Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I don’t know when I started liking animals, but it started later in life. I didn’t grow up with dogs or cats. Michelle introduced them to our family. But they become a part of your life pretty quickly. I was looking at some video of our previous dog “Morgan” the other day, and I got very melancholy. Now Jasper the Wonder Dog is a very big part of my life. He just wants to be with me, ALL THE TIME, so I don’t go anywhere outside without him. And if I’m inside he wants to be there too.
As we started migrating our diet to a more plant-based one I started to think about how animals raised in larger industrial settings spend their lives, and it’s quite sad. We decided to acquire some chickens because I still like some animal protein before working outside all day and we wanted to be sure that our eggs were coming from happy, well-cared-for chickens. I still put cream in my coffee, but Canada has a “Supply Management” system with our dairy (something free trade agreements hate), so our dairy farmers can still earn a reasonable living with manageable herds.
As I drove the area during the last election, you can always tell a dairy farm — it’s well maintained, and they usually have large screen barns to keep the cows comfortable in hot weather. Even I don’t have a screened in porch, so I believe there is an economic incentive here for farmers to keep the cows happy. I’m sure the TTP will dispense with that.
As our chicken posse has grown we’ve continually upgraded their facilities. We started with a small coop, which got added onto until we finally converted a shed for their coop. Last year I was so proud of our ‘sunrooms’, which were two pickup truck caps. They spent most of the winter under them able to dig in the dirt. (Read about the sunrooms here.)
This summer we added 10 more chickens. Instead of the usual “red sex links” we chose a variety of chickens, some barred rocks, etc. So we were up to about 30 chickens and I noticed that on rainy days this past summer the one remaining truck cap was getting pretty crowded.
So, this fall we moved the portable garage (that we use all summer for shelter when packing our CSA boxes) to beside the coop for the winter. Our daughter’s wonderful in-laws, Bill and Susan, helped us carry it over. So now ‘the ladies’ are going to have a much larger area to roam and dig in the dirt all winter.
I get sad thinking about how most of the world's egg-laying chickens spend their lives, in multi-shelved layers of cages, without much space, spending all day and night in artificial light. The smell and noise must be pretty intense in barns of that sizes with the numbers of chickens in them. When I go into our coop the morning of a cleaning (which I do twice a week) the smell is pretty strong and if even just a few of our chickens are making their morning clucking announcements, the sound is deafening. I can’t imagine a big barn full of them.
So once I got the garage cover on I was starting to get a sense about their winter. Sure, they got a fair amount of space, that’s good. Sure they get some natural light through the cover, excellent. Most importantly, when you see how chickens love to dig in the dirt, and give themselves dust baths, well, this new arrangement was going to allow them an awesome winter. But something was off and I couldn’t figure it out.
Then it finally occurred to me: They couldn’t actually see outside. They couldn’t see their lovely surroundings. They are still allowed out to free range right now since we have no snow as of today (December 17, 2015), but once the ground is white, they won’t leave the covered garage. This got me thinking.
The other challenge was that Jasper the Wonder Dog spends a good chunk of his day watching the chickens. Since the door to the shelter was on the north side I made it out of solid wood to keep the cold north wind from blowing through. So suddenly my very good buddy Jasper was going to be cut off from one of his great joys … “chicken TV.”
At that point my ‘scrounging’/cheap reflex kicked in and voila, the ladies had a new panoramic window/viewing area. Or as I shall call it … “The Chicken Cabana”, because really, compared to spending the winter huddled in their tiny coop, this is going to be like a vacation on a beach — a sandy beach they get to dust bathe in. I can just see if now, chickens taking selfies buried in the sand … on their chicken cell phones. Whoops, Cam’s getting delusional in an attempt at humor — or is he?
I used two cedar fence posts I had removed from around the garden, and I was able to dig holes for them in ground that was frozen two weeks ago but is now thawed again, thanks to the wonder of a warming climate. Then I dragged over some windows Bill gave me last spring that I had hoped to incorporate into a greenhouse, that never happened.
It’s pretty cute. I often see the ladies looking out the window when they are having their ‘inside recess’ time, since they stay in until about 11 am when most of them have laid their eggs. And then anytime I’m out feeding them Jasper is always at the window monitoring their status. I can see him doing a mental inventory… 3 white chickens … check… 2 black chickens … wait… Is there one missing? Border collies are herders I’m told.
I have lots more plans for the ‘cabana-room’ over the next few weeks. They are going to need a climbing structure. The chicken love to climb. In fact, they were climbing on to their trap door exit from the coop onto the door to the cabana-room to make periodic escapes. And maybe I’ll add a swing.
For now, they get to free range and are still being spoiled with what’s left over from the garden … pumpkins, kale, some ugly spinach, and broccoli plants … the chickens devour broccoli leaves like there’s no tomorrow. I understand these are becoming very trendy at upscale food shops. Yea, my chickens eat them "all the time," not that I’m bragggin’. Top this up with warm potato and sweet potato soup/stew (ugly not really fit for human consumption potatoes that they love) and they have a pretty good life.
Do chickens like soccer balls? Could I get a game of ‘keep away’ going in there this winter? Heaven knows they love to play keep away with leftover spaghetti noodles and things.
If I am reincarnated in a lower form and come back as a chicken, my hope is that it’s in a place like Sunflower Farm. Apparently we put waaaayyyyy too much effort into maintaining the quality of life of our chickens. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Those chickens are providing us with darn fine eggs. I believe their mental state can only benefit that whole process.
Cam Mather is a writer, publisher, self-reliant homesteader and funny guy. He is aggressively dedicated to living a normal North American lifestyle as independently as possible along with his wife, Michelle. While this includes driving a car, watching the Super Bowl and playing with their dog, Morgan, it also means growing their own food and using renewable energy. For more stories about life at Sunflower Farm please visit Cam's website, and find all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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