On Molting: Tips to Help You and Your Chickens Make It Through the Molt

It’s that time of year when chicken owners of older flocks are telling sad stories about how they aren’t getting any eggs because their hens are molting.

I am one of those people.

Most of my girls are going on four years old, are molting like crazy—and not laying eggs. We have 27 hens, 20 who are laying age, and, some days, we get 3 eggs. It’s enough to make this chicken mama cry.

Photo credit: Christina Siracusa, Unsplash

Before I got chickens, I didn’t even know that chickens molted. Many new chicken owners may not know that during the fall months, most chickens, who are over a year old, will molt. This means they lose many of their feathers and replace their feathers with fresh new ones.

Although a good hard molt can look both comical and sad and the same time, molting is actually a healthy and important part of a chicken’s life cycle. Your chickens get new, sturdy feathers just in time for winter. And the break they take from egg laying may be good for them as well.

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This is my majestic Poe coming out of a hard molt. She looks a little rough still. Thankfully, she has her tail back at this point. She looked so sad without her tail feathers!

But if you’re like me and love to eat and share farm fresh eggs, you may find yourself giving your girls pep talks at night when you close them up—and, eventually, those pep talks will turn into begging. “Girls, let’s please aim for just six eggs tomorrow. Six. You can do it!”

When the begging doesn’t work, take heart. You are not alone, and there are some things you can do to help make the molt a little easier on your hens and yourself.

1. Keep in mind that your hens will not lay during the molt, and this is perfectly normal. Their little bodies are too busy making feathers to lay eggs. Be prepared for fewer eggs for some time. The time it takes for a hen to molt will vary. Sources say it can take anywhere between 10 and 16 weeks. I have found that most of my girls take closer to the longer end of that range. Fun!

2. Your chickens will first lose their feathers and then grow new ones. When the new ones are coming in, these pin feathers can be uncomfortable to the touch for your chickens. If you are a chicken snuggler, it’s best to give your chickens a break from snuggling when those pin feathers are coming in. You may even find that your chickens are grumpier when their pin feathers are coming in. I know this has been the case with our chickens.

3. Do not put chicken sweaters on your chickens when they are molting. You may feel so worried about how cold they are, but you do not want to put pressure on the feathers when those pin feathers come in. Sweaters at this stage would be painful for your chickens.

4. If you have a hen who went broody, raised chicks, and molted, she will not do another molt in the fall.

5. Although you do not want to keep your chickens on feed that is too high in protein for too long, switching to a good quality, high protein feed during the molt can help with the feather regrowth. We choose not to do this and just opt for high-protein treats instead, as our chickens never seem to molt at the same times.

6. In terms of treats, think high protein. Meal worms are great, as are black oil sunflower seeds.

7. Some people add some light to their coops to during the short days of winter, which will impact molting and overall egg production. Some, however, argue against adding light and that the rest for your hens is best. If you do choose to add light, do it gradually and in the morning. You should set your lights on a timer and should add just 15 minutes of light per week. Just be sure that your chickens still get some dark and rest at night. We used to add light but do not anymore. You can read about our decision to stop adding light in my post from last year.

Ultimately, I have found that the molt seems harder on us than it is on our chickens. It’s a normal, healthy process for them, though those pin feathers do not look fun. But our chickens end up with new, strong feathers, which will help them through the cold winter.

The shortage of eggs, however, makes me sad every day. I’m way too spoiled! Thankfully, so far this year, I have been able to avoid the “walk of shame” when chicken keepers have to purchase eggs at the grocery store and stare sadly at the carton of eggs all the way to the check out.

But I’ve been there!

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This Berry Can Help You Survive Cold and Flu Season

It’s cold and flu season again, and we’re all particularly worried this year because the flu has been just terrible. I try to always get my flu shot, but I’ve read that the flu shot will only go so far this year. It will help with the symptoms, but it won’t fully protect us.

I usually spend a good portion of the late fall and winter months fairly sick. I seem to always go from one cold to another, fighting off one thing or the next. Usually, my immune system loses the battle about half the time, making for a long winter for me.

But, this year, I heard about a natural remedy. I generally try to listen to the universe as much as I can, and it seemed that, all of a sudden, people I knew were mentioning elderberry syrup as a way to boost your immune system and avoid being so sick every winter. I had two friends from different places mention it on social media, and, within a few days, one of my online students wrote that she had been sick because she “ran out of elderberry syrup.”

