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Refeeding Eggshells to your Clucks

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I figured this morning would be a good day for a follow up on our girls, as we have recently concluded an experiment with the girls, and we have some actual results back to report.  As you all remember from Chicken Week 7, we have been making our own food for the girls for about a month now.  That part of is has been going great.  Even through the “dead of winter” we never had a day with less than two eggs.  Now that spring is here, we are getting more than 5 dozen eggs a week from our 12 girls.  That’s pretty impressive to me.  Last night we made a dozen eggs for dinner, all less than 24 hours old.  It was fantastic.

A quick note.  If you want better laying production from your girls, yes, the light level is important.  When it’s dark, they put themselves to bed, and don’t want to do anything.  However, the most important factor is protein.  Feed your girls some meat, and you will get more eggs.  Period.  We have proved it ourselves in practice, and even more than that, it makes sense.  Eggs are high in protein.  What’s easier for your girls?  Turning bugs and plants they eat into muscle protein, which the body then burns and makes into eggs?  Or turning hamburger into protein?  So if you want to boost production, feed them some meat every other day or so.  They will be happy, and you will get more eggs.

That wasn’t even my main experiment for the day to bring up.  So as we mentioned when making our own food, we were trying to eliminate the gluten that was being passed on to Jenn and I through the eggs.  That part of it has worked great.  The eggs not only taste better, but they don’t irritate our stomachs anymore.  However, in eliminating the layer feed from our girls diet, we had to come up with a source of calcium for them.

We had provided oyster shell for them before when we were using the layer feed, but they didn’t really take that much of it, so I am sure they were getting a lot of calcium from the feed.  When we eliminated the layer feed from their diet, they started wolfing down the oyster shell.  Which makes sense, of course, since that was the only calcium they were getting now.  Egg production stayed up, and the shells stayed very strong.

So then, like all permaculturists, we decided to see what we could do about eliminating that input with something we had an excess of.  Eggshells.

eggshells

So the good news is that yard eggs are very easy to handle in this way.  The eggs from our girls have nice thick shells, and tough membranes underneath.  So when we eat eggs, Jenn just leaves them out on the counter to dry for a bit, and peels the membranes off the inside of the shells.  They pretty much come right off.  Then we throw them in a bag, crunch them up, and they are ready to serve to our girls.

Except for one problem.  It doesn’t do as good of a job of replacing the  calcium as the oyster shell.  We tried feeding this to them for about 4 days, and already we were seeing the eggs come up much thinner and more fragile.  The eggs just weren’t the same, and we were worried about our girls.  So we switched back to the oyster shell, and within another few days, the eggs are robust and hardy again.

So my conclusion at the end of this, is that eggshells are not a good alternative for oyster shells.  Your girls do need calcium, but oyster shell seems to be the best place to get it if you aren’t using layer food.  In my area, a $4 bag lasts us almost a month, so its really not worth endangering the health of our girls to save that little amount of money.

So what to do with the eggshells?  Just pitch em?  No way.  You can still turn that output into a solution in a permaculture system.  Just compost it into your garden.  If you have a big compost pile situation, toss them into there.  If you have healthy soil, you can actually get away with just burying them in the soil.  The microbial life in the soil will break them down and make that calcium bio-available.  This way, you are still returning that calcium to the system, but you are returning it to you.

One of the reasons our ancestors were so much healthier was because the fruits and vegetables they ate had actual minerals and nutrients in them, instead of the endless stream of NPK fertilizer that they have now.  Calcium, copper, zinc, magnesium, etc.  This all used to be present in our food.  Now its mostly leached out.  So put those eggshells back into something that desperately needs more calcium than its getting.  Your body.

Road Coop

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I have actually moved across the country before, but I have to say, moving across the country with chickens ads a whole new level of crazy to the equation.  So am brain storming some ways to get them up there safely.  So I don’t really have anything concrete yet, but I will be sure to post up the complete specs and a bunch of pictures when I am done.  I haven’t really seen anything like what I am looking for before.  I sense a crazy customer contraption coming on.

So in terms of just getting them up there for the 2 day car trip, my lovely wife actually scored a great find on Groupon.  I tried to go find a picture, but I couldn’t with the groupon being sold out I think they pulled it.  Anyway, it was a dog kennel, that was basically combined with a child’s play area.  So it was secure enough to hold some dogs in, but it was more made with cloth than with metal bars.  This allowed it to expand out in a large square that would be way too hard to hold if it was the heavy metal.  They had these things for $30, so Jenn got two of em for us.  One for the dogs, and one for the girls.

