Egg Shells to Egg Shells

Laying hens need calcium to form all that good strong eggshell, almost one shell a day! That’s a lot of calcium! You can give them ground oystershell, it’s very good stuff, but I can’t find it locally and ordering it is pretty expensive. Instead, I grind up the old eggshells and feed them back to the hens.

There’s something undeniably uncomfortable about feeding hens their own eggs, and surely it’s not as nutritionally superior as oystershell, but it’s common practice with apparently no deleterious effect. And of course much cheaper and ‘closed loop.’ I think if chooks have access to good outside ground (not just a few square feet of destroyed dirt) everything becomes less critical, they can forage to fill any gaps. Bugs must be chock full of calcium, right? Not to mention loads of other goodies.

At any rate, I keep an old paper flour bag on the counter for eggshells. When it gets full, all you have to do is smunch the bag to crush them down loosely, then keep filling. (As you are cracking the shells initially, don’t stack them into egg towers, as I used to do. Keep them more or less in singles so that the residual eggy goo can dry instead of rot. This also helps them to crush easier.) When the bag gets a good stock of semi-crushed shells, I take a rolling pin to it. Some rolling, some bashing. Like making bread crumbs. The kids love to help.

I’ve never been clear on how fine the shell needs to be. I have taken it down to almost sand like, but I’m pretty sure that was unnecessary, and a hell of a lot of work. They eat rocks, right? Probably their internal burr grinders can handle bigger pieces of shell. I have settled on taking it to about quick-oat size. Which is still plenty of work, and may still be quite unnecessary. Anyone know the answer here? Feel free to chime in.

After the rolling pin gets old, I take the bag outside onto the concrete patio and bash it with a brick a few times. That seems to finish the job.

I nailed a tuna can to the wall inside the coop for the ground shell, and we keep a yogurt container outside for re-filling from. That’s one of the 4yo’s jobs. These hens don’t seem to eat near so much of it as my hens in Alaska ate, and I suspect it has something to do with this:

This is what they call “gravel” around here, not the sticks part, but the shell part. The entire chook yard looks like this. Might be the whole of what this crazy city is sitting on. I’ve even seen crumbling concrete structures, revealing a filling of this “gravel,” like modern fossils. Anyway, whatever dirt goes along with all that shell must have quite a bit of calcium, nay? So my ground up egg shells may be redundant.

But we keep filling up the can anyway. Can’t hurt right?

[post script: based on some of the comments on this post, I stopped working so hard at this task. Now I just crush them in the bag with my hands and throw them into the chook yard all at once, with some pieces still as big as pennies. Seems fine. They trample them up smaller and eat them over time I guess. Our ladies still lay good strong eggs, so I’m gonna stick with the easy way.]

Just Wing It

Our chicken decision has been a continual pleasure. I can hardly believe I was going to not get chickens. As I mentioned in the Chicken Herder post, they have been an incredible learning opportunity for my daughter. The regularity of a chore, that belongs to her but benefits the family, is just wonderful. But in addition to that overriding lesson, there are myriad little daily lessons to be had in purely tangible problem solving. She has learned to operate the hook and eye latches to let the chickens out and put them away at night, to gather and count eggs, put them away in the kitchen and mark the appropriate number of ticks onto our “egg calendar” on the fridge. Furthermore she has learned more subtle things like how to lure the ladies into the coop with a cup of grain when necessary and how to clean the wood shavings out of the hinge when the door isn’t closing properly.

The chooks also provide a continual source of entertainment, especially since the run is right next to the house and we can open the dining room window and throw them scraps. We had a friend over recently and, after cutting up an avocado she asked if I wanted the peel in my compost bucket. The 1.5yo piped up, eyes big with pride at cracking a code, “Kickens?” Oh yes! Don’t compost what you can throw to the chickens!

My favorite thing about having hens remains feeding them kitchen scraps. I hate wasting food, and I think we do a darn good job at recycling leftovers around here. But, especially with kids, there are just quite a lot of bits and pieces which would otherwise get dumped. Bread crusts, two bites of oatmeal, dried nibs of cheese from behind the sofa. I love throwing those things out for the ladies, who come running full bore when I open the window.

