13 February 2017

The foodie who keeps chickens: pavlova and omelet

Sometimes as I beat eggs I imagine an alien watching the process. Wouldn't he/she/it be amazed that a simple egg can be transformed into something so unrecognisable and delicious - and into such a range of dishes?



It's something we take for granted, but I love to look at things as if I came from outside our culture in order to get rushes of pleasure from the many wonderful things we see as ordinary, just because we see them all the time.

One of those things is the ability, even on small urban sections, to keep feathery livestock and grow our own fruit and vegetables. The part of me that is still a little girl sees that as a fairy tale opportunity, and longs to do that when she grows up. The part of me that is turning 45 this year hears that child, and gets out there to tend the chickens and plant the seeds to make sure I make the most of the opportunity afforded to me, even when there a million other things to do in this busy life. Some things I just will not compromise on!

Chickens for the Foodie

I'm also unable to compromise on good food. I am a thorough food lover and cook, and this works well with a bit of urban homesteading. Yes, I may be eating plums for the 20th day in a row, but they are only ripe on the tree for a few weeks, taste far better than anything you can buy in the shops, and I'm going to damn well make the most of them!

Our Luisa plum tree today

Last weekend I made a large pavlova (with our own eggs) for a neighbourhood barbeque, and topped it with our own sliced deeply red and flavoursome Hawera plums. I forgot to photograph it, but the top photo of this post shows a little extra one I made for my family at the same time, so we could enjoy it the next day. It's decorated with our homegrown blueberries. I'm a bit of a pavlova queen, and use Nigella Lawson's recipe in How To Eat. I'm sorry I can't share a link to it; it's not one of her online recipes. I'm sure your local library will have the book. She has more elaborately flavoured pavlova recipes on her website, https://www.nigella.com/, but I haven't tried them.


My daughter, niece and nephew taking turns beating the
Christmas pavlova last year, under my instruction.
It was one of my favourite parts of Christmas!

Top tips

My top pavlova tips are to beat in the sugar thoroughly, just a tablespoon or so at a time, and to use somewhat aged eggs. You want them to be at least a week old - not a problem for supermarket egg buyers, obviously, but a matter of management for chicken keepers.

Another thing to think about from a fresh perspective: how about those electric beaters, eh? Aren't we lucky? Our grandmothers used egg-beaters, the muscle-powered kind! I once made a pav like that, with a couple of other women taking turns beating, because the electric beater was nowhere to be found. All agreed that it was the best pavlova we'd ever had.

My next use-up-eggs recipe is to be the Buckwheat and Cherry Cake recipe here. It comes from the January 2017 New Zealand House and Garden magazine. It's basically a classic sponge cake with buckwheat flour instead of cornflour and plain flour - a bit Black Forest Gateaux-ish. I'll use our homegrown berries instead of cherries.

The perfect omelet

The omelet - something so hard to spell correctly, I find, but so quick to make to use your backyard protein source. I pack my omelets with vegetables, herbs and cheese for a great lunch. Mine aren't overly photogenic, but after just reading this article on bite.co.nz, I think they're about to get better. I hope you find it inspiring, too.

Eggs = good food

So, from my tastebuds and stomach, I say each day as I collect eggs from the nest box: Thank you, ladies.

Today's haul (from three hens)

I wish you much happy, healthy eating with your own eggs and produce!


27 January 2016

How to deal with a broody hen

Earlier this month I got this question from a follower: "One of the chooks keeps heading back to the coop to sit in the nesting box, sometimes, not always, sitting on an egg. She is all puffed up & filling the whole nesting box. When I give them their mash in the evening, she's not as interested as she used to be. She looks much fatter (or fluffed up?) than the other 2. What's going on? Does anyone know?"



This is a fantastic description of a broody hen: fluffed up and refusing to leave the nest box. She might also have a paler comb and, when she does go out for a quick snack and a drink, make a quiet, clucky sound, which is why another word for the condition is 'clucky'.

