Sunday, August 4, 2019

How to make weeding a popular blog post


I have a problem.

I wrote an interesting blog post the other day, but no one reads it.

Even though the content is dazzlingly captivating, almost no one clicks on the link.
It's about weeding.
Here it is:

The Perfect Weed Is ...

I think it's a super exciting topic. 

I posted it on FB too.
In one week it got 6 likes. The first one was from my husband Nobuo, who gave it a like after I was lonefully complaining "Why is no one liking my post?" (He has not read it.)
The remaining five likes too were all from compassionate friends.

And so I noticed that, since it doesn't even get clicked on, there must be a problem with the title.

It's not only about this latest article. Topics like what kind of weeds we have on the farm; that sparrows come to the chicken coop and drive us crazy; that goats don't work (don't eat grass) as much as we want them; that spiders build huge webs all over the farm overnight - these are obviously the most exciting topics  in the world and something must be wrong if they don't get read!

So I decided to do some research about article titles that inspire.

Here are some of my research findings applied.

Title 1

Ranking: The handsomest face in the world.

(Original was in Japanese.)
The Handsomest Goat in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan

Title 2

Three reasons why companies should promote remote work.

(Original was in Japanese.)

Three Reasons Why Chicken Farmers Should Promote
Sparrow Remote Control

Title 3

Ten things I want to do before I die.

(Original was in Japanese.)

Ten Things I Need to Do on the Farm
Before the End of Summer Holiday

What do you think?

Would you love to read these articles?

Let me know! This is research in progress. 
I simply can't believe people don't want to read about weeding...

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Perfect Weed Is ...

While everyone else spends their summer weekends on the beach, in the mountains or at summer festivals, we do mostly weeding. 

Goat weeding on solar sharing farm in Tsukuba, Japan
Worktime (front: Tobi-chan, back: Nobuo)

Solar sharing, goat, Tsukuba, Japan
Breaktime (left: Tobi-chan asking Nobuo 
for a cold drink; right: Haru-chan and Momo-chan)

It's the fifth summer since we built the farm/power plant, and every single year the vegetation has been a pure, unchallenged life force swallowing everything and everyone who doesn't fight back. Without intervention, in a matter of few weeks the place becomes a jungle. 

Goat weeding on a solar sharing farm in Tsukuba
Jungle in the making

Of the 1150 square meters of land, 1000 square meters are the goats' and chickens' run. We expected animals to take care of the greenery in their run, leaving only reasonable 150 square meters outside the run for human management. 

Alas, men plan, goats and chickens laugh.  

Now there are too few chickens to scratch the ground sufficiently to disrupt the plant growth, and goats get so many delicious treats from outside that they don't bother to eat what grows inside. This means that the entire 1150 square meters need human intervention to avoid junglification.

And we only have weekends for this.

Goats fighting on a solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan
Instead of weeding, Haru-chan and
Momo-chan are fighting again. 

So we need a strategy.

Our current strategy consists of two approaches:

1. Outsourcing the help

This year we gave in and asked dedicated professionals from Tsukuba Silver Workforce Center (つくばシルバー人材センター) to help us with mowing and weeding. Japan is full of vital seniors eager to work. Their help has saved us a lot of time. It's a total win-win.

Human weed cutter and goats, summer, Japan
 Silver Center Superman cutting grass in the back.

2. Smart weed management

Just mindless mowing would be the silliest thing we could do. In order to reduce the workload in the future, we need a more strategic approach to ensure there is more of the good weeds and less of the bad ones. We realized that this is not something that happens naturally. If we left it to nature (and help it with indiscriminate mowing), the whole farm would soon be covered in yabugarashi (Cayratia japonica), which I consider the ultimate King of Japanese Weeds.
やぶがらし, Cayratia japonica, yabugarashi, ビンボウカズラ
(it looks innocent to untrained eye)

Bad weeds

Why we don't need yabugarashi: 
- Neither goats nor chickens eat it. 
- Because it's a vine, it's hard to cut with a weed cutter (or scythe or sickle)
- It's almost impossible to "kill" because the roots are connected deep under the ground, creating immortal root web. It's actually quite impressive. But for us it means that unless we want to poison the entire place with aggressive weed killers, we'll have to deal with yabugarashi for the rest of our lives. 
- It can't be composted (the "composted" stems will sprout again) 
- There is no other use for it (at first we thought it had one use: it creates nice green curtain in the summer as it climbs up the fences, but the trouble with removing it afterwards was too much of a headache and we abandoned the green curtain idea) 

There are a few more weeds that we want to have less of, for instance inutade (or akamanma, Persicaria longiseta) and shiroza (Chenopodium album), but these are at least good as goat food, so we want to keep them (in limited amount) in our weed portfolio. 

