Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chicken Math

Everyone's heard the story of the horse who could do math. What's two plus two? the owner asks the horse. The horse nods its head and stamps its hoof four times. Amazing!

Chicken math is nothing like horse math. First off, the chickens themselves don't do the addition or, in many cases, the multiplication that is involved in chicken math. Chicken math is done by humans. Usually female humans, but males are also susceptible to chicken math.

Here's a sample word problem for elementary chicken math:

Q. A woman goes to her local feed store to pick up some hay for her vegetable patch and perhaps a wind chime for her garden. The feed store just got its baby chicks in. How many chicks does the woman buy?

A. At least three. You can't just buy one chick. Chicks and hens are social animals, and one could possibly pine away from loneliness. Two is okay, but one would be dominant and the other hen pecked. Three is the best number.

Here's one that's a little harder:

Q. A woman goes to her local feed store to pick up a 50-lb bag of Layena feed for her laying hens. The feed store just got its baby chicks in. How many chicks does the woman buy?

A. Usually five to seven. Did you catch the clue? The woman already has hens. She knows what's involved, has the equipment, and those fluffy chicks are just so darned cute.

Once you graduate from elementary chicken math, you can move up to chicken algebra. Try this one on for size:

Q. A couple has a small flock of laying hens and a rooster. Their incubator has nine eggs in it, set to hatch in three days' time. Their brooder is ready for those nine chicks, but it needs a fresh bulb. The woman goes to her local feed store to buy the bulb. The feed store just got its baby chicks in. How many chicks does the woman buy?

A. Three chicks, just in case some of the eggs don't hatch. And this way, the three chicks can keep themselves company waiting for their brooder mates to join them.

Ready for chicken trigonometry? This one's a head scratcher:

Q. A couple decides to raise a flock of laying hens. They decide to start with only 6, until they see the wide variety of breeds in the hatchery catalog. The next thing they know, they've ordered two dozen chicks. While preparing their brooder for the new arrivals, other hatchery catalogs arrive, the couple joins the forums area, and the local feed stores get their chicks in. How many additional chicks do the couple buy, and from where?

A. Oh, wait a minute. That's us.

That's right. J and I are studying for our degrees in chicken trig. What was going to be a half-dozen Buff Orpington and Silver-Laced Wyandotte hens became a melange of Buff Orpingtons, Silver-Laced Wyandottes, Araucanas, White Cochins, Buff Silkies, and a rare mystery chick thrown in by the hatchery. From 6 to 26. But wait, that's not all! In all the research and prep work I did to become more knowledgeable about poultry, I learned more about heritage breeds -- the breeds that are threatened or struggling thanks to factory farming -- and about the different types of eggs hens lay. And suddenly, I wanted more. I wanted Black Cochins, to make a distinctive set with my White Cochins. I wanted more Silkies -- those fluffy, poufy ornamental hens that are the chicken world's best mothers. I wanted grey Silkies and black ones and white ones and blue ones and splash ones. I wanted a Cuckoo Marans, a threatened French breed that lays chocolate-brown eggs. And I wanted a rooster.

That's right. A rooster. Not because of the necessity to hear pre-dawn crowing, although with several heavy sleepers in the household that was an added bonus. No, I wanted a rooster for three reasons. First, the roosters were the true beauties of the poultry world, with fabulously colored plumage that would look fabulous in our backyard. Second, roosters are the flock protectors. They keep the hens in line, find food for them, cry out alerts when there's a nearby predator, and often lose their lives confronting that predator so the hens can get away. With our acreage bordering state lands, we have plenty of hawks around, as well as raccoons, opossum, and coyotes. Our flock was going to need all the protection it could get.

And finally, reason three: without a rooster, you can't get more baby chicks! Of course, we would want to keep our heritage breeds pure, which meant we'd need one Orpington rooster, or "roo," one Wyandotte, one Araucana, and one White Cochin. The Silkies were "straight run" chicks, meaning that their gender would not be identified. Chances were we'd have at least one Silkie roo.

That's a lot of roosters! But I'd settle for just one. For now.

See how chicken math works?

And so I found myself back at the McMurray Hatchery web site, clicking through the pages for the heritage breeds, making mental notes of what chicks I'd like to get next year, either to increase our laying stock or replace the hens that didn't work out (ie, became coyote chow), when I came to the Columbian Wyandotte page. There, in red letters, were the words "Very Limited Availability" for March 14, the day our 26 chicks were being shipped. My mind began to spin. Surely three more chicks could be added to our order in time for the entire miniflock to be shipped together. Columbian Wyandottes are also a threatened heritage breed, truly beautiful birds with ghost-white bodies and striking black markings forming a collar around their necks. The roosters had trailing black tail feathers that made a sharp contrast to the rest of their body.

I picked up the phone. In five minutes' time, I'd not only ordered three Columbian Wyandottes chicks, but one of them would be a rooster. Twenty-nine little chicks, with the possibility of future Silkies and Wyandottes, would be winging their way to our homestead soon!

That night, J had me repeat after him that I would NOT buy any more chicks, any more pullets, any more roosters, any more chickens, period. I would stay away from the feed stores and Tractor Supply, as these were expecting their chicks any day. No more chickens!

I meekly repeated what he said.

Of course, I had my legs crossed.

And Meyer Hatchery has just three of those chocolate egg-laying Cuckoo Marans chicks left available for March 14.

Perhaps I should switch majors to chicken calculus.

