Saturday, June 29, 2013

What I learned from Pat Foreman's Two-Day Intensive Chicken Workshop

I confess, this blog post is late! I participated in a two-day intensive chicken workshop with Pat Foreman, the author of City Chicks, back in early March. I meant to write about the experience months ago, but better late than never. We met at First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach.

Pat Foreman, Chicken Whisperer and Workshop Presenter Extraordinaire!
Pat Foreman's Sidekick, a Rare Chantecler Hen Named Oprah Henfry

 Pat gave us lots of handouts and advice. Much of it I had read in some of her books, but the refresher was useful. I came away realizing that our society and our world need to do more to conserve our soil and our sources of fresh water, which we are rapidly and suicidally depleting. Chicken-keepers can help by employing chickens and their manure in organic gardening.

The chicken-handling portions of the workshop were the parts that were most useful to me. I am much more confident handling my hens and much less likely to accidentally harm them as a result of this experience. I am glad that local chicken-keepers are giving free workshops through 4 Chesapeake Hens and other groups, but I wish that everyone who raises chickens could get to spend the time with Pat that we did.

Here I Am, Talking to My Buff Orpington, Minerva (photo courtesy of Craig Mills)

Oprah and and this participant seem to have hit it off!

Lisa Dearden was Pat's Co-Presenter
My Friend, Lanette, Handles a Gentle Dominique Rooster, a Colonial-Era Breed from Williamsburg
Pat Brought In Some Day-Old Chicks. How FAST They Grow!
Can You Spot the Chick?
This Chick is Hard to Miss!

Some random tidbits that I found useful: avoid the use of particle board in coops because they harbor mites. Pat prefers plastic or metal nest boxes to wood ones, and plastic nest-box liners, for the same reason. Never use cedar shavings in coops because they off-gas and can cause the birds respiratory and other health issues. Aspen shavings are preferred. Sprouting grains improves the nutritional availability to the chicken; they *love* sprouted wheat berries! Heritage breeds of chicken need higher levels of protein than the factory-farm birds, up to 28% of their diet. The shells of chicken eggs, crushed up and fed back to them as a source of calcium, are much more nutritious than crushed oyster shells. NEVER grab and squeeze a laying hen; it can kill hens if you break an egg inside them.

Speaking of eggs, Lisa Dearden demonstrated the differences between pastured eggs and supermarket eggs. She scrambled some of each up, and it's easy to tell the difference. The richer color of the pastured eggs is evidence of superior flavor and nutrition.

Can YOU Tell Which Part of These Scrambled Eggs Came From the Supermarket?
The color of the eggshells, however, has nothing to do with freshness or nutritional content, despite popular belief to the contrary. Still, the variety of colors and sizes is fun and nothing like what you find in stores:

Different Breeds of Chickens Produce Eggs with Different Colors of Shell

Pat recommended Countryside Organics feed. A friend keeps reminding me that it is available at New Earth Farm in Virginia Beach. Maybe next time I need to buy feed I will hunt this down.

For more pictures and another perspective on this workshop, check out this blog post by my good friend and urban homesteader, Lanette Lepper. Unlike me, she managed to post her thoughts in a timely manner. For more about Pat Foreman's workshops, visit Chickens and You.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

North Carolina State University on Climate Change and Sustainability

Tuesday my family and I visited the Nansemond River Golf Club in nearby Suffolk, VA. As the family of a recent NC State graduate, we had been invited to attend a regional alumni event.

The topic of the guest speaker, "NC State's Role in Protecting Our Global Food Supply," interested us, so we went. The speaker was Richard H. Linton, NC State's new Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He had recently been hired away from Ohio State.

Richard H. Linton, Dean of NC State's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Linton was told to keep his remarks limited to about 20 minutes because State had a big baseball game coming up, the alumni were fans and wanted to watch it, and the administration was in a hurry to head back to Raleigh. This disappointed me. Soil and water are the two most important resources for any civilization to thrive, or even to survive, and with the environmental and population pressures the world is facing, Linton's talk was far more important than a baseball game. But he did well with the limited time he was given.

