Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Raising Chickens in Alaska for Food, Yard Work, and Companionship

We raise chickens for breakfast (eggs) and rabbits for, well, dinner.  The latter is harder because rabbits are so darn cute and it is poor protocol to use such adjectives about future stew.  You never see “cute” on a restaurant menu, do you?

I recommend both animals for pets, and although my husband would prefer that I regard the animals merely as food producers, I must confess that I treat the chickens somewhat as pets and I am endeavoring not to do the same with the rabbits.  This article is about raising chickens.  A following article is about raising rabbits.
Our coop and run, with bear wire fence post

Our chickens live in an insulated green and white, 4x6 coop attached to a 4x10 roofed run, located in the lower meadow visible from our cabin.  (Both are padded by straw that we harvest in the summer.)  Together, the structures remind me of a little old fashioned train car and caboose, awaiting an engine to cart them away. To keep the water from freezing and to power a small heat lamp inside during the winter, my husband ran electric line (powered by our solar panels and wind turbines) to the buildings.  We also have a solar powered electric fence around the coop to deter hungry bears (in summer) and wayward moose, although, to our knowledge, that has not been tested yet, even though we have seen bears and moose in the yard.  The coop is elevated about 6 inches, which provides the chickens with a shady nook.

Sometimes they take naps under there and the other day, I swear, I heard one of them snoring.  The space also provides an accessible hiding place from flying predators, like eagles and owls.  ( In Alaska, we don’t have to worry about snakes or rats). Unfortunately, though,they are vulnerable to other animals.  A wily weasel dug under the run last year and killed half our flock.  Subsequently, Bryan dug down about a foot on all sides of the run and inserted a below ground “fence” of roofing metal.  We hope that will foil future attempts.   

During the winter, the snow banks up around the sides of the run, creating a cold, but wind-free outdoor area for them.   When I let them out of the run, into a very snowy landscape, I was surprised to see them peck at the snow.  Chickie snowcones?   They also eat the cocoons that I scrape out from under the eaves of the coop, thus eliminating a few million caterpillars. Once the snow melts, they free range throughout the yard, following me here and there, like colorful, feathered puppies, returning on their own to the coop in the evening.  We weed together - all of us scratching at the dirt in companionable silence.  To look at us, you wouldn't think the evolutionary train had traveled very far! I find their company delightful.  Each one has a distinct personality, and of course, many of them are very beautiful.

Currently, we have just two hens that we received in trade in early March for two roosters and a hen we gave to a chicken-raising friend last fall.    Nellie, a Plymouth or Barred Rock chicken, has lovely black and white feathers and a bright red wattle and comb above and below her face.  This is a gentle breed.  She has climbed into my lap and pecked gently at my zipper pull and even my hair, thus pulling at my heart strings, too. She earned her name because she sounds like an asthmatic, nervous (Nellie) woman talking to herself all the time, “Oh dear, oh no, oh my.”  Esther is an Ameraucana, dubbed an “Easter Egger” because that breed delivers pretty blue and green eggs.  She has more subdued coloring of white and beige, enlivened by cheek feathers that remind me of the "mutton chop" beards of men from the 1840s.  She also has a bit of a ruffle of feathers down her chest.  So perhaps, like some plain women, she enhances her looks with fashion details!  She is the "designated listener" of the pair - very quiet.  The only time I ever hear her is when she makes an alarm notification, which sounds like a creaking door.  Both “the girls” let me pet them from time to time, but I don't think they care for it.  They will follow me and sit on my lap and feet, and touch me, but they don't really want me to touch them.

Every morning, I call out “Hello, ladies” as I walk down to their coop.  If Nelly is silent, she is sitting on an egg, but otherwise, she calls back to me in acknowledgement.  They invariably greet me at the door, ready to go outside, and probably hoping, too, for a little tidbit from my kitchen.    

Every afternoon, I go out and sit with them, sometimes with a book or a glass of tea.  The climb into my lap.  If I have been working in the woods and have returned with a circling hoard of mosquitoes, the chickens will actually nip the insects right out of the air around me!  This is great unless one lands on my face, in which case I close my eyes as Nellie snaps close to my eyes. 

