Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Where am I going to keep these chickens?

Ok so you decided to get a few chickens and now they are a couple weeks old and you need to decide on some permanent housing. Chickens can be raised indoors if you have space in an outbuilding but if you really want to keep them healthy and cut down your feed bill free ranging is the best way to go. I realize that for one reason or another that most people need to decide on something in the middle but there are 2 important considerations here, chickens will destroy the vegetation in a run in short order and a healthy chicken will produce about 30lbs of waste in a years time, now to some people that really isn't waste but more about that later. Ok back to housing, if your chickens can't free range or you want to control their free ranging, the best way to do that, at least in my mind is with a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is nothing more than a movable pen, the idea is that you move it every day or so so the droppings are distributed in a controlled manner or you can use fencing to fence off larger areas and that way the tractor doesn't need to be moved as often and it keeps the chickens close enough so they can get back to it if need be.I'm not going to get into chicken tractors here any more than that, there are other articles on my blog about my chicken tractors.

If the idea of a tractor doesn't fit your situation then a pen and coop is the next best thing. Everybody has ideas about a coop but most people want one thing, something cheap because in the end it just doesn't make a lot of sense to build something expensive to house a few chickens. I've included a simple drawing of what I consider the minimum idea of a coop, you can change the dimensions around for whatever suits you but this, in my thinking will make chicken keeping pretty easy. The first thing in my minimum requirements is the coop, the fewer chickens you have the smaller the coop can be, just be aware that it needs to have decent ventilation because bad air is harder on chickens than just about anything else. A 4'x4' coop will easily house 3-4 chickens but with the addition of a run you can put 10-12 in it if all they are doing is sleeping in it. The coop should have either a large access door on the side or a flip open top because your going to need to get into it to clean it every few days at least. Wire floors are nice and cut down the amout of coop cleaning but in northern climates are too drafty for winter. You should also plan to include a couple of windows or vents that can be opened and closed as needed for ventilation. Nestboxes and roosts are about the only other thing that the coop really needs, I like to hang the nestboxes off of the rear or one side so that they are about at waste level to make egg collection easier. As far as a roost goes, a chickens natural instincts are to get as high up as they can to sleep so it makes it harder for predators to get to them. In a 4' wide coop a narrow 4' board or 2x4 on edge will easily leave 8 hens roost on it, if you can angle it and make it 5'then it would hold 10.

Next is the run and here again size is up to you but the more birds your housing the bigger it should be but two things are for sure, it needs to be high enough to get in and out of comfortably and the floor needs to be something easy to clean. If you have a cement pad it will work and the nice thing about cement is that you can wash it off with a hose, the downside is that chickens like to scratch and they can't scratch on concrete. There are plenty of options for bedding material for a run, in my mind hay and straw are the worst, they get wet and smelly fast. Leaves are a decent option and if you have a few large trees around you may be able to collect enough for a years supply of dry leaves in the fall and when they start getting nasty just change them out, now you see why I say to make your run 6'high. There is another option for bedding and I think it's probably the best one and that is sand. Sand is cheap, it drys out fast and it's pretty easy to keep clean with one of those rakes they use for cat litter boxes or if you want to change it once a year or so you could just rake it around and bury the waste for a while but you are going to have to change some out every now and then.

