Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Oh There Are Chickens In The Trees . . .

There used to be a song on Sesame Street about chickens in trees.  Lo and behold, chickens do like trees.  I bundled up and headed out to look for eggs today, to find Trouble outside all by himself (the rest of the chooks stayed inside), in the snow, IN A TREE. 

OK, so it's not the best picture, but we had fun crowing at each other with the flakes falling on us.  Trouble is an Ameraucana roo, and the lowest in the boys' pecking order.  Even the bantam hens give him a hard time.  He was supposed to be a pullet (the reason some of you haven't gotten any green eggs yet!) and always seems to find himself on the wrong side of the fence (sometimes literally).  Ah well, I guess this bodes well for next year's pullets--at least I know they'll be tough!  He was even eating snow when I first saw him. 

As always, I'm excited for next year's batch of chicks.  I'm going to try some exotic breeds--Jersey Giants for their docility, size, and egg size, Black Copper Marans for extra-dark brown eggs, Barnevelders for laying ability and hardiness, and Silver Laced Wyandottes for laying and hardiness (and the Barnevelder and Wyandottes should be eye candy too!).  Plus some Ameraucana pullets (for green eggs) and either Black Stars or Gold Comets (simply because they're laying machines!).  I'd love to get some Salmon Faverolles but it seems like all the small order places are sold out.

Then there's the broiler project.  I'm going to pick up 5 Cornish Cross broilers just to make sure I can kill and process them . . .then, if that works, I'm going to invest in Freedom Rangers (also known as Label Rouge) and possibly Rainbows.  They take a little longer than Cornish Xs to mature, but taste better, forage better, and are hardier.  And they're prettier.  Just so happens that a friend of mine makes feather jewelry, and I think she'd love these! 

Looks like I need more coops and/or chicken tractors.  I'm gonna make these birds pay off one way or another.  I'm still working on the childrens' books (and have gotten a great response so far!) and spend WAY too much time on the phone either talking to publishers or finding out where to get cheap business cards.  Then there's the plans for the chicken tractors.  Yep, I hear ya.  "What's a chicken tractor?"

At its most basic, a chicken tractor is a mobile coop.  When used properly, those chickens can forage for their own food (greens, worms, bugs, etc) PLUS till your garden up for you AND fertilize it.  Some great books about it are:  Chicken Tractor by Andy Lee, The Small Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery, and Day Range Poultry (again by Andy Lee).  I'm trying to come up with my ideal design and measurements--I've read about every book I can get my hands on about it, but none of them is exactly what I want.  And, if you get to know me . . .I'm not usually a control freak, but there some things that I'm a Nazi about.  I want my tractor the way I want it, and I don't want to have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for it.  Humbug.

On a slightly more negative note, those of you that are considering getting your own backyard cluckers would do well to steer away from Chickens magazine (put out by Hobby Farms).  I paid $6 for that sucker (cos on first perusal, seemed to be some neat stuff in there) and found it to be one of the biggest wastes of paper on the planet.  Plenty of great pics of chickens, but ONLY ONE picture (of Cornish cross chicks, pic supplied by Ideal Poultry) had the breed labeled on it--the rest were from Shutterstock.  There was even a pic of a chookie with the worst scaly leg mites I've ever seen (again from Shutterstock).  It truly makes me wonder if these people have ever had chickens.  You'll be better off spending your money on Backyard Poultry (which features FACTS and healthy chickens . . .and you'll usually see which breed!). 

OK, always end positive.  I would sincerely like to thank Harvey Ussery and Don Schrider for their articles about open air coops (BYP, Oct/Nov 2011).  Since I don't have electricity out to the coop (and not NEARLY enough extension cords!), I was worried how the chookies would do this winter.  SERIOUSLY worried.  Because everything I read told me to insulate and heat the coop and shut it up tight.  Harvey and Don, you are right.  Even here in hardiness zone 5, I leave the windows (and the door, if the wind isn't blowing precipitation in) open 24/7.  You see, VENTILATION is the key to healthiness.  If you let that moisture from chookie breaths and manure get trapped, they'll not only get frostbite, but respiratory illnesses.  Stewie, my lead roo, has a magnificent single comb.  So far we've had about two dozen nights below freezing--several below 20--and his comb and wattles are as majestic as ever. 

I'm also using a deep litter system.  "what?  you don't clean your coop every week?"  you gasp.  NOPE.  I haven't cleaned my coop (except for knocking poo off the roosts) for 6 months.  I have family and friends save their fall leaves for me, and save the remnants of the horses' bales.  About every other week, I go dump a fresh bag in the coop and run.  Those leaves absorb the nitrogen from the droppings and give the chookies something to scratch in on days like today, plus they'll make excellent compost for later.  If I get it right, they'll start composting INSIDE the coop, creating additional heat and food sources for the chooks.  "What about the smell?"  you're saying.  "What smell?"  I reply.  The only thing you'll smell in my coop is dry leaves, and cedar chips when I refresh the nest boxes.  Don't believe me?  Come see for yourself.  Even my mom (who was raised with chickens) is amazed.

So, I'm a chicken brain today.  Wish me luck--I always need it!


  1. slight modification. I don't leave the door open 24/7--I open it in the AM and shut it at dusk. The windows are open all the time tho. Gotta keep those predators out!

  2. I am so enjoying reading this. You are such a hoot! Keep it coming.

  3. Ever thought of raising some turkeys? I was looking at free range, organic turkeys at a health food store before Thanksgiving, learned at checkout that it would cost me $70 to discover the wonders of free range Thanksgiving turkey. They are raised locally, but why so expensive?

  4. Lots of reasons. Turkeys (especially when they're young) are a little more sensitive than chickens to damp, cold, etc. They also require higher protein food (even on free range...and I'll get into "free range" in a minute). Then there's the hand processing. $70 sounds like a bargain. There's a place up here in Tampa that STARTS at over $100 per bird. I haven't done it YET, but hand processing (slaughter, plucking, dressing) sounds like an awful lot of work. Then there are the fees to get licensed not only to raise birds, but to slaughter.
    As to "free range." All that's required for "free range" is access to the outdoors. That can mean that the door is open onto a 10x10 foot pen per 1000 birds. That's not free range. That's why I don't market my birds as "free range." They have access to the outdoors (and about a 10x15 run for now, gonna get bigger with the chicks next spring, but that's still for less than 30 birds) but saying free range just doesn't sit right with me. It's not honest.
    So, I might consider turkeys in the future. In the meanwhile, I'm going to raise broilers next year. Want to go in on that?

  5. I see what you mean. Sounds complicated to raise a turkey. How is a broiler different than a fryer? I'm a city girl, for sure! I remember watching my grandmother chop heads off of chickens and tossing them over the fence into the yard where they ran for a while without a head. Being a farm frau isn't for sissies. What do you mean "go in on that"? Are you looking for investors?

  6. the only difference between a broiler and a fryer is how long you let them fatten before killing. I've decided that I'm not gonna use the ax--sometimes that blood can get back into the lungs and foul the meat while processing. I'm going to go with a killing cone (which hangs them upside down) to allow for easier killing, better bleed-out, and less flopping.

    I'm going to raise some for family and friends next year (provided I can kill the first batch!). You pay for your chicks and chip in on the feed, plus come help process and I'll do the rest. PM me on FB for more details.