Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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You've heard of a one-horse town? Well, we are a one-goat micro-dairy. That doesn't mean we only have one goat to milk but that our milking parlor is set up to take only one goat in at a time for feeding and milking.

We have a small herd of dairy goats. At present time we have 8 does and 3 bucks. This season we've had 3 does to kid — increasing the herd with 4 additional doelings and 1 buck (that is soon to become a wether). We have 2 more does to kid soon.

Offspring of Alby

Among our dairy goats, we have 2 Nubian does, a mix of Nubian/Saanen does, a registered Saanen doe, a registered Saanen buck, a pure Saanen buck and a pure Sable Saanen buck. This is where "Alby" comes in.

We had decided to go from selling state-registered "Animal Feed" milk to getting licensed to sell farmstead aged cheeses. We decided to breed all the does to have enough milk to make our cheeses and to increase, hopefully, our doe herd. The kids we don't keep as replacement for our farm we try to sell as dairy replacements to other farms. The males we keep as bucks we sell as breeding bucks. We don't use or sell as meat. (We are a natural and sustainable farm. No chemical, hormone and/or anti-biotics.)

Our Sable Saanen doe, Black Mist, was bred to our pure Saanen buck, One-More Bubba. We had hoped for at least one doe from this kidding. What we got was the most beautiful Sable Saanen buck...he was just adorable! My sisters saw him and said you should call him "Prince Albert". So, he went from Prince Albert to just "Alby"!

Alby a few days old
When we breed our does, we keep a record of when they're bred and to which buck...this really helps later because it can get really confusing if you have several does. I write this on my calendar then, I also count 145 days from breeding time to see when to start watching the does for kidding. The actual time can be 145-155 days. We like to watch the does and when it is near kidding time to try to separate them out. We also like to try to be there when the doe kids, just in case there is trouble. We have run into problems before with first time kidding. Sometimes the doe will only have one baby and it will be large and she needs help delivering.
This was the first kidding for Black Mist but she did a wonderful job! The baby was perfect and she did really well afterwards...she was a good "Momma"!

Black Mist and Alby together

Alby was about 7 days old when we came to feed one morning and couldn't find him. We called to him and heard him. We found him lying against the barn. He was unable to get up. We tried getting him up but, he couldn't stand. Finally, we worked with him and he was able to "hobble" around. He was having problems with one of his front legs and one of his back — but nothing appeared broken. He and his mother were separated from the herd again.

Now, we had a dilemma. Alby would not get up on his own. He waited for someone to help him up. So, now we had to go at least every 3-4 hours to get him up and hold him while he nursed his mother. We did this for at least 2 weeks. In the meantime, we had another dilemma. Alby was meant to become a whether. But, since he was having problems with his legs we were afraid any more stress (we band to castrate) would cause him more harm. So, we left him a buck and this farm really does not need that many bucks!

Alby started doing much better. He started running and playing. He became an inspiration. We have workshops on the farm and he was a favorite for everyone to make over and pet. We decided to put them back with the rest of the herd and just keep a close watch on little Alby. We were so thankful that he was doing so good! But as everyone knows that lives on a farm things can go very wrong very quickly.

The next day we caught one of the other does head butting little "Alby" and just caught it in time. She too was a mother and she was telling him to "get away." He was re-injured and this time we didn't know if the leg was broken. He just wouldn't get up! We called the vet. We were told the vet we were using no longer treated large farm animals. So, we called the "mobile vet" and had to leave a message. It was the weekend so we didn't hear back until Monday. We didn't know what to do except just try to work with him like before. We finally got him up and walking again even though he was limping.

We just assumed we would have a "special needs" little buck on the farm. But there was a miracle for us and for little Alby! He regained full use of his legs and wasn't stunted at all.

Little Alby is now a Sire. He lays claim to this season's new offspring on the farm.

NOTE: For anyone looking for a pure Sable Saanen buck, Alby, is now ready to be head Sire for his forever herd! We are located in Western North Carolina. 828-682-1405

Susan Tipton-Fox continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


May at Bees of the Woods Apiary seems to be all about trying something new! Read the full year's posts in this series here.

Raising Queens

queen cups blog

This year, we are trying to raise our own queens for the first time. I took a queen rearing class last summer, did a lot of reading, and finally got around to trying out what I learned.

We started out by choosing a hive to graft queens from. We have one hive that we just love. It overwintered well, and built up quickly in the spring. It is gentle, and had good honey production. We knew that we would like to have those traits in more hives, and decided to graft larvae from that hive.

But, before we started grafting, we needed to think about setting up a “starting” and “finishing” hive. This is exactly what it sounds like – hives that are used to start the queen cells, and hives that are used to finish the queen cells.  We decided to go with the Oliver “foolproof method” of queen rearing. We liked this method because you can use just one hive to both start and finish the queen cells.

The grafting takes some practice, but it isn’t as hard as it sounds. You can read about the entire process of setting up the starter/finisher colony (and small-scale queen rearing in general at the Scientific Beekeeping website, a really great resource. Just click here.

Once we had our starter/finisher colony set up, we selected a frame that had a lot of small larvae on it. Ideally, the larvae would be 4 days old when you graft them. At the beekeeping class we went to, they showed us what 4-day-old larvae look like, so we just estimated which larvae would be a good size for grafting. It’s a little tricky, and you definitely will want a good jeweler’s light/magnifier to see the larvae. But after a while, you get the hang of it.

