Sunday, July 27, 2014

How To Raise Chickens WITHOUT Buying Feed, and Get Excellent Compost and Eggs Too

Now that I am back home in the country and and have begun rebuilding my flock, I am dedicated to using permaculture and sustainability concepts more than ever.
Someone cut this tall corner of poke and brambles out before, and left their slingblade.

My husband and I have been pulling a five acre pasture and woods farm out of a jungle of bittersweet and even less lovely weeds, like greenbriar and poke as big as my arm, and the time it's taken has given us a chance to think like homesteaders about our plans.

The entire ground of new-cleared land (we mostly used machete) looks just awful.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture's core concepts are: (from Wikipedia
  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence.
  • Return of surplus: Reinvesting surpluses back into the system to provide for the first two ethics. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness.
It's the third concept that got me thinking.  I create kitchen waste (food, tea bags, coffee grounds, etc.) which I have always fed to my birds, seeing it as a supplementary nutrition source.  But I noted that IF one chooses to feed scraps to birds, one can't compost them, so one had to choose one way to use the resource (waste) over another.  Over time, I began to wonder whether it was a false assumption on my part--if indeed, one couldn't combine chickens into composting, and actaully have a synergistic effect, creating more energy which could be added to my entire "system" on the homestead.  

I think of it like solar energy--get the panels and plug them up right, and suddenly, you are an energy PRODUCER, selling wattage back to the grid!  If you combine things correctly, you can get the same effect with chickens, saving money instead of making it.  Which is basically the same thing in my world. As a matter of fact, I prefer saving money to making it because when I make money I usually have to leave the house.  Saving money lets me do that less often, staying close to the people (and projects!) that I love.

Because I'd rather stand around and watch my chickens work, than work.
Here's how it works.  Start with your regular compost pile.  Does it have a fence or pallet structure around it?  Excellent--you want it to be contained somehow.  You can learn elsewhere about the right ratios of "green" and "brown", but suffice to say if you put in all your yard clippings/waste, dead leaves, coffee grounds, and food scraps (minus meat or citrus, if you want to be careful), and have a pile of hay to add to the top of the pile every time you pour in new scraps, it'll be pretty great.

Big hit.
 Now comes the fun part.  Start letting your chickens into this area.  Every day if you want!  Compost of the sort we have described usually contains the normal things chickens would get from your fresh kitchen scraps, with an added protein bonus of bugs, worms, and other insects that are attracted to the compost and laying their eggs, etc. into it.  Sound gross?  Well, get over it.  In this method you simply put into one spot the perfect environment to support your chicken's natural nutritional needs.

Starting the compost with greenery we removed from run area.

Got more than a few birds in your flock? Get creative.  Buy several small buckets with lids and ask your neighbors for THEIR food scraps--maybe you can work out a scraps-for-eggs trade arrangement! Got a friend working at the local cafe or coffee bar?  Those scraps are good too! Got a fruit tree that drops windfall fruit you don't or won't use?  Lots of larvae get laid in those fruits.  Why not add to the compost pile?

Here's what I'm doing.  I have 21 birds and another 24 in the incubator.  I figure when it all shakes out I'll have 25-30 total, in three pens. That's a lot of birds and a lot of feed to buy.  And I can't afford organic bird feed.  I hate feeding my flock GMO corn-based feed and that's what non-organic is. I'd prefer to know (and be able to sell) my eggs as natural, whole-foods based, non-GMO.  

The resources in my system include a large old barn with a ton of old hay and manure.  It also includes all the stuff (green weeds and plants) we are whacking out of our property to make room for us.  And finally we found a semi-enclosed pallet structure under all those weeds in one corner of the property--right where I had thought about putting the first chicken coop.

