Saturday, 14 January 2017

A new chicken walkway

The chickens in the stable are beginning to go stir crazy because despite having a reasonably good size space in which to spend their days, they aren't used to being confined. The process of getting them from their chicken shed to the stable in the morning and back again at dusk is starting to irritate me too.

The chickens don't really like being herded or carried back and forth the thirty feet between the two and Mr J and I thought it was about time to tackle the issue. We thought that if we create a covered walkway between the two, then the dawn and dusk double quick march could become a meandering stroll. If I enclosed the walkway completely with chicken wire and covered the roof, the chickens could then spend as much time as they liked out in the covered walkway or be inside in the condo.
 I spent some time looking carefully at the space at the back of the stable to work out how I might create the walkway and on Friday three hundred feet of treated battening was delivered from the local builders' merchant.

Mr J cut ten of the lengths in half.

And cut points on the ends of ten of the pieces.

I positioned the first couple of pieces of wood on the outside of the rear stable wall, but trying to screw so many screws in by hand was going to mean that the building of the walkway would take an awfully long time and probably more than a few tears.

So this morning we took a trip to the local DIY superstore and bought, amongst several small pieces of ironmongery that I wanted, a cordless screwdriver and cordless drill. 

My life is transformed. Okay, so not on a grand scale, its not climate change being reversed nor poverty being eradicated, but on a 'this is going to means making things is simple' scale, it is a big deal.

When we got home Mr J made a cuppa and I read the instruction manuals, then I headed out into the garden to continue making the frame for the walkway. I managed to put in the next two uprights, two roof braces and one long horizontal brace before the rain forced me to abandon my task and head back indoors.

Weather permitting, I will continue building the frame tomorrow and I may even finish the woodwork. I will then cover the frame's top and sides in chicken wire and also the roof area will be covered in scaffold netting to prevent wild bird poop from falling onto the ground from above. I will create two doors in the walkway, one near the stable door and one at the far end going out into the chicken field. By having two doors in the walkway, we will be able to have free movement into and around the walkway once the birds are allowed to free range again.

We plan to leave the walkway in place after the lockdown is lifted as I am sure that some sort of lockdown will happen again next autumn when the wild birds are migrating again. This way the infrastructure (and structure) is in place to allow us to respond quickly and get the birds inside and under cover as soon as the Prevention Zone measures are announced.

If we ever decide not to keep chickens or to move them to another area on the smallholding, I will be able to either dismantle the walkway or I can use the walkway as a fruit cage. 

Yesterday's blog post was about vloggers who have inspired and entertained me and very kindly Dan at The Grass-Fed Homestead mentioned my blog on his most recent vlog (you'll need to watch this episode to the end if you want to see the mention). I also noticed that James and Dee at Happy Homestead have mentioned my blog and said some very kind things about us. It is especially nice to be a part of a network of enthusiastic homesteaders who are supportive and caring.

As I type it is late in the day, Mr J has already done the evening chores and so I need to head to bed, without my usual post-blog cuppa!
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Friday, 13 January 2017

Watching and learning

I really enjoy watching a range of vlogs made by other folks who are living a similar lifestyle to us. I take inspiration from their ideas, learn how to do things and get hint and tips about what not to do. I'm sure everyone knows what a vlog is, but just in case, it's a video log, just like a blog (bio-log) but a filmed one, usually but not always, put onto YouTube for others to watch.

I will be starting to vlog on a regular basis very soon. I made a couple of short vlogs last year so that I could start to learn how to edit videos. You can see them at my YouTube channel hereI'd be delighted if you would subscribe to my channel and then you will know each time I upload a new vlog.

I've been inspired to vlog by a few people who I see so regularly on the telly screen in my living room, that they are starting to feel like old friends! 

These are some of my favourite vlogs (in no particular order), I subscribe to all these YouTube channels and watch each new vlog as it appears.

