On Preparing to Get Your First Backyard Chickens

Chickens are awesome. They just are.

And, as more people begin to figure this out, the word is spreading. I know many people who are considering backyard homesteading and want to start with chickens, and with good reason. Chickens are great producers of food, highly efficient, relatively easy to care for, sweet, interesting, smart, funny, and quirky. They’re a good homesteading animal to start with.

I dreamed of having our own chickens for years before we finally had a place where we could give them a nice coop, plenty of space, and would have the time to care for them. And, when we did get our chickens, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with them.

guiniveve

This is Guiniveve, and she has more personality than I thought a chicken could have. She’s also a great layer and just a sweet hen.

We started with 17 Rhode Island Reds, and I loved those girls from the start. They were my babies, and they changed my life. But I won’t go on and on here about how much I love my chickens or how much they have taught me; I want to focus this post on helping you answer this question:

What happens when you finally decide you can get those backyard chickens you’ve been thinking about?

I learned fairly quickly that, while chickens really are relatively easy to take care of, there’s a lot than can go wrong. So you have to be prepared going in. Preparedness is going to be especially helpful if you find that you love the little girls like I do and can’t bear the thought of losing one.

And, I’m just going to assume right now, if you get chickens, you will love them and want to learn as much as you can about them because, well, you’re probably just going to love them.

With that in mind, here’s a list of 5 tips I have for being prepared to get chickens for your backyard homestead.

Do some research about keeping chickens with good books and sites.

I’m a slow mover, so I read books and sites for about two years before we finally got our girls, but I think that’s probably a little overboard. Still, I recommend going to this site, Fresh Eggs Daily, and reading every single link on caring for chickens. The site is awesome, and Lisa Steele really knows her stuff. Her advice has saved more than one of my girls, and I am forever thankful! You can also order some helpful books here.

You should also check out these helpful resources from your local university extension office. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension office here in Maine provides a number of helpful publications on chickens as well as a number of web resources on everything from selling eggs to chicken nutrition.

Give them a home safe from predators.

Thanks to our neighbors who already had chickens, I learned about the high number of predators in our area. While it helped that my husband had grown up with chickens, I think having an awareness of the types of predators in our area also helped us make good decisions about the chicken coop.

We decided to keep it as close to the house as possible. This makes daily chicken chores easier, but it also adds protection. I have seen coops out near the woods, and those people tend to lose a lot of chickens.

Keep your coop close if you can, and having dogs around seems to help a lot. Make sure your coop is sturdy and can be closed up at night. There are just too many predators that can get at your chickens at night.

We also have two roosters, and they really do seem to help guard the flock. There are pros and cons to roosters, though, and one of them is the crowing. I like the crowing, but you should check to see if roosters are allowed in your area. Some towns will allow hens but not roosters.

Consider breed and number.

You want to consider climate, temperament, your space, and your goals as a chicken farmer when you’re choosing your choosing breed and making decisions on how many chickens you’ll get. We wanted a smart breed that was winter hardy and great layers, so we chose Rhode Island Reds for our first hens. They have been wonderful! But there are other breeds that work very well in Maine.

Here’s a link from The Livestock Conservancy that will let you download a chicken breed comparison chart. But you should also ask around; ask friends and neighbors for their experiences and recommendations.

Be aware you will have chores.

So, yeah, chickens are easy farm animals to care for, but they’re still work. As you do your research, you’ll find this out, which is why that research is so important. Chickens need fresh water every day and clean food and clean facilities. This means you will have some daily chores, which can feel a little tougher in the winter. We also shovel a run for our chickens in the winter, so it adds to my husband’s snow shoveling duties.

You’ll also need to do health inspections on your chickens to make sure all is well. But I’ve found that, if you spoil your chickens, the health inspections are easier. They don’t run too much when you try to catch them and don’t make too much of a fuss as you are investigating vents, legs, eyes, feathers, etc.

Get connected to chicken communities.

I’ve found that being connected to some excellent chicken communities has been so helpful. If I’m having a health issue with a chicken that I just can’t figure out or I’m just worried about, I can post a picture and description to the Maine Poultry Connection, a Facebook group, and get tons of help and advice. I’ve also learned so much by just following the threads and reading. There are MANY chicken communities online, and you’re likely to be able to find a community particular to your state on Facebook.

There’s a lot to consider, but I found that, once you’ve done your research and done your best to be prepared, don’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that we’ve learned along the way and things I couldn’t have been prepared for, like the time I was running around the yard trying to shoo away a hawk or the way my girls stole my heart.

Once you’ve made your decision and are ready to purchase, I recommend purchasing local if you can, but you can purchase from national hatcheries. Just be aware that some post offices seem to be more prepared for handling boxes of live chickens than others. Ours is great, but I’ve heard stories about boxes of chickens arriving without many survivors. So local purchases are really a good way to go if you can.

I wish you the best with your backyard flock, and I hope they bring you as much joy and breakfasts as our girls have brought our family!

