Five Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Had Chickens

Five things I wish I had known before I had chickens. Well, there could be about a thousand…but here are my top five. Which may or may not be useful to you if you’re embarking on a chicken rearing adventure. Lots of people have lots to say about the right and wrong way to raise or keep chickens. In my opinion, well, a lot of them are just as full of fertilizer as the chickens themselves.

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  1. Chickens will eat anything. Including chicken.  Yes, chickens are omnivores. Meaning they will eat whatever is opportune. Including, but not limited to, chicken feed, any other feed known to man, (except rabbit pellets, oddly enough), any kitchen scraps, grass, bugs, worms, eggs, fruit, veggies, weeds, seeds, nuts, berries, other birds, each other, your shoelaces, and should you fall down in the coop and not move for an extended period, even you. I used to feel like I was promoting cannibalism or turning my flock into little Dahmer chickens by giving them leftover nuggets. Not anymore. Last year, I caught my sweet birdies rather effectively dispatching a sparrow that had inadvertently flown into the coop and couldn’t find his way out. After they fought over bits of him for a while, I figured my fears were probably unfounded. There is no such thing as mad chicken disease. Unless you live in the UK, in which case you guys have a weird law that says you can’t give your own kitchen scraps to your own chickens. However, I do stick with chick starter for my wee ones. They’re too cute to turn into cannibals yet.

300x300px-LS-8703a9e3_B004ODP3I8-310U2-JEU-L2. You DO NOT NEED TEN NEST BOXES.  Unless you have literally, dozens of hens. We have one coop that has twenty hens and a bank of ten nest boxes. They will fight each other dizzy over the same one or two, maximum, every single day. Not always the same ones, but each day there is one or two primary targets for egg dropping. Never mind that there are eight with fresh shavings and not a hen in sight, they want the one that is currently full of someone’s feathered butt, and no other will do. Apparently it is the first hen to decide she’s ready to commence clucking out an egg that makes the decision on exactly which box will be fought over today. And there is no word on what, exactly qualifies that first box, but suddenly it is to all the other hens what  Louis Vuitton is to ladies shoes. So when the nice feed store guy tells you you need a full bank of ten nest boxes for your dozen hens, he’s lying, because it’s his job to sell you bigger, more expensive crap than you really need. As a matter of fact, one of our coops has an old tire for a nest box, and one has a dog kennel cab that lost its door. The one we’re building has repurposed cut down 5 gal. buckets for nest boxes. Anything you can put bedding in, that has a lip to insure the eggs don’t roll out…POOF! It’s a nest box.

 

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3. Your rooster is, at some point, going to act like a rooster.   I know, I know… you have raised him from hatch, he rides on your shoulder and gives kisses and understands 47 human words and phrases by your count. I’ve been there. Give your precious boy some time…and some hens. At some point, he will commence crowing. No matter how friendly he is, at some point he will feel the need to assert himself, especially in the presence of other chickens. Do not be as surprised as I was when your precious hatchling suddenly fires all 12 pounds of his substantial feathered mass directly at your face when all you’re trying to do is fill the waterer. The good news is, no one in history has ever been killed by a chicken under normal circumstances. One idiot in 2011 apparently bled out after having an artery severed by his fighting rooster, who had a blade attached to his leg for the purposes of the illegal cockfight, but that’s pure Darwinism if you ask me.

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4.Yes, you DO need a rooster. If you can have one. This only applies to folks like me, who do not reside in suburbia or in a neighborhood that has kindly agreed to allow you to keep 6 hens, no roosters, etc. Now a hen will lay eggs in exactly the same manner without one, they just won’t be fertile. If you live in a rural or “country” area…I highly recommend a rooster or several. Unless your coop is the chicken equivalent of Fort Knox, you will, at some point, have a predator try and scope it out for a free meal. Now, while a rooster may not discourage something larger and more determined, like a coyote or fox (or your neighbor’s beagle) I have seen them run off things that will make an easy meal of eggs, young birds or even full grown hens. (Opossum, Raccoon, even RATS, feral cats, snakes, etc. ) This isn’t a guarantee, your rooster may turn out to be a total bag of apathy or just decide to save his own skin…but it sure helps.

