Friday, April 27, 2012

The New Coop

So here's a project that's taken up far more of our spring time than I would have imagined.  It's our spankin' new chicken coop.  As you can see, it's an A-frame and a rather large one.  The seed ideas for the design were mostly mine, but in the course of constructing it with the help of our WWOOF volunteer, design became very much a collaborative effort.

Our previous coop-and-pen system was our first attempt at providing mobile housing for our laying hens.  It served reasonably well for four years, but we built in plenty of flaws because we didn't really know what we were doing.  We had to build chicken housing before we'd ever kept chickens.  Some of these flaws were remediable, and we fixed what we could; others not so much.  My two biggest complaints were that the coop wasn't easy to clean out and that both the coop and the pen were quite heavy, making it hard for me to move them by myself sometimes.  A lesser issue was that we had no way of providing a dust bath for our hens in a mobile system.  So they tore into our grass to cool themselves down in summer, thus leaving significant divots in the lawn.  I didn't care so much about the aesthetics, but rolling a heavy coop and pen around was hard enough to begin with.  When the wheels fell into some of these divots, it became really difficult.

So the new design had to eliminate the difficulty of cleaning, shed excessive weight, and offer dustbathing possibilities for the birds.  I also wanted easier access to the interior, and room for at least two nest boxes.  We started with one nesting box for four hens, which was reasonable, especially since the box could hold two hens at a time if need be.  But over the years the number of hens we've had at one time has varied considerably, with nine being the upper limit.  This resulted in the occasional queue for the nesting box, and the occasional egg laid outside the nest.

Here you can see the elevated dust box in the back.  Since it's raised up this way it doesn't take away any area of the lawn.  This also shows the articulated door, which folds down so I can access the feeder and waterer, or throw treats to the girls without giving them too much temptation to escape.  When I need access to the inside of the pen, I can open the entire door and get inside without much crouching or discomfort.

The nesting boxes are situated towards the peak of the new coop.  The girls don't seem to have any aversion to laying their eggs so far off the ground.  Since they have to make three jumps from the ground to the nests, their feet seem to be cleaner.  The eggs I've been getting have been mostly pristine.

Here are a couple of pictures of the wheels and the slight advantage we gained by not placing them at the very back edge of the bottom frame.  You'll notice that they're on a lever bar that can be propped into place when it's time to move the coop.  The rest of the time the frame rests almost in contact with the ground.  By moving the wheel slightly towards the front of the coop, the weight of small portion of the coop behind the wheel acts as a counter balance to the rest of the weight.  This makes it easier for me to move.  I don't quite have the technical vocabulary to describe this, but the idea was described in an excellent article about the Chinese wheelbarrow in the Energy Bulletin a short while ago.  The article will fill you in on the principle, if you're interested.

Here you can see the lever bar positioned to raise the coop off the ground to make it easier to move.  We're still tinkering with this a bit since our smallest hen scooted right under the coop while I was moving it one morning.  We have a few ideas on how we might fine tune the system.

Here's a shot taken after the main construction was done that shows most elements of the interior.  We have diagonal bracing in a few areas to strengthen the wooden framing.  After painting was finished, the whole thing was sheathed in chicken wire.  Then an old billboard was used to cover the sides/roof and most areas of the gable ends.

I've already been asked, "Why purple?"  My standard response is, "Why not?"  My tendency to splash bright colors around my garden is already on record.  It helps curb the impulse to paint something loud on the walls of our home.  Deep purple was one color not yet represented in the garden.  It all looked so pretty until it was time to put that used billboard on as roofing material.  I'm hoping that I can find an artistic soul who might paint something attractive on it.  After all, it looks like nothing so much as a blank canvas to me, just waiting to be filled up with something whimsical or chicken-related.

I will say this for the ugly billboard.  It is very sturdy stuff, designed to be out in all weathers.  The white backing of the advertisement should help keep the coop from heating up too much in full summer sun.  Oh, and it was free, by the way.  The billboard companies give them away for nothing once they're taken down.  I know a man who used this material in lieu of roof liner when he built his own home.  I expect the billboard to hold up extremely well, and thus protect this coop from the elements for several years at least.

The only thing missing from our new coop is a clever name.  My husband calls it the "land yacht."  I sometimes refer to it as the "purple menace."  Neither moniker seems to really capture the mixture of charm and clunkiness of our new coop.  So what say you, readers?  Got a clever name for this behemoth?  I have no prizes to give away and make this a contest, but I'd love a snazzy label for our newest piece of homestead infrastructure.  All suggestions will be gratefully received and considered.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Apologies for the long radio silence.  And thanks to those of you who sent kind inquiries about my absence.  All is well at the homestead.  While spring is always a busy season that gets in the way of writing, that's not my excuse this time.  The difference now is that my husband is more or less retired, and thus home all the time.  This is almost entirely a good thing.  The only exception to that is my habit of writing when I have the house entirely to myself.  The writing "mood," as it were, comes to me most easily in solitude.  I find it very hard to reach that state with distractions around me.  So, if this blog is to continue, I'll need to figure out a routine or a method that will provide verisimilitude for being alone at home.  This will probably be a challenge, but I'll work at it.  If I manage to find time to write, it'll probably mean I find a way to catch up with many of your blogs as well.  I've missed keeping tabs on what many of you are up.  There's so much inspiration and so many cool ideas in the gardening/homesteading blogosphere!