On the Year of the Rooster

Chinese New Year is coming, and it’s the year of the rooster! This is going to mean a lot to my fellow chicken friends.

rooster
Photo credit: Paulo Morales, Unsplash

I would love to sit here and pretend I’m this cultured person who has traveled the world and fully appreciates all the beautiful cultures our big world has to offer, but the truth is that this is just what I aspire to be. So I, shameful as it is to admit, originally grew excited about the Chinese New Year because it’s the year of the rooster—and, well, if you’ve read my blog before, you know I love all things chicken.

Now, I really was always pretty interested in the Chinese New Year anyway. As I said, I aspire to be more cultured and learn more about the world, but I never took the time to dig into the history behind this lovely holiday. Then, when I saw it was the year of the rooster, I was super excited about the holiday. Shallow, I know.

But somewhere along the lines, in my daily self analysis, I realized I should research the holiday and use this opportunity to teach my son and myself a little about Chinese culture.

Before I developed this plan to learn more, my knowledge of the Chinese New Year was limited to having some fascination with Chinese astrology and finding out that I was born in the year of the rabbit. According to what I’ve read, this means I am cautious, patient, quiet, kind of a worrier, and also stubborn and melancholy. I’m like, yeah, that about sums it up. I like this stuff!

But I never really investigated the history of the holiday—until the rooster.

And what I learned with my son has us both excited to learn so much more about this holiday.

  • The Chinese New Year celebration is thousands of years old. It’s so old, there is some debate, apparently, about when it started. It’s the most important festival in Chinese culture.
  • The myth behind the holiday is that, long ago, a monster named Nian (which also means year) would come on the first day of the year and eat the crops and the livestock. But the people learned that Nian was afraid of red and loud noises, so people started decorating their homes in red and using fireworks to keep Nian away. Since the Chinese invented fireworks, this makes sense.
  • The celebration lasts 15 days, and people celebrate with fireworks, costumes, parades, and people give gifts of money in red envelopes. We learned that the money gifts should be in even numbers, and it’s considered rude to open your red envelope in front of the giver.

Of course, this is just a bit about the holiday, and it’s a fascinating event. Thankfully, here in Bangor, we’re going to be able to expand our learning about Chinese New Year this weekend. There’s a Chinese New Year parade at our local mall, and I encourage you to check in your area, as, chances are, there’s something fun and educational going on.

I have a lot more to learn, but I’m going to keep at it. My curiosity has been sparked, and my son’s has been as well. We’re headed to the library to pick up some books, and in addition to attending our local parade, we’ll be having Chinese food on Saturday.

You can read more about the history of this holiday here, and you can learn about your Chinese astrology sign here. It’s fascinating!

Also, I’ll confess, I will be taking advantage of this opportunity to get some rooster gear. I already found some flour sack dish towels with red roosters on them. My frugality goals went out the door, but I’m giving myself a pass. I mean, really…

It’s the year of the rooster!

On Becoming a Maker in 2017

I’ve always been the kind of person who is hesitant about making New Year’s resolutions, but I made a couple last year that I mostly stuck to. This has me thinking I might try this again. Last year, I resolved to simplify my life and to eat more plants. Although I still have progress to be made in both areas, as we begin a new year, I realize I am doing better in terms of living simply and eating more plants.

With this in mind, I am trying this whole New Year’s resolution thing again.

For 2017, my big goal is to become more of a Maker. You may be wondering what it means to become a Maker, and it’s a pretty broad term. Essentially, just making some of the things you need instead of being a consumer makes you a Maker. But there are, of course, varying degrees of Maker-ness.

I have been working on this for some time, but a few goals have eluded me. I am hoping 2017 will be my year.

Here’s some of the progress I have made so far:

  • I learned to crochet scarves, and we really use them.
  • I cut everyone’s hair in our family, and I am not trained in this endeavor. I just watched, learned, and bought some really nice German scissors.
  • We raise chickens for eggs, and my husband raises some chickens for meat.
  • I make home-cooked meals for almost every meal. This has saved us a ton of money and had made us healthier.
  • My husband is relentless about repairing instead of replacing.

And these are my Maker goals for 2017:

  • Learn how to knit. I want to make socks and hats!
  • Re-learn how to can jams and jellies. About 15 years ago, I was taught how and did it a little, but I think I’m just going to have to re-learn this year.
  • Plant apple trees.

And, because I love infographics, I made one to emphasize some of the many benefits of becoming a Maker and trying to leave those consumer ways behind. I also have a few fun suggestions, but I would love to hear more.

be-a-maker_686_b990a3dff5be69339ffce636ab702430c22bf217

Do you have any Maker resolutions for 2017?

On the Best Chicken Stories from 2016

It seems 2016 was a big year for chickens. From chicken shaming to chicken sweaters, chickens have been in our hearts and on our minds in 2016. People all over the country are getting chickens for their farms, their backyards, and their homes. Chickens are the pets that poop breakfast, and we love them.

cute-chickens

We learned a lot of important chicken lessons in 2016. We learned from the CDC that we are not supposed to kiss our chickens. We learned about adorable chicken sweaters and then learned they weren’t a good idea. We learned a little bit more about just how intelligent these amazing little creatures are and that eggs are actually quite good for you.

