Tonight, after everyone was tucked in, I went to check on Ruby one more time because I heard her talking to her babies, and I took this picture of her in there, surrounded by babies. She has one more baby hidden in her feathers. Ruby is a magnificent mom. She’s very nurturing, gentle, and is a good teacher. These are the things that make for a good parent across the board, I think.
But Ruby is showing some signs of tiredness. She lets me get a lot closer now, and when some of the babies are crying for mama when I am getting them ready to go in the morning, Ruby no longer gets upset. She used to attack me when I tried to help. Now, I swear, she looks at me like, “Can you deal with that?”
In a few more weeks, her work will be done, though I have had a few hens stay in mama mode for 10 to 12 weeks. Still, most wrap up at about 6 to 7 weeks. I have found it’s much easier on the babies when the mama lets them stay longer. But, however, long they let their babies stay, when the mama hens are done or nearly done, they will molt. The intense stress and toll of being a mother impacts their little bodies.
The stress begins when they are broody. For 21 days, the mama hens will barely move from the nest. They will eat and drink very little. Their combs shrivel, and they lose body mass; though I try to keep them fed and hydrated, hatching babies takes a clear and definitely toll. Then, they become mothers, and for weeks, the mamas work to teach and provide care.
When the mama hens molt near the end, they will lose a lot of feathers. There will be chicken feathers all over the yard, the garage. It’s a visible toll of motherhood. And the growing back of feathers is not an easy experience for them. Pin feathers can be painful, and they need extra protein for all of the feather growing.
My chickens remind me, deeply, that being a mama takes a toll, and my chickens only have to do it for 6 to 11 weeks or so.
I have been a human mama since I was 21 years old–that’s 26 years. My first delivery was traumatic. If I had not been so young, I might have died. My daughter nearly died.
And since then, I have learned a lot. I am a much better mama now than I was when I started. I have learned, deeply, the importance of being a good teacher as a parent. I have learned, deeply, that it is a difficult job. I have learned, deeply, that it takes a profound toll. It brings you joy, but it makes you tired. You lose your feathers.
My chickens get to decide if they want to be mama. I give them as much agency as I can because I know what a difficult task being a mother will be for them, and I believe everyone needs that agency.
When you have a little farm or homestead, it can be difficult to be away from home for any extended length of time, especially in the evening. For the most part, we have structured our lives to fit very well with the “tucking in time” of our animals. We have great fences, but fences only do so much. I feel much better when everyone is tucked in tightly and all doors are closed.
This evening, our son, the cellist, had a concert on the coast. He played magnificently, by the way. When I say what our son is a cellist, I mean he’s really a cellist. It’s almost confusing to me. He played so well tonight that I almost couldn’t believe it. There’s this cognitive dissonance that this kid, who puts empty milk cartons, can make music like he does. He wants to be a professional cellist when he grows up, and I think he might do it.
If the world will just not fall apart. This is the little prayer I say all the time. But I guess that’s another post about the world and falling apart and such.
Anyway, we had promised our cellist an outdoor dining experience after his concert, so we went out to eat, which is something we pretty much never do. I mean, restaurant food, even from the really good restaurants, just usually isn’t as good as home food. We are spoiled to delicious organic food from the garden. Still, it was a beautiful restaurant, and I was excited. But our server forgot our ticket–twice–and for a very long time. It was tough. We waited about an hour for our ticket. I am sure the poor server was way overworked, so we did not want to complain. Of course, the trip home was a worry. It was past dark. I was so worried about our animals. I was mainly concerned about Ruby and her babies.
Every evening, before dark, I take Ruby’s crate, filled with Ruby and all her babies, and put them in the garage for extra safety. Tonight, Ruby and her crew had their crate but were outside way too late. I was trying not to panic on the trip home, but there was some panic.
Thankfully, thankfully, thankfully, everyone was just fine when we got home. Ruby had all of her babies tucked in, and we now have all of them tucked in in the garage. The big chickens were fine, as were the ducks. Everyone is all buttoned up, and I am feeling relieved.
It was a long day but such a good day. I am so glad all is well.
