Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Two Lights Are Better Than One

We have gone through some major changes in our coop this year. First, tragedy struck. Our very own dog broke into our coop and all of our laying hens perished. We decided to beef up security and get some new chicks this spring. Built a dog proof fence, bought some more secure wire fencing, and I am lining the inside of our summer coop with some plywood for better predator proofing and more insulation. During this re-building time, it would be a great time to buy some new chicks. Decided on getting a couple of Rhode Island Red hens as well as the Barred Rocks just to see how they do. Both breeds are prolific egg layers. Since we were without any hens, we decided to raise the chicks outside, in an inner brooder box within the summer coop. A little repositioning of the feeder, and a little light install, and our brooding area was good to go.

My biggest fear when raising chicks is losing power, or popping a bulb and have the chicks freeze their tail feathers off. Its the most likely thing to happen as light bulbs burn out and breakers go off. It could be devastating if it happens at night or while I am at work. I set up one 100 watt white flood light on constantly, paired with a red 250 watt heat lamp on a thermostat. The regular flood light keeps it pretty warm, and if it was to burn out, we would have a secondary heat lamp to help the chicks maintain their balmy lifestyle of 95 °F. Also if the sun comes out the heat lamp use is instantly reduced by the thermostat. All I need to do is make sure they have food and water, and look out the window and make sure our lights are functioning.

Most of the work is in the hands of our Chicken Wrangler, Nicholas. He is in charge of gathering worms and feeding them some ground up rolled oats right out of his hand. Anytime its worm time, you can bet it will soon be followed by child giggles from the coop, as the chicks play "worm football". The chicks will also need some grass clippings and some grit added to their diet in a week or so. Feeding them these treats with our hands helps the chicks get used to us and imprints them with our presence early. They associate our hands with a yummy treat every time they see us. This helps to hand tame your chickens to make them easier to round up and handle. Often times you will have to inspect your chickens for health reasons, moving them from coop to coop, or just plain catching an escaped chicken. Hand taming will help you become a more effective chicken farmer, and help the all around health of your chickens.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Crowing Is Not Allowed

Some chickens grow up faster than others. One of our chicks started crowing at about 7 weeks old. Life on a farm can be a bit harsh at times, and sometimes a farmer has got to do what a farmer has got to do. I went out one morning to really find out which one of our chicks was crowing. I already tagged the chicks with colored leg bands so I could differentiate them from one another, and it was one of our Barred Rock chicks named "Pinky" (as he had a pink leg band on). This was my cue to get our slaughtering station going.

I created a chicken cone out of a gallon milk jug, by cutting out the entire bottom and making a larger opening on the top, and hung it upside down from my wood shed. Chicken cones are used so that a chicken itself doesn't damage it's meat during slaughter. Everything else was pretty simple, a garbage can, a bucket, a sharp knife, a rag and I hung some string over the garbage can so I could hang the carcass for skinning and gutting. There are plenty of instructional videos and web sites online that take you through what it takes to slaughter a chicken as you see fit. There is no one way to do it, there are great tricks to make your slaughter go smoothly and humanely. Just do some research and see if you are up to the task, and pick a method that works for you.

After performing the slaughter, I decided I wanted to skin my chickens, as I really don't want to go through the hassles of plucking the bird. Pinky was roasted in the oven with lemon pepper and garlic salt. The meat was very tasty, but was a bit tough, but it did not stop us from eating our young bird. At eight weeks old, it was more like an appetizer, but it made for a great late night BBQ sandwich. I think our next meat bird will go into the crock pot for a slower cooking time. This should make the meat more tender. I will be sure to post something about it as soon as the rooster crows. Until next time.

Two Coops Are Better Than One

In the midst of spring, with 8 new chicks to raise, and a broody hen re-introduced to the flock, I decided I needed more space to house my chickens. I wanted to build them a summer home, so the chickens could spend more time in the fresh air and sunshine, and I wouldn't have to supply a heat source when the weather is warm enough for my hens to live comfortably. More space also gives time for my chicks to grow up separate from my adult hens, and I can slowly introduce them to each other.

