Four-Season Farming: Greenhouse-Chicken Synergy Experiment Underway

Chickens enjoy a warmer climate where they can still scratch on the ground, while the plants get a heated home in which to grow.
We've utilized cold frames, mulching and greenhouses in the past at Better Farm to extend the growing season for our produce; but have had yet to stumble upon something that would truly allow production to continue year-round for our use and the use of the people we serve.

A recent partnership between Redwood's food pantry, Hearts for Youth, the Redwood Neighborhood Association, and Better Farm utilizes Redwood's Community Greenhouse to cultivate food that will be donated to the food pantry for disbursement to those in need. That greenhouse was moved to Better Farm, where the people staying here have agreed to tend to the garden and provide daily care for the plants as they grow.
Community greenhouse.
But how to contribute year-round to the food pantry?

I began looking into ways to heat greenhouses year round and found a ton of information on heaters, solar panels, fans and insulation. But all potential solutions fell by the wayside when I discovered Anna Edey and her work on Martha's Vineyard with her Solviva Greenhouse.

A basic Solviva greenhouse design, as found at Backyard Chickens.
Anna, who has been an organic farming pioneer since founding her business, Solviva, in 1984. One of the most stunning project's she's worked on has been a combination greenhouse-chicken house, where chickens heat the space with their body heat and manure (which is composted along with hay). Rumor has it that on 0-degree days, Anna's greenhouse is a lovely 80 degrees.

Awed by this potential, I brainstormed ways to protect plants while keeping them in the greenhouse with chickens. There are a lot of added bonuses to this chicken-greenhouse setup besides the plants, of course. The chickens also enjoy a break from all the cold and wind, which will boost their egg production throughout the winter. Plus, all the bedding and compost will be perfect to shovel into the garden come spring.

To prep the greenhouse, a few things had to be done first. The outside of the structure had to be wrapped in chicken wire to prevent predators from simply scratching through the plastic:

A trap door was added next to the front door to allow birds access outside on manageable winter days (accomplished here without having to leave the main door open and potentially subjecting plants to a chill):
Plants (broccoli, radishes, peas, spinach, lettuce and beets) had to be covered with protective netting so plucky chickens wouldn't damage the produce:

And lastly, the birds needed a protected space to sleep and lay that even a weasle can't get into in the middle of the night:
All the materials we used for this project were upcycled scraps of chicken wire from the herb gardens, handles from a kitchen demolition project on Fishermans Rest Island, and plywood scraps leftover from a construction project in June. We pulled a ramp from one of the other chicken coops, moved the water dishes and food to the greenhouse, and began catching birds we found huddled up outside. They couldn't be happier to discover there are still some places with green grass:

The project is officially underway.  In the coming weeks we'll be tracking overall temperature in the greenhouse to determine whether the birds are able to produce enough heat, along with passive solar, to keep the greenhouse above 60 degrees all winter long. If early findings are promising, we'll be adding shelving in the greenhouse to fill it top-to-bottom with yummy plants for food pantry patrons.

Want to design a Solviva Greenhouse of your own? Get in touch with us at

Rescued Chicken Update

Rescued hens!
Two weeks ago, we saved 27 "spent hens"—or, what the egg industry considers spent hens. 

Never having been outside, these girls are enjoying the fresh air and eating green grass every day. The hens are starting to get color back in their crowns, and they also are starting to grow their feathers back (several are now sporting furry butts covered in down). When we first got the hens they were really quiet. But after just a day or two, they started talking to each other and clucking away.
Spent-hen rescue committee.

Right now we have the hens in a big, fenced-in area where we are working on getting the new hens to go up into the coops every night. This is still work in progress, but once they understand to go up in the coop every night we will let them walk around freely. Twelve of the hens will be adopted off once we get them in a bit more rehabilitated—probably in the next week! The birds are so happy to have gotten a new lease on life. Here are few photos of the rescue operation:
Washing one of the hens—a very, very dirty job.
Checking out grass for the first time in her life.
In time, this chicken's crown will turn from this pale pink to a bright red.
We will keep you guys updated on our new hens. In the meantime, you can get involved by sponsoring one—or several—of these lovable girls. Click here for more information.

