We decided to try out a
heat tape waterer this winter (the design for which is included in the
instructions that come with our DIY chicken waterer
instructions call for a 15 foot length of heat tape,
but Mark wants to find out whether a 3 foot length will work as
well. If so, the shorter heat tape should use less electricity
and will definitely make the construction process cheaper and easier.
- a second bucket from Lowes
- 3 foot heat tape
- duct tape
- coping saw
First, Mark removed the
handle from the bucket waterer using the screwdriver.
Next, we fiddled around
for a while until we figured out the best way to cut the extra bucket
into an outside housing for the new heated waterer. This step
will vary depending on the style of your bucket, but if you use Lowes
buckets, you'll want to cut in a line that follows the bottom of the
blue "Lowes" logo. (Mark suspects that a three gallon bucket
might just need the very bottom removed --- that'll be our next
experiment since cutting off so much of the bucket felt
wasteful.) Either way, start your hole with the drill, then make
your cut with the jigsaw.
The coping saw made a
small slit about three inches down the side of the outer bucket. This
slit will allow us to thread the power cord out the side. (If
you're using a Lowes bucket, the slit goes down to the end of the blue
We used duct tape to
attach the heat tape to the outside of the bucket waterer, close to the
Then it was easy to push
the sawed off bucket over top of the bucket waterer, letting the cord
come out the slit.
So far, our heated
chicken waterer has stayed thawed down to the mid twenties
Fahrenheit. I'll be sure to report back once we discover its
|We recommend our 3 pack
DIY kit for making a
heated waterer for up to 50 chickens. The CD that comes with each
kit includes complete instructions to help you build our favorite
heated options without any trial and error.
The heated waterer
we use in our own coop requires two buckets, a
three foot length of pipe heating cable ($23), and the contents of
our kit. With a layer of chicken-friendly
waterer is good down into the teens.
for some photos of chicken coops and tractors and several of our readers
complied. Here are some of our favorite tractor designs, starting
with the simple and moving up to the complex.
Neil Brooks built the
four foot by eight foot chicken tractor above
based on Joel Salatin's model. The 2"X2" construction, low
and open sides give a lot of chicken living area for very little
weight. Judicious cross-bracing will allow you to build even
tractors while still using thin, light lumber.
RDG from WeekendHomestead.net built a simple chicken
tractor to house
his extra roosters while they were growing up to broiler size. He
wrote, "The chicken tractor I built is made from 2X6 pressure treated
lumber for the frame. The frame is 12 feet by 4 feet. Half
inch EMT metal electrical conduit is used for the hoops. Chicken
wire is used to enclose the structure. The ends are made from
half inch (1/2 in.) pressure treated plywood. I have hung a
feeder and automatic watering bucket from the conduit. I used the
only 4 foot tarp I could find to keep rain off the broilers."
RDG's design could be made with lighter framing components (a 2X4
bottom and PVC pipe hoops) for an easier to pull tractor that's just as
simple to build.
Brian Cooper's chicken
tractor would fit into any neighborhood, no
matter how nice. He built his tractor using the Catawba
online. The tractor is an A-frame structure, with
an open-bottomed "downstairs" and a wood-floored upstairs.
Chickens hang out on the ground, but head up a ramp to lay eggs or
roost for the night.
Finally, I thought I'd
throw in a photo of our first chicken tractor, built for next to no
money from mostly found materials. It was light, lasted about
three years before the found wood rotted out, and provided hours of
entertainment for our cat.
Our chicken waterer replaced the one shown in
the photo above after the traditional waterer spilled on uneven terrain
and left two chickens dead of heat stroke.
I've had a lot to learn about
growing our own meat chickens, especially once I brought our heirloom
birds to the kitchen. If your recipes are based on storebought
meat, chances are they start with a line like "Take two chicken breasts
and...." Here are some tips and recipes I've developed over the
last two years that help you enjoy and respect your homegrown chickens'
The easiest way to make
use of the whole bird is to roast your chicken, then stew up the
bones. One of our small layer-breed broilers (less than two
pounds) can turn into four to six meals if we first roast the chicken
with vegetables, then use the carcass as the base for a delicious
soup. You can read my in depth description of roasting a chicken
99 cent ebook, or
can see the recipe I
developed mine from here.
