The Eugene Backyard Farmer

Backyard Farming. Urban Homesteading Sustainablity
The Eugene Backyard Farmer

Raising Turkeys in an Urban Setting

The more involved we are with urban farming, the more we want to try new things. In addition to our ever changing gardening landscape, we have hens, broilers, ducks, and beehives as well as composting systems to support these activities. Our next goal is to learn how to raise turkeys so we took a few turkey poults from our July hatch and raised them for store use. Here are some of the things we learned.

IMG_1282First check with your local regulations to see if turkeys are allowed. Raising domestic turkeys in the city of Eugene is illegal. We did so anyway not out of disrespect to the city but rather to learn how turkeys behave in an urban setting.

When you talk to large-scale or rural farmers you will find they rarely raise chickens and turkeys together. Indeed both the USDA and ODA recommend raising them separately. Blackhead, a nasty and fatal disease that chickens can pass on to turkeys, is the main reason for separating the turnout, stable and cooler rugs for the different species. Of course, urban and small-scale farming is entirely different from rural and large-scale farming and as a result we do not always have the same issues. We raised our two turkeys with three broilers with no ill effects. The broilers were butchered a few days ago and their internal organs looked healthy. Back at the store, our turkeys continue to look healthy and active. Of course the “it worked for us so it isn’t a problem” is a poor argument. If you do raise the two together, do so with caution and monitor for illness.

Turkeys eat a lot and the end product could be a very expensive bird. We started feeding this flock of five a 50-pound bag of turkey starter. When that was finished they were moved outside and they ate another 50-pound bag. We then switched them to a GMO-free turkey grower, then a 5o-pound bag of organic grower. Now that we are down to just two turkeys we will be able to get a better sense of how much they eat. What we do know at this point is this isn’t going to result in some cheap grocery store bird, but isn’t that the point.

In addition to eating a lot, turkeys will eat most anything. Ours gobbled up all the extra tomatoes from the garden as well as most anything else we would toss in for them. For example, we had a couple hybrid volunteer squash on the property. Half of one squash went to the hens and the other half  to the turkeys. The chickens barely touched theirs but the turkeys ate their half down to the stem. The other squash was taken home and baked into what turned out to be a nasty soup. Again the chickens barely touched their serving. The turkeys, however, not only ate the whole serving, they even ate the paper bowl. And since they eat so much, they leave ample droppings. We found ourselves picking up after them twice a day and the compost bin filled up rapidly.

Turkey poults are not sexed so you could end up with toms or hens. We ended up with one of each and were amazed to learn how quiet they are. They rarely made much noise and when they did “gobble” it was at the same level as a person’s normal talking voice. Indeed our turkeys were much quieter then some chickens we have known. Our tom started to strut his feathers at about three and a half months old. It could be that if you get two toms then they might get loud and start to fight at this point. But at this point you would have a good sized bird so you could butcher one tom early and save the other for a Thanksgiving butcher.

We have heard of people using less then flattering words to describe a turkey’s intelligence. We have no evidence to suggest that they are any more or less smart than other poultry. We will say however that they can be rather charming. They came running whenever we delivered treats. Their combs and waddles would turn bright red when they were happy and when the broilers went away one day, they seemed to be sad for a few days.

This being said, we are not looking forward to the butchering process. We do not name our poultry but we do feed them high quality feed and interact with them on a regular basis. As a result they have kind of grown on us and the butchering process could be emotionally difficult. We have embraced urban farming because we feel our food system is broken. Even those expensive turkeys you buy at the natural food store are fed cheap grains and live in less than ideal conditions. Just like veggies, fruit, eggs, and honey, if you want clean fresh food you need to either grow it yourself or know your farmer.

While urban farming is different from traditional farming, there are still some similarities. Butchering poultry is not fun but the rewards are great. This has been a good experience and we will most likely do it again next year. Or next year we might have a vegetarian nut loaf for Thanksgiving instead.

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The cost of backyard eggs.