I have be eluding to a miracle egg in the last week or so because I didn’t want to jinx my wish that an egg I had under Kate might hatch. I am quite superstitious.
A couple of weeks ago, when Kate and the adopted babies rejected each other, there were five eggs under Kate that she had been sitting on for two weeks. When I switched the eggs for the baby chicks the night we tried to give her the adopted babies, I put all of the eggs in a box near her crate. I wanted to candle the eggs, just to see if our rooster was doing any good work in this department, as he is wonderful but quite old.
I couldn’t carry all of the eggs at once, so I carried in all I could–four eggs–and just left the other in the box in the garage. I candled all four eggs, and they were all duds. I was sad about our rooster but glad I had bought new babies from a good breeder.
Of course, the next morning, Kate and the babies rejected each other, as you know from my earlier post. Kate was so confused and so devastated she lost her eggs. She kept looking and looking for them. In a sad state that morning, I grabbed that egg in the box that had sat in the chilly garage all night.
“What are the odds that egg is developing?” I asked myself. Of course, then I had to admit, even if it was fertilized, it had sat out all night without heat. I had heard of eggs making it for some hours without heat, even though my standard rule is 1 hour. I thought for a moment. “9 hours,” I said out loud. I sighed mightily.
But it wouldn’t hurt to try, and if it would help Kate get to motherhood more quickly than starting all over, it would be worth a try. I took the egg in the house and candled it. There was a baby in there that was quite developed. I said all the bad words. I won’t share those, as I know some children read this blog, but I said all the bad words. I was so mad at myself for not checking the egg the night before. I could have kept the egg warm in the house, just in case Kate rejected the babies.
But there I was–with nothing but a hope for a lot of luck. It would take a miracle.
I put the egg under her and made a wish as I did. Again, I am very superstitious. I also grabbed three eggs from the coop and thought maybe she might get one baby out of those. I thought poor Kate deserved to be a mama. Seeing her get so upset about losing her eggs that morning broke my heart. So, within half an hour, Kate was back in business. She had eggs back under her. Worst case, she would have to go 21 more days with the new eggs from the coop. Best case, one week with the miracle egg.
But a week passed, and there was no hatch. I took the abuse from Kate and grabbed the egg to candle it. I thought maybe it had developed further than when I had seen it last, but I wasn’t sure. It had been a week and though I tried to make a good mental note, I doubted myself. Still, “a few more days, just in case,” I said to Kate when I put the egg back under her.
A few more days passed, and there was still no hatch.
Yesterday, when I woke up in the morning, I told myself “today will be the day I’ll dispose of that egg.” I needed a miracle, but I researched my odds. I understood my chances were small; still, I was melancholy about it.
“After tea,” I told myself. Every morning, after morning chores, my husband and I sit and try to talk for at least half an hour. We won’t see each other much until dark, so we try to touch base every morning.
We had just finished tea, and Ron headed outside to start his work for the day. He came back to find me and said, “Guess who is a mama?” My eyes widened!
“I heard Kate purring and couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he said. When he went to look, there was a little baby chick. I could tell he was so happy for Kate too. This is one of the many reasons I love that man.
I ran to the garage, and there, right in front of Kate was her little mini-me. Not only did that baby hatch, five days late, but that baby also looks just like Kate did when she was a baby. It’s almost too much cuteness to take.
Our Boudica is a miracle to me. I am forever in awe of how much of a help she is to us. Ron spent this week expanding our farming area into the woods a bit, and this is a bit of worry because predators of chickens live in the woods. I mentioned to Ron that we would want to let Boudica into the area before we put any chickens in the new space, and Ron was thinking the same thing.
And the new space is fantastic. My poor husband worked himself into exhaustion far too many nights this week, but he fenced a whole new area with a super sturdy fence. People always say that good fences make good neighbors, but I have come to be a believer that good fences make safe chickens. Still, we count on Boudica.
The coolest thing is that Boudica knows it. She loves her job, is very good at her job, and seems to completely understand how much we count on her. In fact, according to Boudica, we should be counting on her more. According to Boudica, it’s a miracle we make it in the world without her.
