Week 18: Hurricanes & Corral Building

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Week 18 has come and gone and we are into September. I’ve had a couple of mornings where I need a hoodie on the way to chores, although the days are still hot and humid.

I can’t believe how close we are to the end of summer. Honestly, I don’t want to think about it, although I need to start planning for the fall. Yikes.

But thing continue to be good here, and I’m constantly grateful for such an awesome team – Salatins, staff, and stewards alike.

Anyway, what I did this week…

Monday: Hurricanes Suck

On Monday we had the joy of waking up to the effects of Hurricane-Whatever-The-Heck-They-Named-This-One. In other words, a sad, dreary, all-day rain.

All day rains don’t seem to be common here in the Shenandoah Valley. Even though we have had a TON of rain this summer (way more than they normally get here), it’s mostly been in the form of tempestuous thunderstorms. I kinda of love this. We get rain, and it’s annoying, and sometimes we get soaking wet…but the end is always in sight. It’s not out of the question to wait out a 15-20 minute rain indoors, and if you do get soaked…well, you can always go change into dry clothes and be fine the rest of the day.

It’s great.

All day rains? Not great. Blegh. Ugh.

Of course, at a certain point, you just embrace the rain (or “embrace the suck” as my roommate Lauren says), and cheerfully go about your business. But it’s still not fun.

Anyhow, the morning began with broilers – my last official chore rotation moving broiler shelters. It’s weird to think that this is the last time for the biggest, most daunting chore of the summer (although no worries – I’ll still have plenty of chances to move pullet shelters, which is basically the same thing).

Moving broilers in the rain is never fun because the poor chickens don’t want to move – and I can’t really blame them. But we did it, and we did it pretty fast, which was cool. Moving shelters has gotten a lot easier than it was in the beginning of the summer, and a lot of us are now focusing on hitting benchmark (3 minutes per shelter). I didn’t time myself in the rain (since moving shelters is ALWAYS slower in the rain), but I fully intended to time myself later in the week, when it was drier. I thought I’d be pretty close.

Next was the usual Monday long breakfast/staff meeting, during which we spent some time discussing Joel’s blog and the new idea for a Stewardship Fair to be hosted next summerr (instead of the Mother Earth News Fair, which was cancelled). When it was time to split up for the day’s assignments, Brandon and I quickly volunteered to work with Lydia in the Raken – the Raken is still one of my favorite places to work, and it’s popular among several of the other stewards as well.

The job today wasn’t super glamorous or anything – we were scraping poop out of the cages. Now that the chickens wings have been mostly clipped, we wanted to get the chicken poop out of the rabbit areas, as well as repair some of the chicken wire that is supposed to prevent them from getting up there in the first place.

Of course, we also held baby bunnies because…I mean…it’s the Raken.

After a late lunch, I worked with Steward Daniel to repair some of the electric nets. As the summer winds down, there are less and less groups of poultry out in the field, and we needed to repair and store a couple sets of nets for the winter. This was my first exposure to repairing and storing these nets, and it was super educational. It was also kind of fun, in a weird way. Mostly we were using J clips to clamp new pieces of polywire into the net to patch holes, as well as straightening bent stakes and occasionally replacing a broken end-tie thingy that is attached to the end of each net (and normally used to tie different nets together). The rain FINALLY broke around 3:30 so we headed out to do evening broiler chores a little early, before it started up again. I was sure glad we did, because it was raining again as we finished repairing nets in the time leading up to dinner.

Downside? Tons of rain. Upside? A pretty fun day that was mostly under roof.

Tuesday: Corral Building

The rain was still coming down when we went out for broiler chores on Tuesday morning. This time we did not move the shelters quickly, because the chickens had been in a nearly 24-hour rain and absolutely didn’t want to move. I had to pause at least once per shelter move, tap on the back of the shelter, and try to poke and prod the chickens into walking forward. But my (slow) efforts worked – I didn’t accidentally kill any chickens by running them over, although I did have one dead one from pneumonia (a common ailment of the Cornish Cross broiler chicken that is stuck in a period of chilly rain).

