The Great Chicken Rescue

Saturday a friend called to tell me he was getting a bunch of chickens from a flooded commercial chicken house.  The birds that the chicken catchers weren’t able to get had been sealed up in the house without food or water, left to die from dehydration and ammonia.  He and his brother ended up with over 70 chickens, some of which had to be killed due to illness or injury.  The 60 remaining birds literally covered the floor of his small coop so he offered half to me.

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I drove to his house yesterday to loaded up 30 birds that are now living fairly happily in one of my chicken tractors.  It’s a tough transition for birds that spent all 4 weeks of their lives in a climate controlled house with food and water right in front of them, especially when their eyes and lungs are burned from the ammonia and they’ve gone three days without water.  So far all 30 are still alive.  I’m feeding them laying mash while I start some fodder in the basement.  If I can keep them alive long enough I plan to feed them wheat fodder with the layer feed and give them some old canned pears to help fatten them up for processing in 2 weeks.  This is the second time in the past few months that I’ve come across free commercial birds that I’ve been able to detox for a couple weeks then process.  The result is a nice fat chicken that is close to the quality of my pasture raised birds for almost no cost.

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The birds have two dog houses with hay in the bottom so they can stay warm at night.  The feed pan is right in front of the dog houses and the hanging water bucket is also close by.  Hopefully they stay alive for a couple weeks.

Worm Farming

I’ve had a couple worm bins going for a year or so, mainly raising red wigglers along with a few night crawlers.  The red wigglers have mainly been used just for composting although this year I have enough I’ll be using them for fishing, too.  I usually just throw in a few night crawlers for an easy place to keep them on hand.

The bins have cycled through productivity and decline as I maintain and neglect them.  In the last couple months I’ve made a point of keeping up with the worms and I’ve seen the population skyrocket as a result.  In the past couple weeks, though, tiny white bugs showed up in the bins.  With a little research I determined the little critters to be mites.  Apparently harmless, but a little disconcerting, nonetheless.  The mites – and occasional fruit fly outbreaks – seem to be a result of too much moisture and overfeeding.

Since we’re snowed in today the kids and I decided to remedy the problem by draining the extra water and mixing in some paper to soak up the moisture.  That gave me a chance to take a couple pictures and give a bit of a description of how the bins are made.

The worm farm is made with Rubbermaid bins from Walmart.  They’re about $10 a piece, durable, and seem to be one of the storage container products that doesn’t change every year so it should be easy enough to find more bins to add to the system in the future.

The idea is pretty simple.  Start with a bin on the bottom to collect drainage from the worms.  Some people drill a hole and install a valve to make draining the “worm tea” easier.  I haven’t done that yet since it’s rare that I actually drain the tea.  I set a couple bricks in the bottom of the bin to help support the next bin.  It probably isn’t necessary with these bins but it gives me a little more peace of mind.

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The next bin has a bunch of 1/4 inch holes drilled in the bottom.  Again, there are different ideas on this.  The drain holes aren’t needed but they make regulating the moisture a little easier.  Personally, I like to have them.  This bin has a lid with holes drilled in it for ventilation.  Don’t worry about worms escaping.  If you keep them happy they won’t want to leave.  Besides, they’re photophobic and will avoid light whenever possible.  Anyone who’s ever hunted night crawlers with a flashlight has seen that first hand.

Worms are incredibly efficient at breaking down food scraps so it takes a long time for a bin to fill up.  When it eventually does, just set another bin with drain holes in the bottom on top of the full bin and start adding food.  The worms will migrate into the new bin.  After a few weeks, remove the old bin and add the nutrient rich worm castings to your garden.  There will probably still be a handful of worms in the old bin but not enough to be concerned about.

If you have the problem that I had of the bin being too wet or having mites or fruit flies, try mixing in some shredded newspaper, cardboard (not the glossy or colored pages) or oatmeal to soak up the moisture.  Keeping shredded paper on top seems to help regulate the water content by wicking moisture up and speeding evaporation while keep things from getting too dry.

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And… We’re Still Here!

Ten months went by so I thought I’d drop back in.

Last post I mentioned nuisance birds as a food source.  Believe it or not, Grackles and Starlings are actually pretty decent.  There’s very little meat so don’t expect anything like a Thanksgiving turkey.  In terms of practicality they’re not great.  Shooting them with a .22 isn’t as cheap as it used to be.  I guess a pellet gun would be a better option.  Cleaning them is simple.  Snip off the legs, wings, and head with kitchen shears, peel off the skin, make a careful cut in the abdomen and pull out the guts.  With a little practice you’ll spend more time cleaning up the feathers than processing the bird.  Bait them with cracked corn or dog food.  Leaving one or two dead lying near the bait seems to draw others in.

I finished one of my new chicken tractor designs and have been very happy with it.  It’s heavy and hard to move but has headroom, provides good shelter, and is plenty spacious for the birds.  It’s actually big enough for the Muscovies to fly in circles inside it.  I’ll do a full post on it sometime in the future.

This week I built a 10×10 A frame chicken coop on the frame of a chicken tractor.  I still need to add some roosts and a bungee to automatically close the door.  That will also be another post in the future.

The big news is that we bought a house in January.  We have an acre with a smallish house, two decent sized detached garages, and a couple other small outbuildings.  It’s a great location, close to a creek, and surrounded by woods.  It’s a perfect place for the kids and dogs and has space for the birds and a couple goats when we decide to get more.

