Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Meat chicks - yea or nay?

If you had asked me last week what I thought of raising meat chickens, I would have said “BLEH.” This week I am feeling more positive about the experience.

Over a year ago our middle son decided to quit eating commercially produced meat. He told us chicken was the worst, due to inhumane conditions on the “chicken farms.”  We continued to eat store-bought chicken, but slowly began modifying our meat choices, in part so that he could eat dinner with us, and in part recognizing the validity of his concerns. (In our freezer right now are venison, free-range beef and squirrel.)

We have been chicken farmers for five or six years, mostly for the eggs, though we have occasionally stewed a surly rooster. After our son’s change of diet, we began mulling over the idea of raising meat birds – chickens bred specifically to be eaten, raised more compassionately, and not fed antibiotics and hormones.

After consulting with a neighboring chicken farmer, we decided to go for it. We took delivery of 50 Cornish Rock chicks (half for us, half for our neighbor) about a month ago.

We had no idea what we were getting into.

These chickens are eating, drinking and pooping machines. Their prime directive:  GROW! They fall on food like starving rats, pushing and shoving to get their share, squawking as they are stepped on by their inconsiderate mates. Because they eat so much, they excrete copious amounts – sometimes into the food or water, frequently on each other. Ugh.

By the time they were two weeks old, the brood pen was a stinking pit, despite our best efforts. Because the chickens were plucking each other’s feathers, they were half naked. These were the most smelly, unattractive creatures we had ever seen.

Just be glad I don't have smell-o-vision . . . 
After our fellow farmer took home his half of the chicks, the situation improved somewhat. The chickens feathered out a bit more and needed less food and water. They were still stinkers, though. Flies swarmed the pen. We began to feel some sympathy for professional chicken farmers.

In the process of breeding these chickens to grow fast, their brains must have shrunk. Few of these birds know how to scratch the ground.  They won’t go in or out of an enclosure on their own. In short, they are even dimmer than a regular chicken, and that’s saying something.

Last Sunday we moved them out of the brood pen and into the chicken yard, a.k.a. Chicken Gitmo. My husband is still working on the prison yard for the chickens (see I love/hate chickens), but those stinky chicks could not live in that box another day.

Lounging in Gitmo.  It was 96 degrees today, and the poor things were panting!
Ah, much better. No longer do they frantically stampede the food dish. They walk around some and peck at delectable morsels on the ground, as any respectable chicken would. They don’t feel the need to snatch each other’s feathers, and so they are more appropriately clothed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they don’t stink.

Live and learn, right? We were not prepared for their growth rate. These 4-week-old chicks are three times larger than our 5-week-old regular chicks. They need to be moved out of the brood pen into a larger yard by two weeks. We shouldn’t start with so many in the brood pen, either – 25 might be a better number.

The next step will be processing these chickens when they are about six weeks old and weigh six to eight pounds. This will be a very large, unpleasant job.

After all that work is done, the expenses calculated, and the first chicken eaten, a family decision will be made. Shall we do this again? Was it worth it? I’ll keep you posted.

Favorite spot in the garden:

The big bloomer today is the autumn or cherry sage (Salvia greggii). This is the workhorse in my garden, gaily blooming without much attention off and on from spring through fall, and attracting hummingbirds and butterflies. All I have to do is prune them back once or twice a year. I have a long skinny bed along a north wall with a variety of shades, from white to purple, but those aren’t blooming yet. Perhaps it will be the favorite for another day!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What is that rain lily?

My mother-in-law took this great photo of rain lilies at her house.
Don't you dare ask me which species it is.
 In my previous post, I wrote that I would observe the bloom cycle of our rain lilies and attempt a conclusive identification. Bowing to the clamor of my readers, here is the result.

I spent some time planning how to scientifically observe, record and complete this project. Then I took action.

Rain lilies open up on the second or third evening after a good rain. To correctly count, I should get up the first morning after they bloom and mark out a one- or two-foot-square patch containing rain lilies. I should take a picture, and then count the number of blooms in said square.

Our good rain came in two batches, and the website said the lilies bloom the second or third evening. Might more blooms emerge the next evening? I should go out the next morning and do a second picture and bloom count.

This painstaking process should be continued for the duration of the bloom cycle. After careful observations, I would be able to accurately determine how long the blooms stayed open, thereby ascertaining one fact needed for identification.

Did I do all that? Nah.

First of all, I should state that I am a trained journalist, not a botanist. My observations are much less formal, and therefore, much less reliable. I think the blooms lasted in the two-day range. This is an inconclusive finding, as the Hill Country rain lily blooms one to two days, and the evening star blooms two to four days.