Cold-Hardy Hatchlings Arrive at Better Farm

We wrote back in March about the incoming flock of Better Farm babies: a batch of cold-hearty birds designed to improve and diversify the gene pool back at the ranch. In short order, here's a Who's-Who of our newest feathered roomies:

Read-Shouldered Yokohamas:

German Spitzhaubens:

Buff Orpingtons:

Light Brahmas:

These birds will be integrated into the larger, Better flock: a couple dozen rescued Leghorns, a crew of Barred Rocks, last year's Ameraucana/Leghorn/Barred Rock hybrids, and a couple Ameraucanas. You can get in on the chicken fever by sponsoring one of our rescue hens, stopping in to pick up a fresh dozen eggs ($3/dozen), or simply coming by to visit and see these wonderful birds and interact with them.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Climb Aboard Our Spent-Hen Rescue This Friday!

Former residents Sally Jane Kerschen-Sheppard and Matt Smith clean up one of the Rapunzels after our first rescue in 2012.
A year after their rescue, the Rapunzels in 2013 still laid on average one egg a day apiece. And check out those colors!
This Friday, do double diligence by pledging to produce your own healthy, local eggs right in your back yard—while also rescuing a hen who has had it with being a factory girl. We're embarking on a rescue mission tomorrow to save some white leghorn chickens who've been cooped up their whole lives without so much as the simple pleasure of walking around outside. Our "knight in shining armor" move comes just in time, as all these girls are fated to have a meeting with a processing plant June 1.

All that is about to change.

With your help, we are going to bring a flock of birds to Better Farm for some TLC and organic rehab. After that, your sponsorships—and adoptions—will ensure these girls enjoy their retirements in clean, cozy, spacious conditions.

A spent hen is a bird who is a little more than a year old and whose egg production has dropped by industry standards. By normal standards, however, these birds are mighty egg layers—in fact, two years after adopting our spent hens, they still (at almost 4 years old) outproduce any other member of the flock, aging in range from 9 months to 5 years.

Here's how it works.

We go to the egg farm tomorrow and transport a bunch of factory girls destined for dog food to Better Farm. Once here, we will clip their toenails, wash their skin, introduce them to water bowls and food dishes, and admire them as they walk for the first time outside. Here's a video clip of what that process is like:

It takes about two weeks to get all the gunk out of their bodies, and all the good stuff (worms, bugs, food scraps, and laying mash) in. After a couple of weeks, they will be ready for adoption. These girls will make the perfect addition to your existing flock (if ours are any indication, your adopted leghorn will outlay any existing bird you've got), or you can adopt them and start a new flock where there wasn't one.

These hens are unbelievably gentle (though quite skittish, understandably), quiet, and make loving, hard-working birds you will never regret taking under your wing. If you've been toying with the idea of having backyard birds (or indoor—a chicken doesn't need sleeping space any bigger than a parrot cage), why not rescue a hen who's worked for the last year in an egg factory and who deserves a beautiful retirement? Email us at or call (315) 482-2536 to reserve your bird—each adopted bird means another bird we pick up tomorrow!

Don't feel like taking on the responsibility of owning your own hen? Then how about rescuing one anyway and sponsoring her at Better Farm? The Redwood Tavern has already taken the lead on this initiative, sponsoring one of the birds we pick up tomorrow. That allows us to keep one more hen from her fated "processing" June 1. Sponsorship is $5/month, or $60 for the year. You can sponsor a hen online by clicking here.

As for the eggs...

Let's face it: Store-bought eggs just ain't what they're cracked up to be. Hens kept in tight, cramped conditions fed only cheap grain or pellets and never given the chance to run around outside are simply not happy birds. And unhappy birds without a varied diet and exposure to fresh air are not going to produce the best eggs.

In fact, even store-bought eggs from so-called "cage free" hens don't come close to comparing with backyard eggs. Check out the evidence:
Backyard Better Farm egg, left, organic "cage free" hen egg from store, right.
Here are the numbers:
Backyard eggs have approximately 25 percent more vitamin E, 75 percent more beta carotene, and as much as 20 times the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids as do factory farmed eggs. Perhaps best of all for those who avoid eating eggs due to worries about cholesterol, backyard eggs contain only about half as much cholesterol as factory-farmed eggs.

Please be part of the solution! And stay tuned for video footage of tomorrow's rescue!
1 Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Spring Chickens!

Image from Photo Fashionista.
Each Spring at Better Farm, we address, expand, revamp, and otherwise improve our flock of hens, roosters, chicken tractors and coops.

