Monday, October 22, 2012

Dahlgren's Raid Re-enactment

One of the benefits of living on the east coast, and Virginia in particular, is that you are surrounded by history.  Everywhere you look, there are signs commemorating various events and landmarks that are important to our nation's history.

Our county got a special treat at the end of September when Dahlgren's Raid was re-enacted throughout our county.  For those of you who have never heard of Dahlgren's Raid, here is a primer.  It was run over the weekend in various locations in Goochland County, VA.  To start the weekend's events, they held a demonstration and educational session for the county elementary schools.  I took the afternoon off to join the Middle Son for the demonstration.

There were Union troops in their full attire, along with all the accessories, such as sabers, pistols and rifles.  Even their horses were outfitted in period saddles and halters.

They did a horsemanship demonstration showing how they would lineup and maneuver a line of horses in preparation for battle, with sabers drawn.  They also explained how the front row would have their sabers turned down and the back row would have their sabers pointed up, so that if the front row person fell off their horse with the saber, it wouldn't be sticking up on the ground and possibly hit a horse or another rider coming behind them.

Pistols were fired, both on command at "at will" from a line of horses.  Obviously these were blanks, but it was still impressive.

Several soldiers dismounted and fired their rifles.  It was also shown how there was a horse tender that would hold the horses still while the other men fired their rifles.  Interestingly, it was one of the better riders that would hold the horses, so they could control the horses during the battle.

They also rolled out a cannon onto the battlefield for a demonstration firing.  This was a highlight for the kids, so they fired the cannon several times.  It was very loud and commanding.

It was a great afternoon for the kids and adults that came to view the demonstration.  It was a warm day, and the soldiers were obviously very warm in their thick uniforms.  The interesting thing about this demonstration, is that it was done in a field less than a half mile from one of the schools.  The reason it couldn't be done on school grounds, is the zero tolerance policy for guns and knives.  That's political correctness gone wrong.  But at least they were able to work around that and make it happen for all the kids to see.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cornish Cross Meat Chicken Butchering

The time has come.  Seven weeks and three days from the day they were hatched.  It was time to move the chickens from the pasture to the freezer.  A small bit of work would be required to make that transition, and this time we were ready, having learned from our previous chicken butchering venture.

The process was reviewed, bottlenecks analyzed and new equipment prepared.  It was go time!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Funnel Cakes - and not at the State Fair

The Good Wife is so nice.  The boys had some friends sleep over a little while back, and she asked the boys what they wanted for breakfast.  One mentioned funnel cakes.  Laughing to myself about the ever so low probability of that happening, I was set back when the Good Wife said, "OK."  What?  Funnel cakes?  We won't eat until this afternoon.  They can't be easy.  Or can they?

A quick search online for a recipe and the Good Wife was off, making batter in our Vita-Mix blender.  Oil into a frying pan to get heated up to temperature, and she was on her way to funnel cakes.

Using a liquid measuring cup to pour the dough into the oil to give it the familiar tangled web look of the familiar funnel cakes at the state fair, the Good Wife was in business.  Soon the kids were going to eat a Saturday morning breakfast like nothing they had eaten before.  At least not for breakfast!

In no time she had funnel cakes for all, with the familiar powdered sugar on top.  What kid, or husband,  wouldn't think that she is the BEST MOM/WIFE EVER!?!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cornish Cross Meat Chickens - Week 5

So maybe I'm not as diligent as anticipated in getting photos and posting in a timely manner.  There won't be any more promises made at this point, since life seems to get in the way of everything that needs to be done.  Priorities?  Another post another time.  Back to the topic at hand, meat chickens at five weeks old.

OK, last time, the pictures were from four weeks, and the post was late.  This time, both the pictures and the post are late.  These pictures were taken Wednesday evening, which technically was a day short of six weeks of the hatch date on these chicks, although we didn't get them until later that week.

Everything that was read online about the Cornish Cross chickens is that they have a 10-15% mortality rate while raising the chickens.  We had been fortunate at receiving 132, having two DOA (Dead On Arrival), and then losing three in the first couple weeks.  Not counting the two that were DOA, that is only a 2.3% mortality rate, which is really good.  Unfortunately, things aren't holding so well.

Earlier this week we had a hot spell into the upper 80's, with humidity.  It wasn't pretty, and one of the coops ran out of water before I got home from work.  One chicken was not looking good, and died that night.  Shovel in hand, out to the woods, and bury the dead chicken.  A bit of lime over the chicken to help it decompose and to keep the dogs from digging it up.

