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.

Getting a Closer Connection to My Food

Gardening, foraging, gleaning, making things from scratch.

This morning’s breakast: a frittata with home grown onions and broccoli, homemade cheese, and eggs from my neighbor’s chickens.

This morning, for breakfast, I had a frittata I made with onions and broccoli from my garden, eggs from my neighbor’s chickens, and Chaource cheese I made myself three weeks ago. (The only reason the eggs came from neighbors is because my 17 chickens aren’t laying yet.) I could have added chanterelle or gypsy mushrooms I foraged for and froze last autumn or morel mushrooms I forged for on Friday. (That would have been a waste of the morels.) Or I could have made blueberry muffins from scratch, using blueberries I picked and froze last summer and sweetened with honey from my bees. Or a smoothie made with those same blueberries, two strawberries from my garden (only two are ready right now), and yogurt I made myself.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized how much of my food comes from my own sources or resources. Last night, I made a batch of pickled broccoli stems with more of that garden broccoli and dill from my garden. The tomato sauce and pickled green beans I canned last winter are still forming the basis of pasta meals or snacks and hors d’oeuvres for dinner guests. The cherries I gleaned last summer are still in the fridge in the form of cherry chutney that goes very well with roast or grilled pork, turkey, or chicken. I’ve got five kinds of homemade cheese in various stages of ripening in my wine-fridge-turned-cheese-cave or refrigerator. I’ve got mead made from honey from my bees fermenting in my pantry closet. In my garden, the broccoli and onions are ready for harvest and I pick them right before I eat them. Soon I’ll also have tomatoes, peppers, green beans, brussels sprouts, cucumbers, corn, melons, zucchini, and potatoes, not to mention marion berries, ligon berries, and black-capped raspberries. And it I get back into the forest for a hike at just the right time, I can pick thimbleberries right off the bushes.

Chickens Eat Weeds
My chickens love to eat weeds. They’ll be making eggs in about 2-3 months.

I’ve discovered that I can turn weeds into eggs by feeding them to chickens and coffee filters into vegetables by composting them into a rich garden soil.

I spent literally hours traipsing through forest floors tangled with the debris of fires a year or more ago, looking for the morel mushrooms only found this time of year. Although I found a few — enough for a small side dish or pizza topping — I was competing with people who had a lot more experience than me and consider myself lucky to find ones they obviously missed.

It also takes a long time and makes a big kitchen mess to make cheese from scratch.

And gleaning cherries after harvest? Do you know how frustrating it is to see a perfect one just out of reach up in a tree and not be able to close your fingers around its stem?

Which is why people ask me why I bother. Why not just go to the supermarket and buy whatever’s there?

The only thing I can come up with is the feeling of satisfaction I get from knowing where my food comes from or what’s in it, and having a very active role in obtaining it, putting it on the table, and serving it to my guests.

Foraging for mushrooms, which I hope to blog about later in the week, is especially rewarding. When I say I spent hours searching, I’m not exaggerating. I went out into three different forest areas on four different days and came back with just five mushrooms, one of which is tiny. Yet the excitement I felt when I saw the biggest one cannot be overstated.

There’s something about having this closer connection to my food that I really like.

Next spring’s challenge: tracking down the wild asparagus that supposedly grows in the Chelan area.

What do you think? How involved are you in obtaining and preparing the food you eat?

The Last Chicken Coop

The last one I’ll build here, anyway.

I just built my third (and final) chicken coop.

The first coop was really more of a chicken lean-to. It was mostly open on one side, had two nice nests and two very rickety perches. I made it mostly out of pallets and scrap wood — and it showed.

Chicken Coop 1
My original chicken coop and chicken yard. The coop lasted from mid 2014 through October 2015; the yard was rebuilt with better fencing early 2015. This photo was shot in early 2014, when I was still living in my “mobile mansion” fifth wheel.

The second coop was way more ambitious. Also built with pallets as its base, it was designed to match the appearance of my home with an exterior finish using the same exact metal. It had three nests under a hinged lid and three sturdier perches. It was also insulated and had a covered porch so I could keep the chicken food out of the rain. It weighed a ton, though, and I had to drag it into place with my ATV. You can learn more about this project and my other efforts in this blog post from 2015.

