Category Archives: Chickens

UFH October Protein Challenge #3 – Raise Your Own Chickens for Meat or Eggs

So you don’t have 5 acres (or maybe even 1/4) but you want to raise your own meat or eggs. Do you have a mossy patch of lawn that needs revamping, or a flower bed, or an unused sideyard? Then raise some chickens!

I’ve been working on my version of day ranging poultry and I’ve figured out a way to get high forage and meat or egg yields with low capital costs in a small amount of space. The chickens have more room to move around than they do in many commercial operations using tractors.

In some commercial pastured chicken operations these conditions are downright roomy. But they are not roomy enough for me. And I’m guessing you don’t have limitless pasture in your city lot so that setup probably wouldn’t work for you either.

What I’ve come to adopt is a system with rotating runs. This is a variation of day ranging chickens, only instead of moving the birds onto new pasture each day you are bringing new pasture to the birds.

Imagine a long skinny flower bed. Five feet wide is ideal because you will need to provide some sort of rain and sun cover and a raised bed hoop tunnel kit works perfectly. I use the Hoopla kit from Scratch and Peck, although you could certainly build your own. These hoop tunnel kits are really designed as season extenders for the garden and work fantastically for that purpose as well, which makes them a must-have in my book. So you can count them toward the cost of this system, or you could write them off as a garden investment that will get you another season of fresh vegetables.

Rather than having the plastic touch down on both sides of the bed, I fold it lengthwise in half so that it covers the west side, the top, and a wee bit of the east side of the bed. Then I use bird netting to cover the east side, snugly overlapping the plastic so there is no opening. The bird netting lets in fresh air and helps keep moisture down inside the run.

Why the west side? My beds run north to south so the longest sides are east/west. The coldest wind around here comes from the north and/or west, and in summer the strongest rays come from the west. During the hot days of summer I throw a brown tarp over the top of the plastic to shade the birds. It’s important to have good airflow when it’s hot but even more important when it’s cold.

I set up the raised tunnel so that it extends out from one side of a homemade, lightweight square coop with both a front and back door. I fasten the plastic to the side of the coop so that the chickens can only enter that paddock through the coop, and cannot go between paddocks if the door to the other paddock is closed. This will be key to having a fresh paddock full of forage at all times.

A few weeks before the chicks are ready to go outside, I sow both pastures with a mixture of fescue, rye, wheat, bolted kale or other leafy greens from the garden, dandelion, dock or lambsquarter (read free edible weed) seeds. The wheat berries in particular sprout in just a few days and act as a nurse crop for the other smaller and more delicate seeds.

Two week-old wheat grass in a rotating paddock for laying hens

When the chicks are small, I subfence off a small section of run #1 for them to use. They are still getting used to fresh greens and don’t need much space at this point. I gradually increase the size of run #1 as they grow and begin devouring fresh greens. When they are about to run out of fresh greens in run #1, I shift the hoop to cover run #2 and start opening the other coop door in the mornings instead. Then I immediately resow run #1 so that it is ready and waiting when I need it.

In addition to this low-cost forage, the birds get lawn clippings (which you could collect from neighbors with treatment-free lawns), garden and healthy kitchen scraps, weeds and yard prunings, and the cores or other compostable matter from seasonal foods I am “putting up”. They also get shovels full of worm-laden compost on a regular basis to supply them with fresh bugs.

Knowing that a varied diet is key to our health as a species, and that chickens in the wild did not subsist on a diet of just grains and grasses, I believe that this diet creates a chicken healthier than even the best grain and pasture operation.

It also makes it possible for you to scrounge up as much of your bird’s diet as you have time to srounge. Grocery stores often toss out past prime produce – yours for the taking. Neighbors also have kitchen and garden scraps. At Halloween there are pumpkin strings and seeds everywhere just going to waste. Get creative!

I continue repeating this cycle of alternating paddocks until the meat birds are the size that I want (or until they begin to crow…) If you are raising chickens for eggs you could continue this indefinitely. In the winter when the grass stops growing you can lay down wood chips to keep the beds from getting muddy and feed them chopped, soaked grass hay instead of fresh forage.

