Category Archives: chickens, etc.

On new fowl

So yesterday we rounded out our meat-bird experiment with the early-morning phone call from the post office. There are now 22 birds chirping at my feet in my office on the back porch.

My gosh, are baby turkey poults CUTE! It’s their wild googly eyes, I think. The goslings do not so much cheep as twitter and sing. And the baby meat chickens are, well, quite adorable too. (For those who care, the turkeys are Bourbon Reds, the goslings Toulouse, and the meat birds are a slow-growing Cornish Cross.) I will be keeping the poults with the goslings for a while. The poults think the goslings are their parents, and peck at their bills for food. The goslings groom them, and then they all fall asleep in a pile. The chicks, well, the chicks eat drink and then fall asleep in place.

The ducklings at 2.5 weeks are quite huge. I think they are Pekins after all and not a Pekin/runner mutt as I previously supposed. These guys are doing time in the chicken run, and seem to adore trying to swim in their water bowl. So far their chicken/guinea room mates don’t seem too terribly bothered about them. The ducklings are terribly skittish, though. Tom has taken quite the fancy to them (always a good thing). I promise to get more pictures of them today. The battery in my camera died before I could take them.

Chicken-ranching crossroads

Sometimes, the best-laid plans…

Actually, it IS when life throws you curve balls that the best learning and best decisions come about. There’s always a bit of a wrangle, though. Today I went to place my order for Round Two of the tractor inhabitants. I’d also planned on getting a few geese and turkeys…just because, of course. Actually, the meat birds (including ducks, geese, and turkeys) WAS on the plan for this year. But the hatchery is kind of on backorder with everything I want. I am too impatient a cuss to sit it out, so I will be making my order from elsewhere.

I read somewhere (on Garden Rant, maybe?) that chickens are like the new IPhone. Everyone has to have them now to be considered cool. If that were really the case, I would be delighted. As it is, an uptick in popularity means my hatchery is overtaxed.

Plans: The plan for NEXT year was much more aligned with “let’s put the money where your mouth is,” and establish a breeding program for some endangered species of domesticated fowl. Next year’s plan also includes some ruminants (hey: it is pure stupidity to mow all 5 acres, so we don’t. We mow 2 of it, and even that is rather dumb, but I need the grass clippings for my gardens) and some pigs. Big plans, in other words. Lots of big plans!

But maybe I will have to up the chicken/turkey breeding program to this year. I think I will go with Privett hatchery, though I am not terribly keen on shipping the poor babies that far (they’re in New Mexico) but their catalog is deep and their ordering policy is pretty loosey-goosey (i.e., I don’t have to order 25 of any one bird, which is the case with my own hatchery). SO: next up in the tractor? Twelve meat birds. Maybe 12 breeding chickens in another tractor, 6 meat/breeding turkeys elsewhere: and here is where I would love some input: I am thinking about raising Delawares (chickens) and Bourbon Reds (turkeys). And some geese, for the freezer: looking into Toulouse. So: any opinions out there? (hah!)

Birds and more birds

Baby chicks are pretty cute, but ducklings…!

The meat bird wrap-up

Note: I will be describing, without pictures, the methods I use to butcher in this post. Come back later if you don’t want to know!

The chicken tractor. You can see the blue tow-rope I have attached to the front. There’s a PVC pipe “runner” slipped on the back frame so I can drag it it fairly easily. These blokes poop a LOT so I move it twice a day. I set the rope around my waist and walk backward slowly. They’re now old enough (smart enough) to just follow me.

This is the Food Bong. PVC pipe, funnel, duct tape, 30* elbow at end. It helps, as lifting the tractor up to slide the full food trough one-handed is tricky (especially if they’re hungry). I bring it out with their food; it’s not a permanent fixture. We widened one hole big enough to stick it through the chicken wire.

So: On April 7th, 26 day-old fluffball White Mountain Broiler (CornishX) chicks awaited me at the post office. I spent $42.50 for a straight-run (nonsexed) shipment of 25 birds, plus $8 in shipping. I had had brooder equipment (lights, box, towels, bottles, feeders) from previous chicks so I did not need to purchase anything new, *but* I did get medicated drops from my feed store to put in their water. I purchase 20% protein broiler-type feed from a feed store that mixes their own; it is not organic, but I would buy some if it were. Each 50-lb. bag costs $15. As a point of comparison, 50-lb bags of comparable feed (20% protein) at the farm stores around town, from another Michigan-based feed company, is $11.50. The feed store I go to is 20 miles east, a direction I never drive, so I get four bags at a time. At the time of final butchering, they will have eaten most of 12 bags, plus lots of table scraps and home-made meals of eggs, ground-up eggshells, oatmeal, and milk. I ration their consumption. Always letting the food bowl go empty for an hour or two, I feed them twice a day. I make sure they have enough food to last through the night, but I always ensure they have plenty of water.

The birds moved into the tractor when they were four weeks old. At four weeks they’ve got quite a few feathers. Our very cold spring though made me regret getting them so early. We ended up putting two lamps in there and turning at least one lamp on for a few nights afterward. The tractor cost us just under $100, including the tarp. I did have to buy a bigger waterer and feed trough for them; the waterer was $22 and the feed trough $12. “Incidentals” in cost were the Food Bong Tom made for them and the PVC runner that aids in moving the tractor over the grass.

