Monthly Archives: February 2016

Helping Shaun Stand on His Own Two Feet

As farms grow they typically do not have the luxury of time to spend on individual animals with various aliments, challenges, etc. In fact, efficient farms foster those things that grow and survive well in their particular environment, whether it be a specific animal breed, crop or plant variety. We certainly endeavor to be a very efficient farm, but our hearts also creep up on us and we find ourselves from time to time nursing animals back to health (with little or no financial argument to do so). Our sister, Jennifer, has often brought back sickly bottle lambs from the brink of death, or pulled a calf during birth minutes before all hope was lost. Such was the case with a little chick who recently came to the farm with a horrible case of splayed leg.

Splayed leg is a condition where a chick’s muscle structure does not hold it legs straight and they end up either stuck in the spits left-and-right or front-and-back. The chick normally cannot walk in this condition and in a commercial setting would almost certainly be killed by the other chicks or would die of starvation and/or dehydration. However, there is an easy fix.

We recently moved a group of 100 chicks into our brooder, and buried at the bottom of the pile was “Shaun” (my kiddos named him a few days later ;-). Shaun could not walk was facing a very short life. The following article describes how we helped Shaun learn how to walk…

Baby chicks normally get their feet under them within minutes of hatching and are up and walking in less than an hour. Chicks with splayed legs don’t have the muscle strength in either one or both legs to properly walk. If you catch it early enough (first 2-3 days of life) the condition can be corrected.

"Shaun", a 2-day-old chick unable to walk with a condition called splayed or sprawled legs.

“Shaun”, a 2-day-old chick unable to walk with a condition called splayed or sprawled legs.

In the past I have used one of my daughter’s small hair bands to create a sort of soft leg shackle to hold the legs in place. This is made by simply taping the center of the hair band to create a small semi-rigid tether with a loop on either end. You can see an example here.

While this approach does work well, it is a little difficult to apply and it is not always rigid enough for really bad cases. Legs that are sprawled left-and-right can be pulled back together with a soft brace, but legs split front-and-back need something firm to keep the legs aligned up under the bird. For Shaun, I decided to make something a bit more rigid, reusable and easily applied and removed.

Materials required to build a simple but functional splayed leg brace of chicks.

Materials required to build a simple but functional splayed leg brace for chicks.

This is the final brace I made from a Lego and two hair clips.

This is the completed brace I made from an old Lego, two tiny hair clips and a tube of super glue. The whole thing is about 1.5″ wide.

I used a small Lego, two tiny claw clips from my daughter’s hair drawer and a tube of super glue. I carefully glued the clips to the Lego and then applied a few additional coats of glue just to make sure it was all held together well. The final result was quite clean and very easy for just one person to use. Not only is it functional, but it can be stored and used for years.

Once I had the brace built I let it adequately dry and then placed it on the Shaun. I then put the chick in a small box lined with a clean paper towel, a rolled up washcloth (dry), and a jar lid of food; all under a warm desk lamp. For the first few days I took Shaun our periodically and tried to encourage him to take a drink while sitting on his “new legs”. By day three I was able to move his water into his box and he could hop over, stand up and drink on his own initiative. It is now day 8 and he is almost jumping out of his temporary cardboard box house.

The little claw hair clips are perfect for holding the chick’s legs for the first week or so of life. It was loose around the ankles on day one and a little snug on day 7-8 (but not too binding). I guess it could be used for close to two weeks if necessary, but the legs should not take that long to correct anyway.

Here is "Shaun" the chick with his brace on. He quickly figured out how to move around once it was installed.

Here is “Shaun” with his brace on. He quickly figured out how to move around once it was installed. Noticed the curled foot on his bad side – it corrected itself once he started using his leg properly.

I kept the brace on for three days without taking it off. By day three his bad foot had opened up and he was able to hop around on his own accord and drink and eat as he pleased. (you can see his right foot curled up in the picture).

After day three I started taking the brace off to see the progress. While it looked more promising each day, he still needed a little more time to strengthen up. In the past this process has normally taken only 2-4 days, but Shaun had a really bad case.

The final thing I will do is increase the size of his box a bit and add a couple of other chicks (from the same hatching) in with him to re-acclimate him to the “real world” and let him learn to keep up with the others. It might be a bit too much to just throw him in with 100 other chickens and expect him to integrate immediately; after all, he’s spent his entire life in a box!

Below is a video of Shaun when we first took his brace off and he was able to walk successfully on his own. He’s now running all over the place.

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Managing Barn Cats

When we do tours of the farm I am always surprised how often the topic of barn cats comes up. Even though they seem to be a secondary aspect to a farm which primarily produces food, people seem to recognize the necessity and challenges of keeping cats around a farm.

