Thursday, December 17, 2009

Five Reasons to Never EVER Give Your Chicken to a Shelter for Adoption

As I wrote in my previous post, a coalition of the following animal shelters and sanctuaries has issued a press release and position paper advising municipalities to disallow chicken-keeping:

Animal Place

Chicken Run Rescue
Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center
Farm Sanctuary
Sunny Skies Bird and Animal Sanctuary
United Poultry Concerns

They cite a host of reasons, most of which I address
here. They also urge people who want chickens to adopt a chicken they have rescued, rather than buying one from a hatchery.

There is no doubt that any creature given to these organizations will be well cared for, and that their members are deeply committed to the humane treatment of animals. These organizations have also performed a useful service in raising awareness of cruelty in industrial poultry operations, and in rescuing chickens injured and maimed at these sites. Nevertheless, I still urge my fellow chicken enthusiasts to never, EVER give a chicken they cannot care for to these organizations for adoption. Here are five reasons why:

1. Those who want to adopt your chicken from the shelter will likely be required to surrender a degree of their privacy.
Farm Sanctuary’s adoption application form asks for your birth date, the number of children you have, their ages, your marital status, and your employer. What bearing any of this information has on one’s suitability for keeping a chicken is hard to imagine. The application also asks you to check whether sanctuary adoption officers may visit your home. Similarly, Chicken Run Rescue’s terms for adoption require would-be chicken-adopters to allow their staff to “examine or make inquiries at any time.” That means you agree to allow them to come in at will to check up on your poultry management and ensure it meets their standards.

2. Would-be chicken adopters may be denied if they are not vegans or vegetarians.
Farm Sanctuary’s adoption application asks you to check whether you are vegan or vegetarian, and if neither, to explain why. They also require you to be a member of the Farm Animal Adoption Network (FAAN).
Membership requirements for FAAN include “a vegetarian lifestyle.” Chicken Run Rescue’s adoption form asks whether you raise animals for slaughter. Note they do not say simply that you may not slaughter the chicken you are adopting. They ask about raising animals for meat generally.

3. Potential adopters will never truly own a chicken they obtain from these organizations.
Chicken Run Rescue requires that you agree not to show the chicken, breed it, sell its eggs, or give it to anyone else. If you can no longer keep the chicken, you are required to give it back to them. Further, if they determine during one of their “inquiries” that the “health and well-being [of the chicken] is being jeopardized the bird will be returned to Chicken Run Rescue immediately.”

4. Low-income persons who wish to adopt a chicken will likely be denied.
Several of the adoption application questions suggest an expensive standard of care that would exclude many low-income persons. For example, Chicken Run Rescue asks whether there is a heat source in the building where the chicken will be housed and whether the temperature of the building can be maintained at 32F or higher. Farm Sanctuary asks outright what your income range is and whether you can afford veterinary care for the bird.

The heat requirement is not only expensive; it is likely unnecessary and may even be harmful to the chicken. There is some debate among authorities on chicken husbandry about whether chicken coops should be heated at all, except on the very coldest days in northernmost areas. An early 20th century book,
Open Air Poultry Houses, which advises keeping chickens in open front coops, even in places like Canada, is now coming back into vogue. One long-time chicken keeper here in Madison advised me against ever heating a coop; she never does, and her chickens are healthy. Some of the older breeds, such as Barred Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds were developed in New England in the mid-19th century. I doubt anyone was heating their coops in those days.

The problem is that chickens are more susceptible to frostbite and disease at higher temperatures when air in the coop is humid than at lower temperatures when the air is dry. (Warm air holds more moisture.) All authorities agree that proper ventilation in winter is vital to move humid air (chickens emit a lot of water vapor through breathing and pooping) and thus keep chickens healthy. After seeing our set-up, our poultry extension specialist advised me to leave the pop door open during winter, despite the fact that we have ventilation holes in the roof of the roost box.

I can only imagine what it would cost us to keep the coop heated to 32F or higher with the pop door open on days when highs are in the single digits. It’s a waste of energy when it’s not required for the health of the chickens, and during the day, they won’t go in there anyway, except to lay an egg. They prefer to be out in their pen. Further, safely heating a coop to Chicken Run Rescue’s standard would require proper wiring – not simply running an extension cord - another expense that could exclude low-income would-be chicken adopters.

The bias against low-income people is particularly egregious to me. The focus of this blog is “gardening as an investment in food security.” Chickens are an integral part of my garden, providing a protein source, free organic fertilizer, and natural help with pest control. Excluding people who most need to invest in their own food security from having chickens simply because they cannot afford to meet standards that are unnecessary is unconscionable.

Chickens are relatively inexpensive to raise; poor people around the world do it. Chicken rations can be supplemented with kitchen vegetable scraps and discarded produce from grocery stores that is in good condition. If allowed into pasture or yards, chickens can forage for some of their own food. In fact, they prefer it. Coops can also be built rather inexpensively (though maybe not to the standard of some rescue groups). We spent several hundred dollars on ours, but I’m more impressed with people who report they used scrap wood or repurposed an old shed and ended up spending only forty bucks or so.

5. Finally, you should never, EVER give your chicken to one of these shelters because they will use it as a reason to pressure municipalities to restrict, or refuse to allow, chicken-keeping.
In their press release, this coalition of shelters and sanctuaries “urge[s] municipalities throughout the U.S. not to allow backyard flocks and exhort[s] those that are already zoned for this practice to establish and enforce strict regulations for the care of these birds,” and claims that since keeping chickens has become popular, they have been “inundated with calls to take in chickens.” In their position paper, they raise the issue of the expense of “an extra burden, like enforcing chicken licensing laws and related complaints” for municipal shelters.

Every time you give a chicken to one of these agencies, you add to the numbers they will use when urging city officials not to change ordinances to allow chickens, thus making it harder for your fellow chicken aficionados to have chickens, and harder for yourself, should your circumstances change and you are again able to keep chickens.

So, what should you do if you have or find a chicken that you cannot care for? One option should be to give or sell it to someone. I’m lucky here in Madison, because although I live in a city, we are surrounded by farmland and rural communities. Many people from these areas come into Madison to work, and are happy to take a chicken off my hands – they have the space to do it.

I’ve had good luck finding such people on Craigslist. I gave six nearly three-week old chicks to one guy (they are sold in lots of five, and I was only allowed to keep four), and recently sold Little Jerry to another. When I gave away the chicks, the question crossed my mind: How do I know they’re going to a good home? Then I remembered that no one questioned my credentials when I showed up at Farm and Fleet to buy my very first baby chicks. I should extend someone else the same courtesy, unless they give me a reason not to.

As it happened, the guy turned out to be practically a “chicken whisperer.” He knelt down and gently stroked the head and neck of one of the chicks with one finger, and she never moved! It was like she was hypnotized. There are many good people who will care well for a chicken; many more than are bad, I believe.

Roosters present a more difficult problem, as I wrote in my previous post. They’re harder to give away because many cities will not allow them, and outside cities, healthy flocks require fewer roosters than hens. It may be that your beautiful bird will have to be sacrificed to feed someone less fortunate than yourself. For a rooster that has had a good life, it is not a bad way to go.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Who's A Chicken Lover?

That’s a photo of Little Jerry taken yesterday. She will be leaving us sometime today. Her comb-picking of the other hens has gotten completely out-of-hand. It appears to happen when they go up to their perch at night. We never see this going on during the day (unless, like the bratty kid you grew up with, she waits until the grown-ups aren’t looking to start trouble.)

Certainly the only place we have seen any blood – and that was just a few drops – is on their droppings tray under their perch. The blood isn’t in their droppings, so I know it’s not disease of some kind. Then yesterday morning there was blood on the back wall of the coop, near the perch.

I’ve been dithering for awhile over what to do about Little Jerry, ever since we caught her acting aggressively towards the other hens. Yesterday, after seeing the blood on the back wall, Rick said to me quietly, “She has to go.” It was his way of saying, “The time for dithering is over.”