The Agricultural Challenges that the U.S. faces in the 21st Century

I learned that North Carolina is in the top ten agricultural crop-producing states in the United States (Linton ranked it at #3). I also learned that NC State plays an important role in crop production through its research and through its very active Cooperative Extension network.  NC State is active in developing new plants and in adapting plants so they will grow in North Carolina. He said that clean water will be an increasingly important national and global concern. He also emphasized the urgent necessity of growing enough food for a rapidly increasing word population. Unfortunately, the audience was not given an opportunity to ask questions at the end of his presentation.

I emailed Dr. Linton for an article he promised to forward about the backyard chicken movement (it was excellent). But I was disappointed that he didn't answer my inquiry regarding NC State's plant development practices and to what extent they were focusing on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Ohio State has the reputation for being the epitome of "Big Ag," and so I remain curious what role organic and small-scale farms have in NC State's vision for the future.

In a world where 20-minute presentations on questions of world importance take a back seat to college athletics, we may never know.

Hampton Roads Regional Backyard Chicken Groups

Re-posted with permission from Danielle Rawls to help regional folks who are not on Facebook find fellow chicken enthusiasts:

Local Chicken Advocate Groups

4 Chesapeake Hens:

Hampton Roads Regional

James City County, Virginia:

Newport News
Newport News Backyard Chickens:

Backyard Hens 4 Norfolk

Peninsula Chicken Keepers (PeCK):

Portsmouth Hen Keepers:

Suffolk Hen Keepers:

Pet Chickens of Virginia (PCOV):

Virginia Beach:
4 Virginia Beach Hens:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Should I Start My Backyard Flock With Hens or Chicks?

Mary Lou Burke, thank you for asking me to contribute to your blog page.

A number of folks have asked us, “Where do we get our hens?”  They are also asking, “Are chicks or grown hens better?”

 It is my opinion that to start out, you are better off purchasing pullets, young hens that are just beginning to lay eggs. This way you will be sure that you are getting a hen not a rooster. You will be getting eggs shortly after your purchase resulting in an immediate return from your investment.  You also have at least 5 years of egg production ahead of you.  If you choose 1-2 year old hens it is the similar to purchasing pullets. Remember, hens drop in egg production each year, so I don't suggest starting out with older hens.

A lot of you would like to have chicks. Keep in mind that with chicks you cannot be 100% sure you are getting hens even if you ask the seller for hens only.  In a purchase of 25 straight pullets I recently received 3 roosters.  By the time you can positively tell your chicks are roosters, your family is attached to them, and you have to try to get rid of them. (Most city ordinances do not allow roosters). Chicks require time, food and steady care for several months, at least 5, before they begin to lay, hence delaying an immediate return on your purchase and care costs. In addition, several hatching businesses have a minimum amount you have to buy. The minimum is often 25, so you will need to find some other folks to order chicks with.  Remember, when ordering from a hatchery to specify you only want hens; a straight run is a mix of roosters and hens. 

*If you feel you must have chicks I would suggest you purchase ½ of the amount of hens you can have as pullets and ½ as chicks; that way, while you are waiting for the chicks to mature and lay, the pullets are laying for you.

 As to how to purchase your pullets or chicks, I would like to recommend a few words of caution. With the enthusiasm over backyard hens, sadly, comes a few unscrupulous sellers. Make sure you are buying from a reputable person/business. Take someone that is familiar with hens along with you when you buy your hens, do your research, and  KNOW  the difference between hens and roosters (when buying pullets it is easy to tell), ask for references and guarantees  IN WRITING.  If the seller REFUSES to give you a written guarantee that you are getting hens NOT roosters, and if they will not trade any roosters you get from them for hens, once they grow up and you can tell for sure, I suggest you purchase from someone else. Verbal guarantees do NOT hold.

