Monday, December 19, 2011

Chicken Run!

Have you ever seen a chicken run? I don’t mean the animated flick, but an ACTUAL chicken running full-bore? Picture a body-builder on Venice Beach. All buffed up, with that muscle-bound “jock” walk. Then picture that silhouette, but with feathers! That’s the profile of a Brahma chicken. Brahmas are big, gentle chickens who strut about as if they own the barnyard. Our Brahma cockerel kinda resembles that giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters”! Watching them walk about is a hoot, as they stalk around looking all “large & in charge”!! 8-)

"Marshmallow Man"
My post today builds on my previous post on “Jungle Chickens”. We were forced to “exile” our big fighting breed cockerel “Big Red” from the henhouse because he was a bully. Big Red is quite large, & he knows it. After our Brahma cockerel was killed, we exiled both Big Red & Big White (I know, creative names, huh?) to the great outdoors. We figured our hens would be thrilled to lose a couple of roosters. But we underestimated the magnetism of Big Red.

There is a rip in the netting over our chicken yard that can no longer be repaired. It has been repaired so many times that there simply is not enough net left to repair! Since we had reached the point where the chickens wouldn’t be going outside due to the cold, we left the net alone & planned to replace it after the henhouse door was closed for the winter. Problem is, we didn’t reckon on the determination of those darned hens! Next thing we know, a couple of hens have “broken out” to be with Big Red!

Plotting Hens!!
Here’s the dilemma: while my sis & I are working our full-time jobs, our hens have all day long to figure out how to “force” the henhouse door leading to the chicken yard. Chickens aren’t very bright, but they ARE persistent, & they have the advantage of unlimited time in which to work their covert machinations! Last year, they pecked at their wooden door until they wore it down so far that the bottom broke off, & out they ran into the snow-covered yard! This time, we arrived home in darkness only to find a chorus line of hens, spotlighted by our headlights, running loose in the yard.

There is no electricity out on our 4-acre yard where the “Jungle Chickens” now live, so it is virtually impossible to capture them in the dark. Our naive chickens have no experience with predators, so they don’t understand that they must fly up into trees or find other secure perches in order to remain safe. The end result has usually been that our “problem roosters” disappear, but now our egg-producing hens are at risk too! The only good thing is that Big Red is a large rooster, & he will fight to keep those hens safe! Fortunately, they decided to roost in some of our old barrels, where they could all share body heat & remain under cover.

We thought that Red had only seduced a couple of the hens away from the henhouse, but last Friday we discovered that 2 of our BEST hens had followed his siren song -- our Buff Orpington (creatively named “Buff”) & our ONLY Brahma hen (named “Honeychile”)! I spent a good chunk of Sunday afternoon trying to catch these 2 hens to get them back into the safety of the henhouse. So you could say that I know A LOT about chickens running!

Mariah, the Aussie Queen
Herding dogs aren’t a lot of use with chickens, although they’re AWESOME with sheep! Herding drive is a modified prey drive, & a dog’s prey drive is almost always “activated” when a chicken flaps her wings. So it is usually not safe to use a herding dog to herd chickens. My sis had an awesome chicken herding dog, Tucker, but he died 2 years ago. Currently, we don’t have a dog we can trust with the chickens.

If you don’t have another person or a dog to help you “herd” an escaped chicken back into the henhouse, one of the best tools you can use is a landing net. Yes, I said “landing net” -- as in the kind you use to land salmon or trout while fishing! These nets are the perfect tool to drop over a chicken, flip them up into the net, & then carefully remove them from the net to place them back in the henhouse. Chickens have very strong claws with long nails, but most landing nets are very strong, especially if you purchase one intended for larger fish like salmon. I always look for landing nets at garage sales, so that I don’t have to purchase a brand new one when my current one dies. You can also use a blanket or a beach towel & throw it over the chicken, but both of these tools have the disadvantage of being opaque, making it tough to grasp the chicken firmly. Truly, the best tool out there is a landing net.

