Gather Ye Pumpkins

For us, this year’s Black Friday deals don’t start on November 29th — they kicked off four Fridays earlier than that. On November 1st, the price of pumpkins at our local farm market dropped to just about zero.

Well, technically not “zero.” It’s actually ten bucks for as many pumpkins as you can load in your vehicle at a time. If that’s not the most amazing, screaming good deal … I don’t know what is. (Besides the absolutely free Christmas trees that Walmart unloads on December 26th.)

All you have to do is put your $10 in the unattended coffee can (it’s the honor system), drive onto the field, and start loading. I pulled most of the seats out of our old minivan, laid down a tarp, and let her rip.

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Note the “volunteer” corn stalks. This field was planted in corn last year, and several kernels must’ve spilled during harvest.

I suppose I could’ve managed to cram a few more in there, but the suspension (and the tires) were starting to protest. As it is, with this kind of load, a Chrysler Town & Country’s handling characteristics are … interesting. I didn’t want to get greedy. I don’t mind leaving  a little open space, and coming back for additional loads. It’s only about ten minutes away.

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I included the second picture so you could get a sense of how many pumpkins are out there. I think it’s a five acre field, and most of it is still covered in orange gourds. I’ve made three trips in the last few days, and have barely made a dent.

However (and this is a big “however”), there’s a problem: not all of those pumpkins are still sound. Some are clearly rotting, or at least starting to turn (such as the one in the first picture, on the ground near the car – there’s a reason I left that one). With freezing nights getting more common, the pumpkins sitting in that open field will only deteriorate more rapidly. So, the race is on to gather the pumpkins while we may.

Meanwhile, back home, we’re piling up an impressive orange mountain downstairs in the barn. The sheep and goats are absolutely loving these things, and the chickens are doing their part to clean up any scraps the ruminants miss.

Speaking of chickens: sadly, Crazy Mama Hen lost one of the two chicks yesterday. The little black one is still hanging tough, though. I’ve already helped them into the barn tonight, so they should be safe for now.

Here’s hoping that all the pumpkin pieces inside the barn give Mama Hen one less reason to venture out into the cold!

Crazy Hen Broods On!

I didn’t really expect Sunday’s surprise, totally-out-of-season chicks to survive more than a day. So, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that they’re still going strong on Wednesday morning.

One of Henny Penny’s big challenges was getting her chicks over the curb and into the warmth / safety of the barn. She couldn’t do it alone, and she wouldn’t let me catch her in the open field. My solution: I waited until Sunday evening, and checked behind the barn. Sure enough, she was huddled against the outside wall, close to the door that most chickens use to come in for the night. From her clucking, and the way her wings were slightly poofed, I deduced that she was keeping one chick warm under each wing.

It was very easy to grab her, pressing each wing firmly against her body so as to keep the chicks in place. As I carefully carried this bundle deep into the barn, she clucked her disapproval – but didn’t struggle at all. Only when I set her down did she throw a hissy fit and charge my legs. Wanting her to turn her attention to her chicks, rather than me, I hightailed it out of the barn.

When I returned an hour or so later, there was no sign of her or the chicks. I took this as an encouraging sign; she’d clearly found a good hiding place. I turned off the lights, and called it a night.

Early Monday morning, soon after I turned the lights back on, I heard the distinctive mix of mother hen clucks and baby chick peeps. The three of them emerged from under an old milking stanchion – probably the best hiding place she could’ve selected.

Henny Penny led her chicks toward the place where we feed the birds. Here they encountered a problem: the four enormous turkeys I haven’t gotten around to butchering. All four were totally puffed up, strutting, and blocking her path to the grain. This didn’t deter her in the least. Remember the hissy fit she threw on Sunday night? She threw another one — this time directed against the turkeys.

I don’t usually post blurry photos, but there was no other way to capture what happened. She was a whirlwind of motion (and noise), all directed toward the giants she perceived as threatening her babies.

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Needless to say, the turkeys let her through.

