backyard chickens, chickens, duck eggs, ducks, farming, gardening, raising ducks, raising turkeys, turkeys

Beginning Homesteading Its All About The Birds

When we first moved to our first and only home 23 years ago the first thing we did was plant a garden. We always loved to grow things and as time went by the garden expanded, but something was still missing.  One day while visiting a friend, we realized what was missing.  He had a beautiful flock of laying hens free ranging in his yard.  As we talked with him they scratched and ate, he even gave us a few eggs to take home and try.  When we cracked them open for breakfast the next morning,and saw the beautiful yolks, we knew it was time for us to take the leap into chickens and homesteading. img_1077

Laying hens are an inexpensive and easy way to raise your own food, even in a small space.  We converted part of our shed into a coop, and built a run made of wire that we salvaged from a friends junk pile. The inside of the coop was 4’x8′ which was plenty of room for 6 birds, nesting boxes and a roost.  The run was 8’x8′. Predators are always an issue so we were sure to bury a few boards along the edge of the run.  Now comes the fun part, ordering chicks!!!  We chose various breeds that were all good brown egg layers.  We ordered them through our local feed store, this limited our variety, but saved us on shipping, which can run as high as 35 dollars.  Ordering straight run chicks is like playing craps so be sure to order chicks that are already sexed, so you do not end up with roosters. When the chicks arrive they will need to be put in a brooder, which is really just an enclosed space with a heat lamp.  When you pick up your chicks the bonding will begin immediately.

 

We found ourselves spending lots of time with them.  Sometimes we would even hold them while we watched T.V. We put our first set of chicks in a brooder in our sons room to keep them safe.  This was a huge mistake, although they were safe they began to smell, and made a lot of dust .  This was not our best parenting moment, we knew when our son started sleeping on the couch that it was time for them to go to the garage.  After about 8 weeks, we moved them to the coop with a heat lamp.  It takes 20 weeks for most hens to start laying eggs, which is an eternity when you are a new homesteader.  We would run out and check for eggs every morning like kids on Easter morning. Finally we were rewarded with one tiny egg, and then another, and another.   Soon our whole flock was laying and we were now raising our own protein for the first time.

 

In the beginning we ate egg after egg, but over time we couldn’t keep up with our girls .  So we started giving eggs to family and friends.  Our chickens provided us with so many lessons and adventures.  One sunny summer afternoon we finally let the ladies out to free range under our watchful eyes, and with a glass or two of wine we watched them scratch and eat bugs just as we had always wanted.  As the sun set the girls put themselves to bed. IMG_9777 I remember Tracy calling me at work to say the chickens were in the garden.  I came home to her in a pair of welding gloves trying to pick up chickens.  Or when we decided to have a rooster and she was fighting it off with a rake. (if you read her previous blog, “Adventures in Homesteading, a not-so-country girl’s perspective, you learned that she is not a bird person!) IMG_6183 (1)

From this simple beginning our homestead grew and we eventually built the girls a new coop, that was a beautiful addition to our yard.

They say chickens are a gateway animal, and they are right.  Most birds are similar to raise and soon after the chickens we ventured into ducks.  If watching chickens is like reading a good book, then watching ducks is like tuning into a NASCAR race.  They are so full of sounds and energy.  They lay more eggs than a chicken.  We love to herd the ducks back into the coop at night, its as if they share one brain and move more like a school of fish than a flock of ducks. Plus who doesn’t love a “duckface” selfie.

 

After ducks the next logical step was turkeys.  How could we resist raising our own thanksgiving dinner?  We raised the turkeys separate from the chicken, but it wasn’t long before we realized that even the fattest turkey can fly.

 

The turkeys loved to escape and feed with the chickens.  Seeing a 20 lb bird walking in your yard can only make you smile.  Tucking a turkey under your arm is a little different than doing the same with a chicken, whether you have welding gloves on or not.  Raising birds has so many benefits eggs, meat,  entertainment, tick control, and don’t forget all that manure for the garden.  We couldn’t imagine our homestead without the birds and their noises.  Our homestead adventure started with a simple visit to a friends house.  Who knows where yours will start, but when it does don’t forget the birds.

 

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cooking, farming, gardening, homemade, homesteading, kale, recipes

Freezing Kale, The Test of a Marriage

Why would freezing kale for the winter be a test of a marriage? Let us explain….

