Multi-tasking

I was working on the chicken fences yesterday in the mist and gloom that is Vancouver Island in January and reflecting on just how long the project was taking me (forever) and how long it would last before I would be doing it all again (not forever, unfortunately).  Which took me in a downward spiral to thinking about how pointless it was …which was when I went and got a cup of tea and a leftover mince tart to get my perspective back.

The pointlessness really arises from the fact that the whole quarter acre that I have been busily rebuilding fence on throughout the last several weeks is used only for the layer flock. Despite all the now amazing fencing, no other creatures graze in there, I don’t grow any crops in there; the walnut tree is in one run and it is the only other productive element of the set up.  It’s the same with the pig paddock.  It’s lovely, but it’s just for pigs.  If I keep going this way, the whole farm will be compartmentalized into different bedrooms for every species, and as I heard Gabe Brown remark recently, I’ll be running a bed and breakfast for livestock, instead of having them out there getting their own breakfasts.

In theory all my fencing efforts are to allow me to use my rotation system better.  I am theoretically set up with 4 runs for the chickens to rotate through over the course of the year.  The theory is that I move them to a new run before the run they’re in gets eaten down/worn down too badly.  This allows the plants to regenerate, and breaks the parasite cycle.  This is all good.  But did you check how many times I use the word “theory” there?

In practice, the forage regenerates at different speeds depending on the seasons, how long it’s been resting, the weather, how big my flock is, etc.  Over the course of about 10 years, the runs are basically worn out more or less permanently.  There is some grass in there, but it’s not a kind the chickens like to eat.  There is a lot of thistle, which they definitely don’t eat.  Not much else.  I’ve tried to improve the situation by adding compost, manure, wood chip, etc.  I’ve tried re-seeding.  I’ve tried reducing the flock size, and I’ve tried only letting them into the run in the afternoons.

The fact is that sooner or later, chickens forced to stay in one place will destroy it.  Not only that, chickens develop favourite places within each run and will just go there all the time regardless whether there’s anything to scratch around for or not.

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The best that can really be said is that this system is an improvement on the dirt yard off the hen house that is the most common arrangement for layer flocks in these parts.  And that’s fine as far as it goes.  I also have a sheltered area called the lobby on the north side of their house filled with straw, which is where I throw scraps and goodies – they tear this up and do a good bit of scratching around, and every month or so I take all that scratched up, composted stuff and spread it, and put new straw in.  This is also a big step up from the normal hen house/dirt yard set up.  They access whichever run they’re in at the moment from this lobby.  On wet days, they prefer to stay in the lobby.  On hot days , they prefer the lobby.   If I didn’t have 14+ acres, I would be pretty happy with my set up.  Well, actually, if all I had was an acre and 1/4 of it was being used by this chicken run set up – well, it wouldn’t be, would it?  I’d have long ago turned part of it into a veggie patch or put goats in with the chickens or something.  Because it would be a waste of space.  I’m using this much space because I can, not because I should.

Once I had been restored by tea and mince tart I started thinking about Joel Salatin and what he says about stacking principles.  In the winter, his layer flocks inhabit hoop houses that are used for growing crops in the summer.  Some hens are in the building that houses the rabbit cages in the winter, scratching up the bedding under the rabbit cages.  When the birds are out on the fields in the summer, they are in various models of eggmobiles, portable henhouses sometimes surrounded by portable electric fence, rotating around the 100 acres or so of pasture, fertilizing, scratching and moving on.  In no case are the chickens in a single use housing situation. They are stacked with another enterprise.   Out on pasture, they’re following the cattle, sanitizing the pasture, providing some fertility themselves and moving on before any degradation starts.  Inside, they are in buildings that are also used for other purposes/livestock and their fertility and scratching power add their own functions to those buildings.

Salatin works to get multi-use out everything and every creature – there are many more examples available if you read any of his books or check out the myriad YouTube videos that feature himself or Polyface Farms.  He got the idea from permaculture, where stacking is also used – and permaculture got it from nature, where many flora and fauna interact in a kind of symbiosis.  Agroforestry and silvopasture are also techniques that get more than one function out of a patch of acreage.