I had a make shift wood shed in the corner of my chicken yard, and decided it would be a good place to start. It had a roof that seemed to keep the area somewhat dry and the fence supplied me with two already built walls to work with. So I took to task building them a big feeder, laying boxes, and roosts for sleeping. I used common wood and some burlap to construct some superior laying boxes, made some roosts from alder limbs, and made a giant feeder that only requires filling about once a month. This summer coop is also tall enough for a person to walk in there and tend to watering, feeding and egg gathering.

I went to my local fish & tackle shop here and found some black nylon netting you could buy in bulk. Its used to replace the netting on large crab pots and comes in 20 foot widths and is cut to size. I purchased a 25ft x 20ft section of the stuff for about $50 and its really great to work with. You could save some money and get a hold of used seine nets from a local fisherman as well. It will keep out flying predators like ravens and eagles, but will not do much for anything else. This netting may detour a dog a little bit, but if the dog wants in, it can probably chew threw this stuff. I just needed a barrier to keep wild birds away from the feeder, as well as something to separate the chickens from each other. During the winter months the summer home will be abandoned and the surviving laying hens will move into the original coop, as it has the regulated heat source. So far the hens seem to like it, and I like having more chicken space.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hens ARE Incubators!

9 - Two Day Old Chicks
I don't have much to say about our Mama Hen, except she is one fine mom. First of all she took care of those eggs so well she had to be removed from the nest to eat and drink. Then once the chicks were born, she will not be distracted from their care. I have heard of other mom hens crushing chicks and abandoning them once they hatch, but the nature is strong in this one. It was tough to get pictures of the freshly hatched chicks as they were under a very protective mom, and if we removed the mom, we only had about 2 minutes before mom would freak out, and the excitement of mom being gone makes the chicks move around a lot, causing blurry pics.

We candled our eggs to find 9 viable ones, and they all hatched...except, on day two, we lost one of the chicks, leaving only 8. It was easy to notice, as mama hen moved all her chicks to the other side of the brooder box. After removing the dead chick from the area, she still wouldn't sit there for a couple of days. She settled in and we kept them in the garage for about 2 weeks. Then the weather broke and we took our brooder box out to the backyard. It took some adjustment for mom and babies to get used to the hustle and bustle of our backyard in the spring, lots of noises and we had a smokey fire going as we were burning yard waste. After some adjustment we let them roam around the yard to scratch around for the first time.

I must say its very different having a mama hen around the chicks. When you mail order them they are pretty attached to us humans. We provide the food and the entertainment when no mom is present. A mothered flock of chicks really don't want to hang out with humans very much, they don't eat out of our hand and really don't like being held.

Mother hen will scratch around for the chicks. If she finds a worm, or a pebble of something good to eat, she will not gobble it up. She will sort of toss it aside and the chicks will fight over it. They hover around mom's beak as she pecks and scratches and eat what she digs up for them.

Nick named the brown chick "Chewy"
I think its tough to get your hands on a broody hen, but if you have the means it seems a lot easier than hatching eggs in an incubator. I really didn't have to do much but make sure mama hen was safe and warm and fed...and she did and is doing the rest. The new chicks are out of the garage and living full time in my coop, and the laying hens are now in my 'summer' coop I just built, but that is a topic for another post.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Broody Hens Are Weird

I'm convinced broody hens have magical powers. First of all, to stop eating and drinking, while pooping once every 5 days is impressive. I suppose in the natural world a broody hen would make her way under a secluded bush and disappear from her flock for the 21 days it takes to brood a clutch of eggs, only to emerge later with her chicks under foot. For a backyard chicken farmer, it is fun to see this natural process take place. Our hen is so devoted to her eggs, we make sure to remove her off the nest, and plop her down in front of her food and water once a day. It takes her a minute or two to come out of her zombie-state, pecks a few bites of food, and drinks a bit of water, only to hear the call of nature and return to her clutch within a few minutes.

