Monday, 04 March 2013 00:00

Free Range Winter Chickens (Humor)

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableI don’t really know if our chickens are like all chickens or if they are evolving into something so fantastic that we will be featured in agricultural textbooks for all time. Our chickens are becoming winterized.

We got these chickens fully grown a couple of years ago. Not being experienced we weren’t really sure what to expect. Our chickens are free range chickens. That means no one owns the property they graze on and whatever they find they get to keep for free. Horse pooh, dog pooh, crickets, and many other disgusting things.

Our chickens also have feathers so I figured we were good as far as winter goes. One of our friends told us they would be able to survive clear down to zero degrees. I was a little concerned because when I was a kid we had a Bantam Rooster called Popeye and one morning we woke up and ‘Ol Popeye was frozen solid in time never to thaw out again in our presence. We were told he was old and that’s why he froze. My sister and I never bought that one. Our parents were old and they never froze.

We live in the mountains at 4200’ and it does get pretty cold here but we also live off grid. That means no forced air furnace and hot water heater for the chicken coop. These guys were just going to have to tough it out. That’s the way I was raised and it worked for me and my sister, well it worked for me. Our parents would always say things like “just tough it out” and “quit whining” and we seemed to get through the winters okay with good parenting skills like that.

I did put insulation in the chicken coop and cover all the holes. We even had a freeze proof faucet nearby so we could get fresh water every day. Laurie made me get some sawdust for the coop floor. I guess I had to “cave” on something.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableFall came and I thought we were as ready as we were going to be for winter and right then all of the stupid chickens lost their stupid feathers when the stupid temperature got down to freezing at night. Well, how smart was that? All my life I had been told how “Mother Nature always gets it right”. Well apparently Mother Nature never had to live off grid. I just knew we were going to have to buy new chickens in the spring – ever y year.

Well it got down to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit that winter for a couple of days. Our chickens really sucked it up. We were proud of them. The rooster had frostbite on his comb but he never really complained. I guess it’s easier to take care of now, kind of like being bald, and the hens seem to be attracted to him okay. Other than that they didn’t seem to be affected much.

The one thing I noticed that first year is that they never came out of the coop. I guess they didn’t have to. Laurie took them hot meals and warm water every day. Cooked rice, cooked oatmeal, and other things like that. I guess they would have to wait for summer for the disgusting things they like to eat.

off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe have a new generation of chickens who have grown up here and seem to be a little more used to the winters than the original gang. They still stupidly lose their feathers in the late fall but on a nice day they will venture out of the coop. I go out and shovel trails in the snow that lead to other areas I shovel and they do go out and scratch.

It’s hard getting used to snow. One hen shakes each foot after lifting her foot to take a step. She’s got it down though and does manage to go forward. It’s like a cadence – lift, shake, and step. Lift, shake, and step. We’ve also found that they can get bogged down in powder snow.  We’ve had to rescue more than one stranded in a snow drift. They act like a beached whale. Scientists are puzzled by the strange behavior.

Our original batch of chickens never left the coop. Our newer “evolved” chickens do. It wouldn’t surprise me to see their feet eventually develop webs like tiny snow shoes and their feathers turn white in the winter. I wonder if the government will give us a grant?

Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and Off Grid Works.


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  • Summer and Winter - So Different

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    Our seasons here are not super extreme but there is a clear separation between summer and winter. We all know the difference between fall, winter, spring, and summer but do we really stop and take notice of the differences or in this case the rather large contrast between summer and winter. I think it is kind of amazing and I definitely have learned to appreciate the differences living a little closer to the land than I used to. Summer sees temperatures up to 100 degrees F and winter can get to below zero.

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    During the summer we get eggs from the chickens and you can see them roaming the property looking for bugs. Today only one will lay an egg (maybe) and they are all huddled in the coop because it is 7 degrees F.

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    In the summer our horse’s coats are sleek and shiny and you seldom see them because they are out grazing on green grass. Today their coats are thick and fuzzy and they eat hay in the morning, go for a nap, and come back in the late afternoon for dinner.

