Monday, December 7, 2009

Life with chickens

One of the big shames about me not posting for so long is that you have been left out of the egg loop. Our chickens finally started laying eggs in October and we have been trying to get into the egg business ever since. Like I have alluded to in previous posts, tending to these chickens has provided a ride on one of the biggest learning curves of my life. We have basically been making this up as we go (okay, we do read a lot about chickens and such but when you've never done something before and you just start doing it, well... there are a LOT of unknowns) and we have found that we've made some good decisions and some not so good decisions. For example:
*Decision to finally take the plunge and order our chicks==good decision
*Decision to order 50 of the darn things==RIDICULOUS decision
*Decision to butcher the roosters ourselves==good decision (for the incredible education we received in the process)
*Decision to butcher dual-breed birds at 24 weeks of age==unfortunate decision. Yes, we have a freezer full of birds, but we can really only stew them or smoke them (on the grill, people!). If I want to make my fabulous buttermilk oven baked chicken I still have to buy it from the store. That right there really frustrates me, especially when I think that the chicken we do have in the freezer is some of the most expensive meat we have ever had in our possession. It's criminal, really.
*Decision to build our own coop with scrap materials=very frugal/green/whatever-you-want-to-call-it of us decision. This saved us a ton of money.
*Decision to build the frame of the coop with the idea of it being a chicken "tractor" and then changing our minds about that idea mid-stream==not so smart decision. We definitely should have fleshed this idea out a bit more before we started sawing and hammering and committing ourselves to an idea that we flip flopped on. What we ended up with is a coop that is really too small for the number of chickens that we have. Since they only use it to sleep in, we can get away with it. One saving grace to having built a quasi-chicken tractor is that it is moveable, which has come in handy as we figure out the best way to fence in our chickens and keep them out of our neighbors yards while also providing them with fresh ground to graze on. Remember what I said earlier about making this up as we go along? This is a good example of that.

Oh well, live and learn, right? Actually, it has been kind of fun to fly by the seat of my pants on this one. There are not many areas in my life where I can afford to make bad decisions, learn from them and not ruin someone's life/future/psyche in the process.

What you see here are the various hues of our eggs. They really are beautiful and the picture really doesn't do them justice. Some of them are a pale brown, others darker, and even some have spots. Just lovely. Unfortunately, our hens started laying as the days were beginning to get shorter and shorter. The number of hours of light in a day is what determines whether some hens will continue laying through the winter or not. So, we were up to a high of 18 eggs a day and now we are lucky if we get 10. We set our price at $1.50/dozen based on that higher number of eggs a day. That would guarantee that we would cover our feed costs and maybe recoup a small portion of the grand investment these lovely birds have become. Now that our daily numbers have dropped, we aren't even breaking even on the feed. Oh well.
By the way, the eggs are DELICIOUS so, even if we have to eat every cotton pickin' one of them, at least our palates will be satisfied.

The latest drama regarding our chickens has been the nasty turn our temperatures took this week. We had our coldest weather of the season these past few days, even some wintry mix the other night. So, with temperatures diving into the upper teens, I became obsessed with how my chickens were going to survive. See, our coop is really bare bones. No, I mean really bare bones. It's walls are made of tin, for the love of Pete! There is nothing about our coop that is insulated. You can see daylight where the walls meet and the top foot of the coop is open air, covered only by hardware cloth and more tin for the roof. Cheap to build, yes. True shelter, questionable. So, the first day of the arctic blast, I did what any self respecting mother would do. I made the chickens hot oatmeal. Yes, I did and they LOVED it! I just felt that I had to do something to help warm their bones, or at the very least, their combs, wattles and ugly chicken feet. Amazingly, though, these chickens are incredibly resilient. They are, of course, covered in feathers, and that said feature is something I depend upon myself when I snuggle in under my down comforter in my freezing bedroom that hovers around 59 degrees this time of year. They work--amazingly. As long as they are out of direct winds, can hunker down over their feet completely and tuck their heads under their wing, they are pretty much good to go. It's helpful that we also have breeds that are more cold worthy. Remember, three of our birds are of a breed that actually have feathers on their feet! Even better. Also, we decided to rig up, out to the coop, a ridiculously long extension cord fitted with the lamp we used in the brooder when the chickens were but wee chicks and their warmth was of the utmost importance. It kind of helped. A little. At least they can look around at each other all night and know that they are not the only chicken freezing their tail off.

It doesn't mean that they aren't cold, though. These ladies had just come out of the coop, had some hot oatmeal and then settled down on this limb in the yard in order to soak up the weak morning sunshine. They're not exactly warm, but they will most certainly survive.

Admittedly, though, we are still concerned so John spent a few hours yesterday making some modifications to the coop in anticipation of even nastier weather headed our way this week (impending winter storm, frigid wind chills). He stapled some opaque plastic around the hardware cloth at the top of the coop and made a temporary "second" wall out of hardware cloth on the inside of the coop. He then stuffed the pine shavings that we use for bedding and some extra hay down inside of it. We'll see how well that works.

I suppose the worst case scenario is that one morning we might find we have more frozen chicken than we thought. Wouldn't that be grand?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Holly - I just read your blog and thought how wonderful it is to know you. You have a knack for telling us so many of the things that just pass us by without a thought. For instance I can actually say I have never given chickens a thought when I bought eggs up at Schnucks. Furthermore I begrudged them when the pricing went up. It makes me think about all the other professions out there we take for granted. The dairy farmer, the vegitable farmer, the farmer who spends endless days and nights and his crops get flooded or freeze. I am sure your egg busness wont bring you fame and fortune but I do beleive it will be a great learning experience for the boys (as well as you) - let's call it business 101. I love you Holly - thanks for the delicious eggs and your kind mothering (not a bad thing) that you do for all of us. Yours, Cyndy