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How did we get here? Starting a Ranch when we didn't know we wanted a ranch - Crazy Chickens

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1/9/2022, By Julie Van Hise

We moved to Montana, bought a house, and then what? We got chickens...that's what.

Hi! I'm Julie Van Hise. My husband, Chris, and I are 1st generation ranchers and owners of 4 Bear Ranch - a ranch that not only provides for our family but provides for the local community as well. In 2017, we bought our home unknowing of what it would transform into in 4 short years. From mountain wilderness to mountain ranch wilderness - we have lovingly worked hard in building our dream! How did we get here? Starting a Ranch when we didn't know we wanted a ranch? Well, it is said that chickens are the gateway to ranching and farming...well, those that said it, were right...

In March of 2018, Chris, our son, and I were shopping in the local farm and ranch store...and there it was! Chick Days!!! Little baby puffs of fluff everywhere, chirping delightfully in glass tanks with wood chips and heat lamps! We all sat there looking at the baby chicks in the tanks asking ourselves, "should we buy some chicks?" Now, normal people would probably say, "No, not at this moment, we don't have a place to keep the chickens." And we did mutter those words...did it stop us? No. We left that store with 12 baby chicks! And a whole lotta supplies, like a heat lamp, wood shavings, chick raiser, chick grit, and chick electrolytes. We brought the chicks home to our mudroom and set them up in a swimming pool. Hindsight is 20/20, and I absolutely do recommend having the living quarters for the chickens prepared prior to purchasing them - as chicks grow fast and poop a lot. However, to this day, we still seem to be impulse chicken buyers, and are never quite ready for them when they arrive...such is life I suppose...

Now, I must say, we never owned chickens before. We did own 2 ducks for a bit when we were stationed in Missouri. Henry and Cricket were their names. The Easter Bunny had gotten these 2 little ducks for Braeden; they were so cute and fuzzy placed in his Easter basket outside his bedroom door. Chris and I could not wait for his reaction - which is not at all what we thought it would be! Braeden, at 7 years old, opened his bedroom door, lifted the towel off the top of the basket, took a look inside at the 2 little fuzzy ducklings happily squeaking, looked up at us and said, "What am I supposed to do with these?" While trying not to laugh hysterically, all we could get out was that they were pet ducks, you treat them like ducks! Little did we know how fast those ducklings would grow. They were good, safe and sound inside a cat kennel. That kennel was destroyed with duck poop and water so fast it was unbelievable. We upgraded to a dog kennel - that got just as nasty just as fast. Then it was time to move the ducks outside - we made a duck house out of the doghouse and a duck pool out of a rubber stock tank. Meanwhile we were constantly watching our dogs, Bella and Georgia, to make sure they didn't eat the ducks. And, also, my Italian neighbor Rosie, who really thought the ducks would be delicious roasted up next to a bed of linguini...We seriously thought we would come home one day to a nice, yet super delicious, dinner waiting for us on the doorstep...As the ducklings got older, they also got louder. We felt the ducks were too loud for our little residential neighborhood. Before anyone started to complain, we rehomed our ducks. And that concludes our first experience owning any type of flying critter. The single most important thing we learned - there is poop, lots of poop. We carried this tidbit of knowledge on to our chickens. We knew they would poop, and there would be a lot of it.

Now, there are some very fancy and spectacular chicken coops out there - prefabricated designs and ideas to make your own. But in the end - chickens poop, and they poop a lot. The chickens don't care what they live in as long as whatever they live in meets their needs and is able to be cleaned. So, we went to work building the coop out of whatever materials we had on hand. We started with the frame of a liquor cabinet from the previous homeowners, added walls, nesting boxes, and a ceiling from scrap wood, added some windows from glass shelving from that same liquor cabinet, and finished the whole thing off with pallets. All of it is held together by screws and nails we had on hand or those that were given to us by our beloved neighbor Ginny. It is definitely a custom build that has had some additions over the years - to include being painted orange! The chickens love it, it does the job, it is cleanable, it is functional, and if it falls apart one day - we aren't going to be upset because it didn't cost us a thing! Next we had to work on the exterior fencing...we HAVE to have exterior fencing - there are too many critters, other than us, that would love to eat all the birds in the coop in a heartbeat - our dogs included.

We had ideas for building the surrounding fence for predator control. We also had ideas that the project would be for sure completed in a couple of weeks. The idea for the fence and predator control was great...the building it part took for-ever! Like, long enough that we soon had teenager chickens running around the mud room! Talk about a mess! Chicken dust, food, water, and poop everywhere! However, those chickens were happy chickens keeping warm while the snow kept on falling and prolonging the perimeter fence installation. We, mostly Chris, had to dig down deep enough for to install fence posts as well as along the fence line to ensure critters couldn't dig under the fence. It is hard to dig anything when the ground is still partially frozen...Finally, the holes and trench were dug, the fence assembled and lined with wire fencing, and post supports were installed. We then painted the perimeter fence purple to add color to the back yard. And lastly, we had to come up with a plan for the roof of the fenced area. After many ideas we went with a grid of wire we strung together over the entire top of the enclosed area - a necessity for flying predator control. The grid is still holding strong to the day.