Elderberry Image

It was time for me to take action! But, of course, being the slow, studious person I am, action was really about doing my research.

Here’s what I found out:

  1. Elderberries have long been used as a helper plant for humans. Apparently, there’s evidence of use of elder plants from the Stone Age, and the Greeks even wrote about it.
  2. Elderberry syrup is reported to help with colds, flus, and other respiratory illnesses. The chemicals in the elderberries may help reduce swelling in our mucous membranes, making it easier for us to breath when we have nasal congestion.
  3. There’s some scientific evidence to support this. Separate studies have found that elderberry can reduce symptoms of the flu and even shorten the number of days of the flu.

This was enough to convince me to make my own elderberry syrup last fall, and I’m thankful. I’ve not been sick a single time this winter, and that feels like nothing short of a miracle to me. Of course, I’m knocking on wood as I write this, but it seems to be working.

I simply take a dose of elderberry syrup five days a week. Then, if I start to feel like I’m getting sick, I double the dose for a few days. If I’m feeling like I’m starting to come down with a cold or bug, I’ll usually start to feel a little better within hours of taking my dose.

I use this recipe from Wellness Mama. This recipe calls for dried elderberries, raw honey, ginger, and cinnamon—all ingredients with a wide variety of health benefits.

You can purchase dried elderberries right now if you’re like me and don’t have access to elderberries otherwise. But we’re definitely planting a couple of elderberry bushes this year! If you decide to plant your own elderberry bushes as well, be sure to research to get the right variety. The blue and black elderberries are full of health benefits, but the red species will make you sick.

I feel like universe gave me a little tip this winter to help me feel healthier and happier. I’m now passing it on. It seems like the only right thing to do.

*Please note that I am not a doctor; well, I have a PhD, but I’m not the kind that can give out medical advice. I’ve just researched and tried elderberries and think they are amazing!

On Oatmeal: Is It Good or Bad for Our Chickens?

Do you remember when all the nutritionists said that butter was bad for us and that the whipped margarine stuff was so much better? Well, I do. I ate that whipped crap for my entire childhood, only to learn as an adult that the nutritionists were wrong.

“Oops,” they said.

And this was neither the first nor the last time we would be led astray by the experts and nutritionists telling us that something humans had been eating for thousands of years was bad for us.

If you’ve read anything written by Michael Pollan, you know that you have to be very careful of nutritional fads and trends. It seems the wisest way to eat is to remember to look to our human culture and history and be careful of fads and trends.

Today, much to my surprise, I read in a blog post that oatmeal is bad for my chickens, even though I had read so many experts recommend it. I give my chickens oatmeal with blueberries as a special treat every couple of weeks in the winter, usually on the worst days, the days of the “deep freeze” here in Maine.

oatmeal

So I read with great intent to try to learn what I was doing wrong and why oatmeal was so harmful when so many people, including some multi-generational farmers, use it as snacks for their chickens.

After reading through the post that included testimony from a nutritionist from Purina, I felt much better about my decision to feed oatmeal with blueberries as a treat in the winter treat. I would never want to contradict anyone’s beliefs about chicken raising, as I have learned over the years that there is very little reliable research out there on chickens and that the experts disagree ALL THE TIME.

If you’re like me, this can leave you feeling a little lost, stuck, and confused. But I’ve been studying writing and rhetoric longer than I’ve studied chickens (I have a PhD in Rhetoric), and I do know a few things we should all be aware of when it comes to discerning reliability and credibility in the “chicken literature” that’s out there on the web.

Here are some tips for you to consider any time you’re reading articles, blog posts, and the like:

1. Be wary of people who use click-bait-like headlines or titles. As bloggers, we all have to try to write engaging headlines that get your attention. We want you to read our stuff. But, if you feel like a headline or title is sensationalistic, it should be a red flag.

2. Be careful of experts who have strong bias one way or another. Experts who are being paid by companies may be letting business bias them; in fact, history has taught us that this is most likely the case. We all have biases, but some are bigger and more obvious–and should give us pause.

3. Read carefully. Sometimes, writers will mislead readers with headlines and opening paragraphs but then address things more honestly quickly, kind of in the fine print. After reading the piece about oatmeal carefully (as well as the comments, including comments by the author) I realized that I don’t know a single chicken keeper who is using oatmeal for entire meals.

Everyone I know uses oatmeal as a treat, and that seems to be the best bet with anything and everything that is a treat. You have to give it in moderation. So how relevant is this expert information anyway? How many chicken farmers are actually using oatmeal as a big part of their chickens’ diets? Probably not many.