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5.Roosters only crow in the morning. Erm…no. False. Lies. They will crow at dawn, midnight, noon, 3 AM, 8 PM, or, in short, whenever they flipping feel like it. Sometimes they crow just to hear themselves do it. Additionally, for you folks with the anti-rooster HOA or community laws or regulations here’s a cool factoid. Some hens crow, too. Yep, transgender chickens. Sometimes, due to either a hormonal imbalance or in a flock lacking a rooster, a hen will sometimes take on the role of a rooster. She will crow, keep watch, assume the role of protector, and may even go as far as to occasionally try to mate with her fellow hens.

All in all, there’s only so much research a person can do. Chickens are fun. They make eggs, and when they stop making eggs they make pot pies and soup if you’re not anti-meat. They’re entertaining and they can all have individual personalities. You’re probably overthinking the whole chicken raising thing, because in all honesty, if you open the door to the coop right now, they will walk right out and survive quite well of their own volition until they drop dead of natural causes or are eaten by something higher up the food chain, whichever comes first.

The chickens are probably taking themselves far less seriously than we are.

~Lisa

 

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Attending a Livestock Auction, Part One

So we went to our local livestock auction last night. And it occurred to me that some folks might be complete livestock auction virgins and that possibly I could be of some assistance in that area. However, it needs to be noted that the advice you’re going to get here (as you’ve been warned previously)  is usually of the “Here are some things we’ve done that did NOT end well” sort. Ours is experience normally born of making every possible mistake and living to tell the tale.

I wanted photos. However, that didn’t work out well as:  A. We were late B. I am short. C. My view mostly consisted of a sea of shoulder blades, I wasn’t sure anyone would find that interesting. In the interest of authenticity, here is a link to an article by Joya Parsons from several years ago that includes some photos of our local auction. The remainder are not from there, but for illustrative purposes.

Joya Parsons Cooking Up a Story Dill’s

Alrighty then. So here’s a Fun E Farm tutorial on attending a livestock auction for the first time as a buyer. As in, all the random tidbits I really wish I had known or thought of before my first few years ago. It wasn’t pretty.

Before I even begin, let me say this. If you are the type of person that has an extremely tender heart for animals, DON’T GO. Just don’t. Livestock auctions are not a place for vegans or card-carrying, protest attending  PETA members. This will not be a pet store. It’s not the Humane Society or an animal rescue. The stock being sold are not pets. They are food animals, working animals, and producing or breeding animals. They are property here, not family. It is not likely to be a cushy environment by your standards. It will be crowded pens, noisy, likely your idea of filthy and it will smell.  You may observe the use of cattle prods and shock poles and things that may shock you to your very core. You may see sick animals or those who have obviously received less than stellar care. You may see those who were injured in transport and no one will appear to care because they’re going to be purchased by a meat packer within the hour. Just. Don’t. Go. If you do not heed my advice, leave your feelings at the door because you WILL NOT likely find anyone in attendance who will sympathize with your position. And you will be in a place where “When in Rome” is your smartest course of action. I’m not saying you’re right or wrong, don’t light up my inbox with animal rights propaganda please, I’m just trying to be real and save you some angst here. Moving on. 12003296_1183904088302834_7421315606153525312_n

1. Wear appropriate attire.   For Pete’s sake, people. This means BOOTS, jeans, workwear of some sort. This is not Storage Wars. Men, dressing like an inner city pimp or his attorney will not impress or intimidate anyone. It will get you lots of attention, though. Ladies, this is NOT the place for your favorite flats or sandals. Same goes for your 400$ Tony Lama suede boots.  You’re going to get dirty. And muddy. You will likely, at some point, step in crap of some sort. You’re going to be on your feet for most of the time. Sale barns are also notorious for being unheated and uncooled. If it’s 24 degrees outside, it won’t be much more indoors. If its 97 outside, it will be 112 inside.

