Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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How to Freeze Eggs

wpid CAM03178 1024x759 How to Freeze Eggs

The winter of 2013/2014 was our first snowy season as chicken owners. I say was with a small amount of sarcasm since the snow just doesn’t seem to want to let go. (The three-foot-deep mounds in our backyard have melted to nothing in some places, but every few days it snows it again. Meanwhile Easter is only weeks away…) We were prepared for a reduction in egg production and made a plan for getting as many winter eggs as possible without causing too much stress to our hens. What we didn’t prepare was the most abysmally, blisteringly cold and long winter in the last thirty years. Though our egg production was decent for the conditions, it’s understanding that we went 8-10 weeks with nothing but hungry, cold hens.

It was a far cry from September days when I looked in the cupboard at three dozen eggs and thought “Well, it looks like quiche again for dinner!”

So you can imagine my delight in early March when I optimistically checked the nesting box and found… wait for it… an egg! A glorious, brown egg. (Though at the moment it looked more golden than brown. I’m pretty sure angels were ascending and descending on the coop and I heard the faint sound of harps surrounding me. At least I think…)

Double my delight when two eggs began showing up… then four… and now for the last week, we’re back up to one egg per hen – six eggs a day!

Now that I understand the feast or famine reality of owning a laying flock, I’m all the more interested in preserving our excess for use in our lean days. Otherwise stated, I want to purposefully preserve our extra eggs during warm weather to use next winter. After some research there are two options I want to explore: Dehydrating and freezing eggs.

We’ll save dehydrating for another day. Today, I want to teach you how to freeze eggs. You might not have laying hens to keep up with, but if you find a great deal on eggs, you can stock up to save now without worrying about them going bad. Here’s how it works.

How to Freeze Eggs

Visit our website for complete instructions and lots of photos. Click here!
 
 

Winter Egg Update

In mid-November I shared that our hens had stopped laying eggs completely due to molting, cold weather and minimal daylight hours. Though chickens can and will lay occasional eggs during cold, dark winter days, we decided not to endure an entire winter of feeding chickens who aren’t ‘giving back’ (or the shame of buying eggs at the grocery store)! After research and input form other homesteaders, we settled on the following plan:
  1. Add artificial light in the early morning hours so that the hens receive at least 14 hours of light a day.
  2. Use an eco-friendly white light in our heat lamp. Saves money and energy.
  3. Avoid using a red heat lamp to insure against the scenario where the chickens get used to the extra heat and we subsequently lose power.
  4. Feed more protein to the flock.

Today I’d like to give you a quick update on the progress of our plan.

First, I bought an outdoor automatic timer found in the holiday lighting section of Menards (less than $10). Though I can only plug one thing into it at a time, it allows me to create several (maybe a dozen?) different schedules for times of the day and days of the week. We’ve opted to turn our light on from 2:30 AM to 8:30 AM every morning. It’s a little longer than necessary, but based on the shifting time of the sunrise it will keep us covered without me having to remember to revise the schedule. (Call me lazy…)

The day after I finally go the light installed I went out to feed the chickens. I peeked into the coop from the door opposite the nesting box to see if there were any eggs. (I’d been doing this for several weeks – since the chickens hadn’t laid in egg in sooo long – and because it’s easier then hopping the fence to get to the nesting box.) I noticed that an egg was laying on the floor of the coop below the nesting box; it must have rolled out. How exciting! We had an egg! I hadn’t expected the light to work so quickly…

I hopped the fence, opened the nesting box and, imagine my surprise, when I discovered 16 eggs! No wonder one had rolled out…

The lesson: Yes, chickens still lay winter eggs naturally in the absence of supplemental light and heat.

True as this may be, I had no idea how many eggs per day this 16 represented (it had been three to four weeks since I’d checked… I think… I wasn’t keeping track) and one egg every few days is still not going to cut it as justification when Mr. Shank is reviewing our feed bill.

At any rate, using the light seemed to work fairly well. The girls started laying about 3 eggs a day. Recently we’ve had several four-egg days.

winter eggs

By adding supplemental light and heat we’ve been getting about three eggs a day.

winter eggs

Three eggs a day ain’t bad!

However, two things happened that made me alter the plan. First, the chickens did seem to be getting restless, even a little aggressive from their 6-hour stints locked up inside the lighted coop. Also, on very super cold days (of which we several in late November/early December) they stopped laying completely. With these things in mind, I decided to switch to the red heat lamp.

red heat light lamp chicken coop

As I mentioned in last month’s winter egg production post, red light has proven to be useful in calming chickens’ nerves. (Weird, right?) I’m certainly not conducting a scientific experiment here, but I can say that the hens seem to be calmer now that we’ve been using the red light. I have no idea if it’s just a factor of time or if it has to do with the warmth of the heat lamp, but the two chickens whose feathers were very sparse have filled back in nicely.

So far things are going well – we’re pleased with three or four eggs a day. I’ve been cooking up food scraps (like carrot peelings, apple cores, sweet potato leftovers, bits of steak, etc.) into a warm batch of… goop… for the hens to enjoy. And though I know they’re a heavy breed intended to withstand winter just fine on their own, I can tell that they’re not fond of the snow. They come out in the morning to eat and drink but usually spend their day in the coop.

I bet they can’t wait for six-eggs-a-day season spring.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.   

 
 

Winter Egg Production

If you live in Michigan then you don’t need me to tell you that the weather is getting cold and the days are getting darker. Our yard has already been covered in a dual blanket of leaves and snow several times this month. Another sign at Arcadia Farms that cold weather has arrived can be found in the chicken coop. Or, more specifically, can’t be found in the chicken coop. No eggs. Our hens have stopped laying completely. We’ve been eggless for over a week now.

Making the transition from egg producers to egg consumers has highlighted how blessed we are to have our own chickens. Last Friday my grocery list included eggs for the first time in about six months. I confess that I felt almost like a fraud as I reached into the cooler of eggs at Meijer. In addition to my farmer-shame, I discovered that ‘natural’ eggs at the store are up to $4 a dozen now – Yikes! I’m eager to get our girls back into production, so here’s the plan.

Why Hens Stop Producing Eggs in Fall/Winter

why chickens stop laying eggsIn early October our hens’ egg production slowed to four or five eggs a day rather than the usual six. We suspect that the hens were in the process of molting. Molting is when chickens produce new plumage for winter and shed their summer feathers. The process is aimed at preparing the bird for winter and takes a significant amount of energy to complete. The energy normally spent on egg production is consumed by the molting process.

We’re cool with losing out on a few eggs here and there while we wait patiently for nature to do its thing. Or at least, we were, until nature started to look like an empty nesting box.

Last week our chickens abruptly stopped laying completely. The event coincided with me cleaning out the coop and refreshing the bedding. Though I knew that was an unlikely culprit in the lack of eggs, I decided to keep the hens in their paddock for an entire day to make sure they hadn’t just picked a new favorite spot to nest. No dice eggs.

Thanks to a little research and feedback from a homesteading Facebook group I discovered the other two reasons why chickens stop laying eggs as the weather cools: Lack of warmth and lack of sunlight.

Chickens require about 14 total hours of sunlight per day to produce eggs. An article on Backyard Chickens does an excellent job of explaining why:

“Chickens are ‘told’ to produce eggs by their endocrine system, a system of different glands and organs that produce hormones.  As the daylight hours shorten in winter, changes in these hormones shut down egg production. Adding additional light triggers the endocrine system into action, causing them to produce more eggs. Continuously giving chickens light in the winter fools their bodies into thinking that the days aren’t getting shorter at all.”