In the end, I like to go back to the basics of our culture. Humans domesticated chickens 8,000 years ago. They didn’t have layer pellets back then. My great grandmother kept chickens for decades, and her chickens ate scraps and free ranged. She didn’t buy feed in a bag.

Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy feed in a bag. I do it myself, but I’m skeptical of any company that tells me I don’t need to use anything but their products. That’s just a big worry to me.

So, when all the dust had settled today, and I read through more information, including tips from Lisa Steele at Fresh Eggs Daily, a fifth-generation chicken keeper here in Maine, as well as the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, I realized that I’m probably just fine using oatmeal as an occasional treat in the winter. The University of Maine site actually lists oatmeal as an acceptable treat.

Now, of course, no one is saying you want to run out and feed your chickens oatmeal for their meals every day. But as long as you’re maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet, treats are acceptable.

And, remember, everything in moderation, including “research” from “experts” who work for a company that will benefit from said “research.”

On the Best Chicken Stories of 2017

Chickens are awesome, and 2017 has been another good year for chickens. They are the pets who poop breakfast, and, each year, more and more people are keeping chickens on their farms and homesteads and in their backyards and homes.

Last year, I started a tradition for my blog for recounting the best chicken stories of the year. This year, I think we had more chicken stories in the news than ever before. The CDC salmonella warnings were back, but we also had the giant rooster who scared people.

If you’re in the mood for a little chicken reflecting, please check out my list of the best chicken stories for 2017. They will make you laugh, cry, and just feel good about chickens.

1. This city in Texas will PAY you to keep chickens!

That’s right. We learned this year that, if you live in Austin, Texas, the city will pay you to keep chickens and provide you with free chicken-keeping classes. You can read more about the city’s plan for chicken keepers here, but the city started the program, which includes the classes and a rebate for your coop, in order to cut back on waste in the city. The city wanted to encourage chicken keeping because chickens can keep food waste out of landfills and provide residents with nutritious eggs. I think that’s a win-win-win.

2. Giant chickens can be scary to some people.

Earlier this year, this video of a giant Brahma rooster made its way around the web, and CNN even ran this piece on it, citing some people’s fear of the giant chicken. But chicken people weren’t worried because we know Brahma’s are super friendly chickens. You can check out my blog piece on the story here.

 

3. A black chicken breed went viral, and we learned that a lot of people really like “goth” chickens.

If you’ve never heard of the Ayam Cemani, check out my post here. These chickens are just fantastic and are black inside and out. But they lay white eggs, which is really cool. It was also really cool to me that a video of these chickens went viral in 2017. People love chickens!

4. And, speaking of viral, a commercial calling bullsh*t on caged free eggs went viral and, hopefully, raised a lot of awareness.

If you didn’t see the commercial from Vital Farms, you have to check it out. I think this is one of the best commercials I’ve ever seen. It’s hilarious, but more importantly, it sends an important message to consumer. “Cage free” doesn’t mean what most people think it does. I’m thankful this commercial went viral.

5. And, of course, as seems to be the case every year, the CDC warned us about salmonella and told us to stop kissing our chickens.

This story made my list last year, but, apparently, we didn’t stop kissing our chickens because it made the national news again in 2017. I don’t mean to make light of the issue though; no matter where you stand in the CDC warnings, I think we can all agree that we need to practice safe handling when we raise our chickens. You can read about my take on the CDC warnings here.

6. But rounding out my 2017 list on an inspirational note, my last story is about the farmer who took his chicken on a trip of a lifetime.

I think we’ve all had that chicken who just really wants to fly. I know we have one, and Poe is my favorite bird. She just really wants to spread her wings and fly. Maybe that’s why this last big chicken story from 2017 really touched my heart. A farmer in Europe took his chicken on an airplane trip. The video is from 2016, but it didn’t make the rounds in the media until this year. I think you’ll really enjoy this video.

Happy 2018, everyone! May you spread your wings and fly and have a beautiful new year!

On Chickens and Salmonella: Are the CDC Warnings Real or Hype?

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Even if you’re not a chicken person, you’ve probably heard about the rise in salmonella outbreaks in the United States in the last few years. This rise in the number of salmonella cases directly corresponds with the rise in the number of people keeping chickens. But every time this issue comes up–and it does keep coming up–many backyard chicken owners dismiss the CDC reports as conspiracy.

