Accidental Education

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I’ve come to realize that most of my education on the farm has been as much a case of learning by chance then by deliberate study. Or should I say we learn just by living. For certain, the learning we gain through experience or by doing sticks with us long after the classroom fades. I may not remember anything about my statistics class, but I will not forget what happened when I was dumb enough to walk through the corral with a bucket full of grain or store my feed bins too close to the sheep pens.

I’ve learned by chance, for example, that a good way to start pumpkin seeds is to let the pumpkins rot in place. As the bottom of the pumpkin decays away the seeds start to sprout inside the shell, protected by winter cold. In spring all I have to do is transplant the tiny plants into individual containers until they are ready to plant out in the pumpkin patch.

Seeds dropped by birds or blown in on the wind can nestle themselves into friable debris piles near the barn and come to sprout in the warm composting material until ready to plant.

Another accidental discovery took place this past fall after the lambs had been sent off to the butcher. We left the remaining hay in its normal place on the barn floor instead of using it for mulch or composting material. As the weeks and months went by I noticed the remaining hay bales kept settling down and spreading out more than it should be doing naturally. What the heck was going on?

At first I thought it may be decomposing. Then, while spending some time cleaning the barn I realized the chickens were happily scratching and pecking at the soft green leaves of the loose bale. With the rain falling over the fall and early part of the winter, the chickens were reluctant to venture out into the garden area to forage, so they were supplementing their lay mash and corn by eating the open bale.

Nowhere in all my books on farming and raising livestock was there any mention of feeding hay to chickens. But, I do have a friend that feeds her hens grass clippings. This I had to learn by accident – my little broken bale was worth something because the chickens were eating more of it than the purchased lay mash and corn, saving me on feed costs. Aside from the savings, the eggs were of normal size and shell thickness, and the yolks were as bight yellow-orange from the good quality of the hay and tasted as marvelous as they do in summer. You can be sure that from now on any left over hay will be piled in the corner of the barn to supplement the hens.

The beauty of this accidental discovery is that the hens only ate a small portion of the hay while pecking at it. They don’t seem to poop on the hay, although they did make a nest between the bale and the barn wall, forcing me to remember a new hiding place for eggs.
Most of the hay was gone by the time the lambs arrived and new bales had to be brought in.

Ah, if only I could live another lifetime, I’d be a genius.

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