After grafting the larvae, we put the frame into the starter colony. At the beginning of this section you can see a picture of the frame with queen cups that the bees have begun to draw out.

queen cell blog

Two days later, we checked the cells, and found that the bees had starting drawing out about half of them – not bad for our first try!

Four days later we set up nuc boxes. For each nuc box we placed a frame of mostly open brood, one frame of honey and pollen, a “mixed” frame that included some capped brood, and an empty, drawn frame. The next day, we took out our now capped and finished queen cells, and carefully pushed them into the empty frame, and put them back in the nuc.

Now we just had to wait and see if the queen hatches, has a successful mating flight, and returns to the nuc. The successful mating flight part can be trickier than it sounds. The queen has to avoid birds, cars, bad weather, etc., in order to mate and make it back to the hive.

A few weeks later we checked our nucs. All of the queens appeared to have hatched from the queen cells, and while we found the queens in some of the nucs, others appeared to be queenless.

We can now use the queen-right nucs to re-queen a hive with an older queen, sell the nucs to other beekeepers, or keep the nucs to build up our own apiary. The queenless nucs will be combined with the nucs that do have queens to help give them a boost in population.

Raising queens can give you a lot more options for your apiary – I highly recommend giving it a try.

Pollen Trapping

 Pollen pile blog

Our other new venture involved collecting pollen. We had never done this before, but every once in a while someone would ask us if we sell pollen. So we decided it might  be worth giving it a try.

There are are different types of pollen traps, but we purchased a Sundance pollen trap that mounts underneath the hive. Bees go in the entrance of the trap, and through a maze that knocks some of the pollen off their legs as they go through it. I liked this style, because when you have collected as much pollen as you want, you can shut the pollen trap entrance, and the bees would just go in the front of the entrance as they normally would.

I was amazed at how much pollen we collected! It was also really neat to be able to see all of the different colors of pollen that had been collected.  After 4 days, we had over 1 pound of pollen. After we had collected about 5 lbs. of pollen, we closed the entrance to the pollen trap, allowing the bees to enter the hive as normal.

We put the pollen in baggies and froze it to kill any pests. Then we spread it out on white paper to pick out any debris such as bee parts, etc.  We packed it into jars, and stored it in the freezer to help keep it fresh.

This is one of the things I love about beekeeping – there is always something new to try and learn. Happy Beekeeping!

Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York.  Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Before we get into the article - so many of you have asked us to share a video of our farm, so here it is — Life By the Bucket. Many thanks to students from the G-Star Filmschool in West Palm Beach. Enjoy.

1. The Safe Way to Open Gates

Always open pasture and pen gates into the pasture or pen, not out! When you enter into a pasture or pen, opening any gate inwards turns the gate into a barrier between you and the animals. If they rush you to get to feed or hay you are carrying, or just to escape, the gate will shut instead of flying wide open and letting everything escape.

This can be quite funny if someone opens the gate the wrong way and all the just weaned babies run out and scatter into the alleyway, but that can also be dangerous if that gate leads to a highway or the escaping animal is an 1,800-pound bull.

Open Gates Safely

2. The Safe Way to Turn an Animal Out into Pasture

When you take an animal out to pasture, turn the animal to face you and the gate before letting it go! If the animal, be it a horse or a goat or a cow, is turned towards you and the gate before taking the halter off and releasing the animal, it has to do a 180 degree turn before it can speed up and kick out. This will give you time to step out of the way and avoid being kicked or run over.

This applies to all animals, even those you think would never do that. An older mare will just as likely kick up her heels and speed off in cooler weather as a 175 pound doe who wants to join her herd mates. It is no fun being run over either way. Those little goat feet are amazingly sharp and sitting down on your tail bone is not comfortable either.

3. Be Safe Around Farm Equipment

Turn It Off, When You Get Off! It’s so easy and saves so much time, on average about 3 seconds, when you leave the tractor or lawnmower running to quickly get off and just open a gate, preferably on an incline.

Tractors and other large farm equipment do not know “ouch” or that the human or the horse is standing right in front of it, and ooops, the gear slips or the break slips and the entire truck, tractor moves forward and right over the unsuspecting human or animal. If you are lucky, it’ll miss you or will just squash your iPhone. If you are not lucky, the tire may run over your leg, or the hay spear will pin you against the wall.

A friend of ours didn’t even leave his truck running, but parked it on an incline, the break gave way and it missed him, but ran downhill, through a few fences and came to a stop at a wall, totaled.

Safe Tractor Driving

4. Safe Riding in Your Golf Cart or Mule

Sit down, don’t stand when its moving! These wonderful time saving and load carrying vehicles might not look and feel so fast, but they can be fast and unstable enough for you to fall out unless you have your behind firmly grounded on a flat surface. These vehicles can take corners fast enough for you to lose balance  and fall out, and then it will run over your foot or your leg, best case leaving you with a bruise or painful road rash.

If you have a golf cart with a roof, which is fabulous in the rain, you can also take a corner too fast and tip it over, best case a dent in the cart. As a driver, it will be your responsibility to ensure that all passengers, those on the seats and in the back, are seated and ready to go.

Fun and Safe Cart Riding

5. Don’t Stick Your Fingers in the Back Of a Goat’s Mouth

Beware of any animal’s teeth! While goats have no teeth on their upper gum and really can’t bite you, the back teeth are razor sharp so goats can snap branches and browse. These molars can snap your finger or give you a mean cut.

Most goats will not bite on purpose, but there are incidences when I’ve had my finger down a goat’s throat, if a goat was choking or to steal cud. I don’t do it lightly and I have been harmed in the process every time. Unless you are sure what you are doing, don’t attempt it and definitely keep your children’s hand out of any animals’ mouth.

