Fabulous Footloose Farm Flock

Our feathered friends out here on the farm (I’m loving alliteration today) are enjoying their last few days/weeks/month of free-range living. Not because we’re going to do anything drastic to them, but because most of them don’t like walking in the snow. Up here in northern Minnesota we’ll eventually get hit with several inches of snow that won’t melt until March or April and our coop door will no longer stay propped open.

Thankfully, our chicks and the duckling have grown up fast. It’s astonishing to watch how quickly the little critters mature. The day-old chicks we received on May 11th are now as big as all the other chickens. Some of the young cockerels (another word for rooster) tower over their elders. The duckling is almost as big as his (or her but I’ll use male pronouns since our daughter has named him “Huey”) parents, which is astounding since he hatched the last week of August.

Here are some pictures of the young chickens, beginning from the day they arrived.

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The hens have just started laying eggs this past few weeks. Their eggs start out small and will slowly increase in diameter until they are “jumbo-sized.”

A pullet egg beside two eggs from experienced layers.

A pullet egg beside two eggs from experienced layers.

For the first year, they’ll lay one egg about every 25 hours. In late summer after they turn one year old, they’ll molt and from then on will lay an egg about every other day. Until they get too old to do that. I read somewhere that you can figure out which hens aren’t laying anymore by measuring the distance between a hen’s pelvic bones. In a large hen, it should be possible to fit three or four fingers between the pelvic bones if she’s still laying. But I’ve never even tried to find out. I guess I figure they’ve given me hundreds of eggs in their lifetime and when they’re done, they still deserve a nice retirement. We still have a few hens from our very first clutch seven years ago.

Here is a picture of one of the old Barred Rock hens. We lost our last cock from that clutch this past spring.

Old Matriarch

Old Matriarch

I like diversity in our chickens, so I order a different breed every time. It makes for a colorful yard and it also makes it easier to identify individual birds. We have one old Buff Orpington hen, Tilly, who lost her eye as a chick. I make sure to feed her apart from the others since she’s last in the pecking order. Yes, there really is such a thing. Chicks start working through that when they’re a few weeks old. The mellower the chick, the lower in the pecking order. The aggressive ones get first dibs on everything but none of our 60+ chickens goes hungry. The hanging feeders in the coop always have layer rations in them. And thank God for heated waterers or supplying water to them throughout our winters would be tough.

Finally, I’ll end this post with some other “Footloose” pictures from laid-back moments in our farm life.

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How to Tell a Young Chicken from an Old Chicken

Why does it matter?  Well if you want to have fresh eggs, it matters.  Several things are necessary for a hen to lay.  For instance, did you know that chickens need light in order to lay their eggs?  They need at least 14 hours of daylight, and that just doesn’t happen up here in the north at this time of the year. So we provide the next best thing and hang heat lamps in the coop to give them light and . . . um . . . heat.  This keeps them warm through the cold winter months and keeps them laying.  Unless they’re molting or too old.

A few of our first flock of chickens. This picture was taken when they were in their prime–about two years old. They are now over five years old. Some of the hens are still laying!

The first year we raised chickens, I did a lot of reading about what to expect. One of the things I learned was that chickens have life-spans of 5-8 years but that by the time they become senior chickenzens they aren’t laying anymore and should probably be culled for the stock pot. In order to tell which hens weren’t working for their feed anymore there was a non-invasive way to measure their pelvic spread (I decided right then that THAT wasn’t going to happen!) over a two-week period. Besides the fact that this seems to be getting into their personal space a little too much, we have about 50 hens.  Can you imagine trying to keep track?  No, “The Ladies” (which is what I call my hens) would lay until they “retired” and then they would be allowed to live out their lives in continuing peace and freedom until they bought the farm (sorry, couldn’t resist).

So to return to my topic, how do you tell an old chicken from a young one? It’s actually pretty easy. Just go into the coop an hour or so before dusk. The old hens and roosters go to roost EARLY (several hours before dark actually) with full crops.  They choose their spots and try their hardest to stay right where they are for the rest of the night.  There are some tussles, irritable clucking, and rearrangements when a chicken who’s higher in the pecking order wants their place.  But they settle down quickly, trying to get some sleep while the middle aged chickens roam around the coop, stocking up on food and water to last them through the night.   The youngest of the flock, meanwhile, stay outside until they’re in imminent danger of missing curfew. (In chicken language, that means they wait so long that they can’t see inside the coop anymore, actually fall asleep on the coop ladder, and wait until the weird hairless chicken who feeds them everyday–but also steals their eggs–comes by and stuffs them through the coop door whether they want to go or not.)

