Green Tomatoes

I have a pumpkin patch on a barren patch of land in the back meadow. Every year I dump on compost, then make hills with good dirt, and plant seeds. Invariably, I get volunteer tomato plants from the compost. This year a bunch of Italian sauce tomatoes appeared. Shaded by the huge pumpkin leaves, they didn’t ripen. The pumpkins have been harvested, and the vines pulled up and discarded, but the tomatoes remain – small, hard and green.

The weather was perfect yesterday for collecting the last of the tomatoes and putting all of this past summer’s compost onto the pumpkin patch. Notice  who is watching on the other side of the fence.

Goats are fussy eaters. They don’t like tomato leaves. But, Pip has discovered that small green tomatoes are fun to eat. He can just barely fit a whole one in his mouth, then, one bite and it bursts! He wags his tail with delight. It’s like seeing a (human) kid chomping on one of those fizzing sourballs.

I tossed the boys some vines.

Caper is just nosing around, suspiciously, but Pip is having a grand time.

Meanwhile, Steve was hard at work, moving compost. Won’t this make for a beautiful pumpkin patch next year?

This is my “lazy person’s compost.” I never turned it. Not once. The chickens did all of the work.

Here are the last of my garden’s green tomatoes. They taste delicious in a long-simmered stew, but they just might end up as goat treats. It’s hard to resist feeding a tail-wagging goat.

That Coco

Have you noticed that Coco has been out-of-sight? Talk about unproductive birds. She’s gone broody.

This is ridiculous. She was broody for most of the summer. Then she molted. Now she’s broody again. Hens aren’t supposed to hunker down in their nests this time of year. You don’t hatch chicks with winter coming on. But try telling that to Coco. She is immoveable.

She’s my best meet and greet hen. The one I take to library visits. But, I can’t take her in a huffy, broody, bad mood. I’d try to break the spell, but I think she’ll just go broody again. Her understudy, Betsy, will just have to meet the children in Walpole and Billerica. I hope to see you then!

Peak Color

This past weekend the fall color was at it’s peak, so I thought I’d share a few photos with you before the wind and the rain (expected later this week) change everything again. To my friends in places like California (hi Donna!) who don’t experience the seasons, I can only just begin to tell you what you’re missing. In the morning there are patches of sparkling frost. Then, sunlight comes in low and lights up the trees. The yellow ones, especially, glow like melted butter. Red leaves blow through the air and eventually land on dull-green grass. The light changes again and it looks cold out, even if it’s not. One day the blueberry bush is crimson, the next it is brown.

What makes New England so showy are the maples, which do dramatic costume changes into reds and yellows.

Other trees turn just one color.

Put all together, my backyard looks like this:

Even my Endless Summer blue hydrangea has gone from this:

to a more seasonally appropriate dusky purple.

Red isn’t only on the trees. A handful of Heritage Red Raspberries ripened. I found them before the goats did.

Eggs From Old Hens

Chickens were never bred to live a long life. A hundred years ago, poor egg producers were harvested for meat after their first laying season. About half of the flock would be kept through to their second winter, when they were all butchered. This is the where the term dual-purpose hen comes from. Eggs and meat. A few breeds are more specialized – for example the Cornish Rock is solely for meat and Leghorns are kept for their egg-laying proficiency.

If kept around, hens do keep laying eggs past that second year. Despite good care, nutritious feed and calcium supplements, the shells become thinner and thus there’s more breakage, which is yet one more reason that commercial farmers don’t keep older hens. Those of us with backyard poultry, who consider their flock’s dual-purposes as eggs and pets, are delighted when an elderly chicken lays an egg. I’ve always assumed that there’s nothing wrong with them. That is, until this past weekend.

Seven chickens live in the big barn. Agnes and Philomena have just reached their second year (and first molt.) They’ve each laid an egg a day for the last year. Once in awhile Maizie, a three year-old Wyandotte lays an egg. The other hens are six years-old and haven’t laid eggs for ages.