Madness

To me, broodiness is like a kind of craziness has grasped the bird. She can think about nothing other than sitting on her eggs, keeping them warm. Whether they are actually fertile is neither here nor there to her. In fact, although eggs make her more likely to stay on the nest, she'll sit in there even after you've taken them away. By the time she's noticeably broody she'll have paused her own egg-laying and will be tucking the other hens' eggs under her warm belly, which has probably become fairly bald to allow skin-to-shell contact.

Competition for space in the nest box.

Chicks

It takes three weeks of incubation for chicken eggs to hatch, so your broody hen is likely to be in this state for a long time if you don't do anything about it. Without the stimulus of chicks appearing out of the eggs she may stay broody even longer. She'll get very thin, as incubating hens rarely eat.

If you want chicks, of course, broodiness is wonderful. You can buy fertile eggs cheaply off Trade Me, pop them under your hen, and in three weeks they'll probably hatch. A broody hen needs a quiet nest box to herself, and a safe place for her and her chicks (i.e. where cats, dogs and adult hens can't get to the chicks). They'll also need a water container that chicks can drink from but not drown in, and chick starter food. Having a mother hen and chicks is delightful.

If you don't want chicks, broodiness is a downright nuisance, and requires attention. It will be ongoing, too, because a hen that's prone to going broody will keep doing so again and again, even if you let her have chicks. She's valuable to people who want chicks, though, so you can easily sell her.

How to break broodiness

The most important thing is to keep her away from the nest. Some hens snap out of their broodiness more easily than others, and it may be a simple case of blocking off the nest box as soon as the other hens have laid, then unblocking it once darkness falls and all the birds are roosting.

A failed attempt to block off the nest box
Once I had a huge Orpington who occasionally went broody. I blocked off the main nest box, which was slightly raised, and put straw underneath it, because the Orpington's brown shaver flockmates could get under there to lay, but she was too big to squeeze in. That way the broody bird was completely excluded from a nest box, but the others had a reasonable substitute available. After about three days the Orpington would come right - but she was a particularly easy fix.

More persistent brooders will just sit somewhere else, even if it doesn't resemble a nest. My most persistent one, a blue Orpington, once just sat in mud as the rain fell on her. She was completely gripped.
A nicely constructed broody cage (in foreground)
In this case, a broody cage is a good solution. This can be anything patched together as long as it has a roof that shades and shields, four walls (wire mesh is good) and a wire mesh floor, with plenty of food and water available. The idea is to get "air under her skirts". The hen needs to stay in there for, well, as long as it takes for her to stop seeming broody! This is a shorter time than it will take for her to lay again, so you needn't leave her in there that long, as it is a bit mean. Just look out for her standing rather than sitting, feathers sitting flat and normal sounds. If she goes to the nest box when you return her to her coop, she needs longer in the broody cage.


An alternative solution

Not having a broody cage, I recently came up with a different approach. I fenced off a paved area of our property well away from the coop, and put the broody in there, alone. She squawked terribly, and escaped repeatedly until I secured the fence properly. She was so distressed at being isolated in this way that she never sat down at all (this bird has a particularly reactive personality). At night I let her go back to her pals, and made sure she was on the perch at dusk. After three or so days of this treatment she snapped out of her broodiness.


A couple of weeks later, there she was, back in the nest box all day. Intolerant as I am of broodies, and greedy for eggs, I abandoned the fight and gave her away to someone who celebrated her broodiness and let her have chicks.

Choose your breeds carefully



Sometimes modern hybrid breeds like brown shavers go broody, but it's rare. The heavy, beautiful breeds that I love so much are the worst offenders, as are the delightful little Silkies. However, even within a breed there will be unpredictable variation: some individuals just do go broody, and some just won't even if you want them to. Such is nature, teaching us yet again that we cannot control her!

Goodbye, pretty hen. You were too broody.

15 November 2015

What to grow for your chickens

In urban gardens, it’s hard to let chickens free range, although obviously that’s what they’d prefer and is better for them. But to compensate, we can grow a few easy, hardy plants that they love and are great for their health.

I don't feel guilty about this arrangement. Our vegetable garden is an extension of our fridge and pantry, and chickens cannot range through a vegetable garden that is also productive. Our chickens' lives are much happier than their counterparts in battery cages or even commercial free range flocks.

