Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fencing Woes

Dave -

I am a pretty even tempered person. In fact, I daresay that most people would say that I am a pleasant person to be around. Well, today was an exception. Several things happened that even ‘mellow Dave’ was not able to let slide.

My goal this morning
was to put up a fence for the chickens. Shirley and I had already agreed that the purpose of the fence would be to keep the chickens in, not the predators out. Wouldn’t you know it - as soon as I had finished hammering in the last peg to keep the chicken wire down, the design requirements changed. And, I might add, they changed unilaterally...without my input...without my vote...without my "hey how about if we...."

When the fence was up, Shirley and I stood back to watch the chickens enjoy their new home. All was good with the world until we spotted Mr. Darcy walking along the wooden fence that makes up two sides of the fenced area for the chickens. Obviously, if the cat could walk along the fence, he could just as easily jump into the yard and kill our dear
chickens. Our cats have always walked along this fence so I could not understand why Shirley was so shocked to see Darcy doing so today. Well, the short story is that Shirley insisted that I needed to erect another fence within the fence. I ignored my body’s cries to take a break, plastered a smile on my face, swallowed a few choice words, and tackled my second fencing job of the day. As the afternoon faded, so did my energy, but I finished putting up the fence and again all was good with the world.

After dinner, Shirley went outside to check on the birds. To her surprise, there sat Mr. Darcy INSIDE the new fence watching the chickens. I want to point out three things: (1) Mr. Darcy is a sweetheart and while he might give chase to the chickens, he has never maimed one, so I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; (2) the second fencing project was to keep the chickens safe from Mr. Darcy and from the looks of things, this extra effort was not warranted; and (3) fencing with chicken wire is a huge waste of time insofar as Mr. Darcy figured out how to slip into the chicken enclosure in less time that it takes Shirley or me to open and close the gate.

I don't know what Plan B will be...or if there will even be a Plan B. Of course, even if Mr. Darcy doesn't chase the chicks to death, we have three other cats which might give it a try. At this point, I am just tired of the whole mess. Hopefully I will view this situation with a more positive mindset in the morning.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

We Are Getting There!

Dave has been working on the chicken coop 24/7. I mean this literally as I am pretty sure he continues to hammer, paint, measure, and saw even in his dreams. Every morning he waltzes into the kitchen with exciting new design plans. He is such a kid!

Today I found out that an unpainted basic three hole chicken nest box retails for $42 at our local animal feed store. Wow! Dave is quick to point out that his chicken coop is unique in that it is compliant with the seismic code for Zone 4. I guess this means our chicken coop will still be standing after the next earthquake.

I've been doing some work too! Here I am applying paint to the trim boards.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Neighborly Help

When Richard, our neighbor, heard that Dave was building a chicken coop, he promised that he would swing by our house to scope out the project and to give a hand. Sunday afternoon Richard made good on his word. He helped Dave measure, cut, carry, lift, and nail the boards to support the roof. Richard also offered several excellent suggestions that Dave will incorporate into his design.

Yesterday afternoon Dave made a very brief (due to camera limitations!) YouTube video showing progress to date. You can view this video at chicken coop progress.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Scrambled Eggs

This morning I fed my chicks some scrambled egg yolk. I read on line that chickens really enjoy this treat and it is a great source of protein for them. One bird cautiously tried it and when she gave her nod of approval, everyone else went wild over it too. Feathers were a-flying. I have been feeding the birds oatmeal and spinach leaves too, but I prefer that they eat their 'growing' food as I have about 40 pounds of it in the garage. They cannot eat this medicated food once they start laying eggs.

I put our gals outside in the pen this morning even though it was cool and breezy. The birds are getting too big for their cage and seemed antsy. The were delighted to be able to stretch their legs and wings. I guess they are getting used to their new routine. In a few weeks they will have a home and it will be warm enough at night so they will be able to live outside all of the time.

When I went to check on the chickens at 4 this afternoon (of course I checked on them throughout the day!) they were all huddled inside the cage. The sun was no longer shining on their patch of grass so they must have thought it was bedtime!

