What To Consider When Expanding Your Farm

What To Consider When Expanding Your Farm

Having a farm full of varied animals is a dream for many a farmer. Of course, being a farmer in itself is exceptionally hard work. It goes without saying that the more animals you have, the more work you will have on your plate. However, with many different types of livestock, your day will always be interesting. After all, they say that variety is the spice of life! Plus, having a wide range of livestock can open your farm up to many more opportunities – whether you are selling produce or opening your farm up to the public. Here are some things you’ll need to consider if you’re thinking of adding to your brood.

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The Importance Of Happy Cows!

The Importance Of Happy Cows!

If you’re a farmer or thinking of starting your own farm, knowing the importance of happy cows is essential. If you aren’t paying attention to the happiness of your cows (and your other animals) your farm could suffer. You won’t have a very good reputation, and you aren’t being good to the environment. Here’s why happy cows are important and how to keep them happy.

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Better Farm Welcomes Matilda The Pig

Better Farm Welcomes Matilda The Pig

Well hello there, gorgeous!

We're very excited to introduce Matilda, the newest addition to Better Farm's cast of characters. This little pot-bellied piglet is just 5 weeks old, and joins us because an injury to her back leg soon after she was born means she needs to live in a forever home where she'll get lots of attention and physical therapy.

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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 info@betterfarm.org.
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.

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 info@betterfarm.org.

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.

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've Got Chicks!

There is new life on the farm! We have eight baby chickens who hatched last week after 21 days in the incubator.
To prepare for the babies' arrival, we borrowed a heat lamp and metal trough from our friends Penny and Steve in Clayton. It's very important that new hatchlings be kept in a circular container in order to avoid anyone getting crushed in a corner (the birds have a tendency to "pile on" and stay huddled together). Water for newborns is kept in ice cube trays to prevent drowning; and food (specially formulated for babies) is kept in a small trough or in the ring of a waterer.

It was only hours after we'd stocked up on supplies that I went to check on the eggs and saw four had cracks. I was so excited, I kept vigil overnight in the room with the incubator. The next day around 10 a.m., one of the baby chick started to make her way out of the shell. It took the little lady about 15 minutes to break free from the shell: I became a mother! Later that day we had four more chicks; the next day, two more hatched. 

When a chick hatches, it's very important to leave it alone while it dries off. A chick can live up to two days in an incubator after hatching, living off the innards of the egg it came from. Our chicks took 24 hours to dry off completely, at which point we moved them to the metal trough. We suspended the heat lamp approximately 18 inches off the ground, and adjusted accordingly. If the chicks are all huddled directly under the light, they are too cold and the light needs to be lowered. If they avoid the light altogether, that means it's too hot and needs to be raised. As the chicks grow, the light will gradually be raised more and more until it is no longer needed.

All told, we had eight chicks hatch from the eggs. Let’s hope they all love me as much as I love them!