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.
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!
We have a new momma at the farm, this time around it’s a chicken momma, and we have four new chicks as well. I had thought we were done hatching chicks for the summer, but this lady had other plans. Every year I have a chicken or two that decides she wants to hatch some chicks and starts hiding a secret stash of eggs in the bushes, I first wrote about it in Outsmarted by a Chicken. We only have a few patches of bushes in the chicken yard, so you would think it would be pretty easy for me to notice this was happening and put a stop to it. Well, that’s easier said than done. I guess between all of the chicken, turkey, garden, and bee chores, I just kinda forget to look in the bushes for hidden eggs as often as I should. So it happened again this year, and I stumbled upon a nest with 18 eggs in it. I had been hoping to add a few more chickens to the flock this spring, but it just didn’t work out as planned despite giving eight chicken eggs to the turkey mommas to hatch and buying several chicks for another of our turkey momma wannabes, and we only ended up with three new chickens and of course one of them is a rooster. So I took the opportunity to let this broody chicken continue to set on her eggs. I removed four eggs and left her with 14 eggs. I cracked open the four eggs I took from her nest to try to get an idea of how long she had been setting on them so I could estimate when they would hatch. They hardly had any embryo development – and before you get grossed out, the embryo consists of a tiny network of veins for the first several days and I was pretty sure that was how long she had been setting on them. Based on what I saw, I calculated the approximate hatch date which would be 21 days from when she started setting.
We have a separate brooder area in the chicken coop where we can put broody hens while they are setting on their eggs to keep them from being disturbed and to keep other hens from adding eggs to their nest or otherwise interfering with the nest when the broody hen leaves the nest for a few minutes a day to eat, drink, and poop. The only downside to putting the broody hen in the smaller brooder enclosure inside the coop is that with the heat wave we had recently I was worried that she would overheat in the coop. The area where she had made her nest was in the shade under a bunch of ferns and shrubs, and I felt it was healthier for her to continue to set her eggs outside where it would be several degrees cooler than inside the coop. Plus she could get up to take care of her business when she needed too, and it would involve less micro-managing on my part since I wouldn’t have to remove her from the enclosed brooder once a day and wait around for her to do her business and go back to the coop. My plan was to move her into the brooder enclosure when it was a couple of days before her hatch date. She surprised me by having her chicks start hatching the day before I was planning to move them. I didn’t want to move her mid-hatch in case it disrupted the hatch. I decided I would move the momma and chicks the next morning. I came out in the morning, and momma had four chicks under her. She still had six eggs under her (four had gotten broken during the first week she was setting on them), so I decided to let her continue setting on them for a little while longer to see if any more would hatch. When I returned a few hours later, the momma hen had moved a couple of feet away from the nest. She had her chicks under her, but the unhatched eggs were abandoned. I picked them up to inspect them, five had no sign of hatching and I brought them into the house to candle them to see if they were developing and it turns out they were not. But the sixth egg had a tiny hole in the shell and was pipping which means that the chick inside is starting the process of hatching out of the egg.
Let me just stop here and say that although the story does have a happy ending, the next part of the story is about a sad lesson learned, but one that is a part of farm life. I held the pipping egg in my hand and I put it to my ear, I could hear the faint tap, tap, tap of the chick pecking the shell with its beak. It was the first time I had experienced this, and it was amazing. Oh how I wish that I had brought that egg inside the house and put it under a heat lamp while it continued to hatch, but I thought that it would be better off hatching under momma so I put the egg back under her. I had read things about the membrane getting stuck to the chick when the humidity was not correct, possibly resulting in the chick getting shrink wrapped and suffocating, and I didn’t want to risk anything going wrong by bringing the egg inside. I went back inside the house for a bit, I’m not sure how long exactly, but I think it was only a couple of hours. I was at the kitchen sink when I saw a commotion in the chicken yard, there was lots of chasing and my heart instantly sank. I ran outside to see one of the chickens with an eggshell in her beak being chased by the other chickens. Then I saw another chicken with something dark hanging from her beak, I knew instantly that it was a baby chick. At first I thought it was one of the four chicks that had already hatched, and I screamed NOOOOO at the top of my lungs. As I drew near I could see that it was a newly hatched chick. The pipping egg had hatched remarkably quickly, much sooner than I had expected. The chick must have been lying in the bushes, wet and tired from hatching out of its egg, when some of the other hens found it and in their ancestral dinosaur ways, they did something awful to it. At that point, I knew it was time to move the others to safety, and I quickly relocated the momma and her four chicks into the brooder inside the coop. The chicks are now nine days old, and everyone is doing well. This morning momma took her little ones out to the chicken yard for the first time, and although there were a few curious onlookers, and a few small scuffles between momma and the others as she reasserted her place in the pecking order, it all went well. I will let momma and her littles out for short periods of supervised time in the chicken yard for the next week or so, and then they will probably be ready to join the flock full time. The four chicks are a beautiful range of different colors, and I look forward to seeing how they feather out, and how many girls and boys we have in the mix.