This is a teenage chicken! She’s just a few months old, still growing, and hasn’t started laying yet.

And that’s how you tell a chicken teenager from a chicken grandma.

The Newest Members of the Coop are Now Laying!

My little ladies are all grown up!  The little balls of down that arrived at our farm in late April are now the same size as the other hens in the coop and every day I’m gathering more and more small eggs.

They look perfect, don’t they?  Visions of omelets and quiches are flashing through your minds, right?  Let’s put them in perspective now.

This is a picture of one of the little eggs with two jumbo-sized eggs.  Here’s how it works, out here on the farm.  About six months or so after the chicks hatch, they finally begin to lay.  They might start out slow, maybe an egg every few days, but it’s not long before they are laying an egg a day.  These little eggs begin to show up in the nest boxes, and I love it.  They’re small but perfect.

Now, the hens probably wish their eggs stayed this small all of their lives (okay, I know they never give it a second thought) but that’s not gonna happen.  Over the next few months, the eggs will gradually grow larger and larger until they reach the jumbo size that you see above.  For those of you who buy our farm-fresh eggs, you will notice that your deliveries now look like this:

We alternate the jumbo and small eggs so that it’s fair for everyone!  Kinda makes you appreciate my “Ladies” a little more, doesn’t it?  =)

Here are a few of my hens and their protector–the white rooster on the right.

Meet the Critters

On a farm, there are critters.  Lots and lots of critters.  Eight-legged, six legged, four legged and two-legged.  Some critters are domesticated, some are not.  (Although there are moments when the supposedly domesticated critters, aren’t.)

We have two dogs: Penny, the Labrador, and Ellie, the Cocker Spaniel.  And we have something like 60 barn cats!  Okay, okay, that’s an exaggeration.  Divide that number by 10 and add one or two.  It just seems like we have 60 when we’re buying cat food for them.

At least the barn cats do stuff.  Like keep the mice population in check, as well as the gopher, vole and rabbit populations.  This is how the barn cats look when they’re doing their barn-cat-thing:

That’s Pepper, our black, neutered, male, barn cat.  He is stalking Ellie, who is really worried as you can see:

Anyway, that’s what our barn cats do to earn their keep out here. (Eat mice, not stalk Ellie.)

We also have three house cats.  Lucy, a seven-year-old-grey crabby tabby, lives most of the time in the basement, supposedly to discourage any mice from coming inside to live.  She begs to go outside when it’s warm.  Then five minutes later she begs to come back inside.  I’m not sure why…probably just because she knows it drives me crazy.

Shelley, our one-year-old-short-haired calico lives on the main floor of the house.  She’s a sweet-natured little kitty who lives to please.  I’m not a cat person normally.  I love cats, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer dogs.  But she’s made me a cat person, or at least a Shelley-cat-person.  (I’ll post a picture of her in action later.)

Two weeks ago Arya, a long-haired calico, returned to our home.  She’d been adopted by my oldest daughter who couldn’t take her to her new apartment.  Arya took a week or so to hiss at anything that moved, but finally she’s settled in and taken over.  This is how she earns her keep out here on our farm:

Don’t worry.  She really is alive.  She’s busy warming up my towel basket in the bathroom.  She loves the bathroom.  Sometimes we find her curled up in the sink.  I can only guess that since she’s a long-haired cat, maybe the porcelain helps her to cool off during these hot summer days.  But no one really knows why cats do anything.  They’re very mysterious.

Except that I’m pretty sure the barn cats hate the indoor cats.  They don’t mess with Lucy, she’s crabby.  But they pester Shelley a lot.  By “they” I mean Pepper, and by “pester” I mean he chases her around and up lots of trees.  It usually sounds like she’s dying, but cats make lots of noise when they’re being pestered.  I think this is because Shelley knows that when I hear pestering, I come running to the door and holler at Pepper to cut it out, while at the same time coaxing Shelley back inside to relative calm.

To be fair, Arya tries her best with the whole no-mice-in-the-house thing.  She sits on top of the gerbil’s cage…patiently waiting.  =)