I’ve written about the rise in salmonella cases myself and wondered about my own chicken-keeping practices. When I first wrote that I would have to stop kissing my chickens and shared my post in chicken communities, some readers were downright angry with me. “It’s all a conspiracy” was the gist of the comments.

I have to admit that it’s hard to know what’s real and true about anything these days, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about chickens. I can spend weeks researching something about my chickens, only to get conflicting answers from all the experts I can find. Plus, I totally understand the urge to have at least a little mistrust of government agencies who have very strong ties to agribusiness.

But I don’t think that’s the end of this story.

In the middle of all of those posts in the chicken forums about how all of this salmonella talk is just a lot of hype, I also read a few stories from chicken owners who had contracted salmonella from their chickens. It’s not fun. The women telling their stories were very, very sick.

But where does that leave us?

I always find myself somewhere in the middle on most issues and this one seems to be no different–and this is after researching this issue quite a bit for about a year. In 2016, I first read about the CDC report linking the rise in salmonella cases to the rise in backyard chicken keeping. Since then, as more people continue to get backyard flocks, the issue comes up again and again.

Most recently, NBC news reported on the rise in salmonella in the U.S. According to the numbers, the cases of salmonella continue to rise, and in 2017, we’ve already had more cases than we had in 2016 total. We’ve had 961 reported cases so far in 2017. But these numbers do seem kind of low to me considering how many people in the U.S. keep chickens. I can’t find any definite numbers on the number of people who keep chickens, but it must be hundreds and hundreds of thousands. One chicken forum on Facebook alone has about 100,000 members.

Still, I can’t help but think it would be terrible to get sick from my chickens, and for the people who have gotten sick, I’m sure it is terrible.

This summer, we had to keep a baby chicken in the house for two weeks to keep it alive, and while I wouldn’t change a thing and am so glad I did it for that little sweetheart, I understand that I was taking a risk. For those two weeks that my baby chick, Buttermilk, was in the house, I was worried and super careful. Was I careful enough? Well, I didn’t get sick. Did I just get lucky? Maybe.

But I think the thing we can all agree on, whether we think all of the salmonella reporting is just a bunch of hype or a serious issue to be addressed, is that some good common sense when it comes to keeping chickens is always a good idea. Here are some key takeaways from both the reports and from people who have kept chickens for years:

1. Just wash your hands.

Really, anytime you’ve had contact with your chickens, it’s good to wash up. It’s a good habit to get into, though it can be tough to get kids into this habit. I know our little boy often forgets. I can see why young children have the highest risk of contracting salmonella.

2. Use different shoes for visiting your chickens.

This is something we really have to work on in our house. Thankfully, we don’t have babies crawling around on the floor anymore, but, if we did, this would be a bigger issue for us. We really should wear different shoes out to visit the chickens.

3. Be aware that keeping chickens in your house is going to make things tougher.

Of course, the CDC says to never keep a chicken in your house, but people do it. Plus, even though I’m not a house chicken kind of chicken lady, I ended up having to keep a chicken in our house because the baby was sick and needed care. But it’s a risk. I think we have to know that.

4. Finally, don’t kiss your chickens–if you can help it.

I always forget about this one, and I realize that I’m never going to stop snuggling my chickens as the CDC recommends. But, if I forget and kiss a chicken, I clean up. And, after I snuggle a chicken, I never wear those same clothes to cook meals in.

I honestly think it’s ridiculous to expect people not to snuggle their chickens, but I also think that maybe there are some good points behind all the hype. I’m going to try to be more careful, just in case.

But I’ve also had a chicken give me a hug, so I’m always going to keep chickens.

On Goth Chickens: Meet the Ayam Cemani

Since we started keeping chickens a few years ago, I’ve learned about some amazing varieties of birds. While I find myself partial to breeds of chickens I perceive as “traditional,” like the Rhode Island Red and the Welsummer, the more I learn about some cool and unusual breeds of chickens, the more I want some. Take, for example, the giant Brahma I wrote about earlier this year. They are magnificent birds with large bodies and sweet dispositions. How can you not want one of those?

But one of the most interesting breeds of chickens I’ve ever seen is the Ayam Cemani. This breed of chicken from Indonesia is black inside and out. And I’m not talking about just a little bit black. It’s feathers, comb, feet, meat, bones, and organs are all black!

That’s a goth chicken if I’ve ever seen one!

