The year of the chickens.

A year of learning.  About chickens and eggs and what goes with them.

What came first?  For me it was chickens..but for some it's the egg!

What came first? For me it was chickens..but for some it’s the egg!

What came first, the chicken or the egg?  Well, at my house that is an easy question to answer.  The chickens came first. It was a year ago to be exact!  One year ago this week  I went and brought my first flock to live with me on the farm I lived on out in Applegate.

I caught the chicken bug the first month or so of 2012.  I had been told where I had been living that I was going to have to wait at least until spring of 2013 before my desire would come to fruition. Then, the end of the summer of 2012, I moved.  I no longer had any constraints to keep me from getting the object(S) that my heart desired.  My landlord gave me the thumbs up and I went to work cleaning out and renovating an old coop that was next to my barn apartment.

It was my first time doing any construction of any kind.  Fortunately I had a friend who came to help.  He brought his tools and his strength and his knowledge, but the ideas were all mine and I did my fair share of measuring and cutting and hammering and setting screws. Of course I had cleaned the coop out before we started renovations.  There was old straw and chicken poop all over that needed to be shucked out and scrubbed down and disinfected.  That’s right.  I learned you need to disinfect the coop when you are going to be bringing in a new flock.  So…it was sprayed down with Basic G from Shaklee and I let that dry for a couple of days before adding bedding.  I decided to do the deep litter method using straw on the bottom and pine shavings in their nesting boxes.  Every so often I would add more straw and also some shavings to the floor.  I had no smell and didn’t have to clean the coop from October to May.

I had never even held a chicken before the day I went to pick them up.  The gal I bought them from was going through some really rough times and needed to move her kids to California and couldn’t take the girls.  She was so sad about it and I did the best I could to reassure her that they were going to be loved and loved and loved.  And they were.

So, things I had learned before I even retrieved my girls was that they needed to have a place where they were safe from predators, especially at night.  They needed their coop to be dry and not have chilling drafts.  They needed food specific to their age and calling in life (mine were on Layer Pellets) and fresh drinking water.  I had read they needed to have roosts and laying boxes and ladders to get up in the boxes and special treats and lots of other things.  I quickly found out they don’t.  The will find anywhere to roost or sleep if they feel safe and the same can be said with laying eggs.  But I made sure my coop had plenty of laying baskets and they had plenty of roosting space and a locked coop for night-time.

I had decided I wanted my Layers to be free ranged.  That means that they were free to roam as far as they chose to.  Since we lived on a 13 acre piece of property they had quite a wide expanse of territory.  They mostly stayed in the 3 acres close to my barn apartment and the main house.  While letting them free range during the day does increase their risk of being struck by a predator, I felt it was a more natural and kinder life for them.  I did loose one of my hens to a hawk about three months after getting them.  RIP Grace.  I realized that was part of the deal.  Life and death.

So, the chicken came before the egg, but once the eggs started….woah Nellie did I have eggs!  It only took a few days from their relocation before I think each Layer had laid at least one egg.  They do not lay an egg EVERY day.  Each breed has an approximate number of eggs they will lay in a lifetime.  Most of them lay an egg about every 24-30 hours during their peak laying years.  So with a Bakers Dozen girls I would get about 5 dozen eggs a week when they were all in prime laying.  I have learned that their laying habits can vary based on many things.  When they molt (lose their old feathers and grow new ones which occurs once a year) they generally don’t lay.  Some chickens have a hard molt and they look pretty rough.  Miss Donna, my Golden Laced Polish hen, hardly looks any different during her molt, but she hasn’t given me any eggs during her molt.  I’ve also learned that stress will decrease egg production. Decreased light will also cause low productions.  Over the hardest part of the winter I was only getting one egg every other day per hen.  Also, this summer when we were having so much smoke from our fire season and the temperatures were soaring above 90 degrees and into the low 100’s for weeks on end, I did not have good production.  Moving them stresses them.  Adding new chickens to the flock is stressful.  Essentially I have learned that hens like things to be constant and the same and not to be upset if you want to have good output.

My girls and their eggs have brought so many new and wonderful things to my life.  I started my community Facebook page and have met so many interesting and knowledgeable people who enjoy chickens and sustainable living and healthy eating and many things I enjoy also.  I started doing this blog and the Layers and Littles, or their eggs, had a star role often.  I sold some of my eggs, which led me to meet others who sold eggs and had chickens.  And of course…with all those eggs…I did a LOT of egg cooking.  I made stuff for myself and for others.  The eggs became the basis for my Barter Basket that was my payment for my physical therapy once a week.

