Coming home to roost

One of the many reasons we were drawn to Quiet Farm was its collection of rather ramshackle yet usable outbuildings. Since keeping chickens for eggs (and entertainment) was always a top priority, renovating the chicken house was definitely high on our project list.

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The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

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The original nest boxes on the far wall indicate that this may previously have been used as a henhouse.

Although the chicken house was moderately sturdy, it definitely called for renovation before we brought hens home. The roof required replacing, the foundation needed to be defended against predators and the interior demanded a good cleaning.

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With the roof removed and much of the junk cleaned out.

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Repurposed corrugated steel panels ready for the roof. They’re weighed down with rocks so they don’t blow away.

Our goal with all of our renovation projects is to salvage and repurpose materials whenever possible, and to learn something as we do it. It would be much easier to accomplish everything by constantly buying new supplies at the big-box home improvement stores, but that level of excessive consumption doesn’t fit with our lifestyle and typically stifles creativity, as well. We’re trying hard to do as much as we can with what we have on hand.

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How to install a chicken house roof, in four easy steps.

After removing the existing roof, we laid plywood sheets, covered them with tarpaper, then reinstalled the metal panels. Here’s a pro tip: don’t try to do this on a windy day; we nearly donated all of our roofing materials to our neighbors. Thus far the roof has remained perfectly watertight, but winter will be the real test, especially if we have the heavy snowfall we experienced last year.

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Trenching the chicken house to bury wire.

There are many, many creatures here who would love a fresh chicken dinner, so keeping the chickens both dry and safe is essential. Because raccoons, foxes, skunks and whistle pigs can all dig, we trenched around the house and buried wire fencing about a foot deep. The fencing is also secured two feet up the walls of the house.

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Just some of the hardware discovered during this project.

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Our roost, built from repurposed lumber. 

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Nearly finished!

We bought old windows from a nearby vintage shop and installed them to provide both light and ventilation. It’s actually much more difficult to keep chickens cool than warm; their feathers provide natural insulation and they don’t sweat like humans do, so it’s imperative that they have access to fresh air when it’s hot. On the other hand, cold, damp drafts can make them sick, so the house needs to be pretty airtight during winter.

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All done except for paint. The lush growth and gorgeous light proves this is a spring photo.

We collected rocks (we have plenty!) and stacked them up on top of the wire mesh around the base of the house for an additional layer of protection against digging predators. The old wire spools and branches provide shade and shelter for the birds.

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Twelve chickens, tucked up snugly on the top roost bar.

Chickens like to sleep on an elevated perch; they’re descended from jungle fowl, so they’d naturally sleep in trees. Our roost has four bars, but invariably most of the birds end up on the top rung, with one or two lower-ranking birds on the next rung down. Remember, pecking order is a very real thing, and every chicken knows exactly where they fit in the hierarchy.

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Freshly painted with a new coat of sharp red paint! (Look closely to the right of the house and you can see where the paint sprayer exploded.) 

Our final task was to give the house a fresh coat of paint, both for aesthetics and to protect the aged wood from our harsh weather. Our trusty paint sprayer didn’t like the thick exterior paint or the extreme summer temperatures, so there’s quite a lot more red paint “decorating” the area than we’d like. Nevertheless, the refurbished chicken house is keeping our birds safe, protected and dry and hopefully will for years to come.

Next up on the project list: lots of canning and preserving, plus installing our beetle-kill floors in the master bedroom and closet. Always something in the works here on Quiet Farm!

Farm update: June 3

Hello there! Has summer finally started where you live? We’re excited for warm weather and sunshine and to get all of our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other summer crops into the ground finally.

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The raspberry plants are tiny, like our fruit trees, and are protected with plastic cages.

A few weeks ago we planted forty raspberry plants, ten each of four different cultivars. We planted both summer-bearing and fall-bearing varieties, in the hopes of having fresh raspberries for months on end. We don’t expect to see any fruit this year, but raspberries typically do well in this area so we’re looking forward to bountiful future harvests. In order to plant these canes, we used the excavator to dig long, wide beds, then we filled those beds with about eight cubic yards of soil from Mount Doom. This meant around thirty-six wheelbarrow loads moved by hand – we farm like it’s the 1850s over here, friends. One day, we’ll have a tractor. One day.

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Greens this fresh make those plastic supermarket packets taste like nothing.

We were excited to harvest our first salad greens and radishes; shown here is a mixture of Buttercrunch lettuce, pak choi, red Russian kale and lacinato kale. Our greens are pretty late this year; next year we hope to have our high tunnel built so that we have fresh greens throughout the winter and early spring. Few things taste better after months of heavy, rich, starchy foods than a bright, crisp salad.

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A male Bullock’s oriole waiting for the buffet to open.

Although we love seeing the hummingbirds at our feeders, we’ve found that the local population of Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii) appreciates the easy sugar hit, too. The orioles are much bigger than the tiny hummingbirds, and when they’re on the feeders they scare the hummingbirds away. Because they’re so big, they also cause the feeders to swing wildly and spill sugar syrup everywhere, which makes a sticky mess. We haven’t yet figured out how to keep the hummingbirds coming while discouraging the orioles, even though their flashy yellow plumage is gorgeous.

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So much tidier now!

We built a new bin structure for our compost using salvaged shipping pallets; you can see the original small compost pile here. (We think pallets are one of the most useful free things you can find!) Now the compost can be kept neater, and it’s simple to throw fresh organic material into the left bin while waiting for the right side to finish “cooking.” When we get that tractor it will be a lot easier to move the finished compost onto the vegetable beds.

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Welcome home, chickens!

