Monthly Archives: November 2012

Eggs, Hawks, and Hatching Babies

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We had our first 18-egg day this past week! The most we’d ever gotten before was fourteen, so this was a big jump and meant that at least six of my pullets had laid. Sure enough, if you look at this carton of loveliness, you can see that the six eggs on the far right are smaller, representing the early efforts of some of my new girls. The tiny egg in the front near the middle is from my little OEGB, and of course, all six white leghorns laid as well.

We had a visit from this beautiful red-shouldered hawk a few days ago. Just a day earlier there was a good-sized Cooper’s hawk sitting on the chicken tractor (and sending the chickens into a brief panic), so I’m very glad we have the run pretty well covered. One of these birds has built a new nest in the top of a pine tree just behind the chicken coop, so I guess they plan to stay for a while. Hopefully, since the hens are inaccessible, they’ll pick off some squirrels for us.

Tons of work has been done in the nursery recently. My mom and sister came over on Tuesday and helped finish the painting so that we could start moving furniture into the room. Once it’s fully put together, I’ll post before and after pictures so you can see just how dramatic the changes have been. I would have a hard time believing it’s the same room if I hadn’t watched the transformation unfold.

My Boy is especially excited about his new room and about the fact that he’ll be sharing it with his baby brother after said baby brother “hatches.” (This is how he refers to the process of the baby getting out of my tummy.) He fell asleep on the sofa the other night with our sweet old cat, Dickens, sprawled across his legs, purring. Shortly after Ben took this picture, Dickens “freed” himself from the embrace so that he could curl up more securely in his Boy’s lap. All of our cats are incredibly patient and gentle with his energy and enthusiasm, but Dickens clearly adores him.

We’ve been enjoying what will probably be Ben’s last weekend off for a while as he prepares for the craziness that is life as a retail store manager between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He built a huge toy box yesterday that he’s been trimming and painting today. It should hold all of The Boy’s toy collection, but if he falls in, we might never see him again!

We also had our first hay delivery of the season for the horses today. This resulted in several broken fenceposts and some quick repairs after the truck rubbed one of the gateposts on its way into the pasture. Let me just say, they do not make fenceposts the way they used to. The last pasture fence stood for fifteen years and required very little maintenance during that time. We built this one using the same materials and methods about four years ago, and despite multiple “fixes,” it’s practically falling apart. We’ll be lucky to get a couple more years out of it before replacing it with steel T-posts and welded wire.

Overall, it’s felt like a productive week. I think I’m even caught up on laundry for once. It’s folded, too, and some people who know me (like my sister) will recognize just how surprising that is. The energy burst and desire to get projects done feels a little bit like early nesting. Hopefully this isn’t a sign that I’ll be completely exhausted and useless during my third trimester, because that’s not far away, and there’s still a lot to do before this baby hatches!

First Eggs (Again) and White Leghorns

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Well, the last few days have seen the first little brown Wyandotte eggs coming out of the chicken tractor. There’s always something so rewarding about seeing new pullets start to lay — it’s like confirmation that you didn’t screw them up too badly as chicks.

I’m working on moving all of the Wyandottes over to the large coop, because they’ve gotten too big-bodied to be sharing the tractor. But at six months pregnant, I can’t exactly climb in there anymore to catch them, so I just grab one whenever they come within reach. There’s a good bit of squawking and flapping, and obviously, it’s taking much longer to complete the transfer this way, but eventually the tractor will only house a few Easter Eggers, Marans, and Silkies. It’s fun to see the big coop becoming increasingly diverse and colorful.

The Boy is obsessed with egg production right now. He wants to know every day how many eggs we’ve gotten, and when I tell him he says, “Oh, wow! Good chickens!” (On an unrelated note, he’s also desperate to go to Scotland and asks every night at bedtime if we can go tomorrow. The kid definitely has his priorities in line.)

