Spring Chickens

Happy Spring! It still feels like deep winter around here, but there is at least a lot of dead, brown grass showing now, with the snow retreating to the shadowy edges of the world. So you know what that means? Chicks. Hot chicks. Hundreds of them.

We went to Plowshares Community Farm in Gorham last weekend to meet our week-old hens and 296 of their friends and relations. The farmer, Steven Bibula, advertised on Craigslist for day-old chick and pullet sales, and Stacey of Backyard Harvest recommended I contact him. He called me back minutes after I emailed and we had a great, informative conversation on breeds and whether it was best to raise eight-week-old or eighteen-week-old pullets. We agreed on eight-weekers, and he said, “Eggcellent.” I was sold. So technically our pullets will be teenagers when we bring them home, that awkward, pubescent phase of maturation when their new adult feathers are growing in and they develop crushes on all the roosters. Sorry, ladies. No cocks allowed. We also agreed on one of each of the following breeds:

Barred_Rock_hen

 Barred Rock

Buff_Orpington_henBuff Orpington

Easter_Egger_hen

    Easter Egger (sometimes called Araucana or Ameraucana)

Golden_Comet_henGolden Comet (sometimes called Red Sexlink)

These are all common, hearty breeds; they are good layers and hopefully not too broody. Steven and his kids showed us all 300 or so of the new chicks, who were all between one day and one week old and kept in a pen in a greenhouse. There were chicks of ten different breeds. As I said, early spring is really late winter around here, so it’s still cold, especially for a little puffball of poultry, so there was a heater set to 90° that all the chicks were clustered around. Some were bold and ventured out, peeping and pecking at the cardboard walls of the pen and checking out the new visitors. The chicks are being fed Blue Seal OrganicLife Starter feed and they’re being cared for well. This was important to us since they will be our pets and we’ll be eating their eggs, so what they ingest, we ingest. When we get them they’ll graduate to OrganicLife Grower feed and be introduced to table scraps. Yum! Obviously we don’t know which ones _DSC0401will be ours yet, but we’re excited to come back in a few weeks to take them home to their deluxe condo coop in the big city.

Deciding to build our coop in the garage has actually been a great economic decision. We have already begun gathering reclaimed materials. My mom found us a great interior window and some scrap wood to use for walls or a ramp for the pop hole, and some cedar beams (not pictured) for the run.

_DSC0413

 We were planning to build all the coop walls with plywood,  but after visiting a farm recently and seeing a barn coop  walled only in one-inch hardware cloth, we’re wondering if  that might be a better choice. After all, the birds will be safe  from predators in the garage anyway, and clearly the hens at  this farm survived the cold winter without an insulated coop,  which were our two main concerns. The coop will be built into the far left corner of our garage using a wall  with an existing window for the back wall of the run. We’ll cut a hole in the vinyl siding for the pop hole and  build a sliding door for it. Since the nest boxes will be the warmest spots for the ladies, I think one coop wall  should be built with plywood, but Nate maintains that we can attach the nest boxes right to the beams. We’ll  see once construction begins. We have until the first week of May before our hens are ready.

_DSC0402 Nate plans to make the nest boxes out of plywood next  weekend. The general rule is three hens to a nest box, so we  are building two and plan to line them with hay. We will be using linoleum for the floor of the coop for ease of cleaning and to protect our garage floor. Finally we need one-inch wire for the coop walls and half-inch wire for the bottom three feet of the run, as well as additional beams and roofing. I have been searching high and low for reclaimed roofing material, either metal or plastic, but we’ve found nothing. If we have to get roofing new, that will be our biggest expense by far. If not, we estimate our coop and run will cost about $200 to build, chickens included. Nate drew up a basic plan (with the help of his design  assistant), which takes into  consideration  human height, keeping  chicken poop separate from chicken food,  and ease of egg collection. With any luck we’ll  get 3-5 eggs a day come August when they fully mature. Here’s hoping for happy hens!

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Sugaring: Part II

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We made maple syrup! Almost an entire pint of it! Tomorrow is Nate’s birthday, so Alistair and I are very excited to wake up early and cook Daddy pancakes with maple syrup from our own backyard.

Since this winter has been brutally cold, the sap wasn’t consistently running until this week, so on Monday evening I gathered nearly two gallons of sap from the only sugar maple we have tapped. The sap was tinged a very light yellow, which worried me. Did the disgruntled squirrels pee in my sap? We have had some light snow and rain, so I thought it might be contaminated from that, but it turns out that each tree produces its own sap color variation, and there is no need to dump it, even if it’s a deeper yellow.

