Baby Chicks Find a Home at Winding Pathways
Enjoying the chicks
The call from our post office came at 6 a.m. “Could you please come soon and pick up a box of peeping baby chicks,” requested the pleasant postal worker. Soon we were in the car en-route to retrieve the babies. We were excited, but the story really began months earlier.
The Girls are Getting Old
Going on their third lay cycle, the girls are getting old.
Our 13 hens were laying well but we knew they were on the downside of production. Young hens, called pullets, start laying when they are around 20 to 24 weeks old. During the approximately 14 months of their lay cycle we expect about 275 to 300 eggs per hen. Then they declare a vacation, take a break, shed their worn feathers, fatten up a bit, grow new feathers, increase their calcium, and after six or eight weeks begin their second lay cycle. They’ll produce fewer eggs this time and as they continue to age we can expect ever fewer eggs. So, about every third year we order baby chicks that grow into pullets to replace the old girls. The process takes time and requires planning.
Getting Ready for Baby Chicks
Around Christmas we began planning our new chick order. This year we cooperated with two friends. Each wanted some chicks but not a full order of 25. So, we placed a joint order with Hoover’s Hatchery in the tiny town of Rudd, Iowa. Leafing through their paper catalog and double checking their website helped us decide to order 50 chicks of diverse breeds. They’d collectively be a rainbow of feather colors and would lay light and dark brown, white, and blue/green eggs. We placed our order in January. Then, preparation really began.
Preparing for the Arrival
Keep adult chickens separate from chicks.
Our old chickens are in a coop Rich built in the corner of our small barn. We wanted to keep them until the new ones start laying in mid-summer. You don’t put baby chicks in with old ones. It just doesn’t work. Birds, like most creatures, are territorial and the old birds will kill the newcomers. The hens and chicks need to be kept apart. So, Rich made a second coop next to the existing one but separated by a wire and plywood wall. Inside the new coop, he made a large plywood box, complete with a plywood lid and two heat lamps to keep the babies warm until their feathers grew in and the weather warmed.
Hoover’s Hatchery sent a confirmation that the babies would arrive on March 15th. Gulp, the Ides of March. And, as it turned out, one of the colder days of winter.
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Note: Winding Pathways is not paid by companies we feature nor do we receive any free material goods. We simply have had great results with their products in our yard.
Although most of the United States is still in the grip of winter, cold weather makes thinking about spring pleasant. It’s also a great time to prepare for summer yard and garden projects. Here are three catalogs or websites we enjoy reading when it’s cold out.
HOOVER’S HATCHERY: Located in tiny Rudd, Iowa, this hatchery has greatly expanded the number of chicken breeds it sells-even such rare ones as lavender Orpingtons. Now is the time to begin preparing for hosting baby chicks this spring. Check out Hoover’s Website. Many breeds are scarce and although it’s too early to receive baby chicks in mid-winter, by ordering soon, customers are more likely to receive their favored breeds. For information on backyard chickens type “chickens” in the Winding Pathways search and several blogs will appear.
SEED SAVERS EXCHANGE: Not far from Rudd is Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. They feature an amazing array of garden seeds. We buy many of our seeds from them and especially like trying their heritage varieties of tomatoes, beans, squash and many other vegetables featured in their catalog. Type “squash” in the Winding Pathways search and blogs on our love of winter squash will appear.
RAINWATER SOLUTIONS: Seeds need water to grow and it doesn’t always rain at the right time. A solution is to harvest rain that flows off the roof and store it in a rain barrel for later use. We have five rain barrels at Winding Pathways and use the water constantly. Now is a great time to order a barrel for use as soon as the temperatures consistently stay above freezing. Check out their website at. Type “rain barrels” in Winding Pathways search and a couple of blogs will appear.
The Linn county Master Gardeners column “From the Ground Up” featured an article on “Ordering Seeds From Catalogs” on January 1st. Living section 4L.
Mid-winter is a perfect time to order baby chicks to arrive in the mail as the weather warms in spring. Homeowners can create an international flock of six hens that will be fun to keep and produce many delicious eggs.
