Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner - Loco for local chickens

by Rachel Hurd Anger

In preparation of our Thanksgiving dinner, we went unconventional and roasted chicken. But, not any old chicken. No ma'am. We went local.

This last summer, I had the unique opportunity to attend a workshop meant to take those interested in having a hand through every process of a meal from kill to the dinner plate, essentially. As someone who'd never killed more than a fly (and never a fly for food!), I learned to slaughter and process my own chicken at RiverSong Farm in Taylorsville, Kentucky.

Knowing the farm and the people who raise the chickens as part of their livelihood, I contacted RiverSong again for Thanksgiving chickens after a message to friends on Facebook promised some very tasty poultry.

Fortunately, I didn't have to take the time to drive out to Taylorsville and meet a sweet bird at its end on RiverSong's kill tree. The deal was, I bought a live bird, and the RiverSong folks would kindly clean my bird for free.


I agreed to pick up the two birds I ordered at their regular Egg Drop location.

In my excitement over our untraditional Thanksgiving chickens, I bragged everywhere, to everyone, about our local chickens. Even my 4-year-old daughter climbed on my chicken tractor. She began talking up our "loco" chickens to

anyone who'd listen, still with no clue about what Thanksgiving actually was.

No matter. The chickens were the stars. And at a total of

$45.50 for the loving couple, they ought to be.

My daughter named them Bob and Bob, despite my insistence that we didn't know if they were hens or roosters. But, Bob and Bob they remained. As my mother busied herself with the making of her homemade apple pies, I began cleaning one of the Bobs in a large bowl in the kitchen sink. Bob #1 was beautiful, although its skin was scalded just a little too much--a characteristic a chicken dinner workshop grad like myself could identify. On to cleaning Bob #2, it appeared that the other farmer of RiverSong may have cleaned him. He was cut differently, the neck tucked elsewhere for stock, and yes, Bob #2 was surely a he. His testes were intact, and I had the [honor?] of ripping them out myself.

It's a good darn thing I'd done it before. Just 2 years ago I washed my first whole chicken from the supermarket and gagged, but here I was on Thanksgiving Day removing the testes of a rooster and showing them off like rare, enormous pearls to my parents. I've come a long way, to say the least, and removing Bob's rooster goods is proof positive; however, it's quite possible that my dad was out throwing up in my neighbor's bushes. Perhaps I should have been more sensitive.

Okay, I was proud of my locavore choice to order chickens for dinner just as they were running around a grassy field, eating bugs and clover as nature intended for them. That's what fueled my "loco" chicken worship, and subsequent sharing of the testes.

There's a simple wonder that simmers some complex emotions in eating food with a face--food that breathed freedom as equally as oxygen. It feels right. At least, it feels more right than buying a previoiusly-caged, salmonella-laced supermarket bird. I've never been quite so thankful for the animals I eat as I have since I went "loco." I've also never been quite so thankful for the food I've eaten on Thanksgiving, for food that lived a happy life. It simply makes me happy, as food should.

Contact the writer at rachel@hurdanger.com, or visit her website at hurdanger.com.

Photo: Rachel Hurd Anger

Dealing with loss

by Joy Currie

That first egg, the crow of my favorite rooster in the morning, fluffy chicks, contented clucks, the happy rhythm of living with chickens enriches my life. But not everything about raising chickens is a ray of celestial sunlight. Losing a chicken is always sad, but especially so for the owner of a small flock. Every girl has a name, a personality, a place in your heart.

My first loss was soon after bringing our little flock of ten home to their new coop. I found Shofar, our little trumpeter, lying under the roost one afternoon. There had been no hint of sickness, no signs of intrusion, just my little hen dead. Everyone else stayed healthy and happy. The "chicken lady" at the elevator said that 10% loss for no reason at all is to be expected. So we buried her and moved on.

We had prepared ourselves for sick chickens even before we brought our chickens home. We read Encyclopedia of Country Living, Storey's Guide and many sites online. So when Penny became sick, I already had a game plan.

Penny started acting strangely, lying on the coop floor instead of the roost. I separated her quickly, making a little home for her in the garage. I wanted to protect her from the rest of the flock, but also make sure the rest of the flock was protected from her in case she was contagious. We supplemented her diet with vitamins and electrolytes. She continued to deteriorate. I moved her into the house where she lived in a big box under the kitchen table.

I monitored her appetite, which remained good. I kept her hydrated with a syringe of vitamin water. Still she got worse. We never knew exactly what was wrong with her. We guessed it might be Marek's Disease, but she had been vaccinated, and everyone else remained healthy. I tried antibiotics, but to no avail. After two weeks of nursing her, we made the decision to cull her. She was not improving, so it was better to not let her suffer longer.

Then, this week we lost our top hen, Hillary. We literally lost her. She was there in the morning when I gathered eggs. She was there in the afternoon when I went to hand out treats. Then, that evening when my husband went to shut everyone in for the night, only seven hens were on the roost. I went out right away to check on things. Everyone else was accounted for. The coop was clean and free of any signs of struggle. The outside fence was secure, but no Hillary. Her disappearance was a total mystery.

We are now a little flock of seven. We miss our three girls. We have learned that disappointment and loss can be a part of living with chickens. But our rooster, Ron, still crows every morning. Every egg gathered is a celebration. And we are already anticipating new chicks in the spring. Life in our coop goes on.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Will Work for Chicken Feed!

by Nancy Farrell

Here at Sasimeadows Farm in northern New York everyone has a job to do to keep things running smoothly, so when I wanted to buy more chickens and some guinea fowl my husband, Jim, wanted to know what were they going to do for us. The hens, of course, had a job producing eggs, especially in the summer, but what else would they do for us? After a little research and reorganization of our property we’ve decided we have some of the best little workers around, ones that literally work for chicken feed, happily clucking all the while!

Lucy, our Australorp, heading to work
Job one: Turning compost. The first job we set out to give our chickens was to help turn our compost. We moved the compost pile from the edge of the property to next to the garden and have it with an open side so the chickens have easy access. The chickens and the guinea fowl spend lots of time scratching and turning the pile as they hunt for worms and other tasty tidbits. This helps me out a lot, as now I only need to turn the pile over once or twice a season and the chickens do the rest.

The girls clean up the garden
Job two: Cleaning up the garden after harvest. The second job I turned over to the chickens was cleaning up the garden after harvest. After I’d harvested all the crops and pulled up the spent plants I let the chickens have the run of the garden. Normally it's fenced off to them, so they were excited to be given access to this “forbidden area. They have spent many happy hours scratching at our raised beds. They got all the mulch we placed in the beds during the growing season nicely incorporated into the top soil. Hopefully they have also eaten lots of weed seeds and some of the pest insects that may have been hiding out.
Job three: Providing nitrogen-rich compost material. The third job the chickens do for us comes quite naturally and that is providing nitrogen-rich droppings that once added to the compost and left to sit for at least 120 days makes a wonderful addition to our garden soil. This Seattle Tilth article provides more detailed information for composting with chicken manure.