Look Ma - No Teeth

6. Don’t Put Your Head and Nose Directly Over Livestocks'

If they raise their head suddenly, they will knock you out (worst case) or on your butt (best case)! Most visitors to Serenity Acres love to pet the animals. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is right way to go about that. Goats head-butt, and cows and horses lift their heads out of harm’s way when they feel there is cause for concern. They do it fast and determined and if your head or nose is in the way, because you are leaning over the animals’ head, your nose will be broken or you will sport a black and blue eye for a couple of weeks.

When petting animals, keep your head off to the side, and as a bonus tip, also never wrap a lead rope around your hands when walking an animal that clearly outweighs you. If they run off, the rope will tighten around your hand or arm and leave a burn rash in the best case.

7. Don’t walk backwards without looking – Really Not Safe

Walk forward, you can see where you are going! Such a simple rule, but easily overlooked.  On the farm we have lots of reasons to walk backwards such as luring a goat into its pen with feed, scooping a pen, or sweeping a concrete floor.

This is the one rule that if not followed, most likely will just hurt your ego, but I’ve fallen over a dog too lazy to move while walking backwards and just my pride was hurt, and I’ve fallen backwards over a mower deck while trying to escape from some wayward wasps and came away with some serious bruises.

8. Know Which Way Livestock Kick and Your Safe Spot to Stand

Cows, horses and goats have different kicking zones. Know them! Horses mainly kick out to the back. If you are standing behind them, preferably about 3 feet away, you are standing in the prime kick zone and will receive the full strength of the kick. To avoid this, stay close to the horse, keep your hand on their body and speak to them so they know where you are. This minimizes the chance of a full force surprise kick.

Cows generally don’t kick backwards, but kick out sideways, as in cow kick. The same safe standing rule applies here, close by and no surprises. Goats, in my experience, can kick every which way and up and also jump on top of you, so here best be prepared and teach them from a young age: “no front feet on humans” and keep your face away from the legs while milking or trimming feet.

9. Wear Closed-Toed Shoes for Safe Toes

Sandals or flip flops don’t belong on a farm! If you’ve ever had a goat, let alone a horse, stand comfortably on your foot, you will appreciate the safety and cushion of a closed toe shoe, even if it is just a croc. All 200 pounds of the goat or 1,000 pound of the horse will miraculously be transferred to that one point on your foot especially if it’s a you’re your bones and skin are no match for a horse hoof, especially when wearing a horse shoe, or even a small, sharp goat hoof.

Closed-toed shoes will also protect you from stubbing your toes on wheel barrels and on steps into the chicken coop, and protect you from squishy chicken poo or dog poo between your toes.

10. Don’t Wear Headphones During Farm Chores

Many people just can’t live without their headphones, but on the farm during chores is the place to take them off! I get it. Scooping poop and doing other daily farm chores can be quite boring without the buds in your ear with a cool pod cast, TedTalk or your favorite tunes.

But here is the rub: when you have the buds in your ear, you are focused on the music and any other sound drowns out. You do not hear the baby alarm when a young goat is in trouble, you do not hear the dogs barking at the hawk stalking your chickens, you do not hear another human calling you to help with a goat, or a cow, or a heavy board. Only having a bud in one ear doesn’t work either, because your concentration and focus is still on the music/talk/podcast and not on your farm surroundings where they need to be.

Too much can go wrong too fast. Just leave the headphones in your pocket and use them on your break. If you want to listen to music, turn the speaker on and have the music in your pocket, in the background. That’s where it belongs on a farm during chores.

Use your common sense and you will be fine.

Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four to 10 WWOOFers and interns, and is the home to 58 dairy goats, 16 Black Angus cattle, 278 laying hens, 3 horses, 3 cats, 4 house dogs, 6 livestock guardian dogs, and 6 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


A Pyncheon bantam hen was probably the breed kept by the Jefferson as a family pet. The Pyncheon breed is in grave danger of extinction.

In the 1800s, many gardens, homesteads and all farms raised livestock. Animals were integrated into the fabric of everyday life and community commerce — livestock provided local daily sustenance.

Monticello’s gardens and orchards are world famous for the fruit and vegetable production. The volumes of garden notes and sketches by Mr. Jefferson give deep insights into production gardens of his time.

Interestingly, among all his writings, there is very little included by Mr. Jefferson about keeping poultry. Among the few references I could find was a record from his granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph about foodstuffs purchased from the Monticello slaves for the Jefferson household’s fine dining and entertaining.

“On September 29, 1805 the Jefferson kitchen purchased…(among other produce), 47 dozen eggs and 117 chickens." 1 To put that single purchase in context, Anne bought 564 eggs and about 527 pounds of chicken. That’s over a quarter ton of chicken (at an average weight of 4.5 pounds per bird). Chickens were a major source of food and income for the enslaved community.

“More than half of the black adults at Monticello sold produce to the Jefferson household and all but three adults among of them also sold chickens.” 2 So why did Mr. Jefferson not include poultry in his livestock records? It might be because in our founding father days, raising chickens was viewed in some circles as a lower-class activity. “Poultry, held in low regard during the 18th century, was usually omitted from farm stock listings”.3

This helps to explain exclusion of chickens from the livestock accountings for Monticello stock inventories. The belief that chickens are a lower-class occupation appears to be a deeply rooted because still, today, some of the opponents of the backyard chicken movement have expressed that keeping family flocks is for poor people and legalizing chickens would be a degradation to the neighborhood, causing property values to drop. This belief has been proven false.

