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Little Farm in the Henhouse

A True-Life Tale of Hen-Keeping Homestead-Style

 

Hello, and welcome to Little Farm in the Henhouse, Book 4 of the Little Farm series. It’s good to have you here—now we can dish about chickens! 

As a former city girl—and a total germaphobe cupcake gardener—I moved out to the Cascade Mountains’ Foothills to start a little homestead with my husband John. What little I knew about farm animals was what I’d read in books. 

Still, since we were big on self-reliance, deciding to bring chickens to our place seemed like a no-brainer. Yet caring for the three flocks of laying hens we’ve had over the years has been an absolute eye-opener. 

With everything John and I learned, it seemed only right to share those lessons—to help other folks raising a small backyard flock. Although people who simply like chickens might enjoy these stories too!

Yet in the spirit of full disclosure… I wrote about our first flock of hens in Little Farm Homegrown, Book 2 of my Little Farm in the Foothills series. Although I’ve adapted the material for this book, if you’ve read “Homegrown,” Part I of “Henhouse” might seem familiar to you. And you may be wondering, why revisit our experiences with our first set of chickens? 

 

Well, that’s easy to answer. I discovered that each of our flocks—and each individual chicken—has presented different challenges. And teachable moments too. That being the case, I felt strongly that all our chicken experiences belong together.

 

So instead of picking up where I left off in Little Farm Homegrown, with our second flock of pullets, I’ve included all our stories and lessons—and a few new things—about life with our first hens Dottie, Chloe and Marilyn and the others.

This way, you’ll be part of our journey with every one of our girls in one fell swoop… All the struggles and sorrows—yes, there were many—and the joys. 

Despite those sorrows, I hope you’ll keep reading. Whether you’re new to my Little Farm memoirs or my novels, or have already dipped into some of my books, I’m very grateful you’ve taken a chance with this one.

If you’d like to share your own chicken-keeping wisdom, gardening experiences, or to simply say hi, an easy way is to visit my Little Farm Writer newsletter, www.susancolleenbrowne.substack.com. I would absolutely love to hear from you.

 

Warm regards and happy hen-keeping!

Susan

Introducing the Little Farm Hens

Just when you think you know about caring for chickens…

Picture a wooded acreage in a misty valley, surrounded by dark green forested foothills. This woodland property, clearcut twenty or so years ago, is now a riot of alder, maple and evergreens, from saplings to thirty-foot high trees. 

Littered with old logging slash and dotted with stumps, the landscape is thickly carpeted with sword fern and Oregon grape. In the summer, tall bracken fern and thimbleberry, and sprawling, thorn-covered blackberry canes makes most of the ten acres nearly impassable. 

At least for humans—unless they’ve come prepared, swathed in thorn-resistant gear and armed with a hatchet, a saw, and a hefty machete! 

This woodland acreage, like the surrounding forests, is also teeming with wildlife. You’ll find songbirds, deer and rabbits like in any suburban yard. But you’ll often see grouse, bald eagles, and red-tailed hawks. And once in a while, bobcats and coyotes, bears and cougars.

In the middle of this ten-acre woodland, up on a ridge, is the little homestead my husband and I call Berryridge Farm. In a fenced clearing, you’ll find a modest-sized dark-red rambler and not-quite-matching brick-red, steel-sided shop. Nestled around and between the buildings is my pride and joy: our veggie beds, berry patches, and orchard spaces. 

And beyond the garden and orchards, past a cluster of woodsheds, you’ll find our chicken compound: a hand-built coop, a caged chicken run, and a roomy fenced yard full of grasses and leafy weeds.   

 

One sunny September afternoon, John and I arrived home in our old Ranger, with five Buff Orpington pullets secured in two boxes. After all the misfortunes with our previous chickens, we were thrilled to have a new set of “girls.” 

Over the years, our hen-keeping had been a learn-as-you-go kind of experience: caring for our first flock had involved a sharp learning curve, and our second set of hens had been even steeper. But with our five young Buffies, a breed known for their gentle natures, John and I were sure the third time was the charm—that we finally knew what we were doing. 

 

Clambering out of the pickup, I couldn’t help feeling pleased we had such a nice little home for them. For sure, our coop was nothing fancy—not like the super-cute designer ones you see in magazines, with ingenious little flourishes, entryways and nest boxes. 

Although John and I had made a number of improvements to the coop and chicken compound, like an outdoor roost, and a wee, slanted roof over the feeder to keep the girls dry as they ate, our hen digs were simple and utilitarian, like the rest of our place. 

