Tag Archives: chickens

Medicinal lunchbox for happy chooks

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Now that we have reticulation to approximately 90% of Edgefield, a world of opportunity for planting perennials has opened up, which was previously unsustainable. Slowly but surely I’m developing the perennial garden, focusing my attention particularly on the east orchard at the moment, which sits to the side of the house bordered by the driveway.

The current chook house and yard is in this zone but we have plans to fence off a much larger area that will encompass the east orchard and the developing “chook herb garden” (plus build an entirely new chicken coop eventually). Here my spoiled feathered friends will be able to roam, forage and scratch to their hearts delight without destroying my veggie patch and herb planters, which they do every time I let them free range.

As this area is directly adjacent to the house, we want it to look attractive, not a giant, ugly chook pen like the current eyesore. So I got a quote for a post and rail fence with robust chain wire fencing that will support vines so I can grow edible, flowering greenery up and over it. The quote made my eyes water. So, like many projects, it’s gone on the backburner for the moment and we’re looking into whether it makes sense to build it ourselves. Sure, fencing isn’t rocket science, but DIY, especially when you don’t really know what you’re doing, can elicit a huge time/opportunity cost. Food for thought…

Edgefield site map - chook garden

The east orchard/chook garden is highlighted in green on this sitemap of Edgefield.

Food and medicine forage for healthy, happy chooks

In the meantime, while my chooks are quarantined to their relatively small yard, I had the lightbulb idea of growing a medicinal herb lunchbox (in addition to other edible trees/shrubs) in the area that will become their new yard. Hopefully we’ll get the fence built before the end of the year by which time these plants will be established and thriving, giving the chooks instant nutrition, medicine and shade.

So far, this is what I have planted, with plenty more to come.

  • Tansy
  • Yarrow
  • Comfrey (4)
  • Wormwood (2)
  • Lemon balm
  • Rhubarb (3)
  • Geraniums (4)
  • Blueberries (five different varieties)
  • Mango, Kensington Pride
  • Lime, Tahitian
  • Lime, Rangpur
  • Lime, Kaffir
  • Olive
  • Plum
  • Pomegranate
  • Curry leaf tree
  • Mulberry

Other helpful chicken-friendly plants include chickweed, feverfew, garlic, ginger, hyssop, lavender, nasturtium, southernwood, rosemary, rue, nettles, horseradish, catnip, pennyroyal, pyrethrum, fat hen, wandering jew, tagasaste and there are plenty more!

I won’t be planting all of these as some are unsuitable for my soil and climate, some are invasive weeds, some are too big etc. But you get the idea. Whatever I plant, it’s going to need to be robust, hardy and as mature as possible before I let my ravenous flock of ladies (and two gentlemen) out into it.

 

Spring baby season

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The ducks and kangaroos are not the only ones having babies at Edgefield at the moment. There has been rather a lot of hatching going on in the chicken department and mostly NOT in the hen house. Perhaps I can blame my cluckiness on my friend Rachel and her family who recently moved in next door with their newborn baby daughter, Grace, from whom I have been stealing cuddles whenever I can. Oh there’s nothing quite like the smell and softness of a newborn baby’s downy head!

Anyway, I thought I’d give incubating a try with an incubator I borrowed off a friend. The first batch I tried were some of my own eggs, fertilised by my spunky rooster Dirk Diggler, who is getting a little long in the tooth and whose je nais se quoi may not quite have been what it once was. Only one egg hatched from a batch of 10. Two others were fully formed, the rest not at all. The likely scenario is that I drowned the two by continuing to turn the eggs past Day 18, which I now know not to do. Live and learn.

Then a mummy chook went broody so I stuck a clutch under her. Of that lot, only one hatched. Hmmm. So then my friend, Mel, gave me a dozen purebred Australorp eggs, which I got into the incubator a bit late. But we have had better success with that lot and hatched five chicks on 22 and 23 October (3-4 days ago). I managed to stick the first single incubator-hatched chick under clucky mummy hen who immediately took the chick under her wing. I tried to do the same yesterday with the five new little chicks and although she didn’t attack them exactly, she didn’t mother them either. So after leaving them huddled in her pen for about an hour, I rescued them and stuck them back under the heat lamp in the brooder box in the laundry. Looks like I’m going to have to raise these ones NOT as nature intended. Bummer.

