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chickens: house, yard and free range: have it all

 
Rick Valley
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Just wondering how many of y'all out there have ever managed to have a chicken flock that can do it all, and reproduce as well, in an environment that includes numerous predators, and how you did it. I have my story, but I'm wondering who else has stories about these crazy partners of ours. (I just ate my breakfast egg, from a different flock, which I have been "permutating", that is, influencing in a permaculturally appropriate direction... and so I'm thinking of doing this again, in a different place and time)
 
John Weiland
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One word: Dogs. Went from nearly losing the entire flock to 100+ in a few short years. Losses now are due to culling roosters, eating eggs, the occasional on-property hawk, and those sub-groups that wander beyond the perimeter fence.
 
Tyler Ludens
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One word: Brains. I have to outsmart the smart varmints, the smartest of which is the raccoon. So, predator-proof housing for night. I have done truly free-range (20 acres to roam with a secure night time coop), and am now presently using a chickens-on-compost-plus-supplemental-diet system (2 small flocks) and a paddock shift system (1 small flock). These have predator-proof (so far) night housing.

 
Rick Valley
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I took over a flock in 2005 that had a house and coop but didn't use it, preferring to live on people's front porches. As you can imagine, this led to prejudices against the lone rooster, who, like most roosters, would start crowing with dawn's early light. The yard had some grapevines and an edible hawthorn and a seedling apple, mostly from Jono Neiger's years there as land steward. There were lots of unmaintained young fruit trees about. The property is 87 acres, bordered by hobby farms and forestry lands. The "landscaped" or mowed, planted, and gardened area totals about 6 acres, in a straggling irregular shape. You can walk from there to the Pacific Crest trail without crossing more than a few small roads. Elevation about 750', frosts are early and late because of poor air drainage and surrounding mountains from 1200' to 5,000'. Predators range from weasels to bear and cougars, with raccoons and foxes numerous, and kestrels to eagles, with Redtails and Coopers Hawks nesting on site. The community was consensus governed, and had in the past decided on vegetarian, which made eggs extremely important for those who found that vegetarian could leave them craving any dense protein. I was fortunate to have the cabin closest to the chicken coop, just across the main driveway. The soil is a thin heavy clay, stratified ultisol with low nutrient and old volcanic bedrock about 3-5 feet down, not considered arable. I took the new flock over, after the execution of the old flock. In this, the rooster was not restrained but left for last, and watching his distress was extremely difficult for me: he would run forward until his fears overcame him, and then retreat. A new batch of hen chicks was purchased and I started in charge as they matured and began laying. I had lived with a flock once before for a couple years which had a coop but no enclosed yard, and a single rooster. My primary past chicken mentors were Bill Mollison and Tom Ward; from Bill I got that the test for whether you've got a domestic animal habitat dialed in is whether they can reproduce naturally. From Tom I got that it's good, in a free range flock, to have more than one rooster because they are protective. Since living there I have only assisted others with their flocks.
 
wayne fajkus
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Mine are locked at night and free range during day. My daily upkeep went down significantly with the addition of a door that opens and closes at dusk and dawn. Great investment.

I have lost some chickens, but learned and fixed the coop. Main culprit was raccoons reaching in the chicken coop and trying to pull small chickens out. The head comes out but body stays behind. I put hardware cloth over the chicken wire . It fixed the problem.
 
