Sunday, September 17, 2017

Why a fence for chickens won't work for goats (and vice versa)?

For the sake of our beloved chickens and goats, we are repairing the fence. We're still half-way, but here's a report anyway.

Drilling holes for new wood posts...

... hammering posts into the ground ...
... attaching wire mesh to the posts...
... and finally attaching wood planks over the mesh.

 Repeat on the next part of the fence.

The goal is to make the old fence both chicken and goat proof.

Chicken proof and goat proof are two very different things, as we learned after two years of experience with chicken & goat cohabitation.
Now we know what a perfect fence for both should look like.

Chicken proof and goat proof fence.
(That duck in the middle, that's wild.)

So why a fence for chickens won't work for goats and vice versa?

Because chickens are little flying birds while goats are big mammals with hoofs and horns.
Neither chickens nor goats have any respect for human-set boundaries (why should they?), but their ways of crossing the boundaries are completely different.

Fence and Chickens

With our old fence being just 1 meter high, smarter chickens easily flew over it. It wasn't okay, but somewhere deep inside we thought it was freespirited, funny and cute. Until some of the rice farmers around started spraying chemical weed killers on the slopes of their rice fields (where the runaway chickens liked to play). And - that was the final straw - until one chicken was hit by a car (she died instantly). The driver didn't even attempt to slow down. Clearly, not everyone thinks a free ranging chicken is funny or cute.

For a fence to really protect chickens from outside enemies like this, it should be more than 2 meters high, so part of the current repair process is making the fence higher. We're making it about 1.8 meters high, which is less than the ideal 2 meters, but still a substantial and hopefully sufficient upgrade of chickens' safety.

By the way, our chickens' run, to which they have unrestricted access all the time, has an area of about 580 square meters, which I'm confident is big enough to keep them happy, without the need to fly out and play on the road.

Fence and Goats

The old fence - made of simple wire mesh attached to a few wooden posts - was bound to give in to the goats.
In defense of goats, their intent was never destructive, it's just that they like doing all things anti-fence:
1. rubbing their backs against wire mesh. This clearly give goats great pleasure. Unsurprisingly, after a while posts start to lean and mesh to tear.
2. fiddling with the fence with their horns. This must be so fun! It's also the best way how to tear up the mesh, making holes in it (through which then chickens can escape).
3. using the mesh as a step to reach for things over the fence. Like this:

Natchan reaching for her favorite shrub over the fence.

The same scene from the opposite side.
You can see her hoof on the mesh.

In order to make the fence goat proof, it's necessary to
1. use more and thicker posts to support the fence.
2. attach wood planks over the mesh so it can withstand goat pressure.
These two things are now a part of the repair process.

This is how we've been spending many of our no-rain weekends and some weekdays for the past one and a half months. I wrote this blog today only because it's raining.

God bless chickens and goats for keeping us busy.
(In fact chickens think I'm the god.) (Goats are atheists.)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What is a "quality" egg

Our chickens are now two years and three months old and this affects both the quantity and the quality of the eggs they lay.
Chicken in clover: So what.
Exactly. (But some people seem bothered.)
In this post I'll explain one specific "quality" issue related to hens' age - something that most people don't know about.

When we talk eggs, we usually have in mind several indicators to tell us how fresh and/or how good quality an egg is. We look whether  the shell is strong and hard to break, whether the yolk is firm and has the 'right' color (whatever that means) and whether the white is thick and upstanding.

These may look like pretty commonsense rules, but at least that part about egg white - that's only half of the story. The other half is worth knowing too, especially  if you buy eggs from a small farm where chickens might live longer than commercial layers on large, industrial style farms.

Egg white

We usually consider it an indicator of freshness.

Last Judgment, egg version

That's what egg industry tells us and what we, consumers, believe. And in general it's true - a firm, thick egg white is usually a sign of fresh egg.

Except, it’s not always true.

That’s what I learned from our chickens, who are now far beyond the working age of laying hens in the "modern" egg industry, where hens are normally disposed of at 17-18 months of age. Ours are 27 months old and about to announce their retirement, but at the moment they still lay eggs, which we still sell, although only to the last few most understanding customers who care about the chickens as much as about the eggs.