In fact, chickens are gaining such favor that Virginia Governor Terry McAulfiee keeps a family flock at the yolk-colored mansion in Richmond. However, back in our founding father’s time, European flocks of ornamental and fancy fowl were all the rage — a genuine royal class occupation. Raising bantams was especially the in-thing to do for “gentry-class young ladies." “Ornamental and bantam fowl were becoming increasingly popular (in America) as the colonists copied prevailing trends in England”.4

Mr. Jefferson definitely qualified as one of America’s upper class and was quite active in breeding bantams and ornamental chickens.

A Letter from Jefferson

­In a letter dated November 30, 1806 (Jefferson wrote to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge): "By Davy I send you a pair of Bantam fowls; quite young: so that I am in hopes you will now be enabled to raise some. I propose on their subject a question of natural history for your enquiry: that is whether this is the Gallina Adrianica, or Adria, the Adsatck cock of Aristotle? For this you must examine Buffon etc."5

On June 29, 1807 Mr. Jefferson asked Ellen: "How go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, and on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians (fowel)”.6

This letter (and others) shows that Jefferson was experimenting with varieties of chickens. Mr. Jefferson’s daughter had a pet bantam, probably a Pyncheon hen. This little hen was such a family favorite, that when it died there was a full family funeral for the beloved biddie. The Jefferson family had a pet cemetery. It would appropriate if that pet chicken was buried there with a grave stone engraved with her name and date of death.

Chicken Breeds of Colonial Mulberry Row

The painting Mulberry Row by Nathaniel Gibbs documents chickens being fed by African-American Monticello residents.

"Mulberry Row" by Nathaniel Gibbs includes chickens as a part of daily life along the gardens of Mulberry Row.

What breeds of chickens might have been on Mulberry Row? Colonial Williamsburg has a Rare Breed Program where they researched and selected four breeds that existed during the 1700s. These are the Dorking, Dominique, Hamburg and Nankin Bantam. I’m including the Pyncheon. According to Jeanette Beranger of The Livestock Conservancy, that was a popular breed probably one of the bantam breeds Mr. Jefferson raised and gave as gifts.

The Pyncheon bantam breed still exists but is quickly slipping into extinction as its breeding numbers dwindle. This breed was dropped from exhibitions (American Poultry Association poultry shows) in the mid-1900s.7 There is only one American breeder of Pyncheons listed on the internet.8 We can only hope there are more in Europe.

Loosing chicken breeds is nothing new. Many of the old breeds have become extinct. The Livestock Conservancy lists over three-dozen breeds of chickens in danger of extinction, losing their genetic uniqueness forever.

Chicken Keeping in Colonial Times

The archives of Monticello seem to have very little about the practices of chicken keeping. From description of Colonial Williamsburg, most family farmers and residents let the birds free-roam, without providing shelter. “They drove them to roost in orchards or stands of timber. Chickens were expected to forage for most of their food, cleaning up behind the more important meat and draft animals or occasionally receiving table scraps or grain from their owners. In a town setting, they may have even sheltered them in their houses or other nearby outbuildings”.9

How many chickens were kept at Monticello? No written records seem to exist. But from that single chicken and egg purchase by Anne Cary Randolph in 1805, it is clear there had to have been thousands of chickens that fed not only the enslaved community but also the Jefferson household.

How were these the chickens raised, kept and employed? I believe the answers might still available through the descendants of the enslaved community who raised chickens for Jefferson. The Getting Word oral history project started at Monticello in 1993. This project is to preserve the stories of Afro-American families of Monticello by taking histories from their descendants. An NPR show, entitled: Life At Jefferson's Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It is an excellent description of the project.10

I propose it would be a useful research project to conduct a “Chicken Keeping and Employing" survey of the Monticello African American Descendants to glean information handed down about poultry keeping in the 18th century. I would love to participate in such a project.

I have been presenting chicken workshops at the Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival for several years and always bring my co-presenter, Oprah Hen-Free (a heritage chicken), to show people how dignified, beautiful and personable chickens can be. At a book signing in the gift shop, Ms. Hen-Free, with the usual clucking that represents the sound of a forthcoming egg, presented an egg with as much grace and dignity as can be expected of any fine hen. People were thrilled! The still-warm egg was passed around and marveled at by those who had never held a truly fresh egg,

I asked the staff if this might be an historic egg? Might this be the first egg laid at Monticello since Jefferson’s time? The staff was clearly stunned — and didn’t have an answer. But the question remains: Was that an historic egg? Could Oprah Hen-Free, in presenting a single egg to the Monticello gift shop, possibly have laid the first egg at Monticello in over 100 years? Might Oprah Hen-Free have uttered: “The cluck heard around the world” as a clarion call announcing that it is time to bring chickens back into our culture?

It is clear there were chickens kept by the residents of Mulberry Row. An authentic recreation of their daily lives has to include the 18th century poultry breeds. Not only to recreate glimpses of the lives of the people, but also to preserve the breeds of chickens that served them — so they can continue to serve future generations.

May the flock be with Monticello.

Mr. Jefferson (Bill Barker) holding chicken celebrity Oprah Hen-Free, a heritage bantam Chantecler at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, 2015.


1. In Our Own Time. Keeping Food on the Table.

2 Ibid

3. Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

6. POULTRY. Letters between Jefferson and Martha Jefferson Randolph regarding bantam chickens.

7. Ibid.

7. Pyncheon Bantams, by Brian Heldberg, Minnesota Member The Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. Backyard Poultry Magazine.

