Foxes and the devastation they can cause.

Running a farm, there are always ups and downs and what keeps us going is focusing on the good things that happen; new additions to the farm, fruit harvests, new buildings (you get the idea)! What we cannot stand is waste … senseless waste due to excess.

Sadly, this post is about the only wild animal we have no respect for … the fox. An introduced species, while beautiful to look at and clever to boot, if this little critter behaved more like a hungry animal than a rabid human … the farming world would be a happier place. If you are queasy … please do not read on as there is an image of the outcome at the end.

It is unfortunate for us, that a fox (or more than one for that matter) managed to get into our breeding chicken coup and decimated the entire flock! This is what angers us! We’re OK with the local wedge tailed eagle pair that occasionally take a chook, they only ever take one and we’ll admit look majestic doing it. We’re OK with the occasional fruit bat nibbling at some of the apples, its usually only the top tree fruit they take. We’re even OK with occasionally having to loose a bed of tomatoes to fruit flies if it has been a particularly wet and humid year. Them’s the breaks. But when an animal like a fox gets access to chickens … nothing short of hell breaking loose is the best description of the aftermath.

We found 31 beautiful birds scattered and dead one morning. It was heart breaking. All those friendly chooks and roosters senselessly killed. Necks snapped and left intact for most too. We don’t like to write about the sad things that happen around here, but sometimes we need to remember them to ensure we learn from them. One thing is for certain, we have finally invested in a trap and we’re looking into getting a dog or two from the local animal shelter sooner rather than later.

We can definitely say that electrified chicken fences work wonders. Also having a wire skirt or mesh around a fence also stops foxes from digging, but NEVER let anyone tell you that a pen is fox proof at 1.8m (6 foot) because the little blighters can still climb over if they put their mind to it!!!

Rest in peace our little flock. We’re sorry that we couldn’t keep you safe.

Chicken masacre by foxes

(Not all animals are pictured as their carcasses were not in a condition we believed people would be comfortable viewing).

Busy building large scale chicken tractors

The last couple of weeks, we have been planning and building our next phase in on farm equipment … our Joel Salatin style Chicken Tractors!

We have owned chickens for many years and the eggs produced by home flocks are far superior to store bought ones. So our challenge has been to find a way to provide fresh pasture, insects and quality feed to a commercial number of chickens with a low carbon footprint and a superior predator protection. A pretty hefty list of requirements by any standard!

A few years ago, we fell in love with Joel Salatin and his farming methods. Since then, we have been visiting other farms nearby who have been trying to take the same problems as us. By far, most have adopted Joel’s methods too. So this month, our target was to build our first pastured poultry run … and so far, it’s a resounding success!

Based on Joel’s book, we created a series of panels that we joined together to make a pen. Let me describe it in photo’s for you.

After creating a rough drawing, we set to work measuring, cutting and painting the timber. We decided to paint it to involve the kids and also protect the timber from the elements.

Next, we created a series of frames and double covered them in wire mesh, leaving a long skirt hanging off the external frames as fox protection. In the past, the foxes here have managed to pull wire off to get to our birds and also dig under our fences, hence the skirt.

We used 1800 bird wire, doubled over and tacked every 15cm. If a fox is determined enough to get through that … then he can take all the birds he wants.

Next we connected all the frames together and built the doors. Because it is very hot here, we decided to provide a larger connected shade area for our chickens. This is why half the door is covered in ours rather than having one fully covered and the other just mesh as per Joel’s design.

The bird mesh provided great friction in keeping the doors in place. We then connected a rope and pipe as a handle at the front and used our trusty hardware trolley as the fulcrum at the back.

Here it is in situ, awaiting the new girls.

We peg the skirt down at the edges for extra security. We will keep you posted on how it works out!

Now just to build a few more for the meat birds!

How do you know your eggs are fresh?

Not all eggs are equal. The nutritional value of an egg is very different based on the diet of the bird that they come from. The size of an egg differs based on both the age and the breed of the chicken that laid it. Plus the freshness of the egg is dependant on how long ago it was laid.

Lets start with egg size…

I’ve touched on this in an earlier post (https://littlefieldmice.com.au/blogs/all-things-chicken/18495555-eggs-are-truly-amazing). The first eggs that a bird lays are called “pullet eggs”. They are smaller than “normal” and are more yolk than white to begin with. Here is a size comparison for you against a 50c piece…

The light blue egg is a pullet egg from our Araucana breed. In a few weeks time, she will be laying eggs similar in size to the buff coloured egg in the middle. The blue egg only weighs 35g. It is still perfectly good to eat but if you are using it in a recipe, you would need to use 2 of this size to make up a “standard” egg size.

The buff coloured egg was laid by one of our smaller Plymouth Rock girls. The larger the bird generally the larger the egg. This egg weighs 50 grams.

The brown egg is a “normal” supermarket weight at 61 grams. It was laid by one of our Barnevelder girls.