Thankfully the rain had let up by the end of chores, although we had apparently gotten over 2 inches of rain and everything was a pit of mud. I was glad the rain had stopped though because that meant we could finally start on one of our big projects – building the corral at Briarmore (one of the rental farms)! Lydia packed lunch/snacks for everyone and a big cooler of water, and the vast majority of the team piled into a couple of work trucks in preparation for a big day.

The entire steward team had been to the site of the new corral for an educational exercise about planning a corral, but very little work had been done on it so far. A couple of poles had been set…and that was about it. It was still a fairly blank chunk of field.

But today, with a large team in tow, Daniel and Eric turned it into, well, sort of a corral. Or at least, the good beginning of one.

Eric led a team (Eli, Jon, & Brandon) in using the tractor powered post pounder, and together they managed to set all of the available posts. We still need about 24 brought down from the main farm, but the vast majority of the posts got set in the ground. Meanwhile, Daniel led a team with Lydia, Lauren, Isaiah, and myself on nailing up wooden boards between the posts. We finished about 5 or 6 sections, each of which are five boards high.

For the sake of explanation, let me give some background information on the Polyface methodology behind building the corral.

First off, Polyface harvests it’s own posts from the forests up the mountains the tree lines around the farm. We use almost exclusively black locust, which is a type of wood that won’t rot for 30ish years (better than pressure treated lumber!). The corral would be using a LOT of large posts, so would be using the tractor’s post pounder. When there are poles (which are too tall for the tractor) or only a few big posts we typically dig the holes by hand with post hole diggers, and when we have all smaller posts we use the he-man pounder (more on that later).

The corral is designed in way that the cows are always being pushed in a circular fashion. They start by entered a huge holding pen, where there is very little pressure on the cows. Then there are several smaller pens, all arranged in a way that there are always two gates in and out so that, as Daniel explained, “there is always somewhere for the cows to go.” One of these leads into the loading chute, which is much smaller and narrower, and has a place for the cattle trailer to back up to it. It’s a pretty cool design, and I’ll try to include pictures sometime in the future.

The outer pen, where there is little pressure, can be built as a woven wire fence. This type of fence is cheaper and easier to build.than a board fence. The inner pens, however, have to be built with boards, since they need to be very strong to stand up to cows that may freak out when they’re in a high pressure setting. Before we can start nailing up boards, the bark has to be removed from the locust posts where the boards are going to go, since the bark will rot off within a couple of years and weaken the fence if it is left intact. Normally we would use a hatchet but on this particular day we forgot to bring the hatchets so we were using the back of a hammer…

The bottom board starts 18 inches off the ground, to allow a trimmer to easily get under the fence, which is important to prevent weeds that contribute to rot. Then four more boards are placed every six inches. The boards are sturdy oak, about 6″ tall and 2″ wide, and they are nailed to locust posts that are placed every 8-12 feet (depending on their place in the corral – smaller gaps are in areas with more pressure). These fences are solid – no cows are jumping or breaking out of them!

Nailing up the boards is harder than it sounds, and has a fairly exact procedure. We would start by measuring up 18 inches from the ground, and holding the bottom board in place. Then, we would pre-drill the holes through the oak board, making the holes at an angle. The idea is to start the hole on the far edge of the post and drill at a 30 degree angle toward the center of the post. This gets the nail set solidly into the post, but allows somebody to come along with a chainsaw and trim right down the center so that two sets of boards can easily and neatly butt up against each other. Then we hammer 4-inch nails through the oak board (not hard with the pre-drilled holes) and into the locust post (very, very hard because there are no pre-drilled holes and also locust is one of the hardest woods ever). There are two nails per side. Next, we place two 6″x6″ blocks on each end of the board to act as spacers to place the second board. Rinse and repeat until all five boards are in place. Then we trim up the edges with the chainsaw (well, by “we” I mean “Daniel” since chainsaws are dangerous and we haven’t been thoroughly trained on them), and go onto the next set.