Raquel has been our alpha hen since we got our first three chickens in 2010. As we’ve added new chickens to the flock over the years she has maintained her status as queen of the chicken yard, and her subjects give her a wide berth, especially when treats are involved. This summer we had one of our lowest hens in the pecking order, Violet, hatch some chicks (Chick Love). We set Violet up in her own smaller enclosure in the corner of the chicken coop to keep the other hens from bothering her, and she happily doted on her chicks in the nursery area of the coop. Within a few days of Violet hatching her chicks, Raquel went broody, which means that she wanted to set on and hatch eggs. I like to think that Raquel had a chicken mid-life crisis. Raquel had happily been the boss lady for over four years, and then perhaps she began to think that maybe there was something more to life than being the boss. She determinedly sat in that nest box, right across from Violet and her adorable chicks, for almost 24 hours a day for nearly 7 weeks, which is a long time to be broody. This is more than double the length of time it takes to hatch chicks, and many broody hens would have given up by now. I began to take pity on Raquel, and I thought that if she wanted chicks so badly perhaps we should let her have them. I had to admire her perseverance. Besides, I had recently had my own mid-life crisis of sorts causing me to quit my job and move to the country, and I’ve never been happier. Didn’t Raquel deserve the same chance at happiness? Okay, I know, she’s just a chicken, but still it just seemed like the right thing to do.
We gave Raquel six eggs to hatch, but the strangest thing kept happening. When she would leave her nest for the 10 minutes or so a day that a broody hen goes outside to eat, drink, and poop, her eggs began to get broken. I suspect that another hen was sneaking into her nest box and breaking the eggs to eat them. Egg eating is a bad habit that hens can sometimes develop when they are in need of extra protein, and it happens occasionally, but it was frustrating that of all the eggs in the coop it was the ones we were trying to hatch that were getting eaten. Finally, after four of the six eggs we had given Raquel had been broken, we decided that our plan to let her hatch chicks was not going to work. So we resorted to Plan B, which was something that I had read about and hoped would work for us. How it is supposed to work is that you buy very young chicks, just a few days old is best, and you put them under the broody hen under the cover of night and remove any eggs she may be sitting on. When the hen wakes up, voila, she’s a momma! That’s the best case scenario, but I’ve also read about this method failing miserably resulting in the death of the young chicks. Nevertheless, we decided to try it, and I’m happy to report that it worked like a charm!
We bought four Golden Comet chicks for Raquel. These are a hybrid type of chicken that can be sexed when they hatch based on the feather color of the chicks. Gold chicks are female, and white chicks are male. Since we already had four new roosters from Violet’s chicks, we definitely did not want any more roosters so we decided buying the hybrid chicks was the way to go. The morning after our experiment, I got up early to check on Raquel and the chicks, and I found them happily bonding into their own little family. Raquel has taken to motherhood like I never would have imagined. I have to admit that she was such a brat as the flock matriarch that I wasn’t sure that she would be a good mother. But Raquel has turned out to be the most affectionate mother hen we’ve had. She has displayed all of the usual mother hen behavior, and often allowed her chicks to ride around on her back which is something I’ve not seen with our other mother hens and chicks. Raquel is also an extremely protective mother. You know how they say it’s dangerous to get between a mother bear and her cubs, well that’s a good analogy for Raquel and her chicks at feeding time. Any hen that comes within a few feet of Raquel and her chicks will get chased away with a vengeance for a surprising distance.
