Thursday, May 29, 2014

How to Change the Mood of Broody Hen

Broody Little Red Hen

The term often used to describe changing the mood of a broody hen is "breaking a broody hen."  The language may not sound gentle, but for Little Red Hen as we call her, it seemed a welcome relief.  She was just in need of a bit of encouragement to change her mood.  I admit, she is my favorite in the flock and the only one that we call by name.  

Going broody means the hen camps out in the nest box.  Permanently.  In Little Red's case, other hens would kick her out so they could lay eggs and then right back she would go to sit on the eggs.  When I reached around and under her to get the eggs anyone else has laid in there, she bristled up like a porcupine and screeched with irritation when normally the hens don't mind a bit of searching for eggs if they are in the nest boxes.  

Broodiness is a mothering instinct.  The chicken of choice in industrial egg factories are White Leghorns, and they have had the broodiness bred right out of them.  They are little egg laying machines, and in the industrial setting, doomed to a short life of confinement, stress, and constant laying.  Leghorns in a happier setting can be great farm chickens and just as productive, but they are lighter, smaller, more nervous, and are better flyers.  Little Red Hen is a Partridge Rock, a dual-purpose old-fashioned hen, yet good for an urban setting.  She is heavier than a leghorn, a great forager, can stay warmer in the winter, and like other older breeds, still retains the broodiness trait.  And she lays pretty pale brown eggs.  Well, she did until she went broody.

The hens are a few months over a year old and this was the first broody hen I have had.  Her instinct is to sit on her clutch of eggs and hatch them out as chicks, but we have no rooster so these eggs will never hatch, no matter how hard she tries.  I could have put her in her own private space with some fertile eggs or chicks procured elsewhere, which can sometimes work, but there is no guarantee she will be a competent mother and frankly, I didn't have time for that when she went broody so I just let her sit on the nest for two weeks.  Having a broody hatch some eggs is definitely something I want to try at some point, but this was not the time.   

After weeks of her sitting in the nest, we had a heat wave and she was just hot and pissed off, sitting on the nest full time with no success and me taking away all the eggs.  It just wouldn't do, so, I set up our go-to dog crate with food and water near the coop.  It was under a covered area so she couldn't get rained on, and I put hardware cloth down in the bottom so she wouldn't twist an ankle.  I propped it up on bricks to let the air flow up underneath her.  A broody hen wants a warm, dark nest.  To put her in a lighted, airy cage with no bedding can change her mood.  After 1.5 days in the cage, I let her out.  The whole day she ran around with the flock and happily foraged. Then, late afternoon, I caught her on the nest.  Two hours later, she was still there.  So, back in the cage for another 24 hours.  After that, she was broody no more and happily back to digging worms.  

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

2 Book Reviews for Keeping Chickens Right

I caught Ida reading two chicken-keeping books at the same time.  I can't blame her; they are both good.  My go-to chicken keeping book is Harvey Ussery's The Small Scale Poultry Flock.  Great all-around book for keeping chickens happy and healthy.  He covers housing, feed, and systems in terms of using chickens in the garden and putting them to work.  However when it comes to chicken ailments or injuries, his philosophy is "Just Cull It".  For that reason, Gail Damerow's book The Chicken Health Handbook is excellent.  It describes in detail, every chicken disease and pest imaginable.  And for this reason, read it, but don't dwell on it.  So many bad scenarios are described, you will be thinking you chicken is close to death if it sneezes once or twice.  However, it is a great reference to have on hand if something goes wrong.   Finally, get some Nustock ointment (for cuts and wounds), order Molly's Herbal Wormer as a preventative worm treatment, and if you have an extra dog crate around, don't donate it or toss makes a great rehab cage for a sick or injured bird.

Bees are Buzzing

The bees at Garden Dreams are strong.  Really strong.  Ready to swarm strong.  There are many ways to keep bees, but in an urban setting, beekeepers try to prevent swarming, which is colony level reproduction.  When bees swarm, up to 1/2 the bees leave the hive with the queen, once a new queen is almost ready to be born for the hive they are leaving behind.  They rush out of the hive and the buzzing is quite audible.  The bees are gorged with honey so they can start fresh in whatever new home they have chosen (tree trunk, abandoned house wall etc...almost always a cavity).  For this reason, they are quite gentle, not feisty, when they have swarmed.  It really is an amazing thing to see.

Beekeepers try to keep the bees happy so they don't swarm, but it is in their nature, to reproduce at a colony level...tens of thousands of bees starting a new home, and it is really quite amazing.  However, the survival rate of unmanaged honeybee colonies is not as high as it should be, but that is a whole other post...concerning imported varroa mite, local adaption, and good genetics.  For now, the bees are good and I am doing my best keep up with them!