Plants they can reach

Every winter we sow oats (and other manure crops) in unused parts of our garden. We don't leave them in long enough to actually turn into oats, but the tall, grass-like leaves are sweet, even to human taste. Chickens love them.

The oat leaves are most easily seen to the right of the photo.

The ones planted near the chicken run get a thorough gnawing by our birds, because the plastic mesh of their fence is big enough for them to poke their heads through. They can reach leaves that wave close to their fence, but they can’t dig up and destroy those plants. The same goes for silverbeet and broccoli that sometimes grows there.

Last month we moved their fence a bit so the oats were growing inside their run. It was short-lived pleasure for them: the next day the plants were completely destroyed.

New access to oats!

The next day: all gone.


Plants to throw them

Most days when I wander through the garden, I tear off some oat leaves and throw them into the run. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because I tear them into smallish pieces (5 cm long or so). Very long bits of grassy stuff can occasionally cause blockages in their crops. (This is not a problem when they are able to tear bits off plants rooted into the ground, because they can tear off whatever size they like.)

Silverbeet and lettuce leaves are soft enough that chickens can tear off mouthful-sized portions even from loose leaves.

You can also throw them anything that has done its dash in the garden. At the moment ours have been feasting on bolted kale, broccoli, lettuce and carrot tops. (We don't rip everything out as soon as it bolts, though - it's good to leave some to flower for the bees, and to set seed and therefore turn into free self-seeded plants in the future.)

Planning

At the moment there's a clear strip of soil outside the chicken run where the fence was moved inwards a bit. Once it rains (tonight, I hope - the garden is so dry!) I plan to transplant a small bunch of self-seeded baby silverbeet plants into that strip, and to scatter some oat seeds. I might have to think of a way to protect them from hungry beaks until the plants are big enough to cope with gnawing.

The lazy way

All this might sound like too much work, but it's easy. Oats and silverbeet grow like weeds and take no tending at all, apart from a bit of moisture to get them started. 

Nutrition

Best of all, what's good for your chickens is good for you. Lots of greens and insects delight your birds, plus make their eggs richer in healthy fats. 

For everybody

Oat leaves may be sweet, but they probably won't make their way into your salad any time soon. However, there is another creature who might be delighted at what you've grown. Our cat eats oat leaves every day! It's funny watching his carnivore teeth trying to chew a leaf. He manages, though.


Other treats

Remember that chickens are not vegetarians. I often notice that when they escape into our vegetable garden their first priority is tossing aside the mulch to get to the tiny beasties that live underneath. Give them some wild flesh by tossing them snails, worms and insects whenever you can can get your hands on them.

Four happy hens ignoring the oat leaves for a start, while
they concentrate on the soil organisms they've uncovered
in the newly-accessed ground.

13 October 2015

How to introduce new chickens to your home

No matter how carefully you choose your first batch of chickens - the right number, the breed that suits you - one day you'll find yourself wanting new ones, probably because you long for that first youthful year when you had so many eggs that you were giving them away.


This is the position I found myself in recently, with these two old hens that rarely laid, and having to buy eggs. Horrors! What did I do?

Strategies

There are two ways to go about the upgrade. Firstly, you could get rid of all your chickens, and start afresh. There are people who say this is the best way to go because it reduces disease transmission between old and new birds. This assumes you have a disease problem, though! I don't, and never have, I think because of the way I keep my birds. (I did have a little clean up before the new ones arrived, though.)

Sometimes there are advantages to keeping one or more of the old flock. I took this second approach: keep the goodies, ditch the duds and bring in some new blood.

In the past I've held on to good layers or a beauty who has stolen a place in my heart. But this time it was pure practicality: new birds learn from the existing birds how to use a Grandpa's feeder (a hopper-style feeder where they stand on a platform to open the lid to the food). They pick it up very fast when they see it done. Otherwise, training them is a plain nuisance.

This time I kept one older bird purely to show the others how to use the feeder. After two or three weeks she too went to my Fiji-Indian friend, a renowned cook who upcycles her into a curry. The downside was that she was distressed that her friend disappeared before she did, and, as predicted, she became a bully.

