It’s chick season! Or is it?

Every year we debate the costs and benefits of purchasing new chickens. This year we have a new idea. But first, a little backstory…

Two years ago we started with a mixed flock of twelve, then lost three birds to predation, and so purchased three more birds last spring. We lost eight birds at various points through the past year (hawks and owls, we think) and one more last weekend. So now we have two hens. We are tired of losing chickens. They are the ultimate prey birds. Even our hardy girls, Vera and Bossy, are at risk. It’s in their nature. They vanish during the twilight hour, just before it’s time to lock them up in the coop for the night. We even moved the girls to the back porch in January, but to no avail. Edna vanished the same day we shot this compost video.

The last three girls: Edna, Vera, and Bossy were/are Jersey Giants. We think their intelligence (if you can call it that) helped them survive. Sadly, they are not impervious to hungry foxes, hawks, owls, or other predators. Interestingly, the Jersey Giant is the largest breed of chicken. Their size probably contributed to their survival more than anything else. We were sad to discover there are no larger chicken breeds in existence. However, there are turkeys.

For the past few days, we have researched turkey keeping in North America. This is what we’ve learned.

  • Turkey’s are native species in North America and they can tolerate the weather swings of our region.
  • They lay larger eggs less frequently and those eggs pack a more nutritive punch per gram by volume. (Yay B vitamins!)
  • Adult turkeys are not victims of predation near as often as chickens.
  • Numbers of wild turkey populations are in decline, but that same species, Meleagris gallopavo, is also domesticated and we can buy numerous varieties of the species for our little homestead.
  • The most popular commercial birds (Broad Breasted White and Bronze Turkeys) are no longer able to reproduce on their own so we’re not interested in them.
  • Hens do not gobble, only toms, and only when it’s mating season (or when they feel threatened).

These are all good reasons for us to switch to backyard turkeys, but there are some drawbacks.

  • The eggs have four times the cholesterol of chicken eggs. Yikes.
  • They need a stable at night; a coop is too small.
  • Waterers and feeders need to be elevated so the birds don’t knock them over or poop in them.
  • Everything needs to be bigger.
  • Turkey chicks and poults die at a higher rate than chicken chicks and pullets.

For cooking needs, three turkey eggs are roughly equivalent to five chicken eggs by volume, no shells. To keep us in chicken eggs we needed at least three chickens which works out to about 18 eggs during good sunshine and nice weather weeks, as few as a dozen during cloudy or cold weeks, and seven eggs per week through the winter. To keep us in turkey eggs we’ll need four turkeys which should produce 10 or 11 eggs during good weeks, 7 (maybe 8?) during less pleasant weeks, and 4 (rarely five) through the winter.

If we ate other dairy, poultry, or meat products we would not be able to justify the extra cholesterol. We don’t, so turkey cholesterol is an acceptable trade-off (for now). If we were reliant on these eggs for all of our protein needs and B vitamins we would need many more birds. Luckily, we aren’t, so we don’t!

Our newest plan to produce organic, homegrown, bird eggs requires a lot of prep work on our end. First, we need to dismantle the current chicken run, then rebuild the stall that the 2013 tornado destroyed. It needs to be a turkey stable with sturdy, low, roosts. We’re going to try the deep bedding method outlined by this Swedish guy (Simeon, he’s great) who has many, many videos about poultry keeping and homesteading: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tcx26yWdvac

After contacting some local suppliers of turkey poults we learned they do not start selling them, typically, until mid-summer, so they will be ready for slaughter in November. We might buy from farms that sell butchered Thanksgiving birds, if they are willing to sell live ones at a much cheaper price, and if we can find Auburn Heritage birds.

The AH birds are a hearty, pretty brown, calm, large bird. Adult hens weigh ~20 pounds and adult toms weigh ~36 pounds. The hens start laying at seven months old, and the species can reproduce on their own if the need should arise next spring. Wild hens with a 100% pasture diet produce 2 eggs a week, but the domestic bird with a 50/50 feed/pasture diet can lay 3 eggs a week.

If we can get all the prep work taken care of by mid-summer then this plan is go-for-launch. Either way – we’ll keep you posted.

 

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Growing Along

So we’ve got the garden started!  The hens were in the garden house for about a month and they chewed through all the roots, weeding and feeding as they went. Let me just say working chickens are entirely underrated. After they moved out we let the ground rest (and the chicken poop wash) in two days of rain. Two days after that, the ground was ready for planting and biodynamics indicated it was a good day to plant leaf foods.

We transplanted organic green onions that we bought about three months ago from the grocery store. Green onions are a grass so we kept them in a water/dirt slurry in the bottom half of an Aquafina bottle, mowing them when needed. Green onions are a great addition to most anything we eat so it worked out great. We sprouted the kale and spinach from seed and transplanted on the same day. It took about half an hour for all the work and we made a timelapse video. Timelapse makes everything look easy.

