Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A chicken retrospective (Part 3)

Finally, let me share my experience with the chickens themselves, from my sample size of one breed.

We've got Isa Browns - Best decision we ever made. They're extremely friendly to the point they get in the way. The only times I've been pecked is in the odd moment my hand comes between them and a nice, green, crisp piece of lettuce. If you've got a family, they certainly aren't about to take small pieces out of your children while you're not looking.

But beyond that, they're prolific layers. On a rough estimate, I'd say they lay two out of every three days, and I've very rarely gone a long stretch without any eggs. It really is unbelievable the mass of lime and protein they push through their bodies on a weekly basis. And these aren't small eggs either. On these grounds, I think two chooks is more than enough for most people. In addition to cooking our own omelets, we also feed close family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.

If you're a traveler though, you might want to consider your holiday-care options before diving in. It isn't quite so bad in winter when they can last days without any specific attention - but in summer its critical they're checked on every day. Without water, chickens will quickly progress to rigor-mortis in the summer heat - and its not unlike a chicken to accidentally tip out all of said water on any given day. We're are gifted with a host of friends and family who love eggs, and help us out on many such occasions.

But most importantly - the cost. It takes me about five minutes daily to keep them watered and fed, I also clean the brown gold out of the nesting box - it keeps them clean, and sees it added to the compost heap in small excrements. They chew through about $20 of layer pellets in a two-month period; a diet which is supplemented with an variety of free kitchen and garden scraps. The litter in the whole coop is replaced every two-three months as needed, at a cost of about $20. And the spoils: 400+ fresh eggs a year. But there's more! If you're a gardener, chickens work a lot harder than just laying eggs. They're a big source of home-made fertiliser, and they're always keen to dig-over and weed your garden beds while you enjoy a beer in the shade.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A chicken retrospective (Part 2)

n the years leading up to owning by own barnyard-animals, I received a whole range of criticisms designed to discourage me from my intent. However, I'm a determined kind of person, and I tend to optimistically view such difficulties as flaws in a design. Allow me to illustrate a few for you; along with what actually happened.

"You'll attract ever rodent in a 20km radius". Well, this was only very partially correct. The bottom fell out of the hanging feeder once, accompanied by a symphony of cursing and swearing. Despite our best efforts to clean it up, a lot of pellets stayed on the ground, and this irresistible smorgasbord attracted a plague of vermin. Though once they finished off the pellets, the kitchen was closed & I never saw them again. Problems with rodents can be avoided easily by making the gourmet chook-pellets inaccessible to all but the chickens. The hanging feeder (when it remained hanging) has done this nicely. I also invested in an electronic rat trap, which worked with some success - I'd advise it over poising the rats (and everything else that eats rat-sak, and/or poisoned rats).

"They'll generate a smell not unlike a dynamic-lifter factory". This has never eventuated. All floorspace is covered with a 10cm layer of sugar-cane mulch, which absorbs all avian Eau De Toilette. I've cleaned it out every few months this year, which makes the delicious compost I may have previously raved about. That was easy.

"Birds carry all sorts of diseases!". Well, so do people, and we keep them around, don't we? I think the key point here is not let your birds socialise with many of the unsavoury types that loiter around your neighbourhood. There aren't many non-natives around our area (those snobby lorikeets won't have anything to do with those dirty chickens), so this doesn't cause me much of an issue at all. The biggest problem we've had was with mites; and you can read about that episode here.

"The neighbours will never speak to you again". Our neighbours love eggs. And chickens are much less offensive than that dog down the street that chases possums at three in the morning. They don't shit on your neighbours front lawn, either. Neighbours, like any other person with some semblance of reason can have problems with any of the previously mentioned (and avoidable) problems. We've got good neighbours - if you don't, design with that in mind, and don't put your coop next to their fence and incur their wrath.

Finally, and possibly most critically for the plot - the wife is not a fan of birds. Backyard chickens were approved on the proviso that she didn't have to go anywhere near them. I silently gave it three months before she came around... And well, now she's a born-again chicken-lover.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A chicken retrospective (Part 1)

With the passing of October, its come a full year since the hens came home to roost. Twelve months ago I would have been undoubtedly biased on the merits of keeping chooks. I probably still am. And while some things went very well... not every idea was a winner. But with the gift of hindsight, over the next few days, allow me to share with you some of the triumphs and tragedies.

