Full Coop, Happy Heart
It’s been a while since we added a big group of chickens to the farm. In 2012, we moved the founding members of 5R Farm – Rhoda, Raquel, Rosie, Ruby, and Ramona – from the backyard of our Portland house to the farm, and we also got 24 chicks for the farm. We built a big coop that was 10 feet x 12 feet and they had a big pasture in which to roam and live the good life. Chickens don’t live the longest lives, and over the years we’ve lost most of the chickens from our first farm flock. We haven’t had any predator losses of the girls in the main coop, but unfortunately there are a lot of reproductive problems and other fatal conditions that are all too common in chickens. These conditions are mostly due to the changes in their anatomy and physiology that have resulted from chicken breeding over the years to produce more and bigger eggs. Those of us who love our feather family could care less about the eggs after our girls reach a certain age, we just want our girls to be happy and healthy and live long lives. We still have Raquel, one of the first three chickens we got back in 2010. She’s our beautiful and bossy barred rock, and at 9-1/2 years old, she’s still our flock matriarch. We also still have five of the ladies we got in 2012 – Buttercup, Squeaky 2, Reina, Other One, and a speckled Sussex who just goes by Sussex – when you have dozens of chickens not all of them get names! So it’s pretty good actually that we have six chickens that are over seven years old. These ladies are all in henopause, they no longer lay eggs, but they will continue to live out their retirement here as thanks for all of the joy they have given me over the years. But as much as much as I love my elder ladies, the big coop that we built in 2012 had been getting a bit empty over the years, and I longed to see it full again.
Over the years we’ve hatched small batches of chicks, many of which have turned out to be roosters and have gone off to live on other farms. But we have added a few ladies over the years – Rosalie (daughter of Rosie), Ruby 2, and Pippi are three of the green egg layers we’ve hatched here on the farm. We also added heritage Narragansett turkeys to the farm back in 2015, and we spent a couple of years focusing on them and getting their set-up working smoothly. Over the last couple of years we’ve hatched and also bought a few chicks for the turkey yard, which is separate from our main chicken coop and backyard, and sadly we have had predator losses of several young chicks and pullets in the turkey yard, due to a weasel is my best guess, and they are hard to beat. Despite my efforts to build our laying flock back up over the years, it just hasn’t happened due to one reason or another. So this was the year that I decided that I would buy a bunch of chicks from the feed store. For the full size chicken breeds, the chicks are are sexed at the hatchery, and there is supposed to be an approximately 90% chance that the chicks will be be female. I wanted to get some of my favorite breeds from my original flock, which include barred Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island red, black Australorp, and Easter egger. I’ve also heard that the Buff Orpington is a great breed – like the puppy dog of the chicken world, so I added them to the list as well. Lastly, I wanted to get some silkies to replace our sweet silkie Millie that we lost last fall. Silkies are a bantam (miniature) breed of chicken and because of that they cannot be sexed at the hatchery, so they are sold “straight run” which means that you are equally likely to get hens as roosters (and in my case, usually roosters!)
In February we added 14 chicks, three of which were silkies, and the rest were my other favorite breeds that I mentioned above. They spent their first three weeks growing up in 2 foot x 4 foot wooden box (called a brooder) with a heat lamp that I had in my home office. Lap chicken training starts early around here, after all we do want friendly chickens! So those first few weeks are a really fun time of bringing the chicks out to the living room for evenings spent on the sofa, watching TV and getting to know each other. After the first few weeks, the chicks start kicking up a lot of dust as they scratch and peck in the pine shavings that line their brooder. Soon every surface in the house is covered with a fine dust, and it’s time to move the chicks to their outside accommodations. They are kept separate from the grown up chickens until they are old enough and big enough that they can’t be bullied as easily by the older chickens. During this transitional time, we raised the young chickens in a 10 foot x 10 foot secure outdoor run, which has a roof and wind protection on the sides, and had two heat lamps to keep them warm at night. When the chicks were about 3 months old they joined our existing older ladies, and the integration went surprisingly smoothly. I think it was because we added eleven young chickens to our older nine chickens, the relatively equal number of chickens in the two flocks made for an easy time of it. I’m happy to report that all eleven of the full size breeds turned out to be hens, which never happens to me! I fully expected one or two roosters in the bunch, but I got lucky this time around. As for the silkies, my rooster magnet was in full force again this year, and only one of the three silkie chicks ended up being a hen. As you may recall, when I got three silkie chicks last year they ALL ended up being roosters. But my silkie girl, Bella, is such a sweetheart that I say it was worth all five of those silkie roos just to get this beautiful and sweet little lady. Now when I do evening rounds, and I close up the big coop and I see it full of chickens, my heart is full again.
Welcome Home, Honeys
It was six years ago that we started beekeeping and welcomed our first honeybees to the farm. After the first hive was successfully established, we took splits from the first hive to establish two more hives. Our beehives did very well until the winter of 2017-18 when we lost one hive, and this past winter we lost the other two. Moisture in the hives over the winter can be a big challenge to beekeepers in the Pacific Northwest. Although I had taken efforts to prepare the hives to survive our wet winters by installing a special cover (called a Vivaldi cover) to help vent moisture from the hive as well as leaving plenty of honey in the hives as a winter food source, sometimes our best efforts are not enough. Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby and very rewarding too, and it’s also one in which we are continually learning how to become better beekeepers as we go along. I have ordered a package of bees which will arrive in April, and we will start again. In order to prepare myself for the big day, as well as helping any new beekeepers out there who are just getting started, it seemed like a good idea to revisit the blog I wrote after setting up my first hive.
