Archive for October, 2008

A Nice Break

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

The last few days have, thankfully, been very calm. The chickens are doing great – no more tail plucking/picking. They are enjoying free ranging each day – from sun up until down. I can’t tell you how much I love watching them monkey around outside. They typically stay close to their coop and run, but I have opened the front door to find them pecking around the steps, and spied them up at the top of our fenced-in yard.

We’re still making it through the never ending amount of boxes we brought out here from our house in town. I try to spend a couple of hours each day unpacking boxes, deciding what I have room for or can’t part with, and then packing the rest back up. But now that we are completely moved out of the house in town, going through the boxes is relaxing in comparison. And it’s nothing that has to be finished immediately.

It rained all day yesterday. Our rain barrel is filled to the top. I used a little to water some plants I took inside for the winter. We haven’t had rain in several weeks, so a full day of rain was very welcomed. The chicken run got a nice wash down – and so did the chickens. They spent the entire day frolicking around in the rain. One little Phoenix went into the coop for a while, and when she came out I peeked inside and saw she had left us an egg. She was outside playing in the rain again before I could thank her.

We spent this morning cleaning the coop and raking the chicken run. Chickens mulch up leaves really well. After we had raked up all the old leaves, cut grass, and chicken poo that had been in the chicken run for a week or so, we loaded up a few wheel barrels full and covered as much of the garden with it as we could. We’re hoping it will help build up that old shale laden soil we have around here. Then we dumped freshly raked leaves into the run to keep the chickens busy scratching while in there.

We have a nice fire going in the wood stove and just finished eating some turkey chili. I’m enjoying a glass of wine and thanking the heavens that things have calmed down a bit around here. The last few weeks have been a whirl of activity and “situations”. Lordy – country living can be exciting at times.

Bee Free,
Penny

Feather Picking/Plucking and Cannibalism

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Trust me when I tell you that I can think of about a hundred things I’d rather write about than the subject of feather picking/plucking and/or cannibalism in chickens. But I’m afraid this is what we’re going through right now and, in keeping with my promise to share all the ups and downs of our journey into homestead, this is what I’m going to write about today.

Although not everyone experiences feather picking/plucking and/or cannibalism among their flock, it is not really a rare occurrence. When I noticed it within our flock, I immediately began researching the subject to learn all I could about the cause of this disturbing activity and, hopefully, find a cure. What I learned is that there are many, many factors that could possibly contribute to it, and very little hope for a cure once it begins within a flock.

I found several studies, most of which were compiled by universities, and most of which dealt with commercial chicken operations. None the less, I was able to identify a few factors that seemed to apply to my flock and particular situation. If you are interested in researching this for yourself, a simple search engine query on the subject will yield several pages of information.

First of all, we were experiencing only feather picking/plucking within our flock. Although there was no cannibalism, it is extremely common that this type of activity eventually leads to cannibalism. It’s difficult to address one without considering the other.

Interestingly enough, Duke was the only chicken that was the target of this activity. In hindsight, I believe I can pinpoint where this all began. As the alpha rooster, the hens adore Duke. They follow him around and fight to lay next to him when he decides to rest a little. I first noticed that the hens had taken to grooming Duke. They would clean any food from his beak, preen him, and pick out old feathers as he began to molt. This is not unusual activity, so I didn’t think much of it. Before long, however, they began picking out feathers in earnest. Soon they focused on his vent area and began breaking off the new feathers, causing the quills to bleed. It also grew from a few hens engaging in this activity to almost all the hens joining in. I should note that it is not painful for Duke, so he is not inclined to put an end to it.

What I’ve learned is that feather picking/plucking typically begins as chickens go into molt. Picking out the old feathers can escalate into this disturbing activity. While some breeds are prone to feather picking/plucking (and naturally, I have a few of them), it can become a learned behavior for the other chickens as they watch it happening with regularity. I’ve also learned that this behavior is typically a precursor to cannibalism. Needless to say, it should be taken very seriously.

