A farmers biggest fight is always going to be with Mother Nature. That lady has plans, and the farmer doesn’t know what they are. As you can imagine, disagreements arise. There will be too much, or not enough, or it will happen at the wrong time. If it’s not raining too much, it will not be enough. It will be too hot, or not hot enough. These are variables that cannot be totally controlled for, making the whole practice of farming an interesting one to say the least.
These truths were brought home to me this week when the temperature dropped from 20, and snowing to beat the band, all the way down to -34. Temperatures below freezing present challenges, but once it’s below zero it’s a whole other ball game for the poultry farmer.
The first thing you have to do is figure out how to keep your birds, and their water, warm.
You may be thinking that I put heat lamps out everywhere to keep them from freezing, but I didn’t. At this point, the birds should be all acclimatized to the temperature. I will admit, the first morning of -30, I was worried I was going to go outside and find frozen chickens, and was happy to see they were all fine, a bit grumpy, but that’s understandable. They have all the fat and feathers they need to keep warm. As the farmer, my job is to make sure they have the calories they need during the really cold weather because they burn more fat. The chickens were given extra corn and worms, and since the ducks and geese don’t like corn, they just got worms. I decided the ducks and geese would prefer to stay inside, and I figured if they were in their shelters their body heat would help keep their water in a somewhat liquid state. After they had all poked their heads out for a brief minute, they agreed with my assessment. The ducks were particularly funny. I had taken the lid off their cooler to fill it up, and they all quickly piled into the water. I was bemused to see how many could fit into that little rectangular space before I shooed them all out. They needed to share the water with everyone else.
I debated keeping the chickens in their coop, but I figured I would keep one door open so they get to the food and water. The chickens were hopping in and out most of the morning. Their heated waterer, which is supposed to cease working at -20, kept working, a pleasant surprise. Everyone got extra hay heaped into their homes, which they all happily burrowed into.
The hardest part, to me, was working all the latches. I had to take my mittens off for that part. The latches don’t like to work during the extreme cold, and my fingers froze to the metal, making it particularly painful to get in and out of their yards. Their doors also didn’t want to shut all the way, so I was holding them in place with my knees while I fumbled around. My legs had gone numb with cold, so I didn’t realize until later in the day that I had bruised the heck out of them. I also discovered when I came inside, that my boots had frozen to the rug in front of the door. It wasn’t too big a deal, I just needed wait for them to defrost.
At that cold, you and the birds agree. It’s painful to be outside. Unless you have a scarf covering your nose, it starts to hurt to breathe in the super cold air. If you’ve gotten your mittens wet (which inevitably happens) they quickly freeze to any surface they touch. You take your hands out of them to do anything like tossing worms, or messing with doors, and they are instantly, painfully, cold. The birds water is frozen up fairly quickly, so you are hauling extra through the day. For the birds, they are huddled in, doing what their bodies need to do to generate heat. If you have roosters with tall combs, frostbite is an issue, and you have to worry about their feet getting frozen. The ducks and geese refuse to move. They are sitting, and not going far. Frankly, I think they have the right idea.
I’m glad the cold only lasted a couple days. I know this used to be the norm. My husband remembers temperatures like this when he was in middle school and high school, but we haven’t had this in a long time, and I’m out of practice. Luckily, I still knew what to do to keep myself warm, and the birds as comfortable as I could make them until it warmed up a bit (2 above this morning, felt like a heat wave).
I know I should just wait, and post this tomorrow, but I’m thinking about it today. Tomorrow, January 18th, will be the third year since my mom has passed away. For someone who was only 4″11″ she was a giant. Her personality, and will, were much bigger than her actual height.
In her town of Seward, Alaska, she was the longest serving person in city council history. Her town, and civic duty, were important to her. She was tireless when it came to people and their needs. She was also tireless when it came to her family.
I read this letter at my mom’s memorial service.
I have been thinking about my memories growing up, and I’ve thought a lot about you. You have been the best mother I could ever ask for, and it has been difficult to enumerate how. You always said, “I’m your mom, not your friend.” When I was little, that was true. You weren’t my friend. You were the one who drilled manners into me, responsibility, made sure I played nice. As I got bigger though, you were my mom, and my friend. I could, and did, tell you everything.