Heirloom chickens have a
lot more leg than breast, so it's useful to know some recipes just for
the legs. If you're buying storebought meat on a budget, chicken
leg recipes are even more helpful since legs are often one of the
cheapest cuts of meat. This garlic
and thyme chicken leg recipe is my new easy and delicious
way to use up chicken legs.
Finally, if you're serious
about making your flock self-sufficient, you'll often end up with old
layers who are too tough to chew. Traditional chefs love these
chickens for their richer flavor, which can be stewed out by cooking
for a long time at low heat. The resultant soup is
How have you found
cooking with real chickens to be different from cooking with
storebought meat? Do you have any heirloom chicken recipes to
Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy so
their meat will keep us healthy.
pullets started laying,
they eschewed the nest box and made their own nest in the straw at the
back of the coop. I didn't notice until I was refreshing the deep
bedding and nearly
stepped on an egg on the ground. Since I didn't know how long the
egg had been present, I needed to test it before deciding if it was
safe to eat.
Luckily for those of us
with ornery layers, it's very easy to run an egg test. Simply
fill a cup up with water and gently lower your egg in. If the egg
sits completely flat on the bottom like the one in the photo, it's
newly laid and quite safe. Over time, an air pocket will form and
enlarge in the egg, so slightly older eggs will start to sit a little
crooked, with the blunt end angled toward the surface. That egg
is okay for baked goods and hard-boiling. But if the egg floats,
very carefully take it outside and dispose of it before it explodes
into a foul-smelling mess in your kitchen!
Since our pullets aren't
laying up to their full potential yet, we've been buying grocery store
eggs as a supplement to our dog's feed. I was curious to see how
"fresh" supermarket eggs did on the float test, so I lowered one into
my mug. According to the float test, supermarket eggs are good
for baked goods only, which is just about all I'd use them for (and
that in a pinch.) I sure am glad we're back up to three homegrown
eggs a day!
Chicken coops are easier to
design than chicken
don't have to worry about mobility. If you live on an established
farm, chances are there's already a shed, outbuilding, or corner of
your barn that could be turned into a coop without much effort.
I've even heard of suburbanites who build a coop in the corner of their
If you're starting from scratch with storebought materials, I recommend
using basic "stick house" construction practices. Walls are
framed one at a time using two by fours --- one on each side and then
interior two by fours every two feet or so for stability. Add
plywood on one side of the wall to close up the space, then screw the
walls together to make a box. The roof begins with two by four or
two by six rafters, topped with plywood and then some sort of roofing
material. You can make a lot of mistakes on your chicken coop and
then be a pro when the time comes to put an addition on your house!
We're skinflints, so our
chicken coops are cobbled together out of old
lumber, pallets, doors, tin, and even cardboard. The supplies
cost next to nothing, and luckily we have no neighbors to complain.
What does your chicken
coop look like? If you email your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, I'll add them to this post
so you an show off your building skills.
Our chicken waterer makes care of the flock so
easy you'll have plenty of time to watch your hens' antics.
The chicken keeper's worst
nightmare is unfortunately common. You head out to the coop to
feed your hens...and instead walk into a battleground of dismembered
chickens. Although you may simply want to crawl into a hole and
cry at the time, it's worth taking a few minutes to determine what kind
of predator killed your chickens so you can prevent further attacks.
The key (and
descriptions) below are based on a
factsheet from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. To read the key,
start at the top and answer each question, skipping ahead as ordered
until you find your answer. For example, if one bird is missing
but you see feathers in the coop, you'd start at question 1, skip ahead
to 5, and settle on a fox or coyote as your culprit.
