Thursday, February 28, 2013

Observations & Lessons Learned from My First Winter with Chickens

I live on the corner of my neighborhood -- as a result, everyone in said neighborhood can see what's happening in my yard. As you can imagine, I get a lot of questions about raising chickens. One question I got a lot in the late summer and fall was, "What are you going to do with them this winter?"  I would just give them a non-committal, "Oh, I'm still doing some reading about that. We'll see."

Truth was, I was feeling pretty nervous about the whole wintertime chicken keeping thing. What was I going to do with them?  I couldn't move the tractor around in the wintertime, so I'd have to figure out some sort of way to keep things clean and un-muddy. My usual method of dealing with chicken poop (move the tractor, rake it up, put it in compost pile, repeat) wouldn't work during the winter months. Then there was the question of using heat lamps and artificial lighting. I asked some of my chicken keeper friends on Facebook what they thought I should do in that regard: half said yes to lamps, half said no. Even my chicken book I'd consulted for months and months didn't really have much information about keeping chickens in the winter.

So, with a little extra research, some prowling around in forums, with the help of a couple of great chicken blogs (I particularly like this one), I trusted my gut and hoped I wouldn't kill my three chickens this winter. Tomorrow is the first day of March and I'm happy to report that all three of my ladies are alive, well, and laying.

Here are some of the observations I made and some lessons I learned through these past cold and snowy months:

1. Chickens are tough.  
So after I put the whole "heat lamp or no?" question out to my Facebook friends and got mixed answers, I went searching around online. Again, mixed. I asked a couple people at the local feed store. They said to go with the lamp. I even had a kid from my church ask (when I told him that my girls weren't laying as much at the time), "You got a light on your chickens?" And to be honest, I felt bad about the ladies being out in the cold.

But I couldn't shake the arguments from the "no heat lamp" camp and the testimonials from chicken keepers in the Northern states like Michigan and Minnesota. I also couldn't help but think, "How did the pioneers take care of chickens before electricity?" It finally came down to what I read in an issue of Backyard Poultry magazine: I learned that chickens can survive in temperatures as low as -20°F, as long as they are sheltered from drafts. Chickens have over 8000 feathers which they fluff out and trap air with; their body heat warms the air and they stay surprisingly warm.  Plus, it's better to have them get used to cold temperatures instead of relying on a heat lamp -- if chickens that are used to having heat lamp lose that source of heat (like, say, in a power outage or if a bulb burns out), you could lose your whole flock.

So the girls didn't get a heat lamp this winter (though I still put in there -- hence the yellow cord in the picture -- just in case I changed my mind). Even in January, when we went through a stretch when the high daytime temperatures were in the low teens and the nights got as low as -10°F, they were fine. On those super-cold days I took extra care of them, which I will explain later in this post (see #5).

2. I miss the "chipple".
This past June, I learned about the chicken nipple (or as my husband and I call it, the chipple) watering system. Instead of having water dishes that get poop, food, and bedding kicked into them, you can hang the water containers and the chickens drink from the red nipple on the bottom of the container. The water stays totally clean and you don't have to change it numerous times a day. It's the best way to water chickens, in my humble opinon.

The downside to the chipple: it doesn't work in the wintertime (at least not in my experience).  The metal part  that the birds tap with their beak to release the water gets frozen and stuck in place. So even with my attempts to keep changing it and filling it with water, the first thing to freeze was that metal part. Knowing that I would eventually have to give up the chipple for the season, I ordered a heated water bowl (there are lots of great DIY ways to make heated waterers but with the limited space in the chicken tractor, I just went with the bowl).

The bowl works really well at keeping the water from freezing (it didn't even freeze when the temperatures hovered below, at, or barely above 0°F), but I forgot how messy chickens can be with their water. That bowl gets full of straw, poop, and food in no time. Sigh. I'm partly excited for spring just so I can go back to using the chipple and not have to deal with poopy water several times a day.

3. Chickens do lay eggs in the winter, even without artificial light.
I had lots of people tell me that they wouldn't lay in the winter if I didn't have a lamp on them. False. Granted, they definitely slowed down in their egg production, but they still laid eggs. I figured that chickens slow down in the winter for a reason, so I decided to let nature take its course. One of my neighbors told me that his hens have never had artificial light in their coop and the same hens have been laying for nearly four years!

My Rhode Island Red, Princess Leia, has been reliably laying for the entire winter season. My Black Sex-link, Foxy Cleopatra, has been off and on, though she pretty much stopped in January. My Ameraucana, Lenore, actually started laying her first eggs (I was so excited to finally see those blue-green eggs!) when the temperatures were coldest in early January.

