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Monday, April 30, 2012

How I Artificially Re-engineered My Hens’ Pecking Order

By Michael Atkinson, Chicken Lover

A brazen daylight attack
One day while in my kitchen I heard a baby screaming. An awful, heart-wrenching sound… coming from my backyard. As I rushed outside I realized it was one of my hens.

Let me introduce them. Two Rhode Island Reds (Sammie-lane and Rose), one Golden Laced Wyandotte (Bobby Jo) and one Americana (Nikki). This was their pecking order – led by big, confident Sammie-lane who led with a gentle wing:

  1. Sammie-lane      2. Rose        3. Bobby Jo         4. Nikki
Back to our story. Bobby Jo was caught up in the curled end of the chicken wire fence, freaking out in a way that made me sick, sounding the alarm. I saw two Boston Terrier dogs in the process of eating Nikki. It was shocking. Feathers were everywhere, Sammie-lane was limping nearby and Rose had simply vanished.

I grabbed each dog. Up and away they went, flying high over the fence unceremoniously back to their yard with satisfying thuds – they were neighbor dogs and had dug under my fence.

 I rushed the remaining three hens to the veterinarian. The triage nurse quickly admitted them for emergency life-saving surgery. My incredulous wife mocked me bad (and was upset later at the bill) but my kids stood by me. We saved the hens’ lives. Over the next couple months we did our best to administer oral anti-biotics twice daily and rub anti-biotic cream on their wounds. Bobby-Jo got re-infected and had to go back for Surgery Part II. Nikki was severely depressed for a few weeks… instead of being her spry self, she’d slowly shuffle around dejectedly despite actually having the least wounds. I was worried sick they wouldn’t pull through but they all did. With consequences...

Chickens pecking chickens… and a new regime
We had found Rose hiding under discarded netting for the strawberry patch, reunited them all and soon I was shocked again: Sammie-lane was being severely pecked by the others. Her surgery shaved rump literally squirted blood as the others tried feeding on it. I put smelly black cream from the feed store on the wound but it didn’t do much. I then separated her: keeping the others in their fenced off area I let her roam the rest of the yard. She got lonely, it was sad.

Meanwhile over the next several weeks a New Fowl Order was established. Gone was Sammie-lane’s kind reign. Bobby Jo took over, and ruled with an Iron Claw. She cracked down on the other two brutally. It was senseless violence, shameful and ruthless. Realizing I was too emotionally immature of a human to let the chicken’s pecking order go its own way naturally, I staged an intervention.

Manipulating the pecking order
Step 1:
  • I isolated the bully Bobby Jo from the other two in a solitary A-frame coop for a few weeks. (I believed if I brought her back at a later time, it would be 2 vs 1 in the pecking order and she would lose status and I was correct.) I always made sure the groups of chickens were near/could see each other.
  • I also tried reintroducing Sammie-lane after a couple weeks, thinking she was healed enough. Nope. Nikki and Rose still went after here. Back to Isolation for Sammie-lane.

Step 2:
  • After almost a couple months I felt good about Sammie-lanes’ healing so I re-introduced her again. Feathers were growing in well and she looked much better. They all looked like they were going to survive! But I was still worried about the pecking order, and still had three separate groups of chickens. I reintroduced Sammie-lane with Nikki and Rose. Rose, having successfully hid from the dogs, had of course been the healthiest this whole time. Bright red comb and wattle, she was energetic and quite a contrast to the recovering three.
Soon as I put Sammie-lane back in, Rose attacked really aggressively. Poor Sammie-lane just melted. It broke my heart and made me mad. So I booted Rose in with Bobby Jo – misery loves company ladies! Nikki asserted dominance with Sammie-lane and I let it slide because she wasn’t cold-hearted cruel about it. Again I figured I’d eventually add Rose or Bobby Jo back in one at a time, they’d enter at the bottom of the pecking order, and I’d re-arrange Nikki later… exactly what happened.

Step 3: After a couple weeks, Bobby Jo got let out of the coop to rejoin Nikki and Sammie-lane. After staying long enough to ensure Bobby-Jo sinks to the bottom of the pecking order (the power of 2 vs 1), Nikki went in with Rose. Sammie-lane got good payback and Bobby Jo quickly sank back under her in the pecking order.