I decided to try to sell her, and if I couldn’t do that quickly I’d turn her over to our friend who’s experienced in processing meat to dispatch her to freezer camp. I found a buyer with 60 acres outside Madison. He asked whether Little Jerry was mean. I told him what I’ve written above about the comb-picking, but assured him that she’d never feather-picked. Except for the comb scrapes, our hens look perfect.

The buyer was honest with me, as well. “If she behaves,” he told me, “she’ll have a good life here.” But if she starts trouble, he warned, she would become dinner. I accepted those terms.

It never occurred to me to drop her off at a shelter, or even that animal shelters would accept chickens. I’d always understood that if a chicken needed to be culled from our tiny flock that she would have to be slaughtered – efficiently and with as little pain as possible - or given or sold to someone else.

Some shelters claim that the trend in chicken-keeping has resulted in an upsurge in chickens dropped off at their organizations; chickens whose owners can no longer care for them or roosters that they are not allowed to keep in the city.

So a coalition of groups is now advocating banning chicken keeping in backyards citing humane, health, and other reasons. This is what happens when you hand responsibility for some aspect of your life to others; they feel empowered to tell you what to do; to regulate and control the activity in question. Before I go on to respond to this coalition’s objections to chicken-keeping and critique their agenda, I want to beg my fellow chicken enthusiasts to take responsibility for your chickens. Do not hand your responsibility for your chickens over to agencies that will use it as an excuse to advocate bans on backyard poultry keeping.

I understand how tempting it is to avoid making the hard decisions, to want to hand over your problem chicken or rooster to an agency that you believe will treat your chicken kindly and not kill it. I’ve waffled myself for weeks trying to figure out what to do about Little Jerry. But we have to be grown up enough to understand and accept that sometimes the humane thing to do is to cull a chicken, that nature requires far fewer roosters than hens, and that if you lack to the skills to do the job you should learn how (my eventual goal) or turn the job over to someone who does and compensate them accordingly. And if you can’t eat your own chicken, give it to someone who can. There are a lot of hungry and out-of-work people in this country. Healthy meat should not go to waste.

Would it be better to keep Little Jerry and allow her to continue to torment the other birds? Or to give her another chance at a good life in the country? She’s actually not that aggressive. I think if she’s in a place where she has more space, she won’t be a problem. She’s a good layer and very healthy, so I didn’t want to rush her demise. And if she’s still a problem, then she will make a healthy meal for someone. She was raised on organic feed and lots of greens and bugs. She’s had a good life here with us.

That said, let’s take a look at the assertions and agenda of the coalition, which appears to lack a name, but includes these organizations:

Animal Place
Chicken Run Rescue
Eastern Shore Sanctuary and Education Center
Farm Sanctuary

Sunny Skies Bird and Animal Sanctuary
United Poultry Concerns

Specifically, their assertions are these:

*Many backyard chicken enthusiasts don’t know about the conditions in hatcheries and what happens to the unwanted male chicks.

Unbeknownst to many well-meaning hobbyists, the massive hatcheries from which most chicks are purchased by individuals or feed stores are notorious for animal mistreatment . . . Hens are in much higher demand than roosters; therefore, most males [sic] chicks are killed onsite at these hatcheries as soon as they are sexed, adding up to millions of birds every year that are killed shortly after they hatch.

In fact, many of us do know of the conditions in both hatcheries and large confinement operations for layers and meat birds. That is a major reason many of us want to keep our own birds; to treat them humanely, to allow them to scratch, run around outside, eat bugs, and to produce for ourselves eggs from hens that have been raised healthfully and treated decently throughout their lives.

My preference would be to buy from local breeders, and I will when I’m able to do so. Around here, chickens from local breeders are limited in supply, but I fully expect that as the return to chicken keeping grows, there will be more opportunities to buy locally from good breeders.

The issue of what to do with the male chicks is a problem. Municipalities that allow chickens generally ban roosters. Even if we could keep roosters, the fact is that too many roosters in a flock creates problems; the hens suffer from too many attempts to mate with them and the roosters fight amongst themselves. Why does nature produce more roosters than are needed, and how does nature cull the excess males? I’m not an animal specialist, but I suspect that in the wild, the numbers of roosters are reduced through fighting over the hens.

Traditional farms generally kept a few roosters, but raised the rest of the male chicks just to maturity; then slaughtered them for meat. Giving them a good life before processing them for meat is to me preferable to dumping male chicks into a grinder at the hatchery. However, whether in the wild, on traditional farms, or in hatcheries, most males will die at earlier ages than females.

*Shipping day old chicks is cruel.
Day-old chicks are shipped to buyers through the mail, deprived of food and water and exposed to extremes in temperature for up to 72 hours.

Here is another reason it is preferable to obtain chicks from local breeders. This isn’t always possible, with large operations dominating the markets. It should be noted however, that before hatching, chicks absorb the yolk in their egg, allowing them to go the first three days of life without food or water. It’s a survival trait – useful in the wild where the mother hen might not be able to feed all of her chicks right away.

I doubt they’re exposed to extremes of temperature, else they’d die en route and the hatcheries would lose business. Generally, they’re packed to ensure sufficient heat and with detailed instructions for care of the chicks on arrival.

*Chickens attract mice and rats.
Even the cleanest coop is attractive to rats and mice who enjoy the free bedding (straw and shavings) and food.

This is one of the many statements that indicate the idealistic perspective of this coalition. Chickens would be thrilled to find a mouse in their pen or coop. Chickens eat mice, as well as frogs, small snakes, worms, grubs, and bugs. They are omnivores, as we are. I get the distinct impression that at least some members of these groups imagine chickens to be sweet little birds that daintily peck at corn. They’d probably faint dead away if they observed a chicken beating a mouse or frog against a rock before tearing it apart with its beak.

Or maybe they’d try to retrain the chicken, and teach it to be a vegetarian. Eastern Shore Sanctuary & Education Center claims to have “developed an innovative and effective method to deprogram fighting cocks so that they can live normal lives.”

One poster over at the Oil Drum wondered what this deprogramming involved, and reported (tongue in cheek):

I looked it up:

Here at Eastern Sanctuaries, we have proudly innovated the "Un-cocked and Loaded" program, a 12-step practice of Reparative Therapy for Fighting Cocks. A traumatized cock is first plied with "Monster Mash," an avian intoxicant formulated only from the finest non-GMO Indian corns. Then the cock is cooped up with a flock of youthful, organically-raised laying hens that gently croon "Give Peace a Chance" in his ear.
A picture of the treatment is given at


It’s true that rats are attracted to chicken feed. Of course, rats are attracted by many things. If I left my garbage can outside with the lid off, I’d attract rats. The advice generally is to store chicken feed in galvanized steel containers. That’s easy enough.

This coalition focuses much of its statement and position on the practices of large scale commercial operations, but “urg[es] municipalities throughout the U.S. not to allow backyard flocks and exhort[s] those that are already zoned for this practice to establish and enforce strict regulations for the care of these birds.” It defies logic to go after small holders if your major concerns are with the practices of large producers. If backyard chickens are prohibited, the only source of eggs and chicken meat will be the industrial producers. It’s for this reason that some people believe this coalition is a front for large scale producers who want to drive small scale producers out of business.

I don’t believe that to be the case with this particular activist movement. Clearly, this is more about the idealization of animals and nature, and among some members, a desire to deter meat-eating. They seem to believe that no animal should ever be killed. (Sunnyskies Bird and Animal Sanctuary even rescues mice!) They urge would-be chicken owners to “adopt” chickens rather than buy them from hatcheries, to contact sanctuaries to obtain birds, and they emphasize that roosters especially are in need of homes. They refer to us as "hobbyists" and note that chickens can be "wonderful companions."

This perspective sees chickens as pets rather than livestock. We do grow fond of our chickens, and many backyard enthusiasts keep one or two spent hens, beloved chickens who are allowed to live out the rest of their (non-productive) lives. But most of us keep chickens primarily to provide healthy eggs, produced by hens that are treated decently. We seek a degree of self-sufficiency and we want some control over how our food is produced. Urging municipalities to ban backyard chickens forces us to remain dependent on large commercial producers and thus supports their odious practices.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snowbound Chickens

Last night we got over a foot of snow. Rick had to dig out a path to the coop.

