We Don’t Waste Enough Food

Part of the appeal of chickens on a homestead is that they are low-maintenance and low-input livestock that create valuable outputs: manure, eggs, meat, pest control…

They feed on kitchen scraps, weeds, bugs, and some grain. What more could you ask for?

The chickens–the big Buffs, Australorps, and SL Wyandottes–are now happily spending most of their days in our mini-orchard eating many weeds and grasses and all the bugs they can find. They still head into their coop and feast on their usual feed as well. And I have them trained to come running when they hear a bell, which signals that there are special treats to be had.

The problem is that I’m having a hard time coming up with those special treats, which should be the kitchen scraps. We just don’t seem to produce any!

Honestly! Our compost bucket is full of coffee grounds, egg shells, banana and orange peels, onion and garlic skins. That’s pretty much it. There are, occasionally, a few kale stems, broccoli stalks, and lettuce heels, and I have tried to put those out for the chickies, but they don’t seems interested. “Really?” They seem to look at me and ask. “Greens? But we eat all our favorite ones everyday! That’s not special!” And the greens stay littered on the ground in the run.

They LOVE leftover porridge, rice, noodles, bread, and cereal. And I do try to save them some. Really. But aside from the bread heels a couple of times a week, those don’t really qualify as scraps. Friends gave us a pile of beautiful mangoes a few weeks back, and there were more than we could eat before they got overripe, and the chickens LOVED those.  But otherwise, normally I just buy or make enough for us to eat, or I add leftovers grains to a soup at the end of the week. So now I’m either making extra for the chickens (which makes me happy, but isn’t exactly the economical equivalent of waste!), or I’m not making soup.

Sigh. So now I’m torn. I either spoil the chickens by making them their own meals, or I give them more scratch as treats, or they don’t get any treats. All sad options. 🙂

What’s a wannabe farmer to do?

Composting Chicken Manure: Watch the Heat!

My compost pile is cooking!

One of the biggest reasons I wanted chickens was not for the eggs, but for the manure.  We (or rather our poor clay fill soil) can use a lot of compost, and last year I didn’t get the volume that I wanted.  Chicken manure and pine shavings, here we come!  In fact, I’ve even decided not to use the deep litter method for the chickens (where you keep topping up the pine shavings and only clean out the coop once or twice a year) because I want the volume in my compost.

I’ve been suspicious about how long it might take to break down the pine shavings, though, as wood is very high in carbon and is usually the last thing in the compost pile to disappear.  In fact, in the compost I made last season, the straw (which has much less carbon than wood) is still mostly intact, even though everything else has long since become brown and crumbly.

To break down materials high in carbon, of course, you need a fair bit of nitrogen, which is why the chicken manure is a good match.  But I had no idea, really, what a good balance would be.  So I just waited until the shavings looked pretty saturated with poop, and then cleaned out the coop.  But to mitigate the high carbon of the shavings, I thought I’d better really soak my chicken litter as I piled it into the compost bin.  Then I thought to really help things along, I would add another big nitrogen source.  I scoped out the local coffeeroaster and picked up a garbage bag full of coffee grounds, and mixed that in too.

The next day, the compost heap stunk to high heaven!  I thought I’d better turn the pile a bit.  When I did, steam started immediately rising out of the heap and my eyes started to water.  What I was smelling was ammonia–the pile was getting so hot that the nitrogen was burning off as ammonia gas!  Not good.  Not only is the ammonia not exactly healthy, but the idea behind adding manure and/or compost to the garden is to increase the available nitrogen in the soil, and burning all the nitrogen in the composting process rather defeats the purpose.

What was the problem?  The pile was too wet, and had too much nitrogen–“greens”–in the mix.  The chicken manure had more kick than any nitrogen source I’d ever used!  In hindsight, I probably didn’t need the coffee grounds. 🙂

So, we added leaves, shredded paper, and some coffee chaff, and turned the pile again.  The next day, the smell was still pretty potent, so we repeated the process.  By that time, some of the kitchen waste that we’d mixed in the original pile had literally been turned to ash.  But the smell was waning, and the moisture content seemed to be levelling off.  Success!

At this rate, we should have a few amazing cubic yards of compost for the garden in just a few months.  Look out clay soil, organic matter is coming your way!

Tiptoe through the Tulips…

Well we’ve misplaced our easy, point and shoot camera, so no quick pics of the cold frame and all the seedlings that I’ve transplanted. 😦  Suffice it to say, the onions, leeks and brassicas are in!  And the warmer temperatures, finally, mean that the garden is exploding into bloom.  Thank goodness weeds are green!

