Spring is for the chickens

I related in a previous post that I have never ever had chickens before I got them last June as day olds from Ideal Poultry.  I had a fear of failure that made me very unsure of keeping them. But I have 27 that happily run around and are a blast to watch.   But if I can do this, anyone can, and it just takes some preparation, education and dedication.  I have listed 5 things to do BEFORE you get your  first chicks.  It is tempting to get in a hurry and order those cute little fluffy things, or pick them up at Tractor Supply before you are ready.  But please be ready first.  Here are my top five THINGS TO DO in advance:

1.  Get ALL  the family members on board with the idea.  It will require some time and effort from everyone.  Your husband may need to build something for you and them; your kids may need to help feed and water or change litter. The first few weeks will require being at home (no week long vacations) and dedicating yourself to overseeing the health and welfare of your chicks until they are ready to be outside on their own, usually around 8 weeks of age.

2.  Evaluate your finances and plan for the necessary housing, litter, feed, and food dishes and waterers.  We built our coops; my husband designed and made them, but they were not “free”.  If you plan ahead and scrounge around Craigslist or friends or neighbors maybe you can get some free building materials.  There are plans online for making your own food or water dishes that are mostly castoff materials.  The feed and sawdust shavings will be ongoing expenses.  I have 27 chickens; I buy one 50 lb. sack of feed for about $12 that lasts 2 or maybe 3 weeks. The shavings I buy from the farmer’s co-op as needed, but they are about $4 for one compressed bag.    Because they are pastured, I fill the feeders every other day and let them scrounge for bugs and things and I will toss out vegetable and food scraps if I have some. I also buy ground oyster shells since they are laying; I don’t buy grit since they pasture and pick up enough grit that way. Until then you will need to buy it or provide sand or similar. Be sure you get a sturdy tub to hold them while they are chicks.  I used a long narrow stock tank because we had one. Fencing on top to keep out cats, snakes, etc.  

3.  This maybe should be #1, but BUY this book, “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens” by Gail Damerow.  READ it all.  Don’t let it scare you away though.  I don’t medicate or worm my chickens; they are healthy.  Our coop was designed so I don’t have to walk into it.  It is only 4′ deep so I open the door and reach in to do any egg gathering, cleaning or litter change out.  If I need to get in, I can.  It’s an A-frame,  8′ tall  in the middle. But not walking in it keeps me from tracking in some harmful bacteria/germ.

4.  Research where you are getting your chicks from, their replacement policy if they do not arrive alive or die shortly after arrival, and selection availability.  If you can, use a hatchery as close as possible to you so shipping is successful.  I used Ideal Poultry in Texas.  Great customer service and all the chicks arrived in excellent shape.   http://www.ideal-poultry.com/  I got to choose the date of delivery that fit my schedule. The post office called me at 6:30 a.m. to come and get those chicks now or they will die.  Be ready for the call and have the facilities, heat lamp, food and water,  ready and waiting.

5.  Research the rules and regulations of the housing area you live in.  Your city/town may have rules or deed restrictions about keeping poultry  and how many and type (no roosters, for example).  If the neighbors complain and you are not in compliance they could confiscate your birds or have you get rid of them.  Call your city code officer or city office for the regulations. If you are not in city limits make sure there are no restrictions in your subdivision.

Yea or nay? The mysteries of breeding

Well I wrote last about attempting to get our 3 girl alpacas bred to our herdsire Hershey.  We have a system in place now, along with the addition of catch pens, that have aided tremendously in having success this year I hope. 

No matter how you look at it, or how you try to deny it, you have to have the right tools to achieve success.  Sometimes you try to do without to save money, but evaluate how well that is working for you.   We did not have catchpens last year and since we acquired one for the girls and one for the boys this year it has improved our processes tremendously.  You have to “catch” them up in the pen to halter them, or groom them, or whatever.    It was just an accidental/unintentional purchase when a nearby farm was retiring and selling everything and when we visited them they had catch pens for sale.  We bought two. 


