Tag Archives: Chickens

Guide to broody hens part 1: setting up

We’re only in our 3rd year of hatching chicks but the learning curve has been steep. We started not knowing much at all about chickens, then through reading blogs, articles and books and asking lots of questions on forums and Facebook groups, we have found our footing. I feel quite confident now about hatching chicks with a broody, although there is always more to learn!

I’m on a few smallholding/chicken related groups and I’ve found myself answering a lot of questions with the general gist of ‘help my hen is broody, what on earth do I do?’. I’ve always given a detailed response as to what we do and then to my surprise others, who seem very experienced, liked my suggestions and even better the original poster would come back and say that the advice helped. Given that I learnt through others being generous with their knowledge, it feels really good to be able to give back. So that is what I am doing here, hoping to write a post that someone can stumble across and be helped by.

So you think you have a broody chicken, what now? Firstly is she really broody? One of the signs of a broody chicken is being in the nest box overnight (or even worse, being missing over night due to sitting somewhere else). There are other reasons for this though. Your hen could be being bullied by the others so not able to perch, they might not be used to perching or could be avoiding the house for some reason such as red mite. They can also start sitting simply because other hens are sitting in the house. They won’t actually want to sit on eggs though and will be very flighty if disturbed. A really broody hen will be in a nest box most of the day, not just at night. If you try to remove her from the nest to get to the eggs underneath her she will be very resistant to moving and may well peck at you.

So the chicken is definitely broody. The next step is to decide what you want to do. This is really important, depending on the hen if you just leave her with infertile eggs or no eggs she can waste away. It’s not healthy. If she does steal eggs from other hens they can be a variety of ages and she can potentially collect too many. If she has too many under her then they don’t all get the right conditions, develop at different rates and possibly not hatch at all. I know of someone who had a hen sitting on 20 odd eggs and only had 1 hatch of the lot.

Lastly you need to think about what you will do with the chicks. Odds are 50% will be male, can you keep the males? Rehome them? Both have their own difficulties, males can sometimes fight between each other and not many people want to home a cockerel. The last solution for the boys is the pot (which we do) but you need to think about if you will do the deed yourself or send them off to a butcher. The hens are less complicated, you can eat them, rehome them or keep for egg layers but do make sure you have a plan in place. There’s also the extra costs of feeding the chicks as they grow which you should take into account. It’s bad practice to breed any animal without a plan for its life.

So, once you have had a good think about it all, you have two options really. The first is to help the hen to have a clutch of chicks and the second is to break the broodiness.

Now we hadn’t previously tried to break a hen of being broody, although we have had some give up on us. We are having a go at breaking a broody hen (Carrie) as we have enough chicks and she went down with wry neck when she was last broody. I’ll let you know how it goes. Having no personal experience with breaking a broody I can only regurgitate the standard advice. A wire dog cage raised by some bricks at each corner with food and water inside. The aim is to get cool air blowing underneath her and no way for her to nest. Leave her in there for 2 or 3 days (making sure she is safe at night and no predators can stress her) then let her out and see what she does. If she goes back to the nest then back in the cage (sin bin) again for a few more days. It should work. We have also had hens break broodiness by being disturbed too often, but this isn’t guaranteed and they probably weren’t going to be the best broody hens anyway.

Christie in our sin bin

If you’re letting your hen sit then you need to support her through the process. Ideally she needs her own accommodation. Other hens will badger her to get to the nest box, stressing her out and laying eggs in the clutch that you will then have to sort through. When the chicks do hatch there is a danger that other hens may attack them if they can and also the potentially for the other hens to eat the chick food, which if it is medicated is a big no-no.

A broody coop needs some certain features to make life easy for you and the hen. The most basic requirement is to be predator proof. Rats will take eggs and chicks from under a hen. Corvids will steal from nests too. Worse still a sitting hen can go into a trance like state, no challenge at all for a fox, think of the term ‘sitting duck’. A solid bottom so no one can dig underneath, a covered top so no one can swoop down and solid/wired sides so no one can wriggle in and you’ve got the basics covered.

A nice dark area for her to nest in is good. Large enough for once the chicks start running around a bit too. If you can have a covered area with more light that’s great too, the food can go there undercover and gives then hen somewhere to stretch her legs a bit if it is raining. An outdoor run is a great addition as when the hen does stretch her legs she can do a bit of digging for grubs and vegetation as well as the standard poultry feed, a varied diet is good, it also gives her a great protected space to show her chicks the world. For your ease something that allows the roof to open will be helpful. You can easily check on the hen then and push her off if needed, grab eggs to candle and introduce chicks after dark if needed.

A good broody coop

So you have accommodation sorted now you need something to sit on. If you don’t have a cockerel your eggs will be no good. If you have someone selling at the gate locally it may be worth asking if their eggs are fertile (we have had people do this with us). You can also buy in eggs, some breeders sell them for you to collect and there is wealth of eggs on places like ebay that can be posted to you.

The posted eggs

There are pros and cons to this. We have been able to source a wide variety of breeds that we just couldn’t get from our local area by buying via ebay, but we have also had hatched chicks that look nothing like what the breed should and had some truly awful hatch rates (1 out of 6). It’s a gamble and if you can collect eggs in person I always would but if there is no one locally selling what you want it is worth trying a posted batch of eggs. Hens can also incubate other breeds (ducks, turkey, geese etc) but I haven’t tried it so I can’t comment.

Once you get your eggs let them sit point down at room temperature for at least a couple of hours. If it’s your own eggs then as long as they are 10 days old or younger they should be ok. Viability drops off after that. We generally wait until after dark to set eggs under a hen. All chickens get more docile after dark and are much easier to move and to fool. The postal eggs all get candled now to check for cracks (white, cream and blue eggs will show this, possibly light brown but with dark brown eggs you’ll likely have trouble seeing much). I also write a number on each egg in pencil, going over it several times. The eggs get placed in the broody coop nesting box and the sleepy hen popped on top of them.

The next day I check on the hen several times. It’s ok if she is off the nest for a little bit. It’s less work for you if she is able to get herself up to eat, drink and poo. If the hen is out of the nest every time you check and pacing up and down searching for a way out then you may be in trouble. It’s worth in this case letting her out and seeing what happens. If you find her in a couple of hours back in the main hen house (or trying to get into it if you have a penned system) then she has probably imprinted on the place she was nesting rather than onto the eggs. Take her back to the house and shut her into the nesting area for a day or two, she’ll imprint onto these eggs and nesting area.