Mortality, intentional and otherwise: These guys are not the hardiest of poultry. I lost one chick at two days, another at two weeks, a third of apparent fright at going outside for the first time at three weeks. I lost two birds inexplicably at Weeks 5 and 7. I am guessing these last two had heart/circulatory issues: their combs turned bluish purple and their breath was labored before they expired. Three others are not dead but are permanent Infirmary patients: they were not growing as fast and have always had problems with their legs. I have them on regular (egg-layer) feed so as not to beef them up; they are easily only half the size as the others, and probably will never walk well.

Harvest day, May 24th: They are just over 6 weeks old at this point. It helps to isolate those destined for the freezer and remove their food for 12 hours before butchering. This aids greatly in Poop Avoidance, but it’s not completely necessary if you know chicken anatomy. I get out my biggest canning pots and get lots of water boiling. I place the Killing Cone on the tree: my cone is actually a squared-off milk jug, neck and bottom removed, hung upside-down 24″ from the ground above a garden trug. I have my fish fillet knife sharpened and I also have a pair of metal snips handy. I have a galvanized tub (suitable for at least 3 cases of beer) ready with a hose nearby; I also have a large cooler half filled with water and some ice. A cutting board is on the table.

Selecting the biggest bird, I tuck him gently under my arm and talk to him. (I talk gently the whole time, mostly to calm myself I think.) I bring him to the killing cone and hold him by his feet upside down: the blood going to his head calms him somewhat; he is still agitated and tries to flap a bit. I hold him like this for about two minutes to make him woozy. I slide him into the cone, feet facing me, tail/head against the tree; I might need to pull his head through the bottom of the cone if he doesn’t just slide it in. The jug fits him fairly snugly so he is unable to flap his wings. I continue to hold his feet. I try to do what I need to do next quickly, but there is no avoiding the fact that I am going to cause him pain. I sever his carotid artery with the fillet knife; placing the knife on the ground I then grasp his head with the knife hand and still hold the feet with the other. I hold his head to keep him from shaking and panicking. Death takes about two minutes, more or less; there is always a last burst of motion as the neurons continue to fire and the life force makes its final stand. I leave the bird in there to drip some more. There really is not much blood: maybe half a cup.

I remove the bird, thanking him again for his sacrifice, to the ground. I widen the slit I have made to expose the crop; I then slit the skin all the way around, and sever some tendons on the neck below the crop. (I never seem to be able to go all the way through the neck with the knife, thus I use the metal snips.) Into the trug goes the head and then off to the table go me, the headless bird, and the trug. I set the bird on the ground and spray him with a hose, trying to loosen the matted poop on his breast. I go inside and retrieve the boiling water and a thermometer. Pouring the water into the galvanized tub, I add water from the hose to make it about 170*. I also squirt a dash of dishwashing detergent in there. Grabbing the bird by the feet, I swish him in the water. I am wearing clean gardening gloves: ones with rough fingers, dipped cotton gloves. These are great for plucking feathers. I begin to pluck with one hand while I hold and swish the still-submerged bird with the other. I put the feathers into the trug. It’s easiest to get the feathers on the legs and body first, the wings and tail last. I still might need a pliers to pull the tail feathers out. The detergent in the water helps you get to all the feathers, but it’s still a pretty dirty job, and that water is quite hot. It takes me a good half an hour to pluck the bird completely clean.

After he’s plucked, I remove the feet. Using the fillet knife, I bend the foot forward then sever the tendons at the knee. I remove all of his scaly skin at the end of the drumstick too. I hose him off and place him in the cooler, and then go on to Bird #2. I repeat the above steps until I have five birds in the cooler. Tom has brought me a big glass of water and a small glass of wine. He’s on deadline or he’d be helping more.

Gloves off now, I remove the first bird and place him on the cutting board. The table is on a slight hill, so the tail is on the downside, breast up, partially overhanging the feather-filled trug. I make a small incision through the skin just below the diaphragm/rib cage. I continue the slit until I can see the muscle at the diaphragm; it is at this point that I make a deeper cut to go all the way through the muscle and the membrane that holds the guts in. I then place both hands’ index and middle fingers in this cut and pull in opposite directions, widening the hole so I can slide the fingers of one hand under the ribcage. I loosen the innards all around the ribcage with that hand, pulling the liver then heart down in a clump with the rest. I reach way up and pinch to cut the trachea. I take the knife again and I slice through the skin and membrane only toward the cloaca/anus and then behind it: my aim here is to make a hole large enough where I can remove the innards in one sweep, including, with one cut, the anus and its attached intestine. Into the bucket they go. I do need to go back in and remove the lungs and, in this fellow, the testicles, which are mounted under the back pretty high near the lungs.

The innards are quite colorful. They are also mercifully cool after their trip in the cooler. Yes, waste not want not and all that: I have no time today to separate edible parts from nasty bits. I would love to recycle the parts but all I have time for after five birds is to put the blood, feathers and soft tissue into the compost in layers of hot grass, and bury the bony feet and heads. Microbes are the happy recipients of the bounty there.

With each evisceration I bring the body in for Tom to prep for the freezer. He weighs each bird and then marks on each bag droll witticisms like “Met Maker 5/24/08; 5lbs4oz” or “Offed On 5/24/08 6lbs6oz Big Boy!” Tom has the easier job I think, don’t you?

My math says that I will end up with 21 birds in the freezer that vary from 4lbs11oz to over 8lbs. Including unknown incidentals (gas, electricity, Tom’s food bong) and discounting things I already owned (fillet knife, pots, hose, cooler) my math says this first batch, including the tractor, was about $400. This comes down to $2.72 a pound. Next batch? No tractor, no waterer/feeder, same inputs: $1.93 a pound. Less early death? Less cost. With time, then, the cost will go down.

