Sunday, July 22, 2012

Predators, Schmedators.

When we first started this venture, Tina and I were concerned about the possibility of a marauding predator conducting a late night raid on our field pen. The pen we built isn't particularly sturdy - it's made up of 2x2s, chicken wire and corrugated plastic. Fort Knox, it ain't. Although the predators we have around here - coyotes, raccoons, mink, opossum - aren't generally a threat to people, they're more than capable of decimating our little flock. And chicken wire definitely isn't going to keep a hungry coyote out. I've even heard stories of raccoons reaching through the wire, grabbing a wing or a leg, pulling it through and gnawing away while the chicken is still alive on the other side of the fence.

Fortunately, we haven't lost a single bird to predators. We haven't even seen evidence that any critters have tried to get at them. I think there are probably three reasons for this.

First, we've kept the pens as far away from the forest as possible. The chickens are camped out in the the middle of the open field. There is no cover anywhere and I suspect that acts as a deterrent to anyone looking for an easy meal. They'd have to put themselves at risk by crossing a couple of open acres close to the house.

And that brings me to my second point - those open acres are inhabited by two horses, a llama and an alpaca. Now, my horse has a live and let live kind of attitude. She'd let a coyote cross the field no problem as long as it left her alone. Tina's horse is another story. He hates dogs with a fiery, burning passion and would be more than happy to chase a coyote down and stomp it into the ground. Dalai the llama is a big wimp and not a threat to anyone but Paco the alpaca LOVES dogs. He plays with my and Tina's dogs all the time. I wouldn't be surprised if he charged up to a coyote and tried to start a game. He'd come in peace but the coyote definitely wouldn't know that.

Finally, there are four dogs that spend a significant portion of every day out in that field. They pee, poop and roll all over the place. That whole field has to reek of dog. I'm not convinced that any of the dogs would actually defend the chickens but perhaps the coyotes, raccoons, etc just don't want to risk it? My dog, Cairo, actually did run down a coyote once. When he caught up to it he tried to play with it. Such a great guard dog. Maybe we'll just keep that a secret from the local coyote population so they stay away!

Cairo says, "Don't mess with my chickens!"

I know it looks like Cairo is tormenting Paco but Paco actually starts it most of the time. He follows the dogs around and jumps at them to get them to play.

Friday, July 13, 2012

New Digs

I've been so bad about posting lately that I don't even know where to start. I guess first things first: all 39 chicks survived the move from brooder to field pen and are doing very well. Initially we had all 39 in the 6X8 pen that we raised our original but it's gotten way too squishy so last night we finished building a new pen and transferred 24 of them over. The new pen is 8x8, so they'll have more room than the previous batch did.

Just moved outside. The chicks say "Holy cow, what's going on here???"

Building the new bigger and better pen.

We're using a different food for these chicks. Last time we bought our feed from our friend Dave but I can't remember where he got it from. This time we're buying the organic 17% broiler grower/finisher from the Otter Co-op. The chickens are growing well but they definitely don't like it as much as the feed we bought from Dave. They waste more and I've noticed there are more grain husks in this mix. I should probably give Dave a call and arrange to pick up a few bags from him but I just haven't gotten around to it. We've got a pretty significant range in size right now, so it will be interesting to see what the average weight is when they're dressed out.

On the plus side, these birds seem to be more active foragers than the last group. I'm not sure why - maybe because we've actually got some decent grass finally? We move the pen morning and evening and they go to town the second the pen slides onto a patch of fresh grass. It's pretty great to see!

The good weather means that the grass is finally growing. Unfortunately, so are the stinging nettles!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Long Overdue Update!

Wow, I didn't realize it's been almost three weeks since I posted anything! But I have an excuse - I was on vacation from June 9 to 23 and didn't have access to anything beyond my iPhone.

I've been home for three days now and what a busy three days it's been. Apparently, Tina and I aren't exceptionally bright and we managed to organize things so that our birds hit the 8-week mark right in the middle of our holiday. We decided that instead of slaughtering them at 7 weeks, we'd wait until we got back and do them at 9 1/2 weeks. I was a little apprehensive that it would get too hot and they'd be dropping like flies but what a silly fear that was. It poured rain the whole time we were gone! In the end we did lose one bird, leaving us with 19 chickens to slaughter.

