Avian Aqua Miser: Automatic, poop-free chicken waterers

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Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
bucket waterer in a chicken tractor

The new 2 gallon chicken tractor bucket waterer is a nice upgrade.

We have 3 hens in our tractor and it's usually enough for all week.

5 gallons would be too heavy and make it harder to move.

Posted early Wednesday morning, December 3rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Thursday afternoon, December 4th, 2014
Posted late Thursday afternoon, December 4th, 2014

When we sold out of our first round of heated chicken waterers in the first 24 hours, Mark decided it was only fair to build one more round to fill the orders of everyone who emailed us and asked for their own waterer. However, the manufacturer of the heated buckets had changed their policy in the interim and opted not to sell us any more buckets at a reduced price.

Enter my awesome mother-in-law. Rose Nell found the same type of heated bucket that Mark had been using on sale at Rural King and snapped up the lot. As a result, we have one more limited edition run of premade heated waterers --- 22 available for $100 each (fully constructed, with lid and free shipping within the U.S.). Get them while they're hot using the button below!

I'm not sure that we can count on another sale coinciding with an awesome mother-in-law in the future, so this will almost certainly be the last round of heated buckets available, for this year at least. I'll update this page when the waterers are all gone. In the meantime, I hope your chickens enjoy some warm water this winter!

Posted mid-morning Sunday, December 7th, 2014
Anna Green eggs

Our ducks seem to like to throw problems at us. First there was the dirty-egg dilemma, then the ducks-refusing-to-go-to-bed disaster, and now...their eggs have turned green.

No, I don't mean the pretty tinge of color that's sometimes present in a duck egg's shell. Instead, about two weeks ago, I started cracking open duck eggs...and finding unpleasantly green yolks inside.

Green eggs

At first, I guessed that cold weather might be causing some kind of chemical reaction with the yolk, a bit like you sometimes get a green layer on the outside of a hard-boiled yolk. However, weather warmed up and the eggs stayed green, so I did a little research.

The consensus on the internet is that green duck eggs come about when your flock finds some sort of wild food --- possibly acorns --- that affects the yolk color. Luckily, the eggs are still safe to eat and seem to taste about the same. So, if you find some green eggs in your egg nests, don't be like Dr. Seuss's character and refuse to eat them. Instead, you may find yourself saying, "I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am."

Posted early Wednesday morning, December 10th, 2014 Tags:
view of stealth chicken coop in urban setting

Wondering if your neighbors might complain if you start raising chickens?

Why not make a stealth chicken coop?

My Mom lives in an urban setting and decided to hide her coop by attaching it to the back of a large garden shed.

Posted early Wednesday morning, December 17th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
chicken feed indicator do it yourself

Have you ever wanted to know how much feed is in the feeder?

Prepforshtf.com has a clever project that lets you know when your chickens don't have any feed without going into the coop to look.

Gravity pushes the red flag when there's no feed to hold it in place.

Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, December 24th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Tuesday morning, December 30th, 2014

Ducks' Ditty
by Kenneth Grahame

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks' tails, drakes' tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roach swim--
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.

Everyone for what he likes!
WE like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!

High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call--
WE are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!

Happy New Year's from our ducks, who brave sub-freezing weather to dabble through the backwater!

Posted mid-morning Wednesday, December 31st, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
ducks foraging in the woods with chickens

Keeping ducks and chickens on fresh pastures is a major challenge in the Winter.

We've been having good luck letting our merged flock forage in the woods.

They sometimes want to circle back into our perimeter where the garden is, but that's easily fixed by remembering to shut the gate.

Posted early Monday morning, November 3rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Posted at noon on Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
using a laundry basket as a roll out nest box?

We hope our ducks learn to walk up and lay their eggs in this tilted laundry basket.

The back 3 inches are blocked.

The egg should roll to the back where it will be safe from being stepped on by the next duck waiting to lay her egg.

Time will tell if this works at solving our dirty duck egg problem.

Posted early Thursday morning, November 6th, 2014 Tags:
Automatic chicken door opener details

I posted about the Nu Trac automatic chicken coop door opener before, and thought it needed an update when I noticed a few more pictures.

The motor is a 12 volt automobile seat mover that spins at 190 rpm.

What makes this project most noteworthy is the detailed write up that captures the inventor's process in a way that was easy to understand and maybe replicate.

Posted early Monday morning, November 10th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at noon on Monday, November 10th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Monday, November 10th, 2014
chicken tractor waterer modification

Winter is setting in, and we like to switch from a 2 gallon bucket waterer down to a half gallon Avian Aqua Miser original for our girls in a tractor.

It makes it easier to switch out when you forget to take in the water at night and it freezes solid. We usually bring the frozen one in to thaw for tomorrow and swap it out with a fresh one.

The 2 gallon bucket holder can be built with a gap just big enough for the Avian Aqua Miser original to fit into.

Posted early Thursday morning, November 13th, 2014 Tags:
incubation eggs

A good way to experiment with new chicken breeds is to incubate your own eggs.

Fertilized eggs can cost anywhere from a dollar and beyond, but it's usually cheaper than ordering live chicks in the mail due to the minimum amount being either 50 or 100.

We had good luck ordering fertilized eggs on E-bay a few years ago. Your chicks won't have that "traveling in a box" stress to shake off, and you'll feel more self sufficient knowing you can expand your flock without any commercial help.

Posted early Monday morning, November 17th, 2014 Tags:
roll out nest box problems

Our new experimental roll out nest box is not working.

I think part of the problem might be the slick surface area of the plastic bin.

Maybe adding a small piece of carpet would be enough to entice our birds?

Posted early Thursday morning, November 20th, 2014 Tags:

Chicken booksWant some free and cheap reading for the Thanksgiving vacation? I figured this turkey-friendly holiday is a perfect time for books on chickens, so I've set The Working Chicken free on AmazonSmashwords, and Barnes & Noble. Find out why hard-nosed homesteaders don't name their chickens and much more in this photo-rich introduction to backyard chicken care. (And, for those of you who are more experienced or less hard-nosed, you'll likely still enjoy the children's book at the end, just right for inspiring the next generation of chicken keepers.)

If that introduction whets your appetite, my more in-depth series, Permaculture Chicken, includes three books bound to make your chicken-keeping adventure run more smoothly. And each ebook is marked down to 99 cents this week --- buy them all and save 74%! Here are the links: Permaculture Chicken: Incubation Handbook, Pasture Basics, and Thrifty Chicken Breeds.

I hope you find at least a few tidbits in these four books to make your own chicken-keeping experience more fun for you and for your birds. If so, why not make my day and leave a review? Thank you in advance for considering my books!

Posted early Monday morning, November 24th, 2014 Tags:
heated PVC chicken waterer

This Do It Yourself heated chicken watering apparatus can be cobbled together with parts from most common hardware stores.

A more simple solution would be to get in on the next order of our modified heated Farm Innovations 2 gallon bucket waterer.

Coping with frozen water in your chicken coop can really take the fun out of tending to your flock in the Winter. If I had to guess I'd say this heated bucket saves us a little over an hour a week compared to the old fashioned method of dumping the frozen ice out and refilling.

Posted early Thursday morning, November 27th, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
using an old chest freezer to store chicken feed

An old freezer makes a good rodent proof container to store chicken feed.

We recently cleaned this one up to keep the mice out.

Put it in the shade to prevent water condensation.

Posted early Thursday morning, October 2nd, 2014 Tags:
mistakes to avoid when building a chicken coop

When I built our first chicken coop we were short on both time and money.

Someday I'd like to build a bigger and better coop incorporating some of the lessons we've learned over the years since we first started raising chickens.

1. Make the door big enough for a wheelbarrow.

We took a couple doors off an old camper and regret not being able to have the extra elbow room. A regular or oversized door would make coop cleaning a whole lot easier.

2. Use increments of 8 to choose how big you want to go.

In my opinion the length or width should not be shorter than 8 feet. Keep in mind a sheet of plywood is 8x4.

3. Make it a tight fit.

You might get lucky the first year or two, but eventually a local predator will come sniffing around. I noticed we've got a problem with little birds swooping in to feast on laying pellets.

Posted early Monday morning, October 6th, 2014 Tags:
cut chick in a hand

Perdue Farms has been experimenting with probiotics in an effort to raise chickens without anitbiotics for the past 5 years.

Enterococcus, Lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium seem to be the top three of poultry probiotics.

Probiotics might be a worthwhile experiment if we were raising large numbers of Free Range-Organic-Antibiotic Free chickens to sell for a profit. We briefly considered trying that back in our early days. The conclusion we came to was that people in our area would not be willing to pay the extra amount for the increased quality. I'm not sure a medium sized chicken grower could operate a small probiotic lab and still be cost effective?

Posted early Thursday morning, October 9th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Friday morning, October 10th, 2014

This is the time of year when we start getting a lot of questions about
heated chicken waterers.  If you follow the link in the last sentence, you can see all of the experiments we've made with heated waterers over the years.  Our favorite at the moment is the combination of a heated bucket and our 3 pack DIY Avian Aqua Miser Original kit (without drill bit), constructed as shown in the video above and good down to about 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

We liked this option so much that, last summer, we were considering turning it into a premade product available here on our website.  However, Farm Innovators wasn't willing to give us much of a cut on buying their heated buckets in bulk, and the price we were going to have to charge to make a profit after paying for shipping twice ($150) seemed too extreme.  So we opted to instead give the idea away to anyone who would like to make their own at home.

Making a heated chicken watererHowever, I've had several emails from folks saying that making their own heated bucket waterer following our instructions is just too hard.  Could we please sell them a premade heated waterer?  We do have ten heated buckets collecting dust on the porch, so I figured we might as well move them to new homes at a reduced rate.  So, until we sell out, you can buy a premade heated bucket waterer for $100 using the buy-now button below.  (These are only for shipment within the U.S., and shipping is free.)  I don't know if anyone will be interested, but it's possible these will sell out fast, so snap them up while they're available!

Edited to add: We sold out in the first 24 hours!  But Mark bought one more round, and as of October 2015 these are available here for a limited time. They're $100 apiece with free shipping in the U.S.

A few of you also asked if we thought our EZ Miser kits would be a good fit with the heated bucket.  I'm less keen on this idea since I think that having the nipple so far away from the heating element will make it freeze faster.  However, if you're only looking for a heated waterer good down into the 20s Fahrenheit, then this might be a good (albeit untested) option.  And we're willing to make your premade heated bucket waterer this way if you leave a note with your order (or email info@avianaquamiser.com afterwards).  I'll be very curious to hear your reports on how much cold an EZ Miser heated bucket will handle!

While we're talking heated chicken waterers, I'm always looking for new, innovative ideas to share with our readers.  Please drop me an email or leave a comment if you want to share your ideas!

Posted early Monday morning, October 13th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Monday, October 13th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Monday, October 13th, 2014
Using a rooster to protect ducks?
Posted early Thursday morning, October 23rd, 2014 by mark
Posted late Monday morning, October 13th, 2014
Golden Spiral chicken tractor

The shape of galaxies and the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem are both examples of how the Golden Spiral can be expressed in nature.

Is there any Golden Spiral geometry in a backyard chicken?

Nothing has been discovered yet, but Marchelo gets my award for the most mathmatically inspired chicken tractor by building his poultry sculpture in a way that mimics the Golden Spiral.

Posted early Thursday morning, October 16th, 2014 Tags:
duck nest box with egg and golf ball

It took a while, but our ducks finally started laying in the duck nest box.

The one problem is dirty eggs. The next duck that comes in has dirty feet and transfers some of that mud and dirt to the eggs that were there before.

Maybe some sort of egg alert system could notify a human to go get an egg before the next duck decides she needs to lay one?

Posted early Monday morning, October 20th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Monday morning, October 20th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
rooster taking care of ducks?

Will a rooster protect ducks that are part of his flock?

I think it would depend on the rooster.

Our rooster seems somewhat indifferent to ducks. I've observed him leaving the ducks by themselves to tend to one of his ladies. He might attack a predator that is threatening his flock and the ducks, but I doubt if he would intervene if a hawk was trying to eat one of our ducks.

Posted early Thursday morning, October 23rd, 2014 Tags:
do chickens like sorghum?

We grew some sorghum this year to see if our chickens would eat it.

They gave it the old sniff and scratch, but didn't seem even remotely interested.

On a plus note our new goats seem to enjoy eating the leaves.

Posted early Wednesday morning, October 29th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Wednesday morning, October 29th, 2014
Posted late Wednesday morning, October 29th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, October 29th, 2014
keeping eggs clean with a roll out nest box

What's the best way to keep duck eggs clean?

Fix the nest box so they gently roll into a hardware wire cage.

Secure some fake grass to the floor at an angle to make rolling slow and smooth. We have not tried this method yet, still in the research stage, but it seems like the best low budget way of making sure your eggs stay clean.

Posted early Friday morning, October 31st, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
how much supplemental light do chickens need in the Winter?

It will soon be time to add supplemental light to your chicken coop if you don't want egg production to drop off.

We use a fluorescent light in our coop, but I've recently wondered if a small solar cell charging up a golf cart battery would be enough to run 5 watts worth of LED lights.

A feature where the light stays on longer as the days get shorter would be nice.

Posted early Monday morning, September 1st, 2014 Tags:
jewel weed seeds

jeewelweed seed closeupNow is the time of year to identify patches of jewelweed by their colorful flowers.

You'll be able to harvest the seeds sometime next month once they get brown.

We've discovered small chicks love jewelweed seeds and have no problem picking the seeds out themselves, which are a bit on the sensitive side.

Posted early Wednesday morning, September 3rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, September 3rd, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, September 3rd, 2014
Tweaking our chicken-pasturing system
Posted early Thursday morning, June 18th, 2015 by Anna
Chickens sharing a coop with ducks
Posted early Friday morning, September 12th, 2014 by mark
Posted Wednesday afternoon, September 3rd, 2014
sunflower comparison update

We uncovered the Sunflower preservation experiment and discovered zero mold.

My conclusion after hearing other observations is about the maximum time you keep the Sunflowers covered should vary depending on how moist your garden is.

I don't think I'd keep them covered more than a few weeks around here.

Posted early Friday morning, September 5th, 2014 Tags:
using a plastic tote box as a duck nesting area

Our ducks will start laying eggs soon, and we don't have a duck nest box yet.

The research I've done so far suggests that ducks sometimes lay wherever they get the urge in the beginning which is why I'm leaning towards a portable design so we can try different locations if we need to.

I think we'll try the above design. It seems to work well for Youtube user Gregory Shaffer and will be easy to relocate. What kind of nest box do you give your domestic ducks to lay eggs in?

Posted early Monday morning, September 8th, 2014 Tags:
Black soldier fly pupae

We got our black soldier fly bin going at the end of July, and for a while, nothing seemed to be happening.  Then, somewhere around the middle of August, the bin contents started becoming drastically smaller very quickly, which I assumed meant our larvae were coming up to speed.  A couple of weeks later, the first few pupae popped up in the collection bin, then many more showed up in the bin at the first of September.  Time to try out the tasty morsels on our flock!

Chickens enjoying black soldier fly larvae
"Delicious!" said the Red Star who hogged the entire feast, snarfing down all of the pupae within seconds.  The only ones she wasn't so keen on were the oldest pupae that I'd forgotten and left in the collection jar for a few weeks.  After looking at my closeup photos as I wrote this post, I realized those pupae were probably just husks out of which the adult flies had already emerged.  (In the first photo in this post, you can see one fly that couldn't find its way out of the collection bin and perished.)

Black soldier fly bin
What have I been putting in our black soldier fly bin to produce such tasty grubs?  Mostly onion and garlic peels, big cabbage leaves, and carrot tops, all of which our chickens usually turn up their noses at.  However, we did have one bag of laying pellets go moldy on us due to August's endless rain, and I've started soaking the pellets and adding them to the bin a gallon or so at a time.  It's not safe to feed moldy chicken feed to your flock, but if you feed the pellets to black soldier flies and then feed the black soldier flies to chickens, your flock will enjoy the nutrition anyway.

I'm not ready to say that black soldier fly bins are or aren't worth the time and expense yet, but I'm definitely enjoying the experiment...and so is that one sated hen!

Posted early Wednesday morning, September 10th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Thursday afternoon, September 11th, 2014
Posted Thursday afternoon, September 11th, 2014
Posted Thursday afternoon, September 11th, 2014
how well do chickens and ducks get along?

It's been over a month since we merged our duck and chicken flocks.

How well are they getting along?

We have not noticed any fights and they sometimes hang out in the same area, but for the most part I think they've decided to share the playground.

Posted early Friday morning, September 12th, 2014 Tags:

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Posted at teatime on Friday, September 12th, 2014
close up view of bottom of duck nest box

Why did I install hardwood floors in our new duck nest box?

Turns out 2 pieces of a 2x6 side by side make a perfect bottom weight.

Bricks would work if you don't have any scrap 2x6's handy.

Posted early Monday morning, September 15th, 2014 Tags:

ducks foraging in a small apple orchard
We recently installed a temporary enclosure to let the ducks and chickens near our very healthy, high density baby apple orchard.

It seems to be a good match so far.

The apples will be two years old this Fall and seem well past the vulnerable stage where a small poultry bird might be able to inflict damage.

Posted early Wednesday morning, September 17th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, September 17th, 2014
how to make a duck nest box more stable

This 2x4 provides a firm ledge to step on and over.