Guinea fowl on tick patrol
Job four: Controlling pests. This job takes advantage of each poultry type’s taste preference. Our ducks love to eat slugs in the garden and on the lawn. They also help keep the mosquito population down as they spend time on our farm‘s beaver pond.
Inspired by Gail Damerow’s article “Gardening with Guinea Fowl" in Mother Earth News, we purchased a few guinea fowl after finding ticks on our goats and dog last year. This year we have not seen a tick on any of our animals! They particularly like the overgrown areas on the edge of our lawn.

As for the chickens, they peck at all kinds of pests around the yard as they free range.
Job five: Providing endless hours of entertainment. This was an unexpected benefit of having poultry but the one I’ve grown to love the most. Nothing is better when I’m upset or stressed then watching these fascinating creatures go about their business. I’ve found that each one has a distinct personality, though breed similarities are definitely seen. Watching my giant blue Orpington rooster try to sneak around is hysterical (he has no idea how big he really is), and seeing the excitement in the hens eyes when they find a worm in the compost brings one the simplest joy.
So even during these hard economic times our feathered friends do lots of work for us for just a little love, attention and some well-balanced chicken feed.

E train to everywhere

i am on the subway in new york city, cradling a bag in my lap and holding my suitcase tightly so it doesn't fall. my head leans against the window and the cool air outside passes through glass and my hair to my skin and makes me shiver. the sun has been setting early these days and by now it is completely dark. 

this morning i was in san francisco. the flight was long but flying over new york city at christmastime was the brightest thing i've ever seen. it was only an hour ago and when i close my eyes i can still see it, burning like an exploding city. 

i notice i am the only white person on the subway and it makes me feel small. down the aisle teenage girls are playing rap music from their phones loudly and dancing. before me an incredibly beautiful indian woman sleeps. i want my camera so badly but i know it is buried within my camera bag within my suitcase and if i get it she will most likely wake and i will most likely miss my stop. we go through a tunnel and i am seeing a girl glowing in the window.  she is all sleepy blue eyes and long unbrushed hair but i feel a kind of warmth towards her, towards this girl that i've hated and loved for so long. the tunnel ends and i disappear. 

suddenly something snaps in my mind. suddenly i realise this is my youth. this is the young me i will remember when i am old and longing. these are all memories i will tell my children and grandchildren and myself. i take a mental photograph like i often do and i close my eyes tightly while it develops. 

a few snapshots i've taken while getting lost in this city.

Friday, November 26, 2010

John Kahn Live Performance 1967-68: T&A R&B Band and Memory Pain (John Kahn II)

(a scan of the Berkeley Barb ad for The New Orleans House in Berkeley, from June 7, 1968, featuring a June 11 appearance by Memory Pain)

I have been working on a series of posts detailing bassist John Kahn's live performance history separate from his work with Jerry Garcia. In my first installment, detailing Kahn's move to San Francisco in late 1966 and his subsequent activities through the end of 1968, I mentioned that Blair Jackson had learned that Kahn played in two original rock bands during that period, The Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band and Memory Pain. I recited what little information I was able to learn about both those groups, which was meager indeed: a single surviving ad for each band, and a few vague details about who might have been in the groups.

Fortuitously, however, I was contacted by Bob Jones, a long-time Bay Area musician who was in both T&A and Memory Pain with Kahn, and he was kind enough to share considerable details about those bands. Rather than expand the previous post beyond its current bloated size, I felt that Jones's information was worthy of a post of its own, before we move on to Kahn's work in 1969, when the fun really begins. I will recap a little of the previous post for context, but for a fuller picture of John Kahn up to 1968, readers will need to review the previous post.

The Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band
In 1967, John Kahn had switched from playing electric guitar and string bass to playing electric bass in a cover band. Like most creative musicians, however, it appears that he was more interested in playing music of his own choosing, even if it included a share of cover versions. Somewhere, Kahn met Bob Jones. Even Jones doesn't remember where, although he thinks it may have been at a 1967 jam session held by the Anonymous Artists Of America, where Mike Bloomfield was also present. The AAA were a Santa Cruz Mountains band who moved to San Francisco in mid-1967 (and are worthy of a series of posts on their own terms, but on another blog).

By 1967, Bob Jones had already been in a successful band called The We Five, best remembered for their folk-rock hit "You Were On My Mind." They toured and recorded successfully from about 1965-67, but their sparkling harmonies and short song were engulfed in a wave of bluesy psychedelia. Jones played guitar and sang harmonies, and played a critical role in the band's arrangements. He promptly formed another group. Jones (via email):
After We Five, John Chambers ( We Five's Drummer ) and I were determined to only play Stax Volt style R&B.  We first formed "The Mystic Knights of the Sea", an R&B horn band.  This did not go that well, but did have Ron Stallings as the tenor player and one of the singers.  Ron and I did a lot of Sam and Dave material because, well, we could actually do the harmony.  The band lived with their old ladies and children on 17th street in the Haight.

This morphed into the T&A Band.  At this point we had added John as the Bass Player.
At any rate, we got John in the band and we all moved into a flat on Oak Street, just east of Haight.  So, John, me and my wife and kid, Ron Stallings and John Chambers and his wife and kid all lived in the same flat.  Believe it or not, a racially mixed band was still a hard thing to do in those days.

Anyway, I played guitar, Kahn bass, Chambers Drums and Stallings Tenor.  Me and Ron sang.  We did other gigs especially a lot at the Sausilito Ferry club, the Charles Van Damme.
Deadheads and 60s music fans may recognize a few of these names. Drummer John Chambers was a touring member of We Five (they did not change their name to We Six), and would later play in The Loading Zone and then the Elvin Bishop Group, among others. Ron Stallings (1946-2009) had been in the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the mid-60s, and in 1979 he would turn up playing tenor sax in Reconstruction, with Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. He also was part of the horn section for latterday lineups of Huey Lewis And The News, and played in many Bay Area aggregations throughout his life.

The Charles Van Damme was a grounded Ferryboat in Sausalito harbor, known under various names, but most famous in the 60s as The Ark. I had thought that the 'T&A' name was a reference to playing strip clubs, but Jones says the name was just an effort to stand out amongst the numerous cleverly named groups of the time. However, the only actual advertised date I have been able to recover for the T&A band was at Berkeley's New Orleans House, on December 15-16, 1967. It's worth noting that even in liberal Berkeley, advertising in the radical Barb, the club chose to bowdlerize the name to 'T&A,' a sign that even the 60s had limits.

