Here We Go!

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Like most of the country, it is definitely still winter here in the Pacific Northwest. While we do not have the blizzardy deluge of snow our Eastern friends are seeing, our yard and garden are a bit of a muddy swamp from the days and days and days of rain we have had this season.

As we see February on the horizon, however, we know spring is coming and it is time to get cracking if we are to have a thriving urban farming scene again this year. We’ve run out between rainstorms to work on pruning the fruit trees and starting to shore up the chicken coop and run–mending any raggedy parts from seasonal damage. Soon, we will be re-covering the run with poultry netting and while the gals have had free range of the entire garden for the fall and winter, they will be sequestered in their summer digs so we can start the cool season planting.

This also means that we have started the first round of seedlings indoors–under lights and with heating mats for extra warmth. Last year, we had good success with all of our heirloom seedlings started at home, so we’re hoping all the collards, broccoli, cauliflower, chard, and more we’ve tucked into little pots will provide an abundance of food in the coming months!

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And, of course, late January means new chicks here at Raggedy Hen Farm! We decided not to incubate eggs this year (partially because of the 8 hatchlings we had last spring, 6 turned out to be little roos!) so we figured out which breeds we wanted to add to the flock and marked on our calendar when they would be in at our local urban farm store. One of the strategies that works for us and our little city flock is to raise a handful of new chicks each year and “age out” the older gals. Last year, our oldest hens went to live on Kori’s mom’s place in Southern Oregon.

So far, one of our very favorite breeds is the rather utilitarian Rhode Island Red. Of our new little group, three of the chicks are Rhodies. Supposedly, they have all been sexed prior to coming to the store, so our chances are pretty good these pullets will be hens. Of course, this isn’t fool proof! We’ve ended up with a roo or two from store-bought chicks too.

Since it will be several weeks before the chicks are ready to live outside, we try to get them early enough that they are ready to go when our world warms up (but isn’t too warm) and the new chicks generally start laying mid-summer and, if we’re lucky, they young ones will lay a bit through the winter.

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Meanwhile, we are thrilled to report that, so far, our bees are still alive and well–abeit in a small winter bundle–in the hive! On warmish, sunny days, we look for activity and a few bees will buzz in and out of the hive entrance. They are taking a gander to see if there is forage before heading back in to wait out the rest of the winter weather. As you may remember, we did not take any honey from the hive last year. In our three years of beekeeping, we have yet to have a successful wintering over here in our cold, damp climate and we wanted to do everything possible to ensure their survival. Last year’s new Warre hive is working well and staying snug and dry, so our fingers are crossed! We’re not out of the woods yet, of course, but as of today, there are still bees in that there hive.

So…even though it’s not spring yet, there are the earliest of signs and our urban farm chores are picking up!

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Yes, this sunny yellow dandelion is blooming away in our damp January garden!

Pre-Spring Chickens

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We are back in business!

We have read and studied quite a bit about chickens and chicken-keeping, but there are some things we’ve learned that we haven’t found in any books. I suppose it is true that experience can be the best teacher–especially when it comes to the more subtle clues that all is well in chicken land. We thought we would share a few of the things we don’t think you’ll find in any books:

  1. Winter Chickens are different…We have found that most of our chickens stop laying by or right around the Winter Solstice and then we see the first eggs appear in the nest boxes just about 1 month later–by mid-January. I’m sure this is influenced by where we are in the world (the Pacific Northwest), but it has proven to be very consistent. During the Winter–November, December, and Early January–our hens tend to be rather quiet. Unless they are startled by a real or imagined predator, they go about their days without so much of a cluck or a cackle. They forage a bit, but spend a great deal of time huddled in sunny spots or preening or just looking rather sedate and mellow. We imagine that this has something to do with molting, but even those who molt early or not at all tend to get quiet during the winter time!
  2. Pre-Spring Chickens…We now know that certain tell-tale signs indicate the gals are getting back into the swing of things. First, we will start to notice more chatter in the chicken yard. They will start to talk to us, cluck around, and generally start making a bit more of a fuss. Of course, this isn’t nearly the cacophony that signals full spring and summer, but it is a start! We will also notice more activity. The gals will start foraging around the yard more and spend more time hopping in and out of the compost, turning over damp straw, and generally shaking off the stagnancy of winter–no matter what the weather happens to be like. Their appetites pick up and when we see a hen start to squat or crouch when we walk by, we know that she’ll be laying again soon. Molting hens do not do the submissive squat–only gals who are ready and willing for mating and laying do this.
  3. The first spring eggs tend to look a little different than they did last year. Those first couple eggs by each hen are generally a little larger–maybe extra round or more elongated. It takes a few trips to the nest box before they get back into their regular groove.
  4. Squabbling picks up again too! During the winter, the gals don’t seem to care as much who is in charge or what the pecking order might be. Come mid-January, however, they start to squabble again–as if jostling to get everyone back in line. We have found that the books don’t explain that the pecking order can change periodically–especially in a smallish backyard flock where one might be adding a few chicks every year or so. We like trying to figure out who is in charge and have watched as some of the lower hens work their way up over time to be the queens of the mound. We’ve also learned that the strongest rivalries come from those gals at the bottom of the pecking order.  It is normally those on the lowest rungs that have the most to gain or lose when newbies make a play for more power.