Rick Valley
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That's good to hear that the automatic door has worked for you. I have heard one or two stories of raccoons who psyched out the timing on the door closing. I saw the scene of the crime where raccoons had caught a Ringneck pheasant on his roost in a young Western Hemlock, it was a very professional job. Obvious that raccoons have the skills for upper story work. Yeah, I think that night protection is a major item in the contract between humans and chickens.
I myself am content to live close by a coop, but the automatic door is on my list titled "What I'll get "Nextime"", which may be fairly soon, because there is a still-in-design and "Gathering Materials" phase Major Coop Restructuring in progress at Tadpole Manor, where I retire to when the Valley gets too fast and hot.
I have heard stories about large snakes (especially from Aussies ) so that Night Protection services can include coops above ground on steel stilts. I think it's another reason to partner with Dingos, too* Rodents likewise can be a nocturnal negative, which would mean small felines, or, Ringtail Cats (Bassariscus astutus) could take that niche. If you live in an area where they are (in Cali(fornia) and any other dryish parts of the Americas southwards of that, which are not colder than the California/Oregon borderline optimal warm microclimates) you could well be selected as a partner by a family of them (if you're nice to them, and you ought to be nice to them)
*if "Dingo or Native American Dog or Carolina Dog" are in any other discussion, this should link to it.
I heard anything major that happened in the coop at night, and I feel like I had a relationship with the local vixen, (from taking chicken mortalities- the few) out to the meadow.
MAGIC? or ART?
I found a young raccoon skull, which I hung over the chicken door in the coop, above their ramp. Looked cool anyway; the coop had a fine paint job by an artsy crew as well.
Something like that can at the least keep the chicken keeper's mind returning to the subject: night protection.

 
Tyler Ludens
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We have Ringtails. I'm not sure one might not have been thinking about a chicken dinner (baby chickens)....
ringtail.jpg
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Rick Valley
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Good Ringtail picture! First time I saw their footprints I could see the raccoon kinship, Yes, I'm sure they'd love a chicken dinner. Don't most of us!
So to sum up my goals in the situation, I wanted to: maximize yields and interactions- how much could I get from the flock of chickens, in goods and services, and how could I minimize inputs?
The inputs had been: non-organic feed (organic was too expensive) straw bales (too expensive, so too little was bought) kitchen scraps, and water.

outputs had been: eggs, and rarely, chicken soup.

My ethical considerations were: I wanted a happy, healthy flock that showed it was so by reproducing naturally, with low mortality due to predation, and which supported the tended landscape and gardens. I wanted codling moth control, no disturbance of mulch around the fruit trees, abundant chicken bedding for composting and fewer weed problems. And more and better quality eggs than in the past.

I had an effective budget of anything I wanted personally to contribute, and any of the kitchen scraps from the community kitchen.
And, I had the fairly tightly fenced chicken yard (roughly 30' by 30') with a wide gate and a tight chicken house (plywood) with a metal roof, nest boxes, and roosts, with separate doors for chooks and humans. A tap about 30 ft. from the yard, and 87 acres of yard, orchard, gardens, meadow, creek and forest.

Am I missing anything here? Goals and resources I haven't stated? Maybe knowledge- almost 20 years of studying, teaching and trying Pc and a place I had been observing for 12 years at that point, with lots of people with experience coming through.

Do people agree with that Idea I got from Mollison?
- if you are successfully creating a domestic animal habitat- or including non-domesticates in your designs successfully- the most important measure is that you end up with a reproducing population.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Rick Valley wrote:

Do people agree with that Idea I got from Mollison?
- if you are successfully creating a domestic animal habitat- or including non-domesticates in your designs successfully- the most important measure is that you end up with a reproducing population.


I agree with that. In addition to your criteria, my own personal goal is to be able to produce chickens without outside inputs, that is, no purchased feed. I'm not sure I can accomplish this with my limited ability to grow stuff aka black thumb. Only if I don't need to purchase or otherwise import ingredients will I have any hint that my system is actually regenerative (producing more than it consumes).

 
Miranda Converse
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I think one of the things that may have been overlooked is broody hens. You can't have chickens reproducing naturally without broodiness. Seems as though the broodiness has been bred out of a majority of the chicken breeds that are available today. There are a few that are known for being broody (one being the Silkie, although I wouldn't recommend this breed for free-range settings) so what I would do is try to get a mixture of broody-type hens and non-broody hens. That way you should always have some broody hens and always have some laying. Of course there is no guarantee that a broody-type hen will ever go broody and vice versa but it's a good starting point. Once you have a couple broody-types, you can select for broodiness yourself.