But the best thing to feed chooks is the kitchen failures that otherwise make me want to cry. I tried fermenting some pickles recently, but I didn’t make enough of an effort to keep the cukes submerged. The sticking out parts turned into moldy slime. I am fairly devastated by this kind of DIY failure. I kick myself pretty hard. And, not that it didn’t still suck the big one, but when I pulled the mold off and threw the half rotten pickles to the chickens, my fallen heart got a little boost back up. Yea. Something good came out of it, at least.

As far as their yard, those ladies work hard all day long, churning up the dirt to keep the weeds back and eating bugs that would otherwise head towards our house. The soil devestation would be a problem in many situations, but in ours, the area alongside the house where I set up their run was a big overgrown mess. Unusable for anything else, just a jungle of bug breeding weeds. They are actually dramatically improving the value of that side area.

And did I mention that the eggs kick ass? I had thought they would taste just like the farmer’s market eggs, which are very, very good. But no, my eggs are even better. Maybe it’s because they’re mine. Maybe it’s because sometimes they’re still warm when I crack them into the pan. Maybe it’s because they eat bugs all frickin’ day long. But damn are them some fine eggs.

Yes, I highly recommend the chicken caper. It’s not utopia, I mentioned the downsides here, but if you can get past those, there are so many benefits.

Erica at NW Edibles gave us a tour of their coop recently, which is righteously awesome. I want to give you a tour of my set-up, which is the extreme other end of the chicken spectrum, just so you know that you can do it for hardly any money, and very little work if the situation warrants it.

Did you catch that last part? Before we get into my scroungy coop, I want to make something very clear. If you own your own land and intend to have chooks over the long haul, do not slam together a half-assed coop like mine. Take the time and money to build a high functioning, long term solution like Erica’s. You won’t regret it. Consider it like a pension fund.

If, on the other hand, you are renting like us, or want to give chickens a try without committing, or really, really want chickens but are just flat broke, you can do it on the fly. Here’s some inspiration:

Classy, isn’t it? Nothing like a blue tarp to dress things right down. I could buy a sheet of plywood to properly roof it, but that would cost actual money. As it is, all the materials except the wire mesh and the tarp were scavenged. There is a plywood roof under that tarp, but it just barely fits the footprint, without any overhang. Hence the tarp.

Here is the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the —

Oooops! Hello there lovely lady! Hard at work I see.

As you can see, I sprung for the fancy feeder, not sure why, those are a pretty basic DIY. But I did set up a sketchy brainchild gravity flow waterer, complete with twistie-ties, which I’m going to explain in a separate post.

The coop itself is very small because the girls spend most of the day outside. If they had to be enclosed at all times, we would need a drastically larger coop. When I built my coop in Alaska, I had planned on the chooks being outside a lot, but that didn’t really pan out because of dogs, a roaming neighborhood bear, and a lack of fencing. Because they were in the coop almost all the time, it turned out to be a bit too small for my animal ethics. The lesson here is, carefully consider whether you have an appropriately secure yard space for the ladies, before you plan your coop.

The very generous sized chook yard, already enclosed on the two long sides, and the lack of serious daytime predators is a lot of what made my shoestring budget possible. We have possums here, which apparently can and do kill chickens, but they are nocturnal. Other than that, it’s just the small possibility of a loose dog. You can see that although the coop itself is pretty tight (we lock them in at night), the yard is really just to keep the girls in, not anything in particular out. I do sometimes leave the house for short excursions with them out in the yard, and it’s somewhat risky, but I think the benefit outweighs the risk.

If you are going to be building a small coop, I highly recommend looking for some crates. These worked out very well, and I think could even have their place in a nice coop. They are pretty sturdy really. These came from a boutique tile store, so are probably sturdier than most.

I’m not sure that using all that wire mesh was the right thing to do. I had my pick of a very large pile of scrap plywood (small pieces) and could have saved even more money by using it (that small gauge mesh is expensive!) but we don’t have a power saw here, and the idea of cutting very much plywood with our hand saw wore me out. Stapling the mesh on was relatively quick and easy. But as you can see, the bedding is slowly filtering out onto the ground. Plus I need that tarp overhang partly because there’s no plywood siding to keep the rain out. That damn stuff just refuses to fall straight down, and always seems to come at an angle.

On the other hand, the mesh helps keep things cooler in there, and at 95 F, cooler is definitely better.

