Our first sick hen

We hoped it would be a long time before we had to deal with something like this. Our flock is only 16 weeks old now, so we were surprised to discover that we had a serious health problem already.

I have read that chickens will kill a sick or injured bird to protect the rest of the flock, so I first started to suspect something when I saw two or three birds pulling on poor Bronze from different directions. Later, she was chased over the electric fence, and didn’t return to the coop at bedtime that night. We tried bringing her into the house to protect her, but she was upset and kept banging her head trying to escape the smaller enclosure so we put her back in the coop, unsure what to do.

The next morning she stayed in the coop when everyone else went out, so I put the others out in the electric fence area and let her stay in the coop with access to the run. I checked on her frequently during the day, and she just stood there with her head hunched back into her feathers, looking very unhappy. I still didn’t know what to do.

We are new to chickens, and like new parents we kept asking, at what point do we worry? Are we overreacting? Not worrying enough?

It wasn’t until she actually came over and leaned on me that I realized we had to do something. Our chickens weren’t handled much in their earliest days, so they aren’t that friendly. Having one approach me and actually initiate physical contact like that, on top of everything else, was a definite cause for alarm.

The internet is absolutely packed with backyard chicken keepers offering advice, solutions, do’s and don’ts. One person says one thing and another says the exact opposite. It’s overwhelming.

If your dog gets sick, you take it to the vet and the vet takes responsibility for figuring out what’s wrong and how to best handle it. If your chicken gets sick, you have to deal with it yourself. Maybe some people take their chickens to the vet but we don’t. I don’t know if our vet would even see a chicken. (We can get into a debate on “speciesism” another day.)

So we took Bronze in the house and gave her a calm, comfortable environment away from the cruel beaks of her siblings to see if the situation would improve at all while we researched some more. We didn’t want to start just trying stuff in case we made things worse, or caused her more pain without any benefit. She watched an episode of Orange is the New Black with us and fell asleep on my arm, making very sweet little “tut tut tut” noises. It was heartbreaking. I put her in the old brooder box and she slept peacefully for the night.

IMG_0587The next day the situation had not improved, she seemed more lethargic and even quieter than before. We realized that she was clearly suffering and it wasn’t going to resolve itself.

I learned that chickens have a compartmentalized digestive system that compensates for not having teeth. Food is first stored in the crop, then travels further to be ground up for digestion. I keep reading that it’s a very efficient digestive system, but it doesn’t seem like the most brilliant layout, since the food needs to exit the crop through a small opening before it’s broken into smaller pieces, which means if the bird eats something like a large leaf, a plastic toy, or long blade of grass, it can easily cause a blockage. If the crop is blocked, food will go in, but won’t go further towards digestion. The bird will feel full and lose the desire to eat, while the food in the crop begins to decay.

I learned that impacted crop can be fixed surgically by cutting into the crop and simply pulling out the blockage, but this was definitely not an option for us. We would likely have done much more harm than good trying something like that ourselves.

After watching some helpful videos I gently massaged Bronze’s crop, to see if I could work out any blockage.  Her mouth starting to move as if she was swallowing something, so I tipped her forward and a whole bunch of yucky goop came out. It definitely had a yeasty smell, which my research told me meant that she probably had “sour crop” and the blocked up food was fermenting.

I spent the next day checking on her and alternating between emptying her crop and force feeding (she was still refusing food) yogurt mixed with water, which we hoped would help fight the yeast and balance her crop again. After vomiting however, her crop always swelled up almost immediately with gas and fluid. I thought the crop was empty after her vomiting, but couldn’t understand why it kept swelling up again. She only got worse and worse through the day, and by the end of that day it seemed like she had given up, and there wasn’t any more we could do for her. We couldn’t let her suffer anymore.

After putting her to rest, we cut open her crop to find out what was really going on and found a wad of wood shavings and leaves still in there. I had been doing my best to help clear it out, but this stuff was packed in very tightly and I don’t think we could have removed it without surgery. I made sure to feel the body after I could see that the crop was actually empty, so if we have to deal with this again in the future I’ll be much more confident about whether or not the crop is still impacted and how it feels when the blockage is actually cleared.

