Pleasing the Ladies

We are starting our 4th year with chickens and one of the things that I find interesting about them are there preferences as far as produce.  This morning when I did chores, I stopped in the high tunnel and grabbed a handful of mizuna.  My plan was to stick it in my smoothie for the day, but on a whim I decided to give it to the hens.  Of course, there was a mad dash to see what lovely green had made an appearance.  It was quickly apparent that mizuna was not to their liking.  Everyone wanted to try it, but no one came back for another bite.

So far, these are the items our chickens would rather do without:

Anything citrus

Onions, garlic



Squash (will eat eventually)


Our gals are lucky to get all the ends of the lettuces used at the restaurant.  That is about all the produce waste there is there. The goats love the lettuce ends as well.  When I come in with a bag, they work on picking it apart before I can even get the bag open.

This weekend we will be cleaning up the high tunnel beds so there will be some weeds for feasting on by the lovely ladies.


I am in a life or death (theirs, not mine) competition with tomato horn-worms.  Found one on the peppers on Saturday and 3 more today.  1 on a pepper plant and 2 on tomatoes.  It was IMMENSELY satisfying to toss them to the chickens and watch them dismember him in a frenzy.  A big juicy caterpillar like that is a real prize to the hens.  The first one there grabs it and runs, and a gang chases her.   The caterpillar is all gone in a minute or so as they pick it apart.  If this does not sound like sweet revenge to you, you have never been to battle with these guys.

I know there are many more out there.  My rivals for tomatoes are well-equipped for battle.  Evolution has made them look so much like a curled tomato leaf that they are nearly impossible to spot.  The best way is to look for the damage (almost always defoliation) and then search in that area.  Frass, the fancy word for bug poop,  is another tell-tale sign.  These guys are such voracious eaters that they form a lot of frass.  They are eating, and therefore, pooping machines.

There is an organic control for them (and all caterpillars) called BT.  I may resort to that, but we will see.

The lesson I mulled over in the garden today was rivalry.  The horn-worms and I are rivals and the chickens and the horn-worms are rivals. Unfortunately, if  I let the chickens in the garden, they would be much bigger rivals for the garden crops–eating nearly everything.  However, it sure is nice to turn those disgustingly plump caterpillars into a nice lunch for a hen.  Gardens are a matter of life and death.  Who eats who is the name of the game.

Horn-worm frass (poop)

Strawberry Freezer Jam with Lily

Lily wanted to help make strawberry freezer jam and got very excited about being on the blog, so here she is.  I have always made regular cooked jam, but a friend said that strawberry freezer jam tastes more like fresh strawberries and it’s true.  The flavor is as close as you can get.  It somehow suspends that just picked flavor–way better than a traditional cooked jam or even frozen strawberries that always defrost into a watery strawberry soup.  We used the super-easy recipe for strawberry freezer jam that can be made with Ball’s Instant Pectin.  
2 TBSP instant pectin
2/3 c sugar
1 2/3 c smashed strawberries
Mix pectin and sugar, add berries, stir and put into freezer containers.

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It really cannot get any easier than that.  Too easy.  Sort of feels like cheating. After we finished our jam making, we went out to the barn to give the chickens the strawberry tops–a favorite food for them.  As you can see, Lily had a lot of fun.
The strawberry season around here this year was very short and the harvest meager.  The crazy cold and wet spring alternating with periods of jungle heat was a bad one for strawberries.  My high tunnel bed did ok, but the outdoor ones were lackluster.  In order to have enough to do jam, I purchased berries from farmer friends at market.
As of yesterday, it is officially raspberry season here at Small Wonder Farm.  A season that will go on and on and on and on and on.  Raspberries produce here no matter what and the only thing that really stops them is killing frosts.  They are so numerous and tedious to harvest, I am always happy to see them freeze!