I thought I had it handled. I would go out with the net, capture the hens, & put them back into the henhouse. I’ve done this so many times that it seemed like a no-brainer, but I didn’t consider one small detail. I currently have this little neurological issue that has paralyzed half of my face. Due to this, my eye runs with tears whenever I am outside in the cold, blurring my vision. Add to this, chickens can RUN! And boy, do they ever run when you try to net them! I’ve netted chickens many times, but this time I just COULD NOT get the net OVER the hen! One blurry eye equals NO distance perception, so every time I dropped that darned net, it landed just short of the hen! I was especially frustrated by little Honeychile, who seemed determined to run away from me! She looked like a little white bodybuilder hightailing it outta there! Aargh! The end result after 3 hours of work is that I didn’t catch a SINGLE one. Oh, except for Big Red, who I caught THREE times!

Mixed-Breed Rooster (NOT Big Red!)
Apparently Red isn’t scared of me or the net! This should come as no surprise, since Big Red runs straight at the front of my van every single morning when I’m leaving for work! For a chicken, Red is pretty brave, so I dropped the net over him, picked him up, & put him back on the ground again. After the third time, I lifted him up into my arms & carried him around the yard for a while. I thought it was a good idea to see how his development was progressing, & it is always good to do some work taming your roosters. You don’t want your roosters getting so territorial that they attack you & everyone else who visits your yard!

From holding him, I determined that Red is still a cockerel & doesn’t have the leg spikes of a rooster quite yet. So it’s pretty safe to say that Red didn’t kill our Brahma cockerel, since roosters usually kill with their spikes. In fact, I discovered that Big Red is actually quite tame. He allowed me cuddle him & ruffle his hackles (neck feathers), & even let me handle his feet & check his spikes. I carried him all over the yard, & the only time he squawked was when I put him face to face with our lead sheep, Carmel.

Even though I didn’t catch a SINGLE hen, I still consider the afternoon a partial success. If we can keep Big Red reasonably tame, & he survives life as a Jungle Chicken, perhaps we can co-exist with him living on the “big yard”. In fact, I think I’m genuinely starting to like him.   

So.... That's the story of my latest chicken run! Hopefully it brought a smile to your face. I'm still aching all over from chasing chickens all over creation! But I still say that the worst day chasing chickens is better than the best day locked inside an office! Have a great day!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rooster Games

Well, the time has arrived! The jousting, the hopping, the dancing. No, I’m not talking about the Reindeer Games of “Rudolph” fame. I’m talking about the dominance games between our adolescent roosters!
            As the sheep settle down for their “long winter’s nap”, easily adapting to hand-fed corn & bales of hay, sleeping is the furthest thing from our young roosters’ minds! Instead, they’re jousting, clawing, & “beaking” each other mercilessly, because “chicken coop” season has arrived!!

 They all look so innocent when they’re babies, and we certainly never set out to have more than seven roosters! The problem is, chicks are notoriously hard to “sex”, so many baby “pullets” (e.g., hens) actually turn out to be roosters! Chicken “equipment” is all on the INSIDE, so there’s no easy way to “flip & check” like you can with a rabbit or dog. Like it or not, mistakes are made, even by the most experienced “chicken sexers”. Unfortunately, this means that several of our “pullets” have begun crowing in the past few weeks!

We THOUGHT we had just three roosters: our beautiful Salmon Faverolles rooster named Magnum, and two young Brahma cockerels (juvenile roosters). Life was good. Then, surprise, surprise! Suddenly we began to see hackle feathers & saddle feathers growing around the necks & right above the tails of some of our juvenile “pullets”, which are sure signs of a rooster! Egad! Our “pullets” were actually cockerels! JUST what we needed!

Salmon Faverolles Rooster ["Magnum"]

Too many roosters do not a peaceful henhouse make! The plain truth is, “chicken romance” is rather unpleasant for the hen, & too many roosters in the henhouse can wreak real havoc! Since we’d like to keep our hens happy, so that they continue laying eggs in the winter, it’s up to us to keep “rooster randiness” to a minimum.

Until now, Magnum has ruled the henhouse fairly gently, the hens have all been happy, and no other bird challenged him. Our Brahma cockerels are of a breed known for its large size and gentleness, so we didn’t fear for Magnum’s safety. We thought we had done a good job selecting hens & roosters. Until last month, when the “camouflaged cockerels” started crowing, with each one trying to outdo the next!