1. Were the birds killed
- Dead birds
- One or more birds
2. How may birds were
- One or two
3. How were several
- Mauled but not
- Killed by small bites on body, neatly piled, some heads
eaten.......Mink or Weasel
- Heads and crops eaten on several
4. How were one or two
- Birds mauled, abdomen
- Deep marks on head and neck, some
- Chicks killed and abdomen eaten; lingering
- Young chicks dead on floor of
5. How many birds are
- One bird is missing but feathers
remain.........................................Fox or Coyote
- Several birds are missing without a
- One or two chicks are missing without a
Dogs. A dog usually kills
chickens for the sport. Several dead birds with much mauling of
the carcasses is usually evidence of a dog. Dogs usually visit
the chicken pen during daylight hours rather than at night.
Birds usually show signs of attack on the sides of the head if a mink
or weasel has visited the poultry house. With these predators,
several birds will probably be killed and piled neatly together.
The back of the head and neck are frequently the only parts of the
Raccoon. If a predator visits
only once each 5 to 7 days and eats the head and the crop of the dead
birds, a raccoon is probably responsible. Sometimes more than one
bird will be killed at each visit.
Opossum. The opossum generally
attacks only one bird at each visit. Usually, the bird's abdomen
has been eaten. Eggs may also be the object of the opossum's raid
on the chicken house.
Owl. The only likely
culprit here is the great horned owl, which does sometimes attack
poultry. One or two birds are usually killed, with the talons
being used to pierce the brain. The owl wil usually eat only the
head and neck. Feathers found on a fence post near the chicken
house or pen may provide an additional clue.
The old sayings about the sly fox were not by accident. The fox
and the coyote are very smart and difficult to catch in the act of
raiding the flock. Since birds are frequently carried away with
little evidence left behind, the only way of determining losses may be
a head count. Visits from these predators will usually be very
early in the morning. Keeping birds in a secure pen or poultry
house until late morning is good insurance against losses from a fox or
Skunks. Skunks do not usually
attack adult birds. They may kill a few chicks and eat the
abdomen. Eggs may also be the targest. If skunks have been
in the poultry house, the odor is usually a clue.
Humans. Unfortunately, there
can be problems from people as well as animals. If birds are
missing with very little evidence, particularly from a predator proof
pen or house, the possiblity of humans being involved should not be
Long winter days means the
chickens spend a lot more time resting (and pooping) on their
roosts. As a result, I refresh the deep
bedding more often,
a task that is as simple as opening a bag of autumn leaves my mother
kindly collected from her suburban curb, then scattering the high
carbon bedding on top of the manure.
As you can see from the
photo, when I run low on autumn leaves, I sometimes use storebought
straw, although straw isn't quite as high in carbon and thus doesn't
use up as much manure. In his amazing new book The
Small-Scale Poultry Flock, Harvey Ussery recommends
using any kind of high carbon bedding that's cheap and easy for the
chickens to scratch through. His coops are bedded with oak leaves
but Ussery also recommends kiln-dried wood shavings, wood chips, and
From my own experience,
I highly recommend stockpiling your bedding right beside the chicken
coop. We've yet to get our act together, so manure often builds
up on the coop floor before I get around to hunting down some fresh
bedding to add on top. In the winter, a bit of exposed manure
isn't such a big deal, but in the summer the manure stinks and draws
flies while letting some of the precious nitrogen escape into the
air. Remember --- a properly managed chicken coop should be
a pleasant environment for both you and your birds!
Our chicken waterer completes the anti-POOP
campaign, keeping manure out of your birds' drinking water.
Harvey Ussery's The
Small-Scale Poultry Flock is the number
one homesteading related book to read this year. I know, I
know --- Joel Salatin put out his
first non-self-published book, The
Dirty Life promises to reach beyond the usual homesteading
readership, and Sepp Holzer has finally published a
book about his methods in English,
all in 2011. But for the backyard homesteader itching to turn her
farm into a permaculture masterpiece, Harvey Ussery's book has those
bestsellers beat hands-down.
