How to Compost (and Why)

jordan_with_dirtFor a very long time, becoming a “Composter” was NOT on my list of things to do. When I finally gave in, I did it because I felt pressure to ‘do the right thing’. But I did it dragging my feet. I had visions of a smelly, steamy, fly infested heap of rotting grossness and I didn’t want to deal with it.

Oh, how overjoyed I was to find my stereotypes about composting to be (mostly) unfounded. I’ve come full circle in my thoughts and feelings towards composting over the years. Now, it’s one of my favorite things!

I mean, for one thing, where can you literally dump in trash and have it turn into luscious food for the plants that will in turn feed you? How awesome is it to throw in the gallons and buckets and mounds of chicken poo into  a bin, stir it with leaves and grass and vegetable scraps and have it turn into something that looks and smells good? Something that you can actually stick your bare hands in, put up to your nose, inhale deeply and actually appreciate the scent!

It thrills me every year when I am getting my gardens ready to skip running to the nursery for bags of overpriced nutrients because I’ve made them myself instead! I love telling people how the chickens and I make our own dirt! By the wheelbarrow full! I’m averaging around 20 heaping wheelbarrows full per year. Dark, beautiful dirt. I feed the earth and it feeds me.

And, it teaches a new generation the value of turning your trash into treasure. I hear it all the time. Like when 11-year-old Jake dumps a wheelbarrow full of freshly made dirt into the garden and says, “That’s beautiful dirt, look at it!”

And when 14-year-old Jordan says, “You know, I just realized something. We don’t throw any food away. We either feed it to the dog, the chickens or the compost bin.”

Yes! We’re part of a cycle that is running like it was intended (at least in this area). We take from the earth, give back to the earth, and all grow healthier together.

And we do it without chemicals. Without added expenses (you can even build your own compost bins from free pallets if you want). It saves on the garbage bill and from filling the landfills with things we can actually recycle back into the land and use. The food we grow from compost is nutrient dense and requires less watering.CompostBins

And it’s  fun! I’ve gotten into the habit of turning my compost with a snow shovel. When the chickens see me pick up that shovel, they come running, ready to gobble up any worms I surface with my turning. We all have a great time.chicken-dirt-wheelbarrow

I’ve learned that compost bin will churn out dirt with or without  my help. If I help, it turns faster. But if I neglect it, I am still rewarded with rich treasure.

If you don’t compost, I encourage you to try it. NOW is actually a great time to get started, as there are lots of scraps from the garden to throw away, and the fall leaves are soon to be falling from the trees. Both things are great for the compost pile.

Plus, it’s easy to start.  Just grab yourself a compost bin, or make one yourself. Fill it with your grass clippings, leaves, food scraps, chicken poo, chicken bedding, etc. (here’s a list of what to avoid composting).

Alternate your layers. For example, if you throw in a bunch of juicy beet skins and wet rusty lettuce, add a layer of straw or dried leaves next. This will help keep the fly population uninterested in what you’re doing, and virtually illuminate the smell. (Here’s a few more smell-reducing tips, too.)

Occasionally stir the contents (which, as I’ve said, is optional and probably not the best advice to give, but it’s true. I found it out by experience).

I actually have two bins and I fill one up before I move to the next so that they are at different stages of ‘done-ness’. Depending on what you’ve put in your compost bins, how often you stir it, how wet or dry it is, it will take 6-12 months to turn into useable materials for your garden spaces.

Dumpster Divers

Dumpster Divers

When I finally unpack the treasure I’ve been allowing to transform, I feel like a kid at a party! Mounds and mounds of dark brown, earthy smelling dirt. For free. It feels so very satisfying! And even after years of doing it, the feeling never gets old!

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A New Slice on Zucchini

I got a new gadget this week. It just so happens that this new purchase completely changes the playing field for both the overabundance of zucchini growing right now, and my gluten free lifestyle. Win. Win. I love it when I can spend less than 10 bucks and have my life improved!

