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!

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!

Graduation Day

Remember those five chicks which the Buff Orpington hen hatched out in mid-June, and which she has been doing such a good job raising free-range? I’ve been swamped with an avalanche of work, (sorry about the mixed metaphors) and haven’t been able to post an update lately, but the chicks continued to thrive and roam the property all summer long. They got to the point where they all roosted together with their mother on the various rungs of a ladder out in the barn at night, which was pretty cute. They were lots of fun to watch during the day as well. They foraged every imaginable place, and would sometimes come past at the most unexpected times. I often heard Mother Hen’s instructive clucks (and the chicks rustling in the weeds of the garden) through my window as I worked, and it never failed to put a smile on my face. It gave an amusing sense of randomness to the summer, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And then, early this past week, mother hen suddenly decided that she’d done all she could do. Like the parent who releases his hold on the child’s bicycle seat, and watches proudly as the kid continues to pedal down the street, Mother Hen’s job here was finished. One day the whole little family was foraging together. The next day, it was just the five chicks. They looked a little lost, and a little uncertain, but continued doing what they’d always done — and going the places they’d always gone. Just now, Mother Hen was no longer with them. It was admittedly a bit poignant, kind of like watching kindergartners climb on the school bus for the first time. But seven weeks is a long time in the life of a chicken, and they were ready to face the world.

All five of the little ones have continued to roost together at night, in various parts of the barn. They don’t always forage together as a group during the day, however. Sometimes three of them will go one way, and two of them will go another direction. It makes me wonder how long it’ll be until the five of them completely separate from each other. For now, it’s nice seeing them stick together at least some of the time.

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What’s most striking, though, is the reminder of how different the animal kingdom is from us humans. Our family ties are, of course, lifelong. Even those of us who’ve moved far from home tend to keep in touch with our families, and think about our parents every day. But with birds … when the mother hen’s job is done, it’s done. That’s it. She turns her back and moves on. As incredibly dedicated as she was to her chicks, and as fiercely protective as she was of them (even putting herself in physical jeopardy when the dogs or we humans came too close), she was motivated by instinct — not the self-sacrificial love of a human parent for a child.

This isn’t a criticism, and isn’t meant to take anything away from the job the hen did. She was magnificent, a true joy to watch, and didn’t lose a single one of her chicks.  It’s simply to say that this week’s “graduation ceremony” got me thinking about just how special we humans are, and what a blessing it is that we have the opportunity to share the bonds of family love for our entire lifetimes.

Birds, Birds, Everywhere!

Summer is now in full swing, and it’s prime season for baby birds.

Mother Hen continues to be a lean, mean, foraging machine. She’s made a nice nest for her brood in the barn, in the stacks of hay bales, where they sleep each night. They’re up with the dawn every morning, working the property. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night; early in the morning, I can hear her clucking and calling to the chicks as they pass by the house. It’s amazing how much territory they cover over the course of each day; seems every time I look out, they’re someplace new. She leads the way, like the fleet flagship, and the five little chicks scamper right along. I try to give them a little bowl of high protein feed each evening, once they settle into their spot in the barn, but otherwise all their food has been from forage.

Now nearly three weeks old, they’re starting to feather out nicely. Of course, she keeps me from getting close enough to the to get a good picture of those feathers. Here they are, on bug patrol in the garden:

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Meanwhile, Mother Duck’s little brood continues to thrive in the garden pen. This is turning out to be a good solution. They are able to stick close to her, and forage on all the weeds in the pen, and have easy access to high-protein feed (and water). All eight are growing nicely. They’re so high-strung, it’s hard to get a good picture of them, but here’s my best try:

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BTW, while I was out checking on the ducks, I was struck by just how thoroughly the meat chickens had cleared the weeds (and fertilized) the section of the garden we’d given them:

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Of course, we can’t rely on our own birds to produce enough replacements for us to eat. We still need to order baby birds from the hatchery, and brood them ourselves. About a week ago, we got a fresh batch in from a hatchery on the other side of the state: 25 cornish cross meat chicks, 25 Buff Orpington pullet chicks, and 5 turkey poults. All 55 birds are thriving in the brooder, under lights; because the weather has been so warm, we haven’t had to use the really intense heat lights – after just a few days, this incandescent has been plenty. We should be moving them out to a garden pen by the end of the week.

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I should note that we wouldn’t normally brood turkeys with chicks; there are diseases that turkeys can catch when you do that. However, in this instance, we didn’t really have a choice. We only have one brooder, and this was our last shot at getting turkey poults. It was either try it this way, or definitely be buying our turkey at the grocery store this Thanksgiving.

While we’re talking about broods, I should mention that not every hatchling in the barn belongs to a domesticated bird. Homeschooled Farm Girl recently discovered a barn swallow nest — with some hatchlings. The nest is on a big support beam, in the goat area. (It looks like Mother Barn  Swallow used some chicken and duck feathers to help line her nest.) The babies are waiting for Mom to return with something for them.

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We started looking, and discovered a nearly identical nest a few beams over, in the sheep area.

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The wild birds are of no value to us, but watching them in action is still wonderful entertainment. It’s a nature documentary, right there in the barn. No television required.

