Westward the Chickens: The Great Roundup, A (Mid)Western

Folks, turn on your deep, gravelly Sam Elliot cowboy voice as you read this today. Go ahead and put in your dip o’ chew. Things are gettin’ a little mid-western ’round these parts. This here ain’t no Louis L’Amour, but it is a bona fide true story.

Winter was a comin’ on the midwestern horizon. As she stood on the front porch sipping her morning coffee, she gazed out upon the land. Miss Kathy felt the chill in the wind and knew the nip of winter was in the air. The steely gray skies on cloudy days had the suggestion that winter indeed was a comin’. Miss Kathy gazed out on the corn stubble horizon, and off in the distance, thought of the herd.

Chicken herd, that is. Well, maybe it weren’t even a herd anymore. Heat of summer and a few careless young hands led to a few losses, but the plucky chickens that survived were a fine lookin’ bunch.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

All summer long, the herd grazed contentedly in the eastern pasture, growing long and lean in the summer sun, spending nights up in the high country of the rafters of the breezy chicken house. But with winter approaching, Miss Kathy knew it would soon be time to make the drive, moving the herd to the wintering grounds of the snug barn by the house.

If left too long in their summer paddock, the trail approaching the chickens would become nearly impassable as the winter snow drifts blew in. The hired help was only waist high, the oldest wasn’t but six years old, and it wouldn’t take much of a snow to make it too difficult fer them to break a trail to water the chicken herd. Why, it wasn’t even a quarter mile to the summer chicken house, but that would be just far enough to leave chickens forgotten on stormy winter days.

And they couldn’t have that. They were depending on those chickens. Well, maybe they weren’t depending on them chickens, but the family was mighty hopeful. Why, some day, one of those hens just might lay an egg.

Preparations were made in the barn for the chicken herd. The little ones scattered in a snug layer of straw, and the trail boss rigged up a brand new window, feeling right proud to make something with his own two hands.

On the day of the roundup, the greenhorns filled their bellies with buttermilk pancakes and sippy cups of milk. The trail boss brewed coffee, preparin’ for the day ahead. When the last pancake was squashed into the floor and the baby had a dry diaper, it was time to head out. Well, maybe not. Turns out, the young crew all wanted to watch Saturday cartoons before gearing up to work.

It seemed to be a simple task. After all, this crew lived in Montana cowboy country for years, where they’d repeatedly seen pictures of John Wayne on display. They’d also watched City Slickers several times, causing Miss Kathy to become an eternal devotee to Jack Palance, the old cowboy. Yes, they reckoned they knew all they needed to know about chicken roundups, but as every chicken rancher knows, sometimes it is the simple tasks that wreak the most havoc on a soul.

They set out on foot, having no horses to ride and knowing horses would just squarsh the chickens, anyway. The roundup began just after high noon, starting off with several minutes of little greenhorns circling around the feathered herd. Plenty of squawking ensued. No surprise, the herd had no interest in being handled. Why, you might say they acted like a bunch of chickens. Indeed, they were.

The trail boss caught one of the plucky ladies, and a few minutes later, wrangled a second bird. The last few, however, proved to be mighty cantankerous. The chicken ranchers backed off, leaving the herd to cool down a bit. Those stragglers retreated to the high country up in the chicken house rafters, and with no fight in them, they were easily caught. Soon after, the entire chicken herd flocked together in their new winter barn.

All in all, it wasn’t a terribly long move, just a couple hundred feet west. Unknowing observers might have said, “Aw, how cute, a kid carrying a chicken across the yard,” not realizing that in fact, The Big Chicken Roundup of ’12 was in progress. Yes sir, that roundup took a solid fifteen minutes, maybe even twenty after helping the ranch crew put on shoes.

Reaching out her fingers fixin' to touch a chicken.

Reaching out her fingers fixin’ to touch a chicken.