So now you have chickens, you have housing, now your going to have waste, lets not call it waste, I prefer compost because that is really what it is and did I mention each one of your chickens will give you 30lbs of nitrogen rich compost free every year. So what do you do with that? Well you could bag it and put it in the trash or dig a hole in the yard and bury it and let mother nature deal with it. Or you could put it on a garden, flower gardens will work but you bought chickens to give you eggs and they're giving you free fertilizer why not grow something more edible? There is a lot of discussion about the best way to use it and really to start with people need to get over their fear if it. I know that's not always easy so I won't push it but you really can put more on a garden plot than mosy people realize,2-3 tons/acre isn't to much and that's not counting any extra bedding that gets thrown in also. You can put it right on your garden but I don't advise doing that while you have plants growing, there are a few safety concerns about about chicken manure coming in contact with your lettuce and tomatoes but really I think most are overblown as long as the vegetables are washed and handled properly before eating but you can make that determination for yourself. So while the plants are in the garden start a mulch pile, put your grass clippings, the neighbors leaves that blow into your yard and any other yard waste that you have on it, except doggy or cat poop, along with what the chickens make and next year you'll have vegetables to brag about. After you get the plants off then you can go right back to distributing the manure right back on the garden or composting it, whichever you feel comfortable with. One other thing that can be done with the chicken manure is to put it in s bucket along with some woodshavings, leaves or whatever other bedding material you have, fill it about 1/3 full of solid then the rest of the way with water and let that steep for a couple days, stirring occasionally then run the liquid through a cloth to strain out the solids and you'll have some high nitrogen liquid fertilizer, your sweet corn would love that right about the time it starts to make ears, just put it in a sprinkling can and go along the base of the plants with it!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Time to get some farming done

Well it looks like after an extra long extra cold winter and another week or so of snow melt and mud drying maybe spring is finally here. I had a pretty good week last week, broke some ground, planted peas, potatoes, onions and the first round of lettuce, radishes and carrots, I also put in a bed of strawberries. It's raining today so I got a chance to finish ordering a few seeds and starting some more peppers and tomatoes. The garlic that I planted last fall is growing good but I can see that I've got to get after the weeds in the next day or so. I hate years where you have to hit the ground running but so far the weather has been warmer than last year anyway,it would be nice to get a somewhat normal growing season after the last couple.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Healthy eggs

Healthy eggs don't just happen by accident, they have to start with healthy chickens. My idea of confinement starts with what is know as a chicken tractor. There are a lot of different ideas for the perfect chicken tractor and there is probably a good argument for reasons why, I'm not even sure such a thing exists. When I started down the chicken road I looked at a lot of different ideas and then came up with something that I figured would work for me. Now I truck farm so I wanted something that wasn't much wider than my beds so that if I have to confine my chickens for a few months over the summer so they wouldn't wreak havoc with my plants I could keep them on the beds that I want extra fertilizer on. The pictures included are of my first design but I have a second design started that I think will be a big improvement. My tractors are 4ft x8ft with a second level that is cantilevered over the frame in the rear to make the front end lighter to lift to put the wheels on and take them back off when I want to move it. It also has nest boxes that extend further out the back with a separate lid to collect eggs from. The roof is hinged so the whole thing flips up to make it easier to clean. It's a total of 48sq ft, 32 of it to open ground and 16sq ft inside not counting the nest boxes. For the bigest part of the year all it is is a place for them to be in overnight and a few hours in the morning until they are done laying eggs. I mentioned my second design and it's going to be pretty similar except with a wire floor inside and a droppings board underneath that will emtpy into a tray under the nestbox to make it easy to get the waste from there to the compost pile. I'm also going to put a pitched roof on it that extends over the yard a couple feet to give them more shade in summer, the roof will still open from one side for cleaning.Hopefully the new model will be a bit lighter, I'm building it out of lighter materials and I'm also going to put sliding windows on the sides and on the ends of the roof so I can open and close them as the wind changes direction and the windows will leave in more light. I think as confinement goes these do ok, they're small enough inside that the chickens can stay pretty warm even on the coldest winter nights but even in the summer when they are cooped up in them they have 4-5sq ft of space per bird. The biggest drawback so far is keeping water open on the coldest days of winter, I usually check water every couple of hours on days when the temps are below freezing. I started this off by talking about healthy eggs and it's easy to keep your chickens healthy with a place to stay dry and good feed and the other ingredient I have for healthy eggs is to clean out the nestboxes and rebed them first thing in the morning if needed so the eggs are always clean when I collect them and that leaves me confident that I can sell the freshest healthiest eggs possible.