Typically a mother hen will stay with her chicks until they are about six weeks old, and then she’ll rather unceremoniously let them know she’s done with the whole motherhood thing by giving them repeated pecks of the beak when the chicks continue to follow her around or get a bit too close. It’s usually a pretty abrupt separation when it’s time for the chicks to leave the proverbial nest, and then typically the hen wants nothing further to do with the chicks. Raquel however, spent her nights with the chicks in the nursery until they were eight weeks old. When Raquel finally went back to sleeping on the roost with the other hens, the chicks continued to try to sleep with her including jumping on her back when she was on the roost which she has tolerated quite well. She’s only pecked at the chicks once or twice that I’ve seen, and they continue to spend quite a bit of time together during the day even though they are almost 10 weeks old. I’m glad we gave Raquel the opportunity to be a momma hen, she’s shown us a whole new side to her personality and it’s been a joy to see her raise up the next generation.
After months of anticipation waiting for one of our hens to go broody so she could hatch some chicks for us, we finally have seven new chicks at the farm. It was worth the wait! Violet has turned out to be an excellent mother, and despite being one of the lowest hens in the pecking order, her motherly status has given her a whole new attitude. She shepherds her chicks all around the pasture, clucking in various tones to tell the chicks to follow her, or to let them know she’s found something good to eat, or to take cover from some perceived threat. The other hens are eager to meet the new chicks, but when any of the other ladies dares to get a bit too close, Violet goes into attack mode and quickly sends the unwelcome visitor on their way.
As usual, I am quite enamored with our new batch of little ones, and I have been following them around trying to capture their cuteness in photographs. I am also trying to socialize the chicks to get them used to being picked up, but it’s been a bit challenging since they have such a big area to escape into. In the past when we have raised chicks in the kitchen it’s been much easier to pick them up from inside the confines of a 2 x 4 foot brooder box than it is to pick them up in a 40 x 40 foot pasture. The chicks have learned that I am the bringer of food, and they come running over when they see me walk into the pasture. They’ll also eat out of my hand, but the moment a chick senses me try to sneakily pick it up from below with my outstretched hand, most of them squeal with fright and run behind mom. There are a couple of chicks that don’t mind too much when I pick them up, and there is one chick that will sometimes jump up onto me voluntary and look up at me inquisitively as if to say hi, but wouldn’t you know it I’m pretty sure that one is a rooster judging by his rapidly growing comb.
Now that the chicks are 4 weeks old, the rooster guessing game has begun. Of course it is a bit early to know for sure, and as the saying goes “you don’t know until they crow”. But since this is my 6th batch of chicks, there are a few early signs of roosterhood that I’ve learned to recognize. The most obvious sign is a relatively larger and pinker/redder comb as compared to the other chicks. Another sign is slightly thicker and longer legs for the roosters, as well as brighter accent feathers making an appearance on their wings and around their necks. Based on these signs, I’m fairly confident that we have at least two roosters in the bunch. If we managed to get away with only two roos out of seven chicks we’d be lucky, but considering our last batch of chicks ended up being four roos and two hens, maybe we’re in for some luck. In the meantime, I’m enjoying each and every one of them and the amazing experience of watching Violet teach the chicks everything they need to know about being a chicken.
Usually around this time of year, when it’s cold and rainy out, I’m hard at work looking through the endless pile of gardening catalogues that makes its way to my mailbox and planning out my summer garden. But this year I have a much more exciting project on the horizon – hatching baby chicks! It’s been almost two years already since we bought the two dozen chicks for the farm, and it’s time to raise up the next generation to keep our egg production up. We let our smallest banty hen, Millie, hatch a couple of eggs last spring, and she did a great job raising the chicks (read about it in Momma Millie), so we will give her a few more eggs to hatch this spring. The good thing about Millie is that she is constantly going broody and sitting in the nest box for weeks on end, wishing and hoping to be a momma hen again so we’ll have no trouble getting her to hatch a few eggs for us. She’s such a small hen that she can only manage to set four or five eggs at a time, so we will also need another hen to go broody so that we can hatch a few more eggs than Millie can handle. That shouldn’t be too much trouble since we have several breeds of chicken that are supposed to make good mothers. When we’re ready to hatch some eggs we’ll just let a pile of eggs accumulate in one of the nest boxes, and in all likelihood one of our ladies will step up to the task.
