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.
Below is a guest blog by Arianne Waseen about a visit by an opossum. Thanks, Arianne!
“Possum come aknockin’ at the door.”
“I went out in the afternoon a few weeks ago to look for eggs. I opened up the large door on the front of our coop, and in the nest box was something grey and furry and curled up in a little ball. My first thought was that it was a cat, but looking more closely it was definitely possum fur. I yelled and jumped a bit, and ran in to tell my husband and mother-in-law to come take a look. By the time we got back the possum had woken up. We opened up a little door we have at the back of the nest box and my mother in law encouraged the possum to jump down by prodding it with a broom from the front of the nest box. It jumped down and ran off. The opossum has come back a few times, and while it has not harmed our chickens, we are getting fewer eggs than we should be, and the possum has suspiciously glossy fur.”
About seven years ago we moved from a small house near downtown to Winding Pathways. We looked forward to our new home but didn’t want to leave some plants we’d cared for in the former yard. One was rhubarb. Fortunately, our move happened in early spring, so we were able to dig up dormant roots and plant them in our new yard. Now, they are thriving.
Rhubarb grows wild in parts of China but was domesticated centuries ago. It has been a valued garden and yard plant in temperate climates ever since. It is vigorous, attractive, and makes delicious food. Because it’s a perennial, it never needs replanting and pops out of the ground like magic each spring.
The plant thrives in rich soil and full sun but isn’t fussy. As long as it gets some daily sunshine and moisture, rhubarb grows well nearly everywhere. Few pests bother it, although deer eat the leaves in late summer or fall. Deer somehow resist toxins in rhubarb leaves that can sicken people. Fortunately, the stalks are delicious and nonpoisonous to humans.
Rhubarb is useful in landscaping and delicious in recipes.
We planted ours along a fence where it softens the straight line while giving us many pickings for the kitchen. We’ve never had rhubarb spread to places where we don’t want it. It is well behaved. Plant it where you want it and it likely will stay there.
When summer warmth arrives clumps of rhubarb often sent up a flower stalk. We pull out the flowering stalk, but other than that, the plants need little work. We are careful not to overharvest the stalks and give them plenty of time to regrow. Occasionally we do lightly harvest in summers of abundant rain and heat and enjoy recipes that include our own cherries and eggs from our chickens.
We prepare rhubarb one of several ways. The easy way is by pulling out a dozen, or so, stalks, adding the chopped off leaves to the compost bin, rinsing the stalks and cutting them into 1” chunks. We add sugar or honey to a pot full of stalk chunks and boil for about ten minutes with an occasional stirring. The resulting sauce is delicious on ice cream or pancakes or with plain yogurt. It’s good when added to oatmeal or just eaten as is. Rhubarb is tart and meshes well with ultra-sweet mulberries that ripen in late spring or nearly any other sweet fruit.
Two of our favorite pie and crunch recipes are Davenport Deluxe Pie by Joan Auterman and Rhubarb-Cherry Crunch from Clara Brown a long-ago friend from New England and Florida, Clara and Leon Brown were surrogate grandparents to a dear friend, Kathy Wentworth Taylor formerly of England. We love these best when all the major ingredients come from our garden, fruit trees and chickens.
Davenport Deluxe Pie
Preheat oven to 425°
1 large pie shell
3 cups chopped rhubarb in large bowl
Topping: ¼ cup flour, ¼ cup oatmeal, ¼ cup brown sugar, ¼ teaspoon each of baking powder and soda. ½ cup butter. Cut the butter into the above mixed ingredients. Set aside.
Mix: 2 cups sugar, 5 Tablespoons flour, 3 beaten eggs and stir in rhubarb. Add to pie shell.
Add topping. Bake 25 minutes at 425° and then 30 minutes at 350°
Cool before serving with rich vanilla ice cream.
Clara’s Rhubarb-Cherry Crunch
Preheat oven to 350°
Filling: Combine in a sauce pan and boil to thickness: 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 2 Tablespoons cornstarch. Add cherry pie filling. (if using real sour cherries drain well first so the acid does not thin the syrup.) Turn off heat and add 1 teaspoon almond flavor.
Bottom and crust: mix together 1 cup each of oatmeal, brown sugar and flour. Cut in ½ cup butter until pea sized mixture. Lightly grease bottom and sides of pan. Press ½ of this mixture on bottom of a pan.
Add rhubarb on top of the bottom crust. Add the boiled cherry pie filling. Top with remainder of crust. Bake at 350° for 45 minutes. Cool slightly and serve with rich vanilla ice cream.