Sunday, April 28, 2013

Placing the Chick Order

We began building the coop a week ago and are making great progress. I mentioned previously that I wanted to build the coop first then acquire chicks. I really didn't know how hard it would be or how long it would take us. After discussing it with K, we determined that it is safe to order the chicks because the coop would be finished before the chicks are ready to be housed outside.

Many of the farm and feed stores in my area currently have chicks in the stores and most have already had their "Chick Days" with order deadlines the first week of April. Luckily, I discovered that Long Horn Horse & Pet Supply has some later order dates. They also offer a nice variety of heavy, cold hearty breeds that do well in my area.

With the order form in hand and some research on breeds, I narrowed down my selection to seven supposedly docile breeds:

Barred Rock (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Barred Rock/Plymouth Rock

Origin: Developed in New England in the middle of the 19th century and was first exhibited as a breed in 1869.

Weight: Hen 7 1/2 lbs

Purpose: Dual Purpose: egg laying and meat production

Egg Shell Color: Brown

Egg Production: 200 - 280 eggs per year

Dominique (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Dominique (AKA Pilgrim Fowl)

Origin: Considered America's oldest breed of chicken, probably descending from chickens brought to New England during colonial times. Many of today's breeds were developed by using Dominique bloodlines.

Weight: 6 1/2 lbs

Purpose: Dual Purpose: Egg laying and meat production

Egg Shell Color: Brown

Egg Production: 180-260 eggs per year.

Silver Laced Wyandotte (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Silver Laced Wyandotte

Origin: Developed in New York state in the early 1870s and was admitted to the standard in 1883.

Weight: 6 1/2 lbs

Purpose: Dual Purpose: Egg Laying and Meat Production

Egg Shell Color: Brown

Egg Production: 180-260 eggs per year

Golden Laced Wyandotte (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Golden Laced Wyandotte

Origin: Wisconsin in 1880 by crossing Silver Laced Wyandotte females with a large "Black Red" of unknown origin called the Winnebago.

Weight: 6 1/2 lbs

Purpose: Dual Purpose: Egg Laying and Meat Production

Egg Shell Color: Brown

Egg Production: 180-260 eggs per year

Buff Orpington (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Buff Orpington

Origin: Developed in Orpington, England in 1886 by crossing Langshan, Minorca and Plymouth Rock chickens. Black was the selected color because it hid the dirt and soot of London. Buff color was introduced in 1894.

Weight: 8 lbs.

Purpose: Dual Purpose: egg laying and meat production

Egg Shell Color: Brown

Egg Production: 200-280 eggs per year

Black Australorp (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Black Australorp

Origin: Developed in Australia from Black Orpington stock.

Weights: 6 1/2 lbs.

Purpose: Dual Purpose: egg laying and meat production

Egg Shell Color: Brown

Egg Production: 200-280 eggs per year

Easter Egger (Photo: Cackle Hatchery)

Easter Egger

Origin: A cross-bred variety from South America. Lays eggs that vary in color from blue to green to pink.

Weight: 5 1/2 lbs

Purpose: Egg Production

Egg Shell Color: Green or Blue

Egg Production: 200-280 eggs per year

The original plan was for six chickens, but I couldn't make a decision among the above breeds and figured that one more chicken isn't going to make a big difference. Plus there is always the chance of loss or that one (or two) of the chicks turns out to be a rooster.

The pick up date is May 24. That should give us plenty of time to finish the coop before the chicks feather out and are ready to be housed in the coop. Feathering out can take 6-8 weeks. If we are lucky, we may have some eggs before winter if we use some artificial lighting to extend the light to 16 hours per day.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Expanding the Compost Bins

Last year's garden didn't produce as well as previous years and I suspect it was because I was stingy with the compost. We failed to gather enough leaves for the compost bin the previous year resulting in not enough compost to amend the entire garden in the spring. I could have purchased bagged compost, but money was pretty tight so I thought skipping a year would be ok. The garden's production was satisfactory, but I could see signs of nutrient deficiencies in certain beds.