Goth Chicken
Photo credit” Greenfire Farms

The only things that aren’t black are its blood, which, according to some people, is also darker or blackish, and its eggs, which are white. How awesome is that?

So where in the world did this all-black chicken come from?

This goth chicken originates from the island of Java in Indonesia. It gets its rare coloration from a genetic mutation that is dominant, so it keeps coming up when the chickens breed. This chicken is so rare and special that it can be considered sacred and mystical by some, and eating its black meat is thought by some to bring good fortune or good health. It was first brought to Europe in 1998.

The birds are supposed to be sweet, docile birds and since they look so cool, there’s a high demand for them. Purchasing just one that is pure black, inside and out, can apparently run you hundreds of dollars. There’s even a waiting list with some breeders that you have to pay to get on! Of course, there are variations, and you can get some that are just mostly black for cheaper.

But even though they lay white eggs, which is just a fantastic contrast, they only lay about 80 eggs per year. So I don’t think our little chicken farm can afford an expensive chicken who isn’t going to lay an whole awful lot.

Still, I have to admit that it would be really cool to have one, OK, two. I mean, think of the babies! And I’ve read that more people are starting to raise them, so they’re coming down in price.

What do you think? Are these chickens cool or what?

O Christmas Tree: On the Christmas Tree That Saved My Christmas Spirit

I’ve been having a tough Christmas season. I’m generally this perpetually hopeful person, and I’m also generally happy. I have a good life in so many ways, and I’m thankful. But I’ve had the Christmas blues of sorts this year. You could say I’ve been downright Grinchy.

We’ve had some tough months financially, and due to the instability in the health insurance market, our health insurance just went up so much that it’s going to cost us more than our mortgage. We’ll be able to swing it, but just barely. And, as frugal as we’ve learned to be, we’re going to have to learn to be even more frugal.

And that frugality is starting with Christmas, only I didn’t realize how much a “good” Christmas meant to me. I’m the first person to get on board and say that most of us need to simplify Christmas more. It’s way too commercial, and we have to be reasonable.

Last year, our family took a big step toward simplifying Christmas by following the “something you want, something you need, something to share, and something to read” guideline. Each person gets one present for each category. I loved it. It made Christmas so special to me last year. It was smaller and just right for us.

But, this Christmas, due to some unexpected vet bills and having to pay our first health insurance payment, we ran out of funds before we could finish our “something you want, something you need” plans for everyone, and this left me feeling grim.

I felt so grim that I was feeling like a failure as a mom. I was worried that I couldn’t make Christmas “good” for my family. I cried a lot and just felt so defeated. Then, one night I realized: who in the hell is deciding what a “good” Christmas looks like?

I realized I have these incredibly romantic notions about Christmas that revolve around my capitalistic outlook (As much as I try to fight it, it lurks in me down deep.) about what Christmas is “supposed” to be like.

But this realization didn’t help my mood much. I think realizing how deeply brainwashed by capitalism I truly am just made things a little more grim.

When my husband asked me about hanging the homemade Christmas light decorations I made last year, I told him that I didn’t want to hang them. They would make our electric bill go up, and I could maybe sell them instead.

Yes, that’s how Grinchy I was.

I realized that I didn’t like myself like this. I like my hopeful self better. I also realized we really needed a Christmas tree. I used to be the kind of person who put the Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving if I could. I figured it wasn’t “legal” before that. I loved Christmas trees a lot.

Now, it was December 16, and we still didn’t have our tree up. I realized I couldn’t let my Grinchy self ruin Christmas for our youngest, so my husband and I started talking about getting a Christmas tree. I hoped a tree could lift my own spirits, and it would certainly be good for our son.

Normally, we try to support local tree farmers here in Maine and buy a fresh tree. But this year, money was so tight that we couldn’t quite swing the $40 plus tip that we usually spend on a tree. We live in the Maine woods, so my husband said he could just chop one down.

We went back and forth on this. Both of us just read The Hidden Life of Trees and have fallen even more in love with trees than we were before. But my husband said he thought he saw a tree that was in a bad spot under a bigger tree and probably didn’t have a good chance long term.

“It’s a Charlie Brown tree, though,” he said.

“I don’t care. We need a tree, and we can totally make a Charlie Brown tree great,” I said.

I was being really positive, and, somehow, I didn’t mind having a Charlie Brown tree. I thought it would be cool to just have a tree from our woods. It may be a humble tree, but it would be free, and that was good.

