Hello, World!

44a6a4ead1c67a92cfbfae8cfa23d1ebb529f0239b02f885b3pimgpsh_fullsize_distrLife on the farm entails a lot of death, but for once, new life visited the Cunha homestead this week. Even if my family were to go the vegetarian route and only keep animals for what they produce, they will eventually die. I’m still young enough that I will outlive all the animals I own, and as their steward, one of my responsibilities is to minimize suffering at the end of life.

Having said that, we are ruthless in application of Rule #3: Those that don’t produce have no place. My farm is neither a petting zoo nor an animal retirement community. References to livestock riding the bullet train to freezer camp are gallows humor because I don’t take pleasure in killing. It’s necessary to eating animal flesh, controlling costs, and ending suffering.

Even the times I’ve screwed up dispatching an animal were far less gruesome and prolonged than the average take-down of prey by a predator in nature.

Mrs. Cunha and I have been kicking around the idea of purchasing an incubator for about a year, and spent most of the summer on the verge of taking the plunge. The option of producing a batch of chicks whenever it was convenient for us was attractive, as was having control over the pace and timing of reproduction. Depending on how fancy we wanted to get, the cost wasn’t terrible, but the prospect of adding one more chore to the list kept us holding out for a hen to go broody.

539a00524f9ee110005cf75710f4a781f896eb630a60411a0cpimgpsh_fullsize_distrTime always seems to be the resource of which we have the least. The chickens look to have a lot of time on their hands. Their job is pretty low stress and low skilled. Maybe that’s why they don’t qualify for minimum wage.

I don’t know how industrious your chickens are, but mine make Department of Motor Vehicle employees look like tornadoes of ambition. The dumb clucks in my flock don’t even have hobbies. They just sort of mill about like teenagers at a school dance; moody, self-absorbed, and convinced nobody likes them.

Well, they’re right. The teenagers, I mean. They might be more likable, if they crapped out eggs, but then they’d want a trophy for it.

Fully understanding that a broody hen stops laying, the trade off a dozen or so eggs during a gestation cycle of approximately twenty-one days sounded like a fair trade, both in terms of unrealized ova and, especially, unexpended effort on our part.

Any time the animals do their thing without human intervention is a bonus in my book, since it’s less work for us.

My first rooster, John Wayne, was a cock apostle. Prior to him, I wasn’t keen on having one around, but lack of a cock-of-the-walk caused my chicken coop to have the same dynamics as a women’s prison. There was incessant gossipy chatter, squabbling as cliques emerged and dissolved, and a big bull-dyke hen named Henrietta strutting around with a chain hanging off her wallet pressuring the other hens into lesbian relations.

I’m not kidding. I saw her mounting the other hens. She is also suspected of radicalizing the flock into mounting the Chicken Uprising of 2015.

1389d74399e7d94e12031c4ee0ee0b75ad0ca2dce77429e3bepimgpsh_fullsize_distrAll that silliness ended when John Wayne stepped out of the carrier he was delivered in. By sundown the same day, peace and order were established in the flock. When I went to close up the coop that night, I found tranquility, instead of the usual bedlam.

John Wayne sat in the middle of a perch, Henrietta nuzzled up submissively at his side, surrounded by all the other girls for warmth and protection. The only head that raised when I walked in for the nightly headcount was his, and I swear he winked at me.

I’ve been a fan of roosters ever since. Feel free to insert your dirty joke here. I know how chicken people are.

I go so far as to always have an understudy rooster, since you never know when a coup in the coop might become necessary.

The loss of John Wayne was a blow to the flock, but we were in luck, as his previous owner, a classmate of my oldest daughter, had an incubator full of eggs fertilized by his brother. It wasn’t exactly genetic cloning, but it was the best shot we had at a replacement that might be close. Of course, there were no guarantees, but considering the emphasis on bloodline that each animal breed association has, we figured our odds were decent.

This young lady, who is the most responsible and reliable teenage I’ve ever met, was beside herself when she lost the entire batch by forgetting to plug the incubator back in after some maintenance. Another blow came when informed that John Wayne’s brother was, also, no longer among the clucking and the last in his line.

16be5ebcb8e5d6364be5ea3a8d05aca64a18ab9a05e6accd4cpimgpsh_fullsize_distrMy current rooster lacks a name. He’s a big, gangly thing, and, for quite some time, I suspected he might have been a turkey. He’s nowhere near as handsome as either of the predecessors, but hasn’t displayed any of the behavior that earned Clint his coup d’état. This goofy looking rooster has done something neither of the other two managed to pull off.

We have new chickens on the farm.

This isn’t the first bringing forth of life on the Cunha homestead, but it’s the first of the feathered variety. I’m excited. My assumption is all five will reach maturity. At which point, we will have to determine how many of each sex we have and begin the decision making process of who stays, who goes, and who gets replaced.

It’s a never-ending cycle of deciding how to maximize available resources to reach goals, and a big part of the homesteading mindset.

But for the moment, I’m basking in the joy of new life and little, feathered puffballs.


3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.


Chicken Stampedes

IMG_0418Farms are like prisons; they both thrive on routine. Try being late for morning chores to see just how disruptive your barnyard inmates become. With luck, the worst you’ll suffer is obnoxious, sideways looks from the ingrates. If you have teenagers at home, this should be nothing new.

My friends who keep larger animals tell of property damage from 800 pounds of hooved livestock pushing down corrals or kicking apart stalls when breakfast was late. So, I guess I’m doing pretty well that I don’t, as yet, have any animals I can’t wrestle to the ground.

“I don’t care if you have the flu. I deserve to be fed right now.” #ChickenLivesMatter.

In the animals’ defense, I’m sure they all huddled together and passed hushed whispers among themselves, wondering if their human finally had a fatal heart attack.

Something tells me that has never happened. The animals expressing concern for their caretakers, I mean. An overweight, middle-aged farmer who drinks too much and eats bacon with every meal dropping dead from a coronary embolism probably occurs with some regularity. It just hasn’t been me…yet.

