Chicks, man!

So the plan was to hatch a few chicks while we had the extra eggs and prepare to replace our layers next spring.  Hatching them now means they should start laying in very early spring.  We had a broody hen, but she stopped when I tried to move her from the top nest box to a more chick-friendly lower nest box.  So time to break out the incubator.

 We have a styrofoam hova-bator incubator.  It is a still air model.  Past hatches have been horrible (both chicken and quail eggs) at less than 50% and an average about 30% have lead me to make changes.  First we bought an egg turner since it appeared that opening and closing the incubator to turn eggs three times a day was causing great fluxuations in both temperature and humidity.  While it was less work, hatch rates remained dismal.  Next it seemed the incubators with a fan were preferred as it insured the heat and humidity were more evenly dispersed.  Since our model didn’t have a fan, we could have bought a fan kit.  Since I am a computer geek, the many computer case fans I had laying around looked exactly like the ones in the kit.  I rigged one up and presto circulated air incubator, but again no real change in hatches.  

This time I did yet another internet search for ways to improve hatch rates with piss-poor incubators.  This is when I found a forum post about the “dry incubation method“.  It was worth a try since fully formed I hatched chicks described our problem.  Hoping for at least 10-15 chicks (allows for 50/50 pullets to cockerels) we collected 36 eggs over the course of seven days.  One other thing we learned was that the eggs need to be turned during this time of waiting to set in the incubator.

We removed the two red plugs per the article and used a room humidifier from when the kids were young which kept the humidity inside the incubator around 35% without adding any water inside.   In the past with water inside it stayed above  60%.  Fast forward 18 days, the turner was removed and a small amount of water added to boost humidity to around 70%.  The next day I heard chirping and saw a little egg movement.  Day 20 we added back one of the red plugs and waited.  By the end of the day at least two had hatched.  Then on the morning of the 21st day. The windows were fogged over, the humidity was at 90% and there were definitely more than two chicks.  The article said DONT open the incubator, okay we couldn’t take it any more.  30 out of 36 hatched right on schedule!!!!  What are we gonna do with 30 chickens???  

That is our best hatch ever!  Could be luck, could be the dry hatch method.  If the Beautiful Wife ever allows me to hatch chicks again, we will see if the method made the difference.

What are your hatch rates?  What things have you found help increase hatch rates?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

Barn Quilt – Working Together

My Lovely Wife (LW) is the best partner I could ask for here on the Ridge. She will suit up and go into an angry bee hive with me, process meat chickens, and pretty much go along with any crazy idea I am willing to try myself. The other side of that coin is I have to be willing to work with her when she decides to do something.

In this example, I wanted chickens and not only did she go along with it but she chipped in and help me build the coop. Of course that meant it was a much fancier coop than I first envisioned, but in the end it turned out great and workable for me and the birds. So now the other shoe drops. She has been going on about and pointing out barn quilts. If you dont know it is a quilt design that is usually painted on the top front of a barn for decoration purposes best I can tell.

So two weeks ago when my youngest daughter was visiting, they both got out the craft paints and made a barn quilt with the expectation it would be placed on the chicken coop. While I wasn’t 100% against it, I really didn’t want to climb a ladder to hang it in the 100 degree July heat. Yup, lost that one too. So here for your enjoyment is the end result.

Chicken Coop Barn Quilt

Chicken Coop Barn Quilt

The chickens couldn’t be prouder!

Homestead fitness – chicken run

The morning started out great! Woke up and watched a wild turkey crossing the hillside out my bedroom window. Got up and got ready. Strolled down the path the let the chickens out, taking pictures of new blooms (see below) and as I approached the coop I saw movement outside. And then I realized that the chicks I had moved to the coop this weekend had escaped and were running about!