We brushed the snow off the roof of the coop and the plastic over the side pen. When I opened the door, they were still in their coop. Usually, they’re out at the crack of dawn. Two of the girls poked their beaks out of the pop door. Once I started talking to them, they all ventured out.

They haven’t known what to make of the snow. The day I wrote the post about the first snow of the winter, very little fell that morning, and it melted soon after. Late that afternoon, I let the hens out in their tractor. I’d been trying to make sure they got out as much as possible before the snow trapped them in their pen for the winter.

So I parked their tractor near the laundry room window and went in to fold clothes. I finished that job and puttered around, before glancing out the window and seeing heavy snow falling. I ran outside to find the girls huddled together whimpering. Just a few minutes earlier they’d been energetically digging in the ground. When I started pushing the tractor toward their pen, they at first refused to move, unwilling to walk on the snow. I finally had to nudge their fuzzy butts along and they quickly scampered into their pen when I opened the tractor door.

On the other hand, they do love to eat snow. Whenever I walk into their pen with snow on my boots, they eagerly peck it off. But today was the first day they actually had some snow in their pen. Previously, the plastic over the wire fencing on two sides kept the snow out. Last night, swirling wind blew snow into the back of their pen. So they were a bit wary when they came out of their coop in the morning.

The great thing about them disliking the snow is that I no longer have to struggle to get into the pen when I open the door. Usually, they go crazy when they hear us at the door, and start bawking loudly and banging their beaks on the wire fencing. When I try to open the door to go in, they’re trying to slip out. Today the wind blew the door wide open when I was trying to bring in the waterer and nobody made a move. I guess they’re not so dumb after all!

My big worry is keeping them warm enough tonight. The low is going to be 1F. Right now, at 9:21 p.m., the temp outside is 13F, but it’s 28F in their coop. (We have a remote sensor thermometer – one of the few gadgets I thought we really needed.) Only their body heat and two 2+ gallon plastic gas cans (which never held gas) filled with hot water are keeping the coop this warm. I got that idea from a poster at Backyard Chickens (BYC), who also has a tiny flock and coop about the size of ours. She only used one can, but she closes her pop door all the way, and I try to leave some ventilation. Truthfully, I'm just anxious about them.

Posters at BYC who live in Alaska and Canada claim chickens are more hardy than we think, and that heavy breeds especially, can withstand temps down 0F without harm, if properly housed. That’s what I’m clinging to tonight. I hope our little gals do alright.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, Little Jerry still lives. As it happens, we were in a car accident last Saturday (nobody hurt, but the car is still out-of-commission), so thankfully, the decision about whether to take her to see our friend about freezer camp was made for me!

Update: This morning at 5, it was -1F outside, and 9.7F in the coop. So, a good 10 degree difference. We removed the water bottles (that we placed in the coop at 8 last night) and refilled them with hot water...

Update II: At 1pm it was 6F outside; 18F in their coop. Where do you suppose those little chickies were hanging out??? Certainly not in what Rick calls their "luxury penthouse apartment"! I guess those folks from Alaska and Canada on Backyard Chickens were right!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dead Chicken Walking

Yesterday was the first day I thought to myself: Is it really worth it to have chickens?

I’ve surprised myself with how well I adapted to caring for them, cleaning up after them, and generally tackling the work associated with keeping them. But yesterday I really felt weary. I noticed again little black marks on the combs of the Barred Rocks, indicating that somebody, probably Little Jerry again, one of the Rhode Island Reds, was pecking their combs.

We first realized Little Jerry was bullying the BRs when we noticed that the BRs were not going after the greens we put in the suet cage like the reds were. The BRs would content themselves with the other daily treat, the chicken scratch we scattered.

So we observed for awhile, and saw the BRs occasionally head for the suet cage only to get chased off by Little Jerry. (Interestingly, LJ never bothered Tracy, the other RIR. Maybe she is some kind of racist chicken.) She must have done it many times before, because sometimes she’d barely make a move in their direction, and they backed off. Sometimes Little Jerry would even chase them off the chicken scratch, although she herself didn’t want it. After she chased them away, she’d go back to eating the greens.

The BRs have come to be our favorites. They are friendlier and have a sweeter disposition than the Reds. So far as I know, they have never pecked anybody. The combs of the RIRs have never had a mark. Amelia got the worst of Little Jerry’s pecking. Her comb had large black spots at one point, and whenever I’d come into the pen, she’d follow me almost whining. When I learned about the pecking problem, I thought: She’s trying to tell on Little Jerry!

Anyway, Amelia is Rick’s favorite, so Little Jerry definitely picked on the wrong bird. He was so angry when he saw Little Jerry go after Amelia, he picked up LJ, put her in the coop, and shut the door without thinking. She squawked loudly (as she always does, she’s the loudest of our hens and can be really annoying.) Rick left her in “time out” for a few minutes; then let her out. She behaved for a bit; then went after Amelia again. He again put her in time out. I thought this strategy was inspired, so we stayed with them for awhile, attempting a bit of behavioralist training. Rick ended up putting LJ in timeout several times more that evening.

The next morning, I spent some time with the birds doing the same training. I also bought another suet cage, realizing that one wasn’t enough for four large hens. And, I started giving them greens twice daily, thinking sufficient rations would also cut down on the pecking problem.

It seemed to help for awhile, so Little Jerry got a stay of execution. Rick has always said he had no problem sending a chicken to “freezer camp” as they say on
Backyard Chickens, if she caused too much trouble. I was told by an older friend of mine, who has a cattle farm now, but grew up raising chickens, that at 6 ½ months, LJ wasn’t too old yet for roasting. (I have yet to find clear information on appropriate ages for harvesting meat birds of different breeds. I do know I’d be reluctant to eat a stewer. I happened to get one from a local farmer once, and it was stanky! I boiled her and boiled her, but she didn’t get any more appetizing and I even threw out the broth, it smelled so bad.)

I also consider myself lucky that the trouble-maker turned out to be Little Jerry, named by our 14-year-old grandson after Kramer’s rooster in the old Seinfeld sitcom. Since Nathan’s quite a bit older than our other two grandchildren, and has about zero interest in the chickens, I don’t think it will bother him if she is, ah, removed. (Note to self: NEVER let the grandkids name chickens again!)

But, as I say, things seemed to settle down and Amelia’s comb mostly healed. Then yesterday I went into the pen and saw small black marks on BOTH Amelia’s and Batgirl’s combs. Now LJ was messing with my girl! I adore Batgirl’s independence (I’ll write more about her in a few days) and secretly admire her every time she escapes. She’s now up to six successful jailbreaks, and I’m at the point where, when I see her get away again, I smile and think to myself: Way to go, Batgirl!

She’s at the point where she doesn’t even try too hard to evade capture. I guess it’s something of a game with us now. She knows she’s a far more proficient player, so she gives me a handicap. Or, maybe she just likes a little attention from me. Once, when I had them out in the yard in 4 ½ foot high temporary netting, Batgirl flew over it, but stayed right next to me while I gardened, scratching around in the earth nearby.

Back to Little Jerry. I’ve turned the problem over and over in my mind, trying to decide what best to do. My biggest concern is winter, when they will be stuck in their pen for weeks at a time. I don’t want to worry about pecking problems on top of worrying about winter care for them. That’s stressful enough on its own. I keep saying, I can’t wait until I’m through the first year with them, when I have gone through all the seasons and stages of growth. The learning curve has been huge, and lately I feel tired.

I also think about how we don’t really need four chickens for just the two of us. I only kept four in case one of the little chicks died. Still, as angry as I get with Little Jerry, it’s hard to go through with it. I ask myself whether I’m being overprotective of the other hens, whether LJ is just being a chicken, whether once she is removed, somebody else will take over the bully role. But somehow, I don’t think so.

We have a friend who’s experienced, and has agreed to do the deed. We have never done it and wouldn’t be skilled enough to quickly dispatch her. I just have to make a decision!

This morning, as I was writing this, I thought, if I could just have some sign! I noticed it was time to go out and give them their morning greens and scratch and looked out the window. A light snow was falling, the first of the season, and I thought, this is it. Little Jerry has really only lasted this long because we have had unseasonably warm weather. Usually, by this time we have plenty of snow on the ground. So up to now, we’ve been able to continue regularly letting them out of their pen, which keeps them busy and Little Jerry occupied with something other than tormenting the Barred Rocks.