Tonight, after Ron and I moved the chickens to their fancy new space, Ron went to the house to get Boudica. “Let’s go see dad’s chickens,” he said to her. And, of course, Boudica went straight to the coop and began to survey the whole area. She understood what we needed from her and set to work on her new task. How fortunate are we to have her?
I realized tonight, as I watched her run across our yard with fireflies flickering in the trees, that Boudica is, indeed, a miracle and that, try as I might, I am sure I don’t deserve her. I also began to think the hard thought that she’s getting older, and it would be hard to do all of this without a farm dog like her.
When Gus passed away, Ron talked about getting another Pyrenees, but I couldn’t think about it at all. I still haven’t been able to think about too much, but I realize that Boudica will need to time to teach who is coming next.
But I won’t think about that right now. Boudica will be six years old the summer, and I am going to close my eyes right now and wish for twelve years at least with that girl.
It’s Thursday night, and my workload is heavy, so I will wrap up quickly. But I have to share that I have a helper when I grade papers now. This is Piatigorsky, named after the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and she is a mama’s girl. I can tell she’s a girl by her legs. I hope I’m not wrong. She rides on my arm while I work and grade papers and doesn’t even budge a little as I type. I adore her!
This weekend, I went to Tractor Supply for chicken feed. We buy organic, so it’s always been expensive. For months, I kept reading about chicken feed going up in price, but somehow, perhaps because organic feed was already so expensive, the price of the organic food we buy remained stable–until last month. Our already-expensive feed bill got a lot worse. On Saturday, I spent $215.00 on feed and came home to find just eight eggs for the day. It’s a good thing their poop is gold to us as gardeners!
Still, grain shortages and high feed prices have encouraged us to dig more deeply into ways to save on our feed bill. We have always fed scraps, and thankfully, our hens get to free range in a 3/4 acre area complete with trees, shrubs, and lots of insects. But I think it’s time to step up our game and work on other ways we can be more efficient in how we feed our chickens.
I’ve been reading in the chicken forums so many stories of people having to give up their chickens because of the rising costs of feed, but I can’t help but think, as times get harder, we are going to want to keep our chickens, as they not only provide us with eggs they also fertilize our gardens.
The following are some strategies we use or are planning to try. If you have others to add to the list, I would love to see them in the comments.
Feed scraps from your kitchen.
This just makes good sense to me. I have read that some people say that it’s not as healthy to do this and that your chickens will live longer if they are fed commercial food only, but the only study I have ever read on this topic was sponsored by a large producer of chicken feed–so I am skeptical. Chickens are omnivores and can eat what we eat, for the most part. In this photo I took recently of some scraps, I have a pile of organic quinoa, some leftover ground beef, cooked lasagna noodles that were extra (I cut them up into small pieces) and a head of lettuce from the garden.
Of course, you have to be reasonable. You should never feed your chickens rancid or rotten scraps. And chickens should not eat raw potatoes or peels, citrus, uncooked rice or beans, or avocado peels. Some people think chickens cannot eat tomatoes, but this is not true. Ripe tomatoes are wonderful; it’s just the leaves of the tomato plants that are bad. I have also read that chickens should not eat garlic or onions, but I think this may be because it will change the flavor of the eggs. You should also not feed your chickens chocolate, but I just can’t see this being an issue that often. One time, in an educational presentation, I did have a kiddo ask me if you could feed a chicken some birthday cake. I advised against it but said they could probably get away with a bite or two. Maybe I should have added only if the cake wasn’t chocolate.
But the list of what chickens cannot eat is short, and I feel chickens are a great way to turn food waste into fresh eggs. Our chickens eat leftover homemade bread, veggies, meat, pasta. Our rooster really loves Annie’s Organic Mac and Cheese. We have a couple of glass bowls we keep in our fridge at all times. Every tiny scrap that is safe for chickens goes into the bowls. When the bowls are full (or before the food will go bad), the chickens get the scraps. The scraps also make our chickens happy. I mean, would you want to eat the same exact food every day for your whole life? Chickens like a little variety too, so the scraps are a win-win.
Let them eat bugs, if you can.