I figured they would get out of the brooder box at some point, but the coop has a 8 inch step up to get out AND the door was closed!!!! Still no idea how they got out of the coop, but I didn’t have time to figure it out as I began chasing them around the coop. So the good news is that most of the chicks are cornish-cross meat birds and as expected when I dropped a little feed on the ground they came running to me. Snatched a couple up and returned them to the brooder box. Then it got interesting, the other chicks are barred rock roosters – to replace Kazooster RIP. These guys were not fooled so easily and I spent the next 10 minutes chasing them through the woods hoping they would tire out before I did! Finally cornered and captured them. With all of them back in the brooder box, I did some maintenance on the chicken wire cover that allowed the escape. Fingers crossed it will hold for two more weeks until I can release them on purpose.

Check out our Instagram account for pictures of the blooms I was enjoying before the chicken chase started!

Solar cooker project!

Solar Oven

Solar oven full of eggs for the chickens to eat.

For a while now I have wanted to get into solar cooking. Why? Two reasons, I like to experiment while cooking and I am lazy! By lazy I mean I really like recipes that say place in slow cooker for 4-6 hours. Solar ovens had these same directions. Things get cooked low and slow, like good BBQ.

I bought a solar oven like this one on eBay – . It came with two pots and a thermometer. I have tried it a couple of times empty on sunny days, but due to cool spring weather it has not gotten above 200 degrees, which is pretty good considering.

First experiment: hard boiled eggs. We found a post about cooking eggs in the shell, heaven forbid, even in the carton. Occasionally we get behind on eating eggs or the girls get ahead, not sure which and we boil up the extras and feed them back to the birds. So these two things came together at the same time and you have the above picture. The post said to cook them in the carton for 2.5 hours. I preheated the oven for 15 minutes, per the instructions. The temp showed 250 degrees, so I placed three dozen eggs straight from the fridge into the oven.

Results: at 2 hours and 15 minutes I did a check. The oven never got above 205 degrees with the cartons blocking some of the black background. The egg I checked was mostly done meaning the white and yellow of the eggs was no longer runny, but still not 100% cooked. I closed the oven back up for a half hour (15 minutes to heat back up and 15 to finish cooking) and the eggs were then done except for a couple in the one container. The instructions say it is impossible to burn the food due to the low and indirect heat, so I think next time I will give them three hours to make sure they are all done. That is unless I see it heating up past 250 degrees.

For now I am happy with the performance and the chickens are happy with the results of this solar cooking project.

solar oven hard boiled egg

Solar cooked egg after 2 hours 15 minutes at 200 degrees

Stone Hill Ridge Spring 2016 Update

So thought I would give a quick update on the things going on at the Ridge for Spring 2016.

While we are waiting for the last average frost date to come and go (April 10-15) we have started seeds indoors. The artichokes, tomatoes, and peppers (Carolina Reapers – hot, hot, hot) are well on their way. The squashes, pumpkins, and watermelons have just been started with a few poking out of the soil. The plan is to do a three sisters garden (corn, beans, squash) using the started squash and melon plants. The lettuce has been started outside, but with the cool weather it has had a slow start. There is a small remnant of fall spinach that over wintered and I am hoping it will grow larger. We also tried something new – winter sowing. Google it, but basically you start seeds during the winter in mini greenhouses (soda or milk bottle) and when the weather is appropriate the seeds know what to do. We used only herb seeds since that is also new for us. So far I have seen some sprouting of Thyme, but nothing else.

The rest of the property is getting revved up for spring. Daffodils have bloomed and the red buds are starting. The forest floor and the trees are starting to turn green. The first thing to leaf out is the invasive bush honeysuckle, so we have been pulling as much as we can after any rain or snow melt. The roots are shallow, so it makes them easy to pull. Some day we hope to have goats that will love to eat the stuff after we pull it, but for now we stack it and burn it on non-windy days. While the glade hasn’t really started yet, once it does there will be a day to day parade of wild flowers.

