Modern Homesteading

How to Create a Chicken Dust Bath for Winter Bathing

Chicken dust bath 

When you live in a rainforest, it rains.  (Right about now you're probably thinking, "No kidding [or insert expletive here], Sherlock.")

Stay with me here.

Are you ready for another ridiculously obvious statement? (I'm on a roll!)  Lots of rain means lots of mud. 

So What's the Problem, Lady? Are You Scared of Getting Mud on Your Shoes?

Before you think I'm whining about the rain or scared of getting dirty, it's not about me. If I was scared of mud, I'd still be living in a townhouse.

Here's the deal - when you live in a rainforest, and it rains all winter, and you have 20 chickens that need to keep their skin and feathers healthy, and you can't let them free range very often because your property is surrounded by hungry coyotes and hawks, you have a problem.

Something I didn't think about when we got chickens originally was how we'd create spaces for them dust baths if they couldn't free range, because the plan was for them to free range.  When the coyotes arrived, that plan got shelved pretty quickly.  The birds still get out every couple of days for an hour or so to access their 'under the porch spa', but it's not enough to keep them healthy in the 'bathing' department.  So what's a person with chickens confined to a coop and run to do when the ground is either muddy - or conversely, frozen - when it comes to creating opportunities for their birds to do what chickens are supposed to do naturally: bathe in dust?

Why is Dust Bathing Important?

Bottom line - chickens don't bathe like we (or many other animals) do.  Counter to what intuition might tell you, they get clean by getting dirty.  Naturally (i.e., in the wild or when free ranging), they'll dig a shallow pit in suitable soil (the dustier the better), loosen it all up with their claws, and then roll around in it, fluffing it through to cover every possible spec of skin and feather.  Why would they do this?  It keeps parasites such as mites and lice from taking hold, and weirdly, even cleans their feathers to some degree.  Case in point - these are our young ones and rooster last summer:

The Family That Dust-Baths Together... Doesn't Get Mites! from Victoria Gazeley on Vimeo.

So as you can see, if your chickens are confined to a coop and run, and the ground is muddy and/or frozen, you really need to provide them with an alternate way to do their thing.

Some Ideas from Us... and from Readers

Now that our chickens have to spend most of their time in the run, I needed to come up with a new way for them to bathe.  Here's one idea I came across:

Place a box, rubber feed bin or (and this was the best idea I read) a Rubbermaid bin or cat litter box with a lid you can put on when it rains, on the floor of the coop/run (basically, somewhere it will stay dry) and fill it with about 6" or so of a dusting powder made from: 1 part fireplace ashes, 1 part sand and 1 part diatomaceous earth (it also called for road dust, but I'm thinking I don't want my 'organic' birds covering themselves with dust that's laced with vehicle exhaust remains, oil, and other unmentionables. 

Important Tip: If you use diatomaceous earth, make sure it's the 'food grade' version, not the industrial/pool grade, and be careful not to breath it in.  Some readers won't use it because it is a lung irritant, but many, many more use it regularly, apparently with no ill effects if appropriate precautions are taken.  It falls to earth fairly quickly and doesn't hang in the air like dust, but still.  Guess what I'm saying is 'use at your own risk'!  Very effective for mites and lice, etc., though.

Others have expressed concerns about fireplace ash, in that when it gets wet, it becomes quite caustic and will burn the birds' skin.  I asked the people who use ash regularly in dust baths for their birds and they say they've never had an issue with skin burns or other maladies.  Worth trying, I think - but it should go without saying that you should only use ash from wood fires, and not from any garbage burns.  But I'm hoping you aren't burning your garbage.  If you are, stop it!  Please!

Now some other ideas for creating artificial dust baths for your chickens from our friends on our Facebook page:

  • "I put the bottom of a litter box with dirt inside for them to roll around in. They enjoy it very much." - Nancy 
  • "We use the ashes from our burnt wood and toss it in their pen!" - Robin 
  • "Our barn has a packed-dirt floor. Our chickens found a few spots where the dirt was loose and scratched up enough dirt to dust-bathe in. I've heard of people using cat litter pans full of dirt and sand in their coops though." - Cheryl 
  • "Some people use a big wash tub or kiddie pool. Put sand in it mixed with dirt and ash. One thing for sure though, add all your wood ash to their bathing area. You will never have mites if they bathe in the ash and they know it." - Lisa 
  • "A shoe box with sand and a shoe box with dirt. They love it." - Sharon 
  • "Diatomacious earth in a kiddie pool or shallow bin in the coop." - Michelle 

So there you have it - some easy, inexpensive ways to give your coop and run-bound birds the opportunity to carry on some of their natural behaviour when they can't get out to make their own dust baths.  I'll be creating one this week for our girls and will update the post once that's done.

I'm sure we'll know pretty quickly if it passes muster or not.

Do you have other ideas on how to create a dust bath for chickens?  If so, let us know in the comments below!  We'd love to hear your tips.

How to Care for a Refinished Cast Iron Sink

A photo of Victoria GazeleyNothing says ‘country decor’ more than a vintage cast iron sink.  Except maybe a log cabin.  Or a big pick-up truck.  But nothing says ‘botulism’ or some other sort of nasty bacterial infection more than a vintage cast iron sink that’s been scratched and chipped and generally uncared for to the point where you couldn’t get it clean except with something toxic.

When we moved into our little cabin in the woods, it came with a vintage but less than pristine sink that had been ‘refinished’ with one of those paint on do-it-yourself  kits a number of years previous.  The paint had started to peel and over 3 years of daily use, it didn’t exactly get better.   So while we were building an addition to the cabin, and it was warm enough out that we could open the windows to let the smell of aircraft paint out, the timing was perfect to get it refinished.

As usual, I did a whole bunch of research before we decided on a plan of attack.  In the process, I discovered that you’ve really only got three options to repair a vintage cast iron sink that’s seen better days:

  1. Remove it and have it re-enameled professionally.  Pro:  you get a high quality, baked on finish that will last and won’t chip under normal use.  Cons: You’re without your sink for days to weeks, plus you have to have a company local that does this sort work – you don’t want to be shipping a cast iron sink. 
  2. Buy one of those paint-on kits and do it yourself.  Pro: inexpensive and your sink stays in place.  Cons:  It’s really difficult to get a smooth finish, you have to prep the surface well beforehand, and the paint will scratch and peel relatively easily. 
  3. Replace it with new.  Pro:  You get a brand new sink.  Cons:  Sinks that reflect the same sort of look as a vintage cast iron sink run from $600 and up (based on the research I did at the time).  Even a professionally re-enameled sink starts at about $400 and up, depending on the style.  Ones like ours with a built-in drainboard started at about $650 for a restored vintage version. 
  4. Hire a professional to refinish it in place with quality materials.  Pro:  Your sink stays in place (you can use it after about 3 or 4 hours), it costs less than purchasing a similar sink new or refinished, and the finish is of higher quality than the DIY kits. 