But what about egg colour? …

I’m not concerned here about egg shell colour. The colour of the shell is strictly based on the breed of the bird. I am more concerned about the colour of the yolk.

Generally, store bought eggs have a yellow yolk and a slightly cloudy white. To us, this is an indication of a poorly cared for bird. A yolk should be almost orange in colour, indicating that the bird had access to excellent feed. This could be in the form of a balanced grain diet, access to pasture and/or vegetable matter or even access to foraged protein such as insects.

Believe it or not, but chickens are NOT vegetarian. Given the choice between insects and grain, chickens will take insects any day! Slugs, crickets, caterpillars, moths, mice … anything that is not quick enough to get past the quick dart of a chickens’ head is immediately dinner. It is amazing to watch a chicken corner a mouse … they are quicker than cats once they have a taste for the little critters.

Finally, freshness…

Those of you who poach eggs, may notice that some eggs simply fall apart when you poach them directly into boiling water. This is because the egg is older than 7 days from being laid. The internal membrane that protects any potential embryo in fertile eggs, is present in normal store bought eggs. This membrane breaks down and stops the egg being able to “stick together” when poached.

You can also check how fresh an egg is by submerging it in water. Inside each egg is an air sac. As the egg gets older, the air sack gets bigger as the yolk and egg white shrink as they deteriorate. When submerged, a fresh egg will lay down flat on its side. If an egg starts to lift up and stand on one end, it is still edible but not very fresh. NEVER try to eat an egg that floats. The air sac in a floating egg is essentially filled with “rotten egg gas” … get rid of it!

Too many roosters mean numerous weekend roasts.

When you hatch your own chickens, you get a roughly 50/50 ratio of males to females … so what do we do with all our roosters? We grow them on and then turn them into a weekend roast!

(The images in this post do not depict anything that you would not normally see as part of preparing meat for a meal. If you are so inclined that images of this form offend you, please do not read this post)

As is the way with living on our farm, we let these boys grow up alongside their sisters, but when puberty kicks in and they start to fight, then we intervene by scheduling their booking at out kitchen table.

Before we select our bird(s), we ensure that we have a clean table and board to cut on, sharp knives for butchering, a bucket for plucked feathers and entrails and plenty of hot water (in a tub preferably) to assist with plucking.

We do not take the decision to slaughter our birds lightly. While our roosters are not pets, we have still grown them from little chicks, so we make sure that they are relaxed and comfortable beforehand. As all our birds are accustomed to being handled, they think nothing of being caught and carried away.

Once we have collected our bird, we tie up his feet and then place an old sock over his head. Once he relaxes, we lay him down and remove his head. We hold him as still as possible at this point until he relaxes and then start to clean him up.

As we pluck manually, it takes about 10-15 mins to process each bird. They go from this…

 to this … 

They are very big birds, as you can see by comparing the bird size to the paring knife in the image above.

The meat from this chicken (Plymouth Rock), is much darker than what you find in the supermarket. It is more red than white and has a layer of chicken fat on it that makes for an amazing flavour when cooked. It is a heritage breed chicken and was actually bred to be used as a dual purpose bird … for both meat bird and egg production. This carcass dressed up to 2.1kg for your reference and was a 23 week old rooster. Much older (and larger) than store bought meat chickens which are usually around 8-10 weeks old.

At least these birds had a longer life than most of their counterparts.

NB: The birds we slaughter are for our own consumption only. These are not for sale to the public. When our meat birds are available for purchase, they will be managed through a local poultry processing plant nearby.

Eggs are truly amazing!

Have you ever taken the time to think about the humble egg? It is a naturally packaged bundle of deliciousness that gets laid by a chicken nearly every day of its short life.

From the time that a chicken hatches, depending on the breed, it takes anywhere from 18 weeks to 32 weeks to lay its first egg. So on average, your humble chicken starts laying at around 5 – 6 months of age. Once they start laying, they produce eggs nearly every day for around 8 months, then their bodies take a break (wouldn’t you?).

Given the people population (not chicken population!), most eggs that we consume, are laid by girls that are between 5 and 18 months old. After this, they are replaced by most egg farmers with a new batch of birds. The “old” birds are then processed into many of the foods we eat (e.g. nuggets). This is egg production on an industrial scale.

Here on our farm, we let all our girls live a regular long life. They live to around 6 years of age (on average), and their egg production slowly tapers off with age (a bit like humans). Near the end of their life, they stop laying all together and then one day we find them curled up under a tree, in their favourite dust bath or under their favourite perch, dead, having lived a happy chooky life. All our girls that get to this age, have been a “Mum” several times over too. While we incubate most of our eggs, if a hatch coincides with one of our girls turning “clucky”, we place the eggs under her and she gets to be a Mum (and does a much better job than a heat lamp can!)