Back in the early days, Tina and I couldn't decide if we wanted to kill them ourselves or if we'd hire someone. With all the hustle and bustle surrounding our return home, there was no way we were going to have time to do it ourselves, so we ended up taking them to Trevor, the fellow who did my mom's birds back in the day.

It cost $2 per chicken and let me tell you, it was worth every penny! We caught and loaded the birds this morning and were on the road by 7:30. Trevor was just finishing all the preparations and began processing birds at 7:45. We were the first customers to arrive and our birds were killed, cleaned and ready to go by 8:10. It would have taken us hours to do on our own but Trevor has a great set up and was incredibly efficient.

I have to admit, I felt a bit bad as we bundled them into the crates for the short drive but this is the first batch of chickens I've raised and I imagine it will get easier. I wasn't sure if I would be able to watch him actually kill them but while I was debating whether or not I should turn my back, he lopped off the first birds head!

The worst part was watching the severed head blink its eyes and open and close its beak. Pretty gross. After the head came off, the body was stuck upside down in a cone to bleed out. It didn't take long and before I knew it, the first 8 birds were bled out and in the scalder. From the scalder, they go into a spinning drum that defeathers them and then they're cleaned out. I kept all the livers, hearts and lungs for my dog. He's going to be a happy guy! The whole process was very fast and in retrospect, I'm really glad I watched him kill them and saw that they didn't suffer at all.

Unfortunately, I didn't think to take any pictures of the birds at their final size but I'll make sure I take some photos of the next batch. We have 39 chicks in the brooder (1 died the day I got back from my trip) and they'll be ready to go out into the field pen soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New Chicks and More Wet Weather

My chicken flock has tripled in size in the last week! Last Thursday, Tina picked up 40 new chicks and got them settled in the brooder. For the first couple of days we mixed apple cider vinegar and honey in with their water, just to help them get off to a good start. I can't guarantee that it does anything but it certainly can't hurt. All 40 are doing well and growing like crazy. I have found that I'm much less paranoid about this batch. With the previous 20 I was out checking on them a million times throughout the day but with the new batch, I feed and water them in the morning and Tina does them in the evening and that's about it!

Things are still incredibly soggy around here and the long term forecast promises even more rain. Our 20 big birds out in the field appear to be healthy and happy but they're looking a bit grubby these days. The wet ground and the concentration of poop means that they always have some delightful brown smears on their feathers. It was so wet for a couple of days that we decided to make them a straw pad so they could escape the dampness. The first time we did it the dummies were afraid of the straw and avoided the little bed we'd made, so the second time around we spread it under the whole covered area and then put the food on top of it. Since they're willing to brave anything for a meal, the got over it pretty quick!

Although the straw mat was a good idea in theory, in practice it didn't really keep them much cleaner or drier. Because of the mat, we ended up only moving them once a day. That would be fine if they'd poop in the outside part but they just ended up pooping on the straw and then laying in it. *sigh* Unless the weather gets really nasty and the rain puddles on the ground, I think we're just going to let them live on the damp grass. They certainly don't seem any worse for wear. I hope the weather is better by the time the next batch is ready to head outside!

Shah "helping" Tina spread the straw for the chickens. He was determined to get at their grain, the little brat.

And now I'm off to give my dog a bath. He and Tina's dogs love all the poop scattered around the field but for whatever reason, Cairo and Briggs, Tina's chocolate Lab, have a special fondness for the chicken manure. Cairo especially loves to roll in it and today managed to grind a bunch into his coat before I could stop him. As a result, he's a wee bit pungent at the moment. Ah, farm life...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Poop Circles

Forget crop circles, chicken poop circles are the mystery of the day. In this case, the mystery isn't how or what creates them but instead, how to prevent them. We have a round feeder under the covered half of the pasture pen and the chickens rarely stray far from it, although they will venture out into the uncovered area a few at a time to forage. As a result, a firmly packed down poop ring develops around the feeder within an hour or two of moving the chickens.

I know I seem obsessed with poop but I can't BELIEVE the amount of waste these birds produce. Originally we were only moving the pen once a day but we've taken to moving it morning and evening because otherwise they just lounge around on the poop ring. I have no idea how other folks who raise pastured poultry get away with moving the pen only once a day, especially since many of them house three to four times more birds in a space less than twice the size the one we're using. I kind of felt bad about keeping 20 chickens in a 6 ft x 8 ft pen but now I'm confident that we could house 40 in our current pen without a problem, since running and frolicking isn't really their thing. Gorging and resting is definitely the name of the game here.