We decided on #4.  And am I ever glad we did…

Now, trying to find a sink and tub refinisher in a small town isn’t exactly an easy feat, but we lucked out and found a refinishing pro right here in our little town.  He showed up one Friday morning with all his gear in tow and after about 3 hours and a lot of masking tape, the sink turned out almost like new.

The trick now is how to keep it that way. 

Refinished Cast Iron Sink Care Tips from the Pros

Caring for a cast iron sink 

  • Get something to protect the bottom of the sink – A silicon mat will work, or do what we did and order these polyethylene dish washing/rinsing bins from Ikea.  Depending on the size and style of your sink, they can work brilliantly to protect your sink surface and save water at the same time. Plus they look nicer than the ones you can buy at the drug store (I did that for awhile – these look much nicer).
  • Keep sharp utensils from roughly hitting the surface – A silicone mat will help with this, but the plastic bins work better.  I’ve already taken a chip out of the finish by letting a knife fall hard into the sink.
  • Watch the water temperature – If your hot water temperature is excessively hot like ours, you’ll want to make note:  it was advised that we start filling the sink with warm water first and gradually increase the hot, or use bins (which is what we ended up doing).  Like glass or other surfaces, the new painted surface of a refinished cast iron sink can be ‘shocked’ and develop hairline cracks if really hot water is poured suddenly into a cold sink, or vice versa.  And hairline cracks are just the beginning stage of peeling.
  • Wash the sink with a soft brush and plain dish soap – Don’t use anything abrasive or caustic or you’ll damage the surface.  If you make sure to rinse the sink out and give it a little scrub with soap and water regularly, it won’t stain and you won’t need abrasives.

And that’s about it!  With a bit of forethought and a lot of care, you can have essentially a brand new sink for much less than new.  And you get to keep that fabulous vintage look in your rural home.

Do you have any other tips to share on caring for a cast iron sink?  If so, let us know in the comments below!

Gift Ideas for Modern Homesteaders and Rural Living Fans

Looking for some practical, sure to be loved gift ideas for the modern homesteaders (or modern homesteader hopefuls), rural living fans, self-sufficiency fans, off-grid dwellers and preppers on your holiday list? Or just looking for practical gifts for your friends and family that will help them get a little closer to a self-reliant lifestyle? Here are a few things I've come across that won't end up in the landfill - and will go on to keep giving and giving throughout the coming year.

My Personal Gift-Giving Criteria

I've been thinking about the environmental and social impacts of my gift-giving for a very long time. Over the years, I've created a mental checklist for any gifts I purchase, not only at Christmas time, but throughout the year. It looks something like this:

  1. Is the gift 'fair trade'? Do the people who create is receive fair compensation for their work?
  2. Is it made from natural, organic, or recycled materials?
  3. If it's not made from natural materials, is it made with recyclability in mind?
  4. If it's made from natural materials, is it finished with safe, non-toxic finishes (i.e., beeswax and/or naturally pigmented, non-oil-based paints)?
  5. Is it made or supplied locally?
  6. Is it recyclable in my community?
  7. Is it pre-owned?
  8. Is it built to last?
  9. Is it a gift of service that isn't a 'thing' that will be thrown away eventually?
  10. Will it improve the recipient's life in some way?
  11. Is the gift something the person will use a lot?
  12. Is the gift something the person will LOVE?

Obviously, some of these things sort of cancel others out (i.e., a Fair Trade gift likely won't be made locally, but both are good criteria to keep in mind). And while the list is a bit long, it does become second nature after awhile. Over the years, I've found these criteria have served me well in picking gifts that are low on the environmental impact scale, high on the 'social impact' scale, AND well received. So where do you find gifts that fit these criteria? Sadly, it's not generally at your local department store. You'll either need to buy from sellers who have done the research for you, OR do the research yourself.

Our Favourite Sources for Gifts for Modern Homesteaders

There are a gazillion places to find gifts for rural living and homesteading, both online and offline. Here are a few ideas of products and suppliers I've found really helpful in my searches for the perfect gift:

For the Self-Sufficiency Fans, Preppers, Off-Grid Dwellers and Modern Homesteaders:

