The Mind of Big Willy

As we hear reiterated at many a ranch educational program, fall is a time of harvest. We collect apples from trees, pumpkins from the vine, dig potatoes and carrots, and so forth. On our field programs, students join in for cider pressing. They take turns spinning the crank of the apple-crusher, and all sing the song: “This the way we crush our apples, on an autumn day.” Next we turn the topmost crank, and the press mashes the fruits.. “This is the way we press our apples…” And the sweet cider oozes out.

Meanwhile, a 600-pound beast watches. Big Willy stands right behind the fence at the edge of his pasture. He pants and grunts, and shakes with excitement. Drools streams from his open mouth, with tusks on full display. (Don’t be afraid; Big Willy uses his tusks ONLY for display.)

A singular obsession has entered his mind. The apple-chunks that remain after cider pressing. Sweet and delicious. To be eaten with speed and gusto. Big Willy has apples on his mind.

Long have humans contemplated the mind of the beasts. Biologists, psychologists, philosophers, and lay-people all have their own explanations for what goes on in animal minds. But in the case of Big Willy, animal thoughts are not hard to deduce. His sole preoccupation in life is food. Being a large black pig, his primary diet is grass, supplemented with a bit of grain. But he’ll take any food he can get, especially sugary apples.

Sometimes, people ask if hogs are really as smart as reputed. I don’t know for sure, but I do know that Big Willy can be quite clever, when there is an opportunity for food. If his gate is left open, just enough for a huge hog to slip through, he’ll go out. Not for fresh air or social life, but because our only way to lure him back in is with food. When we move chickens and their pens and fence to new pasture, Big Willy is close behind. He’ll scarf any chicken feed left on the ground, and slurp all grain spills. If we leave a barrel of grain unprotected, Big Willy will knock it over. The resultant pile of culinary goodness is his version of heaven.

Hogs have short lives, but they live a version of the American dream. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  And for Big Willy, happiness is something that you chew.

©2011 Ross Wood Studlar


Small and Savage

Among the egg-laying hens, there lives a one-pound rooster with 100 pounds of testosterone.  He has become known as Napoleon, for want of a better name.  Rarely does five minutes pass without the  little bantam unleashing his high and squawking crow. The full-size chickens, turkeys, and peacock are like giants next to him.  Nonetheless, Napoleon walks with the pride of a king. If Napoleon were the size of an ordinary rooster, he would be the terror of the ranch.  At present, he is too small and awkward.  There is more entertainment than danger in his aggression.  Even so, we are wise to give him space.  He is content to crow to the air, and assert himself to the world.  And in the small world of a chicken yard, Napoleon is ruler.  Until he is bested by a larger bird … but after a short retreat, he’ll declare himself king again!

(Napoleon is also known as Stewart.)

  ©2011 Ross Wood Studlar

Goat Families and Inherited Traits, Apollo seeks a home

Rock Bottom Ranch staff make regular visits to Basalt and Crystal River Elementary Schools, to teach our famous programs.  Currently, I contribute by designing fourth grade lessons.  Our education programs are designed to meet life and earth science curriculum standards, with a special focus on ecology and the environment.  Additionally, it has been a goal of mine to integrate our classroom programs more closely to the ranch and sustainable agriculture.  I have also wanted to bring more art and cartooning into our card, as those are areas in which I have special training, and effective teaching tools.

My latest effort is the “goat families” lesson, which meets a fourth grade curriculum standard about genetics.  I will share the worksheet, which is the “assessment” for this lesson:

Apollo, the star of this lesson, will be for sale at the upcoming Harvest Party (on October 22nd.)  He is an alpine goat, a wether, and was born in early May, 2011.  He is friendly and amicable, and would make a superb pack goat or pet.

©2011 Ross Wood Studlar

Freedom Rangers in the Land of Dragons

Rock Bottom Ranch is featured in the fall issue of Edible Aspen Magazine!  The article (composed by RBR educator and ranch hand extraordinaire Hannah Lippe) features the FREEDOM RANGERS.  No, they are not the stars of an action TV series.  They are a breed of free-ranging chickens whom we have been raising for meat (with the ancillary benefit of soil-fertilizer from their droppings.)  In a bold cooperative endeavor with Jock Jacober of Crystal River Meats, Rock Bottom Ranch will raise a total of 1,000 meat chickens in 2011.  (And we have all already raised and had processed over 500 of them.)