If she is walking about as happy as Larry and showing no signs of being broody at all then she was fickle and you no longer have a broody hen. If you had left her in the house where she had been sitting she’d have likely gone off the nest at some point later. We had this happen with Aurora, she appeared broody but bolted as soon as she had the chance.

Aurora when we thought she was broody

As you can get fickle hens we always test a hen’s broodiness post move now. So we place either rubber eggs or some eggs we don’t care about hatching or eating from our flock (generally small eggs that may or may not be fertile) into the broody coop and put then hen on them. If she sits on them for a day or two we give her the fertile eggs we want hatched. To do this we wait until after dark and then lift her up to take the temporary eggs away and pop the new ones under her. It only need be 1 or 2 temporary eggs you give her, hens can’t count very well so she won’t be bothered by 2 eggs being replaced by 6 or even 9.

So now you have a broody hen, sitting in a broody coop, on a clutch of eggs you want hatched. Give the hen access to her normal feed and water and a little bit of corn each evening might tempt her out. We push our broody hens off the nest every 3 days if there are no signs she has been off the nest (changed positions, been seen off the nest, broody poo to clean up). If we think she is getting up herself we leave her be.

Brienne waiting for her eggs to hatch

I should say something about broody poo, it is quite awful stuff, huge and smelly. You will know it when you see/smell it. It’s more of a cow pat in consistency than a chicken poo. Do be prompt at clearing it up and do check the nest. Some hens that don’t get up have been known to poo in the nest getting it on not only the bedding by the nest but also on the eggs themselves and eggs that are kept warm for 21 days with poo on them aren’t good for anyone.

Broody poo

Keep feeding and pushing off your hen if needed. You are all set for the broody hatching process though. My next post will be about what to do while the hen is sitting and getting ready for the eventual hatch. I’ll do another after that about what to do once the chicks are hatched and then, if I haven’t already covered it all, a trouble shooting post for all the little tips we have picked up when things have gone wrong! I hope that one day this is all helpful to someone and if you’ve seen something in here that you think is wrong or you think ‘I wouldn’t do that’ please do tell me, we are still learning and always open to different views on how to do things.

Dans

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Scaling back

Well you may remember a couple of months I was saying how hard we were finding everything at the moment. My hips were starting to go, I was banned from lifting due to pregnancy, Sam’s knee was still very much out of use after the cellulitis and due to his disability he does a lot of smallholding activities kneeling so that he has a stable base, the weather was awful with everything flooding and the grass not growing and it all just felt a bit overwhelming.

We did send the geese to the freezer after that. The combination of no eggs being laid, running out of grass for them and extra work for Sam when he was already stretched thin, just proved too much. In hindsight I realise I should have either had them jointed or put them up for sale before sending them to the abattoir but hindsight is 20:20. Instead they are in the freezer and will get eaten at some big gatherings through the year. I do really miss having the geese around but in actual fact it has been a blessing, it did relieve the pressure and allowed us to look at the orchard again. The chickens now have safe free roaming of the smallholding and can forage in the orchard, we’ve also set up the broody nursery in there. I noticed a lot of ants and thus aphids on the young fruit trees in there so we will be pulling up our chicken wire ‘goose excluders’ that we have set up around the trees so that the chickens can do a good job scratching around those trunks for ants and other grubs. I like to think we will have geese again but if we do we’ll be changing our management to have them following the sheep grazing.

A fair amount of roast goose in our future

The other area we have scaled back is the growing. I wanted to grow something this year, maybe not expand on last year but still be growing as I loved eating our home grown passata for several months and would like to do it again. Unfortunately we also decided to work on raising the beds and having the chickens free ranging meant that they were straight into the polytunnel to have dust baths in our beds. As a result of that, and general disorganisation combined with a strong urge to nest meaning I wasn’t sowing seeds until very late, we have only just got our first plants into the polytunnel. Some netting over the unused doors has been a successful short term measure to keep the chickens out but the polytunnel cool enough. We still have nothing outside and we only have 2 veg beds raised in the polytunnel. The growing is most certainly scaled back this year.

All of this may be for the best though. The baby is due in August which is our peak harvest season in the polytunnel. We are unlikely to be able to do much in the way of food processing this year and no matter what we do the plum, apple and pear trees will be dropping their fruit on us which will likely mostly go straight into the freezer. Not growing as much and focusing on the infrastructure should hopefully set us for a good growing season next year. At least that is what I keep saying to myself when I see how empty the polytunnel and outdoor beds are! I am hoping that by this time next year we will have a covered fruit cage with planted bushes (that will mostly be 3 years old and thus should be in good production), 5 raised beds in the polytunnel and possibly the citrus trees planted, internal netted doors on the polytunnel and the 5 raised beds outside.

Sam working on raised beds

Reading a smallholding magazine the other week (likely a back issue as I’m a bit behind) there was an article by the author of Doing It In Wellies (a book I really really want to read). She spoke about getting the smallholding and jumping into everything and forgetting the why of it all because you were too busy trying to survive it. That really resonated with me. She said how they pulled some bits back and stopped to smell the roses and how that really helped them refocus the activities.

Sam and I got into smallholding for several reasons. The first was my health at the time, the PhD had worn me into the ground and down a few layers. We thought a slower pace of life, without as much of the pressure(!) might be helpful. I could do lots on my good days and less on the bad days. For the most part that has worked. Smallholding can be very stressful. There’s never enough hours in the day to get things done. Trying to make a business out of that makes it harder, there isn’t just the physical acts of smallholding and record keeping for animals, there’s also things like this blog, website design and management, courses to do to get the various food safety requirements, endless research, balancing books etc. Then add in the stress of pests, disease and never ending maintenance that any smallholding needs and there is the potential for stress. Throw full time motherhood into the mix and you’d start to question if a PhD might be a relaxing break! But in all honesty nothing I’ve experienced touches the PhD for stress, all the stress related illness I suffered from have disappeared. I am pretty much medication free now, just a vitamin D supplement. I’ve also lost a good 10kg and have put on a lot of muscle. I’m healthier than I have been in a long while and I have the smallholding to thank for that. Job #1 done!