I checked back later in the morning. I hoped she’d simply lay low and keep her chicks in the barn. No such luck; she clearly has a mind of her own. They were already back out in the grassy area behind the barn.

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Monday night and Tuesday night followed the same routine as Sunday night: I found her huddled against the outside wall of the barn, clucking reassuringly to her chicks, and then I carefully carried this bundle into the barn. And then hightailed it out.

This morning, we had really cold temperatures move in. Surprisingly (or maybe not), she again had them out in the grassy area behind the barn. I watched her for a while, and she did seem to be stopping and huddling more often, so the chicks could warm back up.

I still think she’s crazy, but I’m having an awful lot of fun watching her try to pull this off.

Our Crazy Hen

Earlier this year, I put up a post about how much fun it is when our hens hatch their own eggs and then raise the chicks themselves. By way of update: some time later, one of the three chicks disappeared. We don’t know what happened to it, but the other two chicks did just fine. They grew to full maturity, and still stick together as a pair — and sometimes still tag along with the mother hen. That’s actually kind of unusual, in our experience. Typically, once the chicks hit a certain age, the mother hen “signs off,” and then the chicks go their separate ways.

These particular birds may be sticking together because their mother repeatedly took them foraging in parts of the property that other chickens don’t tend to visit. (Such as the back yard and front yard near our house.) They are continuing to frequent these areas, as if they are a private domain. Regardless of the reason for their remaining together, it’s a charming reminder of their special origin.

It’s one thing when a hen goes broody and hatches her own eggs in the summer. It’s quite another when she waits until the THIRD OF FREAKING NOVEMBER to do so. When I was out behind the barn early this morning, feeding sheep, I heard a mix of familiar sounds behind me: the deep, reassuring clucks of a mother hen … harmonizing with the “Peep! Peep! Peep!” of newly-hatched chicks.

“No way,” I thought. But turning my attention to the goat area, I realized my ears weren’t fooling me. One of our Barred Rock hens had somehow managed to make a nest and hatch a pair of little ones — despite the recent Halloween Winter Weather Advisory, snow, rain, and other assorted nastiness. Even more remarkable, she’d probably made the nest outside someplace (most likely under a bush, where we hadn’t been able to find her).

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We need to get the hen and her brood inside, if the chicks are to have any chance of surviving (sorry, but I’m not running a heat lamp in a brooder for the several weeks it would take to get them big enough to hold their own with the full flock in the barn when the dead of winter sinks in). The problem is, the barn entrances are too high off the ground for them to go in by themselves. Mother Hen could clear the curb with no problem. Her chicks could not. They needed help.

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Even the goats seem incredulous that this is happening.

Trying to chase down a hen by oneself in an open area is a fool’s errand, so I called a couple of the Yeoman Farm Children out to help. The idea was to catch her, and then get the chicks, and move all of them deep inside the barn (where they would hopefully be content to stay).

Mother Hen had other ideas. She bolted, scolding us at the top of her lungs as she evaded our efforts to trap her in a corner of the sheep fence. She scooted through a couple of small open areas, circled around the other side of the barn and garage, and slipped back into the pasture before disappearing in the barn. We gave up the chase, and returned to where she’d left the chicks. Unfortunately, there was now no sign of them. I scoured the whole area behind the barn, listening carefully. No peeps. With hopes that they were simply hiding under thick weeds, waiting for a chance to come out, I went inside for a while.

About a half hour later, I returned to give some hay to the goats. And wouldn’t you know it … mother hen had somehow called the chicks out of whatever hiding place they’d vanished into. All three of them were roving the goat area, totally oblivious to the forty degree temperatures. Just another day to learn from Mom how to forage.

Is our hen completely crazy? Probably. And I’m not going to give up trying to move the three of them into the shelter of the barn. But maybe, just maybe, she’ll continue to shock us … and manage to raise the first set of winter chicks we’ve ever had.

Never Gets Old

If you were to ask which one thing about living on a small farm never gets old, I would answer immediately: watching mother hens hatch and raise their own chicks.

