Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Big Help From An Old Friend

It has been a busy week preparing for the upcoming CSA meeting and an overabundance of assignments at work. The pile of tasks before me seem to grow faster than I can complete them and the days are falling off of the calendar like so many leaves in the wind. On Thursday afternoon I was racing with the clock to complete yet another assignment for my boss when an unexpected email found its way to my desktop.


The email was from Scott, a friend from my home town. He had just begun a stretch of days off and decided that it was high time that he paid us a visit. I hadn't seen him in at least six years so I checked with Janet and then replied that he would be very welcome. I took Friday off and he drove up from Ohio that morning.

Scott and I go way back, in fact all of the way to our first meeting in preschool daycare. Much to the delight of my children, he can still tell stories from my past such as how I caused a whole tray of chicken noodle soup to be spilled on the carpet at Mrs. Cooper's daycare. We have been friends through thick and thin although we have often been out of contact for years at a time.

Scott has a way of showing up when I'm in the middle of some big project and lending me a massive hand. We worked on each other's Eagle Scout projects, he helped me build a wood strip canoe, he has helped me out of jams and provided much needed muscle again and again. This visit was to be no exception as we stood in the yard catching up and looking over my never-ending chicken coop project.

I had bought siding for the coop months ago. Unfortunately that purchase proved to be premature as I had so many additional items to complete before I could finally begin hanging the sheet metal. In the meantime, the siding has sat in the grass getting rain soaked and always worrying me that it would rust before I ever had a chance to use it.

Friday and Saturday we applied ourselves to the task like men possessed. We visited and laughed as we worked and told stories of all of the things we had been doing in the past few years. It was wonderful to have the help and his company and we accomplished so much more than I had hoped.

On Saturday evening, the sun was sinking low in the sky as we hung the final sheet. We were exhausted and had been pushing ourselves for the past few hours even though either one of us would have happily given up if it had not been for the other saying "we're so close to being done, let's try to get another one hung up". The worst part of the job had been the meticulous cutting and fitting of each sheet around all of those doors and windows.

Just as we were finishing up the children relayed the message that dinner was on the table. Freya had harvested Brussels sprouts from the garden and Janet had made a delicious chicken pot pie. We sat around the dinner table telling stories and jokes and I noticed how easily my children enjoyed interacting with my old friend. We polished off the meal with homemade canned apple cake with ice cream and some of Janet's elderberry sauce.

It was a wonderful and helpful visit from a dear friend just when I needed the boost. Given the size of some of the tasks we have in front of us in the next few years I think we're going to have to encourage him to visit a little more often!
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First Rooster "Processed"

This past Saturday morning I was pleasantly surprised to have our daughter, Freya, come up to me and suggested that this weekend would be a good time to butcher the roosters and that she would like to help. I had decided a while ago that I would like to try my hand at processing our own birds. At first this notion was greeted with a low-grade horror and disbelief from members of the family. It's quite one thing to raise the birds and have them hauled off to a slaughterhouse only to return as neatly packaged chickens as if from the grocery store. It is quite another to have it done right here at home with no opportunity for us to deceive ourselves that the bird on the plate wasn't actually one of those that we had been feeding and petting out in the coop.

Having had a while for the concept to sink in, the family eventually got used to the idea that I wanted to slaughter them myself. The common phrase became, "Just don't do it while I'm around!" For these reasons it was surprising to me when our daughter decided that she wanted to participate directly. We had a busy day ahead of us so we decided to undertake the task on Sunday.

After lunch on Sunday we started gathering the supplies that we would need. I reviewed some chicken butchering instructions on the web and we set up a table out back with everything we would need. I constructed a "killing cone" out of sheet metal and attached it to a stake that I placed in a discrete location among our pine trees out of sight of both our house and our neighbor's. We put some water on the stove to be used for scalding and I headed out to select a rooster.



Our surplus roosters have been making a real nuisance of themselves for a while. Of course they are only doing what comes naturally, but their behavior has made it increasingly clear that we needed to cull the flock down to the proper male to female ratio. Our breed of chickens is normally happy with a proportion of 1 rooster for every 8 hens. Since our current population is 7 roosters for 13 hens this has led to lots of fighting, chasing and commotion as the roosters have competed for too few females.

The biggest problem of late has been the fact that the roosters are harassing the hens mercilessly. The roosters tend to hang around the exit of the hen house squabbling amongst themselves and waiting for a female to come along. Whenever a hen emerges from the building she is immediately pursued by all of the roosters and very roughly bred by most of them until she can escape back to the relative safety of the coop. Not having any hands, the roosters tend to grasp the feathers of the hen's head in their beaks to keep her still during the procedure. This generally results in feathers being yanked out and all of our hens are partially bald from the excessive and unwanted advances of so many males. During my daily visits to the coop, the sight of the long-suffering little hens reminds me that I need to do something to give them some relief.

