Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All a part of the master plan

My master plan is to shovel as little manure as possible.  For any stock that I keep.  Pastured poultry is not so simple as one would think.  We tried many iterations to get to this design (over 3 years), and even in the future it may be modified, most likely to become lighter weight, although blow over would be a risk in storms. I would also like to start saving the water that collects from the tarps, but haven't decided on a good serviceable system yet.

The idea is to have fresh grass forage for the egg hens daily.  They really can pick an area down in a short amount of time, so we move the hoopies daily.  The hens get very excited as the hoopie moves over the new grass.  This makes the move easier, as they are always eager to get onto the new hay and  have no trouble staying out of the runners and out of danger as the cage is moving.

Each cage is 8x16 and the tarps roll up to allow as much or as little sun and air into the structure as is needed for keeping things cool or warm. There is no bottom on these houses, so all manure falls directly on the hay field and fertilizes the grass.

So far we have seen 70 MPH straight line winds, and the hoopies have not tipped or collapsed.  They are quite heavy as the bases are made of 2x10 lumber. The ends are built from 2x4 lumber with braces and a door all screened in with chicken wire, while 4 pieces of 20 ft cattle panel make up the hoop structure.  Chicken wire covers the cattle panel to prevent escapes.  We have also found that investing in AG grade tarps with a 4 year life time seems to work the best.  They are UV stable. Hardware store tarps are a waste of money and only last about 6 months in the element.

Roosts are high in the rear of the structure to keep the chickens from roosting in and soiling the nest boxes.  I prefer to have the cleanest eggs possible.  The nest boxes are approximately knee high inside, and there are 4 boxes for 16 hens.

We use a log chain and the truck or tractor to drag the units around the farm one length at a time.  One time per day preferably.  I can envision the possibility of someone wanting to use draft animals to move them.

The hoop house helps lower feed bills, and the chickens have great access to bugs and worms and plant material. The egg yolks are a deep orange.  I have to say that the grass in wake of the hoopies is absolutely the most astonishing deep green. Great fertilizer for the hay field.

Why pen the chickens up?  Several reasons. The electro-net we tried (and invested in heavily) didn't really work. The chickens' feathers insulated them from shock. Also, since I have lighter breeds they are excellent fliers.  Not conducive to electro-net success when the birds just sail right over. So the chickens were on the picnic table, in the garden, wandering across the road and laying eggs all over the farm in mysterious places. Sorry to confine you girls, but it is for your own good.  Since building these, the losses of stock have been minimal, they have adequate shade in the summer and nice warm protection in the winter.  So far has been an excellent system for us.  We are zone 7 so heavy snow is not an issue, nor is prolonged deep freeze.

White rabbits, green grass

We have been raising rabbits for nearly a year now at LJF.  We raise them for meat, and we also save and preserve the pelts.  I had a quite large rabbitry about 10 years ago, but disbanded the effort to raise children.

We are currently raising mostly Californian rabbits.  They produce a good size yield in the carcass and are easy keepers so far.  Originally we were keeping them in elevated hutches and feeding dry hay and alfalfa pellets.  We have since started migrating them to grass.  I have been watching carefully for signs of scours, and so far have not seen issues moving from dry feed to the fresh grass.  I have noticed that the animals require less drinking water due to the water content of the feed.  This just makes it a bit easier in the summer when the water needs of the livestock are super high.

I have seen a lot of rabbit tractors on blogs and websites, and many of them are quite elaborate in an effort to keep the rabbits from tunneling out of the bottom of the tractor.  I thought I'd keep it simple. I am trying an old dog crate I had for large dogs.  The bottom wire is welded in 1x3 rectangles, and the sides are the same.  No open bottom and fancy wire barriers to keep the rabbits enclosed.  For the most part they can reach the grass easily. They will also scratch the grass out from under the wire for easy eating.  I have to say it is working great so far.

 The only modification I am considering is taking one of the rabbits out so they get more of a share of grass by the time they are ready to move.  The next plan is to build some drop cages that are not so tall to continue to add the rabbits to the pasture.  I will use the same size welded wire screen.  The livestock guardian dogs on site keep the predators away.  The animals' body condition seems to be doing great as well.  Really nice development and not overly lean at all.

In the typical pastured livestock scenario, the manure falls to the ground to just become fertilizer for the sward.  Nutrient recycling and part of my master plan to never, ever have to muck anything out.

Check out the grid pattern of daily cage movements where the rabbits have eaten the grass down.  The old spot gets time to recover and regrow as the rain soaks the rabbit manure and urine back into the soil as nutrients. Fresh grass every day. You can see 7 days back in the top right corner, just half of the grid is visible, the grass is already coming back.

More refinements to come, and I am also supplementing with comfrey leaves (10,000 lb yield per acre!! according to the old farm bulletin literature- another story for another day). The leaves are eaten like a treat, and last only minutes once they are put in the cage.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Only You.

We have chicken TV at the Jar.  Yes, you can sit and watch these doodlers all day if you like.  Pull up a chair, get a cold drink and watch the happenings.  We have drama, romance, intrigue and sometimes death.  Its all a part of normal life at the homestead.

If you sit long enough you will begin to notice that the hens all have distinct personalities and quirks that make them each unique.  Each has a place in chicken society. Regrettably, there are even cliques.

And, in the most interesting fashion each girl lays her own signature egg.  Clockwise from the top left; the brown bullet (a thin and pointy egg), the Wedgwood palest blue, the concrete with aggregate, the Maran speckled quailey egg. And by accident, the Olive Egger.

I had a plan to have pretty eggs. I have since lost track of that plan.  Now I am selecting chickens based on behavior and laying performance. The mix of different heritage breeds has now gone to hybrids and I will end up with a Landrace flock in the end.  The funniest part is the envy of the olive egg.  People all over farm social media sites are going crazy to raise their own olive eggers by crossing a brown egg layer with an Araucana that lays green eggs.  My olive eggs are second generation accidents. Most likely a cross of an Araucana with a Maran or Black Jersey Giant.

I am now focusing on certain traits such as rose combs, that do not seem to get so frost bitten in the winter.  This is a small and cosmetic trait, but is really about chicken health. It takes a lot of energy to heal from frostbite of the comb. Now I am selecting small combs with blood supplies compactly arranged and close to the skull.  Most of my large keeled comb roosters lost the tips of their combs in the winter weather.  The rose comb roosters often had no sign of frostbite.  So we have a winner in the process of farm animal selection. Less weather stress.  The rose comb tends to be broader and more spread out across the birds skull, so any summer cooling properties are hopefully retained.  No fancy birds here anymore, but now we look for good mommas, good scratchers, with a great body and survivor instinct.

Back to the eggs.  One of the more enjoyable parts of hen keeping is the eggs.  Each girl lays an egg like no other. In the process of collecting eggs, you get to see their identity in the nest box. 'ah there's my bullet girl today' or 'there's one with a knot on top like the tip of a straightened elbow' your girls have their own identity, and often it is a guess about whom produced what egg.  Only you my dear, only you.