With a successful chicken roundup completed, the green horns celebrated with trick riding on their bikes and a little tree climbing on Maple the Maple.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

That evening, as the sun sank in the west, the family headed out to the barn. Inside, four lively kittens scampered in the hay bales, chickens pecked at the sunflowers left over from the garden, and four half-pint kids ran circles around all of it. Just six months before, when they moved into the place, that building sat cold and empty. And now on that chilly fall night, the lights glowed warmly, and the barn teemed with a fullness of life that made the trail boss and Miss Kathy feel right content with living in the country.

This post linked to The Prairie Homestead’s Homestead Barn Hop #141.


“Chicken Day:” 110 Hot Chicks on the Farm

“Chicken Day” is now one of my favorite memories of the summer and my brother, Mike.  On June 6th, our chickens arrived.  I wrote the article below for the paper the following week.  Less than two weeks after Chicken Day, we lost Mike.  I’m so thankful and happy that we had this day together, where I got to “play farm” with my brother and learn some of his farming knowledge.  I wasn’t at all done learning from him, but I’m so grateful for the time we had together.  

We all had such a great time that we didn’t want the day to end.  Mike and Tricia and their kids, along with my sister, Karen, ending up staying for supper.  We made homemade pizza and popcorn and had a bonfire that lasted until we were too tired to stay up anymore.  A great day on the farm…

When we first moved in here a little over a year ago, a neighbor stopped by to visit. Looking at an empty barn, shed, and chicken coop, she said, “Why, you could have all sorts of animals here.”  I thought to myself, “Animals?  Nah, too much work.  Well, maybe I’d get a cat or two.”

At the time, we owned a dog.  That’s it.

By my count today, 144 animals reside on our little acreage:  the same old dog, along with goats, sheep, chickens, cats and kittens. Sometimes I’m still surprised that they’re here.  Did they just sneak in when I was doing laundry or something?


Mike helping my two-year-old hold a new fluffy chick.

The biggest batch of little critters arrived here in our minivan just a few days ago.  We headed down to Rushford and picked up an order of 110 balls of fluff from the Farmers Co-op.  In the days leading up to the chicks’ arrival, the kids kept mentioning them, wondering, and asking if they could maybe name a few.  I said yes, you can each name 27 of your very own.  Is that enough?  Eyes got pretty big at that point.

When I walked into the Co-op, four kids beat me inside.  They made a bee line for the little stack of peeping cardboard boxes, and my kids had the lids popped off before I even got inside the door.

It was Chicken Christmas.

My two-year-old had absolutely no need for instructions about proper chick handling.  Sure, I mentioned phrases like “be gentle,” “don’t squeeze it’s neck,” and “that chick can’t breathe when you do that,”  but she was far too busy doling out intense chick affection to be bothered with my ramblings.

Currently, four days after the chicks’ arrival, all chicks are alive and well.  I do count that as a fairly major success considering the amount of loving attention they’ve received over the last few days.

My nephew and son each snuggle a pile of chicks on their laps.

My nephew and son each snuggle a pile of chicks on their laps.

Our kids do recognize, though, that life is fragile, especially for baby animals.  On the ride bringing the chicks home, my very practical seven-year-old instructed her siblings that sometimes a little chick might die, but it would be okay because we would still have plenty of other chicks.  I believe she might have been coaching herself, as well.

On Chicken Day (because such events get names when you have kids), we even picked up fried chicken from the grocery store for lunch.  Perhaps that is in poor taste considering we carried a load of baby chicks home at the same time, but the kids giggled with excitement over fried chicken AND baby chicks, all in one day.  One of them even said, “Someday some of you little chicks will be delicious chicken, too.”

When the chickens arrived home, we had a full entourage of family here to take part in the excitement.  My brother, Mike (our resident farming expert), along with his family, came out and helped set things up in the coop for the chicks.  Two of my sisters came out, too, and a slew of cousins all spent some time helping out with the new little chicks, holding them, and picking out favorites.

A flock of cousins play with the new chicks.

A flock of cousins play with the new chicks.

We set up feeders, waterers, and heat lamps (hence the title “Hot Chicks,” of course), and soon after lunch, 110 busy peeping chicks hopped around in their new home.  We now have 60 fluffy yellow broilers, 25 Production Reds that will someday give us brown eggs, and 25 Americana chicks that will lay the kids’ favorite: blue-green eggs.  The most-loved chick in the bunch is a mix-up: one rogue all-black chick that somehow arrived with our delivery.