Sean James Cameron

Sean (with the help of Rusty the cat) has been making videos and vlogs for around four years from his allotment in London. Together with other allotment holders, he makes interesting and instructional vlogs. As with all the vloggers that I like to watch, Sean tells it like it is and doesn't gloss over the problems that arise when gardening. He is also rather partial to the occasional cuppa (which makes him a kindred spirit).
Find Sean's channel here 

Art and Bri

This couple, who have four young children, inspire me by being so positive and yet almost humble in their approach to life. Art and Bri's love for each other and their children is touching to see. They've been in their homestead for a year or so and are now enjoying having their first farm animals, chickens and goats.
Art and Bri's volgs can be found here

The Grass-Fed Homestead

Dan and Ashley (and Little Buddy) have recently started out on their homesteading adventure. I like their humility (a wonderful trait in my eyes) and their gentle approach to life, the way they care for their animals (sheep, chickens and rabbits) and the obvious joy that they get from learning new information and skills. They've spent ages studying permaculture and are now putting that knowledge into practice.
Watch The Grass-Fed Homestead here

Pure Living for Life
Jesse and Alyssa live off-grid and debt free and are recording their progress as they develop their 5 acre plot of land from scratch into their homestead. I find them highly entertaining and like their practical yet joyful approach to life. They made the best video I've ever seen about the trials and tribulations of trying to dispatch their first chicken!
Pure Living For Life can be found here

David The Good
I find these vlogs great fun, sometimes a little off the wall which is just up my street, but always filled with interesting and inspiring ideas for gardening in a food forest. David The Good and his family live in a rented property that is currently on the market for sale, but that doesn't stop them from putting down roots and making long term plans. 
David The Good's channel is here

Happy Homestead

James and Dee have just moved to Eday, a small island in the Orkneys to start a new life on a croft. It's great to follow the progress of lovely pair who have become firm friends, they came to visit us several times before they moved (read about it here) and I'm delighted to see how they are settling in.
Watch Happy Homestead's channel here

Justin Rhodes

I expect that many of you have already seen Justin Rhodes' vlogs. They are inspiring, uplifting and entertaining. Justin currently lives on a homestead with his family, although they are about to embark on a tour of homesteads and farms right across America and Canada.
Justin Rhodes' vlogs can be found here  

Off-Grid with Doug and Stacey
I admire this couple, they are practical, informative and entertaining. They've learnt so many skills since moving to their homestead in 2011. And, you don't need to be living off-grid to glean loads of useful information from their vlogs.
The Off-Grid with Doug and Stacey channel is here

This is not an exhaustive list (there are many others that I watch occasionally), but I hope you enjoy exploring these YouTube channels as much as I have.
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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Farewell to feathered friends

Today didn't turn out quite as I'd imagined. This morning I dispatched the Cream Legbar cockerel that had started being aggressive with the other birds and because we value every life on our smallholding, we had planned to eat it, but I had no stomach this morning for plucking and cleaning a bird, so sadly I just disposed of him. Luckily we still have his brother (pictured above), who is not aggressive and looks after his girls.

Winter is starting to bite and while the promised snow hasn't arrived as yet, the wind is starting to pick up and I'm a little worried about whether the makeshift covered runs will stand up to the strength of the gusts blowing across the chicken field.

The pop hole that leads from the chicken palace to the covered run in the field has been closed and secured so at least that small flock of Jersey Giants and Australorps will be safely inside away from the 'arctic blasts' that have been hinted at. 

The two boys in the separate house in the field on the other hand, are somewhat exposed to the elements and I haven't worked out yet, where to put them to keep them safe from the winds. 

Normally I wouldn't worry, they are hardy birds and can cope with a bit of wind and rain by hiding under bushes, behind straw bales etc. but obviously during lockdown they are confined to their run which offers little shelter from the wind. I put up windbreak fabric yesterday to provide some protection to their run, but even that struggles when icy wind is gusting at up to 55 mph across the field.

The chickens in the chicken condo don't really notice the wind too much, it's enclosed on three sides and the one side that isn't enclosed with wood and plastic is covered completely in chicken wire faces into the rest of stable block so is sheltered from the worst of the elements.

Mr J and I popped out to the local store to do a top-up shop and in the hour or so that we were out there was an incident in the chicken condo. We have been integrating the ten week old chicks into the flock by leaving their nursery pen lid open. They've enjoyed sitting on top of their nursery pen for the last few days and occasionally been brave enough to explore on the floor. When they do the girls peck them a little, but I've seen nothing too nasty and anyway, the chicks can run away and hide under their nursery pen (which is raised on a long pallet) if they've felt overwhelmed by the attention of the rest of the flock.

