Free Postmortem Exams for Backyard Flocks in California

It’s too late for us now, but if I had another two chickens die in close succession, I’d consider rushing the bodies off to one of the California Animal Health and Food Safety’s labs run by the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

A Root Simple reader who is a veterinarian tipped us off to this service. You don’t need a veterinarian (though you might need one to help interpret the results) and the service is free to those with less than 1,000 birds. All you need to do is get the body, as soon as possible, to one of four labs in either Davis, Turlock, Tulare or San Bernardino.

The backyard flock submission form is available at: http://www.cahfs.ucdavis.edu/submission_forms/index.cfm. The addresses of the labs are on the form. I’m sure that many other states offer similar services. Call your local Extension Service for details and leave a comment if you know about your state’s testing programs.

How to start a chicken retirement community

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So–here’s the story of another mistake we made. When Erik and I first got chickens we didn’t lay out a plan for dealing with the chickens as they aged. That was the mistake. Simple as that. Make your plans, people!

We learned how to slaughter chickens–we knew we could do it if we needed to–but we never really sat down and decided what would happen to our ladies when they stopped laying. We’re very good at procrastinating that way.

What happened is sort of surprising, looking back.

I’ve not eaten chicken since high school (or other meat, except rarely, fish). My objections have never centered around the morality of killing animals for food, but rather a long-standing objection to how the animals were treated within the industrial farming system. I wanted the chickens so I could have constant access to guilt-free eggs.

Erik was a meat eater up until we got the hens. Then he fell in love with their funny ways, fell out of denial, and realized where his tasty chicken dinners really came from. He went veggie–more or less.

Somehow we did a polar flip. While keeping chickens made him a vegetarian, it made me less sentimental. It’s not that I dislike them. I love having them around. All I can say is that somehow my relationship to them was clarified through experience. I’d sit out by the coop and think, “Yep, I wouldn’t mind eating one of those–and sure as heck they wouldn’t mind eating me, either.”

Meanwhile, Erik went all Buddha on me. He developed relationships with our four hens and would not consider culling them.

That meant we had a chicken retirement home on our hands–and a distinct lack of eggs coming in–and no hope on the horizon, unless it came in the form of a convenient hawk.

But now that the bell has tolled for two of our hens (and no, I am not jigging when Erik is not looking) we’re making decisions on how to handle future flocks.

An aside:

There’s no right or wrong in this cull-no cull debate, though folks can disagree vehemently on the topic. I’ve always said that if you’re a meat eater, raising your own meat is the finest thing you can do. If you want to keep hens as pets, that’s also totally legit.

I have to say that in the city, where we have limited space and laws against roosters and backyard slaughter, our hen keeping operations are always, by necessity, somewhat unnatural. For the most part, backyard flocks are disconnected from the natural cycle of mating and birth, and so also seem to end up disconnected from the cycle of death. It’s no wonder lots of us end up thinking of our hens as pets. Heck, a lot of us buy them at pet stores!

The two paths:

For Erik and I there were two paths. Either we’d decide to embrace carnivorism and resolve to treat our layers in a more business-like fashion, meaning we would not name them and we would promise to make soup out of them when the time came. Or we’d decide–consciously– to support our old layers in their retirement.  To do this, we’d need to develop a system that would allow us to bring in new layers, but still have room for old layers. A plan sort of like this one:

The Staggered Chicken Plan:

Note: Our current flock has taught us that four hens laying at their peak gave the two of us far more eggs that we could eat the first year, and plenty of eggs the second year and into the third. That’s how we came up with these numbers. If you need more eggs, you’d need more hens.

We start with three fresh pullets. At age three, when they slow their laying, we’d introduce three more fresh pullets. We would then have six hens and plenty of eggs, even if we have some die-off from the oldsters in their 4th or 5th year. When the second batch turned three, we’d get three more young ones. The first trio would then be able to spend their sixth through ninth years playing canasta or watching the telenovelas or whatever, and we’d still have plenty of eggs coming in from the younger birds. This plan is based on an assumption that most hens won’t live past nine though some do, of course. Hopefully the numbers will even out.
  