So with spring breeding we have hopefully been successful.  I have my notebook with the girls names on each page and recording the dates they rendezvous with Hershey.  It would appear at this point in time that he was successful in each first time breeding with each girl.  We have done followup rebreeds at one week intervals spaced a couple days apart for each girl  and so far they all are spitting him off (and I mean plastering him with the green stuff, and us as well if we are in spitting distance).  So I will move our “spit tests” now to monthly and see if pregnancies are holding, then have the vet do progesterone tests later on.  I record everything we do for each girl.  We record everything we do for all the animals healthwise, but the breeding requires more detailed notes.  We have been doing breedings in the evenings as it fits better with our schedules.  There have been many conversations about how farms “create” the female cria/baby, and several said time of day made a difference, with evening being high on the list.  We shall see.

After much frustration last year, without catchpens, and trying to get Hershey and a girl together in his fenced in barn space, it just didn’t work well.  There was too much room where she would run away and he would stand in the corner timidly.  We learned the trick is to get them close together (i.e., catch pen) .  The female needs to kush; our guy just will not be aggressive enough to chase.  Some farms I have heard “help” the girl kush to get things going.   We halter both animals and can hook up a lead if needed.  Getting in and holding the girls tail out of the way helped a lot.  We didn’t try wrapping the tail as some recommend.   Hershey also learned what the catch pens were for if there was a girl in there; and was much quicker in getting down to business each time he was taken to the pen. 

I really, really hope we have three successful pregnancies.  I bought all my animals focusing on grey and rose grey and they all have grey, silver or rose grey in their lineage.  The gestation is 11 months to 12 months and I will be very anxious for  successful  deliveries.  I am keeping my fingers crossed we are on the right path this year.

Love is in the air

Spring is our time for breeding the alpacas since they have an 11 to 12 month gestation.  We don’t really want to have any births in the heat of summer.  And if they perchance have a fall birth I worry that a newborn will be caught in an early winter cold snap, so I would prefer a late spring birth. 

We are new to this I admit and so I have been researching what I can to discover what the magic formula is for getting a male and female to breed.  Our lackluster results last spring proved our male is very “polite” and will not chase the females.  He tends to hide in a corner if they spit at him or rebuff him at all.  This year we are going to be more proactive in getting the female to kush, and catch-penned in a more “private” area of the barn so they have no distractions from other curious alpaca eyes.

This week we have had success with our herdsire Hershey Surprise and our female Kona Queen. The key for him is they have to kush, he will not chase. So Sunday was the date night  and,  once Kona  got tired of prancing around the catch pen while Hershey reclined in the corner, she kushed and he was romancing her immediately.  Knowing that it may take another “date” or two for success, we got them together Tuesday and she would absolutely NOT have anything to do with him.  Several times she looked like she was going to kush, but she would take an over the shoulder glance at Hershey once again in the corner reclining and she never would kush.  After about an hour of wandering around the catch pen she looked like she just might kush and he took the cue but it just erupted into a spitting match between the two.  We removed Kona drolling green from her mouth, and Hershey, whose lower lip was slimed and drooping  almost down to his chin, was sent back to his pen and pasture.  Could it be she knows she is pregnant this soon?  I have no clue, but spit testing will be in her future very soon.

Next we have two more girls, a mother/daughter actually.  We dedicated this week in the evenings to breeding and so Hershey will have dates every night.  We will see how this goes.  It should be interesting because these two  girls spit trying to keep others out of their food bowls.  Having a date with Hershey in a catch pen may prove too much for them.

Six books you will want for reference

I am a dedicated “researcher”.  Before we make any decisions or buy anything that is a  big ticket item, I research until I am comfortable making a decision and spending our hard-earned money.  You name it and I have researched it.  Likewise, before I invest in a reference book for the bookshelf , I want to make sure I get exactly what I need.  I read reviews and comments first.  I may check it out at the library first, or borrow it from an acquaintance. 

