Posts Tagged ‘chickens’

On Raccoons and Reality

IMG_6927As you know, I have chickens. I have them for eggs, meat, entertainment, learning, and just a little dependence taken away from The Man. This spring I got more layers, turkeys, and some meat birds to expand my flock. For the layers, I got ones that lay cool egg colors. The meat birds were to see if I could butcher them myself.

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Then the verb for my chicken keeping became had.

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Here’s the thing — I could blame the raccoons. I could get angry or weepy and then go out and trap and shoot every last one of ’em. Technically that’s not legal until October, but I doubt any of the neighbors would complain. Then I could go out and trap and shoot all of their relatives that wander onto our property. Then I could trap and shoot all of their relatives that expand into my territory. It’s mine, after all (more or less), so I get to decide what’s allowed!

Or — I could look at it through the lens of reality. Despite their reputations and super-villain masks, raccoons are not evil. In fact, I suspect that they are thoroughly amoral like the rest of the natural world. They didn’t go after my birds because they wanted to hurt me or push my healing back or so they could cackle with malicious glee when I came out to see the death and destruction. They killed my birds because I left delicious, easy food that couldn’t fight back in non-raccoon-proof containers. Er, coops. That’s all. That’s reality.

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I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a while and this situation helped me to define it. See, there’s the reality we’re sold and then there’s real reality. They aren’t the same.

Sold reality: Getting chickens is great for your health, encouraging exercise, fresh air, and laughter (have you ever seen a chicken run?). I’m taking business away from those awful factory farms and I’m doing my part to bring food knowledge back to The People. Maybe I can even start my own business with it. It’s happy and shiny and so Martha Stewarty!

Real reality: I accepted responsibility for animals that would find it difficult at best to survive in Maine without human intervention for a lot of reasons. Food and shelter from the elements were handled well. The massive amount of wildlife was ignored despite several warning shots. Also, egg businesses? They rarely so much as break even.

Now, I had a lot of excuses for not taking the threats more seriously. I may even have one or two legitimate reasons.

Raccoons and reality really don’t care.

This also extends far beyond fresh eggs and masked murdering bandits. This extends into every aspect of our lives, every decision we make.

My butt is dragging so hard on the way to work and I forgot to bring my mug to put coffee in. One plastic to-go cup won’t actually do any harm, right?

Raccoons, reality, and the Pacific Gyre don’t care.

I have to have a job to pay my debts and maybe, eventually, I’ll even get to pay rent again. The only jobs I can do are a 40-mile car ride each way. I gotta pay my bills.

Raccoons, reality, and atmospheric CO2 levels don’t care.

I need clothes. Not only are natural fibers out of my budget range, they’re such a pain to take care of. A few cheap, polyester outfits isn’t the end of the world.

Raccoons, reality, and the plastic we’re drinking don’t care.

I am not going to end this post with how we all need to go vegan and minimalist and if we hold hands and sing Kumbaya loud enough it’ll all work out in the end. I don’t know how to fix this. What I do know is that if we don’t become aware of the clash between the realities and do something to bring them back in alignment, real reality will win. It will win with extreme prejudice. That’s how reality works.

I also know that the first time a raccoon tries to get through the fencing with my new electric charger attached, I’ll be thrilled to report what to do with BBQ coon.

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A Good Winter’s Day

I had intended to write a post about some books I’ve been listening to, but then life intervened. It’s been wicked cold the last few days and I got to handle the fallout from a decision I hadn’t thought through sufficiently earlier in the year. When you live in a place where winter is the dominant season but you fail to take that into account when choosing your chicks, frostbite is a probable result. Particularly when the night before the temperature was around -10 degrees F.

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The white tips on her comb and the black skin is frostbite. The white spot in the middle I’m less sure of, but the comb does usually flop to that side. I brought her in the kitchen to thaw out the flesh before she spent the night in the garage which doesn’t dip below freezing.

