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Archive for the ‘chickens’ Category

Not *quite* two years, but close enough – yikes!

 

It has been a somewhat…eventful…couple of years, too.  Hubby went back to school to get some education in web development, and we had to sell the goats in order to find the time for him to work school in around acreage maintenance and childcare, but he got his certificate with high honors, and we’re casually looking at goats again.  I’ve had some health challenges, and have been trying to keep my graphic design / illustration business afloat through the crazy time challenges we’ve had.

 

On the bright side, we’ve continued expanding our knowledge and refining our garden, and the orchard is coming along nicely – we harvested a 5-gallon bucket of apples last fall, as well as crabapples, chokecherries, black and red currants, highbush cranberries, sour cherries, grapes, strawberries, and raspberries; we’re expecting the plums and pears to start bearing in the next couple of years, too.  We end up drowning in squash every fall, and I’m getting pretty good at inventing ways to eat them.

 

We’ve kept the chickens, too, and have added a few breeds to the roster.  We got Cochins last year, and we’re hoping that we’ll get some broody hens out of the deal, who will raise our chicks for us, and save us all the fussing with heat lamps and such.

 

I’ve got (yet another) ambitious order of trees coming for spring, and we’re looking at plowing up another garden bed, as we’re running out of room in the smaller one by the barn; I ordered some roses, too, to prettify the place, now that we have most of the fruit trees we really wanted.  Perhaps I will find some time to post about our growing, picking, cooking, and preserving again this summer!  Meanwhile, here is a little photo of the kids, who are also growing like weeds:

The kids, reading

I can’t believe I’ve got a child old enough to read!

 

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Whew, it’s been a busy summer…and fall!  Between gardens, goats, chickens, baby, and business, we’ve been living at a dead run since about May!

The pile of squash leaves after the frost (and one wheelbarrow of harvested squash)

The pile of squash leaves after the frost (and one wheelbarrow of harvested squash)

As a quick update, Hubby’s garden turned out great – moving it up close to the barn was a wonderful idea – it got a lot more attention when we were walking past it twice a day, and most everything thrived, including the squash, which went wild and started taking over the lawn, and the mangel beets, which we’ve never had any success with before, but managed this year to grow one nearly as tall as toddler M:

Finally a success with mangel beets!

Finally a success with mangel beets!

The goats loved those beets, too!  Too bad we only grew a few test plants.  Perhaps next year…

 

One drawback to having the garden so near the livestock was discovering just how much damage chickens can (and will) do to developing squash.  While it didn’t cause us too many issues in the end (we pulled in two wheelbarrows of pumpkins and spaghetti squash, plus a bit!), it was disappointing to see at the time:

What free-range chickens will do to the pumpkin patch...

What free-range chickens will do to the pumpkin patch…

 

We had planted a couple of garden beds to flowers, just to keep the grass and weeds from taking over, as we wanted to reduce our garden workload as much as possible.  I was pretty happy to be picking myself a bouquet of glads for my birthday – an unplanned bonus.  Hubby may be digging me more flower beds when we get serious about the garden again!

 

These guys grew with a surprisingly minimal amount of fuss and attention

These guys grew with a surprisingly minimal amount of fuss and attention

 

Fortunately, Baby J has turned out to be quite a laid back baby, and we’re doing much better in the sleep and getting-stuff-done departments than we were with toddler M at a similar age.  This is not to say we’re accomplishing a whole lot, but rather, our extensive baby preparations have allowed us to more-or-less keep up with the basic work, rather than falling terribly behind!

 

Baby J

Baby J

 

Hopefully now that winter’s finally here (it’s been hovering between -25 and -30 for close to a week!) I will be able to get to some of the stuff that’s been on the back burner during our busy seasons…including blogging!  I don’t promise to get back to weekly posts just yet, but you will be hearing more from me than in the recent past.

 

Now, off to figure out the breeding roster for the goats!

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Well, things continue to be hectic around our place, with garden harvest and the rush to finish outdoor projects before the snow comes (our first frost will probably be next week already).  It’s hard to type while holding a baby, and it seems that if I am not pulling onions or cooking dinner or trimming goat feet, I am pretty much always holding a baby!  So, instead of a rambling blog post, here are a few pictures of the things that are keeping us busy:

 

squash harvest 2014

 

squash is taking over the garden!

squash is taking over the garden!

random hens

 

Grapes in Saskatchewan?  You bet!

