Archive for the ‘Chickens’ Category

Water Doom: The Spring Gave Out

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Update: 3 May 2010

Recent rain has recharged the spring. There’s good flow into the tank and it’s 3/4 full now. Faucets, shower, etc. are working again.

The streams are still not flowing as usual, so we’re continuing to take it very carefully with water.

—End Update—

The Far North of New Zealand is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years. Kaitaia, the town near us, has been running under emergency conditions for weeks. Anyone caught using a hose outside faces a NZ$20,000 fine. The local farming community is in deep trouble. The hay and silage that has been put up for winter is already being used for feed. Some beef and dairy farmers are getting ready to slaughter their herds. Soon, it will be too cold to grow much grass, even if rain comes. But there’s no meaningful rain coming anyway…

Our new kitchen faucet

We have been OK here, but after months of what might as well have been no rain, the spring finally gave out, and we used up the water that had accumulated in the tank. Technically, the spring hasn’t stopped. I’d say that about five litres trickle down to our house per day. And the cows probably drank more water than we used.

For the last two weeks, we have been living over at Becky’s parents’ house. At first, we thought that it would be easier over there with Owen, but it turned out to be pretty hard going because their place isn’t two-year-old proof. We’re back home now, but living in a quasi camping mode. Our total, usable household water supply includes two 20 litre water containers and a 200 litre rainwater barrel that’s about half full. [Update: Our friend Andrew let us borrow another 20 litre container and offered to let us fill up over at his farm.]

I’ve been giving the chooks water from the rain barrel. I’ll probably start giving the dam water to the chickens, but I read somewhere that it’s better not to give very turbid water to chickens. I don’t know if that’s true, but our dam water is very cloudy.

Rainwater barrel

I have been putting off piping water from the dam down to the troughs and garden. Well, nothing puts a bomb under your tail to complete a water infrastructure project like having cows with about a day’s worth of water remaining in their troughs. Luckily, this is a personal, local and regional collapse situation, and not a BIG biggy collapse. I was able to drive to town, in our petrol powered pickup truck/ute, and buy the NZ$550 worth of pipe and fittings that I needed to complete this project. The pipe was even on sale! HAHA. A few hours of work later and the cows had a gravity fed water supply. (Another time, I’ll write about the gravity feed system that I built. It’s working great.) At first, the cows stood by the trough and looked at me, in protest, “We want our spring water back.” But they got used to the dam water pretty fast. Bex and I are happy that we didn’t have to send our cows to the works, or give them away. I doubt that anyone would buy our cows now, since most people are facing the same situation with water.

I’m seriously thinking about buying a Big Berkey water filter, as that thing could keep us going if the drought persists. I could put our dam water through that and it would be fine. If the dam runs out (a really grim possibility) there is still plenty of water in the river below our property. It’s flowing well and the water is probably ok to drink. I just don’t like the word probably when it comes to the safety of water. We could have that water tested, but I wonder if the quality could vary over time… There are no intensive farming operations around that river. It’s just bush and several lifestylers with a few dozen cows over about five kilometres. Anyway, the Big Berkey could come in very handy if the shit really hits the fan here. The reality is that it will probably never be this dry here again in my lifetime, but there’s that word probably again…

Maggots as Food for Chickens

Monday, February 8th, 2010

WARNING: This post contains images that may not be suitable for some readers.

Our chickens have been living in their new poultry house for a few days now and they’re doing great. I was keen to get started on the feeding program that involves possum (Trichosurus Vulpecula) carcasses and maggots.

I’d heard enough about theories and vague references to stuff of legend. It sounded good, but I’d have to try it for myself.

There’s not much to it: Put some fly blown carcass in a bucket with holes at the bottom and hang it over the ground in the presence of chickens.

With that, I stepped outside one night and shot a couple of possums. I let them lie where they fell until the next evening when I went to collect them. We’re past the middle of summer here, so fly activity was well underway. There were small, standard “house-fly” flies and also a type of fly I’ve never seen before; a massive fly with a beautiful dark blue sheen that was probably some variety of flesh-fly.