Asparagus bed ready for planting

Here is an abandoned run #1 with hoop tunnel covering run #2 (attached to the north side of the coop.) In this case I did not continue sowing seeds in run #1 when the birds were nearly finished because the bed was perfectly ready for planting asparagus crowns (my end goal.) Bereft of weed seeds, abundantly fertilized, full of spent coop bedding and compost and all perfectly tilled, it now sits a good five inches higher than it did pre-meat birds. Originally this was not a raised bed, rather a run on top of bedrock. At no trouble to me I have a full freezer and a bed rich with nutrient dense compost and light, fluffy soil.

I raised last winter’s meat birds in the bed next to this one. After harvesting the meat birds I left the bed to its own devices and completely ignored the amounts of spilled feed, sunflower seeds and squash innards left behind. I chose not to weed the bed even after I planted raspberries, black caps, marionberries and tayberries in it.

By mid summer the wheat grass was thick and I was able to cut or pull tufts of it to feed the laying flock and spring meat birds. I left at least half of it behind to form wheat seed heads for paddock and cut the straw for lining egg nest boxes. I scattered bread seed poppy seeds and other beneficial insect crops. By summer the sunflowers and squash volunteers were vining everywhere. I harvested them in late summer for chicken food. Now the berries are tucked in to their incredibly fertile new beds, nestled in blankets of soiled coop bedding for winter, I have an ecosystem full of thriving beneficial insects where I previously had none, and I have as many poppy seeds as I can use for winter muffins and buns. From that 5′ wide run I got three crops in one year without really planting, tilling, amending the soil or other labor. Works for me!

One other thing I love about the hoop tunnels is that they are nearly twice the height of the average chicken tractor and much longer, giving the chickens opportunity for longer flights. The rounded sides and roominess mean that pile ups when panicked and “squishings” under the tractor frame when being moved just don’t happen (the most common causes for chick death in tractor operations). And by weaving downed branches through two metal tomato cages, you can create a series of roosts that increase the areas your chicks can use to establish a natural pecking order that eliminates fighting and provides them opportunity for more flying. This just doesn’t happen in tractored operations either.

If you are in a situation where you are limited in the number of chickens you can raise, you may consider raising Cornish X birds that will hit table weight in a matter of 8 weeks (the first 2 or 3 of which they may even be in a box in your basement). That way before people begin to wonder how many chickens you have over there, they will be gone. I prefer to raise Freedom Rangers that take a few weeks longer than Cornish X. They are astoundingly beefy birds with full flavor, that use those two extra weeks to develop some succulent fat. They are also really healthy, beautiful birds with docile personalities. I was so impressed with them that I saved a few breeders (Fat Elvis, Fanny and Mavis) from the last batch so that I could hatch out eggs next spring.

Fat Elvis walks up a brush pile in search of jelly doughnuts

Meat chicks can be very inexpensive if you purchase them either straight run or all male. If you aren’t allowed to have roosters in your city, you have a few days to process the crowers while the young males are still discovering their voices. Any hens can stay and fatten up longer.

One thing you need to take into consideration is adequate fencing. In a securely fenced yard, cats and raccoons may be your only threats. If the area is not securely fenced you also need to think about dogs and vandals. In many municipalities, webbed electric fences are allowed so long as they are not close to property lines. This would be my first choice. The chicken coop needs to have a secure floor to prevent tunneling predators and rodents, and be locked up at night to protect the birds from raccoons, who have even been known to open latches.

What if you don’t have yard but do have a spare garage bay or shed? So long as you are able to drag in some sod and create two separate paddocks, there is no reason you can’t do this indoors. Chickens will grow faster with lights on 12-16 hours per day which may raise your costs a bit. But inside a secure garage or shed you won’t need the hoop tunnels or coop or fencing so you may come out even.

Even if you aren’t quite ready to start a batch of meat birds you might consider starting a new laying flock each year and just as the new girls start to lay, processing the biddies. Or when you start a new laying flock, order them straight run and when young roosters begin to crow process them for the freezer or table.

What about the butchering process? There is a ton of information out there on the internet, showing you how to humanely cull a chicken. My favorite is a series put together by Paul Wheaton of Permiesfeaturing Alexia Allen – a lovely local lady.