Flashback to April 2013 – On Saturday morning the bees I had ordered arrived at the bee store, and we picked them up and went immediately to the farm to install them into their hive. I purchased the bees in what is called a bee package, which is a small wood and wire mesh box that contains 3 pounds or approximately 10,000 bees. In preparation for setting up our first hive, I took a beekeeping class from the store where I purchased the bees. The process of transferring the bees into the hive sounded easy enough in the class (there was only one slide in the Powerpoint presentation after all!), but there are lots of steps in the process and all the while you can’t help but think about all that could go wrong with 10,000 angry bees on the loose! Actually it went pretty well, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how tolerant the bees were of my actions and to realize that they really just want to go about their own business.
The first order of business was to put on the protective bee gear, which included a jacket and veil (which is the screened hood) and long leather gloves – which worked great except for the slight decrease in finger dexterity due to the gloves (more on that later). While the bees are being transported in their package to the bee store, they feed on a simple syrup mixture in a tin can that hangs in the middle of the box. The first step in transferring the bees to the hive is to pry the tin can loose and quickly lift it out of the box, stick your hand in the box, and remove the tiny cage (called the queen cage) that the queen bee is contained in that hangs from the top of the box. Then you have to quickly put the tin can back in the box to keep the bees from escaping. Since the queen bee meets her colony for the first time when they are packaged for shipment, the queen is confined in a very small cage, about the size of a lipstick tube, to allow her colony to be exposed to her pheromones and learn to identify her as their queen before they are allowed to interact with her. If the bees are allowed contact with their new queen before they have learned to recognize her as their queen, there is a possibility that they may kill her, hence the reason for the queen cage. Before transferring the queen cage into the beehive, you remove a tiny cork at the bottom of her cage and replace it with a miniature marshmallow, then attach the queen cage with a thumbtack to one of the frames inside of the hive (did I mention that you’re wearing kind of thick gloves during all of this?!) Over the course of a couple of days, the queen and the other bees will eat through the marshmallow which frees the queen from her cage to join her colony. Doesn’t that sound just like a romantic fairytale!
If you thought that first part of setting up the hive was a bit nerve-wracking, just wait until you hear about the next part. Working quickly, you give the box containing the bees a quick bang on the ground to knock the bees loose so that they fall onto the bottom of the box, then you remove the tin can again and pour the bees through the relatively small hole in the box into the bee hive. Again, this sounded easy enough when it was described in the class that I took, but let me tell you as soon as I whacked the box on the ground and I heard the loud buzzing of 10,000 bees I got a little freaked out! After several whacks and repeated pouring and shaking of the box, I was able to get the majority of the bees into the hive. You don’t have to get every last bee into the hive, just most of them, and then you leave the box propped in front of the hive entrance and they are supposed to find their way into the hive by following the pheromone scent of the queen. It didn’t seem to me that the bees were all that interested in leaving their box and going into the hive, so I came back a couple more times during the afternoon to whack the box and shake them into the hive, and I’d say eventually all but probably 100 of them went into the hive. After a couple hours of excitement of transferring the bees into the hive, I was more than a little ready to close the hive up and be done with it. The last steps were to put a pollen patty and an inverted jar of simple syrup in the top of the hive. These are both needed to feed the colony until there are plenty of flowering plants blooming later in the spring for the bees to feed on.
I did forget to do one thing which ended up causing a bit of a problem later, and that was that I forgot to slide the frames (which are what the bees build their comb on) closely up against the queen cage to maintain proper bee space in the hive. Bee space is the gap the bees need to pass freely between and around the frames in the hive, with the ideal bee space being between 1/4 and 3/8 inch. If the gap between two frames, or the gap between the edge of a frame and the hive box is greater than the desired bee space, the bees will build what is called brace comb or bridge come to fill the larger space, making it very difficult, sticky and messy to remove frames during hive inspections. When I went back to inspect the hive a week after installing the bees to make sure that the queen had been released and that the hive was successfully established, I realized the importance of maintaining bee space right away. As I said earlier, beekeeping is a hobby that is constantly teaching you something new. One of the best parts of having a beehive is the feeling you get after working with the bees and inspecting the hive. I always feel exhilarated the rest of the day, and the smell of beeswax that stays with you is one of those simple pleasures that you’ll just have to experience for yourself. Happy beekeeping!
Wishing away Winter
Oh winter, I’ll be glad to bid this one goodbye. It started out as a fairly uneventful winter, busy with work and the holidays, but still a pretty good one. We had a near miss with an attempted hawk attack which thankfully the turkeys alerted me to just in time for me to run out and scare the hawk away. The weather had been mild, and it looked like spring was right around the corner. I was thinking of starting my seeds in the greenhouse, and I even spent an afternoon doing some weeding in the garden. Then a few weeks ago things went downhill in a hurry. We’ve got quite a few elderly ladies in our chicken flock, many of our girls are coming up on seven years old this spring, the last survivors of the two dozen chicks we got when we expanded our flock in 2012 after moving to the farm. When the girls come back into laying eggs in the late winter/early spring after taking a few months off from laying eggs, it is unfortunately not all that uncommon for reproductive problems to rear their head at this time of year. Twitchy was the first one that I noticed was unwell. She had lost weight and one day I found her hiding in one of the nest boxes with one of her eyes swollen shut and a bloody comb from being pecked. I isolated her in our small spare coop to heal, and after a couple of days I began to see blood in the coop, a surprising amount and I knew her fate wasn’t good. I treated her for a common parasite known to cause intestinal bleeding, but it didn’t cure the problem. I suspected either she either ate something that she shouldn’t have, or possibly an egg broke inside her, or maybe she had cancer. Whatever it was, it took her quickly and for that at least I am thankful.
