Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yesterday evening after receiving encouragement and consult from Shelby I removed more than half of the eggs from the Dark Cornish's nest. She had a whopping thirty-one, ten more than the last time I counted just a few days ago. The ones I removed were basically the outer ring, some were nearly cold to the touch and others had clearly been laid very recently. I marked the fifteen that remained so that I will be able to easily tell which ones are new if that number begins to climb again.

I made some very crude efforts to candle some of the eggs I culled. I was able to vaguely make out the air pocket and that was about it. I have since gotten some better information (thanks mom) on the proper procedure and am going to try again, perhaps tonight. If I have any luck I will certainly report back about it.

I am still totally intimidated by the possibility of having chicks as soon as this weekend, but am mostly very excited about the prospect. I have some work to do to get ready for them and for that reason I am hoping they don't hatch until at least Saturday. The barn is enough to keep the full grown flock safe from the dog and wild predators but tiny baby chicks have a few more things to fear, including, but not limited to, roosters and our crazy cat. I have some basic ideas for how to make a semi-temporary room for them in part of the barn but haven't begun on anything.

As I write this I beginning to think I really shouldn't be wasting any time. I sure would hate to find myself with sweet baby chicks and no safe place to put them!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My chicken ladies have gotten really carried away with this broody business. 
What was fun and exciting with one hen is completely overwhelming and intimidateing with the better part of a flock.

We have two broody hens, another who would like to be (I am strongly discouraging her) and many who are needlessly contributing their eggs for hatching.  
One of the broodies is the Cuckoo Maran and seemingly sane. Her clutch of eight or so eggs seems well within her abilities and she has maintained her sweet disposition.  The other is a Dark Cornish, she was the first to go broody and I think it's fair to say she is taking this instinct way too far. She is allowing any and all other hens into her nest to add to the clutch and at last count she had twenty one eggs.  

I know that there is no way she can rotate, and heat that many eggs (not to mention that some of them were laid two or more weeks apart) what I don't know is what I should do about it. I suspect  that some (perhaps most) should be culled but I don't have the foggiest idea where to begin on that. I am not very comfortable at all with the thought of throwing out perfectly viable, partially incubated, eggs.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We have a broody hen! I am so excited about this I can hardly express it. It is a wonderful amazing thing to care for something its whole life and then see it prepare to care for its own young.

She is a Dark Cornish, one of two in our flock, she is not one of our friendlier or prettier birds but she has a very likable quality. The description of her breed in the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog (from where we have ordered all of our chicks with great satisfaction) says they are "good setters and mothers" obviously I cannot attest to the latter but with the former I certainly agree. She has only left her small clutch of eggs for short periods once or twice a day, since going broody the end of last week. She seems prepared to fiercely protect her precious eggs, even giving me the chicken equivalent of a snap every time I hint at reaching my hand into her nesting box.

In a life of off and on chicken raising something I have never experienced is the natural incubation and hatching of chicks. When I was a kid we had some disastrous experiences with home incubators and as an adult have only purchased baby chicks. I do know, roughly, the process a mother hen goes through to incubate her own eggs but I suspect there is a lot that I have yet to learn.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

One of the boys' favorite foods to make is fresh pasta. It is a super easy, inexpensive meal and a lot of fun to make.

There are many different methods for making great pasta, this is what I do:

Put three cups flour in a medium bowl, make a well in the center, add four eggs and about 1/4 teaspoon salt. Use a fork to stir the eggs, incorporating the flour slowly until you've mixed as much as you can. The dough should be dry but if it won't form a ball at all add water just a few drops at a time. I always end up using my hands at this point to incorporate that last bit of flour.

Turn the dough out and knead it until it is smooth. Divide in four equal parts, shape each part into a disc, then cover and let it rest for twenty to thirty minutes.

Feed each piece through a pasta maker (this is Seltz's favorite part) once for each setting beginning with largest and ending with smallest (obviously). Lay the finished sheet aside and repeat with the remaining disks of dough.

