Monday, February 20, 2012

Hatching Won't Wait a Minute Longer, Or, The Peepers Made Me Do It

Really, need I say more?  If you had collected these beauties in the last four days, and the sun was shining, and you heard the peepers last night in the marshy fields, wouldn't YOU be hard pressed not to pull out the incubator?
Row 1+: Ameracauna X FCBM (OE F1s). Row 2: Olive Eggers (F2). Row 3/4: Black Javas. Row 4: FCBMs.
Pull it out I did, because there is no hatch like the first hatch of Spring.  I took the incubator top apart (ok, Latt helped) and cleaned it lovingly of all the detritus and fuzz that six hatches last year left behind.  I got the top of the viewing area as clear as plastic gets, because 90% of the fun is in being able to REALLY see all the action.  I found the hydrometer and the thermometer, I calibrated the former and tested the latter, and I set about setting eggs.

Veteran hatchers, especially those familiar with the economical wonder that is the Brinsea Eco 20, may notice that I have managed to get 25, not 24 eggs into the bator.  This is the kind of gleeful success that only people crazy enough to get delight from the fact that they have just found a way to make sure they have another creature to keep alive, in hopes that it is a hen, experience.  Still.  Woot! 25, baby!  With the success rate of this awesome incubator I wouldn't be a bit surprise if every one hatched.  (Ignore the slight worried look--the kind that people have when fighting demonic possession, but only half-heartedly--that just ran across my face).

People who keep chickens are an odd bunch.  Not as preternaturally strange as those who keep goats, mind you, but if you live with chickens, you change.  You become the sort of person who really wants to home get by dusk and not linger over a second cup of coffee in the morning.  You can't help it.  You start to think about things like the amount of sunlight your place is getting, and the price of sunflower seeds, and you find yourself standing at the counter of your local feed store saying things like "Hmm.  16% the best you got?  What do you have in game bird feed--unmedicated, I mean."

You find that ordinary things that make people happy, like hearing peepers on a mid-February night, make you think of baby chicks.  And the sight of a humble little hen sitting so plainly and so wholeheartedly on her nest, with sun streaming into the coop, makes you think of all the cathedrals ever built to memorialize humans' own desire to capture a bit of creation and beauty.

You may find yourself saying to your husband, "I bet we can move the coops to the new house.  We'll be able to save on cat carriers that way!  The chickens can just ride in the coops.  See how much sense it makes?  Surely you and six friends can load them on a trailer.  Can we borrow a trailer?  And a truck with a hitch? It's only 110 degrees."

You find that you begin to moralize and have a deep sense of judgment and even hatred for parts of the animal kingdom previously seen as "cute" or "cool", like raccoons, which I now very seriously consider the Reavers of the small-farm universe.  (For those who have not seen the series Firefly, which introduced me to this scariest of villains: picture a rabid, radioactively-insane species whose entire reason for being is to claw and maul its way into your spaceship--or chicken coop, whatever--and cause as much sadistc mayhem as possible, including decapitation and entrail eating, seemingly for fun.)

In short, if you start keeping chickens, and you do so for any length of time, and don't shake yourself out of it, you will find yourself an anachronism, talking about tending animals in a way that has all but disappeared in modern America, feeling a deep sense of engagement with the natural world, and the homey sense of self sufficiency and cosmic subversion that only filling one's tank with gas and paying with a wad of thirty-six ones, your egg money from the month, will give you. You'll find yourself wondering if Wendell Berry is too old to run for president.

So yeah.  I have 20 more days to ruminate on the simple, rustic, Americana-esque beauty of hatching birds and keeping chickens, which is pleasant philosophical work I neglect in the Fall moult and the dearth of eggs it brings, and during the Winter of short days and weatherizing coops and more work than really can be done between the time you get home and the birds needing to be put up.  The culmination of this incubation period will be three days of obsessing and watching and little sleep, and worrying about the little ones who have trouble getting themselves into this world, and the magic climax of seeing them emerge, one by one, wet and wobbly.

Then I'll have about three days of thinking about how cute baby chicks are, and three weeks of plotting to get them the hell out of my house, and five more weeks worrying about the dog or cat getting them in the garage brooder, and four months of worrying about hawks.  Then a lifetime of worrying about Reavers getting them.

