Posts Tagged ‘chickens’

Spring Egg Olympics 2012

We have been in full swing with the incubators since the Easter chick rush, and we have been selling chicks almost as soon as they hatch these days. We have met some wonderful new chicken keepers and some really nice 4-H families this season, as well as repeat customers.

Here is the lineup that made our “Odd shape egg contest” finals this spring.

Top row is a normal size/shape standard egg.  Below that you can see some of the funny attempts our girls have made so far.  The bowling pin in the first row is my fave.  The big green oval at the bottom was a double yoker!  Yes, as you can see,  some of our hens have a great sense of humor!  Way to go gals!

Winter’s “Tween” Week

December 21st  brought us once again to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The good news is, from here on out the days will slowly start to get longer once again. This is that in-between week when we start to put away Christmas and look ahead to the new year. Christmas cards have stopped coming but the good news is now the spring seed catalogs are starting to fill the mailbox! All the beautiful winter scenes – snowmen, stockings hung by crackling fireplaces  – are now being replaced by glossy pages of colorful spring flowers and plump, ripe fruits and vegetables. Stirring our hearts and minds into that euphoric state of happiness that helps us cope with the now freezing tempetures outside. The nights have been well under 30 degrees for at least the last 2 ½  weeks now (and yes, I do get to complain because this is Southern California).

During the morning feeding I get to go crunching across the frozen grass and push my way through stiff cold gate hinges to be met by frozen hoses as I fill mangers and de-ice water buckets.  The tribe of goats stay tucked down in the thick straw inside the barn and they don’t even budge when I fill the feeders with fresh hay. Nikki (the LDG) is usually somewhere in the middle of the pile of goats, all keeping each other warm, and only just barely lifts her head and opens one eye when I peek in on the group. They all know their breakfast will be waiting for them when they decide to leave their warm nest and venture out into the morning. For now, they will sleep in until the sun crests the mountain and the day warms up a bit more. To be honest, I can get these jobs done a bit faster when the animals are not all underfoot, but I miss the sounds of them pushing and calling for their morning meals.

As I look across the gardens and raised beds most everything is brown and crunchy and weary from the cold. Most of the dead plant matieral has been pulled up and tossed into the compost piles. The pomegranate trees were pruned back hard in the last few weeks and the piles of leaves and clippings have been burned as kindling in the fireplace. This week we worked on pruning back the roses and berry canes. I cleaned out the barn and treated all of the animals for lice since they are all sleeping together in closer quarters now. We took advantage of some of our time off to trim the spurs on all of the roosters and everyone in the barnyard received a pedicure this month (I have the blisters to prove it!) This coming week I plan to clean out the nursery pen and get it fixed up for the first babies of 2012 (due the end of January). There are currently three does in the breeding pens, and four more will go in late Febuary or early March for summer babies. This morning I dragged the plastic boxes from the garage back into the house and started to pack up the Christmas ornaments. Tonight I will try to finish this job, and then start to toss out the leftovers that have been pushed to the back of the fridge and forgotten about. I will eat the last of the christmas baked goods as I reflect on this season. Christmas is over, and the year is almost done. I am right in-between tired and happy this week. Not a bad place to be if you stop and think about it.

Helping Hands

I have come to discover that all work on this farm falls into one of two categories- a “job” or a  “project”.  A job usually needs to be completed in a shorter time frame, and a project can sometimes be left open-ended for a time. Both can mean a lot of hard work, and sometimes we put these things off for as long as we can before starting, knowing the work ahead of us. But just like in the song from Mary Poppins, if we try to have some fun while doing it, or at least make it interesting, it can go by a lot quicker and not seem as taxing on our minds and bodies. Also, more hands always make the work load lighter, so if you can get others to help out, it does make a big difference.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was a “work day” on the farm that started very early for us. After the morning’s first cups of coffee, it was time to finish the project of getting the large Joseph’s Coat rose, that has been overgrown and pulling his arbor down for the last 2 years, under control. I had already spent the better part of three or four hours (on and off) cutting back the overgrowth and bagging up the canes with their abundant sharp spines. Not an easy or fun task to say the least. Anyone who has ever tackled this particular species of rose knows exactly what I am talking about. He is a wicked spiny beast that is hard to tame – even the leaves have spines!