On Saturday, a big, wrinkled, thin-shelled egg was found in the the nesting box. I knew that it was laid by one of the old hens. I put it right into the refrigerator. The next day there was another one! I decide to have poached eggs with these gifts from my old girls. I cracked one open and slid it into the oiled poaching cup and saw…bubbles. I have never, in almost two decades of keeping hens, had an egg that had  bubbles inside.

Look at what’s in the shell. It looks like soap bubbles, or like I’d vigorously shaken the egg before cracking. You can also see how thin and wrinkled the shell is. The yolk looks fine and there was no discoloration or odor. Weird. I fed the egg to Lily Dog. When cracked open, the second egg looked normal. But, when poached, the white tasted grainy. Lily got that, too. She hopes that the old hens keep laying, but she’s had no such luck.

Bare Butts

Here at HenCam, just about the most asked about topic is about feather loss. Right now it’s molting season, when usually calm hen owners email me in a panic because all of a sudden their hens look like worn-out toy stuffed animals. Rest assured that molting is normal, albeit messy.

I also get queries about hens with bare backs. That’s usually an easy one to answer. 99% of the time, there’s a rooster in with the hens. Roosters claw and pull out feathers during their frequent matings. Sometimes the rooster favors one hen, so her saddle feathers get worn off, while all of the other girls look lovely. If there are open wounds, or her skin is so red that the others peck at her, you’ll have to separate her, or get rid of the rooster.

Most of the feather loss questions, however, are about bare butts. All chickens have short, soft feathers near their vents. This hen (owned by my friend Sharon) has a classic bottom.

Don’t you just want to pat it? She’s a young bird, hatched in May. She’s only started to lay, and her owner overfeeds her (yes, Sharon, cut back on the corn!) so she’s in fine feather. She won’t molt until next year and there are no roosters about. She’ll never look better than she does now (well, she could go on a bit of a diet.)

My two-year old hens, Agnes and Philomena, are a sleeker breed and never had such gorgeous bottoms. But, lately, they’ve been looking rather ragged. They’re a hybrid, bred for egg laying production. They’ve laid every day for months. Feather loss can be a sign of a good layer. Caloric and nutritional intake goes into egg-making, and the feathers suffer. When Petunia is laying, her neck goes bald. Look at Agnes’s bottom. It’s red and bare. Not a pretty sight, but she’s perfectly healthy. (She’s also molting, so the butt feather loss is more noticeable.)

Sometimes, though, bare butts are a sign of parasites. If you see bare skin, always pick up your birds and examine them closely. (To learn how to do this, watch my youtube video.) A lice infestation is first seen near the vent. There will be bare skin and the feather shafts will look like Q-tips.

You might see the lice crawling about. I’ve written about lice here. (And also check the archives for more posts.)

Once in awhile, there will be a feather-picking hen in the group. You might never catch her in the act, but she’ll peck away at the other hens’ vent feathers, until, one day, you notice bare spots and possibly blood. My little Snowball, who was a cheerful, delightful hen, was a feather picker. Some say that a chicken feather picks to make up for a nutritional deficiency. It never hurts to make sure that your hens have access to dirt, minerals, and good feed with protein. However, that wasn’t the case with Snowball. She was active and bored, and discovered that when the big girls dust-bathed, she could move in, peck off the occasional parasite, pull some feathers, and have a good time. Fortunately, before this caused severe problems, the weather turned cold, the hens stopped sprawling in the sun, and Snowball gave up her bad habit.

Regardless of the cause, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on those bare patches of skin. If they’re raw and red, the other hens will peck at them and cause open wounds. It that looks to be a problem in your flock (some groups are more aggressive than others) you can darken the skin with blu-kote (similar to genetian violet in the UK.) It dyes the skin purplish-blue, so the hens don’t peck.

I was envious seeing Sharon’s fluffy-butten pullets. I’m ready for some young birds. I’ve already started my wish-list for a spring chick order.