Over time, however, the Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band fell apart. Jones:
Eventually Chambers did not see eye to eye with me and Kahn about material and arrangements and the group broke up.  Kahn started taking me to jams at the Heliport on the condition that I borrow some of Chambers' drums and play drums.  I protested "but I'm not a drummer".  John kept saying "I've heard you play and you play just like Al Jackson ( Booker T's Drummer )".  You don't overplay like everyone else but you just groove."  So I went to these Jams where it was Charlie Schoning on organ, Kahn on Bass, me on drums and Fred Burton ( later Southern Comfort's guitarist and co-leader of SC with me ) on Guitar.  Somehow this band changed into Memory Pain because I wanted to do so much Percy Mayfield material.  Ira Kamin became the organ player.

During this time and well into "Live at Bill Graham's Fillmore West" John and I got together a lot, played scales(!) and wrote songs.  Many of them ended up on the SC album.  We were very close and thought alike on many things both musically, politically and socially.

I think it might be a little inaccurate to describe T&A and Memory Pain as "lead" by John.  We were hippies and doing our best to have bands be democracies ( which lead to a lot of problems and resulted in a lot of inaction ).  Because we were both quite opinionated, John and I had the most influence on what, how and where we played.
Fans of the Jerry Garcia Band know that John Kahn found and hired the musicians--with Jerry's approval, of course--and it is telling that Kahn liked a spare, swinging pulse long before he found Ronnie Tutt. Although Tutt was the archetype for a Jerry Garcia drummer, in general the band favored versatile drummers who tended to underplay rather than overplay, a distinct (and intentional) contrast to the double drum assault of the Grateful Dead. It's particularly revealing that Kahn's ears were sharp enough to recognize a great drummer even before the player himself did, since Jones initially saw himself as a guitarist who was just fooling around on the drums.

Charlie Schoning was the keyboard player for The Anonymous Artists Of America. He had a very interesting history as well, coming to the Bay Area in 1965 from Tacoma as a member of The Frantics, who evolved into Luminous Marsh Gas (a Moby Grape precursor). Schoning would go on to play in groups like Quicksilver Messenger Service under the Nom Du Rock Chuck Steaks.I have only been able to identify a single advertised Memory Pain show so far, on June 11, 1968 at The New Orleans House, opening for Buddy Guy (the Barb ad is up top). It seems that the eventual iteration of Memory Pain was
  • Fred Burton-guitar
  • Ira Kamin-organ
  • John Kahn-bass
  • Bob Jones-drums, vocals
I don't know anything about Ira Kamin's background, beyond his association with the Bloomfield/Gravenites axis.

Without getting too far ahead on the John Kahn story, Jones and Kahn became the primary rhythm section for Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites, who limited their playing to the Bay Area, and organist Ira Kamin was usually part of the Bloomfield band as well, at least in 1969 and early 1970. In mid-1969, Jones and Burton formed the group Southern Comfort, who released an album on Columbia in 1970. The Southern Comfort album was John Kahn's first producer's credit on an album. Kahn co-produced the album with Nick Gravenites, and the band recorded some songs written by Kahn and Jones during 1969. Southern Comfort's lineup was
  • Fred Burton-guitar
  • Ron Stallings-tenor sax, vocals
  • John Wilmeth-trumpet
  • Steve Funk-organ, keyboards
  • Bob Jones-drums, vocals
  • various guys-bass 
Kahn was the producer of Southern Comfort, and played keyboards on a few tracks, but the bass chores on the album were handled by Bob Hubermans. Art Stavro seems to have replaced Hubermans, and then Karl Severeid replaced him.

John Kahn and Bob Jones 1969
Mike Bloomfield, despite having walked away from the Butterfield Blues Band, Super Session and the Electric Flag, was still a big star. Great guitar players were bigger than ever, and Bloomfield was as good as it got. I also think that Bloomfield owed albums to Columbia as a result of how he departed Electric Flag in mid-1968, but Bloomfield's management situation was very tangled and can't be addressed here. In any case, Bloomfield was planning to record with Columbia, with Nick Gravenites acting as producer. Bloomfield did not like to leave home much, so his early 1969 shows were generally limited to The Fillmore West. Kahn and Bob Jones became the rhythm section for Bloomfield, and it seems that Memory Pain evolved into Southern Comfort. The exact timing of this evolution is uncertain.

Southern Comfort bookings start appearing in September 1969, so presumably Memory Pain ground to a halt sometime before. I am still working on this angle of the saga, but I will try and give a substantial picture of John Kahn's live activities with Mike Bloomfield in the next installment.

Bob Jones, meanwhile, continued working with Mike Bloomfield long after John Kahn had switched his primary attention to Jerry Garcia. Jones also had a substantial performing and recording career throughout the 1970s. He cut back somewhat on music in the 1980s, though not entirely, and ultimately returned to Oahu, where he was born, and he continues to perform regularly in Hawaii. Jones's most recent production is a tribute to Michael Bloomfield by his band Bob Jones And The Drive, and Jones is ideally equipped to know how Bloomfield liked it to sound.

For the John Kahn Live Performance History for 1969, see here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Chicken in Every Pot

Come closer, Dear Reader. I have a confession to make. I am about to tell you my deepest, darkest chicken-keeping secret. You already know that I raise chickens. What you don't know is that I don't eat chicken. No, I don't mean that I don't eat chickens that I raise. I mean that I don't eat any chicken. Can you forgive me?

It's true. I raise chickens, but I don't eat chicken. I knew that it was peculiar, but it seems even more so as I type the actual words and look at them on my computer screen. Our chickens live in their coop right in the midst of our vegetable garden. They are surrounded by crops that we plant, tend, harvest and eat. Yet somehow, they need not worry about ending up on our dinner plates.

Why, you may ask, don't I eat chicken? Simple. I watched Food, Inc. After I recovered from the trauma, I started to look at food a lot differently. I felt like I was a fairly educated epicure before I walked into that theater. I had read all of Michael Pollan's books. I loved to read about food and did so at every opportunity. I knew better than to order a Caprese salad in January. I had already given up eating beef that wasn't grass-fed. What I didn't know was how absolutely frightening the conditions at the big poultry farms were.

I was very careful about the chicken I purchased at the store. I would have preferred to purchase chicken at the local farmer's market, but a local ordinance prevented the sale of poultry there. I did what I thought was the next best thing. I purchased only organic, all-naturally raised chicken. I paid the premium and was happy to do so because I thought that I was getting something for it. After watching Food, Inc. I realized that if I couldn't buy chicken from the farmer that had raised it, I didn't want to eat it at all.

