It's been a while since I posted anything about our backyard flock. So some parts of this update could not in fairness be called news. But it's news on the blog, so probably worth a post. If you're a newish reader, or just want an overview of our mobile coop and pen system for our laying flock, I wrote about it in detail in this post.
Last fall we did some minor upkeep to the mobile pen with help from some WWOOF volunteers. The half of the roof that consists of plywood had pretty well rotted, so it was replaced. It and the rest of the pen got a wash of primer, and then the remainders of all the paint samples we had lying around were used to give the pen a piebald, hickish sort of charm. At least the colors are bright and cheery. We figure we'll get one, maybe two more years of service out of the pen (first built in spring 2008) before we need to build a new one from scratch. While I don't relish the work of building anew, it will at least be a chance to build smarter. The pen definitely does its job, but it's much heavier than I would prefer. I'd like to build something lighter that will be easier to move each day.
I got tired of the difficulty of cleaning out the mobile coop, so I've instituted a few changes there too. For one thing, the screened floor of the coop never worked well in allowing the manure to fall through onto the ground. The hay from the nesting box would get spread over the floor and catch the poop, so it was just one big mess, not at all easy to clean. This year I cut a piece of corrugate plastic to fit over the entire floor, including under the nesting box. When it's time to clean out, it's now much easier to just take down the nesting box roof, and pull it out along with the plastic on the floor. That accounts for about 98% of all the poo in the coop. The plastic can be hosed off, exposed to a few hours of solar radiation, and replaced in the coop.
The second change is that I now close the coop up during the day. Once the girls come out into the pen for their breakfasts, they're out all day. This achieves a couple of things. Firstly, there's a little less poop in the coop, which means less for me to deal with at cleaning time. More poop ends up on the lawn where I don't have to do anything with it. (Though to be perfectly honest, this effect is small since chickens seem to do most of their pooping overnight from the roost.) The other benefits are to do with the eggs. I no longer have to squat down to check the nesting box in the coop. Instead I mounted a new nesting box in the pen, based on the bucket nesting box they used in their winter quarters in the shed. I can check this nesting box easily without physical strain. I know I sound like a total wuss when I say this, but it's long-term thinking. Both of my parents have had joint replacement surgeries, and I want to be able to keep chickens well into my dotage. So designing now for physical ease is important to me. Eggs laid in the bucket nesting box also tend to be cleaner, since the hens are no longer walking through a manure-y coop to get to the nesting box.
As alluded to in an earlier post, we just added two Cuckoo Marans hens to the flock, bringing our total up to six laying hens. These are very different birds from our Red Stars. The various Marans breeds are all dual-purpose, meaning they put on some meat, and lay some eggs. In terms of feed efficiency, they don't put on meat as well as dedicated meat breeds, nor produce eggs as well as dedicated layer breeds. They're significantly bigger than our Red Stars, and assertive too in the ways of chickendom, which is to say rather mean. The Red Stars laid eggs with bleached looking eggshells for a few days - a typical indication of stress. Now the pecking order has been established, and the Marans clearly rule the roost.
I briefly kept a small flock of White Marans before, and wasn't impressed enough with them to keep them long. The Cuckoos have a couple of advantages on the Whites we had before. They're younger, so they are laying better than the older whites. And they cohabitate with the Red Stars, who demonstrate to the Marans that all the weeds and greenery I throw into the pen are good to eat. Thus, the Marans learn behavior that improves the quality of their eggs and reduces my feed costs. The person I got the Marans from is a hobby breeder for show. I don't think he cares much about feed efficiency or egg quality. His birds had been kept in stationary runs denuded of vegetation, so there wasn't anything for them to forage. Still, he gives me free hens, so I'm not going to complain. With a little tutelage from the Red Stars, they seem to be learning to appreciate the weeds.
While the Marans were free, there's a downside to them. They're too big to easily fit in the bucket nesting box, which is a snug fit for the Red Stars. One of them managed to lay one egg in the bucket, but the rest of the time they've deposited their eggs in the grass. It would be a good idea to add another nesting box just based on the numbers alone. A bigger nesting box could fit alongside the one we've got. I just need to figure out what could be used to provide more space while not adding too much additional weight to the pen. Meanwhile those extra dark Marans eggs lying around on the grass tell me that the worst of the egg-eating tendencies the Red Stars exhibited in February are apparently over.
I don't expect that we'll keep the Marans all that long. Right now they're quite young and thus in their prime so far as egg laying goes. They're laying decently. As soon as their production tapers off a bit, we'll slaughter them and convert them to canned meat and chicken stock. By then it may be time to replace the Red Stars with some fresh pullets as well. We are running perilously low on chicken stock at the moment.
Having recently scrounged a large plastic storage bin that would be suitable as a brooder box for chicks, I'm now considering raising a few meat birds for the freezer over the summer months. I'm not at all sure that this is going to happen, but I'm mulling it. If we decide the project is a go, there will certainly be a few posts on the topic.