I started thinking about the quilt I started making for you back when Owen was a baby. I think of each red, flowery square, and each one is a memory.
Do you remember when we were little, and Stewart, Wes, and I would fight over who could sit next to you on the couch? You finally set up a nightly rotation so we all got our time next to you.
I remember wanting to shave my legs so bad, and you said I had to wait until I was 13. And I waited. 13 could not get here quick enough. Finally, the day arrived, and I could shave my legs! You looked at me and said, “You think this is great today, and it might even still be cool next week, but after a while you are going to think it’s a nuisance and not want to do it.” I remember thinking that’s ridiculous, I’m never going to think that! But, as is often the case, you were right. To this day, I think of what you said every time I shave.
Remember when Grandma Shafer came to visit, and you guys taught me how to play pinochle? When she left we started playing over at Kathy Caroll’s, and pretty soon we were playing with all kinds of people. Those evenings, sitting at a table with you, and all your friends, are some of my fondest memories. I don’t play it often anymore, but pinochle is still my favorite card game.
Remember my last day of high school? You insisted on taking me, because you said, you had taken me to my very first day of school and you would take me to my last. You and Melody then drove me to college in Fairbanks that August. It was going pretty well, until we got there, and you left me alone in my dorm room for a bit to get unpacked. At that point it hit me I was leaving home. Frankly, it scared the hell out of me. It probably didn’t help my roommate had gotten there before we did, hung up a naked Barbie doll studded with nails, and left. We gave the Barbie doll a long look, and went to dinner. By the end of the next day, I had almost convinced myself college was not for me, and I sat on your lap in Melody’s van and cried, and you cried, and after a while we decided it would probably work out, and I should stay. You then did something you do so well. We were in the dorm elevator, getting ready to go to the store, when this young women gets in with us. You looked at her (and she must have had the same scared, lonely look I had), and you looked at me, and you said, “This is my daughter Stacy and this is her first day at UAF. What’s your name?” The young woman said, “Dolores. This is my first day too.” You invited her along with us to the store, and after that we started hanging out. I had my first friend at college.
You were there when my children were born. You cut their umbilical cords, held them in your arms when they were brand new to the world. You came home with us from the hospital, and stayed with us for a week to help us adjust to our growing family. I always knew I could call you when the kids did something that threw me for a loop.
I ask myself, who am I going to call during the day? I called you every day to say hi, ask how you were doing, to tell you the funniest thing the kids had done, to tell you any hurts. You always listened, laughed in all the right spots, and told me when I was being ridiculous. I want to call you when the kids are teenagers, and do something particularly ridiculous. We’ll reminisce, and you’ll tell me stories of things you and dad did, and scrapes Stewart and Wesley got into. We’ll laugh, and agree whatever had happened isn’t such a big deal.
Like a quilt with a certain number of squares, I only have a certain number of memories. Each memory I have is as rich and varied as each red square. I can pull each one out when I need to, and hold it in my heart, and you will be there. Like all things, you always hope for more time, more memories, but I am happy with the ones I have.
Farming in the winter time sucks. It’s cold, dark, and everything is frozen. The water freezes not long after you pour it into the birds buckets, and you spend all of your time either chiseling it out, or trying to figure out how to keep the water in a liquid form. The birds poop is frozen, and you can try to chisel that, or give up and just toss more hay on top (that’s what I do). Not only are you cranky about having to go out every morning, no matter the temperature, wind, or snow, but the birds aren’t thrilled either. It’s glares all around. After the past couple warm winters, this winter has been a bit tough because its actually been cold. It’s been below zero for the past couple weeks. What we haven’t had a lot of is snow. Of course snow also presents its own challenges. Its wet, accumulates everywhere, and you have to figure out if you need to actually to do something with it (think shoveling), or if you can get away with just packing it down by repeatedly walking on it.