 As to where to purchase your pullets or chicks, there are chicken swaps held at most feed stores, which are often posted on local Facebook chicken sites. Craigslist usually has hens listed; do not buy without seeing them. Other chicken folks may know someone with hens for sale, and the various chicken Facebook pages always have hens and chicks for sale. There are several commercial hatcheries online. Local feed stores are a great resource for finding chicks or hens.  

Contact a local Facebook Chicken group for assistance.

Some, but not all, local Hampton Roads Facebook chicken groups are:

1.   4 Chesapeake Hens

2.   Hampton Roads Hens

3.   Portsmouth Hen Keepers 

I hope this helps you; please feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns. We definitely want to know about the good news, but we also need to know about the bad so we can help others avoid it.

 Happy chicken-keeping, folks!

Portsmouth Hen Keepers founder, Sharon Jackson

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Chicks at the Beach? Why Not?

These children gave us a warm welcome!

Virginia Beach residents have been involved in an ongoing struggle to get backyard laying hens legalized in residential areas. 4 Virginia Beach Hens has organized this effort. Our grassroots community group, 4 Chesapeake Hens, got up to six laying hens legalized on all single-family lots in our community. The Virginia Beach group asked me to speak in front of its city council regarding my personal experiences since our laws here were changed. Here is the text of my speech:

Mayor Sessoms and Members of Council:

My name is Mary Lou Burke. I live at on about ⅓ of an acre in the Greenbrier section of Chesapeake. Backyard chickens have been legal in my neighborhood since November 20.  I am speaking here today at the invitation of Virginia Beach residents who wish me to share with you some first-person experiences with *legal* residential laying hens.

I am an avid gardener. We have a secure yet portable chicken tractor for our flock, rather like a rabbit hutch. We move it to a new location every other day. This gives our hens fresh pasture to graze. Our lawn gets the benefit of their valuable manure. Between seasons, the hens clear out unwanted vegetation from our garden beds, and they weed, till, and fertilize for us, all without the use of chemicals or noisy machines. We compost the manure from their coop year round. Our hens convert organic layer pellets, kitchen scraps, caterpillars and other pests, yard and garden waste, weeds, and weed seeds, into valuable fertilizer and the tastiest, freshest, most nutritious eggs we have ever eaten. None of it goes to the landfill. I repeat: the city has to *pay* for none of this to go to the landfill. And if the city loses power due to a natural disaster, our hens’ daily eggs will still be available to us. We will never go hungry so long as our hens are alive and laying.

I cannot express how much pleasure or satisfaction we have derived from our new pets. Our birds are quiet, clean, and inconspicuous. My husband built our chicken tractor in our front driveway. We have a chain-link fence for our backyard but no privacy fence. Despite this, we had to point out our new flock to the neighbors on either side of us. They were shocked. They said they had noticed the building project out front, but they had no idea we had chickens until we actually pointed them out. And they are thrilled with the fresh eggs we share with them. We even entered our chickens in a local coop tour in April. We had a steady stream of families come visit us, including many who had never seen an urban micro-flock. Visitors consistently told us our birds were odorless, extremely quiet, and beautiful animals. Everyone told us that they would have no objections to hens next door even if they didn’t currently want a flock for themselves.

Backyard hens are a growing movement both nationally and regionally. Besides Chesapeake, Portsmouth is extremely close to legalizing them. My friend, Wendy Camacho, recently made a presentation about backyard chickens for the Hampton Roads Realtors’ Association. Her presentation was very well received by the Realtors, who seem to understand hens will do no harm to our region’s  property values. The motto of “4 Virginia Beach Hens” is, “chicks at the beach,” and our response to that slogan is, “why not?”

**Update 8/25/13: After this original post, Portsmouth legalized backyard laying hens with a permit and certain restrictions. So did Hampton, Virginia.