Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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!

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