Wednesday, August 17, 2016

How to choose a rooster

This might sound weird, but we let our hens chose their rooster.  I better start at the beginning (although its hard to tell where that is, chicken and egg and all that).  Here's a summary of how we hatch and dispatch our roosters, and let the hens chose a few to keep.

As I wrote back here, we keep lots of hens because we like to have eggs through winter (hens tend to stop laying as many eggs in winter, but if you have enough new layers, you will still get a few eggs each day).  The cheapest way to have lots of hens is to hatch your own chicks.  We have a 48 egg incubator, and we usually hatch around 30 chicks from a full incubator.  Of those 30, half or so will be hens and the rest roosters.

eight acres: how to chose a rooster

We keep one rooster for every 8-10 hens, depending on whether these roosters get on or not, sometimes its possible to have two in the same yard.  We currently have three rooster, two from this year's hatch and one from last year.  Of the two from this year's hatch, one we chose because he's a big Rhode Island Red rooster, and the other one just moved in with a chicken tractor of hens, so he gets to stay too.  Usually only one rooster will move in with a group of hens who have no rooster.  If the hens accept him, then he can stay with them.  

One of the biggest factors in egg hatching rate is the rooster.  Not just his fertility, but whether the hens like him.  As Harvey Ussery wrote in the best chicken book I've ever read, the rooster needs to woo his hens, by calling them over for choice bits of food and doing a little rooster dance before he mates with them.  If the hens don't like a rooster they will just run away from him, and you won't get many fertile eggs.  

So.... if we let the hens choose their rooster, we get more fertile eggs, and then we get more roosters for them to chose from.   

We keep each rooster for 2-3 years.  We find that the older roosters get challenged by the younger ones and eventually we have to remove them (sorry readers, they don't go to rooster retirement homes, we cull them when we do the old hens).  Unfortunately old roosters, no matter how long you cook them, do not get more tender (believe me, I've stewed one for 24 hours).  They are best as dog food or buried deep in the compost.

And what happens to the other 10-12 roosters that don't get selected by hens (or by us) to stay?  The young ones are very tasty.  We raise them to be meat chickens, and you can roast them (don't forget to make stock from the carcass).  For the older hens we prefer to mince them.

How do you choose a rooster?  Do you hatch your own?  And what do you do with the extras?

Find out more about chicken tractors in my eBook Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, July 18, 2016

What breed of chicken should I get?

When we first got chickens we thought pure-bred chickens were the best option.  We soon found out that they don't lay as many eggs as they used to (thanks to being bred for looks rather than egg-laying abilities) and so we got some hybrid hens.  The hybrids lay well, too well, and are not great for eating as they don't get very big.  Now we have a bit of a mixture of Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns and commercial laying hens, which we cross-breed to create our own breed of dual purpose (laying and table birds) for eggs and eating.

eight acres: What breed of chicken should I get?
We breed crazy chickens that like to roost on their tractor

If you're wondering what breed of chickens you should get, I've developed a fun flow chart to help you decide.

eight acres: What breed of chicken should I get?
double click to see full size image

Of course there is more to the equation than just eggs/meat or both.  Some chickens are better suited to different climates or to being kept in smaller cages versus foraging.  You can find a more comprehensive list of all the breeds here.  I see on some sites that sussex are listed as laying hens.  I am surprised by this (and maybe the breed is different in other countries).  Generally you can tell by the shape of the bird.  The good layers are small and skinny hens, they put their energy into egg laying.  The bigger, plumper birds don't lay so many eggs, but put more energy into their bodies, so they are better table or meat birds.  The dual purpose birds are in between.  All the sussex hens I've ever seen were little fatties and not great layers.

Chris from Gully Grove recently wrote an excellent post about keeping heritage breeds and getting distracted from the work of self-sufficiency by the attraction of keeping lots of different chickens.  It happens to lots of us at first and is definitely a time trap to avoid if you can chose the right chickens from the start.

What type of chickens to do you keep and why?

Find out more about chicken tractors in my eBook Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, June 27, 2016

Eggs Aside - Five more reasons to keep chickens

Today I have a guest post from a new blog-friend, Sarah from Say! Little Hen.  Sarah is based in QLD and keeps chickens, grows a garden, knits wonderful creations and shares her baking recipes.  I was delighted to find out about Sarah's blog when she emailed me to offer a guest post, so you should pop over and see her blog to find out more, when you finish reading this post about reasons to keep chickens - aside from eggs of course!


