Johnston Backyard Farm


Candance JohnstonMoving Hillary, Aileen and Lulu out of their brooder and into the coop with our big girls started stressing me out several weeks before the actual event. I knew the establishment of the pecking order might be pretty rough and I had visions of my babies not being allowed to hang out with the established flock and totally getting their feelings hurt. So, I started doing research to find out how to make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone.

I’m a big fan of research. I research everything. I seriously just spent the better part a day researching the best blow dryer to buy after mine broke on vacation. Research is my friend. Except for when it isn’t. As I searched articles, community pages and Facebook posts it became abundantly clear to me that I had way bigger things to worry about than my little girls not being allowed to be part of the in-crowd. I had to worry about things like them not being allowed to eat and drink. Or not being allowed to sleep in the roost.

Or being viciously attacked and getting their eyes pecked out by the other girls. What the what?

I was not okay. I started rehearsing how I was going to tell my boss I needed a week off work so I could make sure the introductions between my chickens went okay and I’d be home to intervene should it morph into a mean girls situation. I even started giving the babies pep talks and telling them they were small, but mighty, so they needed to stick together and stand up to the older girls. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little nuts.

Then it occurred to me: The big girls still didn’t like the new coop and the baby girls would have to stay in it for a few days so they would know it was home. I’d seen articles that suggested letting the old and new chickens see each other but not be able to get to one another to help with the transition, so maybe locking Hillary, Aileen and Lulu in the run for about a week would help ensure no one lost an eye.

My husband and I moved the babies into the coop on a Friday afternoon and we watched and waited. Other than a few glances to see what was in the building they sometimes walked through, the big girls paid the littles absolutely no attention and the littles were so busy exploring their new home, they couldn’t have cared less about the big ones.

But, I didn’t count it as a win yet. The littles were going to have to come out to free range and eventually everyone was going to have to share a coop. We planned the introduction to free ranging together for the following Saturday when we had a lot of yard work to do and would be with them all day. I held my breath when we opened the run to let them out and the older girls sauntered over to check them out. Other than the occasional peck or scolding if one of them got too close to something a big girl had or had something a big girl wanted, it was largely uneventful. No one lost an eye and everyone was allowed to eat and drink, so I was a happy chicken mama.

All the girls free ranging

A couple of weeks later, we tore down the old coop and forced them to live together. That has really been the most challenging part of the merge. Because Hillary, Aileen and Lulu fully understand they are at the bottom of the pecking order, they won’t go up through the same door at night as the big girls. I have to open a side door that leads directly into the roost and they climb a little ladder and get in the corner where they sleep. Sometimes I hear some arguing as they all settle in for the night, but I have managed to stop being a helicopter chicken mom enough to just walk away and let them work it out.

I’ve also noticed that the little girls are starting to get more brave. Like, when we bring treats for everyone. They used to not even try to grab a worm or some watermelon because they knew they would be run off. Now they get in the fray and do a pretty good job holding their own — even if it’s just taking off running with whatever is in their mouth until they can hide and eat. I guess maybe being at the bottom of the pecking order isn’t so bad when you’re younger, thinner and faster!

The Great Chicken Coop Battle

Candance JohnstonMy husband and I first started our little flock of chickens almost three years ago. We seriously had no idea what we were doing — and that is evident in the building of our first coop. I actually decided I was going to build it on my own using all upcycled materials and a plan I found online. As it turns out, I can read a lot of things really well, but building plans are not among them. I also have no idea about what type of wood should be used for what type of projects and I’m not as handy as I like to tell myself I am with power tools. Nathan ended up coming home after a long week of work on the road to a well-intentioned wife and a big, basically useless pile of wood in the backyard.

He did the best he could with what he had and our lack of knowledge about coops and the girls have enjoyed a pretty sturdy home these last few years. I mean, really, they run the backyard all day and only go in to sleep and lay eggs, so it’s not like they needed anything too fancy.

But, now that we’re expanding our homesteading efforts and have added three more girls to the flock, their old house wouldn’t suffice anymore. It was time for an upgrade. This time, armed with more knowledge about chicken raising and my complete lack of construction skills, we decided to do things the right way and get something pre-fabricated from Tractor Supply that could be put together in under an hour.