So, when we could procrastinate this decision no more, my husband went out to cut down the tree. He went out in the early afternoon and was gone quite a while, much longer than I thought he would be. When he came back inside the house, I learned why.

When he went to cut the tree he had considered before, he realized it maybe had a chance to make it, so he couldn’t cut it down. As he searched our little property, he said he couldn’t find a single tree that he thought didn’t have a chance, and he didn’t have the heart to cut down a tree that had a chance. He kept going from tree to tree, unable to cut and with a nag to keep looking for something.

And then he saw it–a big fir tree that had come down last month in a bad wind storm. The top would be perfect, he thought, but he was worried it had been down too long. Would it take the water? Could it make it until Christmas?

Gus and Christmas Tree
The tree was so beautiful it almost didn’t need to be decorated!

The tree my husband brought to our house is absolutely the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect in every way possible.

It’s tall and thin but so full. It’s magnificent and humble at the same time. And it still has tiny pine cones and the beginning of pine cones and lots of sap. It drank the water, seemingly just because we wanted it too so badly, and I felt my whole outlook change.

Not only is it a beautiful tree, my husband didn’t have to cut down a tree, and it didn’t cost us $40, which means $40 for groceries. And the tree had already passed, so we were making the most good use of Nature we could. (This is always our goal, though we don’t always succeed as much as we would like.)

And, then, there was this point, and this point made this tree the most beautiful tree in the world to me:

This magnificent tree’s time had passed. But we could honor it in our home and put beautiful lights and the ornaments we treasure on it. We get to celebrate a beautiful gift from Nature.

Christmas Tree with Lights
This humble tree with lights and ornaments was just what I needed to lift my spirits and remind me of the beauty and magic of Christmas.

And thinking about this brings back my Christmas spirit.

I’ve been so worried about what’s going on in the world. But I have to admit to myself that, right now, even though some of these things are really impacting me and my family, I can’t do anymore about them than I’m already doing.

My husband and I will continue to work hard, grow more of our own food, and keep working on our frugality. And I just have this warm, safe, good sense that, if we do that, Nature will provide.

That’s a good feeling to have this Christmas.

 

10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Got My Chickens

I did my very best research before we became chicken owners. I had wanted chickens for years, so I had plenty of time to read books and research online. Mostly, all the information out there is the same, and some of it’s really good.

But there are so many things I wish I had known going in. I wouldn’t change a thing about being a chicken mama, of course. Getting chickens has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and they give me hope for our family during tough times.

Still, I think there’s a lot of information that seasoned chicken farmers forget to tell us when we’re just starting out. Even after just 3 years with our chickens, I’m already thinking of things I’ve learned and then forgetting to tell others about them.

But, for the end of 2017 and the end of my third year as a chicken mama, I wanted to put together a list of lessons I’ve learned—some of them hard lessons. My hope is that it can help others who are considering chickens or who have recently become chicken farmers.

  1. Getting chickens that are awesome layers can come with some costs.

When you’re researching breeds, sources often do not tell how you much variation there can be within a breed. And, if you’re like me, when you’re researching a chicken breed for egg-laying potential, you are really just thinking about egg laying potential. While some people do keep chickens just as pets, most people who raise chickens are also in it for the eggs. They’re extremely nutritious, and chickens are very generous to us.

However, what I didn’t know is that chicken breeds that have been bred to be extreme layers also sometimes come with health problems associated with being a layer who can lay at commercial levels. Even within a breed, such as Rhode Island Reds, the hens we started with, there can be great variation. I wish I would have looked for a heritage version of the RIR. Our girls have laid like commercial layers, and they’ve struggled with some genetic issues as a result.

  1. It may be better not to add light and extend the day for your hens during the winter.

If you live in a northern climate like I do, one way to keep your hens from really slowing down on the egg laying in the winter is to add light to the coop in the mornings to help extend the day and the daylight. It takes about 14 hours of light to make an egg, we started out adding a little light to our coop each winter to extend the day and keep our girls from taking a break.

After three years, much research, and making connections to some farmers who are a little more “old school,” we decided not to light the coop this winter. The rest can be really good for them.

Of course, for families who can’t afford to be without the food or income from the eggs, lighting the coop may be essential. But if it’s not essential for you, I would recommend letting them rest. Others will disagree, and I honestly don’t care. I’m a careful study of my birds, and I believe letting the girls take a break if you can is a good thing.