Pre-Heating the Broiler

The essential rule of thumb for raising chicks is this: provide them with a proper growing environment and they'll thrive. Mess up just one little thing -- too little water, too much feed, too little space, wrong temperature -- and you'll end up with a brooder full of ex-chicks (think Monty Python's ex-parrot). Ex-chicks make for a very poor poultry farm.

Since our end goal is laying hens, not lifeless mounds of fluff, we went to great lengths to make sure our brooder was perfect. The 100+-gallon galvanized stock tank we'd bought would provide the little fuzzies with plenty of space to roam around, at least until they reached adolescence at about 8 weeks of age. I scrubbed the tank with a carefully measured solution of Clorox and hot water until it gleamed, then lined it with a triple layer of newspaper and two inches of fresh pine shavings. We bought three quart-sized waterers to ensure the chicks wouldn't dehydrate (something that apparently occurs with frequency) and two foot-long feed trays so that the peeps could all eat together. These I washed in hot, soapy water, then packed away until we needed them in mid-March. All that remained for us to do was set up the brooder's heat lamp.

In nature, chicks keep warm thanks to the ministrations of Mama Hen, who gathers them beneath her, regulating their body temperature with her own. Since I'm just a wee bit oversized to play Mama Hen, we had to make sure our brooder was equipped with a heat lamp that would provide the babies with the right heat at each stage of their development: 95 degrees Fahrenheit their first week, decreasing five degrees each week to bottom out at 70 degrees at week 6. Too much heat? Bye, bye, birdie. Too cold? Bye, bye, birdsicle.

Now, I'm certain that somewhere -- commercial hatcheries, perhaps -- there exists a heating unit that allows you to program what temperature you want the gadget to emit, and bingo! You're all set. I'm also certain that those programmable heaters most likely run in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Being fresh out of thousands of dollars, we had to make due with a basic brooder lamp selling for about $10 at Tractor Supply. We couldn't decide whether to buy the white light bulb (to simulate sunshine) or the red one (to simulate dusk and encourage calm and rest), so we bought them both, just to be safe. We bought several back-up bulbs, just to be safer.

I had wanted to buy an adjustable heat lamp base -- the kind used for pet lizard terrariums -- at the nearest Petsmart. If the chicks huddled beneath the heat lamp, we'd lower the lamp to bring the heat source closer to the little guys. If the chicks scattered along the perimeter of the brooder, we'd raise the lamp to cool the brooder down. J, however, felt we could do just as well with a hook, chain, and dowel. We'd raise or lower the heat lamp by simply adjusting the length of the chain. I agreed, with one modification: we'd use a 2X4 instead of a dowel. My active imagination envisioned the chicks desperately chasing their heat lamp across the brooder as the dowel rolled along and then off the top of the stock tank. A 2X4 was flat and wasn't going to roll anywhere. I headed to Lowe's, where a friendly associate cut my $2 beam into 3- and 5-foot lengths.

That night, J decided to test out our heating system. I linked one end of the chain to the lamp, then wrapped the other end around the 3-foot length of wood, selecting a height that I felt would allow the lamp to provide the right amount of heat. J screwed in the white bulb, plugged the lamp in, and then we waited.

And waited.

"Ummm, exactly how are we going to tell if the brooder's at the right heat?" I asked J.

Wordlessly, J left the room, returning with his office's digital thermometer. "Ooops," he said, placing the thermometer beneath the lamp. In less than a minute, the temperature read 119 degrees.

"That's not going to work," J muttered, raising the chain a link. The next reading dropped a whopping one degree, resulting in another chain adjustment. Ten minutes later, we'd raised the lamp to the level of the 2X4, and the brooder temperature was a balmy 108 degrees.

"Let's try the clip-on attachment," J suggested with growing frustration. I got out the attachment, then stood by as J switched out the chain, wood, and bungee-cord system we'd devised and clipped the lamp to the edge of the tank. Two minutes later, the thermometer read 105 degrees.

"Should we try the red bulb?" I asked.

"That's not going to do anything," J explained. "They're the same wattage. They're going to give off the same heat." He scratched his head and glared at the heat lamp. "I just don't get it. Why isn't the brooder getting any cooler? We've raised the lamp as much as we could."

"Here's a thought," I said. "It's a big metal tub, right? Maybe the metal's retaining the heat and that's why the temps are so high."

J blinked. "It's a huge roasting pan!" he exclaimed.

"Good think we're testing the heat lamp now," I noted wryly. "What are we going to do?"

What we did was drop down to a 125-watt bulb from the recommended 250 watters we'd bought. The Tractor Supply manager reassured us that our heat lamp could use a lower-watt bulb without burning out, short-circuiting, or exploding -- all bad for both chicks and humans -- but he didn't have any currently in stock. We split up, J hitting the home-improvement stores and me hitting the feed stores, both searching for that lower-wattage bulb. J finally found it at Lowe's and brought it home triumphantly, along with a standard outdoor thermometer and another digital, which he set up inside the brooder.

"115 degrees!" he yelled a few minutes later. The lamp, with its new bulb, hovered about five inches above the pine shavings and two of the three thermometers. The third, at the opposite end of the brooder, registered a slightly lower 109.

I sighed and started raising the chain.

After another hour of trial and error, we managed to get the brooder to a temperature somewhere between 95 and 99 degrees, depending on which thermometer we were reading. "I think this is the best we're going to get," J stated. "But feel the air. It just doesn't feel like 95 degrees."