Pallet structure appeared as we cut back the chicken run area...
We sited the coop there and included the pallet structure inside the run.  We began dumping scraps + hay + manure + yard clippings right in there, and lo and behold the birds LOVED IT.  I could see they were eating a lot of food from the scraps, but I also saw they were eating tons of creepy crawlies from the old manure/hay combo.  And as I watched, I saw them taking out the FLIES that were coming over to investigate the scraps.  In all, I saw them consuming a lot of protein.  Combine this with their normal free ranging time each day and I began to think they might not need any more processed feed from the sack.

I decided to do a little research.  Not only has it been done successfully (and with lots of bells and whistles I hadn't considered) BUT ALSO measured....and found to maintain or increase the numbers of eggs birds lay (which is a primary indicator of their nutritional health).

Back to the compost.  I read that the compost they produce from this kind of setup can be of a very high quality.  One compost producer uses this method, in fact, to create the compost he sells--in LARGE quantities. THIS GUY.  I even saw a video that uses a tractor approach with compost that ends with the birds having left a nice long row of high quality (humus) compost right along the ends of your planned garden rows. WOW,  In this scenario, you "employ" chickens to create compost (AND EGGS) for you and "pay them" by letting them eat what they find while doing so.  Then at the end of this transaction you have excellent compost you can put back into your food production sites, again and again.

Elegant, isn't it? 

I've been observing my birds and noting health vigor (and grossly enough, but understandably: how much they poop) and reducing their feed accordingly.  I think the best approach is to feed only supplementary basis at night which encourages them to get out and hustle through the day.  I'll give an update as we go along and note any changes I've needed to make in order to maintain optimal health and all the systems working together.

Have you tried this?  Are you considering it now?  If you watch the videos let me know what you think about what some of these permaculture heroes are doing with this approach.

Friday, May 16, 2014

And For My Next Trick...Cream Legbars, Black Javas, and Black Copper Marans

It's pretty exciting to plan my return to the chicken charming scene.  I'm finally at the stage where I know exactly where we are going to be living (rural, mountains, 5 acre farm west of Asheville) and that birds are in my near future.

I know my first priority remains with the critically endangered Black Java.  If you've seen my other posts here, you know how special these birds are to me.  I've written here about my own experiences with BJs as inimitable broodies and mothers and the best roosters I've ever known.

Malcolm, best rooster in the world.  Seriously.
Minerva, the broody.  After she had sat for several days I put
day-old foster chicks under her, and she accepted them gracefully.
I've arranged to get BJ chicks from the birds I raised and bred back in Arkansas.  Best of all, Malcolm the super roo-gentleman is still fertile.  That means I'll have his excellent genetics in play, as father to my new flock. I'll travel to Arkansas and pick up a dozen or so, then hightail it back to NC.  I'll raise them up over the Fall and they should start laying in late Winter.  Javas are known for their perfect fit with urban and rural homesteads--excellent foragers, with calm, slightly aloof personalities, they are able to consume less feed and get more of their sustenance on their own, if allowed to free range; yet they also bear confinement well. Because they go broody and are pros at raising their own (or other less broody hens') babies, you can easily maintain a backyard flock without running back to the feed store each Spring.  They are a true dual-purpose bird, laying lots of eggs yet big enough to be worth your time and energy to butcher for meat. Attitude is perhaps the most important trait to consider in a rooster for a family with children, and I've not yet heard of a BJ roo who is mean. Read all about them here. If you are looking for Black Java fertile hatching eggs in the Spring of 2015, let me know!  I may also have some chicks for locals, but I don't ship live birds, ever.

Next up is another favorite of mine--Black Copper Marans. This charming video shows Gypsy, another excellent broody and mother, and Jules, my BCM roo way back when, parenting their chicks.  Boy, is allowing a mama to just raise babies easier than doing it heat lamp, rubbermaid container, poop to deal with, or incessant peeping at night!

BCMs lay a wonderfully dark egg, usually qute large, past the pullet stage.  I adore the speckles some of them have.  BCMs play a major role in getting Olive Eggers--and the darker and more speckled-y the better, for my tastes.

Black Copper Marans go broody often and make wonderful mothers.

