Barnyard Irony


The farm is no place for the weak of heart but being weak of mind helps sometimes. No truly rational being (if there is such a thing) would submit willingly to kneeling in manure in the midnight cold with one arm up to the elbow in blood and mucous, trying to pull a lamb from a womb.  All those poets who like to sing about the joyous wonders of birthing ought to try barnyard midwifery awhile. How many times I have looked up in the dark and wondered why there couldn’t be a better way. If nature or science or intelligent design is so smart, why can’t we just order calves and lambs from Sears?

But then there are times when everything works out. You get that bent leg out straight where it’s supposed to be, or have the strength to reach in there and get the lamb’s bent head back between its front legs, and then heaving with all your strength on the legs, zzzzuuuupp, out comes lamb, slick as can be, and it is alive. Then you kind of lean back in your kneeling position and think, well, maybe the poets got in right after all.

We are in the midst of another barnyard ordeal. We fatten twenty broilers every year of that new genetic wonder type, the kind that eat so fast and so much that they are ready to butcher in six weeks although by then they can barely walk. Probably a mistake raising these monstrosities, and this ordeal sort of proves it, but that six weeks fattening period works extremely well into my schedule and the meat is wonderful. Of course, when Carol makes southern fried her Mom’s Kentucky way, even old buzzard would taste pretty good.

We are in a record-breaking heat wave as I write this, and as we are learning, these broilers have very little stamina in adversity. The first one to keel over from 98 degree heat we carried out into the airy woodland shade, dunked its head in water, sprinkled water all over it in fact, did what we could to lower its temperature. (I took a thermometer into the woods and verified that the temperature there averages five degrees cooler than out in the open and if our coop were not snuggled partially under trees, we would be in a lot deeper trouble.) Seeing that it was going to die, we butchered the poor thing. Then we connived various ways to get more air into the coop. You might think that would be fairly simple, but we have no electricity to the barn (on purpose) and heat is not our only public enemy right now. Foxes have been carrying off hens regularly so I dare not open the coop doors and let everything run outdoors all the time like usual. Carol found an old screen door for the broiler side of the coop and on the other side I let the hens out in the afternoon despite fox danger. This resulted in a freer flow of air through the coop but it meant that I had to stand guard or make regular trips to the coop on fox patrol.

One more hen died, and so we started butchering the rest, a week earlier than we had planned. Better a chicken weighing a little less than optimum than no chicken at all. Butchering broilers in a heat wave is almost as nasty as pulling calves on a winter night. Only by concentrating mightily on the taste of Carol’s southern fried could I keep going.

So I am telling this to a friend and he breaks out laughing. I am a little bit indignant. I don’t see anything funny about the situation at all. He explains: “Yesterday you risked heart attack and stroke to keep those chickens alive. Today you killed them.”

I don’t want to think about it. Better to suffer barnyard ironies with a weak mind.  Probably, by now, with a weak heart too. ~~


We didn’t lose any birds to heat stroke this summer but our Cornish failed to live up to their reputation… instead of being lazy, non walkers they figured out they could FLY. Right over my 5ft fence into the tomato dome. Destroyed my tomato season but I got them in the end!

Hi Gene, another great post! 🙂 I just wanted to ask if you have every tried Freedom Rangers (also known as Red Bro) – they are a meat bird of French stock. We have been wanting to do meat birds for a while, but resisted because of all the complications you listed. Someone told us about Freedom Rangers (the hatchery is close to you, in PA) and we have had great luck with them. They are super hardy (in rain and heat) and they have spent most of their lives outside – and (crossing my fingers) – we haven’t lost one yet, and all are thriving! If you have not heard of them, you might want to check them out. The owners of the hatchery are very nice and helpful as well.

I once heard about a sheepman in New Zealand who took his vacation during lambing season. When he came back, nature had done his culling for him. While I don’t know if this story is true, there is truth in it. Cruel as it may sound, a ewe that has birthing difficulties should be culled from the breeding flock, along with her lamb.

Thanks for sharing this story. I’ve been a bit worried about our flock in this heat, although not enough to butcher anyone…yet.

Two comments on this post Gene.