Above (left-right): "Jonathan & Jonathan" (we can't tell them apart), "Booger" (for an unfortunate natural marking on his nose), and "Kelly" the black tortoise shell. Our daughter, Liliana, names all the animals on the farm. You' would have to ask here how these names were derived.

Above (left-right): “Jonathan & Jonathan” (we can’t tell them apart), “Booger” (for an unfortunate natural marking on his nose), and “Kelly” the black tortoise shell. Our daughter, Liliana, names all the animals on the farm. You’d have to ask her how these names were derived.

First, let me begin with the “Why”. Why even keep cats on a farm? Our father has preached on this topic since we were kids. There is a sort of cosmic equilibrium between cats, snakes and mice/rats. If that equilibrium gets out of balance horrible outcomes will ensue. If you have a farm you certainly have grains and vegetables around which attract mice/rats (m/r). The m/r in turn attract snakes. Snakes are good, and even welcome on our farm, up and until the point where our children are naming the copperheads. So, we bring in the cats to reduce the m/r and thus reduce the snakes.

It all seems straight forward until you get one of these populations out of balance. We have looked up in the rafters of our barns in the past and literally seen 100’s of mice at night. We have over-reacted and found ourselves looking up in the rafters a few months later and seeing dozens and dozens of cats. I honestly cannot say that an over population of cats is any less sanitary than an over population of m/r.  I also speak from experience when I say a poorly managed population of cats can spiral out of control just about as fast as a population of m/r.

So, we have learned to live with cats…, and m/r…, and even snakes in small controlled populations. If all is in balance we have very few issues with m/r and we might find one snake per year in one of our barns, maybe even just one every couple of years.

This brings us to how we manage barn cats. We have tried to adopt stray or feral cats on numerous occasions. Our county even has a $10 barn cat adoption program. 100% of the barn cat “adoptions” we have tried ran away within days of release. As noble an idea as it is, we no longer do it. We simply don’t have the time to invest just to watch our investment run off into the woods never to be seen again. What has worked for us very well is to find weaned kittens (any variety will do) and bring them to the farm young. We keep them in a large crate for one week (in the barn) with water, food and litter, and a box with an old towel. We then move all those components to a location where we want them to stay and allow them begin exploring and making the farm their home.

At around 5-6 months of age we round up the cats and take them all to get fixed – hence the population control. Our county has a low-cost neuter/spay program for $35/cat. We pay an extra $5/cat for a pain medicine shot not only because it helps the cat cope, but equally it keeps the cat groggy, less stressed and easier to handle on the way home. We do not purchase cones of shame, no-lick sprays, monogrammed cat sweaters or catnip-stuffed mice toys – avoid the up-sells. Back to the farm and back to the large crate for a week with all the former items for some time to heal and not chase things around. After that they’re good to go – official barn cats!

If you don’t fix the cats they will breed like rabbits (I’m not too sure that saying shouldn’t have been “breed like cats”). Here’s what will happen; the females will find an obscure place to have their litter. Her kittens will be wild due to their lack of imprinting with people and it will be very difficult to catch them to get them fixed, and the cycle will start all over. The males will mostly run off looking for other females, except for the “new” males who will all of a sudden show up looking for your females. The remaining males will darn near kill each other competing over their territory. All that goes away if they are fixed. Calm, easy-going mousers with no drive to kill each other or run off somewhere.

We feed our cats only once a day and not too much. Fat, lazy cats are no use to us, they belong in window sills in the city. While we don’t expect them to live on m/r alone, we do expect them to work for their keep. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “if a man will not work he shall not eat.” We believe this verse should also apply to cats.

Jonathan and Booger enjoying their morning grub.

Jonathan and Booger enjoying their morning grub.

We keep a lot of chickens on the place and here is what we have discovered about combining cats and chickens. Cats should first be introduced to mature chickens, preferably a large, possessive rooster with a flock of hens. This fella will do more for training a barn cat about respecting chickens then you ever could. We have never had a barn cat mess with a mature chicken. Having said that, we do not let our cats near chicks, as they will make short work of them. Most chicken breeds around 6 weeks old (with some protection) seem to be fine – our cats rarely even give them a moment’s attention. We do employee electric net fences quite a bit in our operation so that is also a factor.

We are also careful to keep cats out of seedings and plant starts as well, as those will quickly become litter boxes and sunning beds. We once had a couple cats play for some hours in a germination chamber and destroyed half a season of tomato and pepper starts.

So, for better or worse cats are something we believe belongs on a farm. While they do not directly produce anything profitable, they are a key management tool in helping to keep some balance in the life of the farm …and our 6-year-old daughter loves them; probably more than they want to be loved most of the time.

If you have any thoughts or tips regarding barn cats we would live to hear about them. Just share your comment below or email us.