Note to self: One possum per 20 litre bucket would be plenty

Bucket of dead possum, no less than ten pounds worth, more like twelve

I initially thought about drilling 10mm holes in the bottom of the 20 litre bucket, but I decided to make them much larger. It seemed like 10mm moles were going to get plugged up with clumps of fur and possibly some meatier bits. The holes in the bottom of the bucket below are 30mm across. I don’t know if there’s a right way or a wrong way to do this, but here’s what I did:

30mm holes in the bottom of the bucket

Waiting… Waiting…

I hung the bucket up in the chook house, but nothing much was happening just yet. The action really started on the third day after the possums had been killed. Small maggots were raining out of the bucket and the chickens were engaged in a pretty much non stop feeding frenzy. They REALLY like the maggots. Some of them were leaping up, trying to snatch the morsels before they could even fall out. The instant a maggot touches the ground, it gets snapped up. This went on all day, and the last time I checked around nightfall, a couple of chickens were still at it.

In case you’re wondering: What’s the smell like?

It’s incredibly mild so far. I was expecting a fairly fierce odour today (three days postmortem, middle of summer/hot/high humidity). But on a scale of one to ten, one being barely noticeable and ten being stifling rotting carcass odor, I’d rate the smell at one inside the chook house,
but undetectable just outside it. I’ll update as the days (and the breakdown) go on.

We’ll also be watching to see what happens to the consumption of their commercial feed. With any luck, it should be decreasing.

My initial assessment is an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Update #1: Smell Increasing, Maggot Output Decreasing

Ok, there is a wrong way, and that’s what you’ve just read above.

I went out today and there was plenty of smell and not many maggots. Remember my rating scale for smell intensity? It was about a six inside the chook house and four to five outside the chook house.

I definitely didn’t want to change the plan with four-days-dead possum carcasses, but it had to be done. The problem was that the mass of possum was clogging up the base. There were lots of maggots in the bucket, they just couldn’t escape. Additionally, it had been going with the lid on, so I think we were starting to get an ugly anaerobic situation.

From reading the Humanure Handbook, I remembered the advice about “biofilter” for dealing with strong smells. Biofilter simply means any dry organic matter that you happen to have handy. If you have something that really reeks, throw some biofilter on top and you’ll cut down the smell, or eliminate it entirely. It’s incredible how well this works with composting toilets (I know because I’ve tried it). I decided to get some biofilter into the mix with my dead possum bucket. For biofilter, I’m using mostly dry kikuyu mixed with some other random dry weeds and plant matter.

I rearranged my bucket like a layer cake:

Top layer: Biofilter, with a couple handfuls of sawdust sprinkled on top, no lid this time

Middle layer: Possum mass

Bottom layer: Biofilter

That’s better.

Now, the holes at the bottom aren’t clogged with guts and fur and the rest of it. I hung the bucket back up and very slowly, maggots started dropping out again.

The smell started decreasing almost immediately, but I’ll wait until tomorrow for everything to settle before I give it a rating.

It was definitely a mistake to use two possums at once. One per bucket from now on.

—End Update—

Update #2: Added More Biofilter

Just a little update. The biofilter vastly improved the situation with the smell. I decided to add about three inches of sawdust over the top, which helped even more. I’d rate the intensity of the smell at one to two inside the chook house and zero to one outside.

Other sites:

The Deliberate Agrarian: FREE Chicken Feed

Frugal Living: Natural Chicken Food

Finally, We Have Chickens

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

We recently bought eighteen two-day-old Barred Rock chicks. They were unsexed, so we will probably wind up with something like half of them turning out to be roosters.

Chickens, used properly, are outstanding creatures for permaculture systems. In addition to devastating the dreaded and fast moving kikuyu grass and other weeds that we have here, the chickens will provide us with manure for fertilizer, eggs and meat. They’re also a source of constant entertainment for young Owen and someone like me who has never kept chickens before.

Barred Rock chicks, two days old

We knew we wanted a dual use breed (good for both eggs and meat). I thought that the Australorp was a good choice. However, we couldn’t find any for sale in the area. We decided to go with what had a good reputation locally, what was available locally and what was immediately available.

We found a local couple who breeds Barred Rock chickens, (and several other varieties or chickens and ducks). I doubt that you’ll find anyone who knows more about chooks than Ken Vincent! He has been breeding and showing his chickens in competitions around the world for decades.

If you’re in the Far North of New Zealand and are looking to get some chickens and or ducks for yourself, contact Ken and Ruth Vincent in Kaitaia. Phone: (09) 408 3929.

So, Becky rang the Vincents and they had the Barred Rock chicks available. We did a bit of research and decided that they seemed like an outstanding choice. They’re very popular in New Zealand and in the U.S. (it’s a U.S. breed)—and probably lots of other places. Barred Rock are good layers, good meat birds, have a generally quiet temperament and rarely go broody.

We knew that making chickens work for us would require a plan and a system. After expending a great deal of money, time and effort (Becky’s dad, my father in law, did most of the building—both of my brothers’ in law helped with the chicken house), we have totally converted our gardens into what I would call an integrated rotational chicken system. The garden is now broken up into individual pens of between fifteen and twenty square metres. All of the pens are connected via a central race. Access to each pen is controlled. The chooks are only able to enter the pen or pens we want them to enter.

Our fences are only a metre high, but we think that will be high enough to contain the chickens for two reasons: First, Barred Rock is a large bird. Second, we’re going to clip their flight feathers. If they do manage to escape, we have a couple of options to remedy the situation. We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

As for the layout, our gardens describe an L-shape in our Zone 1 and the main chicken house is located at the angle where the two legs of the L come together. This location is also the gateway area to Zone 2. We are able to send the chickens into Zone 2 as necessary. (See Wikipedia for an overview of permaculture zones, if you’re not familiar with the concept.)

Garden with partitions. The chicken house is visible centre left of frame.

The plan is to move the chickens from pen to pen as required. The chickens will provide tillage (weeding) and manure as they go.

What will we do with all the roosters?

Becky and I like to eat chicken. I really like to eat chicken. Industrial poultry production, however, has put both of us off of it. While it is possible to obtain organic chicken here, I’m not quite sure who is able to afford it. Definitely not us. So, we’re going to go about getting chicken meat in a more traditional manner…

As for what we’re planning on feeding the birds, it’s going to be a variety, most of which they will be finding themselves. We will grow some amaranth for them and possibly other grains that do well here. A major source of protein for them will be maggots. We have an inexhaustible supply of possums here. I have been resiting the urge to grab my rifle and head out into the night lately. I’m letting them build up until our chickens are outside full time. At that point, I will begin trapping and shooting possums at will.

After ripening for about a day (fly strike), the possum carcass will be placed in a 20 litre bucket with 10mm holes drilled around the base. The bucket is suspended above the chickens. People who have done this report that the chickens simply camp out below the bucket, waiting for the next pennies from Heaven to fall. Use biofilter (straw, sawdust or other matter) to keep the smell down.

Farmlet chickens will feast on maggots derived from possum carcasses

While it’s a simple matter to buy bags of feed for chickens, that practice is both expensive and likely to be disrupted in the future (energy shortages, economic collapse, weather related calamity, take your pick). Our goal is to see how little feed we need to buy. Ironically, the possum, a threat to multiple species and habitats in New Zealand, readily converts into maggots that the chickens love to eat.

This is just a general overview. We don’t really know the particulars of how this is going to work, or not work. The permaculture materials I’ve looked at are notably useless when it comes to details on systems like this. (Mollison’s Designers’ Manual has a couple of pictures of one operating in Hawaii.) So, we started with the theory and tried to come up with a plan to make it work.