At long last we got the coop completed, and moving day came for the chickens. It was a very happy day for both them and us - we got our mudroom back! Woohoo! Though then came the task of cleaning up that mudroom - that's a whole different story...Bottom line, it was terrible to clean and took forever!

Nearly 4 years later, we still have several chickens from the 1st batch of chicks we ever purchased. Roo our very sweet Brown Leghorn Rooster, White Chicken, Miss Rosie, and Miss Wendy. The rest either became food for us (as was the case for the Rhode Island Red Roosters - they were a tad aggressive towards the other chickens and us), one succumbed to being egg bound as was the case for our Miss England, a couple flew into the dog yard and subsequently were eaten by the dogs (oops), or and a couple were taken by the hawk that actually made it into our coop a couple of times. We learned quickly that the challenge of raising chickens wasn't necessarily raising chickens themselves, but more so predator control. However, predators are just a part of nature, and we accepted the challenge of keeping our birds safe from the many predators that live in the mountains. Shortly after buying our first batch of chicks, we dove right in and purchased meat birds, ducks, turkeys and geese...and more chicks of different breeds...

It didn't take long at all - we were addicted to the birds...even though my husband has a fear of birds...that first year, we processed our first meat birds - an experience on its own, and almost got to process our first turkeys, but a mountain lion got to them first...We are happy to say, that since that mountain lion attack, we have not had another large predator related issue in the main coop since - we keep the back porch light on. However, in 2021, we built a second coop out in our orchard. We have not had good luck at all keeping the hawks out of that coop - and lost over half of our 50+ birds at the time to the hawks. We learned that bailing twine does not act as a great deterrent for the ceiling in place of single wire strands woven across, and will be reinforcing the exterior fence posts to hold the same design of wire that was installed on the original coop.

From that initial purchase of birds in 2018 until now, four years later - we still purchase our chickens from the local feed and supply store. However, we have also purchased several of our birds from Cackle Hatchery and had them sent to us via the mail! It is a crazy thought to think of chickens being delivered through the mail, but it is a thing! We highly recommend buying from Cackle Hatchery - the birds are high quality to breed standards, healthy, and happy - and they generally include a couple extra birds in the order in case there is a casualty! We personally have had amazing success with Cackles chickens, ducks, turkens and turkeys - and have not lost a single one to anything related to Cackle or the postal delivery. We do not receive any payment from Cackle Hatchery for recommending their company - we simply truly are very happy with their birds!

I would like to take a moment to make some recommendations about ordering birds through the mail. When ordering birds by mail, from any company, there are a couple things that you must do on your end to ensure a successful delivery and to minimize stress on the birds. 1st: do your research on birds. If you live in a cold location, such as Montana, you don't want to buy a bunch of birds that are not cold tolerant (at least not without knowing what you have purchased and providing additional accommodations to keep them warm). 2nd: If you live in a cold place, do not have your birds shipped in cold weather! For us in Montana, it is best to have birds shipped no earlier than May - if you do, it really is a gamble, the back of those mail trucks get cold when it is cold outside. We generally schedule for the 3rd week of May or later into the summer. 3rd: Notify your local post office about a week prior to the scheduled delivery date that a live chick/bird delivery is coming and give them a good contact number for you to pick up the package! You do not want your chicks/birds sitting at the post office waiting for pickup any longer than they need to be. 4th: Have everything set-up at home for the chicks/birds arrival. We don't do so well at this part - however, we have gotten to the point where we can get a full set-up done in 10 minutes or the minimum, ensure you have chick raiser food on hand.

Now in 2022, 4 years later, why do we continue to raise chickens? Well it's quite simple really, the eggs taste great and so does the meat - it actually tastes like chicken. No hormones, healthy, and happy chickens produce, tasty meat and eggs. It really is not comparable to mass produced, store-bought products. Ask me this question a few years ago and I would not have known there was a difference. However, being stationed in Germany, we noticed the chicken tasted better - why? The country, and Europe in general, has different food farming laws resulting in better tasting meat. We knew the meat we got in Germany tasted better but didn't realize until we came back to the States how much better, and how much we would miss it. We thought there would be no more great tasting poultry for us, until we processed our own birds...there was that delicious chicken flavor we missed so much! No seasoning needed! The chicken, duck, goose, and turkey is not dry, not greasy, just simply delicious!

Before we owned chickens, we were not much of egg eaters. Now all 4 of us love to eat our eggs - they are so good! Too many store-bought eggs can cause digestive issues for me (I have no idea why) - not our eggs though. One thing to note - chicken, duck, and goose eggs are not one and the same. Besides size, chicken being the smallest, then duck, and goose being the largest, the eggs are composed of different proteins. My husband loves chicken eggs - but after a lengthy process of elimination, we discovered he is allergic to duck eggs!!! Who knew, right??? I used duck eggs in baking - bigger yolks produced a richer and super delicious cake!! Needless to say, we do not use duck eggs any more in our own personal baking...but we do sell them, when we can find them!

In the beginning, we didn't believe our saleswoman at the farm and ranch store, whom is now our source for most things ranching, when she said raising chickens is addicting and can be a gateway to raising other farm animals...well, 4 years later here we are with a full-blown ranch. She was right. Chickens are the gateway to ranching and farming...

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