I stored the sap, as yet unfiltered, in the refrigerator in six quart-sized Ball jars. Most seasoned sugarers suggest boiling sap within 48 hours of collection, though many weekend hobbyists store it for up to seven days in the fridge.

This afternoon I initially filtered the sap through cheese cloth into a large stainless steel stock pot. We had planned to boil our sap outside in four-inch-deep stainless steel steam table pans over our two-burner propane camp stove, but because of the rain, indoor evaporation was the only option. We have an electric stove with a hood and fan to nowhere. Seriously, it blows into the cupboards above the stove. It’s useless. I am also still learning how to use an electric stovetop after many years using gas, so our cupboards are probably coated in sugar now. Sticky!Image I put the burner on high and covered the pot until it came to a rolling boil and then turned the dial down to about 5. Does that mean anything to you? It doesn’t to me, but it looked like a soft rolling boil, so I left it like that, uncovered, and set the kitchen timer for one hour. After an hour, our kitchen looked like this.ImageThe windows also looked like this, not only in the kitchen but in the mudroom, living room, and stairwell, and the entire house smelled sweet and warm. The pot, however, looked like this.

ImageIt amazes me how quickly this stuff evaporates. I see now why it takes 30-45 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. At this point I was still optimistic that we might get a quart. This is the first batch of the season, which is the “golden” or “fancy” syrup that is the most expensive if you buy it retail. This, I am pretty sure, is a clever industry trick because, as you can see, it looks exactly like it did when I started boiling it, only with more bubbles. This thin, golden ambrosia is still just sap. So I filtered it.

ImageThis is my sophisticated filtration system. You like? This is cheesecloth draped over a quart-sized Ball jar with a mini fine-mesh strainer on top. It worked like a charm. Once the sap really gets going a fine scum starts to form on it. I noticed some other more viscous material floating around in there as well, and the fine-mesh strainer worked to get that out too. I set the kitchen timer for another hour and went to go read books with Alistair.

ImageSo this is what our sap-syrup looked like just before the final filtration. I was pretty conservative with my timing, so this is after nearly three hours on the stove. I was afraid it would boil down completely. What if it evaporated entirely and left us licking maple steam off our walls and windows between bites of pancake? However, as you can see, it darkened in color and there was still plenty in the pot.

I filtered it for the last time into a pint-sized Ball jar, and it was nearly full. Here’s the finished product.

ImagePretty, isn’t it? Tasty too. Nothing bitter or off tasting, as I feared because of the weather and the imprecise methods of collection we’ve used on this first go round.

Other things of note: Professional sugarers recommend monitoring the temperature of the sap throughout the evaporation process, and when it reaches seven degrees above the temperature at which water boils (usually 212°), then it’s ready. There are also Baumé and Brix scales for determining temperature and sugar content, but that seems more important for larger quantities of sap. I used a regular digital cooking thermometer to monitor the temperature of the sap, and it worked just fine. In fact, many sugar bloggers suggest just watching the sap, which I also did. Of course, I was lucky enough to have a good assistant standing on his step stool laughing and pulling faces at his distorted reflection in the stainless steel pot. I hear this also guides the final product toward perfection. And now, I can’t wait for pancakes.

Seeds and The Chicken Lady

ImageIt’s March and it’s still 5°. I’m so over winter. I want to get my hands dirty. I want to wake up to fresh eggs from my backyard. And I want it now.

Well, baby steps. We put in our seed order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds yesterday. Johnny’s is a local company based in Waterville, so they know seeds and they know Maine. A friend of mine works for them seasonally, taking orders by phone, and she said everyone who calls from other parts of the country just wants to talk about the weather in Maine. “Yup, iiiiiiit’s cold.” After our initial consultation with Stacey from Backyard Harvest, we changed the seeds up a bit. We learned several things from her we would not otherwise have known, including:

1. Southern Maine has a big cabbage moth problem, and they lay their eggs in plants like broccoli. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be picking cabbage moth larvae out of the broccoli on my dinner plate. So she suggested planting broccoli from seedling so it will come to harvest more quickly before the cabbage moths get horny near the beginning of summer—not to mention being able to eat from our garden earlier in the season and possibly being able to do a second planting of a more moth-resistant plant!

