Week 19: Yeehaw, All The Chicken Catching, & Going Home

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[Editor’s Note: Apparently pre-scheduling posts glitched out. Sorry, and enjoy all the posts today! We should be caught up today though.]

No, not going home for real.

Anyway, Week 19 has come and gone and I’m really beginning to feel that summer is coming close to being over. Although I’m excited about the apprenticeship, I would very much like summer to keep going on indefinitely. We still have a lot to do, and I will seriously miss each person who will be leaving.

But enough of that. Stuff we did this week!

Monday: Yeehaw Down the Mountain

After the morning meeting, I was sent with a big team to yee-haw a group of pigs down the mountain.

“Yeehaw down the mountain” is a term that Polyface uses that describes bringing pigs down the mountain by herding them down, as opposed to putting them into the pig trailer and driving them down. We use the trailer when we only need to pick up a few pigs, but when we are herding a big group it’s more efficient to yee-haw them instead of making multiple trips with the trailer. I’ve been hoping to get on this task for quite awhile, but this was my first time actually getting to do it (although I’ve herded pigs a shorter distance before). In this case, we were bringing the pigs from one of the uppermost pig pastures all the way down to the corral. There, we would be sorting out a few pigs to send to the local abattoir for butchering, and the rest would be sent to a pen in the barn for a few days until the next shipment to the abattoir.

There were a large group of us assigned to this task, since pigs are notoriously stubborn and difficult. We all drove up in the back of a pickup truck, then spread out across the large mountain paddock to find the pigs.

Of course, they were way in the back, wallowing beneath shrubs and small trees that created a thick, thorn filled underbrush. We all started picking our way carefully through the branches, trying to get behind them to herd them out to the mountain road. This took quite some doing, since the pigs were relatively spread out and difficult to see amidst the brush. Plus, pigs are stubborn and don’t always want to move in the direction that you want them to. And they were pretty opposed to leaving the cool shade of their chosen thicket for the heat of the sunny mountain road.

But eventually we were pretty sure we had rounded them all up and started herding them down the mountain. A couple of people stayed behind to check on some water stuff and check the paddock – and neighboring paddocks – for any pigs that we missed in the main roundup. We could use the pig trailer to pick up any stragglers, later.

But I was yeehawing down the mountain. This process involves somebody walking in front of the pigs and calling them, and everyone else fanning out behind and around the pigs to keep them moving forward…and to keep them from leaving the path and rooting through the woods. Most animals will prefer to stay on the main path, which is why you can fairly easily herd things down roads. But pigs are naturally drawn to the shade and to wayward puddles (of which there were many, given all the rain we’ve had), and so there were numerous areas where we had to get around them and keep them out of the woods.

We also had the simple difficulty of getting them to move forward. These pigs are ready for slaughter, so they are FAT. Really, really fat. This means that they really do not appreciate walking all the way down the mountain. It took quite a bit of prodding and butt slapping to get them to keep moving, particularly when there was tempting mud in the middle of the road. One pig in particular was simply not having it, so Parker stayed behind with him to await the pig trailer. I nicknamed him Pigabetes (a play on “diabetes”) since he was so obese. Polyface prefers pigs with sleeker bodies who don’t get too fat to move around (they call the overly fat ones Schwarzenegger pigs), but there are always a few in every batch since we don’t farrow on-farm and so don’t totally control the genetics. The sleeker pigs do a better job of rooting around and creating a nice silvopasture, yeehaw more easily, and are less prone to health issues. But the industry tends to favor the pigs that are fatter, so there’s a lot of those genetics hanging around.

It took most of the morning to get the pigs all rounded up and sorted appropriately. After lunch, I was on a team assigned to getting the freezers organized. Freezer work is an ongoing task, since there is constantly product coming in and going out. It takes Eric a lot of effort to keep things organized, especially with all of the butchering that has been going on recently. In a way, freezer work is frustrating, since it doesn’t have anything to do with production and has no direct payout. On the other hand, it is satisfying to get things put back together and is the best thing in the entire world when you’re working on packing orders or loading up orders and don’t have to deal with overflowing crates and boxes spilling out into the aisles because someone took the time to do it. It takes a good chunk of time every couple of weeks, but saves a lot of time in day-to-day operations.

We did more in depth freezer work this time, including repackaging and inventorying boxes of chicken and moving things from one freezer to another. It took most of the afternoon, rolling us into some early chores.

