Okay ya'll, I've heard that people are panic buying baby chicks. I get that having a renewable source of protein during uncertain times can bring a sense of peace, but, chickens are a huge commitment and not one to just go out and jump into without knowing what you're really getting into.
So, before you go and do something crazy, stop and learn about what's involved with having and raising chickens. They aren't cheap, feed alone can cost 20 or more dollars a week depending on the quality of feed and how many chickens you are feeding. If you are thinking of free ranging them, understand that they poop everywhere, destroy gardens and potted plants if they have access to them, and are food for many other animals, not the least of which are dogs.
You will need a tall fence that dogs can't dig under and if you have a dog, well, hopefully they aren't going to eat your chickens, which they often do. Dogs are the worst predators of chickens. They will quickly kill all the chickens they can get hold of. Your own pet dogs will probably eat lots of chicken poop (dogs eat it like candy). If you decide to keep your chickens in an enclosed chicken run, they will be safe, but, you will be doing a lot of cleaning, because, like I said before, chickens poop everywhere. The run can't be made of chicken wire unless you don't care if dogs or other predators get into the run. Use welded wire, and the smart way to go is to dig all around your run, down about a foot, and bury the welded wire to prevent predators digging under it. Make it high enough that you can easily walk inside for cleaning and bird care, and definitely have a door or gate that you can go in and out of so you don't get trapped inside, but, have a good way of locking the gate so a wiley raccoon doesn't get through to your chickens.
A solid top or roof will keep rain and snow out of the run, cutting down on mud and giving them a dry place to dig and scratch whether they free range your yard or not. It also provides some shade. Chickens need shade as they don't tolerate a lot of heat.
They will require a coop large enough for them to have 4 square feet of space per chicken. Cleaning the coop will be a chore, again they poop everywhere, plus there is chicken dander and dust that gets on everything. We repurposed an old children's playhouse, attached a chain link dog run and did just fine with this set up for a year, but, by year two I was so tired of cleaning such a cramped space, and decided it was time to upgrade to something I would be able to stand up inside, move around, and easily clean and collect eggs, plus, my chickens would have more space that was indoors for bad weather days.
We looked at some pre built sheds at our home supply stores and decided to come up with our own design. Cost was a huge factor, as those pre builts are thousands of dollars. We divided the shed into two halves using chicken wire on a frame, and attaching an old storm door.. The front half and the overhead area of the back half are all for storage, and to use as a brooder area. The back half is coop.
We painted it barn red, attached a solid roofed run, and added an electric door into the run, and the finished product is to this day, 6 years later, a blessing and a joy. I just don't understand how anyone would choose something small and difficult to clean if they are going to have chickens for any length of time. Our entire project, including electric door cost us eight hundred dollars in materials. The labor was all ours.
Now, to continue on about what's involved with having and keeping chickens, there are some extras that need to be considered. Nesting boxes can be anything from baskets, to milk crates, to buckets, what have you, but, they will need to be big enough for a chicken to lay comfortably in. They need to be kept clean and dry (refer back to they poop everywhere). They will need a healthy feed ration that includes calcium once they are laying, or you will need to supplement calcium in the form of oyster shell. Then you have feeders and waterers, which come in a huge variety of styles, sizes, and functionality. Whatever you get you must keep them clean, and always have fresh water available. Chickens cannot digest their feed without water.
Don't keep chicks in the house if possible, dander goes everywhere, and certainly not in an area where food is consumed or prepared. Chicken dust is a thing, and no one should have to live with it on their food. Yes, you can handle them, but, always, always, ALWAYS wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly after handling them, and before touching food or drink. They can transmit Salmonella. Don't kiss your chickens or let them peck around your mouth for the same reason. No, this is not my child, just found that pic on the web, it kind of freaks me out just looking at it.
When buying chicks, be aware of some important terms. Straight run means the chicks have not been separated according to sex, so, you could very likely end up with one, several or all roosters. If you don't want or can't have a rooster or several, don't buy straight run. Pullet means hens, but, again, sexing is not a guarantee, you could still end up with a roo, but, your chances are strong that you won't. Auto sexing breeds are a great way to avoid getting a roo.
