My curiosity about chickens began when my friend (and Two-Lane Livin’ columnist) Sue showed me her chicken tractors. See, I didn’t know you could have chickens without the chicken house. A chicken tractor moves around the yard, and (most) remove any requirement for shoveling poop three seasons out of the year.
At one time, Sue had several chicken tractors, but had downsized during a move to two. One day, she asked if I would be interested in taking one of her larger tractors home with me.
That really set the ball rolling.
I told Frank I wanted to go to the livestock sale that Friday. He bucked a little. Seems, here in the country, like cats and dogs, chickens just happen. There’s always someone with extra or one or two they don’t want. Turns out, someone in our community was working to get rid of about 100.
Frank agreed that I could have four.
We went over so I could see what they had…
What they had was about 150 chickens of all breeds and types, mixed and non-mixed. I had no idea what the breeds were, or what I wanted.
“I want brown eggs.” I said.
Now, Sue can reach over and pick up her hens with no problem. She raised them. They know, like and trust her.
But the chickens on the farm we visited we free and independent. We left two pet porters and said we’d be back at dusk.
So, when we went and got the hens, it was dark, and I didn’t see them. Not until the next morning.
Chickens, if not pampered and cared for, stink. So, I immediately (with Sue’s advice) brought my hens back to optimum health.
The first to be named was Pepper. The four hens, as hens do, established a new pecking order among the newly formed flock. She was the loser. Interestingly enough, she also is the most tame. We ‘talk’ to each other, and she will eat out of my hand, although she won’t let me reach out and touch her — yet.
The next one named is the head of the pecking order. Miss Ellembee. Now, I realize that it’s a strange name, but actually it comes from the initial’s of what I first called her – Little Miss B@#$* – L.M.B. See, Ellembee doesn’t like to share, and she complains a lot. Whenever another hen uses the nesting basket to lay an egg, she complains. Whenever someone she doesn’t know comes around, she complains. Whenever another hen tries to each or bathe next to her, she pecks them. Believe me, she has earned her name.
Dee Dee was next to earn her name. In fact, her full name is Miss Dirty Dancer Prancer. (I know, another weird one.) But, I think Dee Dee is a weird chicken. First off, as I previously mentioned, the hens arrived with a smell. Dee Dee was the worst of them all, and turns out, even when I supplied them with daily access to a DE & Dirt bath (chickens bathe in dirt), Dee Dee wouldn’t bathe.
In addition, when I began letting them free range in the evenings, Dee Dee showed her tendencies to dance and prance and jump around as though some invisible spook was behind her, goosing her. So, she was dirty, and prone to dance and prance.
In all, it was about five weeks before I finally saw her bathe herself. I think the other three hens were as thrilled to see it as I.
The final of the four is Red, and I have yet to get a picture of her in focus to share with you. She’s basically a rusty brown hen, who, never earning a name by her character, was named for her coloring by default.
We’ve been getting about three eggs a day pretty consistently out of our four hens, eggs that most often go to my Mother and Aunt in the city who remember the taste of, but have little access to, farm fresh eggs. Frank and I eat eggs on a regular basis now, many of them pickled.
Feed costs me about $10 a month – much cheaper than a single dog or cat would in that amount of time.
So, there you go. Now you’ve met my ladies. I’ll see if I can get Red to be still long enough to get a focused picture, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.
Friday evening, we attended a bonfire in celebration of a friend/columnist’s daughter’s graduation. It started at 9 p.m., and I had no idea how time flew until the teens headed to bed around 1 a.m. I immediately said, “Oh! We have to go!”
We made it from the kitchen table to the front porch chairs before we got caught up in another interesting discussion.
When we finally did leave, it was 4 a.m.
Frank, who falls asleep quickly and knows it takes me about an hour, let me sleep in until 10 a.m. this morning, when the phone rang — my weekly Saturday morning phone call from my mother. About 10 years ago, because my life was so crazy and I often forgot to call her on a regular basis, Mother suggested she call every week at the same time.
It is now a routine part of our lives.
The topic of this week’s phone call, (and much of the party discussion) concerned four laying hens. My new hens. My hens who didn’t get fed this morning until 11 a.m. because I was up all night talking about them and sipping home made wine.
My friend Sue, who hosted the party, is The Farm Queen, Ms. Organic Herself, a woman who (I am sure) has not a single additive or preservative in her entire body. She has several beautiful chickens.
It’s Sue’s fault I have laying hens.
And once we finished celebrating her daughter’s accomplishment and settled down to chat I said, “Sue, I have chicken questions.”
She explained. Hens lay every 28 hours, not 24. They have to have food, PLUS oyster shells (calcium) to make the egg shells hard, PLUS grit which is basically rocks in some part of their throat that helps them chew because they have no teeth. But — that’s not all.