As 2016 comes to an end, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the sweetest and most important chicken stories of the year.

1. We love our chickens a little too much and need to quit kissing them.

Because homestead, backyard, and even house chickens have become so popular, we learned this year from the CDC that salmonella cases are on the rise. This story from NPR summarizes the findings and tells us that we do need to stop kissing our chickens.

When I first read about the CDC report, I thought “I love my chickens, but I’ve never kissed them.” But, after thinking on it a bit, I remembered kissing a baby chick or two. I felt compelled to write a response in “On Kissing Chickens” and have given up my baby-chicken-kissing ways.

2. Chickens like to travel, too.

Without a doubt, the sweetest chicken story to come out of 2016 is the one about Monique, the seafaring chicken, who has travelled the world. In this story from the BBC, we learned about Monique and her travels with her owner, Guirec, from France. Monique provides breakfast and friendship, and in return, she gets to see the world. The video that accompanies this story is just the best, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out. Monique’s story has to be the feel-good chicken story of the year!

3. Chicken sweaters are adorable—but not such a great idea.

I don’t know how many times I was tagged in a Facebook post with pictures of chicken sweaters, and I have to admit that I wished I knew how to knit some little sweaters for my chicky girls. But it turns out that chicken sweaters are not so good for the chickens. Chickens don’t need sweaters. They do have feathers. And, apparently, putting your chickens in sweaters can do more harm than good.

So, even though those chickens in sweaters are cute beyond all reason, it’s best to resist. Chickens need to be able to preen themselves, and here’s a great post from Housewife Plus explaining both the trend and the reasons to resist.

As is often the case, Nature knows best.

4. Chicken shaming is a thing.

As chickens become more a part of our lives, we are learning just how much fun they are, and not to be outdone by dog and cat shaming, chicken shaming became a thing in 2016 as well. If you’re a chicken lover, chances are you’ve seen the chicken-shaming posts. There’s even an entire Facebook group devoted to chicken shaming. But it’s not so easy to get your chickens to pose for a shaming photo shoot, and I learned that the hard way in my own post on chicken shaming.

5. Chickens are wicked smart and full of personality.

Anyone who has kept chickens has known this one for a long time, but chicken intelligence got some great press this year. New research keeps adding to what we know about just how smart these chickens are. This piece from Modern Farmer, “The Inner Lives of Chickens” is a perfect example. It’s good for the world to know just how intelligent and interesting these birds are.

6. Eggs are really good for you.

And, while we really don’t need more reasons to keep chickens, new research was published this year emphasizing that eggs really are good for us. It used to be that we thought eggs were bad for us because of the cholesterol, but it turns out that eggs weren’t so bad after all. In fact, there’s a lot of nutrition packed into an egg. This piece from Time sheds some light on the egg debate. Fresh Eggs Daily also provides an excellent overview of the egg in this post.

One important thing to remember is that free range chicken eggs are much more nutritious than eggs from chickens in cages or even cage-free chickens. Chickens need space and to live like normal chickens for their eggs to be healthy, and I hope we continue to learn more about this in 2017.

If you’re a chicken lover like me, I’m sure you enjoyed all the press our little chicken friends have received this year, and we’ve certainly learned some valuable lessons. No kissing. No sweaters. And, if you plan to travel the world on a boat, a chicken can be a great shipmate.

Happy New Year, chicken friends!

On Rejecting the Food Industry: Processing Chickens and Finding Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my anxiety surrounding our first “one bad day” as farmers. We had 14 chickens to process, and I had never experienced anything like it before. For me, it was a tough day. A long day. A draining day—and my husband did most of the work.

Still, that one bad day was profound for me, but I wanted to share my husband’s perspective with my readers because he bears the brunt of our farming endeavors so much more than I do. I invited him back for a guest blog post, and he writes about why we do what we do here.

We live in a world where most of us buy our lives from one store or another—the grocery store, the big-box, the mall conglomerate—ready-made and processed by others. Our appetites and desires are crafted and subtly honed; our satiation is often artificial and, at best, temporary, at worst potentially harmful. It is perfectly acceptable to mislead, obfuscate, and flat-out lie in this world. Television commercials, product labels and politicians do it all the time. Our truths are processed for us. The effectiveness of fact-checkers, like weather-forecasters, is subject to the winds.

Truth seemed different when I was young. When I was a boy, I had a step-grandmother. She kept a hatchet; the wooden handle was smooth and polished, and the edge on the head invariably was sharp enough to slice paper. We kept chickens; she came to help butcher the cockerels and old laying hens—she was a tough old bird herself. She would catch a chicken, grab it by the legs, flip it upside down, hold it until it settled, then lay it across the chopping block and whack! Her hatchet flashed like a guillotine. Sometimes, a headless bird would spring up and run, spewing blood around the yard, seemingly unwilling to accept the hardest of truths.

