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“Broken Chicken Feet”

If you live on a farm with chickens and any other livestock over 200lbs, chances are sooner or later you’ll see a limping chicken with a munched foot.  Pigs, mules, horses, and even very large goats can easily crush a chicken’s foot with one step.  Most of the time they are oblivious to the chicken’s thrashing screams and might not lift their foot right away.  When the large livestock is being grained, and thus the chickens want to be right in the trough with it eating, the chances of chicken-foot-pudding being created are even higher.

So what do you do when your chicken’s foot has been pancaked into oblivion by a giant hoof?

So far I’ve only lost 1 bird to this injury.  I’ve had it happen a few times, and I’ve heard it happen to  a few folks I know as well.  The first time our 500lb boar munched a chicken foot was one of my black copper marans hens.  The first day I saw her, it looked like she was dust bathing on the ground.  She was hunkered down in a little chicken dust-bath-bowl with one leg sticking out funny like she was sun bathing.  She let me walk right up to her.  I thought “Wow!  You tamed up nicely over night!”  I patted her on the head and continued on my way.  But the next day she was still there. Okay something was definitely wrong now.

I shooed her out of her dirt-bowl it was obvious she wasn’t using one of her feet.  She wouldn’t open the foot or set it on the ground, so her hobble was desperately slow.   I scooped her back up and inspected her foot.  The ankle joint where the toes meet the leg was mush.  Just total mush.  Poor girl!

I isolated her in a special, specious run I normally put broody hens in.  It’s quiet, secluded, and has feed and water and fluffy soft bedding.  I know chickens heal fast.  All birds do.  This kind of break was not something that could be splinted, either.  So I gave her a no-stress environment with food and water within reach and let her rest for a few days.  She began to limp gently on the ankle and move about in her pen after several days of R&R.

But then I noticed her ankle was exaggeratedly swollen.  I would think the swelling would go down, not up, as she got better…  So I picked her up again and inspected her ankle.  It was blown up with pus.  Dang!  We all know what that means…  Time to get a razor blade…

I drained her ankle abscess with a single 1/4″ incision and milked the pus out.  A little touch of usnea tea plunged through the pocket helps to keep infection at bay.  Chickens are particularly resistant to infection though.  They have to be!  They’ve been raised for hundreds of generations in poop-infested barnyards.  The smallest cut or puncture on a chicken is bound to get poop in it in the average barnyard.  They’re out scratching through feces for seeds, crapping on their own feet, and mucking about in filthy mud.  

Anyway, this hen was right as rain within 2 weeks, and she promptly when broody.  Woohoo!  She’s still with me to this day, I can tell her because one of her ankles is more bulbous than the other from the healed break, but her mobility is totally normal.

Another time I had a buff orpington get her femur snapped.  Her foot probably got stepped on and she probably thrashed around so hard she broke her own leg.  Femur breaks on chickens aren’t common.  The Mangalitsa sows were around 600lbs at the time and they loved ‘bowling for chickens’.  The chickens choose to hang out with the rowdy pigs, there’s not much we can do to avoid the occasional injury unless we wanna lock the whole flock up, which is a huge drop in their quality life and prevents them from feeding themselves as they rummage around the barn.

To check for a break, you have to very gently test for unnatural flexing of the bone.  Hold the joint stiff and very, very gently move/wiggle the bone.  Nothing should move if you’ve incapacitated the joint.  If the limb flexes or shifts anywhere but at the joint, the bone is broken clean through.  I have to stress that precious little pressure or movement is required to diagnose this, don’t go wrenching a broken leg to a 30º angle before deciding it’s broken!

