How to Milk a Chicken for Fun and Profit

.farm book.

For those of you who are wondering how anyone could extract milk from a non-mammal, I join and salute you. We are the ones who were both present and awake the week in kindergarten in which our long-suffering teachers explained the differences between various farm animals. And that knowledge has stayed with us throughout our adult lives.

But not all of us were so lucky.

Granted, maybe I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed. I always did well in school (and quickly twigged to the defining characteristics and limitations of egg-laying creatures), but didn't even balk at the dubious opportunity to move to this little piece of nowhere, site unseen. When we saw the ad for this B.C. property in a glossy real estate publication in Calgary in the dead of winter; Kurtis lost no time in hopping in the truck and making what is normally an 8-hour drive in 14 hours, through a series of blizzards. The highway patrol was systematically closing the very stretches of road he'd just rolled through, and he sounded duly fluffed and tossed after that gruelling ride. Meanwhile, I stayed home to look after the dogs.

So at least half of our union got to see the place prior to making an offer, but not this half. After the listing agent took him on a tour of the house, outbuildings and property, Kurtis called me up to share the details. Sitting there in bone-dry, black-ice-laden, colder-than-Pluto Calgary, I was all ears. The lure of a greener, less-populated location with mild winters, clean well water, normal amounts of humidity and enough land to house animals and gardens, was a powerful one. He e-mailed photos, and although some of the interior house plumbing and construction had been left unfinished, it was nothing that we couldn't complete ourselves, right?

I have to make a detour at this point to underscore the fact that this was the plan of a pair of idiots. Only the most mentally challenged among us would gloss over the time, expense and physical toll of the construction we'd agreed to take on. Especially after both of us had renovated several houses in the recent past (both individually and jointly) and knew exactly what was involved. Anyone fortunate enough to host more than three undamaged neurons firing in proper formation would have vetoed this itinerary in a hurry.

We'll flesh out more of the renovation story in later posts. I just wanted to bring it up to let our readers know that there were plenty of red flags to alert us to what was in store, and we moronically decided to ignore them. Don't let this happen to you.

Next installment of Chicken Milk?: How Many Pregnant Chickens Does It Take to Start a Dairy?


How to Milk a Chicken for Fun and Profit, Part 2

(or, How many pregnant chickens does it take to start a dairy?)


Back to our mutant lactating chickens. Kurtis enjoys spending time on poultry and farm forums, both to pick up tips and learn, and to share whatever he can to help others out there who might be perplexed about their feathered charges (he's an experienced wildlife biologist). Given the dismal state of both the food supply and the economy, new forum members are increasing exponentially, and most of them are city types who want to provide for themselves and bypass what's out there on the store shelves, masquerading as food. We can relate to that.

But every now and then, he gets a shattering glimpse of just how badly our educational system has failed us. Even as I write this, I know that it's not just the system. We all have to meet our teachers and books halfway in order to get anything out of our time in the classroom. And be willing to question what's considered gospel when things don't make sense. But much of the time, just showing up with an alert and open mind that's willing to listen, and then build onto its existing base is enough to make a serious, dedicated teacher shiver with delight. Its rarity needs no elaboration here.

Unfortunately, some of these novices to the small farm scene aren't versed enough in the basics to really have any business keeping chickens of their own. That might sound harsh, but when you run across otherwise seemingly reasonable adults who frantically call the city health inspector to alert them of the "dirty, unsanitary eggs" that they'd come across at the farmers' market earlier that day; you really begin to question the amount of MSG and aspartame that these people are consuming. The health inspector rushed out to visit the offending, filth-encrusted, avian influenza petri dish of a poultry farm and ended up sharing a good laugh with the farmer when he learned that the panic-stricken customer in question had alerted city officials because the eggs were brown. This is a true story shared by a farmer on the forum.

I kid you not. This was no prank, either. And it wasn't a sheltered child who simply didn't know any better. The woman was hovering somewhere around her fifth decade and had never happened upon a brown egg in all of those misspent years. Naturally, since only bleached white things are safe to consume, the folding table stacked with cartons of suspiciously dark little ovals sent her panic button into overdrive.