Bullying

The urge to attack new birds is deeply ingrained in chickens' nature. It can be a shock to see this if your existing birds have always been peaceful!

The attacks are more of a problem in urban situations like mine where chickens are likely to be enclosed rather than free-ranging, because the victims can't escape as easily. But even then they are unlikely to result in serious injury.

A big advantage to the old-out/new-in approach is that it avoids older birds brutalising new birds. A group of completely new birds is likely to dwell in peace from the start.

I'd always try to get new ones all the same age though: if some are sexually mature and some aren't, there may still be a bit of bullying from older to younger. Very young birds are definitely vulnerable to more serious attack from mature ones if they can't escape. (

This time I bought an Orpington cross who had already been laying a month, and three brown shaver pullets about 18 weeks old but decidedly immature. The Orpington has been an imperious queen from the start, the young madam - she even declared herself equal to the old brown shaver from day one. The now-lonely old one immediately accepted the newcomer as a substitute buddy, which surprised me greatly.

On the first day the old brown shaver accepted this
bolshy young Orpington cross.

It helps to make sure that food is ample and spread out widely during the troubled time. I flung scraps left, right and centre. That way even the victims get enough to eat, and nobody's irritable with hunger. For a few days my new brown shavers stood huddled together and unmoving to avoid the bullies, so I put some containers of food and water near their safe spot under the shrubs. It was hard to believe it would ever happen, the poor terrified things, but they soon grew brave.

Eventually I could lure the three young brown shavers out
from their hidey hole under the trees, but it took a few days.

The unsettling scene seems to be better when the newcomers are in the majority, so I try to keep just one or two older birds and get three or more new ones.

No matter how brutal the bullying seems, or how petrified the new birds are, it usually settles down in a couple of weeks. By then the under-hens have learnt to submit to the stronger ones, and the strong ones feel assured of their power. Sometimes it settles down so completely that they all seem to be good friends. Other times there might be some persistent but mild acts of dominance - as per Queen Orpington, in my case - but mostly they'll be confident and content.

The imperious Queen, who has one heck of a beak.

Good perching habits

I'm a big fan of chickens sleeping on their perch, so their nest boxes stay clean and they don't suffer the health effects of sleeping in their own excrement. 

Sometimes new chickens need to be encouraged onto their perch. From the first day of arrival you can go out after dark with a perch and do a head count. If anyone's missing from the perch, find them and lift them onto the perch, making sure they're stable before removing your hands. 

Mine were keen to perch from day one - in fact every chicken I've ever had has been - but the young brown shavers were too scared to go inside next to the older birds. Instead they perched on some precarious sticks outside. When I put them on the proper perch, the old brown shaver knocked them off! So I put the generous figure of Queen Orpington, who was never quite so rough, between them and her. By the fourth night at dusk they were all getting up on the perch by themselves. Phew.

Shutting them in

If your set-up is such that your birds could escape to Neverland, then it's wise to shut a new batch of birds in their coop during day and night for a few days (not with bullies, of course). When they are used to where they sleep and feed - and lay eggs, if they're old enough to lay - then they can be allowed to roam, and they probably won't go far.

Once a friend of mine got chickens for the first time, failed to shut them in, and from then on only saw them in the distance as they roamed wild forever more over the surrounding lifestyle blocks!

Rewards

Some people feel it's wrong to get rid of old birds just because they don't lay well. I feel that as long as it's done gently and as humanely as possible, it's really worth the inevitable disruption. 


This is what greets me most days again now - wonderful. 

18 September 2015

The true gift of chickens

When it comes to keeping chickens, there are so many how-tos, and that's what this blog is usually about. But what I really want to shout about right now is how fascinating and lovely these birds are!


It's spring at the moment, and as the season warms many people are getting chickens for the first time. They're keen enough to do the required legwork before bringing them home, but the truth is that most of them are going to be surprised at how much they love having them.


Not only are these birds physically lovely, with their fabulous feathers and colourful combs, but they are fascinating, moving from activity to activity, and often get passionate about what they're doing. They are intent on scratching up litter to find treats, grooming their gorgeous feathers and jostling for space on the perch. They are rapturous as they dust bathe. And because it is written in the ancestral chicken rule book that these birds are bound to follow, their behaviours are done in unison with their pals. Chickens are intensely social creatures.