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About 4 months after becoming known as “that crazy chicken lady” by my friends, I bought some day old chicks.  I decided I wanted to start from scratch.  My first batch was 2 Silver Laced Wyandottes (SLW) and a Welsummer.  The following week in February I bought a pair of Speckled Sussex (SS).  My landlord bought 35 babies and let me tell you..that many babies makes a real racket and a stench if you don’t keep up on them. My five Little’s were kept up in my apartment with me until they were 5 weeks old.  I just used a clear plastic tub and had their food and water and a heat lamp hanging above it.  You have to help keep them warm, so a heat lamp is the easiest and least expensive way to do it.  From the first week of having the SS chicks I knew they were different.   From each other that is.  There was just something about them.  Low and behold, about June, the one that had a bit larger comb began to crow!  I had a pair that I could breed and I was excited to think about hatching eggs.  I had a rooster!  And what a handsome cocky boy he was.

I started introducing the Littles to my Layers when they were about 6 weeks old.  I would take them outdoors and have them in a pen where the big girls could get a look, but not get at them.  Then when they were about 12 weeks old I moved them to the coop, but kept them sequestered in an area of the coop to themselves and only let them out when I was in attendance.  I did this for about a week and then one evening after they had all been outdoors for the late afternoon, I let them all go in to find their spots at bedtime and they all just were together after that.

Then life changed and I needed to move.  To town.  I knew I couldn’t bring a rooster to town and so I relocated Pumpkin and 5 of my older Layers with someone out in the country.  I  packed up the 4 Littles and Miss Donna and Sweetie (she’s an Austrolop) and brought them to town and they joined my boyfriends motley crew of 14 hens.  We ended up rehoming 8 of his and were back down to just a dozen.  They haven’t been as happy here and our production as been down.  They have to be in an enclosed chicken yard and I don’t think they like that as much as running free.

I have learned that chickens LOVE treats.  In the winter I would give them warm oats with apples or raisins in them.  Sometimes I would add some scrambled eggs for extra protein.  Some people think you shouldn’t give chickens eggs or chicken meat.  My girls love both!  They have yet to show any signs of cannibalism, but they love having some warm scrambled eggs on a cold morning.  I also started growing and giving them sprouts when they weren’t getting out to free range.  They also like scratch, sunflower seeds and fruit and veggie scraps.  My girls get a wide variety of diet with their base being Organic Layer Pellets from the Grange.  I love using the bags to decorate their coop as well as I used them to line planter boxes this summer!

A few other things I’ve learned this year about raising chickens.  Sometimes you forget that you’ve put an egg in your pocket and it gets squashed.  Sometimes they don’t have “fluffy butts” but rather have nasty butts and need to get a good washing!  I wasn’t sure, but I found out that they will go out in the snow.  And they LOVE to take dust baths.  Those are just a few things I learned just by watching and enjoying my girls.

We inherited two new pullets a month ago.  My boyfriend’s cousin raises Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes and we are hoping when we are able to move back out to the country that we can start breeding them.  They are a beautifully marked bird and I have read about many  people who are trying to fine tune the breed so it can be added to the American Breed Standard.

Our Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes...all the way from Utah!

Our Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes…all the way from Utah!

So, while the chicken did come first for me, the eggs will be coming for quite some time.  And what does that do for me the most???  It makes me smile.  I love my chickens.  They fill so many areas of my life.  They give me food.  They are one of the things I do in my life towards being self-sufficient.  They are a wonderful conversation topic.  They have brought me new friends which has opened doors for many other new things.

My next post will explain why I need them.  You see…production is at an all time low for me.  And I’m not talking about eggs.  Check back soon and see what I mean about low production!  Thanks for reading friends.  Now go pet a chicken or eat an egg!  It will improve your day…trust me…I know it for a fact!

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Waste not, want not…using what I have!

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Last week I responded to a local ad regarding a bartering offer and I ended up being gifted some plant starts.  A very kind woman took me to her greenhouse and explained how some things in life had been challenging this spring and she wasn’t going to be able to market her plants.  The “need” in the barter request was being fulfilled by another resource.  She said to take any starts I thought I could use or would want since I had responded to the ad and been willing to do the barter.  There were hundreds of tomatoes and peppers of all kinds imaginable.  Various herbs.  It was a wonderful place for me to be…just standing there in that greenhouse with such beauty in the bounty of food all those plants represented.