Cornish Cross, Cornish Rock, and several other less common breeds are bred specifically to be slaughtered for meat, so, they grow very fast, and need to be processed no later than 12 weeks of age. If you wait longer they can have horrible heart problems, paralysis, and are generally miserable. If you want egg layers, do not buy these breeds, aka meat chickens.
There is so much more to know, but, that's a fair start. So, if after all this you still want chickens, great, go for it. Still, do your homework. Breeds are different. Some are noisier than others. Some are friendlier than others. Some are better layers than others. Egg size and color varies by breed as well. Know what you want and shop with that in mind.
Not much blogging has occurred, well, non actually, this year. It's not that nothing has happened, it's just that I have let things get in the way of keeping on top of the blog, so, here goes a long update, hopefully not too long.
It was during the holidays that our second oldest daughter announced she was joining the Air Force. That changed the focus of our entire year to come. Well that and the fact that our second oldest son was going through the immigration process to bring his fiance to the US to be married. We had no timeline for how long it would take, so, all wedding plans were on hold.
Winter passed slowly, and with Spring came happy chickens, the start of a new growing season, and a fair well party for our soon to be Airman daughter.
I learned a lot about starting seedlings, but, am still figuring out how to keep them growing to the size I want them to be when planting time comes. I think I need to invest in more growing equipment, just not enough sunlight where I currently start them and until I can build a greenhouse I won't be able to improve on that location. So, again this year, I waited til people were basically giving away their extras from their greenhouses, and snatched them up, often for free.
Still, the soil is definitely improving dramatically, just from leaves and chicken droppings and wood shavings and household compost. It's amazing. Vertical growing is my new favorite thing, too, so much easier to manage.
So, then it was Summer, and we were finally in full wedding planning mode, and had a basic training graduation to attend in San Antonio. Our second oldest son announced he was also joining the Air Force, so, it seems to be a trend.
And then the wedding. It was beautiful, but, oh, tons of work. As a wedding planner I know how to run an event, but, as the mother of the groom I made the mistake of trying run the whole wedding. It was exhausting, but, surprisingly successful.
And just like that, summer was over and life kind of went back to normal.
I added some new breeds to my flock, sold a bunch of my surplus chickens to keep my numbers in check, and started hatching quail so I can have an endless supply of quail eggs, which I love. They're so easy to raise and process, too.
And now here we are in November, looking back over a big year. Tomorrow our second oldest leaves for Air Force Basic Training, and our oldest daughter just got back last night from Korea. All of the chickens and quail are happy and healthy and active. They stopped laying for a few weeks, I try to give them a month long break in the fall so they can molt and just in general recover from laying all year long. But, then it's back to business, and I mean the egg business.
I added an LED light to extend their total light time to 14 hours, starting at about 430 AM. I also upped their protein in the feed I buy them to 20%, and added scratch grains and a brewers yeast supplement in their feed. They are back to laying, at least the ones finished with their molt, and are loving their freshly bedded nesting boxes with the herbs and flower petals. The coop smells amazing, and the girls are happy..
So life goes on. I will try to keep this updated, I really will. Next up, how I keep my chicken coop cozy and comfortable through the cold Rocky Mountain winters.
It's mid August here on our little suburban homestead in Utah. What you see in the picture above is what I am currently harvesting from our gardens. Dragon Tongue beans (they're only doing so so, pole beans are just now starting to come on, sage is ready to be plucked and dried for cold weather cooking, and our kale is going gangbusters.
I'm really hoping things pick up in the rest of the garden, and it is actually looking a bit more promising today than just yesterday, which is weird. Suddenly I am finding blossoms where there weren't any, and I'm starting to see signs that maybe, just maybe, the tomatoes are going to really kick into gear. Perhaps it's because the searing heat has finally started to let up and rain has been moving in and out for a few days.
These are our pole beans, and as you can see they are bursting with flowers. I actually found about ten beans hiding in the foliage.
