We have three turkey mommas at the farm this year, and they all have interesting stories. Two of the turkey mommas are co-raising nine turkey poults and two chicken chicks, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in My Two Moms. But this is the story of the third turkey momma, who decided to go broody at right about the same time as Eleanor and her daughter, June, went broody in the small chicken coop. Only this turkey, who is now known as Spaceship Turkey Momma, decided to go broody in the stainless steel dishwasher tub in the front pasture that I call the spaceship. A couple of the turkeys had decided to start laying their eggs in the spaceship this spring, and it was not unusual to see one or even two turkeys in the spaceship at the same time. After a few weeks of frequent turkey sightings in the spaceship, I realized that we had a third broody turkey on our hands. I debated about whether I should give her eggs to hatch, and if so how many, and should I give her turkey or chicken eggs to hatch. I had already decided that Eleanor and June would be the ones to raise the new batch of turkeys for the year, since they had the good foresight to go broody in a coop which would be a suitable and safe environment to raise the babies in. The dishwasher tub, however, is small and crowded and not a very safe or suitable location for raising babies. There was not much room for a family to grow in, and at night it could not be locked securely to keep predators out if they should happen to get in through the electric fence. But this turkey seemed very committed to her broodiness, and the quickest way to get a broody turkey or chicken over their broodiness is to give in and let them raise some babies. She had already been broody for quite some time by now, so rather than give her eggs to hatch which would take either three weeks for chicken eggs, or four weeks for turkey eggs, I decided to buy some chicken chicks at the feed store and slip them under her at night. I had done this successfully with our bossy alpha chicken, Raquel, several years ago (Raquel, Reinvented), and I was hoping this strategy would work again.
I bought three Light Brahma chicks, which are a large breed chicken that I thought would be a nice addition to our mixed chicken and turkey flock. I waited until after dark, and I went out to sneak them under the broody turkey. The thing about broody hens is, they are known for getting a bit of a mean streak, and they will peck anything that gets within beak’s reach with a surprising amount of force. I picked up the first chick and quickly put it under her, although not before she pecked my hand and wrist several times. I realized that I needed to get the other two chicks under her and get out of there quick, before she got too upset and ended up pecking the chicks instead of me. So I picked up the other two chicks in one hand, and I put my other hand in easy pecking distance of her as a sacrifice to allow me to slip the other two chicks under her while she was vigorously pecking my other hand. I left quickly, and I crossed my fingers for a happy outcome. It is not unheard of for chicks to be killed by a momma hen when attempting this, or even when the chicks are hatched from eggs by the momma. The next morning I awoke early and rushed down to check on her. I was thrilled to see her transformed from the hissing, pecking broody turkey of the night before to a proud momma, purring contentedly with the happy sounds of a momma hen talking to her little ones. I could not see the chicks because they were tucked safely under her, but I knew from the sounds she was making that my plan was a success!