I tried to be realistic.  I thought about what I could and would do with tomatoes and peppers.  Salsa, spaghetti sauce, canned tomatoes, dried peppers.   I ended up with about 15 tomato plants and the same amount in peppers.  I had 6 pony packs which had cilantro, parsley, fennel, basil, another parsley and another herb that I am unsure what it is.  I think there were 3 squash plants that when I saw them at first I thought they were geraniums.  Might still be geraniums.  These plants aren’t marked. The woman had left me alone and said to help myself.

Butterfly pepper

Butterfly on the pepper plant in the garden.

Because I lost last years garden bounty, I have been hesitant to plant all my seeds and starts in the ground.  I am a renter, and I am anticipating I will be leaving here at some, I just don’t know when.  I was offered a place to garden in one of the many growing areas on this property and I utilized that.  A couple of days ago I planted 6 tomatoes and 5 peppers and 3 pony packs of the parsley and cilantro and basil in the area I cleaned out to use .  I still had LOTS more to plant. I wanted to have a mobile garden.  One I could take with me if I were to move before harvest time.  I did have some black pots I have acquired as well as I intended to make planters with old pallets.  I have been collecting some pallets over the last few weeks.  Figuring out how to use them was the next line of thought.  That was my goal this afternoon.

Do you know how hard it is to dismantle old pallets?  They are put together to STAY put together. The have a bazillion nails in them.  Nails that aren’t easy to get out. I took apart 2 pallets a few weeks ago and realized I just don’t have the strength to do that kind of hard repetitive work.  So I had to figure out a way where I would just cut them without removing the nails.   After numerous searches on the web this is what I came up with.

I cut the pallet into three pieces.  I then cut to size and nailed into place some empty feed bags.  I have used these feed bags to add decor to the walls of my coop also!  The shorter ones are filled with organic potting soil and planted with the herbs.  As a “filler” in the taller one (to conserve on the cost of plant mix) I went and scooped up some of the old straw/shavings/chicken poop that was scattered after the last two cleanings of the coop.  The bottom layer is 9 months old and really breaking down well.  The top layer is still fairly dry and has been sitting for over 2 months.  I believe that anything sending roots down further than the 8 inches will find that the stuff underneath has broken down more and will allow for nice long root systems.  Another experiment for me to monitor.

I did the same trick on the big black pots I used.  I filled them about 1/2 full with the partially composted coop mix and then topped them off with the Organic Plant Mix.  I worked until I ran out of the 2 bags of soil I had and it was almost dark.  I think I planted about 14 pots.  Some of them have double duty with more than one plant in it.  It felt so good to accomplish this.  I have been very slow to get going with planting a garden of any type, and yet when God provided all that I needed to do so, I had to get out there and do my part!  I am grateful for this woman’s generosity.

IN the midst of doing this planting I realized I had not eaten anything except for the Latte I had treated myself to when I was running errands in town.  I had received a FREE coupon a week ago.  Free is always good, but that free drink wasn’t going to give me the energy I needed to get this job done.  I had no ideas of what sounded good.  I just needed food.

What I had that needed to be used

Peppers, onion, Portabella mushroom, mayonnaise, avocado, fresh tomato and potato, basil, Organic Seed Bread, Mozzarella cheese

I opened up my little fridge and started searching.  What you see in the picture is what I pulled out  that needed to be used so it wouldn’t go bad or to waste over the weekend.  There were 3 peppers and a little bit of red onion that was left over and then the Portobello mushroom that my friend had given me the other day.  Hmmm…a sandwich sounded good….what kind could I throw together with this stuff?  I continued to rummage and found the little bit of the homemade mayonnaise with avocado added I had made last week and it was still good, but wouldn’t be for much longer.   My boyfriend had said something about a Philly Beefsteak Sandwich earlier and those peppers and onions triggered the idea into action!  An epic Portabella Philly Sandwich was about to be born!  A sandwich of this magnitude needs to be served with some chips.  But I didn’t have chips.  Yet I had bought an organic russet just today on my trip to Cartwright Meats.  I had also bought 3 of their Bacon Wrapped sirloin with hopes of a BBQ over the weekend.  They are only $3.49 each every Friday!

The chips: Turn oven to 450 degrees.  I used my stoneware bake pan and heated it also during the preheat time.  The chips were made by slicing on a mandolin and soaking in rice vinegar and water brine for 20 minutes. I drained the water off using a salad spinner to get them really dry! This was some good exercise for arms!  Then I drizzled some EVOO on and made sure all the slices had some oil.  I sprinkled Mrs. Dash Fiesta Lime blend all over the chips.  I opened the oven and spread them out as single level as I could.  I cooked for 10 minutes and then turned them and cooked another 10 minutes.  This was the perfect amount of time to make the sandwich.

This is how the sandwich was made!!!