I also used my trusty ruler to measure the height of the bloom stalks. According to the Wildflower Research Center, Hill Country rain lily stems are 5 to 9 inches high, while the evening star rain lily stems are 12 inches high. The majority of our stems fell in the 7- to 10-inch range, with some taller and some shorter – a check in the Hill Country rain lily column.

(Insert mental picture – tall, skinny stork of a woman hunched over in a field, wielding a ruler, scurrying from bloom to bloom measuring stalks.)

Finally, I decided I should check one more wildflower source, Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country by Marshall Enquist.


Mr. Enquist informed me that both of these species grow in our area, but that the Hill Country blooms in the spring, and the evening star blooms primarily in the fall. Also, he breezily told me that one can easily tell them apart by measuring the length of their floral tubes; Hill Country is 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, while eastern is 3 to 7 inches long.  I rushed out to measure one (yes, one is blooming even now – six days after the last rain), and said tube was 1½ inches long.

My finding:  The beautiful blooms recently decorating our land are Hill Country rain lilies (Cooperia pedunculata).

I leave you with two morals from this experience. One, you should consult several sources when seeking to identify a plant. Two, don’t choose me as one of them.

Favorite spot in the garden:

Not a whole lot is blooming in my garden right now, despite the recent soaking rain. I guess the plants were just too depressed, and needed the nourishment for survival, not procreation. I decided my favorite spot today would be whatever picture turned out best. Wouldn't you know, two pictures turned out well.

The spineless prickly pear (Opuntia ellisiana) is blooming
for the first time since it was planted five years ago.
I shoot with a Kodak EasyShare DX7440, and recently I have been on the verge of lobbing it out into the yard to shatter on the limestone. I have had some difficulties with close-ups. It can't possibly be the operator's fault.

But these two photos came out well, so perhaps the camera will live a little longer.

I know you all have petunias, but isn't it pretty with the rain beading up on the satiny petals?
(It is drizzling today in Hays County!)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blooms on the hill

The big bloom news on the hill today: rain lilies! They are blooming exuberantly on roadsides and in fields, after receiving the first influx of rain this bloom season. This is the first good wildflower showing of 2011 in central Texas - and it's mid-May!

My daughter and I think we may have two kinds of rain lilies here - the Hill Country rain lily (Cooperia pedunculata) and the evening star rain lily (Cooperia drummondii). We are going to observe how long the blooms last to make a final determination. Both of these open in the evening a few days after a good rain, but one (the Hill Country) lasts one or two days, while the other lasts two to four days.

We all know the expression, "the grass is greener over the septic tank." Over our septic field, the wildflowers are running amok. We are supposed to keep this area neatly mowed, but mowing happens rarely down there. Today, it is a riot of Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera - pictured at right), Texas thistle, and silver-leaf nightshade.

Only a few things are blooming in my beds, but that makes the ones that are all the more appreciated!

Gray santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) is another plant that flourishes
here without supplemental water.

Black and blue salvia (Salvia guaranitica)
Rock rose (Pavonia lasiopetala) furled up
as if it is concealing a treasure.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Party Animals

There’s a party on my porch.

Not that kind of party, though we’ve had those, too. We have noticed recently some flying insects congregating on a hanging plant late in the day. When a human passes by, some of them fly out and buzz said passerby, encouraging her to “move along, move along now.” During daylight hours, the numbers are much reduced. Upon closer inspection, we don’t see any kind of nest.

Time for a science lesson!           

I sent my daughter out with her bug trapper. Her brother gave her a battery-operated contraption that looks like a water gun. She turns it on and points it at the desired specimen. It suctions the bug into a small, clear canister. She closes the canister (using a rotating magnifying glass lid), and detaches it from the “gun.”

That sounds very clinical, but in practice it’s not usually so clean a catch. On this night, she stretched out her arm towards the infested plant while leaning as far away as she could, disturbed wasps buzzing around her head.  I scurried inside, to watch through the window. Hey, someone’s got to stand back and supervise.

After a bit of effort and bravery, she caught one for us to closely examine and identify. Hurrah!

We retrieved our trusty Texas Insects book (A Field Guide to Common Texas Insects, Drees & Jackman). My daughter paged through the pictures and found a likely looking suspect:  Blue mud dauber (Chalybion californicum). We turned to the description. While our insect looked like a blue mud dauber, it was described as a solitary wasp, and the creatures on our porch were definitely social. Very social. Upwards of 50 little pals were hanging out together, discussing their day, talking about girls, bemoaning the dry conditions, singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.”

We next googled these wasps, and found a very informative blog, Bug Eric, which explains that the males, whose only job is to procreate (what a life!), spend their days sipping nectar, sap and honeydew (secretions from aphids and other scale insects – ugh), then gather together at night to “sleep it off.”

