I've been meditating on the ideal roof for a chicken coop. It ought to have the following properties:
- Easy to install.
- Lasts forever.
- Rainwater doesn't cause mud in front of the house.
- Chickens don't roost on top.
Also, if you live in the suburbs, it should be pretty enough to shut up your pompous neighbors.
Most of my houses have shed roofs made of galvanized steel roofing. The configuration is a "shed roof," which just means that it's higher and the front than at the back, so rainwater pours off at the back of the house where is causes less trouble.
My roofs are just metal, with no plywood decking underneath, and no insulation. This is appropriate for highly ventilated houses with enough airflow that the inside temperature and humidity are about the same as outside. You don't have to worry about condensation in such a house.
In a tightly closed chicken house, you'd want an insulated roof, but you'd have to be nuts to build such a house. Ventilation is the magic bullet for chicken health. (You'll want to read Fresh-Air Poultry Houses, one of the classic poultry books I've reprinted, for complete information.)
My houses have purlins but no rafters. The sheet metal is nailed directly to the purlins with roofing nails, meaning that they are supported only every four feet. This has worked well for me. One thing I've learned, though, is that if the roof sticks out very far in front of or behind the house, you need to nail a 2x4 across the underside of the very front of the roof, and one at the very back, to keep the sheets of metal roofing from flapping in high winds. Otherwise they'll work themselves loose.
One problem I haven't solved is that of keeping chickens from roosting on the roof. Chickens like sleeping as high in the air as they can, and that means the roof. My roofs have a shallow slope and they can sleep anywhere on the roof they want without sliding off. A steeper roof is clearly called for. I haven't done any experiments to discover where the sweet spot is. Maybe I should!
You won't believe how little water our well gives us -- one quart a minute. That's 440 gallons a day, which is enough if we don't want to water the lawn with it. We have a 1500-gallon tank (these things are surprisingly affordable and lightweight black plastic affairs that a single person can roll off a trailer and into place), so we have plenty of water, until we run out.
We didn't run out, but it started smelling bad. This is the other bad thing about wells in Oregon's Coast Range -- sulfur in the water, and the sulfur-loving bacteria that go with it. Not a health hazard, but unaesthetic.
So we mixed a jug of bleach with a bucket of water and poured it down the well, and followed it with some vinegar. Recirculate lightly every half hour (the pump is on a timer), wait 24 hours, and pump the well dry. It's called shock chlorination. If you have a well, you probably know all about it.
Yuck! Not only did we get the usual greenish-brownish gunk, but some reddish stuff as well. That's too many colors for something that's supposed to be crystal clear!
No doubt everything will return to normal again. It always has. I'd fire my water company, except it's me.
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In the bad old days, eggs in the big cities mostly came from the Midwest. Farmers would collect eggs and leave them, unrefrigerated, until they felt like going into town. They'd sell the eggs at the general store or the feed store, and the merchant would hold them, unrefrigerated, until he had a large enough lot to ship to an egg wholesaler.
The eggs would work their way towards the city, unrefrigerated, by slow freight. Eventually, they'd arrive in the store, where they would be set out, unrefrigerated, for the consumer.
This method was so horrendous that, in the summer, baby chicks would hatch during shipment! In the South, particularly, many people simply didn't eat eggs in the summer.
By the way, the traditional American farm breeds all lay brown eggs.
There was a good market for reliably fresh eggs. Such eggs needed a short distribution chain so there wasn't time for anything bad to happen between farm and consumer. The solution was to raise them on farms close to town. Land close to town is expensive, so the tendency was to crowd the hens and use breeds that tolerated crowding well. This was usually the White Leghorn, which was everybody's favorite chicken for non-free-range uses, including coops on sailing ships. Leghorns lay white eggs.
So white eggs quickly came to mean "fancy eggs," while brown eggs meant, "plain old farm eggs." If you lived in farm country, where it's easy to obtain fresh eggs because of the short distribution path, you'd eat brown eggs and wonder why anybody ever bothered with those sissy white eggs. If you lived in a big city, it would be just the opposite.
Another advantage of white eggs is that they show stains easily, meaning that snowy white eggs are a reliable sign that you are taking pains to produce a first-class product. On the general farm, it was awfully hard to produce eggs that clean, but brown-shelled eggs could hide the problem pretty well.
It took a long time for refrigeration to level the playing field. A lot of eggs were still moving by unrefrigerated freight in the Fifties. It's this lack of quality control and freshness, not lower costs, that allowed factory-farmed eggs to take over. The guys with the refrigerators won because they never gave you a hideous surprise.