The new liberating object? A julienne peeler for $8.99, just like this one!

I’ve been wanting to try vegetable noodles for some time now. I just haven’t gotten around to it. But the other day, while grocery shopping, someone was doing a demonstration. Less than a  .003 second and I was hooked (and truly, no demo is needed, it’s just like peeling a carrot…only the little ‘teeth’ slice the peels into skinny strings).

I rushed home with my new toy and broke out the zucchini. Ahhhh. Beautiful. Lovely. Perfect.Slicing Zucchini

Zuke Noodles

I whipped up some sauce with onions, garlic, mushrooms, basil and spinach. Mmmm.

ZukeSpag

Dinner, quick. A big bowl of vegetables. ONLY vegetables. Nothing else. This puts a whole new twist on zucchini dishes!

You’re now feeling inspired yourself, aren’t you? Yep. So go eat your vegetables. Enjoy!

PS If you’d like more zucchini recipes, check out here and here for about 20 more ideas.

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Do Chickens Get PTSD?

Do Chickens get PTSD?

Until last week, I never thought to ask myself this question. My hens live an idyllic life filled with a spacious, secluded backyard lined with high fences, shrubs to rest under, trees to shade the coop, a big mud hole I regularly fill with water (on hot days), and enough interesting places to explore to keep them sufficiently entertained.Watering Hole

My hens are a happy lot. If I were a chicken, I’d want to live in my backyard, too. It’s a stress-free, great place to live.

At least it was until last Thursday. That was the day a friend came over to play with one of the kids and left the chicken gate open (this is the fence I built between the ‘dog yard’ and the ‘chicken yard’ to keep everyone safe and allow both sides to have unlimited recess time).

I was out on the deck (on the 2nd story of the house) when I heard the commotion. I knew instantly it wasn’t good. Shoving  shoes on, I ran out to the chicken yard as fast as I could. There I saw the chicken gate wide open and Curly (one of the kid’s teenage dog) having a hay day with the hens. Feathers were flying through the air, only one hen in my sight, and Curly racing and barking in circles.

I ran and scooped up Hattie, the only bird I could see. She acted drunk, unsteady, in shock. Curly gleefully raced around the yard, barking, searching for chickens, stirring up the neighbors two small dogs into a frenzy behind their fence, barking along with her.

I called for back up, yelling for kids to corral Curly and help me find the chickens.  I found Olivia under the Rhododendron bush. She wore the same dazed look as Hattie. I gathered her up with my free arm and stuck her and Hattie into the coop, out of danger.

Feathers puffed in the wind from random locations all over the  chicken yard. The feathers the strawberry blonde color of Harriet, my most favored hen.  I tried not to panic. Rounding the corner of the coop, I found Harriet covered in dog slobber, missing some tail, and completely disoriented. I gathered her up and gently deposited her into the coop.Feathers

Three hens. Three to go. By this time I had a back up kids helping look for the MIA chickens. We looked high and  low. We looked  in the neighboring yards. Up in trees. Under every structure, tree, shrub and plant. No chickens to be found. One of the kids re-counted hens in the coop and found Jessica. Her black feathers blended her into the darkness of the coop and I’d missed her the first time through. She found the safety of the coop all on her own.

That just left Goldie and Ruby. They, too, matched the piles of feathers strewn about the yard. And they were nowhere to be found. I braced myself for bad news. Finally a kid called out that he’d  found a chicken in the dog side of the yard. I went over and my heart dropped. Goldie laid there, motionless, on her side, covered with leaves. I gently reached down to pick  her up and she jumped up, squawking! She was ALIVE! Scrambling, Goldie  desperately tried to climb the tree she’d hidden under. I caught up with her and tried to calm her down as I walked her to the coop.

Another careful examination of the coop (going in the side door this time) revealed Ruby, squished under a beam in a tiny space in the far back corner of the coop. She, too, looked to be dead. But she wasn’t! (I can’t believe the small space she’d smashed herself into!)

