Archive | January, 2016

Chicken Coop Stocking Density

23 Jan

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Stocking density: lower must be better, right?

Most of the certifying bodies that address “humane” livestock production, in this specific case the Humane Farm Animal Care, seem to coalesce around a stocking density of 1.5 ft2 per bird.  That’s just about exactly where our stocking density ended up this winter.

We’ve always stocked at a much lower density, last year stocking the same coop with only 140 birds for a stocking density of around 4.25 ft2 per bird.   More than doubling the stocking density made me a bit nervous.  We were expecting that the stress of the increased stocking density would lead to problems with the hens picking on each-other.  Ever heard of the term “henpecked”?  It’s a real thing and it can turn ugly, leading to hens that are lower on the “pecking order” to being bullied to death by their peers.  Sure we had lots of barley to feed them, which is supposed to counteract feather-picking and cannibalism, but the stocking density made us nervous.

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And now here we are, in the cold heart of a Minnesota winter and the increased stocking density might be one of the best things we’ve ever done for the chickens.  Much to my surprise the chickens are dryer and warmer than they’ve ever been in the winter and we’ve yet to see any of our fears of cannibalism materialize. I’ve read that a chicken puts out about 10 watts of body heat.  Multiply that by 400 chickens and you’ve got quite a heat source. In practice, this means that our chicken coop stays around 30°F warmer than the outdoors at night.  In the daytime it can get as much as 40°F above ambient.  It has to get quite cold outside to make it drop below freezing inside the chicken coop.

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In addition to the free heat, the few hundred extra warm bodies come with another benefit.  Once we got our waterer situation ironed out the litter in the chicken coop is a much better consistency with all the extra scratching that it’s being subjected to.  Friable.  That’s the technical term for the litter consistency that we’re after.  The tradeoff for this lovely litter is that we have to add more straw to counteract the increased manure content.  More straw and more manure means more frequent cleanout.  The real bummer is that our chicken coop has fairly low ceilings (7′ tops) that impose a fairly hard limit on the litter depth.  We can build up to about 12″ of litter before it starts to interfere with doors and cause me to hit my head on the ceiling.

Lightbulb moment

19 Jan

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Here are a few Little Giant/Miller hanging feeder covers in their natural habitat.  We just use them on the feeders that hold grit and oyster shell, as the chickens don’t go through those supplements fast enough to keep the feeder cleaned out.

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Something about those little covers got me thinking… They look an awful lot like a light shade.  A quick test with a lightbulb revealed that they are indeed a lot like a light shade; this light shade in particular. 

Tree-fiddy vs. twenty dollars.  Hmm.

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Needless to say our barn (and coop) are sporting a few feeder covers these days.  Old barns aren’t exactly the most brightly-lit places, and all species of livestock are easier to move when they can see where they’re going.  Just a cursory glance at Temple Grandin’s recommendations will cue you into the importance of lighting & shadows.

Livestock Guard Dogs in Training

17 Jan

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The girls are getting very nearly _ months old at this point and it’s safe to say they’ve grown a bit. They doubled their weight in the first month on the farm, and they’ve probably doubled again since then.

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Anna (on the left) is the by far the bigger of the two, and the most outgoing around people.  Elsa, the more svelte sister is the more aggressive player.   They’re both remarkably laid-back dogs.  This observation can be taken with a grain of salt as all my previous dogs have been extremely high-energy breeds (Airedale, German Shorthaired Pointer, Viszla, Australian Cattle Dog). I’ve been delighted to find out that both Anna & Elsa have been remarkably easy to train.  I’ve read that LGD’s (Great Pyrenees included) can be stubborn, but these two live to please.

There appear to be two camps when it comes to training LGD’s.  The old-school “leave them alone” camp and the newer “interact with them like any other dog” camp.   We pretty quickly fell into the new-school ways, as it is pretty impossible for a bunch of dog-lovers to not interact with two little 10 pound balls of white fluff.  It’s been hard enough (for some of us) to not let them in the house.

In their first few months the girls needed a bit of supervision around the chickens.  They managed to discover that chickens are wonderful playthings that become even better snacks if played with long enough.  After that they only got to roam free when the chickens were cooped up for the night.  After a few weeks of accompanying me on my daily chores in the chicken coop they began to earn their privileges back.

These days Anna & Elsa get to roam free almost all the time. They’re segregated from the chickens at night, the chickens getting locked in the coop and the dogs settling into their doghouse.  They’re beginning to take patrols of “their” territory at dawn & dusk and working hard on their grown-up barks. Fourty pounds of dog with eighty pounds of voice.

