February 27, 2011

growing, growing, growing . . .

nap time

These girls are getting so big! At a little over 2 weeks old, they're growing more and more feathers each day and are already flying short distances.

Their new wing feathers help to keep them warm now so we've been able to do without the additional heater for a few days and are using just the heat lamps now. Our setup allows them to go in and out of the heated area if they choose and they are running around, jumping and flying like real chickens now.

We had a week of crazy weather that added some stress to the situation. First, 2 days of serious wind and then a heavy snowstorm with even more wind. I checked on them often to be sure the power was still on to keep them warm.

Three years ago, we raised our first flock of hens. We watched over them anxiously and marveled at the rate at which they grew. At about a month old, we were advised to move them outside. We both felt that they weren't ready but what did we know about raising chickens? Nothing, really.

So, on a Spring day we packed them into crates and moved all 100 of them out into an outdoor shelter and hoped for the best. We knew this was a big temperature change for them so once it started getting dark we headed out to check on them. We were not at all prepared for what we were about to see.

When young birds are cold or scared or both, they panic. And when they panic they start to furiously pile on top of each other. When this happens the birds on the bottom of the pile tragically suffocate and die. When we opened the door to the shelter that night we witnessed them actively piling on top of one another and as we tried to move the birds from the top of the pile, they piled even faster. We began to panic as we started to pull dead birds from the bottom of the pile. We had to act fast so we moved them as fast as we could back into the brooder, under the warmth and comfort of the heat lamps.

Sadly, we lost 20 of our young girls that night. This was all new to us then and the guilt lay heavy on our shoulders. That was one of many painful lessons we've been forced to learn. We learned, first and foremost, to trust out instincts and also, how important it is to wean birds off of heat lights before they make their big move outside.

That experience is what tends to fuel my anxiety with new chicks, especially in cold weather. We've learned a lot since that day, three years ago. Needless to say, I'm breathing a lot easier these days knowing that we've gotten them over the hump and that their most fragile days are behind us.

Now, for the fun part.

February 18, 2011

got raw milk?

Another fuzzy butt shot - just because.

Growing wing feathers!

The new girls are looking good . . . finally. They're growing wing feathers, sprouting tail feathers and becoming more independent. For a February batch of chicks, these girls are doing amazingly well.

The first night and day #2 seemed a bit hairy as we scrambled to get the temperature just right for them. As I mentioned, we're using an old coop as a makeshift brooder space and it leaves much to be desired. Really, it works just fine but there are still a few frustrations. All of these experiences are giving us much needed insight into what our dream brooder will be like someday.

I was a nervous wreck those first few days and lost quite a bit of sleep. I felt like an exhausted new mother. We started losing a few chicks by the second day and strangely, they were all red chicks. We ordered several different breeds and 2 of the breeds are red, so we weren't sure which was which. It sucks to lose even one chick but the good news in this case is that it meant that the problem resulted from the hatchery and wasn't anything we were doing wrong. I alerted the hatchery to give them a heads up in case they start hearing from other folks with the same problem.

I think the rest of the red girls are all on the mend and just to be on the safe side, and at the advice of our trusted poultry nutrition expert (you rock, Uncle Jeff!), we're giving the flock a few health boosters. Some warm raw milk provides good probiotics and besides, chicks dig it. You know, 75-80% of your immunity comes from your gut so a healthy gut is a healthy bird (that goes for humans too!). We're offering some garlic water as well, separately, which acts as a natural antibiotic.

Aside from their first 2 days, we really couldn't have been luckier with the weather. It's been so warm the chicks are comfortably exploring outside of their heated area and we've been able to turn some heat lights off. We know these temps wont last forever but by the time they begin to drop again, the girls will be better able to handle it.

Now, if we could just figure out what we're going to do when all these girls start to outgrow this space . . .

February 14, 2011

the new girls have arrived

The new egg laying ladies.

Oh my. It has begun. 203 fuzzy little babies arrived this morning (very early! *yawn*). The chicks are shipped priority mail to our local post office. The post office calls us (with chicks peeping loudly in the background) as soon as they arrive and we go pick them up.

The hatchery sends them as soon as they hatch and did you know that a baby chick can survive the first 48 hours without food or water? For those 2 days they're still living off of the internal contents of the egg. Depending on where the hatchery is located, it usually takes 1-2 days for them to get here. So, by the time they arrive they're thirsty and ready to eat.

The first order of business though to make sure they're warm enough. We always crank the heat up in the car on the way to the post office so it's nice and toasty for them. We also turn on the lights in the brooder and fill up the waterers the night before so it reaches a comfortable temperature for them. These little peeps need extra heat until they start to grow feathers. The brooder needs to be about 90-95 degrees for the first week and we reduce the temperature as they grow.