My step-grandmother was not a nurturing woman, but she was particularly grim on the days she butchered. She had no time for a foolish boy, and I did not understand her shortness. It took me many years to fully comprehend.

I left that world as an adult; I became busy, like most, with modern life and all its fixtures and conveniences. I moved with the times. But gradually, persistently, I started paying attention to where exactly “the times” where taking me. Terms like pesticides, preservatives, and factory farms began picking at the margins of my attention. I began to question the costs of my convenience, and with my wife, began to examine the modern truths.

We decided we no longer wanted to support agricultural systems designed around convenience for profit, where animals are abused and foods are poisoned with pesticides. We no longer wanted to support a food industry whose colorful and elaborate claims of health and nutrition form the foundational architecture for products propped up by preservatives and additives. So, as much as we could, we deliberately and steadily began moving away from this modern version of the truth.

We started with a garden. Each year we worked it, the area we planted grew—along with our vegetables—and our reliance upon the grocery store diminished. Three years after we started gardening, we bought chicks—Rhode Island Reds (stalwart layers)—and we began to collect eggs. My wife previously had insisted on buying eggs from cage free, humanely raised chickens. Having our own was a substantial cost savings. A year into raising laying hens, and subsequently increasing our flock with the addition of ISA Browns (the little French maids of laying hens), we bought a flock of Freedom Rangers—a type of broiler chicken.

Broiler chickens are also known by the anti-euphemism “meat-birds,” which is a truth that isn’t processed.

Ironically, the first batch of broilers were the friendliest chickens to date. I initially housed them in our garage in a brood-box I had fabricated out of scrap wood and old, closet doors. They quickly outgrew this arrangement, and I extended their garage area with a pallet enclosure bedded with straw. During this time, I also built a mobile chicken coop (not out of scrap wood and closet doors). I had it finished when the broilers were almost a month old and ready to move outside.

I wanted to keep them separate from the main flock, so I fenced an area approximately 1250 square feet about 50 feet from our back door, and I moved the broilers and their coop into it. There was some initial trepidation and some awkwardness among the fourteen young birds. The contrast between blue sky and 8-foot garage ceiling must have been somewhere north of tremendous. And the coop, being two-and-a-half feet off the ground, made for some precarious, initial forays down the ramp into the new world. Still, it didn’t take long before the fourteen were scratching and pecking and having their little chest-bumping show-downs over the new territory.

first-broilers
The Rangers always lined the fence to say hello.

We had deliberately attempted to humanize the Reds and Browns. But we did not with the Rangers, for obvious reasons. Despite this, the Rangers regularly crowded the fence whenever one of us came out the back door. I could walk among them without having them shy away as the Reds and Browns tended to. They often came to me instead, and I found, I could pet many of them if I wanted. This was before the treats started pouring out the back door.

Freedom Rangers finish in about 80 days, unlike the Cornish Cross broilers, which reach maturity in six to eight weeks and do little more than eat and excrete. The Rangers lead more of a “normal” chicken life, and I have read, taste better for it. The flip-side—in 80 days, I got to know them.

They were ready in mid-September, a few days before my birthday. I decided I would take care of business the weekend after. But I didn’t. I kept finding other, more urgent things to do, and it wasn’t until the morning of the 25th that I finally settled in to the task. I thought about my step-grandmother that day.

Like her, I am now a chicken serial killer. I slaughtered the fourteen—one after another. I held them by their feet, placed them in the killing cone, cut their jugulars, and then quickly pushed a knife through their palates into their brains. Each went instantly limp. It was one bad day for those chickens and one of many bad days for me. But there is truth in it.

first-chicken-dinner
Everything we ate for this dinner came from our little farm–the chicken, the potatoes, and the beans. The food was so delicious, and we were grateful for all of it, especially the chicken.

 

It was late in the day when I asked my seven-year-old son to catch the final bird, which he did, his first involvement. He chased her around the pen then solemnly brought her to me. We talked over that final chicken, and he understood we should be grateful for, and respectful of, her sacrifice. We thanked her, as I had for each, and I explained that chickens do not have much of an opportunity to affect positive change in this world, but that he did. And she would help nourish him on his journey toward becoming a good man. There is truth in that too.

On Making the Most of Your Corn Crop

This year, we purchased some heirloom corn seeds in the hope of seed saving the corn this year. Last year, we planted a hybrid corn. It was delicious and grew well, but when we learned you can never repeat with a hybrid corn because you never know what will crop up, we decided to be done with hybrid seeds.

So with frugality in my heart and heirloom seeds in my pocket, we planted and grew a humble but still absolutely delicious heirloom corn.

We were worried about it for a bit. Well, my husband was worried. The corn ears were slow to grow, and it was getting late in the season. We had beautiful, giant corn stalks and not much in the ways of ears. My husband had watered extensively with “duck water,” so the corn had plenty of nitrogen, but he was really worried about the lack of ears.

I, however, was not so worried. Forever the optimist, I had a talk with the corn and asked the plants to please get busy and make some ears. I don’t know if it was that talk or just time, but those beautiful stalks began to produce many, many beautiful ears of corn!

