Sunday, July 11, 2010

Backyard Chickens, July 2010

A friend of mine on their way on the LIE to the Midtown Tunnel called me the other morning and asked if I had on the NPR program, All Things Considered. He told me they were talking about the resurgence of backyard chicken farms in NY.

A few months back when I first got my current batch of chicks he had warned me that the raccoons would get them. We shared a few stories. A coop can be so well designed to keep out foraging critters that when it rains real heavy the chickens drown.
This morning he exclaimed how sometimes he forgets that I am avant-garde. I told my wife and she laughed that 15 years ago when we had chickens and guinea hens, and prairie dogs and an iguana and pygmy hedge hogs (some of you may remember the pygmy hedge hog all-natural yogurt business plan) that we may have been avant-garde then. 

Today, with the economic recession that may be receding, maybe not -- we are forward looking revivalists. We look forward to eggs, which the chickens should start to lay in about another month.
My friend said that he considers taking it up. Chickens are related to pheasants and the two of us have shared some good times on pheasant hunts. Regardless, I told him that to keep chickens is not all that much work and to care for a small flock of birds helps us to be grounded in a keep sane sort of way when all else in the world may seem interminably out of control.

I also told him about our cage.
Our yard is fenced and I would like to let the chickens roam but my wife tells me that as the work area of the yard is a ‘green industrial zone’ that she would prefer I not risk the chickens run into the lead coated copper scraps or fiberglass resin or the spill of hydrated mason’s lime in the driveway. I have no problem there. I don’t want them to invade the garden and eat all the leaves off the pepper plants. So I built a cage that the chickens are happy in and not so closed up that they have any reason to feel oppressed.
I modeled the construction of our coop on the ones that we saw at Agway (our farm store where we went to meet the mushroom guy from the Cornell Cooperative Extension who talked one Saturday morning about his chickens that he raises in his back yard out near Riverhead). Their coops are all painted pretty and sell for $1,000 and up.
 We were not ourselves looking for a Martha Stewart chicken experience.
Our coop cost less than $100 in materials and gives us a whole lot more capacity and enhancement to the chickens, at least in their response to life quality issues, than we would have got with the pre-built models. We even have solar electric, and if pressed I bet we could do a LEEDS on it though I am not so sure about the geo-thermal. We do have in mind some improvements and I noticed that the few shovels of dirt I threw in the other day that the chickens knew exactly what to do with it.
So, as a main life-support unit there is the roost box that also houses the water and the basic feed. I got tired of filling the feed every day and adapted the off-the-shelf feeder with a plastic pretzel bottle (sparrows ate the pretzels... sorry if our localized sparrows now have high bird pressure, it will pass) all held together with hot glue. Hot glue is so neat to play with. The roosting box needs ventilation and with the painter’s cloth over the roof I can regulate the exposure for the sleeping birds. Eventually I may figure out something more permanent, but I like to think slow sometimes. One thing to keep in mind is that chickens to remain healthy need to acclimate to their hot or cold environment. You have to give them tough love and let them weather it out. Lately with the heat wave they wander around with their beaks open.
The roost box is attached to the nest box that has two nests. I read that the chickens will take turns using the nests. We will see. The nest box has a tilt up lid so that us humans can reach in and steal the eggs. The nest box is exactly 20 steps from the kitchen frig. It is 30 steps to the outdoor rocket stove and the giant frying pan. Fresh fried eggs on a Sunday morning!

Toward the yard side of the nest box the door is a pull up. I pull it up in the morning and the chickens jump off their roost pole, clucking at me and then they run outside to their yard on the ladder ramp. At night, unless I fall sleep and forget, the door is dropped as an extra protection against raccoons.
But there is one factor that is important -- in the past we lost chickens to raccoons (who rip the chicken’s heads off and leave the carcasses behind and not even eat them... nasty animals) that the yard on this cage is totally fenced top, all sides, top and bottom. The bottom wire is heavy duty fence and not the lighter duty chicken wire.

Another friend, who also wants to raise chickens, asked me how often we have to clean out the coop. He thought maybe twice a week. I told him twice a year, though we have not had to do that on ours so far. The roost box has slats in the bottom. A reason for the ventilation when you accommodate chickens is that their manure produces nitrogen. Nitrogen is incredibly good for garden fertilizer, and I have used chicken manure based fertilizers for many years.
 I was also asked about feeding the chickens and I had fun describing how they like watermelon butts, dandelion greens, worms (they don’t seem to know what to do with slugs), all sorts of left over greens and rice and corn flakes and corn cobs and radish tops. I keep finding new things to feed them, but it is a supplement to the regular chicken feed that I keep them supplied with. During their laying they need calcium and I will then feed them with a supplemented feed.

Of all the food scraps and yard weeds (we use no chemicals on our lawn except to kill the poison ivy and I don’t plan on feeding the chickens poison ivy) I figure that whatever the chickens do not eat that combined with their manure we have a compost situation... and whatever bugs are created in the open air the chickens will be entertained to chase after and eat.
You can see my observation camp chair (red) in the photo. One thing that amazes me is that if I sit and hold a leaf up to their cage that the chickens go nuts to climb all over each other to get a nibble of it. The minute I let go of the leaf they lose interest. When I go around that area of the yard they always talk to me.

So, I heard this joke... If I cut a foot off my rooster and feed it to your donkey what do we call that? [I reserve the right to not tell the punch line.]