So back to these chicken fences of mine.  I thought some time ago, working on the second fence in the system (I’ve just finished the third – only one big one to go!) that one way to improve this situation is to get some edible planting going on in these runs.  I was hacking away at a blackberry bush that was reaching from the middle of the run toward the fence, so I could have room to deal with the wire, and thinking I should just hack the whole thing down.  But I was reading Restoration Agriculture at the time, and I could hear Mark Shepard’s voice in my head reminding me how much the chickens love sheltering under those blackberries, safe from eagles and ravens, and how much I enjoy the berries for jam and cooking and even just a handful here and there.  I don’t necessarily want the brambles all over my fences, but a bush in the middle of the run might actually be a good thing.  So it got pruned back severely and left in place.  Still channeling Mr. Shepard I wondered about maybe planting some trees along my fences – apples, nuts.  The walnut tree in the first run is also a favourite hangout with the hens, providing shade and leaves to scratch around in, and since we love hazelnuts here maybe a couple of those could be in each run.  Mulberries – chickens supposedly love them.  Maybe I could plant grapes to train along the fences …you get the idea.  This gives at least a little additional use to the runs, though it doesn’t really address the issue of the chickens ruining the soil, but it will provide shade, some extra food for the chickens, food for humans and a better aesthetic than the current Alcatraz look.

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But wait!  There’s more…this morning I woke up with the idea in my head that I could really change this whole issue with the runs getting worn out by putting the flock out on the field in an eggmobile for part of the year.  This isn’t exactly a new idea – Salatin published about his eggmobile way back in the late ’90’s, and he’d been doing it for a while before that, plus George Henderson, an English farmer from the first half of the 20th century, who wrote The Farming Ladder, and Farmer’s Progress, used a kind of eggmobile system long before Salatin.  Chism Heritage Farm has a pretty skookum one.  I’ve been well aware of the concept for more than a decade, but never taken action on it because there is no likelihood of me getting a tractor ever, and most of them are built on old wagons or trailers, pretty much necessitating a towing device of some sort.

But I did get inklings of possibility a couple of years ago at the Salatin workshop I went to at Michael Ableman’s Foxglove Farm.  There, Salatin talked about the prototypes to the eggmobiles he uses now – he first started with a 6’x 8′ shelter on bicycle wheels, with pop holes on each side, so that he could configure the fence around the shelter about 6 different ways before he had to move it – by hand.  He kept something like 40 hens in that. Now I have 50 hens, and a couple of roosters, so that might be a little small for me.  But it did get me thinking, OK, maybe I could put the flock in two shelters and enclose both with portable electric netting.  A woman I met at lunch at the workshop and I were discussing eggmobiles and she told me she keeps a flock of 60 in three little mobile shelters that she moves around her field daily – she says they were like really big wheelbarrows, with handles at the back and wheels at the front, and she could move them alone.  So there was an option that might work for me.  The only problem really is my almost complete lack of carpentry skills.

I believe I could get past the construction challenges, probably by hiring that part of the project out.  This may seem like a cop out, but seriously, someone who knows what they’re doing will do the job faster and better than I could – left to me, the project will probably never get off the ground.  Moving the mobile coops and fencing every few days will definitely add to the chores, but I will be out in the field anyway with the broilers.  I think we’ll put the flock in two coops, with one big fence around both.  They can probably be on the field from May to the end of October.  Then they’d go back into their hen house with the 4 runs, which will probably be lovely and verdant after several months rest like that.

Now I’m starting to get into a win/win scenario – the chicken run area doubles as a fruit/nut orchard.  The layers spend half their year not only providing eggs but plenty of fertility and cultivation all around my fields for six months.  The fertility improves my pasture – in the short term, that’s important for hay, but longer term will be valuable for the sheep/cattle that will come sooner or later.

So now, I just need to make it happen, and then…how am I going to get the pig’s paddock to be multi-functional?

Mundane Monday

The title is borrowed from my friends at Union Homestead, and suits the day perfectly.  Mondays are often my catch up day, as my official work shifts at the library are Thu/Fri/Sat.  I usually have at least one other work day as well, so even my “weekend” is not always 2 days together,  It can make it hard to stay focussed on larger projects, hence my marathon 5 day challenge with the chicken house a while back.

So, how did my mundane Monday shape up?

The morning was not too bad for outside work – the sky was looming a bit, and there was the odd spatter of rain, but by and large it was not unpleasant working outside.

