Category Archives: Flockkeeping

Put an egg on it.

Our hens are happy. They have lots of room to scratch and roam, a safe, comfortable, clean place to sleep at night, and an organic and very varied diet—especially right now, when they are getting lots of weeds and other goodies I have pulled from the garden. They also get regular affection, praise, and kitchen scraps from me.

Five yolks I used in some ice cream recently. The darker yolks are the result of lots of greens in the chickens' diet lately.

Happy hens lay excellent eggs. And because our eggs have been especially beautiful and delicious this year, I’ve been putting them on just about everything. Here’s what I mean.

You may remember this one from before–our post-Italy minestrone.

Homemade barley minestrone topped with grilled bread and lightly poached egg

This was back in the fall.

Bruschetta with my homemade baguette, toasted and rubbed with garlic. Topped with chard from the garden blanched and sauteed with a bit of garlic, then topped with gruyere and a poached egg and chives (from the garden).

This was back in January, right after I brought home some smoked salmon from a work trip to Seattle.

Slice of homemade bread with a schmear of cream cheese, smoked salmon, a soft-boiled egg, and capers

And this was two weekends ago.

Salad of mixed greens from the garden, topped with toasted pecans (from a tree near my house), pancetta from Pine Street Market, some fresh cheese, a vinaigrette of balsamic and olive oil we got in Italy, a poached egg, and a slice of homemade bread.

And this was just last week.

Salad of mixed garden greens, toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese, same vinaigrette as above, oven roasted sweet potato spears (from Decatur Farmer's Market) with garlic, slice of homemade bread, and soft-boiled egg with black pepper.

Put an egg on it!

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Overwintered

The mild winter this year has meant a winter greens bonanza in my garden. Back in August I started kale, swiss chard, salad mixes, beets, arugula, and cilantro. Everything came up and thrived through the winter. The parsley just re-seeded itself.

I’m a big believer in late-summer plantings of cool season vegetables. Allowing them to winter over—to get a start in the early fall warmth and then kind of stop growing with colder weather and go into hibernation—brings them back with a vigor you don’t see in crops seeded in the spring. It’s something we southern gardeners can do more easily than the northern ones, and we should take full advantage. This year, the growing didn’t really stop, however. Everything just got hardier and more persistent through the cool weather.

Then as made that early turn into spring, things started to go a little crazy. Really, it started with the cilantro.

The parsley saw what was going on and decided to get in on the act.

I really have no idea what to do with that much parsley. And that’s just one of the many mounds that have volunteered.

I have been harvesting baby kale all winter long and eating it mostly fresh in smoothies, but the warm weather has instigated a sudden growth spurt.

I have been picking pounds and pounds of Swiss chard—I think my best crop ever. Here’s what I came inside with last Saturday.

And the salad greens.

The arugula thrived through the winter but bolted when the warm temps hit. The chickens, however, have chowed down on arugula blossoms, not to mention all the weeds I have been pulling up. It has made their egg yolks richly yellow, almost orange. We have all feasted on the greens of this season!

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The Library Boks

Last Thursday about mid-morning, I received an email from a neighbor of mine who works in the Woodruff Library at Emory University: “I hear numbers between 15-20 for chickens in the library this morning. They are all rounded up, do you think there is a chicken rescue out there, or neighbors that would be interested? I think the library has called animal control.”

Now that is an email one doesn’t see coming, even in the life of an urban homesteader. But I have worked at Emory as a writer and an editor for seventeen years, and for some reason the message felt like a natural confluence of two aspects of my life that don’t usually overlap. So I got right on it. I called the library and begged them to hold off on calling Animal Control . . . too late! The birds were on their way to chicken jail.

But the librarian filled me in: some members of the Emory University Senior Class of 2011, in a classic “college prank” maneuver, released a bunch of pullets, a couple of hens, and a rooster in the reference section of the library. Here is the video of the birds making quite an impression on a bunch of strung-out students in the middle of final exams:

And here is a video one of the librarians took after the security crew rounded them up in the loading dock area and secured them with — what else? — book cases (I’m really sorry I missed seeing that):

Undeterred, I then called my next-door neighbor and one of my partners in all things chicken, Bill, and begged him to drop whatever he was busy doing and drive over to Animal Control with me. He laughed and, not one to dodge a wacky adventure, helped me load up as many animal carriers as we had between the two of us into his Jeep, and away we went. Here is the video I shot of our trip:

We brought home ten. I sent a few emails, and by the end of the day, I had identified more experienced flockkeepers willing to adopt them than I had chickens to place in new homes. So I decided to return to Animal Control on Saturday morning for the rest. But by the time I got there, the others had all been taken, save the rooster, who had wriggled free at some point and is now roaming the woods around Animal Control (I have secretly named him Lynyrd, as in “Freebird”).