So, I guess the decision has been made. Hasn’t it? I’m pretty sure.

Now you know what Rick goes through!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Late Fall Musings

Rick once asked me, “What will you write about in winter?” It’s true, posting has been light this past month, but not because I had no gardening activities. In fact, I just finished all my planned outdoor work yesterday. The weather has been unseasonably warm here, with frequent highs in the 50sF (our normal highs this time of year are twenty degrees lower). A couple of week-ends ago, it was so warm we worked outside in tee shirts!

It’s a good thing, too, because some of my projects took way longer than I thought they would - especially that 6th raised bed. It’s in a great location with lots of sunshine next to the lower deck. But I had to remove some shrubs and what felt like a ton of gravel before I could start assembling my compost pile or “lasagna garden.”

The prior owners must have had some kind of gravel fetish. It appears that, when in doubt about how to solve a landscaping issue, they’d throw down a pile of gravel. All the shrubs they planted around the deck were mulched with the stuff. Patricia Lanza says not to worry about removing rocks when building lasagna beds, but I think a load of gravel requires removal.

It’s never a matter of just scooping up surface gravel, either. There is gravel embedded in the soil several inches deep. When Rick built our first raised beds on the other side of the deck, we ended up sifting shovelful after shovelful of soil through a piece of hardware cloth to get rid of the stuff. I did the same with this new bed, but luckily over a smaller area. About half the new bed extends into lawn, so there it was just a matter of laying wet newspaper over turf before building my compost pile. We re-purposed the gravel to make a path in front of the chicken coop.

Next, I got carried away in the front yard marking out the area where I will transfer my herb garden in spring. It’s about 11'x19' - so lots of room for herbs and adding flowers to make an attractive garden feature in the front yard. But try collecting and hauling enough materials for a “lasagna” bed in a space that large! The layers ended up being a lot thinner than the beds I built in the back, but hey, it’s a start. Beats renting a tiller and going to all of that work any day.

I just had to smile cheerfully at all the people walking by on the sidewalk, rubber necking as I laid out my layers of wet newspaper, bedding from the chicken pen, chopped discarded produce from the grocer, and shredded leaves and hay, clearly wondering whether I had gone “mental” to use a word one of my neighbors applied to me last week. It was raining that day and I had the hose on filling a waterer for the chickens. He couldn’t see the waterer clearly over the fence and called out, “It’s raining!” “Yeah?” I replied. “So what are you watering?” he asked. I explained, and he responded, “Oh, okay. I thought you’d gone mental or something.” Ah, neighbors.

There are advantages, I’ve found, to being thought “mental.” While I was building the lasagna bed on the front lawn, one couple walking their dog past our house yanked on his leash when he tried to pee on a few flowers I have growing under a birch tree. “C’mon, Jackson,” the man said, protectively hustling his dog away from our property, as if the crazy might somehow rub off or infect his pet.

Numerous dog-owners walk their pets along our block daily, letting their dogs urinate and defecate on all our front lawns. They’re usually pretty good about picking up the droppings, but there are so many of them it becomes tedious. So if it motivates some of them keep their dogs out of the crazy chicken lady’s yard, I’ll gladly wear the “mental” label.

Which brings me to another topic I’ve been thinking about lately. Can one take minimizing purchased inputs too far? Because I think I’m on some kind of slippery slope here. It started innocently enough. I got chickens, in part, to have a source of fertilizer for the garden. So far so good. Then I began looking around for free sources of greens for the birds. They do get out in their tractor or plastic netting daily, but only for an hour or two. Dandelions are
nutrition powerhouses – for people and for chickens – and are plentiful around here. The Leaf Lady reports that:

According to the USDA Bulletin #8, "Composition of Foods" (Haytowitz and Matthews 1984), dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value. Minnich, in "Gardening for Better Nutrition" ranks them, out of all vegetables, including grains, seeds and greens, as tied for 9th best. According to these data, dandelions are nature's richest green vegetable source of beta-carotene, from which Vitamin A is created, and the third richest source of Vitamin A of all foods, after cod-liver oil and beef liver! They also are particularly rich in fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and
the B vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin, and are a good source of protein.

So after I picked our yard and bordering areas clean of dandelions, I started looking around for new sources. We have two parks in our neighborhood, the largest one just down the block from our house. I started digging dandelions in those locations, usually wearing my shabby gardening jacket, and tossing them into an old plastic grocery bag. It occurred to me that I might look like a hobo or bag lady, especially in this neighborhood of university professors, lawyers, judges and other professionals. I could holler defensively at passers-by and gawkers, “I have a PhD!” But who cares, really.

Michael Pollan, describing how he learned to forage for mushrooms, writes about how eventually one develops an eye for them. It’s the same with dandelions. I’ve become practiced at spotting them hiding under fallen leaves or tall grass. One day I was walking home from the park lost in thought, swinging my bag of dandelions, when I spotted a lush patch of the greens in my peripheral vision. I bent down to dig, then suddenly stopped myself when I realized where I was, and that the homeowner might not appreciate vagrants digging in his yard, however much he preferred a “weed” free lawn.

After I decided to build compost piles, or “lasagna” beds where I intended to plant new beds the next spring, I needed to find a free source of “greens” to combine with the “browns” I had in abundance – wood shavings from the chicken pen, twigs, and shredded fallen leaves. (We don't generate enough scraps in our kitchen to build these beds.) So I called the produce department of the supermarket where I normally shop and asked whether I might have some of the produce they were discarding.

I found that they do routinely give away “compost” and that on certain days they had regular customers. But they would save me some on the remaining days if I called that morning. The first day I brought home two large bags of garbage we were astonished at the quality of the discarded produce: Bunches of asparagus, with only one or two spears rotting, lettuce with brown edges on just a few outer leaves, a bell pepper apparently intact. Dumpster divers are right! I thought. (You see what I mean about a slippery slope?)

Last year I stumbled on this whole sub-culture of dumpster diving (I've led kind of a sheltered life), with websites, norms of behavior, etiquette – such as don’t leave a mess because the owners will eventually lock their dumpsters, and if you find something good you don’t want or need, leave it near the top for the next person. They claim that loads of edible food is discarded in this country every day. I’m a sociologist at heart (and by training), so I was fascinated.

Not fascinated enough to actually dumpster dive, mind you. (Remember, I’m also fastidious and had to gulp a few times before eating the first eggs our chickens produced.) So if you’re wondering, we didn’t eat anything from those bags. I did save some of the best greens for the chickens, and tossed them some perfectly good fresh corn on the cob which they had a great time pecking clean.

But back to whether there’s anything to post on a gardening blog in winter. The answer is YES. I’m still growing some things indoors. For example, I have two-year-old pea seeds and plan to order fresh for the spring. But I’m using up the old ones sprouting pea shoots for the chickens in a sunny window in the basement. I’m also keeping an eye on my sweet potato vines, from which I’ll cut slips for spring planting. We’re going to build two of Larisa Walk’s solar food dryers – one for us, and one as a volunteer project for the University of Wisconsin West Madison Agricultural Research station. We’re also going to build cold frames, using old windows given to us by a neighbor.

I also think the winter is a good time for reflection and philosophizing about gardening. I’m working on a post in response to a talk Michael Pollan gave here in Madison a couple of months ago, as well as posts on genetically modified (GM) seed and pesticides. And of course, I’ll be worrying about my chickens and trying to get them safely through their first winter in our care. So, posting will pick up and continue. Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Games Chickens Play

Before I got chickens, I never had a pet or livestock animal, nor had any desire for one. As I wrote in my post explaining why I decided to get chickens, I previously had little enthusiasm for any animal. It’s not that I hated animals; I just wasn’t interested.

So when I brought my baby chicks home, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d done a lot of reading, but the books and articles I found generally focused on care, feeding, illnesses, and problems. I didn’t think to look for, and never stumbled across, information on everyday behaviors that are unproblematic.