All winter, folks have been talking about how we need more snow. Heck, I’ve even caught myself saying it. For outdoor enthusiasts this means they can bust out their skis and snowshoes and go tromping around in the wilderness. I like it because it makes the dark less dark, and after weeks of chiseling ice out of water buckets, it was nice to go outside this morning and just have a thin skim to contend with. The snow provides a nice bit of extra insulation to the goose’s and ducks house, and keeps their inside water ice free, and hides all their poop that’s frozen to the ground. So, when I heard we were going to get snow yesterday, I thought maybe a couple inches and didn’t think too much of it.
What the National Weather Service had said was a bit more than that, and this time they were actually right. They said we were going to get between 4 to 7 inches, and they were almost spot on. We got between 6 and 8. I know, I know, it’s not even foot, so nothing to complain about. Heck, I remember times when I was a kid and we got four feet in a day, and this is nothing like that. Still, the snow was high enough it presented its own special challenges.
When I stepped outside, I quickly realized I was going to have to shovel a path on the porch and stairs before I did anything. Luckily, the snow shovel was where I had left it propped up against the house, and not buried somewhere out in the middle of the yard where you won’t see it again until spring. That done, I starting wading from one bird house to the next. Deciding I didn’t want to carry the water buckets and wade at the same time, I walked around, tromping down a path for myself.
When I let the geese out the snow came up above their bellies. I could tell they were happy it was warmer out, but not sure about the white stuff. When they stepped out of their yard they looked like little big bellied ships sailing low in the water. They quickly became tired of trying to waddle through the snow, and took to flying to where they wanted to get to.
The ducks ran out, and started enthusiastically swimming around in the stuff, ducking their heads down into the snow and popping back up. They started bobbing their heads at me making pointed gestures at their water bucket, telling my to hurry up and fill er up. When I went to let the chickens out, they glared at me, and the snow, taking the weather as a personal affront to their dignity. I cleaned the snow off their ramp and outside perching bar, and stomped on the snow in their yard, flattening it, and spreading hay everywhere. The chickens seemed to agree I had slightly improved the situation, and looked a bit mollified when I promised them an extra corn ration.
I then dumped the snow out of my wagon, and went to get out the hundred pounds of feed and hay I had in the car. Normally, getting it all in the wagon and to the shed isn’t too big a deal, but it was a bit tougher this morning. The snow was up above the wagon’s wheels, making it harder to pull. After some creative language, and a few breaks, I finally got it all back to the shed, and everyone fed.
With the snow falling, and looking cold and pretty, what I really wanted to do this morning was stay in with a hot cup of tea and my knitting. But, the birds must be let out, and fed, and watered. I got on my snow gear, walked out, and shoveled, made a path, and did all that. Now I will settle in with the tea I wished for, and enjoy the cold beauty from my comfy chair, wishing for spring.
Photo Caption: Photo by Stacy Koster
The snow was over the top of my feet, and the duck yard, it was almost up to the top of my boots.
Today I want to talk about the Christmas goose. I know this article is a bit late, but consider it research for next year. After all, you might not want turkey again, or prime rib. I did say MIGHT, but you could be feeling a bit adventurous and want to try this out.
When it comes to the Christmas goose, you have two options. You can buy one from the store, where you actually have to have a golden egg to pay for it. It is at least as expensive as prime rib, alternatively, you can raise one up for eating. It’s still as expensive, but more fun. Since I already have geese, I chose to eat one. On the one hand, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I have a small flock, and I’ve raised raised them all from cute little bitty peeping fluffballs. I can’t help but be attached to them. On the other, it helps if one of the geese is a jerk.
Pullo was a good size, and had a bad habit of trying to attack everyone. He liked to chase after me if I was carrying the mail up from the mailbox, or if had a bag of freeze-dried worms. I felt like a matador finessing the bull, or at least like batting it soundly across the beak. Needless to say, the decision to eat him was pretty simple. That was the easy part.