That afternoon, John and I gingerly pulled the two boxes out of the truck bed and ferried them into the chicken pen. Indignant thumps and fussing came from the boxes. As we released the five girls, I braced myself for a full-on freakout, like our other hens had done in their new place. 

But these chickens didn’t seem terribly disturbed, despite the unfamiliar surroundings. As soon as they were on solid ground again, after a bit of hesitation, they started pecking the nearest weeds tentatively, then with a little more gusto. I’d heard Buff Orpingtons were mellower than other chickens, and now, I felt the adaptability of these girls was a good omen!

John and I exchanged grins, then watched the hens, with high hopes they would enjoy their new home. Our new chicken quintet would have larger ranging area than they’d had at our neighbors’, who had raised them. And instead of the plain bedding they had before, these hens could scratch in plenty of dirt, greens and other weeds. 

 

Time flew by as we hung out with our girls, and before we knew it, the sun was sinking into the sky. John said, “Well, it’s getting late… How about I get dinner started.” 

“Sounds good,” I said. As he strolled back to the house, whistling his usual tune, Beethoven’s Hallelujah Chorus, I gently herded the birds into their caged area so they could get in a last-minute feed and slurp of water. “Goodnight, girls,” I said softly, and closed the door. 

With the pen secure, the hens could mosey into their coop for the night whenever they liked.

 

* * *

Knowing our new girls would be safe, and almost ready to turn in, I quickly tackled the day’s postponed garden chores. As usual, I stayed busy until it was too dark to work. Preparing to head into the house, on an impulse, I checked on the hens. 

They weren’t in the coop! 

Panicked, I looked around. Where on earth—

All five were huddled up on the small, slanted roof over the feeder…and not quite asleep, because they kept sliding down!

“Oh, you silly girls!” I said fondly. Almost weak with relief, I knew it was me who was silly. I’d assumed the new kids would find their way into the coop…because, well, instinct. Or because the ramp and hen door were pretty much like their previous home. 

But clearly, the girls hadn’t known there was a coop to sleep in, because I hadn’t shown it to them. 

Our previous chickens taught me that laying hens like to be up high.  Of course they do: they’re birds! For example, if you have a roost with two or three levels—like we do—your girls will choose the highest. 

At this moment, our new Buffies’ adventure up on this three-foot square made perfect sense—when they were ready to go to sleep, they had simply headed for the highest spot they could find. 

 

But of course they couldn’t stay there all night. 

 

I opened the coop “people” door, and gently grasped the nearest hen, and removed her from the little roof. One-by-one, I bought them into the coop, and placed each chicken the on the platform beneath their roost. The rest was up to them. 

 

The girls took their time. But eventually figuring out there was indeed a proper roost to sleep on, each hen in turn flapped her wings a bit, jumped up, and clambered onto the roost. I waited for them to stop flapping and fussing, then ruefully secured the pen. Three flocks in, and we were still learning. 

* * *

Years ago, when John and I took the giant step forward in “homesteadiness,” acquiring what would be our first flock of hens, I wasn’t prepared. As I scrambled around a ramshackle little homestead one sunny summer day, to help corral the six hens we’d just purchased, one salient fact slowly dawned on me: chickens were a lot of work. 

 

Yet caring for hens, I discovered a new side of myself. It wasn’t just city girl me getting a crash-course in chicken-keeping. As the weeks and months unfolded, I took pleasure in caring for them. And I felt new tenderness for the birds that we soon called our “girls.” 

 

Later, I realized something else: that if I’d known how ignorant I was about chickens—and wildlife too—I would never have taken the leap! 

Despite all my experiences, though, this book isn’t an instructional manual—I won’t pretend to be an expert with laying hens. Still, I figure I’ve gained enough know-how that’s worth sharing, whether you already have hens, or are thinking of getting a flock. 

 

My own biggest discovery was that you never really stop learning new ways to tend and understand your chickens!

 

In any event, it’s my hope that the practical tips and best practices I’ve picked up along the way will enrich your current or future flock—and help make your birds healthy and happy. 

But there’s something else I want to tell you…

Hen-lovers know that chickens will steal your heart. But too often, as John and I discovered, chickens will break it too. Nature can be cruel, especially when it comes to small-ish, defenseless birds. 

 

So a little word of warning: this book isn’t all sweetness and light. In fact, some of the passages may be hard to read. 

 

Yet when it comes to keeping hens, we’ve found it echoes life generally: Sometimes you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

Now, onward for the tale of the Little Farm hens! 

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