The overwhelming majority of our birds come from a hatchery; trying to breed and hatch your own on a large scale is an enormous headache (and crap shoot). That said, we enjoy raising egg-laying breeds that haven’t had all their mothering instincts bred out of them. Every once in a while, one of them will surprise us by sneaking off to a dark corner of the property, making a nest, and hatching out a brood.

I recently noticed that our egg production was dropping somewhat. The nine-year-old had been put in charge of gathering eggs this spring, and I suspected that he wasn’t looking hard enough. A couple of weeks ago, I made a thorough search of the barn, to see if he might be missing something.

Of course, it didn’t take long to find the huge cache of eggs which had gone ungathered. An old box had been overturned, with the open side facing a wall. By all appearances, it looked like just an old box that someone had forgotten to take to the burn pile. Upon closer inspection, however, I found a very broody Buff Orpington hen inside — and, under her, about a dozen and a half eggs. She’d removed most of her breast feathers, so as to bring her warm skin into better direct contact with the eggs. When I tried to pick her up, she moved very little (unlike a non-broody hen, which would’ve run off squawking at first touch), and simply let out some deeply disapproving clucks as she tried to peck me.

I hoped that I’d caught her in time, and that these eggs were still good, so I took all of them into the house. As much fun as it is when mother hens hatch their own chicks, the process is too unpredictable to waste a lot of eggs on — especially because this hen was in a place where other hens could be adding fresh eggs to the ones she’d been incubating. I cracked a couple of the eggs, and they were seriously bloody – like they’d been incubating for a long time.

Not wanting to kill any additional developing chicks, I tested the rest of them (one at a time) to see if they would float in water. A handful of them sank right to the bottom and went on their side. That’s usually an indication of a fresh egg; some other hen(s) had likely climbed in and added these to the nest recently. I put them aside for our potential use.

The rest of the eggs either floated, or stood up on end. I took these to the barn, returned them to the box, and placed the hen (who hadn’t gone far) back on the eggs.

Then we left her alone, and waited.

This past Sunday morning, when I went out to the barn to do chores, she was off the nest and lying in the middle of a walkway. Her feathers were puffed up, and she was spread out like she was trying to cover something. A little yellow-and-black chick sat in front of her, seemingly oblivious to the low “come hither” clucking noises she was making. I nudged the chick toward her, and it quickly vanished into the puffy feathers. As she welcomed it under her wings, I could see a couple of other little ones shifting around. Much as I wanted to see how many she had altogether, I thought better of disturbing her.

That evening, she was leading three little chicks all around the barn. Monday morning, I had trouble locating her at first. As I continued looking, I grew concerned that the barn cats had swiped her chicks. To my relief, I found she’d made a temporary nest in the goat separating area. She was again puffed up, giving reassuring clucks. I knew, without looking, that all was well.

Every day since then, she’s led the chicks to a different part of the barnyard. Tuesday morning, they were out very early in the goat area. It looked like she was teaching them how to forage.

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Last night, she had them on the lawn behind the house. They were still browsing the lawn when I came out this morning, but eventually moved back to the barn.

No matter where she decides to take them tonight, I do know one thing: this entertainment never, ever gets old.

Moving Up and Out

Near the top of my list for things that can’t be beat about country life: fresh eggs, and home-grown meat. Today, our new batch of little birds took a step forward in providing the new year’s supply of both.

We got our baby birds pretty late this year. Our local grain elevator organized a series of group purchases from a Michigan hatchery over the course of the spring; we waited for the very last of these. One big advantage of the group buy is that we all get a low per-bird rate — and no charges for shipping. So, we almost always go that route now.

Why did we wait so late? Like much of the country, the weather has been awful here in Michigan this spring. I simply didn’t want to put the birds out too soon, and have them suffer chills. When we first started farming, we were usually in a rush to get birds started … and we typically lost a number of them to cold or wet. With experience, we’ve come to appreciate the value of warmer spring temperatures for getting birds off to a solid start.