Another cold-weather factor impacts egg production is (no surprise here) temperature. Chickens lay best when the ambient temperature is between 52 and 79 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures fall outside of those parameters, egg production slows or stops. Also sudden, extreme changes in temperature can trigger an equally sudden stop to egg laying. (If ‘sudden, extreme change in temperature’ doesn’t describe fall in Michigan, I don’t know what does!)

Our hens had already begun molting in early October (with a subsequent drop in eggs) but during the week of our first official snow (which contained a sudden and large drop in ambient temperatures) they stopped producing entirely.

How to Re-Start Egg Production

The prescription for getting our hens producing again is pretty straight forward. Step 1 is to provide more light. After research and discussion with experienced chicken owners, it appears that adding heat and changing diet may be helpful but don’t always prove necessary.

Winter Lighting in the Chicken Coop

Artificial lighting can be used to supplement sunlight and provide chickens with the total 14 hours needed daily to produce eggs when days are short. We’re not able to hardwire a light in our coop at this time so we’ve run an outdoor extension cord to the same light we used to keep our birdies warm when they were chicks.

lighting chicken coop

Based on my research the best practice is to add early-morning light rather than evening light. Additional evening light can have an impact on the birds’ temperaments and might also result in adjusting the birds to be afternoon layers. For some people these potential side effects might not be a burden. In the event of adding evening light, a low-tech way is to turn the light on in the evening when you’d normally turn your house lights on (5:30ish these days) and turning them off when you go to bed. For early-morning light, or for those of you who want a more hands-off approach, installing a timer will do the trick. I plan to spend between $20-$30 at a home improvement store to find the right solution to add early-morning light without having to get up in the wee hours of the morning.

lighting chicken coopI’ve talked to several homesteaders who’ve had success getting their hens to lay in winter by simply using a white light bulb (40 or 60 watt). Using a high efficiency bulb can make this an environmentally and financially friendly option. Meanwhile, using a red heat lamp (like the one used to keep little chicks warm as they grow) costs more to operate; however, the red light may actually be more beneficial to your flock. Research cited by Animalens Inc. shows that chickens who wear red-tinted contact lenses (yes, seriously) “behave differently from birds that don’t. The chickens are calmer, less prone to pecking and cannibalism; the mortality rate is lower. For a variety of reasons, some not fully understood, they also tend to eat less feed while producing, on average, the same size and number of eggs as other chickens (even a bit more).” I’m not itching to run out and buy contact lenses for my chickens (especially at $20 per pair!) but I’m willing to buy the fact that red might be overall better for the disposition (and egg production) of my birdies.

Warming the Chicken Coop in Winter

Of course using a red heat bulb in the coop helps to address both lighting and warming. If red lighting isn’t an option for you, proper insulation will go a long way to helping your chickens to stay warm. Your inclination might be to simply close up the coop tightly, but remember that proper ventilation is important! You don’t want a direct breeze blowing on the place where your hens roost, however, air flow is important to keep molds and mildews from building up as your chickens add heat and moisture (body heat and breath) to the coop. Overarching all of this is the admonition to select birds that do well in winter weather. In general heavier breeds will be more likely to thrive during cold weather.

A good point to keep in mind is that if you heat your coop your chickens will learn to depend on that warmth. What happens then when if you lose power? A natural way to add a small amount of heat to the coop is to use the deep liter method. With this method the decomposition of liter and manure will add some (not sure how much) heat to the coop all winter long.

In addition to what’s around them, chickens can be kept warm by what is in them. One site suggests feeding the chickens corn in the evening so that they are digesting during the night (adding warmth). Warmed water may also help your birds stay warm. You can buy water heaters from a store like Tractor Supply Company.

heated base chicken waterer

Or you could try something like this…

Should We Re-Start Egg Production?

You can see that re-starting egg production (or keeping it from stopping) when the days become short and cold can be very straightforward – add a heat lamp. But before you head out to the coop, consider this: Should you?

Healthy, happy chickens are likely to produce at least some eggs during the winter. Clearly adding artificial light and heat means you’re adding things that naturally-raised chickens have survived without for many, many generations. There’s some debate about whether or not adding artificial light and heat may have long-term negative effects on the health of your chickens. More specifically, there is debate about the health impact on a chicken who is forced to continue laying when she should be molting.

One fact that is not up for debate is whether or not adding artificial light will shorten the laying longevity of a hen. Chickens are born with all the eggs they will ever produce, so, inducing them to lay (by using artificial light) when they naturally would not (cold, light-deprived winter days) is essentially hastening the day when your hen will be ready to retire. For those of you keeping chickens as pets, this is a serious point to consider. For those raising chickens for their eggs, it may be of less concern.

Our Plans

I want to treat our chickens humanely and provide them with a healthy environment. However… I also want eggs. And though I am planning to keep these birdies for their whole life, I’m also planning on their life ending right about the time they stop laying (likely about 3 years). After that, I’ll keep them… in a ½ gallon canning jar on the shelf or sealed in my freezer. You can imagine then that I’m not too concerned about hastening the advent of each hen’s final egg. I am, however, concerned about raising my hens in a way that is healthy for them (and ultimately, my family). I don’t like the idea of our flock adjusting to artificial heat (i.e., red heat bulb) because I worry about the potential harm it could do to them if when we have one of those famous Michigan winter power outages. Though red light may be more soothing than white, my hope is that providing light from a regular bulb will feel more natural when delivered in the morning (kind of like an early sunrise… maybe I’m kidding myself…). If I see a change in temperament in the flock I’ll likely switch to a red light for good since I also read that switching back and forth can be even more stressful than simply using a white light.

I’ll need to do more research, but I’m considering giving our flock a good 4-6 weeks off each fall (October and November) to molt without the presence of artificial light and heat. After that time, then I think I’ll move on to adding artificial white light. What do you think? Any concerns about that plan? Any tips you can provide this rookie chicken-keeper with? You know I appreciate all of it!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.   

 
 

Poultry Personnel

Despite being someone who likes to plan, I’ve developed this trend during the last several years of my life where I put things off until the last minute. Getting my garden ready for fall (and really, winter and spring) has sadly been no different. Last fall I was able to invest lots of time in the garden while Owen was at school. This year we’re blessed to have a precious 2-year-old foster child with us so my time in the garden is significantly more limited.

I have gotten some work done. I spent time digging up and mulching a couple of aisles. Two beds have been weeded and mulched with grass clippings. And I’ve also pulled up all of the summer plants. (Some of them, like summer squash and peppers, didn’t come out until after our first frost.) At this point there are three main areas I need to focus on:

  • Pulling weeds (which is a very extensive job on the hugelkultur side of the garden)
  • Mulching beds with shredded leaves and manure
  • Dealing with weeds in the aisles

I felt really good about the two beds I was able to take all the way through weeding and mulching. But then I looked around the garden at all the work left to do and I felt overwhelmed. As I mentioned, the hugelkultur beds in particular are just overrun with weeds. And in some places there were so many tomato “droppings” that I wasn’t sure how I’d get them all up. (I’m not interested in volunteer tomato plants next year.) And that’s when I thought of it…

Maybe a chicken could help me?

one chicken

We have a little portable cage we use for Nacho (the rabbit) to have outdoor time. I brought that out and set it up around half of a bed. Then I brought out one of the hens and placed her in it. She started scratching right away – yeah! But after an hour or so, she hadn’t made nearly the progress I was expected.

So I brought out a second chicken.

