The perils of egg collecting!

Egg collecting

It occurred to me the other day while sitting outside one of the chook houses clutching my eye, that egg collecting is quite dangerous.  I realise it’s not in the same league as welding underwater pipelines or being a UN peacekeeper, but I certainly didn’t have the threat of an “eyeball swat” hanging over me when I had a desk job all those years ago.

It was the worst eyeball swat yet.  My eye was streaming, I was dizzy and I had been given an instant headache which was to last two days.  I know I sound awfully precious but wing feathers are quite tough and I’m sure they’d be jagged too, if viewed under a microscope.  The bird had appeared perfectly sane when I’d eased my hand under her to collect the eggs and I don’t know what had made her decide that at my third handful of eggs, I was worthy of attack.

Not all the hens fit into the stereotypical ideal of plump, motherly, and slightly scatterbrained beings.  There are birds, usually the white ones, who try to tear chunks out of your hand and the threateningly curious ones who study your nice, shiny orbs from their perch and you just know they’re wondering whether they taste as good as they look.  There are hens who sneak up behind and have a go at the tiny sliver of skin between the top of your jeans and the hem of your shirt that’s inadvertently ridden up when you’ve squatted to check the lowest nests.  Some use me as a stairway to the upper laying rows and others taste-test my wedding band and the steel rivets on my jeans. 

But then one must remember they are omnivores, although they eat lots of vegetation as it’s standing still and can’t get away.  They love insects and small animals – woe betide any lizards who stray into their field of vision.  And I caution any visitors over 55 to avoid having a heart attack when alone with the chickens as there’s not likely to be much in the way of remains to identify you by!    

But they are cute too.  Sometimes they have a sense of humour – they amuse themselves with plucking pieces of hay from their nest and sending them raining down on your head.  Some wait until your ear is in close proximity before announcing they’ve laid their egg.  And Goldie, the pet chook who lives in the house yard, follows us around remarking “Graaass, graaass, graaasshopper”. 

We’ve been pecked, scratched, flapped, squawked at and excreted on by many of our beloved workers.  But in some ways these inconveniences pale into insignificance when compared to larger OH&S issues – bits of wire John’s used to “fix” things; being mobbed by five over-enthusiastic Maremmas after they’ve swum in the dam; stairs into the henhouse minus a government approved handrail, or no stairs at all, requiring that the egg-collectors scramble into the house in a most unbecoming fashion; and deep, leg-breaking dustbathing holes – not to mention the possibility of snakes lurking in the grass.

Maybe I’d better invest in some protective eyewear at least.  Or just send the kids!

Canine Hierarchy

The happy couple

Lady, our fourteen year old Maremma, has had the carelessness to come into season.  You’d think at her age she’d be taking a well earned rest.  Not so.

And in a vain and hopeless attempt at romance, Firenze remains faithfully by her side, leaving the care of the chooks to his three inexperienced, though enthusiastic, offspring, who, being adolescents, are still not entirely sure of their path in life and whether it wouldn’t be just as much fun to chase the birds as the foxes.

Even though Firenze’s physical capacity to take advantage of this romantic situation has been permanently curtailed, he still maintains a constant vigil, warding off the attentions of the only suitor on the farm with his equipment intact – the Jack Russell terrier, Snoopy.

Snoopy is spending his spare time doing extremely wide orbits around the pair, hoping that Firenze will have a momentary lapse of focus or even better, doze off entirely, leaving the way clear for him.

He dare not get too close as he has been on the receiving end of some harsh lessons dealt out by Firenze on the subject of the canine pecking order at Brigadoon and it’s enough to make him slightly wary in a situation this volatile.

Ordinarily, Snoopy doesn’t respect this pecking order and he is constantly testing the possibility of a coup d’etat, being entirely unaware of his lack of size and strength.  His plan of attack on the highest power on the farm never varies from bald-faced aggression with his main strategy being to hurl himself at Firenze’s frustratingly fluffy throat.  He has been summarily defeated countless times, sustained two large open wounds and once was simply sat on – and I’m sure I saw Frenzy grinning at the time.

But when a female is involved, even this small single-digit-IQ dog seems to realise that there will be no quarter shown and no mercy, and his only option, aside from a glorious death in battle, is deceit, patience and a wide berth.

Perhaps a visit to the vet is in order as I doubt shaggy white dogs with extremely short legs will be a saleable item and it might take the edge off Snoopy’s quest for world domination.

A Romp in the Hay

rolling hay3

I’m sure only a small percentage of our population truly realise what a blessing rain is… and I’m equally sure all my Queensland friends will be booing and hissing at this point.  But, after so long with no rain and unrelenting heat, being dowsed with 5 inches in one week sent us into transports of delight.

I thought I would never tire of gazing at the vista of quickly growing green grass and not even the unceasing mowing put me off – particularly as the mowing is done by Harry, the fourteen year old.

The seed heads in the paddock were level with the top strand of barb wire on the fence, and dogs, children, and chickens disappeared from view.  I’d walk through all that lushness with thongs and shorts on, trusting that the snakes would make way for me.

John gets very excited about grass, almost as excited as he gets about worms.  He’s always telling me with glistening eyes about the Warrego grass here or the blue grass there.  Here some clover, there some lucerne, e i e i o.  His enthusiasm is very contagious.

