A little bit of kindness and a tiny chicken

Let me be crystal clear: I didn’t NEED any more chickens.  Cluckingham Palace is currently home to 11 laying chickens, 1 lavender turkey hen, and, of course, Arthur of Camelot.  I currently collect more eggs than I can personally use, and I’ve been pretty open about the fact that eggs cost more to raise than to buy.

I know all of these things, but I have a mild case of chicken math disorder…which is basically a psychological disorder, and every Spring I seem to manage to fill up a brooder.  There are some very reasonable arguments for doing so.  (Chickens lay fewer eggs as they age.  If you free-range, it is understood that you will lose an occasional hen to predators, etc.)  But, when you get right down to it,  I know that the real reason I keep buying chickens is that I like having chickens hanging around and that itty-bitty chicks are basically the cutest things ever in the history of all time; all of the other reasons are ancillary.

I had debated ordering chicks from mypetchicken again this year–I’ve been wanting a few rare breeds for several years that I know I can get through a hatchery order–but all of that went out the window when I walked into my feed store and realized that they had ordered in more than a dozen different types of chick this year.

You see, as it turns out, I have no real self-control.  Though I admirably resisted all of the cute, little fluffy-butts the first time I saw them, it couldn’t last.  A couple of weeks later, I made the mistake of going in to pick up feed while I was having a bad day; I left the store with two chick crates (10 chicks).

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Chicks Riding Shotgun

Chicks require special care for about a month and a half.  It usually takes about six weeks for chicks to lose the fluff and grow their adult feathers.  Until then, they have to live away from the other chickens and be kept warm and safe.  For my chicks, that means living in my basement for at least that first six weeks.  I settled my new chick-kids into their brooder that afternoon with lots of food, clean water, bedding, and appropriate heat lamps.

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I don’t worry much about my adult chickens.  Though I have an occasional issue–and I’m lucky enough to have a vet who will treat poultry–chickens tend to be pretty hardy.  Chicks are another matter entirely.  They are sensitive to heat, cold, changes in food, and stress.  Issues can arise pretty quickly, and they can be hard to successfully treat.  So, when I found one of my chicks acting lethargic about a day and a half later, I didn’t waste time.

It was already late when I found little one, but, despite the hour, I picked her up out of the brooder and took her upstairs with me.  She had “pasty butt” which can be a symptom of a bigger issue or the issue itself, so I cleaned her up, offered her some water, and tucked her into my shirt so I could keep her warm and keep an eye on her at the same time.  I didn’t want put her back in the brooder for fear that the other chicks would pick on her (it’s common for them to pick on sick birds), so I held her next to me, occasionally dipping her beak in water so she could drink and hoping she would take a turn for the better.

The two of us watched Netflix until I almost couldn’t keep my eyes open, and at three am, I put her back in her brooder, a small towel around her to give her some space from the other chicks.

The next morning, I awoke groggy and later than usual, but I went downstairs to check on my little one first thing.  She was still hanging on, but had pasted over again.  I picked her up, brought her upstairs, and cleaned her up again.  Then she and I settled into my couch for the morning.

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I would read between offering her water or food.

She would occasionally perk up.  The cats would act incredulous that I had a chick on their couch.

I called off work to stay with her, and I spent the morning with her, letting her bask in the sunlight.  I took a quick break from my reading and her basking to attend to my barn, but beyond that, I held her for most of the day.

That evening, I asked my sister to come over to “chick sit” so I could do my second round of barn chores.  God bless her, she came and sat on my bed holding a baby chicken for about an hour while I took care of things outside.  By then I wasn’t optimistic about the little one’s chances, but I didn’t want her to be alone.

Little one passed that evening.  She was warm and safe.  She hadn’t been picked on by the other chicks.  She hadn’t died of dehydration.  She had known what it was like to bask in the sunshine.

You get used to losing animals when you do what I do.  Or, rather, maybe you don’t entirely get used to it, but you learn to accept it.  With little one, I had honestly resigned myself to losing her fairly early on–I knew pretty well what was coming–but I had made the decision to keep holding her and to keep trying anyway, because it was the right thing to do, and I believe that matters.

