A Chicken Named Dog

Adventures with a Flock Family

Author: Bill (page 1 of 2)

Chickens like the Spring as well

One wouldn’t know it, but Spring has actually sprung, even with the snow flurries in the air.  With the ground thawing, we have actually been able to till the garden.

A bit about our garden.  We do things on a scale…one which is a rather large scale.  We share the garden with my father-in-law, whose idea of a small garden is one that is about an acre.  So, when we till, it is an all-day event.

The girls in warmer times.

The girls in warmer times.

We were able to till this last weekend, and with that came moving the coops around, stringing a row (approximately 150 feet long) and putting some pea seeds in.  As the dirt was being foot-shoveled over the pea seeds, I noticed that the hens were watching.  I didn’t know that hens would pay attention, but there they were…looking at our rows.

Yesterday, Rebecca said that as soon as the purple coop was released to roam for a bit, they went right to the pea row.

So, beware.  Sneak your planting in unless you have enough to share.  🙂

Egg-celent Cel-egg-bration for Easter

When one has a brood of hens working hard to provide organic wonders, that person has no need to color “white” eggs.  In fact, as we found out, the variation of color in our hen’s eggs allowed for a deeper and richer end egg product this last Easter.

A collection of our hen's hard work.


A collection of our hen’s hard work.

You may first notice that our hens lay a variety of colors (light brown, dark red, blue and green).  With these as a set of base colors, any additional color deepens in color, providing a richer color.

We tried to use natural coloring this year.  We cooked a beat, brewed some coffee and boiled an artichoke.  The coffee made a weak tan, the beat made an oily mess on the egg and the artichoke’s green, although nicely hued, didn’t take.

A blue egg with some additional blue hue.

A blue egg with some additional blue hue.

So, we went old-school.  Using the traditional vinegar-based egg coloring, with the handy little metal wire holders, plastic cups and wax crayons, we began to deepen the naturally occurring colors.

A blue egg turning green, with a "franken-egg" thrown in for contrast.

A blue egg turning green, with a “franken-egg” thrown in for contrast.

The blue, as you can see in the image, turned out a deep and dark royal blue.  Far from messing up the colors, the natural egg color enhanced the dye in a strong and engaging way.

Since we colored our eggs at the grandparents’ house, we had to accommodate Grandma’s fear that we wouldn’t have enough eggs to go around, what with Aunts and Cousins coloring.  So, the white eggs, bought from the local grocery chain, served as a good contrast to the power of our colored-eggs coloration.

Once we had the base colors, sparkles, wax accents and all of the other coloring fun could be added.  The results are seen below.  But I had to move quickly because not only are the final eggs visually impacting, they were delicious as well.

A basket full of colored goodness.

A basket full of colored goodness.

Spring is here, along with amorous predators

We have had two separate incidents in the last week that outline just how diligent we have to be to protect our birds.

The first incidence was last Wednesday.  I was gathering the evening eggs (the longer days are bring in a bounty of

Not someone you want to see in your hen-house.

eggs) when I opened the Purple Coop to find a possum hissing back at me.  It (I have no idea how to determine gender when the thing is hissing at me with its awful teeth) was sitting on two empty egg shells, and the hens were clumped outside the coop, up against the fence, huddled as far away from the thief as they could get.

We have a dog run made up of cyclone fencing panels.  To this we have added a running layer of chicken wire that skirts the lower two feet and extends out along the ground in order to deter/prevent burrowing under.

Possums must be able to climb a six-foot cyclone fence.  There was no burrowing (we still had snow, so I would have seen the tracks) and no other signs of forced entry.

Perhaps this explains the strange wounds on the hens’ behinds we have been noticing over the last week.

We also were surprised with the appearance of a particular type of weasel  the ermine.  While the Department of

Cute. Check. Eater of eggs. Check.

Natural Resources (DNR) indicates that their presence is rare, we found one…in the garden…with our chicken pens.

Actually, by the time we noticed the varmint, the chickens had already rendered it lame (its back, left leg wasn’t working), so catching it was relatively simple.  Let it run under a pallet and then pick it up by the scruff (which is not the approach I took with the possum).

