Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers

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Black soldier fly larvae and adultIf you want to feed insects to your chickens, black soldier fly larvae are probably the easiest and cheapest option.  Unlike mealworms, you won't need to buy storebought food for the insects, and you won't need to buy pheremones every year like you would for Japanese beetles.

What are black soldier fly larvae?  The little grubs are the larval stage of a flying insect that is naturally found in U.S. zones 7 to 10 (and maybe a little beyond that --- we're in zone 6 and I've found them in my garden.)  The adults look a bit like miniscule wasps, but they don't sting.  The larvae look like dark, flat grubs.

I first saw black soldier fly larvae in my outdoors worm bin when I added too much wet, high nitrogen waste at once.  The adult black soldier fly lays its eggs in rotting fruits and vegetables, manure, or meat scraps, and within two weeks the eggs have hatched and turned into mature larvae.  Then the larvae crawl out of the feed so that they can pupate in the ground.

If you want to go the easy route, you can buy a special bin (the Bio-Pod) for $180 which will make your black soldier fly operation completely painless.  The bin is just a spot to put your rotting fruits and vegetables, with a ramp that allows the larvae to crawl out into a collection container.  All you have to do is add food waste then take the larvae to the chickens once a day.

We don't want to pony up that much cash, so we plan to try to build our own bin this summer.  Check out this article for information on what a good bin looks like.  Meanwhile, consider making one of our homemade chicken waterers to round out your chickens' healthy diet with clean water.

This post is part of our Homemade Chicken Feed series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted early Monday morning, March 1st, 2010 Tags:
Harvey Ussery's greenhouse worm bins

Harvey Ussery, my role model in the chicken permaculture world, uses earthworms as a handy source of protein for his chickens.  I'm unlikely to follow in his footsteps since the infrastructure demands are quite high, but I wanted to share his process in case some of you are keen to give it a shot.

Harvey has a big greenhouse, in the center of which he has sunk worm bins into the soil (surrounded by cinderblocks to keep the worms in place.)  He puts big sheets of plywood on top of the bins so that he can use the worm bin area as an aisle to walk down.  The bins are full of horse manure from a neighbor along with the typical redworms you'd use in the worm bin under your kitchen sink.

Harvesting worms from a big worm bin

The worms decompose the manure and breed like crazy in the process.  At intervals, Harvey scoops out five gallon buckets full of castings and worms and tosses the whole thing to his chickens.  The birds scratch through, eating up the worms and working the compost into the soil.  Free protein and soil amendment all at once --- what could be better than that?

Want to keep your chickens healthy?  Check out all of our innovative chicken feed ideas, or our homemade chicken waterer that keeps water clean.

This post is part of our Homemade Chicken Feed series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted late Tuesday afternoon, March 2nd, 2010 Tags:

Along with black soldier fly larvae and growing our own grains, duckweed is at the top of our list for this year's chicken feed experiments.  This little plant was a ubiquitous part of my childhood since it grew wild in the ponds I played in.  I transplanted some into my own backyard water garden by the simple method of scooping a few leaves up into a quart jar and emptying them into their new home.  Given full sunlight and still water, duckweed will grow like crazy until it coats the surface of a pond and has to be scooped out to make room for other plants.  Suffice it to say that duckweed is easy to grow and doesn't need much infrastructure after the original pond-building.

What I wasn't aware of at the time is that duckweed is extraordinarily high in protein.  You'll remember from my chart of protein content in chicken feed ingredients that corn is 9% protein and dry-roasted soybeans are 37% protein.  Well, depending on who you talk to (and presumably depending on the species of duckweed, since there are several), duckweed is 30 to 50% protein.  Wow!  I've read that duckweed can make up to 40% of a chicken's diet, with 25% being more optimal --- that means we'll be paying 25 to 40% less for chicken feed once we get our duckweed operation up and running.  One study suggests that duckweed may be best fed dried and I can envision drying stations where I just scoop duckweed out of the pond and toss it on a table in our hot summer sun.

