Tag Archives: chickens

Farm Lessons

We purchased our farm/homestead in January 2005 and spent the next several months getting the perk test for septic, drilling a nearly 800 foot well, laying out the floor plan and getting the custom log kit put together for us, hiring a contractor and finally breaking ground in November 2005.  In June 2006, I left my husband and recently graduated high school youngest son in an apartment on the coast and I took a second apartment in the university town halfway between where we were building and my new job.  This started a 3 year commute every few weeks back and forth across the state for hubby and me, sometimes meeting somewhere in between to see each other.

During the construction, before our eldest son (RT) who had moved to the area with his family to oversee the construction, could take over for the interior work and the weather would permit the stonework, he repaired our old pole barn.  It is a simple structure of a central closed room with a sided lean-to off each side.  One side stored the old farm equipment that we bought with the house and is low enough that we have to be careful walking in it to not hit our heads.  The other side is tall enough to park the tractor inside and to store the plow and auger and has a hay rack, so was probably used at some point to shelter cattle kept on the land or for the miniature horses that were grazing here when we purchased.  The barn was in disrepair, the doors were rotting and falling off, the roof had been the target for many shots from a neighbor’s yard and the metal roof, already in poor shape was riddled with tiny holes.  Son rebuilt the doors after repairing and shoring up the frame, roof cemented and painted the metal roof in a color close to the red of the house metal roof, making it a functional place to store the utility trailer, our kayaks, and tractor equipment.  It may soon become hay storage for the horses and cattle that should be added within the next year.

Also during this time, RT and his wife constructed a tremendous garden,6 huge compost bins, and orchard area.  This area was much larger than I can manage and has been reduced to about a 60 X 60′ vegetable garden and berry beds, the chicken coop and run, and an orchard with apple, Asian pear, and peach trees and two less compost bins.  This is an area that I can manage.  The vegetable garden has been a work in progress as I started building 4′ square beds for parts of it and 4′ wide strips of beds for other parts of it.  Two years ago, I added a row of blueberry bushes, a row of thornless raspberry bushes, moved a grape vine that a neighbor had given us, but was just growing randomly and not well on the edge of the garden and added another of a different variety and gave them the northern most row of the garden with trellis support.  I have tried different varieties of vegetables to see what grows best in this soil and climate, have discovered that radishes and turnips get riddled with little white worms and aren’t worth my effort, I just buy them in season at the Farmers’ Market.  The remainder of the garden provides us with beans, peas, greens, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, potatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers and sometimes when Mother Nature allows, pumpkins and squash.  Some years there is enough to get us through the winter.  Other years there is enough to share with RT’s family as well, and a few years, it has only been part of our needs and we have had to supplement from the Farmers’ Market or even the grocer.

Almost a year ago, I wanted to add chickens to the homestead, mostly for eggs and the compost they generate, and RT asked that I also raise some meat birds, that he would do the deed and butcher them.  I didn’t know that they couldn’t be raised together, that the layers would brutalize the slow heavy meat birds and that the meat birds couldn’t get up in the coop.  I also learned to be careful when buying birds.  My first chicks were day old chicks from two different Tractor Supply stores and there were lots of young cockrells in the first chicks.  Then I bought two from an animal swap that were both supposed to be pullets, one is my big rooster Cogburn.  I bought half a dozen from a local gal that was on Backyard chicken forum, she swore she didn’t know their genders and all 6 were cockrells (I’m sure she laughed all the way to the bank with my $30).  I got two more pullets, Buff Orpingtons like Cogburn and decided that they would be the heritage breed that I raise.  RT came in late spring and we put all the cockrells except Cogburn, the meat birds that survived and a couple of pullets in freezer camp.  It was not a pleasant task, but I participated to the extent I could tolerate.  The rest of the flock continued to mature as I looked forward to the eggs they would produce later in the summer.  In August, I raised a second brood of day old meat chicks, this time in a chicken tractor that RT had build for me during the summer, keeping the laying flock and the meaties apart and in October, they were dispatched to freezer camp with a higher lever of my participation this time, though I still find it very unpleasant.