"Come here," I told him from the other side of the brooder.

"The temperature's going to be the same over there," he complained.

"No, come here. I need you to hold me."

Confused, he came around to my side of the brooder. I placed his hands on my hips. "Now, hold on tight," I instructed, then went into a deep backbend to position my head and upper torso beneath the heat lamp. "No, it doesn't feel like it's 95 degrees down here," I called up from the pine shavings.

"You are so weird," J said once I was upright again.

"Yep," I agreed. "I know the thermometers say the temperature's good, but it just didn't feel hot enough. I don't want the chicks to freeze because we trusted a trio of cheap thermometers."

J, however, wasn't paying attention any more. He was hefting the two pieces of 2X4 and had a crafty look on his face. "I think I have a solution," he told me.

"Stacking the two pieces on top of each other?" I asked.

J grinned. "No. You'll see." And with that, he headed out to the garage.

"This better not take three weeks, whatever it is you're doing!" I called after him. We'd recently seen a video, Mad City Chickens, in which a clueless couple starting up their backyard flock waited until an hour before the post office delivered their chicks to buy their heat lamp. I'd made numerous disparaging comments about this couple's lack of preparedness and common sense, and I wasn't about to let us get lumped with these losers. And now our non-loser status -- and our chicks' future as laying hens versus broiler chickens -- all depended on whatever J was cooking up in his workshop.

We were in trouble.

Friday, February 25, 2011


When we moved out to the country two years ago, the biggest adjustment was not the lack of highway noise coming from the freeway just 300 feet away, nor was it the fact that we could no longer watch our neighbors' TV from our bedroom window. It wasn't the concept of having a well instead of city water, of having a big propane tank instead of natural gas, of having to drive for miles to get somewhere instead of just hopping onto a bus. No, what took the longest time for all of us to adjust to was the space.

Five thousand square feet. Our old house could fit inside this one, as could four of its siblings. The boys each have their own bedroom now, plus a shared lounge for study and play. Our new kitchen actually accommodates more than one person at a time, and we have a living room, den, eating nook, and dining room versus the one area in our old home that served all of those functions. Best of all, J and I no longer pack ourselves into a sardine-sized bedroom every evening. Instead, we have our own master suite, complete with a garden-style bath, his-and-hers walk-in closets that are larger than the boys' old bedrooms, and a sitting room/office leading to our back deck, where a half-dozen feeders attract every wild bird living on our five acres and beyond.

So where does everyone hang out? Our bedroom.

"You don't all have to be in here," I'd gripe. "You have your own rooms, you know." Or, "There's a reason you have a common lounge upstairs!" I've lost count of the number of times J has come home to find the older two sitting beneath our picture window, enthralled in their PSPs or reading, while the younger two watched Qubo while jumping on our bed, sending the laundry I was attempting to fold bouncing off onto the floor.

"What's the point of having a bigger house if everyone is just going to cram into one room?" he'd complain, sending the kids scurrying out the door. "All this togetherness is going to make me claustrophobic!"

It took a while, but we finally mastered the use of all that square footage. With the exception of B who, being only 4, tends to stay near me, the older boys now routinely scatter throughout the house, to the point that J installed walkie-talkie stations just to stay in touch with the kids. With all that space, you'd think that finding a spot for our chick brooder would have been a snap.


"No, JTR," I patiently explained to our 7 year old, "You cannot have the brooder in your bedroom."

"No, N," I semi-patiently explained to our 14 year old, "You cannot have the brooder in the common lounge."

"No, M," I not-so-patiently explained to our 17 year old, "You cannot put the brooder in N's bedroom!"

J wasn't much better than the kids. "You can't put it in the garage!" he exclaimed. "I just got my car in there, and I don't want to have to dig it out of the snow every morning!" J's solution? Put the brooder on the deck.

"You can't put it on the deck!" I exclaimed. "You might as well hang a sign on it that says 'Raccoon Diner'!"

In the end, and after thoroughly evaluating our options, we decided to put the brooder in our master suite's sitting room.

"You can't put the brooder in the sitting room!" our friend P exclaimed. "Don't you have any idea how much chicks smell? We had our brooder in the basement, and we could still smell it upstairs!"

"They really smelled," added P's daughter, SG.

"And you're running a business here! Do you really want that smell in your studio?" P continued while SG gravely shook her head no.

Hmmm. Hadn't thought of that.

Neither had J. "That means we're going to have to clear an area in the basement for them," he concluded.

Yipes. Never mind that the "we" would end up being "me." Our basement was not what I would call suitable for habitation. It had been, once. In fact, the previous owner ran his home business from the lower level. Severe water damage prior to our closing date, however, had turned that lovely stretch of space into a home owner's nightmare, with missing ceilings, exposed wires, bare concrete floors, and three feet of drywall missing from the bottom of every wall. What once would have housed a rec room, play room, home theater, and J's and my offices was now occupied by dozens of boxes and scores of dead ladybugs, victims of the brutal Michigan winter.

Well, at least the chicks would enjoy the ladybugs.

Yesterday morning, after seeing the older boys and J out the door, I put on some grubby clothes and got to work. J had suggested using the basement bathroom for the little peepers, but that just brought visions of chicks slip-sliding around the bathtub to mind. The "media room" was out of the question; it was the only room whose carpet had survived and we were using it as a pantry. The library would have been ideal, had it not been crammed with unassembled bookcases and storage tubs full of books. J's office? Heck, I didn't even like going in there. My office? That was jammed full of office furniture plus it served double-duty as my studio's supply station. That left the open area we'd originally designated as the rec room; the "play room" was stacked with all the boxes of stuff we hadn't unpacked yet (and would probably throw out once we did).

