Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers

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Periodic cicadaWhile I was out in the woods gathering leaves to refresh our deep bedding Monday, I noticed several periodic cicadas recently emerged from their skins.  Cicadas spend most of their lives as ground-dwelling nymphs, tunneling up to 8.5 feet below the surface to suck the juices out of roots.  You've probably seen the skins they shed after crawling up out of the soil and unfurling their wings, and have likely heard their mating songs in the summer as well.

Since the cicadas I was running into were newly transformed into adults, they were slow and easy to nab by pinching their wings together.  I tossed cicada after cicada into the chicken pasture, and the same Black Australorp scarfed down each one.

Cicadas actually enjoy a history as human food, so it's no surprise our chickens liked them so much.  I've read that a cicada has the same proportion of protein per pound as would be found in lean beef, and the taste has been descibed as similar to almonds or pistachios.  There are quite a few cicada recipes on the internet, and now I'm starting to Catching a cicadawish I'd snagged a few for our own dinner instead of tossing them all to the flock.  For tastiest cicadas, find them young when they're still whitish and toss the insects in the freezer to die a slow death before cooking them (or eating them raw).

Given the level of enthusiasm our chickens showed when offered cicadas as treats, Mark started pondering how to raise or catch cicadas to feed the flock.  Any crazy ideas for catching cicadas in bulk?

Our chicken waterer helps our flock wash down those nutty morsels with clean water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, May 2nd, 2012 Tags:

Gutter on a chicken tractorGlenn Ingram didn't only make his coop waterer self-filling, he added the same innovation (plus some) to his chicken tractor.  I'll let him tell you about his tractor watering system in his own words:

Here is the overall chicken tractor. It has wheels that go up and down as needed. I like my tractor because I almost never have to go inside. I can pour feed in from the outside, collect eggs from a door to the outside, and water from the outside. Better yet, have the tractor collect rain water for the chickens to drink.

Bucket waterer overflowHere is a close-up of the buckets. They are not heated as I don't keep the chickens in the tractor during freezing weather. It has the same exact features as the 5-gallon bucket system for my larger non-mobile coop. The problem on the chicken tractor is the lack of vertical room for the bucket to be below the gutter yet high enough so the chickens can get under it to drink.
So I used a 2-gallon bucket. I used a piece of flexible sump pump hose for the overflow so I can have a little more control of where the overflow goes to get the water away from the tractor and yet it does not get in the way when moving it. I put a water level indicator on the outside, which works well but you have to take the slope into account. We have almost no flat spots on our hilly terrain so the buckets are never level. Depending on the slope, the indicator can make it look like there is more or less water in the buckets than reality. Just understand what the water level will look like with the slope.

Connecting bucketsTo gain more water capacity, I slaved a second 2-gallon bucket to the 1st one. This is done by simply connecting the 2 buckets with a 3/4" pipe at the bottom of the buckets. It can be a straight pipe, mine has a 45 degree turn to get around the post. This connection allows the 2 buckets to act like one larger bucket. As one bucket fills, the other bucket fills, as one empties, the other empties. Be sure to drill a small hole in the lid of the bucket without the downspout so air can escape or enter to replace the water that is moving (otherwise you create a vacuum and the water cannot move). This works great so that I have about 3.5 gallons of water capacity yet the buckets fit in the tight vertical space (a little less that 3 feet total). I never put more that 6 chickens in the tractor so they never empty these buckets before it rains again. If I ever do need to add water as after cleaning, I just pour it in the gutter. I do the same thing with the large bucket system on the main coop.

The nipple is, again on the bottom of the bucket. I only have one nipple right now but I am going to add another. I used some bent lightweight galvanized steel conduit to mount the buckets, but I just used them because they were left over from another project. I don't know that I would recommend them as they are not perfectly stable when moving the tractor, but they are pretty good.

The entire roof of the chicken tractor opens which also lifts the gutter and therefore downspout out of the bucket. I can then easily pick up both buckets at once to remove them for cleaning or to take them inside in freezing weather.

