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