The ten we gathered up seem vigorous and healthy. The little hen, whom we have decided to keep for ourselves, is already laying (we have named her Dooley, and the other two we are keeping are Charlotte Brontë and Dorothy Sayers, since they had such literary beginnings with us).

The Library Boks, taking it easy with a snack and some sunshine after their big exciting day.

The Library Boks will spend a full week in quarantine to make sure they are free from any sneaky diseases that might spread to other flocks. I devoted most of this weekend to placing them with their new families and helping folks figure out how to best manage the transition (the key is to do it gradually and to give the new birds a safe place to hang out while it’s happening, and to not be alarmed by some aggression while the pecking order is being established). Everyone who took some of the birds agreed to follow through on the quarantine. Here are some pictures of them as they meet their new flockkeepers:

David, with the pair of white ones he took home

Rebekah and Walton with two of the three they took home

And Rebekah with the third one

Scott and Margo with their adoptees, who have already been named "Emory" and Eagle"!

I know some have been troubled by the student pranksters’ lack of regard for the animals’ welfare. But chickens are resilient creatures, and these birds seem to have not been too traumatized. And they all have good homes and will have the best possible life a chicken can have. I love a happy ending.

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Things that make me go “Yay!”

All of these photos were taken over a three day period. Everything is waking up!

Baby apple tree with new growth

Parsley by the mound

Fungal goodness

Stir fry with my broccoli and mushrooms

 

Big, fat, hairy chives

Arugula without end

Sweet potato-apple muffins (my sweet potatoes, dad's apples)

Camelias on my table

Good egg production on organic feed

Yoga socks (what a great idea!)

A giant pot of wheat straw pasteurizing on my stove (for more mushrooms)

Salad greens and cilantro

Flats of seedlings in my house, away from marauding rats

The last of last fall's collards

Sugar snap pea sprouts

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Filed under Feasting, Flockkeeping, Gardening, Making things

Fowl Language

Chickens have their own language for letting you know what they are thinking and feeling. It’s not limited to their “Bok-boks” and coos and cackles. They speak their minds with their bodies: the color and appearance of their combs and wattles, whether or not they are laying, the appearance of their plumage will tell you volumes.

Our chickens spent the winter telling us how hacked off they were with us, and understandably so. They suffered a triple whammy starting back in the late fall, when we switched their feed. They had been on Purina Layena pellets all their lives, but as organic feed became increasingly available and cheaper, we decided to make the switch. And that was our first mistake–not that we made the switch,  but that we made it too abruptly. One day the were happily crunching away on their Layena pellets, the next they were dubiously poking their beaks into what must have felt and tasted like sand. The organic feed is quite powdery with whole bits of corn and other grains. We should have introduced it gradually, mixing in an increasing ratio over several weeks. But we didn’t–and that was the first whammy.

The second whammy was just winter itself. We went from a gentle autumn to a brutal chill practically overnight. And while chickens have ways of keeping themselves and each other warm (they’re pretty much individually wrapped in down comforters), that kind of radical shift is no fun, especially combined with the shortened daylight hours.

Whammy number three was a mass molt that started in the fall and cycled through every chicken. Those down comforters? Considerably thinned. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones is a miserable affair anyway. Losing all your feathers and growing new ones in the cold when the food you like is gone—just gone—is grounds for revolt.

And revolt they did. We stopped getting eggs in late October. They spilled the new feed out of the feeder and scattered it all over the floor, refusing to eat it. Every time I walked back to the coop I was greeted by an angry chorus of chants for justice and democracy and decent grub (grubs, actually, would be great).

We backtracked a little and mixed in some pellet feed, hoping to ameliorate the situation. They ate it begrudgingly, but still no eggs. Neighbor Bill concocted some kind of chicken gourmet treat of all the people foods they adore–grits, cheese, greens–and served it on a giant platter. I gave them cat food. Still—nothing.

Finally, last week the pall began to lift. The molting seems to have passed, the days are getting longer, and we’re getting a few warm, sunny days here and there. And the egg production is beginning to bump up at last. I’m not sure yet whether we’ll stick with the organic feed, but if we get as many eggs as we did with the Layena, then it looks pretty good.