Good weeds

Two major good weeds that we want to have more of are clover (Trifolium repens) and horsetail (sugina, Equisetum arvense)

クローバー, Trifolium repens, clover, シロツメクサ
White clover carpet 

Clover is the friendliest wild plant I know. I even feel bad calling it weeds. 
The reasons why clover is so lovable:
- It doesn't grow too big so it essentially does not need regular cutting. 
- It's a favorite food of both chickens and goats. 
- It's resilient (the roots can withstand chickens' scratching)(unless it's hundreds of chickens).
- It forms a soft, beautiful carpet that invites you to sit in and have a chat with a goat or a chicken while sipping cold beer. 
- And wild bugs can still live in it.

Clover is the perfect weed.
But it's not the strongest of all. More aggressive weeds will take over if we don't step in. So what we do is hand-pick the other weeds and make more space for clover to spread around. Once it spreads, it will mostly stay there, hopefully with  little intervention.

clover, shiroza, クローバー、シロザ, chenopodium album
Removing other weeds (in this case shiroza
to make space for clover.

Horsetail is for some reason hated by Japanese farmers, but it's absolute favorite of our chickens (therefore it doesn't survive long in their run), and even goats like it. Moreover, like clover, it doesn't grow too big nor is too agressive in any way. So we like it. 

I'm thinking of doing my PhD in weedology. What other field would give you so much insight into the survival strategies of the species that humans work so hard to exterminate. There's a lot to learn from them. From the weeds, I mean.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Taste of Sustainable Protein?


The other day we organized a rare event: Tofu Tasting (利き豆腐).
Tofu Tasting! (June 2019)

As tofu is generally known as that thing that has no taste at all, tofu tasting may sound like a contradiction in terms - how can you compare the taste of something that has no taste? 

Except, this assumption of tofu tastelessness is wrong! It's hard to find, but tasty tofu exists. In our tasting, one brand was a clear-cut winner. 

By the way, if you're wondering why I'm writing about tofu here on this blog devoted to chickens and eggs - well, it's no coincidence. Tofu and eggs have at least one common denominator. But I will get back to that later, right after I tell you about our tasting, the most exciting event of the year far surpassing Christmas and Buddha's birthday and Sumidagawa fireworks combined. (Okay, that's a little exaggeration)

Tofu Tasting!

Our tofu tasting took place at a friend's place last month. 8 participants tried various brands of tofu in two categories - 8 samples in the Kinu category (soft tofu) and 8 samples in the Momen category (firm tofu).

Unlike in Europe, there are many tofu producers in Japan. A tofu shelf in the Japanese supermarket is the size of a cheese shelf in Europe, so it's easy to pick up a varied selection.

Tofu tasting samples

At our tasting, samples were anonymous. Each sample was randomly assigned an alphabet letter, and that was pretty much the only information the participants had. Everything else was, for a while, a top secret.  Participants didn't know whether they are eating a high-end or low-end product, made in a local tofu shop or in a large tofu factory, made from soy beans produced in Japan or from imported ones. They had to rely solely on their taste buds. 
Each participant chose the "Best" (their most favorite), "Second Best" and "Third Best" sample in each category. After everyone finished their evaluation, evaluation sheets were collected, answers were counted, the information about the samples was revealed and the results announced.


One would expect that participants' preferences would be scattered among different brands, but the results were surprisingly uniform. 

Can I say it here? A clear winner was Ohmomo-tofu 大桃豆腐, a small tofuya in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, where I used to work a long time ago. (This wasn't a coincidence. The reason I worked there was that I found it to be the best tofu I ever had). Ohmomo tofu won eight out of eight "Best" votes in the Kinu category, and seven out of eight "Best" votes in the Momen category.