I was once given a book called Zen and the Art of Raising Chickens. I understood it, straight away. A few minutes spent with your chickens is so soothing and grounding. That's when you realise that despite this plastic-coated, screen-filled world of convenience we live in, we are still thoroughly part of nature, and we need it.

That is the true gift of chickens. Plus the eggs of course.

28 August 2015

Charlie's new chooks: how he started from scratch

My friend Charlie and his wife Anne are turning their smallish backyard into a little urban homestead. To complete the picture of vegetable garden, fruit trees and compost, they just HAD to have some chickens. Good plan, I say.

Charlie and Anne's back garden, ready to go for spring.
Naturally he has already planted some silverbeet plants for his chooks.

Charlie's been working on the set up for a few weeks now, building his own coop and fencing, and re-using an old screen door as a gate. Here's what he did.

Location

Firstly he looked at his garden to think which corner the chickens might occupy. He had an area between the back of his garage and his rear boundary fence that was unused. It has some overhanging trees for shade (although he has trimmed them back quite a lot - they will regrow though), but gets a reasonable amount of sun.

Bonus: in one corner the terrible weed Tradescantia is growing. Chickens love this weed! They can even eradicate it.

Another bonus: Charlie won't have to mow this area any more. It may even become denuded. His hens will be thrilled if he digs some of it over every now and then so they have loose material to dustbathe, peck and scratch in, or maybe he will throw in leaves, etc. to provide that vital loose material.


The coop

The coop is always a big sticking point when it comes to getting chooks. It's hard to find coops that are well designed, sturdy and come at a reasonable price. I gave Charlie a quick run down on what I think is important in a coop - briefly, a perch that is suitably thick with rounded edges, and a nest box lower than the perch.

It looks very stylish with the black stain and the
ventilation holes across the top. The dimensions
are 915 x 915 x 1220 mm.

The inside waiting to be lined with wood shavings.

Charlie built this coop in his garage. He bought the plans online from The Garden Coop for US$24.95 (his is the 'basic coop' model) and spent about $300 on the materials. He said the plans were incredibly easy to follow and you don't have to be an experienced woodworker to make it. He worked on it during weekends for a few weeks. Best of all, he really enjoyed doing it and feels pretty damn pleased with himself!

I think it looks pretty good too. A few thoughts on it:

  • I'm not sure he'll have enough perch space if he wants more birds; this coop is designed for four of them, and that's all he wants at present. 
  • Possibly the nest box is not sufficiently lower than the perch (nest boxes higher than perches encourage hens to sleep in the nest boxes), but he tells me he can move it down quite easily. 
  • It's not an easy coop to move around, but then he doesn't need to move it.
  • I like the way the drinker can hang from underneath the nestbox. That's a good use of space.
What you can't see in the photo are two little doors from the outside. One goes into the nest box for easy egg collection, and the other is a little hen-sized door. For the photo I opened the human-sized cleaning/access door.

Charlie bought a Chooketeria feeder to keep out the sparrows, but unfortunately it is too big to fit inside the coop, so he's going to situate it outside, possibly under a small shelter he's planning to build.

The fencing

Charlie is planning to eat plenty of the vegetables he grows himself. That means KEEP OUT CHICKENS. Those strong legs and beaks would decimate his garden. At 1.1 metres high, plus another 20 cm of height created by the wire running across the top, Charlie's fence should successfully protect his garden. If the chickens do jump to the top of the wire mesh, he'll run something between the mesh and the top wire to fill in the gap.



Check out the old screen door on its side, which he's repurposed as a gate. Nice recycling.

The birds


Charlie chose to go with brown shavers, which lay extremely well - he can expect frequent eggs when they start laying at about 20 weeks of age. He got them for $25 each from this trader on Trade Me. They were 15 weeks of age, and he had to drive about an hour to get them. Ideally he would have got them a few weeks older so he didn't have to wait so long to get eggs, but it's a small point.

