How Can You Trim Your Food Bill?

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:

Foraging

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:

  • Mid to late spring: Nettles and dandelions.

  • Late spring through summer: Lambs quarters, purslane, amaranth, and the bluegills and crappies we catch.
  • Early fall: Acorns, new lambs quarter growth, and walnuts. Watch this YouTube video for complete processing and eating the cookies!
  • Winter: Venison from the deer we harvest…..if we’re lucky.

Gardening

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:
    1. Winter squash. Pick them, let them curet, and store them in a cool spot. They keep for months. Same with pie pumpkins.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

Chickens

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.

Wildlife

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.

How to Rescue Chicks in the Cold!

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.

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

Mother hen keeps babies warm.

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.

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.

How Can Parents Influence Your Childhood Passions?

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.

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.

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.

How Can You Get Light at Night?*

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.

Eggs in bowl

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!

 

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.

Solar Chicken Coop Light Kit

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.

Using the Sad ‘Ole Jack-O-Lantern

As we entered our driveway a frustrating sight greeted us. We were looking forward to picking the enormous seed heads of sunflower plants towering over the garden. Not this year. While we were gone, a windstorm toppled them a few weeks before they’d ripen.

That’s the way it is with gardening. Sometimes there’s a great success resulting in delicious meals. Then there are flops, like our sunflowers. We found more wind mischief. Several almost ripe pumpkins and squash had broken stems, dooming them to rot instead of ripening.

A Silver LIning

All wasn’t lost. We pitched the sunflower heads, pumpkins, and squash into our chicken run.  Enthusiasm erupted as the hens eagerly devoured them. They pecked a hole in the squash and pumpkins, ate all their seeds, and then made quick work of eating the soft interior flesh. Soon all that remained was the tough outer skin of the pumpkin and the sunflower’s now seedless head. These went into the composter.

Chickens love garden debris and vegetables that don’t quite make it to our table. When fall closes down our garden we turn in the chickens. They chow down on bugs, weed seeds, and unripe vegetables. This makes clean-up easier and probably reduces next year’s insect and weed problems.  A few days after Halloween our hens love snacking on our shriveling Jack O Lantern. They also relish seeds scooped out of winter squash and most vegetables left in the refrigerator a bit too long.

It was frustrating losing our sunflowers, pumpkins, and squash. Thanks to our industrious hens we were able to put them to good use.

How Can You Keep Mice Out of Chicken Coops?*

There’s a Mouse in the House!

Sooner or later anyone who keeps a few chickens is likely to spot a mouse scurrying across the coop floor.  Most sightings are after dark when hens are snoozing on their roosts. That’s when nocturnal mice seek a chicken feed dinner.

Commercial chicken feed is nutritious to more than chickens. Small rodents also thrive on it.  They eat expensive feed and also foul it with their urine and droppings.  Mice should be eliminated from the coop.

Two general types of mice can be found in places where both people and chickens live. European house mice are common all over the world. They usually spend their entire lives in a home or chicken house and rarely venture outdoors. These tiny rodents are dark gray all over.  White-footed, or deer, mice are native rodents that commonly visit coops and the homes of the flock owner. They are easy to distinguish from house mice since, as their name implies, they have white feet and bellies.

While house mice live in a coop year round white-footed mice are more likely in cooler months. House mice usually eat food in place, while white footeds often carry seeds a distance and cache them in a hidden place to nibble on later. Find a pile of corn in an old boot or any other hidden place and the culprit is likely a white-footed mouse.

It’s not good to have either type of mouse mixing with chickens.  Although it’s probably not possible to totally eliminate them, several actions greatly reduce their abundance.