The downside to starting late is, of course, the final product isn’t ready until later. And that’s fine with me, actually. Our new pullets won’t start laying until November, but it’s not like we’re relying on them for our only eggs; these will be simply taking the place of some older hens that we’ll be retiring to the soup pot. We have some yearlings that will continue supplying eggs in the meantime. (Hens lay productively for about two years; we like to replace the oldest half of the flock each year. And we raise a different color of chicken each year, so we can tell which ones are oldest and which still have another year of productive laying.)

The Cornish Cross meat chickens will be ready to start butchering in late July, which I suppose is a bit later than I’d prefer, but we still have several in the freezer from last year that we need to eat. The new ones will give us a nice supply of fresh chicken for the grill in August.

That leaves the turkeys. I want to be able to butcher turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, and a June start translates into a bird that’s big but not too big at that time.  If we start the turkeys early in the year, we have to butcher them early and freeze them — or let them grow to a monster size in November.

You’ll notice I mentioned three different types of birds: pullets, Cornish Cross meat chickens, and turkeys. Conventional wisdom says to brood separate types of birds separately, and there are good reasons for this. And we used to do it that way, when we were raising larger numbers of each type. This year, we’re only doing 25 meat birds, 10 pullets, and 5 turkeys; we’re not selling to the public, and that’s plenty for our family. However, there’s no point running brooder heat lamps for 10 birds or 5 birds. And we only have one brooder, anyway, so doing separate brooding would require three separate orders (or building separate brooders, which I’m not really in the mood for). I prefer to take my chances on the little pullets getting trampled by the larger birds, or the turkeys catching a disease that the chickens carry (but are immune to). And you know what? It’s worked out perfectly fine so far.

The birds arrived about a week and a half ago. For the nine year old, this is one of his favorite days of the year; he thinks it’s a blast to drive with me to the grain elevator, hold the box of cheeping birds on his lap as we drive home, and them help put them into the brooder one at a time (dunking each one’s beak into the water for a drink before releasing). We ran a 250 watt red heat bulb to start, in part because the weather was still surprisingly chilly for June. Once things warmed up, and the birds were well established, I swapped the big bulb out for a 100 watt incandescent. (We laid in a good supply of these before the government banned their sale. It’s nice having a bulb that can produce some heat, but not too much.)

Today, graced with fantastically sunny weather, the birds took their next step: the outdoor pasture pen. Last year, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer planted roughly half of the space available in the garden; I ran chickens in a pasture pen in the other half. This year, we traded. MYF worked up and planted the wonderfully-fertilized portion of the garden that I used last year, and I have moved my pen to the portion she used last year.

Here are this year’s birds, all set to go to work (you can see part of this year’s garden off to the right):

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Because the weather is so nice today, and because pullets are too little to fly out of the pen, I’m leaving half the lid open this afternoon (note there are two pieces of plywood stacked on the right side). This evening, I’ll move one of those pieces over, to close the pen up.

For now, the birds are a bit disoriented — but are beginning to explore their new surroundings. In addition to their high-protein feed, they’ll have lots of weeds to supplement their diet. They’re already starting to peck at these. We’ll give them a few days to clear those weeds out, and then we’ll move the pen to a fresh patch.

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I can hardly wait for fresh chicken on the grill!

Chicken Graduation Day

There were no caps. No gowns. No strains of Pomp and Circumstance. No long, boring speeches. But it was graduation day all the same … for our chickens.

Two months ago, we scored a fantastic deal on twenty Barred Rock pullet chicks. After several days in the brooder, they no longer needed to be kept inside with artificial lights — but neither were they ready to be simply turned loose in the barn. They would’ve been trampled, and they never would’ve been able to hold their own.

Instead, we moved the chicks out to a four-foot-by-eight-foot pasture pen in an unused section of the garden. The weeds in that part of the garden have been going crazy, and the chicks were happy to munch on them for us (and drop some fertilizer, for next year’s garden). We also gave them a high protein (23%) grain supplement, because weeds alone aren’t enough to get them up to their full adult size.

