Here is Dex with Stella, our Speckled Sussex
How to Choose the Best Chicken Breeds
Choosing chicks for your flock can be exciting whether it is the first time you are raising chicks, or whether you are a seasoned chicken owner. Baby chicks are cute and it’s hard not to be tempted to take some home when you see them for sale at your local feed store. Before you do, there are a few things to think about.
Laying Hens vs. Meat Birds
Why do you want chickens? Do you want egg layers? Meat birds? If you slaughter and try to eat your laying hens, you will be in for a big disappointment. Chickens bred to be layers and chickens bred to be meat birds are very different. If you want to raise chickens for meat, you will choose either a pure breed or a hybrid breed. Some breeds have been altered so that these birds can be slaughtered for meat in only 44 days. We are skeptical of any type of “enhanced” anything around our homestead, so when we choose meat birds, they will be pure breeds.
Some good breed choices for meat birds include:
- Leghorn (think of the white chicken “Foghorn J. Leghorn” from the Looney Tunes cartoons)
- Jersey Giants
- Cornish Cross
Do your research because these breeds vary in “hatch to table” time.
Practicality vs. Aesthetics
Do you want birds to add to your food source on your homestead? If so, you will choose breeds for your flock that are “good layers” versus breeds that look fancy. There are so many different breeds out there that it can become quite addicting purchasing, raising, and getting to know the personalities and characteristics of each breed.
When looking to choose the best breeds for your flock that will be consistent laying eggs over time, you will want to look into the following breeds:
- Rhode Island Reds
- Plymouth Rocks
Personality vs. Practicality
Annika with our two newest Americauna birds, Earl the Pearl and Clara
This sounds funny but it’s true: we have noticed over the last decade that the different breeds have different personalities. Americaunas generally are very intelligent, personable and inquisitive birds. Our bird, Clory (named by our daughters) was the hen that was always by my side as I worked on fencing, coop upgrades, or other homestead maintenance projects. She would inspect my work and “talk” to us with her approval. Our other Americaunas have been, and are, the most intelligent birds in our flock. A bonus for owing Americaunas is that they lay the “Easter egg” colored eggs, which many people are amazed by.
Our Speckled Sussex birds are very similar to the Americaunas and they, too, lay about four to five light brown eggs a week. Our hen, Stella (pictured above) is the most intelligent, bravest bird we have. She is the last to roost at night and is the matriarch of the flock.
Rhode Island Reds are very good laying hens and are fairly intelligent birds, however, our Rhode Island Reds seem to be the most prone to broody behavior. We once had a hen go missing and we thought she had been taken by a predator. Weeks later we saw her emerge from underneath my workshop. After a check with a flashlight, we noticed that she had built a little nest of sorts and had laid almost 30 eggs before we noticed that she was there. Apparently she only came out to eat and drink when no one was around, and went right back to sitting on her “nest.” Sometimes broody hens don’t understand that those eggs won’t hatch!
If you are only looking for hens to produce eggs for you, and you aren’t really interested in having a chicken who will supervise your work or hang out with your children, we have found that these breeds are a a good choice:
- Black Australorps
- Speckled Sussex
- Plymouth Rock
Quiet vs. Noisy
It is amazing how some breeds can be quite vocal, whereas other breeds are very quiet and hardly make a sound. When we had our first flock, we technically lived inside the city limits although it was quite rural, and were not really supposed to have hens. Our neighbors had hens and no one minded, so we went ahead with the purchasing of our chicks, promising not to get any roosters. We wish knew then what we know now!
While we love our Buff Orpingtons because they are very beautiful and friendly, they seem to want to shout from the rooftops whenever they lay an egg. When you get a chorus of them going at once, it can be heard for miles around!
If you are interested in getting your first flock of backyard chickens and don’t want your neighbors to be bothered by the noise, then Black Australorps are the hens for you. While not the smartest hens in the coop, they are quiet birds and very consistent layers.