 Then we realized that three of the cockerels were growing alarmingly large. One rooster in particular is HUGE, & we now see that he is actually one of the fighting breeds. A fighting rooster in a henhouse is REALLY not good! Mature roosters of the fighting breeds grow long, curved, vicious SPIKES on the insides of their legs, and they use those spikes to stab & gouge each other. This enormous rooster is going to grow huge spikes, & this will be a terrible risk to Magnum & the other roosters! It was at this point that we began to consider turning some of these young roosters into Christmas dinners.

Fighting roosters (not ours!)
I’ve seen my share of aggressive roosters. There are some roosters who try to “bluff” their way out of a situation by flaring their hackles & fluffing up & trying to “walk tall”, but they deflate like a party balloon when challenged. Grasping them around the neck with my hand stops their bad behavior right away & reminds them of their place in the world. Brahmas are like that.

Polish Rooster (like Rusty)
One of the most beautiful & aggressive roosters I’ve ever owned was Rusty, an enormous Golden Polish (crested) rooster. He was just plain MEAN! He was so large that he had to live in a medium-sized dog kennel, because no other cage was large enough. He was also highly aggressive. I wanted to keep him for breeding, but he grew so aggressive that I couldn’t. He seriously wanted to KILL me. After he attacked me for the umpteenth time, putting a 4-inch gash down the side of my hand, Rusty went to the “processing center”. He was too much of a risk. You just don’t mess with truly aggressive roosters. It isn’t worth the risk to you, the other chickens, or other livestock.
Unfortunately, in our current situation, we were too late for one of our gentle Brahma cockerels, who we found dead last week. We were heartbroken, since we had searched far & wide for our Brahma pullets & cockerels. That was the final straw -- we had reached the end of our patience. Time for the problem roosters to “go jungle"!

 In the past, some of our roosters and hens have escaped from the henhouse and evaded capture. Although it is safer for them to stay in the henhouse, some of them have adapted quite well to “life on the outside”. Others were never heard from again, since chickens aren’t as bright as the local foxes, cats, and hawks that have removed them from the gene pool. We began to use the phrase “going jungle” for this “striking out into the great unknown” behavior. Over time, we’ve established the policy that disruptive roosters must “go jungle” if they’re unsettling the henhouse too much or getting too aggressive. In our current case, we have now removed two roosters from the henhouse. There is a third rooster who is also growing “too big for his boots” & may be moved outside. This isn’t an easy decision to make, knowing that these roosters must survive a Michigan winter. But the welfare of our other chickens is a higher priority.

Keeping livestock is always a balancing act, & it isn’t just with the chickens. Five of our ewes are beating up on our sixth ewe, OB. Our job is to intervene in this situation as humanely as possible, while still making it clear to the other sheep that bullying OB is not acceptable. So, when the sheep are grained, I hand-feed OB with extra corn. If another sheep shoves OB, I smack the other ewe on her hindquarter with my livestock whip. It startles, rather than stings, & reminds her that I want her to stop her current behavior.

Every day is different here at Waggin’TailsStation, but it’s still one of the best places on earth to be. Wishing you all a great day!

[our thanks to for the great pix!] 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wintering at Waggin' Tails Station

Sooooooo... No denying that Waggin’ Tails Station has been on hiatus for a while. Our apologies, but some medical issues over the past few months required some re-evaluation of our workload. We weren’t sure whether we would be forced to move from our small farm to a new location. That issue has now been laid to rest, at least for a while, so it’s time to bring Waggin’TailsStation back up to speed!

          Seeing as mid-Michigan just saw its first major snow of 2011, this seems a good time to talk about wintering over your livestock...

          If you break it down to basics, the requirements for livestock are the same as those for us humans! Food, water, & shelter are all essential. But providing these things for livestock can present some challenges, both financial & logistical.

          Consider water, for example, in the frozen winter months here in Michigan. During the summer, we utilize a simple hose system by which we keep chicken waterers & the sheep tank filled with fresh water. This same system allows us to scrub out the waterers & tank periodically, then refill, in order to avoid any bacterial growth.
          However, this hose system is useless during the winter months. In fact, if the hoses aren’t cleared of water before the first freeze, the water in them will freeze, expand, & split the hoses! So we pull the hoses at the first freeze, & store them for the winter. But then, what’s a person to do to water the chickens & fill the sheep tank?
          That’s when we REALLY go back to basics, using gallon jugs or 5-gallon buckets to carry water out to the livestock. It’s much more labor-intensive than the summer system, but is the only solution to our situation at this time.
          In order to keep our chicken waterers from freezing, we use metal waterers with heaters that are specially designed for the purpose. We also use a floating tank heater in the sheep tank. This heater floats freely around the tank, so that the surface of the tank doesn’t freeze. Of course, the use of these devices causes an increase in electrical costs during winter months, which is another challenge altogether!