    We have goats this year. Little Angora’s. I have no idea how I might see a change in the seasons but you can be assured of one thing – lots of goat pellets on the ground in the summer and winter. Always the goat pooh. It’s everywhere. I have noticed one thing already - they eat green grass as long as it lasts and then they switch to green pine needles off our pine trees in the winter. I think green is their favorite color.

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    In the summer you never know what you will see on the tractor – forks for helping cut wood, a rototiller, mower, or the front loader moving dirt. From October to April it has a snow plow on the front and chains on the rear wheels and it only has one purpose – to plow snow.

    In the summer we have to mow the open grassy areas around the house. It looks nicer but it is also a fire deterrent. During the winter all you see around the house is snow and a lot of it has to be shoveled away from the house especially in the spring to prevent water damming up against the house when the thaw comes.

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    Our garden is a highlight in the summer. Approximately 3000 square feet of vegetables and berries. Next spring we are going to add apple trees. We also take the tops off the insulated cold frames and grow tomatoes, and strawberries. Now – a few heads of lettuce and cold weather veggies in the cold frame and you can be assured it has the top back on. We’re not sure how cold it can get before it destroys our plants but so far that hasn’t happened. Our current weather will be a real test because the cold is lasting so long this time. Usually it just hits us for a few days. Right now it is forecast for the next 10 days!! Our garden is completely under snow.




    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainable, firewood, woodpileoff grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainable, Our masonry heater stays dormant in the summer. No ash floating around or the occasional smoke. The windows are open a lot. The house mostly heats itself passively. The woodshed is empty in the summer and full in the winter.

    We drive our little blue truck to town in the summer. It gets really good mileage. Back to the all wheel drive gas hog during the winter. 3 miles of compact snow and ice between us and the plowed paved roads.

    I’m taking notice of these things because the seasonal contrast here is greater than where I came from. Because I used to live in a condo and work in an office -  the biggest difference I noticed between seasons was what coat I needed to wear.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website and Off Grid Works.


  • How To Survive A Long Winter

    We live fairly high in the mountains. Just being three miles off the paved road with a 1000’ elevation gain will virtually assure that no one will come to visit you. We seem to have an average of 3’ of snow anywhere from October to March.

    So what do we do in the late fall, winter, and early spring to pass the time?

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableEd: I work on the website a lot, updating products, text, pictures, blogs, pricing, and shipping costs. There is always a lot of work to do.

    I have to shovel snow by hand around the house and barn every time it snows. We have to keep a path to the chicken coops, solar panels, insulated cold frames, and hay stacks for the horses.

    I plow the road. It is three miles long and takes anywhere from 3 hours to six hours depending on how much snow we get. This year it has been anywhere from once a week to three times in the same week. We’ve had wind storms that have caused the snow to drift and pile up to three feet high in the exposed places. I also hand shovel large areas under the trees for the chickens to scratch around in.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe shovel a lot of horse pooh in the winter. They have the run of about 15 acres but tend to stay on the plowed roads. I guess you might call them city type horses. I don’t want that stuff mixed in with the road gravel so we scoop it up in the Polaris and haul it to the garden where it gets spread every Spring when everything thaws and right before we rototill.

    I do small indoor projects that we don’t have time to do in the summer. Small repairs, maintenance, and even some new ones.

    I spend some time each day building two fires and hauling wood inside for them.

    I plow about ½ mile of road that leads to the National forest from our house. We walk that and look at all of the different animal tracks. We snow shoe and this year we took turns skiing down our road and being pulled back up the hill by the Polaris. That was a lot of fun.

    Last weekend we ventured down the hill to Lake Bonaparte and watched the snowmobile drag races.

    In two weeks our friends are coming up from Oroville to that same lake and we will meet them there for ice fishing and a beer or two at the restaurant which sits right next to the lake and has a big old fashioned fireplace inside.