As we relocated it down and across the road, we wondered if we shouldn’t have taken it across the river.

I hope we don’t see either of our two visitors again.

As for the rut, Sonnie, our big, red rooster had taken up arms, once again, to wage war against boots of all sorts.  He will defend against all.

The magnificent chicken

After a weekend of sadness (Goat, a large Auracana hen, succumbed to illness–RIP Goat), I thought it would be nice to celebrate the diversity and beauty of the chicken.  These photographs come from the work of Tamara Staples, whose two books of chicken glamour shots is certainly worth a look.







Avoiding “Killer Compost”

Real Compost

Real Compost (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As previously noted, we go to significant lengths to obtain organic straw and haw.  There are three very good reasons (two of which are ultimately part of the same reason):

  1. Non-organic straw and hay have been directly linked to allergic burns and rashes on our skin
  2. Our chickens and ducks eat the straw and hay, and we eat their eggs
  3. The straw and hay become compostable matter which goes directly into our garden–and we eat the garden products

So, whether the straw and hay intersects with our skin or other organs, what we introduce to the garden becomes a part of us.

So, we hook up the trailer and drive the 25 minutes to into the hinterland to a farm committed to organic growing.  His straw and hay is a bit more expensive, but thus far we have had no allergic burns, and we are optimistic that our compost will be “clean” as well.

MotherEarthNews.com has an update to an earlier story about “killer compost”–compost that once put in the garden or around plants, proves toxic to those plants.  The story, “Killer Compost Update: Herbicide Damage Still a Major Problem,” details how “persistent herbicides” refuse to break down, traveling from ground, through animal, through compost to the end-user, killing the very plants that the compost was supposed to nourish.  Persistent indeed.

The article outlines some very specific persistent herbicides found in toxic compost in Vermont last year (2012): picloram, clopyralid.  Since these are regulated and controlled, the researchers asked the Vermont Agency of Agriculture who was using these chemicals.  No one, legally, was using them for the prior two years.

Digging deeper, the researchers isolated the source not to the compost, but to the feed given to the horses from which the compost was made.  The herbicide had made it through the cutting of the field (which was the initial source of the spray), through the industrial feed/food manufacturing process, through the horses’ digestive system and through the composting process.  That includes cutting, processing, digesting and composting (which involves heat), and the persistent virulence of the product remained intact to the point of killing (it is a herbicide after all) the plants on the receiving end of the compost.

We will continue to make our own compost, with our own birds (they are fed organic feed) and unsprayed straw and hay.  We may not be completely clean (overspray from neighboring farmers may result in incidental cross-contamination–but hopefully in minute parts/(m)(b)illion), but I trust our birds to peck, scratch and lay cleanly.  And, as spring nears, their bedding will become a positive addition to our tomatoes, squash and sunflowers.

If, after reading the article linked above, you wish to act, I encourage you to follow the articles prompt and write to the following:

This has to stop. Clearly, EPA labeling requirements and state regulations aren’t working. Recycling organic wastes to maintain soil fertility is essential if we want a sustainable food-production system. Picloram, clopyralid, aminocyclopyrachlor and all similar chemicals should be banned, period.

To express your view on the use of these persistent pesticides, we suggest you send your comments to Richard Keigwin, director of the EPA’s Special Review and Reregistration Division, at keigwin.richard@epa.gov.

Chickens love running water in the cold weather

I have previously wondered how hardy our “cold hardy” chickens are during this colder-than normal winter.  One of the methods that we are experimenting with this year is continued running water.  Well, the real reason the water is running is that we did not have the

Artesian Well in Winter

Artesian Well in Winter (Photo credit: Tom Gill.)

foresight/resources/time to dig the electric water pump below the frost line, so we have had to scramble to erect a shelter (think pallet walls with a tarp, lean-to roof–Rachel calls it a manger) to provide some measure of protection from the elements and to trap the little heat from the heat lamps.  We have also had the pump running since November–not the most economical fix, and a spring/summer project to be sure.