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The rest of the girls seem to be doing fine in their winter quarters. It’s a partition in our garden shed that doesn’t have a roof, aside from the metal shed roof, so I don’t have to worry about condensation, but I’m also really not holding much body heat. The feed and water are tucked under the ramp up to the exit window so I don’t lose too much ground space that way. The waterer has a heated base that gives off some heat, but the girls seem to prefer getting cozy on the roosts when it’s very cold.

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My chicks are even so classy they have curtains! That bright light out through the window? That’d be snow. The curtains are so I can have the window open but maybe cut down on any breezes coming into the coop. Lucky for me, the only appropriately-sized curtains at the Salvation Army also let in light.

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The next morning it’s confirmed that her comb isn’t going to get better. I slathered on a little coconut oil to help protect the rest of it before I took her back out again. I waited until the afternoon when the temperature was a solid +10 degrees F. A chicken can survive with frostbite, but it’s a painful condition and in this case could have been avoided with just a little thought on my part. At this point, I’ll be keeping the two Leghorns through this winter and next summer, since they are very good layers, but I think they’ll go to the butcher next fall.

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I was also working on another project for my girls at the same time. Making suet cakes. Like a good Millennial aspiring farmer, I found instructions online. The connective tissue between the layers of fat is kind of weird, but the more you can pull out ahead of time, the better the melting process is supposed to go.

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For a long, slow melting, what better way to do it than on the woodstove that we’re using to heat part of the house? It’s not a cook stove, so the top is warm enough to keep the tea water hot, but not so warm that it’ll burn my tallow.

All-in-all it was a pretty satisfying day. I did make a newbie mistake with my birds, but I’m handling it and I’m working on fixing it for next year. I am having a hard time finding cold-hardy breeds that lay white eggs, though. Do you know any? I’m also working on a new skill since rendering fat can be useful as the basis for all sorts of practical things including soap, fried food, and a warming supplement for the chickens for the next wicked cold snap.

Happy Holidays, and stay warm!

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Chicken Update!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated you on my adorable little fluffballs. They are now somewhat less adorable, but still pretty entertaining, featherheads. This is a bit before I put them in their outside coop- two turkey poults and three chicks in that group.

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I did not lose any birds in the early, fluffy days when it’s pretty easy to get them too hot, too cold, too crowded- too anything, really. I had read about this heating plan where instead of lights, you make a “hen” from a seedling heating pad, some sort of arch to hold it up, and towels so they don’t interact with it directly. It gives them a warm cave to retreat into, just like Mama’s wings would be, but without light that can mess up their clock. It worked for me!

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Clearly, they also thought it was a good foot-warmer. I didn’t lose anybody until I put them in their coop outside. It was kind of early, but I was flat out of room in these containers and the little buggers were starting fly out when I opened it up to do anything. I shifted the seedling heaters into the nest boxes for a couple of weeks to give them a little extra heat, and it doesn’t appear to have caused any bad habits. No one died of chill or illness. However, the ducklings didn’t like the ramp so they chose to sleep outside. They were big enough to stay warm, but not too big to be pulled through a gap between the bottom of the fencing and the ground. It happened a couple of nights apart, and I only ended up finding one of the carcasses. The predator, still not sure what it was, had the same idea I did. I bet the ducks tasted good.

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According to my notes, I picked everyone up on May 5. This is one of the two that didn’t match each other. I ordered Araucanas, but apparently you only get real, honest to goodness Araucanas or Amaraucanas from breeders. What you get from a big hatchery is a mutt that should have a blue-egg gene, but isn’t pure anything. So she’s one of my two Easter Eggers. You never know quite what you’re going to get. On August 28 I found three eggs- white, from a Leghorn, and they were expected to be the first ones to start.

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The first eggs are always small- but check out that healthy orange yolk! The Leghorns have been fairly steady- and did somewhat redeem themselves when I found the 17 eggs one of them laid out in the yard. At least she was laying, even if she wasn’t sharing.