I think I may have somehow created a super-broody breed. I have about 6 hens that are a mix of faverolle and Easter Egger and right now 4 of them are broody. They never stop being broody, it's pretty ridiculous. I've lost count of how many chickens I have because they just keep reproducing, I can't sell them or eat them fast enough. Not the greatest mothers though, they take care of the chicks for about 2-3 weeks and then it's back to being broody. If you ever in the panhandle of florida, you can come get some lol

My inputs are pretty minimal; Open and close the doors for them morning and night. We set up an automatic feeder using a trash-can and a deer feeder so only effort there is refilling it once a week or so. They don't get a whole lot of commercial food to eat since they have 5 acres to forage on. We give them scraps and some sunflower seeds here and there. Their coop has a dirt flood and we use the deep litter method so there's not much maintenance on that. And we recently got a dog for protection. He can't be trusted out unsupervised yet but I think just having his scent around is keeping predators at bay since we haven't lost any birds since he came to the property. We make sure to throw his poo around the areas that we think are entry points for any predators and take him on perimeter walks to get his smell around. Before he came we would lose quite a few of the chicks, probably about 60-70% in rapid succession and an adult here and there to stray dogs or coyotes. We have pretty predator-proof night time housing so the nocturnal predators weren't much of an issue.
 
Tyler Ludens
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My most successful brooders have been White Cochin Bantams and their mixed breed daughters. The main drawback to the Bantam Cochin is that they are one of the smallest breeds of chicken, so the chickens keep getting tinier in size unless new larger genes are brought in, also, because so small, each hen can't sit on many eggs. These Cochins have been much more broody than the Silkies I tried earlier for that purpose.
 
Rick Valley
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That's lots of good info, thanks both of you.
I have made it to "almost all food from the land" and even to that and the rest being local (county) Natch, things I grow and dole out include sunflowers (mostly Kapuler Mix) and corn (a northern flour corn mix w/Oaxaca Green Dent and Puno Sweet Corn, a few others added in: short, multi stalked and fast, mulch grown) I'm experimenting w/sorghum, and I let lots of grasses mature- quack, orchard, and others, and kama them at the time and pass iy to the birds. There's a big and partly organic grower near that has lots of seeds and grains at times, & I can get the reject from seed crop and things like that cheap. They also do some cover-cropping, and so they at times have Niger Thistle seed. The bag stuff I put thru a soak/short sprout with a bit of yoghurt in the water or other microbe magic, kelp, etc. before I give it to them, usually before the door is opened in the AM. If the yard is getting dry veg added, the treats go down first on top of 2/3 of the treats, the rest mixed in and on top. The chooks can spread their own damn straw that way. They're quick at it too.
And my favorite broody hen, Betty, a first gen chick, too, her daddy was a Salmon Faverole, mom an Americana (which is Araucana X Salmon Faverole)
Has anyone ever known someone who had a flock that produced surplus chicks? I have not achieved that goal yet.
 
John Weiland
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@Rick V.: "Has anyone ever known someone who had a flock that produced surplus chicks? I have not achieved that goal yet."

I guess that would depend on what you meant by "flock" and "surplus". ...

We have 100+ free-range, free-fornicating chickens. Over the past 3 years, we would not have shed tears if no eggs hatched to chicks. Although the dogs ostensibly are trained to not to nosh chickies, they can't but seem to help themselves to a snack or two occasionally, and based on the flock size, we can afford that right now. With localized natural selection at work, the hens have become pretty savvy at hiding their nests...even the dogs can't find them to raid the eggs before hatching. So right now, we have ~10 chickies from about 3-4 different hens making their either to adulthood or otherwise....and that feels like surplus right now. Were we to see a catastrophic decline in the chicken number down below 30, 10 chickies might not be considered surplus at that time.
 
Rick Valley
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I would consider surplus to be whether I would feel free to have a young chicken for dinner, (applying 'selective pressure' in the process) or trade off small flocks. In other words, doing something to improve chickens to a positive ecological function/ develop a strain well-adapted to the place, and other Pc ideals. Sounds like you have a laissez faire approach which is working. Do you attribute this to particular aspects of your situation ? Do you wish to improve yields?

In my situation I was trying to optimize yields. The primary yields I identified as desirable and which I feel I achieved to notable extent were:

increasing nutrient cycling (improving compost systems)
decreasing weed problems
supply high quality eggs

Using the yard and hen house were primary tools in this process.
 