Next, I needed to pick a day to do it. After reading Duck, Duck, Goose by Hank Shaw I decided the best thing was to kill the goose, allow it to season over night, and pluck the next day. So, a couple weeks before Christmas I decided it was time to get it done. I don’t have a garage, so I decided I would season the goose in my husband’s workshop. To season a goose, or any waterfowl, you hang them un-gutted, with their feathers intact, for a day or two (I just did it over night) somewhere where the temperature is between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. He very nicely strung the twine up for me, carefully placed plastic down over all of the sawdust and random junk, checked the thermostat, and made sure the knife for killing the goose was sharp.
The next morning I dropped the kids off at school, and waited for it to get light out. Then I made sure I had everything prepared. We use a killing cone for culling the flocks. You can get fancy and make one using sheet metal, there are lots of videos and blogs on how to fashion one, or you can do what we did and buy a traffic cone. It has the correct shape, is inexpensive, and just has to have the end cut off and be mounted on a board. I placed a bucket under the cone for catching the blood, laid out the knife, and then went to catch the goose.
I expected this part to be a fiasco, but Pullo seemed to know it was his time because he stood there and let me pick him up. For the next part, I really recommend you have help. By the time you get to the cone geese, ducks, and chickens have an inkling about what’s going to happen. Understandably, they don’t want to have any part of it. Pullo probably weighed 15 lbs, and was pretty big. I’m five feet tall, and only slightly taller than the top of the cone. After thinking about it for a minute, I grabbed the goose’s feet, and flipped him upside down, and then I grabbed his head, put it in the cone, and started guiding the rest of him in with my other hand. After the initial struggle, I got him all in, with his head and neck sticking out of the bottom.
I then picked up the knife, took a deep breath, apologized for taking his life, said thank you for the gift of his meat, covered his eyes, and cut his throat. It was quick, clean, and is the worst part of having birds you are going to eat.
After killing him, the hardest part was actually getting him out of the cone. Since we use a rubber traffic cone, the end doesn’t have a lot of structure, so is smooshed in a little bit. The result is the bird most often gets caught by the head at the end of the cone. After some thought, I used my knee, and one hand to round the hole back out, and stretching up, was able to grab his feet with my other hand and pull him out. After that, I carried him into the workshop and hung him up by his feet to season.
The next day, we plucked and gutted the bird. If you can, I recommend you pluck the bird outside, or in a garage. It being below zero, I couldn’t go outside, and I don’t have a garage, so I plucked in the kitchen. It was very messy, and I’m still finding the occasional feather in random corners.
Everyone seems to have a favorite plucking method. I don’t do it terribly often, so I’m still working on which was works best for me. In the Duck, Duck, Goose book, Shaw recommends wet plucking. At first I thought he was referring to the scalding method. This is where you get a pot that’s big enough to submerge a goose, fill it with water, get the water up to 145 to 155 degrees Fahrenheit, and vigorously dunk the goose, making sure the water penetrates through to the skin. It usually takes about 1 1/2 to 3 minutes to scald a goose. This is how we usually pluck our birds. It’s effective, but feathers stick to everything.
After further reading, I discovered Shaw was talking about using wax. This calls for two pots, and lots of paraffin. He recommends a full block of paraffin for a goose. You put the paraffin in the pot of water, and let it melt. Then, you pull off the tail feathers, the big wing feathers, and some of the regular feathers on the body. After the initial plucking, and the wax is melted, grab the goose by head and feet, carefully put it in the pot, and swirl it around a bit on the surface because that’s where the melted wax is. Make sure the bird is well coated, and then put the waxed bird in a pot of cold water. Let it chill for a few minutes, and then drain. You then start cracking the wax on the bird to pluck it. The other option (the one I went with) is to dry pluck. All this requires is patience, and a good set of kitchen shears for clipping the wing tips and chopping off the head. You pluck the feathers against the grain with your thumb running across the skin. Any feathers that won’t come out can be singed off. I found this easier than scalding, but it was definitely time consuming.
After that, you gut the goose, save the giblets if you want to use them, remove the fat (the best part) for rendering, and when you are done, rinse the goose out really well. Since Christmas was still a week out when I butchered the bird, I put him in the freezer. There are lots of good recipes for cooking goose out there, so find one that works for you, just remember to poke holes through the skin before you cook it. This will allow the fat to drain out.
