Farm and garden DIY: The never ending chicken coop build

“Hey, what do we have going on this weekend?”

It’s a common question Josh asks each week. The common answer is: “Finishing the chicken coop.” 

Except these days I may insert an expletive in there somewhere.

The Chicken Palace, as we tend to call it these days, has been in progress since the end of March and I’m ready for this to be completed. It has pretty much consumed every weekend and I’m ready to get in some serious hiking.
We’ve been here for a year now and the last six months have been all about our chickens, their coop and our garden. 

The garden is fenced, planted and we are seeing great progress with our seedlings. I think we may be literally giving carrots and peas away in a couple of weeks. The chicken area though continues to be a constant work in progress. 

The run was already in place but needed some securing. The coop however is another matter. 

Josh made plans for a custom built coop. It will be a 12×12 box for our current flock of 16. Why so big? Wel we want to add chicks in the future, right? The plan is to have a slanted roof a cottage style door and window. The nesting boxes are fancy…the will eggs roll to the front. Once complete it will hold at least 40 chickens. 

Not that we necessarily want 40 chickens, but we dream big here. 

We finally have three walls framed and this structure is actually beginning to look like something may be completed one day. Today we are framing he roof and the front for the door and window. The hope is that we can complete this before the end of the month so our chickens will have a larger home and so we can start enjoying life outside our farm here and around the Sound.

Mother hen in training

I’ve started this post in my head several times beginning the day I ordered our chicks from Meyer Hatchery. I wanted to share how I anticipated the arrival of 10 Buff Orpingtons and 5 Welsummers, but the anxiety of it all and the realization that I wasn’t prepared.

Well wait. I was, but my brain gets the best of me and I’m sure like any new mom, we want the best for our new little ones. I’m a first time chicken mom and I was a wreck. When would the post office call me upon their arrival? Will the box be chirping or quiet? (Please don’t let me get a quiet box) Do they have enough water? Can everyone get to the food? Why isn’t that one moving? Are they warm enough? Too warm?

img_6238All chicken knowledge I consumed the weeks prior in preparation of their arrival just disappeared. Just keep the chicks alive….easy enough, right?

I was happy to hear them chirping from the box. And like any good mother, I had the car seat warming for them and I gently strapped them in for the drive home. In pure documentary fashion, I texted a quick pick of them all buckled in and sent it to my husband who was traveling that week.

“It’s official. You are now a crazy chicken lady.”

He had no idea.

Once I got the ladies home, it was time to place them in our homemade brooder. Here img_6231that knowledge which I thought escaped was coming back. The brooder had been prepared the night before and the thermometer read that the temperature was holding around 98 degrees. All the chicken prep reading I did said the temperature should be around 95-100 degrees the first week. If the chicks huddled underneath the light it was too cold, and if they strayed from the light it was too warm. What you want is to have the chicks form almost a perfect circle on the edge of the heat lamp.

I quickly picked each one up and placed them in the brooder after checking for “pasty butt” and attending to those affected. Before letting the chicks explore their new home, I dipped their beaks into the water I had prepared with electrolytes. Apparently, chicks need to be shown where the water is located and they take it from there. Fourteen chicks were now successfully drinking in the brooder and, for the moment, free from pasty butt, but one sweet girl wasn’t doing well.

After attempts to feed her water from a syringe, she seemed to perk up, but later in the day when I checked on the girls, she showed no sign of life. It was hard, but I know this is part of it. I tried to guess all the things that could’ve happened: the travel, the temperature, or perhaps she was smothered under her siblings. All terrible, but the truth is, death is part of this. I know this, but it doesn’t make it easy.

A few days later, the girls were getting the hang of their life in the brooder, but on day three, we lost two more of our Buff Orpingtons. I was baffled as two losses in one day could mean something was terribly wrong. Everyone was eating and drinking and I was tending gently to rid them of pasty butt twice a day. I began Googling “buff orpingtons keep dying” to see if there were other stories, but found no evidence of anything wrong. Several posters from the chicken threads I found simply stated “sometimes chickens just die.”

That night before my husband returned home, I spent hours hovering over the brooder, looking for signs of ill chicks. All of them seemed strong, except for one. She was the smallest of the bunch and I decided I would make it my mission to help her survive if I saw a change in behavior. Maybe sometimes chickens just die, but this mother hen was going to do everything in her power to keep the rest of these ladies alive.

That night I watched over the little chicks until they all one by one slowly fell asleep, not directly under the heat lamp, but in a perfect circle on the edge of the lamp. Just the way they should be.

Perhaps this mother hen knows how do take care of her baby chicks after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The quest to make cheese

Yesterday was a fairly typical Saturday here on Whidbey Island: breakfast at Muk Cafe, browse the Bayview farmers market, and a stop at the farm supply store for whatever. Except this:

“Let’s make mozzarella!”