The rec room would work, I decided. We'd need some sheets of plywood to keep the chicks enclosed instead of having free rein of the basement, thanks to those three-foot wall gaps. There were no drafts, numerous outlets for the chicks' heat lamps, and plenty of daylight streaming through the plate-glass windows. And, once the weather got warmer, I could simply slide open the glass doors and take the troop out to the lower deck, where the hens could roam around, peck at the yard beneath the upper deck and gazebo, and torment Waltina, our resident groundhog.

Better get some plywood sheets to close off the back deck, too.

Clearing the space took only a matter of minutes and some heavy lifting, as I shifted around even more bookcases (I love books!), readjusted the position of the TV console (chicks like cartoons, right?), and moved a handful of unopened cartons to the play room area. When I was done, 56 square feet of open space had been cleared. The Chicks' Room was ready!

When J came home, I gave him a winning smile and told him to take a look downstairs. "I will," he assured me as he went to hang up his coat. "There's something I need to do first."

Curious, but busy with dinner preparations, I nodded and continued julienning bell peppers and mincing garlic. When dinner was ready, I sent B to gather up his brothers and father and bring them to the table. A moment later, B ran back into the kitchen, his eyes shining with excitement. "Mommy! Mommy! Come see! Come see!" He grabbed me by the hand and practically dragged me into the sitting room where, in a small space between my desk and J's, sat the chick brooder.

"Like it?" J asked. "I cut a remnant from N's carpet to put under the brooder so it wouldn't scratch up the hardwood. The smell shouldn't be too bad, right? Especially if we're going to be changing the pine shavings every day."

"We" meaning "me."

"Mommy!" JTR exclaimed, bouncing in from the kitchen. "How come YOU get to have the brooder in YOUR bedroom?"

Today, I'll be putting on grubby clothes and moving cartons, paint cans, and assorted junk out of the sitting room to make room for everyone to cram in and enjoy the chicks. Good thing there's a space in the basement for all this stuff.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What's in a Name?

Living out in the country has its pros and cons. We own much more land -- acres! -- than we did back in the city. At 5,000 square feet, our home is also much bigger, and much less expensive, than the 900-square-foot bungalow the six of us used to occupy. Groceries are far less expensive, and the merchants in town actually remember not only your name but the names of your children, too. The views of the surrounding countryside are fabulous, especially since we are nestled between two state parks. We get all sorts of visitors: wild turkeys and deer, for starters, plus dozens of wild birds: bluebirds, four species of woodpeckers, goldfinches, orioles, titmice, nuthatches, grosbeaks, chickadees, hummingbirds, juncos, and many, many more. At night, the stars are glorious.

And now for the cons. It's almost 8 miles to the nearest market (another reason for having dairy goats!). In order for our older boys to arrive in time for the start of school at 8 AM, the school bus has to pick them up at 6:40 AM. And someone has to wake up the kids and make sure they're fed and have everything they need for the day. There are many more bugs out here (which will make our chickens very, very happy), and it's much more dusty, even with all the windows closed. When it snows, we're pretty much snowed in. We live on a state rural route which frequently gets plowed last, after the pull offs for the hunting areas. Just a few weeks ago, the school bus arrived, trailing about 40 feet behind a heavy-duty CAT construction vehicle with a snowplow attachment on the front, clearing the way to school for the kids. Lucky kids.

One of the biggest kinks in our country life is that, when we moved our family out here, we also moved my studio here as well. I have my own dedicated room, with its own separate entrance, its own thermostat/heating system, and its own parking lot. All of which is great... if you can find us. I tell most folks that we're this number driveways on the right from this major crossroad, which works most of the time, and usually when the light's still out. In the dead of winter, when we lose daylight at 5 PM, finding the studio (and our house) is your proverbial search for a needle in a haystack.

I contacted M, the township ordinance director, to see if there was any chance that I could put a sign up to let people know where we were. I noted that, across the road and about an eighth of a mile down, the neighbors had a sign for their business by the entrance to their driveway.

No go. Turns out that if you're an agricultural business, such as our neighbors' miniature donkey farm, you can have a sign by the road. If you're not, you're out of luck unless you're a "home occupation," like a guy who makes handmade arrows for a living. If you qualify as a home occupation, you can have a sign, as long as it's a flat sign no larger than four square feet, with no lighting, and mounted on the wall of the building where you do your home occupation.

In other words, no go. Our house isn't really visible from the road, so who would see a sign that small?

But now... now was totally different. Now we were raising chickens and, in our book, that meant we were now an agricultural business. We could have a sign! Just to make doubly sure, I headed over to the township office again and checked with M.

"Awww, you really want to have a sign?" he drawled. "Well, I can't stop you. About three square feet. Best bet is to go measure the sign just down the road from you. Maybe you can have it say 'fresh eggs' on it."

Maybe. Or maybe we could name our fledgling farm something that just coincidentally happened to match the name of the studio, so the sign might serve a dual purpose, representing both businesses. Hmmm.

J thought it was a great idea. "Sneaky, sneaky!" he commented when I explained the ordinances regarding the sign. "Why not?"

