You know Steve Brown is from Texas right away. Vernon, Texas, to be exact. Home of the Red River Valley Museum, that features native sons trombonist and singer, Jack Teagarden and singer-songwriter, Roy Orbison. Brown’s drawl and easy manner draw you in. But, there is something else in his voice – maybe a hint of an Eastern clip? Perhaps a touch of wry Midwestern humor? And, what about the creative way he describes raises chickens in the north?
Technology and Tinkering
All of these are part of Dr. Stephen Brown who has lived, studied and worked in Upstate New York, Kansas, and now Alaska. “I grew up raising chickens since age eight,” he stated. “I love the soap opera of the coop,” he added. An engineer and self-professed “tinkerer” Brown is smart, innovative and ambitious. Above all, he is good with people. Pretty important qualities since he is District Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension Service Agent for the Mat-Su/Copper River District of Alaska. He integrates his specialties of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with agriculture and the environment.
He applies his advanced degrees in Environmental Sciences from the University of Texas at San Antonio and the State University of New York, and his numerous publications and presentations practically for those living in the far north.
As Alaskans learn to raise poultry, till the soil, and ward off predators Brown is right with them. “I get to remote homesteads by boat, airplane and snow machine,” he said. “I may be the only extension agent in the country with reimbursement mileage for a snow machine,” he quipped.
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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 inCanada, 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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
Sometimes hens go broody at the wrong time of year.
We were surprised when one of our California White hens started acting strangely. She puffed up her feathers, clucked in an unusual tone, and spent hours patiently sitting in a nest box. But. we know she’s not sick. She’s broody and wants to be a mom.
We are not surprised when one of our large brown egg laying hens gets broody. Some breeds have a very strong maternal instinct and often show the maternal instinct. But California Whites are a hybrid of the white egg laying Leghorn breed, which rarely goes broody. In years of chicken keeping, this is the first time a white egg layer has shown a maternal instinct.
When one of our hens goes broody we do one of two things.
Sometimes a hen goes broody at the wrong time, like December. Since the incubation time for a chicken egg is 21 days,
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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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.