We knew there would be a learning curve when we decided to become self-sufficient, but we are resourceful people so we also knew we’d figure stuff out. This week, I accepted that sometimes “figuring it out” means you have to admit you made a costly mistake.
One of my first projects here was to ready the existing chicken coop for young chickens. The coop was sound, but the attached run was a falling down mess. Not knowing anything about chickens, I rebuilt the existing run almost exactly like the old one, an 8’X8’ fenced square, for about $250. Although not pretty, it would keep out predators and give the chickens a place for fresh air if we needed to pen them for a day. I also built a moveable chicken tractor to protect them from hawks and put them to work in designated areas fertilizing and scratching up the land for us.
We never used the run because you had to let the chickens out of the coop to be able to open the run door - and at that point - they were free birds with no interest in going into the coop to access a fenced area. The run space would have also been insufficient as the chickens grew. We quickly gave up on the chicken tractor as well because putting them to work here would have required a lot of supplemental feeding or moving the tractor hourly so they could find adequate forage in our rocky, dry, mountain soil. Neither prospect worked for the low-maintenance/self-sustaining farming we envisioned.
And this week we moved the chickens to a “chicken mansion” as Matt calls it–a re-purposed shed directly behind the house. This move became necessary for a few reasons, but the biggie that prompted action was finding rabbit guts on the grass four feet from the old coop door. The chickens are adorable, lovable creatures and discovering we had a predator in the neighborhood that could disembowel a full-sized rabbit made me eager to get the chickens closer to our house so we could hear if anything bothered their coop at night.
But even before this tangible threat to chicken safety, I’d already been scheming about moving the chickens for a number of other reasons.
The first reason is that every morning, at daylight, I trekked out to the ends of our cleared land to release them from their coop and lure them back to our “Zone 1” (convenient access to the house, in permaculture terms) so I could keep an eye on their water cans and watch to see where they laid their eggs. Free range chickens–especially those that do not spend their day milling around their coop–often find great places to lay eggs besides their designated nest boxes. For example, ours liked the straw bales we are using for winter insulation in the goat barn or a little shoe box lid in a storage shed. By locating their coop where they spend their days and making it a more welcoming environment, we increased the chances that they would lay eggs where we want them to. In fact, the day after moving them to their “chicken mansion,” seven of their nine eggs were laid in the new coop.
The next reason for the change is that as we move into colder weather, decreasing the distance between the chickens, ducks, and goats has become critical. It’s not just for my comfort (which is part of it), but because the animals seem more anxious to be tucked in tight by last light. I suspect it’s a hard-wired survival tactic: to be warier when colder weather and shorter days can mean food scarcity for roving predators.
Whatever the reason, our animals’ stress-levels have noticeably increased (and consequently mine) when I run a few minutes late with my evening routine (e.g. stubborn goat won’t stand still for milking). So, cutting travel time and increasing proximity helps manage stress all-around.
And finally, we are growing our farm (pun intended) so improved efficiency in animal care was needed. We recently brought home a brand new baby boy…goat, that is. With any luck, come early 2015, we’ll have a bunch of kids (goat babies) running around this place. Pythagoras, our new buck (named for triangular shapes under his eyes and on his head - not his math skills - and so I can legitimately call him “Cutie Pye”) is a bit of a teenaged boy in behavior at this point. However, our elegant does, Phoebe and Fancy, are schooling him. He may have already had some success with the ladies, but it’s a little too early to tell for certain.
We also brought home three more female ducks to create a larger harem for our two male ducks. The mating process is a bit rough on the gals, so getting more mature females to share the duty was our answer.
We’ve also got more fruit and nut trees to plant in November, a new fence to put in to double our garden size, and a pasture zone to fence and prepare that will eventually contain a herd of four (progressing towards eight for 2016) female milk goats and our one lucky buck.
Before I wrap up this post, I want to highlight a couple of the “improvements” we’ve made to our animal care systems as a result of the chicken move. The new coop is more spacious and hence easier to clean. I put cardboard topped with straw under the expanded roost bars so I can drag it out and add it to the compost rather than mucking up yuck. We have an overhead light in the coop so we can give the chickens a little extra light in the morning and evening to help with egg production. I gave the coop a split door so we can leave the top open during the day for air, but the bottom door stays closed to keep the goats and dogs from eating their food. The chickens use a ramp to get in and out, or they fly, and the bottom half of the door also gives them good privacy for laying eggs so the coop nest boxes are now their preferred laying location.
Since the chickens are no longer invading the goat barn to lay eggs and turn up straw, I moved the milk stand outside the fenced pen so I can lock the non-milkers up with food bowls while I focus my attention on the goat being milked. This will be really important when we have more than one goat to milk. When we put up our new garden fence, we can make the perimeter outside the old chicken coop that we are now using as a garden tool shed so we don’t have to open gates to lug in garden tools.
And, as for my costly mistake in re-building the run, with the exception of the 4x4 posts set in concrete which I’ll leave in place and use to climb plants on, I will dismantle and re-purpose the rest so nothing is wasted.
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