Fast forward almost a year later and I found myself working on a chicken coop here at 1840 Farm. The chicks were ordered and on their way. Even I had to admit that it was odd that I wouldn't have a chicken in my refrigerator, but I was toiling away in the summer heat to make it possible for them to live in comfort on our farm. But toil away we did and the coop was finally finished and ready for our little flock to move in. Now we could begin the waiting game for that glorious day when we would find eggs waiting for us in the nesting boxes.

People often assume that because I don't eat meat, I must judge them for doing so. Quite the opposite. I really don't. I ate meat, including chicken, for years. I never had the courage of my culinary convictions to raise an animal knowing that it would eventually take up residence in my roasting pan. I came to the conclusion that for me, it didn't make sense to eat meat if I didn't bring it to our dinner table from our farm instead of from the local grocery store.

I have the utmost respect for those of you who raise chickens and reap what you sow in the chicken coop. Isn't that what farming is all about? The nurturing of a small, delicate object whether it be a seed or a day-old chick through the treacherous first few weeks when something as simple as too much water or a lack thereof can be the difference between life and death. The daily tending to a living being that demands, usually without an audible extension of gratitude, your full attention.

I feel like those of you raising chickens for meat are working towards the same goal that I am. We are trying to be more connected to the food our families eat and putting in the hard work to make that possible. I continue to do so with the hope that my unpaid labor and hours of attention will produce a healthy meal for my family. If you are raising chickens for meat and/or eggs, then you are doing the same.

How can I not respect that? It's what my great-grandparents did. They were dairy farmers and raised most of their own food either in their vegetable garden or as livestock, including chickens. They didn't choose it because it was an easy life. They chose it because it was the life that made sense to them. Now I find myself living less than 125 miles away from the site of their farm. It may be almost a century later, but here I am, trying to figure out what kind of farming life makes sense to me.

I don't know if I'll ever decide to eat chicken again. Maybe after years of raising chickens I will decide to give it a try. Maybe not. Raising chickens for meat was never the intention of my great chicken experiment. I was hoping to teach my children that food has value far beyond its price tag at the local market. I wanted them to understand where their food came from, whether it was from the vegetable garden or the chicken coop.

Herbert Hoover was credited with uttering the promise of "a chicken in every pot" and a "car in every garage". Apparently, he never promised anything of the sort. In true political fashion, the national committee of his party made the promise, but more than 80 years later, he is thought by many to have said the words himself. I don't want to suffer the same fate as far as chicken proclamations go. My hope is for "a chicken in every yard" or at least every yard that wants one. I hope that we can all get a better understanding of the hard work that goes into raising our food, be it pumpkins or poultry.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I commend those of you who have raised the bird that will take center stage on your family's table. I hope that there is enough turkey for everyone in the "chicken in every pot" sense. I'll be perfectly content that my pot will be overflowing with food of the vegetable variety. The chickens at 1840 Farm will be happy that I'll be sharing the trimmings with them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brinsea Babies

by Margaret E. Kellogg

My second baby hatched on Sat., Nov. 20. It's a beautiful baby chick with a Lt Brahma daddy and a black Easter Egger momma. I know this because she is the only one that lays pink eggs. I have been using the Brinsea mini incubator just to see what would happen and last month I had two beautiful ducklings hatch. One survived and its name is Hershey, because it's a beautiful chocolate brown and growing like a weed.

At 21 days exactly, a little chick hatched. I was going to turn the eggs that day, and one was cracked and when I looked at it, there he was working his way out. Chicks seem to hatch much more quickly than ducks, probably because the eggs are far more brittle than duck eggs.

I was able to get the Brinsea mini egg incubator through Amazon.com, because I had a gift card for $50 ... so I thought, Why not? I knew for sure that I had fertilized eggs because it was obvious.

I am clearly a beginner with this experiment. I chose all duck eggs to start with. This little incubator was good for me because it was small and easy to set up and use.

When it came, my kids (who are 20 and 24) were so excited about it, they set it up and put the eggs in it before I got home. On Oct. 28, on a rather crazy morning, I opened the lid to check the water and there was the first little hatchling. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. It made my whole day. By the time I got home, there was a second duckling hatching and my adult kids were so fascinated by it, they were watching with the video camera and everything. Quite some time later, the little thing finally hatched, a beautiful chocolate brown duck.

We named this duck Hershey, because it is a beautiful chocolate brown, like a Hershey kiss. This little ducky is growing like crazy. We have let it swim around in the bathtub and it's amazing how ducks just know what to do. We put a couple of bantams in with it to keep it company. One of the banty's didn't seem to be feathering out so we thought maybe the other chicks were picking on it. The duck was afraid of the chick at first, but they grew on each other pretty quick. Because there was a hen that matched the little rooster, we put her in with the other two. It took them a little time to get acquainted, but now they are a group. This morning, I put Hershey in the tub to take a bath (like ducks do), and the chickens made such a racket that I put them on the edge of the bathtub so they could see Hershey. They jumped in the bathtub with him and actually looked like they were trying to swim, the crazy critters. (I use "him," because I think it's a drake.) He's twice the size of them and they are 3 months old.

Last weekend, while I was turning the eggs, I thought, Oh no, one is broke. Lo and behold, it was a new chick making its way out of the shell. I was so excited I yelled down the stairs to my son that we had a chick, yeah! This was especially delightful to me, because my daughter had just left for boot camp, and I needed a little boost to my spirits. I was totally tickled. The little chick came out quickly. Probably within a half an hour, he was out.

I was so happy to already have the Brinsea brooder that I had gotten after the duck hatched, I had it all set up. I wasn't sure that there would be any other chicks to hatch, that I found a young silkie hen that assumed this young chick as a companion. He took to her like the duck to water and seems to be doing great. He does come go in and out from under the brooder, which adds heat to both of them ... but it is so nice to see him under her wing. It's the most adorable thing I have ever seen.

I have been very pleased with the benefits that I have gotten from the Brinsea products. If there is a beginner out there that wants to try to incubate eggs, I would say that this is a nice little incubator for the beginner. The nice thing about it is that you participate by turning the eggs at least three times a day, and I have had success with this twice now. Once with duck eggs and also with the chicken eggs. If I can use these products and get these beautiful little poultry, then anyone can do it. Also, the brooder is easy to use and keeps the chicks warm with less electricity. Proven products that also support this website and are a sponsor.

I can't begin to tell you how exciting it is to see an egg hatching. I'm 45 years old and it makes me feel like a little kid on a Christmas morning when I see an egg hatching. I love these products that have allowed me to experience the miracles of life through an egg and I hope someone else can have that joy too.

