Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yellow Puffs to Oval Boxes

A very happy event occurred on the farm today, leading me to finally do this post.

I have mentioned the fresh, free-run egg business that is being added out on the farm briefly in the past, and I have been intending to post the process (and hopefully progress) here on the old blog. However, as things will be, I have not done so yet. But, as I said, something happened today which meant it was time to do some catching up. Good thing I have had my camera along most of the days I have been at the farm, so I have been documenting.

This was day one, back in early June.

We started the chicks in a small shed/coop which housed the last batch of hens that mom kept. It was quite a bit of work to prepare this approximately 10 yr old shed. The USB floor had given way in a few places (have I mentioned how much I hate USB?), so I replaced that with 3/4" plywood. Then I hosed down the inside of the shed and gave the walls a bit of a scrub. I likely should have used some sort of detergent but there'd been no illness or non-meal-oriented death in the previous hens so I made due with just a scrub. I used bubble wrap vent insulation to make a circle enclose for the first couple of weeks, to keep the chicks from clumping in the corners, which significantly decreases the chance of squashed/trampled chicks. Indeed, we didn't lose any birds this way, and only lost about 4 young chicks overall. 4 out of 200+ isn't a bad mortality rate at all. I should also mention that we used pine shavings as bedding. I would have preferred to use contractor's sand in order to reduce dust and the chance of starvation due to gorging on shavings, but it was not easy to locate. Next time we are using straw, since we always have it and it decomposes in a fraction of the time.

My folks did not remember how quickly chicks grow, and they hadn't been taking my wheedling seriously so it was something of a surprise to them after about 2 and a half weeks when the young birds had almost quadrupled in size. Crowding was beginning to be an issue and some of the chicks were being pecked badly. I had to retrieve about 6 of them and set up a separate "recovery" area. Then it was time to get those birds outside!

A day or so before letting them outside I had tried to distract the little buggers from their pecking by setting up their roosts. This allowed some chance to escape from pestering, and helped to maximize the space per bird ratio. I took this chance to thin some young poplar stands for this project, and again later when it was time to build roosts in the larger coop. It distracted the little buggers for a time, but only getting them out of doors would really work. And so it did.

I also built a "rockin' roost" outside which some of the birds came to really enjoy.

About a month earlier, I had transplanted some carrigana shrubs along the west fence, intending for them to grow into a sheltering hedge in a few years. The seeds are also a nice protein source for the birds, or even a main food source if necessary. Luckily they had just enough time to settle in before the chicks were unleashed on them, and then were moved to the larger run before they got too big, so the shrubs should survive nicely.

I guess my folks felt the southern run that was already there (built by myself, my dad and my uncle around 10 years ago, with much fighting of course...) was not enough, so they got to building a temporary run at the north end of the small coop, out the main door. It was quite hilarious to watch the whole flock suddenly take off running/flapping from one side, through the coop and all the way to the far end of the other run...only to do it all again a few minutes later. And Isa Browns are supposed to be calm birds. I think something went very wrong in the breeding of this batch.

The first big surprise to me, was just how much destruction such a flock of little critters could cause. These things literally devastated both the north and south runs, including killing a small willow. Soon enough, however, all the shite left behind will eventually result in a lush growing area, indeed some grass has already begun to grow in thick and green.

This devastation rather hastened my construction of the larger run attached to the larger new coop/shed which is to be home to these ladies for the rest of their lives. By early August I had moved the flock to their new home which they took to quite eagerly, although with some fear early on!

In September I built and installed the nesting boxes, since we were thinking that eggs would begin to appear around the end of October. Behind the nesting boxes, venting insulation was stapled to the wall, as this is the northern wall. I still need to cover the lower stuff with cardboard or plywood as the ladies predilection for pecking has them eating small bits of the mylar.

As the days are getting shorter and colder and the birds are spending more time inside, it became clear that ventilation was needed. We needed a window anyway, to provide some natural light during winter, so I went to the building supply recycle place which just happens to be within sight of where I sit as I write this post. I found something perfect for the planned location, a long and narrow window which could be mounted so as to allow opening at the top for ventilation. I think it was removed from an old school portable room or something like that. At 10$, I wish they'd have had 9 more or so!

