Red Bucket Farm is an urban farm on a quarter acre property in an average residential neighborhood. We are located in Wisconsin, USDA Zone 5. We focus on chickens, bees, orchard fruit, and raised garden beds for fruits and veggies. We hope to reduce our footprint on the planet by growing some of our food, reducing our use of fossil fuels, and gardening with sustainable practices. Thanks for visiting!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Too Hot for Eggs?

How long can a fresh egg sit in the nest box on a hot summer day before it is no longer fresh? Are the eggs still safe to eat after waiting in sweltering heat for several hours? These issues were significant last week, when most of the country experienced temperatures in excess of 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

While we were on vacation in the mountain west, my chicken sitting friend wasn't sure how to handle the eggs in excessively hot weather. Steve let the chickens out of the coop at 7:30am and returned around 8:30pm to lock them up. He was reluctant to keep the eggs that had been in the henhouse all day in the heat.

We did a bit of internet research and learned that all is well. When a hen lays an egg, it exits her body at 105 degrees. The Food and Drug Administration allows 36 hours for the eggs to be gathered and refrigerated at 40 degrees. Once an egg is refrigerated, it should stay there until used.

If you are reluctant about using an egg, crack it into a bowl and inspect it. The yolk should stand up tall and yellow, and there should be no odor. A small speck of blood is normal, but any more than a speck might be cause for concern. I have used all the eggs from the heat wave without incident.

Of course, the hens are affected by the heat, too. My three laying hens are hardy winter girls, and they laid an average of 18-19 eggs per week during the late winter and early spring. The heat of the summer is causing some stress, but they're still producing 15 eggs per week in spite of the weather.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, consumers have little idea of the origin of commercially produced eggs at the grocery store. I'll take my homegrown eggs any day, even if they've been in the coop for the few hours.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tomato Early Blight

Last summer, I lost all eight of my Roma tomato plants to early blight. Around mid-summer, the plants wilted dramatically. It was a common problem in our area, and a friend told me that early blight was best solved by destroying the plants before it spread to any others. I removed all the Roma tomato plants; only two cherry tomato plants survived.
I thought that blight was spread through the soil, so when I planted this year's tomato plants, they went into a brand new raised bed with new soil. But there are no gardening guarantees, and a few weeks ago I noticed that a few of my Amish Paste tomato plants were drooping. In the photo above, you'll see that the plants on the right are healthy, but a few of the middle plants are rather weak looking. By the way, the cherry tomatoes appear unaffected, although it may be coincidence.

I did a little internet research, later corroborated at my local garden center, which recommended the use of copper fungicide for early blight. This fungicide is not harmful to my bees or chickens, so I mixed some in my pump sprayer and applied one dose before vacation. Eric applied a second dose while I was gone, and yesterday I gave them a third dose.
This is certainly not a miracle cure, but the plants have not died nor has the blight spread to other nearby plants. Tomatoes continue to grow and ripen on the affected vines. It doesn't look great, but it's not disaster either.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Vacation

It's nearly impossible for an urban farmer to find time to leave the farm for summer vacation. Early summer is busy with planting, while late summer is harvest time. We planned our family's summer vacation months ago. The timing of it was more dependent on work and school schedules rather than farm work. In spite of everything, we were determined to spend a few days at Rocky Mountain National Park.

In the week before our departure, I could hardly keep up with farm work and still prepare for vacation. The Japanese beetles hatched and began munching happily on my fruit trees, grapes and raspberries (organic treatment: neem oil). My tomato plants suddenly showed signs of early blight, which quickly ruined my entire crop last year (organic treatment: copper fungicide). Cabbage worms were working on my Brussels sprouts, and my pepper plants were still struggling with whiteflies. The bees were threatening to swarm again and needed some management. The local garden center was having its frequent customer sale, so I planted three new current bushes. On top of everything, the weather forecast predicted the worst heat wave in years. How could I possibly leave Red Bucket Farm at this time?

Only with the help of some very good people. Steve came to the farm twice a day and fussed over my chickens as if they were his own. I think he might be as crazy as I am. Eric and Casey watered my gardens so faithfully that we have small mushrooms growing in the beds instead of wilting plants. Eric even gave my tomatoes another fungicide treatment. Dawn filled in all the gaps, checking on the chickens in the heat of the day and watering anything that looked dry. I came home to find my farm thriving quite nicely. In spite of what you hear on the news, there are still good people in the world and I'm blessed to have them for my friends and neighbors. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Irregular Eggshells

Hyacinth the Easter Egger has been laying eggs with unusual shells. On Saturday her egg was entirely without a shell. Often the egg's rubbery membrane will hold together the yolk and white, but on Saturday the whole mess was broken and sloppy. On Sunday, Hyacinth's green eggshell was unusually bumpy which you can see in the photo above.

We think that the irregularities in shell quality are due to a change in diet. When we incorporated the pullets with the hens a week ago, we needed to provide chick food rather than layer rations. Layer rations are too high in calcium for the non-laying pullets; the extra calcium could damage their kidneys. So all the girls are getting chick food, and we're providing additional calcium for the hens with oyster shell in a small dish. Perhaps it took Hyacinth an extra day or two to discover the calcium supplement, which probably accounts for the irregular shells. Today her egg was normal again. Rosie and Wisteria have been unaffected.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Gooseberry Sawfly

This morning I removed all three of my gooseberry bushes. The poor things were barely larger than when we planted them two years ago. In spite of the raised beds and organic fertilizer, these bushes (or sticks, really) were simply not making it.

