Sunday, November 28, 2021

Joint Custody, Minnesota Style


About 2 years ago I decided it was time to start a flock of chickens once again. We had chickens years ago when we had horses and goats around and had a farm going. But as time moved on and horses and goats left the farm I gave up on having chickens as it seemed like a lot of work to keep them safe and taken care of. We had a few attacks on them from a fox and a weasel and our flock was eventually wiped out. There is nothing worse than coming down to the coop and seeing feathers blown all over and no chickens. Or worse yet pieces of your flock scattered around the barnyard.

We would be starting the flock from ground zero as I had given the insulated coop to our daughter and son-in-law for their farm when they were starting out a few years ago. It was a 4x8 barn shed you can get at Fleet Farm. I got it years ago at an auction. It worked great for all those years and it is currently housing several laying hens over at our daughter’s now.

I decided to get a variety of baby chicks at the local Mill and from a friend of my son’s who was hatching some eggs. We wound up with a mix of about 25 baby chicks. It was early May and still too cold for them to be kept outside. So for the first week or two they were in a bin with heat lamps over them in my office. Eventually they wound up in the barn in a kids plastic swimming pool with heat lamps over it. That is where they would stay until I could get a chicken coop figured out. 

I went scoping the metal shed,near the garden, which we had originally used to store saddles and other tack for the horses. It was  about a 6 x 8 feet metal shed. We have two sheds that are side by side. The other is a garden tool shed. Taking the path of less work, I decided the old tack shed would do the trick, so I set out to clean it. It had a lot of junk in there and lots of electric fencing supplies. So in order for it all to fit in the smaller garden shed, I had to clean out the garden shed. I just wanted to get the coop made and here I was having to do all this extra work just to get the space opened up. But finally after a couple days of intense cleaning I had a clean and orderly garden shed and a completely empty shed to make the chicken coop the way I wanted it. My main goal was to fence in half of the shed with a gate to go in and out when it needed cleaning and new shavings on the floor. The other plan was to make it easy so the eggs could be gathered without walking into the fenced in part. 

 Off I went to Fleet Farm to get some stuff I would need to partition the area off. For the most part we had scraps of lumber lying around the place, so I only needed a few things like hinges and a few 2x4’s. I was excited it would be a pretty cheap project, especially since I have never really constructed anything like a hen house.

Over the next few days my grand-daughter hung out with me and together we  got the partition up from the floor to ceiling so no birds could get out or critters get in. When it came time to figure out the nesting boxes we made a big plywood box with a hinged door that opened from the top and put legs beneath it. We cut the fence inside the henhouse to slip the box in and there we had it. A nesting box that we could reach from outside the pen. It was genius and I will never again have to wade through chicken manure to get the eggs. I put a little step stool next to the nesting boxes for the shorter grandkids to be able to get the eggs. My son and Best Half wired some outlets inside the hen house and heat lamps were put in there along with the chicks. I let the younger grandkids decorate it and they hung a sign at the door saying , “Old Mother’s Hen House”. To this day I am not sure if it was an error in where they put the apostrophe. I am hoping instead of Old Mother’s Hen House they were meaning Old Mother Hen’s House. Since I was afraid of the answer, I never questioned the placement of that apostrophe.

Eventually the chicks were big enough to be let outside so we put up some 8 foot high fencing and cut a little door in the shed where they could come and go. And they grew and grew. One morning I went out and realized there were 3 missing. There were some feathers outside the pen, so I figured something got into the pen at night and hauled them off. I made a vow that this wasn’t going to happen again. Not on my watch. It looked like the work of a fox.

Once again my grand-daughter and I got to work on turning the coop into Fort Knox, or “Fort Fox '' as she called it. I got out the electric fencer we had used for the horses years ago. We strung wire from the bottom to the top of the fence,four strands worth of it. We also strung up Bright Christmas lights we had had on the horse paddock years ago. Surprisingly they still worked. We put those on a timer to go on at dusk. By the time we were done, the only thing missing were sentry guards at each corner of the pen. Nothing was going to get in there.

That night, as I was drifting off to sleep I heard a yelp out by the barn, and then another. And then it was quiet. I got up and walked down to the coop to see if something was in the pen or something had gotten the chickens. I looked inside the henhouse and all the chickens were perched on the long swings I had made them. Nothing had been disturbed. I guess Fort Fox was going to work, something had been shocked that night and hasn't ever returned. Or at least broken the barricade. Word is out in the fields of critters, you don’t mess with this “Old Mother’s” henhouse.

After giving a few chickens and the roosters away, we still have 10 hens that give us eggs daily. It is more eggs than we will ever use, so my Best Half takes the extras to work and sells them. And we give our neighbors down the road some every week. By selling the eggs,the chickens pay for their own feed and give me a sense of still living in the country and living on a farm. Unfortunately our rooster died a few months back, so we don’t get the early morning crows anymore.

With our plans to travel for weeks at a time, once we are both retired, I had contemplated giving away the flock and giving up having chickens. I couldn’t figure out, now that all the kids are moved out and away, how we would care for them daily when we were gone. 

We have neighbors about a half mile down the road from us that are good friends also. When we went camping for a few days, they agreed to take care of the chickens. They pretty much just had to get the eggs. I have the food and water system set up to go almost a week before needing to do anything. While we were gone, our flock got the royal treatment. Fresh garden produce was chopped up for them to peck at, and bread crumbs were scattered. Our neighbors are animal lovers more than any other people I know. The chickens were spoiled rotten by the time we got home a few days later. They would meet me at the fence and cackle and cluck waiting for their treat to be tossed over the fence. It wasn’t pretty if I didn’t have something for them.

My neighbor and I were talking after we got home and I was telling her that we probably more than likely would be relocating them to some other farm when winter is near. After explaining that it is more work in the winter hauling water because it freezes and I couldn’t find someone to do that, she begged to differ. She offered to do it over the weeks we may be gone in the winter. She told me she likes the chickens and watching them and getting the eggs. So she told me to not be too hasty about sending them down the road. So I agreed to see if it will work out for them to help out over winter.

A week or so ago, they dropped off a 50 lb bag of cracked corn for the girls in the coop. A treat for them now that the garden produce is done for the season. Every day I toss them their cracked corn and if I don’t, they make a scene, a very loud scene as a reminder that they like the neighbors way better. Basically, we have established a sort of shared joint custody of the chickens with our neighbor’s, at least for the time being. The girls give them eggs a few times a week and they get to stay here on the farm. When winter comes and we may be gone, the neighbors will come down and water the chickens and get whatever eggs they are laying in the cold and dark.

We are fortunate to have neighbors that are true friends living down the road from us. Ones that are willing to share joint custody of the girls, Minnesota style. Ones that will help you out when needed and frequently text you with a chicken joke…

 Q.Why does a chicken coop only have two doors? 

 A.  Because if it had four doors, it would be a chicken sedan!

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