Surprise

When you buy chicks, most folks buy them sexed, for a whole host of reasons.   Many folks can not have roosters in the city.   Even if you can have roosters, too many are problems because of too much testosterone.I have heard many a story of a nice or good rooster.   The only roosters I have had have been hard on the hens, and wanting to attack us and our dog. I would prefer not to have the hassle of roosters.      For this reason I generally buy sexed, female chicks.   Sexing is somewhere between 80-90% accurate.   Even in the best case scenario you will sooner or later get a rooster or two.   This year the jury is not in but we think we got two out of six.

So if getting  a couple of roosters was not a big enough surprise, I also got an unexpected breed.   Instead of getting two Blue Laced Red Wyandottes we got two Blue Andalusian.  That was the bigger surprise.   I had never seen or heard of them before.   I picked up my chicks when the regular chick lady was gone at the ranch supply.   I thought the blue  chicks they packaged up weren’t right. Wyandottes have a tendency to be mottled or chipmunk marked.   My blue chicks were solid blue.   Because the RLRW are somewhat rare, I did not question the staff, but assumed that my limited experience with these breed was the reason for the difference.   The store was a couple of hours from the house, so at that point what was I to do, it was what it was.

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This is the male.   He is a handsome fella, though they sport a single comb, something I stay away from due to the harsh climate here. So far he is a pretty pleasant fella.   I’d like to hold on to him for awhile and see how he turns out.

 

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Here is the female.   She was a lot more cooperative when trying to photograph her.  They are eight weeks old right now.   They are a pretty amazing blue color.   What a fun surprise.

Spring is in the Air

I am thrilled to report that at least one of our hens is laying eggs again. I found my first egg in the nest box in nearly a month.    This year we kept nine hens over the winter.   We had failed to cull our flock before cold weather set in so we made do with more than we normally keep in the winter.   Initially I thought it would not be so bad as it would mean our egg production though less, with the shorter days,  should be acceptable over the winter.   Silly me as soon as the cold weather set in all but one of my laying hens went into full molt.  Molting along with the shorter days meant that no matter how careful I was with my precious eggs, in January I did end up buying a dozen store eggs.

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Yes my coop is sunshine yellow inside.  I want my hens to feel sunshine everyday.

For those of you not familiar with chickens, molting is when all their feathers come out, like a dog or cat’s shed.   During the molting process chickens do not lay eggs.  All their food and energy go into making new feathers rather than eggs.   Molting can be a long process of months and my hens did not disappoint.   They started in late October and early November, and some of them are still working on replacing their feathers today and look pretty sad.

I have caught two different hens in the nest boxes  last week.  A couple more look pretty filled out feather wise and their combs are starting to perk back up.    The days are getting longer.   The chickens are starting to lay again. Spring is in the air in Montana.

Bye Bye Rooster Boy

This year we ended up with a bunch of roosters when we bought chicks.    When the fox got into the hen house he got all them but one – Rooster Boy (RB).

Roosters in the hen house can be a blessing if they are gentle with the hens and keep a watch on them when they are out free ranging.    I have read about roosters like this but never had one.

A rare moment of calm with Rooster Boy

A rare moment of calm with Rooster Boy before he got overwhelmed with his hormones.

This year when RB survived we decided to see how he turned out  rather than send him to freezer camp in the spring.   RB was like the bird from the children’s story about chicken little he was afraid of everything/  He was the first to run into the hen house if even a crow flew over and cast a shadow.    By the time this personality trait was revealed he was too old for anything but making stock and the general consensus was to let him go until fall butchering when we took our flock down to winter size.  He was so afraid of life he did not bother the hens. Rb was causing no problems other than eating food and not laying a darn egg.     Two weeks ago that all changed.   Suddenly he was interested in the hens and was not just interested in making chicks, but he would chase them around mercilessly, pulling feathers and scraping their backs with his feet.  Even in the night when they should all be rooster he was interested in getting his female fix.   We were finding eggs all over, even in the middle of the floor because he would chase them out of the nest boxes.    There was no calm in the hen house.    RangerSir was of the opinion that he needed to go, but neither of us wanted to butcher when we were having record heat last weekend, so RB got a reprieve.   This week when I came home RangerSir advised me that RB was going this week no matter what.    So today it was bye bye rooster boy.   The remaining flock will now have to find a new pecking order now that he is out of the way and hopefully they will be able to get back to the business of being the happy hens who lay eggs.

