Winter 2014-2015 was the worst winter Richmond, Virginia has seen in decades. Below zero temps, more than our fair share of precipitation, and just plain ice cold. Figures this is the first winter I've had to care for outdoor farm animals. Even though I got my first chicks in February of last year, they were inside until the spring anyway, so I didn't have to worry about winter weather care. This year, even though it was bad, all the birdies braved through the record low temps and weeks where the high didn't get above freezing without much incident. The roos had a little frostbite here and there, but nothing major. You should have seen me out in the blistering 6 degree cold, the wind blowing snow in my face, trying to nail weatherproofing around the coop doors to seal up the cracks . I was a sight, my frozen fingers dropping every other nail, straddling the doors to keep them from slamming open and closed in the wind. I even wired a large tarp on top of the run to try to keep it dry during all the wet weather. It sort of worked, but the sheer amount of rain and snow had the yard draining the excess water through the chicken run and down the hill in the back, so it was wet anyway. The chickens made it through the hard part of the winter without much complaint, even though they were prissies about the snow. I had to scrape them a path to the barn, they're favorite hang out space, for them to even leave the coop at all. Even though it's March now and daylight savings time begins this weekend, looks like we may get snow tomorrow! Time to scrape them another path.
HOW CHICKENS ARRIVED AT THE HOMESTEADER'S PLACE
Chickens were the very first farm animal to arrive at The Homesteader's Place and subsequently, the chickens are near and dear to my heart. My hens are the first to get table scraps and snacks, sitting on my shoulder while I watch the sun rise through the trees, the dawn welcoming a new day here at The Stead. How did I get here? And what about the chickens, what inspired that?
Like most college graduates, I had stars in my eyes about making it in the big city. Or... Richmond. So I got a full time job and moved into a one bedroom downtown. I even leased my first new car and brought home a kitty from the SPCA. I had really made it, right? I had all these material things? Even though my apartment had been plenty more spacious than average... high ceilings, gorgeous trim work, two old fireplaces, radiant heat, claw foot tub (did I mention I'm a designer by trade and a sucker for good craftsmanship?)... the space was missing something that I could never get from it. And I honestly wasn't even sure exactly what it was... freedom? privacy? I knew one thing though, I severely missed having an outdoor space for get-togethers and general shenanigans. So I jammed my city belongings into my little city Beetle, and drove them out to Mechanicsville, right past my high school, back to my hometown. I honestly never saw that coming, but a wonderful opportunity had presented itself and I jumped on it. The house needed a lot of work, so I settled into what I do best, get-your-hands-dirty beautifying. DIY stuff. Implementing visions. Imagine Nicole Curtis on a mission; that's how my brain works. On the back corner of the property, hidden behind scraggly trees, poison ivy, and mountains of trash, was an old metal shed. Peeking inside (and I use the term 'inside' loosely as the shed had no doors and looked like someone built it that didn't care too much about it possibly collapsing on his or her head) I found a couple of twigs, about as big around as a lumberjack's thumb, nailed horizontally to some rotting one by fours leaning up against the wall. Turns out it was a chicken roost. It looked like a sad shadow of the past life of this place. And as a fixer, an opportunist, an optimist, and a budding homesteader, I decided it would be a chicken coop again. So in December of 2013, one month after I moved from Monument Avenue back to my roots in Mechanicsville, I ordered 20 day old chicks for pickup at the local post office. And I fell in love with those little fluff balls. I couldn't image a life without them now.
The first year of chicken ownership was tough. I lost birds to hunting dogs, various nuisance creatures, and hawks. I had to bury five hens. I also took the gamble on straight run bantams... all three ended up crowing. I kept one and put the other two in the stew pot. Then I lost the one, so I replaced him with two Black Copper Marans roosters. Beautiful creatures, and so docile! They work together to protect the flock. If I could give advice to a first time flock owner, I would suggest two roosters rather than one, if you have enough hens or course. My losses have significantly dwindled due to more experienced flock management and, I firmly believe, the alertness and protection from those two. The alpha roo moves with the hens, while the first mate does rounds at the perimeter. Both are constantly scanning the skies and the ground for signs of danger.
The next phase of my chicken obsession arrived on Santa's sleigh in 2014. Well, it was on my Christmas list. My brother gave me an incubator! The next day I had 41 chicken eggs warming up in there, some from my own flock some from a flock up the street. As I write this, hatch day is January 16th. I'm nervously awaiting their arrival, checking and double checking the temperature, reading every article I can find on humidity levels and what to expect. This is the test of my next project- chicken breeding and flock self-propagation. In addition to the little guys hatching mid January, I have a bunch of chicks coming in the mail at the end of January for the start of my new breeding program! My plan is to have everybody together most of the time, as a free ranging flock, but separate out a rooster with hens of the same breed for a couple of weeks once they reach sexual maturity, and gather the eggs for the incubator at that time. Instead of sloppy breeding, over time, by separating out my breeding hens when I'm ready for incubation, I can choose specific hens that show good qualities of the breed, so I can perpetuate the breed standard. The chicks I don't sell, I'll raise for my freezer. I don't want to always be dependent on the big hatcheries to keep my flock going, and I might just be able to offset my costs a bit by selling high quality chicks to local farmers. The chicks will have a stronger, healthier start by not having been shipped across the country, and I'm not supporting a practice of culling thousands of male chicks due to the unprofitability of raising them to slaughter age. I'm absorbing those costs because I think it's the right thing to do.