One other note, I highly recommend the use of Uniseals to connect pipes to buckets. You can order them online very affordably in pretty much any size that PVC pipe comes in. Then you just drill the appropriate-sized hole with a hole saw (they tell you which one to use) and pop the Uniseal into place. You then push a piece of PVC pipe of the appropriate size into the hole with the uniseal in place. The pipe pushes the Uniseal against the sides of the hole and seals wonderfully. There are no glues or adhesives and you don't even need access to the inside of the bucket. They work equally well on curved and flat surfaces. The best part is you can pull the pipe back out, remove the uniseal and reuse it somewhere else. I don't know how long they last, but they have been great for the past 8 months with lots of sun exposure and freezing temperatures. We'll see how they last through the summer. I use these for making rain barrels as well.

You may also notice that I have tin roofs on my coops. Asphalt/tar shingle roofs may not work well because of tar from the roof getting in the water. That may or may not affect the chickens’ health. Also, the small pieces of grit from shingles clog up the screens requiring more maintenance. Debris also seems to wash off the tin roof much faster so you don’t get as much bacteria growing on the roof. I don’t know that bacteria is really a problem when talking about a bird eating off the ground all day, but at least that is less bacteria to be growing in their water bucket.

Thanks again for sharing your inspiring system, Glenn!

Glenn's waterer is based on our do it yourself chicken waterer kit.
Posted early Friday morning, May 4th, 2012 Tags:

Newly hatched chickHow much will a power outage affect your incubator?  Is it worth keeping the eggs going after the juice comes back on, or should you pull the plug and start over?

We had a two to three hour loss of power during the second week our incubator was running, and we did see a slightly lower hatch rate, but not enough that I feel we should have just started over.  During our first hatch of the season (same incubator, same parents), we had 90% viable eggs, 95% hatch rate of those viable eggs, and a 94% survival rate to four weeks.  In contrast, the set of eggs that lived through the outage had 95% viability, 80% Chick camhatch rate, and 94% survival (to one week).  (See my 99 cent ebook, Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook for more information on calculating these rates and improving your hatch.)

How long eggs can survive in the incubator without power depends on a variety of factors.  Length of time the power is out is an obvious one, and so is air temperature in the room --- shorter outages and warmer rooms cause less of an impact.  If you're around during the outage (we weren't), you can close all the vents, add a hot water bottle if you have one, and wrap the incubator up in a Two day old chicksblanket to conserve heat, which will mitigate the outage to some extent.

Another factor to consider is age of the eggs.  The further along your chicks are in their development, the less likely they will be negatively affected by a power outage.  As embryos develop, they begin to produce a bit of heat by themselves, which warms the inside of the incubator slightly.

Have you left the incubator running after a power outage?  I'd be curious to hear how Week old chicklong your power was out and what percent of the eggs survived to hatch.

Our chicken waterer got the surviving chicks off to a healthy start with clean water.
Posted early Monday morning, May 7th, 2012 Tags:
Making a chicken trough

I've always chosen to toss my chickens' daily allotment on the ground for a number of reasons.  Primarily, I want to give them a measured amount, but I really got in the habit when our chickens lived in tractors.  I thought having to hunt through the grass to find bits of feed could give our hens something constructive to do all day.

However, my brother let me know that his new chickens started eating less when he put the feed in a container.  He still gave them a daily allotment, but realized that he was actually feeding them a bit too much since they left food behind.  Since we'd recently upgraded to gourmet chicken feed, we thought the higher quality feed might mean our chickens needed less.  So I asked Mark to build me a simple trough to go in the coop, then watched to see what happened.

Chicken troughAt first, I wasn't even sure if the hens had figured out where their grub was now being served.  They barely seemed to touch the food and I got worried they were starving.  So I started giving them their food scraps next to the trough, and snuck in early one morning to see that yes, the hens were eating from their new container.  (Also, egg production stayed high, which was a real tipoff that the chickens were still well nourished.)

Our girls were clearly eating much less out of the trough.  (Or, rather, the sparrows were probably getting less leftover feed.)  I already feed our chickens less than the recommended daily allowance due to our pastures, but I think I've been overfeeding anyway.  I'll be slowly cutting back on my feeding amount until there's no grain left in the trough at the end of the day and will report back once I know how much our hens actually need to eat on pasture.

