Chickens on the Move

We all know the traditional method of keeping backyard chickens. Build a coop with an enclosed run and fill it with birds. However there are many problems with this method of keeping chickens. The biggest one is cleanliness. In order to keep everything clean enough for the chickens, you have to use a lot of carbon bedding material (wood chips, straw, leaves, etc.) to keep everything from becoming a muck of chicken droppings and mud. Case in point, I had the chicks on one patch of grass for 4 days. I didn’t think they could do much damage to the grass. Yesterday, we completed the mobile run for the chicks, which I will show later, so I started dismantling their temporary run. As you can see in the picture below, they ate away most of the grass and excavated quite a large hole in the dirt.

chick-run-grass

In order to keep the living environment of the chickens clean in a static living situation requires a LOT of work. So, we’ve come to the conclusion that mobile chicken containment solutions are the way to go moving forward.

So to replace the temporary run for the chicks, we built a 5′ by 5′ PVC frame and wrapped it in half inch wire poultry netting on the sides, 2 inch wire poultry netting and a tarp on the lid.

chick-run

The lid is held in place with 3 zip ties and can be easily propped up for access to the entire run.

chick-run-open

We intentionally chose this method of construction so the run would be light and easily movable by one person. The downside of this is that the run is vunerable to being blown away with a strong wind because of the tarp used as a rain shelter. To weigh the run down, we tied wire across opposing corners and paving stones are laid across the wire.

chick-run-wire

Within the next week or so, this run will become too small for all 26 chicks. At that time, we will build a second run. However, because we need to move them from the brooding coop to the run by hand, we need access to the entire run to catch the chicks. In the future, I hope that the Buffs will be able to be contained by an electric poultry fence.

Because our laying hens have proven themselves to be excellent at jumping fences and they were causing problems while free ranging (pooping EVERYWHERE, raiding the neighbors bird feeder, eating the styrofoam insulation on the house) as well as being in danger of being gobbled by predators, we built a 10′ by 8′ PVC run for them. Why 8′ and not 10′? it simply boiled down to the width of wire we had on hand. We previously bought 4′ wide 2 inch wire mesh that we intended to use as an open top chicken fence. As that idea proved to be ineffective it was lying around, waiting to be used.

chicken-run-closed

We built it with 1/4th of the top as a lid, so we can access their feed trays, water and the chickens themselves if necessary. We hung their water from the PVC frame to keep it clean and so we could put their run on a slope if needed. The plastic bucket you see in the center of the run is full of water to prevent the run from blowing away. When we initially cobbled the run together a VERY strong gust blew through the hollow and sent the run tumbling into a stream 50 yards from where it started.We haven’t had a similar gust since, but we hope this would help prevent such a occurrence from happening again.

chicken-run-open

Because the run needs to have some shelter , we added a 1′ upright bar to suspend the tarp over. Unintentionally, this design leaves part of the frame exposed and allows the hens to perch on it to get their feet out of the mud on rainy days. As you can tell, it is a popular hangout spot.

chicken-run-perch

We initially were moving the hens between the stationary coop (now the brooding house) and the PVC run by luring them with food. However, the further away from the house we placed the run, the harder it was to lure the chickens into it. It became and exercise in frustration to move them twice daily. So we build a mobile chickshaw to attach to the run. We made a downsized version (5′ by 5′, instead of 6′ by 6′) of Justin Rhodes’ chickshaw.  We made it so the coop door acts as a ramp into the PVC run. To keep the hens from escaping, we slide a piece of scrap siding under the ramp as there is a little gap between the ground and the bottom of the chickshaw.

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To save money, we ordered 16″ wheels instead of the 26″ wheels recommended in the plans. It takes a little more muscling, but it still rolls well over uneven ground and is lower to the ground, making it easier to but up against the run. We also put the handles on the nest box side of the chickshaw instead of the door side. The reason we did this is because it would make butting the chickshaw up to the run impossible if the handle were on the other side. We also used a large dowel rod for the handle as suggested in the plans.

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We did make one change to the plans for the dowel, because  it takes more muscle to move the chickshaw around with the smaller wheels, we found the that dowel was slipping through the holes so we drilled holes in the dowels on the outside of the handle arms and put a spring catch pin through the hole.

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Another thing that is nice about the removable dowel handle, is it can be used as a lid prop so you can work inside the chickshaw without having to worry about dropping it on your head.

coop-open

Another nice feature of the chickshaw is the milk crate nest boxes. With the lid shut, the chickens can’t perch on top of them and poop all over them. Also note, that the bottom of the coop is made up of one 1′ hardware cloth and  2’x 2’s. This gives the chickens a place to perch at night while allowing their droppings to fall to the ground. No cleanup necessary!!!

nestbox-inside

The nest boxes are accessible from the back of the coop. We added a PVC pipe threaded through eye bolts to keep the boxes from being pushed out the back from the inside or pulled out by a predator.

nestbox-closed

After you move the PVC pipe, the nest boxes can be pulled out easily for access to the eggs

nestbox-open

The chicks are now 3.5 weeks old and they are getting really big. Some of them are now showing  definite signs of being roosters. It was a shame they couldn’t test out their new run on the fresh grass, but it was so cold and rainy today. So they stayed inside with their brooder heating plate to keep them warm and dry. It appears as though the 60-70 degree weather is not here to stay, but if we get another sunny day, but it is cold, I will move the heating plate out to the run with them so they get sunshine and grass, but are able to keep themselves warm.

chicks-3_5-weeks

 

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New Digs for the Chicks

The chicks are still all very well and are growing quickly. Most of them have grown in a nice set of primary flight feathers.

