Tag Archives: Pasture

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…

 

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

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.

 

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.

Pasture Doghouse

26 Nov

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With the little Pyrenees puppies getting bigger by the day it was only a matter of time before they needed a bigger dog house.  I’ve done plenty of reading about livestock guard dogs over the years and most sources agree that they need a good dog house, though they may seldom actually use it.  Apparently it’s extended periods of rain that they don’t like and if you give them a cozy place to wait out the rain then they’re unlikely to abandon their post.

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Since we have two soon-to-be enormous dogs I figured that an enormous dog house was in order. It ended up measuring 42″x48″ and it’s on skids so it can be moved around with the Winnebeggo when the time comes.

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Both puppies fit in the Dogloo right now with room to spare. They should continue to fit in the big house with room to spare.
The house was completed just in time for three consecutive days of cold, rainy weather.

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The pups seemed to appreciate their new accommodations.

There is a full-width door on the back of the dog house to facilitate clean-out.  Next spring when the dogs move out on pasture with the Winnebeggo I’ll mount the dog feeder on the back door and it should be ready to go.

O’Brien Treadaline posts

14 Oct

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We’ve had a few O’Brien Treadaline posts since we moved to the farm back in 2012, they were left here by whomever last grazed the place.  I really grew to like the old blue posts even though I had no idea what make/manufacture they were.  Come to find out they were the same post that Jim Gerrish and Greg Judy (among others) swear by.  And just when we were about to need more posts to graze the rye/brassica mix, we happened to come into possession of a bunch of new O’Brien posts (thanks Jared!)

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The only thing I don’t like about the Treadalines is that the metal spike is not sharpened from the factory.  That may not be a big deal to those farmers out there with less rocky soils, but we’ve got enough rocks to stop an un-pointed post in it’s tracks.

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Bench grinders make this problem go away in a hurry

151012-IMG_20151012_125407Much pointy. Very nice. 151012-IMG_20151012_125356

And guess what is just about the perfect size to store all of these posts?

Yes of course it’s a 55 gallon barrel.  55 gallon barrels are the solution to everything.  Well, nearly everything.

151012-IMG_20151012_140651Upon setting the newly sharpened posts out in the rye/brassica field, I was notified that we were being watched.

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Farmer watches dog, dog watches cows, cows watch farmer.

Rye & Brassicas

13 Sep

So after we got all finished up harvesting our barley, we decided to put the big field (17 acres) into a winter grazing/cover-crop.  Since switching over to grass-finishing this spring, we’ve been cognizant of the fact that our climate zone will provide certain challenges to us in maintaining our grass-finishing during the whole of the farmers-market season.  Namely, the grass isn’t growing that well on either end of the farmers-market season.  When the grass isn’t growing well, the grass-finishing isn’t going to go that well either.

So, to that end we ended up seeding a mix of winter rye and a grazing brassica.

The winter rye should be a good forage for our potentially cold winters, with an ability to survive -35°F, which is well below what we get in a severe winter.  From what I’ve read we should be able to graze the rye well past all of our other pastures this fall/winter and still have some very early spring grazing out of it.  Heck, it’s even possible to get a grain-crop out of the rye after grazing it in fall and spring!  The yield wouldn’t be much, and we don’t really have too much use for rye. so that’s something we’ll probably pass on.

Not wanting to put all our eggs into one proverbial basket, we added a bit of Vivant brassica[PDF] seed to the rye. The Vivant is supposed to be a turnip/rapeseed hybrid that is geared toward producing more of a top than a regular turnip or tillage radish.
It’s now been about a month since planting, and they’re looking quite leafy with a small white (diakon-like) taproot.

We used a new broadcast seeder for this planting, which explains why it’s so spotty.  The new seeder works great once you get the hang of adjusting it for the correct seeding rate.  Being new, we did not have the hang of it, and the resulting seeding rate was a bit variable.  Oh well, the cows won’t care too much.

So in a few weeks we should have 17 acres of high-quality forage available to us that will last until the end of our farmers market season (Thanksgiving) and pick up early enough for the beginning of next years market season, without having to resort to feeding tons of silage over the winter.

End of Summer

1 Sep

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Hard to beleive it, but summer is coming to a close already.

What have we been up to?  Well, it’s all been such a blur that I’m gonna have to check my phone(camera) and remind myself of what’s been going on.

First we acquired a whole passel of barn kittens.  They’re quite a hit.