After that things settled down again for a bit. We had some cold weather that kept me indoors so I spent some time learning about sourdough starter after acquiring some from a friend. Antonio Bread-eras and I baked some very tasty treats including our new breakfast favorite sourdough pancakes, as well as blueberry muffins, bread, and even pretzels. I finally made time to do the feather wreath project I had been wanting to make for a few years with my ever growing and embarrassingly large feather collection. I packaged seeds that I had saved from last years garden and participated in a seed swap. And of course I was busy as always making soap, including getting a few new pretty floral varieties of soap, lotion bars, and lotions stocked in my web store for Valentine’s Day.
Then a couple of weeks ago I noticed that one of our back deck bantam chickens, Pepa, was acting a bit off. She was breathing heavily at times and just not acting her normal self. After trying to treat her with a couple of over the counter medicines for respiratory ailments with no success, I took her to the vet. Not every chicken at the farm goes to the vet when they get sick, in fact these days it’s rare for me to go to the vet. Over the years I’ve learned which types of things I can cure at home and which things are likely fatal, and in all honesty in those situations, despite the vet’s and my best intentions and best of care you just cannot save them from all too many things. But Pepa was special, and although I wasn’t sure what was wrong, I still felt like she had a chance. After she spent six days at the vet, it became clear that they didn’t know what was wrong and weren’t having any luck treating her. I called to let the vet know that I was going to come in to get her and take her home. At the last minute the vet decided to do an x-ray which revealed that she had egg yolk peritonitis, a fatal condition where a loose egg yolk is floating around in the abdomen causing serious infection with no way to treat it. In Pepa’s case the vet said it looked like she maybe had four eggs that had gotten off track and had broken in her abdomen causing her digestive system to basically shut down. The vet gave me some painkillers for her and said good luck. Of course I immediately burst into tears before I even got back to the car. Less than 24 hours after bringing Pepa home, she was gone.
A couple of days after that, Pepa’s best friend Millie began to go downhill. I had noticed that Millie had been limping a bit and that her appetite wasn’t very good, but I just figured she may be a bit depressed about living with a rambunctious rooster and that she possibly had gotten slightly injured as a result. But then I noticed symptoms of a reproductive problem in Millie. One day her legs stopped working right, and she couldn’t hold herself upright. I moved her into the mudroom in a small crate and cared for her as best I could. At first I tried giving her liquid vitamins, electrolytes and nutrient rich liquid food to boost her strength. But for a pint-sized sick chicken that little lady sure had a lot of fight in her! She didn’t have an appetite, and she absolutely hated being force fed. I didn’t have the heart to fight her, so I let her go. I kept her as comfortable as I could, but in a couple of days she was gone, less than a week after Pepa. The loss of these two sweet little bantams hit me hard. There was just something about their tiny fluffy bodies that held such spunky and larger than life personalities that gave them an extra special place in my heart. In the middle of all of this, on a warm sunny day when the beehives should have been active but weren’t, I opened up both beehives for a quick inspection to discover they both had died. One was a smaller colony that never seemed to really thrive, but the other hive was a strong one, and I’m not sure what the cause of death of that one was. I’ve ordered a new package of bees for April, and we will start again this spring.
I told myself that I wasn’t going to write yet another sad blog, and now I’ve gone and done it anyway. Sorry about that, most days are usually happy ones here on the farm. I guess it’s just these sad days that I feel like I need to write about in order to put them behind me. So now I just want winter and the sadness to go away, and to get back to the warm days of spring, when the air is filled with the promise of things to come and new life on the farm. We’ll be getting a dozen new chicks in the next few weeks, so I’m looking forward to bringing a big dose of joy to the farm soon, and I promise the next post will be a happy one.
We’ve had so much going on at the farm that the end of summer and fall just flew by this year! A big project that has been ongoing for much of the year is the building of a hobby workshop behind our house which my husband is building himself except for the pouring of the concrete foundation which we hired a contractor to do. The photo below is one from several months ago while the building was being framed. The building is now entirely walled in, with doors, windows and a roof. The siding will be going up next, and I’ll be sharing more photos of the progress soon. It will be really exciting to have this new building since I always have multiple projects competing for space in the house during the spring and summer between cleaning and storing garden harvests, canning, sorting and packing eggs, and making products for my soap and lotion business. I’m already looking forward to spreading out in luxury next year in our new 600 square foot space. My husband will also use it for practicing drums, and since it will have a full bathroom, almost fully functional kitchen (minus a stove), and a wood stove I’m sure we’ll use it for other things too.
