On Chickens and Eggs

A brief progress report.

After two flocks of chickens — the original flock and my replacement flock — being killed last year by a neighborhood dog (who will get shot if he steps foot in my yard again), I dove back into chicken rearing this summer by buying 18 pullet (female chicken) chicks with the attention of raising them for eggs and sale as laying hens.

Because I like colored eggs, I bought 12 Ameraucanas, which lay green, blue, or brown eggs. I also bought 3 Rhode Island Reds and 3 Golden Sex Links. This was in mid-March; they were just a few days old.

I built them a brand new chicken coop from scratch and moved them into it in May when they’d gotten too big for the stock tank I’d been raising them in in my garage.

I fed them chicken feed, chicken scratch, and kitchen scraps. They grew.

One of the Ameraucanas died. It happens sometimes. That left me with 17 chickens.

Chicken Yard
My main chicken yard is 15 x 8. Made of hog panels hooped over the yard, it protects the chickens from predatory birds, such as eagles. I planted string beans against one side and they grew right into the yard. This photo also shows their old PVC feeder and automatic waterer.

They seemed to eat a lot of food, but I began suspect that they had help. Rodent help. Voles and mice are pretty common out here and there’s no way to keep them away from spilled food. Chickens are notoriously messy eaters and were spilling a ton of food from the PVC pipe feeders I’d made for them. At first, I didn’t think it was a big deal. But when it got to the point where they were going through a 50-pound bag every 10 days or so — at $15 per bag — I realized I needed to try to fix the problem. So I bought them a galvanized feeder that hung on the side of the coop building. They didn’t want to use it — probably because they couldn’t easily get the food out on the ground — but when I pulled the other feeders out, they had no choice. What a difference! A 50-pound bag lasted at least twice as long. What’s even better is that the feeder holds more food so I have to fill it far less often.

In late July and early August, they started laying eggs. At first, they were laying only a few eggs a day. But as each hen matured, she added her eggs to the daily count. Soon I was getting about a dozen eggs a day. It was time to move into the revenue portion of my plan.

I bought really nice Farm Fresh Eggs for Sale signs. I put one at the end of my road, one (with an arrow) at the exit to the winery 1/2 mile away, and one at the end of my driveway. On weekends, I prepped egg cartons for sale. I’d have 3 dozen available, as well as some garden veggies.

Of course, this was a dumb idea. I live 2 miles from pavement on a dead-end road and although I was hoping winery customers would drive that extra 1/2 mile, they didn’t. So every Monday I was giving my eggs away to whatever friends didn’t have chickens.

The other part of the plan was to sell the laying hens. That part worked like a charm. I knew from experience how tough it was to get laying hens — I’d struggled to replace the first flock my neighbor’s dog had killed the year before. Surely there were other folks out there who wanted to skip the 4- to 5-month process of raising chicks to laying age. So I put an ad on Craig’s List.

I had decided to sell the Ameraucanas. Yes, I liked their colored eggs. But I had discovered that, for some reason, this batch of chickens were laying medium and small eggs. I wanted large ones. The Rhode Island Reds and Golden Sex Links were laying much larger brown eggs. I’d keep them and let most of the Ameraucanas go.

The first four went very quickly to a man who drove a hard bargain: 4 for $75. The trick was catching them. I’d never tamed them so I had to chase them around the chicken yard to get them.

Time passed. I was still getting too many eggs. No one was buying them. I brought the signs in.

But I wasn’t giving up on hen sales.

I realized that there were two benefits for starting chicks in the summer:

  • I wouldn’t have to deal with a heat lamp to keep them warm. It was in the 90s nearly every day, which was warm enough for them. At night, they could huddle together for warmth.
  • They would be laying eggs by winter time. (More about that in a moment.)

So I bought 8 more Ameraucana chicks, this time from the same place I used to buy my chicks when I lived in Arizona. Maybe they’d lay bigger eggs. They came in the mail and I was ready for them. I’d built a brooding area inside the chicken coop, over the nests. I set them up in there and they seemed happy enough.

I figured a good goal would be to keep my laying flock at 8 hens. I had 13 left. I renewed my ad on Craig’s list. A family came by to buy four of them and decided to take a fifth. I figured out that if I trapped them inside the coop building, they’d be a lot easier to catch. (Duh.) I got $20 each for them. I was down to my ideal flock size: 8 laying hens with 8 pullets that would begin laying by winter. I was still getting more eggs than I needed, but it’s always better to have too many than not enough. I really don’t like store-bought eggs anymore. Besides, with my glamping setup in full swing — more on that in another blog post soon — I’ve been giving a dozen eggs to each of my guests and they seem to really love it.

As the pullets grew, they began outgrowing the small brooding area. I made some changes to the coop to give them an indoor area under the hens’ nighttime roosting area, along with a separate outdoor pen for them to run around in. (I had designed the coop with two exits and merely opened up the one that had been closed.) If the the chickens in the two different age groups are put together when there’s a big difference in size, the bigger chickens will pick on and possibly kill the smaller ones so they had to be kept separate for a while. Over time, I moved their food and water outside. I eventually bought them a galvanized feeder, too.