    We are actually outdoors a lot. We’ve learned when to don long underwear and when to put on the insulated coveralls. When the snow gets compacted in the driveway or icy we even have to put our ice spikes on our boots so we don’t slip and fall.

    It seems there is always something to do. It just changes with the seasons.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLaurie: I am always collecting things that look like they can be repurposed and made into something new. I have a room full of fabric, wool roving, yarn, buttons, ribbon, sewing machines, a large tapestry loom and that’s just a start. I always have projects that I have waiting to be started or finished, so I am never without something to do if I want. Quilting, rugs, felting, you name it. I’ll try it!

    There are always the animals to be taken care of. Horses are fed and watered 3 times a day. I choose to not put out the large bales of round hay for the horses so they can eat free choice. My mustang would eat himself into oblivion if he had hay in front of him all day; he is the easiest keeper I have ever had. He gets fat just looking at hay. And then on the other hand we have our Quarter Horse who is always in need of a little more food, not such an easy keeper and is low man on the totem pole, so he can get pushed around. It’s a lot like trying to keep the peace in a house full of kids; you need to make sure they each get their share.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableBecause we are off-grid we don’t have the extra power for heaters for the water troughs for the horses and chickens. So when we get our really cold weather the water buckets have to be deiced and refilled at least 3 times a day. Horse pens are always in need of cleaning when I have a free minute, or want to get outside for a while.

    And then, of course, there’s nothing better than a cup of tea and a really good book.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website and Off Grid Works.

  • An Average Winter Day

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOur winter lifestyle here is different from where we came from so we thought we should share what a typical day is like. When I say winter, I really mean sometime in October to sometime in April, that’s how long we have snow.

    We typically have snow here that averages about 3’ deep once it builds up to that. We don’t usually get more than a few inches at a time. It settles and then snows a little more but it stays around 3’ deep.

    Like summer time, Laurie and I work from 7AM to 5PM seven days a week.

    Animals: Laurie does most of the animal work. She takes care of the dog, cats, chickens, and horses. The horses graze on our acreage in the summer but need hay in the winter. We have some beautiful and affordable river bottom hay from a friend of ours. Plus the water needs to have the ice broken twice a day so they can drink.

    Laurie goes the extra mile for the chickens. You won’t believe what I’ve seen going out the door to feed them in their nice warm chicken coop. They get hot meals. I kid you not. Our chickens get rice dishes, heated leftovers, and the occasional hot cereal. Me – I just throw the door open and they can come out and eat mash or not on the frozen ground I have shoveled clean for them.

    She takes care of them all twice a day no matter what the weather.

    I get up in the morning and get the coffee and tea going. It’s also my job to fire up the masonry heater.  We burn it twice a day so bringing wood in from the woodshed is also one of the things I do daily.

    We both work on the computer an average of four hours per day. Laurie handles most of the packaging and shipping, invoicing, book keeping, and deals with a few of our vendors. I get the rest of the vendors and handle all of the website operation which includes uploading and updating all of the products. I also do the product blogs on the website and blogging for Mother Earth News and therefore Off Grid Works as well. I handle all of the maintenance, advertising and SEO for the websites. We go to the Post Office / UPS shipping place three times a week. In the winter that can be a real challenge on our road.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableAs most of you know we grow fresh food in the winter. We started experimenting with our insulated cold frames last year. They are going full bore this winter. Inside the house Laurie has started on a new hydroponic system we are trying out. If it works we will add it to our “growing list of food growing products” on our web store Good Ideas For Life. We like to use the products we sell so we can answer any questions from customers. Because of that some of our time goes to experimentation.

    Laurie handles most dinners and most housework. I love to cook breakfast and eat all the things we aren’t supposed to. We both clean up.

    I take care of the garbage. It has to go 3 miles down the icy road every other week. I also take care of all of the generators, solar equipment, and battery charging and maintenance.