I see the other chickens eating wood shavings and long grass all the time and we haven’t seen any other signs of trouble, so it’s possible that Bronze was just unlucky, or perhaps her crop didn’t work right and she would have continued having problems again and again if she did recover, or maybe she ate a whole lot at once and it clumped up in just the wrong way. Whatever the reason, I hope this never happens again but I also see how easily it can happen, and I know there isn’t much we can do to prevent it.

Experience can be a cruel, but very effective teacher. We had to face not only the stress of trying to cure Bronze, but also to decide at what point it was time to give up hope, end her suffering, and to actually euthanize her ourselves. That part was as awful as we expected it to be, but we knew from the beginning that this is part of keeping chickens and had braced ourselves for it the best that we could. It was difficult and emotional, but despite this harsh reality check we are moving forward without feeling any less motivated or enthusiastic about keeping chickens. We know that we did the best we could and feel confident that we did the right thing. We learned so much from this ordeal that we feel we have “leveled up” significantly as chicken keepers. I would still recommend keeping chickens to everyone who has the capacity to do so. The more backyard chickens there are, the less demand there will be for factory farmed chicken and eggs, and that is a win for chickens, people, and the environment ❤

 

 

 

 

Feels like summer!

Spring is well underway now, although it feels more like summer, and it has been exactly as incredible as I dreamed about all winter long. When everything was white, it was so hard to picture green, but now that it’s all green we can’t imagine the ice and snow anymore, and we like it much better this way! Everything exploded into flowers and green all at once, and the weather has been warmer and sunnier than I’ve experienced in all the time I’ve been in Norway. I have sunburns on top of sunburns, on top of layers of scratches and bruises from all the exploring, planting, dragging, digging, etc as we get things going here. It feels great to be so active again. I think I might even be growing some muscles!

IMG_0204

Phoebe was born in late November last year, so she has only experienced cold and snow up to this point, and she absolutely loves this warm, sunny new world. She loves splashing in the stream on hot days and racing around the yard. She follows me around when I forage for wild edibles and tend to the garden, and she is learning to lay calmly next to me while I work instead of stamping all over the gardens. I’m almost always wearing a pouch filled with kibble and other goodies because every day is filled with “teaching moments” for a curious puppy.

The trail camera has been busy up in the forest keeping an eye on some of the larger wild creatures we share the land with.

The abundance and diversity of wildlife here is truly amazing. It seems like almost every time I see an insect it’s one I haven’t seen before. There doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of any one species; it truly feels like a well balanced ecosystem. We have plenty of small predators like spiders, lizards, and frogs roaming the gardens already, along with bees, butterflies, and countless other pollinators. The days are now so long that there are birds singing pretty much around the clock. In the back near the forest edge there are some small ponds and marshy areas that are teeming with tadpoles.

We keep some areas around the house mowed, but we generally try to tread lightly and treat most of the property as a sanctuary for nature. This helps maintain that great abundance and diversity of insects, and it means that our gardens are not the only source of food and shelter in a desert of clipped grass. Diverse plant life provides the foundation for a healthy and robust ecosystem.

IMG_0232

The stinging nettles pictured below are near the edge of our veggie garden. Nettles are known to host a great deal of beneficial insects. These ones are currently nursing some caterpillars which will develop into butterflies that will probably end up pollinating some of our garden crops.

Not only do “weeds” provide food and shelter for insect life, but many of these plants are useful to us too. Stinging nettle is considered a nasty weed by most people, but I can’t get enough of it. I’ve seriously considered asking the neighbours if I could harvest some of theirs. Despite the painful sting, it is a highly nutritious early spring food (it tastes like spinach), it makes a nice herbal tea, it has medicinal uses, it attracts beneficial insects, it is used in biodynamic preparations for the garden and can be made into a surprisingly good hair rinse among many other things. You can read more about nettles here, if you’re curious.

