Chickens in run
A chicken run is one tough place for plants to live, and our run at Winding Pathways is even tougher than most.
Every day we let our chickens roam around the run. A bright baking sun broils the sandy soil all day long, so it’s hard to imagine that any plant can thrive there. And, chicken run plants face another challenge. The birds love greenery and usually devour every plant they find. As a result, most chicken runs are just bare dirt that’s either dusty or muddy.
Flower and leaf
Big Bracht Verbena (Verbena bracteata), sometimes called Prostrate Vervain, is up to the challenge. It carpets our chicken run. We didn’t plant it. Verbena moved in on its own. Hopefully, our chickens enjoy viewing the plants’ tiny soft blue flowers.
Big Bracht Verbena is common across much of North America, but it’s easy to overlook. Rarely causing problems, it lives in the most difficult environments. The plant thrives in hot dry gravel soil along roads, in vacant lots, and in sidewalk cracks.
We like having this humble plant in our chicken run. It covers the soil, eliminating mud that follows rain. Chickens absolutely won’t eat it, but they love snatching the insects lured to the plant. It needs no human care, but we sometimes mow it if it gets a big shaggy by late summer.
Foraging among verbena
One of nature’s mysteries is how plants have adapted to thrive in all sorts of environments, even harsh ones. Hats off to Big Bracht Verbena.
Coming up to a year from the last post on the features we wrote for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, here is an updated list for the second half of 2021 and the first half (almost) of 2022. These features are in addition to our regular work with Hoover’s Hatchery blogs and FB Live and our own blogs for Winding Pathways.
May 8, 2022. Splish Splash! Whitewater Kayaking in Iowa. (No link to date)
April 22, 2022. Finding America On Roadways East.
April 13, 2022. Muscle Over motor When Boating.
March 21, 2022. Rockhounding.
January 30, 2022. Backpacking Bonus. (8B of GZ. No link to date) Available Green Gazette.
January 24, 2022. Distinctive Religious Structures.
January 16, 2022. Hiking Wild Areas. (no link to date) Available Green Gazette.
December, 2021. Country Schools. (no link to date) Available Green Gazette
November 15, 2021. Making a (Mini) Pitch for Soccer.
October 6, 2021. A visit with Midwest’s Pioneering Authors.
September 8, 2021. Taking a Slow Boat to Cassville.
September 6, 2021. Camping in Iowa’s Trout Country & Decorah’s Celebrities.
August 4, 2021. Parking While Headed East. And Solar Panels at Peoples.
We are shocked by the rise of many prices, especially food. Fortunately, we mute the cost by finding or growing groceries here at Winding Pathways. We’re lucky to own two acres, but folks living on tiny lots can produce an amazing amount of food, even if they aren’t passionate gardeners.
In a nutshell here’s what we do to tame grocery bills:
It’s ironic that many people consider the most delicious and easy wild foods pests and spend time and money trying to eliminate them. We eat ‘em. Books and websites, including Winding Pathways, share tips on finding, identifying, harvesting, cooking, and eating wild foods. Caveat: ALWAYS check that you have the correct plant, gather from unpolluted places, and consume only a small amount initially to be sure your body accepts the wild edible.
Here are our favorites:
We’re not passionate gardeners and we don’t can or freeze vegetables, so here’s what we do:
- Succession plant: Our small garden yields an enormous amount of food. We don’t let a square foot be idle. When summer’s heat turns lettuce bitter, we pull it, feed it to our chickens, and plant beans or another heat-loving crop. Same with other crops that grow quickly and then fade.
- Use vertical space: Pole beans, for example, produce much more food per square foot than bush beans, so we choose climbers and use vertical space. We have the pole high enough to reach up and pull off the beans.
- Grow dwarfs: Some cucumber varieties, for example, are “bush” type, meaning they produce a crop without long vines that consume plenty of space.
- Think of winter eating: Because we lack freezer space and don’t can food, we plant vegetables that need little care during the growing season and store them until late winter without being canned or frozen. Here’s our list:
- Winter squash. Pick them, let them curet, and store them in a cool spot. They keep for months. Same with pie pumpkins.