After two weeks of eating corn almost every night for dinner, we realized we had better do some corn saving. We decided we would freeze our corn, so the following tips will be helpful if you go that direction. But I also have tips for seed saving and, well, just really making the most of your corn crop from top to bottom.

I mean, waste not want not, right?

saving-corn
Here, the beautiful corn is drying after my husband blanched it.

Freezing

  1. After you pick and husk the corn, you need to blanch it before you can freeze it.
  1. Boil water in a large pot and place the corn cobs in the pot for 5 to 6 minutes.
  1. Remove the corn and place into ice water for 2 to 3 minutes.
  1. Let the corn dry and get your freezer bags ready for storage.
  1. Using a knife or corn scraper (one of these gadgets is totally on my wish list), scrape the corn from the cobs. Place the corn in your freezer baggies and save.

Seed Saving

If you’re using heirloom seeds and want to save the seeds, you’ll need to leave several cobs on your stalks.

  1. Leave the corn cobs there for about a month, though they will need to be picked before the first freeze (so watch the weather).
  1. After picking the cobs, pull back the husks to expose the corn. You can braid the husks together to create a little group of corn.
  1. Hang the cobs to dry fully.
  1. Once the seeds are completely dry, you can remove them and then store them in a cool, dry place.

You are then set for planting next spring. I read that corn seeds can last 5 to 10 years if stored properly. That seems pretty amazing!

Sharing Leftovers

Before you throw away the corn cobs, which will surely have little bits of corn left on them, especially if you used a knife to scrape the corn cobs like we did, think if the chickens. If you have chickens or ducks, they will be in heaven with the leftover corn. If you don’t, ask your neighbors. You will be making some chickens’ days by sharing your leftovers. Trust me.

chickens-love-corn
The girls were given 70 leftover ears of corn, and I have never seen them so happy. No sharing! Everybody could have their own piece–and then some.

Decorating

But corn is so awesome that there’s more you can do with it. Cut down your empty stalks (the ones not saving any cobs for seed saving) and decorate your front door or yard for Halloween in style and for free.

If you have more tips on making the most of your corn crop, please share below. I don’t know how to can yet, so if you have some tips or links to share, they would be great. Also, I have seen people used dried cobs to make lots of cool fall decorations. Please share your ideas below. Corn is pretty darn awesome!

On the One Bad Day: Processing Chickens

I’ve tried three times in my life to be a vegetarian. The longest I ever made it without eating meat was about 9 months. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I went to a local burger joint and scarfed a giant cheeseburger. It was so good, and though I felt quite guilty, I decided that this would be the last time I tried to be a vegetarian. I’m just a darn omnivore, I suppose.

The reason I wanted to become a vegetarian is pretty simple: I love animals and didn’t want to eat them. Even now, ten years after my last attempt at becoming a vegetarian, part of me doesn’t want to eat animals, and that’s making this weekend an extra difficult one for this wannabe chicken farmer.

Earlier this summer, my husband and I purchased some broiler chickens as a part of our efforts to become more self-sufficient and frugal. We didn’t purchase the Cornish Cross chickens because they seem to have a lot of problems related to growing too quickly. We wanted a bird that could get around and have a good life—right up until his or her “one bad day.”

So we purchased some Freedom Ranger chicks and have had good luck. They take longer to develop than the Cornish Crosses, so they are not as much of a cost-saver. However, according to some experts, the meat tastes better because they can live a natural chicken life. We’ve not lost any birds to health issues or predators, and, well, unless something happens today, we’ll have had success in raising them.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-21-26-am
This is the biggest rooster of the Freedom Ranger bunch, and he’s pretty magnificent and only a couple months old. I’m convinced he’s looking at me here like he knows what’s up.

Tomorrow is their “one bad day.”

My husband and I picked up this expression after watching a Michael Pollan documentary. In the film, a pig farmer discussed her struggles killing her pigs that she has cared for so much. She admitted to having a hard time, but she focused on making the pigs’ lives really good ones so that they just had “one bad day,” the day of their deaths.

This seemed profound to me, and my husband and I have made this our focus. We have worked to make sure they have had good lives.

The birds we have are pretty tame and curious and busy, and they also learned quickly how to get what they want from me and my husband, especially my husband.

As an aside, in an effort to protect me, my husband has done most of the raising of the broilers. I mostly handle the layers; they get to be my babies. And my husband mostly handles the birds for meat.

So my husband, who is definitely a believer in the good life until the “one bad day,” has taken those chickens more scones than I can count and has ensured they’re never without fresh food, water, and a clean place to live and play.

But, this weekend, the “one bad day” is upon us, and there’s definitely a tension in the air.

When we first decided we wanted to be hobby farmers, I did a lot of reading about farmers who love animals, eat meat, and struggle emotionally with the killing of their animals. It seems it’s quite common for the dread to creep in the days before “processing.” That’s where we are. Tomorrow is the day.