For the next four weeks, spaceship turkey momma raised her chicks very devotedly, keeping them in the outskirts of the pasture or hidden in the grass, safe from the other chickens and turkeys and in particular away from the other two turkey mommas who were very protective of their mixed brood of eleven little ones. Early on in her foray into motherhood, one of the chicks passed away in the night. It’s always hard to lose them at this young age, and you usually don’t know what the cause was, but it happens. For four weeks, spaceship turkey momma and her babies slept in the spaceship at night, until one night the momma decided it was time for her to rejoin her turkey flock. I heard loud peeping one night from her two chicken chicks, and I looked outside to see her perched on the six foot high roost while her babies screeched at her quite pathetically from the ground below wondering why their momma was way up there and not in the spaceship getting ready for bed. I confess to being a bit of a meddler in the affairs of my chickens and turkeys. I just can’t help myself when I see someone is unhappy, so I try to fix the problem, with varying degrees of success. On this night and for the next several nights when I heard the chicks peeping loudly, I went down to the pasture and gave spaceship turkey momma a few pokes in the chest until she stood up, heard the plaintive calls of her babies, and flew off the roost and went back to the spaceship for the night. Then one night when I did this, instead of flying down to be with her babies, she gave me a stern look and hissed at me as if to say not tonight, I’m staying on the roost. Which she did that night and has every night since then. Her chicks are very different in terms of their flying skills than the two chicken chicks raised by the other two turkey mommas. The chicken chicks raised by Eleanor and June have no trouble flying up to the roost at night to sleep with their turkey family. The chicks raised by spaceship turkey momma do not seem to have gone to flight school, and they remain firmly planted on the ground the majority of the time. The spaceship turkey chicks continue their pathetic calls for their momma at night, and now my nightly ritual is that I wait until the chicks are setting down for the night in the spaceship, and I pick them up and place them on the roost in the small coop which is currently unoccupied. During the day, the chicks still hang out with their momma, and they are getting a bit braver and are spending more time in closer proximity to the rest of the flock. When they get larger, I am hoping that they become part of the chicken flock and will learn to go into the larger coop at night with the rest of the chickens. Oh and if you’re wondering about names for the spaceship turkey chicks, thanks for all of the great space-themed name options that my Instagram friends have suggested! I’ve decided on Sputnick and Stardust for the chicks and Starbuck for the momma. To keep up on daily farm happenings and photos, follow me on Instagram @5rfarmoregon.
Well, gosh, sorry I’ve taken a few weeks off from the blog. There’s not been too much going on at the farm recently except for a whole lotta rain! I’ve been doing some indoor gardening – cleaning up the greenhouse and starting seeds for the cool season veggies, which are just about ready to be transplanted into the garden on the next sunny day. We have had a few dry days in between all of the downpours, so I’ve been finding a bit of time to get out in the garden to spread compost and trim back the raspberry bushes to get the garden ready for spring.
The chickens have been gradually laying more eggs as the days get longer, and today I was very pleased to gather the first two turkey eggs of the season! We have five turkey hens this year, so soon we’ll be having lots of turkey eggs which I will be selling in addition to chicken eggs. The turkeys are a bit more wild at heart with respect to their egg laying tendencies as compared to chickens. One of our younger turkey hens has been pacing the fence surrounding their pasture back and forth, and I can tell she wants to escape to run off into the bushes to go lay her eggs in the middle of a blackberry thicket! I have added a few more options for nesting areas to the turkey yard, in the hopes of persuading the turkeys to stay close to home and lay their eggs somewhere safe instead of off in the bushes. Fingers crossed that the turkey ladies all behave themselves and lay their eggs where I can find them. This morning I went out to find the first turkey egg laying on the ground right out in the open, and then a short time later I returned to the turkey yard to find an egg in the repurposed dishwasher tub/chicken spaceship in the turkey yard. Pretty soon gardening and outdoor project season will be in full swing and I’ll have more exciting updates to report on. For now I’ll leave you with some pretty pictures of the #eggvignettes I’ve been having fun with on my Instagram account. Follow us at @5rfarmoregon.
One of the things I really enjoy about living on the farm is the change in seasons. After a long cold winter, and many days of mucking about in the rain and mud doing chicken and turkey chores, it is so exciting to have that first feeling that spring is around the corner. Even before the first spring bulbs poke up through the ground, the birds and the bees provide the first signs that spring is in the air.
It is always a thrill to see the bees make their first appearance outside the beehives on the first sunny days in January and February. This past winter was an unusually cold, snowy, and wet winter, and I waited anxiously to see if all of our beehives would make it through until spring. Bees can survive the cold weather we get in the Pacific Northwest just fine. It is the wet weather, and in particular the moisture inside the hive, which poses a greater risk to them than the cold. When I get the hives ready for fall, there are a few things I do to vent moisture from the hives and try to prevent condensation from occurring in the hives. Even though the hives are not very active in the winter, I do check on them after every cold snap and snowstorm to clear snow away from the hive entrance and to clear dead bees away from the bottom of the hive so that the dead bees don’t block the entrance. It is normal for quite a lot of the bees in the hive to die over the winter, and every time I brush the dead bees out from the bottom of the hive there will be several dozen. At times I’ve seen a large pile of dead bees right outside the hive entrance after the bees have done a bit of housekeeping themselves and removed the dead bees from the hive. Even though it’s normal to see a pile of dead bees outside the hive, it does make me worry at times, and so it is with baited breath that I anxiously await the first sighting of bees outside the hive. The bees made their first appearance in mid-January this year, on an unseasonably warm day, and there have been a few other days since then when the bees have also been out. I am happy to report that all three of our hives have survived the winter thus far.