I immediately got to work. Our studio's name is FMA. I had to come up with a name for our farm that could be abbreviated to FMA. I had my legal pad out, my pencil in hand, and... I couldn't think of anything. Well, that's not quite true. I came up with several names, but none relating to agriculture. Frenzied Marketing Analysts, for example. Future Michigan Alum. Finance My Acreage.

After a day of carrying the notepad with me, I'd come up with some names that were borderline. J liked Family Managed Agriculture. I liked Farming Middle America. We both liked Freaking Moronic Amateurs, which certainly described us and which we joked about getting made into T-shirts to wear around our little farm. I promised I'd keep at it.

By the next day, I had read the entire A and F sections of the dictionary and had added a few more names to the list:

Fegetables Milk Aggs (okay, that one was a bit of a stretch, and we didn't have goats yet)
Forget Markets... Approach! (well, maybe not)
Farming Masters of America (this was our 17 year old son's suggestion)
Feathered and Milking Animals (yes, yes, I know... no goats yet)
Feathers Milk Apiary (I don't have a goat, and J doesn't have bees, but it sounded nice)
Free Mandela Again (nothing to do with agriculture, I know)

"I think Family Managed Agriculture it is," J commented upon reviewing my new list. Giving up, I tossed the notepad over by the breadbox and proceeded to make dinner. As I chopped and simmered and stirred, I kept tossing the word feathers in my mind. Not that I wanted a cutesy name, but since the chickens were going to be the mainstay of our little farm, I wanted it reflected in our name.

After dinner, I was scrubbing the counters when I came across Tractor Supply Company's magazine. The cover story described a husband and wife who had dedicated their farm to bringing back threatened heritage breeds of chickens, ducks, and turkeys. I turned the pages, mentally identifying the different hens and roosters in the photos. Suddenly, it struck me. I knew the breeds by sight because these were the same breeds we would be raising. We were raising only heritage breeds! I quickly grabbed the notepad, and within moments, I had Feathers Making Acomeback.

I know. Still a stretch, but what can you expect from Freaking Moronic Amateurs?

An Itchy Situation

Despite my initial reluctance to having a flock of poultry -- I still wanted my goats! -- it was safe to say that I'd fully embraced the notion of raising chicks and having our own laying hens. I'd read "Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens" in one day, much to J's disgust and envy. I could now identify a chicken's breed by looking at its picture (more stupid human tricks for my repertoire!). I'd attended a meeting about legalizing backyard flocks for downtown residents (to show moral support since, as rural residents, we could legally own dozens of chickens). I'd even become an active member of the forums. J was similarly enthralled, pouring over coop designs and noting that he planned on a laying flock of at least 50 hens eventually (eeep!).

All of this came to a screeching halt when I read that chickens cast off dander.

Dander is to animals what dandruff is to humans: flakes of dead skin, found in hair, fur, and feathers. People with cat and dog allergies are not allergic to the actual animal; they're allergic to the dander, which is so tiny it can permeate the air and coat upholstered furniture, window treatments, and clothing, triggering allergic reactions. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAA&I), up to 10 percent of the general population and 40 percent of allergic individuals react to the dander of cats and dogs.

And here was a poultry guide noting that people who react to dogs and cats might very well be allergic to chickens as well.

Our four-year-old son, B, is allergic to dogs. And to wheat. And gluten. And milk, peanuts, tree nuts, chocolate, and rhubarb. Possibly coloring additives as well. B's diet is a very restricted one, and an expensive one, since we have to search high and low for specialty foods he can eat. J blames B's multiple allergies on the factory farming of America, where high doses of antibiotics, genetically modified produce, and unsafe agricultural practices have allegedly caused more and more people to develop medical conditions such as allergies and celiac disease. He might be right. I think that, with three older brothers with no food allergies, B was simply the unfortunate winner (or loser) of the genetic jackpot.

I discovered B's allergy to dogs when, while sitting in the customer lounge at the car dealership, waiting for my minivan to once again be repaired, a woman walked in with a dog on a leash. This alone was not immediately alarming; people walking their dogs is rather commonplace, although not necessarily at an auto dealership. Since B also suffers from asthma, I kept a nervous eye on the dog, as the last thing I wanted was for B to begin wheezing miles away from his nebulizer. I wasn't counting on the woman giving her pooch free rein to come over and investigate B, who tried to shrink back from the rather demanding springer spaniel sniffing at him.

"Excuse me, but could you please remove your dog? My son has asthma and I don't need for your dog to trigger a reaction," I asked, trying to keep the anger and exasperation out of my voice. I guess I didn't do too good a job. When the woman's husband came in to join her, she nodded her head in our direction and muttered loudly about dog haters. Whatever... I was in the midst of handling not an asthma attack but, to my surprise, an allergic reaction, thanks to Mrs. Uppity and her pup, Precious.

And yes, that was the name of her dog. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, seeing as the woman and the dog were wearing matching Burberry coats.

When B has an allergic reaction, he doesn't break out in hives, he doesn't sneeze, and his eyes don't water. Instead, his skin mutinies and, within a matter of minutes, a scaly red rash covers his arms, belly, and face. This itchy rash, called atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis, is supposedly the result of genetic abnormalities in B's skin teamed up with an abnormal function of his immune system. It also spreads when he scratches, which has led to many evenings of our applying a prescription ointment to his skin, then wrapping him up in gauze like a mummy to keep him from scratching. Once present, the eczema can take months to finally go away. B's allergist, Dr. S, is one of the country's leading specialists in skin-related allergy issues, specifically pediatric atopic dermatitis, so over the years and after myriad tests, we've been able to identify many of B's triggers to keep him as ezcema free as possible.

