-What kind of poultry should I choose?
-What are the benefits of different types of chickens?
-What are some tricks to protect storages?
This post is about my first year keeping chickens and geese. My knowledge is not very extensive, but I am trying to move from an exploratory phase into something more serious like breeding/improving a specific variety and thought it might help to write it all down. I hope the story is not too dry and hopefully will get to an emergy understanding about keeping poultry in a energy restricted future.
Like a Chicken with It’s Head Cut Off
My life as a chicken owner began about a month after I moved into my current residence. My brother-in-law was nice enough to bring over three 4-5 month old brown sussex chickens, which are supposed to be a great dual breed for both eggs and meat. The property, in which I now reside made me indebted to a large distant bank, but on the upside came with a rather nice chicken coop and a fenced in pig yard. So I took the chickens and threw them into the small already constructed coop with a small fenced in chicken run. I let them out daily to free range and all was well. The hens, about a month after coming to live with me, began to lay 2-3 eggs a day. Having read a few books on chickens and becoming smitten with the idea of moving them around to control insect populations and grass height, I decided to get electric poultry netting. I built an A-frame chicken coop with nesting boxes and four roosting bars, which left ample room for expansion of the flock.
My brother-in-law and sister, being awesome people, ordered a set of 25 more brown sussex chickens for my birthday. I followed all that I had read on raising chicks and had one loss of the 26 sent to me. Then at about 6 weeks a problem presented itself, the chicks were too large for their chick raising area, but too small to be kept behind the electric poultry netting. One of the electric netting test chicks escaped recapture and came back about a week later. I thought to myself, “This is great. The predator population can’t be that bad, if a chick could survive a week out there with no protection.” The chicks were all put into the chicken coop that was formerly used by the older 3 sussex chickens. There they lived without incident for about 6 weeks. Then tragedy struck. All 25 chicks were dispatched in one night. The only evidence that chicks had ever been there were a few wings. The problem arose from the fact that the enclosed chicken run had been staked down with plastic tent stakes and was further exacerbated by the chicks refusal to go into the chicken coop at night. They would sit in one corner of the chicken run every night, which was the exact corner that a fox (?) came into take them away.
Being late in the season, the hatchery that shipped the brown sussex was out of them till next year. Depressed and desperate, I went for the 50 chick special deal. The special deal consists of whatever left over chickens they have on hand after filling the other orders. While not something that I thought would be ideal, it did help my state of mind and again I was desperate in that consumerist kind of way that buying more can only fulfill. To prevent a rerun of the first try at raising chicks, I switched over to using chicken tractors (picture below) inside of electric netting.
The Question of Return
One of the most troubling things about raising any animal, especially poultry, is that they generally require external feed. This feed contains a lot of energy both physically and embodied (all the energy used to fertilize, plant, mine minerals, and ship the bagged feed). Laying chickens generally eat about 80 calories per day and if we add in all the energy spent on fertilizer it might be reasonable to expect 240-800 calories used per day to keep them alive. When assessing the different chicken varieties, the thing that stuck out as most important is that the chicken doesn’t prematurely die before its end use because of the rather high caloric cost to get them to useful size. For meat birds not dying prematurely is about 8-16 weeks and eat a total of 12000-24,000 calories depending on variety and for egg layers there is no cut off for when they are allowed to die and eat about 15,000 calories before they start to lay. The main problem I encountered was keeping them alive during the winter from predators, such as hawks and foxes. During the winter, I moved them from the electric netting into the non-mobile coop already constructed on the property which I reinforced by burying a hardware cloth a foot underground and let them free range in the adjacent woods during the day. The lack of a constant predator deterrent and winter induced hunger in the predator population led to an increase in losses. I have noticed that letting them out of the coop later in the day at 11 A.M. seems to reduce losses. In EPS, Odum suggests that in the future livestock may have to fend for themselves. I don’t think poultry in my climate (zone 7) could fend for themselves, but maybe ones that can better supply for their needs and resist predator pressures might possibly have a place in our futures.
Different Breeds: Worst to Best
Cornish Cross (Meat)- Only two of the five birds survived to 8 weeks. One died within 2 weeks of receiving and the other two died at 5-6 weeks during a hot spell. The two that did survive and were processed looked much like the big grocery store bought chicken. Considering 3/5 died and when they were alive preferred to be positioned between the water and food hoppers, these are great for converting feed (fossil fuels) to meat, but horrible from an emergetic standpoint and have little to no future in an energy limited world.