          Shelter is less of an issue, especially with the chickens. The henhouse door to the chicken yard is closed & insulated in order to preserve warmth, & a supplemental heat lamp is added when needed. Our chickens snuggle together when they are cold, which has occasionally resulted in “sudden chicken death”. This happens because chickens aren’t very bright, so sometimes the chicken at the bottom of the pile is smothered by all of the others. To avoid the occasional chicken catastrophe, we do our best to keep the henhouse warm enough. Our chickens are pretty comfortable at temperatures over 40 degrees Farenheit. Even in winter, if the day is warm enough & we are not working, we will open the door out to the chicken yard so that the chickens can get outside & roam around a bit. Even with chickens, too much togetherness is NOT a good thing!
          When setting up a wintering system for the chickens, something else to consider is a way to keep the roosters from tormenting the hens too much while they’re all confined inside. “Chicken love” is not a very nice thing from the hen’s point of view. Roosters tend to be larger than hens & are far more aggressive as well, so being confined together can wreak havoc on the hens. For this reason, many chicken wranglers “process” their extra roosters before the winter begins, eliminating part of the problem. For those hens confined with the remaining roosters, we set up a shelter that the hens can access but the roosters cannot. We use ½ of a plastic dog kennel for our hens. Our roosters are too large to get thru the doorway, but most of the hens are not. In fact, in the spring & summer, many of our roosting hens (e.g., sitting on eggs) like to “hide” in this shelter while setting on their eggs.
          For our small herd of sheep, an aluminum pig house does the trick, with a wall added at one end as a windbreak. All 6 of the sheep can enter this enclosure, & their body heat is shared within the small space, keeping them all warm. Of course, there are occasionally squabbles regarding the space limitations, but our dominant sheep Carmel seems to keep all the others in check. The sheep share a large fenced area during the winter months, & we occasionally let them out onto the “big yard” if the day is warm & the snow isn’t very deep.

          When it comes to diet, we make some changes over the summer months. Although this might sound a bit macabre to the uninitiated, we will occasionally scramble eggs to give to our chickens during the winter months. The extra fat & protein in their diet helps them to create “internal combustion”. It is an unfortunate fact that chickens become cannibals when one of their own number dies, so they are totally OK with eating the eggs of their own species. I realize it seems a bit macabre to humans, but it is the most cost-efficient way to upgrade their diet in the winter months. In addition, we know that the food source is uncontaminated, since our chickens are all disease-free in a closed flock.
          We also increase the amount of owner-fed foods, such as breads & veggies from our refrigerator. Chickens will eat virtually anything, & their diet becomes more limited in the winter when they cannot forage for bugs or other goodies. They are willing to eat veggies that are slightly past their “good date” in human eyes. The most amusing thing I’ve ever seen is the way our chickens go insane when we give them an old watermelon that has been cut in half! By the time they’re done, only the thinnest shell of the watermelon remains, they are all covered in pink, & are very happy!
          For our sheep, the winter diet is also changed. During the summer, they are very efficient lawn mowers of our “big yard” & get enough vegetation in that way. But in the winter, they require more “owner supplementation”, so we put up a good supply of hay to carry them thru the winter months. We also increase their corn intake, provide a mineral block, & add in little treats such as cut-up apples or other fruit.

          So as you can see, there are some things to be considered if you decide to “winter over” livestock in Michigan. And we have some of the simpler species to winter over. As the saying goes, chickens and sheep are “easy keepers”. But folks with horses, cows, or other animals have other issues that they must consider.
          There is no doubt that there is a bit of extra labor involved during the winter months, particularly in making sure that water sources are available. But the contentment of having sheep come to you to eat corn from your hand, or having chickens come to your lap to roost in the henhouse, far outweigh the extra labor, at least in our eyes.