Notes from Windward: #67


Run Chicken Run

adding another component to Vermadise

  February 21:

     Now that the work in the kitchen is wrapping up, and the weather's turning warmer, it's time to do some more work on Vermadise to further the interweaving of biosystems that lies at the heart of the work we're doing there.

     By weaving more complementary systems into that space, the goal is to increase productivity as one system benefits by the presence of the other. For example, greenhouse plants need carbon dioxide in order to grow and give off oxygen. By raising rabbits and chickens in Vermadise, we insure that the plants get the benefit of the increased heat and CO2 that the animals generate.

Robin uses a Sawsall to cut a security panel in two

     The plan is to construct a 40' long chicken run along the east side of Vermadise, and stock it with a dozen layer hens to provide eggs for the kitchen. A key part of the project will be to work on compound our own feed using alfalfa and Black Soldier Fly larva. One of the key qualities that the larva offer is their high calcium content, a mineral which is especially important for layers.

     There are three different types of fencing panels that we use, the most common being the large type known as a "cattle panel." There's a smaller version, also sixteen feet long, called a "hog panel" that we use sometimes. The type we use the least often is called a "security panel." It's the most expensive; because the openings in it are only 2x4" it contains a lot of material.

     To make the chicken run, we needed to cut the panels into two unequal sections, the shorter to form the vertical part, and the wider to form the roof of the run. In order to create a clean cut, we elected to use the Sawsall with a metal blade to do the cutting--and it required a lot of cutting with a 1/4" rod ever two inches.


     It's in the nature of chicken to dig, so we took steps to head that off by doing a bit of digging on our own. Setting the cut end of the narrower panel into the trench will make it unlikely that the hens will dig down through six inches of wood chips and two three inches of dirt.


     With the first panel cut and looking like it's going to do the job we want, it was time to head outside and cut up another two panels, a task made easier by laying them on the flat trailer. After that it was time to head to the kitchen for a cup of hot chocolate.


  March 1:

     It's common for us to reach a point on a project where we're not sure how best to proceed, and when that happens we usually focus on other projects that are ready to move forward while we ponder our various options. It was clear that the next step in creating Vermadise's new chicken run was to secure the panels to the worm bins, but the question was " What was the best way to do that?"

     We could have used fence staples to nail the fencing to the box, but whenever possible we try to build things so that it's easy to disassemble and rearrange. These projects are learning opportunities, and more often than not we'll break something down and redo it when we see a better way to go--just one of the many reasons why Windward is always "a work in progress."

     I check the local hardware stores trying to find something like an electrical conduit clamp--only smaller--that could be used to secure the security panels, but nothing turned up. After nosing through our storage room, the best idea I came up with was to cut sections of plumber's tape and use that.


     "Plumber's tape" is galvanized metal strapping that's used to secure pipes to floor joists. It's handy for that, and lots of other uses too--sort of like an early form of duct tape.


  March 8:

     The next step was to rip a 2x4 in half to create a lip for the chicken run's lid to rest on.


     The next task involved drilling holes through the hoop poles to take the eye bolts that will serve as hinges for the run's lid. In drilling the pilot hole, it helps to have a drill like the one pictured--there's a bubble level built into the handle of the drill which makes it easy to insure that you're drilling true to the pipe.


     The eye bolts had been pried open just enough to allow the last run of the panel to fit down into the eye, so that it could act as a hinge.


     This design allows the top of the chicken run to swing up out of the way so that we'll have the access needed to seasonally remove the six inches of wood chips that will be used to line the bottom of the run. In addition to laying eggs in the chest freezer, the Black Soldier Flies will lay eggs on the chicken droppings, and when the larva hatch and consume the droppings, they'll become feed for the laying hens.


  March 11:

     The vertical barrier and the lip are installed, so here's a chicken's eye view of the new run.


  March 12:

     The chicken run's roof sections are set in place.


     Most of this afternoon's work session happened in the camping area at the far end of Windward and involved taking apart two temporary shower stalls that had been put up a few years back by campers. That was a "two-fer" in that it helps restore the undeveloped nature of an area that people like to use for meditation, and the materials will go a long way towards building the laying and roosting room that will be built on to the end of the chicken run.

     Probably should have taken some before and after pics, but was thinking more along the lines of "these need to go" than of a photo op since the primary goal was to enhance the sense of shibumi in one of Windward's more private areas, and shibumi is something that is more felt than seen.

  March 17:

     The hold up on the chicken run has been the need to figure out a way to reclose the 5/16" eye bolts. The eyes had been pried open enough to pass the wire panels, but then came the need to reclose the eyes so that the eyebolts could act as hinges. As it was, when you moved the panels, the wire popped out of the eye and whole panel became difficult to control.

