April 2016

An Update on Dixie / Spotting Cockerels Early

Well, it turns out that my guess was accurate (quite unfortunately). Miss Dixie cannot keep her name, because “she” is a “he.” I’m so bummed, but such is the risk when you’re working with straight-run chicks. You usually never know which sex you’ll end up with. For those of you who missed the first post on this topic, you can see it HERE. My little cockerel is now 4 weeks old, and his comb and wattles nearly doubled in size just over the last 2 weeks. His legs are so long and thick that you’d think he’s twice his age. That little dude had to be the friendliest thing to ever roam my brooder – curious and playful with everyone. It’s funny how the personalities of chicks come out earlier than yo
u would think. Before I had my own flock of hens, I didn’t realize that they had any semblance of individual personality at all. Boy was I wrong. Each one is so different and unique, which is the main reason I am always so entertained as I watch them from my backyard swing with morning coffee in-hand.

Dixie is HandsomeI do have a silver lining though, one that I am very happy about! As I cannot have a rooster within the city limits of Portland OR, I have been preoccupied trying to find a new home for this little guy that I know is safe. I had a chat with the breeder from whom I bought Mr. Dixie, and she has a customer looking for a Marans cockerel to raise with her flock. She only wants one, and she wants the “right” one with a stellar personality. Dixie will definitely fit that bill. So to that end, I dropped my little boy back with the breeder, and his new caretaker picked him up the same day. I’m sure his name won’t be going with him, so maybe I’ll pass it on to my next Birchen Marans pullet.

My ability to spot a male from a straight run of chicks has greatly improved over the last month, that’s for sure. There are obvious signs when a chick reaches a few months of age, but I’m always on a mission to identify males earlier on – much earlier. While nothing is ever the 100% sure-fire way we hope for, simply keeping an eye on the following “measuring sticks” have worked for me, rather successfully:

  • BEHAVIOR: You can really glean a lot of information by just spending time watching your chicks. Behavior characteristics are displayed so early that it never ceases to amaze me. Males are less jumpy, and usually somewhat fearless. Of course any chick will “spook” when a giant hand is coming at it from above, but once the environment has settled down, you can see general behavior. For example, whenever I lower my hand into the brooder and leave it there for a bit, males are immediately curious about my gold ring and head over to peck at it. The hens usually do not make that move until the male has already approached it and deemed it safe.
  • POSTURE: This particular characteristic can show itself far earlier than the others, if you watch for it. Males can often have a very upright posture – I’d say almost cocky and confident. Sometimes he’ll be like this all day every day, and other times only when surprised or threatened.
  • COMB/WATTLES: People always say to watch comb development, but I have had more success watching wattle development. Combs can vary so widely between breeds, both in rate of development and size. Instead, I focus on wattles, as I have found two solid consistencies: 1) rooster wattles will always be larger than a hen’s when full-grown, and 2) that means those wattles will always develop faster in males. Every time I have ended up with a male chick in my brooder, his wattles are always double the size of any female (similar in age, of course).
  • FEATHERS: When chicks are young, you aren’t able to see the tell-tale hackle, saddle, or sickle feathers of a cockerel. However you can see the shape of the main body feathers. A pullet will have feathers with gently rounded tips, and a cockerel feather will be longer with more of a pointed tip. You can identify the difference right when they start feathering out.
  • LEGS/FEET: The legs and feet of male birds will nearly always be thicker and longer than those of a female. You can also keep an eye on their knees. If you think about it, you often do not see a hens knees as they’re walking around. Usually they’re buried somewhere in the fluffy feathers of their undercarriage. However with a male, you can not only see his knees, but usually at least an inch above those knees. Those males – they show off some leg!

All of these traits and markers vary between breeds, so you have to keep a watchful eye on everything at once. It helps immensely if you have a few birds from the same “hatch batch” for comparison’s sake, because trying to compare an Americana’s little pea comb with a Barred Rock’s big single comb just doesn’t work.  You can usually begin seeing any of the characteristics I mentioned above show themselves at around 3 weeks of age.

I try to stick with physical attributes and behavior, because both are easily observed. The old wives’ tales about how you can dangle a needle and thread over a chicks head (it supposedly moves side to side for a male and in a circular pattern for a female) is just not scientific or accurate. Others say you can hold a chick upside down (please… don’t try that) to see if the male rights himself and the female does not are – again – simply not consistent. They also leave too much to individual opinion.  So really, unless you’ve chosen an auto-sexing breed, you’ll just have to wait and see if that bird gives you an egg or instead decides to crow. But if you enjoy trying to “beat the game” and guess ahead-of-time, then hopefully you’re better prepared for the challenge after reading this post. Just remember, you have exactly a 50% change of being right every time. Lots of folks in Vegas would take those odds! Have fun!