A somewhat distant second was Inamoto-tofuten 稲本豆腐店, a mid-size tofuya in Tsukuba. It won one "Best" vote in the Momen category, and a few "Second Best" and "Third Best" rankings. 
Other brands fared poorly.

By the way, this is not paid advertisement and neither Ohmomo-tofu nor Inamoto-tofuten know that their products were used in our tasting or that I'm mentioning them in this post. (Please don't tell them!)

Where does the difference come from?

It's hard to describe taste in words. As opposed to the typical no-taste associated with tofu, the winning tofu in our tasting had natural mild sweetness and creaminess to it, making it easy to enjoy on its own, without adding any soy sauce or salt or whatever spice at hand. Just plain tofu tasted good.

If food was music, hamburger would be a noisy pop song bursting out of loudspeakers - exciting at first, but ultimately tiring for its overstimulation; regular tofu would be like three piano notes repeating themselves in a never ending loop - hard to bear without adding a melody; and our winning tofu would probably most resemble a quiet but beautiful piano symphony - if you don't listen, you can easily miss it, but if you do listen, you'll realize you can keep listening and enjoying it forever. 

Needless to say, the best way to see the difference is to try it yourself.

The difference in taste of course has everything to do with the choice of the raw ingredients - which are exactly three: soybeans, coagulant and water - and with the way these ingredients are processed.
I could elaborate in great length on the best variety of soybeans or the best type of coagulant or the way the coagulant is mixed with the soy milk, and pretend that I actually know something about tofu. I just deleted a long paragraph on exactly that. I realized it's endless. I will just mention that both Ohmomo-tofu and Inamoto-tofuten use soybeans produced in Japan and use nigari as coagulant. (Nigari, or 粗製海水塩化マグネシウム, "crude seawater magnesium chloride," a byproduct of making salt from the seawater, is a traditional coagulant in Japan. It makes the best tofu, but it requires skill and experience to use.)

Another tasting? Invitation

Eight is  admittedly a small number of participants, although the results are clearly not accidental. I would nevertheless love to do this experiment again and see how replicable the results are.

If you are interested in tofu tasting and are around Tsukuba, please comment under this post, or drop me a message via email or Chickens' Playground page on Facebook.  If there are enough participants, I'll be happy to organize tofu tasting again.

Why the taste of tofu matters?

Now perhaps I should explain why we organized this event in the first place and what implications the taste of tofu has for the world peace. Obviously the implications are huge :D

To those who think that tofu and eggs have nothing in common: In fact they do. 

Tofu and eggs have at least one thing in common: They can both be a wonderful source of sustainable protein.
But for both, this status is conditional - they have to fulfill certain conditions if they want to be called "sustainable." (These conditions are different for eggs and for tofu.)

As for tofu, I insist that to qualify for the sustainable protein badge, it must be "tasty." 

Sustainable Protein

If you never heard of sustainable protein before, don't worry - no one did. I first realized that the term officially exists when I looked it up online last week. 
There are initiatives like Protein Challenge 2040.
There is a book called Sustainable Protein Sources.
There is an extensive article called Sustainable Protein: Meeting Future Needs on the The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) website.

Without knowing any of this, it seems that I have been in quest of sustainable protein for the past decade or so. Raising free range chickens was part of it, and learning how to make tofu was also part of it.

Tofu making (Tokyo, 2013)

Our first chickens (Tsukuba, 2011)

What's sustainable protein?

It's exactly what you think it is: a quality protein that can be produced (1) in large quantities, (2) at low environmental cost and (3) at affordable price.  
And I would add: (4) that people enjoy eating. 

Sustainable protein includes all the protein sources that can support the 9.7 billion people that are projected to live on Earth in 2050, or 10.8 billion in 2100 (the United Nations World Population Prospects 2019) without destroying the planet. 

