Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Building a Chicken Coop

There are lots of ways to keep chickens.  In our case, it is mandatory to keep predators out ( see Wildlife page) and to maintain some biosecurity against parasites and disease.  We starting preparing for our first coop in February 2008, knowing that we could pick up 12 golden comet hens on May 15.  The coop was built inside our red barn.

It was a surprise to us to realize that the chicken run is more of a challenge than the coop itself, which we build inside our red barn by converting horse stall space.  We were able to divide that space and had concrete floors with olrd horse planks over it.  So the major challenge was sealing it up and installing accessories like the roosts, nest boxes, platforms, feeders, porch, feed room and water supply. 

You have to be very cautious when building a run.  It needs to keep predators out and that means no opening larger than 1/2".  We roofed ours with clear vinyl and added an underground predaor flange.  We also use snow boards and lock the run on both sides.

Friday, December 3, 2010


Sometimes you get a glimpse of the real residents of this land, which ajoins the forest.

We have created a tiny 'preserve' for them at the base of the property and baited the area with various foods that will help the animals over the winter.  Our favourites are the white-tailed deer as they wander the orchard areas and accept the deadfalls and pumpkins we leave for them.  This is a doe with her fawn from the spring of 2008.

This is a porcupine that entered the property in the fall of 2009.  Since they are dangerous to the cats because of the quills, David removed him twice to the Caseylands, but he would not stay away.  He ate apples for a week, and then one morning I found him dead.  When I examined him I discovered tumours where his left hind leg met his abdomen, so I buried him realizing that he had come here to end his days with easy food in a sheltered place.  There's always a surprise.

Tiger swallowtail butterflies do well here, feeding on honeysuckle blossoms and other red, pink and purple plants.  They lay eggs in the hedges and in the loft of our barn, and we also see larva climbing the interior walls of the barn in the autumn.  They must taste bad because the hens and cats leave them alone.  Then in June, hundreds of adults emerge and flood the acreage.

We see raccoons of course, and a female named Mary often joins the cats in the barn.  I knew her as an infant, and I suspect one of the cats brought her here.  Other local mammals include pine martens ( we're in a protection zone), weasels, mink, bobcat, red foxes, eastern coyotes and black bear.  We're in the middle of the Atlantic Migratory Fly Zone and see sparrow hawls, red tails, peregrines, various owl species, eagles and osprey.  Reptiles include brown snakes, red racers and garter snakes.  We hear spring peeper frogs early in spring.  Keeping some of the predators separated from the hens is vital.

Ringneck pheasants are an introduced species in Nova Scotia and the Caseylands across the road from here were used as a breeding site.  In fall and winter the males yard up and are conspicuous in flocks throughout the area.  The hens are doing the same thing, but are in muted plumage and safer from hunters.  One male we call 'Bluster' attracts his harem to our property in spring and also romances our hens by dancing and singing outside their run.  They are most impressed with this and call back.  Hybrids can and do result from pheasant/chicken crosses but are usually sterile.

The eastern coyote was first noted in Nova Scotia in the 1970's as the red wolf of New Brunsick was in decline.  It is speculated among wildlife experts that this animal is a hybrid perhaps of dog and wolf.  DNA research continues as the eastern cotoye becomes a ubuquitous sight throughout the province.  It is bold near human habitation and has been blamed for a human death in Cape Breton.  As of the autumn of 2010, bounties are offered to professional trappers, but sadly, the are permitted to use leg and shoulder traps.

The red fox is not closely related to wolves or coyotes but its habits are similar.  We have many of there lovely creatures in Rawdon because of loose glacial till and shafts from former gold mines.  I have had a fox come into the back of the barn as I swept the floor and grab a kitten.  Another time one chased an orange cat up my body and 'sat pretty' three feet away waiting for me to let the cat go. Glad I had a walking stick to shoo her away.  But I ended up with cat urine on one shoulder and a bloody scalp- thank you, Butternut.