2. DO YOUR RESEARCH.   This could be an article all its own. I highly recommend that before you purchase ANY livestock animal at ANY auction, you attend at least one time prior with no money and observe. First, go early. Find the office and ask questions. Before the auction, not during, when the staff is trying to properly record 11,764 separate transactions. Here are some examples. Must I register before I can bid? What forms of payment are accepted? How do I bid? Where, when, and how, do I claim stock after the auction? Get a schedule, if one is available. There is infallibly a certain order in which items / pens / areas are auctioned off. Sometimes, multiple pens or areas will be auctioned simultaneously. Bring a friend or family member, make a plan and split up. Also, if sale record sheets (market reports) are available online or at the office, look at a couple auctions worth. It will give you a feel for average prices so you don’t overbid. There are no stupid questions, unless you ask them during an active auction. That’s kinda stupid and should be avoided. Stay for the entire auction. People watch. Note the way things are done.

3. Bring cash. At smaller auctions, small stock (rabbits, poultry, fowl, eggs, etc.) is generally sold for cash. On the spot. As in, before the next item is auctioned. You will hold up the works if you are not prepared to provide a bidder number, and immediate CASH payment. Again, this will get you lots of undesired attention. Seriously, everything will come to a screeching halt and all eyes will be on you. Larger stock (hoofstock) is generally sold in a ring, by bidder number from the seating area, and you will pay for all of the hoofstock you’ve purchased in one lump sum at the office after the sale. Checks may have to be pre approved, and a large number of auctions do not take plastic.westminster-livestock-auction

4.  Go Early.  Way early. Some auctions have “preview hours” and some smaller ones will just allow you to “walk the pens” in the hoofstock area before the auction. This gives you a chance to look over what’s been brought in. Bring pen and paper. Note the numbers of anything you think you’d like to bid on. This is also the time for (don’t laugh because I am dead serious) what I call “poop checking”. Check the hindquarters of the animal(s) you’re interested in. Bonus for you if they actually have “exhaust” as you’re observing. All joking aside, poop is a great indicator to hoofstock health. If it doesn’t look as it should, this can indicate a health problem in your intended purchase. Also eye up coats, eyes, noses, teeth and hooves whenever possible. You will learn that these are great indicators of health, age, and the level of care the animal has likely received. This is important. Bring home one goat with coccidiosis, treat your entire herd for a loooonggg time… That’ll learn you, pumpkin. Trust me on this. An entire herd of goats with flying diarrhea is not a good time. If you have even the slightest warning bells, mind them. There will be another auction, and goats will not ever stop making more goats.

5. Set a budget. Stick to it. This is hard, I know, believe me I know. If you are anything like me, this is the killer. If you are going for six hens, don’t buy twelve. If you’ve decided your limit on a goat is 75 dollars, don’t get caught up in the moment and bid 175. Don’t bid on something you aren’t wild about simply because you got shut out on the last one. On a related note, do not buy something you are not prepared to care for or know nothing about. Impulse buying here is not your friend. (Ask me about pheasant, pigeons, or guinea pigs sometime.) And don’t, for the love of all things holy, buy stuff you can’t haul. Our auction doesn’t deliver, most don’t, and those that do charge ridiculous prices for delivery. And you do not, I repeat, DO NOT, want to ride home in a folding lawn chair in a cargo van with a 200 pound horned beef steer breathing on the back of your neck. Voice of experience here, people. True story. Also, do not be this idiot below. It’s likely I (or someone like me) might walk up and hit you, (another true story)  and I really just don’t heart jail coffee.  (Photo below depicting a similar circumstance) Yes, that’s three, possibly four goats in a trunk, and what is almost certainly a feed sack full of poultry which may or may not be alive.

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6. Prep at home before you go. See above. Prep your vehicle for transporting whatever you intend to buy. Have crates and cages or boxes in your truck or trailer. Water, especially in the summer, is advised.  Some animals may come into the auction barn in the early morning hours and have little access to food or water through the auction.  If you aim to buy bottle babies of any sort, have bottles and milk replacer on hand already. I take full bottles with me. Our closest auction happens at 6 pm on a Wednesday, over an hour from home. There is NOTHING worse than getting home worn slam out at 11 pm, with a truck or trailer full of stock you are not prepared for. Make sure you have a “landing area” prepped for anything you intend to buy. Brooder bins and lights for peeps, pens, food and water. You’re likely going to be exhausted. The stock is going to be stressed. Having wire nippers available at home for removal of ear tags now is much easier than having to catch an animal later or treat ripped ears after a tag has been stuck in a fence. Having a plan and areas prepped will make things go so much easier.