The goose was good on Christmas, and I was able to get a couple more meals out of the bird after that, but I couldn’t help but think of all the effort that went into it. There was selecting the goose, killing it, and then all the processing after that. I think it made me appreciate the meal more, and it’s something I will do again next year.
I wanted to start off with an Ode to the Humble Water Bucket, but as I got started I realized not a lot rhymes with bucket. You could go with suck it, muck it, tuck it, duck it, etc., but that wouldn’t really express how I’ve been feeling about this essential tool for the past few weeks. That comes with another rhyming word, which, I can assure you is uttered frequently when dealing with buckets in the winter.
Water, after all, is something the birds have to have. They all have water buckets in their yard, and in the summer I kind of forget about them. Sure, I dump them every morning, but then just fill them up with the hose and move onto the rest of that day’s chores. Winter however, gives its own set of special challenges.
You go out there in the dark, and try to pick the bucket up, and realize two things. One it’s frozen to the ground again. Two it’s frozen solid. What to do? Well, I start off with kicking it to try to loosen it from the earth’s icy grasp. Failing that, I pour warm water around and kick some more. Once the bucket is loose, you have to pop the ice out. Normally I pour a bit of warm water inside the bucket, then flip it and pour some over the bottom, and then stomp on it until the ice falls out. This usually works great, and takes out any irritation I have started off the day with. My technique has worked fine the past couple winters, but, frankly, they were warmer and things weren’t quite as frozen. It being colder this year, I have managed to break the bottoms out of all my buckets, and the four new ones my husband got for me from the store last week. Which has led to some amusing texts between us about there being a Hole in the Bucket Dear Eliza (if you don’t know this song, there’s a great YouTube video of Kris Kristofferson singing it with Ani Defranco, go watch it and come back), but mostly there’s been frustration and a great deal of colorful language regarding breaking another one. Thinking I should refine my strategy, I have taken to thawing them in the bath tub.
The technique is pretty much same. I spray some warm water in the bucket, and then flip it and spray some around the bottom until the ice falls out with a satisfying thunk. Now, I was leaving the bucket shaped ice brick in the tub. I was interested in learning how long it would take a 2 gallon ice chunk to melt, but once I’d head out to finish up farm chores, I’d totally forget about my experiment. This wouldn’t be a big deal, but it actually takes a long time, and my kids were complaining about trying to take a shower with giant ice cubes. So, I have taken to carrying the ice outside, and throwing it off the front porch. This is pretty fun, and you can place bets with yourself about how far you can pitch it.
That said, it’s best to avoid knocking ice out all together. So, I have an aquarium heater for the ducks inside water, and I try not to fill their outside water bucket up to the top, so there is less to bang out the next day. It works, but my ducks are kind of sarcastic about the whole thing, and they don’t know how to take turns. I fill up their outside bucket for them, and the Saxony ducks all pile in for a swim. The little ducks can’t even get their heads in for a drink, so I shoo the big ducks out, the little ducks pile in and have a bit of fun. Eventually, the Saxony ducks get tired of this, and chase them back out. Then, they start splashing everywhere and spray me in the face. Silly ducks.
The chickens already have a heated waterer. So, they are good to go. Geese are a bit trickier because they chew on everything. I’m pretty sure that if I put an aquarium heater in their water they’d chew the cord, electrocute themselves, and start a fire. Since their water isn’t heated, I spend the most time defrosting their buckets. They have outside water, and then I place a water bucket in their shed when I put them to bed at night. I did find one that has a heated bottom, with a wire wrapped cord, so they can’t chew through. I’m sure it will work great, I just haven’t a way to plug it in. It’ll get it figured out just in time for spring to warm things up.
So, don’t let winter and frozen buckets get you down. The water in the bucket can be kept unfrozen with an aquarium heater, or get a bucket you can plug in, or accept the challenge of defrosting them daily. If you are defrosting them, have a bit of fun with it. Place bets about how far you can chuck the ice, or time it to see how long it takes to defrost in the bathtub. Winter won’t last for forever, and it’ll be spring soon enough. Then you’ll be standing in the sunshine with the water hose, the ice a distant memory, at least until next year.