Tag Archives: Chickens

Winnebeggo v2.0

13 Jun

Well, it took us two years, but we outgrew the Winnebeggo v1.0.  Ok, we really outgrew it last year, but I needed a winter to come up with the next iteration.  So, everyone, it is with great anticipation that I introduce the Winnebeggo v2.0.

We start the whole thing off with the same base frame as the Winnebeggo 1.0, a 10′ x 20′ frame bolted to the top of an old running gear. The top structure is going to be made of 10′ hoops of 3/4″ conduit that we made with our hoop bending jig.  Hoops (and their accompanying crossbeam on the base) are spaced every 4′.

 

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After all the hoops and their uprights are witness marked and labeled(zoom in on the pic to see them where the upright 2×4’s meet the base), the whole upright and hoop part can be taken back down.  Through the middle you may notice that smaller crossbeams have been added every 16″ where the walkway will be.  Oh, and you’ll also have noticed all the boards running lengthwise that we added to the base; those are some 1×3 furring strips (which are really cheap) that will serve to distribute the weight a little bit.

Notice that we’ve left a nice wide, well-supported aisle down through the middle of the Winnebeggo.  That ought to let us walk down the length of the whole contraption to get access to all the nooks and crannies.  Believe me, you’ll need to eventually and sooner than you think.

So after that little carpentry project, we’ll take all the uprights down, stripping it all back down to the base.

No really, take them all down, because that’ll make the next part much easier.

 

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We took delivery of this lovely 200-plus pound roll of wire mesh.  This stuff is 1″x1″ mesh that is 5′ wide.

Roll it up onto the wagon using a ramp made of extra boards and get ready to staple.

 

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Two passes is all it should take, for a total of 40′ of mesh.

After it’s all down you can go back and cut out the holes where the uprights will need to go back in.  This is where all the witness marks and labeling will come in real handy.

 

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Skin the whole contraption in sheet metal and it really starts to look like something.

 

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Next up, add in a whole lot of roosting bars.  Ideally this shelter will accommodate 250 hens, so at 1.1′ of roost bar space per hen you’ll need 275 linear feet of roosting bars, or just under fourteen 2″x4″x10′ boards that have been ripped in half.

 

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Last year we ran into trouble with the Winnebeggo v1.0 when we tried to put out all our hens on pasture.  While we had plenty of roost bars for everyone, but lots of our hens were not going into the Winnebeggo at night.  We figured out that the problem was that the hens were feeling a bit cramped.  Everything started working a lot better when we removed about half the hens.

As with most things I build, I try to look online for the correct values to tell me what size to build things.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the information I was looking for.  Turns out there aren’t a whole lot of pastured-roost builders out there, and fewer still who put all the technical details online.

So here you go internet, here’s my hard-earned research on the subject.

Winnebeggo v1.0

Volume – 660ft³

Hen capacity – 220

Volume/hen – 3ft³

Winnebeggo v2.0

Volume – 800ft³

Hen capacity – 250

Volume/hen – 3.2ft³

 

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So we’ve been using the new Winnebeggo v2.0 for just over a month now, and other than a little nestbox-training that was necessary, we’ve been really happy with it.  I cannot emphasize how nice it is to be able to have a full-size human walkway through the length of the Winnebeggo.  It is inevetable that one will need to access some seldom-used corner of the Winnebeggo, so it’s nice not to have to crab-walk awkwardly through a confined space to do so.  The chickens seem pretty happy in the new Winnebeggo too.  And in a final measure of improvement, the percentage of chickens who have trouble figureing out how to go in at night has dropped, from 10% with the Winnebeggo v1.0 down to a mere 3% with the new version.

What about the nestboxes though?  We got rid of the integrated nestboxes of the Winnebeggo v1.0, so we had to figure out something a little different.  Stay tuned for that riveting saga…

 

Brooder/Broiler House

5 May

We decided it was well past time to get a handle on the Broiler side of our operation.  Our various brooder setups through the last few years have never been any good.

This year seemed like a splendid time to get away from the ad-hoc brooding and get our hoop house really set up properly.  I attended a good pastured poultry seminar in Northfield this past winter and that got me motivated to get all the numbers dialed in on our hoop house.

I decided that we need to get a standardized batch size and figure out all the numbers from there.  I figured that a batch of 300 or so chickens will fill up our stock trailer nicely, add a generous 10% for mortality and you’ve got 330.

330 chicks * 0.5 square feet per chick (1-6 weeks old) = 165 square feet.

That looks awfully close to 1/3rd of our hoop house, each third of which measures 12’x14′ or 168 square feet.