  • The Ready Store - One of the biggest resources for all things 'emergency' and preparedness. A gift from here would be appreciated by anyone working on improving their self sufficiency or emergency preparedness.
  • GrowVeg Garden Planner - One of the things about intensive gardening and succession planting that has always intimidated me is keeping track of everything, knowing what was planted where when, and remembering what worked and what didn't. GrowVeg to the rescue! This brilliant little online garden planning tool makes it all really easy. With a 30 day free trial and only $25 a year, it's peace of mind for any beginning food gardener who wants to be organized and get the most production from their plot.
  • Essential Oils Emergency First Aid Kit - Julie Behling-Hovdal at essentialsurvival.org has put together some brilliant mini essential oil kits for $22.95. These are trial sizes that will allow you to test out essential oils without investing in a more expensive kit right away. So smart, and so useful!!
  • Herbmentor.com - A veritable herbal medicine degree in one website! Video tutorials, recipes, forums, podcasts... Highly recommended for those aspiring herbalists on your list.
  • Lehman's - Lehman's started as a tiny hardware store employing 3 members of one family and is now the world's largest purveyor of historical technology. They ship old-fashioned, non-electric merchandise all over the world to a diverse customer base of missionaries and doctors working in developing countries, homesteaders and environmentalists living in remote areas, people with unreliable electricity living on islands and mountains, second home owners, hunters, fishers and cabin dwellers, the 'chronically nostalgic,' and even Hollywood set designers looking for historically accurate period pieces. The owner's goal was, and still is, to provide authentic, historical products to those seeking a simpler life. It's like a candy store for anyone who wants to reduce their reliance on electric appliances! I personally use the Pressure Handwasher (works great, but I concur with the reviewers on the site), and the Lehman's wringer (the person who wrote the one review there clearly doesn't know how to set up a hand wringer, because when secured properly, it works quite well). I've purchased a number of items from Lehman's over the last couple of years and have always been really happy with the customer service. For some nostalgic fun, check out the non-electric lighting options, hand cranked items, and non-powered laundry appliances! If you're at all interested in being even a little more self-sufficient, you could seriously spend hours poking around this website. It's my one stop shop for all things 'homesteading'.
  • Lee Valley Tools - All sorts of fun stuff for gardeners and woodworkers on your list.
  • Homesteader's Supply - HUGE variety of rural living products, from canning supplies to milk tools, to grain mills.
  • Real Goods - I remember the 'old' Real Goods catalog, which returned in the 1990s after disappearing during the excesses of the 1980s. This is the granddaddy (or grandmommy!) of all 'green gifts' catalogs. EVERYTHING you could imagine for the 'off-grid' home - from recycled door mats (in use at our cold storage door) and non-electric woodstove fans (currently whirring away on top of our woodstove), to composting toilets, tankless water heaters, and decor items, they've got it all. Maybe not the most romantic of Christmas presents, but there's nothing romantic about huge electric and water bills!
  • Etsy - Etsy is a treasure trove of hand-made eco-gift items that will fit absolutely anyone on your gift list. Gorgeous clothing, stunning, one-of-a-kind jewellery, decor items and whimsical bits and pieces that might be useless, but would look awesome in your loved one's home! You'll find a large percentage of the items on Etsy are 'green' - recycled materials, natural materials, hand made in North America... Plan to spend at least an hour (or two or three) looking around! And if you're a DIY-er, you'll find no shortage of ideas for gifts you can make yourself. Let your imagination run wild!
  • Rawganique - Organic cotton and hemp clothing and gorgeous organic home decor, bedding and linens. I've ordered from Rawganique many, many times over the last few years and love their products and customer service.

For the Children on Your List:

  • For a ton of ideas for quality, planet-conscious gift ideas, look no further than Green Child Magazine.
  • Natural Pod - Located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Natural Pod has a lovely inventory or gorgeous children's toys, craft items and games. The owners are wonderful people and stand behind their products - natural materials, safe finishes, and lots of 'made in North America' items. No plastic in sight!
  • Bella Luna Toys - Bella Luna Toys is a beautiful place to purchase quality, natural-material gifts for the children on your list. The toys are inspired by Waldorf education, and invite open-ended play that nurtures a child's imagination. Bella Luna is "committed to offering unique natural toys and products for children and families that are safe, healthy and encourage imaginative play. You will find no battery-operated or plastic toys here, the kind that will be played with for a short time before ending up in a landfill." 
  • Family Pastimes - Family Pastimes designs and manufactures cooperative games (all made in Canada). We've got a number of them for various ages and have enjoyed them immensely. Great for those nights when the power is out and you're gathered together around the table in a rare moment without all our modern distractions. Lots of fun, and foster teamwork at the same time.
  • Simply Merino - Simply Merino offers beautiful, quality merino wool clothing for children. So much better for them than synthetics or pesticide laden cotton.

Ideas from Our Facebook Friends:

We asked the gang on our Facebook page what sorts of things they would appreciate for Christmas - here's what they said (straight from the source!):

  • Fruit or nut trees - Maybe heritage varieties that do well in your local area?
  • Volunteer to help on their property for a day.
  • Seeds - Non-GMO, organic and if possible and suitable, heirloom.
  • Rain barrel or water collection system.
  • Food dehydrator (the Excalibur is well rated by users).
  • Rural living, homesteading or preparedness books and magazines - Search on Amazon, then purchase from your local bookstore.
  • Alternative energy supplies - If your budget is larger, ideas like small wind turbines or alternate power generators.
  • Mushroom spawn, spores and/or plugs for culinary mushrooms: Mushbox, The Mushroom Man, or Out-Grow are just a few (keep in mind there are 'other' types of mushroom kits out there - make sure you're seeking out the culinary ones).
  • Canning jars, or lids and rings. Use of equipment - If you own heavy equipment, the offer of their use for big projects you know your recipient needs completed.
  • Seed Saver Exchange membership.
  • Mini Green house.
  • Worm bin.
  • O'Keeffe's "Working Hands" cream.
  • Make/buy a solar oven.
  • Foxfire books.
  • Wood burning stove
  • Lee Valley Tools nail brush - Amazing for hands, produce - one of our readers keeps one at every sink in the house!
  • Composting bin.
  • Hand made gifts - useful or decorative or food items.
  • Cold frames.
  • Bring them breakfast and take on their morning feed/milk chores while they enjoy the oddity of no morning feed/milking.
  • Good advice in the form of small notes like recipes.
  • Land!
  • Home made coupons for helping do the work around their property: e.g., "Good for one flower bed weeding, one cleaning up the coop, one bringing the fire wood in, taking care of the critters one morning or evening, etc.
  • Good company, great conversation, shared food and shared work.
  • Gift cards to homesteading supply or hardware stores.
  • Tools and technical books.
  • A big coffee mug with different kinds of organic or locally grown tea packets.
  • Warm socks, wool sweaters, warm work gloves.
  • Pressure cooker/canner.
  • Hand powered appliances, like slicers, grain mills, etc.
  • A medicinal/preparedness goodie basket.
  • Solar chargers for phones, radios and appliances.

Some Other Ideas:

  • Spa gift certificates (for men too!) - Because rural living is hard on the hands and skin! 
  • Subscriptions to a local nature conservancy, wildlife agency or favourite magazine.
  • Knitting or crafting lessons - Skills that always come in handy on the homestead. 
  • Music or dance classes.
  • Membership to a local CSA (community shared agriculture), tool sharing group, local food group, etc.
  • Concert tickets.
  • Conference tickets to see a favourite guru or meet with fellow rural living fans.
  • A weekend away at a fancy B&B (with an offer to look after the livestock!) 
  • Get a website designed for someone with a gift to share with the world.
  • Use your imagination!

Gift giving for the self-sufficiency or 'green' set doesn't have to be boring - or difficult! And it can change a life if you pick the right one (think about how you can fulfill someone's dream, even in a small way). The ideas and resources listed here will set you on your way - the only danger is that you'll get so engrossed in all the options that you won't order in time for Christmas... ;o) Do you have other ideas for those rural dwellers/modern homesteaders/homesteading dreamers on your list? Please share them in the comments below! You might just inspire someone to change a life...

