Our chicken flock currently consists of twelve birds – one rooster and eleven hens. We started out with six each straight-run Buff Orpingtons and Barnevelders purchased from a local farm about four years ago. We let one or two of the girls go broody every so often to hatch out a few new chicks and harvest all of our cockerels for the dinner table – except for one, our resident rooster Jose’. We’ve lost four of the original hens to predators and illness over the years, but somehow we have kept it at twelve birds. Currently we have eight Barnevelders: Jose’, Dahlia, Phoebe, Hazel, Sweet Pea, Esme and Zippy (she’s super fast!). Buff Orpingtons: Miss Violet and Margaret Hatcher. Barnevelder/Buff crosses: Goldie Hen, Grace and Retta.
These birds live at our home and are a backyard flock. I do sell their surplus eggs to friends about eight months of the year which helps some with the cost of feed. We have learned many lessons along the way and will have to develop new or at least modified systems once we start raising meat and egg birds on a larger scale at the farm. These are very spoiled birds. I enjoy their company immensely and hope to still be able to provide the same “standard of living” for our future flocks at the farm.
I feed them a locally grown, organic, non-gmo, soy and corn free layer mash. Although called a mash – it is mostly whole grains. Oyster shell and granite grit are offered free choice. They get all of the edible kitchen scraps and garden leftovers, as well as all of the wild berries (red and black huckleberries, salmon berries, salal berries) they can forage. I also grow fresh green fodder for them as we do not really have any “pasture” here at the house and very little grass. I call them chicken strips. I was inspired by an ad I saw from Farmtek for the Fodder-Pro systems and thought I could do something similar but on a much smaller scale.
I use a cover crop mix (Austrian winter peas, wheat, ryegrain, ryegrass and crimson clover) to which I add flax seeds. I grow them with a couple of scoops of my compost in drip trays from a bunch of old plastic rectangular planter boxes. In my propagation room I have metal shelves and lights set up for my seed starting so in the fall and winter when they are not in use, I grow the chicken strips in there. They take 10-12 days from start to finish.
I grow them all year since we are gone most weekends working down on the farm and I like to toss a few strips into their coop before we go.
My plant propagation room is set up in our daylight basement mud room that also houses our deep freeze. The exhaust from the deep freeze keeps the room in the 55 – 60 degree range during the winter, so a lot of seeds germinate and grow pretty readily without having to add extra heat. I do keep a small oscillating fan running year around to keep mold and mildew at bay. I also have heat mats but don’t need them very often for the chicken strips.
We specifically designed the coop to be large enough to give the birds plenty of room to move around while we are down working at the farm. It is 8′ x 12′ with an open air design to allow them plenty of fresh air and ventilation. The roosting area is mostly enclosed to keep them warm in the winter and draft free at night.
The feeders hang from the ceiling in the event we ever have a rodent invasion. It also keeps them from pooping in their feed or knocking the feeders over. The pie tins are there to deter any roosting on top of the feeders. The “poop-free” watering system is accessible from inside (the black line from the white bucket on the right in the background) as well as outside (black line from the white bucket on the right in the fore-ground). The rolled up hardware cloth (center to the left of the ramp) allows me to close off a section of the coop when we have a broody with chicks.
The water bucket and hoses are wrapped with heat tape and attached to a thermostat that turns it on when the temps get close to freezing. The hoses that hook up to the waterers are now wrapped with foam insulation and taped to keep the birds from pecking at the foam. This we learned the hard way…
The open air areas are covered in 1/4″ hardware cloth to provide lots of fresh air and it also does a good job of keeping rodents out. The foundation is several inches of gravel topped by several inches of sand and doubled up layers of chicken wire nailed to the framing. The hardware cloth also comes down and is folded over the framing to keep rodents from digging in from underneath. On top of the chicken wire is a couple of feet of straw that I “freshen up” every couple of days. Even though we live in a very wet climate nine months of the year, it is the driest coop you will ever encounter! It never smells bad either except when the birds kick their feed outside. When it rains hard, the smell of fermenting chicken feed – no matter how organic – is not the most appetizing smell.
There are LED rope lights hung about the coop and set on a timer to provide extra lighting. Not necessarily to keep them laying all winter (which most of them don’t) but mainly because we have VERY short days in the winter and we are very shaded under those 100’+ trees. The rope lights work great because they aren’t a glaring light, the fire hazard is minimal and the lights don’t get caked with dust, not to mention the energy savings.
The coop is sited under a couple of cedars, so even in the summer it stays pretty cool, but the window over the nest boxes gets propped open on those rare hot summer nights. It too is covered in hardware cloth so no one can sneak in at night.
I keep several inches of wood chips all around their coop to keep the mud at bay. Daily I clean the bedding under their roost and pick up anything I happen to see in front of the entrance to the coop. This helps to keep the eggs cleaner. The nest boxes are accessible from outside and the two large doors on the side make cleaning under the roosts a breeze. I fill empty feed bags (they are heavy duty paper bags) with the soiled bedding and haul them down to the farm to toss into a large compost pile I’m building near one of the planned gardens. The bags are biodegradable so I can just toss them wholesale onto the heap. Once a year I take out about 75% of the bedding material from the coop and add it to our compost piles or spread directly in the garden.
I rake up leaves or collect bags of them from neighbors and toss them into the run. They love to scratch around in the huge piles. They do a nice job of shredding them, which then eventually gets scooped back up into the wheelbarrow to add to the compost heaps. Ideally – and we will definitely do this at the farm – they’d have ready access to compost piles from their run so I wouldn’t have to haul so much around, but our property here at the house is sloped and winding, plus heavily wooded making it more difficult to fence or to have good access to flat areas where this would be ideal.
The coop is enclosed with electronet fencing that we run on a solar charger. Solar conditions at the house are not optimal so I do occasionally have to plug it into an outlet in the tool shed to charge it back up during the winter months when the sun makes a very brief appearance over the tall trees surrounding the house and coop.
Their run is a nice woodland setting for them to hang out in, but when I am home (which is most of the time except for weekends at the farm) I open up the electronet and let the chickens forage in the forest edges and my gardens when they are dormant. When I am growing veg I have to get creative about blocking them from accessing those areas. Magpie (our dog) does an excellent job of making sure the chickens are (1) safe from any would be predators lurking in the woods, and (2) that they stay together. She gets pretty upset when any of them stray and chases them back towards the flock. She will not accept no as an answer. She runs the perimeter of our property the whole time they are free-ranging to ensure their safety. Magpie takes her job pretty seriously.
We have a lot of scaling up to do once we get to the farm, but in the meantime we are collecting ideas and planning out how to manage more birds more efficiently, all the while managing other livestock, orchards and the market gardens.