8. Pyncheon Chickens. Rusty Hart, 2531 Vance Road, East Jordan, Michigan.

9. Rare Breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

10. Life At Jefferson's Monticello, As His Slaves Saw It.

11. Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello.

Poultry pioneer Patricia Foreman has kept poultry for about 25 years, employing chickens to build topsoil for a community farm and co-owning and operating a small-scale farm with free-range, organic layers, broilers and turkeys. Her commercial operation experience includes managing breeder flocks, incubating eggs, pasturing poultry, finished processing and direct marketing. Find Patricia online at and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



Chickens may seem sweet and soft, but they can also leave in their wake a messy coop!  

I know there’s a TV series out there about dirty jobs. I think the host ought to come out to the farm and clean a chicken coop with me.

It’s not like it was the worst cleaning of the season — that comes with the spring thaw, when the bedding pack is near three feet deep in places, wet and heavy, frozen in the corners, and matted down with straw and wood shavings. That would be a really messy job. Sometimes it takes days to work through the winter pack and haul it away.

So this cleanup after the ladies had moved out should be a breeze in comparison, right? Well,while moving that winter pack is wet and sticky, the spring coop cleaning to prepare for the baby chick arrival is dry and dusty. Very dusty.

Where to Start

First, like with any coop cleaning, we have to scoop out the soiled bedding. Mom backs up the tractor and the manure spreader as close to the door as possible, and we prop open all the doors and windows for ventilation. 

The hens have been out of the coop for a week, while I kept the fan running, so the messy muck from the ducks has dried to a firm, hard pack. Steve scoops while I chip away with the ice scraper, releasing the brown poultry concrete (we joked that it should be called “chickcreet”) from the actual cement floor. Chip, chip, chip — about half an inch at a stroke.

Steve had just bought himself a long-handled scoop shovel. The shovels that have been on the farm as long as I can remember have short handles, which work well for us short ladies, but poor Steve gets all doubled over with an aching back. But now, equipped with his Steve-sized shiny new tool, he was ready for action!

And there was action to be had — a manure spreader full of it. Scoop scrape, scoop scrape, until finally the floor of the 12 x 24 foot coop is cleared. But that is not the end of the story. Oh no, now it’s time for the dust!

Who Knew? Feathers Make Dust!

Chickens do make a lot of dust. This comes in large part from the growth of feathers.  When just developing (pin feathers), these modified scales are covered in a protective sheath made of carrageen. The same material as your fingernails, this sheath then shatters as the feather emerges into full form.

The shattered feather sheaths are very fine and end up collecting bedding dust from the hens dust bathing (a ritual that helps keep their skin pest free) and sticks to the walls, the ceiling, the chicken wire, the fan, the screens, the windows, etc. It sticks like a mat on the top of boards and dangles in odd strings from cobwebs.

Steve and I attack the dust with our best weapons — a broom and a shop vac. I know it might sound kind of crazy, but yes, I use a shop vac to help clean my chicken coop!  Steve is up on a ladder with all the extensions on the end of the pipe, sucking up the dusty froth and knocking down the matted strips. I’m attacking the screens with the broom, clouds of dust fuming out the window.

The fan can be one of the worst parts to clean.  On the inside, the dust has collected near a half an inch thick on the grating, and I carefully brush it off, letting it suck out through the fan outside. But on the outside, the dust has caked on the louvers and the hood. I attack with the broom the run behind the door for cover as a plume of gray dust spews out. Holding my breath, I dash back for another swat.

Inside, Steve is up by the chicken wire that separates the different sections of the coop. Some of the dust is being stubborn, not wanting to come off the rafters. “Oh no you don’t!” Steve taunts. “Come down here where I can breathe you!”

There’s dust everywhere. It’s hard to see. Now and then we have to step outside to catch a breather. Our clothes are a light brown mottle — forget the blue or green that we originally put on that morning. My glasses are coated in dust. I periodically pull them off and blow on them or wipe them with my finger like a windshield.  This process is intense — I’m glad I’m wearing a wide-brimmed hat!

Steve has made his way from the back almost to the front door, and I come behind sweeping up the floor in preparation for spreading the barn lime. Darkness is settling, and there’s another freeze warning, so there won’t be time to spread fresh bedding and heat the space for the chicks tonight. But then, I’ll leave the fan running, and by morning the air will be clear.

What started as a dried-on poopy mess is now cleared to the wood and cement. I’ve repaired any damage to the chicken wire with zip ties, and the floor is snowy with a coat of fresh lime. You can actually see light through the windows, and the screens allow free air movement. It’s a real makeover for the coop, but there’s no question that this is one of those dirty jobs on the farm.

I sure hope those little chicks will appreciate the effort.  But for now it’s time to hit the shower. Whew, glad that one’s off the list! See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Chicken and Eggs

Did you go out to your coop this morning only to find no eggs? Frustrating, isn’t it? It also makes us worried. So, is it serious? What can we do about it?

The answer to the question varies. Fortunately, most of the time when chickens stop laying it is because of minor things that can be easily fixed. Take heart! Your precious hen will hopefully be back to laying those delicious eggs in no time.

1. First Thing First: Was Your Hen Ever Laying?

Hens usually don’t begin to lay until around 6 months old. This can vary depending on the breed. Heavier birds may start laying later than 6 months while lighter weight breeds may start laying earlier.

Our first set of chickens were Rhode Island Reds. They didn’t begin laying until almost 8 months old. When we invested in Dominiques, they started laying at around 4-5 months.