So here's the thing about the egg white, the fancy word for which is albumen.

Egg albumen introducing himself with a big smile. Yolk does nothing.
There are two types of albumen in every egg: thick and thin
In this article we're talking about thick albumen.

Albumen is typically thick and upstanding when the egg is freshly laid, but becomes thinner as days pass, especially if you store eggs in a warm and humid place, or in a place where temperature frequently changes.

Albumen height

Albumen height is considered such an important indicator that in the egg industry and egg science, it is measured with a tripod micrometer and used as a basis for calculating Haugh unit - a ubiquitous measure of egg freshness since it was invented in 1937.

Less known is the fact that as hens grow older, their eggs' albumen height naturally decreases. It is a normal change - a result of hens' reproduction organs aging.

In case of our flock, the differences are also quite individual – some hens still lay eggs with firm egg whites, others not so. All hens are exactly the same age, live in the same environment, eat the same diet and are all healthy – so the difference can only be attributed to individual genetic makeup.
Also, our hens are not really "old" yet. With a natural life span of 8-10 years, a two-years-and-three-months-old hen (our flock) is not that much older than a one-and-a-half-year-old hen (slaughter age of laying hens).
As for those eggs with lower albumen height, everything else is just fine - the egg looks fine, the shell is strong and the yolk is firm. It’s just the egg white getting flatter. Despite it being a natural consequence of the hen's age and genes, this egg, even though it's fresh, would be considered by ordinary consumer as old and of lower quality.

if a healthy hen lays a pretty, perfectly edible egg whose only fault is thinner egg whiteis that really a quality issue, or is it just a man-made fussiness? 
I wondered.

If it is a real quality issue, low albumen height surely must be a sign of some other profound defect. It can't be just the fact that the egg spreads too much on a frying pan for your sunny side up, right? Two hypothesis come to mind. 

Hypothesis 1: Maybe low albumen height is a sign of fewer nutrients. Like, less vitamins or minerals in the egg?
I checked it out and the answer is: Nope, it seems that albumen height has nothing to do with nutritional content. This conclusion is based (besides common sense) on the fact that I simply could not find any evidence - no data, no scientific studies, no observations or even a discussion - about the relationship between albumen height (or Haugh unit) and nutritional value of eggs. Given how much and how thoroughly eggs have been studied and tested and researched around the world for decades, the fact that there is no information at all on this topic seems like a reliable proof that there is no such relationship. The closest I could find was this study of partridge eggs, which found that "[t]here is no effect of the storage time on the mineral content of the egg." [1] 

Hypothesis 2: Maybe low albumen height means that you can’t whip it into good foam? That would be real functional deficiency for both processing industry and individual consumers who like baking.
So I checked it out and the answer is: Nope, lower albumen height does not cause lower whipping volume. In fact, it causes higher whipping volume, as practical experience and this study shows. So you get more whipping foam out of less firm albumen. [2]
In other words, we have two egg quality criteria - albumen height and whipping volume - that contradict each other. SO SMART.

So now we know that low albumen height is not a sign of some deeper quality problem. It's rather a human-invented aesthetic function of fried eggs with about as much substance to it as saying that a big apple is of higher quality than a small apple, because ... because.


But at least it is an indicator of freshness, right?

Well, no. I already mentioned that albumen height decreases with hens' age, and that there are individual differences between hens. This is not just personal observation, it's what research, such as the study mentioned above, shows: although it is true that albumen height decreases with storage, it is also a heritable trait and is biased by the age and strain of hen, therefore it is not a reliable indicator of freshness. By the way, a better indicator of freshness would be albumen pH, which "is determined almost entirely by storage time and may be more useful than albumen height for measuring egg quality." [2]

To sum it up, when an egg has thin egg white, it can be either because the egg is old, or because the hen is "old" or because the hen inherited the trait from her parents.

Most people don't know this because they don't keep backyard flocks anymore and the egg industry has only been telling us the first part of the story - that albumen height decreases with storage.

What does it mean for hens?

For hens it means that they are killed too soon.

