Thursday, May 5, 2011

Outdoor Chickens

When I got a fever two weeks ago I figured that my number had finally come up and I had gotten the flu. After a painful, sweaty and boring three days in bed I felt much better and got back to work. Five days later a huge rash broke out on my neck. Unlucky again, I thought, I've swiped my neck with a work glove covered in poison ivy. Easy enough to believe, considering I'd spent the last month brush clearing and burning. However, this last Sunday when I collapsed into bed with another fever, the rash still itching and burning on my neck, I started to put two and two together and realized that maybe this was more than just a string of bad luck. Sure enough, a visit to the emergency room later, it was confirmed, I have Lyme disease. Lyme disease is a pretty nasty tick-borne illness, and even though the antibiotics I'm on have gotten rid of my fever and most of my rash, they've left me pretty weak and tired.

Needless to say, this news has made the last couple of days pretty stressful for Dave, who has been forced to do all the heavy lifting on the farm (instead of just most of it). Luckily my mom's here everyday to help. She's been handling the greenhouse, the kitchen garden and the laying hens while Dave's been working on getting the meat birds outside and readying our temporary pen for the piglets. In the last week we've lost a handful of chicks, which has been pretty heartbreaking. We are in charge of all of these fragile little lives, and although we know that it's inevitable that we're going to lose some, it doesn't make it any easier. A majority of the chicks that died appeared to have been smothered by the rest of the flock. This can happen when they get too hot or too cold and all clump together, but we were pretty sure that it was also because they were getting way too big for their brooder. We felt as if we really needed to get them outside and into some fresh air and sunshine. As always, the weather wasn't making it easy for us. Dave's new chicken bible, Joel Salatin's book Pastured Poultry Profits, had instructed him that it was best to put the chicks out on a dry, sunny day. If the chicks are exposed to heavy rains too quickly they can get wet and cold, or drown, and die. With forecasts of rain for Wednesday and today, we knew that we had to get the chicks out fast, or risk losing more in the brooder this week.

The frame was all set, but the tractor still needed chicken wire sides and corrugated roofing. Luckily, a local farmer gave us the roofing for free (the only cost was Dave's time prying it off the roof of an old shed with a crowbar) and so all day Monday and Tuesday morning, while I lay in bed recovering, Dave finished up the tractor. Tuesday at around 10:30 AM we moved the chicks in (I watched). We decided to only move out half at first, just to see how they would do and open up some much needed room in the brooder.  

Moving the chicks in
Our Chicken Tractor. 10' x 12' x 2'
Home sweet home
If you look at the tractor from the angle above, the back half is covered on all sides by corrugated steel roofing while the front half has chicken wire sides. Both the roof panels on the front half are removable. The left-hand side contains the waterer and the right hand side contains the feeder trough. It is necessary to have 3/4 of the tractor covered by roofing because the chickens need a lot of escape from the sun, as they can easily overheat. We copied the tractor from Joel Salatin's design. You can watch a great video about it here:

We moved the tractor for the first time this morning to a new foraging spot. It went well, aside from the fact that it's heavier than we would have liked. Salatin specifically recommends that you don't use corrugated steel for the roof (it's much heavier than aluminum), but since we got it for free we couldn't really be picky. Luckily, we only have to move it 12' a day, just enough to give the chicks fresh grass. Even though there was still a lot for them to eat in the first spot, it's necessary to move the tractor at least every two days as their feces will start to grow bacteria.

The rest of the chicks are going to go out tomorrow morning, after the threat of rain and cold has past. Until then, they'll have to content themselves with their new feeder. They've gotten MUCH too big for the old one.

This feeder is just a piece of 4" PVC pipe cut in half with plywood stands on either side. We're getting better at cutting costs everyday.

Some Other Things We've Been Doing:
* Turning over any sod clumps that the plow didn't catch out in the field. It's important that the grass is underground so it rots and doesn't continue to grow. We're planning on harrowing the field on Sunday. We've also been trying to pick out any rocks.
* Transplanting TONS of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in the greenhouse, and planting brussel sprouts and late season cabbage.
* Seeding the kitchen garden with greens so we'll have something for the first farmers market.
* Getting ready for the piglets. We decided to wait until Monday to go pick them up, so hopefully I'll feel better by then.

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I subscribed to your blog a month or so back because my husband and I use blogs about farming and the country to get through the corporate grind, I hope you feel better and the chicks do well!