John Kahn Live Performance List 1967-68 (John Kahn I)

(an ad from the December 15, 1967 Berkeley Barb, showing John Kahn's band opening for Morning Glory. h/t Ross for the scan)

If you've ever known anyone who was a member of a band, even an amateur band of schoolkids, you know that even the simplest of activities generate a flurry of complications. Just agreeing on a rehearsal requires a complicated series of negotiations about time and place. These complications are magnified if the band is electric, since choices for rehearsal spaces are fewer, and equipment must be transported, set up and plugged in before any music making can take place. While professional bands have some advantages over amateur bands, in that they may have equipment crew or dedicated rehearsal spaces, working musicians have more conflicts than casual amateurs, so the endless series of decisions is extended to serious matters like booking performance dates, band transport and dividing up the money.

The practical difficulties of working in a band make Jerry Garcia's commitment to multiple bands even more remarkable. The Grateful Dead were a full-time occupation by any measure, and yet Garcia found time for numerous side projects. The most prominent of these side projects was The Jerry Garcia Band, which existed from 1975 to 1995. It's effective predecessors began in 1970, so really the group had a 25-year lifespan. The Garcia Band could not have functioned without Garcia's bassist and friend John Kahn organizing the group: hiring and firing band members, setting up what few rehearsals there were and apparently acting as bandleader for the practical day-to-day decisions that are required of any group. Kahn also worked with Garcia in a variety of acoustic settings, such as Old And In The Way and their mid-80s duets, and he was a crucial presence in the studio for Garcia's solo work from 1974 onwards.

Without John Kahn, the majority of Jerry Garcia's side projects would not have occurred, or at the very least would not have been so expansive. Presumably David Nelson and John Dawson directed the day-to-day of The New Riders when Garcia was a member, and David Grisman seems to have been the most likely organizer for some of Garcia's acoustic excursions (Old And In The Way, Great American String Band, Garcia-Grisman), but without Kahn there would have been very little live electric Garcia to share with the world. Put another way, since Garcia wanted to expand his extracurricular activities even as the Grateful Dead got famous, if he had not found Kahn he would have had to have been invented.

For all that, very few Deadheads ever consider what John Kahn brought to the Jerry Garcia Band besides his exceptional bass playing and affinity to Garcia. This post will begin a series that will look at John Kahn's musical and professional activities prior to and as he began working with Jerry Garcia, but outside the context of Garcia projects. A fuller picture of Kahn's background and musical experiences will broaden our understanding of Garcia's music and perhaps modify some casual assumptions about Kahn.

Blair Jackson Interviews and Research
The only scholar who has looked seriously at John Kahn was Blair Jackson. Blair published the first real interview with John Kahn, a groundbreaking piece that was published in a mid-80s edition of his great magazine Golden Road. Some of the interview as well as additional interview material was published in Jackson's biography Garcia: An American Life (Viking Books 1999). I will quote Blair here, as he is the best source on Kahn's musical background. Jackson reports that Kahn had been raised in Beverley Hills, the son of two Talent Agents in the movie business.
He studied piano and music theory while he was still in grade school, and in high school he added rock and roll guitar to his arsenal. "But then I got heavily into listening to jazz and all of a sudden all I wanted to do was be a jazz string bass player and listen to jazz records all the time," he said. "I loved Scotty LaFaro and the Bill Evans Trio, and I also listened to a lot of Ornette Coleman and Coltrane. So I took up the string bass and studied classical music quite a bit."
After high school, Kahn attended the University of Southern California for a semester, then transferred to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in late 1966. Gradually Kahn became somewhat disenchanted with jazz, and he started drifting into the rock 'n' roll world that was exploding all around him. In 1967 a roommate offered him a job as bassist in a rock cover band, so Kahn traded in his electric guitar for an electric bass, and he emulated the great R&B and blues players of the day--James Jamerson, Hamp Simmons (of Bobby "Blue" Bland's band), Duck Dunn and Chuck Rainey, to name a few. "Another guy who influenced me was Paul McCartney," he said. Over the next couple of years, Kahn played in several different groups, including two that he led, Memory Pain and the Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band (Jackson, p.187).
Even this brief precis of Kahn's early career before he started playing in "name" bands in mid-1968 brings forward a number of very interesting points.
  • Kahn was raised in Southern California, but he never really worked there as a professional. It is common to hear Kahn referred to as a "session man," but all his studio work was either in San Francisco or on sessions with people who were part of the San Francisco scene, like Jerry Garcia and Mike Bloomfield (I will get to the Maria Muldaur question in a later post). Kahn was Bay Area all the way as a musician, even if he flew to Los Angeles or elsewhere for some sessions
  • Kahn was well grounded in jazz, even if he stopped playing it in 1967 or so. That made him a good fit for the jazzier excursions of the Garcia/Saunders bands, and for the jazz sensibilities of the Garcia Band in general
  • Kahn spent some time in 1967-68 playing in a cover band, so he had a grounding in learning tunes quickly and interpreting them, not as typical a skill of original musicians as you might think. That also meant he knew a lot of classics like "Roadrunner," so he wouldn't have had to rehearse them much
  • Kahn was grounded in formal training in piano and music theory, so he could talk to studio pros in their own language, while Garcia himself, for all his skills, was largely self-taught and more intuitive.
  • Kahn did not take up electric bass until he was a trained, experienced musician on the string bass and the electric guitar. This sequence of events is surprisingly similar to Garcia's abrupt adoption of the electric guitar after mastering the acoustic guitar and banjo (among other instruments). Both Kahn and Garcia played free of cliches, to my ears, even on an off night, and their parallel yet atypcial backgrounds on their respective instruments must have been a significant factor
John Kahn Live Performances 1967-68

John Kahn's studio and recorded history is well covered on the excellent Deaddisc site, so I am not listing any of that material except in the most general way. For the balance of this post, and for subsequent posts, I will be looking at John Kahn's live performance history. The focus of this history will be trying to assess how Kahn's musical experiences provided context and substance for his future role as Jerry Garcia's chief partner in personal musical endeavors. I am aware that I will be simplifying any discussions of other musicians, particularly Mike Bloomfield, but in order to keep these posts manageable I am going to try and keep a sharp focus on John Kahn.

Tits And Ass Rhythm And Blues Band
The amusingly named Tits And Ass Rhythm And Blues Band featured Kahn on bass along with Bob Jones on guitar, John Chambers on drums and Ron Stallings on tenor sax. Jones and Stallings shared the vocals. Jones had been a guitarist and singer in the hit group We Five ("You Were On My Mind"), and both Jones and Stallings would end up in a group called Southern Comfort. Southern Comfort released a 1970 album on Columbia produced by Nick Gravenites and Kahn. Stallings (1946-2009) had been in the SF Mime Troupe, and was in many groups subsequently. Deadheads may recognize Stallings as a member of Reconstruction in 1979, and he was a latterday member of Huey Lewis And The News's horn section.