In the past, this kind of knowledge was probably passed down orally from generation to generation and observed directly while growing up on a farm. My grandparents (both paternal and maternal) could probably have taught me a lot about chickens, but my own parents never kept them when I was growing up.

Always having been a “good student,” I made all the preparations the books recommended before bringing my baby chicks home. I tested the height of the lamp in the makeshift cardboard box brooder to get the right temperature for baby chicks, spread paper towels on the floor of the brooder and sprinkled chick crumbles (so they can find food the first few days, and not eat bedding materials), and prepared warm water with sugar. I was nervous and fearful about picking up the anxiously peeping chicks who tried desperately to avoid capture. What if I hurt them or, they me?? But I knew I had to dip their beaks in water so they’d know where to find it, and I did.

Once I had them all in the brooder, and they all appeared to be eating and drinking, I started to breathe a little easier. Then I noticed something strange going on with the littlest chick, a tiny Barred Rock. While everyone else was busily running around, checking out the new digs, eating and drinking, she stopped, her legs wobbling, her eyes starting to close. After a few seconds, she’d force her eyes open, start moving again, before becoming unsteady on her feet again.

Baby chicks are fragile and I began to fear the worst. I called my friend Marie, who is a nurse and an animal lover, with lots of pet experience. “How’s it going?” she asked. “Well, pretty good,’ I said, trying to be cool. Truthfully, I felt a little shaky and on the verge of tears. I couldn’t let on, however. Marie would get too much of a kick out of me suddenly getting all emotional about an animal. “But I think one is about to die.” I described the little chick’s behavior.

“Is she getting enough to drink?” Marie asked. “Do you have an eyedropper? Try giving her a little water with that. And do you have a hot water bottle?” Marie thought maybe the littlest chick was having trouble getting warm. I was sure I had a hot water bottle and eyedropper upstairs. As I got off the phone with Marie, the chick finally lay down and closed her eyes. This is IT! I thought. For a second or two, I debated staying or running upstairs for the items Marie recommended.

Then I frantically ran upstairs. I couldn’t find a hot water bottle anywhere; must have thrown it away years ago. Back down I went, steeling myself for the removal of a tiny carcass, and hoping nobody else died while I was gone. When I looked in the brooder, I was astonished to see the little chick up and running around like nothing was wrong!

As I sat watching them for the next two hours (I was afraid to leave!), I noticed all the chicks behaving the same way as the littlest one. They’d run around busily, then suddenly get wobbly on their legs, stop, lie down, and close their eyes. After a few minutes, they’d be up again and running around, like they just needed a quick power nap. They reminded me of toddlers who run around till they exhaust themselves and then fall asleep where they lay.

Another behavior that initially worried me, but turned out to be normal started a couple of weeks later. Two chicks would confront each other, wings flapping, chests practically bumping. I’d read so much about “feather picking” I was afraid of that horror and constantly admonished the chicks not to fight and to “be nice.” I finally realized they were just establishing a pecking order. Luckily, they never got vicious, so I quit worrying about chest bumping game.

Competition is a primary feature of chicken social organization. Our chicks compete over any and every thing, but mainly food. They spend most of their time looking for things to eat and if it appears that somebody found something interesting to snack on, the rest of them will chase her around trying to steal it. I’ve seen posters at Backyard Chickens refer to this behavior as “chicken football.” Chickens will even try to grab food out of someone else’s beak while she’s eating it – especially if it is something long like a worm or a blade of grass. They do this even if they originally rejected the item in question.

For example, last summer I found a tomato that something (probably a chipmunk) had taken a bite of, but that was otherwise perfect. I cut it in half and put it in the chicken tractor to see what they’d do, since I’d read that chickens like tomatoes. They’re curious little birds, so naturally they ran up to take a look. Then they backed away, moving their heads back and forth quickly, as if to say, “No. No.”

But then Batgirl, the bravest and most independent of our chickens, decided to investigate further. She pecked at one of the tomato wedges, decided she liked it, picked it up, and ran to a corner of the tractor to enjoy it by herself. The game was on! The others started chasing her. She’d run to a corner, set her tomato wedge down, take a bite, then see they were on her tail, pick it up and run again. After letting them amuse me with this for a few minutes, I got another tomato and cut it up so they could each have their own wedge.

But they will compete even if there are plenty of rations available for everyone. When they were little, we used one of those round feeders with holes at the base for chicks to access the crumbles. Invariably, when one chick started eating from one hole, the others would run over and try to eat out of the same hole, even though there were plenty of empty spaces around the dish. If another chick was in their way when they wanted to leave the feeder, they’d just step on her back to get where they wanted to go!

Chickens are not like dogs in the sense that they don’t care to be picked up or seek petting. Some people handle their chicks a lot when they’re little to get them accustomed to it, but my feeling has always been that if they want to be left alone, we should leave them alone. So we handled them only when necessary. As they got older, they got used to us. They stopped running away from us, but still didn’t want to be touched. If we’d try to pet them, they’d slink away, but didn’t run.

Around the time they started laying, however, they changed. They’d deliberately come close and brush by us. One day Amelia hung around me for so long, seeming to want something, I finally reached down and picked her up. To my surprise, she stood there and let me do it! As I was petting her and marveling over this novel experience, Batgirl, the other Barred Rock, came over and started hopping up, like she wanted me to pick her up, too! I set Amelia down and picked up Batgirl, but being the independent spirit she is, Batgirl quickly decided she’d had enough. Apparently she just wanted to make sure she got everything Amelia was getting.

I was pretty excited about this new development. Like Sally Field accepting an award, I couldn’t help thinking, “They like me! They really like me!” Before long, however, I had the embarrassing realization it wasn’t about “liking” me. These randy girls were looking for a roo and we were the only beings in the yard not-a-hen. As soon as we’d reach out to pet their backs, they’d immediately squat and “assume the position.” They’re now so anxious to get their groove on, they’re very easy to catch. When Batgirl made her fifth escape the other day, she at first darted around trying to evade me. When I reached for her back, this independent girl forgot herself for a moment, abruptly stopped, and squatted. Like taking candy from a baby.

The latest interesting behavior is their insistence on being hand-fed when they first see me. In a way, I can understand how this developed. Because we can’t let them run free in the yard, in the summer Rick would shake Japanese beetles off the cherry trees into a container and then hold that container at the tractor door while the chicks ate the beetles. We’d also feed them blades of grass through the fencing of their tractor from time to time. One reason I did this was to get the chicks to come to me so I could look them over and check for any health problems. Sometimes we just did it to interact with them. Rick especially got a kick out of chickens standing on lush lawn, with lots to eat, all wanting and competing over the single blade of grass he had in his hand. “You’ve got grass all around you!” he’d laugh.

So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that now when I come to them with treats in the morning, they don’t immediately go after the cracked corn I’m throwing on the ground. They instead crowd around wanting a bite out of the container I’m carrying. They just take a bite or two; then go on their way. But they have to have that first bite directly from my hand. I have a feeling they’d enjoy the game more if I ran to a corner of the pen and pretended to eat it myself. Sorry, girls, that's a game you'll have to play among yourselves!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun

Have you ever had an idea for something, maybe a useful device, or, as with me, an idea for a book, then later found that someone else already came up with the same idea? It seems to happen with great regularity; individuals in different parts of the country, or different parts of the world, or even at different points in history, come up with similar ideas and innovations.

It was through Ruth Stout that I first learned about no-till gardening and building up the soil through heavy mulching with organic material. She was an original among her contemporaries, and promoted methods contrary to the mainstream agricultural extension recommendations of her day.

During the 1970s, when Ruth Stout was writing articles and books on her “no-work” method of gardening in the United States, over in Japan, microbiologist and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, was teaching and writing about his similar method of “do-nothing” farming.

Techniques for what is sometimes called sheet composting or German mounds have been around for centuries, but proponents of new variations of the method continually emerge. The most recent incarnation of the method that I’m aware of is Patricia Lanza’s notion of Lasagna Gardening.

