Backyard chooks Feed

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.

Understanding the true cost of cheap food

Our roosters Limpy and Roostie. Understanding the true cost of cheap food. Little eco footprints

It's easy to not appreciate the true cost of our food when it’s so cheap. The full ethical and environmental costs aren’t included in the "Cheap, cheap. Down, down" prices you’ll find at the supermarket or fast food outlet. This undervaluing of our food causes a cycle of increased food waste, continued environmental degradation, and far from ideal farming practices. Thankfully, once you become more connected to your food, cheap undervalued food becomes easier to resist. 

Australian households waste more than $5 billion worth of food each year. This waste is not only costing our hip pocket, it’s costing the environment.

Greenhouse gasses are being emitted, land cleared, and water guzzled – to grow good food that ends up being tossed in the bin. 

Most of us know that food waste is wrong – yet plenty of us still waste food – and feel guilty about it.

It’s easy to find tips for reducing food waste. We can meal plan, write a shopping list, store our food properly, and embrace leftovers. But behaviour change can be challenging if your heart isn’t in it.

Truly understanding where your food comes from can provide the motivation needed to avoid cheap food and reduce food waste.

Bethany Turner,  a researcher from the University of Canberra, studied the food waste behaviours of consumers and found that "people who grow some of their own food go to great lengths to prevent food waste.  These consumers speak of the time, effort and care that underpins food production,  and are motivated to avoid waste out of respect for the food itself as well as its producer". 

Processing our rooster. Understanding the true cost of cheap food. Little eco footprints

I felt this strong motivation to avoid food waste at all cost when I recently processed one of my roosters.  The value of chicken meat in my mind has increased exponentially. 

We raised our two roosters from eggs, and despite my original plan being to process the roosters for meat, I chickened out. I fell in love with both of them.  "Soup" and "Stock" were saved from the pot and were renamed "Roostie" and "Limpy".

But then the crowing competition began. They were trying to out-crow each other – all day – from 4 am.

So in the interest of being a good neighbour we decided one of them had to go. Roostie, the most frequent crower, reverted back to his original name – Soup.

So almost a year after learning how to process chickens at Buena Vista Farm, I finally found the courage to process one of my own chooks. Kind of.  Daddy Eco thankfully did the deed and I managed the plucking and gutting.

Given the effort we put into raising him from an egg, feeding and eventually butchering him, I made the most of his nutritious and delicious meat.

He became four meals. 

Connecting with our food. Rooster coq au vin. Little eco footprints.

The first meal was a coq au vin inspired casserole and I served leftovers the following day.

Making rooster bone broth. Little eco footprints

Then I used his bones (plus feet and gizzard) to make a super healthy bone broth which became a delicious chicken and vegetable soup that fed us for two more meals.

I’m not suggesting you go out and grow your own roosters to process. Perhaps you can grow a pot of carrots or lettuce. If you do,  I’m sure you’ll be less likely to toss slightly floppy carrots and you’ll be carefully storing your lettuce so that it stays crisp as long possible.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd February 2015.

Raising chickens - from egg to egg laying

Zippy the Australorp hen at 6 months old. Little eco footprints.

Our young Australorp hens have started to lay. We placed a dozen fertilised eggs in an incubator back in May, and the girls have just laid their first eggs. From egg to egg took six months. I appreciate the humble egg more than ever.

Seven eggs hatched. Three girls and four boys. The boys must have sensed they were destined for the stock pot. We lost one to wry neck – a condition that caused his neck to twist. Another jumped out of the brooder, where he encountered our two dogs.

Chickens raised without a mother hen need to be kept warm for their first few weeks. Home-made brooders are easy to make. I made two.

Chicken brooder in a plastic tub. DIY. Little eco footprints

Our chickens spent their first week in a small brooder made out of a plastic tub lined with wood shavings.

Chicken brooder made from an old cot. DIY. Little eco footprints.

Their second, more spacious brooder was made out of an old timber cot. I lined the base and sides with cardboard and made a roof out of chicken wire.

The brooders were heated by a heat lamp, hung above. The temperature was adjusted by raising or lowering the lamp. Infrared bulbs (available from pet shops) are ideal, although they are relatively expensive, and in my experience, blow easily. I now use red-tinted outdoor flood lights from the hardware store. They are a fraction of the price and work just as well. White lights aren’t a great idea, because the chickens think it’s daylight 24 hours a day.

The temperature in the brooder on day one needs to be around 33 degrees celsius. The temperature is gradually decreased until the heat lamp is turned off after three to six weeks. I used a thermometer and also watched the chickens’ behaviour to ensure they were at a comfortable temperature. If they crowd near the heat source and chirp loudly, they are too cold. If they move away from the heat source and pant, they are too hot.