A July 7th NBC article discussed the down side to backyard chickens.  The quote that stood out to us was, “some hipster farmers discover that hens lay eggs for two years, but can live for a good decade longer, and that actually raising the birds can be noisy, messy, labor-intensive and expensive. ”  You can hear our response here.

For over a year, we have been keeping detailed records to see how cost effective backyard chickens can be. We were pleasantly surprised by the results.

From July 2012 through June 213 we collected 119 dozen eggs. The flock at the store varied from six to 11 and during part of that time frame, not all chickens were to laying age.  The flock ate $315 in feed, $43 in scratch, $15 in calcium, and used $24 in bedding.

This means that a dozen high quality eggs cost $3.34.

We have not done the math to factor in coop, feeder and start up costs.  Yet it is clear that keeping backyard chickens can be affordable.  Of course if you keep backyard hens, you know there are non egg related benefits.  Our chickens provide us with plenty of high quality fertilizer and they are often worth keeping just for the entertainment value.

Need another reason to keep backyard hens?  For every dozen eggs they produce, you are not supporting an industry that is not always kind to chickens.

The store is down to six hens since April and we are planning on keeping that number.  Then next March, we will have another full year of data.  By then we will also have figured out amortization and can factor in the costs of feeders and the coop.

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The Nesting Place: A Luxury Chicken Hotel Now Open.

Urban farmers differ from traditional and rural farmers in a number of respects.  Traditional farmers often do so to make a living where urban farmers usually do so to put healthy food on their table. Traditional farmers wait until after harvest before taking a vacation where urban farmers often take vacation in the summer.
And while tending for a backyard flock takes little effort, it still does require daily attention.
So what do you do with your flock if you want to go on vacation? The best option is to get a neighbor to feed, water and collect eggs.  This way they get to see how easy it is and will perhaps want to start their own backyard flock.  In larger cities you can even hire a chicken sitter to come twice a day and do the chores.  We tried this for a while but found it to be a large drain of time and since we commute by bike, it became impractical.

So if you can’t get a neighbor to watch your hens, why not check them into a hotel?  The Nesting Place is a luxury chicken hotel located right here at the store.
The Blue Andalusian Suite and the Golden Campine Suite both include a safe place to sleep, eat and lay eggs as well as an extended yard in which to scratch around.

Basic service is $2 per hen per day and includes fresh feed, water, some scratch and a daily coop cleaning.  Deluxe service is $3 per hen per day and includes the above as well as chopped organic veggies and turn down service.  With the deluxe service we will even text you photos of your hens.

Future suites will be added if this becomes as popular as we think it will. But until then space is limited so if you have a vacation coming up and nobody to watch your flock, feel free to give us a call.

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Help, my hen is loosing her feathers.

We start getting the calls this time of year.  “I went out to the henhouse this morning and there were feathers everywhere. What is wrong with my hens?”  Another popular observation is “My hens look terrible. They are missing feathers and I think they might be dying.”   Most likely your chickens are just going through a molt.

Just like other birds, chickens know when winter is coming.  Usually in the fall of their second year they shed feathers and grow a new coat for winter. Most molting occurs in the fall but we have seen hens go through a full-blown molt in the dead of winter.  Sometimes the molt is so mild and consists of just a hand full of feathers.  Other times it looks like there was a pillow fight in the hen house and your chickens look like they have hen pattern baldness.  Regardless, molting is natural and generally nothing to worry about.  There are still things you can do to help.

If they are loosing their feathers already, this might be a great time to inspect their bodies.  Since it is now easy to see the skin you can use molting time to look for signs of mites or other body parasites.  This also might be a great time to do a semi-annual coop cleaning. You can remove all bedding, spray a 10% diluted bleach in the corners, sprinkle some Diatomaceous Earth in the corners, and add fresh bedding.  This will make the coop nice and comfortable for the winter.

Hens will not lay eggs while molting.  Since they need to grow new feathers before cold weather arrives, they put all their energy into that task.  Chickens need extra protein to help them grow new feathers.  The faster they feather out, the faster they will get back to looking good and hopefully laying a few more eggs.  There are a number of poultry supplements that can be added to their feed. Most of these have 30% of more protein which will help them re-feather.  When the hens at our store go through their molt we add dried cat food, meal worms, tofu or beef liver.

