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Broody Hen Watch 2011

We FINALLY have a broody hen! Our first of the year. Today, Mon 5/30/11 (Memorial Day!), Jason saw a hen in a nest box when he went to close in the chickens after dark. I went back out later this evening and counted her eggs; she had been sitting on three reals and two wooden eggs. I moved the three reals + 7 more reals just laid today into the dog crate nearby (all marked with an “X” with a pencil, just in case), gently and quickly moved her into it, and put the door on. She didn’t freak out and stayed on her 10 eggs, and even pecked at me when I tried to add more fresh bedding, so here’s hoping! Since she’s locked in the crate, I’m hoping she’ll stay there.

I’ll go out tomorrow and give her a chick feeder and waterer inside the crate, and I’ll plan on opening her door once a day to see if she wants to get out and stretch her legs (and poop, to be honest, because I don’t want to clean broody poop out of the dog crate). I’m also going to spread more wood shavings and diatomaceous earth inside the dog crate after dark tomorrow.

If all goes well, we’ll be due to see some broody-hatched chicks on the evening of Monday, June 27, 2011. Mark your calendars! :)

I’m overdue for a poultry count post. There’s a nice variety around here now!

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Yesterday evening, we received an awesome gift – a puppy! Not just any puppy, but an 11-week-old purebred Great Pyrenees, a livestock guardian dog (LGD) of the best sort. He was born and raised on a farm with chickens, and his mom and dad are chicken guardians. The breeder, a very kind and generous fellow, wanted us to have him, and we were delighted to accept. While getting a LGD wasn’t in the plans for another year or two, moving up the timeline was no problem.

He is ADORABLE. Can’t really say it any other way. I don’t have any awesome pictures (it was a crazy day, and we got home late), but here are a few I snapped before we drove home (you really must click to enlarge so as to enjoy his adorableness fully):

The kids LOVE him. We managed to keep it a secret until the puppy showed up at our meeting place. The kids thought we were buying chickens, which we were (we have eight new Buckeye chickens, too!), so that’s how I explained away the dog crate and towels and such (we keep dog crates for moving chickens or housing broodies). When the puppy was brought out, I asked the kids, “What do you think about bringing a puppy home?” And their eyes got really wide, and Maya said, “Really?” She initially thought it was just a last minute decision – that someone brought a dog and we decided to keep him at the last minute – but I told them the whole story on the way home. They were all smiles and can’t wait to spend some time playing with him today. Asher is very shy around dogs, so he stayed back and didn’t want to touch him. Ellery, who used to be deathly afraid of dogs and was jumped on by a dog as a toddler, was not afraid of him and really enjoyed petting and hugging him. Cal thought the dog was awesome until he licked his hand, and then his crazy laughter turned to crazy crying. (The laughter was always a little on edge – like, “this dog-thing is cool, but I’m not sure I like him, but there’s so much energy here that I can’t help but giggle a little maniacally–” and when the puppy licked his hand, I laughed so hard. Poor Cal. It was just so funny.) Maya thinks he’s the best thing ever.

His name is Jupiter, “Bringer of Jollity,” after Holst’s The Planets. I lobbied for Gus, but was outnumbered, and Jupiter really is a fine name. (The girls really wanted to name him Watch, from The Boxcar Children, or Friendly, “just because he’s friendly,” but everyone liked Jupiter.) He is great with the kids so far, loving and kind and gentle, and did great his first night. He will be a working farm dog, guarding the poultry and enjoying the country, and will live in the pasture with them. He went straight to the pasture for his first night and did wonderfully. I was worried, as he has only lived with his mom, dad, and aunt, but he didn’t cry or bark at all. He’s in a pen right next to the chickens. We hope to get the barn fixed up so that all the poultry and the dog will have stalls by fall/winter.

As for the chickens, they are eight juveniles, 2-3 months old, two cockerels and six pullets. They’re gorgeous and will be the beginnings of our Buckeye flock. It’s a great dual purpose bird, and threatened, so we will be benefitting from their wonderful qualities and helping to preserve the breed all at the same time. They lay well, have great bodies for meat, are sturdy and forage well, and have teeny little combs that make them great for winter in Michigan.