Australorp chickens at three weeks old. Little eco footprints

Zippy the Australorp at seven weeks old. Little eco footprints.

Once fully feathered, at around seven weeks old, our chickens moved out of their brooder. They moved into a small pen next to our main coop. This allowed them get to know the other chooks, but with the safety of wire between them. They moved into the main coop once they were full size and more able to cope with being informed they were bottom of the pecking order.

Australorp chickens. Little eco footprints

Tiny pullet egg. Little eco footprints

Now five months old, our hens are laying delightful small eggs. These tiny "pullet eggs" have bright orange yolks and will gradually get bigger in the coming weeks.

They are laying the eggs haphazardly all over the ground. I’m training them to lay in the nesting box by leaving at least one egg in the box at all times.

The whole process has given us insight into what is involved in getting eggs to our table. Having to deal with the roosters has been particularly insightful. Roosters are an unwanted byproduct of the egg industry. In commercial hatcheries, they are killed by maceration or gassing shortly after hatching. It seems such a waste. I like the idea of breeding our own flock of old-fashioned dual-purpose breeds. Keeping the girls as layers and raising the boys for meat.

Australorp roosters. Litle eco footprints

Our two beautiful remaining boys – Soup and Stock – are now six months old. One should be heading to the pot. But to cut a long story short, we’ve decided our flock deserves two boys. I have chickened out this time.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 10th November 2014.

Raising chickens - a lesson in patience, responsibility and reality

A proud Little Eco and Zippy, the first chicken to hatch. Little eco footprints

Virtual pets are popular. The Tamagotchis and Furbys of the 90's have been superseded by cyberpet mobile phone apps. Little Eco loves Egg Babies. She buys a virtual egg that needs to be fed, washed, entertained and put to sleep. Eventually, it either dies from neglect or hatches. Despite suggestions that the Egg Baby app is teaching her life lessons in responsibility, I’m not convinced. So when she asked for an incubator for her birthday, I enthusiastically agreed. I embraced the idea of helping her raise real-life chickens.

Raising-chickens-from-eggs-Little eco footprints

We bought a dozen fertilised eggs. We chose Australorp, a hardy dual purpose breed, suitable for both laying eggs and meat.

How-to-incubate-chicken-eggs. Little eco footprints

The eggs were placed in an incubator at 37.5 degrees celsius and carefully turned five to six times a day. Little Eco marked one side of each egg with a smiley face and the other with a sad face so she could keep track when turning.

Candling-eggs. Little eco footprints

We excitedly studied chicken embryo development and tracked their progress. On day three, we candled the eggs for the first time and were amazed to see visible networks of blood vessels within most of the eggs.

Candling involves looking into the egg with a bright light to identify viable eggs. By day 10, we could tell that 11 of our 12 eggs contained developing embryos. 

We stopped turning the eggs on day 18. The eggs were in “lockdown” from here on. The incubator needs to stay closed until all the eggs have finished hatching to maintain humidity and temperature.

By the time we reached hatch day (day 21), we were growing impatient and started to fret that perhaps we hadn’t looked after the eggs properly. Did we turn them enough? Was humidity OK? By the end of day 21, nothing had happened and we were convinced that we had failed.

Towards the end of day 22, after anxiously waiting and watching, we were thrilled to spot the first pip – a small crack in the shell that tells us a chicken is almost ready to hatch.

Australorp-chicken. Little eco footprints

We watched the first chicken hatch that night. It made a teeny hole and then relaxed while it got used to breathing air. Eventually, it started to zip. It pecked through the egg in a circle, unzipping the egg until the crack was big enough for it to push the egg open. It emerged wet and ugly. Within an hour, it was dry, cute and fluffy.

Raising-chickens-from-eggs-Little eco footprints (2)

We had seven chickens hatch in total. I quickly learnt my first lesson in what not to do when raising chickens. Don’t name your chickens before you sex them. Little Eco enthusiastically named each chicken, distinguishing chicks by painting their toe nails in different colours and patterns. Then we sexed them using feather sexing, a technique that works with certain breeds when the chicks are only a few days old.

We have three girls and four boys. We’re only keeping one rooster, so now my Little Eco is struggling to choose between Rose, Cutie, Fluffy and Bubba. Names make such a difference. We’ll be renaming three of the boys stock, soup and sandwich.

Our sweet little chickens have taught Little Eco real-life lessons in patience, responsibility and reality. There’s been anticipation, concern, tears and joy. She watched a new life that she helped to create enter the world. Her pride and awe at that moment is something I will always remember. Nothing beats the real thing.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th June 2014.