Have you ever seen chickens pant? They do, like a dog. They hang their beaks open, and their whole little bodies heave with the in and out breaths. It’s somewhere between cute and disturbing.

With my next post I’ll go into a bit of detail about some specific DIY chicken projects, such as my weird brainchild waterer.

Stay tuned!

Chicken Herder

I take back everything I said about being slow and reasonable. If you’ve been dreaming of chickens, and you have small children, go now. Build that coop.

When our ladies first arrived, into my hastily thrown together crate coop and the inevitable glitches of such haste started rolling in, I felt the cold shadow of regret. After thinking about it so hard, had I failed to keep my head in the end? The constant trouble of a poor set-up loomed and I felt tired. The hens were pickier than I remembered, they wouldn’t even eat the chard stems I had so been looking forward to feeding them. Bah. I considered cursing the universe for taunting me with those stupid, perfect crates. What’s the big deal anyway? Eggs. So what. I can buy them just as good at the farmer’s market, for hardly more money. Was this just a big waste of my time, when I could have been using my “vacation” for more vacationy pursuits?

But. I was leaving out one very big piece of the puzzle.


I mean, I had thought about how the kids would enjoy having chickens, and how they would provide valuable life lessons about where our food comes from, etc, etc, but I had failed to realize the immensity that keeping hens had to offer for a 3-going-on-4YO. Her role in this life is revolutionized. With no formal training, and very little fanfare, my little girl has become a chicken herder.

A few days in, I mentioned that checking for eggs could be her job. I’m always looking for good chores for her, and as I suspected, she stepped up eagerly. We put a special latch on the coop door that she could open, so that she could check for eggs all by herself. On about the fourth day, she leapt out of bed in the morning. ‘I have to check for eggs!’ she yelled, big bright eyes shining as she ran out the door. I stayed in the house, to give her the opportunity to accomplish her task alone. A few minutes later she came running back in, ‘Mama, mama! The chickens are out of water!’

You know when you watch your kid learn something that, before having kids, you had never given a single thought to? Some small skill that seems totally mundane, but when you watch it unfurl from the sea anemone of infancy, just blows your mind.

I can’t think what the word is for this new skill. It’s more than just initiative. I had given her a job, and she had done it, and then looked around with a critical eye to see what else was needed. Her little brain is learning to link things up, make sense of disparate parts, realize problems and troubleshoot them. Gulp. My little girl. Growing up.

Every day she collects the eggs, brings them into the kitchen, puts them in the egg carton that is strategically placed where only she (and not any shorter members of our household) can reach it, then marks down how many on a piece of paper taped to the fridge. She lets the ladies out into their yard in the morning and shuts them into their coop for the night. She knows she is not allowed to open the gate into their yard unless they’re all in their coop. I watch her surreptitiously through the bedroom window when she goes out by herself. She takes it all ever so seriously and carefully follows any rules I have laid out. Which, have you been reading this blog? is not exactly as per personality. She’s usually more of a make-a-rule-and-you-will-live-to-regret-it kind of kid.

But the chicken herding is real. Kids aren’t stupid, they know when we give them bogus tasks and bogus rules. The chickens are real live animals, smaller than her, dependent on her. People talk about getting their kids a pet so that the kid will ‘learn to take care of something’ as if it’s a hard lesson we have to teach them, but I think that puts the wrong spin on it. I think a pet gives a kid the opportunity to take care of something, to be genuinely needed, to rise to the occasion. Which are all enormously important sources of joy and satisfaction to people of any age.

Pets are well and good, but what I have realized is so fantastic about the chickens is that, not only is she taking care of creatures smaller than her, but she is taking a genuinely useful place in the workings of our household. She takes care of the chickens, they lay us eggs, she collects the eggs, we eat the eggs. At the store this morning she said happily, “We don’t need eggs.”

the herdess waits patiently for her charges to file in for the night

I don’t know how I feel about enforced chores for kids. We haven’t quite gotten there yet. I didn’t have chores when I was growing up, and I ended up with a damn good work ethic, if I do say so myself. But, of course it can go an awful lot of ways. Having kids has definitely given me some utopian ideas– like, the best way to foster a love of something is not to force it, but to allow a child to discover it on their own. We shall see, as things unfold. Certainly the best possible way for a kid to discover the meaningful-ness of work on their own is to have the opportunity to do work that has genuine meaning.

