A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to have some junior high school kids come and spend the day with me–doing ‘work experience’. One of the high school classes had come and toured the farm in previous weeks; when the class was asked where they would like to be placed for work experience day, two of the boys chose Howling Duck Ranch! They both are interested in becoming farmers, and were keen to spend some time working on the farm and playing with my animals.
I picked them up from school in the morning and we got straight to the ugly stuff. I gave them the choice: mucking out the chicken coup or fixing the fence-line, which do you want to tackle first? They chose the mucking out job, so we set to it. I explained how it should be done, where to pile the muck, and where the replacement bedding was. They went at it heartily and seemed to enjoy the work.
It was a big job, and I was impressed with how they worked without complaint. The room is 12′ X 20′ and the bedding was about 4 inches deep. It took a while to get it all hauled out and into the compost pile. While they worked, the boys asked me all sorts of questions about farming in general, but chicken keeping in particular. They were obviously engaged in the task at hand, as the questions they asked about the chickens were very thoughtful: how often do you have to change the bedding, why are the nesting boxes the size they are, how often do chickens lay eggs, can they lay eggs without a rooster, what do you feed them? and so on.
Once all the old bedding was out, we began to barrow in the new bedding. Again, some good questions arose, and I tried to answer them all. I explained to them why I used sawdust instead of hay or straw as bedding (soaks up the urea better, doesn’t form wet heavy mats like hay does, holds the heat as it composts down better); why it is good to have some cedar in the mix (keeps away lice and fleas, and smells nice); and that I was, for the first time this year, trying an experiment with deep bed litter. I had read about this a long time ago, but not had the right conditions to actually try it out. Now that I have my new deluxe barn, complete with a 6 inch pony wall, I am enthusiastic about trying it.
According to Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, if you keep the bedding deep (8-12 inches deep), the action of the composting can not only keep the smell down but also add heat to the building. It can therefore cut down on your heating costs. He also merits this system with cutting down on work time, because you don’t have to clean it out as often as I have been. Instead, it is of benefit to keep adding litter and turning the bedding, to keep the compost action working and the urea smell down. He also claims that if the bedding is closer to 12 inches deep, research has shown the bugs that grow can actually contribute to the protein needs of your chickens. It all sounds good, and with no negative aspects, so I’m giving it a go!
They began to place bets on how many wheelbarrows full would it take to fill the coop again. How deep will the litter be? they asked, and then the serious calculations began. Within about one barrow full, they were spot on in their estimation.
At some point during the new bedding refill work, Alec quite unselfconsciously started to sing, ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’. I’m not even sure he was aware he was singing out loud! It was a very sweet moment and I caught it on camera (but wished I’d had video capability). While they were getting the last of the new bedding, I was spreading it out evenly inside the coop. I was surprised to find a rogue egg. It must have been laid in the outside pile of sawdust by one of my chickens, and had survived the shoveling into the barrow by the boys, then the trip into the coop in the barrow, and even the dumping onto the clean coop floor. Miraculously, the egg was still intact! (It is the egg in the photo above being held beside Alec’s ear by Clayton.) Clayton asked if he could take this one home, so I let him–not sure how he was going to keep it from breaking. First, I asked if he knew how to check if the egg was fresh (I didn’t know how long the egg had been hidden there myself!); he didn’t, so I explained that you should put it in water, and if it sinks, it’s still fresh.
After this, we stopped for lunch. I made hot chocolate and brought out cookies. They finished their lunches and enjoyed the warm drink. Clayton, in particular, liked the cookies, and said so with enthusiasm (he even politely asked if he could take a couple more home at the end of the day). Once lunch was done we moved on to the fencing job. The boys walked the fence-line and decided where upgrades were needed. We got to work digging down into the grass so we could place boards and other barriers where there were gaping holes. Again there was a raft of questions that showed me they were engaged with what they were doing. While they were performing the tasks throughout the day, both of them had suggestions for how things could be done better and tried them out.
Eventually while mending the fence-line, the boys got distracted by the chickens who, quite easily, convinced the boys that it was very important to stop digging each time a worm was discovered and feed it to them; production came to a grinding halt as the boys fed the greedy girls by hand. Then we got to see the pecking order in action. Chickens are extremely serious about maintaining social order and the question of who gets fed first is not to be taken lightly. The boys picked up on the chicken’s social grace, or apparent lack of, and named one of the more boisterous chooks, ‘Miss Piggy’.
Days end finally came, so we got washed up before I took them back to school. They had one request before leaving: to play with the goats. Of course: the goats always eager to welcome them into their paddock, to nibble at new people, their jackets, their hair, their ears, or to have a nice scratch from the human playmate. I was surprised that the boys remembered the goats’ names from their first class trip to the farm a few weeks before; they even got a few correct when trying to identify which one was which. My husband can’t even do that now!
It was great to have Alec and Clayton on the farm, and I was thrilled to have their help in getting a big job done. They worked well together, were keenly interested in the farm, and asked how and why things are done the way they are. I would have them back anytime. Thanks, guys!