Friday, January 31, 2014

Minerva the Hen at Midway Veterinary Hospital

Minerva the Buff Orpington checks out her veterinarian's office

Minerva, one of two Buff Orpington hens in our mixed flock of five backyard layers, has developed redness on her feet and legs for a few weeks now. My husband Don and I tried to treat her ourselves, first using petroleum jelly, and when that seemed to make things worse, we tried Bag Balm. The latter seemed to help a little for a while, but it made her feathers around her legs very greasy and dirty looking, and I was afraid she would have trouble keeping her feet warm with the extremely cold weather we've been having. And she certainly wasn't healing up to my liking.

Minerva's red legs caused us concerned. The dirty feathers were caused by our attempts to treat her.

Nights have dropped into the teens for several nights in a row and remained freezing even during the day, a rarity for this corner of Virginia. Most recently we had about 8" of snow, also a rare event.

Don and I had reached the end of our limited ability to treat Minverva, so we took her to Dr. Tony Poutous at Midway Veterinary Hospital in Chesapeake, VA. We have had positive experiences bringing our hens to visit Dr. Poutous before as evidenced in my earlier post about our visit with Athena, our Delaware hen. Here are highlights from Minerva's visit:

Minerva was weighed in, of course!

Dr. Poutous gave Minerva a through physical--maybe more thorough than she liked at times! Say Aaah!

Other parts of the exam were less objectionable. Dr. Poutous listened to her heart and respiratory system.
Overall, Dr. Poutous found Minerva to be in good health, which was a relief. He took scrapings of her legs to check for bacteria or fungal infections or even signs of mites. But he found nothing significant. We decided it was best not to treat her further and to keep an eye on her legs. I will definitely give our vet a call if Minerva's signs change or worsen at all. He said if areas turn black, that could mean frostbite, and to bring her back in right away. He said he was willing to treat for mites, even though he hadn't found any, just in case, but I said it was probably best to wait.

I was so relieved she wasn't developing an infection, which had been my fear!

Don asked about continuing with the Bag Balm treatment. Dr. Poutous said that he was concerned the Bag Balm might continue to mess up Minerva's feathers. Considering the cold weather, she might have trouble regulating her body temperature with dirty feathers. She needs clean feathers to keep her legs and feet warm. Without them, she has the potential of coming down with frostbite on her feet. It's not worth the risk.

Minerva the Buff Orpington looks ready to go back to the hen house!

Minerva had taken a much-needed break from laying this fall and early winter, but she already is back to laying an egg almost every day. She is a very reliable layer in spring and early summer, but she has a tendency to go broody after that. She very much would like to be a mother, I think! But that's not manageable under Chesapeake's backyard hen ordinance.

If there are any questions about the ordinance, my own understanding of it is listed here. You are also welcome to like our Facebook page, 4 Chesapeake Hens.

Update: Minerva's legs improved with the spring weather for no apparent reason. In the late spring she went broody again, so I sold her to a local farmer that needed a broody hen to hatch chicks. I get occasional reports that she is loved and doing well.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hallway Remodel: The Beginnings

Don and I are in the midst of remodeling our 50-year-old house. Right now Don is painting our kitchen. While he is working on that, I have been working on a way to cover an old hole in our hall ceiling. A fan used to be there to draw air up into the attic, but it's long gone. We now have a central air conditioning system, so this particular hole is no longer needed. Don has done his best to close off the space and insulate it to keep the house warmer, but I want something pretty.

Here is our ugly hole in the ceiling

Here is a view of the hallway

Don is good at wiring, so he will put some lights up in this space when he is done with the kitchen. In the meantime, I have contracted with Decorative Glass Solutions in Ashland, Virginia, to make a stained-glass piece of art to cover the hole. Instead of an ugly spot, we will have something light and pretty there. The design we have in mind will be a "Cotswold Design," which will look something like this, but with perhaps a bit more color:

Design by Decorative Glass Solutions in Ashland, Virginia

Worm Composting Update

Don purchased a Worm Factory worm composting system with five trays for me a few  years ago. Over time, the system has become more Don's hobby than mine. He says it's because I am tender-hearted, and if I think of them as his worms, not mine, then I will be more comfortable feeding the occasional excess to our hens.

I suspect it's more because the worms like dark and decay, and they are wriggly and messy. Don is such a boy at heart that he finds true joy in messing with them. I enjoy watching him work with them and talk about them. But I must say that I am much happier now that we've found a spot for them on our porch and not in our kitchen or bathroom where they have resided previously.

He might also be the one in charge of them because he is a scientist at heart and likes to experiment more. Like him, I carefully read the valuable instructions that came with our Worm Factory. Unlike him, I feel compelled to stick pretty closely to the written instructions.

But I can't complain, since the worms have thrived--and then some!--under Don's care.

The worms are obviously thriving in the second bin down. This is before feeding time.