We are fortunate. My husband built a fence around 3/4 of an acre on our property, so our chickens get the best of both worlds. It’s like free ranging with protection. Free ranging without a fence comes with risks, but if you have a large fenced area, let them out in it when you can. Our chickens eat bugs, worms, grass, and, sadly, frogs. It makes their eggs taste great, and it helps cut down on feed costs. If you do not have a fenced area, you could even try free ranging when you are around. I do not recommend free ranging without a fence or without people present.
Of course, I know some people just have to do it this. And, when we first got our chickens, we free ranged before my husband built the fence. But we had some close calls with predators, and the chickens definitely didn’t know property lines. We had to get a fence up before our chickens had a party in our neighbor’s vegetable garden. That would have been terrible, and I think it’s important to remember that, though there are exceptions, when it comes to chickens, good fences generally make good neighbors.
Ferment your feed.
This is something I have not tried. I have been so nervous because I worry about making a mistake with this process, but I am very interested in fermenting our feed. I have heard from some reliable people that this has done wonders to cut down on their feed costs, and, apparently, there are health benefits to it as well.
The most detailed and helpful resource on fermenting feed I have found so far is this site from Grubbly Farms–The Benefits of Fermenting Chicken Feed. I have read through this and think this is what I am going to try this summer. That $215 feed bill left an impression.
Start a mealworm farm.
I am pretty close on this one. I have been researching starting a mealworm farm for a couple of years. I have now purchased the totes and think this one is very do-able and seems highly efficient. My chickens love mealworms, but they cost a fortune in the little containers at the pet store, and my picky chickens won’t eat the dried ones. It’s fresh or nothing, I guess.
I have done this just a little but need to do it more. Essentially, you just take seeds that are safe for sprouting, such as sunflower seeds, alfalfa, or hard red wheat berries, and you sprout them in jars. These are fantastic treats, and it makes the seeds go further. This page from Homestead and Chill provides detailed instructions and a full list of seeds that are safe for sprouting.
Along these lines, you can also grow your own seeds. We do not have a lot of space, but we love to grow sunflowers anyway. We just started focusing on the sunflowers that produce seeds. The giant sunflowers like the Titan and the Mammoth Grey Stripe produce seeds that you can feed to your flock or sprout to make them go even further.
I hope this list is helpful, and, again, I hope you will add to it if you have additional ideas. I think it’s so important to share knowledge and to work together, as thanks to this terrible war in the Ukraine coupled with climate change, these grain shortages might be here for the foreseeable future.
Ron doesn’t know this, but I slipped two eggs under Juliet today. I know he will say we have too many chickens coming this year, but what’s one more? I am sure she will be lucky to get one baby out of those three eggs. Our rooster (named Rooster) is getting pretty old. In fact, now that I think about it, I should probably slip one more egg under her tomorrow morning.
Here’s the interesting thing: Juliet is our girl who has a special dog crate in the garage for laying her eggs. She won’t lay in the nest box like everyone else. Yesterday was business as usual. She laid her egg in the late morning. Then, in the afternoon, I saw her back in her crate on her egg–only she was flat, like the pancake I was writing about previously. I’ve never seen a hen go broody on her own egg, but that’s what Juliet did. She does everything exactly how she wants to do it, I suppose.
Kate is still on her eggs, though I am hoping one will be a miracle egg. It’s a long story that I will only tell if it’s a good story. I should know by Tuesday or Wednesday, but it will take a miracle for it to work out. Thankfully, she has back up eggs. She rarely gets off her nest now, and after all of that drama with the babies, she’s very worried I am going to take her eggs. So I was only able to candle one egg that I added on her nest last week, and it was viable. My fingers are crossed for her.
Kate and Juliet were raised together. They are both named after characters in Shakespeare’s play. There was one other girl in that group–Bianca. She has never gone broody, Thank goodness for that.
Ruby is doing very well with her crew. They are getting so big that they can’t all fit underneath mama very well anymore, so when they are tucked in, you see little yellow heads and tails and beaks sticking out various places. I will try to get a picture tomorrow.
For now, I will wrap up tonight. I am working on the Summer Solstice issue of the journal. It’s going to be beautiful!