We also have decided to downsize our flock, since transporting, and talking landlords into letting us stay, is easier with 8 instead of 12.  So our Welsummer’s are going to have to find a new home.  If you live in Southern AZ, and want 4 great laying hens, let us know.  They have actually gotten nicer since I wrote the book.  I think they saw themselves in print, and decided to change their ways.

So I at least have a way to transport them, but that kennel would last exactly two seconds outside with a coyote trying to get into it, which is fine, since we never planned on using it for an outdoor shelter.

Now I need something that I can take up with us, and I can setup in a hurry to hold the girls.  I am going to need both a coop and run that can collapse small enough to fit into the back of an SUV, but that will offer them at least rudimentary protection for a day or two until I can make it better.  I really don’t know how I am going to accomplish that yet.  I know I will think of something.  If any of you have seen a coop design that can easily move between yard and car, let me know in the comments.

Follow up on feed and fermentation

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Well, for some reason today my mental wheels were just sliding all over the road, and I was having trouble putting a coherent thought together on paper.  That happens to everyone some days I guess.  So instead of trying to force out what would undoubtedly be a disjointed narrative, I figured I would just do some quick follow up from some experiments we started in the last few weeks.

The first, the chicken feed experiment is working out great.  The girls are loving their food.  In fact we got a little behind with making it, and ran out of it for a few days.  The girls were loud and strident in letting us know that was not OK.  Our feeding routine of one show box a day supplemented with other stuff for the nutrients is doing quite well.  The best part of all is that the girls are starting to put on some weight.  They had been so skinny up until recently, it was actually kind of worrying.  Now they are finally growing up, and filling in.  This should make the remaining cold a lot easier to handle for them.  Jenn and I went to Costco yesterday and got 50lbs of dry ingredients for them for about $30.  Which will of course be much more than 50lbs once cooked.  So far, a great way for hens to go.

The second, is my lacto fermentation experiment.  The good news is that it is fermenting.  I waited about 4 days to taste the mixture, and it was considerably tangier than just cabbage, water and salt should account for, so it is working.  The bad news is that I don’t really like the taste yet.  It’s not something I would just dive right into willingly, but I could eat it as medicine if I had to.  It’s a first experiment, so I consider it a victory that I was able to get it to ferment at all.  Taste can be fine tuned later.

I do know for sure that I didn’t use enough salt.  Having more salt in the mixture might solve the flavor issue by itself, but the cabbage still isn’t releasing its juice as fast as they say it should.  The other issue is that I used canning jars to store it in, but I just used paper towels to cover, not lids.  This means my liquid keeps evaporating and I have to refill it.  Not the end of the world, but its probably not doing wonders for the fermentation process.

So one experiment is a clear victory, and one is working, but not as well as I hoped.  Pretty good record.  Hopefully I will be back at 100% tomorrow, and I will try to lay out something more informational.

Chicken Week 10: How we got here

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Well here we are my friends, the conclusion of chicken week.  You decided to take the plunge and get some chickens.  You got your brooder all setup.  You have a better looking coop in the yard than I do.  You know how to feed them food that they will love, and that’s nutritious for them.  You either have chickens on your acreage in the country, or you have joined the growing urban and suburban revitalization of our communities.  You are either fortunate enough to live where its legal, you fought against the codes in your town, or you are keeping them hidden from the busy bodies in your area.  Good for you.  I am proud of you, and happy for you.

I have had so much fun spreading the chicken week message over the last 6 days, and the feedback from all of you on our Facebook community has been phenomenal.  Yet it made me so sad to here from some of you, with variations on “I would love to keep chickens, but my community won’t let me”.  How did we get to this point?  When did it become OK to have a perfectly manicured lawn that you hose down with toxins and petroleum, polluting the ground water, but not OK to have some fresh eggs?  A chicken isn’t any bigger or noisier than a small dog, but those are ok.  Dog waste is a toxic substance to be hauled away, chicken waste is fertilizer.  Shouldn’t every town in America encourage chicken ownership?

It wasn’t too long ago that they did.  I happen to be a huge fan of old propaganda posters and old ads (as if those aren’t the same thing).  These ones are pretty common, but if you haven’t seen them.  Check em out.

Keeping hens poster

This one was put out by the USDA in 1918, encouraging everyone in America to raise chickens to help feed the nation.  Yes, this was because a large portion of our food was being shipped over to Europe for the soldiers, but the government and the people still knew that the best way to feed its citizens was to have them raise food themselves.

As a side note, that’s like a 5 year old kid fixing a roof.  When the hell did we lose that?  Most adults I know can’t do a wood roof like that.