Step 4: Nikki came back, easily went back under Sammie-lane (and Bobby Jo), and then finally Rose was reintroduced as well. By this time Sammy-lane was flush red again in her comb and wattle, and strutting her stuff. All back to normal!
A happy ending
There are still remnants of the Pecking Order Wars of ‘11-12. Nikki and Sammie-lane are best of friends – I’ve never seen Sammie-lane so much as nip at her, and Nikki is always quick to hop up on the roost and get under Sammie-lane – her favorite bedtime routine.
Rose is deft at fitting in and avoiding problems. She hangs with Bobby Jo at nighttime a lot, but is frequently welcomed to join Nikki and Sammie-lane. Bobby Jo continues to pay for her reign of terror. Dumb as a rock and a social misfit, she often gets pecked and chased off. At times she sleeps alone. Lately the girls have been reuniting a lot at night like an old teen band getting together for reunion gigs. It warms my heart. They are happy and each lay eggs almost seven days a week. And most importantly, back to where they started in their original pecking order, after months of hard work and juggling isolations and social groups by their favorite meddling human…

 by Michael Atkinson

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Legacy of trees

When my grandfather built a farm home east of Shelley, Idaho in 1928, one of the first things he did was to plant trees around the house. He was 53 years old and he knew he would not live there long enough to enjoy the shade of those trees. He was planting them for the generations to come. My father and mother bought the house and nurtured the trees. Those Box Elder trees grew large and shaded the house. Flocks of song birds nested in their branches. I played under them and in them (tree houses) as a child in the 1960s. I napped under their coolness on hot summer days. I splashed in piles of their autumn leaves. How grateful I am that Grandpa Johnson planted those trees.

We delight in the beauty of spring flowering trees, suckle the sweet goodness of fruit trees, bask in the coolness of shade trees, revel in the fire of autumn maples and aspens, celebrate in the glow and scent of pine, fir, and spruce Christmas trees, and contemplate the majesty of a mighty oaks and walnuts. But we must remember that many of these trees were planted by those who have gone before us, not for their benefit but for ours. We must carry on this legacy for future generations.

Plant a tree when each of your children or grandchildren is born.  Tree seedlings make wonderful gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. When my mother passed away in the spring of last year, my in-laws gave me a beautiful Prairie Fire crab apple tree. Now each spring when it blooms deep reddish pink blossoms, it will remind me of her.

Celebrate National Arbor Day on April 27th. Plant trees in your yard for those who call your place home after you are gone. Organize tree plantings around your schools and churches. Initiate tree projects for your parks and playgrounds. Encourage reforestation projects. Leaving a legacy of trees is an altruistic action that passes on the pleasures of trees to future generations.
 A Prairie Fire crab apple tree commemorates the passing of my mother.

 A row of ornamental cherry trees, a birthday gift from my daughter will one day bracket our pasture fence.

~by Uncle Dale

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Signs of the Food Apocalypse

We are going to start a new segment on this website showing the absurdities of processed foods. it is going to be called Signs of the Food Apocalypse. It will showcase the absurd processed foods that are the beginning of the end of all real food as we know it.

We are making things in this country that people 50 years ago wouldn't recognize let alone eat. I can't think of a better food to start off the sign of the food apocalypse posts. Pizza hut has created a pizza with a cheeseburger crust. I know you don't believe it because I thought it was just another Saturday Night live joke but you are wrong. Pizza hut actually thought this would be a good idea. I imagine that the Pizza Hut menu makers are a group of people that Pizza Hut has kept on a deserted island and the only thing that they have to eat are cheese puffs, slim jims, and Kool Aid.

Is there really anyone who thinks this works! I am beside myself. Check out the video for said burger pizza and fear the end. It is near.

 What are your nominations for the signs of the food apocalypse?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"We are Not Born Craving Whoppers and Skittles"

Check out this video of a TED talk from Mark Bittman. I think you will find it interesting. I don't agree with everything he says by any means but he has an interesting viewpoint on the ills of our modern food supply. He posits that one of the biggest problems with the world today is that we eat too much meat. This leads to health, and environmental problems. He gives a very quick history of modern food supply starting at about 7:40 in. My favorite quote that he gave was "We are not born craving whoppers and skittles."

Like I said, I don't agree with everything he says but I do think I would be better off eating less meat and processed foods. Marisa and I have already improved on this but we can do even better.