Now coming into our FIFTH spring (!!), we've got a rotating system for adding new members to the group by hatching, adoption, rescue, or purchase. One year we adopt, rescue, and/or purchase new birds, and the following year we hatch some of our own hybrid babies. With the task of rehabbing birds from factories (and keeping all our birds free-range, susceptible to any number of wild threats) come inevitable losses; so each spring is an opportunity to replenish the flock and diversify the gene pool.

In addition to adopting and rehabbing birds, we provide rehoming services to birds we've raised and/or rehabilitated. If you're interested in adopting a rooster or rehabilitated factory hen, please contact us at
When you're figuring out what kind of chickens to get, there are three very important considerations: weather hardiness, temperament, and egg production/meat. It does you no good to get a Silky in the North Country (they hate the cold!), or a decorative bird that only lays two or three eggs a week when you're trying to produce your own eggs for eating or selling.

With all these factors in mind, here's the lowdown on the feathered friends we'll be adding to our flock From Meyer Hatchery. Keep in mind we'll also be adopting about 10 more leghorns from a local egg factory to be rehabbed and rehomed as free-range hens.

German Spitzhauben
The German Spitzhauben is an active, ornamental bird originating from Switzerland that actually flies fairly well for a chicken. Originally bred for steep mountainous terrain, they are good climbers and foragers, they will forage most of their food if given the chance to. They like to roost in trees especially during cold snaps. They boast a single pointed hood, with feathers defined as crazy in a “Cruella De Vil” sort of way. Their average maturity weight is 5.5 lbs. for a rooster, 4 lbs. for a hen.
Class: Europe
Origin: Switzerland
Comb Type: V-Shaped Comb
Egg Color: White
Egg Size: Meduim
Production: Fair/Good
Matures: Early
Bird Size: Small 4 - 6 lbs.
Broody: No
Hardiness: Very Cold Hardy
Personality: Active, Flyer

Introduced in the mid 19th century from China, they were imported to England in 1840. The American Poultry fanciers refined the original stock into a large stately breed. They make a good dual purpose breed and though they may only lay 3 or 4 eggs a week, they are known for good winter production. Brahmas do alright in confinement but do much better if they have access to an outdoor run. They are mellow, quite hardy and make good pets. Brahmas are comfortable in heat and cold.  
Class: Asiatic
Origin: India/China/ U.S.
Comb Type: Pea Comb
Egg Color: Brown
Egg Size: Medium
Production: Good
Matures: Slow
Bird Size: Heavy 9 1/2 - 12 lbs.
Broody: Frequently
Hardiness: Hardy in Cold and Heat
Personality: Gentle, easy to handle

Buff Orpingtons are a popular dual-purpose variety and are sometimes called "Big Bufffs." This is a friendly and affectionate breed which would be good for children. Since they are so calm and quiet they can become bullied by an aggressive breed. Because they are loosely feathered, they appear to be heavier than their true weights. Their golden buff feathers are broad and smooth-fitting on this deep-bodied breed. They have quiet dispositions, make excellent mothers, and are one of the most broody of standard breeds. Their white skin is a cosmetic disadvantage for use as meat birds.
Class: English
Origin: England
Comb Type: Single Comb
Egg Color: Brown
Egg Size: Large
Production: Good
Matures: Moderately Early
Bird Size: Heavy 7 - 8 1/2 lbs
Broody: Yes
Hardiness: Very Cold Hardy
Personality: Docile, Quiet, Affectionate
  Easter Egger
Commonly known as the Easter Egg Layer, these birds are good layers and produce eggs that range from olive green to turquoise blue which their name comes from. They're derived from Araucanas or Ameraucanas (hence the green eggs), but they're not a recognized breed because their blood line is so mixed up and varied. Their small size allows them to do well in warm weather but they also do well in cold weather. Like their eggs, they come in an assortment of colors. They are favored for their eggs, but are large enough to be used for meat.
Average mature weight: Roosters 5 lbs, Hens 4 lbs.

Class: All Other Breeds
Origin: United States
Comb Type: Pea Comb
Egg Color: Blue/Green
Egg Size: Medium
Production: Good
Matures: Moderately Early
Bird Size: Small 4-5 lbs
Broody: Yes
Hardiness: Very Cold Hardy
Personality: Active, Friendly

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

The Downside of Free-Range Chickens

Caught red-handed: This sleazy possum wrought havoc among our chicken family and was forced to relocate.
It's a truism of animal stewardship: The more freedom you wish for your animals, the greater the risk of compromised safety.