Wednesday evening, after pulling one of the chicken tractors forward, the Middle Son declared that one was left behind.  After questioning, I found out that it wasn't so much left behind as it was dead and didn't move while the tractor did.  Shovel in hand, and back to the woods.

Thursday evening, our local beekeeping club had their monthly meeting that I had planned to attend, so Scott did the evening watering and feeding.  Calling on my way home, there were two more down.  One was found dead, and the other was culled.  Asking about what he did with the dead chickens, Scott said he walked towards the woods and chucked them in there.  So much for the shovel method.

The chicken that was culled had a problem with its leg and wasn't moving or able to get to the food and water.  We had been setting it next to the waterer and putting food in front of it, but the other chickens had been walking on it and it hadn't been growing.  No sense wasting food on a chicken that wasn't going to get to size.

With the seven total that have died, we are now up to 5.3% mortality.  Higher than we had with the Red Rangers this spring.  Apparently in all the reading online, people forgot to mention WHEN the chickens had died.  At this rate we may hit the average rate of 10-15% by the time butcher day comes around on October 13th.

However, the chickens that are alive are getting big.  They are growing day by day.

The picture above makes the chickens look like monsters with their glowing eyes from the flash.  Unfortunately I remembered to take the pictures of them too late in the day and it was starting to get dark.  Hopefully the rest will hold on for the remaining week and a half so we can do the job rather than nature doing the job for us.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cornish Cross Meat Chickens - Week 4

It was hard to believe when the little yellow balls of fluff arrived, that they would be ready to butcher at seven weeks old, but these wide legged white monsters are growing daily.  Looking straight on, they are stocky like a cross between a pit bull and an offensive lineman in the NFL.

Although this post is a bit late, these pictures were taken last weekend, just a day or two over their four week point of being with us.  Most of them are growing rapidly, although not totally feathering out, leaving pink bald patches here and there, with more up front and less in the back.  It is assumed that is another characteristic these are bred for, having fewer feathers, especially the little fluffy downy feathers underneath, making plucking easier.  We will know in three weeks.

They are very broad breasted and you can see that they are getting meaty.  These do sit around a lot more than the Red Rangers we had last time.  We do have about four or five that are medium size, and don't seem to be growing very fast.  These may not have gotten the genetic traits of their brothers, or they may be hens.  These will turn out to be "Cornish Game Hens", which are Cornish Cross chickens processed at about three weeks.  There is one that is tiny, and seems to be growing about at the same rate as a normal chicken.

Although 'Tiny' does have large feet.  For some reason, as soon as we go into the coop or let them out, the smallest ones run to hide out between our legs, maybe looking for cover not to be picked on by the bigger chickens.  All that fast growing and testosterone is starting to show as the chickens face of with each other in their pecking stare downs.  'Tiny' may get a reprieve on October 13th if he doesn't start bulking up.

So far so good overall.  We did have a hot day yesterday, and we ran out of water in one of the coops by the time I got home from work.  Several were panting heavily and we got water to them right away. One seemed lethargic, and I am assuming that was the one that was found "belly up" this morning in the middle of the coop.  

Having to feed and water them isn't too bad in the morning, although it doesn't get light until about 6:45am, so chores can't start too early.  But having to dig a hole in the woods to bury one before work, isn't my idea of a good time.  Youngest Son and Middle Son came to watch, and apparently found it amusing.

We added an extra waterer and feeder, so total we have two waterers, 3.5 or 5 gallons each, and three feeders in each coop with approximately 60+ chickens in each.  It isn't as tight as the 95 Red Rangers in one coop, but these sit around a lot more, which makes it look tighter.  We try to let them out as much as possible when we are home, which helps move them around a bit more.

It is supposed to cool down this weekend, so I will try to get my week 5 post up as on time as possible. Until then, thick nuggets!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fall Meat Chickens

Summer has come and gone, and with the cooler temperatures, comes a new batch of meat chickens.  As all great planners know, the ability to change plans and adapt on short notice is crucial.  That is true in all facets of life, not just chicken farming.  But it became relevant at the end of this summer.

The same crew that ventured out this spring on a meat chicken journey, decided that the journey was worthwhile, and worth doing again.  Everything had gone well, so the plan was to follow our template on the first go around, with the small change of expanding our numbers.

