Chicken Gear: What do you wear in the coop?

The first summer we kept chickens, I never thought about chicken gear.  The girls were kept outside in our A-Frame tractor.  I visited several times a day, moved the coop, fed and watered them, and thought almost nothing about what I was wearing as a chicken keeper.  Well, summer is great for that, but winter care of chickens (and livestock, in general), takes a bit more preparation, and one thing that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is what folks wear when they are caring for their livestock.

Now, admittedly, I have two separate approaches to chicken care.  On weekdays, you can regularly find me in my coop doing weekday chores in my school clothes (after my shower but before I’ve done my hair and packed our lunches).  On these mornings, I’m only throwing down food and compost material (dry shavings), picking up any droppings under the roosts and checking our nesting boxes; on the weekends, however, I tend to do larger chores (putting down diatomaceous earth, hauling out soiled litter, scraping off the perches, sanitizing the waterer, etc…).  Different chores call for different equipment and different clothing, and for winter chicken care, I have a few stand-bys that keep me warm, dry and safe in our cold climate.  I will note that while I’m sharing a few of my favorites with you, I am not in any way affiliated with these companies; these items are my preference only and have made my life as a chicken-keeper much, much easier.  I tend to be very frugal, so if I have invested in something, I’ve tried to do my research and ensure that I’ll at least get a few years out of a given product.

Boots:
Footwear, for me is the most important piece of chicken keeping equipment.  Halfway through last year’s wettest summer on record, I sucked it up and bought a new pair of rain boots specifically for the chicken coop.  Why?  Because the mixture of manure and regular wear and tear had corroded the rubber of my cheap, five-year-old pair rain boots until they split and one day, while up to my ankles in garden mud, my foot was swamped by cold muddy water.  I did a ton of research before purchasing my new boots, as I wanted something I could wear year round, both in the coop and in town (if necessary).  I finally settled on a pair of Bogs, and I chose to go with their Women’s Rider Emboss Boot.  While these are currently hard to find, I couldn’t recommend Bogs enough, and they still make a wide variety of other colors and styles.

These have been a phenomenal winter and summer boot, keeping my feet warm even when it’s below zero, while also providing my feet with maximum protection in the garden, coop, and snow.  And while they were a bit expensive, given that I wear them twice a day, every day, I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

Gloves:
In the summer, I don’t regularly wear gloves out to the chicken coop, unless I’m throwing down new bedding or working with tools to build or improve one of our existing structures. Last year, when we started building the new coop, I picked up a pair of Mechanix Women’s Gloves, which not only kept my hands safe in several dicey situations but kept me warm until just about November, when I had to trade up for something a bit more winter appropriate.  I will definitely be purchasing a new pair this spring for our next building project!

In the winter, gloves become and important piece of protection from the elements.  I was disappointed early on by the quality of the work gloves available for women at our local hardware stores and the lack of men’s sizes small enough to fit my hands.  In the end, I just started wearing a pair of old Thinsulate gloves that my grandparents had gifted to Jason for Christmas last year, and – honestly – they’ve been everything I’ve needed.  Warm enough to wear for extended periods of time, small enough to allow for the dexterity required to accomplish the tasks I need to, and waterproof enough to allow me to operate the feeders and waterers.  These gloves have not stood up as well as the Mechanix, but they are a cheaper glove and can easily be replaced next year.

Clothing:

While I’ve spent money on both gloves and boots for the chicken coop, clothing is largely the area where I’m most frugal.  As I said earlier, during the week, I usually just wear my work clothes outside, and – for better or worse – my neighbors have definitely seen me chasing roosters across the yard in a skirt and blazer on more than one occasion.  But on the weekends, I tend to go with an old pair of jeans, thermal underwear and whatever sweatshirt I grab first in the closet.

In the winter, I do tend to wear my good ski parka out to the coop when I’m doing work, not only because it’s easy as can be to clean up, but it also has a great deal of pocket space for eggs (I just need to remember to unload them when I get back to the house).  I also have a pair of Carhaarts for those super-messy tasks (white washing, sanitizing, etc.), but they tend to get more use in the summer.

So, in summary, I tend to pay the most attention to my hands and feet in the coop.  They come into contact with the most potentially sharp and hazardous substances , and by ensuring my own safety, I also ensure the health and safety of our girls and their roos.

Do you have any special gear you wear for chores?