We have two more hens trying to go broody. One is Silver, who is, perhaps, the most beautiful chicken I have ever seen. The other is Juliet, who is my favorite chicken who does whatever she wants whenever she wants. We really do not need another broody hen, but maybe Juliet could sit on an egg or three, right? I mean, it’s not like I have the heart to deny Juliet anything.
All of these broody hens had me thinking about my original broody hen. She passed away recently, right before I started this blog in May, and I can’t believe how much I miss her. She was one of our original Rhode Island Reds, one of the chickens who made me a chicken mama, and in the year before we got our rooster, she went broody. I didn’t even know what a broody hen looked or acted like. But they lay flat on eggs in “pancake” mode, as I call it, and they growl and fuss and fight to stay in the nest and keep whatever eggs they are sitting on. None of our other Rhode Island Reds had ever gone broody, and over time, our little broody hen just became “Broody Hen.” I fed her grapes at night while I took the eggs from under her, and we became best good friends.
When Broody Hen was about five years old, we had a rooster when she went broody for the second time, and she got to be a mama. She was the best, sweetest mama ever. She just seemed to treasure all of it, but she never went broody again.
After that, Broody Hen was just “the special,” and like Juliet today, she did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. She was also famous. She helped me give online presentations about chickens (she could work the crowd, I swear), and her story was published in a magazine once.
She was very vocal and talked a lot. I found out near the end of her life that she had a special call that was just for me. It was her name for me. She was just a week shy of 8 years old when she passed. She had been winding down for about a year. I remember thinking she would not make it through the winter last winter, but she did. But in the spring, she was so tired. Just so tired.
She was top of the pecking order, being one of the last two original hens, and I loved to watch her with her people. She had a good, long life, with her flock and with me, but I am without her now. It is the worst.
I don’t know why I felt so compelled to tell a bit of her story today. The broody hens remind me of her, of course, but earlier in the week, I was giving scraps the flock and missed hearing her voice so much I just cried. She was a foodie too. I mean, they all are, I guess, but Broody Hen was extra.
The first few times we raised baby chicks in a brooder, I was worried every second, just like a new parent, I suppose. But I followed all of the rules for temperature, and every time one was sacked out, I was terrified it was dead. Then, I watched a mama hen raise baby chicks. Those babies were out on field trips at just a few days old, even in cooler temperatures.
Of course, the babies could snuggle up to mama any time they wanted, but I was surprised, based on all the things I had read about the fragility of baby chicks, that the mama would have them out and about so young. And then I watched how the mama would boss the babies with her gentle pecks that sometimes were not so gentle.
I began to realize that baby chicks were tougher than I had thought. I mean, they are still tiny fragile things, but they are much tougher than you might think.
Of course, I still worry, but not as much as I used to. Mainly, I worry now when I am raising chicks because I know, by comparison, I am a terrible substitute for the real thing. Truly, there is nothing more magnificent to me than watching a mama hen raise her babies. She devotes herself to those babies 24-7. Of course, she only has to be a mama for six to ten weeks. As a human mom, I do have to pace myself, but I admire her work.
Our current chicks have to settle for me as a mom, which means they only get to come out of the brooder and play once per day, but I try to play with them at least an hour. Mostly, it’s just running around my grown daughter’s old bedroom, which seems to be the safest place to raise baby chicks away from our cats. But, today was a big day. Today, the baby chicks got a real field trip outside in the sunshine.
One of the baby chicks immediately took the sunbathing pose. That was the dark gray chick named Faure (after the composer). The others were more nervous and stayed close to their traveling box for a long time. Finally, they started to feel a little brave and ventured a few feet from me and the box. It was lovely. I had time today to hang out with them a long time. We sat in the sun long enough that my neck got toasty and the baby chicks got too chilly and tucked themselves into my arm pits.
It was a beautiful day. I think we all enjoyed ourselves. My son has a recital tomorrow, but after that, I think the baby chicks will get another field trip.
I made it to 30 days with this blog project! Ron always says, if you do something for a month, it becomes a habit. I hope that’s right. It seems right. I am so thankful to all of you who have started following this blog and being on this journey with me. Our stats on the Farmer-ish site are way up (we are tripling a strong year from last year!)–and we got a new Patreon supporter just a few days ago. This is hopefulness! I am so proud of this journal and site and so thankful to all of you who are reading and sharing and following along.