Conveniently, the other 2/3rds is pretty close to the 1.1 square foot/bird requirement for the second half of a broilers lifespan.

Fortunately the hoop house is pretty easy to divide up, the walls are, after all, a simple sheet of plastic.

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The brooder part of the hoop house needs to be kept at a very warm, very stable temperature for the first few weeks of the chicks life, (80-90F).  For the temps we have to be prepared for in Minnesota, we have completely abandoned electric brooders.

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We now use a propane brooder, which married to a 100# LP tank, can keep chicks toasty warm for a week before the tank needs a refill.  Two refills per batch of chicks, as the chicks won’t likely need supplemental heat after week two unless the weather gets really ugly.

In an effort to concentrate the heat a bit, we made a “tent” over the brooder with a bit of extra greenhouse film.

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I know from experience that our hoop house has some really fun water infiltration issues when it rains. This is a serious problem when raising chicks as there’s nothing that will chill a chick faster than getting wet.  To ensure that the chicks will stay dry, we built a false floor under the brooder with a few spare sheets of OSB and 2×4’s.

We got some hemp bedding to use in the brooder, and I’m in love with the stuff.  It’s insanely absorbent and a lot more friable than pine shavings.  It also has a smaller, more consistent particle size that the chicks can more easily keep mixed up through their scratching.

According to the numbers, our 330 chicks need 4 of the 48″ feeders, and we’ve given them 20 nipples to drink from.

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I discovered in the pastured poultry seminar that I’d been seriously overlooking the water situation for our chicks, so we have a dedicated 50 gallon reservoir for the brooder which makes it possible to get the chicks started on electrolytes as soon as they arrive.  We can also more easily dose them with Apple Cider Vinegar or probiotics as needed, apparently it’s a whole thing.

The last bit we did for the brooder side of things is to address the ventilation issue.

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Sure, it needs to be buttoned up pretty tight to keep warm, but air circulation is still neccessary, so we added this lovely thermal vent stack to the end of the hoop house.  It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but it still has a pretty good draw through it 24/7.

Anyway, over on the other 2/3rds of the hoop house is the second (grower) stage.

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Once the chicks have reached 4 weeks of age, AKA: old enough to withstand sub-freezing temperatures (kind of a big milestone here during a Minnesota spring), they’re moved out of the brooder and into the grower stage.  The grower stage is a lot less demanding (at least climate-control-wise) so it’s just a matter of hanging the appropriate number of feeders, providing a few places to roost, and getting plenty of water.

Again, water is fairly important, so plenty of water looks like a 275 gallon reservoir and 20 nipples.

I put a nice big door on the end.  During the day we’ll open it up and let the chickens go free-ranging around.  This part is very dependent on the breed.  If you did this with Cornish cross then don’t expect them to actually go free-ranging very much.  When we decided to switch over to the red ranger broilers we did so because they can really be relied upon to go out and hustle up the green portion of their diet all by themselves.

I’m not a big fan of carting around a bunch of couch-potato chickens every day in an effort to force them to eat their veggies.  The red rangers get it done of their own volition.

To finish the whole thing off, we got a tarp to cover the hoop house.  The greenhouse film made it entirely too warm in the hoop house when it was sunny, so we threw a big tarp over the whole works. Temps are reasonable, two layers are all insulation-y and it’s still typically 5-10F above ambient in there most days.

 

2016: the year of the Chicken

19 Jan

Yeah, I know, 2017 is the year of the rooster.  But your humble farmers apparently skipped ahead a year.

Although we had big plans to finally tackle some long-overdue pig fencing, we ended up spending most of the year dealing with chickens.  As it turns out, scaling from 175 laying hens up to 450 hens is kind of a big change.

We had several big chicken-related projects planned for the year, from a hoop house to brood chicks in, to new pastured poultry pens. We got all those projects done, but we never could move on to the other big items on our to-do list.  As soon as we were done with one chicken project, another issue would raise it’s head. So this year I got to design, build and troubleshoot a few different chicken feeders (one of them even works!) waterers and nest boxes.   The running joke around the farm is that this is all research for our book “Idiots guide to raising chickens.”

One semi-interesting thing that has kept popping up this year is the number 500, as in a flock of 500 hens.  In all of my research this past year I ran across several disparate sources that all talked about a 500-hen flock as being the biggest flock that you’d expect to find in a pre-industrialized-ag egg-laying operation.  I found it while looking through old books for feeder ideas.  It cropped up (chicken pun alert) when talking to our new egg-carton guy; and it popped up again when shopping for an egg washer.