If I Had a Hammer . . .

Dave -

I have a hammer and I have a saw. Actually, I have many tools but the two things that I don't have that I really need are a 200-foot extension cord and a set of sawhorses. So what's the big deal? Well, I'm building the Taj Mahal (or as some might say, a chicken coop). Since the coop will be quite heavy when completed - about 200-250 pounds - I have to build it on-site, about 150 feet from the house.

I must have walked from the garage to the half-built chicken coop about thirty times today. Yet, most of these trips could have been avoided if I had had a long extension cord and a pair of sawhorses. The longest extension cord I could find at Home Depot was 100 feet. Normally I avoid projects that require the use of sawhorses. Let me make this clear - building this chicken coop is an anomaly - an experience that I will not be repeating for years, if ever!

So I walk back and forth. But I never walk empty handed. Unfortunately, I never seem to have everything that I need. I bring nails but forget the screws. I bring the board that has been cut to an exact length but forget the plans. I can't find the framing square. The battery for the cordless drill is dying. And the board that I cut appears to be about a half an inch too short.

You see, if I had a 200-foot extension cord and a couple of sawhorses, I could measure and cut and fit and size and hammer without walking back and forth to the garage. At my advanced age, my memory is not as sharp as it used to be. By the time I get back to the garage, 54" becomes 45", the 2x4 becomes a 1x4, angle measurements are forgotten, the screwdriver is no longer where I thought I left it, and I seem to have misplaced my good work gloves. If I could keep stuff together, this chicken coop project would be pretty straight forward. As it is, I feel that I am working through some how-to-improve-your-memory course.

I the future I think I will stick to smaller projects like changing a light bulb or tinkering with my bicycle.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Helping Hands

Dave -

An honorable mention goes to Bill who stopped by yesterday to lend me a hand with the chicken coop.

When I designed the chicken coop, I surfed the Internet and skimmed through several books on raising chickens to determine the optimal size of nesting boxes, the best height for roosts, different ways to keep vermin out of the coop, space requirements . . . I am finding that as I build the coop, I have to tweak my 'perfect' blueprints to fit into the real world.

Now that I am well along in the construction phase, I am facing another issue that has nothing to do with the making the chickens happy. Now my concern is structural rigidity. Yes, I realize that this is "just” a chicken coop. Yes, I realize that most people use scrap lumber, camper shells, crates or large cardboard boxes to make their chicken coops. So what is my fixation with structural rigidity? I don’t know except that I don't want to worry about the darn thing collapsing within the first year.

People offer various chicken coop designs on the Internet for a couple of bucks. I am thinking about offering my updated 'perfect' plans also. This could end up being my only source of income if work doesn’t start to pick up. I imagine that most people evaluate chicken coop designs based on size, ease of putting it together, and anticipated cost of construction. This last point really has my attention as I trudge back and forth between the garage and the “construction site”. I keep rolling around in my head different ideas that I think might make the building process easier and lower the construction cost.


Dave -

I need to fence in an area for the chickens having a perimeter of about 180 feet. As a kid growing up on a farm, I helped my dad put in what seems like miles of fence. I visited the old farmstead last summer and that 40 year old fence is still in place and still straight and taut as the day it was put in. In other words, when it comes to fencing, I'm no hayseed cowboy and this ain't my first rodeo.

I have come to the conclusion that chicken wire should not even be considered "fencing". The stuff must be made of 22 gauge wire (thin!!!) and it is twisted together so that it is almost impossible to install in an acceptable manner. Following fencers' "best practices," I used a 2x4 to "clam shell" the wire. I pulled the 2x4 but because of the way that chicken wire is woven, different parts of the damn fence just stretched. I could get either the top, bottom, or middle stretched taut but the remaining fence just billowed like sails on a windless day. My job was made especially difficult inasmuch as the chicken wire is 60-inches high.