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For the record, their names are Emer Cat, Giddy Snacks, Smokey and Pokey.  Toddlers are the best name-generators ever.

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After three years of befuddlement, we just found out that this pasture weed is wormwood. That’s right, the same kind of stuff in absinthe. I was *this* close to seasoning a turkey with the stuff a few years ago. Kinda glad I didn’t, it might have been an interesting Thanksgiving.

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I took some 2×6’s and a few come-alongs and made what I’m affectionately referring to as “redneck bin-jacks.”

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We’ve seen a lot of these dudes flying around this year. A good sign I hope.

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I cleaned out a bit more of the barn and found this dire warning.

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Bought entirely too many of these little guys.

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Drove entirely too many of them in.

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Entirely too many for the impact driver at least.

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And we’ve got a few of these critters running around, or at least laying around.

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And the big summer project is nearing completion.

This is your pasture on chickens.

13 Jul

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Meat chickens aren’t exactly the most fun animals to raise.  Sure, they’re easy and fast, but they’re pretty gross critters, especially the cornish cross.   Add to that the fact that we don’t make much money off of the chickens and they’d seem like something we’d get rid of.

The other day I decided that I’d keep the chickens around even if they didn’t make us any money.  Why?

Because they can do amazing things for our pastures.

Have a good look at this picture of our worst pasture from 2 years ago.

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And then compare it to the same spot this year.

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See a bit of difference?

Yep, that’s the difference that a bit of strategically-placed hay and chicken poop can make.

Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

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This is the state of the pasture when we first acquired the farm. It looks great if you like sand, lichen and a few dead plants. But compare it to this spring, two years of pastured-chickens later.

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Can’t quite see the ground through all the grass and clover.

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Dig at it a bit and you can get a bit closer to the dirt. Funny thing, the dirt is completely covered with organic matter and is surprisingly damp given the near 100% sand that’s underneath.

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To be sure, there are a few places where the pasture hasn’t improved much, but it’s mainly confined to the areas that were dug up last summer when we installed our water lines.  You can see the pasture-plant secession going left to right.

And then you’ve got big swaths of the pasture that look totally different, completely covered in red clover, white clover and birdsfoot-trefoil.

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So there it is.
Two years of pastured chickens, spreading old hay, and feeding hay-bales in the winter.
No seed, no fertilizer, no lime, no problem.

Testing the Winnebeggo

17 Jun

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As I mentioned when I finally finished building the Winnebeggo, the only thing left to do is a bit of real-world product testing.

We were prepared for a bit of a battle in getting all the chickens to accept the Winnebeggo as their new home.  I’d seen a video (I think?) of Joel Salatin describing a 4-day process of acclimating chickens to a mobile coop.  From what I can remember (I can’t find the video now, of course) he said to count on 1/3 to 1/4 of the hens to attempt to roost outside of the mobile coop on the first night.  In the three subsequent nights the numbers would decrease until they all learned to roost inside the mobile coop.

To start things off, we moved all the chickens into the Winnebeggo at night.  After dark the chickens were all roosting in the chicken coop, which means that they were easy to catch.  Additionally, chickens seem to associate “home” with wherever they leave in the morning.  If they spend the night in the Winnebeggo, they’ll begin to recognize it as their new home when they leave the Winebeggo in the morning.

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The first night was a bit traumatizing for them with the big move, most of them spent the night on the floor, not bothering to fly up to the roosts.

The next morning we moved the Winnebeggo a good 300-400 yards from the barns and let the chickens out.  They took quite a while to figure out how to exit the Winebeggo, and I suspect that half of them never made it outside the first day.

That evening we were pleasantly surprised to find only 10% of our chickens attempting to roost underneath the Winebeggo.

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After throwing the wayward chickens back in, the whole process was repeated for a few days.

True to Salatin’s word, the number of chickens roosting outside steadily dropped until, by day 4, they were all choosing to roost inside the Winebeggo.

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So here we are a week later and here’s what we’ve found out about the Winebeggo:

Egg production dropped a bit, we’re attributing this to the big change in their lifestyle, hoping it will pick back up.

Egg eating and egg-breakage have dropped to almost zero!  As a result, egg-cleaning takes much less time.

Feed consumption has been cut in half, particularly when the chickens are in an un-grazed paddock with plenty of seed-heads on the grasses.

Egg quality has gone up with even brighter yolks and firmer whites.

And last but not least, the chickens seem a lot happier in their new digs.