2. There are two kinds of tomato plants: determinate and indeterminate. Who knew? Determinate, or “bush” tomato plants are more compact, and therefore ideal for container gardening. However, they fruit all at once, usually for a couple of weeks. Indeterminate tomato plants fruit all season long (until the first frost), but they can take over your garden because they grow and produce constantly. You have to cut indeterminate plants back regularly (Stacey said DAILY) so that they will continue to fruit.

3. Succession planting is recommended for Maine’s particular growing season. Stacey offered to lay a plan out for us based on the seeds we ordered, but we’re not quite there yet. There are two methods of succession planting: a) planting different varieties of the same vegetable at the same time, so that they naturally begin producing at staggered times or b) planting the same variety of a vegetable at different times so that you have vegetables all season rather than all at once. Since we already ordered our seeds, we are using Plan B (not that Plan B). Many of the seeds we ordered will mature in just a few weeks, so we can rip out the plants after we harvest and plant a new crop!

Thanks for the advice, Stacey! Since we won’t have any finished compost of our own for the first year, she also offered to let us use her professional account to order loam, brought us a soil-testing kit, and suggested using dried seaweed for mulch instead of compost. You are totally worth your weight in chicken feed, lady.

Stacey said she lost count of how many times she’s been called “The Chicken Lady.” The original Chicken Lady is pictured above. Stacey is beautiful and bears no resemblance to this one, but I had to include the photo for reference because, depending on how far into this chicken adventure we get, I will most likely be called The Chicken Lady too. I plan to go whole hen.

Anyway. Stacey is already proving invaluable to us, and honestly, pointed out SO many things we had never considered about raising backyard hens. She brought hatchery catalogs and told us about the best breeds for backyard flocks, which hatcheries clip the birds’ beaks (WHAT? NUH. UH.), what the eggs look and taste like, and the personalities and tendencies of specific birds. She printed out our city ordinance on having backyard hens. She walked around outside with us and estimated the distance from our setbacks and our neighbors’ houses. She planned our entire coop. So here are some considerations for backyard hens in Maine:

1. Where are you going to put the coop? In our city, at least, the coop must be 25 feet from your own dwelling, as well as any buildings on your neighbors’ lots and any buildings near the setbacks around your property. This left us with the garage. Luckily, Stacey and her family built their first coop in their garage too, and there are photos.

2. Consider the number of hens you want. We are allowed six, but have decided to start with four. Stacey said people often get addicted to the eggs and want more, so she suggested building the coop for six hens, even if we don’t start with that many. For six hens the run must be at least 6-10 square feet, or the hens don’t have enough space and can get bored, leading to unwanted behavior like pecking.

3. Consider the breed of hen. “Easter Eggers” are very popular because they lay pink and blue eggs, but it turns out that they are also very practical hens for a backyard flock: They don’t “get broody,” or want to hatch their sadly infertile eggs. Other breeds recommended for backyard flocks in Maine must be hearty, like Australorps and Rhode Island Reds, but also non-foraging and non-flying. Golden Comets are great egg producers, bred specifically for commercial hatcheries, and start laying early. Stacey suggested having a diverse flock so you can tell them apart in order to pinpoint any issues within the flock, also for bonding with your little hen pets.

As I have mentioned before, we are gathering reclaimed and recycled materials for our coop, which will be built inside our garage. We don’t plan to insulate it. It will be as tall as the garage, so we don’t have to stoop to clean it, with a nesting box that faces into the garage for ease of egg collecting. There will be a “poop bar” under the roost. The door to the run will be cut through the vinyl siding of the garage under the existing replacement window. Stacey said we might need some artificial light in there in the winter, but for the most part it will be a very easy build. The run will be built in the ground off the south-facing side of the garage, so the chickens will have both natural daylight and shade from the trees behind the garage. They will mostly be inside their run rather than technically “free range,” so the run will be large, probably 12×12 feet, with a slanted roof, pop hole, and predator-proof hardware cloth. Stacey suggested half-inch wire on the bottom three feet of the coop with gradually larger wire as you get higher, ending in a corrugated clear plastic roof.

That’s where we are right now. I will post again as we start our seeds inside, order our pullets (young hens not yet laying), and start building the coop!

Return

“Through the weeks of deep snow
We walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though
we did not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather for our difficult home

But now
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth. ” – Wendell Berry

Wishful thinking, OK?