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!

Nature vs. Nurture

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We will spare you the hour-by-hour details of our snow storm that turned into an ice storm except to say, we lost electricity.  This would not be a huge deal if it wasn’t for the fact that we are incubating those ten chicken eggs in an electric incubator. Crud.

The power went off at 5 pm on Saturday evening and when we called our local electric board to report the outage, the lines were busy, the phone messaging was in a loop, and it took several tries before we were able to report. So many folks are without electricity with the ice snapping branches and trees and power lines all over the valley.

We fussed. This is only the second time we’ve lost electricity since being in our home on Cedar Street and the first time was only for about 20 minutes. We got our our “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens” by Gail Damerow and studied every word of the section on power outages. She advises to open the incubator and let the eggs cool and then, when the power goes back on, put the lid back on and start things up again.  Seems attempting to keep everything warm will actually cause more problems by keeping oxygen from getting to the eggs and messing with the humidity.  According to Ms. Damerow, if the power is out less than 12 hours, it shouldn’t affect the hatch significantly–especially in the early stages of development.  She says that chicken eggs (and probably other bird eggs) are designed so that they go dormant when they get cool. While this was hard for us to believe, we decided to follow orders.

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Since we had the lid off the eggs anyway, we decided to candle them–even though we may not be able to really see anything until about 7 days.  We figured if we were going to lose them all to Mother Nature and the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), we might as well see if any were fertile, viable and developing. Besides, it was dark anyway and that should make candling easier!

We weren’t able to see much in the dark-shelled eggs, but in the lighter-shelled ones, we could see the veins and tiny embryo indicating that the eggs were fertile and developing normally.  This was exciting and nerve-wracking as we now knew that at that point, they were viable. Whatever happened with the temperature could definitely affect that.

As the hours passed and the eggs got cooler, we talked ourselves through the cranky frustration and accepted the fact that we may very well have to start over when all was said and done. At 1:15 am–after being off for just over 8 hours, the electricity came back on. We crossed our fingers, put the lid back on the incubator, turned it on and went to bed. We will have to wait a few days before we candle the eggs again and see if they are still developing, or they were victims of the storm of February 2014. Now we are just hoping our power woes are over.

Winter Projects

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As we prepare for another “growing” year at Raggedy Hen Farm, we have a few projects on our list to tend to. On the horizon for this Spring: another hen house, possibly another top bar bee hive, and some cold frames for our soon-to-be-seedlings. Before purchasing new materials, we try to recycle or upcycle whenever possible and this usually means a trip to a nearby local treasure BRING Recycling!

Yesterday I had “cold frames” on my mind as I headed out dressed in my trusty down vest, scarf and fleece hat for an hour of perusing all the lumber, fixtures, pieces, parts, and containers. I had an idea of what I was looking for, but remained open to inspiration.  After picking up, turning over, and measuring, I came home with three thick wooden drawers and three glass windows that fit perfectly over the top:

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These should work nicely to put seedlings and plants in as we harden them off for outdoor life–serving as mini-greenhouses. The glass can also be used to provide a little extra warmth when tented over plants once they are in the ground, if need be. Someday, we hope to build a big greenhouse, but these should work just fine for now.  And, the price was right! Each glass window cost $3 and each drawer cost $2, so the entire project only set us back $15 and we used existing materials. The icing on the cake is BRING is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, providing community jobs and keeping all sorts of “treasures” out of the landfill.

Ordering Seeds

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It’s cold…and grey…and foggy…and cold, but those of us who garden know that this season is only temporary.  This may be the dormant season for some, but for us, it is time to order seeds, continue to build up our soil, and get our seed-starting station set up and going! The past couple weeks have been about making the lists and figuring out not only what we want to grow this year, but from whom we’re going to source our seeds. 

Last year, we decided to work on learning how to save seeds ourselves and we succeeded in saving a few from favorite tomato, pole bean, sunflower and pea plants.  We won’t know how successful we actually were until we plant those seeds this Spring and see how they grow. Each year, we try to grow some favorites but to also try new varieties.  The increasing interest in heirloom and non GMO (genetically modified organism) plants has meant that each year, there are more and more options for gardeners and farmers and we find this incredibly exciting!

This year, we are again ordering a big chunk of our seeds from SeedsNow.com as we were quite happy with the plants and varieties we grew this past Summer.  We are also ordering some intriguing varieties of heirloom squash seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (these folks have quite the catalog and good information about every seed variety on their website). We are ordering our onions from Renee’s Garden Seeds as we were rather disappointed with the onions we grew from some locally sourced sets this past season AND we want to try growing some less-readily-available varieties. We tend to grow mostly perennials and herbs (particularly those the bees love) in our flower gardens but there are a few annuals we absolutely adore and grow every year.  We are sourcing our calendula, sweet pea, and nasturtium seeds from Territorial Seeds, a wonderful local-for-us nursery. Finally, because we really want to get adventurous with our potatoes this year, we are sourcing our seed potatoes from the Potato Garden. While we have had good luck with the seed potatoes we get locally in the past couple years, we wanted to try growing some varieties that aren’t the typical ones grown in our area.

This year, we’ve set a goal for ourselves to try to start all our seeds and seedlings ourselves here on Cedar Street.  Since Teri has worked at a wholesale nursery for the past several years, we’ve got many of our Brassica (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) and tomato starts from that nursery, but, since she has a new job and won’t be there this year, we’ve decided to set up the heat pads and grow lights and start our own seedlings–stay tuned for more on those adventures!

The seeds are ordered and now we wait for those colorful and promising packets to arrive on our doorstep. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we can start planting many of our cool-season crops in mid-February so while it may seem like the dead of Winter, it is actually pre-Spring in the gardener’s world!