Duckweed likes high fertility water, but that's pretty easy to achieve.  Some folks take the graywater coming out of their kitchen sinks and channel it into duckweed gardens --- the duckweed cleans the water while producing free chicken feed.  In my backyard water garden, I just threw several goldfish in the pond and the fish poop was sufficient to keep the duckweed growing like crazy.  If you are able to get your fish to reproduce (which mine did after a year or two), then you could even give your chickens a fish now and then as an even higher boost of protein.

Speaking of water and chickens, don't forget that your hens need clean water.  Our automatic chicken waterers are full of clean water to keep your chickens healthy.

This post is part of our Homemade Chicken Feed series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted early Wednesday morning, March 3rd, 2010 Tags:
Vermont compost company raises chickens on food scraps

The most intriguing chicken-raising operation I've ever read about entails running chickens free range through a compost facility.  Vermont Compost Company raises 1,200 laying hens, feeding them no feed other than the food scraps and the insects that naturally grow in their mounds of compost.  The roving poultry spend their days turning the compost and laying eggs --- isn't that the perfect chicken life?

Although we probably don't want to move to an industrial-scale compost facility, many urban chicken-keepers use this idea on a much smaller scale to supplement their chicken feed.  Some restaurants or grocery stores are willing to keep a bin of discarded food as long as you promise to pick it up every day or two, and the scraps are often enough to provide all the feed your chickens need.  We live too far from anywhere to put this idea into practice, but I'd love to hear from anyone who has turned trash into chicken feed.

This post is the last in our current series on homemade chicken feed.  I hope that you've enjoyed seeing the cornucopia of options, and I'll be sure to keep you updated as our experiments progress over the year.  Meanwhile, check out our homemade chicken waterer, great for use in any chicken coop or tractor.

This post is part of our Homemade Chicken Feed series.  Read all of the entries:
Posted early Thursday morning, March 4th, 2010 Tags:
Chick drinking from an automatic chicken waterer.

Last fall, Titus Blackwood emailed me to ask if our Avian Aqua Miser will work with day old chicks.  "Well, I'm not sure," I replied.  "But if you give it a shot, can you take some photos and let me know?"

Closeup of chick drinking from an automatic chicken waterer.

Chicks drinking from a bucket watererIt turns out that our automatic chicken waterers not only work with day old chicks, they are vastly preferable to old-fashioned waterers.  Titus raised over 150 laying hens on the Avian Aqua Miser, and reports that she ended up with healthier birds than ever before.  She was so pleased with the results that she changed all of her birds over to nipple-based waterers.

"It's easier to teach a day old chick than an older bird," Titus reports.  "And we've had significantly fewer pecking problems since using the Avian Aqua Miser."

Many thanks to Kristin Mahony from Ranch Alacrity and co-owner of Rocky Mountain Reindeer for taking the photos.  And of course, a big thank you to Titus who has since become an online buddy!

Posted early Friday morning, March 5th, 2010 Tags:

Although we lived on a farm for the first eight years of my life, I was introduced to chickens after we moved into town.  Our city block was home to a seemingly wild band of roving poultry that roosted in the trees, nested in brushy thickets, and scrounged for their food.  I asked my mother what she remembered about our wild chickens and her tale gives some insight into how chickens live in the wild.

--- Anna

Feeding chicks of the wild chickensSo far, the easiest to find photo of "our" wild chicks is one taken in '97 of Maggie [Anna's sister] with a flock of little chicks, feeding them out of her hands on the front porch. But we arrived 10 years earlier, in '87, and I could swear those chicks were there when we got there! I wonder if you remember how they would rush across the street, usually from some big trees on our side across and down to the big maple and hemlocks, where they also got fed, by the old lady who lived alone in a house that has now been torn down.

At that time, Reggie M. [a neighbor] lived near us, before his house burned, probably in '89 or so. Around that time, at least by '90, Errol [Anna's father] had set out rhubarb and asparagus over at the edge of the side yard property where Reggie's house used to be.  And this is where the wild chickens would scratch around, where they had nests, and even where the chicks hatched!