Coop 2
The second coop scored high on durability and insulation values, but low on practicality. I don’t think there was enough room inside for more than the 8 chickens I had at the time. This photo also shows part of my third chicken yard, a hoop affair made of 5×16 foot “hog wire” panels. I like the design and still use it.

What I wanted was a coop that was big enough to hold a lot of birds laying a lot of eggs. But I wanted one I could actually walk into, one that was easy to clean and had plenty of light and ventilation. Although I’d bought a small coop the year before, it was unsuitable for more than two or three adult birds. I wanted to raise chicks into laying hens and sell them when they started laying. To get started, I bought 18 chicks when I got home from my winter travel in March and set them up in a brooder in my garage. That gave me a time limit — I needed the new coop done before they outgrew the brooder.

I almost converted my existing shed into a coop. With a little interior modification, it would have done the job. But then I would have lost my garden storage area. And what about the controls for the irrigation? Did I really want my chickens crapping on it?

I looked into shed kits at Home Depot. They were not cheap and they were a lot of work to build. I could build a custom solution for a fraction of the price.

But no more pallets! I was going to build from scratch.

I sketched out a design. The footprint would be 4 x 8 feet. The roof would be 7 feet sloping down to 6 feet. I began disassembling the old coop. I think that was harder than assembling it. I managed to salvage the framed plywood roof and one of the trim panels. I wanted more overhang on the metal, so I scrapped what I had. I burned pretty much everything else, although I did have to throw away the Trex decking I’d used inside. (I did say it was heavy.)

I started at the bottom, building the floor on 4x4s with 2×4 studs 16 inches on center. I used a heavy OBS sheet as the base and gave it two coats of oil based porch paint.

Chicken Coop Floor
I started with a floor on 4x4s, leveled in place.

Next, I framed out the four walls. But instead of framing them on the floor, I built the frames on my concrete driveway apron. It was easier for me to work on level ground. I framed them with 2x4s 16 inches on center. Every time I finished a wall, I stood it up against a deck post. I knew that it would be impossible for me to carry the two long walls over to the coop and fasten them into place by myself, so I did as much as I could before prepping the building area with two ladders and a bunch of wood screws and my impact driver. Then I called my neighbor Elizabeth and made an appointment for her to come help me get the walls in place. I promised it would take less than an hour and it did. And not only did we get the walls in place, but we even lifted the roof into position and fastened that down.

Framed Chicken Coop
I shot this photo right after Elizabeth left. The ladders were still in place; the one on the left is an orchard ladder, which are pretty common here. The wood thing leaning against the building is the door, which I’d made while I was waiting to put the walls in place.

The coop design had a 32-inch wide door, three ventilation windows, and two chicken doors. I framed them as needed. The trick then was to cut the T1-11 wood — it’s like plywood paneling — so the openings would match up right. Measure twice, cut once. I think I must have told myself that a dozen times a day during construction. But it sunk in. I fitted the north side short wall and half the west side wall without any problems.

Weather came. We had an unusually rainy spring this year. I had some large tarps and fastened one over the coop’s roof and two wall panels. I hadn’t painted anything yet and I didn’t want the wood to get soaked or ruined. My camper, the Turtleback, was parked on the driveway near the coop, blocking it from view from my home. So I was very surprised to find the coop lying on its side when the weather cleared and I was ready to get back to work. Apparently, strong winds had come though and knocked it over as if it were a sail.

Coop on its side
Oops. Did I mention that it gets windy here? The tarp acted as a sail on the top-heavy coop and it went right over.

Neighbors to the rescue. I had three of them meet me the next morning to right the coop. Damage was minimal. When they left, I got right to work.

I used 1/4 inch wire that I already had between the frame and the T1-11 for the windows. Later, I’d put sliding panels to close them off. I had two doors to the outside but planned on using only one for now; the other one was for expanding the chicken yard with another hoop enclosure. (It’s important to cover the chickens here to protect them from birds of prey.)

The original designed called for nests just inside the door that were accessible through hinged panels from the outside. I decided to do away with the outside access, mostly because I figured a single T1-11 panel would add to the structural integrity of the building. And after all, the building was big enough for me to walk into.

Coop Under Construction
In this shot, only one wall and the door are left to install. The nests are just inside the door to the right.

