Should We or Should We Not

It is almost time again for chick days in Montana.   Once again we go through the perennial question should we or should we not get a few chicks to refresh our flock.  There is one part of me who loves to see the new chicks grow up and become part of our little back yard flock.  There is another part of me that says if you get more you must get rid of some.  I have another couple of weeks to make a decision on what I will do.  Right now the see saw could tip either way.  I’ll keep you posted.

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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.


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.

Early Egg Celebration

Chickens start laying eggs when they become adults.   Backyard production egg breeds like the red star and the black star  can lay as early as 15 weeks, though most lay a little later than that.   Heritage breeds, which are the type I raise, can take up to 26 weeks to start laying.   I have had some in the past that have taken all of 26 weeks and even a couple more weeks than that.    This year I got lucky and one of my gold laced Wyandotte’s started laying this weekend.   She is 17 weeks old.  It is cause for celebration.   Of the original ten I got this spring, I have four left.   The buff Orpington is starting  to look like she is maturing and could be laying in a couple of weeks.    The other two, a silver laced and a gold laced Wyandotte, are still a ways off before I will be looking for eggs.   It was nice that it happened while I was home, though I must say RangerSir has certainly stepped in a fill the role of lead chicken wrangler quite well this summer.  I missed seeing the stages as they grew, but they likely did not know I was gone.

We call these two the sisters.   The one on the left is the one who has started laying eggs already.

We call these two the sisters. The one on the left is the one who has started laying eggs already.

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.

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.

Stop Chasing the Cute One

Cute Chicks Sway Me!

Cute Chicks Sway Me!

Women can be quite snarky about another woman who is good looking.   That is where all the dumb blond jokes came from.  When men notice a nice looking woman, we often comment about what he might be thinking with, and it isn’t his brain.  I hate to admit but I too have been chasing the “good looking” chicks.

For years I have been trying all different sorts of of breeds of chickens.  I am constantly trying out all the cute, pretty and unusual chicks.   If they are considered an egg layer and someone suggests they might forage, develop some meat on their bones,  and not have  too aggressive of a personality, I wanted them.   I like nice easy chicks, and if they have big breasts it made them nicer.  Picking my birds this way has  let to  quite an assortment chicks who have come through the door of my coop  over the years.   I have tried them all out.  Some have been one-time wonders and others I have invited back to visit another time or two.

This year’s birds have ate more commercial feed  than any other flock I have had.   They have a tendency to stay in the coop and eat all day at the feeder rather than get out in the pasture and forage.   The flock seems to be burning through feed  almost as fast as I can buy it.   Most summers I go through about 50 pounds of feed for the whole season.   This last 100 pounds disappeared  in just a couple of weeks.   When you buy good quality feed and the birds do little foraging, your eggs  very quickly  become expensive.  It was my light bulb moment when the I hit the bottom of the garbage can I store my feed in.  I realized I am not bringing the right chicks home anymore.  I am being swayed by the cute one and not thinking with my analytical   brain.   I need to stop chasing the cute ones and stick with the ladies who can make me breakfast and then be there for dinner too.

Next year I will be going back the chicks who are keepers.   I want girls who lay lots of  large eggs in the morning, will forage well all day, and  fill out nicely for a dinner.    No more chasing  the “good looking” chicks.

Chick Report – 9 Weeks

This Year's chicks sit just outside the doorMy new chicks are now nine weeks old.  They are fully integrated in with the existing flock.   Sort of.   The existing flock will not tolerate them for the most part, but the newbies dodge their way around them just fine.   Each morning I open the coop and let them all out.   When confine to the chicken run the newbies lay low, but as soon as the gate is open for free range time my adult flock heads out, leaving the newbies full run of the coop.   You will often find the newbies sitting on the stairs outside the little door enjoying the world.

We are feeding a flock raiser without calcium and providing oyster shell for our layers.  Life isn’t to bad for the chicken farmers.   No more separate feeds, or spaces.   We get to treat them all the same. It is just a wee bit early to start thinking of butchering.

My meaties are huge and we are starting to think about sending them to freezer camp.   Our packing peanuts are not far behind.   Last night one of the roosters was mad and pecked at my husband when he put them away last night.   It means their days are numbered.