And then there’s this news: Quiet Farm has twelve new residents. They are a motley, ragtag bunch, who came to us because a friend was moving house. We have at least two roosters (maybe three; one is sensibly staying quiet for the moment) and an assortment of breeds. They’re still laying pretty well for older birds – certainly enough for our needs – and thus far they’ve had an exciting time exploring their new home. More on the chicken house renovation coming soon!

Have a great week!

 

The FAQ Series: Eggs

One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.

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I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?

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Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.

We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?

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The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?

  • There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.
  • Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.

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The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.

  • Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”

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Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.

  • American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.

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  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels. 
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
  • Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.

(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)

  • Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?

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  • Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).

Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.

And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.

What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.

Backyard chickens

We have made no secret here at Finding Quiet Farm of our love for backyard poultry. Honestly, what is there not to love?

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A Black Star from our most recent flock.

They monitor the rodent population. They keep weeds under control. They are ridiculously entertaining. And most importantly, they turn food waste into incredible eggs.

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Our young Silver Wyandotte pullet at about six months.

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Lovely, but these chickens are NOT supposed to be in these raised beds.

Okay, sometimes they (repeatedly) escape the run you’ve so carefully built and they eat your tomatoes. But the eggs are worth it, we swear.

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A Barred Rock (upper left) and a Silver Wyandotte.

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A strong, proud Australorp, one of our favorite breeds.

We’ve had two flocks now at our suburban home, and we encourage the entire universe to keep backyard chickens. They’re less work than dogs or cats, with more reward. They need food, clean water and shelter, of course, plus the ability to run around and eat bugs and weeds and kitchen scraps and what-have-you, and they need protection from predators. Where we live, those are unfortunately rampant – hawks, owls, raccoons, foxes, dogs – but thanks to N’s superlative coop-building skills, we never had a single bird taken.

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The windfall apple clean-up crew.

If you’re thinking of adding chickens to your family homestead, check your local regulations first. We’re allowed five hens and no roosters where we live, but laws vary widely from city to city. Know what you’re buying, too; many a rooster has ended up abandoned at a shelter because it was sold as a hen. It’s not common knowledge, but you don’t need a rooster to get eggs – and they’re illegal in most communities.

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Winter is coming. Seriously. And the chickens need to stay warm.

If you live in a particularly cold area, make sure to buy cold-hardy breeds and that your coop protects your birds from winter drafts. It’s actually easier for birds to stay warm than cool (those trusty feathers) but icy winds can be very detrimental to their health. When planning your coop and run, keep in mind that chickens also need adequate shade in hot summer months. Keeping their space clean and dry doesn’t take much time or effort, and you’ll be amply rewarded.

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Chickens are not vegetarians, no matter what your egg carton says.

Oh, the “vegetarian-fed hens” you see advertised on your egg cartons? They’re only vegetarian because they’re crowded into miniscule cages and don’t have the opportunity to eat what they actually want to eat, which is mice. And bugs. And lettuce. And sandwich crusts. And overly ripe peaches. And leftover sausage bits. And the aforementioned tomatoes. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. Please remember that the next time you buy eggs, and don’t be swayed by meaningless packaging terms – or by bucolic pictures of peaceful, verdant farms. In the U.S., at least, laying hens have by far the worst lives of any production animal.

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Small pleasures: collecting still-warm eggs from nest boxes.

None of the other labels on your egg carton mean anything either, by the way. Whether “farm-fresh” or “natural” or “pasture-raised,” not one of these is regulated by any governing body. You can pretty much slap whatever you want on an egg carton and call it good, and people will pay more for pretty words that make them feel better. “USDA Organic” is actually regulated – if they can find enough inspectors to do some real inspecting – but it only indicates that the chickens consumed organic feed, not that they had any sort of decent life. Well over 95% of all commercially produced eggs in the U.S. were laid by hens who lived their entire lives in less space than a standard piece of paper. They never went outside, they never hunted or pecked, they never dust-bathed,  they never saw sunlight or grass, they never even flapped their wings because they didn’t have enough room. That’s why eggs are cheap, and also why salmonella outbreaks are rampant. Bottom line: buy your eggs from someone you know.

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Eggs for sale at a Thai market.

Americans are often shocked when eggs in Europe and elsewhere in the world aren’t sold in the refrigerated section. Yet another example of our obsession with “safety” and “hygiene,” in this country we wash all eggs prior to shipping and sale at grocery stores, superstores and warehouses. This removes the protective coating that eggs are laid with, and reduces their shelf life, thereby requiring refrigeration. Eggs in the rest of the world aren’t washed until they’re used, and so can be stored at room temperature.

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Although brown eggs will cost you more at the grocery store, there is no nutritional difference. The color of the shells is determined by the chicken’s breed, not by what it eats or where it lives. Most supermarket eggs are white because they were laid by Leghorns, the most common breed in the U.S., whereas brown supermarket eggs were probably produced by Rhode Island Reds. Blue and green eggs come from Araucanas and other unique breeds. You’re not getting any extra nutrition by paying for brown eggs.

Eggs Comparison

There really is a difference between eggs laid by battery hens and those laid by true free-range birds. Notice the backyard egg, on the right: the white is thicker, with more color and viscosity, and the yolk is definitely more yellow. This indicates a varied diet, including foraged protein.

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And when they’re cooked, the backyard egg (again on the right) stays true and tall, but the battery egg sort of melts. Supermarket egg yolks are weirdly chalky and sticky when cooked, while backyard eggs have a buttery creaminess. The taste difference, honestly, is night and day. Good eggs taste the way eggs ought to taste, instead of some insipid manufactured version thereof.

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According to legend, the one hundred pleats in a chef’s hat represent the number of ways they know how to cook eggs.

Whether or not you keep chickens at home, know that eggs from well-kept hens are one of the best inexpensive protein sources available. Ask at your local feed store or farmers’ market to find eggs raised near you and support backyard poultry, or start your own flock! Go here to learn more.