Sue’s also get Olive Oil, to make their feathers shiny. They get garlic every three days to keep away mites, fleas, and other nasties. They get brewer’s yeast for the same reason.
She gives them raw meat (organic) and milk and cream (organic). The layer feed she gives them she makes herself, and it’s 100% natural, not like the 17% natural mix you get at the feed store.
Sue has the most beautiful, glossy, spoiled hens there are. That’s what I pictured when I pictured hens. And then, we went and purchased mine, from a farm overstocked with mixed multitudes of chickens, guineas, ducks — all free range and rather fending for themselves.
We brought them home at night, captured from their roost. When I got a good look at them the next morning, I realized, these were not like Sue’s hens.
They were not beautiful, they were not clucking and cute. They were not pets.
First off, they stunk. I can handle bird poop, feeding schedules, food formulas, egg gathering, care taking.
But I don’t do stink.
At the party, I asked Sue if I could give them a bath. She told me to put out a pan of dirt.
See, if you want chickens to bathe — you give them dirt, not water.
Through this first week, I have seen improvement in my hens. Not being a farm girl, I am not about to judge their former living environment. However, I do think being catered to is much better for them than fending for themselves.
They no longer act like they’re starving, and have already gotten accustomed to my voice and the shaking of their feed can.
Within three days, they established their little “pecking order.” They are now a rather cohesive club, not a bunch of snippy singles.
My favorite, the Barred Rock, is low girl on the totem pole. I’ve named her “Peppa,” as she’s salt and pepper speckled.
Her eggs have a dark brown shell.
In the first week, our four hens produced 12 eggs in all, two of which I dropped.Â (I need a little more practice reaching through the access hole in their pen to grab the eggs.)
I had provided one roost and one nest for them to share (as Sue’s do) but after a day of watching them establishing their pecking order, I broke down and provided a second roost and a second nest bucket so Peppa wouldn’t have to fight so hard for her space.
I put in a second feed container so she wouldn’t have to fight the other three so hard for food.
She must realize I favor her, because she is no longer intimidated by my presence as the others are.
Every morning this week, I have tried to feed them on a schedule, gather eggs on a schedule, uncover and cover them on a schedule.
Today, I blew it. I couldn’t help it, I was up until 5 a.m. for the first time in nearly two years.
Frank went out an uncovered them for me this morning, but didn’t know my feed formula….
So when I fed them, I was four hours late.
They didn’t seem to mind — and had two eggs waiting for me.
I’ll make it up to them tomorrow.
I’m setting up a dirt bath.
I never thought I would have chickens. The whole concept amuses my Mother, and irritates my husband. I’m not even sure why the idea got stuck in my head and I decided I had to have chickens to raise my own eggs. I’ll blame it all on my friend Sue, who weeks ago said, “I have an old chicken tractor. Do you want it?”
What’s a chicken tractor? Basically, it’s a mobile chicken pen that allows chickens to peck the ground, be protected, and removes the requirement of shoveling poop.
Ours is simply wire fence over a wooden frame, covered with canvas and a tarp:
At night, the tarp and canvas folds out to cover the whole pen, and each morning, you fold it back to allow them some sun. In this picture, I just have the tarp folded back, and the canvas piece not. The rope you see on the ground to the left of the picture is what I grab to drag it across the yard, morning and evening.
Because the whole thing is mobile, the “roosts” have to be up off of the ground. Sue also provided a drywall bucket, which she uses in her tractors, but I happen to also have on hand several wire baskets from a refrigerator freezer. The bucket hangs from the ceiling of the pen, and the baskets are wired to the sides.
The entire contraption cost us nothing, because it was all put together from items on hand, once Sue provided the tractor itself. We replaced the 2×4 boards around the bottom with landscape timbers, making it a little heavy to pull, but it also will help, in our region, to keep the ‘coons at bay.
In this picture, you can see their mop handle perch, the cut drywall bucket, and one of the wire baskets. Three chickens are on the ground and there is a fourth — she has been inside the bucket all morning.
Two of the chickens already have names. The white one is Miss Fussy. She is not happy with her new surroundings, keeps searching for a way out, and complains quite a bit. Here she is turning her nose (beak) up at the wire basket.
Miss Fussy, so far, seems to be the most dominant. She was the only one found on the perch this morning, and while she doesn’t pick on the others, she seems to not even care that they are there. It’s all about her.
This is Aretha. It’s hard to see the blue reflections on her feathers, or the tufts of small feathers on her cheeks. She pecks at others who try to eat food in her space, but she also likes to lay in the sun with her wings spread out. Right now, their wings are clipped, but they will grow back.
I don’t have any eggs yet today, but Frank said they might be off from the move and the new surroundings. I’ll check again in a little while.