I live right on the edge of town where the foothills turn quickly into mountains. So even though I don’t feel like we live in the woods, we share space with a lot of wildlife. Right now there is a herd of about 11 bachelor bull elk wandering the neighborhood and a larger herd of cow elk with their calves. There are several foxes, some coyotes, at least one skunk and quite a few raccoons judging from their midnight screaming sessions. And I know there are at least three to five bears living in the area. They’re all congregated here for the same reason we like it. There’s water – something rare in arid Colorado. We’re bounded on three sides by water – the Big Thompson River, the Buckhorn Creek, and the Long Irrigation Ditch.
Wow! What a cool place, right?! But if you get it in your head, like I did that, “I have 3 acres, so I should be able to grow our family veggies, eggs and some pastured poultry,” it presents some challenges. Still, as an incurable optimist, and someone who likes to solve unsolvable problems, I was sure I could handle it.
My neighbors provided my first lesson: don’t let your chickens wander around the yard during the day, especially if you’re not going to be at home.
One morning I heard their chickens squawking and yelling for help. I ran down to the creek to see that a mama bear and her cub had come to visit. They’d scattered the chickens across the lawn and snatched one up. Following instructions I’d learned from the Colorado Division of Wildlife about how to deal with bears, I ran at the bears, yelling in my scariest voice “Run away bears! Run away.” They ran away, but they returned an hour later and nabbed another chicken. After the bears left, I rounded up the chickens, and put them in their pen where they’ve lived every since. The bears never got another chicken dinner that year, but they remained hopeful, hanging out in our yards at dusk the rest of the summer.
The solution seemed simple: Keep your birds penned and make sure the smaller predators can’t dig their way into the pen. So when my friend Leah and I decided to raise meat birds in my yard in 2011, we attached chicken wire around the outside edges of our chicken tractor and then weighted it down with spare pavers so predators would have a hard time digging under. As for bears, well, we thought we were safe since they’d quit bothering the neighbor’s penned up chickens. As our first batch of 25 neared slaughter weight, some creature did reach in and snatch a bird and eat it. So I just attached an old trellis and some hardware wire to the roof to reinforce it. Again, problem solved!
On my mid-day check of the birds the day before we were going to harvest them, my jaw dropped. It looked like a bomb had gone off, destroying the roof of the chicken tractor. The wire I’d added to the top had been torn off, a big hole had been ripped in the wood roof, and parts of the roof were tossed 6 feet away. The remains of a dead chicken were strewn across the top of the roof. Another dead chicken was laying in the front of the pen. No doubt, it was a visit from a bear!
I carried the survivors up to my egg layer pen. While I was calling Leah to tell her what was up, the bear returned, hauled the dead chicken out, and was eating it in the grass next to the pond when I got back. But I had a plan! I chased it off, grabbed the chicken, threw it back in the bombed out chicken tractor, and built an electric fence around the mess. I snuck back every few hours to see if the bear had returned. I heard it scream when it touched the fence at about 11:30 pm, and walked the 200 yards over with my headlamp to make sure that the fence was still intact. That was a scary walk for sure! But boy, did I feel successful!
We repaired the chicken tractor with a sheet of metal roofing and successfully raised another set of 25 meat birds that summer without any further bear problems. Problem solved!
Now we knew that we needed a pen AND electric fencing. I’d also discovered that I didn’t like my chicken tractor so much, so the next year I built a hoop house. It would be tall enough that we could keep our noses as far as possible from the chicken poop, and light enough to easily drag around the pasture. I ran the electric fence around it and raised one batch of 25 chickens and put them in the freezer. Feeling optimistic we bought batch two. Wow! We were on pace to raise 200 pounds of meat for our families!
The second batch of 25 moved straight to the hoop house with their heat lamps. But at 2 weeks, the bear thought they looked delicious and apparently the shock from the fence was worth a 23-pack of chicken nuggets. He smashed the hoop house flat, ripped the chicken wire apart with his claws, and managed to kill all but two of the chicks. I moved them in with the egg-layers where one committed suicide by drowning himself in the duck kiddie pool because he just couldn’t live with the horror of what he had seen. We let the remaining chicken live until she got too fat to walk. At 16 weeks she was the size of a small turkey. She barely fit in the roasting pan and was the tastiest chicken we’ve ever eaten.
It wasn’t quite the outcome I’d hoped for, but I knew that I could come up with a solution!
I like to think that I learn from my mistakes, but the reality is that sometimes when I solve one problem, I run into another that I hadn’t anticipated. This year, instead of worrying about the bear, I decided we’d just raise our meat birds in the pen with the egg-layers. In fact, I had to raise egg-layers too because a raccoon got in and killed all my egg-layers. So on a warm April day I brought home 25 fast grower chicks, 12 assorted egg-layer chicks, a goose, and 6 future meat ducks.
And then it snowed. It snowed for one week, every other week, from the middle of April through the first week of May. Three weeks of knee-deep snow at this time of year is not normal. We went from drought to normal snow pack in 5 weeks. And the birds and I struggled together through snow, mud, wet bedding, more snow, more mud, and the horrible stench of growing meat birds. They lived in a little tent city of blue vinyl tarps, chicken wire, and extension cords to feed the multiple heat lamps. It was so bad that I couldn’t even take a picture.
It was also so bad that for the first time in my life, I couldn’t muster the energy to be optimistic. I called Leah to say that I would never raise poultry again, and that I wasn’t even sure about gardening.
But then the sun came out, and I sat in the garden, and I got a few plants going.
Then I took one of our finished meat birds to my folks for dinner and it was unlike any meat I can buy in the store.
And I started to think, “What kind of movable facility could I make that would stand up to both bears AND Colorado weather?” On the other hand, I’m also realizing that thinking outside my 3-acres, and working with a fellow farmer could make a lot more sense. I’m optimistic that I’ll find just the right person!