A general weekend update

With some time to poddle in the garden this weekend, I went to check the grass growth in the acre field and it’s looking good! You can make out the brown rectangular patch just above the orange netting, where our new veggie patch will be. Come spring this should turn rampant, and we’ve decided to not plant any orchard this year seeing as though it’s getting a bit late and I’m loath to spend money on a slightly risky planting session.

Instead, we’ll blow the budget on getting all the fencing in place that we will need to split the field into the four quarters we want – the vegetable growing quarter, the hay/grazing quarter, the small tree orchard quarter and the larger tree orchard quarter. This year we’ll try and get 4 or 5 sheep in after April to tread the ground down and to eat the grass tops, both encouraging new growth and replacing the need to mechanically roll the ground. They’ll also add useful  fertiliser! We’ll also be able to add chickens as well, so I’ll build a coop or two, and we’ll also be able to plant the hedgerow whips so they can get a good start. This lack of planting of orchard trees will allow us to concentrate on the vegetable patch so we’ll have plenty to do! We’ve changed our minds about half standard and standard trees, and have decided to take things down a peg and use MM106 rootstock for apples, St Julien A for plums, Colt for cherries and Quince A for the pears. This will allow us to grow fruit ‘bushes’ in the smaller fruit tree orchard, to grow to about 9-12ft high and mostly pickable by hand and stepladder. The larger tree orchard will grow to half standard size, so lower branches will be around 1.2m from the ground – hopefully just about high enough to prevent sheep from grazing the fruit when they’re fully grown.

There was also time to dig over our existing veggie patch to let the night frost attack it – the chickens happily came onto the patch to help munch exposed bugs and worms whilst I dug, and added some welcome manure without me having to lift a finger! I lifted the remainder of the large leeks and cabbages, leaving some smaller leeks in to see what happens.

Chicken clean out

The weekend is the time I set to clean out the chooks. I tend to hand pick out the large poops from the coop’s removable ground tray over the course of the week and throw them on to the manure pile that is gradually building up – the best manure for the veggie patch, so I hear! The weekend clean out is everything left in the tray which goes into the compost bin (a mix of saw dust donated by our next door neighbour who wood turns regularly, and their poop that escaped the weekly hand-picking session). Check this link out for a chicken-owners guide to composting. The chicken coop wood shavings and poop mix contains phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen (in the poop) and carbon (in the shavings). When water is added the ingredients are all there to produce a good compost, though I also add some lime, blood and bone powder and grass cuttings. For a good organic composting technique check out Lila’s page here. Then a good scrub down inside with a mix of ecover washing up liquid and a splash of organic red mite concentrate made by Barrier, so that the wood inside the coop gets a good douse regularly of anti-red mite goodness. With the coop nice and clean inside, the wood shavings are replaced with good dust-free shavings (dust can cause respiratory problems) and a handful of lavender leaves (in the winter) or flowers (in the summer) are crushed and scattered over the sawdust to help them sleep at night and keeps the coop smelling slightly more pleasant than having none in there! If the straw in the nest box is ruined then I’ll replace that, although I tend to leave it for a couple of weeks if it’s ok. I’ll get rid of it after a couple of weeks to prevent any bug build-up in the straw itself. Lastly I spray the red-mite concentrate in all the crevices in the coop to ensure the red mite are kept at bay. I always check the ends of the two perches where the mites love to hang out.

Keeping our chickens happy over winter

With the inclement weather we’ve been having recently in the UK, I had to gen up rather quickly on ways and means to keep our chickens happy and content over winter. Temperatures were dropping overnight to around -10 Celsius, and whilst their body temperatures will keep the small coop warm to a degree (large enough to house 4 birds maximum, with there only being three in there) I felt they needed more help. I empathised for a few brief seconds and came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t like it out there so we had to do something.

First thing was their diet. They have layers pellets every day, ad lib, and fresh water. They also have free range on grass,  so after they’ve eaten tasty green stuff they fill up on the pellets. When it gets cold I also give them grain on an evening before shutting them up in the coop – this gives their crop something to work on over night and helps keep them warm with their own generated heat. In the summer they have this as a treat, about an eggcup-full for each bird, but over the winter I’ve given them ever-so-slightly more as I figured seeing as though their egg production is non-existent, they probably didn’t need as many of the layers pellets as usual and the bodyweight they might  gain from slightly more grain (mixed wheat, maize, etc) would be beneficial over their first winter outside the battery farm – especially seeing as though their feathers weren’t entirely covering them still.

Each day when it was really cold, around 3 Celsius or under, we used some leftover potato peelings, carrot peelings or parsnip peelings, or even a whole potato (their favourite), and made a mash up. To this I also added:

A tablespoon of live yoghurt to help their digestive system

A teaspoon of codliver oil (I started this in the summer to help them utilise their calcium for egg shell production, but with the low sunlight in the winter and they still insist on producing some eggs, I figured I might as well keep giving it them)

A teaspoon of Poultry Spice – a delicious blend of all your chook’s favourite spicy things – a bit like a multi-vit for poultry which helps them to get over the moult.

A dash of apple cider vinegar in their water – probably about a couple of teaspoons in 2 litres. At the same time I usually have a teaspoon myself in a glass of hot water, mixed with a teaspoon of honey. Slurp. The apple cider vinegar will help with worms and also keeps the water algae free, not that that is going to happen if you change it regularly!

So that’s their treat – I serve it slightly warm still, thinking it’s probably a bit like going out in to the cold on a full belly of porridge, except it stinks to high heaven.

As far as the coop is concerned – I read about an ingenious idea of mimicking foliage by dangling several mop heads in the coop so they can snuggle up to them as if they were dangly duvets. They were a bit worried when these alien beings were discovered having taken over their coop, but after a few days they were like teenagers in the mornings – faces buried into the mops to stay warm. Fantastic! We also went on a scrounge for an old-fashioned hot water bottle – the ceramic type so easy to clean – and filled that with boiling water to place in the coop. The design of our coop meant we could place it in the nest box from outside at night, and keep it separate from the main perches by a piece of styrene so the daft birds didn’t snuggle up to too close. If the night was really cold I’d go out again just before midnight to refill it.

Lastly we gave all their combs a good covering of vaseline to prevent frostbite, and made sure their water was always free of ice so they could quench their thirst.

Doing all these thing perked them up no end and I think kept them happier than they would otherwise have been. I still wouldn’t have traded their coop for my own bed though 😉