If you now have a baby, she still might be around in 2100, and she might have grandchildren of her own. They will all be part of the 10.8 billion. If we assume that by then we will have built a reasonably fair society and every person on Earth has access to 60 grams of protein a day (which is about the amount we need to stay healthy), that means 648 million kilograms of protein consumed by humans every day. And that's just protein. Unless we will have expanded to Mars by then, all of it will have to be produced out of the same finite resources we are using now.

Protein sources involve - in traditionally recognized order - meat, fish, eggs, dairy, soybeans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and some vegetables (broccoli, asparagus...)
The amount of energy, land and water used in the production of these protein foods varies, as does the amount of waste that comes from the production process. 

Since plant foods almost always require less land, less water and less energy to produce and process than animal products, sustainable protein often means shifting diets toward more plant-based sources. It doesn't mean becoming vegetarian or vegan though. Within the animal protein category, sustainable protein makes a distinction between the environmental impact of various animal-derived foods and encourages a shift towards those with relatively smaller footprint - for instance eggs are (in general) more sustainable than beef or pork. 

For example, according to the IME Global Food report (2013) one hectare of land can produce rice or potatoes for 19–22 people a year, but the same area will produce enough lamb or beef for only one or two people. 
It takes about 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef, or 6,000 litres for 1kg of pork, but less than 3000 liters to produce 1 kg of eggs (200 liters per egg), or 2,500 liters to produce 1 kg of rice, or 287 liters for 1kg of potatoes.

Also, in processing of foods after the agricultural stage, there are large additional uses of water. This is especially important in the case of meat production, where beef uses about 50 times more water than vegetables. (IME Global Food Report)

According to a case study The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products (2011), the amount of water necessary to produce a 150 g beef burger is 15 times higher than the water required for a soy burger of the same weight. (2350 liters and 158 liters, respectively). In other words, with the amount of water necessary to produce a single beef burger, you could produce 15 soy burgers. 

As for energy use, quoting again from IME Global Food report, estimates show that an average of 7–10 calories of input is required in the production of one calorie of food, but this varies dramatically depending on crop, from 3 calories for plant crops to 35 calories in the production of beef. 

Why does the taste of tofu matter?

First, tofu is made of soybeans. Dried soybeans contain 30 -40 % of protein, and it's the most complete protein among all plant protein sources. (Complete protein means that it contains all 9 essential amino acids in a balanced ratio. More on that some other time). 
150 grams of momen (firm tofu) have 9.9 grams of protein, 150 grams of kinu (or kinugoshi, soft tofu) have 7.4 grams. (150 grams of tofu is about half of the regular tofu size sold in Japan.) Add to it all the minerals and vitamins tofu contains, all the while being low-caloric and non-cholesterol, and at least in theory you might appreciate what a perfect food tofu is. Except, many people are not big fans of it.

In other words, tofu can easily pass the sustainable protein definition mentioned earlier: (1) it can be produced in large quantities (2) at low environmental cost and (3) at affordable price; but it often fails point (4) - taste. Few people crave tofu the way they crave hamburger or ramen. Tofu is rarely listed as someone's "favorite food." 

If people don't like it (or are indifferent), they won't eat it, and what's the point then.

That's why I added "being tasty" as a  condition to tofu's sustainable protein potential. Our tofu tasting the other day was an experiment on this. 

So, to answer the question in the title: 
Sustainable protein tastes like, among other things, a tasty, delicious tofu!

Friday, March 1, 2019

Why the Instagram Egg deserves 53 million likes


The Instagram Egg

Have you seen the news?

"An Egg, Just a Regular Egg, Is Instagram's Most-Liked Post Ever"

This was the headline in the Food section (?) of the New York Times about two months ago. The news was that a photo of an egg - the universal symbol of the mundane and the ordinary - inexplicably got more Instagram likes than Kylie Jenner's birth announcement.

The Instagram Egg has 3 times more likes than Kylie Jenner' thumb and baby hand.

The egg is now Instagram's most-liked post ever
Kylie Jenner's baby post is second. 

Headlines from other news outlets:

"An egg has overtaken Kylie Jenner as most-liked Instagram post ever"  (CNBC)

"How an egg beat Kylie Jenner at her own Instagram game" (The Guardian)

(In the CNBC and The Guardian, the egg news was in the Technology section)

As of February 23, 2019, the Instagram egg had 53 million likes.

