Tiny farming: chickenhouse

Road to the Chickenhouse

Snow banks

In bits and pieces, with no one storm to take the credit, the snow has been steadily building up. Regular barnyard clearing is fully underway, by blade-on-truck and then the big tractor, with snow banks appearing in all the usual places, like the ones that form the winter laneway leading  to the Chickenhouse…

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Chickens at work

Chickens at the feeder

The Shaver Red Sex-Link laying hens are doing fine in the fairly chilly chickenhouse, eating up a storm, looking and sounding healthy and happy, and producing away. They’ve been in artificial light days for the last couple of months, about 16 hours made up of daylight extended by a 60W bulb on a timer that’s on till 11pm. I’m curious whether at least some of the girls would really stop producing for the winter if the light dropped below 15 hours for even a single day. I don’t actually want to see it happen, but what if there’s a power failure? Hmmm… Kerosene lamp? In any case, fall egg production has so far stayed steady at about 20-23 a day for the 25 girls… Chickens are easy, you don’t have to know a lot to raise them casually, but there is a lot you could know. And of course, the more you know, the less you need! My winter chicken reading is Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.

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Definitely ready to lay

Egg laying in the shipping crate

It’s back-to-back chicken stories, from chickens to the slaughter to chickens ready to lay! The hatchery moved up the scheduled delivery of the 20-week-old Shaver Red Sex-Links by three days, and today was it. These girls are cool, and ready to go, dropping a couple of eggs before they were even out of their crates…

Layers ready for pick-up

At the feed store in town, the crates were casually stacked near the loading dock (and you can see MORE BAGS OF FEED waiting to be picked up, these are 88lb sacks of layer mash). Our 25 were in two crates.

New layers and chicken supplies

Like any other trip to town, on this chicken run, I ended up with lots of extra stuff besides chickens: several blocks of compressed shavings, the layer feed, and a sack of scratch for the Frey’s dual purpose.

Layers unleashed

Back at the farm, I opened one crate at a time and let them come out on their own to explore their side of the Chickenhouse. The young ladies seemed happy, unflustered, in fine feather… Within a few hours, I collected the first three, still tiny, warm, fresh eggs! Felt great!

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Chickens to the slaughter

Separating chickens at dawn

Raising your first chickens, killing them, and eating them has gotta rank up there with other Firsts worth a little attention. Now, I’m at least part of the way there: the killing this time was done behind closed doors, with me on the outside—chicken PROCESSING. Still, first enough to be worth a few photos… I’d been cutting it close with booking a processing day for the White Rocks, the local processor is known to get solidly booked for weeks. I finally called yesterday, looking for a date in two weeks, and was told there was also a cancellation for tomorrow (today!). I checked out the WRs, and, man, how could I imagine them getting any bigger (I think I was mesmerized, waiting for them to explode)? So I called back and booked. We drove over last night to pick up crates (20 minutes each way), then it was up at 5:30 this morning to load ‘em. As soon as I opened the door, all of the Frey’s dual purpose darted out immediately, as usual, while the WRs, who mostly go nowhere, stayed in: it was kinda fitting that the Frey’s stood around in unfenced-in freedom, ready to run (and they would’ve!), while the WRs kinda dumbly looked out at their crates (above).

Crated chickens

Five to a crate, 25 in all, 30 minutes or so to loaded…no need to chase down these lumbering beasts (while I was packing, most of the Frey’s figured out no good was afoot and entirely disappeared around the other side of the chickenhouse, something they’d never done before, while a couple stayed to watch).

The chicken processing place

The processor is on a farm, a low building where birds go in live on one side, and come out the other, cleaned and chilled, weighed and government-inspected, ready to go…

Unloading chickens at the processing house

Bob and a processing guy unload. It’s 6:45am. The paperwork is quick and painless, I didn’t even have to write or sign anything. The only sign of bureaucracy in action is the required chicken purchase number, a serial number that’s on the form that you fill out when purchasing the chicks. And the on-premises government inspector popped out and did a little of his own paperwork. Other than that, just processing choices. For a few cents more (like 75-85), you can have the chickens halved and put in separate bags, or halved or quartered in the same bag. We got 10 halved and separated, for when cooking a whole fat chicken would be a little too much. Modern conveniences?! :) I also chose to get the organs back (in the black bag; below).