It’s not that easy to provide such opportunities in today’s household. Kids used to be honestly needed. By 4, they are amazingly capable, and I can see how this would have worked, in ‘the old days.’ I can see how she has this blossoming desire for responsibility, coupled with the ever-present drive to challenge herself. If I genuinely needed her to, I think she could take reasonably good care of her 1.5YO little brother. Which sounds crazy by modern standards, like, someone call Child Protective Services. And I don’t leave them alone, of course. I don’t need to. But sometimes I wonder if we would all be better off if I did.

Her chicken herding services aren’t genuinely needed either. I could easily do it myself, and I’m sure we all know that. But at least it genuinely needs doing, at a level she can understand. Not like the abstract chore of picking up her toys. It might not be my ideal survival family education, but it’s the best thing we’ve got going at our house.

The shadow of regret was in fact just a cloud passing over. Instead I can hardly believe I was considering not getting chickens. The work of the coop, the cost of the feed? An insignificant price to pay for such an incredible learning opportunity. Let alone the selfish pleasure of watching my little girl master new skills and think creatively as she joyfully takes on her first big responsibility.

Thank you for slapping me till I took notice, oh Benificent Universe!

The Deed is Done

Here I am. End of the week. Projects half done all over the place. Just like me. I can’t seem to knock it off with the thinking I can do it all. Which always ends in disappointment, disillusionment, and the ironic dissolving of my energy to finish anything.

But! If I can just remove myself from the stupid disappointment of not being able to achieve the impossible, it was a great week! I got plenty of good shit done and managed to squeeze in some quality goofing off time.

And of course, I got chickens.

After finding those crates on Mother’s Day I went from absolutely having decided against it, and joyfully starting a zine instead, to diving head first off the cliff of chickens in about 4 hours. Within 72 hours, I had hens in a coop. Those crates really did make the job so much easier, I can’t believe I was considering building a coop from scratch. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, though time will tell if my shoddy methods will come back to haunt me. My first coop in Alaska, I built to last for years, and it took me a week. This coop I built to last a single year, and it took me about 10 hours, including 3 hours to go buy materials. Purty quick like. I hope I don’t regret it.

I feel obliged to speak directly to those of you who want to get chickens and are trying to hold off in the name of reason–

Do. Hold off I mean.

I’m pretty happy about my own caving in, but it makes a huge difference that I’ve had chickens before. I was delighted to find that the components of a coop were already set up in my mind. How wonderful to have gained knowledge! And then it’s there for you, like opening a book but easier. Not that I know much about chickens, don’t misunderstand. I had one batch, for about a year and a half. But I already did all the careful planning and consideration of feeder, waterer, roosting pole, nesting box, bedding and access.

And let me mention again that I don’t expect much economic return here. I spent $160 on materials for the coop, including a few tools we didn’t have here like staple gun and tin snips, and bedding. Add on $15/50lb bag of feed, say I go through 200 lbs of feed over a year (?) that’s $60. Another $30 for bedding. Total costs– $250.

If these 4 ladies, at 7 months they are in their absolute prime for laying, give me 2 dozen eggs/week, that adds up to 100 dozen over the year. At the farmer’s market price of $4/doz that’s $400. Assuming there are no more unforeseen costs (extremely unlikely) and that I’ve estimated feed costs right, I’ll save $150. Not much considering the work of setting up the coop, the work of maintaining it, the daily chores, and the fact of being kind of tied down by high maintainance pets.

(mostly) finished coop

Speaking of pets, I think this is a good time to rant a little about fads. Keeping chickens has become a fad, no doubt about it. In the course of it’s fadishness some important facts seem to have been lost. Most critically the fact that chickens only lay enough to pay for their feed for about 2 years. They live for 8-10 years, sometimes as long as 20! Before anyone gets chickens, they need to consider this very seriously. They do continue laying, but it really tapers off. So, will you get new, young hens to keep up the egg production? To do some simple math, say you get 4 hens for an egg production of 2 doz/week. If you keep on the older ladies after their production drops off, and get 3 fresh young things every two years, in 8 years you have built a flock of 16 chickens! While still only getting probably about 2 dozen eggs/week.