Christmas Sustenance

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Yes, we had many presents, a very excited little girl, and all the rest; but we also had a breathtakingly beautiful white Christmas with 6 or so inches of fluffy snow on top of what we already had.  The chicken portraits were inspired by my new zoom lens.  We also had a beautiful platter of FRESH veggies picked today!  I took a picture of my harvest basket nestled in the snow.  Absolutely amazing.  The word sustenance has been in my head all day.  The sustenance of home-grown food even in the coldest winter and the sustenance of our souls and our family on this Christmas day. I thought of all the eggs those ladies have “donated” to the sustenance of our bodies and the hours of enjoyment they and the goats provide us. I gave the goats and chickens my best rendition of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”  Insane?, perhaps, but I think they enjoyed it.

Now, Paco is on his way out the door with a big basket of carrot, radish, and beet trimmings for the chickens and goats.  Sustenance.

Batten Down the Hatches

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This post is a bit overdue.  Winter hit big time about 8 days ago.  We had about 4 inches of snow, but the big story has been the deep freeze around here.  Early December lows are uncharacteristically low.  We have had nights in the single digits.  What does that mean for the farm?  It means it is time to batten down the hatches.  Here’s what I mean:

Chickens have been shut into the barn.  If the days get in the 20’s we go ahead and let them circulate in the “common area” of the barn, but keep them closed up inside at night.  We use two stalls and attempt to get one rooster and approximately half the hens in each stall.  Stalls have been equipped with hanging feeders, metal water founts sitting on warmers so the water won’t freeze, and heat lamps–2 per stall.  They also have more roosting areas thanks to Paco and fresh straw.

The goats have been brought into the barn as well.  The goats are quite hardy and have their nice fluffy winter coats on.  We brought them into barn for several reasons.  First, most of their natural browse is gone.  Multiple hard freezes and snow cover have left them without green stuff to munch.  Second, we could not get the outlet in the lean-to to work and therefore had no way to keep their water from freezing over.  Third, we like to keep them in the barn through the worst of winter for their health and comfort but also because it makes it easier for us to do chores if the goats and chickens are together.  So, the goats have their own stall with hayrack and their water has a float in it to keep it from icing over.  The goats, at least for now, have the run of the common areas as well as their stall.  We are giving some hay but also supplementing with alfalfa cubes as well as their usual “granola.”

The goats and chickens keep good company, but we do make it impossible for the goats to enter the chicken stalls. The chickens can join them in the common area, but we have to keep the goats away from the chickens’ feeders.  The goats would happily eat every shred of grain we give the chickens.

The dogs have the entire milking room (was a tack room) of the barn to themselves.  We got their plug-in water bowl set-up for them, put in a heat lamp,  and are keeping the barn door closed.  They have a doggie door entrance.

The high tunnel is a different matter altogether.  Since this is year one, I consulted an experienced friend when we were facing the first night of arctic temps.  I had already pulled lightweight row cover over the beds a few weeks prior.  I added to this by pulling heavy weight row cover over the tops of the more susceptible crops.  I think we did pretty well.  Looks like most of the lettuces are gone as well as the broccoli, but kale, swiss chard, carrots, onions, beets, parsley, cilantro, spinach, and mache are all struggling through.  We are supposed to be warming up starting today (highs in the 30’s and lows in the 20’s) and them plunge back down on Sunday.   I plan to let things in there defrost thoroughly and harvest as heavily as I can.  Because of the very short days, there is very little growth.    What is there is about all there will be until late February/early March.  I have been told that the even if lettuces and other greens die back, they will resume growth in a few months.  It sure has been amazing to have fresh salads and greens in our stews right through the freeze and snow.  I dread the days (which are right around the corner), when I will be forced to supplement our meals by buying fresh veggies.

Yesterday, I pulled the last of the broccoli plants out and tossed them into the common area of the barn.  The goats, as well as the chickens, feasted happily.  Such a lovely reminder of the usefulness of just about everything on the farm.   It brings me joy to experience the cycle of life so intimately.  In those moments, I know that I am living an honest, balanced life.

Chicken Daylight Savings Time

In order to have hens lay well throughout the winter, they need to have about 12 hours of daytime.  Each year, we dust off our timers and set the lights in the barn to come on at 7 AM and go off at 9 PM.  This true signal of fall on Small Wonder Farm  keeps things running smoothly.  Some let nature runs its course and give the hens the winter off.  They will still lay occasionally, but nothing close to production of longer light-filled days.