A molt can be over within a week or it can last several months.  The longer the molt, the harder it is to keep your refrigerator stocked with eggs.  There is no need to add artificial heat to their coop. We tend to recommend avoiding this so as to not create a fire hazard.  Don’t worry about your chicken’s comfort level. They know more about how to be a chicken then you do.  Just increase their protein intake and they should be back to beautiful backyard chickens before too long.

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Broody Hens

We get the phone call all the time.  “What is wrong with my hen?  She has been staying in the nest box and she won’t move.  I go to pick her up and she fluffs up, makes dinosaur noises, and even tries to peck me.”  You most likely have a broody hen.

Broodiness is a condition where a hen’s maternal clock goes off and she sets to hatch eggs.  Most hens never go broody but some go broody often.  As an urban farmer, you probably collect the eggs daily.  And the fact that you likely do not have a rooster and thus do not have fertilized eggs is of little concern to the broody hen.  Even when you remove any inspiration eggs from the nest, a broody hen will still create a clutch of eggs in her head and try to hatch nothing.  It is both frustrating as well as beautiful and poetic.

Here are a couple thoughts on how to deal with broody hens.  First, you may want to add an additional nest box so the other hens still have a place to lay.  A broody hen will not lay eggs but she will occupy the box.  The other hens are usually cool with it but you might as well try to smooth things out.

If you want to just let nature run it’s course you can just let the hen set.  It takes about 21 days for eggs to hatch so ideally after 21 days she will give up.  It wouldn’t hurt to pick her up once in while and put her in front of her food.  Broody hens usually do not starve themselves, but you are welcome to force her to eat once in a while.

You can also try to break her of her broodiness. To do this, build a cage with a wire bottom and place her in the cage.  The cage can be elevated on some bricks so that there is plenty of air flowing under her.  Give her only food and water and no bedding material.  The cold air will drop her body temperature and she will usually snap out of it in 72 hours.  We have had success placing a broody hen on a concrete pad with a cage over her and only food and water.  It may sound harsh but it usually works.

Another option is to slip some newly hatched chicks (or fertilized eggs) under her.  For the urban farmer it is pretty easy to get newly hatched chicks from your local feed store.  Once you have established that the hen is indeed broody (she has not moved for at least a week), you can take your newly hatched chicks and slip them under her wing.  If you do this early in the morning and when it is still dark, the hen very likely will think that she was successful and will do all the hard work of raising the chicks.  Breed of chick does not seem to be an issue.  The photo above is of a Salmon Faverolle hen with her two different colored Ameraucanas.  She couldn’t be more proud of the work she has done so far and is doing a great job of protecting the chicks from the elements as well as the coop mates.  Keep some chick starter and water near the nest box and before long you will have your next generation of hens.
Tricking a broody hen to take hatch-lings does not always work.  Just because a hen wants to be a mommy doesn’t mean that she will make a good mommy.  Be sure to have a back-up plan.

Urban farming is still farming and dealing with a broody hen is just part of the adventure.  Embrace this time to learn more about your backyard flock and enjoy the satisfaction of urban homesteading.

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How to introduce new chicks to the flock.

It’s Spring and baby chicks are here. Many urban farmers have a peaceful flock in various degrees of laying.  Some add new chickens every year so that there is not a lag in egg production.  Others add more chicks each year because it is so fun.  And while having multiple generations in a backyard flock can be tricky, if you follow a few steps you can keep the pecking order at a manageable level.

Ideally you have a broody hen that will take to some new chicks.  Just slide them under her and let her do the work.  However you can’t force broodiness and even if she is broody, she may not make a good mommy.  In which case expect to raise your new chicks indoors for awhile.

By the time they are three or four weeks old they are nearly feathered out.  Slowly introduce them to the flock by having a separate run for them.  This run can be as simple as some wire or a large cage in the corner of the overall run.  They can stay outside during the day, then bring them in at night.  Be sure they have access to food and water in their separate run.  Also be sure their run can be accessed by the older hens.  They will scratch and cluck around the pullets but will not be able to peck them.