Nathan and I are polar opposites. We’ve already established I am not good at building things. I’m the person in the family who handles anything that requires paperwork, research or reading. He’s the fixer and builder. Unfortunately for him, when it comes time to fix and build things, I am the only helper he generally has. And, if what we’re building and fixing has instructions, I believe they should be read prior to starting and then followed step-by-step throughout the process. He believes we should just wing it because “it isn’t that hard.” He also believes I should know all the names of tools and understand the construction terms he throws out for me to complete pronto. Then I yell at him I’d like to see him diagram a sentence or explain the theme to some piece of literature he’s never read. It goes back and forth like that for hours.

Even on projects that are supposed to be completed in under an hour — like the chicken coop.

We bickered back and forth over which screws went where (he would’ve totally known if he’d read the instructions), the placing of the roof tiles, how the nesting boxes were supposed to be set up and just about everything else that went into the building of the coop. Then we bickered about where to place it in the yard (I’m still not sure I like it, but that’s another battle for another day). Our next door neighbors already aren’t big fans of ours and I’m sure after listening to all that for close to three hours they say very earnest prayers each night that we will move very soon!

After lot of struggling, arguing, and one very wicked sunburn, we finally got it put together. Even though it took us way longer than the box said it would, I do have to say, it’s the cutest little coop ever.

New Coop

I just know the girls will love living in it — once we can finally convince them to do more than just walk around in the run for snacks and then return to their old shanty for egg laying and sleeping.

A Peaceful Place

Candance JohnstonMy peaceful moments are pretty rare. Not that I have a miserable life or I’m completely unhappy. Like forty zillion other people, I get up four days a week, commute an hour to a high stress job where I start working the minute I sit down at my desk and usually don’t stop until I finally get up to leave, trying to meet what oftentimes feels like completely impossible deadlines. Then I get back in my car and commute an hour/hour and a half home. By the time I reach my house, I have just enough energy to feed the animals, warm up a bowl of whatever leftovers are in the fridge and collapse into bed around 8:30.

For the last few months, my Friday work-from-home days are really all that have kept me going because that commute is exhausting. I'm not complaining, though (even though it really sounds like it). It's all part of adulting and, as most adults know, adulting isn’t the most fun. But, my bills are paid and I am employed, which is more than a lot of people have right now. So, even though it’s not the greatest situation, I’m thankful. And super excited because now I have one more thing to look forward to at the end of the week.

Spring is springing in Texas.  The days are warm and longer, and that means through September my weekends will be spent in my peaceful place: my little backyard "farm.”

I don’t think I realized how much I missed being outdoors and really spending a lot of time with my plants and animals until we had our first beautiful weekend a few weeks ago.  I spent almost 12 hours outside getting my garden beds ready and tilling up a large section of the yard so we can expand our garden and have the "farm" we've wanted for a couple of years. I’ve never tilled anything in my life and that is seriously hard work! It hurt to close my hands for like three days and my blisters were pretty darn impressive — but so was my handy work with the tiller! 

My first time tilling.

I turned the soil in all my raised beds and tore down the chicken wire that did nothing to keep my chickens out of the beds. My husband, Nathan, and I replaced it with a real chicken proof design, complete with a door so I can actually get into the bed to pick my produce and weed. We were even able to plant our produce that has an early spring harvest:

One (hopefully) chicken proofed raised bed.

Our girls were determined to "help” us with our projects and ran themselves ragged getting treats out of the garden beds and tilled section of the yard. Garden prep time is always their favorite time of year because it's a bug and worm free for all.

Our backyard chickens having a treat.

We also decided it was probably time to add to our flock since we seem to have a handle on this chicken raising thing, so a trip to the feed store for one thing resulted in bringing home three new little ladies. I’m sure introducing them to our older girls will be quite an adventure, but it’s a challenge I (sort of) look forward to.

Our baby chicks getting used to their new brooder.

I worked harder that first day out than I ever have getting our yard spring ready. My Fitbit said I got almost 16,000 steps, climbed something like 14 floors and walked over six miles. By the time I got in the shower, I was so exhausted, I really wondered if I was going to be able to stay awake long enough to get all the dirt and manure out of my hair.

But you know what? I wasn't stressed. I wasn't beat down. I didn't feel like I'd worked all day and hadn’t done anything that will improve the world. I was outside doing things that will reduce my carbon footprint, allow me to raise healthy, chemical free food for my family and I worked with my husband to build something we can be proud of.

For me, that’s the biggest reward of the work we did that first weekend: I'm proud of what I accomplished — of what my husband and I accomplished together.

I was finally back in my element and I felt the peace that I’d been missing for so long.

That sense of peace makes all the other, hard stuff a little easier to bear.