Two Chickens

Still not making the kind of progress I was hoping for… and also the more adventurous chicken showed the first how to hop right out of the cage. Now I was chasing chickens around the garden to keep them away from the few plants I don’t want them eating: Winter crops which include lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, endive, frisée and a handful of beets. And that’s when I thought of it (again)…

chickens in the garden

I placed clear plastic row covers over the beds with winter crops growing in them. Then the next morning I brought all six of the chickens out to the garden and let them feast. Of course if I could speak chicken, I’d tell them to till my hugelkultur beds first – or else! But since I can’t give them quite such clear direction – and clearly caging them in a certain area wasn’t going to work – I let them eat whatever they’d like. I figure that even if they spend time eating from the aisle space, that will still help me in the long run. In addition to quite a salad bar, they’ve also had their pick of crickets and other bugs who’ve been calling the garden home. They’ve also done a marvelous job cleaning up the tomato mess and have tilled several of the beds. And (so long as I’m motivated to move them early in the morning) allowing them to forage in the garden keeps them out of the paddock and gives me a chance to actually start growing things in there. Woot! I wish I’d thought of this a few weeks ago.

So while they’re not quite as efficient as a team of two or three humans would be, I’m still pretty pumped about farming out my labor onto someone else… even if that someone else is a chicken.

Do any of you use chickens in your garden for tilling or pest control?

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

2013 Farmer’s Report

At the beginning of this month I delivered the final round of produce for our 2013 season. Now that the season has ended, it’s time for me to provide you with our second annual Farmer’s Report. The annual Farmer’s Report is an exercise that helps me analyze what went well, what went wrong and – most importantly – what I’ve learned so that I can apply those lessons to improving subsequent seasons. It’s also a great way for me to share important information with our members and readers.

No One Can Stop You

Before I get too far into the ups and downs of our second season, I want to re-share a little something that inspires me to keep moving forward with this crazy idea of living sustainably.

If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

In 2012 I wrote that:

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of supportive, adventurous people in my life that didn’t have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I first started talking about quitting my well-paid HR job to start a farm in my suburban backyard. But just like any entrepreneur, I’ve encountered my fair share of naysayers who could come up with all sorts of reasons why I should be afraid. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” No, I’m not. “You should probably know more about gardening before you do something like this.” I probably should.  “Won’t that be a lot of work?” Yes, it will. “What if it fails?”

I decided a long time ago that I can choose not to stretch beyond my comfort zone because I’m afraid of failing (and then spend my life wondering what would have happened) or I can take the risk of actually putting myself out there and knowing what would have happened. Innovators don’t change the world by being safe and normal. Everyone with a special skill started somewhere – no one is born an expert. People we revere as world-changers are people who realize that if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.

When I left my full time job to begin Arcadia Farms, I told friends and family that I knew there would be both successes and setbacks ahead of me and that I was looking forward to the opportunity to grow from both of them.  After studying some of the great innovators of history, I’ve come to believe strongly that ‘failing forward’ is a recipe for success. After two years of operating a start-up business, I’ve become more convinced that this is true, but also, I’ve become acquainted with the harsh reality that failing forward is painful. Painful… but worth it.

2013 Recap

This year has been full of new improvements and endeavors. Here are four areas that played a huge role in shaping our year.

Chickens

chickensIn April I brought you Chicken Week, during which I not only revealed our beautiful birdies for the first time, but I also discussed the case for backyard chickens, how to care for baby chicks, how to design space for chickens in a suburban setting and how to build a low-cost, high-quality chicken coop. Few of you know this, but our chicken ownership actually teetered on the edge of causing both a Right to Farm legal battle with our municipality and the potential of losing our farm entirely. I felt it was best to keep the situation private until resolved but it was a major time, resource and energy suck that occurred right at the onset of our CSA season. Thank God that is behind us! Despite the initial legal stress, life with chickens has been pretty darn good! (Who wouldn’t love six eggs a day?)

There is so much follow up information to share about the chickens that they really deserve their own post. I trust that the details of our actual experience compared to our initial expectations will be helpful to those of you who have considered suburban or urban chickens. Look for this soon!

Locavore90

In 2013 we did this wild and crazy thing called Locavore90. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Locavore90 is (was?) a free program to challenge and equip families in Southwest Michigan to incorporate more local foods into their diet for 90 days.

Buying local has been one of three major focus areas for our farm. Add to that the fact that a locavore (local-only) diet can have significant health benefits for both bodies and economies (click here for an explanation) and you can see why I was really stoked about putting this program in motion! I envisioned Locavore90 as a way to have a positive impact in the community, expand the readership of our blog and to find some fellow locavores who could encourage us (and each other) along the way.

The program began with great enthusiasm and effort. However as the season went on, the Locavore90 posts (and posts in general) became fewer and farther between. I can’t say for certain why things tapered off but here’s my best guess. My initial vision for Locavore90 was to create all of the meal plans long before the season ever began. However, our legal issues regarding chickens in the early winter and spring days drained so much time and energy that I was not able to prioritize the task. After the season started, it was difficult to find time to focus on creating quality meal plans. The time and creative energy invested in the meal plans essentially used up the creativity and time I would normally have used for blogging. I also chose to invest a significant amount of time into family relationships this summer. Mathematically, there should have been enough hours in the day to do everything and do it well. In reality, there just wasn’t enough of me to go around and although I wish Locavore90 had ended on a stronger note, I have peace (in fact, I’m pleased) about the choices I made with how to invest my limited energy and time.

Having said all of that, Locavore90 was still good! I personally gained a lot of valuable information about things like sources for in-season food and the value of raw milk. I also discovered some great recipes which will forever be go-to staples for our family. And lastly I was blessed to get to “meet” so many of you online and expand our readership. Thank you, thank you, thank you for participating! I’m not sure what Locavore90 will look like next year, but just like everything we set out to do, I’ll take the lessons learned from this experience to make it simpler and better the next time around.

Brokered Vegetables

apple boyThis spring I also had the pleasure of announcing that we would be partnering with two other small-scale growers to form a group known as Arcadia Growers Group. This group aims to sell produce to commercial customers such as schools, restaurants, small grocers, and childcare facilities. Our first customer (a local childcare facility) has provided us with an excellent initial experience. We had a slow start due to the unseasonably cold weather this spring, but once deliveries began in July sales have been working like clockwork. Our brokerage work has been very profitable for our partners and has been a good source of supplemental income for our farm.

This endeavor has been personally enriching for me because it helped me realize something: I love sales and marketing! Or more specifically, I love selling and marketing something I’m passionate about and enjoy. This epiphany moment is helping to shape our business plans as I decide who I want to be when I grow up.

If you are a small-scale grower who uses natural methods and you’d like some help selling your veggies to a broader market, please let me know (katie@arcadia-farms.net). We’re looking for more partners to expand our growers group and intend to add additional customers in 2014. Likewise, if you manage an organization that could benefit from local, naturally-raised produce, please contact me. I’m sure we can help you!

CSA

Our second CSA season has been a good one. In 2012 I learned several lessons from both our successes and failures and I was eager to implement solutions that evolved from those lessons. Those solutions resulted in larger shares (more veggies each week), less supplementing, reduced waste in packaging, consistent labeling, improved pest/disease control and more consistent application of customer preferences.

Lessons Learned in 2013

Just like last year, I’m walking away from this season having learned several lessons. Following this list will be a more in-depth discussion of what I experienced and the conclusions I’ve drawn from those experiences.