In a just world, I will be shot dead by the jealous husbands of the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team, but more likely, I’ll meet my maker wearing a confused expression because I didn’t know that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing.

Mrs. Cunha prohibits me from any activity that includes the words, “Y’all watch this.”

IMG_0434Until then, I’ll have to suffer the twice daily chicken stampede. Once in the morning, when I throw out scratch grain before opening the coop door, and again in the evening, when they decide to play General Custer’s Last Stand on seeing me carry out their feed bucket.

Pushing through the mob of hens isn’t so much trouble as it is annoying. It can also be dangerous. I’m relatively light on my feet for someone my size, but at six-foot-four and two hundred none-of-your-damn-business pounds, a slip, trip, stumble, or fall can have absolutely devastating consequences on a chicken because they are not terribly sturdy creatures. Ask me how I know the ease with which a chicken can meet an accidental, premature demise.

That particular situation was slightly different because it was my fault for wear flip-flops into the chicken pen, but by the same token, the owl that killed one of my hens last April has made no effort to compensate me. Like the men before me who suffered setbacks, I simply had to absorb the loss and carry on.

My daughter felt just as entitled to a replacement chicken as the animals feel entitled to be fed, teenagers to a new cellphone, or prisoners do to yard time. When it comes to entitlement, only the circumstances change. The cries of “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” are always the same.

Sometimes, it’s not about the expense, but rather the accomplishment.

IMG_0471Little in life exceeds the pride a father feels when finally winning a prize at one of those claw and crane games found in fast-casual type family restaurants, arcades, and carnival midways all over the world. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen one of these machines in a place with a dress code, and since my average reader is more likely to wear Carhartt than Channel, I’ll assume everyone knows exactly the device I’m talking about.

It might take thirty-seven dollars to win a teddy bear the game’s owner bought on clearance from Walmart for $2.99 the day after Valentine’s Day, but dammit, that’s a win in my book.

In an example of both Big Brother looking out for what it thinks are your best interests and parents all too willing to relinquish the raising of their children to the state, New Jersey state Senator Nicholas Scutari has introduced legislation to further regulate claw and crane games.

The honorable Senator Scutari, whom to no one’s surprise is a Democrat, wants to regulate claw and crane games, so they produce a higher frequency of wins for the player. God forbid adults be allowed to chose how to assess their own risks and spend their own money, according to this government lover.

In New Jersey, as in most other jurisdictions, these tempting wallet vacuums are regulated as games of chance, as opposed to games of skill. Both are gambling, when you think about it, so the distinction between the two is really only important to legislators and owners of the machines.

The bigger question is whether you want your kids to participate in gambling. If you’d be OK with Junior sitting in on your poker game, go ahead and try to snatch that knock-off iPod from the top shelf. That’s a decision you should be left to make as a parent.

I have no room to throw stones. My kids learned at a young age how to mix a proper Old Fashioned and that Daddy likes his Scotch four-by-four; four fresh ice cubes and a four-finger pour. My fingers are the guide, not theirs.

I was shocked how fast the kids learned when they figured out I was tipping for each round. There have been arguments over whose turn it was to serve.

0602161917aOne of the hopes I have for my children is they learn life lessons on the farm that can be carried into adulthood. Slapping an angry rooster silly when he comes at you with his spurs forward is an instructive moment for a ten-year-old girl in how to stand up for yourself and deal with bullies.

The rooster wasn’t too thrilled by the experience, but the lesson must not have stuck. A few weeks later, we had to make an example of him in front of the flock. The rest of the chickens have been on perfect behavior since.

20150531_111648_resizedThat’s why I like to keep an understudy rooster around. You never know when you’ll have to remind those dumb clucks of Rule #1: Behave or be eaten.

All the humans on the farm, even if outmatched physically, have access to tools and technology that allow us to prevail when an animal occasionally decides to challenge our authority over them. It’s by no means a fair fight, and it’s not supposed to be.

The lesson I want my children to take away from that reality is not might makes right or even the biblical mandate that humans have dominion over animals. What I want them to understand is that life isn’t always fair. I’m sure Clint the Rooster thought it mighty unfair that he was sent to Freezer Camp for doing what he saw as right by the hens.

Sometimes, you’re just not going to win. Frequently, the odds are stacked against you, and success is a matter of luck and perseverance. Knowing and recognizing those situations is part of being an adult. It also makes the infrequent wins all the sweeter, both for the game player and recipient of the prize.

Win a stuffed animal for your girlfriend at the carnival ring-toss and you’ll be her king for the rest of the day.

I have no idea that “fair” looks like when it comes to a claw and crane game. What I do know is that if nobody ever wins, people will stop playing. The trick, I would imagine, is to make play just challenging enough to keep people playing, but allow enough wins to satisfy the pleasure centers of the brain.

It’s like throwing out scratch grain for the chickens or packing a bone with peanut butter for the dog. Make the work put into the effort just enough to justify the reward without inducing abandonment of the activity.

Wherever that sweet spot lay isn’t the government’s business to determine, but in the continual campaign to placate the Whine Glass Generation, politicians seeking to curry favor with dependent constituencies and retain their power through reelection, want to make everybody feel like a winner.

IMG_0380When everybody gets a ribbon, and each grab at the teddy bear produces a gleeful, squealing child, an expectation of success is inculcated. It breeds a sense of entitlement and reduces risk taking to a monetary exchange. Ultimately, it creates risk aversion and kills the economic libido of children who are no longer learning life lessons about risk and reward.

The livestock on my farm neither understand nor possess the capacity to understand the relationship between risk and reward. All they know is they want what they want and they want it right now.

That explains chicken stampedes.

Do what you like with your brats, but mine will earn their eventual release from the Cunha Juvenile Correctional Facility with an understanding of how the world works that is better than that of livestock.

Assuming they aren’t trampled to death by a flock of hungry chickens first.


3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you additional content, behind the scenes access, goodies not available on the main site, and unique Thank You gifts for support.