We’re heating with wood and playing catch up so we’re mostly burning fairly green wood.  It adds a lot of labor and requires a little creativity but we’re staying warm without building up too much creosote.  Next year should be a lot easier since we’ll have time for the wood to season.

Our Buff Orpingtons are turning out to be great chickens.  They’re very cold tolerant, doing well with temperatures below zero and little shelter, and seem to be pretty decent layers.  They’re laid back birds, easy to work with, and seem smarter than some of the chickens we’ve had in the past.  The big advantage, for us, anyway, is the broodiness of the hens.  We should be able to stop buying chicks every couple years and not have to fiddle with an incubator.

The Muscovies grew like crazy and turned out to be pretty decent sized birds.  They’re finally starting to lay jumbo+ size whitish eggs.  Dog-like is the best way to describe them.  They don’t quack, but make a little whisper/hissing sound instead, wagging their tails excitedly when they see people.  We had heard horror stories of aggressive drakes but ours have been as mild mannered as could be.  The full grown birds are huge.  Think of a big turkey but with a longer body and not as round.  We killed a young Muscovy and put it in the rotisserie with some BBQ sauce and WOW! it was incredible!

We haven’t eaten any Pekin ducks yet since we only have 6 and want all of those for breeding purposes.  Without having a direct side by side comparison, I think the Pekins grew faster than the Cornish X or Freedom Ranger meat chickens.  They also seemed to have better feed conversion but I can’t say for sure since we didn’t really keep track.  I do know that the full grown Pekins eat a lot of feed.  They’re very comical to watch since they’re too heavy to fly and they’ve can’t jump.  Any small obstacle they come across is met with very dramatic wing flapping and furious quacking.  Speaking of the wings, watch out for them.  They’ll leave bruises.

We have more plans and ideas than we have time or money so I don’t know exactly what we’ll be doing next.  Rabbits, Coturnix quail, tilapia, aquaponics, fruit trees, and an indoor fodder system are all on the list, along with dozens of other things.  We’ll have to prioritize and come up with some sort of plan moving forward.

Playing in the Dirt

I started the morning by adding three nuisance birds to our bag in preparation for Nuisance Stew.  Since we have a lot of Starlings and similar invasive/nuisance birds around I had the idea of eating them.  A quick Google search showed that while I am crazy, I’m not the only one.  I now have 6 or 7 birds in the fridge that will be going into some sort of dish on Monday.  We’ll see how it works out.  If nothing else they’ll make decent dog and cat food and they’re fun target practice.  Not to mention that I’m helping farmers and the native cavity nesting songbirds.

After the backyard hunting excursion we took Bella to a friend’s birthday party then picked up a few things for the garden from Lowe’s.  We walked out the door after spending almost $40 and not getting a single thing we had planned to buy.

Upon our return, the real work began.  Okay…  Maybe we ate fried chicken and watched TV first, the real work did happen – eventually.

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I dug all the old flowers, weeds, and small trees out of the previous tenants flowerbed.  The dirty bowling ball-sized rock was buried in the bed, too. I’ll put in some of our early plants in here tomorrow or Monday.  Unfortunately the bed is in the middle of Tank’s path so it will have to be fenced in.

The best part of the evening was building a little dirt pit for the kids to play in and watching them load and dump a handful of rocks over and over.

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The sod boundary walls will hopefully keep most of the dirt and rocks contained.  We’ll see.  For the moment at least the kids are enthralled and are following the rules pretty well.

While the kids played in their dirt I started digging the garden.  The neighbor stopped by and offered the use of his backhoe – which I don’t want anywhere near my garden.  I will, however, be asking for his help with excavating if my pond plans work out as I hope.  I think I’ll be able to persuade another neighbor to lend me a couple pigs to seal up the pond.  But I need to get a better handle on the garden and new chicken tractors before I go to far with that project.

A year later…

It’s been almost a year since I last posted.  In the past year we sold the rabbits, traded the goats for more chickens, moved to a new house, and picked up a part time job.  The biggest change came with the addition of our third child.  Between two jobs, three kids, and all the chaos that we call life we’re swamped, exhausted, and usually having a blast!

Our chickens went through a several month long dry spell of zero eggs, we think in part to do with a rat problem and maybe in part to the feed we were using.  They’re now back on the ball averaging 12 eggs a day from around 18 hens.  Some of the hens are a little old so we’re pretty happy with our numbers.

We’re expecting Buff Orpington chicks and Muscovy and White Pekin ducks in the middle of May.  That just happens to be the last frost date so we’ll be busy in the garden then, too.  I didn’t plan that very well…

Another project that I’m excited about is raising Coturnix quail.  I’m working on cage design now and will hopefully be buying some breeders within a month.

Today wrapped up a hydroponic fodder experiment in which I tested growing fodder in the house.  With Spring finally getting into gear I’ll have plenty of pasture for the handful of birds I plan to raise this year but the fodder will hopefully cut my grain dependence and also my feed bill this coming winter.

I won’t jinx myself with a prediction of when my next post will be or what topic it will cover.  Hopefully I’ll get it done before next Spring.

On an interesting side note, my posts on the failed chicken plucker generate as much traffic as everything else on the blog combined.  I guess I’ll have to fix rebuild the contraption and try to get it working right this year.