We abide at Better Farm by the words of Edward Abbey, who puts it like this: "Freedom, not safety, is the highest good." With that tenet in mind, we encourage the animals (and humans) here to create their own destinies. For the dogs, that means unlimited space to run around and do dog things. For the chickens, that means 65 acres of land to scratch, peck, and turn over. For the people, that means designing their own curriculum, solving many of their own problems, and taking on individual projects that inspire them without the Big Brotherliness of being micromanaged or corrected all the time like they might be in a traditional classroom.

Sounds dreamy, but remember: There's a price one pays for all things.

Freedom to do largely as you wish means you're susceptible to all the things freedom brings: the ability to fail, the very real threat of putting yourself in harm's way, and the possibility of the Great Unknown; which may be wonderful or tragic. So although we subscribe to the "freedom over safety" rule, it's not always the easiest perspective to live with. This is where the Better Theory comes in; reminding us that each tragedy offers space for growth and understanding.

By choosing to allow our dogs endless space to run, we're always worried they might hang out in the road at the wrong time or run into a herd of porcupines or some other such thing. Allowing chickens to roam freely around the property, we face many potential hardships. Our birds weather the harshest of winters, coming inside only for medical care and R-and-R should they sustain an injury or frostbite—like Penelope here (pictured with her brave guard dog Han Solo), who's almost fully recovered since coming in out of the winter chill to defrost her feet:
We also run a high risk of our flock stumbling upon a host of North Country predators: hawks, eagles, coyotes, vehicles, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, and the list goes on. No time is the threat so large as toward the end of a particularly harsh winter; when would-be predators are just about starved and willing to do any crazy old thing in order to get an easy and satisfying meal. We go out of our way for this very reason to build chicken coops out of thick wood that sit high up off the ground, and we are diligent about closing the coops up tight promptly at sunset every evening.

My heart sank Monday night when I went outside to tuck the birds in and found absolutely none of them in their coops. Zilch. Zero. Nada. After a quick search around the yard I found them, huddled under the back deck and on top of it, letting out nervous coo sounds. I knew a predator was afoot; but couldn't determine in the waning sunlight what had happened. Then, I found our most prized rooster, Big Mama, very well near decapitated and lying in a pool of his own blood. Seems I (or the dogs) scared the predator away when we came outside. The evildoer wasn't able to finish the job.
RIP Big Mama. 2012-2014
Armed only with a so-so flashlight that evening, it was tough to find footprints or blood trails to piece this case together. So the next day, heavy with grief, I did what I could. I found signs of struggles: piles of feathers here and there, spatters of blood. The crime came into focus: whatever attacked Big Mama did so as a last resort. Likely going for one of the slower-moving old or young birds, our beautiful rooster had put himself into harm's way for the good of his hens. (Editor's note: Unsurprisingly, a significantly less loveable rooster, Kiwi, was found cowering with the rest of the hens out of harm's way.) A noticeable detail about the case was the brazenness of a wild animal to come so close to a house on 24-hour surveillance by two large dogs and constant human traffic. I mean, look at how close the chickens hang out to the house all winter long:

I let the dogs outside to sniff around and see what they could find. Their trail turned up cold.
Wednesday afternoon while working in the library, I saw the chickens hopping high up off the ground and making a huge racket. I walked outside and found a possum with several fresh battle scars on his face and tail (good work Big Mama!). Outfitted in a pair of slippers and without any weaponry or appropriate caging materials, I shooed the possum away from the hen houses, ran back inside, and grabbed a Havahart trap from the basement. I set the trap up before sunset, and by midnight we had him:
Don't be fooled by that sleepy/dead act. Possums are famous for it. Here he is yesterday morning when I was loading him into my Fiat (seriously, not the best car for relocating marsupials. Waaaay too close for comfort):
And here he is being released well away from any chickens:

So we all breathed a sigh of relief—until yesterday afternoon, when another possum was found lumbering across the back deck directly in front of the sliding glass doors. Kobayashi Maru dog was all over this, grabbing the possum like a chew toy until she went limp. Again, she was faking.
Here she is, after we saved her from the dog and put her into the trap for relocation:
So the possum wars are on. It's a good sign spring is surely on its way; but it also means lots of trap-setting and hands-wringing to ensure our flock enjoys all the benefits freedom brings—with as few hardships as possible.