It's attached to another shorter 2x4 on the other side and extends 6 inches past the box to increase stability and prevent a possible tip over.

The vertical 1x1's help to frame up the area before cutting an opening.

Posted early Friday morning, September 19th, 2014 Tags:
hand woven chicken huts being carried in Ethiopia

These beautiful hand woven chicken huts are for Ethiopian chickens in Africa.

Photo credit goes to Patricia at the BackYardChickens Forum.

Check out her impressive pictures of chicken coops around the world for ideas and inspiraton on adding a little flare to the way you house your poultry.

Posted early Monday morning, September 22nd, 2014 Tags:
using 31 gallon metal trash can to store chicken feed

We've been using this 31 gallon metal trash can to store chicken feed.

There's a small gap on the lid near the handle that can leak during heavy rains.

Two medium dabs of silicone on the inside of the lid makes it watertight. Our can has been braving the elements for going on 4 years and it still looks like the day we bought it.

Posted early Thursday morning, September 25th, 2014 Tags:
above view of new duck nest box

The new duck nest box has yet to attract any ducks.

We think the front door might need to be larger.

Maybe a short plastic trash can would have been tall enough?

Posted early Monday morning, September 29th, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
do chickens like bannanas?

I've often wondered why our chickens don't like bananas and then I saw this video on Youtube and decided most chickens could care less about a banana.

Image credit goes to Youtube user CaptureRapture.

Posted early Friday morning, August 1st, 2014 Tags:
chicken tractor idea for improvement

Egg collection would be easier if the door was facing up instead of to the side.

A door to access the roosting area would be handy. That would make it easier to grab a chicken at night for relocation or retirement.

Posted early Monday morning, August 4th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, August 5th, 2014
Guarding rooster

I haven't had many entries in our EZ Miser photo contest, so I'm going to extend the deadline and give those of you who don't have EZ Misers a way to enter.  Be sure to go read the original post to learn about the rules and prizes, but here are some extra rules to give the rest of you a chance to win.

New deadline: August 17 at midnight

New photo subject: In addition to sending me shots of your EZ Miser in action, entries can include photos (and explanations) of non-store-bought feeds your chickens enjoy or of your tried-and-true recipes for cooking up old chickens.  These two topics are related to ebooks I have in the works, so your photos and explanations might be used in the finished product --- be sure to let me know if you'd prefer to remain anonymous!

I hope the extra week and the expanded subject matter will give more of you an opportunity to enter the contest.  Now's your chance to win $90 worth of chicken gear!

Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, August 5th, 2014 Tags:
lesson learned from the third year using power plucker

It's our third year using the Power Plucker and we still love it.

One lesson we learned this year was feather collection. It pays to spread out a tarp on the ground underneath the plucking action to collect all the feathers.

We use the feathers as mulch for now, but are open to new ways to use this resource.

Posted early Wednesday morning, August 6th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
diagram on how to make a self leveling platform

Sometimes a chicken tractor needs to rest on ground that is not exactly even.

Both our EZ Miser and original Aqua Miser waterers can function at steep inclines, but this mechanism could be adapted to automatically level itself even on extreme angles.

It would more than likely be the World's first automatic leveling chicken watering platform.

Posted early Friday morning, August 8th, 2014 Tags:
feeding herbs to chickens?

The first chicken contest I've registered for in years is going on right now!

I encourage you to check out the Urban Chicken Podcast where Tina Hickman is interviewed about her Luv Nest herb blends she sells.

The winner gets their choice of two Luv Nest herb blends. Something I'd like to try if we get lucky enough to win. Don't wait too long. The contest will end in two weeks.

Posted early Monday morning, August 11th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Monday afternoon, August 11th, 2014
Posted Monday afternoon, August 11th, 2014
Posted Monday afternoon, August 11th, 2014
Chicken bucket waterer

Homemade EZ MiserI've been enjoying seeing the entries to our photo contest coming in, especially the ones that showcase homemade EZ Misers.  The cinderblock-top mounting method that we use in our own coop and pastures does seem to be everyone's favorite way of getting the chicken nipples up to bird eye level.  The two photos shown here are courtesy of Mindy (top photo) and Jamie (and her Orpingtons).

For everyone who hasn't entered yet --- there's still time!  And, don't forget, you don't need to own an EZ Miser to enter.  I'm looking forward to seeing your happy, hydrated birds!

Posted early Wednesday morning, August 13th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Wednesday afternoon, August 13th, 2014
Starplate chicken coop

Christopher sent in the beautiful photo above as an entry in our photo contest.  He wrote:

"I have not done anything particularly clever with the kit, but it works really well and the chickens took to it right away.  I wasn't going to enter, but in honour of our first chicken laying it's first egg (the other four seem to be keeping their legs crossed) today, I figured I would send in some pics anyway.  In the photos you can also see the starplate coop inspired by yours!"

Christopher's beautiful hens include Buff Orpingtons and Laced Wyandottes.  Can your birds compete with their beauty?  You've got a couple of days left to enter our photo contest and find out!

Posted early Friday morning, August 15th, 2014 Tags:
Rainy chicken tractor

One of these days, we'll get our act together and really grow the majority of our chickens' feed.  At the moment, we put most of that kind of energy into keeping our pastures green, figuring that the health benefits of an endless salad bar are more important than changing the bulk of our chickens' diet over from store-bought corn and soybeans to homegrown grains.  However, we're also always experimenting with things we can do on a small scale to make homegrown foods a larger percentage of our flock's diet.

One common supplement to the backyard hen's diet is kitchen scraps, which we've been feeding for years.  We did make a major change to our food-scraps campaign this year, though --- rather than tossing the tomato tops and eggshells into the coop for the majority of our layers to consume, I've been giving all of our scraps to our four tractored birds instead.  The reason is predators --- the scent of food scraps (especially cobs leftover from cutting sweet corn into soup) attracts raccoons like nobody's business.  By keeping the highly-scented feeds very close to our trailer, we've cut down predator pressure in the coop significantly.

Cutting up over-mature squash

Another feed we've been giving for a while, but are using slightly differently this year, is over-mature summer squash and cucumbers.  In the past, I've just stepped on these mammoths in hopes of getting a few seeds to squirt out and tempt the chickens to peck, but cutting up the over-large cucurbits has been much more effective.  Chickens will nibble at the flesh of these monstrosities, but the seeds have most of the nutrition and they know it, so anything you can do to make the seeds more accessible is worth the effort.

Black soldier fly bin

On a more experimental front, we're trying out sending some of our food scraps into a black-soldier-fly bin this year rather than giving them all straight to the chickens.  Whether we'll get more bang for our buck this way is still up for debate, but since our bin can take bits of onions, cabbages, and other foods that our chickens mostly turn up their noses at, it might be a win-win.  (If you drink coffee, the grounds are also an excellent bin addition that wouldn't be good for chickens in their original form.)  Stay tuned for further updates.


Sorghum and sunflowersFinally, I've been planting more sunflowers as cover crops, hoping that we might end up with some seeds to give our chickens in the winter.  Similarly, my mom gave me a packet of sorghum seeds which I opted to plant with the chickens (rather than molasses) in mind.  We didn't devote much space and energy to either planting, but if they're particularly successful, we can always expand for next year.

If you're interested in other alternative chicken feed options, you can browse through several years of experiments here.  And I'd love it if you comment with your own accounts of trial and error!

Posted early Monday morning, August 18th, 2014 Tags:
chicken tractor capacity update

We added yet another chicken to our tractor bringing the count up to 4.

One of our hens kept escaping and it was easy to just stuff her in with the others.

I thought 3 was too many, but they seem fine and show no signs of crowding.

Posted early Wednesday morning, August 20th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, August 20th, 2014
do it yourself bucket holder for a chicken tractor

We upgraded our chicken tractor water container to a 2 gallon bucket.

It was easy to fabricate a wooden holder from scrap pieces of furring strips.

Anything bigger than 2 gallons might prove to be too heavy for a chicken tractor. On most days we'll only fill it half way up, but the extra capacity is nice when you need to go away for the weekend.

Posted early Friday morning, August 22nd, 2014 Tags:
making a chicken tractor light weight

The one downside to all the recent chicken tractor repairs has been weight gain.

Our nest box collapsed last week and instead of replacing the rotted wood I cut a piece of aluminum flashing to support a straw nest.

Make sure the sharp edges are out of the way. A metal nest bottom is much lighter than wood and won't rot after it gets a little moist.

Posted early Monday morning, August 25th, 2014 Tags:
best way to save sunflower seeds from birds?

We're trying an idea from a comment on a recent sunflower seed post.

It's simple to try. Wrap a shopping bag around the flower, secure bag at base.

I cut some air holes at the bottom to prevent molding.

Posted early Wednesday morning, August 27th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Thursday afternoon, August 28th, 2014
chicken tractor scrap food door

A little door on the top of a chicken tractor makes it easier to add scraps.

Sometimes scraps will attract predators like racoons. That's why we keep this tractor close to home where our hard working dog Lucy can stand guard.

Posted early Friday morning, August 29th, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, July 1st, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 1st, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 1st, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 1st, 2014
do chickens like to swing?

This is an experiment I've been wanting to try.

It seems some chickens really like that slow swinging effect you get when suspending a solid branch with some chain or rope.

Image credit goes to Buttercup and Youtube user ThePartyAnimalVideos.

Posted early Wednesday morning, July 2nd, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
Puny buckwheat

The photo above shows the new tree alley in our starplate pasture, where I'm focusing on soil building this year.  I grew a rye cover crop there over the winter, left the chickens in the pasture for two full weeks in May, then tossed down buckwheat and sunflower seeds.  My goal at the time was to do back-to-back buckwheat plantings the way I do in the vegetable garden to build organic matter fast in summer-fallow areas, but one look at the blooming buckwheat changed my mind.  Clearly, this soil is still very poor, since the cover crop is blooming at a third to a half of the height it does in my vegetable garden.

Cockerel on pasture

I haven't done a soil test in the starplate pasture, but my eye-balling of the earth while digging swales suggests that it's got a good texture and is well-drained.  In the vegetable garden, I'd add a couple of inches of horse manure to an area like this and would be able to plant into it right away, but I never have enough horse manure to "waste" it on a pasture.  The solution?  Chickens, of course.  I'll turn our young flock back into this tree alley for another week or two, letting them eat what they can and add plenty of manure to the soil, then will plant another round of buckwheat and see how the cover crop grows.  My goal is to have the tree alley in good condition by this winter when the time comes to plant out my spring-grafted apple trees, and I'm willing to force our flock to graze on subpar pasture in the interim if necessary to reach that goal.

Posted early Friday morning, July 4th, 2014 Tags:
Anna Lazy ducks
Flock of ducks

I hate to admit it, but our duck experiment was a dismal failure.  We chose Ancona ducks because they came highly recommended by Carol Deppe, but either the breed or the species seems to be a poor fit for our homestead.  When the ducklings were small enough to dabble in our sky pond, I loved the way they foraged for their own food, but keeping them on dry land has been much more of a hassle.  The requisite open bucket of water turns into mud within hours, and the ducks then proceed to turn the entire area around the bucket into mud too.

Lazy ducks

I could probably deal with the mud problem, though, if our ducks weren't so darn lazy.  At first, I thought maybe the waterfowl were spending their entire day hanging out in one spot because they were in a hillside pasture, and hills were too hard for their webbed feet.  However, I moved the flock into a flat pasture full of low weeds and clover (and even took away their open water bucket) and the waterfowl still lay about all day.

Busy chickens

For the sake of comparison, here's what the tractored hens were doing on the same hot afternoon that I took the second photo in this post.  Despite being confined to a small space, these Red Stars were busy working up the ground where I plan to set out fall broccoli next week, hunting for worms in the process.

If we were in the market for pets, not working livestock, ducks might be keepers, but Mark and I both agreed that we'd be better off cutting our losses before we have to deal with open buckets of mud in the winter.  We'll soon be dining on ducks and hunting down a few point-of-lay pullets to expand our new laying flock.

Posted early Monday morning, July 7th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 8th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 8th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 8th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, July 8th, 2014
chicken trying to eat mouse

Will a chicken eat a mouse?

I wouldn't expect a Cornish Cross to even try, but most other breeds might give it a taste test if they're hungry enough. I've never heard of anybody raising mice for this reason, but it might work as a feed supplement if you fed your chickens the smaller, younger ones.

Image credit goes to Youtube user ThE cHicKeN cHaNnEL Fowl Play.

Posted early Wednesday morning, July 9th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
Posted late Wednesday morning, July 9th, 2014

Cedar chicken roostThe multi-tiered roosting station Mark made in the starplate coop has been working like a charm.  Local legend has it that using red cedar branches in this application will keep mites at bay, but I have to admit our chickens are so healthy we've never seen a mite with or without cedar perches.  Still, the cedar roosts are well-received, with everyone who fits perching on the top tier and with any spillover enjoying the middle perch.  (The lowest perch was for chicks, and it did its job well.)

The astute reader will notice that there's no bedding under the roost.  Usually, I like to keep all coop floors completely covered with leaves and/or straw, counting on the high-carbon material to hold onto the nitrogen in the chicken manure.  With such a big coop and with so few birds involved, though, I've let the chicken droppings just fall onto the dirt floor in the starplate coop.  I plan to scoop the manure out soon and apply it to the poor soil in the tree alley, which should take care of any slight smell that would otherwise develop in the coop.

Posted early Friday morning, July 11th, 2014 Tags:
Duck and chicken standoff

After whittling down our replacement layer flock to a cockerel and three pullets, I decided to merge the chickens with our young ducks.  The starplate pastures where the young layer flock has been browsing is pretty barren at the moment, since the sward hasn't entirely developed yet and since lack of rain has slowed regrowth of what herbaceous plants do exist.  In contrast, the duck coop has three lush pastures around it, very little of which the ducks are deigning to eat and almost none of which the Cornish Cross broilers consumed.  Why not move the hens down to eat that greenery, and also save me from having to manage food and water in two separate coops?

Mark and I always move chickens at night, counting on the birds' inability to see in the dark to make the transition go smoothly.  Plus, if a hen wakes up inside a new coop, you often don't even have to shut her inside for a day to teach her that's her new roosting spot --- she just heads back inside the next night to eat and sleep.  I didn't count on how aggressive the ducks would be at having their slumber interrupted by gallinaceous interlopers, though.  The ensuing ruckus was so loud that I began to despair of the two flocks' ability to merge successfully, but I crossed my fingers and went to bed.

Chickens hanging out with ducksThe next morning, there was a standoff in the coop --- ducks on one end and chickens on the other.  When I opened the pophole to let them all out onto pasture, the rooster immediately took his harem up on the hill where ducks couldn't easily waddle, and he stood guard between his ladies and the terrifying waterfowl for hours.  However, when I dropped back by after lunch, a hen was walking between the ducks with no one batting an eyelash, and the other chickens were inside enjoying their repast --- a good sign for domestic tranquility to come.  Despite the initial drama, it's looking like merging a duck and chicken flock will be easier than putting two packs of unfamiliar chickens together.

Posted early Monday morning, July 14th, 2014 Tags:
Posted early Tuesday morning, July 15th, 2014
feeding june bugs to chickens

What's a good way to feed June Bugs to chickens?

Fill a 5 gallon bucket half way with water. Place the bucket under a light and leave it all night. The next morning you should have 10 to 20 June Bug snacks ready to feed to your flock. Spill the bucket near your chickens and watch them get happy.

A few might get away, but most will be gobbled up before they can achieve flight.

Image credit goes to Wikipedia.

Posted early Wednesday morning, July 16th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
Ducks dining on duckweed

Around the beginning of July, it was as if a flip was switched within our little ponds --- the duckweed started growing like crazy!  Our ducks are too big to be worth moving back to the ponds to dine, so I figured --- why not bring the duckweed to them?  It only took me a couple of minutes to scoop up about a gallon of duckweed, tadpoles, and water bugs, and after the ducks realized the bucket wasn't going to bite, they dived in with relish.  Within minutes, every bit of greenery was gone.

Duck bucket

I wrote last week that our ducks are too lazy to produce good-quality eggs since they don't forage much.  However, my duckweed bucket suggests that I'm just not embracing the duckness of ducks (as Joel Salatin would say).  Although you can raise waterfowl on dry land, that's not the role they're best suited for.  Perhaps a bucket of duckweed a few times a week is a happy compromise that will keep our ducks healthy and make them a more sustainable part of the homestead?

Posted early Friday morning, July 18th, 2014 Tags:

Rain barrel and pullet eggI always get a kick out of the first pullet egg of the year.  In 2014, our young ladies started their productive careers at 18 weeks of age, seven days younger than when I wrote this post a couple of years ago about when to expect your first eggs.

I liked this shot because Mark captured our new rain barrel as well as the tiny egg.  Rain barrels aren't really chicken-related...except that this barrel has been primarily used for filling buckets of water to carry to the chicken coop.  It's astonishing how many steps a rain barrel can save over the course of just a few weeks.  If you're sick of carrying water, adding a rain barrel near (or on) your chicken coop can make your life much easier!

Posted early Monday morning, July 21st, 2014 Tags:
Survivor chickens

Mark and I enjoyed a tour of the diverse Laughing Water Farm recently, and of course I was intrigued by the free-range chickens wandering here, there, and everywhere.  We didn't get a chance to see the Salatin-style egg-mobile, which had been dragged to a far pasture just the week before we came to visit, but there were still chickens wandering around the barns and outbuildings (along with a few eye-catching turkeys).