The Red Rangers were ordered and all we could do was sit and wait for them to arrive at the end of July.  This would give us approximately 10 weeks until Columbus Day weekend, the first weekend in October, to get them to weight for butchering.

The day came in July, and no calls that our chicks had shipped.  Checking online, there was only a notice that the supplier had run into a "predator problem" and that starting the week we were supposed to get our chicks, they would be shipping no more chicks the rest of the year!  Oh no!  Now what?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Queens, Queens, Queens. It's All About the Queens.

Earlier this year my hives had some queen issues, such as queens missing which resulted in hives with laying workers.  Combining the laying worker hives with queen-right hives removed the laying workers, and gave the hives another attempt to make their own queens once they were separated again after a few weeks.

Making a split from the hive at Possum's garden into a single hive body and a nuc, one of them made a queen and she was able to get mated and return to make the hive a strong hive.  The other one not so much.  So I bought a couple queens from a breeder here in Virginia, figuring that if it was close to this area, the queen would be used to our weather and environmental conditions and have a better chance of being a "good queen".  

In the mean time, one of the original hives seemed to lose the queen.  There had been some queen cells and no signs of a laying worker, but no queen, no eggs and no brood.  But patience was needed.  Maybe she was there but not mated yet.  Maybe she was out doing her mating hive.  Something I'm not the best at with the bees.  A bit of the ADD in me wants to see results and wants time to pass quickly to see things unfold.  

In one final attempt to get all my hives "queen-right", I bought two more queens from a breeder in Tennessee.  Not being too scientific in my queen purchases, I found someone that had queens available and could ship quickly, so that I wouldn't fall into another laying worker situation.

These queens came in a UPSP envelope, not a box, which was a bit of a surprise.  They were also in the JZBZ cages, not the wooden cages that the first ones came in, which made me do some searching on the internet to find out how to best introduce the queens in these new cages.

One of the things I had read from several sources said that the queens tend to have a better acceptance rate if the attendants are removed from the cage.  Hmmmm.  That sounds like an interesting challenge.  

The queens were shipped on Monday and I received them on Wednesday.  The post office called letting me know they had come in so I could pick them up.  (I love our small town Post Office.  They are so friendly and call right away when bees and chicks come in.)  The weather wasn't being cooperative though, so it took a few days before I could get the time to get the queens into the hives.  

The boys had some friends over when the re-queening was going to take place.  As I headed up to the boys bathroom (because that is the only bathroom with an outside window that opens up) they wanted to join me.  OK, the more the merrier.  I went in and had them close the door behind us and opened up the blinds.  The small cap was opened up and a few of the attendants came out and flew to the window.    With a slight shake and shuffle, a few more came out.  But I couldn't seem to get the rest out.  I opened up the main cap and they all came out, including the queen!  No problem.  The window was open but the screen was still in place.  Quickly the queen went up the window and all the attendants huddled around.  Of course, she headed up into the top portion of the screen where I couldn't reach her.  Using a butter knife, I was able to herd the queen down to the open cage and quickly closed the lid.  One down.  

I decided to get that queen into the hive before attempting to separate the second queen from the attendants.  Running, or walking fast, out to the hive, the new queen cage fit right between two frames, so the removal of a frame wasn't necessary.  They frames were separated with the hive tool and the queen cage lowered in, and then the frames pushed back together.  The lid put back on and some syrup given to the hive to keep them distracted.

Checking on the original hive that appeared to have lost a queen the week before, and hadn't had a queen or eggs or anything for a couple weeks, a pleasant surprise was waiting for me.  As I got to the fourth frame, lifting it up to see if I had any signs of a laying worker, there she was, right before me.  Right in the middle of the frame, a big fat queen.  And looking closer, plenty of eggs and larvae in the frame.  The hive was "queen right" and things were good.  Close it up and let them be.  

But now what to do with the other queen?  I did have another nuc that I had made and had a laying worker the week before.  Only capped drone, and several cells with more than one egg.  Typical laying worker signs.  This nuc had been written off, and I was planning to use their good frames to fill out a few of the other hives that had a few frames not drawn.  I had the extra queen and all my other hives were queen-right or had a new queen just installed.  Time to roll the dice.

Pulling a frame full of brood from one of my strong hives, I shook all the bees off the frame.  To replace that frame, I pulled a frame of drones and double eggs from the nuc and put it into the strong hive, figuring they will clean up that frame and put it to good use.  First I put the frame full of brood into the nuc and then placed in the new queen.  However, I didn't pull the candy cap on the queen cage off.  They needed a bit more time to get acquainted before letting the queen loose.  Closed up the hive and added a jar of syrup on top.