Brown shavers are quite sprightly at getting over fences, and Charlie will probably want some fresh ones in two or three years, as they are generally worn out by then. Heavier breeds are much easier to contain and lay for longer, but may go annoyingly broody and certainly don't lay as well. Heavy heritage breeds cost more, too.

NOTE ON TRANSPORT: When Charlie returned from his chicken-collecting mission, he had the four birds squashed into a small cat cage (you can see it to the right of the photo above). I forgot to advise him to take cardboard boxes with plenty of head room, and some tape to hold them closed. Make sure there are air holes, too, and that the birds aren't left in a hot car.

Showing no ill effects upon release, the lovely little birds almost immediately started pecking and scratching, and looked very settled.

Charlie has to lift them onto their perch because they are sleeping in the nest box, but he's planning to block that off to force them onto the perch. They are too young to need it for its true purpose yet, anyway.



With the birds happy in their new home, all that was left for us to do was sit down near them and have a civilized cup of tea and slice of warm, home-made gingerbread. Lovely.

What Charlie thinks

"Certainly we are finding the chickens to be little characters, the way they are cantering around their run exploring. They are making serious inroads into getting rid of the Wandering Willy which gives me much pleasure.  Our 9 year old neighbour Olivia sits up on the fence and enjoys watching them, and her big brother Jack just came over to tell me he had managed to throw the basket ball into the chicken farm by mistake! Anne is enjoying ensuring they are safely in bed at night letting them out in the morning. All in all they are a entertaining and positive addition to the household - albeit not necessarily a cheap, pun intended, investment. Now they better get laying!"

Ah, you just need a bit of patience ... once those eggs start coming you'll feel that years of eggs will make up for the initial expenditure.

15 May 2015

Chicken fencing, or, Get out of my garden!

A crazy pattern has begun to emerge in our backyard. When I go away for a few days, my chickens escape! If my husband's at home I get an angry phonecall: "You have got to sort out the chickens' fencing!" I grieve my latest batch of seedlings, which has been ransacked. I long for my emerging radish seeds, scratched to bits in my hens' foraging forays.

Munched lettuce

I suppose they miss the daily supplements of greens I chuck them when I'm there, because when I'm at home they stay put. Whatever the reason, the lure of our lush vegetable garden becomes too much for them in my absence, and they squeeze out of their pen through gaps they wouldn't consider breaching when I'm at home.

I know several people who have given up on chickens because they were sick of having their silverbeet reduced to stalks and their doormat become a poo platter. What every urban chicken-keeper needs, of course, is to embrace their chickens within a Good Fence.

Home-made solutions

I'm open to suggestions, because obviously I haven't got it completely sorted. Here is what I use. The posts are a combination of bamboo, long slim pruned branches and extra-tall electric fence pigtail posts. I tie garden mesh to them. It works quite well to start with, but sags with time.





Here is my neighbour's set up, but she too has escapee problems (it's not a very high fence):


Commercial options

I've spotted some commercial offerings that tempt me greatly. One is the Omlet chicken fencing from chooks.co.nz, which at 1.25 m is a better height than the standard garden mesh at 900 mm - 1 m high.

Picture of Omlet Chicken Fencing
Omlet chicken fencing
There's also the Chickin-out fencing available here. It's only 850 mm high, but because it's got metal spikes on top, apparently even flighty breeds don't fly over it. This squares with my experience of them needing to have a little sit on top of a fence they are attempting to cross.

Move it

To me it's important that fencing can be easily moved. This is so your birds can regularly have fresh ground and don't have to forage too much in their own poo. It may seem like they don't have to forage if they have pellets constantly available in a feeder - but they do, they're chickens and it is quite simply what they do.

(One way to avoid having to move the pen is to constantly put large amount of straw, weeds, leaves etc into it, so it's a minimum of about 15 cm deep. This is sometimes called the straw yard or deep litter method. It creates an on-site compost that keeps the muck less yucky.)

Free range

I know my hens would be much happier free-ranging. However, with a smallish urban section and a commitment to growing most of our own vegetables, that just isn't an option. I believe that our eggs are still more welfare-friendly source than probably any commercially produced egg.