The black bear can become entirely too comfortable with human food, and if anyone carelessly puts fat or protein in the green bin more than a day, it is likely to be raided.  Most of us freeze our leftovers so bears will avoid us, then throw it out in the bin on collection day.  A bear can destroy a coop and trash the interior of a barn.  Most people don't realize they are avid carnivores, not so bad as a grizzly, but opportunistic in the extreme, and they love chicken.  In July when the young males are driven from their mothers they are a particular hazard.  Our tend to frequent the river canyon of the Herbert, but emerge as it suits them.  The last time we were on the Elliott Road bridge, taking photos, we smelt a pile of spore and turned to see it steaming ten feet away.  The bear had been that close and was probably watching us.

As cute as they may seem, raccoons are one of our most serious predators.  They like eggs and will reach in chicken pens and literally rip a chicken to pieces.  Small gauge strong wire is needed to protect the birds.  As well, raccoon distemper is rampant, and this summer the neighbourhood had trouble with an immense boar who was ill.  Not only did he try to destroy a screen door at the house next to us, he killed several pets.  I suspect he is responsible for the loass of 5 adult cats and several kittens.  Fortunately raccoon distemper is a different disease from cat or dog distemper.  The only raccoon I trust is Mary, who was brought to our barn as an infant and who was raised by our female cats.  She visits from time to time and is content to be calm among the farm creatures and me.  I didn't handle her, though, because of the chance that as an adult her temperament might not have held.

Pine martens look like cats, from a distance.  A protection program exists here and we are in no position to harm one even if it becomes a nuisance.  The good news is that they hunt rodents and help to keep the farmlands clear of them.  They nest high in trees and some of the release boxes can be seen on the banks of the Herbert River, in pine trees.  To keep birds safe you must have a roofed run with small gauge hardware cloth above and below ground.

Bobcats are occasionally sighted here and lynxes live deeper in the woods.  There is a skunk bunker under the old outhouse.  We have spring peeper frogs and various reptiles including snapping turtles, red racers, brown and garther snakes.  We see a lot of hawks, ravens, crows, falcons, eagles and osprey.  Occasionally an owl will hunt on the property.

It's our job to protect our hens, so we do everything possible to enclose them.  Free-ranging is a romantic concept this close to the woods.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Golf, more addictive than chickens

We golf at the Ken-Wo course in New Minas, which is closed for the season as of this writing.  David has been a member for close to 30 years but I did not acquire the addiction until we retired in 2004.  I can think of no better activity to keep the mind and body active in retirement, or of no harder activity in which to become a top achiever.  I wish I had begun when younger, I was a curler in high school on the first team to permit women's provincial competition but we were not allowed on the golf course.  I know, it's a travesty by today's standards, but in the 1960's it was the norm. 

This is a view from the 14th tee at Ken-Wo on a Men's Day im 2009.  They're waiting for the group ahead to move forward so they can use their drivers for a difficult shot.

This is taken after a Ladies' Day competition.  It took me a long time to improve, I'll never have a handicap as low as David's but I did win a trophy in 2009 for having the greatest drop in handicap in the Women's division, and it took me out of the dreaded third division.

You meet great people when golfing.  They tend to be courteous, humble and persistent.  Some of them are parents to junior golfers and our club has an amazing program for them run by our pros.  They take a lot from golf into the other parts of their lives.  The Annapolis Valley is a wonderful place to grow up, and it shows.

Chickenry- Is it what you think?

There are many ways to raise chickens, and you'll choose what works for you according to preferences, beliefs  and budgets.  The governement is slowly working its way into small-flock raising, so be aware of local building codes and agricultural regulations.  The future may well bring more than egg-sales laws so as the changes come, try not to tear your hair out.  Will you free-range, free-run or cage birds?  What about innoculations?  The choices are controversial and the decisions judged.

Chicks are cute, but beware because they are addictive and your pets will want to eat them.  You learn that once they are out of the brooder life as you know it ends.  You will be a slave to their safety, a mucker of coops and a self-taught veterinarian.  Oh they will give you eggs, except when they decide to moult, but the first one is likely worth $1100.00.  Ahem.