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So, as things pick up around here, we’re happy to be putting a few eggs in the egg basket again, and enjoying the rustles of noise and activities from the hen yard!

Almost Thanksgiving

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The weather has turned suddenly cold and the blustery winds are blowing the remaining leaves off the trees here on Cedar Street. Even though we knew it was coming, it somehow seems a little early to be staring at the inevitable winter! Last night, we made our first hot buttered rum and toasted the coming holiday week; as far as we are concerned, the holiday season is upon us!

Up until a few days ago, we were still getting ripe tomatoes off a few of our heirloom tomato plants. Our recent bout of frosts, however, have caused the plants to fade for good. The chickens don’t mind as they are happy to eat the leaves, green tomatoes, and whatever they can rummage off the dying plants. Speaking of chickens, our girls are on the upside of molting, but with the days being so short, we are getting approximately 1-2 eggs a day only. They spend their days foraging around the garden, dust bathing in dry areas and soaking up what limited sun they can find.

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Buffy, our New Hampshire Red, was one of the first to molt in early fall. She is almost back to full fluff, but is still on egg-laying hiatus for the season.

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The most talkative of our current flock, Jo Jo, a Rhode Island Red had a very light molt and is looking as fine as ever.

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Laverne is one of our youngest gals. She was one of the two hens we kept from the 8 chicks we hatched in the incubator last spring. She is an Ameraucana who lays light blue eggs.

As we prepare to host Thanksgiving here at our house this week, we are thrilled that a few of the offerings will come from right here at Raggedy Hen–we have a nice crop of Brussels sprouts still in the garden and we’ll be roasting a bunch for the big dinner. We also have still plenty of greens to make a nice fresh salad! Additionally, squash, potatoes, onions, and garlic are all waiting in the garage larder to be worked into the hearty traditional menu.

However you commemorate the end of the harvest and the coming of the winter, we wish you all the best from all us raggedy hens!

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Incubation Tales

Chicken Egg Incubation

We are on day 15 of our incubation adventure here at Raggedy Hen Farm. This means, we only have 6 days to go until hatching should begin. Of course, we’ve all heard the wisdom about not counting one’s eggs until they’ve hatched, so we remain cautiously optimistic. While we haven’t had the winter storms and power failures like last year (fingers crossed), we have had some incubating adventures…

We candled the eggs early on (around day 5) and since this year’s eggs are rather dark-shelled, it was difficult to determine whether all the eggs were viable and developing. We’re still novices, but we do our best. We did a second (and last) candling on day 14 and it was a little easier to see the dark shadow and air sack on most of the eggs. Those green Ameraucana eggs are a challenge, however!

Later in the evening on day 14, we went to turn the eggs and found one of the eggs had little droplets of a very sticky, syrupy substance on one end. From all of our reading and research, we knew this was NOT a good sign.

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When incubating eggs get this oozy substance, it is because the embryo had died and the egg is basically rotting from the inside. Gases are building up and if left unattended, these eggs will explode and cause quite the contaminating mess in the incubator. Then we’d have to discard all the eggs and start over.

So, we pulled the egg immediately and carefully, putting it on a paper towel. After it cooled, we took it outside (just in case it had an awful odor) and broke it open. It cracked with a bit of tension–meaning there was some gas build-up inside. Sure enough, there had been an embryo developing in the egg, but it looked to have died around day 9 or 10. It could have been from something genetic, or bacteria (more likely) that got into the egg.

We’re feeling wary now, hoping that this egg did not contaminate any of the other eggs in the incubator. It is certainly a possibility and since all the eggs came from the same place, there is always the chance that they could have similar problems. We want to make sure we catch anything that might be going wrong before lock-down on Day 18–the day we stop turning the eggs, boost the humidity, and leave the incubator closed for the possible hatch!

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We started with 9 eggs this time around…now there are 8!

A Year’s Worth of Eggs

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Here we are…the very first day of 2015. It finds us with exactly twelve hens–even though 2014 saw a few more chickens coming and going from our little flock. We keep track of our eggs, expenses, and the little bit of income we make from selling our eggs and we thought we’d share last year’s results!

Our food expenses for the chickens came to about $142. This does not include straw or table scraps. We earned exactly $34.50 from selling eggs. Of course, we gave away dozens and dozens too!

Our gals laid us 120 dozen eggs over the course of 2014 and they cost us right around $1.12 per dozen. Not a bad price for fresh, organic eggs from very happy hens.

What we haven’t really calculated is the value of the chickens who ended up in freezer camp, or the value of having a broody hen hatch and raise new chickens, or the value of all the tilling, fertilizing and compost management our gals do. Of course, there is our labor involved in caring for the chickens, but it has also provided us with an active hobby and a grand urban adventure!