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My first thought on seeing this was, “This is why I need a pig. I don’t need to know the egg age to give to a pig!” The next layer started on September 1- one of the Golden Comets with brown eggs. At first I was wondering if the two of them were tag-teaming perfectly since I was getting a brown egg every single day. Nope. The second one started laying on the 18th and they have both been absolute machines. I can pretty much always count on my two brown eggs. The two white layers are fairly consistent, but not like the browns. I didn’t get anything from an Easter Egger until October 8, but they are bigger than the other two and probably took longer to mature. Tragically, it’s a nice, medium, pinkish-beige. I’m still holding out hope that my last hen might decide to lay a green egg, but I’m not holding my breath at this point.

From my first egg until October 20, I have gotten an average of 3.17 eggs per day. However, if I count from when hen #5 started until the 20th, my average is 4.5 eggs per day or 5.25 eggs per hen, per week. Not bad, since one of them is a free-loader!

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My third kind of poultry, of course, were the poults. Didn’t they grow up into a handsome couple! And a very large couple. After quickly outgrowing the chicken coop, as expected, I cobbled together their own cage with parts of the winter garden skeleton. They really outgrew that, too, but Mom was keeping them very well supplied with weeds and garden leftovers, so they were doing ok.

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So ok, in fact, that the little one, Hen, weighed in at 22#. That’s her being “vacuum packed” before freezing. We had to scramble for something to pack them in since I did find someone to butcher them, but he didn’t have any bags that were big enough!

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Tom, however, was so big that he broke the rope the butcher was using to hold him up for plucking. At a healthy 32#, we determined he’d never fit in the grill to live up to his other name- Thanksgiving. Dad dismembered him for me so he should thaw faster when it’s time to get him out of the freezer. Imagine how big they’d be if I figured out a month earlier that I was underfeeding them on protein . . .

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At this point in the poultry experiment, I’ve gotten 180 eggs, 54# of meat/bones, and have had to deal with unintentional loss. I’m about to build coop number two for the winter, since the original chicken coop really isn’t big enough for six hens in a Maine winter. It will be cobbled together temporarily in the garden shed, so coops number three and four will be built next spring/summer. I’m glad I sent the turkeys out this year, but learning how to butcher them myself is still the plan. I also plan to expand the egg operation next year to sell some and I’m considering meat turkeys and/or chickens for the house and possibly for sale. I need to run the numbers. I might also start breeding on farm. Everyone who can really should help to keep heritage breeds around until the rest of America figures out that having one breed of cow, one breed of chicken, and one breed of pig is a poor idea. So far, this experiment is enough of a success to continue it for another year- provided I do a little more planning on the housing first!

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I Have Chicks!

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There is a post in the works that has thing like words and coherent thoughts, but, in the meantime, I have chicks! The leghorns were the first to come out of their corner.

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Do you believe that’s a baby Thanksgiving dinner? Also known as a poult.

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This is a Golden Comet (I think, I don’t have the paper in front of me). They were chosen because aside from being good layers, they’re also supposed to be calm and friendly. So far, they’re the first out to eat in the morning.

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This is an Aracouna- they lay blue and green eggs.

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Or this one is. I’m not sure why they’re a mis-matched set. But they’re both healthy, so we’ll see what we get when they grow up.

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The ducklings are the biggest, heaviest, and most opinionated of the lot. They’re also the messiest, since they think water is for playing in, not leaving in the waterer.

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They look like they all fit in this picture, but when they’re out and about, not so much. I’ll have to split them in half pretty soon, here so I can keep them under shelter long enough to feather out.

The Season of Water Has Begun

In many places, winter is the season of water. It’s monsoon season, or snow season. Out West, summer is our season of water. Why? Because that’s when we need it and we may not have it. California is at the top of the list at the moment when it comes to lack of water, but they aren’t the only ones that are concerned. All of the states that have lower rainfall than the East Coast are aware that California’s fate may well be ours in the not-too-distant-future.