December 15-16, 1967: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA: Morning Glory/T&A Rhythm And Blues Band
The only listing I have been able to find for the band is at Berkeley's New Orleans House, one of the earliest Bay Area clubs that encouraged original rock bands. Note that even in Berkeley the name is bowlderized (the Berkeley Barb ad is up top). For a more complete picture of The Tits And Ass Rhythm and Blues Band, see the next post.

Memory Pain
June 11, 1968: New Orleans House, Berkeley, CA: Buddy Guy/Memory Pain
Thanks to Ross, I have found a sole marker for a performance by Memory Pain (the ad above is from the June 7, 1968 Barb). Thanks to Kahn's old compatriot Bob Jones, I have been able to find out about Memory Pain. The group mainly played blues, particularly songs by Percy Mayfield, who had written the song "Memory Pain.

Although Jones was a guitarist, Kahn had begun taking him to jam sessions at the Sausalito Heliport as long as he played drums. Although Jones had no formal training as a drummer, Kahn liked Jones's nice groove and tendency to underplay, so for Memory Pain Jones took over the drum chair. Fred Burton was the guitarist, and Ira Kamin played organ. Once again, for more on Memory Pain, see the next post.

By mid-1968, Kahn appears to have been living in Marin County, and probably in Mill Valley. According to Blair Jackson, Kahn had met and jammed with Steve Miller and Mike Bloomfield. In Summer 1968, Kahn went to Chicago to try out for a new version of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, no doubt recommended by the many Chicago expatriates in the Bay Area. For various reasons, however, Kahn did not get the job and he returned to the Bay Area (the job went to Rod Hicks).

Mike Bloomfield
Mike Bloomfield was the first American rock guitar hero, a giant of a musician by any standard and tremendously important to the history of American rock music in the 1960s. Thus let me say in advance that my thumbnail sketches of his career and work do not do him justice, but this series of posts is focused on John Kahn and what he contributed to Jerry Garcia's music--this is a Grateful Dead blog after all--so I have to be selective about the information I will be emphasizing about Bloomfield.

To briefly summarize Bloomfield's career up until mid-1968:
  • Bloomfield was one of a few white suburban musicians who played electric blues as well as the Chicago greats, and had one of the first white blues bands (of about two) that played Chicago folk clubs around 1963-64
  • Bloomfield played on Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone" sessions and was part of Dylan's band when Bob "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival
  • Bloomfield was the lead guitarist for the seminal Butterfield Blues Band, whose October 1965 Vanguard album, when 4 white guys (Bloomfield, Butterfield, Elvin Bishop and keyboardist Mark Naftalin) and Muddy Waters's rhythm section showed definitively that white guys could play the blues if they were good enough
  • When the Butterfield Blues Band played the Fillmore, starting in February 1966, they were far and away the most accomplished electric band playing the Fillmore (any Deadheads who have not heard live versions of the Butterfield Blues Band's song "East West" should stop reading right now and do so). All the San Francisco musicians, including the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and The Fish and Carlos Santana (to name a few) were profoundly influenced by the band's twin guitar attack and Bloomfield's exceptional playing
  • After quitting the Butterfield Blues Band in February 1967 as they were about to break through nationally, Blomfield formed the ambitious Electric Flag, an eight piece band that planned to play all styles of American music simultaneously, who debuted at the Monterey Pop Festival in July of '67
  • Right before quitting the Electric Flag, Bloomfield spent a weekend in Los Angeles with his friend Al Kooper, recording some loose jams on an album entitled Super Session. This best selling, groundbreaking record featured Bloomfield's best studio playing, elevated rock jamming to a level of seriousness hitherto only attributed to jazz musicians, and brought the term "Super" into rock parlance (as in "Blind Faith is a supergroup")
Believe it or not, this list is only the highlights of Bloomfield's amazing contributions during this period. For a more complete picture, see the fine book Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues (Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom, Miller Freeman Books, 2000) and the Mike Bloomfield history website.

August 31, 1968: Palace Of Fine Arts Festival, San Francisco, CA: Mike Bloomfield Jam Band/Quicksilver Messenger Service/The Lamb/Linn County/AB Skhy/Ace of Cups  
After the success of 1967's Monterey Pop Festival, there was another year of efforts to try and duplicate the experience of the event. The Palace Of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Pan-American Exhibition, and the landmark had been rebuilt in 1965. This four day event was an attempt to use the entire grounds as a festival site, and the affair was not repeated. The last day of the event (September 2, 1968) featured the Grateful Dead, but in fact that day was canceled and the Dead flew to Sultan, WA for the last day of the Sky River Rock Festival. However, the event was anticipated with great fanfare in the San Francisco rock market.

We know something of the performance on August 31 from a detailed description by teenage diarist Faren Miller.The original billing was somewhat different, and Miller's diary only describes who she saw, so some of the billed acts may have played on different stages (including John Handy, Steve Miller Band and Big Mama Thornton). However, she does indicate that HP Lovecraft were a no-show.

Mike Bloomfield, at the time unaligned, since he had left the Electric Flag, played an unbilled performance on the second day by leading "The Mike Bloomfield Jam Band."  At this time, Bloomfield was a bigger star than anyone on the bill, since groups like Quicksilver and the Dead were still more like underground sensations. Miller describes the event in some detail, and it featured the sort of loose, bluesy jamming that typified Bloomfield's subsequent career. Research has suggested that John Kahn was the bassist for this event. Faren Miller does not identify the bass player, and I remain uncertain as to whether Kahn actually played. I have to assume for various reasons (that will be made clear) that Kahn lived near Bloomfield, and some casual jamming had led to the opportunity to play at the Palace Of Fine Arts festival. Apparently, Kahn had met Bloomfield when he saw one of Kahn's bands at a club.

Although there remains some uncertainty, the "Mike Bloomfield Jam Band" on August 31, 1968 was probably
  • Mike Bloomfield-lead guitar, vocals
  • Nick Gravenites-guitar, vocals
  • Mark Nafatalin-organ, keyboards
  • John Kahn-bass
  • Bob Jones-drums
  • unknown-congas
  • plus guests The Ace Of Cups (backing vocals), Steve Miller (guitar), Curly Cook (guitar), uncertain [Ron Stallings?] (tenor sax)
Amazingly, the Super Session album, only recorded on the weekend of May 28-29, 1968, was released by Columbia in late July and was a breakout hit, so a public Bloomfield "jam" would have been a very high profile event, even if unbilled on any poster.

