The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Tag: chickens (page 1 of 2)

One Thing Leads to Another

It’s been quite a while since I have added a new post here. It’s been far too long, so here’s a quick overview of what we have been doing for the past few months. I’ll be posting details of these projects and more.

IMG_1970_phatchTree Clearing – We had over twenty old water oak trees and a few palm trees removed from the property. Water oaks are like weeds – they grow quickly, drop branches, make a mess, then rot and die. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life watching old trees rot and die.

IMG_2016_phatchTree Planting – With the water oaks removed, I now have open sunny areas to plant fruit trees. There are now rows of pears, apples, peaches, persimmons, figs, and pomegranates. I’ve planted plenty of trees in the past, but most of them were planted the wrong way. I learned how to correctly plant a tree to assure that it doesn’t have problems several years later.

IMG_2825_phatchHoney Bees – With the prospect of having fruit trees that will need pollinating, and a vegetable garden that needs pollinating, I’m now a beekeeper with five hives. I’ve joined the local beekeeping group (there were about 40 members present at the last meeting). My wife and I attended the two-day Bee College, put on by the University of Florida.

IMG_2450_phatchDucks and Chickens – After many years of keeping chickens, I have switched over to ducks. I had planned to keep both, but the ducks have worked out so well, it just made more sense to only have the ducks. We’ll have some posts about the pros and cons of ducks and chickens. It’s probably not the best choice for everyone, but it might be for you.

Chicken Gardens?

I end up looking through a lot of gardening web sites and books. Something that I’ve been seeing lately are what people are calling “Chicken Gardens”. The idea is that you can have a garden and chickens free-ranging in that garden – and everything will turn out just fine. It’s an appealing idea, and it makes for some very attractive photos and articles in slick magazines, but I’m pretty sure that those photos were taken within the first day or two of having chickens in the garden. I may be wrong – but I don’t think so.

My main garden area is a raised bed garden. I didn’t think the chickens would fly up into the garden when they had a full acre of yard to run around in. Wrong.

I guess if you are very careful with what you plant, have only a couple of chickens, and take other precautions that (I assume) are in the book, then maybe – just maybe – it will work, and your garden won’t look like it just went through a shredder. Oh, and it will only take a few days before your hens decide they would rather lay their eggs someplace other than their regular nesting boxes. No, thank you. I think I’ll keep my chickens in their pen.

A popular book on Chicken Gardens. I have NOT read this book - I am "judging the book by its cover."

A popular book on Chicken Gardens. I have NOT read this book – I am “judging the book by its cover.”

All that remains of a once-beautiful broccoli plant, about three days after the chickens discovered it.

All that remains of a once-beautiful broccoli plant, about three days after the chickens discovered it.

Chicken Water Systems

I have tried just about every common method of supplying chickens with clean drinking water. I now have a box full of “tried it” watering systems, plus more stacked in the attic. Here are some of the things I have learned:

  • Water quality matters. If you have high mineral content in your water, your choices are limited.
  • Chickens will mess up anything they can touch. The ability of a water system to minimize that is important.
  • Water is heavy. You don’t want to have to carry a full container of water in order to resupply your chickens – at least not as a regular routine.

Each water system has its own advantages and disadvantages, so you can’t really say any one system is the best. I have found what is clearly the best choice for my situation, but yours may be quite different. We’ll start with what I have tried and found lacking.

Container Water Systems

These are anything that includes a container that must be manually refilled. They are great for temporary use when you just can’t run a pressurized water line. Water is heavy though, so you don’t want to plan on that as the norm.

You might think that bigger is better since you don’t have to fill it as often. I have container systems from 5 gallons to quart jar systems.

  • The 5 gallon systems should just be crossed off the list. They are just too heavy to work with, and they get dirty and have to be cleaned before they are empty.
  • The quart jar systems are great for chicks that can’t handle other systems. I have both plastic and all-glass systems. For the purpose for which they were designed, they do a great job.
  • The 1-gallion plastic systems are a good choice for a temporary arrangement. One gallon isn’t too heavy to put into position in a cage, and it lasts about long enough that it’s time to clean it when it’s time to fill it.

Weight Regulated Systems

These systems depend on the weight of water in a bowl to keep the bowl filled. There is a fairly sensitive calibration that has to be done to get it right. Too much in one direction, and the bowl will overflow. Too much in the other direction and it will empty without being refilled. These systems use the same valve system as an ordinary tire valve. In fact, the replacement valve stems are the same as you would get in an auto-parts store.