  1. Newspaper pots are not as effective for seed-starting as other options.
  2. Hugelkultur works… I think.
  3. I need to do a better job of managing weeds in my aisle space.
  4. The chicken paddocks need to be improved.
  5. I learned more about specific pest and disease management tools.
  6. There is a certain disease that significantly impacts several of my crops each year. I need to determine if it is really anthracnose and find a way to effectively deal with it.
  7. There is no end to this worry: “Will there be enough and will it be ready when I need it?”
  8. I have to choose between small-scale simplicity and large-scale income (profit).
  9. I need to decide who I want to be when I grow up.

No More Newspaper Pots

kale seedling in newspaper potThis winter I spent a significant amount of blogging time focused on the seed-starting process. I learned lots of tips that I’ve found to be effective, such as soaking seeds, chitting potatoes and planting by moon phases. Another solution I presented to you involved creating newspaper pots for starting seeds. The premise is that you turn waste into a resource by folding an origami-like pot out of newspaper, fill it with potting soil and plant your seed. Later when you’re ready to transfer the seedling to the garden you can place the pot directly into the soil since it will decompose. I also liked the fact that you can label each pot since I have had issues with being diligent in labeling. After reviewing several options for seed starting media, I decided that the benefits of newspaper pots sounded like the best solution. Hundreds of them. I folded hundreds of newspaper pots… I even paid my nieces and nephews commission to help me make some of them! Turns out that this solution didn’t work so well for me. Here’s why…

First, the soil in the pots dries out quickly and requires frequent watering. On the flip side, the pots definitely need drainage holes/slots on the bottom otherwise they get bogged down. Also there was a noticeable trend that the seedlings growing in newspaper pots were less healthy (smaller, more fragile) than seedlings grown in other ways. My presumption is that this issue is caused by a combination of the too dry/too wet conundrum and becoming root-bound. Once these limitations  are added up, the fact that it takes a considerable amount of time to fold and prepare the pots becomes another negative.

I did, however, discover this season the method for seed starting that I plan to use for my future gardens. On several occasions I ran out of newspaper pots and opted to sow seeds directly into trays (like these) filled with potting soil. In every case, the seedlings grown in trays were healthier than those grown in pots. This approach takes up the same amount of space in my greenhouse. Since I have lots of trays (purchased here) and can use home-grown compost for seed starting, I now have the resources I need to operate a self-sufficient seed starting operation. Woot!

Hugelkultur Works… I Think

Hugelkultur trenchesWe have made large financial and time investments into implementing hugelkultur on our farm. The 2013 expansion of our garden is comprised entirely of hugelkultur beds. For the uninitiated, hugelkultur is a German concept which roughly translates to “mound culture.” The overall idea is that woody materials (i.e. logs, brush) buried under a mound of soil will provide both nutrients and water retention as the wood decomposes. The process is touted as a no-irrigation system of growing. For a more in-depth discussion on the pros and cons of hugelkultur, click here.

Our hugelkultur beds started the season as approximately 4-foot deep pits filled with rotting logs and then covered by 1-2 feet of compost. The beds, initially raised mounds, have all settled and are now level with the ground. All of the beds have grown healthy, thriving plants with the exception of one. That particular bed was topped with native soil and not with compost. Though I can’t say it had thriving plants, it did grow several pounds of zucchini (from struggling plants), radishes and is now growing shelling peas. Even with this exception, I’m very pleased with the results from the hugelkultur side of the garden.

And what about the no-irrigation claims attached to hugelkultur? Well, fortunately for our CSA, we had lots of rain this year. Unfortunately for our hugelkultur experiment… we had lots of rain this year. It’s difficult for me to say whether or not the water-retention benefit s of hugelkultur were truly evident as I compared the east and west sides of the garden because of the massive amount of rain we received. All the same, I did observe that the hugelkultur side of the garden appeared to be healthier than the traditional side. If I have time in the spring, I will likely convert a few traditional beds to hugelkultur and do a comparison through the next season. I also hope to convert the entire Fenceline Garden to a shallow hugelkultur bed.

Weed Management in Aisle Space

weed control garden aisleI have a major weed issue. On the west side of the garden (built in 2012) the issue is simply that the aisle space gets unruly and occasionally tall weeds are able to reach over the bed sides (one foot tall), depositing seeds as they grow. The mulch that originally covered these aisles has either decomposed substantially or has been washed away. There are enough gaps (and now enough composted nutrients) available that the aisles were quickly taken over by all kinds of plants this spring. In some areas I laid down cardboard, but I didn’t have enough to cover the whole garden.

The east side of the garden is comprised of hugelkultur beds. Although these are technically “raised beds” they don’t have any hardscape sides – they are simply mounds of compost atop a deep pit filled with lumber and organic matter. In early spring this was no problem because the aisles were still basically sand from all the hugel digging done the previous winter. My intent was to cover the aisles with cardboard and then mulch, but once the season got rolling I prioritized many other things ahead of aisle space. Weeds have very easily and readily moved into the fertile hugelkutlur beds. As you might expect, I have some thoughts on how to address this issue.

Here’s the plan: I’m looking for living ground cover that will choke out the competitors, won’t be so aggressive that it snakes in under the sides of raised beds, doesn’t need to be mowed and can handle foot traffic.  And I’d like fries with that too, please.

In this blog post I shared several possibilities and asked for your opinions. Turns out there’s an option out there I hadn’t thought of at that time: Ajuga. Ajuga is an evergreen, perennial ground cover that can handle foot traffic. While touring some landscaping improvements made at my in-law’s house this summer I noticed that they had some ajuga growing in their front yard. For them it is an unwanted weed so my mother-in-law was more than willing to let me pull some up to take home. I’m currently growing the transplants in my greenhouse and plan to gather more from their place. In the spring I’ll be transplanting ajuga into the aisle spaces.

Meanwhile, I need to do something to give myself a head start in the spring. I’ve just started the slow, labor-intensive process of digging up the sod in the aisle spaces and turning it upside down. I also have a large pile of wood chips still from cutting down several trees to make room for a micro-orchard so I’m using that in some places. My plan is to plant the ajuga directly into the wood chips in a test area and see what happens. Maybe I’m crazy… we’ll find out!

The other necessary solution is that my hugelkultur beds need hardscape sides. I haven’t decided yet if I want to use cinder blocks or lumber. More on that in time.

Chicken Paddock Perfection

Before the division...

Before the division…

Our chicken coop is located in a paddock system. The original design called for four paddocks (fenced areas) each accessible from a separate door in the coop and through which the chickens could rotate. Each paddock is designed to be planted with crops chickens can self harvest (i.e., grasses, greens, berries). Though the numbers on our original design made sense per the experts, the size of each paddock just seemed too small. So instead of four paddock we have two.

Our paddock system is being implemented over time. In other words, we didn’t make time to do it all at once and we’re completing phases when we can. I don’t recommend this approach because it creates a problem… a problem that the system is actually designed to avoid.

When we first got the chickens they roamed the fenced backyard. It actually wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be to have chickens running around. The only real problem – poop. Everywhere. Especially at the back door for some reason. (Thanks, chickens…).  So after a month or two of being outdoors we finally erected a 20’ x 30’ fence around the coop. It was nice to have an area to banish the chickens to that still afforded them the opportunity to forage. However, it became obvious over the next several weeks that corralling the chickens into this 600 square foot area was going to wipe out the vegetation before too long. The solution was to finally raise the fence dividing this space so that we could rotate the chickens between them. That’s when our next and most recent problem developed…

Chickens are drawn to freshly tilled dirt. So any plants I tried to transplant or any seeds I tried to sow were promptly dug up. Eventually we decided to keep them completely out of one section, allowing that paddock to grow. Because this decision was made late in the summer (or perhaps we should call it early fall) the plants have not experienced the kind of established growth they need to withstand six chickens. When spring comes, there will be so much variety springing to life in that little area – sunflowers, kale, lettuce, spinach, strawberries, peas and more!