Picking up freshly killed and chilled chickens

Eleven hours later, it’s 5:30pm and we’re back. Matthew helps pack the big birds for the trip home and into the freezer. Average weight is around 8lbs (3.6kg), where the Frey’s are maybe barely 3lbs. Hmmm… Not the most satisfying little adventure, with three 40-minute round trip drives, and the chickens disappearing through yet another middleman, reappearing neatly packaged for $3 more… With the processing fee tacked on for good measure, these are EXPENSIVE chickens, but I’ll do the math, and review the overall, somewhat unsettling White Rock Experience…later. On the other hand, you can’t beat the results: a lotta REALLY plump chickens! Next up in Meat Birds, Take 1: waiting for the free-ranging Frey’s to bulk up, and THEN it’ll be a fully DIY field-to-table chicken dinner!

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Chicken check-in

Chickens at three weeks

A week after their arrival, the chickens at three weeks old are doing fine. They settled in no problem, eat like maniacs, drink a lot, and I guess they’re too young to fight, ’cause they’re all getting along. I’ve been cycling through music—a radio is always on in the chickenhouse, to scare off PREDATORS—started with a couple of days of country, then a stretch of classical (they go a little crazy during big, building crescendoes), and now it’s rock (“’80s, ’90s and whatever”…a weird-format local FM station). So far, behavior seems pretty much the same no matter what’s playing—the experiment continues, maybe they want custom mix tapes. And they’re growing. They started off about the same size, but there are definitely some big guys now amongst the White Rock Cornish X, and the Frey’s Special are all at the smaller end, faster-feathering, too (there’s one on top of the waterer). They’re all getting along, but Bob noticed a red pecking spot on one of the White Rocks, so I’m gonna be watching the blending of the breeds: I read that sometimes the WRs get pecked (attacked?) because they’re slower to feather than others… The gang (the posse, the flock!) does keep busy, exploring corners and cracks, piling up and napping in sunlit patches, zipping around, drinking a lot, and of course, eating…

Chickens hanging out

Definitely a lot of eating…

Chickens at feeder

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Liming the Chickenhouse

Mixing lime and water to make whitewash

Whitewashed the meat bird half of the Chickenhouse today, using the traditional purist blend of nothing but hydrated lime and water. This is an old school farming standard from Bob, completely new to me.

The lime is a very fine powder that comes in bags. Mixing was easy. A power drill mixing attachment churned it to a thickness a bit lighter than regular paint, and then on it went with big brushes.

The lime is a bit caustic, so wearing a mask when mixing, and gloves and goggles to avoid splatter, is a good idea, although I didn’t this time around (and I did take care not to inhale clouds of lime dust!).

Afterwards (it’s follow Bob’s lead), I did some reading and, not surprisingly, was quite amazed: yet another simple, inexpensive, effective approach that’s been complicated (in this case, into the costly world of high tech paints and sealants)…

Classic lime whitewash disinfects, repels insects, and preserves by sealing surfaces and wicking up water. It dries to an opaque white that beautifully reflects light to brighten up dim spaces.

Whitewashing the chicken coop

It’s also safe for animals (which, yes, includes us humans, lime can even be used in chicken litter to keep it dry).

There are lots of applications, interior and exterior, for wood and masonry. It’s not as permanent as oil or latex paint, will rub off a bit, and needs to be refreshed every year to keep it in top shape.

It’s also INEXPENSIVE: a 50lb (22.5kg) bag was about $7, and you can mix up at least 15-20 gallons from that, the way we used it. That means you could whitewash an entire small building, inside and out, for maybe $20! For big jobs, a sprayer would make it real easy.

You can tint it, and there are also various recipes that include alum, salt and other additives that may improve adhesion, but the tried-and-true basic is just lime and water.

And you need hydrated lime, NOT dolomitic lime nor calcium carbonate, aka garden lime (both are recommended for raising pH in garden soil). We got ours from the feed store.

I’m not sure how popular this sort of whitewashing is these days, but it’s certainly still used, and a few decades ago, this was a standard type of paint. Anyhow, it looks and sounds great, and we’ll see how the chickens like it!

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