L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Donkey Basketball

1donkeyball1My children are convinced I’m an inveterate liar. Since all but the youngest have been disabused of their belief in Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, passing off whoppers has become more difficult. The ten-year-old is the only one left that believes. At least, I think she still believes in them. If she doesn’t, that little girl put a lot of effort into maintaining the façade this past Christmas. And she tends to make herself scare when butcher rabbits.

As an adult, the idea of a fairy with a dentine fetish leaving cash in exchange for teeth is odd. What does she do with them? Are they the raw material for a finished product? Souvenir shark-tooth necklaces are something I can understand, but children’s teeth are entirely too small and not near scary enough.

An old, fat man in a red suit with the ability to conduct background checks on children makes me cringe both at the extent of Big Brother’s intrusion into our personal lives, but also, the cyber-security shortcomings of the system containing that information.

Old Saint Nick is either a government intelligence agency unto himself or the head Anonymous hacker.

Considering everyone at my place has seen the inside of a rabbit and none of them have asked where the eggs are produced, I guess it’s safe to conclude that wild rabbits pooping out chocolates is the first bit of childhood to go by the wayside.

For all the fantasy children believe in, the one bit of childhood reminiscing that always earns me a sideways glance is recounting the annual tradition at my high school of Donkey Basketball. They never believe me, and are particularly incredulous when told I hold what is believed to be the highest single-game score, at six points.

1donkeyball4As you can imagine, they tended to be rather low-scoring affairs. Shooting baskets from donkey-back is one of those things you can’t really practice without a donkey. Free throws while perched atop a friend’s shoulders is a poor simulation.

Clearly, my children are too busy searching out Disney and pornography on the internet because a two-word Google search for “donkey basketball” will provide an overwhelming amount of evidence that it exists.

Oh, and by the way, the usual suspects of animal rights loonies are apoplectic that donkey basketball continues to be a tradition. Of course, these are the some sorts who think people who eat meat and wear leather are barbarians. I’ve dealt with a few of them before, and they believe my ilk, who hunt, trap, and raise our own protein for conversion into individual-sized portions, are absolute monsters.

1donkeyball3Nowadays, it seems that protective equipment is required, but there wasn’t a helmet or elbow pad to be had when I was balanced along the back of an Equus asinus. Donkeys being donkeys, they don’t need the protective equipment. The real danger is to the players, but animal rights folks are possessed of such self-loathing for human beings that they place themselves at the end of the list of things that are important.

To them, child sex trafficking and ISIS operatives hiding among Syrian refugees are less important issues than someone leaving their dog in the tuck while running to the ATM.

I hate to break it to the self-appointed animal lovers, but those of us who keep animals, whether for commercial sale, personal use, or somewhere in between, tend to take pretty good care of our animals, if for no better reason than to protect the investment of time, money, and resources. My wife spoils the shit out of all our animals. They probably eat better than the average homeless person, and I’m convinced, better than eighty percent of people in the non-Western world.

We can debate the morality of factory farms and point out individual cases of abuse or neglect, but ultimately, they are used as tactics to proselyte to the ignorant.

Selective editing and presentation of horrific, worst-case examples as the norm leave the gullible, inexperienced public-at-large, whose contact with the food they consume limited to a trip to Kroger’s, with the impression that all animals are sentient, self-aware creatures that could cure cancer, return us to the moon, and develop advanced civilizations, if only we gave them access to a free college education.

Speaking as someone who keeps chickens, I can tell you there is no intelligent life in the hen house, Captain. Luckily, they are delicious and crap out eggs, so I gladly put up with their stupidity.

photo 2Even though I’m the dealer of death on my farm, I don’t take joy in the activity. It’s just part of the process that I carry out as quickly and with as little fanfare as possible. If any deaths bother me, it’s the ones that were not scheduled.

We lost three rabbits recently due to (as near as we could tell) a respiratory infection. Two were put down out of kindness and the third died while we were hunting down antibiotics. The good news is that after a couple weeks of isolation in a warm location, the rest of the litter is doing fine.

Why my wife insists on using the tub in the master bathroom as a Homestead Intensive Care Unit is beyond me, but every animal that have gone it sick came out well, so I’m not going to complain. It’s going to be a real mess in there, if we ever get a cow.

Worse than losing an animal to disease or sickness, is when the life is lost through inexperience. I once accidentally killed my daughter’s favorite chicken, but there was no amount of doctoring that would have saved her.

The most recent loss was yesterday. I have my suspicions as to the how and why, and will deal harshly with the inattentive, lackadaisical young man responsible. Death by mishap is one thing. Death by stupidity is another.

John WayneJohn Wayne was a Golden Laced Wyndotte given to us by a buddy down the road, who was culling out excess roosters. I was very fond of the fella. He earned his call-sign the old fashioned way.

We have a Head Hen, who is kind of a twat. John Wayne took one strutting lap around the chicken run, she met him going the other way, and they had about a ten-second discussion regarding who was in charge. Through the dust and feathers, I called the fight in his favor.

It kind of reminded me of the spanking scene in “McLintock.”

While driving to town with my wife and lamenting the loss of my favorite bird, we saw a banner hung between two poles on the lawn of our local high school that proclaimed, “Donkey Basketball Sign-Up Next Week.”

Go suck a lemon, PETA.


3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you content, behind the scenes access, and goodies not available on the main site.

Cat Lady…Just with Chickens

As more people return to the land, homesteaders should beware of changes in their personalities. Some of the changes are positive. There is a lot to be said for listening to the rhythmic crunch-crunch-crunch as the rabbits munch through vegetable scraps or sipping coffee, while watching the chickens sort out their personal issues.

Despite chickens being dumb and mean, I’ve concluded they have expanded the selection of idioms in the English language.

Fat Chicken 2It doesn’t take long owning chickens to gain a new appreciation for phrases like “pecking order,” “hen pecked,” and “ruffled feathers.” I didn’t have my own chickens until recently, so chicken expressions were abstract. Now, that I’ve seen their behaviors up close and personal on a consistent basis, I’m giving serious thought to accrediting my chicken run as a public high school and hiring a School Resource Officer to maintain some semblance of order and discipline.