All of these methods involve composting organic materials directly on the site you intend to plant and not tilling the soil. As I wrote in an earlier post about Stout, she advised applying a year-round thick mulch of organic material – primarily hay. Why go to all the trouble of building and turning a compost pile, she reasoned, when one could just throw kitchen vegetable scraps directly into the garden, cover them with a layer of leaves, pine needles, straw, hay – whatever combination of these you had on hand – and allow them to decompose where they lay?

Similarly, Fukuoka advocated on site composting by leaving organic material in the fields following harvest. He wrote:

There is no need to prepare compost. I will not say that you do not need compost – only that there is no need to work hard in making it. If straw is left lying on the surface of the field in the spring or fall and is covered with a thin layer of chicken manure or duck droppings, in six months it will completely decompose . . .

To make compost by the usual methods, the farmer works like crazy in the hot sun, chopping up the straw, adding water
and lime, turning the pile, and hauling it out to the field. He puts himself through all this grief because he thinks it is a “better way.” I would rather see people just scattering straw or hulls or woodchips over their fields (p49).*

Both Stout and Fukuoka were working with previously tilled land. But what if you want to plant garden beds where you currently have turf grass? Lanza recommends beginning with a layer of wet newspaper or cardboard:

You don't have to remove existing sod and weeds. You don't have to double dig. In fact, you don't have to work the soil at all. The first layer of your lasagna garden consists of either brown corrugated cardboard or three layers of newspaper laid directly on top of the grass or weeds in the area you've selected for your garden. Wet this layer down to keep everything in place and start the decomposition process. The grass or weeds will break down fairly quickly because they will be smothered by the newspaper or cardboard, as well as by the materials you're going to layer on top of them. This layer also provides a dark, moist area to attract earthworms that will loosen up the soil as they tunnel through it.

The next step in Lanza's process is layering your organic materials as you would for a typical compost pile:

You'll want to alternate layers of “browns” such as fall leaves, shredded newspaper, peat, and pine needles with layers of “greens” such as vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, and grass clippings. In general, you want your "brown” layers to be about twice as deep as your “green” layers, but there's no need to get finicky about this. Just layer browns and greens, and a lasagna garden will result. What you want at the end of your layering process is a two-foot tall layered bed. You'll be amazed at how much this will shrink down in a few short weeks.

My only criticism of Lanza’s system is that she generally advises using peat moss between the layers of the “lasagna” garden. Peat takes centuries to form and is currently harvested at non-sustainable rates. Coir, made from short fibers of coconut shells, is a viable, sustainable alternative to peat. It does have to be shipped from outside the U.S., however, so there is that “carbon footprint” to consider. Neither are necessary to build a good compost pile.

What I do appreciate about Lanza is her “just get started” approach. In the past, whenever I wanted to start a new garden bed, I’d have to wait until Rick had time to help, and we both had the energy to tackle the job. Then he’d hitch up the trailer to the car, we’d drive to Home Depot, rent a tiller, till the turf, break up the remaining chunks, and laboriously remove all the remaining grass. It’s so freeing to just mark out your new plot, lay down wet newspaper or cardboard, and start building your compost pile.

Already this fall I’ve built two “lasagna” beds where we plan to build our potato towers next spring. I’m planning two more – one where we planned to build a sixth raised bed last summer, but never got around to it, and another in the front yard where I want to move my herb garden. I’ve been coveting the backyard herb bed to use for more veggies, and thought an herb garden could be an attractive feature in a front yard. I’ll have all winter to plan exactly how I want to lay it out, but meanwhile, I’ll be making compost on the area I intend to plant.

To build my “lasagna” layers, as always, I sought to minimize purchased inputs. For my first “brown” layer, I used pine shavings (bedding) from the chicken pen. Next, I laid down a “green” layer of roughly chopped, discarded vegetables I got for free from the produce section of the grocery store. I topped that with a thick layer of shredded fallen leaves. Then I laid down a somewhat thinner layer of partially finished compost. This consists of chicken manure, kitchen vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and some shredded leaves. Finally, I capped the whole thing with an 8” layer of loose hay.

It was so easy! Which, of course, is the point – to reduce and eliminate unnecessary work. Stout and Lanza focus particularly on enabling people to garden, even into old age. For Fukuoka, less work also means more time to be a full human being. He marvels that, in centuries past, farmers in Japan had time to write haikus as offerings in the village shrine. Like Juliet Schor, in The Overworked American, Fukuoka notes that industrialization has left us with less free time than low-tech cultures enjoyed in the past. He writes:

The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life. A life of small-scale farming may appear to be primitive, but in living such a life, it becomes possible to contemplate the Great Way . . .

At the end of the year, the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February, and March hunting rabbits in the hills. Though he was called a poor peasant, he still had this kind of freedom. The New Year’s holiday lasted about three months. Gradually this vacation came to be shortened to two months, one month, and now the New Year’s has come to be
a three-day holiday . . . There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song (p110-1).*

All that free time sounds good to me. Why, then, does this particular wheel have to be re-invented again and again? One reason is that there is little to no profit to be made from these low-work, low tech methods. As Stout pointed out, “Merchants who sell fertilizers and plows and so on aren’t in sympathy with my ideas of gardening (p59).”** Fukuoka noted similarly that, “If crops were to be grown without agricultural chemicals, fertilizer, or machinery, the giant chemical companies would become unnecessary and the [Japanese] government’s Agricultural Co-op Agency would collapse (p81)."*

There seems to be a macho element as well. I don’t believe it’s an accident that non-Westerners and women predominate among proponents of these easier methods. The posting community over at, where they discuss fossil fuel depletion and the implications for society, is mostly white males (a fact they lament from time to time). When they discuss the problems of food production after “peak oil”, when fossil fuel depletion increases the cost of chemical inputs and makes it prohibitively expensive to operate heavy machinery, the conversation inevitably turns to the difficulty of producing food without the technology or brute strength necessary to enable mastery of the work.

This way of thinking is, of course, a cultural product, not a physical trait – and therefore not limited to white men, nor descriptive of every white man. But it is an organizing feature of Western civilization. It extends to the notion of controlling and subduing nature.

By contrast, Fukuoka speaks of co-existence and cooperation with nature. His notion of “do nothing” farming is not just about eliminating unnecessary work, but about interfering with natural processes as little as possible, because humans cannot fully understand or control them. Like Stout, he relied on observation of natural processes to determine his techniques for helping them along.

It’s intriguing to me that by giving up the notion that we can understand nature and thereby control it, we are more truly empowered to produce our own food, healthfully, and with a degree of self-sufficiency, right into old age. Imagine that! We do not have to be strapping young men, use heavy machinery, or rely on big corporations for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides. We can do it ourselves.

*The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka, 1978.

**The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, Rodale Press, 1971.

Article describing lasagna gardening by Patricia Lanza: Lasagna Gardening 101.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

All the World's Creatures Wanna Be Free

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was taking a series of trainings in Backyard Food Production for master gardeners. One of our last sessions was on beekeeping, a practice I want to take up at some point in the future. The beekeeper presenting the session concluded by advising, “Enjoy your bees. Observe them; learn from them.”

I thought to myself, that’s been my approach with my chickens. Observing them, seeing what they need, and trying to make it available to them. In my August post, “
Home on the UnFree Range,” I wrote about the early part of that journey – the way the baby chicks sought sunlight, even in their artificially lit brooder, how they went crazy over a piece of turf we put in their brooder, and how I eventually decided to take not yet three-week-old babies outside, despite contrary advice in the literature and from conventional farmers.

I never solved the central problem, however, of the chickens wanting and needing space and freedom. “When I decided to raise chickens,” I wrote, “I never really thought through what that would entail; that I would essentially be keeping caged birds.” I had managed to give the baby chicks more space and freedom, but that was fairly easy, given how small they were at the time. We also enlarged the coop and run, beyond what the designer and other sources claim is adequate. However, I am still confronted with the problem of allowing our chickens “a measure of the freedom all creatures need for their health and well-being.”

