Notes from Windward: #57

Daisy delivers

The ducks start a group nest in the base of an old oak tree
One of our ongoing research projects has to do with the role that chickens, ducks and geese play in crafting a sustainable context. For example, while chickens are an obvious source of eggs and meat, at Windward we use them primarily to keep insects under control without resorting to chemical sprays or poisons.

That's not to say that we don't enjoy the meat and eggs. If we cooped the chickens up and fed them commestible grains, our production of eggs and meat would go up, but that would lessen our sustainability factor by making us more dependent on purchased grains.

When organic control systems are in place, they prevent the bugs from getting a foothold on the garden and in the barn. By gobbling up the first bugs, the chickens keep us from having to deal with the bugs those bugs would have bred. Through their vigilant efforts, the hens and ducks go a long way towards providing a no-cost, no-chemical solution.

Another abandoned group nest
The key process underlying sustainable agriculture involves the conversion of things you wouldn't eat into things you would. In the above example, the chickens are converting bugs and undigested grains into eggs and meat. Ducks and geese do this by converting grass shoots into eggs, meat and down. Provide a patch of alfalfa to graze and some water to play in, and they'll provide sustainable yields of quality products.

That isn't to say that each biosystem doesn't have its downside. The chickens often get a little too aggressive patrolling the garden for bugs. Recently, they've been paying close attention to the strawberry bed, and have scratched up a number of young plants. Once the plants are well established, scratching up the surface is arguably beneficial, but there are losses early on. I'm working on some potential solutions, and will report on the results.

Daisy makes a nest
The problem with geese is that they're foul neighbors. Probably the first rule of animal husbandry is that animals, especially ruminants, need a convenient supply of clean water to drink. Sheep and goats can make do with all sorts of situations, but water is critical. Unfortunately, geese see a half barrel of water as the ideal place to freshen up and eliminate their wastes. Goats are fussy critters at the best of times; you can just imagine how they react to that kind of "goose soup."

Ducks like to play in the water too, but we haven't found them to be the problem the geese were. Being smaller, perhaps they have a harder time getting into a half barrel of water, or perhaps they're just not as smart as the geese and the idea doesn't occur to them. Either way, ducks serve much the same function as geese, without causing as much disruption.

The empty nest
Back when we did our work with geese, we observed that the hens routinely raised less than half their hatchings. A number of problems contributed to this toll, foremost being the problems that the goslings were having with water. They were able to get into water containers but weren't always able to get out. Nature's strategy is to produce more than can survive, and to let chance have it's way with the brood. If one or two goslings out of a clutch of eggs reach maturity each year, that's good enough for nature.

On the other hand, that's not good enough for the farmer. By "interfering" with the natural process of over-birth and baby-culling, animal husbandry works to insure that most of the hatchlings reach maturity. It's through the use of knowledge and foresight that the farmer can create a steady abundance whereas nature, left to its own devices, produces feast and famine.

Daisy and brood in the garden
Now, this isn't to say that the sustainable farmer is somehow exempt from, or in opposition to, natural forces; rather, he has to become the agent for that process. Sexual reproduction works to produce a variety of young, each slightly different from either of their parents. Natural selection then determines which few individuals are fit to breed, leaving the others to an early death. Once we start to interfere with that process, we have to take upon ourselves the responsibility of making those decisions and implement those choices. It's a serious responsibility, and one that often is emotionally difficult to fulfill.

Here's a case in point. The ducklings I purchased had been artificially hatched, put in a box and shipped to the local feed store. Given the challenges of marketing and transportation, there isn't any way that they could have been hatched by the duck who laid them. One result is that many of the commercial fowl have been machine hatched for so long that the brooding instinct is dim, if it's there at all. For much of the spring, the ducks wouldn't even lay their eggs in a nest. Instead they would just drop an egg wherever they happened to be when the time came.

The ducklings get their feet wet
So we were delighted when one of the hens built a nest next to the barn and went broody. We assembled some cattle panels around her nest site so none of the dogs or kids would disturb her, and let her give it a shot. For almost all of the month of May, Daisy sat her nest and cared for her eggs. Chicken eggs will hatch any where from 19 to 23 days, so by the time Daisy had been sitting for 28 days, I was losing hope for her brood.

In order to get an idea what was going on, I entered her pen (she didn't like that) and took an egg from under her (she really didn't like that.) I was delighted to observe that there was a small hole already in the egg, and that the duckling was moving around. I replaced the egg, and left Daisy to tend to her business.

Settled in the brooder
The next day found Daisy to be the proud mother of a darling clutch of ten golden ducklings. As she led them around the barn and into the garden, their chirps made a most happy sound. Daisy had done her job very well, and unfortunately for me, it was now time for me to do mine. The hard reality is that if I leave her ducklings with her, she'll lose more than half of them before they grown and feathered. Last year, using the brooder, I was able to raise 12 out of 12.

With heavy heart, I grabbed a bucket and rounded up her chicks. Daisy was very upset and defended her brood as best she could, but in a short while her chicks were settled into the brooder and busy exploring their new home. The brooder is divided into two compartments separated by a curtain. The front area has three side feeders for water, food and grit, while the back area has solid walls and a thermostatically controlled light bulb which functions as both a light and heat source for the hatchings.

Corner crowding

In fairness to Daisy, even the brooder isn't without its risk. One duckling died the first night, the victim of all the other chicks into a corner on top of it. Newborns are especially vulnerable to being mobbed by their nest mates, and in large chicken houses, it can even happen with adults, especially if something spooks them and they all try to run away, piling up in the corner and smothering the unfortunates on the bottom of the pile. This is the first time we've worked with hatchings, and it's remarkable how much of a difference a couple of days make.

Windward is a quiet place, and sounds carry for long distances. As evening came, Daisy wandered back and forth through the garden calling plaintively for her lost babes. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed like you could hear her, no matter where you were. Listening to her mournful calls, I found scant comfort in the knowledge that I'd done the right thing.

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