Saturday, March 16, 2024

Backyard Chickens - One Year Later

Just over one year ago we got backyard chickens. This came after almost ten years of working with the town council (i.e. badgering them) to change our town's ban on chickens. The week after the chicken bill passed, we had our chicks in a brooder in the garage. 

If you want to read about the beginning of our chicken era, you can check it out here

But here are eleven unexpected things that were learned through our journey. 

1. Easter egg hunts are real life - We had a two week period when egg production went down. I was trying to figure out why they had stopped laying, and my friend, who has raised chickens for a long time, said that they must be laying eggs somewhere else in the yard. I looked around and didn't find anything. Several days later I was checking the landscaping. I saw a chicken in the bushes, and sure enough, I found the nest with half a dozen eggs in it. This happened again yesterday, with 7 eggs from at least two chickens being found under a different bush. If you think your chickens have stopped laying, they very well could be laying somewhere else. 

2. If  you don't want the daily Easter egg hunt, consider some portable nesting boxes. I built  three of them, and placed them around the yard where the chickens tended to congregate. One gets used daily. The other two occasionally. 

3. One square foot of artificial turf works great for nesting boxes. You can find these as samples in many landscaping stores, often for a dollar or two or for free. These can be washed and brushed out, and the chickens tend to enjoy laying on them. A lot less work than regularly replacing straw. 

4. Do you remember the McDLT from the '80s? It keeps the hot side hot and the cold side cold? Raising chickens is like a year long McDLT. In the summer, we have to keep them cool (check out the article linked above for that journey). In the winter, we have to keep them warm, but we don't have to do much. Unless temperatures are well below freezing (which they are not in Phoenix), they do not need a heater. They just need an enclosed coop where they can stay warm at night. Not convinced that that is enough? Consider adding some red pepper flakes to their feed or scratch in the winter. My chickens love scratch with red pepper flakes, and they seem quite content, even in the 35 degree mornings. 

5. Chickens love interacting with people, especially if you start when they're chicks. To keep them
comfortable with people, my family and I will regularly let them eat seed or scratch out of our hands. The more you feed, pet, and hold them, the less skittish they will be around people. In fact, when I come home from work, go into the backyard, and say, "Here chick chicks", the entire flock will come running to greet me. It is fantastic! 

6. Hens need around 14 hours of light to stay productive with their laying. In the winter months, as we have fewer daylight hours, I have added a string of Christmas lights on a timer to the inside of the coop. I went from one egg every other day to three eggs per day. 

7. Chickens love treats. We have their regular feed, and I recently got some scratch to try out. It's like candy! In fact, heaven forbid I come into the backyard with a plastic container similar to the one I keep the scratch in. They will follow me around expectantly looking for the scratch. And if I don't give them a treat, they will squawk like a two year old wanting another piece of candy. Or more scratch. Or worms. 

8. Chickens typically return to their coop at night on their own, but this needs to be verified. Once, we were out a little late, and unbeknownst to me, the door to the coop had been knocked closed by one of the chickens. When I went to close up the coop after dark, the chickens were asleep in various places around the outside of the coop. I had to scoop the sleepy birds up one by one and shove them into the coop. Another time, I did a head count and one was missing. I did a cursory search around the yard and couldn't find her. Fearing having to tell my kids that one of the chickens had been eaten by another animal, I frantically searched around the yard for her. After about 20 minutes, I found her in the corner of a planter tucked under a tree. And under her I found three eggs (see #1-2 above). Nightly headcounts IN the coop are imperative. 

9. Fresh, unwashed eggs do not need to be refrigerated. Eggs have a coating called the bloom on the outside of the shell. This coating protects the egg from bacteria entering into the porous shell. Eggs will stay fresh at room temperature for about two weeks. I did get tired of our cardboard egg cartons on the counter, so I made a wooden egg holder out of some walnut scraps just to add a little class to our egg production. 

10. If you have found eggs in the yard and don't know how old they are, or if you have messed up the rotation on your counter, you can use the float test to determine the freshness of the eggs. Submerge the egg in cool water. If it sinks on its side, it is fresh (but the bloom has been washed off and you will need to refrigerate it). If it sinks but stands on its end, there is some air in the egg. It is older but still good to eat. If it floats to the top of the water, it is no longer fresh and should not be eaten. 

11. Sometimes chickens look like death. They molt about once per year. They look like phoenixes that are about to burn up. They act weird, stop laying, and look absolutely terrible. This is normal (I guess), and once their feathers grow back in they get back to their previous selves. 

There you have it. I'm sure in the coming years I will have many more things that I will learn, so stay tuned for more chicken updates. Is there anything that I missed? Add a comment below and let me know about your chicken journey. 

Happy chicken farming! 

Friday, September 29, 2023

Dad-Made Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

A few weeks ago I took a "mental health day" prior to the end of the school year. The end of the year
for principals is crazy. I have multiple night events as everybody is wrapping up the year. Every Saturday is booked. And I was in such bad need of a haircut that I was regularly getting some sort of comment that contained the phrase "mad scientist." So my personal day consisted of a haircut, getting contacts, and having a late breakfast with my wife.

In the midst of my errands, my wife and I went out to eat. We shared something that I had never heard of: lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry compote. They were delicious - so light and fluffy.