But WHY?

I can see your eyes rolling: "But why are you sharing this non-news here?"

Well, because I found this non-news mildly irritating. Not the news itself, but its tone. 

The tone was: There is nothing special about the egg. It's the most banal object in the universe. How the hell could it get so many likes?

The New York Times article nailed it:

"Is the egg encrusted in diamonds? Does the egg have a popular YouTube channel you’ve never heard of? Is a sexy celebrity holding the egg?
Nope. None of the above. Just an egg."

Just an egg??? 

Our hens (and a rooster) would not agree.   

If chickens could read a newspaper, the New York Times (and other papers) would be flooded with protest email messages. 

But our chickens don't read newspapers and are busy enjoying their retirement, so they appointed me their spokesperson to write an angry response for them.

Now I have the grave responsibility of translating Chickenspeak to English and list some of  the reasons why eggs deserve billions and trillions of likes.

The short answer is, because of the eggs' sheer number and importance in our lives.


Why an egg deserves 53 million likes

1. The world is flooded with eggs

About 1,953,493,339,000 eggs were produced on planet Earth in 2017. (According to FAO. [Footnote 1])

This is more than 1,900 billion eggs. One thousand nine hundred billion eggs. In just one year. 
This is in fact 1.9 trillion eggs. 

In other words, we produce almost two trillion eggs every year to sustain the population of 7.8 billion humans.

Isn't that a mind-blowing number.

2. We eat eggs a lot

Eggs are not just sunny-side-ups and omelets. Eggs are used in a lot of foods: in many types of bread, pasta and nan; in baked foods, cakes, pies, cookies, puddings, pancakes, ice-cream, marshmallows, waffles, candy bars; in mayonnaise, salad dressings, tartar sauce and other sauces, soups, batter-fried foods, meatballs, meat loafs, tempura and okonomiyaki (the last two are mostly relevant in Japan)... and the list goes on. 

In other words, we eat a lot of eggs. But we often don't know it. This of course doesn't change the fact that we eat them, and that there must be someone somewhere raising a lot of chickens that will lay those eggs for us - for that ice-cream or the pasta. 

Some of us maybe thinking "I'm not a big egg eater anyway." Well, unless you're a vegan or egg-allergic, you're probably a bigger egg-eater than you think. 

To sum it up, we use eggs in so many foods (and non-food products as well), that if eggs suddenly disappeared from the world, we would be in a lot of trouble. 

We would certainly be in more trouble than if Kylie Jenner disappeared, from Instagram or from the world. (Of course I don't wish her that. I'm sure her family would miss her.)

Which, our hens (and a rooster) insist, is a good enough reason to agree that the Instagram Egg, as one of the 1.9 trillion eggs we use every year (laid by some 6.5 billion hens [Footnote2]), deserve a modest 53 million likes.


The Instagram Egg story does not end here though. The sequel was published in The New York Times on February 3 (this time in Style section). 

"Meet the Creator of the Egg That Broke Instagram"

Spoiler 1: The egg's creator was finally revealed. 
Spoiler 2: The egg has a name, Eugene (although it's supposed to be gender-free).

Long story cut short, the creator and his complices decided that they want to use Eugen the egg's newfound fame to do something good for the world. They have recently taken up a cause: mental health. 

This is wonderful news!

Mental health is super important topic. Most people, including me, are probably not 100 % mentally healthy. Many of us have 1% or 5% or 83% mental issues. We struggle with stress and lack of sleep and lack of time to update blogs and to reply to friends and to travel and read books and climb mountains and study second partial derivatives. 
I'm truly happy that Eugene the egg is now going to help us find help. 

Now here's our chickens' proposal (translated for this article from Chickenspeak): 

Eugene the egg should promote mental health of chickens too!

Most of the hens who lay those 1.9 trillion eggs in fact suffer from poor mental health. There is no direct statistics about this, but it's pretty clear the hens are mentally struggling. The ones that struggle are those who spend their lifetime in a tiny wire cage where they can't do anything but stand or sit, which is a majority of the world's 6.5 billion population of egg-laying hens. It's 24/7 of physical discomfort and utter boredom. There's no doubt their physical and mental health suffer. 

