doorway.
Here’s the key to herding turkeys: If you extend your stick toward their left, they’ll turn to the right and vice versa. Less is more when it comes to moving that stick. Waving it, running at them, shifting abruptly will all cause panic and scattering will be the result. They will often pause enroute to the coop to flap their wings. Don’t push them if they’re doing this as this means they’re preparing to roost and want to go in. Also, there are 5 little black hens who use this coop; they’ve gotten really good about following the crowd of turkeys. If you don’t see these girls, check the brushy area between the main coop and the chicken coop. That’s where they hang out at this time of day.
Getting the young toms inside is the hardest. Tom, Tommy II and Gabby Gray and Gabby White will often form a gauntlet of sorts, poking and pecking at the little guys as they enter. As you can imagine, none of the boys are thrilled about this and will scatter if they think they’re about to be attacked. If you see a crowd forming inside the main coop near the entrance, step inside the door, hold your stick horizontally about at your knees and say “back” as you take a couple forward steps. They’ll back off, gathering near the doorway to the isolation coop.
The two dark, pretty hens are the hardest to put away. They’ll dilly-dally and walk you in circles if you’re not careful. Once you think you’ve got them all in, walk back toward the pig pasture and scan for errant toms, then circle the coops a last time, especially checking between the metal platform and the main coop. Babies and even some of the young toms will try to settle in there for the night.
Remember, Moosie will kill whatever you miss. Good luck!
Closing up the rest of the critters
By now, most of the chickens will be in the coop, but don’t bother trying to herd any that remain outside. It just doesn’t work. If you have to leave the chicken coop open until well after dark, that’s fine. Moosie won’t climb the ramp into the coop to get to them nor will he let anything else do it.
The ducks MUST be put away but they won’t go before the turkeys are inside. So make your way back toward the barn via the duck house. They’ll make their way out of the water toward their house as you approach. However, even though they’ll go to the ramp as if they’re ready to enter, they won’t actually enter until you pick up the black bird catching net. Why this is is yet another mystery on the farm. All I have to do is hold the net out at them and say “time to go in” and they’ll usually enter right away, female first. I might have to shake the net a time or two, but usually not.
That said, if they resist at all, or stand with their heads lowered as if peering into the house, you’ll remember that the orange tabby was in the house earlier and may actually have returned to reclaim that warm spot he was so enjoying. This requires that you skirt the pond, which sends the ducks back into the water, open the doors to the house and either shoo the cat out, should he still be there or assure the ducks that the cat is gone. I swear they listen for this.
Once you’ve again closed the duck house doors, circle back around to the west side of the pond as they swim east to once again make their way to the ramp. Reclaiming the bird net, move to the north and again give it a shake or two. This usually results in success, but I have had bad nights, requiring me to put my feet in the water at the pond’s edge with the net extended to convince them they have no other choice. I hope this doesn’t happen to you. I think I’m buying new ducks come spring, hatchlings that will be imprinted on me so I don’t have to do for the rest of my life.
I close up the front gate of the orchard and the gate to the pig coop after dark. The piggies will follow me into the coop if they see me. In your case, you may have to come with a bit of a treat for them. Pull some chard from the barn garden or bring another couple of handfuls of fermented pig food to put on the ground in the coop for them. They’ll love you for it. Once they’re in, back out and close the gate. The sheep will have settled into the orchard. No need to chase them. If you’ve left the chicken coop open, then this would be the time to close it.
Don’t forget to take the pig buckets and the eggs into the house or you’ll regret it in the morning when you have to trek down to the barn in the dark to pick up dirty buckets.
And with that the day is done.
Lucky for you, I’m hiring someone else to take care of the plants and the sourdough starter is in stasis in the refrigerator.