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?

Helicopter Rides at Quincy

I do helicopter rides at a Quincy, WA event — and stop for a milkshake on the way home.

The first call came a few months ago. Could I do helicopter rides at the Farmer-Consumer Awareness Day in Quincy, WA?

I don’t usually do rides at Quincy. Trouble is, there’s no landing zone downtown or near any event and the airport is in the middle of nowhere. Rides events rely, in part, on the excitement generated by seeing the helicopter come and go with happy passengers on board. Stick me out in the middle of nowhere and no one will see that.

I relayed this information to the caller, Krysta. I told her that it probably wouldn’t be worth my while.

She asked me how many people I needed to fly to make it worthwhile.

I pulled a reasonable number out of the air: 20. That’s 20 passengers at $40/person with no fewer than 2 people on board for each flight.

She said she’d try to presell tickets.

Then we hung up. I honestly didn’t expect to hear from her again.

She called about a month later. She’d pre-sold 20 seats. I put the event on my calendar. Later in the month, I drove down to Quincy to check out the landing zone she suggested: a parking lot near one of the schools south of town. It was the same distance from town as the airport was, but at least stuff might be going on nearby. And it was a lot more pleasant. I agreed.

A few days before the event, I arranged to have my friend’s daughter, Alix, work as my ground crew. Alix is a PhD candidate for entomology — a bug girl. She’d helped me on another event the previous year, so she knew the drill. I didn’t expect there to be much of a crowd and with most flights prepaid, she wouldn’t have to deal with too many money transactions. One experienced person would be enough.

I met her at Wenatchee Airport at 9:30 AM on Saturday morning and we flew down to Quincy. I circled the landing zone once and set down. They’d prepped the landing zone with cones and caution tape and I managed to knock over all the ones in front of me and a handful of the ones behind me. Oops.

I’d brought along a sign, a chair for Alix, and a few cones. That was it. There wasn’t much shade, but it was a relatively cool day that stayed in the mid 70s with a light breeze. Perfect flying weather.

I was an hour early on purpose. I was hoping to pick up a few early rides. I’d posted the event on Facebook and had even gotten a few calls. Sure enough, I did a number of “walk up” rides before the ones on Krysta’s list started showing up.

The flights left the landing zone and headed northeast toward downtown Quincy. After crossing route 28, I turned west, heading toward the river. I’d break out over the cliff at Crescent Bar, fly down river a tiny bit, and then turn back to the east. Then I’d approach the landing zone from the southwest and land. Each ride took about 8-10 minutes with great views of Quincy, the surrounding farmland — mostly orchards and row crops — and the Columbia River gorge at Crescent Bar.

Crescent Bar from the Air
Crescent Bar from the air.

Krysta had wanted to make sure the tour was a farm-related, so I often told passengers about what we were flying over, including the Extenday ground covers used to reflect light back up to the bottom of apples (for even coloring), apple pickers working in one of the orchards, and the types of crops beneath us. Everyone seemed pretty happy with their ride. And Alix did a great job as my ground crew person.

About half the rides had 2 people on board and the other half had 3. The way the rides are priced, I lose money with 1 passenger, make some money with 2 passengers, and make good money with 3 passengers. So I’m not complaining.

I Periscoped one ride and did a Facebook Live session with another. In case you’re unfamiliar with these, it makes it possible to do a live broadcast on the Internet. Viewers can comment and ask questions. Unfortunately, although I can read the questions, I can’t respond because I don’t have direct audio in. Viewers simply can’t hear me over the sound of the engine. But later feedback on Twitter and Facebook showed that the broadcasts were well-received even if there weren’t more than a few dozen viewers.

Helicopter Rides at Quincy
Alix took this photo of Krysta and her companions. I photobombed (just like I used to do when I flew at the Grand Canyon).

The only drawback was my fuel situation. I was hoping to get all the rides done without needing to refuel, but with just 2 or 3 flights left, I absolutely had to get gas. So a group of three got a chance to go back to the airport with me for refueling for the same price as a much shorter ride. I went to Wenatchee, which was 2 nautical miles farther than Ephrata, mostly because I knew I could do a quicker turn there. When I got back, Alix had three more flights waiting for me, including Krysta and two companions, who I comped to thank her for her work.

On every single flight, I flew over the White Trail Produce farm stand on the corner of Route 28 and White Trail Road. They sell local produce and the usual collection of farmstand stuff that tourists buy. But they also sell ice cream and make the best fresh fruit shakes. The whole time I was flying, I was thinking about a peach shake and wondering how I could get one on my way home. There wasn’t anyplace to land in the small parking lot, but I figured I could land on the dead end road nearby. But I certainly wouldn’t want to park there for more than a few minutes.

So as Alix and I loaded up the helicopter after the last flight, I asked her if she wanted a shake. Of course she did. I asked her if she’d mind jumping out to get it if I ordered ahead. She was game. So I called White Trail Produce and asked if I could land there to get shakes. To my surprise, they said yes. And they had fresh peaches. So I ordered two shakes and said we’d be there in five minutes.

Alex with Shake
Cropped from the Periscope video: Alix returning with the shakes.

I set up Periscope to record the flight. (I stream video from my iPad, which is mounted near my feet. When it is sent to Periscope.tv, the video is downgraded, so quality isn’t very good. I didn’t have any of my GoPros set up for these flights.) We took off and I beelined it to White Trail. I circled the area once and found a spot not far away from White Trail’s unplanted (this year) garden patch. A truck towing an outhouse drove down the road and I came in behind him. I sent up a ton of dust when I landed alongside the road, but I don’t think it reached the farm stand. Alix jumped out and ran in while I waited with the engine running. A few minutes later, she was back with both shakes. Once she was strapped in and I’d had a good long sip of my shake, I took off.

Alix with Shake
Alix with her shake on the way home.

She said the folks at White Trail were really excited to have me land. I’d love to do helicopter rides there once in a while. I guess I should look into landing zone options.

I treated Alix to one of my low-level rides over the Columbia on the way back, then climbed up before reaching the wires that stretch across the river at Lower Moses Coulee and headed into the airport. A while later, I was back home and the helicopter was tucked into its space.

It was only 3 PM.

It had been a good day with great flying weather and a bunch of really nice passengers. Not terribly busy, but certainly busy enough to make it worthwhile. I look forward to doing it again next year.

But the best part? That peach shake. Wow.