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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Fox in the Hen House – Literally

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.

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

Chick Time

My one week old mixed flock of chicks for the year.

My one week old mixed flock of chicks for the year.

NOT as in babes, but as in the feathered kind.   Though it was not as planned I did end up purchasing chicks this year at the local ranch supply.   I bought a total of 15 baby chicks this year.   I was a test of my resolve to be a little less demanding of life.    I was not going to get exactly what I wanted because I refused to disrupt my life  to drive 100 miles one way one day and then 100 another the next day, during the work week none the less.    Instead I got part of my flock from the local store and a few days later I was out of town on business and picked up a few more birds of other varieties to round out my flock.  I picked what I though was the best of what was available.   No extraordinary measures this year to get the “perfect” flock.

As we were looking at the bill for our flock this year RangerSir commented as he does every year, “We don’t do this to save money.”  Oh so true.   Chicks don’t start laying for 16 weeks if you are lucky and I have had some go as long as 26 weeks before I saw that first egg.   That means all they are is eating and pooping machines while they mature.   Some of them will make their way to our dinner table, others will hang around awhile laying eggs for us and our friends.   There is a sort of satisfaction in growing your own food that we get that makes us go back each year and do this all over again.

For now they reside in the dog crate under the heat lamp in my studio space growing larger every day, while I count the weeks… until they can go outside and then start to lay

A Sign of the Times – Chick Days

A sign of the times...Chick Days.

A sign of the times…Chick Days.

This week a colleague shared here joy in stopping by the local post office and hearing boxes of baby chicks peeping away.   She shared how much hope it gave her that indeed spring was coming.     It made me wish they were on their way to me.   Instead I will be picking this year’s chicks up at the local ranch supply.

Chick days are just starting in Montana.   For those of unfamiliar with Chick Days, it is when baby chicks are shipped in mass to farm and ranch supply stores for purchase by the locals that don’t order their own from hatcheries.       The weather here is just beginning to be warm enough for the little critters to make their way to the great white North.

Planning for the baby chicks is definitely a process that has to take place before you bring home your little ones.    You need to make sure that your equipment is all in good working order to keep those babies draft free and warm.   Here is my check list.   It is good for seasoned chicken wranglers and first time chick raising alike.

  • Food and Water   I need to pull down all the little-size feeders and water fountains for the bundles of fluff.   The little critters can actually drown in adult sized equipment.   So you need chick sized equipment that they will outgrown in a month or so.   Be prepared if you are new to the chick  raising you will need both sizes.
  • Heat I always have two heat lamps, but they need to be plugged in and the bulbs need to be tested.   I always keep a spare bulb in the box on the shelf in the chicken coop.  The first week your chicks need to have an ambient room temperature of 90-95 degrees.   You lower it approximately 5 degrees a week.   I have never seen a big jump in my electric bill from baby chicks, but until they are feathered they really can not keep warm, the light does it all.
  • Housing/Brooder Your brooder needs to be set up before you bring your peeps home.   It should be a warm draft-free environment.    I use a dog crate those first few weeks, with cardboard zip stripped onto the sides to prevent drafts     I cover the bottom with paper towels the first few days and then move over to shavings.  People have everything from fancy special made brooders  to a washtub in the basement with heat lamps on the top.
  • Growth As your chicks grow you will need to expand the size of their living quarters.    Each of us does it in our own way.   My chicks move from the house to a shelter separate corner of the coop no later than  the third or fourth week.    It requires all sorts of modifications to the coop to get the heat lamps set up, protection from the big girls, ensuring they are draft free and more.  It sounds worse than it is because after years of doing this I know how to make it happen.   Some of the hooks that are set up to support this each spring are already there waiting for this year’s flock.

First and foremost is planning is the key to success in.  Chick are not and should not be an impulse “oh so cute” purchase.  If this is your first time there is a host of purchases that needs to be done before you get your chicks.   If you are like me and a seasoned chicken wrangler then this process is another of the rights of passage into  spring you do each year.

You Snooze – You Lose

I swap out chickens every year from my backyard flock.   Some of the older birds or ones that are not performing as well as I hoped go to the freezer.  They are replaced by new chicks.

Getting the perfect mix of chicks for my flock requires me to order from hatcheries online.    I have some personal favorite breeds that are almost impossible to find at the local ranch store.  I usually try to order the week after my employer’s conference in January.   This year I sustained an injury and have had troubles with keyboarding, so did not get  online and make put together my order.

I just checked online at my favorite hatchery that allows me to pick my order one chick at a time, though I usually go with two or three, and stocks all my hard to find favorites. I am too late.   I wanted my chicks to be shipped for a March arrival.  My choices were sold out until June and July.    I am too late.

On to Plan B.   It means I will settle for favorites that I find this year at the ranch supply. I will be watching for the announcement of Chick Days.    You can bet I will be at the first or second one they have.   I have already lost out once, I am not going to do it again.   You snooze — you loose.

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.