The decision:

What it came down to for us was whether we’d be willing to invest the time and money into starting a retirement community. Not only would we have to build a new coop to hold nine hens–as per the Staggered Chicken Plan–but also we’d have to commit to feeding all those useless birds.

Alternatively, we could keep the set up we have right now (which holds 4, maybe 5 birds at the most) and resolve to cull the hens. New hens every three years.

I personally was fine either way. I could see the advantages of each approach. But Erik (the big softy!) decided he didn’t feel right about culling the hens. Putting his money where his mouth was, he  agreed to redesign and rebuild the coop to keep his ladies off the chopping block.

So I guess we’re changing our name to Sentimental Farms! Time to design that new coop…

Another Chicken Fatality

We lost another chicken last night meaning that we’ve got something infectious. I didn’t have the stomach to do a post-mortem exam, nor would I know what to look for anyways (chicken CSI would make a nice class if only there were someone to teach it). I thumbed through Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook, but I don’t have much evidence to go on.

I didn’t see any obvious symptoms other than a very small amount of listlessness just before both chickens died and a bit of what might be bloody diarrhea on the roost. Mrs. Homegrown disinfected the coop as best she could and I swept out the bedding. A heat wave last week may have weakened the flock and helped bring this on.

We are now down to two chickens, one of whom does not lay any eggs. Looks like we’ll be either not be eating eggs or we’ll have to buy them at the farmers market for the next few months.

Mrs. Homegrown here: 

I wanted to add that the remaining hens seem perfectly healthy.  If they drop over dead tomorrow, it’s going to be quite a headscratcher. They’re out happily roaming in our yard right now, all bright-eyed and perky. I’ve eyeballed them for signs of respiratory infection or diarrhea, and see nothing. All the poop under their roost looked fine.  It’s a mild day, as was yesterday–so I don’t know if heat was the culprit in either death. The possible bloody diarrhea that Erik mentions above consisted of a couple of  small dark stains on the roost. Hard to say what that was–if it was anything. All in all it’s quite a mystery.

It could be coincidence. Both of the deceased hens are of the same breed, from the same hatching, same store–maybe they were even sisters. They were very close. Maybe when one went the other followed, like devoted old couples sometimes do.

I say this just to keep hope that this isn’t some bacterial thing. It’s impossible to truly disinfect a wooden coop with a dirt floor. We’ll do our best, open it up to light and give it a good airing and hope for the best.

It looks like we might get a chance to start our flock fresh, and this time we’re going to do things differently. It looks like there are two paths we could follow–those paths, and the choice we make, will have to follow in the next post.

How Long Do Chickens Live?

This morning we found one of our hens dead in the coop. She’d died near the feed bin, which shows she was a true chicken right to the end. This is our first chicken death. I’ve been gone most of the weekend, but Erik says she didn’t seem ill, though in retrospect he thinks maybe she was little slower than usual for the past few days. The other hens seem healthy enough. There was no sign of predation or injury.

I suppose we’ll find out soon if there is some kind of infection that will take the remaining three. But for now we’re chalking it up to age and general frailty. This hen, Jane, was always the smallest and the weakest of the four, and lived a hard life at the  bottom of the pecking order. Poor Jane. She’s the hen I’m holding in that picture of Erik and I over at the right hand bar. None of our ladies like to be held, but Jane was always the most patient with photographers.

Our neighbor, Sue, has twenty years experience with backyard hens, and once she told us that she figured their average lifespan ended up being about 5 years. I’ve read that chickens have a theoretical lifespan of 13 years, but of course, so many die young of mishap or disease. Sue’s estimate always sounded sensible to me. Jane died at 4 years and a few months old.

How long have you had your chickens? Do you cull them when they slow down their laying, or do you have some Methuselian hens pecking around your yard? What’s the oldest hen you’ve even had? What do you think the average lifespan of a backyard hens is?

Of course, this leads to lots of interesting questions about backyard flocks, how and when to rotate in new stock, to cull or not to cull, the danger of naming, etc. I think all that will have to wait for another post, because it’s a big subject and needs its own space. Maybe we’ll do that tomorrow. Right now, let’s hear about lifespans.