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “I know my bird was laying!” But, really if you have multiple chickens, sometimes it is hard to keep up with who laid what.

Solution: Make sure you're not you're not worrying over nothing. If you aren’t 100% sure your hen was laying to begin with, keep a close eye over the next few weeks. If she isn’t showing any other symptoms then maybe she wasn’t really laying in the first place.

Wouldn’t that be a relief?

2. Is She Too Old to Lay?

Maybe your chicken is the polar opposite of what we've just discussed. Maybe the old girl is getting up in age, and you are noticing she just isn’t laying like she used to. That’s okay. Every year, a chicken’s egg production will lessen.

Chickens can live up to 8-10 years in age. By the time they reach this age, though, they are rarely laying. This is where it gets difficult. Some people only raise chickens for eggs. Some get rather attached to their chickens and don’t care if they quit laying because of age. You have options either way.

Solution: If you realize your beloved hen has stopped laying because of her age, then it is time to make a decision. If your chicken is more like a pet, then you might decide to keep her around until she dies naturally.

If you love her but just can’t afford to keep an animal that isn’t giving back any longer then there are chicken retirement homes. If you love your chicken but aren’t quite as emotionally attached then it might be time to butcher her.

3. Some Breeds are Better at Giving Eggs

This might seem a little obvious, but some chickens that are amazing layers while others are just so-so producers. Depending on your hen’s breed, this might explain why you aren’t getting eggs from her any longer.

Road Island Reds, Sexlinks, and White Leghorns are just a few breeds known for being excellent layers while other chickens like Dominiques and Jersey Giants are less known for their laying talents. Here's a list of 10 chicken breeds that are the best at laying eggs.

Solution: Do your research. Use sites like Google to find out what your breed of chicken usually produces. If your hen is a Road Island Red but she isn't laying as many as expected, then you’ll know that she probably has a problem.

However, if you have another breed such as a Jersey Giant, and you know that she isn’t showing any other symptoms, then maybe she just isn’t producing as many eggs because of her breed. Jersey Giants, another example, are great dual purpose birds for meat and eggs. Yet, they won’t produce as much as some other breeds of chickens.

4. Do Your Chickens Have New Friends? Or Have You Moved Them to a New Neighborhood?

Sometimes when you add new chickens to your flock, your more seasoned layers will stop laying. It throws them through a jolt adding new members to their household. This should make perfect sense to anyone that has ever gone through a similar experience.

Think of it as a blended family. Anyone that has ever blended two families or adopted a child knows how difficult it is starting out finding the new “rhythm” of the household.

Chickens really aren’t that much of a different. It takes a while for them to figure out where everyone’s space is. Once they get things figured out, they’ll go back to laying.

The same thing applies if you have recently moved your chickens. Maybe your family moved to a new neighborhood, or maybe you just moved your chickens’ coop across the yard. Either way, chickens are creatures of routine. Anything that throws off that routine can ultimately make it to where they stop laying for a few days at a time.

Solution: All you can do in these instances is practice some patience. It shouldn’t take your chickens more than a few days to get adjusted and figure everything out. During this time, if you’ve added new members to their household, they’ll need to establish a new pecking order and routine.

If you’ve moved their coop across town or across the yard, it will take your chickens a few days to figure out their new surroundings. Once they become familiarized with everything again, they’ll return to laying.

5. The Summertime Blues

Hens love daylight. It requires 16 hours of daylight for them to lay an egg, usually. So when the winter rears its head, don’t be surprised if your chickens don’t lay as many eggs.

Hens are really funny animals. The rooster usually crows as the sun is coming up (or maybe a little earlier.) Hens are not early risers, though. This was surprising to me when I first started keeping chickens. They don’t bother flying down off of the roost until the sun is up.

During the winter, this means they don’t rise nearly as early. This also means that they go to bed much earlier because of how early night falls.

If your chickens aren’t laying and it is winter time, don’t be alarmed. They aren’t awake long enough for their bodies to produce an egg. If you are lucky, you might have a few faithful layers that will give you an egg every few days. If not, you might have to buy your eggs during the winter months.

Solution: Okay, so maybe you are like me and abhor having to buy anything that you can produce in your backyard.

My hens went on a laying hiatus this past winter, and when I went to the store and had to purchase eggs, I honestly thought I was going to have a breakdown. I hadn’t realized how much the price of eggs had gone up, and I found myself a little nervous not knowing exactly what I was eating.

I quickly sought advice from all of my local chicken-keeper friends. They laughed at my hysteria over a lack of eggs and then told me to put a light in my chicken coop. They told me if I’d put a regular lamp in their coop (and you can even put the lamp on a timer like, so you don’t have to turn it off and on daily) then it would keep the hens awake, and they’d lay for me.

6. Hens Need Protein Shakes

Chickens are like us in some ways. Their bodies have to have proper nutrition to function as they should.

So you probably shouldn't start giving your chickens protein shakes, but they do need lots of protein. If your hens aren’t laying be sure they are getting enough protein. They can get a large dose of protein through layer pellets.

If you are giving them layer pellets and still aren’t seeing their production increase then try giving them high protein treats like pumpkin seeds or meal worms.

Solution: Chickens need protein. We have already stated you can achieve this through high protein treats and laying pellets. That should be enough, right? Not always. The other component to a proper diet is grit and water. Chickens need grit to help them process their food. Be sure they are getting enough.