Since we have the pump running, we have two open lines of continuous water, one hose going to the Drake House and one stretched the length of the garden to our older bird community (see the page “what the flock?“).  The drakes love the water, dropping down from above into their small, rubber bath (I think it is actually a small horse trough) allowing them to take a dip at any time with fresh water.  In fact I was worried about having water available to them through the winter cold, but since the water out of the well is around 40-something degrees, it is actually warmer than the ambient air, and certainly warmer than the frozen ground.  So I have found them standing in the overflow water that streams out of their coop.  I think their feet like the warmth.

With the other hose, we have used the running water to melt the snow pack in the dog run (we have a “dog run” for the chickens because of other peoples’ dogs–6×8 cyclone fence panels shaped in a sort of hexagon) which allows the hens access to unfrozen dirt.  We have also noticed that they too like to stand in the running water.

So, if you chickens get cold feet, just run a hose.  🙂

Tonight’s low will be 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Having Chickens, It’s a Good Thing

I have not always been a fan of Martha Stewart.  No really good reason other than her place is always so  much cleaner than my own, which is not really a good reason.

Martha’s chickens sitting on her homemade roosts.


Anyway, I have recently warmed to her for one basic proposition–she is a chicken mom.  Actually, it seems that she has chickens, ducks, turkeys…she doesn’t seem to be one who does things by the half measure.

My sister-in-law, Rachel, brought an article, which I cannot find, but I did find an interesting clip from her show:  Martha Stewart on chickens.  Although she gives good, solid advice, I would disagree with her recommending a heat lamp for the roost for cold temperatures.  With our experience with an inadvertent forced molt, such supplemental heat, actually it is the supplemental light, should be used with care and sparingly.

I am wondering if there is a good way to introduce low-level heat without the light…

I have also read that a roost should not be too large, nor too small.  Hers seem on the large side.  I shall investigate for a future post, about posts…

If you go looking for chicken information on Martha’s many websites, be prepared to find lots of recipes.  She is way short on chicken advice, which I find interesting.  She has lots of cooking, cleaning and dog posts, but scant chicken.  Perhaps she will work on that.

Ms. Stewart has a picture-perfect farm, for which I am annoyed with her by implication.  But, she has happy and health chickens, so her place must be, on the whole, a good thing.

Just how hardy is “cold hardy”

This week, and extending into the next couple, we have been experiencing winter colds that are, on average, colder than they have been in at least four years.  That is, it is colder than we have experienced with chickens.

So, how cold hardy are our birds, all of whom we bought with an eye toward the “cold hardy” breed description.

We are in the process of finding out.

In order to protect our birds, we have, in the past, put up heat lamps.  Our first year, three years ago, we placed a heat lamp directly in

The girls and Sonny  in warmer times.

The girls and Sonny in warmer times.

the a-frame coop, tying it up and leaving it on all night.  Our two birds (see “Other Peoples’ Dogs“) made it just fine in the cold, but with the direct light, we inadvertently pushed our hen, Dog, into a premature molt.  Judging by the timing of other silver-laced Wyandottes, she shouldn’t have molted until around 18 months–which for Dog should have been the following summer/fall.  With the increased light, though, she dropped her feathers in the coldest part of the winter, thus, to us, increasing the need for supplemental heating.

Not wanting to repeat an inadvertent forced molting, the next winter (last winter and number two for us and fowl) we supplemented mainly under the main coop and mainly to help out Melanie the Peking duck.  She had lost her duck-mate a few months earlier, and while she seemed to be accepted into the full coop flock of hens and one rooster, she would act cold, pulling her feet up into her feathers and voicing her disapproval at the whole snow idea.

This year we are going without lights, hoping that no inadvertent molting will occur.

This year we are trying WATER!

In the past, the garden pump, placed over a stab-well, is pulled in the late fall at or around the first frost.  Since it isn’t our pump, we complied, carrying the necessary water in gallon jugs.  With the increased population (yay for success there), this year we are attempting to overwinter with water access at the garden.  Thus far, with a few minor set-backs, we continue to have running water, even with overnight temperatures at ZERO degrees Fahrenheit (all temps in Fahrenheit).