Supporting & Pruning Tomato Plants – Remember They’re Vines!

Supporting tomato plants has always seemed more difficult that it probably should be. I consistently forget they are vines… VINES. They like to climb things – as high as they can get. And unlike most women on the planet, tomato plants have no concern whatsoever for their weight. They’ll grow as heavy and as thick as they possibly can. To that end, they need some really strong support. I should explain that I’m speaking more about indeterminate tomato plants here, rather than determinate. For those of you who aren’t sure of the difference, here is a good explanation from

Determinate tomatoes bloom and set fruit all at once, and then decline. Their blossoms grow at the ends of shoots, thus stopping growth and determining their length. These varieties are usually compact plants which require no pruning and little staking, the exception being “vigorous” determinates, which produce such large fruit that they do need support.
Indeterminate tomatoes are in it for the long haul. They continue to grow and to produce tomatoes throughout the summer, because the flowers grow along the vines rather than at the ends. Since they don’t come to a determined point, but instead grow until stopped by cold weather or a pair of clippers (hence their name), they generally need to be supported or pruned.

I’m more a fan of indeterminate tomatoes. I guess I think they’re kind of like me – wild, a little crazy, and full of ambition. When I started my first plot in a local community garden years ago, stuck with mostly indeterminate tomatoes (but a let one or two determinate varieties sneak in for good measure). I picked up some little tomato cages at the local store. Well, you can all imagine how effective that was – they toppled over once the plants gained even a little size and weight. I just figured that the same thing – but bigger – would work fine. So I went back to the store and bought the heavier gauge tomato cages – both taller and wider. Still, no joy. They were better, but still useless once the plant grew taller than the cage.

Kerry & Clara In GardenThen last June, my adopted in-law’s came to town. The dad side of that equation is an avid gardener, and his solution to my tomato support problem was a great system of fencing t-posts combined with re-bar, secured together by a spool of thin wire. Twine was tied to the base of each plant, wrapped around the stem, and then tied to the re-bar above. The posts were about 8′ above the ground, and holy cow… those tomatoes went bazurk. That was the first time I really connected with the fact that they are vines. VINES. The photo to the left shows what I ended up with by mid-summer (that’s my niece learning how to tell when a tomato is ripe).

One would think I’d be nuts to change systems after such an amazing season, but I’m a curious type of gal. So this year, I thought I’d build on that same concept. I decided it would be completely great if I could make a tomato vine archway. I bought a 16-foot, heavy gauge cattle panel from the local farm store, and installed it between two of my raised garden beds using galvanized fencing staples to secure it to the inside wall of each bed. The plan is to line each side with tomatoes and train them upward as they grow. I will also plant some in the middle underneath the arch and run twine from the plant bases to the highest point (which is about 8 feet above ground). They will have plenty of room to stretch out their arms. I’ll definitely let you all see photos when they’re filling up the archway, so stay tuned. Here’s what it looked like just before planting:

Tomato ArchOne thing to remember when working with indeterminate varieties is that you need to have a firm hand when pruning and dealing with suckers. Indeterminate varieties can become heavy, and that makes supporting those plants more difficult. During the peak growing season, I start my mornings by walking the garden and pinching off suckers (a good tutorial, if you’re interested, can be found HERE). It’s very simple, and you only need one hand – I usually have a cup of coffee in the other one (I know my priorities, people).  Some people remove suckers as if their lives depend on it. But let me be one of the few who buck that notion – I say that you do not need to remove ALL of them. Those little guys will flower and produce fruit, so let your plants just be a little wild. Only remove the ones found on the lower half of the plant – the ones that will not receive much sunlight anyway. Or, if you see a sucker growing in a spot that will be difficult to support, go ahead and send it to the compost pile. Remember – tomatoes are vines. They want to grow in multiple directions through trailing and climbing. The problem is they don’t have tendrils for support like a cucumber plant does, so you need to fill that role through proper support and pruning.

While you’re in the garden, take a pair of hand clippers with you. Check on the airflow through and around your tomato plants. Snip off branches if you need to – it won’t hurt the plant. Not having enough airflow throughout the body of the plant is just asking for mold, mildew, and destructive bugs to thrive. The goal of your pruning should be allowing sun and warm summer breezes to freely move through your plants, and this includes keeping leaves and fruits off the ground and away from pests and disease. Care and maintenance of your tomato plants is really a front-heavy operation. It takes some extra time up front to prepare the soil and properly support those plants as they grow. But after that, it’s really just pruning, watering, and a little plant food of your choice – none of which takes much time at all.  So plant, support, and prune those tomatoes. You’ll be amazed at what you end up with!

