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The Intrepid Homestead

One Family's journey toward a simpler, sustainable, prepared homestead and life

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Chickens/Poultry

Ten Reflections of a seasoned chicken wrangler

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We’ve been keeping chickens for nearly a decade (9 years actually) – certainly a lot less than some, but enough to be ‘seasoned’ in the same sense that a cast iron skillet could be considered so after as much time.

We’ve had a lot of failures and frustrations along the way, but enough enjoyment, fresh eggs, pasture-raised meat, and joy to offset the negative times.

Below are just some observations and reflections from our experiences.

Chickens don’t smell so nice.

I love Joel Salatin, but he must have some secret sauce up his sleeve, or just really dull olfactory senses. We’ve given our chickens premium food, premium space, good housing and more, and you know what? They wreak!  In fact, aside from their closest competitors for stink – rabbits, chickens are just about the smelliest of farm animals we’ve owned.

Meat chickens even more so and among meat chickens,  Cornish-X meat chickens are the worst for offensive odors. I am sure that some have figured out how to reduce this, but it must require entirely free-ranging chickens.

Roosters can be an enjoyable part of your flock.

Operative expression: “can be”. A rooster with a nice disposition will help create a pretty calm and healthy flock. Hens seem to enjoy having them around, and their ‘shepherding’ skills can be very helpful and healthy for the flock. We enjoy the crowing and quite honestly, don’t get why people don’t.

It is hard to have too many hens, but very easy to have too many roosters!

Though we enjoy roosters, you can have too many, and when you do – it’s like an MMA cage fight to the death – only over time. Roosters will edge out the weaker roosters after a protracted period of rooster gang wars. It can be brutal to behold.

Chickens die, get used to it.

I don’t mean that chickens die more often that other animals, but they aren’t immortal. While we like to keep healthy animals, sometimes a chicken just isn’t long for this world. As a homesteader, I don’t want weak chickens in my flock. If they survive illness, great – that’s a good trait to have, but if they don’t and perish, it’s best to just move on (assuming you’re not seeing huge mortality rates). Chickens are not the hardiest of creatures, though some more so than others. When a chicken appears to be on death’s door, it probably is. Decide if you’ll hasten the process, or spend your time trying to nurse it back to health.

Hens spend their lives providing you eggs, don’t turn them into soup.

Old hens are hardly tasty and in our opinion, not worth the effort to cull for food. They spend their lives providing eggs for our family, the least we could do is allow them to live out their days in peace. Yes, they will consume food. Yes, it might not be economical. For us, it feels like the right thing to do. They don’t generally stop laying eggs entirely, they just slow down some. They’re can still contribute, they’re just beyond their prime. We wouldn’t support killing the senior citizens among us because they stop working, why hens?

Low egg production is ok!

We don’t light our coops during the colder darker months. Give the chickens a break. Get more of them to increase production. Again, not economical, but also allows chickens to have the break their creator designed them to have.

Happy chickens = more eggs.

We notice that when we withhold table scraps to the chickens, we get less egg production, despite the layers have plenty of high-quality feed and water. They just enjoy table scraps! When we have pigs, they often get the bulk of table scraps, and the chickens protest by providing less eggs.

Meat chickens are worth the hassle.

Despite being a messy and stinky job, raising meat chickens has been worth. We’ve done from 50-100 a year for our family and the results have been great. It’s a very economical means to get high-quality meat for the freezer or canning.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small investment that yields big results.

Give chickens animal protein occasionally.

Chickens enjoy meat. If you can manage to give them some to eat, they’ll be happier. Don’t worry, they won’t turn into aggressive attack chickens. If you raise other meat, you probably have the opportunity to feed them some of the byproducts of doing so. Ofal (heart, lungs, livers, insides, etc) can be a real treat for chickens, and make use out of something many have few other uses for.

Chickens need air.

