Sunday, August 15, 2010

Waste Consuming Reproduction Factories

In other words, I got four hens a few weeks ago.

Peter and Karen had raised these four hens from chicks at their home in Miller Bay Estates, not knowing that their homeowner's association covenant did not allow any livestock of any sort, no matter how small.

They didn't want to risk selling them to someone who would turn them into meat and they also wanted to be sure that the four girls could stay together; Knowing that I had intentions of turning half of my garden shed (the one I talked about in "The Big Move" no less) into a coop and creating a large pen in an otherwise unusable part of my yard, I came to mind right away.

I went over a few weeks ago and helped them take down their temporary coop, both hauling it away for them and scoring some free lumber and wire with which I could construct my own.

Since I have a few things to do before I can build their new coop and pen area, I made a temporary coop of my own using a combination of scrap lumber which I already had and the parts I took away from Peter and Karen. In the end I only threw away a few unusable pieces of lumber and wire from their original temporary coop.

I made a basic lumber frame out of 4x4's which used to be fence posts that were part of the fence which was falling over at the end of my garden and 2x4's from the fence which used to be falling over in my front yard.

Being a tall person I was concerned about standing room, so I went with a simple lean-to design which gives me enough head room to stand and keeps rain from collecting on the roof.

Here is the finished product.

They were using an igloo doghouse as the nestbox, and instead of building a custom nest box, I went for the quick solution of moving forward with the doghouse. The only alteration I made was building a short base for it to rest on, giving the chickens more ground room and making it easier to get eggs since it is at a higher level. I have some more lumber which I may use to build a more appropriate nest box, but whether or not I do that depends on how soon winter comes and if I will be able to finish their new coop instead. For now, the doghouse is a great summer home, as bulky as it is.

The odd angled boards which seem out of place in the foreground are roosts, which the hens love.

I made a ramp which they can use to get up to the nestbox, but they usually bypass the ramp and hop directly in.

In addition to the ramp, you can see that I made another small stand for their water dish. With chickens, anything that is on the ground is fair game for roosting, so their water was getting knocked over or filled with dirt daily. Now that I raised it up to head level for them, they don't knock it over or get mud in it anymore. One of their favorite places to take dirt baths is right below the stand.

Another item I made out of scrap lumber was a small feeder, which you can see below the ramp (it stays extra dry down there).

It's pretty easy to build these, I used scrap 2x6's to build the box, and though it's hard to see in this picture, I bent some old wire fencing over the top in an A form so that they have 4x2" slots to eat from. This keeps them from walking in the food or standing on the feeder. It also prevents them from fighting over the food, it is hard to explain but if you watch chickens eat they are constantly nabbing whatever they can right out of the mouths of their friends, and when they are trying to chase each other away from whatever they've found, they do so by pecking at each other in the same fashion.

They all came with names, in this picture the one looking at the camera in the back is Sadie, and the one pecking the ground is Macie. Sadie is a little bit bald on her head.

In this picture Sadie is again in the back, the closest chicken is Malalie and the one with a little more red around it's neck on the left is Sophie.... I think... We have a hard time telling the two apart.

Here you have Sophie in the foreground, Malalie just behind her and in the far back, partially blocked by the roost is Macie. Sadie is the one showing her butt to the camera.

They produce 3 to 4 eggs per day on average, some days they only leave us 1 and sometimes one of them doubles up and they make 5.

The coop is where they spend most of their time, but they get to come out at least once a day, we let them roam the yard freely with supervision (they love the garden, but we aren't done growing vegetables yet this year). They mostly hang around the fence and the shed, digging in the plants to find slugs and insects. If one of them finds a slug, they usually run across the yard at full speed to try keeping it for themselves, but the others chase them down and it's mayhem until one of them finally eats it.

Coughlin absolutely loves the chickens, even though he was afraid of them the first day. It only took him a few hours to start mimicking their clucking. When he wants to go see them now (which is several times a day) he grabs our pants and pulls while saying "bock, bock, bock" in a deep, scratchy voice. He will make a sound which is also very close to the word "chicken" now, but he will only say it after a lot of coaching.

Every night after work Coughlin and I go out together to pull up dandelions from the yard or weeds from the garden to feed to the chickens. Dandelion leaves are one of their favorite foods (aside from slug of course). It's mostly an excuse to work on weeding the lawn, but I pull a bucket full of dandelions out of the ground and dump them into the coop nightly and by the next morning there is usually no trace left of the large pile of greens. They consume the dandelions completely, tearing off every leaf first, then the stems and eventually the roots.

I usually set aside a handful for Coughlin and I to feed to the chickens ourselves. He brings one of his small chairs from the porch (with much grunting) and sits in front of the wire while I hold dandelions leaves and let the hens tear them up. Coughlin will occasionally hold out one or two per night, but the chickens grab it so quickly that it startles him (which he laughs about) so he prefers to drop them through the chicken wire instead. When we run out, he usually grabs strands of grass to feed them until I tell him that it's time to go in and say goodbye to the chickens. He waves his hand and says "buh" to them, turning around and repeating the process several times before we get to the porch.

The chickens eat about as much feed as Abby does in a day, but their feed is much cheaper. We feed them a mix of chicken feed pellets and scratch grains, which are cracked grains of wheat, corn, rye, etc. A 50lb bag of feed is about $14 and a 50lb bag of scratch grains is about $10. We also mix in some crushed oyster shell and grit every once in a while, the oyster shell providing enough calcium to produce egg shells and the grit being for digestion. Those two supplements are not completely necessary for us since our chickens are out often enough to forage for what they need or want. They are made mostly for chickens living in more confined spaces on an egg farm or otherwise.

Ultimately, I'll have a pen for them which borders the garden, which will also be fenced, and during the fall and winter I will let them keep my garden weed free and fertilized for me, while during the spring and summer they can eat blackberry bushes and stinging nettles which cover my hillside.

It's a pretty good trade in my opinion. I give the chickens all of the stuff I don't want and they turn it into eggs which I do want.

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