All the hens were understandably stressed and in shock so it was hard to tell if any were truly hurt. I didn’t see any blood. That was a good sign.  But I worried about damage on the inside. Several of them were so traumatized they stayed crouched on the coop floor, refusing to jump up onto a roost for the night.

I found some scraps of material and applied several drops of lavender essential oil, hanging them randomly in the coop to help calm the girls down for the night. And we all went to bed, exhausted.

The next day, I took stock of the damage. Harriet, Goldie and Ruby were missing feathers, but that seemed to be the worst of it. All of them still acted shell shocked. Some of them refused to come out of the coop. The others huddled around me, jumpy and skittish. And the dogs, remembering the fun from the day before, carried on from the other side of the fence, whining and barking to be allowed in.

I decided to cut a tarp into strips and  attach it to the bottom 2 feet of the fence. Since the offending dogs were short, as were the chickens, I hoped that blocking them from view of the other would help simmer things down.

Jessica on her tip toes, trying to see over the new tarp.

Jessica on her tip toes, trying to see over the new tarp.

It worked.

It took four  days for the hens to return to normal. Until then, if a blade of grass blew crooked, they’d head for cover. If sweet little  song birds chirped, they’d freeze, craning their necks, listening for danger. But on day four, I walked out and found them wandering freely around the yard, seemingly unafraid.

If  chickens get PTSD, it’s a very short-term affair requiring little to no counseling. Yet I find myself stopping to listen through the window for sounds of foul play throughout the day. I walk out to check on them a little more often. I sit out  in the chicken yard longer than I used to. Each day, I relax a little more, but not as easily as the chickens.

Today, I was gifted with my first egg since the incident. Thank you, girls. Life is back to it’s normal idyllic space in the backyard. I think I will breathe a little deeper and go pour myself a big glass of iced tea.

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Chickens in Print

Boy! It’s been a hopping month in the magazine department. First, I was featured in From Scratch Magazine (EIGHT WHOLE PAGES). If you guys aren’t familiar with the magazine, it’s an awesome publication that is focused on sustainable living. It’s full of great information that you’ll probably really love. Not only that, it’s FREE. . What’s not to love about that? Check it out here:FromScratch

(And if you’re interested in the article about me and the girls, it starts on page 100.)

Then, some of my artwork (chicken, of course) made it to the front cover of Lee Magazine (for the smart, savvy Alabama woman) this month as well. I’d never heard of this publication (largely since I am not, nor do I know any Alabama women). But I’d say they’re smart indeed if they’re raising chickens!

LeeMagOf course the girls help in keeping me humble as I daily wipe chicken poo off my feet just like the rest of the backyard chicken owners in the world.

Stay cool everyone!

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Happy Father’s Day

I know the day is almost over, but the sentiment is the same: Happy Father’s day out there to all the fathers and father figures.

ChickenDad

PS The above model is Bufferin. He was an awesome, beautiful Buff Orpington rooster owned by a friend of mine. And the beautiful photo was taken by another friend of mine, Shelly Perry. Check her work out.

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Treating a Sour Crop (Naturally)

Jessica Ruler of the Roost

Jessica, my star of the backyard, top dog in the chicken pile, never a sick day in her 4+ year old life, sweet Black Sex Link hen, threw me a curve ball last week. I thought I might lose her.

At first, I wasn’t sure what was wrong with her. She was sluggish, droopy, and definitely not her normal curious, chatty self. Having lost a hen only six days previous (from something mysterious), I panicked. What if some viral thing was running through my flock? What if I lose them all?

I immediately stuck Jessica in the ‘chicken hospital’ (a converted rabbit hutch) and set out to scour the coop, hoping to keep the others from catching whatever might be going around.

Jessica wasn’t interested in eating or drinking or even moving. She seemed sad, even, depressed somehow. She sat like a statue for 2 days, not moving. When I finally coaxed some minced cucumber down her, I noticed she was jerking her neck around when she ate, like something was stuck in her throat. A quick examination of her throat uncovered nothing. It all felt normal. But by the time I got down to her crop, I knew something was wrong. It felt like a water balloon about to burst under the surface of her skin.