At some point, something happened in the condo and the little red female chick has run under the pallet. My guess is that she received a particularly hard peck and hid and sadly she has been killed. I found her dead with her tail feather clearly visible from the side of the pallet. The other chickens weren't having a go at her or pecking her by that point and when I pulled her out from hiding, it was obvious the damage has been done by something other than a chicken.

So I locked the other two chicks back into the safety of the nursery pen which has heavy duty chicken wire all around it and beneath it. Tonight we have moved the two remaining chicks into the chicken shed to sleep with the flock. Usually we would have done this at eight weeks old, but as the chicks were late hatchers we had decided to keep them separate for a little extra time. Anyway, even though I was planning to add them into the chicken shed on Saturday night, we have moved it forward to tonight and keep our fingers crossed that the flock are kind to them.

Then we moved the nursery pen, I half expected to find a family of rats having a party below the nursery run, but no, there was no sign of rats having been living there. I guess one had hidden there and just took the opportunity of a meal when presented with it. We have now raised the nursery run even more onto large blocks of wood to ensure that unwelcome visitors can't live underneath it. I will set up the electric rat zapper under the nursery pen in the hope to eliminate a problem for future chicks. Mr J and I are wondering if we need to resort to little boxes of poison in small blue boxes, neither of us want to do this, we don't want toxins on the premises, but nor do we want rats and the electric zapper hasn't caught anything over the last couple of weeks. 

Monty and Tabitha are beginning to be more comfortable with going outside and we've spotted Monty waiting quietly in the back of the stable where we keep the wood pile, so hopefully he will start earning his keep by keeping the rodent population at bay. 

We are concerned however, that if we use a rat poison then the cats will eat a poisoned rat and that will harm them. Equally, if a rat dies anywhere in the chicken spaces, we don't want the chickens to eat a poisoned animal. It's a dilemma, but one that we need to address pretty rapidly.

When we came back inside to warm up and have a cuppa, Tabitha, one of the cats had decided that on top of the wood burner might be a good viewpoint from which to survey her domain. Hopefully she will have enough sense not to try this once we've lit a fire in it.

It seems that today is a peculiar one with the animals on the smallholding. I am now going to cook supper, have a bath and head for bed and hopefully tomorrow will be a more positive day. 
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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Positives of the lockdown

However frustrating it is that the poultry has to be kept inside and under cover, I have finally started to see some positives of this enforced lockdown.

It has given us time to have a really good look at all of the birds close up. I usually spend a bit of time each time day in the chicken field observing them, making sure that they are all healthy, happy and watching their relationships with each other. And, most of all, I just enjoy watching their funny chicken behaviour. 

Since the lockdown I have been able to watch them from close up rather than at the far end of the field and have noticed relationships developing that I hadn't seen before.

It has given us a chance to discuss what we might do in the future and which birds we really value. 

In the Chicken Condo
Much as though we like having blue eggs, the Cream Legbars offer little in the way of entertainment, company or work. They keep themselves to themselves, don't really mingle with the other layers or us and do very little in terms of tilling the ground. They are the first to bed and last out of the hen shed in the morning, they haven't laid an egg from September until one was laid on 6th January (and none since). So I think we will probably reduce their numbers to just two, so that we still have some blue eggs (when they finally start laying regularly again), but our plans to sell hatching eggs of Cream Legbars may just be set aside. The Cream Legbar that sat on a batch of eggs last year will stay with us, she was an excellent mother and having one girl that is a known broody bird is a good idea.

Jack and Diesel, the girls that we got from my daughter will stay, they were our first birds and will have a home with us for as long as they live and with them we will keep a couple of hyline birds that have proved to be regular layers. For now we will also keep the hybrid birds that we have hatched, two white ones with black flecks on their feathers and a cross between Jack and Big Red, who hopefully will lay olive eggs when the time comes.

In the Chicken Palace
Big White will stay, for now, as the White Jersey Giant cockerel as will his three girls, but when the two young birds, which we hatched ten weeks ago, are older, we will replace Big White with one of them if they are males (which I think that they are) as they are a different bloodline to Big White.

