Chicken Math and the Story of How I Ended Up With 18 Chickens

A little over a year ago I was given a pair of bantams by a friend who couldn’t keep the cockerel. They were a beautiful pair of Mille Fleur D’Uccle bantams. We used to have chickens when I was a kid, but the coop was pretty run down. These bantams were never going to lay much and we had gotten hooked on the idea that maybe we could raise chickens for eggs. With me working at a feed store, that seemed the natural next step. So I signed up to get three chicks in the next order. Three layers seemed perfect for a four person household that didnt go through a lot of eggs.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

On chick day I went in and discovered that there were two more chicks that hadn’t been claimed so I went home with 5 instead of three. No big deal. Especially since one of the turned out to be a rooster a few months later. Before we even knew he was a roo, he had been dubbed with the prophetic name, Dinner. That’s just what became of him since we already had a rooster we loved.

Shortly thereafter, a friend had to give up his elderly hens because he was moving. Thus 6 became 10 because free chickens don’t count, right?

Lilo

Of those four new ones, two were bullies to my bantams so they went right back out! but it turned out soon after that I had been mistaken and it was actually two other ones that were bullying my little ones. Meanwhile my mother had discovered the existence of black orpingtons and was totally in love so as I reduced my flock yet again, I started a search and found someone who had one, along with some other special breeds I was in love with. We intended to get three birds from her, but there was a discount if we get four! So four it was. Back to 10 birds again.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Life was grand and the flock was noisey. We got complaints about the rooster crowing so we were finally and tragically forced to get rid of the little man who started off our grand chicken adventure. We were heartbroken and to salve our wounded hearts, we put fertile eggs into an incubator in hopes that his progeny would live on in our flock. We decided to make room for them and culled our flock down to 4 again, but 21 days is a long time to wait and in that time I arranged for 4 pullets from a friend who is a show bantam breeder. Two cochins and two silkies to keep my one bullied bantam company.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

7 little ones hatched! Hurrah! A couple weeks later my pullets are ready for pickup and I head out to his coop-yard. I fall in love left and right and 4 becomes 7.

 

So heres the math:

2 free birds + 3 chicks= 7

7 – 1 rooster=10

10 -2 bullies= 6

6 + 1 orpington= 10

10 – 1 rooster= 11

11 + 4 bantams= 18 chickens in my flock!

 

I think that makes me officially chicken crazy.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma's, Georgie's,  back.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma’s, Georgie’s, back, and Georgie loves my lap!

Poultry Parasite Purge

Tis the season for skin parasites and for me that’s also a time to panic. The dry summer season is when all skin parasites really boom in population including lice, ticks, fleas and mites. My dogs are long suffering and allergic to many flea meds but we manage to keep their unwanted passengers under control by hook or by crook. My chickens are a different story.

Here’s the thing to know about me: I’m a veritable font of chicken knowledge, but I’m really bad at implementing all of that wisdom in my own coop. I didn’t do any of the preventative treatments that I frequently recommend to customers at the feed store and I took a couple days to check on my chickens when they started shedding feathers like crazy so I ended up with a major pest problem and had to scurry to relieve my hens of their itchy creepy crawlies. 

 

Mites vs. Lice: What is the difference?

Mites and lice are two of the most common skin parasites that chickens get. Both cause irritation which will often cause chickens to scratch and pull out their feathers, and preventative treatment is similar for both.

Red Mites are mostly nocturnal and feed on the chickens’ blood, similar to fleas on your cat or dog. These can actually kill your chickens and carry fowl pox, poultry cholera, and New Castle Disease. Preventative treatment is crucial as they have long lifespans and can survive for extended periods, up to a year, without feeding on your flock. Usually recommended treatment schedule is every 4 months if no infection is apparent (though I personally recommend no more than 3 months between preventative treatments) and every 5-7 days if it is. Treatment can include diatomaceous earth powdering, permethrin/pyrethrum spray or powder, or PYthon Dust for more drastic intervention (more on all these below). Holistic remedies call for pungent oils and herbs such as mint, tea tree, lemon-eucalyptus, and fleabane as well as sticky herbs like Elecampane and fresh Tobacco to trap them. Tobacco also has the added benefit of nicotine being a insecticide and smoking tobacco can be added to their dust baths and nesting boxes to kill buggies and deter breeding.