Hived Swarm
Hived Swarm checking out their new home.

Ummmm....experimental beekeeping.  Cut out a swarm sell and pop it on a frame for a queenless hive?  We shall see.   
Hive B swarming out the front of the hive (the first time).  I later caught this swarm with a bucket duck-taped to a rake with a ladder, and two friends that swung a rope over the branch they were on and gave a swift tug at the right moment to drop them in the bucket.  (See hived swarm above)

Split-o-rama.  3 original hives and 4 swarm prevention splits (plus 1 hived swarm not pictured). 
Blurry swarm #3 pic.   They were REALLY high in a maple tree.  

Monday, May 12, 2014

Apple Trees: Stayman Winesap, Arkansas Black, and Zestar

Stayman Winesap
Arkansas Black

As a follower of Apple Man Michael Phillips, and an inexperienced tree fruit grower, my plan was to wait a year to plant apple trees and work on helping our soil become wonderfully rich, full of life, and apple-friendly.  I was going to do this with cover cropping, compost, and woody debries to create a fungal-dominated soil that trees like.  Instead, I ordered 3 apple trees and plunked them in our phosphorus and potassium deficient soil with no more than a handful of worm castings and a little mycorrhizal fungi on their roots to help them take hold.  Oops.  I'm adhering to the "don't amend the planting hole with anything" train of thought.  I did make a large 3' diameter hole for them and broke up the sides of the hole with a garden fork.  My theory is I can feed them with love and organic matter from the top down.  Several large apple trees in the vicinity give me hope.  Best of luck to them.

I ordered EMLA 111 rootstock, a semidwarf rootstock that is good at anchoring (since we are on a windy hillside).  I mail ordered from Boyer Nursery in Biglerville, PA and was quite happy with the trees.  This is what Boyer Nursery says about the rootstock on their website:

EMLA 111
Semi-Dwarf, Zone 5-8 (Northern Spy x Merton 793)
Mature Height 18-22ft. with recommended 16-26ft. spacing.
It is an outstanding choice for spur-type Red Delicious varieties.  It has an excellent anchorage, with no staking required.  Very drought tolerant, high soil temperatures and adapts to sandy and clay loam.  Best Semi-Dwarf for heavy or poorly drained soils.  Quite resistant to collar rot and Woolly aphids, and moderately resistant to fireblight.  Can be susceptible to burr knots and powdery mildew.  Rarely produces root suckers.  EMLA 111 produces an early and prolific fruit crop.  

A tree planting, pruning, and growing novice, I spent much time watching youtube videos of different pruning styles and reading extension fact sheets on trees.  I realized I had on my hands feathered maidens (how lovely!) not 1 year old whips (which look like sticks).  I spaced them 16' apart.  I did know enough to get trees that have overlapping bloom times so they can pollinate each other.

In the end, after planting, I pruned them back to no more than 3 - 5 branches that had decent crotch angles and pruned those back to an outward-facing bud so they were shorter than the central leader.  I also mulched with pea-gravel.  After reading well-written arguments that improperly staking trees can lead them to never develop strong root systems, I drove in a single short stake intended to be cut off after 1 season.  I don't think they would need staking in a more sheltered planting site, but our hill sure does get some wind.  Still to do is putting up some hardware cloth guards to protect the trunks from rodent-nibbling and weighing down a few branches that need wider crotch angles.    So, that is the plan for them, and they are leafing out as I write.

I am attempting a bit of a hedgerow of trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, and the like, similar to the ideas in this article from Permaculture Magazine...Replanting Hedgerows.  If it fills in quick enough, perhaps it can keep the deer from feeling comfortable in jumping over at least some sections the fence.  If it doesn't, we need to formulate a deer-diversion plan.  I planted the apple trees in 4' from the fence, and I got that number from Phillips' recommendation for building deer cages around your apple trees.

In any case, our soil where both where the trees are planted and where we plan to plant vegetables is deficient.  I know this from our UMASS Amherst soil test.  I have not purchased any rock phosphate or greensand, but I am haphazardly dumping different forms of organic matter and composted chicken manure on top of cardboard or newspaper sheet mulch style to slowly improve our soil (hopefully).  C'mon worms, incorporate it!  A local coffee shop has offered to supply us with spent coffee grounds and coffee bean chaff from roasting (surprisingly not acidic).  We shall see if our soil improvement on the cheap works.