In my mind, kindness matters.  It matters no matter how loud or how quiet it is.  Kindness matters every time it’s given, whether to a person or a stray dog or a dying chick.  And it matters even when it doesn’t make a “real” difference in how things turn out.

The fact that little one knew what it was like to bask in the sunshine matters.  I really believe that.  I think that every good thing makes the world a better place.  Every act of kindness, no matter how very, very small, no matter how insignificant it may seem, makes the world a little kinder.

In a world where you can be anything, please be kind.

 

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Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs

 

Let’s be honest.  You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.

They free-range.

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They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.

Each one has her own little personality and habits.

These chickens spend their days meandering around the pastures.  They dust bathe.  They eat kitchen scraps in addition to their feed and their homemade scratch.  In short, they spend their day  (and their lives) being chickens and doing chickeny things.

I’ve found when most people think of chickens, they think of chickens like mine, scratching and pecking and chickening to their hearts content in green fields and deeply bedded, comfy coops.

But most chickens, whether raised for egg-laying or meat production, will never see a comfy coop or a green field.

The average cost of a dozen eggs at the supermarket is $1.41, so I understand why some people have sticker shock when their local farmers charge between $4 and $6 a dozen.  But, as they say, you get what you pay for.

The reason those store bought eggs are so cheap?  Confinement.  Most egg laying chickens, even today with a grass-roots push towards “cage free” eggs, live their lives in battery cages with almost no space: 67 square inches according to The Humane Society.  (That’s less than the space covered by a piece of letter-sized paper.)  Each cage holds five to ten birds and lends to a high rate of injury for the animals.  They can’t even flap their wings, let alone walk around.  Even “cage free” doesn’t really mean they have adequate space or outdoor access, but we’ll get into labels later.

These hens have short lives and are never allowed to be chickens.  On their hatch day, they are sexed.  The males, an estimated 6 billion of them annually who are useless to the egg industry, are deposed of, usually gassed or put through a grinder (yes, alive).  The females are beaked (meaning part of their beaks are cut or burned off without anesthetic to disallow pecking of other nearby hens or pulling out feathers), a painful procedure that causes great distress.  After being beaked, the hens will spend the rest of their lives struggling to properly eat.   Then, they are confined.  They cannot perch, dust bathe, or exercise.  Ever.  (For comparison, sit down cross-legged; now imagine that you have to stay there, like that, for the rest of your life.)  When they are at the end of their egg laying cycles, they are starved for 7-14 days and go through a forced molt that will cause them to lay again for just a little while longer before they are killed.  (The forced molt is linked to higher instance of salmonella due to the hen’s compromised physical state, so it is in neither the consumers best interest nor the hens’…just the best interest of the company.)

A chicken can naturally live 7-10 years.  Egg industry chickens survive maybe 3 egg laying cycles.

Why am I telling all of you this?  Honestly, it’s because I love animals, including chickens, and, for the most part I know that the people who read this blog love animals too.

Also, I like to eat eggs, and that’s ok.  Consuming eggs is not inherently tied to these immoral practices. There are steps you can take to ensure that your eggs come from happier, healthier hens.

  • Know your egg carton labels.
    • If you must buy grocery store eggs, strive for cartons labeled “Animal Welfare Approved.”  Usually these are organic eggs, and to get the label, the farmers must provide outdoor access (for specific amounts of time and with specific conditions) and enough room to perch, nest, and spread their wings.  Beaking is prohibited, as is forced molting.
    • Other labels related to animal welfare (from best to worst though all of these are better than not) are “pasture raised,” “USDA Organic, “free-range” or “free-roaming,” and “cage free.”
  • Buy Local!!!
    • Your local farmers’ market, farm stand, or chicken-obsessed neighbor are your very best egg sources.  Our pastured hens are happier and healthier.  The eggs are higher quality and so much more fresh! (Did you know that the eggs on the shelf at the grocery are usually a month old before they get to the store?  Gross!!!)  Many farmers’ market farmers bring photos of their hens living conditions and are happy to discuss animal welfare.  Ask and you shall see!  I promise if you make the switch to eggs from small production farms, you won’t regret it.

