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.

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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.

Nothing Left But Feathers

feather-only-webYesterday we lost a chicken.   It sucks, no two ways about it.   Based on what was left it was most likely canine who took our hen.   Lots and  lots of feathers, no body.

It is one of the many dangers of letting chickens have free range, especially in the country.   We try to minimize the danger by keeping them confine in the early morning and late afternoon hours.   We have a family of foxes who live on our property and a pack of coyotes who love to sing in the country behind us.   They like easy pickings and we try to avoid making our hens such by keeping them confine  during the “standard” hunting hours.

Fortunately the days are getting longer in Montana.   The sun is rising earlier and earlier in Montana.   It is clearly daylight here at 6 in the morning now.   We love it.          Just because it gets lighter earlier does not mean that Mr. Hunter’s hours are shorter, no it just means that he gets to do some daylight hour hunting.     The mistake was made opening the fence to the chicken run too early yesterday.   It was opened based on daylight not the hour of the day.   We lost a good laying hen.   Hard lesson learned for all of us, look at your watch before you open the chicken gate.

Free Range Chickens

Look closely my chickens are out in the pasture.

Look closely my chickens are out in the pasture.

Recently  I wrote about not being happy with a white chicken.   If I kept my chickens confined then this would not be an issue.   Lucky for my chickens I let them free range.   Free range is a natural method of raising chickens.   It allows them time to range out in nature, eating bugs, slugs, seeds, grasses as they naturally would.     Free range chickens produce eggs that with yellower yolks, have a creamier taste, and are naturally higher in Omega-3!   Unfortunately running around free range also has some serious risks.   Predators love chickens.   Predators can be what you all think of,  foxes and coyotes.  There can be some not so common predators from the air hawks or an occasional eagle.   It can also be the neighbor’s dog.  When a pet kills or maims your livestock this can create some serious conflict.   Everyone in this picture has some responsibility.   As a chicken keeper I have an obligation to reduce the risk of running in to predators, by picking chickens who blend in with my landscape.   I also reduce the likelihood they will meet a predator by keeping them in the chicken run until the sun is up and confining them as the sun starts to set.   I have lost one to a hawk.   I have added some more cover for them after that loss.     I have had  to called the neighbor two pastures over when her dogs decided to do a long-distance adventure and came pouncing into my chicken run.  Occasionally I have found the chickens  further from home than I would like.   When that happens I haze them and then reward then with food treats when they come home.     Those birds are my responsibilities.   It isn’t a perfect science. but it works well enough for me.

Now you know why a white chicken wasn’t my first choice.  One look at my photo of my pasture this spring with my existing flock tells you she would have a bull’s eye on her.  I suspect I will have to make some adjustments to how I manage my flock for her safety when she grows up.

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.

Free Range Fate

Today we lost a chicken.   We are not sure what was her unfortunate demise, but she is no longer with us.   We found no signs of what happened to, no feathers, no carcass.

This is a reminder to us  the dangers to free range chickens.   Free ranging your birds one of those things that you have to figure out if you ware willing to risk, and how you balance the the rewards and the dangers.

Many people choose to not free range their flock under any circumstances for just this reason.   Many of them also put covering over the top of their chicken runs to prevent aerial predators.   The down side of this is that chickens can and will eat everything on the ground down to the nub.   The poo will pile up in the run and need to be dealt with.  It is hard to keep a run from becoming a dirt or mud pen.    On the flip side when confined people are unlikely to experience a loss  like I did today.

I am one of those who feel the possibility of loss is worth letting my chickens have free range time.   I like the fact that free range eggs are lower in cholesterol, higher in omega 3 oils, and other nutrition improvements that come from allowing them to have diet that includes a more natural mix.  I love the fact that my chickens get to behave in a more native/natural way.   They get to run after grasshoppers, dig holes  taking dust baths in the best new spot, and develop great muscle tone.  I do try to minimize their danger by waiting until late in the the morning, with the sun well up before opening the gate and letting them run free.   I herd my flock in the run before the sun goes down.

Today I made a mistake and let my hens out before 9, and then took off for work.   When I came home a couple hours later, one of the ladies was missing.    Now due to my pushing the envelope one of my hens paid the price.    Now the remaining birds will spend the week confine to quarters (their run) for the next few days so that the predator doesn’t get conditioned that birds are easy picking at our place.  As their keeper, I am responsible to protect them from unreasonable danger.   I am going to modify my habits to minimize their danger.  There are never an guarantees in life , and I still feel that the risk of free range is worth it.

Chickens Go to Jail

Tomorrow it is the other side of the the fence, until we remember eggs go in the nest boxes.

My chickens are going to be confined to the chicken run for awhile, which to free range chickens is like jail. Their run is huge but it is fenced.   Every morning they greet me at the gate anxious to get out and forage for food.  It is good for them, and the eggs they produce.   It is also great on the pocketbook.   Laying hens eat lots, and free food is always best.

Last week three of my hens decided to lay in the shed rather than the nest boxes in the coop.  This week I can’t get more than three eggs out of ten active laying hens.   I have looked all over and can’t find a clutch of eggs anywhere.   I have checked in my yard, the sagebrush  in the pasture, under the trailer and even some of the adjoining pasture.  I should have more eggs than I know what to do with instead I barely have enough to get by.

In fall laying hens will slow down, but that usually doesn’t happen for me well in to October.  Some of my breeds lay almost all year round.  Hens will stop laying when they molt, but there is no sign of that either.    I can come to no other conclusion than they are laying somewhere out there on the range.   Now I will have to confine them back to their run for a week to remind them eggs go in the nest boxes in the coop.   Wish me luck!

Let's hope it doesn't take long for them to get back to using the next boxes.