Why I Like to Keep Free-Ranging to a Minimum

One morning not long ago, after we built Fort Clux and went through about a year of keeping the chickens mostly contained, I went out to milk and found a very large caterpillar. Some internet research revealed it was the green form of the fifth instar of the imperial moth. Apparently the instar also has a brown form.

The imperial moth lives only to breed and then dies. The caterpillar “can feed on dozens of kinds of trees but seem to prefer pines, oaks, maples, sassafras, and sweetgum. Cedar, elm, persimmon, hickory, beech, honeylocust and cypress are other less common hosts as well as a slew of other plants.”

The green form, I’ve read, are less common than the brown form, and are indicative of caterpillars feeding on pine. However, it has been reported that larvae can also switch from one color to another. The caterpillars themselves are rare.

Free-ranging my chickens, no doubt, has made them even rarer on our little homestead, so finding this fellow was out of the ordinary, for sure. He was apparently looking for a soft spot in the ground to burrow in and pupate. I could see that he was already beginning to form his shell.

“When the caterpillar is full grown, it crawls down the tree to pupate in the soil. It does not spin a cocoon, but forms a large naked pupa that is dark brown to black, nearly two inches long, and about three-fourths of an inch in diameter. The tail is pointed and the head is rounded. The pupa will remain in the soil through the winter and the adult moth will emerge in June or July.”

I picked this little guy up and put him under the milk stall, where he might avoid being eaten by a bird. The next day, he was gone, but since I didn’t really know what I was looking for at the time, I’ll check again for the chrysalis, which may be underground.

I love to find interesting critters, and free-ranging the chickens makes it a very rare occurance, since they pluck up anything that doesn’t get out of the way, including grass and leaves, within a 500 yard radius of their coop.

Even though it’s a little more work, I prefer to grow their food and bring it to them. I make manageable piles of cow manure, hay and straw which I often let sit for awhile to really get a good population of insects going. Then I scoop a pile into a wagon and drop it into the chicken run. I also bring the chickens weeds from the garden as well as scraps from the kitchen. In the warmer months, I grow duck weed in small ponds and scoop this up for them. Inevitably they also get a snack of snails and tadpoles. In the winter, I grow rye grass, which I cut and carry to them. In all, I don’t mind the extra work, as it’s good exercise, and I certainly enjoy not having a wasteland around the coop.

Does this mean I never let the chickens out? No. Occasionally, especially if we are being bothered by flies in the warmer months, I will let them out to free range about an hour before dark.

I’m also considering how best to employ a mobile coop in the pasture during the warmer months to contain a different set of chickens for breeding. I’ll keep you updated.


On the mend and finishing touches

My little red hen seems to be improving daily. Her limp is almost gone. However she is still a little weak. I integrated her with the flock for a few minutes and only the young rooster picked on her, I think because he though she was his best chance at mating. She set him straight very quickly, but it took a lot out of her so I separated her again. Will give her another week of recovery.

I also removed the splint from the doeling with the broken foot. She had begun to put a little weight on it and I’d set a time period of 10 days based on research I did. She too is recovering nicely.

I’m also putting finishing touches on the chicken run. The cross ties at the base of the run were not quite long enough, so Kenny made little bottomless boxes that I can put soil into and plant annual vines such as cucumber or gourds, providing summer shade.

I’ve painted the boxes bright colors with spray paint. If I were an artist or knew one who could do it quickly I’d have the coop painted as well with bright colors.

Chicken musings

The garden is coming up: mustard, turnip radish, buckwheat and carrot. Still waiting on spinach, chives and cilantro.

Hauled in more compost materials for the chickens this morning. They are machines. The run has a nice layer of straw now.

Last night Kenny switched the far doors around. They opened to the back inside, which made it difficult to open them once I started hauling in compost materials. We had to wait until the chickens went to bed so none got out. My five youngest chickens, four pullets and a cockerel hatched last spring, were the past to go in. They were very reluctant for some reason. The last two I tossed in because it was already so dark.

I find it extremely relaxing to watch the chickens scratching. And I’m not the only one.

Rainbow the kitty loves it too.

I moved the hen who was attacked by Sheba out into the open. Every time I checked on her she had moved to a different spot inside the tiny coop where I had her. Now she is standing nicely. I put her in the run with the other chickens yesterday to see how she did. She can move around okay, but she was having to run from the others picking on her so I pulled her back out and put her in a pen next to the run where she can visit and be around other chickens without risk.

Yesterday while I moved her new pen, she stood outside the run and communicated with one of the other hens, who would pick up straw and drop it and cluck at her. The little red hen alternated grooming herself with standing still and watching and occasionally talking back.

She has a pretty strong will to live and I think being around other chickens strengthens it.