If you've got an animal you'd like to relocate, please be mindful of relocation laws in your state. Many states insist you call in animal control or gain a permit in order to relocate on your own. Got a predator issue? Click here to determine what's going after your flock.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Better Hens-a-Laying

Almost exactly 6 months to the day after our first newborn chick hatched at Better Farm, the "babies" have begun to lay... green eggs!

The barred rock/ameraucana/leghorn hybrids bear the black-and-white markings of a flock of barred rocks, host flecks of color on their shoulder blades and tails we've never seen before, and lay eggs that you'd think came from ameraucanas. Photos of these beauties to come... as soon as some of this wintry wind and snow subsides!

These mutts had quite a coming-of-age in one of the wildest winters in recent memory; but our girls (and boy!) are survivors. To be expected, since their heritage dates back to a bunch of leghorns we rescued from an egg factory, one particularly resilient ameraucana named Destiny's Child, several barred rocks we raised from infancy, and two extremely prolific roosters called Big Mama and Kiwi.

Got a backyard flock you'd like to get eggs from all winter? Remember these important tips:
  • Egg-laying is a calories game. In winter, chickens burn a ton of calories just to stay warm. And without the ability to forage, it's up to you to up the amount of calories they consume. We like to add cracked corn to the mix in order to beef our birds up; we also give them almost twice the amount of food.
  • Keep your coops clean! We clean our coops at least once a week throughout the year. During the coldest parts of winter, we might forego a weekly cleaning in favor of adding more bedding to the coops for extra insulation.
  • Keep the birds hydrated. Chickens need plenty of fresh water during waking hours (we don't recommend having water inside the coop, as you don't want the additional humidity and potential spill). In Redwood, we defrost waterers throughout the day to ensure a steady supply.
Got a question about keeping backyard birds? Send us an email at

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Exceptional Winter Chicken Care

Rapunzel in winter. Photo/Nicole Caldwell
Winter chicken care can be a particular challenge for those of us living in chillier parts of the world. At Better Farm, we've struggled with cases like frostbite in the flock more this year than the last four winters. Special precautions have had to take place, information for which we acquired through laborious research and interviews. To circumvent that legwork for you, here's a quick rundown of tricks you can utilize to ensure optimal comfort for your birds during the next cold snap.

For starters, let's go over frostbite. Frostbite is damage that occurs to bodily tissues from exposure to extreme cold when fluid in cells freezes. As a result of freezing, blood clots form depriving the cells of oxygen, causing tissue damage to varying degrees. In extremely cold conditions exposed tissues can suffer frostbite in minutes.

In cold weather, chickens are able to conserve body heat by restricting blood-flow to their combs, wattles and feet, the very parts of the body that give off excess heat in warm weather. The result is a decrease in warmth and oxygen to those extremities, which puts them at risk for frostbite.  