Now it was time to get down to shaping the main part of the bush, and getting the arbor back in an upright position. Since this was way too big a job for just myself, I enlisted the help of my friend Matt Boeck from Rancho Organica in Santa Barbara. He has much more knowledge then I do when it comes to pruning back canes. So, armed with long handled loppers and pruners in hand, we marched together into the battle against this massive errant rose. It took us a solid 45 minutes of clipping, lopping, and pulling, all the while being pricked, poked, scratched, and snagging our clothes before we were able to finally get this beastly climber under our control. Then we had to reposition the huge rebar arbor and tie the remaining canes to it. At last we were able to step back, tired and bloodied from the struggle, to admire our handiwork. A long hard project finished at last! In no time Joseph will make his comeback in a controlled way, and he will be much easier to deal with and tame in the coming years. Thank you Matt!

Next, it was time for processing the Christmas turkey and a few meat birds to go into the freezer. If you are vegan or a PETA person, please skip this part of the story and read below about the goats. This bird was scheduled to be done the week before Thanksgiving, but was given a stay of execution because we got rained out that day.  Our friend Katie from Zack Family Farm came over for this job, and Christy also joined in, and we spent the next couple of hours having what we affectionately call one of our “chicken pickin’ parties.” Again, the more hands, the easier and faster the job goes, and before we knew it, this job too was completed.

Then Dr. Rose (who happens to be our dentist) stopped by for a long overdue visit, and we gave her a full tour of the farm and all the animals. After that pleasant break, it was time for the last job of the day that we had been putting off for a week – time to worm. delouse, and trim the hoofs of all the goats who are out in the field (13). Christy graciously volunteered to help me with this. We moved the milk stand in front of the empty nursery pen and then brought out all of the tools and treatments necessary for this procedure. The goats were all bribed into the small pen with a bucket full of sweet grain and locked in. It is an old trick but they fall for it every time. Each goat is then brought out in turn, and either held on a lap, depending on how cooperative they are, or placed on the milk stand with their heads in the sanction while we treat them.  Most of the younger goats don’t mind these ministrations, but some of the older does do not like having their feet worked on, and in fact will fight against it. But in the end everyone gets treated and nothing is really hurt but the pride.  We also take this time to check eyes and noses, feel to see if everyone is in good weight under their heavy winter coats, adjust collars, and try to see if we can feel movement of the babies with any of the pregnant does. We were blessed to discover that all are in good health this winter.  After all the catching, dragging, hoisting, holding, inspecting, clipping and treating, it was the day’s end and we were beat. 13 goats times 4 feet each makes for 52 little hoofs to trim, so there is inevitably a blister or two by the end! As we walked wearily from the field and close the gate behind us, we are very tired, yet at the same time there is a great sense of satisfaction in knowing that we completed this job. It needed to be done and we did it. As I dragged myself to my final reward – a nice hot shower to wash away the day’s dirt and grime – I felt good about the jobs and projects completed this day. I am thankful for all who joined in, their helping hands made these things easier and their company made the time go faster.  Thank you, one and all!

A Few More Pictures of the “Mutant”