Goose Newyork 1928

This came across my Facebook feed yesterday from @Fortheloveofchickens.  If you don’t Like them already, you should.  This is a woman walking a goose in New York in 1928.  Now she might have been a 1928 hipster just trying to make a splash, but that harness looks bird specific, so I am guessing it was a thing.

wartime farm hen

Lastly, we have this World War 2 poster, also encouraging chicken owning.  Now this one is from the UK, but that’s because none of the Victory Garden posters I saw from the US had chickens on them.  Even conceding that maybe the USDA was no longer pushing chickens, they were still pushing gardening.

Then after that, nothing.  As near as I can tell, all young people in the 50s and 60s just said, screw it.  I have a car, I can go down to the store and get eggs rather than walking out to my backyard.  In just 60ish years, we have completely turned our back on our cultural legacy, and are just now rediscovering where the best food comes from.  Not from cellophane and Styrofoam.  Not from a chicken barn with no vents, but from a small coop in a backyard.  Kept by people that want to care for themselves, and for others.

I don’t have some grandiose point to make here.  This isn’t a rant on the food supply or a condemnation of our government.

This is me saying thank you for reading chicken week, and I admire what you are doing.  It takes great courage to be willing to not only step beyond cultural norms, but also to look at the cracks in the world, and fill them.  You are taking control of your own destiny, and making a difference in the world.  That is a trait to be admired.  You are looking at our last 60 years and saying, no, that was wrong.  This is better.

I am starting to feel that chickens are the gateway drug of homesteading.  It’s impossible to own one, and not want to get even more involved with the movement that’s out there.  Some of the friendliest and most helpful people I have met are chicken owners.  A chicken owner is almost always willing to help you out, and show hows its done.  I have gotten so much great feedback and advice, I can only hope that this week, I have been able to provide that advice for someone else.  Thank you for reading chicken week, and I hope you continue to read far into the future.

You are doing great things, and what you do matters.  Keep it up.

 

 

 

Chicken Week 9: Reader’s Favorite Breeds

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I have to say, this post is a lot of fun for me.  Yesterday on Facebook my wife Jenn sent out the call to our Facebook community, asking what your favourite breed of chickens was.  Now, this made me smile for two reasons.  First, the response was huge, with a bunch of people responding.  Second, we got about 20-30 different breeds suggested to us, which was basically each person suggesting a unique breed.  That makes me incredibly happy to see.  We, as a collective homesteading community, are actively involved in preserving and maintaining an important genetic legacy, and that’s something my wife and I are very passionate about.  Each of these birds is a unique message from the past, and it’s important to preserve that.

If you haven’t heard of them before, the ALBC, or American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, is doing some great work on preserving these lines.  They are currently working to preserve more than 200 breeds of livestock, and have been since 1977.  I am not a member yet, although I plan on becoming one once we complete our move.  Member or not, they are a great resource for those who are interested in preserving our animal past.

So on the final day of chicken week, I have decided to spotlight 3 more chicken breed that were submitted by our Facebook tribes-people yesterday.  A disclaimer, these are not chicken breeds I own, but they were recommended to me by our readers, so my information is not first hand, but the best way to learn about chickens, is to get some for yourself.

The Barred Rock –

barred rock chicken pic barred rock chicken

 

 

There was simply no way I could not include these little chickens in a list, as not only were they submitted by three different readers, but I have seen them repeatedly at our local feed store.  The barred rock is not actually “in danger” anymore, as according the the ALBC there is a breeding pool of more than 10,000 in the world.  Feedback on these chickens is universally positive, and are something I will look into when we do move to colder climates.  They and the Orpingtons seem to fill similar roles, and both do well in the cold.

The Barred Rock is one of the all time popular favourites in this country. Developed in New England in the early 1800’s by crossing Dominiques and Black Javas, it has spread to every part of the U.S. and is an ideal American chicken. Prolific layers of brown eggs, the hens are not discouraged by cold weather. Their solid plumpness and yellow skin make a beautiful heavy roasting fowl.  These chickens are often called Plymouth Rocks, but this title correctly belongs to the entire breed, not just the Barred variety.

Thank you to @Lisa Haw Manning, @Antoinette-Dennis Collins, @Tracy Tidwell for the suggestion.

Cochin –

black cochins black cochins pic

 

Cochin chickens were suggested by two different readers.  One described them as gentle, the other described them as cute but useless.  So I would say this sounds like a great starter chicken if you aren’t sure if you like chickens, but they might not actually do much for you.  I happen to personally like cochins ever since I saw one in the Phoenix zoo.  Side note, the Phoenix zoo is a sprawling complex of rare animals from around there world.  What was my favourite part?  The barnyard exhibit.  Go figure.