My current project is taking out the fence that is between run 1 and 2 of the hen house.  If you were around for my 5 day challenge, I repaired the fence between run 4 and run 3.  After the challenge, I just kept going on fences, and managed to get the fence between 3 and 2 repaired fairly easily.  The one I’m working on now is a different matter – the wire was down in one or two places and grass, thistles and brambles were growing through, making it difficult to remove.  All the posts but one have to come out as they’re leaning so badly, and part of that fence is actually part of an old “temporary” cattle chute put in about 20 years ago by the guy who used to do our hay before Hay Guy took it over – the other guy used to put his dry cows on our field after the hay season was over.  The posts for the cattle chute have rotted underground and the whole thing wobbles when chickens land on the top bar before flying over – clearly a piece of fence that is not doing it’s job.  I’ve done about 2 mornings on this fence so far, and this proved to not be the final day.  The wire is off as far as the cattle chute, and the T posts are all out.  I’ve started hacking the blackberries away from the wooden part of the fence, and there I’ve had to stop. I still have to remove the cattle chute and quite a bit of blackberry before I can start putting fence up again.

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Fence 1/2 before I started work this morning.

 

Mid-morning, a customer came to get the last three of the point of lays hens I’d advertised last month.  She had come a few weeks ago, and asked me to reserve some for her, as she wasn’t ready to receive them at her end – she has an existing flock, and was worried that one or two of them might have an infection, and didn’t want to bring home new birds till she knew her birds were clear.  Last week, she made contact to come and fetch the three I’d held back for her.  Gillian and her husband have a small acreage in a community just north of me, and have a cottage bakery business called Willowtree Bread, from which they make and sell artisanal breads, veggies and plant starts, and honey…and probably, if my hens are up to scratch, eggs as well!  We had a good chat while catching the birds and stowing them in their dog crate in the car, and later, when I’d had glanced at her website, I realized my chickens don’t know how lucky they are to have landed up there – they will be free ranging, and living out their days to a ripe old age with a great deal of TLC.

Lunch with a book was blissful – melted cheese on bread with the scrag ends of some pancetta left over from some fancy hors d’oeuvres the high school teen had made a couple of days ago as her contribution to the finger food at the fundraiser for her Global Perspectives class.  I don’t mind leftovers like that one bit.  I could see it was doing a bit more than spattering out, so I had a second cup of tea while I turned a few more pages in my book (Restorative Agriculture – Mark Shepard), and when I looked up again, it had settled down to a steady rain, so I got out my duster and started on house work.  An hour of that was more than enough, and I was rescued around 430 by the arrival home from school of the 16 yr old.  A cup of tea and a chat later, she disappeared to do homework, while I nipped out to get the last of the eggs and shut the hens in.  Have I mentioned we’re finally back in eggs?  About 13/day, all tiny pullet eggs – it’s a bit like russian roulette cracking them open – some are mini double yolkers, some are yolkless altogether.  We did our first egg sales on Saturday in fact, and hubby took a couple of dozen to work today.

Thanks to hubby’s cooking effort yesterday (a magnificent crockpot meal of smoked pork hocks in cabbage and ale, with roast veg and mashed potatoes on the side), there were tons of leftovers, so  today’s supper was a no-brainer – hash. While I was slaving over that, I remembered belatedly that I was supposed to be contributing baked goods to a staff bake sale tomorrow, a fundraiser for United Way.  So I got going on some cranberry muffins and swotted up a recipe that would make a lot of cookies with the ingredients I actually had on hand, so I could dig into that after supper.  Only two of us home, so it  was a casual meal and some convivial washing up. She stuck around till the first batch came out of the oven and then settled into more homework, warm cookie in hand.

The cookie factory wound down around 9 pm, and the kitchen looks normal again.  Hubby and the university girl (he was with clients, she was studying late) are finally on their way home, so we’ve packaged up the ones for the bake sale, stashed the remainder in a cookie jar and kept one or two out for the latecomers.

And that’s the kind of day it’s been here at gloomy, wet, Sailors Small Farm. Definitely a good day to be in a farm house kitchen baking cookies instead of out at sea, with frozen fingers, water dripping off my nose, and damp coming through the seams of the wet weather gear. I don’t miss some of the good old days at all.

Nest Box Construction

In my dim and distant impoverished youth I bought and assembled my fair share of Ikea furniture, and today that skill set came into it’s own.  A couple of years ago, I bought a 10 hole conventional nest box set, and it came flat packed, just like the bookcases used to.

My hen house had perfectly functional wooden nest boxes we’d made years ago, but I’d bought these metal ones with a view to switching when we switched flocks.  The wooden ones are fine, but can be difficult to clean out.  My brother has the metal nest boxes, and he’d shown me how you can pop the bottom out of a single nest to clean it if need be.  I was pretty impressed with the idea of being able to raise the perching bar to close the boxes off at night, too – my brother doesn’t bother, but Salatin and many others do.  Broodies and other birds often want to nest or roost in the boxes at night, requiring more clean outs, and I’m getting tired of that.  With this new flock getting used to the patched up hen house, it was time to get the nest boxes put together.

