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.
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.
This weekend while I was home we started fall housecleaning. Each fall we clean our chicken coop thoroughly before winter sets in southwest Montana and they are confined to quarters. Fall coop cleaning is not only a neat and tidy exercise, but is also step in promoting a healthy coop. It gets rid of all the nasty old bedding and dust that can be a hot bed of problems. Our chickens have a coop sectioned off of the shed with their own door, but they also have run of the shed (we have given up on keeping them out.) So fall housecleaning is really a two part cleaning experience.
It varies each year what we do to some degree. Some years we scrub down the walls but occasionally we give the interior a new coat of paint. This year it was paint. We rented a sprayer and it made getting in to all the crooks, crannies and working with the uneven wall boards and nails much easier. We consider yellow the color of sun the right color for our coop, so as before it is still yellow. This year we picked something a little brighter at the paint store and once it was up in the coop it looks like we probably have to plug that color in, it is so bright. This time we ended up not only painting the coop area, but the whole shed that was a mixture of paints, woods and just looked pretty cobbled up like it was from the inside. With that coat of paint it not only sealed everything back up, but made the shed look much better.
Our coop has a raised hardwood floor, but the chickens have taken over most of the shed, or at least they wander around in it all so we treat it all when we clean it. This means that we put down some fresh stall dry on the dirt floor in the shed, along with some fresh straw.
It looks pretty great now that we are done.
It is yellow everywhere in the coop….nest boxes…ceiling….everywhere.
We painted more than the just the coop. This time it was the whole shed.
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.
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 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.
Tonight we had the local fox visit our chicken coop. It is one of the backyard chicken wrangler’s worst nightmares – predators. We had lost chickens before and each time took another step to protect them better based on what happened. This time unfortunately the fox actually got into the coop. It was not a case of them finding our free range chickens.
We lost five birds, one of the bigs (last year’s hen) and five of the littles (this year’s 8 week old chicks). I am sad and mad at the same time. A fox came in and cleaned house literally. They were taken from the coop this time. Yes the gate to the run and coop was open. The fox took more than he could use at one time and ended up burying carcasses for later use. I am mad because as the keeper of livestock, my job is to ensure they are fed, watered, kept healthy and safe. We failed them. I am sad because being a victim to a predator is not a nice way to go out.
Now the battle is on. We are looking at options to improve how we allow our hens to have outdoor time without putting them at risk. This fox hit the jackpot today and we are fairly certain that he or she will be back soon. There are lots of options for us to explore. We are looking for something that can be done relatively fast, easy and inexpensively. We will keep you posted as we work through solutions to this problem.
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 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.