Many hatcheries allow customers to order a mixture of breeds, but often they require buying 25 birds so the chicks stay warm during shipment. Winter is a perfect time to get together with other families who keep chickens to place a joint order to meet the minimum. Stores that stock chicks will usually sell as few as six, but their breed selection is normally limited.
Winding Pathways encourages folks to start browsing catalogs and on-line sites now and order soon to make sure desired breeds are in stock.
We’ve been keeping chickens of many breeds for decades at Winding Pathways. Both our children, now adults living in distant states, grew up tending our small flock. We love our fresh eggs and also appreciate the personalities and characteristics of our favorite breeds.
It’s easy to create an international flock. Here’s how we’d choose breeds for a six-bird flock that come from many places, are fun to be around, and lay plenty of eggs.
One Buff Orpingtons. This is a golden hen developed in England. Large, fluffy, and gentle. Orpingtons are so-so layers but absolutely beautiful, fun to be around, and easy to care for. A young chick enthusiast named ours “The Golden Hens”.
One Rhode Island Red or New Hampshire Red. We like having a “Yankee” chicken in our flock. Rhode Islands are dark reddish in color and are outstanding layers. New Hampshires are a lighter red and good layers, although perhaps not quite as good as Rhode Islands.
One Barred Rock. Sometimes called Plymouth Rock, there are several colors of the rock breed and all are good. Not quite as friendly as the Orpingtons but a better layer. This is another “Yankee” breed either named for Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts or developed by a breeder in Plymouth, NH, depending on the source of information.
One Americana. People love the blueish/greenish eggs this breed lays. They are good layers that originated in South America.
One Maran. This French breed lays very dark brown eggs. Marans come in various feather colors that children love to gather. We sometimes collect feathers and give them to our fly-fishing son-in-law who ties his own flies.
One beautiful and unusual bird. Look at the photos in printed hatchery catalogs and on websites and choose an interesting and colorful brown egg layer. Often these ornamental breeds aren’t great egg layers, but they are interesting and colorful. Some possibilities include Wyandottes, good layers developed in New York; Brahmas, perhaps from India; Cochin, not so good layers but named for Cochin China – near the mouth of the Mekong River in Vietnam; Sussex, a good layer from England; Jersey Giants from New Jersey; or Buckeyes from Ohio.
In recent years we’ve purchased our chicks from Hoovers Hatchery but we’ve also bought them from McMurray Hatchery. The following three hatcheries have interesting websites and provide outstanding chicks of many breeds: Cackle Hatchery; Murray McMurray Hatchery; Hoovers Hatchery.
A variety of chickens lay beautiful and nutritious eggs.
Newly arrived chicks.
These colorful birds are interesting and fun.
One late October afternoon Rich brought only three eggs into the kitchen. In spring and summer our 15 hens normally give us a dozen beautiful eggs every day. Like so many signs in nature our chickens are telling us it is transition time.
We have lucky chickens. They enjoy good food, safe living space, and daily fresh air, sunshine, exercise and natural food. Seasons shape their lives, but even their unfortunate counterparts living in cramped cages in factory farms are not completely immune to seasonal changes of nature.
When molting chickens lounge, take dust baths, and re-grow new feathers.
A hen starts laying when she’s four to five months old and stays laving for 12 to 14 months. Egg laying is tough on bodies and after a year chickens need a vacation. So hens call time out. They shed old worn out feathers and grow new ones, rest and eat as they build back strength. After a month or two they look great in their new feathers and begin laying again – if they are fortunate enough to live in a backyard flock.
Commercial egg operations kill hens as they begin to molt and replace them with young birds. Not us. We keep our birds for at least two years. In their second lay cycle our hens give us slightly fewer eggs but they are huge with bright yellow/orange yolks in shells of various hues.
Molting is caused, in part, by the age of the bird, but declining daylight is a major factor. Nature has programmed chickens to lay the most eggs in spring. As fall’s days shorten production drops. We let our chickens enjoy seasonality. Commercial eggeries don’t. Their unfortunate hens live in windowless buildings with lighting that simulates spring to stimulate peak production.