Our two tomato patches are starting to get some clusters of fruit, and I'm really praying over these pathetic looking plants that they will really come through for me. It's on them to fulfill my dream of jar after jar of tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, crushed tomatoes, and maybe even pizza sauce.
The carrot patch was covered by the pea plants for most of the heat wave, and they look pretty good. The pea plants kept them shaded and retained moisture so the little carrot seedlings could survive, so I forgive them for not giving me as many peas as I was hoping for.
The Kale patch is fantastic, no complaints at all there.
These tiny little pepper plants were all I got from a 4x4 patch that had about 80 seeds put in. I'm not even sure what kind they are yet, or if they will ever produce anything. They didn't even come up until about a month ago, but, here they are so I guess we'll see what they do.
The squash patch has plenty of blossoms, but, so far, no squash. Everyone else in the neighborhood is giving away their zucchini and I don't have a one.
I know this looks like corn, but, it is Sorghum, which is a new plant for me. I planted about 8 seeds, and it looks like nearly all of them came up, so, that's promising for next year.
The Arugula has bolted and is now producing flowers and seed, so, it's time to get those plucked and dried. I'm still eating the leaves, I like how peppery they are and the tanginess is fine with me.
The three rows of sunflowers I planted have resulted in about 20 sunflowers, total. To their credit, they were one of the last seeds I put in and they are really trying to make something of themselves.
And these are my very brave volunteers. The first one is a random squash looking plant that came up in my old turkey pen, now the wood shed. Guess we'll see what that ends up being, but, it's the only squash so far that actually has any fruit showing. The next one grew through the fence from the compost pile on the other side, and the last patch is all volunteer potatoes. They don't typically give me all that many, maybe 10 pounds or so, but, we'll keep cheering them on and see what we get.
I planted spearmint and peppermint alongside the chicken run knowing it would take over and spread out, helping to keep the flies under control and make the whole area smell nice, and that is exactly what it did. Just love it.
The marigolds I planted in various parts of the garden beds are finally in full bloom and really bringing in those pollinators, but, next year, whatever doesn't come back on it's own is going to be supplemented by some flowers that bloom earlier. I feel like my garden may have done better had I had more pollinators attracted sooner.
Hopefully the next post about the garden will have lots and lots of nice plump red tomatoes, zucchini galore, and so many beans I can barely keep up with them. And cucumbers, too.
Aka, what happened to the garden?
This year our vegetable garden is just a little scary looking. I'm trying to grow a very low maintenance, more natural garden, and I think it's going well, but, I really have nothing to compare it to.
I have seen Back to Eden gardens, No Dig/No Till gardens, Permaculture gardens, raised bed gardens, and of course my next door neighbor's tiny but pristine garden. Coming from a sort of farming family, well, some of my relatives farm, some of my ancestors farmed, does that count, well, anyway, one would think growing food was in my blood. Apparently I have quite a bit more to learn.
In years past I have grown gardens under a variety of conditions, mostly sad, unimproved plots of dirt, but, I usually get some success.
One year, we lived in an old rental house that had long long ago been a farm house. The area behind the house showed remnants of a barn foundation, but, any signs of tillable, rich soil were long gone. Still, we were poor, and needed to find ways to feed ourselves that came from the sweat of our brow rather than the single income we were eeking out. We used pick axes, shovels, and rakes to loosen a 15x15 section of ground, and with no money for amendments or fertilizers, we just put our seeds in the ground and prayed for the best. To our amazement that garden grew and produced quite a bit of food. Our first peas were, to us, the best tasting peas in the world.
That little garden was such an important thing for us, and so satisfying when it was actually growing after all our hard work, that we would often bring lawn chairs out and sit by it, just watching it grow.
Our next garden was a huge plot in the backyard of the first home we ever owned. Again, no real amendments, just horse manure and lots of it. The garden at that house grew whatever we planted in it.
And then came our current property. Tim just loves his lawn, and each inch I dig up for garden spots causes him almost physical pain. I have the philosophy that it's just grass, it can grow back if we want it to, and no body is doing anything in our back yard, so, why not make it work for us.