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See the instruction sheet?  The writing on that top half of the sheet is all the writing there was.  The part that’s folded over is a very hard to decipher diagramme of where the two different types of screws are supposed to go.  The top half of the text you see in the picture is just the contents list.  The little paragraph after that is the sum total of actual instruction.

This wasn’t exactly like putting together a bookcase, however, because the contents included 73 pop rivets.  I had to go and check these out on Google.  Every single hit said you needed a riveting gun to use them.  So then I had to go to YouTube to see how the tool was used.  And then, because riveting guns are bigger and more expensive than Allen keys, and therefore not included with every flat pack of nest boxes, I had to find one that I could use.

Ten minutes later I was walking briskly down to Hay Guy’s workshop, where he was glooming over a hydraulic something or other from his excavator that has stripped threads, which even I could tell was a Bad Thing.  However, he demonstrated how to use the riveting gun and chatted for a minute before I headed back up the road to my project.

Two hours later, I was able to return the riveting gun, my nest boxes fully assembled and looking like the real deal. Of course, the birds don’t need them yet, but now I’ve got them ready to go at a moment’s notice.

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In addition to swanky new nest boxes, I’ve acquired a new skill, should the need to use pop rivets every arise again.  And yes, HFS, this project wasn’t difficult to do after all.  You were right.

Day Five – the Finish Line

It felt very odd this morning, not heading out to the field to move shelters.  I was done chores in about 5 minutes – top up waters, check feeders, and that was about it.

There are 73 birds in that hen house, way too many. At least 20 have to be sold ASAP.  That’s up to my older daughter, as 25 of these birds are really hers – she changed her mind mid-summer about having her own layer flock so decided to sell them as point of lays. Since they are due to lay at the end of November, I’d say we’ve reached that point.

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Motley crew

After chores, I drove the elder daughter to university (this is the last week of that; toes are pretty much healed), and got back in time for coffee and conversation up at Saanichton Farm around 10 am which was a nice treat after a week of keeping my nose to the grindstone.  It was a gathering of some interesting folk and our topics ranged from family history to immigrant labour to sustainable agriculture.

An hour later, with my coffee needs taken care of, I loaded up the car with empty feed sacks and empty paint cans and headed up the the recycling area at the landfill, and hit the feed store on my home.  After lunch I drained and stored all the hoses I’d been using to deliver water out to the field (5 hoses), tidied up the field shelters (lids and waters were spread all around the field, where we’d left them in the dark last night).

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It doesn’t show super well here, but if you peer closely, you might be able to discern 4 rows of greener grass where the field shelters went through during the summer. I had birds on the field in two shelters for 2 months.

I was just heading out the veg garden with wheelbarrow and fork when hubby came out and offered to help – so the potatoes were dug up in double quick time.  He went and spread them on the rack in the barn to dry, while I took the kale and weeds we’d acquired while digging over to the chickens to distract them from fighting over the pecking order.

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Prepping the garlic for planting.

We went back to the garden and between the two of us had the garlic bed dug, weeded and ready for planting in about an hour.  It is amazing how pleasant such work can be with company.  It almost didn’t feel like work.  Of course, it’s not a very big garlic bed :).  We got about 50 garlic cloves planted, which is not quite as much as I wanted to plant, but all that I had allowed space for.  If I get a chance, I will maybe plant another dozen somewhere else.

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The soil was in beautiful shape, and despite all the recent rain, fairly dry below the surface

By 630 pm it was dark enough to shut the chickens in for the night.  Because the hen house is new for them, I keep them confined to the house and lobby for a couple of days so that they identify it as their sleeping place.  With the pecking order issues of combining the flocks from two field shelters, half the birds were out in the lobby and did not want to go in.  The good news is that most of them seem to be roosting.  Henny seems to be holding her own in the pecking order battles – no one seemed to be picking on her, and I saw her attack a rooster and take a chunk of neck feathers from him.  She did give me a reproachful look this afternoon, when I was tossing some weeds in for them.

Astute readers will notice that I have not mentioned the nest boxes that I was going to assemble.  That’s because I haven’t done it. I decided with so many birds in there and laying not happening for another month that we needed the floor space more than the nest boxes.  But I am going to get those started this week, so that we can install them when the 20 birds are gone.

Everything else got done, with a little help from family.  That feels pretty awesome.

I’ve learned a lot from this race, which I’ll delve into next post.  Back to work tomorrow, which will be quite a change of pace after this week.  I’m ready for it.