I gathered eggs in the Raken and had the satisfaction of catching a couple of wayward chickens who still needed their wings clipped (it’s pretty hard to catch the Raken chickens during the day, so I was rather proud of myself). Egg production is way up right now as the young chickens in the Raken and Feathernet start to reach laying maturity, so afternoon chores are increasingly mostly egg washing…which isn’t a bad thing. Washing eggs is kinda fun, since everyone is together.

Tuesday: Corral Work & Breaking Records

Tuesday was a big day of working on the corral, which has to be one of my favorite projects I’ve been on this summer. I’m not sure why I like it so much, but I am thoroughly enjoying every bit of the project.

We took a pretty big team, along with the rest of the posts that we needed to pound and a bunch more boards. A couple of people stayed behind to lay waterline, and a couple more were doing miscellaneous items. We also all had a mental note in our minds that somebody would need to go catch 8 shelters of chickens at Cedar Green (a rental farm) around 4, in preparation for tomorrow’s butchering day.

I was on a crew that was nailing boards to the fence, as well as stripping posts of their bark as they were pounded. We made good progress, despite some hiccups with a malfunctioning drill and having to share equipment with each other.

We took lunch at the corral, and then Daniel took some people back to Polyface and left a crew to finish some nailing (myself, Parker, Isaiah, Charlie, and Steward Daniel). Our instructions were to come back to help with chores after we finished four more sections of fence or the chainsaw ran out of gas – whichever came first.

Of course, the chainsaw ran out of gas about 10 minutes after Daniel left, which was annoying. Luckily, Parker was able to call Tim, the subcontractor who manages Briermore (where the corral is located), and he brought us some gas … and an extra set of hands. Now we were flying through the fence sections, and ended up finishing six instead of the requested four, before Parker decided to call it quits. We figured we’d make it back in time to help with chores – mostly egg washing – and arrived at Polyface tired but happy.

But when we got there, we didn’t see anyone…and we did see a trailer full of chicken crates that was loaded and ready for catching…but clearly hadn’t been taken to Cedar Green yet.

We all kind of looked at each other and said “Welp…I guess we’re going to catch chickens.” Catching chickens is not a favorite job of anybody, I don’t think (well, Daniel Salatin seems to really like it for some reason, but it’s not my favorite job, anyway), and it’s physically demanding, but we all started talking it up to each other and ended up pretty excited about it.

We took a water break while Parker called Eric to see if we did, in fact, need to go catch chickens and if there was anything else we needed to do, and as it turned out, Eric was almost done with his waterline team. We switched out a couple of people to do chores, and I ended up enthusiastically volunteering to go catch, along with Steward Daniel, Isaiah, Eli, Jon, and Eric. We were meeting Daniel (Salatin) at Cedar Green – he likes to catch chickens and makes a point of helping with that as much as possible.

The whole team was tired from our day at the corral (or doing waterline), but we were also pretty charged up with the momentum of what we had been doing all day. We started pulling out chickens with a vengeance, working quickly and efficiently. I was mostly catching, and it seemed like whenever I needed an empty crate, one was waiting for me. Whenever I had a full crate, it got taken away. It was the smoothest chicken catching adventure I’ve ever been on, and before I knew it, we were loading up our last chicken crate.

Eric had timed it, apparently (unbeknownst to us) …and it only took us twenty minutes to catch all 8 shelters, counting from the moment we got out of the truck to the moment we got back in. This was downright impressive, and we were all pretty excited about it.

It was an awesome day, that ended in happy exhaustion.

Wednesday: Kill Day

Wednesday was our weekly butchering day, and it was a big one: we had 606 broilers to take care of. It was also the day I did something utterly boneheaded.

It was my turn to prep the kill floor for processing during morning chores, and I dutifully started with filling the scalder with water and lighting it. It’s important to get the scald water heating since it has to reach a certain temperature before we can start killing. If the scalder isn’t ready, you can’t kill.

After I lit the scalder, I went ahead and washed all the equipment, set out buckets, and did all the other kill floor activities. Then I went to breakfast.

What I didn’t do, was notice that the scalder valve wasn’t closed, and the water I had filled it with just drained out onto the concrete floor. This meant that when we came down to start killing…well, the scalder was empty. We had to add more water and wait for it to heat up.

I was super mad at myself – I wasn’t mad that I did something wrong, I was mad that I just completely overlooked something super obvious.

On the upside, I will never, ever make that same mistake again. The rest of the team also will probably never let me hear the end of it.

