Archive | August, 2016

Evolution of a chicken feeder

30 Aug

We’ve been searching for a good chicken feeder solution while the chickens are out on pasture.  Sure, we’ve been using the regular 30 or 40 pound tube feeders, but they need a roof over them and that makes them impractical for pasture use.  We tried a big homemade hopper feeder on the Chuck Wagon earlier this year, but that was a dismal failure.  What we needed was a feeder that was weather proof, had lots of linear inches of feeder space and was easily moved to a new pasture.  Bonus points were awarded for keeping the chicken feed inaccessible to cows or pigs, since pasture co-habitation is an occasional reality (intentional or not).

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Chicken Cafeteria v0.1 (proof of concept)

Version Notes: lots of linear inches of feeder space, easily moved.

 

 

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Chicken Cafeteria v0.2

Changelog: added hinged roof

Version Notes: quite weather resistant, chickens prefer to perch on the gutters while they eat.

 

 

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Chicken Cafeteria v0.5

Changelog:

fixed floppy-gutter, switched from vinyl to aluminum gutter

improved foot-rail usage by implementing a flat rail

added anti-perch roller

added tow points

Version Notes: foot-rail usage much improved, anti-perch roller ineffective, potential runner wear issues.

 

 

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Chicken Cafeteria v1.0

Changelog:

improved foot-rail & gutter height to reduce feed waste

modified runners to improve towing performance/wear

lowered roof height to reduce non-poultry feed access

added anti-scratch/anti-perch screen

Version Notes: This is it! Detailed DIY instructions coming soon…

All About Eggs; Part 1: What Kind of Chicken Lay Those Eggs?

26 Aug

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We get so many questions about eggs, I decided it was time to do a series of posts on them.

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Let’s start with the chickens. There are three basic types of chickens, meat birds, dual purpose, and layers. Although meat bird breeds lay eggs, the birds are not long lived and the number of eggs they produce are not conducive for using them for egg production. Dual purpose breeds can be used for egg production or can be butchered for meat. They will not lay as many eggs as breeds in the layer category, and won’t be as heavy as a meat bird, but serve backyard farmers well. Laying breeds tend to be smaller bodied birds that require less feed, but because of their smaller size are not desirable for meat production. We keep mostly dual purpose chickens, with a few layer types acquired for other qualities we desired which I will explain later.

When considering what breeds we want as layers, there are several factors to consider. Since we use pasture based system, we want chickens that are good foragers. Because we live in Minnesota, we also need to think about how they fare in a cold climate. Do they lay well during the winter? Do they have large combs, which may lead to frostbitten parts? Are they gentle? Also, because we are in the egg “business” their tendency to broodiness is important. When a hen is broody, she is trying to hatch eggs. She doesn’t lay for many weeks, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest boxes so other chickens can’t lay. Egg size and number is also breed determinate.

We currently have 3 breeds of chickens that seem to work well for us. Our main breed is a Rhode Island Red. They are a gentle, dual purpose, hardy, brown egg layer, that does well on a pastured system.

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We also have Ameraucanas. These chickens lay the blue or green eggs you see when you get a dozen of our eggs. They don’t lay as well, but forage well, endure our winters and are gentle. We put up with fewer eggs and their tendency to broodiness because we really like having diverse colors of eggs.

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(Note: All three of these chickens in the foreground are Ameraucanas. They have extremely diverse coloring.)

Our third breed is the dark Leghorn, which lays white eggs. White Leghorns are typically used for industrial egg production. We chose the dark Leghorns so their coloration wouldn’t make them as much a target for predators while out on pasture, but also because Leghorns are very nervous birds and we hoped they might act as an alarm system for the rest of our flock.

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We are adding a fourth breed to the line up for next year’s eggs. It is the Cuckoo Maran, a breed that lays a dark chocolate colored egg. This will expand our color variations even more. Think of how cool this would be for natural Easter eggs.

Our Cuckoo Maran are not laying yet. On average, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to start laying.  Chocolate colored eggs beginning this winter, folks.

Did you ever wonder why sometimes all the egg vendors have a lot of eggs and not many at other times?  There are several reasons for this.

Most hens lay efficiently for two laying cycles. However, after two years, there is likely to be a decline in productivity. Once they start, good layers will keep laying for about 60 weeks in their first cycle and then perhaps 50 weeks in the second cycle. Between those cycles they will molt (lose their feathers and grow new ones), during which time laying ceases or drastically reduces. The molting cycle can last anywhere from 4 – 12 weeks.