White Polish (Show?)-Received 2 and both were killed by hawks. I really enjoyed this bird and it was fun watching them run around. Their problem is that they are small and their head feathers block their vision making them hawk food.
White and Black Cochins (Show/Meat?)-This variety is rather large looking and slow moving bird. One of the three was lost to a hawk. The other 2 have stayed alive by being very broody and never straying far from the coop. Not coincidentally, the black cochin was attacked and died in front of the coop door. Egg size averaged 50 mL.
Rhode Island Red (Egg Laying/Dual)-These have the largest of eggs out of the birds ranked at about 65 mL. Two out of three died due to predation. One to a hawk attack and another to a fox attack. It could just be bad luck, but I also ranked them lower because they seem smaller than speckled sussex.
Brown Sussex (Dual)-Egg size is about 55 mL. These are slightly older than the rest, so egg size might not be a fair comparison. One died from a hawk attack, but have been around for a much longer time than the rest.
Modern BB Game Birds (Show?)-I have seen them 3 times in the act of being attacked by a hawk. All three times, they survived to live another day. Their eggs are smallest of the birds evaluated at 47.5 mL. Though the egg size does not seem drastically different, they are not as consistent layers and the other breeds’ eggs may continue to get larger while the game birds’ eggs might be limited by physiology. I ranked them highest because of their amazing ability to survive. Their small size may have led to the increase in attacks, but may have decreased attacks on the other chicken types. Recently, one of the four I received stopped roosting in the coop at night. I see her some mornings before I let the rest of the chickens out for the day. This could be a positive, if she comes home one day with a clutch of chicks.
Being such a weird mix of birds, picking out the roosters when they were young was not easy. I tried to prepare as many of them before moving the flock into the winter coop as possible, but realized in a short time that I had six roosters in the coop. Six roosters to the original 17 hens was very disruptive. The hens would spread out in all directions to prevent being harassed from the roosters. I prepared four of the roosters, which left me with a Modern BB Game Bird and a Dominique. I saw both the Modern BB Game Bird and Dominique wrestle and survive a hawk attack. The Modern BB Game Bird actually was on top of the hawk when I ran outside after hearing chicken distress calls. The Dominique, on the other hand, hurt a leg badly and died 10 days later.
Goosey Goosey Gander
Chickens are great at eating herbs and clover, but tend to skip over all but the most tender of grasses. I ordered 10 Chinese White Geese for grass control. This breed of geese are supposed to lay by volume an equivalent amount of egg to chickens though the number of eggs they lay a year is less and more focused in the spring and early summer. Since they are so hardy, I have left them out in the electric netting all winter. The biggest pain I have is bringing them food and water after all the grass dried up and water hose froze. One trick has been to put one of their water containers under their roofed but open sided shelter. Just blocking the path to the night sky keeps the storage of heat in the water from escaping and hence the water freezing for all but 7-10 days this year. One negative of geese is that they are really loud at about 4 A.M. now that it is mating season. Another is that once grasses go dormant, they are just as dependent upon feed as chickens.
Mothers Don’t Let Emergists Run Their Own Power Grids
I did lose two geese when the solar powered fence charger stopped working properly. The charge was enough to keep predators out, but the geese covered in their comforter worthy insulating feathers started to stick their necks out the netting holes. This made the geese heads like little goose popsicles for some predator. I sent back in the unit thinking it was faulty. I was told that the battery on the system only has a 3 month life and it had out lived its usefulness. I did the math of a 30 dollar battery 4 times a year and quickly bought a few extension cords. Though in a total antithetical move to what I just got through saying, I am going to put a solar electric fence around some bee hives. I am told these kind of 3-6 wire fences don’t use as much electricity and a car battery should last three to five years. I may prove to be a slow learner on this one.
Wrapping Up This Egg Roll/Individual Action
-Leave the foxes and hawks (federally protected) alone. We have a choice between foxes or Lyme’s disease due to increased mouse populations. One “problem” kills a few poultry, the other makes humans miserable. I am going to get more into control circuits and how they should be left to function in a future post.
-Try to avoid running a power grid, especially when the time you run an electricity surplus (daytime) is the opposite of when you most need it (night when predators are out).
-Keep a rooster or two, which protect the flock and warn you of danger.
-Based on the above assessment, I am going to raise brown sussex. I figure while we have access to fossil fuels, I might as well make use of it. The Modern BB Game Hens though are not as bad as I originally thought they would be in terms of egg laying nor body size and the increased survival rate makes them a great choice for the future.
Next Time: The Roman Empire Running on Fossil Fuels