Finally, we once again ordered trees from the conservation department for spring planting. The downside is there are 80 trees/bushes to arrive next week that need planting. Part of the reason we call this Stone Hill Ridge, is there is little possibility of digging a hole more than 2 inches deep that doesn’t hit bedrock. This makes the prospect of digging 80 holes less than appealing. A lot of them are berry bushes (black berry, choke berry, elderberry) and I have been preparing a south facing hill side for the berry patch. By preparing I mean cutting down cedar trees. The plan is to use the cedar trees to create a small wall to hold dirt that we can plant the bushes into instead of digging. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Finally, we purchased some Antonovka Apple seeds. These apples are said to be both cold hardy (like Russia in winter cold hardy) and one of the few known apples to grow true from seeds. This means the resulting tree and fruits will be the same as the original that created the seeds. Apparently this is not true of most apple seeds. The seeds are currently in our extra fridge stratifying and we hope to plant them in small pots for the spring/summer. Then they will get planted permanently this fall on the northern part of the property.

We lost both bee hives over the winter, so there is a package of bees ordered, but won’t arrive until mid-May 🙁 I hope it is not too late in the season, but time will tell and if need be we will be feeding a lot of sugar. Mean time we ordered and installed a swarm trap. We filled it with empty comb from last years hive. We will see how that goes, but our hope is that a feral swarm will over winter better and not require as much intervention on our part. The trap is in a large tree on the edge of glade, the expectation is scout bees will find it as soon as the glade starts blooming and if they swarm they will already now where to find a new home. Funny thing right now is the lemon balm oil that came with the trap as a lure makes my hands smell like I have been cleaning the house with a lemon fresh cleaner of some sort. Just hope the bees like it as well.

Bee Swarm Trap

This bee swarm trap is installed on the edge of the glade.

We have seen a little attrition in the chicken coop. I think I have shared it here, but we lost Kazooster the rooster due to my negligence in locking up the hive one night. So I have been searching for a replacement this spring. No luck, so far all the stores that usually sell chicks have only pullets or mixed sex of the wrong breed. In a week or two I will break down and order some online. The other losses have been due to what we like to call rogue chickens. We allow the birds to free range in the afternoon most days, but there are birds that like to get out earlier, i.e. going rogue. They also are the ones we have to hunt down from a forest roost location and place in the coop at night. When we cant locate them in the dark we sometimes loose one to predators. So we currently have 9 hens and 2 guinea fowl.

Big changes are coming this year. I continue to use the The Livestock Conservancy to guide my livestock choices. The goal this year is to move from a mixed breed rabbitary (mostly new zealand / flemish mixes) to a only pure breed American Blue Rabbits. We recently went to see my daughter in Chicago and just before leaving I found a breeder within 2 hours of her that had rabbits available. So we now have the start of a breeding trio in the form of an American Blue buck. He is 10 weeks old and doing well so far. Now to find him a couple of unrelated girl friends.

American Rabbit - blue

This is our American Blue buck.

We had a historic flood over the winter. Crazy stuff, middle of December we got three days of concentrated heavy rains that didn’t reach the house but we went from a long walk to see the river to having river front property. The silver lining was this flood was about a foot over a 33 year old record, so I am thinking we have at least 30 years before we need to worry again. Seriously it would have to beat this record by about 15 foot before the house would be in danger. The upside it we now have a good idea of where not to build on the property.

Winter projects
We are almost complete with building our two firewood storage units. They are a lot bigger than I thought they would be, but guess you can never have too much firewood on hand. This should have only taken a couple of weekends, but the truck was out of service for a while right in the middle of prime building time and we had no other vehicle to haul wood from the hardware store. So now we are trying to finish them in between other stuff. We will post some pictures once completed.

Final note – we have had our first snake sighting of the year. By that I mean specifically a copper head, which being one of the few poisonous snakes in this area is the only kind I care about. And more specifically only those that come close to the house. So this one being 5 feet off the front porch had to be dealt with swiftly. Not being one for taking a life without purpose, I chose to exempt the poisonous snakes that come to too close to the house. All other snakes, cooper head or not, found on the property are left alone and avoided with due diligence.