However, the gloss came off the other day when John proclaimed with a sickening heartiness that we should cut hay.  I’m sure for most normal farmers that idea poses no great dramas.  But we are not normal.  We also lack all the necessary machinery for such an undertaking.

But details such as these do not daunt John.  The more archaic the task, the more noble, and therefore more desirable, it becomes.

We do have a slasher.  Do not imagine that we are out there with scythes (although I think John is secretly planning such a purchase).  But aside from the cutting aspect, the rest of the hay gathering is pure hard manual labour, akin to colonial and convict times.  Thankfully we need only gather enough to last us for a year of nestbox refills and we are not attempting to lay aside enough for all the cows.

So John slashed some acres of tall green stuff.  This step was relatively free from trouble and he even found some large rocks, metal posts and odds and ends that had lain uncollected through months of drought only to be swallowed in the growth.  Far be it from me to be constantly running around picking up after others.

Then the fun started.  Turn the endless rows with a rake so both sides will dry – oh, the blisters.  Then pace the rows again, bent double, rolling up the grass that had looked so soft and fresh only yesterday but up close and personal seems to be liberally sprinkled with spiny burr, cathead, and kakhi weed – oh, the puncture wounds.

Next, pick up the bundles, a step which requires you hug the awkward rolls, getting seed and stalks in every body crevice and stuck to all your sweaty patches, and stagger over to the trailer, fling the thing up to the top of the pile and then pick all the spear grass seed out of your shirt on the way to the next mound – oh, so itchy.

Then the insult…drive the trailer to the shed and unload it all.

But today John saw something wriggling in the second trailer load.  Everyone watched from a safe distance as he gingerly poked and probed.  Two more sightings and then nothing.  We all knew he’d let it get away and hoped that it was just a legless lizard.  After watching John unload most of it with no adverse neurological affects, we bravely forged on with the work, making sure to double check that each jab in the hand was really just a burr.

It sure stripped away the last romantic remnants of hay gathering time.

Feeling the Heat

too hot!

My usual way of coping with the heat is to complain bitterly, wish I had a swimming pool and spend the day cowering in front of the little air-conditioner, refusing to prepare any meal that requires the use of the oven.  Watermelon features heavily on the menu.

The sun shines cheerfully or mercilessly, depending on how you view these things, bringing our overnight low of 27ºC up to a balmy 39ºC by mid-morning and I glance at the clock to see how many “heating hours” are left and amuse myself by predicting whether it will be 42ºC or 44ºC by one o’clock.

The animals cope in different ways and, aside from their disappointment to find the grass browner with every passing day, the goats and cattle seem quite unperturbed.  Meggy and Peggy the pigs lay in their wallows and sleep through it all.  The dogs hide in the shade, panting and rumbling warnings to all who invade their personal space.  Trouble is they are sharing the shade with several hundred chooks.

And it is the chooks that have the most objections to this weather.  Apparently, they are happiest between 21 and 24ºC, a very small and pedantic temperature window if you ask me.  As the temperature rises they hold out their wings to increase the airflow to their skin.  At about 30ºC, they begin to pant, releasing heat through evaporation from the lungs.  Then the problems start.

In this process of panting, they exhale a lot of carbon dioxide, raising their blood pH.  To be honest, my head is too hot for any more reading or research into the physiological consequences of this.  The basic result of the heat is they drink more (of course) and eat less – and if you don’t eat, you don’t lay eggs.  There are currently around 600 of our birds refusing to lay eggs – just like I’m refusing to cook using the oven.

According to some books, at 40ºC panting is often not enough to cool the bird and death can occur.  So, after having 30 days between mid October and mid January that have reached 40ºC or more and a further 11 days 37 to 39ºC, I am just grateful they have survived.  (Of course my temperature readings are from my digital thermometer on the coolest side of the house under the verandah and may be at odds with official temps – but when your eyeballs get dry while walking down to collect eggs, you become convinced that the thermometer is actually erring on the Artic side).

So really, this is a longwinded apology to all our customers who will find us run short of eggs for the next few months while we endure this summer and the birds recover.  As we only sell eggs we produce and do not “top up” with eggs from other producers, we, and by extension, you the customer, are subject to the true natural cycles of heat and cold, flood and drought, day length and the other processes involved in seasonal production.

For now we will focus on making sure the hens have damp soil to cool down in, ice in their water troughs, enough shade to accommodate all those chooks and their disgruntled guardian dogs, and say a quiet thank you to the brave birds that are still managing an egg every now and then, despite all the trials of an Australian summer west of the Divide.

And I will be thankful that it is too hot for flies and snakes, the washing is dry within an hour, the lawn doesn’t need mowing and that the kids don’t mind eating watermelon.

Postscript:  The hardiness of the birds was truly tested on the weekend of 12 – 13 January with temperatures reaching 48ºC and 47ºC and blasting hot winds straight off a desert somewhere.  I am sad to say that we lost 5 birds, which out of almost 1000 is much better than all the disasters I had been imagining.  I can honestly say there is a huge difference in those last few degrees – I sat in the kiddies pool and I’m sure I was still sweating.  It was 37 ºC in the kitchen…. with the air-conditioner on.  So “bravo” to the 975 birds who endured unto the end.  Let’s be thankful they were not tested by fire, after the incredible inferno that destroyed most of the Warrumbungles and so many homes.

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