Of course, incidents like this are just too good not to share, so the fairly small community in which this had taken place, soon was doubled over in laughter after getting word of this unfortunate little slice of ignorance and poor judgment. Things got so bad that the beleaguered woman ended up moving away soon thereafter.

As for the title of this post, another member of the forum shared her own experience with a clueless egg customer who must have had the measles that week in kindergarten:

The girl, a teenager, stepped into the coop and was horrified to find it lined in straw that was wet and muddy in places (hello, it was raining outside and the chickens were free-ranging). Mortified, she shrieked, "How can you let that poor chicken nurse her young on that dirty floor?!"

This was followed by the revelation that another budding young Einstein had remarked excitedly, when she learned that some friends were planning to keep backyard chickens, that "now they'd be able to make chicken cheese!"

Stay in school, kids.


The Milk of Human Stupidity
Part 1


Raven is our 3-year-old black Dexter cow. We'll get back to her shortly. Kurtis and I had been ordering raw milk from Organic Pastures dairy in California, having it shipped frozen to our Washington address right at the border and hauling it across said border once a week, much to the amusement of the crew at Canada Customs.

For those of you conscientious, citizen's-arrest types about to alert the feds, put the phone down. It's perfectly legal to bring the highly controversial white substance over the border for our own personal consumption, as long as we stay within the daily $20-per-person dairy limit. And we did.

The stuff is liquid gold - healthy, delicious and yes, subversive. What's not to like?

Just the 2-day UPS shipping charges, which usually amounted to more than the cost of the product itself.

Sometime last January, we began tossing around the idea of our own dairy cow. Fresh milk right here at home, with plenty leftover to make cheese, butter and yogurt, and without needing a passport to go pick it up. And even with the cost of winter shelter, hay and other such considerations, she'd pay for herself in no time at all. We have more than enough land to support a heritage breed that thrives on pasture and forage, so we set about locating a suitable beast. She would have to be hardwired for our climate, not require any grain whatsoever, and be tame and gentle enough to milk. We researched different breeds and came up with a few possibilities.

Of course, Kurtis and I being, well, us, decided upon the one breed that spawned the 800-pound, shiny onyx bovine Antichrist we now have in our custody: Dexter. To those of you cattle experts out there who might be wondering what could be so demonic about the typically sweet, docile, user-friendly Irish breed, I say, read on


The Milk of Human Stupidity
Part 2: Upping the "Anti "


Granted, much of the ongoing challenge is rooted in nurture, not nature. We'd paid for both cow and calf, and only the first half of the duo was delivered (long, painful story that we may or may not get to later). Needless to say, after a rocky, 12-hour truck ride, separation from her not-yet-weaned calf and the new, unfamiliar surroundings, she was not impressed. The ominous, ear-splitting bellow that accompanied her transfer from truck to field would resonate in our hollow little brainpans for the next 3 months. Why, you may ask?

Because this bovine Houdini somehow broke through our painstakingly well-fenced Fort Knox within hours of her arrival (leaving not a trace of damage) and proceeded to tour the region on hoof, eluding our exhausting daily retrieval attempts for the next 11 weeks. Within hours of her escape, we'd received a phone call from a neighbour, telling us that a black cow was seen floating in the river. I can't even put into words the sense of grief, dread and guilt that tore through us at that moment. Kurtis rushed to the fire department to get the details, and much to our relief, it wasn't her.

Soon the entire town knew about her escape and everyone would ask for updates or call with cow sightings that turned out to be other people's cows (all subsequently safely reunited with their humans). It was the most community involvement we'd seen or taken part in since having moved here. It would actually have been fun if the whole ordeal hadn't been tarnished by blistering heat and runaway bovine.

A friend's generous loan of his quad enabled Kurtis to cover more ground in his daily searches, but that's when he found most of the other people's cows. Still, the gift was most appreciated.

Raven's self-styled summer vacation was not without carnage, of course. She'd damaged a neighbour's fence and took up temporary residence in other neighbours' yards as she made her way to the river for some sun and water sports. How she crossed the highway is anyone's guess. She was once again spotted by the river, but this time it was a spa day of dipping her hooves into the water and lounging in the sun. Which reminded us that WE hadn't had a vacation in, like, forever.