Trouble is, I am not expecting the same parameters next time. This is my last trip with these blobby meat birds. Their mortality rate is entirely too high for the money we small flockholders spend on them. Morally, maybe I could handle it if my name was Frank Perdue, but I’m El: every unexpected death was a hard knock to my conscience. Not a hard enough knock though to keep me from chicken ranching, though. Next up in the tractor? Heavy breeds of roosters (Orpington, RIR, Australorp, etc.), which will take about 16 weeks to finish out. Wish me luck.

On one’s food history

Mother’s little helper

NOTE: This and the next post go together.  They’ll be about the meat birds, but this one is not graphic!

SURELY, there has to be an easier way to do that,” my mother said.

She had just come outside and has safely seated herself on the other side of the table from me, about as far away as she could. She brought me a pint-sized glass canning jar with two fingers’ worth of Cabernet in it. She thought it would be an appropriate way of serving me wine, considering what I am doing. I am leaning over a galvanized tub, removing the feathers from a meat bird.

“Why yes, mom, there is an easier way. But let me explain to you the concept of the $100. Chicken, and why we won’t be going there.”

I explain to her how a mechanical plucker works. I tell her more about the process of what it was that I was doing. (She had been inside the whole while, entertaining the patient, so she hadn’t seen a thing.) And then I asked her a pointed question:

“How far back in our family do you think we need to go before we find another woman who plucked her own chicken?” I asked.

This is a question we should all ask ourselves. (Let’s make it easy on ourselves and remove the idea of “want to” from “have to” pluck a chicken.) How far is it, really, before we find relations who grew their own food, raised their own animals for the table? We pondered the issue of our own genealogy for a while and agreed it was probably my great-great grandmother, back on the Old Sod, who probably did such a thing. That, friends, is a long time ago. Unknowable generations ago.

Now, my own mother has gardened, of course. She had us kids labor in the U-Pick farms around us to harvest everything from peas to turnips to tomatoes to blueberries to peaches, all destined for the table or for rows of gleaming canning jars in the basement: it was her attempt to extend the reach of a one-income household. Granted, she was an anomaly amongst her friends; it was the early 70s though so some hippie things (making your own wine, candles; brining your own pickles) was something my parents thought might be fun to try. She still makes her own jams. But true farming is a stretch for her, and her relations: even my great-grandmother had a college education. My mother’s family history is that of happy upper middle class life. No chicken plucking, ever.

There’s a similar story on my father’s side. I don’t know where I get this, in other words. I only know that, even though there’s a lot of sweat involved, this is the best food possible for me and my family. Surely, there is an easier way, Mom; it’s just not the road I’m gonna to take.

And now a note from the other chickens

Bloody “Queen Bea” Beatrice often taps at the back door for her dinner

The laying hens and the guineas and I have reached a compromise about their confinement. Around Happy Hour, I spring The Girls, as they’re collectively known, from jail. During the day, otherwise, I come out and give them treats while they’re locked up in their run. Only Pauline makes a daily escape to go to her trusty bird feeder. When she’s had her fill, she waits patiently on the back porch for me to let her back in the pen.

When Happy Hour rolls around, all nine birds RUN to the big dirt pile and do a dusty roll-about. Dirty birds! In the warm dirt, their eyes glaze over with happiness. So between the kid and the chickens, I have to sneakily move wheelbarrowloads when they are not looking. Everyone here loves dirt.

Can you count nine birds? Black Australorps Maggie is hiding behind a guinea. Notice the chaos of construction by the garden gate.

The Girls then do their thing running about the property, usually in threes, scratching and bug-searching and grass-eating. If Tom happens to be mowing, they chase his tractor. They will all end up at the goldfish/frog pond at one point, hoping for an amphibian morsel, but mostly they clean up spilled birdseed from the two feeders flanking the pond. (The frogs know better, and dive deeply at their approach.)

After they’ve had their fill of grass, worms, bugs and clover, they wander back to the back porch. Bloody Beatrice usually comes and sits on the back porch for a bit before the rest, sharing space with Penny the dog. Bea knows we’re inside eating dinner, and she knows if she waits patiently she’ll be the first to get the scraps. She’d be the first to get the scraps anyway because since Bonnie’s passing she is now Queen Bea. That, and she’s the only bird left from our first batch of chicks two years ago so we spoil her rotten. She’s such a dear bird, accepting scratches and pets, being picked up by the kid, etc. Who wouldn’t spoil her.

L-R: Maggie (Black Australorps), Pauline (Gray Leghorn), Bea (Isa Brown), Phyllis (Ameraucana), and Verloe (Rhode Island Red) are wondering if I have dinner scraps for them

After I share the dinner scraps, they wander into their pen and then into their coop to their perches. Before the sun sets it’s time to close the coop door for the night. Goodnight, biddies!

The chicken tractor

Let me be the first to say that this is not my design. No, it is a mishmash of lots of ideas I have stolen mostly from the web. I should also here mention that I have become amazingly tight-fisted in my dotage and really wanted to see if I could build a chicken tractor under $100. And I did.

Today is cold and rainy. Normally, the tarp is not covering it and there’d never be a light in there…and it would never be near the buildings

My original design was a lot more elaborate. I had envisioned hoops of cattle panels (which are actually hot-dipped concrete reinforcing: they’re flat grids of small steel rods that’ve been welded into panels 4’x16′ long), arched tall enough that I could walk in there. That idea went away when I couldn’t get them from the store to the farm. So I started scanning the nearest big-box home impoverishment store and decided on PVC conduit, sunlight-grade, as the hoop material. The base is 2x4s, untreated (untreated are less prone to warping IMHO) and the door side is 3/8″ plywood. The ridge beam is another 2×4. So it’s 6’x12′ long, the 1/2″ PVC conduit are 10′ long; it stands 42″ tall. I got a tarp large enough to cover three sides (12’x16′).

