Tag Archives: Chooks

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.

 

Abundance in Gidgegannup

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At the invitation of a dear old school friend, we recently headed to her glorious farm ‘Lilydale’ in Gidgegannup (15 minutes from Edgefield in Mundaring) for a divine afternoon of swimming, eating, drinking, lazing and chatting.

Of course, no visit to Lilydale is complete without a stickybeak at her incredibly abundant covered orchard of  which I readily admit to being more than a little envious. Whenever I visit, there is seemingly always something in fruit and today it was Satsuma plums. Dark red, juicy and sweet, they were delicious and despite feeling totally stuffed from a magnificent lunch, I ate two.

There was plenty more developing fruit waiting in the wings too.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos of the ingenious yet simple method by which they are training their young trees into an open shape. Painstakingly tying each outer branch with string and weighting it to a brick or stone to bend the supple branches, George says it only takes a few weeks for them to become rigid and fixed into their new position. This helps with airflow, which in turn helps to reduce fungal problems. It also opens up the tree into a nice shape and makes it more accessible.

The massive covered orchard is located a short drive from the house on this bucolic 50-acre property and irrigated from a dam that sits slightly above it. Until recently the chooks were left to free range in the orchard but foxy loxy discovered them and the remaining four are now back up near the house in the chook pen. Given the obvious benefits to having the chooks in the orchard (cleaning up rotten fruit, weeding/scratching, eating fruit fly larvae and other pests, manuring the trees) George would like to build a new chook house adjoining the orchard in which the chooks can be safely locked up at night but have free range access to the orchard during the day.

She also has a Warre beehive nearby and they have plans to create a large covered vegetable patch next. A cool room is also on the agenda to enable them to butcher their small flock of Dorper sheep. Not a bad set up really!

Oh and did I mention what a magnificent homestead it is? Surrounded by spectacular, mature deciduous and evergreen trees, lush lawn, avocado trees groaning with fruit, lavender fields, pool, tennis court and parkland cleared paddocks, this is a delightful place in which to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon.

 

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!

Where food ethics meat reality: killing our own chickens

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Toni Carroll, my friend and “chook mentor” who, thankfully, walked us through the whole process.

The three cockerels cock-a-doodle-dooing sealed their fate. We’d bred them from our own flock. They were handsome cross-breds out of our spunky Silver Spangled Hamburgh rooster, Dirk Diggler, and half Isa Brown half Coronation Sussex hens (I think). It was time to put into action what Jeff and I had been reading, watching on TV and talking about for a long time. Authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food), Joel Salatin (Food Inc and numerous books) and Matthew Evans (Goumet Farmer and The Dirty Chef) to name but a few had, over time, influenced us in a way that had made us want to get closer to our food, or rather, to source it closer to home. And how much closer can you get than raising it yourself?

At the moment, raising and killing our own fowl for meat is about as far as we are willing and able to go. The romantic notion of pigs, a cow for milk / beef or various other animals is unviable on our current 1-acre smallholding and we’re ok with that. This was, in itself, a very large first step for us and one of which we’re rather proud. It’s funny how killing your own animals for meat IS such a big deal. Probably the majority or the population eats meat but we have become so removed from that first step in the process that it has become thought of as an extraordinary act of brutality at which most people cringe. But now that we have gotten over the “hump”, done the deed once, I think it will become a much less gruesome task and one that I associate with fresh, delicious, complex meat for cooking and eating rather than the thoughtless killing of another animal.

I called Toni Carroll with whom I’d become friends through various chicken-related adventures and she came over on Sunday, 30 March to show Jeff and I how to kill, gut, clean, skin and pluck our young roosters ready for eating. While I admit it was a confronting task, at the end of it I was surprised to say I didn’t find it as bad as I thought I would. The most difficult part was breaking its neck. This is an optional step but one I wanted to learn how to do and it seemed easier than trying to chop the head off a live chicken, which I imagined would flap around like a crazy thing while I was wielding a cleaver. Not a comforting thought. So Toni showed me how to break its neck by holding on to its legs, lying it flat on the floor of the garage with a broom handle over its neck, standing on both sides of the pole and simply pulling the bird up hard till its neck snapped or stretched. Then came the worst bit. The inevitable convulsions of a dead but seemingly very alive bird which flapped, writhed and gasped for air. Despite assurances from Toni that it was very much dead and just its nerves were jangling, I found that part uncomfortable. Funny really given that I’d done the very same thing with a million fish before in my lifetime. Hopefully, this will become “normal” for me too over time.

Jeff had a go too but he opted to go straight to the beheading. And what I feared might happen, did. While making a clean cut, the convulsing bird slipped out of his grasp and went flip-flopping headless across the yard. I’ve got to say, it was a hilarious, if somewhat gruesome sight. Jeff and Toni got spattered in blood but he quickly retrieved the bird and we bled them into a bucket.

So onto the next step. We decided to skin two of them for a casserole and pluck one, leaving the skin on for roasting. I boiled a large pot of water and dipped one of the birds into it for about 15 secs before plucking, which I found surprisingly easy. Toni demonstrated on one and Jeff skinned the other. The gutting was unpleasant because of the smell but was over quickly. Then it was good wash under the tap and we were done. Toni advised the birds needed to rest for 2-3 days either in the fridge or the freezer to allow the meat to relax from the rigor mortis. 

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Plucking one of the cockerels ready for roasting.

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The look on Jeff’s face says it all: blergghh!

Then came the best bit – eating. On Sunday, 6th April, I prepared the most delicious casserole I think I’ve ever made, if I do say so myself.

Jo’s recipe for Edgefield Homegrown Chicken Casserole

Ingredients

Two whole chickens cut in quarters
Bacon
Mushrooms
Pickling onions
Garlic
Thyme
White wine
Vegetable stock and water
Tomato paste
Salt and pepper
Kale

I think that’s it for ingredients from memory. I just flew by the seat of my pants in terms of a recipe and it turned out great. The meat was really delicious. It was darker in colour, had more texture and was firmer than shop-bought chicken. The flavour was slightly gamier and more “chickeny” – just as Matthew Evans had described. Major thumbs up from all around my table so I was stoked.

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So all round it was a very positive experience and one we are now prepared to continue doing, which is good because I’m rather enjoying breeding chooks and with that comes surplus roosters. This is by far the best thing I can think of doing with them.

 

 

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