As is usual with the farm life, we had times of both happiness and sorrow with the chicken and turkey flock. All three of the new silkie chickens that I added to the flock this spring turned out to be roosters, and so I had to move them from the back deck bantam chicken coop down to the turkey yard in order to give the bantam ladies a break from too many roosters. Unfortunately it was only a few days of the silkie roosters being down in the turkey yard before a weasel discovered them and killed one of the white silkies. I should have had a more secure nighttime setup for the silkies, but we had not had any issues with the weasel since the summer before, and I had thought that those days were behind us. After the attack, I began bringing the two remaining silkie roos into the more secure spare chicken coop in the backyard at night, and in the day I would bring them back down to the turkey yard where they had their own separate fenced area to keep them safe from the turkeys while they got used to each other. After a few weeks of this routine, they turkeys accepted that these strange looking little fluff balls were their new roommates and were not to be chased for entertainment, well for the most part that is, which is about as much as you can hope for with turkeys!
As dusk began to fall earlier around Halloween, the weasel struck again, and this time it was my beloved Baby Stardust who we lost. Baby Stardust was one of three baby chicks that I gave to Spaceship Turkey momma to raise last summer. One of Stardust’s siblings died at a few days old, and the other sibling was killed by the weasel as a young chicken last summer. So Stardust lived her life with the turkeys, never learning that she was a chicken and that she should do things like go into the chicken coop at night for her safety. I put Stardust to bed in the coop every night, and on the few nights I was away on vacation we always had a chicken sitter put her in. It must have been close to 500 times that I put her in the coop. Every night before dusk I would go down to the turkey yard, and she would run up to me grumbling in her cute little way, as if to tell me she’d been waiting for me, and I’d pick her up and carry her into the coop, telling her she really should get the hang of this any day now. On the fateful night, we had gone out to dinner and darkness fell before we got home. As soon as we came up the driveway I knew something was wrong because all of the turkeys were huddled on the ground instead of being up on their roost. I’ve only seen them on the ground after dark like this on nights when there’s been a predator attack or on the night right after an attack. Baby was lying dead in the yard, and upon reviewing the video footage from the security camera in the turkey yard, we could tell that it was a weasel that attacked her within the half hour before we got home. It was heartbreaking to lose this one of a kind lady, who had a spunky personality that was larger than life and who lived her life to the fullest among the turkeys.
Back to the happier times at the farm, my favorite turkey lady Pumpkin Pie is doing great after a scare during the summer when she suffered from a serious case of internal egg laying. She spent almost a week at the vet’s office recovering and getting a hormone implant to prevent her from laying eggs. I am thankful for every day that I get to spend with Miss PP after coming so close to losing her. It was a great year in the garden, and with a mild start to fall I was harvesting tomatoes, peppers, squash, and eggplant later than ever before. I planted a few veggies late in the summer for a fall garden which I have long wanted to do but never seem to get around to. I planted a fall crop of potatoes and turnips which both did very well, and it will be nice to have some additional vegetables in storage for roasting through the winter. The fall plantings of broccoli and cauliflower did not mature quick enough to yield anything before the cold weather arrived, so that was a bust. I’ve still got carrots and radishes in the ground which I don’t think matured quite enough either, although I haven’t actually pulled them up to check, so I guess I should go check on them soon and see how they did. But all in all, I’m really happy to know that I can grow two crops of potatoes a year since that’s one of my favorite things to store through the winter.
As we head into winter it’s already time to start dreaming of spring and making plans for adding new chicks to the farm. Many of our chickens will be coming up on seven years old next year! We still have several of the two dozen chickens that we got in 2012 when we got the first batch of chicks for the farm including Twitchy, Squeeky 2, Reina, Buttercup, Jumpy, Other One, and two unnamed speckled Sussex. Most of these older ladies are still doing well, but a few are showing signs of their age and I fear that Twitchy is in her last days or weeks with us. But for the most part it is amazing how well these ladies have aged and I hope that most of them will stay with us a while longer. Our flock matriarch Raquel will be nine years old next March, she is still doing well and keeping everyone in line with her swift beak and keen sense of justice. But these ladies are definitely slowing down in the egg laying department, and most of the rest of our chickens are a few years old too, so we need to add some new chickens to our flock to keep up a steady flow of eggs. I would like to add more chickens in with the turkeys to give the two silkie roosters a few more ladies to keep them occupied, although before doing that I probably need to downsize the turkey flock a bit. We’ve gone from the initial plan of just keeping a tom and two females when we started a few years ago to having 13 turkeys now. They are so charismatic in a bigger flock, and the turkey eggs are so beautiful and fun to collect that I have enjoyed having a big flock of turkey hens too much to sell any of them. But I think I do need to make a few changes next year, and luckily I still have all winter to figure it out.