And in the meantime, I'll hatch a bunch more chicks, sell a bunch more birds, and find myself talking to elderly men and women about things that never got mentioned in classes like Women's Studies or Liberation Theology or Social Movements, but, I think, are making me a better person, and a little more substantial and poetic, to boot.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gearing Up for Spring Hatches: Breeding Pens

If you have only one rooster, you don't need to prepare at all for hatching--just collect the eggs from hens you wish to use as breed stock over no more than about seven days, keep them (ideally) at temps between 45 and 75 degrees, fill your incubator or put under your broody, and let the magic happen over the next 19-21 days.  Or, if you have more than one roo but don't care about who is who's baby daddy, again, just gather and hatch.  Ahh, for the good old days when it was that easy!

If you have multiple roos of mixed breeds, and wish to keep bloodlines pure, it's a little more difficult.  Ok, a lot.  I love my entire flock (currently: three roos and fifteen hens) being able to forage and learn to live peacefully during the Fall and Winter, after breeding season is done.  But come an itch to hatch, I have to be sure to separate them into breeding groups.  Because chickens can, as you may have heard, FLY, (as well as climb fences at times!) it isn't as easy as two pens.

 To be really sure, I have planned out a breeding pen, within, the regular pen, with netting over top.  This allows me to keep three groups separate--the Black Javas, to the left, in their own pen; a breeding group (A) in the pink area and coop, with barriers to prevent them going into the part of the coop where group B sleeps and lays eggs, and from the outer pen where group B will forage and run around (when not free ranging on our property).  The breeding pen gives the French Coppered Black Marans roo, Jules, and his FCBM hens, Ameracauna hens, and Olive Egger hens enough room to peck and scratch, but I wouldn't feel comfortable keeping them in an enclosure that small forever (though people do!)  Covered by deer mesh netting, I'll know the hens aren't flying out to get mated by the other roos, and that other roos aren't flying in to mate with them.

The coop below used to just consist of an A-frame.  Wehn we got/hatched more birds, we added on the high rise coop on the left.  Now we turn this coop back into two coops each Spring in Summer, by stapling in chicken wire to separate the two living quarters.  This lets us accomodate sequestered breeding groups, broody mamas on eggs, and a nursery area for chicks or chicks with mamas.

This shows the breeding coop's bird door.  We will cut the fence at the corner of the pen shown here, and re-attach via clips (dog leash snap-clip style, most likely) to fencing at the t-psot.  That will give us a cheap and easy "gate" so we can get in the pen in case of emergency, and allow us to open and close the door easily.  By the way I HIGHLY recommend this type of hinged door that opens UP.  Stays out of the rain if your roof overhangs a little, and keeps shavings/poo from getting in the hinge area (problem I have with another long door on this coop, on the opposite side--see below). 

This shows the left side of the breeding coop, and the boundaries of the breeding pen (t-posts).  Note the area under the "high rise"--provides some protection from rain.  Chickens generally don't mind rain unless it is really storming, but they don't go into their coops to get out of it.  They do sometimes stay in their coops for major SNOW conditions, but not rain.  They prefer to hang out under an overhang of some sort during storms. This overhang also allows me to keep their food dry.  I will likely lean tin or somesuch against the coop, in that area. to provide a windbreak and a little more dry room for them to gather.

This shows the egg door for my breeding group (on end of a-frame). You can see the handles from when we built this to be a mobile coop, and the area beneath the a-frame. that is fenced in for shelter.   The high rise, to the right of the egg door, is the secondary addition, and expanded our original coop's capacity from about 5 birds to about 15.  The egg door is important.  I plan for it to be *outside* the confines of the breeding pen, which will but up against the long handle on the right, leaving the egg door accessible.  That way I can quickly gather eggs without taking much of a chance on letting sequestered birds out.  The long door open to the left shows the coop space for Group B, which is made up of a Roo and hens I'll be sequestering for the next hatch (soon after Group A's sequestration is ended.  I want chicks to be no more than 21 days or so apart, as you can combine birds that are no more than three weeks different in age, even without a mother hen, once the youngest group is about 6-8 weeks old.)

This just shows the netting we will use to cover the breeding pen.  It is extremely cheap, at about $14 for 7'x100' at Lowe's.  It is flimsy, but it doesn't take much to keep a bird from flying out of a pen.  We may put up two layers if it seems too flimsy.

The pen should be finished tomorrow, and I put the barrier in the coop and sequester the birds.  I can start collecting eggs and be sure they are all fathered by Jules 8 days after I separate them from the rest of the flock. I can almost hear the tiny peeps of chicks nearly ready to hatch!