Chickens: devastation and 3-step proposal

Mad. Upset. Determined.

Our farm is in rural Wisconsin. Although we’re just 70 minutes from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro, predators are everywhere: coyotes, wolves, bear, hawks, eagles, owls, weasels, muskrats, badgers, fox, raccoons, possums, stray cats and the occasional house dog turned hunter when allowed to roam the countryside. It’s amazing any livestock or songbird makes it. The challenge is made even greater when you raise animals on pasture – wide open spaces where threats lurk under leaves, in borrows beneath the grass, and in the skies above.

Although we sometimes hear packs of coyotes yipping close by, we’ve never felt threatened by them. Our cows are big, strong and stand down any canine that comes near. It’s amazing to watch them line up and prepare to charge. It’s also why don’t permit visitors to bring dogs to the farm. Keeping these species away from one another is better for the cows and safer for the dogs.

Freedom Ranger chicken

Freedom Ranger free-range chicken

When we told friends that we planned to free-range chickens this summer, many said “Hawks are going to be the problem.”

They were right. They were more than right.

When we started our tiny trial two months ago, we thought we’d see a 10-15% loss. Not so. At first, we thought the hawk sitting in the dead tree at the center of our farm was our only concern. And so, we watched. Then my husband brought out the binoculars and noted that it was a juvenile. One of two, as it turned out. Two young red-tailed hawks. We spotted the two adults a couple of days later. Then, one hot afternoon I counted seven raptors wheeling above our north pastures. As of today, half of our small flock is gone. Devastating, aggravating, frustrating, infuriating.

So, what to do? In truth, many farmers have found numbers of alternatives to free-ranging their flocks. Some enclose the chickens, turkeys or ducks within large wired-framed boxes or pens that are pulled over the fields once or twice a day in order to give the birds access to fresh grass. Other farmers have the chickens spend nights in a coop. During the days, the poultry scratches through grass and enjoys fresh air in an enclosed run. Both strategies protect the birds from flying predators. I used a portable pen last year with my tiny flock of ducks. The birds were safe, but they became habituated to the pen and the feed I provided twice a day. They refused for forage.

Free-range birds, on the other hand, are aggressive self-feeders. They go after practically anything that moves: frogs, flies, worms, small snakes, moths, beetles and ticks. They forage through grasses, weeds, and the herd. Yes, they actually pick the bothersome flies that bedevil my bovines. While I’d read that chickens would help clean pastures of fly larvae, I hadn’t expected them to mingle and mix with the moos. They do, and the cows have come to expect it. In fact, the adults lower their faces to be groomed. This is a boon because there are several types of flies that attack cow faces, eyes, bellies and legs. The flies are more than just irritating. They can cause cattle to lose weight and develop long-term health problems such as pink eye, which can lead to blindness.

Dave and I want to free-range chickens again, but the current approach is, to say the least, not working well. And so, my 3-step proposal:
2014 Purchase and begin training a livestock guardian dog (LGD) puppy
2015 Use the portable coop (Dave built it on an old boat trailer) in conjunction with electric-net fencing and a string-web canopy. The idea is to create a large circular pen with the electric-net and then criss-cross the area with either twine or plastic fish line to deter hawks from swooping down. This pen would be moved as needed to provide the chickens with fresh grass and insects. (Others have tried this with success.)
2016 Rely on the trained dog to defend the chickens.

The Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) is a category of working dog that includes breeds from numbers of countries around the world. The breeds with which we’re most familiar in the USA are the Great Pyrenees (France/Spain), Meremma (central Italy), and the Akbash Dog and Anatolian Shepherd (both from Turkey). I’ve know about LGDs for several years, but only in connection with safeguarding goats, sheep and cows. Would a LGD, also called Livestock Protection Dog, guard poultry?

When I broached the idea to some friends, they were – let’s say – a bit skeptical. In fact, one said I’d have to find a dog that can fly. Well, not willing to give up, I searched out farmers and ranchers experienced with both chickens and LDGs. And wouldn’t you know it, there are several Facebook groups devoted to these working dogs.