Common Poultry Lice, though more benign than mites, are still a blight and cause extreme stress to your birds, often affecting laying and fertility. There are a couple other types of lice but these are the most frequent culprits and prefer the areas around the vent and rump. Chicken lice feed mainly on feathers and dead skin, but will also bite the skin of chickens and leave itchy irritated areas especially around the vent and under the wings. At first glance they almost look like little off-white or yellow maggots but closer inspection shows that they have legs and tiny pincers. Some birds that are better at grooming can keep lice in check but hot weather and other stressors including overcrowding, poor nutrition, and pecking, can overwhelm even the best groomed birds in a flock. Because lice transmit through contact with infected birds as well as dropped feathers, they can overwhelm a flock very quickly. As with mites, cleaning out the coop and treating the area as well as the chickens is critical to controlling this pest. Ensure that no feathers are left behind as these can continue to feed the lice and reinfect your flock even when treatment has been successful. Direct treatments for lice are very pretty much identical to those for mites but added is the treatment for nits, the egg clusters which adhere to feathers. These can be coated in vaseline or coconut oil to suffocate developing lice and prevent them from hatching.

 

Why do my chickens have parasites?

You may wonder how these pests get into your coop and run. The answer is often in the form of other critters. Wild birds carry many of the same pests and diseases that affect chickens, and they are attracted to your chickens by the sweet lure of easy feed. Putting feed in less outwardly accessible areas can reduce the number of wild birds coming into contact with your flock, but probably won’t eliminate it entirely so even a well secured flock should be treated several times each year to prevent parasite infections. Another common visitor is rodents. Mice and rats, while unaffected by mites and lice themselves can carry infected materials into your run. Rats also carry numerous other diseases so rat-proofing your chicken area is very important. I have been struggling with this myself this year, and while I know I have reduced the population of rats here and there, they are also growing fat on my chicken feed and continue to reproduce.

 

What do you recommend?

Before I continue, I would like to make clear that these recommendations are made purely on my own. I am not endorsing these products because of anything other than their efficacy in my experience and those in my community.

 

For Mites and Lice:

PYthon Dust

This is an extremely potent insecticide and has a wide range of applications for controlling livestock pests. Though it is recommended for large livestock, it is also effective for chickens though should be used in moderation and only for extreme infections.

 

Prozap Garden and Poultry Dust

This is a preventative treatment containing Permethrin, a synthetic form of pyrethrum, the insecticide found in chrysanthemums. Prozap can be used to treat low level infection when they are detected early, but once the infection is bad, you may want to use something stronger, like PYthon. This stuff also works as an excellent preventative treatment and can be used every 6-12 weeks to keep pesky parasites from bothering yourbirds.

 

Diatomaceous Earth (a.k.a. DE)

This is a fine mineral powder made from ground fossil crustaceans called diatoms. The mineral structure is such that it cuts the waxy coating that protects insects and dehydrates them. It will also dry out any eggs it comes into contact with. There is some controversy though, as some people feel that the fine dust poses risks to the chickens’ respiratory health. Personally, I am happy to add this to dust baths, nest boxes and run as a preventative and mild treatment for parasites both external and internal. DE is easily obtained as food-grade and is totally organic, making a great choice for small farmers concerned about chemical exposure. Many health food stores carry this in their cosmetics section while Hardware stores usually have it in their garden section.

 

Permethrin and Pyrethrum sprays

These are widely available by many different names. They can cause some skin irritation when used as a topical remedy, but make a great disinfectant for coop cleaning. Some are also available with herbal additives like eucalyptus, mint, and lemon oils which also act as valuable pest deterrants. When shopping for these insecticidal sprays make sure to find one that is pet and/or child-safe so you know the solvents and additives won’t harm you birds.

 

Vaseline

The is a household item that can prove exceptionally good at reducing louse populations. Nits, the egg clusters attached to the feather bases can be generously slathered in petroleum jelly which chokes the eggs and prevents them from hatching. This is especially handy around sensitive areas that lice and mites attach such as around the vent, ears, eyes, and wattles.

 

Nesting Box Blend from Treats for Chickens

Add a small handful of this blend of wonderful smelling herbs to discourage mites and lice from setting up shop. It also keeps down the smell of poo in the coop between cleanings. Try to find it in the bulk section of your local feed stores. it tends to be much fresher and affordable this way. You can also consider mixing up your own batch of dry herbs including mint, lavender, bay leaf, calendula, chamomile, and catnip among others.

 

Pennyroyal

This plant has been valued for millenia for its strong minty smell and insect repellant abilities. It is however toxic(liver necrosis even in small doses) and should never be left for chickens to eat. I have a plant in my garden from which I pick sprigs to put into the bottom of their nesting boxes under the straw. I don’t recommend using it anywhere else in their coop for risk of ingestion and it should be grown out of reach of pets and children. Pennyroyal oil is also sometimes available but because of its concentration and risk of skin contact,  it poses even greater risk than the fresh or dried leaves. Pennyroyal is an old remedy and a good one but we have advanced enough now to understand the dangers too.