Of course, both quality and quantity of eggs goes down by the time hens are 17-months old. By then, a flock of 100 hens would lay about 65 - 70 eggs a day, as compared to more than 90 eggs/day during peak lay period. That's the quantity part. As for quality, the major issue with older hens is thinner egg white explained above.

Whether you interpret the 65-70 eggs as too many or too few as a threshold for culling the whole flock - that's a matter of opinion. Speaking for myself, killing the entire flock of healthy hens when they could still produce every day 65 - 70 perfectly okay eggs, whose only fault would be slightly thinner egg white, sounds like a terrible disregard for animal life. You certainly wouldn't kill all chickens at that point if they were your own backyard flock.

The problem with "modern" farming is that the value of an animal is inversely proportionate to the number of animals, in other words, the more animals you have, the less important an individual animal is. Large farms with tens of thousands of chickens simply get them on the truck and send them to the slaughter house. This is much different on our "farm" with less than two dozens of chickens.  We marvel every day how cute they are (although the rooster can be an as*hole) and then we kill them ourselves. I know it's unavoidable, but frankly, killing a chicken is not exactly a pleasant thing to do, especially not for the chicken. We want to reduce the frequency of slaughter sessions to minimum and so far we were able to do exactly that thanks to our customers who stayed with us and kept buying the eggs despite chickens' age.
Of course, our customers are special and I know I can't expect the same compassion and generosity from everyone.

But I still imagine how nice it would be if more people in the world were able to, both metaphorically and literally, see the hen behind the egg, as our customers can, and decide what is more important to them - a thick egg white that only young hens can produce, or a hen that had happy and (relatively) long life that she deserves, even if, towards the end, the egg white is not quite as thick as the egg industry has been telling us it should be.

Wanna know my opinion?
Oh, and I almost forgot. I guess you'd like to see what our hens' eggs actually look like. Here are four randomly chosen eggs from today morning. These eggs were laid by 2-years-and-3-months-old hens.

Actually, they look quite okay, don't they?

External links
Günhan S., Kirikçi K. 2017 Effects of different storage time on hatching results and some egg quality characteristics of rock partridge (A. graeca) (management and production). [Abstract]
Silversides F. G., Budgell K. 2004 The Relationships Among Measures of Egg Albumen Height, pH, and Whipping Volume. [Full text]

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Chickens and goats in the jungle


As summer arrived, chickens, goats and weeds keep us busy (so much for the excuse why there was no blog update for almost two months.) With the start of rainy season, chickens' playground - or, as chickens prefer to call it, Chickens' Republic - again turned into jungle.

Jungle is welcome because it keeps chickens in shade and (somewhat) cool(er). They would have much, much harder time without all the greenery around. But at some point, jungle becomes a bit of a nuisance - too many, too big weed trees are inconvenient even for the chickens.

Translation from Chickenspeak:
"Where are you, darling, I can hear you but I can't see you..."

So we decided it's time to step in and ask the goats for help. Three inhabitants of the neighboring Goat Kingdom kindly accepted our invitation.

Natchan the Boss on the Mission Unjungle

Goats' weeding strategy is to get the most delicious top leaves first:

But interspecies coexistence usually comes with challenges. In our case, there are exactly two:

Challenge 1: Goats love chickens' feed.

Goats' access to chicken run means access to chicken coop, where our hens and a rooster get their daily meals, which contain a lot of stuff that goats love too, like wheat, corn and okara. This is what happens then:

"Hello! ...Oh, yes it was delicious, thanks for asking."
(Natchan just finished her chicken meal.)

But we can't let goats eat chickens' food because, 1) we don't want chickens to be hungry, both because they don't like to be hungry and because their diet directly affects the quality of eggs,  2) chickens' feed also contains small amount of ingredients that goats shouldn't really eat, like oyster shells and fish powder. And we don't want goats to upset their delicate stomachs.

So the challenge is: how to allow goats to the chickens' playground while not allowing them into chickens' dining room, all at the same time  as chickens have free access to both.
The challenge was resolved by an old trick where you build a fence that goats can't cross, but you leave space at the bottom that only chickens can pass through.