The problem with these systems is the rather delicate valve that controls it. If you have good, mineral-free water, then it should work just fine. I don’t have that, so the valve tends to get encrusted with mineral deposits and it stops working. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the replaceable valve stem that gets ruined, but the housing also. For my water, they are more trouble than they are worth. Again, if you have good mineral-free water, these may be an excellent choice.

Float Controlled Systems

These are basically water bowls with a float valve similar to the way that a toilet tank works. It maintains the water level by means of a float the opens the valve when the water level gets below a certain point. There are two disadvantages I have seen with these:

  • They have a rather large bowl area, which means lots of area for the chickens to mess up the water.
  • They tend to be a bit sensitive to the water pressure. If you supply a consistent pressure of the right amount, this is not a problem. Just make sure you have the supply working correctly.
  • The ones I have used have been cheaply made. The molded plastic floats develop leaks and stop working. The styrofoam floats have poor quality valves. That is a real deal-killer for me. The low quality that I have seen ( and I have tried several different brands) has led to me crossing these off my list.

 Drinking Cup Systems

These systems use a low pressure water supply that keeps just a tiny amount of water in the bottom of a drinking cup. The chickens activate a small plastic valve when they try to drink from the very bottom of the cup, and that adds a bit more water into the cup. Here are the reasons why I like this design best:

  • It is the cleanest system that I have found. The tiny amount of water means that there is much less opportunity for the chickens to mess up the water. There just isn’t much there for them to mess up.
  • The construction is all plastic, except for a coil spring. Despite the high mineral content in our water, these cups just keep on working.
  • The only problems I have had is with the water lines leading to the water cups. Make sure that you use black connectors with your tubing. A white connector allows enough light through so that algae can build up in that spot and gradually clog up the water line. If you have to use white connectors, add a bit of black electricians tape to block the light, and that should take care of the problem.
  • They are easy to add and move. I keep a spare line with a kink in it available so that if I need to separate a chicken, I can snap a water cup in a cage and connect that water line to it.

 

A few other related notes:

  • Chickens are unable to swallow. Notice that when they drink, they must raise their head to let the water drain down their throat. Their food works the same way. That means that when they eat and then drink, some of that food can drop into the water that they are trying to drink. It’s best not to have their water too close to the food. A little distance is a good thing.
  • Producing eggs takes a lot of water. Never let your chickens run out of water. If you see them flying over fences and other abnormal behavior to get out of their normal space, they might just be looking for water (don’t ask me how I know).
  • See also: A Water Tower for the Chickens.
  • See also: Clean Water for Chickens.

A Predator Problem We Don’t Have In The South

I’ve mentioned previously that we work with Bible missionaries stationed in Sierra Leone, West Africa. We received these photos this afternoon. They were taken last night when they found this five foot long cobra in their chicken coop.

cobra-DSC_8110cropped
cobra-DSC_8112cropped

As much as I don’t like having to deal with raccoons and possums and the occasional fox, I’ll take them any day over having to deal with cobras.

Here is what happened in the words of Mrs. Laura Holt, who took these photos:

Last night around 9:00, Stephen and I were enjoying the cool evening air on the veranda when I heard a ripple of distress pass through the chickens. I know the voice of my flock and was certain I knew what the problem was. Stephen and I grabbed flash lights and sure enough, there it was – a five-foot cobra! In recent months we have lost 4 hens to snake bites so we didn’t want to let this one get away.

While I ran to get two shovels, a machete and the camera, Stephen was able to keep the beast fairly well corralled with the flash light – they hate light so he kept it going in circles by strategically shining the beam of light in its eyes. At one point it tried to climb a tree just outside the poultry yard but with no branches low enough it was unsuccessful though it did reach a height of about 5 feet. It finally curled into a tight ball at the base of the tree.

While holding the flash light in his mouth Stephen dealt a hard blow to the back of the beast with the shovel. Despite its serious wound it still had strength enough to climb the gate to the chicken yard all the while spitting venom and emitting a low but evil sounding hiss and a growl-like sound; very creepy. Stephen then pinned it to the gate with the two shovels but it managed to slip out and went to the ground. With the snake thus weakened he then took the machete and severed its head.