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Garden Planning: Under Several Feet of Snow

February in Northern Maine is a cruel month.  There are delicate glimpses of spring: warmer sun, melting ice, and earlier light, quickly overshadowed by 14 inches of wet, thick snow.  After nearly a week of temperatures in the mid to upper 30s, this weekend’s storm has once again reminded me why we don’t put things into the ground until late, late May.  And while we did spend much of last weekend thinking about the gardens and gardening, I’m pretty sure May is still the earliest that we’ll see plant life.

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Jason’s grandmother about her gardening plans this year.  She reminded me that I need to get my tomatoes in their pots in two weeks if I wanted to maximize our tomato crop, and while we started ours later last year (right around April 1), part of me thinks that flats of seedlings amid all of this cold, white snow might be just enough to get me through until spring.

For now, I’m going to focus my energy on cleaning out the back bedroom today, so it’s 100% ready for the plant table and lights when the time comes!

I am also hoping to sanitize all of our equipment from last year to ensure that any mold or disease is not passed down to this year’s plants.  I will do so by cleaning each pot/flat out with a 10% bleach/90% water solution.  And given the blight we had last year, all of our garden tools and trellises will get the same treatment, come spring!

Oatmeal Chocolate Squares

I’m going to share a recipe today that was one of my favorites as a teenager and remains extraordinarily popular with the teenagers I work with.  Oatmeal Chocolate Squares are not healthy – let’s not pretend that they are, but – in moderation – they are sweet, delicious and the perfect special occasion snack!

I will warn you that you don’t want to eat them hot out of the oven; they need to be cooled first in order to let inside layer of molten chocolate deliciousness set (so you don’t end up with a mess of melted chocolate filling in the pan!).  However, nobody ever said you couldn’t let them set, cut them into squares and then toss them back into the oven in small ramekins or the microwave so you can enjoy them at their melt-y best.

This recipe has two separate sets of ingredients – one for the bars (which you split into 2/3 for the crust and 1/3 for the crumb topping) and the filling.

Ingredients for the Cookie Crust
1 c butter
2 c brown sugar
2 eggs
2 t vanilla
2.5 c all purpose flour (I usually do 1 whole wheat and 1.5 AP)
1 t soda
1 t salt
3 c oats
1/4 c flax seed (optional but a good way to add some health benefits)

Ingredients for the Chocolate Filling
1 15 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 bag chocolate chips (I use Hershey Milk Chocolate Chips)
2 T butter

Instructions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream the butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the vanilla and eggs.
  3. Since I cook with a KitchenAid stand mixer, I tend not to premix the flour soda and salt before I add them; however, if you don’t have a stand mixer, I would whisk them together in a separate bowl before adding them to ensure that the flour and soda get fully incorporated.
  4. Stir in the oats until fully combined.  The dough will be fairly moist.
  5. Spread 2/3 of the mixture into an ungreased 9 x 13 pan.  Reserve the remaining 2/3 of the mixture in the bowl.  I add a slightly raised crust to the edges to prevent the chocolate from sticking.
  6. Next, over medium heat melt the butter for the filling.
  7. Lower the heat and add the chocolate chips and stir until completely melted.  By adding them to the melted butter it quickens the process, but be careful not to burn them!
  8. As soon as the chips are melted, remove them from the heat and stir in the evaporated milk.  Be careful to fully incorporate it.  You’ll notice that it lightens and glosses the chocolate.
  9. Pour chocolate over the cookie crust.
  10. Sprinkle with remaining cookie dough broken into small chunks.
  11. Bake for 30 – 45 minutes until top is golden.
  12. Cool completely.  If you don’t, you’ll have a delicious mess on your hands; I promise!

Wedding Planning Wednesday: Reserving Hotel Room Blocks

In my mind, as I prepare for the wedding, I keep a mental checklist, largely of the chores that I find the most tedious and the things I want to do least.  Way up at the top of that list was blocking hotel rooms.  Now that I’ve accomplished that task, I really can’t articulate why, specifically, this was on my list.

Blocking hotel rooms was possibly one of the easier and more pleasant experiences I had.  I called a few local hotels, easily decided which ones not to go with based on customer service and a general refusal to return phone calls despite multiple messages left, and ended up having a lovely chat and tour of one of the newer, local hotels this morning. The rooms were immaculate and bright, the staff was friendly, and breakfast will be included as part of the guest rate (which is great since we’re having a late afternoon wedding and I anticipate some guests arriving the night before).