7. Quarantine. I cannot stress this enough. Be prepared to quarantine any stock purchased at an auction for an appropriate time before integrating it with any existing herd or flock on your farm. Separate quarters, separate feed and water containers, everything. If you’re trying to be all organic and un-medicated, understand that auctions are probably not a good buying platform for you. Even if what you bought looks and seems perfectly healthy, understand it was just exposed to the critter equivalent of an auditorium full of snotty, sneezy, kindergartners and all their respective pathogens, germs, and nasties. Every single critter brought onto this farm from an auction is quarantined and medicated. Every one. Every time. They will ALL be given appropriate wormers and vaccinations and preventatives and those will be given time to work before they are integrated.  Once they are, it’s a closed flock or herd and only then, any unnecessary meds are discontinued. No exceptions, unless they are intended for immediate sale or slaughter. These may not be the hens you bought, but they may have been their neighbors in the next cage.  Once you’re home, handwashing and being mindful of tracking parasites or nasties from one pen to another should be observed. A dishpan of bleach solution to dip the old boots in between enclosures is advisable and will save you plenty of grief later.

 

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8. Type of sale. Ok, so typically, small stock on the barn floor is sold by the piece and without the cage. What this means is that if there is a cage with six hens and a rooster in it and you only want the hens, tough noogies. You’re bidding on and buying ALL of them. You are buying on them as a lot, but bidding on them by the piece. If the winning bid is , say 10$…the winning bidder now owes 70$, as there are 7 birds in the cage. Same goes for rabbits, peeps, most fowl, etc. BY THE PIECE. Box of 25 chicks? 3$ bid? 75$.   In the sale ring, smaller hoofstock (like sheep, goats or young pigs) may be brought into the ring in large lots, in which case the winning bidder can opt to take one, all, or any combination. The sold ones will be ushered out, remaining ones will be sold with a new round of bidding. If you’ve picked one goat kid you simply must own, and it’s brought into the ring as part of a lot, this is an important time to pay attention and exercise self control. The people you will be bidding against at this point are likely meat buyers for packing houses. They want them all, they want them cheap. If the price is low enough, they will take them all. Bid for first choice, up to your limit, and if they go over, then quit. Live to bid another day. Larger stock is sold BY THE POUND. That 123 you’re hearing is not a $123 feeder beef steer. It’s $1.23 per pound. All 800 pounds of him. That’s 984 dollars, kids.  If you do not know if you’re bidding on something by the piece or pound, don’t bid until you’ve confirmed which. There is typically a scale somewhere above the auction ring which will give an accurate weight and the auctioneer will have announced it prior.

9. Learn your terminology. This is a picture of a sale sheet, or market report. 12398_1272027286157180_5368147733148679890_n.jpg

By familiarizing yourself with the terms on it, you’ve prepped for how things are sold, and if you don’t already know the difference between a boar, sow, steer, bull, cow, calf, ewe, ram, doe, nanny, billy, kid, wether, etc…please educate yourself on those terms before you go. (Hey, I don’t judge, I see it all the time.)

10. Don’t bid against the Amish kids. Well, ok, you can bid…but there are only two possible outcomes here. You’re going to lose or get soaked. Understand that kid probably has more cash in the wallet tucked in his homespun trousers than you do. Know that he’s probably here every time the doors are open. He likely has far more working knowledge than you.  He knows what he’s bidding on, knows exactly what he’s willing to pay for it, and he will not stop up to that point. The other conceivable scenario (and I see it a LOT) is he brought it in, and he will bid you up to the price he wants for it or buy it himself to bring back next week rather than see it go for half market price. They’re smart and savvy. You can learn a lot from these young fellows. blog6.jpg

11. Keep track of your purchases. Seriously, write it down. Cage number, sticker number, price paid, amount owed, # of heads, etc. You will likely be unable to collect any of your stock until after a particular area or group has finished selling and been recorded in the office. You can and will forget. When you get home, this is also good information for your own records. You’ll thank me later, trust me on this. Bite the bullet and be the nerd writing your stuff down. It also comes in handy when you have to defend your hens from being snatched up later by a non-writer who may mistakenly think he bought them.