She is a hen who loves to scratch in compost. Usually when she sees me with a pitchfork or shovel she is hot on my heels and very attentive to whatever I turn over. I hope that she regains the use of her legs.

Splinting a broken foot

Little black goat kid has a broken foot. I’m guessing Coco stepped on her. The goats rush to share the cow food every evening. She was fine before I fed. I heard her scream and went to check on her and her foot was floppy. I wrapped with self adhesive wrap, splinted it, and then wrapped again. I just hope it’s not too tight. I don’t really know how to tell. I gave her a bc powder and crushed up vitamin c, dissolved in water. Shot it down her throat with a syringe. She is able to move from one spot to another.

The injured doeling with her splint. She is hopping around fine by day three after the injury and the pain seems to have lessened.

Supposed to leave splint on 10 days.

I get all my info for goats from Pay Coleby’s Natural Goat Care. It’s an awesome little book.

I also have her book on cattle.

My favorite book for goat care.

I am still enamored with Fort Clux. I just hauled in a pile of ruined hay and the chickens are working it over, spreading and turning it, looking for food: insects and seeds mostly. As they continue to work it, it will break down into fertile soil for the garden, which I will plant directly in this run after I rotate the chickens out.

The chickens work over a pile of ruined hay. It keeps them entertained, feeds them and provides me with fertile soil for planting.

Today I broke up the opposite run for a fall garden: I plan on putting in mustard, turnip, radish, carrots, cilantro, chives, lettuce and spinach.

My fall garden spot.

The Turkey will find a new home today. He is quite the bully, probably because he wants a mate. He tortures the hens and hogs the roost at night. The new coop and runs are not ideal for him. So I’m taking him to the auction today.

The Turkey has to go. He is headed for the local auction today.

This is the first of several culling decisions I will need to make with my new set up. I’m not sure what the perfect number of chickens is, for eggs, compost, meat and replacement stock, but I look forward to figuring it out.

Loving Fort Clux

The new chicken coop/run is awesome. After hauling in some pine straw, cow manure, persimmons and kitchen scraps, I’ve sat and watched the chickens for a few hours.

Several thoughts have occurred. The enclosure simplifies making decisions about culling. I know who is the bully, who is at the bottom of the pecking order, who is stressed out and who is laying. There’s trick to that I’ll talk about in another post.

In addition, I can plant a fall garden in the extra run immediately. When the garden is done producing or I’m tired of eating from it, I can rotate the chickens in and plan a different garden for the space they’ve just vacated.

The chickens are currently in the south run.
Soon I’ll plant a fall garden in the north run. When I’m done eating from it, I’ll rotate the chickens into it and begin planning a garden for the south run.

As Dev pointed out, I can also use the extra space to raise chicks if need be. Or, I can use it for selective breeding.

The possibilities are exciting, for sure.

Chicken musings and things you discover about your husband while installing cattle panels

8:52 am

Slept late this morning. None of the animals seemed to mind and Rocky didn’t get a chicken. Probably bc they are wise to where they can go when he is tied up. I really hope that he is not ruined on chickens.

The hen Rocky got ahold of is still with us. She is well enough to cluck with some outrage when I move her around to clean her cage. I put some hay in with her and insulated the outside with newspaper and the boys’ boogie boards.

I see people on FB selling chicks all the time. Some say they are NPIP certified and others don’t say. I wonder how much money they make. Usually $3 a chick is what they sell for. Rarer breeds are $5. Costs would be the care and feeding of the layers, incubating and care and feeding of chicks until they are sold.

Interesting, but I hate hand raising chicks. I would rather let the mamas do it. I would like some blue egg layers though. I may get some this spring along with some Cornish cross. But not til I get back from vacation in late May or early June. I hope that my hens do better this year with going broody and raising chicks. It was a disaster last year. I think maybe four chicks survived.


Did some figuring. It looks like I’m spending $16-20 a month on food for chickens, including chicks I tried to raise last year. I have to get and sell 10 dozen eggs a month to pay for feed. Or 120 doz per year, or 1,440 eggs per year, or 4 eggs per day, or 28 eggs a week.

Since March I’ve sold approximately 40 dozen or more.

6:25 pm Kenny and the boys got the cattle panels up, making a nice sized corral for the bull. Now I just need to get water out there.

Getting the panels up was not without issue. I am still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that Kenny doesn’t know what a rectangle is AND has the audacity to get on to me for not communicating clearly.

10 eggs

Compost: Feeding from the Pile

Chickens were hungry this morning. Instead of adjusting their feeder for them right away, I began flipping compost pile 1. Many more chickens were interested this morning in what I was turning over than ever have been before.