At one point during the winter, I was only collecting getting one egg a day. This wasn't enough to keep up with my family's egg consumption, so I ended up buying some from one of my neighbors (her eggs are not only pastured but fertile, too). Most of time, though, this season I've collected 1-2 eggs a day; it'll be nice when I'm collecting three daily.

(Sidenote: If you do use lamps in your chicken coop, that's great -- I know lots of people who do and they did get more eggs from their chickens than I did this winter. I'm definitely not trying to stir any sort of debate up, I promise.)

4. Chickens can get bored and turn into jerks.

Since my hens have always been on the grass in the chicken tractor, they've never seemed bored. In the warmer months, they loved pecking and scratching around in the grass, digging little holes, taking dust baths, and eating all the worms and grasshoppers my boys could find. Then winter came and kept their chicken tractor in one spot. Some days it got so cold that they'd stay in the henhouse for a good part of the day. There was not a whole lot for them to do.

I had read about chicken boredom and tried to help them out by giving them treats (dried mealworms are their favorite). I'd sometimes toss a head of cabbage or lettuce into the tractor for them to peck at and eat. They liked pecking around for scratch, but I could tell that they were still feeling a little restless.

Then one morning as I was changing their water yet again, I noticed that my Black Sex-link was missing a lot of feathers on her neck. My first thought was, "Oh great, she's sick". So I took a picture with my phone (the picture you see in this paragraph) and sent it to my brother-in-law, my go-to chicken expert. His answer? Since it was only in that spot, it looked like she was at the receiving end of some pecking. I did some reading and found out that chickens are more prone to do this kind of thing in the winter. The feathers grew back on Foxy, but Lenore soon followed as the next victim with a section next to her tail plucked away. I'm suspecting it's Princess Leia who's the bully, especially since she pecked at me the other day as I was feeding them some kitchen scraps (and she's usually quite docile.).  I guess even chickens start to feel crabby when winter has worn on too long.

(I actually just found this blog post about keeping chickens occupied -- it's a little late for my ladies now, seeing as winter is almost over and they'll be back to the grass and bugs they love, but I'll still implement a few ideas.)

5. My chickens are spoiled.

Behold -- hot breakfast for hens.

On those below-zero mornings especially, I just felt bad for the girls in the backyard. They were fine but I still felt for them. So whenever it got really cold, I'd whip up nice steaming bowl of oatmeal for the ladies. I sprinkle in some scratch, a few tablespoons chicken treat mix, and some raisins. I always tried to do this on the sly in the mornings, a bit worried about the looks or teasing I might get from my husband (he finds it funny how I spoil our chickens). The ladies loved getting hot breakfast -- at least, they seemed liked they loved it, the way they would gobble it up.

That was just one thing I did for the ladies when it got super-cold this winter. I also paid attention to their combs, coating the combs of two of them with Vaseline so as to avoid frostbite (our Ameraucana has a short pea-comb, so the risk of frostbite is far less). I swear, my Black Sex-link liked getting picked up and having her comb rubbed with Vaseline; I could feel her body relax under my arm and she would sort of close her eyes as I took care of her comb.

So, yes, my chickens are bit spoiled (though still not as spoiled as some others I've read about, where people decorate their coops, knit them sweaters, and put diapers on them so they can roam the house). My husband finds it amusing the way I research and read about keeping chickens, the way I get all concerned over them. My rationale: healthy and happy chickens produce the best eggs -- and I'm pleased to report that my hens, considering the freezing temperatures and the many feet of snow we've gotten this winter, seem as healthy and happy as can be expected.

Note: Some of the links in the post above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

{This post is linked up to Simple Lives Thursday,  Little House Friday and Your Green Resource}

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Gentle Reminder: Are You Saving Your Milk Jugs Yet?

We got about three or four inches of snow at our house yesterday, but I'm telling you, I feel spring in the air. I can't explain why or how I've come to this conclusion, but I just can tell that it's around the corner. Punxsutawney Phil has my back on this.