  1. Chickens hide their health problems.

Chickens are very easy to care for—until they’re not. And the issues come from the fact that chickens will hide their health problems. They don’t want to get picked off by a predator, so they’re extremely stoic. This can make it difficult to diagnose health issues in your chickens.

  1. Winters can be tough on your flock, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

If you live in the north, all you have to do is get breeds that do well in the winter. You don’t have to heat the coop, and you don’t have to keep them cooped up and never let them outside. In fact, never going outside is what makes winter so difficult for your chickens. They’ll start to go stir crazy. I’ve seen this on blizzard-like days here in Maine. When the girls can’t go out, it’s hard on them mentally. So we shovel the snow and get the outside as soon as we can.

If your chickens don’t like walking on the snow, put down leaves for them to walk on and scratch around in.

Key problems in winter are ventilation issues, coop fires, and chickens hurting each other from being literally “cooped up.” I know there’s an urge to “baby” our chickens. I feel the same way, but I’ve seen what works best for our girls. They have tough feet and thick feathers. According to my research, most chickens can handle temperatures down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

  1. Predators are going to stress you out.

Predators are an issue, and they come from overhead and on the ground. Neighborhood dogs are also a serious issue for many backyard flocks. Keep your chickens in a fence with plenty of space to run around if you can.

  1. Chickens are wicked smart and very social.

I figured chickens were smart, but I had no idea how smart. They are social, interactive, have friends, and have chickens they don’t like. They solve problems and know people. If you’ve never had chickens and are thinking of getting some, you’re going to be highly impressed—and highly entertained. They’re also downright funny.

  1. No matter how many chickens you start with, you will want more.

This is just a reality. Start preparing for it. We really need a second coop.

  1. It’s difficult to research care for chickens because even the “experts” disagree.

I’ve seen people have knock-down drag-out fights on chicken forums over the best ways to care for chickens. Even the “experts” will disagree quite a lot to the point of having completely opposite opinions. It’s also tough to find research on the web about chickens because so much of the research focuses on chickens as a part of the food industry. Find someone you can trust who’s been raising chickens for a long time. It’s my best advice.

  1. Genetics are important, so hatchery chickens you order online can be risky.

I’ll never order online from a big hatchery again, though I know this is how a lot of people get started. It’s how we got started, but I quickly saw genetic issues coming up. I’ve learned that it’s best to buy your chickens locally from someone who has a good reputation for breeding for the healthiest birds. The best way to do this, if you’re new and don’t know any chicken breeders, is to join online chicken groups on Facebook in your state or area.

  1. You’ll fall in love with your chickens in ways you can’t imagine and will learn so much about animals and nature that it may change you as a human.

I knew I wanted chickens, but I had no idea how much I was going to love them and how much I was going to learn from them. Being close to my chickens has made me a better person. I’m kinder and more open minded. I’m thankful to them for the food—and the wisdom.

Lucy and Poe Baby Day 1
This is Lucy and her first baby. Watching Lucy raise babies this summer taught me so much about chickens and about myself as a mom.

 

Final Thoughts

I know I have so much more to learn, but I’m making progress. I hope you find this advice helpful to you or someone you know. Others will disagree and that’s okay. See number 8. But I hope my list will at least help start a conversation.

What do you wish you had known before you became a chicken person?

On That Giant Chicken: He’s Real and He’s a Brahma

Because I’m the chicken lady among all of my Facebook friends, any time there’s a chicken story in the news or going viral, it’s shared on my Facebook wall, usually many times. The first time I saw the video of that giant chicken last year, my first thought was “Oh, I want one.”

Apparently, this is not how many people feel about that giant chicken.

My friends were asking “What IS it?” And others on social media have been terrified that such a big chicken exists in the world. Then, I saw a headline stating that this big chicken was terrifying. I had no idea people could be so scared of a chicken, even a giant chicken like that.

But it turns out people sometimes have a lot of trauma related to chickens. I have to admit, when I was little, my great grandmother had chickens, and the first time she had me help her get eggs, her girls pecked me pretty good. A few weeks later, I came down with chicken pox, so, in my mind, my grandma’s chickens definitely gave me chicken pox. This made me a little scared of chickens.

And chickens are, after all, the closest living relatives to the Tyrannosaurs Rex, and, sometimes, I’m reminded of that. When my girls are going after some corn on the cob I’m sharing, I’m reminded that I never want to pass out in the chicken coop.