It was true, the kids stopped wanting to be in the back yard when they all started to hit teenage. "it's boring" is the phrase I heard the most whenever I suggested they go spend time in the back yard.
There was no fighting it, the back yard was just grass that needed to be cut and nothing more.
At first I settled for a small patch of garden that the previous owners had set up using three garden boxes. I hated it, the boxes were too small, and working in them was a pain. So, the following year I increased the size quite a bit, and grew some of the basics, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, zucchini, and pumpkins. The production was great but I was still not satisfied.
Every year the garden got bigger and I increased the varieties I was growing. Finally, last year, we rented a sod cutter and removed the sod from a 50x50 foot section in the back section of the yard, and finished clearing the original garden, cutting sod there too to make it 50x15. It's still not big enough for me, but, I had to concede that we were fighting with the automatic sprinkler system. It limits where we can dig and how things get watered. Sigh. For now I will try to be satisfied.
After the garden was in last spring, I fought the battle of the weeds. We had rototilled both gardens, mainly to just loosen what was very compacted soil, but, I knew we were bringing weed seeds to the surface so I expected the jungle I ended up with. My thinking was that the weeds would hold moisture and in the extreme Utah summers having something to slow the drying out process is a good thing. I was mostly right, but, the weeds were also crowding out the vegetable plants, so, I had to concede to weed.
In the end, I was disappointed with the low production overall, but, encouraged by the fact that what did grow was so healthy. I determined that my plan would be to work with Mother Nature rather than against her and try to let her guide me. Sounds kind of granola, tree hugging, I know, and that's kind of a natural way of thinking for me, being a child of the sixties and all.
After the garden was pretty much done producing last Fall, I set out to collect as much leaf matter as I could. I solicited my neighbors for their bags of leaves from raking up after all those colorful trees. They happily contributed about 10 bags of leaves, and I spread those bags over both garden spots along with all of our leaves and grass clippings. I didn't till it in, or rake it. Just laid it on top of the harvested garden. Then I let my chickens have their way with it, digging around, pooping, and controlling the pests that might be in the leaves. They were thrilled and I let go of any thoughts about that garden for the rest of the Fall.
By Winter I was planning my Spring planting, buying seeds (heirloom non gmo) from various seed sites, and just knew this year I would be the master gardener I imagined myself to be. Using a journal I kyped from one of my kids, I drew my garden spots out, made lists of companion plants, mapped out where each vegetable would be planted. It was beautiful. I was excited. And then came Spring.
Maybe someday I will get good at the indoor seedling thing. I do great at first, and everything grows, but, I must not be doing something right because the seedlings never get as big as I believe they should in order to survive transplanting. Still, I forged ahead. By the time the second week in May rolled around Winter was still hanging on for dear life, and the ground was still too cold to put anything in the ground. The rain came right after that, so it wasn't until end of May before I had much planted at all.
I cut back my plans drastically, and only got peas, carrots, a few varieties of tomatoes, pole beans, bush beans, and leeks in. In June I put in squash, cucumbers, kale, brussels sprouts, radishes, collards, butter lettuce, cabbages, arugula, and peppers.
Then came the heat. Weeks on end of temps over 100 every day. No rain in sight, either. That went on through July and by August the rains came back with the usual monsoon flows we get this time of year. Still, temps over 90 everyday.
I did amend a bit this year, but, as naturally as possible. The leaves I put down last Fall did a great job of creating a nice layer of dark, rich soil. I added to my plantings some bone meal, blood meal, and epsom salts, and scattered some coffee grounds around. The chickens had done their job adding plenty of nitrogen in early Spring. So, why is everyone else getting lots of tomatoes, and zucchini, and peppers, and my plants are only just now starting to put on fruit? I let the weeds grow but not overtake. I keep mulching with grass clippings and dead weeds. I get emails from neighbors asking if anyone wants their surplus veggies and I look at my poor garden and wonder if I'm going to get anything ripened before Fall sets in.
Mother nature doesn't have this much trouble. She just drops seeds and lets them do their thing.