- Carrots and parsnips. In late fall we smother the plants with a thick blanket of dry leaves or straw that keeps the ground from freezing. We’ve harvested carrots in January by brushing away snow and peeling back the mulch and pulling them.
- Sweet potatoes. They love the South’s climate yet grow well up north.
We carefully dig them in the fall, cure them, and store them like winter squash.
Sweet potatoes are a healthy vegetable.
Winter Squash vary in color, texture, shape and size.
We can’t imagine living without a small chicken flock. Our six to 12 hens gift us a couple of dozen eggs a week. Their manure fertilizes the garden and garden weeds are a great hen chow. During warm months our hens forage in their large run eating bugs, worms, and weeds and transforming them into eggs. Sometimes we even stew down an old hen.
In the summer hens find plenty to eat.
The chickens kept on laying eggs.
Chickens efficiently recycle squash seeds to eggs.
Lots of folks don’t like hunting. For us harvesting a deer is a form of food gathering, not recreation. After all, deer are free-ranging, local, and organic. Fortunately, we’re able to hunt on our property and convert a deer into delicious meat. We also enjoy eating panfish.
Like most folks, we can’t grow or forage all our food but much comes from the yard and area. It takes knowledge and investment in elbow grease but trims the food budget. Perhaps even better, knowing how to find and grow food makes us feel less vulnerable to national disruptions that make food either hard to get or expensive.
Frigid April weather threatened the lives of 90 baby chicks.
We had agreed to brood 75 rooster chicks for the Rodale Institute. In past years we have brooded a dozen to 25 chicks for our own flock. That was easy. We could brood them in a big cardboard box, and if it was cold we situated the brooder in the basement where the temperature was already warm. A heat lamp easily boosted it to the nearly 100 degrees hatchlings need.
We’d ordered Rodale’s chicks and 15 pullets for us from Hoover’s Hatchery to arrive on April 7. That’s usually an ideal time, as spring’s temperatures rapidly rise. So, by May, chicks can go out into the non-heated coop with only a heat lamp to take the chill off on cool nights.
When temperatures too cool, chicks huddle to stay warm.
Dip the chick’s beak in water so it knows where to drink.
Chicks eat, drink, sleep and poop.
Wind and Cold
This year a cold front brought snow and wind the day before Kelsey Spotts was to deliver the chicks from Hoover’s Hatchery. Because we were brooding 90 chicks, we made a big brooder in the unheated barn. The weather was so cold that even with three heat lamps it was just too cold in the big brooder. With just a day before the babies were to arrive, we had a crisis.
Nature’s Way Is More Simple
Mama hens are the natural way to brood and raise chicks.
For thousands of years, broody hens patiently sat for 21 days on fertile eggs. Then, on that magical day when they hatched, mamas hover over them to keep them toasty warm from their body heat. Even if a cold snap arrived hens keep their babies warm. Today, most chicks lack a mother. A brooder keeps them warm but ……. ours was too cold.
We scrambled. Fortunately, we had scrounged crates from a wood scrap pile outside a business that welcomes people to take and recycle their discarded wood. We used the wood to craft a temporary brooder in our wood stove heated cabin and installed two heat lamps. Presto, the temperature hovered just at the 100 degrees the chicks need.
The next day Kelsey delivered all 90 chicks. They moved right in and immediately started eating, drinking, peeping, and pooping. Now, a week later, the weather hasn’t warmed much, and the chicks remain in the temporary brooder in the cabin. They’re growing and feathers are forming.
Warming Trends and Chick Growth
The forecast next week promises a warming trend. So, as soon as the barn brooder comes up to about 90 degrees the chicks move there. Why 90 instead of 100? When chicks hatch, they need the full warmth but as they age their temperature needs drops by about five degrees a week. So, by the time they are six weeks old, they will be comfortable at a balmy 70 degrees, and that’s a common May temperature. No more need for artificial heat or a brooder.
Hoover’s Hatchery keeps chicks safe….
Handle chicks delicately.
Chicks move around freely.
Rodale will use their chicks for a research project at Etzel’s Sugar Grove Farm. Researchers will learn if chickens foraging in corn can eat enough insect pests to eliminate the need for pesticides, and their poop will fertilize the crop.