We live in the Northeast and our winters can be very long, and for an anxious gardener, it can be tough mentally. So as soon as possible, we like to get our hands dirty and get our cold weather crops in the ground, those that can tolerate a cold spring and even a little frost, such as spinach, collards, broccoli, some lettuces and of course, kale.

We jumped on the kale bandwagon a few years ago. We were curious about this proclaimed “super food”. We already loved spinach and all the ways it can be used, so why not try kale? It was love at first bite. We use kale in many ways, sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil, raw in salads, creamed kale, used to stuff pork loin and venison roasts (see our recipe for Kale and Sausage Stuffed Venison), mixed in our morning eggs, the list goes on and on.

Back to the marriage thing. Kale is just one of the vegetables that grows in abundance and gives you more than you think one little plant could. So, on an early June day, the question came, “Do you have anything I can put all this kale in?” I was a little frightened, but I suggested one of our large coolers as we have used a big cooler in the past to clean kale. So happily my husband went about his business picking kale and not one, but two, coolers arrived on our back deck and were full to the top!

Uh-oh, now the work of preserving begins, and the test of our marriage. We have a very traditional marriage here on the homestead, and not because we think each other has a place, but because we both enjoy our responsibilities and do them well. He loves everything outdoors and she loves to cook, preserve food, and take care of the house. It just works. But, an overwhelming amount of kale can be stressful to anyone!

The first step is to fill the coolers (sink or large bowl, whatever your cleaning vessel is) with enough water so that the kale floats. Give the kale a little agitation with your hands and leave it alone for at least 10 minutes. What happens is that any dirt, which is heavier than the kale, will fall to the bottom of the cooler. This trick also works for lettuce, broccoli, etc.

After the dirt has settled, the cleaning and stripping process begins. Get yourself set up with three large bowls. One for the un-cleaned kale, one for the leaves and one for the stems. You will see later that nothing goes to waste on a homestead.

Grab the kale stem by where it was removed from the plant and slide your other hand down the stem. The leaves will come off easily. For some of the bigger leaves, there is a secondary thick stem-like vein that will run through the leaves that we also remove.

Because of the overwhelming amount in this kale harvest, we decided to process it in small batches. It helps with keeping one from going “kale blind”. Once your cleaned kale bowl is full, it’s time to move to the kitchen. We were lucky, it was a beautiful June day so all of the cleaning could be done outside.

On your stovetop, bring a large pot of water to a boil and on your counter have a large bowl of ice water, a slotted spoon (or our favorite tool for this job is a spider, which is used for frying) and a colander for straining excess water.

Once the water is boiling, drop about two large handfuls of kale in the water and push it down with your spoon to immerse. In about five seconds, yes only five, the kale will wilt and become the most stunning shade of green. That’s your cue to remove it with your slotted spoon or spider and put it immediately in the ice water. This method is called “shocking”, which stops the cooking process and keeps that beautiful green color.

Once ice cold, transfer the kale to the colander and our trick here is to weigh it down with a small, but mighty, cast iron pan to aid in removing any excess water as we are not trying to make kale ice cubes here. Additionally, once the excess water is strained in the colander, we also hand squeeze bunches of kale to remove any remaining water.

The kale is then transferred to a large cookie sheet lined with wax paper, placed in one layer. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer for about 30 minutes to just set the kale enough to put in a zip top freezer bag or vacuum sealer bag. The pre-freezing helps with not making that giant kale cube. Trust us on this one, that mistake has been made. Label your bag, put in your slightly frozen kale, and before sealing, press out any excess air to keep away that dreaded freezer burn. Whenever you need, just grab a bag out of your freezer and take out a handful.

Remember all of those stems……fellow homesteaders know, nothing ever goes to waste!

It’s that easy, just time consuming, and hopefully, once you have spent your entire day processing two large coolers full of kale, you will still be married, and love your spouse for all his or her hard work. I know we do, especially next winter when we are enjoying the fruits, or vegetables in this case, of our labor!

backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading

The Reality of Life on the Homestead

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Homesteading shows on television give you a glimpse into the reality of life on the homestead.  There are trials and tribulations along the way and the don’t always work themselves out.  The reality of living this life style is that animals and plants must give their lives to allow us to live.  Nature can be cruel and everything does not go as planned all the time.  When our pigs go to the butcher we are thankful but a little sad. When we come out in the morning to do chores and a predator has taken one of our flock we are angry and sad. And when we have to cull an injured animal we are just plain sad.  It is not a lifestyle for the faint of heart. Things die and that’s the way it is. So last week when we had a chick born with what looked to be a birth defect we knew what the outcome could be.  Its leg was twisted and he couldn’t walk.  It flopped around and couldn’t stand at all. IMG_2585