Veggie Grow Lights for Under $35? You Bet!

I have always been one to buy starts for those plants that cannot be directly sowed in my area of the northwest. Things like tomatoes – you just can’t start those outside in Oregon. But for some reason this year, I decided to see if I could start all my seeds indoors with any success. I have no idea why the bug hit me this year, but nonetheless, it did. So I grabbed my organic heirloom seed catalog, sat down with my laptop and a hot cup of coffee, and had a great time.  “One pack of those! Two of these! Woo Hoo!” Oh, the joy of ordering seeds.

About a week after the seed ordering frenzy, I was outside throwing some scratch around for my chickens (enjoying a rare sunny afternoon in February) and it hit me – I don’t have seed trays, grow lights, heat mats, starter soil… any of that stuff. All I had are the seeds themselves, and that won’t do me much good. Later that night, I nailed down a general idea of how much grow light kits cost, and promptly decided I definitely did not want to spend that much money. I wanted to do this on the cheap… because that’s really the whole point of starting seeds anyway, right? Well, maybe not the whole point, but definitely a benefit.  I truly enjoy trying to figure out how to complete my projects without spending a bunch of money. It’s amazing what you can do when you re-purpose things you already have, or possibly use an item a friend, neighbor, or family member doesn’t need anymore. Anyway, it wasn’t long before I came across the most clever YouTube video I’ve seen in a while – watch the video HERE.  This not only shows you how to build the entire grow light station, but it describes each part and it’s cost. I went online to Home Depot, placed a “Pick Up In Store” order for all the required parts in the video, and was sitting in my garage assembling everything the next day. IT WORKED PERFECTLY! I even extended the frame out a week later to accommodate a second grow light. Here was my shopping list:

Download (PDF, 150KB)

Now granted, I admit that my order came in about $2.23 over the “under $35” sales pitch, but I imagine the pricing on materials will vary depending on where in the US you live. As for the other equipment I didn’t have, I first hit up Craigslist and found the heat mats. Next, I went to my local plant nursery and asked if they had extra seed cell trays they could part with. They gave me a big stack at no cost, so I made sure to buy my seed starter soil from them as a thank you gesture. You know, my mom always taught me that it never hurts to ask, and I use that piece of advice more often than you’d think. Most people wouldn’t walk into a plant store and ask for used seed trays for free. Why not is beyond me – just do it! What’s the worst that can possibly happen? They might say no, but then you’re no worse off than you were when you walked in. The same goes for Craigslist (and the like) – always ask for a discount. ALWAYS. You’ll usually get it. But, I digress…

I now have 5 different varieties of heirloom, organic tomato plants growing in my living room. With those grow lights on, I’m sure my neighbors think I’m growing pot (it’s now legal in Oregon), but oh well. The 6 trays of veggie starts are enjoying the grow lights, and so am I. The system in that YouTube video above is so easy to build – I encourage you to try it. For less than $35, it’s a great idea.

My veggie starts on heat mats, before the grow light system extension.
My veggie starts on heat mats, before the grow light system extension.
...and after the light system extension.
…and after the light system extension.

If you wanted to extend your system out to accommodate a second grow light like I did, just duplicate supply list (removing the mechanical timer… you only need one of those). Easy Peasy… and soon you’ll have all kinds of vegetable starts under the lights. Have fun!

Why Bother with a Livestock Poultry Permit?

Well, let’s just sum this up with one question: How would you handle it if a neighbor complained about your backyard flock, and the city gave you an eviction notice for your birds? I’m guess that wouldn’t go over very well… I know that I’d probably have a meltdown.

EVICTED - Gertie2

Now that being said, I admit that I went nearly an entire year with hens roaming my backyard, absolutely permit-less. I figured, why bother? I have great neighbors – really great neighbors. They bring their kids over to hang out with my hens and pick veggies out of my garden. They even enjoy fresh eggs when I’m over-run during the laying season. There is not a single chance that any of them would report me to the authorities. Plus, I figured that I’ve been keeping hens without a permit, so if I applied for one after the fact, I just knew they would deny it based on my criminal-like disobedience. I mean, what was I supposed to do?

I came home from work one Friday evening and saw that my neighbors across the street had put their house up for sale. They have a wonderful 2-year old daughter who loves coming to see the hens. Honestly, I thought they’d be the last ones on our block to ever move. It made me think – I will have new neighbors pretty soon, and they might not love chickens as much as I do – or as much as the current neighbors do. Then what? So I sucked it up, completed the one-page application form, paid my $35 fee, and applied for the license. It ended up being much ado about nothing. The inspector was friendly, and was gone within 5 minutes of his arrival. All he did was check my coop size, made sure my feed was in secure bins, and ensured the hens looked somewhat normal and healthy. A week later, the permit came in the mail, and that was that. Done. And do you know what’s great? No matter how many new folks descend on our neighborhood, I know my flock is safe from eviction.