So that following Saturday I decided that I would surprise the whole family with breakfast. Instead of making the daddy standard - Dutch Babies - I decided that I would branch out. We happened to have some ricotta cheese (something about me thinking I would make homemade ravioli while my wife was out of the country), and we still had lemons on our lemon tree. I could use the wonderful Interweb and find a recipe for lemon ricotta pancakes, the whole family would think that I was a culinary genius, and Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry would show up at my door asking me for tips.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

The Best Key Lime Pie in Arizona

Have you ever gotten a thought in your head that just gets stuck there? To the point that it becomes a quest, an obsession? Like one time when I visited my friend Marty in Houston, and we heard somebody mention the phrase "Rueben sandwich". It became an obsession for us that we just had to find the best Rueben sandwich in the city. We drove 30 minutes, paid way more than we were willing to pay, and the obsession was quenched. 

It happened more recently to me. About a year ago somebody started talking about key lime pie. Key lime pie has always been one of my favorites, but that conversation began a nearly year-long quest to find the best key lime pie in the state. 

What makes a great key lime pie? It takes a lot. It needs to have a good balance between the key lime custard and the whipped cream. It needs to have a good balance of tartness and sweetness (in my opinion too many key lime pies err on the side of sweetness, which ruins the key lime pie), with the best key lime pies having a tartness that gets you in your jaw. It needs to have a strong lime flavor, and it must have a great graham cracker crust. 

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Backyard Chickens in Arizona

I've had several readers reach out to me asking about a chicken update. Initially I was waiting for our chickens to all be laying, but then I got wrapped up in making sure my chickens are not dying with the heat we're experiencing in Phoenix. I had no idea how much work it is to keep chickens alive in the midst of a 30-days-above-110-degrees-in-a-row streak. But it's a lot of work. 

We got our first egg in May. We were having dinner on our patio with some friends, and a chicken started squawking like it was being murdered. We eventually found a soft shelled egg, and we were excited. Then I got impatient that one of our chickens was laying, but the others were not. Over the next four weeks or so, our Ameraucanas all got into line. It was fun finding these blue eggs around. 

Side note. I built a chicken coop with nesting boxes. Guess what. None of our Ameraucanas wanted to lay in the nesting boxes. I know there are ways to force them to lay there (mainly locking them in the coop for a couple of days until they're in the habit of laying in there), but 1) it was too hot to keep them in the coop, 2) I didn't want them not to have access to all of the grass and bugs they were in the habit of eating, and 3) my family and I kind of enjoy looking around the yard for the chicken eggs. It's like an Easter egg hunt, but every day. Plus, the chickens all tend to lay in the same place every day, so we have our four spots to check out daily as we look for eggs. 

The Australorps were a different story. We got our first brown egg from one of them almost a month after we got our first blue egg. I was pretty impatient, but a friend of mine reminded me that people all develop at different speeds, and chickens are the same. But by the time we had a brown eggs, all three Ameraucanas were laying. We started getting three to four eggs per day, which meant that we were now ready to start substituting store bought eggs with our backyard eggs. 

And then the heat came in like a fiery demon dragon. We are currently in a record breaking heatwave, and keeping chickens alive is no joke. I've got the entire coop open up, with fans blowing air throughout the night (which makes it like a convection oven rather than a regular oven). I set up a misting system around our trees which we turn on each afternoon. This gives the chickens some coolness and really seems to help. We have umbrellas set up around the areas in which they lay, since the bird brains can't seem to stay out of the sun when they're laying eggs. And we give them frozen treats when we can. They love frozen watermelon set in water. So far, all of these things seem to be working, and we haven't lost a chicken. Fingers crossed that things will cool off and our chickens will survive. 

So where are we now with things? Chickens are supposed to slow down their laying in the summer, but we're getting 3-5 eggs per day. We are moving umbrellas around the yard 23 times per day to keep our chickens in the shade while they're laying. We have exactly 14 water containers around the yard so they will stay hydrated. And two of my three kids love the chickens and cuddle them as often as they can (the other one is terrified of their dinosaur feet and their beady eyes). I had no idea how pet-like they would be. 

And they all have names. They are: 

- Goldilocks (the first one to lay an egg)
- Chikera
- Kylee Henner
- Hei Hei (this one may or may not have had brain damage as a chick - very quirky)
- Not Hei Hie
- Ha Ha

Are chickens a lot of work? Kind of. I guess it really depends on the weather and how close to dying they are. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Aside from the wonderful eggs that we get from them, their poop is like garden gold. When my son cleans out the chicken coop and dumps the chicken poop into the compost, we all get excited for the high levels of nitrogen it's adding (okay, maybe I'm the only one in our house that gets excited about chicken poop). 

So if you're contemplating backyard chickens, you would get a hearty Renaissance Dad thumbs up! 

Happy chickening! 

Friday, June 23, 2023

Easy Homemade Pickles

As an avid gardener, I don't always make the best decisions when I am planting my biannual garden (in Arizona we have two planting seasons, spring and fall - double the fun!). Sometimes I see something at the nursery that I think I would like to try out, but it comes in a six pack of transplants. And instead of using what I want and composting the rest, I tend to find a place to plant everything. 
So this summer we ended up with six Armenian cucumber plants. If you don't know what an Armenian cucumber is, think of a normal cucumber and then multiply it by 11. Some of our cucumbers have been more than two feet long, and all of our cucumber plants have been abundant. At the prime picking a few weeks ago we were pulling off four or five cucumbers per day. That's a lot of cucumber! 

When I took one to my neighbor, he sent me a great recipe for homemade pickles. I have since modified it and added a key upgrade. This is great for Armenian cucumbers. Here's how to make it.