A Spring Day in the Middle of Winter

It is still winter in Montana and will be at our house for months to come.   We have had some serious early thaws  recently as we will here every year about this time.   Today it had melted enough of the snow away that it was a perfect day to open the chicken run and let the ladies out today for some free-range time.

2017-02-19-2017-02-19-001-022-1280x853Though it doesn’t look like much the chickens were out there eating the shoots of new grass that the melted snow provided.  My chickens  can be an industriousness bunch when it comes to good fresh food after the snow hiding “good eats” and being on commercial chow for a few months.

Let’s hold onto the memory of this day with sunshine and blue skies as  we enter a week that is suppose to be full of show again.  The snow is happening less frequently and days like this are happening more often.   There is hope for spring, no matter how far away.

New Chicks – the Jury is Still Out

We have been debating on and off about getting chicks this year. There are so many reasons to do and just as many reasons to sit out a year.   We are approaching the end of chick days, so if we don’t buy some soon, then the decision will soon be out of our hands.

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A sign of the times…Chick Days.

One of the reasons we need to consider new birds is predators.   Last year we lost a number of hens to a fox.  We have not lost to predators every year, but it is always a possibility.    We could not take that same kind of predation again this year.   We have already seen a large fox this year. Our hens already are not doing as much free ranging as they would like because of this.   We are keeping them in the run more hours and close to the house when they are free ranging.   It is not a guarantee that they will not meet an unfortunate demise, but it does decrease the odds of them being fox dinner.

Another reason for thinking about adding some youngsters to our flock is some of our hens are past peak laying and if we don’t retire them to freezer camp this year, they will only be good for stock.   I hate to be wasteful.   It seems to me that is almost disrespectful to not fully utilize the bird.   When they get beyond tough it settles wrong with me, it seems that I have been less than a good steward. You want to rotate out your heavy laying hens every 18-24 months if you hope to eat them.

One of the reasons to not get chicks is we would get to put off one of the worst parts of backyard chicken wrangling, butchering.  I would so love to put them in a cage haul them off to be butchered and come back neat little hens in a plastic bag, but it doesn’t work that way.   It one of those things that is a reminder to me of the hard work that goes into putting food on our table.

Another reason to not get chicks is I just plain old don’t like the part of raising baby chicks.   They are sensitive to cold, drafts and require lots of work to get them to the laying age.   Some people love this part, to me it is just one big hassle, I’d rather skip. There is a period where we are running two separate flocks and two separate sets of chores for each of them.

The local ranch supply will be getting birds in only for a couple more weeks, so we will soon be making the road trip to get some chicks or by procrastination the decision will be made for us.  Either way is ok with us this year.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

A Good Winter

spring-eggThis has been an exceptional winter for my laying hens.   This is the first time we have not had to buy a single store bought egg all winter since we have had been in the chicken business.    Now we have gone from one egg every other day or so to a two egg day.  It may be some of the coldest weather of the year, but two eggs in a single day is a sign that we are on our way to spring.