Of the two, Nellie is the “alpha” and the term “pecking order” is clear to see, even with only two chickens.  She is the one who emerges first from the coop, and when I toss out food, she is the one who secures it first for herself.  Yesterday, I tossed squash seeds in various piles so that Esther could reach some, too, but Esther is not the “sharpest tool in the shed.” She bypassed the pile close to her to try to get some that Nellie wanted, too, an endeavor she will never win.  On the other hand, she may be cleverer than I think.  The last time Nellie pecked at her to get out of the way, Esther flew up into my lap, as though to point out that I was the true alpha in the neighborhood.  Poor Esther isn’t very graceful, either. She occasionally trips over her own feet as she exits the coop and falls a few inches to the ground.  The other day, Nellie sounded like she chuckled at the sight of it.    

I won’t pretend that the coop smells great during the winter, but the chickens are neater than I expected.  They tend to use one nesting box for laying eggs, and two of the others for their “Ladies’ Room stalls.”   This makes it really easy to clean up after them.  I just lift the exterior nesting box lid and scoop with a trowel.   
From each hen, we get about an egg a day.  The shell seems thinner than store bought eggs, but otherwise I don’t notice any difference in flavor or structure, until they shift from a corn feed based diet to greens and bugs during the summer.  Once their diet changes, the yolks become a more vivid yellow - almost orange.  Did you know that hens lay a bit later each day for about 27 days and then take a few days off?    Nellie's  eggs are beige colored.  Esther didn’t lay any eggs for several months – maybe she took the winter off - but now she lays a bonny blue egg, with a perfectly smooth surface.  Can you see the color differences in the picture below?


As yard workers, chickens are terrific.  (See blog entry titled, "Meditation While Weeding." They eat bugs and larvae and low seeds and weeds. They clean out the flies in the outhouse that have dropped like, well, flies.   (Their favorite foods are ferns and grass seeds, and of course, berries.) As an added bonus, they fertilize here and there as they walk about, and I add their used straw to my compost pile.    I plant pretty chives around my flower and vegetable gardens to discourage voles and hares by their scent.  But chickens have no sense of smell, so they are undeterred by the pink and green barrier. In fact, these two have ravaged my broccoli and cabbage plants.  That is my fault though.  I neglected to fence my garden from them when my seedlings were the only green thing in the brown spring yard. 

As garbage disposals, chickens are also helpful.  Although they don’t like gunky, old vegetables, like overly soft tomatoes and peppers, they gobble up leftover oatmeal, apples, firm vegetables, and even dairy products like yogurt and cheese rinds.   They hate pineapple.  It is the only food I have actually seen them kick away!

My husband is not in favor of my naming the chickens and getting to know them, but I have become one of those people who talks to her plants, too. Perhaps that happens when you live out in the middle of the woods with no one but your husband to talk to!  

We are not raising these for meat (roasters) but I have read that chickens are among the most efficient meats to raise:  a 1:2 ratio between (a pound of) meat and (a pound of) feed. ( I’m not sure what the measurement is for eggs to feed).  (Rabbits are 1:4, goats and  sheep are higher, and cattle are 1:10). 

There are many reasons to raise chickens, but people should not embark on the endeavor with the idea that they will save any money on food.  I figure that our first egg, after all the construction, food, supplies, animal purchases, and raising a whole flock last year that gave us no eggs at all (three were killed by a weasel, and two of the survivors were male) was worth about $1400!  Let’s face it, commercial enterprises can raise chickens much more cheaply per bird than an individual can do so.  (I've read articles entitled "The Hundred Dollar Tomato" too). However, in our case, being so far from a road, much less a market, the alternative is not so much cheap or expensive eggs as any or no eggs (or powdered eggs, which I do indeed use for baking in the winter).  Also, as I said, I have really enjoyed having them as companion animals much more than I ever expected, and I respect their yard work contributions, too, as fertilizers, diggers, bug patrol, and composters.

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