Trying to Change the Outcome

In spite of all the changes going around here, we are still backyard chicken wranglers.   We decided to get some chicks again this year.

Last year’s chickens  for some reason were the worst foragers we have ever raised. We would open the door on the chicken run in the morning for them to head out and be free ranging chickens eating seeds, bugs and scratching in the dirt looking for all sorts of tasty morsels.   This was something every previous flock was gun hoe and very good at. Instead this flock insisted on staying in the coop, lazing around and eating chicken feed.   It made no sense to me,  they were breeds we had had before that had demonstrated their ability to get most of their diet in the summer out in the pasture.   I seriously thought about locking them out of the coop, but they would need access to lay eggs, so that was not really a feasible alternative.   It was frustrating as the locally milled organic food was not as inexpensive as commercial chicken chow was, and they went through more than twice as much as prior flocks have.  On top of that chickens who stay close to the coop make for more clean up.   If they free-range out in the pasture, no one cares where or how much poop a chicken can generate.   And chickens do generate poop.

The chicks are showing interest in eating the grasses already at two weeks.

The chicks are showing an interest in eating the grasses already at two weeks.

This year I have ten chicks and I am hoping for good free-range foragers who like to get out and look for their dinner as much and as long as they can.    To this end they are just two weeks old and I am already pulling little cheatgrass plants and feeding them to the new chicks roots and all.    The chicks are showing interest in picking at the grasses and do lots of chirping and digging around when I add that to their cage each day when I clean it.

If you are wondering who cares if they free range or not, here is a little information that you may not know about free-range, pasture raised eggs according to tests done by Mother Earth News comparing commercial eggs vs. the eggs from chickens that actually get out and free-range in the pasture.  My chickens who get outside daily to eat grass, dandelions, bugs, grubs, seeds, and what ever other goodies they can find and with a good dose of daily exercise produce eggs that have • 1⁄3 less cholesterol• 1⁄4 less saturated fat• 2⁄3 more vitamin A• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids• 3 times more vitamin E• 7 times more beta carotene.   Yes there is a difference in eggs.

Keep your fingers crossed that this year’s finds their natural instincts and the become the mighty forager’s that commercial chickens can not imagine is even possible.

 

One of This and Two of That – Chicks!

A sign of the times...Chick Days.

A sign of the times…Chick Days.

Every year at this time there is a phenomenon going on called chick days.   It is when local tractor/ranch supply stores bring in baby chicks for sale.   Most of the ranch supply stores bring in an assortment of breeds which proves to be a great challenge for me.    I am one of those folks who wants my chickens to be cute, no standard white, red or black for me.   I find myself buying more than I should and it is not because baby chicks are cute.   No I imagine what the feathers on all the breeds will look like and get caught up in the possibilities down the road.   This year I ended up with ten chicks.   I was planning on six….tops eight.   I ended up with gold lace wyandotte, silver lace wyandotte, light Brahma, buff Orpington and barred rocks this year.   Time will tell how they all fare and how I fare with my choices this year.

In the next couple of days I will update my backyard chicken page and get some pictures up here for all you chicken owners and want to be owners

There is something that brightens the day having chickens around.

Becoming a Backyard Chicken Keeper

Today my thoughts turn to ordering baby chicks for March or April this year.    It makes me think of all the first timers who are thinking about starting their own backyard flock.   I have had a backyard flock of chickens for eight years now, I’ve become an experienced backyard chicken wrangler if you will.   It has been full of fun and challenges.   Backyard chickens have become a national phenomenon and when I think it may be waning I see a new book come out for the backyard flock, and realize at least to some degree small flocks are here to stay. If you are thinking about a backyard flock here are some things you may want to consider.

1.  You will need a coop.  Nonnegotiable. Like all animals chickens  need shelter.  What that shelter looks like depends on where you live and what other things they may have access to like runs or other outdoor space.   You can read as much as you want about coops but the reality is when you finish your coop you will have to make adjustments for your local weather, flock size and how much space they need vs. what you view as “right.”   I am on my second coop and I am still tweaking with it based on how many birds I overwinter and how harsh my winters end up being.    Coops are trial and error.   There is no magic single one answer.

Our First Coop

Our First Coop

2.  You need to decide what you want from your chickens.   Do you want a pet, something fun to look at, dinner or eggs?   There really is no one breed that does it all. I have tried all sorts of breeds over the years.   I wanted cute, good egg layers that could eventually go into the pot.   I also wanted Montana winter hearty birds.    I can tell you that there is no single breed that does that based on my trial and error.   I have settled on some breeds deciding that they are the best I can do and are successful enough for my desired qualities.   You need to be prepared to make mistakes and figure out how to right them.

