Thursday, October 25, 2012

APPLE BOX SERIES: Let Chickens Be Chickens - How to raise happy chooks

Eighty or so people were  excitedly swapping apple-plum jam  for their silverbeet, or a raspberry plant  for sourdough when the first ever Crop and Swap Apple Box commenced. Once everyone realised this they shuffled forward, their excitement switching to the Crop and Swap regular who had been given the floor to share her knowledge on keeping healthy, happy chickens.

The first of many apple box talks
"They're pretty amazing creatures," our speaker on 'the apple box' was explaining. "and you don't need to read all the books out there and become an expert before you keep them.
"Just let chickens be chickens! They're very good at that and will generally get on with the job without any interference from you."
(Left) Our speakers chickens coop, (Right) Four happy chooks in the run
While our Apple Box speaker would be the first to tell you that it can seem daunting to begin with, if you do the simple things right, both you and your clucky friends can reap the benefits.
"Keeping chickens comes with the same responsibilities as any animal. Give them a safe place to sleep and clean water to drink. Plus, chickens need a dark place to lay eggs and a patch of dirt for them to ‘bathe’ in, and they will be happy.
"Also, remember the four Gs: grain, greens, grubs, and grit. As long as they have these, their diet will keep them healthy too". (More tips below!)
It's easy to overlook the benefits of having chooks. The weekend after her Apple Box talk, our local chicken expert and her husband invited us around to see their set up in Bullaburra and understand how their chooks contribute to their backyard garden.
Their four chickens ­– Australorps, bred for Australian conditions – have ruled the roost for nearly two years. Cornelius, Polonius, Laertes and Eglamor eat food scraps, turn over compost bays, rid the vege gardens of bugs and provide a rich manure for improving the sandy soil.

(Left) The first coop (decommissioned), (right) free-range chook
For safety they spend nights and most of the working week in their pretty ingenious coop and chook-run, made from mostly reclaimed materials.

Their first coop was much smaller – while this didn't bother the chickens, it provided a few challenges to their owners. For instance, when the chooks were young they had to be lifted up to the warmth and darkness of the enclosed second level at the end of the day as they didn't know how to go up the ramp yet. This involved the chook owner crawling inside the coop, lying on their back and lifting up the chook only to find she had fallen asleep cradled in their hand in the dark! The addition of a small window helped somewhat but they knew a slightly bigger coop would be easier for all.
(Left) Room with a view, (right) wormwood planted next to coop - see the tips below
The current coop was lovingly handmade by a family member and has been purpose built. It has doors that raise up for easy cleaning, a little window so the chooks know when it is daylight and clever features such as a sliding door holder and a smaller chook door so the parrots don't fly in. The coop and chook run also have two layers of wire fencing dug under the ground to stop any predators getting in."The best way to figure out what will be right for you is to do exactly this – ask  friends and neighbours who already have chickens if they would mind showing you their set-up. Most of us are happy to answer questions and give a tour."

Chalet chook

All in all, this was the perfect start to the Apple Box series: inspiring, chock full of tips and listened to attentively by all. Thank you!
By Xavier and Clare (Faulconbridge crop and swappers)
Speaking of tips, here are them all kindly provided by our Apple Box speaker:
1. Simmer some wheat (organic available from Katoomba Food Co-op).  In water is fine, but skim milk is good if the girls need some calcium.
2. Add: crushed garlic, chopped red chillies, chopped parsley, and chopped onion tops (the green parts of salad onions or shallots, or the shoots from onions).
3. Mix it all together and serve.  I give it to them warm in winter.
Note: you can replace the wheat with cooked vegetables roughly mashed together.  We use potatoes, radish, turnip, parsnip, carrot, cauliflower, broccoli, beetroot – whatever comes to hand that is beyond human consumption but not yet ready for the compost bin.
Other worm preventatives
·         Nettles – boil and add the strained liquid to their mash.
·         A mixture of horseradish and mustard leaves, mixed with minced onions, garlic, grated carrot, and pumpkin seeds added to their feed at a rate of 20% (i.e. 20% mixture and 80% feed).
·         Put several cloves of garlic into a cupful of cold water and let it steep overnight.  Strain the next morning and add the liquid into their drinking water over the next week.  This can also be fed to them by eye-dropper, but that can be a hassle and they give you dirty looks for the rest of the day.
·         Check their poop!  Chickens poop a lot, which is good for the garden, though worth warning visitors about if they free-range (both the chooks and the visitors).  It also means that it’s easy to check a fresh one now and then for signs of wriggling (worms) and dose them up. 
·         Excessive poop stuck to their rear-end feather can be a sign of worms, but sometimes they just get mucky feathers.  If the bird seems healthy, it probably is, and a monthly worming should have taken care of any worms anyway.  If in doubt – refer to the previous paragraph!
·         Scrape the gel from an aloe vera leaf and mix into their drinking water.
·         Nasturtium leaves and seeds are antiseptic and a great tonic food
·         Comfrey has high levels of potassium and calcium, and is a good source of protein and amino acids. A daily feed will keep them in good health.
·         Nettles and comfrey added to their feed
·         Crushed egg shells to increase calcium and strengthen the shells (a closed loop system!)
·         Add some paprika to their feed when they come back into lay after their winter moult
·         Grow tree wormwood around your chicken coop/run.  When you prune it, sprinkle the leaves amongst the straw in the coop, where they lay and sleep, and it deters mites and fleas.  The dried and crushed leaves can be sprinkled in the girls’ dust bowls as well.
·         Flowers and leaves of feverfew can be made into a tea and sprayed around the coop (for mites, lice, and fleas).
·         Other plants to grow around the coop are rosemary, lavender, and pennyroyal.  Also add the dried, crushed leaves to the dust bowl.
·         Fill an egg shell with mustard or horseradish, put the two halves back together and leave it in the coop.  When the hens peck the egg they won’t like the hot flavour and should then associate egg shapes with an unpleasant experience. This is the theory, and it works for many people.  I happen to have chickens with gourmet palates, so they ate the lot!
·         Another method is to put a fake egg (plastic or china) where they lay, and when they peck it they learn that it’s not edible (Thanks to Joe for this one).


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