The only thing missing would be a black chicken to make up the Goth contingent and my flock would have all cliques represented. As it is, it’s damn near the movie Stand by Me, except none of my chicken will grow up to marry Rebecca Romijn.

If chickens were the size of humans, nobody would keep them because they would be far too dangerous. At best, we would allow a controlled population to roam the woodlands of America and issue hunting tags for them, like any other big game. I can imagine fireplaces in homes across the country decorated with head mounts of gigantic chickens with cold, beady eyes piercing the viewer’s soul.

More than likely, six-foot-tall chickens would be the stuff of nightmares and hunted to the point of extinction for being menaces to society. PETA, or some such group of crazies, would lose their collective minds, but they’re fools, anyway.

I imagine a flock of human-sized chickens would be pretty close to having a pack of velociraptors on the loose. Luckily for the human race, chickens do not grow so large that they can’t be picked up by the feet with one hand.

My initiation into the Poultry Cult was a bit of a surprise. My wife and I had discussed keeping chickens for some time. Having acquired rabbits a couple months prior, I didn’t think there would be any more animal additions for some time, but I was wrong.

photoI came home from some business travel to discover a bathtub full of cedar shavings and little peeping tufts of yellow feathers.

Damn you, Tractor Supply Company and your Easter Sales.

As they’ve matured, I’ve built them a coop inside a run that is bigger than my first apartment, conducted a cull, and been the target of a presumed ISIS-inspired attack on a patrol that resulted in one CIVCAS. I believe the Al-Pollo of Tennessee Valley Network sponsored the attack, but they have yet to claim responsibility. The investigation is on-going, with eight under coop-arrest pending charges.

First eggsI’m not sure how much I’ve spent on these damn birds, and I’m afraid to ask. If I had to guess, it’s cost one of my children at least one semester in college, but hey, I get egss out fo the deal. Really, really expensive eggs.

Then again, there is entertainment value. In addition to hanging out in firearms and conservative groups on Facebook, I get to be a party to conflicting opinions and screaming matches in homesteading and backyard chicken groups, as well. And this is where you have to watch out for the personality changes.

Fairly early on in the Great Chicken Adventure, I found my wife in the run, surrounded by chickens. They associate her with food, so it is natural they congregate around her. I could see she was talking, but could not make out the words. Since I spent my younger years disregarding my auditory health, it’s a common occurrence that I need people to repeat themselves. This is something my wife and I know about me, and we deal with it, even with the occasional frustrations.

Mrs. Cunha once dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the ear doctor, so she could settle, once and for all, whether I was losing my hearing or simply ignoring her. Reading the results graph, the doctor said, “Your hearing’s fine. Start paying attention.”

That’s what I get for having a woman doctor.

I walked into the coop, so I could ask my wife to repeat herself and watch her roll her eyes. What met me was my wife holding a conversation with the entire flock. She bounced from one bird to another, like some small town politician at an election barbeque.

Coop“How are you today? Are you hungry? Here you go. Hey, don’t be such a piglet. Is she pushing you around? Be nice, you little turd. Don’t forget to vote.”

She noticed me standing nearby, and, with absolutely zero sense of abnormality, began to convey the timeline of that day’s chicken soap opera. I must have unintentionally looked interested because I now know entirely too much about the personalities of my chickens, who is the coop bully, and who just doesn’t look right on any given day.

And people wonder why I drink.

Killer Cows

download (2)Homesteading is more of a mindset than a physical reality. Life circumstances don’t always allow for a fulfillment of the dream. Establishing a full-blown farm is a daunting task that is often tackled in increments with a gradual expanding of numbers and types of animals kept until the suburban home or semi-rural homestead has reached its carrying capacity. Then the search for a new property, or expansion of the current one, is all consuming.

All the while, homesteaders dream of new, more ambitious livestock and scheme of how to turn excess farm production into cash, since there are just some things that can’t be made at home.

Short of importing illegal Chinese labor and putting them up in the barn, I don’t see a way to produce locally sourced laptops.

A smart homesteader does his homework. Countless hours are spent researching the dozens of different breeds contained within each type of animal. God help the homesteader who doesn’t have a short-list of characteristics he wants. A chicken is a chicken, more or less, but even the simplest and most basic of choices between layer, meat, or hybrid will turn your mind to mush.

IMG_0449Rabbits aren’t much better. There are only about a thousand different types to pick from, as opposed to the million choices in the chicken world. Also, there seem to be fewer people raising rabbits, so the fire-hose of information, opinion, and experience isn’t quite as fierce.

I blame the internet for the information overload and paralyzing of the ability to pick.

Whatever your choice of livestock for your homestead, there is seemingly no end to the amount of advice and information floating around. Most of it is decent and borne of personal experience. Although, what works in one area may or may not work in another due to the nature of the property, density of neighbors, climate, or the factor that your particular animal is an asshole. It happens.

Even with the entire world a mouse click away, the best way to lean the how and what of homesteading is to do it.

Experience is the best teacher, but don’t just start picking up animals at the local farmer’s market without a plan or experience. The knowledge gained that way is costly and time consuming. Your best bet is to dust off your personality and make a few friends who already husband the sort of livestock that interest you.

This is where the internet and social media has been the biggest boon to homesteaders since the invention of chicken wire. With Facebook and varying combinations of half a dozen keywords, I’d be willing to bet my brother’s left testicle that there is at least one person within a reasonable distance of you who is already raising your animal of interest.

IMG_0446While looking for a rabbit breeder to supply the start of our herd (I know it’s called a “colony,” but I like to call myself a “part-time rabbit rancher”), we came across a young couple working toward their goal of being full-time homesteaders. When we showed up to select our rabbits, Mrs. Cunha and I discovered this fine young couple was already living a lifestyle similar to our aspirations.

Chickens, rabbits, goats, and ducks abounded. They even had an old mare and a miniature cow who kept each other company in their retirement. We all seemed to hit it off immediately, especially when the husband and I discovered a mutual love for hunting and preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse. Not too surprisingly, the questions flowed, a tour ensued, and invitations to return for work parties were extended.