We’ve also been experimenting with some other wild foods like fried dandelions. Those were actually better than I expected. I started nibbling on them and demolished half the batch before they even made it to the dinner table.. oops.. but Tux just couldn’t quite get past the idea of eating dandelions so he wasn’t super into it. He’s been very open minded with all this experimenting though, which makes it a lot more fun. I normally hate cooking, but being able to use ingredients we harvested ourselves changes the whole experience completely.

img_0377

Cheerful spring salad. A mix of foraged and store bought greens, wildflowers, and the first radishes from the garden 🙂

I think I could write an entire post dedicated just to our foraging experiments, or even stinging nettles alone since I’ve focused a lot on those this spring. I know there is loads more out there to discover, but this one is just so incredibly versatile! Next year maybe I’ll try getting obsessed with a different plant. Here are some pictures of the nettle harvest and a few of the different things I’ve been doing with them:

Mixed “weeds” pulled out of the gardens are also a great salad for the chickens, which they appreciate since they have already gobbled up every microscopic bit of green that was inside their run.

Here are some pictures to give an overview of the main garden beds that we have put down so far. Everything has been planted out now except tomatoes, which I’m not entirely sure where to place or how to support yet. I’ve done a lot of research on companion planting and try to place things according to which plants will cooperate with each other. Tomatoes and potatoes, which are both in the nightshade family, seem to be the fussiest from what I’ve read, but we have plenty of space so it shouldn’t be an issue anyway.

Along the south wall of the house we have these stone raised beds which I thought would make a nice place for a herb and salad garden. The bottom step has two rows of “baby leaf” lettuce and a row of radishes which will be replaced by another row of lettuce when the radishes are done. The second step up has a mix of edible flowers. In the steps above that I’ve planted thyme, oregano, parsley, borage, lemon balm, basil, and mint. There are a few strawberry plants next to the borage because I read that they grow nicely together and I love experimenting with plant partners.

IMG_0286

Below the stone “steps” is a small hill leading down to the plum tree and berry bushes. I plan to fill this hill with different herbs and useful ornamentals, focusing on perennials like echinacea. I plan to expand and develop this herb garden over time. I’m very interested in making herbal products like finishing salts, flavour mixes, teas, oils, and perhaps even some bath products. This will also be a good place for plants like comfrey that spread aggressively by roots, because it is bordered by mowed lawn and the driveway, so plants like this won’t get a chance to invade the wild meadows and forest around us.

IMG_0313

Underneath the row cover in the picture above is a patch of strawberries that were a gift from our lovely neighbours. The row cover is there to shelter the strawberries from the harsh sun while they get established in their new home.

We have half of a rhubarb plant, which we obtained from a friend who lives in an area that hasn’t been affected by the horrific brown slug invasion either, and was kind enough to dig up part of her rhubarb to plant into our garden. It seems to have transplanted well and is growing rapidly.

IMG_0296

All of our veggie and herb beds were established on top of the existing ground using sheet mulch instead of tilling. We laid down wet cardboard, covered it with a layer of well aged, composted horse manure, and topped it with a thick mulch of hay which we got from a friend who couldn’t use it to feed his cows (the wrapping had broken open and the bale had become damp). To plant, I just make an opening in the mulch and plant seeds or seedlings into the composted horse manure. As the young plants mature the cardboard and lawn below will be consumed by earthworms and other decomposers, opening up the soil below. With this technique, the earthworms, insects, and other soil life are responsible for turning and aerating the soil while also providing nutrients for the plants and adding organic matter, which helps with soil structure, water retention, and drainage. It’s basically on-the-spot vermicomposting that aims to mimic the process in nature. The mulch provides food and shelter for soil creatures, and it acts as insulation; keeping the soil at a comfortable temperature and moisture level. It should be very little work to maintain these gardens once they are established. The soil in our gardens should become deeper, richer, and healthier over time, rather than depleted and lifeless. It will require no additional inputs of fertilizers or soil amendments other than topping up the mulch and adding some compost each year to help replace the nutrients we remove when we harvest.