Our chickens, no matter how we revere them, are domesticated farm animals.  They need us and we need their product.  We feed them throughout the winter and I have no qualms about adding a little extra light to their days in order to get eggs.  I think their quality of life is probably enhanced.  Less time spent in the dark sitting and more time up and about doing the things chickens love to do. 

Domestic farm animals are not wild animals.  Over many generations, we have created symbiotic relationships with them.  Farming itself, is an act with one foot in “culture” and another in “nature.”  Culture, or “civilization” is the world we inhabit with it’s spiderwebs of concrete, huge box stores, climate controlled environments and the cars we use to race back and forth between these controlled environments. “Nature” is state parks, mosquitos, oceans, and all that stuff we see in on Animal Planet. Many of us that have the good fortune to live in affluent countries are so detached from “nature” that we forget our true dependance on it.   Farmers have a very real idea of the paper-thin and wavering line between the two.  Every time we pull a weed, plant a seed, turn a light on for a chicken, we confront that intersection of self and nature.   It is exactly the active grappling with that line that makes the pursuit so fascinating to me.  I know I can’t control nature.  I can guide my garden, guide my livestock, and make the best choices I can with the limited resources given to me.   I can use morality and common sense in caring for “nature” in a sustainable and intelligent way.

Yesterday, I stood in the garden doing the tedious work of picking raspberries.  I wondered if this piece of the planet is better off due to my decision to plant those berries.  The wall of green brambles is a very busy place for pollinators, is the favorite hide-out of our garter snakes, provides cover to bunnies, and is now a hangout for “wooly bear” caterpillars (saw 4 yesterday) as well as being a favorite of japanese beetles.   If left to her own devices, nature would likely provide all that on her own–maybe more.  I don’t think my meddling with my raspberry desires was a mistake, however.  We can get all the raspberries (and more) that we could ever want and nature can feast and seek cover as well.   In the case of the raspberry patch, I think I balanced the line of culture/nature quite well. 

Now, if I had chosen that spot to build a mini-mart, I think we all lose.  I wish every person who seeks to extract resources from “nature” would try harder to straddle that line. 

As for the chickens, some extra light is a decision that, I think, works for both them and me.

Well into Spring

We are well into spring now and life seems to be rushing past.  I need to slow down and savor the miracles around us.  New lives are abundant here.  The daffodils bloomed today for the first time.  The now one week old kittens are starting to open their eyes.  I knew kittens were born with closed eyes, but I did not realize that their eyelids slowly unzipped.  A tiny amount each day starting at about one week old.  2 of the 4 still have eyes that are completely sealed, but 2 now have tiny openings starting at the inside.  It gives them an alien-like appearance.  What must those little creatures think as their dark world becomes one of images?  It is like a second birth.

The 26 new chicks in the barn are doing great and are already in their gawky preteen feathering out stage.  The laying flock has been sick.  Some kind of respiratory infection.  It has affected about 1/2, but has been very mild.  Some have had wheezing and many are coughing and/or sneezing.  I was very alarmed at first because there are a number of things this could be and some are pretty devastating.  I contacted Purdue Extension and was referred to where I could take dead birds for necropsy, but looks like we lucked out on this one–it has been mild and have not lost any of the flock.  We did add electrolytes to their water just to boost them.  It seems to be mostly over with just a few still coughing.  The new chicks are in a separate stall and did not get sick.  We did our best to try not to cross contaminate and it seems to have worked. 

The hoophouses are working well and we are almost ready to start harvesting some salads from there.  Seedlings are up in there and doing well with one major exception–onions.  My onions from seed are weak little things and seem to be languishing.  I will be buying some already started ones when Hamilton’s Greenhouse (our neighbors!) opens.  What I did start from seed successfully for the first time is broccoli.  I have never done well on it before and always end up buying transplants, but the hoophouse seems to be a big boost for it.   I have a great micro greens blend that is going crazy in there too.  