This is the time of year when I start planning my garden and ordering seeds. The idea of ordering seeds makes me a little giddy (this is my favorite place online to order seeds) -- I love flipping through catalogs, checking out all the different varieties, consulting my Western Garden Book to make sure what I like grows in my area, and planning out where I'll put them in my garden. (insert sigh of contentment here)

And as if that wasn't exciting enough, I'm gearing up to start my tender crop seeds again with the help of empty milk jugs. That's where the gentle reminder mentioned in the title comes into play:  are you saving your milk jugs? If not, you still have time! Once you finish a gallon of milk (or, as it goes at my house, a gallon of vinegar), rinse it out, remove the cap (more on that in a bit), and set it aside (though you could start some of your seeds right now, depending on what you're growing and where you live).

Are you reading all of this and thinking, "What on earth is she talking about?"  Basically, with a tiny bit of alteration (emphasis on tiny), you can turn an empty gallon-sized jug into a mini-greenhouse. This allows you to start your seeds outdoors with minimal effort. No need for special lighting or seed-starting kits or finding the space in your house for a seed-starting operation. Besides actually planting a seed directly into your garden, this is as easy as seed starting gets!

Want to learn more? You can read the a couple posts I wrote last year about my experience with mini-greenhouses:  "In the Backyard: My Milk Jug Mini-Greenhouses" and "How Empty Milk Jugs Changed My Garden".

I must give credit where it is due -- I first learned about this seed starting technique (called winter-sowing) from the blog, A Garden for the House. It's a lovely blog, full of great ideas. (Plus he seems like such a nice guy. I want to tour his mid-1800s house, chat with him about gardening, and enjoy his charlotte almondine.) You can find all of his winter-sowing posts here.  I highly recommend it.

One last thing about saving milk jugs: if you have kids, save the milk caps!

Not too long ago, I saw this idea on Pinterest, about creating a simple activity with an empty wipes container and milk caps. I'll admit, I was a little skeptical at first since some of the other baby activities I've seen on Pinterest and tried with my little guy have entertained him for like 5-10 minutes, tops (it's bad news when even a baby thinks it's boring). Seeing as I had a bunch of milk caps and an empty wipe container, I thought I'd give it a try.  Guess what? He loved it. I was amazed how long it kept him entertained. Toys made out of stuff I'd normally throw away or recycle? Love it!  (For some more great ideas of ways to use milk caps with kids, look here. Who knew?)

So start saving those milk jugs (and caps!).  Start your own seeds easily. I can't think of a nicer way to usher in spring. It'll be here before you know it. Trust me on this.

Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.

{This post is linked up to Your Green Resource, Simple Lives ThursdayLittle House Fridayand Homestead Barn Hop.}

Monday, February 18, 2013

Mama K's Peanut Butter Squares

The old saying goes that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. With this in mind, I decided to whip up a batch of one of my husband's all-time favorite treats for Valentine's Day: peanut butter squares. These aren't just any kind of peanut butter squares -- these are made from his mom's recipe. He loves them. Early in our marriage, he called his mom, wrote down the recipe, and stuck it my recipe file. I don't make these bars very often, but when I do, Kevin is a very happy man.

From what I've been told, these peanut butter squares are like the ones that were served in school cafeterias back in the 1980s and 90s. Seeing as I could probably count how many times my mom paid for school lunch on one hand (as much as my brothers and I begged, Mom always sent us kids to school with homemade lunches), I don't really have that point of reference to draw from. I will say, though, that these peanut butter squares are absolutely delicious and dangerous beyond all belief; you can't stop with one.

I thought about tinkering with the recipe for this post since I'm still following a sort of paleo-ish diet. Maybe substitute all that sugar with honey, maple syrup or sucanat; perhaps toy with the flour and use almond flour instead (though gluten-free baking still intimidates me). Maybe I could make these treats little less dangerous to the waistline.

But I cast that idea aside quickly because these bars were for my valentine, a guy who doesn't totally buy into, as he would call it, all the natural/health food mumbo-jumbo (but he is totally patient and cool with me buying into it). I say, a treat now and then won't kill anyone (eating the entire pan, which you will want to do...well, that's another story). I even diverged a bit from the paleo stuff and indulged this past Valentine's Day.

Now, I recognize that Valentine's Day is over, but that shouldn't stop you. Why not make a batch today for Presidents' Day and raise a peanut butter square (and a glass of milk) in honor of George Washington's birthday?

So, without further ado, I bring you the peanut butters squares from my husband's childhood, in all their peanut-buttery, chocolaty, and sugary goodness.

Mama K's Peanut Butter Squares

3/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 3/4 cups peanut butter 
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

peanut butter (around a cup)
chocolate frosting (my go-to chocolate frosting recipe can be found here).

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

First, beat the butter and sugar together until relatively light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, salt, baking soda, and vanilla. Mix.