Around August, the layers, one by one began producing eggs and everything I read said that I needed to increase their calcium intake so I purchased oyster shell to offer to the hens that wanted it, then had an Ah Ha moment when I read to feed their egg shells back to them.  Some sources say to just remove the membrane from inside the shell, wash, dry and crush.  Others say the shells must be baked.  I have learned that there is no right way to do anything, that you do what works best for you.  My hens get their shells back with the membrane removed and heated in the microwave for 2 minutes, then crushed.   I learned not to totally clean out their coop weekly, but put a thick layer of straw inside and turn it daily, adding more when needed.  This starts a composting inside the coop which provides winter warmth and surprisingly it doesn’t smell, then thoroughly clean and scrub the coop out come spring and good weather.  I have been told to keep the chickens in a secure run with chicken wire buried to keep digging predators out, but that idea doesn’t work here as it is difficult to even hammer in a post without hitting a rock in this county and alternately to let them free range.  I prefer the free range method, but there are too many dogs, coyotes, hawks, etc in the area to totally do that, so they are in a pen, not too secure, inside the orchard that has electric fence around it, but they usually get a few hours of free range time each day when there isn’t snow on the ground.  And I have learned that I want a pure flock of heritage birds that can self sustain, no more brooders in the garage for baby chicks.

This has been a learning experience, lots of instruction, usually contradicting someone else’s instructions.  So far, we are producing most of the vegetables we need, we have lost only 2 very young chicks and no adult birds that we didn’t harvest (hope I didn’t just invite a pack of predators), have purchased and learned to use a tractor with brush hog, bucket, and auger (still haven’t gotten the hang of the plow), have planted an orchard, a berry and grape supply, landscaped with plenty of perennials for summer cut flowers and love the mountain farm life.

Next up we add horses and cattle and hope that goes as well.

Life is good on our mountain farm.

Success

Yesterday it snowed off and on all day.  The forecast had been for light snow showers to begin in the late afternoon and end shortly after dark.  It started just as I was coming in from the chicken chores, having finally lured them out of their coop with warm mash and fresh straw over the snow.  This allowed for some much needed coop “cleaning.”  It snowed hard for a couple of hours, depositing a new inch or so on the snow remaining from a few days before and then we had snow showers through out the day.  Nothing was accumulating on the roads so we didn’t worry about leaving the mountain.  Just at sunset, the sun peeked out of the broken clouds while it was showering and I stood on the back deck in the 28°f temperature to see if we would have a snowbow.

As it appeared to be clearing, we decided to travel about 20 miles to the Mall to see American Hustle, feeling safe that the roads would be okay on the way home.  The movie was pretty good, hubby liked it a lot and when it was over we exited the multiplex theater to find a mini blizzard going on.  The roads were covered with about 2-3 inches of new snow and it was coming down so fast it was hard to see the road.  This is the mountains and most folks up here have either all wheel drive or 4 wheel drive if they are permanent residents, but it is also the area of the state’s largest university and it seems that most of the students have cars and many of them are not appropriate for snow driving in the mountains.  Even town is not level with rises and dips and as we drove through on our way back to the main highway out to our home, we watched as people, mostly college students slid around corners, fishtailed trying to climb the rises and slid as they foolishly applied brakes going down hill then applied them more firmly to thwart their slide, which caused more sliding.

Once on the main road for the last 12 miles, the road goes up two mountains and through two passes and this is where it got really dicey.  There were cars that couldn’t make it up and had slid into the guardrail, some sideways, some spun around in the wrong direction, some perpendicular to the road.  There were people with 4 wheel or all wheel drive that thought they were invulnerable and were passing each other and driving by the spinouts too quickly and following each other too closely.  It was a terrifying ride, even as the passenger in hubby’s Xterra with the 4 wheel drive on.  When we got to the last 2 miles, going up the mountain on which we live, there were only 2 sets of tracks.  We made it home safely, but very tense.

To unwind, I chose to work on the lace cowl that I posted about a few days ago.  I never thought that I would say that knitting lace would help me unwind, but I had added stitch markers after each lace repeat after “tinking” two half rows and it was going along smoothly.  I finished all but the last three rows, staying up way past my bedtime.

Today is supposed to be warmer, the sun is out and the wind is calming.  After chicken chores which involved more new straw to coax them out to the snow and preparing breakfast for me, feeding the dogs and starting some laundry, I have knit the last 3 rows and bound off.  I am stoked, this is the first time ever that I have successfully finished an entire lace project of any complexity and it is beautiful. It still needs to be blocked but I can’t wait to show it off.
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From this

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To this

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and finally to this. Now I feel confident and am thinking about trying to create a hat to go with it using the same lace pattern.

