The girls in the coop have been watching Dr. Phil again. I can always tell: Pecky Specky is eager to tell me that Rocky has been bullying Henny Penny, Penny is hiding in a corner, and Spacey Lacey wanders in her own little world, obviously deeply in denial of the sibling rivalry she has witnessed. I sigh and start filling the food pan with their supplemental breakfast of kale, apple quarters, and a little tuna cat food.
The thing is, they were so darned cute when they were chicks. Who could have predicted this angst?
This is my second flock of hens. Back when I was planning in earnest for retirement, I was aiming for the self-sufficiency of providing as much of my own food as possible. The vegetable garden would take care of one aspect of that, but aside from legumes like beans and peas, vegetable sources of protein can be hard to come by. Many homesteaders raise a flock of meat chickens for a few weeks each summer, then slaughter the whole flock at once and stock their freezers with their home-grown, often organic, chicken. It is attractively economical and has the added advantage of peace of mind. You know where that meat has been, and what has–or more importantly, has not–been done to it. When I faced the prospect of killing another living creature with my own two hands to eat it, though, I knew I couldn’t do it. There would be no slaughtering at 2Dits.
A small flock of laying hens fit the bill quite well, though. I’d get good eggs–not strictly organic because I’d be feeding them a commercial layer ration–but decent eggs, nonetheless; there would be chicken manure to power the compost pile, an additive which, compared to cow manure, is very nearly rocket fuel; and I’d get help with insect control. (I had read that a flock of chickens is good for taking care of ticks, of which we have had an exponential explosion in recent years with a concurrent rise in the incidence of Lyme disease. The girls were supposed to be good for rooting out beetles, slugs and snails, too. I must have missed the warning amidst all those glowing accolades about chickens snatching up seedlings, stripping plants of their leaves, and generally doing a bang-up job of ignoring Japanese beetles, slugs too big for their delicate palates, and all snails. We doesn’t like snailses.)
Having never kept chickens before, I spent the winter leading up to my retirement researching different breeds, coop design, winterizing, feeds, flock hierarchy, and chicken maladies from parasites to prolapse. Clearly, I had set myself a daunting task. So much to consider! So many conflicting opinions from the experts! And, by that point, so little time before retirement day!
I had missed the window for starting a flock from chicks, which turned out to be providential, really, because it eliminated the many pitfalls of chicken babyhood. Instead, I found a farm in southern Maine which sold organic laying pullets, young females that haven’t laid their first eggs yet, but who are within a few weeks of doing so. They were Production Reds, which meant that they were winter hardy, weren’t fussy, and would lay like crazy. I called and ordered four pullets, to be picked up near the end of April.
Then I got to work building the coop. I knew I wanted it to be mobile, because I intended to let the girls range on grass during the summer and to do that, you have to move the coop every day. I had studied lots of designs, ranging from the beautiful backyard chicken cottage that I wouldn’t have minded using as a writing retreat, to the A-frame chicken ark that looked like an elongated ski chalet, to the pragmatic hutch-and-box style.
In the end, I adapted the design for a 4’x4′ Snoopy-style doghouse, substituting a smaller chicken-sized door for that big arched opening in the front, putting a small addition like a lean-to shed on the back to hold the nest boxes where the hens would (theoretically) lay their eggs for easy collection via the hinged lid of the ‘shed roof,’ and mounting the whole thing on wheels so I could roll it about the backyard.
Determined that my hens would be protected from the elements and predators, I built out of two-by-fours and three-quarter inch exterior plywood, screwed and glued together for strength, and insulated the structure with foam panels cut to fit between the studs. To keep the hens from pecking at the styrofoam, I paneled the interior with thinner plywood. I installed a small radiant heat panel designed for chicken coops and added a light so my hens would have fourteen hours of light during the dark days of winter to keep them laying eggs. I shingled and painted the coop to match the house and garage. That coop was some pretty when it was finished, though one neighbor asked with genuine puzzlement whether I was getting an Irish wolfhound.
That weekend I grasped the ropes to haul my spanking new coop across the lawn to where I wanted it, put my back into that first heave to get it moving–and tore some rib cartilage when the contraption was too heavy to budge more than a few inches.
When I could get my breath to swear, I did. Painfully but effusively.
After ascertaining that I could breathe without getting a stabbing sensation, I chalked it up as just another in the long line of annoying-but-not-serious injuries I’ve done myself, and surveyed the situation. Either I was going to have a henhouse blocking the driveway for years, or I was going to have to move the cussed thing. I was due to pick up the pullets in two days.
I got out the lawn tractor and tried hitching it to the coop’s platform, but when I started the engine and put it in gear, there was an ominous screech of wood. Hastily I shut off the tractor, walked back to inspect, and found I was pulling the henhouse apart. It was stout, but not stout enough to withstand that kind of power.
I swore again. Painfully but effusively. What I need is a trackway that the wheels can roll on, I thought, so it can’t sink into the grass. In the end, I moved the coop–by hand–over ‘tracks’ made of planking and got it situated out beyond the garden. It looked nice from the house, I had to admit, as I held an ice pack to my sore rib and swallowed some ibuprofen. Very Mother Earth News. I just hoped the g.d. eggs were worth it.
They were. In fact, over the five years since then, all 3100 or so of them have been wonderful for baking, omelets, and quiche. The girls have more than earned their keep, so if they occupy their days watching TV talk shows on the flatscreen out there, I guess that’s fine. I just wish they’d switch to PBS. It’s a higher-quality angst.
chicken coop photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/26503922@N08/5386921485″>Quaint</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
eggs photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/22191277@N03/8065133518″>Multi-Colored Eggs</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>