Chicken wire is probably used primarily to shore up existing fence or keep pests (read: chickens) from getting into or out of a small area. I went online looking for advice from others that have walked this road before and they confirmed my feelings, to wit you cannot install chicken wire in a taut manner for any length greater than 6 feet.

One option is to put up a 5 foot wooden perimeter fence. At $60 per foot, my vote would be for ten chicken dinners.

Another option is to put in "regular" fence and then tack an 18 inch high piece of chicken wire at the bottom of the "real" fence. This is really little more than just a "feel good" fence since any chicken worth its wings (or drumsticks or thighs) would have little problem hopping the 18 inch piece of chicken wire and jumping through the 4 by 6 inch grid typical of a "real" fence. And since a chicken cannot be slowed down by an 18 inch piece of chicken wire, why even bother with it.

A final option is to let the chickens roam freely. Our yard is fenced in by 6 foot high wooden fences on three sides. The chickens would have to wander more than 150 feet before escaping their little Shangri-la. The chicken hawks, foxes, coyotes, cats, and dogs would ensure that they wouldn't get too far.

Stay tuned for how this matter gets settled (i.e. wait until Shirley decides what I should be thinking).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Check Out Our New HDTV!

In a couple of months, TV stations will have to switch from analog to all-digital television broadcasting. This will free up frequencies for public safety communications and, since it is a more efficient transmission technology, stations will be able to offer improved picture and sound quality, as well as more programming options for consumers through multiple broadcast streams.

As you can see from the photos below, Dave and I upgraded our "TV" to a new, wide screen HDTV. Mr. Darcy now enjoys more channels with sharper views of the chickens.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Dave -

Merriam-Webster defines a beekeeper as a person who raises bees.This just goes to show you that the people who write dictionaries have never been beekeepers.

Beekeeping has nothing to do with raising bees. Beekeeping is trying to convince several thousand insects to return to your hive at the end of each day as opposed to finding a hole in a tree to call home. These ungrateful little buggers care little that you have spent the kids' inheritance on brood chambers, bottom boards, telescoping covers, frames with special wax foundations, sugar water feeders, and honey supers; or that you have spent untold hours assembling and painting the hive, and then finding the optimal location for placing said hive, aligning it with the rising sun as called for in the thousands of books that have been written on the subject.

Bees do not appreciate the fact that you are concerned about their health, treating them for Varroa mites and hive beetles and worrying endlessly that they may succumb to the dreaded American fo

You may be w
ondering why I have not spoken of the presumed goal of beekeepers - that is, to extract fresh, raw honey, the bees' golden reward of the doting beekeeper. That is because savvy, experienced beekeepers buy their honey at the supermarket like everyone else.

Shirley thinks I need a hobby. So now I am a beekeeper. Actually I was a beekeeper last year too...for about three weeks. After three weeks, I was just a guy with an empty hive. Empty, except for a million ants. I started off with bees, but they left. Gone. No honey, no bees, just ants.
But a hobby is supposed to be something that you live for, something that you are passionate about, right?

Today I made a trip to Sacramento to buy stuff to entice the bees to stick around this year. I will not be spending my time playing golf or fishing or swimming or skiing. No, I will be using my time assembling frames and hive boxes and painting everything so that these cheesy pine boxes will not completely rot after sitting outside for a year. Ah...hobbies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Working on Their Summer Tans

Since the temps are finally climbing into the mid 60s during the day and the chickens are about a month old, Dave put up a temporary chicken pen in our side yard so that I can let the birds stretch their legs and wings. I coaxed the birds out of their cage yesterday, but most preferred the security of their old home. The Light Brahma (the bird with feathers all over its feet) made half-hearted attempts to fly and pecked at the ground around the cage. When I finally brought the chickens back inside the house, they were exhausted and took a long nap. The fresh air did them good!

Dave dug another hole for a fence post. He did not hit rock this time so the task took less than fifteen minutes. Dave is trying to figure out how to stretch the chicken wire so that it is taut. He thinks that if it is not stretched tight the fence will look trashy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

We Really Do Have a Plan!