And for those who have inquired, the new Bourbon Red poults are doing great. All 10 are thriving, and the four Buff Orpington chicks that are in the brooder with them are also doing well. We had a scare when the power went out this week, and the turkeys all started crying and huddling and getting cold, and I worried because “cold poults are dead poults.” But we (Jason) were really clever and used my dad’s car with a converter box in it to plug the brooder lamp in until the power came back on a few hours later. Such a blessing that the car “happened” to be here, though I’m sure it wasn’t in my dad’s plans (his radiator was pierced by a huge branch during a storm, so he had to have it repaired before he could drive it home).

Things are good and crazy here at Mulberry Lane Farm (we have 10 Mulberry trees along our driveway!). Now I need to tend to the humans.

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We have babies! Starting at 10:30 a.m., we have had a series of poultry babies hatch out in our incubator. It has been so fun for the kids and I to watch, and the little birds are adorable. As I type this, we have five poults and two chicks, plus a couple of poults zipping. We are just now entering the 28th day for the poults and 21st day for the chicks, so some of the babies have been slightly early.

(Some terminology for you: pipping is when they first break the surface of the egg, and is usually just one small poke. It can be 10 minutes to 24 hours before the bird actually comes out. Zipping describes what happens when the poult/chick breaks a ring around the egg, hopefully at the large end, starting at the pip spot. Then the top of the shell pops off, and out comes a wet, exhausted, adorable baby!)

I will have tons of fluffy pictures coming later, after I move the babies from the incubator to a brooder. For now, they are still in the incubator, as it’s important to maintain humidity throughout the hatch, if possible. If they haven’t all hatched by tomorrow morning, I will move the babies to the brooder quickly, spray warm water in the incubator, and hope the remaining eggs hatch just fine, if a little late. They are very squished in there and are playing some serious soccer with the unhatched eggs.

The following slideshow should actually be quite educational. The first series is a poult, from pip to cute, directly followed by a chick, from pip to cute. Then you get a couple of bonus shots, including one of the first poult and first chick together. Enjoy!

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Turkey Candling

Chicken egg candled, day four. Source: click image.

Now, I don’t know much about candling eggs, but I thought I’d take a peek at our turkey eggs today (day nine). I’m borrowing a Brinsea OvaScope from my friend Annie (Hi, Miss B.!), which she used in her elementary school classroom this spring for their own hatch of chicken eggs (some of the eggs were from our farm – and four of them hatched!). She had hers hooked up to a webcam for seeing on her laptop, which is awesome, but my only webcam is integrated into my laptop, so I can’t do the same thing. I had to do it the old-fashioned way (stick my eye in the hole).

The result? Out of 13 turkey eggs, 11 have developing embryos, and two are “clears” (all I can see is the shadow of the yolk). Since I’m new at this, I’m leaving all the eggs in, but I marked them with question marks (using pencil). If they are still clear during the next candling in the week or so, I will toss them.

I tried candling the chicken eggs, which have only been incubating for less than two days, but of course I couldn’t see much yet.

The girls enjoyed peeking and seeing the difference between the eggs with embryos and the eggs that were clear. Maya was continually worried that I was leaving the incubator open too long (“They’re going to die!”) but I reassured her that mama hens leave their nests for up to 20-30 minutes a day to eat, poop, take a dust bath, etc. and the eggs are fine with the temporary cool down. Of course, one should take care in handling the eggs gently, and leaving them alone is generally best, but I have only moved them one other time. While I was in there, I filled up one of the humidity channel with warm water. The incubator (a Brinsea Octagon 20 Eco) recovered its temp within two minutes (love that thing!).

Bourbon Red turkey poults. Source: click image.

So, we have up to 11 poults waiting at the end of the journey. Very exciting. I’m praying for them all to hatch!

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Turkeys!

There are currently 13 turkey eggs incubating on my kitchen counter! And now, five chicken eggs, as well. I can hardly wait until 5/18, when they are due to hatch. You can bet I’ll be posting updates and pictures.

This is how I brought the eggs home from the breeder, who lives 45 minutes from me.

The kids and I drove out to Steinbacher Poultry Farm and picked up our dozen hatching eggs last Wednesday (April 20, 2011). The farm was fun to see, with all the geese and turkeys and ducks and chickens (and one gorgeous Kangal livestock guardian dog – so jealous – to keep the predators away). The Krebs were very kind people, nice to talk with, and they gave us one bonus egg. I kept the shoebox full of eggs (turkey eggs don’t fit in a standard egg carton) in the passenger seat next to me all the way home, holding it steady on sharp turns. It was an uneventful ride.