After the division...

After the division…

Meanwhile the second paddock has been reduced to a poopy mud pit. Our girls are such excellent foragers that I hate it when I have to “lock them up” in there. We’re constantly playing the trade off of keeping them in the muddy paddock but not accumulating poop in the yard or letting them roam the yard and dealing with the mess. And that’s not even the problem… The real problem is figuring out how to get both paddocks “fully stocked” at about the same time. In other words, if we move the chickens to the fertile paddock this spring, there may not be enough time for the muddy paddock to catch up before we need to rotate the birds away from destroying the first paddock.

We’re not exactly experiencing optimal weather for growing at this time of the year, but our initial plan is to keep the chickens out of the paddock entirely for the next 4-6 weeks to give time for at least some ground cover to be established. I’ll talk about that plan in more detail in an upcoming post about the chickens.

Pest & Disease Management

Anthracnose Annihilation

One of my goals for this year was to implement new ideas for pest and disease management. The most prominent solution involved using neem oil. Neem oil is a natural oil pressed from seeds and fruits of an evergreen neem tree found in India. Neem oil is used as a biopesticide and to control diseases like black spot, powdery mildew, anthracnose and rust.

anthracnose plagued beans

Anthracnose plagued beans

With consistent applications early in the year we were able to fight off large-scale white powdery mildew. Plants seemed healthier and bugs weren’t an issue. (Even though we did have some squash bugs, they never caused enough damage to be a true pest!) With the onset of frequent rain I was unable to stick to a regular schedule of spraying neem oil. Of course constantly wet conditions are the perfect breeding ground for mildew and fungus. During this time white powdery mildew began to show up and spread in the garden, as well as the familiar brown-spotted disease that has plagued some of our best crops. Last year after doing some research I self-diagnosed the mystery disease as Anthracnose, which can be prevented and controlled by neem oil.

During the raining season both mildew and anthracnose had their way in the garden. Once things dried up a bit I was able to do a few more applications which helped to keep the mildew in check. Meanwhile, anthracnose has destroyed nearly all of the beans and it also claimed the cucumbers. Over the winter I’m going to work on definitively identifying this continually destructive disease(what if it’s not anthracnose?) and finding ways to address it in 2014.

We’ve done more in the garden to address pests than applying neem oil. First, I planted radishes with squashes to act as a trap crop for vine borers. Guess what? It worked! Worked on zucchini, summer squash, acorn squash, pumpkins and melons. I’ve always had big-time issues with vine borers, but not this year! This tactic will be a staple in my garden going forward.

I also planted borage with the pumpkins and melons. Borage is considered a magic bullet for companion planting. It is known for improving the productivity and taste of many crops. It repels several pests (i.e., tomato hornworms, cabbage worms/moths) and it’s flowers attract pollinators. I couldn’t say for sure that borage solved my pest problems, but I did have pretty good luck with my melons and family pumpkins this year (no disease or pest issues).

And as always, healthy soil is the number one defense against pests and disease. Healthy soil leads to a healthy plant. A healthy plant can do much in its own defense and adaptation. I was absolutely thrilled with the compost we received from Kalamazoo Landscape Supply this year for our garden expansion. The soil on the other side of the garden was great as well thanks to a late fall application of composting horse and goat manure. This fall I hope to add manure to all of the beds to compost over the winter. Each bed will be topped with a mulch of shredded fall leaves.

CSA Stress

I’ve only been doing this CSA thing for two years. However during that time I have had the privilege of speaking with dozens of other producers about the joys and challenges of operating a CSA. I treasure the fact that everyone does things just a little bit differently, and in each case I’ve learned something new. At least one thing, however, remains constant. All of the farmers I’ve spoken with have this unyielding concern season after season: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” So many factors – controllable and otherwise – impact the answer to this question. On our micro-farm scale, it’s a big deal when a crop is slow to produce, dies off or brings a reduced yield. After talking to several CSA farmers, I’ve discovered that this stressor is always present regardless of years of experience, acreage or weather patterns. Perhaps someday when we operate on a larger scale we’ll be able to absorb a significant portion of this stress by sheer volume, but that day is still floating out there in the unknown future.

Don’t get me wrong – this year was exponentially less stressful than last year. This year, I knew much better what to expect. This year, I understood that occasional supplementing from other growers is industry standard. This year, I was equipped to better plan quantities and had a more realistic idea of how much yield to expect. This year, there was no drought. But this year… I still had to ask myself several times that stress-tinged question: “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?”

I’ve determined that, no matter how long I operate a CSA, that question – and the stress that comes with it – will remain at some level.

Scale vs. Profit

Another lesson that I’ve learned this year is that I need to choose between two competing factors related to the operation of my CSA. Either I can do this on a small enough scale that I can manage it as a work-from-home-mom who makes a hobby-level profit, or I can grow it into a large, multi-acre operation with a small team of employees who help me bring in a sizeable profit. A small-scale operation has lots of benefits. I work significantly less than 40 hours a week. I’m able to be at home and focus on my family. My schedule is somewhat flexible. I make money doing something I like and without going into debt to do it. The main disadvantage of our small scale is that our profit is commensurately small. Though I don’t have a 40-hour work week, I work far too hard to make as little as I do in terms of an hourly figure. Also, we’re committed to a debt-free approach to business and life so growth has to be slow, steady, and paid for in cash. (In other words, jumping into a 10-acre deal is not possible for us right now.) At the end of the day, our family can pay the bills and put food on the table, but I want to make an income that contributes to my family’s long-term (and big) financial goals.

When I Grow Up

The lessons I’ve learned over the last two seasons have significantly reshaped both the purpose and the operation of Arcadia Farms. Considering these lessons, along with much thought and prayer, we have decided not to operate a CSA in 2014.

Ultimately two overarching lessons contributed to this decision. First, the ever-nagging question “Will there be enough and will it be ready at the right time?” For me, this stress robs gardening of a portion of its satisfaction.

The second main reason we will not operate a CSA next year has to do with our personal family wellness. Fortunately our family was able to enjoy significantly more produce from the garden this year than last year, but we are still receiving less than the equivalent of a half share from our own farm. Because of the small scale of our farm (and thus the small scale of our profits) we determined that it would be a better health and financial benefit to our family to keep the majority of our produce rather than selling the bulk of it. One of the joys I experienced from our earliest gardening days was the successful feeling that came with having an abundance. Though we will still sell produce from highly successful crops (through our Facebook page and mailing list) keeping our bounty will enable us to supply our own pantry and to be charitable with what we no longer have room to keep. After a year of excellent crops and enthusiastic customers, it was a bitter-sweet conclusion to make. All the same, we feel it is the best decision for our family.

What’s Next

sunflowers

We may not be continuing our CSA into 2014, but we’re not going away! We still feel passionately about natural, local, sustainable food and want to help others to experience that successful feeling of bringing in a bounty from the backyard. The focus of our farm is shifting to helping others grow their own food rather than growing it for them. Though we still believe in the CSA model, this “teach a man to fish” approach is more sustainable overall and fits squarely into our mission. In 2014 you can look forward to the following from Arcadia Farms:

  • Gardening classes, especially for beginners, renters and apartment dwellers
  • Food preservation classes
  • A virtual farmers market through social media
  • Brokerage services to connect producers and commercial customers
  • Customized and affordable garden plans for those who need help getting started
  • Consistent blog posts with quality content about gardening and sustainable living

Who knows – maybe someday we will return to the CSA business. But for now, it’s time for our business plan to take a new path. We remain exceedingly grateful to all of our supporters, but especially to our members. Your investment in Arcadia Farms has enabled us to explore a dream that could never have happened without you! Thank you for the enthusiasm you have shown for the work we are doing and our vision of eating natural, local, sustainable food! You and your families have our deepest gratitude.