Raising a Child in the Country - 5 Reasons Why it Might be Right for Your Family

A boy and his roosterCome see what I built!

It was an invitation from my then almost-9-year-old son to visit the space he had built for himself to ‘get away from it all’.   He led me carefully through one of the many patches of undergrowth near our little cabin, thick with salmon berries just starting to bud with bright green leaves (and sticky thorns).  Then we came upon it – a tiny little hut, built with intricate layers of windfall branches and ferns, its entrance hidden by a particularly dense spray of hemlock.

It’s where I can lie and listen to the sounds of the forest, and the songs of the birds.”

And right then I knew my decision to leave our city life behind was the right one.

Our Journey from Subdivision to Townhouse to Log Cabin in the Woods

I always thought I'd move out of the city when I children joined my life.  I just didn't realize what a huge difference it would make to my son - or myself.

I grew up in a rural community – in a subdivision, mind you, but in a district where only 20,000 people lived along a narrow strip of land stretching 70 miles along the rocky coast.  Bears visited our backyard regularly, and we spent our weekends in the mountains, exploring abandoned logging camps and old First Nations villages, hiking to extinct volcanic craters, and riding dirt bikes in the empty lots down the street.  We learned all the native edible and medicinal plants, the names of all the trees towering above, and which wild birds like which sorts of native berries.  We fished, rode motorbikes, and got dirty.  In other words, we spent most of our waking hours outside.

When my son was born in 2003 and we ended up in a townhouse on a busy road in the city, all those amazing childhood experiences came flooding back - and I realized, sadly, that his life was going to be very different.  His school days would be interrupted by sirens and construction projects, he'd have to sidestep doggy doo (and other nasties) every time he went for a walk in the forest, and he'd never really know the joys of silence.  For his own memories' sake, I wanted him to know a summer day where all you can hear is crickets, the rustling of the wind in dry, tall grass, and the distant hum of a float plane buzzing to some far flung island.  The chance of experiencing any of that living in a townhouse?  Nada.

I loved so many things about our city, nestled between sea and mountain, but getting my little guy out into 'nature' was an more of an effort than I was able to pull off most days.  During my maternity leave, we'd hop on the bus and spend our days in the forest (with him on my back in a carrier) but once I went back to work, there just never seemed to be enough time.  Moving closer to the nature was out of the question - real estate in our part of the world is crazy at best - the average home price at the time was somewhere around $800K.  Decent townhouses closer to the forest on a quiet street?  About $600K.  So it was either noisy townhouse or the alternative - moving - and  I struggled with it every single day.

It was when he got a little older and I'd find him entranced by the comings and goings of ants and wood bugs that I decided that this child was born to be in the country.  He just oozed it.  His first word wasn't 'cat' or 'juice', but 'moon'.  So I started planning for a very different life... a life somewhere quieter where he could become who he was meant to be, without distraction.

Now, we could have moved anywhere, but it was important that my guy be close to his grandparents.  In other words, our choice was pretty simple - we moved back to my hometown, only a 40 minute ferry ride, but what felt like a world, away.  It was 2008, and I had no idea how I was going to make it work, but I'd been building my skill set for years and studying everything I could get my hands on that had anything to do with rural living, homesteading and the transition from city to country living.  Was I terrified?  Um... yeah.  But terror slowly turned to 'I can do this!', and we never looked back.

So here we are, just over 4 years later, well ensconced into a new/old life in the forest.  My son attends a Waldorf School surrounded by trees and streams, and right across a quiet country road from the beach.  He gets to see his grandparents pretty much every day - something I never experienced in my own childhood - and spends his non-school time listening to the wind in the trees, collecting and studying bugs and other critters, and communing with our flock of 20 chickens (17 hens and three roosters, to be exact).  And now that we've been here awhile, the benefits of the move are becoming clearer every single day.

The Benefits

First off, please know that I'm no child development expert and I can't tell you conclusively that living in the country is any 'better' than living in the city, as they both clearly have their pros and cons, but there are a few things I've observed over the past 4 years that I think are worth noting:

  1. Room to Run – This one goes without saying.  Children need to move and run and stretch their limbs in order for their physical and mental capacities to develop in a healthy way, and that's pretty difficult in a 1000 square foot apartment with a tiny rooftop deck.  They don't need a lot of space, but the simple joy of being able to move freely when the impulse strikes is a real treat to watch.  If my son wants to run across the yard on all fours, he can do that - without crashing into anything or stepping into anyone else's space (but chicken poop, maybe).
  2. Quiet for the Imagination – A big reason why we decided on Waldorf Education, and moved to a rural community, was this - the preservation, and development of, my child's imagination.  Not that imagination can't develop in the city, of course - some of our most brilliant people were raised in urban environments - but there's something about quiet, being in nature, that just invites creative thinking and problem-solving, especially for children who are sensitive.  With the challenges we're facing in the world, we need creative people, unencumbered by rigid or stunted thought processes and the distraction of 24/7 noise.
  3. Exposure to the Natural World – As you know, our planet is in somewhat of a crisis on the environmental front.  Species extinctions, systemic pollution, habitat loss... our children need to be connected to the natural world now more than ever.  If they don't feel like they're a part of the world around them, how can we expect them to care about it?  So your child spending quiet, extended time in nature benefits us all, and will for generations.  I simply can't see how my son would care anywhere near as much about the creatures of the world and its natural systems as he does if he didn't get to see and feel and touch them every day.
  4. No Billboards or In-Your-Face Marketing - This one is HUGE for me - there simply isn't anywhere near the bombardment of visual marketing as there is in the city, where every surface is covered with images talking our children into 'needing' things they don't really need at all, and doing things they really have no business doing.  Think about the effects of mainstream media and marketing on children, and then imagine what it would be like to not have that in your child's face every day.  It's liberating, and so much better because kids are left alone to be just that - kids.
  5. Time to be Together – I'm blessed to work from home, and I'm incredibly busy with my business, but I'm able to spend a lot more time with my son than I did when we lived in the city and I worked in an office, mostly by nature of the fact that we aren't spending hours in traffic every day, nor are we signed up for umpteen lessons and activities.  It's been incredibly freeing, and rewarding, to be able to spend time with him - even when I'm working and serving clients and he's just hanging out with the chickens or drawing pictures of trolls and eagles.  Child development expert Gordon Neufeld talks extensively about the importance of children being 'attached' to their caregivers and not their peers - it's much easier to do this when you can actually spend a lot of time together.