I went in with a list of questions and specific things that were important to me as a bride.  We are marrying at home, so Jason & I will not be staying in a local hotel immediately before or after the wedding, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want my guests to be comfortable and well cared for during their stay in the Great White North.

What we were able to do was put together a package that is both cost effective and comfortable for our guests, offering the option of a king room or a double queen (space pending), for folks who might want to split the cost.  And unlike a few of the other hotels we looked at, the hotel we are going with did not require any kind of deposit or credit card hold from us, which given our tight budget and my penchant for constant worry, was a tremendous relief.    On top of this, the hotel we’re going with will allow us to add rooms to the block as the weeks go on, just in case someone still needs a room and will let me drop off goody bags for guests (if my time allows leading up to the wedding).  A month before the wedding (and the same day we’ve asked for our RSVP’s to be returned) the block is removed and guests will have to pay the regular rate, but it is my hope that by the time folks RSVP for the wedding they will have already made their accommodations.

So brides out there who are putting off this task, just get it over with!  I would suggest going in person, as getting to see the rooms and their level of cleanliness helped me make this crucial decision.  It was also nice to have a contact person at the hotel whom I can go to if any questions or concerns arise as the big day approaches.

And after a long walk with Abby, I feel like another tremendous bridal-related weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  And in other accomplishments of the last seven days: invitations are ordered(!), portable toilets have been reserved (stop by later this spring for a blog post on making portable toilets feel wedding-ready), and we’ve finally finalized the guest list.

With my first dress fitting in just over a week, I feel like the pieces are finally coming together!

Abby: Ever Excited about All Things Wedding!

Blog Spring Cleaning & Organization

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I use this blog.  How excited I am when I see visitors and comments (thank you!) and how, often, I don’t feel like I serve you well enough.  The bloggers I love post regularly.  I know what to expect when I show up there, and I’m always thankful for the time and design they put into their blogs.  As I hope to grow the site over the next year, I’ve been trying to think of ways to help myself organize my thoughts, so I’m not scrambling to write posts early in the morning before work or late in the evening.  I also realize that with the variety of interests/projects I have going, not everyone will be interested in the same things, and if you show up to hear about chickens and instead find a post about the shoes I found for the wedding (tomorrow!) or my adventures in hotel-room blocking, you might wonder why you’ve bothered to stop by.

So in order to try and sweep things together into a few neat piles, I’ve decided to try this for a while.  Please note that it may take me a while to get things organized, and there could always be a random post on adventures in wedding rentals, but I hope this will bring greater order and more regular posting.

So here is my current plan:

Chicken Mondays – All news chicken, from our new coop to our future (fingers-crossed) hatchlings in May!  This will line up with the Homestead Barn Hop – one of my favorite blogging exercises and a great group of folks with a wealth of knowledge!

Wedding Wednesdays – A weekly chronicle of how the planning and crafting are going!

Foodie Fridays – I do a ton of cooking during the week, so I’m resolving to get at least one  recipe up each week, which would also encourage me to cook a bit more adventurously (which I’m sure Jason will appreciate, as I do have a particular love for four or five things that I could eat every. night. of. the. week.).  When appropriate, I’m hoping to link up with Sunday Soup Night at Easy Natural Food and/or Food Flick Friday at Traditional Foods.

Gardening Round-Up Weekends – Since Jason & I do the majority of our gardening and garden-planning on the weekends, that’s when these posts make sense; the only caveat is until the snow melts, there’s not much to see but seed packets, the planters I bought yesterday, and my ever growing pile of gardening books.

When the summer hits (and school lets out!) I’m hoping to add a weekly flower post and a canning/preserving day, but for now, I think resolving to write four posts each week will hopefully make for happier and more informed readers and a much less hectic life.

Thank you for your time and patience!  I’m so glad to have you reading along!

Thinking about Summer Flowers

I feel like I should start this post with a disclaimer: Hello, my name is Jess, and I have very little luck with flowers, flower gardening, and – worst of all – flower boxes.  I come at this honestly enough: every spring, we go to greenhouses, my head filled with images of the over-flowing flower boxes of my youth; I purchase scads of flats, come home, shelter, harden off, plan, and – inevitably – kill them or watch them limp along until fall finally kills them for me. At best, I end up with mediocre hanging baskets and passable containers on our porch.  And with about two acres of mowed lawn and two large veggie gardens, I don’t have a ton of time for them, but that doesn’t mean I want to live this way.  This, despite also being the year of the chicken baby-boom and vegetable garden, must also be the year of the flower beds!

