Notes from Windward: #69

The ChickPlex

building a chicken condo


     Now that the really big dead tree is down, we're excited about getting underway on a couple of projects, key of which is a complex of breeding pens that we'll use to control and improve the genetics of our laying flock. For example, we need to be able to maintain pure strains of the Rhode Island Reds and the Silver Laced Wyandottes that we'll use to produce what's known as the Red Sex-linked.

     One of the guidelines we follow in our approach to sustainability is that we don't grow meat for the sake of growing meat. The meat we produce is a by-product of the animal systems we use to convert things we don't eat--grass, acorns, bugs, etc.--into things we do consume such as eggs, milk and wool. In the case of chickens, hatching the needed number of laying hens means hatching an equal number of roosters.

     With Rhode Island Reds, for example, it takes us between a month and six weeks before they've matured to the point where we can distinguish the sexes to the degree of certainty where we're comfortable butchering the young roosters. At that point we've already invested a considerable amount of feed in these scrawny, young roosters, and in order to transform them into chickens worth eating, they would need to be castrated--a castrated rooster is called a capon--a procedure which is a good example of the principle that not everything that can be done, should be done.

     A six week-old Rhode Island Red rooster isn't good for much more than producing soup stock, and if we don't thin out the number of roosters, they earnestly start killing each other in order to become the dominant rooster. Unlike guinea hens which mate in pairs, chickens are polygynous with one male maintaining a harem of up to a dozen hens, and even one in twelve is too many roosters for us since our primary goal is to use chickens to convert grass and bugs into eggs, and it doesn't matter to the hen whether those eggs are fertile or not.

      The upshot is that a ratio of forty hens to one rooster would be sufficient to maintain our laying flock since most of our hens would be laying eggs for sale rather than for flock replacements. The Coolidge Effect ensures that one rooster is sufficient to keep more than thirty hens laying fertile eggs, but in actual practice we'll have more roosters than that minimum because we'll want to maintain pure strains to use to parent our working flock. In order to make sure of the paternity of a chick, a hen has to be isolated from other rosters for a month. Which is why we're building these private quarters for our breeding chickens.

     Efficiency is one of the keys to sustainable food production, and since we're raising chickens as egg producers, it's inefficient to waste considerable amounts of feed raising roosters. The best way we know to get around that problem is by hatching out sex-linked hybrids.

     Red Stars, also known as Red Sex-links, are a cross between a Rhode Island Red rooster and a Silver Laced Wyandottes hen. The result is not only a chick that can be sexed at hatching, but also a hen that exhibits hybrid vigor.

     Our flock of Rhode Island Reds is well established, but we're just starting with the Wyandottes. We ordered twenty-five female chicks from McMurray Hatchery, and they arrived this past Monday in good condition, ready to go. They're currently residing in one of the brooders, all except one that's been playing the role of big sister to a guinea hatcheling.

     Chicks learn from each other where the food and water is, so it isn't necessary to stick the beaks of every new chick into the water to teach them where the water is--the other chicks quickly learn where the water is by watching the other chicks. In the case of the lone guinea chick, the Wyandotte's example quickly taught the guinea chick where to find water and feed. Note: one of the last things a chick does before hatching is to adsorb the yolk into themselves. This internal food supply is what enables new born chicks to travel through the mail for a couple of days and still arrive in good condition. But while they don't need immediate access to food, they do arrive thirsty. Thirst is a form of stress, so we undertake to get them their first drink as quickly as we can.

June 15:

The Basic Layout


     Like most of our projects, this is an exercise in the reuse of existing materials. We have a stash of about forty of the 20' bows that make up Vermadise's structure. We also have four 8' long panels rigged to take the bows for a structure that we built to give the sheep shade in the summer. Now we have their summer quarters established in a leafy oak forest where they are able to wander around a couple of acres of shady spots to find the one just right for their mood of the day--so those panels are available for some other use.

     Combining the 20' bows and the two sets of 8' long sidewalls, we were able to put together a 20' wide by 16' long structure. Given the slump in construction these days, combined with the lack of huricanes in the past two years, the price on materials such as 1/2" plywood is lower than we've seen in years. That allows us to take advantage of a drop in prices to construct our new facility. That keys on another sustainability principle--generally referred to as "time shifting"--of buying when things are cheap, and stocking up for when they're not; that generally allows us to knock off between 20% and 30% of the cost of the staples we still purchase. For example, we've invested in a series of 500 gallon propane tanks so that we can top off our tanks in August when propane is 30% cheaper than it is in February. It's a principle which allows us to invest more of our funds into capital projects, and to spend more time on personal projects rather than trying to generate cash flow.

a view overlooking the ChickPlex under construction

     The interior 20'x16' space is broken up into three 4' wide, 8' long and 5' high chicken runs. We haven't decided how we'll configure the 20'x4' double-run along the back edge, but we're working on it.

June 19:

First Residents Arrive


Sarah and Patrick check on the new arrivals

     While the ChickPlex isn't finished, it is far enough along that some of the birds can take up residence such as the Cuckoo Marans who are starting to show signs of over-crowding as they make the transition from juveniles to pullets and roosters. We'd ordered straight-run chicks, and as luck runs in such things, instead of half roosters and half hens, we found ourselves with three roosters for every hen.

Oana with a pair of Cuckoo Marans roosters

     To right that situation, we butchered seven of the Cuckoo Marans roosters, and then moved the young hens and the remaining roosters into their new quarters in the ChickPlex.

Cleo checks out the Cuckoo Marans

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69