We all know that chickens lay eggs, and this is of course the main reason people keep them. I never enjoyed eating eggs until we had our own fresh, home-grown ones. The difference is incredible, and having some chooks to tend is really a joyful experience.

There are, however, many reasons to keep chickens - egg laying aside. Today I'd like to share my top five reasons to keep chickens. I hope one (or all!) of these inspire you to start your own flock.

eight acres: guest post - Five more reasons to keep chickens, aside from eggs

1. Chickens provide a relaxing form of entertainment

There's really nothing more peaceful than letting the chickens out for a wander around the yard of an afternoon. You can potter around the yard yourself, or just immerse yourself into watching them go about their business. With their complex social structure, they really are interesting little animals to observe.

eight acres: guest post - Five more reasons to keep chickens, aside from eggs

2. Chickens provide a reliable source of manure
If you're interested in keeping chickens, I'm just going to assume that you've also got a small interest in gardening. Even if it's just a few perennial shrubs or trees in your yard, your chickens will provide you with a reliable supply of fertiliser. Put hay down under their night perch, as this makes it easy to collect the manure. Your plants will be mulched and fertilised all at once!

eight acres: guest post - Five more reasons to keep chickens, aside from eggs

3. The third reason for keeping chickens also has to do with gardening - chickens are wonderful at it

There's a reason you don't want them breaking into your veggie patch - chickens are expert excavators, and unlike us, they dig over the soil in the most beneficial way, and without grumbling about it. When a patch is finished and ready to be sown-over, letting your chickens in for a week or two (depending on the size of the area) is a really good thing to do. They'll gobble up the remaining plants, and any bugs that are on them too; they'll turn over the soil, aerating it and helping mulch and plant matter break down more quickly, and they'll fertilise as they go. The chickens will also enjoy good heath from this improved diet.

eight acres: guest post - Five more reasons to keep chickens, aside from eggs

4. Chickens reduce household waste

I remember the thrill of getting out a container and putting our vegetable scraps into it the night before we picked up our first trio of layers. It was really exciting!

Now keeping a scrap bucket on the bench has become part of the norm. Every vegetable and fruit scrap goes into it, from the potato and carrot peelings to the wrinkled forgotten apple at the bottom of the fruit bowl. The chickens also gladly consume unwanted leftovers from the fridge (I always seem to have more left over rice than I need), mixed up into a bubble-and-squeak type of mash for breakfast. They enjoy leftover stew, curry, rice, potato, pasta, gravy - you name and they'll eat it. When I make vegetable stock, I strain it through a sieve and the cooked down veggies go straight into the scrap bucket. The chickens go a little crazy for soft cooked vegetables!

eight acres: guest post - Five more reasons to keep chickens, aside from eggs

5. Chickens make wonderful pets

They really do. If you have a child that is an animal lover, chickens are one of the easiest care and most budget-friendly pets you can buy. They are not fragile like guinea pigs or budgies, and unlike rabbits it's legal to keep chickens anywhere in Australia. They are easy to care for, needing only clean water and proper feeding.

Although chickens don't have to be allowed to free range, they'll certainly appreciate it and it's an easy task for your child to let them out to forage after school.

They don't need walking or vet checkups like dogs, and aren't going to harass the local wildlife like a cat. If you buy the right breed, they'll be just a cuddly as a dog and certainly very interactive. I've known pet chickens that have been patient enough to endure their nails being painted.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Why do chickens stop laying eggs in winter?

Chickens naturally stop laying eggs in winter.  Actually when you think about it, the fact that they lay an egg a day for so much of the year is completely unnatural.  Birds in the wild will only lay a few eggs until they have a clutch to hatch, but we have bred chickens to just keep laying every day, no wonder they need a break!

eight acres: why hens stop laying eggs in winter (and what you can do about it)

Part of the reason we keep so many chickens (usually around twenty hens), as I wrote about back here, is that we get just enough eggs through winter to have one or two each a day.  In spring we will get up to twenty eggs a day and in winter it will be two or three eggs (so we have to eat some bacon with breakfast!).  You can use some tricks to encourage chickens to lay through winter, however we prefer to give the hens a break.