Coming back five days later, the bees in the hives were feeding the queens and being very calm around the queens.  They weren't trying to attack her or kill her, so I pulled the cap off the candy and put the queen cage back into the hives.  Time for the locals to release the queens.

Checking back 2 days later, the queen in the nuc had been released and was no longer in the cage.  The queen cage was removed and the hive closed up so the queen could do her thing.  I didn't want to stress them out any more by looking around for her.  This hive is still a question if everything is still good.  

The single deep hive body with the new queen still hadn't released the queen.  Running back to the garage, I grabbed a small nail and put a hole through the candy that was still in the cage.  There was only about an eighth of an inch left and it was very soft.  The queen in the cage was put back in the hive to be released.  The status of this queen is also unknown.  

There should be time Saturday morning to get back into the hives to see if the queens are both there and laying eggs.  It is still a roll of the dice on those two, but I can only hope for the best.  Fall is quickly approaching and the hives need to get right.  Luckily they have a lot of honey in all the hives, so that shouldn't be a problem if they can just get a couple rounds of brood raised before winter.  The good news is the other four hives are queen-right and strong, with lots of brood, lots of honey and ready to for fall and winter. 

On a separate topic, in an attempt to get them some pollen, a friend from work, who was pulled into beekeeping this year by my stories every morning, and I decided to try open feeding a dry pollen substitute.  Taking an old bucket from a bakery, the center of the lid was cut in half and removed.  A brick was put into the bucket to keep it in place along with a tin foil bread pan filled with the pollen.  The bucket was put outside in the garden.


It only took a day or two for the bees to find the bucket.  The Good Wife asked me to remove the bucket because of all the activity around the bucket.  It was moved to the old garden and the mint and basil, which are both good for the bees.  They have taken over two bread pans full of pollen substitute, but I don't think it is just my bees.


Watching the bucket, lots of them head in different directions after loading up.  I'm thinking that some feral bees may have found my bucket.  That's OK.  Maybe one day I will capture a swarm from a feral hive and they can thank me then with some good genetics and some tasty honey.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Turning a Rooster into a Meal

This past spring, we fell for the trick at the local feed supply store, where if you buy a bag of chicken feed, you get six chicks free.  We split them with a friend, and they were supposed to be pullets, or female chickens.  Apparently someone at the hatchery isn't very good at their job, or the feed store got a deal on chicks and didn't care what they were.  Either way, the three chicks we raised and nurtured, hoping that one day they would repay the favor with fresh eggs for our family, turned out to all be roosters!  All of them!  Roosters!

With a flock of only 15 hens, having three roosters is at least two too many.  Once we figured out that at least one was a rooster, he ended up on Craigslist.  The rooster was posted just before I left for work on a Friday evening.  Before I could get half way home, I already received a call.  The post was very clear that I didn't care if it was for breeding or for their pot.  The rooster had to go.  One down.

The Oldest Son got somewhat attached to the other roosters, and was trying to convince the Good Wife and I that we should keep them, at least one.  Since it was warm this summer, the windows were closed, and the chickens in their coop at 5:30 in the morning when the roosters would start to crow.  Their crowing could be faintly heard if already awake, but it wasn't too strong to wake you up early.  Kind of a novelty around the place, having a rooster that actually crows.

This happy, "Let's keep the roosters!" attitude all changed a couple weeks ago when they started getting aggressive and attacking the boys.  One chased the Oldest Son all the way from the coop to the house.  When Youngest Son went to get the eggs in the afternoon, he also go chased away from the coop.  These "stories" were brushed aside.  Until one chased the Good Wife.  At that point, everyone else in the house was abandoning their chicken chores, and I was getting stuck having to feed them, water them and collect the eggs.  The roosters had to go!

The family and the Good Wife's sister headed to Virginia Beach for Labor Day weekend so the Good Wife could run in a half marathon.  I stayed home since the usual dog sitter was not available.  No time like the present to "turn the roosters into a meal."

**WARNING - From this point on it is more of a pseudo tutorial on processing a chicken.  Some photos may be graphic to some people.  However, if you eat chicken, it is a fact of life.  **

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Bees Have SPLIT !