In the military, work parties are universally loathed, and to the uninitiated, contributing an uncompensated day’s labor to someone else makes about as much sense as enrolling a child in the Jared Fogle ‘Lil Ones Daycare and Sandwich Shop.

In reality, it’s not providing free labor. However, my kids would disagree since I dragged them along with me. Screw what they think. They were building character.

Think of the experience as a day-long apprenticeship. My labor was exchanged for hands-on experience in skills I wanted to learn and the opportunity to pick the brain of someone who has already done the things I am trying to accomplish. The exchange typically includes feeding you, too. So, that’s an added bonus.

Farm life being what it is, it will be a rare person who turns down any help you offer; assuming you don’t put off the serial killer vibe. Even if you want to learn a skill that isn’t used very often such as castrating, disbudding, butchering, or birthing, a little willingness to be flexible with your schedule will get you an experienced hand to guide you through all manner of nasty, but absolutely necessary, homestead projects.

I have yet to meet a homesteader who didn’t relish the opportunity to pass on his skills and knowledge. As a group, we are a remarkably welcoming and informative bunch.

Understanding that one man’s “reasonable” may be another man’s “impossible,” you may not be willing or able to drive an hour to work on someone else’s farm. It just happened that these folks have similar personalities, backgrounds, and life ambitions to Mrs. Cunha and me, so we knowingly bypass at least a score of other homesteaders.

images (27)My parents can take the blame for instilling this “labor-for-skills” ethos in me.

They used to have a second house in Northern California where we would spend long weekends and summer vacations. It was all farms and ranch lands at the time. I haven’t been there in twenty years, so I have no clue what the area looks like now, but I suspect the population density is still pretty sparse.

For whatever reasons that I’m sure made perfect sense to my parents, the plan to move the whole family up there never came to fruition, but they certainly laid the groundwork for understanding the nature of farm chores with me and Jake. Much of our vacation time, we would be farmed out to split wood, move hay bales, help shear sheep, shovel shit, or anything else that wasn’t terribly dangerous for kids to do.

And we loved every minute of it…except for the days we shoveled shit.  Personally, I could have done fine without learning that particular skill, but I’ve come to learn shoveling shit is a big part of life, even if you don’t live on a farm.

I was fourteen the first time I really thought I was going to die. I don’t mean that in the figurative sense like “I was so embarrassed. I nearly died.” I mean a situation where I genuinely thought a mortal injury was imminent and my time on Earth had run out.

Spanish Pete was an old gravel-voiced, barrel-chested Basque with Vice Grip hands, leathery skin, and a shuffling gait that was the result of multiple limps acquired over a lifetime of ranching. Although he spoke Spanish reasonably well to communicate with his ranch hands, Spanish Pete’s primary language prior to immigrating was French. I still don’t know how he wound up being called “Spanish Pete.” It’s just what everyone in the area called him.

Jake and I called him “Sir,” just to be certain we didn’t get cross-ways of the old man because we had seen him castrate sheep “the way we used to do it in the old country.” There’s an episode of Dirty Jobs that shows the details.

I probably won’t ever know how Pete was turned Spanish, and will have to chalk it up to one of history’s mysteries that are lost to time.

PeteCommon wisdom in the area was that old Pete owned half the county and leased another third of it from the Bureau of Land Management. If I wasn’t a product of the public school system, I could tell you how much that was. On the upside, I feel really good about myself for not knowing.

Me and Jake were helping Pete’s ranch hands shoo cows out of a milking barn on a muddy, overcast spring morning. Semi-permanent cattle pen sections created an alley that led from the door of the milking barn and turned right sharply before leading out to a small holding pasture. I’m fairly certain neither the ranch hands nor the cows needed our help with the maneuver, since all parties concerned did this every day.

For lack of anywhere else to put us where we would not be underfoot, Jake and I were positioned in the elbow of the turn and given profanity-laced instructions in Spanglish to direct the cows into the pen.

Like most fourteen-year-olds, I wasn’t terribly bright. It didn’t occur to me that these cows knew the route better than I did.

Jake grew up as a skinny child, and I hated him for that. For a time, we thought he had Tuberculosis, but it turned out he was just a skinny shit.

As for me, let’s say I’m glad skinny jeans were not the fashion of the day. I had to spend most of my youth shopping in the “husky” section along with Danny DeVito. The upside is that, unlike my brother, I have never been lifted off the ground by a large kite in a heavy wind. So, I’ve got that going for me.

Jake and I stood in the center of this turn waiting for the cows to appear like a bad Laurel and Hardy impersonation team. Due to Jake’s waif-like construction, he only sank into the mud up to his ankles. The turd nearly floated atop the homogenous mixture of clay mud and cow shit.

Daily Spring rains and frequent hosing out of the milking barn had turned the paddock into a mud field. For anyone interested, I’d put the mixture about 90% mud and 10% cow shit. However, it smelled like the opposite.

On the other hand, I was sunk to the tops of my rubber boots. Every attempt to free one foot from the mud sent the other deeper into the mire until I decided I would be able to direct cow traffic right where I was. The last thing I wanted to deal with was that mixture oozing down my bootleg and between my toes. It’s a special kind of nastiness when dried.

As the cows came trotting out of the milking barn, something occurred to me.

1cowsThere must be something special about the design of a cow’s hoof because they weight a lot more than I did, but had no trouble hauling ass across the bog straight toward us.

Grinning and laughing like idiots, Jake and I swung our arms about wildly to coax the cattle down the only path available to them. We waved and shouted like a couple of retards at a clown parade. The lead cow looked at us as if to say, “Who brought the Special Olympics children out here?”

The cow didn’t have long to think because she was being pushed forward by the cows behind her. A mass of bovine flesh thundered through the mud toward us and cut right, splattering us with muck. It only made us laugh harder.

The reason for the hurry became clear when I spotted Pete’s Australian Blue Heeler, Maria, chasing the last cow and biting her heels whenever she lagged.

The last cow slid through the corner past me and Jake with Maria nipping at its teats. Jake and I were splattered with mud from the cow rush hour we had just witnessed. Dammit, this made is cowhands.

