Here We Go!

024

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!

007

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.

040

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!

052

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

Pre-Spring Chickens

WP_20160118_001

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.

DSCN8494

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!

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.

bad incubating egg

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!

InstagramCapture_4f8091a9-abf7-4771-a18b-60d4ff384619

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

A Year’s Worth of Eggs

004

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!

Autumn Again

InstagramCapture_45d4508e-3737-49e8-b402-27166d6713e8

Fig preserves, freshly canned, and cooling on the counter.

Growing our own food keeps us well-tuned to the seasons. This past summer has been a bit of a blur as painful realities of life demanded our full attention. The garden got a little raggedy, Hilda managed to hatch three chicks without much attention or fanfare from us, and before we knew it, it was time to plant the the fall and winter veggies!

We currently get 4-7 eggs a day from 10 laying hens, but it seems the eggs are starting to taper as the daylight hours shorten and the temperatures cool. We are expecting some serious molting to start any day. We have started to evaluate our little flock and think about any changes we might want to make as we head into the Fall. We’ve learned that keeping the flock healthy and thriving sometimes means making tough decisions about who stays and who does not.

We like to use the fall to make repairs, changes, and additions to our garden beds and this year we’ve been replacing some of the wood edging frames around the beds and tidying up the layout. Now that most of the summer garden has been harvested and we’ve planted the winter veggies in one big bed that is fenced off from intruders, the chickens are allowed to free range again. They are great helpers in tilling up the beds, weeding away any weeds, and fertilizing the beds for next year. So, as the leaves start to fall, we rake them into the beds and let the chickens break them up and work them into the dirt. It’s a great system!

Some of our last harvesting tasks involve the fruit trees. There are still apples on the apple trees, and we are just starting to harvest the ripe figs to make the delicious fig preserves we use as a marinade for pork and hams throughout the year. The persimmons are just starting to turn a pale orange, and while the leaves are starting to fall from the persimmon tree, the fruits won’t be ready until the weather gets a bit colder. Meanwhile, everything else has been harvested, canned, dried, or frozen!

V__90AA

Hilda hatched 3 chicks in late August (she was setting on 4 fertile eggs) and proved to be a fantastic mama hen!

The Tiniest Egg

016

 

Teri wanted to try raising the bantams and she started out with two little ones earlier this spring. One of those nuggets turned out to be a rooster, so Minnie remains the only bantam currently in residence at Raggedy Hen Farm. We’ve gone back and forth on our thinking about her breed and had originally thought and hoped she was a Welsummer Bantam. As she’s grown, however, we’ve been leaning toward thinking she is an Old English Game Bantam. We finally figured we’d know when she laid her first egg–dark brown would mean Welsummer and barely tinted would mean Old English.

At 19 and a half weeks, without any fan-fare at all, Minnie took to the newly-fluffed nest boxes this past weekend. There was a bit of rustling and some funny little hen noises. She looked awfully tiny in there next to the regular-sized “inspiration egg” (we’ve painted them forest green so they don’t get confused with actually eggs), but as we’ve learned about Minnie, as far as she’s concerned, she’s the biggest, boldest hen there is.

019

 

After some time in the nest box, she emerged and took some long, drinks of cool water. Teri says this is the tell-tale sign that a chicken has laid an egg–when they go straight for the water trough!

023

 

Minnie’s first egg was tiny, faintly tinted and perfect! Her Old English Game-ness confirmed, Minnie has taken her place as the tiniest egg-layer with the littlest eggs at Raggedy Hen Farm!

024

The County Fair!

While we live only a mile from our downtown city center, we also don’t live too far from rural farm land and open fields. It is the best of all possible worlds! Because of our prime location, we were able to walk about thirteen blocks and find ourselves right in the middle of the crowing, mooing, and bleating of hundreds of gorgeous critters at one of summer’s pleasures…the county fair!  Here are a few highlights from our wanderings…

023

This Golden Laced Polish Cockerel seemed to know he was quite the specimen!

028

Teri loved the feather coloring on this Wheaten Maran, and wanted to add this to our list of possible future breeds.

032

There were so many adorable rabbits! Small, huge, and then, there were these two, who looked for all the world like they were kissing.

034

We’ve talked about getting ducks, and this little family was awfully cute! Between the snoozes and the splashing around in the pool, the cuteness was on overload!

035

Well, who knew that folks could enter their gorgeous eggs for ribbons and prizes? We weren’t sure what the judging criteria weer, but it was fun to see all the lovely eggs.

041

Chicks were hatching in a home-built incubator. While we didn’t get to see any hatching as we stopped by, there were some freshly hatched ones fluffing up in the warm incubator.

046

So many well-cared-for goats brimming with personality. We watched a couple judging/showing competitions and read up on all the different breeds present.

047

After lunch, we explored all the jams, jellies, breads, cakes and other home crafted items. It’s so fun to see how other folks’ preserve and create!

We didn’t go on a single ride or play any of the midway games, but we had so much fun exploring, wandering, and learning!

Injury Drama at Raggedy Hen Farm

DSCN8491

 

Mavis is easily the most challenging and aggressive hen we currently have here at Raggedy Hen Farm. So challenging, in fact, that her name has been extended from the simple and classy Mavis to Mavis G@* D^%#@T! Who would have guessed that she would have our first hen-pecked injury?!

Well, she must have had her snout somewhere one (or more) of the bossier hens didn’t want it because when Kori went out to give the gals a treat after dinner last night, Mavis G.D. had a bloody comb and beak. At first glance, it was assumed that Mavis G.D. had attacked one of the others, but, alas, it was she who bore the bloody head. Kori went into the coop to retrieve her before things got worse. Chickens give blood-thirst a rather gnarly enactment–when they see an injury or blood on one of their coop-mates, they will literally peck her to death, no matter how well they all got along before the injury. Blood=weakness.

Mavis G.D. was not too happy being carted in the house to have her comb cleaned–first with water and then with hydrogen peroxide. It took a while to get the blood to ease up, but when it did, Kori put some homemade comfrey salve over the wound. Because she was still injured, Mavis G.D. couldn’t go back into the coop, so she spent the night in the garage with her own food and water. She certainly was feeling out of her element, but it was the safest spot for her to recover.

Today, Mavis G.D. spent the day in isolation in the grow-out pen–she was her usual crabby self and not at all happy about being separated from the flock, but it was for her own good. By evening, the wound was dry and healing well–no sign of infection, oozing, or other unpleasantness. We let her out for an hour of evening free range right before dusk and then let her into the henhouse after all the big gals had gone to bed–which was right where she wanted to be. Hopefully, a night returned to the roost will help to ease everyone back into co-habitation. We’ll be keeping a close eye, however, just in case we need to intervene in any roughness. As long as her wound continues to heal and there’s no blood, we have our fingers crossed that things should be fine.

Of course, with our flock, there always seems to be some sort of drama going down!