John Weiland
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@Rick V: "Sounds like you have a laissez faire approach which is working. Do you attribute this to particular aspects of your situation ? Do you wish to improve yields?"

If by yields you are talking about garden/plant yields, then no....the chickens are not really a big part of that. We use some chicken manure, but mostly pig manure for the garden. The pigs are not eaten but the manure is used for garden fertility and as they are free-ranging as well, for pasture/property soil fertility. In fact the house itself is, in the summer time, part of the 'free-range' and during most days some of the smaller pigs will enter and leave as they please....it's why we keep a large strap of duct tape holding the refrigerator door closed! (Recently we found out that a hen had been laying eggs in a basket on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen....you can't get egg harvesting any easier than that! )

The laissez-faire approach is designed to select for chickens that are savvy for survival on the property and hearty for the cold winters. On the coldest evenings (-30 to -40 F) we do provide additional heating in the buildings where the chickens are in the rafters, but otherwise they just roost and come spring begin laying eggs in various cardboard boxes provided with hay. But more recently, with increased smarts by the hens, they find obscure places to nest. So it's an interplay between our use of the eggs as human, dog, and pig food, the chickens as food for humans, dogs, and occasionally the crafty predator, and the chickens as well serving a role in insect control (mostly stable flies and their larvae). We do not provide chicken food on site except for what they are able to forage; corn is purchased at the local feed mill (~$10.00 USD for ~70 lb bag). If we really *had* to grow our own food for them, we would probably switch to one of the small grains, but in the summer they have ~10-12 acres of free-ranging for foraging.
 
Rick Valley
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Laying eggs in the egg basket- that's a GOOD ONE! Do you have many Ravens there in the -Red River Valley, right? or Raccoons? Just curious as to why you're able to be so hands-off?Once raccoons have success they repeat the process until something changes- no more chickens or a raccoon meets with a fatal accident, or the access is denied, is my experience. Ravens are just really good at finding eggs, and will go in an open human door to get them.
For me, there was too much veg to nest in (and much of it bearing thorns! no fun to hunt for eggs in a blackberry thicket...) We simply didn't have time to search the nests out. But a woman who was visiting said: "just keep them in the yard until the afternoon, and they will have laid their eggs in the house. THEN let them out to forage. This had the added benefit of the chickens being in a hurry to hunt bugs, and they didn't scratch the mulch away from the fruit trees near as much. This meant they were in the yard half the day. So I took to dumping garden cart loads of garden weeds into the coop, and through observation, learned which weeds and grasses were their favorites. Comfrey, henbit, and chickweed of course, and also nipplewort, plantain and quack grass, but really any grass seed head, mature or not. Putting cubic yards of material into the yard each week meant the soil in the yard became awesome fast, and it was easy to use a wheelbarrow full for any compost pile party. (our exceptionally poor soil meant that good gardening meant making soil thru composting on a large scale: that's another story- how to make commercial amounts of compost without big machines) I also began managing the trees, shrubs and vines around the yard. With grapes over the yard on cables, hawks won't try to carry off a chicken. Chickens flying out was dealt with by my learning to be very good at trimming 1 wing per bird- then they can only fly in a circle, right? Because of all the veg in the yard, the multiple roosters could each have their space, and didn't fight any more. Instead of buying straw in bales for the house, I scythed grass and added hay each time I gathered eggs. Any seeds got picked out, and when there was composting there was lots of easy to pull out manure/straw mix which also greatly improved the compost.
I feel very strongly that the chickens became a major ally in creating the fertile gardens, and inputs were low- soaked whole seeds are MUCH cheaper than milled rations from a feed company. Lime for egg shells was provided 2 ways: instead of drying the egg shells in the oven and crushing them, (which is a lot of work= it was put off and didn't happen) I tried burying a bucket of shells- shallowly. By the time the chooks got the egg shells dug up it was a mass of earthworms. This accelerated soil development in the yard. And, when anyone went to the coast on a jaunt, shells were brought back, and left on the driveway for the traffic to crush. That worked for old nuts too. Once crushed the chickens could eat the good bits. Having chickens in the driveway kept traffic slow and dust down, which was good for all of us pedestrians and those of us who lived near the driveway.
 
