Thursday, January 26, 2012

Chicken Chatter: Health benefits of backyard chickens

I recently made a brief post about the benefits of chickens in the garden.  In that post I just listed some of the benefits that having chickens can have on the productivity of the garden.
In addition to the other wonderful attributes of chickens, the eggs laid by free range chickens are better for you than the caged eggs that can be bought at the grocery store.  Mother Earth News organized a study on the nutritional properties of free-range eggs in 2007.  The results from that study supported the results of many other studies--free range, or pasture raised, eggs are better for you.
They found that free-range chickens had 1/3 as much cholesterol and 1/3 as much fat as eggs from confined birds.  They also found that the amount of Vitamin E, Vitamin A, beta carotene, and omega 3s were all higher in the free-range birds.

For readers who doubt the accuracy of that study, a 2010 peer-reviewed and published study out of Penn State, titled 'Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens', described the following results:

"Compared to eggs of the caged hens, pastured hens' eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, 2.5-fold more total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids (P<0.0001). Vitamin A concentration was 38% higher (P<0.05) in the pastured hens' eggs than in the caged hens' eggs..."

Not surprisingly, having access to a healthy environment makes for healthy eggs.

All the more reason to appreciate our feathered ladies!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

This week in the garden: Jan. 24, 2012

Not much has changed in the garden since the last update.  The collards have really taken off under their row cover.  I've harvested over a pound of leaves from them and they still look fantastic!  I made my first pure-garden meal: sauteed collards topped with poached eggs.
Harvested collards.
Sauteed collards with poached eggs.
Collards in January.
There are mid-winter blooms from the camelia and the winter honeysuckle providing food for any active pollinators.
Winter honeysuckle in January.
Camelia in January.
The most exciting aspect of the garden is ironically inside.  Our seedlings are starting to look delicious!  I can't wait for them to go outside and become nice big salad lettuces!
Lettuce seedlings, week 2.
And the tatsoi actually started to flower, so they were all harvested and made into a wilted salad!  Here is the last picture of a tatsoi for a while:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chicken Chatter: Benefits of chickens in the garden

Many people may be surprised to find out that chickens make a wonderful addition to a productive vegetable garden.
Chickens are fun to have in the garden.
I have a small flock of five hens that were picked up as chicks in May 2011.  They started laying eggs in mid-October, and now I am getting over a dozen eggs a week.

Some benefits of chickens in the garden
  • Provide eggs and meat
  • Control weeds and insects
  • Mow the grass
  • Make fertilizer (manure)
  • Till the soil by scratching
  • Eat kitchen scraps, so they don't go to waste
  • Endless entertainment
Chickens are fairly low-maintenance, and make a great backyard addition.  Compared to other livestock, they need a small amount of room, and they don't eat very much.  They are also easy to handle, due to their small size.
Chickens in a movable pen to mow grass.
We mow a lot less since we got chickens: we just move them around the yard in a portable pen (also known as a chicken tractor) during the day, and they eat and scratch the grass.
Chickens are a constant source of amusement.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How much does it cost to start your own plants from seed?

I recently described the first set of vegetables that I started from seed this year.  There are a number of reasons that I choose to start my plants from seed.  One of the most important reasons is that it is a lot cheaper.

To illustrate this, I will estimate how much it cost me to start a 72 cell tray of onions and a 72 cell tray of lettuce this month.  I will not include the costs of things that can be used indefinitely (such as light fixtures, and tables). I will try to prorate the cost of things that can be used multiple times (like light bulbs).  At the end of the article is a justification for the costs shown in the list; generally I try to overestimate the costs.

Seeds: $3
Seed starting mix: $2
Seed trays: $2
Water: $0.10
Light bulbs:  $1
Heat mat: $1
Electricity: $7
TOTAL: $16.10

That is the total for the the onion tray and the lettuce tray.  If you divide that by 2, the total for the lettuce tray by itself would be $8.05.

$8.05 for 72 lettuce plants is roughly $0.11 per plant.  If you buy lettuce plants at a local hardware store or nursery, you can probably expect to pay at least $1 for 4 plants, or $0.25 per plant.  Starting my own lettuce seedlings is more than 2 times cheaper than buying plants!  The savings are even greater for plants that you direct sow (like squash), because the only cost is the seed and water.

In addition to the savings, starting my seeds gives me greater control over them.  I know that they were raised organically, and I also know that they were well cared for and not neglected. There is also a sense of satisfaction knowing that you grew your plants from seed.