Mutants, Beasts and the “Thing” in the Brooder

In the flurry of the spring egg setting season in preparation for Easter this year, some eggs went into the incubator that were unidentified. They came out of the Silkie pen, and were thought to be bantam eggs. The Silkie pen has a small flock of white Silkies, but also mixed in with the group are two white Frizzled Cochin bantam hens. The Silkie /Frizzle Cochin crosses are the only crossbreeds we produce on purpose here. The chicks come out with the soft feathers of the Silkies, but pointed in all directions like the Frizzles (like some one put them in the clothes dryer with a sneaker). We have coined the name “Sizzles” and they grow up to be very cute little chickens with good natures. The females make good little broody hens for people wanting to set eggs. They do not breed true, so you never know which traits you will get from crossing the two breeds. I have had some with the black skin or shanks of the Silkies, and I have had some hatch with 5 toes. Once I had one hatch with 5 toes on one foot and 4 on the other. They are all very cute in their own ways and it is always fun to see what the gene pool will come up with in each chick.
Other then the “Sizzles” I can tell right off the different breeds of chicks right when they hatch without a doubt-they all have a very distinct look that is breed specific.  Or I should say I could up until about two weeks ago.
Both the incubators were running at full capacity, and that translates into approximately 430 eggs. In the fall/winter months we only set eggs once a week, so we only have hatches once a week. In the spring however, we set eggs every day, and this makes for frantic mornings of tray-fulls of chicks being transferred into the brooders and a close watch that must be kept on setting dates to get the new eggs into the hatching trays so that the chicks do not hatch in the turners. Some mornings it becomes quite hectic if there are large hatches in both incubators at the same time. I like to check over each chick as it is transferred into the brooder for any malformations,  health issues or weakness. We have a separate ICU brooder for any small or struggling chicks to go into before they join the general population in the larger brooder.
On one of these frantic large hatch mornings, I pulled a large striped/speckled chick out of the hatching tray that had an unusually elongated head, and very strange speckled markings on its face. The only thing I could think of at the time, was that it must be a Speckled Sussex chick – they are the only chickens I have that are born with spots. It had come out of a medium-sized lightly tinted chicken egg, so I just left it at that.  I kept watching it in the brooder and every time I looked I would think to myself, “what IS that thing?”
When it came time to take the hatchlings to the feed stores, I left this one behind, as there just seemed to be something weird about the way it looked. A few days later when the brooder had just a few chicks left in it, I took a closer look to try to figure out just why it looked so strange and then it dawned on me – I have a trio of Ring Necked Pheasants in the same coop and this was an inter-species cross! A pheasant crossed with a chicken. I had been on a website years ago where they had some funny pictures of them. I remember there was the offspring of a male pheasant and a Barred Rock hen, and a Peacock crossed with a guinea hen as well. Rare and strange, but I guess it happens! I pulled it out this morning and sat down to get a really good look at it. I think my suspicions are right. It has no comb,  game bird markings on the feathers and is getting tall, but it also has the telltale dark shanks of the hybrids, and on one leg, just a faint bit of feathering!
There still seems to be little information on the web about these crosses, but from the bit I can find, only 6.5 of these eggs ever hatch, and the chicks are mostly weak and don’t tend to live very long, so this cross is more of an oddity, and does not really produce an offspring that has any real value to the poultry industry.
We will keep an eye on our little oddity for the next few months to see what he/she turns into, and try to figure out what to call it – a “Cheasant” or maybe a “Phicken”-?

Phicken? Cheasant?

Marans and the Giant Egg

I have a small flock of Cuckoo Marans chickens that I have been working with for the past four or five years now. I like this breed of chicken, not only for their gorgeous dark chocolate brown, almost round eggs, but for their calm temperament as well. The flock as a whole is a peaceful, slow moving group, and nothing really seems to bother them as they go about their days. To their credit, the 3 roosters in this pen have never given me a bit of trouble, and do not fight among themselves. Though I will still never fully trust a rooster of any kind (if you’re curious about why, read my book!)

Just as we were about to set the clocks ahead this year for daylight savings time, and there was an increase in the daylight hours, I went into the Marans pen one morning to collect eggs. I found two of the normal dark brown eggs in the box, but then there was something very strange in there with them. It was a huge egg with a very light colored, thin shell, like something a Sussex would lay. When I picked it up I was really surprised at just how large this egg really was. I have been raising chickens for a long time and have seen a lot of large and/or misshapen eggs, but this was about the biggest I had seen on this farm.

A friend of mine has a very sensitive balance that can weigh within a 100th of a gram, so I borrowed it and went about the task of recording this freakishly large egg with a scientific approach. I first weighed the other two found in the nest with it- they weighed in at 59.29 grams and 62.84 grams. The next day, I found another large egg in the Marans pen, it was much more normal looking than the giant egg, but it weighed in at 90.03 grams and had a double yoke when I cracked it open (there’s no picture of that one because it ended up as breakfast.)  The giant egg weighed in at 152.20 grams – over twice the size of a normal large egg! I also measured it to be 3 and 1/2 inches in length and 7 inches around, exactly. Ouch!

Next, I tried to candle the egg. I could not see the normal air sack at the top end of the egg, there just appeared to be a watery liquid in it. I could not see the yoke/yokes, which I thought was odd. To my surprise, when I cracked it open I found a perfectly formed whole other egg inside! The shell of this inner egg was dark brown and just as thick as they normally are.