While this behavior does not seem to be completely understood, there are a number of things that have been identified as possible contributing factors. As I said, you can query in a search engine to read all of these factors. I’m am only going to address those that I feel pertain to my particular situation.

The most commonly mentioned contributing factor I read about was boredom. Chickens experience almost everything through their beaks. Even those who have only casually viewed chickens will realize that their pecking never ceases. They peck at anything and everything.

While we provide plenty of space for our chickens, their chicken run has been decimated of anything living. There is not a blade of grass anywhere in it. They have always had toys in their coop, and I routinely sprinkle scratch and treats around the run, but that is not enough to keep them entertained the entire day.

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that I have resisted allowing my chickens to free range any more than a couple of hours a day in the evening, when I can be outside to supervise them. I have always been terrified a predator will get them, and I have always been extremely protective of them. After observing their behavior for the past week, I’ve determined that boredom absolutely contributes to the feather picking/plucking. As a result, I have decided to allow them to free range from first thing in the morning until they go to bed at night. And while I am still very nervous about it, I would rather lose chickens to a predator than watch them peck each other to death.

We are only on the third day of allowing them to free range, but we are already seeing positive results. So far, there has only been one incident of feather picking/plucking and it occurred the first day they were free ranging. Although they have the opportunity to go anywhere they please, they are still somewhat attached to their run and routinely return there. The first day, Duke returned to the run to take his usual afternoon nap with a group of hens. As they were laying there, one of the hamburgs pecked at his tail feathers, causing one to break off and bleed. At this point, I believe this activity has simply become a bad habit for some of the hens.

While in the coop, they are sleeping, and while free ranging they seem too busy to think about the feather picking/plucking. As a result, this activity seems to only occur in their run. We have filled their run with leaves and freshly mowed grass, and I’ve sprinkled sunflower oil seeds through out it. There has been no feather picking/plucking since.

There are some who feel feather picking/plucking is a result of the lack of protein in the flock’s diet. I routinely feed my flock snacks that are high in protein, but I also give them some snacks that are high in calories, low in fiber, and not very high in protein. I have eliminated all snacks except sunflower oil seeds, which have 16% protein. I am also withholding the scratch until we feel this situation is under control.

I purchased a couple of Flock Blocks, which are blocks of compressed grains formulated for chickens. It is made by Purina Mills and the literature claims it helps encourage healthy pecking and thereby discourages feather picking/plucking and cannibalism.

I’ve also ordered some Hot Pick to spray on Duke’s tail feathers to discourage others from pecking at him, and some Avian Guard 2000, which is supposed to contain minerals and vitamins that chickens ingest and curb their desire to peck and pick on other chickens.

At this point, we cautiously optimistic that we have gotten this unpleasant issue under control. While I am pleased with that, the best course of action is to prevent this type of thing from happening in the first place. I am certain that if I had known more on this subject, I could have prevented it. There may be many contributing factors, but the largest is most likely my flock management techniques. In my defense, I was unaware of the causes of feather picking/plucking. Hopefully, by posting this, those of you with chickens may learn what to watch for and how to address it before it becomes an issue within your flock.

So, in a nutshell, the steps we are taking to end this feather picking/plucking are increasing the protein in the flock’s diet, insuring the chicken run is filled with items to keep them busy while in there, and allowing the flock to free range during daylight hours. As I said, we are cautiously optimistic that these steps are working.

If you are interested in a day to day update, I have started a thread on BackYardChickens. I have been updating it daily and will continue to do so until we feel confident the situation is under control. There have been helpful comments on the thread as well, so if you are currently experiencing this horrible activity within your flock, or would like to learn more about how to prevent it, you may find the BackYardChickens thread useful.

If you have experienced feather picking/plucking and/or cannibalism within your flock, I would be very interested in hearing about how you addressed the issue. Please post a comment, or drop me an email.