My feet must be defective because I was the only one having trouble moving through the muck.

After the stampede passed, Jake went bounding after the herd, or more likely, the dog to congratulate it on a job well done. I tried to follow, but mud suction kept my boots planted. Brute force only resulted in stripping my foot out of the boot.

As I was figuring out how to keep my feet inside my boots and move around at the same time, a straggler appeared in the barn doorway. Maria had missed one. I made a mental note to take that up with her supervisor at a later time.

heeler1The cow looked at her friends in the field, looked at me, and back at her friends. I don’t know if being sunk in mud up my knees make me look like a four-foot-tall salt lick or if cattle have a sense of humor. Either way, this bossy bitch started trotting toward me, putting her head down, like Melissa McCarthy going to the fried Twinkie booth at the state fair.

One of the few things I remember from Physics class my senior year (In the Cunha family, that’s generally the eighth grade) is that force is a function of both velocity and mass. For example, a ping pong ball at one hundred miles an hour probably won’t hurt you. A car traveling at ten miles an hour will definitely hurt you, and just might kill you.

A cow is a lot closer in size to a car than a ping pong ball.

On any given day, given a flat, dry surface, even as the old man I am now, I can dodge a trotting cow. With my lower extremities encased in mud, my options become limited very quickly.

As the cow drew closer, I debated whether I had a better chance of survival by bending back and risk getting my nuts stomped versus leaning forward and risk breaking my spine when Ol’ Betsy trampled over me. The closer the cow got to me, the less survivable the situation seemed, so it became an exercise of what type of pain I’d prefer to endure while the cow did a Mexican Hat Dance on my fat ass.

In a moment of clarity, the phrase “Stomped into a mud hole” made perfect sense.

I’d like to say I managed to free myself by executing a perfectly times somersault over the cow’s head while slapping her on the ass for good measure as I stuck the landing.

I didn’t.

I was saved from being trampled to death by this milk cow when one of the ranch hands came running up from behind me waving his hands and cursing in Spanish. That’s all it took to make her cut right and join her friends. I wish it was a more spectacular ending, but it’s not.

However, I did learn a couple of things that day.

Firstly, don’t be too proud to shovel someone else’s shit. Especially, if you can get some experience out of it.

Secondly, despite all the knowledge in books and wisdom from the internet, there are some things you just have to learn by watching someone else do in front of you.

And finally, cows aren’t afraid of husky Portagee kids, but they sure seem scared of one-hundred-twenty pound, cursing Mexicans.

Chicken Math

IMG_0506Want to experiment with adding chickens to your homestead without the startup costs? Chicken rental might be for you.

I’ve complained about the phenomenon of Rabbit Math, where a project principally undertaken for cost savings mysteriously grows in both cost and scale until it bears only a passing resemblance to the original plan. My rabbit condo has had a watering system and sun tarps added since it debuted on the homestead, and as a consequence, is now too heavy for my wife to move by herself.

Straining against the ropes attached to the condo’s skids, I couldn’t help thinking about the scene in Call of the Wild where Buck strained to break free the sled skids that had frozen to the ground.

If the thought of waiting five to seven months while feeding and protecting your brood is off-putting, you’re not alone. Much of my initial resistance to adding poultry was what I saw as an exceedingly long Return-On-Investment period. Just like when plucking a bundle of squirming, yipping joy from a box along the side of the road marked “Free Puppys” in shaking, handwritten crayon, my mind constantly churns and crunches the numbers associated with payback periods, anything “free,” or my personal favorite, “Look how much I saved.”

CoopA rough reckoning of my chicken investment is $400 for the coop, fencing, and accessories. Of course, I’m getting this number from my wife’s recollection, so it may be…how do I say this without getting myself into Dutch? Unintentionally conservative? I remember paying that much to add the elevated platform when the coop flooded in May.

This whole Chicken Math thing becomes like figuring out the Federal budget. No two answers from different people and no two computations by the same person will ever match. The numbers will vary wildly, so you pick the one you like best. Ultimately, it’s a guess.

This guess also doesn’t include the time spent trying to save money by constructing the coop myself with a Frankenstein-esque collection of re-purposed, new, and stolen components cobbled together with screws left over from other projects, tie-wraps, and 16-gauge wire. Around my house, we put the “red” in “Redneck.”

My chickens lucked out and got an extra week or three of indoor living due to construction delays; some from scheduling, some from weather, and some from my incompetent construction skills. I console myself by saying these are lessons learned that will be applied to the Grand Chicken Palace I construct when I finally purchase my heavily fortified compound.

"He pecks me, Daddy. Kill him first."
“He pecks me, Daddy. Kill him first.”

After the great chicken massacre this spring, we have a total of eight survivors. Seven hens and one rooster, as near as we can tell. This breakdown is per my wife, as I have just about no ability to tell a hen from a rooster without actually witnessing an egg pop out of its behind.

In fairness, my eggs should be compared to the fancy, hippie eggs sold at Walmart that go for $7 a dozen. I can’t hope to hit the $3 a dozen mark with mine, but those chickens are the ones confined to a cage all day with a trough constantly full of grain and light on nearly all the time. I simply don’t like my chickens enough to run electricity to the coop so they can stay up all night reading Stephen King.

My Favorite Chicken
My Favorite Chicken

I struggle with the definitions of terms like “Free Range,” “Cage Free,” “Farm Fresh,” etc, etc. My chickens are definitely free from caging, unless a fenced-in chicken run that has more square footage than my first apartment counts as a cage. I’m not sure if that makes them “Free Range” or not. I’ve heard that some “Free Range” chickens are let out of their coop less than prisoners confined to Administrative Segregation. I just don’t let my chickens have free run of the joint because I don’t want them crapping all over everything.

My chickens lead a pretty good life. Not only are their needs met, but my youngest treats them like pets. Well, at least, the ones that aren’t ornery. Those ones are on her list for the next butchering day.

IMG_0420The worst thing my chickens typically have to worry about is the dog herding them should they escape the run, since this big doofus can be convinced to eat neither chicken nor rabbit trimmings when we butcher. In a way, Zeus is a bit of a disappointment. I had imagined supplementing his diet with the less desirable bits, but he’s a snob that way.