There are two Australorp males in the chicken palace together with two females from different bloodlines and a hybrid that is best friend of one of the Australorps and they seem inseparable. We need to decide which of the two males will remain with the girls fairly quickly so that we can separate them and have them as a small breeding flock to increase our own flock numbers and offer hatching eggs for sale.

In a separate house and run are one youngish white Jersey Giant cockerel and one other young Australorp cockerel, the Australorp male that we reject from the chicken palace will join them in this house and run. These are our meat birds. In yet another small house is a Cream Legbar cockerel. Until yesterday he was with the Jersey Giant and Australorp cockerels, but he has been aggressive and injured the young Jersey Giant. So as we know that he will be dispatched before the weekend, we will keep him separate until dispatch.

Having created a secure space in the stable (the chicken condo) and adapted the outbuilding (the chicken palace) that was going to become my garden room and potting shed, there is no point in undoing the work when the lockdown is lifted. We have also invested in a new duck run, which will stay in place when the ducks are allowed to roam their area of the field again. So now we have three secure areas for the birds and we have had a little bit of time to look at how the field is used, we have an opportunity to assess whether we want to return the birds to the whole of the space that they did have or whether we want to use part of the field in a different way.

We could, for example, create pens in the field over the summer so that the birds have plenty of space to run about, but are areas that we could cover if next year there is a lockdown again. This could give them a better lockdown environment if we can find a way to make a runway from their shed and stable to the pens. This seems like a good idea, but it means that the chickens will be less a part of our overall plan to develop the site. 

Another option would be to build several mobile covered runs that are easy to move around and in early autumn move them to places that we want tilled and fertilised. Then if lockdown happens again next year, we can put some of the birds in each covered run (with a henhouse attached) and they will be able to work the land even during lockdown. The downside to this is that I will have to clean out several small houses on a regular basis rather than one larger shed.

Now that the Australorp and Jersey Giant girls are coming into lay, we don't need as many hybrid birds as we have at the moment, so the lockdown has been useful to allow me to observe the hybrids and find out which ones are laying most regularly and which lay little brown eggs and which lay huge pale eggs. The hybrids that we don't need will be offered to friends, they are still good laying birds, but we don't need to keep nine of them in addition to Jack, Diesel, three girls that we've hatched, a couple of Cream Legbars and the rare breed birds.

The four ducks we have now sleep in the cycle store shed that we converted in the early autumn and each morning they walk through a short covered tunnel into the new duck pen. It's not ideal and in readiness for a potential lockdown next year, I want to create a better tunnel that I have access to and can walk through. It is likely to not look terribly attractive, but we could grow climbers up the outside to soften the look of it.

I've been able to watch how the ducks are interacting, the young drake is just starting to tread on the girls. His technique looks pretty awful, but then, I'm not sure that I could balance on a moving object that isn't terribly keen to be stood on, so perhaps I am not giving him enough credit for his persistence in trying. It seems clear to me that although there is plenty of balancing going on, there is no 'action' as yet.

We have already decided that we want to raise more ducks this year and earlier in the year than we did in 2016. That way we can fill the freezer and I don't have the rushed job of dispatching half a dozen ducks in the fortnight before Christmas.

When the ducks can run around outside the pen once again, we will be able to use the pen as a safe and secure place for the ducklings to grow until they are large enough to join the flock for a few weeks.

I have also been able to spend some time assessing the land, making notes of the areas that the ducks have dibbled so much that they've worn the grass away completely, the places where the rain doesn't drain away very quickly and the young hedging plants that didn't survive the summer.

Having the birds safely tucked away meant that when Jane and I planted a new hedge along part of the western boundary of our little smallholding, we were able to move around freely and didn't need to keep opening and closing gates behind us. Likewise, when we planted a new hedge along the edge of the chicken field, we were able to easily without upsetting the chickens.

So even though having the birds in lockdown isn't much fun for them or us, I thought it was important to remind myself that even in a bad situation there are some positives to be found.

If you have found any other positive side effects of lockdown, please leave a comment below.

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Monday, 9 January 2017

Why raise meat birds?