Speaking of call of nature, one thing I found interesting, is that eggs and mother hens communicate. Scientists have researched this by putting tiny microphones on each egg and observing the hens activity. A hatching egg must be rotated quite often in order for it to hatch, and the mother hen takes care of this with her feet and beak, but what is interesting is scientists have learned the mother hen can hear sounds from within the egg and determine how mature they are. She will naturally move these eggs more towards the center of the nest. Also, close to hatching the chick will peep a bit louder, and signal the hen to get ready for them to hatch.

One thing that is nice about our broody hen is her disposition. Some broody hens can get aggressive when approached and practically attack you if you come near. Our hen allows us to pet her, remove her from the nest, handle eggs and clean up her space without even getting upset. Also, some broody hens are not as vigilant when taking care of their eggs, wandering off the nest for too long and switching nests can be a common thing, but our hen is very committed to her eggs.

We did candle our eggs to find two were not fertile as the inside seemed clear, and another had been contaminated with bacteria as it had the "blood ring", leaving us with only 9 viable eggs in the clutch. Naturally, we removed these from the nest. Candleing eggs is not very easy when you first try it. We kept looking at fertile eggs looking for the blood veins commonly known as the "spider". Seems as these eggs have brown shells, it was very difficult to see, but I never really saw it. What was visible later was the "air sac", and opposite that was a very dark area. As a beginner, this is probably what I should be looking for in an egg after about day 12. I assume I will learn more as I go, but that's what I know from this initial experience. It's important to check the eggs early, as it is recommended not to handle the eggs in the last week of incubation. So, from this point on, it is all up to our hen.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Raise the Candler!

Building a candler, to inspect eggs is pretty easy, but since my brooding box was multi purpose, I wanted the candeler to double as a base for a brooding light, and also a base for just a regular 75 watt bulb to keep my mama hen warm as she broods those eggs. Whether I'm brooding eggs, chicks, or dealing with a sick chicken, a light source in the enclosure could be beneficial, especially if it doubles as a base for my candler.

A brooding light is a light you put over mother-less chicks you usually get shipped from a hatchery. These bulbs are high watt bulbs and would require a porcelain light socket, so I made sure to buy one of those. Also they can be of considerable weight, so I will make sure to secure my porcelain socket with a piece of plumbers tape, once I find out where I put it. The rest of the supplies were scrap pieces I had laying around the house, a round piece of plywood, an electrical cord with a plug, a coffee can, a 75watt bulb, and a couple of screws and staples.

I punched a hole in the bottom of the coffee can and just sort of made it as round as possible, and placed a wet paper towel over the opening. Then, I pulled the electrical wire through the center hole in the plywood, wired up my socket and mounted it with some temporary screws to keep it from hitting the inside of the coffee can, as it is made out of light cardboard and I don't want it to catch fire. I then stapled the wire to the back of the plywood just to further secure it.

The nice thing about this design is that the coffee can can be easily separated from the light, with the egg still in place and there is less danger of over heating. When it comes to candling an egg, the higher watt the bulb the better, so being able to remove the can or whatever you use to block the excess light is an advantage.

I tested the candler on an unfertilized egg from our flock, and it seems to work pretty good. I may want to make the hole a bit more of a perfect circle to prevent light from leaking out from the can, but I feel as though we will be able to see what we need to when the time comes. Next step is to mount this light in the brooder box in such a way that it can easily be removed for candling purposes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Building and Brooding

Nicholas and our broody hen "Sesame".
Okay...I will admit it, raising chickens can be a little bit boring. Once I raised my chicks and built everything to keep them safe and warm, I really haven't done much other than, clean up, feed my chickens and eat their eggs all winter. The most exciting thing that has happened lately, is that one of our hens went broody. What this means is, even though her eggs are not fertile, she can't help but want to sit on them all day and malnourish herself. The signs are pretty easy to notice. First of all the hen will want to do nothing but sit in the nest. She will act funny, sometimes spacey, and get cranky when you approach her while she is in the nest. They get a different kind of screech to their call, and if you remove her from the nest, the hen will often sit herself down wherever you move her to, and will probably make her way to the nest again very quickly given half the chance.

