I was walking out to the chicken coop in the early morning, a pail of seeds and cracked corn swinging on my left and my right hand raised to shade my eyes. The sun, just a few degrees above the trees, hit the dew-drenched grass and sent spears of bright light into the air. It was like a white fireworks: busy, slightly chaotic, riotous.
But the air was soft around my ears. The loudest sound came from my rubber boots swishing through the tall, wet grasses. What a difference from last year, when drought reduced our fields to short dry bristles that cracked underfoot.
The chickens must have heard me – they stirred noisily as I approached the coop. There was clucking, and more…a crow. A new sound! Our small flock of free-range chickens is 12 weeks old, and the young cockerels were practicing scratchy welcomes to the day.
I spread organic oats, wheat, and cracked corn on the grass outside the chicken coop before opening its door and lowering the ramp. What a ruckus as birds pushed one another to get to the grain! They cackled and shoved for about five minutes. Then, they were done. Just like that, they turned their backs on whatever middlings remained and headed out in search of fresh clovers, insects and frogs. (Yes, frogs.)
At sometime during the day, the chickens will wander over to the cows. I move the cows from one small field (a paddock) to another every day so that they can harvest their day’s meal: fresh grasses, weeds, herbs, clovers. Despite these frequent relocations, the chickens never fail to find them and feast on the flies that pester the herd. Dave and I had thought the chickens would help keep down fly larvae, but have been delighted that the flock is so effective at insect control directly on the cows’ faces, legs and bellies. A wonderful – natural – symbiosis.
Early fall: a beautiful time of year. I look forward to walking visitors through our fields, to observe our cows and chickens, and to talk about how we – farmer, livestock, and consumer – can work together to re-imagine and re-establish a more healthful food system.
Sylvia Burgos Toftness