Luckily we had a full crew on this particular butcher day, so we were still able to get through all the butchering and packaging on time, and the rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I worked the end QC/chill tank station and helped bag whole birds and feet after lunch. A lot of the birds were pretty small, so there were very few cutups and we got done with everything relatively quickly.

Thursday: Building & Briers

Thursday is Shop Talk Day, which usually involves spending a couple of hours with Buzz and Jonathan going through introductory technical skills (like welding, greasing tractor parts, using the sawmill, and all sorts of other fun stuff). Today though, we were using the shop talk time to construct a broiler shelter from st art to finish, led by Daniel.

We were all super excited for this. We’ve repaired a whole bunch of shelters all summer, but haven’t seen one constructed from the beginning, and we knew that seeing the full construction would make all the pieces come together in our brains better.

And…it did. Daniel is an awesome teacher, and he shared numerous tricks to make construction quicker and more efficient, as well as explaining the whys behind all the small nuances of the shelter. At the end, we discussed possible innovations and changes that can and have worked for people, changes that haven’t worked at all, and other ideas that haven’t been tried yet.

There are lots of people who criticize the Polyface chicken tractor, calling it outdated and too labor intensive (because pulling a 300 pound wood and metal box 12 feet every morning is the definition of ‘labor intensive’). But when you delve into the reasoning behind each of the components, it actually makes a TON of sense.

I’ll highlight just a couple of the things we talked about. First off, the size of the shelter. You can absolutely make your shelters bigger or smaller, but the measurements Polyface uses are designed to waste as little lumber as possible. It allows you to buy a set amount of lumber cut it to size, and use almost all of it. Additionally, the aluminum pieces of roofing that lay on top of the shelter come in six foot wide strips…and conveniently, the shelter is 12 feet long.If you make the shelters smaller, you’ll end up wasting more lumber and roofing. That said, you totally can if that makes pulling them easier/more doable. Then again, smaller shelters also mean less chickens.

Another thing to point out is the importance of the brace wire that runs across the middle of the shelter. The wire is secured basically on the ground, and the chickens sometimes trip over it, which is super annoying when you’re moving the shelter. But Daniel showed us how wobbly the shelter was without the brace wire (he started to kneel on it and the shelter bowed outward and looked like it would collapse under any more weight). Then we put the brace wire in…and he stood in the center of the shelter and waved at us, with no noticeable bowing.

The aluminum roofing is also important. We discussed other, lighter weight options, and Daniel said they’ve tried a few different things…but the roofing holds up better to the wind. Plastic sheeting can get caught and blow off, and also creates hotter conditions inside the shelter in a greenhouse-like effect. The aluminum is reflective, so a lot of the sunlight bounces off, keeping conditions in the shaded shelter relatively cool. He described that some regions can use a billboard sheeting instead of aluminum if they make the roof peaked to allow vents for air flow, but that didn’t work quite as well here in the Shenandoah Valley because of the wind. He encouraged everyone to check out what pastured poultry produceers are doing in our individual regions, since weather can change the effectiveness of different designs and materials.

Other innovations are super doable, but add to the cost of the shelter. Polyface shelters are designed to be completely doable for the beginner who has no equipment and limited capital. An entire shelter, included the waterer, only costs $300 to construct, and can raise 480 chickens over the course of a 24 week growing season. That’s…hard to argue with. Of course, somebody with more capital can make improvements on the shelters if they want to, like hinged lids and automatic waterers. In fact, Tim – one of the contract farmers – has a really cool feed and water setup that a lot of us want to copy someday. He uses maple syrup tubing hooked to all of his shelters to avoid having to deal with water buckets, and has his chicken feeder suspended inside the shelter to avoid taking the feeder in and out – it just moves with the shelter.

The last big thing we discussed was the chicken tractor vs the increasingly popular schooner design. A schooner is pulled with a tractor or truck, saving the producer a lot of labor. However, they are a lot more expensive to build/buy, and require a machine that can, well, pull a schooner. Apparently Heather, a Polyface contract farmer, gave this a try one year, and they ran time and motion studies to see how it compared with the chicken tractor. She didn’t save any time with the schooner design, since it was harder to get the chickens to move, it required more plug boards to plug holes, and equipment stuff takes time.

That said, if somebody struggles to pull broiler shelters, the schooner could be the way to go – it just has a higher startup cost. But if somebody can pull the broiler shelters…well, that makes more sense.