One day in September, when making our weekly milk haul across the border, one of the customs officers alerted us that a cattle rancher on the Washington side had reported a rogue cow he'd found mingling with his herd. Was it ours, by any chance? A call to the RCMP to confirm her reported tag number, revealed that indeed it was.


The Milk of Human Stupidity
Part 3: The Anti-climax


The excitement and relief were short-lived, however. Now we knew where she was, but lacked the means to transport her home due to mechanical issues. Surely an animal trailer should be easy to find/rent/borrow in these parts, right? Well, no. You should have gathered by now that things just aren't that straightforward in our world. The next 3 weeks were spent on the phone, in the classifieds, and scouting the region for a trailer. Everything was either unregistered, non-functional or non-existent. As the weeks went by, we were sinking into increasingly unbearable depths of guilt over leaving her there, where the rancher was kindly feeding and caring for her in our absence. But we couldn't exactly rent a U-haul for this mission. No way would it hold her, even if it were legal. And then there was the matter of an international border separating us.

A fine young man by the name of Ben Peach (our hero) came to our rescue in a very knight-on-white-horse kind of way in the 11th hour... getting back into town just when we were considering selling her off to the rancher for beef. The rescue was made, profuse apologies and reimbursement were offered to the kind rancher with the patience of a saint, and the 800-pound escapee was safely returned to her painstakingly well-fenced field. Now that her milk had long since dried up and she was about 3 months into her next pregnancy, there were no further escape attempts. Of course, she was still as anti-social as ever, and, come to think of it, still is.

Yes, you read right. She dried right up after hoofing it out of here, since no calf or human was taking her milk anymore at that point. So we ended up paying more for the California milk during her absence than she'd cost us in the first place. Not quite what we'd had in mind when first tossing around the idea of a family cow on that cold January day.

We've since added another dairy cow to the herd, a genial Jersey named Suzy who actually consents to being milked. Raven tries her best to distract and agitate Suzy while Kurtis milks her, and sometimes she succeeds.

Needless to say, we're revisiting the freezer solution.


Meet Dog #4. But wash your hands and wipe your feet first.

Part 1:


We're stepping out of chronological order here as far as canine adoptions, but it's well warranted in this case.

Rascal joined our clan of beasts last April; a ravaged, bone-rack of a mutt rescued by the SPCA from an abusive owner. He wasn't exactly a likely candidate for adoption, given his proneness to hissing and baring his fangs in the presence of visitors and prospective new parents while tucked away in his kennel. But at least he was out of the grip of the jerk who'd mistreated him.

Enter Kurtis. While doing the part-time-volunteer thing at the SPCA, he managed to build a mutual trust with Rascal, and quickly became the only human that the pup didn't want to rip apart. As the weeks marched on, it became clear that this dog was not going to warm up to anyone else; so instead of subjecting him to being bounced from facility to facility in the region, Kurtis agreed to foster him.

If there had been any doubt up to this point as far as our bleeding-heart-idiot status, certainly by now all such doubts should be put to rest.

To briefly fill in our readers on dogs number 1 through 3, Kristy the yellow Lab and Scarlet the Shepherd mix were the two that I'd adopted from Much Love Animal Rescue in L.A. shortly before I crossed the border. They had "separation anxiety" issues, the worst of which, thankfully, had played themselves out before the move. Iron is the police dog Shepherd that was part of the package deal I'd unwittingly inherited when marrying Kurtis (just kidding, honey). Their stories can (and likely will) fill many posts; but for the moment, suffice it to say that these three have a tight pack and don't suffer newcomers gladly.

How to reconcile a pack of spoiled, territorial house dogs with a precocious canine genius who loves the great outdoors? Easy enough. Build him a house and outdoor compound and let him play watchdog and vent his all his pent-up doggie aggressions at unsuspecting passersby and occupational-hazard-laden meter readers.

After a shared and closely supervised day together in the backyard, where dogs 1 through 4 sniffed, played, marked territory and occasionally ended up getting sprayed by the business end of a garden hose when unseemly humping crept into the equation; they were officially used to each other and had reached at least a level of mutual tolerance.

The food bowls were another story. Neither Kristy nor Rascal were willing to share the contents of said bowls, so mealtime was a segregated affair. It was nothing personal -- Kristy hates sharing anything with anyone.