Skipper did get our mini-orchard area fenced off yesterday, which meant we could let the chickens into their new forage area.  It was fabulous!  And they looked so beautiful among the flowers in the bright sunshine.  So with the high-tech camera, Skipper got a few stunning shots.  And before I get any panicked comments, I know the chickens will tear up the flower garden.  This is an overgrown perennial flower garden that we would like to transition into forage/meadow/orchard.  First step: let the chickens tear it up! Weed (bonus points if you can spot the morning glory/bindweed in the pics below), scratch, fertilize…We will eventually dig up anything we want to save, and we will then replant grazing forage for them.  At least that’s the plan!  In the meantime, at least we have happy chickens!

Silver-Laced Wyandotte and Australorp Butt
Buff Among the Bulbs

Day 2: Filler Post for a Busy Saturday

Okay, I guess I never said every post had to be fascinating in this challenge, right?!

Today was a busy Saturday.  We try to hoard our weekends at home for all the projects we’re working on, but every six weeks or so we stack a bunch of errands that can only be done in the city.  But the day just disappears with all the running around we do!  And it always amazes me that we used to spend just about every weekend like this.  We’d go out to do one thing, and end up spending all day driving around to various stores, then get hungry and have to find somewhere to eat out.  We would spend a bunch of money we hadn’t intended to and come home exhausted.  Which still happened a little today. 🙂  But at least it isn’t nearly as often!

We started the day with our first step in integrating our Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte chicks (now 5 weeks old) with the rest of our flock (now 9-11 weeks, and considerably larger!).  We decided to take the 4 chicks down in their brooder and set the whole cage in the larger run outside.  It was all a big adventure, but it seemed to go reasonably well.  The idea is to get the two groups used to each other being around, without being able to peck at each other and do any damage.  We’ll do the same thing again tomorrow, and hope to gradually integrate them over the course of the week.  We’re pushing the timeline a little, as some folks advise spending many weeks with this process, but we’re off on a trip in a few weeks, and we want everyone happy together in the same home when our friend is housesitting.

Part of the plan is to get the orchard area fenced and ready for the bigger birds to start free ranging in a wider territory.  We picked up fencing materials today and Skipper will try and get things secure tomorrow.  We’re hoping that the next step in integration might be the big birds in the wider world and the little birds free in the coop and run, to get used to the space on their own.  And we also know that if everything is unfamiliar all at the same time for all the birds, they will integrate more easily.  So the more new things we can expose them all to now, the better.

In our big shopping trip, we also picked up his and her trowels (we are so hip and sexy 🙂 ), so we don’t keep fighting for and losing the 1 we have now; I got some schmancy work gloves so that I don’t have to keep wearing through semi-disposable ones, and we picked up a roll of floating row cover at Lee Valley.  Now I had been looking forward to this.  Lee Valley advertises that they sell a 7′ x50′ roll of row cover for about $25.  A steal!  I had planned to get 2-3 rolls so that we can cold frame two of the raised beds and I can put my tomato seedlings out covered before we leave.  This would mean I don’t have to pot up 4 dozen baby tomatoes!  (No, that’s not all of them.  Another story.  I do have fewer than the more than 80 I started last year though.)

Unfortunately, the row cover Lee Valley sells turned out to be the really light stuff that’s great for pest protection over carrots and brassicas (and I still got some to use that way), but it’s not the heavier frost protection type that I’m using at the moment.  We have one bed set up thanks to a big roll we got at Costco last year, and it’s been 25-30 degrees (C) in there most days!  Which is why I wanted to get more and put the tomatoes out.  And all the other garden stores we checked only sold smaller rolls, sometimes for a lot more money.  So on my to do list for Monday is phoning around a bit–there’s an agricultural supply store in town in particular that I’m hoping can get me more for less.  If anyone local has any tips, let me know!

Unfortunately, when we got home, the monkey butlers hadn’t cleaned the house and done the laundry for us. 😦  Don’t you hate it when that happens? (it’s a Simpsons’ joke)  So the day’s not over yet.   But the chicks are curled up asleep upstairs, and the house is warm and quiet, and tomorrow will be a sunny workday outside.  So all’s well in the world for tonight at least.

Pics of all the projects to come tomorrow!

A Taste of Freedom

Well, we had another busy and productive weekend.  I love spring! (and I look forward to seeing it sometime soon–will the rain ever stop?!).

