Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hand Feeding

Henrietta taking meal worms
Recently, Sheri called me all excited, because she had just gotten Henrietta to eat meal worms out of her hand.  None of the hens had ever done that before.  But, then again, we hadn't fed them meal worms before the weather started turning colder.  In an effort to help supplement their diet, since they can't scratch for bugs and such during the winter, we bought some dried meal worms.  We'll try other foods, such as table scraps as we have them, or cooked potatoes, or even hanging a cabbage for them to peck at, as we get time to do so.

Beulah, on the other hand, would have no part of getting close enough for us to touch her.  She's always been much more stand-offish.  She'll come around when we're working in the garden, or in the back yard, but don't make a move towards touching her.  When we do catch her she clucks the entire time until we let her go again. She doesn't really seem to care much for meal worms, anyway.  They're really individual characters much like our cats.

Hens in run before being enclosed
I really suspect it's Henrietta that is laying the first egg each morning.  It just seems that Beulah goes into the nest box much later.  I don't know if that is part of the pecking order or not.  Of course, with only two hens there's not much of a pecking order.

Both hens seem to be quite content, though.  The temperatures are dipping into the single digits at night, but the enclosure seems to be doing a good job of keeping them protected from the weather.  The real test will come when the temps drop below zero for any length of time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


So, with the weather getting colder - and the first snow of the season already having happened - we've been doing a lot of reading on what to do to make a warmer environment for our two remaining hens (Henrietta and Beulah).

Makeshift heater
We've decided on a combination of things.  First, we wanted to address them being able to sleep in a warmer environment.  There was a chicken owner in Wisconsin who made a make-shift heater out of a light bulb socket mounted on a board with a clay pot attached over it.  We liked the idea for a couple of reasons:

  1. The chickens wouldn't be exposed to the light bulb directly, chancing burning something - or worse, somehow starting a fire.  Many a chicken coop has burned down because of a light bulb.  
  2. A 60-watt bulb is relatively inexpensive to keep on all the time, and heats the clay pot up sufficiently to give plenty of heat to the interior of the Cube
We cut off the outlet end of an inexpensive lamp extension cord to wire to the light socket.

Current setup
Next, we purchased some 6 mil clear, exterior plastic sheeting to attach to the run of the Cube.  We covered the entire front, door, and most of the sides.  We then stacked straw bales around the sides and back of the entire unit to block the wind, and provide insulation.

We purchased pine wood shavings from Tractor Supply to spread on the ground of the run.  We're not particularly partial to Tractor Supply, but it is what we have in our area for purchasing farm supplies.  An 8 cu ft. bag of pine shavings is around $5.00.  It covers the inside of the run nicely.  Our hope is that what we have done to enclose the run will keep it dry inside so we can rake the shavings out every couple of weeks.  That's how we'll clean and renew their run.

Water heater
We also purchased an Allied Precision bird bath de-icer for their Glug water container.  It's 250 watts at 120 volts, so it's just over 2 amps.  That won't be a big electrical draw, either.

Wired outlet & cords
We'll wire both devices to one of these thermostatically controlled outlets so they will only kick in if the temperatures fall below 35 degrees (f).  The water de-icer also has built-in thermostat controls.

Lastly, we're placing a bin containing soil so they can still take dust baths while enclosed in this setup.

Our hope is that the Cube will stay above freezing so the eggs won't freeze, as the hens have not both laid their eggs before everyone is gone from the house.  We have to collect them in the evening after returning home.  We'll keep updates on the progress as we test out this system.

With the run enclosed like it is, we can already tell it's warmer inside.  Granted, temps have not dipped much below freezing yet, but they will soon be here.

(12/6/11 updated with photos)

Thursday, November 3, 2011


I just picked up this book (or is it a magazine?). It's from the editors of Hobby Farms® Magazine. If you're just starting out with chickens - whether it be an entire flock, or just two hens - it's a very good read. There are a couple of good articles on heritage breeds (sorry no info on hybrids, which is what the hens we have are - Gingernut Rangers).

I guess I'd call it a good primer on getting into the chicken world - whether it be for a business, or just for pets. It was well worth the $10 I spent on it.

There's a wealth of information on chicken keeping on the web. Heck, there's a wealth of information on pretty much everything on the web. The main thing is to do a lot of reading of blogs, articles, basically most everything you can find. I think you'll find there is good information as well as bad. You have to kind of sift through it yourself.

Our goal is to build a small farm and have it be sustainable. In other words, raise most of our own food. We want to live totally off-grid. It means we'll have to get away from town, and find some land that is farmable, but with enough woods to have timber for building, wood heat, and maybe even making maple syrup.

By next Summer we'd like to have at least 25 laying chickens, and maybe 50 - 100 broilers to sell, as well as a few beehives.

I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Well, the inevitable has happened.  This evening my wife came home, having been out for the evening with our oldest son, and found one of our hens (as of now she thinks it is Nellie) dead in the nesting box.  She feels bad about it, but I assured her that there is nothing she could have done.

It is a mystery, though.  I asked her to put the hen in a plastic bag, then in the freezer until I can get home and look at it.  Since I'm not a vet, I don't know if I'll find anything, either.