Before we can hatch the eggs, we need to plan which hens and roosters to breed and the logistics of the breeding program. I suppose we could just hatch a random sample of fertilized eggs, but the scientist in me thinks it would be much more fun to do selective breeding. We are planning to breed mostly black australorps and easter eggers. These are among our favorites of the breeds we have for their sweet personalities and the beautiful eggs they give us. Right now we have Brown Rooster living with the ladies, but in order to breed purebred australorps we’ll need to separate Brown Rooster from the ladies for two weeks prior to letting Reuben mate with them. We want to breed Ramon, one of our two easter egger roosters, to several of our green-egg laying easter egger hens. Most of the ladies we will be breeding are coming up on two years old so they should have good fertility and we should get a good hatch from them, but we do love our Rhode Island Red hen, Rhoda, who is coming up on four years old and still lays a nice large dark brown egg so we want to try to hatch some of her eggs too. Both she and Brown Rooster have very pretty red feathers, so I think we’ll hatch a few of their eggs and see if we can’t get some Lil’ Rhoda ladies in the next generation.
Before we can start our selective breeding program we’ll need to divide up the chicken pasture to section off a couple of smaller areas so that we can segregate the chosen ladies with the lucky roosters. This will be one of those times where having tame roosters that will let me pick them up will come in handy, so I’m glad I’ve spent the time socializing the boys so that we will be able to transport them up to the hen pasture for their rendezvous with minimal objections.
When hatching eggs, the ratio of roosters to hens is usually 50/50. We would like to get more than a few ladies out of the hatch, so we’ll probably hatch about 12-15 eggs, or maybe a few more if chick fever really takes hold. When we got six baby chicks from a friend last summer, we ended up with 4 cockerels and 2 pullets (young hens) and one of the pullets died, leaving us with only one laying hen out of the bunch. So we want to hedge our bet a bit more this time in the hopes of winding up with a few more ladies. The roos, of which I’m sure there will be more than a few, will sadly have to go to freezer camp (read about it in Coq au Vin). I don’t say this lightly as it is a very hard thing to do to harvest one’s roosters, especially since I spend time with and get attached to all of our chickens. But it is a fact of life when raising chickens that you end up with more roosters than you need. I think it’s important to take responsibility for the extra roosters we produce, so we will give them a good life every day they are with us up until the very end when that difficult time comes again this year. In the meantime, I am looking forward to the fun that comes along with a batch of baby chicks and the amazing experience of watching a momma hen teach her chicks everything they need to know.
It’s been three months since we spontaneously agreed to provide a home for six chicks that were hatched out in a friend’s grade school classroom. They are old enough to differentiate the roosters from the ladies, and we now find ourselves with four more roosters on our hands. This of course is in addition to our other new rooster, brown rooster, that Millie hatched out six months ago and our two full grown roosters Rueben and Ramon. Oh, and let’s not forget Lil’ Red Rooster, which brings the grand total up to eight roosters! This is not the first time we’ve found ourselves in the situation of having too many roosters. When we got our first batch of chickens for the farm we ended up with six roosters, which we soon found out was way too many. We rehomed two roosters and lost one to a predator attack. For a while we were down to three roosters, and to be honest that was still one too many.
When we bought the 25 chicks for the farm back in March 2012, a dozen of the chicks we bought were breeds known for their “table” qualities since we wanted to experiment with raising chickens for meat as well as eggs. Two of the meat breeds we bought ended up being among my favorite in terms of personality. These included the Australorps, who were named Squeaky 1 and 2 and Twitchy, and the Dorkings, who became known as the Sweet Peas. The other meat breed in our flock, the Delaware, is a big white chicken that literally looks like dinner running around on big yellow legs, but lucky for these ladies they are prolific layers of extra large eggs, so they have been granted immunity. I did go so far as taking a chicken slaughter class last year at the Linnton Feed & Seed. It was a hard thing to do, really hard, but the instructor was extremely kind and patient and it went about as well as could be expected. Still it was a traumatic experience, and I think I cried and sniffled about half of the drive home. When I got home I cried some more, took a shower, then took a nap. Then I told Sean about the class, and I started to feel a little better. We decided to barbeque the chicken for dinner, and boy was it tasty! Nevertheless, there was no doubt in my mind that I was far too attached to my ladies, and even the roosters, to consider eating any of our first farm chickens.
