Monday, December 5, 2016

How feathers grow (beautiful)

This is how a molting chicken regrew her feathers. It's amazing transformation.
(I recommend to click on the photos and watch them as a full screen slide show.)

Day 1

Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
November 13, 2016
Day 3
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 15
 Day 5
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 17
 Day 8
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 20
 Day 9
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 21
Day 10
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 22
Day 11
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 23
Day 12
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 24
 Day 13
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 25
Day 14
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 26
 Day 15
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 27
Day 16
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 28
Day 17
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 29

Day 18

Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 30
Day 19
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec 1. 
Day 20
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 2
Day 21
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 3
Day 22
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 4
Day 23
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 5

Just a little more to go and a new coat is complete :D

Monday, November 14, 2016

Chickens are molting (and it's not pretty)

If you have been to our farm recently, you might have noticed that some chickens look a bit ...bad: They have unsightly bald patches of skin that one would not expect in a healthy, happy chicken.

A molting chicken with bald back.
Everyone doesn't have to look like a model, right?!
Now I know that it's because the chickens are molting, but when I first observed the bald spots some weeks ago, I was at loss what the cause of such massive feather loss might be.
The assorted possible reasons included stress (I tried hard but couldn't think of any source of stress of our chickens), disease (other than bald backs, chickens appeared healthy), bad nutrition (for a while I actually increased the proportion of ready-made feed to make sure I wasn't screwing up nutritional balance with too much of local sources, but nothing changed.), skin parasites (I checked bad-looking chickens for mite and the like, and found nothing), pecking (there is clear hierarchy in the flock and small fights do occur, but I never witnessed the kind of aggressive pecking that would lead to such feather loss.), and roosters (repeated jumping on the hen's back can damage her feathers - this still seems to be the case for popular hens, even though we now have only one rooster.) None of these options looked plausible, and no wonder, the answer was much simple: our chickens entered the molting period.

Molting is a natural process usually occuring in late summer or in fall, when days get shorter and chickens finish their egg laying cycle (about 10-month long). Not all chickens follow the textbook description and some start molting earlier, some later, and even their molting patterns are individual. It can take two to four months to replace the old feathers with new ones, so we can expect chickens' shabby look to continue for a while.

A molting chicken, losing and regrowing all feathers at once
This is the worst-looking chicken in our flock. This girl is losing all
feathers at once (unlike other chickens who mostly have just bald backs)...

A chicken during molting. Lost feathers are replaced by new ones.
... but she's also regrowing them much faster than others
(the sharp 'needles' sticking out of the skin are new feathers.)

The aesthetic consequence of molting is temporary unsightliness, which is fine. The economic consequence is more serious - during molting, chickens lay fewer eggs, and of worse quality. Commercial egg farms deal with this "problem" in one of two ways: 1. they kill the chickens (and replace them with new ones); 2. they do forced molting - induce molt in the chickens by starving them for two weeks, during which they regrow their feathers quickly and start laying a lot of pretty eggs again for a few more months. This forced molting is considered animal abuse and banned in many countries, but not in Japan. I know of at least one small farmer raising hens in barns (平飼い)who does forced molting in his flock.

Which leads us to the question: What is the plan on our farm, which is, after all, a commercial operation. Needless to say, we won't do the forced molting. The plan has been to reduce the number of chickens by the end of this year. Of course reducing the number of chickens is euphemism for killing them, and that's where we bumped into a problem: we are not able to kill them. I tried and I couldn't do it. The line between a "pet" and an "economic animal" has always blurry on our farm. Just as most people would (and should) find it difficult to cut their cat's or hamster's throat and let it bleed out, so do we find it difficult to kill our chickens. We'll have to figure out what to do, and how to do it.

In the meantime, here are a few pics from yesterday. Title: Enjoying life, chicken version.
(Molting is only problem for humans.)

Free range chickens and goats. Solar sharing farm in Tsukuba, Japan.

Free range chickens on a solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan

Free range chickens on a solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan.

Free range chickens, solar sharing, Tsukuba, Japan.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Minto-kun died

Our goat Minto-kun died on Sunday.

We knew that Minto-kun wouldn't live long, but we didn't think he would die this soon. I don't know what to say. I will just explain what happened - it's explanation for our friends and customers who came to the farm and knew Minto-kun and liked him. Everyone who knew Minto-kun, liked him. He was such a charming character.

Minto-kun. Died on October 30, 2016.

Minto-kun and Akio-kun, always side by side.