Of course, as with anything worth exploring, there are downsides, but in our experience, the great things that have come from our move out of the city far outweigh the negatives, which are, well, pretty much non-existent.  Sure sometimes it's a struggle to get everything done, the power goes out a lot, and we don't have any neighbours at all, let alone with children, so spontaneous play with other kids is sort of out of the question, but even with all that, I can't imagine living anywhere else.  I'll let Jonah wrap it up:  Why I Like Living in the Country

Are you planning a move to the country with your children?  Do you have any concerns or worries?  If so, leave us a comment on the blog or on Facebook to hear from others who've made the move and are loving it... it's a super supportive group and we love sharing what we've learned.  See you there!

Hens Raising Chicks - 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Start

hensraisingchicks 

That first little 'peep peep' from under the wing of your favorite hen, a chick the hen hatched, is something you'll never forget.

That sweet little face is the culmination of the hours and days and weeks that you've put into raising your backyard flock.  In our case, my son strangely knew exactly which of our 14 girls would be the first broody hen - it would be Lucky Wattles, he said, and he would name the first baby 'Pip'.  And so it was.

The Benefit of Broody Mamas

I wasn't sure I wanted to raise chicks this year.  Our hens are only slightly more than a year old and because they're pretty happy and healthy, we've likely got another year or so before their egg production begins to drop off (or so all the books say).  So when suddenly it was May and my son asked if we were still going to raise a small batch of chicks this year, I cringed a little.  No, a lot.  Not only do we not have room for a big brooder, but the idea of having to deal with thermometers and washing water founts every day made me want to run back to the city.  Well, not really, but you get the picture.

Now, conveniently, we had two hens go 'broody' right around that time.  I have to admit that I didn't do a lot of research - it was one of my rare 'dive right in' moments.  We stopped collecting eggs for a couple of days, crossed our fingers that some of them were fertilized courtesy of our big Buff Orpington rooster, and hoped for the best.

21 days later, we had our first chick.  A day later, another 2 sweet little fluffballs.  All tolled, we ended up with 6 live chicks from 14 eggs between the two hens - 2 babies died when their eggs were broken before they were ready to hatch, and the rest either didn't develop fully or weren't fertilized in the first place.

And now, 11 days post- the first hatch, everyone is doing great and we're well on our way to revitalizing our flock with new egg layer for next year.  That is if they're all hens, of course.

Lessons Learned

To say this has been an adventure is an understatement.  There are things I should have known before we started (like the challenges of having two mama hens with chicks in the same flock), and things I'm glad I didn't know (like the fact we'd find dead pre-hatchlings in the nest).  Mostly, it's been a great experience (my son loves it), but it's also been a lot of work.

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you decide to give your broody hens the opportunity to do what hens are meant to do.  It's not an exhaustive list, and I'm not an expert, but it's a good place to start!

  1. Separate the Hen(s) - In the days leading up to the eggs hatching, I asked experienced chicken raisers on our Modern Homesteading Facebook page what their best advice was regarding separating the broody hens from the rest of the flock.  As is always the case, we got a lot of different opinions.  What I learned was this: there is no one-size fits all solution.  What will work for you will depend on a number of things: the breed and size of your flock, the temperament of your birds, the size of your chicken house, your nest box set-up, how much time you have to keep an eye on your new additions, and so many other little details.  But in our case, I should have separated the hens when they started sitting on their egg clutches - not after the babies hatched.  What happened was that some of the other hens were hopping into the broody hens' nesting spots and depositing their eggs, which at first added more eggs to the clutch than I originally wanted (hence why we had two hens incubating the eggs - I couldn't tell which ones were the originals and which ones had been recently deposited), and necessitated me marking each of the 'sitting eggs' with an X.  Then when the babies started hatching, we lost a couple, I'm assuming due to other hens stepping around in the nest boxes in a way nowhere near as carefully as the broody mamas and cracking the egg shells before the chicks were ready to hatch.  I tried to keep them safe with chicken wire set up around those two nest boxes (with water and food there for the mamas), but it didn't work very well.  In the end, after the babies hatched, I set up one of those folding dog fences on the floor of the coop, configured into two compartments -  one for each new little family.  Unfortunately, that didn't work so well either, as the two hens were at each other through the wire fencing, knocking over their food and water in the process and stepping on the chicks.  The set up now is one pen using the dog fencing for one family, and a large dog crate for the other, complete with food and water.  Everyone seems happier (myself included).
  2. Smaller Clutches are Better than Large - Our Lucky Wattles started out sitting on 14 eggs.  That's WAY too much for a tiny little hen.  So instead of disposing of eggs, we moved 6 over to the other broody hen, Miss Snooty Pants (yes, we called her that for good reason), and hoped for the best.  Next time, we'll make sure to only allow a certain number of eggs in each clutch (I'm thinking 8 is a good number) - it increases the chances of successful incubation and I assume is much less stressful for the mama.
  3. Mama Hens Know What They're Doing - Compared to the constant diligence required when brooding chicks without a hen (or even more so, when incubating eggs in an incubator), letting hens look after eggs and chicks is a breeze.  There's no need for thermometers or brooding lamps (unless it's really cold), or showing the chicks where the water is - mama hen does all that and more.  Ours have been out free-ranging with their mamas since about Day 4 and it's fascinating to watch her show them what's edible, what's not, where the water is, and keeping them warm.  Bottom line?  Mama definitely does know best.
  4. Other Hens Can Be Nasty - I was warned (thanks Facebook friends!) that part of the reason for separating the  mamas and babies from the rest of the flock is because other hens can be brutal with chicks, even killing them.  Since I didn't really want that, I made an effort to keep them all separate.  But other people say that they just let the mamas defend the babies right from day one.  I'm not quite ready to risk a dead chick - not after all the work I've put into them - so I'll be waiting til the chicks are older, wiser, and bigger and can fend for themselves a bit.
  5. You Don't Necessarily Need Special Food - We're feeding non-medicated chick starter and free-ranging somewhat, but I've heard from a number of people that they have their chicks out free-ranging with the mama hen right from day 1 and don't use chick starter or any grit.  You'll need to assess how much food is available for them while free-ranging to determine if there's 'enough' for their quickly growing bodies.  As for me, I'd rather be safe than sorry and will continue to offer both to our 6 little cuties.  Note: chicks apparently can not eat layer mash, so it's important to ensure they don't have access to it.  Formulations for laying hens contain far too much in the way of minerals (calcium in particular) for chicks, so if you're not free ranging your babies or making your own feed, you'll need chick starter (preferably as 'natural' as possible, ideally 'organic', and if not, then at least non-GMO - it does exist).  Here's a relatively updated list of organic chicken feeds in the US and Canada:  Organic Chicken Feed Suppliers.