Since then, we’ve planted peas, cucumbers, celery and radish. We also started the peas and cucumbers early and from seed. The celery was an organic vegetable from the grocery store (like the green onions) that we kept in coffee cups and water until the leaves resumed growing. The radishes are just seeds yet and we sowed them directly. Hopefully they’ll pop up soon! We also sowed some more kale and spinach seeds indoors. Although the freeze date has officially passed (yay!) we have may hail dates ahead, and it’s a good idea to keep back-up seedlings so the garden can bounce back after a severe storm.

Also I’d like to share a recent failure. No mother hens have adopted the three chicks. We tried and tried with the hens but each one preferred the freedom of the flock to adoption. Oh well, so it goes. Good news is, the babies are nearing big enough to join the flock! Once they are as big as the smallest two hens then in they go. We’ll be back up to ten hens and an intact rooster. Aiming for that perfect dozen means keep buying more. Maybe Alphonse can help us out in that department. Time will tell! Until next week then, indulge in a little simple heresy.

 

Chickens as Working Animals, and Planting with Ancient Farmers

Hello friends, and Happy Busy Spring!

So the garden house went up without a hitch! (pictures to follow…) The big chickens stayed in the garden house for about a month, sleeping in the dog houses, laying as usual, and chewing up all the greens, roots, and seeds. The whole space is bare now and fertilized thanks to the presents the girls leave behind, and no I’m not talking about the eggs.

We have a flat of Kale and more than a few spinach seedlings to move the garden house where they will be safe from bunnies – which are in vast quantity this year. On the sixth (in the moon-sign of Scorpio) we transplanted the potatoes before thy outgrew their pots. Hopefully, we won’t suffer a late freeze. They looked pretty weakly after transplanting but were perky the next day.

According to the ancient farmers we should transplant and plant leafy items in a Virgo, Taurus, or Capricorn moon-sign which just happens to occur on the 11th of April (Virgo) so that’s the plan. We also have Brussels sprouts, cucumbers and radish but as fruits and a root, we’ll have to wait to plant until the 14th and 16th respectively.

Since the chickens did so well in the garden we made them an official a-frame tractor so they might continue working in the larger yard.

It was a two-afternoon project for the four of us. It’s lightweight enough I can move it by myself, and once S’s water hauling muscles return she’ll be able to push it on her own too. The good news is the chickens can mow two tractor spaces a day. The bad news is we have to move them 2x a day or suffer a bald spot in the yard. Good thing we’re ok with baldness. 🙂

We are happy the chickens are working and they seem happy too. We’ll still have to mow but we get to mow a little less this way and that is very nice.

We do have a bit of bad news: we lost a chicken on Saturday. In the morning we went out to move the ladies and a black australorp was dead on the floor of the tractor. She was completely intact with no visible signs of trauma even on close inspection. We think she might have been egg bound. The night before, she was not in the coop with her sisters, but on the floor and unwilling to fly. After some reviewing and research, egg bound is our best guess.

When a hen is egg bound they cannot deliver the eggs they produce. An egg may enter the vent shaft sideways and become lodged, or caught in an interior pocket. If a chicken keeper is aware of the condition then they can sometimes help the chicken lay with warm water baths and a few other methods, but we were unaware and so the hen died. Now we know to count the different kinds of eggs and pay closer attention to the shells because brittle shells can indicate a calcium deficiency which might lead to an egg bound hen, and if untreated – the loss of life. Turns out calcium helps with the contractions that push the eggs out, not just for shells. Who knew?

Lastly, the Mama hen and baby chick adoption project was an abject failure. No hens were willing to take on the roll of mother and the babies are still in the brooder. They are just emerging from the gangly teenager phase, have full body feathers, retaining little tufts of fluff on their heads. Alphonse is definitely a rooster and has started funny teen rooster chortling. He sounds like a recording of a hen if you ran it through a pitch modulator with faulty electricity so sometimes the playback sounds normal and sometimes it goes too fast, too slow, high or low with no apparent pattern! Yet, without the protection of a mother hen the three are too small to join the flock. They go outside daily to their separate tractor – a rabbit cage without a bottom – and came in at night until Saturday night. On Saturday we cleaned and moved the brooder to the porch and have a heating lamp for when the low dips below 45 degrees F but otherwise they are acclimatizing to the light/dark and warm/cool cycles of outside life.

Well that’s enough for this post!

Until next time – keep it simple!

 

How To Introduce a Hen to Baby Chicks

So the three babies are a week old. Rosemary, Vera and Alphonse are happy and growing. We hope to introduce them to the flock in seven to ten more weeks, depending on the weather and how quickly they swap chick fluff for pullet feathers. They could use an advocate when they join the flock so we are pairing them with one of our broody little hens, Demitasse. Initially we thought Demitasse and her sister Cappuccino were Easter Eggers, but it turns out they are Sicilian Buttercups.  Who knew?