All the while Mercy was a valiant assistant. At one point he did bite the snake though we tried to keep him back as best we could. But his maneuvers were a helpful distraction to the snake so Stephen was able to get a very clear shot at the base of the head. Mercy hates snakes and has a natural sense that they need to die. He has killed a few but they were not poisonous. He even has a special bark he uses only when a snake is present and I always take that alert seriously. I dread the day when he tries to face one of these deadly foes on his own. When I was doing my morning chores today I found one hen who had fallen victim to the snake.

New Chicks

A 7:30 a.m. phone call let me know to come to the post office to pick up my box of chicks.

A 7:30 a.m. phone call let me know to come to the post office to pick up my box of chicks.

Shiloh checking out the new additions.

Shiloh checking out the new additions.

Arrived today – 15 Rhode Island Reds and 11 Buff Orpingtons – all females. Here is my usual way of handling new chicks:

  1. Set up the brooder. This is a plastic “turtle” sandbox that my nephew outgrew about 12 years ago. We cut the center out of the top, making a nice opening yet tough for young chicks to flutter out of. Newspapers are added to the bottom.
  2. It is set up in the garage under the garage door opener. A cord holds a heat lamp above the brooder; it can be adjusted up or down as needed. If the chicks are huddled together, then it needs to go lower – if they are spread out away from the light, then it needs to be moved up.
  3. A small waterer is added. As each chick is removed from the box, I dip its beak in the water to get them started drinking. Most chicks start drinking immediately once they get a taste of the water.
  4. I sprinkle just a small amount of bird grit on the bottom to let them peck at it. Just a tiny bit – I don’t want them filling up on grit.
  5. I wait until they have all had plenty of time to drink and I see that its worked its way through their bodies before adding any food. My theory is that by getting their digestive tract working before giving any food, they they are less likely to have vent paste-up. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it can’t hurt.
  6. Several hours later, I add a feeder filled with chick starter.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. I regularly monitor their progress and make sure that the heat is right (judged by their behavior – not by a thermometer), keep the floor clean, add clean water and food as needed. I keep a piece of hardware cloth on the top opening to keep them from somehow fluttering out and to “keep the dog honest”.


Followup – Added one month later (February 28):
This is the most successful batch of chicks I have had yet. I only lost one – and that was not to a health issue. She somehow escaped from the “nursery pen”. The dog was doing his job and kept barking to let us know, but we figured he was just being an idiot so we ignored him. Since the chick couldn’t get back in with the rest of the checks, she decided to go into the ark with the rooster and the two grown hens. I locked them in at night and didn’t notice the chick in with them. In the morning, I found the dead chick when I went to let them out. I assume that she made it through the night OK since I would have seen her when I let them out. In the morning, the hens attacked and killed her. The rooster has never shown any aggression toward the chicks through the fence, but the two hens will peck at the chicks that get too close to the fence. Jealousy, I suppose.

Chickens in Africa

Following is a letter that I received from a missionary in Sierra Leone, West Africa who we work very closely with. They have plenty of experience raising chickens in America, but being in Africa changes the game completely. I am working on a reply – any suggestions would be appreciated!


I have some chicken questions and I was hoping that you could bounce them around your various hen-pecked friends. Any input is welcomed. I am seriously trying to get some notes together for you as you requested but it just has not happened. For now I will just address the troublesome situations with these incredibly neurotic birds. Rhode Island Reds they ain’t!

Problem One: they utterly refuse to go into the coop at night. Initially Mercy and I were herding them in. He is extremely good at it and we managed to force them in with relatively little trouble. Slowly but noticeably they became more difficult to persuade to go inside. We tried a light; a leg off the PV system. No way. For the last week I have given up and allow them to sleep outside. They are so content and my reluctance to force them in is that when they are in the coop they bunch up so badly that I regularly had suffocations. They tightly pack just inside the door as if to say, “Alright, you want us in but we will go no further.” There is plenty of room. They are not afraid of the coop; they go in and out all day; that is where the laying boxes are. I am just stymied by the behavior. When outside they loosely group together for the night but not in heaps like when inside. We are considering closing in the feeding shed, which is open on two sides, with gates that can be opened during the day to allow ranging in the yard and closed at night.(see picture at the bottom) The trouble with letting them just be out in the open at night is animals and particularly cobras whom we are told have a fondness for chicken. Suggestions?

