Experiments in Chick Care

February 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

I show Curious Geoge where 'outside' is

Last year, we got 25 little chickens and raised them in a ‘standard’ way. We fed chick food, and used a fountain waterer. When they were about 6 weeks old, we moved them outside to the barn and then to the chicken tractor. They did perfectly well, but since I have started feeding that first year’s flock with whole grains, I wanted to experiment with making homemade chick feed, using whole and sprouted grains, and stay away from pre-mixed feed altogether.

This year’s batch (another 25 to round out our flock) will eat whole grains from the start. We’ve also been reworking our watering system with self-waterers instead of fountains (which are clumsy and get dirty fast.) I’ve started the chicks with rodent water bottles, which the curious little dumplings found fun to peck at first, and then water came out! The chicks have never got water from anything else. I hope that these two ‘early starts’ will make them healthier overall, more hardy and better at foraging, and also reduce the learning curve, both digestively and water-wise, when they move to the mobile coop.

Here are the chicks enjoying their fresh, clean water from the water bottle

Here is the recipe for the chick feed we mixed up:

10 lb cracked corn

20 lb whole wheat

5 lb barley

5 lb oats

5 lb black oil sunflower seeds

5 lb lentils

2 lb flax seeds

2 lb kelp meal

2 lb crushed crab shell

5 lb millet

.25 lb livestock salt

Supplemented with water laced with apple cider vinegar, a dish of cow’s milk, and scrambled eggs/baked eggshell. Because the grains are whole (and thus large for the little birdies) I also make sure they always have plenty of granite grit available. Sometimes I sprinkle granulated garlic over the whole mix, for extra immunity assistance.

As you might imagine, some of the seeds in the mix are bigger than the chicks’ beaks, so I sprout the mixture as often as I can to both soften the ingredients and break down the size so they have an easier time getting food into their crops. My sprouting method is very easy and un-scientific, but it works. The system is two five-gallon buckets, nested. In the ‘inside’ bucket, I drilled 5 very small holes (about the size of a millet seed.) Then I pour a day’s worth of food into the inside bucket, and cover it with water. The water very slowly drains into the ‘outside’ bucket, allowing the grain to soak for some time. After a day or so, I cover the grain with water again, and let it drain. By then, the wheat has usually begun to sprout. If too much water gathers in the bottom of the outside bucket, I empty it. With that method, the chicks (and the chickens too) get sprouted feed every other day.

And let’s hope that keeps the little guys growing up healthy and strong, ready to lay come June.


Homemade Chicken Feed for Layers

February 7, 2012 § 8 Comments

A few months ago I started augmenting my hens’ layer mash diet with sprouted whole wheat, to give them something fun to eat. As time went on, I noticed they went for the whole grain  over the mash. I began to add other grains: whole corn, barley, oats. The chicken certainly seemed to prefer the new feed, and on the days I fed it, consumed less feed overall.

Chickens, like any other creatures, need specific nutrition to be their healthiest. A laying hen needs plenty of protein and calcium for example, to lay a big old egg every day. Commercially produced chicken feed has the right level of nutrients, but it is highly processed as well as cooked, leaching a lot of the nutrition per volume. That is, a chicken must eat more of her feed to get what she needs to keep clucking.

Of course, with a little gumption, a good local feed store, and a lot of metal trash cans, a person can mix up a chicken brew that has the right stuff to keep the ladies happy, and in my opinion, healthier. When you consider that chickens are most often kept for meat and egg production, you realize you are also consuming the questionable ingredients of the commercial mash, especially in winter when the chickens’ foraging for fresh food is limited. While the bags of mash do not even list ingredients, a homemade batch is fully transparent.

This week, with all of these considerations in mind, we decided to dive into the grain mix and see if it was worth the extra work.

Here is the mix we made for the layers:

20 lb whole corn

30 lb whole wheat

5 lb crimped barley (I would have got whole if they had it at the feed store)

5 lb whole oats

5 lb black oil sunflower seeds

4 lb millet

2 lb kamut

10 lb lentils

4 lb sesame seeds

3 lb flax seeds

2.5 lb kelp meal (ordered in a 50lb sack from Neptune’s Harvest in MA)

2.5 lb crushed crab shell (also from Neptune’s Harvest)

2 lb alfalfa pellets

.25 lb livestock salt

2 lb crushed limestone

I also feed oyster shell free choice and kitchen vegetable and meat scraps.

This is a blend of several different source’s recipes, and certainly not the most economical. The total mix is 97.25 lb (no wonder it was such a pain to get back into the chicken house!) and cost $54 to make. A typical bag of layer mash around here would cost $30 for the same weight, so my mix is significantly more pricey. However, the chickens eat less of it, so perhaps there is a minor savings there. I also bought in small amounts for the experimental mix. If I were to be mixing large batches, I could probably get a bulk price that would shave off a few more dollars.

This is also a soy free concoction and is probably a bit low in protein. I would like to add fish meal to the blend (and therefore take out some of the pricey legumes) for more protein. When the goats start milking and I make cheese, I will also add whey to the chickens’ diet.

While it may seem silly to knowingly pay more for chicken feed, and to go through the work of measuring and mixing, I do feel better knowing what is in my animals’ food, and also what is going into the eggs I eat and sell.


A clean barn and other satisfying sights

January 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

After one complete year here on the farm, we’ve finally done it. The barn is clean!

It only took three full days, and some lucky weather here in Connecticut, to do the job that’s been hanging over me since the day we arrived. When we got here last winter, blanketed with snow, the barn was full of big old dairy cows and a bunch of nubian goats. Later, when the cows and goats left, I washed one pen for the piggies, and then when they moved outside, washed it again for the chickens’ intermediate home. I swept and cleaned the garbage out of the building but as summer’s work became a constant, the state of the barn’s interior kept getting bumped down the list.