A few days after Akio-kun died, Minto-kun suddenly fell ill too. One morning we found him lying on the ground, unable to stand up. It was a nightmarish dejavu just a few days after we found Akio-kun like that.
We took Minto-kun to the doctor where he received emergency treatment which saved his life that day. But after what seemed like a slight recovery, he got weak again. He was unable to stand but he still had appetite. We kept him warm and comfortable, with plenty of his favorite treats, but he was getting weaker. On Sunday afternoon he died. It was exactly one week after Akio-kun.

Minto-kun strolling around Akio-kun's grave. Still healthy.

Minto-kun a few hours after the emergency visit to the doctor,
eating his favorite persimmon :)

Minto-kun's last picture standing on his own (and in a very pretty garden.)

This will sound like a terrible cliche but it really seemed as if Minto-kun was so lonely after Akio-kun's death that he chose to join him rather than stay with us.
I know there must be a more scientific explanation, and I wish I had it. But we don't really know why Minto-kun suddenly got sick. For the three months that Minto-kun spent on our farm, he appeared to be healthy - steadily recovering from the malnutrition he suffered in his previous place. It's true that we never saw him running, but we thought that he was simply a goat that doesn't run. In fact it might have indicated irregular heart function. We also never saw him doing the 'second chewing' (chewing cud - ruminants put once eaten food from their stomach back to mouth where they chew it over, then finally digest), but we didn't pay much attention to it either. 'Maybe he's second chewing when we're not watching,' we thought naively. It was probably a sign of a serious digestive problem.

We didn't pay attention to these signs because overall Minto-kun seemed to be doing great - he was eating well, his eyes sparked when he saw his favorite treat, he would walk far away in pursuit of his favorite grass, he was lively and curious like a healthy goat should be.
In the hindsight I can see that Minto-kun's health was more fragile than we had realized. It was based on many improperly working internal systems that could fail at the slightest disturbance.

Our hypothesis - which cannot be confirmed - is that Minto-kun might have caught some minor virus or bacteria, probably from Akio-kun, that would have been harmless to a healthy goat (none of the other three goats on the farm fell ill), but it was fatal to Minto-kun, and Akio-kun.
※Addition: Akio-kun's and Minto-kun's illness could have been lumbar paralysis (also called cerebrospinal nematodiasis. In Japanese youmahi 腰麻痺). It's impossible to confirm, but the time of occurence (October) and clinical symptoms (physical weakness, motor dysfunction, inability to stand and eventual muscle paralysis) fit Minto-kun's and Akio-kun's case. It's a disease caused by parasitic roundworm Setaria digitata which is transmitted by mosquitoes. It doesn't cause problems in all goats that get it. The disease occurs only in the Far East countries (Japan, Korean Peninsula), so there is little information in English, but comparatively more in Japanese. The best description in Japanese is this (a bit old) article by Ayako Shiroto (National Livestock Breeding Center), published on the website of Japan Livestock Technology Association.

We couldn't find a veterinarian that would be expert on goats. So Minto-kun and Akio-kun were treated by a very good, animal-loving veterinarian who, however, doesn't know as much about goats as she knows about cats and dogs. We still appreciate what she did for the two.

Here's the last happy memory of Minto-kun and Akio-kun.

I hope they enjoyed the time with us as much as we enjoyed the time with them. I hope they knew how much we appreciated their unconditional trust, and that we took their trust seriously and did our best to protect them. We did our best, but it wasn't enough.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Akio-kun died

This was supposed to be a happy post about our goats Minto-kun and Akio-kun and their newly found friendship - a sweet, heartwarming story. But yesterday Akio-kun died. How easily a heartwarming story turns into a heartbreaking one. Most of the world doesn't care, but here in the microuniverse of our farm this was a very sad event.

Akio-kun was one of the triplets that Natchan the Mom brought to the world 7 months ago.

Akio-kun, standing on the mom's back. April 2016.

Goats, just like dogs or cats, have a personality. Akio-kun was a happy-go-lucky goat, playfighting with his brother but kind to everyone, both people and goats. He was the one who did not bully Minto-kun when he came to the farm as a malnourished orphaned baby goat. If Akio-kun was a human, he would be the kind of a gentle and easygoing friend that people like to have around.

Whenever I came to the farm, Akio-kun and I had our ritual: He came over to say Hello! and I would give him a bunch of his favorite grass over the fence. His siblings wouldn't bother to come all the way just to say hello to me, but Akio-kun always did. We were friends.

Akio-kun leaning over the fence, munching on a leafy treat.

Then in August, Akio-kun left for a new family. The family wanted a goat, so they got Akio-kun. I wasn't happy (I wished the triplets stayed on our farm) but these goats are not ours - we just provide space for grazing - so I have no say in the questions of their fate.
Akio-kun was gone and all I could do was to hope that he was lucky in the lottery of life and got a nice, caring family. Now I have a proof that hoping for the best is the most useless thing in the world.