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They are looking more like little chickens now than balls of fluff.

resting-chick

Since they are now at least twice the size they were when we got them, it was time to give them some new digs since the box was getting crowded. They had started pecking and fighting with each other a bit. Once when startled we saw one of the chicks fly over the level of the top of the box.

2-week-chicks

For the middle of February, Friday was a wonderfully warm  day. So set up the leftover roll of 1″ wire mesh as a temporary run for the chicks. I covered it with the blue tarp because we have crows in the area and they would love to fly over and snatch up a few of our little chicks

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They were a bit afraid and huddled together at first, but they enjoyed getting out on the grass and scratching around.

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Matthew (David and Grace’s dad) and I blocked off the bottom of the inner wire door of the coop with a thin sheet of plywood, put new linoleum on the floor and added wood chips. I then dumped the wood chips from the chick’s box into the coop as well. The old manure will start a deep bedding composting system that will help warm keep the chicks warm.

coop-prep

I added their feed, water and a brooder heating plate. The heating plate allows the chicks to get up underneath, like they would with a mama hen and it keeps them at the temp that the hen would keep them. On the first night, the chicks had no idea what to do. They all huddled in a lump up against the wall of the coop to keep each other warm. I had to go into the coop and insert them each under the brooder. The first time I did this, they all popped right back out and back into the pile. I went out later and they were all back against the wall. So I put them underneath the brooder again. This time only a few popped back out.

brooder-day-time

I went out to check them well after dark and they had all clustered up next to, and under the brooder. I grabbed a couple chicks who were on the outside, towards the edges and put them under the plate.

brooder-night-time

The next morning, I checked on them, and a few of the chicks were up and moving. I move the brooder and they were all alive. They now all automatically go under the brooder at night to keep warm.

brooder-morning

I am moving them from the coop to a an updated pen in the yard every nice day we have. This past weekend and so far this week have been beautiful. The only day they were kept in the entire day was Sunday as it was cooler and raining on and off. Moving the chicks every day also helps ensure that they are used to being handled.  With my system, each chick gets handled at least 4 times each day they are moved. They are moved from the coop into a box, from the box into the pen in the yard, from the pen to a box, from the box back into the coop for the night. I updated their pen in the yard by driving 5 t-posts into the ground and setting the wire up around the post. This helped me make the wire circle a little bigger for the chicks. After I removed the chicks from the wire pen on the first day, the wind came up and blew the wire over, not something I want to have happen when the chicks are inside. When our order for 2 ft high 1 inch wire mesh comes in, we will make a PVC run for them, that can be moved more easily.

new-run

It is lovely seeing them now acting more like little chickens. They love being outside, scratching the grass, and exploring. Some of the chicks have even started play fighting with each other. I think those ones are roosters. I gave them a treat of old potato flakes and a mashed up hard boiled egg. They went crazy for it.

chick-feed

I was happy that we were able to keep them in the house during that cold spell and while we were dealing with pasty butt. However, I am happy to have no more chickens in my house. However, there is always the next batch of chicks.

26 Chicks in the Box

After the chicks had settled in, we noticed that there were 4-5 chicks that were “deep sleepers”. They would rest their head out on the shavings and wouldn’t rouse easily, even if other chicks were stepping on them or we poked at them. The first  morning after receiving our chicks, one chick was dead. We noticed the night before that it looked like this chick had diarrhea and was peeping in a distressed manner. I looked at the rest of the chicks and found that 10 of them had pasty butt. Pasty butt is a condition where a chick’s vent (the hole where they eliminate waste) becomes pasted shut with droppings. Normally, a chick’s droppings are semi-solid and don’t stick to their down. However, when the chicks get stressed, their droppings tend to become more liquid and stick to their down. Once the droppings dry, they can cover the vent, preventing the chick from pooping, which will eventually kill the chick. So, following the instructions on this website and washed the butts of all these chicks. We didn’t have a hair dryer at the time, but we put them all back in the brooder box, and they took a while to dry off. I gave them some yogurt, mixed with hard boiled egg and their feed to they went crazy over it. One chick ended up needing a bath because she took a belly flop into the bowl of food and all her down was pasted to her body, and she was shivering. That evening, two more passed, and Saturday morning, two more had passed. I emailed the hatchery and they refunded the price of the birds that died during their 48 hour “arrive alive” guarantee window. The remaining chicks seemed very lively, but one more passed yesterday morning. I’ve had to only wash a few chicks in the last couple days, so they seem to be doing better. We now have 25 Buff Orpington chicks and the one black chick left. I’ve also ordered a brooder heating plate (like recommended in the resource above) to prevent the chicks from over heating, which can also cause pasty butt.