Here's a chicken just passing through under the fence.

This sounds like an easy solution but getting the height of the bottom open space just right can be tricky - leave it too low and chickens will have hard time passing through (especially the rooster), leave it too high and a small crawling goat like Momochan will pass as well and head straight to the forbidden area.

Momochan and the chickens.

Momochan and the chickens, from different angle.

We are still working on this. Goat visits to chickens' coop are, um, not so frequent.

Challenge 2: Goats love cultivated plants as much as wild ones. 

On January 3, 2016 - a year and a half ago - we foolishly planted three persimmon trees in the chicken run, hoping that one day they would grow big and provide chickens nice shade in the summer (we didn't know yet that the naturally occurring weed trees would provide the same service free of our labor.)

January 3, 2016: Baby persimmons!

Arrows show where the baby trees were planted.

These three persimmon trees have since endured multiple goat attacks. They were repeatedly reduced to leafless sticks and the very fact that they survived is quite amazing. We've built about five different versions of protective anti-goat fence but every time it turned out we were too naive about Natchan's  ability to tear down every obstacle between her and those freshly grown young juicy persimmon leaves. BUT NOW, we said Enough is enough. Version 5.5 of anti-goat protective enclosure is unbreakable (until goat hackers come up with something new).

Nobuo, his assistant and a persimmon tree
(Version 5.5 of anti-goat enclosure in making.)

Nobuo, four assistants and a persimmon tree 
(Version 5.5 still in making.)

Anti-goat protective enclosure at work. Two days since it's launch and
persimmon trees are still surviving!

That was it about summer chicken jungle. More exciting stories coming soon... maybe, I hope.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How we killed 5 chickens and why

Belated news: About three weeks ago we killed five of our hens.

On our little farm this was the most massive killing so far, so it feels like I should mention it here.

It's not easy to write about killing our chickens. It wasn't easy to kill them in the first place. I don't want to be cynical (our chickens deserve better) or moralistic (our readers deserve better.) And I can't write poetry, so there's only one option left: a dry factual account.

So, we killed 5 hens.
This is one of them, just before having her throat cut.

One of our hens just before killing.
This was the first and the last time in her life
she was held by the wings like this.
(Getting ready for the throat-cutting position.)

Within minutes, the hen fainted and bled to death. Fast-forward twenty minutes, and this is what she (and her fellows) turned into:

How living creatures turn into food. Initiating and seeing that process first hand is so, so, so important.
Mysterious transformation.
When exactly does a living creature become food?

Hens were partly grilled, partly made into chicken soup.

Removing tendons from meat before grilling.

Chicken soup (Chicken bones are boiling inside. 
Floating on the top are onions, potatoes and a carrot.)

Meat had been soaked in sake (日本酒) for a few hours before grilling
Thanks to this magic trick it was tender enough and delicious. 
(Meat from a two-year-old chicken is usually too tough for grilling.)

How did we kill the chickens?

By cutting their carotid artery (major blood vessel in the neck).

Our instructor was Mr Hiroyuki Tanaka (田中啓之さん), farmer from a neighboring town of Ishioka who raises about 200 chickens,  sells eggs and sometimes organizes workshops where amateurs like me can learn how to kill, pluck, portion and cook a chicken (utilizing as much of it as possible.) We asked Tanaka-san to come to our place on this occasion.

Five chickens on the death row were separated from the flock the night before killing and their feed was withheld to clear their digestive track. It means they "fasted" for only about 12 hours and missed only one meal (breakfast). This, I believe, caused them almost no extra stress. (Some farmers recommend the no-feed period of 48 hours prior killing, others go for 24 hours. Cleaner intestines mean lower risk of 'spill-out' when butchering, but if you really care about chickens, the minimum of 12 hours should do.)

Why did we kill the chickens?

Born on April 28, 2015, our chickens are already two years old. Their biological lifetime is four or five times longer than that, but their lifetime as "agricultural animals" is normally less than two years.  In Europe, laying hens are usually slaughtered at about 17 months of age, in Japan similarly at 17-18 months or, if forced molting, which is still allowed in Japan, is applied, at around 23-24 months. (There are small differences between farms.)
Pretty short, huh.

