Showing posts with label Chickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chickens. Show all posts

May 6, 2015

Eggshells for Slug and Snail Control: Do They Really Work?

I live where slugs and snails are everywhere. And I'm always looking for ways to keep them from destroying my vegetable garden. So naturally, all those Pinterest posts about using eggshells for slug and snail control caught my interest. It's one of the few tricks I haven't tried.

I've tried beer traps. They work great, but you must dump out the drowned slugs/snails every day and replenish the beer. I've tried copper borders. These work great, zapping the slugs/snails so they don't want to cross the copper - but they are only practical if you have raised beds or containers...and even then, only work so long as no leaves cross them and no dirt gets on them. I always hand pick and crush snails (sometimes putting boards down for them to hide under, so I know exactly where to find them), and I feed slugs to my chickens. (My current flock won't eat snails, whereas my last flock loved them.) But still, there are always more, more, more slimy creatures who think my garden is a smorgasbord. 

So usually, I sprinkle Sluggo everywhere. This definitely works, and (unlike most similar products) it's safe for non-slimey critters. The trouble is, I need it most during our rainy springs - and it has to be re-applied after every rain. Which becomes expensive. Plus, when do slugs and snails love to come out? When it's raining! Some years, the rain has been so persistent, I've had to totally replant my vegetable garden because slugs/snails have completely destroyed my original crop.

So eggshells seem like a perfect answer. They are readily available - totally self-sustainable, since we have backyard chickens. And they don't become less effective due to rain. Theoretically, I should only have to apply them once - maybe twice - in the growing season, because they break down quite slowly. (Which is an added bonus: They feed nutrients to the soil, helping to fertilize next year's crop.)

But the question is: Do they really work? That's what I set to find out.

How to Use Eggshells to Deter Slugs and Snails

1. As you use eggs, hang on to the shells. I put mine in a plastic shopping bag that hung from a hook in my kitchen. I didn't bother to rinse the egg shells; I just plopped them into the bag after cracking the eggs. Odor wasn't a problem.
2. Let the egg shells dry for a couple of days, at least. I waited until my bag was full, then let them sit an additional two days. Some of the eggshells weren't perfectly dry, but this was not a problem.

3. A little at a time, I put the eggs in my food processor and pulsed them. (I tried the coffee grinder first, since that's what I'd seen done on Pinterest. It didn't work at all. You might be able to use a blender, though I've not tried it. Either way, I think a food processor or blender is better, since they are easy to sanitize. If you could find a coffee grinder that works on eggshells, I'd recommend dedicating it just for that purpose, since coffee grinders are difficult to clean thoroughly.)

When I was done, the eggshells looked like this:

4. Finally, using a tablespoon, I liberally sprinkled the ground eggshells around my spring seedlings. The eggshells work because they hurt the slug/snail to cross, so don't be stingy with them, and make sure you get them all the way around your plants.

5. Then I waited.

The Good News:
It rained lightly. I watered several times. And slugs and snails did not eat my seedlings! And I sure love the cost of this organic pest control.

The Bad News:
When I watered, the eggshells did jump around a little, and some got covered by soil. I imagine a hard rain would knock them around more. So I will have to reapply more often than I initially thought.

Also, grinding the eggshells in my food processor scratched the plastic cup badly. I'm going to have to reserve that cup just for processing eggshells. In the future, I may experiment with crushing the shells with a rolling pin or something similar. (But if you try this, know that the eggshells must be ground pretty finely or they won't deter slugs and snails.)

If you have leftovers, you can either store them in an air tight container for a later applications, or you can offer them to your hens in place of oyster shell. Laying hens need plenty of calcium or they'll have health problems. Their own eggshells provide it nicely. (It's important,however, to crush the eggshells; not only does this make them easier for chickens to consume, but it prevents hens from identifying food with their eggs. Trust me, you don't want chickens that eat eggs from their nesting box!)

Jun 11, 2014

Predator Proof Your Chicken Coop and Run

This spring, I've heard too many sad stories about chickens being killed by predators. Whether in an urban setting or in the country, keeping chickens safe from predators is a top concern. In the suburbs, your chickens are in danger from cats, dogs, rats, opossums, racoons, skunks, snakes, owls, and hawks. In more rural areas, add to that foxes, cougars, bobcats, weasels, wolves, and coyotes. The good news is, with a little know-how, you can do a lot to protect your flock of chickens.

 Predator-Proofing the Chicken Coop

* Any doors - including those on nesting boxes - must have locks. But not just any locks. Racoons, in particular, are amazingly adept at opening locks, so make sure it's a two step lock, like the one below.
This lock requires pushing to one side and lifting.
* Do not use any chicken wire on the coop. Despite it's name, it's entirely inappropriate for a chicken coop or run because racoons, especially, can reach through it. Though they can't pull the chicken out through the holes in the wire, they will strangle chickens or pull out their heads and bite them off. Instead, use hardware cloth - which is a very fine wire mesh (with no larger than 1/4 inch openings).