What kind were they? I think they were connected to the game fowl that ran wild in a cemetery a few miles away. While we still had the side yard, they were pretty balanced, that is, about as many hens as roosters. Yes, the roosters did crow every morning! And, yes, there were at least three different flocks of little chicks rushing around, with one batch in our backyard sometimes having a problem of falling in the pond out back! Somehow there were fewer cars on the street then, and the young guys who sped by usually tried to slow down, especially if they were going down to visit Reggie, who also fed the chickens scraps of his breakfasts.

Do you remember a pelting rain--or even hail--one June, that drove one flock to shelter under a rhubarb plant? I hope you remember eating their eggs! I think you also remember the stray dog we saved, who had survived on eggs and beer from tossed beer cans.

I know you remember when you brought a frozen rooster and hen that had dropped out of one of the trees, up here to a box in the Playhouse, with a hot-water bottle and a heating lamp to revive them! And these two were about the only survivors of that killing late-spring storm, probably in '97. Or so we thought. The little chicks Maggie is feeding on the porch had some scrawny rooster uncles, and by the next year the balance between hens and roosters was all off. Suddenly there seemed to be only one or two hens, and too many roosters by far--and drivers now tried to even the balance. In fact, with all the roosters, the mating, and the crowing, Jackson [another neighbor] stepped in.

By that time the sheltering rhubarb and asparagus had been forcibly relocated to the back yard, where George also was tied. Now the big old honeysuckle bush I've still kept was the roosting spot for the strongest roosters, and there seemed to be no little chicks able to hatch.

I knew they were in trouble, but thought Nature would take its course, even though I realized, with the end of "our" side yard our whole neighborhood was becoming more suburban, more gentrified.

There were just too many crowing roosters for Jackson, who hired a man and his son to catch them and take them away. At first I tried to protest, for after all, they were coming in my yard to get them! But the fact was, I had never really adopted them to care for them. So when I had to be away, with George, too, they all were caught except two. Even these last two finally were caught, at dusk one day, but not before the wildest rooster had flown to crow his last from the top of our house! But he had to roost somewhere, and it was back to the bush, and caught in the dark, for him.

This week I'll be sharing other stories of chicken flocks I have known.  If you've got a chicken story you'd like to share, be sure to comment!  Otherwise, check out our homemade chicken waterer, great in coops and tractors.

This post is part of our Chicken Pasturing Systems series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Monday morning, March 8th, 2010 Tags:

Chicken jumping out of a traditional chicken coop.Although we considered trying to domesticate the hen and rooster we saved during that snowy winter, my first foray into chicken keeping came almost a decade later.  I was living on the farm owned by Mark's aunt and uncle.  The old log barn halfway down the driveway had a chicken coop attached, and when I showed an interest in livestock, I was quickly given a dozen or so hens and a rooster to put in the coop --- a mixture of Buff Orpingtons and Australorps.

The coop was large and airy, and had a large run attached, but before we knew it the ground was scratched down to bare earth.  This is the way the majority of Americans raise their chickens, and at the time I didn't know any better.  The eggs were still better than storebought, but the hens didn't lay much in the winter and the yolks were nowhere near as yellow as those we get from our hens today.

Emptying out a traditional chicken watererHere I am emptying out their poopy chicken waterer.  Mark hadn't arrived on the scene yet, so I spent a lot of time pounding frozen waterers against the ground to knock the ice out and lugging buckets of water down the hill.  Now, of course, we'd install one of our automatic chicken waterers and at least clean up that portion of the coop.

Mark's aunt grew up with chickens, raised in the traditional farm style.  She told me that her family always cut a fresh red cedar to put in the coop each year.  They believed that the cedar kept lice and other bugs away.

This post is part of our Chicken Pasturing Systems series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Tuesday morning, March 9th, 2010 Tags:

Barred Plymouth Rock in a chicken tractorMy third foray into chickens came almost by accident.  Mark and I had moved onto our farm and were chatting with a neighbor about our wish to become more self-sufficient.  At the time, we barely had two pennies to rub together, so when he suggested buying us twenty chickens, letting us take care of them, and sharing the eggs, we lept at the idea.