Even if you restrict their rations, chickens should always have access to copious amounts of clean water.  The Avian Aqua Miser is the obvious solution to the dirty water problem.
Posted early Wednesday morning, May 9th, 2012 Tags:

Fencing chickens out of the gardenIn addition to providing a list of plants chickens (probably) won't kill, Free-Range Chicken Gardens offered plenty of excellent advice about protecting more tender plants from chicken feet and beaks.  You can use these tips for the author's intended purpose of planning a garden that can coexist with chickens, or you can keep the information in mind while designing a forest pasture especially for your flock.  Either way, the most important piece of advice Bloom presented was the most general --- give your chickens plenty of extra room so they don't have to scratch any single spot bare!

More specifically, timing is essential if you want to mix chickens with less hardy plants.  Chickens should be fenced out of gardens when you've recently seeded bare soil since the birds love to scratch up soft ground, eating the seed and killing recently sprouted Trellisseedlings.  New transplants and seedlings don't mix well with chickens for the same reason, and it's a good idea to keep poultry away from perennial herbs in early spring; once those tasty leaves harden up a trifle, they won't be quite so enticing.  After plants are established, many can handle chickens as neighbors, but you'll want to move the flock out of the garden again when fruits are ripening unless you plant enough strawberries, blueberries, and tomatoes to share.

Speaking of sharing, Bloom recommends refraining from giving your chickens tomatoes and other tasty garden goodies as treats if you don't want them to learn to pick the same goodies off the vine.  I'm not sure I buy this logic since chickens are attracted to the color red, but it's worth a shot if you really want your chickens to roam in your strawberry patch.

In addition to pecking, you have to consider chickens' tendency to scratch.  Let a chicken loose in a no-till garden, and mulch will end up in the aisles, on top of the plants, or in the next county over.  Adding aboveground edging to the sides of beds can help the mulch stay (roughly) where it was put.  Bloom also comes along behind her chickens and sweeps mulch back into place.  (This would drive me nuts.  As if there's not enough work on the farm without cleaning up after chickens?  But your mileage may vary.)
Chickens on a hillside
As I've discovered in my chicken pastures, hillsides can be a problem.  Plants tend to be less strongly rooted there, so chickens scratch them up in short order and then the soil starts washing downhill.  Bloom recommends either fencing your chickens away from the hillside, or using a dense groundcover to keep the hillside in place.  She also uses tough, scratchy groundcovers under shallow-rooted shrubs to prevent chicken scratching, with variegated Japanese sedge, pachysandra, ground raspberry, and cotoneaster being her top choices.

Chicken barrierIf you want chickens to be able to free range, you'll need to block off the more troublesome area, which is where Bloom's list of chicken barriers comes in.  Temporary fencing is the obvious solution around small trees while they're getting established or around constantly rotating gardens.  Bird netting can keep chickens from eating your blueberries and strawberries and you can use stones (or the groundcovers listed in the last paragraph) to protect the bases of perennials.  Sticks like the ones I use to deter pets from freshly planted beds will do the same with chickens, as will cloches or remesh (as in the photo to the right).

Another option is to simply raise the plants up out of reach.  Tall containers can work, and vining plants (tomatoes, squash, etc) grow up trellises away from chicken beaks.  (You may still need to protect the roots and trunks of the plants when they're young.)

Bloom's final word of chicken deterring advice is to install motion-activated sprinklers around your favorite plants.  This might be especially satisfying if your neighbor is the one with the naughty free-ranging birds....

Our chicken waterer keeps your flock hydrated with POOP-free water.

This post is part of our Free-Range Chicken Gardens series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, May 11th, 2012 Tags:
Chicken salad

Cooking an old chickenEver since I learned the traditional way to cook an old chicken, I've been much more enthusiastic when a tough old bird needs to be culled from the flock.  My cooking method produces delicious flesh, but you still need to decide what to do with the meat to turn it into a meal.

Soup is my favorite use for an old hen.  If you take the meat off the carcass once it's tender, stew the bones for a few more hours, then pour off the broth, you have the base for a delicious chicken soup.  Add some onions, garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper to the broth and cook for an hour, then add potatoes, carrots, and the cut up meat and simmer until the vegetables are tender.  Or, in the summer, turn the broth into the base for harvest catch-all soup.

