Posts Tagged ‘free range’

Summer update

July 22, 2009

OK, I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth. Really I haven’t. We’ve just had such had such a busy summer that I almost wish I would fall off the face of the earth just so I could get some rest. Things are still busy, but in a couple of weeks we should be back to normal; that is, no one travelling and no one visiting. That is part of why I haven’t posted much. The other reason is that we have lost some animals and that is upsetting and not fun to post about.

We lost two of the New Hampshire hens one evening at dusk. The kids and I were out of town, so things were quieter, I’m sure. Perhaps that is what gave the predator the nerve to get them so close to the house. We also lost two of Mama Cat’s kittens and one of Little Gray’s. We found a dead kitten on our lane and buried it and we assume it was Muck. The other, Muggy, just disappeared. Her other two kittens, Stinky and Vicious, are still around and Vicious has even gotten to be pretty friendly with the other cats and with us. Of course, it could just be that she is in heat! I am quite sure Mama Cat is pregnant again, too.

Little Gray’s kittens are cute and playful and friendly. In fact, I have Swirly Junior on my lap right now. He sleeps inside with us at night and we all love him. We did lost Scotchy Junior, about a month ago. He was under the couch and got stuck in the mechanism for the recliner. We didn’t realize this until the next morning as we were getting ready to go away for the weekend and I was making sure all the kittens were outside. It was horribly, horribly sad and I feel guilty that a kitten died because of our own carelessness.

Anyway, the garden is going OK. Things are growing despite my almost total neglect. I’ve used some lemon basil from the garden twice and made a yummy chicken dish. We have green tomatoes, lots of herbs, cauliflower and carrots. I need to plant more for fall, so maybe next week I will find some time to do some more planting. I did lose all the corn, probably to some deer that ate it while the kids and I were out of town. I think that the kids are a great deterrent to animals that think of coming too close to the house.

The chickens are doing well. The Buff Orpington chicks are growing and are now in the coop/dog kennel thing. It is working well enough for now, though it won’t work well for winter. We are still planning on building a coop, but it it turning into a fall project rather than a summer project. We have at least two Buff Orpington roosters, possibly a couple of more. I think that Lula Mae is getting ready to lay very soon. She has been making lots of noise and clucking when she goes into the coop at night. Her comb and wattles have grown and gotten quite red, which is also another sign. The other hen, who we have named Holly, doesn’t seem quite as ready, but I think she is getting there, too. Chicken Joe wasn’t crowing much when we still had the other rooster around, but now he is crowing very nicely.

That’s all I have for now! I will post more pictures someday soon. I have to take some first! I think next week things will be calmer, despite the fact that Tom will be out of town. I will be home with the kids and Tim and will try to play catch up with the garden, the mowing, and the blog.

Gardening with chickens

May 6, 2009

Yesterday I planted peas. Yes, I realize I could have planted them weeks ago, but I was waiting for the tilling and needed to make a box, etc. So yesterday I finally made the 1′ X 4′ box for them, dug up the sod, added rotting leaves, compost, and potting soil, and newspaper, in that order. That’s not exactly lasagna gardening (or read this if your attention span or time is short), but I think it’s pretty close. It’s not exactly the mix Mel recommends in his square foot gardening books, either. He says to mix compost, peat moss, and coarse vermiculite in equal parts, but I don’t want to use peat moss because it is usually shipped from far away. However, I did read in Mother Earth News that you can substitute leaf mold for peat moss, so that’s part of why I used the decaying leaves from behind the garage (I was pretty excited to find that stash of leaves when we were mowing!). I suppose if I can find coarse vermiculite anywhere, I will try Mel’s mix. I must admit I’m having fun experimenting. Every bed is different, some dug and some not, some with the sod turned over, some with potting soil and compost, and now one with leaves, compost, and potting soil in layers. It will be interesting to see how things will work out. I think I will try the lasagna type method again, but without digging up sod.

As far as the peas go, I will need to make a trellis, of course, but that requires another trip to the hardware or lumber store, which we might do today since Tim has a day off. I’m not sure if we want to use metal in the form of electrical conduit, as Mel recommends in the All New Square Foot Gardening book or just wood. Wood would be cheaper, but I’m not sure it would last as long or be quite as sturdy. So I will have to think on that for a bit to decide what to do for all the vertical plants.

Oh, and I didn’t mow yesterday as I intended. Instead, I had to go to town to buy more cat food, pick up a prescription, and have lunch with Tim. The lunch was optional, of course, but it got the kids out of the house more than cat food or a prescription would have. So I spent the rest of the day working on the garden. Oh, and trying to keep the kids away from the kittens. Mama Cat has brought the kittens to the back porch, or maybe they came on their own. They have a place to sleep there and are getting used to us. I find it amazing they are used to us because Moira and Aidan want to carry them around, put them in the basket of my bike, take them down to the creek for adventures, and put them in hamster cages. I can understand their excitement about the kittens because they are, well, kittens! They are cute and fuzzy and playful (I can see my grandpa rolling his eyes about now and telling me I should just drown a few of them in the creek!), which makes it hard for the kids to contain their excitement. I am having a hard time getting the kids to understand that they are babies and that they do not want to go for a bike ride and they don’t want to be in a cage, nor do they want to tap dance or be stilt walkers, which involves the kids holding up their front paws to make them dance or walk around. I also reminded them that the kittens do not want to be far from their mama and that we are pretty much cage free around here. Even the chickens get to run around now and then as long as they are supervised to protect them from the outdoor cats.

