Chickens Up North

It may seem odd for a bird that evolved in tropical Southeast Asia to thrive up in the frigid north but increasing numbers of people are enjoying the benefits of backyard chickens in Canada, Maine, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in Northern Minnesota, and even Alaska.

Although, chickens are hardy and adaptable, raising them way up north requires special management. Among the challenges both chickens and their owners face is frigid temperatures, vastly different day lengths between winter and summer, and the sometimes difficulty of buying feed and supplies in areas far from where chicken culture is common.

Steve Brown, extension agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension office, Palmer, AK, has been advocating chicken husbandry in Alaska for many years. He has a flock and regularly helps others acquire and manage birds. It’s challenging but the rewards are many.

Frigid Temperatures

On the roost

Chickens sheltered from the cold.

Everyone knows Alaska is a cold place, so during the long winter hens need a coop that protects them from the wind and predators and moderates the temperature some. Moisture causes chicken manure in litter to quickly generate ammonia so keeping the coop dry is important. Brown uses the deep litter method to keep the coop floor dry and only occasionally warms his coop when temperatures drop really low.

Daylight

Chickens are daytime creatures and in southern Alaska there’s upwards of 17 hours of darkness in the winter. “LED bulbs solve the lighting problem and keep expenses down. Electricity is expensive here, and LED bulbs provide great light while consuming little energy, keeping my costs down,” said Brown. During warm seasons he lets his chickens forage in the yard and also uses a chicken tractor.

Supplies

Nearly all food is shipped to the state, so finding fresh eggs is challenging, but Steve and many others enjoy eggs that come directly from the coop. Fresh eggs sell for $8 a dozen!

Lavender Orpington

Chicks can successfully be shipped to the cold north.

But, where do the chicks come from? “I buy chicks from a company in Texas. They airmail them to me and they arrive in good shape. Usually I buy about 100 chicks, raise them for several weeks and sell most of them to other families who want chickens using Alaskas List, like Craig’s List. I keep a small flock at my home,” he said.

Feed and supplies are hard to come by in Alaska and expensive. “I don’t buy grit but collect sand and small pebbles from a nearby river bank, and I feed my chickens a lot of kitchen scraps, dog food, and fish scraps. Sometimes fishy taste gets into the eggs,” he said.

Brown sticks with hardy brown egg laying breeds which stand the cold better than Leghorns. “I like Chanteclers, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, and Orpingtons,” he said. 

Continental Climate Chickens

Chicken Tractor

Chicken Tractor

Another family that raises far north chickens is Paul and Karen Colson. They probably raise the most northern flock in the contiguous United States. They live in Minnesota’s Northwest Angle. The Angle is a relatively small area bounded by the Lake of the Woods and Manitoba. To reach it, a driver must enter Canada, drive NE about 40 miles, and then reenter this remote part of the United States. Like Alaska, nearly all supplies must be hauled in a long distance.

The Colsons raise broilers and keep a small flock of laying hens. Although not as far north as Alaska they face the same challenges of cold, day length, access to supplies, and predators as Brown does and manage their chickens in a similar way.

No place is really too far north to keep chickens. It takes more time and work to keep hens healthy in a harsh climate but the fresh eggs and meat they provide make it worthwhile.

Moles In Winter

Moles in winter?  You bet! We were amused and amazed to look out our den window and see a heaped-up line of topsoil on top of several stepping stones.  Even in Winter, our moles are active!

Many people hate moles because their tunneling raises mini ridges in the lawn and their hills smother a patch of grass and get

Fresh Dirt.

Moles bring rich dirt from below to the surface as they tunnel along hunting for earthworms and grubs.

caught in a lawnmower’s blades. Some go to great lengths to poison or kill moles.

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TURNING FOOD WASTE INTO BACKYARD GOLD

Americans Waste Food!