Our second reason was Chi, we wanted her to know where her food comes from. Not just know where but to see it come from there, to understand the process, to know it well enough that she can do it herself. She makes cakes and custard with me, she has watched me kill and pluck and gut chickens, she’s seen me salting sheepskins, seen the wool being sheared, washed, carded and spun. We have picked apples off the tree and pressed them into juice. As her memory gets longer she will start to see and learn the process of growing, of the seeds we sow and plant and water then harvest and compost. She is learning so much and the beauty is she doesn’t know that she is. It isn’t a special trip out or an episode of a show, this is simply her life and I love it. Job #2 done.

The first taste

We wanted to know the history of our food, that the animals had a good life and the crops hadn’t been saturated in pesticides. We aren’t as self sufficient as we would like, I would love a goat or two to produce milk for us as we still buy a lot of dairy. I’d also like pigs for meat and at the very least a local known source of beef, but we have a small acreage and we are doing what we can with what we have. I think the dream of a bit more land will always be with me but we are doing well in lamb (well mutton), fruit and veg, eggs and pork sourced from other smallholders. So job #3 is in pretty good standing too.

Lastly we wanted to enjoy things. This is where we are lacking a bit. We work a lot on the smallholding, we put a lot of hours into getting the place up and running, especially Sam working a full time job and then doing work on the smallholding. Sometimes I think we work so hard on it all and don’t actually enjoy it. I think that is where we got to earlier in the year. Lots of work and very little enjoyment. We’ve got a table set up in the garden for BBQs and have had more this year than the other years previously. We are getting some more garden furniture to dot around so that we can sit and rest between jobs and enjoy things rather than lugging our 2 chairs back and forth over the smallholding.

A rare break to enjoy the weather and spin some wool

I am hoping that this year we will get more of the infrastructure done and build on enjoying the smallholding next year. Wish us luck!

Dans

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Juggling broody hens

Ok so I haven’t actually been throwing chickens in the air and trying to catch them, but it sure feels like I have! Beware this is a little long, but it does contain pictures of cute chicks. I’ll try enticing you in with a video of our first chick of the year:

Our broody journey this year started with a Derbyshire redcap hen (green right, yellow left or yellow right leg band – we didn’t note it down). We cleared up the shed and popped her in one of the tiny triangle hutches as we hadn’t finished doing the maintenance on the broody coops over winter yet. We decided to provide her with some of our own eggs. A few cream legbar, cuckoo maran and white leghorn eggs with our Heinz 57 cockerel, Aramis, being the father. Despite Brienne being a big chicken and a regular layer of large eggs I’ve decided we won’t be hatching from her again. Her eggs have the occassional wrinkle in the shell but her daughter, Cersi, has awful wrinkles and can be quite thin shelled too. No-one else in the flock is affected so I am assuming it is genetic.

Selection of our eggs for our first broody hen

I painted up one of the broody coops (with Chi’s help of course) and gave it a good clean. We also put a panel over some of the mesh to keep it a bit drier and warmer. We had wanted to do some work on the roof, there’s a slightly rotten corner and it needs refelting, but we really needed to get the broody into better accommodation. We set her up in the orchard with a run attached to the coop. We ummed and ahhhed but a few days later we put some more eggs into the incubator. She had 7 eggs under her but we wanted to try and get the most for the work we will put in to raising the chicks so the plan was to sneak her a few extra chicks after hatching for her to raise for us. These chicks were set to be meat birds first and foremost, although if we got some more green or dark brown egg layers they could be added to the flock. Everything was looking dandy.

Painting a broody coop

Then it seemed like Aurora, our veteran broody Daisy, had gone broody. We would only see her for an hour in the morning each day and she wasn’t returning to the coop at night. We caught her and gave her some random eggs that she seemed to be sitting on. At the same time Christie, another Derbyshire Redcap, had gone broody. We rushed to get the other two small houses ready, ordered some pure eggs off ebay (Copper black Maran and Cream Legbar) and set up a broody nursery in the orchard. The eggs arrived and we did a bit of juggling. The first broody hen and her soon to hatch eggs went into the woodland coop, Christie replaced her in the green coop and Aurora went into the blue coop as it doesn’t have a run and we had pretty good faith in her.

The next morning Aurora was gone and showing no signs of being broody at all. No problem, a couple of her eggs went under Christie (we had split them 50/50 3 browns and 3 blues each) and the rest went in the incubator. We had seen a couple of cracks on the Cream Legbar eggs when I candled them on arrival. One started weeping a lot on the first day in the incubator and I discarded it. Having two batches of eggs in the incubator due to hatch at different times isn’t great but it was manageable with the numbers.

Aurora when we thought she was broody

Then the worst happened. The first broody was off the nest and pacing in her pen. I’d noticed her off twice the previous day but I was in and out so assumed she had gone back in. Checked on the eggs and they were stone cold. 5 days from the hatch date. We couldn’t physically fit them in our 9 egg incubator with the others (7 already in there). I did manage to get 3 more in with a bit of jiggling. The aim was to warm them up enough to see if they were still alive, I had to do it in batches though. I didn’t hold out much hope as they may well have been cold for 48 hours by now. A post on a smallholding group had a local smallholder offering to pop them under her broody hen if we needed which gave me some breathing space. We had also been talking about getting a bigger incubator and this, plus the faff of turning eggs daily, pushed that up our priority list. We ended up buying the incubator anyway as it should allow us to follow our original plan of adding eggs to a hatch whilst still having the 9 egg incubator as a ‘rescue’ one.

Old incubator on the left, new one on the right

In the end only 1 of the eggs was still viable, a Cream Legbar one. It took a couple extra days to hatch but did so, followed a day or so later by the 4 we had started in the incubator. We ended up with a hatch of 5, 2 Cream Legbar crosses, 1 Cuckoo Maran cross and 2 White Leghorn crosses. Christie was looking a bit pale in the comb so once the chicks had fluffed up we took away the postal eggs she had been sat on and gave her the day old chicks. To start with she didn’t seem too keen to get up and about with them but then we realised she still had a Maran egg under her, once that was taken away she was up and about and has proved to be a great mum.

