Sunday, May 17, 2009

Learning About Chickens

Yesterday Heather and I went to a class: Chicken Management 101 that was presented by the WSU Pierce County Extension, and the Pierce Conservation District. It was such a lovely day that it was almost a shame to waste it sitting inside, but we (along with about 100 other people) were eager to learn a little about chickens. Chris Benedict from the WSU Extension facility assembled four people who gave an interesting insight to their experiences with chickens.

Mike Craig of Laharview Farm spoke to us about housing, feeding, and watering of chickens raised for their eggs, or "layers". He had quite a few good tips as far as the size of the pen, feed, fencing, bedding, etc. Chickens need space, they need to eat right, get some exercise and they like a nice warm, dry home. They don't like to drink dirty water, and would appreciate if they didn't have to walk in their feces all day. Hey -- I can relate!

Dr. A. Singh Dhillon with WSU Puyallup addressed chicken parasites and diseases. What can you say? If you have chickens there will be parasites -- get over it! He was very funny, but I have to admit I had a little trouble understanding everything he said. What he did stress was the importance of no cross contamination between your coop and others so never ever accept chicks from other coops into yours (or as he said, just politely say NO!), and wear different boots/shoes if you're visiting another coop.

Annette Masella raises chickens for their eggs. She has a farm, but unfortunately I didn't write the name down. Anyway I think she has about 200 chickens which free range on her three acres. She gave some quick tips on egg cleaning and storage. Her method uses hot water, bleach or a cleaning agent, and she moistens a paper towel and wipes off the egg. This technique differed from a "dry" technique I had read about. She stressed not to use soap -- it will cause diarrhea! She also gave the one tip that caused a strong reaction from both Heather and I. She said to only use paper towels to clean the eggs, because it would insure no cross-contamination. She uses one paper towel per egg. ONE PAPER TOWEL PER EGG!!! Such a waste of resources. Anyway, Heather and I will happily use washcloths. She also said an egg is good for about four weeks in the fridge, which is good to know.

Andy Bary (who I think is Steve Wozniak's twin) finished the class. He was supposed to talk about manure, but basically just told us to read the information he distributed and then answered a few questions. The question I had for him was about chicken feces and dogs. I was concerned my pugs would eat the compost with chicken feces and get sick. Andy said that you should compost the feces for a year before spreading it which was good to hear 'cause some of the websites I've looked at said you could spread compost with fresh feces as long as it wasn't on vegetables that were going to be used fresh (without cooking).

Andy raises his chickens, or "broilers", for their meat. He brought two examples of shelters with runs. One was a manufactured coop with an attached pen. It looked cool but runs around $600. For $600 I think I could hire someone to build me a really nice coop. He also had an example of a chicken tractor that he uses for his broilers which would work for us with a few modifications. His tractor had water dishes that refilled, feeding troughs, a netted area to protect the chickens from predators while they "roamed" (he keeps 30+ broiler hens in an area that would serve about 3 layers), and a shelter to protect them from the elements.

There was a lot of facts given to us in a short period of time so I'm going to have to review the material slowly over the next few days to be able to really digest the information. It was a very informative session though not as detailed as I had hoped. So I'll just have to continue the information gathering phase on my quest to be an urban chicken farmer!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Chicken Management 101

I'm excited for the class tomorrow: Chicken Management 101: Small-Scale Egg Production. The Washington State University Puyallup Research and Extension Center is kindly conducting a three hour session to cover such burning topics as:

  • Can I have chickens?
  • Structure (Coop) Design
  • Where will they live?
  • Breeds
  • Food and water
  • Disease and Insects
  • Waste Management
  • Egg Management
I cannot wait!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dilemmas (Part 1?)

This might be a good time to explain that while Ann and I are neighbors, we aren't exactly neighbors. We can talk over the fence, if we yell. We cannot pass food or beverages over the fence. We cannot climb the fence to access each other's yards. To make exchanges or talk in normal conversational volume, we have to walk around the block, approximately 500 steps. Yes, I counted, but I lost track a few times, so 500 is an estimate. I tried to count again while walking the slightly longer way back around the block, but I got distracted first by a woodpecker destroying a telephone pole and then by these amazing flowers.

They are in the messiest yard on the block, you know, the "wow, that is kind of scary" yard, so their beauty knocked me off my feet. Not literally, of course, but I was compelled to stop and snap a few pictures. The bulbs had been planted in large black plastic buckets everywhere the homeowners could squeeze one into the front yard. They are stunning.

Ann and I met just over a year ago when we both made comments on Exit 133 about the bike path near our neighborhood. When we discovered that we were practically neighbors, we were pretty pleased with ourselves.

What is less than pleasing, now that we are talking about raising chickens together, is the exact location of our back yards.

Who "gets" to have the chickens in their yard, and who "gets" to walk around the block to share in the chores and rewards? There are several important considerations:

  1. I am slightly more willing to walk around the block in the cold and rain

  2. I have a large rambunctious dog that loves to chase squirrels and birds

  3. Ann is concerned, rightly so, about the smell of a chicken coop

  4. I have slugs in my vegetable garden and I'd love to have chickens around eating them

Possible solutions:

  1. Ask one of the neighbors to put/allow gates in their/our fences for more direct access

  2. Build a wheeled cart cage, circus train style, to transport the chickens frequently from yard to yard

  3. Build a second cart that rolls easily up hill to transport chicken poop from coop to my truck or my compost pile. I'm not relishing pushing a cart full of poop up out of Ann's back yard

  4. Build a skybridge

  5. Build a cable system to transport pails and chickens from yard to yard
Hopefully the class we are going to attend will help us figure out the best solutions.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

You're gonna do what?

