livestock

Broody hens: Hatching eggs au naturel

By fortuitous circumstances one of our Plymouth Barred Rock hens set on 10 eggs in our egg mobile this summer.  She somehow evaded daily morning egg collection.  Instead of laying in the nesting boxes, which we access from outside the egg mobile, she hid in the corner away from sight.  She’d gone broody.

I'm gone broody

I’m gone broody

Natural hatching has always intrigued me.  Before purchasing our heritage breeds, I had read about the varying levels of broodiness in the different breeds of hens.  Plymouth Barred Rock hens have a tendency to go broody and make good mothers.

Into the Light

Into the Light

Allowing a hen to go broody and hatch eggs involved special care and attention.  Hens can sit on 8 – 12 eggs respective to their breed.  Our broody hen naturally incubated 6 out of 10 eggs.  All eggs were candled (shine a light on them in the dark) to show full development inside the shell so I am uncertain as to why the last 4 eggs did not pip or hatch.  I didn’t keep the nest as clean as I could have so it is possible that there could have been some bacterial contamination.  It is important to keep the bedding dry and clean.

Broody hens are easy to identify.  Stick your hand inside their nesting box and feel the power of the beak pinch and the alarming shreak of terror.  These are unmistakeable characteristics of a broody hen.  Broody hens have a tendency to leave the nest at the same time of day to relieve themselves, eat, run around, and dust bath. Their fecal deposits are ginormous, for lack of a better word, and you will observe them dance around their nesting area.  I liked the fact that we used our egg wagon as a shelter for our hen (having moved our layers to another housing) as it allowed Hen-rietta to get outside, do her business in the sunlight, and then get back to incubating. The incubation process takes approximately three weeks (18 – 22 days) and the hens will fulfill their mothering duties for up to 5 weeks when they begin to lay again.  The last three days of the hatch usually find the hen locked into the nest until the hatch completes.

Let's eat!

Let’s eat!

Broody hens should be left alone as much as possible so they can go about their business.  I kept a small margarine dish of chick starter and a chick waterer near to the nest (in a dark corner of the egg wagon) to make sure that the hen stayed hydrated and nourished. Broody hens consume far less feed than laying hens so high protein chick starter or pullet grower in place of laying mash or pellets works well.  Some may even need prompting to feed and drink as they become entranced and entrenched into never leaving the eggs.

Normally, a hen would be encouraged to go broody in mid-Spring, however, our broody hen decided to go broody in August.  Given the late discovery of her developed egg cache in a dark corner of the egg wagon and my refusal to discard the eggs, Hen-rietta was able to bring 5 beautiful chicks onto the farm.  As they say, a chick hatched via a broody hen has a much higher likelihood of becoming broody as a laying hen so here’s hoping that more natural hatches can happen in the Spring with our Plymouth Barred Rocks, Black Australorps, and New Hampshire Red crosses.  I’ll probably invest in a couple of Silkie hens by then as they are top notch broodies.

This was my first experience facilitating a broody hen hatch.  Next time around, Spring 2016, we’ll have a hatching pen set up inside one of the chicken barns so that multiple broodies can hatch at the same time.  A temporary nesting box in the form of a pet carrier, bucket, milk crate, or box in isolated pens will serve as a maternity pen set-up.

The most important lesson I learned in this whole process was through the maternal behavior exhibited by Henrietta.  Mothers are teachers and she was quick to educate her chicks on drinking, eating, and the safety of a mother’s wing.  It is a beautiful thing to watch the chicks imprint onto their mother.  I won’t retire the hovabator incubator, but I will certainly enable our hens to go broody and hatch chicks as often as possible this coming Spring and Summer.

Everybody scatter!

Everybody scatter!

Categories: farming, Heritage breed chicken, livestock, pasture based farming, small family farming | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Grazer Dome

On MacCurdy farm we try to maximize the power of the sun by getting all of our animals on pasture. With a fleet of pastured poultry pens (chicken tractors) already in action, it was time to get our turkeys onto pasture with the good ol’ fashioned grazer dome raising.