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And how are they taking the frigid Minnesota winter in their doghouse? Well, this is them on the coldest morning so far (-19°F) out rolling in the snow. All that fur is good for something.

Mega-waterer v2.0 cold weather update

15 Jan

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We’ve been through a good old-fashioned Minnesota cold snap in the past week and a slight problem arose with the chickens water.

On the coldest day (-19°F outdoors, 10°F in the coop) I noticed that the water had become a bit….solid.

Ice in the barrel, completely frozen hoses and a good section of the 1″ PVC that had split open.  There wasn’t a problem with the Mega-waterer per se, just a slight issue with the heater being unplugged by wayward poultry.

After a bit of cursing, some new PVC pipe and judicious application of heat, the Mega-waterer was back up and running.

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The next day I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the Mega-waterer was once again frozen.  This time it was due to the heater’s decision to ceasing functioning.

More cursing, more heat, thankfully no split pipe this time.

Apparently stock tank heaters can’t be trusted to work beyond year two.  I’m looking hard at engraving a two-year expiration date on all future stock tank heaters to cut down on all the fun I’ve been having with waterers on the coldest days of the year.

Polar Furnace year two

8 Jan

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So we’ve had the Polar Furnace for a while now, and it’s about time for an update.

The verdict: I love it.

It’s awesome.  It works just like they say it does, all the time.  Uses relatively little firewood, heats the house like a champ.

Sure there were a few little nitpicky things that I didn’t like, the recovery rate was fairly low and the anti-condensation valve made a whining noise.

This fall the company called me to let me know they had noticed condensation in a handful of stoves due to the anti-condensation valve being too cold.  They were replacing the cartridges in all the old valves free of charge to eliminate the possibility in the future.  I happened to mention to them that my anti-condensation valve was making noise, which kicked off a few months of sleuthing on their part.

160104-IMG_20160104_140113057They talked to the valve manufacturer in Italy, they ran models of my boiler water plumbing.  I checked and double-checked furnace settings, pump settings and plumbing. They still didn’t know what was causing the noise, but were determined to fix it. 160106-IMG_20160106_191150574

And then yesterday, Ray from Polar Furnace showed up at my house.  He drove down from Manitoba and he fixed it, turned out it was indeed a problem with the valve itself.

Oh, and he set the fan to have a drastically better recovery time while he was at it.

My wife said it best: “That’s awesome, let’s always buy things from Canadians from now on!”

Egg Season

7 Jan

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Well, here we are on the other side of the winter solstice.  The days are just beginning to get longer and the little chicks we got in July have grown up to be laying hens.  All this means that egg season is upon us.

160106-IMG_20160106_102328Now I know that most people don’t think of eggs as being a seasonal food, but that’s exactly what they are when you’re raising chickens on pasture.  A laying hen’s cycle is photo-sensitive; the number of daylight hours impacts how many eggs they lay.  As the days get longer in the spring it kicks a hen’s laying into high gear.  As the days get shorter in the fall, egg laying drops off and moulting begins. 151225-IMG_20151225_121232009

If you’re a wild bird this photo-sensitive thing is a great idea, you get to raise your chicks in the spring and summer when the weather is warm and there is lots of grass and insects to eat.  Then, in the fall, you get to switch away from raising chicks to regrowing your feathers as the weather turns cold.

While there are a few chicken breeds that have had the “seasonality” bred out of them, most of the commercially important breeds still abide by the seasonal-laying thing.  One of my favorite breeds, the Faverolles are known for being year-round layers.  Unfortunately, they lay a fairly small egg, which takes them out of the running as a commercially viable breed.  Commercially viable breeds like the Leghorn, Rhode Island Red, Rock, Australorp, etc. all suffer from some degree of “seasonality.”

While this caused problems (seasonal egg price-spikes) in the early part of the last century, our industrious agricultural fore bearers have devised a solution.

Keep the hens locked up in buildings, then they’ll never know what time of the year it is. It’s genius!  If they never see the sun then they’ll think it’s always springtime! And here we are: we can have thin flavorless eggs all year long.

If you still want the good stuff, be prepared to eat seasonally.

Which brings me to the shameless plug portion of today’s little diatribe.

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We’ve got some eggs for sale.

Thanks to everyone who suffered through the seasonal egg shortage with us, but that’s in the rear-view mirror.  Come on by the farm for all the eggs you can handle. $4 on the farm, $5 at the market and guess what’s going to be in next-month’s bundles?

Now’s a fine time to stock up.  According to the MDA’s egg inspector a properly-refrigerated egg should keep for a year.