And what, exactly, do we plan to do with that many chickens?  Our oldest two kids possess some grand ideas about eventually selling the eggs and making “lots of money.”  We did big math in simple terms, and told them if they kept selling eggs, they could earn enough to buy their very own car when they reached driving age in 9-10 years.

Again, they had wide eyes.

They’re pretty helpful little kids, but I’m fairly certain the person that will actually be heading out to check on chicken welfare, especially when the wind chill is -30, is someone who earned the money for her first car a long time ago.

As if the excitement of 110 fluff balls and future earnings wasn’t enough, the day after the chicks arrived our kids discovered yet another surprise.  In the corner of the shed, in the hay where Lamby likes to sleep, I heard the mewing sound of a new batch of kittens.

In awe of the brand new baby kitten.

In awe of the brand new baby kitten.

All of the kids left the chicks to go check out the new surprise.  We headed to the corner of the shed and found the mother cat with five kittens, a few still wet.  As we crouched around her, I noticed that one was being born at that very instant.

Number six was black with an orange star on its head, which is just what my red-haired boy wanted on a chick of his own, but none had those markings.  It turned out that his request was answered in a baby kitten instead, and one that he got to see be born.

And then, just to blow our kids’ minds completely, our other pregnant cat had kittens the following day.  We now have two mother cats who curl up in the same nest of hay and share nursing responsibilities of the two batches of kittens.   Looks like I’ll need to readjust the animal count that I mentioned earlier.

Article written June 10, 2013.

Things that Make Life Worth Living…Fall Edition‏

The fall season is easy to recognize in Minnesota: it’s that time of year when Minnesotan Orange Vests stop carrying “Drive Slow” signs while hunting for pot holes.  Leaving the road sides and hot asphalt behind as winter approaches, Minnesotan Orange Vests migrate to the woods.  There, the native Orange Vests take up their rifles, on an eternal hunt for the elusive “tirty-point buck.”

While fall is appealing as that brief span between the end of road construction and the beginning of the snow flying, the beauty of fall extends way beyond the Minnesotan humor.  Fall is a glorious time of year around here.  Red leaves on the maples, yellow school buses on the road, orange pumpkins outside the stores, green combines in the field, and clear blue sky on crisp mornings–it’s those things that make life worth living.

For me, it’s all the little things that add up to a good life.  With that in mind, I made a list of all the things that make life worth living this fall:

–Canoeing down the Root River on the last warm Sunday in September with 15 of my family members.  My favorite moments: Nursing my one-year-old while paddling and successfully steering the canoe, channeling my inner Sacajawea. Hearing my brother burst out in “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” on the river at the mere mention of the band Meatloaf.  On the last stretch of trip, moving the paddle through deep, quiet water with the depth of the river below, trees all around, blue sky above, flanked by four canoes filled with family.  Outdoor time on the water with family is a slice of Minnesota at its best.

–Speaking of meatloaf, Sunday dinner at Mom’s, with a big pan of Mom’s signature meatloaf, with mashed potatoes and squash liberally coated in brown sugar and butter.  It was the quintessential fall meal on a day that glittered with sun in the afternoon and had a shivering chill in the evening.  Family sat around, bellies filled with all sorts of homemade goodness.

–Pulling in the driveway at home on that crisp Sunday evening, to a world of a completely silent, star-lit night with cool fall air all around, that tingling cold that chills and is alive with energy.  If there hadn’t been four exhausted kids, I would’ve suggested lighting a bonfire and sitting there until way past a sensible bed time.

–Watching my nephew’s first 7th grade touchdown, replayed instantly during Sunday brunch from his phone, through the crazy wonders of modern technology.

–Our baby sleeping in my arms on Sunday morning in church.

–Seeing my sister move back home to Minnesota again, after 20 years in another state.

–Heading out to take care of feeding chickens on a rainy morning with our two little kids in a running stroller.  I stood out in the drizzle hanging out with kids and chickens, filling the waterer, watching chickens on the hunt for morsels in the grass while kids trying to catch them.