* Put hardware cloth securely over any openings in the coop. Snakes, weasels, and some other predators can get through tiny holes. Use hardware cloth (not window screens) over ventilation windows or any other openings not secured by a door. Don't use staples to attach the hardware cloth; it's too easily pulled out by racoons and other predators. Use screws and washers instead.

A raised chicken coop.
* Some animals will dig under the walls of the coop and try to get inside a coop without a secure floor; to prevent this lay hardware cloth down at least 12 inches below the soil, then put the coop on top.  If, for some reason, this isn't possible, dig a trench around the coop and bury the hardware cloth into the ground.

* Some chicken owners also like to use a strand of hot wire around the bottom of the coop. Predators who try to get under the coop will receive a shock that will deter, but not kill, them.

* Lift the coop off the ground by at least a foot. This discourages rats, snakes, and skunks. (And if you raise it a few feet, the chickens will enjoy this shady area on hot summer days.)

* Always make sure your chickens are locked up in their coop no later than dusk. A little before dusk is better, since many predators come out the second dusk occurs.

Predator-Proof the Chicken Run
This chicken run is covered not only by netting, but by the cover of a tree.

* Don't leave food in chicken run overnight. This just invites predators nearby.

* To protect chickens from hawks - and from the mingling of wild birds that might spread disease - cover the run. This can be done with bird or deer netting, or with hardware cloth.

* As additional protection from predators, and to give the chickens some shade, consider covering part of the run with vines (of a type that aren't poisonous to chickens), or place under the limbs of a tree.

* Consider a hot wire for the run, as well.

Protecting Free Range Chickens
A simple chicken tractor.

* Consider putting free range chickens in an ark or moveable run. To make it even more secure, you can put a hot wire around the bottom edge.

* Offer chickens cover, where they can flee hawks and other predators. Good cover includes bushes, piles of branches with small openings for chickens to run into, and dog houses.

May 21, 2014

How to Get the Most Eggs from Your Chickens

As far as I'm concerned, hens should lay one egg every day. But many other chicken owners seem shocked when I say this - as if it's an impossibility. But really, it's not. If you want to optimize your chickens' egg laying, here are my best tips.

1. Choose the right breed. Some breeds are much better layers than others. If eggs are a priority for you, you'll need to select a breed that lays very well( 6 - 7 eggs a week). The easiest way to research this is to check a breed chart, like this one. Likewise, don't choose bantam hens. While they are cute and small, so are their eggs. That means you'll use twice as many of their eggs when cooking. They make nice pets, but aren't good egg producers.

2. Get the right feed. Chicks need chick feed. Pullets need starter feed. But once hens are of laying age, they need a quality layer feed. Make sure your hens have access to both feed and water 24/7.

3. Avoid supplemental food. All chickens need regular access to grit and oyster shell or ground eggs. But feeding them lots of supplemental food - like table scraps - actually reduces their egg production. I do give our hens food scraps, but I can always tell when I've given them too much; suddenly I go from one egg a day from each hen, to hens who take days off from laying. Incidentally, this also applies to "chicken treats" such as mealy worms and corn/scratch.

4. Avoid stress. Hens who are stressed don't lay well. Stress can include a flock that's too large, being in a run that's too small, moving, etc.

5. Consider winter. In the winter, when there's less light during the day, all hens will slow down in their egg laying. If you want to encourage better laying, you can add a light to the hen house. You can also choose a breed that tends to lay better in the winter, such as Australorps.

6. Keep 'em young. Sad but true; young hens lay considerably better than older ones. After the 3 year mark, few hens will continue laying an egg a day.

Feb 24, 2014

Ultimate Chicken Boredom Busters

Those of you who have chickens know they are a lot like toddlers: When they get bored, they can get into a whole lot of trouble. Whether your chickens get bored during winter weather or because you keep them in a run some of the time (or all of the time!), you may end up with hens who peck each other, eat their eggs, and develop other undesirable habits. To prevent this, chicken boredom busters are essential.

The best way to keep hens busy is to keep them doing what they do best: Scratching or eating. Here are my favorite boredom busters, from least favorite to what I consider the ultimate chicken boredom buster:

4. Flock Block. At nearly any feed store (or via Amazon), you can buy Flock Blocks. These are brick-like pieces of grains suitable for chickens. The key here is these blocks are hard and take a while for chickens to eat through. The downside is there will inevitably be waste - and Flock Blocks aren't cheap! Alternatively, you can make your own Flock Block. These may be more affordable, depending on local prices, and have the added advantage of being easy to hang from a longish string. (Trust me, hanging, swinging things are highly amusing to chickens!)