OK, clarification may be needed here.  Technically, my bees didn't split.  I split them on purpose.  I had one double deep hive that seemed to be overflowing with bees.  Every evening there were lots of bees on the outside of the hive.

This bee "bearding" happened to me last year when it got really hot and humid about this same time of year.  There are too many bees for the hive and there is too much heat inside, so they go outside to cool down.

Since I lost a hive last year, I wanted to be more prepared this year with a few more hives just in case another string of bad luck came my way.  So the decision was made to split the hive.  I haven't done this myself before, so it was going to be interesting.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Vespa Crabro Germana Invasion!

For those of you that are not up on your latin or familiar with all the insect species out there, the vespa crabro germana is also known as the European hornet, or in central Virginia, also known as the Bell hornet.  Either way, they are scary looking creatures.

Now I'm not one to go looking for a fight, particularly against a creature that has the capability to fight back, but there are several reasons that these buggers have got to go!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bees, Yeah! Bees, Aargh! Bees?

This has been a very good spring and summer for a lot of people keeping bees.  Not so much for me.  Taking a positive view, it looks that I am getting to experience everything that can happen with bees in the first two years of keeping bees, so my experience level will be higher than all those other people that have everything go perfectly.

After my dead hive due to a multitude of issues, including heavy mite load, losing a queen and foul brood, I thought things were going to be getting better.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

From Pasture to Freezer

The meat chicken journey has come to an end, at least for the meat chickens.  It was a day filled with anticipation and apprehension.  For me, it was something totally new that had never been done in the past.  And before the deer hunting class, probably would have been unthinkable.  But we had 95 Red Ranger meat chickens that were ready to go.  Memorial Day weekend was definitely going to be memorable.

**Notice that some of the pictures that follow may be considered graphic, although they are just a part of life and death in our food chain.**

The first step consisted of gathering the chickens together.  They were not supposed to eat for 18 hours before being butchered to allow time for their crops to empty so it wouldn't be so messing during the process.  This meant we had to move the chicken tractor from the pasture to the concrete at the driveway.  It is possible that "herding chickens" is very much in the same vein as "herding cats".

Scott using a stick and broom to try and "herd" the chickens.

After trying to get them all collected at the moved chicken tractor, they all ended up back in the pasture.  Total failure on our part.

Chickens back in the pasture enjoying their last clover meal.

This resulted in our having to catch them one by one and carry them into the chicken tractor on the concrete. They received lots of water and time waiting for tomorrow to arrive.

Everyone arrived at our house by 5am to start loading the chickens into the trailer.  We were at the butchering facility by 6:05am.  This was in anticipation of a very hot day ahead of us.  We found a gentleman in our county that has a USDA inspected facility for processing chickens.  He allows people to use his facility for a small fee.  He teaches people how to process chickens, and then we go ahead and do the work, with him nearby if needed for any questions.  It's really a pretty good setup, although if this is a USDA inspected facility, I just lost all faith in the USDA inspection process.  However, I have no doubt about the cleanliness of the facility before we started.  Plenty of bleach was used and I'm sure there were no germs left to cause any troubles.

Processing facility - AKA Mr. Fitz's Playhouse

After allowing about 20 minutes for the chickens to calm down after the ride in the trailer to Mr. Fitz's Playhouse, it was time to start.  Mr. Fitzgerald grabbed one chicken and walked us through the initial process of putting the chickens into the kill cones, cutting their arteries and letting them bleed out.  Then sticking them into the scalder and moving them into the Featherman plucker.

On a side note, the Featherman plucker is the key to making this process go smoothly.  With a properly scalded chicken, about 30-40 seconds in the plucker and two chickens are in their birthday suits ready to be eviscerated.

Oldest Son did a great job along with Scott's two boys that are 13 and 15 of catching the chickens and killing them.  They took pride in their work and got the job done while the rest of us did the next steps.

Oldest son using the kill cones to dispatch the chickens.

After a couple hours, we had over half of them killed and chilling, ready to be eviscerated.  It was a milestone that we were moving along quite well.

The next step was eviscerating, where the head and feet are cut off, the guts removed and the crop along with the lungs removed from the chicken.  My BIL from Knoxville was the "King of Evisceration".  He was able to take a chilled chicken from whole to carcass in about a minute.  Scott was a close second by the end of the day and I was a distant third.

Once we got to this point, we shifted and I moved to the rinse and inspection process before the bagging and shrink wrapping.

A processed chicken ready for bagging.