It is fairly lightweight. I can move it easily without wheels, though I plan on snapping a PVC pipe, cut lengthwise, to the back base to act like a sled runner. I worry about it tipping over when the wind whips through, especially with the tarp attached, so I have placed some conduit clamps on the outside of the base to guide step-in tent stakes into the ground.

Honestly, I wanted to create something more elaborate for the chickens themselves. I am glad I had a bit of time to get to know them before I undertook this endeavor. The meat birds really do not want to roost; they want to be on the ground huddled in a chickpile. This design, then, contains a fair amount of ground space for them to do what they do: sleep, eat, and poop, with the occasional wing-flapping session and (roosters only) chest-bumping jousting with the other roosters in there. That’s all they ask. No roosts, no great area to run around. No grass, either, from what I can tell.

This design, frankly, is easily adapted to make many things: larger stationary coops, for example; chicken runs, and…greenhouses! Danielle and her family used basically this same design, minus the ridge beam, add 30″ pieces of rebar into the ground to anchor the PVC, and some greenhouse plastic. 6’x12′ is probably large enough for more than the 23 birds who today inhabit mine; it feels roomy enough to me, though. It was cheap enough I could build another one easily, even taller, for turkeys or ducks or geese.

Still cute, at least to me

Baby Huey and company

But Mama he’s breaking my arm!

So, the meat birds are three weeks old now, and they are gigantic.

Where to begin? Sigh. I have lost three chicks, with two more separated into their own infirmary to see if they’ll get stronger. These five just never seemed to grow well. In point of fact, they never seemed to be able to walk, so they got trampled by the other birds in their hurry to get to the grub. I called a local feed store to see if I could get some replacements. The owner, who gets his birds from the same hatchery, said he wouldn’t be getting more in for a while, but, more importantly, it never should have happened! He told me to call the hatchery and explain the situation. So I did, and I will be getting a credit toward my next order. (This is what I wanted; I didn’t want 5 new baby birds now, and I didn’t want a rebate.) It was nice the hatchery stood behind their product.

But it’s the freaky nature of these birds to mature so darned quickly. Yes, thank you all for warning me: I did know what I was in for. Of the two sick birds, one seems to be able to hop around now, and the other is just not thriving at all. I have them on regular (non-grower) feed, along with boiled eggs. Tom asked if I was going to euthanize them. I said I might have to. Otherwise these birds would be the veal of the chicken world: no exercise, penned up, little meat blobbos.

They’re almost all feathered out, so they’ll be going out into the tractor soon. (I need of course to build the tractor. Maybe this weekend.) When it has been warm, they’ve been out in a small pen in the yard. It’s fun to throw them worms and watch them fight it out. But in general these big babies don’t exhibit typical chicken behaviors like scratching or dusting or roosting. Could be they’re still too young but I seem to remember my egg birds doing this at their age, easily.

I guess the proof will be in the eating if these guys are really worthwhile.

Despite her expression, she still thinks they’re cute

A guinea(less) post

I never claimed to be handsome

We got our four guineas last spring. As usual, though I wanted three birds, Tom brought home four. They are really hard to tell apart. I should say they WERE really hard to tell apart, as the largest bird has definitely embraced his inner testosterone. I have named him Himself.

He is a terror.

What was a very peaceful chicken yard has now become a very unhappy place. The other three guineas mostly ignore Himself, but all six chickens are now continuously on alert. There is so much stress in there! I feel awful, because when they could free-range, at least they could run away from that horny dude. I think of those poor female members of that nutjob Mormon sect in Texas, they of the 400 children who need new homes right now before they too become “spiritually married” to the male members of the sect…the only true parallel I can draw is neither my chickens nor those children had a choice. But someone must intervene.

Himself, I bid you adieu. I just hope you taste better than you act.

Chick stuff

The kid, as can be expected, is beside herself with the new chicks.

Their first night, after feeding them, I watched the chicks for quite a while. So much about this “slow life” on the farm is doing just this: stopping and really looking at things. Of course, I am quite sure I had a goofy look on my face. Like all infants that are truly yours, you really think they’re the most special, most adorable and most clever things to ever grace this planet. Thus, my grin.

Unlike mammalian babies, the little chicks are pretty self-sufficient from their first days out of their shells. These little things already were exhibiting the particular poultry trait of pecking. I had just placed a small bowl of mooshed-up hard-boiled egg yolk (think what their diet was pre-emergence and you see this makes some sense) and I stood back and watched the fun begin. Once one chick starts pecking, the others (all 25) immediately become interested. So, that first chick picks up a large-ish piece, takes it slightly away from the bowl, and realizes s/he has 5 siblings chasing its find! So it runs away, and the others give chase, taking nibbles as they go. The other 20 have discovered the bowl. All those little heads pecking away. How fun.

After they eat their fill, they start preening themselves. And then they stop and fall asleep, right where they’re standing. Whew, it’s a tough job being a cute little thing!

So little they still have their egg teeth

(little bump on their beak that helps them get out of their shell)

Cheep cheep cheep!

And thus begins a new adventure at the farm

The telephone rang at the It Better Be An Emergency hour of 7 a.m. this morning. The chicks were at the post office!  Could I please come to the back door and get them?