September 26-28, 1968: Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper/It's A Beautiful Day/Loading Zone
Al Kooper was a staff producer at Columbia, and with a breakout album on the charts (not to mention the Kooper produced Blood Sweat & Tears debut album), Kooper decided to publicize Super Session with a live Bloomfield/Kooper jam for three days at Fillmore West. For the original Super Session, Bloomfield had chosen Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks and Kooper had selected drummer Eddie Hoh. Keeping with Bloomfield's penchant for not repeating himself, Kooper chose a different drummer (Skip Propop, formerly of The Paupers) and Bloomfield chose (quoting Kooper) "his friend and neighbor John Kahn." At this time, Bloomfield lived in Mill Valley, so I have to assume Kahn lived there, too. On the album, Bloomfield alludes to having jammed with Kahn "a few times."

The highlights of the weekend at Fillmore West were released on a Columbia album called The Live Adventures Of Mike Bloomfield And Al Kooper. This Columbia double-lp was the first recording on which his name appeared (Kahn had played uncredited on a Bloomfield/Barry Goldberg album called Two Jews Blues). Mike Bloomfield was a big star (and Kooper wasn't nobody), so having his name on the album was an important credit for an ambitious player.

There was a curious coda to the weekend. Bloomfield, for reasons that I will discuss in a subsequent post, was uncomfortable with the idea of success, and he had a tendency to bail out when things were going well. After two great nights at Fillmore West, Bloomfield abruptly checked into a hospital with insomnia (a perpetual problem for him). This left Al Kooper without his star. The hilarious Kooper wryly recalled "I think I'd rather cut my dick off than tell Bill Graham half his show ain't gonna make it that night. As expected, he went nuts, screaming as if I'd murdered his best friend."

The interesting part, with respect to John Kahn, comes in the detailed description of the weekend provided by Kooper in his must-read book Backstage Passes And Backstabbing Bastards (1998, Billboard Books)
I got on the phone and called Carlos Santana, a local hero not known outside of San Francisco at the time, and Elvin Bishop, Steve Miller, Jerry Garcia and others. Once again San Francisco responds, and every musician in town shows up and offers his/her services. It was a helluva show that night. Steve, Carlos and Elvin all came up and did three or four songs apiece, and we ended up playing way past closing time. The audience was happy. Graham was happy. Columbia was happy (p139).
Its fascinating to find out that Kooper and Garcia already had a relationship (another intriguing subject for various reasons), but more interesting to find out that Garcia was at least invited to jam onstage on Kahn on September 28, 1968. Garcia never mentioned seeing Kahn with Al Kooper, so I assume he was busy and didn't go to Fillmore West, although the Dead didn't have a show that weekend.

Now, although Garcia respected Bloomfield's playing (he wasn't deaf), the acerbic Bloomfield was never nice about the Dead, yet Garcia seems to have been friendly with Kooper, so it's hard to parse how much of Garcia's unavailability might have been a scheduling conflict. Despite Bloomfield's attitude, however, Kooper described in some detail how the Dead had loaned Kooper and Bloomfield rehearsal space and equipment for a few days prior to the show (p.137), so certainly any competitiveness Garcia might have felt towards Bloomfield was subsumed under the need for fellow musicians to cooperate.

Nonetheless it was not to be. The Garcia/Kahn meeting would wait almost two more years, while Kahn continued working with Bloomfield and various Chicago expatriates.

The next post will cover John Kahn's live performance history during 1969.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Between a Road and a Fox Den: what I do instead of free ranging.

I would love to be able to free range my hens. Even though we live in a rural area, on a back road, it’s a narrow valley we live in with that rural road running right down the center. On one side of the road is a narrow field with a small stream at the base of the hill. On the other side is our homestead, backing right up to the hill. Also sharing the hillside behind our house is a family of red fox.

Between the road and the red fox is my chicken coop, too. The coop has a 12’x 20’ screened yard attached; when we built the coop and yard, we tried to think like a fox. Along each side of the yard we dug down about a foot, and then attached metal flashing. We covered the flashing back up, and so far (in 3 years) no animals have dug under. The screen yard is 8 feet high: two courses of chicken wire. And to insure that no animals will climb over or fly in, the top is covered with 1-inch screen cloth.

When the coop and yard were built, the yard had lush grasses growing in it. About two weeks after the chickens moved in, the grasses were gone. Since then, the floor has been covered with dirt—mud when it’s raining, packed when it’s hot.

I worry about my hens getting enough greens, even though most of my vegetable compost goes in the coop for hen sorting. After we mow the yard in the summer, I rake a big pile of grass clippings into a garbage bag and dump them in the yard, and in the fall, I take them a bag of leaves every day or so. Even so, I worry.

Several years ago, in Mother Earth News, there was an article about a “chicken tractor”. A chicken farmer had built a portable chicken coop for his birds, and was able to move the birds from grassy spot to grassy spot. We looked at the pictures, talked about what we liked and didn’t like about the tractor in the article, and then headed out to sort through our “board pile” and accumulation of lawnmower wheels. My husband built a nifty A-frame “summer house” with wire attached to the frame and wheels on one end. Unfortunately, he built it out of 2x4’s, and even though the idea was great, I couldn’t move it. After he realized that it was going to be up to him to move the summerhouse, my husband took it back to the shop and reworked the idea. Now we have a great place for several birds to peck away at grasses and green vegetation during the day. The lawnmower handle on the end makes it easy for me to move it when necessary, too.

I have 20 birds, and I don’t put them all in the summerhouse at once. Sometimes I just go in the coop in the morning and ask, “Who wants to go on an adventure?” The first three or four birds that run to me get to go that day! Sometimes I will put all the Rhode Island Reds in the coop, sometimes all the black hens, sometimes, one of each. I never leave them in overnight, because I truly do try to be smarter than the neighborhood foxes, and I think the foxes could easily figure out how to dig under and have a nice fat hen for a treat.

I also use this screened coop as a way to introduce new hens or young birds to the flock. I can wheel it right up to the side of the screenyard that is attached to the coop. The birds can see each other and get used to pecking around in the same vicinity. This has worked really well; after a few days of side-by-side “grazing”, I can just leave the doors open between the two sections of my coop one night, and when I turn them out to the yard in the morning, there are no major casualties. Jostling for position, yes, but that is just bird dynamics!

One other thing I have used this summer house for is gardening. Several times after I have dug up parts of my garden, I have set the summer house over the newly turned earth, and let the hens search for earthworms, dig for grubs, and fertilize the ground. By the end of the day, the ground is nicely tilled!