Ending this on a lighter note, I looked out the window the other day and saw Bernie standing by his truck, with Duke at his feet staring up at him. As I walked up to them, I heard Bernie saying “Yes, I know it’s a nice truck. And I know you like it. But you can not get up on it. Do you hear me? You can not get up on this truck. Now, go over there and tell all those hens that no one is allowed up on this truck. OK?” I can’t be certain, but I am fairly sure I heard a snort erupting from the hens.

Bee Free,
Penny

Love is in the Air

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Well, maybe it’s not exactly “love”, but the roosters have certainly been…..well….since I try to keep this blog at a PG rating, we’ll just say the roosters have been “affectionate” with the hens lately – very “affectionate”.

Without getting into too many details, my concern of Duke’s size when it comes to being “affectionate” turns out not to be an issue at all. The girls seem to enjoy his attention and he is very gentle with them. Bobby Lee? Not so much.

Bobby Lee is much smaller than Duke. He’s as handsome as they come, but he’s not the Alpha Rooster. Duke is the Apha Rooster – and the hens know this. Not that it stops Bobby Lee from showering the girls with “affection” every chance he gets though. He just has to work pretty hard at it and the girls protest a fair amount. And it is fairly common that Duke scolds Bobby Lee for messing with his girls. Poor little Bobby Lee. He does regularly get “lucky” though and I definitely give him points for his persistence.

I suspect only one or two of the 21 hens are laying right now. We typically find one egg a day. That means, if my math is correct, that there are 19 or 20 free loaders in that coop. I think I’ve been more than patient up to now, but yesterday I found exactly zero eggs. That’s right. We got nothing out of those hens all day long. Zilch. Nada.

Yesterday evening I sat down with the hens and had a little chat. I could tell they felt guilty because the entire time I was talking to them the only one that made eye contact with me was a Black Spanish, who was on my shoulder attempting to peck my eye out. The rest hung their heads and pecked at my toe nails. Duke and Bobby Lee were, of course, excused from the lecture, but they began looking very concerned when I threatened the whole bunch with curbing their treats. When I left Duke and Bobby Lee were fussing at the girls pretty good, so I’m thinking that, with their help, we should begin seeing a rise in egg production on the homestead.

Now that we’ve tackled the lion’s share of the move from our home in town, Bernie is hoping to get electricity run out to the coop for me in the next couple of weeks so that I can more conveniently turn on the heat lamps for the chickens and put a light on a timer to increase the day for the girls. Maybe they’ll stop complaining and start laying some eggs.

I’d start mentioning chicken soup right about now, but those girls are just too darn cute for me to even threaten it. They’ve got me right where they want me. Darn chickens. I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be this way.

Bee Free,
Penny

If, at first, you don’t succeed……

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Bernie and I started our Back to Basic Living website in May of 2006. At that time, I outlined our plan for getting back to basic living and how we hoped to accomplish it. Let’s call that Plan A.

There was one step in Plan A that we did not accomplish in the 18 months that followed the outline I posted. We had not entirely eliminated all debt. We had hoped to sell our home in town and use the proceeds to pay off the remaining mortgage on our land. At that point, we would be debt free, move to our homestead, and be one step closer to our goal of getting back to basic living.

As it turned out, life wasn’t really on board with our Plan A. In fact, life had a-whole-nother plan for us. There are many graphs and charts and theories about when the housing market began to decline, but I can tell you, with complete certainty, the exact moment the downward spiral of the housing market began. This event occurred at precisely the second that we listed our home for sale. Seriously. And so, as is often the case, circumstances led us to come up with Plan B.

Plan B was much the same as Plan A, with the exception of moving to our homestead and then selling our home in town to pay off all debt. Certainly we would be able to sell our home in town over the next couple of years, right? And in doing so, we would be able to use the proceeds to eliminate the remaining debt of the land mortgage. So we moved onto our homestead and believed that, with a little patience, Plan B would work for us and we would soon be debt free.