It was hard work but was pretty cool to watch the corral taking shape around us. We finally called it a day when we ran out of posts for the post pounding team, and got back to the farm in time for a short break, then afternoon chores.

Wednesday: Processing Day – with Cutups!

Wednesday was processing day – the only one of the week! But it was a big one – we had 600 chickens, about 275 of which were cutups. These chickens were massive and we needed to restock our chickens parts (breasts, thighs, etc), so we cut up anything that was 5 pounds and up.

I don’t like cut ups, mostly because I am not good at them (yet). But since the only way to get better at things is to do them, I volunteered for cut ups. In my defense, I thought a lot of people would be doing cut ups, since there were so many to do, and so it would be a good day to practice. Buuuttt, as it turned out, there was a bunch of random stuff that came up elsewhere, keeping our team quite small. In fact, it was just me, Lauren, and Steward Daniel for a looonngg time, Eli joined us (who is probably the fastest steward at cutups, second only to Isaiah).

And that took us all the way to 6:15, when we helped wash the last few eggs and made it to dinner around 6:30.

It had been quite a day for everyone. Daniel was tied up off farm way longer than he’d planned, Grace’s truck had broken down halfway through her buying club run, and we had barely managed to finish all the chickens. And yet, as I commented to Lydia, it was a really good day – helped along by the fact that somebody discovered an old, but functional, radio stashed away in the corner of the egg room and an AM radio station that plays all classic country. I don’t know how it took us to September to discover these things, but boy does music make packaging chicken more enjoyable!

Thursday: Chicks, Corrals, & I <3 Farming

Thursday was an awesome day. It was also exhausting.

First of all, it was great day on broilers. Things had finally dried out, and I was moving super fast. Brandon – who had the row opposite mine – was timing himself and managed to hit benchmark (2:48). I hadn’t been timing myself but I had moved in lockstep with him on shelter moving, fell only slightly behind on watering, and was about halfway through feeding when he stopped and started yelling in excitement about hitting benchmark. Considering that I was slowed by navigating a cow fence that was between my shelters and the water tank/feed barrels, I felt pretty good about that. I think the only thing really slowing me down is feeding ,and I made a mental note to ask Daniel to watch me and let me know how to improve feeding efficiency.

After breakfast we had our shop talk with Buzz and Jonathan. This week we learned about changing a tire on a truck (a bit different than on my car!), and patching a tire. It’s amazing how simple and effective a tire patch is; I made a note to buy one to keep in my vehicle, especially since I don’t have a spare tire anymore.

After shop talk, we divided ourselves up to handle the day’s tasks, with instructions from Daniel to meet down at the shop at 2pm to leave for more corral work at Briarmore. We thought we were in for a fairly easy morning – all we needed to do was take out chicks and bag parts and pieces from yesterdays cutups. We didn’t even need to prep the brooder, since this was our last batch of broiler chicks of the summer and the brooder would be sitting empty for awhile.

When you think it’s easy…….

Things started off okay. Gabi and Lauren went to do parts and pieces, while the rest of us started in on chick stuff. We needed to send about half the chicks to a rental farm, and take the other half up to the Ridge Field to put in the broiler shelters we had emptied out yesterday. Those shelters would need to be repaired, but we didn’t think the repairs would be very complicated, since the shelters had been in use and the waterers were already cleaned out in all but five of them. Brandon, Oleg, and Jon went up to finish prepping the shelters, while Eli started loading chick crates onto two separate trailers – one for the rental farm and one for Polyface. I started catching chicks with Sarah, Isaiah, and Charlie, and we quickly got the rental farm truck loaded up. Charlie and Isaiah then took off for the rental farm.

So far, so good, right?

Then came the hiccups: Eli discovered that we did not have enough chick crates to take the rest of the chicks out to Polyface. Not even close. I don’t know where all the chick crates are, because this hasn’t been a problem before, but we would definitely need to make multiple trips (which wastes a lot of time). Next, Brandon came down and said he needed two more people on shelter prep, since they had to move the shelters into position (which requires four people). Eli and Sarah went to help, while I finished catching chicks by myself. This was fine, but definitely took longer than it would have with more people.