Grapes in Saskatchewan? You bet!

 

so cute!

so cute!

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We don’t have that many hens.  I haven’t counted lately, but I would guess around 35.  Some of these hens are three years old, now; they should probably go in a stew pot, but we decided to free-range them for bug control, and if the fox happens to get them…well, that’s too bad, but not the end of the world.  The three year olds are pretty savvy anyhow, as they are the ones who survived the foxes in the first place.

 

So, now that the days are longer and the weather warmer (this weekend’s dump of snow notwithstanding), out of our 35 (ish) hens, we’re suddenly getting 12 or 16 eggs, depending on the day.

 

A dozen eggs a day.   Or a dozen and a half.

 

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of eggs.  It really doesn’t.

 

bucket of eggs

 

Until you have to figure out what to *do* with them!

 

It’s actually not a bad problem to have, and I’m lucky to work in a large office, so we haven’t had too much trouble selling off the surplus.  We eat some, of course, and feed the ones that are too dirty to bother washing to the dogs in their porridge.  There’s also a local food charity we support with occasional donations of the extras that build up.

 

I’m not sure what we’re going to do when I go on maternity leave, though…

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Spring is coming.  No, really, it is.

 

spring flowers

With the weather forecast to finally come up to around the melting point, after months of -30, the announcers on the radio were all talking about people planning their gardens.

 

I planned my garden in December, and ordered my seeds in January.

 

The rural life encourages long-term thinking and planning, I think.

 

If you want eggs in November, you need to order the chicks in February, plan and build your coop and run in April, collect your day-old chicks in May, feed and protect them through the summer, and butcher your excess roosters in October.

 

chick in the grass

 

If you want carrots in November, you need to plan the garden in winter, order seeds before May, plant in spring, weed all summer, harvest in September, and monitor the root cellar through the winter.

 

carrot harvest

If you want goat kids (or milk) in May, you have to plan your breeding the January prior, reserve a buck, get the buck in February or March, raise the buck through the summer, order enough hay in June for all your spring kids and mommas, breed in November, and feed and monitor through the winter.

 

aurora the goat kid

Every year, we’re planning next year’s kids, or chickens, or garden.  We assess what’s working, and make notes about what to do differently next year.  We budget our money and our time, and make breeding, planting, and construction plans based on when we think we’ll have enough of each to get our projects done (though we’re almost always over-ambitious with both).  We think months, seasons, even decades down the road!  We planned our work for this spring, summer, and fall, last summer and fall, knowing we’ll have less time and energy than usual with the new baby.  We made our planting and breeding plans accordingly.  While I’m sure there are folks just starting to think about their gardens now that the weather is starting to turn, we’re way past that stage…we’ve got the seeds in the basement, the garden map figured out, and the seed-starting stuff will be coming out of storage soon to sprout the early tomatoes…

 

…because spring IS coming soon, you know!

 

honeysuckle flowers

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Well, we thought we had done okay with the critters in that month-long stretch of -30C temperatures, but now that it’s warmed up and we’re having a chance to really examine everyone in the sunshine, we’re finding some frostbite on the chickens, particularly on the combs, and, on some of the roosters, the wattles.

 

Rooster with frostbite on his comb

Rooster with frostbite on his comb

 

We think it has to do with humidity. Last winter, and even earlier this winter, the chickens weathered colder temperatures without issue; we’ve seen -40 with no frostbite at all. However, those were all short cold snaps – a few days, at most. This time, there were only three days in a month-long stretch where it was warm enough to open up the barn and coops and let the critters roam around outside.

 

Normal comb

Normal comb

 

With so many creatures breathing in such a confined space, the humidity does build up right along with the body heat. Especially in the barn, where we have a coop of chickens next to two stalls full of goats, it can get almost muggy after a few days with the doors all closed up tight. Interestingly, it was the roosters in the barn coop that seem to have suffered the worst frostbite, even though that barn would have been warmer than the small coop.