Dog was not one of the triggers on B's list but, other than the time he ate a grilled-cheese sandwish at Big Boy, I've never seen him rash out so quickly before. Before a minute had gone by, B had rashed out all over his face and whatever skin was exposed elsewhere. The poor kid was miserable, both from the rash and from being assaulted by the coat-wearing dog, and in the remaining time it took for my car to get fixed I alternated between cuddling the distressed little boy and shooting evil glances at Spoiled Dog Woman.

The existence of chicken dander threatened to torpedo all our poultry plans. J agonized over the possibility that his days as Gentleman J the Country Farmer were at an end. I didn't help matters much by pointing out that, since B is allergic to both dog dander and to eggs (he can handle them; he just can't eat them), there was a good chance that we might have to switch back to my original plan of raising dairy goats.

Our friend P had the ultimate solution. "Bring him over!" she said. P and her husband, S, raise meat chickens and turkeys plus a small flock of laying hens. The idea was to bring B into the coop, let him handle a hen, then monitor him for any reaction. We had to wait until the rash he'd gotten from his Christmas Eve exposure to his aunt's dog has cleared up to be sure we could clearly see any new reactions, but finally the day was at hand. Feeling like we were driving to our own funeral, we climbed into the car and headed over to P's.

The meat chickens and turkeys were long gone, having graced many a table, but the hens and their rooster were hanging out in their coop. P brought B and me into the coop, then handed me a hen (a Rhode Island Red), which I snuggled close and brought over for B to pet.

B was not at all interested. His eyes were on something else: the rooster. He wanted to pet the rooster.

Now, despite the fact that he was perched comfortably, surrounded by a harem of four hens, P's rooster is quite feisty. When the flock is outside foraging and enjoying the outdoors, the rooster will immediately raise its hackles when P's 3 year old, S, is in sight. The rooster will then charge at S, chasing the poor boy around the yard until it got tired of its game. S is understandably terrified of the rooster.

B wanted to pet THAT rooster.

"Look, honey," I cooed, stroking the Rhode Island Red's back. "See the nice chicken? See how Mommy is petting her? Don't you want to pet her, too?" B reached out a hand, patted her on the rump twice, then refocused his attention on the rooster. I looked at P, my eyes pleading for assistance.

P took the hen from me and crouched down beside B. "Look, B! She's really a sweet, gentle hen," P said. "Would you like to hold her?"

B shook his head, then reached out and started stroking the rooster. The rooster turned his head, eyed B, then returned to being adulated by his hens, apparently deciding B was either yet another admirer or just not worth the effort to chase. P and I exchanged amazed glances, then called our husbands over to watch as B, growing bolder, stepped up beside the rooster, who actually nuzzled into B's hand as he stroked the silky feathers.

Later that night, B happily chirped to his older brothers that he liked the big feathery chicken the best. J and I were pleased that B hadn't been afraid to approach the temperamental bird. However, we were more pleased that B hadn't broken out in a rash at all. Our poultry plans were back on, and the countdown to Chick Days continues!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where the Peeps Sleep

With our chicks now ordered, the next obstacle to tackle was a logical one: where on earth were we going to put them? Newly hatched chicks have many requirements: heat lamps set for specific temperatures, access to copious amounts of water, a flooring surface with enough resistance to ensure proper leg development, and a feeder that keeps the curious little birds from climbing in and contaminating their chow. They also need about 1/2 square foot of space per chick... for now. Ever wonder why the chicks your Great Aunt Tillie gave you for Easter died so quickly? That's why.

When we were still planning on a half-dozen chicks, our solution was a simple one: a sturdy cardboard box would serve as the brooder, or chick pen. We had plenty of U-Haul boxes in our pole barn, stored away after we'd finished unpacking just in case we ever needed a carton again. We'd simply assemble one, line it with newspaper, then pour on two inches of fresh pine shavings. Voila... instant brooder.

For 26 chicks, we'd need a refrigerator-sized carton. Or bigger. Ack.

I'd ordered a catalog from the Randall Burkey Company, an outlet that not only stocks day-old chicks but also carries poultry-rearing equipment. The catalog featured several brooder kits, including basic cardboard pens and plastic "chick corrals." The brooder kit that caught my eye came with a heat lamp and stand, waterer, feeder, and chick corral for a very reasonable price.

J would have nothing to do with it.

"There's no floor," he pointed out. "It's just a freestanding pen. A few chicks leaning against the wall will be able to move it from one place to another. We need something with a floor that's stable. And plastic's cheap. How long is it going to last, one or two years?" While amused at the thought of a chick corral skittering across the floor thanks to a team effort amongst the chicks, I agreed to check around some more.

The folks at the local feed store happened to agree with J, but not because of the mobile-home aspect. "The heat from the heat lamps can melt plastic corrals,"

"And start a fire," another employee chimed in.

"Cardboard's worse. Don't know why so many people think cardboard brooders work. Chicks can peck and scratch through cardboard like you wouldn't believe," said the first.

"Cardboard burns quicker, too," said the other.