He’ll fetch things back to me all day, but killing just doesn’t seem to be his bag. Which I guess is good because it’s one less thing we have to worry about killing the chickens.

Put the chickens in UPS uniforms, and the dog will turn into Jason Bourne. Either that, or be terribly confused. I haven’t found little brown shirts with which to test my theory.

Seven dollars per dozen going into $400, comes to fifty-seven dozen to re-coop (pardon the pun) my outlay. As I’m a big fan of individual responsibility, I am tempted to assign an equal share to each hen. I’m not counting the rooster in that computation, since unless he decides to go the Bruce Jenner route, I won’t be enjoying any ass omelets from him. Besides, in theory, he can produce me more free chickens, so that’s how he pulls his weight.

However, in the spirit of George Orwell, I will lean collectivist just this one time and allow my chickens of suspect loyalty to address this debt bondage as a team.

A fair assumption is five eggs per day from the seven girls, which works out to 150 eggs per month. That’s twelve and a half dozen, but I’m a product of an American public school, so let’s call it twelve to make the math easier.

Fat ChickenTwelve dozen a month chipping away at the fifty-seven dozen ROI mark means I can expect to be back to zero, in terms of the initial outlay, in a tad under five months. That’s a lot of time before these creatures begin to pull their own weight, and I can use them to shame my sons for being lazy.

There are a lot of assumptions in that calculation, and a whole bunch of stuff I left out; time, future flock loss, daily feed, supplementary equipment, and for any accounting nerds out there, opportunity costs associated with a capital investment.

Did I mention the flock has yet to provide me with a single ova? Yes, I am an impatient man.

They are on the cusp of five months old, and have yet to release something from their butts that I would put in my mouth. So, there is another wrinkle of five months, so far, of carrying costs without production. I’m pretty sure these hens have never taken a consumer finance class, but they are about to learn the hard lesson that deferred payments only make the debt worse.

Truth be told, I think the total cost before I see my first plate of anything and eggs, will be closer to four figures once everything is taken into account. That’s a pretty stiff buy-in with a long payback that certainly isn’t for everyone.

Dumb ChickenIf you’re unsure about diving into the chicken keeping pool head first, there is a way to dip your little chicken toe. Thanks to the free market and American exceptionalism, there are chicken rental services popping up all over the country with memorable, alliterative names.

A representative example of renting chickens is as follows. The random capitalization is theirs:

2015 Standard Rental Package – $400 (Deluxe Package – $600)

  • Six month rentals – start as early as this month
  • Delivery, setup, and pick-up of the contents
  • 2 Egg-Laying Hens (4 in Deluxe Package)
  • 1 Standard Chicken Coop that can be easily moved (Or Deluxe Coop)
  • 1 Feed dish
  • 1 Water dish
  • 100 pounds of Chicken Feed (200 pounds of Chicken Feed in Deluxe Package)
  • Quick guide for taking care of your Chickens
  • A copy of “Fresh Eggs Daily” by Lisa Steele

Both the Standard and Deluxe Packages offer a non-GMO feed option (an additional $65 and $130, respectively), if that is one of those things you worry about in life. Considering the amount I smoke, drink, the amount of fried food I eat, and my blatant disregard for warning stickers on power tools, GMOs are probably the least of my worries on the list of things that will kill me early.

For a quick comparison, let’s assume the same five eggs a week per hen over the course of six months. Two rented chickens will net you about twenty dozen eggs over the term of the rental, 40 dozen for the Deluxe Package of four hens. The same $7 per dozen, hippie-approved eggs at Walmart I used as a benchmark earlier would run you $140 for twenty dozen.

Those are pretty pricey eggs. If you want to go the Rent-a-Chicken route for money savings, you would probably be better off just buying the birds, but I don’t think that’s the point. As cost inefficient as it may seem, the chicken rental route is viable for the segment of people who are unsure if chickens are for them.

It’s sort of like shacking up to see if you can handle being married to each other.

Set-up of your moveable coop and delivery within fifty miles of your chicken renter is part of the price, as well as replacement hens should one die, as long as you didn’t neglect it to death. At the end of the term, you send the chickens back or adopt them. Considering the retail cost of chicken tractors, rental seems to be the way to go, if you don’t know for certain.

None of these chicken renters has paid me for this article, which is really unfortunate because I am all too willing to whore myself out (hint, hint, chicken renters). So, short of an offer, maybe I need to look into getting on-board this whole chicken renting thing?

No Free Lunch

I used to like wildlife until I realized they were little more than furry thieves. I’ve been derided several times for my particular hatred of coons and squirrels (I like to call them “Tree Rats”), but people don’t seem to get upset over possums and snakes. Maybe it’s their cheeky antics. If snakes and possums had more than one facial expression and engaged in entertaining shenanigans, maybe I’d be yelled at for killing them, too.

Part of the homesteading mindset is consume that which you produce. Another part is to minimize waste, maximize resources, and innovate to create imaginative uses for otherwise used up items. The next time you drive by a yard full of rusty cars and a barn packed with “junk,” think of it as someone’s supply depot. A Redneck Re-purposing Center, if you will.

Liberals and hippies with their reduced carbon footprint to save the planet ethos love this sort of stuff, but until somebody makes an electric truck that can match mine on performance and beats it on cost to purchase, operate, and dispose of, anybody who thinks I’ll abandon internal combustion is smoking too much of whatever it is they grow on the back forty.

Having said that, I’m exceedingly interested in alternate forms of energy when it makes dollars and sense. Just quit trying to get me to spend two dollars to save one.

VZM.IMG_20150527_185020 (2)As the types and numbers of livestock I keep increase, new challenges present themselves. A recently constructed chicken coop and freshly fenced off run were flooded by runoff from a spring thunderstorm a week after completion. I hadn’t taken into consideration exactly how much water can run through the culvert at that end of the property.