If we go by the most common 17-18 month benchmark, chickens on our farm (now 24 months old) are already enjoying extra months of life (without ever experiencing forced molting).

Life of chickens on conventional versus our farm.

Click to enlarge

But by now, the flock as a whole lays fewer eggs, and some hens lay eggs of worse quality. The five hens killed this time were the ones laying less pretty eggs.

Two eggs laid on the same day by two different hens from the same flock.
The brownish egg on the left is okay. The whitish egg on the right 
is not okay (too fragile shell.)

This change in both egg quality and quantity is natural, it comes with age and nothing can be done about it. Of course all hens are as happy-go-fluffy as ever, regardless of their egg productivity. But the economic consequences for the farm are all too clear.

So we had to make a decision: Are we going to keep our chickens as "pets" (and not kill them); or are we going to stick to the original plan and treat them as "farm animals" (and kill them).

Needless to say, these categories are purely arbitrary - the chickens are the same in both cases. My ability to freely switch between "companion animal" and "farm animal" categories is a classic example of doublethink and the amazing human ability to hold two conflicting concepts in mind without feeling inconsistent and contradictory. Except, I do feel inconsistent and contradictory. But I still can beat that feeling with 'rational thinking.'
The 'rational thinking' in this case involved asking myself a question:

Would the chickens be better off if they were treated as "farm animals" from the beginning (so that I could be 'consistent')?

(My) answer: I don't think so. Our chickens definitely benefited from our inconsistent doublethink approach. They enjoyed the "companion animal" privileges all their life. Then they turned into "farm animals" on the very last day. In the ideal world, they could have stayed "companion animals" until they die naturally, but if that is not possible in the real world (not yet in 21st century), then the second best deal for them was the one they got.

Our chickens get Deal B.

By the way, there are over 130 million laying hens in Japan at this moment (Japan Poultry Association 日本養鶏協会 → click 成鶏羽数の推移). After spending their life in a cage, they are transported and killed en masse in a slaughter house. Maybe a farm like ours is an important alternative to those. So I decided that I'm not going to feel bad about killing our chickens. At least I will try.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Recent farm in pictures (chickens, goats, and sparrow droppings)

Here are a few recent pictures of the farms' permanent residents: the chickens, the goats, and the sparrows. Just in case you wondered how everyone was doing.

Portrait of a Lady
Chicken sifting through "mulch" (Compost-like thing made of
nicely decomposed autumn leaves and straw. Chickens love it.)

Chickens eating salad (overgrown Chinese cabbage from a neighborhood farmer).
Chickens would be great vegetarians if only they didn't like bugs so much.

Getting ready to bed
At work
After work

Nap time (Goats take their nap very seriously
and look very dead while napping.)

Nap time, interrupted.

Sparrows were here. (They left behind their trademark sh*t.)

Except for the sparrows and their annoying habit of eating chickens' meals and sh*tting on the panels, the farm is doing well.
I'll write more about the sparrow curse next time. THAT will be a rant.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Oh no, baby goats again! :)

It's because of the International Women's Day. Baby goats in Natchan's belly were bored and thought:

"Oh, it's Women's Day today, our mum deserves a present. Let's give her ourselves so she has something to celebrate!"

And they started to politely present themselves right before lunch on March 8.

The first one out.
Hi mom!

The second one out.
Where's the food?

All three out!
Hello world!

Natchan's first reaction: Wow, I feel so much lighter now.

Triplets' first reaction: Ugh, it's cold here, we should have stayed inside for another month.

After a mild cold shock, triplets got used to it, and they also discovered a cozy windproof bedroom full of straw inside their Great Goat Shed, and they started drinking mom's milk, which is the best energy drink ever.
Now all three are busy strategically splitting their time between three Major Life Activities: eating, sleeping and exploring.

Here's the family one day later, March 9:

Two boys and a girl. 
Goat smile. 100% natural.

Now the goats very successfully keep us distracted from actual work. Not that I'd be complaining. Being distracted by a baby goat is not at all that unpleasant.