Pig barnI'm always on the lookout for which chicken breeds pull their weight under farm conditions, so I made a mental note that Australorps were winners there just like they are on our homestead.  However, I couldn't quite guess the breed of the small, cream-colored hen pictured above.  When asked, Antoinette replied, "Oh, she's a survivor."  Yep, that's probably the true homestead hen --- a mutt who manages to rustle up her own grub, raise some kids, and keep happily scratching through the deep bedding in the pig barn.

Posted early Wednesday morning, July 23rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted Wednesday afternoon, July 23rd, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, July 23rd, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, July 23rd, 2014
cat playing with chicken

Can cats and chickens get along enough to play together?

I'm sure if you asked the cat he would say "chickens are fun!", but the story a chicken might tell would be more like "who the heck is this furry monster?".

Image credit goes to Dash and Mora.

Posted early Friday morning, July 25th, 2014 Tags:
EZ Miser waterer in chicken pasture

Our EZ Miser is a bit over a year old --- time for a contest showing Mark's newest invention in action!  If you've bought either our
EZ Miser kit or our premade EZ Miser, we want to see how your chickens have taken to their waterer.  Have you plugged our EZ Miser spouts into the side of a rain barrel or taught your show birds to drink?  Perhaps you've come up with a unique mounting method like the Christmas tree stand above?  As usual, we'll judge based on both beauty and ingenuity, so whip out those cameras and get your entries in ASAP!

The prizes: One first-place winner will receive our chick bundle --- two premade chicken waterers perfect for getting chicks off to a good start, or for keeping your adult flock hydrated, a $90 value.  The second-place winner will choose between a 2 pack EZ Miser kit or a 5 pack Avian Aqua Miser original kit with drill bit.

The fine print: All entries must reach my inbox (info@avianaquamiser.com) by Sunday (August 10) at midnight.  Be sure to send photos one at a time if they're larger than 2 MB apiece.  You can enter as many pictures as you want, but all of your photos will be merged into one entry.  All photos and text will become the property of Anna Hess, which means I might share them with readers via our blogs or books.
  Thanks in advance for sharing your shots!

Posted early Monday morning, July 28th, 2014 Tags:
close up of me working on chicken tractor

We did some repairs to our 4 year old chicken tractor recently.

The next one we make will have a special trap door to make adding kitchen scraps easier along with a holder for a 2 gallon EZ Miser bucket.

Posted early Wednesday morning, July 30th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Wednesday afternoon, July 30th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, July 30th, 2014
Chicken yard

EZ MiserMike and Lesley in Washington state wrote in to say, "We are very pleased with your Avian Aqua Misers, both the small and large sizes.  It has been over 100 degrees for the last few weeks and the chickens are all staying hydrated.  We have the small waterer close to their shade spot so they can stay in the shade during the heat of the day."

Their flock consists of 5-month-old Rhode Island Reds --- fourteen hens and one rooster.  "The rooster just learned to crow this week," the duo reported.  "The fenced yard keeps them safe from the raccoons and skunks that we have plenty of out here. We trapped three skunks last week, our neighbor trapped 24 during the month of June."

Mike and Lesley wrote in to share their photos as part of our EZ Miser photo contest.  You still have over a week to enter, so don't forget to bring your camera out to the chicken yard and snap some shots!

Posted early Thursday morning, July 31st, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
mulberry update

This is one of our Everbearing Mulberry trees in a chicken pasture.

We started seeing a few fruit last year, but this year has more than I can count.

The chickens like to hang out underneath it for the shade. I've heard if your tree is at least 5 feet tall within a few years fruit can start to show the third year. On the other hand if your tree took 5 or 6 years to reach that height then maybe you have some issues with the chosen site. Stay tuned to see how much this tree feeds our flock when the fruit starts to fall to the ground.

Posted early Monday morning, June 2nd, 2014 Tags:
Monster egg

We occasionally find jumbo eggs in our nest boxes, but I'm pretty sure this is the largest one we've ever seen!  Those are ordinary-sized (large) eggs on all sides of the jumbo egg, getting ready to be turned into a homestead lunch.

Fried eggsIf you've kept chickens for long, you probably know why the jumbo eggs show up --- they're so big because they contain double yolks.  Usually, a hen releases a new yolk to start the egg-making process about an hour after the previous egg has been laid.  But sometimes she accidentally releases two yolks close together, and those yolks end up getting enclosed in the same shell, create a double-yolker.

This type of minor egg-laying problem is most common among pullets just coming into laying and among old hens coming to the end of their productive life span.  Our jumbo egg showed up in our chicken tractor, where our only older hen lives, so I suspect the old girl is the culprit.

According to the internet, one egg in a thousand contains two yolks, but you'll never see a double-yolker if you stick to commercially-raised eggs.  The industry candles each egg and discards double-yolkers, even though the issue is merely a cosmetic problem.  I'm not sure if that's a reason to raise your own laying hens, but it's an interesting factoid!  (And the delicious taste and high nutritional value of pastured eggs definitely make them worthwhile to raise at home.)

Posted early Wednesday morning, June 4th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Thursday afternoon, June 5th, 2014
Posted Thursday afternoon, June 5th, 2014
Posted Thursday afternoon, June 5th, 2014
Posted Thursday afternoon, June 5th, 2014
updating the Winter coconut treat post

This hanging coconut chicken treat has been dangling for a few months now.

I first thought it might be a fun diversion for chickens during the lean times of Winter when fresh bugs are difficult to find, but after this experiment I'm having second thoughts on the subject.

What ended up working better was when I took the other half and mounted it to the corner of the coop with a drywall screw through the middle. My conclusion is the swinging effect is frustrating to most chickens and they give up when a few pecks only yield a small nibble.

Posted early Friday morning, June 6th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Thrifty Chicken BreedsI'm thrilled to announce that Thrifty Chicken Breeds: Efficient Producers of Eggs and Meat on the Homestead is now available on Amazon for 99 cents!  This new installment in the Permaculture Chicken series delves into my experiences selecting chickens that pay for themselves on the homestead rather than costing an arm and a leg while providing little return on your investment.

If you're a member of Amazon Prime, you can borrow Thrifty Chicken Breeds for free, and if you purchase a copy you can lend it to a friend --- how's that for making your dollar stretch even further?  Also, if you're not familiar with Amazon ebooks, you can read them on any device using
these free apps.

Alternatively, if you don't mind wading, you can read most of my data on chicken-breed trials of the last five years online hereThanks for reading!  And be sure to comment with your own thoughts about homestead-worthy chickens --- we're always looking for an even better bird.

Posted early Monday morning, June 9th, 2014 Tags:

Cornish Cross close up
Our first batch of Cornish Cross is getting close to their "retirement" age.

They do seem interested in the pasture. We open a door and give them the option of staying in or going out, but they don't seem to forage much at all. I have yet to see one scratch at the ground, which in my mind would be the best technique for finding bugs.

We like the idea of eating a chicken who lives more naturally, which is why we started experimenting with chicken pastures. I suspect the benefit of these chickens will only be slightly better than a store bought bird. Stay tuned for another update where we'll post about the taste test.

Posted early Wednesday morning, June 11th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Wednesday afternoon, June 11th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, June 11th, 2014
Posted Thursday afternoon, June 12th, 2014
Grazing ducks

Ducks love water so much that their humans may feel inclined to leave them around a pond far longer than the pasture can bear, as I've discovered to my dismay.  Last week, I moved our waterfowl flock away from their sky pond at long last, figuring a simple bucket of water for head-dunking will keep the birds happier than a vastly overgrazed bit of grassy lawn around a body of water that's turning smelly.  Yes, my rule on the farm is --- if you can smell manure, you're doing something wrong.

Ducks in a forest pasture

Even though they missed being able to swim, I could tell the ducks were glad to move on.  The area around their pond was mowed lawn, and it turns out that ducks are even less keen than chickens are on that kind of low grass.  Giving the waterfowl a pasture in the forest garden, full of high weeds and deep mulch, got them grazing rather than lying around and dreaming of greener pastures.  Hopefully they'll also fertilize and partially weed the beds where we cut rye cover crops in preparation for some fall broccoli.

Foraging ducks

I'm looking forward to merging the ducks into our pullet flock once we retire the extra roosters this week.  Then I'll let you know how waterfowl do in a rotational pasture situation, which is how I hope to eventually keep them.  In the meantime, I'll keep moving their temporary paddock around the yard, making sure the ducks have plenty of waterfowl-friendly habitat to keep them happy.  And hopefully they won't pout too much at being dragged away from their pond.

Posted early Friday morning, June 13th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Friday morning, June 13th, 2014
chickens eating fermented chicken feed

The Urban Chicken Podcast has a thought provoking episode on fermenting store bought chicken feed to increase the nutritional content which also helps digestion.

We have not tried this method yet, but it sounds like an easy and cheap way to increase the health and vitality of your flock. Step one would be to fill a 5 gallon bucket with the amount of food you normally hand out. Don't use metal...plastic or glass works best. Soak and re-soak the feed until it's saturated with good water. Step 2 is to keep a couple of inches of water on the top to keep out air. Step 3 would be to wait a few days and do your own taste test to see how your chickens take to it. Leave a small amount in the bottom to help the next batch get going if you choose to continue the experiment.

Listen to the whole episode for deeper information. She actually interviews two different people, both with real world experience on fermenting feed for chickens. Image credit goes to Leigh Edwards. Please leave a comment if you have any experience fermenting feed for chickens.

Posted early Monday morning, June 16th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 17th, 2014

Homegrown chickenI'm hesitant to post about the nitty-gritty of our meat-bird experiments here because I know some of you consider chickens to be pets and are grossed out by the information.  However, others do seem to be interested in hearing about what we've thought of Cornish Cross, so please consider this your warning --- skip this post if your chickens have names!

Okay, back to the point.  One of our commenters mentioned that she likes to raise a batch of Cornish Cross every year and that she has very low mortality rates since she keeps the birds in the brooder house for their whole life.  That got me wondering --- if you're not adding value to your chicken meat by putting the birds on pasture, are you better off raising your own chickens or purchasing meat at the grocery store?

Cornish Cross pulletTo answer this question, I sent Mark to the grocery store to discover how much whole chickens cost per pound ($1.08), then I did some math to determine the best-case-scenario price tag for homegrown chickens.  In my calculations, I assumed that, like us, you aren't raising enough birds to get bulk prices on chicks and on feed, that none of your chicks die, and that you get the industry standard feed-to-meat ratio of 2:1.  I also assume that you slaughter your birds at 6 pounds and that you're paying 40 cents per pound for feed (which is what our feed store is currently charging for chick starter ration).  In that scenario, you'll be paying $2.93 per chick and $4.80 for feed per bird, which comes out to $1.29 per pound for the finished product --- more than you'd be paying for the same meat at the grocery store!

Granted, when you raise and butcher your own birds at home, you know that there are no additives beyond what comes in your purchased feed.  And if you stay on top of keeping the bedding clean and are careful on butchering day, you're much less likely to end up with salmonella in your meat than you would when buying supermarket birds.  So there are some reasons, beyond price, to raise your own meat chickens even if you do so in confinement.

But you should be aware that there are big financial savings to be had as well...as long as you pasture your birds.  You'll actually be paying more per pound in this scenario since pastured chickens run around and eat more feed, resulting in a best-case-scenario price tag of $1.89 per pound for the dressed bird.  However, since our local pastured farmers are Cornish Crosscharging $3.50 per pound for whole, pastured chickens (or $3.25 per pound if you order three or more birds), you're still coming out way ahead by raising your own Cornish Cross on pasture.

As a side note, I estimate that we spend about $2 per pound on the meat from our Australorp broilers, a figure that includes the savings we get by hatching our own eggs.  However, it's very much worth paying the extra 11 cents in this case since Australorp broilers forage much more, producing meat that's tastier and (I suspect) much more nutritious.  That's the direction we'll be returning to in later years for our broilers --- we've enjoyed experimenting with Cornish Cross, but don't plan to do it again soon.

If you want to learn more about how to save money when raising your own chickens for eggs and meat, check out my 99 cent ebook Thrifty Chicken Breeds.  Or leave a comment with your own experiences.  I'd love to hear how others have done with less-mainstream meat breeds like Freedom Rangers.

Posted early Wednesday morning, June 18th, 2014 Tags:
Posted early Wednesday morning, June 18th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, June 18th, 2014
Ducks eating comfrey

Chickens seem to take or leave comfrey.  In my experience, the land fowl are usually willing to peck at the high-protein vegetable when they're about four to six weeks old, while older birds also enjoy the tender leaves that arise when the plants are mowed as part of a forest pasture.  Still, I'd never seen comfrey eaten with such vigor until we tried ducks.

At one month old, our ducks were in a paddock with a few comfrey plants, and they completely ignored them.  But two weeks later, in another paddock, the comfrey plants were demolished down to the ground within days.  It seems that ducks, like chickens, crave some component of comfrey during that fast-growing six-week-old period of their lives.  I can't wait to see what the ducks will do when turned into one of our forest pastures with lots of comfrey plants (and other grazing options).  Stay tuned for another comfrey/duck update soon!

Posted early Friday morning, June 20th, 2014 Tags:
Young persimmon tree

I've been writing a lot about our starplate pasture, but realized I hadn't regaled you with an update on our more established series of forest pastures in quite some time.  There's a lot to say, so in this post I'm going to stick to the trees.

Winter-killed persimmonOne of my experiments has involved adding American persimmons to three pastures, with the plan of eventually grafting Asian persimmons onto those native rootstocks to keep the trees small, to promote early bearing, and to negate the need for separate male and female trees.  Due to a really cold winter, though, that plan is looking like less of a good idea.

Why?  Because the Saijo (Asian) persimmon I planted in fall 2011 died back to the ground before it ever got old enough to bear fruit.  True, the tree (pictured to the left) is sprouting back from the base, but I'm pretty sure what I'm seeing is just rootstock growth.  If one of the most hardy Asian persimmon varieties isn't truly hardy in our climate, it doesn't make sense to replicate any type of Asian persimmon throughout our pasture.

How are the seedling American persimmons doing?  Like the Asian persimmon, some died back to the base last winter, but most seem to have survived the winter unscathed (top photo).  Now I'm wondering if careful training could promote dwarfing in these American persimmons so they fit in their small pastures without shading out the nearby garden.  I'm not sure if I really want to wait a decade or two for fruit, though....

Ripening mulberry

Another tree experiment from the same era involved mulberries.  This tree trial shows much more promise, although some of my hearsay or book-learning knowledge has turned out to be not so hot.

I'll start with the pros --- despite losing a few small branches to the cold, our Illinois everbearing mulberry is thriving and is loaded with fruit this year!  Unfortunately, the two other varieties I planted in our blueberry patch to expand our selection didn't fare as well.  The Oscar's mulberry died back to the base but seems to be resprouting (above the graft union, I think), but the Silk Hope is fully dead.  Again, pushing the hardiness zone envelope seems not to be called for due to recent weather extremes.

Mulberry treeWhat else would I do differently in the future?  I had read that mulberries fruit on first-year wood, so you can pollard half of the tree each year and get a good crop on one-year wood.  I forgot to pollard this spring, though, so I currently have a tree with two-year wood and one-year wood...which is handy since that old-wive's tale seems to be wrong.  The two-year-old half of the tree is covered in berries while the one-year-old half has...none.  Now I'm thinking that training the tree is a better way of keeping the size down so that I can reach the berries, or I might just let the tree grow and pick fruits from near the base while letting the chickens get the rest.  Unlike the persimmons, this tree is a good distance from the vegetable garden and won't do any harm if it achieves the estimated spread of 20 to 30 feet.

Since Illinois everbearing mulberries grow fast, survive the winter, and fruit prolifically, I'll probably continue my propagation experiments despite the pollarding failure.  Last year, I discovered that mulberries don't root easily from hardwood cuttings, so I'll collect some fruits this summer and instead try growing them from seed.  The jury's out on whether I'll graft Illinois everbearing twigs onto the seedlings in a year or two or whether I'll just see if the seedlings produce good fruits.  Stay tuned for more forest pasture experiments to come!

Posted early Monday morning, June 23rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, June 24th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 24th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, June 24th, 2014
broken egg shells

Egg shells are a good source of calcium, but sometimes a chicken will get turned into an egg eater if they learn how to break and eat an egg.

One way to do this would be to dry the egg shells in the sun, crush them up and mix in with the feed.

Another possible use for extra egg shells is a soil additive for tomatoes.

Posted early Wednesday morning, June 25th, 2014 Tags:
Shady chicken pasture

The flip side of the forest pasture coin from my focus on trees is what the chicken-level plant life is like.  Although it will be years before the chicken-friendly trees I planted begin to cast serious shade in our pastures, I have a preview of that effect in a pasture where my attempt to girdle the existing trees failed miserably.  As a result this pasture is in near-solid shade for most of the day, and the sward has suffered.  In fact, I had such a hard time getting anything to grow there that I took the pasture out of commission in 2013, planted grass and white clover in the spring and then cut the weeds at intervals to make sure the pasture plants had a chance to get their feet under them.