I'd done some reading since my coop days, though, so Mark built three chicken tractors to house our new hens.  The hens were Golden Comets who had just started laying, and they loved the grass and bugs they found in each day's fresh section of grass.  I've already posted at great length about why we love chicken tractors and how to build a cheap chicken tractor, so I won't go into that here.  Suffice it to say that once Mark invented the Avian Aqua Miser, we thought we'd completely solved the chicken housing problem.

This post is part of our Chicken Pasturing Systems series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 10th, 2010 Tags:

Rhode Island red roosterChicken tractors are perfect for use in a confined space like a lawn or garden.  But as we considered branching out into raising our own birds for meat, the idea of multiplying our chicken tractors by three began to seem unfeasible.

Over the last three years, we'd given several hens away and then added some new chicks to bring us back up to nine hens in three tractors.  The nine hens laid enough eggs to keep us eating farm fresh all through the winter (a tribute to our tractors since our neighbors' chickens all stopped laying for a while.)  During the summer, I wished we had twice as many chickens to keep the yard mowed and fertilized, but during the coldest week of winter I wished we had half as many since the grassy areas began to give out and churn into masses of mud.  Overall, nine hens in three small tractors seemed to be our two acre cultivated area's carrying capacity, and I couldn't conceive of adding several more tractors to house broilers.

We'd also discovered the chicken tractor's weakest link --- roosters.  Chicken tractors have been used on a large scale to raise male chickens for meat, but the cockerels are slaughtered before they fully mature and begin to fight.  As we'd discovered, chicken tractors are also great for hens as long as you get the nest box right so that they don't lay on the ground.  But a mixture of hens and a rooster in a tractor is a nightmare.  We couldn't fit the recommended 10 to 12 hens and a rooster in a tractor, so the rooster overmated his harem of five.  When our hens' backs became featherless and bloody, the rooster went into our bellies.

Without a rooster, though, we're stuck always ordering chicks, which is not so appealing.  Clearly there had to be a solution to our meat bird dilemma.  (While you're waiting for the answer, check out our homemade chicken waterer, great in tractors.)

This post is part of our Chicken Pasturing Systems series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Thursday morning, March 11th, 2010 Tags:

Chickens in the woodsThis year, we're going to experiment with raising broilers on a forest pasture.  The method we've conceived is a lot like the way farmers used to raise chickens around here, letting them have free run of the woods to collect most of their food.  The traditional Appalachian farm family probably kept few or no chickens alive over the winter when food was scarce, but they also fed their chickens little or nothing during the growing season when bugs and fruits were abundant.

I haven't been able to find much information about forest pastures for chickens, so we're making most of it up as we go along.  A google search to find the carrying capacity of an acre churns up widely varying results, but conventional wisdom seems to come down to this:

  • Traditional "free range" farmers put about 80 to 100 chickens on an acre.  At this level, your pasture won't be eaten down to bare earth, but your chickens won't get much sustenance from the land either.  Various sources estimate that chickens on this type of pasture may get between 5 and 20% of their food from the pasture.
  • Less scientifically backed sources suggest that about 10 chickens can get all of their food from an acre of land.  This is more like what we're considering, but I think the websites we found are far too vague to be counted on.  After all, winter is the down time --- could ten chickens survive on an acre in the winter?  If so, could we raise three or four times that many on an acre in the summer, slaughtering most of them so that only a few breeding birds have to forage there during the cold weather?  Are there crops we can plant in parts of the pasture to give the chickens more nutrition?  Does that number consider rotating chickens through multiple paddocks to give the overgrazed regions time to recover?  Perhaps most importantly, how will we know if our chickens aren't getting enough forage in a forest pasture and need some supplemental feeding?

We're thrilled to be trying to answer those questions this year.  Maybe by this time next year, we will have licked the chicken pasture probem just like Mark licked the dirty chicken water problem.