The postal eggs went into the incubator and another Derbyshire Redcap hen, Carrie, decided to try her hand (wing?) at being broody. Sam had commented that she was a bit crazy, quite aggressive and she looked at him funny, twisting her head back. I didn’t think much of it. We knew we had eggs in the incubator we could give her but had a couple go rotten already so we wanted to keep them until closer to hatching as with her being a bit crazy we didn’t want to be bothering her lots to candle. She sat on a couple of Daisy eggs. When I checked on her one day I saw what Sam meant about her neck, twisted right round when you opened the coop. It rang an alarm bell so I took the internet, wry neck. Varying thoughts online about it but vitamin deficiency seemed most likely so we started trying to get some baby vits in her. After one dose she was doing really well but we’d had another hen, Chickaletta (not named by us), go broody and I was worried about Carrie so we moved her to the blue coop without a run and left it open in the hopes she would graze a bit more when she got up each day. Chickaletta got some rubber eggs as we weren’t far off hatching the incubator eggs. After the second dose of being pinned and given the vitamins Carrie decided it was all too much and left the nest. She is no longer broody thankfully and the eggs under her hadn’t developed. She is much better now she is foraging but she still isn’t great so she is due to be penned up and given the vitamins everyday for a set time. Fingers crossed.

Carrie and her wry neck

So Christie was happy with her chicks and Chickaletta was sitting, and the postal eggs were doing well in the incubator, although we were down to 5. Then both Brienne (a previous broody) and another Derbyshire Redcap both went broody. I’m running out of housing at this point! We did another shuffle. Christie and the chicks went into the blue coop as it doesn’t open from the top and we don’t need to check them much, we gave them back the blue run which had been used with the woodland coop. Chickaletta stayed in the woodland coop with the woodland coop run and Brienne went into the green coop with no run, again she had been a great broody last year so we trusted her. How foolish. Despite having a nice private suite with a clutch of 9 eggs to sit on she bolted for the chicken house first thing to sit on an empty nest… She did this for two days before we put her food and water inside and locked her in with her eggs. She was still broody but had imprinted on the main hen house. She has the door open today and is still sitting so *fingers crossed* and building a run for the green coop has risen on our priority list. The postal seller has sent us 6 more Cream Legbar eggs to make up for the damage in postage and poor fertilisation rate of the first batch (no development at all on a fair few eggs). Those went into the shiny new incubator and will be transferred to the new broody DRC as soon as we have a house for her, which Sam is picking up today.

Brienne being introduced to her new clutch

It was hatch day for the postal eggs on Tuesday so over the weekend we gave the eggs to Chickaletta to let her hatch them. We noticed the brown eggs pushed out a couple of times and nudged them back under. When they were out again on Tuesday we took them and put them in the small incubator. Wednesday afternoon she had at least one chick under her. Today one of the Marans has hatched in the incubator and the other has pipped, I also peeked at her and she now has two chicks and an unhatched egg. If it is still unhatched this evening (when we will likely give her the hatched chick) I’ll pop it in the incubator.

Hatched Copper Black Maran waiting for its sibling to hatch

So yes, that is our 2018 broody journey so far. It’s been a bit exhausting to be honest and we still have just under 3 weeks before everyone has hatched as they should, by which time we may well have more broodies!

Dans

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Chicken house renovations

We’ve finally done the renovations to the chicken house. I have to say that whilst I provided a lot of the ideas for the design the actual work was pretty much all Sam.

Our first attempt at a chicken house had two perches at different heights and two external nest boxes. We soon found that the chickens didn’t like the external nest boxes, they had a slight leak. We used some plastic Ikea boxes to make two internal nest boxes and they proved to be a hit.

As our chicken numbers increased we needed to change the house around. We planned to do the changes swiftly but as always things got delayed. First was putting in longer perches, but this meant that the perches went over the two internal nest boxes and cleaning up the house each week took a lot longer.

Longer, level perches

We now have a shiny new poop tray. It’s been varnished and covers the underneath of the perches so I am hoping that rather than picking poo out of the chopped straw bedding I will be able to simply scrape it off of the tray. This will be so much easier and will be better for composting.

The next step was nest boxes underneath the poop tray. We went for dividers that go from the floor to the underside of the poop tray. We used the same width as the Ikea boxes as the chickens seemed to really like these. We managed to fit 6 in. Due to the depth of the poop tray these boxes are nice and dark so hopefully the chickens will like them. It also takes us to 8 nest boxes between 23 hens, hopefully some of the hens will feel less inclined to make their nests in the bushes. Some of the hens have already started laying in the new nest boxes which is encouraging.

Of course having the nest boxes so far back means that it’s hard for us to get to the eggs. The next development for the house was knocking some panels out of the back of the house and putting a flap in to access the eggs. It took us the best part of a week to get that part finished, using boards held down by paving slabs in the meantime but the job is done.

Then that’s it, the house is finished. The chickens have been a bit disrupted with all the work going on so we’ve seen a dip in the egg laying. It’s mostly the Derbyshire Redcaps, our most flighty chickens. Instead of getting 8 or 9 eggs a day from them we are getting 4, so the others are off laying elsewhere. I’ll have to try and track down those nests and hope that as they see the others using the nest boxes inside the house they will start laying inside again. We are up to 20 eggs being laid in the house, which with 23 hens isn’t a bad day’s haul.

Already queuing

It feels really good to have a big job checked off our to do list. Now to do the same with the other jobs (finish planting fruit bushes and net fruit patch, raised beds in polytunnel and chicken proof doors, fix the shed roof, chicken fencing, compost heaps –  oh how the list goes on!).

Dans

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Best laid plans

Sometimes you can make the best plans in the world and it all goes awry. We’re having a bit of this at the moment.

Easter weekend seemed like it would be a great time to get on top of some of the jobs that had piled up. Sam had 4 days off and we’d just had our first real taste of Spring the weekend before. We started really well, getting into the polytunnel on Friday and doing a good tidy. The chickens we had in there had merged all our beds into one  which we worked at sweeping into individual beds. We are planning to make the polytunnel beds raised beds this year, we have the wood for it but we will see how that goes. On the upside they should have done a good job at removing pests and added a bit of fertiliser. I’d quite like to let some chickens loose on empty beds each year. Whilst sweeping and weeding the beds Sam spotted two parsnips we had missed, they were huge. He also managed to start work on getting our muck heap fenced in as the chickens have been spreading that too.