Reward

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This is the scene this morning. The ridge a mile away is hidden by the snowfall. The snow is not heavy, just steady and expected until sundown, so we may see our first seasonal snowfall. It is later than usual, but we are approaching the 8 weeks when we are most likely to get snow cover.  We are in the Allegheny mountains in southwest Virginia at an elevation of only about 2300 ft (700+ m) on the south flank of the ridge. The ridge north of us rises to about 4400 ft (1341 m) so that it shelters us from most heavy storms. The snow is welcome for the garden moisture it provides, the seasonal beauty and to indulge my inner child who will bundle up and walk or play in it after morning chores are done.

The dogs hit the deck this morning and delightedly took off, leaping; well the German Shepherd leaps, the English Mastiff lopes, and chasing each other around and rooting around like hogs with their noses in the snow. Often when it snows, one of them will come up with a mole or vole with which they play, tossing it around until they tire of the game.

The chickens were less delighted. I filled their water pan with tepid water and hung their feeder beneath the coop to keep it dry and opened the pop door for morning greetings. The first one to poke her head out stopped short as soon as her foot hit the snowy ramp, gave me an accusatory glare and ducked back inside.  All of them were milling around in the coop making agitated sounds, but no one came out. It isn’t very cold yet, only 32°f (0°c), the cold is expected again tonight dropping to low single digits and remaining well below freezing for the next week or so. I may have to make a concession and at least put their food inside the coop. We have snow predicted again in a few days.

The woods are looking like a wonderland and with the snow cover, you can see well into the woods and see the foraging deer and turkeys. I love the mountains and the snow. Life is good on our mountain farm.

Egg hunts

Do you remember the excitement of an Easter Egg hunt? Each morning brings that momentary thrill when I walk over to the chicken’s coop area, laden down with a bucket of water for their dish, another of feed pellets for their feeder and whatever leftovers they are getting as a treat, today it was sauteed cabbage and a few green peas with the last piece of cornbread crumbled into the dish.  Once the waterdish is filled, the feeder hung outside the coop for sunny days and under the coop on bad weather days, the treat dish placed somewhere in the run, just for variety, I open the pop door and greet each hen with a back scratch as they exit and a good morning. Cogburn only tolerates being touched when terrified like the day recently when the dogs charged and everyone scattered amid yells and barks.

After the feeding and greeting chores are done, the straw in the coop must be forked over and freshened with new straw on top about twice a week.

Then, I get the thrill of peeking into the nesting boxes. There are 6 boxes, but generally the hens only use one, adding their egg to the clutch that has been started. Sometimes a hen can’t await her turn and will use the next nest over, or lay her egg just outside the boxes, probably while the box was occupied. Some days, there is only one egg when I let them out, or none, but as the day progresses, several more will appear, always in the same nest. Last thing at night as they are being closed up, one last check is done and sometimes there is a late treasure.

This time of year, there are generally 4 to 6 laid during the day, one day last week there were 8 and yesterday after being on strike since October then molting in late November into December, the Olive egger left us a green egg (no ham on the menu today.)

The hen gems are all varied in hue and shape. One hen lays a nearly round egg, one hen’s eggs are sharply pointed. One hen lays eggs that are lightly speckled with darker brown confetti, one hen’s dyer is faulty and she leaves a darker brown spot on the wide end. One hen’s eggs are rough textured and others so smooth that they are difficult to remove from the deep reusable cartons they are stored in once the counter bowl gets too full to use in a couple of days. I have tried to figure out who is laying what so that this spring when one hen gets broody, I can tuck a collection of Buff Orpington eggs under her and raise babies the natural way and not have to buy chicks this year, but I just can’t be sure. Perhaps I will have to buy pullets this year, then next year when all I have are Buff Orpingtons and Easter eggers, I will know. Until then, the egg hunt continues to delight me each day.
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Life is good on our mountain farm.

Weird Weather Year and It’s problems

Yesterday it was snowing here.  We didn’t get much accumulation, just a dusting as each of the other snows this year have been.  This snow triggered a memory of one of my first blog posts, a voyeuristic peek into the bare woods that nearly surround our homestead.  Our 30 acre farm is primarily hay fields.  There is a rock bar at the top of the property above the barn, a sink hole that swallows our two creeks to the west of that rock bar.  The upper part of the property is returning to woods, the west side and south edge of the property are wooded, the upper east side belongs to a neighbor and it is also wooded.  These woods give us a sense of isolation, we can’t see our neighbor’s houses at all in the summer and can see their lights at night in the winter, but the winter with the falling of the leaves, clears the view the brush obscures during the summer and we can see the wildlife that a mountain side farm supports.