You can get into all kinds of fancy breeds, and even create breeds of your own, given the right rooster and hen. We will discuss roosters at another time. For now, you can learn more about the pros and cons of many of the more popular breeds here.
Here’s Kate with her first Rhode Island Red named “Red, Red, Red”
What are your favorite breeds, and why? If you don’t have chickens yet, what breeds would you like to start with?
Tell us a below!
It is hard losing animals you love and care for. The sad truth is, it’s inevitable on the homestead. We hope that this blog post helps when you wonder how to deal with losing animals on the homestead. For us, many of these animals are also our pets. Recently we lost our precious Leo. This loss was particularly hard on Kate, as we lost another cat named Charlie only a few months before. To add insult to injury, one of our hens was also taken the same week that Leo disappeared.
Homestead Animals Have Jobs
Here Benny and Charlie taking a break from rodent patrol by napping together next to the hay roll
Many of our animals on the homestead have jobs to do. Our barn cat, Benny, guards the barn from rodents. He is great at this! He is a little bit more cautious than Charlie and Leo were, because Benny doesn’t roam too far from the chicken house or the barnyard. Perhaps his feral mother taught him to be extra cautious. We adopted Benny and his mom at the same time. His mom did not stick around, but Benny did, and over the months became much more sociable. Today he is the sweetest, most loving cat we have ever owned. Charlie was also a feral cat, but he wandered a bit farther than Benny and he, like Leo disappeared without a trace.
We have had hens taken by hawks, fox, and coyotes. Over the years, we get used to this, and we understand that no matter how much we try to protect our animals, sometimes predators outsmart us. It is never easy to lose an animal. To my daughters, all of our animals are pets and every time we lose one, we all grieve. It is particularly hard on our youngest, Kate, who is still grieving over the loss of all of her animals. Each time we lose another, the grief of them all is renewed.
Grieving is Necessary
We all know how attached kids can get to pets. We have had memorials for Beta fish, baby opossums, beloved guinea pigs, baby birds that we’ve found as well as services for our hens and cats. When a child loses a pet for the first time, they don’t know that the feelings will be so strong, and they don’t know to expect grief. This is a big emotional load for a young child to deal with, not just the first time, but every time.
To a child, and to many adults who love their animals, losing a pet can feel like the loss of a human loved one. Pets are more than just animals to children; they are companions, good listeners, and even physical comforters. Pets can fill an emotional need for children like nothing else can. Feelings can range from anger, sadness, depression and despair. We lost Leo in early January, and we are all sad, however, Kate still falls into despair at times.
Allowing your child to have a ceremony can be helpful, and talking honestly with them about their feelings is important. For me, as a mom, I try so hard to not give the “adult response”, but to find my inner eleven-year-old who lost her dog one winter in Upstate NY. I grieved for that dog for months, maybe years. When Kate and I can talk about all of that honestly, I think it makes her feel like she’s not so alone. It doesn’t take away the heartache though; only time can do that.
Unfortunately, so often on the homestead, our animals disappear without a trace, and so no formal burial can take place. We try to remind Kate of all the fun times that she had with her animals, especially with Leo. We remind ourselves that some pets are with us for a long time, others for only a short time. Remembering Leo as a joyful cat who lived his life at 100 mph almost always makes us smile.
We made Kate this poster of Leo to help her remember all the fun times she had with her beloved kitten. It hangs in her room next to her bed.
And Then Another Animal Comes Along
Meet Jesse Covenant
Just when you think you can’t get any sadder, sometimes God gives you a gift. This little guy wandered over to our neighbor’s house. She called to tell me that she found Leo. When I got there, my heart sank; it wasn’t Leo. But, it turns out this guy was a stray who had obviously been wandering alone for quite some time. I brought him home, surprised Kate and her sister when they got home, and the rest as they say “is history.” For now, this guy’s only job is to live inside and bring joy to our healing hearts. He’s adjusted well, after his surgery, many naps, and proper nutrition. Kate has even taught Jesse how to walk on a harness!