3. Miscellaneous Vegetables and Fruit. It's always a great idea to chuck weeds, grass clippings, and vegetable waste to your chickens. However, this won't keep the hens occupied for long - unless you have mountains of scraps. Some people try to prolong the boredom busting quality of veggies by giving their hens apples - but I find my chickens aren't very interested in these. Better bets include watermelons and winter squash. Despite the photo to the left (taken after a watermelon eating contest!), these foods will be better boredom busters if you cut them in half and make the girls work a bit for their food.

2. Cardboard. A better way to keep the girls active is to cover a portion of land with cardboard. It won't work to put it in the chicken run, because they will instantly start scratching at it - and that defeats the purpose of the cardboard. (Plus it'll make a mess). Instead, choose an area outside their run where you don't mind them scratching around. Lay down the cardboard and wet it well. After at least a month, lift up the cardboard and let the hens at it. The area will be filled with bugs, and will keep the girls happy for days.

1. Hanging cabbage. In my opinion, this is the ultimate chicken boredom buster. That's because the cabbage isn't just food - it's a game. And it's cheap! One hen pecks the cabbage and all the hens notice it swinging. Another hen pecks it, and it swings some more. It doesn't take long for the entire flock to enter into a rousing game of tether ball. An added bonus: A large cabbage takes hens quite a while to eat through. My six hens usually take at least three days to get through a large cabbage.

What are your favorite ways to keep your hens occupied?

Jan 1, 2014

How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty - a Book Review

There are a lot of homesteading and self-sufficiency books available these days, but in my experience, only a few are really worth reading. How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty by Janet Chadwick is certainly one of them.

What makes Chadwick's book unique isn't so much it's scope (it covers the typical homesteading topics, from gardening to caring for animals), but the fact that she's been living a mostly self-sufficient homesteading lifestyle for some time now. The most valuable parts of her book, then, are the wisdom and (often amusing) anecdotes she passes down to the reader.

The book begins with a little information about how and why Chadwick and her family chose to homestead, then proceeds to give some great advice about what to do in your homestead's first year. The supposition is that you aren't in an urban area, but that you have at least some land. Chadwick even gives a basic idea of how much you can expect to spend doing basic homesteading activities, like gardening and caring for animals.

Other chapters teach you how to start seedlings (conventionally, indoors); plant, care for, and harvest vegetables; grow fruit; keep bees (offering one of the more realistic guides I've seen, by the way); raise goats, hogs, rabbits, poultry (chicken, ducks, geese, and a wee bit on turkeys, which the author has never raised), and a veal calf. (The author argues that a small, self-sufficient homestead can't support a milk or meat cow through grazing or the growing of grain.) Throughout, I discovered advice I'd never heard or read before, even though I read a lot of gardening and homesteading books.

Ever practical, Chadwick explains why dairy and beef cattle aren't practical for a small, self-sufficient homestead. (You can't grow enough food for them, so you'd have to bring in feed - which makes cattle raising not self sufficient.) She explains how to choose the best animals for your homestead, and all the information you need to house and care for their basic needs. The last two chapters are mostly recipes - recipes you probably won't find in a cookbook. For example, you'll learn how to cook an old hen, make headcheese, render lard, and cook a rabbit or a goat. You'll also find recipes for making basic soap, cheese, candles, and such. In addition, Chadwick gives readers the basics on how to make an indoor seed starting center (that looks something like a bookshelf, plus grow lights), a simple smokehouse, homemade dehydrator, cheese press, and many housing requirements for homestead animals.

My only real complaint about this book is the title, which I find a little misleading. Sure, the author shows readers how to raise or grow almost all of their food, but that is only part of living. The title implies Chadwick might also discuss things such as affording the land for a homestead, clothing the family inexpensively, and energy. But she does not.

Nonetheless, Chadwick packs an amazing amount of information into a 271 page book. More even than The Backyard Homestead (another guide I highly recommend, but which lacks personal anecdotes and advice). For anyone striving toward the homestead life, How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty is a must read.

Dec 11, 2013

How Much Money Can You Save Gardening and Homesteading?

Have you ever wondered if you're saving money by growing your own food? While saving money isn't the only reason for gardening and homesteading, I still like to keep track of expenses. A great many people are under the impression that gardening and homesteading cost more than buying food at the grocery store. And while I've proven before that both chicken keeping and vegetable gardening are frugal, I haven't checked costs in a few years. So this year, I kept a careful record of the food we produced.