Perhaps they need their appetites to be stimulated by not being offered so much food?

The pile was still heating up in spots. I uncovered some ants and a few maggots.

I also dug around in the topsoil in the yard, uncovering red worms. Finally had a chicken go for the worms. My little red hen is the best forager I have.

When she sees me with the pitchfork, she always comes to check things out. Typically she is quick to analyze everything I turn over. But it wasn’t until this morning that she tried a red worm. Once she got a taste, she devoured every single one I offered.

I added one wheelbarrow of cow manure and ruined hay to pile 2. I also went out into the pasture kicking over rotten stumps, smashing up rotten logs and stirring things up. The chickens followed right along, investigating whatever I turned over. The red hen found herself a big lizard and had to defend it against all comers. She did so successfully. I noticed lots of termites and other critters in the stumps and other wood and logs scattered in the pasture. All of this woody material is left over from having cleared the area. At first I was going to burn it; then I wanted to chip it. Then I discovered that the wood actually rots quite fast in our humid environment and along the way it provides habitat for lots of critters my chickens enjoy eating. So, for the most part I let all this wood lie where it falls. Sometimes I pile it up. Often I go out to flip logs over, stomp rotten limbs and stir things up. Sort of like a long slow compost.

Eight eggs today, ranging in size from 64 grams to 45 grams. I kept the three largest in the hatch carton. I am getting a surplus of eggs, even more than I got in the spring. Perhaps I can sell a couple dozen.

Compost Update and Other Musings

So busy the last couple of days. Yesterday I spent all day in AI training.

Chickens have been scratching through the compost. It was still a pretty tall pile this morning so I flipped the top foot or so. It was steaming inside.

I reassembled the pallets and have so far deposited four wheelbarrow loads of manure, hay, straw and leaves inside. Three of those I picked up today. I have decided to be liberal in picking up hay with manure. Who knows what my ratio in the pile is? I’ve read that it can be as high as 30:1. I’ll experiment with what I’m doing a bit.

The chickens are doing a good job of finding Coco’s manure and scratching through it. But they are not finding all of it.

The deer feeder had again reached its dispensing limit this morning. Two hours after I pushed the feed down, it had again reached its limit. I pushed it down again and the chickens are busy making grain drop. Definitely need to raise the whole thing up so that I’m in more control.

One of the two chicks that my buff hen hatched was missing this morning. I found it stiff as a board in their bucket. I suspected it had coccidiosis as it looked sick with a pasty butt. Lots of lessons from this batch: put the hen in a bucket flat on the ground as soon as possible after hatch. Don’t put them in the coop where grown chickens roost.

Rain is in standing heat this morning. I’ve seen Max attempt to breed her once or twice.

I’m pretty sure he bred Bella on Nov. 30.

Coco was showing suspicious signs this morning: very frisky and affectionate; rubbed tail head and hips. I didn’t see discharge or swelling.

Eleven eggs today. Eight yesterday.

I kept 11 in the hatch carton, ranging from lightest at 57 grams to heaviest at 64 grams. The eight for eating range from 56 grams to 46 grams.

End of Week 1: Digging into the Compost

I could not wait until Tuesday. I removed the pallets and flipped the compost as soon as I possibly could this morning. It was only about three feet high, but seemed very compact. The outer edges were dry.

The pile without pallets and before flipping

I was astounded at the amount of heat coming off the thing when I dug into it. I’m curious to know how hot it actually got and will probably invest in a compost thermometer just for kicks. The steam started rolling off it when I got about a foot down and continued to do so until I got about a foot from the ground. There was a slight smell of decaying meat (from the deer carcass) and also a smell of ammonia.

However the only sign of the deer carcass was bits of fur here and there, which I put into the center of the new pile.

There is no smell, except a musty earthy smell, now.

The chickens and turkeys investigate after I’m done flipping the pile.

The chickens and Tom turkey were very interested in the pile. I did not see signs of insect life until I got to the bottom where ants were scurrying like mad. I saw a few worms, some sow bugs, maybe a couple other varieties. There were lots of intact kitchen scraps and persimmons on the edges of the pile.

The chickens were hungry today and met me at the property line. They had eaten their grain until it could no longer fall in the feeder. I fixed it for them. I will have to wait until it is empty to adjust it. Otherwise I risk spilling all the grain on the ground.

There was a wheelbarrow load of cow manure to pick up, which I did and dumped where I plan to set up the pallets next.

Disassembling and turning the pile and gathering materials for the next pile took about 40 minutes. Turning was quite the upper body workout. My heart rate went up to 127.

It is kind of embarrassing how much joy and excitement I get from composting.

Eight eggs today ranging in size from 65 grams to 44 grams. Three heaviest were 65, 62, 58.