Nicholas as we build our brooding box.
What is a chicken owner to do? The big downsides are that this hen is not taking really good care of herself, no longer pumping out the egg a day the others are, and she is hogging up valuable nesting real estate, which somewhat stresses out the other hens. There are controversial methods to stop a hen from being broody, like dunking them in cold water for a few seconds, putting them in a separate wire bottom cage and not allow them to get cozy, and another was to place the broody hen in a completely dark place alone with only food and water for 24 hours. Though most people agree, you can't really change hormone behaviors with these remedies, some experienced farmers swear by it. Most farmers over the years have simply slaughtered broody hens to have a more harmonious flock. This sort of weeds out the broody trait of future generations of chickens, but naturally comes back up now and again. The final method is to get some fertile eggs under that hen and let her raise a family. This is something I have wanted to try for various reasons.

Nicholas and our finished brooding box.
My main reason is to re-supply our flock with egg layers, as our hens will only lay eggs for about 2 years. You can order chicks or fertile eggs by mail every year, but for the backyard Juneau chicken farmer, this can be costly as small amount of chicks cost more to ship sometimes. I can get 5 live chicks or 12 fertile hatching eggs shipped to our home for about $40. I would love to not spend $40 a year to resupply our chicken genetic pool, yet without a rooster, it seems I must get resupplied from somewhere. Our local feed store has fertile eggs for sale at $5 dollars a dozen, yet they don't control breeds, so the chicks will be a mixed bag of different kinds of chickens. I have decided to get some of these fertile hatching eggs, build myself a brooding box, and give this hen the building blocks to take her natural instincts and turn it into a positive thing for our flock. Not only would it be a cool thing for me and my son to do, but if I get things going and learn as much as possible, I can raise chickens for slaughter, and probably become a cheaper source of chicks for my community.

Clutch of local fertilized eggs.
We built a brooding box, but we wanted something to serve multiple purposes. First we wanted it to be easily moveable and able to fit in a vehicle if we wanted to take our chickens to a Fair or to display them for some community event. We also wanted to be able to put a broody hen and chicks in there for natural incubation, and also wanted to be able to raise chicks we have ordered from a hatchery. We wanted to also use it to separate a possible sick chicken. And lastly, we wanted it to be weatherproof, so we can put it out in the yard as part of a chicken tractor during the warmer summer months. So we made it light and small yet tall enough to house a full grown chicken, put a waterproof roof on it, and put high sides to protect brooding chicks from drafts.

Sesame brooding her new clutch of eggs.
Next, we went to our local feed store and purchased a dozen hatching eggs. The nice lady there got us un-washed eggs laid the same day to ensure freshness, and she did not refrigerate them. We put the brooder box in our garage for warmth, and placed our broody chicken in there, and I guess after reading up a bit, its better to do this at night, as our hen really didn't want to sit on the eggs for a couple of hours. I assumed the hen would have to sit on the eggs right away so they would hatch, but as long as the temperature stays within 40°F - 80°F, the eggs can safely wait for 4 days to (a bit riskier) 2 weeks. Our eggs were only exposed for about 12 hours, so we were happy about that.

The next step is to candle the eggs after 5 and 10 days under mom to determine which eggs are viable, and remove any that may burst and spread bacteria. Im finding lots of very interesting and informative info on this subject, and I will share them on my next post. For now I have to build an egg candler...Until next time.