There are a few reasons for the decrease in egg production.  For the most part it is triggered by the day length, apparently when day length is less than 14 hours egg production will decrease.  See this article for more details.  For this reason, lights in the hen house can be used to simulate longer days.  We are near the equator, so our day length only varies from 10 and a bit hours at winter solstice to just under 14 hours at summer solstice (its a wonder our hens lay at all!), so we don't experience the complete lack of eggs that may occur with very short days further from the equator.  Here's some more information from another blogger who uses lights.

We also try to keep young hens in our flock by hatching more chicks each year and culling older hens.  We find that pullets who just started to lay in spring will lay better through the subsequent winter compared to older birds.  Its a good idea to have a rotation plan before you get chickens.

eight acres: why hens stop laying eggs in winter (and what you can do about it)

In autumn chickens go through a moult where they lose all their feathers.  They typically don't lay during this period as their body is regenerating and growing new feathers.  Each individual chicken will moult at different times with different severity, so we usually get a few eggs during this time as each hen takes a break.

Its important to feed chickens plenty of high energy feed during the colder months, from when they are moulting until spring, as they will be using lots of energy to regrow feathers and to keep warm in the cooler months.  If I was more organised I would make sure they had lots of meal worms.

If its not winter, and your hens are not laying, it could be due to a few other issues, see this post for more information.

Are you hens laying at the moment?  Do you use any strategies to have eggs in winter?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Raising baby chicks

This is an article of mine that was published in Grass Roots magazine this time last year.  I got too busy to sent articles for a while, but I just started again, so look out for my contributions!

Over spring and summer we incubate chicken eggs and raise chicks. We fatten the roosters to eat and keep the hens to replace our older layers. Raising chicks is great fun, a lot of hard work, but worth the effort if you want a sustainable flock. Whether you incubate eggs or buy baby chicks, all chicks need is three things: a safe, warm place to live; water and food.

eight acres: tips for raising chicks

The brooder box
When chicks first hatch, they don’t have any proper feathers (just fine fluff), so they need to be kept warm, around the same temperature as the incubator (38degC) at first and then gradually cooling as they get bigger. We keep our chicks in a large wooden box. You don’t have to use a wooden box, any kind of strong, draught-proof box will do. I have seen plastic, cardboard and metal boxes used as well.

We heat the box using a heat lamp and thermostat designed for reptiles. We have both a 60 W and a 25 W ceramic bulb, which we vary depending on the outside temperature (sometimes the larger bulb is too hot, or the smaller bulb not hot enough). The top of the box has a metal mesh frame, to stop the chicks flying out and to stop the dogs helping themselves. You can also use incandescent lightbulbs (if you still have any!) and a thermometer to monitor the temperature in the box. The chicks will tell you if they are too cold, they all huddle under the lamp, and if they are too hot they will be in the opposite corner of the box panting.

our brooder box

We also cover the box with blankets at night to keep out draughts. The box usually starts inside the house, because the temperature is more stable, and we move it outside as the chicks start to smell and make too much noise. After they are a week old or so, they are much stronger and able to handle slight temperature fluctuations.

We line the bottom of the box with newspaper and then a layer of wood shavings. This is supposed to be easier on their little feet. We had a batch of chickens with crooked feet early on and I think it was from only having newspaper on the floor of their box. They do tend to eat some wood shavings at first, but it must not matter, as long as they find their chick food as well.

Inside the box we provide the chicks with a small “waterer”, which you can buy from a produce/stock feed store. This is better than a dish of water because the chicks can’t fall in and get wet (and cold) or drown. They seem to find the water by instinct and there’s no need to add anything to the water, although I've read that people add apple cider vinegar or honey to give the chicks an energy boost, especially if they've arrived via post.

chicks eating hardboiled eggs

Feeding chicks
There are a few options for feeding the chicks. You can just buy a commercial chick starter crumble, which is formulated for chicks, and usually contains a coccidiostat (an antibiotic to prevent the chicks getting sick from coccidiosis). This is more relevant for large-scale production of chicks and probably unnecessary if you’re only raising a few chicks. A good alternative, if you can find it, is an organic chick crumble which contains all the same protein and minerals as the commercial crumble, without the medication.

Now you may want to take things even further and make the chick feed yourself. We have experimented with a few options and found that we can use hammer-milled grain (that we also feed to our adult chickens) supplemented with extra protein and minerals. The extra protein can be in the form of meal worms, compost worms, meat meal mix (available from our local produce store) and hardboiled eggs. It sounds weird to feed eggs to chickens, but the egg was the chick’s first food as it developed, and as long as its crushed they won’t associate a raw egg with food in the future. This is the easiest and cheapest supplement if you already have some laying hens. For the minerals we buy a commercial organic mineral mix and a seaweed meal.

