Somewhere in the dark a rooster crows. Again.
The temperature must have dropped in the night, I can see my breath when I pull my face from beneath the down comforter. The moon is still high, shining in the window over the trees and the mountains, reflecting off the fresh snow on the roof and teasing me with confusion that somehow it’s still time to sleep. With a moon that high, I must have hours left in bed, but the red glare of the alarm clock across the room says otherwise.
The rabbits will want fresh water, the roosters will not stop crowing, the eggs are freezing more solid with each passing moment and it is time to get up and start the daily ritual of fighting biological reactions to darkness.
When if comes to raising farm animals in Alaska, some problems are clear-an array of wildlife that would like a chicken dinner as much as you would; a winter plagued by the constant hauling of fresh warm water; overcoming the brutality of freight-train-like winds and sometimes months of rain in the summer.
One of the biggest difficulties, however, is not so obvious. As stewards of domestic animals intended for livestock purposes, sometimes our biggest enemy is the dark.
Through eons of adaptation, many species have been programmed to shut down to varying degrees as daylight decreases. You know, like bears hibernating and stuff.These processes are triggered by an intricate system of glands and hormones and, for the farmer, are most often a pain in the ass when it comes to all things reproductive.
For starters, chickens are not inclined to lay through the winter. As the days grow shorter, biological processes related to pineal glands and melatonin levels make the egg-makers stop making eggs and unless you rig up lights to simulate a minimum of 14 hours (16 hours is better) of daylight every 24 hours, you can kiss your smoked-salmon eggs Benedict goodbye. The balance of light and darkness profoundly affects the size, weight and even shell thickness of chicken eggs.
The effects of darkness on other animals are less obvious. Take rabbits, for example. Rabbits have been domesticated over hundreds of years and are “reflex ovulators”—which basically means their baby-making hormones are triggered by the act of sex itself. Yet domestic rabbits still tend to breed along with the seasons, like wild rabbits and hares, with decreased fertility, sperm mobility, and sex drive in the winter.(Interesting how it seems to be the opposite in Homo sapiens.) When litters can be coaxed, they are typically smaller both in size and number, and grow slower, which could in part be due to the fact that their mother has an ingrained tendency to both eat and drink less in the long winter nights.
I pull my boots on over three pairs of socks and my favorite fleece pajamas. Public radio tells me it’s 14 degrees fahrenheit, the warmest it’s been in weeks. There are multiple feet of snow to slog through to get to the barn, to the coop. That will all have to be shoveled later, and the snow needs to come off the greenhouse before it collapses. Both the coop and the rabbit barn need to be cleaned.
The damn rooster won’t stop crowing and he struts and fluffs in the snow and the darkness of the early morning.
It’s going to be a long winter, but I take the time to revel in the certain satisfaction that today, at least, I have managed to win one small battle against the dark—I have three eggs in my pocket. I run my thumb over a thin line of puffy frozen egg white where it spills from a crack in the shell, but hey—at least they’re laying.
Originally published in “Dark: Eight ways to look at solstice” in the Anchorage Press on December 22, 2011