Using the cutting attachment feed sheets of pasta back through and hang over a dowel (or on the counter but it will take longer) to dry while you cut the remaining sheets.

I have never rolled pasta by hand but I know it can be done. If I found myself stranded without my pasta maker I would probably divide the dough into eight pieces instead of four and use plenty of flour to roll each piece as thin as possible before cutting with a knife.

Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling, salted water for two to three minutes. Drain, toss with olive oil and top with whatever you like!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


A few days ago I found out that my neighbors have ordered their first batch of baby chicks and it has caused me to think back to my own experiences with the tiny little fluff balls.

It has been nearly a year since my last order of day old baby chicks and right at two years since my first. This year we are hoping that our flock will hatch and care for the next generation on their own (last year this wasn't an option since we didn't have any roosters) and even though the prospect of letting the chicken ladies do all the work is pretty exciting there is a lot I will miss as well.

My first order was of Black Australorps and Americanas with a "free mystery chick" thrown in by the hatchery. When I made the order my twins were a little more than a year, by the time the twenty six arrived at the post office Mack and Seltz were fifteen months and I was in the middle of my first trimester with Henry. I was colossally unprepared and more than a little overwhelmed.

I kept the chicks in a box under a heat lamp in a corner of the living room until they got so big that they began to fly out, at which point we moved them into an old dog kennel I set up in the garage. The never ending amount of mess (and smell) that they produced was killer on my morning sickness but they were so incredibly endearing that it was all totally worth it.

Before long all twenty six were ready to graduate to the barn and not long after that we suffered our first casualty. It was our mystery chick, a White Crested Black Polish. I was devastated and immediately began planning my next order.

At six in the morning on the first of June last year I got the call from the post office that our fifty one chicks had arrived. The boys and I hurried in to get them. Mack and Seltz were old enough to be excited and I felt wise, confident, and more than a little excited myself. Then we got them home and found that one had died in transit and one had an injury it couldn't recover from. All of a sudden reality hit, I had a six month old playing in the nursery, two toddlers bouncing off the walls, anxious to see the chicks, a dead chick and one I had to kill. It was a really rough morning and more than once I wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into but by that evening the survivors had settled into their new home in the garage and were all doing well.

I delighted in doting on them, took pictures of each of them, and counted them nightly. After a few weeks I found that I could tell how they were doing by the pitch and frequency of their cheeping. There was a universal cheep for an escaped chick, and another for when they were running low on feed and yet another for waking up in the morning.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that the grown birds in our flock started off so tiny and fragile. They have each developed into such lovable animals with distinct personalities and I am thankful for each one of them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My desire for a clothesline has occupied the majority of my thoughts today. Sadly, that desire, and all those thoughts aren't materializing into anything on their own.

There are a few things that have been slowing me down, not the least of which is where it should go. My initial idea was to put it in the backyard where we had one when I was a child.  It would get good sun and there are no trees in the way, but I think the animals would pose a significant problem. 

The goats are rather easily contained in their own yard, a sizable subdivision of the backyard, but to take advantage of their weeding abilities and to fill their bellies, we often let them graze in the acres behind the house. I am certain that given the chance they would do their best to tear clothes from the line and who knows what else.

I do not really want to shuffle goats from yard to yard every time a load comes out of the wash, but I can.  What I cannot do, nor do I care to, is control the movement of my dear chickens. They are truly free range and that means that all corners of the property (and some of the neighbors' as well) are theirs for the roaming. I am quite confident that my sweet birds would think a clothesline was the perfect place to take a rest in the afternoon, and where they rest they poop. That is not an environment I care to hang clean clothes in.

At this point somewhere in the front yard is seeming like my best option. The chickens are able to get in the front yard but they do it rarely. Our neighbor's flock spends more time there than ours do but I'm not too concerned with them, they pretty much only come over to eat and generally keep to themselves.

I don't typically get too bothered with appearances but something about something so conspicuous in the front yard kind of troubles me. I did some light reading about setting up a clothes line today and stumbled upon the idea of a removable pole. Making it possible to quickly dismantle and stash in the garage in the event that I am overcome with vanity or some other such emergency, makes the front yard locale much easier for me to stomach.  I think this would be significantly more work but also well worth it. 