The problem is tiny in size, but massive in scope: the gooseberry sawfly. The larvae of sawfly are tiny green caterpillars, less than an inch long. Their color blends perfectly with the leaves, making it nearly impossible to see them. But in the space of 24 hours, these little buggers can strip the bush clean of its foliage. Then the larvae drop to the soil to spin cocoons and pupate. The life cycle happens two or three times per summer. Just as the bush begins to recover, the attack happens all over again.

Sawflies are primarily specific to gooseberries, so removing the plants and the first few inches of soil should alleviate the problem. There is a chance that some sawflies will also defoliate currant bushes, and this was a significant concern for us at Red Bucket Farm.

I've been spraying the bushes diligently with soapy water, unwilling to take more drastic chemical measures on food crops. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that this will adequately control the problem. We decided to eliminate the gooseberry bushes to save the currants.

Now we have three small raised beds waiting for their next job. We may plant leafy greens for the remainder of this season. Long term, we're thinking of more disease resistant fruit bushes such as goumi, sea berry, honeyberries or nero aronia. Meanwhile, we hope our five currant bushes stay healthy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rosie's Day Off

Rosie did not lay an egg today. She's taking a well-deserved day off. Rosie's last vacation day was February 1, a full five months ago. Since she began laying eggs (on Sept 22, 2010) she's given us 280 eggs and taken seven days vacation. That's one hard working chicken. By comparison, Hyacinth has produced 171 eggs, and Wisteria a mere 140 eggs. All three hens were hatched the same day in May 2010.

There are good reasons for Rosie to take a day off this week. First, she's molting, which takes a lot of energy. Her chest is bare right down to chicken skin and she looks a little unsightly. (The photo above is from a few months ago.) Second, the weather has been hot with very high humidity. Have you ever seen a chicken pant? Finally, she has to tolerate the pullets and teach them the ways of the flock.

Today was pleasant and Rosie seemed relaxed. The chicks are understanding their place in the flock. And tomorrow morning around 6am, Rosie will give me another large brown egg. Thanks, Rosie!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Integrating Two Flocks

If you've been following the news at Red Bucket Farm, you know that we have three established hens, pictured above. These three girls have been on the farm since May 2010 when they arrived as day-old chicks. Now they produce 18 eggs per week. The big girls live in the coop out back.

In late March we added six new chicks to the farm. The baby chicks lived in a brooder box inside the home office from late March until mid-May, when the weather warmed enough that we moved the brooder box to the garage. At that time we also divided the chicken yard with wire fence. During the daytime, all the girls have been in the chicken yard on opposite sides of the fence. In this way, they could get to know each other without endangering the little ones.

Every evening for the last six weeks, we've been schlepping the little chickens from the yard to the garage, where we knew they would be safe from predators. It was too early to lock them into the coop with the big girls, and too dangerous for them to remain outside in their day shelter which is not secure. Every morning we take them back down to the chicken yard. At first, I would scoop them all up and carry them in the large red bucket. As they grew, I would take two or three of them at a time in the bucket. Lately, we've been carrying each bird individually down to the yard in the morning, and back up the hill each evening.
This weekend we decided that the babies were too big for their brooder box at night, so we built a temporary structure in the garage, seen above. This has been a real three ring circus. The girls love this new routine. They perch on the edge of the plastic chicken netting, and the weight of the bird creates an odd hammock. No, this was not our intention. We built a wooden perch, but they don't like it. They perfer to balance on the netting, or on the bicycle cargo rack, or on the edge of a garbage can. We transfer them to the garage just before dusk and we can hear them squawking and partying in the garage for 30-45 minutes until it finally gets dark. At about 11pm, we tiptoe in there and gently lift them back into the pen. Why? I don't know.

We hope that tonight is their first night in the chicken coop with the big girls. Stay tuned for this riveting drama.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chicken Curly Toe

This is Squill. She's a Speckled Sussex, a very ancient breed from Britain. Squill was hatched March 28 and is one of six pullets (teenagers) in our flock. Look very closely at the photo and notice that Squill's outside toes are curled outward rather than facing forward. She has a disability known as curly toe.

Curly toe can be caused by dietary deficiency or it may be genetic. In some birds it can be so extreme as to cause a serious disability leading to a limited lifespan. Or it may be simply a minor nuisance. So far, Squill doesn't seem to be limited by her curly toes.

Yesterday we realized that it would be a good idea to trim Squill's nail on the curly toes, just like you would trim the dewclaws on a dog to prevent the claws from growing into the flesh. One of my trusted teen helpers has years of experience trimming animal toenails, from dogs and cats to rats and guinea pigs. In fact, it's impressive to watch her wrestle a pet and pin it between her legs, quickly trim its nails and release before trauma sets in. We've never had a problem. Until yesterday.

Squill's trimmed toenail not only bled, but squirted all over like a geyser. Just as we were frantically consulting our chicken reference books, our neighbor passed by with her dogs and knew just what to do. The neighbor loaned us a small jar of styptic powder which quickly stopped the bleeding. Squill was back to normal in a matter of seconds, although it took the humans a little longer to recover.

So that's it. If you ever trim animal nails, have a small jar of styptic powder in your cabinet. We bought one of our own today and returned the original to the neighbor. It cost only a few dollars, but it is quite valuable when you need it.