This post is part of our Chicken Pasturing Systems series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, March 12th, 2010 Tags:

White Cochin henThere are hundreds of different varieties of chickens out there to choose from, so figuring out the right one for your needs can be a bit daunting.  This week, I'm going to highlight the pros and cons of the chicken breeds I've had personal contact with.  I hope you'll chime in and let me know your favorite breed(s) and why you love them.  Are they good pets, wonderful mothers, prolific egg-layers, great meat birds, or something else entirely?

I'm going to start off the week with a bit of a dud.  Two years ago, we went in on a somewhat random assortment of chickens with a friend.  We brought home Golden Comets, Barred Rocks, and a White Cochin, the last of which was our least favorite by far.

First, I should mention her good point --- she's very, very broody.  At one year of age, our White Cochin decided it was time to become a mother and she started sitting on the nest.  Since we don't have a rooster in our flock, this broodiness went for naught.  All summer, we pushed her out of the way to take out the eggs, but she just kept sitting.  Finally, we gave in and got some fertilized eggs from another friend for her to sit on.

White Cochin in a brood coop

Here's where the White Cochin showed her mettle --- even after trying to brood for months on end, she sat on that nest all day and all night.  Finally, the chicks started hatching...and our broody hen pecked them to death.  Apparently, our White Cochin was smart enough to realize that the black chicks coming out of those eggs couldn't possibly be her offspring, but that intelligence made her pretty worthless to us since we couldn't even use her as a brood hen.

Except for her tendency to go broody, our White Cochin seems to have no clue how to live on a farm.  While her tractor-mates are busily scratching in the weeds to find bugs, she usually hops up on a perch and takes a nap.  Her eggs are a slightly different color than everyone else's, so we can tell that she rarely lays.  Actually, as I write this, I can't quite realize why we haven't eaten her yet.  I would recommend a White Cochin only to someone who wants a gentle pet with no redeeming livestock features.

Have you had experience with a cochin and disagree?  Leave a comment and let me know!  Meanwhile, check out our homemade chicken waterer, enjoyed just as much by a broody cochin as a hard-working egg-layer.

Posted early Monday morning, March 15th, 2010 Tags:

Golden Comet henIf you want lots of huge, brown eggs and are willing to buy chicks every few years to renovate your flock, the Golden Comet should be your top choice.  This variety is a hybrid between a White Rock female and a New Hampshire male and is one of the hybrid varieties in which the males are very easy to tell from the females as soon as they hatch.  As a result, if you order all female Golden Comet chicks, you're nearly guaranteed to receive all females (as opposed to many other chicken varieties where sexing is a chancy business and you'll often end up with a rooster amid your hens.)

 Scientists use the term "hybrid vigor" to explain the way an offspring of two different varieties (or even species) may be bigger or stronger than either parent.  For example, mules are often stronger and larger than both their horse or donkey parents.  Similarly, Golden Comets seem to show true hybrid vigor in the egg-laying department.  The internet notes that Golden Comet hens lay around 300 eggs per year, and I would add that while most chicken varieties slack off or stop laying completely in the winter, our girls lay straight through.  We even have some hens who are starting their fifth year of life and who are still laying (though at a lower rate than their younger friends.)
Brown eggs
On the other hand, the one major disadvantage of Golden Comets also stems from their hybrid nature.  Gardeners among you are probably aware that there's no point in saving seeds from hybrid vegetables since the seeds will sprout into dozens of different kinds of plants.  Golden Comets are the same way --- you're not going to get Golden Comet chicks if you breed a Golden Comet hen with a Golden Comet rooster.  Instead, you just have to buy new chicks every time you want to expand your flock.

Free ranging Golden Comet

Thrifty Chicken BreedsWe've found our Golden Comets to be good foragers, adept at scratching in the dirt and very alert to the grubs I toss their way while weeding the garden.  They're friendly too, and lie down in a submissive crouch when I get too close, making them easy to catch if they end up somewhere they shouldn't be.  They enjoy scraps and quickly wolf down any compost we drop into their tractors.  All in all, unless you want to be completely self sufficient, Golden Comets are hard to beat as a backyard egg-layer.  Small surprise that they're the most commonly pictured breed in chicken-related articles and blogs.

