Moving Day

Sunday was  the day the littles (this year’s chicks) movec from the brooder in the garage out to a larger brooder area in the coop with the bigs (our existing flock).  .   We started the littles  under the lights in a dog crate in the garage where we have fewer temperature fluctuations.  The big drawback is even with the heat lamp and the overhead lights on, they get almost no sunshine.   There is no scientific data, but  I think that slows their development.   Several times we have thought about moving them out to the coop but the last couple of weeks have been snowy and cold so we passed as much for ourselves as them. This week’s forecast is much better so we are moving them out of the garage.

RangerSir got the set up ready for them.It takes some set up time to get a warm safe, draft free space set up for them in the coop.  They need to be protected from the bigs. We have been doing this now for awhile  and know the routine.    It is a combination of a dog exercise pen, a dog crate, heat lamps, chicken wire top, and some kind of draft protection (this year plywood, some years it is cardboard.) This set up will do for the next stage of their life.

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Signs of Spring

This week there was the hint of spring in the air here in southwestern Montana.  We opened the gate on our chicken run and let the hens have a little free range time.   They were excited and ready to run free.     They are looking for the little bits of green that are starting to show up.

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We still have some snow on the ground but they can work their way around it. We pulled out some straw from the coop and spread it around on the ground which is still quite muddy, to help their human caretakers not track so much around and beat what little grass we have down.

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The hens thought that we were tossing the straw about to make it easier to find tasty morsels. We had to do a double take and recount the hens, because all the feathers from the molting they did this winter looked like a fox had been in the hen house.   Fortunately it was a false alarm.

We are all ready for a little spring weather here.   Everyone is tired of being cooped up.

Fall Housecleaning

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.

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It is yellow everywhere in the coop….nest boxes…ceiling….everywhere.

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We painted more than the just the coop. This time it was the whole shed.

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.

Winter Heat for Chickens

Snow does not stop chickens.

Snow does not stop chickens.

Yesterday we were under winter storm warnings around here, and tonight we have our first windchill warning.    This is the time many folks worry about their new flock of chickens and winter temperatures.    Chickens are like other livestock, given proper shelter, water and food they will do just fine.

I am not an advocate of supplemental heating for your chickens.   My reasons are as follows:

  • They don’t need it.   Like other animals they will acclimate if you allow them to do so.
  • Chickens don’t need or behave best if they have 24 hours of light.
  • Fire!  Especially heat lamps.
  • Why waste money?   A small light doesn’t cost much, but every penny counts.
  • If you have a proper size coop for your flock it will be warm enough.   In places where you get a bitter cold winter some insulation may be in order as well.  It is important that any drafty cracks and corners be taken care of too.

I keep their feeders full of layer pellets.    I supplement them with produce scraps, because they are use to free range the rest of the year.

I do use heated water dishes because all animals need access to lots of fresh water.  It makes it easier for me to keep drinkable water available to them.   Before I used a heated dish, it took many visits to the coop with hot water and a hammer.

Winter Plans for All Chicken Wranglers.

There is snow in the forecast for the high country this weekend.   It does not mean I expect snow yet.   I live high, but not that high.  What it does mean for me is I need to stop pondering winter for my chickens and take action.  It means I need to get my flock down to my  winter size.

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I have a coop that is ideal for six chickens over the winter.    It is a clean uninsulated building that is large enough space wise for six chickens.   Chickens need a certain amount personal space, aka square feet of floor space.  Too little and they become mean girls and pecking, bullying and fighting ensues.   Too much space and the chickens body heat will not keep they won’t generate enough heat to keep the worst of the cold out.   Coop size is a really fine art in places where there is a long cold winter.   Chickens worst enemy in winter is frostbite, and they are their own worst enemy for that.   Every time a chicken exhales it is moist.   Moisture is one of those things that helps frostbite set in.  So you are looking for a coop that is vented sufficiently to let that moisture out and keep the warmth in.   It sounds like an oxymoron.   It is a lot of reading, planning and then you personal trial and error to get it right.   After all these years I know six is my ideal number.

Knowing the number is one thing, but knowing who to keep and who must go is another.   Things that plan into that are age.   I like to have a bird in the freezer before a third winter.  Any longer than that even ground for chicken salad is a stretch.   Another consideration is will they winter well physically?   I am always trying new breeds and some surprise me in their qualities.   This year the California Leghorn was one of them.   She has the largest comb I have ever had on a bird.   It is way too large for her to fare well in a Montana winter.   She is a regular layer of nice sized eggs, which normally makes her a candidate for winter, but I do not do frostbite if I can avoid it.   She will have to go.    Lastly I look at  how well do I think they will lay in the short days of winter.     I look closely at how their feathers look for signs of moulting, broodiness and it their egg production is slowing down.   Some of the decisions are easy and clear.   Some of it  is sort of a crap shoot, play it by the seat of your pants thing.