If you have visited the ranch since May, you probably recall the free-ranging chickens in the pasture, with their dome-shaped mobile pens (chicken tractors).  An electric fence protects the chickens from bears, and their grain reserves from the ravenous jaws of Big Willy.  As their name suggests, the freedom rangers spend their days roaming the pasture, pawing and pecking the earth in pursuit of bugs and worms and plants to eat.  Considering their small size, I consider the birds to be remarkable eaters; they dive into grain at morning and evening feedings, and spend the rest of their days finding wild food.  They break to drink water, rest, or enjoy a dust bath.  Or they may interrupt their quest to fight another chicken.

Fights are a natural part of life for chickens.  Roosters face off with other roosters for dominance, while hens tussle with other hens.  They stand face-to-face, cluck, and fluff their feathers threateningly.  If neither opponent backs down, they peck each other.  Roosters kick with their spurs.  Most fights ends when one combatant flees; serious injuries occur only rarely.  And on the free range, there is ample space for the loser to escape.

Although they are natural explorers, chickens prefer to explore close to home.  Once a chicken has found a safe zone (such as a chicken tractor), she will return night after night.  Our egg-laying hens (at the other end of the ranch) rome with fence-gates open during the day, but don’t venture too far from their home coop.  Perhaps chickens perceive the world similarly to early maritime explorers—beyond the edge of the map, there is mystery and danger.  “Here there be dragons.”

Recently, we brought some of the freedom rangers beyond the edge of the map.  And there were dragons there.

The survival rate of our meat birds has been so high that we had a surplus of freedom rangers from our last crop.  More birds grew to market size than we had arranged to be slaughtered.  And so, these extra birds inhabit the ranch now.  (And you can take one home for $10!)  On Friday, Amy recruited my assistance to move these birds in with the egg-laying hens.  The plan: move them in the afternoon to a separate ‘room’ of the layer’s chicken coop.  Let them stay overnight.  In the morning, let them out to mingle with their new neighbors.

We placed the chickens in crates for transport across the ranch.  They fluttered and squawked when we caught them by their legs, but calmed down quickly inside the crate.  Boxed in with their fellow chickens, they took a crowded truck-ride across the ranch.  Then we introduced them to their new home.

In the early morning, the opened the chickens door.  In the late morning, I returned to check on them—only to find that the “freedom rangers” were still huddled in their room, and hadn’t dared to venture into the yard.  Evidently, they needed some persuasion.  I lifted some by the feet, and pushed them through the door; others I chased out.

Once on pasture, the freedom rangers again began to act out their namesake. But they stayed huddled together, safe from this foreign flock of chickens, who now shared the pasture.  Inevitably, as both parties pursued food and water, the egg-layers and the freedom rangers started to intermingle.  A bit of grain that I put on the ground encouraged this process.  A few freedom rangers came to eat—uncomfortably beside the strange other chickens, who came in so many different colors.

And then, the dragons arrived.  The six young turkeys who joined the ranch this year, also came to the grain to eat.  With their larger size, long necks, and menacing beaks, they must have resembled dragons to our freedom rangers.  And, like dragons, they did not take kindly to intruders on their territory.  A turkey pecked at a freedom ranger, chased her, tried to jump upon her.  The ranger ran off and escaped.  And returned to peck at the grain.  And the process repeated.  The ranger escaped again, but could not resist the lure of grain….

The laying-hens pasture has become an avian jungle, with chickens of all breeds and ages, the young turkeys, the elder turkey King Louie, and Eve the peacock.  The animals learn to coexist, by cooperation or mutual avoidance.  I am sure that the freedom rangers will follow suit, and find their place in the “pecking order.”  In the meantime, they  must rely on their wits and speed, to survive in the land of dragons.

Epilogue: After composing this post, I revisited the birds, and found freedom rangers and turkeys sharing the pasture, at a safe distance from each other.  Evidently, both have adapted to the new neighbors.

©2011 Ross Wood Studlar