Charming chooks

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I’ve become a chicken fancier, a “mad chook lady” my husband teases me. I find them fascinating I must admit. In the way a crackling fire is mesmerising, I love to watch the pecking order politics and peculiarities of a flock of free range chooks. The antics of a couple of young roosters vying for the attention of the ladies and the vigorously contested position of Top Cock is especially amusing.

dogThere is so much to learn about them too, especially when keeping a sizeable flock of Heritage breeds in good health and happiness. Sure, anyone can keep a few hens in their suburban backyard with limited prior knowledge and, happily, there has been a great resurgence in backyard chook-keeping. However, I submit there is more to it than meets the eye, especially when you start to dabble in breeding. Keeping roosters, collecting and storing fertilised eggs, incubating (using broody hens or an automatic incubator), hatching, brooder boxes, feeding chicks – it’s quite a learning curve.

Those that truly value their chickens for all the incredible things they offer will make the effort to learn all there is to know.  However, it seems to me, there is apathy from some “amateurs” (and I use this term loosely) towards the health and welfare of their flock. Chickens, it often seems, are viewed as expendable. Even my husband jokes that “they only cost $15 each” (shows how little he knows!) When they get sick, there seems to be little thought given as to why or effort made to heal them and preventative measures taken to stop it happening again. The same must be said for protecting them from predators and I am roundly guilty of failing in that regard. Foxes are everywhere in the Perth Hills and they need no second invitation to wreak havoc on a hapless and helpless flock of chickens who haven’t been secured for the night (another reason I am so keen to build a safe new set of yards for my chooks).

Even though they are infinitely more useful and rather charming, chickens are rarely given the same status as a family pet. Whenever I catch Zen, my beautiful, lazy, food-obsessed Labrador (who we adore) stealing the chooks’ food scraps from right under their beaks, I tell him: “the day you give me eggs and meat, manure, tilling and pest eradication services, you can have all the scraps.” Never gonna happen.

Chickens in permaculture

Chooks are marvellously industrious creatures and the ultimate best friend of any gardener. They’re an integral part of any permaculture system and are the oft-quoted example of a closed loop system given in every Permaculture Design Course (PDC).permaculture_chicken

I have completed a PDC and a Certificate III in Permaculture. I have lofty aspirations to create my own utopian permaculture paradise at Edgefield and with baby steps I might eventually achieve it. But permaculture is patient (thank goodness) because so often I am not. One of the “take home” lessons I remember clearly from my Cert III is the advice not to bite off more than you can chew (a bad habit of mine) because “lofty aspirations” and unrealistic goals will only demoralise and set you back when they’re not achieved. My mantra is one small job at a time. For example, my current project (aside from building a new house for ourselves) is to build a magnificent chook palace for my growing flock followed by an integrated vegie patch and covered orchard… hmmm, my mantra doesn’t seem to be working. I think I will have to make do with my “rustic” little chook shed for the time being.

Despite my impatience and ridiculous project wish list, which will keep me busy till 2024, we are achieving the incredible by designing and building our very own beautiful, passive solar house. We hope to make as sustainable as possible. It may take us a while to fulfil that brief. Patient I may not be, but stubbornness, perseverance and a good work ethic I have in spades.

DIY brooder box and new Australorp chicks

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I built a chick brooder box and I’m a little bit proud of myself. It’s a simple thing but often they’re the most rewarding, especially as I now have six new one-week-old Australorp chicks happily peeping outside my back door.

I used as many recycled materials as I could and loosely followed some instructions off the net. I’ve been clearing out my shipping container and getting rid of box after box of baby clothes (a cathartic but slightly melancholy experience) and repurposed one for my brooder.