I retrieved a rooster and we found that I had to make some adjustments to the killing cone due to the large size of the birds. When it was finally ready, I tried to persuade Freya that she probably shouldn't watch the actual killing. I had never done this before and was worried that it would be excessively unpleasant and upsetting, especially due to my inexperience. She insisted on watching and told me that I shouldn't "sell her short" by assuming that she couldn't handle it.

I went ahead with the deed and it went surprisingly smoothly and with very little distress for the bird or us. The killing cone did its job by holding the rooster securely and preventing any of the legendary commotion of "a chicken with it's head chopped off". The method that I used was to simply place the rooster upside-down in the cone with it's neck sticking out of the bottom. After one quick cut it was all over quickly.

We carried the bird back to the processing table and checked the temperature of the scalding bath. Aidan arrived at that point and seemed to handle the sight of the dead rooster more with curiosity than anything else. I noted to myself that all of this was much easier to handle emotionally as soon as the rooster was dead. I put Aidan to work by having him watch the timer for me as I scalded the bird to loosen the feathers for plucking. After that was completed, we immersed it in ice water to quickly cool it back down again.

I was concerned about how difficult the plucking would be having heard a number of people indicate that it was laborious. Freya and I sat down at the table and began plucking only to find that it was quite easy to do. It was somehow amazing to see that the bird emerging from beneath the feathers already looked just like one from the grocery store. I had originally planned to make a homemade chicken plucking device to assist in the job, but for this first bird it just seemed quicker and easier to pluck it by hand. Most likely that little project will wait until some point in the future when I have more birds to handle.

By the time the rooster was completely plucked, I admit that I was getting a little tired of the task. The rest of the process of cleaning the bird and preparing it for the freezer proved to be pretty simple. In seemingly no time, the children and I were admiring the final result and Freya said that she couldn't wait to show Janet how well we did.

I did learn one lesson that is apparent from the picture. Due to my inexperience, I removed too much of the skin from the upper breast as I was removing the rooster's crop. It's a minor defect and one I'm not likely to repeat now that I know better. I felt proud of myself for figuring out how to do my own butchering and especially proud of Freya for being so strong and helpful in the face of an unpleasant task.

A day later I find myself reflecting on the contributions of the chickens much in the same way that I did when I carried the first egg away from the coop. I feel greatly impressed by the very significant contribution to our table and livelihood that these birds are able to make. It is humbling somehow to realize that eventually every one of those birds and potentially thousands of their progeny will meet the same fate as the first, but not without first providing us with many thousands of eggs along the way.

While their contributions are less than voluntary, I feel they are worthy of considerable respect just the same. Looking at it that way, all of the resources and effort we have expended to build them a comfortable and healthy place to live seem much less like folly and much more like something that they heartily deserve in return for all that they provide to us.

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Front Door For The Coop

One focus for this past weekend was finishing up the exterior of the chicken coop in preparation for installation of the sheet metal siding. The last item to be completed was the installation of a front door. This door opens into the central utility room between the two coops.



Among the things that we brought with us from our old house when we moved onto the farm was our old front door. The reason we did such an odd thing is that the door is a solid oak raised-panel door that I made using my woodworking tools in our garage. After putting all of that work into it, I wasn't willing to part with it. It spent most of the last year leaning up against the living room wall waiting for me to find time to install it.

Having finally installed the oak door in its rightful place, the door that came on the farmhouse was now free to be recycled into the chicken coop project. Once I had it mounted, I decided that it needed an awning roof to protect it from the rain.


The biggest trouble now is the fact that the new door has confused a couple of the roosters. Although they have been going in and out of the new chicken door (in the photograph on the end of the building) for some reason they have decided that they would rather wait for somebody to come along and open the big fancy front door.

Last night I was surprised to find them out after dark sitting on the ground in front of the door. The coyotes have recently become extremely noisy during their nightly hunts in the woods to the south of our farm. Had they noticed those roosters, they certainly would have made an easy and tasty meal. Luckily their farmer (aka "chicken doorman") came along in time to let them in!

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Trudging Onward

When faced with a task that I am dreading or one that has become tiresome, I use a couple of strategies to keep myself from giving up. One of them is to just keep trudging onward. I just put my head down, focus on the things directly in front of me and just keep moving one step at a time.

The chicken coop construction project has become one of those kind of tasks. It has certainly taken more time and effort than I imagined when I started. It is finally getting to the point that it is taking shape and it is easy to imagine how nice it will be when finished. I just wish it were done already!

The list of things that I have yet to do is long indeed. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, I'm just focusing in the next step and ignoring the rest. As such, I took a couple of days off this week and completed two small mouthfuls of the great big pie. The first was the construction of chicken doors for the birds to get in and out of the coop. I built one on each end.