At first, while the chicks were still very small, we only had to move the pen to fresh weeds every few days. As they grew, however, so did their appetite and destructiveness. We were soon moving the pen daily, and the chicks were leaving obvious evidence of their path.

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Every time we returned to the local farm supply store, I kept my eyes open for a deal on unsold “senior” Cornish Cross chicks as good as what we’d scored on the Barred Rock pullets. Alas, deals like that are hit-or-miss. It soon became clear that if we wanted to raise a batch of birds for meat this summer, we would need to order them at retail.

Fortunately, our town’s local grain mill was putting together a group order for chicks. We got 25 of them, which came in a couple of weeks ago. The weather has been so nice, a single 75-watt incandescent bulb has provided plenty of heat for them — that’s the big advantage of waiting for June to raise baby birds. (The big disadvantage, of course, is that we won’t have fresh chicken on the grill until mid-August.)

With constant feed in front of them, the Cornish Cross chicks spent the last two weeks growing like weeds; no matter how many years we do this, it always astonishes me how quickly they grow up and feather out. Fourteen days is plenty old enough for them to go out to a pasture pen — especially in summer weather. And two months is plenty old enough for Barred Rock pullet chicks to hold their own in the barn.

Graduation Day had arrived.

I pulled the feeder and waterer, and moved the pen to a relatively fresh set of weeds. Then came the real fun: trying to catch juvenile Barred Rock pullets while keeping them from flying out of the pen. I would grab several pullets at a time, then put them in a plastic tub with a good lid. My eight-year-old son was of course eager to help, especially when it came to chasing down escapees.

Once I had ten pullets secured in the tub, I replaced the lid on the pasture pen. I hauled the tub to a spot deep inside the barn, near where we feed the adult laying hens, and emptied the pullets out. It’s always hilarious when they first look around at the completely foreign setting, and try to get their bearings. (The suspicious looks from the adult birds are always pretty amusing as well.)

By the time I returned with the other ten pullets, the first ten had begun exploring their new surroundings. Some had even begun pecking at the layer ration, or scratching at the straw on the barn floor.

My son and I now turned our attention to the Cornish Cross chicks. It took several minutes, but we managed to catch and secure all 25 of them in the plastic tub for the trip out to the garden.

The meat chicks were even more stunned at their new surroundings than the pullets had been in the barn. Think about it: your whole life, you’ve been in a 4×4 box with nothing but straw, a feeder, and a waterer. Next thing you know, you’re plunked down in the middle of this:

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I suppose it’s like Dorothy emerging from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse, into the technicolor brilliance of Oz.

My son and I made sure the plywood lid was in place and sufficiently weighted down — but we weren’t finished. The garden terrain was just uneven enough to make me concerned about little chicks trying to wiggle out — or predators trying to wiggle in. Before going inside, we gathered up some scrap materials and laid them around the outside perimeter of the pen.

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Late last night, I took a flashlight to the garden for a quick inspection. The chicks had all settled in, and were twittering softly to each other. None had escaped. Good.

Out in the barn, the pullets had settled in as well. Virtually all of them had found places to roost. It always amazes me how deeply the instincts are rooted in these animals. Nobody needs to tell them it’s a good idea to spend the night someplace up in the air — or teach them how to do it. Some of them certainly looked like they were getting the hang of it more quickly than others, but all of them were figuring it out. This morning, when I went out to the barn, plenty of them were still happily roosting on the goat fence:

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As soon as I put feed down, they all came running. They’re certainly not stupid.

And back out in the garden? The Cornish Cross chicks had all had a good night, too. I gave them some feed, and enjoyed a quiet moment or two just watching them continue to explore their “Oz.”

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So, another successful chicken graduation day is in the books. It’ll be fun watching the pullets continue integrating themselves into the existing laying flock, and watching the meat chicks continue growing like weeds (as they mow down weeds for us).

And the most fun of all will be feasting on fresh grilled chicken later this summer!

Chicks for Cheap

Chickens don’t have to be expensive!