Duh, all animals need air, right? Yeah, but chickens need more flowing air than most animals and may seem counter-intuitive to new chicken owners. Chickens don’t have the most robust of respiratory systems (one reason they get sick relatively easy). Don’t build an airtight coop believing your little chickies are gonna be nice and snug – you’ll just be subjecting them to harsher conditions. Allow for some airflow, particularly at or above their head level where they’re roosting.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop
Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design
Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door
Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop
Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes
Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes
Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid
Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding
Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof
Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

Harvesting Broccoli

Today we pulled our first head of broccoli out of the garden for our dinner. We thought it would be a good topic to cover.

Broccoli Ready To Harvest
Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Knowing when the broccoli is ready
There are a few ways to determine when broccoli is ready to harvest. First, it must have a head of broccoli of course! Second, the florets (the smallest part of the broccoli that you eat) should be about the size of a match head. Lastly, the color of the florets should be a dark green. If the florets are mostly yellow, your broccoli is either not ready to eat, or it has a nutrient deficiency or disease. If the rest of the plant looks healthy, assume that it’s just not mature yet. The picture below shows what a “ready to eat” head of broccoli looks like. We had hoped for larger heads of broccoli, but we’ve had a weird growing season and our soil was not in prime shape.

Cutting the head of the broccoli
Cutting the head of the broccoli

How to harvest
Harvesting broccoli is very easy. With a sharp knife, make a quick clean cut 5-6 inches below the florets where the stems gather into the main stem of the plant. We like to have an inch or so of the main stem  on the cut piece. This makes it easier to handle and store until used. Once the head of the broccoli has been removed, you’ll likely notice that the remaining stem is hollow. This is normal.

The remaining broccoli plant
The remaining broccoli plant

What do to with the remaining plant
Some might assume that the remaining plant has no further use. Others might assume that the remaining plant will re-sprout a new head of broccoli. Neither is exactly accurate. Assuming favorable conditions (sun, water, temperature), the remaining plant will sprout additional smaller heads of broccoli from the side of where the main head was removed. These are perfectly edible and make a fine addition to salads, or cooked as a side item. These generally will not be very large.

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets
Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Things to watch for
In our neck of the woods, we have to deal with Cabbage Worms, which are actually not a worm at all, but a caterpillar. These are the larvae from cabbage moths which are actually not a moth but a butterfly. Confused yet? Anyway, we could spray for those I suppose, but they’re just as easy to pick off the plants (this is referred to as “mechanical” pest control). We take the worms and feed them to the chickens who despite not liking broccoli, enjoy these pests! We like this because we use the worms to our advantage to keep the chickens happy and healthy.

After you harvest your broccoli, check for cabbage worms. They’re easy to spot. They’re dark green and contrast well with the stalk of the broccoli. Just pluck them off. You could also try filling a bowl or pot with water (a little at a time) and inserting the head of broccoli upside down into the water. This should make the worms climb up the stalk where they’ll be easier to remove. If you do this too fast, you’ll just drown the worms and then they’re harder to get off. Of course, you can also look for them after cooking, depending on how you cook. That’s admittedly not such a nice experience ;-).

Falling off the roost

A few days ago, we experienced our first dose of the reality of caring for small animals. It all started when one of our hens started exhibiting some strange behavior. The kids came in the house exclaiming “I think Risa’s dying!”. She had fallen off the roost in the coop and hadn’t landed well. She had been very still most of the day, was off to herself, had her eyes closed, etc.

There were no other apparent symptoms, so diagnosing the ailment wasn’t going to be easy. The symptoms this bird exhibited were common for just about every chicken illness. After some consideration and research, we thought that maybe she was “eggbound” – a condition when an egg gets stuck inside a hen and can cause death soon afterward is not passed. While some people do take some drastic measures in these cases – from probing around inside of their chickens to seeking veterinary care, we chose to do neither. Instead, we gave Risa (the hen) a nice warm bath – something we’d seen recommended for this condition. She was completely listless. At one point, we laid her on her side while we retrieved a towel and she just stayed there – totally unnatural for a chicken. We dried her off and set her in her own cozy straw-lined box for the night.