K recently picked up some wood pallets intending to use them to stack our wood on. We ended up with enough for the woodpile and a new compost bin. We added the new pallet compost bin near the current bin. It's open now because I will be sifting compost for a while. But another pallet will be place on the right to close up the bin when not in use.

New Pallet Compost Bin

The old bin is just a few years old and is made of some stakes and wire. Usually my compost is made from mostly leaves, garden debris, and kitchen waste. It doesn't have enough nitrogen to heat up the pile and can take a while to finish. I only turn the pile over once a year while I dig out some finished compost from the bottom of the pile. I screen out the compost and return the larger pieces to the pile.

Part of the benefits to owning backyard chickens is the free manure they produce. According to The University of Missouri Extension's "Urban Chicken Manure Management" article, one hen can generate 80-pounds of manure a year. Multiply that by 6 hens and I will have 480 pounds of manure to add to my compost bin. This amount doesn't include litter. When I read these facts, I knew I needed more space. It was time for a compost bin expansion.

The addition of chicken manure will heat up my compost hotter than ever before. Chicken manure is high in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Fresh chicken manure can burn plants if it's applied without composting first. If the compost is turned regularly is can finish in 4-6 months. It will take 6-12 months to finish when composting the lazy way.

Compost Dug Out from the Bottom

I began sifting the current compost to add to the garden. There is some lovely finished compost on the bottom of the pile but it contains a lot of small sitcks. As I sift the compost, the unfinished leaves and larger chunks are layered into to new compost bin. Once emptied, the wire compost bins will be used to hold leaves and other carbon to layer in with the chicken manure. I hope with time to develop an organized system of holding pens, compost in progress, and finished compost.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Revising and Refining the Coop Plan

Discount Bin Lumber
I visited the big box store each time I ran errands to check on the "scrap bin" for some discount lumber to build the coop. I scored one lucky haul when they had a bunch of pressure treated 2x4's in 4 ft lengths for only 51¢. I snagged about 30 of these to use for the floor of the coop and the outside run. Normal price for an 8-foot pressure treated 2x4 is $3.77.

Although this particular visit resulted in a great score, other visits were not so fruitful. I realized quickly that at this rate, it would take me forever to source all the material to build the coop. I had to figure something else out.

K called several local lumberyards and discovered that the prices on regular 2x4s and plywood were lower than the big box stores (regular prices, not discount bin prices). Still, when it was all added it all up it was quite expensive. I decided to modify my design from a 4x8 walk in shed to a shorter 4x8 design raised up several feet above the ground. This will not only save on lumber cost, but also provide a shaded and sheltered area under the coop for the chickens during the day. Since I won't be able to walk into the coop to clean. There will be a door at each 4-foot end. Cleaning will be at waist level allowing the bedding to be swept into a wheelbarrow from doors at each end.

Revised Coop Idea (subject to change)
Once the outside of the building was revised and deemed affordable, the inside layout was developed. I planned out the inside of the coop using the knowledge I absorbed from my online research and photos shared on

 Most coop designs show the nesting boxes bumping out of the main structure with a hinged lid to access the eggs. I was concerned that these would be cold in the winter and didn't trust that we could make them leak proof. So I decided to keep the nesting boxes inside. A small door similar to what is shown here will allow us access to the eggs from the outside.

The nesting boxes will be along the east side of the coop near the floor of the raised coop. This will make the outside access door at a comfortable level for daily egg gathering. On top of the nesting boxes will be a removable "poop deck" filled with sand or Sweet PDZ that extends along the 8-foot section of the east wall. Above the poop deck will be the roosting bar. My inspiration for this idea came from here.

From my research, sand is a great option for the floor of the coop because it dries quickly and is easy to scoop clean much like a kitty litter box. However, I worry that it will be too chilly for the floor during the cold months. I will try it in the poop deck and see how it goes. A lot of members of the forum swear by Sweet PDZ. Sweet PDZ is a stall freshener for horses that is an all-natural, non-hazardous and non-toxic mineral that captures, neutralizes and eliminates harmful levels of ammonia and odors.

With the new design in place, we have begun gathering the lumber, fencing, and hardware cloth needed to build the coop. Sourcing windows will take more effort. I've been checking Craigslist and will visit our local Habitat for Humanity ReStore this week to see what they have. I may go with one window on the south side of the coop door to let in light and hardware screened windows for ventilation on the sides like this.