  1. I cut out most of the box’s rectangular lid with an angle grinder to provide ventilation.
  2. I had to buy a piece of heavy gauge wire mesh to fit over the lid, cut it down to size with the angle grinder with a hole for the lamp to fit / hang, drilled holes and secured it with cable ties.
  3. Add to that some wood chip mulch for bedding.
  4. I found an old spotlight buried on a back shelf of the garage which still worked, then inserted a new red globe to provide heat.
  5. I splurged and bought a thermostat online which is an awesome gadget. You plug it into the wall, plug the lamp into the thermostat, set your desired temperature, put the temperature probe at chick head height and you’re set. The light turns on and off automatically to maintain the correct temperature. Simple genius! It guards against chicks over or under-heating, saves me having to manually adjust the light and gives me comfort that I’m not going to start a fire, melt the box and kill my chicks. All good things.
  6. Add a mini waterer and a plant saucer full of chick starter crumble.
  7. Add chicks and voila! 

Designing a chook palace using permaculture principles

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Another rainy day design session at home, this time imagining a monumentally magnificent chook house that would do any dandy rooster proud.

jo drawing

I wanted a lesson in SketchUp, an awesome 3D modelling program that Jeff uses regularly for work and in which he created some of the amazing images of our new house. But of course, ever the old school architect, Jeff can’t think without sketching. So, pen in hand, surrounded by library books on the subject, we set about designing the infrastructure centrepiece of our garden plan by hand.

The chook house is but one of many mini projects within the larger overall plan for Edgefield which will probably take us a decade to fully realise. 

My impetus for this doing this now is an unfortunate string of events involving a voracious fox and the loss of some of my prize chickens. Our current set up is a small coop from which I free range the chooks every day and lock them up at night. This scenario is left wide open to human folly (read: I’ve forgotten more than once to close the door despite a daily reminder on my phone). Devastated by my recent losses and wracked with guilt, I’ve decided that building an enclosed chook house, run and yards has become Number One priority on my to-do list.

chook house drawing

Sketching various configurations and nutting out the details.

We plan to design and build it ourselves using recycled materials where possible, both from an ethical perspective, but also because we’re on a budget. In reality, there is no budget for this at the moment. We are saving every cent to finish the new house. Despite this, I want it to be beautiful as well as functional. After all, it will be the centrepiece of our garden and this garden will be stunning, damn it…if it takes me till the kids leave high school! I want to build the wall facing the house (south side) out of recycled red brick which will match the built-in planter boxes on the jarrah verandah as well as the internal fireplace. The balance I’d like to build out of timber frame and zincalume metal sheeting with a skillion roof facing north to capture the sun. Passive solar design for our chooks: why not?

I’m rather hooked on chooks I must say and I plan to breed them. So I want this set up to accommodate up to 50 birds (a number that made Jeff’s eyes widen in disbelief). We’ll more than likely never get close to that many but numbers will fluctuate with the seasons, new broods and dispatch of roosters, so better to be safe than sorry. We won’t be free ranging anymore and I don’t want my precious soil to be ruined from overstocking birds.

Designing to permaculture principles

When designing with permaculture principles in mind I think about a system that minimises effort and maximises efficiencies. In permaculture, you’re taught that everything you do, plant, build or own should fulfil multiple purposes. For example, if you plant a tree, ask yourself, what is the purpose of that tree and how many functions does it provide? Will it provide shade, produce food (for humans and/or animals), act as a windbreak, fix nitrogen into the soil, produce timber, attract and protect wildlife, etc?

And so we’ve found, there is more to designing a super efficient, integrated chook house than meets the eye. Collection of manure and spoiled straw is as important a part of this system as egg production. The chooks will be the engine room of my garden; the nitrogen component of my future compost system, which will be located within stone’s throw of the chook house. I want nesting boxes and roosts located on outside walls with hatches for easy egg and manure collection. The design will allow up to six separate yards including the future covered orchard, which will enable me to rest the soil in some yards and plant green manure and fodder / medicinal herb crops for the chooks to access and enjoy. Importantly, it’ll enable flexibility including brooding boxes for hens and chicks, a sick / quarantine bay and a rooster yard if necessary.