We searched the internet for answers.  Chick leg problems are common, but this was not the typical problem.  We decided to put it in a separate incubator to stay warm while we made a plan.  This was a normal homestead situation, often you have to come up with a remedy to a problem that is unique.  Whether it is fitting plants into a garden or building that pasture fence in your special location, you have to make the decision because you are your own boss.  So we decided to set the chick up in the incubator with a towel on the bottom so it was soft and it wouldn’t hurt itself, and could also get footing if it tried to walk.  We gave it a very shallow water dish so it wouldn’t drown, and a bit of food. The poor thing would just flop all over the incubator.  Tracy decided it would need food and her motherly instincts took over.  She mixed some food with water and fed it with a medicine dropper.  She would hold it to make it comfortable and feed it several times a day.  Just like a newborn baby,  the chick would let us know when it was hungry or needed something. Things did not look good so we tried to splint the bad leg but that made it worse.  At one point, we even found the chick soaking wet and cold from falling in its water and used a hair dryer to warm it up and dry its feathers.  Every morning we would check on it, expecting the inevitable.  After a few days we looked into the incubator and noticed it was standing braced up against the wall.  We were so happy to see this progress.  The problem was as soon as it was away from the wall it would tumble over.  We kept up with the feeding and watering, we even named it little foot.  The next day we were holding it and noticed it was using the injured leg to push down.  We saw this as a great sign.  The chick was also eating and drinking so we became optimistic.  The next day it ran across the incubator and stood up on its own.  It was still wobbly, but was actually standing.  By the next day it was running around in its space and chirping. The chick wanted out.  We moved it to a small brooder and it seemed to be doing well.  It could hear the other chickens, and would call to them. So finally we put it with the other birds.

The other chicks were a little bigger, but it began nipping tails and pushing his way into the food.  We hope that the little one will continue to improve but we know that life is very fragile.  We love to see it running with the big boys and girls and can’t wait to see what a pretty bird it will become.  Life on the homestead or anywhere else is never guaranteed.  Living this life style brings that fact home to us time and again.  It makes us appreciate our life and it makes us  appreciate where our food comes from and the animals that provide it for us.  You can never take things for granted and it really makes us understand how delicate the original homesteader life was.  One bad crop or a sickness going through their animals could also spell death for the original homesteaders.  We learn so many lessons from our homestead life style and we even come out on top once in a while.  Little foot is a great reminder that sometimes prayers are answered, and there never is a good time to give up.

backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading

From Rooster to Baby Chicks, New Life on the Homestead

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Although it is still cold, spring has been in the air on the homestead.  We have been starting seeds, making maple syrup, and our rooster has been active making baby chickens.  We keep a small flock of chickens for egg production.  Usually we have enough eggs to avoid buying any from the store.  Last year one of our hens went broody (sitting on eggs to hatch them)  so we bartered for a few fertile eggs from our good friend and put some under her.  Only one of the eggs hatched and as luck would have it, the little chick was a rooster.

We really didn’t want a rooster, but we kept him anyway.  He grew into a beautiful bird and we decided that this year we would hatch some of our own eggs.  We try to keep our hens about three years or so and then rotate them out.  Three of our hens are due to go to new homes, so this was a great way to replace them free of charge.  It also allowed us to learn a valuable skill that could keep our flock self sustaining, and we would no longer be slaves to mail order hatcheries or the over-crowded chick confines of Tractor Supply.  We started by looking for a used incubator on Facebook’s marketplace. Immediately we were offered free incubators to either borrow or have.  We were so grateful. It is wonderful how homesteaders always come together when one of us has a need.  We tried to set up the incubator in our partially heated garage, but we could not get it up to the accurate temperature of 99.5 degrees F.  After some thinking we set it up in our mud room, because it was out of harm’s way, and has heat.  We let it run for a few days and adjusted the heat to 99.5 degrees and added water to the bottom tray for humidity.  We then collected eggs as soon as they were laid so that they were still warm. Which, by the way, if you live in the Northeast like us, is not always an easy to find a warm, just laid egg. They sometimes get cold very quickly with our ever fluctuating temperatures. We placed the eggs in the incubator and wrote the date on them in pencil.  Eggshells are porous and ink can bleed into the egg killing the chick.  We turned the eggs three times a day by hand, rolling them a quarter turn each time.  Some incubators come with a fancy, automatic “turner”, but our experience is that turning them by hand works the best. Chicken eggs take about 21 days to hatch and on day 18 we stop turning them.  Knowing that the big day was coming soon,  we got our brooder ready for the upcoming births.  We took an old plastic pond and put some bedding in the bottom.  We then hung a heat lamp about 18″ above the bedding.