Next installment: Meet Dog #4, Part 2: What's with all the sanitary behaviour advised in the heading, and why is Rascal a genius?


What's with all the sanitary behaviour advised in the heading, and why is Rascal a genius?

Meet Dog #4, Part 2:


It didn't take long for Rascal to make himself at home. He'd jump up and do a happy dance when Kurtis brought him a dish of food; dutifully barked at the neighbours when they walked their dogs down the road past our house; and slept contentedly on his little bed in the house that Kurtis had built him.

All warm and cozy so far, but it didn't take long before we realized that Rascal was no ordinary dog.

His penchant for no-nonsense housekeeping quickly revealed itself in the form of carefully placed food and water dishes inside his doghouse. Any stray bits of kibble were promptly nosed into a corner and tidied up. He frequently moved his water dish around for reasons we didn't entirely understand at first. Then we started paying closer attention and noticed that he was digging himself a sleeping pit right in front of his doghouse. By now it was summer and the ground was quite hot, so he went to work.

This industrious little mutt dug a snug pit for himself in the dirt and then grabbed his water dish in his mouth and neatly spilled some water into it. After pouring the water into the pit, he placed the dish back on the ground and hopped into the pit, scratching the dirt to distribute the water. It occurred to us that the water spillage was for evaporative cooling. Stunned, we just shook our heads in disbelief. Could this dog really be building an air-conditioned bedroom?

Not only that, but he used his food dish as a shovel to scoop out loose dirt from the deepening pit, and would deposit the dirt onto a growing pile next to his doghouse. We watched in amazement as he then trotted off to flatten out the pyramidal dirt pile that had accumulated, levelling it out with the ground.

And that was just the beginning. Shortly thereafter, he began scavenging in the huge pile of renovation debris that had assumed a life of its own about 30 feet from his doghouse. His tether line allowed him full access to the pile of discarded treasures, some of which he proceeded to claim as his own.

One day, we were playing with Rascal near his house and discovered a pillow on his dog bed. We exchanged perplexed looks and a simultaneous "Where did he get that?" and both swore that we hadn't brought him a pillow from the house. A determined search of the pile of debris provided the answer: An overturned old sofa cushion had been ripped, its contents removed. The source of the pillow cushion! But how the heck did he know that the flipped piece of furniture housed a retrievable cushion? And how did he tear it so neatly along the seam?

These unanswered questions will rattle eternally in the cavernous precincts of our clearly inferior brain boxes. We did note that while his food dish was relegated to shovel detail, the kibble that had occupied it was neatly snouted into a corner of his doghouse for later retrieval.

Next installment: Meet Dog #4, Part 3: Housekeeper, contractor and now a builder of fine furniture.


Housekeeper, contractor and now a builder of fine furniture.

Meet Dog #4 Part 3:


Yes, we know what this looks like. And no, Rascal isn't a pervert (and neither are we). This is a family-friendly site, so we're simply going to be mature adults here and proceed with the post.

It became a running joke between us that Rascal was the most productive contractor in the region. But it wasn't even a joke. For all of the acreages that have been snapped up around here in the last couple of years by peace-seeking city types just like us, there have been too few construction crews to actually build homes on them. If an enterprising Canadian contractor is reading this, please pack up your things, gather your crew and move here without delay. In 2 years' time, you and your entire crew will have earned enough to retire and send all of your collective children to university. And keep yourselves in nice cars and plenty of creature comforts (it goes without saying that such vehicles and comforts will have to be sourced elsewhere). But I digress.

As autumn slipped poetically into winter, the nights grew cold and Rascal's in-floor-heating project was still not crossed off of our to-do list. There were far too many other immediate concerns involving the cows and chickens. Looking back, we should have just bought the supplies and allowed him to self-contract. So we decided that since the guest cabin was unoccupied and had to be wood-heated anyway in order to keep the pipes from freezing, we'd let him call it home for the winter. He seemed to know what was going on as Kurtis gathered his things, and he scooped up his food dish to move things along. The boy and his dog made their trek across the lawn from doghouse to guest cabin, and after some careful arranging of his possessions, he circled his bed 3 times and christened it home.