The result?  The chickens love this pasture more than any of their others, but I can only keep the flock there for about three or four days (instead of the six or seven I'm currently clocking in the other pastures) or the chickens will scratch up the tender young plants.  I'll be curious to see whether the grass and clover becomes more of a solid pasture in later years, or whether this is simply what to expect from a very shady chicken pasture.

Duck pasture

On a semi-related note, we turned the ducks into our hillside pasture a week ago...and learned that ducks don't climb hills.  I'd noted the Cornish Cross were hanging out by the coop door when I opened the pophole into this pasture, but had never experienced a problem with birds balking at steepness before, so I blamed it on the broilers.  Now I see that our ducks, also, have yet to leave level ground, which makes me curious to hear from other duck keepers.  Do your ducks handle rough terrain, or do they prefer flat land?

Young butternut treeI'll end this disjointed post with a picture of a tree I forgot to add to my previous forest pasture post.  Long before I decided to turn the starplate area into a pasture, I had Mark cut down a couple of trees and then planted a little butternut tree into the gap.  And in the last six years, it has grown...about twelve inches.

Granted, I never weeded, mulched, or fertilized the butternut, but it does seem like many nut trees are seriously slow growers.  The exception is hazels, which fruit at bush size.  (My five-year-old bush had female flowers for the first time this year and didn't keep those fruits, but I hope for our first homegrown nuts in 2015.)

Of course, chickens won't eat unshelled nuts, so adding nut trees to a chicken pasture is more of an exercise in hope for eventual pigs than anything else.  Not that I would mind adding some homegrown nuts to the human menu.

Thanks for wading through another long forest pasture post!  Now I'll probably forget to tell you anything more for six months or a year.  These experiments are fascinating (to me, at least), but take a long time to yield results.

Posted early Friday morning, June 27th, 2014 Tags:
Mixing your own chicken feed

Most books recommend that you lower the protein content of your chicken and duck feed from around 20% protein (starter feed) to about 13 to 18% protein (grower/finisher feeds) when the youngsters pass their peak growth period (by the time they're two to three months old).  You don't want to just change the pullets over to laying pellets at this time, even though the protein content of the feed is right, because excess calcium before a bird starts to lay can damage the birds' internal organs and skeleton.  And even though I've raised pullets all the way to laying on chick feed in the past, this option isn't the best either since it can make birds grow too fast and not develop properly (and since chick feed is more expensive than lower-protein feeds).

While it seems simple to go to the feed store and pick up some grower/finisher feed, ours only stocks three kinds of poultry feed --- chick starter, laying pellets for adult hens, and scratch feed (which is just mixed grains, appropriate for treats only). We don't have the storage area needed to mix our own feeds, so I was glad that Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks suggested a simpler option.  The author recommends adding whole, rolled, meal, or pelleted oats to your ducks' rations at a rate of 5% by volume the first week, then an additional 5% each week until you're feeding 25% oats and 75% starter feed.  Since oats are 12% protein, that drops the protein content of your mixed feed to 18% (if my math is right).

Overturned chicken feeder

I went back to check on our pullets and cockerels a few hours after giving them their mixed feed to see if they pecked around the oats.  To my surprise, I found that they'd actually broken apart their automatic feeder so they could eat up all the oats first --- I guess the chickens knew they needed more carbs in their diet and were itching for the extra grain.  That was at 10% oats by volume, so I guess I'll move the chickens right up to 25% grain and see how they do.  The ducks, on the other hand, are younger and are reputed to be pickier about changing feeds, so I'll keep tapering their diet down to a lower protein level over the next few weeks.

Posted early Monday morning, June 30th, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014

Naturally Bug-FreeWant to win a free EZ Miser or combo pack?  I'm looking for accounts of poultry helping deal with bugs in the garden for use in my upcoming paperback, The Naturally Bug-Free Garden.  If your photo(s) and account make the cut, I'll send you either a premade EZ Miser or three premade Avian Aqua Miser Originals (your choice).

Best of all?  You can tell your friends because every entry that's good enough will win!  I'm hoping to select one to five winners, but if there are more good entries, there will be more winners.

What am I really looking for?  Although we all love chickens (obviously), I've got a lot of first-hand data and photos in that category, so your entry would have to be stellar to make the cut if it's about chickens.  I'm more interested in your use of other kinds of poultry to help out in the garden.  Do you run ducks through your aisles to eat slugs?  Have you trained geese to weed your strawberries?  Are guineas your go-to birds for tick control?  Be sure to show me what
you do on your own homestead.

The fine print: All entries must reach my inbox (info@avianaquamiser.com) by Friday (May 9) at midnight.  Be sure to send photos one at a time if they're larger than 2 MB apiece.  You can enter as many pictures as you want, but all of your photos (and your written explanation, preferably 150 to 500 words) will be merged into one entry.  All photos and text will become the property of Anna Hess, which means I might share them with readers via our blogs or ebooks as well as including them in my upcoming book (although I don't mind if you continue to use them elsewhere).

Thanks for entering!  I look forward to seeing how your poultry and gardens merge into a symbiotic whole.

Posted early Friday morning, May 2nd, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Duckling waterer"Can my ducks use your waterers?"  I get this question a lot from customers, and my standard answer has always been, "Yes, but they'll need to be able to submerge their heads in water somewhere else so they can keep their eyes clean."  Now that we've got our own ducks, though, and I saw firsthand how awful their living space gets if they have an open water source inside, I decided to look further into the issue.

Metzer Farms did a great study in which they raised ducks in several different watering systems.  They found that posture, walking ability, body weight, and growth rate were all unaffected by watering system --- unsurprising since ducks raised commercially only have access to poultry nipples and still grow fast enough to be economically viable.  However, the ducks without any source of open water did tend to Ducklings with open watererdevelop crusty eyes and nostrils and sad-looking feathers.  Plus, they really seemed to miss playing in the open water.

On the other hand, the study also found that ducks only spend about 5% of their time dabbling, which suggested a compromise that would keep both us and the ducklings happy.  We opted to provide a nipple waterer inside their brooder to keep things as clean and dry there as possible, then to give them a little bathing pool outside (supervised at first since young ducklings can drown).

So far, this hybrid approach has worked great.  Wet duck poop does require us to add fresh Duck dabbling stationbedding in the brooder every day, but the space stays acceptable.  Our ducklings have no problem drinking from the nipple waterer...and they adore drinking and paddling in the pond water I provide in a pie pan outdoors.

Interestingly, the chicks we're raising with our ducklings seem largely uninterested in the open water.  They did run over to see what all of the commotion was about when the ducklings first started to play, but soon the chicks hopped back into the brooder to enjoy clean drinking water.  And who wouldn't after the ducks turned their playground water brown?  Hopefully the poop-free drinking water will keep both chicks and ducklings healthy, while the outdoor dabbling station will let the ducklings enjoy their innate duckness.  Sounds like a good compromise!

Posted early Monday morning, May 5th, 2014 Tags:
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Weighted dog door

Around March, we started having problems with one of the dog doors that leads from our core homestead into the outside world.  These doors are in place so Lucy can quickly get through our chicken fencing and scare off predators without gnawing holes in the chicken wire and letting chickens into the garden.  For years, the dog doors had worked as planned, but then one Red Star figured the door out and began pushing through so she could scratch up the garden.  At such a critical time of year, I have a zero-tolerance policy about chickens in the garden, so I covered the dog door with a wheelbarrow for the weekend, then set Mark to fix the problem first thing Monday morning.

Mark's first thought was to add some wooden pieces to the bottom of the dog door to weigh it down so a big dog could push through but a little chicken couldn't.  I thought his idea was Spring gardenbrilliant, so I was very sad to see not one but two chickens in the garden the next morning.  "Add more weight," I told Mark, "or those hens are going to be dinner!"

Once again, Mark weighted the door...and once again, chickens still ended up in the garden.  I was tearing out my hair and planning the evening's menu when Mark took a closer look at the problem area.  "Did you notice those big holes in the fence on either side of the dog door?" he asked.  It turned out that when I covered the dog door with the wheelbarrow that first day, Lucy gnawed her way through the sides since she was so used to using that spot as an escape hatch.  Mark's weights did no good because the chickens were no longer going through the door, they were running right through the holes!

Holes filled in and weights still in place, suddenly the garden was once again a chicken-free zone.  Phew!  Note to self, look at the problem area carefully rather than just assuming I know how chickens are getting in.

Posted early Wednesday morning, May 7th, 2014 Tags:
Napping duckling and chick

As soon as we opened our box of 26 Cornish Cross chicks and 10 Ancona ducklings, I knew the two species were entirely different birds.  They were all a bit stressed from their journey through the postal system, but the ducklings were largely silent while the chicks peeped loudly.  The ducklings were also about twice as big as the chicks, despite being the same age, so their larger body size probably made it easier for them to handle the long ride.  (As a side note, the size difference also meant I had to put one of the Ecoglow brooders at the second notch from day one.)

Hungry chicks

My next observation came when I put in their waterers.  As recommended by various sources, I let the ducklings drink their fill and take a little nap before offering food, while I gave the chicks access to both food and water at once.  But both went straight to the water (an Avian Aqua Miser Original for the chicks and an open waterer for the ducklings).  The ducklings jumped right into the waterer and made a huge mess, but didn't seem to mind getting wet, while chicks who got dribbled on from the watering frenzy at the much drier nipple waterer ran off to get rid of moisture under the brooder right away.  Obvious but true --- ducks like to be wet and chicks like to be dry.  (You can read more about my solution to the duck watering dilemma in this post.)

First day outdoorsLess obvious was the way the ducklings immediately started acting like a flock, while the chicks each did their own thing.  For the first day, I kept them in separate bins in the house, and the ducklings were all doing the same thing every time I looked --- either all napping or all eating and drinking.  The chicks were generally spread out, with some at each station at all times.  Later, when I let them outside, the distinction was even more obvious since the ducks all came tumbling out in one mass and explored their new world together.  The chicks, in contrast, weren't quite as ready to leave the brooder, and many ended up just staying inside.

Duckling eating chickweedFor my next observation, I pulled a handful of chickweed out of the garden and put a dollop in each bin.  One chick came over to take a look, then wandered disinterestedly back to the feeding trough, but the ducks immediately began gobbling down the greenery like it was just what they'd been looking for.  Later, after I put both sets of youngsters in the outdoor brooder and let them go outside, the ducks still seemed to be better foragers, although the difference wasn't as extreme.  (Granted, this isn't a very fair comparison since I see large differences in foraging abilities of chickens by breed, and Cornish Cross are supposed to be the worst in this department.)

Watching chicks and ducklings is my favorite leisure-time activity at the moment, so stay tuned for more observations in later posts!

Posted early Friday morning, May 9th, 2014 Tags:
Ducklings in a muddy pond

First of all, before I go off into my typical poultry geekiness, those of you who don't read our other blog will probably want to check out cute duckling photos here and here.  Be warned, though: those posts are going to make you want ducks!

Ducklings hunting duckweed

Okay, back to the real topic at hand --- duckweed!  A throwaway line in Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks mentioned that, in the wild, duckweed would be a duckling's first food.  I was a bit dubious since I'd read that the plant makes good chicken feed, but once I tried it out, our hens turned up their noses at the greenery.  However this time around, book learning was on the right track --- when I offered duckweed to our ducklings, they went nutty for the wild food.

Later, after I let the youngsters into a little pond, they quickly consumed every speck of duckweed off the surface (while also going after water bugs, I assume, to round out their diet).  I now see why ducks are a permaculture poster child --- our ducklings happily spent entire days in the pond foraging, only eating storebought food in their brooder once I shut them in for the night.

Cultivating duckweed

Of course, every permaculture opportunity has to be carefully managed.  By their third day in the pond, our ducklings were spending more time resting on the bank because the pond food was pretty much gone.  Luckily, there was enough duckweed off in one corner to allow me to do what I should have done from the beginning --- start another pond going to allow for aquatic pasture rotation.

We had a little kiddie pool in the barn that we'd once used to soak mushroom logs, so I filled the pool up with water and seeded it with some duckweed, snails, and a quart of pond water (for microscopic life).  Hopefully in a couple of weeks, there will be enough bounty in the kiddie pool to give the ducklings a few foraging days (and to give their current pond a rest).

Resting duckling

We don't have the infrastructure in place right now, but I could see having at least four small ponds for a handful of ducks, moving their home every week to give them new aquatic grazing ground.  Ducks definitely seem like they're going to be keepers on our farm, so I suspect we'll expand our water features in the future --- good thing we live in soggy ground!

Posted early Monday morning, May 12th, 2014 Tags:
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Transporting chicks

"I haven't even been out to look at the chicks today," Mark admitted.  "I've just been watching the ducklings."

As the primary chick caregiver, I had been out to feed, water, and refresh bedding for our Cornish Cross broilers, but I have to admit that 95% of my attention had also been on our other fowl.  The sad truth is that Cornish Cross --- although very efficient meat producers --- are not very charming birds.  A friend of mine runs a pastured meat operation, part of which involves raising Cornish Cross in tractors, and she once confided that she doesn't like chickens.  I don't blame her --- the breed is bound to turn anyone away from poultry.

Chick coop

What's wrong with Cornish Cross?  I'd read plenty of condemnation of the breed, but felt I had to try for myself, so I can't say I wasn't warned.  First of all, the chicks are definitely hot-house flowers.  We got 26 in the mail ten days ago and have already lost six --- one was runty from the beginning, three succumbed to dampness in the brooder caused by keeping the ducklings with the chicks (a problem I've since corrected), and the other two just keeled over one at a time when they were about a week old.  In contrast, I'm used to vigorous chicks of laying breeds, all of which generally survive to adulthood if they make it past the three-day recovery-from-hatching period.  While I'm sure I'd have lower losses if I raised Cornish Cross again without ducklings, I suspect you simply have to accept that a certain proportion of Cornish Cross broilers will perish.  (Please do comment with your survivability numbers if you've had any experience!  I'm curious to know what you can expect if you do everything right.)

Reclining chicks

Scruffy chickAlthough I try not to let aesthetics sway me when it comes to farm animals, I also have to admit that Cornish Cross chicks are just plain ugly.  Yes, they were cute fuzz balls for the first couple of days, but they quickly started outgrowing their fluff and sporting a paunch that made them waddle instead of walk.  Even at a very young age, Cornish Cross eat and poop so much that, despite me refreshing the bedding daily, the fuzz on their bellies gets scruffy...an issue that's exacerbated by the breed's tendency to lie down to dine in Roman fashion.  I actually rushed them out of the brooder and into a coop when the chicks were just shy of two weeks old in an effort to keep the manure issue to a sustainable level.  (In case you're curious, the first photo in this post is the chicks being transported to their new home.)

Cornish Cross chicks on pasture

Thrifty Chicken BreedsOn the other hand, at least at this young age, some of the chicks do seem willing to go out and forage.  Granted, they're more prone to get lost (and then to peep pitifully until I send them home) than our Australorp chicks are, and only perhaps a quarter of the Cornish Cross flock is willing to leave the feeder at any one time.  But it's nice to know at least some greenery will be converted into this year's chicken dinners.

Maybe if I'm lucky our Cornish Cross will outgrow their tendency to drop like flies and we'll end up with twenty broilers in the freezer.  On the plus side, this breed may be ready to eat at six weeks of age, so at least we won't have to put up with their issues for too much longer.  I suspect I won't repeat the experiment, though --- lower feed costs aren't quite enough to counteract the high price of buying chicks and the trauma of pulling dead babies out of the brooder.  Since I've trained Mark to eat the leggier layer broilers, this experiment just consolidates my gut feeling that Australorps the best meat chicken choice for our farm.

Posted early Wednesday morning, May 14th, 2014 Tags:

The Resilient GardenerIf you're considering ducks, The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe contains an excellent counter-cultural explanation of how to maintain ducks under permaculture conditions.  I posted over on our homesteading blog a few weeks ago about Deppe's take on the pros and cons of ducks vs. chickens, as well as her information on feeding ducks garden produce.  Here, I wanted to delve a little deeper into Deppe's thoughts on duck feed, and, especially on pasturing ducks.

The first question I had when I decided to try out ducklings was, "Can I just feed them the same food I give my chickens?"  The answer is "Maybe."  If you're keeping ducks in confinement, they need a special food high in niacin, and ducklings should never be given medicated chick feed.  In addition, Deppe suggests that ducklings need to eat moistened feed for their first few weeks.  Despite these caveats, though, chances are you can raise ducklings on chick starter feed as long as you choose the unmedicated version.  If your ducklings are allowed to free range, bugs will provide their niacin (or you can give them extra niacin in their water or can provide brewer's yeast as a nutritional supplement).  And, as I learned, dry feed is perfectly acceptable to baby ducks as long as they have plenty of water to drink and play in.

So how about pasture food?  Deppe recommends sowing white clover in pasture rather than grass if you want your ducks to do lots of grazing.  And even though ducks don't scratch like their land brethren, both types of fowl agree that mulched spots are prime forage.  Deppe likes to keep six to twelve inches of mulch under her trees, through which her ducks bill in search of night crawlers, red worms, sowbugs, and slugs.  Finally, she adds that windfall fruits can provide a good supplement to ducks' diets, especially if you plant mulberries.

I'll be curious to see how our ducks differ from our chickens once the former are all grown up.  At the moment, the ducklings have given me absolutely no data on pasture preferences since they prefer to spend all of their time in the water.  Stay tuned for future details!

Posted early Friday morning, May 16th, 2014 Tags:
Chicken run

I haven't written much about our year's first set of chicks because, at the moment, they're largely self-sufficient.  Ever since moving them up to the starplate coop and the pastures I'm slowly developing up there, all the flock needs is to have their water and food topped off every day or two.  I do shut them in at night, though, since they're a bit far removed from our dog's usual patrolling grounds and since predator pressure is high on our wooded farm.

Chicken fencing

I did have to add chicken wire to the base of the cattle panels to keep the chickens in so they wouldn't wander the whole area at once.  Currently, the flock is grazing in their second little paddock, which is a five-foot-wide tree alley.  The trees are just grafted babies in our flowerbed at the moment, though, so I'm taking advantage of this year to build lots of soil health, both with chicken manure (spread by our helpful fowl) and cover crops (rye at the moment, soon to be followed by sunflowers and buckwheat).  Unlike most of our farm's soil, the ground around the starplate coop is well-drained (wow!) and low in fertility (boo).  Hopefully some heavy grazing will fix the latter problem and turn this into one of our better growing areas.

Chicken pasture

Chicken and comfreyOne of the experiments that has already panned out well was planting comfrey along the fencelines in this pasture.  Setting out the plant divisions in November gave the comfrey plenty of time to get its feet under it, so the plants sprang up with vibrant life a couple of months ago.  Our chickens are happily pecking the leaves back down, as you can see in the photos to the left and above.  As we rotate the birds to a new pasture, I have Mark come through with a weedeater and whack down any tall plants remaining, including the tops of the comfrey plants.  Using that method, I wouldn't be surprised if the plants keep growing and expanding all summer.

The starplate coop and the current pastures are really too big for the ten little birds we currently have living there.  Which is wonderful!  There's nothing that makes a chicken yard feel good as much as under-population.

Posted early Monday morning, May 19th, 2014 Tags:
Flapping duckling

At just shy of three weeks old, our ducklings are starting to look a bit like miniature ducks rather than like baby fuzzballs, but everyone agrees they're still awfully cute.  In fact, now that the youngsters are spending a bit more time on land, I can't help thinking how much the ducklings resemble tiny penguins, with their upright posture, fur-like feathers, and tiny wings.  The duckling in the photo above is flapping its wings --- can you even tell?

Ducklings in the rain

Our duck flock did lose a little bit of its ultra-easy charm at two and a half weeks old, though, when the birds started nibbling on strawberries.  I moved them to a kiddie pool about twenty feet away, but that sterile water wasn't nearly as interesting as the pond they'd left behind, so the ducklings kept making a run for the wild water despite a thunderstorm that was keeping all of our self-respecting chickens inside.  I ended up having to erect some temporary fencing to cage the ducklings into a paddock so they'd stay put.

Duck pasture

After that, the little flock settled back down, although they have been spending more time on land grazing now that their water is devoid of life.  I was surprised to see that they actually seem to be more prone to peck apart plants than chickens are --- I usually let chicks have free run of the raspberry bushes at this age, but the ducklings had to be fenced Craneflyout since they were consuming too much leaf matter.

On the plus side, the ducklings come out of their brooder each morning in a rush to catch all of the craneflies that settled on the lawn overnight.  These insects, which resemble huge mosquitoes, are very evident at this time of year since they're mating, and the ducks are glad to collect the bounty.  I haven't seen any of our chickens similarly engaged, so perhaps ducks do beat chickens in the insect-foraging department...at least when it comes to craneflies.

Posted early Wednesday morning, May 21st, 2014 Tags:
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close up of cornish cross hens

Is it worth the effort trying to breed your own variation of a Cornish Cross chicken?

My limited amount of research suggests it's not a good use of homesteading time. It took poultry specialists decades of costly trials to come up with the current version, which will not breed true no matter how much folks want it to.

One story I came across told a tale of a woman who made a pet out of one of their Cornish Cross chickens. She reports the chicken did okay until it manged to drown itself in a cattle trough. I suspect a chicken not smart enough to avoid basic farm hazards would have trouble living past the Summer.

Posted early Friday morning, May 23rd, 2014 Tags:
Billing ducks

New homesteaders may be wondering which type of bird would be better on their homestead --- chickens, or ducks?  I recommend that readers first check out this post on the pros and cons of ducks and chickens, then come back here for my own thoughts now that I've enjoyed ducks for all of a month.  (Yes, I don't pretend to be an expert on waterfowl although I do know a lot more about chickens.)

In this post, I mostly want to cover two duck myths --- that it's safe to let waterfowl roam through your garden, and that your feed bill will be lower if you choose ducks.  Both factoids have a kernel of truth, but neither are quite factual when you look at the bigger picture.

Dirty duck beaksEven though our ducklings got kicked out of the garden for bad behavior at a younger age than our chicks usually do, I do understand why so many books say that you can let ducks have free run of a garden.  Unlike chickens, who scratch away mulch and then peck up the little critters they expose, ducks prefer to hunt by billing (see the top photo).  The waterfowl bend down, stick their beaks under the mulch, and feel around until they find a tasty morsel.  The mulch stays put and the gardener is happy (until the ducks start eating their strawberries, of course).  Which is all a long way of saying that, while I wouldn't let ducks into a vegetable garden unattended, I'd definitely be more likely to follow Carol Deppe's advice with ducks than with chickens, allowing a waterfowl flock to spend half an hour picking off bugs on the broccoli.  If you're a serious gardener, though, neither type of poultry is going to live in your garden unattended after they reach three to six weeks old.

Happy ducks

Another factoid with only a hint of truth refers to ducks' foraging prowess.  Various authors will tell you that you don't have to feed ducks as much as chickens because the ducks are better foragers, but my own data negates that hypothesis.  Our 9, month-old ducklings eat about twelve cups of chick feed per day, while our 10, ten-and-a-half-week-old Australorp pullets and cockerels only consume about seven cups of chick feed per day (even though you'd think they the chickens would eat more since they're bigger, older, and more numerous).  Both types of birds are on rotational pastures, and the ducks' pasture is higher quality since it contains both fields of clover and an extensive mulched area.

Ancona ducklingSo, where's the kernel of truth in the foraging department?  Ducks do love to run after insects in the air, so they're much more visible foragers than chickens are.  And, maybe, if allowed to free range over a much larger area, ducks might beat ducks --- I don't have enough data to tell you one way or another on that point yet.

Where do I think ducks beat chickens?  The waterfowl are definitely cuter and more amusing to watch!  And if you have a pond or wetland, ducks will take advantage of the wet ground in ways chickens won't. 

I'd love to hear from others who have tried out both types of poultry and prefer one or the other.  If you were a new homesteader and wanted to add a bird to your menagerie, which one would you choose?

Posted early Monday morning, May 26th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, May 27th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, May 27th, 2014
Chicken fencing

There's nothing like a new pasture to brighten both the chickens' and my day.  As seems to be our usual MO, Mark and I didn't get all of the pastures around the starplate coop done before we moved chickens in, so we're now rushing to build new pastures as we need them.  Luckily, cattle panels are so easy to erect that I can fence in a pretty sizable paddock by myself in a couple of hours.  (Mark will have to come back later and add the gates.)

Trampled rye

I ended up leaving the chickens in our tree alley for nearly two weeks, which definitely was an imperfect situation from the birds' standpoint...but which will hopefully add some much-needed fertility to this soil.  When I dug swales in this area last fall, I was glad to see that the ground was well-drained, but the rye I planted on the bare earth only grew to about half the height of the rye in our vegetable garden --- a sure sign that the pasture needs a shot in the arm in the fertility department.

From a plant's point of view, lack of fertility in new ground like this generally means lack of nitrogen, and chicken manure is chock full of nitrogen, so letting the birds spend a little too long here should help the next round of cover crops (sunflowers and buckwheat) grow better than the rye did.  And I figure our chickens weren't suffering too much from lack of fresh forage since they hadn't quite pecked every comfrey leaf to bits by the time I moved them on.

Fresh pasture

This is what the new pasture looks like --- lots of non-grassy plants since the spot was woodland just last year.  After the chickens graze here for about a week, we'll rotate them to a new paddock and Mark will cut everything pretty low with a weedeater.  We've already done that in one paddock, and grass and clover is starting to take over the ground there due to the close cutting.  Within a year or two, hopefully the main paddocks will be a solid sward to provide plenty of greenery for the flock.

Grazing chickens

The truth is that our chickens prefer a non-grassy pasture to a grassy one, but only for the first day or two.  Then a pasture like this starts to provide diminishing returns, while a grassy pasture keeps feeding the flock for many more days.  It's all a tradeoff in the chicken-pasturing world --- their tastebuds vs. pasture health.

(If you want to learn more about our chicken-pasturing method, check out my 99 cent ebook Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.)

Posted early Wednesday morning, May 28th, 2014 Tags:
Ducks and comfrey

If you purchase (or hatch) straight-run chicks or ducklings, one of the things you'll be most interested in learning is how to tell the boys from the girls at a young age.  Back in 2010, I was just learning to sex young chickens, and now the time has come to do the same with ducks.

I'm assuming in this post that you don't want to vent-sex your ducks, even though that is the definitive and official way to sex young poultry of all sorts.  I've never actually vent-sexed a bird, but the process sounds very traumatic for the youngster, so I generally figure it's better to wait until the differences become more obvious.

Duck beak colorWith waterfowl, the best unintrusive way of telling the drakes (males) from the ducks (females) is by voice.  When our ducklings reached three and a half weeks old, I started to notice that their whispery baby voices were being interrupted by a quack now and then, a sound that only female ducks can make.  If you want to be certain of the sex of your waterfowl, wait until they're eight weeks old, then capture them one at a time and listen to their alarm calls --- the females will quack and the males will make a different call that's supposed to sound more like "wongh."

Dave Holderread reports that you can also sex ducks by bill color if the ducks are purebreeds.  (Hybrids often have bills that are harder to link to sex of the bird.)  In several breeds, the bill of a male duck is grayish or greenish from a young age, while the bills of females can be yellowish with a dark tip or can be dark brown with some orange.  In most cases, the bills of female ducks are darker than the bills of drakes by the time the waterfowl reach two months old.

One final method of sexing ducks is to wait until the birds are four or five months old and attain their adult plumage.  At this age, drakes generally have curled tail feathers, and in many breeds, the heads and backs of males are darker than those of females.

We're still in the waiting stage with our duckling-sexing project, so I don't know how many ducks and drakes we have in our nine-bird flock.  I plan to keep all of the ducks and one drake, so the more girls, the better!

Posted early Friday morning, May 30th, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
how to make your own egg incubator

There are a lot of instructional videos on how to make your own egg incubator.

I've watched several and have concluded that Youtube user tigrimmy is a good place to start if you want to make one with an egg turner that's also pretty to look at.

The video is clear and concise and you get a good idea of the scope of the project in just over 7 minutes. I especially liked the updates on what he's learned to make it better.

Posted early Wednesday morning, April 2nd, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Thursday, April 3rd, 2014
Posted mid-morning Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

First attempt at a starplate roofLast June, we got the Starplate frame and walls up, then started thinking about the roof.  Although no one else had done it that way, we liked the idea of using aluminum flashing, both for ease of cutting and for safety of rainwater collection.  Our first stab at it, though, involved too much corner cutting.  Furring strips seemed like they might be sufficient to anchor the flashing, but the roof just felt too flimsy using this method.  So we backed up, (waited nine months,) and tried again.

Ceiling of the starplate coop

Round two was much more successful.  We started out by adding extra two-by-fours in the middle of each roof triangle, which was simple since each starplate has extra holes, giving us an easy attachment point at the peak of the roof.  Next, we cut the bottom of each support at an angle to make it easy to screw into the tops of the walls.

Adding flashing to the roof of the coopWe planned our starplate roof to have an overhang, so back when we started, we used ten-foot-long 2X4s for the rafters instead of the eight-foot-long 2X4s we used for most of the frame.  That meant that triangles cut out of 4-foot-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood covered most of the roof, but left a very handy gap that let us stand on the frame while applying the roofing.  By being careful not to attach the bottom edge of the lower piece of flashing, we were able to roof the entire top of the coop while standing in relative safety, then could later slide the bottom piece of flashing up underneath to finish out the eaves.

Finishing the Starplate roofThis part of the project went extremely smoothly, although Mark didn't have fun being up on the roof.  The only thing we would have changed here would be to use thicker plywood --- the 1/4" plywood sagged a bit.  On the other hand, Mark notes that thicker plywood would have weighed a lot more and would have made the process tricker, so perhaps the solution is to use thin plywood, but to add additional supports inside as needed.  Or to simply throw a tarp over the roof so that it doesn't get rained on between screwing down the plywood and adding the flashing --- I think that water was what caused the sag.

Making a ridge capThe photo above shows how we slipped the last piece of flashing up under the edge of the other piece and anchored it down.  We had originally planned to carefully cut triangles to eke out the underlayment for the eaves area, but ended up just using half of a 4-foot-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood for each eave, as you can see here.  The bottom edge of each eave consisted of two 8-foot-long furring strips screwed together to complete the roof triangle.

But before starting on the eaves, we had to figure out the peak.  Reaching the very top of the coop was tough, so we opted to build a ridgecap on the ground, then put it in place. The ridgecap was framed up with furring strips, then covered with triangles of flashing, with liquid nails used to glue the seams.  Mark and I both think the cap adds quite a touch of elegance to the finished roof.

Nearly finished roof

Here we are putting the last piece of flashing on the roof.  You might be able to tell that we didn't cut the edges of the flashing pieces to an angle, just bent them over so they overlapped the adjacent sides.  We screwed down these flaps carefully, so hopefully there won't be any problem with wind whipping up under the edges.

Now all that's left is the fun stuff --- filling in some holes, building the rainwater collection system, and adding feeders, waterers, perches, and nest boxes.  I'm hopeful the coop will be ready for our current round of chicks by the time the ducks arrive and need the brooder.  Total cost so far has been about $1,100 for 110 square feet, and you can read my thoughts on the pros and cons of starplates here.

As a final side note, a reader posted a photo of his nearly finished starplate coop recently as well.  He chose shingles, which definitely made an elegant roof.  I suspect there are as many ways to finish starplate coops as there are starplate coop builders, but hopefully you'll at least get some ideas from this post.

Posted early Friday morning, April 4th, 2014 Tags:
Chickens playing with rabbits?

Can you raise chickens and rabbits together?

I think it depends on the dynamics of your flock and the chicken to rabbit ratio. Some people report how their chickens pick on the rabbits, which could be a result of limited foraging space. There's also some evidence that chickens will break up a rabbit fight.

Image credit goes to Youtube user Hairless Hippy. He's got two male rabbits that get along fine with a small flock of hens.

Posted early Monday morning, April 7th, 2014 Tags:
water powered automatic chicken coop door opener

If you've got a timer controlled irrigation system you might be able to convert some of that infrastructure to open and close a chicken coop door automatically.

A timer goes off in the morning, the top bucket fills with water in about 2 minutes which is hooked with a system of pulleys to open the door. An affordable electric valve on the bottom of the bucket opens up in the evening and allows the bucket to drain and the door to slowly go back down for the night.

Image credit goes to Youtube user KevvinB for his Redneck version of an automatic chicken coop door opener.

Posted early Wednesday morning, April 9th, 2014 Tags:
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 9th, 2014
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 9th, 2014
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 9th, 2014
Chick power struggle

By the time they're a few weeks old, chicks are already establishing their pecking order.  Little skirmishes seem quite dramatic to the observer, with chicks sometimes leaping into the air to menace others with their claws...and yet no one ever seems to get hurt.

Chick faceoff

Sometimes, the biologist in me wishes I was raising chicks that are easy to sex by feather color, just so I could learn more about who exactly is fighting whom as they establish their dominance hierarchy.  Are all of the leapers males?  (I'm guessing so because adult roosters tend to leap and menace each other with their feet, but hens don't.)  Is the hierarchy established only within each sex, or do males and females duke it out too?

In the end, though, I choose to just watch the chicks frolic rather than trying to answer any scientific questions.  It's just more fun to watch chick TV.

Posted early Friday morning, April 11th, 2014 Tags:
using an IBC container to collect rainwater for chickens

We picked up this Intermidiate Bulk Container for 25 dollars from a neighbor.

The plan is to take advantage of all the roof runoff and fill it with rainwater once we finish installing gutters on the coop.

It should be more than enough water for chickens and ducks and the nearby fruit trees that sometimes need irrigation.

Posted early Monday morning, April 14th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Monday afternoon, April 14th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, April 15th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, April 15th, 2014
do chicks need a ramp or can they jump?

New chicks need a ramp for their first month, but soon after that they can jump.

Of course some chicks develop faster than others, which is why we like to keep a ramp going up to our outdoor brooder a little past a month to encourage the more timid chicks in the flock to get out and hunt for bugs.

Posted early Wednesday morning, April 16th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Thursday, April 17th, 2014
How I made a new exit in our chicken coop

The instruction book for most chainsaws will tell you to never use the tip of the bar to cut with because of the increased chance the thing will kick back on you and cause an injury.

I broke that safety rule so I could make a pop hole in our new chicken coop.

It does kick back a little, but seems like a manageable risk if you brace yourself and don't get too close. Framing up the sides first will keep things neat and give you a cutting guide.

