I joked on Facebook recently that I know I have become a farmer because I am complaining about this wonderfully warm weather we have been having lately and saying it is too dry! Our saskatoons seem to be handling the dry weather well – in fact, if anything they seem to be blooming earlier than usual this year. Typically we would expect saskatoons to be ready for picking for the month of August. Based on how early the saskatoon trees bloomed, it appears berries should start appearing mid July to mid August this year! But when conditions are dry, the berries do not get as full and plump and the trees themselves do not grow as tall. Because we planted our 3 year Saskatoon trees 2 years ago, they are still only 5 years old. While they are producing fruit and will be ready for picking, they are not massive trees…yet!

Last year when we planted our strawberries, it was very wet. We initially planned to plant the strawberries in the back – but it was under water! So Tim and our neighbour, Bill, tilled a new piece of land in the front to use for the strawberry patch, thinking we can’t plant the strawberries under water! By the time we got the strawberry plants, the water in the back had mostly dried and we planted the extra strawberries there (the extras after we planted the entire front patch). We planted more strawberries in the front patch, which is on higher land (and thus was drier last year). Last year the front patch grew much better than the back patch. It seemed the back patch had too much moisture.

This year we are experiencing extremely dry weather. The opposite has happened. The strawberry plants in the back patch are doing so much better and blooming so much more than those in the front patch. Remember, blooms turn into fruit – so more blooms means more strawberries! Even though Tim’s degree and background is in agriculture, growing fruit is new to him. Growing plants in general is new to me! So it has been a steep learning curve for us both.

Why don’t we irrigate I asked Tim? Why don’t we just set up a sprinkler with a strong spray and let it go? We have a dugout but it is linked to the same water source as our neighbour’s home water source. If we pump water out of the dugout to irrigate the strawberries, based on how dry it has been and how much water we would need, we run the risk of running them out of water! We need to be mindful of them and be good neighbours! Our next option is to haul water in to irrigate. It will take a lot of loads of water to do that (think 2 loads of water per row based on the size of our water tank – times 30+ rows) – but if we don’t get rain soon, we may have to do just that. Farmers, including us (am I a real farmer now?!?), are at the mercy of the weather. Based on our experiences last year and this year, we are reconsidering how we will plant our next batch of strawberries next year. We are learning so much as we go!

We got a little bit of rain this past weekend but we still need much more. So for now, I am doing rain dances, washing my car and leaving my car windows open, all in hopes of rain!

Our Chickens

A couple of years ago we visited Fort Edmonton Park as a family and saw how much all of the children there, including P, loved interacting with the chickens. When we decided to plant our u-pick, we decided raising chickens is a must! Tim did a lot of research and we both fell in love with the Favorelle heritage breed of chickens. We loved their colouring and gentle disposition. My dad found an old incubator for sale and we purchased some eggs. Last year we did our first hatch with my sister and her family chickens’ eggs. We had never incubated chicken eggs before and so everything we learned was off of the internet. Our first hatch, we made some mistakes but we had some healthy chicks born! Unfortunately most of them were roosters. This year we fixed up the incubator and with our knowledge from last year did another hatch. Our Favorelle roosters bred some of my sister’s chickens so we had some mixed breed eggs. Hens need to be fed oyster shells (mixed in with grain) in order to help them to produce strong shells which aren’t too frail and breakable. This hatch was much more successful and we had 14 healthy chicks born! Right around L’s birthday – nothing says Happy Birthday like new babies! We had one Favorelle hen and we were hopeful we would get some pure bred Favorelle chicks this year – we think we got one!

We enjoyed the incubating process, as did our sons. So a month later, we did another hatch with my sister’s chickens’ eggs, a friend’s chickens’ eggs, and our own chickens’ eggs. Fertilized eggs can be stored about a week before they need to be put into the incubator. Any longer and the eggs won’t develop. So we all collected our eggs for a week in preparation of the second hatch. It takes 21 days from when the eggs are placed into the incubator to when they start to hatch. Throughout the incubating process Tim would “candle” the eggs using a flashlight – he would be looking for blood vessels and other signs of life indicating that the egg was fertilized and that a chick was developing. During the incubation period the eggs need to be kept humid and warm, turned, and then eventually put in lock down (so no outside air enters the incubator during hatching – if it does, humidity levels drop and the egg membranes can dry on the chicks as they are hatching, suffocating them). Before “lock down” we placed our baby monitor inside of the incubator so we could watch the chicks hatching. Baby chicks can survive 2 days without food and water when they are initially born. So we would wait until many eggs were hatched before quickly opening the incubator door to remove the chicks and hatched shells. Then we would mist the inside of the incubator with a spray bottle and close the door quickly to allow the remaining eggs to hatch. We removed the chicks once a day. This time we had 31 healthy chicks born!

P is often timid and fearful with animals, but by the time these latest chicks were born, he was asking to hold them. He prefers to wear his gardening gloves to do so! I think he is nervous about their toes. L loves animals and tries to climb into the cage daily. We are using a rabbit cage to keep the newborn chicks in and we’ve had to put the wire lid on top, not to keep the chicks in, but to keep L out. The chicks have an automatic waterer and start by eating a special food called “Chick Starter.” They need a heat lamp to keep them very warm. We have kept the incubator and the baby chicks in the house during the hatches this year. I must say 31 chicks poop a lot! They can be very smelly and their cage needs regular cleaning. Now that the warm summer weather is here, we can put the chicks into the barn once they get a little bit bigger. And my sister and our friend will take some of their chicks home too!

One of my sister’s chickens (“Charlotte”) who we borrowed and is staying in our barn currently also went “broody” meaning she decided to lay on and try to hatch out her own eggs. My sister has a pet pot bellied pig who likes to eat the chicken eggs so she has been kind enough to lend us Charlotte and a couple of other hens for a little while. It is hard work for a chicken to lay on and hatch their own eggs! Charlotte laid faithfully on her eggs (and any others that the other chickens laid beside her) for days on end (a month). She would only get up briefly for water and food when the other chickens went outside. She would pull out her belly feathers to pad her nest. After all of that, she had 2 healthy baby chicks born. She would not let us see the baby chicks and continued to lay on them for at least 2 days after they were born (but we knew they were there because we could hear peeping)! Finally they started to peek their heads out from under her and come out for Chick Starter and water. It will be interesting to see how those we hatched out of the incubator are the same or different than those who Charlotte hatched out. Charlotte is a very docile little grey hen so I think she will raise very sweet babies.

We have been busy working on new chicken shelters. Tim built a rooster house for in the dugout area. Our Favorelle roosters and the wild ducks are happily co-existing there! He has also built a more extravagant “Chick Inn” (play on the word “chicken” – hee hee!) which has nesting boxes and an outdoor cage area. It is built on skids so that we can move it around the yard and the chickens can feed on the grass. We save our vegetable and fruit scraps and any leftover buns and bread that don’t get eaten for the chickens. They love those scraps and leftover treats! Neither Tim nor myself had any chickens growing up or had any experience with raising and keeping them. We have become chicken people through and through and are enjoying this new adventure!