During winter, once daylight drops below 12 hours, production can decrease and may stop altogether. To prevent this, some farms install lights in sheds to maintain light for 12 – 14 hours a day and trick the birds into thinking its still daytime (so they keep eating). That’s not a farming practice that we think is appropriate. Daylight in Minnesota starts increasing early in the spring (March) and decreasing early in the fall (September). So natural egg production stinks between the months of September and March.

Stay tuned for Part 2; What Makes Our Eggs Different?

 

 

 

Broilers: Scaling, Efficiency and Other Excuses

1 Aug

I wanted to believe that Joel Salatin’s chicken-raising method would work for us.  We started out with some pens we slapped together from recycled material and dutifully used them for a few years.  After that, the pens flaws were showing.  I redesigned the pens earlier this year, hoping that I could mitigate the problems, but it’s now clear to me that Joel’s system is not going to work for us.

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Here’s the thing, I don’t think it’s a bad system.  Joel’s system works really well for raising Cornish-Cross broilers in a environment were:

A: you don’t experience very windy conditions during the growing season.

and

B: all other livestock will be excluded from the chicken’s pasture.

The problem is that we always have windy weather in the summer and fall, we have other livestock that need to move through the chicken’s pasture occasionally and we won’t be raising Cornish-Cross chickens.

Joel Salatin’s system is really in it’s element when you can build cheap light-weight pens that can be easily pulled around the pasture by hand.  You can only keep around 50 chickens per pen, so you’ll need lots of them to make the eventual trip to the poultry processor worthwhile.

In order to sell chicken at a farmers market we need to have our chickens butchered at a USDA-inspected poultry processor.  Such processors are quite rare, and we count ourselves as lucky to be only a 90-minute drive from our poultry processor. Even so, to make the trip worthwhile we need to have a full trailer.  This means that we’d like to have batches of at least 300 chickens.

Our first pens were really efficient, their light weight meant we spent less time and energy moving pens around the pasture.  Unfortunately, realities of weather and other livestock meant that the lightweight pens did not last very long.  Late summer and fall are a reliably windy time on our farm, leading to scenes reminiscent of a poultry-based Wizard of Oz.  Poultry pens would be blown around and inevitably end up smooshing chickens like a Kansas farmhouse, if Dorothy’s house was then flattened by a herd of cows eager to scratch their necks on the Auntie Em’s clapboard siding.

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Our solution to this little problem was to design a much sturdier chicken pen, but while the new pens solved a few problems, they created a few more.  The new pens are much sturdier, showing nary a single sign of wear, but all that sturdiness manifests itself as extra weight.  Extra weight makes the new pens much harder to move, even with a Salatin-style dolley to add wheels to the process.  To make matters worse, we found out that the new pens still get blown around on gusty days.

One of the biggest expenses in raising broilers on pasture is labor and when your chicken pens require even more labor than usual, the economics begin to work against you real fast.  So while our new pens cut out a lot of work rebuilding and refitting pens at the beginning of every season, they cause us a lot more work in their day-to-day operation.

To top it all off, last year we decided that we didn’t much like raising the standard Cornish-Cross breed of broiler chicken and we opted to only raise the slower-growing Red Ranger breed.  It turns out that we’re not the only ones deciding to make the switch, as Starbucks and Whole Foods just announced that they’d soon switch to similar breeds of chickens.

One thing we really like about the Red Rangers is that they exhibit ranging behaviors that are much more like a laying-breed than the Cornish-Cross.  Where Cornish-Cross are the couch potatoes of the poultry world, Red Rangers are jocks by comparison.  Red Rangers, shockingly enough, range very well.  While they still grow a lot faster than a layer, they retain the athleticism that’s necessary to get out and hustle up some grub on pasture.  As such, they don’t really require the same pasture force-feeding regimen that Salatin’s open-bottom pens are designed for.  Red Rangers are more than happy to go out and get some of that pastured goodness for themselves, thank you very much.

So this year, we raised our first batch of broilers using the new pens, but we let the chickens day range.  This means that we penned the chickens up at night, but opened the doors to let them free-range during the day.  Our day-range experiment worked out swimmingly and we’re planning to move to a day-range system for all of next years broilers.  Day-ranging, even with our less than ideal new pens, saved a good deal of labor.  Because the chickens were only penned up overnight, the pens could be left in place for 2-3 days before one needed to go through the maddeningly difficult task of moving them to a new patch of grass.

In short, it all worked out OK, but we’re giving up on the second batch of broilers this year.  I’ve got an idea for a new system for raising broilers, but it’s going to have to wait until next year.