When you put in your chick order this spring, don't forget to order our automatic chicken waterers to get your birds off to a healthy start.

Posted early Tuesday morning, March 16th, 2010 Tags:

Barred Plymouth RocksBarred Plymouth Rocks are another popular breed, although I've been less thrilled with them than I thought I'd be.  These birds are billed as dual-purpose egg and meat birds, but I've found that our two year old birds lay only as well as our four year old Golden Comets in the winter (which is to say, not much.)  They also seem to be pretty shoddy in the foraging department, spending sunny afternoons drowsing on their perches while the Golden Comets are busy scratching in the dirt.  (Can you tell that I really value productivity?)

On the other hand, we might be more pleased with this variety if we used them the way they were intended.  Until World War II, Barred Plymouth Rocks were probably the most popular birds in the entire United States and they were usually kept in mixed farmyard flocks.  Each year, farmers would let the hens set and produce chicks, then eat the males as they reached full size.  If that sounds like your chicken flock, Barred Plymouth Rocks might be worth a shot.

Please leave a comment if you disagree and think your Barred Plymouth Rocks are the cat's meow.  (Many people on the internet do seem to think so.)  Meanwhile, check out our homemade chicken waterer, providing clean water to the whole flock.

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 17th, 2010 Tags:

Cornish cross chickensWhite Cochins, Golden Comets, and Barred Plymouth Rocks are the only varieties I've had sufficient experience with to really rate.  But I've stumbled across some other chickens that deserve a mention, especially in the broiler world.  The term "broiler" refers to any chicken that is eaten at a relatively young age.  While you can raise a dual purpose breed like the Barred Rock to the broiler stage, most people who want to raise meat chickens go for a special variety, the most common of which is the Cornish Cross.

The Cornish Cross is a hybrid between a White Plymouth Rock and a Dark Cornish.  Like Golden Comets, the resulting hybrid vigor is a bit astounding.  While the parent breeds take 12 to 20 weeks to reach slaughtering weight, Cornish Crosses may get there in as little as 8 weeks.  People also love the big breast on Cornish Crosses, very different from the slenderer breasts on more traditional broiler breeds.

However, Cornish Crosses have some major issues.  They grow so fast that they often overload their hearts and legs and die before getting old enough to slaughter.  If I thought our White Cochin was a lazy hen, I'd be shocked by the lack of foraging ability among Cornish Crosses --- I've been to visit operations where the pastured birds spend all day sitting in the shade, panting.  Connoisseurs of chicken meat also note that Cornish Crosses lack the subtle flavor of old-fashioned birds (although I've also heard pastured poultry farmers who raise traditional breeds lament the way that their customers turn up their noses at the more flavorful meat --- it is probably an acquired taste.)
Dark Cornish chickens
This year, we're going to be experimenting with one of the parents of the Cornish Cross --- the Dark Cornish.  This traditional broiler breed is reputed to take up to twenty weeks to reach slaughter weight, but they are excellent foragers and are nearly feral in their ability to fend for themselves.  I'll be sure to let you know whether the Dark Cornish are worth the extra time.

While you're waiting on our results, check out our homemade chicken waterer.  We use them in our chicken tractors and plan to add them to our forest pasture as well.

Posted early Thursday morning, March 18th, 2010 Tags:

Dominique roosterIf our forest pasture experiment works out well this year, we may try to convert our egg-laying flock to a more sustainable breed next year.  I'm very much in the research stages at the moment, and would love your feedback.  I'm looking for a variety that breeds true (so Golden Comets are out), forages well, and lays plenty of eggs (although I don't require the massive number that we get from our Golden Comets.)

Since foraging is at the top of my list, I wandered around the internet to see which breeds were popular during the Great Depression.  Dominiques seemed to roll off everyone's tongues, along with Rhode Island Reds.  Other interesting egg-layers include Hamburgs, Egyptian Fayounis, and Buckeyes.  Have you raised chickens that you think would fit the bill?  Please leave a comment and let me know!  Meanwhile, check out our automatic chicken waterers, perfect in all types of coops and tractors.