Oh they are adorable, and when the first one flies out of the brooder you will exclaim, ' there anything on earth so cute'.  . 

And you will already have taught them how to drink, how to go through an archway, how to get into or out of the heat but you will never teach them how to keep poop out of the waterer, no matter how high you place it.

Nevertheless, the moment this flock is old enough you will want to do it all over again.  These chicks hatched May 15 2008 and at two and a half years old are considered 'old'- who knew?  Here we go again.

Of course it's David's fault because be made me the most astonishing brooder and getting the chicks to coop size was so *easy*.  Heh.

For 2011, we're hoping that this Australorp pair will produce enough fertilized eggs for a good hatch. They're residents of Hidden meadow Farm

The biggest challenge here is predator protection.  If you peruse the Wildlife page, you'll see what I mean.  We can't free-range, so David designed the chicken runs to deter the meat and egg-eaters.  The basic rule is to use 1/2" gauge wire, to roof the run, install a predator flange, and to make all parts of the coop inaccessible to anything but the chickens.  Any gap 1/2" or bigger must be plugged in a way that is permanent.  Forget that and a tiny weasel can kill a dozen hens in one spree. 

We began our barn renos in February of 2008 and worked through winter to create our new coop.  This fall and winter (2010) we are finishing a second coop with the same level of protection. The space for the coops used to be a huge horse stall used by our late Morgan mare, Koosa.

We recycled wood from the barn where possible, then used both plywood and particle board for the panels, and treated lumber for the dividers, studs and beams. 

We found the coop a great place to be innovative and created a hopper feeder out of PVC which can be top-loaded in the feed foom next door, and a long row of next boxes that the hens adore.  We discovered that platforms are ideal in a coop both because it gives more floor space, keeps the birds amused, and offers a work surface for the humans.

You would think the coop was the hard part, but the run is more demanding.  We roofed it with clear vinyl, installed a 3' deep predator flange, wired it with 1/2" gauge and sealed it up against all those things that like chicken. David installed snow and wind boards, too, so that the birds can be sheltered year-round.

Laying hens are challenging and the learning curve is steep.  I had experience as a teen assisting a cousin, and it prepared me for a lot.  But even with great predator protection and lack of disease, the issues of nutrition and  care of the egg mechanism are challenging.

If you build well, your first egg will be expensive.  But you'll also be as comfortable out there as your chickens.  In deep winter, it matters.  You can cut costs with good-quality reuseables as we did, but be sure the birds can be draft-free but with a decent air flow to avoid moisture build-up.  And there's nothing nicer during and after a storm as a covered run.

If you're comfortable, they're downright cosy and you can avoid contamination from wild birds and get your eggs without having them freeze.

Adding things like suet keeps the birds warm too, and cleanup is easier in winter as everything scrapes up in tidy lumps.

If you have electricity, an electric dog bowl is the cat's meow.

and the hens like them too.

Thing is, if you build and the structure can't hold a snow load in a winter zone it's all over for the chickens and for you.  Unless you plan to move them to a garage or your basement.

For help with your chickens be sure to check Down The Lane Website:

The Property and Animals

For years this 'Country Lady', the United Church in Centre Rawdon, has graced the property across from our house.  Soon she will be removed from her foundations to become a home.  The cemetary will continue to mark the graves of church members going back to the settlement days.  It will be sad to see her journey onward, but I am glad she will continue to exist in another venue.  A church in Upper Rawdon was lost in past years but has remained near its original location and houses a family in that community.  This sort of event is becoming characteristic of rural communities as congregations gather up their members and amalgamate to worship in a nearby church.  The UCW of this church used to hold remarkable fund-raisers in the basement in Novermber of each year- their best crafts, preserves, food and recipes.  I smile every time I remember them.