 

My treatment regimen is completed and I think I’ve got these suckers under control. I may decide to give them one last round of PYthon on Monday to be certain that I won’t be seeing lice and mites again because there are chicks in my living room, and pullets finishing at my breeder’s farm in Gilroy that will be joining the big birds in the next couple weeks.

 

Helpful link:

http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/08/poultry-lice-and-mites-identification.html

Shrooms in Bloom

Almost a year ago, I took a class from the Mushroom Maestros, Patty and Ray, in which we learned all about cultivating edible mushrooms at home. The class focused on simple to grow everyday edibles including oyster mushrooms and king stropharia. It was actually the third time I had taken a workshop from them because they proved to include new info each time and I always got to go home with a kit to grow something. This workshop focused on not just the growing of the mushrooms themselves, but also on the propagation of mycelia and production of inoculation spawn.20140813-135410-50050075.jpg

The first two times, my kits proved prolific, often producing three or four full flushes of fruit before petering out. The third class took a different focus, so instead of coming home with a straw-based kit for fruiting out on (like the one pictured above), I headed home with several jars of fresh mycelial spawn and rye pucks for propagating mycelium on my own time.

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I few weeks later, when my spawn had fully grown out, it happened to rain, soaking the strawbale we were supposed to use as chicken bedding. Without much thought, I used a pick-axe to gouge a couple holes in the bale and stuffed it with oyster mushroom spawn. It being the late fall, I had assumed it would rain again, giving the mycelium the moisture it needed to run, but to my chagrin, we saw instead the driest winter California has had in over 150 years. Nothing ever came of that inoculated bale and being well into the summer I just assumed it had dried out too much for the mycelium and that other more drought tolerant molds had outcompeted it.

So, of course it was to my delighted surprise that I was greeted by a big flush of fresh oysters growing out around my corn and kale when I went to water the bed the other day! I had used the bale to create a small hugelkultur bed by digging a bale shaped hole, dropping it in, and covering it with the native clay soil and a few bags of freecycled chicken manure compost.

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I’m an enthusiast, but certainly no mycology expert so I’m only guessing here, but I think the boost of nutrients from the manure must have given the mycelium what it needed to finally fruit out. I know that many mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms like to grow off manure, but generally oysters prefer wood. One of the flushes came out around a stake that had been supporting bird netting, and I made sure to leave the moldering wood in the ground when I cut out the mushrooms. One of the others encapsulated a robust little kale plant while the some appeared to fruit simply from exposed straw.

Suffice to say I’m thrilled to have such a bounty come from what I thought was a dead end project repurposed for veggies. I’m hoping to add some wood chips or logs to this bed in the fall in order to encourage the continuation of mycelial growth in my garden.

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5 Garden Favorites

My garden is overflowing with greenery, and everything I planted this year serves a purpose. Some are food for me, some are food for my dogs and some are food for my bees. Some a pest deterrents, some are trap crops. Each one is uniquely useful, but there are definitely a couple plants that seem to be in my kitchen or on my mind almost daily.

1. Variegated Collards
20140718-140856-50936173.jpg Collards are a staple of southern cuisine and also extremely easy to grow. Most collards take 80 days to mature but the strain propogated by Fedco Seeds takes only 60, nearly three weeks less and we happen to sell them at Biofuel Oasis, where I work. It produces massive 12-18in long leaves whose waxy coating makes them both mildew and aphid resistant.

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They are juicy and tender and very flavorful but the ribs are tough and needs to be removed before cooking. I’ve been cooking these as a side  dish for almost every meal and added them to a quiche with excellent results. They add color and texture as well as a huge dose of vitamins K, A, and C and I also love dehydrating them in place of kale for chips for a crunchy snack that satisfies.

 

2. Yarrow

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Yarrow is a spectacularly undervalued herb in most gardens. It is often planted as an ornamental in its yellow or red blooming form. The colorful blooms are a beautiful contrast against its silvery green leaves, but the white variety is the most medicinally potent. For this reason, I planted two varieties, one for looks and one for use, though even the colorful variety is still an wonderful aromatic.Yarrow prefers well drained soil, and full sun, but can survive in partial shade. It handles our acidic clay soil in the East Bay quite well and can thrive in nutrient-poor conditions.