In all the years of my chicken keeping, I have never seen this before, so of course I immediately started to research it. I found that what causes this oddity is when an egg gets backs up in the oviduct for some reason and then goes through the last few stages of production twice. Rare, but not unheard of. I just had to feel empathy for the poor hen who finally had to lay it!

More About Marans

This breed originated in western France in the town of Marans, and the word itself is both singular and plural – you have one Marans or many Marans. They do well in damp areas, having been developed in a marshy portion of France. Marans are a large, heavy breed that grows and matures slowly, with the roosters reaching up to 9 lbs, and the hens around 7 lbs. I raise the Silver Cuckoo color variety, and my stock has the feathered shanks like the original French birds (for some reason this characteristic has been bred out of the British lines.) The French recognize 9 color varieties:

1. Silver Cuckoo

2. Golden Cuckoo

3. White

4. Black Copper

5. Black

6. Wheaten

7. Black-tailed Fawn

8. Ermine or Columbian

9. Birchen

The Cuckoo variety is very similar in appearance to the Barred Rock, except the barring is not as distinct, giving it less of the striped appearance. The cuckoo pattern has all feathers marked across with black and white bands. This pattern is the result of the action of the sex linked barred (B) gene which is dominant.  When the males are homozygous for the Barred gene (BB), their color is lighter than that of the hemizygous (B-) females because the Barred gene produces the white bars.   In Cuckoo Marans, males are lighter in color than females–it is said to be possible to color sex them even as chicks with pretty good accuracy. If I stand back from the brooder and narrow my eyes a bit, I can pick out some of the young roos right away, but for the most part this is a breed that you really have to wait until they 5-8 weeks old to really sight sex. Even then, I did have a roo a few years who did not get his saddle or tell-tale neck feathers until he was about 4 months old.

Still waiting on Bella…

Here are some recent pictures to enjoy while we continue to wait for Bella’s babies to make their debut.

Miss Morgan gets up close and personal

Double delight rose

Broody Hens

Delicious artichokes!

Reno, Shari's horse that we love

Shari's garden is full of whimsical touches like this

Brooding, stress and poopy butt

You lookin' at me?

A lot of people came to buy chicks this weekend, so this is a good time to talk about brooding. Hatchlings cannot regulate their own body temperature for the first few weeks of life so, since they are not being cared for by a mother hen, we as their keepers must simulate a proper environment for them. It’s really not all that hard and can be very rewarding as the chicks will become very friendly if you handle them regularly. I like to use a large cardboard box for a brooder. Some people like to use a big tupperware container or large glass fish tank, and those work well, but I am basically lazy and like to just compost the whole thing when I am done with it. Locate your brooder in a warm room inside the house or a heated garage. Do not put outside. Please be aware of the fact that both your cat and your dog would very much like a chick snack, so keep that in mind when choosing a place out of harms way. Unsupervised handling by small children can also be dangerous for young chicks. After the first few weeks your chicks will start to feather out and you can start leaving them outdoors on warm days – still bringing them in at night until they are fully feathered. If there is an indoor area of your coop, you can put a light out there for a few weeks as well.

Ok, first off you need a heat source. I like to use one of those clip-on lights with a metal hood with a 100 watt bulb (these are getting a little hard to find these days with all the energy saving bulbs but some places still carry them). Be sure to place the light low enough, about 4-6 inches from the floor of the brooder. Use as large a box as possible so they can chose where they want to be in relation to the heat source. Use common sense – if the chicks huddle under the lamp and are being noisy- they are too cold. If they are in the farthest corner away from the lamp and panting then they are to hot. If there are some eating, some sleeping under the light and some walking around and they seem content, you’ve got it right. Now, I hate to have to say this next part but I know at least 2 people who lost their chicks this way so I say it to be safe rather then sorry – don’t turn the light off at night. Common sense is not as common for some as it is for others.

Next, you need non-slip flooring in the box. Pine shavings are best. NEVER use cedar – it is bad for them to breathe in. Paper towels can work for the first few days if you were caught unprepared but do not use newspaper, it’s too slippery and they cannot get their footing and will end up with splayed legs.