Egg hunting – not just for Easter

When we built the chicken coop last winter, one feature we added was a loft for storage. We had a couple of random things up there at first, but a couple of weeks ago I bought 4 bales of hay to feed the rabbits. The loft was the perfect place to store them and keep them dry. I knew the chickens would eventually figure this out, but I stacked them in the loft so that it made it difficult to access. Earlier this week I noticed a missing hen and when I went looking realized she was in the loft. I chased her out and found 2 eggs. So I reshuffled things to try and keep them out and told me wife we need to build some sort of door or something to keep them out.

At this same time I have noticed a change to less and less day light and the expected drop in egg production. As the days get shorter the chickens naturally slow down laying eggs as nature intended. So much so that over the weekend we were actually out of eggs at the house, we only had whatever the girls had laid that day. Turned out to be a good day, 8 eggs from 12 layers. Side note here, there is an argument for either letting nature take its course and give the chickens a rest period from laying over the winter months. The other side is the by providing 12-16 hours of artificial light they can continue to lay through the winter. I have done both at our old house, but since we are here and in this for the long term we will let them rest this winter. There are breeds that are better winter layers than others like the Buff Orpingtons and Leghorns. I have also read that most breeds will continue to lay well the first year, but will molt and lay less the second winter. The fix to this is to stagger the age of your flock so you always have new layers going into each winter.

That leads us to this morning. I went to let the girls out and offered up some scratch. Then I proceeded to use one of the roost as a ladder to check the loft for any more random eggs. At first there were a couple near the edge, so I decided to rearrange the hay bales again to try and keep them out. This is when I discovered the mother-load on top of a hay bale. Ugh! There ended up being 27 eggs in the loft (that I found, might be more if I do a through cleaning). Good news is the egg shortage is over, but this does move up the schedule to build an access door to the loft.

Happy Egg Hunting!

Fall 2015 Update

So I wanted to post a quick update on all the things around here as Fall begins.

The hive without a queen seems to have settled in, too new to all this to say who won the three way queen death match since I cant find the queen. There is brood and lots of bees in the hive over a month later. They are bringing in pollen like crazy. We get a late flow, mostly goldenrod per my local bee chapter, that is great for winter reserves. Everyone in the chapter and online it seems says goldenrod honey taste fine, but smells funny so it is hard to sell. They leave it for the bees to overwinter.

The flock remains at 12 (11 hens and 1 kazooster) and 2 guinea fowl. I am considering “getting rid” of the guinea fowl. They are loud, annoying, and beginning to bully my hens. So far my lovely wife keeps me from taking action against them. Everyone is laying well, with 12 layers I get at least 10 eggs a day. Actually it is almost too well, I have 11 dozen in the fridge right now, so time to give some away. I may cook a bunch of them up and feed back to the girls.

I have thinned herd down to winter numbers, i.e. seven. I have kept three of the new three blue eye white (BEW) bunnies to mature over the winter for spring time breeding and sales. I may do one final breeding of the larger meat rabbits next week to be ready to butcher just before winter really sets in.

So no post on this so far because all we have so far is rocks and woods. We recently had 2 yards of top soil delivered and we are clearing a hill in the front yard of trees and rocks to build a garden area. It is a little bit of an experiment. From the bottom of the hill going up, I am building a row of rocks as a mini-stone wall. I back fill that with dirt to use as a garden area. We finally planted the 5 blue berry bushes purchased in the spring into the first row. Behind the planting area I am building a mini-hugelkultur mound to act as a water reserve and a nutrient source that runs down into each garden bed. The main idea is water run off protection. When we get a heavy run the water gushes off the hillside, I am hoping this layout will soak in the water and save the garden beds from erosion. The basic idea on how we are building the hugelkultur row is we have branches and leaves from the trees we cut down to clear the area as a base. To that I am adding grass clippings and waste from cleaning the chicken coop. This is all covered with dirt and wood chips (again from cut trees) to hold it all together. We should end up with 4-5 rows up the hill ready to plant in the spring. Finally the rest of the removed trees is going to fire wood. Waste nothing!