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Every homestead will generally have a great deal of fencing. Fencing types range from four-board horse fencing to woven wire fencing for livestock, to poultry fencing for chickens and fowl. Whether it is designed to keep animals in or predators out, maintaining fencing is an important task that should be on every homesteader’s to-do list. One thing is for certain; a broken fence will not mend itself! Let’s take a look at the different fence types, what they are used for, and what you should keep on hand to make repairs.
Four-Board or Board Fencing
Four board or board fencing is typically used in pastures for horses and ponies. When first erected, this type of fence is pleasing to the eye and very safe for the animals. Board fencing is usually erected using four to six-inch round, treated wooden fence posts or treated 4×4 or 6×6 timbers and 1x6x16-foot fence boards nailed to the posts.
Due to the nature of the material, it is very common for the posts and timbers to twist over time and for the fence boards to warp, sag and buckle. As the fence begins to age, nails may pop out of the posts and the boards may become weak and broken. Nail pops can be a hazard to the animals in the field, especially horses that enjoy scratching themselves on the posts. Broken boards are an invitation for your animals to get out and do a bit of exploring to see if the grass really is greener on the other side.
Paint the top of the wooden fence posts or timbers with a good heavy barn paint or roofing tar to keep water from wicking into the post and rotting prematurely.
Now, pop in a CD of Desperado by the Eagles and get out there and ride (or walk) your fences to inspect for wear and damage. Bring along a good hammer and some nails just in case you find a board that needs some help getting reattached to its post. A spool of baling wire is also helpful to make expedient repairs to any broken boards you may come across until you can get back and replace it.
Wire field fencing is probably the most common type of fence used on the homestead. There are many different types with varying spacing between the wires and thickness of the wire itself. Let me just say this, buy the best fence you can afford. Cheaply made fencing will become brittle and rust quickly . You will spend more time and money in the long run repairing and replacing it than if you had bought the good stuff in the beginning.
Wire fence is typically nailed to wooden posts or timbers using galvanized metal staples. These are great fun to install, especially if you like to smash your fingers. One of the problems with wire fencing is that it loses the tension and becomes loose. This usually happens when horses or cattle lean against the fence or push on it trying to get to beautiful green grass in your neighbors field. Once a wire fence becomes loose, it is now a potential hazard for horses to get their hooves entangled in, and it is much easier for coyotes or foxes to dig under a loose fence.
Walk your fence at least once a month with a good fencing tool. and a pocket full of staples. We use a Channellock 10.5 inch fencing tool. Inspect the fence for breaks in the wire and tie some surveyor’s flagging around those spots as a marker for future replacement. Make sure there are not any loose wires sticking errantly out of the fence as you can be certain a horse will find it and scratch itself on it. Or worse yet, poke it in the eye. You don’t want to be putting your vet’s kid through college. Ask us how we know.
Chicken wire or poultry fencing is without a doubt the most aggravating type of fence to work with In addition to being hard to work with, it is generally very thin wire and does not last for decades as do the other types of woven wire fences. But let’ s face it, it’s cheap and it does the trick to keep our beloved chickens corralled. This is what we use.
Inspect your chicken wire daily and very carefully. Chickens and fowl are a tremendous asset to any homestead and they are also on the menu for many predators. Coyote, fox, raccoon, possum, snakes and hawks will all be more than happy to dine on your hens if given easy access to the chicken yard.
Keep a roll of wire and a wire cutter at the chicken coop so you can make repairs while you are there collecting eggs. We can’t tell you how many times we have noticed a rip in the fence and tell ourselves that we’ll get to it later, and later finds us repairing something else on the homestead we forgot to repair before!
Your homestead fencing represents a huge investment in money and time. Protect your investment by taking time today to gather the supplies you’ll need so you’ll have them on hand when it’s time to do your maintenance checks.