Check out these drawings!

As you can see, Dave is a veritable expert when it comes to using CADD. After designing the coop, he drew up a materials list which he took to Home Depot to buy the supplies for the house.

I have not posted any photos of the chickens lately, but they are still doing great in their cramped cage. Dave made two perches to give the birds more floor space.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's Coming Together

While I was napping this afternoon, Dave was busy in the garage building our chicken coop. As you can see from these photos, he is making great progress.

When completed, the chicken coop will be a 4 foot by 8 foot structure with two doors on opposite sides for cleaning, three nesting boxes, and an 8 foot perch. The floor consists of 1 by 2 inch galvanized wire. I will cover this with cardboard and/or newspaper as I have read that the birds should not stand on wire flooring for prolonged periods of time. Dave opted for a wire floor rather than a solid plywood floor because he believes it will be easier for me to clean. I will remove the cardboard periodically and put it in my compost pile and pressure hose the floor as needed when the birds are in the yard.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Digging Holes for Fence Posts

Dave deserves special recognition as he has been a real trooper in our chicken endeavor. He claims that growing up on a farm in Iowa killed any desire in him to be a farmer. Yet, for the past three weeks he has been working night and day on the drawings for our chicken coop. No sooner would he announce that he was done, than I would see him at the computer tweaking the drawings. Our chickens are going to be living in a pretty fancy house.

Dave has also been socializing the chicks, holding each one at various times throughout the day, talking to them, and feeding them from his hand. He installed a roost for the birds and figured out a way to hang the waterer so that the water stays clean.

On Thursday, Dave and I borrowed Sam's truck and made the round of stores to buy the lumber and hardware for the chicken coop. As soon as Brant is available, the two guys will start building.

Yesterday Dave took a break from work to dig a hole for a fence post. Here is how he described the process in an email to his parents:

Let me tell you about putting in a fence: This story does not include a power auger...or a power anything for that matter. Part of our chicken project includes a fence to keep our little critters in the yard. Any fence worth its salt includes sturdy corner posts so today's goal was to set one. I carried a heavy 8-foot post to the top of our hill along with the post hole digger and started in. What a lousy tool that post hole digger turned out to be. The first 3 inches was smooth sailing. The next 23 inches was shale. Shale, or whatever the heck the underlying rock is, was some of the most unforgiving stuff a guy can come across while digging a hole. I ended up getting our 20 pound breaker bar and slammed that into the bottom of the hole 4,000 times - each time chipping loose minuscule amounts of shale. I spent over an hour boring through the earth's crust to the depth of 24 inches before the post dropped in with a thud. I tamped fill dirt around the post and it wasn't until I was done that I noticed that the 4-sided post was not square to the fence line. Shirley and I had been so focused on ensuring that the post was vertical that I completely overlooked the fact that it was not square to the fence line. A round post would have solved this little problem. It took about three seconds for me to decide that I was not going to remove that post just to rotate it 20°.

Only three more fence posts to go!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And Pretty Maids All in a Row

This line from the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary came to mind when I saw my gorgeous chicks lined up in a row sleeping. I searched the Internet to make sure that I got the correct phrasing and quickly changed my mind about the appropriateness of this description. As it turns out, there is a bloody story behind this innocent sounding childhood rhyme. If I have managed to peak your interest and you don't mind learning the truth about your cherished Mother Goose rhymes, check out this site. Now I am off to learn more about other nursery rhymes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Quit Shoving!

This post brings me up to date on the chicks. All previous posts were 'copy and paste' from emails.

Paula showed off her chicks to her friends and their young children at her tea and coffee party on Sunday, and then yesterday afternoon she brought them 'home' for me to raise. Naturally she was sad to give up her babies, but she knows that I will take good care of them. The birds need to spend some time together before the pecking order process takes place. When I saw all ten birds together, I wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.

As you can see, the cage barely holds all ten birds. The chicks are growing by leaps and bounds! Very shortly I will have to come up with a creative solution to house them as they will not be happy when they can no longer 'spread their wings.'