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It is important to be sure the lamp is secure and not just depend on the clamp.  We had a friend who nearly burned down his house when his lamp fell into the dry bedding.  We give the chicks enough space to move away from the lamp if they are too hot.  It is easy to tell if your lamp is in the right place once you put the chicks in.  If they move away its too low, if they huddle together it is too high.  We also get their food and water ready.  Finally day 21 came and we could hear peeping in our incubator.

We looked in the incubator, there were no chicks, but we could see some of the eggs wiggling a bit.  After a few hours  we could see a tiny beak pecking a hole in the egg.

A few hours after that we had our baby chicks.  We left them in the incubator until they were dry, and then we moved them to the brooder.  They seemed much healthier and livelier than the chicks that we have had mail ordered and we have not noticed any pasting up (poop getting bound up).  Our homestead was now a little closer to being self sufficient, and we went to bed that night of the first, and hopefully many more births-to- come, feeling very grateful to be able to continue our homesteading lifestyle.

Just like most things we do in homesteading, it is a learning process. We always ask ourselves, “how can we improve?” ” what can we do differently?”, but with raising our own chicks, the answers to both of these questions are clearly evident when we witness the hatching and birth, and then hold a baby chick in our hands for the first time. It never gets old and you realize that you have done exactly what Mother Nature intended, with a little help of an incubator, of course. And that early morning crowing from the rooster that you once loved, then hated, you suddenly love again. Thank you, Mr. Wing!

backyard chickens, chickens, farming, homesteading

Building a chicken coop, the cornerstone of your homestead

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One of the most important buildings on any homestead is the chicken coop.  On our homestead we eat eggs every morning.  Pound for pound the chicken coop is the undisputed champion of providing meals.  Our coop is located where we can see it from our back door.  So when it came time to build it we knew it had to look good too.  We chose to make it look like a small rustic cabin, and were able to acquire rough cut hemlock for the exterior.  This also saved money in the end, as the lumber also has some natural resistance to rot.  The next challenges when building a coop are to maximize space and ease of use.  We chose to put the nesting boxes directly in front of the door, this made it easier to get breakfast in the morning.

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The floor space behind the door can be used by the birds when the door is closed.  We also made a “chicken door” to the outside with a sliding piece of plywood to close it.  This is also located in close proximity to the entrance.

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Next we put in the roosts, because we had left the whole right side open, we were able to stack the roosts.  This allowed us to have space for a few extra birds.  We also built a platform just to the right of the door to put food and water on.  A raised platform helps to keep bedding out of the food and water.

The entire design makes it very easy to tend to the chickens in the morning.  Cleaning is also easy, we just pull the bedding toward the door and scoop it into a wheel barrow.  We left space under the nesting boxes so we can scoop up bedding without knocking it into the boxes.

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The next challenge was window placement, we decided to use two windows to increase ventilation in the summer, and light in the winter.  We used 1/2″ hardware cloth that was permanently affixed between two boards.  When winter rolls around we have Plexiglas panels that we screw in behind the cloth.  We also added a solar powered light.  It is very helpful in the winter when we are collecting eggs in the dark.  It was an inexpensive (thank you, Harbor Freight!) modification that we really can’t live without.

We really love our chickens, and we enjoy our homestead.  Our chicken coop is a focal point, so we have landscaped it, stained it, and we even built a nice rock walkway around it. We did not know it when it was built, but a year later, it became the welcoming entrance to our small vineyard. We often take pictures of it in different seasons.

No project on the homestead is ever perfect.  There is always something to learn.  The very first winter after we built the coop we realized our mistake. The first time we slammed the door with snow on the roof, we got an roof full of snow down the back of our neck.  Lesson learned, as far as lessons on the homestead go this one wasn’t bad, at least there was no trip to the doctors office.

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Our chicken coop is now the cornerstone of our homestead, and we are so thankful for the meals it provides us.  So when it comes time to build or upgrade your coop, grab a glass of wine, sit back in a lawn chair, and envision the coop of your dreams.  You and the girls will be happy you did.