My husband says I don’t have to help, but I want to. First of all, it’s a lot of work, and this whole “self-sufficient farm thing” was my idea too. I don’t work outside the home as much as I used to, not nearly so much, so I do see the work on our hobby farm as my responsibility as well. But, second, it feels important to me. I feel like I should mourn those birds. I feel like I should have to know where my dinner is coming from and what the costs of it are.

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about it. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to be the blogger who provides the step-by-step support for the process, as some helpful bloggers do—at least not for some time. But I hope to share what it feels like emotionally, and I do hope to be able to share some tips about things people can do to ensure a humane death for their chickens. We have done a lot of research. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

If nothing else, a goal I have for my writing is to help raise awareness about our food we eat. It’s way too easy not to think about where our food comes from. I think we should have to think about it, at least some. I think we should give thanks to the animals.

And we’ll see how I do with this. This time next week, I may be on another quest to become a vegetarian. I really hope not.

One day last week, a little girl from our neighborhood was at our house playing with our youngest son when she saw the coop for the broilers and asked why it was smaller. “How will they have room to lay eggs?” she asked. I told her that these birds would never lay eggs, that they were for meat. I worried about how she might take it.

“It’s a little sad, yes?” I asked her.

“It is,” she said, “but at least you’ll have food.”

Wise words.

On Our Mobile Chicken Coop

This week was a big week for the Sands “Coop”eration. My husband built a mobile chicken coop for our broilers we purchased last month. The babies had been living in the brood box but were big enough to make the move outside, and we needed something sturdy for them to sleep in at night. We do live near the woods after all!

We are learning to be a little more self-sufficient all the time, and since we’re not vegetarians (I have tried and failed several times), we decided to get broilers or “meat birds.” We believe that, if we’re going to eat meat, we should know where it comes from. And, we’re taking it one step further and doing it ourselves.

At least that’s the plan.

It’s not going to be easy to kill our own food, but I’ll write and worry more about that another day. We’ve been watching videos and reading about humane and respectful deaths for chickens, but, for now, I’ll just say that I’ve tried to be very careful not to get too attached to the broilers.

Food; water; how are you doing? In and out.

Unfortunately, these birds are extremely docile and friendly, much more so than our Rhode Island Reds and ISA Browns. Our layers are more mistrustful, and you have to earn their trust. The little broilers just come right up to you, all sweet and curious.

Thanks, universe, for making this even harder. Just what I needed, right?

But we are, of course, of the notion that we want these birds to live a merry life, though it will be a short one, so my husband built them some nice accommodations this week, complete with wheels, so they can move to different parts of the yard and explore new areas.

This week, I share some of his process and the beautiful end results.

framing the coop
Here, my husband is just getting it started. As someone who can’t build a thing, I’m so amazed that this is the beginning of something so substantial.

 

bottom of chicken coop
My husband has framed out the bottom of the coop here. In an effort to be frugal, he used a lot of parts and scraps he had around. The “mobile” part of the coop was built in an axle he created. He used our son’s old bicycle wheels for the “mobile” part of the coop.

 

Entire frame for chicken coop
And it’s looking like a chicken house!

 

Mobile Coop Finished and Red
Here it is finished and in action. My husband very creatively built a slider system to make it easier to get into the coop for cleaning and feeding and watering. He used shower rollers on the roof for the rolling. I’m pretty sure he could have been an engineer.

 

Moving the Coop
And here’s the mobile coop being mobile. Of course, our youngest had to help, and he was a great help. He helped scoop up almost every one of those chickens.

 

Chicken Coop in the Trees
Here are the chickens with their new home. My husband built a large temporary run and even a little gate. The chickens seem to be in heaven out there!

Ultimately, it seems like a beautiful little place to be a little chicken. The chickens run around during the day and sleep in their sturdy little red house at night.

I think we need a sign above the door though, like the one we have over the door of our main chicken coop, but I don’t know what it should say. The grim part of me thinks it should read “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” or “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” I mean, I know what’s coming. I’m a little worried and have a bit of dread.

But I think my husband’s idea is better: “It’s a merry life but a short one.”

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, my husband just kind of invented his way around in creating this mobile chicken house, but if you’re interested in building your own, here are some resources.

On Motherhood Lessons from Chickens

chicken coop

It has been just over a year since we brought home our first baby chickens, and they’re all big girls now. We got another set of babies in March, but they’re almost big girls, and just this week, they moved into the “big girl house,” the chicken coop.

chicken coop
Here’s the “big girl house.” My husband hung flowers by the fence, so the girls’ house is all decorated for the summer–and the big move in.

I was so worried about this big move. I love my big girls, but they are Rhode Island Reds. And while we picked a breed of chicken that was intelligent and winter hardy, I didn’t even think about temperament. Apparently, Rhode Island Reds can be stinkers and can be bullies, and this made me worried about the little girls moving in with the big girls.