One of the things Don does differently is he puts mostly carbonaceous matter in the top bin. When that has been in the composter a while, he moves the tray down to the second one down. He then puts a new carbonaceous tray on top. He feels that this top tray discourages vinegar flies that sometimes compete with the worms for food, and he no longer has to dig through the carbon to put the food in underneath the carbon on the top tray, which the manufacturer suggests. He also thinks his system gives the worms more options regarding moisture, temperature, etc., as they move around the bins to keep themselves comfortable.

Don just dumps their food in the second tray down and then replaces the top tray with the carbon. He thinks the worms like the added moisture, and he finds the whole process less work than using the manufacturer's instructions. He leaves the bottom trays underneath these two  for quite a while for the worms to pass through and re-digest. The bottom trays are former top and second trays that are waiting for us to need some compost around the yard and gardens.

Here is a view of the top, carbon-laden, tray, where fewer worms visit.

The instructions say to either grind up the worms' food scraps or freeze them before feeding them to the worms. This hastens the decomposition process and makes it easier for the worms to feed. Freezing kills any fruit-fly larvae (really vinegar flies) that might be already in the scraps. But Don grinds the food in a specially-dedicated food processor--

--Yes! The worms in our house have their own food processor!--

And then he puts in the a mason jar in the freezer for at least a few days. Finally, he thaws it out and feeds it to the worms.

Here are Don's worms with some new food dumped in the second tray.

Don is adding a second helping of food from a mason jar. The worms digest it quickly!

Needless to say, we have very little food waste in our household. I belong to a wonderful CSA through Farm Chicks Produce, so I cook a lot from scratch, and we have certain vegetable peels and tops that our hens won't eat. We also pick up scraps from a local restaurant, and whatever our hens won't or shouldn't eat usually goes to the worms.

Both the worm tea from the composting system and the compost itself is fantastic for our own vegetables and herbs. Any extra worms are great protein for feeding the hens, and the hens love to spread the compost around our lawn and garden beds when they get the chance. While they scratch through the compost, they like to hunt through it for tasty treats.

Overall, the worm bin is a huge success despite the fact (or because?) Don does not manage the system according to the manufacturer's directions.

By the way, vermicomposting does not require a fancy store-bought system to work. Here is general advice from Cornell. Perhaps you will start your own worm composting system? If so, let us know what works for you!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Beginning Thoughts for the Hampton Roads Coop Tour

This Little Red Hen is Ready to Step out in Style!

4 Chesapeake Hens and other chicken groups in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia are in the beginning stages of planning a coop tour. A coop tour is like an open house, but it's for visitors of chickens and their coops rather than the owners' homes. Our group hosted a local tour in Chesapeake last year and had a lot of fun. This year we would like to make it more regional. We also plan to make it a benefit fundraiser for a great regional group that is in need of financial support right now: Buy Fresh, Buy Local, Hampton Roads.

Our first meeting, on January 9, hosted dynamic leadership from both Portsmouth and Chesapeake. Sharon Jackson represented Portsmouth Hen Keepers, Wendy Camacho and Danielle Rawls represented Hampton Roads Hens, and my husband, Don, and I represented 4 Chesapeake Hens along with Saad Ringa, our groups' highly esteemed computer guru. Saad is also the regional documentary-keeper for all things chicken when it comes to City Council meetings, as can be seen by the various speeches preserved on his YouTube Channel.