Paco and 2 of his employees worked a good portion of the day to move the 4 apple trees (which we had planted way to close together 2 years ago)  and 8 grapes (4 new) into what is becoming our orchard.  We now have 4 apples, 8 grapes, 3 kiwi, 2 peaches, and 1 pear all behind the garden.  In the garden are 50 strawberries, 8 raspberries, 3 blueberries, and 3 blackberries.  I got the raspberries and blackberries pruned in the nick of time.  What a long way we have come!  I have a dream that 5 years from now I can walk into the backyard (in all seasons) and get supper.  Never satisfied, now that I have a hoophouse, I want a high tunnel or two that I can grow in year round.  How wonderful it would be to go stand inside in the depths of winter and get some fresh greens.  My idea of nirvana.

Pepper, eggplant, herb, raddichio, and tomato seedlings are all up and looking fantastic. I started at least 70 tomatoes and might need a 12 step program, but I imagine I will find good homes for the ones that I can’t plant. 

A Year in Review–Animals: Chickens and Guinea Fowl

I’m going to do a series of posts this week as a year in review.  This may be of interest to readers, but will be of great help to me when I plan for next year.  The topics I will review are:

  • Animals
  • Garden Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Preserving the Harvest
  • Equipment/Structures

We began the year with 11 hens.  These are the survivors from our Araucana flock of 15 we began in 2008.  In March we received our order of 25 ornamental layers and 11 roosters (we only ordered 4).  Raising up this new brood went along pretty uneventfully.  We were prepared for the about 10% inevitable loss. 

By early summer, it was clear we had more roosters than we had bargained for or even could handle.  For the size of our flock we knew 2 roosters would be ideal.  It was clear from the start we had one really stand out rooster.  Not only could he handle his obvious duties just fine, but he also protected his ladies–calling them to the food and escorting them outside and calling them in at the first sign of danger.  He got a name, Jethro, and he continues watching out for the flock.

We had to separate the majority of the extra roosters until we were ready to get them in the freezer.  The poor hens were terrified and harassed.  So, with the help of an employee, all of the roosters got sent to the freezer except Jethro, a beautiful Rose Comb Brown we had ordered for looks alone named Prince Erik, an Araucana Rooster named Prince Charming (saved with hopes we could increase of number of Araucanas), and a small but beautiful Silver Polish Rooster dubbed Elvis.  Elvis seemed to be a slow developer and we honestly kept him because of his beauty and the fact that he might as well be a hen!   He does not “bother” the ladies much.

It was immediately obvious we still had too many roosters.  It was hard to part with Prince Erik.  He really was gorgeous, but he was a bully.  He was not nice to the flock and most especially us.  He would occasionally come after us so he had to go.  We also parted with Prince Charming.  He was also beautiful but not a very good rooster.  So, Jethro and Elvis are our roosters now and they oversee a flock of 25 hens.  Elvis has matured and he crows and has charmed some of the ladies, but it is clear Jethro is king, and a benevolent one.

From the very beginning there were 2 polish hens who were small and spent most of their time hiding in a corner.  We thought perhaps they were disabled (mentally probably) or had bad vision.  One is black and the other, a buff color, died.  The black one, as of yet, unnamed, continued to hide.  She seems to have poor balance and we assumed very poor vision.  Any one looking at the bottom line would not keep this little hen. Our goals, however, are to supplement our protein with eggs and an occasional chicken, but to let these chickens be themselves and to learm from them. We did not think she would ever lay eggs.  Just in the last 2 months, she seemed to calm down a bit and let us cuddle her and she has been laying.  Right after Thanksgiving, she integrated herself into the rest of the flock and now acts completely normally!  I think she was just shy.  She is also the one sho loves to be picked up and cuddled. 

As I have blogged about, we have one White Cochin hen, dubbed White Pants, who has “gone broody” twice now.  Her first attempt, this fall, ended with her throwing in the towel about 6 days to early.  The latest one, this December, was fouled up by me.  She was getting harassed by the other hens and I took it upon myself to move her to another room.  I moved her and her 4 eggs and she never sat on them again.  She was quite close to some successful hatchings and I feel awful about it. 