When I posted my problem on the Learning About LGDs FB page, I immediately got over a dozen responses. Many described similar experiences and offered great advise. In a nutshell: yes, LGDs work well with free-range poultry; LGD required lots of training; and, the dog should be at least 18 months old, and preferably 24 months old before being left on it’s own to guard the chickens. Do I buy the puppy this year and start training, use netting next year, and finally rely on the LGD the following year?

When I put the idea to my husband David, he wisely brought up another point. While it would take two years to train the puppy, this dog would be a working partner for another 10+ years. Lots to consider.


Putting my money on the beat-up trailer

Sometimes we stand together quietly – me and the cows. The air is still and filled with green smells: grass, hay, leaves, fresh herbs. I lean against the metal gate and watch as some stroll from one patch of fresh grass to the next, others recline and chew their cud, and calves run in what looks like a game of tag.
It’s what grass-fed/grass-finished cows do every day, every growing season.
It’s late summer, time for harvest. On Thursday, Dave and I loaded two beefy steers (altered males) into our “new” cattle trailer. It’s an investment we made this spring so that we could transport our cattle as calmly and humanely as possible.
Dave discovered it along-side a back road. “For Sale” the sign read. When we pulled over to take a look, we immediately saw the bashed-in back end. An auto accident, said the owner when she came outside to chat with us. Yup, a section of the frame was bent and the back sliding door was crumpled and pulled off the runners. A mess. But was it a salvageable mess?
Dave had a friend – a master welder – take a look and estimate the repair cost. Based on that, we purchased the trailer and set about to repair and paint it. It still looks used – the dents are easy to see – but it works really well.

repaired cattle trailer

An investment in sustainable farming

It was about 6:30 in the morning, and the sky was heavy when we walked to the barn and loaded the cattle into the steel trailer. It took no more than 10 minutes. We then drove 30-miles to our USDA-licensed, family-owned custom meat processor in nearby Woodville, WI.
After a life on open pastures, in full sunshine, in the company of their herd, our beeves traveled 30 miles. They were spared growth hormones, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, months in crowded feedlots, and a final drive of up to 1,000+ miles to a massive processing plant.
I won’t kid you: raising 100% grass-fed beef isn’t easy, and it isn’t without physical and financial costs. There’re weekly fence repair, annual fence replacement, improvements to the handling facility, and building better water systems. Two years of drought were followed by this year’s deluge. Both conditions – dry and drowned – ruined large portions of the hay we’d hoped to store for winter feeding. This roller-coaster weather also drove hay prices up from $35/bale to over $65-100/bale.
This is farming. Hard and often unpredictable. Yet, Dave and I remain committed to grazing our beef cattle (and not feeding grains or corn) because grass is what cattle are designed to digest. Grazing is healthful to the herd, restores soil and protects groundwater, produces beef of high nutritional value, and contributes to the economy and vibrancy of our local community.
As a girl growing up in the Bronx, I never would have imagined that I’d care a wit about a beat-up cattle trailer. But that 12-year-old who volunteered at the ASPCA and the cattle woman I am today share a basic value – the wellbeing of the animals put into our care.

Food scare. Ag hype. What’s the truth? Live, Sept. 6, 9-9:30AM Central w Ag Insider

What: Deep Roots Radio interview with Chuck Abbott, Ag Insider journalist.
When: Saturday, Sept. 6, 9:00-9:30AM Central
Where: Broadcast and streamed live from the studios of WPCA Radio, 93.1FM and
Why: The Internet, social media, emails and water cooler conversations are all about the latest hype, scare or boast about America’s food and the system that produces it. Where’s the truth, and how do you find it?
This Deep Roots Radio conversation features Chuck Abbott who posts daily on the Ag Insider. A project of the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), Ag Insider is available free of charge. Abbot brings three decades experience as a Washington-based Reuters commodities correspondent and as national farm editor for United Press International.
I hope you’ll tune in.