I had originally planned on building eight doors, but my neighbor thankfully reminded me of the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) principle and I reduced the number to one per coop. The reason for the large number of doors in my first plan was because I intend to "pasture" the chickens by dividing their outdoor space into separate yards and controlling their access to give the ground time to recover. Now I am on to a simpler plan which will involve them exiting the coop into a "lane" similar to those used for cattle and I will set up a series of simple outdoor gates into the pastures. More on this later.

The second task that I completed was the closing and paneling of the soffits. It proved to be difficult because of the need to work over my head for much of the time. Now that it is finally done, the upper edge of the walls are now ready for installation of the metal siding. This will greatly cut down the cold air flow from outside and further reduce the noise of the roosters crowing in the early morning hours.

All of this struggle that I am going through to keep myself moving forward on the coop project reminds me of how I deal with the same problem when making a piece of complicated furniture (woodworking is another of my hobbies). It is very easy to give up on a project when faced with an intimidating task or just after I've discovered a mistake.

A philosophical approach that has really become key to allow me to keep moving forward is to adopt the attitude that making a table, or building a coop is a "past time" rather than a "task" to be completed. By focusing on the activity as something to enjoy rather than only looking at the final goal of the finished product, I find that I am much less likely to lose spirit and give up.

So now it's time to step away from the computer and go back to my coop building "hobby" and try to enjoy the next activity for today...the installation of the front door.
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Coop Windows

There is little doubt that Fall is in the air. October came in wet, windy and cold. We are feeling the pressure to get the outdoor projects finished up before our time runs out and we are driven inside for the winter.

Sean and I decided to devote this weekend to getting as far as we could on the coop building project. I know I have been blogging about the construction of this "chicken palace" for many months, but it honestly has been a massive project. If we had been able to work on it continuously, it would have been finished long ago. Unfortunately it always has to be balanced with so many other priorities.

Saturday morning found me dreading the day because the forecast had said "cold and rainy" and it appeared to be turning out that way. Sean and I headed out and were surprised to find the day pleasant for working, even with the occasional sprinkles.

We mounted window sills and frames that I had made last week in the openings. Then we unpacked and installed the windows that I had purchased from a reuse center. By the end of the day we had them half installed and the chickens were greeted by the sunrise for the first time this morning.



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Hide And Seek

In the past week or so I noticed an odd trend in our egg production. I had been anticipating a gradual increase in volume but instead we started seeing a decrease. I had seen some evidence of a couple of new hens beginning to lay but now it seemed that they were producing less and less. At first, I thought this could be due to the increasingly cold weather and the shortening days but the literature claims that our Orpington's should actually continue laying right through the winter.

When I saw that yesterday's haul was only two eggs I decided to poke around a little bit. It didn't take me long to figure out what was going on. In the unfinished southern half of the chicken coop I have a number of doors and windows leaning up against the wall awaiting their day to finally get installed. I poked my head behind one of the doors to find a handsome clutch of eleven eggs as shown in the picture.

I'm not sure why a number of the hens have decided to lay here instead of the nice nest boxes that I built. My guess is that it has something to do with the improved privacy that this quiet corner provides. In any case, until we finish up this second half of the coop we will just have to add this location to our daily round of hide and seek to find the eggs.

Since we didn't know how long these eggs have been sitting there, I concluded that we couldn't keep them. Early this morning Freya and I let the birds out just before departing to drive to her school and me to work. We enjoyed a brief game of spotlight egg fast pitch as we took turns shining the flashlight at a tree out in the woods while the other attempted to smack the spot with the eggs. She won the contest handily with a slightly low but direct hit on the tree. Hopefully we won't have to waste any more eggs in that way but it was kind of fun just the same!
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The Prince Who Loves To Dance

The day is approaching when I am going to have to cull the extra roosters in our flock. In doing so, I will slaughter five roosters and leave the best two to be the breeding stock for next year's flock expansion. The trick is determining which of the roosters exhibit the qualities that we want to keep.


The poultry raising guides that I have read for our breed of chicken make recommendations on this selecion process. The best roosters to keep will have a certain color, body shape, comb configuration and temperment. Sean and I have been eyeing the flock and believe there are two obvious choices. There are two roosters who stand out above the rest. The first we plan to use as a replacement for Marco Pollo. He will take his place as patriarch of the northern flock as "Marco Pollo II" once Marco I meets his fate. (Marco I is the agressive bird that I mentioned previously who also happens to be inferior genetically according to the standards.)


The second rooster that we are thinking of keeping is another fine specimen. He will take his place as the rooster of the southern coop and will be dubbed "Gallus Rex I" or Rex for short. There is just one thing about Rex that gives us a slight concern about his eligibility to ascend to the throne. Rex is a dancing chicken.