Our friend Marnie was visiting from Austin, and we talked most the morning about enjoying the fresh produce and meat available locally, as well as the availability to purchase raw milk.

A while back, Marnie had successfully made her own cheese with raw milk from the farm where she participates in a work share program. I was excited to learn how we could do this on our own and we needed three key ingredients: 1/2 gallon of raw milk, rennet and citric acid. The citric acid we finally found, but after searching far and wide on the island, no luck on the rennet so we had to lower our expectations from mozzarella to ricotta.

 

It took some time to carefully heat, monitor the temperature and stir the raw milk mixture before we saw cheese curds, but it finally happened. And after straining the whey from the mixture, we ended up with more ricotta than we expected.

Delicious, fresh, creamy ricotta.

After mixing the ricotta into a pasta sauce, we discussed other cheeses that were fairly easy to make such as mozzarella and chevre. Savoring the ricotta cheese over dinner, I realized that it may be hard to purchase ricotta cheese at the grocery store. I’m sure one day practicality will make me do it, but this is definitely something I’m going to try again.

Before going to bed, I searched where to find rennet. Why Amazon, of course!

My rennet will be here in a week and if all goes as planned, not long after, so will our homemade mozzarella.

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Apples: the new Labrador treat

Our apple harvest should be happening soon, that is if Daisy Bean doesn’t eat them all….

We’ve been trying to monitor the Lady Labs’ apple retrieval activity, but that’s easier said than done. Every time I turn around one of them has an apple….usually Daisy. It was cute at first, but things are getting out of hand. Two days ago my husband and I figured out Daisy had consumed three apples in an afternoon. While I’ve been trying to discourage their apple picking tendencies, it doesn’t seem to have any effect. 

This morning, as I let the girls out, I walked around the tree finding no apples on the ground. When I let them back inside for breakfast, I noted two apples near the porch. As they ate breakfast, I grabbed the notably mouthed apples and placed them into compost. My hope is that reinforcing apple nabbing as inappropriate behavior will eventually curtail such activity, but in a way, who can blame them? In Dallas there were only squirrels and birds to chase. Here they have deer, bunnies, birds to chase, and now, apples to retrieve in October.

In August, our new veterinarian noted the Lady Labs had gained half their weight in a year. This called for a reduction in calories for these maidens of mischief. Daisy, who is always hungry, is obviously protesting by nabbing the low hanging fruit on, what seems to be, a regular basis. We aren’t ruling out Little Bee as an accomplice, as she has been seen with a less than ripe apple in her jaws, but our repeat offender is definitely Daisy.

Before our fence was complete, the resident deer loved sneaking into our yard, reaching for our fruit by standing on their hind legs. 

While I haven’t witnessed this, according to my husband, Daisy took notes and has deployed the same tactic. She has great odds as the deer are now fenced out, thus less competition. So we do our best to make the rounds and pick up fallen apples. Out of sight out of mind right?

An hour into my workday this morning, I ended a call with a client and looked down at Daisy sleeping comfortably under my desk with her brow curled as if she’d had a tough morning.

And next to her was a green apple. I guess she’s saving it for later.

Getting ready for the worms

Yesterday we contemplated our farming dreams for next year, and today we started putting things in motion.

As we pick up our red worms in two weeks, today we installed our in-ground worm bin we bought from Bugabay. While Whidbey Island is known for being an agricultural gem, Greenbank’s soil, where we reside, is not the fertile easy digging variety like the land residing in Ebey’s Landing. Our soil is full of rock, or glacial till, as my husband informed me. 

The words “glacial till” sound way more graceful than what it actually is. Pardon my French, but glacial till is a stubborn bitch to dig and we had to dig 12 inches to get the appropriate depth. Between the two of us we were able to get it accomplished in a couple of hours, but it made me (and Josh) really grateful we only had to dig one hole.

After a run to grab some peat moss and manure from the farm supply store and filling in the sides of the bin, we were ready to place our first layer of food waste. It must’ve rung a dinner bell because one volunteer worm was already hanging outside the bin. He looked as though he may have had a fight with one of our shovels, so I tossed him inside in pity. I’m imagining worms aren’t territorial so hopefully he’ll get along fine with the others when they arrive in a couple of weeks.

It was a good afternoon worth of work, but as I looked around the reality of the work ahead is getting real. There is sod cutting the garden space, constructing the beds, prepping the chicken run and possibly adding to that run to host turkeys.

It all needs to be ready by January/February, but tonight we’ll continue our hobby farm debates as well as continue dreaming about what this place could be. 

It’s nice to start seeing that these dreams are on their way to becoming reality, one rocky shovel of soil at a time.

Blackberries are here and so is the jam

img_3713This morning I woke up and picked four quarts of wild blackberries growing in our front yard. They’ve just started coming ripe enough to pick and after my jam making class with Slow Food Whidbey Island, I thought I’d give my first batch a try.