     I tried a variety of tools in an effort to close the eyes, but nothing would grip on the two round surfaces sufficiently to bring enough pressure to bear to close the eye. What eventually did the trick, I'm chagrined to relate, was to just take a mini-sledge hammer and carefully hit the eye about six times at just the right angle. After trying half a dozen complex options, the simplest option (hit it with a hammer) proved to work the best, and closed up the eyes as if they had never been pried opened to start with.


     With the hinge side of the panels secure, the next task involved mounting some hardware so that the panels could be help up and out of the way when access was needed to the chicken run in order to change out a "seasoned"load of wood chips for fresh bedding. That involved drilling and taping holes to take a 1/4" eyebolt that had been fitted with an "S" hook.

     The new hardware is working very smoothly, and makes it easy for one person to start at one end, lift the wire panels and engage the hooks while walking from one end of the run to the other. With that done, the run is ready for it's initial load of wood chips.

  April 5:

     Yesterday we got word that the India Runner ducklings we'd ordered were ready for pick-up, which meant that we had to get the chicken run ready to take the Rhode Island Red chicks--which was overdue since they were rapidly getting too big to stay in the brooder for much longer anyway.


     With the lid swung up and out of the way, we brought in five drums of wood chips and spread them to a depth of between four and six inches. The expectation is that by creating a deep enough bed--and we'll keep adding chips as these settle in--the nitrogen in the chicken poop will fire up the decomposition of the wood chips at which a deep enough bed of chips becomes its own little ecology supporting a host of organisms that the chickens will enjoy uncovering and adding to their diet.

     We started out with a nominal order of 50 chicks, of which we lost eleven that bitterly cold night as well as additional three chicks who managed to squeeze their way out of the brooder by crawling under the railing in the feed troughs. Also, McMurry hatcheries adds in a mystery chick so we paid for 50 chicks, got one free and lost 14. That being said, we transferred 38 chicks from the brooder to the chicken run. We've done better, but this will do for now.


     We chose Rhode Island Reds because they're a traditional bird that is good at egg laying and producing a reasonably fleshed bird, whereas most of the commercial birds are only good at one or the other. Our primary goal here is egg production, but we also want to build up our incubation skills so that we can sustain our flock over time.


     The mystery chick is doing fine, and is easily the tallest chick in the run. The chick's type is still a mystery though, so if you recognize the breed, please let us know.

  April 6:

     Well, I'm sorry to report that your faithful blogger got nailed hard last night with a case of the flu, and didn't make it out to document anything today. I called in a sick day, and Todd filled in for me to see that the sheep got their feed--all lambs doing fine.

     Gina reports that after being cooped up in the brooder, the Reds are really enjoying the spaciousness of their new run. Some of them have even managed to find a gap or two to squeeze through so that they can go on a walk-about inside of Vermadise, but they're growing so fast that it won't be long before that's no problem.

     The ducklings are well settled in and enjoying their new digs--it may be my imagination, but ducklings always seem to me to be more aware of people than the chicken do--they truly seem to enjoying watching the people who are enjoying watching them.


  April 7:

     Once our flock of Reds are established, we'll begin our experiments into compounding our own feed using alfalfa, BSF larva, etc., but for now, while we're getting things started we're using a traditional, non-medicated chicken feed. That reflects our general approach to this sort of thing; get a system up and running using standard practices, and then--step by step--transition the system to a more sustainable basis.


     When I went into Vermadise to check on how the larva are doing (we're starting to see freshly emerged adults crawling around waiting for their wings to dry), I noticed the delightful songbird feeder that Gina had pressed into service. It's just the right size for the chicks, and they seem to be making themselves right at home.

  April 8:

     As the chicks are getting used to their new home, they're having a good time scratching down into the wood chips, and in a place or two, they've uncovered enough space that they can squeeze through the openings in the security panels. Even when they're "out" of the chicken run, they're still contained within Vermadise, so it was just a matter of hiking down to the old roost and fetching the net.

     By moving slowly, it's actually rather easy to net the chicks and return them to their pen. I then adjusted the side boards to cover the place where they got out, but they'll probably have found a new place to squeeze through by tomorrow. They're growing very fast, so it's a problem that will soon no longer be a problem once the chicks are too big to fit through the openings in the panel.


     When I checked the BSF vault's exit bucket, the larva and pupae were a couple of inches deep. First I leaned the bucket over onto it's side so that the emerged adults could quickly escape, and then served up a nice helping of larva and pupae to the chicks to see what they'd do.

     Initially about a half dozen of them stood around the bowl curious as all get out as to what all the wiggling was about. After a few minutes, one of the chicks stepped up to the bowl, grabbed one of the larva and ran away with it. He dropped it, pecked at it a couple of times, and then decided that it was something he liked--a lot.

     In no time, "Mikey" was back for another larva, and by about the third time, the other chicks got the idea and started picking out a larva of their own. When I left, about a dozen chicks had figured it out and were working their way through the larva. I expect that when I return tomorrow, the bowl will be picked clean.


Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67