But before you read on, you should know:

* My estimates are conservative. Quite conservative. Although the food we produce is organic and ultra-fresh, whenever possible, I compared the cost of our produce with prices at our local chain grocery store. Yes, it would be more accurate to compare what we produce with farm fresh, organic produce (or even grocery store organic produce), but frankly, we can't afford to buy organic. But if I did use farm fresh organic or grocery store organic with what we produce, this would greatly increase the value of our home grown food.

* When I couldn't find a particular food locally, I looked for a price online - always trying to choose the lowest price I could find. I did not include the cost of shipping I would have to pay if I chose to buy these items online.

* My garden is small: The main bed is 12 x 14 ft. with wide pathways; I also have a bed about 33 x 3 ft.) (To see how I laid out the garden this year, click here.)

* My garden is still producing! I still have carrots, parsnips, collards, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, in the ground. And, of course, the chickens are still laying eggs. I used totals from December 8, 2013 for my calculations.

* I didn't harvest as much of certain things (like herbs) as I could have, simply because I couldn't use as much as I grew.

* I had to exclude the value of certain items that I can't buy locally and couldn't find online.

2013 TOTALS:

Total Pounds of Food Produced: 538.12 lbs.

Total Estimated Cost of Purchasing that Food: $1,770.89

Total Cost of Producing our Food: $278.00

Money Saved: $1,492.89


Seeds: $75
Seed starting containers: free
Seed starting soil: $10
Fertilizer: $10
Compost: free
Water: $80

Chicks: $9
Chicken Bedding: $10
Chicken Feed: $84 


Eggs, 815 = $163
Chicken meat, 20 ½ lbs. = $40.79

Apples, 13 1/4  lbs. = $25.00
Basil, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Beets, 1 lb. = $2.49
Blackberries, 3 lbs. = $15.84
Blueberries, 7 1/2 lb. = $79.20
Buttercup squash, 2 1/2 lbs. = $2.22 (I can't find this type of squash locally, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Butternut squash, 44 1/2 lbs. = $39.60
Cabbage, 6 lb. = $2.94
Calendula flowers, 8 lb. = $48.00 (online price)
Carrots, 4 1/2 lb. = $8.37
Chives, 6 1/2 lbs. = $64.48
Cilantro, 1 1/8 lb. = $4.74
Collards, 14 1/2 lbs. = $144.42
Dandelion flowers, ½ lb. (I could not find these locally or online)
Dandelion greens, 35 lb. = $52.15 (online price of fresh leaves)
Dandelion Root, 2 1/8 lb. = $17.50 (online price)
Garlic, ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads = $3.00 scapes (online price listed by local farmers);$3.49 heads
Green onions, 1 lb. = $2.36
Ground nuts, 1 lb. = $50.00 (online price)
Kale, 17 lbs. = $169.32
Kohlrabi, 1 lb. (I couldn't find a local or online price)
Kiwi, 1 lb. = $3.99 (for common kiwi, not the Arctic kiwi I grow)
Leeks, 5 lbs. = $25.00
Lettuce, 11 lb. = $36.19
Mint, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Oregano, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Pattypan squash, 44  lbs. = $39.16 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Parsnips, 2 lbs. = $1.99
Passion vine, 1 lb. = $6.00 (online price)
Peas, 5 1/2 lbs. = $13.69
Potatoes, 11 1/4 lbs. = $11.14
Radishes, 8 lb. = $9.44
Rosemary, 1/2 lb. = $4.96
Sage, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Spinach, 1 1/4 lb. = $1.98
Squash blossoms, 3 1/2 lbs. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Sunchokes, 40 lbs. = $360.00 (online price)
Strawberry, 3 1/2 lbs. = $12.32
Tomato, 38 3/4  lbs. + 28.25 lbs. green = $96.49 red, $70.34 green
Wild onion, 2 lb. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Wonderberries, 1 lb. = $16.60 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I compared them to the online price of huckleberries - a close relative)
Zucchini, 60 1/2 lbs. = $78.05

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

Oct 30, 2013

October on the Homestead

Despite the fact that it's October - a time when people in my area are no longer growing vegetables, unless they've planted a fall garden (which is sadly rare) - we are still harvesting crops. Although I failed to get anything but a few carrots planted in late summer, the collards and kale I planted last spring are still producing quite a lot of food. Even my spring-planted zucchini is still giving me squash - though at a slower pace than in summer.

I've harvested only a few carrots because I'm still waiting for a good frost to sweeten them up. That goes for the parsnips (which I typically leave in the ground until just ready to use ) and Jerusalem artichokes, too. I did harvest my first batch of ground nuts, but I haven't yet used them because I've just been too busy for experimentation in the kitchen.
Ground nuts.
The main veggie bed, covered with leaves.
 We plucked our first butternut squash out of the garden...Amazingly delicious! All the butternuts are ripe enough to eat now, but I'm waiting for the skins to harden so I can store them long term in a cool location. To test for this, I press my thumbnail into the skin of the squash. If it doesn't leave a mark, the squash is ready. However, the vines may die back before this happens; no worries. We love butternut squash and could probably eat it all within a short amount of time. Otherwise, I can freeze it.

