22 September 2014

Solutions for a muddy chicken run

All this spring rain makes for a muddy, horrible chicken pen, don't you find? I tipped stored autumn leaves and plenty of weeds into my fenced run over the weekend to cover the soil and give the hens something to scratch and forage in. They were very grateful.

There's a great article by Janet Luke here on keeping a healthy chicken run. She angles it towards keeping the run smell-free, but the principle of chucking in lots of organic matter applies just as much to keeping it mud-free.

17 September 2014

Chicken coop tour

One of the first questions to come up when people decide to get chickens is "What kind of coop shall I get?"

Here's ours, with plenty of photos. Sorry, I didn't clean it for you - I don't do much of that! This is a low-input coop. My husband built it using mainly leftover fencing timber. It houses four birds comfortably, five at a pinch. They spend most of their time outside in their pen, coming into the coop just to sleep, lay, eat and drink.

There's a gap at the top where the hinged roof opens up for access. The gap is covered with a bit of old floor vinyl to make the coop watertight. The brick stops the flap blowing open. This is the goofiest part of the coop. Note the ventilation gaps at the end (you can only see one). These are very much needed in summer.

Nest box
Then to the business end, the nest box. The floor of this about 50 x 50 cm. Sometimes two hens squeeze in there at once. I line it with paper (an old potato bag at the moment) and barley straw. If an egg gets broken the whole messy lot of it can be chucked in the compost, and a new spud bag and straw laid down. Access is easy, as you can see.

Hens really need a private nest box - they have a strong desire to tuck themselves away when they need to lay. It needs mouldable nesting material in it. (Makes me feel so sorry for those battery hens.)

Aim for one nest box per 4 hens. That said, apparently if you have more hens they often all seem to want the same particular nest box, even if the other ones seem identical!

Indoor essentials
Inside are the other main essentials: a perch, food and water. You can see we also have a little space for extra equipment - grit storage, gloves etc. This sits above the nest box.

The perch is about 5 cm diameter and wooden, wrapped with rubber from an old bike tyre inner tube. Scientists have even thought to ask some chickens what they prefer to roost on, and a design similar to this won the competition. Five centimetres is thicker than you'd think is necessary, but they do have big feet. Note that it's square timber rounded off at the corners with a rasp.

We used to have a metal pipe as a perch, but it was freezing in winter. It did get around the problem of red mites hiding in cracks in the wood and feeding on blood from chookie feet at night time. We've never had red mites. I hang some corrugated cardboard over the perch because apparently if they are around they will cluster under it during the day, so you know you've got a problem to deal with.

Note that the perch needs to be higher than the nest box. They like to sleep at the highest point, and if the nest box is higher they'll sleep in there and poo in it all night. The nest box should stay naturally free of poo (you know that old saying about not pooing in your own nest... it's true!).

Food extras
Chickens also need crushed shell and tiny stones to eat. Free-range birds find their own stones. These help them grind up food in their gizzards. Penned birds might not, so it's safest to provide some. These are my not-so-fancy shell and stone dispensers, made from old milk bottles. They're tied to the coop walls, which are mesh at the bottom to allow plenty of ventilation.

The coop has no floor, it just sits on the ground. I put a thick layer of barley straw over the ground, and change it when it gets too dirty - the whole lot goes in the compost bin. I have episodes of picking up the poo that accumulates under the perch every morning, which also goes into the compost. Then I get lazy and ignore it for a while.

The chickens have their own little door to go in and out of. I used to shut it every night for fear of predators, but I haven't done that for years. We do have rats around at times, for which we lay poison bait, but I've never seen evidence of them in the coop. Our feeder is a rodent-proof hopper that only opens when the chickens stand on a platform. The local cats have long since been put in their place by the hens, so they're not a problem. If I had immature chickens I'd shut them in at night, however, because they are a bit more vulnerable.

That concludes our tour. Please ask questions if you have any, or maybe even leave a link to a tour of your own coop so newbies can get some ideas.

8 September 2014

Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens

How about these posters for the good old days, in the US at least. 

They remind me of a fantastic vege gardening book I read last year, One Magic Square. The author, Lolo Houbein, is passionate about gardening because she is a war-time starvation survivor: 

"During 1944 and 45 I endured the wartime famine in Holland and, at 175 centimetres tall, was reduced to 34 kilograms of bone and sinew. I carry an abiding memory of my hometown, Hilversum (population 80,000), breaking down as war action cut off the region. All trees became firewood, as did doors, cupboards, furniture and fences. Cats, dogs and rabbits disappeared. I starved rather than eat our rabbit, Trudy. Mice, rats and birds went into the pot. Rivers were fished out. We at sugar beet, which was normally pig fodder, and tulip bulbs, which made me ill. I dug for grass roots under the snow to steady my stomach."

34 kilograms. I shudder.

She gardens to give herself some security of food supply. It's good not to be totally reliant on supermarkets, and having your own chickens is part of that. 

They do need feeding, of course, those hungry hens, and I'd be in trouble if those sacks of pellets weren't available. Over spring and summer i'm going to explore novel, cheap ways to provide your own chicken food, even if it's just for a little supplementary feeding.

1 September 2014

The bliss and function of dust bathing

Welcome spring, and aren't you wet today? But the recent spell of sunny days has seen my chickens dust bathing regularly. I love watching them do it - they seem so blissed out as they squirm in the dusty ground, usually on a sunny afternoon and often with a pal or two - but why are they really doing it?

I'm sure they do enjoy it immensely, and even some scientists suggest it is motivated by pleasure. It's certainly a major behaviour of chickens, and they can't do it in battery cages. Animal welfare scientists haven't been able to prove that they 'need' to do it in order not to suffer (they won't consistently 'work' for it, by pecking a key or squeezing through a tight space, like they will for a nest box, for example). But if they're deprived of a suitable substrate to dust bathe in, they bathe like mad when they do get to a decent patch of dry dirt, as if to compensate.

Of course most of the chickens in this world never see a patch of dirt. They dust bathe in what they can: food pellets, sawdust, woodchips, sand and other substrates that, at a stretch, take the place of a nice dusty spot. (Mine would turn their beaks up at most of those, but backyard chickens have it very, very good compared to most of their type.) Disturbingly, they also 'vacuum dust bathe' on wire floors. Sad.

The 'function' of dust bathing is also a bit murky. They are said to do it to remove stale oil from their feathers, and to dislodge ectoparasites (mites, lice etc). We've noticed our chickens standing around a dust bathing bird, pecking at it occasionally as if getting tasty morsels. That said, I've never seen a single insect on their bodies.

Dust bathing also smooths their outer feathers and fluffs up the down underneath, and dries them out. But to confuse things, even naked, featherless chickens dust bathe!

I think this is a case where scientists can experiment all they like - and sometimes it's needed, for example to provide evidence to change legislation about what farmed chickens must be provided with - but it's obvious to everybody that chickens should be able to dust bathe for their physical and mental welfare. They don't need to do it every day, but they need regular access to dry, dusty ground.

What do you do to enable your chickens to dust bathe?