Day Three

We had a terrific storm in the night, wind booming in the chimney, torrential rain, the works.  I had seen the forecast and battened down the hatches at dusk, even remembering to bring in the wind chimes, so everything was fine in the morning.

In fact, it was a mild, pleasant morning, not quite sunny, but cool and calm.  I got started around 930 am, after a trip to the feed store for more wire, and continued with the fence between run #4 and #3.  By lunchtime, it was done!  It’s not picture perfect exactly, but it will do the job just fine, and it’s actually sturdier than the picture implies.  I did have to take a short break about 30 minutes before finishing, as I accidentally snipped my finger when I was cutting a piece of wire.  And being inside with clean hands made me think of coffee…

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Ta-da! It looks loose, but really isn’t.

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I usually failed target practice in the military, and apparently I haven’t improved – and staple guns are a whole lot easier to use, you’d think, anyway! I kept missing the wire I was trying to staple…

After a lunch break during which I prepped the veg for the squash soup I was planning for dinner, I got going again, this time to figure out how to do the gate(s) around the pop hole so that I could control which run the birds would have access to. I was a bit stumped, so took some dropped apples out to the birds in the field to give myself a change of pace, and on the way back spotted an old gate hanging off a post near our little old chicken house out back – swamped in blackberries.  It only took a few minutes to clamber through it all and pull it off it’s hinges.  A couple of nails and some wire and it will be just fine for one of my two gates.  And it provided the pattern for how to make the other gate.  Fifteen minutes with a saw and a drill, and the second gate was done.  I had a better accuracy score with the staple gun too, when I put the wire on.

Despite saying yesterday that I would be using three gates, I’ve figured out how to do it with two. Not only that, using a rebar fence post, I found the edge of the big rock that was impeding progress yesterday, and was able to pound in a T-post in a spot that will hold one of the gates beautifully.  However, the bigger, older gate still needs to have wire put on it, because around 4pm, the rain started again, and got serious within about 20 minutes, so I decided to call it a day and go get the squash soup going.

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Just for show, it’s not attached to anything yet.

Tomorrow that gate will be finished, I will figure out how to attach them both, and the run will be ready.  I should be able to prep the lobby for them too tomorrow, and then maybe tomorrow night I can hire some family members and catch the birds in the field pens to install them in their winter quarters.

I guess because I’ve lived with the whole set up for so long, I didn’t really notice how patched together everything around here seems to be – in the photo of the gate, that plywood being held with a prop has been like that for years – the weather drives into the lobby kind of making it useless as dry shelter, so we put that board up “temporarily” and never did any more with it.  Part of the reason for that is that it has been a pain getting through the moveable fence “gates” that we’ve been using till now to get to this side of the hen house.  No more!  My new gates will change all that.  I hope.

Henny once again spent the day inside, I tossed her an apple which she accepted with enthusiasm, downy feathers wafting around her as she leapt down the perches to get to it.  She’s in for a shock when the pullets join her.

Day Two

Not such dramatic accomplishment today, but still made some progress. Day Two was all about coming to grips with the disintegrating fences in the chicken runs.  I need at least one run with intact fences that will keep flighty pullets from jumping over and into my neighbour’s garden.

Though it was on my calendar, I was so focussed on my 5 day race that I forgot that I had committed to a one hour stint at work at 9 am this morning, to do the opening routines while my boss hosted a couple of our higher up bosses for a tour of our library.  I got there a little late, but got it covered.  So I didn’t really get started on Day Two until after my coffee when I got home, about 1030.  Thus fortified, I launched into the day.

Things that got done:

1.  Decided which of the four runs to focus on this week.  I picked run #4, it already has string webbed across the run to deter eagles and the perimeter fence is in good shape.  Just need to work on the fence between #4 and #3 run.

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Run #4 on the left, standing in #3.

2.  Figured out how I’m going to close off one run and open up another around the pop hole that leads to #4, #3, and #2 runs.  The answer is 3 people sized gates, which will hang off posts at the end of each run by the hen house.  I will make the gates after the 5 day race is over (unless by some miracle I end up with spare time!).  I hit a snag with the plan around lunch time when I attempted to pound the second post in, using the pounder I borrowed from Hay Guy, and bent the post hitting a rock about a foot down.  I moved over a tad, and found the same rock – 4 times, ruining two posts. So, clearly this plan needs to be adapted a little.