Unfortunately, it took us many years to learn this lesson. When we first moved to the country, we routinely ordered batches of baby birds directly from the hatchery. There are several good suppliers out there, and their catalogs (now websites) are fun to browse. We were able to try out various breeds, and arrange for delivery on specific dates all the way into August or September. If there’s a very particular, obscure poultry breed that you’d like to try out, a special order from a hatchery may be the only way to go. And the highly reputable hatcheries, like Murray McMurray, would even provide a refund if any birds arrived dead or died within a certain number of days of arrival.

The hatchery route isn’t a bad way to go, but it can get pricey. Do you want 25 pullet chicks from a good egg laying breed like Barred Rock? At McMurray, those will cost you $2.89 each, plus shipping. From the hatchery nearest us (a couple of hours away), the price is $2.75 each for a box of 25. Then add $15 for shipping. If you want a smaller order, you’ll pay significantly more per bird.

Each spring, our local feed store / grain elevator puts together a large group buy from that hatchery, with orders arriving on specific days. That saves on shipping, and the price per bird is a little less.

Also in the spring, for several weeks the big farm stores like Tractor Supply will put out large tubs with baby chicks and other poultry, under heat lamps. It’s actually a lot of fun to visit the stores during “chick days,” and to be able to browse all the various birds that are available. You can mix and match whatever you want, and there’s no shipping. Prices are similar to what you’d pay from the hatchery ($2.99 for a Barred Rock pullet chick, for example). The downside is, you’re limited to what they have on hand. If you want something unusual, you’re out of luck.

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When we first started doing this, we were big on trying unusual and different breeds of birds. Over time, we came to settle on some favorites — which, fortunately, are the favorites of a lot of other people … which means they are widely available. When it comes to layers, we like Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons, but aren’t averse to New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds, and some of the others like ISA Browns. During spring chick days, farm stores have plenty of birds from these common and popular breeds.

Hens are reliable layers for about two years; after that, their egg production slows — so, we like to butcher our hens in the fall of their second year. How do you know how old a hen is? It’s tough to tell by looking. We solved this problem by getting a very different looking breed each year. In 2015, we had Barred Rocks. We butchered them last fall. In 2016, we got Buff Orpingtons. They’re still going strong. In fact, we got too many, so we didn’t get pullet chicks last year. We will butcher them this fall.

So, as you might guess, it’s now a Barred Rock year. We need about twenty to provide the eggs our family needs. However, given how long the cold weather had been lingering in Michigan this “Spring,” I’d been holding off on actually buying the chicks. Cold and rainy weather means the babies need to be brooded under heat lamps for a longer time, until they’re fully feathered and strong enough to withstand the elements.

With the arrival of nicer weather, I’d begun browsing the local farm supply stores. Yesterday, I hit the jackpot: Family Farm & Home in Mason had a large tub of “senior” Barred Rock pullet chicks, marked down to just one dollar each. They were mostly feathered, and the sales clerk estimated them to be about a week and a half old. That means we’ll only need to keep them in the brooder over the weekend, and we’ll be able to get them out into a pasture pen on Monday.

I bought twenty. And, lest you fear that the store was losing money on me … while I was there, I also bought a new chick feeder and a new waterer (our old ones had definitely seen better days).

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Getting chicks this way is hit or miss, but when you get a hit … the payoff is big. This score is right up there with last fall’s post-Halloween pumpkins, (though not quite as good a deal as the absolutely free December 26th Walmart Christmas trees.) Not only did I save around $40 compared to full retail, but I also saved the cost of running a 250 watt heat lamp around the clock for about ten days. Plus the cost of feeding the chicks a high protein ration for about ten days. We also saved ourselves ten days’ worth of the hassle of checking on the brooder a few times a day. Not to mention the fact that chicks are most fragile, and therefore most likely to die, in their first days of life. The twenty I got yesterday are well established and have proven themselves strong.

Here’s looking forward to lots of wonderful eggs in the fall, at a price that can’t be beat!