I knew this orpington wasn’t going to be walking any time soon, so I stuck her in a small space with a broody hen.  Feed and water were close at hand.  She got up once every day or two to stretch but otherwise stayed put.  I didn’t splint her.  Frankly she was destined for butcher.   Every time I get orpingtons I am reminded that I don’t like orpingtons.  They eat huge sums of food, lay tiny eggs, and have always been among my worst layers  and broodies.
 By the end of her healing she had actually decided to go broody with the broody I put her with.  Yay!  I gave her her own clutch of eggs and let her raise her chicks.  So her healing R&R time was extensive, sitting on the nest for 21 days.    That was the first time I’ve ever had an orpington go broody (which is crazy because they’re notoriously broody), and will probably be the last.  She was a terrible mother and lost all of her chicks within the first week.  This hen is still with me today, nearly a year later.  She has a pronounced peg-leg style limp and doesn’t roam as far as other birds, but she’s otherwise fine. If I ever get around to reducing the hen population, she and the other remaining orpingtons will be on the list.  I think I’m pushing 80 hens, I really do need to downsize…

I’m digressing though.

The majority of the time, birds recover from munched feet and broken legs just fine.  Care should be taken to ensure they don’t abscess.  Severely broken legs should be splinted to avoid undue risk of it healing in a crippling manner.  I wrote a little bit about bird leg-breaks in my post “Aspen’s Story: Broken Turkey Legs”.   Antibiotic herbs can be given as tea-water or the whole herbs can be cut up and added to their feed.  If an abscess is noticed, it should be drained quickly and the pocket should be kept clean, ideally flushed with an antiseptic, vinegar, or salt tea to help kill bacteria.

I did lose 1 bird to a mashed foot.  It was a young lavender Ameraucana, maybe 2-3 months old.  Her foot was pudding from a pig stomp.  The break was really bad.  It was deep winter and it was frigid out.  If it had happened in the summer I’m confident she would have survived.  But within a week of getting stomped she faded and died.  Her body could not effectively heal the chronic damage and fight the cold at the same time.  We have no heated outbuildings or way to isolate an animal in the heat.  That’s part of the nature of the beast when living in a remote, high-elevation location without most conveniences.  To some degree it becomes survival of the fittest on the farm.  But for the average chicken keeper, helping a bird through a major injury like this is a reasonable and successful task.

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“A Post About Today: February 6th, 2021”

I’m going to make my first attempt at adding some fun photos to the blog post.  Does that make it a… plog?!  :B  
Edit/update: since it seems to have worked and looks nice, I’ll work on adding photos to more of my previous posts. 

We recently got about 12″ of snow, and there’s still plenty more on the forecast.  At last, the snow has come! We’ve hardly had 3 feet of cumulative snow up to this point, which is very unusual.  

To celebrate, it was time to clean 12″ of fresh powder and 12″ of crusty old melted snow off of some roofs.   

One of the rigorous winter chores is cleaning off vehicle and building roofs.  It’s hard to say how much snow would collapse any given structure or vehicle.  It’s also hard to say how much it might snow over night!  So best not to leave anything to chance.  It’s best to just clean the roofs off when the snow gets 15″ to 20″ deep.  

The dogs break excellent trails through the knee-deep powder.  Windy drift areas along the unpacked trails are sometimes waist deep.  Neoma the Dog took the trail-packing lead with with the help of her abundant puppy energy, albeit her trails zig-zagged from tree to tree in ever-hopeful pursuit of squirrels…

Spring is fast approaching, but it’s not here yet.  As I mentioned in my post about the 2020 Harvest, we still have a few loose ends in the realm of the barnyard.  Today concluded the rooster round-up from the 2020-season.  7 more roosters to butcher and we’ll be done… almost…!  There’s still a few cockerels from late-fall/early-witner hatches that are too young to butcher yet.  But these are the last of the un-needed crowers.