Posted early Friday morning, March 19th, 2010 Tags:
Me and Mom

I've been enjoying working through my thoughts on homemade chicken feed, chicken pasturing systems, and chicken varieties over the last few weeks.  But in the process, I've let a few things slide.  So, this week I'm going to post all of those backlogged entries that didn't make the cut in previous weeks.

First of all, I want to welcome my mom to the Avian Aqua Miser team!  Mom needed a job and we needed some help, so it's a perfect match.  She's been hard at work burning CDs and preparing do it yourself kits, just in time for the chick season to get underway.  She was also responsible for the blog post a couple of weeks ago about wild chickens in suburbia.  Thanks, Mom!

In other news, Mark is engrossed in another chicken-related invention.  I think that his new invention is every bit as exciting as the Avian Aqua Miser.  What is it?  Well, I've promised not to tell until he works all of the kinks out.  Stay tuned!

Posted early Monday morning, March 22nd, 2010 Tags:
Dark Cornish chicks

Three weeks ago, we ordered 15 Dark Cornish chicks from Natures Hatchery, to be shipped the next week.  Then waited, and waited, and waited.  I called the post office --- any chicks?  "Nope," our nice postmistress said.  "Have you tried calling the hatchery?"

So I called the hatchery, got voice mail, left a message.  Waited a few more days.  Still nothing.  So I emailed the hatchery.  Nothing.  Called the hatchery again.  Nothing.  By now, it had been two and a half weeks since I ordered our chicks, and a week and a half since they were supposed to ship.  I finally gave up, left the hatchery a message canceling my order, and looked elsewhere.

Unfortunately, everyone else was ordering their chicks while I sat around trusting Natures Hatchery to come through.  My new choices were to order all male Dark Cornish to be shipped soon, or wait over a month to get some females.  We chose the former route so that our forest pasture experiment can start rolling along, and will order some hens to round out our flock in the summer if the breed seems to fit the bill.  (Or maybe we'll get lucky and there'll be some mis-sexed birds in our first flock.)

Just thought I'd let you know why we haven't posted any chick pictures yet --- and to warn you off Natures Hatchery.  By the time you read this, our new chicks should be in the mail!  Our brooder and chicken waterers are ready for them.

Posted early Tuesday morning, March 23rd, 2010 Tags:

Homemade chicken waterer using a hoseDrew emailed me to let me know that he'd put some photos of his version of our homemade chicken waterer up on his website.  I like his elegant use of aquarium-type tubing, and his description of why he wanted to switch over to the Avian Aqua Miser:

Unlike bees, chickens are the dumbest animals in the world. I would put them a step under goldfish. Give them a bowl of water and they will take a drink out of it, then stand on the edge of it until it tips over, and then terd into it. It has been a constant battle between the chickens and I to keep them with fresh unfecaled water. I have been searching for some time for some sort of solution that would solve the problem once and for all, and I found it. The Chicken Nipple. I got a piece of tubing from lowes and a few fittings and made a five gallon waterer that they will never knock over. So that solves my issues with them for now...

Thanks for sharing, Drew!  I also loved the description of your farm, which sounds a lot like ours.

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 24th, 2010 Tags:

Sugar Hill: A Microcosm of Central Appalachian EcologyAs you can probably tell from my tendency to post far too much, I like to write.  Last year, I put out an ebook about how to create a microbusiness that will pay the bills without taking over your life.

My newest book spans 300 million years, with tales of chemical warfare, murder, and sex changes.  Due to its epic scope, I guess I should be pleased that it only took me fifteen years to research and eighteen months to write and polish.

Sugar Hill: A Microcosm of Central Appalachian Ecology is one part trail guide and two parts stories about our local ecology, flora, and fauna.  The book is now available for $7 in ebook format...or you can just read the whole thing for free on its website.  Even if you never plan to visit southwest Virginia, I suspect the book will explain at least one mystery relevant to your own ecosystem.  I hope you'll check out the related website and let me know what you think!