Most of my green tomatoes have already ripened. This year, I had little room to ripen them in my pantry, so I just set them in boxes (single layer) in the kitchen. They are ripening very quickly this way and I'm freezing most of them as they do. The tomato crop was great this year, giving me far more tomatoes than I hoped for, so I think I will try canning some homemade catsup soon.

I'm also doing some light spring prep in the garden. One of my beds has become so overrun with buttercups (an impossible to pull up weed) that I mowed back the weeds and covered the area with cardboard held in place with a few bricks or stones. This should kill off most of the weeds while also making the soil looser and more full of worms and microorganisms next year.

In addition, fall leaves are everywhere, and I'm making good use of them. When they fall in the garden, I leave them be. They will rot and add nutrients to the soil. If they are very thick, I have my husband shred them and we put them in the compost. (For more ideas for using fall leaves in the garden, click here.)

We're getting 5 - 6 eggs per day. This is the morning batch.
Our chickens are still laying quite well. They haven't yet molted and show no signs of slowing down. Australorps, some say, lay better during the cold months than many other breeds of chicken. We'll see.

We thought we were going to loose one of our hens this month. She was quiet, always sitting in some corner far off from the rest of the flock, and not doing much. In the beginning, her symptoms were so subtle, we weren't positive she was sick - and by the time we decided she definately was, we saw no reason to separate her from the rest of the flock. If she had something contageous, she surely had already given it to the rest of the hens. So we just watched the flock closely.

Then suddenly, our sick hen perked up and was back to normal. It's a reminder than even hens sometimes feel under the weather without being seriously ill.
Kennedy loves maple leaves!

Our rabbit is all set for the colder weather, too. His hutch is already in a sheltered location, but while rabbits have thick fur, in the wild, they get much of their winter warmth from snuggling with other rabbits deep in a rabbit hole. If it gets much colder, we'll line three sides of his cage with cardboard for extra warmth. He has a little house in his hutch, too, which we've lined with hay. As a side note, did you know rabbits purr? I sure didn't. When we pet him, he doesn't make any noise, but you can feel his throat vibrating.

2013 Produce Totals 

(All but the squash and tomatoes were/are from a 12 x 14 ft. garden plot; the squash and tomatoes were in an area measuring 33 x 3 ft.)
Eggs 751
Chicken meat 20 ½ lbs.

Apples 13 1/4  lbs.
Basil 3/4 lb.
Beets 1 lb.
Blackberries 3 lbs.
Blueberries 7 1/2 lb.
Buttercup squash 2 1/2 lbs.
Butternut squash 3 ½ lbs.
Cabbage 6 lb.
Calendula 8 lb.
Carrots 1 3/4 lb.
Chives 6 1/2 lbs.
Cilantro 1 1/8 lb.
Collards 13 3/4 lbs.
Dandelion flowers ½ lb.
Dandelion greens 35 lb.
Dandelion Root 2 1/8 lb.
Garlic: ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads
Green onions 1 lb.
Ground nuts 1 lb.
Kale 17 lbs.
Kohlrabi 1 lb.
Kiwi 1 lb.
Leeks 5 lbs.
Lettuce 11 lb.
Mint 3/4 lb.
Oregano 1 1/2 lb.
Pattypan squash 44  lbs.
Parsnips 1 lb.
Passion vine 1 lb.
Peas 5 1/2 lbs.
Potatoes 11 1/4 lbs.
Radishes 8 lb.
Rosemary 1/2 lb.
Sage 1 1/2 lb.
Spinach 1 1/4 lb.
Squash blossoms 3 1/2 lbs.
Sunchokes 40 lbs.
Strawberry 3 1/2 lbs.
Tomato 38 3/4  lbs. + 28.25 lbs. green
Wild onion 2 lb.
Wonderberries 1 lb.
Zucchini 60 1/2 lbs.

Oct 21, 2013

7 Things I've Learned About Chickens

1. While I love feeding hens leftovers from our table (especially things I don't compost, like meat fat), and as much as I believe in free ranging chickens when possible, the more chickens eat food other than their carefully-formulated feed, the fewer eggs they lay.

2. Not all chickens are created equal. Be sure you understand that some breeds are generally better layers, some are more friendly, some are better for meat, some lay better in the winter, etc. This chart can help you determine what type of chickens are best for you.

3. Chicken breeds that tend to be more friendly also tend to be more dumb, and chickens that are smart tend to have, vim and vigor.