I had planned to write today about garden planning, but my essay grading work has taken me longer than I thought it would. I am always slower at everything than I think I will be. This must be some kind of optimism or delusion, perhaps. Either way, I told Ron that if I have a headstone when I die, I would like him to put something on it about how everything took me longer than I thought it would.
But, instead of rambling about my slowness, I will write a short bit about Ruby because it was the first rainy day for her babies. I tried to leave them all in the garage at first, hoping the babies could run around in the garage, but Ruby was against this. So I lugged her crate out to her fenced area and hoped her crate would be enough to keep the rain out. Thankfully, it was.
I guess Ruby knew the rain wouldn’t last long, as everyone was out and playing by the afternoon, but in the morning, they were so cute in their crate–bouncing all over mama. Ruby is a fantastic mama. It’s a treat to watch her. I wonder how she’s going to handle this brood in a couple of weeks though. It seems she already has her hands full.
And, with that in mind, I have a little treat. This is a video I took the other day. I love how Ruby is already teaching them how to scratch and find food. I love how busy she is. And I love how the chicks look and act like popcorn!
Every summer, at least a third of our flock goes broody. I’ve mentioned that we have to “break” most of them, as we can only let a couple raise babies. This week has been a really tough week in the broody hen department.
Some of our broody hens, even though they are normally not ones to fly, were able to fly out of broody-hen jail thanks to some strong will and determination. And since Ruby and her babies were running around the main area outside our home (separate from the chicken area), this was a problem. You definitely do not want a grumpy broody hen running up on Ruby and her babies. Ruby is fierce, but she is tiny.
And broody hens love to fight. We have had more arguments in the flock in the last week than in the whole last year put together—times 10. My goodness, I am worn from breaking up chicken fights. Normally, our flock is so peaceful.
After the issue with the fly-overs, I had what I thought was a great plan to keep Ruby and her babies away from the broody hens. During the day, I move Ruby and her babies to the area we call broody-hen jail, and I just let the broody hens run around the area around our house and the garage. This plan has worked fairly well—except for the first day.
I could see that Jane was trying so, so hard to get into the coop for much of the day. I kept trying to distract her with treats, but she was in the worst shape. She was with three other broody hens and would alternate between threatening and fighting with the others and trying desperately to get into the coop.
On the evening of the first day of this plan, when I was closing up the coop, my heart broke when I saw there was blood droplets all around the door and steps of the coop. At first, I panicked but then realized what must have happened. I went to check on poor Jane’s head, and sure enough, she had injured her little comb quite a bit.
I picked up that grumpy hen and just snuggled her. As I did, my hand was touching her belly, and it triggered her purring. Their instincts are fascinating. “Poor Jane,” I said to her. “I am so sorry you don’t get to be a mama, but you fight too much.” Of course, she just purred, and my heart broke for her again.
I am happy to report that, yesterday, after five days of banishment from the nest, that determined girl finally let go of being broody. Tonight, when I was fetching garden goodies for dinner, she was able to join the rest of the hens and eat some spinach and lettuce like everyone else. Her comb is injured but will heal, and, if I can, I’m going to try to let her have a clutch of eggs all by herself next year. Maybe, if she just raises a brood alone, she will do okay and not fight with people.
In the meantime, I started this process with four broody hens, plus Kate and Ruby, who are either on eggs or with babies. While I was working on that batch, two more hens went broody.
Oh, the chaos!
I think, as of last night, I might be down to just three broody hens. For real, just as I was feeling grateful for a little success, another hen went broody!!!! I went to the nest to see who it was, and it was Pumpkin, who also cannot be allowed to raise babies again because she had a very hard time mentally the last time she raised babies. She ended up disappearing for some weeks and coming home in the middle of the night with a scream. That’s another story.
For now, I’ll keep working on these broody hens, dealing with the chaos that broody hens bring, and feeling said that, yesterday, though we have 28 hens, we got 9 eggs–right before Solstice too when the days are so long that eggs should be a plenty. Sigh.