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!

The Tiniest Egg

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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.

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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!

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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!

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Busy, Bustly Days at Raggedy Hen Farm

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This…is crunch time!  The garden is blousy and overgrown and producing like crazy; Most of the pullets are laying, along with the old hens; it is time for canning, drying, saving seeds,, and just trying to keep up with this last big hurrah of another summer season. This has been an incredibly prolific year as some of our long-term projects like raspberry canes, grapevines, and hop vines are really coming in to their own.  Here’s a little run-down of what’s keeping us so busy…

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We are getting 5-8 eggs a day from our plethora of busy hens. It is so fun to have the diversity of colors in the egg basket. We now have everything from white to green, to dark brown (along with the light brown we’ve had for a while.) We haven’t had any trouble finding homes for all these yummy eggs!

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Our daily forages into the garden with a harvesting basket under one arm are yielding pounds of tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, cucumbers and, now, some of the ripest of the winter squash. This means we’re doing all sorts of canning and preserving, along with eating our share of these tasty treasures!

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The apple trees are laden and almost ready to be picked and canned. We’ll make applesauce and can slices for winter pies. Any “drops” get tossed into the chicken run as the hens all love to eat up the fallen apples.

 

 

 

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We have dozens of pumpkins this year and they are all starting to turn orange! It’s a good thing, too, because it’s helping us realize and find them all…although there tend to be daily “surprises” as we stumble upon yet another swelling pumpkin. These magical vines are starting to get a little ragged after roaming all over the edges of the garden all summer.

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Harvesting Hops! We have three different hop vines that we planted a couple years ago. This year, they are laden with ripening hop flowers and we are determined to dry them and use them in the making of home-brewed beer. These have been incredibly easy and fun to grow–the vines twine and stretch and grow along the fences and up into the trees and the hoppy smell is delightful too!

So, there you have it! We are neck-deep in projects and preserving all the bounty coming from our overgrown urban lot. Stay tuned for an update on the also-very-busy honeybees!

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…

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

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

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

 

Heat Wave!

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We make sure there is plenty of water for all the critters as the temperatures soar–including the honeybees!

 

It is unmistakably summer and the toast temperatures are a bit more than we’re used to this time of year.  We normally get a brief hot stretch in August, but we are into the third week with temperatures in the eighties and nineties with the promise of possibly hitting 100 later this week. That’s a lot of sunshine for us Pacific Northwesterners!

For us, it means extra attention to the critters and the garden. While there are those plants (like tomatoes, squash and beans) that love the hot stretches of heat, there are others (like lettuces, broccoli and chard) that don’t take too keenly to the hot, hot days. We pay especially close attention to the chickens, and take some precautions and steps to make sure they stay as comfortable as possible and survive those 85+ days!

Chickens adjust easier to the frosty colds of winters than they do to very warm weather. With all those feathers, there are some breeds (the wirier, Mediterranean ones) that manage warmer weather better than others (the big, fluffy, heritage English and American ones.) Chickens with larger combs and wattles are better able to cool themselves down because that is the purpose of the comb, to circulate cooled blood away from and back into the body.

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Dust bathing in the cool ground is another hot-weather coping skill.

 

Here’s some other ways we keep the chickens as cool as possible:

  • Lots of fresh water: we have 3 big water founts for 9 chickens in the run (the two nuggets have their own) and on hot days, we’ll empty and refill these with cold water a couple times a day.
  • Spraying the henhouses and coop: When the temps are in the high 80’s and 90’s, we spray the roofs and sides of the henhouses with cold water during the hottest part of the day and give the coop ground a light spritzing. Even though the run is shaded by fruit trees, this helps to bring the ambient temperature in the run down.
  • Plenty of shade: Our coop/run is located in a shady corner of the yard–there is lots of shade and protection from the afternoon sun.
  • Cool treats: Instead of giving the chickens scratch grains this time of year as a treat, they only get a little of this in the morning. The rest of the day, we give them plenty of greens, melon rinds, frozen berries, and other cooling treats.
  • We also arrange the water and feed stations to the chickens don’t have to travel far to get what they need. When the temperatures are very warm, chickens move as little as possible and we try to arrange their space to accommodate this.
  • Straw mulch=cool ground: We keep fresh straw mulch over the run as this helps to keep the ground underneath cool. When the chickens dig their little holes for dustbathing, they actually get to roll around in cooler dirt.

Of course, we still keep a close eye on the birds to make sure they are not overheating and, alas, laying does tend to go down when the temperatures get really warm and stay warm. Many of the heritage breeds don’t lay quite as well when the temperatures get up over 85 or so and we just have to adjust. As long as the hens stay healthy, active, and happy, we figure we can tolerate a little dip in egg laying!