Once the walls were in place and the door was hung, it was time to paint it all. I used the rest of that oil-based porch paint and even bought a second can. The paint guy had warned me that it would absorb into the wood and he wasn’t kidding. I’m going to need a second coat. But for now, the wood is sealed tough against the elements. A second coat before winter and it’ll be ready for any weather.

Painted Coop
Here’s the coop right after painting it. By this point, the chicks were living inside. I drilled a hole in the wall and ran an extension cord so I could hang their heat lamp. I blocked off the exit to the chicken yard with a framed bit of fencing I already had. The two upper windows have 1/4 inch screen that doesn’t show in the photo.

I still had to finish the roof. I wanted so badly to get metal panels that match my home — after all, the walls of the coop match the walls of my home — but Home Depot had a limited selection of colors. So I chose the dark green. I dreaded cutting the metal — it’s no picnic, believe me — but it went a lot more smoothly than I expected it to. I had insulation leftover from the old coop and I put it into place. Then I painstakingly lifted the metal panels into place and screwed them down. Not perfect by any means, but functional.

Outside Finished
Here’s a photo of the outside of the coop and yard that I took just the other day. The door really blends in; I use a piece of rope as a “doorknob” and a hook to keep the door closed. The long white pipes are chicken feeders I made last year; they each hold about 10 pounds of chicken food.

Coop Perches
I used 2x2s with rounded edges for the perches. I also added a shelf on the north side, far above the highest perch, to store odds and ends like the pine shavings I use on the floor and in the nests.

By this time, the chickens were installed and able to come and go freely between the coop and their yard. I had put in some perches for them, but as they grew, I knew I could raise them and add more. So I did; they have a total of three perches now, each about 4 feet long. With 8 inches per bird, my 18 chickens (now 17 since one died) have plenty of space to roost. I could easily add 2-3 more if I had to since they’re spaced 16 inches apart.

Coop Nest Area
I had to block off the nest area with wood and wire mesh to keep the chickens out.

I still needed to do the nest boxes. The first thing I did was close off the nest area; the chicks were sleeping on the floor in there when they were still very young and I wanted to break them of that habit. They wouldn’t need the nests until they started laying, which probably won’t be until August.

Coop Nest and Brooding
Here are the finished nests on the bottom with the bottom half of the brooding area on top.

Still, I wanted to get them done and create a brooding area above them. My design called for six nests — three on each level — so I had to build a floor for one level and then the brooding area level above it. This required me to take careful measurements of the 2×4 framing because I’d have to cut plywood around it. Then I’d have to lift it into place from below and screw it into the 2x4s I’d put in to hold them. It’s hard to describe and was hard to do, although my little jig saw did make the job easier than I expected. In the end, I had to cut each floor into two pieces to get them into the tight-fitting space.

Once that was done, I used a staple gun to securely fasten 1/4 inch screen to either side of the top brooding area. I framed a door with 2x2s and stapled more screen onto that. Then I put the door on hinges and added a hook to hold it closed. I’d be able to hang a heat lamp over the area if I needed to to keep chicks warm. I figure I can brood up to 6 chicks for up to a month in the space. Keeping them with the other chickens should allow them to get to know each other while they grow, hopefully preventing fights when they’re released into the flock.

When it was all done, I had to block off the nests again. The chickens really like snuggling up in corners when they’re indoors. I wouldn’t mind so much, but they crap where they hang out and it’s a pain in the butt to clean out the nests.

At this point, the chicken coop is mostly done. In July, I’ll pull the covers off the nests and put a fake egg — I usually use an egg-shaped rock — into one or two of the nests. With luck, they’ll get the idea and start laying in there when the time comes.

Although I’d originally wanted to add sliding panels over each of the windows, I think I’ll skip it. The ventilation is good. In the winter, I’ll fasten some heavy plastic over each window to prevent drafts. I’ll leave the door to the yard open for them.

Because this coop is not insulated — neither was the original one — I might buy a chicken coop heater for it. I already have a Thermo Cube that will turn power on when the temperature gets down to 35 and turn it off when it gets up to 45. Attaching that to the heater will run it only when needed during the winter. It’ll never get warm in there, but it’ll stay warm enough to prevent frostbite. You might think that’s nuts, but power is cheap here and from renewable energy (hydro and wind) so I have no qualms about using it to keep my chickens from freezing in the winter.

In the meantime, I’m just happy to have this project done. And even happier that I can’t find anything wrong with this design so I won’t have to build yet another one.