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  • Raise your own happy, healthy hens!
    • Don’t get me wrong, chickens are a lot of responsibility and keeping them should be entered into with your eyes wide open, but they are such fun, and it is wonderful to know EXACTLY how the hens who lay your eggs are treated, what they eat, and how they live. If you have questions about what that takes, shoot me an email or follow Almost Farmgirl on Facebook and connect (there’s an easy-peasy link at the bottom of your page).

There are so many happy healthy hens around whose owners would be thrilled to sell you eggs.  Of course, eggs from our hens costs more, because we give our hens the food and space and conditions that allow them to thrive.  Some of us even allow our layers to live into their natural  old age, long past their egg laying usefulness.  (I will gladly pay to feed my chickens into their useless years!)

The lives of most of these animals is short and miserable.  But it doesn’t have to be.  We can do better.  We can be better.  And it can start with you.

Want to learn more?  Check out these resources/references:

And, from the archives:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trouble with Turkeys

Do you guys remember my three little turkey peeps from last year?  The ones we rescued from the feed store when it became clear that they were quickly destined to be dinner?

We lost one little peep (my favorite) to his birth defect.  We lost another to a predator.

But one of the little peeps survived.

And he isn’t so little anymore.

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Arthur

Meet Arthur of Camelot.

(You know, because llamas are camelids, and he lives with them…Aren’t we clever?)

He is a year old, nearly fifty pound, broad-breasted Tom.

Being a broad breasted turkey, Arthur is basically a mutant, but he’s our mutant, so we love him.  He spends his days wandering around, looking pretty, gobbling about how impressive he is, and also following Jeremiah and I around while we do chores, requesting clover flowers and chest scratches.

After he lost both his friends, I sort of panicked that he would be lonely, so I searched online for a couple of pet turkeys.  (I’m realizing that that sentence says more about who I am than almost anything I’ve ever written on here…)

I found these two. In keeping with our Camelot theme, I named them Guinevere and Morgana.

Unlike Arthur, they are a heritage breed (Blue Slate), so I don’t have to worry about them outgrowing their own skeletal system, which, frankly, is a relief.

Of course, Arthur never really bonded with them and, instead, thinks he’s an alpaca who happens to gobble a lot.

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Arthur in the stall with his old men llamas.

And the Blue Slates never really bonded with him either.  In fact, they don’t seem to know they aren’t chickens.

So, I guess my mission to find friends for Arthur kind of failed.

I ended up with three completely useless, but kinda cute, birds that I never really planned on.  I nicknamed them “the three most useless creatures on the farm,” and just accepted their gobble-y little selves for what they were…

But, it turns out, I had it all wrong.  They aren’t so useless at all.

A few weeks ago, Jeremiah and I were standing in front of the llama barn talking while the poultry free-ranged.  They were scattered about the pastures when I glanced up and noticed a sandhill crane flying over the farm.  It wasn’t a hawk or an eagle, both of which will gladly prey upon my flock, but Arthur didn’t know that.

I watched him look up and start gobbling (apparently a different than normal gobble).  As soon as his warning went out, all of my hens and the two other turkeys ducked and ran as fast as their little feathery legs could carry them out of the open pasture and into the barn!

That was when we realized that our ridiculous, fifty pound, pet turkey had appointed himself as guardian of our flock (like any good turkey who thinks he’s an alpaca would), doing a better job of watching out for the girls than any rooster we’ve ever had.    (Guys, it was maybe the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.  I swear, he practically counted them once they were in to make sure everyone made it.)

Of course, that’s just one with a purpose out of three…

Until about two weeks ago.

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Farm fresh eggs – with a blue slate turkey egg on top!

See that fancy pants, speckled egg on top?  That was our first ever turkey egg!

The turkey hens just started laying.  So far, they’ve almost kept pace with the chickens, laying these big speckled eggs in the same nesting boxes.

The turkey eggs have higher fat and cholesterol than the chicken eggs, which makes them less ideal as a stand alone food, but perfect for baking!  (I started using them last week, making a dish of brownies for my mom, and then another for my brother-in-law’s birthday.)

Guys, you have not lived until you have eaten brownies made with turkey eggs!  They are so rich that it’s almost like fudge.  I’m excited to experiment with cakes and breads!

Turns out, my turkeys had purpose all along.  I just didn’t know it yet.