I suspect that I’ll be able to put them all together before I start my winter travels. There’s a slight chance they might even be laying by then.

Of course, chickens don’t lay as many eggs in the winter here. It has to do with the number of daylight hours. Apparently, the more light they have, the more eggs they’ll lay. So if I put a light in their coop — maybe on a timer to simulate longer day times — they might lay more eggs. But since I’m not going to be around much, I really don’t care how many eggs they lay. So I’ll skip the light.

People have asked me what I do about the chickens in the winter months. The last time I had chickens over the winter, I had a neighborhood kid come by once or twice a week to check them, give them water, top off their food (if necessary), and take their eggs. Right now they have an automated water system that fills from my garden irrigation system — this makes it possible for me to leave them for extended periods of time. But when winter comes, that would freeze up. So I have a heated water dish — like you might have for a dog — and I set that up for them. The chicken watcher brings a gallon of water with her when she comes and just tops off that bowl each visit. The water doesn’t freeze and everything works out fine.

The coop is not insulated, but the last time I had chickens over the winter they had an uninsulated coop and managed okay. I did buy a chicken coop heater for them and will install it before I leave. That should keep the temperature above freezing for most of the winter.

In the meantime, my neighbor’s kids are incubating some fertilized eggs for me. (I got the eggs from a friend who has chickens and roosters.) If they manage to hatch more than 4 (out of 16 eggs), I’ll likely sell all or most of the layers I have now so I start next season with some very young layers. (I’ll know how well they succeeded by next week; they’re due to begin hatching September 20.) My goal is to sell all layers before they’re a year old so I always have a young flock and the person who buys my layers gets a young chicken who will likely lay reliably for at least two years.

Yesterday was the first time I got an egg from each of my eight laying hens. (The tiny egg might be that hen’s first.)

I forgot to take my ad off Craigslist when I got down to the desired flock size of eight layers and someone called. I sold the last two Ameraucanas for $25 each around midday today.

The net result of all this chicken work? Well, I get delicious fresh eggs — that’s pretty obvious. But I also get a stronger connection to my food, which I blogged about back in May. If you do gardening or raise chickens or livestock for your own consumption, I’m sure you know what I mean. If you don’t, well, you’re missing out on something special.

For those of you who like the idea of raising your own chickens for eggs but don’t know much about it, here are a few tips:

  • You can order chicks online. They come in the mail. Really. Learn more at Ideal Poultry’s website, which is where I order my chickens online.
  • Chickens are easy to raise and a lot of fun to watch, especially if you raise them to be tame.
  • Raising chickens is a great project for families.
  • Chickens are a great way to rid your yard of pesky insects.
  • You don’t need a noisy rooster to get eggs.
  • Fresh eggs from your own chickens are amazing, with big, deep orange yolks you can’t find in most store-bought eggs.
  • The average laying hen lays about 5-6 eggs a week. 3-4 hens is enough to supply a couple with all the eggs they need, with some left over for gifting.
  • Chickens don’t need a lot of room. They can fit in virtually any back yard.
  • Most municipalities do allow a limited number of chickens, although roosters might be forbidden. Check with your town hall.

You can also learn a lot about raising chickens, as well as getting plans for building your own coop and feeders online. Remember: Google is your friend.

If you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to post them as comments to this blog post. I’ll answer them as well as I can.

Solar “Sleep In” Time at the Aerie

When my sunrise happens later than the people in the valley.

I’ve been home from my vacation for two days now — just in time to notice the start of what I think of as the sun’s “sleep in” period. Let me explain.

My home sits on a shelf overlooking the Wenatchee Valley. The valley is to the north. To the south is a 1000+ foot basalt cliff carved out by ice age floods. My home, in fact, sits on silt and rock deposits left behind from those floods. (The geology is fascinating here.)

As anyone who paid attention to basic astronomy in science class knows, the sun rises and sets at a slightly different part of the horizon every day. From the winter solstice in mid December to the summer solstice in mid June, the sun rises and sets a little farther north every day. From the summer solstice to the winter solstice it sets a little farther south every day. The equinoxes — in March and September — are when the sun rises and sets due east and west respectively. Ancient people knew all this stuff — probably better than today’s Americans — and created structures to track it, like Stonehenge and various Mayan observatories such as El Caracol in Chichen Itza.

Throughout August, the sun has been rising a bit more to the south (right) on my horizon every day. A slope up to the cliffs lies due east of my home. On a specific day in August, the sun starts rising behind that slope. Because it has to clear the slope (and eventually the cliffs) before I can see it, sunrise to me happens later than people who aren’t quite as close to the slope or the cliff.

For lack of a better way to describe this, I say that the sun is “sleeping in” or just rising later than it should be.