IMG_0333

Earthworms are thriving in the rich compost between the cardboard and mulch layers

So far the veggies we have planted in these beds are: rainbow carrots (interplanted with radishes), leeks, swiss chard, mixed varieties of kale, lettuce, bush beans, striped beets, spaghetti squash, some kind of green pumpkin, and chives. I might be forgetting something somewhere but I think that’s everything in these beds at the moment.

Below is an example of companion planting at work:

IMG_0327

I planted carrot and radish seeds together.  The radish pictured is pretty much ready to harvest, just as the carrot seedling next to it is starting to want that space. The two plants have occupied the same place in the garden at the same time without competing with each other, and the radishes have provided some shelter and protection for the fragile carrot seedlings in their earliest days.

img_0376

The very first veggies harvested from our garden!

The peas are off to a good start and should begin climbing up the trellis strings any day now. I arranged this bed so that the lettuces will receive full sun in the early part of the day but later on, once the peas are climbing the trellis, they will be sheltered from the more intense afternoon sun. That should extend the time we can use the mature lettuces before they bolt (go to seed).

I put together a super simple cucumber/squash trellis in the orchard garden, using a couple of small forked logs and a large wire grid that I found on the wall of the barn. There is space under the trellis, so I planted some lettuce here too. I also interplanted some marigolds with the cucumbers and squashes, to try and deter hungry insects that might want to snack on them.

Here I’ve planted a few rows of potatoes, again using a no-till sheet mulch technique. The plan is to add more mulch as the potatoes start to grow, so while the roots are growing downwards, the potatoes themselves will develop up in the hay. Instead of digging them up, we just have to pull off the mulch, which should mean the potatoes will come out clean and with a nice round shape. By next year most of the mulch we added will be broken down and this bed will be ready for a new plot of veggies.

IMG_0317

The plum and cherry trees are now finished blooming, and the berry bushes look amazing after their hard pruning this winter. They were neglected for a few years before we moved here, and there was a lot of heavy old growth on them. They were much too dense and heavy, which leaves them at risk for breakage and disease. I was a bit scared after cutting so much off of them, but they do seem rejuvenated and quite happy now. From what I can see we will be drowning in fruit this summer.

IMG_0315

 

 

IMG_0314

Blackcurrant bushes are looking fresh and healthy after a severe winter pruning.

The chickens are enjoying more time outside now that their run is completely enclosed and secure. The next step is to set them up with mobile electric netting  so they can have access to fresh pastures and help us keep the grass trimmed.

We installed a couple of perches and sectioned off a dust bath area for them, and they get deliveries of fresh green “weeds” from the garden every day, plus occasional treats from the kitchen.

IMG_0306 The run includes a chicken door to the outside, which we plan to use when we (somehow) herd them back and forth between the coop and the mobile fence.

IMG_0303

I can’t say for sure but I think they are happy birds 🙂

FullSizeRender 6

The Chicken Cam is still going, by the way! We now have two cameras up, one inside and one outside. If you’re on a computer you’ll find a button next to the settings button at the bottom of the video that lets you switch cameras, but for some reason YouTube doesn’t seem to offer that option on phones or tablets at this point.

There is audio on the inside camera only. You can often hear two of the roosters taking turns crowing!

Coop camera:

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 09.54.16.png

Outdoor camera:

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 09.48.42.png

So now that we are getting used to having nice weather and being outside, hopefully I’ll be able to get back into making art again. It was impossible to sit inside in front of the computer when the weather first started to turn nice and there was so much to do in the gardens, but now that we have had warm weather for a few weeks and the big rush of starting the gardens is over, I think I will finally be able to start drawing again.

If you’d like to see more frequent updates about the gardens, animals and life in general at Trollgården, you can follow me on Instagram 🙂

Hope you’re enjoying spring and early summer as much as we are!