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Bent post 😦

3.  Moving on, I took out all the wire on the fence between #4 and #3 that was patched, broken or holey.  This left me with a stretch near the chicken house of about 15 feet that needs to be completely re-wired.  The rest of the fence looks fine, but is very low in places.  I have decided to get a roll of 3 ft wire tomorrow to add to the top of this fence.  I also put in three T-posts on this fence line, removing the short portable electric fence posts I’d had there before.

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Post pounder on the left – it’s about 4 ft long, and weighs a LOT. Metal tube with a cap welded on. I have trouble lifting it off the post when I’m done – I feel like I’m caber tossing. I frankly think this thing could double as a battering ram.

4.  I started installing new wire.  This is high enough, and being 1″ mesh, is sturdier than the 2″ mesh I had on this fence before, but I’ll still have the issue with sagging at the top in a year or two. Long term goal is to switch to square mesh.  For the remaining fences that will have to be done over the winter, that’s what I’ll use.

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Actually got some wire up, and the brambles took a beating.

5. I got some of the brambles clipped back around the area I was working in, when trying to get posts in for the future gates, but there’s a lot more of that to do.

This was all pretty simple stuff, but took a surprising amount of time.  The rain started sporadically around 4, and at 430 I caved and had a tea break to catch up with the familys’ doings at school and work, then went and put tools away and did chores, as the rain started to get more serious.

Henny decided today that having been living wild for 3 or 4 weeks, she is content to be an indoor chicken for a bit and refused to leave her lovely clean hen house.  This could have something to do with the fact that she is clearly moulting.  Why do chickens do this just when the weather starts to turn cold and nasty?   I’ve always wondered.

Day One

As I mentioned when outlining my Five Day Race, I actually had a jump start – I had some time last week to get the hen house swept out and ready for working in, and then on Sunday, the day before the race, I got most of the hole patching done.

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Wire covering floor

So today, on the actual Day One, I got the wire stapled down over the whole floor and then got the cor-plast signs laid out again and spread three bales of shavings.  That felt pretty good, I’ll admit – the rat holes have been bugging me for a year, but until I got the old bedding out last weekend, I couldn’t really get at them properly.

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Signs covering wire

 

The wire is to make it harder for the rats.   The old real estate signs are very useful – in this case I use them as a moisture barrier to protect the wooden floor, and now also the wire, as the deep bedding will stay there till late spring.  The signs will also make it easier to clean the house out later, as trying to scrape deep bedding off the wired floor would/will be a pain.  We thought of sandwiching the wire by adding more plywood on top, but the floor has some squishy spots and the ply we have is 1/2 inch, which is pretty heavy, so topped with a season’s worth of deep bedding would probably cave the floor in completely.  This year’s efforts are truly just “hold it together” type patching jobs.

We bought the hen house as a DIY shed kit about 8 years ago (I think).  We hemmed and hawed about the fact that the walls are particle board, but in the end we went for it, as it was on sale for a discount and we were on a very tight budget.  Considering how much rain we get, it’s really completely amazing that it’s lasted as long as it has, but readers who have stuck with me for a year or so will already know that I have made noises about having to get this hen house fixed/renovated/repaird for quite a while.  I said last year it was definitely happening, and then this year, I said we were taking the particle board off and replacing it with plywood.  We have the plywood, and the framing on the house is still sound, but the missing factor was time.

If we had done in all the old layers as planned back in June, the house would have been vacant through the summer and the pullets would have been in already for at least a month.  In fact, only about half the flock got processed in June, but we couldn’t get the rest done until two weeks ago, at which time the house finally became vacant.

Meanwhile, of course, the new layer flock, which arrived as day olds back at the beginning of July, were not remotely contained in the brooder by about the start of September, so the second the broilers were out of the field pens, I put the pullets into them.  My back groaned not so silently at the thought of moving those shelters daily for another week or two, but stoically has held it together for not just one, but in fact several weeks.  Ironically, it is now feeling better than it has in months, as long as I don’t sit still for too long.

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Almost ready for occupancy

Today has been good.  The house itself is completely ready for the birds to move in right now, though I won’t be moving them till Wednesday night at the earliest.  I still have a lot of other work around the outside of it to do before the birds can go out in one of the runs, and it currently has no nest boxes at all, but it was a huge step forward today, especially considering that I also had to run our eldest daughter out to the university in the morning (three broken toes, and the bus stop almost 1 km away – so we’ve been giving her a lift for the last couple of weeks), and made use of the trip to also get groceries and feed, altogether about 3 hours of my morning.  I also got a set of sheets through the laundry and out on the line during my stop for lunch, taking advantage of an unexpectedly sunny afternoon.

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Henny the House Inspector. Apparently she approved, as she took up residence tonight.

