Small Flock Management

 

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The Flock

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.

Feed

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.

After about 4 days

After 1 week

 

After about 10 days

 

Just “peel and eat”

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.

They eat the whole thing – shoots, roots and un-germinated seeds. Super delicious and nutritious!

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.

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In the spring and summer I just grow them on the railing of my deck.

In the spring and summer I just grow them on the railing of my deck.

The Coop

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.

Never mind the bit of mildew on the roost doors – it IS the middle of our wet winter… Everything gets a thorough cleaning once the rains start to taper off. The logs to the left are still waiting to be split from the tree felling a few months ago. That is an old piece of decking material laying on top of the temporarily displaced logs.

 

The view from inside

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.

We use a hamster waterer for the chicks since the “nursery” section doesn’t have access to the regular waterers, but it works the same as the chicken nipples and they learn right off the bat how to operate them. I can also easily lower and raise them to the appropriate height since they just clip onto the hardware cloth.

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.

With the roosting area doors open you can see the nest boxes and roosts. The roosts themselves are made from branches with the bark peeled off, offering them a more natural grip.

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.

Compost

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.

Fencing

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.

Foraging

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.

 

 

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About La Femme Farmer

Starting up a small farm is the goal for the second half of my life. It's a late start I know, but better late than NEVER! Growing food, cooking and eating are my passions and now I get to do it full-time (and then some). and yes, that's a tomato from my garden!
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12 Responses to Small Flock Management

  1. DM says:

    lots of great pictures. Especially loved the chicken names…”Margarette Hatcher.” what a perfect name for a hen! Looks like you got the forage growing system down pat. I too saw the farmtec set up and built my own version for a fraction of what they were asking for. We live just 30 minutes from Farmtec’s national warehouse. you guys never cease to amaze me with your organizational skills and planning. DM

  2. Thanks DM. Margaret’s full name is Margaret Hatcher, Prime Henister. She’s the boss lady in the flock. All of their names have to do with identifying features or personality traits. It’s easier for me to tell them apart that way. Always great hearing from you – thanks for stopping by!

  3. mashazager says:

    Thanks, very helpful and informative post as always. We have 15 buff orp hens and a rooster but don’t give them names. (Don’t want to get too attached though they are very endearing!) the setup is similar to yours. Two things we have learned in the last year: 1. Feed is digested better if soaked overnight or longer. It begins to ferment and is much more nutritious. Eggs became noticeably better though they were good already. 2. They love suet, which we can get for free from the local butcher. Their consumption of grain has dropped by maybe a third since we added suet to the diet.

    • Hi mashazager! I will definitely try soaking their feed overnight – we consume a lot of fermented foods for their health benefits so it makes sense it would be good for them too. We have a lot of fatback from our recent hog purchase and I’ve been giving the birds chunks of it. They go crazy for it. And now that you mention it, I have noticed a drop in their grain consumption which usually increases during the winter months.
      I know I shouldn’t name them, but it was my first flock and then the baby chicks were so cute and I just couldn’t help myself. I’m going to try and not do it when we move to the farm…

  4. What a beautifully designed set up, not really a surprise, considering who it belongs to 🙂
    I really like the wide doors on the end so you can clean out under the roosts. The fodder growing operation is brilliant. I’ve seen various things on the internet along the same lines, but have yet to give it a go – I have a small sprouter for people greens, and I’m pretty bad at keeping an eye on it – maybe it’s too much like a houseplant or something. You guys are certainly tucked into the forest there, I can see why the greens are a good idea. It’s a trade off isn’t it, that forest for shade in summer, but gloom in winter?

  5. Hey SSF – thanks for the compliment! Yeah, the wide doors are great. I can actually bring a wheelbarrow up to it if needed, but mostly I use a 5 gallon bucket when I do the daily clean in there. Being waist high is awesome, no bending over. The roost also lifts up.
    I find growing the fodder in compost is a lot less management intensive as sprouting seeds or growing hydroponically which I found was too quick to get moldy if you weren’t on top of it. The compost or soil only needs watering every other day or so and no mold problems.
    The constant shade is sometimes difficult for me (originally from So Cal). The farm has a lot more open space and sunny areas which I’m looking forward to when we move down, but I have to admit after we have spent a scorching weekend out there during the summer, it is nice to come home to the cool forest setting.

  6. farmerkhaiti says:

    Gorgeous and so well thought out! Love that your flock is self perpetuating too, while providing both eggs and meat. I would like to know what else you have growing in the big pots in the plant room? Are they cuttings of something, or overwintered pepper plants?

    • Thanks farmerkhaiti! That’s actually an older pic of my propagation room that I happened to have handy – those were peppers, tomatillos and tomatoes I had grown from seed, potted up and were waiting to be planted out. We don’t get much sun here because of the trees so most of them have to be planted out in very large pots on my southern facing deck.

  7. Bill says:

    Love this post! Lots of great info here.

    We make “chicken strips” too, but ours start out as sprouts for salads before going out to the chickens. Right now we’re sprouting sunflowers. Just clip off the tops for salads and after they’re done sprouting give the chickens the remaining strips, which they love of course.

    Starting a cover crop mix for them is a great idea and we could easily do that here. So our chickens also thank you for this post.

  8. I remember reading that on your blog and was going to start sprouting for our salads, but then it slipped off my radar – thanks for the reminder!
    I started to buy the cover crop mix for my raised beds here at the house and to re-seed the small patch of lawn that I tried to “tractor” my chickens on (that didn’t work out too well). Anyhow, since I was letting the chickens have at the cover crops in the garden before I planted them out to veg, it occurred to me I could just grow the mix in the trays directly. Quicker and easier than constantly trying to re-seed my miniscule “pasture”!

  9. barnraised says:

    Happy to have found your site! We’re adding adding chickens to our lives in the spring and looking for good information.

    • Glad you stumbled upon us! We try to share the good as well as the not so good experiences. It can be a seemingly never-ending learning curve at times but I get so much “help” from following other farming blogs. I hope you find useful info here.

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