I suggested to Dave that he build a temporary, small, enclosed area for the birds so that I can leave them outside during the day to stretch their legs. Daytime temps will soon be in the mid 70s - plenty warm for feathered birds.

How About a Few White Eggs for Breakfast?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, on Wednesday, March 4th, Dave and I picked up a new baby chick at Concord Feed - a White Leghorn. This chick will be white feathered as an adult and will lay white eggs - the only chick in our bunch that will do so as the rest will lay brown or green/blue colored eggs. The White Leghorn is the preferred egg layer in the egg industry simply because it is an efficient and prolific egg layer.

Paula found out that brown eggs are more expensive because they are larger and it costs more to feed the birds that lay them because these chickens typically serve dual purpose - they make eggs for your breakfast and then the bird itself can be served for Sunday dinner.

Dave and Paula are trying to figure out how to make the birds pay for themselves while also providing us a few extra eggs (like 47 extra dozen eggs). Dave and I stopped at Home Depot on our way home from Concord Feed to price the materials for the chicken coop. As it stands now, it will cost somewhere between $350 and $400. As Brant and Dave build our chicken coop, I will take photos and videos. Dave would like to sell his elaborate designs on-line and he feels a 'how-to' video with a finished product photo should be included in the package.

Paula is drumming up egg interest on Craigslist and among her friends. She feels confident she can sell enough to make ends meet. She wants me to feed the birds organic chicken feed as organic eggs command a higher price.

I am primarily interested in learning about chickens and nurturing them. My friend once told me that she loves to sit in her back yard and watch her chickens run around freely. I thought boring! Yet, I am now finding that I can easily stare at the birds for a long time. Mr. Darcy, our cat, often keeps me company. He likes to 'change channel' by sticking his paw in the cage.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Asleep in a Heap

The chicks are like children when they are awake, squabbling over scraps of newspaper that they rip from their floor or pieces of bread that I toss into their cage. They even fight over one feeder station port when there are plenty of others to eat from. But, when it comes to nappy time, they tend to sleep 'cheek to cheek.'

I turned the heat lamp off to take this photo. The black Maran joined her friends when she got cold.

My Rhode Island Red has a nick above her eye. I read on-line that chicks start to figure out the pecking order at six weeks. Paula is bringing her five chicks over today so that I can mother them from here on out. It will be interesting to see how they all get along!I wonder if my cage is big enough for all ten!

Below is a photo of some of Paula's birds. The squirrel looking one is an Ameraucana. This chick will produce blue or green eggs.

Just for the record, these photos were taken last week. I will include more recent photos in my next blog as the chicks no longer look like this. Chicks do not stay cute and fluffy for long!


The other day I went to Paula’s house to check on the five chicks she is babysitting. One chick’s vent was closed with poop so I took the time to clean it off. I know this sounds disgusting, but when you are responsible for pets you tend to overlook the gross part of taking care of them. For those of you who are not chicken savvy, chickens have one vent or opening through which poop and eggs come out. The bird will die if this opening ever gets sealed off either by an egg that gets stuck or poop.

The birds’ sex organs are not on the outside of their body so hatcheries hire experts to determine the sex of day old chicks before they are shipped to the stores. They look at coloring in some cases. The staff at Concord Feed told me that 95% of their chicks are females. I cannot return the chicks so if I end up with any cocks, I will have to find homes for them on Craigslist as Pleasant Hill does not allow you to raise roosters. Paula is pretty sure that her Production Red chick is a rooster. It is a very colorful bird, totally unlike my Production Red. We will wait a few more weeks before we do anything about this.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Different Set Up

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Paula and Brant are babysitting some of the chicks for a few weeks. This is their original set up. As the birds became larger and more active, they replaced the lamp with a clamp style lamp to give the birds more room to move around. This photo was taken when they had only two birds. Since then they have added three more birds. The following photo shows two of the chicks enjoying the outdoors.