We've learned so much more than this, but these 5 points stick out as important for the first week or two.  We'll definitely keep you posted as things progress...

One of our Facebook friends said that there's nothing cuter than a mama hen out with her babies, showing them the world and clucking softly.  Now that I've experienced it first-hand and spent a lot of time out in the rain observing our new little 'families', I'd have to say I couldn't agree more.

Have you ever raised chicks with a hen doing most of the work?  Is there anything I missed in this article that you think would be important for new chicken raisers to know?  Are you new to this gig and have questions about hens raising chicks?  If so, share it in the comments below!  We'd love to hear your experiences!

Challenges & Benefits of Country Living - Part 1: The Challenges

A photo of Victoria GazeleyIf you can count on me for anything, it's to give you the straight goods on country living.   No fluff.

You're not going to find me waxing poetic about how la-de-da wonderful everything is every moment of every day - especially when it comes to the real benefits and challenges of living in the country.

Let me kick this off by making it super clear that I LOVE living in the woods.  I've been back here for 3-and-a-half years (after growing up in the area many moons ago), and I can honestly say that (at this point anyway) I never want to live in the city again.  Visit, for sure.  But to live full-time?  Absolutely not

But I can't help but feel for people who are seduced by books and articles and sometimes friends and acquaintances painting a ridiculously rosy picture of the rural life.  I'm sure we've all heard the stories of the city-dwellers who packed up everything and moved to the country, assuming they'd done their research, only to find they couldn't make friends, hated the neighbor's wayward cows, and spent too many hours commuting to their jobs, completely blowing their new found 'quality of life' right out of the water.

So today, I wanted to get my own list of challenges of rural living down 'on paper' (pros/benefits to follow in my next post).  If it helps even one person considering a move from the city to ensure their decision is the right one for them, I'll be happy!  Country living is amazing, but it's definitely not for everyone.  I definitely don't have all the answers - far from it - and I've made a very LONG list of my own mistakes.  That said, I hope this helps:

The Cons/Challenges/Drawbacks to Living in a Rural Community

This list is really hard for me to write, because I don't want to sound ungrateful (or like I know it all - I SO don't), but the truth is that for many folks used to city living, country living is a really foreign thing.  Very foreign!  Sometimes so foreign it drives them more than a little bonkers - or leaves them in tears.  Or divorced.

So without further ado, here are a few things I've found personally, and heard from others, about the things they found most challenging the first year or two after moving from city to country:

  1. Feeling like part of a community - Social circles in many small communities can be notoriously hard to break into.  I've met a lot of people who have moved to our community from the city who have said it was really challenging to make friends here.  The 'old-timers' can be suspicious of newcomers (sometimes with good reason), and a small group of recent transplants want to pull up the drawbridge behind them, shooting resentful rhetoric and angry glances to anyone who moves in after them.  I've also heard this is one of the big fears of many considering moving to a rural community.  The best way to get through this?  Volunteer.  Once you're settled, get out there and start donating a portion of your time and services to local social agencies, your children's school, or a food security group.  There's no better way to show you want to be part of a community than getting involved.
  2. Getting used to the quiet - and the new sounds - If you've lived in the city for any amount of time, and especially if you've never lived anywhere else, the relative quiet of the country can be enough to make you want to break out the white noise machine.  Say what you want about loud conversations and honking horns, but there's something reassuring about knowing there are other people about.  Those first few nights are going to be painful - don't count on sleeping much.  I spent my first few weeks here in a very sleep-deprived state thanks to all the unfamiliar thumps, bumps and 'woos' out in the black woods.  There's really no way to avoid this - your city nervous system will need some time to mellow out.  And mellow out it will!  Eventually, you'll be able to relax and enjoy the peace.
  3. Not being able to sleep in anymore (or go away for the weekend) once you have livestock - I have to be honest and say that this one kept us from adding chickens to our little homestead sooner than we did.  The idea of having to find someone to care for them every time we wanted to go away for more than a few hours sort of put the kaibosh on my self-reliance plans for awhile.  But then we found a solution - co-parenting!  I guess you could call it co-op livestock.  We found friends who wanted to share in the cost and responsibility and voila, we were egg farmers!  OK, it wasn't quite that easy, but knowing we've got built-in chicken sitters made the decision a whole lot easier.  My parents also help out since my Dad's sawmill is just down the road from us and he's there pretty much every day.  We all share in the eggs, and sell the excess to pay for the feed.  Win-win all around.  Now if we were talking cows or goats, the story  might be different, but I can't see why it wouldn't work with the right mix of people and critters.
  4. Distance from medical facilities - This is something a lot of people don't think about.  Unless you're a master herbalist, aromatherapist, paramedic, doctor or trained in the military (or maybe even if you are), you're likely going to need a doctor every once in awhile.  And if you've got children, elderly parents, or a medical condition that requires regular care, you'll want to ensure you have access to appropriate medical facilities.  Every day I read about people complaining about lack of medical facilities in the communities they've recently moved to.  This is something you'll absolutely want to check out ahead of time.
  5. Much reduced entertainment opportunities - We're so lucky - we're close enough to the city to have world-class musicians, theatre and other arts performances make their way across the water to play here.  We've even got a number of the super famous who actually live in our communities (not that we see them often - they come here to get away from their flocks of admirers... it's a great place for that, disappearing).  We've got two movie theatres (in two different communities), a couple of video rental places (because the internet speed can be far too slow - or throttled - to watch streaming video), poetry readings, dances, art shows, galleries, sports teams, studios, top-notch restaurants - there's no shortage of things to do.  I remember when we first arrived, thinking, "What on earth are we going to do here?"  But that's never, ever been a problem.  Smaller communities may not have the huge variety of opportunities, but even the tiniest town has dances and social events, touring musicians and farmers' markets.  And if there is nothing - there's your opportunity to start something!
  6. Bugs - I lived in the city for 22 years.  And in that time, I forgot what mosquitoes were.  There just weren't any buzzing around the townhouse.  And then I came back here.  Holy moly, those suckers are big!  And they're nothing here compared to some parts of the country.  What does this mean?  We can't eat dinner outside in summer without a screen tent - or some sort of bug zapper that we haven't yet invested in.  Great for the chickens and bats, not so great for our social life.  Good thing we've got our essential oils now to ward of the blood sucking beasts!
  7. Power outages - It goes without saying that country life means power outages.  More trees means more potential for downed or shorted out lines.  And less population means fewer available staff, and let's face it, lower priority, when a big storm blows through the region.  You can plan for this with alternate power and/or light and heat sources, emergency food stores, and knowing what parts of the area are less likely to experience power outages.  Here, we just happen to be on the trunk that goes out every time the wind blows.  And no, I didn't check that out before we moved.  Wish I would have!
  8. Fending off wildlife - Some areas have more of an issue with this than others, but most rural homesteads will experience run-ins with wildlife.  Add livestock, and the ante is upped.  Here we have birds of prey (hawks, mostly), black bear, coyotes, weasels, mountain lion and apparently wolves moving back into their historic ranges.  Then there are the marauding elk, and the deer (which all of the other predators are feeding on), and the smaller critters like mice and squirrels that can do incredible damage if left unchecked.  My own feeling on this is that the wildlife has as much right to be here as we do, and that my plunking ourselves down in amongst them, with yummy-smelling livestock penned and fenced and sitting 'ducks', and warm homes for the smaller creatures to nest in, we're taking on a huge responsibility to keep everyone safe.  I know a lot of people will just shoot any predator or pest on their property, rather than work through deterrence programs and securing their livestock properly.  I know it won't make me popular to say this, but when you put your family and livestock on a rural property, it's your job to keep everyone safe - and that includes the indigenous creatures (unless they are creatures you can add to your food stores, of course - that's different...).  If you keep finding wild snakes in your henhouse, it's time to secure the henhouse, not keep shooting the snakes.  Native snakes have an important place in the ecology of your local area.  Just sayin'...
  9. Lack of rural living skills - I think it's pretty clear that if you can't split firewood, have a black thumb, or have trouble dispatching a chicken if it's mortally injured or on it's last legs, then homesteading can prove pretty challenging.  I say this as someone who still has very few rural living skills, at least compared to someone who has been doing this for years.  Sure I can split shakes, pile firewood, wash clothes without electricity, know the habits of our local predators and am taking a Permaculture Design Course - but there's so, so much to learn!  I haven't yet had to dispatch a chicken (the coyote did that for me, unplanned, of course), and I've yet to put away a full winter's worth of food in a root cellar, but I fully intend to learn how - and soon.  But let's not despair and think it all hopeless - the great news is that there are literally thousands of books, magazines, YouTube videos and websites devoted to exactly this - teaching rural living skills to newbies.  I've had the pleasure of experiencing many of them, and I know will be connecting with many more.  But the best teacher, I have to say, is experience.  We just need to get out there and do it, no matter how freaky it is to our urban sensibilities.
  10. Making a living - When I talk to prospective 'modern homesteaders', this is the challenge that comes up most often.  How to do it and not starve.  Or without having to give up some of our favorite things.  Personally, I've been able to do this in a way that works for us (though I'm still working out the kinks), putting my corporate experience to work in my own web and design business, run via satellite internet from my little cabin in the woods.  Others have one partner commuting to a 'regular' job while the other gets the homestead under way.  The key here is to be open to new ideas, take an inventory of your skills, and continually invest in your future.  If you choose to start your own business, get an experienced mentor, try to do it without too much (or any) debt, but most of all - set the fear aside and go for it!

The Wrap-up

Moving to the country is a huge step on the way to a more self-reliant life.  And it's absolutely not for everyone.  But those of us with 'the bug', it's a dream we just can't shake.  With this list, we can make sure we've poked and prodded the decision from every angle, so we know in our hearts it's the right one when we do put that down payment on that dream property.

Next time we'll get to the good stuff - the benefits of rural living!

Did we miss any challenges?  Do you know anyone who moved to the country but just couldn't take it?  We'd love to hear your stories in the comments below - your experiences might just help someone avoid a HUGE mistake!  Or better yet, encourage them to finally make the move...

How to Add a Rooster to Your Flock

Tom Wattles 

Adding a cockerel (rooster) to your existing flock of hens is one of those things where you'll find almost as many different opinions as there are chicken breeds!  It's a passionate subject, and one that I had the opportunity to delve into recently.

In the fall of 2010, a post came across our local Freecycle group looking for a home for a beautiful young Buff Orpington rooster.  He'd been part of a larger flock that included a number of roosters, most of whom had ended up in the stew pot - save for this guy, and his infinitely more aggressive coop-mate.  At the time, I seriously considered bringing him home, to the point of contacting the owner and making arrangements to go out for an introduction.

But things just didn't gel and we never did make it out to the farm to see him. 

Then a couple of months later, the post came over Freecycle again.  He was still looking for a home.  And my research background kicked into high gear.

I spent an entire day, maybe two, researching rooster behaviour, flock behaviour and the best way to introduce a rooster to an existing group of hens.  Visited probably 20 different websites and forums - all with really valid and experienced advice on the best way to accomplish the task successfully (and safely for all involved).  But the best wisdom came from our Facebook page - I can't thank everyone there enough!  (If you haven't had a chance to join us there, do!  We've got a fantastic group of people from all walks of life and stages of 'self-sufficiency' - newbies, will-be's, and incredibly experienced folk: facebook.com/modernhomesteading).

After a number of questions and a lot of reading, we decided to take the plunge. 

I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't a bit nervous.  In my research, I'd come across some horror stories of roosters who were way too aggressive for the hens, and hens that literally 'hen-pecked' their new gentleman caller til he had to be removed to save his life.  Life with chickens isn't always pretty.  But I decided to swallow that fear and take the plunge into the world of roosters and having an intact flock of birds living as nature intended.  Well, sort of like nature intended - as much as can be realistically recreated in a backyard type arrangement.

Why Have a Rooster?

There are numerous reasons to have a rooster as part of your flock.  Some people thought we were crazy for wanting to bring a rooster on board, and many others were excited for us as we took this further step towards 'self-reliance'. 