Rain – at last

Farm Update – Monday
It was the downpour that woke me this morning. What a welcome sound! After four weeks of dry – only 1/4” rain that entire stretch – we needed this inch-and-3/8 on our fields. The seasonal pond just below the house has gone from dust to ripples. And, somehow, a small flock of geese knew it would reappear.

Taking flight

Taking flight

It’s stopped now. Clouds scurry overhead and the air is filled with the rustle of grasses and leaves pushed by cool gusts from the north. Everything feels scrubbed clean, refreshed. Calves are kicking up their heels and running circles around their dams.
Thank you, God.

Elvis is in the building!

The herd sire returnith
Although I’ve witnessed the scene several times now, the simplicity and unvarnished single-purpose of it continues to amaze me.
Dave and I met the cattle hauler at a neighboring farm late in the afternoon. The hauler had, in fact, gotten to Turnip Rock farm five or ten minutes ahead of us and had already backed the long, aluminum trailer to the cow barn. He and Josh, owner of Turnip Rock, were in the old barn coaxing my BueLingo bull, Full Throttle, away from the Jersey cows he’d been “keeping company” with since late May.
I stayed out of the bull’s line of site; I didn’t want to spook him. If you get a bull walking in the right direction, you don’t want to halt his movement for even a second.
Fortunately, both Josh and Tracy (the hauler) are experienced, and Full Throttle soon clumped heavily into the trailer.
The four-mile trip to Bull Brook Keep was uneventful and Tracy began backing the trailer to our gate. The rest of our cows, heifers, steers and calves silently watched from several hundred yards away. Their heads were up, eyes bright and ears forward.
The trailer was nearly to the gate when Full Throttle let out a loud, long trumpeting bellow: he’d gotten a whiff of the waiting herd.

Full Throttle, registered BueLingo bull, herd sire

Full Throttle, registered BueLingo bull, herd sire

The herd immediately responded to his call and came galloping across the farm. They stopped just a few yards from the trailer and waited as Tracy opened the doors and Full Throttle calmly stepped down.
Herd mobs a welcome for Full Throttle
The bull was immediately mobbed by the welcoming herd, and he walked through the throng.
He was home.

Tune in. July 19, 9-9:30AM CT – Grazing guru Cody Holmes – how multi-species grazing benefits soil, livestock, and people

What: Deep Roots Radio interview with Cody Holmes
When: Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00-9:30 AM Central Time
Where: Broadcast and streamed live on WPCA Radio, 93.1FM,

I was lucky. It was a cold early December afternoon, and Cody Holmes was at the front of the room. There were about 70 of us in that St. Paul, Minnesota hotel meeting space; men and women from all across the country, Canada, Mexico and Europe. We sat behind long tables, our legs stretched in front of us, and our attention intent on Cody – one of the top grazing gurus in the US today.
2013-06-16 13.06.04Cody and his wife Dawnnell operate Rockin H Ranch in Norwood, Missouri where they use sustainable practices to raise and graze about 1,000 head each of cattle, sheep, and meat goats. They pasture pigs and chicken, milk cows and goats for making cheese, and they sell eggs. Cody is also the author of Ranching Full Time on 3 Hours a Day.
On that cold afternoon, Cody described and showed us photos that illustrate how pastures spring to life when cattle are grazed appropriately. He talked about moving the cattle from one field to the next – rotating them – and about clustering them tightly – mobbing – so that hoof action pulls dormant seeds to the surface and natural fertilizer is distributed as the cattle dine.
That was in 2009. Since then, my husband Dave and I have implemented rotational grazing on our farm, Bull Brook Keep, and we’ve already begun to see the benefits. There’s more grass, more diverse plant life, the cattle are fat and happy, and we have repeat customers for our 100% grass-fed beef.
We realize there’s a lot more to do to improve our soil and reinforce cattle health. For example, we’ve just added chickens to our rotational mix. I look forward to tomorrow’s chat with Cody; to tap his decades of experience. I hope you’ll tune in as Cody Holmes shares insights with us.