Rex's stylish displays do not happen every day but there's nothing like it when he decides to kick up his heels. He dances by spinning in a tight circle in one direcion, and then reversing his movement to retrace his steps backward. If you watch the video below, you will first be tempted to believe that I reversed the video for the latter half. In fact, the video has not been touched in any way.

 


We are hoping that Rex's fanciful ways are not evidence of some pathology. You would be tempted to think that he had a serious brain defect of some sort except that he behaves perfectly ordinarily when he isn't dancing. He will go for many days acting like every other rooster in the yard, then break into a fit of dancing for a few minutes, and then go back to his ordinary pecking and strutting as if nothing happened.

I have searched the internet and my literature for some chicken disease that would cause spinning but have thus far come up with nothing that would indicate that the dancing is a problem. I would hate to cull an otherwise handsome bird if this behavior is normal. I would also hate to cull all of the rest of the roosters only to find that there is something wrong with him. Will we end up frustratedly watching him pursue his dancing obsession instead of fathering new chics? While I ponder this question Rex continues to kick up his heels and spin his way through his first pleasant summer.

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Eggs At Last!

Of all of our children, Sean seems to have taken to the chickens the most. During idle moments he can often be found visiting the henhouse. He likes to scoop up a hen or rooster, cradle it under his arm and sit or walk around the chicken yard petting it. I have to admit that I understand the appeal and do the same myself now and again. They are soft, friendly and very entertaining birds.

During a recent weekend afternoon, I was working in the garden when Sean passed by on his way to the coop for a visit. Shortly thereafter he came running out into the yard yelling excitedly that he had just found our first egg! He brought it to me and the family gathered around as we admired the little treasure. It was a small egg and brown in color. The boys are shown holding it in the picture below.

Since that day we have had a steady increase in the size and frequency of eggs arriving as more and more hens have gotten into the act. We now can count on three eggs every day. We have used them in baking and eaten them for breakfast. They range in size from medium to large and have a better flavor than store-bought eggs. Thus far our consumption has kept up with the supply and we are happy to know that we may never have to buy eggs at the grocery again.


My plan is to build our breeding flock up to include 16 hens and 2 roosters. Based on the fact that each Orpington hen is supposed to lay about 265 eggs each year, that should mean we will eventually be hauling a dozen eggs out of the coop each day! We plan to hatch some of them to provide meat birds for the table and replacements for aging birds in the breeding flock. The rest we will either sell or eat.

I have to say that I am very impressed by the productive little hens. Walking back to the house with the day's hand full of eggs, I find myself thinking that it seems miraculous that their bodies can create such an amazing thing let alone withstand doing it day after day.

Even before we have slaughtered our first bird I feel humbled by the relationship that humanity has forged with these once wild creatures. In return for feed, water and protective shelter, it seems that they will cheerfully provide us an endless supply of protein to sustain us as well as entertaining company. I can only imagine the work that the little hens go through each day. Even considering all of the work that has been going into building a safe and pleasant coop for them, it still seems to me that we've got the better part of the deal!
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More Coop Progress

Last weekend found Sean and I hard at work once again on the chicken coop. It is admittedly a huge project but it seems we would have had it completed by now had other priorities not jumped up constantly to cause us to put our efforts elsewhere. The impetus for this burst of activity was complaints from the neighbors about our roosters loudly crowing in the early hours of the morning.

Up until this point, the roof of the coop was merely tarps stretched over the roof trusses to keep the rain out. Unfortunately, this arrangement does little to dampen the racket raised by our alpha rooster, Marco, when he is in full cry. In the interest of being good neighbors, we set aside a day to see what we could do to enclose the coop more completely.

Working together, we sheeted in the roof with plywood and then tacked down roofing felt to protect it from the rain. At first I only used staples to hold it in place. After a few windy days of seeing it partially blow off and attempting to secure it with staples again, I finally resorted to screwing thin boards along the lower edges to prevent further movement. I have placed an order for sheet metal to cover the roof and hopefully the current arrangement will hold until that is installed.

We also completed the task of sheeting in the exterior walls on the back and southern wing of the coop (the right-hand side in the photo). Having that complete, we tacked housewrap around the entire building to keep it dry until we are ready to install siding. We also tacked sheets of plywood over the window openings on the inside to further contain the noise.

The coop now remains completely dry and is very dimly lit within even at the height of the day. The combination of the substantial muffling that the newly enclosed coop provides and the fact that it remains dark in the interior until quite late in the morning has led to rave reviews from our neighbors.

One of the next steps will be the installation of the windows and remaining doors. This will once again permit light into the coop. Hopefully the interior windows plus the storm windows will be sufficient to keep the crowing volume low even when Marco can once again see the sunrise and feels compelled to do what comes naturally.