In 1972 my parents bought their first house. After 20 some years my dad retired from the Navy, and we left the balmy shores of Oahu for the town of Puyallup. One of the first things my mom did was plant a vegetable garden, and while she did the lion's share of work, we helped where and when we could. We would also travel to the Puyallup River and pick apples from a tree that grew wild on the riverbank, my brothers climbed a neighbor's tree for cherries, and we'd visit the local farms to pick berries. Then I'd help my mother while she canned fruits and vegetables, made pickles, zucchini bread, pies, applesauce, jams and jellies, and delivered surplus goods to our neighbors. It was hell. The ground was so dirty, and there were bugs, and slugs, and spiders (oh, my), my hands would be stained red from berry juice, I still to this day cannot stand applesauce, and by summer's end our neighbors stopped answering the door when I would come to call. I mean wasn't that what grocery stores were for? A nice clean place where we could buy all the produce we wanted with nary a bug in sight?

It's only been in the last few years that I started paying attention to what I was putting in my body. Organic farming, free range chickens, humane treatment of animals, carbon footprints became important considerations in my life. I want to have a hand in what I eat. I want to raise some of my own food, and support local farms. I want to eat seasonally, and I long for the fresh and delicious produce my mother grew that I took for granted. And I want to raise chickens for their eggs.

You're gonna do what? I'm pretty sure my family thinks I'm crazy. I'm absolutely sure my husband was hoping this was a passing fancy, and it might very well have been except as fate would have it Heather and I were talking, and I'm not sure who brought up chickens first but I know we both jumped at the idea of raising the chickens together.

So here we go. We're gonna raise chickens. I'm not really sure how, but we'll keep you posted as the project progresses.

Heather Wants Chickens

In 1976, my family moved from San Diego to rural Pennsylvania where my great-grandfather and his third wife, Grandma Dot, lived on a farm. We lived 1/4 mile up a dirt road (now marked as Slatertown Rd on Google maps) from Grandma Dot for the next 7 years. I have vivid memories of her vegetable garden, homemade noodles, cats (3 indoors and at least a dozen outdoors), dogs, and chickens. The chickens pecked around the yard and laid colorful eggs. I remember the smell of the coop, and the privilege of being sent to hunt for eggs. I also remember getting pecked on the hands and feet; it hurt!

Painful pecks aside, I have good feelings about vegetable gardening and chicken farming from those years "on the farm." My extended family always refers to our home in Pennsylvania as "the farm" even though the house was a few miles from my grandfathers actual farm on Wheeler Rd. By the time I lived there my grandfather's health was deteriorating and farming was slowing down. At the farm, he had a handful of beef cows, a few old horses, and a few dozen acres of hay.

Any family farming knowledge seems to have stayed with that generation. I don't believe that my grandparents ever had a vegetable garden or raised any livestock after they moved away from Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Modern life was fully embraced by that generation of my family! I don't remember any of my grandparents growing or preserving food. My parents on the other hand started gardening fairly early in their marriage; I recall carrots and tomatoes growing in our little condo patio garden in Southern California before we moved back to the farm. In Pennsylvania, we had a large garden, but didn't raise any livestock. We did, however, eat beef from GreatGrandpa's farm and both chickens and eggs from GreatGrandma Dot's coop.

Since moving away from Pennsylvania with my parents in 1983, I've lived in a succession of large towns and cities: Yakima, WA; Dubuque, IA; Houston, TX; Dallas, TX; Spokane, WA; and now, Tacoma, WA. I tried to grow some vegetables in Houston, but met with dismal failure. After that, I didn't try to grow any plants for about 7 years. In Yakima, I had a bumper tomato crop, but then moved again the next spring. Now that I'm settled in a lovely home in suburbia, I've started gardening again. I planted a very crowded garden box last year and have plans for more garden space this spring. But until recently, I had not even thought about trying to raise chickens. Chickens in the city? I mean, the suburbs?

I first started thinking about raising chickens when we joined a CSA last spring. One requirement for membership in this particular CSA is a visit to the farm. I was so surprised to find that it wasn't really "in the country" like my grandfather's farm, but rather in a barely rural area tucked in between Tacoma and it's sprawl. I saw the chickens sharing room with the farm's cats and roaming among the goats, pigs, sheep and cows. Cheryl, our CSA lady, explained how all of the animals worked together with her gardening. Their manure fertilized and the chickens ate bugs and slugs. Cheryl sells the eggs and chickens through her CSA and at local farmers markets. We've been eating her eggs, and the fresh eggs are so much better than grocery store eggs.

Shortly after our farm visit, I discovered that it is legal to have hens in the city limits of Tacoma; my imagination was activated and I thought, "I want chickens!" But I have many unrealistic ideas. Could it be possible to successfully raise chickens at my house? Would my dog chase them? Kill them? Would I be tied down, unable to travel because the chickens need to be fed and their eggs put in the fridge? Would they smell? Would the neighbors hate me? The questions multiplied and doubt ensued.