And so, in our pursuit of country living, alpaca/livestock husbandry, and poultry raising, I found these books so far that have helped answer lots of questions.  I shop at a nearby Half-Price Books or Hastings for good values; otherwise, I get great deals on Amazon.  You can set yourself up with a “wish list” and check it often to find any of your wish-list books that might be on sale at that time. Take a look  and search by topic, or author,  for an easier search. http://www.amazon.com/gp/homepage.html

Here are my 6 “go-to” books right now, in order by topic.  Some of the “country” will also have sections on poultry.

Country living:

1.  Storey,John and Martha Storey. 1999.  STOREY’S BASIC COUNTRY SKILLS.  Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 564 p. 

2. Emery, Carla.  2008.  THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COUNTRY LIVING, the original manual for living off the land & doing it yourself.  Seattle: Sasquatch Publishing, 922 p.

3.  Ekarius, Carol. 1999.  SMALL-SCALE LIVESTOCK FARMING, a grass-based approach for health, sustainability, and profit.  Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 217 p.


4.  Damerow, Gail. 1995.  STOREY’S GUIDE TO RAISING CHICKENS, care, feeding, facilities.  Massachusetts: Storey Publishing, 341 p.


5.  Hoffman, Clare and Asmus, Ingrid.  2nd ed. 2005.  CARING FOR LLAMAS AND ALPACAS, a health and management guide.   Wyoming: Pioneer Printing, 176 p.

6.  Bennett, Marty McGee, THE CAMELID COMPANION, handling and training your alpacas & llamas.  New York: Raccoon Press, 386 p.

Buying a tractor

Last summer our trusty lawn tractor bit the dust.  It held up reliably for over 10 years which is rather a long time based on the research I was doing for a new one.  We debated on how large of a tractor we really needed.  We are on 104 acres, but we let our neighbor’s cattle graze and he maintains for us almost 80 of our acres.  We have 20 acres we are shaping up into a hay growing pasture.  The balance we maintain around the house and the alpaca/poultry pastures.  We considered a step up from a lawn tractor to a  small tractor with a front loader.  Then we looked at the horsepower and found the tractors in our price range didn’t have much more horsepower than our lawn tractor and were not really recommended for using with loaders, not enough horsepower, even though companies were selling them as a package. 

Then we looked at what we really needed one for or how often we might need it for other uses.  We decided just to step up to a larger lawn tractor, with a wider deck and a little more horsepower.  You can also buy implements that attach for an occasional need to plow a small garden plot or grade down some gravel or sand.  We decided on the Husqvarna brand and have been so pleased with it.  It is so easy to access all the parts for servicing and maintaining by us which is a BIG plus.   It is easy to fill with fuel and the tank is visible under the seat and has a slot to view the fuel level.  It is somewhat quieter and has a well cushioned seat and larger tires for a smoother ride.  The headlights really do a great job when you are almost done but the day has already turned late dusk.  I like the sleek looking design and the cool orange  and grey color combination.  It even has cruise control!

The deck is easy to clean up.  We try not to mow when it is wet, but sometimes you just have to, or the grass is deep enough it is holding moisture.  The deck also has more height adjustments.  I did a lot of research before deciding on this brand.  From a lot of comments I read, the green Deere brand of mowers are overpriced; you are paying for the name.  For others, their reliability and life span are short.  I did have a couple of other brands I would have considered also.  But this one and it’s price at Tractor Supply was the key.  http://www.tractorsupply.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay_10551_10001_106134_-1______?rFlag=true&cFlag=1

Once I got over my fear of what button to push or  turn and how to stop and start the mow deck  you couldn’t keep me from using it for something.  I do mow, and we have a great poly cart that can hook to the tractor and haul anything, like sand or manure buckets.   I have to be careful not to mow too much and leave something for my husband to do on the weekends since he thinks this is “his” toy.  We plan to purchase another implement or two to make this a really valuable piece of equipment for us with a long useable life.

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