Shoot! A sour crop happens most generally when a hen eats something she shouldn’t and it plugs up her crop so things can’t pass normally and then, on top of it all, with all that gross rotting stuff simmering inside, it develops a fungal infection. I leaned in and could smell the nasty stuff on her breath. The worst case of halitosis you might ever smell.

(If  you look close you can see her doing the neck shaking thing in video)

Often the offending ‘food’ that causes the blockage is long grass. Especially long in the spring. Especially long grass along the chicken fence in the back that I haven’t cut down yet because I can’t get it with the lawnmower and the weed whacker is broken. It’s horrible when something goes wrong with one of hens, but when it’s my fault, it’s even worse (yes I have since gone out and cut that long grass down with a knife).

I apologized to Jessica as I carefully lifted her out of the chicken hospital, wrapped her body in a towel and tipped her over (face forward toward the ground). I massaged her crop upward (toward the direction of her face) and induced vomiting. A volcano of sickly brown sludge poured out from her. Poor girl. She was miserable.

From there, I removed all the chicken feed from the pen she was staying in, and came in and mixed her up plain yogurt. I didn’t want anything to make the blockage worse, plus I figured the active cultures in the yogurt could help her infection.

I’d read that it’s often impossible to get rid of a sour crop once it happens. And that an anti-fungal prescription from a vet is really the best way to go. I, however, didn’t go to the vet, and I try hard NOT to give my hens (or myself for that matter) synthetic anything unless absolutely necessary.

In the meantime, though, Jessica’s crop had re-filled to overflowing. I knew I needed to do something. So, I decided to try an experiment.

I opened a bottle of nice (i.e. more than $5!) merlot that I’d been given for my birthday (and was saving for a special occasion. This was NOT what I had in mind!), sucked up a bit of it into a syringe and forced it down Jessica throat. I’d heard before that red wine can help sour crop. I had no idea how much to give her and I didn’t want to make it worse, so I was pretty conservative with my dosage (and I didn’t want to bring new meaning to the term Drunken Chicken). Jessica isn’t a fan of red wine. But she tolerated me.Non-Toxic Treatment for Sour Crop

About an hour or so later, all that nasty stuff in her crop came shooting out her backside. (I can’t even begin to describe the stench.) I felt hopeful.

The next line of defense was setting up a diffuser in the pen with her. I filled it up with water and dropped in 2 drops each of Oregano oil (a great anti-fungal) and On Guard oil (a blend of several different oils and good for both killing germy stuff and strengthening the immune system).

In between all this doctoring, every hour or two, I would gently massage her crop (downward this time—I wasn’t trying to induce vomiting any longer, I was trying to help unclog the blockage).

The next morning, I shot some more wine down her, re-filled the diffuser with water and essential oil, and gave her some keifer and baby food. (I always kept lots of fresh water in the cage too.)

That night she seemed better. Not well, but improving. I re-filled the diffuser and let it run for another night.

The following morning, she seemed to have made a complete recovery. She was perky, chatty, and anxious to get out. I gave her breakfast and she gobbled it down. Her crop was empty as well. To be on the safe side, I mixed some keifer with the red wine to get another dose of good stuff down her, and then I let her out with the rest of the girls. She was happy. A bit skinnier than she was earlier in the week (why can’t I lose weight that fast?), but doing well. One of the first things she did was head over for a lovely dust bath.Ahhh! Dust Bath!

An added bonus is that Jessica is the boss of the hen house. Nobody dared question her spot in the pecking order. Not a single ruffled feather, even though she was in the chicken hospital for nearly a week. Jessica is completely recovered and back to herself. Except, of course, for eating that long grass out by the chicken fence. That stuff is gone. And I learned my lesson.