Slice 1/2 red pepper, 1/2 green pepper and 1/2 small red onion.  Saute in cast iron skillet on medium heat in 1 tbsp. EVOO until onions are carmelized.  Remove from heat (I used my 12 inch cast iron and only put 1/2 the pan over heat so I just pushed the pepper onion mix on the unheated side to keep warm).  There should be just a small glaze of the oil left seen in the pan..it’s barely there. Slice washed and stemmed mushroom and lay sliced into hot pan.  Put one slice of Organic Seed bread in the toaster.  Turn the mushroom after about 1 minute when it is just seared.  Spread lightly with homemade mayo.  Stir mushrooms with peppers to combine all in pan and add 3 sprigs of fresh basil and cook one more minute. Take off heat and squeeze half a lime over the entire pan of food. Scoop onto toasted bread.  Place 1 ounce sliced mozzarella cheese on top of grilled veggies and place under broiler until cheese is melted.  Add sliced tomatoes and a spread more of the mayonnaise. Top with avocado and a sprinkle of fresh ground pepper and sea salt.

Portabella Philly Sandwich

Portabella Philly Sandwich

I hope you give this a try as a substitute for the traditional Philly Steak Sandwich.  The only thing I will change in my recipe for next time is to have a nice hoagie roll instead of the seed bread.  This has some juiciness to it and the bread didn’t hold up through the time it took me to take a few photos and eat it!  A hefty roll will be much better!  And it would make it portable!  Portable plants and portable Portabella Philly sandwich!

Capturing wild yeast and making sourdough bread!

This starter was created the beginning of the second week in May.

My list of new things to learn to do is always growing. When spring approached my research said it was a good time to capture some yeast and start my own science experiment on my counter. I read many different articles on how to make a good sourdough starter. The one I decided to follow was this one Sourdough Starter from Scratch: Collecting Wild Yeast.   My first capturing yeast was done in early April and it was growing well and I had been feeding it for a few weeks. I had put it in the refrigerator while I was gone from home traveling and when I tried to “fire it up” and reactivate it after a few days it developed some pinkish yuck so I threw it out. I started a new batch around May 10th and have kept it going on the counter ever since. I have tried four different Artisan sourdough bread recipes over the last few weeks and this weeks batch turned out the best in my humble opinion. My starter lives on the counter and I feed it daily with 1/3 cup of water and 1/2 cup WW flour. I toss 1/2 the starter about every 3 days. I feed it with AP flour the day before I intend to use it as that seems to create more yeast. The rest of the time the feeding is done with WW flour.

I have a little experience in bread baking over the years and anyone who knows how I am about recipes knows I have to go with my own flow and typically just use a recipe for some inspiration. That is what I did this time. I found yet another slightly different recipe and tweaked it to suit me using traditional American measurements since I have not acquired a scale yet. I found my inspiration with this recipe at Them Apples and I hope you take the time to check out this writer’s blog. He and I share a similar taste for foods! Lots of yummy stuff to be found and I love his layout!

I made my sponge using 1 heavy cup of my starter, 1 cup WW flour and 1 cup AP flour and 2 1/3 cups water. I mixed it with a fork and covered it with a cloth and it set on the counter from noon until 8pm. I wanted to have my bread ready to give a loaf to my physical therapist and my appointment was scheduled for noon the next day! I have learned over the last few weeks that baking good sourdough bread really is about taking your time and allowing the fermentation of the yeasts to develop. I love my set of Vintage Pyrex bowls and the large one was just perfect for this process!

While the sponge was doing it’s thing on the counter I tidied up my kitchen and prepared for an interview I was schedule to do at 2pm one of the reporters from the local newspaper. They are doing a full spread article on compulsive and problem gambling. I have been interviewed about problem gambling a few other times in the past.  I am happy to say this is the first interview I have had where I have significant recovery under my belt. The two other times for newspapers occurred when my life was in a shambles or I was literally sitting on my hands white knuckling it so I wouldn’t go place a bet. There was also a time I was interviewed for a TV newscast, and that occurred when I had been at a treatment facility and was at about day 45  and still trying to figure out how I was going to manage life once treatment was done. This time I am doing well today and it felt good to know that.  I am sure the article will focus more on the devastation that occurred during my 16 year battle rather than all that is good, and that is ok if the story helps educate the general public on the devastation that gambling can bring on a life. One other thing that is significantly different about this interview is that I chose not to remain anonymous. I am allowing the paper to use my name as well as my picture. Not because I am anyone special. Quite the opposite. I am just another person, who lives in the country and raises chickens and likes to cook and bake and has life challenges and loves people and is emotionally and mentally sound and happy with life. In a nutshell that is. I have nothing to hide anymore and it felt very liberating to say yes when asked if my name and photo could be used.