Best Wishes,

The Shanks

 
 

Clipping Chicken Wings

Last week I shared that we’re one step closer to bona fide chicken paddocks at Arcadia Farms. Our paddocks are enclosed with four foot tall chain link fencing. Despite being a heavy breed (Isa Reds), our hens demonstrated several times that they had no qualms about flying up to and then out of our fences.

Bad news…

Our solution? We clipped their wings.

One wing per bird. That way, if a hen tries to fly, she’ll be off balance and eventually give up on the idea entirely. I love learning to live this agricultural, sustainable life I’m living, but let’s be real – I’m an HR professional, not a farm girl. What do I know about clipping chicken wings?

Thank God for YouTube.

Armed with a demonstration from the video below and a can-do attitude, I figured out how to clip chicken wings. Ryan held each bird for me since holding them steady and making a good cut (and being a nervous newbie!) seemed like a two-person show. Good news is, the process was super easy and equally effective. One hen got off the hook when I did the original clipping because she was laying an egg at the time. Sure enough, she flew out of the paddock every single day until I finally made the time to clip her wing as well.

I’m happy to announce that we’ve had no escapees since then. I also like to think that my farm-girl street cred has increased at least slightly.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally. 

 
 

Spring 2013 Video Update

Despite the fact that I’ve been planting tons of seeds, the garden still looks a little barren. For this week I wanted to give you a video tour of what the farm looks like this spring. It’s not very glamorous right now (especially because I nee to do some picking up and mowing!) but in high summer it is going to be wonderful! Here’s a little peek into what the farm looks like today and what we’ve been up to in the garden…


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Our DIY Chicken Coop from Scrap Materials

chicken coop with metal roof

Chicken Week ended many days ago. All the same, there’s one mildly important feature in our chicken raising plans that I have yet to share with you: Our chicken coop. Why the delay? Well… in short, the coop wasn’t done when I expected it to be. It was scheduled to be completed at the beginning of Chicken Week… and then at the end of Chicken Week… and then… well, the coop was ready early the following week.

That’s how life goes when you approach projects with a do-it-yourself perspective. Our DIY chicken coop was created by Ryan and Papa over the course of about three weeks. (Ryan spent nearly every free moment he had on putting this puppy together). I owe them a huge thanks! Mostly today’s post is a tour of the coop. If you have technical questions, please leave them in the comments below and I’ll be happy to get back to you with the answer.

The Materials

The structure of our coop is made entirely of re-used or re-purposed materials. Most of the framing came from a large, old dog house that I mentioned way back in this post. The remainder came from scrap wood that Papa had in his barn (which is where the coop was built). The metal used for the siding and roof were leftovers from when the barn was built. The area under the peak of the roof was put together using wood from our old kitchen cabinets (we remodeled the kitchen this year). Paint for the doors and trim came from a gallon of outdoor paint I purchased last year for the house (it matches our trim and shutters). The only new materials on the coop are the hardware – hinges, clasps and carabiners to keep racoons out. The coop is currently resting on landscape timbers but will eventually sit on cinder blocks.

The Design

The coop is 4? x 6? in order to provide the recommended 4 square feet of space per bird. Windows on two sides (lined with welded wire secured from the inside) provides for ventilation. Eventually we will also add ventilation at the gable ends. And at some point in the future the windows will receive working shutters to close out drafts on cold nights.

chicken coop window

The window is lined with welded wire to keep critters (especially racoons) out.

chicken coop close up

The front of the coop has two windows and a door.

There are doors on three sides of the coop designed to work with the paddock system we have planned. Having a door on all sides of the coop means that no matter which paddock the chickens are using that week, we can leave one door open during daylight hours for easy in-and-out access at the chickens leisure. The fourth “door” is at the back of the coop; the entire bottom half of the back wall opens on hinges. This not only will allow the hens access to the back paddock but will also enable us to more easily clean out the coop when the time comes. Because we’re using the deep liter method for the bedding, clean outs should be infrequent (somewhere between every 2-6 months). It cost about $11 to (deeply) fill the coop and nesting boxes with pine shavings from Tractor Supply Company.

chcken coop door latch close up

All of the doors and nesting boxes have these high-quality latches which will be used with carabiners to keep predators out.

west chicken coop door

Here are the windows and the door on the west side of the coop.

chcken coop door latch close up

In the back of the coop, the entire back half of the south wall opens up. We still need to add hooks for keeping this door secure while open.

Speaking of deep liter, the floor of the coop is lined with vinyl flooring to make clean up easier. It’s high quality vinyl too – a remnant from my in-law’s kitchen flooring! (Thanks again!!!)

vinyl flooring chicken coop

The floor of the coop is covered in a vinyl remnant for easy clean-up.

vinyl flooring chicken coop

View of the back door from the inside.

vinyl flooring chicken coop

High-quality vinyl flooring (for hens with discriminating taste!).

On the east side of the coop there are two nesting boxes. (You should have one nesting box for every four laying hens; two boxes will be just right for our six girls.) The roof of each box lifts up on hinges for easy access to eggs without having to crawl into the coop. These also close with a latch and carabiner to keep pesky but nimble racoons out.  Nesting boxes are topped with the same metal used for the roof. A metal roof allows us to collect rain water from the coop without worrying about dangerous chemicals from commercial shingles leaching into the water. Our intent is to use the water for the chickens but more design thought and work is needed to make a healthy, sustainable system.

chicken coop nesting box

Based on recommendations I’ve received you should have one nesting box for every four hens. We have two for six hens.

chicken coop nesting box

Boxes open from the outside-top for easy access to eggs.

chicken coop nesting box

Although they weren’t attached at the time of this picture, the nesting boxes have the same latches as the doors.

Inside the coop hens are able to roost on the trusses of the roof structure. There are a few areas that need weatherproofing with a wee bit of caulk. But even with that in mind, it is a very comfortable structure for our hens to call home.

inside chicken coop

Roof structure, facing front of the coop.

inside chicken coop

Roof structure, facing back of the coop.

inside chicken coop

This is a view of the front door from the inside.

DSC03960

Front door and windows.

inside chicken coop

See, I told you the liter would be deep! (Don’t worry, the chickens pack it down some when they scratch.)

front of chicken coop

Everything is ready for the hens to see their new home for the first time!

DSC03971

Just waiting for chickens…

chickens in coop

Bam!

chickens in coop

So much more room than the dog crate brooder! What will they do with all that space?

DSC03980

Security system is operational…

chickens in coop

Welcome home, girls!

What do you think? Any thoughts on how we could make the coop even better? Any innovations you’ve used for your chickens that you think we should consider? As always, I’m 100% open to any ideas you’d like to send our way!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.  

 
 

Caring for Baby Chicks

Chickens may be “easy to care for” but baby chicks are fragile. Follow these tips to give you little peeps the best chance at a healthy adult life.

Before the Chicks Arrive – Brooder Setup

Baby chicks need a warm, safe, clean place to live during the first 4-6 weeks of their life. That warm, safe, clean place is called a brooder and it can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.