Speaking of egg production, if you’re thinking of getting chickens and trying to decide on a breed, I have to tell you that my six White Leghorns are probably the best layers I’ve ever had. They’re small birds, and next to my pleasantly plump dual-purpose girls, they don’t look like they’d be big producers, but they are serious feed-to-egg converters. Even though they just molted and don’t even have all their tail feathers back yet, they’ve returned to full-on laying, and honestly, it’s not at all uncommon to get a full half dozen (i.e. 100% productivity) for five or six days in a row. Even on an “off” day, I usually get four or five very large white eggs. They’re considered a flighty breed — even though I raised them from day-old chicks, they’re definitely the least friendly of my flock, so if you’re looking for chickens that will double as pets for you or your kids, they might not be the best choice. Still, I’ve heard of friendly Leghorns, so maybe it’s just a matter of extra handling as babies. They aren’t as visually interesting as the intricately patterned Wyandottes or the shimmery-gold Orpingtons, but they’re still beautiful, snowy white birds.

 

Hens Gone Wild

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I mentioned a few days ago that my older chickens (the ones from Spring 2011) are coming out of their first molt. They didn’t look as bad as some — check out the 2012 Worst Molt Photo Contest on Backyard Chickens to see how pathetic a naked, molting chicken can be — but from the look of the run, you’d think they were having pillow fights 24/7. Their combs and wattles lost most of their color and shriveled up to about half their normal size, and of course, they stopped laying.

To me, the worst part of the molt is that regrowing feathers is a high-protein job, so for several weeks we were going through more feed than normal (about 100 pounds every 10 days) without getting any eggs in return. Still, it’s a short-term trade, and my girls work hard the rest of the year to earn their vacation. Some people recommend tossing them a handful or two of cat food each day during the molt, because it has about 30% protein versus the 16% in typical layer ration. I don’t do this, mostly because I’m pretty sure my cats would inflict bodily harm on me if they caught me trying to smuggle some of their food out of the house. Hemingway’s been on the streets for most of his life. He knows things.

The feeder in our run hangs half under the coop, but I had to construct a little roof for the unsheltered side to keep the rain out. This roof is approximately 8 inches wide and 18 inches long, and the hens consider it prime real estate. I’ve counted as many as six big-bodied Wyandottes and Buff Orps congregating there at a time, and yesterday they finally managed to break it loose and take it to the ground.  I had to repair it before the rain came overnight, so I took The Boy into the run with me.

He stood there and giggled while the hens gathered around his feet, pecking at his clothing and shoes and generally investigating him. Then, for whatever reason, he squatted down and put his hand right on a fresh pile of chicken poo. What followed was probably the biggest freak-out of his three-and-a-half years. It went something like this: “I HAVE CHICKEN POOP ON MY HAND! GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF, GET IT OFF!!!” This was accompanied by much dancing about and shaking of the offending extremity, while the chickens simply backed up to a safe distance and observed. Boy and hens all survived the crisis, but I do expect that said Boy will probably listen next time when I tell him not to touch the chicken poo.

Recently, I started worrying about the ratio of chickens to nest boxes in our big coop. The standard is at least one nest for every four hens, and I hadn’t even thought about it when we put more chickens in that coop. Then it occurred to me that of the four nest boxes we do have in there, two of them are totally shunned. No matter how many times I put straw or wood chips in those boxes, the girls scratch it all back out within 24 hours. Oddly, while they never disturb the bedding material in the other two nests, they do go back and forth as far as which one of the two they use. They’ll all lay in the right-hand nest for a few months and then suddenly and inexplicably switch to the left. I’ve found as many as three hens at a time in the same nest and others lined up waiting for one of them to finish while a perfectly good, empty nest sits a foot away. You know the old saying about leading a horse to water? Well, you can also give a hen the “correct” number of laying boxes to choose from, but you absolutely cannot make her understand that each box should only be used by four hens per day.

It’s like trying to explain to a three-year-old boy that when you touch chicken poo, the chicken poo touches you back.

Old-Fashioned Girl

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Another glorious day, and once again I’m wishing this season lasted for at least half the year. It’s such a beautiful time to be outside, and I think the chickens and rabbits enjoy it about as much as I do. They just look happy.

