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June 2015

How to encourage your chickens to lay - naturally

How to encourage chickens to lay - naturally. Little eco footprints

Eggs are a precious treat at the moment. Despite having almost a dozen hens, I'm collecting only a couple of eggs every few days. Rather than feel deprived, I like that the girls are enjoying a deserved respite and appreciate being reminded just how amazing eggs are. But they've been on holiday long enough. We've passed the winter solstice and it’s time for the girls to get back to work. 

Chickens naturally stop laying in winter.

The coldest months are not the ideal time for a hen to be raising chickens. A hen’s body recognises this and shuts down egg production.

Moulting, the shedding of old feathers and growth of new ones, also reduces laying. The protein that was being used to produce eggs is diverted to growing new feathers. Moulting can take a month or two – and chickens end up with a healthy new thick coat of feathers and improved disease resistance.

So how come there's still plenty of eggs in the supermarket?

If you buy your eggs from the supermarket or keep hybrid utility breeds, you may not even notice that eggs are seasonal.

Chickens bred for productivity tend to keep on laying through winter.

And commercial egg farmers use lights to ensure year-round laying. Shortening day length is what tells a hen’s endocrine system that it’s winter and time to stop laying. Artificial lighting can be used to extend day length and trick hens into laying through the darker months.

Hens need time off

Forcing hens to lay through winter comes at a cost.

Hens are born with their full quota of eggs. You don’t get more eggs by forcing them to lay through winter, you simply get all your eggs quicker.

The increased productivity reduces life-expectancy and resilience. Almost half my flock are hybrid utility hens bred for productivity and the rest are heritage and pure breeds. My poor hybrid girls literally lay themselves to death, not even stopping to moult. A couple didn’t last two years and the scruffy thin feathers of the remainder suggest they won’t last three years. In contrast, I have a couple of Langshans still laying the odd egg at nine years old and my young Australorp girls are looking strong and healthy after taking time off to moult.

But it’s time for my girls to get back to work.

We've passed the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. From here on the days start getting longer and my hens should start laying more eggs.

Natural tips for encouraging hens to lay

1. Feed them plenty of protein..

High protein treats like worms help hens get back on the lay. Little eco footprints

To encourage my girls to get back on the lay, I'm feeding them plenty of protein. Growing new feathers and keeping warm in winter requires a lot of protein. I'm being generous with free range time and feeding them plenty of high protein treats like worms and sunflower seeds.

2. and calcium

Usd egg shells can be dried, crushed and fed to chickens as a source of calcium. Little eco footorints

To ensure hard strong egg shells, I've also made sure they have access to plenty of leafy greens and shell grit or finely crushed dried egg shells.

Chickens love foraged weedy greens. Little eco footprints

3. Ensure they are warm and safe

We've had some foxes in the neighbourhood. Lurking predators, dampness and cold drafts will stress hens and reduce laying, so I've checked that their shelter is warm and safe.

4. Make sure they are healthy

Sprinkling diatomaceous earth into nest boxes. little eco footprints

To ensure my girls are in tip top condition I'm also adding a dash of apple cider vinegar (packed with vitamins and minerals and a good immune tonic) to their water and am sprinkling diatomaceous earth in their nest boxes to deter lice and mites.

I'm eagerly waiting for the return of omelettes and frittata.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 22nd June 2015.

Do more with less - function stacking

Chicken tractor - a great example of saving time by function stacking. Little eco footprints

Time is precious. It’s a limited resource and I'm guessing most of us feel like we don’t have enough of it. One of the techniques I use to save time is function stacking – a permaculture concept that can save time and resources in the garden and beyond.

What is function stacking? 

At its simplest, function stacking suggests that anything you plant in the garden should serve multiple functions. For example, if you want to plant a tree for shade, select one that will also give you fruit.

The idea is to increase efficiency by maximising outputs.

Chicken tractor - a great example of saving time by function stacking. Little eco footprints 2

My chicken tractor is another example of function stacking.

A mobile chicken pen enables me to increase the number of functions my chickens perform. They not only give me eggs and manure, but also weed my garden and prepare soil for planting.

I also stack functions beyond the garden.

I try to maximise the function of car trips. If I have to drive somewhere, I consider what chores or shopping I can do along the way. I stop at roadside stalls and make the most of driving near favourite organic stores.

Time with Little Eco is also often function stacked. When cooking or gardening I’ll lower expectations about how long something will take and involve her in the process. We create a meal and have fun as well.

Function stacking is different to multi-tasking.

When juggling more than one task at a time – it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not give either task the attention it deserves.

Whereas with function stacking, you can focus mindfully on performing a single task, yet get to enjoy multiple outcomes.

You kill two (or more) birds with one stone.

Perhaps - not everything can be function stacked all the time

My blog posts are also function stacked - published first as a column in the local paper. Most weeks my republished column is the only blog post I’ll write and I have both my newspaper and blog audiences in mind when I write the piece. I save myself having to write a blog post and make the most of my efforts, giving me more time to do other things.

But a recent conversation reminded me that not everything can be function stacked all the time. A friend wrote that she was sad that I don’t blog much these days. "But I blog consistently once a week" I responded. She told me that "republishing once a week is not quite the same thing". It seems my stacking isn’t as effective as I thought. My blog audience feels neglected.

The encounter reminded me that if a function is important, we may need to focus on it fully occasionally. For example, every now and then I need to play with my daughter – on her terms. Playing her games is how I remind her that she’s important to me. Similarly, I'm thinking I need to occasionally write something just for my blog audience (patient blog readers - the plan is to eventually find time to write a second post each week just for the blog. One day....)