Problem Two: we need a watering system. We have a water line running from the house tank to the poultry yard. Currently we just use plastic basins. It was never intended to stay that way and we have tossed around some ideas but are not settled on anything. I know that dirty water is a major source of disease and I am very diligent to keep it as clean as possible but it does get filthy. I told Stephen about your system, as much as I could remember anyway, so he is very curious about it. Currently we have about 145 birds. But keep in mind that we are seriously considering a major expansion. The market in this area for fresh eggs is huge and we want to take advantage of it to help fund the mission. So when considering water solutions think that we will have 1000 birds and a much larger coop. The coop will eventually have its own water tower and small PV system. The PV will more be for a few lights in the storage area but could perhaps run a small circulator pump. It needs to be effective but very simple; generator is not an option. But that is for the larger number which will be a year or more before it happens. Suggestions for both the small and large flock will be appreciated.

Problem Three: I have lost some hens to a strange illness. None of my books give me what I need to diagnose clearly. What happens is the birds develop a difficulty walking; their legs go stiff so that when they do walk they have to swing the legs out to the side. They look more like they are rowing than walking. Then they collapse and the wings go droopy. The head is alert and they are clearly in distress attempting to get back up on their legs. At the point of collapse the legs are straight out the back and extremely stiff. When I pick them up I can feel that they are having what I would call tremors especially in the shoulder area; sometimes these are fairly violent. Sometimes it is accompanied by raspy breathing, even gurgling. I have found that antibiotic given orally in a high dose (by force with a syringe) will generally keep them from dying. I don’t know if the illness itself is bacterial or if the antibiotics are merely treating secondary infection. Sometimes they appear to be improving and within an hour or so can be dead. I have an infirmary where I remove them to just in case it is contagious. The onset is rapid and death comes quickly if I don’t get it in time with antibiotic. Help!!

I have broad spectrum antibiotic which goes into the general water supply. I try to use it sparingly only as a treatment but it can be given at a lower dose for prevention. I have had a terrible time with cholera but thankfully not Newcastle. “Chickening” here is certainly different. I am weary of losing my beautiful birds.

This is the feeding shed.  The coop is to the right and opens directly to the shed; the roof joins the roof of the coop.  We are considering closing the two open sides so the birds can sleep outside but still be protected.  Here I am holding “White Boy” our only rooster to slip through the sexing process.  He and Mercy are sworn enemies and are very funny to watch.  These roosters do not have spurs!  White Boy is headed for the pot and has been put in jail as he was causing too many injuries to my girlies.  It is hard to see here but he is very pretty with lots of gold in his feathers.

This is the feeding shed. The coop is to the right and opens directly to the shed; the roof joins the roof of the coop. We are considering closing the two open sides so the birds can sleep outside but still be protected. Here I am holding “White Boy” our only rooster to slip through the sexing process. He and Mercy are sworn enemies and are very funny to watch. These roosters do not have spurs! White Boy is headed for the pot and has been put in jail as he was causing too many injuries to my girlies. It is hard to see here but he is very pretty with lots of gold in his feathers.

This is the coop.  The white portion to the left is cement block, ventilation screening on three sides, and a metal door.  The wooden part is the feeding shed.  The design is great but the dumb clucks will not use the coop at night.  I was wondering if it were too hot inside but they bunch up so badly.  It does get quite hot inside at night and I feel the temperature when I open the door in the morning.  But wouldn’t you think that if they were hot inside they would spread out like they do when they sleep outside?   Is it possible that if they are hot, they get distressed and bunch near the door thinking they can get out?  They are very neurotic and high strung so maybe that is the answer.   I know they go in there during the day because it can often be cooler inside but with them all inside and the door closed maybe the heat is too much.

This is the coop. The white portion to the left is cement block, ventilation screening on three sides, and a metal door. The wooden part is the feeding shed. The design is great but the dumb clucks will not use the coop at night. I was wondering if it were too hot inside but they bunch up so badly. It does get quite hot inside at night and I feel the temperature when I open the door in the morning. But wouldn’t you think that if they were hot inside they would spread out like they do when they sleep outside? Is it possible that if they are hot, they get distressed and bunch near the door thinking they can get out? They are very neurotic and high strung so maybe that is the answer. I know they go in there during the day because it can often be cooler inside but with them all inside and the door closed maybe the heat is too much.