Then I got to drive the tractor, with the chick crates, up a big hill, also by myself. It was the big Massey Ferguson tractor, which I haven’t actually driven before…but I figured it out, though I took things slow. Actually, I think I like driving this tractor better than the other ones. Shifting gears is easier, and I can reach the clutch better than I can on the blue tractors.

When I got up to Ridge Field, the other stewards were still hard at work prepping shelters, though Brandon and Sarah joined me for the ride back down to the brooder to catch more chicks. When we were almost done, Charlie and Isaiah returned from the rental farm. I was grateful for this, since that gave us enough chick crates to keep from needing a third trip!

They all went up to Ridge Field, but I decided to stay behind and finish cleaning up the brooder. I figured they shouldn’t be long, since dumping chicks is pretty quick once everything is prepped.

The operative words there are “once everything is prepped.” Eli told me later that the shelters needed way more repairs that we had originally thought, so they weren’t able to dump the chicks right away.

As a result, I finished all the cleanup – composting chicks that didn’t make it, cleaning out and putting away feeders, stacking empty chick crates – before they were back down from Ridge Field. Then I helped Lydia and Parker finish up their work in the freezer before heading to lunch…at 1:42. 18 minutes before we were supposed to meet back down at the shop…and the chick team still wasn’t back.

Not gonna lie, we were late – we took about twenty minutes for lunch, not fifteen, and got back down a little after 2. As we were leaving, we saw the chick crew pulling into the hunt camp for their “lunch”. Oh boy.

It was okay; Daniel is late a lot, so it was kind of like we were right on time. Along with Gabi and Lauren (who had a normal day with parts and pieces), Lydia & I loaded up the trucks, and Eric told us that he told the chick crew to take a half an hour for lunch and meet us as Briarmore. Besides that, he explained, he was going to leave some of them behind to handle chores.The only people who had to go to Briarmore were the ones who hadn’t gone on Tuesday (Sarah, Gabi, Oleg, and Charlie).

To my surprise, Eli showed up right behind us. He had apparently just taken five minutes for lunch and was ready to go. Charlie wasn’t far behind him, and we were actually able to get two trucks full of the people we needed out of there by about 2:30. Go team!

The work at Briarmore was great. Eric took Lydia and Eli to work on putting up woven wire, and Daniel got the crew who hadn’t been to the corral yet (Sarah, Gabi, Oleg, & Charlie) working on nailing up boards. Since I’d already done the boards, he sent me to do a variety of tasks. First, I measured the space between posts and laid out boards to nail, then assisted with his demonstration of how to nail of the boards. Next, I hatcheted bark off of a whole bunch of posts. At this point, the board crew was well on their way, so Daniel came out to help me and we dragged the massive he-man post pounder across the field. The he-man pounder is a Polyface-made, welded, giant, heavy metal pounder thingy. It is essentially a hollow metal tube that fits over the top of a post with handles on each side. Two people heave it up and over a post, which slides into the tube. Then, with one person on each handle, they lift and pound the post into the ground. It is a heck of a lot easier than digging post holes, although it is hot, sweaty work nonetheless.

Part of the corral job involves moving part of a permanent electric fence, so we needed to set four new posts and string single strand electric wire from the existing fence, across the new posts, and up to the corral. We placed and pounded in the posts, then Daniel sent me to get the electric fence tote.

I had no real idea what I was doing, so he showed me how to set up the electric fence and I got some good practice in. Setting up electric fence has a ton of little steps and is one of those things that is probably really easy with a lot of practice, but is hard when it’s newish because there are so many things you can miss. I mentioned this to Daniel and he laughed, assuring me that I’d get plenty of practice. Oh boy.

We got back in time for a slightly late dinner, and then had about an hour and half to chill before our evening project: catching pullets.