 

Frostbite turns the skin black, and, after a while, the dead skin sloughs off, leaving a smooth surface (unlike the usual ridges and texture of a rooster comb). We don’t normally do much of anything about the frostbite after it’s happened (we prefer prevention), but we do monitor the affected chickens, as sometimes there is a little blood when the dead skin is coming off. The blood itself is usually minimal, but if it starts attracting the attention of the other chickens, it can become a problem, as they will peck at it and cause much bigger issues. We’ve had to quarantine a badly affected rooster in our first year. He didn’t even have bad frostbite…but he did bleed a teeny bit, and the hens went after him like sharks.

 

You can see some lighter-colored pinkish spots on the comb, where the dead skin has started to come off.

You can see some lighter-colored pinkish spots on the comb, where the dead skin has started to come off.

 

It looks like a couple of roosters are going to lose parts of their combs, and a few have black spots on their wattles. Nobody is bleeding, which is good. We are going to have to revise our tactics for long cold spells, though, and find a way to air out the coops to keep that humidity down.

 

Poor rooster!

Poor rooster!

 

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Well, the cold snap in the US seems to be over, now, and our own month-long run of -30 C temperatures seems to have broken, as well.  I noticed a recent spike in traffic to a few of my posts from the last couple of winters, but didn’t really draw the connection until just now…folks have been searching for information on how to manage livestock in extreme cold, but my poor visitors have mostly gotten anecdotes about me feeling sorry for myself and about frozen-solid chickens.  I thought that even a belated post might be useful to somebody someday, so here are some observations about coping with extreme cold.

 

winter pic

I’m not going to say much about dressing for the cold, since that’s been done to death on the internet.  Dress in layers, and take layers off as you become warm.  Make the outer layer windproof if you can.  Windchill is much more dangerous than just cold, especially if you are only outside for short periods – an hour or two – Hubby routinely goes out to shovel for a couple of hours at a time in -30, as long as there’s no windchill.  Of course, he’s acclimatized to this weather, and appropriately dressed, more or less.  He’s never gotten frostbite, even though he doesn’t make much effort to cover his face; the moustachesicles get pretty impressive sometimes:

 

moustachesicles

The  chickens seem to cope pretty well with the cold, overall.  Our breeds are suited to colder temperatures, but we don’t heat the coop, even when it’s -40.  Our main tactic has been to insulate; our primary coop is an old shed, and we stack old bales of hay and straw around the structure to cut the wind and keep it warm.  We try to get the stacks as high as the heads of the chickens on the top rung of the roost, as someone has used the shed for a target for shotgun practice, so it’s anything but airtight, and we don’t want anyone to get frostbite when they’re sleeping.  You don’t actually want the coop to be totally airtight; you need some airflow to keep it from getting too humid, which will cause problems with frostbite.  The birds also get a deep layer of bedding, and as much feed as they want.  They eat half again as much at -40 C as they do at zero degrees or above, and they need all of that energy to keep warm.   We have had some issues with frostbite in the past; Gallus, our original rooster, had a pretty spectacular comb until he encountered his first major winter freeze.  We’ve since learned to keep the coop shut on really cold days, which keeps the birds inside, and also helps keep the temperature up.  While I’m sure it hurt to lose that comb, it doesn’t seem to have slowed Gallus down too much.

 

Before his first encounter with real cold

Before his first encounter with real cold

 

All healed up, but not much of a comb left

All healed up, but not much of a comb left

 

The frostbite itself makes the combs and wattles turn black in the frozen parts, and eventually peels off.   If you come across this, you will need to monitor that the other chickens aren’t pecking at it and keeping it from healing, as it sometimes bleeds as the damaged tissue sloughs off.

 

One challenge is collecting the eggs before they freeze so solid that they crack, which takes no time at all in -40.  The cracked eggs are okay to eat, as long as the shells are clean; we just thaw them on the kitchen counter overnight.  They need to be used immediately once they’ve thawed, though, as bacteria can get in through the crack.  Whatever we can’t eat ourselves, we feed to the cats and dogs, who really appreciate the extra protein.  Eggs that have frozen but not cracked are fine, and we just put them in the cold room to thaw.  As far as we’ve been able to tell, they keep just as well as unfrozen eggs, and behave the same when you cook with them, so we don’t even check anymore, beyond looking for the cracked ones, of course.