Guess I’d better quit here. That really covers everything anyway. I will send you some more pix soon along with my notes about this breed – promise. I truly miss my RIR’s. Hope all is well with your little flock. Thanks in advance for your capable assistance.


Photo credit: Stephen and Laura Holt, Sierra Leone, West Africa

Dogs and Chickens

There are some photos that are just too good to not share. Below is a photo sent to us by our friends, who are Bible missionaries in Sierra Leone, West Africa. They have two Australian Shepherds named Goodness and Mercy. I’ll let Mrs. Holt tell the story in her own words:

The attached picture is Mercy as he plays baby sitter to our 200 chicks. They just love him and he is so gentle with them. He helps herd them into the coop at night. Then, upon the command to “check” he criss-crosses the fenced yard looking for any strays. He does an excellent job. He is very protective of them and recently killed a cat (his fifth) that was trying to get into the coop at night. The chicks will begin producing eggs by November or December which will be sold to the company.

“The company” she mentions is the gold mining company (run by Europeans) in the town they are near. A good farm dog is invaluable anywhere, but in a place like the African bush where hostile creatures – both two legged and four legged – abound, a good farm dog can literally be a life-saver. Their dogs have alerted them to a cobra trying to get into the house via a drain pipe, barked to alert them of a brush fire approaching their house, chased or killed several rabid dogs, and defended them against hostile natives trying to do them harm.

Photo by Laura Jean Holt
Sierra Leone, West Africa

Strange Eggs

Anyone who has raised chickens for a while has certainly seen some strange eggs laid by the hens. I have seen a small egg inside of a large egg, double yolk eggs, long thin shaped eggs, and probably others that I can’t think of at the moment. The most common “strange egg” that I have seen is the “egg with no shell”. These literally have no shell, but they do have the tough leathery skin that lines the inside of a normal egg shell. They have a pale translucent appearance. They begin to shrink fairly quickly as the water evaporates through that leathery skin. Since it is the inside that is shrinking while the outer skin remains the same size, it soon loses it’s round egg shape.

Keep in mind that this same evaporation and shrinking also occurs in regular eggs since the shell is porous. That is why you can approximate the age of an egg by seeing if it floats or sinks in a glass of water. As the egg ages, it loses water and air is pulled in through the shell to displace the lost water. That is the air sac that is at the end of an egg. The older the egg is, the more water is lost; air is pulled into the egg causing it to float rather than sink.

Farm Dogs

Few things represent the rural agrarian life more than the farm dog. In addition to the companionship that dogs provide, the farm dog really earns his keep. With only one acre, we hardly qualify as living on a farm, yet our dog still has his job and he does it well.

Shiloh is our Shetland Sheepdog (also known as a Sheltie). At 35 pounds, he is a good bit larger than the standards call for, which is why he lost his value as a stud dog and we were able to get him. When pests invade the garden, Shiloh chases them away. An unusual pest for most folks but not uncommon for us is wild peacocks that sometimes get into the garden until Shiloh chases them away. Another job that Shiloh does well is catching chickens that fly over their fence and get into the garden. It’s almost as much fun watching that as it is watching a Border Collie working sheep. He chases the chicken and tries to corner it. The chicken will eventually give up and stop and he just stands over it to keep it from leaving. He never tries to bite or harm the chicken in any way. If we aren’t out there at the time, he will bark to let us know that he needs help. I walk over and pick up the chicken and put it back over the fence. The chickens are usually quite happy to see me after dealing with the dog.

Shiloh as a young puppy, holding a chicken

Mama Hen and the Brood

 
On January 1, we put 12 fertile eggs under a broody Buff Orphington hen. Twenty-one days later, we had seven baby chicks. The chicks are (I hope) all Rhode Island Reds (RIR). We have a RIR rooster, and the RIR eggs are shaped a bit differently than the Buff Orpington eggs, so I hope that what we have is pure Rhode Island Red chicks. We’ll see as they mature.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that the survival rate of chicks hatched and raised by a hen is much better than with an incubator. The incubator yields a bit better number of hatched chicks than the hen, but the mortality rate during the first week or so is much higher. So far, we have never lost a single chick that was hatched and raised by a hen.

To the right is the Roll-Away nest box described in a previous post. It makes a great hatching nest with the partition removed and sitting level. The feeder and water jar have since been moved on top of a concrete paver to keep the hen from scratching dirt into them.

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