Declining day length triggers thousands of reactions in our world outside the living room windows. Here are just a few things we notice:
A still day of reflection on Turtle Stump.
Leaves of our sugar maples turn vibrant red/orange before drifting to the ground like snow. Our black, white, and red oak leaves wait a bit later until turning rust colored and shedding, although some oaks keep dead leaves all winter.
- White footed mice, box elder bugs, and Asian beetles try their best to get into the house before cold weather settles in.
- There are comings and goings in the yard. We’ve said “goodbye” to house wrens, orioles, grosbeaks, warblers and many other birds but are delighted to welcome back juncos from their nesting grounds up north. Hawks, geese, and even pelicans pass overhead on their way south.
- The world sounds and looks different as humid summer air transitions into fall’s dryness. Colors are more vibrant in low humidity air, sound transmits more clearly, and late afternoon sunlight dances across tree trunks and drying prairie grasses.
Sunlight hits our solar panels at a different angle in the fall and winter.
We produce a bit less electricity from our photovoltaics because the sun isn’t shining as long each day, but peak production is earlier in the day than in midsummer
- Sitting outside on a bright autumn day lets us soak in the sun’s delicious warmth but it cools quickly as the sun drops. Then, we go inside to enjoy the warmth our wood stove provides.
- Clouds drift by and sunrises and sunsets are particularly colorful.
- Autumn and winter constellations enchant viewers and linger into the darker mornings. Because the temperatures are mild, star gazing is pleasant.
Fall is a beauty filled season. We encourage you to “Go outside and play!”
Winter Squash vary in color, texture, shape and size.
One of the most exciting times of our gardening year is winter squash harvest. Few plants are as interesting or useful. They’re diverse, easy to grow, colorful, easy to store, delicious, and can be used in dozens of recipes.
Winter squash were domesticated by Native Americans long before Columbus and with beans and corn provided a balanced diet. Although there are several species of squash all share similar characteristics. It’s hard to believe that common jack-o-lantern pumpkins are the same species as delicate acorn squash – but they are. Squash range in size from tiny acorns to massive 2,000 pound pumpkins. They also vary greatly in shape and color.
Squash are categorized as either summer or winter. Summer squash, such as zucchini or crookneck, are eaten during summer when the fruits are small and tender. They don’t keep long. Winter squash, in contrast, are allowed to mature until they are full grown and hard. They keep for months.
Here’s why we like winter squash at Winding Pathways:
- They’re easy to grow. Plant seeds in rich soil after the danger of frost has past, keep the weeds down until the squash plants are about a foot tall, and then just let them grow. They will out compete weeds as their vines create a solid mass of leaves.
- They’re easy to harvest. We wait until the vines die back in September and then clip off the stems with a pruning shear. We load them up in the wheelbarrow and spread them on the back deck where they continue to cure in the sunshine.
- They’re easy to store. No canning, freezing, or drying is needed. We simply bring the squash inside before the first frost and store them in a dry cool location. Several types last for months and we’re still eating them in March.
- They’re a delicious, versatile, and nutritious food. Squash is loaded with vitamins, omega 3 fatty acid, and minerals.
- They’re just plain fun. Squash even make interesting table decorations.
Winding Pathways Squash Growing Tip
Every year we plant many varieties of winter squash and pie pumpkins. We can never predict which types will grow best in a given year. In some years we get a heavy crop of one type while others barely produce a fruit. Diversity assures a good crop. Many garden stores only sell a few varieties, but we hedge our bets and order seeds of many varieties. Our favorites are Butternut, Hubbard, Silver Bell, and Sweet Potato. A wonderful source is Seed Savers Exchange. Some varieties grow to massive size, but with only two of us at Winding Pathways we stick with varieties that produce smaller squash fruits. Fortunately, plant breeders have created a downsized version of the traditional Hubbard squash and several other types.
