Barnyard In Our Backyard

Buff Orpington close up | Life In Beta

Buff Orpington | Life In Beta

Production Red and farmer Mike | Life In Beta

Buff Orpington | Life In Beta

Watching the girls free range in the yard never gets old. While watching them tonight, I told Mike I can’t wait to expand our flock next year. I love all the different colors and personalities!

In a few more weeks, they’re going to have a bigger, safer yard to free range in and a much bigger coop too. I couldn’t be more excited.

Happy First Egg Day!

First egg from our chickens! | Life In Beta

That’s the face of a happy [crazy] chicken lady right there!

My chickens turned 18 weeks old this week. I just switched them over to layer feed and put a couple ceramic eggs in their nest boxes, but I wasn’t anticipating any results for several more weeks. (But — wishful thinking, you know?)

I usually check in on the hens in the morning and again in the afternoon after work, just to see if they need their food topped off or fresh cool water on a hot day. Today, I thought I’d tidy up their nest boxes a little because they had been kicking the ceramic eggs around. That’s when I noticed there was an extra “fake” egg … that wasn’t fake at all!

I have a hunch this egg belongs to the bigger Production Red hen. I moved their coop recently and when I bent to pick her up, she squatted down flat to the ground instead of running away. (Ironically, I just read earlier today that maneuver is a sign that a hen is sexually mature and may start laying eggs soon.)

I am ridiculously proud considering it wasn’t me that did any egg-laying. I’m sure long-time farmers will laugh at me, but this is the first time an animal I raised provided food for my family (albeit one tiny egg so far). I think that’s pretty exciting! (Egg-citing?)

I think I’ll share some leftover summer squash with the feathered ladies tonight as a treat for a job well done!

Currently

Myles at Waldameer | Life In Beta

READING

Last night, I started Cold Antler Farm: A Memoir of Growing Food and Celebrating Life on a Scrappy 6-Acre Homestead. It’s the third book by Jenna Woginrich that I’ve devoured in the last few months. Needless to say, I’m a big fan.

WATCHING

Summer TV is a little “meh”. I’ve been watching Pretty Little Liars and Stitchers, and got hooked on a marathon of Rehab Addict on HGTV the other night, but that’s about it.

LISTENING TO

Podcasts! My two most recent favorites are Homesteady and the Chicken Thistle Farm Coop-cast. Also, oldies.

Myles at Waldameer | Life In Beta

Projects

You know me — busy, busy! I’m wrapping up one large freelance project and have several others in the queue to start. I pretty much have at least 2-3 hours of work every night after I get home from my day-job. It’s exhausting, but gratifying.

Looking Forward To

There’s big news (hopefully) on the horizon concerning our home remodel/living arrangements, and I can’t wait to share it with you all! SOON, I hope!

Top 5 Questions About Backyard Chickens

Chicken FAQ | Life In Beta

Since getting chickens four months ago, I’ve been surprised how many people ask the same questions over and over. I love talking about my chickens, but I’m by no means a chicken-expert. I can only share what I’ve read and experienced so far, and point you in the right direction to learn more. Here are a few of the questions I get asked most often:

1. Don’t you need a rooster to have eggs?

This has to be the number one question I am asked when people find out I have chickens. I regularly get the are you stupid-stare when I tell people I have six hens and am expecting eggs.

I promise you: hens will lay eggs without a rooster. Of course, the eggs won’t be fertilized, but unless you’re trying to propagate your own flock, that part doesn’t matter!

Here are some more interesting facts about eggs.

Chicken Eggs | Life In Beta

2. Isn’t it cheaper to just buy eggs?

The short answer is: very likely. The price of eggs is going up right now due to an outbreak of avian flu, and if you compare your costs versus the cost of organic, free range eggs and don’t count the cost of your time invested, you might break even.

Chickens don’t have to be terribly expensive, but they’re not cheap either. There are lots of ways to cut your costs: Make your own brooder from a cardboard box or Rubbermaid container. Build your coop from wood pallets or other upcycled materials. (Pssst, here’s a secret — chickens don’t care if their coop is a Pinterest-perfect cottage. They just want to be protected from the elements and predators.) Offset feed costs by letting your chickens free range and supplementing their diet with chicken-safe kitchen scraps. (Find more ideas for cutting feed costs from Abundant Permaculture, here and here.)

Ultimately you have to decide if the little bit of extra money and your time are worth it to know where your food comes from. Buying organic/cage-free/free-range eggs from the store is great, but walking out to your back yard and getting eggs from your happy, healthy chickens is even better.

3. Don’t chickens smell AWFUL?

I heard this a lot before I got chickens. People told me their manure was horrible. I’ve noticed, as my chickens have gotten older, that it has a stronger odor and that the extremely rainy weather we’ve been having makes it worse. But in my experience so far, it’s really not any worse than any other manure I’ve been around. Poop is poop. Our current coop is near our house, not far from our fire pit and picnic table, and the smell isn’t noticeable at all. Having a good cleaning routine certainly helps, and doesn’t take a lot of time (see the next question).

At least chicken poo has an upside: really great compost. You can learn more about that here.

Cleaning up chicken poo | Life In Beta

4. How much time does it take to care for backyard chickens?

Chickens are not time consuming livestock at all. Most days, I spend 15 minutes or less tending to them.