Many first timers are afraid they will botch things and put the chicken through undo misery. I would respectfully ask what makes you think that doesn’t happen in commercial operations? Have you seen the underground footage taken and heard the long list of affronts that happen to animals on a regular basis? Commercial operations like those are the reason many of you became vegetarian in the first place. I know that is what did it for me! I am comfortable trusting that because you care enough about animals to consider raising your own meat, you will do a far more conscientious job than any underpaid, resentful and unobserved worker will.

October Urban Farm Handbook Challenge #3: Raise Your Own Chickens for Meat or Eggs

A Cluck Cluck Here and a Cluck Cluck There and a Giveaway

Do you have chickens here and there, free ranging in your garden? Most people who have tried to do this realize quickly that chickens can ruin a vegetable or ornamental garden in no time flat if left to their own devices. Chicken-savvy gardener Jessi Bloom, however, has just come out with a gorgeous and creative book to help you come up with some clever solutions to keep both your hens and you happy.

This book covers just about everything you need to know from chicken basics and safety, neighborly considerations, and coops and tractors to plantings that deter or entice chickens. There are several chapters devoted to planning (with some great sample plans) and landscaping materials.

Jessi’s approach is unique in that she’s a landscape designer and a chicken owner. She’s seen many chickens and many gardens. The book covers a lot of ground with pictures of many different systems from small, urban lots to suburban and large acreage.

So if you already have chickens and want to put in a garden, or already have a garden and want to add chickens, or even if you already have a garden and chickens, this book is a must-read. The photographs are both amazing and inspiring and this book is chock-full of them.

It’s a Virtual Chicken Tour!
Jessi’s book is just recently out and this post is part of a virtual book tour on this here and these other fine gardening and chicken-friendly blogs:

Jessi at NWBloom.com
Gen at NorthCoastGardening.com
Erica at NWEdible.com
Theresa at LivingHomeGrown.com
Angela at MyRubberBoots.com
Kylee at OurLittleAcre.com
Willi at DigginFood.com

Want a Copy of Your Own?
Enter a comment on this post. The post will close for comments on midnight April 12. On April 13 I’ll do a random drawing to select a winner.

But Wait, There’s More
Not only is Timber Press giving away a copy of Jessi’s book, they are also giving away a copy of Storey’s new egg book as well!

Want a tip? Visit the other bloggers in the virtual book tour and enter their giveaways as well to increase your odds of winning something and discover some fun new blogs to follow in the process. Good cluck to you!

Songs at Dinner

When I was a kid, we used to say grace at every meal. And though I’ve lost my faith, I haven’t lost the urge to show thanks for the meal before us. Given the option, our kids would inhale their food and split. So we look for ways to teach them to be thankful.

Lately our family has been experimenting with secular grace, in the form of a song. We hold hands and sing before dinner. Some days, such as when we have my religious parents over for dinner, it can feel contrived and a little silly. And I can already imagine what a great satirical sketch this would make on the show Portlandia (are you listening Fred Armisen?). But we keep at it, because it expresses gratitude. We want our kids to understand that eating is a transaction: we get something from the earth, and in exchange, we must give something back. We must be stewards of the soil and treat plants and animals with respect. And so, every night we sing:

Orchard and Ocean
Farm and Field
We thank the Earth for all she yields
For soil and for water
Flower and seed,
We’re thankful in thought, word and deed.

The idea of secular grace took on new meaning for me when it came time to slaughter my two eldest hens and a younger one that happened to be in the wrong flock at the wrong time.

Lottie and Fannie had been with us since the very first flock. But their egg production had dropped off, and they’d picked up mites and the annoying habit of eating their own eggs from a beautiful but troubled hen we adopted from a friend. On a farm, these hens would have been culled long ago. A young, unnamed Speckled Sussex had picked up these habits too. I could have saved her, but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble of curing mites organically – not for a single hen. Finally, we made the decision to cull the lot of them. I’d take the winter to remodel the coop (for the fifth time), during which time the mites would all die off, and then we’d start over with a young flock in Spring. As the execution date approached, I found myself singing an old gospel hymn constantly: Lucinda Williams’ version of “Great Speckled Bird.” In that song, the bird is an allegory for the Bible. As I sang it to myself, over and over, the allegory dropped away, and it became an anthem of respect for the backyard hen.

