Monday, June 25, 2012

The Halfway House aka Chicken Tractor

This spring, Whitney and I built this simple Chicken Tractor from plans we found in Hobby Farms Magazine
We wanted somthing to act as a step between the brooder box and the coop. The reason being that introducing pullets to the coop too quickly can result in dead pullets if they are too young. The older hens will assert dominance and if the pullets can't take the punishment, the hens can kill them. So we checked around and found this one that seemed to fit the bill, especially since I didn't have to buy any extra materials. This mini coop will act as a Halfway House for this summer until the pullets are ready for life in the coop.
 It is a super simple design, although I changed it a little to use materials I had on hand. They used 2x2's for the frame, I used 2x4's. Their overall length was 10' mine is 8'. Also they didn't mention any roofing, I used tar paper and shingles I had on hand.

The pullets have half the area boxed in and half the area fenced in. This way they can regulate how much sun they get and have a place to hide when spooked. There is a fenced floor which allows for foraging, but keeps them safe from preditors.  

I didn't insulate or install anything perminant inside because for us it will only be a temporary pullet residence. Also, since the idea is to keep it light enough to move around, everything inside gets removed when it's time for a move.  
So here is the finished "tractor". The term comes from the use of chickens to cultivate and fertilize the ground below. That's not exactly our intent, but it is nice to let the chicks mow the grass. Since we've been using it, it seems a move once a week is about right to keep the grass green and the girls happy. It's not super easy to move, but do-able with the wheels on the left above.

At about two months, our pullets are fully feathered and seem to be very happy about being outside. They took to foraging with no trouble and are now enjoying a diet of pullet developer crumble plus plenty of grass and bugs.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

one weekend, two swarms

This weekend, two of our hives swarmed. I walked out of the house on saturday morning and instantly heard them. Walking over by the hives there were bees everywere. Hives swarm for several reasons, but it usually comes down to either the bees are healthy and reproducing, or they are leaving to find a new location. The good news for us is that these swarms belong to the first group. I know that because while the swarms were forming, the parent hive continued on with business.  In the picture below, you can see the two swarms: one in front of me and one on the far left (below the farthest hive). Beekeepers try to reduce swarming because it means a loss of population and a reduction in potential pollination and honey. But on the other hand, if your hives are healthy enough to swarm, then you are doing something right and the bees are doing what they naturally want to do: Reproduce! So I take it as a good sign. In the book Natual Beekeeping, the author Ross Conrad refers to swarming as "the miracle of life" since it really is bee reproduction.  
 So, now what to do about this rampant reproduction. My first idea was to simply place hive boxes near the swarms and allow them to hive themselves. This is a technique that some swear by, so I thought I'd give it a try. But after leaving them there for several hours, the bees had yet to move into the boxes so I decided to catch them manually.
Here is a good look at one of the swarms. The bees leave the colony and ball around the queen. While they are in the ball, scouts are out searching for a new home. The scouts could return at any time and communicate to the swarm it was time to leave, so I decided to hive them before they had a chance to leave. I have read that bees will remain balled for as little as fifteen minutes, and these had already been here for several hours.
When you are hiving a swarm, you physically take the swarm and place them into the hive. The sensation of picking up the bees is pretty amazing, they feel like a warm spongy mass of about a couple of pounds. The most important thing is to make sure you get the queen. Here (above) on my finger tips you can see the queen of one of the swarms. Once the queen is secure in the new hive, all the workers follow her right in, guided by her pheromones.

Here is a swarm placed into the new hive. This is the deep box that I had prepared in case I got a chance to catch a swarm this summer. The other swarm got placed into a super ( or medium box) because I don't have any other deep boxes on hand. This will work just fine, but will require more equipment because I'll have to give them two supers to equal one deep box.
So here we are this evening. I successfully captured both swarms, upping our count to five colonies! I'm glad that I didn't lose any of my bees, but I need to get better at anticipating and preventing swarming. In the mean time I need to get to work building frames so that all these bees have somewhere to store their honey! More on that later.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Celebrating the wild side of chickens

Our rooster Colonel Sanders is starting to show his heritage. More and more these days he is acting like a rooster, crowing and strutting constantly, "servicing" the hens every few minutes and at times pecking and flapping at our legs. His antics have cost him some friends, one of our neighbors even blogged about her bad encounter with the Colonel (when they visited our chicken coop while we were out of town). Whitney generally talks softly to him when he's like this and picks him up to calm him. Together they walk around the yard, while she talks softly and pretty soon his eyes are shut and she grins at me with the napping bird in her arms. My own reaction to his chicken dance is a little less compassionate: generally I tell him to buzz off and keep going about my business.
However, I recently read a really neat article in Smithsonian Magazine: How The Chicken Conquered the World which has me rethinking my attitude towards our Colonel. The chicken's lineage it turns out stretches back an estimated 10,000  years to the  Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) of Southeast Asia.

Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).
In the wild, the rooster acts like many other male critters, defending his harem, fighting other males and declaring himself the baddest of the bad to all that can hear. One interesting point about the chicken is that the hormone that causes most creatures to only mate at a certain time of year seems to be suppressed. This means the hens can reproduce (lay eggs) year round as opposed to say turkey and geese which only mate in the spring. This also means that the lucky rooster has to mate his hens year round to keep them fertilized and thus build the flock. This is probably a key to why the chicken was domesticated long before other fowl, since their eggs were available all year long. The eggs it seems were utilized long before their meat, which didn't become popular until relatively recently.
Another item I found fascinating is that long ago Roman armies would travel with a rooster, or cock as they are historically known. The cock was observed before a battle, and only if he had a good appetite did the army go into battle believing a victory was likely.
The rooster's courage was so revered in fact, that where it is still practiced cock fighting is the oldest form of sport. While in the US it is considered inhumane and cruel, in many places cock fighting is a traditional sport, and the victorious rooster is celebrated.
Like I said, it's a neat article and worth the time to read, but enough about the ancient chicken. Today the chicken is prized for it's mild meat and it's ability to lay eggs consistantly. Also the chicken produces more meat per pound of feed than almost any other domestic livestock, save only the rabbit. We have adapted the chicken to our needs so entirely that even in "free range" chicken houses often the birds don't range at all, choosing instead to remain by the feeder waiting for the next timer controlled ration.
So, after all that when I go outside and see our hens foraging about the yard, clucking with joy at the discovery of a worm or seed, and watching the rooster mount the compost pile to crow for the umpteenth time in a row, I am filled with pride. For these chickens, after all these centuries of domestication and human manipulation still know what it means to be a chicken. Could they survive in the wild? Probably not, but at least now when the Colonel puffs his neck and dances at my legs I have to stop and smile because, after all, he is doing exactly what he should be doing. Acting like a rooster.
The Dude: Colonel Sanders with his hens.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Chick Love

The chicks are growing and quite friendly!