Anyway, it is time to go out to the garden and do some work of some kind. I know the chickens will be happy to be out in the garden area. They are keeping the weeds down, and yesterday when I was digging up the sod for the peas, I found a bunch of red ants. I am happy to report that the chickens loved the red ants. The chickens did make it hard to do much digging, since every time I went to a spot to dig they would come running over to see what delicacy they could eat next. Digging while the chickens were out took longer, but it was a lot more fun.

Working with what we have

March 4, 2009

I’m still thinking and reading and trying to figure out which breed to get and where to get them from, as well as when to get the chicks. When to get them is tricky, mostly because I am impatient to get the chicks! It would be better to wait until it is warmer so that they can be outside sooner and learn to forage on their own sooner. But, that also means waiting longer to have fresh eggs and to get the chicks. I keep going back and forth about this issue in my head. I think I will probably end up getting them fairly soon just because I am so eager to get them, even if it means more work for us at first.

In the  meantime I have finally decided to use the coop that is already here. I’d like to let the hens range freely during the day and then have them in the coop at night. I’ve read a couple of different ways to do this, including letting them out for only a couple of hours a day and then tempting them back in with milk or bread. Others say to keep them in the coop for a couple of weeks and then let them out and they will just know where the coop is. Either way, they will be spending some time in the coop since there are too many predators out here for them to be out at night. There may be too many for them to range long during the day.

Of the common predators for chickens, we have almost all of them. Common predators include, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, hawks and other birds of prey, foxes, wolves, bobcats, cougars, fishers, minks, weasels, and rats, along with domestic and feral cats and dogs. I know for sure that we have skunks as the kids have had the pleasure of smelling skunks hit by cars. Tim has seen a ‘possum and we’ve all seen raccoons on the back porch. Tim and Moira saw a bald eagle the other day and our neighbor told us there are lots of hawks around. We’ve heard the coyotes close by at night and my mother-in-law has seen a fox on her way here, too. Apparently there are wolves in Illinois (I’m not sure I agree completely with the tone of that article, so just consider it informative.) It’s possible that the other predators are around, as well, as many of them seem to be native (though we are not near Cook County since that is Chicago!).

Anyway, I seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked on researching the predators in Illinois. It’s pretty interesting and I might post more later. I have to say there are way more dangerous animals here than I remember or knew about. I never would have thought there might be wolves or bobcats!

So back to the point of this post: working with the chicken coop we already have. Here are some more pictures of what we have to work with:

It needs to be cleaned thoroughly. I started that last week, with some help from the kids. We swept off the concrete slab, so that is done for now. There is a covered area that has some pine shavings in it. For now I just swept some of that back inside the nest box, but we probably need to clear that out, clean it, and put in new. The upstairs is pretty dirty, from what I hear. I had Tim add another step to the ladder so that Aidan can climb up and down (and maybe me, too??). I’m not sure if the chickens would go up there or not. They’d have to fly up there to roost and I honestly don’t know if they will fly that high.

Other than cleaning, it also needs some chicken wire or fine hardware mesh. The fencing around it has holes about 2 inches wide and I think that is too wide because rats could get through and steal the eggs, assuming the hens lay eggs in the coop. Two sides of the coop have wooden boards at the bottom. I think we need to add another board on the back, as well as adding some chicken wire to the outside. The chicken wire might be good if it’s just a few feet up and not up the whole way.

Those are some minor fixes, so hopefully it will be easy and will do the trick to keep the hens safe. I would also like to paint it. Right now it is painted a brownish color. I think a fresh coat of red paint would really spruce it up. I’m not sure why red, except that red seems to be the color for a hen house.

If the free ranging doesn’t work, there are lots of options for movable coops and hen huts and permanent hen houses. It might be fun to build one of those, but for now I think it is best (and cheapest) to work with what we have.

Why we want chickens

February 28, 2009

One reason we want chickens is because we want to move towards being self-sufficient. Having hens and our own eggs is one step in that direction. I think we will eventually have either a dairy cow or goats, and maybe some sheep or a pig or two. Who knows. I do know that of all the farm animals to choose from, chickens should be the easiest for us to learn about and take care of. So that is part of why we are getting chickens first.

After reading more about chickens, I also realize there are other benefits. They will often eat table scraps. This is a great way for us to deal with the issue of trash in the country (I might have to research and write about that at some point). Most of our food waste will be composted or will be eaten by the chickens. That is great! Right now we put all kinds of stuff on the compost pile that probably shouldn’t go and will eventually attract critters. Having chickens and outdoor cats to feed scraps to will help with the trash. Yet another benefit is that chicken poop makes great fertilizer.