So now here we are facing the same decision we faced a year ago. We have some young roosters who have been loved and raised with respect and who will soon be 5 months old, the prime time to harvest fryers. It’s a fact of farm life that if a rooster is not needed for flock protection or for procreation, they most often end up on the dinner table. That is the fate of many unwanted roosters that are advertised on Craigslist, and if our roosters are going to be eaten I’d rather know that they came to a swift and humane end by our hand than under unknown circumstances. We’ve lost a few chickens to natural causes over the past year, and we conducted a necropsy on one of our ladies last month to confirm her cause of death was internal laying. We are slowly becoming desensitized to the fact that death is part of life on a farm. That doesn’t mean that the decision that lies before us will be an easy one, but if we can do it, we will be one step closer toward self sufficiency.
I have exciting news to report – our very own Millie hatched out some baby chicks! You may recall I had written about Millie wanting to be a momma for quite some time in a previous post, Momma Wanna-be. Well, after she started camping out in the nest box for extended periods this spring, we decided to grant her wish of motherhood. Millie has never met a rooster in her life, but her breed is well known for making excellent mothers so we put three fertile eggs from the farm under her a few weeks ago. It takes chicken eggs 21 days to hatch. We were away for most of the day on day 20, and wouldn’t you know that had to be the day that one chick hatched a day early. We don’t know what happened, but unfortunately the first chick to hatch didn’t make it and I found it dead on the floor of the run. We are speculating that it may have followed the other adult chicken, Coco Puff, down the ladder that leads from the coop to the run and then the chick didn’t know how to get back to the coop and the warmth of it’s momma and so it may have died from exposure. I was horrified to find that first dead chick, but I was soon relieved when I opened the coop door and found Millie sitting in the nest box with a live chick under her and one more egg left to hatch. The following morning she had two adorable peeping chicks.
Coco Puff has been sleeping in the nest box with Millie the entire time she was broody and then during the whole time she was incubating eggs, and now that the chicks have hatched we decided to give Millie some alone time with her new chicks. We installed a screen inside the coop to make separate quarters for Millie and the chicks and to also prevent the chicks from leaving the safety of the coop and their momma. Millie appears to have spent the entire first two days after the chicks hatched in the nest box with the chicks. Then on day 3 she moved the family from the nest box to the food and water station we set up for the chicks and began giving them lessons in eating and drinking. To teach the chicks where the food is and what it looks like she makes a series of quick clucking sounds while picking up pieces of food, dropping the food in front of the chicks, and then pecking at it. The chicks seem to have figured it out and have been pecking hungrily at the food I sprinkle on the threshold of the nest box to lure them out from under Millie. Millie is doing a great job as a momma, and we are going to let her raise the chicks in the coop rather than raising them in the kitchen as we have done when we bought chicks from the store. We will need to be attentive to socializing the chicks to people, as chickens that are hen-raised are known to not be as friendly toward humans as chicks that are regularly handled while they are growing up. Today was the first day of socialization, and it did not exactly go smoothly. I was able to slide my open hand under a chick and pick it up without much objection by the chick, but when I lifted the chick up off the coop floor, Millie flew at me in full attack mode. Luckily when a two pound fluffy bantam chicken goes into attack mode it’s really more cute than it is intimidating! I can tell that Millie is going to make a great mother hen, and I’m already looking forward to having her hatch out more eggs. Now let’s just hope we are lucky enough to have at least one of the baby chicks grow up to be a hen and that we don’t find ourselves with two more roosters on our hands. Besides, I’ve already picked out their names – Daisy and Daphne – which are not very well suited to roosters!