    You might get the idea we are the Cleavers with traditional roles but the truth is that I’m pretty good with an apron on whether it be cooking or cleaning and when I get stuck mechanically or need some extra muscle with a shovel or wood cutting, I call my best mechanic, logger, and laborer – Laurie (mans best friend).

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLaurie does craftwork. She makes things for people and for us. So far this winter she finished a quilt for her niece’s new baby and a wool rug for our living room. She also sews shopping bags for people to use that don’t prefer plastic.

    I shovel most of the snow from around the house and barn and plow our property roads and the 3 mile long access road we use to get to the highway.

    We both do odd jobs for other people to bring in extra money and stay busy.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe don’t leave much except to go to town for fresh supplies. We do manage to have some fun in the winters. We visit friends and even go ice fishing when it’s nice. We also go for walks from our house. We live next to National Forest land. When the snow gets  too deep we switch to snowshoes. It’s almost magical walking through a snow covered winter forest.

    We like our winters but I’m sure we would both say they could be a little shorter.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and Off Grid Works.

  • Free Range Chickens?

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableSo you want to have fresh eggs and the more adventurous of you might even think you want fresh meat! Of course, to be totally in vogue these are going to have to be free range chickens or it’s just not cool.

    Like most things there is another side to the story. This blog is about some of the less attractive side of free range chickens.

    We currently have 15 free range chickens, all different varieties. Buff Orpingtons, Dominique’s, and Rhode Island Reds and some kind of cross in between those three breeds. We don’t just let them out in a tiny pen for an hour a day to qualify them as “free range” like so many commercial growers do. We let our chickens out of the coop at first light and they go back in at dusk. All day long they have the full run of our 40 acre property.

    While most people might think that is the ultimate in chicken raising it isn’t all that clean of an issue. There are some problems that you should consider before you turn the little ones loose to do as they please.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableThis summer Laurie worked very hard to put a little flower bed next to our main entry door. She dug up local plants to display and even shopped around the woods for some decorative wood to put in the bed. She then wrapped the whole thing in chicken wire to keep the dog, chickens, and cats out to give the new plants a chance to get rooted and grow.

    The fence was unsightly and we finally took it down last week. Within three days the chickens had destroyed the planter, turning it into a chicken spa to relax out of the sun and bath in its fine soil. I’ve shooed them and even sprayed them with water but they keep coming back.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableOne of my jobs outside is to keep all of our concrete slabs clean which I think helps keep the inside of the house clean. It was all easy enough to do until we got free range chickens. Now I have to scrape the concrete before I sweep it and even that doesn’t erase all of the little round markings. That also goes for anything outside they might sit or roost on during the day.

    If that isn’t enough to make you question the whole free range concept let me add one more.  Free ranging chickens are going to look really good to a variety of predators. This past year we have had to deal with coyotes, weasels, and too many hawks to list.

    Thanks to our Anatolian Shepherd livestock guardian dog and me we still have all 15 chickens but only just barely. The dog has chased coyotes, the weasel, and at least one hawk off the property. The hawk was 3’ above one of the chickens when the dog just exploded into action and chased it away. I took care of the rest. At times it seemed like a full time job, like when the family of hawks came to visit – mom, dad, and baby hawk. They were trying to teach the little one how to hunt and using our chickens to do it with.

    They do keep the bugs down. We literally don’t have grasshoppers in our immediate area anymore and I have to admit our chickens seem to be very happy. They also can be very entertaining. All that being said they are fodder for any and all predators and very messy to boot.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableWe managed to keep our chickens safe this year but how are you going to feel if you let one predator slip in and steal one of your little bug pecking munchkins? Is it really in their best interest to free range if it also exposes them to being killed by any number of different predators? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. I just want you to be able to make an informed decision.

    We’re still free ranging here but I am considering a large pen with a wire lid on it for the future. The jury is still out. One thing that is encouraging is that with each generation of new ones they seem to be getting wilder and more wary than the original chickens we started with. Something else to consider.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and Off Grid Works.