The behavior of the chickens and turkeys provides another clue that spring is around the corner. As the days start getting longer, the chickens start laying eggs again. Many of our ladies are approaching old biddy status, so they are taking a longer vacation from egg laying than they did when they were younger. From early November through January, we were only getting a few eggs a week from the few hens that laid during the winter, but by the end of January many of the ladies were starting to lay again. The chicken yard, which had been pretty quiet during the winter, was now filled with the sounds of the “egg song” as the ladies leave the nest box and announce their proud achievement. Our roosters and Ringo the turkey have begun enthusiastically courting the ladies again thanks to the annual spring rise in hormone levels. The turkey hens should begin laying eggs by March, and soon we will be inundated with their jumbo sized, beautiful cream colored eggs with brown speckles. Turkeys do not have as long of an egg laying season as chickens (which is why turkeys are not used for commercial egg production), but we got approximately 175 eggs from our two turkey hens last year, so we should have our hands full with the eggs from five turkey hens this year. Their eggs are delicious when eaten just as you would eat chicken eggs for breakfast, and they are also great in baking. I am really looking forward to having turkey eggs again, and this year I will also be selling them along with chicken eggs. As the weather allows, I’ve been getting the garden and greenhouse cleaned up and ready for the start of gardening season, which thanks to my birds and bees I know is right around the corner!
This winter was colder than usual, with several weeks of freezing or below freezing temperatures. Most of our feathered friends get along just fine in the cold weather, with their downy under-feathers to keep them warm and their own personal human servant handing out the extra treats to keep their bellies full of heat-generating calories. While they can handle the cold temperatures, most of the chickens do not like snow. We had snow on the ground for several weeks in a row, and the chickens stayed in their coop most of that time. There is plenty of space for the chickens in their coop and attached covered run, but the down side of everyone staying cooped up is that the chickens that are lower in the pecking order, or that that are not feeling 100%, will not have anywhere to hide or to get away from the other chickens if they are getting picked on. It’s one of the worst behaviors of chickens, the instinct to pick on, drive away, or kill those that are sick, for the health and the survival of the rest of the flock. I’ve seen it before in our flock, and unfortunately with this long, cold winter it happened again. This time it was to Rosie, one of the founding members of 5R Farm, and one of my favorites. Although she is one of our two oldest hens, which usually imparts a higher place in the pecking order, she is an Easter Egger chicken, a breed that is known to be shy and reserved. Ever since her BFF Ramona died over a year ago, Rosie doesn’t really have a clique anymore. Sometimes she hangs out with Rosalie, her daughter with Ramon, but she is often by herself, preferring to stay away from the fray of the flock. There were a couple of times over the last month when I went out in the morning to check on the chickens that I found Rosie with a purple bruised comb, presumably from someone pecking her in the face. Sometimes I would find Rosie sitting alone in the coop on the perch where she had slept while everyone else had come out to the secure run when they heard me coming with breakfast. Other times I would find her sitting in an odd posture in the coop, her legs stretched out in front of her. She seemed to be having a bit of weakness in her legs, and she had also lost a bit of weight, probably because it was a bit harder for her to get her fair share with everyone spending so much time in the coop.