 

When it gets below about -25 C, we tend to leave the barn shut up, and the body heat from the animals adds at least ten degrees in there.  The barn cats are bright enough to stay inside, and we’ve built them a cozy insulated shelter out of hay bales.  So far, they’ve never had any issues with frostbite, even on their ears.  However, the barn cats are outdoor critters, and acclimatized to the cold through the fall and early winter, and they know enough to snuggle up together in the shelter.  Like the chickens, the cats are free-fed – we put out bowls of food, and they can have as much as they want.  They put on several pounds each of fat in the fall, which helps them stay warm, too.

 

If we had a sudden huge drop in temperatures like happened so recently in the US, though, I would consider bringing outdoor cats and dogs inside, or locking them in a garage or barn, as they may not be equipped to deal with the cold.   At the very least, they need some sort of insulated shelter, including insulation between them and the ground, that is windproof, dry, and small enough to warm up with just their body heat.  Stacked bales covered with a tarp would probably do, but remember to insulate the bottom, too, either using a layer of bales, or a thick bed of straw or blankets.

 

The goats and alpacas mostly cope fine, as well, but again, they grow a thick coat in the fall, and we give them extra grain as it gets colder outside – the colder it is, the more hay and supplements they get.   We take out warm water twice a day, and they drink their fill immediately.  The buckets freeze over in a couple of hours, or less when it’s really cold.  We’ve found that the goats drink more when the water is taken out warm, rather than cold, and it probably helps them maintain a good temperature.  Some people say that the buckets freeze slower if you use cold water, which may be true, but for the small difference it makes in freezing time, we go with the warm, especially because the goats drink so much more when we take the warm water out.   I have heard of people putting sweaters on their goats, which is probably a good idea in a sudden cold snap; we’ve never done it because we worry they would lose their winter coats.

 

If you are milking in winter, make sure the udder, and especially the teats, are completely dry when you are done.  We minimize trimming the udder as much as possible, and leave some fur, especially on the back, even when we do trim.  I just brush the furry parts of the udder thoroughly with a soft brush before milking to make sure there’s no crud falling into my milk bucket.  I take a towel out with me to dry everyone off after milking.   However, since I’m not fond of milking -30, we’ve taken to drying the girls off by late November.  While this doesn’t maximize our milk production, it does minimize everyone’s discomfort.   We freeze milk and make (and freeze) lots of cheese in the summer, to tide us over.

 

Our biggest issues with the goats has been with kidding during cold snaps.  Our first year, we were kidding in March, and at least four kids came when the temperatures were below -20.  All of those kids got frozen ears, and two lost part or all of their ears.

 

Poor Luna lost her ears to freezing at birth.

Poor Luna lost her ears to freezing at birth.

 

We’ve since started breeding for kidding in late April or later; this year’s kids will come in mid-May.   I know of breeders with unheated barns who treat kids like day-old chicks; they confine them using straw bales, and hang a heat lamp overtop.  Other breeders keep their kids indoors in playpens for the first couple of weeks.  Either tactic works fairly well if you are bottle feeding, but not if you’re dam-raising your kids.   We’ve learned to keep the pregnant does confined for the last few weeks of their pregnancy, and we do our best to keep the maternity stall well-insulated and draft-free.  The kids are most vulnerable to freezing just after birth when they are wet, so it’s important to make sure they are dried off quickly, which has involved us ‘helping out’ with towels when momma wasn’t working fast enough.   When they are cold, kids tend to stand all hunched up with their back arched, and look really miserable.   If we see that going on for any length of time in cold weather, we bring the kids into the house periodically for ‘warm-up’ sessions, and take them back out to their dams every couple of hours to eat.

 

We’ve had kids collapse from cold before; if you’re quick, they can recover without issue, but you need to get them warm, fast.  We’ve used 2L plastic juice bottles filled with hot water from the tap, wrapped in towels and tucked around the kid.  Remember, too, that kids need extra food when it’s cold, and make sure your does are producing enough, and/or you add a bit extra to the bottles if they’re living in an unheated barn.

 

Cold is not bad if you are prepared for it, but I can imagine it would be awfully miserable if you didn’t have, and couldn’t get, appropriate clothing and supplies.  I know some of my American friends really struggled.  Hopefully everyone has come through okay, and is at least starting to warm up now!

 

Bundled Up

 

 

 

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