I've seen quite a lot of discussion on social media recently about whether raising one's own meat birds is worth it, so I thought I'd share my somewhat limited experience.

From the point of view of knowing that what I'm eating is good quality meat that comes from birds raised in a free range situation (except during lockdown of course), that have been able to express their natural behaviour and been fed only organic food, then yes, it's absolutely worth it.

It is worth it financially?

If I had a fast growing breed of bird that raced to it's maximum weight, then I guess the following calculations would be very different, but I don't like the idea of birds growing so fast that their bones can't keep up with the weight of the muscle on them. I prefer to have slower growing birds that have time to gently develop their muscle, so I dispatch chickens from around sixteen to eighteen weeks onwards and I'm still trying to work out the optimum age for dispatch for each breed. But for the purpose of these calculations I'm going to assume dispatch at twenty weeks old.

A bag of organic feed costs us £15 and lasts about a week. We're feeding around thirty birds, so that means it costs us 50p a week per bird. I also give them organic mixed corn which I estimate costs 17p per week per bird. As I grow vegetables to supplement their diet, there are no other feeding costs apart from the apple cider vinegar that I add to the water on a regular basis, so I'm going to call that 3p per week. Total input cost is 70p per week x 20 weeks = £14.00. The bird that was dispatched this week weighed 1.965Kg (approximately 4lbs 8ozs), plus the giblets which I use to make stock and then feed the heart and liver to the cats (who are very appreciative of our minimal waste policy). 

To allow a reasonably fair comparison of prices, my chicken cost £7.00/Kg.

Today I checked online for organic chicken prices.
Tesco £6.50/Kg
Riverford 2Kg = £7.73/Kg
Combe Farm Organic = £8.79/Kg
Planet Organic = £10.24/Kg
Marks and Spencer = £6.30/Kg
Eversfield = £8.65/Kg

There may also be a delivery charge for the organic chicken purchased online.

So at a quick glance it seems that raising my own chickens is probably costing me no more than it would to purchase one online and if I add the delivery charge in too, then it is financially worth raising our own meat birds.

We have commercial breed Aylesbury ducks, bred to grow fairly quickly to a decent size in just a couple of months or so. Ducks can be dispatched at eight weeks, but for our first season we waited until they were fifteen and twenty weeks old. In the future I will dispatch at twelve and a half weeks as this is plenty large enough a bird for our needs.

Feeding costs of our ducks is similar to that of the chickens, but they reach a good size in slightly less time, so each duck will cost around £8.75 to raise.

The value of a home-raised organic duck is even better, especially as we now don't need to purchase eggs to hatch as we have three layers to fill our incubator with eggs. Our fifteen week old ducks weighed in at a little over 2Kg each, so I assume at twelve and a half weeks they will weigh around 1.8Kg. This would give a cost of £4.87/Kg.

These are the prices that I found online today.
Graig Farm = £13.60/kg
Rother Valley Organics = £6.70/Kg
Beech Ridge Farm= £6.60/Kg

So from a purely financial viewpoint, it is definitely worth raising ducks for meat.

Obviously I haven't included the cost of their housing, bedding or runs, but we would have those costs whether we raised meat birds or pets.

But, finances are not really the reason that we raise our own meat birds, it's about the taste, the knowledge of where are food has come from, what it's been fed (and not fed), food miles and food security.

We enjoy their company and we would keep ducks and chickens even if we decided not to have them as meat birds. We find a huge amount of pleasure in hatching our own eggs and watching the young birds grow into healthy adults.

When not in lockdown, the birds help to tackle the pest population in the garden, till and prepare the soil, fertilise the ground and do a superb job at turning the compost heaps (although they are kept out of the ones with kitchen scraps in them). They are an integral part of our gardening system.

On top of their gardening skills, the birds provide us with eggs. Not only do we have a good supply of fresh eggs for the kitchen and to give to our family and friends, but also we plan to soon start selling some of them as hatching eggs. The small income from the sales will help to pay for the birds' feed, making them even better value.

All these calculations have left me thirsty and in need of revitalising, which means it must be time for a cuppa!

Please note that my photos were taken prior to the Avian Flu Prevention Zone order and our birds are now kept inside as required by law. 
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