Luckily, despite being dumb and mean, chickens do have a survival instinct, so they spent a sleepless night perched above the flood waters waiting for them to recede. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one awake.

VZM.IMG_20150527_184857 (2)Even though the water wasn’t very deep, it was swift enough to be a concern. Experience with flash floods leaves a lasting memory, so I wasn’t overly thrilled at the prospect of wading out there to be pecked by panicked pullets. The chickens would wait in vain for a rescue. I don’t think they have forgiven me for that decision.

I don’t think I make bad decisions so much as I have good ideas that I build upon until they collapse under their own weight.

The chicken run ended up having more square footage than my first apartment. The rabbit hutch is better constructed than my house, and after putting in a watering system, my little fuzzy bunnies live better than the average Pakistani. The fact that I call their hutch a “rabbit condo” tells you something about the way I do things.

The daunting prospect of a self-reliant homesteader lifestyle isn’t the work. Even though there is a fair amount of it depending on size, scale, and numbers, efficiency comes with experience. It’s the I’ve got an idea moments that get me in trouble every time.

IMG_0390A simple chicken watering rig put together with PVC pipe attached to a five-gallon bucket had to be completely started over with new pipe, new bucket, and new watering nipples after I couldn’t get any of the three to seal enough to stop leaking.

The damn thing leaked like a pipe organ. After two days of cursing, breaking parts, and chain smoking, I admitted defeat and made a trip to town.

In my area of the world, Home Depot has better prices, but when I need a goofy part or advice to prevent electrocuting myself, Lowes is the place to go. I hadn’t finished explaining my project to the plumbing associate when he held up a single finger, said “Follow me,” and headed two aisles over.

It seems I’m not the first person he’s encountered with more ambition than ability.

I don’t know the name of this fitting because I was so excited that I forgot to ask. I knew it was perfect the moment I laid eyes on it. The plumbing associate stood there smiling like Indiana Jones’ head guide when he led Indy to the golden statue.

IMG_0387Of course, while trying to escape the giant bolder that chased me through the aisles toward the cash registers, I somehow managed to pick up a thread and tap kit.

I shouldn’t say somehow. It’s not like I tripped, and it fell into my hands. This was my wife’s doing. She likes tools just as much as I do, and since the water nipples were threaded, it was a perfect reason to acquire another tool. She’s pretty smart like that.

IMG_0132Oh, and we had to buy another bucket because the hole in the first one was too large for the new fitting. Actually, we bought three buckets because…well, because you never know when you’re going to need another bucket on the homestead. There’s a list of things like fence posts, wire, and three-inch deck screws that you always want to have around because they don’t take up much space and the need for them is near constant.

Buckets are on that list, too. They are useful and versatile. I’ve mentioned the multitude of uses they can be put to around the farm or construction site:

  • Chairs
  • Work benches
  • Sawhorses
  • Step-stools
  • Garbage cans
  • Planters
  • Wash basins
  • Toolboxes
  • Emergency toilet (Line it with a garbage bag first. You’ll thank me later.)

Port OuthouseOther containers I’ve found useful are metal garbage cans. Of course, in this modern era in which we live, I know precious few people who put traditional garbage cans out on the curb for pickup. If you have any sort of garbage service at all, most of the companies have switched over to those big plastic monstrosities on wheels with a lid that pops open every time the wind blows.

Yeah, they work well enough for their intended purpose, but try carrying one into your kids’ room banging a stick around the inside to wake them up at sunrise on a Sunday morning to mow the lawn. Municipal garbage service has taken all the fun out of being a parent.

Up on the deck of my house is a row of metal garbage cans that line the wall. Each one neatly labeled to indicate their contents; Rabbit Feed, Chicken Feed, Alfalfa, Dog Food, and Hey. I’m pretty sure that last marking was a subtle joke, since my mailbox is similarly identified; “Male.”

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell in my family if we’re rednecks or just playing the part.

These metal garbage can came with snug metal lids that keep out water and, so far, pesky wildlife looking for a free meal. I trapped and hunted the woods around the house very heavily this winter, so between that, some preventative measures, and general harassment of everything that isn’t supposed to be there by the dog, I haven’t noticed any real problems. Every now and then, we’ll find evidence of where something tried to get into them and gave up in frustration.

The dog seems embarrassed when I point that out to him.

IMG_0420Whether securing the food for livestock or the animals themselves, we go to a lot of trouble to protect our resources. The chickens have their coop inside a fenced run that is inside a larger fenced area that makes up the back yard. The rabbits are in raised cages inside the yard, as well. We let the dog patrol at will. Even though they won’t admit it, I suspect the cats get in on the action, too. I’ve heard some hellacious goings on in the dark after I’ve turned in.

It’s not the setup I ultimately desire. It’s too insecure for my taste, but neither the property nor the landlord will support me erecting substantial permanent structures. Those plans are on hold until I secure ownership of the land on which I will live the rest of my life.

I may have to institute some nuisance trapping, if I begin to notice eggs, or worse yet, chickens missing. I understand the argument of the wild animals being there first. I understand the position and I reject it. My responsibility is to my family and the animals we husband. I don’t mind them living around me, but they are the animal equivalent of Portuguese third-cousins visiting from Massachusetts. They plop their fat asses down on the couch of a virtual stranger and expect to be fed from my larder.

At least, the visiting cousins don’t shit in the flower bed to add insult to injury. Well, usually they don’t.

No. Them critters can find food someplace else. I have plenty of my own mouths to feed. If the little patch of earth I jealously protect is the difference between some forest dweller eating and starving, that’s just too bad. Those animals will have to adjust their territory.

Fair warning to wildlife entering the borders of the Cunha Homestead: The laws of my state put you at a distinct disadvantage in terms of crop and property damage. “You lose every single time” seems to be the philosophy. I suspect the folks who wrote those laws kept livestock, too.

We don’t take prisoners. We don’t relocate so that you become someone else’s problem. We don’t ask you nicely to leave like some bouncer in an overpriced nightclub. You are met with violence for taking what is ours.

You coons, possums, coyotes, foxes, and snakes will extend your lifespans significantly by keeping that in mind.