Fire season has already started here in Colorado. I have a fire about 90 miles south of me that just decided it didn’t want to be contained anymore. While that one isn’t a direct threat to me, it is absolutely something to keep my eye on. My community garden just opened itself back up to us for spring watering, and I did not mulch my garlic bed well enough so the soil is dry as a bone. That’s perfectly normal for poorly covered or bare ground in Colorado. It’s also really bad for the garlic and all of the critters that needed moisture for over-wintering. Despite the silly Kentucky Blue Grass lawns around here, lack of water is simply a fact of life.

Jon Stewart, as usual, brings his wit and sarcasm to the issue of climate change. As he points out, our two most phallic states have totally opposite, yet equally serious, water issues. This is the challenge of climate change, after all. It’s not just that it will increase heat and melt the ice caps, it’s that everything will become more unpredictable. Wet places will get wetter and dry places will get dryer. The fact that we are doing everything in our power to suck water out of the air and water and send it through the sewers really isn’t helping to balance that back out.

One thing that he didn’t bring up was that apparently frackers in California aren’t being subject to any of the restrictions that the citizens are subject to. It is absurd to think that not drinking water in a restaurant will do a thing when the farmers aren’t being told to restrict their water use. I don’t want to make farming any harder than it is, but when the state is out of water, everyone is affected and has to pitch in. What is more absurd is to not restrict the people that take massive amounts of potable water, turn it into poison, and pump it past the groundwater reservoirs to pull out oil. They swear the arsenic and other fun chemicals can’t possibly leak into the groundwater, but I’m not sure how much I can trust that.

After 450 words of bad news, what do we do about it? I think the biggest thing we can do is to buy local, pasture-raised meat. I know, meat’s evil and all that, but what the simplistic headlines don’t bother to do is differentiate between meat sources. Urine and manure from CAFO feedlots are corralled in lagoons as toxic waste. As they should be. They should not be returned to the land. Then there’s all the water that’s used to grow the grains that keep the animals not-dead and very fat up until slaughter time. Meat raised like that is an affront to nature.

When you raise, say, a cow on pasture, you get the opposite result. Grazing animals produce no more methane than the grass would have when it rotted on the ground. More to the point, in a properly managed pasture, the urine and manure they produce soaks directly into the soil, returning both moisture and nutrients to the soil in amounts that the microorganisms can handle. Proper management also encourages the grass to grow to its best advantage, sending carbon-sequestering roots deep into the soil. Between the roots making spaces and the small amounts of moisture added to the surface, a good pasture will help the rain to soak into the ground and back into our groundwater reserves instead of running off the top and right to the ocean.

That’s right. Meat could save us. Alan Savory has dabbled in this a bit.

One really shouldn’t eat meat without vegetables, though. The next biggest step is to grow your own vegetables. If you don’t have a yard, or a patio with decent sunlight, then buy them from small, local, organic farmers that use all of the sensible water-saving techniques that are difficult to impossible to implement on huge, mono-crop farms. If you ask nicely, the farmer will probably be happy to let you come out to see how their land looks and their crops are grown. Just bear in mind that if the sun’s up, you are taking time out of their work day. The best farming, just like the best beef, should actually help refill the groundwater reserves. But good farming will still slow the use of unnecessary water, and shouldn’t be discouraged.

Don’t get me wrong, things like shorter showers and high-efficiency appliances are good. But if we want to do more than just slow the loss of potable water across the world, we need to be proactive about helping the water to go back where it belongs. In the ground, not in the sewers. Preferably without arsenic.

Where Have I Been?

I am so sorry I haven’t been on here in an age- and many thanks to the people that are showing up to read old posts anyway! Life has been throwing me curve balls and I haven’t been dodging quite as well as I would hope to. However, I do believe I am back for the time being.

One of the challenges that I’m coming up against is that I can either work on farms and learn how to farm, or I can hope to afford my own one of these days. I want to do the former. There’s no better way to learn than to do. Particularly for something that requires the sort of knowledge that only comes with experience. One really can’t know if they are able to work outside doing labor for sometimes crazy hours until they have actually done it for a season. It’s how I learned that I can only handle so much weeding, but dodging angry geese every day is fun. Unfortunately, I got started on the learning curve a little late, so I have to go with the latter. Maybe it’s my nesting tendencies finally getting around to having an opinion, but I’m at this point that I’d rather screw up on my own property than learn how to do everything right on someone else’s. The problem, here, is that I have to make that choice.