I busied myself with doing the second coat of varnish on the new poop tray for the chicken house. The plan was to get that in on Sunday when the weather would be drier, it will massively reduce the amount of time spent cleaning the chicken house and hopefully give us some cleaner eggs. I then cleaned out the chicken house in the polytunnel as it was no longer in use, Aurora being back in the main flock and Chihiro being in the freezer. Whilst the varnish was out and as it was nearly finished I threw a coat onto the inside of the roof. The ventilation on the house isn’t great and we found that some days there was condensation inside which was rotting the inside of the roof. It isn’t a brilliant house, I did a review of it here, but it works for housing chicks and broody hens, newcomers and anyone we want to isolate. I know the varnish isn’t a proper fix but hopefully it will help. Chi was kept entertained once she realised she could get into the house. We even managed to play a board game that night, things were looking good!

Saturday was a Chi day, we took her to her first cinema trip which she seemed to enjoy. We were meant to go swimming after but she was very tired and ratty which should have been my first clue something was up. She was asleep by the time we got home and we managed to get another game played. Sunday we had swimming in the morning then the plan was home to make the most of the dry spell. The forecast lied. There was no dry so we went to a soft play instead. Whilst there I noticed Chi was getting ill again, which resulted in a 3 day stay at hospital. Bang went the rest of the plans for the weekend and the next week as I really struggle to take her outside in the cold and wet when she isn’t well. We seemed to be getting better but something else has cropped up that the GP is looking into. Over a week after getting out of hospital and I am still worried about taking her out. Children really can add a random factor into smallholding that you just can’t account for.

On top of that the rain hasn’t helped things. We haven’t been hit as badly as some people but the land is pretty saturated, we’re about to buy even more hay, in April. It feels wrong but there just isn’t enough grass.

The chickens are laying like mad, but we’re getting less people stopping at the stall to buy eggs. Plus the chickens have muddy feet so we’re getting a lot more dirty eggs that I feel bad trying to sell. We have 20 boxes of eggs in the fridge right now for our use. I have to admit I’m feeling a fair bit overwhelmed! There’ll be a post soon about the different bits I’m doing with eggs. On top of that I was so glad to see 4 boxes had gone from the gate yesterday, only to find out that once again no money has been left. We have a repeat offender who will help themselves to several boxes and leave no money. It’s depressing to put so much work in and have people take advantage, especially when you are producing on such a small scale so every sale counts.

One day’s harvest of eggs

It’s also starting to get impossible to get to the Derbyshire Redcap cockerels as the entrance to their polytunnel is flooded, they have also started to fight with each other. The geese still aren’t laying and have eaten through their grass. We’ve made the decision to send the geese for meat. We really wanted to keep the descendants of Athos, April and Abigail but they are all boys and we are struggling with the workload this year. It will be very strange not to have geese on the land. The two cockerels are going too as they are well past time and I don’t know when I will get to killing and butchering them.

The cockerels sizing each other up

Last bit of news was some mucky bums on two of the ewe lambs (Celaena and Caitlin), they hadn’t been wormed when we did the other lambs last year so they got their first dose of wormer. Not before Celaena jumped straight over the hurdles and went for a wander around the area though. She takes after her father I think. We did Caprica at the same time as her bum was a bit mucky. I would have liked to do a worm count first but honestly I’m struggling to get things done. The ram lambs are showing no signs of needing and neither are the ewes so we left them be. They are starting to look quite smart, I’m thinking about trying to sell Cisco for breeding, he’s a great ram lamb, when he isn’t putting his head in a fence, but that’s probably to do with the lack of grass.

All in all we are finding things hard right now. We make plans to get things on track but other things crop up. There’s lots to do, the year is ticking by, Chi isn’t well, I’m pretty useless and the weather is literally raining on us. It’s probably the hardest we have found smallholding since starting and we have had thoughts about packing up. We won’t make a decision now, not in the midst of the bad, but we are longing for some good weather and a bit of a break from all the hardships of winter.

Dans

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Spring has sprung!

Well the last few days it’s actually been cold and rainy but last weekend we felt the first promise of spring in the air and despite the rain it feels like the land is waking and the wheel is turning. We had our first good weekend of outside work, doing a general tidy up of the back garden, snipping back some dead branches on the fruit trees and a bit of late pruning. We got some bigger jobs in too though.

Saturday was mostly spent with me killing and preparing Chihiro, the only Light Sussex chick (now 29 weeks old) that Aurora hatched. He was younger than the two Derbyshire Redcaps but he was becoming a bit troublesome, fighting with Aramis through the polytunnel (which now needs some repair work). There was also the fact that we could do him and return Aurora to the flock. We were a little worried that my nausea would return and we would have killed him but been unable to process him, the idea of doing the Redcaps and wasting the two of them was just a bit too much. I hate the idea of wasting anything from the animals that die for us.  It actually went really well. He was quite large, 3.1kg dead weight, and I was able to pluck him with no damage to the skin (first time). I’m still very slow to process the chickens, it took me 2 hours to get him gutted somehow. I was looking after Chi at the same time who kept coming in to ask questions/for snacks and I had to dig out all my tools only to find they weren’t sharp. Then I also found I couldn’t fit my hand into the body cavity from the top end, and the guts were really hard to remove. Oh and I cut myself. A bit of a nightmare really. He was quite fatty  which I think didn’t help. We really need to work out how to get the chicks more free ranging whilst still keeping them safe. The Derbyshire Redcaps are up next, hopefully Easter Monday. I’ll be very glad to have all the cockerels bar Aramis dispatched, it’s been on my to-do list for far too long.

The feathers came out really nicely after dunking in hot water

Chi being there wasn’t all bad though, we do want her to know where her food comes from. She actually came over for a look and was a bit concerned that I was pulling his feathers too hard. I explained that the white chicken was no longer alive and as such it wasn’t hurting him. I tried to explain that we were going to eat him and we don’t eat feathers so they have to come off. She seemed to accept this then went to play in the polytunnel whilst I stressed that I’d handled it all wrong. When I was gutting him she was a bit weary again, she said ‘too hard’ when I took his feet off but I explained again that he was dead and couldn’t feel it and we don’t eat the feet. Again she seemed to accept this. She said later that we eat the chicken but not head or feet. We had chicken thighs (shop bought) for dinner that night and she had no issues so hopefully I handled it all ok. She has always been present for the killing, plucking and gutting but this is the first time she has taken an interest or commented. If anyone has any suggestions on how to approach it all I’d be really interested.

Chi asking questions

In a moment of temporary insanity I decided to volunteer to set up a winemaking interest group for our local smallholding club (Fenland Smallholders Club). It is mainly on facebook but we had our first face to face meeting on the Saturday night. I was very nervous about it but we did a little bring and taste, question and answer session, a bit about filtering with a demonstration from Sam and a troubleshooter for how to fix a wine that hasn’t come out as you’d like. Was actually quite a success which was a relief!

Sunday was mostly more pottering on the land, catching up on small tasks that had been waiting a while, including a nice new head on the hose so no more trekking back and forth to turn the tap on and off. We did a deep clean on the chicken house ahead of the hopeful renovations next week (new poop tray and nest boxes), it really did need it. We let the chickens have the run of the land a couple weeks back and they discovered the muck heap. What had been quite a tidy heap has been spread by them so Sam worked at getting it into one pile and thinking about how we fence it off from them. Chi had great fun climbing it whilst he did though!

I’m sure she’s helping!

The weather was still good on Monday so Chi and I headed out for a bit. I sorted through the last of the apples from the autumn and did the first coat of varnish on the poop tray for the chicken house. No photos as my phone died.

One last thing. Burnham has made a full recovery. I posted about her being off one of her legs a couple weeks back, you can read about it here. There’s now no sign of a limp and she is back to being found in all the places she shouldn’t be. It was hard trying to help Arwen but ultimately not being able to. It’s a good feeling when we can successfully help our animals.

Dans

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R.I.P. Arwen

Sad news to report tonight. Putting the chickens to bed last night Sam found one on it’s back, legs in the air, under the apple tree. He was pretty sure it was dead until he saw it move slightly. He brought it in to me and I quickly realised it was Arwen. She has been on my watch list since October 2016, when we got settled at home from all the funeral bits we noticed her hunched and not doing much. She was brought in then and given scrambled egg, she perked up after a couple days and went back out with the flock. She never seemed to fully recover though. Each winter I’ve kept an eye out expecting her to not make it to morning or night corn one day but she has persisted. We didn’t put an end to her as she was quite happy running around and eating, wasn’t at the bottom of the pecking order and could quite easily jump over the fence to the garden where the grass was always greener! She was hell to catch too, that chicken was swift on her feet!

We brought her in and she was quite cold. I wrapped her in a warm towel and got the hospital dog cage out again. I set her up in our room by the radiator and scrambled some egg. We got some warm water and a pipette too. I gave her a small amount of egg in her mouth which she did swallow and about 1.5ml of warm water.  She didn’t resist or move much at all and occasionally twitched which I was hoping was her body trying to get warm. Then I sat with her on my lap until her legs were no longer cold.  I checked her over at the same time, noting new feathers she had. She had no lice on her or eggs at the base of her feathers so she had still been preening up until very recently. I left her at that point to settle for the night and see what happened. We moved her to the spare room just before bed as we have to have our bedroom door open for Chi and I didn’t want the cats bothering her. Chi just kept saying the chicken was sleeping, I said that I think she may be passing but I don’t think she really took it in.

I was feeling hopeful this morning as Arwen was still with us. Gave her some sugar water and a bit of cat food (not poultry) to try and boost her as she is also getting some new feathers in (that plus the cold is probably what pushed her too far). She was taking that quite well and I popped in each hour to see to her. She pooped and she was moving about a little, not on her feet but she would spread herself out and move her head. She was also a bit more resistant to me giving her food and water which I took as a hopeful sign and seemed to be opening her eyes more when I came into the room.

When Sam brought her in I figured at the very least she would pass in peace, no bother from other chickens or wild animals, and in the warm. At best we could nurse her back to a good quality of life. I wasn’t bothered about eggs from her (I haven’t expected any for a while) but she was once the head of the flock and had been with us from the start, I wanted the smooth path for her, whether that be in a smooth passing or good health. Unfortunately it was the former. I went in to check on her but she had passed.

Wearing a saddle when she was Aramis’ favourite hen

Being who I am I second guess and question things. I saw her the other day when I did the night run a bit late and she had gone in earlier than the others and was hunched. I brought her out and sprinkled some corn which she ate then went back to bed. I made a mental note to bring her in for some TLC soon, maybe if I had done it then she would have made a recovery. We also haven’t wormed the flock in a while, maybe a dose of wormer would have helped her, the worms could have been an extra burden she didn’t need. Whilst we were out yesterday Sam mentioned that a grey hen had been in the nest box last night. I immediately thought Arwen and that we should probably bring her in, but when we got home she had already started the decline.

Arwen this winter

I also stop and think what was it that struck her down in 2016. It could have been Marek’s. She did have pupils of different sizes and she has lost weight, but she just seemed to happy in herself. Plus we can’t treat for Marek’s, just deal with it as it hits us in the flock if we do have it. Maybe it was worms that weren’t cleared by our normal worming. I said before she jumps the fence regularly which can affect how much pellets she eats, instead favouring foraging. Maybe a dose of Ivermectin would have helped.

It’s one of the awful things about having animals (be they pets or livestock), they do die at times. We do what we can to give them good lives and good deaths but we will make mistakes. Maybe I made mistakes with Arwen, maybe I didn’t, I’ll never quite know, but I do know that I tried my best for her at all times. It’s a hard line to walk not knowing if you are reaching for medication too quickly/often or not quickly/often enough. Experience over the years will help me refine that balance, I read everything I can but not much replaces experience, I just hate when that experience comes at the possible cost of a life. Rest well Arwen.

Dans

The Beast from the East and a wobbly chicken

So I thought it was about time I treated you all to another update.

The last couple weeks have seen a few events around here. The big news I guess is that we are expecting a new life at the smallholding this summer, but of the human variety. We’re having our second (and dare I say final) baby in August. Although we are very happy about this it does have it’s downside. I now can’t lift, carry, pull and push the weights I could, which is what we really need me doing to catch up on all our jobs. In addition I don’t do pregnancy very well, my hips were really bad last time and 1st trimester nausea hits me hard. Nonetheless it’s only 9 months and we will get through it.

