Hot & cold chicks

After a few tries at hatching chicks year round, we learned that it’s just too much of a pain in the budget to make it worthwhile. The electricity bill gets up there with all the heat lamps running, and we have to keep them on much longer than usual if it’s too cold for youngsters in the grow-out pens.

So this year we started our first round of chicks in April, timed to catch the warming temperatures of spring. They went into the brooder coop, with its single heat lamp, and at one month old, into the first grow-out pen to make room for hatch #2. That’s when our plans went off the rails. We got an uncharacteristically hot spell, and the week-old peepers struggled with overheating. The heat lamp was raised, ventilation hatch opened, and we even dropped the bulb wattage from 250 to 175 to 75 watts. Luckily someone was home most of the time to monitor and adjust.

The month-old chicks loved the warm sunny weather, and were just getting the hang of spending time outside when temperatures reversed course yet again. Chilly, dank rain returned and now the big chicks were chilled and we had to trot out extra heat lamps to help them cope. The tiny peepers got their big heater back, and now we had to monitor them for signs of chilling.

Naturally we turned to the internet for ideas. How to make sure chicks at all stages of growth have enough heat to stay healthy and not so much to cause them distress, no matter what the weather is outside their insulated brooder coop. After first considering a thermostatic control for our existing heat lamps, we recalled an interesting invention touted by experienced flocksters – heat panels.

These devices sit on adjustable legs, a few inches over the brooder floor. The surface gets warm and chicks follow their instincts to get underneath, much like they do with a mother hen. When they are in contact with the panel, they can soak up safe heat, but the air in the rest of the brooder stays cooler. This should help our chickies stay just right, even when temps fluctuate throughout the day. Once they are rested and warm, they will venture out for snacks and exercise, just like hen-raised chicks.

Here are some pictures of how it works, taken from a very informative 68-page thread about the pros & cons of Brinsea’s EcoGlow panel heater vs. Premier1’s version.  premier1  We ordered the dome covers, because there is already enough poop going on elsewhere. Some folks use saran wrap instead of a cover, replacing it periodically when it get too funky. premier2Peepers getting warm. This is in an inside brooder made from a wire dog crate, with towels on the floor. premier3This brooder uses pine shavings, like we do at STF. Chickies are comfortably piled under the heater. premier4When they are warm & cozy, laying down for a nap takes them out of contact with the panel, and they can regulate their comfort level.

Premier sells a large heater that measures 16″ x 24″ and should be suitable for up to 50 peepers. Our brooder coop is fairly small though, so we bought two of the 12″ x 12″ heaters instead. This way as the chicks outgrow the need for constant heat, we can raise the panels, eventually removing one and finally the other. We’ll be sure to share photos and our review once they arrive. Our current chicks should still be small enough to make good use of them, and we are also interested in seeing how they do on a natural day/night light cycle. Even though the red heat lamps are supposed to minimize disturbances, they are still bright enough that chicks are up all night, eating, peeping, and pooping.

Here is the Premier1 heating panel in action, from their website. premier

And here is the Brinsea EcoGlow 20, from their website. brinseaFingers crossed for happier healthier chicks, and less-stressed humans, with the help of some modern technology.

Chicken math

GotChickens‘Chicken math’ is an inside joke amongst modern flocksters. You start out with a few peepers and a cute little coop, only to realize that you ‘need’ more. More hens, more eggs, more space. So you buy a few more, add on to the coop, maybe buy an incubator to hatch your own, or <shudder> start keeping roosters. Next thing you know, you’ve spent $1000 for a few dozen eggs and some cackling poop-machines. CastleCoop

One antidote for that kind of chicken math is record-keeping – obsessive, daily, microscopic tracking of any data you can collect. At Seven Trees Farm we track feed consumption & costs, egg production, egg sales, hatch rates, date of lay, pedigrees, color, conformation, and so on. While rustling through a pile of spreadsheets can get old, it really helps in visualizing the difference between chickens as pets/hobby and chickens as livestock.