4. Chickens usually have to be taught to eat snails. My method is to handpick snails from the yard, spear them with a stick (so I know they are dead and won't get back in my garden), and throw them in the run. Usually it only takes one hen realizing they are food for the whole flock to go crazy over them. Although this training takes a little effort on your part, it's well worth it. It not only ensures fewer snails in your garden, but it gives the hens a source of protein that also offers calcium (which keeps them healthy and makes their egg shells less likely to break).

5. Chickens don't mind eating mustard. Or hot sauce. When I had an egg-eating hen, I read all over the Internet that I should blow out an egg and put either mustard or hot sauce in it, then place it in a nesting box. The hen would be so turned off by the flavor of that egg, the collective Internet voice said, the chicken would quit eating eggs altogether. But my hens eat scraps off our table - which very frequently have either mustard or Tabasco sauce on them. They don't mind the flavor at all. (To discourage egg-eating hens, collect eggs often, keep the nesting boxes clean, and keep your chickens busy by offering frequent treats - a cabbage head is a great idea, especially if you hang it up - and foraging opportunities.)

6. Hens are quite trainable. So if you take a little time, you can train them to stay out of your garden, to go back in their run when you want them to, or to go into their henhouse before they would otherwise. (Click here for training tips.)

7. Chicken eggs last a long, long time if stored in the fridge, unwashed. I've had mine in the fridge for 6 to 8 months. For best results, store the eggs pointy side down and make a system where you are always eating the oldest eggs first. If you're worried about storage, eggs also freeze beautifully.

Sep 23, 2013

Tips for Getting Clean Chicken Eggs

Once you start raising hens, you quickly discover eggs aren't always clean when you gather them. The good news is there are some things you can do to encourage cleaner eggs.

1. Make sure the bedding in the nesting boxes is clean and plentiful. Also, if broken eggs are a problem, line the nesting boxes with outdoor turf (the kind that looks like plastic grass) or nest liners (found at farm stores).

2. Keep the bedding in the hen house clean, too. Chickens who walk in muck and manure get it on their feet - and on the eggs they sit upon.

3. Make sure there are enough nesting boxes for your hens. Experts generally advise having one box per four hens. Granted, hens have some funny ideas about nesting boxes. Mine, for example, usually decide only one nesting box is egg worthy. Sometimes hens also take a hankering to laying on the floor of the hen house. (In my experience, this usually happens because a hen decides she wants to use a certain nesting box while another hen is in it. Pretty soon, she can't hold it any longer and the egg ends up on the floor. Over time, this problem usually resolves itself, as the hens learn to be better at taking turns.)

4. Check for eggs regularly throughout the day, until you know when your hens lay. Unless the hens are new to laying, they usually have a set schedule for laying their eggs. Typically, this happens in the morning, but it may change as the seasons change. Prompt removal of eggs tends to mean fewer hens walking on the eggs, hence cleaner eggs. It also reduces the chances of broken eggs - and of hens learning to eat eggs.

5. Make sure hens have clean bottoms. If they are dirty, just wipe them with a warm, damp towel.

Despite all your best efforts, you will probably sometimes find dirty eggs in your nesting box. (Frankly, my experience is that some hens are just tidier than other hens - just as some people are pig-pens and others are neat-nicks.) The question then becomes: Should you clean dirty eggs before storing them?

Before you laugh and say the answer is obvious, you should know that egg shells have a natural coating (called "bloom") that prevents dirt and germs from being absorbed into the egg itself. Once you wash an egg, that protective coating is GONE. Therefore, in my opinion, it's best not to wash eggs until you're ready to use them. I place all my eggs - dirty and apparently clean - into egg cartons; when I'm ready to cook them, I wash them under warm, running water. (Cool or cold water draws germs into the egg.) Other people like to rub obviously dirty eggs with a rough cloth in order to maintain the egg's bloom.

Aug 30, 2013

August on the Homestead

August is always a hectic month for us. There are birthdays, school prep - and lots of gardening, harvesting, and preserving.

The summer squash (pattypan and zucchini) are growing like mad. We eat some squash almost every day, and I'm preserving zucchini by making zucchini chips - a huge favorite in this household. (I still have lots of last year's shredded, frozen zucchini for things like cookies, soups, spaghetti sauce, and zucchini bread.) The pattypan is outregeously abundant. I'm giving away quite a bit, but we still have tons. I may feed the chickens with the extras - or I might try chunking it up and freezing it for soups and stews. (I might also try grating it to use like shredded zucchini.)

Butternut squash.
 The winter squash has given mixed results. I tried one buttercup plant this year, and it's not been very happy. I lost many buttercup to blossom end rot, even after removing blossoms from the bottoms of growing squash. Then aphids attacked the plant - and while I keep spraying them away with cold water, they keep coming back. I have so far only harvested one buttercup squash. The butternut squash, on the hand, is doing extremely well. I can't wait for it to turn color so we can begin eating it!