Demitasse is low chick in the pecking order. We picked her instead of another quasi-broody hen so that she will have three friends, and if all goes well, the rooster Alphonse will protect her from the other hens when he’s an adult. We are not chicken psychologists so we’ll have to wait and see how this little social experiment works out.

In the following video you can see Demitasse in the small brooder with the chicks. We also outlined the plan in a little more detail. There are 5 steps to creating a surrogate chicken family.

  1.  Identify a broody hen.
  2.  Get chicks.
  3.  Place the hen in the brooder with 1 week old chicks.
  4.  Keep mother and babies isolated from the rest of the flock until fluff is gone. The chicks will be 10 to 12 weeks old.
  5.  Reintroduce the family to the flock.

How’s that for farm science?  We’re not sure how this is going to work out but we’ll let you know!

Baby Chicks and a PVC Chicken Wire Garden House

On Saturday we purchased three new chicks.

chicks2-2017bw

Aren’t they adorbs?!  We picked two Australorp hens and a blond rooster (center) who might be a Buff Orpington but we don’t know for sure. The hens were sexed and banded so we know, without a doubt, they are hens. We had to remove their bands Saturday night, and man, it just kills me to listen to their screaming as I poke the metal tag back through their wing. The rooster was not banded because we picked him from a straight run. So he might not even be a rooster. However,

we checked his feathers for pointedness 
and held him upside down to see if he would flail 
so all signs indicate that he is a rooster. 🙂

We also bought 5 lengths of pvc, some t-posts, and another roll of chicken wire to make a garden house.

greenhouseWe’re building a garden house for many reasons:

  • to put the big chickens to work tilling the soil and eating June Beetle larvae of which we have already seen three adult specimens. (AND IT IS ONLY FEBRUARY!)
  • to protect the plants from bunnies,
  • to protect the plants from hail,
  • and to protect the plants from the hottest summer sun (with a shade cloth).

All of this effort will hopefully stretch the planting season and let us humans enjoy the fruits of our labors. We hope…

I’m calling it a garden house because the structure is not insulated against the weather yet. We may decide to put up partial walls. Later we will cover it with contractor plastic. Which bothered my eco-minimalist sensibilities until I learned that plastic sheeting is as environmentally (un?)sound and lasts just as long as the pvc plastic panels in our area because of severe storms and hail damage we get every spring (and sometimes in the fall). 😦  It would be easy to enclose the garden house and we probably will – but we’re not there yet!

Either way – we’ll let you know how it turns out!

We’re glutton for punishment: Spring Chicks at a Farm Store near you.

This time last year we were contemplating chickens. Now, we’re doing it again. We have nine ladies at this time, and too many eggs for our family.  That we’re contemplating more is a sure sign of chicken fever.

If (and that’s a big if) we get any chicks this year we’ll only get three; a rooster and two hens.  It would be nice to let the flock clutch on their own and sell the pullets throughout the year. We can’t do that without a rooster. Our beloved Lanchester gave his life to protect the ladies. We might be lucky and get a good rooster again! Maybe we could name him Valentine.

chicks
Photo by Elena Blokhina via Shutterstock

We still have the brooder. The tractor is already built (although it needs some improvement), and the winter run is in use. We’ve finished the heavy lifting of chicken-care on the homestead. Three babies would be a nice addition, and after four weeks they wouldn’t be babies any more.

Keeping chickens is stinky work. The kind you can’t really get out of your nose. The kind that comes back whenever you hear the word pullet. Oh, but it is worth it. The glamorous side of raising chicks is the soft sound of peeping, the warmth of the brooder light, the nuzzle of downy feathers, and the smell of fresh woodchips.

We have a v[egg]an in-house now, too. Our 16yo daughter is on the vegan train and her two main sources of protein are lentils and her homegrown chicken eggs. Plus, the mail lady volunteered to take 18 eggs a week. That keeps the pile of eggs down to a manageable mountain. Three more chicks, only two of whom can produce eggs? Seems like a fine idea.

After all, a dozen is a perfect number; especially for chickens.

A Chicken Heater + Pumpkins = Eggs

Now that we are getting blissfully cool nights the chickens need a heater. After much research and deliberation S decided on a simple design.

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Of course this design would work with an unbroken cinder block, too, haha, but seriously, we are thinking about chiseling the remainder off to maximize the interior coop space. S built and installed the heater two nights ago and the ladies seem pleased!

img_20161110_142827   img_20161110_142659   img_20161110_142931We got extra eggs the following morning, one from each of the hens! Although – full disclosure – production may have peaked because they ate a pumpkin. 🙂

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Our pumpkin patch has proliferated and we have over a dozen on the vine. We foresee continual harvest until the first frost, which may happen any day now, or not until February. Thanks climate change, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal. My mother-in-law grew up in Pennsylvania and every year she spoke fondly of frost on pumpkins. I was pretty confused about why that would be exciting until she shared her pumpkin cookie and cream cheese frosting recipe. Yum. But we’ll save that for another day. Until then, soak up some fall sunshine and smile at the bounty of your life. 🙂

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