A week ago when I went out to the coop in the morning, I found Rosie had been pecked in the comb again, but this time she had received a more serious injury and her comb was bleeding. I picked her up and brought her into the mudroom to get her cleaned up and inspect her injury. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some underlying illness that was the reason for her getting pecked, so she stayed in the house until I could get a vet appointment for her. She stayed at the vet’s for a couple of days. She got a clean bill of health in terms of not having any parasites or internal infections. But the vet did not like the look of her injured comb and scab, something about the way the cells looked was abnormal. She also thought Rosie was having trouble seeing out of her left eye, possibly due to a detached retina, which could explain why she was being attacked. Rosie is six and a half years old, which is more than middle aged given a chicken’s lifespan of 8 to 10 years, or maybe up to 12 years for a long-lived chicken. It’s not unusual for health issues to arise by Rosie’s age, but I sure hope she will have a few more years with us. When I brought Rosie home from the vet, I couldn’t put her back in with the flock because they would be drawn to her red scab and would surely peck her scab and comb again.
I decided to put Rosie in with Reuben, my special needs rooster. Reuben lives in his own separate enclosure right next to the other chickens. His toes are curled due to some mysterious malady and he can’t walk very well, but although I keep expecting to have to put him down one of these days, he still seems to have the will to live. He even seems to be quite perky at times on those sunny days when he sits right up against his fence watching the ladies or sometimes having a stare-down with Brown Rooster. Rosie’s new routine is that she spends the day in Reuben’s area where she has her own food dish so she can get enough to eat and can graze on the green grass to her hearts content. At night, I move her to a separate pen inside the main coop so that she is safe from the others and so Reuben can have his house all to himself. So far it’s working out well, neither Rosie or Reuben are inclined to pick on each other, perhaps recognizing that they are both in the same boat and they may as well make the best of it. Rosie does go into Reuben’s house when it rains during the day, and I find myself constantly going out to check on them to make sure that they are both okay, given Reuben’s rather clumsy way of getting himself into his house. At some point I will try to reintroduce Rosie back to the flock, although it is likely that she will have lost her place in the pecking order and will have to reassert her position, and I don’t know that she has the confidence to do that. If that’s the case, it looks like Reuben will have himself a full-time roommate.
Now that winter has set in, it’s time to start making plans for next year on the farm. One of the things I’ve been wanting to do for a while now is get a bantam rooster to escort our little bantam hens, Millie, Salt-n-Pepa, when they are out free ranging. It’s been a little over a year since we lost Lil’ Red Rooster (Lockdown), and I had been intending to get another little rooster man to replace him last summer, but there just never seemed to be a good time to do it with all of the excitement of the turkey babies at the farm this year (First Day Out, Turkey Teens). Millie, Salt-n-Pepa love to get outdoor time and free range around the farm, so if I’m outside doing chores then I will usually let them out for a bit. They tend to go exploring quite far from their coop which makes it hard for me to keep an eye on them, which is why we really do need a rooster to keep a look out for predators and keep them safe. In preparation for the addition of a rooster for the ladies, we are making plans to expand the size of the coop on the back deck so that the rooster can live in the same coop as Millie, Salt-n-Pepa, instead of the separate coop where Lil’ Red Rooster used to live. Since we’ll already be expanding the size of the coop for the rooster, it seems like a good time to make it large enough for some silkie babies too! Millie is our one silkie hen, so we will get a silkie rooster for her. She was such a cute little baby chick, and I’m sure it will be super cute to see her raising her own silkie babies. Silkies are well known for their frequent broodiness and their mothering abilities. Millie goes broody several times a year, and she has already successfully raised a couple of chicks for us a few years ago, so we know she is a good momma hen (Momma Millie). It’s been a couple of years since we’ve had baby chicks at the farm (Chick Love, Raquel Reinvented), so we are due to add some new fluffy butts to the flock. We are also planning to raise baby turkeys again, so there will be all kinds of cuteness at the farm this year!