Coop Footprint
Deciding where to place the coop in the yard was easy. I wanted it near the garden and compost bins. There is a flat area to the north of the garden that seemed just perfect. It will be easy to get to in the winter. We staked it out and laid out pallets to view the footprint the coop would occupy. I like how I will be able to see it from the living room windows and how it will block out the ugly old well in the woods and the house on the other side. The house wasn't there when I first purchased this home and I still don't like seeing the lights through the trees at night. The run will stretch along the north side of the garden. I also will have a "Chicken Tractor" to allow some protected ranging in other parts of the yard and over individual garden beds.

Hopefully we will begin building this weekend.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Which Came First...The Chicken or the Coop?

I have read a lot of blogs and heard a lot of stories of people getting chicks in early spring believing that there is plenty of time to build a coop before they are feathered out and ready to be housed outside. Although 6-8 weeks seems like plenty of time to build a coop, I don't want the extra pressure of a deadline. So the current plan is to begin building the coop first then acquire chicks.

By far, the coop is the most costly investment to adding backyard chickens to our homestead. I scoured the internet for pre-built, pre-fab, and craigslist coops. I also searched for craigslist sheds, ice shacks, and other out buildings that could be converted. I didn't find anything that was affordable or of the quality necessary to withstand our harsh winters. The only other option was building the coop. It will be a huge challenge because we have very little building tools or skills between us.

I searched the internet again for coop plans and ideas. I tried to plan sensibly and thought a shed type coop that used standard wood and plywood sizes to make things easier. Inspiration and ideas from various sources are "pinned" to my Pinterest page.

The First Coop Idea
With a 4 x 8 foot walk in shed type coop in mind, K and I ventured to the nearest big box home store to price out lumber. I quickly became disheartened when I discovered that my plan was way, way out of budget. Just when did plywood get so expensive?!

I considered giving up on the whole idea thinking there was no way it was affordable. Just then, an employee at the store asked if we needed any help. K explained our goal. The employee brought us to the back of the lumber section and introduced us to the "scrap bin." The scrap bin had a bunch of 2x4s, 4x4 sheets of plywood, and other lumber at 4-foot lengths all for around 50¢ each and told us this was replenished all the time.

As we left the store, I was still uncertain about the whole coop building idea but my mind began assembling the coop with the scrap bin pieces. Not only is the price a bargain, but we will also be able to fit the smaller lumber in our SUV eliminating the need to rent or borrow a truck. I would be able to maneuver the smaller pieces much easier too and could even build the coop myself without K's help.

"But I'm the builder." K said as I explained my thoughts out loud. "Ah ha!" I thought as this proved to me that he was looking forward to the project. K was in the middle of a large editing project and didn't have the time to devote to planning and building a chicken coop. I tried to be patient and wait until he was finished so we can work on the project together. In the mean time, I continued my research by reading books, blogs, forums, and sketching up plans. I also watched a lot of videos on youtube on how to build walls, frame in windows and doors, and shingle a roof.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Peppers Are Off to a Good Start

Anaheim peppers were the first the first to make their appearance this year, but the others are not far behind. As mentioned previously I started my pepper seeds last week by pre-sprouting them on wet paper towels. Anaheim sprouted within a few days. At first I attributed this to fresher seeds, but some of the other older seeds were only days behind. Then I realized that I located the tray on the shelf above a light and believe that the extra heat rising from the light was a contributing factor.

Once the seeds pre-sprout, they are carefully placed into a soil block. Then gently covered with sterile seed starting mix, which seems to help prevent dampening off.

The soil blocks are placed in a domed tray under the lights on a heat mat. Within a few days I found the Anaheim seedlings reaching for the light. I opened the dome cover a crack to allow the new seedlings to adapt to the cooler temperature and will remove the dome completely in a few days.