The details have yet to be finessed but we’re getting there. I’m learning SketchUp via a much smaller project: designing potato and onion boxes for my new pantry. I’m going to build them out of some recycled timber floor boards we stockpiled from the demolition of our old pump house. But stay tuned for the chook palace in 3D!

Chicken first aid

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I am a terrible mother hen. I recently realised late last week that my flock was/is quite sick and I hadn’t noticed, or rather I hadn’t investigated closely enough to clue in to what was going on and take action. I console myself with the thought that I’m still learning. There’s actually a fair bit more to keeping healthy chickens than most people think.

They’d been off the lay for quite some time and I was blaming it on the cold weather, the fact there was a mix of pullets (young hens not yet at point of lay) and sexes within my flock. I thought they might have been laying elsewhere too when I let them out to free range each day. But no, unfortunately not.

The poor buggers were infested with mites and lice, some have scale on their legs caused by burrowing mites, and many of them have fowl pox which manifests itself as nasty black pustules and scabs all over their combs, wattles and faces causing them to look rather deformed and ugly.

In the worst fowl pox case, my black Australorp hen’s eye had closed over and I decided to euthanise her on the weekend. She was the catalyst for the action. I’d noticed her comb was deformed but hadn’t had a chance to catch her and have a closer look. By the time I did, it was too late. That said, there is no treatment for fowl pox going by all the research I have since done on the net, reading my chook bible and talking to chook-savvy friends. It is a slow spreading sickness from which they eventually recover and to which they are then immune. It’s often spread by mosquitoes and/or open wounds caused from fighting or injuries. I don’t know how mine got it. Mosquitoes could be the culprit. Regardless, many of them have it now in varying degrees, but none as bad as the Australorp hen thankfully. I just hope it doesn’t spread further and cause more problems.

So on Friday, serious intervention was required. I did a fair bit of research into various methods of control including organic methods using herbs and wood ash. But in the end I decided to go the chemical route as I had a serious problem and there was a huge amount of work required to clean out the chook yard completely and treat all 17 chickens. I wanted to make sure it was going to eradicate the problem.

First Aid treatment

I gathered my supplies and set to work on 17 chickens:

  • Poultry Dust (I used more than 2 bottles) – to treat the lice and mites. I held them upside down by their legs and covered them all over, rubbing it into their feathers and all their cracks and crevices.
  • Canola oil spray – to spray their legs for scale.
  • Betadine – to disinfect and treat the fowl pox on their combs and wattles.
  • Vaseline – around their eyes.

It took me about 15 minutes per bird to do all of the above. Phew! I now have new names for many of my chickens, which I cannot repeat here! Needless to say, they didn’t like it very much. I tried to convince them it was like a spa treatment but they weren’t convinced.

Chook pen clean out

Jeff and I set to to work on the pen on Saturday. We removed, emptied and scrubbed all the nesting boxes and storage containers, de-cobwebbed, dusted, cleared out all the straw and bedding materials, which we spread out liberally all around the garden and fruit trees, swept the floor and scraped off accumulated crud off all surfaces. We then sprayed all the surfaces, roosts, nesting boxes, every crack and crevice where nasty little mites hide, with an insecticide (Coopex). I’d cleaned out the pot belly stove earlier and spread a bucket of wood ash all over the floor of the pen and then filled it with three new bales of hay. Happy chickens. Well, they’d better be anyway because if that doesn’t do it, I give up.

New fertile eggs for clucky Mona

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Mona, my lovely chocolate brown Barnevelder hen, went clucky last week for the second time. So far I’ve hatched two clutches of eggs at Edgefield:

  • four eggs by Mona – only one female survived and she is now laying (i think)
  • four eggs by my little bantam silver-laced Wynadotte – three have so far survived and they are now pullets (gangly teenagers) and look to be out of the danger zone in terms that I’m free-ranging them and they haven’t been taken by kookaburras or crows like the last lot.

