Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In the Coop

Our young hens

I've always loved chickens. My grandmother had chickens when I was small, although I don't really remember much about them. She got one especially pretty flock when a box of chicks came into the post office and the person that ordered them didn't come to pick them up. Apparently the cheeping was driving the postmaster mad because he gave the box to my grandfather to take home to my grandmother. She raised them up and she said they were such beautiful hens, white with a bit of black feathering. She didn't know what kind they were. They allowed the chickens to run free on the farm and rarely had trouble with predators. Occasionally a mink would kill a chicken in the hen house at night. But Grandma gave up raising chickens when a neighbor's dog killed many of the birds in her little flock. Times had changed and keeping hens had become more of a luxury than a necessity with the ready availability of food in local stores.

Free ranging chickens

The tar paper covered chicken house sat for years at the edge of the woods, though, as a reminder of the flock of hens that provided necessary food and meat during those years that subsistence farming provided for  most of the needs of the family. Along with a huge garden and milk from a sweet-faced cow, my grandparents kept their family fed and supplemented my grandfather's salary from his public job. I remember churning butter at the enamel topped metal kitchen table when I was quite small. I could never make the butter come but Grandma could.

I grew up and moved away but never lost my mountain roots. Eventually I moved back home and one of the first things I did was put together a flock of chickens. I experimented with several different breeds in those years and especially enjoyed the bantam varieties. But times changed, I moved and wound up working harder and longer hours and then taking care of my grandfather so the chickens gradually dwindled away. I had one rooster that lived nearly ten years alone on the farm after his hen was killed and owls captured all his progeny. He was a tough old game bird and nearly wild. Eventually he disappeared after a stray dog came through.

Kathleen feeding the hens

A couple of years ago a friend suggested setting up a chicken co-op. She and some others would provide funding if I provided space and did the work. My old chicken house was still standing, just about, filled with junk. Kathleen and I spent the winter clearing it out and I hauled over 500 pounds of metal to the recycling center. The weight of the metal had caused the floor to collapse and good friends came over and jacked it back up for us. The roof was never put on right so we replaced it with a metal version. The contractor says the roof will outlast the chicken house. After all that we drove down into North Carolina to pick up 18 hens and one rooster from a friend that has a farm. The little birds were Buff Orpingtons, a breed I had wanted to try and heard good things about. They are supposed to be gentle, cold hardy and good layers of brown eggs.

Busy hens

And they grew and they grew. And they started laying eggs enough for the co-op and for me to sell some to supplement the cost of having the hens. I will tell you, keeping chickens is not cheap. They have to be fed, the hen house needs to be cleaned out twice a year, which requires purchase of several straw bales, they need grit and calcium and the occasional medical treatment. Although well-fed chickens that can free range for part of their food stay pretty healthy.

Around the beginning of their third year chickens molt and stop laying. They will start laying again after the molt, but that's decision making time about what to do with the birds and whether to continue keeping hens for eggs or not. The co-op voted to disband and so we processed the birds belonging to half the group. Process means kill 'em, pluck 'em, clean 'em and eat 'em. It's not a terrible thing to do, just a bit unpleasant until the feathers are gone. Then the bird doesn't look at all like that pretty Buff Orpington so the rest of the processing isn't such a big deal.

I opted to keep my share of the birds and the rooster up and walking around. The hens are laying again and I'm getting enough eggs to start selling them again. For me it's still pleasant to walk up to the farm every day, twice a day, and let the chickens out of the coop and then shut them safely back up in the evening. I take one of the dogs along for the exercise. They both have good manners around the chickens and just sit and wait for me to finish the chores.

Rufus and his girls

I kept one scraggly little hen because I felt sorry for her. She was still ragged from the molt, small and darted away from the others because they would peck her. But she was the first to start laying again and she has filled out and gained weight. Her feather are shining and healthy. I suppose with the smaller flock she doesn't have to compete so hard for food. There may be a lesson in that, somewhere.

What I'm spinning: Shetland and merino singles dyed periwinkle for a special order
What I'm knitting: Odds and ends as spinning is taking a priority. Dishcloths, mostly.
What I'm crocheting: Everything is hibernating.
What I'm reading: Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit by John Lyly
Current sounds & sights for spinning along: Watching Foyle's War and listening to Factory Man by Beth Macy
How the diet is going: I've lost 20 pounds since November, mostly because of walking to take Dad his three meals a day and keeping the dogs happy with their exercise. Could stand to lose more and with the spring will be walking even more, I imagine.


Maggie's Farm said...

Buff Orphingtons are wonderful birds. I started with them, then, in a weak moment, purchased an "ornamental package" from McMurray Hatchery and they interbred with my Buffs. I bring eggs to school to cook breakfast with my students. I find raising chickens enormously satisfying.

cyndy said...

Very much enjoyed reading your post about your Buff's! We keep a mixed flock of about 13 with one Guinea Hen...just added some Heritage Delaware hens. I cook for them during the winter months when it is so cold and snowy!