It seems to me, having been around the 500-hen mark all year, that it’s a pretty good number.  As we’ve been discovering, starting with a flock of 50 hens, if you take all the same equipment and scale it up to 500 hens you’re going to have a bad time.  Sure, the equipment is cheap, but the labor costs get out of control pretty quickly.  Cleaning all those eggs by hand is not exactly a winning proposition once you cross the 400-hen mark.

We’re planning on keeping our flock at about the same 500-hen level for another year before we expand again.  We’ve got most of the kinks worked out, but we need to focus on other things for next year (like that darn pig fencing) before we get too carried away with chickens.   Thanks to a recent MDA rules clarification, we now know that we can go as big as 3000 hens without incurring any extra regulation.  Three thousand hens sounds like more than enough to me, but I could see going up to 1000-1500 hens in a few years once we get our system all figured out.

Organic: what it is.

26 Nov

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I stumbled across this article some months ago about organic chicken production in Delaware.  This article is the perfect illustration of the organic livestock industry.  The reporting is inaccurate, the customers are confused and the big-ag companies are finding ways to exploit the organic market.

Lets get the problems with the reporting out of the way first.

Here’s the first photo from the story, complete with original caption.

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Mark and Kathy Maloney raise organic chickens for Perdue at their Harrington farm. The chicken houses have windows and doors on the outside and perches and boxes on the inside//Photos by Maria DeForrest.

These are broiler chickens, chickens raised for meat.  They have no roost bars (they’re too big to roost properly) and no boxes (they don’t lay eggs, so no need for boxes).  While these inaccuracies may seem nitpicky, they do contribute to a false sense of “environmental enrichment” that belies the photo.

Indeed, the chicken shown in the above photo is probably not what anyone thinks of when they hear the word “organic”.  Later in the story the reporter briefly touches on the organic chicken’s outdoor access, noting that:

“On nice days the doors are open and the birds are allowed to go outside to peck around in the organically planted grass. Outside there are water troughs for drinks and overhangs to provide shade and shelter.”

Now if that first sentence has got you thinking of happy birds rollicking around on pasture, at least the photographer was kind enough to include a photo that will disabuse you of that notion.

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Look right over this nice fella’s hand.  See those red blobs?  Those are the outdoor water “troughs” they just talked about, situated cozily in the shade and shelter of an overhang.  See the few little white blobs by his fingertips?  Those are the chickens.  All half-dozen of them.

Suddenly the pastoral fantasy of chickens who get to “peck around in the organically planted grass.” seems a bit absurd in this context.  Worse yet, I fear (though this is blurry-photo-based-speculation) that these chickens may have no actual access to grass at all.  The platforms below each overhang suggest to me that we’re looking at an organic barn with “porch” style outdoor access, which allows chickens outdoors only onto a small “porch” area which is either floored completely in wood/metal/concrete or bare dirt.  Sad to say, but this kind of spirit-of-the-law flouting is entirely common in most organic production.

So with reporting like this, is it any wonder that consumers are confused, even the well-informed ones who care about their food?

 

Chicken Cafeteria v1.0

3 Oct

Features:

60# feed capacity (two 5-gallon buckets) accommodates 125 pastured layers.

Weatherproof and resistant to other species of livestock.

Dual tow-points for easy moving by hand, ATV, truck, tractor or unicycle.

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Materials list:

1x    2″x6″x 12′ pressure treated board

1x    12′ pro-rib panel (steel roof panel)

1x    24″x 10′ section of 2″x 4″ horse fence

2x    2″x4″x 12′ pressure treated board

2x    5″x 10′ steel K-gutter

4x    2-hole 3/4″ EMT conduit straps

4x    5″ K-gutter end caps (two left, two right)

6x    3/4″x 10′ EMT conduit

6x    1/4″x 4″ carriage bolts

8x    1/4″x 3″ carriage bolts

12x    Gutter hangers

 

All that ought to run you just about $115 nowadays.

So now that we’ve got all the stuff we need, lets build one, shall we?

 

Step one:  lay out 4 sticks of conduit along side your trusty tape measure and mark them at the following points  6″ 20″ 22″ 24″ 36″ 48″ 72″ 106″ 114″

Step two: fetch your 3/4″ EMT conduit bender and get bending as follows

1 – @6″ bend 90º+

2 – @7″ increase bend to 110º-115º

3 – @24″ bend 90º

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4 – @36″ bend 75º  (you’ll need to get the piece up on a workbench to make this bend, so be careful up there)

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5 – @48″ rotate conduit 90º and bend 90º  (bend two of them one direction, and two of them the opposite direction, you’ll see why in step 5)

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6 – @72″ bend 45º

7 – @106″ bend 30º from opposite direction

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Step three: fetch your 5/16″ drill and drill holes at 20″ & 22″

Step four: mark out and drill holes in each end of your 2×6 as follows

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Step five: bolt your noodly-looking conduit to your 2×6 with the 4″ carriage bolts

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Step six: drill holes in the conduit at 36″ and drill corresponding holes in your 2×4’s and bolt them all together with a few 3″ carriage bolts while you’re at it

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Step seven: drill holes in the big fat middle of the foot rail (should roughly correspond to the 114″ mark on the conduit) and bolt it together with a 4″ carriage bolts.