Blue Ribbon Summer
It’s been a whirlwind of a summer with lots of time spent watering, watering, and more watering due to our record setting heat waves and number of days above 90 degrees this year. There have also been baby chicks and baby turkey poults to take care of as well as the rest of the flock, sorting and collecting eggs to sell, a few chicken and turkey poult injuries to tend to, and I’m sure a few other farm emergencies that I’m forgetting about. But there’s also been time to have some fun this summer, including entering the county and state fair. I missed the county fair last summer due to having too much going on to get entries ready, but this year I made it a priority to enter, and I’m so glad that I did. Two years ago I entered a few canned goods and some of my eggs in the county fair, and I won a few ribbons which was fun. This year I decided to up my game and I entered a ton of stuff, as in 40 things!! I love flower gardening, and I do have a pretty nice flower garden, so I decided to enter about a dozen kinds of my perennial flowers. I also entered a couple of dozen different kinds of agricultural products including vegetables, herbs, eggs, and honey. Jams, jellies, and pickles rounded out my entries. On fair day we went to the floral building first, and when I saw the big rosette Reserve Best of Division ribbon on my ‘Kent’s Beauty’ oregano I started jumping up and down like a schoolgirl. Yup, I did. And I clapped my hands too, and then I jumped up and down some more! I got first, second, and third place ribbons for all of my floral entries except for one. I was off to a good start, and we headed to the agricultural building.
My vegetables, herbs, eggs, and canned goods all did really well, and I’m afraid I had another spell of jumping and hand clapping when I saw that my largest potato entry had won a Reserve Grand Champion rosette ribbon! All in all I came home with 35 ribbons, mostly blues, and a few second and third place ribbons too. They also award small cash prizes for each ribbon, so I came home with $54 in prize money too, not too shabby! I definitely am going to enter the county fair next year, as I think I may just be addicted to the adrenaline rush of those big rosette ribbons!
The state fair was a month later, and I only entered a dozen things because by that time my summer flowers were fading with all of the heat we’d been having, and also the categories are different. The state fair doesn’t have any categories for eggs, I mean come on, what’s more exciting than eggs people, sheesh! I won 9 ribbons at the state fair, none of those big rosette ribbons, but my largest potato did get a blue ribbon which I was super happy about because we have some really great agricultural regions in Oregon, and there were quite a few impressive giant vegetables on display. I didn’t win ribbons for my watermelon jelly or my blueberry-lemon-basil jam which is kind of a mystery because they were mighty fine looking and tasting if I do say so myself. 🙂 When we pick up our exhibits we’ll get the scoring cards so that may answer a few questions. All in all it was a lot of fun, and I’m glad I made time to enter the fairs. Sadly I think the fairs may become a thing of the past in the not too distant future. I’ve heard rumors of low attendance and fewer entrants, and some fairs in the urbanizing parts of the state are even doing away with the 4-H exhibits in the fair due to low participation rates. Times are a changing, but for now I’m gonna enjoy farm living while our county is still rural and the big city is still an hour away.
I’m sure you can tell by now that it’s been a great year in the garden here at the farm. I’ve been putting away as many fruits and veggies for winter as I have time to. There are plenty of pickles, jams and jelly for us and for gifts for friends and family. The freezer is getting full with roasted peppers, roasted tomatoes, and pesto. The pantry is full of potatoes, onions, and garlic. My three sisters corn-beans-squash experimental planting is doing pretty well. We have several ears of corn developing, and each new tassel and baby ear that appears gives me an inexplicable thrill. There’s just something so jaunty about those baby corns with the little floofy bundle of silks on top! I’m growing some different heirloom tomatoes this year from seed swaps I participated in, and we’ve got some gigantic Black Krim tomatoes just starting to ripen that are so fun to harvest. The largest one weighed in at 1 pound 5 ounces (yeah, I’m that weird person who weighs everything, from large vegetables to giant eggs). We’ve been eating some great meals from the garden this year thanks to a new cookbook that I was gifted by a friend who knew I needed some new inspiration for how to use all of our fresh veggies. The cookbook is called Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, and I highly recommend it. I’ve had so much fun in the garden this year that I decided to grow a fall garden too, which is something I don’t usually get around to. So far I’ve got another crop of seed potatoes in the ground, as well as small patches of broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, carrots, radish, collard, and spinach. We do have a marauding rabbit that’s been getting past our vegetable garden fence lately and chowing down on the rhubarb leaves (which I thought was supposed to be toxic so go figure), anyway fingers crossed that it doesn’t run out of rhubarb and turn its attentions to my tiny seedlings! Thanks to those of you that still read blogs out there, 🙂 and I’ll try to be better about posting more regularly now that things are getting a bit less busy at the farm as summer winds down.
I’ve been so busy with the garden, chickens and turkeys, and my hobby soap making business that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with the blog lately, sorry about that! If you ever wonder what’s going on at the farm, you can always jump on Instagram and see the latest happenings @5rfarmoregon. The garden is off to a great start this year. We’ve been enjoying plenty of greens and fresh salads from the garden, as well as peas, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, broccoli and basil. The lettuce and spinach have just bolted, so the chickens have been enjoying garden fresh salad of bolted greens. I just started harvesting potatoes and garlic a couple of days ago, and pretty soon it will be time to pull the onions, but I’m hoping they’ll get a bit bigger so I’m giving them a few more days. The leeks are doing well, those are always so easy to grow and I usually plant way to many so I did scale back this year and I’m only growing a couple dozen and they’ll be ready soon as well. The rhubarb is going crazy this year, I’ve frozen a ton for making jams and desserts, and you can’t even tell that I’ve harvested any because my two plants are still so huge.