To be clear, chickens surely like to stand or sit. Standing and sitting are wonderful activities. But chickens also like to walk, run, jump, fly, perch, peck and scratch the ground in hunt for anything edible, groom and dust bath (the last two are major social activities), and they like to lay eggs in the privacy of a nest. This is what being a chicken means. If they can't do any of these activities, they can't be a chicken, and that's stressful. Just imagine you were born a human but then couldn't do anything a human needs to do to feel like a human - sleep in comfort and safety, take a shower, go out for a walk, write a blog, reply to friends, travel and read books and climb mountains and study second partial derivatives....
If you couldn't do any of this, never, your mental health would suffer. Chickens are the same. 

So, what if Eugen the egg also campaigned for the promotion of mental health of egg-laying hens? 
The best start would be to let chickens do things they need to do to feel more chickeny.

That's the proposal of our chickens who, by the way, enjoy great mental health (as far as I can tell) and they wish the billions of their fellow chickens around the world could enjoy the same. 

Our chickens feeling chickeny.


Footnote 1

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations gathers data on food production from all over the world. You can search their database, FAOSTAT, for virtually any agricultural item, including eggs. 

So how do you arrive at the number quoted in this article: "1,953,493,339,000 eggs produced on planet Earth in 2017"?

1. Go to this FAOSTAT link (FAOSTAT Livestock Primary)
2. Choose the following in the four Select windows:
Click "Select All" in Countries
Select "Production Quantity" in Element
Select "Eggs, hen, in shell (number)" in Items
Select "2017" in Years
3. Click "Download Data"
4. Open the Excel file that you just downloaded. 
5. Add up all numbers in Column L (Number of eggs produced in each country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.) (Needless to say, use Excel SUM function for quick calculation.)
6. Multiply by thousand (because the unit of the column L is "1000" as specified in the column K.)
7. You should arrive at the number 1,953,493,339,000.
※The number 1.95 trillion includes only eggs laid by domestic chicken. Other birds - geese, duck, quail - are not included.

Footnote 2

The number of hens - 6.5 billion - is an estimate calculated by dividing the number of eggs (1,953,493,339,000) by 300, which is the average number of eggs that a normal hen of modern 'industrial' breed lays per year.
The actual number of hens on the world's egg farms is larger for several reasons, the biggest being the fact that the egg production cycle necessarily includes pullets - young hens before they start laying eggs. These are not included in the 6.5 billion estimate.
Also, the number 6.5 billion includes only domestic chicken (egg-laying hens), no other birds (no geese, ducks, quail).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Yoga on the farm


There are many things you can do on a farm, and one of them is, obviously, yoga. We had our first yoga class on the farm last Saturday. 

The great thing about solar sharing is that you can do just about anything under the panels. Yoga class sounded like a fun event.

Because goats participated as well, we'd like to call it Goat Yoga.

Yoga on the farm

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why chickens don't fly out (even though they can)


At first I thought it was strange. 

Our chickens can fly quite well. They can easily fly 2 meters high if they want. 

The fence at its lowest part is only 1 meter high. This means that any of the chickens can effortlessly escape from the run any time.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Our chickens' pecking order and the hero at the bottom

Finally a new post after unbelievable four-month-long break. 
The blog might have looked dead but the farm is alive and well: Chickens and goats are thriving and solar panels seem to be mostly okay too (what a relief).

Having more work than before, I have less time to spend with our chickens and goats (and to write about it). This is a pity because it's always exciting to secretly spy on them while they think they are spying on me (and then share the details with our anonymous online audience).

Today I want to write about our chickens' social order, or as hoomans call it, pecking order. For those who think this is a boring topic: You'd be surprised how similar chicken society is to human society (that is, before humans invented "equality" and "human rights" for themselves). I will especially talk about Ashiko, the chicken at the social bottom of our flock. 


Being at the social bottom is usually a bad thing, but on our farm, this means that Ashiko is our favorite hen and gets special benefits. This is because of our farm's philosophy "No chicken left behind." (If our farm was a country, it would be a more notorious welfare state than Finland)

Click on picture to see it clearly.