Hens2Today we sold 3 pullets that didn’t meet the cut for our breeding program. They laid perfectly decent olive green eggs, and were pretty hens, just not what we needed. So we listed them as a trio for $50 and they sold immediately. Judging by all the inquiries we can also tell that there is a solid market for these flock fancies, at least in springtime.

Looking over our records, we know that it takes us an average of $10 to raise a pullet to point-of-lay, about 5 months. Over the next 6 months each hen eats about $15 in feed, but earns about $36 in egg sales if we assume a production rate of 60%. This kind of chicken math tells us that each of those 3 hens brought a net profit of $27!
Not too shabby, considering that our household supply of eggs is basically free (we don’t count labor costs).ChickenMath

Industrial-sized ‘pastured’ poultry producers look for a production rate closer to 75-85%, but they use breeds and methods that are too close to factory farming for our liking. There is still much room for improvement though, and upping the ante with our ‘math’ is the key. Next up is a serious program of trap nesting, meaning each nest box gets a special door that closes when a hen goes in to lay, so we can see who lays what and how many.

This will allow us to cull (sell or eat) hens whose egg numbers don’t add up, and also to see which hens lay eggs that we want to hatch (no funky shells or off coloring). Another benefit to trap nesting is being able to sell a specific hen that lays a specific egg. The deeper you fall down the flockster hole, the more important it is to have just the right colors in your egg basket, and that translates to a value-added product for us. EggBasket

Another way to push the math is to supplement bought feed with homegrown goodness. Maintaining the right nutrient balance is critical, so we can’t just toss them bread from the outlet store or past-prime lettuce and hope to keep the eggs coming. Since we live near a dairy with excellent (and cheap) milk, we’ve started feeding our flock kefir a few times a week. The process of culturing the milk makes it digestible to chickens and adds protein, calcium and probiotics. They absolutely love it. As an alternative we cook up a pot of beans mixed with dried nettles, full of protein, vitamins and minerals, which is great in winter when there isn’t as much green food to forage. The beans need to be cooked to neutralize an otherwise harmful enzyme, but in the winter it’s easy to get a pot bubbling on the woodstove.

In the evening we throw a few handfuls of homegrown wheat and corn into their bedding so they can scratch and fluff it, keeping it fresher longer, and providing them with a little exercise. If the nights are cold, some bedtime carbs help with egg production, but in the summer they get only a scatter of treats.

We’ve also experimented with pellets vs. crumbles to minimize waste, and are working on trapping the food-stealing, biosecurity-breaching English sparrows that plague our flock.

Chicken math doesn’t have to be boring. Make it into a story problem with lots of interesting variables to solve for, and both you and your flock can prosper.

Here is a downloadable Excel template for the chicken tracking spreadsheet – Blank Chicken Tracker

From peeps to pups

Spring in our part of the PNW comes in fits and starts. Intervals of cold, soaking rain and invigorating sun. And the sunny weather rarely happens on a weekend or day off. So we’re only now getting ramped up for our main planting. We took a risk and moved most of the raspberries to an expanded area in the garden. They were about ready to flower, so the rain was really helpful in keeping them alive. I think we’ll get a good crop again this year, but we’ve also expanded our blueberry and strawberry plantings this spring too, just in case.

The first batch of peepers is a couple weeks old now and doing great. We’ll be doing four hatches total this year, and selling some hens and pullets in the fall. The experiment continues…

We also got a few extras from the feed store, including this mystery breed peeper.ChicksThe wild critters are getting into the season too. Pacific tree frogs, in a range of colors from brilliant mossy green to deep chocolate, turn up in unexpected places. This one was on the garage wall.GarageFrogAnd we have a steady stream of hummingbirds, at all three feeders, from pre-dawn to blue-dark. RufousSunsetHildegard is a year old now. She has grown up to be a very sweet, wiggly, protective gal, and still has a bit of growing to do. BabyHildeShe was 80lbs. at her last vet visit, but still takes care to compensate for Fergus’ short legs and old age. He absolutely loves playing tug with her, and the exercise is good for both of them.