 

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Jeremiah and Guinevere…or maybe Morgana (even I can’t tell them apart most of the time)

That moment when you realize you’ve gone from “chicken lady” to “crazy chicken lady”

I never thought I’d spend so much time thinking about poultry…

When we agreed to buy the ranch, I begin mentally preparing for the chickens.  I bought books; I read blogs; I meticulously picked out the breeds I wanted.  I read articles about why chickens should only eat organic feed (for the record, even I don’t eat all organic feed…).  I read about all the ways predators can get to your flock.  I read about parasites and natural worming vs. chemical worming.  I started following Fresh Eggs Daily, Garden Betty, and DIY Diva, soaking up every last bit of chickeny knowledge they had to offer.  Continue reading “That moment when you realize you’ve gone from “chicken lady” to “crazy chicken lady””

The true cost of an egg

Out here on the ranch, we are at the peak of our egg season.  Most of my fully grown hens lay an egg a day during the summer, which equals 5 to 6 eggs per day.  In the fall, my little ones will start laying as well.

In the winter, they lay far fewer eggs.  We have chosen not to artificially light our coop, which means our girls take their natural “break,” molting and slowing down their egg production for the season.

Next summer, I will be swimming in eggs.  With a dozen chickens joining our flock this year, hopefully all hens, I will be getting well over a dozen eggs a day.

Beautiful, fresh eggs from spoiled rotten chickens.
Beautiful, fresh eggs from spoiled rotten chickens.

Many of you know that eggs are at a premium right now, with the avian flu taking out millions of commercial birds at a time.  Additionally, California is finally legislating more humane conditions for laying hens; if you ask me, that’s a step in the right direction, but it will also require an increase in egg prices.  (God willing, other states will follow suit.)

All of this is just to say that, for the first in any sort of recent history, commercial egg prices are starting to creep up close to organic prices.

Continue reading “The true cost of an egg”

And…this is winter.

The snow falling outside my office window in the Heights probably means many things to many people.  For me, it’s a gently falling reminder that old man winter beat us back to the ranch.  We still aren’t moved back out there.

Just a few days ago, temperatures hovered between 55-60 degrees in our little corner of the planet.  Now we’re in the 20s, complete with two days of snow.  Illinois is like that, almost specializing in drastic weather changes that come in the night.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been expecting the cold.  Our winter supply of hay–minus one flatbed load that we still need to pick up–is safely tucked away, either in barns or under tarps.  Our grain room, likewise, is nearly full.

And, yet, the cold hit yesterday, and I found myself running around like mad trying to tie up loose ends.

I ran from store to store. At the first, I picked up a heated base for my chicken water, a sinking heater for my horse trough (the one from last year is toast), and cracked corn.

The cart that served as evidence of how woefully underprepared we were.  I wonder how many carts like this went through check out yesterday.
The cart that served as evidence of how woefully underprepared we were. I wonder how many carts like this went through check out yesterday

Then to another store for winter gloves that stand a chance against ranch life.

Back at the ranch, I noticed a shivering alpaca, just one, so I dug the winter coats out of the feed room

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This one was too big…and pink.
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Midnight Idol is probably our oldest alpaca, and the tiniest. This coat fit him very well, and it probably wouldn’t fit anyone else.

Eventually, several of our animals will be in coats, but I prefer to wait to put them on until they act cold.  The more they regulate their own temperatures without help, the better.

We also dug out heat lamps, and, before leaving for the night, we shut our old men into their stall with their very own heat lamp.

Today, we will head out again, buying posts at Lowe’s for a pony shelter that needs to go in yesterday and winter clothes for Jeremiah.  (Do you believe he went through all of last winter without a heavy winter coat?  Said that if he bought one, winter won.)

And so begins another season out at the ranch.  Hopefully, the big snows hold off for just a bit longer, and we can get moved back out before the roads get icy.  We shall see.

Also, since I’m new at this one, does anyone want to share some friendly advice for keeping chickens nice and cozy?  I have two that have bald(ish) backs from getting picked on, and I’m afraid of frostbite.

No…I’m not going to eat them. (On keeping chickens that aren’t going to end up on your table.)