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Step seven and a half: Make a little brace to help hold up the middle of the foot rail.  Just a 24″(ish) bit of conduit bent at about 90º in the middle ought to do it.  Hammer the ends flat, drill some 5/16″ holes and attach the middle of the brace to the 2×6 with a conduit strap.

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Step eight: attach gutters flush to the top of the 2×6 with all those lovely gutter hanger screws, don’t forget to wedge that bit of 2×4 wire fence in there too.

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Step nine: Slip a 1.5″ length of 1/2″ EMT conduit into the 3/4″ hole in each end of the 2×6 and loop some #9 wire through there.

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Step ten: Make the roof.  Bend three (approximately) 24″ pieces of 3/4 conduit in the middle so that they roughly match the angle of the feeder base.  Attach the bend bits to a full length stick of conduit with conduit straps.  Attach this conduit “skeleton” to the sheet of steel roofing and you’ve got yourself a feeder roof.

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Step eleven: Attach the roof.  Two bolts for hinges, two bolts for “stops” and a bit of chain to keep it all from flopping about.  You get the idea.

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And now you’ve got yourself a genuine Chicken Cafeteria v1.0

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Earlier this summer as I was in the midst of refining this design I happened across a mention of a similar feeder in Lucie Amundson’s book.  She talked, in passing, about a chicken feeder made out of rain gutters that they’d learned how to make from a farmer in Delaware(?).  That immediately sent me looking about on the internet for more information, which was a frustratingly fruitless endeavor.

This brings me to a quote from another recent read: The Secret of Our Success: how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter by Joseph Henrich.

“With the spread of the internet, our collective brains have the potential to expand dramatically, although differences in languages will still prevent a truly global collective brain.  The other challenge to expanding our collective brains on the internet is the same one that we’ve always faced: the cooperative dilemma of sharing information.  Without social norms or some sort of institutions, self-interest will favor individuals who cream off all the good ideas and insights from the web without posting their own good ideas and novel recombinations for others to use. Right now, there seem to be sufficient incentives, often based on acquiring prestige, but that may change as new strategies spread that allow people to get the informational benefits without paying the costs. A key issue will be the degree to which prosocial norms for information sharing can be sustained on the internet over the long run.”

 

So go share some information on the internet or sumthin’

All About Eggs; Part 3: Chicken Behavior and Other Miscellany

23 Sep

Since raising backyard chickens has soared in popularity, there are many blogs about chicken behavior. A lot of that is different when you are raising large numbers of birds and moving them between homes in summer and winter. We are constantly learning how best to deal with our chickens.

Winter is not a fun time for chickens. They don’t really like getting out and about if there is too much snow. Because of this they spend a lot of time with the coop doors open, but very few venture outside. This can cause some stir crazy chickens. When chickens get stir crazy, they start pecking on each other. (Think of your kids being cooped up in the house too long.) Pecking can quickly get out of hand. If blood is drawn on a chicken, everyone joins in and can peck a bird to death.

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Inside the winter coop.

We have tried many things to keep our chickens entertained in the winter, some kind of silly, but the best seems to be having scratch grains available all the time. Enter; barley. We have been feeding free choice barley for the past year and sprouting it in winter for fodder, and have had very few pecking issues.

When spring arrives and we move chickens from their winter home to the Winnebeggo, they are really befuddled. We prepare to move the chickens in early spring, by parking the Winnebeggo next to the chicken coop the day before, then wait until dark when the girls have roosted for the night. Andrew and I then don headlamps, catch sleeping chickens, and put them in the Winnebeggo. Early the next morning, we move the Winnebeggo and accompanying gear to pasture. We have to make sure to move the Winnebeggo far from the chicken coop, or the chickens will find their way back to the coop and we will spend much of our summer trying to catch chickens in the coop and shuttling them back to the Winnebeggo. It doesn’t matter to the chickens that living conditions are far better on pasture; they are creatures of habit.

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Winnebeggo’s maiden voyage.