In fall, the weather turned cold and then warm again, and lots of other cleanup jobs got done. I cleaned the barnyard and big sections of woods. We slowly worked our way through piles of fallen branches and trees from October’s snowstorm and windy conditions in December. Then, a year to the day since we arrived, I trucked the powerwasher down to to the barn, determined to check it off.

The first day I spent taking out everything. I took out the windows and the carts, an old shelving unit that was falling apart, rat traps, rags, and bits of rope. Then I shoveled out all the bedding and clumps of dung, scraping and sweeping until it was ready for washing. The next day, I powerwashed one half, and the following day, I powerwashed the other half. It dried with the windows out for two days, and here is what it looks like now. You could eat off that floor.

And now, I’ll feel comfortable housing animals in there when the little goatlings come in May!

While I was doing that, Andy was stacking firewood.

And if those two things weren’t beautiful enough, we got another Marans chocolate egg with fantastic color, each is more stunning than the last!

All Cooped Up

January 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

Snow! And quite a bit of it too. Through the blizzard on Saturday, we spent a fair amount of time outside making sure the chickens and goats were at least surviving, if not thrilled with the state of the world.

Chickens are notorious wimps about snow. Most of the time, they won’t even come outside if the ground is white, so they get all cooped up in their house and start to get a little bored. As long as they have plenty of food and water, they can keep themselves warm. Their feet and combs are the only bits not insulated by feathers, so they stand with one foot up in their belly fluff and then switch to the other. With a draft free coop, a good water heater, and a surplus of grain and scraps, they can keep themselves warm enough. It’s the boredom that takes some creativity to hold off.

Florence demonstates the chilly chicken pose

I notice when they don’t have the outside room to roam, my chickens peck out eachother’s feathers right at the base of the tail, sometimes advancing up the back . It is not just one that is getting picked on, nor is it one that is doing all the picking. It’s as though they have all learned it from the others, as I’ll see one get pecked and then she’ll turn around and do the same to another bird entirely. I have read that this can be a sign of nutritional deficiencies (specifically calcium or protein) and so have made sure to have plenty of both available free choice to the hens. I also removed four of the hens that seemed to be getting the worst of it and put them in our mobile coop with four new birds that I did not want to introduce to the flock yet. They have a snow free outside zone under the coop that allows them to stretch their wings and so far have not carried on the feather pecking tradition in their new home. With those factors covered, it can also be a sign of plain old lack of entertainment. Well birdbrains, you want entertainment? You got it.

For starters, lots and lots of food. Food that’s fun to eat, too, like pine branches that you can peck instead of pecking your friend.

Sprouted wheat and whole corn supplement the chickens’ diet of layer mash. They seem to go through less of the whole grain food than the mash, and though I am not certain, I’m fairly sure they get more nutrition from the whole grain without having to consume as much volume. Plus, it’s fun for chickens to eat squiggly things.

When the snow tapered off, I put down a layer of hay to at least tempt them outside. Fresh hay is a nice addition to a chicken diet (they actually do eat up a lot of it) and they enjoy scratching through it for any buggies that might have survived. I also added lots of pine branches for pecking outside, and the piece de resistance, cabbage tetherball! This contraption, consisting of a head of cabbage hanging in a wire plant basket, provides a fun challenge for the intrepid chicken who really, really wants some cabbage.

So far, everyone is doing pretty well, and though I may have to get imaginative in the future if they grow tired of these games, I remain certain that I can outsmart any chicken.


Chester the Rooster

January 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m not quite sure how this happened, but our flock’s grown again. Yesterday, we brought a purebred black copper marans rooster to the mix. Welcome, Chester A Arthur! He is a beautiful, subtly dark colored fellow who with any luck, we’ll be able to breed with Bev or Rae to get some charming chocolate egger chicks. For now though, he’ll just be continuing his vocal sizing up with Ghengis Khan across the yard. Not sure if they can even see each other, but we sure can hear them both.

Just beautiful on the farm this morning

January 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

You don’t often hear the phrase ‘beautiful January weather’ but here I am writing it. Yesterday’s cold rain turned into this morning’s delicate play of sun and shadow in the mist on the fields and clouds in the sky. The new chickens are settling in and Monique, the larger of my two young goats, is without a doubt pregnant. Let’s just hope there isn’t a yard of snow on the ground when the kid arrives in May!

The sun peeks out on the old silo, the greenhouse, and the chicken tractor with the new hens.

Alternate view, same subject matter

Florence, our new easter-egger pullet

Bev, the Black Copper Marans hen

Down by the barn road

The red tailed hawks survey the lower south field

Black Copper Marans

January 12, 2012 § 4 Comments

Yesterday, Andy and I drove up to western Massachusetts to buy some very fancy chickens. Normally we would not care too much about the breed, looks, or ‘show quality’ of our birds, but we recently started selling eggs and demand is high, so we wanted a few more layers in our flock. I found a nearby breeder of Black Copper Marans hens, which lay beautiful dark brown ‘chocolate’ eggs, and decided I had to see what they were about. They’re very rare, and the breeder happens to have the last of one of the three major breeding lines in this country, so without really meaning to, we’ve ended up with some rather uptown birds.

We also got our first chocolate egg! These beautiful, medium size eggs are prized for their culinary quality and excellent color, which varies slightly based on the bird’s diet and environment. We got two of those layers, and one pretty chicken which will lay green eggs. Welcome, ladies!