The answer to the question “Why is there a chicken in the greenhouse?” makes perfect sense to me. One of Ramon’s ladies, Henny, was looking a bit unwell so I separated her from the flock. I would usually bring my feathered patient into the house and set up a sick bay in the mud room, but there have been some objections to that sort of thing lately, putting an end to my secret plan to eventually become a crazy house chicken lady! Oh well, the greenhouse is pretty luxurious as far as sick bay quarters goes. I have tried to nurse many sick chickens back to health over the years, and more times than not the ailment has been something serious such as a reproductive disorder that cannot be cured, but this time I feel fairly confident that I have a good shot at success. Ms. Henny was looking a bit hunched down the other day, with her comb a bit floppy and discolored, all signs that a chicken is not feeling well. Ramon’s girls are all rather unpleasant in the personality department, so it’s hard for me to pick them up and inspect them on a regular basis as I can do with most of my other chickens. But since Henny was not feeling too sprightly, it was not too much trouble to grab her and take her into the greenhouse for an inspection. As soon as I got close to her, I could tell the problem was one that I have dealt with before in another hen. Based on the rather unpleasant aroma emanating from this lady’s backside, it appeared that she had a yeast infection. This can happen when a chicken eats something moldy or is stressed, or something else causes her gut bacteria to get a bit off-balance. One of my Speckled Sussex chickens has come down with this at least once a year over the last several years, and I am usually able to clear it up with a combination of Nancy’s yogurt, raw honey, and an over the counter antifungal cream. I’ll spare you the details, but I’m hoping that Henny can be successfully treated with this same remedy and will be back with her flock soon. The irony is that she will not be the least bit grateful if I do manage to cure her, and she is quite unpleasant as a patient. There’s no lap snuggles from this lady. She’d just as soon peck you as eat a treat from your hand. She does lay a beautiful very dark brown egg when she is feeling well, and she makes Ramon happy, so I will do my best to treat her.
I’ve had a couple of successes playing nurse to similarly unfriendly patients, most recently Midnight, one of Violet’s chicks from a couple of years ago. Midnight had an impacted crop, which is the pouch in their chest where the food that they eat is stored before it passes through the gizzard. Midnight had a hard bulge in her crop that was not being digested overnight as it should, and I noticed that she was sitting off by herself during the day instead of being active in the chicken yard like her healthy flock mates. So for several days, several times a day I would grab Midnight, which was easier than usual to do in her unwell condition, and I would sit her on my lap and give her crop a vigorous massage to try to break up whatever mass of food was stuck in there to get it moving down to her gizzard. She would look at me as if to say what on earth are you doing, but I could tell by her smelly burps as I massaged the bulge in her crop that my efforts were having an effect so I kept it up until she was back to her old self. I knew once she could run away from me so quickly that I could no longer catch her that she was cured. She has remained healthy these last few months, but she is not in the least bit grateful or any more friendly toward me than she ever was.
My other successful patient is the aforementioned Speckled Sussex with the recurring yeast infection. None of our three Sussex hens have names, as they are very independent hens, and have not really leant themselves well to naming. But this particular one is my favorite, and I just call her Sussex, and I think she knows when I am talking to her. She often talks to me when I walk up to her in the chicken yard, and no I don’t mean that we actually have a meaningful conversation, but she does make a series of cute little chicken noises back to me whenever I ask her how she’s doing or if the other hens or turkeys are picking on her too much. She’s at the bottom of the pecking order, and I always have a soft spot for the underdog, so I always keep an eye on her to make sure that she’s in good health and not in need of any special care. She was one of my best house patients when I was still bringing the occasional chicken into the mud room sick bay. I could leave the door to her crate open all day as I went about my chores, and she would just sit there in her crate all day, never trying to leave her designated area. It always made me smile when I would walk through the mud room and see her sitting there contentedly as if there was nowhere else she would rather be. I suspect that she was probably luxuriating in having a private space all to herself, free from the pecking of her flockmates. I do miss having the occasional chicken in the house, and I am secretly hoping to be able to get my house chicken fix by raising a few feather-babies in the house next spring.
