Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers

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Identifying chickweed[I] think this is a great idea for winter feeding & would have appreciated a good identification pic of what chickweed actually looks like since I have no idea!

--- Danetta

Since my background is in biology (with an emphasis on plants), I tend to forget that you might not all be able to run out into your yards and scoop up the plants I write about for your chickens.  I pointed Danetta to this post for identifying chickweed, but I thought all of our readers might like a bit of help with plant ID. 

Ground cherriesFirst of all, the great thing about starting your edible plants forays with chickens in mind is that you're much less likely to poison anyone.  As long as you don't starve your flock and then provide only poisonous plants, chickens seem to be pretty good at figuring out what's good to eat and ignoring what's not.  That's actually how I get most of my wild chicken feed tips --- from watching what my free ranging birds gravitate toward.

That caveat out of the way, it's time-consuming but ultimately quite simple to learn to identify wild plants.  First, you need to understand some very basic science.  If you don't already know what a scientific name is, which part is the genus, and which part is the specific epithet, go look that up now.

Jewelweed flowerNext, remember that the shape of the flowers is the most important way to narrow down the identification of an unknown plant because plants with similarly shaped flowers are often closely related (often in the same genus or at least in the same family).  Other important characteristics to take note of include whether the palnt is a tree, shrub, vine, or herb (nonwoody plant), the type of seeds, the orientation and shape of the leaves, and the presence or absence of hairs.  Beginners tend to focus only on flower color, which is pretty much useless for identification purposes if you don't have anything else to go on.

Now that you know what to look for in an unknown plant, it's time to find an identification guide.  These are all location-specific, so choose your book depending on where you live.  I started out with Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers, which is an excellent text for beginners even if (like me) you live slightly outside the book's range.  Peterson's is much easier to use than the supposedly beginners' Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, which is not nearly as nicely illustrated and requires the reader to know much more.

Tick trefoilNo matter what you choose as your beginner guide, after a while you'll start finding plants that aren't included in the text.  If you're feeling brave, you can find your state's manual of flora (if they have one --- Virginia doesn't yet, so I bounce between Plant Life of Kentucky (easy), Flora of West Virginia (medium), and Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (excessively hard).)  If you're stuck choosing between two species and the technical language in your flora is giving you conniptions, it's also handy to type the scientific name into a google image search, which will usually turn up lots of photos of that species from various angles.  (As always when working with the internet, though, assess the quality of the website before counting it as gospel.)

I hope that helps you identify the plants in your chicken yard and beyond so you can figure out which ones are best to encourage for your flock!

Our chicken waterer rounds out the healthy chicken diet with POOP-free water.
Posted early Monday morning, December 3rd, 2012 Tags:

Gathering feathersBack when we started raising our own broilers, Mark and I had a difference of opinion about what to do with the guts and heads.  I wanted to toss them down the outhouse hole, figuring why dig an extra hole in a random location when we'd already decided to consolidate high nitrogen waste near the roots of fruit trees.  Mark thought it was disrespectful to poop on top of decapitated chicken heads, and he was also worried about smell (a problem with our outhouse 1.0).

The way our marriage works, if we disagree and both feel strongly about the matter, we table it until one or the other of us changes our minds.  On the other hand, if one feels strongly and the other doesn't, the former generally wins.  (This is an excellent way to keep a marriage together, if not the best way to get things done.)  Since Mark cared more than I did about the chicken waste (and since he was going to be the one digging the extra holes), we buried our chicken guts, feathers, and heads for a couple of years.

Composting toiletThis summer, I snuck a composting toilet onto our farm.  Mark felt pretty strongly that he didn't want to be handling human waste, but I talked him around by redesigning the structure so no one will be touching fecal matter until it has decomposed for at least a year.  Finding a source of sawdust made the composting toilet a much easier sell since the structure now meant that not only would Mark no longer have to dig holes to China (outhouse holes), but also that our manure would be covered with a high carbon layer that would keep down smells and flies.

Composting chicken wasteNow I was ready to reopen the issue of composting the waste from our broilers, and I was happy to discover that Mark no longer felt strongly about the issue of combining chicken remains with human manure.  I think several years of farming has changed the idea of high nitrogen inputs from "waste" to "nutrient source" for both of us, and we were just concerned that the meaty compost would attract critters.  So Mark screwed an extra board to the side of the composting toilet as a temporary barrier and I topped the feathers and heads off with extra sawdust, and the problem was solved.  No more waste stream!

Our chicken waterer makes it easy to raise healthy chickens on pasture since it never spills.
Posted early Wednesday morning, December 5th, 2012 Tags:
Hybrid chickens

Hybrid vigor is a term scientists use to refer to the observation that the offspring of two unrelated parents are often larger and healthier than more inbred offspring.  Cornish Cross chickens are an extreme example of hybrid vigor, but I was curious to see whether I'd notice any difference between the purebred Australorp chicks we raised this year and the Australorp X Marans chicks.

Heirloom broilersThe first thing I noticed is that the speckling on Cuckoo Marans seems to be a sex-linked trait.  Australorp X Marans pullets (girls) aren't speckled, while the cockerels (males) invariably are.  Since I didn't keep track of which eggs hatched into which pullets, I can't tell you about hybrid vigor among the girls since they looked just like the purebred Australorp girls.  Among the males, though, the Australorp X Marans hybrids averaged 12% heavier.

The results aren't really conclusive, though.  In addition to my small sample size, there's another factor I can't really disentangle --- whether what I'm seeing is hybrid vigor or whether Cuckoo Marans just bulk up faster than Australorps.  My data from when I was raising each as a pure breed isn't really comparable --- the two breeds were in very different pastures and on different rations.

Scientific or not, my glimpse into the possibility of hybrid vigor suggests that it's worth keeping a mixed flock of parent birds when raising your own broilers.  I suspect that in the long run, a constantly changing mutt flock might be better for our purposes than any single heirlom variety.

The Avian Aqua Miser is a POOP-free chicken waterer, perfect for broilers on pasture.
Posted early Friday morning, December 7th, 2012 Tags:

Cleaning out the deep beddingLast year, I cleaned out the deep bedding in February, but this time I opted to do so in December.  While I'd like to say my reasoning was biological, I was really just greedy for the mulch to put my berry bushes and fruit trees to bed properly.  (I was also bumping my head going into the main coop, so I figured the bedding was getting a bit high.)

I started my clean-out by pitchforking the top layers of most of the coop's bedding into a pile, then scooping out the decaying bedding underneath to wheelbarrow into the garden as mulch.  The area under the perches was twice as deep and much higher in fertility since most of the manure collects there, so I shifted the (rather nasty --- I should have added more bedding sooner) top layer from under the perch to the now-bare soil elsewhere before taking out the lower layers under the perches to use as a compost-mulch mixture.  Finally, I forked the top layers of bedding from most of the coop under the perches and on top of the manure-laden bedding to keep the chickens' feet clean and to keep the deep bedding system going.

Spreading deep beddingIn the garden, I treated the bedding from under the perches and the bedding from elsewhere in the coop a bit differently.  The former is very high in nitrogen and was already breaking down into a compost that will feed my perennials but won't keep the ground covered for long.  In contrast, the bedding without much manure in it will act as a longer-lived, complex mulch.  I figure I'll need to top off the rich bedding in the spring to keep weeds at bay, and can probably leave the areas mulched by the less rich bedding alone until summer or fall.

Cleaning out both coops and our brooder only managed to fertilize our blueberry patch, one long row of blackberries and raspberries, and two peach trees.  As usual, I want more deep bedding, but our pastures can't bear any more birds...yet.
(By the way, there were no signs of worms under the deep bedding, so my stab in the dark was a failure.)

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional filthy waterers.
Posted early Monday morning, December 10th, 2012 Tags:
Broiler"How do y'all scald your chickens for plucking?  Or do you skip that step?  We always end up doing 2 dozen birds at a time just so as to avoid heating the water more than once."
--- Lindsey

I've helped friends who raise birds for sale butcher their chickens and turkeys, and it makes sense at their level to use a scalder (a special piece of machinery that keeps a tub of water at a constant temperature).  But on the homestead scale, I think most folks will be best off just heating a pot of water on the stove for each bird.  It's low tech, doesn't waste all that much water, and keeps the scalding water clean.

(Graphic pictures below.  The usual warnings apply.)

Scalding a chickenA two gallon pot filled two-thirds of the way up with water is just barely big enough to scald a large, heirloom cockerel at three months old, when his dressed weight comes in around two and a half pounds.  We can generally fit an old laying hen in this same pot, too, but if you're raising really hefty Cornish Cross broilers, you might need to choose the next size up.

As soon as we're done scalding and plucking one bird, Mark rinses out the pot and puts it back on the stove on high while I dress the previous bird's carcass.  By the time the next bird is ready for dunking, the water has reached 145 to 150 degrees (as measured by a meat thermometer) --- perfect for loosening up feathers.

Since the pot is on the small side, I like to scruff up the feathers of each bird with a wooden spoon as Mark dunks it to make sure air pockets don't prevent water from reaching the skin Roughing up feathersall around.  Plunging the chicken up and down also helps ensure thorough scalding.  You know your bird is ready to pluck when the tough tail and wing feathers pull out relatively easily.

Having used a scalder, I'm not so sure our pot method is actually any harder on the small scale.  Especially with turkeys, a scalder requires frequent topping off with hot water, and who wants to be the lucky farmer who gets to turn on the scalder at 5 am so it'll be ready to do its job at 7?  On the other hand, I do really appreciate our automated plucker --- that seems like the appropriate level of technology for our farm.

Every chicken waterer order comes with an ebook and video giving tips on butchering chickens on the homestead scale.
Posted early Wednesday morning, December 12th, 2012 Tags:
Kill mulching along a fenceline

Honeysuckle on fenceFencelines are a problem.  If you're not willing to use herbicides, weeds tend to grow up along and through them, and if you've got vines like Japanese honeysuckle around, the fence might soon bow down under the weight of the plant life. 

Even though chickens like the protected areas behind these "vine hedges", I'd rather keep the chaos a bit controlled.  One hypothesis I have for achieving that control without too much work is that a vigorous planting right along the outside edge of a fenceline will keep weeds at bay but will not be demolished by chicken beaks.  If the plants want to spread, they can grow into the pasture and be eaten, but some will always stay protected on the outside.

Newly planted comfreyComfrey and Jerusalem artichokes seemed like good fits for this fenceline planting, so I kill mulched about ten feet of fenceline and installed our living weed barrier.  The comfrey is the Bocking 4 I ordered from Coe's Comfrey a few weeks ago --- it came in great shape, three for the price of two.  I've got plenty of my unknown-variety comfrey that I can spread along other fencelines next year if this experiment works, and both the Bocking 4 and Jerusalem artichokes should be ready to divide up in a year or two as well.

Do you have a favorite way of maintaining fencelines without a lot of work or chemicals?

The Avian Aqua Miser is a POOP-free chicken waterer that makes chicken-keeping fun.
Posted early Friday morning, December 14th, 2012 Tags:
Terrace design

All summer and fall, I've been dreaming of turning the steep powerline cut pasture into a useful part of the farm.  With the garden put to bed, I was finally able to steal some time to put the first stage into practice.

First, the goals:

  • Prevent chicken-scratching from causing erosion on a steep slope.
  • Provide easy access so we're able to manage the vegetation.
  • Hold water on what's otherwise a dry slope so trees won't need irrigation (with the side benefit of helping deal with the overflow of water that turns the bottom of the slope into a swamp).

Building a terraceI'm starting with two terraces, although I suspect I'll eventually make three or four if these work out.  First, I stacked a lot of brush (cut out of the pasture this summer) on the downhill side of where I wanted the terrace to go, then I carved soil out of the uphill side to toss onto that raised area.  If I was building a terrace to hold heavy machinery, I wouldn't want to put biodegradable wood down there, but my goal is to keep these terraces in place with root action in the long run, so the brush just has to hold the slope until the roots get established.

Speaking of roots, I've already planted the berm on the downhill side of the biggest terrace with comfrey, and plan to seed cover crops (probably oats, then buckwheat) on the unused flat part of the terrace this spring.  That way I'll be able to turn the chickens into this pasture a bit over the summer without worrying that they'll scratch bare soil to pieces, and I'll also be building much-needed organic matter for the five tiny American persimmons that will eventually spread their roots into this space.  The trees will be grafted to naturally dwarf Asian persimmons once the trunks are four feet tall (in a year or two), which means they'll stay shrimpy enough not to mess with the powerline overhead.

Switchback trail

Rather than putting the terraces directly on grade, I opted to turn them into a switchback trail, with one gently rising and one gently falling so the two mostly-flat areas meet at the edge of the pasture.  This is really just to make it easy for me to access, and may have the unintended consequence that water runs down the terraces rather than pooling in them.  I'm hopeful that a few logs laid across the terraces will hold soil and water in place.

Terracing a hillside

As you can see, the digging is hard work, so I'm just plugging away an hour or two per day.  More photos to come, but meanwhile, I'm curious to hear any feedback on the design.  For example, do you think half-rotted old trees about ten inches in diameter will hold the uphill side of the slope if I pound fence posts in behind them at intervals?  (Again, this is just supposed to last for the first few years, until the plants I stick between the timbers take root.)  Do you think it's realistic to think I can get my terraces vegetated enough to let chickens graze in here part-time this summer?  I'm very curious to hear from anyone who's tried to terrace a chicken pasture.

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock well hydrated so they can spend their days foraging for food.
Posted early Monday morning, December 17th, 2012 Tags:
training cats to not eat chicks

We like to let our new born chicks forage as soon as they can.

Sometimes one of our two cats gets interested in the small furry creatures and does something that looks like stalking.

Strider is the cute cat in the picture above, and we've only had to raise our voice a few times to get him to leave the chicks alone. I don't think it would be accurate to label that "training" because Strider just accepts orders like they're fact.
Huckleberry is a meatball?
Huckleberry on the other hand is one of those independent cats that ignores even the most simple request.

My recent conclusion is that training cats is an illusion. They either want to help or please you like Strider or act "Too cool for school" like our Huckleberry.

We've never lost any poultry to a cat attack, which might be because our cats balance out each other so well?

Posted early Wednesday morning, December 19th, 2012 Tags:
Terrace bank support

With the digging done for the first round of terraces, I roped Mark into the heavy work of keeping the banks from slumping.  He tried two different methods, both of which are very experimental (meaning --- wait to hear some results before following suit).

The first technique was using half-rotten (but huge) timbers from the deconstructed old house, held in place with two fence posts.  Mark pounded the posts far into the ground so the post tops were level with the tops of the logs, which should provide maximum strength.

Digging out spots for boards

The second method was only subtly different (due to us running out of big timbers).  Now we moved on to the floor joists for the old house, which are two by sixes from back when those measurements were accurate and lumber was made out of hardwoods.  Above, I'm digging out a bit of extra bank so the boards will fit in flush.

Pounding in fence posts

And here Mark's pounding in the fence posts to hold the boards in place.  Notice how he's got the posts slanted back toward the hillside to counteract pressure from the earth, and how the boards are naturally spaced a bit apart (due to us not pulling out nails).  The latter will allow groundwater to seep out, which will lessen the pressure against the boards during heavy rains.  (Yes, the gap was an accident, but our off-site engineer's comment makes it sound like a good idea.)

For year one, I won't be planting anything on the untouched ground above these terrace walls since I think it'll take that long to wipe out the Japanese honeysuckle and blackberries with frequent weed-eating.  After that, though, I'll plant this space heavily with species yet to be determined in order to hold the bank.  I have no illusions that these walls will remain for more than a few years, but if they keep the bank solid until I can get some perennials to spread their roots through that area (and then break down into humus), I'll be happy.  More on plants in a later post!

Our chicken waterer keeps water clean and hens happy.
Posted early Friday morning, December 21st, 2012 Tags:
Tree mulch box

Chicken fencing around treeOne of the stumbling blocks in creating a forest pasture from scratch is protecting the trees while they get established.  Previously, I'd been surrounding new trees with a cage of flexible plastic netting, which does keep the chickens out but also keeps the gardener out.  The result?  Weeds grow, I don't water, and about half the trees die from neglect.

Although I haven't come up with anything better for that first critical rooting year, I'm considering changing over to mulch boxes for years two and beyond.  The idea is that a raised wall holds the mulch in place around the tree's roots, so even though the chickens scratch for bugs, the mulch just moves around instead of dissipating into the pasture.  We'll also be able to mow right up to the edge of the mulch box, so weeds should be much less of a problem.

Mulching a tree with woody debris

I filled some of these mulch boxes with leaves raked out of the woods, but I'm more confident in my second experimental choice --- summer-cut saplings.  We had a couple of  helpers come in over the summer and cut back the young trees (and briars and vines) in the powerline pasture, and they left the woody debris lying in piles.  I figured the slender trees, with leaves still hanging on, would make great mulch around my fruit trees since the branches would make it tougher for chickens to scratch the mulch up while the leaves would fill in the gaps and coat the soil.  To hedge my bets, I also stacked rotting logs on top of the brushy mulch.

Since our laying flock is foraging in the woods at the moment and we won't be hatching any more broilers until late winter, I won't have data on how these mulch boxes work for quite a while.  I'll be sure to post an update, though, once I get an idea of whether they're a success or failure.

The Avian Aqua Miser never spills or fills with poop.
Posted early Monday morning, December 24th, 2012 Tags:
making a diy chicken carrier out of an old metal trunk

making a diy chicken carrier from an old metal trunk
One observation I've made about our new DIY chicken carrier is that they seemed more calm compared to transporting chickens in a cage made entirely of wire mesh.

I suspect the partial darkness inside the trunk had a calming effect.

Total time on the project was less than a half hour and that includes hunting down the metal trunk amongst our barn clutter.

Posted early Monday morning, December 24th, 2012 Tags:
reporting on how much better a digital timer is over a mechanical one when freezing conditions exist

We've tried 3 different types of mechanical timers for the supplemental chicken coop light and all three have had issues of not working right during temperatures that get close to freezing.

One solution might be to build a little insulated box to put it in, but it still might get too cold inside.

The above digital timer is easy to program and has not failed even once since we've installed it. It will cost 2 to 3 times what a mechanical timer can be found for, but is well worth it if your chicken's circadian rhythm stays intact.

Posted early Wednesday morning, December 26th, 2012 Tags:
Chickens with oilseed radishes

The woods are now solid brown and gray, so I thought it would be nice to give our free-ranging flock a winter pick-me-up.  Okay, I'll be honest --- a chicken broke into the oilseed radish pasture, so I figured everyone should get a shot at it. 

Chickens eating oilseed radishesThe cover crop grew slowly during the summer due to partial tree cover, but the same trees seem to have mitigated winter's cold, so the radishes are still vibrantly green while the ones in my garden are dying or dead.  Our rooster and hens were quite happy to chow down on the radish leaves, just like our last round of broilers were this fall.

With the whole world (except the garden) open to them, our flock has been spending perhaps a third of its time enjoying vegetables in the radish pasture and two thirds of its time hunting invertebrates in the woods.  Sounds like a well-rounded chicken diet.

Learn more about cover crops in my 99 cent ebook!

Our chicken waterer is the POOP-free alternative to traditional, filthy waterers.
Posted early Friday morning, December 28th, 2012 Tags:
Chicken tractor

In a recent interview, I was asked to share stories of early lessons learned on the farm.  I mentioned our ill-fated attempt to become mule skinners, but I might just as well have talked about our first chickens.

Young homesteadAlthough I'd had chickens in the past, Mark and I didn't have any poultry when the time came to move to our farm six years ago.  We also didn't have the cash to buy them, so it might have taken us a couple of years to become chicken-keepers if one of our neighbors hadn't stepped in.

This neighbor loved fresh eggs and had plenty of cash, but as an actor, he had to be ready to jump in the car to drive to Atlanta on a moment's notice and couldn't take care of a flock.  He suggested a compromise --- how about he pay for the birds, we do the caretaking, and all three of us split the eggs?

A hundred bucks bought twenty point-of-lay pullets, and boy did they ever lay.  Our neighbor ate perhaps a dozen eggs a week, and we hadn't yet learned the true joy homegrown eggs, so we did the same.  That left another eight dozen or so eggs to deal with every week...and we barely knew anyone in the area to give or sell them to!

Chicken tractor clearing weedsSoon, we'd offloaded two-thirds of the birds onto my father, which left a more manageable flock (which we were able to feed on our limited income).  Those birds were the inspiration for Mark's chicken waterer invention and also helped me learn a lot about permaculture and farm ecology, so they were worth every egg-filled day.  But if you have plans to follow our lead, you  might want to do things a little differently.

Actually, I think chicken-shares are a pretty good idea, as long as you start out with the right number of hens.  To make economic sense for the main caretaker of the birds, though, the investor should probably kick in some percentage of the feed bill as well as paying the startup costs.  You'll also need to think ahead to what happens two years hence when the flock is declining in laying vigor --- who will kill the birds, who gets the stewing hens, and how will new chicks come on the scene?

Has anyone else had experience with a chicken-share?  I'd be curious to hear about your own adventures.

Posted early Monday morning, December 31st, 2012 Tags:

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