Because we are so inundated with squash and other fresh veggies, I decided to harvest all the kale and collards, leaving just three leaves behind on each plant. I chopped it, blanched it, and froze it (just like the dandelion greens here) - and we'll be grateful for it, come winter. (When sauteed, they really do taste just as good as fresh greens.) And by the time the summer squash is winding down, we'll have more kale and collards, as they perk up with the cooler weather.

The carrots are large and I could harvest them any time. I've decided to wait until a good frost, though,
because it increase their flavor so dramatically. I'll soon be harvesting parsnips, cabbage, and kohlrabi, too.

In the fruit department, our small columnar apple trees are pumping out apples - more this year than the last. So far, I'm leaving them on the tree and harvesting as needed. We are still getting a few strawberries and blackberries, too - and the wonderberries are beginning to come on.

Oh, and the tomatoes! This has been my best year ever growing them. I'm watering my plants less, which seems to make the green tomatoes turn red more quickly. We have more than enough to eat fresh, and I'm also freezing some to can later, when life is a little less hectic.

The critters continue to be sweet - and functional. The chickens are laying more and more consistently, and their eggs are getting larger. I keep about five or six 18-count egg cartons full of eggs in the fridge, plus some frozen eggs in the freezer - plus we give some away. The rabbit makes fantastic fertilizer at an amazing rate. And my husband almost brought home a pig this month. Yes, a pig. Even though we live in the suburbs. Even though we don't, in my opinion, have room for one. He thought it would make a great house pet. Ahem. I barely dodged that one!
The cabbage isn't very big this year. (Notice how I share them with the slugs and snails.)
One of the potato grow bags did splendidly. Another was diseased and produced nothing. Another is recovering from a major eating by slugs and snails.
I have several jars of zucchini chips.
This is the first year our thornless blackberry has really produced. Look at the size of those berries!

2013 Produce Totals 

(All but the squash and tomatoes are from a 12 x 14 ft. garden plot; the squash and tomatoes are in an area measuring 33 x 3 ft.)

Eggs 550
Chicken meat 20 ½ lbs.

Apples 6 1/2 lbs.
Basil 1/2 lb.
Beets 1
Blackberries 3 lbs.
Blueberries 7 1/2 lb.
Buttercup squash 20 1/2 lbs.
Calendula 8 lb.
Chives 6 lbs.
Cilantro 1 lb.
Collards 11 lbs.
Dandelion flowers ½ lb.
Dandelion greens 35 lb.
Dandelion Root 2 lb.
Garlic: ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads
Green onions 1 lb.
Kale 11 ½ lbs.
Kiwi 1 lb.
Leeks 5 lbs.
Lettuce 11 lb.
Mint 1/4 lb.
Oregano 1 1/4 lb.
Pattypan squash 28  lbs.
Parsnips 1 lb.
Passion vine 1 lb.
Peas 5 1/2 lbs.
Potatoes 11 1/4 lbs.
Radishes 8 lb.
Rosemary ¼ lb.
Sage 1 1/2 lb.
Spinach 1 1/4 lb.
Squash blossoms 2 1/2 lbs.
Sunchokes 40 lbs.
Strawberry 3 1/2 lbs.
Tomato 19 1/2 lbs.
Wild onion 2 lb.
Wonderberries ¼ lb.
Zucchini 37 1/2 lb.

Jun 28, 2013

June on the Homestead

Our first exclusively backyard produced dinner!
Gardening wise, it's been a disappointing month. Unseasonably cool and wet, most of the garden isn't where I'd like it to be. There are green tomatoes - but not enough warmth to turn them red. I've had all of one squash flower. And the edibles that have flowered haven't had bees to pollinate them, due to all the rain. On the other hand, the cool season crops are doing reasonably well. I'm harvesting peas, collards, kale, lettuce, and a few other things, regularly. There are some yellowish leaves in the garden from all the rain - and I've had to remain vigilant against slugs and snails (who adore the rain). But, all in all, things could be worse.

The biggest news this month is that we ate our first exclusively backyard produced dinner. Now, we've had all-backyard produced breakfasts before - but never dinner. It consisted of peas, kale, and chicken. None of us knew what to expect from the chicken. After all, this was not a meat bird, but an old laying hen. From everything I'd read and heard, I really thought it would be stringy, tasteless, and tough. WRONG! It was scrumptious - much more tasty than a store bought chicken! We all thought it tasted like Kentucky Fried Chicken, minus the breading.