As there are now only nine chickens (and six goats) on the farm, it's easy to see the social structure quite clearly. 

Of the nine chickens, eight are hens and one is rooster. The rooster, Justin, has a unique place in the flock, as roosters usually have, so the social order I'm going to describe will be mostly about the eight hens. 

(Regarding the rooster's position, it's hard to say whether it's low or high. This is because Justin is inconsistent and seems unable to decide whether he wants to be the leader or not. He likes to keep low profile and blend with the hens, except for the occasional half-hearted attacks on enemies like small children, Nobuo, and me.)

Justin the Rooster (center) trying to blend in.

So, the eight hens.

The top hen in our flock is Maruko.

(Please ignore the photobombers.)

Not that it would matter, but Maruko is the prettiest hen in our flock. She has beautiful feather coat, which I guess is both a reason and a consequence of her high status. During meal time, she can choose whatever feed tray she wants and no one will challenge her. She is never pecked at by any other hen. This means she gets the best nutrition as well as zero external damage (and she just seems to never molt), so her beautiful coat is not a coincidence. Btw the chicken on the title photograph of this blog is also Maruko.

Front: Maruko the Chicken. Back: Tobi-chan the Goat.
Poker smile 

When I do some digging or weeding in the chickens' run, Maruko is the one who comes close to "help" and gets all the bugs and worms that come out of the soil. These are delicacies and all hens crave for them, but Maruko somehow has the privilege to come first and get the best bugs. Other hens wait nearby for their chance. 

Despite of (or because of) Maruko being the most dominant hen, I can hardly recall seeing her being aggressive, like attacking other hens for no reason. From which I assume Maruko is a born leader with natural authority.

Below Maruko, there are the upper class hens, then the lower class hens, and then there's Ashiko. 

Social stairs (ladder was too difficult to draw)

Ashiko is at the very bottom. In most social groups this is unfortunate position, but on our farm, any hen (or goat) that falls into the lowest position immediately gets V.I.P. protected status.  This wasn't always the case. Before, our philosophy was to give chickens autonomy and let them solve their disputes on their own. But Ashiko taught us that we can do better. 

Ashiko's bullying started some six months ago. The trigger was her getting sick and limping on one leg as a result.  
This made her different enough from other chickens to become a target of bullying. Chickens hate diversity, you know. (Just as many goats, dogs and humans do.) If chickens wanted to inscribe a motto on the wall, it would be: "Either you are like us, or you are an enemy." 

We noticed that Ashiko's was being chased away during meal times (but a hen can go back to feed when other chickens finish eating) and generally picked on for no reason. It wasn't so bad, however. So we didn't step in - who would want that kind of micromanagement. Our chickens' run is big, I thought, so even if a hen turns out to be unpopular, she can always hide away from her bullies, I reasoned. I was convinced that the terrible cases of group aggression (pecking a hen to death) only happen on other farms with stressed-out chickens crammed in cages or in a barn.

That's what I believed until one day I found Ashiko sleeping outside, not in the coop with other hens but alone, with dark blood marks on her crest  and one of her eyes closed as if she had an injury. She looked miserable.
Ashiko the day after attack (already in her private room.)

You can see that one eye is closed.

This was a shock and a wake-up lesson. This has been the only case of such bullying on our farm, but it proves that even stress-free environment and a big outdoor run cannot always guarantee well-being of all chickens in the flock.

The moment we found Ashiko like that, we changed our philosophy from "leave it to the chickens" to "early intervention." For Ashiko the intervention came a bit late, but not too late. Ashiko immediately qualified for protected status. She got a private room, where she would get all her meals separately from other hens and she would also sleep there. She got a special run separated from other chickens. 

This arrangement lasted for several months. Ashiko completely recovered, including her eye, which at first we thought was permanently damaged. Luckily it wasn't. 

Now Ashiko is back with the flock, and although she is still at the bottom of the hierarchy, she's now same-enough to be tolerated by other hens. 