We were astounded to read a news story stating that 20% of Iowa’s trash is food waste. That’s about 556,000 tons of food tossed out by our state’s people, and Iowan’s aren’t unusual.    Americans everywhere discard food into the trash or grind it in the garbage disposal and send it off to the sewer plant. Other solutions exist! 

Winding Pathways isn’t a contributor to this vast waste because we manage our family food carefully. Our main way of reducing waste is buying carefully so we don’t end up with more perishables than we can eat in a reasonable time. It saves money at the market, but still, a lot of scraps result from meal preparation.

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Where We Buy Garden Seed

Each winter we love discovering colorful seed catalogs in our mail. The landscape may be snowy and the air frigid but flipping through catalogs and savoring photos of flowering prairies and ripe tomatoes makes us think spring.

We buy many types of seeds for our prairie and woodland restorations, the chicken run and the vegetable garden. Often, we order from several companies and buy some seeds in local garden supply stores.

Like many wildflower enthusiasts, we prefer buying seeds grown as close to our Iowa home as possible. They are well adapted to our climate and soil. Googling NATIVE PLANT SEED SOURCES will steer anyone to seed companies close to where they live, even if that’s Australia!

Here are some of our favorite sources:

SEED SAVERS EXCHANGE, 3094 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA  52101.  www.seedsavers.org. This is our favorite source for garden vegetable seeds. The catalog lists hundreds of varieties. Many are heritage types hard to find anywhere else.   It’s where we buy seeds for Silver Bell winter squash, our favorite. Seed Savers is a fun place to visit located near the college town of Decorah, Iowa.

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Opossums are Wondrous Animals!

We like opossums and are always happy to see one shuffling off when we startle it after dark. This amazing animal gets too little respect and appreciation by people who consider them dirty, stupid, and ugly. They are just the opposite!

Opossums are doing something right. They’re survivors who have been on the planet far longer that humans. Often called ‘possums, they were once common only in southern states. Their fur is sparse and doesn’t cover tails or ears, so winter is rough on them. Warming temperatures are helping this animal move north, and they’re now common in Maine, Minnesota and other more northern states where they once were absent.

‘Possums are our only native marsupial. Like kangaroos, female opossums have a pouch to nourish their young. Born after only a 13-day pregnancy tiny babies make their way into her pouch where they remain for about 100 days feeding on mom’s milk. Once they leave the pouch they follow her around learning how to fend for themselves.

Mostly nocturnal, possums aren’t choosy eaters. They love over ripe fruit, especially persimmons but they’ll also snack on insects, worms, dead animals, and nearly any other animal they can catch or find. Think of them as a gardener’s assistant because they gravitate to decaying material.

New research reveals an important diet item. They enjoy eating ticks! ‘Possums groom often and any tick that climbs aboard one and attempts to bite is in for a surprise.  The grooming animal is likely to find the tick and quickly devour it. Fewer than 4% of ticks that climb on a O’possum successfully enjoy a blood meal. The rest become a meal themselves.

We’re lucky to have opossums in our yard.  We enjoy sharing space with these ancient, clean, and useful animals.  We hope you also have a neighborhood ‘possum.   Be sure to share a photo of your ‘possum with us. For information on the opossum/tick relationship go to Cary Institute.

We Have a Snake in the Yard!

Every once in a while, when we’re out in our summery yard enjoying birds and flowers, we encounter a snake. We’ve been around snakes for decades and know there are no venomous species in our area but we’re still startled when one slithers away.

Managing a yard to attract a diversity of wildlife sometimes encourages snakes to move in along with birds and butterflies.  Usually the snakes that visit yards are non-venomous species merely looking for a place to live and something for dinner.  Most common are garter snakes that mostly eat insects. We’ve written about garter snakes on Winding Pathways before.  Sometimes we spot tiny brown snakes no bigger than a nightcrawler. They also eat worms and bugs. Once in a while we see a beautifully colored and patterned fox snake. They probably seek tasty white footed mice or maybe a chipmunk. And lots of folks combat the undermining work of chipmunks.

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