Ben has been “vacuuming” the yard with the lawn mower and dumping the leaves in the run for the chickens. They love tearing through those leaves, searching for bugs, and it makes me look forward to someday having enough land to let them range freely the way they should. We were talking today, in fact, about how we’d like to have space for some fruit trees, meat chickens, a couple of cows, and a pig or two. I’m so grateful to be married to a man who shares my goals of self-sufficiency — I don’t know what I’d do if his dream was to live in a subdivision or an apartment!

Watching all that’s been going on this past week in the aftermath of Sandy has really reminded me of how easily our lives can be disrupted. We aren’t preppers — I barely have enough room to store my winter coats, let alone stockpile tons of food. But I do know a thing or two about being ready for emergencies. The little farm I grew up on was the last one on our power line, so more than once we were left without electricity for over a week after winter storms. And since my parents depend on an electric pump to get water from their spring into the house, that meant we were without running water for a week or more, too. (For some reason, they’ve never bought a generator to power that pump, although they’ve discussed it many times.) My mom has always kept some water on hand for times when the spring was undrinkable due to heavy rain or a clogged overflow, but after a few of those extended outages, she has dozens of gallons stored.

A month or two ago, the DIY network showed a mini-marathon of the reality show Frontier House. I’m not a big reality TV fan, but I do like this show. If you haven’t seen it, basically several families signed up to live as if they were Montana pioneers in the 1880s. They had to build cabins, care for livestock, grow food, and manage their households without any of the modern conveniences that most people now consider necessities. The experience is a little warped, of course, by the fact that they weren’t allowed to hunt, and they had support staff and medical personnel standing by in case of problems. Still, it’s eye-opening to realize how many skills we’ve lost in a relatively brief time. My paternal grandfather was born in 1893. His parents, although they weren’t pioneers, would have had all of the skills required to thrive on Frontier House. So few generations later, and I have to read books to learn those things.

Obviously, I wouldn’t wish to be struck with a major disaster, natural or manmade, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want us to master the necessary skills to survive and take care of our family in such a situation. The scenes and stories coming out of the Northeast break my heart, but they also remind me that this complicated, technology-dependent life we live is vulnerable in so many ways, and even a short-term disruption can throw it into chaos. It seems like the simpler we keep our lives, the less fragile we are.

Perfect Saturday

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We have our first real fire of the season in the fireplace today, so the three of us spent most of the morning snuggling on the couch and soaking up the warmth. Now my Boy and his daddy are off to Home Depot, and I got a phone call from Ben that they “just happened” to discover a classic car show in the parking lot. What a coincidence…

The weather has been so beautiful the last couple of days, so I’ve been enjoying taking The Boy outside with me when I go to take care of the critters. He likes to stand beside the chicken coop and chat with the girls — he tells them stories, shows them toys, and “feeds” them twigs and leaves. A few days ago, he took his ultrasound picture outside, held it against the fence so they could see it, and told them all about his little brother. My sweet little Farmer Boy.

A couple of people have requested the apple butter recipe I used this week. I sort of combined several recipes, and here’s what I came up with:

  • 15 medium sized apples, peeled, cored, and sliced (I used a combination of Pink Lady and Granny Smith)
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • Layer the apple slices and granulated sugar in slow cooker, and let sit for several hours. Add brown sugar, spices, and salt, and stir carefully to coat apples. Cook on high for one hour, then reduce to low and cook for 10 hours. Mash apples with a potato masher till no large pieces remain. Makes about four pints, which can be canned and processed in a 15-minute boiling water bath.
  • Some “rustic” recipes ask you to leave the apples unpeeled and use an immersion blender to smooth out the finished product. Others suggest placing the apple butter in a mesh or cheesecloth-lined strainer to allow excess liquid to drain off. I didn’t do either of these things, and we love the texture my apple butter ended up having.

The cozy fire made today seem like a good day for baking, so I tried a recipe for Harvest Cake from the blog of a fellow chicken keeper. Let me just say… yum. It has apple, pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, and everything else comforting and autumnal. Given the number of people in the Northeast who are without power, heat, and food right now, I’m grateful that our family is safe, warm, and fed.