Norwegian Jaerhon our most exotic breed.

Norwegian Jaerhon our most exotic breed.

3.  Getting started in chickens costs more than you estimate it will.   It isn’t just the purchase of chickens at $3 a pop, there is the cost of the coop, food, feeders, water sources, bedding, and things you will not imagine you need until the time comes you need it.   You can figure out what you think you need and easily double or triple it.   A great example of this exponential costs is my revolving issues with  water sources.   I started out with fount but it seemed my birds were always somehow knocking them out of balance and my birds would be without water.    I then got them rubber water dishes that worked good in the summer, but once freezing temperatures came I discovered I needed heated water dishes. I opted for the dog style as they were the least expensive.    Oh did I mention that I eventually ran electricity to my shed to make this whole setup easier for me?   Can you see the money bleeding for the search of a good year-round water source.

Despite these being used for years, they didn’t really work for me in my situation.

4.  Time commitment from someone.  Chickens are sort of like  the worst qualities of a cat and a dog.   They need someone around to open and close the doors like a dog.    They need someone to clean up after them like a cat, even if you free range because at night they poop in the coop.   Then you can also add the problem of predators.    Chickens are  very near the bottom of the food chain and there are predators from both the ground and air, domestic and wild,  that would love to eat them.

The chickens need to have some one open the coop door.

5.  You need an exit plan.   Most backyard chicken keepers don’t think about what will happen when they tire of their chickens or then end up with an unwanted rooster.   You need to know what you will do when you no longer want your birds.   I will go on record saying taking them to the local rescue Is a selfish option because you have just made your chickens a drain on a overtaxed system rescue system because or your poor planning.  When I lived in Michigan you could take your chickens to the local Amish and they would butcher and dress them for a small fee, or you could give them to them, assuming that they would end up on their dinner table.   I have heard of people taking them to their local vet to put down.  Some of us rotate our flock regularly and last year’s birds turn into this year’s dinner.   I am not advocating any one method over the other.   I am saying you should have a plan that makes you responsible to the very end.

I go with the dinner option when a chicken is ready to be culled from the flock.   It isn't for everyone, but you need to have a plan.

I go with the dinner option when a chicken is ready to be culled from the flock. It isn’t for everyone, but you need to have a plan.

So this year as you make resolutions to know your food, eat food that is raised in a healthier environment, or get back to nature, I hope you will think twice and then twice again before starting your backyard chicken flock.   It is rewarding, and I can’t imagine not having chickens, but it is more than gathering eggs.

There is something that brightens the day having chickens around.

There is something that brightens the day having chickens around.

Peace in the Village – At Last

Every spring I get new chicks.   In the past nature has always taken her toll, that has ensured that I am not overrun with too many chickens.   This year Mother Nature had the last laugh, because I lost no chicks to infant mortality, nor did they have to go early because they were the wrong sex, nor did a single predator somehow show up to cull my flock.    No this year everyone of the 15 baby chicks I purchased was a hen, who made it to egg laying adulthood.   I suddenly had a flock of 20 chickens.

Twenty chickens is too many for a back yard flock.  I am a recreational chicken wrangler.   I want it to be at least sort of fun.   When you have twenty birds, there is too much poo, too many pounds of chicken chow ate, and just civil unrest even with over 20 acres to wander free range style.   We had reached the point where we were going to have to butcher 15 birds just to bring our flock back to a size where we could enjoy our hens.   Instead we got lucky in that our friends who raise chickens for eggs to supplement their income were in need of pullets. Late summer is really not the time you want to be ordering and starting baby chickens in Montana so getting 26-week old laying hens was perfect to them.   Problem solved for both of us.  They came over with three dog crates and went home with 10 pullets to add to their flock.  Much less stressful for us.

It is amazing what the reduction of our flock to ten has done to our flock.   They are quieter, and no longer play the role of mean girls to some of the flock.    They are much more cohesive group who all wake at the same time, travel in a single bunch and retire to the roost early as a group.   On top of that they food consumption has dropped, they are doing much more free range eating.   Lastly the coop is easier to keep clean.   Before winter sets in we will still need to cull our flock to half size, but with only five yet to go it will be a quick morning event rather than an all day ordeal.

When you only have ten chickens in your flock there can be peace in your valley.