Add the peanut butter. I used chunky peanut butter in this batch, though either creamy or chunky is fine.

Add the oats and flour. Mix.

Personally, I like the batter even better than the baked squares. As you can see, my almost-two-year-old was of the same mindset. Tread with caution here, folks.

Turn the batter out onto a greased cookie sheet.

Press it and shape it with a rubber spatula or you can use your hands like I do. See all those finger indentations? This is where I should mention that I don't fill the whole cookie sheet; it only goes about half-way. No big deal. Just trim of the ragged edge when you cut these up and no one will know.

Bake for around 10-12 minutes. The edges should be browned and the top won't be wet or sticky.

Spread peanut butter all over the top of the squares. Word to the wise: you might want to use creamy peanut butter for this step (though, as you can see, I didn't) because it makes spreading the chocolate frosting (next) on top of the peanut butter easier.

Then spread the chocolate frosting. I used my favorite chocolate frosting recipe for this step -- I did halve the recipe and I used vanilla in it instead of almond extract (the almond and peanut flavors just clash too much. The almond extract in that recipe is awesome with other desserts, though).

Love in square form, right there.

We ate some of these on Valentine's Day and then I sent most (we had to keep some) of the leftovers to work with my husband, so he could share with his carpool and anyone near his office. Really, it was better that way.

(This post is linked up to Homestead Barn Hop.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"They're More Like Guidelines": On Best-By and Sell-By Dates

Did you know that it's estimated that 40% of America's food is thrown away? I'm not entirely sure how this statistic was figured, but I don't doubt that we Americans waste a lot of food. (When I was a dishwasher at various restaurants during my early teenage years, I was shocked at how much food was left on people's plates. How could someone leave half of a New York strip on their plate?!) If the statistic is correct, it definitely deserves attention and certainly some introspection on our parts, considering how many hungry people there are in other areas of the world.

Some of the articles I read on this statistic, though, painted Americans as greedy and gluttonous, as if to shame us all into wasting less. I don't think this is always the case.  I think there's a sort of spectrum of food wasting types. There are some people who truly are flippant and/or lazy. Some people waste food because they're picky (there are a lot of people who won't touch leftovers. Apparently food that is good enough for dinner is unpalatable the next day...). 

Honestly, though, I think the biggest factors that leads people to waste food is misinformation. I admit I was a misinformed food waster. This leads to my food wasting confessional: I used to throw out food solely based on the dates printed on the labels.

I never questioned the expiration (or sell by or best by) dates printed on food. I figured the producers of the food knew more than I did and I trusted those dates without question. I've wasted a lot of milk and yogurt, among other things, because of those dates on the labels. 

One day I was cleaning out and organizing a part of my house (we call it the Harry Potter closet since it's under our stairs) where the bulk of our food storage is located. On the shelf were several canisters of oatmeal that I'd purchased at a ridiculously low price. As I was moving them around, I noticed the dates on the bottom of them: they should have been used over a year ago and were well past the date printed. I didn't want to throw them out but they were old. So, on a whim, I called the customer service number printed on the label. The nice lady from customer service told me that date was more of a guideline and that the oats I had were perfectly fine. I asked, "What if they don't get used for another six months or so?" Her answer: "Still fine." I took her word for it and we used them without a problem. I think we may have polished off the last of the "expired"-in-2009 oats early last year.  

I became more open-minded about eating shelf-stable stuff past the sell-by dates, but until quite recently I was still wary of eating anything perishable (read: dairy) past the printed dates on the labels. Well, that was until I fed my little guy some yogurt that had lapsed the printed date by a week. I remember I finished feeding him the peach yogurt (which he happily gobbled up) and when I went to throw it out, I noticed the date. What had I done?!? I sniffed was left in the container. It smelled totally fine. So, of course, I did a quick internet search and found out, to my surprise, that yogurt is fine 7-10 days after the sell by date, just as long as your fridge is at the proper temperature. Oh, the yogurt I'd wasted over the years! 

Sell-by, use-by, and best-by dates aren't expiration dates -- I always kind of thought they were all the same thing. The only foods that carry expiration dates (as required by law) is infant formula and baby food. Sell-by dates are guidelines for food that is perishable; the dates give stores a good idea of how long they should keep items on shelves and in display cases. You should buy products at the store before their sell-by date, but you can store them for a little while past that date. Use-by or best-by dates are usually on shelf-stable foods and all those dates indicate is when the foods will be at their best taste and quality -- food safety isn't the concern with those dates (except if a can is bulging -- a sign of botulism -- or shows signs of spoilage). Food may not taste as good as if you'd adhered to the best-by date (the color and texture may change, too), but you'll be fine eating it.

