Week 4, 2013
It was a rather bloody week here at the farm. The hens in the south coop began picking at each other’s feathers over the weekend, and the picking quickly escalated into cannibalism. By mid-week we had lost forty birds. Cannibalism is one of the most common problems in egg production, and it is the reason large commercial egg producers routinely cut the beaks from their newly hatched chicks. It is less common in small, pastured flocks like ours, and we have not faced it before this batch of hens, but this is actually the second time we’ve seen it with this same flock. When they were chicks, we lost a good number of them to cannibalism in the brooder. The causes of cannibalism seem to be partly genetic, and are also tied to nutrition, light levels, housing conditions, and population density. In this case, I believe the outbreak was triggered by a combination of genetics, more crowding than usual (because the hens were not inclined to go outside during this cold weather) and too much artificial light. We have the light adjusted now, and the problem has almost stopped.
There was more blood in the dairy barn, when David Goldwasser came over to remove some half horns from our yearling heifers. As you probably know, we kept horns on all our home-raised heifers in the past, and have had some injuries in the herd as a result. Most of them were not life-threatening, but they made the cows uncomfortable, and when they happened in the udder, they caused bleeding, loss of production, and obvious pain. Then we bought eight dehorned heifers two years ago, which shifted the power dynamics in the herd, so that the low status hornless cows got seriously bullied. After weighing the pros and cons of horn removal, we decided to evolve toward a dehorned herd, by disbudding the heifers we raise for replacement cows. But our first attempt last year did not fully stop the horns from growing, because the instrument we used (which burns the tissue around the calf’s horn buds) was inadequate, so Dr. Goldwasser came out with his big horn cutters and some vials of lidocaine to fix the mistakes. He ran his finger over the skull at the edge of the first yearling’s eye, to find the cavern that houses the nerve that serves the horn, and filled it with 2 ccs of lidocaine. Then he took the horn loppers to the horn and nipped it off at the base. The little severed arteries squirted blood at his glasses. He fished for the arteries with a pair of forceps, gripped them, then pulled them until they snapped, which stopped the blood. After the cavity was packed with gauze, the heifers went back to eating hay. The disbudding on this year’s calves was far easier, less traumatic, and also bloodless – much preferred to dehorning.
Mark came in just now to say that one of my ewes has dropped a lamb, so I’m heading out quickly to towel it off. I watched another ewe lamb last night, twins, and was anxious about how the babies would survive their first night, the coldest of the year. I dried them, bedded them in a jug with their mama, put lamb jackets on them, and hoped. This morning they were up and nursing beautifully. It’s amazing what a tiny newborn can withstand if it is dry and has a full belly. Since the protocol worked so well yesterday, I’m off to do it again now. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this frozen 4th week of 2013.
-Kristin & Mark Kimball