Mr. Fitzgerald said that a real chicken farmer would be able to eat chicken that night.  After working our way through the chickens, we looked at each other and said, "Yep.  I could eat chicken now!"  It wasn't nearly as graphic as I had anticipated.

When we arrived, Mr. Fitzgerald said that we would be there until dark.  After we got going, he said he had never seen new people work so well together and get the job done so quickly.  We were finished processing, had the facility cleaned up and had 95 chickens shrink wrapped and on ice by 1:30pm.

On the way home, we realized we were short on ice, so I went to town to get some ice while Scott headed to the house to find refrigerator space for some of the chickens so the meat could "rest".  On the way, I got a speeding ticket for 67 in a 45.  In Virginia, this is considered Reckless Driving by Speed and is a Class 1 misdemeanor.  That would give me a criminal record that would be "on my permanent record".  Luckily on my court date, the judge was lenient and changed it to basic speeding.  So if you happen to visit Virginia, be careful with your speed.  It is considered the most expensive state to speed in.  Also, anything over 80 is also considered Reckless Driving by Speed, even if the speed limit is 70.

Sunday we decided that it was time to celebrate with family and friends and try out the finished product.  This included Scott and his family, my BIL from Knoxville, my BIL from north of Washington, DC, a couple of the Good Wife's friends from Lynchburg, the Good Wife's sister and one of the Good Wife's friends and her son from North Carolina.  We cooked up seven Red Ranger chickens.

First chicken getting fried.

Some were fried whole, some were pieced, breaded and fried, and some were pieced and put on the grill.

It cooled down a bit that evening and was a great time with family and friends.  That is what it is all about.  Hanging out and having good food with each other.

Overall the process went smooth.  The raising was simple enough, and the processing went quick.  And the end result was chicken that was delicious and good for us.  It went so well that we already have our chickens on order at the hatchery for this fall.  We are going to be getting 151 Red Ranger roosters and letting them go for an additional five days.  This should get our average dressed weight well over 4 pounds compared to the 3.75 pounds we averaged this time.

It is a life skill that Oldest Son has now inherited and something I anticipate continuing on a regular basis.  The best part is that the license plate on the car that the Good Wife usually drives came up for renewal.  I took the opportunity to show our enthusiasm for this whole process.  Although the Good Wife isn't so happy for the change since she is the one getting the comments!

Stay tuned for a follow-up post of all the ways the Red Ranger's have been cooked.  Any way they are prepared, they are delicious!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Guineas Galore

Early May, our black australorp hen decided to go broody.  For those that don't know, that means that the maternal instincts are kicking in and she is wanting to hatch some chickies.  Except, there are two problems with that scenario.

1 - We don't have a rooster, so none of the eggs the hens have been laying have been fertile; and
2 - We collect the eggs every day, and once she went broody, she stopped laying.

That means that she was trying to hatch a nest full of straw, which doesn't work too well.  Thinking that it was a passing thing, we just ignored her.  And she continued to lay on that nest of straw.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Meat Chicken Update

It has been a long time since my last post, but it hasn't been because of a lack of things happening around here. On the contrary, so much has been happening, that by the time the boys are in bed and I have some it to write, I am usually ready for bed myself.

As soon as the meat chicken tractor was complete, I took off to China for a couple weeks for work, right when the Red Rangers were supposed to arrive. This left my partner in poultry, Scott, responsible for the initial stages of the chickens, which didn't start out as anticipated.

Scott made sure he talked to the post office and let them know that the chicks were coming. Although when Saturday arrived, he didn't receive a call. Hmmm. A call to the hatchery, and we found out that the chicks had been shipped to the wrong zip code. Oops. Since they couldn't be shipped again, the hatchery told the post office to give them to someone, anyone, and he would ship ours again the following week.

The morning came, and soon after the phone call, Scott went and picked up the package. What was originally agreed upon of 50 chicks, turned into 76 to get the price break discount, and due to the mix-up with the address, the hatchery sent us 102 chicks to make up for it! Little bundles of fluff!

Scott made a nice brooder in his shed to house the little Red Rangers until they got older and the weather got warmer. It didn't take long for them to get feathers and get into that awkward teen-age phase.

After almost four weeks, it was time for them to move to the chicken tractor in the pasture at my house. A quick ride in a dog crate in the back of a pickup, and they were in their new home. Although first we had to get the chicken tractor into the pasture. We didn't think that far into the future. Four men and a quick lift and shuffle and the chicken tractor was in the pasture.

