It’s spring, so of course there’s so much going on at Bellfern Homestead, and I’m too tired to organize it all into an interesting and themed narrative. This is going to be a casserole-style blog post: take what you have, mix it all together, add cheese, and hope it holds together.
We’ve got over a hundred chickens on the farm at the moment, with two batches of meat birds in progress: the older meatheads are in their tractor out on the pasture, munching on grass and bugs, and the young’uns are in the brooder in the barn where they’ll stay until they start growing feathers at around 3 weeks old.
We’ve got 6 pigs separated into three different paddocks–one for the gilts (lady pigs who haven’t yet had piglets), one for the boars (they have to be kept separate from the gilts to prevent premature pregnancy), and one for our older barrow (a castrated male), who is headed for the butcher next week.
There’s also a flock of 14 laying hens, our two farm dogs, our decidedly not farm cat, and Farmer Gwen and Farmer Josh.
That’s a lot of mouths to feed every morning before we leave for work at 7!
The Pigs Get a Bath
In early April, we noticed that the pigs were really itchy. Their skin was flakey, and they were desperate to rub up against anything sturdy. I’m not sure if they simply had dry skin, or if they had mange mites, which are very common in pigs but considerably ickier. Either way, there’s one natural solution: oil bath!
This is a surprisingly fun event, both for me and the pigs. I used canola oil and an old bottle brush to apply, which helps work the oil into the bristly hair. (A bit of tea tree oil would have been a good addition, but I didn’t have any at the time.)
The pigs all enjoyed their oily rub-down, but some more than others. Eliza, my favorite gilt and the nicest pig you’ve ever met, thought it was simply. the. best. She made a reservation for a follow-up spa treatment the following week.
Chickens are hilarious
There’s a stack of hay in the barn where the chickens have made a nest and prefer to lay their eggs, but there’s only room for one chicken at a time. Throughout the day, a chicken queue forms: one on the nest, one on deck on a lower bale of hay, and a third pacing and clucking anxiously nearby, encouraging the other two to hurry the heck up. Sometimes the chicken on deck gets tired of waiting to go to bat, so she improvises:
Learning to be a Farm Dog
Ursula, our Australian Shepherd poodle mix, has overcome her anxiety about mud and wet paws and is becoming a first-rate farm dog. She’s anxious to take on new jobs and learn new skills–a model employee, really.
When we go outside to do chores in the morning and evening, she insists on accompanying us. She checks on all of the flocks of chickens and all of the paddocks of pigs, mentally taking note that everyone is in the proper place and reasonably content. If the meat chickens are starving and raucous, Ursula reports back anxiously. If one laying hen is pecking and scratching too far from the rest of the flock, she will herd it back to the group. She once even successfully rounded up four excited piglets who had escaped their fencing and were headed for the open road.
Last week we heard a loud peeping rise above the melee of 49 other baby chicks, coming from the direction of the brooder in the barn. Minutes later, Ursula came out to the pasture to meet us, walking very slowly, very intensely, nose almost to the ground. And under that nose was a 6-day old baby chick. It had somehow slipped through the wire in the brooder, and since Ursula couldn’t get the chick back inside, she brought it out to us!
Prepping the garden
In addition to the excitement of spring animals, we’re trying to get our garden dug and planted, which is a challenge this year because it’s been very wet and very cold.
Before we dug, Josh spread lime to help raise the soil pH. Anytime you see moss growing on the ground, it means the soil is too acidic. We have moss almost everywhere! The pH can also be raised with wood ash, but lime is cheap, natural, and easy to apply. Especially if you’re Josh and you make a game out of it:
Finally, we’re expanding the garden this year so that we have room to plant winter storage crops: cabbage, potatoes, onions, carrots. But we don’t have a tractor (it’s on my Christmas list), and hand digging a garden bed out of compacted pasture is a real drag.
But we have pigs! We set them up in some electric netting in the new garden area, and in one week they reduced the area to a tilled (and fertilized!) garden bed.
Right now it feels like we’re running a marathon at 10K pace, but this manic spring activity won’t last. By late June, everything will settle down. The garden will be in, the meat chickens will be in the freezer. We’ll have time to go on occasional hikes, and maybe even start crabbing again in Bellingham Bay.
I can dream, right?