–Having my husband notice this scene from the upstairs office, and open up the window and yell, “I love you!” because he married such a darn amazing woman.

–Crunching leaves underfoot.

–Getting to vicariously relive high school joys by seeing my three adorable nieces’ homecoming dresses.

–The smell of wood smoke curling into the air on a chilly day and a big stack of wood ready for the coming winter.

–“Playing” in Mom’s attic with my younger sister, rescuing some dresses from attic oblivion.  We dug out another sister’s old prom dress, Mom’s 10th class reunion dress, and someone’s prairie dress from the 70’s or so.

–Seeing the vintage dresses put on again:  my niece tried on her mom’s prom dress (amazingly stylish by 2012 standards), my daughter with extravagant dress taste choose that 35-year-old prairie girl dress for her first day of school, my sister tried on my mom’s 10th reunion dress, a classic little black Audrey Hepburn number.

A vintage prairie girl dress: my daughter’s pick for the first day of school.

–Good neighbors…who have kittens.  Four new kittens, one for each of our kids, are the perfect addition to our place in the country.  Softer, friendlier and more cuddly than chickens, our kids are in love, even if they won’t ever lay eggs for us.  The kittens will, however, spend some time in a bike basket and probably have to wear a doll dress at some point.  That’s a cat’s job.

Our kids are so happy to have four new fluffy kittens to hold.

Kittens keep our 18 month old happy for a long time.

–Good neighbors, part two…Good neighbors who come bearing gifts of a trailer full of wood, and then help out with cutting up more for another load.  And the goodness of getting to have those neighbors over for a Saturday night supper of pot roast and steamy bowls of fall vegetables and rhubarb apple crisp dessert.

–Homecoming in our new hometown, watching our kindergartner and first-grader excited and proud to walk down the street in the homecoming parade in Lanesboro, MN.

–Standing next to my first grade daughter during the school song at the pep rally, and glancing over to see her proudly knowing the words and belting them out in support of her new alma mater and hometown.  Seeing her feel completely a part of this place even though we’re still new around here got this mom a little choked up.

A full couch relaxing on movie night.

–Beginning a Friday Movie Night at our house.  Relaxing on the couch after we’re all tired from a week of “the grind” is just what the momma ordered.  A chilly night makes hanging out close to home all the more appealing, so I implemented (yes, our relaxing is serious business) pizza, popcorn and movie night .  The movies?  Until we run out of good ideas, we’re going to show our kids “the classics” from our childhood, all the movies that we loved seeing growing up.  We started with “Charlotte’s Web.” I almost never sit down and watch TV, much less watch something with my kids.  Intentionally watching a movie, snuggled up on the couch with pizza, popcorn made on the stove, and some kids clamoring to sit close, makes a perfect fall night.  It’s just the sort of thing that makes endless dirty dishes and laundry all worthwhile.

What do you love about fall?  What makes life worth living?  Popcorn does it for me.  On a chilly evening, why not take ten minutes and amaze your family with a batch of stove top popcorn.  In the age of microwave popcorn with fake butter, this forgotten delight is nothing but the real deal.

Stove Top Popcorn
(Homemade Buttery, Salty Deliciousness)

3-4 T. oil
1/2 c. popcorn kernels
3-4 T. butter
Salt to taste

In a 2 qt. saucepan, heat oil on medium high heat.  Put 3-4 popcorn kernels in the oil as it heats.  When these kernels pop, the oil is warm enough, so pour in the rest of the popcorn.  Give the pan a shake to coat popcorn with oil, and cover with a lid.   Next, lift the pan off of the burner for 30 seconds, before returning it to the burner to pop the corn.  (Removing the popcorn from direct heat for 30 seconds allows the kernels to come to the same temperature without scorching them.)  As kernels start to pop, occasionally shake the pan to sift unpopped kernels down to the bottom.  When popping ends, pour popcorn into a large bowl.  Melt butter and pour over popcorn.  Salt to taste (a few good dashes will do), and give the popcorn a stir to mix it all up.  Do your best to share.