This is what we decided at our meeting.
  1. The name of the event will be the "Hampton Roads Coop Tour." We will encourage the use of a chicken on all flyers and other publicity about the event, so the public realizes we are touring chicken coops and not a type of car.
  2. Our intention is to host the event from 11 AM to 4 PM on Saturday, May 24th, with Saturday, May 31st as a rain date.
  3. Our group intends to charge a $5.00 per carload non-refundable minimum donation to "Buy Fresh, Buy Local, Hampton Roads" for tickets to attend the event. We are hoping that BFBLHR will sell the tickets directly to the public online, perhaps through Eventbrite, as well as help us spread the word about the event online and through news releases. The use of Eventbrite should allow BFBLHR to post a couple of reminders about the event in the week(s) and day(s) leading up to the tour, as well as to message ticket-holders regarding inclement weather, if needed. They should also be able to send out a link to all ticket-holders with the exact locations and addresses of all the coops on the tour (see below).
  4. There was a little confusion on last year's tour with people showing up at someone's house on the wrong date. Furthermore, if this event goes as regional as we would like, there may be more coops available, and more spread-out coops, than what is possible to see in the space of five hours. To address those issues, we will post descriptions of the coops on the tour and the general location or region, but the exact addresses will only be available to paid ticket-holders through a link sent on the Monday before the event, i.e., Monday, May 19. Ticket-holders should have enough information to plan out their tours in advance regarding region(s) to visit, or types of coops they desire to see, so they can use their time efficiently on the day of the tour and see the coops that most interest them.
  5. So far chicken-keepers in Portsmouth and Chesapeake have committed to this event. Sharon will take the lead in organizing the Portsmouth portion, and Wendy and Mary Lou will lead the Chesapeake efforts. But the tour can expand into other regions of Hampton Roads if leaders come forward to take charge of surrounding regions. Such leadership should be familiar with backyard chickens and will be in charge of being a general contact person, generating local publicity, answering questions, being familiar with local ordinances regarding chicken-keeping, seeing that materials are distributed to coop owners as needed, bringing potential problems to Mary Lou or Wendy, and helping Saad gather the data he needs to put together the coop descriptions, related map, addresses, etc. This sounds like a lot but can be done as part of a regional effort.
  6. The issue of illegal coop-owners possibly wanting to be on the tour was raised. Mary Lou said that several people who committed to the Chesapeake Tour last year backed out close to the tour date, which was confusing and unfair to those who wanted to go on the tour plus frustrating for the event's organizers. Part of reason was cold feet on the part of homeowners when the reality hit that strangers, including potentially influential people, such as members of the media or area City Council, would be showing up on the tour. But many who backed out stated that they suddenly realized their coops were not 100% legal: the coop was too close to the property line, they had more hens than the legal limit, etc. This year, we plan to emphasize that signing up for the coop tour is a commitment, including for the rain date if necessary, and that participants are responsible for ensuring they have the dates set aside and are in compliance with local ordinances before signing their coops up for the tour.
  7. Some coop owners had asked about a separate tour for coop owners to view each others' coops. The consensus at the meeting is that we would not do so this year. It is complicated enough to organize one event without organizing two. Most coop-owners in the region can contact each other through social media and arrange private tours of coops they are interested in seeing.
  8. Some have raised the issue of Biosecurity for the flocks participating on the tour. We felt we should take precautions just in case. Wendy said she has a contact that can recommend good shoe coverings at a reasonable price and will get us the details. The idea is to require visitors to each property to put on the shoe coverings before visiting the flock and then to leave the shoe coverings for the next group of visitors to re-use. This way, each flock's poop will stay on that flock's property and greatly reduce the chance of spreading disease from flock to flock. Coop owners will also be required to have hand sanitizer at each location and to encourage visitors to use it.
  9. Regarding publicity, Sharon said she would make up a flyer for the event as soon as the details are finalized with BFBLHR. Wendy said she would help distribute them at "Chicken 101" educational events and possibly at the Chesapeake Jubilee if she can get a table.
  10. Saad Ringa will help organize the computer end of the event for our groups, particularly managing the maps, contact information, etc., for those who decide to sign up their coops for the tour. Saad will probably use online forms for this purpose.
  11. If BFBLHR is interested, our coop owners will probably be willing to distribute materials for them to help raise awareness about the organization and about all the great local foods available in our region. All we would need is to receive those materials well enough in advance of the tour.
We are still waiting on a final decision from BFBLHR's Board of Directors about this event, but initial signs are that they are interested in partnering with us.

Update on 1/27/14: We got the go-ahead from the Board of Directors. If you live in the area and wish to sign your coop  up for the tour, check out this post.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Backyard Hens vs. the State Depredation Law

4 Chesapeake Hens and other regional chicken groups are calling for action on the state level to change the  state depredation law. The reasons will be clear when you read below. Click this link to find the name of your state delegate or senator.

Dear (State Senator and/or Delegate):

I am contacting you because I support backyard hens in residential areas of Virginia. Please amend Virginia Code 3.2-6552 to exclude residential areas. The code was written to protect farmers and their livestock, but it is written in a way that is causing concern among Animal Control Officers in my own community and elsewhere. It is also preventing communities like nearby Virginia Beach from changing their laws to allow residential hens. As the state law is currently written, it is the "duty of" an Animal Control Officer who witnesses a dog killing a chicken to kill the dog immediately. Also, property owners or other witnesses who see a dog killing chickens also have the right to kill the dog. While this law makes sense in areas zoned agricultural, it makes little sense in residential areas where the use of firearms is prohibited. The state law also conflicts with animal cruelty laws. The law has become outdated; many urban areas, including Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Norfolk, Richmond, and many others, allow backyard hens.

Delegate DeSteph is the delegate who is most familiar with this issue. Please, act immediately to change this outdated ordinance in a way that protects the interests of our farmers while protecting dogs and their owners in residential areas. By doing this, you will open the door to allowing backyard hens in residential areas of Virginia Beach and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

**Update on 1/15/14: Here is a response I just received from our district's state senator. Unfortunately, we do not have a delegate at the moment because of recent elections (ours got elected for another office and the spot has not yet been filled).

Dear Mrs. Burke,

Thank you for contacting me to express support for legislation that would allow backyard hens in residential areas.  Your feedback is greatly appreciated. If presented with the opportunity to vote on amendments to Virginia Code 3.2-6552 during the 2014 General Assembly, I will most certainly keep your views and recommendations in mind.

Again, thank you for your correspondence. For additional legislative information or to follow the progress of legislation, you may visit the Virginia General Assembly website at If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kenneth Cooper Alexander
Member, Senate of Virginia

Update: in February of 2014, both the Virginia House and Senate voted to give ACOs the option to seize the dog instead of killing it.