Seven Trees:

Today is the first day of summer in Iceland, ancestral home of some of the ancestors of the humans of Seven Trees. As our climate changes, we learn to adapt and thrive, just like they did. April may not seem like summer, but our food plants and animals are just getting into full swing…

Originally posted on Seven Trees Farm:

This April 19th, Seven Trees will be wishing everyone a Happy Harpa!

Our viking ancestors divided the year into two seasons, Náttleysi (“Nightless days”) and Skammdegi (“Short days”). Harpa (possibly a Scandinavian goddess) is the name of the first month of summer, roughly coinciding with mid-April to mid-May.

The holiday celebrated on this day has multiple names – Sumarsdag, Sumardagurinn fyrsti, and Sigrblot. Many summer-kickoff observances were all about fertility, invoking bountiful crops and productive livestock in the up-coming warm season. But Sigrblot (“victory sacrifice”) was intended to bring success and luck to warriors, since summer also heralded the onset of fighting/raiding season.

The Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle details some of the less-warlike traditions of Sumarsdag:

People also used to give summer gifts on the First Day of Summer in Iceland, four centuries before Christmas presents became a tradition, and the summer gift tradition is still practiced in some…

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Leaders grasp nettles

“Leaders grasp nettles” ~ David Ogilvy, (Scottish born British military intelligence officer and later top advertising executive, 1911-1999)

While leaders sometimes must metaphorically grasp nettles, the humans of Seven Trees Farm look forward to a brief frenzy of literal nettle-grasping this time of year. We’ve written a lot about the medicinal, culinary, recreational and agricultural uses for nettles, but not so much about the magickal and metaphorical meanings our ancestors attributed to this prickly plant.Urtica dioicaIn 1838, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a girl who saved her brothers from their fate of being turned into swans by weaving them shirts made from nettles. She had to gather the nettles with her bare hands, process the fibers with her bare feet, weave the fabric and sew the shirts without speaking.

Unspoken nettles’ seem to be a standard requirement in getting the most efficacy from the plant, whether for magic or medicine. The Folklore Journal of January 1884 recounts this tale: UnspokenNettles also figure in many proverbs:  “If they would drink nettles in March and eat mugwort in May, so many fine maidens wouldn’t go to the clay.”

“Tender-handed, grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.”

Old Norse/Germanic belief was that nettles were important to Thor/Thunor, and throwing nettles on the fire during a thunderstorm would protect you from his lightning bolts.

Nettles gathered before sunrise will drive evil spirits away from cattle, according to German folklore, ans a pot of nettle under a sick person’s bed indicated recovery if they stayed green, but death if they wilted.

This old Scottish rhyme needs a little translating, but advises harvesting nettles early in the day, cutting them low to the ground, in shady places, and substituting them for ‘kail’ or greens:

“Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle

Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early

Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o’ June

Stoo it ere it’s in the bloom, coo the nettle early

Coo it by the auld wa’s, coo it where the sun ne’er fa’s

Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early.”

(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)

Wikipedia says: Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of “stoo” is to throb or ache), while “laich” means short or low to the ground. Given the repetition of “early,” presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard [which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society].

Nicholas Culpepper, in his classic work Complete Herbal and English Physician says that Mars governs nettles. ” You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason nettle-tops, eaten in the spring, consumeth the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness that winter hath left behind.”

Danes believed nettle patches marked the graves of elves, and Scottish Highlanders thought they marked human graves. Archaeologists know that nettles can mean ground that was disturbed by settlements, and where to start digging.

Gravestones among nettles

One last quote to keep in mind when you’re out harvesting your own nettles: “He who is afraid of every nettle should not piss in the grass” ~Thomas Fuller (British Clergyman and Writer, one of the most prolific authors of the 17th century. 1608-1661)

For more herbal folklore, check out these sites:

The Herb Society – Nettles

Nettles – Weeds or Wonders

The Practical Herbalist

In like a lion

Fire1The vernal equinox is this coming weekend, but we started celebrating a bit early with a bonfire, beer, and a few rounds of darts. DartsInterruptedThe dogs and cats figured out they would get some attention if they got between the throwing line and the board, so it took a while to play a few rounds. Luckily that day was one of our magical previews of summer, with temps near 70 and nature busting out all over. Merlin2Some Wild Kingdom kind of nature was going on right next to us as we walked around, chatting about summer projects. A closer look revealed a female Merlin, hopping around the ever-renewed burn pile next to the fire pit. The brush pile serves as cover for the assorted native birds that frequent the seed feeder above, and apparently as a hunting ground for ravenous raptors. MerlinShe kept jumping down into the branches, then popped up to look from different angles. She may have stashed a previous kill in the pile and was trying to get it, or had a live bird at bay, but we couldn’t see anything in the brush.