Still, we are puzzled, because none of the hens looked unhealthy whatsoever.  It hasn't been cold enough here yet for them to be affected by that.  It could just be that the hen had trouble with trying to lay an egg, and simply expired.  We may never know.

New to raising and keeping chickens? Here are some guides you can purchase to get you started:
1. Incredible Chickens! The Complete Guide To Raising Chickens At Home!
2. Answers To Raising Chickens - A Complete Guide To Keeping Chickens
(Note: We are an affiliate for these guides.  What that means is that you will be taken to a landing page to purchase and download them.  These purchases help us pay for maintaining this website.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Inauspicious Beginnings of Our Chicken Ranching

Welcome to the beautiful land of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan! It's my favorite place in the whole wide world. Has been ever since I was a youth. Well, I'm finally getting started with this blog to chronicle our (my wife and I) journey into the world of urban farming. We don't live in a metropolitan area, but we're still in the city of Iron River, MI. So, it's still urban. We have less than 1/4 of an acre of land, and last year decided to become more self sufficient.

We purchased our house in 2009 for just over $25,000. It was in live-in condition, but being the restless spirits we are, we decided to do a bunch of remodeling - gutted and remodeled the kitchen, gutted and remodeled both bathrooms, gutted what we use as the master bedroom, new carpeting throughout, several new zo-e-shield windows, added insulation to the attic, rebuilt the chimney, replaced and moved the water heater, installed a wood furnace, and put up additional food and emergency storage.

 Then, over the Winter this past year, we decided to delve into raising our own chickens. The decision was to harvest our own organic eggs. We did some research into Chicken Coops, and found that a Chicken Tractor was our best bet. After doing more research, we decided the Eglu Cube by Omlet was the way to go. It is not an inexpensive solution, but being made of a high grade of plastic, and being quite modular in design, it is easy to clean, care for, and keep pesky pests away from our chickens. So, in March or April we actually placed our order for the Cube. It comes from England, and they only ship periodically, so we needed to get into the queue to receive ours. We had a lot of preparation to get ready for the chickens anyway. We needed to fence in the back yard (we had already made the decision to do an organic garden as well), and wanted mostly to keep the deer and other large animals out.

North fenceline & tilled garden.
South and Southwest fenceline
South and slightly East
East Fenceline
I heard someone on a local call-in radio program who had a lot of cedar posts that I could purchase for a reasonable price. I went and picked up about 40 of them. In mid-May, I took a week off work, and planned on getting the fence in, the wind generator up, and a whole lot of other tasks. I highly under-estimated my work load. Turns out the ground was still frozen in some spots. As I began digging the holes, I hit something solid. I thought it was just hard, rocky soil (we are in iron country after all). After trying a second hole, and hitting the same thing, I determined it was going to be necessary to use a power auger. So, I went and rented one. After having a hard time drilling the first hole, and inspecting what came out, I realized it actually was frost I was hitting. Fortunately, there were only three holes that were frost ridden - places where the sun did not shine much. The rest was a piece of cake. I'm glad I had the power auger, though. It went much faster.

Well, at the end of that week, I had only gotten 3/4 of the fence posts placed, and no fencing put up.  I had to work frantically the next couple of weekends in order to finish up the fence, and build the gates.

Eglu Cube as shipped.
Inspecting each box.
After some rather disconcerting issues with the shipping company (Greyhound), the Cube finally showed up. I was home the weekend it was supposed to be in, but only one box came.  Sheri had to go get the rest of them when they finally arrived at the Iron Mountain depot.  It came in five large boxes.  I decided to document step-by-step putting it together, figuring it might be a useful tutorial for Omlet.

Everything is there.
Retrieving the first pieces to assemble
After inspecting each box to make sure there was nothing missing (some of the boxes had some good sized holes in them), I looked over the instructions.  They said it would take a few hours to assemble.  Sheri thought I was nuts to have her take a photo of each step, but I like to be helpful, and if it can help even one person it's worth it.  Besides, I had fun doing it.

Putting together the wheel assembly.
Installing the supports to the base.
Assembly was pretty straight-forward, as long as you closely followed the instructions.  There were a couple of times when I had to scratch my head before figuring out which piece was called what.  Plus, you had to start assembling it upside down until it was to the point that the supports and wheels were installed.  A cordless drill is a godsend in this situation.  I've put a lot of use into that drill - remodeling four houses, and countless other work over the last ten years.  It speaks well of Ryobi.

More assembly of the "tractor".

Tractor assembly & back of run. Done!
I'm glad it was a nice day outside, because it would have been quite cramped to have to assemble the unit in my small garage.  It's not a large tractor (only 3' X 4'), but all the pieces are so large that there wouldn't have been a lot of room to keep everything.  Besides, it was great being able to get photos with the green grass, and dandelions <GRIN>.

Front wall, installed.
Installing the ladder.
Installing the wire mesh run.
One great feature of the Cube is that the house and nesting box are actually more like a condo, and the run goes underneath.  The chickens have absolutely no trouble getting up to the ladder to go to bed at night.  In the morning they usually just flap their wings and "jump" down.
Installing the skirt.