I am pre-sprouting my tomatoes the same way this week.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Crash Course on Raising Backyard Chickens

Artist: Albertus Verhoesen (1806–1881)
I've been dreaming of adding backyard chickens to our homestead for quite some time. As I mentioned previously, this is the year that the dream will become a reality. Having never had chickens before, I didn't know much about them other than what I have read on garden blogs. I didn't know how much work was involved, housing requirements, how to care for them, or protect them from predators. What I did know is they were a perfect companion to gardening, as they help generate compost, forage and eat bugs and other pests. Oh yes, and produce eggs. Plus they all have their own personalities and are fun entertainment.

I attacked this goal of learning about backyard chickens the same way I do with any project, by beginning with research. I knew chickens could be useful, but were they also affordable, reasonable and enjoyable? I had to look beyond the cuteness of fuzzy chicks and see if backyard chickens would work for us.

I began with reading books, visiting, and adding more chicken related blogs to my Reader list. I also talked with several people locally who have chickens especially about the predators and cold weather. Most are very proud of their flock and coop and are willing to share their experiences and advice. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became. I was surprised when my neighbor told me that the lumberyard just down the road from us sells chicken feed and pine shavings. That will be so much more convenient than driving a few towns over to the farm and feed store or tractor supply.

I discovered quickly that chicken owners are just as diverse as gardeners. There are numerous ways to raising chickens but there were a few standards that were repeated among several sources such as the recommended size of the coop size per chicken, how to predator proof, heath issues, and how to care for day-old chicks until they are ready to go outside. I have added several resource books to my library, such as:

I have read through most of these books and visit almost daily. I have so much more to learn but most can only be hands-on learning. I hope my chickens don't suffer in the process.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Spring Unfolds Slowly

The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also. ~Harriet Ann Jacobs

The weather this week has been a mixed bag. It began with temps in the 50s only to return to chilly upper 30s for a few days. The sun is strong and the temps are warm enough that the snow continues to recede. There are only a few patches left in the yard. All in all it is a typical spring in Maine although much later than last year.

The majority of the yard has dried out so that it can be walked on without feeling spongy and spring cleanup has begun. The yard looks ugly, drab, and very messy right now. We had several windy storms over winter that left a lot of debris strewn across the yard. Mostly pine needles and small branches that need to be raked up.

The garden is still too soggy to work in, but I did take a look at the beds now that the snow has melted. The garlic's protective cover of shredded leaves blew away once the snow diminished. I will need to mulch it again. I was happy to see some garlic sprouts have broken the soil.


The chives have begun to grow and some scallions are sending up some new green shoots.


I did take a peek beneath the collapsed hoop and row cover. It looked like some kale and spinach survived and had some new growth. We will see how it does now that the insulating snow cover has melted. Our nights are still quite chilly. I really need to build a cold frame this year.

I started peppers this week using a recycled bakery tray and wet paper towel. Not surprisingly the Anaheim pepper seeds sprouted first. These were fresh seeds purchased this year.

Each cell is layered with a piece of wet paper towel and labeled. I check it each day for germination and to make sure the towel stays damp. Once these sprout, they are carefully transferred into waiting soil blocks and placed under the lights.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spring is Finally Here

Even though the calendar says it's Spring, it just didn't feel like it with the late snowfalls and cold weather we have experienced lately. St. Patrick's Day is generally the time we sow peas in our area. Not this year. At least one foot of snow covered the garden on March 17th.

Luckily last week, we had had warm days and the snow is receding a little at a time. I can see the garden again. It will still be a while before I can work the soil as it is still pretty soggy.

I can finally see the garden soil

I am hoping something overwintered under here. Row cover is still frozen to the snow.

Along with the weather, my seed starting has been a bit erratic. I had to reseed some onions, celery, celeriac, and parsley due to poor germination. I am behind on starting some my early lettuce and other greens. Hopefully I will be able to direct seed these as soon as the garden soil dries out. Also, I found myself a bit surprised to see that I need to start my peppers soon according to my seed starting schedule.

Usually, I can't wait to sow my seeds and I have to force myself not to venture too far ahead of schedule or I will end up with a jungle of overgrown seedlings under the lights. I feel a bit out of sync this year. I do hope this straightens itself out soon.

I am also continuing my education on backyard chickens and coop plans. I am pretty sure we are going to begin gathering material and building a hen house and run soon.