Coffee Bean Chaff

Saturday, May 10, 2014

First Foray into Green Green Grass of Home

Today was a long day.  Garden Dreams participated in a great annual plant sale, May Market, that happens at Phipps Conservatory.  After hours of hauling tomato plants here and there, I made it home and let the chickens out for their first romp in the grass.  They had loads of fun.  Much better than being cooped up and now that the electric poultry netting is set up, this can be a regular thing, though they are still the right size for hawk or owl snacks, so I'll be keeping an eye on them.

It was nice to see them enjoying themselves so much.  Their voices are still in the "cheep cheep cheep" phase but it is obvious when their cheeps are happy or scared.  Chickens just love to scratch and look for insects.  It is obvious they are fulfilling their little chicken-natures when they get to do this.  

Run stats:  Corner of our hilly backyard fenced in with Premier 1 Perma Net and Patriot 5 energizer which can run off 110 volt power or a 12 volt battery.   Setting up the electric fence and energizer took several reading of the sparse directions and two calls to Premier 1 (whose customer service staff were very helpful!) but we got it hot eventually.    

I know the chickens will remove the grass in the run area via eating and scratching, although how quickly they will do this is up in the air.  I would like to divide the space into 2 small paddocks that we rotate them between so the vegetation can recover, but if that doesn't work for whatever reason, plan B is a composting run with comfrey planted in it. 

Struttin' their stuff.
Outdoor still life: chicken with currant bush.
"Should I eat that?"
First time through the threshold.
Lots of rain brought lots of worm hunting.
I love this blurry picture.  It shows a log from a neighbor's felled elm tree in the foreground that is not throwing in the towel is re-sprouting.   The dead plant matter is knotweed stalks that are starting to break down (from last year).  The branch and metal pole teepee is supporting our hops that are just starting to climb.   I am guessing chickens won't want to eat hops plants since they are so scratchy, so they will be allowed to grow into a little shady area for the hens (I hope).  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Out of Doors Poultry Time

The chickens are now residents of the Great Outdoors.  For now, they are staying in the coop so they can get used to their new space.  Soon, they will get further outdoor access.

Investigating the new space.
Checking out the coop corners

From outside, looking in.
All grass was removed from the premises via little beaks.
2" x 3" roosts
Grass munchers

Friday, May 2, 2014

Chicken Coop Finished + Spring Asparagus

Chickity Chick Coop
From the front: coopity coop.

Precoce d'Argenteil asparagus.  French heirloom variety.  Yum.  

The chicken coop is done.  Thank goodness.  The chicks are no longer little babes, they are big ol babes ready to move on out of the basement.  They will be 7 weeks on Monday.  So, their planned migration outside is tomorrow morning.  The weather shouldn't be bad and the night low will be in the 40's.  I want the coop to be largely open air in the summer, but I've added heavy duty plastic sheeting onto the front to block wind while they are little and its still chilly.  Not the most attractive but, hey, it works, I hope.  I admit, it was a case of "They need to go outside, NOW!  What can I cover the front with to block wind?  Plastic!  Let's do it!"  The good thing is the hardware cloth really supports the plastic so hopefully their will be no ripping in the wind.  Once that comes off, I will be working out how to make the front flexible as either opened or closed, perhaps with polycarbonate or plexi that could be attached or removed as windows/windblock.  

If I had had more leisure time recently, I would have been marching all 26 chicks outside into a chicken tractor or pen so they could get used to outside but, time has been short.  This will be their first time out of doors.  

The coop plan is modified from plans.  Coop bits:

- Coop is on a hillside.  Cinderblock piers of different heights make it level.
- Hardware cloth completely covers it in addition to a 2' apron all the way around for digging predators.  If the electric fence fails or we take it down for winter, the coop is still predator proof.  
- 6' x 20' heavy duty vinyl tarp with brass grommets composes 3 of the walls.  The idea is I can open it a bit to increase ventilation when its really hot in summer.  It took me quite awhile to find such an odd size of tarp but I found one at  I'm happy with the quality and it was made in the U.S.  We may add extra insulation measures in winter.  
- Bottom of coop is soil.  Their is no floor.  The plan is deep litter over the poops.
- Roof is fiberglass corrugated panels that transmit light but not enough to make it extra hot in there. 
- Jason pretty much built this single handedly with some extremely helpful and intense workdays from our friend Jeff.  Thanks Jeff!! 

I'm sure we will realize problems and have to come up with solutions in this plan, but that is half the fun.  I hope they like their new home!

 In other news, we have been picking asparagus at Garden Dreams for a few weeks.  We have 3 varieties: Precoce d'Argenteuil (delicious), Purple Passion (sweet), and Jersey Supreme (productive).