Posted early Friday morning, April 18th, 2014 Tags:
Chicks eating dock

Years ago, my father told me that his chickens loved to eat curly dock.  I kept an eye on my birds, and they were totally uninterested in the wild plant, so I figured my father had misidentified his weed, or his chickens were just plain weird.

Exploring chickBut then our most recent batch of chicks hit five weeks old...and started demolishing the curly dock growing around our greywater wetland.  This reminds me of how chicks of the exact same age went ga-ga over young comfrey leaves, and makes me wonder if there's some nutrient chicks particularly need at that age that makes previously unpalatable plants seem delicious?

More likely, the sudden interest in new plants is due to our chicks hitting the exploring stage.  Sometime between four and five weeks, chicks tend to stop sticking so close to home and they start wandering more widely, usually in mini-flocks of three or more.  Soon thereafter, the chicks begin scratching up mulch in the garden, which is when I move them out of the backyard and into a pasture.

Molting chick

Scruffy chick
In the meantime, though, the chicks are awfully fun to watch during that couple of week period between when they start to explore and when they start to get in trouble.  They've definitely left the cute stage behind in favor of molting scruffiness, but their antics only get more interesting. 

They even inspired me to clean off the back porch and move my wood-stove-watching chair out to become my chick-watching chair.  Now that's pretty impressive --- chicks fascinating enough to make me clean house!

Posted early Monday morning, April 21st, 2014 Tags:
chicken eating cats food in front of him

Will a cat eat chicken food? I seriously doubt it.

Chickens eating cat food is another story. Especially if the cat is outnumbered and the food in question comes from a can.

Image credit goes to Youtube user EireJoker.

Posted early Wednesday morning, April 23rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 23rd, 2014
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 23rd, 2014
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 23rd, 2014
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 23rd, 2014
Posted early Wednesday morning, April 23rd, 2014
Stryder investigating a new chick

Can you train a cat to not try to eat cute young chicks?

Training dogs to leave chickens alone
is easy because dogs want to please their human pack leader, but most cats only seem interested in pleasing themselves.

Our two cats are full grown and have access to the area where we let chicks run free. We've had several years of peaceful coexistence between the two, but we keep the cats well fed and I suspect that might change if they had a few days of being hungry.

Posted early Friday morning, April 25th, 2014 Tags:
Chickens on pasture

Our laying flock is back on pasture!  Sometimes I wonder if they'd be even happier if I just let them roam in the woods full-time, but then I remember that every pasture needs a rest.  I don't think our surrounding woodland would be such optimal winter pasture if I didn't fence the chickens into rotational, grassy paddocks during the growing season.

Of course, when let into a new paddock, the flock goes directly for the mulch boxes, not for the grass.  I suspect the optimal chicken pasture would be two-thirds mulched ground and one-third tender clover morsels, but we never have enough mulch to go around.  So grass it is.

In order to keep the ground covered with growing things instead of scratched bare, it's essential to rotate the flock at least once a week.  To learn more, check out my 99 cent ebook Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics.

Posted early Monday morning, April 28th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Monday, April 28th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Monday, April 28th, 2014
Six-week-old chickens

What's the best way to move six-week-old chicks?  By this age, they'll jump right out of a box if you try to put multiple birds in, and they're not big enough that's its time-efficient to carry one under each arm the way I do with adult hens.

Chick transport boxSome years, when the time comes to move chicks from brooder to coop, we lift the whole brooder up onto a garden wagon and pull it into a pasture, then open the brooder door and let them walk out.  However, the starplate coop is significantly uphill from the area where the brooder is currently located, and pulling the wagon there felt like too much of a schlep over rough ground.  I had images of the brooder toppling over and scared chicks spilling out, running off in every direction.

Instead, I rigged a two-part top for a rubbermaid bin out of two pieces of cardboard.  One piece of cardboard completely covered 80% of the open top of the bin, and the other piece of cardboard became a hinged lid.  The move still required me and Mark to work together --- I grabbed a chick, he lifted the hinged lid, I stuffed the bird inside, and then he slapped the lid closed.  In short order, our little pullets and cockerels were exploring their new home.

It would be even simpler to just start the chicks where I want them to end up, but keeping the brooder close to home has a lot of advantages.  Outside our back door, even the wiliest predator is too scared to snag a chick, and I can keep a close eye on the youngsters during those critical first few weeks.  Plus, brooders need electricity, and it would take quite a few extension cords to reach the starplate coop.  With our new chick-moving box, it's now no big deal to transport quarter-sized chickens over hill and dale, so we can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Posted early Wednesday morning, April 30th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, April 30th, 2014
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
how to use a rooster as an alarm clock

How do you keep a rooster from waking your family and neighbors up at 4am?

A "Do Not Disturb" sign won't help...it would take longer to teach him to read.

One solution is to locate the coop on the far edge of your property, but this might make things easier for local predators. The thing that works for me is White Noise. Sleeping with a fan or a White Noise machine is the only way I've been able to sleep through our rooster's morning wake up call.

Posted early Monday morning, March 3rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Monday morning, March 3rd, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, March 3rd, 2014

Egg pieAll winter, we'd been a bit sparing with eggs, so I was thrilled when the hens started laying well again in the middle of February.  But when we went out of town for about 36 hours, the trip was just long enough to let the eggs back up beyond our usual needs.  Time to figure out what to do with twenty extra eggs!

I have a bad memory, but keep a good blog record, so was thrilled to poke back through blog posts from a year ago and find this delectable Egg, Cheese, and Dried Tomato Pie.  I used coconut flour instead of white flour in the crust this year, and replaced the mozarella with swiss...and the pie was even tastier than I remembered.

Lemon meringue pieWhat's up next?  Mark asked for a repeat of this Egg Salad, and for a special treat we may whip up a Lemon Meringue Pie.  And then there are my easy standbys, notably scrambled eggs for breakfast every morning and fried eggs paired with vegetable soup as an ultra-simple lunch. 

How about you?  Are your hens starting to churn out these beautiful orbs with abandon, forcing you to pull out the stops with your egg recipes?  What's your favorite way to use up excess eggs?

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 5th, 2014 Tags:
How to find free chickens

What's a good way to find free chickens?

You might have a neighbor who raises chickens but is a little timid about slaughtering their own birds. I heard of an arrangement where one person does all the dirty work for you on processing day and keeps half the meat in exchange for their hard work.

It's probably not a good idea to make this offer to someone who has a name for each of their chickens, but they might be interested in you helping them clean out their coop for a few dozen eggs.

Posted early Friday morning, March 7th, 2014 Tags:

Moving chickensMoving hens from flock to flock is generally a bad idea, but I've been doing lots of it this year.  The trouble is that the varieties I picked out to try last spring aren't very compatible with each other, so hens keep getting annoyed with the main flock and deciding to live in the garden instead.  Then there's the white hen who got attacked by a hawk and needed some alone time to allow her wounds to heal in peace.  To cut a long story short, we came into 2014 with two hens in the chicken tractor and two hens in our chick coop, in addition to our main flock.

Since I like the egg-laying abilities of our Red Stars, even though they seem to be too submissive to handle our main flock, I tried to move the two tractored Red Stars back in with the rooster in early February so they could mother some of our hatching eggs.  That was a mistake.  One of the hens did eventually find her inner mean girl and make a place for herself among the Australorps and Leghorns, but the other Star pushed her way through the dog door and begged to be put back in the tractor.  I'm a softie, so I obliged.

Checking on the chicken tractor

About this point, I noticed that the wounded Leghorn was all healed up, so I decided she and her coop buddy (an Australorp who wanted to find a spot to be broody...in the garden) could reenter society.  Once again, there was a bit of grumpiness as the pecking order was reestablished...and the broody Australorp fled back within our fenced garden.  Luckily, there was an opening in the chicken tractor by then since one of the Red Stars had been successfully reintegrated into the flock, so the Australorp was able to be penned back up (even though she was less than thrilled to have two new flockmates to contend with).

What's the moral of this long, winding story?  First of all, it is possible to reintegrate separated hens into a main flock, but there will be a lot of drama involved, and your efforts may fail.  Second, it's worth researching the dominance levels of different varieties before trying to create a mixed flock --- sticking to one variety is the more sure way to chicken simplicity.  And, finally, it's awfully handy to have at least one spare coop or tractor on hand to house hens who are ostracized for one reason or another.  Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes so you don't have to repeat them!

Posted early Monday morning, March 10th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Monday, March 10th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Monday, March 10th, 2014
how to find free chickens

Another way to find free chickens is to keep an eye on the farm section of your local Craigs list and FreeCycle group. It's not uncommon to find people with an extra rooster around the middle of Summer who just want to give him away because they don't have the time or desire to turn him into a meal.

I've even heard of chemical free farms offering their old chickens to a good home.

A more ambitious plan would be to see if you could volunteer to sweep up at one of those huge poultry factories in exchange for a truckload of birds ready for retirement.

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 12th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, March 12th, 2014
Posted late Wednesday morning, March 12th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, March 12th, 2014
how we stumbled upon some free chickens

A friendly neighbor and Hollywood celebrity Frank Hoyt Taylor offered us a deal where he woud pay for 20 laying hens in exchange for fresh eggs.

It only took us a minute to conclude this was a great deal and an awesome way to get to know our neighbor a little better.

He directed us to someone he knew that was getting out of the chicken business and was selling young laying hens for 5 dollars a bird. We didn't know much about raising chickens, but once my wife checked out a book from the library we felt armed with enough information to get started on a poultry adventure that eventually turned into the blog you are reading right now.

Posted early Friday morning, March 14th, 2014 Tags:
Posted early Friday morning, March 14th, 2014
Posted late Friday morning, March 14th, 2014
Posted late Friday morning, March 14th, 2014
Posted late Friday morning, March 14th, 2014
Poultry prosthetics
Posted early Wednesday morning, August 12th, 2015 by mark
Why pen up hens if they can be free ranged?
Posted early Tuesday morning, April 21st, 2015 by Anna
Free-range ducks survive but don't lay eggs
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 31st, 2015 by Anna
Another duck update
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 17th, 2015 by mark
Clean and happy ducks
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, March 4th, 2015 by Anna
How well do ducks handle snow?
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 by mark
Using ducks to help grow rice
Posted early Wednesday morning, January 28th, 2015 by mark
How to make a duck tub
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, January 14th, 2015 by mark
Ducks' Ditty
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, December 31st, 2014 by Anna
Green eggs
Posted early Wednesday morning, December 10th, 2014 by Anna
Experimental roll out next box update
Posted early Thursday morning, November 20th, 2014 by mark
Experimental roll out nest box
Posted early Thursday morning, November 6th, 2014 by mark
Ducks in the woods
Posted early Monday morning, November 3rd, 2014 by mark
A solution to dirty duck eggs?
Posted early Friday morning, October 31st, 2014 by mark
Using a rooster to protect ducks?
Posted early Thursday morning, October 23rd, 2014 by mark
Dirty duck egg solution?
Posted early Monday morning, October 20th, 2014 by mark
Duck nest box update
Posted early Monday morning, September 29th, 2014 by mark
Duck nest box stability
Posted early Friday morning, September 19th, 2014 by mark
Mixing ducks with a high density apple orchard
Posted early Wednesday morning, September 17th, 2014 by mark
Duck nest box bottom weight
Posted early Monday morning, September 15th, 2014 by mark
Chickens sharing a coop with ducks
Posted early Friday morning, September 12th, 2014 by mark
Choosing a domestic duck nest box design
Posted early Monday morning, September 8th, 2014 by mark
A bucket of duckweed
Posted early Friday morning, July 18th, 2014 by Anna
Merging a duck and chicken flock
Posted early Monday morning, July 14th, 2014 by Anna
Lazy ducks
Posted early Monday morning, July 7th, 2014 by Anna
Ducks love comfrey
Posted early Friday morning, June 20th, 2014 by Anna
Keeping ducks on dry land
Posted early Friday morning, June 13th, 2014 by Anna
How to tell male and female ducks apart
Posted early Friday morning, May 30th, 2014 by Anna
Ducks vs. chickens
Posted early Monday morning, May 26th, 2014 by Anna
Three-week-old ducklings
Posted early Wednesday morning, May 21st, 2014 by Anna
Feeding ducks
Posted early Friday morning, May 16th, 2014 by Anna
Duckweed for ducklings
Posted early Monday morning, May 12th, 2014 by Anna
Differences between chicks and ducks
Posted early Friday morning, May 9th, 2014 by Anna
Can ducks drink from poultry nipples?
Posted early Monday morning, May 5th, 2014 by Anna
Researching ducks for the homestead
Posted early Friday morning, March 21st, 2014 by Anna
Posted late Friday morning, March 14th, 2014
Australorp chicks

Although cute balls of fluff can never really be a disappointment, I was unhappy when fewer than half of the eggs I put in the incubator in February popped out of the egg.  Any hatch rate over 75% is considered good, but I generally aim for at least 85% (usually in the 90s).  No matter whether you use my perfectionist math or mainstream numbers, though, 48% is a poor hatch rate.  What happened?

We live in a trailer and heat with a wood stove, so temperature fluctuations in the winter are the norm rather than the exception.  Ever since we upgraded to a Brinsea Octagon 20 Advance incubator, we haven't had temperature-related incubator problems, but I might have just pushed the envelope a bit too far this time around.

Second chick out of the incubatorHowever, an analysis of my hatch spreadsheet (yes, I'm an obsessive data-collector) suggested another possibility.  I always guess at the mother of each egg when putting it in the incubator, and when I autopsied the eggs that didn't hatch on day 24, my parentage guesswork was confirmed by feather color.  Most of the eggs with australorp mothers hatched just fine, but every single one of the red star eggs I put in the incubator developed nearly all the way, then perished without even pipping.

I had hoped to instill a bit of the laying prowess of the red stars into our main flock with this round of eggs (who will be our new layers starting fall 2014).  But it appears that perhaps there's some kind of genetic issue with mixing australorps and red stars.  Or maybe the red stars themselves have some kind of problem, either nutritionally or genetically, that makes them bad mothers.  Either way, I'll be sure to choose only australorp eggs for our next incubator round.  In the meantime, I'll enjoy the ten little balls of fluff who did hatch and who are enjoying extra indoors time due to this cold spring.

Posted early Monday morning, March 17th, 2014 Tags:
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 18th, 2014
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 18th, 2014
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 18th, 2014
Posted early Tuesday morning, March 18th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Tuesday, March 18th, 2014
using an old chest freezer to store chicken feed

We updated our chest freezer and retired the old one to the barn.

It took us a few years to realize it had potential for storing chicken feed.

During the Summer we also store cover crop seeds here.

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 19th, 2014 Tags:

Khaki campbell duckIf you're properly in the homesteading mentality, you'll realize that every problem is really an opportunity.  In this case, a low hatch rate prompted us to consider adding ducks to our laying flock.

Why ducks?  Even though there can be some problems with mixing ducks in with chickens, I suspect we can work around the issues and keep one complex flock, which cuts down on Mark's ambivalence about complicating our homestead.  (Extra flocks always mean more work.)  On the plus side, ducks are reputed to be better winter layers than chickens, and we can definitely use some help in that department --- we bought quite a few eggs this winter despite having a dozen layers in the coop.  In addition, ducks may be able to forage more of their feed than chickens, they're not supposed to fly out of fences as often, and I'm always curious to see how a different species interacts with our wet homestead.

The next question was --- which variety to choose?  If you just want eggs, Carol Deppe recommends the Holderread strain of the Khaki Campbell, followed by Welsh Harlequins, and Indian Runners (if you can find a line bred for egg production).  But she prefers dual-purpose birds for the homestead, such as Magpies and Anconas.  In fact, Anconas are Deppe's favorite breed since they lay 210 to 280 jumbo eggs per year, are excellent foragers, and "are calmer, more sensible, and easier to work with than the extreme-egg breeds."

Gold Star duckHeavier breeds have some positive points too.  Harvey Ussery prefers Appleyards for "the best combination of beauty, egg laying, and fast growth to good slaughter size," although Deppe considers Appleyards to be too heavy to be economical layers.  Finally, if you're looking for a meaty duck similar to the Cornish Cross chicken, you'll want to raise a Pekin or Aylesbury duck.

Since we'll probably get our ducks from Murray McMurray, Anconas and Appleyards aren't an option.  I'm actually leaning toward trying out their hybrid Gold Star duck, which is reputed to lay an average of 290 eggs per year (compared to 240 for a Khaki Campbell) and to be a calmer bird than the Campbells.  We'll have to make a decision fast since we want to get the ducklings early enough so they'll start laying this fall, so stay tuned for cute duck photos at least by the end of April.

Posted early Friday morning, March 21st, 2014 Tags:
Water snails

Homemade scoop netWe're considering raising snails for our chickens this year, so I was excited to notice that our little pond was chock full of snails a couple of weeks ago.  Could we skip all the hard work and just harvest water snails for our hens?

After thinking through lots of complicated methods of getting snails out of the water, Mark suggested just scooping them off the walls of the pond with a net.  I couldn't find our net, so I made one out of a clothes hanger and a mesh bag.  It worked perfectly, snagging about a dozen snails in less than a minute.  I also accidentally scooped up a few other water critters, like the dragonfly larva pictured below.

Dragonfly larva

Then came the moment of truth.  Would our hens eat tadpole snails?  I tossed the contents of the net into the chicken tractor, and the dragonfly larva was gone nearly immediately.  A Red Star picked up one of the water snails, too, and made short work of its thin shell, but she didn't seem impressed by the taste, leaving the rest of the snails alone.  Even after I crushed Chicken taste testthe snails with a sledgehammer, the hens continued to turn up their noses.  I guess tadpole snails aren't on their preferred menu.

Will other snail varieties fare better in the chicken taste test?  I'm not sure, but will be careful to test any variety I want to raise on the flock before going to great lengths to multiply its numbers.  After all, why start a snail-farming operation if our hens are molluscophobes?

Posted early Monday morning, March 24th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Tuesday afternoon, March 25th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, March 25th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, March 25th, 2014

Star Plate chicken coop step by step image
We decided to build our new chicken coop with the Star Plate connector system.

There's been a few things we've learned so far and maybe this collection of blog posts on constructing a Star Plate chicken coop will help you avoid the mistakes we made.
star plate macro image close up

Star Plate chicken coop design
Star Plate construction day 1
Star Plate chicken coop day 2
Star Plate inner wall boards
Star Plate door frame
Star Plate half wall covering
Star Plate walls
Star Plate half wall
Star Plate chicken coop door
Star Plate roofing material
Star Plate roofing plywood
More Star Plate roofing

Posted early Wednesday morning, March 26th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Wednesday morning, March 26th, 2014
Posted late Wednesday morning, March 26th, 2014
Lisa Lynn images of her free used chickens

I think Lisa Lynn's post on getting some "pre-owned" chickens is a nice way to conclude my series on easy ways to find free chickens.

She's summed up an experience where someone she knew was updating their laying flock and didn't want to take the time to manage his older birds.

Image credit goes to Lisa Lynn and her impressive Self Sufficient HomeAcre blog.

How to find free chickens?

More ways to find free chickens
How we found free chickens

Posted early Friday morning, March 28th, 2014 Tags:
Chick on ramp

I posted some photos of our cute chicks enjoying their outdoor brooder on facebook last week, and several readers wanted to know more about the brooder.  How was it made?  And wasn't it too cold for chicks to be running around outdoors in the middle of March?  I figured I'd write the longer answer here on the blog.

Chick meeting dog

This is the third year our outdoor brooder has been in use, and I'm 100% happy with it.  Mark would prefer the transparent side be smaller and the whole thing be a bit more easy to empty out at the end of the season, but those are minor nitpicks in a brooder that has kept dozens of chicks happy and safe from predators.  You can see our thoughts during the design phase here, and the step-by-step building tips here

Outdoor brooder in the snow

But is it too cold for chicks to be outdoors?  In The Resilient Gardener, Carol Deppe writes:

"If allowed to waterproof themselves properly, ducklings can be out foraging in their third week....  Chicks are normally kept indoors the first six to eight weeks."

Our homestead is anything but normal.  We generally move our chicks into the outdoor brooder by the time they're a week old, using Brinsea Ecoglow brooders to keep them warm at night.  A couple of days later, as long as it's not raining or snowing, I open the door in the morning and let the chicks run outside if they wish.  For the first week or so, they generally just dabble their toes in the outdoors, sometimes going no further than the ramp, but I think the early foraging helps them learn to hunt their own food, and it definitely supplements their store-bought rations.  By the time our chicks are two weeks to three weeks old (depending on the weather), they're usually spending most of their time outdoors and are just coming inside for occasional naps and snacks (and to spend the night).

Chick learning to fly

This kind of early pasturing depends very much on the brooder being very tight, though.  We turn the transparent side to face south in the early spring, which heats the brooder up quite a lot on sunny days, and I keep the door closed if it's going to be bitter outside.  And although it might to be pushing the envelope, our chicks seemed to be fine in the brooder even when it got down to 18 outside a few nights ago.  The nipple on their EZ Miser did freeze, but it thawed right out the next day when I opened the door to let in the morning sun.

Of course, keep in mind that we live in zone 6, where mid March is really starting to be springlike, even during a cold winter like this one.  If you live in Alaska, yes, March probably is too early to brood chicks outdoors.  And if you aren't home to keep an eye on the chicks, it's not very safe for them to be running around outdoors without your attention.  But if you live in a similar climate to ours and work from home, chances are your chicks would enjoy an outdoor brooder as much as ours do.

Posted early Monday morning, March 31st, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Monday, March 31st, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, March 31st, 2014
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014
is sand a good liter option for chicken coops?

Chicken coop bedding is something we've experimented with over the years.

Straw, sawdust, and bags of leaves are our current favorites, mainly because we like to use it as top dressing for our fruit trees once the chickens deposit their "gifts" and it needs changing.

One material we have not tried yet is sand. If you don't have fruit trees to feed, sand might be worth trying if you want to keep the coop as clean as possible. I never considered it until I recently read the Chicken Chick's excellent blog post on how she discovered the merits of sand as a coop bedding material. It's a lot like cleaning a litter box for a cat. Scoop troubled areas once a day for best results.

Posted early Monday morning, February 3rd, 2014 Tags:
do chicks know how to drink water when born?

Observing chicken behavior is one of the fun elements of a backyard flock.

One question we've had around here since we got started was if a new chick needs to be taught to drink water? We use a Brinsea Octagon 20 advance incubator to hatch our chicks and lately we've been putting them in their brooder area with an Avian Aqua Miser original. The chicks have no problem figuring out how to drink by themselves, and it turns out there's some scientific research to back this up.

chicken drinkingAccording to data published at extension websites when chicks are raised without a hen producers must dip their beaks in water so they learn about drinking. Chicks have been observed standing in water and even though they were thirsty they would not peck at the water below their feet.

Why does the Avian Aqua Miser original work without the chicks being taught? Science shows that a chick will peck at shiny objects or bubbles in the water. We once thought it was the bright red color of the poultry nipple, but it turns out it's the shiny stainless steel part they are most attracted to.

Posted early Wednesday morning, February 5th, 2014 Tags:
Posted at noon on Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
Feeding half a coconut to chickens
Posted early Friday morning, February 28th, 2014 by mark
Hanging coconut chicken treat update
Posted early Friday morning, February 21st, 2014 by mark
Crow training box for chickens?
Posted early Monday morning, February 17th, 2014 by mark
Hanging coconut treat for chickens
Posted early Monday morning, February 10th, 2014 by mark
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Thursday, February 6th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Thursday, February 6th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Anna and MarkThanks for dropping by our site!  We're a pair of homesteaders in southwest Virginia who make our living building and selling the chicken waterers that Mark invented.  Your support of our business keeps our farm running!

We keep a laying flock and raise our own chicks every year, and are especially keen on experimenting with ways to make our chickens healthier and happier.  (You can read more about our chicken adventures here.)  If you want to learn more about our day-to-day life on the farm, Walden Effect is our homesteading blog.  And we have a longer bio over there as well.

Our contact information is here.  We're always excited to see photos of happy chickens in action, and are glad to answer any questions we can (even if they're not waterer-related).

Thanks for reading!

Posted at lunch time on Thursday, February 6th, 2014
making a fence much higher

We sometimes have a problem with our hens jumping/flying over their fence.

Wing clipping has not helped this problem in the past, so we've been upgrading sections when we get the chance by making the perimeter fence higher.

Why did we make this one as high as it is? Well we also think the occasional deer sneaks in this way, and eventually we plan to have a perimeter that keeps all deer and chickens away from the garden.

Posted early Friday morning, February 7th, 2014 Tags:
preparing a coconut as a treat for chickens to peek at

Winter can be some slim pickings for chickens looking for fresh bugs.

Cut a coconut in half, drill a hole in the top, and suspend it above the ground at chicken height for a healthy treat that provides entertainment to you and your flock.

Posted early Monday morning, February 10th, 2014 Tags:
preparing a coconut as a treat for chickens

Coconuts from the store have a groove cut through the middle.

First thing to do is drain the juice and drink it.

Banging on the groove with a hammer, turning a bit and banging some more is one way of splitting it into two even pieces. My first attempt only cut through the outer shell. Next time I'll bang harder. It was easy to fix with a hand saw.

Making a hole in the outer shell requires a drill. Installing a loop of stiff wire creates a pivot point and also makes it easier to replace a pecked out coconut.

Posted early Wednesday morning, February 12th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
Posted late Wednesday morning, February 12th, 2014
door dogs can go through but not chickens

During the process of spreading multiple chicken pastures around our perimeter we came up with spots that needed a door for our dog Lucy to pass through while at the same time stopping chickens.
map of our current chicken pasture system
This new version of a dog door to keep chickens out has been in service for close to a year now and in all that time only one hen figured out how to push through.

I discovered in the next version that 2 hinges work better than one. The door is made from a plastic lattice material and cut with a coping saw.

Posted early Friday morning, February 14th, 2014 Tags:
crow box for chickens who want to work

Have you ever dreamed of training your chickens to bring you shiny coins in exchange for some kind of machine dispensed treat? Well that day may be close at hand thanks to an exciting open source project known as the Crow Box by writer and hacker Joshua Klein.

It may need to be lower to the ground, and it's debatable if chickens are smart enough to learn and remember a task like this, but it sure would be fun to watch.

Maybe having a group of crows demonstrating the coin drop procedure would be enough for most chickens to learn? Could they learn the same lesson by watching a video of the crows doing their thing? Maybe a more practical approach would be to train chickens to bring acorns to a box that grinds it up into something the chickens can consume?

Posted early Monday morning, February 17th, 2014 Tags:

Lucy helping us with a rat problem
We're getting closer to solving the rat in the chicken coop problem.

Turns out bacon worked in attracting the rodent within a few hours.

There's at least one more rat, but re-baiting with bacon didn't work. I'm guessing because the trap now smells like a dead rat due to a blood stain. Stay tuned to see if a new trap with peanut butter can solve this problem just in time for baby chick season.

Posted early Wednesday morning, February 19th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Wednesday morning, February 19th, 2014
Posted at lunch time on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
hanging coconut treat for chickens

The next time I make a hanging coconut chicken treat I think I'll bake it for a while to make the flesh easier to chunk away.

Having the coconut swing can be entertaining to watch, but I think it would've been better for the chickens to mount it on the floor so it stayed stationary.

We locked our chickens in the coop for half a day in an effort to get them to stop trying to roost in the pasture and that's when I noticed parts of the coconut had been eaten away. I'm guessing it was something totally new to them and it took a taste trailblazer to show the others how yummy it was.

Posted early Friday morning, February 21st, 2014 Tags:
using chicken tractors during heavy snowfall

Is there room for a chicken tractor in a system of rotating poultry pastures?

A rotating pasture system needs to be chicken free during Winter months to give the plants time to bounce back after all the poultry pounding they received during the Summer.

We have a forest pasture that most of the flock can forage through during our cold season, but recently we discovered that a pair of chickens in a tractor can get a lot of raised bed fertilizing done moving it to a new spot each day.

Posted early Monday morning, February 24th, 2014 Tags:
preparing eggs for incubation

We've been collecting eggs for this year's first round of incubation.

It's important to choose clean eggs, but don't wash them clean. This would damage the invisible bloom that surrounds the shell.

One thing we learned the hard way was egg storage for incubation. When storing for more than 4 days remember to rotate each egg once a day with the large end up. This helps to prevent the embryo from sticking to the shell.

Posted early Wednesday morning, February 26th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Wednesday morning, February 26th, 2014
Posted late Wednesday morning, February 26th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Thursday, February 27th, 2014
how to prepare a coconut as a treat for chickens

Our chickens seemed to enjoy the hanging coconut treat, but a week after I suspended it with a rope in the coop there was still over half the meat left.

I think it was a yummy diversion while they stayed in during heavy snow days.

Peeking at a swinging treat helps to stretch out the food, but it might take too long depending on how patient your chickens are. I decided to drill a hole through the middle and mount the remaining coconut to a piece of wood near the ground. Now they can get more than a nibble without the swinging out of reach effect.

Posted early Friday morning, February 28th, 2014 Tags:
Posted in the wee hours of Tuesday night, January 1st, 2014

Snail penEven though silkworms didn't work as well as planned last year, I still think there may be an invertebrate we can easily raise to turn free plant matter into food for our chickens.  One option might be snails, which have been grown as human food for thousands of years.  Here's an overview of my current research into heliculture (raising snails).

What does a snail farm look like?
You can raise snails indoors or outdoors, with various options available for both arrangements.  Although it requires more work up front to make a snail-proof (and predator-proof) pen, the lowest work in the long run is to make a snail garden, in which case you only have to water and weed the plants and harvest the snails --- check out this booklet for more information.  You can also make a much smaller outdoor snail pen (like the one shown here) where you bring food to your snails.  Or you can build a similar pen indoors.

What kind of snail should I raise?
If you're raising snails for chickens, you probably don't care as much about gourmet qualities.  In this case, your best bet in temperate regions is probably Helix aspersa (the garden snail).  Helix aspersa Helix aspersais a smallish snail with a weak shell, and individuals can reach full size in one year if well fed (as opposed to three years in some other species).  Like most snails people raise for food, it is an herbivore, meaning the snail needs to eat living plant matter.  As a result, you'll want to be very careful to prevent this snail from escaping from captivity since it can become a major garden pest --- this may be a reason to try out different types of snails already found in your garden on your chickens and choose one of those natives to raise instead.

What do snails eat?
Wikipedia lists the following food plants as being favored by snails: "Alyssum, fruit and leaves of apple, apricot, artichoke (a favorite), aster, barley, beans, bindweed, California boxwood, almost any cabbage variety, chamomile, carnation, carrot, cauliflower, celeriac (root celery), celery, ripe cherries, chive, citrus, clover, cress, cucumbers (a favorite snail food), dandelion, elder, henbane, hibiscus, hollyhock, kale, larkspur, leek, lettuce (liked, and makes good snails), lily, magnolia, mountain ash, mulberry, chrysanthemum, nasturtium, nettle, nightshade berries, oats, onion greens, pansy, parsley, peach, ripe pears, peas, petunia, phlox, plum, potatoes (raw or cooked), pumpkins, radish, rape, rose, sorrel, spinach, sweet pea, thistle, thorn apple, tomatoes (well liked), turnip, wheat, yarrow, zinnia."

In addition, the FAO article linked to above recommends planting snail gardens consisting of rape, horseradish, leaf beet (for shelter), burdock, and Plantago sp. (for shelter).  Snails can be introduced to their gardens when the plants are five to six weeks old.

Snail farmFinally, snails also need either plants or physical objects to shelter amid during the day, well-drained loam soil in which to lay their eggs, calcium (either from the soil or added as a supplement) to build their shells, and plenty of moisture.

How much space do snails need?
In modern, high-density farms, Helix aspersa can be kept in an area with one square foot for every six to eight snails.  If you want the snails to breed, though, you'll need to give them more space --- providing at least 1.25 square feet of room per snail.  In snail gardens, snails are introduced at a rate of about 150 snails per 125 square feet, or 1.5 square feet per snail.

How much snail meat will I get?
If you raise a fast-growing snail outdoors, a 125 square-foot pen will produce about 27 pounds of meat per year.  That's about 9900 calories, nearly all of which is from protein.  For the sake of comparison, you can get about four times that many calories per acre from corn, but corn is only about 8% protein and is much less healthy for your chickens.  As a side benefit, snails are also very high in calcium and magnesium.

Posted early Wednesday morning, January 1st, 2014 Tags:
Posted at teatime on Thursday, January 2nd, 2014
Chicken tractor under a tree

In a perfect world, the ground over which you pull a chicken tractor would always be flat.  We live in the mountains, though, where nothing is flat.  Add in my crazy permaculture techniques like hugelkultur and raised beds, and it gets tough to move the tractor underneath fruit trees.  I want my girls to tear up some weeds there, though, and eat up any overwintering bugs, so I chock the tractor.

Chicken tractor in orchard

Chocking a chicken tractorWhat do I mean by chocking the tractor?  I yank it to where I want it, then fill in any gaps along the lower edge with cinder blocks and pieces of wood.  This really only takes a minute if you keep all of your chocking blocks handy.

The trickiest part of this endeavor is making sure that no hen sneaks out under the gap before you get all your chocks in place.  Our Red Stars continue to be chicken-tractor queens because they patiently wait for me to fill in the gaps rather than scurrying off in all directions, even when the holes are a foot high.  I guess they deserve another round of Brussels sprouts!

Posted early Friday morning, January 3rd, 2014 Tags:
Posted at lunch time on Friday, January 3rd, 2014
Wet chickens

Whether your ground freezes solid or you're just dealing with cold rain, winter can be a tough time for chickens and chicken keepers.  Our winter photo contest asks you to illustrate happy chickens in the cold weather.

Leafy greens for chickensDo you bring your flock leafy greens or homegrown worms?  Have you come up with a great heated chicken waterer?  Do all of your feathered friends spend the winter in your greenhouse or garage, or maybe perching on your horse's back?

Snap a shot and drop me a line with your answer and you might win our chick bundle --- two premade chicken waterers perfect for getting chicks off to a good start, or for keeping your adult flock hydrated, a $90 value. 
The second-place winner will choose between a 2 pack EZ Miser kit or a 5 pack Avian Aqua Miser original kit with drill bit.