It didn't take long for the chickens to get used to their new home and think they were in the circus on the high wire.

Several weeks more and we are now at today. Feeding and watering the chickens every morning and evening, moving the tractor every evening, and letting them free-range in the pasture when we are around to keep an eye on them.

They are growing and enjoying the clover in the pasture. Running through the flowers.

Look at the meat in these birds!


Two more weeks and it will be butcher day. My BIL from Knoxville will be visiting, along with another BIL from the DC area, Scott, myself and the Oldest Son.

Stay tuned to learn how our first meat chicken experience will end. What a way to spend Memorial Day weekend with the family!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chicken Snow

This has been a crazy winter and spring here in Virginia.  One day it is 70+, the next day 5 inches of snow, and then another day of 70+ temperatures.  Although every other day feels like either spring or winter, we know that spring is near.  This is confirmed by the arrival of chicks at all the Tractor Supply Co. and Southern States stores.  That's chicken chicks, not the other kind.

This morning I received a text from my meat chicken co-conspirator, letting me know that it was starting to look like "Chicken Snow". You may be wondering, "What exactly is Chicken Snow?", which is exactly what I was thinking as I read the text.

Chicken snow?

He was kind enough to follow up with a full definition:

Chicken Snow -n. A snow event in which you accumulate more chickens than actual inches of snow.  

Once the boys learned that school was closed for the day, they connected with the meat chicken co-conspirator and his boys to head to the farm stores.  It didn't take them long to end up with small Happy Meal sized boxes full of chicks.

Once home and in the makeshift brooder, our second annual journey of egg chickens had begun.  In keeping with our eclectic flock of chickens, we added some new breeds.  To our existing two Barred Rocks, Black Australorp and two Ameraucanas, we added three Rhode Island Reds, three White Leghorns, two Brown Leghorns and three more Barred Rocks.  This will help increase our flock to get more eggs, while getting some white egg layers and some more prolific egg layers.  Hopefully this will allow us to get more eggs so we will be able to supply more customers than our current one regular customer, in addition to our family.

They are small now, but come June or July, we should be enjoying white and brown jumbo eggs.  Now where are we going to put them once they get out of the brooder?  Hmmm.  Haven't thought that far through.  I guess I better get building on the new expanded chicken condo!

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bees Be Gone

Technically, my bees aren't gone, they are dead. Not all three hives, just the weaker of my original two hives. It was disappointing to find out, but not a total surprise. The health of this hive had been up and down this past fall, although the last time I had looked, the population was up and it seemed that it was going to pull through.

Seeing a dead hive can really bring you down, after spending all the time and money to feed the hive and nurture it with the hope of receiving a honey crop the following year.

After taking off the hive bodies, I searched through this pile of dead bees for the queen, but she was no where to be found. She may not have been there, or I may have just missed her. There was very little if any brood on the frames, which might mean she was already gone and this was a queen less hive, and without any eggs, they couldn't raise a new queen. Then as the numbers dwindled, they might have gotten cold and died without being able to cluster and stay warm.

Having a bunch of bees in the comb like the photo above makes it look like they starved. There was a lot of honey in the frames of the top hive body. If you look closely in the top right corner of the above photo, you can see bees head first in the comb on both sides of the honey, which doesn't make sense for the starvation theory.

This photo shows dead bees all over the frame, and on top of the honey that was available. That makes me think that they may have gotten cold and froze to death. The honey cappings that look torn open above were probably from the strong hive doing a bit of robbing. When I checked on the hive last Thursday afternoon, there were a few bees coming and going from the hive, but they weren't the native bees from this hive. They were already dead.

When I checked the strong hive, and pulled the top hive body off the hive, and set it across the outer cover on the ground, I noticed that there were some brood exposed. If you look closely, you can see some of the brood in the photo below.

The hive had built some comb between the two hive bodies and the queen had laid eggs and there was drone brood in that area. After putting the top hive body back on the hive, there were a couple drone larvae that had fallen out of the upper hive body laying on the outer cover. Looking closely, there were four varroa mites on the larvae. This makes me think that there was a heavy mite load on the weak hive since they were in the same environment and came from the same nuc supplier.