The events following their arrival greatly affect their overall health and wellness . . . just like human babies. As we take them out of the shipping box, we not only count them, but we dip each one of their little beaks in water to teach them to drink so they know where to find water. Although it's takes time, we've found that we have fewer losses or health issues down the road when we do this. We then place them directly under the heat lights near the food and leave them to settle in. It's crucial that they find food and water immediately.

They've all got the hang of this drinking business now. (Look at that cute little white fuzzy butt!!!)

We monitor them almost hourly the first day to make sure they're ok. It's all about body language. If they seem to be bunching together, we know they're too cold. If they seem way too spread out, they're too warm. Relaxed chicks who are exploring, eating and drinking means all is well in chickland.

You may remember that we had to reluctantly sell our last flock of hens as our lives took an unexpected turn last winter. To be honest, that was one of the hardest things we've ever had to do and we still think of those girls often. There is a small flock of older hens here on the farm but it's pretty exciting to be raising a new flock again! The new girls are Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, Araucanas, Red Leghorns and Cuckoo Marans.

Well, that's it. We're chained to the farm again with the responsibility of a few hundred more little lives.

Fun times!

February 11, 2011

new high tunnel arrives

The farm got a grant for a new high tunnel (like a greenhouse, only not heated) and it arrived a few weeks ago! A high tunnel, upon delivery, looks nothing like a high tunnel and instead looks like a bunch of poles of all shapes and sizes. It came in many, many heavy pieces on a big truck on a very, very cold day. The truck was unable to make it up our driveway to the spot where we would be putting it all together so we had to unload the truck, load it onto our truck, haul it up the driveway and then unload it all again. Luckily there were a few extra hands around that day and we unloaded it all in no time.

Jen's so happy thinking about how much extra work this will be.

Maggie, the farm dog, supervised and made sure we did it all correctly.

We got it all loaded and it was time to head up the hill . . . but we lost our momentum on the way up and everything we just loaded began to slide back, off the truck!!!

Let's try this again.

Nate shows us the importance of using ratchet straps to secure things onto the truck...which we did not do. Obviously.

We loaded it all again and made it up the hill and got it all unloaded. Now here it sits in the greenhouse just waiting for us to build it. Another project to be done before Spring.

February 9, 2011

enlightened and recharged

We're back from the PASA conference feeling enlightened and recharged, as always. The timing of the conference is just perfect. February is the easiest month for most farmers to leave their farms and it's a great chance to get inspired and learn new things that can be put to use in the coming season. Being surrounded by a few thousand like-minded farmers is an amazing feeling and it's the one time of year that we all get to socialize and share farm stories. Nate's birthday always falls on the conference weekend so he never gets to have a big fun birthday. He's a good sport though and this year he got to attend a 2-day Grazing School that was taught by a well known farmer so he had a fun birthday.

This was our 4th year attending and we couldn't help but marvel at how far we've come and how much we've learned. For us, the conference has been an important marker in our lives and so much has happened in 4 years. We spent an evening in our hotel room before the conference started just thinking about what was going on in our lives each year we were there. I must say, it's been quite a ride - not always a fun ride, but the best part is that we're in an amazing place right now.

And that's really exciting.

We arrived home and the very next morning Jen and I started seeding onions and leeks. For now, they're in the laundry room while they germinate. Nate started on a new project that should be finished soon . . . a germination hut. All of the seeds we start will eventually be in the plant greenhouse but there are a few weeks following the planting of the seeds where they need to be kept at a warmer temperature than we keep the greenhouse. So, Nate's building a small hoop-style greenhouse within the greenhouse. Of course, it will be heated by the sun and though we have the option of heating additionally with gas, we're going to try to heat it with manure and see how it goes. Aside from a small garden, vegetable production is pretty new for us and I'm so excited to be learning all about it as we go.

It begins!

Jen's been working hard planning our seed order. We have a CSA of about 150 people to grow for, plus the farmers markets. She's been making spreadsheets and crunching numbers to figure out exactly how many seeds we need to order. It's a lot of work. Go Jen! At the same time, Nate and I are trying to figure out the number of birds to raise this season. We have about 200 new layers coming in a few days to increase our egg production but we need to decide how many meat chickens and turkeys we'll have time for on top of the vegetable production. Yeah, February's a hardcore planning month around here.

The other day Nate glanced out the window and his eyes got really wide. I knew that meant something was wrong. The wind was really blowing and one side of the plastic on the hen greenhouse had blown off. It was also about 7 degrees so those poor hens were COLD. We all ran out to see what we needed to be done. It was cold and windy and not too much fun out there, especially for Nate up on the ladder, but we got it repaired. Go team!

I wish I'd gotten a photo before we started fixing it. It was quite a sight to see the whole side flapping in the wind. We got a nice big rip in the plastic too. The hens were obviously affected by the stress of it since their egg production was down that day but it was back up the next day.

Now, onto the next project . . . getting ready for the new chicks.