I also have to add that it is wonderful to work on projects like this with the children. They are interesting and pleasant company as we carry on a continuous banter about whatever comes to mind. I am also happy to be teaching them skills that may come in handy some day on projects of their own and instilling in them a sense of pride at the completion of a job well done.
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Twenty Little Indians

A few nights ago, I reluctantly tore myself away from a project in the house to complete my nightly chore of shutting the chickens in their coop. I headed to the mud room to don my boots as Freya announced that she wanted to come along as well.

I had recently added a simple roost to the coop made from two boards and some branches. The chickens are so happy with this addition that it has become their favorite place to hang out. At sunset each evening, they begin jostling for the favored roost positions for the night. By the time that I arrive to close them in, they are generally already inside and prettily perched in neat rows.

As Freya and I emerged from the house into the late evening air, our noses told us right away that a skunk had recently sprayed somewhere very close by. While I have yet to see any skunks on our property, the smell is common enough that I gave it little thought. Crossing the back yard, Freya commented, "It really stinks out here!"

We made our way through the gate and arrived at the doorway to the coop. Immediately I noticed that the floor of the coop was littered with large clumps of feathers. I entered and peered around the dimly lit interior to discover the partially eaten body of a chicken in one corner beneath the new roost.

I carried the poor bird out into the light where Freya and I could examine it. It turned out to be one of the roosters. One side of his body had been stripped of feathers and we could clearly see where something with a relatively small mouth had dined on the muscles of his chest and belly. In the manner of a forensics investigator, I felt the temperature of the meat and checked for any stiffening of the remains. I concluded that the crime had been committed recently, most likely within an hour of our discovery.

The culprit was clearly a very different animal from the last predatory visitor to our hen house. On that occasion it was either a cougar or a coyote that had simply jumped clear over the 4 1/2 foot fence. The two chickens that died that night showed signs of a large-jawed creature that had consumed all but the foot of one bird and cut the second one cleanly in half. This time, the apparently much smaller creature had simply nibbled away at the easily accessible meat and had worked around the bones rather than chewing through them.

I returned to the coop and counted the jittery chickens. Prior to this event, we had 21 birds. My count only came up with 19! That meant that there was still a second bird missing somewhere. I counted a second time paying more attention to the sexes of the birds remaining and reached the conclusion that the second missing bird was a hen. The loss of a rooster that we had planned to slaughter this fall merely meant one less roaster for the table. The potential loss of a hen was much more serious because I had intended to keep all of the females as breeding stock for next year's flock.

By this time the light of sunset had dimmed to the point that we could not see very well. Freya and I retrieved flashlights from the house and began our search. We looked over every inch of the chicken yard but failed to find any sign of the missing hen. Since the predator did not seem capable of eating the bird whole and probably could not carry her off, I found myself hoping that perhaps in the panic of the attack she had managed to fly over the fence. Maybe she was out there in the woods somewhere hiding. If she could survive the night full of owls and other deadly creatures there was some chance that she could be found by the light of day.

Braving the ever-present mosquitoes, Freya and I made two circuits around the 300 foot long perimeter fence looking for any signs of entry. I was sure that I would find a fresh pile of dirt where the culprit had dug underneath. Despite our efforts, we failed to turn up any obvious point of entry. Since most of the chickens were safely closed in the coop, we surrendered the night to the damnable mosquitoes and made our way back to the house.

Believe it or not, it wasn't until quite a bit later that I finally made the connection between the reeking skunk smell in the backyard and the dead rooster. In my defense, my reluctance to reach that conclusion was fueled by the lack of an obvious entry point. In the absence of that evidence, I was forced to conclude that whatever had made the attack, had done so by climbing over the fence. While I believed that an opossum or a raccoon might climb the fence, I felt pretty sure that a skunk would not attempt the same feat.

At sunrise the next morning, I headed out to release the chickens from the coop to spend the day in the yard. As I reached for the door handle, I heard a faint cooing sound coming from the area behind the coop. As I turned to look, the missing hen emerged from the cover of one of the pine trees in the chicken yard and walked out on a branch toward me. I quickly opened the coop door and then walked over to pick her up and make sure she was unhurt. She allowed me to pick her up as she continued her cooing and sing-song hen sounds. A quick inspection revealed that she was none the worse for wear except that she smelled strongly of skunk spray.

I stood there for a while petting her as the rest of the chickens poured from the coop to greet the day. I was relieved that she had survived the attack and the long night in the tree. Before long the morning routine of the roosters, which involves chasing and attempting to breed with every hen in sight, began in earnest around me.

We have dubbed the alpha rooster with the name "Marco Pollo" (the latter word intentionally spelled and pronounced as POI-yo as in the Spanish word for "chicken"). He is naturally our most aggressive bird who nips at our hands and legs any chance he can get. True to form, he emerged from the coop and came straight at me and began pecking at my shoes.

My remedy for this behavior has been to pick him up and give him a forced petting until he behaves nicely. To do this, I placed the poor hen who survived the night in the tree on the ground and enduring a few pinching nips on my fingers, picked Marco up to pet him. Right away I noticed that Marco did not smell of skunk and I started asking him where all of his aggression had gone when the skunk came around.

