Monday, May 9, 2011

News of the Flock

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.


Mrs. J said...

I like your chicken tractor. How do you keep predators from getting under it?

My husband and I just got our first chickens. We got 3 day old chicks from the feed store and are raising them inside until they can go out in our newly constructed coop. They certainly are cute! :) We'll be raising them as egg layers and pets. I'm really looking forward to this experience!

Caroline in NH said...

Other things useful for brooding chicks - empty metal stock tank, for one. That's what we're using now, with a folded section of an X-pen for a cover (puppy playpen). We also scrounged a bathroom cabinet that a neighbor was replacing. I plan to use hardware cloth to close off the openings (the top, drawer spaces, and a few holes from the pipes). The doors will be great for getting babies & food in & out!

Rosie said...

I raise marans and use plastic milk carton boxes for nest boxes (12 x 12). I cut a square out of the front of the box leaving an edge at the bottom to keep the eggs in. I add a square of carpet in the bottom and add pine shavings for bedding. It works great and if I have a broodie hen I can move her and her eggs easily. I found the cartons at a recycling place for $1 each.

A Primitive Homestead said...

Weeks ago I got my first ever flock of chicks. My boys & I made a brooder out of a plastic storage tub. We did a post on it on my blog. It worked well. Your post was helpful. I have an old run used for ducks I am using for the chickens for now. Way to heavy. As now it has to be drug around the yard. Looking to build something more like your on wheels. I am limitied to whight so any more ideas to decrease the weight of the tractor is great. I used left over shower wall for the bottom of the coop. Your are so right it is much easier to keep clean. I did a post on the coop too. Blessings!

Dmarie said...

love it that you were able to use up some leftover paint. wish I could figure out how to use up the bits and pieces around here!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Glad to see you were able to integrate new hens into your flock without too much infighting. We're expanding later this summer, and a bit apprehensive about how the ten new pullets will go over with the 7 elder stateshens. But I figure people have been combining chickens for millennia, so it can't be impossible. Thanks for the data point.

Kate said...

Mrs. J, thanks. The main predators in this area are raccoons, dogs, and hawks. The pen takes care of dogs and hawks pretty well. Raccoons could theoretically get inside the pen, but they're nocturnal, and the hens are inside the coop at night. The coop is pretty sturdy and locked up tight each night. So far we've had no losses to predators. Good luck with your chicks.

Caroline, nice to hear of repurposed materials for chicken keeping. Thanks.

Rosie, thanks for the suggestion. If we had more milk crates, I'd probably go that route. What we have in abundance are buckets. So I'm going to try a different approach with them that I hope will suit the Marans better.

APH, when we rebuild our mobile pen I think we'll keep the horizontal dimensions, but maybe make it just a little shorter. And we'll definitely use 2x2's for most of the structure. The current one is made of 2x4's and it doesn't really need that much strength.

Dmarie, I like this use of leftover paint too. I'm gradually getting more and more color into the garden.

Tamar, things seem mostly to have worked themselves out with the two breeds. There's still something going on that I don't quite understand. The Red Stars don't race out the gate in the morning as they used to when I moved the pen and opened the coop. I'm hoping it'll work itself out soon, but the obvious establishment of the pecking order is done.

Shauna said...

I have used a covered cat litter box (minus the litter & the cats) for our hens for quite some actually started because the litter box was too small for our large cat, but it works GREAT for the hens. And it's light. It would just be a matter of how you'd attach it, and make it raintite (or put drainage holes in the bottom).

I have a black copper maran, and she's somewhere near the bottom of the pecking order. I wonder if the variety makes the difference?

Alyss said...

I have a question about logistics with your mobile coop and pen. You say you move the pen every day for your hens but the location I have as a possible home for chickens is a house I do not live at. It is close to home and I have full access, but a management system that needs me there EVERY day is less than idea. Have you ever left your coop in place for longer than a day? How long do you think it would take for your hens to ruin the lawn in any given spot? I wonder if you have any thoughts on how big a space should be for three hens to give them a couple days on the same spot without ruining it... reasonable or too big for a mobile coop? You say your hens have different winter lodging? What does that look like? I've been daydreaming about this mobile chicken tractor thing for days since reading your posts :)

Kate said...

Alyss, I have left my hens in the same spot for two days on very rare occasions. I don't like to do it because it's unpleasant for them and the lawn takes a beating. The factors I see in keeping hens stationary are the amount of space per bird (more is obviously better) and the quality of the turf they're on (which in turn depends on the health of the soil). Dense grass is better. Taller than "neat lawn" height is better. And a polyculture is also much better than pure grass. Bored or hot chickens will dig divots in the lawn, which isn't a problem in itself except that the wheels of the pen get stuck in them. At 7.5 sq. ft. per bird, I think two days in one place is manageable, provided the other factors are favorable. My current stocking rate is 5 sq ft per bird and I wouldn't consider a two-day rotation workable. Manure builds up a good deal in just one day and that's not pleasant for either birds or humans. If you plan from the outset to leave them in place longer than a day, then I would allow them at least 10 sq ft per bird, and more if it can be managed.

However I must recommend that you reconsider. Daily care is really best. They need fresh water *daily* and this is doubly true in summer. Also, you will want to keep a close eye on them with respect to predators, especially early on when your coop and pen is untested. Then there are the eggs. Will you leave them overnight?

You never want to allow birds to "ruin" lawn in any one spot, as this would mean that they're consuming all possible green forage and living in their own filth. If you want to use them to break turf, then you must add plenty of partially finished compost and mulch every day after the first few days, so that they have forage available and something to absorb the manure. You can search out "winter quarters" on the blog, and I have also added a link where I mention them in this post. Our winter quarters rely on a deep bedding system which prevents toxic accumulation of manure. That system might work better for you if rotational grazing isn't feasible. Good luck with your hens.

Kate said...

Shauna, I suspect that breed and size only play minor roles in the chicken pecking order. As with canine dominance hierarchy, I think personality is the more salient factor.