Now that you've seen Mark Bittman's opinion, share with us what you think is the biggest problem with what we eat in our modern society?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Don't forget to start looking for a local CSA (community supported agriculture). I love this video put on by my local CSA. Check it out:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Broody BobbyJo

 Pictures do no justice the freaky "I'm going to come flying at you and slit your throat, human" guttural sounds these broody hens make as you look in on them sitting on their "babies". I thought I'd at least lose the camera as I attempted to make it our of there alive.
Note in one pic there's only one, and in the next our second broody-as-of-today girl has sat down on as many eggs as she can.
~Michael Atkinson

Monday, April 9, 2012

Choose Your Chicken

Whether you are new to chickens, or just adding to your flock, it is always fun to try and figure out what chickens you might want to have for your backyard. Your decision might be based on looks, productivity, broodiness, egg color, hardiness, size, temperament, and many other factors. We have used a lot of different sources in the past and wanted to give you some resources for choosing chickens.

Other chicken lovers

If you know people that  raise chickens I would use them as your first resource for choosing a good breed. I like going local because local people will know what works in your area. They will be able to teach you and give you suggestions based on experience. You are assured that the information they give you is good since their chickens are alive. If their chickens are dead or undead, then you might not want to take their "expert" advice.

Local Farm Store

Here in Utah we have a good farm store called IFA. I'm sure you have a similar store like Tractor Supply Company, or maybe a local mom and pop garden/farm store in your area. They sell chicks and often times when you go you can get some good information about the breeds they are selling. It's also fun to see a picture at the store of what the chicken will look like once it is older. Usually your local store will sell breeds that do well in your area.


The website backyardchickens.com has a great website with a lot of good information about chickens. This link takes you to a cool part of their site. On the left side of the page you can check off some of the things you are looking for in a chicken and it will give you a list of chickens that fit your criteria. Then you can read the details about the breeds that come up. They have some great pictures as well.

Another website that we have used is mypetchicken.com. They have a chicken breed selector tool.which asks you a few questions and then gives you some suggestions for breeds. They also have a good list of breeds here and if you click on the breed name it gives extensive information on each breed.

 There are a lot of good books out there. I bet you can get most of them at your local library. I only own one book that talks about chicken breeds. It is basic but I like it and it is worth the cost. The title is Know Your Chickens by Jack Byard. It contains a brief synopsis of various breeds as well as beautiful pictures.


Let's make our comments section a resource as well. If you have the time, leave a comment with your favorite breeds and give some insight as to why you like them. I'd love to hear your opinions.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chicken Beauty Pageant

We love normal everyday chickens that are prolific egg layers here at backyard farming. However we also adore some of the more exotic breeds. How can you look at the following breeds and not want to own a chicken?


Silver Laced Polish

Blue Sumatra


Black Frizzle Cochin Bantam

Mille Fleur d'Uccle Bantam


Which of the above do you like the best?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Easy Seed Starting

This  post was previously published on our blog but with so many new people we though it would be good to repost. 
Seed starting really isn't that difficult. It can seem overwhelming if you haven't done it before. I know it took me a few years of gardening before I dared start my own seeds. It wasn't until my husband Michael said to me,

"If the pioneers that crossed these plains could put a seed in the ground and grow food without peat pots, a bag of seed starting soil, and a mini greenhouse container....we can do it with those things."

He was right, and my family is living proof of that. If WE can start plants, trust me YOU can do it too. You will see in the pictures that my kids did most of the work (aged 4, 6, 9).

Here is how!

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies

A. Seeds
. We prefer heirloom seeds. We like the variety that is available in heirloom seeds, as well as the fact that we can harvest seeds from our produce to use the following year. Packets of seeds you buy from a big box store will be hybrids and the seeds can not be harvested. In the long run, this saves money as you don't have to purchase seeds each year. We purchase a few packets each year to add more variety to our garden.

B. Containers. Something to hold the soil and seeds. Here are a few options.

Pellets: These start as a small hard disk, when added with water they pop right up and you can place a seed in them. These are nice because they are easy to use and small so they don't take up a lot of space.
You can place them right into the soil when you are ready, you do not need to peel off the netting around them. The disadvantage is that they are quite small and I always have to plant them in something else (like a plastic cup) before planting them outside.

