My passion for farm life was instilled in me as a child, visiting my Aunt Judy and Uncle Bob on their farm in Southern Illinois. When my husband and I got married back in 1989, we bought a few acres in Posey County so we could live in the country. My personal journey into farming began a few years ago when I left my high stress job to teach full time at a local university. I loved having summers off to garden and put up the fruits of our labor. After a few years of growing and preserving most of our family’s vegetables, I thought it would be nice to have our own fresh eggs. It took some convincing to get my husband on board with the idea, but eventually he came around.
The summer that I went to Harlaxton, our university’s British campus, my husband decided to surprise me with a chicken house that he built out of recycled materials. He began work on it almost as soon as I had boarded the plane to leave the country.
As he worked to put up the frame of the structure, he was getting used to the new nail gun that he had received for Christmas the previous year. As he concentrated on getting the angle of the rafters right, he inadvertently nailed his finger to an upright board. I’m not sure of the sequence of events that followed, but I do know that the blood stains on the inside of the chicken house are a constant reminder to “mind the nail gun”!
Once I was back home (and his finger had healed), we found some hens on Craigslist for sale. The owner of the hens wasn’t sure how old the girls were, but assured me that they were good layers. We came home with six hens and a rooster. They didn’t lay regularly or often, but we did manage to get a few eggs from them. We eventually set one of the hens and raised our own pullets – something that we have done each year since. The old girls eventually ended up in the stewpot, and I must admit were very tasty! We found that we could keep the girls straight (the new pullets from the older hens) with a zip tie ankle bracelet of a different color, depending on the year that they were hatched. This has worked well for us, as some of the girls look very much alike by the end of the summer!
Last year we raised replacement pullets, as has been our practice. We had an abundance of roosters last summer, which we were planning to butcher later in the fall. We kept them in a smaller brooder pen, and occasionally one would get out when the pen was opened to feed them. The escapees were not usually a problem to catch, because the brooder was inside the larger chicken yard and since we fed the roosters last, the gate was shut for the evening and they couldn’t go very far.
Last fall our freezer was already almost at capacity, so instead of butchering the “old” hens, I decided to put them up for sale. My husband didn’t think that they would bring much, but I advertised them at what I thought was a fair price, and that very evening had a call from a man who was interested in buying them. He explained that he had chickens in the past and had allowed them to wander on his property, but the coyotes had eventually picked them off. He wanted to try to have chickens again and told me that he would stop by our place the next morning when he got off work on the midnight shift.
I had locked the girls up in the hen house that evening, so that we could catch the chickens in the morning without much fuss. They guy showed up bright and early the next morning and was very pleased with what I had to offer. After some negotiating, he left with all the girls with blue zip tie ankle bracelets. All 14 hens were nicely packed into boxes with holes so that they could breathe on the 6 mile ride to their new home.
I was quite pleased with myself, for I had made enough money to buy chicken feed for the winter. We cleaned out the chicken house and the new pullets were quite happy with the extra space that they had.
One night, about three weeks after the old girls had left, I went out to help with the evening chores. While my husband was milking (we had expanded our farm to include Alpine milk goats), I went to the chicken pen to make sure that the girls were all in for the night, and to feed and water the roosters. It was then that I noticed that there was a bird on the outside of the chicken pen. I couldn’t imagine how one of the roosters had managed to get on the outside of the fence, but I caught it and put it back inside the brooder. I told my husband that the roosters must know that they would soon be in the freezer, and how the one had made his way outside the chicken fence. The next evening when I got home from work, my husband asked me to show him which of the roosters was the one outside the pen the night before. I was looking at all of them, and finally found the one I thought it was. My husband asked me to look at the rooster very closely and tell him if I thought that there was anything unusual about him. It was only then that I saw that this chicken had a blue zip tie on his leg. “He” was one of the old hens that had been sold!
The totally amazing thing was that this hen had traveled 6 miles, across a county highway and a large drainage ditch to come back home. She had somehow managed to avoid cars, coyotes, fox, opossums, dogs and skunks to make it back home without being eaten. We named this hen “Lucy” and decided that she had earned a permanent home – I only wish she could talk, as I’m sure she would have an amazing tale to tell!