So I picked up this tiny box and brought its peepy contents home.  When I popped the top I was somewhat amazed to see that they were holed up in only half the box!  Yep: this small container, about the size of some stereo equipment, is sized to hold about 50 baby chicks.

It’s 26 we have, though.  All hale and hearty, and really not much bigger than the eggs they emerged from only yesterday.

For bedding, I use towels for their first couple of days of life.  They won’t eat it (unlike sawdust), it’s not slippery (important for growing legs), and it’s warm.

So out to the potting shed they went. They’ll make their home in a plastic tub for a week or two.  The tub is inside the mini-coop, which will be their home for a week after that.  By the time they’re nearly a month old, they’ll be out munching grass and bugs in their tractor.

First baby to find the food.  Notice chickpile:  like all babies, they spend most of their hours sleeping.

On chickens, and meat birds

cornishcross2.jpg

Coming soon to a field, then dinnerplate, near us

Welp, I have placed my meat bird order yesterday. We should get them in a week.

So: did you know that Cornish game hens were simply really young chickens, and not necessarily hens at all? As a kid I was under the impression that these precious tiny things on our dinner table were something very exotic. Nope; we were just eating babies! Cornish chickens were developed around 1870 in Cornwall, England, out of a couple strains of southeast Asian chickens and some local heavier-bodied birds: in the breed’s native Cornwall, they are called Indian Game birds because of their heritage. “Game” birds, in chicken parlance, mean cock-fighting birds. Asils and Malays, the predominant Cornish ancestors, are skinny, big-boned, fight-inclined things with powerful long legs. Cornish chickens are heavy, long-legged, upright birds with close feathers and a fat and fleshy breast.

Most of the roasting chickens you eat are white Cornish cross birds, or Cornish X. The cross is usually white Plymouth Rock. Why white, you ask? Well, aesthetics, mainly: white feathers if missed at the plucking won’t look as disgusting as dark ones. The birds we’ll be getting are someplace along this tangled line of crosses with crosses. The Hubbard White Mountain Broilers (who comes up with these names, anyway?), like all the Cornish X birds, have been bred to go from hatched egg to your table in as little as 4 weeks. They are the ultimate production bird.

Chicken history is rather fascinating. It’s more interesting than garden flower history, and at least as interesting as vegetable history, in my humble gardener’s opinion. The hand of the breeder is so very evident in everything that we eat and that we plant.

Now, considering my slow lifestyle and insistence on DIY everything and heirloom breeds of vegetables, why in the world would I consider the most processed of processed bird breeds for my first batch of meat chickens? I ask myself this all the time. I suppose the only answer I can give is that, first time around, I want to make sure it’s a relatively easy process for me (as it is me, myself and I who will be killing, gutting and plucking these creatures). So the very idea that these guys have been bred for such a short lifespan does have a certain appeal. Sorry, babies.

Just in time for April’s showers

Mondays and Fridays are my work-in-the-office days, so I step away from the farm and drive a few miles and spend a good part of the day wondering about the farm. Yesterday it was pouring most of the day. “We really should do something with the chickens’ feed bowl when it rains, besides just put it in their coop or their condo,” I thought.

Luckily, my husband was thinking the same thing. I came home to find the girls pecking out of this. Add farm junk and presto: instant feed station!

img_1153.jpg

Bloody Beatrice and Letha think it’s pretty cool

On having time

img_0990.jpg

Any bug’s worst nightmare

Sundays, as I have mentioned, are Computer-Free days here at the household. They’re also make-up days, as in, wow, I need to do X so I better do it this weekend: hmm, Sunday’s free.

Sometimes, like this Sunday, I get ahead of myself. The child was sick and sleeping, and under her dad’s care, so I went outside and followed the chickens around. They’re out of their batting cage now, and again have free rein over the property. I opened up the gate to the garden to the two oldest (and by far smartest) birds, Bonnie and Bloody Beatrice, and then I followed them.

I’ve mentioned before how fascinating it is to observe domesticated creatures doing their thing. Any farmyard animal is interesting, but a free-ranging chicken can be highly entertaining. Scratch scratch peck peck. There’s a rhythm to what they do that’s a quite coordinated dance: there’s nothing I do in my life that’s nearly so…involved. (Trust me.) Bonnie, especially, seemed to really enjoy finding sowbugs under the mulch on the paths. Normally, she’d never touch these things, but normally (i.e., when spring actually comes to our corner of the world) those little roly-polys are everywhere, and thus not nearly so delectable.

It was likewise fun to see the ground of the garden again. Sure, there was a ton of snow covering things, but I will bet it’s been a good month since I have tromped around the garden. An eternity! Life was coming back; the garlic was tall, the ground in the asparagus patch cleared of snow…it won’t be long now.

The chickens won’t have long to forage in the garden. Once the peas and spuds are planted, they’re locked out. Once the peas and spuds are planted, I will likewise have no time to follow them around!

On pastured poultry

dscn4865.jpg
What??? You want to EAT our sistren and brethren?

(Yes but not you, dear Maudie.)

It is usually around the beginning of March that we go to our local farm store and pick up some new yard birds. This year, we’ll be doing something a touch different.

This is the year of The Meat Bird. Our order will be kind of big, so we’ll be ordering our birds in the mail. There’s a minimum order of 25 chicks. That’s a lot! Too many, at least at first, so we’ll be ordering a couple of bantams (little bitty chickens) and two or three Buff Orphingtons (a strawberry blond, quiet, large-ish egg-laying chicken) and maybe a turkey or two. But the majority of our order will be Hubbard White Mountain broilers: a crossed (hybrid) bird that will be going from egg to freezer in as little as 8 weeks.