At last count we have 26 hens, 3 roosters, and 11 turkeys here at the farm, and I think I recall saying a couple of months ago that we didn’t need to add any more chickens to the flock for a while. Then one day I stumbled upon a hidden stash of eggs in the bushes, which got me to thinking that I could use that stash of eggs to encourage a hen to go broody and hatch out some chicks, and that is just one of the many ways that chicken math strikes again! For you non-chicken enthusiasts, chicken math is the funny way that no matter how many chickens you tell yourself you are going to buy, or hatch, or keep, somehow it always ends up being more than you planned because they are so darned irresistible. Of course we don’t really need any more chickens, but we do have a few ladies that lay really beautiful eggs and it’s always nice to have those beautiful pastel green and very dark brown eggs in the egg basket. Before we could hatch out some eggs, we’d need a willing momma to be. So I took the stash of eggs from the bushes, put them in one of the nest boxes, and waited for someone to step up to the task of setting eggs. Then I waited. It took about a week, and several eggs were broken as they sat in the nest box day after day as the chickens came and went and laid their new eggs in with the old eggs. Eventually Henny, one of Ramon’s ladies, began sitting in the nest box around the clock. After two days, when she appeared to be truly committed to the task, I removed the old eggs, which by now were probably diminishing in their likelihood of hatching.
Rosie, an Easter Egger chicken, and one of our original 5R Farm ladies lays my favorite green eggs of our several green egg layers. We hatched some of Rosie’s eggs two years ago, and her daughter Rosalie lays an almost identical lovely green egg. At six years old, Rosie is getting up there in age, so I wanted to try to hatch some more of her eggs before she slows down in the egg laying department. It’s possible that her eggs may not be that fertile anymore, so I also included several of her daughter Rosalie’s eggs as back-up. I picked out a few of the darkest of the dark brown Marans eggs to round out the batch of hatching eggs I planned to give Henny. That night, I slipped the new eggs under Henny, being pecked mercilessly by her swift beak the entire time. Henny is not one of our friendliest hens to put it nicely, but I think she will be a good momma due to her high ranking in the flock. If history is any indication, Henny’s chicks will be just as bossy as the chickens that our Alpha hen, Raquel, raised a two years ago. The upside to that is that bossy and bold chickens tend to do well for themselves, and as long as we get some layers of colorful eggs out of the deal, it will be worth a little attitude from the ladies.
Our dearest Rhoda, one of the original founding members of 5R Farm, has gone up to the chicken farm in the sky. I want to take a few moments to remember all of the things that I loved about her.
Rhoda is radiant, her feathers shine in the sun, my eye seeks her out in the crowd
Her cluck is a cheerful bup-bup-bup that is music to my ear
Always in the center of the action, she knows what she wants and she gets it
Swift of beak, and oh so fond of maintaining the pecking order
A personality larger than life, she’s no lap chicken, but she always makes me smile
I noticed Rhoda was not quite herself starting a few months ago. After taking their annual winter vacation from laying eggs, the hens resume laying eggs sometime between January and March depending on their age, with the older hens taking longer before they start laying. By the end of March, I noticed that Rhoda had not started laying eggs, and neither had another of our girls, Grace. Neither of them was eating quite as much as usual, and they both seemed a bit off. I isolated them from the rest of the flock and treated them with an over the counter antibiotic, and for a short time after that Rhoda seemed a bit better. But by the end of April, I could tell that Rhoda was in a decline. Rhoda is one of our first two chickens, we bought her and Raquel as baby chicks back in March 2010, and they are two of the original founding members of 5R Farm.