In late winter, we got 5 guinea fowl in trade for some goat milking equipment.  We knew that the guineas were great at insect control and we would get eggs from them as well.  We also knew they were notoriously loud.  Loud was right.  The problem was they were so loud they upset the hens who hid inside and all but stopped laying.  Guineas can fly and it was nice to see them exploring the yard and sitting in the trees.  Within a week or two the guineas stayed just around the barn since they had learned that was the way to not have dogs bothering you.  So after 2 months, we had guineas who were not controlling insects on the farm and chickens who no longer laid. Goodbye guineas!  We returned them to the farm they came from.  I think  if our dogs did not have the run of the property around the barn, it may have worked out fine. 

So, we come to the end of the poultry year in review.  Just one more thing to note:  Jethro seems to be healing nicely from his frostbitten wattle.

The Big Freeze

Obviously, frigid temps mean that precautions have to be taken to keep the goats and chicken safe and sound.  We brought the goats into the barn when the pasture had frozen and they needed to be on pure hay.  They were upset by the move, but are very happy to have a new place to explore and some chicken companions.  Two adjoining stalls house the chickens, and the goats are in a third stall.  On days with above freezing temps, we open the three stalls into the fenced inner “yard”.   Probably the biggest consideration for winter is the need to keep water from freezing.  Both chicken stalls have metal heater bases that the metal waterers sit on top of.  The goats have a floating heater in their water crock.     

Despite our precautions, poor Jethro, our rooster, froze part of his comb and wattles.  The damage is more extensive on the wattles. The frostbitten parts are turning black.  Eventually, these will fall off but we are monitoring for infection.  There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about the risk of infection.  Also, the frostbite may cause temporary infertility.  It is supposed to be very painful, but he is feeling well enough to act normally.  I hope he is not in a lot of pain, but I imagine he is.  It is a very common winter affliction and it is supposed to be worst the first winter.

We are continuing to get about a dozen eggs per day.  We also have White Pants back on a nest of eggs.  She has been brooding since Dec 2.  Who knows if she will got he distance or whether she will be successful, but she is resolute.  She should have about a week to go.   She has had as many as 8, but some have disappeared and she has 5 now.

Here are some winter farm pictures:

Oh, Jethro!

Jethro--injured again
Jethro--injured again

This winter we ordered 25 more laying hens and 4 roosters.  We received 12 roosters.  12 roosters is 10-11 more roosters than we needed.  So, Serrano Rooster Survivor was born.  We “weeded out (ie sent to the freezer)” the ho-hum, bossy, rude, aggressive, and lazy roosters and kept 2.   One of the 2 kept was Elvis.  He is a beauty–black and white with a big crest.  He might as well be a hen, if you catch my meaning, and he weighs nothing–not a good freezer candidate.

The rooster we are pinning our dreams (and the hens reproductive yearnings) on is Jethro.  He has proven himself to be a great rooster.  He is the obvious choice of the hens–meaning they do not run in fear from him!  He calls everyone for meals and treats his gals with respect.  He is not aggressive toward us and has a great voice.  The DAY AFTER the last 2 losing contestants went to the freezer, Jethro developed a bad limp.  That was about a week ago and he seems mostly recovered.  Things happen.  Perhaps he got his foot caught in something. 

Friday, I go to the barn to discover Jethro’s neck is bleeding.  Chicken society is a pretty brutal one. Had this been a hen, they would all be ganging up on her and picking at the wound–likely until she died.  Since it is Jethro, a few gals are picking at it here and there. You can see this in the photo as White Pants picks at him.  We have separated him out into a dog kennel to give him a chance to heal.  He has a small puncture in one of his wattles.  He will very likely be fine.  Paco slapped a little neosporin on him.

The burning question is, how is this string of injuries is happening?  I think our barn needs nanny cam.  Is this a series of unfortunate accidents?  Are the girls ganging up on him?  Is he fighting with Elvis?  Rough chicken sex?  Poor Jethro.  He beat 11 other guys and now someone may have it out for him.  The mystery continues….