I’ll describe our movable chicken tractor in a later post. However, I have a question to some of you chicken ranchers out there. Does anyone have experience with electric fencing, like PoultryNet or Kencove? We plan on having the tractor within a larger (electrified) run. During the day they can get out and eat bugs and grass, but at night they get locked up within the tractor. They’ll be on a part of the property that’s a bit far from the farmhouse, so I worry about them, especially at night. Does anyone have a particular brand recommendation, or other thoughts?

The birds say hello

dscn6548-1.jpg

“Love and eggs are best when they are fresh.” –Russian proverb

Our kid will correct you if you say to her “a chicken says cluck cluck cluck.” She’ll say “No, a chicken says ‘bweAAAH bweAAAH bweAAAH.” Because they do. And guineas? “chuPWACK chuPWACK chuPWACK.”

So I think I have discovered the secret to getting fresh eggs year-round. It’s a simple one: always have enough young pullets around to lay them! You see, chickens need about 14 hours of light a day to encourage them to lay: anything less than that, they’re saving their reserves for other worthwhile ventures, like keeping themselves warm. Our older girls will give us an egg maybe every three days, but four of the five youngsters will lay just about daily. It’s a lot of eggs: more than we can eat, quite frankly. But: we have egg-loving friends, family and employers….

We do have one warming light in their coop. (Yes, sue me; but remember, our electricity is Nookeelar, as our esteemed president calls it: a carbon neutral but not guilt neutral power source. And I do feel guilty about the expenditure, but rather happier that I have happy chickens.) It’s on a timer, and gives them about 4 hours of light at night.

It’s cold out, so they spend most of their days all huddled up in the chicken condo (different, certainly, from the chicken coop: this is just their day house) shown in the picture above. It keeps them out of the wind, but I would think it would be kind of crowded with eleven of them in there. Ah, well, birds of a feather: they do flock together!

Eggs?

img_0402.jpg

We’ve got them! This is a week’s worth of hoarding for us. We had a big celebration for a little girl (she’s now four) and that meant brunch for lots of people on Sunday. Oh, and eight of these beauties went into the birthday cake.

Phyllis, she of the hawk attack, is obviously laying again: hers are the pretty greenish eggs. She’s an Ameraucana mix.

And oh, the poor things: today’s another day where I’m so happy I insisted on building the girls a large coop…it’s 9* out and they SO do not want to go outside into the ice and snow and howling winds.  And again I am so glad I was too lazy to put a concrete floor in there for them!  I dug up some of the bedding (there’s about a foot of the stuff in there) for them to scratch the ground inside their coop.  It keeps them happy even though they’re quite literally cooped up today.

Where’s Noah?

dscn6558-1.jpg

It’s weather like this that makes me happy I don’t have chickens with feathered feet.

Seriously, of all the wacky traits a chicken can have, I don’t know what people were thinking when they bred them for feathers on their legs. Anyone who is ever around chickens for more than a few visits knows chickens get dirty, and they LIKE getting dirty. Luckily, my girls all have nekkid legs, kind of like having built-in wellies.

dscn6561-1.jpg

Mad, wet hens (Pauline, Bonnie and Bloody Bea)

In spring we normally get a bit of flooding. It’s this nasty clay soil we have. What happens of course is the snow melts and then the ground gets saturated so there is nowhere to go but…nowhere. Big puddles everywhere, sitting on the ground.

One look at the calendar sez it ain’t spring, not by a long shot. It’s Tuesday morning and the windows are open because it’s 57* out…and the high yesterday was a record-breaking 64*. We had a rather gorgeous light show from thunderstorms that blew out from tornadoes in Missouri and Illinois, and it brought at least 2″ of rain. Combine that rain and the melted 6″ of snow that’d been on the ground on Saturday, and, well. I wish I had built-in wellies, too.

The warmer weather allowed me, on Sunday, to repair the batting cage. When the snow melted, magically, the batting cage netting, Lazarus-like, rose up off the ground. It did not rise up high enough for me to not garrote myself when I go let them in and out of their coop, though, so something needed to be done. I hate the half-assed nature of the whole chicken run netting, but I tell myself it is temporary, all to be put away in the spring.

And if this wacky weather continues, it’ll be spring a lot sooner than I think. The frogs are even out on the pond.

dscn6576-1.jpg

A casualty: one of 3 dead goldfish. (We’ve got plenty more, though.)

So much for the batting cage

img_0124-1.jpg

We’ve been hit by quite a bit of the white stuff lately. This in itself is not particularly newsworthy, as, well, it is winter, and this is Michigan. We had, however, a noteworthy snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. It was really wet, sticky stuff, and, coupled with a complete lack of wind, and a slow, deliberate fall, flake by flake, the stuff actually stuck to the deer fencing with which I covered our chickens’ run.

Yup. It collapsed the thing.

I found this surprising. The netting is 3/4″x3/4″ webs, and the actual netting itself is rather thin. 99% of the snow just falls through.  But the cotton clotheslines and trees and various other jerry-rigged lying-around-the-farm things I found to string the stuff up were overwhelmed by the snow’s weight of this snowstorm. It even snapped all three of our actual, use-it-weekly clotheslines, which were UNDER the strung-up netting.

I got exactly zero sympathy from the husband regarding the collapse.  He laughed, mightily.