These guys are listed as watch, which means there are less than 5,000 in the US, and less than 10,000 in the world.  I do know they are good for cold weather because their feet feathers protect them.

Cochin chickens are great eaters of food, and indiscriminate in their preferences. This combined with their unmatched profuseness of feathering make them an ideal choice for colder climates and gives them the ability to eat enough to produce both animal heat and eggs during the heart of winter. They feather slowly, but are very hardy and, like the Brahma chicken, will thrive under conditions where other breeds would perish. Cochins are predisposed to becoming too fat. Such fattening can stop egg production and even lead to death by disorder of the liver. Lewis Wright, in his book The Practical Poultry Keeper, circa 1892, recommended that Cochins should receive a daily ration of green food to keep them healthy.

Thank you @Beaver Creek Homestead, @Tracy Tidwell

Polish-

White Crested Black Polish ChickenWhite Crested Black Polish Chicken PIc

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last chicken to spotlight today is the Polish chicken, which is also listed on the watch list.  I had seen them before in hatchery catalogues, but I have to say the best description ever came across our Facebook feed, when one of our tribespeople described them as looking like muppets.  I laughed of course, then after I looked again, damnit they do look like muppets.  I can never un-think that now.

Polish chickens have many interesting characteristics. They are excellent layers of medium-sized white eggs, tending to begin a bit late in the season but persistently laying once they commence. Polish chickens are non-sitters and rarely will go broody. Their crests tend to obscure their vision, which makes them more prone to aerial predators. Polish chickens are easily surprised and a bit nervous, so care should be taken not to startle them. They are similar to Leghorns in both size and type. And Polish chickens come with or without beards on their faces.

Thank you @Rabbits, Chickens and Chihuahuas

So once again, my plea is the same as always.  If you are considering getting chickens, or any livestock, please consider a heritage breed.  Once that legacy is lost, we will never be able to get it back.

Chicken Week 8: Treats and Tribulations for chickens

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Since earlier we talked about a balanced feed that we have been using on our girls, I figured I would throw out some treat ideas for your chickens, as well as a few snacks to avoid.  Since, again, our feed was designed to give them the complete baseline nutrition that they need, but there is no way to put all of the protein and vitamins they need into one food.

Lettuce

Lettuce:  No need to reinvent the wheel here.  Lettuce is a great source of trace vitamins and minerals.  Its also generally available for a couple heads for a dollar.  We usually have one or two in the fridge for the girls at a time.  We chop ours up, because our girls won’t peck at the big pieces, but you can serve however you like.

MilkDairy:  Our girls loves milk, yogurt, cheese, anything of that nature.  Yogurt can be cheap, depending on sales and your area.  Obviously they don’t care if its flavoured, so getting a big tub of plain yogurt is a great way to go. If yogurt is expensive, just get a gallon of milk.  Put it in a dish for em, and watch them yum it up.  Just put it far away from the house, because the girls will make a mess, and the ground can stink.

Tilapia

Tilapia (or fish of any kind): I don’t know about your area, but protein in Tucson is very expensive right now.  Most fish is expensive too, but if you keep an eye our for Tilapia, you can probably score some deals.  I found Tilapia for buy one bag, get two free.  Now Jenn and I refuse to eat Tilapia because of the disgusting farming practices for it, but chickens find it tasty.  I like putting a frozen fillet in their coop at night, and its a thawed little treat by morning.

grapesGrapes: Now chickens love all fruit, but feeding grapes to chickens is a treat for us.  We call it Bawk Bowling.  We roll the grapes across the yard and watch the girls race their pudgy little bodies over to get it.  Their are feather flying everywhere, and its awesome.  The next bawk bowling session will include video.  It’s awesome.

Lastly, I wanted to note something.  People worry way too much about what you feed chickens.  I had originally intended to give you three good treats, and then three things to avoid feeding your hens.  Unfortunately all I found were sights like this, that basically say everything except crumbles are toxic to chickens.  Literally, this sight lists Amaranth and Cabbage as poisonous right on the same list as belladonna.

We have been feeding our chickens most anything we have for six months now, and only seen one issue.  One week recently, we were feeding the girls a LOT of citrus.  I mean like, we got a bag or oranges, and it sucked, so we gave them to the girls.  They ate a ton of them.  Then we noticed a few weak spots on a few eggs.  That’s it.  No eggs broke, no chickens died, just some weaker points.  We quit with the citrus, and the eggs are fine.  So I personally believe the key is variety and moderation.  You would die too if you ate nothing but one food, no matter what that food was, so mix it up and moderate.