Here are a few questions that have come my way in the past few months from fellow urban flockkeepers:

Q: We got a couple of mixed breed hens last weekend. The woman I got them from was just feeding them a little corn feed because they were open range and mostly eating insects. I started feeding them the Layena crumbles and am still giving them a little bit of the corn feed. One of the eggs was really thin yesterday and then today there was only one and it was almost mushy.

They need calcium in their diet. Their bodies use it to form the shells. Give the feed time to work its way into their systems, but you can also supplement their diet with calcium rich foods. We give ours a container of cottage cheese from time to time. Lots of seed and feeds also carry crushed oyster shells which you can mix into their feed.

Q: I would like to buy some adult laying hens to start my flock. What is a good source to find them?

If you are a resident of Georgia, you are entitled to a free (I recently learned that the state now charges a fee, which is disappointing!) subscription to the Farmer’s and Consumer’s Market Bulletin, now in its 94th year of publication! The ads are a great way to find chicks and hens, plus fun facts about Georgia agriculture. Also, chickens are more and more frequently showing up on Craigslist.

Q:  My neighbor thinks one of her chickens has an egg stuck. She says it hasn’t laid for at least 2 days and is standing still a lot. She also said she thinks it is in some discomfort/pain. I think she is feeling a bit unsure of how to proceed with “greasing the vent.” Do you have any advice for her?

Yes, it sounds like she might be egg bound. Another sign is that she’s kind of holding her butt down towards the ground. The most common remedy is to get yourself a very good but thin rubber glove, douse your finger with mineral oil (or ky jelly or olive oil–you get the drift), and lubricate around and up inside her vent. The best way to get a good hold of the bird to do this is to hold her like a football under your arm with her butt toward you. Push your finger up, and you should be able to feel the egg. But be careful not to break the egg. If the egg is right at the top of the vent, it should slip out. If not, you can try a warm bath. Water should be warmer than the chx body temp, and you need to hold her lower half down in there for 20 minutes (it really needs to be that long). The idea here is that it relaxes her muscles a bit, helping the egg along. It all sounds gross, I know, but we do what we must for our girls!

Q: Help! Our sweet little pullet Lola started crowing like a rooster!

And that’s probably because Lola (aptly named, thank you, Kinks!) is a rooster. This is an all-too-common problem for city chicken keepers. Roosters are loud, and they are loud early in the morning. In densely populated urban settings, this can make for a rude awakening, so to speak. Some roosters can also be aggressive toward people in their role as flock protector. Again, Craigslist is great for this. Place an ad and see if you can find someone to take that rooster off your hands. The Atlanta Backyard Poultry Meetup Group message board is another useful way to find a home for him. Let your experience, though, be a cautionary tale for others: when you acquire your baby chicks, make sure that they are sexed—this just means someone has gone to the trouble of separating the baby hens from baby roosters—if you want to keep the neighbors happy. Bribing them with fresh eggs also helps!

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Gardening for the Long Haul

Recently I read about a guy in a big city who spent more than $10,000 to “buy” himself an urban farm for his yard: tons of imported top soil, seeds and seedlings (when his own failed), a chicken coop and chickens, a rabbit hutch and rabbits.

From the article it was clear he really had no idea what he was doing. His seedlings were light-deprived and leggy. His rabbits suffered maggot infestations and heat stroke. One of his children accidentally injured a duckling so badly that it had to be euthanized. His laying hen ate her own eggs. And that’s just for starters. But he spent a month eating only what he had grown and from that, landed a book contract.

This is an extreme example, and I am so turned off by the gimmick and extravagance — not to mention the suffering he caused his animals because he couldn’t be bothered to learn to care for them properly before purchasing them — that I won’t offer a name or location that might give him any sort of free publicity. But it seems indicative of a trend of “just-add-water” urban farms that has sprung up out of that classic American desire for instant gratification. In the Atlanta area alone I know of two companies who for a few hundred bucks will come to your home or business and install a garden complete with raised beds, lining, irrigation (the garden hose kind, not the recycled rainwater kind), soil, crops, and mulch.

A recently installed raised bed not doing so well.

They may be out there in plenty, but I have yet to see a successful installation of this sort. One company dropped some raised beds on the grounds of a new local business recently. They got a very late start in the season, however, and the plants, which are under-mulched, have been stunted by heat and drought. And a neighbor of mine purchased raised bed kits from a similar service, but the soil she received was so unbalanced that most of her summer vegetables didn’t make it.