Given her special status, I decided that I would do whatever could be done, within reason (or perhaps a bit beyond that) to save her. A chicken can live to be 10 or 12 years or more, and we were hoping to have at least another year or two with her. So off we went to the avian vet. Rhoda was diagnosed as having high egg binding, meaning that her eggs were getting stuck in her reproductive system before she could put a shell on them and lay them. The vet prescribed an antibiotic in the hopes that she could fight off the infection and perhaps would be able to lay the eggs that were stuck. For a short while Rhoda improved, but within a few days of the course of antibiotics ending, Rhoda looked sick again. Back to the vet we went, this time for a surgical procedure. The vet removed a softball sized mass of egg yolk that had gotten stuck in Rhoda’s uterus, and fixed a kink and a tear in her uterus. Unfortunately, as a result of the tear in Rhoda’s uterus, some egg yolk was released into her abdomen, which can result in serious infection. Rhoda came home after two days at the vet, and she bounced back to her old self within a couple of days. But as soon as she completed her course of antibiotics, she started acting sick again, not eating as much and being much less active than usual. We’ve been to the vet a total of 5 times over the last month and a half. Some days Rhoda seemed almost her old spunky self, but on other days I could tell she was not feeling well. Rhoda was no longer showing any improvement on the antibiotics. I feared that she was either egg-bound again or had some other complication from the original occurrence.
It is a sad fact of life for a chicken, that reproductive problems are one of the most frequent causes of illness, and are rarely, if ever, curable. Due to chickens being bred to lay an unnaturally large number of eggs during their lifetime, they are predisposed to reproductive disorders and a variety of other health problems as a result. We have lost many girls over the years, most of them to either confirmed or suspected reproductive problems. It’s getting pretty crowded up in the chicken cemetary, and we only just recently bid Grace farewell, I’m fairly certain to a reproductive problem. Grace was not so lucky as to go to the vet. I tried to treat her at home and make her as comfortable as I could, but in the end we let her go on too long, and I wish I could have done better by her in her last days. I still cry every time we have to say goodbye to one of the ladies, sometimes I think it’s getting easier over the years, but not this time around. We will cherish our memories of Rhoda, and she will have a forever home in our hearts.
Chicken farming can be a messy business. The chickens are constantly scratching about in the grass and dirt as they search for bugs and other tasty treats which leaves lots of bare patches in the grass and lots of pits and craters in the bare patches. When you combine that with a record-setting 25 inches of rain since December 1st, things can get messy fast! That’s why I am so glad that we decided to undertake our major pasture rotation project last fall. Had we not moved all of the chickens off of the upper pasture, I’m sure it would be a muddy disaster by now. The upper pasture had gotten pretty worn out and was in need of some rest and rejuvenation. When we got the chickens for the farm back in 2012, safety was our number one priority. We built a fence around the upper pasture that was designed to keep out all manner of predators. We did this by using hundreds of landscape staples to attach chicken wire on top of the ground along the outside edge of the fence to prevent predators from digging under the fence. We also hung a net over the entire top of the fenced area and attached it securely every few feet to the top of the fence with little wire rings. The ultra-secure upper pasture has served the ladies well and kept them safe from the predators that we have seen here at the farm – and we have seen many – hawks, eagles, coyotes, raccoons, weasels, and let’s not forget about the risk posed by the occasional neighbor’s dog (which I still can’t help but think may have been the cause of our banty rooster Henry’s demise). The down side to the ultra-secure fenced upper pasture is that it is not large enough to rotate the pasture with the 25 – 30 chickens that were living on it. They wanted to use every bit of that pasture, and of course I let them. So after 2-1/2 years of use, the upper pasture was a bit worse for the wear.
Last fall we took all of the chickens off the upper pasture. We moved half of the chickens down to the lower pasture in the front yard where they have settled in fairly well with the turkeys and Ramon and his ladies. We set up a temporary fenced area adjacent to the upper pasture for our favorite ladies, where we could keep a close eye on them since they would be in a less secure area until we get the pasture project complete. We rototilled and seeded the upper pasture, and the new grass is coming in nicely. It’s still not quite ready to put the ladies back on the young grass in the upper pasture, and after four months in their temporary pasture it was looking a bit worn out too. I had been thinking that it was time for fresh pasture for a couple of weeks, and when the ladies started poking their heads through the fence to graze on the other side, we knew it was time for phase two of the pasture project. On several of these recent nice warm days, instead of getting the garden and greenhouse ready for spring, we’ve been disassembling the net, fence, and buried chicken wire around the upper pasture. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, we have spent many hours wishing we had not gone to quite as great lengths with our security measures. Don’t get me wrong, safety is still a high priority, but being able to rotate pasture is just as important to the health and safety of the flock.