  • Chickenship - (humor)

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableLiving off grid – well we just had to have chickens right?

    When I was a kid we had a couple of bantam chickens. They were named Popeye and Oliveoil, or maybe it was Oliveoyle. Anyway we only kept them for their eggs. I’m not sure why we wanted such small eggs. We could have just raided a robin’s nest or two and not had to buy any feed. I still remember those two chickens. When the rooster was after the hen (which was often) she would run into the doghouse and hide behind the dog to get away from him. It must have been one of those forced marriages. Of course, as a child I just thought they were playing hide and seek.

    I’d like to say I remember that we enjoyed the eggs but sometimes my mother thought the eggs should be soft boiled and I did not enjoy those at all. Who came up with that idea anyway? Why not just eat them raw? Did she think I wanted to grow up and be Rocky Balboa? What was the point in wasting the energy to almost cook them? Just saying……

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableSo when Laurie and I moved out of the city we just had to have chickens. We fixed up an old storage shed and made a chicken condo out of it. We had all the chickens sign papers that they would live in harmony, lay lots and lots of eggs and the rooster would never crow before 9:00 a.m. and only on weekdays. Well, the chickens do seem to live in harmony.

    We have one Rooster and eight Hens. I think they are happy, well I KNOW the rooster is happy.

    The condo is insulated, has a lot of roosts which they don’t use much.  We put four nest boxes in it. Guess how many they use? Usually just one. I guess they don’t like cold boxes. When it is time to lay an egg, the hens should just go to a nest box and lay one. Not ours, they get in line to use THE box. No one wants to be first because the box is cold. They are not patient either. Once they are in line, they want the laying hen to hurry. They stand there and scold each other if they are not fast enough. Then when they are done and get out of the box they brag about what they just accomplished. They are not at all sportsman like about it. There is a lot of trash talk. It can be very noisy in the henhouse.

    All of our chickens are “free range”, I guess because they didn’t have to pay for it. They get store bought feed twice a day and the rest of the day they spend on their free range foraging for bugs and things. You can’t believe what chickens eat. I can’t believe we eat chickens and eggs, not after what I’ve seen. These chickens (I am not making this up) will sometimes stand under a horse tail and wait………I’m from the city remember? I am not farm hardened. That is disgusting.

    off grid, living off grid, self sufficient, homestead, sustainableIt’s still cold and wet here even though it is May. I guess there are not as many bugs and things for them to eat. After dinner last night I went outside and almost got ran over by the whole herd of chickens. Flocks fly, herds rumble. This was definitely a herd.Have you ever stood in one spot and witnessed eight chickens running straight at you full bore? It is a sight to behold. Full speed they came. Waddling side to side, some flapping their wings for more speed. I thought I was a goner. I guess they were just extra hungry. Maybe the horses weren’t around. I went back into the house and got some scraps (pay dirt for a chicken). I can’t tell you how happy they were. I was happy they didn’t trample me to death.

    These guys are smart too. We haven‘t lost one chicken to a predator. Well okay, we do have an Anatolian shepherd livestock guardian dog but that’s not the only reason. We had a coyote come to within about 50 yards of the flock one day. The hens all bunched up and froze and the rooster went out about 15yards toward the coyote. He actually put himself between the coyote and his hens! I guess eight hens to yourself is worth dying for. I was impressed! I thought he was all about the love. This rooster actually finds food and gives it to his hens or calls them over to eat what he found. He’s a real smoothie. I think he’s from Europe. Excellent technique.

    But here he was actually putting his life on the line defending his loved ones. The standoff finally came to an end when I went outside and scared the coyote away. Of course the hens all gathered around the rooster, like he was the hero. Go figure. I have to admit, he is dashing in his feathered costume, but there is a little substance there as well.

    It wouldn’t be the same here without our chickens. Fresh healthy eggs are wonderful but the entertainment value is priceless.

    Ed and Laurie Essex live off grid in the Okanogan Highlands of Washington State where they operate their website  and Off Grid Works.