In a week or two, they should be used to each other.  By now they are five or six weeks old and you are ready to take the plunge.  Pick an evening when the nighttime temperatures will not be too cold and wait for the hens to go to bed.  Once it is completely dark, take the pullets to the coop and place them on the roost next to the older girls.  do it quickly and make sure they are all on the perch.  Then close the door and walk away.

Chickens don’t see well in the dark so the chickens will spend the night smelling each other, clucking to each other, and getting used to each other.  Come sunrise, the chickens will ideally act as if they have always been a big happy family.  But just like any family, fights are bound to break out.   Remember that establishing a pecking order needs to happen and it is generally a dynamic process.  A couple of pecks and squawks are perfectly fine but even this should subside after a few days.

Over the next few nights go out to the coop at night to be sure the pullets are sleeping on the roost.   You might have to help them up for a few nights until they learn the routine from the older gals.  Keep the young girls out of the nesting boxes to avoid soiled eggs.  Now give them plenty of fresh water and high quality feed.  Before long you will have plenty of eggs for friends and neighbors.

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Meat Birds.

Raising meat birds in your backyard is another great way of taking your urban farming experience to the next level.  Like anything else with backyard homesteading, the quality of food you grow yourself is vastly superior to most supermarket offerings.

We carry both Red Broilers and Cornish Cross meat birds.

The benefit of the Red Broiler is that they mature much more slowly then the Cornish Cross. At the store we raised six Red Broilers. The roosters were butchered at 14 weeks and the hens at 16 weeks. The roosters dressed out to five pounds and the hens were a bit smaller. Since they grow at a rate that can be sustained by their bodies, they are healthier and have a more normal life.  The quality of meat is generally outstanding.
The disadvantage to raising slow-growing broilers is the cost. We fed them an 18% protein GMO free grower as well as plenty of kitchen scraps. They eat a pound of feed per bird per week which works out to about $8 worth of feed. Our six Red Broilers ate a total of 100 pounds of feed. If you calculate feed plus the cost of the bird plus any scratch, it works out to be between $10 and $12 per bird as a total cost. They lived a very healthy life, were treated well and were butchered with dignity.

The Cornish Cross is bred specifically as a fast growing meat bird. The advantage is that they mature so quickly that they can be ready for butcher at six to eight weeks. This means that your feed costs could be half as much as the Red Broilers. The Cornish Cross’ biggest asset is also it’s biggest liability. They often grow so fast that their hearts and legs can’t keep up with the weight gain. They tend to be a bit more lethargic and sometimes do not forage well for food. They also do not do well in extreme heat (this is why we are bringing them in during August. By the time heat is an issue with them, it will be mid-September and probably much cooler.)
If you keep your feed to around 18% protein and give them plenty of ranging space, you should be able to grow a healthy Cornish Cross. The key to raising a healthy Cornish Cross is to avoid filling it up with high protein rations with lots of filler grains. Raise a Cornish Cross with the same respect as you would any other chicken, and you will be rewarded with a fine home-raised meal.


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The benifits of raising baby chicks in the summer.

So you are finally ready to raise some chickens.   Many of you have gone on a chicken coop tour and your have some great ideas for your coop.  The weather is finally warm and dry and you figure you can finish your  coop in the next couple weeks.  Or maybe you already have chickens but were paid a visit by a raccoon.  Or perhaps you have a broody hen and you want to give her a couple chicks to try to raise.  Traditional feed stores only carry chicks in early spring and stop around Easter.  The good news is we sell baby chicks throughout the summer.

There are a number of advantages to raising your chicks in the late spring or summer.  Since it is warmer outside, it will be warmer inside.  This means your chicks won’t need a heat lamp for as long.  Once they get to the three week old stage, they can go outside during the day and come back in at night.

Also most regional hatcheries are focused on the more standard breeds during the early spring.  Now that they don’t have to supply large feed stores, they can hatch more unusual or heritage breeds.  We have some fun breeds scheduled to arrive in the next few months.