I’ll be honest, even though I do consider myself to have a green thumb, there are always a few gardening failures every year. I haven’t grown carrots in a long time, and now I remember why. They end up stubby and deformed and not really worth the effort, although I did get a good laugh out of my carrots with legs this year so maybe it was worth it after all! The Chinese red meat radishes that I’m growing have started to bolt before they got very big, but I do still have some seeds left so maybe I’ll try them as a fall crop and see if they do better for me. The jury is still out on my three sisters planting of corn, beans and squash this year. I’m just doing a small test patch for fun, and even if nothing comes of it, it will be still be pretty, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy gardening is that I love spending time in it and admiring the lushness of a summer garden.
I have been picking raspberries and blueberries every other day for a few weeks now. I’ve been freezing a lot of raspberries for future jam making and desserts. I think I’ve got about 6 quarts of raspberries in the freezer already. I made blueberry jam for the first time this year, it’s a blueberry-lemon-basil recipe and it turned out really well so I’m planning to make another batch of it. I need to get started canning or freezing the chard and kale before it gets past its prime and the aphids set in. There’s always so much to do at this time of year, but I like to be busy and it’s such a great feeling to be eating from the garden in the summer and continuing to eat preserved foods from the garden throughout the fall and winter.
We have new turkey babies (which are called poults) at the farm, and they are so very adorable! For those of you unfamiliar with turkey anatomy, the snood is a protuberance above a turkey’s beak, which is long on the toms and quite short on the turkey hens. This is our third year having our turkeys hatch and raise poults, and it’s a wonderful experience watching the mommas raise the babies. Two of the turkeys went broody in the small empty coop in the turkey yard that we have used in the past to let the mommas raise their poults. Unfortunately these two mommas are not my tried and true mommas from years past, they are two of our younger turkeys that we hatched last year. These two ladies are not quite as friendly toward me as our other turkeys, and I’ve endured quite a lot of hissing and more than a few pecks over this last month as I go about tending to filling waterers and feeders and scooping poop (that’s gratitude for you!) Since they are not experienced mommas I was a bit worried about their qualifications at first, but they’ve turned out to be pretty good mommas. Out of the 12 eggs I gave them to hatch, five got broken during the 28-day incubation period. Six of the remaining seven eggs hatched, and there was only one unfertilized egg, including the broken ones (way to go Ringo!)
After a few days in the coop with the newly hatched poults, the mommas were ready to leave the coop for some fresh air, green grass, and dust baths. The poults were a bit apprehensive to leave the coop at first, but after repeated encouraging calls from the mommas, who would go back and forth, in and out of the coop several times to show the babies how it was done, the poults eventually took the big plunge into the great outdoors. It wasn’t long before the poults were learning how to eat grass and take dust baths by following their mommas example. Sadly, during one of these first days out it appeared that one of the poults got trampled by one of the mommas from what I could tell. When I found the poult it was all sprawled out and gasping for air. I brought it into the house to try to save it, but it died shortly after. These accidents do happen, and although it’s very sad it’s really not that surprising when you consider the giant size of the mommas when compared to the poults and the fact that for the first couple of weeks the poults are constantly either under the mommas or underfoot when they’re moving around.
The poults grow up very fast, and at a month old now they have transformed from tiny fluff balls to adventurous youngsters that can already fly several feet off the ground. We took the poultry netting fence down yesterday that we had surrounding the turkey mommas coop and an area of pasture to protect them from the rest of the flock. Either one or both of the mommas would fly over the fence multiple times a day, getting temporarily separated from the poults, or sometimes the poults would sneak through the fence leaving the mommas inside frantic to get out to the poults. Occasionally my favorite turkey and lowest on the pecking order, Pumpkin Pie, would get a bit too close to the fence, and I’d come out to find her and one of the mommas viciously biting at each others face and neck through the fence, and I would have to separate them. It’s a good thing that I work from home so that I am available to run outside a dozen or more times a day whenever I hear sounds of distress coming from the turkey yard, LOL! So now that the poults can fly and run pretty fast, we decided it was time to take down the fence so the mommas and their littles could roam the pasture and start to integrate with the rest of the flock. For now the mommas try to keep the poults as far away from the rest of the flock as possible and keep them out of trouble. Any time another turkey or chicken gets too close, the mommas will go into attack mode and chase the intruder away, and Ringo’s advances are met with a hasty retreat by the mommas, all the while calling the poults to hurry along and follow the mommas to safety. So far so good, and fingers crossed for a successful integration. The next step will be when the mommas decide it’s time to go back to sleeping on the high roost again instead of in the coop, and I’m sensing that this transition is right around the corner. That’s always an entertaining nightly ritual to observe, with much jockeying for position taking place, much pecking and flying up and down from the roost for a good half hour or more until everyone settles into position for the night. I’m sure to be taking lots of pictures during this time, so stay tuned for those in my next turkey blog!
My Happy Place
Now that warmer spring days are finally here, I’ve been spending more time gardening which is one thing that I really miss in the winter. I see my friends on social media who live in warmer climates gardening all through the winter and getting their spring plants in the ground way before I can plant most things in our climate, and by this time of year I can’t wait to get my hands back into the dirt. I transplanted some of the cool season veggies from the greenhouse into the garden a few weeks ago, and they are now at the stage where every day you can almost see them growing. Every weekend I have been planting more of the raised beds, and it’s finally starting to look like a garden again. Most importantly, my absolute favorite thing to grow – the tomatoes – that were transplanted into larger pots while waiting for warmer temperatures are now almost big enough to be planted out into the garden. I planted seeds for the last batch of the warm season veggies last weekend, including some beautiful bean seeds (Jacob’s cattle gold bean and good mother stallard bean) as well as some black corn and popcorn seeds. These are all new things I’m trying this year that I received in seed swaps that I participated in. I also planted several varieties of flower seeds that I received from trading with friends over the last few months that I’m excited to have in the garden this year including zinnia, cosmos, poppies, coral sage, and a milkweed “Hairy Balls” variety that sounds pretty interesting!