The hen house is not completely vacant.  One of the old hens got away on the last processing day and I wasn’t able to catch her. She’s been living out the last two weeks, bewildered and lonely, and this past few days has been hanging around the hen house.  I’ve decided she can have a reprieve as she will be able to teach the others how to roost (hubby says she’ll teach them how to escape, and he’s probably right), and she very gratefully took up lonely residence inside on the roosts yesterday and again tonight.

The Five Day Race

Monday (today) marked the beginning of a race with myself to get a set number of projects done by Friday.

Here’s what I have to accomplish to win the race:

1.  The Hen House – patch rat holes in the walls and floor, line the floor with chicken wire.  Patch the door (two major holes, not from rats, just because this thing is made from particle board.  Yes, I know).  Replace the fascia board or whatever it is on the top front of the house so that the rain doesn’t do more damage to the top edge of the wall than it already has.  Do the same on the back end.  Take out the old wooden nest boxes (they were functional but difficult to clean out, plus the birds kept roosting on top.  Anything I used to block them from doing that allowed the rats a free passageway).  Assemble and install the new metal nest boxes (new is relative, I bought them 2 years ago).  Patch and/or replace the wire where needed on what we call “the lobby”, the covered area the hens access from the house, and from which they then access one of 4 pasture runs.  Put some scratching material in the lobby (old straw).

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not shown is another big hole at the bottom of the door.

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holes that need patching. At least I’ve finished cleaning…

2. Chicken Run – not the movie.  I have 70+ pullets (actually 3 are roosters) out in field pens right now, and the minute I’m done with this race, they have to come off the field.  They will need some pasture, but they’re flighty at this stage, so it’s got to have good fence.  Not one of my 4 pasture runs for the hen house has intact fencing.  It’s all full of holes, falling down, or actually missing (because I started working on it last year).  I need to get one run ready to go by the end of the race.  I can get the next ones done once the chickens are in the house.

3.  Garlic – prepare the bed, plant the seed, mulch, fence.  Sounds so simple put like that.

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The calendula mark one edge of the planned garlic bed.

4.  Potatoes – have GOT to be dug up, before they rot.  Only about 40 plants, but they have been low on the list for weeks, and they are on borrowed time.

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The potatoes only go as far as those tall reddish weed stalks.

5.  Put garden to bed – turn over, green manure.  Just one half, the other half has so much volunteer kale,which we’re enjoying, that I think I’ll leave it be.  Weeds are a cover crop, right?

Some challenges I face:  the weather.  Forecast is for rain all week.  In practice what it seems to be doing is raining most of the night, clearing for most of the day and drizzling at dusk.  If that changes, it will probably be to more rain.   Other aspects of life will continue and I will still be involved.  You know, meals, laundry, errands, driving kids places, etc.  You notice I have happily ditched house cleaning from the list for the week.

I have a few positives going from the start line – thanks to some stat time in lieu that I had to use up soon or lose, I have no off-farm work till Saturday. That’s 5 days free for farming (and family and laundry and errands…). Also, my elderly neighbour, a retired construction contractor, who feels he owes me some help due to my daily visits to keep his veg garden watered over the summer while he had a broken ankle, has offered his expertise, and will bring his own tools. Yes! I’m more than happy to accept his offer.   Also, I got a couple of hours of work done on Sunday – a jump start, and hubby cooked an awesome meal that day which provided leftovers for today, so no cooking needed on day one of the race.  What a great support team I have.

My reward if I win?  Dry secure housing for my layer flock.  Happy hens who won’t be confined in pasture pens anymore, but will also not be free ranging over in my neighbour’s flower garden, like the last batch. Eggs!    A year’s worth of garlic, redeemable next July.  A couple months worth of potatoes, good until the New Year (hopefully).  A feeling of accomplishment, and a chance to finally write new stuff on my whiteboard.

I’ll try to post my daily progress here – I’m pretty motivated by the impending weather and it’s likely effect on my birds in the field pen, but I figure the motivation of proving to all of you that I am actually getting stuff done will help keep me on the straight and narrow.  Wish me luck!

 

 

Future Egg Layers

We got the call from Canada Post around 0715, in the middle of feeding pigs and letting out hens, so headed out right away. We got the chicks home by about 0745.  By 0815, they were all in the brooder, checking out their new surroundings and figuring out food and water.  We always dip their beaks in water when we’re transferring them from the shipping box to the brooder, and it’s also the last time I count them for quite a while.  You’re not supposed to count your chickens before they hatch, but let me tell you, they’re pretty hard to count once they’re running around.