One disturbing thing to know about these wasps is that they prey on black-widow spiders, using them to feed offspring in mud nests appropriated from other kinds of mud daubers. I’ve not seen any of these spiders, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t here.

It’s possible that we’ve misidentified our wasp. The Chlorion aerareum, or steel-blue cricket wasp, is larger and likes to hunt – wait for it – crickets.  I haven’t found any description of these congregating as ours do, and it is not listed in my handy dandy field guide. So, I choose to believe we have blue mud daubers, even if that means we have black widows lurking about, too.

Party on, little dudes!

Out the kitchen window - what is this foreign substance?
Favorite spot in the garden:

Today my favorite spot is my entire property, as it has at last been rained upon! Night before last, a scary storm blew through, dropping 1 ½” of rain and some larger than pea-sized hail (no damage that we know of). Another storm passed through yesterday morning, dropping nearly another inch of rain.

See the thirsty plants gulping nourishing rain!
It looked like August outside two days ago, or as my husband wrote, it was “dry as a week-old biscuit in Terlingua.” We had received no appreciable rain since January. The grass was dormant, and dust flew when you scuffed your feet. Yesterday morning, I could see some grass clumps beginning to green already.

Blessed rain!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Let there be light!

Light. Have you ever noticed how the right light can make the mundane, the ordinary, into something sublime?

Earlier this week while photographing the prairie brazoria I looked up to see the light doing truly interesting things to the spineless prickly pear. The next day I noticed how the purple oxalis turn a lovely wine shade when backlit by the morning sun.

Voila, a blog post is born.

As I’ve been thinking about this post, a song lyric kept running through my head that I've always thought was perfect. It has nothing to do with plants, but it does have to do with light:
            “All at once you look across a crowded room
            To see the way that light attaches to a girl”
            (A Long December by Counting Crows)
It’s a beautiful world, and sometimes the right light makes it even more so!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Living in a natural world.

This roadrunner was outside my window this afternoon.
We live in a rural subdivision on 13 acres.  We wanted to live where we could experience nature, be a part of its cycles and be amazed by its wonders. As is sure to be the case, when you put yourself in the middle of the natural world, sometimes you bump up against – well, nature.
Last Monday, upon hearing our dog erupt into barking (unusual during daylight), we looked out to see a coyote – twice. Once, it was within 20 yards of our house. We figure there are a few possible explanations for such sightings.
First and foremost, we took delivery last week of 50 meat chicks. These are fast-growing chickens we plan to eat. They are currently living in a brood pen on the porch of our storage building. They emit a high-pitched cheeping that shouts to any sharp-eared predators, “EAT ME! C’MON, I’M A TASTY MORSEL!!” As further proof for this theory, Iris lit up barking again today and ran in that direction, though I did not see a coyote.
Other explanations put forth included 1) it’s thirsty, 2) it’s trying to lure Iris out to the pack, or 3) (my contribution as head worrier), it’s rabid. I told my girl to stay close to the house for a few days.
We’ve also crossed paths with a few snakes. My husband found a 5.5-foot rat snake in our chicken coop last Tuesday morning with four lumps distending its body. Those would be three of our newly hatched chicks and one egg.  While we espouse a live and let live philosophy with critters, snakes in the chicken coop are exceptions.
Several weeks ago at dusk I found a snake tangled up in the poultry wire Dan had put down to protect my beds from rampaging chickens. Husband gone, I called on my nineteen-year-old son to consult on identification and disposition. He decided it bore some resemblance to a cottonmouth (poisonous), and as it was near the house, it, too, was dispatched.
It sounds like we are cold-blooded snake killers, but we are not. My daughter loves to hold the non-poisonous varieties. She has decided she might like to be a herpetologist, after having a ball python wrapped around her neck a few weeks ago.
Less exciting but still fun, I recently met up with a tarantula as I was out walking by flashlight.  Walking sticks have begun to appear on the outside walls of the house this week, and my daughter has discovered she can pick them up and carry them around without repercussions (i.e., they don’t bite). We also have lots of roadrunners, and see them multiple times daily as they scurry past on their never-ending quest for snake or lizard snacks. With binoculars, I can sometimes see a lizard hanging out of one’s beak. We also have the ubiquitous squirrel and white-tailed deer, and an occasional rabbit.
For all the cool critters we do see, there are hundreds of them out there that we never glimpse, scurrying through the underbrush, slithering through the leaf litter, taking a sip of our water, climbing the trees. I must keep my eyes peeled!

Favorite spot in the garden:
Outside my office window, in a very dry bed that receives rain only from roof run-off, prairie brazoria (Warnockia scutellarioideshas volunteered and multiplied. This   native blooms April through June in calcareous soils in central Texas. With abundant rainfall last year, they grew en masse, but this year their number is fewer. I am so happy to see them, the few, the proud, the prairie brazoria!