Turkeys, depending on the quality of pasture, can meet up to 70% of their dietary needs from pasture.  At present we don’t do a rotation with cattle. Instead, we harvest a first cut off of our hayfields nearest the farm and then start our meatking chickens and commercial turkeys onto pasture.  We have used Joel Salatin’s golden ratio by housing turkeys with meat chickens with some level of success but this year we felt it was time to construct a new type of housing for our turkey poults.  Generally, one would keep young poults inside the grazer dome only until they are aerial predator proof at which point the dome becomes enclosed by our poultry netting so they can get out and get working on naturally fertilizing our hayfields.

We pride ourselves on being erudite in all aspects of preparation and decision making concerning our animals so I set out earlier this summer to a farm in Colpitts Settlement, just outside of Riverview, NB for some networking and to pick up my favorite breed of heritage chicken, the Delaware.  Maplehurst farms, owned and operate by the Beatons, had a beautiful pasture based rotational operation in place in their picturesque slice of heaven.  After a tour of their pasture and some introductions to their Berkshire pigs and Dexter cattle, I found myself intrigued by a portable hoop house design that they were currently housing turkeys in.  My project gears immediately started to turn at the sight of the housing on skids.  “How am I going to find the time to build this?” I thought to myself. After, an exchange of emails, Jason shared the materials list along with pictures and other bits of advice on his Facebook page that set the project into motion. I attribute the design of the grazer dome to the Beatons and a book entitled, “Chicken Coops: 45 building ideas for housing your flock“.

Grazer Dome

Grazer Dome

I have a tendency to apply a twist to projects to make them unique to MacCurdy Farm but I made very little alterations with this project.  However, I will highlight those aspect of the grazer dome that are different than the ones at Maplehurst farms to show you other options in building the turkey grazer domes.

The Skid

As with most projects, you build from the ground up.  However, after calling around to local hardware stores I determined that 16′ 4″ x 4″ lumber only came in treated form, which we do not use on the farm.  Option B, fire up the Stihl chainsaw and cut down four straight cedar trees, delimb, and truck them to a local saw mill.  For a small price I had two 16′ 4″ x 4″s and two 10′ 4″ x 4″ along with two 16′ 1″ x 4″s sawn up.  On the two 16′ pieces you will need to angle the ends to create a skid plate on each piece.  I measured 6″ back from the top and then plumbed to the bottom.  Next, measure 2 inches down from the front of the piece.  Finally, using your speed square or a straight edge, connect both marks to form your cut line.  I used a chainsaw to make a clean cut.  After arriving back at the farm, I quickly trimmed the 4 x 4 lumber to length and then laid them out in a rectangle with each corner propped up on two foot 4 x 4 blocks.  With a cordless drill, I first predrilled three holes at each corner with a 6″ 1/2″ bit.  Working solo, this allowed me to bring about a tight and properly aligned fit between the 16′ and 10′ four by fours.  I used three 6″ by 5×8″ lag screws on each corner.  Afterwards, I took four pieces of 4 x 4 and using a speed square made two 45 degree cuts to create a corner brace for each corner.  Using the speed square to bring the corner into square, I then used 4″ galvanized spiral nails to secure the corner braces.  You will use the same type of bracing to plumb the corners of the side walls except you will use 2 x 4 in place of 4 x 4.

I chose to go with 24″ studs on the side walls, which equates to a 32.5″ jump for the turkeys to get onto the roosts.  You will require approximately 140 linear feet of 2 x 4 to complete the side walls, which does not include the end framing.  An additional 50 linear feet for end framing would suffice, but I just used old 2 x 4 hanging around the farm.  I always take the approach of using left over materials on previous jobs to finish new projects.  I placed vertical studs at 4′ on centre on each 16′ side and at 2′ on centre on the 10′ end walls.  The fewer studs used will allow more air to pass through the fenced in side walls.  The opening in the door is 32″ between each jack stud to allow sufficient space for several chickens, turkeys, or pigs to cross the threshold at once.  These structures can be used for varying purposes on your small scale family farm.