What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning that great speckled bird (or substitute golden bird, ruddy bird)
We remember her now and we thank her
At our table and in every word.

I am glad that she dwelled in my garden
I am glad that she ate all my weeds.
At the table we proudly recall her
And recount all her noblest deeds.

The grammar in this song is a little screwy, and the lyrics don’t exactly make sense, but the original song didn’t make sense either. Sometimes you must compromise grammar to make the song lyrics fit. If you can work out better lyrics, please post them below.

As slaughter time approached, my friend Janelle Maiocco told me she wanted to participate. Janelle is a chef, with mad skills. I have a tried and true recipe for backyard hens, but would love to learn more recipes and techniques for tenderizing their rather toothy flesh. So we worked out a deal. I taught her how to slaughter and sent her home with a few hens. In exchange, she promised to invite us over for dinner when she cooked them. You can read more about that meal in a wonderful post on her blog, Talk of Tomatoes.

As our big dinner date arrived, I began singing Great Speckled Bird to myself again. I thought I might sing it before dinner.

Janelle Maiocco

But as Janelle brought out the steaming bowls of pasta in backyard chicken broth, the chicken liver pate, the tender meatballs, I realized I didn’t need a song. Food prepared with a loving hand, achieving the highest and best use of an animal, is itself a kind of song. Simply slowing down and cooking with care – these actions show our children, perhaps better than any song – that we don’t take our food for granted.

For now, I think we’ll keep singing our dinnertime song – our kids have grown fond of it (you can hear it in their lusty rendition), and it marks the beginning of our daily family supper with a sort of exclamation point. But I recognize that spending time in the preparation of food, inviting my kids to help chop vegetables at the counter – these activities will drive home the value of food more than any song.

How do you show thanks for your food at the dinner table?

Integrating Small Animals Into the Garden (In Other Words, How to Let Animals Do All the Work)

There is one last post that I need to get up before we kick off the soil building challenge. This is based on a workshop I gave ten days ago at the Country Living Expo but it’s been on my mind for about a year now.

It’s All About the Soil
When I first started gardening I put my back into it. I worked my tail off and enjoyed it, but as time went on and I added animals to the system I noticed some big changes. Sometimes that meant the chickens completely took out an entire winter’s worth of seedlings that I had forgotten to cover, or that the ducks got into the hoop house and did the same thing. But as I learned to remember to fence off critical garden areas, my animals and foul have actually decreased the amount of work that I do in the garden.

Because in the end the most important thing in your garden is not the plants – it’s the soil. If your soil is healthy with good structure, you can eke heaps of the most nutritious, flavorful, gorgeous vegetables imaginable. If your soil is not healthy, your plants may be stunted, diseased, bland and minimal. It’s not about your thumb, it’s about your soil.

Understanding Plant Needs
Healthy plants need water, air and minerals, which are all absorbed by the plant through its root system. Adding decayed (or decaying) organic matter to the soil creates a perforated structure that absorbs water without becoming waterlogged, and creates good airflow. This soil structure not only allows plants to develop healthy root systems, but provides decomposers like fungi, bacteria, earthworms and other critters (the web of soil life) with their favorite food. It’s the waste product of this web of life that feeds the plants. So the goal of the organic gardener is to create a soil structure that feeds the web of life.

A good way to create organic matter is to compost both brown (carbon) and green (nitrogen) things, keeping them aerated and moist. A great way to compost is to let small livestock do it for you.

Good = you scrounging for things to compost and doing all the work
Better = animals providing you with valuable inputs and you doing all the work
Best = animals providing you with inputs and doing all the work

 

Browns
Small animals like chickens or ducks will require some amount of bedding in coops or runs. If you have dairy goats, multiply that amount by fifty. The beauty of bedding is that it already contains valuable manure and urine and counts as a “brown”. “Browns” are hard to come by unless it’s autumn and your neighbors are lining up sacks of raked leaves, or you just shucked an entire garden bed full of corn and have the cobs and papery outer leaves to dispose of.