Ussery keeps 24 layers and raises another 48 to 72 broilers
every year on an acre of pasture. He also experiments with a
dozen waterfowl every year. Although this sounds like a lot of
birds, it's well within the average homesteader's grasp and makes his
experiences much more relevant than any information you can find about
Joel Salatin's commercial poultry operation.
I've been poring over Ussery's articles for years in Backyard Poultry
Magazine and Mother Earth News. In fact, his articles are often
the only ones worth reading since they always introduce new ideas
rather than rehashing the same old information you read in previous
issues. I've posted about the way he raises
soldier flies for his chickens previously, and you can read many
of his original articles on his
The Small-Scale Poultry
Flock takes those articles and expands them
into a reference guide that will suit anyone from the raw beginner to
the advanced chicken-keeper. In addition to basic information on
chicken care, you can learn about backyard breeding, raising chicks
with a broody hen, innovative feeding techniques, and much more.
I'm going to highlight some of his most interesting tips in later
posts, but if you have a spare weekend, I highly recommend you get the
book and read it from cover to cover. I guarantee it'll change
the way you integrate your flock into the homestead.
Once you get serious about
making your chickens a working part of the homestead, you'll be faced
with a thorny issue. Buying chicks from a hatchery every year
puts you on a treadmill going nowhere --- you're stuck with whatever
genetics the hatchery selects for, which generally means appearance and
ability to reproduce quickly in a hatchery environment. If you're
more interested in chickens that forage well, taste particularly good,
or who are devoted mothers, you'll have to learn to breed your own
should I select for?
The great thing about
breeding your own chickens is that you can decide what matters most to
you. That said, it's best to focus on the all-around bird, not on
a single trait. Try to steer clear of inordinately fast-growing
birds --- these may seem like a good choice for broilers, but they tend
to have immune weaknesses and won't do well on the homestead. On
the other hand, do select for large eggs since these tend to equate to
stronger chicks (but don't expect large eggs until your pullets are
around 28 weeks old.) Finally, don't keep hens who continually
lay oddly shaped or textured eggs since these traits are heredible.
do I know which birds are showing the traits I want?
is where breeding can get tricky, and the answer depends on which
traits you're selecting for. You can build trap
nests to get an idea
of how many eggs each of your hens lays in an average week. For
broilers, consider tracking rate of growth and mature size by weighing
each bird alive at 8, 12, and/or 16 weeks, then also keep track of
carcass size of birds you cull and eat. Unless you're extremely
observant, you'll probably also need to label individual birds with leg
or wing rings or foot notches so you can tell them apart.
One trait most
homesteaders should select for is resiliency. That means birds
who will forage as much wild food as possible and who can handle cold
winters and hot summers. Don't be afraid to utilize environmental
extremes to make favorable homesteading traits more evident. If a
hot spell stunts some of your birds, delete them from the flock.
do I do with birds who don't live up to my standards?
The trick to improving
your flock is to cull rigorously. That means you may only keep
10% (or even fewer) of your best birds every year, turning the rest
into dinner. Remember, your flock will never be better than your
worst birds --- don't keep that runt around for sentimental reasons.
do I prevent inbreeding?
This is a tricky
question since the average homestead flock is probably going to be too
small to be entirely self-sufficient. However, you can take steps
to maintain genetic diversity by avoiding mating brothers to sisters at
all costs, and trying to minimize parent-offspring matings. Two
methods can help
- Rolling matings ---
Separate your flock into two groups: the old roosters with young
pullets and the old hens with young cockerels. At the end of the
season, cull the oldest birds. Now your young pullets and
cockerels have turned into your old hens and roosters, and can be mated
to this year's youngsters in two new groups.
matings --- Divide the flock into three or more matrilinear
families. Each year, mate the sons to the next family down the
line, eating the cockerels after they've been bred for one or two
seasons. The females always stay in their own family and can be
kept as long as you want.
