Free range chickens and caged vegetables

I read an interesting post the other day about chickens as protein harvesters and then my attention was drawn to another post about reducing the amount of brought-in feed for chickens, and yet another about creating a chicken foraging system. All of which set me thinking about my own hens and their inputs and outputs.

Aliss hard at work: cultivating and eating pests

Now, I’m quite clear about the outputs: eggs for us to eat and barter, fertiliser and compost activator, entertainment, pest control (slugs and snails), weed control, cultivation (particularly useful for incorporating new material into the “rubbish” beds) and consumers of left-overs (although few and far-between in reality). There are also a few minor things like feathers for craft projects. So, we get a great deal out of them Even if I just consider the saving on the cost of nematodes to control the slug population and the number of eggs now available to us as a protein source, I feel that they make a great contribution to our economy.

However, when I consider the inputs, I realise that we are buying quite a lot in for them – layer mash or pellets and corn are the main items, but we also use Poultry spice and Vermex to make sure they are healthy and worm free. When we first started keeping chickens they remained in a run and all the food, apart from the grass that they quickly ate, was bought in. As we have come to understand the value of hens in the garden, they are allowed free access to most of it for most of the time. This means that they consume less bought food and instead eat wild plants, slugs, snails, grubs and worms. As chickens that have been brought up outdoors, we find that they are eager to eat worms and molluscs (although they are not keen on the caterpillars of the white butterflies). We do, however find that they don’t like to be confined and they (as the descendents of jungle fowl) particularly like spending time foraging under the willow hedge and associated shrubs.

We started off with a chicken ‘coop’ that claimed to be big enough for four hens:

Our coop when we were building it.

Don’t be fooled by such claims! The house part has a perch that will accommodate three average-sized hens; the run itself barely has room for four of them to move around once there is a drinker and a feeder in there (even if they are suspended). The result is cramped hens and food and water either knocked flying or full of muck. We soon realised that this was no way to go on and started putting them in the fruit cage, with a net tunnel leading back to the coop so they could lay in the appropriate place. Of course, once the fruits started appearing we found ourselves in competition with the hens. I like raspberries way too much to want to feed them to chickens, so they were banished from the fruit cage. By this stage, they were all used to coming when called and happy to go in and out of an expanded run attached to the original coop, so since the garden was already terrier-proof we hoped it might also be chicken-proof and decided to let them roam free.

Gytha – the Houdini of chickens

I have some news: a terrier-proof garden is not, in fact, chicken-proof. The late lamented Gytha was particularly good at getting out. We used to get phone calls from our neighbours opposite to tell us she was sitting on our front doorstep! Once all escape routes had been blocked in that direction, she took to escaping into the field behind to run around with the sheep. At my age, you really don’t want to have to call round to the neighbouring farm to ask if you can please have your chicken back! Finally we worked out how she was getting out and blocked that egress. After that the only issue was protecting the vegetables. Unsurprisingly we have found that whilst chickens like to roam free, vegetables are quite happy to be caged! So, we have chicken exclosures rather than enclosures. This seems to work out well for the welfare of both hens and veggies.

Our next task is to focus on producing some crops specifically for chickens. I have yet to research what might keep them worm-free (any suggestions welcome, but I’m guessing at least garlic) and fully supplied with vitamins and minerals (comfrey perhaps?). But I have read somewhere that they like chokeberry (Aronia), so I have one of those on order from the Agroforestry Research Trust and I’m hoping that Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens) might be a good source of food for them (some seeds are on their way from Lithuania as I write) as well as flint corn (as grown by Carol Deppe). In addition, I’m broadcasting wheat seed in the fruit cage in the hope that some will germinate and provide heads to be eaten directly by the chickens once the soft fruit season is over. I plan to turn the small overgrown area at the front of the house into a source of chicken feed since i don’t really like gardening out there as I’m not a sociable gardener! Finally, I hope to up my production of worms in the wormery… another great food for chickens. Although I don’t envision being self-sufficient in chicken feed, I would like to reduce external inputs without compromising our human food production. I’m hoping too, that the result will be healthy and happy hens.

Sick Chick

The past 48 hours have been fairly fraught in the chicken department – it turns out that Gytha wasn’t just cold. ..