In the meantime I should provide some thumbnail sketches of where we're at and what we've been doing.  First off, my husband's "retirement" is really the loss of a job.  Since we've known this was coming for quite a while, we could plan for it, which I know is an advantage many people don't get.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  Our advance notice let us, just barely, pay off our mortgage entirely before his employment ended.  So we are now without an income, but also debt-free.  Mostly that's not scary at this point.  It feels pretty good, I have to tell you.  We've taken a few extra efforts here and there to shave expenses in an already pretty frugal existence. 

We've already hosted a number of WWOOF volunteers this year, and our first one brought with him an impressive amount of construction experience.  He helped us build a new mobile chicken coop to replace our clunky and deteriorating pen and coop system, which served honorably, if inelegantly, these past four years.  The new rig is an A-frame that provides a bit more area to the chickens and should require almost no cleaning, ever, since there's no floor. All the poop ends up directly on the lawn. The girls seem to have taken to it quite happily.  I think it's just about the most awesome chicken coop ever, if I say so myself.  I'll try to get a detailed post on this one up soon.  (Yes, I know my track record with "soon" is execrable.)

Other recent efforts have entailed a lot of digging and planting of rootstock.  The hedgerow project got moved way up the priority list by last year's Halloween snowstorm from hell.  The storm took out a major section of our fence in the backyard.  We're going with the strategy of leaving what remains of the old wooden fence where it is, and replacing what came down with livestock panels and the plants that will form the hedgerow.  Frankly, this looks ugly at the moment, and doesn't provide any of the privacy of the wooden fence.  But eventually, the livestock panels will be mostly hidden by the plants, which will give us privacy, and should look a lot better than the wooden fence.  Should we ever decide to use that space for dairy goats, the dual-element hedgerow will constitute a real barrier to the animals, while looking pretty and offering some browse.  So far our hedgerow plantings include rugosa roses, Siberian peashrub, cornelian cherry, a dwarf willow tree, and a golden elderberry.  It's likely that our black raspberry patch, which sort of backs into the property line, will become a hedgerow element too.  I have three tiny hazels and a ginseng plant that will be coddled for another year or two in containers before being added to the hedgerow.  We lucked out with the goat panels, finding them used for a small fraction of the price for new ones, which is considerable.  Right now a picture of the hedge project wouldn't really show much.  I'm hoping that by late summer or fall a second picture will provide an impressive contrast.  We'll see how it goes.

We also planted several new fruit trees, bushes and vines this month.  We're starting both table grapes and hardy kiwis on trellises, and experimenting with a new growing technique for several fruit trees.  The technique is called Backyard Orchard Culture.  The good folk at Root Simple blog wrote about it, and you can check out a summary at the website of the tree nursery which developed it.  Basically the idea is to cram normal fruit trees into places where they either won't have enough space to develop to their normal mature size, or where such full growth is undesirable.  Then you radically prune the tree as it grows to keep it very small.  Planting multiple fruit trees very close together is another part of BOC.  Doing so forces the trees to compete for resources, which helps keep them small.  While trees maintained in this manner will obviously never produce as much fruit as trees which realize their full growth, there are other advantages.  Having many small fruit trees means you can have a succession of harvests that are each just large enough to keep you in fresh fruit for a fortnight or so, without providing any pressure to preserve the bulk of an enormous harvest.   The six Asian pears and two extra apples we just planted in this way should (eventually) give us modest quantities of fresh fruit over a three-month span from mid-summer to early fall.  (We'd ordered two more apples which would have extended the season through mid-fall at least, but they were sold out.  We may add them next year.)  Since BOC trees are kept very small, maintenance and harvesting are very easy.  There's no need for ladders.  I expect that when I'm another twenty or thirty years older, the ability to do such work with both feet on the ground will be very appealing.

We've got a few broiler chickens going already this year.  My feeling is that last year we let our batch of six go far too long.  I wanted to use up the second bag of feed that I'd purchased for them, and that meant letting most of them live for ten weeks.  It gave us bigger birds, certainly.  But it also meant that by the end I had to move the birds three times per day just to keep them out of their own filth.  The Cornish cross breed that accounts for the vast majority of chicken meat in this country isn't genetically modified, but judging by how fast they grow, they may as well be.  At nine and ten weeks of age, even broilers that were kept on grass, not fed for 24 hours per day, and allowed plenty of space to move around, pretty much couldn't and didn't.  The speed at which these birds grow is an undeniable advantage for those who want to fly under the radar with backyard meat production.  You can finish the birds before anyone notices they're there.  But it's pretty much their only virtue.  This year I'll raise two batches of four birds each, and only until each batch finishes off an 80-pound bag of feed.  I expect that to mean slaughter at roughly seven weeks old.  Thus smaller birds, but more of them as compared with last year.

Finally, we've just started work on a tiny frog pond to be added to the center of our garden.  This is the only suitable spot we could find for it - one that's not on a footpath or directly under a large deciduous tree that will dump too many leaves into it in autumn.  Work sort of stalled with this after the hole was dug, as mild weather brought on many spring tasks very early.  But I want to get this done soonish, so that it can provide many benefits to our growing space this year.  I know for a certainty that adding a bit of water to the garden will bring a great deal of additional biodiversity, which can only be a good thing.  What I'm really hoping for though are some toads, which are supposed to be fantastic for slug control.  The lasagna mulching method I'm so fond of does tend to encourage slugs, though we've had such dry conditions the last couple years that it's sort of been a wash.  The plan is to stock the pond with duckweed for multiple uses, and probably a few goldfish for algae management.  If frogs or toads don't show up on their own, I may go looking for some tadpoles.  I know where to find some of these locally in the correct season, but I'm pretty sure that window has closed for the year. 

Hope spring is treating you all well.  Drop me a line and let me know what's new with you and your garden.