The weather turned challenging today though. Wet, windy and wild, like video from the bridge of a Bering Sea fishing boat. Our two resident Anna’s hummingbirds, one male and one female, have been taking full advantage of the feeders we now keep filled year round, but with today’s storm were even more in evidence. HBird1We decided to swap out the heated feeder for the jumbo cafeteria model, and not long after a soaked, tired & hungry newcomer showed up for a meal. HBird2We have another feeder under a south-facing garage eave, and the male Anna’s guards this like Smaug guards treasure. But for the bolder females, coming in under the back porch roof means being able to eat snug & dry, and not be chased off by the male. A few shrubs are starting to flower, red-flowering currant, quince, and oso, but having a back-up source of food is critical to these tiny critters.

Speaking of tiny critters, it’s finally time to dust off the incubator and get the next generation of laying hens cooking. Things have been a bit hectic, so we’re getting off to a later start than usual. So far we’re planning 3 hatches this year, with the first one being from Blaine, our golden cuckoo Marans roo, and 8 carefully chosen hens. We’re going for larger hens with good egg-laying conformation and good quality eggs. Since Blaine’s Marans genes should help add dark brown “paint” to the eggs, crossing him with hens that already lay dark eggs should mean daughters that lay even darker eggs. Some of the hens in that breeding pen lay olive eggs, ranging from deep bronze with brown speckles to glossy buttery avocado. The Marans dark brown gene should make for hens that lay bronze or deep olive, but only time will tell. OverEasyWe finally got around to trap-nesting some of our main flock, and documenting the results. All of our chickens have legs bands in combinations that reflect parentage and hatch date. We use different colors of zip ties on both legs, plus a master spreadsheet, to keep track. The notes in the picture above tell me that the egg on the left was laid by a hen with a brown zip tie on her left leg, and a blue one on her right. BCM x ehb means her parents were a blue/black copper Marans roo crossed with a hen called eagle-head black (a cross of an oliver roo and Welsummer hen with a white head like an eagle’s). The bottom line refers to her color, black copper, like a Marans. This information helps decide if we should use this hen to help build our future flock, and also helps ensure we don’t cross her with too close a relative.

Kailyards and Plantie Crubs, oh my!

Seven Trees:

Seven Trees Farm is just starting to wake up from winter. Our plans to have a hot bed/cold frame ready to winter over greens was put on the back burner again, thanks to life’s steady onslaught of surprises.
The seasonal windstorms we experience here make a traditional greenhouse a losing proposition, but the often-mild winters make year-round gardening irresistible. We had a few hardy greens survive our no-tech neglect style – parsley, chives, chard, soup celery, and some sad spinach. Maybe we need to pile some of those farm-ubiquitous cement blocks into a plantie crub and call it good :)

Originally posted on Seven Trees Farm:

The picture above is of a kailyard c.1936, on the island of Foula, a part of the Shetland Isles. The climate in parts of northern Scotland is so harsh that even today gardening is a challenge. One way early crofters dealt with the cold and salt sea air was to build walled gardens. Even so, not much would grow but hardy plants like Shetland cabbage (kale) and more recently, potatoes.
These two pictures are of the Ham Doon kailyard (also on Foula) in spring and summer. The word kailyard literally refers to a small plot of land or kitchen-garden where cabbage (i.e. kail) and other vegetables may be grown. The word kail is recorded in Scottish sources from the late fourteenth century onwards and derives from Old Norse kál. Kailyard has been in use since at least the sixteenth century, and is attested in official documents such as…

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