Still, people shouldn’t worry about this giant chicken who makes his rounds on the internet from time to time. I can tell by the way this rooster in the video walks that he’s a pretty laid back boy. And that’s the thing. The chicken in the video is a Brahma, and Brahma’s are really cool chickens.

Here’s a little background on the Brahma to help those who are worried about that bird sleep a little better at night:

  • People think the breed originated in the United States from chickens in China in the middle of the 1800s. It was originally a meat bird, so the breed was continually bred for size. That’s how you get such a big bird.
  • Brahmas are great layers, and they lay very large brown eggs.
  • And here’s the most important information: Brahmas are known for having a calm temperament. They are known for being gentle giants.

I’m sure chicken people can tell by the way that big boy in the video walks that he’s a pretty calm bird. He’s large, beautiful, and not out to hurt anyone.

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Creative Commons image

There are some other really large breeds of chickens. The Jersey Giant can be even larger than the Brahma, so let’s just let that set in. But Jersey Giants are also known for being really sweet chickens.

It seems important to remember that breeders of chickens over the last few hundred years were, of course, being practical when they bred chickens. The big ones needed to be sweet. You don’t want a giant angry bird attacking you every time you have to collect eggs. It’s just not practical.

So don’t worry about that giant chicken you’ve seen on the web. He’s probably a real sweetheart, and writing this post reminds me: I so want one!

On Keeping It Simple This Christmas: The Benefits of “Something You Want and Something You Need”

I hate to admit it, but I’ve been having a really hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. We found out my oldest son, who just moved out and got his own place this fall, is being laid off on Christmas Eve. Our country’s government is a hot mess. And everything just seems so darn expensive. Things surely add up on you quickly when a bottle of vanilla costs $30, and you’re looking at $1200 a month for health care starting in January.

I sound pretty Grinchy, right?

Thankfully, I’m doing better this week as I’ve started to see my simple Christmas lists come to life, and I’m reminded of how wonderful our family’s Christmas was last year. It was the first year we just kept it simple, and it was lovely.

For years, I’ve been trying to learn to live more frugally (it really is a process), but I’ve seen the most progress in myself in the last year. I no longer have any urge at all toward “retail therapy,” not even at Christmas, and I’ve seen first hand how much happiness Christmas can bring when we keep it simple and keep it on a budget.

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Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

I want to find balance, and even though I’m starting the Christmas season a little bit Grinchy, I’m finding some peace and hope in our Christmas tradition we began last year.

A few years ago, I read about a plan to keep Christmas simple and still make it special. I read a blog post about a family who kept a plan to give each person four gifts and four gifts only—something you want, something you need, something to share, and something to read.

I loved this idea and thought that we should try it last year, especially since we’re learning to be more frugal. But, honestly, the best thing about this plan was how special it made Christmas.

Last year, I made a little grid for our family of four and just stuck to it. The coolest thing was how hard I planned and researched and thought and budgeted to end up with some really special Christmas presents.

I ended up finding one Christmas treasure for my husband’s “something to share” that was probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever given him. It was a small and, therefore, relatively affordable speaker from Bose, and it has brought music into our home now every day since last year. And we just listen to Tom Petty all the time now, which makes all of us happier.

So, this year, we’re doing it again. I have my little grid, and my favorite category is the “something to share.” It’s the best trying to figure out some fun gift that will be special to the recipient but will benefit all of us as well. For my husband, I’ve been tracking down every CD Tom Petty released in his 40 year career that my husband didn’t already own. To keep it frugal, I found most of them used and hit the jackpot at Bull Moose Music. Thank you, Bull Moose!

Even though I’ve been struggling with my Christmas spirit, I’m feeling more “Christmas-y” every day. Even though we’re not a religious family, I do believe in keeping Christmas special. Yet I totally understand how people can get Grinchy at Christmas. I mean, it’s a terribly commercialized holiday.

But, as I’ve written before, life can be a grind. It feels good to take a break from it and celebrate. I mean, that’s what holidays are for, right? Humans have been doing this a long time. We need a holiday break from the grind, and I believe holidays are necessary to overall happiness—whatever holiday we celebrate and however we celebrate it.

And I’ve learned in the last few years that I don’t want to be in debt for Christmas. I don’t want to stress. I don’t want to feel panic about how much Christmas is costing us. Last year, our “something you want, something you need” plan worked out well. Christmas was paid for at Christmas, and we had a blast. I highly recommend it!

What about you? Have you tired the “something you want, something you need” plan for Christmas? What other traditions do you and your family honor to keep Christmas simple but special?