Whatever the cause, it is one hive down and two remaining. With the crazy winter weather we have been having in Virginia this year, I am going to do my best to keep an eye on my last two hives. If this is the only one I lose, then I am average with approximately 30% loses over the winter. The good thing is that at least I was able to recover two full deep hive bodies of drawn comb, some with honey and pollen. And as bee keepers say, drawn comb is worth it's weight in gold!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Meat Chickens - Part II

My BIL, a friend and I have gotten the ball rolling.  The chickens are ordered and the clock is ticking.  76 chicks will be calling our place home in a couple weeks.  The chicks will live in a brooder for a couple weeks, but they will grow quickly and need a place to live outside on the pasture.

Again, the internet was researched to learn from the great chicken farmers that had gone before us.  Why make the same mistakes others have made?  I'm all about letting others make mistakes.  It was narrowed down to the flat rectangular chicken tractor that Joel Salatin made famous, or try a more hoop-house type of shelter that would allow me better access to the inside.  Even while getting materials at the big orange box, the decision wasn't finalized.  That probably accounted for the excess of wood and supplies that were purchased.

After getting the cattle panels from Southern States and seeing how flimsy they were, the decision was made to go hoop-house style.

I started out by laying out the cattle panels slightly overlapping.  I nailed the short ends of the panels to a 12' 2x4.  All the wood was pressure treated to hold up to the outdoor weather.  Once that was done, an 8' 1x4 was connected between one end of the 2x4s.  Then an 8' 2x4 was connected between the other ends of the 12' 2x4.  This made the basic frame of the chicken shelter.

I chamfered the front ends of the 12' 2x4s to make it easier to drag.  A 1x4 was also connected in the center to keep the 12' 2x4s from bowing out too much.

The next step was to put some framing on the back side to help make it more rigid and hold up the chicken wire that would enclose the back side.  A couple 1x4s would do the trick.

The edges of the cattle panel were nailed to the supports along with a few zip ties for good measure.  Surprisingly for looking so flimsy, it is actually quite rigid and strong.

The next step was the front side.  I wanted a door that I would be able to walk into easily.  Using a few more 1x4s to make the door frame along with another 1x4 on the sides for lateral support, the door frame was created.  (The top of the side supports are 48" above the ground, so the 48" tall chicken wire would fit perfectly between the bottom board and the lateral support board.  A couple hinges and some more 1x4 framing and the door was attached.

A note for others to learn from my mistakes, be sure to wrap the chicken wire around the shelter before attaching the door.  This will save you from installing the door twice.

The two door cross members are for the chicken wire.  The top support is 48" from the ground, and the bottom support is 48" from the top.  The middle section has overlapping chicken wire.  The front and back top sections were covered in chicken wire and secured to the cattle panels using zip ties.  This was done first so the bottom chicken wire would overlap the top.  Then a bottom row of chicken wire was put all the way around the shelter.  On the front and back it was staple gunned to the boards.  On the sides it was staple gunned at the bottom and zip tied at the top.  The top of the cattle panels are open as it will be covered by a tarp.

You can see it was dark when I finished.  The Good Wife and her sister came home from the boys swim meet and helped finish up the zip-tying process.  It only took two trips to the orange box (1 more 1x4 was needed for the door) and one trip to Southern States.  It was a beautiful day this last Saturday, and surprisingly (to me at least) I got it finished in one day without any plans drawn out.  It is 12' x 8' and a little over 6' high in the center.

The next day, the weather turned as it seems to happen whenever I have a project to do.   I got the tarp on the top of the shelter for a full out weather check.

Five plus inches of snow later, it help up great!  It kept this inside snow-free, and it held up to the weight of the snow.  It can easily support a waterer or feeder hung from the top of the panels.  I added two eye bolts on the front 2x4 to place a rope for dragging it around the pasture.  It could be dragged by one person with some weight, but I would like to add at least a couple wheels on the back to make it easier.

Overall, the cost was about $175 or so.  The cattle panels were on sale and were $60 for the 3 panels.  The 48" x 50' of chicken wire was $40 and I still have about 10' left as I started with a left over roll from the original chicken run.  I also had to buy some all weather screws.  I used about half a box of the short screws and only about a dozen or less of the long screws, so that cost gets counted towards stocking up the garage supplies.  The rest was lumber, two hinges, two eye bolts and a door latch that I need to take back.  The tarp was something that I had.

Other than the tarp, this should last for several years at the least and probably more than five.  Overall, the cost wasn't too bad for such a sturdy and durable shelter.  As each dollar gets spent, we are becoming more and more committed to raising more than our initial batch of meat chickens.  What are we thinking?