As it turns out, a couple of years was absolutely not what was needed to sell our home in town. In fact, a couple of years is what it took for us (and the entire nation) to realize that the economy of the U.S. is tanking. Home sales, across the country, are at an all time low. Home values have plummeted. We won’t even talk about what’s happening on Wall Street right now. Suffice it to say, conditions in this country have forced us to come up with Plan C.

Plan C involves renting out the home in town. While we will not realize our dream of being debt free as quickly as we had hoped and mapped out in Plan A and Plan B, renting the home in town will provide us with additional money each month that we can apply to the land mortgage. Plan C will take a bit longer but will ultimately allow us to accomplish our goal of eliminating all debt. At least I certainly hope it will. We are well into the alphabet at this point with plans.

I share the above with you for a couple of reasons. First, it’s been a while since I posted and I didn’t want you to think I’m a slacker or that I’ve forgotten about you. My Dear John will still think I’m a slacker, but I’m hoping the rest of you will give me a break here. Bernie and I have been busier than bees the past week packing up a home we were in for over 20 years and hauling it all out to the homestead. We promised our renter we would be out at the end of this week so that she can begin painting the house and move in by next weekend. Lest you think that’s a pitiful excuse, please allow me to explain.

Bernie and I are both pack rats. We throw nothing away. And when I say “nothing”, I really do mean “nothing”. We had over 20 years of crap stuffed in every nook and cranny of a house that is three times the size of the home we now live in. We found clothes that I wore 23 years ago stuffed in a box in a closet, toys that my now 30-plus year old niece and 20-plus year old step-daughters played with as small children, and a small box of old gun pieces that Bernie stored in a suitcase (for some completely unknown reason) over 20 years ago and thought he had lost. I would say it was a walk down memory lane but it was, in fact, a moment of sheer horror as we realized we had 3400 square feet of utter junk to sort through, pack, load, and unload in the span of one short week.

So you see, that is why I haven’t blogged in the past week. Not only have I been incredibly, overwhelmingly busy, I am so sore from packing and moving boxes and furniture that I’ve been questioning my ability to even raise my arms high enough to reach the keyboard, let alone use my aching fingers to type. Yes, it’s sad. I know. Well, grab a hanky and read on as I explain the second reason I’ve shared our plans with you and how they’ve worked out.

The main reason I’ve told you about Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C is because I made a promise when I started the Back to Basic website and this blog that I would document our journey into homesteading – and this includes the good, the bad, and the ugly of our experiences. And while doing this does allow me a therapeutic method of dealing with our ups and downs, it’s not the only reason.

I have received so many emails from people who have stumbled upon our website, or this blog, and have taken the time to write me and tell me that we are an inspiration. So many people want to get back to basic living, but fear they don’t have the courage, knowledge, or stamina to begin giving up a life of convenience and working to become more self reliant and self sufficient. Several of you have read my little tutorial on making home made soap, and then written me with questions, or to tell me how thrilled you were to follow my directions and make your very own soap for the first time in your life. Many have begun to raise meal worms after reading my post about it. I’ve even gotten emails from a few people who decided to raise chickens after following my posts on the subject, or built their very own chicken coop. Some of you have made your own butter, yogurt, and cheese after reading my posts on the subject. And virtually every email I receive mentions that reading what I post on the website and/or blog has left the sender feeling that if we can do it, so can he/she.

Getting back to basic living is a choice that Bernie and I have made. It’s a goal that we are working toward. We feel it is necessary for our health and our sanity, if not our basic survival. It is our hope that, by sharing our struggles and victories with you, you may learn from them and be inspired to begin your own journey in getting back to basic living.

I advise starting with your own Plan A and, if that doesn’t work out, go with Plan B – and if all else fails, move on to Plan C. It is, after all, not the destination that matters as much as it is the journey taken in reaching it that brings the most satisfaction. Let’s just hope we all get there before resorting to Plan Z.

Bee Free,
Penny

What’s All the Squawking About?