Dividing your flock into
two or three groups sounds daunting, but keep in mind that this complex
arrangement may only need to last for a month or so. If you've
marked your birds so you know which group they belong to, you'll just
need to separate the flocks for a couple of weeks in the spring to
flush excess sperm out of the hens' systems, then collect eggs for
another week or two to hatch out into this year's babies.
can I read more about breeding my own chickens?
I've summarized the tips
above from Harvey Ussery's The
Keep in mind that his description of the process is
twenty pages long --- I highly recommend that you read his book if
this teaser post makes you decide to try breeding chickens on your own
homestead. Good luck!
Our automatic chicken waterer makes daily care of three
separate flocks simple.
How many eggs do you see in
this picture? If you answered "one", you got it right!
My sister kindly gave me
some Egg Gourds for my birthday, and I decided they made even better
nest eggs than golf balls. The golf balls have served us well,
but one of our new australorp pullets needs to be broken of her habit
of laying on the floor. Maybe some more egg-like objects in the
nest box will help?
Our chicken waterer provides plenty of clean
water to ensure your hens will lay well.
If you're going to improve
your flock by breeding for traits you want, you'll have to
raise chicks at home. One option is the incubator
method I played with
in 2011, but Harvey Ussery opts for a lower work method --- using
As I've discovered, you
can't just expect any old bird to become broody and raise new
chicks. The broody trait has been bred out of most mainstream
chicken varieties, so you need to choose heirloom breeds that are good
mothers. Ussery's favorite type of mother hen is the English game
hen, although he admits that the small chickens can't sit on as many
eggs as a standard-sized hen. Other breeds he recommends include
Asil, Malay, Shamo, Kraicenkoppe, and some Dorkings and bantams
(especially Nankin and Silkies.)
Even after you choose a
good mothering variety, Harvey Ussery recommends breeding your broody
hen subflock just as carefully as you breed your main flock. That
means culling hens that don't set on your schedule (like our cochin,
who didn't feel like going broody until midsummer) or who don't manage
to raise living chicks for any reason. But remember that the
mother hen's main job is raising chicks, and don't cull her if she
doesn't lay particularly well or bulk up as fast as you'd like.
For more tips on working
with broody hens, check out Harvey Ussery's The
Small-Scale Poultry Flock.
Our chicken waterer is a great addition to the
brood coop since it stays clean and doesn't spill on delicate chicks.
When it comes right down to
it, the success of a permaculture chicken flock is based on food.
Do you just go out and buy 50 pound bags of milled grain from the feed
store, or do you try to make homegrown feeds nourish the flock 10%,
50%, or 100% of the time?
Harvery Ussery's The
Small-Scale Poultry Flock includes far more
information on feed than I can even tantilize you with in a short
post. However, here are some questions to get you started.
your chickens get all three food groups every day? Ussery suggests that
chickens need three main types of food: high vitamin green plants; high
nutrient seeds and fruits; and animals (whether that's bugs or beef
you ask your chickens to forage or do you let them act like couch
I've talked about several options for enticing your chickens out of the
coop, including feeding
a daily ration rather than free choice feeding and experimenting with
lowering feeding rates until production suffers (then raising the rates
to just above this critical window.) Ussery adds other ways to
stretch your feed dollars, such as culling nonproductive birds,
stacking grazers with chickens, and buying only quality feed so your
chickens waste less.
of storebought feed, is yours fresh? For best nutrition
(and least picky eating), the kind of feed you buy pre-milled in 50
pound bags should be fed within the first two weeks after the grain was
ground, and definitely no later than 45 days after milling. Older
feed actually suppresses your chickens' appetitites --- it just doesn't
taste good. Feed companies have to put the milling date on the
tags of their bags of feed, but the companies tend to hide that data
quite carefully, so you may need to call up the manufacturer and ask
which number is the date and how to interpret their code.