Cooking Winter Squash
Every cookbook has winter squash recipes and Epicurious offers more online. We usually keep it simple and use our squash as a side dish with melted butter. Here are some squash cooking tips:
Opening a tough skinned squash: The tough thick skin covering a winter squash keeps it fresh for months but can be intimidating to cut. A heavy bladed sharp knife works but we have fun and put the squash on a chopping block outside and whack it with a machete! Works great. Our cousin, Marie Zieger, avoids cutting through tough skin by simply baking the whole squash. That softens it and makes it easy to slice it open. Another way of opening a big squash is to simply drop it on concrete to crack it and then pry it apart.
Cooking the squash: We place chunks in a pan and baking at about 350 degrees for about an hour or until the flesh is soft. Using a microwave is faster and works fine. Sometimes we put chunks in a pressure cooker for about 15 minutes. The pressure cooker method results in moister cooked squash flesh. Occasionally we’ll cut the raw squash into chunks and add them to winter stews. Extra cooked squash can be put in sealed containers and frozen.
We recycle the seeds to the chickens.
Seeds and the tough skin: We scoop out the seeds and feed them to our chickens. Some people remove the cords that hold the seeds together, wash the seeds lightly, apply a seasoning, and roast them for a delicious high protein snack. Tough skins go into the compost bin.
We love winter squash. Few plants are as easy to grow and delicious.
A machete is useful in cutting squash.
Chickens efficiently recycle squash seeds to eggs.
Eggs in basket
Checking the fresh vegetables as they cook in the cast iron pan.
Want to buy a product that’s inexpensive, American made, can be used every day of your life and then passed on to your children as a legacy? Cast iron cookware fills the bill.
One cool August morning Rich collected eggs from our backyard chicken flock, pulled out a cast iron skillet, and minutes later we enjoyed a delicious omelet. “That skillet once belonged to my great grandmother. It’s been handed down through generations and must be a century old yet still works great,” he said.
In this day and age when nearly all products quickly become obsolete or break, cast iron is amazingly durable. This type of cookware has been manufactured for well over 100 years and new and old ones cook amazingly well.
“I can’t think of any product as enduring as cast iron cookware. They truly last a lifetime or longer,” said Mark Kelly of Lodge Manufacturing. The company makes dozens of types of cast iron cookware in its Tennessee facility. Other American companies make small quantities of artisan cast iron skillets but they are pricey, while low quality ones are imported from China.
pans on the stove
We love our cast iron and regularly use several skillets of different sizes and a Dutch oven to slow cook winter stew. Several are of unknown age but obviously old. Few have any writing embedded in them so their age and who made them is unknown. We augmented our heritage pans with a few new ones made by Lodge Manufacturing. Here’s what we like about our old and new cast iron cookware:
- Lasts nearly forever.
- Easy and fun to use. Clean up is a snap.
- Heavy cast iron produces an even heat and adds a tiny bit of nutritional iron to food.
- Made in the US! Partially of recycled metal. In the unlikely event that one cracks we can recycle it.
- Food coming out of cast iron is delicious.
- Amazingly inexpensive to buy. A small skillet costs under $20.
Rich’s Sunday Morning Pancakes or Winding Pathways Waffles
2 cups whole wheat flour
½ cup buckwheat flour
½ cup milled flax or oat bran
½ cup sunflower seeds or minced pecans
¼ cup of raisins or small pieces of apple.
Two tablespoons of powdered milk
One tablespoon of baking powder
One fresh egg
Vegetable oil. (optional but needed for waffles)
Combine and mix dry ingredients and add water while stirring. Pour pancake sized pool of batter on a heated cast iron skillet. Cook on medium heat until bubbles in mix break. Flip and cook the other side. Enjoy with butter or a dollop of yogurt and warm maple syrup.
Cast iron cookware is often sold in hardware and outdoor stores and online. For information contact Lodge Manufacturing.
Our friends, Jim and Diane Low, of Missouri are accomplished chefs who specialize in cast iron cooking over wood coals. Jim wrote, “The morels and wild turkey with bow-tie pasta and nut-crusted venison loin best fit the hunting/foraging description.” He shared several of his favorite recipes: