Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers

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Clean brooder

Our chicks are due to hatch today, so I prepared the brooder...a week ago.

Space heaterAlong with my lesson on taping the incubator plug, I learned the hard way that you shouldn't wait until hatch day to get their new accomodations ready.  In the summer, things dry faster, but our first batch of chicks of 2012 were not at all thrilled to be turned out of the incubator and into a still-damp rubbermaid bin.  Even with the brooder turned on full strength, a little bit of water can make it hard for chicks to dry off and warm up, which meant pitiful cheeping until Mark dug out a space heater to speed things up.

Meanwhile, it's a good idea to test your brooder heat source to make sure it's still working several days in advance.  In our energy-efficient household, we don't even have incandescent bulbs around as a backup heat source, so it's best to know early if you need to replace heating pads or heat lamps.  Even though chicks are supposed to pop out of their shells on day 21, day 20 is quite common, and you could possibly see one even earlier if a hen has been setting on the sly.

Hatching chick

With the rubbermaid bin clean, dry, and full of leaves; the Brinsea Ecoglow brooder heated up; and our chicken waterer and a simple feeder in place, we're ready for chicks.  This photo is from a previous batch to prime the pump, but hopefully cute balls of fluff will be gracing the brooder soon.

If you'd like to learn additional simple (and not so simple) techniques to streamline incubation and early chick care, check out my ebook.
Posted early Monday morning, September 3rd, 2012 Tags:
The Weekend Homesteader cover

Building a coopSeveral of you wrote in with photos of your coops and tractors, to be included in my new book.  So I thought it was only fair to give you a chance to win a free review copy of the paperback before it hits bookstores!

But first, a bit about The Weekend Homesteader so you'll know whether you're interested in reading it:

The Weekend Homesteader is organized by month—so whether it’s January or June you’ll find exciting, short projects that you can use to dip your toes into the vast ocean of homesteading without getting overwhelmed. If you need to fit homesteading into a few hours each weekend and would like to have fun while doing it, these projects will be right up your alley, whether you live on a forty-acre farm, a postage-stamp lawn in suburbia, or a high rise.  

You'll learn about backyard chicken care, how to choose the best mushroom and berry species, and why and how to plant a no-till garden that heals the soil while providing nutritious food.  Permaculture techniques will turn your homestead into a vibrant ecosystem and attract native pollinators while converting our society's waste into high-quality compost and mulch. Meanwhile, enjoy the fruits of your labor right away as you learn the basics of cooking and eating seasonally, then preserve homegrown produce for later by drying, canning, freezing, or simply filling your kitchen cabinets with storage vegetables. As you become more self-sufficient, you'll save seeds, prepare for power outages, and tear yourself away from a full-time job, while building a supportive and like-minded community. You won't be completely eliminating your reliance on the grocery store, but you will be plucking low-hanging (and delicious!) fruits out of your own garden by the time all forty-eight projects are complete.

Chickens help with seed saving
If that description takes your fancy and you have a blog to review the book on, drop me an email for a chance to win a free review copy.  (My publicist says he also has some copies to send to bloggers as giveaway items.)  I'm not sure how many review copies will be sent out, so be sure to include the URL of your blog and any relevant statistics in your email --- I suspect my publicist will choose bigger blogs first.

For the rest of you, I'm afraid you'll have to wait until the middle of November to see The Weekend Homesteader.  I'm very impressed by the beautiful job my publisher did formatting the book, so hopefully it'll be worth the wait.

Our chicken waterer keeps flocks healthy with unlimited clean water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, September 5th, 2012 Tags:

Rooster faceWe don't follow the tips in Free Range Chicken Gardens, choosing instead to keep our flock out of trouble the easy way --- by fencing them away from the vegetables.  A few weeks ago, though, they got out.

Mark and I spent a long weekend in California to celebrate my brother's wedding, and we thought we were all set to leave the chickens alone.  A five gallon bucket waterer lasts nine chickens a very long time, and filling an automatic feeder took care of their hunger pangs.

It was tougher to deal with the raccoon issue, but a few weeks of careful planning took care of even that problem.  We moved the hens to the other coop, which confused the raccoon, and I went out every night to chase the chickens off the fences and into the coop until they remembered how to perch like good little birds.

What I didn't count on was our usually good dog getting bored in our absence and gnawing a hole through the chicken wire.  She didn't hurt the chickens, but did leave them an escape hatch which they happily took advantage of.

Tomato pecked by chickens

Luckily, the fall vegetable seedlings were far enough away from the coop that the chickens didn't reach them, but our hens did peck up a lot of tomatoes and scratch mulch everywhere.  I was a bit astonished by how much mayhem a medium-sized flock of chickens can create in just two and a half days!

I can't complain, though, because everything was quite fixable.  And the dozen-plus eggs laid in our absence had yolks so orange we ate them up in no time.  I'll just have to remember --- no food scraps for the flock the day before a trip.

Posted early Friday morning, September 7th, 2012 Tags:
How to clip a chicken's wings

Between the raccoon trouble and our dog breaking a bolt-hole in the pasture fence, our chickens started getting in the habit of escaping their pastures.  I was nearly at my wits' end when I realized that only the two pullets we raised this spring were escaping regularly.  With the problem more manageable in proportion, I decided to experiment with clipping the troublesome duo's wings.

Chicken wing clippingBefore I explain how to clip a chicken's wings, I should tell you that the downsides of the process usually outweigh the upsides, at least for me.  In general, I think there's a management problem if your chickens are regularly flying the coop --- perhaps there's a predator they're scared of, or you've let their pastures become over-grazed so there's no wild food available.  Unfortunately, as I discovered, it's quite possible to fix the management problem and have hens who just got used to flying and don't want to stop.  That's when I recommend resorting to wing clipping.

The other reason not to clip a chicken's wings is if you're going to let your flock free range where predators might be present.  Basically, by clipping, you're promising your hen that you're going to take care of her and that she won't have to take flight to escape.  Harvey Ussery writes that he "would never clip the wing of a free-ranging chicken", and I have to agree.

If that reasoning doesn't scare you off, though, it's pretty simple to do the deed.  I was able to hold our chicken and cut her wings myself, but you might be happier if you have a helper to keep your hen contained while you snip.  You'll also want to hunt down a heavy-duty pair of scissors before you start.

Grounding a chickenIn general, it's recommended that you clip only one wing of a chicken at first so that you imbalance and confuse her, not make her completely unable to fly.  If you tuck the hen under our arm, you'll be able to spread out her wing with one hand and snip the feathers with the other.  Just be sure not to cut closer than an inch to the base of the feather or you may make the wing bleed.  As long as you take that precaution, you won't be causing any pain to your chicken at all --- the process is a bit like getting your hair or fingernails cut.

After clipping one wing of each of our pullets, I was very disappointed to find one of them out in the garden the very next morning.  The second step if your chicken is still flying despite her wing clipping is to cut the flight feathers off the other wing.  Unfortunately, even that didn't suffice to ground the most determined member of our flock, so she's currently flavoring a big pot of soup, but everyone else is behaving admirably and all's quiet at last in the chicken yard.

Our POOP-free chicken waterer ensures your hens don't fly the coop in search of clean water.
Posted early Monday morning, September 10th, 2012 Tags:

Honeybee collecting nectarAs summer drifts into fall, I spend more time thinking about our honeybees, so I thought you might like to hear a followup on how they're doing in the chicken pasture.

I'll start with the one small con --- if given the chance, chickens will scratch a kill mulch to bits.  That said, they didn't tear up much of the cardboard around the hive, so weeds still stayed down.  And my management technique of mowing each pasture as soon as I rotated chickens out of it meant that the flight path in front of the hive stayed clearer than ever before.

Hen faceOtherwise, the bees and chickens coexisted quite peacefully.  I didn't see any sign of chickens either being stung by the bees or trying to eat them --- the birds mostly just ignored the hive, and the honeybees followed suit.

My conclusion is that if you want to diversify your homestead but have limited space, there's nothing to lose from locating the hive in the chicken pasture.  Now we get honey and eggs from the same space!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock hydrated after a long day pecking through the weeds.
Posted early Wednesday morning, September 12th, 2012 Tags:
Sleeping chicks

The first couple of times I incubated my own eggs, I was worried sick when my newly hatched chicks were comatose for most of the first day.  Now, I'm used to it.

Twenty-four hours later, they're up and running.  When you buy chicks through the mail, you're supposed to ensure the poor things can find their food and water right away, but homegrown chicks can be counted on to figure it all out for themselves.  Generally, I hear the rythmic click of the nipple on our chicken waterer by the end of the first day, at which point the earliest hatched chicks have already found the food dish as well.

Moving chicks outside

A day or two later, my rubbermaid brooder was suddenly far too small for fifteen little balls of energy.  Since it's warm, I moved them right to the outdoor brooder at three days old.

Three day old chick

They weren't thrilled to be manhandled, so our chicks huddled in the corner for a little while.  But soon they were exploring their new home.

Chicks on straw

By nightfall, the chicks were still a bit befuddled, so I had to herd them under the Ecoglow brooder to make sure they stayed warm that night.  I repeated the experience the next day, but after that our chicks finally remembered where their electric hen was located and put themselves to bed.

Chicks eating greenery

Now that their new environment felt like home, I figured it was time to start the chicks on greenery.  Sourgrass is the fall favorite for chicks, so I began my daily foraging expedition around the yard in search of this tender weed.

Chick feeder

Of course, vegetables only go so far at sating the appetite of growing chicks, so the feed trough is always well attended.

Napping chicks

With crops full, afternoon is nap time.

Isn't it astonishing how much chicks can grow in just nine days?  The next week and half will bring even more changes as I introduce them to the great outdoors.  Stay tuned!

Posted early Monday morning, September 17th, 2012 Tags:

Hanging sunflowers in the chicken coopChickens and cover crops go very well together.  Harvey Ussery uses his flock to scratch in whole sections of cover crops when they're mature, but our more patchwork garden requires me to get creative about putting chickens together with cover crops.  Luckily, chickens and cover crops are both so flexible, you can combine them in a way that's bound to fit just about any farm.

This year, I'm letting a couple of my cover crops go to seed, then I'm cutting them for bedding and feed in the chicken coop.  The photo to the left shows the sunflower heads I clipped and hung for our girls to peck at when they get bored --- I left the roots and stalks to decay in the garden and the empty heads will eventually become part of the coop's bedding.

Buckwheat gone to seedSimilarly, I usually tear up buckwheat as it reaches full bloom, but I let one bed get away from me and seeds formed.  I don't want to let those buckwheat plants decay in the garden the way I usually do since buckwheat seeds can be a weed problem, so I hauled the plants into the coop to refresh the deep bedding while giving our birds a snack.

Of course, if you take cover crops away from the garden, you don't get organic matter buildup in the soil, which is the technique's primary purpose.  However, deep bedding goes from the coop back to the garden in the spring, so those nutrients will just keep cycling through the farm.

What's your favorite way to combine cover crops with chickens?

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with unlimited, clean water.
Posted early Wednesday morning, September 19th, 2012 Tags:
Chicks grazing in clover

Although most of us think of chicks in the spring, it's worth considering raising a flock of broilers in the late summer.  Our pastures hit a lull in midsummer, but as temperatures drop, the grass starts to grow again.  Meanwhile, the vegetable garden is churning out excess produce like mad in September and October, and chickens love those rotten tomatoes and monster squash.  In fact, you can often let chicks graze in a mature vegetable garden until they're two months old without seeing much damage.

Free range chicks

Last year, I was very glad Mark talked me into putting one more round of eggs in the incubator in August, so I repeated the procedure this year.  In our zone 6 climate, I consider Thanksgiving the deadline for getting the last broiler out of the pasture and into our bellies, so I aimed to have eggs hatch by the first week of September.  If you live further south (or are raising Cornish Cross broilers to eight weeks instead of heirlooms to twelve weeks), you could start your chicks a bit later.

Chickens eating garden surplus

Our last round of 2012 broilers are still in the cute and fuzzy stage, but we've already moved them to the outdoor brooder so they can enjoy pasture.  That's one more benefit of fall broilers --- it's never too cold to put your newborn chicks outside!

(By the way, these photos are last fall's broilers.  You'll see this year's Australorp broilers in later posts.)

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to provide fresh water to a batch of broilers and a laying flock without wasting time cleaning out filthy waterers.
Posted late Thursday afternoon, September 20th, 2012 Tags:

Rabbit chilling on a water bottle"Can I use the Avian Aqua Miser with rabbits?"  I get this question in my inbox a lot, and my traditional response has been, "I'm not sure."  I warned rabbit-keepers that I felt the small tip of our chicken nipples might be harsh on a rabbit's tender tongue, but mentioned that we have a no-questions-asked return policy, so if they tried the waterer and it didn't work, they could just send it back.

Our friend Shannon decided to answer the question once and for all.  He's getting into meat rabbits and ran across many of the same issues with keeping his rabbits hydrated that those of us who started out with traditional chicken waterers muddled our way through.  He liked the idea of our chicken waterer and wanted to create a PVC pipe waterer for his rabbits.

You can see Shannon's rabbit watering system here.  Soon after writing that post, his friend Dawn even caught the rabbit drinking on video, proof positive that their furry friends were able to drink from our nipples.  I guess I don't need to be quite so cagey when folks ask me whether the Avian Aqua Miser works for rabbits now.  Thanks for experimenting, Shannon and Dawn!

Posted early Friday morning, September 21st, 2012 Tags:
Chicks eating clover

The sooner your chicks get out on pasture, the healthier they'll be...as long as they don't die of exposure or get eaten by something.  Most large-scale pastured poultry  producers don't have the time to baby chicks on pasture, so they keep their flocks inside for their first one or even two months of life (up to two thirds of the entire life span of a Cornish cross broiler!)  But I figure if the weather's warm and dry and I place the flock right outside our back door, we can get away with pasturing chicks as early as one or two weeks old.

Sheltered outdoor chick brooder

Chick in grassThis spring, we made little enclosures to keep the flock within bounds, but with this last batch we opted to let the youngsters entirely free range from their first day outside.  We've located the outdoor brooder in a shady spot between a peach tree and a row of raspberries, and the chicks naturally gravitate to these sheltered zones for their first week or two in the great outdoors. 

They travel as a flock, all fly-running after the leader when he or she decides to move to a new patch of earth, or to scurry back inside.  Watching the chicks' antics as we eat dinner feels like we've turned on cartoons.

Chick on ramp

Each evening, I go out and shut the chicks in just to be on the safe side.  They make quite a mess even with their automatic feeder, so I don't want to attract rats (who might stay to dine on my baby birds).  And for the first couple of days I do have to spend a few minutes helping chicks find the brooder door when they get lost five feet away --- the alarm peeps are easy to hear from inside.

Chicks by the porch

The only other thing I do regularly is to keep an eye on the weather forecast and make a judgement call about whether the day is fine enough for chicks to spend outdoors.  It's easy for a chick in the fluffball stage to get wet and chilled, so if it's going to be extremely stormy, I just leave them shut up for the day.  That said, by the time they're even two weeks old, our chicks are bright enough to stay inside during downpours since we've selected for good foraging breeds.

Cat near brooder

You may have other problems to contend with if your pets aren't as well-trained as ours, if you don't have a sheltered area to protect the flock during their youth, or if you're raising a dumber breed.  But I highly recommend figuring out how to get your flock out on pasture early regardless --- they'll be healthier, and so will you when you eat the higher quality meat and eggs.

Pastured chicks
Our chicks use an Avian Aqua Miser from day one to ensure they stay disease-free and healthy.
Posted early Monday morning, September 24th, 2012 Tags:
Fall chickens

Last year, we put a light in the chicken coop in October in an effort to get our pullets laying.  We were rewarded with eggs all winter --- something I'd taken for granted with our Golden Comets, but which seems to be less of a norm with heirloom breeds.

Egg production drops in the fallThis year, the majority of our flock is a year and a half old, so we didn't have to worry about pullets waiting until spring to lay.  And yet, production began to decline dramatically as soon as the calendar rolled over to September and day length dropped below 13 hours.

You'd think that four eggs a day would be plenty for two people.  But as our pasturing system provides the flock more wild food and the eggs get tastier and brighter, we want more and more of them.  Four is now the bare minimum since Mark and I each enjoy two eggs scrambled up for breakfast.  If we want a butternut pie, we need a few more eggs!

Light in chicken coop

Heirloom chickensSo Mark ran an extension cord back out to the coop and hooked up the timer and light to artificially extend the day length back to summer levels.  I'll try to remember to report back and let you know if our girls pick up the pace.  I hope they do --- otherwise, Mark wants to hunt down a few more layers to ensure his winters are full of butternut pies.

Our DIY chicken waterer kits provide complete instructions for building a heated waterer for easy winter care.
Posted early Wednesday morning, September 26th, 2012 Tags:
Chickens in historical barnyard

Did you ever wonder what poultry keepers fed their flocks before the modern feed mixtures came on the scene?  Feeding Poultry was published in 1955 by G.F. Heuser, who had spent the last forty years researching poultry nutrition, and his book is a fascinating peek into the era during which commercial feeds were being developed (but while poultry keepers still remembered the old ways).

Heuser began his book by looking at chicken care from a hundred years prior.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, chickens were being kept in small flocks on diversified farms, so they mostly fed themselves, with a bit of corn or other grain tossed in once or twice a day.  Some farmers would let the hens into the garden for an hour or so of monitored bug control, and they generally had free rein of the barnyard, where the chickens happily pecked apart manure from horses and cows.  A slightly later nineteenth century text mentioned feeding chopped and scalded clover hay.  Heuser reminds us that this laissez-faire method of chicken-keeping worked at the time, but that the hens didn't lay terribly well, concentrating most of their efforts on the spring months.

Feeding PoultryAs we entered the twentieth century, chickens began to be bred for high production and were crammed into small spaces in large numbers.  We also started to stress the birds by raising chicks unseasonably (such as in late winter to ensure the pullets would lay their first fall).  The changes in poultry setups necessitated a similar change in chicken feeding.

Commercial chicken feed mixtures began to be used in the 1910s, and scientists continued to perfect their formulas over the next several decades.  We were just learning about the differences between animal and vegetable proteins and were discovering many vitamins and minerals, so it became clear that chickens thrived on milk because of riboflavin and needed cod liver oil when kept in confinement because they couldn't make their own vitamin D.

I'll be regaling you with more highlights of Feeding Poultry this fall and winter, whenever a rainy day tempts me to dip back into this thick but easy-to-read book.  Stay tuned, or pick up your own copy and read along.

Our chicken waterer provides the other half of a healthy chicken diet --- clean water.
Posted early Friday morning, September 28th, 2012 Tags:

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