We’ve learned a few things over the years about caring for and keeping our chickens safe. Perhaps the greatest invention known to chicken-keepers is the automatic chicken door opener which opens slightly after dawn to let everyone out of the coop in the morning, and closes slightly before sunset. As long as everyone gets in the coop before the door closes, which they always have with one exception, the chickens are safe in their coop at night even if we are not home at dusk to close them up. At $200 each, the automatic door openers are an investment, but the peace of mind they give me if I need to be away from the farm is worth it. We’ve also learned that the movable electric poultry netting we have in the lower pasture allows us to keep the ladies safe while also being able to rotate pasture and mow the grass more easily when we need to. We’ve decided to switch to the movable electric poultry netting in the upper pasture, which we will use in combination with some level of aerial protection from flying predators. There are several tall trees very close to the upper pasture, and we’ve had several low hawk fly-overs of the upper pasture, so we need to continue to provide some measure of protection from aerial predators. With the old upper pasture fence now removed, we are about ready to set up the movable electric poultry netting in the upper pasture, and hopefully this new system will make it easier for us to make sure the ladies’ grass is always greener.
We’ve been through all of the phases of winter here at the farm – cold frosty mornings, wind storms, snow storms, and lots and lots of rain, and we are all anxiously waiting for the sun to return. After the recent snow melted, we had several very rainy weeks. The ground is saturated and muddy, and the grass in the pasture is getting chewed down pretty short by now. On the days when the rain stops for a bit and we do get some sun, the ladies are out and about, munching on grass and foraging for the occasional bug or earthworm. But it’s not uncommon for me to look out the window and see only the most intrepid of foragers out it the rain. The turkeys and Ramon’s ladies are usually outside no matter what the weather, but many of the girls and even Ramon and Brown Rooster prefer to spend the rainy days hunkered down inside the coop, under the coop, or wherever they can find shelter and get some peace away from the turkeys. I can only assume that when I found Ramon perched in the rafter of the coop one morning, it was because of the turkeys. The turkeys and the chickens get along most of the time, but the turkeys can be bossy, and they do love a good chicken chase now and again.
The eggs are few and far between over the winter, and I actually had to buy a dozen eggs from the store a couple of weeks ago. Despite buying organic, cage free eggs, the store bought eggs paled in comparison to our ladies lovely eggs. Commercial egg producers provide artificial lighting in their chicken coops to increase the number of eggs their chickens lay over the winter. A hen’s egg laying cycle is related to the number of hours of daylight she receives per day, so artificially increasing the amount of daylight a chicken receives means that she will be stimulated to lay more eggs. We let the ladies take the winter off from egg laying, as nature intended, so that means from November through January we only get a couple of eggs a day if we are lucky. Now that the days are gradually lengthening, a few more of the ladies are starting to lay again. It’s definitely worth the wait for their large to extra large eggs with their lovely orange yolks, and it shouldn’t be too much longer before we will have enough to sell again.
There are signs that spring is around the corner. On the occasional sunny day, the bees can be seen coming and going from the beehives, and it’s always a thrill to see activity outside the beehives again and know that the bees have survived the cold, damp winter. Our turkey hens, Eleanor and Prudence, have been exhibiting some different behaviors recently which I’m thinking means they will be ready to mate soon, and it won’t be too much longer before we have turkey eggs. I have never tried a turkey egg, but I am looking forward to it. In addition to the eggshell having a beautiful speckled pattern, I have read that turkey eggs are rich and delicious and are especially good for baking because they give a light and fluffy texture to baked goods. We are drawing up plans for a small nesting house for the turkeys in hopes that one of them will go broody and raise a batch of turkey poults for us. So although we are all waiting for the sun, I have a feeling that no one is waiting for it more anxiously than me!