I didn’t go with Jeremiah to the farm this morning.  Partly, that’s because as he readily points out, I don’t do mornings.  (That’s not entirely true, I just don’t do mornings as early or as well as he does.)  Also, we were expecting Mr. Raccoon to be trapped in the live trap we set, and, while I know exactly what has to be done and why, I didn’t really want to be there to see it.

I suppose I’m something of a “bleeding heart.”  The other day, I found three baby mice and their mama in a feed bin…and I carried the bin across the property and out to the woods to let them go.  Last fall, when a baby raccoon was living in the horse barn (and regularly messing with Jeremiah’s stuff), I disallowed shooting it.  It was, after all, only a baby.   (Now I’m vaguely concerned that my kindness directly translated to the later killing of my chickens, but luckily, I can never actually know.)

Recently, a friend was incredulous upon learning that I have no plans to eat my chickens.

“So, you’re not going to raise and slaughter your own meat!?!?”

He seemed almost annoyed by this…

…I’m still not sure why.

Don’t get me wrong, I have IMMENSE respect for ranchers who humanely raise livestock, fighting against the factory farming trend that is almost exclusive these days.  Such people should be applauded and supported!  However, I am not one of them.  (If you’re interested in reading updates from such ranchers, check out a girl and her chickens or Full Circle Farm.  I really enjoy reading both of their blogs.)

Why am I not one of them?  For one thing, adding meat animals to my current menagerie would take up even more time.  Time, for me, is at a premium.  Also, they would take up space, also at a premium.  The farm is not my job, it’s my home.  I really don’t want to change that.

Additionally, if it’s not clear already, I get attached to my animals.  I’m not sure why I’d want to take on MORE WORK to raise slaughter animals when I know for a fact that it isn’t something I’d enjoy.

Finally, while we’re by no means vegetarians, we really don’t eat much meat.  To accommodate the meat-eating that we do, I have no problem paying a premium for local or independently certified humane meat.  I buy my beef from family, and I’m still trying to work through the beef quarter I bought last fall!

All of this said, I’m still not sure why it’s a problem or, even worse, why people are annoyed that my chickens might actually die of old age…

Just to clear things up, I thought I’d write a post about why I have chickens, even though I don’t plan to eat them.

Some of my chickens have names.  This one, for example, is Lucy.
Some of my chickens have names. This one, for example, is Lucy.

I thought about writing this as a list, but as I tried to start, I found that the reasons are fairly holistic.

I began to consider keeping chickens when I realized that we were, for sure, buying Eagle Ridge.  Part of the reason I do not eat very much meat, and part of the reason I am so intentional about the meat I do buy, is that I know way, way too much about factory farming.  It’s horrifying when you look into where most of our meat comes from.  And this knowledge comes with implications; for me, I had to rethink what I eat.  (For example, I do not eat pork products.  I gave that up when I realized what hog confinements really were.  I also don’t eat veal due to the usual conditions they’re raised in.)

And, I realized, laying hens are not immune to the implications of factory farming.  Not enough space, unhealthy conditions, and drastically shortened lives are the rule, not the exception.

I knew I didn’t want to raise my own meat, but I knew I could handle raising my own laying hens.

I now know EXACTLY where my eggs come from, and that’s rather lovely.

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Unexpected bonuses?

Chickens are freaking hilarious!  I love watching their antics, and I have found that I generally enjoy keeping them.  (Plus, compared to my other critters, they are remarkably low maintenance in the day-to-day.)

–AND–

They thoroughly enjoy the leftovers that would otherwise go to waste.  (Less wasted food!  Yeah!)

Can anyone explain why it is people would take issue with all of this?

The great chicken massacre of 2014 and the buttressing of Cluckingham…

Alas, there is sad news to report from the Palace of Cluckingham in the Kingdom of Eagle Ridge.  We have known since the loss of our most treasured subject that a foul marauder was afoot in our territory, but we naively believed it to reside solely outside of the fortress walls (barn…).  Alas, nigh three days ago, we were proven wrong when two more subjects were found dead, this time within our fortress walls.  They had been cruelly snatched from their home, drug out from among their kin, and devoured.

Their temporary home deemed unsafe, we doubled down on our efforts to complete their permanent residence.  By the setting of the sun, Cluckingham Palace was deemed secure, though still unfinished.  One by one, our remaining subjects were carried across the Aisle of Barn and into their new home.  They rejoiced and set about their regular tasks of eating, scratching in the dirt, and making noise.  And we, their devoted leaders, slept soundly that night, believing our chickeny subjects to be safe from harm.