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Monday and Tuesday we spent time cleaning out our coop and making it more suitable for chicks. We finally got around to putting the roofing panels on (up til now we’ve only had a tarp over the sub-roof), and putting wire mesh over the ventilation hole over the door. I’m very pleased at how the coop will match the house when it is finished. The siding panels on the coop are very close to the color of the new house siding, and the roof panels are left over from the roofing job.

coop-front

On the back of the coop, we had to do a little more work. There were originally three flaps on the back of the coop. On the bottom there is a flap that hinges down so we can place a wheel barrow behind the coop and shovel the soiled bedding right out he back. In the middle, there was a nest box door that opened to a shelf. The top flap was to provide ventilation. However, we never got around to finishing the nest boxes, and the shelf got covered in chicken droppings. Also, since we are turning this into a brooding house, we don’t need nest boxes.So we removed both the middle and top flaps, removed the nest box shelf, covered to top section with wire mesh and nailed the middle flap below. A problem we had before was that rain had been blowing in the seams around the flaps in the back of the coop. So, I used three pieces of scrap siding to cover the seam above the lower flap and the seams to either side of what was the middle door. We will be adding a flap back to the top section to keep out weather. For now, we are letting the coop dry out before we give it a more thorough sweep and clean to ready it for the chicks once they are a little older. We still have to make some modifications to the inside of the coop as well to make it ready for chicks.

coop-back

 

The Buffingtons have Arrived!

Or to be more accurate, the Buff Orpingtons have arrived. Buffingtons is what Grace keeps accidentally calling them, but I kind of like it, so I think it will end up sticking.

This morning at 7:30 I got a call from the post office saying our chicks have arrived. The mail carrier said he could bring them, but they wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon. So, Grace and I drove down to the post office to get them. They came in a cardboard box and were peeping madly – or so I’m told (I’m high pitch deaf and can only hear them if I’m very close to them).

chick-box

In the box, we had 31 Buff Orpington chicks (Yay free chick! We ordered 30) as well as a free “rare exotic chick” who is mostly black and has feathered feet. All the chicks arrived alive.

chick-in-box

Because the hens have not been ousted from the coop yet, and the next several nights will be very cold we decided to set them up in a box in the living room until it warms a bit and we’ve had time to clean out the chicken coop and turn it into a brooder. Yesterday, some of our Amazon Subscribe and Save order came in a 2ft by 4ft box. Perfect for a temporary chick brooder!

chicks-in-brooder

We gave them some feed, grit, and some of what is called “miracle water”. This water has a spoonful of honey, some powdered garlic (the recipe called for a crushed, fresh clove but powdered was all we have on hand), and a little big of apple cider vinegar. It is supposed to help them recover from the stress of their journey across country via the postal system.

miracle-water

Since I’m an impatient person, I did some research on how to sex day old chicks by looking at their primary flight feathers. According to my best guess as an amateur, internet-trained chicken sexer,  we have 17 pullets (hens) and 14 cockerels (roosters) Buff Orpingtons. The free chick also looks like a rooster, and I think he is a Black Silkie Bantam. We’ll just have to see how well my guesses turn out. Hopefully, they all survive. We have one little rooster who is looking rather droopy and we’ve been giving him water and a little bit of yogurt to help brighten him up. Otherwise, the chicks seem to be rather spunky and lively.

So, you may be asking why we chose Buff Orpingtons. When we went looking for the type of chicken we would keep and breed on our farm, we were looking at several different characteristics that would make a good all around homestead bird.

  • Dual purpose – good for eggs and meat
  • Heat Tolerant
  • Cold Tolerant
  • Good Disposition
  • Likely to Sit on Eggs
  • Good at Foraging

One tool that was an enormous help to us was Murray McMurray’s Chick Selector. It allowed you to enter the criteria you are looking for in a chicken breed and narrow your list down to a few breeds. The each of the characteristics the selector allows you to input has five options; Poor, Good, Better, Excellent, Best. In order to find a breed that makes a good mother hen, we had to select for a slightly less efficient forager than we originally wanted. The selector narrowed it down to three breeds; Buff Orpington, Buff Rocks, and Turken. We then did a lot of research on these three breeds and decided that Buff Rocks were out because they were less likely to stay contained in an open top paddock. Turkens and Buff Orpingtons were coming out pretty even on almost every characteristic. We ended up choosing the Buff Orpington for two main reasons. One, they are a more popular breed and there is a larger gene pool to pull from. Two, they are just prettier birds. Turkens may be good heritage breed birds, but their naked necks just make them look hideous. However, if it turns out that we don’t like the Buffingtons much either, one person suggested you keep trying different breeds of chickens and culling them until you find a breed(s) you like. It sounds like a good plan to me.