Of course, unless you have a big farm, and they feed themselves more or less, this can’t work. To have produce eggs in an urban or suburban yard, you will have to kill chickens. If you treat your chickens like pets, how will you feel about killing them after their two years of service?

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about it myself. I have fully wrapped my head around killing wild animals for meat, but farming, with it’s indentured servitude, I have not. Use them for their reproductive services, then kill them off? Deep breath.

The thing is, we eat eggs. We buy eggs. It’s me or someone else, so might as well be me. I guess.

But if you have a good farm source for eggs, there’s really no ethical imperative to do it yourself. The Goat Man, at the farmer’s market, I bet his chickens got it at least as good as mine, maybe better. Certainly better than many urban chicken set-ups which are sometimes just a glorified dog kennel.

our first egg, note it's not in the nest box

My main persuasion was scraps. Have you ever had a compost pile and then not had a compost pile? Did it hurt every time you threw food scraps into the trash can? I think like composting, once you have chickens you can never really go back. It kills me to throw good food away. Even when ‘away’ is the compost bin. Even when ‘good food’ is just carrot tops or two tablespoons of leftover oatmeal. After having fed those scraps to some happy hens, and had them turn it into both compost and eggs, I just can’t go back. It’s ruinous.

And for my one of the greatest part about having chickens is the way it closes a loop. Of course I still feed them store-bought stuff, and plenty of it. But any amount of home scale recycling is just deeply satisfying to me. Feeding the hens carrot tops from my garden is almost as satisfying as collecting the eggs, seriously.

So no, we will not be naming our ladies. I will love them, in my way. And then when it’s time to head back to Alaska in a year, if I can’t find a new home for them, I’ll kill them and eat them.

Love is a many splendored thing.

Helpless to the Siren Call

I really had definitely decided not to get chickens. Really.

But…. out for a walk on mother’s day I found three big, solid wood crates on the side of the road. I felt almost annoyed at the universe, who had the week before directed me toward a large sized dog kennel (read chicken transporter) by a dumpster. Can’t you lay off about the chickens? I’m doing my best here to exersize self control, but you’re really not helping!

The crates really threw me. These two were even stacked provocatively into a coop shape. I walked home sighing big sighs. I have just put much too much thought into the silly question of whether or not to get chickens. I can’t seem to lead myself away from it, I keep reconsidering. Once the idea was planted, it was really just a matter of time until I caved.

So, I hauled those MFs home. Then I drove to the nearby new house going up (there’s always at least one around here) and scrounged out of the enormous pile of incredibly good lumber “scraps.” Yesterday I made it real to the pocketbook, and therefore really real, and went to Lowes. $100 egg deposit.

I started stapling the hardware cloth on last night, and put a piece of plywood on top for a roof. This is my favorite kind of building, it doesn’t have to look good, or even be good. It only has to last a year. Just get that shit done. Oh the joy of stapling! So satisfying!

this one will sit atop the other one

Unlike my Alaska coop, this one doesn’t have to keep the chickie-poos warm at 5 degrees. And they will doubtlessly spend all their waking hours outside in the spacious run, so it doesn’t have to be big. What it does have to do is protect them from night predators, namely possums.

I did find plenty of plywood, but air flow seemed a better idea in this climate, so I’m planning to use the mesh for all the walls. ie: no part of the coop (other than the laying box) will be enclosed with plywood. I hope I don’t regret that.

just look at the run-waiting-to-happen! could you resist that space?

One thing I didn’t mention in that last post, because I was trying to talk myself out of the idea, was that there is a place a short drive from here selling laying hens. About one year old, in the prime of their laying life, for $15. So, I will not be doing the whole chick raising business (I know lots of people enjoy that part, but I thought it was a pain in my ass). Since I’m only getting 4 hens, and I’ve already come to terms with the fact that this is not a money saving venture, I think it’s worth it. And then I will be getting eggs– BING, BAM, BOOM!

This morning I found an ad on craigslist for laying hens for only $10, and less of a drive. I’ll call when it gets to be a reasonable hour.

Perhaps the universe was looking out for me. If I’d decided earlier to get chickens, before I found those crates, it would have been a hell of a lot more work. And in light of the new craigslist ad, I might be about to save $20 by waiting a few more days…

Now, off to do more stapling! Did I mention that it’s fun for the first 400 staples, then becomes a total drag?

good thing I have help