We’ve had a little issue with the sheep. Starting back in Jan when they really upped the hay intake I noticed a bald patch on two of the ram lamb’s noses. As time went on it grew and got a little scab. Nothing on Crichton’s nose though. Then the a couple of the ewes got the same thing. I spoke to the vet who asked for pictures and was a bit baffled. She suggested it could be a bacterial infection where they are rubbing noses on the hay rack. We gave a long acting antibiotic and sprayed their noses blue. Sure enough the next day there was pretty much no sign of the blue spray and when watched they do rub their noses in those exact spots when eating from the rack. Not sure what we can do to stop it but we are moving them to some fresh grass soon and I keep hoping the grass will start growing again! If anyone has any ideas on stopping them rubbing their noses it’d be much appreciated!

The next event we had was the Beast from the East. We actually got off quite lightly in terms of the weather. We had a couple of days of the weather being bitterly cold but at most we only had about 3 inches of snow. We saw worse snow when we lived in Scotland. The big issue we had was with freezing water buckets, but I think a lot of smallholders faced similar issues. Our remedy was to have spare buckets and fill them up in the bathtub. Then once in the morning and once in the evening we’d take the fresh warm water out and bring the solid buckets of ice in for thawing and refilling. Sam had to do most of the traipsing around in the snow as my hips were really bad that week. I did get out once to see to the animals and take some photos though. Chi also got a trip out in the sledge but I did have to take a crutch with me for that one!

I’m happy to say that we had no cold related animal losses. Despite Awen (one of the original Cream Legbar hens) looking pretty rough since autumn 2016 she is still happily scratching in the garden, on the wrong side of the fence might I add! Despite that we did have one guest hen for the cold snap. Two days before the snow hit, Sam found Burnham (one of the Rhode Island Red hens) just sitting in the nest box, he had to move her to change the bedding but she hobbled and flapped her way around then lay down. It didn’t look very good at all.

I gave her a once over whilst Sam saw to the rest of the animals. Wing seemed fine. The scaly part of her leg was as cool as the other side, the feathered part was as warm on the other side. Nothing felt floppy, at the joint or within the bone, and she could grip my finger with her toes. I used some warm water and a cloth to wash away the caked on mud from her foot in case she had something stuck or a cut, but there was nothing I could see. Her leg was shaking like anything but the rest of her was fine. Her comb was nice and red, her eyes bright and she didn’t feel skinny.  She was also eating and drinking well when food was brought near. We brought her in in a dog crate and crossed out fingers that it was just a sprain.

Burnham having some r’n’r

I called the Vet the next day for some advice and she suggested tissue damage or possibly Mareks. There’s a good page about it here if you want some more information. The vet said we were right to bring her in and confine her, if it is Mareks she will go further downhill, if it isn’t then the rest should help her. From what I can see from that page it would be the neurological form, but the leg wasn’t really paralysed so much as she didn’t want to put weight on it. We put her out the next day as I was worried about her in the warm house all day on her own (we were going to be out) but when we got back she was lying in the same spot.

We then kept her in for about 4 days before giving her a bit of a stretch in the conservatory. She hadn’t been laying but she had new feathers coming in on her clipped wing so she may be moulting a little. I had a feel but couldn’t feel anything like an egg so I suspect the stress of being ill or moulting has her off lay for a bit. She was much better in the conservatory, a limp for sure but no longer flapping her wings with every step.

A few days later she started getting much more lively in the pen. Arguing with me when I lifted her out to clean the cage and making much more noise. We had lost all the snow in the garden and it was sunny enough that some chickens were sunbathing so I popped her out. I kept an eye on her throughout the day. She was still limping, but not really hobbling. She didn’t run around the garden but she did move about and seemed happier. In the evening she took herself to bed, although she slept on the floor of the house rather than on a perch. She’s been out a few days now and we haven’t seen her lying down exhausted once. She is still limping but she is a fast mover when she is out with the corn and there’s no signs of any of the other hens bullying her. It is possible she will now always have a limp but her spirits are high so I’m feeling pretty happy about it.

The last bit of news is really non-news. We still don’t have goose eggs. I’m starting to be convinced that we have a gay couple of geese, they are certainly bonded, going everywhere together and leaving the 3rd goose on its own a lot of the time, but neither one is being submissive in the mating situation. They get into the water, make all the mating sounds then run in circles pulling at the feathers on each other’s backs until one gets pushed out of the pool. Then they both flap like mad. I was hoping the third was a female at least but no sign of eggs or a nest and it is much later than when the previous generation of geese started laying. Maybe it’s just the cold snap. I’ll keep holding out hope.

Dans

Livestock update

I had been trying to do posts on different topics here, but things pile up, I find myself waiting to post until a particular project is finished and finding lots of other things that I’m wanting to talk about but feel I should wait until the earlier stuff has had a post. So I’m going to try forgetting about all that and have a go at doing a post once a week on the various goings on. I can always do a special post on a particular project/adventure when they occur.

So I guess I’ll do a bit of a catch up starting with the livestock. All of the chicks are going like weeds. We found Alice randomly joined the flock one day and had no inclination to go back to her chicks so I guess she was done with motherhood. Her chicks (the cross breeds) will be joining the flock in a couple of weeks. We managed to get 3 definite hens and 2 that I think are cockerels but they have no tail feathers to speak of so far.

The cross breed chicks

The Derbyshire Redcap (DRC) chicks are so flighty that we are having a bit of trouble keeping them contained, they just fly over the heras panels, but we got 4 hens and 2 cocks, 1 of which is really quite stunning so will try selling him. We are about a month of having them join the flock. I was a bit nervous given how much trouble the DRC pullets had given us but thankfully they are all now going into the house and have even started laying (had to wait until 30 weeks!). Just waiting for the eggs to increase in size a bit and then we shall hopefully start having eggs on the gate again. We’ve been in a bit of a low patch and I’m pretty sure we have an egg thief/eater. We’re getting a camera set up in the house to have a peek.