The primary reason we want hens is for eggs. We eat a lot of eggs and it will be great to not go to the store to get them. It will also be cheaper because I usually spend around $3.50 per dozen of eggs because I get the organic or cage free eggs (Yes! I buy cage free eggs even though I know that cage free doesn’t mean what it should mean). Anyway, having eggs will save us money and trips to the store.

We have also talked about the possibility of getting some chickens for meat, but Tim seemed reluctant to do that. I think he is worried that we will become attached to them and not be able to eat them. I think that is a possibility, but from talking to Scott the Farmer, I think that what most people do is have their hens separate from their “fryers” as they are called. The fryers are in a movable coop all the time or are free ranging and then in a separate coop at night. Doing it that way seems like it will keep us from getting too attached.

I think, though, that we will start with 4 or 5 hens and just collect eggs for a while. Then we will figure out if we want to have some fryers. Our neighbor is going to get some hens, some fryers, and a hog. I think he built a movable coop for his fryers. We’ll have to go see it and talk to him. I am sure we will do things a bit differently, but it will also be interesting to learn from each other.

As far as whether to get chicks or hens, I am leaning towards chicks at the moment. The benefit of getting hens is that they are already laying eggs and are easier to take care of. There are lots of reasons to get chicks, though. One reason is that they are so darn cute. The kids will LOVE the chicks. I can just hear Moira saying how cute they are. The chicks will get used to us faster than hens would, too. That will be helpful when they are out roaming around and the kids come bursting out the door. I do remember reading (this article, again!) that if you want your chickens to forage for themselves, it is better to get chicks because they are smarter, or at least capable of learning. If we get hens and the hens have not had to forage, they won’t learn.

Chicks will require a bit more work, especially if we get them when the weather is still cool since we will have to keep them warm somehow. This article gives me some ideas. In fact, we have a guinea pig cage that my sister-in-law gave us that might work really well for a while. And the forums at Back Yard Chickens is really helpful, too. Of course, the best advice is to get the chicks in midsummer. I like that idea, but that’s so long to wait! I am impatient to get started with some chicks.

So right now I’m thinking we’ll get chicks. The next question is what kind and how and when to get them. That means more reading and talking, of course. I’ll have to talk to our neighbor and see where he is getting his – and when!

Why chickens should be free ranging

February 25, 2009

When we were looking at this property, I was quite excited about the idea of getting chickens. Naturally, I started reading what I could about chickens (that’s how I approach most things I need to learn about – read first, then talk to others). What I learned is that chickens should be free ranging. I already knew that when eggs at the store are labeled “cage free” it does not necessarily mean free range and that even “free range” does not always mean what it should mean. Cage free means the birds are not in cages. In general I am sure that is less cruel than cramped cages, but it doesn’t mean it is humane and it doesn’t mean that they are eating a natural diet. It simply means they do not live in cages. Free range seems like it should mean that the birds are allowed to range freely, but all it really means is that they have some access to the outdoors.

So, what should free range really mean? What is the difference and why is it important? Well, chickens that are free ranging produce eggs that are much healthier (for humans, but I’m sure if the eggs were fertilized, the resulting chicks would also be healthier). Chickens that are pasture fed produce eggs with less cholesterol, less saturated fat, more vitamin A, D, and E, more omega-3, and more beta carotene. Now, according to the article about this study, the eggs they are studying are from chickens that are free ranging or are in moveable pens. These chickens are eating a diet that is natural, which is good for the humans who eat the eggs and also better for the chickens. That is what free range should mean.

As I said, I started reading all this stuff before we moved here. At that point I knew for sure that the first animals we wanted to have would be chickens. One of the articles I read, Raising Free Range Chickens, stated that chickens can range freely and meet their nutrition needs anywhere that similar birds, such as quail, pheasant, turkeys, grouse, prairie chickens, run wild. Our property has turkeys and pheasants, and probably the others, too. I know for sure about turkeys because we saw pictures the previous owner had taken and we saw them ourselves one day.

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

The fact that chickens can range freely on our land appeals to my frugal nature. I won’t have to worry about feeding them except to maybe supplement a bit or when they cannot forage. They will get proper nurtrtion by eating bugs, berries, and seeds that they are designed to eat. Oh, and the fact that they eat bugs? If they happen to eat Asian lady beetles, they will save us time and effort trying to keep the lady bugs out of our house. Plus, they apparently like table scraps (not sure where I read that or I’d put in a link!). Between the outdoor cats and the chickens all our food waste will either be eaten or composted.

So, some of the issues we’ve had to think about are:

  • Why do we want chickens? Just for eggs or for eggs and meat?
  • Do we want to start with chicks or hens?
  • What kind of chickens do we want? What breed? Do we want a heritage breed?
  • Where will we buy the chicks or hens? Options include hatcheries that ship through the mail, local stores that sell them, and possibly neighbors or someone else locally who would be willing to part with some chicks or a hen or two.
  • Can we let the chickens range freely? Issues include how to get the chickens to forage and what kind of other critters are around that might pose a threat.
  • If we need a coop, do we need it just at night or during the day, too?
  • Do we want to use the coop we already have or build a moveable coop or a Hen hut?I will be posting more about this, obviously. Stay tuned!