Watch for future blogs about the chicken in corn project.
Keep the Photos!
An old photo or letter can bring back memories. That happened to Rich recently and helped him recognize both good parenting and a lifelong passion.
Rich was sorting through a stack of family documents when he discovered a paper his mother wrote in his “baby” book. Written in 1959, when Rich was nine, it stated that he wanted to be a chicken farmer! Of all things for a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey to say.
Rich became fascinated with chickens while only four or five years old. By the time his mother wrote in the book he had learned many chicken breeds. Another letter, dated May 5, 1959, was written as an exercise in his elementary school. The teacher was teaching students letter writing. Rich’s note to his mother said:
Thank you for taking me to the chicken farm. Now I know what a black hen looks like. I now know why one costs more than a Leghorn. I’m going to cook breakfast for you. Happy Mother’s Day. Love, Rich
A Budding Entrepreneur
A third document is an account of how many eggs his hens laid each day and a bill presented to a customer. 65 cents for a dozen in 1960. Adjusted for inflation that dozen would cost $6.50 today.
Dreaming of the future
Learning math and writing.
A pair of photos show 13-year-old Rich at his junior high school science fairs. One science project was titled, The Effect of Vitamin E on the Hatchability of Chicken Eggs, and the other demonstrated an incubator.
A science project
What Do These Documents Signify?
- Great parenting. It must have seemed weird to his parents that their young child had such an unusual passion, but they helped, learned, and encouraged.
- Chickens helped teach math, animal care, writing, business, and research methods.
- Chickens became a lifelong passion.
Rich encourages parents to encourage their children’s passions. They might lead to lifelong hobbies and, perhaps, even a career.
Update on Careers
Rich never became a chicken farmer, per se, but he is co-owner of Winding Pathways where we encourage people to be creative in how they interact with nature and to consider backyard chicken raising. He developed another passion, fish, and earned a degree in fishery biology, and served as a biologist in Alaska.
Like many people with a small flock of backyard chickens, we faced a dilemma.
Our birds are housed in a coop built inside a pole barn. There was no electric power in our barn.
The chickens kept on laying eggs.
Fall’s Shortening days signals chickens to slow egg production just as many families need plenty of eggs for the holiday baking season. Placing a timer-controlled light in the coop, set to come on early each morning, gives chickens the optimal 15 hours of combined artificial and natural light they need to keep laying.
Lights and timers need electricity that our barn lacked. So, years ago, we hired an electrician to trench a wire from our house to the barn and add outlets and overhead lights. It works fine but the electrician’s bill was stiff and our chicken lights add to our monthly power bill. Now there’s a less expensive option.
P.S. The Holidays are coming….This might be a great gift for chickens and caregivers!
After trenching the wire was laid down.
We hired a company to install solar panels on the barn roof.
Solar powers our home and the light needed for the coop.
Batteries, light bulbs, and solar collectors have become much more efficient and less expensive. It’s now easy to purchase a solar electric system to power outbuildings that lack electricity.
Alternative Light Options
Big box stores sell security lights that include a solar collector, occupancy sensor, battery, and light bulb. The collector creates electricity during the day that charges the battery. The sensor recognizes when a person approaches in the dark and turns on the light. These are fine for their intended purpose but don’t work to add a few extra hours of timer-controlled light for chickens.
A portable solar kit costs around $400, is easy to install and to light your way. (Courtesy Solar Illuminations)
We recently learned of a company called Solar Illuminations, which can create lighting solutions for chicken coops and other outbuildings. A kit including a solar collector, battery, timer, fixture, and the bulb is just over $400. Sounds expensive but likely is less costly than hiring an electrician to run a wire. And, the sun never sends a bill for electricity generated by a solar panel.
Installing a system is easy and doesn’t require an electrician. Systems can also be designed to power an aquarium aerator that will help keep drinking water unfrozen on cold nights or provide work light in an outbuilding.
We love modern technology’s ability to harness the sun’s energy to give hens a few extra hours of light during winter’s darkness. The result is more eggs without adding a penny to the monthly electric bill.
*Note: Winding Pathways received no special compensation or materials from companies in writing this blog.