Now a couple of months old, the quartet of chicks is exploring farther afield. After the cold and snowy introduction to the outside world in late March, they readily follow Mama Hen outside.
Mama protects them inside from the other hens by cornering the chicks and standing literally in front of them, screening them from the others who get too close. Outside, Mama clucks and calls the chicks over for food and again, warns off the adults with a serious sounding tone and lunge toward one that may get too close to the chicks or be aggressive toward them.
Mama hen with four chicks on roost.
The chicks learned how to fly up onto the roost with Mama and she mightily shelters them at night. We were worried the first few nights in April when temperatures fell to 11 degrees. But, they did OK.
Getting back down off the high perch is a challenge. A hilarious video shows three on the ground foraging and one walking back and forth screwing up courage for the long “flight” down.
The other day, one chick squeezed through the wire into the yard. Mama called it back. The funny thing about chickens is they can figure out how to get out and sometimes cannot figure out how to get back in.
Enjoy our blogs, pix and videos of the chicks growing up.
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.
Adapting the Coop
“Chickens can adapt to the cold when they have a safe coop,” explained Brown. After arriving in Alaska about a dozen years ago, he experienced some of the challenges of “high latitude farming.” He researched and presented keynote talks across the US and Canada. Then, he adapted methods that fit with homesteader lifestyles and pocketbooks. “You have to be practical because of the costs,” he explained. For example, temperature extremes make watering farm animals a problem. Since you don’t want to haul fresh water out every day and everything in Alaska is expensive, Brown adapted dog water bowls to stay heated in the winter for the low cost of about 15 bucks.
Brown also addressed other barriers to raising poultry in the far north. “Frostbite and ammonia build up are the two largest killers up here,” he explained. To prevent frostbite on chickens’ toes, Brown simply installed flat perches instead of round ones, so the chickens’ feathers covered their toes when they roost. Frostbite solved.
Animals also need to be safe from predators – bears and mosquitoes. So, the coop must be sturdy, have mosquito netting inside heavily wired windows, and have good ventilation. He converted an old horse stall to a secure, ventilated and warm chicken coop. He affirmed that chickens can handle the cold and only adds a heat lamp when temperatures really drop into the double-digit minus degrees.
Tom Sawyer Method
The deep litter method works well to keep the coop fresh and prevent ammonia build up. Spread a thin layer of fresh litter about once a week and toss in some treats for the chickens to scratch and keep the litter turned over. A couple of times a year he uses the “Tom Sawyer” method of cleaning up the coop. “I invite local gardeners to come over to my place twice a year and clean out the deep litter. I show them how to use it in their gardens to improve their soil for better crops,” he explained. Win-win.
Some poultry techniques he teaches in “Chicken U” classes which fill up. These include such basics as how to safely catch, hold, and butcher a chicken. Classes are booming and so is poultry husbandry. According to Brown, in the past eight years, chicken orders have skyrocketed from single thousands to well over 120,000. He gets to experience the great results of good husbandry and farming in part because he is president of the Alaska State Fair board of directors. The State Fair runs late August.
Marathon Man and Mountaineer
In his position, Brown is passionate about more than chickens. He has been on the cutting edge of promoting Rhodiola rosea as an important cash crop for Alaskans.
And, he is not all work and no play. His recreational pursuits run deeply, too – literally. He’s a marathoner and mountaineer. Since 1979 Brown has summited numerous peaks and seeks to summit on all continents. He even mused about taking a chicken to the top of Denali. “Even though I am no a spring chicken myself, I think it’d be kinda fun,” he said.
Call him up some time to chat chickens and crops. You’ll know him at the Alaska State Fair by his drawl and friendly manner that draws you in.
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.
We’ve had fun allowing the California White to brood and then raise four chicks we placed under her one night. She’s been an attentive Mama showing the chicks how to eat, accept new foods, and forage outside in the snow.
Each evening she tucks them into her feathers and keeps them warm.
Here are some pictures from March. Go to Winding Pathways You Tube for short videos of the Mama Hen and chicks.
Sometimes hens go broody at the wrong time of year. February Was much too early.
The California White patiently sitting.
Mama California tucks the babies in for the night.
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,
Since the incubation time for a chicken egg is 21 days, chicks hatching when the January temperatures may be 25 below zero isn’t a good idea. Also, we don’t have a rooster, so all the eggs are hens lay are infertile. Sometimes we discourage a broody hen because we don’t need more chicks.
To discourage a broody hen we move her to a separate coop where she’s alone and there is no nest box. We give her plenty of room and lots of good food and water. Often, she’ll shake the broody habit in a few days and we return her to the main coop.
Mother hen with new chick
The brooding process is fascinating. If a hen goes broody in spring when chicks will hatch during warm weather and we want some more chicks, we’ll encourage her. We move her to her own small coop where she’s away from the other hens, give her a secure nest box, and put eight to 12 fertile eggs under her. If we don’t have a rooster, we’ll swap eggs with a nearby family who does or order fertile eggs online. She’ll sit patiently until the chicks hatch, and then the fun begins. The new mom will lead her babies around the coop, talking to them in chicken language. She’ll show them how to find food and keep them warm by letting them burrow into her feathers. Many hens are ideal mothers that teach and protect their babies. It’s a natural process, fun to watch, and is one of the joys of keeping chickens.
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.
Save Money. Create Soil.
Instead of tossing out potato and carrot peels, bits of rice that get caught in the sink strainer, onion skins, shrimp tails, egg shells, coffee grounds, and a host of other organic matter we separate it into two bowls that we empty daily.
Our first bowl becomes chicken treats. Our 14 hens love shrimp tails, wilted lettuce, bread crusts and other items we can’t eat. When we approach the coop with our scrap bowl our hens rush to meet us and devour the treats with considerable enthusiasm. In a day or two they return the favor by presenting us with delicious eggs.
Our second bowl is everything the chickens won’t eat or we don’t want them to eat and includes potato peels, egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, avocado skins, citrus fruit skins and other relatively course organic items that most folks toss in the trash. These become the ingredients for rich compost.
Our composter is gradually filled overwinter. We create a layer of food scraps a couple of inches thick and then add a layer of chicken manure mixed with wood chips from the coop and ash from the woodstove. Manure is another gift from our hens that speeds up the composting process. The layers gradually decompose, and by spring we harvest outstanding rich compost to dig into our garden.
Return on Our Dollar
Summertime meal from the garden.
We don’t buy fertilizer. We make it from food scraps. Beans, squash, carrots, okra, chard, kale, lettuce, and tomatoes seem to jump from the compost-enrichened soil, and on many summer days everything we eat comes from the yard.
Then we return the little scraps from our garden vegetables to the chickens or compost pile, completing a cycle of abundance. We save money and spare the landfill unnecessary waste.