Then you will need food and water. I start with the medicated chick starter and I like those plastic screw-on feeders and waterers – they come apart and are easy to clean. Place food and water in the farthest corner from the heat source. Add marbles in the moat of the waterer if you are brooding very small chicks like bantams or quail so they can’t drown themselves but can still drink between the marbles.

If you have purchased chicks from a hatchery and they have shipped overnight and are a stressed, you can give them a little sugar in the water for their first day- but not after that, since it can bind them up. You can use a touch of corn syrup if you are out of sugar, but again, only for the first day to give them a boost.

Despite your best efforts though, sometimes one or all will stress and end up with “poopy butt” or “pasting up” – this is where poop blocks the vent and prevents them from going to the bathroom. If you don’t take care of this right away you will lose them – so let the great festival of butt washing commence! I bring the chicks to the utility sink and run the tap until it is WARM to the touch, not hot or cold. I hold the chick in one hand with just its little bottom under the gentle flow of warm water and work the poop off between my fingers. I gently pat dry with a hand towel and place the chick back under the light in the brooder. Recheck your chicks every day until you are sure they are over it.

There is tons more info on brooding on the net that you can check out, this is just a brief overview of the way we do it here. The whole brooding thing is a great experience to go through (well…maybe not the poo-poo butt!) and you can count yourself as a real chicken keeper when you make it through this phase with your flock. Happy brooding!

Hatching, continued

My good friend Katie came over this morning with her first goose egg of the season (she has Embden geese) for me to put in the incubator for her. She loves her geese. She is also the duck keeper among us. She sells a lot of duck eggs to people who bake and to people who have allergies to chicken eggs. Katie loves her ducks. Katie loves all ducks. Me, I like baby ducks for about the first 4 days when they are cute, then I hate them. I keep a small flock of Tufted Roman geese and a pair of Mandarin ducks, and that is it for me and waterfowl! Every year one of my teachers will get ahold of some duck eggs from somewhere, and hatch out a bunch and then bring them to the farm, and I will moan and roll my eyes and take them in, and then foist them off to new homes as soon as I can!

I was greeted once again this morning by a peeping incubator with a lovely tray of little warm fluffy balls of new life. I don’t think I will ever get tired of this. Yes, of course there was one who bailed out the back of the tray and I had to retrieve it with the paint stir stick (see yesterday’s rant), but the chick had the top part of the shell stuck on it’s little bottom like a little brown turtle, so it was too cute for me to be mad at.

I will never in my life cease to be fascinated by a chicken egg. Each one is like its own self-contained little space ship. They can be laid on almost surface, left out on a chilly night, kept on the counter for over a week, packed and shipped through the postal service to just about any destination. Then taken and placed in just about any kind of unit that will hold a temperature of around 100 degrees and about 30% humidity, rocked back and fourth, and in exactly 21 days, produce a fluffy little bird that is up and ready to go in about an hour! Think about it- what other organic product can you find that is porous – it can allow air in, yet so sterile that it can be placed in 100 degrees for the better part of a month and not go bad. It still blows me away every time!

I have had much success over the years hatching out quail (they take 18 days to hatch), turkey, pheasant, duck, geese and even 1 peacock egg (they all take 28 days to hatch). But the crowning achievement was a pair of Emu eggs that were hatched two years ago. They took 55 days at a temperature of 97 degrees and 20% humidity. We were surprised ourselves when we first saw them!

Emu babies

For years I use to run what I called a “natural hatchery” that consisted of 8 to 10 broody hens that would set absolutely anything you shoved under them. It was not uncommon to see one of these hens with up to 5 different species of young, in all shapes and sizes, at their heels at the same time. I think the best memory I have is of a guinea hen, who was almost prehistoric looking, proudly protecting her nest box with the cutest little gray-green gosling peeping out from under her. Two very different types of birds, one common goal – hatching!

I had this wonderful system in place with these broody hens for years, and ran at a very high hatch rate, and derived much joy from it, until one horrible fire season a few years ago, when the Malibu fires drove a huge number of predators into our area, who then discovered our beautiful little freerange farm. We were wiped out in two nights. We were heartbroken. All of the broody hens that escaped are now in safe pens for their own sakes, and my idyllic set up is no more. I hatch all my eggs in the Sportsman incubator now, but it’s just not the same. I get good results, but still miss the joy of seeing those dedicated broody hens with their motley clutches in tow.