There is always something to be done around the homestead, and sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day for The Parents (aka The Working Parents) to get it all done! Ever since our girls were little and we began to homeschool, I have always also worked part-time (and for a few years full-time.) Talk about needing some extra hands to help out!
1. Start Early
As soon as the girls were old enough to use them, we bought them their own tools: hoes, rakes, gloves, hammers, nails, drills, screws, paintbrushes, paint and small pieces of wood. They created at will, and what they made was often times messy, but always awesome. Since we involved our girls in most everything we did around the homestead, they watched and learned. Even when we thought they weren’t watching, they were; and not only were they watching, they were remembering.
Kate getting her garden row ready. She’s about five years old here.
Add cranberry for a great holiday twist!
Sauerkraut is one of our super foods! Fermented foods contain beneficial probiotics which help with digestion, and overall immune support.
Unfortunately, you don’t get the same benefits from sauerkraut that you buy at the grocery store; it just doesn’t have time to ferment properly before being packaged and sold, and the fermenting process is what creates all those good-for-you probiotics!
Making sauerkraut is simple and easy and is one of the best recipes to start with if you are new to fermenting foods. I’ll tell you how I got started fermenting foods. Years ago, I read the book Nourishing Traditions and began learning about the health benefits of fermented foods. The first thing I tried to ferment was shredded carrots in a mason jar, covered with cheesecloth. I followed all the steps and watched my carrots religiously, however, nothing really seemed to happen. I tried making kimchi once after that and that, too, was a disappointment.
Fast forward a few years to the day I went to a fermenting class with a friend. It was an “aha!” moment for me when they showed us a tiny little gadget called an airlock. Where had this been al my life? This simple gadget is the key to making safe, delicious fermented foods.
This tiny gadget is the key to making safe fermented foods
You can purchase a pre-made five-gallon bucket (or larger!) that will come with the grommet and the airlock, or you can make your own. Simply drill a hole, place the grommet inside, but be certain it is tight-fitting, and insert the airlock. Voila’! You are ready to make sauerkraut.
Now it’s time to get to work. Gather the following items and sanitize everything before you begin:
- food-grade five-gallon bucket with lid, grommet and airlock
- about 5-7 pounds of shredded cabbage
- non-iodized salt (2 teaspoons per pound of veggies)
- spoon, stamper or something else to submerge the cabbage (or use your hands!)
Step 1. Shred your cabbage. Use green or red cabbage or a mixture of both, add shredded carrots, shredded apple, or whatever your heart desires. Toss in some aromatics like juniper berries, or even cranberries for the holidays. Mix it up. You can’t go wrong!
Step 2. Transfer cabbage (and other veggies or aromatics) into your bucket, add salt, add enough water to cover the vegetables and mix well. I put rubber gloves on and get right in there with my hands. It is very important to use non-iodized salt. sometimes known as “cheese salt”. Iodized salt does not allow fermentation to occur.
Step 3: Weight your veggies. I place a medium-sized ceramic bowl in a ziplock bag and place this over the vegetables to keep them submerged in the brine. You can also purchase weights for this purpose, but I have never found them necessary.
Step 4: Place the cover on the bucket and let the magic happen!
Check every other day or so to make sure your vegetables are submerged in the brine. Active fermentation will cause them to rise up. Be sure to check for mold. You cannot see or smell mold, but you will feel it, and it means that oxygen got in. If you feel a slimy film over your vegetables, throw it out. It is okay to see a film over your veggies, but that film should not be slimy! Remember: when in doubt, throw it out!
The longer your sauerkraut ferments, the stronger the flavor will be. Test it every day and remove it when it is perfect for you. We like our sauerkraut fairly mild, so we usually remove ours after about 7-10 days, but you can leave yours fermenting for up to 30 days.
After you transfer your sauerkraut to mason jars or containers, if you have leftover juice, be sure to save it! This juice is wonderful for gargling with if you have a sore throat.
Strain and save your leftover juice!
Store your sauerkraut in the refrigerator or water-bath can, which is what we do!