Friday, October 10th, 2008

My dad was kind enough to give us his old wood burning stove. We figured it was free, so the price was certainly right. It ended up being as free as a “free puppy”. Once we got it home, we realized we’d need to install a chimney where none previously existed, buy all the pipe for it, put a stove board up, and come up with a fire proof platform for it to sit upon. But at least we got a FREE wood burning stove, darnit! And we really do love it. This year our goal is to use absolutely nothing but wood to heat this house. The stove dad gave us is perfect.

Yesterday, while we were working on the finishes touches involved in installing our “free” stove, I heard one of the hens squawking like crazy. When I looked outside, I could see that all the other chickens were in the chicken yard, but one hen was in the coop, and she was carrying on something fierce. I got really excited and told Bernie “I bet she’s laying an egg!” I went running out to the coop, opened the door, stuck my head inside, and looked all around the coop. No egg. I came back inside quite disappointed.

Later in the afternoon I went into the chicken run to change out the water. As I opened the door and walked into the coop, I saw this:

Can you believe it? These hens are two days shy of 21 weeks, and they are starting to lay! I was excited beyond words. You would have thought I’d found a golden egg – and to me, it was worth every bit as much.

When I ran out looking for the egg the first time, I didn’t step inside. The egg was nestled down in a little divot the hen had dug. When I stepped up into the coop, I saw it right away. What a wonderful day!

The egg was absolutely perfect. A little small, but beautifully shaped with a hard shell. Here’s a picture of it in Bernie’s palm:

Is that not the cutest little thing? And here it is next to a store bought egg (keep in mind the store bought egg is an extra large):

And here it is after I cracked it and put it next to the cracked store bought egg:

Look at the deep, luscious color of that yolk. Yum! I have to tell you that was one fine fried egg. I savored every bite of it.

It’s late in the evening now, and I haven’t found another egg today. I am a little disappointed. I had a little chat with the girls about it when I went in to give them a snack. They seemed surprised to learn that I’m actually expecting a little in return for feeding their worthless butts all these months. I mentioned the home made yogurt, the home made whole wheat corn bread, the meal worms, the garden vegetables they get fairly regularly, and all the time I spend catching crickets and earth worms for them. Other than pecking moles off my legs and hopping on my shoulders to peck at my hair, they didn’t seem to be paying any attention to me at all. Chickens these days. Honestly. You just can’t do anything with them.

Bee Free,
Penny

Beauty in Homesteading

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

We’ve learned over the past year that homesteading can be a lot of hard work. Even though it’s very rewarding work, it can be physically demanding – and it seems that it never ends. There’s always a list a mile long that needs to be accomplished. Just when summer is coming to an end, it’s time to gear up for colder weather. Clean the chimneys, cut, split, and stack firewood, winterize the chicken coop, prepare the garden for winter…. and the list goes on and on.

This morning is a crisp, chilly morning. We started it at 5:30AM. I grabbed a cup of coffee and Bernie got a fire going in the fireplace. I am not a fan of cold weather, but fall brings a beauty all of its own and I enjoy sitting in front of a nice, warm fire.

Just as dawn had broken, we noticed a young buck in the backyard. We see doe in our yard daily, as many as 10 or 11 at a time, but we rarely see a buck. I managed to snap a picture of him through a window:

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He’s a handsome young buck, isn’t he? We’ve seen another coming around recently. He’s very easy to identify because one of his antlers is either deformed or broken. He hasn’t gotten close enough for us to really determine. This is a new buck that wandered up this morning. I’m pretty sure we’ve not seen him before. I wonder if these bucks will come back to visit so we can watch as they grow into strong and powerful bucks?

We left the “city life” just over a year ago – and we’ve never looked back. We work around our homestead daily and we live with purpose now, more than ever before. Yes, it can be hard work. But there is a beauty in homesteading that can’t be experienced outside of living it. That beauty is in what we see, what we experience, and how we live.

I’m not sure if homesteading is a part of us, or we are a part of it. I simply know the beauty of it is all encompassing and leaves me with a sense of peace and well being. In “these times”, that alone would make our journey into homesteading worth it.

Bee Free,
Penny