For the Damage That's Already Been Done
If you find that one of your chickens is having trouble walking due to frozen or frost-bitten feet, take the bird inside immediately but DO NOT put the bird near extreme heat like that of a wood stove, fireplace, or hair dryer. The drastic temperature shift can put a bird into shock or even kill it. Instead, warm the bird up gradually by putting it in a room of the house that is on the cooler side. After an hour, assess the damage.
  • Lethargic Chicken If the chicken seems dopey, is stumbling, or seems tired, provide sugar or electrolytes. Options include warm water with honey, apple juice or orange juice slightly diluted, or a berry smashed into warm water. Organic apple cider vinegar is an excellent additive to a chicken's beverage on a daily basis. If the chicken doesn't drink on its own you can take a small syringe and dribble the water mixture onto the bird's beak. Be very careful if you put water into the chicken's mouth--chickens don't swallow with muscles, they instead tip their heads back to let liquid run down their throats, so squirting water into a chicken's mouth can cause it to aspirate and choke. (From Yahoo)
  • Blackened Skin or Other Obvious Frostbite If your chicken has a blackened frostbitten area on the comb or wattles, coat the areas with bag balm or petroleum jelly. If the chicken is alert and behaving normally, it will probably be fine to go back outside in the coop. 
  • Peck Marks Chickens can be brutal to each other, and if they sense a weakness they will attack it. They may peck at one another's frostbite; and if they draw blood, they'll keep going. Coat the pecked area in Neosporin. (Note: Never use anything with pain killers. If anything on the ingredient list ends in -cain then it's lethal to chickens!) Keep the chicken isolated until the pecked area heals to prevent further pecking from other birds. If you can't keep the chicken separate for that long then coat the pecked area with pine tar or Blue Kote (in the horse section at the feed store.) When a chicken pecks and gets a mouth full of pine tar, it won't want to peck there again.
  • Damaged/Frostbitten Feet It can take up to six weeks to heal frostbitten feet, so you'll want to be able to keep the bird inside in a heated garage or (our favorite) spare bathroom. Depending on the severity of the frostbite, chickens may lose some toes or even an entire foot. Keep the chicken on a soft bedding, like a towel, that won't cling to his or her feet. If the feet turn completely black then there isn't much you can do except wait for the blackened areas to fall off. Often the chicken is able to survive this and continue on with life, though they will be crippled. If the feet only have partial frostbite, they may grow blisters. Do not pop the blisters no matter what! They will rupture on their own when the skin below is healed enough to be exposed. You can treat frostbite on feet by soaking them twice daily in warm water mixed with Epsom salt, grapefruit seed extract (a natural antibiotic), and hydrogen peroxide (will help to remove dead skin cells and keep bacteria out of healing feet). Don't let the chicken drink that water! Epsom salt in high doses can be very damaging. After a 20-minute soak, dry the feet and coat them with Neosporin or a similar product, then coat with Bag Balm to make a protective layer. Bag balm has menthol in it, which increases circulation and speeds healing. Finally, put loose bandages or an old pair of socks over the chicken's feet to protect them.
NOTE: If your chicken's feet become infected to the point that the chicken is no longer eating and drinking normally then you can administer Penicillin G. This can be purchased at most feed stores, along with syringes and needles. Full sized large breed chickens should get 0.5 mg injected once a day in the drumstick area of the leg, into the muscle. Injecting a chicken can seem a bit intimidating at first, but if you hang the chicken upside down with the help of a partner, the bird will quickly go limp and you can inject the Penicillin without too much trauma. While your chicken is healing be sure to feed it plenty of high protein treats along with normal amounts of food and water to help its body recover. Chickens love scrambled eggs, oatmeal, fruit, and most table scraps aside from raw potatoes and salty foods.

Preventative Care
Here's a great idea for a highly insulated wind break chickens can enjoy. All this design takes are four pallets and some hay.
In the winter, whether you've got extreme subzero temperatures or not, chickens should have a place they can go to get away from drafts, snowfall, and cold wind. We recommend putting a tarp over a run and layering fresh hay on the cold ground regularly. This will help prevent frostbitten feet. Some people like to use heat lamps and bulbs for their birds in winter; but in general, we'd caution against that. Heaters can cause additional shock to the system when a chicken goes in or out. Generally speaking, most chickens can acclimate to very cold conditions when given the chance to do so naturally throughout a season. That being said, we have put a small bulb out with the birds under a covered run on extreme days (-20 or colder) in order to melt ice and give the birds a little bit of an edge. here are some other tips:
  • Ventilate the Coop Your goal is to get as much air exchange throughout the coop as possible without drafts, particularly in the roost area. Ideally there will be windows and/or vents on all four sides of the coop. Ventilation holes towards the top of the coop, far above roost height and chicken height are best for achieving effective cold weather air exchange. If your coop does not have adequate ventilation, create more. Think: windows, not little holes. Install as much ventilation as high up on the walls as possible while ensuring that the air over the roost remains still. You want the warmest, heaviest air moving up and out of the coop. 
  • Limit Moisture in the Coop Most breeds tolerate cold extremely well, but freezing temperatures inside the coop in addition to moisture is the recipe for frostbite inside the coop.  Frostbite is most likely to occur overnight in a cold, poorly ventilated coop where damp bedding and moisture from droppings and respiration cannot escape. Chickens generate a great deal of moisture from respiration (breathing) as well as from pooping as droppings consist of 85% water. If the windows of the coop have condensation on them in the morning, there is not enough ventilation in the coop.
  • Keep Litter Dry and Fresh We use shredded paper and dry hay as bedding in our coop; other people recommend sand because of its ability to evaporate moisture so rapidly and retain warmth. 
Tips gleaned from a variety of sources, most notably Yahoo and The Chicken Chick.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Winterizing the Farm

Are you cold yet?

Up here in Northern New York the temperatures have started dropping. I have had the pleasure of spending the last few days living at Better Farm to learn about sustainability and daily farming tasks. The first day I was here it was actually still in 40's, though it was a little drizzly and dreary. The next day the snow started to fall. While I have fallen in love with the wood-burning stove, I can't spend all day huddled in front of it.