These days, almost everyone refrigerates their eggs from start to finish, except a few hippie-dippy producers who think that their political correctness shields them from the need to worry about quality. The reasons that white eggs were considered superior no longer apply. But the preference lingers. Let's face it: eggs don't have a lot of mindshare with most people, so they buy whatever they were used to growing up.
Though I did occasionally find one that was almost chocolate brown when I had the golden sex links.
What I mostly like are the dark yellow yolks and the taste of fresh eggs.
But you'd have to have some REALLY dark brown eggs to "hide the problem"!
When I was a kid, my parents owned a campground nestled into a redwood forest. This gave me a pleasant outdoor summer job every year, which was great. But the best thing was the customers. By the time they got here, most campers were at least two days into their trip and had left most of their stress behind. A beautiful, quiet setting and the knowledge that they were hundreds of miles away from their troubles put them into a great mood. It was a pleasure dealing with them.
The local farmers' markets are just the same. They're full of happy strolling shoppers who are enjoying a little time off from the stress of their day, ready to please and be pleased. It's life-affirming for all involved.
You can heighten the experience even more by giving yourself extra opportunities to slow down and enjoy your outing. Put a cooler and some blue ice in the back of your car so you don't have to race home with your produce. Have a leisurely lunch instead! And while you're out and about, go to a couple of places you don't need to go to.
It's June, and we're into the strawberry season. Don't let it pass you by! The better farmers' markets have strawberries to die for, not the fakey stuff in the supermarket.
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Chickens like short grass and do poorly in tall grass. I can see this as I mow the pasture, because the chickens get excited about the foraging prospects of the newly mown swath, rushing around excitedly looking for bugs and yummy young plants revealed once the tall grass has been cut.
Grass has few calories but lots of vitamins and protein. Chickens can only digest grass if it's young and it still bright green. Once it starts to fade, they lose interest.
Physically, tall grass is an impediment to them, preventing them from going where they want. It also triggers annoying behaviors like laying eggs in the grass rather than in the nest houses, and encouraging them to hunker down and hide rather than run when frightened, raising the possibility that they'll allow the tractor to run them down. I've only ever killed one chicken with the mower. That was enough.
Back in the good old days, there was some research done along these lines, and mowing the grass down to two inches tested out as being optimum. Six inches was too high.
I'm a big fan of permanent pasture (never plow, never reseed), since it combines the minimum amount of work with the maximum amount of pasture-plant diversity. So I'm not up on which plants would be best if you were starting with a plowed field. In general, at this time of year you should plant a grass or clover that will stay green all summer and do well if mown down to two inches. In the fall, you want a grass that will stay green all winter and do well if equally short.
I ordered, and have received, electric poultry netting, and will be mowing the grass around the netting and around the chicken tractor inside of it.
If my problem was racoons, this should solve it. If it was mink, it might not, and I'd have to trap the mink. We'll find out soon enough, I guess.
Memorial Day weekend is the traditional opener for farmers' markets. Here in the Corvallis area, we open about six weeks earlier than that, but still, there's a big upsurge in both customers and vendors over Memorial Day.
Saturday's market was a tremendous success, with swarms of people taking a relaxed amble through the market on a beautiful spring morning. The Corvallis Saturday Farmer's Market is set in Corvallis' Riverfront Park, which is a wonderful setting, at the edge of Corvallis' old-fashioned downtown.
The market gets better every year. Anchored by a few organic farmers who have been perfecting their craft over the past thirty years, and filled in with almost every kind of home-grown product imaginable, quality is always king. And while people in Oregon are almost ridiculously nice in general, at the market these things are raised to a new level in both customers and vendors. It's what Saturday mornings in small-town America are supposed to be.
Some farmers' markets are little more than craft shows in disguise, or feature supermarket-style product in a different venue, but this is the real deal. All the goods have to be things that were raised on your own farm. They don't all have to be edible or anything -- beeswax candles where the wax came from your own hives is perfectly okay -- but it has to be local.
Interestingly, organic certification is losing its punch. There's too much low-quality organic stuff out there these days, and every new purveyor of low-quality wares, lowers the value of the label for everyone.
(Not that I've ever been organically certified. One of my rules is, "I won't join any organization that wants me to fill out more than two sheets of paper per lifetime.")
If you haven't been to a farmers' market lately, give it a whirl. Try all the ones within range, because they very widely. It's especially good if you attend in a lazy, "It's Saturday and I've got all day" frame of mind. Throw a cooler into the back of the car so you can have lunch instead of rushing home with your purchases. Do a couple of liesurely, unnecessary things before you go. You'll live longer.