Maple Syrup
Another area I haven’t posted about yet. Last year we collected maple sap and boiled it down to syrup, mmmmmmm. I will be posting all the details and pictures of that process soon. Mean time we are going to make a pass through the woods this weekend to tag the rest of the maple trees. Last year (out first year here) we tapped the ones we could FOR SURE identify since it was winter time and all we could go by was the bark. Our plan this weekend is to mark others now that we can see the leaves and try to make a plan to tap the ones closer to the road for ease of access.

Our property boarders the river. I was originally overly excited since I love to fish. Soon all hope was dashed as we realized our river access was basically a muddy swamp that my wife referrers to as quick-mud. It will suck you and your boots down fast. I think our winter project (last year it was the chicken coop) will be a deck/dock over the mud bank to have better fishing access. I’ll post something if this materializes.

I hope everyone has a great long Labor Day weekend!

Chicken Coop Build

As promised, here is the post on our chicken coop build. To start with let me give credit where credit is due. I am NOT a carpenter and don’t play one of TV, so I found these barn shed plans and winged it from there. My lovely wife helped and when a problem arose we sketched it out and made a decision and went with it. We chose this design as our house has gambrel ends and we wanted the coop to match in style.

So first problem we encountered was the area we chose looked almost level, but wasn’t even kind of. So the downhill side was raised almost 30 inches on pressure treated posts. Along with that we live at Stone Hill Ridge, with an emphasis on the “stone”, so digging holes for concrete supports was out. We decided to use concrete deck blocks like this one.

Concrete Deck Block

Concrete Deck Block


After that was settled, we build the floor deck and walls on our house deck which was flat and level. Really the whole build was done our deck and moved up the hill to the build site for assembly. Here are some picks of the deck and walls going up.
[wppa type=”thumbs” album=”4″][/wppa]

Then the siding, roof, and sliding barn door went on. The trick we used to get the gambrel roof trusses to match was that after we cut the 2X4’s to the correct angles, we laid one on the deck and used scrap 2X4’s to create a jig. Then we built them by placing 2X4’s into the jig, gluing and screwing the gussets at each joint. The barn door was made from a 2X4 that I routed out the back of to make a lip dep enough to hold the siding. It has casters mounted top and bottom that slide in a 2X4 frame attached to the front wall.
[wppa type=”thumbs” album=”5″][/wppa]

On the inside we added flooring, roost (made from fencing with some spindles removed), and a nest box. The flooring didnt go down well, it was cold and rainy, but we wanted to get it done. We used vinyl flooring which we will cover with wood shavings for easy cleanup. This worked well in our tiny city coop, so why not here. We built the feeder from scrap lumber. It sits in the corner and is gravity feed. It will easily hold 300 lbs of feed, which I have to watch or I will have a 300lb mouse to show for it. The nest boxes were ordered from eBay. The seller recommended a box for each 3-4 hens. I went with four because the size and shape fit well with the coop and I don’t plan to have more than 16 laying hens. The funny part was the hens started by laying eggs on top of the feeder, but the would roll off an break. I finally took a cardboard box with some straw and placed it on top of the feeder. They are slowly transitioning to “real” nest boxes, but I have one or two that still prefer the cardboard box.
[wppa type=”thumbs” album=”7″][/wppa]

The final view of the outside. It is 8X10 foot and about 15 ft high at the roof peak. If I do the math right that is 80 sq ft and if you subscribe to having 4 sq ft per chicken I could have up to 20 birds. My birds free range some (see post on Chicken Lock Down) so could go more than 20. We currently have 11 layers, 1 rooster, and 2 guinea fowl. Short term as we raise meat birds we could add birds to the coop, but long term we cant even eat the eggs fast enough as it is with just 11 layers.
[wppa type=”thumbs” album=”6″][/wppa]

Chicken Lock Down

A quick post that I will update later with pictures of the new enclosure.