These channels are underneath the tray that holds the eggs. I fill one of them up with water to maintain humidity during incubation, and both will be filled during hatching (the last three days).

A few days earlier, our new incubator, the Brinsea Octagon 20 Eco, had arrived in the mail. We set to work cleaning it, setting it up, calibrating, etc., so we were all ready for the new eggs. Why did we buy an incubator, you ask, after successfully hatching chicks underneath broody mamas last year, and after swearing never to brood baby poultry myself again? Well, two factors swayed me: cost and education. First, cost. Hatched poults are $9/bird, making them $108/dozen, whereas hatching eggs are $36/dozen (or $3/egg, if your math is fuzzy). I purchased my incubator on sale, plus had a coupon, so the cost of the incubator and hatching eggs combined was not that much more than just buying the poults hatched. And now I have the incubator for future use, like if a broody hen quits on me, or if I want to hatch rare breed eggs or something. This incubator came highly recommended and is really neat. It takes up very little space, is super easy to clean/sanitize after hatching, recovers temp/humidity quickly, and doesn’t require opening to turn the eggs. The ends are octagon shaped, see? So you simply rock the whole incubator back and forth 90 degrees at least three times a day (I usually end up doing it 5 – 7, because I’m home) instead of having to open the lid to turn the eggs (which messes with the temp and humidity every time).

Oh, and that second factor – education. My children love seeing baby chicks, but they’ve never seen them hatch, because all our hatches have been at a hatchery far away (for our first ever chicks) or underneath broody hens (three hatches last summer). Broody hens are often awesome moms, meaning they’re very protective, so they kids never got close up looks at the little fuzz balls. This incubator will have the side benefit of letting the kids watch the whole process.

But yes, sigh, I will likely be brooding the poults (and their companion chicks, more on that below) indoors. Well, in the garage, because I don’t intend to have baby poultry in my actual living space ever again (famous last words). They are so poopy and dusty – they give off this fine dander that is impossible to clean. No, no, not in my bathroom again, like the first year. We’ll rig up a brooder in the garage, where they will be protected from drafts and off the ground, for at least the first eight weeks (eeps, that seems like forever). Turkey poults are more susceptible to disease and death than chicks, though I’ve read that after eight weeks, they are even hardier than chickens. Our chickens free range all over here, plus we have lots of wild birds, and both can be carriers of Blackhead (a disease that won’t kill them, but is fatal to turkeys). So I keep reading that you need to really baby your poults at first, and they’ll reward you by possibly not dying.

We’ll see what happens. Honestly, if I get a broody hen before the poults are due to hatch, it will be very difficult to keep myself from giving her the eggs and letting her brood the poults/chicks herself. She would likely do a better job than I, and I have my own human brood to keep me busy. I’d love to avoid the heat lamps and bedding changes and brooder additions as they grow. But I’ll do what I have to – I’m excited about these turkeys.

Photo Credit: Mother Earth News

The breed we’re going to be raising is Bourbon Red, a heritage breed. They are on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s watch list, meaning they are still in danger of being lost altogether. They’re beautiful turkeys, sturdy and flavorful, and I hope we’ll keep a small flock year-round and butcher most in November for Thanksgiving. (We’ll have free range turkeys for sale this fall – let me know if you’re interested!) We have lots of wild turkeys nearby, and I know that domesticated turkeys are not that far removed from their wild counterparts, so I’m worried about our turkeys running off and joining their freer brothers/sisters. I don’t mind if the wild turkeys stay close, but I’d rather not have my expensive heritage turkeys wandering off!

So, back to incubation. I started the 13 turkey eggs last Wednesday (4/20), right after I got home from picking them up. They need 28 days to hatch. Today, exactly a week later (4/27), I added five of our own chicken eggs (we raise mostly Buff Orpingtons). They take 21 days to hatch. See, they’ll all be due 5/18! Adding a few chicks to your poults is supposed to help with the survival rate, as chicks are less likely to forget where the food/water is. Supposedly. We’ll see. It’s worth a try, as we have plenty of fertile eggs around here. I had to get a little creative to five chicken eggs in there, but I got ‘er done. I’ll post pictures of the updated layout later on. Basically, if you look below, I put chicken eggs wherever you see wax paper.