Chicks on the Move

A few hours after putting up yesterday’s post about the newly-hatched chicks, I heard a distinct sound coming from the barn: “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” It continued for a long time, very loud, echoing across the yard. I knew it could be only one thing: a chick. The only question was whether it was one of the original four, or if there were a fifth chick that had gotten stranded on the way out.

I made a quick check of Mother Hen, and she still had four. The “cheep!” was still coming from the barn. Must be another.

I headed up to the barn, to try to catch the chick. It was standing in the entryway, making its noise through a crack in the bottom of the barn door. As soon as I reached the barn, however, it scurried back toward the hay bales. It scooted between two bales, into a place I could never reach it, just ahead of me. Don’t you know I’m trying to help? I thought.

I went back to work, giving the chick time to re-emerge. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I could hear the forlorn call. I approached the barn more stealthily this time, but the chick still beat me into the hiding place. These things sure are fast for being so little and so young!

Homeschooled Farm Girl joined me a moment later, and I explained what was going on. We sat down on various hay bales to wait. It didn’t take long. As soon as the chick emerged, the two of us managed to disorient it enough so we could drive it into a place where we could catch it. I carried it down to where Mother Hen was foraging with her brood, set it down gently, and it ran to her. It began following her, and the other chicks, as if it’d been with them all day. To my great relief, Mother Hen welcomed the chick (sometimes they peck at and reject a newcomer). It never again strayed from the brood.

It’s really amazing, watching the way a mother hen teaches her little ones to forage. She scratches something up, calls the chicks, and then points out to them what they’re supposed to peck at. I managed to shoot this video yesterday evening:

Later in the evening, we had a hundred new bales of hay to stack in the barn. Unfortunately, no one checked to see if Mother Hen had brought her brood back to the old nest first. After piling up quite a wall of hay, which almost sealed off the nest from the rest of the barn, I finally remembered to look to see if she was there. Yes, indeed. She had settled in with the chicks under her, clucking reassuringly to the brood.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I cleared the best path we could for her, with a little tunnel through the hay bales. We weren’t sure she’d be able to get out, but we hoped it would be enough.

When I came out to the barn early this morning to start on chores, the hen was still back on the nest. Then, about an hour later, HFG came to my office with good news: the hen was out, with all the chicks. They were already behind my office again.

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We went watched them forage for several minutes. It really is fun. I could watch them all day.

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Hatching Time

One of the most-fun things about having a small farm, with free-ranging livestock, is that the animals get to be themselves. For the poultry, that includes making a nest, collecting some eggs, and hatching a brood. Because we tend to collect all the eggs we can find each day, that means the mother bird has to pick an out-of-the-way spot we won’t easily discover.

This duck, for example, has been on a nest for weeks. She built it high on a stack of hay bales, where we had also piled a few bags of unprocessed wool. I didn’t discover her until she’d been there for a while. You can tell from the large number of feathers that this is definitely a nest she’s constructed and prepared for hatching. When birds just lay eggs, without intention of hatching, they don’t go to this much trouble.

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She’s been so quiet, and so motionless, you wouldn’t even know she’s there. (And that’s the idea — she certainly doesn’t want predators coming in for an easy kill.) But try to approach any closer than I did for this shot, and she will puff herself up and start hissing like  a goose.

I don’t know if her eggs are even fertile (we do have several drakes running with the flock, but you never know for certain). She may just sit there for weeks, with nothing to show for her efforts. Given how long she’s been there already, I’d have expected ducklings by now. But we’ll see.

The chickens tend to be more reliable setters and mothers. A few weeks ago, one of our Buff Orpington hens built a nest between the hay bales and the barn wall. Unlike last year’s crazy hen, who built a nest so deeply back in the hay that her chicks weren’t even able to get out, this one planned an exit strategy. And this weekend, she hatched the chicks. Homeschooled Farm Girl, who had recently discovered the nest, noticed the development and let me know. (HFG also confirmed that the hen had a way for the chicks to get out of the nest).

This morning, Mother Hen emerged from the barn with her brood. She’s been taking them all over our back yard, away from the other animals. Just a few minutes ago, she was behind my office building. I wanted a picture, but she saw me coming — and took cover. It’s amazing the way she uses various clucks, with differing tones and cadences, to give orders to the hatchlings. Even at just a few days old, they seem to know what they’re supposed to do. When Mother Hen sounded the alarm, they all scrambled after her into the burdock. I got as close as I could, with her clucking protests the whole time about my nearness, and managed to get this picture:

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Note that there are three orange chicks that look just like her. There’s also one black chick, hidden in the shadows. She was either bred by multiple roosters (we have a number of them, of different breeds), or a Barred Rock hen found the nest and deposited an egg in it before Mother Hen went broody.

Doesn’t matter to her. They’re all her chicks, and she’s doing a great job with them so far. With just four for her to take care of, I’m inclined to let her free-range with them for now. When hens get too big of a brood, we find it works best to isolate all of them in a garden pen. But my preference is always to let them continue to range free. After all, that’s what makes small-farm life so much fun.