We touched on a bunch of other stuff, including ways to encourage chickens to move (apparently one person hung old CDs behind the shelter, which swung and flashed light, making the chickens walk forward!), how much moving the shelters is worth monetarily, ways to potentially increase feeder space to eliminate afternoon feeding chores, small differences in shelter design that can work for ducks or other poultry, and a whole host of other ideas. It was an awesome discussion that was incredibly interesting and informative. A few of us were particularly invested, coming up with our own ideas and getting excited about the prospect of running our own chickens.

One final note on the difficulty of moving shelters – as a 25 year old woman, I would say that I have no problem moving a row of broilers in the morning. Now, there are some key things that play into that, including using a dolly that is correct height, making the pull wire on the shelter the correct height, and keeping the shelter in good repair. If you throw those things off, moving the shelters is harder and makes your back hurt. But if you have good form and things are the right size for you, it’s really not that hard. That might change when I’m, say, 50, but as a young person…no problem. Of course, it was hard at first. The first couple of broiler rotations were definitely difficult. But you get used to it. Now it’s actually kind of a nice morning workout, provided that I don’t get a dolly made for giant people.

That said, I probably wouldn’t be willing to move more than 13 shelters, and I would prefer to only move 10. A big guy could probably move more with a similar level of comfort.

Okay, moving on from chicken shelter stuff now.

Thursday afternoon saw me on a slightly unique project. Gabe had requested that somebody go to Gray Gables and clear fenceline before he brought the cows into a certain area of the farm. The briers had gotten bad enough to severely inhibit the fence and they needed to be cleared and the fence repaired before the cow moved in. There was also a long stretch of fence that could be taken down completely. Apparently, this stretch of fence was left over from the days when fox hunting was a thing, and alleys were made around the perimeters of farms for the hunters to ride around in. We don’t need an alley anymore, so we could take it down.

Eric assigned me and Brandon to help with this job, and it was quite something. Eric spent much of his time on the zero turn mower and wielding the Ninja star trimmer, knocking down blackberries and other thorn bushes that encrusted the fence. Brandon and I went ahead of him and pulled the fence out of the insulators, took down the fence that was supposed to come down, and tried really hard not to get completely scratched by the thorns and mobbed by giant spiders, of which there were a bajllion.

We managed to clear a pretty large stretch of fence, take down the fence that wasn’t needed, and replace/fix the fence that was needed. Our success came at the expense of a few scratches and bit-back bad words, but success felt good – and now the cows could move in and trample/graze a lot of the unwanted plants.

As a note – the briers on this farm apparently used to be way worse than they are now. The land is healing under our management and livestock rotation, but for now…fighting briers is a necessary evil.

Friday – Sunday: I Leave Virginia

On Friday morning I got up extra early…because I was going to the airport! Two of my best friends were getting married back in Michigan and since I was standing in the wedding, I got Friday off to fly back in time for the rehearsal dinner.

Steward Daniel drove me to the airport, and I boarded my 8am flight to Michigan.

I’m not going to go into detail about the weekend, except to say that it was really fun, the wedding went very well, and I enjoyed getting to see my friends. I also got very little sleep (only three hours Saturday night…).

But hey, it was worth it. I don’t get to see these friends very often, since our group is scattered across the country now.

It was kind of weird being back in Michigan but not being particularly close to home though…and it was even weirder when I got back to Virginia and had a moment of “ah, home” when I looked at the mountains. I really love living in the mountains. They’re incredibly beautiful and I don’t think a single day has gone by this summer that I haven’t had a moment of appreciation for them.

I guess it’s good that I’m imprinted ‘home’ on Polyface since I’m living here for another year. It still feels kind of weird though, since I’ve never associated mountains with home before.

(Don’t worry Mom, ‘home’ is also where family is, even if you have corn fields instead of mountains).

I had big plans of helping with afternoon chores on Sunday, since I got back around 1pm, but that aforementioned three hours of sleep turned into a three hour nap instead of chores. I actually woke up literally just in time to take a shower and go to movie night at Daniel’s for a John Wayne movie.

I remember watching John Wayne movies with my dad when I was a little kid – my mom used to have a boxed set on VHS of his most famous movies – so this was pretty great. We’ve been pushing for a John Wayne movie all summer – Daniel loves them – but this was the first one we’ve actually got around to watching.

And bonus: we got started on time for once, so I was in bed, asleep, by 10, and ready for the generously late 6:30 start time in the morning – shorter days make for longer sleep time, and it’s great.

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