With a large, older house, keeping the heat inside can sometimes be a challenge. Even in newer buildings, there are usually small gaps in insulation that can let in a cold draft. One surprising source of these drafts is the "dead space" behind electrical outlets and switch plates. While the amount of heat lost from a poorly insulated outlet is small, consider the number of outlets and light switches the average home has. When added together, the amount of heat loss adds up—statistics suggest each outlet or switchplate accounts for 2 percent of energy loss. One of my (thankfully indoor) tasks was to install pre-cut foam outlets in the farmhouse. It was really simple, and didn't take much time at all.
Removing lightswitch covers to insert foam insulation takes only a couple of seconds.
Outlet covers.
I could really feel a difference, especially with the outlets located on the exterior walls of the house. I also covered a window with insulating plastic sheeting. The plastic sheet shrank when heated with a hair dryer to seal all the way around the window. The plastic film can even be taken off later and reused if stored properly. There are many window and outlet insulation kits available on the market, and they don't appear do be very expensive. The most important thing to remember when trying to insulate against the cold is that the heat will try to find a way out. It is best to try and insulate every possible avenue of escape, even the little ones like outlet covers.

Other winterization activities around Better Farm included turning off the water to outside hoses, installing draft guards on infrequently used doors to the outside, hanging insulating curtains in front of windows in bedrooms, bathrooms and the kitchen, changing directions of the ceiling fans in the house, and sealing off rooms that won't be used this winter.

Speaking of winterizing, we also moved the chicken coops closer to the house yesterday in order to make cleaning them and feeding the chickens easier once the snow really starts to fall.

We didn't move the coops very far, but apparently the chickens didn't get the memo. I had been warned that the chickens might not be able to find their way home, but I don't think I was entirely prepared for it. There they sat, huddled together in the empty space where the coops used to be, while the newly cleaned coops sat empty. We actually had to go outside and try to catch them up, one by one, and place them in the coop. And they weren't keen on going quietly. We had three of us out there trying to herd the chickens home. It was a riot! It was so absurd it was hilarious. I haven't had a lot of experience with chickens, but I do want my own flock eventually. This was definitely a great bit of practice. Luckily for us, this is a sharp group of birds—by the next day, all 31 of them had adjusted to their reassignment:

As for me, I think I am going to spend a little time by the fire before heading back out into the tundra. Stay warm, everyone!

Telltale Signs Your Chicken is a Rooster

Image from Backyard Chickens.
It has come to our attention that one of our new hatchlings from the summer is, in fact, a rooster. While each breed has certain characteristics you can look for (and some generalizations true across the board), sometimes it's a little tricky to tell who's who when you're dealing with offspring of interracial chickens. Our latest brood includes eight birds of mixed descent: barred rock, Americauna, and leghorn.

The babies hatched back in July, and are now just about full-grown. The rooster in the bunch let his colors show one day last week when his tail feathers became more pronounced, he had (yet another) growth spurt causing him to tower over his siblings, and he jumped up on the garden fence and attempted to crow (so far unsuccessfully). Ladies and gentlemen, introducing our rooster Judge Roy Bean:
Got a flock of young chickens you're tending to? Here are some easy cues you can use to determine who among them is on the road to roosterdom.

From My Pet Chicken:

When sexing most juveniles, the best, most fail-safe method is to look at the saddle feathers in front of the tail when the bird is about 3 months old. By that age, cockerels will have long and pointy saddle feathers, while a hen's will be rounded. This will indicate for sure whether you have a cockerel or a pullet in every breed but Silkies and Sebrights. You will also be able to see long, curving sickle feathers in the tail of the rooster as he gets a little older.

Crowing is a fairly good indicator, but isn't fail-safe, either. Plus, generally speaking, you will be able to tell by feathers much earlier since roosters don't usually begin to crow until they are 4 or 5 months old. However, we have had roosters wait until a little later, and begin a little sooner, too. Plus, hens will occasionally crow, so even crowing doesn't tell you for sure. To reiterate, the BEST way to tell for sure is by looking at physical characteristics that cannot be mistaken, so check feather shape when your birds are about 3 months old, as other indications are not reliable.

For sebrights, the cockerels are "hen-feathered," meaning the males have the same shape feathers as females. For sebrights, comb size and wattle size are about the only easy way to tell. (Campines are hen feathered in other countries, but not usually so in the US.)