The disadvantage is that you may or may not get eggs this year.  Most hens start laying between three and seven months but many don’t lay often in the late fall and winter.  So a chick that was hatched in August will be out in their coop in September.  They will have plenty time to feather out and go through their gangly stage before winter arrives.  These hens might lay occasionally in the winter but as soon as the sunlight returns you will get a jump start on next year’s eggs.

The trend toward urban farming is allowing us to approach things in more creative ways.  Raising baby chicks in the summer is a great example of adapting  a rural farming practice to meet the needs of a backyard homestead.

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How do I keep my hens warm?

One of the most common questions we receive is, “What do I do to keep my hens warm during the winter?”  The short answer is “not much.”

It is a perfectly reasonable question and it is easy to understand our concerns.  Our hens give us great eggs and great compost and in many cases they give us great entertainment.  And despite the emotional hazards, we sometimes even name them and pamper them and treat them like family.Pretty Girls

It is important to remember that chickens are essentially live-stock.  Sure they are cute and funny but they are also tough birds and can handle some harsh conditions. Many of the breeds that we sold originated in the Northeast, upper mid-west, and in England.  Oregon winters are temperate compared to some of those places.  Set your alarm for 4:00 some morning and go out to the coop and pick up a hen.  You will see them huddled together and you can feel the heat radiating off them.

But there are a few things you can do to make things more comfortable during the winter.  Change their water more often so it doesn’t freeze.  You can even paint your water container black or cover it with some sort of sweater.  We will even sell water heaters for the dead of winter.

You can also give them some cracked corn about an hour before they go to bed.  The extra corn increases their metabolism and will give them something to burn during the night.  You can even put the scratch in that chick feeder that you haven’t used since they were 2 months old.

Some backyard farmers do add a light in the coop during extremely cold nights.  If doing so, use extreme caution as you run the risk of a fire hazard.  One trick is to shine a light bulb into a ceramic pot.  This will create a long-term radiant heat and will also keep it dark enough for the hens to sleep.

Another popular heat source is the deep bedding method.  With this method, you do not clean out the droppings but rather add a thin layer of pine shavings.  As the droppings compost, they create a natural heat that can add ten degrees to the inside of the coop.  If you do this method, be certain that your coop has plenty of ventilation (there is a difference between ventilation and draft.  You want the air to circulate but you do not want gusts of cold air).

A lack of proper ventilation can cause respiratory health problems in your flock.  The composting process can also wear on your coop floor and you will have a bit of an odor issue and odds are you’ll have ‘work clothes’ which need a better cleaning then most. According to a quick search this it the best to remove urine odors from clothes. While the deep bedding method is popular and effective but it does come with a few drawbacks.Some breeds have combs and waddles that are susceptible to frostbite.  In extreme cold conditions you can treat a comb with bag balm or petroleum jelly.

If you are still concerned you can always knit them a sweater.  But putting them in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa or a snifter of brandy is unnecessary.

Do you have any tricks to keep your hens warm all winter?  Feel free to add a comment.

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Employee of the month.

Having a cat or two is critical for a feed store.  Fresh chicken feed attracts mice and the store is in the middle of an active rat population.  Sophie and Sonia are working cats who are here to protect the stock.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the cats are such sweethearts as well.  They enjoy playing with each other as well as the chickens and our visitors.   But their primary job description is to catch mice.

Sonia’s first mouse came as part of a training exercise.  I knew we had some mice behind the straw bales so when I got down to the last few, I carried the kittens out side and propped them on a nearby straw bale.  As I pulled the last two bales away from the wall the mice went scrambling.  Sonia caught one right away while Sophie watched the excitement from a safe distance.

Since then Sonia has been a most dutiful mouser and has even caught two rats.  We appreciate Sonia’s diligence and so do the neighbors.

When Sonia is not busy catching mice, she likes to sneak into the coop’s nesting box so that she can pretend to be a chicken.  Feel free to drop by and congratulate our employee of the month.

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