Congrats Denver!

From the Denver Post:  

Denver City Council eases way to own chickens, goats at home

Apparently it was previously legal, but more difficult because you had to pay steep fees and inform all your neighbors. Now, thanks to citizen action by urban homesteaders, the fee has been reduced to 20 bucks and you don’t have to inform your neighbors in order to keep 8 chickens or ducks and up to 2 pygmy goats. No roosters, natch. Congrats Denver! I’m proud to say you’re my home town.

via The Lazy Homesteader’s Facebook

How Not To Bake Bread

Homegrown Neighbor here:

So Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown are away on book tour while I’m holding down the fort in L.A. and looking after their chickens.

I figured that while they are away and not blogging much, I can step in and entertain you with tales of my epic baking failures. Sure, lots of blogs have pretty pictures of food and neatly typed recipes, but everyone likes a good tale of failure now and then.

Now, my neighbor Erik, aka Mr. Homegrown is quite the bread baker. He can turn out beautiful, tasty loaves of bread with ease. Down the street here, my loaves are quite the disaster. I’ve been wanting to learn to bake bread for a while and my experiments haven’t been going well. I’m hardly an incompetent cook. I can even bake cakes and cookies and other things leavened with baking powder or soda. But with yeast, well, I just haven’t figured it out.

I’m trying to follow the Mother Earth News ‘no knead’ bread recipe that you bake in a dutch oven. I’ve tried other yeasted bread recipes before with little success. Since this one is supposed to be easier, I thought this is the perfect bread for me! Apparently some folks gets great
results with it. Grumble. Grumble. I get chicken feed. Not that the chickens are complaining. They love this experiment.

One loaf flattened out completely in the bottom of the pan. I was able to glean some of the pretty tasty insides before turning it over to the hens. The next loaf I was determined to shape better. The dough was a sticky mess. It stuck to everything including plastic wrap, my hands, the bowl. I added more flour to deal with the stickiness but things still went wrong. I at least got something that looked more like a loaf than a pancake. But I think I cooked it too long. Again, I cracked it open, ate the soft inside of the bread and gave the rest to the chickens.


I tend to be a very experimental cook. I like to learn from my failures. Often things taste good but aren’t pretty, but after a few tries I can make them taste and look good. But not bread. It defies all of my time tested methods of how I teach myself to do things. I’ve been reading books on baking and they make my head hurt. How much protein is in the flour or what kind of enzyme does what is way beyond my comprehension at this point. So when the neighbors get back, in exchange for ten days of chicken- sitting, I’m going to have Mr. Homegrown teach me how to bake a darn loaf of decent bread. With none going to the chickens.

Mr. Homegrown here–happy to give a bead lesson, but I’ve had plenty of failures myself. One tip would be to use a scale when measuring bread ingredients. Another would be to make sure you’re not using old, dead yeast. Lastly, I know you’re sick with a sore throat and that’s the time to order take-out.

Deep Bedding for Chickens

We’ve got about 5-6″ of loose stuff on the floor of our chicken run. Underneath that, it’s black gold.

Around this time of year, folks are getting chickens. Some for the first time. So I figured it was time to talk about deep bedding again. I know we’ve written about it before, in our book, or on this blog, but this advice bears repeating:

Nature abhors bare ground. 
Line your chicken coop and run with a thick layer of mulch.

Doing this is called “deep bedding.”

Deep bedding solves a whole lot of chicken-related problems in one easy step:

  • It goes a long way toward controlling odor. 
  • It reduces flies (it not only absorbs poop, it actually fosters parasites that kill fly eggs)
  • It makes the coop area much more attractive to look at. 
  • It gives the chickens more to do (ie scratch) which keeps them happy, which keeps them from developing bad behaviors
  • It saves you work, because you don’t have to clean it out very often. Maybe not at all. Depending on your set up.

(This is a little off topic, but in a similar way we also advocate thick mulch over any bare ground in your yard. It will improve the soil, encourage worms, discourage weeds, conserve water, etc. If we had lots of spare time, money and a big truck, we’d drive around LA dumping mulch on the many, many parched landscapes that desperately need it.)