The brooder can be as simple as a cardboard box or as complex as a wood and wire box built for the occasion. The container should be able to keep bedding (i.e., pine shavings), chicken poo, chicken feed and, well, chickens, enclosed at all times while still allowing air flow. Our brooder was initially a large plastic Rubbermaid tub. As our chickens grew we graduated to a large cardboard box and eventually a large dog crate with cardboard inserts to keep the bedding inside.

plastic tub chick brooder cardboard box chick brooder dog crate chick brooder

Temperature is critical during the first few weeks so you’ll want a heat lamp to keep those chickees warm! During the first week the temperature inside the brooder should be 95*. Every week after that you lower the temperature by 5* (move the lamp higher) until eventually you settle around 70* and turn the lamp off. To be able to accurately determine the temperature you’ll also want to include a thermometer. I placed my indoor/outdoor thermometer inside the brooder – tells me the brooder temp and (remotely) tells me the greenhouse temp.

DSC03623

Chicks also need something to eat (typically commercial chick feed) and something to drink (whiskey water). Becuase they’re messy creatures, it’s your job to make sure their food and water don’t get (overly) contaminated with poo. Ergo, these puppies come in handy:

DSC03622

Pardon the mess… these were photographed right before being cleaned.

The other thing you’ll need in your brooder is bedding. The bedding absorbs chicken waste. I’ve heard rumors that pine shavings are bad for chickens because they give off some manner of harmful emission. Unfortunately I didn’t learn that until after I had already filled my brooder with pine shavings. I did more reading (especially in the forums at www.backyardchickens.com and the overwhelming majority of chicken owners said they had been using pine shavings for a long time with no signs of impact on the chickens. All the same, after we ran out of wood chips I used timothy hay. I have to say, the wood chips definitely did a better job of absorbing moisture and smells. Plus the with the way our final brooder was setup (dog crate with cardboard sides) there were small cracks where the bedding would fall out onto the floor when the chickens scratched in it. Long story short, I ended up with chicken bedding on my floor. Not. Happy. I’m going back to wood chips. (On a side note, resist the urge to use shredded newspaper. Apparently it is very slippery under the little chickees feet and can lead to abnormalities in foot development.)

pine shaving bedding brooder

In this picture you can see that the bottom of the brooder box is covered in pine shavings. This type of bedding did an excellent job absorbing moisture and odor.

timothy hay bedding in brooder

In this picture the brooder has timothy hay for bedding. Not nearly as effective as the pine shavings.

timothy hay bedding in brooder

When the chickens scratch they are constantly causing the hay to fall out onto the floor. Huge mess! That’s why there are blankets on the floor. Have I mentioned how happy I am that it’s time for these girls to go outside??

Bringing the Chicks Home

Now that your brooder is setup and the temperature is just right, you’re ready to bring some babies home! If you ordered chicks to be delivered through a hatchery, they’ll arrive a little stressed. The chicks are packaged in a way that they’re collective body heat keeps them warm, but as soon as you open the packaging, getting them into an appropriately warm environment is critical. Also keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for one or two chicks to die during delivery because of the stress. Keep that in mind if you have little ones who are helping you get the chicks setup. (Knowing that this is common, hatcheries will often send you a couple of extra ‘insurance’ chicks.)

If you’re picking your chicks up, you’ll want to keep them warm in transport. Our six chicks came home in a cardboard box from Tractor Supply Company that looked a little like a happy meal with ventilation holes. (Perhaps we should name one nugget?) The ride from TSC to our farm is about 5 minutes so I just made sure the temp in the car was comfortable.

Whether you bring them or the mailman does, the first thing you want to do is encourage your chicks to take a drink of water. Gently pick them up and dip their beaks into the water container until they drink.

Now is a good time to take note of how the chicks behave. If they huddle together under the light, they are probably too cold and you’ll need to lower the heat lamp. If they scatter to the edges of the brooder, they are probably too hot. Having a thermometer in the brooder takes some of the guess work out of this part.

Another thing to check for is “pasting up.” This is a condition where a stressed chick gets a buildup of feces on their vent (where their poo comes out). You want to check your chicks often for pasting up. (I checked mine a couple of times a day during the first week they were with us – their second week of life – and since none of them ever had a problem, I stopped checking after that.) If one of your chicks has a problem with pasting up, guess what you get to do? Clean it. Grab a damp, warm towel and wipe away the problem. Sounds gross, but think of all the street cred you’ll gain in the backyard chicken community…

Ongoing Chick Care

In addition to the things mentioned above, remember that you need to adjust the heat lamp every week so that the temperature drops by 5 degrees. This process is essentially “hardening them off” just like you would do with a plant that has been living indoors and is now ready to live outside. You’ll also want to change the chicks’ bedding at least once a week or more often if it gets especially nasty in there. After the chicks are 2-3 weeks old, they can take field trips to the outdoors so long as the temperature is warm. Keep a close eye on them to protect them from family pets and predators like hawks or racoons. Our chickens ventured outside twice before they moved to the coop – once at four weeks old and once at five weeks old. Both occasions were on warm (60*) sunny days and lasted for about 30-40 minutes. Marley helped us to keep a watchful shepherd eye on them both times.

marley shepherd chickens

Although Marley looks like a lab, he is part Australian Shepherd. We see the shepherd in him coming out when he interacts with our chickens and our bunny.

When your chicks are four to five weeks old, they’re probably ready to be called chickens. They’re also ready to move to their permanent outdoor home. Because our chickens are old enough to get the heck out of my spare bedroom already be outside now, they’ve moved to their new home in the backyard (more on that later this week!). Though daytime temps are up in the 50?s and 60?s, our April nights still dip down to nearly freezing. For that reason, I plan to keep the heat lamp on at night for another two weeks or so. I’m being careful to keep it clipped to a spot where the hens can benefit from the warmth without danger of touching its hot surface.

A Note on Food

I ran into conflicting opinions about what to feed my baby chickens. Many hard-core permaculture peeps felt it was important to reject commercial starter feed. (After all, our grandparents or great-grandparents probably didn’t rely on medicated commercial chick feed to get their flock off to a good start.) The idea is that commercial “starter feed” has everything a baby chick needs, namely proteins that are easy for little chick stomachs to digest. You can buy medicated or unmedicated feed. The medication – as well as an available vaccine – are intended as a preventative measure against coccidiosis, a disease caused by an intestinal parasite. On YouTube I saw several videos where chicken owners have chosen to give their chicks yogurt as “insurance” against intestinal issues. For easy to understand info on coccidiosis, medicated starter feed and vaccinations, I recommend this article at Urban Farm Online: Hatching the Facts on Medicated Chick Starter Feeds for Layers. We opted for non-medicated starter feed and have given our chicks a few doses of yogurt. I have no idea whether or not they have been vaccinated. We’ll plan to feed our chickens starter feed for the first two to three months.

Chick starter feed chick starter feed

Chickens also need grit. Grit is a substance (usually small stones) that chickens use in their crop (the first part of a chicken’s digestive system) to help grind their food. (Look ma, no teeth!) Whether or not you need to feed your chickens grit depends on their diet. I suggest doing some research before you decide what to do. Here’s a good place to start: Chicken Grit; Grit for Baby and Adult Chickens. I still haven’t made a plan for the kind of grit we’ll provide our chickens.

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.    

 
 

Why Chickens?

isa red chickens group

We have chickens! Why raise chickens? I’m so glad you asked! If you live in the city or the suburbs or think chickens are gross or too much work or you just can’t do it because you don’t know enough or or or… this post is for you. There are lots of benefits to raising chickens. Add in the fact that chickens are relatively easy and inexpensive to care for and you just might change your mind.