It’s difficult to superimpose a garden on a place. It’s much easier to cultivate one from the ground up, but it takes longer. You enter into a commitment, an ever-evolving relationship with a piece of land, and you accept that your garden is never “done.” The blueberry bushes you planted five years ago are only now beginning to bear enough fruit to make a pie. The asparagus crowns you buried this year won’t provide harvestable spears until 2012.

Raised beds are a reasonable short-term concept, but you have to pay attention to the soil you put in — its nutrients, its pH — and you have to monitor and maintain it. When I dug out some sod and expanded my own vegetable garden two years ago, I knew that it would be several years before that newly cultivated soil was up to par. But I’m digging in for the long haul, and each year it gets a little better.

Unexpected gift 2010: green tomatillos

Please don’t misunderstand me: I want more people to learn to home garden and to reap its many gifts. But one of those gifts is the pleasure of delayed gratification. Insta-gardens may provide some insta-reward, but it is short-lived. You also learn to receive the gifts you are offered, rather than the ones you expect. This year I started some purple tomatillo seedlings, but they were ravaged by the rat in my shed, so no purple tomatillos for me. But last year I had such an abundance of green tomatillos that they reseeded themselves from the fruits that fell on the ground last year, and this spring I pulled up probably a hundred volunteer tomatillos in my garden, leaving four sturdy plants. And now I have another bumper crop of green tomatillos that I didn’t plan on, but boy is it beautiful, as is my salsa verde.

I picked these figs last week from a tree that has been in my yard longer than the sixteen years I have lived here. The best thing that's ever happened to it was a tree falling on it during Hurricane Opal in 1995. The perfect natural pruning job improved its production.

Another gift is deep knowledge of a single place accumulated over time. Some years are better for some crops than other years, and history gives you a unique understanding of how things grow. This year, because of our rainy spring, was the fruit year. Last year it was tomatoes and tomatillos. I still think longingly back to the summer eight years ago when my basil plants — for reasons I still don’t understand — grew 3 1/2 feet tall. And you learn through the years to watch how your garden changes, and you adjust accordingly. The trees in my neighbors’ yards have finally grown so much that they throw too much shade over my back bed, so this will be the last year for a summer garden back there. It will be a fine spot, however, for some cool season crops to overwinter while the leaves are off the trees.

I realize not everyone will agree with my message here, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from installing raised beds. But I do encourage starting small and simple, seeing it not so much as a finished project but a beginning, and celebrating and building on successes.

Study your plot over time. Be at peace with some failure. Garden for the long haul, for deep knowledge and unexpected gifts.

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Peck A Little, Talk A Little: More Chicken Chat

Your pullets getting picked on? Wondering what makes a hen happy? Questions from backyard flockkeepers just keep pouring in! Here is the second installment of Chicken Chat.

Q: Any advice on our pullets? They hide in the coop ALL DAY LONG, and appear only to eat and drink when I close the door so that they have free rein in the coop. The big girls are so mean!

A: Give them time. You could try setting them out among the big girls in a cage for a few hours a day. But really it just takes time.

Follow-up: All right — we’ll try to be patient. The pullets must be bored out of their skulls.

A: Just remember how tiny those skulls are. They don’t require much entertainment. Throw them some extra handfuls of something tasty when you feed them and they’ll be thrilled.

Q: Someone just asked me how you can tell chickens are happy. If they’re not they won’t lay as much, right?

A: I think you can tell a lot from their general health and physical comfort. They also know when they are safe from predators. Those are two conditions of their well being, I’d say. Their laying rate is dependent on lots of things — weather, light, diet, breed, and age, for starters — so I don’t think you can really count on that as an indicator of hen happiness.

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Q: My next-door neighbor gave me some eggs from his chickies, and the one I prepared this morning (softboiled) had a very tangy and unpalatable taste. I only ate one bite and threw out the rest. Do you think it was something the chickens ate, or was the egg spoiled? It smelled fine, so I’m hoping no GI distress lies around the corner.

A: It’s said that if you let your chickens eat pungent foods such as cabbage and garlic and onions that it will flavor the eggs. We have kept these foods out of our birds’ diet and have never had strange-tasting eggs (at least to my palate). You might ask your neighbor if they’ve had any of those things in their diet.

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