Saturday, February 1, 2014

Life and Death

Born again farm cat, watching over her veggies
A few months back, my fellow chicken grower/abattoir worker and general farming mentor Mandy said to me "Farming's really all about loss". This seemed like a dire assessment at the time, but I figured she'd know - she and her lovely family run Symphony Farm, which is an amazing, integrated, certified organic property in Tilba. She's been farming her whole life, as has her husband and all their (now grown up) kids.

The last week, we've learned first hand a little bit about what she meant. It's not so much that farming is all about loss - see our last blog post, for an example of the joys - more that your farming life is kind of defined and ruled by loss and the avoidance of it.

A week and a half ago, our then-week-old chicks started dying. They basically haven't stopped. After talking to experienced chicken farmers and hearing the findings of my mum's thorough research, we thought we'd narrowed down the cause of the fatalities to the new rawbale brooder house. Turns out there is a condition affecting young chicks that can be caused by spores that grow in strawbales. We decided this was our problem, so dismantled the brooder house (a humbling experience) and hurriedly built a new brooder out of corrugated iron. The deaths slowed, but still haven't stopped, despite the 2-6 day incubation period having passed.

We've also had days and days of hot weather, which gives us the challenge of keeping the chicks within a safe temperature range - lots of wet towels and water dishes around the place is pretty much the best we can do.

We know some other people who got chicks from the same batch from the hatchery, and they are also having problems. It's not so much that there is a single lot of symptoms affecting all the sick chicks, more just that the chicks seem to be very weak, not resilient, and lacking an appetite. It's upsetting, to be sure, and frustrating because we have no idea how to help the situation and make it stop. All we can do is take extra care (we've set up a little hospital inside our house for the ailing chicks, and have had some success with recoveries) and make sure the chicks are comfortable and eating well - kale, kelp meal, brewers yeast, and apple cider vinegar are all on the menu in addition to their normal rations.

In this midst of all this, we had another, more devastating decline in one of our animals. My beloved cat, Bunn, who has been my cat companion for my whole adult life, went from sleeping a lot (kind of OK given she's an old lady), to not being able to walk, to barely breathing in the space of about 24 hours. After sitting up with her all night, patting her and crying, I made the agonising decision to have her euthanased. We are all very sad. She's been such a constant in our lives, from inner-city alley cat, moving through all my many and varied share houses in the Inner West of Sydney, to born-again farm cat traipsing through the paddocks and enjoying the strawbale windowsills at Autumn Farm. I'm glad that this is her final resting place. She will be missed.
Bunn's last photo - helping the kids with their camp fire, where they were busy cooking a "buffalo leg"
Red oak lettuces were a particular favourite resting spot
And cookbooks in the sun
The night we buried Bunn, our dog Sock - Mr A1 Fox Chaser here at Autumn Farm - was helping me with the chicken rounds when he ran out onto the road and was hit by a car. He broke his tail, and also his pelvis in 3 places. Euthanasia was also on the cards for him, until the vet reconsidered his age. She said she's seen good recoveries from breaks much worse than his, given 12 weeks of cage rest. So more nursing our very sore and sorry pup, who is to be confined in his cage for the next few months dining on vegetable and chicken broth, and chicken hearts and livers.
Sad Mr Sock in his convalescent cage
It's been a sobering, humbling experience for us. We are still so grateful for everything we have, and we know how minor our losses are in the scheme of what some people experience in their lives and on their farms. 

And we do have some beautiful things to be grateful for in spite of the sadness. 8 baby ducklings, abandoned by their mother the day they hatched are now living with us (in our tiny house during the night, and in our veggie garden during the day) after being brought back from near-death with the help of a hot water bottle. 
The ducklings by day - today they've been feasting on lettuce and basil
The ducklings by night, with their cozy hot water bottle 'mummy'
They're cute little things, and a timely reminder that the vagaries of life on a farm aren't all bad, and that life and death are just all part of the grand scheme.


  1. Oh dear old Bunn. It is always so sad when a much loved pet dies. Bunn sure looked happy as a farm cat though, with such a beautiful garden to sit in and enjoy the sunshine. x

  2. Oh - too much loss in such a short time. Sorry.

    It's part of the reason I've been taking my time adding animals to our little farm. The more life you have under your care - the greater the potential to experience loss. I'm guessing the gains from so many creatures outweigh the loss. Hoping your chicks and Sock recover quickly. x

  3. Oh, so sad:( Loss of animals is so hard. I hope you sort out your chicken issues. How annoying as well as sad. x

  4. My thoughts are with you. If it's any help the astro has been 'awkward' over the last week. So, being in tune with nature, it surprises me not that these cycles are present at your beautiful Autumn Farm. Doors will open and close and sometimes all we can do is be present and be in love.

  5. Oh gosh, what a run of loss, so sorry about Bunn. I hope the chickens are coming good - all the hot weather is testing the resilience of everything I think. And 12 weeks of cage rest....wishing you good luck with keeping him quiet!

  6. Thanks everyone for your comments. It has indeed been a big couple of weeks, but we're trying to take it in stride, staying in tune with - and therefore at the mercy of - nature. X

  7. So sorry to read about your pusska, and your little chooklets. This is all sounding a bit hard on the heart.

  8. Hi Genevieve, how did you get on with this batch? Did the survivors thrive? Have you had fatalities over 5% in subsequent batches? It's most likely to be coccidiosis. Hope everything's green where you are and all ok, cheers, Fiona