So now I do the limbo, or near enough, to open the coop’s door. Sigh. I will fix it all once it stops snowing, if it ever does (it hasn’t yet). The birds are unphased. They just expect a path from the coop to their condominium next to the house. And the netting is still low enough for a chicken.

Life in the batting cage


Phyllis in a more lushly feathered phase

The hawk (a hawk?) came back, and attacked poor Phyllis, our sole Ameraucana (blue/green egg layer). Luckily, I was around, and chased the bird off. What a horrible potential death, though: and yes, don’t chide me about the “circle of life” and all that: the chicken doesn’t die immediately, it gets ripped apart, bite by bite, while the hawk straddles its neck and tail with its talons. Ouch.

So she’s missing a few feathers now, and is a bit more of a chicken chicken. The attack led me to move one fence line in about 30′. Their run is now about 45′ wide and maybe 50-60′ long. And I undertook a big crafting project: I covered the whole thing with deer netting, and sewed the 7.5′ wide pieces together.

Ice caught on the deer netting at the coop’s eave

Thus, the batting cage (thank you, Tom).

He suggested making a chicken wire geodesic dome, a la Bucky Fuller: hey, El, we could electrify it, he said.

Fencing as a state of mind



We fenced up the chickens recently, enclosing them in a large area of the yard behind some deer netting.

Last week, I was harvesting more spuds, this time in the greenhouse beds. The greenhouse is adjacent to the chickens’ area. Bloody Beatrice let me know that, in no uncertain terms, their cage is really just a state of mind. She saw that I was digging up the dirt, and therefore had to join me.

The chickens were very young last year when they learned that a kneeling me with a trowel in my hands means there are worms and other goodies to be had. I have never been able to dissuade them otherwise. It’s actually fairly amusing. It makes things like bulb-planting rather difficult (last year I had four birds vying for the gleanings). But I do enjoy the company.

And within no time, Beatrice’s sister Bonnie made her way through the fence to “help” me.

On fencing

Verloe: Hey, what gives?

We locked up the chickens yesterday. It took about two hours to string 250′ of fencing. Now, will it keep the hawks out? Hard to tell. It’ll keep the chookies in, though, which is very much the point.

But don’t feel too bad for them: I would have been OH so happy if I had half as big a yard as they do when I was a city person.

On guineas


Ick, another bad picture.

Robin wanted to learn more about our guineas. I have been thinking I should do a complete post about them, so here it goes.

We decided to get guineas because we lost two hens to a hawk last year. What’s the connection? Well, guineas are the Chicken Littles of the farmyard. Anything that flies, drives, or walks by that’s out of the ordinary, they start howling. We decided on guineas over a rooster, who’d also watch out for hawks, but…well, I didn’t want to risk the idea of getting a “bad” rooster who’d attack our kid. (I also wasn’t too hep on having pecked sex-enslaved hens or being awakened by a 2:00 a.m. crowing.)

The guineas, of which there are four (three hens and a cock) are virtually indistinguishable in looks, activity and any other way from each other. They subscribe to a severe case of Group Think so if one of them is doing something, the other three will soon be doing the same. As a farm animal, they haven’t been domesticated for long. This near-wildness appealed to me if I had to continue to pen in our birds: I really like seeing the chickens walking around the farm, in pursuit of their chicken-y desires; I figured if the chickens needed to be penned, the guineas, who can fly, would still be free-ranging. Well, let’s just say that near-wildness is an acquired taste.

So, the initial reason that we got them remains. They are excellent watchdogs. They immediately notify the other birds, and the surrounding township, if anything is amiss. On Monday, for example, they were making quite a din and I thought: geez, it’s kind of late, aren’t those birds in bed yet? And I look out at the side yard and they are yelling at THREE DEER, one with a huge rack on his head. They actually chased the deer, too, once one of them turned and started to run.

Other than that, they lay their eggs in the bushes, what few eggs there are, so…if you expect to get eggs out of these creatures, you really have to work for it. They can sleep in trees, and expect to have a very high perch in the coop. They completely imprinted on the one chicken that looks like them: Letha, the Barred Rock. Anywhere their Mama goes, they go…otherwise, they’ll follow Maggie, the Black Australorps or Pauline, the white Leghorn. (Interestingly, they never follow any of the other birds, who’re all red or brown: they definitely segregate themselves with the monochrome range of the feather spectrum.) I think it was a good idea to get them and put them with the young chicks we had, as they picked up some but certainly not all of those good chicken traits, like, She is not the enemy; She is the bearer of all good treats. The guineas were the ugliest birds imaginable until they got all their feathers. Now, at least, they are mature: their heads are the only things odd-looking about them.

And from a very young age, they developed the ability to count. If one of them is not with them, they start hollering, trying to find him/her. It’s an interesting but annoying talent.

My friend Tim said he ate them a lot when he lived in Italy. He said his Italian friends told him they had them to eat small blood-sucking bugs, of which he never had the English translation. (Ticks. They love ticks.) Supposedly, their meat is great roasted. I guess I will never know. We will keep them for the rest of their happy dopey lives, I think, but…they are just so incredibly loud that I doubt Tom would ever go for getting more of them.

Would I ever get guineas instead of chickens? Not in a million years. Chickens are friendly, egg-laying, happy souls. Guineas have an amazing persecution complex, one that will probably be worn down by another 10,000 of domestication. Don’t get them if you have neighbors, period, unless your neighbors have them or their near cousins, peafowl.

Morning errands


Maggie has gone broody, so I brought her some food…

…but it looks like she’ll have to share. I ended up putting those fake eggs in the right nesting box (from the kiddie kitchen section at Target: quite realistic, which is why I’ve marked them with an “X”) under her to make her feel useful.