Outside, it has been a little bit rainy over the last few days, and with the birds being mostly full grown now, and therefore wreaking havoc on the grass and ground in their run. As such, the run near the coop has become quite muddy and gross, so I broke up several old and wet hay or straw bales and spread them around. The ladies just love this, especially since much of it is wheat straw containing many stray seeds. You can also see the clump of willows in the background here. Many of the ladies spend all day trying to roost in the branches or huddled on the ground in the shade and/or out of the wind.

A little over a week ago, many of the hens began to display the bowing posture, as if to be mounted by a rooster, when someone would walk by. This shows that the birds have reached sexual maturity so we began the look-out for eggs. Up until today, one or two of the nests were being used, but so far nothing had been left but the odd shite.

But then, today...or I guess yesterday since its well after midnight now...I happened to have a look and, lo and behold, there in one corner lay two pristine brown, strong shelled pullet eggs. And only slightly smaller than full size! Really, it is surprising that the first eggs have well formed shells like this. Typically we'd have found a pile of soft shelled ones to start with. It must be that we started laying out oyster shells quite early on. Sadly, I must report that I retrieved the eggs to show them off to mom and dad, too quickly to think to take any pictures of them. But I promise they were there, right where the red mild crate is in this picture. Yes, I put a milk crate nest in each corner, since they obviously want to lay there. The buggers better use those stinking nests tho!!!

I'm sure they will start doing so, very soon. Looks like the water got put into the house just in time because there's going to be plenty of eggs to wash soon.

Happy event indeed!

By the way, how's this for an eyeballed fence line?

Next year we may build a twin setup beside this run and double the operation. I think I will suggest 150 hens per run, however, should we decide to expand. I really feel that we have about 50 too many birds in the run now. You never know though, some of the fatter ones might end up roasters.

So that's it for now, but there is more to come on the chicken topic for sure.

Be good to each other.


linda said...

Wow! I never realized how invloved keeping chickens would be. You did a great job with all the building (even the eyeballed fence). What I don't understand is why it took so long to get eggs? Is it the breed of chicken? Seems that city chickens end up laying eggs faster so I assume its the breed.

Jerry said...

Thanks Linda. I should be clear and state that I did not build the shed/coop. It was a pre-build bought from and delivered by the UFA store. I just put in the window, roosts and nests.

As for how long it has taken them to reach egg laying, I don't think it is really that long. We were expecting eggs to start coming in between now and this time in November. The cold weather we got early in October might have slowed them a small bit, since hens lay less when its cold usually.

We don't use commercial feed, however, beyond using chick starter for a few weeks. This likely means a LOT less hormones than those who feed commercial feed all the time.

The breed may also mature slightly slower than some breeds that are strictly for laying.

linda said...

I see. So if your layers are only now starting, they must then slow down in winter? I know that at the farm, the chicken owners we were using for our "co-op" have started to see a decline as far back as early October. They say that even a thunderstorm throws the chickens off kilter for a few days. And they are strictly layers but I'm not sure of the breeds. Just know they have multiple breeds.
I liked the window, roosts and nests. I am sure that when you get that greenhouse built it will be a marvel to behold. You have the skill and seem to have a talent too:)

Theresa said...

Wow, what a lot of work you have done! It's nice to see the chickens with so much space to move about. Those are going to be some highly sought after eggs, I'm sure.

Jerry said...

Linda, they will likely be slower in reaching full productivity now, so I doubt we will see their full productivity until spring. Then next winter production will likely fall off some. And yep, it can take very little to throw them off laying, although some will lay through anything.

Thanks for the compliment!

Thanks to you too Theresa. It was mostly all enjoyable work which is more than I have been able to say for some time now. I sure hope they will be sought-after eggs. I also hope they prove themselves enough to justify further investment next spring.

Anna said...

The first pullet eggs are always so exciting. :-)

I'm curious --- what do you feed them to supplement their forage if not commercial feed? We're trying to move away from commercial feed, but I'm a bit afraid to make that leap, even though we have our hens in tractors so they get fresh grass and bugs every day.