They also need lots of fresh water. Chickens love to gulp water. I have tried the fancy chicken waterers. If your chickens are happy with them, then keep on keepin’ on. If not, switch. I have found that a 2.5-gallon bucket with fresh water makes for some happy chickens. They can gulp it and multiple chickens can drink at once. Be sure to dump it daily.

7. Chickens Like to Stare into the Fridge

I know---chickens don’t have refrigerators. But in their mind, they like to see a full cabinet. Even when they aren’t hungry. Don’t act like you don’t mosey over to the fridge around bedtime, not really hungry, but just to stare at it and to see if anything might tempt you or just for reassurance that your fridge is stocked.

It brings peace to your stomach to see that there is plenty there to stuff it full tomorrow. Well, your chickens are the same way. They want to know that they have plenty of food. Otherwise, they’ll start assuming that they might starve. They reroute nutrients in their body to keep them from starving which in turn stops them from laying eggs. That is pretty neat that they can do that, right?

Solution: Leave ample amount of food in their coop. Even if they don’t eat it all, that’s okay. It is a constant reminder to their little chicken brains that they aren’t going to starve, life is good, and to keep on laying eggs!

We keep a large automatic feeder in the middle of our chicken coop. I usually only fill it up about once a week. When I see that it is about a quarter of the way from being empty, I’m sure to fill it up. I can honestly sense the panic in the chickens. They all start gathering around it wondering if it’s going to be refilled. Those are the moments I am sure to stop what I’m doing and make their little day by refilling it.

8. Time to Call ‘Merry-Maids’

You may have someone that goes around your homestead and cleans everything up for you. If so, you are one fortunate soul! I am not so lucky. I have to clean out all of our animals’ areas as needed. If your hens aren’t laying, check your nesting material. If the nesting material is not clean, then they won’t lay in it.

Now, anyone that has had chickens for any length of time knows that a sleeping chicken is a pooping chicken. Sometimes chickens sleep in their nesting boxes. This doesn’t mean you have to go in and dump all of that nesting material every single morning. That would get expensive. So what do you do?

Solution: Be sure once or twice a week you empty out the chickens’ nesting boxes. It needs to be completely dumped and refilled with good nesting material. You can use straw, wood shavings, or even shredded paper. My new favorite nesting material is pine shavings.

It keeps their nests smelling fresh, and my girls seem to love it. It is great at absorbing all things gross and keeping their nesting boxes rather neat until the next time I come around to clean.

I am sure to keep a cleaning schedule. I have one day a week that I go through and clean out all of the animals’ areas. That way, I can do any touch-up cleaning during morning chores throughout the week.

9. Mama Hen

Chickens will not lay when they are being broody. This means that your chicken has laid a clutch (a full nest) and is ready to set her eggs. They will not lay during this time.

How do you know if your chicken is being broody?

• She will set her eggs all day and not leave the nesting box.
• She will become very protective of her eggs and not let anything or anyone near them.
• She will pull her breast feathers to give warmth to her eggs.

Solution:  If your chicken has become broody be very thankful! She just saved you the cost of an incubator and is going to grow your flock for you. A broody hen is a treasure and is very rare. Out of all of the chickens we have raised, I have yet to have one that will set her eggs. This may lower the amount of fresh eggs you get for a period of time but in the long run it is a huge help.

10. I’m Molting…I’m Moooolting

Okay - so that was supposed to be a play on words from the ‘Wizard of Oz’ but anyway… Chickens molt. It is just something they do on a yearly basis. It usually happens around the same time as the seasons change. When winter hits and day light decreases, molt comes on. This means that they lose their old feathers and grow new ones. Molt is also a time when their bodies rejuvenate.

The important things to know about molting are:

• Egg laying ceases.
• The chickens are susceptible to illness during this time because their bodies are trying to rejuvenate.
• Your chickens will look crazy because they usually decide to all molt at once!

Solution: I recommend to let your chickens go through molt. It is natural and a process their bodies need. If you absolutely do not want them to go in molt you can add artificial lighting to their coop. This keeps them from molting. However, be advised that when artificial light is added and then removed, your chickens will molt at spontaneous times throughout the year.

11. Call the Doctor

If your hen is not laying, it might be time to look for signs of illness. This is difficult because where chickens are preyed upon they do not show signs of illness if at all possible.

If your hen is showing signs it is wise to seek out a veterinarian that could help her. One of the biggest concerns in keeping chickens is ‘bird flu.’ This can be spread from bird to human. If you suspect that your chicken has it, don’t delay and call the vet.

You will then need to call your county agent to have your birds tested and the proper authorities notified that there was in fact a case in your county.

Sometimes chickens get respiratory viruses that are not bird flu. We had a terrible case that wiped out a large part of our flock this year. Chickens do not get colds. They get respiratory viruses.

It looks like they have a runny nose and they begin to gurgle or snore. As soon as you hear the first snore, quarantine the chicken. Most people say that you have to cull any of the birds that catch a respiratory virus. We did not have to cull ours. The ones that made it have gone back to laying.

Solution: When your birds get sick all you can do is seek medical treatment. There are some natural ways to cure respiratory virus in chickens. The most important first step is to be sure it is just a regular virus and not ‘bird flu’. After bird flu has been ruled out then you need to quarantine the sick chickens. Feed them lots of fresh herbs, put ACV in their water with garlic, and offer them as many super foods as they will eat.

It is all about boosting their immune systems. Then you just have to wait until their bodies heal, and they return to laying. As mentioned, illness often coincides with molt. So pay extra close attention to your chickens during the early winter months.