Reasons to Raise Chickens

First, naturally raised eggs taste better. Of course this point is completely subjective, but I have consistently noticed that naturally raised eggs are darker in color. In my opinion, they are also more flavorful than the standard white dozen we used to buy from the grocery store. (I also happen to think that naturally raised chicken meat is tastier too!)

Naturally raised eggs are healthier. According to www.backyardchickens.com, backyard eggs contain:

  • 1/3 the Cholesterol of store bought eggs
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2 times the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids
  • 3 times the amount of Vitamin E
  • 7 times more Beta Carotene

Chickens are family-friendly, low-maintenance pets.

Chickens are great pest-control assistants! They eat pretty much any kind of bug. If you’re looking for a way to get rid of insects in or around your garden, or if you have a specific pest issue to address (such as termites or fleas), adding chickens to your backyard is a natural, chemical-free, low-cost way to kiss those buggies goodbye!

Chickens are also great at weeding. Chickens love to eat… if you have an area that needs weeding, let chickens loose; they’ll turn your patch of weeds into a salad. (Be careful – your chickens don’t know the difference between what you call “weeds” and what you call “lettuce.” We’ll talk later in the week about how to safely incorporate chickens into your garden and yard without sacrificing the plants you actually want keep.)

In addition to all of that, chickens can provide you with effective, natural fertilizer for your yard and garden. Chicken manure has great levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, all of which are essential for proper plant growth. Because of the high amounts of nitrogen, chicken manure is too “hot” to use directly in your garden. Chicken owners should compost their birds’ manure to breakdown potentially harmful pathogens and render the manure safe as a fertilizer or soil amendment. If you compost your chicken manure in a pile, you’ll need to wait 6 to 12 months before you use it in the garden. If you turn the pile once a week, you may be able to use it as early as 4 to 6 months. Another way to compost your chicken manure is the use the deep bedding method in your chicken coop. We’ll talk about that more later in the week as well, but if you just can’t stand to wait, you can find out more by clicking here.

Raising your own eggs (and potentially meat) and fertilizer can save a gardening family a good chunk of cash throughout the year.

Why We Are Raising Chickens

At Arcadia Farms we desire to keep chickens for several reasons. One of the chief reasons is that the ability to gather naturally-raised eggs from our backyard contributes to the physical and financial health of our family. Another reason is that the symbiotic relationships of chickens to other areas of our farm provide environmental health and cost-savings for our operation. (As I mentioned above, properly composted chicken manure provides fertilizer for our gardens and as omnivores who eat bugs, chickens provide additional pest control to our property.)

Choosing Birds

I’m no chicken expert. So as a newbie I discovered quickly that there are many, many breeds to select from. After some research we initially wanted to purchase Orpingtons (Buff or Blue) but ended up with ISA Reds. These breeds are considered good choices for suburban settings because they are very docile and make less noise than other breeds. They are also known to be good-to-excellent egg layers.

If you’re interested in raising chickens but have no idea where to start, check out this Which Chicken? Breed Selector Tool resource from www.mypetchicken.com. For more super-helpful information check out About.com’s Small Farm guide to Choosing Chicken Breeds by clicking here. And just in case you’re as wet behind the ears as I am was about the world of chicken’s, here is a glossary of chicken-related terms provided by Tractor Supply Company (click on the image below). You’ll probably want to start here so that you better understand the terms used by the other references listed above.

 

Can You Have Chickens?

If you live in Portage, MI and are interested in taking the next step, click here for local ordinance information. For those of you in other communities, be sure to check with your local municipality about the application of ordinances to your ability to keep chickens.

There may be other reasons to raise your own chickens. Can you think of any? Do you have any questions about raising your own chickens?

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.    

 
 

Chicken Week (Psst! We Have Chickens!)

Guess what? We have chickens!

chicken close up 1

We are the proud owners of six ISA Red egg-laying hens who are six weeks old as of today! If all goes well, they’ll be supplying us with fresh, brown eggs by the end of the summer. We selected ISA Reds because they are docile, quiet and good egg layers. Those traits make them a good fit for our suburban setting and our need for a family-friendly flock. Our girls came from Tractor Supply Company on Shaver Road in Portage. Here’s a tip I learned from one of the TSC employees: If you show up the day before the next batch of chicks are scheduled to come in, they’ll sell you the week-old chicks at a discounted rate to make room for the newbies. So you spend less AND TSC nurses your chicks through the first week where some chicks tend not to make it. The chicks were origianly $2.99 and I paid $1.00 for each of them. Winner winner chicken… well… *ahem*.

DSC03632

When I was growing up, my aunt raised chickens and turkeys (Hi Aunt Bonny!) so I have a general idea of how to chase care for them. But as an adult, I have to admit I was (am?) a wee bit clueless about what goes into raising healthy birds. I’ve heard that chickens are super easy to care for so I set out to learn how and why. I started my search for chicken knowledge on the good ol’ world wide web. I found lots of helpful info at www.backyardchickens.comAbout.com’s Small Farm pages and a few other blogs which I’ve saved to our Chickens board on Pinterest.

But by far the most helpful information I found came from the forums at www.permies.com. (If you’re interested in sustainable living, the information – and support – in these forums will make you drool. Grab a napkin and go check it out!) This website was created by Paul Wheaton (dubbed the Duke of Permaculture) and provides an avenue for him to share his knowledge on the subject as well for others to contribute. In this ongoing forum post, Paul describes five ways to raise chickens (coop and run, chicken tractor, truly free range, pastured poultry in pens and pastured poultry in paddocks) and then provides compelling arguments for why pastured poultry in paddocks is THE way to go. This info helped me think outside the box regarding how to raise our chickens in a manner that is healthiest for them and ultimately for us. I’m working on putting my own this-farm-is-in-the-suburbs-and-needs-to-look-nice-without-costing-a-lot spin on it. More on that later this week…

 

In addition to information and inspiration from Paul Wheaton (and other permies), I also received great practical and design advice from the book Free Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom. To be honest, I’m a sucker for packaging, and it was originally the beautiful front cover that compelled me to check this book out. The whole thing is full of brilliant coffee-table-worthy photos but thankfully the book itself is worth as much as the pictures. This book provides a practical overview of how to raise chicks to become healthy chickens along with detailed advice on how to design your yard to meet your chicken’s needs without sacrificing style or function. I’m glad it’s in my micro-farm library!

 

Now that I’ve gathered all of this great info on chicken-keeping, I’m no expert, but I am a well-armed newbie! In celebration of our girls’ first week living outdoors, I hereby dub this week “Chicken Week” at Arcadia Farms and plan to share all of my new-found poultry insight with you. If you’ve been thinking about raising backyard chickens but have wondered what it will really entail, come back for more throughout the week as I share with you both what I’ve learned from experts and what I’ve experienced in real life. I’ll be talking about:

  • Why we decided to raise backyard chickens (and why you should consider it too)
  • Which birds make good urban or suburban chickens
  • How to care for baby chicks
  • Designing a chicken-friendly garden/yard in the suburbs
  • Reducing (or eliminating!) the cost of chicken feed
  • Building a chicken coop (ours cost $0!)

Also on our Facebook page we’re running a contest this week where you get to help us name one of our hens. Stop by and vote for your favorite name (or make a suggestion of your own) and then please stop by Friday to see who wins!

I can’t wait to share Chicken Week with you!

Did you enjoy this article? Visit www.arcadia-farms.net for more info on eating healthy, saving money and buying locally.    

 
 
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