But we followed the guidelines from all of the wisest chicken bloggers we could find, and it worked. After quite a few weeks of a slow introduction process, the little girls were big enough to move into the coop, and the first night was so hard on this chicken mama. My husband built a new roost, so there would be plenty of room in the coop, and, one by one, we brought the little girls in to sleep with the big girls. I was so worried that I stayed in the coop a long time with them, and when I had to leave, my husband stayed.

Thankfully, all went well. I was so proud of our little girls that I took pictures. My babies were growing up!

This experience with our babies growing up and moving in with the big girls got me to thinking about the kind of chicken mama I am and the kind of human mama I am. Our chickens have taught me many things about myself, but one thing that I find most interesting is how raising chickens has caused me to reflect about the kind of mama I am to my boys. I think reflection is an important part of growing as a person, and our chickie girls often make me reflective. I think that might be one of my favorite things about them.

Lesson 1: I’m an “elephant mom.”

First, I’ve learned that I’m definitely an elephant mom. If you haven’t heard of this, here’s a great read from The Atlantic on what being an elephant mom involves. Essentially, an elephant mom is super nurturing and supportive when her children are young but then gradually lets go and pushes them, when the time is right, into adulthood.

I’m definitely super nurturing as a mom. I spoil both our boys and all of our chickens. But I have one boy who is 19, and I’ve been able to be tough when I’ve had to. I know he’s got to grow up and become independent, and after he graduated high school, I made him go to work and learn how to handle his business at college. I didn’t want to be a helicopter mom.

My oldest especially didn’t like the going to work part, but I know it’s good for him. So even though my heart is sad that he has to sometimes work long hours and deal with grumpy customers at his job, I know he needs to do it. And I have faith that when my youngest needs that push, I’ll give it to him, too.

I’m the same way with my chicky girls. They’re spoiled rotten, and I baby them too much for sure. They get bagels in the morning, grapes cut in half to make them easier to eat in the afternoon, but when they start bullying and acting like this is Orange Is the New Black around here, I’m a tough mama. I stomp my feet and scare those girls into better behavior.

I was watching a nature documentary one time about a family of elephants. There was an incident where a baby elephant fell into a deep mud hole and couldn’t get out. The baby’s mama was a young mama. It was her first baby. She kept trying and trying to get the baby out of the mud hole, but she couldn’t do it. I started to panic, as I was sure I was about to see that poor baby elephant be stuck for good, but then the grandma elephant, who had been watching the whole time, came over to her daughter, pushed her out of the way, like with a swift kick in the butt, and then pulled the baby elephant right out from the mud hole.

It’s good to be nurturing, but, sometimes, I guess you just have to give ‘em a kick in the butt.

Lesson 2: But I can still let go.

Second, I learned that letting go is hard but possible—and necessary and important. When my oldest was little, I couldn’t imagine what I would even do with myself when he grew up and moved out of the house. I realize now it’s a process, and you have to let them gain their independence, mainly for their own sakes. There are many days I hardly see my oldest because of his work and school. And, when I do see him, sometimes, he’s so grumpy that I feel more than ready for him to get his own place, but mostly, he’s a good boy—well, young man. And he’s learning, gradually, how to “adult.”

Seeing our little chicky girls move in with the big girls and be totally fine with it helped me think about the importance of letting go. I was so worried that the little girls would get hurt or be sad, but most of them actually seemed quite happy to be with the big girls. And the couple of little girls who seem to be more mama’s girls and daddy’s girls got used to things after a day or two.

little chickens in coop
This is one of the “proud mama” pictures I took of the little girls on their first night in the coop. Our grumpy broody hen is in the background, not liking any of it.

Interestingly, the letting go part and learning I can do it has led me to the greatest epiphany about myself as a mother.

Lesson 3: It’s important for me to take time. 

The biggest thing I’ve learned from my chicky girls and, well, also from having a son who is nearly grown, is that they do grow up fast. You had better stop in any way you can and take a minute to take it all in.

Not everyone can manage it, I know, but working part time is the best thing I could have done. Though we’ve had to learn a lot about frugality, it’s my time that’s priceless to me.

My youngest son is little, and I want to enjoy this. Raising chickens is a good reminder for me that I need to slow down. I mean, they’re babies for just like six weeks. When they’re babies they are so adorable, so sweet, and so funny. But it seems like overnight they’re grown up, moving into the big girl house, and fighting over the top roost.

If you’re a mom or a dad, I encourage you to take this one lesson from my chicky girls and make sure you take some time out to treasure the days when your little ones are little. It’s not always easy. There’s work, errands, cooking, school, activities, and so much more, but I know we need to make sure we make an effort to slow things down.

Being reflective reminds me that I need to take time to go say hello to the chicky girls, admire the Lego creation my youngest built, and really listen when my oldest is telling me a story about a crazy customer at work.

The letting go is coming, but you have to try to treasure the time before the letting go.

On Counting to 16 (and Some Tips on Buying Eggs)

image of eggs

Since my blog last Friday, we lost one of our chickie girls. If you’ve been following my blog since the beginning, you’ll know this was tough to take. If you read my On Counting Your Chickens post, you’ll know how much I worried about losing a girl.