(I suppose this is a good place to remind you that I am NOT a vet. I don’t diagnose and treat animals for a living. I was just going with my gut. Follow yours too. This may or may not work for you and your hens and would probably NOT be what a trained vet would advise.)

 

 

 

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Egg Bound Chicken

harriet-frontRecently when I went out to see the chickens, Harriet ran FROM me instead of TO me. She NEVER does that. Oh no. A big red flag something was wrong. Oh Harriet! Not again! (She already spent an entire month in the garage this past winter with what looked like fowl pox. She recovered and had been fine ever since. Read more about it here.) But what now??

I needed to get a good look at her, but she wouldn’t let me near. I chased her and caught her under the Rhoddie bush where she apparently thought she was safe from me. Not.

She was a bit droopy in the backside and her abdomen was swollen. I suspected she was egg bound, so I brought her into the garage (her home away from home these past few months), and set her up with a nice warm soaking bath. I couldn’t feel any eggs in my gentle examination of her abdomen and vent area, but I was pretty sure that’s what was wrong with her. I set up a warm indoor area for her and hoped she’d pass an egg.

Egg binding is a very serious condition where an egg, for some reason, gets stuck inside a hen and won’t come out. If they don’t pass the egg, they will die. Sometimes a warm bath will help relax them and allow them to lay the egg that’s stuck inside. Sometimes you can go in CAREFULLY and help get the egg out (being careful not to break it). And sometimes, (as a last resort) the egg has to be broken to get it out. I say last resort because there could be all sorts of complications with breaking an egg inside your hen…infections, not getting it all out, cutting her up internally with the shell, etc. But if there’s no other options, she will die anyway, so you have to carefully weigh out the situation and decide what to do in your own situation.

The best case scenario, if possible, is to take an egg bound hen to the vet (if the warm bath method doesn’t work). The sooner  the better. Once you realize a hen is egg bound, they don’t usually have too much time. (Remember, chickens try hard to fake everyone out if they’re not feeling well. It’s a survival thing for them. So by the time it’s super obvious, it’s already been going on for awhile.) I don’t usually take my hens to the vet, but this time I was desperate as the warm bath didn’t pass anything and Harriet is my absolute favorite bird (which those of you who follow this blog can tell, I’m sure!) and I felt helpless. No egg meant certain death. I wasn’t going to have it.

Unfortunately, the one avian vet in town had the day off, so I was back to square one. They suggested I go to a regular vet, but I figured I probably know as much about chickens as they do, and they’d want to refer me to the avian vet anyway. So, I waited it out with Harriet.

She wouldn’t eat or drink. I squeezed tiny amounts of fluid down her with an eyedropper. And waited some more. It didn’t look good and I expected to find her dead on every visit down  to check on her.

Two days later, while I was down with her,  she laid TWO EGGS in a row. Pop! Pop! One right after the other. One was a double yolker. Both were soft shelled. I was ecstatic! Harriet was hungry! She gobbled up food and water, making up for lost time. All was well in her world once again. Whew. (They say a cat has nine lives, right? I’m starting to think Harriet might be part cat!)DoubleEggs

A couple days later, she was back to her egg bound-looking self and laid another soft shell and then was fine. She hasn’t had any issues ever since.

There are a few reasons why a hen might lay a soft shelled egg (you can see more about that here), but Harriet didn’t fit any reason that I could tell. I think something in her system just went whacky for a bit, but now she seems back on track again. Thankfully.

If you’re wondering about egg binding, and the symptoms, here are a few things to watch for:

  • She’ll act ‘sick’
  • She will probably be sitting on the ground
  • Her tail might be moving up and down
  • Her tail might be droopy
  • She might be trying to push an egg out
  • her abdomen might be swollen
  • She might look like a ‘penguin’ in how she’s sitting (like below photo I took of  a friend’s egg bound hen)

EggBoundHen2

Although egg binding isn’t a huge issue among backyard flocks, it does happen from time to time. Being aware of what it potentially looks like is the first step in helping your hen pass her egg and get back to normal.

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