Males and females are large, and dress out nicely. Jules, my roo here, was a gentle giant and almost seemed to enjoy being picked up.  I really miss him! Read more about Marans here.

While I'm excited about getting Black Javas and Black Copper Marans again, I'm even more enthusiastic about the new breed I'll be adding to my flock-- Cream Legbars. This is a rare breed developed by none other than the Punnett himself, from Leghorns, Barred Rocks, and Auracanas.  A blue-egg layer! This bird has the wonderful quality of autosexing--so you can tell from BIRTH whether a chick is a male or female. Autosexing, unlike sexlinked traits, is carried on in CLs through the generations as long as you are pure (not cross) breeding the birds (CLxCL). Read more about them here.  The CL will be crossed with BCMs to get my new line of Olive Eggers. I hate to use pics from other people's flocks so I'll instead include here an old SOP (Standard of Perfection) drawing.  More pics to come, once I have my own breeding flock!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Homecoming--Back to My Charmed Life

I can't tell you how much I've missed my charmed life back home in Arkansas, raising chickens.  We moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia in July of 2012, and it's taken me two years to find my way partly home again.  This July, we'll be relocating to the mountains of Western North Carolina, near Asheville.  We are moving to a little farmhouse on five acres, and I'm itching to restart my breeding program for Olive Eggers and especially for Black Javas.  Look for more info soon!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Peeping and Pipping and Zipping and Hatching, Oh My!

Day 21 started at 7 pm last night, and our first chick emerged before midnight.  At this point, at 9 am on day 21, we have two healthy chicks, one zipping, and multiple pips.  Here is the little beauty that emerged.

First one out

This video shows the last couple minutes of zipping.

While I wait, I take careful notes and get the ID legbands ready.

This video shows the baby bird emerging from the egg.

I'll be updating this page with more info, pics, and videos, as we go along.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Getting Ready for the Big Hatch!

Big news, worth crowing about. What do you get when one sweet-hearted, valiant rooster and several hard-working hens love each other very much?
Jules the FBCM and Blue, a blue egg layer

Juliet the FBCM
Bijou, a blue-egg layer
Juniper the FBCM
Besides, I mean, a lovely backyard flock who get along and watch out for each other and provide more entertainment than television, and give you breakfast every morning?

You get lovely hatching eggs, and if you do your homework and get them under a broody hen or a good incubator within about seven days, you chicks! 

This is the story of our first hatch of 2012.  Today we have a...pip. 

Pull up a chair in a well-lit spot; you'll be waiting a while!

Not as exciting as a chick, I'm afraid.  But still, every chick starts as a pip and a peep inside the shell.  
Which is all I can see and hear, right now!
Bijou's egg from Day 19 looks like our first lucky hatchee.

Join us in our next post...I'll be keeping a journal of a day in the life of a backyard chicken keeper, on one of the most exciting days of the year--hatch day!  As we approach the beginning of day 21 (starts about 7 pm tonight), I will expect to see a bunch of baby chicks pipping, zipping, and hatching.  I'll share pics of the process, along with my normal chicken tending chores and delights. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Hatching Won't Wait a Minute Longer, Or, The Peepers Made Me Do It

Really, need I say more?  If you had collected these beauties in the last four days, and the sun was shining, and you heard the peepers last night in the marshy fields, wouldn't YOU be hard pressed not to pull out the incubator?
Row 1+: Ameracauna X FCBM (OE F1s). Row 2: Olive Eggers (F2). Row 3/4: Black Javas. Row 4: FCBMs.
Pull it out I did, because there is no hatch like the first hatch of Spring.  I took the incubator top apart (ok, Latt helped) and cleaned it lovingly of all the detritus and fuzz that six hatches last year left behind.  I got the top of the viewing area as clear as plastic gets, because 90% of the fun is in being able to REALLY see all the action.  I found the hydrometer and the thermometer, I calibrated the former and tested the latter, and I set about setting eggs.

