This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
June rushes in, a whirlwind of long days that keep me sprinting, high on the mania of all that we accomplish. Three more pushes and we’ll be finished with the monumental bed prep effort, which has been compressed by the late spring so that instead of a leisurely March-June schedule it was a May-June dash. The days start early and don’t end until pulling tarps at dusk; sipping coffee in the dawn light I think about the day ahead, the work we’ll do, the life we lead.
This past week we slaughtered the first batch of meat birds for the season. Working as a team we got 73 chicken dinners in the freezers. It feels good to put away that winter sustenance and take the smallest step into the downhill that begins with the solstice in a few weeks. Three more batches of birds remain, along with 20 turkeys who are now out on pasture rotating along in chicken tractors that are moved each day across lush green forage.
I’ve been reflecting on the process of raising birds for meat, the act of husbandry, of tending unto creatures that in the end we slaughter for meals for our families. I try not to shy away from the depth of emotion that slaughter engenders, and to embrace the feelings that arise through daily care and effort. I can see that it would be easier just to harden myself, to not feel the feels about life and death in the process, but I try to dwell in heart-space and embrace the duality of loving care that leads to death.
As we deepen into an evolving land partnership, I’m grateful for the added capacity, strength and flexibility that working in a group provides. We accomplish more than I’ve ever been able to, with less effort from me and better results. Taking on the ranch property gives us a dramatic increase in our animal production capacities, but also a massive increase in workload that is only possible because of group dynamics. It is deeply exciting to behold as we move through our second full season of raising animals and pasture management.
We’re constructing our fourth chicken tractor, 8’ x9’ with four 2×4’s as a base, 2 hog panels bent into a hoop with remesh heavy duty foundation wire and 2×4’s for the back end wall and to frame a door that is also remesh with plumbers tape for hinges. After this framework is installed we wrap the whole structure with one course of the ½” aviary wire that goes up 4 feet, then run 1” chicken wire over the top.
The sturdy 2×4 frame and stout wire prevent predators from getting the birds, and we encircle the whole area with electric poultry netting to further increase survivability. Each chicken tractor has a stout wheel assembly attached at ground level in the center of the back wall. To move the tractor we step on the plate that lifts the frame and locks into place so the wheel is lower and the structure can roll.
Each morning whoever’s turn it is to do chores lifts the wheels and uses a cable threaded through a pvc handle attached to hooks on the front frame board to pull the tractor forward onto fresh forage, then fill the feed bowls and any waterers that are low. Afternoon is more feeding and water change, and also another move if the birds have beshitted the space (more frequent as they get bigger). Fresh forage is crucial for the health of the birds and the overall quality of the meat, and this is the time of year when all factors combine to make phenomenal conditions.
One of the crucial aspects of small-scale farming is the sharing of information, techniques and equipment amongst our community. Big shout out to our friends at Funky Door Farms for both the design and the first two chicken tractors which we got from them. I love the shared steps we take, the incremental gains and learning lessons each year brings. Every time I go to visit one of my farmer friends I come home brimming with new ideas and ways of doing things that will make our operation more efficient, sustainable and successful.
In the calm after the storm of slaughter day comes the cleanup and preparing for the continued journey. The small brooder is empty now so the spent bedding and waste needs to be shoveled out and taken to the compost pile. All of the guts, blood, feathers, scalder water and any other offal are used to build the pile, as is the manure, bedding and decomposing feedstuffs from the rabbit barn. This fertility will be used in the orchard and on the perennial plantings to increase growth and vitality in the season to come.
As I gather the feeders and wash out the waterers, I think about how the journey of raising birds has become routine in some ways. I stow the cleaned implements away on their shelf in the rabbit barn to await the next season and the arrival of baby chicks. The continuity and sameness as the years roll by brings deep comfort and a sense of stability that grounds me, an antidote to overwhelm and anxiety. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!