Ashiko socializing with other chickens.
(Preening is important group activity. Standing
this close to other hens is an achievement for
a previously bullied chicken)

On the weekends she sometimes still gets her meals separately and gets a special time in her own run. This is more because Ashiko now expects these privileges than because she needs them :D 

Right now there are just nine chickens and six goats, so it's easy to make sure every single one of them is happy. But imagine we had 30 or 50 or 100 chickens, and we still would want to run the farm by the "No chicken left behind" philosophy. So the big question is, how to make this work on a bigger scale. Meanwhile, we're happy to see Ashiko integrated back in the flock and living her carefree chicken life. 

The hero at the bottom :)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Third-graders at the farm


Third-graders from Tsukuba International School (TIS) came this year again
 to learn about renewable energy and solar sharing.

20 students and 7 teachers and parents on February 6, 2018

This was already third time that TIS students visited our farm.

This time, baby goats and chickens took all the spotlight, but that's just fine. As far as I remember, the purpose of school excursions was always (1) to have fun, (2) maybe to learn something. But the times may have changed since my school years, because the TIS children were (despite the baby goat distraction) curious and inquisitive, as they've always been on their visits to our farm, so we most probably managed to learn something together.

We talked about how the energy from sun turns into electricity when sunlight hits the panel surface, and how that electricity moves through the cables to inverters, then to the distribution box and finally up the utility pole to the public grid, so people can use the electricity in their homes. 

As all the things mentioned - the panels, the inverters, the utility pole - were right there on the farm in front of us, I hope the abstract concept of electricity became a little more concrete. 

We also checked out how much the electricity production changes when I change the tilt of the panels. (In February, the optimum angle in our area is 50 degrees. When we moved the tilt to the July position of about 4 degrees, electricity generation dropped by about 30%, which is a lot.) 
*We can check power generation status of the farm in the real time thanks to Solar monitor.

This year we didn't have much time to talk about the chickens (why we have chickens at the farm), but that's fine too. As long as the students had fun and remember the chickens, the goats, and the solar panels as they saw them on the farm, mission is completed. I can sleep well at night.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Goat baby boom


As we already announced on our Japanese blog, Natchan the Queen gave birth to four healthy baby goats on January 19, 2018, or about a week ago.

Natchan and her day-old babies (2018/1/20)

It's three girls and a boy! (2018/1/20)

If Natchan's delivery is already old news, the new news is that five days later, on January 24th, another goat, Momochan, delivered too! She gave birth to a healthy girl.

Momochan and her baby girl (2018/1/25)

Momochan currently doesn't live on our farm. She has a private room in the home of Mrs. Yagishita, our Chief Goat Officer who lives a short walk from the farm. This is because Momochan has an inborn problem with front legs and is easily bullied if kept with other goats. Instead of walking straight, she prefers to walk with her front knees bent. Otherwise she's a healthy, mild tempered, sweet goat, but she's not exactly super-strong and we never expected her to get pregnant. However, now she's a good mum and her leg issue is clearly not a problem in fulfilling here mum duties.

Momochan in her preferred standing position.
(She can stand or walk straight if she wants.)

Moreover, the current situation brought about an additional benefit: the opportunity for "mum sharing". 

"Mum sharing"

Mum sharing means that babies share their mums.
Natchan gave birth to four babies, which is a little too many to support without human assistance. Goats have only two teats, so four babies have to compete who gets most milk.  

That's why Mrs. Yagishita would have to do some bottle feeding to make sure all four babies grow fine.

See the milk bottles?
But Momochan's new mum status created an opportunity for a better solution: We took the smallest of Natchan's four babies to Momochan to see if she would accept her. And Momochan said, okay, why not? She snuffed the new baby's bottom, it smelled good, so she let her suck. 
Momochan's baby girl now has a playmate!

As a result, Natchan is feeding three babies and Momochan is feeding two. 
In the meantime Yagishita san is busy procuring enough food both Natchan and Momochan. This is not easy in winter.

If you are worried that Natchan or the baby might have suffered emotional damage from being separated, I can assure you that this is not the case. Natchan hardly noticed one baby is missing, and the baby was happy to be with her new mum as soon as she was allowed to suck. (It's easy to identify a goat in distress. There was none this time.)

Natchan and three babies (2018/1/27)

We will keep you posted about new developments.