The Skipper spent the days working on the chicken run.  The chicks have been enjoying their roomy coop, and I’ve been regularly bringing them weeds, bugs, and dirt for treats, but we do want them to be able to experience the adventure of finding these on their own as soon as possible!  There have been a few issues standing in the way: the temperatures are still pretty low, unless the sun comes out for a little while; I seeded the run with some rye and clover and they haven’t quite filled in yet; and last, there has been no fenced area to contain the chicks if we were to let them out–not sure we’d be able to get them back in again!

We can’t control the weather or the growing speed, but Skipper went to work on the pen.

The run is 8 ft wide at the coop, 4 ft wide at the other end, and about 18ft long.  Should be lots of room for the eventual 8 max hens that will be our laying flock.  The birds also have access to the space under the coop, which you can see has also been covered in raccoon-proof wire (hardware cloth).  The fencing around the pen will also get a 2 ft wrap of hardware cloth around the bottom, buried apron-style about 6″ outside the pen (to prevent digging critters.  The top will also get fencing to prevent raptors from getting in.  We have a spectacular pair of eagles nesting in the trees next door.  Beautiful to watch, but we’re trying to feed us, not them!

Once the main fencing was up, Skipper wanted to take the chickies for a test run.  So we opened the access (pop) door, put the ramp in place, and I went into the run to entice the birdies into the big wide world.

The brave Buffs were the first to venture out, followed closely by the Wyandottes, who always want to prove they are the head of the pack–even when they are nervous!  Soon all the Buffs, the two big-girl Wyandottes, and the Australorp roo were all happily exploring the fresh grounds.  They gobbled up the rye and clover sprouts, scratched through the weeds, and hunted through the dirt.  They didn’t at all seem to mind the cool temps (as evidenced by my thick wool hat!), but the 3 Australorp girls were having none of it.  They got to the door and peered out, but could not be lured beyond the top of the ramp.

Scaredy 'Lorps!

Now, Australorps are literally Australian-Orpingtons, so maybe they are just waiting for more sunshine.  Hopefully we’ll be able to tempt them out next time!  It was a pleasure to see the little ‘lorp roo out in the daylight, though–the iridescence green in the dark black feathers was clearly visible.  Gorgeous!

After several minutes, we were ready to go eat dinner and thought that was enough time for the chickies to be out in the cool evening.  Some of the birds managed to get the hint and walked contentedly back up the ramp to the heat lamp.  But the Buffs were loving the taste of the outdoors and needed more convincing before they willingly walked (up) the plank, beaks covered with dirt. 🙂

Too fun!

The Peeps are in the House!

Well Backyard Feast continues to be obsessed with all things chicken.  The coop is finished, and the teenage chicks are now enjoying their new digs.  They have TONS of space and, they are racing about and learning to fly up to the higher roosts.  It’s way too much fun to go hang out with them…time just disappears when you’re watching “Chicken TV”!

It’s hard to believe that just over a month ago the little fuzz butts looked like this:

A week ago they were in the “pterodactyl” phase:

Every time we lifted off the lid to the brooder, they would fly up to perch all along the edges.  Occasionally one would make it up to the windowsill above!  It was fun having them at eye level and up to play, but it was definitely time for some more grown-up digs.

Trouble in the Henhouse?

Skipper did an awesome job of the coop.  It’s roomy, bright, draft-free, dry and cozy.  It will be spacious for the eventual adult flock, with comfy nest boxes and easy access to the run.  We have worked hard to make sure it is predator-proof.  The wide doors will make it easy to clean, and the ultimate compost bins are right at hand!  The double-dutch door (which may yet get painted–red? blue?) also makes it fun to socialize…

And here they are, healthy 5 week-olds, taking advantage of their new home!

The Silver-laced Wyandottes are now hefty 7-week olds and are feathering out beautifully.  Though they can still be a bit skittish compared to the others, they have mellowed out a lot over the month we’ve had them.  The lighter one I want to name Misadventure (or Miss Adventure), cause she’s always the first one to bravely venture up to new heights and check out the visitors. 🙂

As the chicks are getting older, the “Who’s a Roo?” game is on in earnest.  I’m pretty sure that we have one roo and 3 girls in the Australorp mix, which is great!  But as I’ve watched the beautiful Buff Orpingtons grow, I’ve gone from thinking I’ve got another 3 girls and a boy, to now being suspicious that I had it backwards!  I think my sweet buffy roo that I’ve been cuddling all this time might actually be the only girl in the bunch!

He has a lovely breast, but see the comb and the splashes of darker pink just under the beak?  Those look like wattles developing to me…  I’ll be so sad if we’ve only got one girl Buff.  They are the sweetest breed and I’ll be heartbroken not to have more than one in the eventual flock.  We may have to swap for another one later?