Peat pots: These are nice because they are a little larger. I still end up having to plant them into something else before planting outside. I like these better than the disks because I can write the name of the plant on them making it easier for me to keep track of what is planted in it. You can also place these right into soil and do not need to worry about damaging roots by pulling them out of the container. The disadvantage of these is that there is an extra step involved, they do not come with soil, so you have to fill them. Flats: This is a container that held flowers that I bought from a nursery the year before. I was careful to pull my flowers out without damaging the container. Make sure that you thoroughly clean a container that you are re-using. There could be a disease lingering on the container that would kill your starts. Fill with a seed starting mix, and I marked mine with popsicle sticks.

Be creative. We save our yogurt containers and bring home plastic cups from parties for seed starting. It makes gardening more economical that way. For even more creative and frugal seed starting containers, check out this article. If you are recycling something like a cup, be sure to poke some holes in the bottom for drainage. About 5-6 with a thumb tack should do the trick.
C. Soil. If you bought the little dehydrated disks, you can skip this step, just hydrate your disks.

If you didn't buy the disks, don't go out and buy a 50lb. bag of potting soil. Look for a seed starter mix. It will be very light and fluffy. You can now find this at major big box stores as well as garden nurseries.

Step 2. Fill Your Containers
I have found that it is easier if moisten your seed starter mix first because it has a tendency to shrink down the first time it gets wet. Get your mix wet, then put in whichever containers you choose. I like to write the name of the plant that will be going in the container before we put the mix in.

Step 3: Plant your seeds
The packet of seeds will tell you how deep to put your seeds in the soil. For those of us that have harvested seeds from the previous year and no longer have a seed packet, a good guideline is to bury them down about 3 times the width of the seed.

Step 4: Water
We have a few different ways to water. For the disks and peat pots that we put in the plastic greenhouse containers, we bottom water. Bottom watering is when you fill the bottom of the tray with water, and the soil sucks up the water from the bottom. For containers that we can't bottom water (yogurt and plastic cups), we use a spray bottle like Mason (aka. Bubba) is demonstrating below.

Step 5: Keep them Damp and Warm
If you bought a greenhouse container it is easy, just put the lid on and stick in a warm area. If you didn't, that is okay, just use a piece of plastic wrap to cover your seeds, this will help keep the humidity in. At this point, you don't need to stick them in the sun, you will want to keep them damp and warm (about 70 degrees). So maybe place them by a heating vent or the top of your fridge, or you can purchase heating mats. I have never used the heating mats and haven't had any problems getting my seeds to sprout.

Step 6: Stick Them in a Sunny Spot
Once your seeds have sprouted, you will want to move them to a sunny spot. In the early spring, our kitchen looks like a nursery, we have plants everywhere, and I love it.

We put some on a bench in front of the sliding glass door.
Some in the window sill.
And some in a seed starting rack, modeled after Jennifer's. Click here to read that article.
Step 6: Harden Off
Once your plants are big and beautiful, you just stick them in the ground and water them, right? Wrong.
This part can seem scary, but don't let it intimidate you. When in doubt, take longer to harden off.

Your plants up to this point have had a cushy life. The temperature, humidity, and moisture, has been closely monitored. They have not experienced full sun, wind, or changing temperatures. Hardening off is the process of slowly getting them used to the environment they are going to move to. A typical hardening off at our home may go like this:

Day 1: Move plants outside in the shade for 2-4 hours on a nice day.
Day 2-5: Move plants outside for 2-4 hours in the shade and one hour in the sun making sure the weather isn't too cold or snowy.
Day 6-7: Move plants outside for 2-4 hours in the shade and 2-4 hours in the sun.
Day 8-10: Move plants outside for 2 hours in the shade and 6 hours in the sun.
Day 11-12 Move plants outside for 8 hours in the sun.
Day 13-14 Leave plants outside all day and all night in the area they will be planted. Be sure that the weather overnight won't be too cold or windy.
Hint: I like to set my alarm clock, so I don't forget to bring my plants back inside. I have fried my little plants before because I forgot to bring them in from the sun.

Step 7: Plant
Once your plants are properly hardened off, you can plant them in the ground just like you would had you bought them from the nursery. Congrats!

Enjoy the bounty that is sure to come!

There are some plants that you will not start indoors either because they won't transplant well, or because there is no need to. Some climates may be nice enough that you never have to start seeds indoors, that would be heaven! But, for Utah in order for us to get a full growing season, you have to start many plants indoors.

Some that you do not need to start indoors are, but not limited to: peas, beans, lettuces, beets, carrots, and onions.

Anyone have anything to add? Leave a comment!