This will happen several times at this point in the year. As pullets “grow up” out in their broiler shelters, we are catching them (at night) and transferring them to the hoophouses. They will live in the hoophouses during the winter, where they will start to lay (I think?) and then get sent out to be next summer’s laying hens.

This is the chicken catching that involves crawling in the poopy broiler shelters, which I was ready to do, but before I could get under there, Lydia was doing it. Lydai, MVP, since I didn’t really want to crawl under the shelters. I was tired. Instead, I counted the chickens as she passed them to me and put them in their respective crates. It didn’t take long at all with everyone helping, and before I knew it, we were finishing unloaded the crates into the hoophouse and heading up to bed.

It was a super tiring day, and it was also an absolutely fantastic day.

Friday: Not A Good Day

On Friday, I was afflicted with the stomach bug that is going around the hunt camp. I spent the day alternating between the couch and the bathroom. It sucked. And that is probably all the details you need.

I’m actually not certain it was a stomach bug – it felt more like food poisoning. I didn’t feel sick, I just couldn’t eat or drink anything without it coming straight back out again. I actually was whining to my poor roommates about being bored, at least up until I got dehydrated from not being able to keep fluid in (yes Mom, I kept drinking water anyway, it just didn’t stay inside longer than fifteen minutes).

I had eaten grocery store lettuce which is usually the culprit of food poisoning, so maybe it was that? I dunno.

Saturday: Tour Day & Being Weak as Heck
On Saturday, after my 6am bathroom appointment that was a bit less bad than the previous day’s bathroom appointments, I vowed that if I could keep a cup of chicken broth in my stomach I was going down to the farm. I was scheduled to work the weekend and I already felt really bad about missing chores that morning. I’d just wash my hands thoroughly in case it was a virus and do light duty work. But I absolutely did not want to spend another day on the couch.

Hallelujah, the chicken broth stayed down, and I headed down to the farm with Lauren and Gabi. Eric assessed how I was doing (listening me saying I was good to go, but also being intelligent and knowing that I had missed chores only a couple hours ago) and set me and Lydia, along with his five year son Nathaniel, to shucking corn for winter preservation – a job in which I got to sit down on a cooler in the cool shade of the processing shed and in close proximity to bathroom. Eric is smart.

That said, Lauren got to go do stuff with cows all day and I was super jealous. Of all the times I had to be on light duty…

Anyway, when we done with the corn it was time to prep for the afternoon tour. Lydia and Gabi worked the hot dog stand but I, in my light-duty-but-also-not-touching-food status, got parking detail.

It was fine. It felt good to be out in the warm sunshine. But also, I realized that I was incredibly weak, probably because I hadn’t had solid food in over 24 hours, and the only liquid food I’d had was a couple of cups of chicken broth, only one of which had stayed down. Standing was hard. Bright side? I was hungry. Really, really hungry.

So hungry that I had a hot dog once the tour was gone and I was helping to clean up. Then I had another hot dog. I decided that since I was eating them with lacto-fermented sauerkraut and no bun, it had to at least be a net-neutral thing for my stomach (keep in mind that Polyface hot dogs are made from actual meat, not whatever weird byproducts are in regular hot dogs. The ingredients are literally beef, pork, water, and spices).

Hot dogs were probably not the smartest thing to break my fast on, but I didn’t get sick, so whatever. I then spent the afternoon blanching and vac-packing corn with Lydia and Gabi. For afternoon chores, I was exempted from broiler detail and instead went to gather eggs. We did need to feed the Eggmobile, and I swear, carrying buckets of feed felt like carrying buckets of water. I was frustrated, feeling weaker than a day old kitten, despite the hot dogs. I vowed to eat a good dinner, albeit not eat too much.

During egg washing, Daniel switched up morning chore assignments for Sunday, and told me that I could come to broilers if I felt “up to it.”

“Oh, I’ll be there,” I said stoutly. “I’m good to go now!”

And thankfully, it was true. This morning (Sunday), I went out to move shelters and it felt great. Recovery? Almost complete. I’m still betting on food poisoning.

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