By Heather Retberg
Everywhere I look this week, or listen this week, there are potent signs of the strong urges of springtime. We are so close to having all the animals turned out of the barn and onto pasture and into the woods again that every day before we are completely there, the strain in that direction is palpable everywhere on the farm. In another week, we will likely have the mobile hen coop and fencing ready to transfer the hens from their stationary winter quarters to their house on wheels to be freewheeling pasture hens again. In the meantime, we’ve been letting them out of the coop in the daytime to forage and mess about in the barnyard and dooryard. Now, you may know there are always a precious few, usually Aruaucanas, that resist staying with the rest of the flock, those who “walk alone”, march to the beat of a different drummer, roost on their own perch, if you know what I mean. I just don’t think that the ‘Little Red Hen’ was arbitrarily chosen for a character lesson in persistence despite odds. Too many such little red hens have passed through our farm yard.
So, at day’s end, while most hens have a strong homing urge to return to the coop, there is one, sometimes there are two, who just… don’t. The only trouble with that is that they also usually prefer to lay their eggs elsewhere as well, like the hay loft or behind unreachable partitions of wood and wall, never to be gathered again. When one such little red hen was found, not in the coop with the other hens at the beginning of one day last week, but, rather, in the main barn, we knew we had one of “those who walk alone” on our hands again. Sure enough, when we unloaded hay into the loft on Monday morning, there was a round mound of hay turned into a nest with one tidy egg in its center. While we like to encourage animals to express their ‘animalness’ so much as possible, we also like to collect eggs all in one place, even in the springtime. This hen was hopping up the steep stairs to get to the loft and lay her egg. Oh, what strong spring urges! Phil closed off the opening at the top of the stairs to encourage her back to the desired nest boxes. One morning as I shoveled out the cows, I just could not figure out why that hen was making such an upset clatter until Phil told me what had happened. Alas, not all spring urges can be gratified.
This little red hen’s day stood in such strong contrast to the dairy cows who had recently left the barn that very morning for green pastures once again. As many of you know, spring turn out is my favorite day of the year on the farm, when the cows embody all the long held, pent-up close restraint of winter ceding to the wild, uninhibited abandon of crazed spring cavorting when they are released from their winter quarters in the barn onto pasture to graze once more.
It is a short lived sight that happens but once a year, those urges ripe and ready for release. The broad, heavy, usually subdued and quite dignified matrons all behave like young heifers again, kicking up their heels, running, jumping like spring lambs, pawing at the soil like bulls and setting their pendulous, substantial udders swinging like you don’t otherwise ever see. It’s simply, joyfully fantastic. It marks an end to the long chore of shoveling, to bought hay, to loading manure into tractor bucket and the beginning again of long, cool walks in misty morning light and in the waning sunlight of early evening bringing the cows back and forth from the fields to the barn for milking. It is not all without stress, that unbridled joy.
Soon after the pawing and cavorting ends, the need to test the herd hierarchy is immediate. Younger cows lower their heads and challenge the older ones or the higher ranked ones and small battles ensue to maintain position or oust an established matriarch. Once the order has been tried and tested, the herd gets onto settled grazing again. New habits are learned over the next few days walking up to the barn and back to the field and not toward the highway. The young lead the old and then look back for direction until they’ve learned the routine. It is learned in a few short days and it makes our job easier. But, those first moments of release, of joy, of testing the ground beneath their feet and challenging the established order are moments to drink up and absorb to last for another whole year of mist and fog and brightness and heat and cold and wet and dry. It is a time like none other.
The fruit trees are budding out, the raspberry canes are sending forth leaves, the trillium in the woods is blossoming its deep velvety scarlet quietly as forsythia and narcissus flash yellow everywhere.
The beef cows, still awaiting their spring paddocks bellow their impatient spring urges, until their feet are on green grass once again.
I wish you patience for the wait and joy in the release of spring as its strong urges manifest in field and woods, each in its own time.
Heather and Phil Retberg together with their three children run Quill’s End Farm, a 105-acre property in Penobscot that they bought in 2004. They use rotational grazing on their fifteen open acres and are renovating thirty more acres from woods to pasture to increase grazing for their pigs, grass-fed cattle, lambs, laying hens, and goats. Heather is Master of Halcyon Grange #345 and writes a newsletter for their farm’s buying clubs for farmers in her area and has generously given us permission to share some of her columns with Grangers throughout the state.
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