Every morning, between dropping our daughter off at school and starting work, I try to do one outdoor task. This morning, I headed east to the Fruit Exchange to get the birds some more scratch.

I adore the fruit exchange. It’s our feed-and-seed shop, but it is also the regional fruit processing and storage facility. Normally, I can chew the fat with the guys who work in the warehouse. They look at me (I think) as an anomaly: when we first moved here, I was in there often to get supplies to beef up my compost piles (greensand, dolomitic limestone, cast-off fruit, moldy straw) so I guess I have rightly earned the reputation as “that organic gal.” But today they were busy, far too busy to chat, and the place was hopping! Big semitractor trailers are rolling in, their trailers piled high with wood boxes filled with apples and pears. Conveyor belts were rumbling away in the now well-lit warehouse, with a few women sorting and dumping the beautiful red round fruit rumbling down it.

I got a peck of Cortlands for $3, got my scratch, and made for home.

Ugly bugs

Did you ever wonder what those disgusting tomato hornworms look like when they grow up?

I found out yesterday…YUCK. It was so ugly I had to grab my gloves. I think the pink part behind its head freaked me out more than its size.

But around here, it’s Chicken Dinner!

A surprise



So, maybe those guineas aren’t completely useless after all.

We got them because we lost a couple of hens to a hawk last year. Instead of getting a loud and obnoxious sex-crazed rooster with eyes peeled to the sky, we got loud and obnoxious guineas instead. I will have to take a picture of them, though it is hard: they’re really skittish. Anyway, the guineas are loud and proud, and extremely alarmist about the slightest thing flying overhead. So they’re useful.

I didn’t expect eggs, though.

From all that I have read, these birds tend to lay in sneaky places, places other than the coop’s three nesting boxes. Guess what. At least one of the guinea hens (there are three, plus a boy) is laying in the box. Just like the chickens.

So we cooked up our first one on Sunday for lunch. Economic, this egg. Not at all watery. Tiny yolk, thick white…and the most amazingly thick little shell and inner lining: I had to all but cut the darned shell open! It was TASTY.

But it sure would take a lot of them to make a souffle.

POSTSCRIPT: I spoke entirely too soon. I just went to investigate a particularly long guinea-screaming-session, and behold: behind the greenhouse garden, in the weeds, a guinea nest.


Little sneaks.

Chick pics

Do you know how hard it is to take pictures of chickens?

I had Tom chase them around with his camera yesterday. I wanted to show you how big the chicks and guinea keets had gotten, but they weren’t cooperating. (Everybody freeranges all day now.) The only one who was a ham was Bonnie, and that’s only because she thought he had food.

Meet our new peeps


The newest residents of Old Vines are four pearl guinea keets. Male? Female? Who knows. They’re loud and proud and have the hooky-spooks much moreso than any of the chicken chicks. Cute, though, and boy are they tiny. And to show how busy we are here, we’ve had these birds a week and I haven’t posted about them until now!

In other bird news, our big chickens have been released on parole every afternoon when the kid comes home from school. They are so bored in their chicken run; they just sit under the lilac bush and hold court, not letting the younger chicks come near the food or water bowl. (Definite pecking order evident here, and that’s why there’s now a second feed station in the pen.) So they are happy to walk the grounds again, and either I or the Australian cattle dog are not far away if the hawk makes a return. The dog is really great with them, and knows they are her charges.

The new plan is to let all the chickens and guineas out for part of the day. That should happen around mid-summer. Guineas are pretty territorial (actually, most people have them because they’re pretty good watchdogs), so between 8 chickens and 4 guineas, that’s a lot of eyes on the sky should danger swoop down. Better than three sets of eyes, certainly.

Chick update

Gangly teenaged chicks

This cold turn in the weather has kept the chicks in their temporary coop. I had been releasing them into the chicken run with the big girls during the day and then returning them to their own warm spot for the night. Now, they’re in there 24/7 with brooder lights blazing. I worry they’ll get bored.

It is fairly amazing how quickly these little birds become big birds. Miss a week and you’ll say holy cow. Now, the biggest of them perch at night as opposed to huddling in a chickpile. They’re very adept at chicken things already, like scratching and finding bugs and green bits.

I’ve read that you should separate the new birds from the old because chickens are beasts with a sense of hierarchy. Frankly, I have not seen much aggression from my older girls. The chicken run is a large one, though, and they’re separated at night, so I am sure the big girls are just accepting the little ones as a concession of some sort.

The evening before the temperatures fell, I let the three big chickens out of the run. I stood with them (not trusting that red-tailed hawk nor the girls’ love of my perennial beds) the whole time. Time just flies by when you watch them. Bloody Beatrice was picking up worms at every step (step-bob-peck-pull-slurp, step-bob-peck-pull-slurp) and the other two were dethatching Mont Merde (our septic hill). And me, sick as I was, just stood there. It was really fun. Then I called them and they followed me back into the coop. A good evening on the farm.


Happy hatch day to the girls

We’ve been chicken owners for a year now. Boy, are they funny. I’m so glad we have them.

We just got back from a trip to the other side of the state. That zone thing must mean something, because the trees are budding out here yet life was still mostly dormant out the windscreen. Here, the magnolias are blooming. The woods all of a sudden has a dimension to it that indicates distance. The monochromacy of winter and summer don’t show this distance; it’s only the transition seasons of spring and fall where you can tell the short and the long. I feel hemmed in in the summer, and rather exposed in the winter because of it. Early spring feels pretty okay, though!