It was pretty labor intensive the first time around, more so for the clean up because my damn glasstop stove is such a pain in the ass to clean. I really, really miss my gas stove, but that is another story for another day.

While I’ve hopped off the no sugar/no bread wagon since moving to the islanimg_3378d, I was amazed at how much sugar one batch of jam takes. I know there are recipes with less sugar, but I thought I’d start with the basics and then experiment once I got the process down. For this batch, I decided to strain out the seeds for half of the berry puree. I wanted seeds for texture and for show, but I wanted the sweetness of the blackberries to come through.

My first batch was successful enough. All the jars sealed and the jam set up as expected. I couldn’t wait to taste it for breakfast the next morning.

One day I’m going to have to get back on my no sugar/no bread wagon, but not today.

 

 

We’re definitely not in Dallas anymore

My idea of leaving the city was to exchange it for a view of the ocean while Josh wanted land.

img_1985
Zoe, assistant realtor.

When our realtor, who traveled with his bulldog Zoe, showed us this property, he had us take the trails before coming into the house…..and Zoe would show us the way. Our property comes with a quarter mile of hiking trails carved into the back half of our four acre property. Four. Whole. Acres.

I think it was Zoe who convinced me we needed to buy this property because we could see our dogs enjoying all the space. Something we didn’t realize we craved in our cute backyard in Little Forest Hills.

On lazy mornings we fill our coffee and walk with the dogs along the paths that loop here and there around a pond, laughing at the dogs as they sniff around new crooks and crannies of their new home. The trail is filled with trees, ferns and currently salmon berries….which really aren’t all that tasty. There are a couple of benches here and there so we sometimes stop to sit and chat and take it all in.

We are still pinching ourselves that we actually live here.

Toward the end of the far trail we can see Zylstra Farm, our neighbor, and the very large Penelope the Pig. Moonpie and the Lady Labs like to swing down the far trail so they can wag their tails at Penelope. Daisy isn’t sure what to think about Penelope’s snorts, nor her size.

In Dallas we had daredevil squirrels who liked to taunt the Lady Labs with the acrobat antics and occasionally a opossum. Penelope is an interesting replacement. So are the deer and the bunnies…taunting of the dogs just went to a whole new level. These forest creatures are not shy at all. Deer slink into our backyard to steel an apple or two from our tree and the bunnies sit quietly until the dogs are barely close enough to snatch them up.

Just a few months ago, we occupied our time with hour long dog walks, drinks at Goodfriends or seeking out the latest and greatest Dallas restaurant.

Our entertainment has definitely changed.

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City Girl Problems: It may be a little too quiet here

As the sun started to set this evening and the frogs began croaking in the pond on the back half of our property, the realization that I’m all alone out here is starting to get real.

I dropped Josh off in the wee hours this morning to catch the SEA-TAC shuttle for his flight to Dallas where he’ll work this week. Today wasn’t bad. I got to work, I even unpacked some boxes and got our house a tad closer to looking like someone lives here. But now, as the darkness sets in I have to admit the fraidy-cat in me is surfacing.

I really do enjoy the peace and the quiet. I can’t hear I-30 roaring behind me, the buzzing sounds of street lights or sirens roaring down Garland road. The first couple of weeks settling into our new place, I welcomed this silence, but right now, I could use a siren or two.

Other than the frogs there are some noises, but I haven’t gotten used to them. For example, there is some sort of moaning noise under the refrigerator. My mother-in-law heard it while she was here and convinced me that it was probably noise from a water pipe underneath. Yes, water. Water also creates a little anxiety as the water filtering system is located in the garage, just on the other side of the wall in our bedroom. It sounds a lot like the garage door opening, and even though I purposely opened and closed the garage door to get used to the sound, I STILL can’t tell the difference. But I’ll tell myself that the noise is the filter.

It’s really late, and since I’m working Central Time hours, I don’t have time for restless sleeping so I’m going to have to get a handle on this. Sure I have Moonpie and the Lady Labs, so I’m not completely alone, but even their barking at the darkness here and there isn’t helping. Seriously, is something really out there? And if there is, I really don’t want to know about it. I know there are animals, and nothing harmful a herd of deer, a few million bunny rabbits and probably a racoon or two.

Yes, I’ll just think of the animals. It’s like a Disney movie right? Bambi curling up with his mother and Thumper burrowing in somewhere for the night. But Daisy begins her cryptic growling out the back door again and my idyllic bedtime Disney story becomes something a little less cuddly.

So now I’ll do the only thing a sensible person who has recently moved to the middle of freakin’ nowhere would do. I’ll drag all the dog beds into our bedroom, strategically place them at the foot of the bed in a semi-circle so that there is one dog for each door and window. I’ll shut the door so Daisy will stop barking at any random flicker out the window. I’m now safely barricaded in my room. And the water filter begins rumbling and Daisy begins to growl.

It’s not the garage door, it’s not the garage door……..

Yep, this might be a long week. For all of us.