The opportunities to function stack seem endless.

Digging in the garden – exercise and prepared soil.

A deep dam with a pontoon – water storage and a swimming hole.

A milking sheep – milk, wool and meat.....

What I love most about function stacking is that you can do less, but achieve more.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 15th June 2015.

How to make natural citrus and beeswax firelighters

Natural citrus peel and wax fire starters. Little eco footprints

Searching for creative alternatives to toxic and non-renewable products is something I enjoy. The research and experimentation is part of the fun. I recently explored alternatives to commercial firelighters and ended up creating sweet-smelling natural citrus and beeswax fire starters.

Not only do these natural firelighters work far better than their toxic and highly packaged counterparts, they cost nothing and are made entirely from natural and renewable ingredients.

My husband snuck a box of fire starters into our home. I had a little grumble about them being a waste of money and resources – and then started looking for alternatives. I've used dried citrus peel to start fires as its high oil content makes it flammable. I dry the peel on a tray in the sun or by the fire and a few weeks later have a pile of sweet smelling fire starters. But they aren't as effective as commercial firelighters – so I continued my search.

I discovered tutorials for firelighters made from candle wax, dryer lint and egg cartons. I loved the idea, but I don’t have a clothes dryer and I rarely have spare egg cartons. But the idea was a good one and I started thinking about making something similar using waste materials I had in abundance.

Then I stumbled across a bucket of dried peel from last winter. The peel cups (left over from juicing) looked like a perfect alternative to the egg carton mould.

Searching for an alternative to the clothes dryer lint – I considered hay, dried leaf litter, shredded paper – then settled on wood shavings.

As a bee keeper, I have an abundance of bees wax, so used that instead of candle wax.

How to make natural citrus and beeswax firelighters. Little eco footprints

To make the firelighters, I melted the wax in an old pot.

I poured a little wax over each peel cup filled with shavings. The hot wax bubbled up when it came into contact with the shavings – ensuring only a little wax was needed to coat the shavings. The wax doesn't need to fill the mould. It simply needs to coat the shavings, preventing them from burning too quickly.

A natural citrus peel and beeswax fire starterlighter. Little eco footprints

I lit one the following day, expecting it to burn for a minute or so. It burnt brightly for 20 minutes.

The packet of fire starters is long gone. And my husband hasn't considered buying more because there’s now a basket of even better firelighters sitting by the fire.

How to make your own firelighters from waste

To make your own fire starter you need a mould, wax and kindling.

Rather than rush out and buy something, look at what you have on hand.

  • For the mould you could use toilet rolls, egg shells, egg cartons – or citrus peel like I have.
  • Instead of beeswax you could use old candles or broken crayons.
  • For the kindling you could use sawdust, shredded paper, rags, peanut shells or dried herbs (how good would that smell).

Fill your mould with kindling. Pour in a little melted wax. It's as simple as that. 

Experiment and have fun.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 8th June 2015.

Do what’s important (not urgent)

A family bushwalk and hot chocolate. Making time for what is important. Little eco footprints

I've banned myself from using the word "busy". I no longer respond to the question "How are you?" with an automatic "busy". My to-do list is still long, but the sense of busyness is almost gone.

The main change is that I'm getting better at distinguishing between what is important and what's urgent. Important tasks take priority these days. And I try to steer clear of urgent tasks that are really not that important in the scheme of things.

There will always be urgent things to do. We can busy ourselves forever ticking urgent things off our to-do list. Tick a few off and a few more appear.

But the problem is, the important is all too easy to neglect when we’re bombarded with urgent things to do all day.

I don’t want to waste my life bumping from one urgent task to another – without saving enough space for what’s truly important. Because, as author Annie Dillard points out: "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives".

Using the Eisenhower Method to manage your time

Productivity enthusiasts may be familiar with the "Eisenhower Method". This time management tool stems from a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: "What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important."

Tasks are assigned to quadrants of a matrix – based on whether they are important or unimportant and urgent or not urgent. The method suggests important and urgent tasks are done immediately. Important but not urgent tasks are scheduled to happen by a certain date. Unimportant and urgent tasks are delegated. And unimportant and not urgent tasks are dropped.

We can apply this idea to our everyday life.

Deal with the important and urgent as soon as practicable. Make time for what is important (but not urgent) each and every day. And simply drop the unimportant.

How to work out what's important

Unfortunately – many of us are so busy and overwhelmed that we've lost sight of what’s important.

When I was drowning in busyness I found it easy to mistake urgent and unimportant tasks as important.

It often takes an illness or accident to remind people of what’s truly important. But life is so precious that we should be setting aside time to contemplate what is important, without being motivated by a tragedy.

I sat on a rug in the sunshine with a notebook and contemplated what I want my legacy to be.

Then I mapped out an ideal day, ideal week, ideal month and an ideal year. I then mapped out what my actual days looked like at that point in time. I realised most of my time was being spent on tasks that weren't truly important to me. I had lost myself in other people’s "important".

Now that I have a clear vision of my goals and how I want to spend my time – I find it easier to drop unimportant tasks. I've found the confidence to say no when needed.

Become a deadline rebel

I've also become a deadline rebel. I purposely miss unnecessary deadlines. Our society has a fondness for imposing deadlines – even when they aren't necessary.

Not everything has to happen now. Even important things can often wait.

Let's save busy for when it's truly justified - not everyday life

Of course life does get busy sometimes. But I like the idea of saving that sense of urgency for when it’s truly justified. Let’s not spend our entire lives being "busy".

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 1st June 2015.