So, as this has gone on far longer than I planned, I hope some of these tips are helpful if you’re planning your first trip to auction. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I will address other items in a future post to come.

~Lisa

 

The Best Laid Plans

Murphy’s Law is alive and well in this family, and on this farm.

Which brings me to why I could be found in a Tractor Supply store an hour from home at 6:30 last night. And if you know me, you know that TS is just not my favorite place. Or maybe it is, maybe I like it too much, and it’s me that I’m mad at about that. It is, at times, though, a necessary evil. So, occasionally, I find myself paying their light bill instead of my Visa. Yesterday, for example.

So we did a thing this week…we picked up the first of the season’s bottle lambs. A local fellow that we buy awesome round bales from to feed our spoiled equine piggies raises a gorgeous flock of Katahdins that I coo over like a big sissy when we go out there to wrestle a bale. I didn’t know until yesterday that’s what they were, and TBH, I still couldn’t tell you how to pronounce it. (Google lady and her computer voice pronunciation have steered me wrong on so many occasions that I am now the queen of the synonym just to save myself any more embarrassment.) Mostly because the knowledge came to me AFTER we’d picked him up and took place via a text exchange. I knew they were sheep. kata3

Hey, don’t judge me! We aren’t sheep people. I can identify a cattle, goat or poultry breed with reasonable accuracy at twenty paces, but I’m a sheep racist of the most ignorant sort. All the white ones look alike. All I know is they’re cute and fuzzy and the little monotone Baaaaa-aaa that emits from the little faces (and means everything from Hi mom to I’m hungry to you suck!) is more than I can bear. They mean spring. The kids love feeding them.  On the practical side, they are highly salable, the profit margin rocks as does the success rate. By that I mean that unlike bottle calves, they want to live. (Bottle calves do not wish to live, especially Jerseys. It’s an argument you will lose more often than you like. And that is always a blow.) But, I digress…

So, as he only had the one, a plan was hatched to attend our semi-local weekly livestock auction. We set out to try and buy our new charge a friend since we’re not sure Sophie the Goat will appreciate his company. (Could go either way, she has multiple personalities) At least it’s always BEEN weekly. We have taken the winter off from auction and pared back on what we intended to feed through the winter. See, if we don’t go, we can’t buy! (Meaning me. I can’t buy. Because I infallibly and often ill-advisably will, like the time I bought myself a 45 pound half dead suicide bent Holstein bull calf on my birthday. In December. For two dollars, since I was the only idiot willing to bid.) Ryan wants peeps, and there were none last week. So we unloaded the truck of tools and work supplies, unearthed crates and cages that have sat idle all winter, and off we went. 74641_181456678547871_4571525_n.jpg

Bear in mind now, as we did this, there was a band of uncharacteristically severe, hairy storms rolling up and through the Eastern Shores of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. My daughter was calling me from her VA bathtub with her four children as tornado alarms were going off and news anchors were hollering “I repeat, take cover NOW!”. I lost my hat twice and had to chase it across the muddy pasture. I could HEAR my blood pressure. T has snappy tendencies when he’s rushed and I’m a smartass. This was not a pleasant prep session.

We arrived, more than an hour later, peace and harmony restored, with extensive “divide and conquer battle plans” having been made during the ride (as peeps, lambs and goat kids are auctioned simultaneously in different places.) The safety of my grown child’s family has been verified. I feel infinitely better. Pulled around the bend in the road, and …. What?!? No cars, no trucks, no trailers. No Amish buggies and their four legged motors tied up at the fence rail. No hay lined up for sale like this…1800317_1148244105202166_5009651877243424918_n

Sweet. Baby. Jesus. We have just spent an hour prepping in 40 mph winds, an hour’s drive, and arrived hyped for battle at a CLOSED auction. Mom fail. Honey Fail. Farm Fail. You see, neither of us had thought to call first, and not having been all winter, we did not know they had affected some dandy newfangled “winter schedule” and are now operating only every OTHER week.

