Saturday, February 14, 2015

Birds in Trees

A roosting chicken is a happy chicken.  We are talking laying hens here.  Wild chickens sleep in trees, away from prowling predators.  Chickens were domesticated from the Jungle Fowl of areas of Thailand about 8000 years ago, and they have retained that love of sleeping up high.  Jungle Fowl are beautiful, lean birds, and many folks raise them still (hopefully where they have plenty of free range) as they are very hardy and self sufficient birds, and good mothers, so I have read.  Though modern chicken breeding has aimed to breed out many traits of a natural chicken, such as the urge to sit on a clutch of eggs and hatch them out (going broody), they have retained many of the traits of their ancestors, such as the urge to scratch for bugs, the desire to live in a flock of companions, and the wish roost up high at night out of (perceived) harms way.

The pictures in this post are less than sharp, as it was dusk in the coop and light was low.  
Chicken Feet
As with all things chicken, there are a million theories on the way roosts should be set up.  Old school coops had roosts elevated over droppings boards, which would need to be cleaned of manure often, as chickens do a lot of pooping at night.  There are theories that flat wide roosts are best as the chicken can cover all toes with her belly feathers if she is flat footed at night and therefore prevent any cold damage to the toes.  Their are theories that tree branches are best since they are more natural.  In trying some different types of roosting set ups, these are some things that I have read from trusted sources and find work for me.  

Sometimes they face opposite ways on the roost

1)  Wood is the best material.  Metal should not be used as it gets too cold and is slippery, same for plastic.  

2) The best shape is neither round nor a hard-edge square, but a softly rounded square shape for the bird's foot to grab onto but not be uncomfortable on (a 2'" x 3" with the 2" side face up seems to work well but there are many other options).

3) The roosts should be high enough that the birds can get to them easily.  I think I have my roosts a bit too high for my heavy birds, as they make quite a thud flying off them.  At least they are landing in soft deep litter.  2' off the ground would probably be a bit better than they are now, at waist high.  

4) Plan for poop.  Manure gets dropped over night.  I just add deep litter to cover every other day.  Some people use sand under and scoop the poop like a cat box and put it on the compost pile.  You could use a droppings board but you would need to empty it onto your compost pile everyday, especially in summer, so as not to attract flies.  

5) Give the right amount of space on the roosts:  8" - 12" per bird depending on how big your birds are.  I made the mistake of giving 2 roosts with quite a bit of space, thinking more space was better.  What happened was 12 of the 13 chickens squeezed onto one roost, leaving the chicken at the bottom of the pecking order cold and alone on her own roost.  So, I shortened the roosts so they are forced to split up into two groups and keep each other warm that way.  

6) Ladder roosts means there will be a game of King of the Mountain every night.  By this I mean, the highest perches are most desirable and fighting will ensue to secure the top positions.  So, I opted for all roosts at an even height, even though it takes up more room.  

7) Bedtime is a nervous time for chickens.  They spend time getting into the right spot, moving around on the roosts, quibbling a little.  This is the time predators start to prowl, and they can sense that I think.  Then they settle down and conk out. 

As shown in the picture below, even with the 2" side of the 2" x 3" facing up, the bird is still able to cover most of her toes with her belly feathers.

Goodbye toes

Thursday, February 12, 2015

PASA Farming Conference 2015

Every year in February, I head to State College PA with a couple other folks from Pittsburgh to take part in Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's Farming For the Future Conference.  Now that is a mouthful for ya!  It's always great, but this year it was especially great.  The theme was "Nature as Mentor", just my cup of tea.  

Silver Fox aloe, purchased at the conference
I usually buy one or two books I've been wanting while I'm there.  This year I bought four.  Oops. The tool vendors are the really dangerous booths to visit, since they all carry really nice, well-crafted tools.  It's hard not to walk out of there looking like your ready to set up a garden for an entire army. I escaped after paring down my purchases to a pair of nice, inexpensive $16 Bahco bypass pruners, an axe,  and a serrated greens harvesting knife.

Books and seeds
Francis Moore Lappe was the keynote on day one.  She gave a powerful talk about the reality of hunger in a world that is producing plenty of food.  She showed slides from across the globe, stories of hope, of folks taking their destiny into their own hands and finding ways to create secure, local food systems against great odds.   I look forward to learning more about the work of Lappe and her daughter's project,  The Small Planet Institute.

The speaker the second day was a Ray Archuleta, a Conservation Agronomist from NRCS who had made a conversion from conventional agriculture to more sustainable ag 9 years ago.  Pictured below was part of his presentation showing the differences in the ability of non-tilled and tilled soils to hold together and allow water to pass through.  The no-till soil was able to do both, while the tilled soil was able to do neither.  On my small scale, it is easy not to till.  I never have.  But what about farmers that have already invested in the infrastructure, that have tractors and have everything set up with tillage as a way things are done?  Not as easy for them to just drop everything and make the switch.

I attended many great workshops, one on honeybee queens with one of my favorite beekeeper/teachers, Ross Conrad.  Another by Susan Beal on poultry health.  Jean-Martin Fortier discussed his version of intensive market gardening, and the Xerces Society gave an info packed talk on land stewardship for pollinator conservation, among many other topics.

Now, back at home, I am getting back to the business of getting ready to grow, both at work, and here on the homestead.  In our basement, I potted up my first seedlings of the season, the slow growing Alpine Strawberries I have been nursing along.  I await Spring with all the excitement of a kid!

Alpine Strawberries

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Secret Nest & Maggie's Farm Rum

I thought the chickens were taking a winter break from laying until I moved some things around in their coop and found a pile of 17 eggs.  They had been squeezing behind the straw bales that I store in there until needed as bedding, and laying eggs in a secret hidden spot.  Fine by me; now I know to look there!

Secret Nest
On another note, a group of friends and I visited Maggie's Farm Rum, Pittsburgh's very own rum distillery.  After a tasting, owner Tim Russell gave us a tour and explained the process.  Distilling alcohol is an area where my knowledge base is down near zero, so I just sat back and admired the lovely copper pot still and (kind of) absorbed how it all works.  This I gathered: rum is made from sugar, methanol is bad alcohol and ethanol is good alcohol as far as drinking, and different things come from the distillation process called "heads", "hearts" and "tails".  Maggie's farm re-uses the "tails" and redistills them to get "the heads of the tails" which they use in their signature Queen's Share rums, inspired by rum distillers of days gone by.  Interesting stuff, and good rum!