Lest we might miss having wee ones chirping away day and night in the house, we decided we couldn’t resist getting just a few more chicks.  And I had really wanted some Blue-Laced Wyandottes… so we got four more cuties to round out the flock!

With any luck, when all is said and done, we’ll end up with 2 of each breed in our beautiful laying flock of eight.

Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Barnyard in the Bathroom

Whew!  Well, it’s been a very eventful couple of weeks.  There’s been crazy weather, craziness in our jobs, lovely houseguests, and much activity in the backyard.  And now, there is an otherworldly red glow beaming from behind the upstairs bathroom door…

The chicks have arrived!  Skipper built a simple brooder (the chicken nursery cage seen here) and the bathroom upstairs was chosen as the best possible spot for the chicks to spend their indoor time.  It’s easy to keep warmer than the rest of the house, it’s easy to clean, and it’s easy to clean up after the chicks in.  When we bought our house, we never thought that having 4 bathrooms would be a good thing.  But now we’re glad of the space!

The local poultry swap that I alluded to in my last post was cancelled because of snow.  But I read online that some of the breeders might show up anyway, so Skipper and I stopped in to see who was there.  There weren’t too many chicks, but there was a couple who had done a big order from McMurray hatchery in the US, and picked up the shipment in Washington, in order to resell chicks here.  I wasn’t interested in hatchery chicks for a variety of reasons, but as we talked, we realized that this might be our chance to get some guaranteed girls.  The hatchery chicks are sexed, and the other chicks we were looking at were not.  Knowing that we would have at least 2 hens to start our flock with proved too tempting to pass up.  And so… 2 Silver Laced Wyandottes became our first new roomies!

After their long journey from Iowa, they were already 2 weeks old when we got them, and have now crossed the 3-week mark.  As you can see from the photo, they have passed the “fuzzy butt” stage of cuteness and are well into the feather changeover that takes chicks into their awkward teenage phase.

The day after acquiring the ladies, I made plans to head further north to Qualicum Beach after work.  A local farmer/breeder had advertised high-quality Buff Orpington and Australorp chicks for sale, and these were the two breeds I most wanted.  The buffs are reportedly the gentlest, friendliest chickens around, and the Australorps are a related breed renowed for their championship egg laying.  Both excellent qualities for us newbies!

After seeing these chicks, I regretted our earlier purchase.  The difference in quality, even to the untrained eye, was obvious.  And the personality difference between the girls who’d done nothing but travel in the first 2 weeks of life and these calm, well-cuddled birds was dramatic.  Of course, I still don’t know if I have any hens in the bunch!

A second complication: the chicks I picked up were 3 days old–considerably smaller than the 2 week old teens.  So we put in a quick barrier down the middle of the coop to keep them separated temporarily.  Today, with the little ones more than a week old, I’m letting them spend the day together.

So here are the true fuzzy butts (warning! poop!):

Hard to get a good picture of these active squirmers! The Buffs are the yellow chicks, and they are living up to their reputation; they don’t seem phased by anything.  The little black and white ones are the Australorps; as adults they are beautiful jet black birds with an iridescent green sheen in the sun.  They are curious, active, alert–they can’t wait to get in the side with the big girls!

There are 4 of each, in the hope that we might end up with 2 females of each breed.  Of course, probability doesn’t work that way, so we’ll see!  We will likely add a few more chicks of another breed in a few weeks to fill out the flock, even though this means adding younger birds to an older flock, which has some challenges.  But once everyone is settled into their pecking order, we hope to have a pretty and diverse flock of 6-8 friendly hens in our eco-system for the next 2-3 years of laying.

In just a few short weeks, though, these birdies will all be ready for their big-kid home: the coop in the backyard that the Skipper has been busily getting organized, and neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow kept him from his task…

The coop now has doors and paint, but I’ll wait for the siding and trim to go on before the final reveal. 🙂 It’s going to be beautiful!  It’s designed for 8 grown hens max, and will have a large, predator-proof run attached a little later.  But there should be plenty of room for 10-15 adolescents while we wait for the boys to distinguish themselves from the girls!  We’re also working on fencing off a larger forage/orchard area for them to enjoy through the summer when they won’t be allowed into the rest of the garden.  We’ll see how things go with the roosters.  If we get a calm one, we might still go down the road of keeping one, otherwise the plan is to give them a good summer and “process” them at 20 weeks or so, unless they start to get rowdy!  We don’t need 8 lb birds; we’re not really in this for the meat.  So if they get sent to “freezer camp” early, so be it.

More pics to come–these kids grow up fast!