But it's simply not the right time of year for soup.  We ate the last of our fall carrots a few weeks ago and the new ones are only a few inches tall in the garden.  Similarly, last year's parsley is going to seed, and the new herbs aren't big enough to pick.  So I had to find a more creative use for our old rooster.

Old chicken recipeCoq au vin is the only recipe that's easy to find on the internet and that starts with an old chicken.  I've yet to try it --- I'm sure coq au vin is delicious, but the lengthy prepration looks pretty daunting.  Instead, I opted to turn the flesh from our rooster into a very simple chicken salad by adding a cup of Hollywood Sun-dried Tomatoes and an apple, then serving the concoction over baby lettuce from the garden with a bit of parmesan grated on top.  Add roast asparagus and fresh strawberries on the side (all from the garden) and we had a feast.

What's your favorite way to turn an old hen or rooster into a delicious meal?

Keep your old hens laying as long as possible with our POOP-free chicken waterer.
Posted early Monday morning, May 14th, 2012 Tags:

Chicken on pastureI wrote on our homestead blog about our problems with chickens flying over fences.  It took a while to iron out the issues, but I'm glad to say that the farm is now quiet and chickens are staying where they're meant to be.  In the process, I learned some interesting lessons about rotating chickens through varied terrain.

From now on, I won't try to move chickens away from prime habitat (mulch under trees) and into subprime habitat (open grasssy lawn) if they can still see the prime habitat.  Instead, I'll rotate in the other direction --- starting with subprime and working my way up to prime.

Chickens in forest gardenOr I'll move the chickens to a new location entirely after leaving prime habitat.  Once our flock was transferred to a coop on the other side of the yard, they didn't try to fly over fences and return to the forest garden island.  The temporary fencing materials were just as ramshackle and sagging as before, but with chickens, out of sight is out of mind.

Of course, it's also possible the chickens are quite happy in the berry patch.  Not only is there clover-filled lawn between the rows, they can also scratch up the straw mulch to their hearts' content.  I'm just glad I've figured out how to keep giving the broiler flock fresh pasture without overgrazing any one area.

Our chicken waterer is the perfect addition to a pasture, providing clean water to wash down those crunchy insects.
Posted early Wednesday morning, May 16th, 2012 Tags:

Pastured Poultry ProfitsI've been putting off reading Joel Salatin's Pastured Poultry Profits because I have no interest in running a commercial chicken operation.  (To be honest, I've also been annoyed by the tone of some of Salatin's other books, even though I nearly always agree with the contents.)

But I shouldn't have waited.  Pastured Poultry Profits is easy to read and full of handy information for anyone trying to make their chickens healthier on pasture.  Of course, if you want to tractor broilers to sell to your neighbors, the book is a must-read, since it walks you through the whole process from start to finish, leaving very little room for mistakes.  But even if you just have a small laying flock in your backyard, you're likely to learn something from what I'm pretty sure was Salatin's first book.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the bookw as the newsletters Salatin included from the early years of his pastured poultry operation.  It was fun to watch his business grow, to see where he drew the line, and how appreciative his customers were of the quality meat.

Mostly, though, I enjoyed the book because it was full of numbers and specifics.  I'll regale you with some highlights in later posts.  Stay tuned!

Our chicken waterer is perfect in tractors since it never spills in uneven terrain.

This post is part of our Pastured Poultry Profits series99 cent pasture ebook Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, May 18th, 2012 Tags:

Edible cicadaIn Pastured Poultry Profits, Joel Salatin opened my eyes to the fact that I've been comparing apples to oranges with my feed conversion rates.  He explained that the industry standard I've been trying to live up to (2:1) uses liveweight of the chickens --- in other words, how much they weigh "on the hoof" with feathers, guts, and all.  I've been using carcass weight in my calculations, the industry standard for which is closer to 3:1.  That seems much more achievable...