One of the first issues we encounter when moving to the Winnebeggo, is that the first few days in it, the chickens are clueless about where to roost at night. They figure out the nest boxes fairly quickly, but when night falls we are faced with chickens roosting mostly under the Winnebeggo. We spend several nights crawling under the Winnebeggo, catching chickens and putting them inside. In an earlier post I explained there is usually a manure buildup under the Winnebeggo, therefore, catching these chickens is not a pleasant job. Luckily, after a few nights of doing this they start to figure out we would like them to roost inside.

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Chickens roosting under the Winnebeggo.

Egg eating can be another problem. Like us, chickens love the taste of pasture raised eggs. If an egg breaks, which they do sometimes, they will race to eat it. This can develop into a habit of chickens breaking eggs themselves and eating them. We try to control this by keeping next boxes very dark, so they can’t see the eggs. They prefer dark nest boxes to lay in anyway, so this seems to keep egg breakage and eating to a minimum.

Because they are allowed to free range, our chickens like to find other places besides nest boxes to lay their eggs. I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out where they might have lain their eggs and have found clutches of eggs in some unbelievable places. These eggs can’t be used for human consumption, so when this happens, our dogs usually get a treat. We had a chicken hatch 8 chicks last summer because she hid her nest too well in an abandoned pig waterer.

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Broodiness, or a hen trying to hatch a clutch of eggs, is a problem we deal with regularly in spring and summer. When a hen “goes broody” she doesn’t lay eggs, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest box. Some breeds are more prone to broodiness, so we take that into consideration when choosing a breed. We have tried many methods to try to break a hen’s broodiness, but what seems to work best is Chicken Prison.

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Chicken prison is built with a small mesh wire floor to allow for maximum air circulation. When chickens are broody, their chest/breast area is very warm to the touch due to hormonal changes that prepare them to incubate their eggs. The theory is that if you can cool them down and not allow a comfy dark space to nest, they will get over being broody. Usually a week in chicken prison will do the trick. We also use chicken prison for injured birds.

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Someone on this farm is a comedian.

 

Last in the Series: Part 4: Predator Problems and Solutions

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.

 

Chuck Wagon

29 May

We recently refitted the Winnebeggo to include a lot of new roost bars that were needed to accommodate all the new hens that will be calling the Winnebeggo home this summer.

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All the new roost bars made it necessary to remove the 55 gallon barrel that was the heart of the winnebeggo’s watering system.  Couple this with the fact that accessing the 30 pound hanging feeders under the sides of the Winnebeggo was becoming a pain in the neck, and we began to dream up a different solution to keeping the chickens fed and watered out on pasture.

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And so the Chuck Wagon was born.  We acquired an extra running gear last year for a good price, so we promptly added a few 4×4’s to form a solid base and strapped on the single biggest water container that we have.

The chickens now enjoy a massive 325 gallon water reservoir in the form of a big IBC tote that we intended to use this past winter for the Mega-Waterer 2.0

As with anything that’s going to be bumping around the pasture, keeping things in their place is always a concern.  We (probably) addressed this well enough with a big handful of conduit clamps.

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The water distribution is pretty simple given the relatively compact layout of the chuck wagon.  The IBC tote feeds two waterers, each housing 10 nipples each.

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There is also a hose with it’s own valve.  The hose has the Plasson quick-connect fitting that allows us to fill the tote with water from any of our pasture water fittings.  This also allows us a hose to fill up the dog’s water bowl, or give something a quick rinsing-off out in the pasture.

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And that brings us to the other half of the chuck wagon equation, the feed.  Bedecking the chuck wagon in a dozen or so hanging feeders didn’t sound like a great idea, so we had to come up with another kind of feeder.

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We ended up with a pair of big hoppers made out of 1/2″ pressure-treated plywood.  The hoppers are 4′ wide, 21″ across the top and 3″ wide at the bottom.

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Oh, and each hopper has a bottom that’s made out of a 1″x10″ on the bottom and 1″x6″ sides.   To keep it all upright during it’s pasture travels, both hoppers are braced together and to the 4×4 beams.

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After adding a few bits of roof to the feeders, it was nearly time to fill them up with feed to see how much they’d hold.

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The answer we got was 21 buckets, or about 650# of feed in each feeder, for a total of 1300 pounds.  Between the 1300# of feed and the 325 gallons of water, we’ve cut down our labor in feeding and watering chickens significantly.

The Chuck Wagon was not without it’s shortcomings. The first few days of use saw several intense rainstorms, which pointed to a need for more protection for the bottom of  the feeders.

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We quickly sorted it all out with a few extra scraps of metal roofing.

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The chickens approve.

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All 450 of them have been out on pasture for nearly a week now and they appear to be quite happy.