The lone chick (Ixworth) is starting to feather up now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a hen. It won’t be ready to join the flock until Christmas time though. Not our greatest hatch ever but Aurora is happy with her chick.

We also had some surprise hens. A neighbour is moving away and had 3 hens that she wasn’t taking with her. We agreed to take them in so have 3 Rhode Island Red hens that were born in 2016. They are laying well so should have their eggs in our boxes soon. We’ll introduce them to the flock at the same time as the cross breed chicks. They aren’t a rare breed but I’m a bit of a sucker for taking in animals.

We lost Boomer, one of the Cuckoo Marans, about a month ago. Like Aino we have no idea what happened. Happy and healthy in the run up, no marks, no swelling and a good body weight. I guess it will just be one of those things. So we started the year on 8 hens and a cockerel and now have 23 hens, 3 cockerels and 3 possible cockerels. I have a lot of naming to do! The chicken house had a bit of an update so we have more space and better perching in there for the birds. Just need to update the poop trays and nest boxes.

Boomer, RIP

The geese really are growing like weeds. They are huge. Really huge. They still have a couple of their baby feathers but are well on their way to adulthood. There’s at least 1 gander, possibly 3. They have just started making adult noises so we’ll be watching for their behaviour and sounds to attempt sexing them. The two white ones are destined for the butcher but I would like to keep the other 3 if we can. We are just in the process of getting them some new housing built (our first real building project) but for now they are in the trailer, safe from foxes at least.

The sheep are doing really well. We have just separated off the lambs from the ewes, and the ewe lambs from the ram lambs and Cisco was having a bit of a try with one of the ewe lambs. Really hoping we didn’t leave it too late and aren’t surprised by lambs in January! They have all just turned 4 months. It’s a bit noisy out at the moment but that should settle . Once the ewes have dried off we will put the ewe lambs back in with them.

Ram lambs (left to right) Crais, Cisco and Crichton

Three of the ewes are off to slaughter at the start of next month. I’m quite nervous but so far things are coming together. We have people interested in the meat and will hopefully secure the orders and get deposits before they go off. I’ve talked to the butchers about cuts, the food safety officer should be coming around soon to give us our hygiene rating for selling the meat, I’m looking into distance selling as one buyer is quite far away, I’ve applied for our registration to handle Animal By-Products so that we can get the skins and horns back and been in touch with the tannery so they can process the skins. I’m also doing my food safety course, although we won’t actually be handling the meat. There seem to be a lot of different plates spinning with this but  it should be a good learning experience. The abattoir is a small one, attached to the butchers and there has been some good feedback about it so hopefully the girl’s last journey will be as smooth and non-stressful as it can be.

So I guess that’s a very long way of saying that despite being quiet on here we’ve been busy busy, and that doesn’t include all the harvesting and processing. More on that in the next post!

Dans

Broody problems

We went away last weekend and came home to two chirpy chicks under our broody hen, Aurora. New life is always a joyful event but this wasn’t our best hatch of the year, or ever to be honest.

We started with 6 Ixworth eggs. At about a week into incubation we found all six eggs on the other side of the pen to Aurora, and all cold. We got them all under again and she seemed happy sitting. For some reason Aurora kept pooping where the eggs were, despite us moving her off them daily, and would then move away from the poop but leave the eggs behind her.

Aurora sitting nicely for a change

Coming up to the end of the incubation we again found 3 cold eggs in the pen. We candled the eggs, two looked promising but lacked movement and another looked very very small. We popped the two hopefuls in the incubator and cracked the small one inside a ziplock bag. It was starting to rot and likely stopped developing the first time she left the eggs. We candled the two hopefuls the next day and they were moving. Wahey!

Hatch day came and went without any signs of life. We were due to head away for the weekend so we popped the two eggs from the incubator under Aurora and crossed our fingers. I made a note of one of the eggs, number 3, but not the other. Number 3 was one of the ones that hatched and it is likely that the other hatched chick was the other egg we brought in. There was a rotten smell coming from the 3 eggs and we disposed of them.

So 2 out of 6 eggs, and she needed help from us to do that. Nowhere near as good as her hatch last year (5 white leghorn chicks). But we have chicks so all is good right? The chick was chirping madly all evening that first night and when I went to shut them away for the night it wasn’t under her. We brought it in under the brooder to stop it getting chilled. Back out in the morning as the best place to be is with mum right?

I saw the chick slightly peeping out from Aurora’s wing the next night but left it be. That was a mistake, Sam woke me in the morning with a barely cheeping, incredibly cold chick. We got it under the brooder and it was full of life by lunchtime. Took it back out to mum but in a couple of hours it was once again lying face down, this time not cheeping at all. I gave up on mum at this point, we took the second chick away from mum and turned her back out with the main flock.

Chick peeking out at the start of the night

Both chicks are doing well inside but mum left the main flock and took up residence in the shed that she had been in with her chick. We’ll put the brooder into her pen and give her back the chicks tomorrow, keeping a good eye on everyone.

After being brought back from the brink the second time.

So far our experience with broody hens has been really good (4/9, 5/6, 5/6, 6/6 hatch rates),  a nice natural upbringing for the chicks and little work for us. Aurora’s second hatch has really made me reconsider broody hens, she got broody really late in the year so we’ll have these chicks separate from the main flock until Christmas and there’s only two chicks, I’m waiting to find out that they are both cockerels!

On the upside Alice’s chicks are huge, nice meaty birds, and it looks like 1 cockerel and 4 hens (possibly 2 cockerels, 3 hens, the one we hatched inside is smaller). They are joining the main flock at the end of the month. Brienne hatched 4 Derbyshire Redcap hens and 2 cockerels, one of which has a very impressive comb. We might try to find a breeding home for him. They’ll join the flock at the end of October.

Now if I can just stop whoever is eating/stealing my eggs everything would be good with the chickens!

Dans – sorry for the text heavy post. The laptop is on shakey last legs and not up to uploading pictures from my phone.

Edit: Between writing this post and trying to get the pictures in the chick sadly died. I’m not sure if it was something internal or if it just wasn’t eating (showed it the food and it was drinking and pooing to start with). Either way it spent a lot of time under the brooder and that is where we found it. The other chick is doing well, we reunited it with Aurora, who was overjoyed. I know we can’t save them all but sometimes I wish we could.