When we awoke in the morning, what we had expected had taken place – Risa passed away sometime in the night. In 24 hours we had gone from apparently healthy chicken to a sick and then deceased chicken! While we wonder why, and continue to examine our flock for signs of illness or distress, the reality is tat these things happen. Birds, like all living creatures will come to an end of their lives.

Rather than dissect this bird who had become a pet to our kids, we chose to just chalk it up to a sickness – likely Marek’s disease or something else that is common to chickens. We then cremated the carcass in order to quickly and humanely deal with it in a way that would not pose any health threats to ourselves or our flock.

Our children (4,9,12) all handled things pretty well. The younger two did not like the cremation idea but were more accepting of the outcome once they understood the humane reasons behind it – to protect the flock, and to avoid seeing Risa’s carcass dug up by some other animal. Yes, the cried – and at times even screamed. We don’t think this was so much because of a fondness for this hen, but because of the reality of death which no human enjoys being reminded of – particularly children. Ultimately, we found it a good opportunity to discuss issues of life and death and our kids came out of the ordeal with strength and new understanding.

We know this isn’t instructional per se – but in our journey to a simple life, sometimes the unexpected happens. Hopefully our sharing our experience will help someone else go through this process.

Eggs at Last!

Well, after nearly four months of waiting, our hens have begun to lay eggs! At the moment, 2 of 10 hens are laying eggs on a daily basis. We purchased them as 6-week old pullets and have been patiently waiting since then for the day when we could begin to collect eggs from the hen house.

Chickens at 5-6 weeks old

Our experience has been mostly good so far as “chickeneers”. We’ve not had any pets in our family history, so the number one pain-in-the-rear so far has been getting people to look after the chickens when we’re headed out-of-town. This hasn’t been overly painful, just hard to always remember to do sometimes!

Aside from that, my only other complaint with raising chickens in a typical-suburban neighborhood is this: Chickens don’t recognize boundaries. Much like shepherds have to herd their sheep, we often have to herd our chickens off our neighbors lawns, etc. We deal with this by only letting them free-range for a portion of the day and staying outside with them during that time. Unlike many others, our chickens don’t seem to have an interest in the neighbors gardens, flowers, etc (or ours PTL!) The only real danger to the neighbors is the occasional chicken turd here and there – which is actually good for the soil in moderation 😉 We still pick it up when we see it and return it to our property.

Our Chicken Coop

So, here’s some other questions we and others have had about raising chickens in a sub-urban environment:

1. Is it legal?
Uh… no comment.

2. Do they smell?
We’ve not noticed any strong smells from our chickens, nor do our neighbors. We clean the droppings out of the hen house about every 2-3 weeks and compost them. At no time has it ever been overwhelming. Growing up cleaning up after dogs was worse in my experience.

3. Are they noisy?
We have all hens – they make very little noise. They more or less murmur. If they squawk beyond that, it’s once a week or so, and usually because they feel in danger.

4. Are they expensive?
We had a few hundred dollars in building a coop – but we wanted a nice one that would compliment our property. Aside from that, feed, shells, grit, etc. might cost less than $10/month for ten hens. Unless you’re planning on selling your eggs,  raising chickens for your own eggs isn’t necessarily economically advantageous. We can get free-range eggs for $1.50/dozen from nearby farmers.

5. Why have them if it’s cheaper to buy local eggs?
We don’t want to assume that buying from others will always be as accessible or affordable – plus it’s a great experience for the whole family learning to look after animals that provide you with an ongoing food supply. Further, chickens provide pest control, a ready source of nitrogen-rich compost material, and quite honestly, many zen-like moments while watching them do their thing.

6. What do they eat?
At first, they ate medicated feed to get them off to a healthy start. We then moved to “grower” meal, then onto “layer” pellets. We give them this every day, although they eat from it quite moderately and prefer scratching for bugs, grubs, etc. They get much of their diet from foraging. They also love table scraps – again in moderation. Grass-clippings is another great food for chickens. Our tomatoes in this area of PA were effected by Late Blight, and so the chickens are given any of the produce we cannot eat because of rot, etc. as well. They’re not quite as versatile as pigs, but they can eat a wide-range of foods!

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