A recent example: as I mentioned in my last post, I've been going sort of paleo for the last few weeks. I didn't realize how much of our milk is consumed by me. This has led to the gallons of milk in the fridge lasting longer. So when this whole gallon of organic milk (which is kinda spendy) passed the sell-by date, I had no qualms pouring it over my kindergartener's cereal this morning or filling my toddler's cup with it. Milk is fine, as I've since learned, for about a week after the sell-by date. Just be sure to give it a sniff now and then.

The takeaway from this post: the sell-by dates and best-by dates on food are more like guidelines than actual rules. A more in-depth overview of what the sell by, best by, and expiration dates really mean can be found here at the site You can also find a helpful tool there -- simply enter the food in question in their search engine and it will bring up the shelf-life for you. Their database covers thousands of different foods. 

As I type this post, I can't help but think of a sad/super gross episode from show Hoarders where a woman hoarded food. Most of what the woman had in her home was spoiled beyond belief. I remember the woman saying something about containers of sour cream that were months past their sell-by dates: "What's going to happen? It's going to get more sour?" I bring this woman up because common sense plays a huge part in the topic of wasting food. You can ignore the dates if you want, but don't ignore what your eyes see or what your nose smells. Your senses are one of the best ways to assure freshness or quality, even better than a printed date on a label. 

For a quick chart with shelf-life dates of general food groups, check out this link For a little more reading on this topic of labels and "expired" food (it's actually pretty interesting, I think) you can read here about how sell-by guidelines are decided and about tests run on a 40-year-old can of sweet corn (spoiler: it was still safe!).

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Paleo(ish) Almond-Buckwheat Pancakes

One could say that I have an affinity for pancakes, seeing as this is my fourth pancake recipe on this blog. What can I say? I think starting the day with a stack of pancakes is pretty awesome thing to do.

You can imagine, then, my reaction when my doctor advised me to give up grains and dairy for a few weeks: What was I going to eat for breakfast?!  For a few days, I had eggs with salsa. Even with the salsa I canned a few months ago (seriously delicious stuff - best canned salsa recipe ever), I was feeling pretty burned out on just having eggs every morning. I needed some other breakfast options.

Lucky for me, my dad has been following a paleolithic diet  (everyone in the family calls it the "caveman diet") for years now. He swears by it -- he doesn't get migraines as often as he used to, his skin looks great, he doesn't get acid reflux anymore, and his doctor told him at his physical that he's as healthy as a 30-year-old. Take it for what it's worth. Anyway, my dad has avoided grains and dairy since 2010, so I called home for some help and my mom gave me this recipe for almond-buckwheat pancakes.

Now, I did a little reading and it's seems like the jury's still out about whether or not buckwheat is paleo-friendly. Since it's not a grain at all and is actually a fruit, some people say it's fine; others say that it's a no-go. If you're hardcore paleo and are wary about buckwheat, I figure you could just use all almond flour and skip the buckwheat. I kept the buckwhat flour in. Even if you're not on the paleo bandwagon, this is a great pancake for those who can't eat gluten.  And even if you're not sensitive to gluten or on a paleo diet, you could still make these because they're healthy and pretty tasty.

Almond-Buckwheat Pancakes

3/4 cup almond flour
1/3 cup buckwheat flour
3/4 cup egg whites
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

Mix the dry ingredients (except the cream of tartar) in a medium-large bowl.

Combine the almond milk and honey in a small bowl and then add to the dry mixture.

Next, get your egg whites ready. It took about seven eggs to get the 3/4 cup of whites (I saved the yolks for another recipe, of course). That's a lot of eggs, I know. You may want to use the egg whites that come in a carton.

Whip up the whites until soft peaks form. While the whites are being whipped, add the cream of tartar. I used my KitchenAid with the whisk attachment to do this step, but you also do it by hand.

Fold the whites gently into the batter.

Pour the batter onto a hot griddle or skillet. Once air bubbles form, flip the pancakes.

Top the pancakes with butter (yep, butter is paleo -- I checked) and real maple syrup. Whether or not you devour them like a caveman (you know, lots of grunting and no utensils) is up to you.

{This post is linked up to Homestead Barn HopYour Green Resource, Simple Lives Thursday, Little House Fridayand Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.}
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