The chickens we hatched at the end of August are now starting to lay their first eggs. As a chicken starts laying, they usually lay tiny eggs, starting with ones that only have a yolk. In the image below, you can see a pale blue egg which is tiny compared to a “normal” sized egg. This little one was layer today by one of our Araucana girls. The blue colouring will become more prominent in the next few weeks.

As their body gets more accustomed to laying, they get bigger but are still smaller than your “normal” egg. There are two slightly smaller eggs in the image below that were laid by a Plymouth Rock girl that started laying last week.

Finally, after about 4-6 weeks, the eggs are more “normal” in size. The two pictured were laid by different breeds. The light one by our Plymouth Rocks and the Brown ones are laid by our Barnevelders. No blue or green shelled eggs ATM as our hens are sitting on the next clutch of eggs.

So, the next time you use an egg, have a thought about how long it took to get to your table. Also, think about how that chook has been treated. Our eggs will be on sale at the end of January.

Fertile Eggs and Incubation Preparation

Egg Fertility Basics

Most people don’t realise that you need fertile eggs to hatch a chick.

Eggs are laid by female chickens. You need a rooster (male chicken) with your hens to be able to hatch your own eggs. And to ensure you have a high fertility rate, it is best to have one rooster for every 3-8 hens. The best ratio I have found is having 2 roosters covering ten to twelve hens.

Diet is also important. You need to ensure that your flock has a well balanced diet and has plenty of water. Any stress to your chickens will result in poor quality eggs and low fertility rates. Regular layer pellets provide a good balanced diet. But chickens LOVE scraps and fresh leaves. So anything from your table that you don’t eat (this includes small cuts of meat too) are perfect for chickens. Any weeds you pull from your garden are also excellent supplements for your flock, especially all the slugs and snails!

Chickens do not lay eggs all year round. They have a “break” over the winter months and stop laying daily. When daylight hours start to lengthen (after June 22nd in the Southern Hemisphere), chickens begin to lay more eggs again. The last month of winter is considered by most to be the start of the breeding season for chickens. The eggs laid during the last month of Winter and through Spring are the best used for hatching.

Here is an image of some of our Plymouth Rock flock chowing down on some scattered feed and fresh leaves.

Checking Fertility

A fertile egg is one that has a sperm bundle with it. If you grow your own chickens and use their eggs, you will notice this as an extra yellowish bundle attached to the egg yolk when it is cracked open.

You cannot check for fertility immediately after laying. This is especially true for eggs that have a thick shell or dark colour. The best time to check for fertility is around 5 days after incubating starts. This is done using a technique called candling. Essentially, you shine a bright light through an egg to determine if the embryo has started to develop. A developing embryo is one where you can clearly identify blood vessels traversing through the egg white from the embryo (egg yolk). Any egg that is not fertile needs to be discarded. Nothing smells worse than a rotten egg exploding in an incubator. Blech!

Collecting eggs for incubation

Eggs that you collect for incubating need to be treated a little differently to those you use in the kitchen. Here is a list of pointers…

Do not wash your eggs
A chicken has only one “out hole” … for everything! (Yes, this means that every egg laid comes out of the same place where its’ excrement come from.) This is why eggs used in the kitchen need to be washed to ensure that pests and diseases are not transferred to us. But when you are collecting eggs for incubation, do not wash them. If the eggs are particularly dirty, you can scrape it off or quickly wash it under running water.
There is a thin membrane on the outside of every egg which protects the contents of an egg from pathogens. Washing your egg will break and/or remove this membrane, leading to a greater potential of infection to a developing chick.
Use your cleanest eggs
Egg shells are porous. It is through the small holes in the shell that a developing chick will breath. You get a better hatching rate from clean eggs than from dirty eggs as they are exposed to fewer potential pathogens.
Turn your eggs at least once per day (twice is better)
Store the eggs you collect in an egg carton and mark them with a pencil or thin marker (so no one will eat them!). At least once per day, rotate the egg carton. I find it easiest to remember doing this at breakfast and at dinner.
Rotating your eggs daily ensures that the egg yolk does not stick to the inside of the egg shell. This causes deformity as the chick developed if it occurs.
Use your freshest eggs (unto 7 days old is best. Up to 10 days old can still work)
The freshest eggs develop the best. This is because the embryo deteriorates over time. From 1-7 days, the embryo is at its optimum performance. Between days 7-10, the membrane around the yolk starts to break down. An egg will not start to develop until you start to incubate it.
When you collect your eggs, write the date on them. Just the day is fine (e.g. 22/09/2014 only needs “22” written on it). That way, you will always know how fresh your eggs are.
Keep them at room temperature
To ensure that an embryo does not die before you start to incubate it, keep it at room temperature. You can refrigerate them, but as most fridges internal temperatures vary and a lot of modern fridges are “frost free”, it will kill the embryo before incubation. An egg shell is porous, so fluid will slowly evaporate through the shell quicker in a “frost free” fridge than at room temperature.

 

Check out our other post about incubation for more info on hatching your own chicks.