Roosters being roosters, they began a noisy pursuit of the surviving hen around the chicken yard. She had three of them in tow as she squawked and ran figure eights around my feet begging for rescue from the unwanted ardour. Before I realized what was happening, she had taken flight over the heads of the roosters and came in a wildly flapping arc toward me. She lit on my shoulder and from there stared down at the perplexed roosters.

After work that evening, I resumed my search for the hole where the skunk had breached the fence. I used my gas-powered weed whacker to mow a wide swath around the fence while I looked carefully at the ground for any sign. The solution to the mystery eluded me once again as I completed the circuit of the fence and returned to the front gate.

It was at that moment that all finally became clear. As I put down the Weedwacker, I noticed that the bottom of the coop yard gate had a large opening in the chicken wire. It was easily big enough for a skunk to walk right through! This hole was caused indirectly by poor carpentry. When I built the gate I had failed to account for sagging. This omission on my part means that the gate sticks at the bottom corner and requires a light kick with your toe to get it open. Over time, our misdirected kicks had overshot the bottom board of the gate and gradually pushed the chicken wire in the center so far away that the staples had pulled out. This left a huge opening in our defences which the opportunistic skunk had exploited.

I have since repaired the gate by adding a second board to close the hole and act as a larger kick plate for opening. Perhaps I will eventually go so far as to properly support the gate so that it will no longer sag. In the mean time, I believe the chickens are once again safe from skunk attack. As far as we know, the skunk has not returned for a second course. Our neighbor mentioned that he had watched a young skunk amble down his driveway in the direction away from our coop. Let's just hope he found easier pickings somewhere else!
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Waiting Impatiently For Eggs

We have been anticipating the day that our hens would start laying for a long time. Unfortunately we are still waiting. Tomorrow they will be 21 weeks old and it's seems high time for some eggs to appear. The young roosters have been making their clumsy attempts to move things along much to the annoyance of the hens. They invariably get chased, squashed, clawed and have a few feathers yanked out in the process. So much for avian romance.

As with everything else, I have been overdue in providing the hens somewhere to lay their eggs. Every few days, I have scouted among the weeds for eggs but their brown color decreases my chance of finding them. Perhaps they have been standing around with their legs crossed and holding their breath waiting for me to get the maternity ward in order.

Last weekend, I finally managed to put a few hours into this task. The pictures show the result. I copied the design from a sketch that I found in the book "Barnyard In Your Backyard". I'm not sure why the ceiling of each nest box needed to be so high but I think they'll suffice. The book claims that this three nest unit will accommodate up to twelve hens. Since we have thirteen, I'm hoping I can stretch that number by one for now. We hung it on the wall just inside the coop doorway at the recommended height.

I lined the bottom of each nest with a square of cardboard and then added straw to make a comfortable nest. Per the advice that I have seen in a few books, I placed a golf ball in each nest to act as a clue for the hens of what the boxes are for. Each time I have been in the coop, I have picked up a few hens and placed them on the roost at the front of the box.

After getting over being rudely handled by the brutish human, they stand on the roost and peer at the golf ball in the nest with interest. Each hen eventually has stepped into the nest and poked about in the straw for a minute or two before making their way back down to the floor. I have no evidence to date that these little training sessions are of any use, but if they start laying golf balls we'll be rich!
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Coop Progress

On Sunday afternoon we finally turned our attention back to the much neglected coop project. The partially constructed building has been standing untouched for many weeks as we put our efforts into other projects such as gardening, mowing, organizing the basement and getting the tractor stuck in big mud holes. Janet, Sean and I put aside those entertainments for a while to move the project closer to completion.


In truth, Sean and I have been building roof trusses between other tasks for the past few weeks. They had been leaning up against the shed awaiting the next step. We finally managed to mount them on the roof and square them up. The rest of the day was devoted to cutting and installing plywood on the exterior of the building.


The photo shows how it looks at the moment. The chickens inspected every aspect of our work and seem to approve with the exception of one rooster who kept nipping at my hands whenever I passed by. I can take criticism as well as the next construction worker but I should confess that I made a mental note to pick up some chicken leg bands on the way home from work. In the interest of unanimity I plan to make sure that rooster is the first one in line for the cooking pot!
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Daily Routine

We have not had any more losses since Sean and I fortified the coop. All of our efforts of late have been put into the garden and the coop remains a bit of an eyesore due to its less-than half-built nature. Despite this, it has been holding up well to the rainy weather and nightly probes by predators.

The birds have settled in well to their new routine. At sunset each evening I head out to bed them down with a pail of mixed feed and scratch in hand. As I approach the chicken-yard gate, I always call out saying "chick...chick...chick" to let them know that I am coming. During the day this call will bring them running from all directions to gather excitedly at my feet. In the late evening they will have already gathered indoors. Rather than venturing out, they simply answer my call with squawks and clucks.