Cost justification:
Seeds: I used less than half of a package of both onions and lettuce, and each packet was $2.99.
Seed starting mix: I use a compressed seed starting mix that is $2.50 for 6 quarts (rehydrated).  I only used 3/4 of it for both trays.
Seed trays: I buy these at the local garden supply store for less than $1 each.
Water: At my water rates, $0.10 should buy me about 15 gallons of water, I doubt that the trays will use more than that before they go outside.
Light bulbs: The two trays together will have 4 - 4 foot fluorescent bulbs, which are roughly $8 for a 2 pack.  That is $16 for the 4 bulbs.  Given that the bulbs are expected to last 30,000 hours, I should be able to count on them lasting for at least a few years and for multiple trays a year.  I think $1 is a generous estimate.
Heat mat: This heat mat was $20, and has already been used to start over 10 trays, and will probably start that many for years to come.  At that rate, if it lasts 4 years, it will be 0.50 per tray.
Electricity:  The 4 fluorescent bulbs draw about 32 watts each.  If they are left on for 16 hours a day for a month, they will draw 4*32watts*16hours/day*31days = 63.5 kWh.  At a rate of 10 cents per kWh, this would be $6.35 for a month.  I rounded to $7 to account for the low cost to run the heat mat for a few days.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chicken Chatter: Angel is molting

Poor, little Angel.  She began molting sometime before Christmas, and she is still in the process.  I have to admit, I knew nothing about molting chickens before she started this!  Molting is basically a process that chickens go through every year or other year to lose their old feathers and replace them with new feathers.
Angel, a salmon faverolle, before the molt started.
Angel, before molt, with full fluffy feathers.
I first recognized that something was up when she stopped laying eggs.  Her eggs are a pretty salmon color, that is easy to pick out from the other chickens.  Other than not laying eggs, she seemed perfectly healthy and has no visible signs of a parasite.
Angel lays the smaller, salmon colored egg.

Then, I noticed that she was looking a little--disheveled?  Her beautiful feathers were not laying as smoothly against her body, and she was starting to look smaller.
Angel, during molt.
Then, I noticed the feathers: it looked like she exploded in the run!  There were Angel feathers everywhere, and any time she flapped her wings, feathers would fly.
Feathers are everywhere.
I am okay with her not laying eggs, and I am okay with her looking less than pristine.  It is the OTHER chickens that are bothering me.  Because she has lost some feathers, and looks smaller than normal (plus she has some feathers sticking out in weird places), the other chickens are picking on her!  Or rather pecking on her--they are being down right mean.  Poor Angel has resorted to staying in the coop to avoid them.
Angel staying in the coop to avoid the other chickens.
I can tell the other chickens are stressing Angel out.  So while I am home, I am letting Angel spend time outside of the run with me.  She seems to really like it! I am also spoiling her with treats like flax seed.

Angel has been hopping on our laps and shoulders when we are outside.  And she has even learned to untie my tennis shoes --  a great chicken game.  While I am enjoying this 1 on 1 chicken time, I am really looking forward to the other chickens treating her with kindness again.  I can tell her new feathers are growing in, so hopefully this process won't last too much longer for her.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Garden Organization: Seed starting!

It is finally that time of year again!  For the avid gardener, seed starting season is more exciting than Christmas.  I was beyond thrilled to be starting to grow vegetables again.
In December, I made my list of what seeds to start and when, so now all I have to do is follow my preset instructions.
Sturdy plastic tray.
I use heavy duty plant trays to support the cheaper multi-cell black plastic plant trays used for starting seeds.  I LOVE the heavy duty trays compared to the cheaper black plastic ones available at hardware stores.  They are more expensive, but they should last forever and they are very durable and don't bend under the weight of soil and plants.
72 cell flat, resting in durable tray.
I filled the cells of the seed starting tray with moist seed starting mix.
72 cell flat with seed starting mix.
I used a pencil or screwdriver to make a small hole for the seeds.  And then I added 2-3 seeds per cell, and gently covered with more soil.
Use a small object to make holes for seeds.
 I placed the tray on a seed heating mat to raise the soil temperature. 
Seedling heat mat.
 And I covered the tray with a clear plastic tray lid.
Seed starting tray with lid.
I check the soil every day, and when it is starting to get dry, I use a mister to moisten the soil.  A mister makes watering tender seedlings much easier.
Use a mister to water seedlings.
Five days after planting (and right on schedule), I awoke to lettuce seedlings!
Lettuce seedlings.
I put them directly under fluorescent lights (T8) to simulate sunlight.  The little plants will enjoy about 16 hours a day of light until they are ready to be taken to the garden.
Seed tray with T8 fluorescent lights.
Are you ready for seed starting?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This week in the garden: Jan 11, 2012

It is starting to become an exciting time in the garden again!  I have started 2 trays of seeds -- one 72 cell tray for onions, and one 72 cell tray for lettuce. 

Floating row cover
 Outside, there are still many plants doing well.  Before the temperature dropped down to 18F last week, I covered the collard greens with a floating row cover to protect them from frost.  They may have been ok without it, but I didn't want to risk them becoming injured.  And now, they are still doing great!
Tatsoi in January
Kale in January
The tatsoi and kale survived the frost just fine, with the exception of the one tatsoi plant below.  I have to say, it is amazing to harvest vegetables from the garden in January!
Tatsoi damaged by frost
The chickens have been enjoying the warm winter weather.  They have been spending the days out in their portable chicken run, which we move around to fresh grassy areas every few days.
The chickens like 'free-range' time
I covered the chicken coop window next to their roost to prevent drafts.  It may not be pretty, but the piece of tarp will prevent cold winter winds from blowing directly on the chickens while they sleep.  They still have ventilation along the entire roof of the coop, and a couple of windows on the side farthest from the sleeping roost.

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