We should not have slept so soundly.

The dastardly fiend who had so cruelly murdered her kin struck again, this time killing our second to last speckled sussex.  He was more clever in his ill intent that we had believed, and he had pulled our temporary defenses (wire stretched across where the door will go) away from the rest of the Palace.

This time he left tracks and fur.  We then knew our enemy.

Sadly, the King of Eagle Ridge (Jeremiah) was away, leaving me, the almostfarmgirl Queen of Cluckingham home alone to discover the aftermath of the slaying and to defend my defenseless subjects.

My defenseless subjects
My defenseless subjects
More defenseless subjects
More defenseless subjects

With no King in sight, I did what any Queen under siege should do.  I reinforced the defenses of my subjects, and I called for my Allies to aid me in their protection.

Lady Gabriella was the first to come to my aid.  Using zipties, we tightened the temporary wire down, leaving no gaps through which our dastardly predator (a raccoon, in case you were wondering…) could enter to terrorize our subjects.

Lady Gabriella at work
Lady Gabriella at work
Zipties reinforcing our defenses.
Zipties reinforcing our defenses.

Then, Sir Hezekiah, the user of power tools, screwed in boards along the bottom, for we could not allow the enemy to dig into the Palace.

Finally, I called upon my Sir Kent (my dad – who by the way grew up on a HUGE working farm…erm…I mean kingdom…) to walk the perimeter of the Palace to look for weaknesses in our defenses.

Securing a window that he identified as a fatal flaw in the safety features of the coop.
Securing a window that he identified as a fatal flaw in the safety features of the coop.
Read: Stop taking pictures for your blog and hand me a washer...
Read: Stop taking pictures for your blog and hand me a washer…

We baited a trap for the foul beast who has claimed the lives of four of our dear subjects but have not caught the villain.  However, since the buttressing of Cluckingham Palace, our subjects have been safe from harm.

And, I assure you, loyal readers, the days of the dastardly raccoon are numbered.

 

Ranch life…and chickens in my future!

I’m a little afraid to say it aloud, but I think, maybe, Spring is actually here to stay this time.

Not two days after my “Spring!” post, Central Illinois fell back into another round of winter with temps in the 20s and near an inch of snow.  I got cranky.  While I’m not usually a winter hater, I am fully sick of the cold this year.  When the snow came back–I’m fairly convinced in was actually the same snow as before that just refused to die–I wanted to crawl under my heated blanket and wait there for summer.

But the sun triumphed!  It’s sunny and beautiful today.  Temps should reach mid-sixties.  The ten day forecast is showing 60s and 70s for the foreseeable future.  *Giant sigh of relief*

Things have been progressing, albeit slowly, at the farm.  After my riding drama last week  ( with Cinco ) we decided that we would have to put in an outdoor arena.  L picked a spot for us, and Jeremiah has been busy clearing trees and brush from the area since.  I stopped in and checked on him earlier, and I found him covered in brush and sweat, with a four foot pile of woodchips and a plethora of firewood to show for his effort.  Full construction on the arena will have to wait until we complete financing for the rest of the property, but we do plan to have it in this summer.

With three weeks left in the semester, I’m feeling increasingly anxious to finish grading and teaching and move into ranch life.  Jeremiah has promised to till up my garden patch and spread compost this week.  I probably won’t start really planting until after finals, but it will be good to let it sit a bit.

Looks like we will order our chicks in about two weeks.  I’ve researched chicken breeds for the last few months, and, just when I thought I’d settled on something, I found out that mypetchicken.com offers sexed rare breed assortments.  Sold.  Since we don’t have to have everyday layers, and we don’t intend to show chickens ever (llama shows…horse shows, maybe…), I think the surprise mix could be a lot of fun.  I can’t wait for my little chickens.  And it will be so exciting to get a mix.  I think Katie–my cousin who will be moving into the guest house (if you don’t regularly follow this blog)–and I will order a dozen rare breed assortment chicks.

To my readers who have chickens, what is your best advice for starting chicks?  What do you wish you had known?