By the way, Paula and Brant also have a black and white cat named Sammi. She can be a handful just like my Mr. Darcy.

Our New Entertainment Center

I don’t know who is entertained more by the chicks, our cats or me. The first photo shows two of our four cats, Beans and
Mr. Darcy, watching the new chicks. You will be hearing a lot about Mr. Darcy, our black and white cat, as he manages to stick his cute nose into everything

Dave is convinced that he can train Mr. Darcy to play gently with the chicks and to resist his bird eating tendencies. I have to supervise Dave when he is around the birds as the other night he bragged that he allowed Mr. Darcy inside the cage to visit the chicks. Dave explained, “He just wants a friend.”

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Our Nest is Getting Crowded

On Friday, February 27th, Dave and I headed back to the Concord Feed store to buy more chicks. At first I thought six birds would make me happy, then eight. As of this writing, I am up to ten birds!

After buying two Production Reds and two Marans, I picked up four different breeds of chicks – a Light Brahma, an Ameraucana, a Black Australorp, and a Rhode Island Red. During this shopping expedition I also splurged on a heat lamp, a waterer, a feeder, and a cage so the birds would have room to grow. The cage would also allow me to watch the birds and it would keep the birds safe from my four cats. Dave and I dropped off the Americauna and the Black Australorp at Paula's house. I did not want to hog all of the chicks and her rubbermaid container had plenty of room for these adorable fluffy chicks.

On Saturday, Paula and Brant bought another Americauna because their friends had expressed an interest in buying varied colored eggs. The Americuana is often mis-called the Easter Egger because it lays green and blue eggs. Our bird count was up to nine.

This past Wednesday, I bought a White Leghorn. This bird is the one you often find in commercial set ups because it is an efficient bird - it turns a small amount of food into lots of white eggs. My flock did not have any white layers so I just had to have this breed. I promised Dave this would be the last chick purchase as the chicken coop he was designing could house only so many birds.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Filling Our Empty Nest

My ladies probably realized that I needed some cheering up this morning so they put on their finest feathers for me. Aren't they gorgeous?

But I am getting ahead of myself.

This blog began as a series of emails to my family and friends to tell them how I was coping after my 19 year old son moved out, leaving my husband Dave and me all alone for the first time in twenty six years. My sister gave me several good reasons why I should keep a blog instead, so after procrastinating a week, I opened a Google blog account. The purpose of this blog is to share my experiences as a novice chicken 'farmer'. From time to time I will also post articles on my other hobbies: gardening, baking, and bee keeping.

My friend keeps chickens in her urban back yard and often shares her fresh chicken eggs with me. I suspect that one of the reasons I am interested in raising chickens is that her 'home grown' eggs taste so good. I don't know how else to describe them except to say that they are eggy. In my opinion, fresh eggs are far superior to the cage free chicken eggs I buy occasionally at the Pleasant Hill produce store.

I toyed with the idea of keeping chickens last year, but Dave and I ended up keeping bees since a friend offered us the use of his bee hive. I will share that story another time.

My daughter Paula kept urging me to get chickens. She offered to pay for the chicken coop and the food if I paid for the birds and nurtured them in my yard. She pointed out that since I live on a quarter acre lot at the end of a cul-de-sac, I have the perfect spot for a chicken coop and plenty of space for the birds to roam.

Last Wednesday, Dave and I drove to Concord Feed and picked up four chicks: two Marans which lay chocolate brown eggs, and two Production Reds which are a hybrid of Rhode Island Red and New Hampshire Red chickens. The postman had just delivered these chicks to the store that afternoon. We took the chicks to Paula's house so she could see them. On the way there, I decided that I would let her take care of two of them for a few days so she and her husband Brant could enjoy them in their cute stage.

Dave volunteered to design the chicken coop. He is a CADD expert, fully qualified to draw up the plans for a perfect house for our birds. Since raising these chicks is a joint project with Paula and Brant, Brant will help Dave with the actual building of this coop.