you feed your chickens weeds? If you have a garden
as well as a flock of chickens, this is one of the easiest ways (beyond
feeding chicken scraps) to nourish your flock for free. True, all
of the weeds from your garden are going to fit into the "green plant"
food group, but that's the category that's most often missing from
overgrazed runs. Ussery notes that his flock especially enjoys
prickly lettuce, purslane, dandelions, lamb's quarter, yellow dock, and
Can you set aside at least
one garden bed to grow seeds for your chickens? I put this tip further
down the list because if you're not growing all of your own vegetables,
you probably don't want to "waste" that space growing grains for your
birds. But if you've got room, some of the easiest
chicken-friendly grains to grow at home include corn, sunflowers, sorghum (Ussery says his
flock prefers the ornamental variety called broomcorn), and amaranth. Most of these grains
can be cut stalk and all and strung up on rat-proof lines under the
eaves of your chicken coop to dry and store until winter.
about food from the wild? Ussery gets into some
experimental territory here, running white oak acorns through his
grinder to feed the flock. He cracks wild hickories and black
walnuts by hand for his chickens and also suggests (but hasn't himself
tried) hazelnuts, chesnuts, and mulberries. (Our
chickens turned up their noses at cracked chestnuts, but yours might be less
can you get cheap, high quality animal feed? Remember the last food
group --- animals? That's tougher to find for your flock, but
Ussery has a few suggestions. He grows black
soldier fly larvae
worms and also feeds
the flock skim milk and whey; cracked or filthy eggs; offal, liver, and
blood from slaughtering; and roadkill opened with a hatchet. I
know some of you will think these options are just plain gross, but
chickens are omnivores, and especially in the winter when wild bugs are
scarce, they get a real hankering for meat.
By the way, if you don't
want to rush out and buy Ussery's book (although I think you should),
you can find a lot of fascinating tidbits on his
website, which is
also the source of the photos in this post.
Winter is a tough time to
keep your chicken flock healthy. If you're not careful, their run
will turn into a mass of mud which will erode away and pollute nearby
creeks. Meanwhile, the ground will be scratched so bare that your
chickens will lack all access to fresh food.
Harvery Ussery suggests
various solutions to these winter problems. First, he recommends
that you cull your flock heavily, removing any birds you don't really
need so that the remaining chickens will have more access to wild foods.
Next, how about planting
to give your chickens some greenery deep into the winter? Our
chickens were supremely uninterested in our oat,
winter pea, and mustard cover crop in the fall, but by December,
they were happily browsing through the green leaves. If your
garden is completely dormant, you can also send your flock through
there to clean up weeds and seeds.
If you see bare soil in
their run, how about turning that area into a deep
bedding/compost pile? Even a small run can be biologically
active through the winter months if you add enough organic matter so
that your chickens can go hunting for worms.
Now's also the time to
augment your chickens' diets with fresh foods. Harvey Ussery
grows potatoes, sweet potatoes, mangels, winter squash, and chard for
his chickens, noting that if you're willing to cook them, potatoes can
replace grains in a chicken's diet. Before we gave them free run
of the woods, our
cooped up Light Sussex were thoroughly enjoying Tokyo Bekana ---
the thin leaves seem to be a very palatable green. Ussery even
dries comfrey and stinging nettle "hay" in the summer to dole out extra
nutrients to his flock through the cold months.
Most of those winter
pick-me-ups require some forethought during the spring, summer, and
fall, but you can feed your chickens sprouts for nearly instant
greenery. Rather than buying his grains in pellet or mash form,
Ussery buys several grains in bulk and mixes his own feeds. In
the summer, he grinds the larger grains and feeds the smaller ones
whole, but in the winter he sprouts all of the grains in modified five
gallon buckets. He uses a five day cycle, soaking the first day,
then rinsing daily until the sprouts are ready. Give the chickens
free choice minerals or sprinkle them on top of the grain and you have
a complete diet with extra protein, vitamins, and enzymes.
For more tips on keeping
your chickens healthy on a budget, I highly recommend Harvey Ussery's The
Small-Scale Poultry Flock.
And don't forget a POOP-free chicken waterer to keep your flock's water