Lots going on in the chook compound at the moment. I’ve been reading Deano Martin’s blog at the Sustainable Smallholding website and learning a lot from him. He’s very methodical in his approach to permaculture, very knowledgeable and well read. He’s got me interested in creating a chicken scavenging system, growing grains (I’m especially interested in perennials here) and hardy bamboo, of all things. Yes … bamboo. It’s a wonder plant, believe me, just have a look at some of his posts on the subject, here.
I’ve managed to get hold of a few different types and we’ve put them in containers for now until we decide where to site them permanently. The idea is that they will create shelter and food for the chucks (and some food for us, as well as useful poles) and drop their leaves continuously, creating a deep litter from which the chickens will forage for insect protein.
I’ve also been watching quite a few of Geoff Lawton’s videos and learning, learning, learning. This man has a passion for Earth Care that’s infectious – and he loves chickens too so can’t be bad. 😀 If you’re interested in feeding chickens naturally, interested in reducing or eliminating the processed and bought-in food bill for them and feeding them instead on stuff they really want to eat, then I suggest you take a look firstly at this (you’ll need to input your email addy to subscribe, but nothing more) and then watch this: Geoff’s Chicken Tractor on Steroids.
Now our flock is not as big and nor do we have any large animals (yet) to contribute manure, but we’re attempting an even smaller scale version of Geoff’s Chicken Tractor which does away with the tractor and uses only the chuck and duck house litter and poo as the innoculant. The other ingredients we’d like to source on-site too, but will start with manure and then tweak as we go. I’ll let you know what happens. And I’ll be looking at nitrogen/carbon ratios and what chickens like to eat, etc., before going the whole hog and removing their pellet mash.
In the first picture at the top of the page, you can see our first week’s ‘cage’ with old litter straw, poo and sawdust in it. We added some veg scraps and the chickens were more than happy to scrat about in it. We have a bit of manure arriving tomorrow, so we’ll add some of that and will continue to add scraps as the week goes on. Next week, we’ll move the pallets and start again, leaving the first pile to be de-constructed by the chucks, but with a bit of a safety net in place in the form of a wire fencing circle around it to stop them from spreading the contents too far. Hopefully, like Geoff, at the end of four weeks we’ll have some compost to barrow out of the orchard and to the veg garden.
The other thing that’s chuck related (and a nod toward Deano) is that I’ve collected leaves and dumped them around one of the apple trees in order to re-create a deep-litter forest floor for the chickens to scrat about in. It’s encircled with wire fencing and a little chicken netting to stop the leaves from spreading out of the circle at the bottom. The idea is to kill the hogweed, grass and nettles growing beneath the tree, and to encourage insects, worms, etc., for soil and chicken health. Any bad insects that harm the apple tree may also be eaten by the chucks – so function truly is stacked here.
I didn’t take the leaves out of the woodland, by the way – we really don’t want to remove nutrients away from that zone – we have a barn range that ‘catches’ leaves against the back of it from the woodland and the huge trees living on the edge there.
There were about three euro bags of leaves, so I took them down to the orchard. If the circle proves too large an area, there are another couple of bag loads further up the range that I can filch.
So far, the chucks seem to approve of all these different places to scratch around in – they are kept busy and interested, fulfilling their natural behavioural needs. And that’s what we’re after in the end: happy birds producing high quality eggs, compost, meat and not forgetting their entertainment value too!
When the leaves have done their job and mulched the weeds away, we’ll plant a guild beneath the tree with plants that are beneficial to all – tree, chucks, insects and people. Watch this space for more on that.
Also happening in the orchard is a duckweed cultivation experiment. Ducks love it, and, if we can encourage the chickens to eat it too it’ll give them between 30 and 40% protein. Amazing stuff. So far, I’ve managed to encourage a bit too much blanket weed in the pond, so will look at shading to see if I can’t reduce it. Once the duckweed covers the whole water surface area, it should lessen the problem, but until then I need to sort some other solution out.
The net over the top is to stop the ducks from eating it all should they manage to infiltrate the compound somehow. And the plant growing on the right hand side is water cress. Yum!
At the bottom of the compound, awaiting bees, are the hives.
I’ve been clearing hogweed and planting bee plants down there. When everything’s established, we’ll let the chickens in. They’ll peck away at any mites beneath the hive which will help with bee health in the long term.
Haven’t got time today, but I will write a post on natural bee-keeping using top-bar hives soon. Maybe after we’ve received our first swarm!
Elsewhere, we have two chickens sitting on eggs. First to hatch a brood this year was an only-just-begun-to-lay pullet, Moaning Myrtle (named for the wailing sounds she made while hunting out somewhere to lay). She hatched six out for us. Maude was sitting next but, unfortunately, lost all her brood and that was partly or mainly my fault. I’ll write up that particular cautionary tale on broody care soon. It won’t be one I’m proud to make but I feel we must share the bad as well as the good if only to prevent someone else making the same mistakes… And now we have two more sitting: Mavis, another young bird, and Blodwyn, a veteran broody and fab mother.
Here we have Bud, incubator raised by Alex. When Myrtle showed signs of going broody, I took the eggs out she was sitting on and replaced them with some egg-sized pebbles just to see how serious she was (some people advise against using birds that are in their first year for brooding as they can be a bit flakey and get off the nest). After three days, she was still sat fast, so I took out the pebbles, and put a collection of eggs underneath her. Unfortunately, I’d missed one three days previously – a small banty egg. I couldn’t leave it with the others because the timing would be wrong: the egg would hatch three days before the others were ready, and Myrtle would only sit on the nest for a certain amount of time after this one chick came out.
So, off to the incubator it went. Alex already had two duck eggs in there, so it was a no-brainer just to add the one chicken egg too. And, less than three weeks later, we got Bud. She really needs a post of her own though, as the differences in chicken-raised chicks and person-raised chicks warrants a bit of discussion, I feel.
As I said, there’s a lot going on in chuckland at the moment. I’ll keep you updated. For now, I need to get back out there!