Unfortunately they have picked the corner behind the door as their favorite site for their nightly pile-up. It is amazing how tiny of a space twenty one chickens can cram themselves into. While it is inconvenient to get through the door when they are packed so tightly behind it, I can't really complain all that much since I have yet to equip the coop with proper roosts. I actually went to the store a few days ago to pick up the recommended two-inch dowels but upon seeing the price they were asking, I told myself that I would find a way to make something more economical.

After scooping the wood chips away in a few spots, I pour the feed out on the floor. This brings them out of the corner and makes them easier to count. After making sure that they are all present, I leave them to their dinner closing them in securely behind the coop door.

In the morning the routine is similar. I lay out their breakfast outside while they excitedly gibber and squawk to be let out. Once the door is finally open they come charging out in an exuberant race to be the first at the buffet.

The rest of the day the chickens require no attention at all. They wander through the tall weeds in search of bugs, they nibble at plants, they take long luxurious dust baths and stretch, flap and run to their heart's content. From my vantage point as their chef, handmaid and butler, I have to say that they've got a pretty good life.
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"Fort Fowl"

Here is a picture of the coop as it appears today. The northern half is walled in to protect the chickens from predators during the night. The plywood has been covered with house-wrap to avoid damage from the rain and the roof trusses are covered temporarily with a blue tarp.


We had talked about trying to match the styling of the house when building the coop. I just occurred to me that I'm carrying that idea a little too far as both the house and the coop now have nice blue tarp roofs! Airplane pilots must be wondering what kind of goat rodeo we are running down here.
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Something Is Eating The Chickens!

Sunday morning dawned cool and beautiful. Sean and I talked about the possibilities for the day over breakfast trying to decide which of the many projects that we have going would be the best use of our time. Sean asked if he could feed the chickens before we started so we headed out to the coop to check on them.

The chickens always come running from all directions when they see us approaching. They crowd the fence like adoring fans and welcome us with excited peeps and whistles. I remarked to Sean that the flock seemed a little smaller than usual as we passed through the gate and began the slow walk to the coop as the milling chickens did their best to position themselves directly in the path of each footfall.

As Sean fed the hungry birds we attempted the difficult task of counting them. It is difficult because they are continuously moving about and jockeying for a choice bit of ground at which to peck. After coming up with a number of different results we finally concluded that the correct number was twenty-one, a sum that was two birds less than it should have been!

We begun looking around the chicken yard, searching for the missing birds. We were sure that they would not have been able to resist coming back to the coop for breakfast. I walked along the fence trying to spot anywhere that a predator could have entered but found none.

In the far corner, I came upon the remains of one of the birds. It had been killed and half eaten by something that was strong enough to crunch right through the bones. What was left was the lower half of the chicken with the spine and ribcage cleanly chewed through. A while later we located a single leg from the other poor bird. Clearly something big and hungry had been dining in the coop during the night.

Since there was no sign of digging, the perpetrator had either climbed or jumped over the fence. My bet was that it had been a raccoon. My neighbors opined that a coyote could clear the 4 1/2 foot fence as well. Whatever it was, it was obvious to Sean and I that our day would now be spent improving the security of the coop to prevent further losses to the toothsome visitor from out of the dark.

The chickens had been housed on the previous night in the unfinished coop surrounded by a second run of chicken wire. Since this type of fencing was not doing the trick, we resolved to completely wall in one half of the coop so we could close them safely inside. We joked that we were on a mission to fortify "Fort Fowl" in preparation for the attack from the enemy that would surely come again as soon as the sun went down.

We headed off to purchase twenty sheets of plywood and then spent the rest of the day walling in the northern half of the coop. It was exciting the see the room coming together. We completed it by installing one of the doors that I picked up from a reuse center. At sunset we placed our feathered charges in their new home and closed them in.

It was a school night so Sean had to turn in. I continued until midnight tacking up chicken wire across the large window openings. I was unsure if the predator could climb all of the way up to those windows but I was in no mood to take any chances.

On my way out to work this morning, I stopped by the coop and let the birds out for the day. They were all present and accounted for and none the worse for wear. As long as our bold chicken stealer doesn't get so hungry as to risk an attack by daylight we should be able to prevent further casualties.
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Trusses

The coop project has moved along to the point that I needed to start thinking about the roof. My design hadn't moved beyond laying out the walls and they had recently been framed in. For a little while I entertained the idea of putting off the roof and just continuing to finish the walls but a few days of rain convinced me that all of our work was going to get ruined if I didn't do something about getting it covered.


My first question in designing the roof was what sort of pitch should be used. I searched around the web for recommended pitches to handle the significant weight of snow that can build up during our Michigan winters. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the information that I wanted so I simply settled on a 6/12 pitch.