I am slowly working on putting together a business plan. I do need to have a “normal” job for several more years to make this work, but the sooner I can get my hands on land, the sooner I can start making those mistakes that need to be made as part of the learning process. My main focus right now is laying hens. I think they are something that can have income pretty quickly but can also be handled around a 40+ hour work week. I need some feedback from you folks, though.

  • What is your pie-in-the-sky perfect egg?
    • Feed concerns?
    • Housing concerns?
    • Ethical treatment definition?
    • Heritage or modern breeds?
    • Egg color?
  • Do the above concerns extend to meat birds?
    • What are your thoughts on stew birds?
    • What weights and prices seem reasonable to you?
  • Would you be interested in duck, quail, or other meat and eggs if they were raised similarly to the chickens above?
  • What are the other food/farm items that you would buy locally if you could find them?
    • Honey?
    • Herbs?
    • Feathers?
    • Flowers?
    • Homespun thistle yarn?
  • Delivery options?
    • Would you take a drive in the country to pick up your eggs, or would they need to make it into town?
    • Would you sign up to purchase X dozen every week, or do you prefer to pick them up as needed?
  • What questions and concerns have I missed that you would like to have me (or your other farmers) address?

I know what I want in my eggs, meat, and other food, but if I’m setting up a business, I need to know what you want, too. You don’t have to be local to answer this- but if you are local, let me know how many eggs you’ll buy every month!

I look forward to the feedback to help me get this dream off the ground. Thank you!

Urban Homestead Tour: The Redux

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So . . . my covering of the tour got a little wordy. Sorry about that. For those of you that got glassy-eyed at around word 600, I wanted to pull out the main points that I got from the tour. It’ll help me sort through it all, too.

What did I learn on the Urban Homestead Tour? In no particular order:

  • Anyone can do it. Even if you don’t have access to so much as a porch for container gardening, you can still can, freeze, or sew. Heck, knitting takes up practically no space at all.
  • It’s ok to start small. Most of them seemed to start with gardening, but you could even start smaller by buying produce at farmers markets to can or freeze.
  • Chickens are the gateway drug. Some people stop there, but for others it just opens up a whole new world.
  • Eggs, honey, and veggies can be sold by anyone as they are whole foods. (Milk is not.) You just aren’t allowed to put up a sign advertising that you sell them.
  • Be prepared to meet your neighbors. You may also need to bribe them.
  • An urban homestead shouldn’t stink. If it does, you’re doing something wrong.
  • Get used to that non-city smell.
  • Be creative. Raising meat rabbits? You can sell rabbits, pelts, and manure, not just meat. (Also not a whole food, so look at the rules governing selling meat.)
  • It’s not about going back in time, it’s about bringing that knowledge forward.
  • It’s about being resilient. You’re reducing the impact a disaster will have on yourself and your loved ones.
  • Be very, very, very wary of buying second-hand housing for your stock, whether it’s chickens, rabbits, bees, or goats. Disease can get imbedded in the wood and wipe out your new stock.
  • Think outside the box. What do you have that can be repurposed? What can you find for cheap or free to make into what you need?
  • Also know when you really do need to pay for quality. Buying any old thing for breeding stock isn’t usually a good idea.
  • Craigslist is your friend. So is Freecycle.
  • Make horse friends. Why buy manure when you’ll get thanked for hauling it away for free?
  • Read, learn, and take classes, but don’t procrastinate through your research. Sometimes you just need to make mistakes.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Learn the local building codes, rules for selling food and other items, and rules for keeping animals.
  • Learn which rules are enforced and the penalties for any rules you choose to flout.
  • Learn to talk to your local leaders to change the rules you don’t agree with.
  • Meet locals that are doing what you want to do. They may already know most of the above.
  • One you’ve acquired a skill set- how can you pass it on to others?