Our six baby chicks that we got a couple of months ago are doing well and growing up fast. They are living in a screened off section of the coop that they will eventually share with Millie and Pepa when they get a big enough that they won’t be picked on too much by Pepa. Millie has already fallen in love with the chicks, so she is allowed to spend much of her day in with the chicks. Millie is a silkie breed of chicken, which is known for being excellent mothers and they are often used to hatch eggs laid by other chickens because of their excellent mothering instincts and their desire to go broody and hatch eggs. For a couple of weeks Millie would watch the baby chicks on the other side of the divider we placed in the coop to keep the chicks separate and safe from the larger chickens. Then one day Millie started making all sorts of cute mother hen sounds toward the chicks and acted like she really wanted to get in with the baby chicks. So I let her in under a watchful eye, and she adopted them pretty much instantly. She calls them over for treats and watches over them just as if she had hatched them herself. Pepa on the other hand is more interested in chasing the chicks than befriending them, so for now Pepa has to stay on the other side of the divider while Millie plays momma hen. I was pleasantly surprised that of the three Mille Fleur d’Uccle chicks we got, only one is a boy and two are girls. They are turning out to be beautiful birds with very sweet dispositions. It’s still too early to tell the sex of the silkie chicks, they are notoriously hard to tell the boys from the girls until four to six months old or until they crow so we still have a couple of months to go before we’ll know how many boys and girls we have.
In turkey news, it wasn’t too long ago that I was wishing that one of our turkey hens would go broody so that I could give her some eggs to hatch. Well it seems like I went from having zero broody turkeys to four broody turkeys in a matter of days! Two turkeys went broody in the small vacant coop that we use for hatching turkeys, so that was perfect. I gave them a dozen eggs to hatch, although several have been broken or rejected over the last two weeks, so now they are currently only sitting on seven eggs. This is actually fine because we don’t really NEED any more turkeys, I just love the experience of watching a momma turkey raise her babies so much that I like to do it every year. Almost immediately after the first two broody turkeys took up residence in the small coop, two other turkeys decided to go broody in the spaceship – which is a repurposed stainless steel dishwasher tub that is a very popular egg laying destination for whatever reason. With the spaceship now occupied I decided to add a new wooden nest box right next to it in the hopes that the non-broody turkeys would have another option for laying their eggs, but do you think it’s been used even once? Nope! Such is the way of turkeys, you can never predict what they will like or what they will do. Which of course is one of the reasons that they are so fun to have on the farm. Unfortunately, Eleanor who has hatched eggs for us in the past and is a great momma decided to go broody in the spaceship which is not big enough to hatch chicks safely so I didn’t give her eggs to hatch this year. We’ll have new turkey mommas this year, which hopefully will work out okay. The breed of turkeys we have is also known for being good mothers, so hopefully on May 19 we will have a new little turkey family.
Ahhh spring, it’s finally here! Although we are still having lots of cool, rainy days, there are plenty of things to be excited about at the farm. I started planting seeds in the greenhouse a couple of months ago, and the cool season veggie starts are finally large enough to start planting outside. So far I’ve planted a few peas, kale, broccoli, spinach, and onions. I have potatoes ready to go outside as well as pac choi, Swiss chard, lettuce, and leeks as soon as we get another decent gardening weather day. I participated in a couple of seed swaps in the last several months, and I received a ton of veggie seeds that I’m excited about. Some are different varieties of things that I usually grow like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, and some are things that I don’t usually grow but I am going to grow this year since I’ve received so many interesting varieties. Some of the new things I’ll be growing this year include Chinese red meat radish, carrots, cauliflower, several varieties of beans, some new squash varieties, and corn. Of course I’m not sure where I’ll find room to plant everything, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out as I go.
The chicks we got last month are doing well and growing up fast. For the first month they were kept in a brooder in my home office. As they grow up, they start scratching around in the pine shavings more and more, and they kick up a lot of dust. So when I noticed a fine layer of dust suddenly appeared on every surface in the house, and my husband’s asthma started acting up, it was time for the littles to move to the outdoor coop. They made the transition well, and they live in one side of the back deck coop that our grown bantam chickens live in. There is a divider separating the chicks from the grown chickens, so that they can see each other and grow accustomed to each other, but the big chickens cannot pick on the chicks, at least for now. We’ll keep them separated for another month or so until they are close to the same size, and then we will remove the divider and integrate the two age groups.
We had some sad news at the farm a few weeks ago, when we bid farewell to one of the founding members of the 5R Farm flock, my sweet Easter egger Rosie. She would have been eight years old in June. Rosie was shy and sweet, and she always made me smile with her adorable fluffy face. She laid a beautiful green egg that knocked my socks off every time. She had been in a slow decline for several months, and I made the difficult decision to help her cross over to the chicken farm in the sky when I knew in my heart that it was time to let her go. We’ve had a lot of crushing losses over the last several months as our oldest flock members reach the end of a chicken’s natural lifespan. Six to eight years is considered a long life for a chicken, but I’ve had friends with chickens that lived as long as 10 and 14 years. I hope that we will be so lucky with some of our remaining favorite ladies.
