Homesteading — The Backyard Chicken Flock

IMG_8825You will never know the value of a chicken, unless that is — they start plopping eggs down everywhere like it’s a pooping party. A pooping party I’m happy to attend.

We have just successfully raised 14 of 15 chicks to full feathering during the coldest winter temperatures in years. Wind chills dipped below -30 degrees and those chicks kept peeping.

When I looked at the thermostat reading of 40 degrees, I was terrified I would wake up one morning and find all my babies huffing and puffing, trying to fight off pneumonia. But not these tough sons a bitches — or shall I say daughters (or so we’re hoping).

Yes, we lost one but she was probably sick when we got her. Much smaller than the others, she lasted a few days while I tried carrying her around the house in my jacket pocket simultaneously listening to The Beard screaming at me to get that thing out of the house.

When The Beard mentioned this incident to his uncle (an avid homesteader), he understood completely. He told The Beard that his wife had kept a full grown rooster in the house for two weeks when he was under the weather. Little did The Beard know he was learning that his wife took animal husbandry so serious, he couldn’t tell her what to do with her animals.

And this is the point when I bow down to him and thank him for the many times he changed the bedding, fed and watered the chicks, all during sub zero temperatures while I sat sipping my coffee huddling over my latest book reading, or Pinterest, or whatever else my warm feet fancied. Thanking my lucky stars I had him to do the job of a real farmer. And then there was that one time, I made him go with me to Walmart at 11:30 at night because the not so little chicks anymore had jumped up and busted the heat lamp, of course during one of those -30 degree nights.

We did everything we could to keep these little chickies warm. We warmed their water before putting it in their water bottle. We had two heat lamps hovering over the little buggers at all times, even wrapping their enclosed cage in moving blankets to keep the heat in, no matter the fire hazard. We thickened the bedding to immeasurable depths. And I stood there watching that mercury laced needle not reach above 60 degrees. I was a terrible chicken mother. Who was I to take care of these babies?

We did everything we could besides move them inside to the basement. And I’m sorry but that was not going to happen. They smell. But saying, ‘they smell’ doesn’t even begin to describe the horrid secretements that come from these late night entertaining creatures. I love our chickens, but I just couldn’t.

This was our only sick baby chick we lost after a couple days.

And so we bided our time, hoping for the best. I bit just about every fingernail off, checked on them hourly, and hoped today wouldn’t be their last. Nine weeks later — we are still 14 strong! Yes, I have become a crazy chicken lady who is more obsessed with building a new chicken coop than working, but hey can you blame me? If you’re judging, you haven’t had your own flock. Trust me, I know this because I was that nose turning, too-good-for-your-chickens lady once who couldn’t possibly eat a chicken out of my backyard (though I still haven’t made it to that point). Now, I am that lady who walks around with chicks in her pockets, builds a new coops for them monthly, buys treats for them, gives them names, and is anal retentive as hell about getting them some fresh air and bedding, but who am I to say chickens are the only thing I’m anal retentive about? Just ask The Beard.

We are happy with our baby chicks and I walk around puffing my chest out from time to time over being a bad ass for raising baby chicks in the hell-est of conditions, but then again, I wasn’t the one who had to grow and eat and survive. But when you start getting into homesteading, it’s about efficiency and productivity. The most productivity these little ones were doing was providing Friday night entertainment for the two of us and pooping more than their fair share.


And then,  it happened.

We got a call from a friend we sold a table to, early last summer. She told us she was moving and she had 4 adult hens she needed to rehome, announcing that ‘THEY WERE STILL LAYING IN -30 DEGREE WEATHER!!!!’ Is this normal? Or just the most Super Women of chickens we had ever heard of. They weren’t even in a heated coop, or supplemented with a heat lamp.

‘WE WILL TAKE THEM ALL!’ was my response.

While we love our chicks and we worked so hard to raise them. Never underestimate the time it takes for chicks to trash their water and throw their food in every corner of their coop. If we replaced it as quickly as they removed it, we would be out their every five minutes. But then again, we probably wouldn’t have been able to leave the coop.

And here we were, presented with the possibility of having laying hens through winter. And I thought I was a tough bitch. Upon picking them up, we weren’t sure they would easily adjust to our baby chicks.

They might peck them to death. I don’t care about establishing a pecking order. It isn’t worth having chickens die over it. And as we placed our 4 newly acquired full sized hens into our 8 week old pen, we watched and anticipated the worst.

All in all, we didn’t have too many problems. One of the larger hens was, shall we say, sassy. She instantly started pecking at the baby chicks, the smaller Rhode Island Reds were her favorite to go for.

After five minutes of yelling at her, clearly not getting the point, we had to remove her. She went into the chick brooder like Cool Hand Luke and said, “One night in the box for you.” Just like that — one night of isolation had her in line quicker than we could even imagine. Fully immersing her once again with our chicks and her full grown sisters, she understood her place. She was there to co-habitate, not to rule The Land of The Ladies.

FullSizeR (5)Two days past and we longed to see an egg pop up in any corner of our coop, not caring if it was caked in poop. Even if they were laying at our friend’s house, would they lay here? Was our coop set up properly enough? Maybe it was too big for them. Did the stress of travel, a new place, and 14 other chicks stress them into infertility of egg production? We hoped not.

Like clockwork I was feeding and watering those buggers every morning while The Beard snuck in a few more slumbering minutes cuddling with the pups in bed. On the third day of full hen ownership, I thought they were done. No egg was to be had. Again, we were going hungry for breakfast because I needed to go grocery shopping a week ago and like life — it didn’t fit into the schedule.

But of course, the glory was being reserved for The Beard. Upon waking with his morning coffee, he went out to check on the hens. He clearly didn’t believe me when I told him, yet again, that the hens hadn’t produced any eggs. Winter boots, Carhartt jacket, and gloves went on in a matter of seconds, while I once again sat down to enjoy another sinful cup of coffee.

And what do you know? Minutes later, The Beard walks in proudly proclaiming our first two, perfectly brown eggs. Once again, we were enthralled with our chickens. They had captured our attention and made us leap with joy over one more victory of self-sufficiency. Now, we vow to always have chickens for egg production.

Any roosters become dog food, because well, our dogs need fed too and we live in the city where roosters are a finger waging no-no. Our dogs have to be on a grain free diet anyway because they develop ‘elephant skin’ otherwise. And that shit ain’t cheap, so anywhere we can cut costs we do it. But, I assure you, we respect our animals when taking their lives. We don’t do it unless we absolutely have to. Our dogs are carnivores. It’s in their blood. We, however, have a choice.

FullSizeR (4)I am slowly converting to veganism, though I don’t know if eggs will ever be off the menu, unless we get a rooster. They would otherwise become rotten or eaten by the chickens themselves. And they are coming from our back yard. We know what they are fed and how they are taken care of. I couldn’t say the life of a egg from the grocery store. Yet, I have bought many a cases from refrigerator isles, though these beautiful hens have become the answer to B-12 deficiency, baking necessities, and The Beard’s breakfast cravings.

So — we rejoice over one more step towards self-sufficiency and the homestead we’ve been dreaming of. Here’s to free range chickens, treated better than most humans, who enjoy pests from fresh grass, the occasional sprinkle of meal worms, and roosting on old wooden chairs. And we haven’t even made it to the summer. I can’t wait to watch these little ladies waddle around our backyard like they’re on America’s Next Top Model. Gisele — you better watch out. My girls are coming for you!

Lets’ hear your winter stories of your backyard flock.

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