California Leghorn

California Leghorn

I hate this time when hand is forced and I must get  down to such a small number.   I love having eggs to give away.   But I also know that if I dally too long I may end up with more birds than I can reasonably handle.   Keeping an extra two in the coop requires all sorts of extra adjustments and time on my part to keep my flock healthy and happy.   I have done that and swore to never do it again.    The other thing is to be butchering out there when it is cold, and everything is much more miserable that it needed to be if I had not delayed.   So this week the report card will be in and I will be picking my six for the winter of 2013.

Picking Your Chicks

The most important thing you can do is pick the right chickens for you.   There is lots that goes into this and a  a bad choice on any one of them can make for a disaster.   Here are some of the most important elements to think about when picking you breeds.

  1. 2011-08-23 001 (1024x683)Why are you doing this? Do you want a few eggs?  Are you part of that backyard flock movement?   Do you want to fill your freezer filled with chickens?   Do you see yourself selling eggs and or chickens?
  2. Where do you live?  City, country, or in some subdivision with its own rules.   There are laws that may impact how many and what types of chickens you may have.   You many not be able to have roosters or more than three, six or some other legal arbitrary number.
  3. Where will you keep them?   They need space and the more chickens you have the more space you need. They need shelter from the elements and predators.   You for sure need coop space and preferably some outdoor space as well.
  4. How much time do you plan to put into this? Animals take time, chickens are no different.   They need full food dishes, clean water and a clean coop.   Like everything else they poop.   Don’t kid yourself they poop plenty. So just like a horse stall or a kitty box they need to be cleaned up regularly not  once a week or month.
  5. Can you afford chickens?   Chickens have ongoing costs for feed and bedding.   The start up costs can be huge if you need to build coop and pen space.   If you plan to butcher there are costs associated with setting that up as well.   Imagine what you think it will cost and double it for sure, triple it if you want to be safe.
  6. What is your climate?   Some breeds don’t do well in the heat, others can be prone to frost bite.     Do your research and learn what traits work well in your neck of the woods.2011 02 10_0474 (1024x768)
  7. What are your emotional desires?   We are human after all and there is some emotion that goes into picking your dog, cat, horse and even your chicken.   Do you want them to  be friendly?  Do you care if you can pick them up easily or not?  Do you want “cool looking” or pretty chickens?

There is no perfect breed for anyone but knowing the answers to these questions can help to set you up for success.

I will share will share some insights in to my answers and hopefully that may help you as you muddle through trying to find the best breed of chicken for you.

  1. I am mostly an egg person, who has few qualms about eating poor layers, older birds that need to be rotated out, roosters and when I end up with too many birds in the fall
  2. I live in the country, in a rural subdivision with covenants long since ignored.  I am not near anyone and in Montana generally speaking property owner rights are pretty strong.
  3. My chickens live in a shed with a coop within it.   They have a fenced run and get lots of daylight free range time.
  4. I use my chickens as an excuse to get up out of the home office, so gather eggs often.   I check water in the AM and PM and use self feeders.   I scrap their poop board at least every other day.   In the summer every day.
  5. My initial investment was such that they will never pay for themselves. I soon decided I wanted more chickens than my initial coop would support and found myself building a second larger coop, and giving them access to my shed in the winter.   I get my feed and bedding at the local feed store.   In the summer they eat very little because they free range forage so much.   In the winter they eat much more.
  6. My climate is windy, windy, windy.   In the winter you can add cold, sometimes bitter cold to that.
  7. I want cute, pretty birds.   Plain white or brown birds have no place in my coop.

My favorite birds are dual purpose birds with cushion combs, who are active foragers.  I won’t shy away from the right bird if they have a single comb.  I tend to like gravitate toward the old fashion breeds because they were developed for the lifestyle they live on my place.  I am not opposed to stretching my limits for something new, but don’t hesitate to send something that doesn’t work out to freezer camp if it is best.   I have been known to be swayed by a pretty feather pattern a time or two.   Some of my favorite breeds are wyandottes, Brahmas and rocks.  They seem to work well for me.  Find what works well for you.