There is groaning and “Oh HELL No-ing”, and kicking of selves in the rump happening at this point. You can very nearly TASTE the disappointment of the 8yo in the backseat. (Not that any 8yo is shy to let you know when you have just epically upset his apple cart.)

Ok, Mom… apologize for your oversight. Curse profusely. Apologize for that. Lecture the kid on “don’t repeat that. like ever. or until you’re 30.” …fall back and regroup. T starts frantically searching local Craigslist livestock ads. WE WILL NOT go home empty handed. I start searching for the local Tractor Supply, because I know that ‘chick days’ have begun and maybe a boxful of biddies will appease my child. A phone call is made, I’m assured they do indeed have chicks and we’re off once again. I made the mistake of asking the ‘person in charge of chicks’ what breeds they got in.

TS Chicken Expert: “Uh…I…I think, hold on…Pole-lets. And some Long Island Red Somethings. Some kind of White chicken”

ME: “You mean pullets? Mixed ones? As in, Girls?

TSCE: “Yeah, that’s what I said. Pole Lets.”

Me:  “And are they RHODE Island Reds? ”

TSCE: “Uh, sure, we’ve got em.”

Obviously, this kid is to chickens what I am to sheep. I feel for him a little.

So we get there. What awaits us is 2 galvanized water tubs full of what appear to be RI Red chicks. With a smartly printed sign that says “Assorted Pullets, $2.99.” Next to it is another, full of more little reddish gold chicks and coal black ones and a few that look like possible Speckled Sussex chicks. Its sign proclaims “Heritage Rhode Island Reds, unsexed. Special $1.99”. On the other side is a matching set of tubs with one of Cornish Rocks (they can keep ’em) , one with assorted bantam chicks (again, no interest) , and one with mixed ducks in a rainbow of colors. Don’t want those either. Too early. Ducklings indoors, no bueno. They are messy and stinky.

So we wait, and eventually are greeted by the young man I suspect I spoke to. Now being a firm believer in karma, (my T calls these my “right way Sally” moments) I don’t feel it’s fair to buy the obviously mismarked chicks for a dollar less. So I speak up.

Me: “Hon, you have these here marked as the $1.99 Rhode Islands. I’m pretty sure your RI and pullet signs are switched. I want some pullets, but I don’t feel right paying the wrong price for them.”

TS Chicken Expert: “These ARE the Rhode Islands. They came in marked by the hatchery. I read the box.”

Me: “At no time in history has a Rhode Island Red chick ever been black. Just trying to do the right thing here.”

TSCE: “Ma’am, I CAN read. These are the Rhode Islands. Did you want them or not?”

This is the point where my right way Sally switch flips and I determine that if you’re going to be a self-proclaimed chicken expert even though you look like Doogie Howser with acne AND  a craptastic attitude as I try to prevent you from making a mistake that costs your company money, well then, who am I to not give you your way?

Me: “Sure. Rhode Islands it is. What’s your minimum, 6? I’ll have 12. 6 of the RED Rhode Islands and 6 of the BLACK Rhode Islands. $1.99, right? Super.”

Meet our new Rhode Island Reds. 20160225_073808.jpg

In calculating that I had probably just gotten a 12 dollar windfall from Tractor Supply and Chick Boy’s ineptitude, I elected to buy four new gallon sized waterers  (also mis marked) for 4 dollars and change each for the new runs. However, I suspect the black chicks may be Black Stars, in which case two of them are roos. Either way, I win. Ryan has his babies, we got new waterers that are kid-friendly size…Thanks, Doogie! I’m probably going to hell now.

Some names have been changed or omitted to protect the innocent. And the foolish. Apologies to Doogie Howser’s character.