So now, I think I know where it should be and the manner in which it should be installed, leaving just one last stumbling block. Am I at all capable of such a project?

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spring break is over, the boys are finally well after a month of fighting colds, and the sunny days and green grass are downright invigorating.

We all loved having Shelby home for his spring vacation, and though we didn't get to everything on the to do list (in fact, we may not have completely finished anything) it was a productive nine days none the less. We made huge headway organizing and cleaning out the spare bedroom as well as the garage. The garden is not as ready for plantings as we hoped it would be, but given that we just experienced a major cold snap it's probably best that we didn't have any seedlings in the ground. I had aspirations to erect a clothesline but didn't even come close so that's something that I'll try to get to in the coming days.

As much as we accomplished I'm pretty sure that it was more a result of our mindset and less about the time we had, and that leads me to the most important thing I took away from the week.

I always imagine that when Shelby is home everything will suddenly be easy, that is decidedly not true. The laundry and dishes still must be washed, everyone still gets hungry, and the kids still out number the grown ups. To tell the truth I was feeling a bit discouraged by those very things these last few days, but by the time this morning came that dark cloud had lifted and I was overcome with more motivation and optimism than I have had in a while.

Let me be clear, things are way more fun when the five of us are together, just not necessarily more productive and that means there is no argument for procrastination. Today is as good a time as any for even the most daunting of chores and that is kind of an exciting thought! Maybe by summer vacation instead of having a list of specific tasks to tackle we can follow the whims of the day and relax a little bit more.
That sounds pretty nice.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A day to celebrate

Today would have been my father's sixty first birthday. The boys and I celebrated by making a cake, looking at pictures and talking about the wonderful man their grandfather was.

A week before I was born my mother and father bought the house that Shelby and I are raising our boys in now. It is here that my parents instilled a love for rural life in my brother and sister and me and where the five of us had more good times than I could ever begin to recount. When Shelby and I were given the opportunity to buy this house from my mother three years ago we knew it was where we wanted to be and where we wanted to raise our family. There hasn't been a day since that I have regretted the decision.

I was a young girl when we got our first flock of chickens. Both of my parents encouraged my love for the birds. My mother took me to the library where I checked out every chicken book I could find and for weeks afterwards my father patiently and attentively listened while I proudly recited all that I had learned.

He was a brilliant wood worker who made beautiful furniture, and custom doors from his shop just down the hill from our home. I walk by it several times a day when I feed my chickens and when I have occasion to go inside the smell of wood brings me back to the untold amount of time I spent there as a child. He worked tirelessly in that shop. He was the hardest worker I've ever known and would often push himself beyond the point of exhaustion to put food on the table but the unconditional love and unwavering support that he gave us seemed to be completely effortless. 
Along with my mother he made us feel like there was nothing we couldn't accomplish and nothing we were lacking.

Even though he struggled his whole life with the loss, grief and abandonment he experienced as a child, he was an amazingly positive and optimistic man. He taught us to be better than he was, to know our principles and to live by them. He taught us that each day could be our last, often reminding us, "I could get hit by a bus tomorrow" it may sound a little gloomy and morbid but coming from him it always seemed more inspirational and invigorating than anything.

Cancer killed him more than eight years ago but I feel like I'm still learning from him and about him. He has made me a better mother to the grandsons he never got to meet and a better wife to the man he didn't live to see me marry.

He was a really good man whose flaws were as clear to him as they were to anyone else but he never tried to pretend he was anything that he wasn't. He lived a kind and honest life worth celebrating.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

The prodigal hen returns. Well, kind of.

Yesterday evening, on my way back to the house after feeding the chickens I came across a visitor. It was my runaway hen! I called to her, "chick, chick, chick" and even though the can of feed I was carrying was empty the promise of a meal must have been enough to hook her.