GRazer dome framing

Grazer dome framing

Use 1/4″ or 1/2″ hardware cloth that has been galvanized after the weld around the side walls. I use a 3′ roll around the completely perimeter of the structure, only cutting out the piece over the door opening.  On the ends, you can use chicken wire above the hardware cloth.  You can use a staple gun or hammer in small fencing staples.  A slight overlap onto the 4 x 4 skid is suggested.

End Framing

End Framing

The grazer dome is equipped with a 1/4″ braided metal cable.  First use your cordless drill with a 1/2″ wood bit to dril out a hole on the front 4 x 4.  Push the 1/2″ eye bolt through the openings on either side and place a washer and nut over the ends.  Tighten.  Outside, thread about 8 – 10 inches of the metal cable through the eye bolt.  Using cable clamps, tighten the cable clamp over the loop ends that you have formed.  The grazer dome is now ready to be pulled with a tractor or truck or team of horses.  It’s your choice, really.  If you happen to pull transports for sport, this is an option as well.  Just saying.

Braided metal tow cable with cable clamp

Braided metal tow cable with cable clamp

Rebar Ribs

Take all 5 of your 20′ length 3/8″ rebar and cut them to a length equivalent to half of the circumference of a circle with a 10′ diameter, or in my case a 10’6″ diameter.  Input your number into C = pi (3.14) x diameter and then half your result to achieve the required length of your rebar.  With a cut-off blade on a grinder, cut the pieces to length.  I did it on a hot day so I kept a pail of water close by in case a spark caught anything on fire.  Prior to installing the dome ribs, first equip the cordless drill with a 1/2″ wood drill bit.  At four inch intervals drill a hole at a depth of 1″ into the top plate of the side wall.  You will need to drill 10 holes.  Good math, right!  Ideally, find an accommodating person to assist you in placing the rebar into the predrilled holes.  If that said person is nowhere to be found, place the end of one side of the rebar into the hole and gently walk your hand up the rebar until you have created a semi-circle to bend the rebar into the hole on the opposite side wall. Do this five times.  Next, set the 4′ side of the remesh along the side wall and tie at multiple locations on each rebar until it is securely fastened.  Cut metal wire to 4″ lengths in advance, which you will use to attach the remesh to the rebar.  A simple pair of pliers or vice grips will work to twist the two ends together.  Bend the ends at the top of the dome downward to avoid creating rips and tears when the tarpaulin is pulled over the dome.  Once all 8 sheets of remesh have been securely fastened to the rebar ribs, take some 2″ screws and screw them in at an angle over top of the rebar entrance into the side wall.  One screw at each hole will suffice.  On the end framing, you can also use the cordless drill to install screws to keep the rebar ribs in place over top of the framing.

rebar screw

rebar screw

Blue or Green

Chose a colored tarp to impede some of the sun light.  Shade is a necessity for birds in the field.  The tarp will act to provide shade and shelter from rain.  I went with a 20′ x 20′ tarp as I hope to create a roll up side wall in the future.  Positioning and securing the tarp to the side wall will require an additional person or two.  Gently zigzag the tarp over top of the dome until it is evenly divided.  Using the 16′ 1″x4″ pieces of cedar, screw into the 1 x 4 over top of the tarp and into the side wall on one side of the grazer dome.  Do the same on the other side.  At this point, you can grab a pair of scissors or a utility knife to cut off the excess tarp or do as I did and roll it up on the ends where you will sandwich the tarp between boards cut to fit inside of the contour of the end wall.  Screw through the boards over top of the rolled up tarp into the end framing.  This will provide anchoring for the tarp on all four sides of the structure.