Chicken Week 7: Make your own chicken feed

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So you decided on chickens, got them brooded, and built the coop.  At this point, they are probably getting hungry.  You should probably feed them right about now.  The question becomes though, what do you want to feed them?  Chickens, in case you didn’t notice, are living garbage disposals.  They will eat anything that’s smaller than them.  I have seen them hork down leaves from the neighbour’s tree, lizards, baby frogs, snakes, mice, dirt, fluff, and anything they can find.  Suffice it to say, if they aren’t eating what you are giving them, you are doing it wrong.

There are three main schools of thought on chicken food, free ranging, table scraps, and grain feed.  There are pluses and minuses to each, and in all likelihood you will end up using some combination of the three.

First, free ranging.  This is where the chickens run around your property eating whatever strikes their fancy.  The pluses are that this is completely free, and you won’t have a pest within sight of these beady eyed little food monsters.  The downside is that the chickens won’t put on much weight for slaughter, and unless you plant food specifically for them, they will strip your property bare.

The second, is to feed them table scraps.  My wife and I certainly see the value in this, as it prevents waste from entering the landfill.  Our problem is that we eat almost everything we make.  We would have veggies peels and cores, but very little actual food for them, so for us, this was an impractical way to feed them.  We continue to give them any scraps that come up (except for chicken), and they love them.

The last way to feed them is with grain feeds of the kind you get at Wal-Mart or a feed store.  We did do this for several months, but have swayed away from it for two reasons.  One, you are what you eat, so just as eating McDonald’s is bad for us, eating grain processed to crap is bad for chickens.  In the words of a friend of ours, you don’t want to know what goes into them.  The other is that my wife Jenn is highly gluten intolerant, and we both are living a paleo lifestyle. Too much grain in the girl’s diet was being passed on to us, and it was making my wife sick.

So in honour of chicken week, and in response to a reader question from Christi Wellington, we have decided to make our own homemade chicken food, and unlike so many sites, we are going to share the recipe.

So our goal was to make something healthy for the girls that would meet their needs nutritionally, and be cheaper to make than store bought feed.  In our area, chicken food averages 33 cents a pound in the store, our homemade chicken food cost us 25 cents a pound.  We found that in our area, Costco and Sam’s have great deals on huge bags of rice and beans.  They were the best deal we found, but since flavor isn’t an issue, shop around.

Homemade Chicken components

Here are the ingredients we used.  If you can boil water, you got this covered.  We used rice, pinto beans, some leftover mung beans (future batches will be just pinto), and we add cracked corn in the yard.  We used four cups of rice, in 9 cups of water.  If you soak the rice in the water first before turning it on, it will cook faster.  Make sure the rice is cooked through.  Chickens don’t care if the rice is mushy, be sure its cooked through.

Then we used 2 cups of pinto beans, and two cups of mung beans we happened to have left over.  The next batch will just be pinto, but why waste them?  Soak your beans overnight to reduce cooking time, but again, the key is to cook them through.  Chickens don’t mind mushy.

Homemade Chicken food

Time is usually the most precious resource in a house, so don’t hesitate to boil these while you do other things.  Homemade chicken food doesn’t need much attention.  Once it’s all done, mix together in a big bowl.  As you can see, ours filled two bowls.

Bin of Chicken Food

We feed them about half a shoebox full of food a day for our twelve girls, then throw about a cup of cracked corn on their mixture when we give it to them.  They dive right in and love it, and it lasts them right about 24 hours.

The only thing you have to do, is make sure you supplement their food with oyster shell.  If you don’t, their bones will start to deplete with egg laying.  If you don’t want to use oyster shell, you can feed their own egg shells back to them.  You just have to roast them in the oven, and grind them up.  So far we have chosen to use oyster shell, I just screwed a little bowl into the wall so it doesn’t get spilled.  We factored this into our costs when computing the homemade chicken food.

Our observations so far are very promising.  The girls love their food, and they don’t seem to be nearly as hungry during the day.  They don’t stand outside our door and belly ache for food nearly as much as they did in previous days.  We have also noticed their poops getting smaller.  It seems their bodies are absorbing more of the food, rather than passing it as waste.  We still plan on giving them our table scraps for random vitamins, but their food should meet their basic needs.

So that’s our recipe for homemade chicken food.  For whatever reason, websites seem unwilling to give one out.  Feel free to use ours, and have some happy, healthy clucks.

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