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What do you do when your tractor is stuck in the mud and any vehicles that you use to pull it out is likely to get stuck, too? Put the tow vehicle on relatively dry ground and use an extra-long tow strap! We used a hundred-foot coil of old fire hose (1.5"). This stuff is lightweight, immensely strong, and not too inconvenient to use.
Actually, when I say "we," I mean "my neighbor," who appeared with two sons and a pickup truck to rescue my tractor. They loaded the pickup with some of my firewood for extra traction, and plucked out my tractor from the mud. It was nicely done! That tractor was dug in so deep that the wheels were grating on pagodas in China.
You can sometimes buy used fire hose on eBay. Presumably your local fire departments have it from time to time when they retire old hoses.
Or, if you want something that packs down smaller, you buy a long, strong tow strap from Amazon, like this one:
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We're dropping our prices this week. There's no more room in the refrigerator, so we need to drum up some extra sales. Since there are other egg vendors at the Saturday Farmer's Market, undercutting their cheapest eggs with our cheapest eggs ought to draw in some bargain-conscious customers.
Setting prices is a screwy business. Most farmers are too insecure to do it well, and end up setting their prices too low, increasing the odds that they will fail. Just the concept of, "What's the right price?" is pretty much an imponderable: a question with so many ramifications that your mind can spin around in tight little circles forever.
So we let our refrigerator set our prices for us. The process is almost entirely brainless. It works like this: If our refrigerator is full of unsold eggs, it's time to lower prices. If there are tumbleweeds blowing through an empty refrigerator, it's time to raise prices. That's all there is to it.
Once you let the prices float, your attention shifts to more important things, namely: "What can I do so customers enthusiastically help to empty my refrigerator in spite of high prices?"
Step One is to have the best eggs ever. Life is way easier if your customers stick to you like glue and spread the news by word-of-mouth because your product is so good.
Step Two is to get people to notice. Let's face it, eggs have zero mindshare with most people. If your refrigerator is bulging with eggs, one effect of lowering your prices is to draw in some skeptics who wouldn't try your product at the old price. If your stuff is the best, some of the skeptics will become converts. Sales are the simplest way to move this process along.
Step Three is to scatter instantly grasped indicators of what you are, so people get it. Wearing overalls and a straw hat at the farmers' market, having pictures of happy hens on green grass, smiling, and not being a jerk to your customers are all good. (Don't wear clothes that feel too much like a costume, though, unless you like that sort of thing. If you go all stiff and unnatural, it doesn't help.) People have this range of mental images of what a farmer ought to be. If you happen to fit one of them, flaunt it.
But avoid slickness. If you live on a real farm, slickness tends to be outside your grasp anyway, because everything you own gets muddied, faded, and battered. Customers are aware of this on some level.
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My tractor is stuck in the mud. Now what? (To skip ahead to how I got it free, read this follow-up posting).
How did I get stuck? Well, I lost some hens to predators. I figured that the thing to do was to fire up the tractor, mow next to the fence while keeping an eye out for game trails through the grass, and then move the fence slightly. It's just a couple of strands of aluminum fence wire on step-in fence posts, so moving it is easy.
That would deal with the grass that's shorting out the fence and perform a reconnaissance that might reveal where the predators were coming from. On the tractor, I sit up high enough that I get a better view than if I'm on foot.
Well, keeping my eyes peeled for predator sign meant I wasn't watching where I was going, and I bogged down in some very soft ground. Now what? When a vehicle is stuck, I pull it free with the tractor. If the tractor is stuck, I got nothin'!
One of my neighbors came by, asking if he could borrow the tractor to pull out his pickup, which is stuck on his own field. He thinks he can borrow a pal's 4WD tractor and pull out both vehicles. Let's hope.
As it turns out, the predators were getting through because the feeder wire for the electric fence had burned through. If I'd checked that first, none of this would have happened!
It must be spring. The grass is getting way out of hand, but it's too wet to mow. This happens every year.
Chickens on free range like short grass. Back in the Golden Age of scientific poultrykeeping (roughly 1910-1960), this sort of thing was researched. Chickens did best on grass that was 2" high. Once it reached 6" it became a barrier to foraging. If it gets even taller, the chickens are confined to a few paths through the tall grass.
Tall grass also shorts out electric fence and can conceal predators. A field that is kept short has a lot of succulent, green regrowth, and bright green grass is the only kind that provides any nutrition for chickens. This nutrtion, by the way, consists of more vitamins than you can shake a stick at, some protein, but no calories.
Rain, rain, go away!