Mom's Iris Bed with Lupine in the Background

With a wedding here in July, the flower boxes and beds (that – luckily – Jason & his mom put in long before he and I met) are going to have to be perfect, weeded, and brimming with bright, fragrant blooms.  I have a few ideas and have spent a lot of time with books, but I’m sure that out there, there are bloggers, brimming with secrets and wisdom that could help me get to this goal.  I’ve already found one or two through email who have sent me some of their tricks of the trade (I can’t thank you enough!).

So… I beg you.  If you have a bit of advice, a great book that you love and have learned from, or – even better – a blog where you have at some point discussed your luscious flower beds/boxes/containers and how to achieve such results, please comment on this point.  I would love some advice!

As soon as the snow melts, I’ll be doing a weekly flowers post, which will hopefully end with cascading walls of color and not shriveling, skeletal stems.

Beef Barley Soup

This weekend, we packed up our cross country skis, backpacks, pack sled, and Abby and skied into our camp.  Camp is lovely, quiet and rustic with an enormous old cook-stove (circa 1890) and a wood burning stove to keep everything nice and toasty late at night.  Since we were only going in for one night, I made a pot of beef barley soup on Friday afternoon, and packed enough for two in a quart sized mason jar, reinforced with a little bit of masking tape to ensure it didn’t leak into anyone’s belongings.

Abby, packed for camp and ready to go!

When I initially cobbled together this recipe, I wasn’t sure it would be anything great, so I didn’t take any pictures.  However, after discovering it to be both hearty and delicious, I’ve decided to post it here.  Please forgive the lack of photos!

Beef Barley Soup

Ingredients:
1 T olive oil
1 lb. London Broil, trimmed of fat and cut into small cubes
1/4 c. good red wine (I used a fruity Pinot Noir to deglaze the pan.  If you don’t drink wine, you could do the same with a bit of cider vinegar mixed with stock).

1 medium yellow onion
2 large carrots, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 green pepper, chopped (I used some that I frozen from last summer’s garden)
1 – 14 oz. can diced tomatoes (or 2 large, fresh if you have them!)
1/2 c. frozen or canned corn kernels
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1 t basil
1/2 c. pearl barley
1 bay leaf
4 – 6 cups beef stock or broth (enough to cover everything in the crock pot)

Directions:
1. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat and brown the London Broil. I use this cut of meat because it is inexpensive and cooks down to a delightful softness. When meat is brown, de-glaze the pan with the red wine and set aside until you’re ready to add it to the crock pot. You may add a bit of broth, too, if the mixture gets too thick or starts to stick again.
2. Meanwhile, combine vegetables in the bottom of your Crockpot. I used our smaller 2.5 quart pot for this, but you could use a larger model (and this recipe can easily be doubled!).
3. Rinse uncooked barley under cold water and add to vegetables.
4. Add salt, pepper, basil, and bay leaf.
5. Add browned beef.
6. Pour in stock until it covers the vegetables, beef and barley completely. Give a good stir, put the Crockpot lid in place and cook on high for 6 hours (or low for 10 hours).

Serve with fresh bread.

A hot, delicious, vegetable-laden beef barley soup!

This post is linked up to Easy Natural Food’s Sunday Soup Carnival. Stop on over there for some other delicious soup-related recipes!

Wedding-Planning Wednesdays (a day late)

On Valentine’s Day, I was greeted by an email to my personal account reminding me that my wedding was only five months away!  Five months, I thought, feeling that oh-so-familiar butterfly-panic sizzle quickly from my toes to fingertips.  Where did the time go?  Where does it continue to go, as this first Wedding-Planning Wednesday post was supposed to go up yesterday morning: before my morning workout, before a crazy-long day of work that left grocery shopping bounced forward another day along with all of those other household chores that I’d love to be a bit more proficient at.  I will say that I did stop for essentials (supplies for Jason’s lunch & last night’s dinner & the brownies that my fellow faculty members so desperately need at this time of the year).

I also want to note that I probably had the best Valentine’s Day ever.  Not because Jason & I spent scads of money or went out to a romantic dinner (he was on call and I was supposed to have a late meeting so we ate in), but because I’ve finally found someone who really understands me.  After weeks of my talking about wanting an old-fashioned egg scale, but also needing to save money for the wedding, guess what arrived in the mail?