She followed me all the way to the back door where I left her for just a moment so I could run inside to grab my camera and a strawberry. The few other hens who accompanied her up the hill headed back to the barn for the night but (much to my delight) she lingered. I called her again and tossed the strawberry in her direction. She hurried to it and feasted while I sat captivated beside her.

Our picnic didn't last too long, only three or four minutes passed before she finished, I was thrilled none the less. It was quite possibly the only such visit I will get from her, but then again, who knows. She's a strange bird.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Healing hands of time

A little more than two months ago I found my only Cuckoo Maran huddled and wounded under some brush in the chicken yard. The immediate relief I felt to find her alive was quickly replaced by concern when her condition worsened over night.

She had a deep wound on her back and after a short amount of observation it was clear that keeping her in with the rest of the birds (particularly the roosters) was seriously hampering her ability to heal. I treated her wound and brought her up to the house where I keep a pen for just such situations.

Within the first twenty four hours of isolation she showed marked improvement and within a few days she regained full mobility and seemed to be back to her usual clucky self. I kept her in her private pen for two weeks, checking on her several times a day until I was sure that she was fully healed and strong enough to rejoin the flock. Her return was a seemingly smooth one. I slipped her in with the others one evening after dusk and though she didn't reclaim her original spot in the pecking order she wasn't at the bottom.

For more than a month she has appeared to be a perfectly happy and healthy hen, with one notable difference.

Prior to her injury she was a strong layer of the dark brown eggs that are unique to her breed. After her injury she completely stopped laying for two months. Certainly one would expect her to focus her energy on healing at first but more than a month after all signs of injury were gone and she returned to her role in the flock she still hadn't laid an egg.  Did she spend any time stressing over her lack of production, worrying about what the other chickens would think? Or, did she perhaps just keep on about her chicken business until she was truly healed without any thought of it one way or the other?

I have no way of knowing what her thoughts were on the matter but my gut tells me that it was the latter and if such is the case that makes this another instance where I could learn a lot from a chicken.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Birds of different feathers flock together too

A greener cleaner

Over the weekend I made some laundry detergent for the first time.  The relationship between laundry and chickens may seem like a strange one but knowing what goes into our eggs makes me want to know what goes into more and more of the things in our life. Making as many things as I can, from bread to yogurt to laundry detergent helps me to be more aware of the world we share with chickens.  

The original method I read for homemade laundry detergent recommended using washing soda (sodium carbonate) but after a little more research I found that oxiclean (sodium percarbonate and sodium carbonate) was an acceptable substitute, which was fortunate since I was unable to find washing soda in any local stores but did have an unimaginably large amount of  oxiclean that I bought ages ago.
This is what I did. 

Using a cheese grater I grated one bar of Ivory soap and allowed it to dissolve in a quart of simmering water. Meanwhile, in a large storage tub (I think a five gallon bucket would have worked better but I didn't have one) I combined three gallons hot tap water, one cup oxiclean and one half cup borax and stirred until it was fully dissolved before adding the hot soapy water. Once everything was combined I put the whole container in the garage for twenty-four hours before using. It was so easy!

Eighteen hours and five loads of laundry later I feel very confident saying that it works. I washed a range of clothing, from dirty diapers, whites, toddler clothes, barn clothes, and dress clothes.  They all came out looking and smelling clean. Not like a spring meadow, but definitely clean. 

After some experimenting I have found that about three quarters of a cup (six ounces) works well for one of our average loads of laundry. We are pretty dirty people and you may find that less would work for you, it just depends on how large the load is and how soiled the clothes are.

I will not claim to have made any significant steps towards self sustainability, after all I still had to purchase the ingredients. I will claim a financial savings, a reduction of packaging, and perhaps most importantly, it made me excited about laundry. 

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What's for breakfast?

We eat a lot of eggs in our house. Anytime we need a quick meal, regardless of time of day, eggs are usually the answer.

At times though, even egg lovers like us, enjoy a meal that utilizes our plentiful source of hen fruit without tasting like it. The following is one such recipe and one of our weekend favorites.