We raise a few different bird breeds.  One is the Marans, a breed that, to my knowledge, originated in France.  I’ve been raising a few different ‘lineages’ of marans for about 8 years.  The breed was developed, I assume intentionally as they are a meat bird, to produce 70-80% male offspring. The boys are much larger than the girls in this breed, so more boys means more chicken meat each year.  This is one reason you don’t commonly find marans available from big-box hatcheries.  Hatcheries always have too many boys to begin with, and trying to reproduce and sell a breed that produces mostly male chicks doesn’t make for good business.  As a hatchery, what would you do with thousands of extra boys?!  They’re already giving their boys away and still have too many!  
Most of my butcher boys each year are pure marans or half-marans crosses.   These last 7 roosters on the whack-list are lavender Ameraucanas crossed with black copper marans.  A handsome group, but alas, “more roosters” is not what the world needs, as is evident by the surplus of “free rooster” ads that have been circulating in our area for months to no avail.  And “more roosters” is certainly not what my barnyard needs- the poor hens are now finally getting a break from the harassment that’s been going on far too long!  I usually keep 3 breeding roosters and a few replacements roos in case something like predation happens in the flock.  That’s enough roosters!

I also raise ayam cemani crosses.  The I have been raising ayam cemani for about 6 years.  I’ve never heard it advertised about the breed, but I’ve bred 2 lineages of cemani and each one has produces the opposite of marans; 70-80% females.  If not more! 

As I have a particular interest in breeding fibro birds with funny colored meat, I love throwing fibromelanosis genes into my meat birds.  Why eat a pink chicken, when you can eat blue, black, purple, and green chickens?!  As it so happens, most of my fibro-crosses end up being girls, alas.  So I don’t get many blue eating birds unless they’re half-marans roosters.  
In 2020 we hatched out about 120 chicks.  Roughly 20 were cockerels, and all but 2 of those were marans-crosses.  This is the usual story each year.  Most of my laying hens are now 50% or more cemani as a result!  I don’t mind, they’re absolutely beautiful birds, they lay wonderfully, and they’ve been excellent broodies.  Which is odd, considering cemani are not known for going broody.

Hope that’s an interesting tidbit!   I intended to talk about the snow, but hey, chickens work, too!

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“The Journey of the Emotions of Killing”