All tarped up and ready to go

All tarped up and ready to go

The Doors

Human entry at the front, turkey door at the back.  I won’t bother to give dimensions with the door, but take care to leave a 1/2″ of space between the width of the door and the width of the opening so that the door closes without jamming.  I double latch the door at the same height at the T hinges.  A quick google seach of barn doors or a look at my photos will set you on the right track.  We’ll be adding a sliding turkey door between two of the wall studs at the rear in the near future.  This will allow the turkeys to come and go from the dome with more facility.

Roosts

Turkeys, like other birds, prefer to roost in the night time.  I fitted the grazer dome with two roosts supported by angle braces on either side.  They bear all 200 lbs of farmer MacCurdy plus some.  In my opinion, it is essential to include angle braces if you are housing larger birds.  I always enjoy having a staring competition with the birds while they are on the roosts.  They usually give me a look that I anthropomorphize into curiosity.

Modus Operandi

It is best to move the grazer dome when the manure application inside of it covers the better part of the pasture.  We currently move the dome after 48 hours in one place.  We undo the poultry netting, move the s17 solar charger to the next location, drag the grazer dome to it’s new piece of salad bar, reposition the poultry netting, and lead the turkeys to the next rotation.  Lots of feeders, waterers, and the occasional greenhouse lettuce or edible weeds treat keeps the turkeys happy.  Not to mention they are free to explore the expanse of their surroundings visually, run around their portable enclosure, and, when the opportunity arises, chase Farmer Mac’s children into a flight of fear…haha. Turkeys are remarkably clever, communal, and tasty.  Support your local farmers and get out and visit a small local family farm when you have the chance.

Materials List

2 16’ 4*4
2 10’ 4*4
2 8’ 4*4 for cross bracing the sled
8 sheets 4*8 remesh
5 20’ lengths of ½’ rebar
A roll of rebar wire tie
A tarp at least 16’ * 16’
12 5/8” by 6” lag bolts with washers
Bag of screws or nails
If you want to build a wall some more 2*4 will be required
Also some more lumber to board in the ends

Categories: Bay of Chaleur, farming, livestock, organic agriculture | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Inspire Coop Permaculture presentation: Integrating chickens into permaculture design

Today, I had the pleasure of sharing my passion for livestock, namely chickens in this instance, at a permaculture orientation session in my hometown of Dalhousie, NB.  As always, I had some butterflies but overcame them to deliver my powerpoint presentation on chickens and their integration into permaculture set-ups.  In my 2+ years of farming with chickens, I’ve learned a great deal from books, websites, discussion forums, and other farmers and poultry enthusiasts.  I hope I was able to accelerate this process for those in attendance as they seek to determine the right fit for their backyard or barnyard flocks.

A big thank you to Bob Ewing and Marie-Christine Allard for the organization of this much needed event in our region.  I am confident that efforts such as this will help us to bring about big changes in the mentality towards food security, food sustainability, food availability, permaculture, and agriculture as a whole.

Should you have questions concerning anything from the presentation or anything contained within the power point, please do no hesitate to contact me via the contacts provided in the power point.  Sometimes time constraints keep one from fully answering questions or concerns that might arise from the presentation.  For example, in determining the quality of a laying hen, despite signs of aging, one can look at the condition of the vent.  A moist horizontal slit would indicate that a bird is laying, while a dry puckered vent would indicate that the hen is either off cycle or has slowed down to the point of very little egg production.

Finally, it was very encouraging to be in the company of people who are eager to learn and share what they have learned about farming.  It is through communication of different approaches that someone can learn to break a mold and step into an area of discomfort to better their farming experience or, in the very least, try something new.

Click on the link below to access the power point presentation.  Livestock & Permaculture Design

Categories: Food Awareness, Heritage breed chicken, livestock, MacCurdy Farm, mobile chicken coop, permaculture | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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