Posted early Thursday morning, March 25th, 2010 Tags:
Woodcut of White Dorkings, Poland Fowls, Creoles or Bolton Grays, Cochin Chinas, Gray Game Fowls, Hamburg Fowls, and Bantams

Over on my homesteading blog, I've been reviewing a fun pamphlet about early New England gardens.  In the process, I started looking through images on Old Sturbridge Village's website, and came across this grouping of chickens from 1866 that I just had to share.  The key lists the varieties as follows:

1. White Dorkings
2. Poland Fowls
3. Creoles or Bolton Grays
4. Cochin Chinas
5. Gray Game Fowls
6. Hamburg Fowls
7. Bantams

The artist seemed to like chickens with fuzzy heads --- I have no clue if that was widespread at the time, but it sure looks funny.

The past is fun, but don't forget those modern conveniences.  Our automatic chicken water ensures that your flock has clean water, even if you go out of town for the weekend.

Posted early Friday morning, March 26th, 2010 Tags:

Several of our customers had told me that the Avian Aqua Miser works great even with day old chicks, so when our chicks arrived from the hatchery last week, I was curious to see how they would do.  We learned that teaching chicks to drink from a nipple-based chicken waterer is a bit different from teaching adults, though it is just as easy.

First of all, when you unpack your chicks from their shipping box, they're likely to be chilled and uninterested in anything except warming up.  We recommend giving them half an hour to get situated before introducing them to the chicken waterer.

Of course, you probably realized that your waterer needs to be hung much lower to the ground to be accessible to chicks compared to adult birds.  Leave just enough space so that a chick can walk underneath with the nipple at eye level.

Chick drinking out of an Avian Aqua Miser

Poke the nipple with your finger a few times, and the chicks will probably start drinking the water that drips on the floor of the brooder.  That gets their attention.  Next, try tapping the nipple just enough that water pools around the outside but doesn't drip off.  Soon, a chick will peck at that water and realize where the liquid is coming from.  Then it's only a matter of time until a chick pecks at the nipple hard enough to get it to release more water, and soon everybody's doing it.  Mark trained our chicks to drink in five minutes flat, then they went to town sucking down clean water to rehydrate from their long journey.

Posted early Monday morning, March 29th, 2010 Tags:

Raising duckweed in a kiddie poolEver since I stumbled across it on the internet, I've been intrigued by the idea of feeding duckweed to our chickens.  We don't want to build any fancy infrastructure until we know whether duckweed will work, so I just got a start of duckweed from my mother's pond and put it in a kiddie pool full of water.  I know from experience that duckweed reproduces very quickly, so I hope to be harvesting some of the leaves within a month or two.

DuckweedMeanwhile, I dropped a bit of duckweed in one of the chicken tractors.  Disappointingly, our hens seemed quite uninterested...probably because I'd just fed them laying pellets then a bunch of grubs I dug out of the garden.  I'll have to try again when they're actually hungry.  I may also try drying the duckweed to make it more palatable.

Looking for a healthy treat for your chickens?  Fresh water is always in style.  Make a homemade chicken waterer and give your girls clean water all the time.
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 30th, 2010 Tags:
black soldier fly facts

If you've been meaning to learn more about Black Soldier Flies as a possible feed supplement for your chicken flock, then you should consider checking out an excellent interview Frank Aragona produced earlier this year.

It's free to download like all his past shows, and he really goes into some depth with black soldier fly expert Jerry from blacksoldierflyblog.com.   

We've already made plans for a homemade bio pod container to be installed in the new pasture chicken coop later this spring.

Black Soldier Flies are noteworthy for being easy to propagate. The long term goal with this project is to provide enough supplemental sources of food for our egg production hens, which means we could stop paying over 11 dollars a bag for laying pellets.

Photo credit goes to microponics.net, a great place to go for more information on BSF's.

Looking for another way to simplify your chicken-keeping life?  Check out our homemade chicken waterer.

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 31st, 2010 Tags:

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