These are the reasons we wanted a rooster: 

  1. After losing a hen to a coyote because she wandered far away from the flock, we thought having a rooster to keep the girls 'rounded up' would be advantageous.
  2. A good rooster will apparently throw himself between the hens and a predator, essentially sacrificing himself for the good of the flock.  Not that I want to sacrifice our gorgeous guy, but hens are a big time and sometimes financial investment - losing just one is a big deal (at least to me).  And roosters are just tougher, generally speaking.
  3. Once a good rooster is present, the hens can settle into more of a relaxed state because they no longer have to be hyper-vigilant about keeping an eye out for predators.  They've got someone else to do that job now.  Not that we want them to get totally complacent, but having them not beating each other up on a regular basis was a definite plus in our eyes.
  4. We plan to renew our flock with a few new chicks every year - this way, the flock becomes self-sustaining to a degree.  I do need to do more research in this regard as to how the genetics work after the first year (we're still new at this), but for 2012, we now have that capacity.
  5. There's just something about a rooster on a homestead.  Many people can't stand the sound of a rooster's crowing, but I love it.  (Yes, even at 4:30 a.m.)

How We Did It

Now, after assessing all the pros and cons and determining our reasons for wanting a rooster were valid and reasonable, here are the steps we took to introduce our 'Tom Wattles' successfully to our girls:

  1. Determine a Good Fit:  First off, the rooster in question had to be a good fit for our existing flock of hens - and for our family.  In this case, we knew he wasn't overly aggressive (he'd lost the battle with is coop-mate), had a gentle disposition, and was slightly older than our 14 hens (they were 7 months at the time, he was 9).  I'd read that younger roosters can be ripped to shreds if introduced to older hens, especially if the rooster is on the docile end of the spectrum, so it was important to me that any rooster we brought into the flock was able to hold his own and exert dominance without being overly aggressive).  The breed mattered as well - Buff Orpingtons are known as a more 'personable' breed, so that fed into our decision as well, as my son does a lot of our chicken care, and it was important to me that the rooster was gentle and not aggressive to children especially, but to humans in general.  Also, when we visited him at his original home, it was clear he was well cared for and healthy.  We were able to get a full history on his health and behaviour, which allowed us to determine if he was a good fit.  We decided he was perfect!
  2. The First Night:  We brought him home that first day in a big cardboard box in the back seat of the car.  The whole process was pretty calm.  He was super gentle and allowed my son to collect him out of the box to transfer him to his temporary quarantine pen inside my son's 'fort'.  We provided him with a bit of scratch and a dish of water, as well as a towel covering up the tarp we'd put on the floor.  Not ideal, probably, but he was safe for his first night with us.  Hearing him crow that next morning was so wonderful!
  3. Quarantine:  In my research, I'd read many experienced people making it very clear that quarantine of new birds was absolutely essential.  The advice went from 72 hours to assess disease to 30 days of isolation from the existing flock.  We decided on something to the lower end of the scale, mostly because we didn't have a secure 'extra' coop to house him in for 30 days.  He stayed in my son's fort (the only other place on the property that is secure from weasels) for 5 nights, and was moved to our portable run during the day.  We located the portable run about 50 feet from the coop and run where the girls were and they spent 5 days eyeballing each other across the lawn... or rather what's left of the lawn now that the chickens have had their way with it for the last few months!  This went really well, even through a coyote ambush where our new guy got his first taste of life in our little hollow - including a few lost tail feathers.  He definitely knows what to look for now! 
  4. Checking for Disease and/or Mites:  The quarantine period allows us to watch our new bird for any signs of illness - runny 'nose', sneezing, droopiness, etc., as well as checking him for mites.  I was pretty sure he didn't have any of these things, but I'm glad we took that time.  Some more cautious chicken-raisers warned that some illnesses don't show up in a few days, but rather a few weeks - and that anything less than a 30 day quarantine is asking for trouble.  This may absolutely be true in many cases.  But in our case, we visited the flock that this guy came from, and I trusted the owners when they said that the flock was not ill and had not been ill and showed no signs of illness of any kind.  Sure, some illnesses don't show signs right away, but their birds aren't located near any other flocks, and while yes, I'm sure there was a chance of something 'getting through', I was comfortable in what my research had turned up and in our decision.  So we watched him closely, gave him two dust baths with diatomaceous earth (which was a bit of a challenge, but I think it worked), and planned the big introduction.
  5. Introductions:  On Day 6, we decided it was time to get these birds all together.  So on the advice of numerous experts, we waited til nightfall, carried 'Tom' into the coop when all the girls had taken to their roosts for the night, and popped him up on a roost by himself (across from the others).  Then we waited.  It was fascinating - first of all, he looked a bit flummoxed by the whole thing, like he couldn't believe his good fortune... all those girls!! (Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but it's hard not to).  Then came all the calls and sounds we'd never heard the hens make.  After 10 minutes or so, we locked up the coop for the night and crossed our fingers that when we came out in the morning, we wouldn't find a rooster massacre.
  6. Monitoring:  The next morning it was like he had never not been there - just like everyone said would be the case.  We monitored them over the next few days, ensuring there wasn't going to be any bloodletting by the hens, but everything was pretty sedate - save for the first day when one of the hens decided she wasn't having anything to do with him, and expressed her displeasure by taking a swipe at his comb and wattles (to the point of blood - it was a bit of a mess... but we cleaned him up and all was well).  We watched the dominant hens settle down into a new, more relaxed state (there was less fighting among them and less picking on the lower-level hens), and all seemed well.  We did this for 4 days to allow for the rooster to get used to the idea that the coop and run was 'home', and to cement his role as the dominant member of the flock.  And then we let them out to range late one afternoon

It was quite the process, and I'm grateful to everyone who shared their expertise on the subject.  Here's a video of them all together that first day:

Episode 43 - Our Rooster's First Day with His New Flock from Victoria Gazeley on Vimeo.

The Wrap-Up

Now, three weeks later, we've seen that Tom is quite the gentleman, collecting food for his first harem and proudly caring for them when they're free ranging.  He's not overly aggressive when it comes to mating, and seems to have settled into his role as the protector of the flock.  All in all, a great experience!  If we hadn't done our research, the outcome could have been very different.  You can check out our chicken videos for updates about Tom Wattles and his girls...

Have you ever introduced a rooster to an existing flock of chickens?  How did it go?  We'd love to hear any advice you have to share in the comments below.