I cooked the chicken in my pressure canner, which doubles as a pressure cooker. (Please note that most pressure cookers can't be used as pressure canners.) tad more tough than store bought - but I think if I cook it longer next time, that won't be a problem at all. (Read more about cooking old hens here.)
The first batch of peas is almost spent.
That was also a first for me; I ended up nearly burning the chicken because I cooked it too "hot" and probably with too little water. Because I had to cut the cooking shot, the chicken was just a

We are pretty amazed by our hens. They provide us with a regular supply of eggs and fertilizer, then give us a tasty meal or two - plus several pots of stock! Hard to beat that

In other news, we added another animal to our menagerie. This one is not strictly a homesteading animal; he is a pet who happens to generate a lot of good fertilizer. For years, my daughter has wanted a bunny. And while we are considering adding meat rabbits to our backyard homestead, when someone gave us a bunny hutch, we decided to fill it with Kennedy - a miniature Rex rabbit. He's a cutie.
Meet Kennedy.

The cabbages are finally starting to grow.

Borage - normally a great bee attractor.

The Artic kiwi are getting bigger!

The blueberries are coming on.

We have tomatoes - but they are green.
The passion vine is happy - as usual.
The front bed, where squash are supposed to be vining everywhere.
2013 Produce Totals 
(all produce is from a 12 x 14 ft. garden plot)

Eggs 374
Chicken 20 ½ lbs.

Beets 1
Blueberries 1 3/4 lbs.
Calendula 8 lb.
Chives 5 lbs.
Collards 6 lbs.
Dandelion flowers ½ lb.
Dandelion greens 35 lb.
Dandelion Root 2 lb.
Garlic (including scapes) ½ lb.
Green onions 1 lb.
Kale 6 1/2 lbs.
Leeks 5 lbs.
Lettuce 5 lb.
Oregano 1 1/4 lb.
Parsnips 1 lb.
Passion vine 1 lb.
Peas 5 lbs.
Radishes 9 lb.
Rosemary 1/4 lb.
Sage 1 1/4 lb.
Spinach 1 1/4 lb.
Sunchokes 40 lbs.
Wild onion 1 1/2 lb.

Jun 10, 2013

How to Cook an Old Laying Hen or Rooster

A couple of weeks back, we butchered our old laying hens. (Don't worry - I won't go into details, nor will I type about our mixed feelings on the subject - unless you'd like me to, in which case I'm happy to share.) But I am going to talk about how to put those old birds to good use.

UPDATE: 6/14/13: Tonight, we had our first taste of old laying hen...and it was GREAT. Really! I pressure cooked it and it was very moist and extremely flavorful. The white meat tasted like Kentucky Fried Chicken (!) - much more "chickeny" than grocery store chicken. The dark meat had an almost turkey-like flavor - almost, but not quite, the flavor of really good game.

There are several important things to know right up front:

* Meat chickens, which are the type of chickens you buy in grocery stores, are bigger than the hens you have for eggs. They are also butchered at a very young age. Therefore, meat chickens are larger - and much more tender - than laying hens butchered due to "old age" or inability to lay well. Backyard roosters are also smaller and more tough than store bought chickens.

* The older the hen, the more tough her meat is. Roosters, from what I've read, also tend to be more stringy.

* Old chickens can certainly be eaten - it's just a matter of knowing how to handle them properly.

The first rule is to never butcher a bird and eat it right away. You should let it sit in the refrigerator for 48
hours, making sure it's on a rack so it's not sitting in blood. Cooking or eating the bird right away makes it especially tough it is still in rigor mortis.

For the best tasting food, it's also wise to let the bird age in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days before eating or freezing it. Because of limited refrigerator space, I chose to freeze all our birds right away. When it's time to cook or can them, I let them defrost, then age them in the refrigerator for up to 5 additional days.

There are four tried-and-true ways to cook old hens and roosters:

1. Stew them (or put them in soups). In fact, some famous dishes were originally designed for using up roosters or old hens, including the famous Scottish soup cock-a-leekie ("rooster and leeks" - a recipe found in my A Vegetable for Every Season Cookbook) and the well known French coq au vin ("rooster in wine"). The key here is to cook the bird for a long time (8 hours is generally recommended) and with plenty of moisture. Here's a recipe that looks worth trying. Do not try to substitute a crock pot or slow cooker; neither is typically adequate to get old birds tender.

Traditional Cock-a-Leekie soup.
2. Pressure cook them. A basic recipe is to season the bird and cook it with about 2 - 3 cups water or stock for 35 to 40 minutes at 15 lbs. pressure.

3. Can them. But taking apart an older hen, with it's tight joints, isn't quite as easy as taking apart a tender grocery-store bird. You'll probably want to cook the bird before canning it.

4. Turn them into sausage. Click here for more information on this method.

In addition, soaking the bird in brine for a day or two before using it can make it more tender yet.

And don't forget the carcass and innards (gizzard, heart, neck, and kidneys)! Save them all for making stock.