About two weeks ago Akio-kun came back to the farm. Neighbors of his new "family" complained that he was crying too loud, so the family "returned" him. I wish the neighbors started to complain earlier.
At first I didn't recognized him. In less than two months he changed so much in both appearance and behavior that he was unrecognizable.

I don't know what exactly happened in his new home but Akio-kun looked like he didn't eat and  didn't get any attention for two months. He was badly undernourished, with a posture of a shrinking old man, passively standing and barely showing interest in his surroundings.

Akio-kun, October 12, 2016. 

Natchan the Mom rejected him, and would kick him badly with her horns, so Akio-kun moved in with Minto-kun. That's where the heartwarming story began. Akio-kun and Minto-kun became good friends.

Grazing together in the back of the farm.

At night. Minto-kun squeezed himself into Akio-kun's bed.

Together on the road...

... Akio-kun busy grazing, Minto-kun coming to check
the edibility of my camera. 

On a rainy day 

I hoped Akio-kun would recover, the terrible two months would be forgotten and Minto-kun and Akio-kun would happily live on the farm, friends forever, or at least until they die of old age. But that wasn't meant to be.
Minto-kun looked similarly miserable when he came to the farm, but recovered as soon as he had enough food and rest and attention. We made sure that Akio-kun too had all he needed, but natural recovery never came. It was too late when we called the doctor and found out that Akio-kun wasn't just underweight, he also had severe anemia, weak heart, bad blood circulation and ascites - accumulation of fluids in abdominal cavity. He got medicine to take but never got the chance to see if it helps. On Sunday morning we found him unable to stand. He died two hours later.

Good bye, Akio-kun.

Akio-kun was buried in the back of the farm.

My advice is, if you ever think of keeping a goat, think twice, and then again. Goats require everyday attention and care. In summer they might be able to live off the pasture (if you have a big one and make sure it has the right grasses on it), but in winter you have to supply huge amounts of feed (at least partly grass or hay based) every day. Goats don't have the concept of toilet and relieve themselves anywhere, including their bed, so it must be cleaned pretty much every day. This might be tiring if you don't really like the animal. Goats are social animals, they need company. Keeping just one goat in most cases means keeping an unhappy goat. No more heartbreaking stories of neglected animals, dogs, cats or goats.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A goat's moral integrity / New chicken Columbuses

In September I was on holiday. It was very enjoyable but then I had to return to Japan.

Photo from Rackovo sedlo, Tatry, Slovakia
Holiday (Rackovo sedlo, Tatry, Slovakia)

Now I'm back in Tsukuba and what a surprise, nothing changed, chickens and goats are here, as cute as ever, doing the same things as when I left a month ago. The only change is that the rice fields around were harvested and the grass and weed-trees on the farm switched to autumn mode (= slightly withered).

Chickens and clover on a sunny autumn day under solar panels
Sunny autumn mode.

Here are some recent happenings.

1. Minto-kun kindly keeps weeding neighbors' plots

When I'm at the farm, Minto-kun is allowed to go out of the chicken run. The intention was to have him help with vegetation control in the back of the farm, which is not part of the chicken run so the weeds tend to run wild.
Alas, there's a gap between intentions and reality. Instead of showing some integrity and helping on the farm, in 9 cases out of 10 Minto-kun strolls away to the neighbors' plots. We tried to explain that that's not what's expected of him, but Minto-kun has hard time understanding the puzzling human concept of dividing land into mine and yours by imaginary lines. "There are no boundaries. Follow the grass," is Minto-kun's credo.
Then he has to be carried back to the farm.

Minto-kun the baby goat munching on grass of his choice
"I want to break free" (The white dot in the middle.)

"I want to break free" Close up.

One of Minto-kun's favorite locations is the road.
Drivers are not happy.
But the flowers taste good!

2. New Columbuses among chickens

Right now there are two chickens who noticed how easy it is to fly over the fence. Interestingly Christine, the very first explorer on the farm, is not among them.
This time we haven't panicked as we did last year when Christine started her exploration journeys. We've been hardened by a year-long experience, and it seems that our neighbors too. Now I rarely get calls from strangers telling me about chicken-strolling-on-the-road emergency.

The two chickens spend most of their days out of the run, but always keep close to the farm and none have gone missing yet.
When it's mealtime, they shamelessly come back and ask to have the gate open so they can have their lunch, please.

Runaway chicken in the back of the farm. (Acceptable)
Runaway chicken in the rice field. (Somewhat acceptable)
Runaway chicken near the road. (Unacceptable)

That was about the news.

Btw I found this video of our chickens from about a year ago, when they were much younger and much inexperienced. It's all complete with an interpretation of the chicken's mental processes. You'll enjoy it.