Apple Oven Pancake

3 large fresh eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups milk
Dash salt
Pinch baking powder

1-2 granny smith apples
Cinnamon and honey to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 375.
Melt butter in a cast iron skillet placed in a hot oven. While the butter is melting whisk eggs and salt in a medium bowl, add flour to make a thick smooth batter before gradually mixing in milk and baking powder. Pour batter in the hot skillet with melted butter and bake for about ten minutes.

While the pancake is baking, peel and thinly slice apples and cook with cinnamon and honey until tender. This can be done either in a skillet on the stove or in the microwave.
Evenly distribute the cooked apples over the pancake and return to oven for an additional five minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

Friday, February 26, 2010

When the dog gives you a chicken make chicken soup

I love keeping chickens. I love their zany little personalities, the eggs they give us and that they are a great entry-level livestock for the boys to help care for. So all of that is great and I have no interest in ever having a homestead that isn't home to a flock of chickens, but it's not always easy.

The hardest part of raising chickens is losing them to predators, and the hardest predator to lose one to is your own beloved dog. Our sweet, quirky, chocolate lab, Charlie, has killed more of our flock than I care to think about. Two years ago when we got our first batch of chicks we quickly learned that he couldn't be trusted anywhere near them. We made great attempts to keep him away from them but he's an escape artist and we continued to suffer occasional casualties, culminating in the loss of our favorite young rooster.

That is a story in itself and I think I will spare you the details today.

The good news was that after that incident he seemed cured. For a whole year chickens and dog lived in astounding harmony. I even saw Charlie stand back to let a hen eat out of his food bowl on more than one occasion. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. After a year of abstaining he suddenly started killing again and it was devastating. We attempted to place him with friends or family but there was no good fit and I was dead set against taking him to the pound.

So we made some adjustments to our schedule and to his. We now keep him inside as much as possible, outside as long as we can keep an eye on him and on a long tether for the short periods that one of us can't be with him. In the evenings while the chickens are safely closed up in their barn he is free to roam. It has worked wonderfully and he has thrived on his increased time with us.

All was going well until last weekend when he left us in the front yard to go to the back yard and kill one of our hens. It was our last Black Austrolorp and one of the oldest members in our flock. It didn't take long for me to notice he wasn't around and to find her. My guess is that no more than ten or fifteen minutes passed. She was a good, healthy hen, she had no wounds just a broken neck, and her body was still warm, so Shelby skinned her and put her in the stock pot. She was not the first one we ate under similar circumstances but it was the first time I felt peace about it.

We wouldn't have a chicken killing dog if I was willing to get rid of him, but I am not. It is not any more his fault than mine and I am okay with both of those things.

She was a good hen who gave us countless dozens of eggs she was happy (up until those last few minutes...she probably didn't like those any, but my guess is nobody does). The soup we made from her was delicious, nutritious, and enough to feed our family of five twice.

I continue to work to keep my chickens safe. I do not want Charlie to ever kill another and I wish that he hadn't killed her, but I also feel a lot better having made the best of a crummy situation.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chicken nature

Common chicken knowledge tells us that chickens are social animals who need companionship from other chickens. The same wisdom tells us that chickens always return home to roost. Makes sense, and my experiences never gave me any reason to disagree.

Until half a year ago when our flock had a deserter.

I noticed her missing one evening when I was closing up the barn. We had suffered some losses to predators and I assumed the same had happened to her. A few days went by and I got a call from a neighbor, asking if the chicken who had recently made a home under the cedar tree in his front yard, was one of ours. It was ours. She had not been carried off by a hawk or devoured by a coyote, she had just decided she'd like a new home. "She'll probably come back" I told Shelby, "chickens always do." But she didn't.

What was so bad about her life here? She never seemed to have any conflicts with the others. She had a warm barn, clean hay, consistent meals, and fresh water. She gave it all up to go live in a tree by herself. Part of me kind of had my feelings hurt, and part of me just wanted to know why.

I got occasional reports on her from the neighbors, who were happy to keep her. I even saw her one morning, taking a dust bath under the tree, and one evening, roosting on one of its limbs. Then I kind of forgot about her.

