Thursday, October 15, 2015

Feathering Our Nest - With Chickens

One of my daydreams, once I had a yard, was to get chickens and have fresh eggs. If you have researched anything about homesteading, then you know that almost everyone has chickens (if not goats, sheep, cows, pigs, ducks, geese, etc.). So we jumped on the urban-backyard-farmer/homesteader bandwagon and started building a chicken coop. 

Luckily, we have awesome friends! Josh and Bernice pitched in to help us build our ambitious coop and run, which turned out being a lot more expensive and labor intensive than we realized. But it was a great lesson in construction. We situated it in our side yard, in between the compost bin and the pear tree.

Building the frame - after a whole day of digging the foundation.

Working on the floor of the coop

Harvesting pears while the guys are working on the coop

In case you're wondering how we figured out how to build a coop, we solved that as we solve all our problems - by Googling it. I researched the hell out of coops and chickens, learning as much as I could about their needs, health problems, climates, etc. After hours upon hours of staring at the computer screen, I concluded that it was well worth the $30 to pay for plans - so we bought the "Garden Coop," which you can find online. It's very well designed and super easy to alter, customize, and make to suit your space and budget. 

Mike made it all pretty with cedar siding, to match the fence.

Part of the roof and wire up, and Bernice staining the wood

We got all fancy on the inside - painted the walls a cheerful yellow and insulated them with styrofoam packing stuff (so proud of repurposing the styrofoam from all our boxes!). We also cut way bigger doors than they proposed, and laid vinyl parquet tile floors, for ease of cleaning. Turns out this was great foresight, because I clean the coop every day. I can't stand poop.

The inside of the coop after we laid the vinyl tiles and painted

Almost done! We got a proper lock for the human door and finished the roof
and the siding on the coop wall that faces the run. The chickens also get
to forage around the side yard, pear tree, and compost bins every day.

Learning about chickens has been fun and life-changing. Chickens can be nasty. The term, "pecking order" really has meaning now. Their hierarchy isn't a pyramid; it's a linear line. There is one top chicken, and everyone else falls in line below, and there truly is a bottom chicken on the totem pole. It took us a little bit of time (and some re-homing of a little tiny fluffball chicken we named "Death Metal" because she was so mean) to get the balance just right. We still have one "bully" chicken (the 2nd to last on the hierarchy), but no one is bleeding and for the most part, they like each other.

Upper left is our best layer - about 5 eggs/week. The white is the sweetest,
the silver (lower left) is the mean one, and the littlest one (lower right) is the smartest!

I'm not sure if we'll end up naming them. Chickens are weird little creatures - pretty closely related to dinosaurs, actually - and although ours are all friendly and you can pet them and pick them up, there is something really primitive and savage about them. Did you know they can cannibalize each other and their eggs? 

Regardless, we do nothing but the best for them. I clean their coop and run every single day, we spend hours playing with them in the backyard, and we sprout and ferment all their food. Everything they eat is organic, whole grains or veggies, non-soy, non-corn, and real (I don't believe in those pellets, crumbles or "feed" you buy in the store - it looks too much like kitty litter). 

Fermented grains in the jars, and sprouting mung beans, lentils and wheat.

Despite all this, Mike is still weirded out by the fact that the egg comes out of a chicken's butt. The first egg tasted like tuna fish because I had been feeding them tuna (high protein) to help them through molting season. After that, we switched to an all vegetarian (plus bugs) diet, and they get greek yogurt, peas, lentils and sprouted beans for protein, plus these disgusting mealworms that I've been raising in a bin - I won't gross you out with a picture of that. The eggs taste MUCH better now. But Mike still isn't a fan because now we know how dirty chickens can be, and we see how eggs are produced. I'm slightly weirded out but less so (I've eaten some pretty crazy stuff in my life), and even though I think bugs are THE WORST, chickens can turn earwigs, spiders, and mealworms into some pretty yummy eggs!

Seeing where our food comes from makes me believe that if we got more involved, like raising a pig, goat, sheep, cow, etc, it'd be pretty easy to go vegetarian or even vegan. It's so easy to eat something that's packaged pristinely in the grocery store. You never see the poop and the blood and the feathers and the fur. There's a lot of labor, and life, and sweat and dirt that goes into making a meal. If it's this disgusting on an organic-free range-happy life level, imagine how gross it is on an industrial-battery cage-stockyard level.

We've had the chickens about one month now, and our conclusion...

It's been super educational, in terms of getting to know your food and learning about the care of another animal. We'll have to have chickens for at least a year or two to "re-coop" expenses (see what I did there?), but they're relatively inexpensive to maintain, even doing all organic, non-soy, non-corn, *true* free range. I'd say that our 4 chickens probably cost about $20/month. This just about breaks even for what I'd pay in the store for free-range organic eggs ($4.50-$5.00/dozen large), but I have peace of mind knowing exactly what is in my eggs, I can control the nutritional content of the eggs through what I'm feeding the chickens, I know the chickens are truly happy, safe, and loved, and they are really fun to have. We'll see how we feel after a year!