Isn’t it hard to butcher an animal you raised yourself, especially if it had a name?
It was at first” is about the simplest response to that common question. The act of destroying life comes with its own unique and complex emotional journey. For those of us who empathize with the life and suffering of other beings, killing is not a straight-forward affair. I really do think it’s an important conversation to have for those who have an interest in farming or hunting to feed themselves. My own journey with these grounding experiences started not with farming, but with hunting wild game. As I do not support the USA’s factory-farming meat industry, I am left to source meat in other ways.
In my late teens and early twenties my hunting rules were “hit it right the first time” and “if you shoot it, you eat it“. It took a few years of eating squirrels before I really had any deep revelation about hunting. It took knowing people so derangedly bloodthirsty, so excited to kill anything (and waste all of it), that I felt repulsed by my own personal enjoyment of hunting.
During this time I also discovered (and reported) disturbing incidents of poaching; hundreds of animals shot and left to waste across dozens of incidents.
Seeing such extremes helped me to form clearly defined ethics around my own hunting. When you see the ugly side of something, you’re forced to introspect and ask yourself where you stand with it.
Why am I even hunting?” I had to recognize what defined the need for it, and to recognize what kind of respectful conduct must accompany that.
I effectively gave up hunting for many years and started raising small livestock, though hadn’t butchered any of them myself yet. I had run into a moral conflict. Which was more acceptable; going out into the wilderness to procure meat, where animals run wild and free but they know that you’re there to hunt them? Or raising an animal from birth, feeding it, naming it, allowing it to know and trust you, then one day taking its life?
My first attempt at butchering a chicken almost convinced me that hunting wild game was indeed more ethical. I had no idea how to properly dispatch a chicken, and someone had told me with great conviction that the ‘best’ way to quickly and painlessly dispatch a chicken was to “crush its trachea”. Let me be clear, that is a really bad idea and it doesn’t work.
Killing Fernando, as this rooster was dubbed, scarred me. It had to be done though. When a car arrived in the driveway, he would jump into the driver’s door when it opened and furiously attack the human inside. It was totally unacceptable. But I had no idea what I was doing when I tried to dispatch him. To make matters worse, after I finally got the job done and got the bird plucked and in the freezer, I labeled the bag of chicken meat “FERNANDO“. Again, very bad idea. The meat sat in the freezer for 3 months before I decided to feed it to the cats. I couldn’t even bare to look at it, let alone think about eating it.
Soon I found myself with far too many roosters running amuck. I sold and rehomed a few, but challenged myself to try butchering again. I wanted to raise all my own food, and I had to learn how to do this. I tried the classic method of head-chopping with a hatchet. I gave up on that after 3 birds. I didn’t have the “umph” needed to whack them properly. It was far too violent for me.  Contending with a half-headless bird that refuses to die is a traumatizing experience, and it made every swing of my hatchet weaker and weaker.
As I continued to breed chickens, turkeys, and ducks, I was confronted with the reality of the necessity of butchering on a farm; too many boys.  One day I found a young cockerel sulking listlessly on the ground.  I scooped him up and inspected him.  The older roosters (of which there were far too many) had attacked him and ripped the undersides of his wings open.  He had maggots crawling around under his skin.  It was utterly horrifying and I killed him right there out of pity.  That was my introduction to mandatory rooster butchering on a working, reproducing farm.
 When a small flock has the ability to produce over 100 roosters in a single year, there is no ‘animal rescue’ or ‘sanctuary’ that can possibly hope to house them all.  If they tried, the roosters would just kill each other off.  Some folks give them away (to people who want free meat), others drop them off at night at farms, hoping the roosters will have a place in the flock that lives there (and I think they assume I won’t just eat the newcomers, but I will, because they present a  biosecurity threat), and others drop off car loads of excess boys in the wilderness… I assume to feed hungry predators, or occasionally to give me a fun afternoon of netting ‘wild roosters’ that I myself can bring home and eat.
Why not raise your rooster and eat him, too?
I would say that the first 100 chickens I butchered were all very difficult. The first 100 rabbits were equally hard. I had to be in a very calm place and be willing to dissociate from the experience in order to partake in it. It was emotionally taxing. Some days I didn’t think I would be able to butcher another one for a good long time. But over time, each animal got just a little bit easier, a little bit less exhausting. I had settled on cervical dislocation as a rapid, bloodless method for ‘whacking’ critters, as I call it (because saying ‘kill’ every time leaves a bad taste in my mouth). It works on everything smaller than a large turkey (at which point the larger critters need a .22) and is the least violent, most reliably successful method I’ve tried.
But now and again my internal conflict still flared up; would it just be better to go shoot the wild versions than to go through all this?
Fast forward many years, and over 1,000 home butcher jobs. I now know where I stand with the debate. I protect my animals and give them good lives, feed them good food, and when the time comes, they repay that by taking care of my needs; furs/leathers, meat, oil, and income. If I were to release them all into the wild, every last critter would be dead within a month- if not a week. My care and protection is what keeps them alive. So that’s our exchange. On the other side of the coin, I still find it difficult to hunt wildlife. Even shooting predators out of necessity leaves me a blubbering ball of tears for the day. When you pull that trigger, you take the only things a wild animal has; command over its own body, and its life.  I only shoot wildlife if I need the food or I need to protect the animals in my care. This is the balance and nature of stewarding animals, especially in such a wild region.
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“Aspen’s Story: Broken Turkey Legs”