It appears our original plan to free range the chickens will have to be rethought. While the birds seem to love the freedom, it has come at a cost in both lives and landscaping.

First of all in lives. I am sad to report that in a two week period we lost two guinea fowl and four chickens, before a single egg was laid. I put up a trail camera and although I didn’t catch it in the act, there is strong evidence of a coyote in the area. One evening while watching TV, my son saw something moving through the backyard. We had discovered piles of feathers in this area indicating it was where bad things were happening. So he took at it! He didn’t get a good look at it and thought it might be a fox, but I think it was the coyote. My son was able to follow it (at a full run) several acres over on to a neighbors property before he lost it in the thick woods. It has been over a week and no new loses, but cant count it.

Second in landscaping. While I fully understand there would be some damage to the minimal landscaping we have, but with 22 acres I guess I thought it would be “minimal”. At first it was fine, a peck here and plant there. Then the rain started and it rained almost every day for a couple of weeks. Apparently this drove the birds up to the house and into the landscaping where they systematically ate most all of it right down to the ground and then scratched up the mulch to make sure they didn’t miss anything. We were not amused and determined that they would need a proper enclosure for “their own safety”! We still plan to free range them on weekends and times that we can be outside and watch them, but otherwise they will be enclosed.

Currently it is a 6 foot wire fence wrapped around the trees that naturally surround the coop, so folks with OCD who prefer a square or rectangular chicken run would have a fit. We like to call it all-natural. Currently there is no overhead netting, we will keep an eye out for flying predators and decide if we need that later.

I actually planned to build something eventually as I plan to have a garden once we clear a few trees, but this just accelerated the build plans.

Jen the hen

So in a follow up to the post on Kazooster the rooster finding his maturity, this post is about the hens becoming of age.

So lets start with terminology. Young male chickens, under a year old, are refereed to as cockerels. After a year they are called roosters. So technically it is “Kasooster the cockerel”, but that doesn’t have any zing! Female chickens, under a year old, are referred to as pullets. After a year they are called hens. So again technically it is “Jen the pullet” and again, no zing!

Next lets talk about naming the animals. There are different opinions and I believe you shouldn’t name anything you intend to eat, but with that being said – I give you Kazooster and Jen. 🙂 I dont see us eating the rooster any time soon since we only have the one, so he got a name after a horrible first week of attempt to crow. Jen is another story. While we will eventually rotate out these hens for new ones after a couple of years I have affectionately named them ALL Jen. This started when one bird seemed to always be at my feet when I was around the coop and as I would talk to her about why she was always bothering me, I decided she would get a name. I tried to determine which one it was so I could pick her out in a crowd, but apparently I am not that good Since they are all Plymouth Barred Rocks they tend to look a lot a like. There are slight variations in darkness of feathers or size of combs, but really in a group they tend to blend together. So I have just started calling them all Jen when I am speaking (or yelling if they are in the landscaping) directly to a specific bird, except Kazooster of course.

That leads me to real reason for this post, one of my 11 Jen’s has matured enough to start laying. This name thing has worked out since I don’t know which one actually laid the egg, I can just say “Jen started laying!” The chickens are a little over 4 months old, so getting started this early is awesome. At the old house we had Leghorns, since the city didn’t allow roosters we went for an all egg breed. It took them over six months to start laying. The first eggs are a little small, but I have found that to be normal and the increase in size as the birds mature. Here they are verses store bought grade A large.

Fresh eggs

Fresh brown eggs

The other thing I find exciting/interesting is free range eggs verse store bought. You can read the internets about free range organic is better for your health, but you can tell just by looking at them. The one on the left is the free range egg, look at the beautiful deep orange color.

Free range vs Store bought

Free range vs Store bought

And what would a post about fresh eggs be with out a picture that shows one good reason we raise chickens?

Eggs, biscuits and gravy

Eggs, biscuits and gravy