Last spring, I needed a place to keep a mother hen and her chicks. My hencoop has two rooms, but they were both full; one with the nest boxes and roosts, one with five “teenagers” that I hadn’t yet fully introduced to the flock. My husband built an outside run using an old truck cap. He screened in the sides, and added a lift-up door on one end to make it easier to clean. Handles from a rusted out, no-good-ever-again wheelbarrow made the run simple to lift and move on the wheels. On the opposite end from the clean- out door, he built a nest box/sleeping loft that I filled with straw. The hen and her chicks liked this personal coop. I must admit that I didn’t use it for long. Even though the truck cap kept the rain out, the sides allowed rain in and the ground underneath became damp and didn’t dry out well. Also, whenever I moved the coop, the little ones scooted right out from under it!

I did use this coop for a few days this summer as a “hospital unit” when one of my hens was being picked on. I greased her up with medicinal ointment, and gave her a few days to heal. She was happy to get back in with the other birds: the ceiling is low in the camper run, and the hen appeared to be nervous about it.

Now that it’s time for the snow to fly, the camper run and the summerhouse are both parked for the season. I plan to use the winter to think of a better way to use the camper, but all the summer house will need is a check over to be sure the screen doesn’t need new staples, and it will be ready for chickens looking for tasty, fresh green sprouts.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

“Happy Chickens”

by Pam Baker

Chickens are fun. Ask anyone who has them. Well, fun is a relative term; you can’t take them to the movies or play cards with them, but many chicken keepers will tell you that they spend enjoyable hours watching their antics. Some make pets out of them, give them names and form that special bond that pet owners have with their pets. Let me say for the record, our chickens are not pets. They have no names; they have jobs. Their job is to provide nourishment for my family. [It can be no other way as both my husband and I love animals. We have 5 dogs and 3 cats.] However, we take their care and welfare very seriously. We clean the roosting area at a minimum of every week and put fresh bedding down in the nest boxes. We wash their feed and water devices several times weekly. Since they are still in their “tractor” until the snow flies, they get fresh forage as we move the “tractor” daily. They also get scraps 4-6 times per week in the form of garden produce or plants. So, we feel that their basic needs are well met. Occasionally, we have been known to let them out of the tractor if we will be working in the yard for an extended period of time. They don’t range far. They tend to gather under the pine tree and scratch the thick layer of pine needles or wander into the garden and do insect control. Rounding them back up when we are done is fun. That is if you are watching, not doing!
As newbie chicken keepers we are reticent to leave them out until they would naturally head to the roost as night falls. We worry that one will wander off and become dinner for a predator. We have neighbors who let their chicken free range, and they actually stay within eyesight of their roost/coop. However, they have also lost several birds to predators, such as hawks, weasels, and fisher cats. Considering our financial outlay, that would not be an acceptable loss at the moment. Plus, despite it being part of the natural life cycle, it doesn’t feel good to lose an animal, especially to a predator. But something happened the other day that got me thinking more deeply about the chickens welfare.
“The Great Chicken Run”
I was working down in the garden and headed up to the garage when I noticed some unusual behavior from the chickens. From my vantage point, down a mild grade, I was eye level with the lower part of the “tractor” and noticed that one of them was grasping a large worm….a very large worm. She was running from one end of the “tractor” to the other. As I got closer I realized that it wasn’t a worm; it was a snake. And it wasn’t one hen, it was all of them, taking turns. Picture this: a small, 8 or 9 inch garter snake wanders into the “tractor” and is nabbed by a juvenile hen, who, with her prize in her beak, promptly runs away from the other avid chickens to enjoy this surprise bounty in peace. All her efforts are to no avail because as she arrives at the end of the “tractor” another hen grabs the snake and promptly runs to the opposite end of the “tractor” followed very closely by all the other hens. The tractor is only ten feet long. For over an hour they entertained themselves as well as my husband and me. Utter fascination kept us rooted to the spot. We will forever remember this as “The Great Chicken Run of ’10.”

“A Happy Chicken Lays a Tasty Egg”
Animal experts call this “enrichment.” Temple Grandin states, “In mammals and birds, normal development of the brain and sense organs requires novelty and varied sensory input.” Although I haven’t researched every zoo in America, I would hazard a guess and say that every zoo likely has some sort of “enrichment program”. I first became aware of this activity watching Klondike and Snow, orphan polar bear cubs, at the Denver zoo. The zoo staff would freeze meat in blocks of ice and put it in the enclosure. The bears would spend hours “playing” with the blocks until the ice melted or was chewed off, and a snack was unveiled.

Heck, we’ve all seen the commercials about “Happy Cows”. Happy Cows give better milk…or so we are told. The highly successful ad campaign would have you believe that California cows are happier because the weather is nicer, and you only see them on pasture so they “must be” grass grazed. (All the ads show the cows in a pasture with deep green grass.) Which brings me to my point: Between the zoos’ “enrichment programs” and “Happy Cow” ads, one might infer that what your chicken does all day will make a difference in the quality of what they produce-eggs and/or meat. If our chickens are happy and healthy, then the food they produce will be more nutritious. That would be a simple assumption to make. I have done a decent review of what’s on the web. I’m not a professional who has access to the industry’s trade journals so there might be scientific and editorial information out there on this topic. But, sadly there is nothing that specifically talks about chicken enrichment that I could find. There are books and articles that discuss what happens when confining chickens in too small a space which may lead to behavior issues, but nothing that says you should consider an enrichment program for your chickens. Dr. Temple Grandin, if you aren’t familiar with her and her work, is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and the author of many books on animal welfare, particularly in meat production and a designer of livestock handling facilities. She has done a tremendous amount of work on stress and meat quality on cattle, pigs, and sheep. No research on chickens though, at least that I could find. There were several spots in the zoo industry sites that talked about avian enrichment. One could extrapolate that information for chickens.
“Our Enrichment Program at the Homestead
Even though our chickens aren’t pets and have jobs, I would still want the best environment I can provide within my budget constraints. So what are we doing to “enrich” our chicken’s lives? Right now, not as much as we would like. They are, as I mentioned previously, moved to fresh pasture daily, but they are still confined in their tractor for their safety. To be perfectly honest, confining them is for our peace of mind as well. We don’t have to worry about predators if the chickens are secured. We are just putting the finishing touches on their winter coop, but it will still not allow them to free range; when we get more comfortable with our roles as chicken farmers, we may change our minds. In their winter coop and run, we will have some options recommended by avian enrichment programs in zoos, specifically the Toronto Zoo. Things such as stumps, natural toys appropriate for chickens, and fresh substrate in the run area to encourage insect life, to name a few choices. While our chickens may not end up on an ad campaign for “Happy Chickens,” we hope their days are filled with activities that are “novel and varied,” (short of providing a snake for their enjoyment). We feel that not only is it the right thing to do, but also our nutrition is better for it as well.

My next post will be about our tractor and winter coop. The tractor is perfect for backyard chicken farmers, and the winter coop was built for approximately $95.00. Check back soon for the details and pictures. As always, you are invited to visit our blog at The Homestead Experiment.