Greens
To keep the ratios right, however, you need equal parts brown to green. Where do you get those greens? Just mowed grass is perfect. But what do you do in the winter when yours and your neighbor’s lawns stop growing? Garden and kitchen scraps are great. And how do you generate enough to match your brown volume?

The Magic Begins
You could find a grocery store that throws away past-prime vegetables and add that directly to your compost. Or you could take those greens, feed them to your chickens, get eggs and then compost the parts the chickens don’t eat. You could also do this with your lawn trimmings. And then your chickens can scratch through to turn the pile (aka their bedding, unwanted food scraps and manure) into compost for you. Are you starting to see the magic?

A Shortcut
If you aren’t a composter (or even if you are) you might instead use green manure. This is where you plant cover crops directly in your garden beds, then before the cover crop goes to seed you “chop and drop” or hoe it in. Some manures that winterkill, like oats, will naturally die when the first frosts hit and then decompose on their own requiring no work on your part. Taking this idea one step farther you could plant cover crops that your chickens love to eat, like wheat, barley, oats, kales, lettuce. Build a “tractor” or cover that protects the chickens from wandering dogs or overhead predators and keeps them in the exact garden bed you need worked. The chickens will eat some of the cover crop, scratch (think till) it in for you and leave their valuable manure behind. And all you had to do was scatter some cover crop seeds!

More Magic
Now imagine an elevated rabbit hutch above a compost pile. The ideal rabbit diet is alfalfa (a green chock-full of nutrients and organic matter), hay (a brown), black oil sunflower seeds (essential fats), some form of protein like cracked peas, and oats or barley. Rabbits tend to spill a fair bit of food. Alone, that food would simply go to waste and possibly attract rodents. However, with chickens, that spilled alfalfa moistened by a waiting compost pile suddenly becomes a green – something difficult for chickens to come by in the winter.

Alfalfa, as a plant, is a nitrogen fixer with long tap roots that allow it to draw deep nutrients from soils. For this reason it’s highly sought after as a garden amendment. In your compost, it imparts great fertility. In your eggs, it imparts dark orange yolks.

Another thing that imparts dark orange yolks? Worms, centipedes and pill bugs that are also attracted to that compost pile. Thanks to the decaying matter but also thanks to the rabbit and chicken manure that essentially predigests the plant matter and makes it especially attractive to decomposers – which are what your chickens really want to eat, and what makes their eggs particularly healthful compared to purely grain fed eggs.

Other things your rabbits spill are hay (a brown which you frequently must add to a compost pile that is constantly “moistened” by rabbits), seeds and grains. Instead of attracting rodents, the seeds and grains will attract your chickens which will happily clean up what would otherwise become a rodent-attracting mess and they will pick through the rabbit manure for any fly larvae.

Now we are turning liabilities (wasted, rat-enticing food and fly larvae, soiled animal bedding, yard waste) into assets (compost, healthy chickens and eggs). This is the beauty of a guild – a combination of things that work better together than they do their own. Sometimes guilds are groupings of plants. In this case it’s a grouping of small animals and compost that helps you feed the web of life. And in return for that (if you so choose), you get the occasional meat and eggs (and dairy if you have mini goats) and valuable compost for your garden.

Now we are really strengthening the relationships between the garden [growing food for] you [and] chickens [and] rabbits, [who work and amend] the compost [which feeds] the soil structure [while increasing] nutrients [which improve health in] the crops, you, and the animals.

The Voodoo of Doo Doo
The compost this guild provides is truly magical but you can take it one step further with the addition of a vermicompost tea brewer. You can make one yourself using a drill, two matching rubber storage tubs, and a piece of hardware cloth.