John Weiland
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@Rick V.: " Raccoons? Just curious as to why you're able to be so hands-off?"

Yes, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, mink, badgers, hawks/owls/ravens, etc. But as noted in my first post of the thread, the dogs do not allow any of these on the property (99% of the time). Although I could say that livestock guard dogs (LGDs) are more comfortable positioned out on the property, our experience is that they are like many dogs....on a hot day would rather be in the basement. The difference is that the LGDs, unlike the non-LGDs that we have, are more aware of the "true" (versus the "pretend") distress calls of the chickens and if they are not already outside surveying the property perimeter, are immediately out of the house chasing down whatever is the cause of the distress in the chickens. And so indeed, we have had a few raccoons meeting with "fatal accident", ---that being confrontation with the LGD. Mostly the coyotes and foxes simply understand the concern of trespassing the property...only one fox recently was smart enough to nab a chicken that had wandered beyond the fence. In fact, any really smart fox would be wise to simply hang a hammock outside of the fence and snooze...and wait for that occasional chicken that assumed the grass to be greener on the other side of the fence. Instant chicken dinner for wife and pups! Also, with regard to eggs, we already have more than enough from them laying inside the buildings.....but when they lay outside is when we have a hard time keeping control of the number of chicks that appear. Then we start having too many. And as each rooster chooses his 'harem', they wander to different regions of the property, some get "lost" (predators) and our population stabilizes.

Soil fertility is just not a problem here. An old glacial lakebed (Lake Agassiz), the topsoil is naturally quite thick wherever you go, and it's just a matter of adding a bit more robust nutrient complement. In additional, there are tractor-loads of manure to be removed from the pigs being inside all winter, so this is composted, ----then to the garden.
 
Rick Valley
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Yeah- I've gardened in glacial soils before, pretty great. Gardening on an ultisol, weathered in place for 15 million years or so of heavy rainfall- well, it gave me insight into how permaculture was formulated in OZ, where ultisols are common. And I got great appreciation for how chickens can cycle nutrients, especially from weed seeds.
 
John Weiland
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One more note. When we first got chickens, all kinds of comments followed about them not being cold-hardy, not liking snow, etc. Then it was reported that a new dinosaur was unearthed over in the North Dakota Badlands that they dubbed "the chicken from hell". So I'm thinking if we can increase the size of our chickens through selective breeding, we are in the general geographical region to get that original "heirloom" breed back :
ChurassicChicken.JPG
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Rick Valley
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Looks like a big Cassowary, mate. You had better ask a N. Queenslander what that would mean. There was a big name paleontologist who just spoke at the U. of Oregon about how to turn a chicken into a dinosaur. Didn't take too many changes. When you flush a mouse in the chicken yard, the dinosaurs get him.
I met a woman in Homer Alaska who was breeding chickens, donkeys and cattle for the north. Her chickens looked like ptarmigan of varied colors; they lived in unheated coops all winter. I thought to get some Barnevelders (A Dutch Breed) in to my flock, since the Netherlands winter must be similar to ours, but then I left the community to rejoin the land owning class on this half-acre, and I travel too much for work now to keep chickens. I'll get back to them soon.
 
Erica Daly
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The fox showed up again about 5 pm, in my less than quarter acre yard in a dense neighborhood. My only chicken of 6 years being chased to the road. Her sister died last fall so she is alone. Lots of cats and dogs nearby, none of them mine due to allergies. None of them have been missing. She has been visited at least once before in the last 2 weeks. It appears she will be dinner soon. My ground is loaded with rocks and fences don't stay up well, so I don't envision putting up something on short notice and expense for an old bird. She is a great compost turner, tick eater, etc. I have a 'bunny hutch' that I may end up putting her in, but on a hot day, even under a tree, is it worth closing her in? She sleeps in a cellar at night up 4 feet off the ground. Any thoughts on short term solutions?
 
Rob Griffin
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If a chicken was the size of an Ostrich I would be scared to death of it.  Definitely would not let small children and animals around it. 
 
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