I peer over the fence at our neighbors tiny but productive garden and while I know they use chemical fertilizers and such, it still irks me that for all my effort I look at my 30 tomato plants and can count a dozen tomatoes total, and they are all small and green and a long way from harvesting. My dreams of a table full of freshly canned tomatoes is quickly fizzling away.
And yet I press on. Maybe all my work will actually pay off in the end. Maybe the early Fall will bring a huge harvest. Even if it doesn't, there is always next year. Which reminds me, I have an order of seeds coming in for planting my overwinter garden. Yep, giving that a try, too.
In the garden there is always hope and always next time.
This will be the third year since we first became chicken owners, and it's been a fun journey, for the most part, but, every so often my girls come up with a new experience that challenges everything I thought I knew about chicken behavior.
Our turkey hen, Kris, was going broody last spring, and I thought it would complete her earthly journey and the measure of her existence to have her hatch out a clutch of poults, so, I ordered what I thought were meat turkey eggs. We started with six. One went awol somewhere in the coop on the first day, three hatched out at 24 days, and two were duds. The kids named them Mistletoe, Snowflake, and Chestnut, but, Tim and I call them Larry Moe and Curly because they are pretty clumsy and not too bright. They ended up growing much slower than we thought they should and I talked to the lady I bought them from, nope, not meat birds, heritage birds. After the babies were hatched, we moved Kris and the three stooges into their own enclosure separate from the chickens. I was concerned about the big girls being mean to the babies if they got out of their little area I had created with some make shift gates, and Kris was so protective of them that she acted weird whenever she was out of the coop, stirring up my other broody hen, a salmon Faverolle named Pipi. It seemed to settle everyone down to move them, and they were able to all be out in the open if they were only in contact in the yard where there was lots of space and plenty of places to run and hide if needed. Otherwise Kris and the stooges were closed in their own enclosure at night to protect them from predators, The enclosure consisted of the old little tykes playhouse that we used as a coop for the turkeys the previous year. We put it inside the old dog run we had used as the chicken run, and then created an open area that had hardware wire around it for them to be out in whenever we wanted to pen them but didn't want them confined to the coop area. The run was just big enough for Kris and the poults to get around in when they were small, but, once they were teens, it just wasn't enough space to flap their wings.
So, as the summer progressed, and the poults grew in size, they also grew in bravado. I saw a couple of times when they chased a chicken that got a little too uppity with them, but, I wasn't there the day the last straw occurred. I came home from work to the news that the three stooges had ganged up on my little black australorp, Morticia. They had her pinned down against the side of the coop and were pecking merciliessly at her head. She was doing all she could to jam her little head under the coop edge, but, they still managed to draw blood and caused permanent scarring where her feathers have not yet been able to grow back. So, Tim put the poults into their enclosure and they were never to be out again. I made the enclosure bigger and topped it with garden netting to keep them from flying out, which is a problem with heritage turkeys, not so much with meat turkeys. The meat turkey would be so heavy it wouldn't want to walk much less fly. However, the heritage turkey takes most of it's growing, seven to nine months or more, just developing bone structure for flying and evading predators. The meat comes on at around six months, but, takes a while to fill in enough to make a holiday size bird. They would take much longer to be butcher ready than I needed, so, they are still with us. Kris, on the other hand, after being a wonderful mother to her three little charges, started going broody again in September, and was chasing the babies away from the feeders, which was counter productive to what I am trying to accomplish. I contemplated putting her back in with the chickens, but, as she spent so much time out of the flock, and we had added three new girls that were already finding their place in the pecking order, it would be iffy whether or not she would even be accepted. With her size, she would be able to hold her on, but, I was afraid of what she might do to a chicken that took her on. Any time we let her out of the enclosure our Pippi went crazy, attacking and trying to fight with Kris, so, it was clear there would be some conflict as Pippi was moving up from the very bottom of the order and wasn't interested in losing that spot again.
It was with a heavy heart that we chose to end Kris's life. She had lived a full life, and had raised three healthy babies.
I'm a mother of eleven children, wife of 32 years, Latter Day Saint, and 911 Dispatcher and a budding homesteader. Come along with me as I journey toward self sufficiency, one baby step at a time.