After the interview I hoped on my motorcycle and ran to town to check the mail for my guy while he is out of town and then back out to Applegate Valley Lavender Farm. I had promised my new friend Deborah Thompson, the proprietor, that I would help her do some preparing for the upcoming Oregon Lavender Festival. Check out her webpage and learn more about the Lavender Festival. Aside from enjoying this sweet ladies company, who wouldn’t want to hang out at a lavender farm and enjoy the scenery and the scents and the animals? I love it there. We played with her farm animal friends and pulled some weeds and ate some watermelon. It was a great couple of hours.

At 8pm I was back home and done with phone calls and little things that occupied my time for a while. It was time to make some dough! I dumped the bubbly mass of sponge into the bowl that goes with my standing mixer. I added 1 cup of WW flour, one cup of AP flour and 1/2 cup of oatmeal flour (that I grind myself with Organic Oats) and 1/2 cup of whole oats. I sprinkled in 1/2 tablespoon of sea salt and started up the mixer. Nice and slow at first. I didn’t want flour all over the place! It is a very wet batter as you can see from the photos. I added maybe another 1/4 cup of oatmeal flour after about 3 minutes because it was still sticking too much on the sides of the bowl. Once it all started to come together I amped up the mixer and let it fly for about 5 more minutes. I love my Kitchen Aid Mixer. It probably is the most used appliance I have ever owned. It is started to get a bit wobbly from so much use. When I use the dough hook to knead bread I have to hold the thing still because it bangs all over the place. I just use it as a resting place for the time it takes to knead it! After about 8-10 minutes with the mixer into an oiled bowl it goes!

Now to let it rise. I always pre-warm my oven to 350 degrees for just ONE minute and then turn it off and set my bowl inside with a tea towel or loose lid on it. I have a gas oven so it always stays a little warmer. It is a good thing I am a bit of a night owl because this dough still needs attention. As Rich at Them Apples states in his blog, this dough needs attention for about 4 hours or so. I would just stick my hands in the bowl and punch it down and turn it over and punch it down a few times each hour. At about 1:30 in the morning when I was just about ready for a good sleep I shaped the loaves into nice rounds and left them on a piece of parchment paper. I did the tea towel trick for holding their shape and it worked well. I covered them up and went to bed!

I awakened at 9 and padded out in my bare feet and turned the oven on to 450C degrees. I had a few things to do to put my “Barter Basket” so set to that while waiting for a good solid 30-45 minute pre-heat. I placed my rack in the middle of the oven and had a loaf pan full of water underneath that was heating with the oven. I also threw in some oiled new red potatoes to let them roast utilizing the pre-heat temps! I had my favorite Pampered Chef rectangular baking stone preheating in there too. For those who are curious my “Barter Basket” is a basket of home cooked and home canned food I put together each week for my physical therapist. She is treating me sans charge except for whatever I choose to bring as a barter gift. It is working out well for both of us. She and her betrothed are getting married in September and she has just asked me to provide some of the food for her dinner, which is a BBQ as well as highlight her bridal breakfast with some quiches and muffins and such! I have been so excited and honored about this. I have been enjoying cooking for most all of my adult life and to have someone ask me if I will cook for them for their most special occasion is just wonderful!

At 10 a.m.  I was ready to throw them in and have them bake. I had covered the bottoms of the loaves with a good layering of the oatmeal flour before letting them rise and so they moved about on the parchment paper I had set them on pretty well. I opened the oven and gently lifted each one with a nice long spatula and closed the door gently! Baked for 10 minutes at 450 and then turned the oven down to 200. The loaves were  just barely brown after 10 minutes. I checked on them after another 20 minutes and they didn’t sound quite hollow when tapped so I gave them an additional 5 minutes. On to the rack to cool while I got ready for my appointment with my PT.

My “Barter Basket” contained a jar of Marsala Chicken that I had cooked overnight in the crock pot, the roasted potatoes, a jar of canned peaches, a jar of Blackberry Plum jam, a plateful of Lemon Bars a loaf of this lovely Artisan Sourdough Oatmeal bread and a dozen of eggs from my Layers! My wild yeast starter is still growing on the counter and I believe I will make this same recipe again next week. I had a slice of this bread and it is very good, but I will add a little more salt next time. I think with the WW and Oat flours salt requirements increase! I hope you enjoy learning about Capturing Wild Yeast and making some good sourdough bread!