To make a vermicompost tea brewer:

  • Take one rubber storage bin.
  • Place some bricks or overturned pots inside it to act as spacers.
  • Take the other matching rubber storage bin and drill holes in the bottom and the lower third of the sides.
  • Line the bottom of the bin you just drilled holes into with hardware cloth.
  • Add six inches of well-moistened leaves or well-moistened, shredded junk mail (no shiny paper please).
  • Add several inches of garden soil or compost.
  • Add red wiggler worms. (You can obtain these online or through the Seattle Farm Coop, www.NorthwestWigglers.com in Lake Stevens, Seattle Tilth, www.YelmWorms.com or www.WormLady.com in Chehalis.)
  • Add kitchen scraps and top with a final few inches of moistened junk mail or leaves to discourage fruit flies and trap any odors and snap on the lid.
  • Nestle the filled and drilled rubber storage bin into the one with spacers.
  • Continue adding kitchen scraps by burying them below the top layer and be sure the bedding remains really moist. This will encourage your vermicompost tea to brew (as moisture drips down through the vermicompost and into the waiting container below).

To harvest the vermicompost tea, simply lift out the top bin and pour or ladle the brew into a recycled glass bottle with a lid (like a vinegar bottle).
It will be as thick and dark as motor oil and so strong that using more than a few drops in a pint of water may burn your plants. Diluted in this fashion, however, it’s pure plant voodoo. You can spray it directly on plant leaves as a foliar or use it to water starts or potted plants. I would never consider starting tomato plants from seed without this voodoo.

Ducks Work Hard (So You Don’t Have To)
Ducks are yet another type of garden helper that love worms and pill bugs. But what ducks love even more than worms are slugs (those dastardly composters that desecrate your garden through spring and summer.) Keeping a few ducks on hand to roam the garden is my favorite form of slug-prevention. So long as there are slugs and bugs for ducks to eat, they ignore your plantings. But once the slugs and bugs are gone they will start helping themselves to your vegetables so keep a watchful eye on them! Ducks produce rich, large eggs prized for baking but unsupervised, they can be more hindrance than help in the garden. Use with caution.

Another Guild
This last magic guild requires substantially more fussing and planning to pull off.
In nature, tilapia eat a wide variety of food including plankton, green leaves, fish larvae and decaying organic matter. You can mimic that in your backyard using rabbit poop (recall that it’s really partially digested, nutrient-dense green matter?)

Tilapia need temperatures near 80 degrees F to grow well. You can achieve this by building a sun porch or small green house attached to the south side of your house to take advantage of escaped heat and sunlight. If you build your winter rabbit housing above the tilapia pool (which could be as simple as 55 gallon drums with aeraters and filters painted black to help absorb as much of the sun’s warmth as possible), the rabbits will feed the tilapia and help to warm the structure with their body heat. In the summertime when temperatures inside get above 80 degrees F, you’ll want to remove the rabbits since they do best with slightly cooler temperatures. You might even position your rabbit housing so that it’s only partially above the tilapia tanks, then add a compost pile under the remaining section of rabbit housing.

The combination of composting organic matter, rabbits, escaping heat from your house and sunlight may be enough to heat the tilapia water. If that’s not sufficient, a small space heater on a low setting overnight may be all you need.

You may even consider keeping your laying hens (or new chicks) in this greenhouse to benefit from the increased light, warmth, and to speed up the composting process which will generate more heat. More light and warmth will increase winter egg yields. You can use the top of the rabbit housing as a place for early spring starts (so long as the chickens cannot fly up and eat them). The starts will also benefit from the warmth and increased light. If your greenhouse is large enough, you could add some heat loving plants.

Selling backyard eggs, spring salad greens and heirloom tomatoes fresh off the vine (and perhaps grown directly in the compost?) in January might generate enough income to pay for your space heater and then some, thereby subsidizing your tilapia operation.
It’s also possible to add a hydroponic garden into a tilapia setup, and to combine tilapia with a duck pond but the setup becomes much more expensive and complicated as you need to prevent the ducks from eating the fish and the plants as well as filter the fish and duck waste safely (the duck waste presents a problem for the fish and for leafy green edibles).

Backyard Chicken Slaughter Class

Chicken Slaughter Class in my Backyard

Evisceration

Developing Eggs from Eviscerated Chickens

Thanks to everyone in the Seattle Farm Co-op who participated in my backyard chicken slaughter class this morning! We had about 30 people, and processed around a dozen hens. A few people suggested we do this every year. Sounds like a tradition. Slaughtering can be difficult – not necessarily physically, but mentally – it’s something best done with friends.