Not sure what the latest three are – breed or sex. As we have only one rooster – Dirk Diggler, the spunky Silver Spangled Hamburgh – they are obviously half SSH. The other half could be Barnevelder, Sussex X Isa Brown, SSH or Silver-laced Wynadotte. Two are dark brown (probably Barnevelder) and one is spotty and mottled like an SSH.

Anyway, as pretty as the SSH are, they’re not the best layers (infrequent small, white eggs) and they’re skittish and not very docile, so not the best around young kids. I wanted to bring in some new blood and breeds. I found a guy on Gumtree selling fertile Light Sussex eggs and got talking to him and he offered me eggs of a rare French breed called Wheaten Maran which are really pretty, very good layers, and super friendly and docile. He reckons he trips over them as they crowd in around his feet. So I bought four of each and brought them home to do an egg switcheroo under Mona yesterday afternoon (Wed 04.12.13).

But then what to do with four half “cooked” SSH X eggs? I candled them and they all looked like they had viable, well-established embryos in them so I couldn’t bring myself to chuck them. So I set up my electric frypan with a towel, hay and a kids forehead thermometer and then set about last night frantically trying to find someone who could lend or rent me an incubator. 

Facebook to the rescue! On the Hills Pets and Livestock Group, of which I am a member, a lady offered to put the eggs into her incubator which she has running 24/7. So I just dropped them off. Fingers crossed they didn’t go cold or I didn’t cook them when i was trying to get the frypan set up. I’m not holding out a lot of hope but I’ll just wait and see I guess.

As for Mona, when I went to check on her this morning she was off her nest and having a dust bath. But she was acting VERY cranky as broody birds do, fluffed up twice her size when she saw me and threatened to take my hand off. So I think she’ll hopefully go back and sit. Eight eggs cost me $25 and a long drive all the way to Wanneroo, so she better! I picked a couple of sprigs of mint and wormwood and lined her nest with them. The wormwood helps to eradicate fleas, ticks, lice etc and the mint just smells nice!

So anyway, now we wait. The four eggs in the incubator are probably two weeks off hatching (i forgot to make a note of the date) and the other eight are due on Christmas Day! Hooray!

Spring babies!

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The four newest additions to the Edgefield family hatched while I was in Brisbane this weekend. We named them Liquorice, Chocolate, Popcorn and Banana. Mumma hen is VERY protective of her babies but is happy in the new outdoor pen I just set her up in. She is pecking at the grass like a chook possessed, poor love. She’s deprived herself of sustenance for so long sitting tight on her clutch of eggs, she’s probably seriously malnourished. Anyway, they’re enjoying the sunshine, bugs and grass. Dirk (the rooster) came over immediately to check out what was going on and did his fancy courting dance on the outside of the pen. Very funny.

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Add 3 more and now there are 9 chooks

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So with my number of chooks rapidly dwindling, I decided to go get some more (fox fodder) today. After extensive research on the right breeds, I found a woman in Oakford and bought three pullets (12-15 weeks old). 1 x blue Australorp, 1 x Silver Laced Wyandotte, 1 x Barnevelder. So now we have nine chooks:

  • 2 x Barnevelders (Mona and …)
  • 1 x blue Australorp
  • 1 x Silver Laced Wyandotte
  • 2 x Coronation Sussex x Isa Brown (Lacey and Marshmallow)
  • 2 x Silver Spangled Hamburghs – hen (Hettie) and rooster (Dirk)
  • 1 x mixed breed chick (probably from Dirk so half SS Hamburgh)
Just as a record, the other breeds I looked up that looked good were:
  • Faverolle
  • Barnevelder
  • Cochin
  • Wyandotte
  • Langshan
  • Australorp
  • Plymouth Rock
  • Rhode Island Red
  • Silkies
  • Sussex