So much has happened in the last couple of weeks that we are going to need to write four or five blog posts in order to catch you all up, but perhaps the most exciting event was the arrival of our first batch of chicks!!! Back in March (or perhaps it was February?) I ordered chicks from Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Reinholds, Pennsylvania. Most of the meat birds raised these days are Cornish Crosses which have been bred for intense meat production (especially on the breast) at the expense of hardiness and foraging ability (because why would they need to forage if we are only feeding them grain?). So although large breasted meaty birds have a certain appeal, we decided to go with Freedom Rangers. Our chickens are supposed to be great pasture birds and have a wonderful flavor that makes it worth the extra few weeks they take to grow. We will certainly report on whether or not that is the case.
Raising chicks presents a few challenges when one does not have electricity. First of all, chicks are supposed to have access to 90 degree temperatures during the first few days of their lives. Usually, a brooder (the first home for the chicks) will include a heat lamp which solves that problem. With no electricity a heat lamp was not an option so we decided to use buckets and jars of hot water both underneath and inside the brooder. You can see in the picture below that the brooder is on legs so that there is space underneath for the buckets and some insulation to attempt to keep heat in
I can report after about a week that the hot water method does seem to be working, but the first couple of days were pretty rough. At first, we only had buckets underneath the brooder and the temperature just didn't seem to be rising high enough. We got the woodstove really cranking, attempting to warm up the second floor (which is where the chickens are because that is where the most light and space is). Unfortunately, the heat doesn't want to rise in our house (no vents to let the air move around) so in order to get it hot upstairs it had to feel like a sauna downstairs. It was ridiculous. I can't think of a time that I have ever been so sweaty in April. We actually decided to pick up our bed (just a foam mattress) and move it into the back of the van because it is way to hot in the house to sleep. The things we do for love, right?
Anyway, we finally filled a couple of jars with hot water and put them right in the brooder with the chicks. This immediately raised the temperature and provided them with a choice of temperatures (closer to the water=hot, farther away=cold) which is ideal. We did have to get up multiple times the first couple of nights to make sure the water was staying hot and the fire was going in the stove, but as their temperature requirement decreases so does the need for nightly check-ins. Phew.
Ok, enough business. I know you all just want to see pictures of chicks so here you go!
On Friday, April 13th I got two exciting phone calls: one from the post office telling me that they had a box of chicks for me to come pick up, and one from my best friend Elly who had given birth to a beautiful baby girl the day before! I was somewhat overwhelmed (in the best way possible) as you can see from the silly grin on my face in the picture above (the only part of my face you can see which in some way is appropriate to how I was feeling).
When I walked into the post office the windows weren't open yet, but I could hear our chickens chirping like crazy on the other side of the wall. The woman who brought them out to me seemed very relieved to be rid of them. They were quite loud. Interestingly, she also commented on how great it was that they were all alive and said that a local business had been ordering a bunch of chickens lately and they were all arriving dead. The first indication that we made a good choice in our breed and source of chicks.
Books that I read and people I talked to said that it would be completely normal to lose a few chicks in the first couple of days. Some may get sick in transport; some might get squished if the birds are cold and try to pile together to stay warm; some might not find the water in their new home and die of thirst (not particularly bright these birds). That said, I was fully expecting a few deaths, but so far our birds have been doing nothing but growing at a ridiculous rate. The first day and night the little chicks would kind of sprawl with legs outstretched and heads in strange positions while sleeping and it was very hard to tell the difference between sleep and death. In fact, when I got up at 3am to check the brooder temperature that first night I had a bit of a shock looking at them lying like that. The temperature was just about 90 degrees and I was debating about changing the water but in my groggy 3am state I decided that either they were dead and it didn't matter, or they were sleeping really soundly and I didn't want to disturb them. In the morning all 26 of them were up and about and eating like crazy. They have since learned to sleep in a more civilized manner thank goodness.
Though they are still incredibly cute and fun to watch, our chickens have already lost some of their infant charm. Partly this is due to the fact that they are swapping fuzz for feathers, but mostly I think it is the way that they attack my hands every time I feed and water them. Seriously, these guys are fierce! Makes me a little nervous actually. Especially considering they are only going to get bigger. We are hoping it is just that they are ready to forage and think that our hands are delicious insects that they can eat. Speaking of which, the chicks have come in handy for dealing with a little ant problem that has arisen in the house. Catch an ant, put it in the brooder...instant chicken frenzy.
Happy spring everyone!
As Jean-Paul mentioned in our last post, we have been hard at work getting our hoophouse built so that our seedlings will not perish from lack of light or from too much heat in our makeshift low tunnel (all of our broccolli and kale seedlings fried in there and we had to start them over again). The 80 degree weather a couple of weeks ago provided the perfect opportunity to get outside and get to work!
First, we had to lash pairs of saplings together and bend them (as JP mentioned). Then we started assembling the endwalls by attaching our sapling hoops to 2x4's as shown below. Sidenote: this idea to use saplings for just about everything this year prompted the first name suggestion for our "farm" which is Crooked Sapling Farm. I think this is a fabulous name. Others are not completely sold...yet.
Next, we covered both endwalls with plastic and cut a hole in one endwall where a door will go. Another sidenote: in future, I must remember to make JP pose for the photos because really, this is ridiculous.
More 2x4's were used to finish the base of the frame, more sapling hoops were attached, and voila! A hoophouse skeleton! About one foot of each of the sapling hoops was stuck into the ground to provide some support and stability, and then each one was also attached to the 2x4 base with pipe grip ties/two-hole straps (there was some confusion about what they are actually called). We also pounded some stakes (i.e. more saplings) into the ground against the endwalls and attached the endwalls to them to prevent bending inward or outward.
The last stability measure was attaching a "spine" along the top of the hoops. This also helped to pull each sapling hoop into the shape that we wanted (although some were more agreeable than others).
At this point, it is time to explain the title of this post and say that although life up here is amazing, it is not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes our seedlings fry in the sun and sometimes they get moldy from lack of it; sometimes a porcupine decides to take up residence in our outhouse; sometimes I wish I could turn on a tap to get hot water instead of having to heat it on the stove; and sometimes it snows at the most inopportune times...like when we are trying to put plastic on our hoophouse. Granted, we should have known better than to try when the forecast said there might be snow, but we were feeling optimistic and really wanted to get that plastic up. It was an incredibly frustrating and somewhat demoralizing experience.
But you know what? We made it through as we always do and I am sure that we are stronger for it. Building character and all that.
And now our seedlings have a place to go!! The last hoophouse addition (for now) was 8 55-gallon barrels and four hardware cloth tables to set the seedling trays on. We filled all of the barrels with water in hopes that the water will heat up during the day and then help to keep it warm inside the hoophouse during the night. The filling process took about a week because we were hand pumping all of the water (my arms are still sore) and then using a large elevated tub and a garden hose to get the water to run into the barrels. Thank goodness the hoophouse is slightly downhill from the pump or we would have been hauling a whole lot of water!
As I think about it, I realize that I really should have called this post "The Sine Wave" because living is a series of ups and downs as opposed to just one, but you get the idea. Luckily, we seem to always get past the dips in our sine wave very quickly and spend most of our time at the top. Can't ask for much more than that.