Clearly, they are communicating their desire and need for more space and freedom. Every time I so much as step out the back door they go crazy running up and down the front of their pen, banging their beaks on the wire fencing, wanting to get out. Our house is built into a slope, with the front entrance at ground level, and the back entrance at the top of the hill. There is a small deck outside the back door, with steps leading down to the yard and a lower deck. My herb garden is just off the upper deck and the chicken coop at the far end of the bottom of the yard. I so hate to disappoint my girls I’ve taken to sneaking around whenever I want to clip a few herbs for something I’m cooking. I carefully open the back door to avoid making any noise, creep to the herb garden, and crouch low to harvest some leaves.

It never works. As soon as I step a foot out the door, they go wild.

I’ve made it a point to let them out in their tractor every day, which they enjoy. But, as I wrote in the earlier post, when they were little, “their tractor was spacious to them and they could run and fly the length of it. Now they just walk around.”

What I’d like to have is some sort of temporary fencing system that I could put up in different parts of the yard to allow them more space, but keep them from destroying the garden and pooping all over the two decks and the steps. We had a roll of four foot high galvanized fencing in the garage, so I decided to try to use that to set up a temporary fenced area. But it was heavy to lug out there and I needed Rick’s help to set it up.

Next, I bought some plastic netting. Folded in half, we were able to set up a 4 ½ foot high fenced area, with some of the netting hanging over the top. The first day we set it up just outside their coop. They loved it. As I suspected, the only reason they just stood around in their tractor now they were bigger, was lack of space. Inside the larger enclosure, they ran and hopped and flapped their wings.

But the extra space didn’t stop them from looking for ways out of the largest enclosure they’d ever enjoyed. Amelia, a Barred Rock who is our first and best flier, attempted to fly out – and would have made it if not for the bit of netting hanging over the top. The netting is hard to see and she momentarily got her wings caught in it. It all happened in a few seconds, as we stood staring, unable to move. As she freed herself, shook out her feathers, and walked away, we breathed a sigh of relief. I threw a chunk of hay in to distract them, and they were pacified for several days.

The following week, I set up the netting in a different place, and let the hens out. Only this time, I was too lazy to put rocks around the bottom edge of the netting. I didn’t notice a place where the netting was pulled tight, leaving a gap at the bottom. But Batgirl, our other Barred Rock, lost no time in finding it. I turned my back for just a few seconds, and the next thing I knew, she was in the nearby strawberry patch, chowing down on some pretty leaves. While I tried to catch her, Tracy, one of the Rhode Island Reds, slipped out.

Belatedly, I blocked the gap, before anybody else could break free, then turned to catch the jailbreakers. By now, Batgirl had moved on to the raspberries, even jumping up now and then to get a bite of an especially attractive leaf. Lots of good things to eat out here!

Eventually, I caught them both, and secured the perimeter of the fence. Now, however, all the chickens realized that escape routes did exist, and they kept poking and prodding the area along the netting where the escapees had broken free, bawking loudly the whole time.

Yesterday, I again set up the netting, this time carefully securing the bottom of the fence. Before long, I heard wings beating loudly and turned to see Batgirl clear the 4 ½ foot fence! The rest of the chickens and I stood frozen in disbelief for a few seconds. If Amelia is our best flier, Batgirl is our best escape artist. This marked the third time she’d broken free. Tracy is the only other chicken to have succeeded in escaping, and she’d only made it once.

I threw some cracked corn into the fenced area, hoping to distract the other birds, who were already looking at the top of the fence, and I’m sure, contemplating an attempt of their own. Usually they go nuts for the cracked corn, but this time they just turned, watched it fall to the ground, then turned their attention back to gauging the height of the fence. Fearing they’d all start flying over while I was occupied with chasing Batgirl, I decided to herd them back into their pen first. They struggled and protested the whole way, and who could blame them?

After I caught Batgirl, I was worn out dealing with them for the day, so I took down the fencing. While I was taking it down, they stood at the door of their pen, pleading with me. It’s hard for me to describe their different sounds. They have a quiet, contented clucking sound when they’re scratching, a loud bawking when we come outside and they want to be let out, a continuous guttural sound when it seems like they’re trying to talk to us. This was sort of a whiney, less noisy, bawking sound. I felt like a meanie.

So, what’s the solution? I need to come up with one fast, because yesterday, before all the drama, I noticed dark, reddish, black spots on Amelia’s previously perfect comb. My first thought was that they were from scraps with another chicken. But they usually don’t fight. So my imagination took off and I started worrying about disease.

After consulting with a few people at Backyard Chickens, however, it seems my first hunch was right. (Since they never fought before, I wonder if the problem, at least in part, is linked to their starting to lay, and perhaps not having enough nest box space for that.) The posters at BYC also seemed to think that space is tight in our coop and pen, and, as we know, close quarters contributes to pecking problems.

I don’t disagree; if I had it to do over again, I’d build a coop and pen twice as large as the original plans we purchased. We’ve already enlarged both, but it’s clearly not enough. We could give away one chicken, but I don’t think I’m ready to do that. I’m instead going to face up to a solution I’ve been avoiding: clipping their wings.

I hate to do that, even though it doesn’t physically hurt them. I feel badly about truncating a defining feature of a bird. I think I also resist it because forces the recognition that we are keeping birds in captivity. And I’m still working through my feelings about that.

If their wings are clipped, they can regularly and safely enjoy being out in a larger fenced area, and still have a good life. Can’t they? It’s not really possible to “free” domesticated animals entirely.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Snow Birds

The weather is turning and we’re heading into a new stage with the chickens – keeping them safe and sufficiently warm in winter. I know they don’t have to be “toasty” warm, and that, in fact, it’s not good for them. They generate a lot of moisture, and keeping them too warm in an enclosed place promotes disease. But it can get pretty cold here in Wisconsin, and we don’t want to freeze the poor birds. So, what do we do?

I thought I had this all worked out when we started the chicken project. We chose Dennis Harrison-Noonan’s playhouse coop design, in part, because we heard that small numbers of chickens can best keep warm in a small coop. My neighbor, Jill, who got her chickens a year before I got mine, said the breeder told her essentially the same thing: that it’s best to keep small numbers of birds in a small coop because they will generate enough body heat to keep a small space sufficiently warm.

With this design, we hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to heat the coop. Heat is problematic because, in addition to disease, chickens are more vulnerable to frostbite in humid air (warm air holds more moisture) than with cold dry air. I talked to an experienced chicken keeper from Mad City Chickens who advised against ever heating a coop in winter. Both she, and our poultry extension specialist, stressed that the birds are a lot hardier than people think.

I also deliberately selected breeds that I thought would be able to handle cold weather. Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds are large breeds that were developed in the mid-19th century in New England. If they could tolerate a New England winter in the days before electricity, surely they could tolerate a Wisconsin winter, I reasoned.

However, the more I read and talked to people, the more doubt began to creep in. My neighbor from Oaxaca, Mexico, whose family kept chickens when she was growing up, inquired about my plans for the chickens in winter; would I bring them into the house? She stared at me in horror when I told her they should be fine in their coop. My sister Sandy, who has lived in southern California for nearly three decades, had a similar reaction. I told Sandy that another chicken keeper in Madison told me the most her chickens required was a 60 watt bulb on the very coldest nights. “Those poor chickens!” she exclaimed. “Huddled around just a light bulb for heat!” Clearly this bordered on animal cruelty, in her mind.

My dad’s partner, Wilda, whose mother raised chickens when Wilda was growing up in Arkansas, was also skeptical that chickens could survive a Wisconsin winter outside with little or no heat. I pointed out that 19th century farmers didn’t have electricity to heat their coops and somehow seemed to manage. Wilda claimed that was because the chickens were kept in barns in winter, with other large animals that generated heat. Wilda also observed that a smaller box, like our coop, would freeze faster than a larger building.

I had to admit that Wilda made some good points. Then our friends John and Barb stopped by. They are Wilda’s age, and they, too, grew up in families that raised chickens. However, they grew up in Wisconsin. “Aaah, they’ll be fine!” John said reassuringly, when I fretted about protecting my chickens in winter. The chickens on their parents’ farms managed to survive in unheated coops (not barns with other animals). They don’t recall it ever being a problem.

I started to detect a pattern here. Many people from warmer climates find it hard to imagine themselves tolerating a Wisconsin winter, let alone chickens in outside coops, with little or no heat. The pattern is even more obvious on the Backyard Chickens message board. Some posters from southern climes think they need to heat their coops when temperatures barely get down to freezing, while posters from Canada and Alaska insist that chickens can healthfully tolerate far colder temperatures than one might believe.