Aspen was a black Spanish turkey I purchased.  She was an adult and had grown up semi-wild.  She had very little trust in me.
As turkey hens do, Aspen went broody in her first spring with me.  She chose a large wooden cupboard for her nest.  And as turkey toms do, Pip the tom started to get restless after all of the hens disappeared to sit nests.  To my dismay, he found Aspen in her cupboard and attempted to pull her out off the nest to breed (I talk more in-depth about tom breeding behavior problems like this in my publication “Re-think: Small Livestock”, which is very near completion at the time of writing this story).  Aspen refused to budge from her nest, so instead Pip tried to get in the cupboard with her.
The next morning I checked on Aspen, as I did daily, and found her cupboard spattered with crushed egg goo.  She looked very ragged.  Disappointed, I let her be.  But the next day she didn’t leave the cupboard, even though her nest had been destroyed.  So I extracted her, much to her distress and protest, only to discover that he femur had been snapped by the tom.
The poor lady!  This was the first broken bone I’d ever had to deal with in livestock.  Not entirely certain what to do, and after some contemplation, I splinted her leg with some wood and vet-wrapped the leg from the thigh down to her ‘drumstick’ so the joint was stuck totally straight, she couldn’t bend her leg at the knee.  Vet-wrap is the strange word we use for that self-sticking-but-not-adhesive medical wrap tape that is used to  cover plaster casts, in case you’re not familiar with the word.
Hoping I did the right thing for her, I isolated Aspen in a small pen where she couldn’t move much.  I checked her daily and delivered food and water to her.  She mostly sat uncomfortably on the ground and cowered when I came too close.
It took about 5 days, but she started standing and walking again.  Her cast came undone on its own with this movement.  I hesitantly released her back into the flock.  She recovered rapidly as though nothing had happened, laid a new clutch of eggs and went back to sitting.  She had no apparent lasting damage from the break.  The ordeal had also taught her to trust me on a deep level.  She was a very sweet and personable hen after that.
Birds, like many animals, produce allantoin in their body under oxidative stress.  This chemical is found in high concentration in comfrey family plants.  Humans do not produce allantoin, so it takes our bodies exponentially longer to heal wounds than it might take an animal to heal the same wound.  Allantoin stimulates tissue repair and may dramatically speed healing of skin, tissue, and bone alike.  This is why comfrey and its relatives have been given common names such as “woundwort” and “bonemend”.
It’s important to set a broken leg in a bird as soon as you discover it.  I have cared for multiple hens who suffered broken legs from aggressive toms during the breeding season.  All of them recovered rapidly and wonderfully.  However I once had a mean, half-wild turkey tom that broke his leg fighting.  I couldn’t handle or catch him, and he was MEAN.  I left him alone hoping the leg would heal naturally without my intervention.  It healed alright!  But it healed backward!  His leg healed twisted, leaving his knee joint facing backward and crippling him.  It was a grim scenario, but that violent tom was destined for butcher as it was, so I my guilt was limited.  It was a valuable lesson learned.
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“Stitches the Chicken”

Before moving to an area with frigidly cold winters and an extended cold season, I kept turkens.  Turkens are a breed of chicken that lack feathering on their head and necks.  I love turkens, they’re fantastic, and I wish I could raise them here on the mountain but that would be cruel to the half-naked birds.
So one day I head out into my bird yard to put the birds up for the night and I notice something amiss with one of my turken cockerels.  Upon inspection I find a large L-shaped slice on his neck.  His skin was totally peeled back, leaving a one-inch patch of exposed neck muscle.  This was probably the first gnarly livestock injury I’d encountered.
Horrified, I called a friend who was far more seasoned in chickens than I was.  I brought the cockerel to her home.  She calmly procured a needle and thread, and with me holding the bird she artfully stitched the neck skin back into place.  The cockerel hardly flinched. I was impressed by both of them and their relative level of tranquility about the situation.  I was a nervous wreck!
My friend sent me off with a small glob of an herbal healing salve (which was probably the first salve I ever used on anything, actually) to apply to Stitches’ (as he was now called) neck each day.   After just 3 or 4 days, Stitches’ wound healed wonderfully.  With some dainty nippers I snipped his stitches and pulled the threads free of his skin.  I continued to apply the salve until it looked like he was well healed.
I have since stitched several chickens back up.  Most of them turkens.  It seems having a nude neck isn’t the most adventitious thing when you’re a paper-skinned chicken.  One bird I stitched up was mauled by a skunk and had the skin around his wings torn badly in several places.  I think the skunk had attempted to drag the young bird by the wing.  In each case the birds healed up rapidly and without complication.