The longer days mean that the chickens and turkeys have resumed laying eggs after their winter break from egg laying. It’s so nice to be getting our beautiful mix of light and dark brown and green chicken eggs, and the big beautiful speckled turkey eggs are always especially fun to collect. The turkeys that we hatched last year are now entering their first year of egg laying, and it’s always kind of funny to see where the new layers will lay their eggs. It’s not uncommon to see an egg lying in a random spot on the ground in the turkey yard. One turkey decided to start laying her eggs underneath the chicken coop, and it took me a week or so to spot them. I had to crawl on my belly under the coop and use a hoe to pull them out, but it was worth it for these beautiful eggs. Thankfully, she is not laying regularly under the coop, although I will find an egg under there every once in a while. Collecting turkey eggs can feel like going on a scavenger hunt at times, and I have to look in every possible nook and cranny to be sure I’m finding them all. I’m not sure if my favorite turkey Pumpkin Pie has started laying yet, but if she hasn’t it won’t be long now as I just saw Ringo getting romantic with her a week ago. I can’t believe my little Miss PP is all grown up and is a full grown lady already!
Spring is an exciting time at the farm for many reasons, pretty spring flowers in the yard, starting seeds in the greenhouse, the chickens begin to lay eggs more regularly, our beehives begin buzzing with activity, but I have to say the most exciting part about spring is baby chicks! We don’t add new chicks to the flock every year, and when we have added new chicks over the last several years we’ve always had broody chickens raise up the next generation of chicks in the chicken coop. The last time we raised chicks in the house was back in 2012 when we bought two dozen chicks for the farm. It’s messy raising chicks indoors, and it was especially so when we raised those two dozen in the kitchen! The chicks kick up a lot of dust scratching around in the pine shavings that line the bottom of their pen, and it’s not long before a fine coating of dust covers everything, floor to ceiling, in the room that the chicks are raised in. Since 2012, whenever we’ve added chicks we have opted for the easy way of raising chicks by letting a broody hen do all of the work. But doing it that way means that the chicks don’t get handled as much and as a result, when the chicks grow up they tend to not be quite as calm and friendly around people as the chicks that are raised indoors.
It’s been a couple of years now since we lost our bantam rooster, Lil’ Red Rooster, that used to live in the coop on the back deck. I’ve long wanted to get another bantam rooster to protect our three bantam hens, Millie, Salt-n-Pepa, when they are out free ranging on nice days. But for a while we just had too much going on with the turkeys, or special needs chickens requiring extra care, and I just did not feel like I had the time to deal with adding a bantam rooster to our little back deck feathered family. Bringing in a new flock member requires a period of quarantine and then gradual introduction to prevent too much fighting or bullying, and I wanted to wait until I had the time to do things right. We’ve recently bid a sad farewell to a couple of our special needs flock mates and now that we have a good handle on the turkey set-up and they are pretty self sufficient, I find that I have more time and could consider adding a bantam rooster. However, we weren’t really planning on adding chicks to the farm this year because we have a big construction project planned in the backyard. This will mean a smaller pasture for the chickens, and also the construction noise will likely disturb them a bit so it’s not really the ideal time for adding new chicks to the flock.
In years past, our local feed store has only carried the more popular breeds of chicks that are known for being good layers. This year as I was looking at the chick calendar (any self respecting feed store will post a schedule of the dates that they are receiving chick shipments and which breeds they are receiving on which days), I was pleasantly surprised to see that they would be getting several specialty breeds of chickens, rare breeds, and some fancier breeds. When I saw that they were getting two breeds of bantam chicks that I was interested in, my heart was instantly set on getting some. Despite having recently decided now was not the best time to add more chicks, I rationalized that bantams are so small, surely there was room to add just a few more. Also, my social media feeds were being inundated with all of my chicken lady friends’ adorable baby chicks, and my resolve was quickly weakening (#chickenmath, it’s a thing!) After a surprisingly easy sales pitch to my husband, we agreed that not only were new chicks in order, they could even live in the house! Chicks at the feed store are typically sold as sexed females, meaning that there is an approximately 90% chance that the chicks you buy will actually be girls. But bantam chicks are so small when they are born that it is not possible for them to be sexed into males and females, and so they are sold as “straight run” meaning that there is a 50% chance of getting either males or females. So knowing this, and knowing the knack I seem to have for unintentionally picking boys, I decided to get six chicks hoping that three would grow up to be girls. I got one black silkie, two white silkies, and three Mille Fleur D’Uccle chicks. I had been wanting Mille Fleurs ever since 2012 when we bought Millie (our bantam silkie) as a chick thinking she was a Mille Fleur. I didn’t find out until she started feathering out that she was not a Mille Fleur but was a silkie. So now was my chance to finally get some Mille Fleurs, and I sure hope that at least one of them grows up to be a hen! If you are not familiar with the breed, you should Google them, they are gorgeous birds. I’ve had the new chicks two weeks now, they are all thriving and keeping me company in the brooder that I have set up in my home office. I’m not getting much work done lately, but I am having lots of fun and taking lots of baby photos!