Last summer, we thought we were going to need to build a boat if the rain didn’t stop.  It rained well into the time of the summer that is usually too dry here and it affected the garden, severely reducing the produce from some of the crops.  The young pullets and cockrell that we had started in March spent most of their day under the coop and the design of the coop, allowed rain to enter the drop down window on the east side.

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I struggled with an idea for sheltering that window so that the chickens didn’t get wet when perched below it inside.  My solution was to tack an 8 foot tarp just under the roof on that side, stretch it over three flexible poles that were anchored to the fence with cable ties.  That seemed to work for a few months, providing shade and rain shelter on that side of the coop.  This winter, however, we have had wind.  The farm is in a hollow on the south flank of John’s Creek/Salt Pond Mountain and it funnels the wind sharply across our land.  The wind tore the tarp free at two points and the flapping raised 3 of the fence stakes from the ground on the coldest day this winter, when our high only reached single digits.  The fence came down, the ground was too frozen to hammer the stakes back in, but the chickens were cooped to try to keep them from frostbite.  Unfortunately, the rooster and one hen suffered some on their combs and wattles anyway.  Our winter has alternated between mild, up into the 50’s days and frigid windy weather.  Today is the later, the sky is clear and gorgeous and 22 f.

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The coop problem however, still exists.  Generally the rain comes from the west and the west side of the coop has two glass windows that can be raised opposite the perches and an overhang that helps shelter them from all but a horizontal driving rain.  The fence posts have been reanchored, but the fence is really inadequate and has no real gate.  I guess when the weather and budget allow, we will begin the fencing for our pastures and at that time, perhaps the orchard in which the coop sits and the garden on the edge of it, will be fenced as well and the chickens will be able to have a larger area to free range.  Right now, their free range must be supervised because of our dogs, the neighbor dogs and the coyotes.

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For now they have to enjoy the bugs that hide in the old hay in their run, the pumpkins and other treats that I offer and the supervised outdoor time they can be afforded when the weather permits supervision.

Life is good on our mountain farm.

The Thaw

The last couple of days have been, well, tough. A taste of long ago without central heating and water that fills our glass at the turn of a knob. We experienced sub zero temperatures two nights in a row like a good portion of the USA. With those temperatures, or lack thereof, we also had strong wind, thus serious wind chill and power loss. Last summer’s efforts by the power company to clear trees and branches from near the power lines has helped with the outages, but in the rural mountains, they are the inevitable. We buried our lines when we build, but that is rare here, except in new development in the nearby town.

We build our home with an efficient fireplace on the main level and a woodstove in the basement rec room and a good thing we did. The house is total electric, heated with a heat pump. The electricity started flickering early in the morning and failed right after I got my coffee made. Due to expense overrun during construction, the whole house generator was scrapped.  The other construction flaw is a utility room joining the main house and the garage. It is not real logs like the house, but log siding and unheated except for a wall installed space heater. We keep the door open to the house, so it stays warm without the space heater during normal winter temperatures. Our contractor, foolishly put the water pipes in a poorly insulated north wall instead of flipping the room and facing the pipes south to benefit from passive solar warming.  When the temperatures are expected to dip, I leave the laundry sink dripping, and I did, but the hot water line froze anyway and during the day with the power out, thus no water pump and no space heater, the cold water line froze too.

We spent the day hauling wood from the bin in the garage to keep the wood stove and fireplace going. Dashed into town for gallons of water and lunch and home to keep the fires blazing. The house holds heat well and we stayed comfortable until they restored our electricity in about 6 hours, but the pipes are still frozen.

It dropped to -3°f again last night, but is supposed to get above freezing today. There is a heat lamp on under the utility sink, the space heater is on high, probably causing the electric meter to spin off the wall. If it warms up some more, I need to go repair the chicken pen, the wind took down part of the fence. After one day of being literally cooped up, the girls went on strike and only layed 2 eggs and in the cold, I managed to drop and break one of them. This morning when I finally freed them, there were 5 and again I dropped one with my cold hands. They are glad to be out again, we are glad to see the warm sun and to watch the outdoor thermometer climb already well above yesterday’s high.

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Hopefully, the pipes will thaw without incident.