    How deep? What do I use?

    The deeper the better. Say 4 or 5 inches to start, and you will add more to that as it breaks down. As to what to use, you can use any dry organic matter–leaves, husks, straw, dry grass clippings, pine needles. We use straw, and a lot of dead leaves fall into the run, too.

    If you want to use straw, try this: just toss a few flakes* of straw into the center of the coop, and the ladies will do all the work of distributing it for you. Scouts honor. Go away, come back in an hour, and it will be so level and even, it will look like you spread it yourself.

    Start to think about your chicken coop/run as a compost pile rather than as an animal enclosure. That is what it will become. The chickens break down the bedding material, all the veg scraps you give them, and their own manure, through their constant scratching. Over time, the floor of the coop and/or run becomes a deep soft deposit of compost. Ours is sort of like quicksand. We throw all sorts of stuff in there–kitchen scraps, huge stalks of bolted lettuce, armloads of nasturtium, squash rinds–whatever goes in vanishes within a day or two. The hens peck at it until all the good stuff is gone. Then they trample it. Then they bury it. It all becomes one.

    Wear and weather break down the bedding, so you will need to add fresh material every so often. You may also choose to harvest the compost that accumulates in the run. When you do so is up to you. We don’t harvest more than once a year, but your mileage may vary. When you do clean it out, replace what you took with lots of new bedding.

    You will probably want to transfer what you harvest into a compost pile to finish up before it goes into your garden.

    Note: The hen house is different

    Our hens don’t spend any of their waking hours in the hen house, except to visit in the laying box. This means they never scratch around in there, which means this whole “living compost” system just doesn’t work in the house. The poop remains where it falls beneath the roost, untouched. Because of this, we have to clean the house out regularly. To make clean up faster, we don’t use straw or leaves inside–though we could–instead we use wood shavings, because those scoop out fast and easy, like a cat box. The soiled litter goes into our compost pile.

    Hens so hot, they had to be put behind bars!

    *Flake, a vocab word: Straw bales are compressed in such a way that when they are unbound, they come apart in sections about 4 or 5 inches thick. These are called “flakes.”

    Obligatory Cute Chick Post

    Look, it’s just that time of year. We have to live with it.

    We have no chicks this year. Our ladies are not maternal, they have no male companionship, and we’ve made no chick missions to the feedstore. These pics are from our neighbors’ house. Anne and Bill have a menagerie of ridiculously cute small animals. You recall the pea eating Chihuahua?

    Among their collection are a pair broody little Silkies, who are old-timers on their micro farm, and a new bantam hen–the tiniest chicken I’ve ever seen, hands down–who ended up in their yard somehow or another a couple of months ago. She’s not in these pictures because she’s not a very involved mother (not that I’m judging). After her arrival, this new hen received several brief but scandalous visits (not that I’m judging) from a very small rooster who breached the fence, coming and going like the gigolo he is as he pleased, leaving the World’s Tiniest Hen with a pile of tiny, potentially fertilized eggs.

    She just sort of left the eggs under some leaves and went about her business, so Neighbor Anne decided to give the eggs to her Silkies, because she knows those gals are rabid incubators. They’ve incubated kittens. Seriously.

    The shock-headed Silkies, who remind me of spinster sisters in Victorian novels, took to their new charges with gusto, bickered over the eggs, scratching them to and fro in the nest, both eager to incubate them to term.

    In the end, 3 eggs hatched and I went over there the next day to check out the scene. If you want to see pics from the first night, check out Neighbor Bill’s blog.

    See, what we’ve got here is an extreme cuteness overload. What’s missing in these pics is scale. Those hens are not full sized hens, and the chick is smaller than regular chicks. Also, Silkies don’t have feathers so much as they have downy fluff. Imagine, if you will, the world’s tiniest chicks surfing in a sea of marabou feathers, coming up to surface, and then diving deep again.

     

    You can fit all three chicks in one hand. I think two will look like their mom, and one like the Mysterious Stranger.

    I became a little obsessed with the idea that the stripey ones look like chipmunks. Then I found a cat toy on the floor which was a chipmunk. Imagine my delight: CHICKMUNK!