Veteran hatchers, especially those familiar with the economical wonder that is the Brinsea Eco 20, may notice that I have managed to get 25, not 24 eggs into the bator.  This is the kind of gleeful success that only people crazy enough to get delight from the fact that they have just found a way to make sure they have another creature to keep alive, in hopes that it is a hen, experience.  Still.  Woot! 25, baby!  With the success rate of this awesome incubator I wouldn't be a bit surprise if every one hatched.  (Ignore the slight worried look--the kind that people have when fighting demonic possession, but only half-heartedly--that just ran across my face).

People who keep chickens are an odd bunch.  Not as preternaturally strange as those who keep goats, mind you, but if you live with chickens, you change.  You become the sort of person who really wants to home get by dusk and not linger over a second cup of coffee in the morning.  You can't help it.  You start to think about things like the amount of sunlight your place is getting, and the price of sunflower seeds, and you find yourself standing at the counter of your local feed store saying things like "Hmm.  16% the best you got?  What do you have in game bird feed--unmedicated, I mean."

You find that ordinary things that make people happy, like hearing peepers on a mid-February night, make you think of baby chicks.  And the sight of a humble little hen sitting so plainly and so wholeheartedly on her nest, with sun streaming into the coop, makes you think of all the cathedrals ever built to memorialize humans' own desire to capture a bit of creation and beauty.

You may find yourself saying to your husband, "I bet we can move the coops to the new house.  We'll be able to save on cat carriers that way!  The chickens can just ride in the coops.  See how much sense it makes?  Surely you and six friends can load them on a trailer.  Can we borrow a trailer?  And a truck with a hitch? It's only 110 degrees."

You find that you begin to moralize and have a deep sense of judgment and even hatred for parts of the animal kingdom previously seen as "cute" or "cool", like raccoons, which I now very seriously consider the Reavers of the small-farm universe.  (For those who have not seen the series Firefly, which introduced me to this scariest of villains: picture a rabid, radioactively-insane species whose entire reason for being is to claw and maul its way into your spaceship--or chicken coop, whatever--and cause as much sadistc mayhem as possible, including decapitation and entrail eating, seemingly for fun.)

In short, if you start keeping chickens, and you do so for any length of time, and don't shake yourself out of it, you will find yourself an anachronism, talking about tending animals in a way that has all but disappeared in modern America, feeling a deep sense of engagement with the natural world, and the homey sense of self sufficiency and cosmic subversion that only filling one's tank with gas and paying with a wad of thirty-six ones, your egg money from the month, will give you. You'll find yourself wondering if Wendell Berry is too old to run for president.

So yeah.  I have 20 more days to ruminate on the simple, rustic, Americana-esque beauty of hatching birds and keeping chickens, which is pleasant philosophical work I neglect in the Fall moult and the dearth of eggs it brings, and during the Winter of short days and weatherizing coops and more work than really can be done between the time you get home and the birds needing to be put up.  The culmination of this incubation period will be three days of obsessing and watching and little sleep, and worrying about the little ones who have trouble getting themselves into this world, and the magic climax of seeing them emerge, one by one, wet and wobbly.

Then I'll have about three days of thinking about how cute baby chicks are, and three weeks of plotting to get them the hell out of my house, and five more weeks worrying about the dog or cat getting them in the garage brooder, and four months of worrying about hawks.  Then a lifetime of worrying about Reavers getting them.

And in the meantime, I'll hatch a bunch more chicks, sell a bunch more birds, and find myself talking to elderly men and women about things that never got mentioned in classes like Women's Studies or Liberation Theology or Social Movements, but, I think, are making me a better person, and a little more substantial and poetic, to boot.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gearing Up for Spring Hatches: Breeding Pens

If you have only one rooster, you don't need to prepare at all for hatching--just collect the eggs from hens you wish to use as breed stock over no more than about seven days, keep them (ideally) at temps between 45 and 75 degrees, fill your incubator or put under your broody, and let the magic happen over the next 19-21 days.  Or, if you have more than one roo but don't care about who is who's baby daddy, again, just gather and hatch.  Ahh, for the good old days when it was that easy!