Sigh. Undaunted, I checked with some friends and with the forums (a fabulous font of knowledge!) to see what other people had used for brooders. One woman had turned an old refrigerator -- with door removed -- into her chick brooder. Several were using spare bathrooms, housing the chicks in the shower or bathtub. I suppose that would make it easier to clean, but the idea of chicks in the bathroom weirded me out. Our friend T used a sectioned-off area of a trailer she'd converted into a coop and storage area, while our friend P simply set up a brooder in her garage. We had just managed to clear out and clean up our garage so that J could park his car inside, away from all that Michigan snow. I didn't see his Mazda yielding its beloved space to two dozen chicks happening any time soon. Our pole barn was out of the question: too drafty, and currently in use as the county's spider incubator.

Sensing my frustration, J suggested I check galvanized tubs out. They were fully enclosed, easy to wash out, and -- most importantly -- durable. If we were going to the expense of getting chick gear, we might as well get stuff that lasts. I treked back to the feed store, where my one of my new employee friends were happy to point out the 15- and 17-gallon galvanized wash tubs they had in stock.

"How many chicks are you going to keep in it?" he asked, reaching up to take it down from its hook.


His hand stopped in mid-reach, and he turned to goggle at me. "This isn't going to be big enough for 26. Ten to 16, maybe. You're going to need at least a 20- to 25-gallon washtub for that many chicks. We don't carry those."

Great. If a country store that carries chicken feed, horehound candy, and horse halters doesn't carry large-sized washtubs, where were we going to find one?

Why, Amazon, of course. J hopped on and, within minutes, had created a new wish list, complete with a 46-gallon washtub, galvanized chick feeder, heat lamp, bulbs, and more. I pulled the list up on my laptop and grimaced when I saw that none of these items qualified for Amazon Prime, the free-shipping service I'd paid membership fees to enjoy. I could only imagine what the shipping costs would be on a 44-gallon, galvanized steel tub, and expressed as much. But at least now we knew that such tubs did exist. The search was on!

And so it was that on a blizzarding Monday evening, with work cancelled due to the weather for me and J home early because of the swirling snows, we found ourselves driving in almost white-out conditions to Tractor Supply Company to examine its inventory of galvanized stock tanks, huge oval-shaped metal tubs used to feed and water horses, cattle, and other farm critters. We were the only customers in the entire store, and the employee was none too pleased to take me outside to where they kept the fencing and tanks. Only one 44-gallon tank remained, and we had to kick the snow away in order to see its full 1 ft X 2 ft X 4 ft dimensions. Perfect! And right next to it, for only $5 more, the identical tank but with two-foot-high sides instead of one-foot-high ones. Even more perfect!

The tank -- with a whopping 110-gallon capacity -- was eventually wrestled out from where it was semi-frozen, the snow scooped out as much as possible, and carried over to our car for loading. I sent silent thank yous to whatever gods had granted me a nice, roomy Jeep courtesy car while my minivan was in the shop, but even so the tank was a tight fit. No using the rear-view mirror for the drive home, and definitely no stopping for groceries, unless we planned to carry the bags on our laps. That was all right, though. Mission accomplished: our chick brooder had been bought!

Now, where the heck were we going to put it?

Taking the Plunge

In 21 days, our lives are going to change irrevocably.

Yes, we thought that when we found out we were going to be parents. And yes, we thought that when we left behind our city life for five acres of rural countryside. But this time, things are different.

This time, there will be chickens.

Twenty-six of them, to be exact. And the little peeping fuzzballs are due to arrive on March 16.

It wasn't supposed to be quite like this. My husband, J, and I moved out to rural Michigan in part to get away from the attitudes, the Type-As, the craziness of urban life. We wanted our four sons to have room to roam outdoors, plenty of space indoors, and a healthier, friendlier pace of life. This wasn't such a stretch for me. I grew up in Jersey farm country, with rolling hills of corn, plump Jersey tomatoes on the vine, and dairy and eggs from the farm just down Ryan Road from us. J, however, has known nothing but city life and, while one of our sons was born in Iowa, all our kids have ever experienced regarding the origin of their edibles is that they come from Kroger. Pop it in the microwave, and it's done. That's not how we want them to think.

J and I therefore agreed that we'd devote about a half-acre (for starters) to growing organic crops. We let the kids help pick out what we'd grow, to make them feel more involved. Our oldest, M, helped dig the fence, almost panicking when he uncovered a nest full of Blanding's turtle eggs. Our home-grown compost helped our fledgling plants, as did J's patient irrigating. At harvest time, our land yielded up to us plenty of colorful peppers, flavorful tomatoes, tasty potatoes, and juicy raspberries.

With the garden underway, with plans for expansion, we turned to our next project: increased self sufficiency via our own livestock. Our township ordinances allow us to have horses, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, donkeys, even llamas. Being vegetarians of the ovo-lacto kind (milk and eggs are okay, since we don't kill the cow to get the milk or kill the hen for her eggs), we focused on dairy and poultry. We really didn't want to raise a milk cow -- the expense would be astronomical. I felt that two little Nubian or Bohr goat does would be perfect. Just the right size, gentle dispositions, and plenty of rich, creamy milk every day. Plus there was the added bonus of built-in lawn maintenance.

J, however, felt that goats would still be too expensive. There'd have to be a shelter/shed for them, fencing would need to be installed, there'd be a yearly stud fee, we'd have to sell the kids or turn them into wethers, and there'd be twice-a-day milking, regardless of the weather. I researched and found that stud fees from local farms are minimal or free; there are plenty of farms that take extra kids or wethers, either as livestock or as pets; their shelter needs were minimal and we had plenty of fencing left from the vegetable plots; and I was itching to try my hand at making goat cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. But I allowed myself to be persuaded to endorse J's choice of critter: chickens.