On a typical day, caring for six chickens looks like this…

  • Morning: Stumble out to the coop half-awake. Open chicken door and say hello. Do a head count to make sure everyone is there and looks healthy and happy. Put out their food. Check their water (if it’s low or dirty, hose it out and re-fill it).  (= 5 minutes or less?)
  • Late afternoon (after work): Check chickens. Make sure food and water are full/clean. (= 2 to 5 minutes) Optional: spend time being entertained watching the chickens peck around the yard. (They’re pretty amazing to watch.)
  • Evening (sun down): Make sure all six hens are in the coop. Close chicken door. Carry feeder indoors. (= 3 minutes or less)

Once or twice a week (depending on how muddy and mucky things have been), add maybe 10-15 minutes to clean out the coop:

  • Scrape chicken manure off the board under the roosts into the compost.
  • Rake up dirty straw in the run and put it in the compost. Spread fresh straw.
  • Hose off roosts and scrub with a brush.
  • Do a “deep clean” of the water container (hose out and scrub).

I think that’s a more than fair time commitment for all the fresh eggs your chickens will repay you with!

5. Aren’t you worried about attracting predators/getting salmonella/[insert other fear]?

It’s true that chickens are pretty much the bottom of the food chain and a favorite of predators like weasels, raccoons, possums, birds of prey, fox, coyote, and about any other critter that eats meat. It’s also true that you should take some precautions when handling chickens to prevent salmonella infections.

But does that scare me? No. While I can be a hyper-protective mama at times, I also personally believe as a culture we go way overboard rubberizing and sanitizing and generally shielding ourselves and our children. I believe in using common sense, like thoroughly washing your hands any time you handle your chickens or work in the coop. I certainly recommend predator-proofing your coop and run. Use your head.

Humans domesticated chickens as early as 8,000 BCE. Families in this country have raised chickens for generations. In the past, humans didn’t have nearly the knowledge of sanitation that we do today. We have antibacterial soap to wash our hands and bodies. We have washing machines to clean our work clothes, and the wealth and utilities to wash them regularly. To help protect us from predators, we have electric fences, trail cams, elaborate traps and firearms if necessary. No one is sitting outside in the dark protecting their flock with a spear.

I feel pretty confident with a little common sense and work, chicken keeping is a worthwhile and safe endeavor.

More good advice

Number one: get yourself a copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. It is pretty much THE guide to chicken keeping. Join the forums at BackyardChickens.com and start participating in the discussion there. Then check out a few of my favorite blogs:

Did I miss something? What have you always wondered about chicken-keeping?

Homestead Update: June 2015

Chickens | Life In Beta

I struggle with what to call our little home and hobby farm; I’ve settled on “homestead” because it seems more appropriate than “farm”, and while I do have an interest in being more self-sufficient, I certainly don’t consider myself a “prepper”. So… homestead it is, and hopefully in a few months we’ll grow into that title. Going forward, I hope to do these little Homestead Updates monthly, to share with you all the things we’re up to around the house, related to livestock, gardening, canning and freezing, etc.

My First Tomato of 2015 | Life In Beta
My first tomato of 2015

Gardens and CSA

I had grand plans but failed miserably at having a garden this year. I managed two tomato and one green pepper plant in containers. They all have blossoms and I have tiny tomatoes on one plant, but that’s all so far. I’m hoping we’ll get some much-needed sunshine soon to help with that. I also planted some basil and some lavender but I’m afraid it’s getting lost in all the weeds that have sprouted. If we get a break from the rain, I’ll make an effort to weed them out.

To make up for my lack of gardening this year, we signed up for a quarter share of a local CSA for the season. Our first delivery was last week and it will run every week through mid-November. Full disclosure: I’m a terrible vegetable eater. I grew up eating corn and peas and that was about it. I’ve branched out a bit since then, but this is pushing me to a whole new “try new things”-level, and that’s part of the goal.

CSA Goodies, Week One | Life In Beta

Our first share included mustard greens, kale, mizuna, summer squash, calendula flowers, a gorgeous head of lettuce, scallions, and beet greens with small beets. This was a quarter-share, and I felt like it was the perfect size for us.

We’ve had chicken salads, steak salads with blue cheese, and Mizuna Quinoa Salad with Lemon Scallion Vinaigrette, which was quite adventurous for me!

Salad with CSA Goodies | Life In Beta

I’m not sure it will be my new favorite, but it certainly is pretty!

Chickens In Coop | Life In Beta

Chickens

I think the chickens may have to learn to swim very soon, or I’ll have to buy them inflatable water wings and snorkels. We’ve had what feels like non stop rain for several weeks, with more on the way. My yard is a giant mud-hole and my chicken run is a mess. I keep raking it up as best I can whenever there’s a dry spell, then throwing down fresh straw again to soak up the mud and keep the chickens’ feet dry.

Despite that, our hens are doing well. They’re almost 16 weeks old now, so we’ll be switching them to layer feed soon and hopefully seeing our first eggs next month! I couldn’t be more excited!

Chickens Freeranging | Life In Beta

They also continue to entertain me to no end. On one of the few sunny days we’ve had, I took my laptop outside to work, and one hopped up on the picnic table bench beside me to supervise. I wish I’d had my phone to take a picture! I love letting them free range, but sadly I don’t get to do it much because I don’t trust our neighbor’s three labradors. So the hens get to play outside their run when we’re outside, and they’re lots of fun to watch.

Myles in the Back Yard | Life In Beta

Other Goals

This summer will be a big year for re-stocking our pantry and freezers. I plan to get sweet corn and fresh strawberries to freeze, and I need to can tomato juice and quarters. I’d also like to try my hand at canning salsa and spaghetti sauce if I have the chance. July and August will be very busy months.

The more I learn about factory farming and its mistreatment of both animals AND farmers, the more it drives me to want to be more sustainable on our own. I like knowing that the produce, meat, and eggs I consume come from animals that were treated humanely by farmers who are earning a reasonable wage. We’re not there yet — not even close — but that’s where we’re headed, and I’m looking forward to it!