Jar full of cicadas

...Especially if I supplement our flock's diet with cicadas!  Yep, I'm here to admit that my feed conversion rate for this first batch of broilers is going to have no relation to reality because the 17 year cicadas are going strong this spring.  I suspect that if I had a way to let Emerging cicadathe chickens run free without having them decimate the garden, I wouldn't be feeding the flock anything at all --- our broilers snap up the cicadas like candy, and there are so many of the insects that I can easily gather a jarful like the one shown above in twenty minutes.

This living off the "cream" is how Joel Salatin is able to cut the feed costs in his Eggmobiles by 67%.  I'll write more about his system in a later post, but the point I want to make now is that everyone's habitat offers a different chicken-feeding opportunity, and you have to be on the lookout for free food when it falls in your lap.  The cicadas are falling in my lap right now.

Male and female cicadas

Chicken eating cicadaBecause I just can't resist throwing in numbers, here are some to think about.  An ounce of cicadas (liveweight) consists of about 38 individuals, with the number depending on how many are males and how many are females.  (I'm guessing the big ones are girls, but thirty seconds on the internet hasn't confirmed this.)

Chicken eating bug

My flock of broilers can eat those 38 individuals in about three minutes, but only about 16% of the humans I offered insects to were willing to taste a cicada.

"They're delicious," my young cockerels tell me.  "Just gulp them down whole!"  Even our dog has been seen hunting cicadas, which is yet more proof that the bugs are as nutritious as they are delicious.  If you don't feel like eating them yourself, take my advice and spend half an hour filling a jar for your flock.

Our chicken waterer provides clean waterer to ensure the health of your flock.
Posted early Monday morning, May 21st, 2012 Tags:

Compost pile in the chicken coopAlthough I liked putting our compost pile in the chicken pasture last year, the method had issues.  First and foremost, the kitchen scraps I tossed on top tempted our usually well-behaved dog to break in, which was only a problem because the chickens always found the holes in the fence and ended up scratching up the vegetable garden.

But I also didn't like devoting that much space to compost.  I had to put a pile in each pasture, and each pile tended to sprawl out as the chickens scratched through in search of goodies.  As a result, we had quite a lot of bare ground that could have been growing edibles for the flock.

This year, we're trying something completely different.  A few weeks ago, I started tossing the kitchen scraps on the deep bedding inside the coop itself.  The coop walls blocked the scent, so our dog left them alone.

Then, last week, I got lazy and dumped some garden weeds in the coop to refresh the deep bedding rather than raking more leaves out of the woods.  Even though weeds are much lower in carbon than tree leaves (meaning you need more of them to counteract the high nitrogen manure), we never have a paucity of garden weeds on our farm.  Maybe I can solve the compost problem at the same time I lower the amount of work required to keep up the deep bedding, all while allowing the flock just as much access to chickweed and apple cores.  I'll keep you posted about how this new method works out.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with copious, clean water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, May 23rd, 2012 Tags:

Chicken feedMy favorite part of Pastured Poultry Profits was the chapter devoted to demystifying chicken feed.  Joel Salatin raises enough chickens that he can order his feed custom-blended, and he's done a lot of experimentation to determine the recipes that work best for him.  He believes in keeping the mixture as simple as possible and using real ingredients.

Here are the components of Salatin's broiler mix (and why he includes each ingredient):

  • 52% corn --- For carbohydrates
  • 29% roasted soybeans --- For protein
  • 11% crimped oats --- These are a source of protein and carbs, but Salatin primarily includes oats because of the fiber in the hulls.
  • 3.5% Sea-Lac brand fish meal --- He prefers this brand because of their low-heat processing, which helps preserve vitamins and minerals.  The other purpose of fish meal is to provide animal protein.
  • 3% Fertrell Nutri-Balancer --- For vitamins and minerals.  (See below.)
  • 1% feed grade limestone --- For calcium
  • 0.5% kelp meal --- For minerals.  Salatin recommends choosing kelp meal grown in cold water and dried geothermally.
  • 0.1% Fastrack probiotic --- To promote digestion and boost the immune system.  This brand name product is produced by Conklin Co., Inc., and Salatin says they have the highest percentage of Lactobaccillus acidophilus, without the fillers found in other brands of probiotics.