The coop (my Adventure in Carpentry) was the first major project I undertook after taking control of this kingdom. I spent months reading, investigating and designing my masterpiece of poultry-housing craftsmanship. Many have referred to it as "The Hilton", and have oft asked questions such as "when is the air-conditioning going in?". But now for all that effort and sarcastic praise, I have serious doubts about just how luxurious it is.

The floorspace measures there-bouts of 1.2m across the front, by 2.4m deep. Additionally the nesting box is raised, and provides an extra 1.2m square of protected space. Since my birds don't get out while I'm not at home, my aim was to give them the maximum amount of room inside the coop to stretch their wings and enjoy all the best things being a chicken affords. And indeed, many sources will tell you that three to four chickens will fit comfortably in this space. They lie! For the two chickens I have, I now consider this amount of space to be a travesty. Sometimes even the best chicken friends just need some time apart, and right now they can't often get a moment alone to think - so instead they take to pecking each other for the tastiest feathers.  I'm moving up plans for a permanent access to all the space in the chicken run. Not even the Hilton is a very fun place if you can't leave the hotel.

My next regret is the usage of aviary wire over chicken wire. The idea was that it'd be better at keeping the pestilence out (i.e rats). I've since learned that aviary wire is a much more abrasive choice of decorative walling, and you'll have the poor birds dropping feathers whenever they rub up against it. And to further rub salt in that wound... if the rats want in; that aviary wire ain't going to be stopping them anyway.

What's worked really well for me is the removable litter tray. The whole floor of the coop is a piece of shadecloth wrapped loosely around a frame that tighty fits between the walls of the coop; such that it forms a tray 10cm deep (observe figure three; of much-better-days for the lawn). Not only does this effectively stop any other consumers-of-chicken from entering the coop, it also means when replacing the litter, I can pull the whole tray out and drag it right down to the compost heap in one movement.

I can't really tell if the pitched roof has worked well or not. The idea was partly improve the airflow, and partly to improve the appearance (in the latter, of course, it has been a success, as assessed by the wife). I take pride in the fact that the chickens haven't been fried alive yet. It also gave me one of those feel-good-feelings that I hadn't wasted all that time studying trigonometry for nothing. The galvanised steel roofing is bloody heavy; but it doesn't heat up the inside quite like a polycarbonate oven. The orange trees are getting big enough now to shade some of the roof, wish makes the situation even better.

I built a perch in the nesting box for my birds... I've never seem them on it. Maybe this is because the nextbox is already elevated and protected. But I'm far from an expert on chicken behavior, and they are strange birds, indeed.

Always make sure your egg collection point is easily accessible from outside the coop, and never assume the birds will lay in a spot that's good for you. Mine currently lay as far from the door as possible, oh, the spite! Buy some tongs.

Finally I'd say unless you've got a specific design or space to fill, consider buying a pre-made coop. It'll cost about the same and will take a lot less time.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Plot Update

After another few weeks on the road I was expecting to return to an overgrown jungle rising up through the ruins of long dead vegetables. The wife, in command of the plot for this period (who, mind you, self-confesses to killing almost every plant she's ever had charge over) did a very good job of keeping everything alive. It was a very pleasent suprise to see everything steaming on through spring.

This being the first weekend since I've been home, I gratefully lost a few hours putting thing in order on a beautiful November day. Damn, its good to be home.

And I have a few photos to share.

 The corn, beans and snow peas are rocketing along. They've all put on more than a foot of height while I was elsewhere. And take a glace at the left of this picture. You might almost be convinced that I'd laid turf over the quagmire. But no! I've instead I've taken the economical route and let the Kikuyu do what it does best: survive. Its hard to deny it that when its been covered by a foot of  pathetically poor soil for months on end, and still has enough punch to come through like that.

 The Plum trees have also put on almost a foot. The pak-choi has bolted; but I'm not too worried, I think I'll dig it in to the soil. Lettuces and silverbeet are already coming in handy.

My original boarder of lettuce is huge now - they're growing like weeds. I'm pulling full butter lettuces out as we need them.

This is what $6 worth of seed potato does for you. The bed is full of green; a complete contrast to my previous, yet gracious failures with spuds. Before today I've given these no attention at all (the way I like it). With a spare half hour, I piled another 10cm of soil on top of them, and a good 20cm covering of sugar cane. Theory is that'll start more potatoes goin' further up the stem. But as you will observe, I still hardly came close to covering them completely:

Finally, amongst huge growth citrus growth spurts, my flagship pumpkin and zucchini plants are almost flowering. And, as you can see, the chickens are still clucking.