I drew up the trusses on the computer and bought all of the supplies. We had some friends over last weekend who were willing to lend a hand so we pulled out the mitre saw and the mending plates and gave it a whirl. Joe and I measured the angles on the drawing, adjusted the saw and made the cuts in the hope that it would turn out as planned. To our surprise, the pieces of the puzzle fit together very well and we began turning out truss after truss.


I now have half trusses mounted on the coop and securely covered with a tarp. I am still shopping around for reasonably priced sheet metal to cover it. In the mean time, it is very satisfying to stand in that half of the coop during a rain storm and watch the rain pour off either side leaving the coop high and dry beneath.
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Fence Finally Completed!

After three evenings of concentrated work on the chicken enclosure fencing, it is finally complete enough to allow them out of their temporary cage to forage. Immediately upon being released they clustered around my feet and began pecking at everything in sight in search of something interesting to eat. They are as tame as can be and will readily tolerate petting or even being picked up and carried around. The only objection I ever get is a squawk when I accidentally step on one of their toes because they cluster so heavily around my feet that it is nearly impossible to walk.

It is entertaining the watch their antics as they explore their new world. They will sometimes run and flap their wings in what appears to be simple joy at having so much room to run around. There is one particular spot in the yard that they have made into a chicken hot tub. Freya had dug in that spot a few weeks ago with a shovel to fill in a nearby hole. She left behind a circular area with fine sandy dust. The chickens crowd into this little basin, hunker down and roll about flipping dust into their feathers. They flop around as if they have been mortally wounded but all the while clearly relishing the experience.

Today one of the hens put on an amazing display of her maneuverability as she nimbly chased a fly around and around in looping waggling circles. It was a strange sight to see how well she locked onto this insect, stretched out her neck and propelled her puffy little body around and around in hot pursuit. The fly got away in the end but it was not due to her lack of trying.

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Chickens In New Home

Here are the chickens as they settled into their partially built home on that first night back on the farm.

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The Coop Wall Design

Here is my design of the coop stud walls...
(click on the image for a large view)
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The Chickens Come Home

With the coop only partially built and surrounded by a fence that was far from complete, the day had come when we needed to bring the chickens back to our farm. They had been under the care of my brother-in-law for the past month but had begun dying in the last few days of their stay. What was killing them was a bit of a mystery but I believe it was caused by the fact that they were closed up in a small space for too long.

The priority for the day was to get the fence in place to keep the chickens in and predators out. This proved to be a massive task for a number of reasons including the fact that I decided to enclose a very large area of over 6,000 square feet around the coop for their use. I wanted to dedicate this much space to them to set up a pasturing system where I could give them adequate foraging room while restricting their access to sections of it to allow the plant life to recover between uses. We'll see if this idea works but my intention is to avoid the conditions of other chicken yards that are quickly reduced to bare dirt and mud.

The most miserable part of the fencing job was digging a trench to enclose the lower 1 1/2 feet of the fencing. The idea behind this is to discourage predators who might be tempted to dig their way to a chicken dinner. Our extension agent had warned me that chickens were little more than "meat on a stick" and a big draw for every predator for miles around. I was determined to do all that I could to make sure that the only predators dining on them would be us.

The trenching job was made even worse because of my siting of the coop at the boundary area between the field and the woods. I had chosen this spot for two reasons; the first was that I was loath to give up very much cleared land for the project and the second was that a coop seemed like a good use for the partially treed spot that would have been far more difficult to clear for gardening. It may have been the best use of the area but the decision meant that much of the trenching had to be done with an axe!

I spent much of the day hacking away at this task and intermittently glancing up at the sun to see how quickly the day was passing. I was making steady progress but it was clear that the task was far too big for the time remaining. Inevitably, it fell to Janet to come out and talk some sense into me. After a few minutes of me insisting that I could just keep going, we decided that another plan would have to be developed to provide shelter for the birds until the fence could be completed.

The new direction being plotted, we all drove into our Plan B to get the chickens home on time. Janet headed to the hardware store to pick up an extra roll of chicken wire and some plastic. Meanwhile the children and I began covering half of our coop structure with tarps. We basically turned that half of the coop into a chicken cage.

The chickens were glad to see us when we arrived to transfer them to the van. They crowded around our feet so much that it was difficult to walk without stepping on them. They had grown tremendously and were obviously feathered-in enough to withstand being outdoors. We packed them back in the two brood boxes and made our bumpy way along the dirt roads back to our farm.

As the sun set on our productive weekend, we released the chickens into their new quarters. We set up a heat-lamp, food and water and they settled in without any problems. I was nervous for a couple of days that the fatalities would continue but they seem healthy and happy. They will be even better off when we can complete the fence and let them start foraging for the first time.
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