Fertrell Nutri-BalancerSalatin performed side by side comparisons of various brands of "snake oil" (his term), and discovered that his chickens grew faster and stayed healthier when he added Fertrell Nutri-Balancer to the mix.  He prefers to avoid chemically formulated vitamins and minerals since they break down readily in hot weather and are harder for the chickens to assimilate than are vitamins and minerals from natural sources, so he was glad to find a natural source.  Now I know where the Fertrell Nutri-Balancer craze started!

In case you're curious, Salatin's layer ration consists of:

  • 49.7% corn
  • 30.8% roasted soybeans
  • 10.9% oats
  • 5.0% feed grade limestone
  • 3.0% Fertrell Nutri-Balancer
  • 0.5% Thorvin brand kelp meal

Sounds a lot like the ingredients in our quality chicken feed.  I still don't have data on consumption and growth using our new chicken feed, but I will soon.

Our chicken waterer rounds out a quality diet with clean, POOP-free water.

This post is part of our Pastured Poultry Profits series.  Read all of the entries:

Posted early Friday morning, May 25th, 2012 Tags:
Chick habitat

Chicks eating sourgrassI'll probably regret it, but I've been letting our second batch of chicks forage freely for three weeks now.  The chicks were itching to get out onto pasture when they were still small enough to fit through the holes in our temporary fence material, so I just took down the fence and let them roam.

Since the brooder is currently situated near a garden plot that's mostly fallow (planted in an annual ryegrass cover crop), they can't do much damage.  Chick eating chickweedYes, the chicks have scratched up the mulch under my blackberries, but I don't mind remulching after I move the chicks elsewhere if it means lots of free protein.

And I'm very impressed by the youngster's ability to demolish the bits of sourgrass that are growing in the garden.  The birds make short work of the chickweed too, and entertain us for hours as they hunt down bugs in the grass and on the wing.

Care of the flock became even easier when I upgraded them to a two gallon bucket waterer, suspended from a branch of the peach tree.  The chicks cluster around the nipples on hot summer Chick watererafternoons and drink to their hearts' content.

So, why will I regret letting our chicks free range when both they and we enjoy it so much?  At a month old, they're already ranging thirty or forty feet away from the brooder, and at this rate they'll be in the active part of the vegetable garden within two or three weeks.  At that point, I'll have to fence the rascals in, and I'll bet they'll turn into fence fliers after enjoying free run of the whole back yard for so long.

Chick speakBut I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.  For now, I'm enjoying Chicken TV too much to shut it off.

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.
Posted early Monday morning, May 28th, 2012 Tags:

Chickens in the weedsAlthough our second batch of chicks is free ranging, our first batch failed miserably at their most recent opportunity to graze in the woods.  We've spent the last year slowly building fences that nearly enclose our entire garden, so I thought we might get away with letting the eleven week old broilers walk out a new pophole in the back of their coop and explore the powerline cut and woods beyond.  That morning, I closed off access to the two pastures they're familiar with, opened the new pophole....

...and waited, and waited, and waited.  Finally, around 3 pm, I got sick of hearing cooped up birds fluttering around inside their house and I decided to roust them out.  One by one, I tossed cockerels and pullets out the pophole and into the lush new pasture.  At first, they tried to scurry back inside out of terror, but once I got more than half the flock outside, they achieved critical mass and started to band together.  Proud of myself, I headed back inside for a rest.

Chickens separated by a fenceAn hour later, I noticed that a quarter of the broilers had flown over the fence, into their old pasture!  Yes, they are such scaredy-cats that they'd rather be in an over-grazed, familiar place than exploring new, cicada-filled terrain.  The non-fliers were huddled against the fence, trying to be as close to their brethren as possible.  No one was taking advantage of the yummy wild food.

Two hours after I pushed birds out the pophole, they had followed the fenceline back to the one break in our homestead perimeter.  Since the chickens were too close to the garden (and wanted to go back inside anyway), I herded the flock back into their old pasture and shut the gate.  I guess they'll have to cope with worn out pasture for another week until they hit the freezer.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well-hydrated with POOP-free water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, May 30th, 2012 Tags:

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