One of the most effective uses of Yarrow is for halting bleeding by applying crushed green leaves to the wound. The root is also an effective analgesic that can be chewed to alleviate toothache and reduce gum inflammation. A tea made from the leaves and/or flowers will open pores and raise body temperature and is said to air in breaking fevers. Dilute tea is also effective in regulating menses.

20140718-140444-50684714.jpg Of course Yarrow has a whole other usefulness too. It’s an excellent pollinator attractant and one bloom will often play host to numerous bees at once. The blooms are long lasting and numerous, and can provide nectar and pollen even during dry times as the plant is extremely hardy and drought tolerant. This plant is also very easy to propagate from small root segments which is exactly what I did by pulling up small shoots in neighbors’ yards to plant it in my own. I also use Yarrow in my herbal infused bee food which I make fresh every couple weeks.

 

3. Scarlet Runner Bean

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This one is pretty straight forward. Scarlet runner beans are highly productive and will continue to bloom if beans are harvested continuously. The blooms attract all manner of pollinators including honeybees, native bees, butterflies, and humming birds. Vines grow up to 20ft with bright red blooms and lush green leaves along the entire length.

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When pods are picked young, before they begin thickening, the entire pod is edible like any green bean. Later, when beans mature, they can be left on the vine or picked to dry and storage beans. At this point, the pod walls become hard,  fibrous and undigestible, but the beans are large and flavorful when cooked in soup or chili, or as a dish on their own.

According to Eric Toensmeier, author of Perennial Vegetable, runner beans can overwinter in climates that remain above 23 degrees Fahrenheit, however I don’t know anyone who has tried to do this. I plan to try it once these beans have spent themselves out by mulching them over for the winter to keep them cozy and warm.

 

4. Mullein

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Mullein has nearly three dozen names including Our Lady’s Flannel, Clown’s Lungwort, Shepherds Staff, and my favorite, Hare’s Beard. The leaves and flowers of the plant contain most of the medicinal potency, though some applications for the root are said to exist. Mullein is mainly used as an anti-spasmotic which works wonders to alleviate coughs and or gastrointestinal cramping. It is also a mild sedative, so it is best taken at bedtime, lest it leave you feeling drowsy. However, combined with catnip, mint, lemon verbena, sage, and lavender, it makes a soothing and delightful sleep tonic. The leaves and flowers can be used fresh, or hung to dry for later use.

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The plants can grow up to 3ft wide with a single flower spike up to 8ft tall, whose lemon-yellow flowers are appealing to hummingbirds and butterflies as well as honeybees. The leaves are large and velvety soft and, because they grow as weeds in many places, hikers and backpackers have often used them as trail-side toilet paper.

Mullein has a two-year growth cycle but isn’t a true perennial as it only blooms its second year, however it does reseed itself prolifically. Fear not, it is easy to weed out when it is young and is easily shaded out by faster growing plants which keeps it from being aggressively invasive. It grows best in full sun and is another plant which can thrive in nutrient-poor clay. It does however prefer moderate water, especially in its second year while blooming.

 

5. Zucchini

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Okay, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Zucchini is a big food-producer. It takes almost no effort to grow and is easy to cook in a wide variety of ways. Our plants are producing huge sweet zukes every day and we can’t keep up with harvesting them so some have gotten a bit bigger than intended. I recommend every beginning gardener plant a few because it is incredibly rewarding to produce such a bounty as one’s first experience and even as an experienced backyard farmer it is good to know you have one fool proof crop in the garden in case everything goes haywire. All they need is sun and rich soil. They don’t like their roots disturbed to place them in a area where they have plenty of room to spread.

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In my home zucchini is used in just about anything from quiches to curries, and dog-food to fritters. It freezes well for later use in zucchini bread or pasta sauce and also keeps whole for quite some time. It ripens in perfect time with grilling season and there is something almost magical about plucking a vegetable and taking to straight to the grill without ever touching a kitchen counter or pantry. Somehow home grown veggies will always taste sweeter.

 

Right now, these five are my big favorites, though there are certainly many others in the garden that I love having quick access to. I expect that there will be a whole different set of favorites as the seasons change. What are your favorite garden products?

 

 

The Garden Roster

The other day, on a whim I decided to write down all the edibles in my back yard. After months of feeling like I was missing this or that plant, I was startled to discover that my efforts had brought me to over xdozen plants, not including those that had already been removed. Some of these are still in my propogate on area, just starting to root, but most are planted and even producing.

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Following is a complete list of the edible plants I am currently growing. In upcoming posts I will write up plant profiles of a few specific ones and if you’d like to know more about anything on this list, I would be happy to elaborate on them!