Chickie Girl #17 didn’t have a name because we can’t tell our Rhode Island Reds apart, and now that she’s gone, it seems even more tragic that she didn’t have a name. But she was loved as a part of my collective “girls” and loved with all of my heart. We do so much to protect our girls from predators and work so hard to give them a healthy, happy life that it was especially hard for me to take it that we lost her to a health problem she had related to laying eggs. She had a prolapsed vent, and, apparently, not all chickens die from this, but our girl did.

It was a sad night.

I was cooking a late supper, and my husband came to the kitchen door and said, “I think tonight might be the night.”

It was the night I had dreaded—and the night we spoke about so often. Our girls free range most days, and they just can’t stand it otherwise. And even though we do a “chicken count” many times a day, we will sometimes get busy and not count as much. So, when the girls come into their coop at night, it’s always an extra relief when you do your final count for the night and get 17. But, this night, there would be just 16.

I cried harder than probably a grown woman should, said goodbye to her as she lay in my husband’s arm, and watched as my husband buried her in the backyard near the woods, where the beloved pets of the previous owners of our house were laid to rest.

I wasn’t going to write about this experience. It seemed wrong, like I was exploiting her death. I also worried about sounding a little too much like the crazy chicken lady because I was so broken up over the death of one of our chickens. But something happened this week that made me think I really need to tell this story.

As I was mourning the death of Chickie Girl #17, I took a moment to mourn the bigger picture—the animals who are unfortunate enough to live on factory farms where they are abused and subjected to the most inhumane treatment. Our girl’s death reminded me to remember.

Then, this week, this story hit our local news about an egg factory farm here in Maine where the chickens are, apparently, living in deplorable conditions. According to the news, the state is now investigating, but, for me, this story is just another example, another reason why we, as consumers, need to force change with our pocketbooks.

I don’t want to be preachy, but factory farming in our country is awful for the animals and awful for us. I certainly won’t get on my soapbox about the conditions in factory farms for all animals, but I will do this: I want to share some options with my readers about getting eggs and share why I think these options are important. My goal is to be helpful and help spread the word about better alternatives to factory-farmed eggs.

First, if you can, it’s certainly best to buy eggs from a local farmer you know. Just driving to a friend’s house a few miles away on Route 9 yesterday, I saw several signs up from local farmers selling eggs. If you can see where the chickens live, that’s even better.

image of eggs
We have Rhode Island Reds, so all of our eggs are brown. But there is such variety in terms of shade, speckles, and shape. These are like little treasures to me, and we sell them to friends and neighbors, who also seem to appreciate these eggs.

It’s important that chickens are allowed to be chickens. They need to be able to spread out, be social, eat bugs, complain about the little things, like somebody else being in one certain nest box when five others are clearly available. If you live in Maine and are reading this blog, I’m guessing you probably even have a friend selling eggs. It seems like chickens are everywhere here. Take advantage of this.

If you don’t live in Maine, I want to share some links that might be helpful.

  • EatWild offers an interactive map to local farmers who raise grass-fed animals. The site does not guaranty each farm, but each farmer has signed a statement about the way their animals are raised in order to be listed with this organization.
  • Agrilicious.org is a site devoted to connecting people with local farmers. Local farmers and artisans can sign up to share information about their goods, and you, as a consumer, can get connected.
  • Of course, be sure to check out your local farmer’s markets. In addition to getting connected to local food and handmade goods, they are just fun. This site, from the USDA, lets you search for local farmer’s markets by your zip code.

If you’re busy and feel you don’t have time to buy local, then it’s important to be aware of what the labels mean on the egg cartons at the grocery story. “Cage Free” is not necessarily good, and most of the labels like “All Natural” don’t mean a thing at all. You want to look for “Certified Humane” and/or “Pasture Raised.” I found this great article from NPR that provides interpretations for all of those labels on your egg cartons. It’s a huge help.

Having chickens of my own has taught me just how unique and important each little life is. I still eat meat, but we are working very hard to only buy our meat from places where the animals are allowed to be animals and live a good life while they live—or raise the animals ourselves.

Our little chickie girls are funny, interesting, and each one is unique.

curious chicken
This is one of our curious girls. I was taking pictures of the chickens at snack time, but this little girl seemed way more interested in my camera.

Some are mama’s girls, some are daddy’s girls, and some are just their own girls. Some are scared of a new bowl, the baby ducks, and maybe their shadows. Some are way too bold, in my opinion.

Right now, we have a broody hen, who is so grumpy when we take her eggs, but we have to because we have no rooster yet. So my husband takes her grapes in the evenings, her favorite treats, and he talks to her while he reaches in and takes the eggs. She calms down when he talks to her. She lets him rub her little beak and head, and she talks back. I watch this in awe—two species, unable to communicate with each other, but the chickie girl seems to somehow understand my husband means her no harm. It’s a powerful sight to see.

It was a tough week for the Sands “Coop”eration with the loss of one of our girls, but I hope that telling her story can help just one more person decide not to buy eggs from a factory farm anymore.