We received a total of 78 chicks;  our eldest daughter wanted to start her own laying flock, so she ordered 25 random assortment (the hatchery chooses pullets from five different breeds – it’s probably a way to make use of odd numbers left over after large orders), and I ordered 50 Rhode Island Reds.  This hatchery usually includes a few extra in case of mortalities, and so that makes our 78.  Guessing from the colour of the chicks, my daughter thinks she got about 12 Red Rock Cross (the black chicks) and about 15 Columbian Rock (the big white chicks).  There are at least 2 we’re not sure about – one is a milk chocolate colour and one is kind of multi coloured.  I guess the chance of at least one rooster should be considered as well.

Looking at these little balls of fluff scooting around, it’s hard to believe they’ll be egg laying pullets in 5 months.  Christmas.  That’ll be interesting, seeing how they come into lay during the short daylight hours of winter, when hens usually lay very few eggs.  That’s something I didn’t really consider when I was ordering them, so we’ll just be back on the learning curve again.  Like we’re every really NOT on it.

Eagles

It is an eagle eat chicken world out there, and though chickens seem to have some instinct about predator birds, it doesn’t kick in fast enough for a good survival rate.

We have an eagle nest about 500 m as the eagle flies from my chicken house, and it’s been there, in one version or another (it’s the third nest and second tree) for a decade. For the most part, the eagles ignore my chickens. When they first moved into the neighbourhood, it was a different story, and I had a frustrating week back then, hearing the fuss out the back and rushing out to scare the eagle off the already severely maimed bird – too late.

The thing about chasing off eagles is that they don’t seem too worried by people. They would really rather ignore us and just continue dealing with their catch. Since these birds are quite big, this is something that makes you think twice before you send one of your little darlings out, and makes you take to carrying the broom with you when you go.

Back then, I dealt with the issue by keeping my chickens indoors for a few days, and then covering a small run with wire to keep them safe from above. There was no nonsense about rotating them to clean ground or fresh pasture – I didn’t at that time have a field shelter I could use, and my choice was a less satisfactory husbandry model or losing every single bird to the eagle, who had come back daily for that one week. My solution seemed to work, and after that initial foray on his part, I had no trouble from the eagles – a raven once or twice, but the eagles seemed to have found another food source.

That was then, this is now. I have a flock about triple the size of that first flock (it WAS around 45, probably about 41 now), and though I have very little fondness for this particular batch of hens (they are nasty little escape artists and terrible egg eaters), they are MY hens, and I derive a nice little bit of pocket money from their eggs. They live in a much larger hen house, surrounded by 5 runs covering about half an acre, through which they are rotated to allow the ground to refresh. Not a perfect system, but not bad either. Except that fences are in disrepair, and did I mention this pesky bunch are escape artists? Suffice it to say, they have basically had the freedom of 3 of the 5 runs, plus about 8 of them have been free ranging to my neighbours, and up to the road.

Nest number three - only one bird home just now, the other must be out being a breadwinner

Nest number three – only one bird home just now, the other must be out being a breadwinner

Well, freedom has a price. Last week, the eagles, who just recently rebuilt their nest for the third time (the last one blew down about a month ago – don’t they know how breakable cottonwoods are?), and must be feeling lazy about hunting, because after a full 10 years, I’ve had 4 attacks in 4 days, and he maimed or ate a bird every single time.

What's left of one of the escape artists

What’s left of one of the escape artists

I did what I did before…I kept them in for a few days…this house has an open sided shelter (wire on the sides) on one side, so they had some space to move around and get away from each other, but definitely no access to bugs, grass, etc. And they wreaked havoc with the nest boxes and the eggs. I saw the eagle still checking the chicken area every day, and decided it was time for me to change tactics.

So I picked the smallest of the 5 runs, which fortunately is not in terribly bad shape in terms of growth, and basically wove a web of string back and forth across it – took three balls of string and a couple of odd bits, but it was kind of fun in a way – we were blessed with a mild, sunny day, so it was really almost pleasant work. After making sure I’d repaired all the holes in the fence, I let the chickens out, and their voracious attack on the first green grass they got to told it’s own tale.

Happy hens under a web of protection

Happy hens under a web of protection

They’re going to be stuck with this run for a while, as only one other run can really have this work done to it – the others are too big. I’ll be working on the other run next days off I guess.

I have yet to see if my web works to keep the eagle off or not – I have no wish to entangle him/her, but I’m hoping they’ll see the web and be put off making an attack. Of course, any dim-witted hen who makes an escape is on her own…