Keep ‘Em Out

The best strategy for reducing mouse infestations in either a house or chicken coop is to keep them out.  Mice are tiny and athletic.  They can squeeze through small holes and cracks, the same openings that let cold drafts enter.   Keep both mice and cold air outside by filling in holes and cracks with caulking.  The best time to do this is in early fall before cold weather settles in.   Filling cracks also keeps box elder bugs, Asian beetles, and other insect pests outdoors.   Cracks can be anywhere but are especially likely around window and door frames and where wires and pipes enter a structure.

Contain Food

Mice enter a chicken coop to find shelter from bad weather, safety from predators, and dinner. They love eating grain and chicken mash or pellets.   Anything edible in the coop should be stored in metal containers with tight-fitting lids.  Mice easily chew through plastic ones so avoid them. Use metal trash cans instead.  Mice will help themselves to feed in a feeder, and most people leave feeders exposed at night.  Since chickens don’t eat during dark hours put feeders in a tightly lidded metal garbage can overnight. This will keep mice away from them. The feeders can simply be put back where the chickens can access them the following morning.

Encourage Owls

A neighborhood owl family can be a chicken’s best friend. Owls love dining on mice. Great horned, barred, and screech owls are relatively common in suburban areas and patrol nighttime neighborhoods seeking small mammals to catch and eat. Owls are active when chickens are securely sleeping in the coop. This reduces the odds that a hen will end up an owl meal.  According to Karla Bloem, Executive Director of the International Owl Center, owls can be a chicken keeper’s best friend.

Avoid Poison and Glue Boards

Although it’s tempting to use poison to rid a home or chicken coop of mice  it should be avoided for these reasons:

  • Poisoned mice might be eaten by chickens, non-targeted wildlife, and pets. They can be sickened or killed by residual poison in the mouse’s body.
  • Poisoned mice sometimes die between walls or in inaccessible places. Soon their bodies smell terrible.
  • Poison is slow acting and cruel. A quick death by a snapping trap is more humane.
  • Chickens, children, pets, and nontarget wildlife might find and eat the poison.

Glue boards are pieces of cardboard or heavy paper covered with an extremely sticky substance. A mouse walking over a glue board will be held tightly. They can’t escape. While glue boards catch mice they also catch non-targeted animals. Any human who touches the sticky stuff will struggle to get free of it. Mice caught in glue boards usually starve to death or are found alive and struggling.  It’s cruel.

Run a Trapline

Mice are relatively easy to trap using any of the many devices on the market.  Most common are snap-type traps that have been effectively catching small rodents for over a century.  For people who prefer not to touch a dead mouse, newer type traps enclose the entire body.  Some traps are even electronic and electrocute the poor animal. There’s even a trap that will alert a cell phone when a mouse has been caught.

MouseTraps

Place several traps side-by-side along a wall where you have seen evidence of mice.

Despite the fancy new type traps the old-fashioned kind, baited with peanut butter or soft cheese, is most common and least expensive. Traps should be set in places where chickens, pets, and children can’t access them. It’s best to set traps in the evening and either spring or retrieve them the next morning.  Following are tips for increasing trapping success:

  • Mice tend to run parallel to walls. Set traps next to walls with the trigger end closest to the wall. Traps with yellow plastic triggers that look like cheese may be slightly more effective than the older traps with metal triggers.
  • Set traps in pairs or triplets. Put two or more traps side by side along the wall for the best odds of catching a fast-running mouse.
  • Set out many traps. The best way to reduce mouse numbers is to catch all, or most, of the mice in the same evening.
  • Don’t assume they’ve all been caught. Usually, there are many mice in a coop or home. Once most have been caught, keep setting them. Likely a few mice remain or new ones may enter.

Dispose of dead mice by flushing them down the toilet, putting them in the trash, burying them, or placing them in a woodsy or tall grassy area for scavengers to eat.  Chickens will eat mice, also.  Wash your hands well after touching the traps or mice.

Reducing mouse numbers in a coop is an important part of chicken husbandry.  It takes some effort but preventing an infestation and trapping any that lurk in the coop is important.

*Reprinted with permission from Hoover’s Hatchery.