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Herbs:
lemon thyme
english thyme
yarrow
greek oregano
rose geranium
purple culinary sage
culinary sage
marjoram
comfrey
bronze fennel
mullein
catnip
lemon balm
nugget hops
lemongrass
taragon
rosemary
lavender
chamomile
stevia
lemon basil
sweet basil
echinacea
italian flat parsley
tobacco
chives
skullcap
coneflower(echinacea)

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Other Edible Perennials:
rhubarb
artichoke
thornless raspberry
blueberry (sunshine blue, misty, jubilee)
everbearing strawberry
elderberry(york, nova, black beauty)
canna
oca
yacon
blackberry
olive tree
dwarf Taro
purple Taro
borage
currants( Crandall, black, red, white)
jostaberry
asparagus(UC-127)

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Edible Annuals:
red indian corn
sweet bicolor corn
sweet yellow corn
peacevine tomato
cherokee purple tomato
variegated collards
russian kale (red and white)
lacinato kale
curly kale
cajun jewel okra
zucchini
cucumber
scarlet runner bean
celebration runner bean
blushed butter oak lettuce
hopi red dye amaranth
garlic
scallions

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I am already experiencing a bountiful summer. I have a constant Harvey of zucchini, have picked the Indian corn an some of the bicolor corn, eaten young scarlet runner beans sautéed with butter and garlic, and of course used lemongrass in curries. I’ve also come up with a great herbal bee food using only things in my back yard, water, and sugar and it has given my bees a great advantage this spring. It is so rewarding to benefit from the work I’ve put into my garden!

Picking Up Chicks

Last fall we got chicks and now they are full blown hens and one lucky girl is trying to become a momma herself!
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Inky, our old lady australorpe (adopted from another flock) has been sitting on her nest for almost just over the 21 day incubation period. She actually stole the nest out from under Ginger, the Mille Fleur D’Uccle Bantam, and I added some eggs at that point so they might be hatching late. Ginger had 16 eggs under her tiny body and I think she just couldn’t keep them warm enough. I have been candling and periodically removing bad eggs and the 6 left are heavy and warm. Fingers crossed, and we shall see what hatches if anything at all.

Meanwhile, we are adding new birds to the mix that my Mama picked up from Just Struttin Farm in Novato, CA yesterday. The two that are mine have gotten their names already.

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Meet Georgie! She is a 12 week old Calico Cochin pullet who weighs next to nothing. She is a little shy, sweet and falls asleep in my lap once I’m holding her.

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Kiki is a Mille Fleur Leghorn cross hen. Her coloring isn’t spectacular, but I think she fits right in with our other two Milles. She’s a bit of an escape artists and quite curious. Last night she escaped her temporary run and roosted on the tin roof of the main chicken run about 9ft up. Today she is relishing exploring the run with the rest of our flock, already comfortable and settled in.

The second pullet we brought home is the one that instigated all the new additions. My mother and I had been searching for Black Orpingtons for months. Last fall we visited another urban homesteader’s property and my Mama fell in love with the breed. I practically had to pry our hosts hens from her embrace!

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The way she cradles this beautiful gal, I suspect it will be much the same in our own back yard. Though she doesn’t have a name yet, she has already proven herself a perfect fit for our microfarm. She comes up to me in the coop and is anything but skittish, almost asking to be picked up.

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This is the last of the new girls, a double blue laced barnevelder. I fell in love with the blue laced red plumage on wyandottes but because of my busy schedule I didn’t feel ready to raise them from chicks. Luckily, Deann had one hen the needed a home who has just the feathers I wanted and serene, people oriented personality to boot. This photo really does no justice to her sensational coloring.

The rest of our flock is of course our Mille Fleur D’Uccle Bantams in the middle of this photo, Cinnamon, and Ginger.

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These two are quite the troublemakers, occasionally upsetting our neighbors with 6am wake up calls and daytime squawking and honking as well as the loudest crow I’ve heard from such a tiny rooster. We like to joke that he is compensating for his size.

The Ameraucanas we raised from chicks, Hawk and Mary Kate.

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Though both the same breed, and from the same breeder, they look quite different and so do their eggs. It’s fun to have such variety in the egg basket!

Last but not least is the 3+year old matron of our flock, Pinky. She came to us along with Inky and two others that we decided to cull out (Blinky, and Dot).

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Despite her poor laying, we decided we really like her and she gets to stay by virtue of being our top hen an one of the friendliest. She too loves being held, a trait we obviously appreciate in our hens.