Spring-ter At Buttlove Farms

The laying season has started again and I’ve begun selling fertile hatching eggs to fund the care of my birds over the next year.
 
This failed pretty badly last year. I didn’t charge enough for my eggs and actively lost money every time I posted them. We didn’t keep the chicken fund separate enough from our normal funds and it was difficult to keep track of cashflow.
 
One thing I’ve been holding off on doing that I really do need to do this year is retiring old chickens and raising up new laying stock. My original 4 are (mostly) still going strong but are getting too old to be genuinely productive members of the flock. When I consider that each chicken costs me a minimum of $100/year to care for, non-laying birds start to look a lot like dead weight..
 
We lost our two Ancona hens over the winter quite mysteriously. They dropped dead within a few weeks of each other without any sign of illness in the flock. That leaves our Ancona rooster Mr The Conductor the odd rooster out.
 
Our hatchings over the winter failed completely. Our incubator was unable to handle the temperature changes in the room it was in and we managed to hatch only a single egg out of 30. I’m honestly surprised we managed even that. I woke to the low temperature alarm every single night and it was sometimes probably low for hours before I even woke. We’re going to move it into the pantry where our computer servers run – it’s one of the most temperature stable rooms of the house. I also need to obtain external temperature sensors/hygrometers so that I can calibrate my incubator.
 
Another thing I’ve learned in the last year is that I can’t reasonably take back all unwanted roosters from the hundreds of eggs I sell each year.  If I had a property where I could maintain quarantine areas it would be reasonable, but as it stands, it’s just a massive drain on my resources and a huge biosecurity hazard.  We had huge problems with poultry lice after taking back roosters last year.  I won’t be doing it again.  This year, instead, I’ll attempt to maintain a contact list of other people I trust who take roosters (mostly to eat) and with whom I can put my clients in contact.
 
This year we’re hoping to invest some of our chicken fund into buying a couple of breeding pens so that we can finally begin pure-breeding chickens. That will make the biggest difference in the viability of selling fertile eggs to fund their care.  We have purebred heritage birds, but without the pens to separate them, all of our eggs are a jumble.  I’ve spent the last couple of weeks busting my ass in the yard and clearing out the back section referred to as “Sherwood Forest”.  It contains an old and completely unused chook shed from before we bought the house.  We’ve never used it because it’s completely unsecure and unsuitable.  The fencing around it is welded steel wire but has gaps large enough to fit your fist through.  FIST.  Young chickens just walk through it.  The shed itself is nothing more than a lean-to.  It has no roosts or nesting boxes, no door.  The run has no roof.  It’s the kind of coop that makes me grind my teeth when I sell eggs to people and they say, “Look at my coop! Is my coop  not perfect?”
I’m thinking of tearing down the fence and seeing what I can do with the lean-to.  It may not have a door or the amenities required to raise chickens, but it’s structurally sound and that’s not a bad start.   This area of my yard is easily the least secure.  When foxes come in, they come in through this area.  It’s not surprising – it faces an alleyway and the trees provide excellent cover.  If I’m going to put breeding pens out there, they need to be fox-proof.   
 
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You can kind of see the falling down fence for the coop (and the coop itself) in the upper left quadrant of this image behind a tree.

I rather wish I’d taken photos of this area before I started.  There were elm suckers all over the fucking place that I had to cut down with a chainsaw and it took me two full days to pull branches out of the undergrowth before I could cut the tufts of grass and passionfruit vines down to a safe level.  

The chickens have been attempting to help us garden.  Late last week I pulled out all of our compost, turned it, and this weekend we restacked our compost tyres (super fancy y’all) with bricks at the bottom to provide access to composted material.  Between the outdoor coop, kitchen scraps, garden waste, indoor hospital coops, and litterboxes (bentonite clay) we were producing an absurd and almost unmanageable amount of compost.  It took a good year for me to learn how to care for it properly – and occasionally I went out last summer to find the pile smelling worse than hot garbage.  

This year I’ve opted to try the deep litter method of coop bedding.  In a nutshell you don’t clean your coop per-se.  Instead you turn the poop and bedding already in there and then put more bedding on top.  This causes the poop and bedding already in there to compost within the coop.  One of the major benefits is insulation, the deep bedding helping to insulate the coop during winter.  It also means I won’t have to aggravate my rotator cuff injury once a week shoveling shit.  Win-win.

It’s been an interesting year.  Hard, educational, always a challenge, and completely worth it.  

I want to end this post on an important note.  I try to keep in touch with the clients of mine who buy eggs.  Most of them are new at keeping chickens – a lot of them first-timers.  It’s very, very common for them not to know something pretty basic, and to apologize to me for their lack of knowledge.

To those people I would like to point out…. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Please see above.

This shit is a constant learning experience.  If you think you’re going to go into hatching and know everything about it after your first time -…hold on, I’m choking from laughter – you’re sorely mistaken.  You probably won’ even get into the real science behind the hatching for the first year.  

One of the biggest mistakes we make with raising chickens is telling ourselves that anything about chickens is simple or easy.  That’s on us and the way we’ve been raised.  Bottom line, we’ve grown up thinking chickens are stupid, simple creatures who are basically brainless meat and egg automotons.  That’s 100% wrong, but it makes the sheer number of them who die to feed us a little easier to swallow (pun kind of intended, I’m not sorry).  

The reality is that chickens are intelligent, highly social, complex, curious individuals with personalities and quirks.  And that’s a reality that often doesn’t even occur to someone keeping chickens until they’ve already committed to it.  It’s no wonder so many people who decide to keep chickens end up stressed out and overwhelmed.  There’s no one-size-fits all solution when each bird is an individual.  There’s very little simple about interacting with a bird who recognizes up to 100 different individual animal and people and has over 30 distinct vocalizations with which to communicate.  It’s not obvious to the beginning Fowler (hurrhurr, yes I know) that chickens would prefer to work for their food.  Anyone who has kept chickens has probably noticed their birds ignoring their delightful layer pellets while scratching in the dirt.  Research has consistently shown that, when given the option between an open bowl of feed and a system where the chicken must perform a task to be fed (pay for play), the chicken will prefer to work for their food.   If you’ve ever been bored because something is too easy, that shouldn’t surprise you.  

So I just want all of my clients who are feeling lost, like they don’t know as much as they thought they did – you aren’t alone.  We’ve all gone through this.  I’m here for you.  Let me know if there’s anything I can do to make the experience easier for you than it was for me.  Don’t be embarrassed.  We’re all learning together.