Sexing juvenile silkies is complicated, because you can't easily see the shape of the feathers, the comb is often hidden under the crest, and wattles are not evident in most bearded silkies. Experts vent sex (with 90% accuracy) when the babies are a day old, but for the rest of us—and even for silkie breeders—juvenile silkies are especially hard to sex. However, there are a few telltale signs that may help you discern what you have:

  • Generally the puffy crests on the hens' heads are rounder, while the roosters may have long streamers coming from theirs.
  • Sometimes males will have slightly shinier feathers.
  • If they are non-bearded Silkies, the wattles will be larger in males. (Bearded Silkies of both sexes are lacking substantial wattles.)
  • In both types of silkies, the males' comb will be larger. (A silkie's comb is called a "walnut" comb for its shape. Instead of being red like most chicken combs, it is usually a color described as "mulberry.")
  • Roosters will generally be bolder in their behavior, and often friendlier to humans when they are young. (Hens generally "catch up" in the friendliness category after they begin laying, while roosters usually get more stand-offish as they get older.)
  • If you have more than one rooster, they may "chest bump" and assert themselves with each other. However, hens will do this, too--just not as often.
  • If you have mixed hens and roosters, the roosters usually begin to grow larger more quickly than the hens, so hens may be slightly smaller after a few weeks 
  • Watch for spurs! When these ankle-area spikes come in varies widely from breed to breed, but most develop between three and eight months.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

The Rapunzels: A Fairy Tale About Birds

A year and two months after taking 20 "spent hens" under our proverbial wing, we're taking a look back at the lives of our rescue chickens.

It was February of 2012, right around Valentine's Day, when we decided to pursue a rescue of 20 "spent" laying hens from a local egg farm. Since it was a bit of a love story that involved some damsels in distress, we thought we'd name all the rescue birds Rapunzel. The egg farm in question was all too happy to part with the "spent" birds. You see in the commercial egg business, it doesn't make sense to house chickens that are past their peek production. Here are the facts on that:

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Movin' on Up!

Baby Barred Rock/Ameraucana hatchlings hang outside under a heatlamp Tuesday night.
It was almost two months ago when our first hatchling appeared out of an egg inside the incubator we set up at Better Farm
On Tuesday, that Barred Rock/Ameraucana bird—along with his or her seven brothers and sisters—moved on up from a metal trough indoors to outdoor surroundings in a chicken tractor that utilizes a heat lamp at night to help the babies acclimate to their cooler surroundings.

Here are the babies around a week old:

And here they are yesterday, running around in their new chicken tractor:
All eight baby birds appear perfectly healthy, and are enjoying their piece of the pie! The chicks are exploring the very new experience of grazing on their grassy underfootings, catching moths, flies, and other bugs out of the air, and seeing the whole world for the first time. By day, they're learning to use perches and scratch for grubs; by night, they lay under the heat lamp in a huddle and make low chirping sounds.

For those of you raising your own chicks, you don't want to put them outside until their "adult" feathers have come in—and you don't want to introduce them to the rest of the flock until their voices lose the chirpiness of chicks and adjust to the warble of adult hens and roosters (usually around three or four months). It's best to time your egg hatching accordingly so the birds can acclimate to outdoor temperatures in a healthy way.

Want to learn more about backyard birdkeeping, or visit with these wonderful creatures? Give us a call at (315) 482-2536.

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

We're having babies!

Candling one of Bernadette's eggs after one week.
Last Tuesday I had chicken duty and noticed that Bernadette, one of our barred rock chickens, was missing. I looked around thinking she had simply stayed outside of coop overnight, but she was gone. Later that day I saw her alongside the other birds; but the next morning she was missing again. 

We found her next to the farm stand, sitting on a nest of nine eggs! After discussing all the pros and cons of letting her sit it out or hatching the eggs in an incubator, we decided to incubate the babies ourselves. We took a roadtrip out to Agway in Lafargeville and picked up an incubator with fan and automatic egg turner. 

It took about 12 hours for us to get the optimal 99.5-degree temperature in the incubator with 50- to 60-percent humidity. Once we were ready, Nicole and I scared Bernadette of the eggs and herded her into her coop, where she could relax and un-brood (a task that took overnight: By morning, she was back to normal). 

Eggs in hand, we loaded the incubator; along with a bunch of eggs from the other chickens (freshly laid).

After a week of carefully checking the heat and humidity, we candled the eggs to see if any of them were developing into baby birds. Out of all of them, we think only two are not fertilized.

Stay tuned for Week Two!!