The fine print: All entries must reach my inbox (info@avianaquamiser.com) by Sunday (January 19) at midnight.  Be sure to send photos one at a time if they're larger than 2 MB Grand prizeapiece.  You can enter as many pictures as you want, but all of your photos will be merged into one entry.  All photos and text will become the property of Anna Hess, which means I might share them with readers via our blogs or ebooks.

How to win: The winners will be chosen by votes from our readers.  I'll post each entry on our blog and on facebook, and each like or comment on facebook and each like on the blog will count as one vote for that entry.  All votes must be in by January 25 at midnight.

I look forward to seeing how your chickens thrive in the cold!

Posted early Monday morning, January 6th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Tuesday, January 7th, 2014
Posted mid-morning Tuesday, January 7th, 2014
Posted at noon on Tuesday, January 7th, 2014
Posted at noon on Tuesday, January 7th, 2014
Orpingtons in the snow

The first entry in our Winter Chicken Contest comes Edith, who wrote in to share how her Buff Orpingtons are faring in this cold weather:

Winter poultry"It was -5 this morning in Central Kansas with wind chills at around -30. Kansas weather is like a roller coaster so it won't stay this cold for long...upper 30's next week.

"My Chickens were tucked away in their cozy coop until emerging at around 8:00AM when my Husband did the chores.

"When they heard me a little later coming with their treats the racket starts and they get very excited. They know when I'm coming with the red coffee can. Some even looked into the can once I poured it out to see if there was any more...see photo. They are supplemented with kitchen scraps. This morning it was green peas, potato skins, oatmeal with some molasses, apples, and whatever else was in there."

Don't forget to like this page on facebook or comment on it here or on facebook to vote for Edith's entry (and to pull out your camera and snap your own shots!).  Stay tuned for more happy winter chickens in posts to come.

Posted early Wednesday morning, January 8th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 8th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 8th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 8th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 8th, 2014
Posted at teatime on Wednesday, January 8th, 2014
Group dust bath

Chicken flying onto chairJennifer emailed to share these beautiful photos as entries in our Winter Chicken Photo Contest.  She wrote:

"I have a small backyard flock of 9 hens.  Winter is the only time my small flock takes group dust baths! They are not the best of friends any other season but I guess the cold temps bring them to a truce."

Chickens in the snow
Chicken behavior

She continued:

"When they are not having mass dust baths they are waiting for me to open the back door so they can promptly spill out and hop from grass patch to grass patch. They are not fans of the snow!"

Thanks for sharing these beautiful shots, Jennifer!  My vote doesn't count, but if it did, you'd be in the lead so far.

Posted early Thursday morning, January 9th, 2014 Tags:

Predator-proof chicken runKatherine wrote in to share her experience with chickens in the winter in the southwest:

"In AZ my chickens aren't dealing with bitter cold.  So many predators,
my 7 are in The Cluckery, an iron cage that might once have been a big zoo cage.  They have room but prefer the wooden perch to roost now
rather than the iron one they use most of the year.

"We get a few freezing mornings but not many.  They get extra greens from the garden which does well with occasional frost cloth. They love bok choy that is bolting and mustard and arugala.

"My chickens love your nipples and chicks learned in minutes."

It's not too late to enter our Winter Chicken Photo Contest.  Why not take the weekend to snap some shots of your birds in the snow?

Posted early Friday morning, January 10th, 2014 Tags:
crayfish in a bucket

Is there any research on feeding crayfish to poultry?

Abdel Hadi completed a PhD study where she compared chickens being fed on fish meal with a group that were raised on meal made from crayfish waste.

The crayfish group had stronger bones, a higher optical density of meat, and laid stronger, higher protein eggs.

How does one get started in farming crayfish for chickens? Go down to your local creek and turn over some rocks, or visit Ebay for a wide variety of people selling breeding pairs for Koi ponds and aquarium enthusiasts. We plan to give it a try when the weather gets warmer.

Posted early Monday morning, January 13th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Monday morning, January 13th, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, January 13th, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, January 13th, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, January 13th, 2014
Winter chicken run

MaryHelen and Dee Landergren live just north of Boston, where their chickens seem to be thriving in the aftermath the recent Nor'easter.  Dee explained that, despite 21 inches of fluffy snow, their polycarbonate winter run provided plenty of play space for the flock.  "Temp outside never got above 14F, but the inside of the run reached 36F, enough to melt most of the snow."

Chickens eating oatmeal

MaryHelen chimed in to show how her flock enjoyed an oatmeal treat.  "What?  No apples in our oatmeal this time?" one hen seemed to be saying. "I think Val took two gulps of oatmeal so let's dive in now before she hogs it all --- enough of her; my turn!" cackled another.  "I can't see anything up your nose, Quinn.  Are you sure you can
feel something?" a third hen replied.

Heat tape chicken watererOn a more serious note, Dee explained: "The last picture is tough to see, but I wanted to show that the waterer I made out of PVC wrapped in heat tape, was still working at the nipple, but freezing into a stalagmite before the hens' dribbling could reach the sand (single digits for several days)."  (You can see other heated PVC pipe waterer here and here.)

Dee concluded:

"Today was in the 40s so all the snow is gone and the chickens have been out in the small, real, outdoor run.  Maybe tomorrow we'll let them in to the larger grazing area."

If Dee and MaryHelen can keep such happy  winter chickens in Massachusetts, the rest of us should be able to follow suit!

Posted early Tuesday morning, January 14th, 2014 Tags:

Dust bathing in planters"Is this what you get when you plant bird seed?

"In my area (Vancouver Island) we seldom get snow but we do get LOTS of rain for several months, which makes finding a spot dry enough for a mid-winter dust bath very difficult.

"These two planters were in under the eaves, protected from the rain and so were bone dry.

"The girls found them......................."

--- Evelyn

Posted early Wednesday morning, January 15th, 2014 Tags:
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 15th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 15th, 2014
Posted Wednesday afternoon, January 15th, 2014
feeding snails to chickens

Feeding snails to your chickens could be as easy as a stroll through your garden.

Try an experiment to see how many snails you can find in 15 minutes...if the answer is more than a handful then you can probably justify the time spent by the increased protein and love your chickens will receive. The added bonus will be that many less snails attacking your lettuce.

Image credit and inspiration goes to Jenn's gardening spot blog post on how she collects snails every morning for her flock.

Posted early Friday morning, January 17th, 2014 Tags:
Looking chicken

"I wonder which kind of winter green chickens like best?" I pondered on a rare sunny day in early January.  The obvious solution was to outsource my question to the chickens.

Winter greens taste test

The thing is, I thought I already knew the answer.  Over the last month, I've dropped off chickweed, brussels sprouts, and swiss chard in the tractor, and the brussels sprouts seemed to be the favorite by far.  However, our chickens are ornery, so when I pulled out the camera, two out of three went for the chickweed, and the third soon joined them.  Brussels sprouts were a runnerup, and Swiss chard was barely pecked at.

I'm not sure why chickweed was less favored a week ago, then was suddenly first choice.  Perhaps it was a matter of weather --- my taste test occurred during a warm spell when everything was thawed, and previously I'd been dropping off primarily frozen greens in the tractor.  Or maybe the chickens were just sick of daily brussels sprouts and wanted a change.

Either way, it got me curious.  Have you tried your chickens on various types of winter greens?  What's their favorite?

Posted early Monday morning, January 20th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Monday morning, January 20th, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, January 20th, 2014
Posted late Monday morning, January 20th, 2014

Light BrahmasThe final entry in our chicken photo contest came from Sue Loring, who shared the description of her poultry-rich homestead below.  The photos, from top to bottom, are: a Light Brahma rooster eating broom corn, a Polish rooster eating Indian corn, and Partridge Silkies enjoying cornbread made just for them.

My husband and I have about 5 acres in northwest Iowa in which we have 3 acre garden in which we raise produce that we sell at our roadside pumpkin and squash stand each fall. Also we right now have 68 chickens, 3 Royal Palm Turkeys, 8 bobwhite quail and 11 ducks. These numbers fluctuate thru out the year as we incubate eggs, attend lots of exotic auctions and buy from friends and neighbors. We also sell laying hens, exotic chickens and ducks for butchering. We trade ducks for broiler chickens with a friend of ours who raises organic chickens on her farm.

We love all our poultry and currently have one big chicken house which has all our laying hens and a pair of Sumatra chickens and our Brahma chickens which don't get along with our exotic and bantam breeds. We have a separate house for our turkeys and another coop for our ducks and our original coop which my son built me in woods class when he was in high school. We have a smaller coop with the quail which are going to be expanding this spring.We started out with 8 chicks from local feed store and got few more the next year and now it's become an obsession. Love the fresh eggs, the meat, and the entertainment of raising a huge brood.

Our secrets for long, cold Iowa winters...all our chickens are free range during the days and are locked up at night to keep out coyotes and other critters. We stock all coops and houses with lots of straw which we usually only change out twice in the winter to keep better insulation on floors of coops. We don't use any lights or heat lamps ever for supplemental heat and have never lost more than one or two birds each winter. Each of our houses and coops we pack in a lot of birds which gives them extra heat.

Polish roosterAs far as feeding...we always use Purina flock raiser feed for everything but our laying hens which get laying hen mix of feed. Also to supplement in winter we keep a supply of pumpkins and squash from our fall crop and keep inside so they don't freeze. Our poultry loves a big juicy pumpkin or squash once a week especially when the snow flies.

We raise and sell broomcorn in the fall. I stick away a couple totes of it and the chickens will strip it down in matter of minutes and can't get enough of the stems of seeds. It's the same with Indian corn and dent corn. Our poultry keep busy and entertained munching on the kernels of corn or broomcorn during the cold winter days.

The vegetable scraps and fruit scraps are also fed to our poultry every couple days. Strawberry scraps cause the biggest fights in our hen house. They love wheat bread and crusts and all of our chickens and turkeys are tame enough we hand-feed the bread to them. I try not to give them bread more than once or twice a month as there is little nutritional value but it is definitely a favorite. I will make homemade corn bread every couple weeks just for the chickens and they love it.

Water is another challenge. In our laying hen house we do keep heated base to our big galvanized waterer which is the easiest way to do it. For our other smaller houses and coops we just have bought a surplus of plastic waterers at our local feed store and bring them in every night to keep thawed in our mudroom We switch out every day and it's a pretty easy method. We have regular waterers and also extra thick rubber totes that we keep open all year for our ducks to swim and play in. Fresh water is the key to healthy chickens in the winter.

Partridge silkiesOur chickens have the run of our acreage year round except early spring when we plant our vegetable garden and pumpkin patches. Each fall we leave our garden and don't rototill it under. All remaining pumpkins, squash, corn and other vegetables that didn't get harvested or had blemishes keep our chickens foraging for months feasting on the remnants of garden waste.This keeps our chickens active even on cold days.

You pull up to our farm or drive by and you will see chickens everywhere...on the deck, on the car, on the picnic tables, dust bathing in my window boxes, perching on top of coops, searching for grass seed in the ditches or scratching in our garden. Our chickens are foragers. Their biggest danger is the looming shadow of the variety of hawks that circle by once in awhile.

Well thanks for looking at my photos and I look forward to seeing the other entries in your contest. I do read your blogs and books. We also live simple lifestyle and try to stay true the way we were raised. So keep up the good work and thanks again.

Bruce and Sue Loring
Hawk Valley Garden
Spencer, Iowa

Posted early Tuesday morning, January 21st, 2014 Tags:

Premium winter chicken runWe had some beautiful entries in our 2014 Winter Photo Contest!  Click on the links below to check each one out, then vote on as many as you want.  Whichever post gets the most comments and likes on the blog and on facebook by Saturday, January 25, at midnight will win our prize!

Premium winter chicken run by MaryHelen and Dee Landergren.  Dee explained that, despite 21 inches of fluffy snow, their polycarbonate winter run provided plenty of play space for the flock.

Midwinter dust bath

Mid-winter dust bath by Evelyn. 
"Is this what you get when you plant bird seed?"

Chicken eating broomcorn

Growing grain for poultry by Sue Loring.  "
You pull up to our farm or drive by and you will see chickens everywhere...on the deck, on the car, on the picnic tables, dust bathing in my window boxes, perching on top of coops, searching for grass seed in the ditches or scratching in our garden."

Group dust baths

Group dust baths by Jennifer.  "
Winter is the only time my small flock takes group dust baths!"

Happy winter chickens

Happy winter chickens by Edith.  "
When they heard me a little later coming with their treats the racket starts and they get very excited."

Anti-predator cage

Winter's not so tough for these chickens by Katherine.  In the Southwest, these chickens have more to fear from predators than from cold.

I hope you've been inspired by these shots of happy winter chickens!

Posted early Wednesday morning, January 22nd, 2014 Tags:

Feeding whole corn to chickensI'd been meaning to post a followup about the whole corn our neighbor gave us to supplement our flock's winter feed.  The kernels were pretty big, and despite reports that chickens can eat some corn whole and grind it up in their gizzards, I wasn't entirely sure whether our birds could get these big hunks down their throats.

But the feeder kept getting lower and lower, which seemed to be a good sign...until I saw the rat.  To be honest, I've known there was someone living under our chicken coop ever since the fall, when mounds of earth began to turn up here and there around the structure, but I wasn't sure who had taken up residence.  The intruder had clearly been attracted to the kitchen scraps I dump in the coop every morning, and having a feeder full of corn made it even more bold.  I'd assumed from the amount of dirt involved that this was a big Rat trapcritter like a groundhog, but it seems that one medium-sized rat is quite capable of moving around gallons and gallons of earth.

Rats are bad news, so I immediately set out to trap it.  We bought a rat trap, I baited it with half a slice of raw bacon, and the next day...the entire trap was gone.

Did the rat find a way to trip the trap and then lug the whole thing back to its den to gnaw the food loose at its leisure?  Or did our dog break into the pasture and steal the trap, hopefully not hurting her nose in the process?  I'm not sure, but I do know that we're going to have to move on to a plan B for rat control.  Having a rat on the farm at the same time chicks are hatching is very bad news, so we've got two months tops to delete the coop intruder.  I'm scared of the idea of poison, but maybe some rat poison down the holes would do the trick?

Posted early Friday morning, January 24th, 2014 Tags:
clean eggs in a carton

The internet has a lot of poor information on backyard egg cleaning.

Jen Pitino of the Urban Chicken Podcast does an excellent job of sorting through this jungle of information in episode 13 of what is now my favorite poultry podcast.

She includes a link to over a dozen online articles she used for this exhaustive report on the physics of egg washing. We never wash our eggs. In my opinion the best way to keep your eggs clean is to not let them get dirty through proper roost placement and coop management.

We do get the really poopy egg every now and then, but I usually save it for our dog Lucy and add it on top of her dinner. Sometimes she'll wait for Anna to pull the chicken tractor to a new spot and actually eat some of the fresh chicken droppings. Gross?....yeah...but I'm sure she knows what she's doing.

Posted early Monday morning, January 27th, 2014 Tags:
Posted mid-morning Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
Posted late Tuesday morning, January 28th, 2014
Posted Tuesday afternoon, January 28th, 2014
Posted at teatime on Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Snowy chicken run

Congratulations to
Sue Loring and the Landergrens, who won first and second prize, respectively, in our winter chicken photo contest!  I also really enjoyed hearing from all of the voters about why they chose the entry they did.

I hope your chickens are all snug and warm during this recent cold spell.  Ours are starting to lay more despite the weather, and one hen thinks she's going to find an out-of-the-way spot to hatch out some chicks.  More on our own chickens in a later post!

Posted early Wednesday morning, January 29th, 2014 Tags:
Posted late Wednesday morning, January 29th, 2014
Kitten cares for baby chick
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How high can baby chicks fly?
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Tweaking our chicken-pasturing system
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EcoGlow chick brooder repair
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Adjusting nipple height for chick growth
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2015 chick update
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Chick friendly cat?
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Milk jug chick waterer
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New chicken varieties for 2015
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Harvesting jewelweed seeds for chickens
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Differences between chicks and ducks
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Transporting six-week-old chicks
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Exploring chicks thrive on curly dock
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Chicks and pecking order
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Brooding chicks outdoors
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Teaching new chicks to drink?
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Posted at noon on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
Chickens eating wheatgrass"I understand that chickens like to eat fresh greens and that providing them some greens in the winter is a good thing.  I have some wheat grass that grows easily for me in my kitchen during the winter.  Is this ok to give to the chickens?  Is there anything (plant greens) that I should be careful NOT to give the chickens?"
---Jenni & my 8 yr old son "the chicken whisperer" Riley

Chickens do love fresh greens, and it's great for their health to have access to some in the winter.  I haven't fed chickens wheatgrass myself, but the internet is full of reports of other chicken-owners doing so.  It seems like the best method is to plant the wheatgrass in trays topped with hardware cloth.  After the green tops reach a certain height, you can put one tray in the coop, and chickens will eat the greenery down to the wire.  Then you take that tray out to put in a sunny windowsill and regrow while the chickens are consuming a second tray.  Another method is to simply cut the wheatgrass tops off yourself and dump those directly into the coop.

To answer your second question, chickens seem to be pretty good at picking around anything poisonous, so I wouldn't be particularly worried about giving them something that will hurt them.  As long as they have access to plenty of food and aren't starving, chances are they'll just turn up their noses (beaks) at anything that doesn't taste good.

(Click on the photo to see the source and to learn more about how to grow wheatgrass.)

Posted early Friday morning, January 31st, 2014 Tags:

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