Since I moved here full time back in 2013, I’ve been trying to make observations about the sun’s movement as it relates to my home. Every once in a while, I witness a key event. For example, around the first of December is when the sun rises so far south that it never quite clears the cliffs to the south of my home. Starting on that date and ending about six weeks later is what I’ve come to call the “shadow time“; I get no sunrise at all and live in the shadow of the cliff. (If you think that’s bad, it’s a lot worse for my neighbors on the south side of the road — they don’t get any direct sun for months.) Since I spend much of my winter traveling, it doesn’t really affect me.

Yesterday, August 26, is when I noticed that the sun rose right where the flat horizon met the hills at the base of the cliff. I put it on my calendar as a recurring event called “Sunrise Corner” — when the sun rises in this “corner” of the horizon. This morning, I snapped a picture right before sunrise to illustrate it.

My Sunrise Corner
The sun now rises where the flat horizon meets the base of the cliffs behind my home. From now through December, the sun will have to clear the cliffs before it “rises” for me — hence, it’s “sleeping in.”

I should mention here that even though I’m not seeing the sun at the reported moment of sunrise, people down in the valley might be. I’ll look down and see the valley bathed in sunlight, with deep shadows cast by the cliffs and other hillsides delay sunrise for others. Even during my six weeks of “shadow time,” the valley gets sunshine and it’s bright outside. It’s all relative.

There is a benefit to the delayed sunrise and the steady movement of the sun to the south. My desk currently sits at an east-northeast-facing window. When the sun rises farther to the north, on the flat horizon, it shines right into the side of my face when I’m trying to work. I’m going to permanently solve that problem by moving my desk up to my loft. (I’ll have a lot fewer distractions up there, too.) But until then, I have to rely on sun shades if I can’t wait until later in the day to get desk work done.

I think that’s one of the things I like most about where I live now: nature is more a part of my life. I can see it and notice it. It’s impossible not to. And then I can reflect on how it affects me and the things I do.

For example, the front of my house faces mostly east. That means you’ll never see me mow my lawn during the hot summer months between sunrise and about 4 PM when my lawn is in the shade of my home. Likewise, you won’t find me lounging on the sofa in my bedroom beside that west-facing window on a summer afternoon — although it’s quite pleasant on a winter afternoon.

As the sun rises later and later in the morning — especially here at the Aerie — I’ll enjoy the extra cool morning time to get things done on the east side of my home.

When will the sun be at the corner again? That’s actually pretty easy to calculate. Figure the number of days between yesterday and the winter solstice: about 117. Now add that to the winter solstice date and you get April 17, 2018. It should be within a day or two of that. I’ll see if I can remember to check in April.

Where There’s Smoke…

…well, there are no fires here.

When you live out west, the weather forecast can include information related to smoke. And that’s the situation this week, for good reason:

This is not the kind of forecast I like to see.

The smoke drifted in yesterday morning, looking like a low thin cloud layer. Throughout the day, it thickened and settled into the valley I can see from my house.

Normal View
Smokey View
My normal view (top) includes glimpses of the North Cascades, at least 50 miles away. Add wildfire smoke and you get my view this morning (bottom), which is barely four miles.

As the northwest’s weather guru, Cliff Mass, blogged yesterday, the smoke is mostly from fires in British Columbia, which isn’t too far from here. There are two fires in northwestern Washington and I heard a rumor that there was one much closer at Blewett Pass, but have not been able to confirm that. Fortunately, they’re not here — although there’s plenty ready to burn if a spark or ember touched down.

Sunrises and sunsets have been minor events lately, with the sun looking like a Sunkist navel orange as it hovers on the horizon. It reminds me of the sunsets back in New York that I admired so much. I remember the one on July 10, 1983 that I drove down to the West End 2 parking lot at Jones Beach to photograph. An orange ball like the one in the sky here today sunk into the western horizon, silhouetting Manhattan skyscrapers in the distance. I got more than photos that day, but that’s a story not worth telling anymore.

Smokey Sunrise, Untouched
Here’s what the sun looked like about 1/2 hour after sunrise. This is an unedited (except for cropping) cell phone photo.

Oddly, back in those days I never realized that that orange ball sunset was caused by air pollution. Ick.

I was supposed to make a day trip by helicopter to visit a friend of mine out on Lopez Island today. It’s an 80-minute flight and I can land in my friend’s yard. I haven’t seen him in months and was really looking forward to it. But when I checked the weather this morning and discovered that the smoke was moving out his way, too, I had second thoughts. My email to him at 6 AM asking whether there was smoke and his response confirming there was was enough for me to change my plans and stay home. If it’s smokey here and smokey there then it’s likely to be smokey en route. And the last thing I wanted to do today was spend nearly 3 hours in a helicopter flying through smoke. (The journey is usually almost as good as what awaited at the destination.)

So I’m home for the day. I went out this morning to pick blueberries and glean rainier cherries with a friend. But we were back by 11. It’s hot and sticky out in the filtered sunlight, with a level of humidity I like to avoid. I’ll do some work in my garage with my new jumbo fan pointed at me. When I get tired of that, I’ll come back upstairs, take a shower, have a snack, and do things in air conditioned comfort.

Or take a nap.

But you can bet I won’t be outside, breathing the dirty air sent down from Canada.