These northern posters calmed my fears considerably. My only remaining concern is the size of our coop. A poster from Ontario, “PatAndChickens,”
argues persuasively that in colder climates, larger, not smaller coops are preferable. The reason is that chickens will spend more time indoors during winter, and you want to provide them enough space to move around and not get into fights. She advises sectioning off a smaller area within the large coop, where the chickens can warm up.

So, what did we finally decide to do?

* Coop Size. We can’t rebuild the coop now, so instead we’ll treat the fenced area as “coop.” After some research, posting with Pat, and talking to our extension agent, we decided to put plastic over the north and west sides of the pen. This will provide a windbreak and keep most of the snow out of the pen. In addition to protected space in their pen to move around, Rick expanded the roost box one foot into the pen.

* Heat. Rick insulated the coop (with "stupervision" from the chickens - see photo above). The original design didn’t call for insulation but both Pat on BYC and our poultry extension agent advised it. (After we’ve been through a year with the chickens, I’m writing a post on “lessons learned” in coop design!) We’ve also oriented the coop so that the largest window faces south. Hopefully, the coop will gain some heat from the sun in winter. The most electric heat we plan to use is a 60 watt bulb, but we’ll monitor the girls and hope we don’t have to resort to that.

* Ventilation. I’ve learned that ventilation is crucial to protecting poultry in winter. Luckily, our coop design provided for ventilation holes at the top of the roost box. The poultry extension specialist advised leaving the pop door partway open in winter for additional ventilation. (We left it wide open, day and night, during summer, but had recently been closing it.)

It’s been our practice to daily remove droppings beneath the roost bar. In summer, they were right on top of the bedding because the chickens went out into their pen in the morning, and never returned until dark. That made it easy to remove this source of moisture in the air. They’re in and out more often now, kicking the droppings under the bedding, so we’re going to install a droppings board beneath the roost bar.

Tracy inspects the remodeling.

* Roost bar. Some sources advise a 2x4, rounded at the edges, rather than a round bar, for chickens in winter climates. The wide bar allows the chickens to sit on their feet and helps to prevent frostbitten toes.

* Diet. Finally, our poultry extension specialist advises giving the chickens scratch before bedtime in winter. Apparently, it helps to warm them because it gets them moving and scratching to look for it, and provides something substantial for them to digest overnight.

Hopefully, all these strategies will help to keep our birdies healthy in the cold days ahead.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Odds & Ends: Seed-saving, Compost, & Eggs

Seed saving. There’s a terrific post and comment thread over at the Oil Drum on seed saving. It’s a goldmine of tidbits on hybridization versus open pollination, sources of information on how to save seeds, which seeds you should save (e.g. vegetables or staple crops?), the benefits of slips over seed potatoes for that crop, and experiences and techniques of people who are actually doing it. I was especially intrigued by this method of saving seeds (in a comment sent via email to the original poster):

You can take fruits (like squash, melons, tomatoes, etc.) and bury them in your garden to sprout in the spring. This approach not only saves you the effort of saving seeds (collect, clean, label and store) but also of planting. When the time is right, they will sprout and you will get plants.
What a great labor-saver! Especially given that saving seeds from tomatoes is a bit of an involved process. Ruth Stout would have loved it. The comment from which that quote was taken included a website with more information and videos:

Speaking of Ruth Stout, several comments in the Oil Drum thread mentioned Masanobu Fukuoka’s book One Straw Revolution. I’ve requested it from the library, but haven’t received it yet, so I don’t know first-hand what exactly is his method. But apparently he developed a method similar to Ruth Stout’s (that I wrote about
here) – a no-till, no weeding, year-round mulch system that produces high yields. (Stout called her method the “no-work garden;” Fukuoka called his the “do nothing” technique.) One poster included links to YouTube videos of a garden inspired by Fukuoka’s methods that so impressed me I want to include them here:

I’ve already taken lots of notes from the Oil Drum thread, but there’s more to glean, so I’m planning to go back through it sometime this week-end. It’s really that useful; I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in gardening.

Update on compost tumblers. I’m currently taking some specialized training for master gardeners in backyard food production. It’s a mixed bag – some useful information and some frustrating limitations. Last week’s training on compost is a case in point. The instructor discouraged the use of tumbling composters (that I
advocated in an earlier post). He instead advocated building compost piles directly on the ground, so that the multitudes of beneficial micro-organisms and nematodes (including worms) could access it.

Someone in the class pointed out that the reason people liked the tumblers was the ease of turning the compost. Were there no beneficial organisms in the finished product? he asked. There were some, the instructor conceded, but not as much as one would find in compost from a pile built directly on the ground. You need the full diversity of organisms to make great compost, he insisted.

Couldn’t you just include a shovelful of soil in the compost tumbler, to achieve that goal? another master gardener asked.

Well, maybe, the instructor allowed. But you don’t know how good the soil is that you’re putting in there. It would have to be high-quality soil.

Which led me to wonder, how well would we know the quality of the soil upon which we’re to build the compost pile? He’d already told us that he had an advantage, since he could look at samples under the microscope and see whether all the desired micro-organisms were there in sufficient quantity.

The only compost he felt he could ethically recommend, he said, was, coincidentally, I’m sure, made by a company he was affiliated with. He even discouraged us from using free compost from the county because it was improperly made. He correctly pointed out that their piles were built in such a way that they over-heated, and that compost was taken from those piles for use before it was finished.

One woman asked whether she could take free compost from the county and tweak it somehow to improve it? She was in the process of building a large system of raised beds and could not possibly afford to buy the amount of compost she needed from the company he recommended.

No, he said, that could not be done.

He was so rigid in his quest for the scientifically perfect compost that his recommendations were impractical for most people. He then instructed us on the proper construction of a compost pile, although, he said, we could never produce in our yards all that we would need for our gardens. We were to start with a bottom layer of twigs. The next layer would be greens – garden trimmings. Next layer – browns, dried oak leaves were his preference. Next…

At this point I was wishing Ruth Stout was alive and sitting in the class so I could get her reaction. I imagined she’d nearly fall down laughing. Then, she’d dry the tears of laughter from her eyes, and patiently explain in her Quaker way, how to avoid all that senseless work, and still get high yields from your garden.

I think her spirit was in the classroom. Someone asked, if the bottom layer is twigs, how do the beneficial fauna get up into the compost pile?
Well, he explained, they were already on the twigs and branches. Then wouldn’t they already be on twigs and branches thrown into a tumbling composter, I wondered?

Why bother to make all those layers, another master gardener asked, when they’ll all be mixed up the first time you turn it?

Our instructor admitted this was true, but had no good answer to the question.

My take-away from all this? If you’re using a tumbling composter, make sure to add a shovelful of good soil, including worms, to ensure the best product. That’s it.

Eggs! We’re getting eggs regularly now, although I’m pretty sure only two of the four are laying. I do know that the Rhode Island Red our granddaughter Alexis named Tracy, and that we thought would be one of the first layers, is in fact laying eggs. I saw Tracy go into the nest box to do the deed the other day.

We’ve eaten some of the eggs already. We cracked the first one open into a glass dish so I could look it over before we cooked it. The shell was stronger and slightly thicker than those we buy at Whole Foods. The yolk and white were perfectly formed, so Rick scrambled it and we shared it. It was delicious – richer and creamier than eggs from the store.

But here’s the thing: I’m having a little trouble eating those eggs. I have to swallow them down fast and try not to think about it too much. Not because of the flavor or texture – those are just fine; excellent, in fact. I guess it’s just knowing where those eggs came from. I don’t know how to explain it, and I know it’s illogical.

It’s especially surprising, considering I’ve eaten eggs from backyard hens before. Years ago, when we lived in England, a friend of mine kept chickens and gave me eggs from time to time, and I had no problem eating those. But I never took any interest in those chickens or even really came into contact with them. So I guess I could disassociate those eggs from their origin. I think I’ll get past this soon; I sure feel silly about it. But there it is.