Yesterday morning at dawn when I went to open up the barn and feed the chickens I saw her. There she was, minding her own business, all by herself, on the other side of the fence. Before long she came up to the fence, and seemed to have some kind of chicken conversation with her old friends. She saw me, she saw the feed I was carrying and I was just sure that given this reminder of her old home she would make her way back, and return to the flock. I was wrong.

She still wants nothing to do with us and this is the conclusion I have come to: All creatures are individuals. That's it. Nothing too earth shattering but it's worth acknowledging. The vast majority of chickens would not be happy living the life she has chosen, but whatever the reason is, she has chosen it and continues to do so everyday.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sleepless nights and happy days

I slept like crud last night. Right as I was beginning to drift off Henry's diaper gave way (I actually heard the bed getting wet, ugh) and the ensuing diaper change woke him enough to convince him it was time for a midnight snack. So he nursed and rolled around and remained happily awake for the next hour. Once I truly fell asleep my dreams were terrible. Chickens stranded in trees, empty waterers and no way to fill them, chickens pecked bloody, and of course, a barn full of dead hens.

Why such nightmares? It is pretty simple really. Every night after dinner I feed the animals, collect eggs for the final time and close up the barn to keep my chickies safe. As the days get longer the chickens roam later in the day and last night they were nowhere near ready to go to bed when I went to feed them. I was sure I would go back and lock them up after putting the kids in bed, but instead I got distracted with the late night chores, and didn't think of them again until waking up in a cold sweat at three in the morning. I debated getting up right then to check on them but before I could make a decision I was back to sleep for another round of totally bizarre dreams.

This morning I'm feeling slightly more exhausted than usual, and probably a little crabbier as well, but I can't help but think that without the same things that made for a rough night I would not be nearly so happy a person.

With three kids under four, two unruly boer goats, a highly neurotic dog, two fish I wish I'd never gotten, a cat I never wanted and all of these chickens, it is easy to sometimes feel overwhelmed and I do, but it's also easy to be really happy.

Five years ago Shelby and I had a house in the city and one dog. We had more time, more money, less stress (maybe) and slept until ten on the weekends. We were decidedly happy people but we didn't have a library of children's books memorized and we never ran the risk of leaving the house smelling like a goat. I could start spewing all number of cliches, but simply put, we have a really great life, chicken anxiety dreams and all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The beauty of it all

To call today a snow day may be a bit of a stretch. It is certainly a snowy day but with temperatures hovering at, and just above, the freezing mark there is more snow in the air than on the ground. The twins have gone for a visit to my in-laws' leaving Henry and me with some very rare one on one time. As he nears fifteen months it is clear that he is either oblivious of the two years that separate him from his older brothers or is at least in denial about them. He is relentlessly active and delightfully entertaining. This morning I attempted to focus his energy by making a scrap snack for the chickens. He helped to crumble the stale whole wheat biscuits while I grated the remnants of a block of cheddar that had the unmistakable aroma of refrigerator. On a cold day like today the carbohydrates and fats in the biscuits will give the birds the energy they need to stay warm and the protein and calcium in the cheese are always a hit with our chicken ladies, who are egg laying machines.

After our concoction was complete Henry took the bowl with complete determination and I braced with complete apprehension for what seemed to be an inevitable spill, and we set out. Before long Henry became more interested in the small patches of snow that were accumulating in the grass, thus making our trip to the barn a long one. At last we arrived and were greeted by the most precocious of the hens. On an ordinary day they would have met us half way but with the wind and snow they were in no hurry to leave the protection of their rickety old barn. Henry regained interest and reclaimed the bowl of scraps and began distributing large fistfuls to the clamoring group of birds. They were thrilled and so was he, and truthfully so was I. One of the many joys of raising chickens and children is the constant reminder that it just doesn't take much to be happy. A few leftovers that would have otherwise gone in the trash were easily transformed into a pick me up for the chickens, a big boy job for my little guy, a cleaner refrigerator for me and by this evening, a dozen eggs for the whole family.

A snow day snack