If you have multiple roos of mixed breeds, and wish to keep bloodlines pure, it's a little more difficult.  Ok, a lot.  I love my entire flock (currently: three roos and fifteen hens) being able to forage and learn to live peacefully during the Fall and Winter, after breeding season is done.  But come an itch to hatch, I have to be sure to separate them into breeding groups.  Because chickens can, as you may have heard, FLY, (as well as climb fences at times!) it isn't as easy as two pens.

 To be really sure, I have planned out a breeding pen, within, the regular pen, with netting over top.  This allows me to keep three groups separate--the Black Javas, to the left, in their own pen; a breeding group (A) in the pink area and coop, with barriers to prevent them going into the part of the coop where group B sleeps and lays eggs, and from the outer pen where group B will forage and run around (when not free ranging on our property).  The breeding pen gives the French Coppered Black Marans roo, Jules, and his FCBM hens, Ameracauna hens, and Olive Egger hens enough room to peck and scratch, but I wouldn't feel comfortable keeping them in an enclosure that small forever (though people do!)  Covered by deer mesh netting, I'll know the hens aren't flying out to get mated by the other roos, and that other roos aren't flying in to mate with them.

The coop below used to just consist of an A-frame.  Wehn we got/hatched more birds, we added on the high rise coop on the left.  Now we turn this coop back into two coops each Spring in Summer, by stapling in chicken wire to separate the two living quarters.  This lets us accomodate sequestered breeding groups, broody mamas on eggs, and a nursery area for chicks or chicks with mamas.

This shows the breeding coop's bird door.  We will cut the fence at the corner of the pen shown here, and re-attach via clips (dog leash snap-clip style, most likely) to fencing at the t-psot.  That will give us a cheap and easy "gate" so we can get in the pen in case of emergency, and allow us to open and close the door easily.  By the way I HIGHLY recommend this type of hinged door that opens UP.  Stays out of the rain if your roof overhangs a little, and keeps shavings/poo from getting in the hinge area (problem I have with another long door on this coop, on the opposite side--see below). 

This shows the left side of the breeding coop, and the boundaries of the breeding pen (t-posts).  Note the area under the "high rise"--provides some protection from rain.  Chickens generally don't mind rain unless it is really storming, but they don't go into their coops to get out of it.  They do sometimes stay in their coops for major SNOW conditions, but not rain.  They prefer to hang out under an overhang of some sort during storms. This overhang also allows me to keep their food dry.  I will likely lean tin or somesuch against the coop, in that area. to provide a windbreak and a little more dry room for them to gather.

This shows the egg door for my breeding group (on end of a-frame). You can see the handles from when we built this to be a mobile coop, and the area beneath the a-frame. that is fenced in for shelter.   The high rise, to the right of the egg door, is the secondary addition, and expanded our original coop's capacity from about 5 birds to about 15.  The egg door is important.  I plan for it to be *outside* the confines of the breeding pen, which will but up against the long handle on the right, leaving the egg door accessible.  That way I can quickly gather eggs without taking much of a chance on letting sequestered birds out.  The long door open to the left shows the coop space for Group B, which is made up of a Roo and hens I'll be sequestering for the next hatch (soon after Group A's sequestration is ended.  I want chicks to be no more than 21 days or so apart, as you can combine birds that are no more than three weeks different in age, even without a mother hen, once the youngest group is about 6-8 weeks old.)

This just shows the netting we will use to cover the breeding pen.  It is extremely cheap, at about $14 for 7'x100' at Lowe's.  It is flimsy, but it doesn't take much to keep a bird from flying out of a pen.  We may put up two layers if it seems too flimsy.

The pen should be finished tomorrow, and I put the barrier in the coop and sequester the birds.  I can start collecting eggs and be sure they are all fathered by Jules 8 days after I separate them from the rest of the flock. I can almost hear the tiny peeps of chicks nearly ready to hatch!