I think the easiest way to prevent the ring from developing is to just get a second feeder. The birds will split up and that will help distribute the poop more evenly. And if we keep moving the pen twice a day then there won't be time for the poop to build up.

And why do I care about the poop rings, you ask?

Two reasons. First, the chickens don't care what they're lying on as long as they're near the food. Instead of moving to the cleaner areas when they're done eating, a lot of them will just relax right on top of all the crap. It cakes on their feet and feathers and is just generally nasty.

The second is because these critters are helping fertilize the field where my horse grazes. These poop rings are taking a while to break down and since chicken poop is so high in nitrogen, having it so concentrated in such small areas can burn the grass instead of nourishing it. I doubt that they're on each section of pasture long enough to do any damage but I would like it if things were spread out a bit more. Nonetheless, I'm very excited to see what the pasture looks like after a season with birds on it.

This is the area under the pasture pen right after we moved it. The chickens haven't yet visited the grass beyond the poop ring.

Same patch of grass from the other side. You can see the remains of a poop ring from about a week earlier up by the dog's legs.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Rainy Days

Holy cow, is it ever soggy today. The fields are spongy and the water is already puddling on the hard packed patches. Fortunately, we've put the pasture pen on a high shelf of land and the water is draining nicely. However, I think if we get much more rain we'll probably have to make the chickens a pad of hay or straw so they can get off the wet ground. For now they don't seem to mind the rain and appear perfectly comfortable. Yesterday was their first rain and it didn't phase them in the slightest. They stayed out in the open part of the pen and foraged while the rain was light but I'm glad they had the sense to move into the covered half when the skies opened. They're feathered out enough to handle the heat and the cold fine but getting soaked to the skin definitely won't do them any favours.

This morning when I went out to move the pen I discovered that the chicks had broken their heat lamp. This is the second bulb they've smashed but unfortunately the design of the pen prevents us from raising it high enough so that they can't bump it. It's still too cold for them to be out without any heat and I really don't want to move them back inside, so I picked up a new lamp and am hoping it will survive for a few days - I think they'll be fine without the extra heat by this time next week.

On the health front, on remaining 20 birds are doing great. The chick that we isolated last week perked up a little bit for a couple of days and then went downhill in a hurry. She stopped eating completely, shrank down to about half the size of our other chicks and by Saturday she reached the end of the line. When it became apparent that she wasn't going to recover, Tina shot her. The original plan was to break her neck but Tina couldn't quite bring herself to do it, so the .22 came out and did the job. We've lost two birds now and I really hope the rest of them make it.

Some of the chicks brave the rain and stay out foraging.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Pasture Party!

Our chicks are out in their pasture pen and they LOVE it! I've been watching the weather forecast and when we finally got a decent stretch of nice weather, we decided to move them outside. Tina and her brother, Mike, finished building the pen on Sunday morning and by 8 AM they were safely ensconced in their new home. 

The first day they were pretty confused and spent the majority of their time camped out under the covered half of the pen. The food and water is located in that half, so it's probably no coincidence that they've chosen it as their favoured hang out spot. But by day two they were moving around and exploring much more - they even started scratching and pecking away at grass and bugs! They somehow seem more chicken-like now that they're out on pasture and it's nice to see them so happy.

Although the days are toasty warm, the nights are still a bit chilly, so we've strung an extension cord across the driveway and have rigged up a heat lamp in their pasture pen. Joel Salatin says his birds are usually ready for their pasture pens by three weeks but ours haven't finished feathering out and still have downy feathers on their heads. When you're raising hundreds or thousands of birds at a time hooking up a heat lamp for each shelter isn't really feasible. But when you've only got 21, it's not such a big deal and our little flock does seem much happier under their lamp when the sun goes down.

Yesterday my friend Dave from Thomas Reid Organic Farms came by to see how our birds are progressing. Aside from one chick who appeared to be feeling under the weather (we've moved her back into the brooder and she's still holding on), Dave said they all looked great. Tina and I don't have any frame of reference for this sort of thing, so it's nice to hear that we're doing a good job from someone who actually knows what they're talking about.