I notice a couple of nights ago that the brown-runner drakes (who still have not laid their first egg–D@#! Tractor Supply worker who promised two females) were standing in the running hose water, even with the ambient temperature at zero.  The water out of the well, we were told, is about 38–40 degrees, so it is, comparatively, balmy.

So, we set up a hose in Melanie’s area to see if she wants to stand in the running water as well.  Bonus, the ground in the run-off area is thawing, opening up a potential access to dirt.

We have also used straw and hay (organic–see “The Dangers of Treated Seeds“) to fill in the cracks in the nesting areas and to bale around the “skirt” area in the bottom portion of the A-frame.

With a forecast of two-to-three weeks at single-digit overnight lows, we shall see if our approach will make it.

Coping with Coop Poop

As I compose blog posts in my head while I tend to my chickens, one of the recurrent themes is that the art of chicken maintenance is all about handling the poop–specifically, and here it goes, the coop poop.


When dealing with the dreaded coop poop, nothing beats the hand rake at keeping the stuff at a reasonable distance.

We have a variety of coops (more on this in a later post), so our coop poop approach varies.  Today’s topic will deal with our oldest and first coop design and the absolute, most important tool for the job.

Our first coop was designed and built by Adam, my brother-in-law.  He saw it as a building challenge.  We discussed what we wanted out of a coop: movable through the garden rows,  nesting boxes that opened to the outside, a retractable ramp to close the hens in, and a screen skirt with a removable door for their scratching pleasure.  The idea was to move the chicken tractor/coop up and down the rows, with the hens scratching underneath and going up to roost at night.

Things don’t always go as planned.

The A-frame design is a good design: sturdy, stays put in wind and accessible–especially with a large side door.  We kept that basic design for our second large coop last summer.  Yay A-frame design.

We did not, though, anticipate the demands of the coop poop.  Here’s how: when constructing a door or access way, it is easier to clean if the opening extends down past the floor level.  That is, the easiest cleaning comes from a smooth scrape out.  We did not anticipate this.

While seemingly providing good access, the lower lip becomes an obstacle to a clean sweep.

While seemingly providing good access, the lower lip becomes an obstacle to a clean sweep.

We thought that a good nesting box, located at both ends of the A-frame, needed borders, much like a raised bed.  So, our doors have a lip around the bottom–good for holding in straw or bedding, bad if you then want to scrape out that straw or bedding with minimal effort.  (see picture to the right, with the removable door removed)

Enter the hand-rake.  Extending about a foot from my hand, my trusty hand rake offers me two options for coop poop removal: the three-pronged rake for grabbing the straw, and the hard edge for scraping the extra sticky droppings and, when the straw is extracted, shoveling the dust and dropping up and over the wall’s lower lip.

So, if you create a coop which has a level that is not open to the outside at the floor, then a hand-rake should be on your shopping list.

Happy chickening.

Composting with Chickens – BackYard Chickens Community

I just read a wonderful article about using chickens to “turn” a compost pile until it is mulch.  This aligns with our goal of having working chickens that add and benefit the garden.

Chickens begin to root and scratch around a pile of fresh compostable materials.

The same compost pile, now after 4 months of chicken work,resulting in actual compost.

I am linking a few of the photos (particularly the before and after shots), so to get the full article and more pictures, follow here: Composting with Chickens – BackYard Chickens Community.

Composting also allows us to cycle through the Franken-hay that we inadvertently bought.  In a pinch, we purchased some hay from the local co-op.  After working with the hay, Rebecca broke out in a pretty severe rash on any skin that was exposed to the hay particles floating in the air.  When asked at the co-op, they indicated that it was “normal” hay, probably just treated with a little  2,4-D.  

We are now buying straw and hay from a local farmer committed to organic practices.  The hay is not as green, but we are finding that the greener the hay, the more toxic the hay.

A final note, Penelope the duck has started laying again.  She has been fallow for about a month, with an occasional “rubber” egg–an egg whose shell isn’t completely firm.  We tried providing oyster shells to help, but it (coincidentally?) seems to correlate with removing all of the co-op hay and introducing the organically-grown hay.  After two days with the better hay, the shell has firmed up.

The franken-hay is being moved well away.

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