Learning to tend to birds

ducks and dog
Maya, a livestock guardian dog, hangs out with some muscovy ducks this summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Farms)

It isn’t until you watch a Muscovy duck chase down a zig-zagging mouse and eat it that you realize how little you know about the world.

Just over two months ago, I added birds for the first time to our farm: muscovy ducklings, guinea keets and chicks, a mix fondly known as “tree chickens,” bred to be hardy and broody, or maternal, as all get out. My entire life has been defined by sheep farming, in one way or another. I like working with sheep. I know sheep. It didn’t take long for me to confirm I don’t know much, if anything, about birds.

Bug patrol

I need as many weapons as possible against bugs, pests and parasites, which seem to be increasing. I wanted the guineas and the Muscovies for that purpose, especially. The chickens are also useful, and make great guinea trainers. Keeping wee birds alive in a brooder is a bit too “helicopter mom” for my taste. Putting them out in the coop and run is slightly better, but the first time I tried to teach the young chickens and guineas to go into the coop at night, it was a chaotic mess. The second day, it was slightly better but still chaotic. The third day, they all went in — I suspect it was a form of self preservation. “Quick! Go inside, before that clumsy human tries to ‘help.’”

Deep breath

Over and over again in the past couple of months, I’ve taken a deep breath and tried something new. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Welcome to farming, right? Certainly, livestock farming. Welcome to the past year and half, too. Doubt has been a constant unwanted companion in just about every aspect of life for all of us.

I’ve written about doubt before. I think about it a lot. I doubt I’m the only farmer who does. And I wonder: why are we so uncomfortable with the concept? From public officials on down, we don’t like to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Our culture doesn’t really encourage lack of certainty. We believe in the American dream. Think it, work toward it, and it will be. Even if it’s included in the equation, we don’t often linger on the part where we might question our goals or our methods. It’s a natural inclination, I suppose. We prefer to celebrate the highs, not wallow in the lows.

I’m certain

I often lurk on social media. It is useful for the gleaning of some information. It can also be an overwhelming stream of not so useful information. One of the things that has fascinated me is the endless supply of folks who seem to have the answers. Whether in finances, business, politics, you name it, there’s probably somebody who’s become an “influencer,” an actual thing these days.

Even agriculture has its share — from conventional farmers who thrive on memes telling others how little they know about agriculture. (“Young people don’t know how to sling hay bales these days. What’s this world coming to?”) to the folks who know how to save agriculture with their surefire remedy. (It may or may not involve eating more insects and using scythes on a daily basis, but don’t quote me on that.)

Big questions

In a July 8 article, The Wall Street Journal interviewed Ethan Brown, chief executive officer of Beyond Meat Inc. — yes, that one. Negative reviews cover his office’s walls. It’s an incentive, he told the newspaper. When asked how he balances profits with his mission, he said he would give it away if he could — that’s how much he believes in the mission of meatless meat.

Later, when asked if everyone who works at Beyond Meat has to be a vegan, he said this: “We’re building a company, not a cult … The people who are in agriculture, family farms, are some of the hardest working, most decent people. Being adversarial toward them is really the wrong approach.” Huh, that’s not what I would have expected.

An Aug. 12 report from the University of Illinois, called “The livestock industry’s response to meatless meat,” details some of the same points Brown makes in his interview. That crops are increasingly more efficient and could be used for something more than feeding livestock. But while there is opportunity for agriculture, regardless of how livestock sectors are impacted, there is a large question that lingers:

“Currently, meatless meat’s target market is wealthy economies, which still experience annual growth in meat consumption, but the real need for protein nutrition in the coming decades will come from the Global South,” author Maggie Cornelius writes. “Traditionally, the growth of domestic livestock industries is a key step in a country’s economic development and food security, but if meatless meat reduces demand for livestock in the U.S., American farmers will look abroad for markets for their corn and soy. This could have a detrimental effect on the economic development of poor countries — an increased dependency on food imports could stifle economic growth, and a drop in key commodity prices also could reduce the food security of agrarian-based economies.”


Is this the time to mention another article, published in Wired magazine, about the future of robots in agriculture, posited by Thomas Daum, an agricultural economist at University of Hohenheim? In Trends in Ecology and Evolution journal, Daum lays out scenarios where robots could run various agricultural operations, from large industrial farms to small holdings. Don’t laugh. It may not simply be a science fiction plot:

“But why do we need machines to produce food?” Katrina Miller asks in the Wired article. “It’s an issue of economics. To keep up with the ever-rising demands of a growing population, agriculture requires more and more labor. Food is also much cheaper than it was in the past, pressuring farmers to produce higher yields at lower profit. As a result, if field laborers make less money and leave the industry for better-paying options, farmers may increasingly turn to mechanization to fill the gap.”

Stands to reason. More dairy farmers are turning to robotic milkers. Planting and harvesting has become a precise dance, using data and GPS. It sure sounds to me like there are a lot of unknowns. Balancing what’s best for the environment with food security. I guess even on the big questions facing agriculture, folks are still wrestling with the “what ifs.”


My chicken numbers have dwindled, due to my missteps. So, I brought a rooster named Rambo, a hen and two pullets, or young females, home recently.

Just days after bringing the new birds home, Rambo is gone — thanks to a mysterious kerfuffle. I found three of my livestock guardian dogs positioned strategically, guarding the hoop barn where the new birds were housed, a pen that looked intruded upon and no Rambo. No blood, feathers or any other sign there had ever been a rooster at all. Some barn cats had been skulking. I wonder.


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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.




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