Last night was, well, a lesson in humility.
We pride ourselves on our ability to look at our livestock and see a bit about their world view, and act accordingly. I know that the pigs want a place to roll in mud, but also a dry place to sleep. I know that the turkeys can't have square brooding pens. The list goes on... but there is ALWAYS something you miss, or overlook.
Yesterday, I was feeling a bit under the weather, and we needed to move the chickens to a new pasture. It usually gets done in the morning, but we decided to wait until mid-day. This was the first mistake. Herding chickens is really only effective if you can lure them with chicken feed. And, they need all day to re-set their internal GPS to know where their coop is. Chickens have like a homing sense- they orient themselves to their coop, and always return to it. But it's really about location, rather than a coop. The coop is in a specific place, and they know that place (not the structure) means home for the night.
By the time we moved them, not only were they full, as we had already fed them once and they had been foraging all day, but, it was also warm enough where laying underneath the shade of some brush was vastly more appealing then following us to the new section. We tried everything, those damn chickens just wouldn't move. So we left the new fencing open, so they could wander in, left grain in the pen, and assumed they would make their way over before nightfall. SECOND mistake- they did, in fact, eat the feed, but because they weren't forced to stay there, they still didn't re-set the chicken GPS, and instead returned to the old section of pasture.
By the time we went back out there, they were motivated to move for feed, but they were also dedicated to settling down for the night (close to dusk). So they merrily followed me back into the pen, ate their before bed rations, and then promptly and remarkably determined, began forcing their way through the electric fencing back to where they still believed the coop was (despite it being open and closer next to the feed). They would rather get zapped then even think about looking at where the coop had moved to. This was completely our fault. We know how chickens work, but we were so determined to get them to new pasture before the week that we did things out of order. So our punishment was, we had to wait for them all to go to sleep (on an empty plot where the coop used to be) and then carry them over to where the coop was now, which will reset their chicken GPS overnight. Sigh. I'm not sure the punishment fit the crime, but it rarely does, I suppose.
This is just evidence of some bigger plans we have for the farm. We need to have multiple sections of pasture for chickens already fenced in, with really, really good fencing- so you can always move them in the morning, rather then breaking down/setting up the electronet when the birds need to move. If we had the whole pasture fenced, we could have just opened up a new section in the morning no matter how lousy I felt. There is something to be said about the flexibility of equipment we use, but it's time, at this scale- to have a more permanent set up to cut down on the labor headaches.
I'm grateful for these moments though, in a way. I can now visualize clearly exactly the set up we want to have to expand, and make things manageable. It's really good to learn these lessons. Or, at least that's what I tell myself when I'm hauling birds in the dark.
In fall, when we are getting closer to the end of the season, it seems like every year I have a stroke of what else we want to do and how we can get there. Imagine you're looking around seeing this kind of a mess you've made, this glorious haphazard project- and you still see all of the way you have to go. Sometimes it's almost crushingly overwhelming, the vision vs. the reality- but it's also profoundly hopeful. And every time someone comes up to the farmer's market talking about how our chicken really is "the best chicken ever", I keep that close. I have to keep it close, I believe in how we do things, and someday, we'll have it set in a way that I think that vision in my head, with the nice fencing and the tidy pastures will reach its full reality.
There's more too. Sometimes, I think about how we could expand, how we would add more experiences to the farm, invite more people to participate in fun ways. I imagine horse drawn wagons to pumpkin patches, rows of hops...quail dinners. I keep those dreams a little closer, because there is so much still to do to get there. But that's what keeps the passion going. In reality, if my mind didn't wander into those "we could" territories the "we have to" would be too much.
I guess what it comes down to is that every chicken carried is a lesson learned. And every lesson learned is fodder for that ideal vision we keep striving for. There are worse ways to live.