Now, I was no stranger to chickens. My maternal grandmother kept a small flock that I helped with and played with as a small child. I loved visiting the nearby chicken farm and watching the laying hens in their nest boxes, oohing and aahing whenever an egg gently rolled out the back of a box and onto the conveyor belt to be carried off to the cartoning area. My mother even bought me chicks to raise, although, by that time, rural Jersey had become suburban Jersey, bedroom to Manhattan, and a dozen little cheepers just didn't have a chance in a sub-development. I knew that chickens weren't always easy. They could be noisy. They could fly at you. They could fly away from you. They could get really mad if you gathered an egg they'd plan to set. And if you didn't keep up with them, the smell would catch up to you. No thanks! I said. I don't want chickens! I don't need a bunch of cackling hens getting underfoot, I don't need a bunch of hawks circling overhead, and there are only so many eggs we can eat! J refused to let me rain on his parade. Think about it, he said. Read this article, he'd coo, handing me yet another feature on urban or backyard poultry raising. Check out these cute coops, he'd say, showing me Victorian confections, log-cabin lodges, country-style constructions.

The clincher came when J called me over to his laptop one evening. Take a look, he said. And onscreen were a dozen or so little fluffs, peeping and cuddling together. My heart melted. So sweet! So cute! Who couldn't help but want to hold them, feed them, and have them around? J sensed I'd caved and, soon, our bedroom floor was littered with copies of Backyard Poultry, Mother Earth News, Grit, Hobby Farms, and several guides to building coops and raising chickens. I carefully made notations of URLs for hatcheries and supplies, calling each for catalogs and pouring over their site content. I spoke to friends who had backyard flocks or raised poultry for eggs, meat, or both. I studied the many standard and bantam breeds, seeking the best egg layers, those who laid the larger eggs, those that were docile with each other and with children, and, perhaps most importantly, those that were cold hardy and could survive our Michigan winters. I narrowed it down to three breeds: Buff Orpingtons, a heavy golden-colored bird that is extemely docile and lays brown eggs; Silver-Laced Wyandottes, a recovering large breed with rippled black and white feathers that also lays brown eggs; and Araucana, a medium-sized chicken originating in South America, with tufted cheeks and, best of all, blue eggs.

J agreed with my list and suggested that we start with perhaps 6 hens. That way, if things didn't work out, we would not have gone to too much expense or effort. I agreed, but noted that we'd need some "chick insurance," since several would not survive the trip from the hatchery, would die, or would become dinner for one of our local predators. I suggested ordering 12 chicks to start with, so that we'd end up with perhaps 6 to 8 laying pullets. J wasn't too thrilled, since a dozen hens would need more foraging space and a larger coop, but he saw my point about not wanting to lose all our birds. A dozen it was.

And then I discovered the ornamentals. Fat, fluffy chickens with feather-covered legs, big poofy crests on their heads, shaggy feathers everywhere. Silkies. Cochins. Polish bantams. They looked so ridiculous, but so adorable at the same time. These were chickens? They looked more like the poodles of the chicken world. They were difficult to come by. Of course I wanted one. Or two. Or four. J shook his head, humored me, and agreed to let me add four more birds -- two White Cochins and two Buff Silkies -- to our order. Six quickly became sixteen.

Next on the to-do list: order the chicks! After some discussion, J and I decided that we wanted the chicks to arrive in mid-March, in part so that they would be ready to lay earlier in the fall versus later, but also so that our flock would be underway by the time J, a staff sergeant with the Army Reserves, had to leave on assignment this spring. I contacted our three local feed stores as well as the brand-new Tractor Supply Company to see when their Chick Days would start and whether they had the chicks we wanted. No, no, no, and no. The feed stores wouldn't have chicks until mid-April, when J'd be gone, and TSC didn't carry the ornamentals. Back to the Internet I went. I spent several hours visiting the list of hatcheries and poultry farms on my Bookmarks list, getting increasingly frustrated by the minute. Many did not carry all five breeds. Others had a five-per-breed minimum. Some allowed for a minimum three-chick order but had already sold out of chicks for our desired hatching time. Only two hatcheries, McMurray in Iowa and Meyer in Ohio, had the birds we wanted -- in limited availability. McMurray had less expensive shipping, so I went with McMurray... and promptly found out that they had a 25-chick minimum.

"We need to order 25," I told J over the phone a few minutes later.

"What? No, we don't!" J responded.

"Yes, we do!" I explained how we could simply get more Silkies and Cochins as the 9 extra birds, as our friend P had wanted to get some of those for her farm. If worse came to worse, we could always sell the chicks at our feed store.

"Well, if we have to order 25, we might as well get hens we can use," J conceded.

Six turned to 16 and then turned to 25. Extras of each breed were ordered... plus McMurray gifts each order with a rare chick. Twenty-five became 26.

That evening, J placed the order, with me eagerly watching over his shoulder. He clicked to confirm our order, then got up from his desk chair and paced back and forth. "My god, what have we done?" he cried.

I'm still trying to figure that out. But now we have a countdown and four kids eager to help raise the little fluffs and collect eggs. In the meantime, we have to purchase the equipment and supplies for our chick brooder, finalize a design for a coop of 24 to 30 birds, and prepare ourselves for parenthood of another kind.

It's going to be a fascinating but bumpy ride!