It turned out to be a good plan. Rascal kept a neat house and even after the occasional tantrum ("What? You're not going to stay for an hour or two to pet and scratch me and marvel at my brilliance?") involving a spitefully upturned food dish; whatever stellium of planets he has in Virgo just couldn't take the mess and he quickly snouted the stray bits of kibble into a neat pile. If we thought they wouldn't maim each other, we'd ask him to come into the main house and demonstrate housekeeping techniques to his trio of slob siblings.

By November, winter had firmly established itself and Kurtis engaged in his several-times-daily routine of stoking the wood stoves in all the outbuildings. Rascal enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) the social aspect of such task-oriented visits, and the two of them shared further boy-and-his-dog quality time in the toasty cabin. During his solo hours indoors, when he wasn't running around in the snow, getting his line tangled in something or other or barking good-naturedly at the goats, he took up woodworking.

An ever-renewing pile of split wood adjoins the wood stove in the cabin, and Rascal soon adopted one of the logs as his own. Kurtis noticed that the pup had dragged a log over to his bed, but didn't think much of it at the time. Subsequent visits revealed that he'd begun to strip the bark off of the log. So far, nothing unusual for a dog to do.

A few days after Rascal had begun to strip the log, Kurtis went in to tend the wood stove and was rendered speechless by what he saw (see photo above). He raced back to the main house to announce that Rascal had constructed a totem pole, and proceeded to describe it. It was too icy for me to venture out there myself, so a more sure-footed Kurtis grabbed the digital camera and took both this photo and the one accompanying Part 1 of this story.

It indeed resembled a primitive tribal object of worship, but I also saw something else. Clearly, with his 2 favourite toys resting on top, along with its proximity to his bed, it had to be a night stand! It wasn't enough that he had built a climate-controlled bedroom outdoors. Now he had to furnish his indoor abode.

More head-shaking ensued as we considered the labour involved in this latest venture. How on earth did he manage to flip the log upright and get it to stand without the benefit of opposable thumbs? And what led him to consider the flat surface as a tabletop suitable for his toys? All the understandable questions rose in earnest from our confounded little brains, but none were met by answers that made any sense.

I'm glad that his little foray into furniture-building was immortalized in pictures, because by the following day, he'd dismantled it back into the half-stripped log and 2 dog toys that had started it all.


Rascal Needs a tool kit

Meet Dog #4 Part 4:


Kurtis just walked into the house shaking his head and looking perplexed, after going to put Rascal indoors in the guest cabin for the night. "I think I should be worried about that boy," he began.


"Because he's gathered up two logs, twenty-five feet of rope and a chain saw."

"A chain saw?"

"Well, I wasn't sure at first, but then I noticed something yellow in the grass next to the cabin and found the rope and logs along with it."

"What do you think he's going to build?"

"I don't know. But I'm worried about it."

I'm worried too. Stay tuned for further updates.

How to Become Grandparents Without Really Trying


We're proud and happy to announce today's arrival of two healthy, slightly wobbly baby goats! Sheila, one of our Toggenburgs, suddenly went into labour late this afternoon, and less than 2 hours later popped out kid #1. Kid #2 followed about 20 minutes after that. Pretty exciting stuff, and the first four-legged birth event to take place here at Wild Thing.

Mama and babies are doing fine. The kids, both females, were up and attempting to stand after only 10 minutes, and within their first hour were both wobbling around well enough to stand and nurse. Kurtis had closed the gate to the barn to keep the others out while this was taking place, and Ellie Cow wasn't too happy about it, since it was her normal milking time and she was ready to roll. She stood at the gate and mooed impatiently for a long time, and then when things had finally settled down and Kurtis was ready to let her in and milk her, she stomped off to her milking station in a huff and only consented to letting down about 1/2 of her normal output. And you thought your children were stubborn.

We're naming our new arrivals Carolina and Amanda, after our nieces in Arizona.

More pictures will follow, once daylight resumes.


How to Become Grandparents Without Really Trying

Part 2


New baby born April 13, 2008 18:00 hrs

.goat dad.

The proud papa.

Update, April 13th:

Eight days after Sheila had her twins, Margarita joined in and gave birth to a healthy female just after 6 p.m. tonight!

Sheila and her girls are all doing well, and Margarita's baby was up and nursing in no time.

Of course, everything was happening during Ellie's milking time once again, so her routine was disturbed a second time. Cows hate this.