Mr Snail-of-happiness had to go away on Wednesday down to Surrey; not long after he left I embarked on a thorough chicken house clean. When I pulled the tray out from beneath their slatted perching area I was worried to see that it contained a lot of liquid. I had noticed that Gytha’s rear end was a bit grubby, but since she has been active and eating well, I had not investigated. However, clearly something was wrong here. I put the cleaning activity aside and inspected Gytha – she had a sore patch beside her vent and a very dirty bottom. So, I came in and consulted the wonder that is the interweb-thingy. Several options seemed possible… worms, bacterial infection or possibly she was egg bound. I had already felt externally for an egg and couldn’t feel one, so went to look at poo. Ah, the joys of chicken-keeping! After inspection of the hen-house and all visible chicken poo round the garden, I was pretty certain she didn’t have worms and I couldn’t see any blood in any of it, so perhaps a bacterial infection? The answer, in the short-term seemed to be natural yoghurt. So I made a mix of layers’ mash, warm water and live yoghurt (which I make myself). This turned out to be very popular with chickens!

I went back to cleaning the hen-house in the drizzle… scrubbing all the bits with soapy water, rinsing with clean water, drying the floors and perch and then putting it all back together with a generous dusting of diatomaceous earth in the places where red mites hang out. Finally I filled the nesting boxes with shredded paper ( great security measure… what thief is going to steal your personal details when they have been shredded and then covered in chicken poo?).

That seemed to be all I could do for Gytha at that stage, so I went back to editing and intermittently fretting. Mr S-o-h was away overnight so I fretted on my own.

In the morning I inspected the area under the perch – not much poo, no blood. Gytha was quite perky. I gave them some more food with natural yoghurt and I went back to editing. After lunch, I decided to wash Gytha’s rear end, feeling that it would be better if she was clean. So, I filled a bowl with warm water and caught my chicken. I reckoned that the best place to try this operation was in the greenhouse, as she then couldn’t escape and it’s nice and warm in there. So, I inverted my chicken to see how messy she was and found her vent distended and blocked with a yellowish mass. I rinsed her off and dislodged some of the mass, but wasn’t sure how rough I could be with her in getting it out. The smell suggested to me that what I was seeing was rotten egg. Back to the interweb. My word, there are many sites about chicken keeping and a whole range of suggestions of how to deal with ‘bunged up’ chickens. The most sensible thing would have been to take her to the vet, but Mr S-o-h had the car and the bus ride takes 45 minutes each way… not a sensible option with a sick chicken, I felt.

So, first I tried introducing some oil (sunflower) into her vent with a syringe. This did not seem to have any effect, but I sat in the garden and watched her for half an hour to see if the lubrication would help her to pass anything. Nothing happened.

Finally (after the vets had closed) Mr S-o-h arrived home. Now there were two of us we could try the next suggestion – soak her in warm water for half an hour (yes, 30 minutes) to make her vent muscles relax in the hope that she would, with a big push, be able to pass the mass of rotten egg. We filled a bowl, Mr S-o-h collected Gytha off her perch and I sat on the kitchen floor holding her in the water. It was much easier than I had expected… there was a bit of a struggle, but the water was nice and warm and I held her firmly… and held her… and held her… my word the minutes pass slowly when you are sitting on the kitchen floor holding a chicken in a bowl of water. She fell asleep – my hands started to seize up. I considered the possibility of opening a chicken spa… and dismissed it. Finally I lifted her out, we wrapped her in a towel, then transferred her into a cat carrying box with a hot water bottle underneath. We left her with a bowl of water in the dark.

We looked for a result half an hour later – nothing.
We looked for a result another half hour later – nothing.
We looked for a result before we went to bed – nothing.
We got up this morning and took her to the vets.

We have a lovely vet – he’s not the nearest, but we have been going to him for years. He knows our names, what we do, where we used to work, that Mr S-o-h has been writing a book. We have never had to take a chicken to him before.

To ensure that we got the most out of our trip we took on of the dogs to be vaccinated too. According to the vet’s computer this particular dog was dead, but he resurrected her, so that was ok. He gave her the vaccinations and then came the chicken… I don’t think he sees many chickens, but he wasn’t fazed. He inserted his finger into her vent (I clearly could have been much rougher with her, and wish I had) and dislodged a mass of egg and other stuff. The diagnosis? A soft egg had become stuck and had rotted, plus she had developed an abscess. Poor Gytha.

We are home now – with antibiotics to be given in liquid form twice a day¬† and a new syringe to wash out her insides from the rear with warm salt water (our vet is very keen on salt water). We administered the first dose of antibiotics, straight down her through from a tiny syringe, when we got home and it turned out to be remarkably easy – although she may have worked out what we’re up to now and dose number two may be more of a challenge. The flushing out of her vent is going to wait until tomorrow – I think she’s experienced enough invasion for today. She’s had a meal of natural yoghurt mixed with mash and some dried meal worms and we wait to see if she recovers.

I’d better get back to work now, otherwise I won’t be able to afford the vet’s bills!

Chickens in more healthy times

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