12. There is sn Egg — It's Just Stuck

Chickens will get eggs stuck at times. This is called egg binding. What it means is that your chicken literally has an egg stuck. This happens when your chicken has a calcium deficiency, a small pelvis, or is trying to pass a large, misshapen egg.

There are ways to help your chicken when they are in this predicament. If the chicken cannot pass the egg, it can lead to death.

Solution: You can contact your vet and see if giving the chicken an injection of calcium would help. Placing your chicken in warm water and massaging her might help her muscles relax so she can release the egg.

You could also apply lubrication to make the passing of the egg a little easier for her.

13. Coop Isn’t Big Enough for All of Us

Chickens don’t require a lot of space, but they still need their space. If you have too many chickens in one coop, your hens will not lay. How much space a chicken needs depends on upon if they are free range or cooped.

You only need about 3 or 4 square feet of space for a free range chicken. They will spend most of their day out in the yard, so they only need their space for sleeping. If you have cooped birds, then they will need about 10 square feet of space per chicken.

Solution: In this instance, you will either need to build a coop with adequate space for your chickens or back down on the number of chickens you keep. Here are great coop ideas that should help in providing adequate coop space for each of your feathered friends! Your birds will be much happier if given proper living space. And everyone knows that happy hens are happy layers!

Jennifer Poindexter and her husband raise most of their food and a variety of animals in the foothills of North Carolina, where they built a small homestead on very little money. She writes about all of her adventures at Morning Chores, where she shares the knowledge she has gained with others that might want to take the full plunge into homesteading. Read all of Jennifer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


I can't think of too many things that demand immediate attention more than walking out the door and seeing a billowing curtain of gray/black smoke rising skyward in the nearby forest. That will get the heart racing from 0 to 60 in a flash.

Too close!

Since moving to our isolated piece of heaven in 2000, we've had at least four serious forest fire scares. One doesn't hear much about these fires in the north unless they threaten a community like Fort McMurray, Alberta. But the fires that have burned around us were equally as vicious and consumed over ¾ million acres.

In 2002, during our first wildfire threat, Johanna was evacuated to town and I faced the fire alone. I knew it was coming when I heard what sounded like a freight train chugging in the distance. Fires make that sound when they are burning so vigorously, they are gasping for air. When I ran down to the beach, all I saw was a towering wall of undulating orange and red flames at the south end of our lake, 4 miles distant.

I wrote some last words on paper, placed it into the cold metal stove for safekeeping and headed to the boat. Even though I drove the boat towards the fire, I thought that was my best chance of survival since the lake widens out in the center giving me more room to maneuver.

That evening, as far as I was concerned, the whole world was in flames. I was surrounded! I survived the night by wearing my survival suit. Depending on the situation, I was either in the lake, in the boat or hunkered on an island. But being on an island was not a guaranteed safe sanctuary either as most of them burned when the fire roared through. What took Mother Nature decades to grow, was destroyed in seconds as whole hillsides went up in a whoosh.

Our most recent scare occurred in 2010. From the safety of our boat, Johanna and I watched as a wall of flames advanced towards our homestead. All we could do was watch as the smoke and flames engulfed our place, obliterating our view, and we were left with the sinking feeling that our home and property would not survive this hit.

It's coming !

The following is an excerpt from my book Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness.

It was like being in a movie theater, the big screen showing a large-as-life fire burning right in front of us, with black smoke billowing upward and a dense veil of white-gray smoke hugging the ground so thickly that the bright orange flames were visible only when they leapt skyward above the fracas. A slight diminution in the smoke allowed just enough visibility to see an orange-red glow, much like opening the door to a furnace allows a view of the orange-red coals. And, like the furnace hungrily consuming its fuel, the intensity of the forest fire’s heat incinerated everything in its path.

The fire boss said there was nothing more to be done and we would have to trust the sprinklers and pumps. He considered doing a back burn, but the winds were unfavorable for this technique. We checked pumps one last time, donned smoke masks and goggles, and retreated to the boat while the fire crew took off.

Before the pilot had the float plane turned around for takeoff, we saw a towering wall of flames, well above treetop level, working its way towards the house. There was nothing we could do, and the feeling of the situation being lost was overwhelming. Utter hopelessness!

We could hear the roar of the fire, along with the steady hum of the water pumps. The Wajax pump used by professional fire fighters has an unmistakably loud, high-pitched whine, and as we bobbed nearby in the boat, the pump hiccupped, a stutter that caused my heart to skip a beat.

Please pump, don’t stop now.

When we first moved out here to build our homestead, we knew we would eventually have to deal with a forest fire. But we had no idea the scope and intensity a conflagration could possess. During construction, we flew in metal siding and roofing for our home's exterior. It gives a great deal of fire resistance.

Burned Aerial View

The Saskatchewan Government, specifically Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM), has been fabulous to work with during our times of need. They will do their utmost to fly in a fire crew to help protect property. But there are times when they are overwhelmed with dozens of simultaneous fires and are unable to render assistance.

We choose to live out here and ultimately our safety is our responsibility. As as result,we bought the necessary equipment to give us a fighting chance against a fire. In my next post, I'll go through our spring ritual of setting up our equipment. I'll have pictures and text of exactly how we took two direct hits from firestorms yet managed to survive them both.

Close Call in 2002!

Thanks for reading and I'll be back again shortly.

Ron Melchiore and his wife Johanna currently live alone 100 miles in the wilderness of Northern Saskatchewan. Ron is the author of Off Grid and Free: My Path to the Wilderness published by Moon Willow Press and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Connect with Ron at In the Wilderness and on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

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