Perhaps Kacey (our 3rd pregnant female Toggenburg) will give birth in the morning so Ellie can stick with her normal schedule. She might be a mother by morning by the looks of it.

What's kind of frightening is that Raven's udder is dropping and it looks like she's going to be a mother before the week is through. She's been unusually subdued and even affectionate with Suzy and Ellie, and actually lets us get fairly close to her. We're alarmed, very alarmed. If you are not up to date on the Raven saga, please check "The milk of human stupidity" blog entry.

Please stay tuned for further maternity ward updates!


Luxury Bovine Resort Apartment for Rent

Cow on Beach

Last week, Yvette, one of our dairy cows, decided she'd had it with communal living, cafeteria-style meals shared with the pushy herd, and the damp, snowy, slushy outdoors.

She busted into the locked barn, turned a sharp corner no cow should be able to maneuver, smashed through the trap door to the basement and fell down a steep, 8-foot flight of stairs not built to support her bordering-four-digit weight.

Kurtis noticed a cow missing when tossing hay out for the herd and promptly searched the field for her. Nothing. Then the wide-open barn door led him to find Yvette slumped over at the bottom of the stairs in the basement. Assuming the worst, he rushed down to check her out.

Miraculously, she was OK. No broken bones and not a scratch on her. She got up, let Kurtis check her from snout to tail and only had a bit of swelling on her knee to show for her dramatic assertion of bovine independence.

Relief quickly gave way to more panic, however. How to retrieve 900 pounds of cow from a doorless basement and with a staircase she couldn't climb? While pondering this and other age-old questions, Kurtis brought some hay and water down there for her until we could figure out what to do.

The next day was spent making phone calls to local cattle ranchers and dairy farmers, along with other friends who usually offered sound advice. I suggested contacting the fire rescue, as they might have suitable equipment. Of course, this would have led to front-page news around here, with the accompanying embarrassment. But we'd already solicited most of the town's help with Raven's ridiculous and regrettable Great Escape, so what's the harm? Turns out they didn't have the right equipment to fetch her, anyway.

While calls were being made and well-meaning advice poured in, Yvette made herself at home in her spacious new apartment. She LIKED it down there. Not only was it dry, toasty and decked out with full-spectrum bulbs for some welcome simulated sunlight; there was no one to compete with for hay. All her dreams had come true. She was suddenly the height of bovine royalty with a private suite, 24-hour room service and an attentive butler and maid at her disposal.

As my wise friend Michelle pointed out upon learning of Yvette's plight, "Ah Yvette, another smart woman trapped in a body with four legs, never to be regarded for her full intellectual potential."

Visions of farm product endorsements, founding of the Bovine Amnesty Federation, movie and book deals, a reality show, a line of designer ear tags, and udder balm with her face on the jar danced through my head. Even a cow "cheesecake" calendar with all the girls striking coy poses. Surely the media would devour this just as she was devouring her gourmet meal deliveries.

But even my Capricornian capitalism has a limit. No, we wouldn't exploit the poor girl. After all, no matter how much she was relishing her down time and catered meals, we had to get her out of there. What if the rest of the herd discovered what was going on and decided to follow suit? And manure management was soon to be an issue.

Determined to avoid the expense and carnage of a back hoe, destruction of a large section of game fencing, busting through several feet of concrete and effectively trashing the barn (all of which would have taken place while it was snowing); we opted instead to build an industrial-strength ramp that would support her weight and be a shallow enough incline for her to easily ascend. It took two days, moving a wall and a wood stove, and utilizing a pile of lumber earmarked for other projects around here; but Kurtis and Norm, our kind friend and neighbour who didn't laugh at us once over any of this insanity (not to our faces, anyway), built the perfect ramp. Shortly thereafter, enticed by a pile of hay positioned alluringly at the very top; Yvette stepped cautiously back up to civilization.

The camera is never charged up and on hand when moments like these arise, but just picture a chorus line of 5 cows and 9 goats all mooing and baahing at the interior fence as Yvette made her exit from the barn and toward the field. They crowded around and fussed over her for a couple of days afterward, no doubt learning of her adventures, fancy meals and dedicated hoof-servants in the magical cow utopia that hid beneath the barn.