Here's how I fit them in. The crumpled bumpers are wax paper. This incubator can hold 24 chicken eggs, and now I know I can fit up to 15 turkey eggs.

The incubator recovers temp and humidity so fast. It was back up to 100 just minutes after shutting the lid. (See the pink countertops I have to endure in my kitchen?)

My little homemade incubation record sheet. It has lots more chicken scratch on it now.

I’m very excited for this new adventure on our little farm. The next round will be hatching Buckeye chickens, whose eggs I will have shipped from an Ohio breeder. Shipped eggs have a lower hatch rate, due to rough handling in transport, so I will be buying two dozen to fill up our incubator. These chickens are going to be a great addition to our farm. They are cold hardy, dual purpose (good for meat and eggs), and have great personalities. I still plan to keep the Buff Orpingtons, and maybe play around with a few crosses, but I will largely keep the breeds separate. My Buff flock is hatchery quality, whereas my Buckeye flock will be from a reputable breeder.

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Chickentown Update

Speedy (L) and Mr. Hawk hanging out and being wary of my camera.

Small update from Chickentown, where things are calmer, quieter, and a little less chicken-y:

  • We are down to 21 chickens: 1 Buff Orpington Rooster, 18 Buff Orpington Hens, 1 Easter Egger Rooster, and 1 Light Brahma mix Speedy (whose gender is still yet unknown; that lil guy/gal is tough to figure out!).
  • 18 roosters went to a local processor last Wednesday. By Friday, they were in our freezer. At $2.65/bird, it was completely worth it. Without a plucker, we just couldn’t do it easily in the frigid temperatures. Lesson learned: always process chickens before snow fall! (And, get a plucker!)
  • Our beloved rooster, Hot Cocoa (so named because then-toddler Asher thought that’s what his crow sounded like – “Hot Cocoooooooa!”), had to be culled on 1/25/11. He arrived with our first ever batch of chickens as a day-old chick on April 1, 2009. He was the first cockerel to crow and was the biggest, so when we took our 12 cockerels to our friends to be processed that July, he got a stay of execution. He has done a remarkable job of protecting the hens, showing them food, keeping the hen fights to a minimum, and keeping those eggs fertilized so we could have farm-grown babies. He was a big, beautiful bird, with a wide chest, tall stance, and perfect coloring. However, over the past couple of weeks, he had become overly docile, and let the hens pick at his already frost-bitten comb (this is a problem with this breed – their combs are huge and prone to frost bite in the coldest weather). His comb and head got completely bloody, and he didn’t do a thing to stop the picking. He just sat there and let them pick at him, getting weaker and weaker. We’re not sure what happened, or if he was sick, but finally he just went out of the coop and sat in the snow. He wouldn’t move, and let me pick him up and move him (a first). Sadly, we had to put him out of his misery. Also sadly, we couldn’t eat him (such a big bird, such a waste!) because you never eat a bird whose cause of sickness/death is unknown.
  • As the time came to take the roosters to the processor, I had to choose which rooster(s) would be our replacement(s). Initially, we planned on keeping Hot Cocoa, as he did a great job and could show the new rooster what to do. But when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be around anymore, we chose one of his first two sons (born in June) to be his replacement. (The other wandered off at dusk and got himself killed a few months back.) We have named our new Buff rooster Junior, short for Hot Cocoa Junior, because he looks just like his dad. He’s the cockerel/rooster who matured the earliest and has been breeding the hens for a while. He is big enough that the hens respect him and don’t run him off (like they do the littler cockerels). He was already sleeping in the big coop with the hens and was accepted into their flock, so he made sense.
  • Since we have 18 hens and I want more babies, we needed another rooster to ensure fertilization of all the eggs. Since we’ve had so much trouble with the large single combs getting frost bite, I chose one of our Easter Egger roosters (pictured above) with a pea comb. The comb is small and close to the head, and this guy has weathered the cold with no trouble at all. He is smaller than I’d like from a meat bird, so his sons might not grow as big, but I’m hoping the Buff lineage will contribute to the boys sizing up a little faster. I chose this guy because his coloring is great for a free range bird who wants to blend in and avoid getting attacked by aerial predators. He is appropriately named Mr. Hawk, because he looks a lot like a hawk. (The “Mr.” part was added so we don’t yell “Hawk!” and get confused by whether or not we’re concerned about predators or a naughty rooster. Also, we’re hoping he’s a gentleman.) He is sharing a coop with Speedy.
  • Speaking of Speedy…(s)he is doing well since surviving a nasty hawk attack on January 3. She is still a little lopsided and awkward in her walking style, and she holds her neck to the side, and we think she’s blind in one eye, but she’s otherwise fine. (I’m choosing this pronoun because I really hope she’s a pullet! I want her to lay eggs and make more cute Speedy babies.) She’s as cuddly as ever and will let us hold her. She’s shacking up with Mr. Hawk, and I guess this arrangement will make her gender clear, as they will either fight for dominance (or rather, she’ll hide in a corner, because she won’t fight back, ever) or he’ll mate her. Eventually, we will move these two in with the bigger flock. For now, Speedy needs to be separate from all the hens, because they are nasty and will pick on her. She just hides in a corner and won’t fight back, so until she learns to stand up for herself and find her place in the pecking order, she just lets herself get picked on and bloody. (I tried to put her in with them once, unsuccessfully.) She and Mr. Hawk get along fine, as she had been living with Mr. Hawk and the other 18 roosters (who largely left her alone) already.
  • We have a light on in the coop to extend daylight hours, and we are getting 8-9 eggs a day from our 18 hens. Probably 3 – 4 of the hens are young enough to not lay yet, and the rest are just not laying. 8-9 eggs is better than no eggs, which is what were getting for months and months.
  • Can’t wait to see what our little mixed breed chicks will look like in the spring!