Vintage Egg Scale

And on top of that, he brought home a really beautiful bouquet of flowers and didn’t grumble at Oscar too much when he knocked them over in the night severing the beautiful pink rose that sat in the middle of the bouquet (note: it has been saved and is currently residing in the top of an old milk-bottle until it can be pressed).

The Rose - Post Oscar

But in wedding news, I have a few pretty big tasks to check off my list this week.  I’m currently in the process of ordering invitations from the fabulous Wedding Paper Divas, whom we ordered our Save The Date photo-personalized post cards from in October.  Not only was the quality fantastic, but they arrived quickly and fit right into our modest budget.  For those brides currently seeking paper goods, they are offering 25% off on wedding invitations until 2/21 (note: I am not affiliated with the site, nor getting anything from this post; I just like their product and want to share a great sale!).

The two bigger projects that I need to complete this week involve blocking hotel rooms in town (something that my shy personality has allowed me to put off and put off, but the time is here!) and finishing up the wedding signs I started a few weeks ago.  With February Break on the horizon (eight hours and counting!), it’s time to finish up what craft projects I have that can be pre-assembled before the summer projects (wedding, chicken & garden) start.

Have a great week!

Planning for the 2012 Flock

I don’t think that it will come as a surprise to my regular readers that I’ve been thinking a lot about chickens lately.  And while we still have almost two full months before our full-scale breeding program will commence, it is – by far – the most interesting and terrifying new change to our homesteading plan this spring.

After spending the last few weeks with Storey’s Guide to Raising Chicks (on loan from the local library) and Ussery’s Small Scale Poultry Flock, I feel like I finally have a fairly clear picture of how things will work, as soon as the weather warms up enough that we can start building and shuffling our flock.

The tentative plan that I’ve come up with is to divide our large flock (2 Roosters & 8 Hens) into two smaller breeding flocks (1 Rooster & 4 Hens).  Each flock will be banded with zip ties of the same color (blue & green), then sent out to pasture in either our current A-Frame tractor or a modified version of Ussery’s pasture shelter, reinforced with hardware cloth, instead of just chicken wire & possibly a ramp up to the second floor that can be raised at night to protect the flock even more.

After twenty-one days of separation, I will begin to collect eggs (hoping, all the while for two of the girls to go broody.  The broody hens will be re-situated in the winter coop on clutches of eggs, and once the chicks hatch, they will be brooded in both the winter coop and the larger chicken tractor, with the help of their hen-mamas.

We’re hoping to place about 16 eggs under each hen; hopefully hatching between 20 – 24 chicks.

I hope to post the entire process as we get closer and begin building the new shelter and renovating part of the winter coop into a chick brooder.

Have you ever done this?  What advice might you offer?

Cabin Fever

It’s just about the middle of February.  The cats have cabin fever and have taken to the occasional, terrifying brawl, which basically consists of a lot of caterwauling, followed by the dog shoving herself bodily between them or, occasionally, sitting on our smallest cat until Buddy, the largest of the three, wanders off in a huff.  As a result, it has been a week of jangled nerves.

It occurs to me, as I pace around the house restlessly reading and re-reading the same three chapters of Ussery’s Small Scale Poultry Flock (husbandry, brooding, coop design) that I should have hit up the library for something that would have taken me away from my cabin fever, rather than wallowing in it and longing for those too-short summer weekends when we come in for lunch on Sunday afternoon and are shocked by the encroaching week.

Buddy (the big cat) snoozing on the pieced quilt-top.

That’s not to say we haven’t accomplished a lot this weekend.  My grading is caught up (with February break only a week away!), Jason cleaned out the basement yesterday while I deep-cleaned the kitchen and cleared a few rotting squash from our root cellar.  We’ve tackled laundry, basic household chores and I’m continuing to work on the king-sized quilt that I’m making his mother, but really… truly… I’m longing for warmer days (it’s below -20 with the windchill today) and projects that involve plants and chickens.

For those who might be worried, the girls are toasty warm in their coop, which is pleasantly about 15 degrees right now and the cats… well, we keep joking around that if the hens don’t go broody, we could always just place the eggs under the cats.

Exhibit A: Oscar will do almost anything to get in... and stay in... my sock basket. Socks are kind of egg-shaped, aren't they?

What do you do on cold winter weekends?  And, more importantly, what are you anticipating this spring?