The character of our property is dictated by our red barn.  The original owner told me that cats began to enter the structure before it was ever completed, and we have witnessed generations of them in our 23+ years here.  My research tells me that feral cats appeared in Nova Scotia sometime during 1632, when a shipload of agricultural animals, equipment and French brides arrived on the south shore.  The assembly marched north then west into the Annapolis Valley on a track that later became the Old Windsor Road.  So the cats descended from them, in part, resemble the 'throwback genetics' of the mainly tabbies that came from Pitou Province in France.  And those cats originated in the Middle East and were adopted by Crusaders to control rodents and came back both overland and on ships.

We host about 14 of them now, and have counted as many as 31 in the loft during vicious winter storms.  There is always fresh kibble in stock bowls for them, and an electric dog bowl with clean water.  So we don't have rodents.  The poor things have to travel through the nearby Caseylands to find a mouse!  One of the tabbies is my housecat, Bee (short for Bumblebee).

Bee is typical of the original French cats, and the animals marked this way also display exceptional affection, excel at hunting and generally in getting everything they want.  The ube-queen of the entire feral colony, Sweetpea, looks like this too.

As I write, winter is arriving, though November of 2010 has been kind.  In the last week of the month the temperature has varied just above and below zero during the day.  But we know the snow is to our west, the rest of Canada has had a swift start to the winter season.  This is an average snowfall, but we can get more.  Since adding a snowblower to our tractor, things have been easier.

And when spring arrives, this good land gives us an outstanding array of flowering shrubs and the greenest grass imaginable.

I'm going to leave discussion about chickens to a separate thread, because I could go on and on...

By the spring of 2011we had decided that the breed we prefer is Australorps.  So a new phase in poultry-keeping begins.

What's Going On?

Heritage Australorps

Already here from Hidden Meadow Farm, an Australorp cockerel and his mate: Darwin and Adelaide.  In the next few weeks six pullets will arrive to our newest coop and to grow until they can join the mated pair.  The new girls are from other fine stewards of the land- at Active Life Farm.

The first kits of the season were born to the colony uber-queen late (Sweetpea) - two light tabbies and a mahogany.  The mother is the daughter of the first female to use the barn (Elizabeth).  As far as I can tell the sire is Peaches, a light tabby male who is guarding the litter.  Mom chose the scruffiest sleeping box for nursing, I will be cleaning the space as I can, so long as she allows me.

On the first day of spring, March 20, 2011, we experienced a 'Supermoon' when a full moon was at perigee.  It's the first time since 1993.  This image was taken at 6:55 am as dawn began and just before clouds obscured the moon.  It was -6C and I ventured onto the deck, facing west, in my housecoat and slippers.

Last day of winter, March 19, 2011
The land is drying out but temperatures remain below freezing after a few days of above-normal temperatures.  Lambs are being born at Hidden Meadow Farm, which is heartening, it's where our new flock will be hatched.  We need to complete the pop door, the outdoor platform and the delivery chamber on the new coop and then it will be finished.  The older hens get that coop, since it is smaller and we get only an occasional egg.  The new birds will get the larger one with 6 nest boxes. 

For the first time since November 7, the air smells of relief.  It has been our most difficult winter in 23 years, with 28 recorded weather events so far.  So now, on March 05, 2011, I dare to hope that the just-above-zero temperatures may last a few days and that the sheets of ice and mounds of snow will reduce.  The cats are outside, some in the evergreen maze at the base of the property, and I suspect the uber-queen will have her kits there with others in attandance, sometime in April.  The hens were lined up on the ramp before I offered treats (grapes) and were dust-bathing in the covered run when I left them.  Hundreds of birds, including over 30 ringnecks and dozens of mourning doves are feeding and their songs have a gleeful tone for a change.  We saw deer at a neighbour's yesterday and expect them back on our property at any time.  I hope the losses have not been too great.  Bobcats had been sighted, never a good sign for the herbivores.

By March 06, 2011, we began to experience a massive thaw.  Over half of the snow pack is gone and most roofs have shed layers of dangerous ice.  There is localized flooding so we're glad to be on a hill.  Massive rain storms are approaching from the American northeast, so nearby Brooklyn, Salmon River, LaHave, Blue Acres and Middleton are bracing for trouble.

Forty years married in December 2010