Coming soon: turkeys!! We are buying a dozen hatching eggs from a local-ish Bourbon Red turkey breeder, and we’re hoping a broody chicken hen will hatch some out for us in the spring. We intend to butcher turkeys every fall and keep a breeding pair year-round. Turkeys can be a bit trickier to raise as babies, so I’m hoping it goes well for us.

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Speedy Update

Speedy’s hanging in there. He’s still living in a cardboard box in our lower level – very nice accommodations for a sick chicken, with fresh bedding, no wind, and food that is all your very own. We never found any visible injuries (aside from the bloody eye the first day, which has since healed), but he is clearly not well yet. The good news is that he is eating, drinking, and pooping just like a normal chicken (mostly), and that is a good sign. The bad news is that his neck is still bent funny; he has difficulty standing up straight, and his neck wobbles when he reaches up to eat. I have his feed up at his normal head level, as he can’t seem to find the food if it’s on the floor. He’ll reach up and almost look normal as he goes in for a wobbly bite; as soon as the food is in his mouth, he retracts his neck and it flops over to his left side. I don’t know how else to describe it. I think I’ll take a video, just to see if I can get some help with diagnosing him somehow. I have a feeling he’ll either get better or he won’t; I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to help (except what we’re already doing). Perhaps he’ll be okay and crooked the rest of his life, and that will be something we’ll have to accept.

I’m very concerned about his ability to keep up with the rest of the flock after this incident; he was just starting to fit in, find his place in the pecking order, figure out what being a chicken means, etc. I’m afraid we’ll have to go through the integration process all over again. I’m also concerned about his ability to hide from hawks. I kinda thought he was more vulnerable – he doesn’t have great vision, he’s slow, and he is only now just realizing what it means to be a chicken. He is watching chicken behaviors being modeled for him (like darting to the nearest underbrush when hawks fly overhead) but it’s taking him a while to catch on.

I will try to keep you posted, but if I forget, comment and bug me to tell you. I am more optimistic now than I was that first day. He is such a sweet bird; whenever he hears me walking down the stairs, he starts to cheep for me in his bubbly Speedy-talk that is so cute. “I miss you! Give me attention!” he calls, and I try very hard to do so. I do have four little birds of my own to homeschool and care for, so sometimes Speedy has to wait. But I’ve got him shoved up right against the sliding glass door where all the other chickens like to come and sit during the day (it’s warmer there), and he can see them and find plenty of interesting things to watch.  I hope. Hang in there, Speeds.

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