Many of you probably live in agricultural zoned areas, and there just aren’t any regulations for backyard chicken keepers there. Count yourself lucky! But if you live in an urban or suburban area, I can nearly guarantee that there are regulations. For example, in Portland Oregon where I live, you are required to have a permit for any number of chickens over three. In addition, absolutely no roosters are allowed within the city limits. (This doesn’t stop my neighborhood from trying though. About every 3 months I’ll hear a rooster crowing for about 3-4 days, and then one morning – he’s gone. Someone in the neighborhood doesn’t appreciate his sunrise song.)

So, I really encourage you to apply for a permit if you live somewhere that requires one. It’s such a painless process, and it provides a lot of safety for both your birds and your mind.  Chick HERE to visit my Resources page and view/download the City of Portland, Oregon’s brochure about chicken keeping within the city limits. Most cities have something very similar; just enter something like this in Google’s search box: “Chicken regulations in Mobile, Alabama”. Sort through the search results, and you’ll find the information you need.  Or if you’d rather, just call your local city office and ask for a copy of the regulations for keeping backyard chickens.  Follow the instructions, and keep the the original document for reference should you have problems with neighbors.

If it turns out that your city does not allow backyard chickens, don’t give up. You can do something about it, and there are resources out there to help you. Jill Richardson wrote a very helpful article on “How to get your city to allow backyard chickens” back in 2011, and the information is still good today. Read it HERE. In addition, Kathy Shea Mormino shares her entire journey to legalize backyard chickens in her small town of Suffield, Connecticut. It’s a good read – check it out HERE. Both of these resources can get you started in the right direction.  Good luck!

The Easy Chick Brooder – Don’t Over Think It!

Those just beginning the journey of raising their first flock of chickens are constantly in a state of subdued panic – even if they don’t realize it. Wrapping your mind around the entire process, from a chick to a laying hen (or a chicken dinner), is just mind-boggling if you’ve never done it before. There’s so much information out there… so many websites, books, blogs, and forums. So rather than make myself yet another writer trying to walk you through the entire process, I’m just going to deal with your brooder. That’s right. Just the brooder. You can Google until your heart’s content about everything else… but today, let’s just talk about that darn brooder. Why? Because people always over-do it – we always over think it.

I’ve built custom brooders out of plywood, I’ve converted Rubbermaid totes, and I’ve used small cardboard boxes. What’s best? BIG cardboard boxes!


I  currently have 5 chicks out in the garage, nice and cozy in their giant patio furniture-sized cardboard brooder box. They’re just loving it. And guess what – it was free. Didn’t cost me a dime, and I’ll just recycle it when I’m ready to move them to the coop. Honestly, even one of those huge 50+ gallon Rubbermaid totes wasn’t large enough once the chicks started growing, and they can be expensive.

So, I simply grabbed my big box (this particular one is 4 feet long and 2 feet wide), taped down the flaps, and covered the bottom with pine shavings. I poked a hole on each end of the box to slide the roosting bar through, making sure to keep it only about 5-6″ above the floor of the brooder. It can be raised as the chicks grow, but it’s best to start close to the ground so they can become accustomed to hoping on and off the bar. Then I just set in the chick feeder, a rectangular disposable pan with the waterer in the center of it (helps to keep the water clean), and hung a $2.99 mirror on the wall. I tell ya, once those little chicks find that mirror, it’s good entertainment. After a few weeks I always add a small cardboard box top filled with dirt from the back yard. lastly, I slide the whole thing into my garage, and hang the brooder light with a red bulb down from a hook on the rafters above. You can see everything in the photos below (just click on them and they’ll expand to a larger size for you).

So, here’s all that you really need to set up a great, low-cost, and effective brooder:
– the largest cardboard box you can find (stop by a furniture store, they’ll give you one for free)
– a chick feeder and waterer
– a brooder light and red bulb
– bedding of your choice (I use pine shavings, but this also works well)
– something to use as a small diameter roosting bar (I used a 1″ x 1″ stick of wood I found at the local recycling place, but even a small branch from the backyard will work just fine)
– a few disposable pie and/or cake pans (preferably one of each). Hit up the dollar store for these.

I’ve been using this method for quite a while, and it’s worked wonderfully each time. The chicks have everything they need and tons of room, and I save a bunch of money. It works out for everyone!