 We were quite concerned that the chickens might peck at the plastic, and ingest it.  They haven't done that at all.  Since we're concentrating on everything being organic, we were quite concerned, but it turned out to be a needless worry.

It was quite interesting dealing with someone in England to purchase this product.  I dealt with Clare, and no matter how upset we might have become, she always was pleasant and easy to deal with.  We didn't  really get upset, but did get firm with her a couple of times when the shipment didn't come like it was supposed to. They're also about six or seven hours ahead of us, so that didn't make it easy to always talk to Clare when we needed to.
Side panels going on.

Installing divider for nesting box.
One of the best features of this tractor is the ten inch skirt around the run.  It is literally fox, and other rodent, proof.  They cannot dig underneath it to get at the chickens.  Another great feature is that there are two drawers that we line with newspaper for the droppings that go under the roosting bars.  Makes cleaning a breeze.  There's also easy, outside access to the nesting box, and the front door slides open and shut from the outside.  The handle for the front door stores away, and animals can't get at it.

Installing the roof and back access panel.
Installing the roosting bars.
The roof slides forward, and the back panel comes out for easy access to clean.  The beauty of the unit being plastic is that it can simply be washed and scrubbed down in every nook and cranny.  It's also properly vented so the air does not become stagnant.  Chickens like to take dust baths, and that adds to the pollution inside a coop if it is not properly vented.  Also, chickens are prone to some sort of red mites that can make them quite sick.  Those mites can't live in this coop - especially after cleaning.

Moving the tractor.
Installing small fence.
Omlet says that this tractor can house up to ten chickens.  Maybe in theory, but I don't know if I would want to put more than six in it.  If they were never let out of the run, I wouldn't put more than the three we have in it. So, we may add another three chickens eventually.

Moving the Cube is not as easy as Omlet makes it out to be.  Yes, the wheels are large, but there's nowhere to grab onto for control.  If the yard was perfectly smooth, then it would be much easier, but our yard has small divots all over it.  The chickens dig additional holes as well.  I decided to add a couple of handles to the back panel to make it easier to balance on the two wheels, and to pull it if necessary.  Makes moving a bit easier.

Completed Cube with feeder & waterer
One thing we read about was that since the spacing on the fence that comes with the Cube is 2" X 4", raccoons and other such animals can reach in, grab a chicken, and tear it to pieces.  We didn't want that to happen, so we went to the big box store and picked up some light fencing that is just 1/2" square and two feet tall.  We installed that all the way around the base of the run, and have not had an issue whatsoever.  Although, I must say that since I installed the six foot fence around the yard, we haven't even seen rabbits back there.  So, I guess that's a double deterrent.

All in all we're quite happy with the Cube.  Even though it's supposed to be insulated against the cold, we've decided we're going to keep the chickens in our wood room in the house for the winter.  It gets very cold up
 here, and we don't want any chickens freezing their toes or combs off.

The chickens arrived healthy & sound
Wondering what's up.
Well, around June 22, early in the morning, I got a call from the local Post Office telling me that the chickens had arrived.  We opted to purchase them through Omlet.  They were guaranteed to have been raised organically, and were within four to six weeks of laying.  I believe they came from a grower in Ohio.  I was out of town, so Sheri had to go get them.  It wasn't a large box, so was rather easy for her to handle.  I reminded her to document it in pictures.

Checking out their new home.
Beulah, Henrietta, & Nellie.
First eggs.  Rather small.
Granddaughter helping collect
She introduced them to their new home, and they took right to the food and water.  The first bag of feed came from Omlet, but it wasn't soy free.  So, I ordered some soy-free layer mix from Super Soy, a subsidiary of CFS.  (Funny how I would get a soy-free product from a soy processing plant.)  It runs only $16/bag, but I have to pick it up in Brodhead, WI.  As I was only about 20 minutes from there all Summer, that wasn't a problem, but now I think I'm going to have to find a different supplier, or get in with a group of people and order a pallet at a time so it's not so expensive to ship.  Three chickens don't go through a lot of feed - especially since we feed them tomatoes, watermelon, table scraps, and they're able to free range.

Searching for treats (bugs, worms, etc.)
Watching the chickens.
We affectionately named the chickens Henrietta, Beulah, and Nellie (for nervous Nellie - she squawks the most when picked up).  Within two weeks, Sheri found two eggs in the nesting box.  But it was at least another four or five weeks before there were more.  I guess one of them was farther along than the others.  They're now laying regularly one egg each per day.  Our oldest son and his family were here for two weeks in August, and our granddaughter, Sadie, loved to go check for eggs.  She was nervous around the chickens at first, but then warmed up to them.  They're very friendly birds, and love to follow us around the garden.  If we're picking tomatoes, and not watching out, Henrietta will come and take them right out of the bucket.  They LOVE tomatoes!

Many more adventures to come.

If you are not in a position to purchase one of these Eglu Cube tractors, you can build your own coop. There are lots of resources for plans online. Here are a few:
1. Building a Chicken Coop
2. How to Build a Chicken Coop with Easy Step-by-Step Instructions
3. Easy D.I.Y. Chicken Coop Plans