The first part really does touch a chord with me as I spent too many springs to count doing just as you describe with your assisted birthing of the lamb. Fingers sooo tired they cannot grip the slippery legs tight enough to pull them into position, too dark and uncomfortable to work out which way the leg joints bend as to whether or not you have a front or back leg and so are coming out properly or are a breech birth (and in the case of twins – do they belong to the same lamb or calf or not?) and then there are the sad cases where the foetus is stillborn in which case the mother often has blood poisoning and is unlikely to live. Heart wrenching but as you say, when it works out and the newborn coughs and splutters (usually with a bit of help from the human by scooping the afterbirth out of its mouth or by windmilling it over your head by the back legs to expel anything out) then there is nothing but a great joy and elation. Partly because you have actually been able to ‘play God’ and give life when it would not have otherwise been possible but also because you have been witness to the creation of life. Waxing lyrical is not too strong a term for this if you have experienced it, especially if it has taken a good few hours to reach a conclusion in difficult and trying circumstances. A glass or two of the good stuff afterwards and a quiet contemplation of the events that have just occured certainly is a good reward for the life we choose to live. I would not change it for anything.

The second comment relates to the last couple of sentences. There are no real ironies here at all; just a realisation of the situation both for you and the chickens. Farming life, as you will be well aware, does not follow a textbook pattern and not each year is the same and nor is each response to a certain situation the same. Experience, initution and just plain good (or bad) luck all have their hand in what happens and how it pans out. From what you describe there I think you took the best course of action and probably just in time.

I certainly don’t think you are guilty of either a weak mind or weak heart just a caring and independant soul. By the way, humour is the best tonic I have found, especially when it is aimed at yourself!

Take care and you and Carol enjoy those chickens!!


We are in Ohio too, (Edinburg) and the opposite weather problem is why we no longer raise turkeys for customers. Spending all day trying to butcher with frozen fingers is the worst. Although one year (last year I think) it was balmy and that was strange too.

I have a question… I love the picture that accompanies your post. Do you know who the artist is? I looked all over the internet and didn’t find anything.

I really enjoyed your book, The Contrary Farmer.. hmmm, now that I’m thinking about it I think I’ll go get it and read it again.

Yes, Gene, take care of yourself! We certainly don’t want to lose you any time soon.

We live in a climate where the summer temperature is normally in the high 90s and often above 100, although we don’t have the humidity problems you folks back east do. Acclimatization makes a big difference in my experience, which may be why you had trouble with those young birds. I’ve always tried to make sure the chickens had plenty of shade and water, and that there are several spots in the pen where I’ve dumped enough water to get the soil really moist but not muddy. They will scratch in those wet spots and then lie in them much the way they do when taking dust baths. While I lose a hen occasionally, it’s nearly always one of the older ones who is about past her prime anyway. We almost never have chicks in the summer, as our hens hatch in the spring and the chicks are half grown by the time the heat really sets in, so i can’t speak to the effect on young birds. I’ve also found that some birds seem more heat resistant — the older breeds do better than the modern commercial breeds.

Now you all are making me re-think my decision to switch from layer ducks to chickens. My Campbell ducks have always seemed oblivious to the heat. Of course, I can’t say for sure whether this is hardiness or stupidity. If God really did give geese sense, he used up the full waterfowl allotment on them.

With Cornish cross broilers I’ve had success with mobile pens. I like an 8×8 pen with wheels on one end to make it easier to move. They are much more secure than you would think and those fat birds move around more if there is grass and bugs to chase. As far as the heat goes I have the roof half covered and one corner boxed in so they can get out of the sun at any time, and wire on the rest to allow for good air flow.

My fingers and hands are in tatters because I just spent days feverishly adding another layer of fencing to the top of my existing chicken pen, and then when the fox dug UNDER the whole thing, another day or so adding more fencing and cinder blocks to the ground all around it – all with zip ties keeping it together (they’re cheap.) That fox got two of my 8-week old chicks before I learned that lesson. Now it’s like Fort Knox, but my hands will remember this summer. Then again, I saw hawks circling the other day, so it might not be as secure as I believe.

I think the heat might not be so bad for young chickens as it is for older ones though. Mine are only panting, not keeling over. Yet.

I agree with Nick. We need guys like you and Wendell to keep the rest of us inspired and have any faith that this planet is worth saving. Keep Carol and yourself in good shape so you can “eat mor chikn!”

Gene’s got it right on no electricity to the barn, now that we don’t need kerosene lamps. Just one more way for a barn to catch fire – with the poor wiring many old barns have.

Gene, You take care. Don’t go overloading the old ticker or getting a stroke. Just being selfish. I like your writing too much to see you head out before I do.

Been there done that. Fortunately, our coop has electricity and built in fan, no doors need to be left open to allow for good air flow. I also have a light, on a timer, to fool the layers into thinking there is more daylight than there really is. It keeps them laying for more months.

Sounds like our Why We Don’t Raise Turkeys summer.

We’ve helped our heat-stressed rabbits with the old trick of freezing water bottles and tucking them in the hutches. Might chill out hot poultry too.

Please leave your comments...

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>