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. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Best Laid Plans...

Today was supposed to be the day. Our birds are three weeks old and, according to most folks who raise pastured poultry, they should be about ready to move into their pasture pen.

But, alas, it was not meant to be. A couple of things have conspired against us and we’ve had to delay our plans by a few days.

The first problem is the weather. This spring has been unseasonably cold. The Pacific Northwest is soggy at the best of times and this year the rain has come down in buckets. And even now, when the sun is shining, it’s COLD! The wind still has a cutting edge to it and when the sun goes down it sucks the last bit of warmth right out of the air. Once the chicks are feathered out they are able to stand a bit of cold but I don’t think our birds are there yet.

Perhaps if they were hearty and healthy we might chance the weather but they’ve had the sniffles, so we’re not willing to take the risk. Last week, Tina and I heard a couple of chicks sneeze while we were weighing them. The next morning one of them was dead in the brooder and several had discharge from their nostrils. Since we’re not interested in using antibiotics, we whipped up a concoction that homesteader Harvey Ussery uses to get his day old chicks off to a good start. I came across the recipe in his book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers and figured it might help our birds fight off whatever bug they’ve picked up. It’s a simple recipe – honey, apple cider vinegar and garlic mixed in with their water – and the chicks love it. We also lowered the heat lamps to provide some extra warmth while they recuperate. I don’t know it’s the drink, the added heat or both but we haven’t lost another bird and the chicks appear to be well on the road to recovery. 

The new plan is to move them outside either Saturday or Sunday. Since we only have 21 chicks, if it gets too cold at night it won’t be too much work to move them back inside. We’re going to put the sides on our pasture pen tomorrow and we’ll be ready to roll!

Tina and Mike building the pasture pen.

Just a few more days until the chicks will be out in the field with the rest of the critters!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Evolution of Breasts

Chicken breasts, that is.

We take for granted the plump, broad-breasted birds that line our grocery store shelves but these bad boys (and girls) have only been a dietary mainstay since the 1960s. The modern broiler is typically a Cornish cross, a bird that was developed by breeding naturally double-breasted Cornish chickens with Plymouth Rocks. The Cornish cross is not actually a breed – it is a hybrid that has been developed by hatcheries. This means that you cannot breed your own chickens and expect the chicks to conform to specific breed standards. The hatcheries breed along carefully tracked bloodlines to produce consistent birds.  

The Cornish cross is a meat bird, pure and simple. They’ve been developed for extremely fast growth and are ready to slaughter at about 8 weeks, dressing out at around 5 pounds. Thanks to consumer demand for white meat, they have gigantic breasts and, since they’re slaughtered so young, the meat is genreally very tender. They were designed specifically for commercial meat bird operations but in recent years smaller farms have been raising them on pasture with considerable success.

When you compare this to your typical dual-purpose chicken, it becomes very apparent why commercial growers favour the Cornish cross. Dual-purpose chickens are used for both meat and egg production. Depending on the breed, it takes any where from 12 weeks to 6 months for them to reach slaughter weight and no matter how large they are, they won’t match the white meat production of a Cornish cross. However, these chickens do exactly what they’re supposed to do: strike a nice, middle of the road balance for the small farmer or homesteader who is looking for a more versatile bird.

Although the super speedy growth cycle of the Cornish cross is very appealing from a practical (read: financial) standpoint, it’s left me in a bit of a moral quandary. These chickens turn all that grain into succulent white meat with such lightening efficiency that the rest of their bodies can’t keep up. Their legs and joints just can’t cope with such rapid growth and, sadly, crippled birds are not uncommon. They’re also more likely than other breeds to die from heart attacks and other internal issues.

So, where does this leave me? I’ve been thinking about the ethical implications of raising these animals and have decided that as long as I give them the best life possible for the short time that they’re with me, then I’m not going to suffer any guilt. That being said, I do think I might experiment with some dual-purpose breeds in the future. Freedom Rangers look pretty interesting…

 15 day old cornish cross chick, 13.9 ounces. Not including the poop he just deposited on my horse's hay.

Cairo picking out which one he wants to eat first. :) They aren't avoiding him, Tina was just in there grabbing a couple to weigh them.