You can also start feeding the chicks leafy greens and grass, they might not eat much at first, but it gives them something different to peck at in their box. When the chicks are a few weeks old, we also start putting them outside in a small birdcage for a few hours to that they can experience being on the grass, then its not such a shock for them when they move into a chicken tractor.

I’m not sure if this really necessary, but we usually “teach” the chicks to eat their food by tapping a finger in the food dish. This results in lots of chicks running over to your hand to see what you’re doing and a few will then try eating the food. After that, they are usually pretty quick to work out where the food is.

Moving chicks into a chicken tractor
The transition from the chicks living in the brooder box to moving into chicken tractors can be difficult to time, as it depends on your outside overnight temperatures. Ideally we hatch the chicks in spring or summer, so that they can move out after only 6 weeks, before they have all their feathers, because it is usually plenty warm enough by then. Otherwise they have to stay in their brooder box longer and once they reach that noisy messy stage I can't wait for them to move out!

Even though it is warm enough, we find that when we put chicks out in the tractor for the first few nights they need to 'tucked in' at dusk because they are so used to living in a box and not having open sides, its quite scary for them. This means draping tarps, old sheets, towels and blankets over the tractor so that they feel like they're still in a solid box. Otherwise they spend the night trying to stick their little heads out of the mesh and sometimes they manage to squeeze out. We only have to do this for about a week until they get used to it. This also helps to keep the dew off their grass and keep out any draughts, while they acclimatise to not having the heat lamp above them at night.

chicks in a chicken tractor
After the chicks move out of the brooder and into a chicken tractor they eat grass, grow the rest of their feathers and very quickly get bigger and bossier. Its hard to remember that they were once tiny fluff-balls, and all the hard work pays off when you count up how many new layers you will have next spring (and how many roast roosters you will have in the freezer in a few months).

What do you think? Any tips for raising chicks?

Find out more about chicken tractors in my eBook Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Outfoxing the fox

Lately we've had a fox hanging around.  I'm sure we never had a problem with foxes before we got the guinea fowl.  We used to forget to close the chicken tractors sometimes, and the worst that would happen was being woken at dawn by a large rooster crowing outside our bedroom window.  The thing with chickens is that they go into their tractor and sleep there whether you close the door or not, which does not attract foxy attention if you're lucky.

The guinea fowl would refuse to go in and opt to sleep in the grass instead, and the fox caught on to the easy meal.  I think we lost about six guineas in total over several nights and the fox obviously added our place to its nightly rounds.  We had a few accidents where chicken tractors were left open overnight.  We also saw the fox in the day as well, in the early winter morning (I assume there is only one regular fox, but there could be several).

eight acres: outfoxing the fox that has been attacking our chickens

Anyway, we knew the fox was around and had thought that the chickens were safe in their chicken tractors, as we had become very disciplined about remembering to shut them at night, until one night Taz got Pete up and he found that a fox had actually dug under the chicken tractor.  It had taken one chicken and killed another.  If Taz hadn't alerted Pete we would probably have lost the whole lot of them.  The fox had dug a hole about 10cm deep, it would have struggled to get the fat old hen out of the hole.  We were really shocked because this tractor was INSIDE our dog fenced house yard.  It keeps Taz IN but clearly does not keep foxes out.

The next night Pete put planks of wood around the tractors to prevent more digging and everything was fine until a few days later when we moved the chicken tractors and didn't move the planks.  What do they say about complacency?  We lost another two chickens.  So after that we were on a mission to outfox the fox.

We had two options: 1) kill the fox 2) stop the fox taking chickens.

Kill the fox?
Option 1 is more difficult than it sounds.... and not because the fox was cute.  Let's get the cute fox image out of the way now.  Here's a cute fox video.  Everyone say oooooh, and then remember that this cute clever agile little animal will KILL ALL YOUR CHICKENS.  It will jump and dig and squeeze into small spaces and it will KILL ALL YOUR CHICKENS.

Foxes are not native to Australia, they are a pest and a problem for our self-sufficient lifestyle, so I would have been very happy to kill our fox if I had the opportunity.  However, I could not figure out how I would get a chance to shoot it, other than stay up all night and wait.  I did try putting "Country Fried Chicken" in our animal trap, as per the video below, which seemed very encouraging, but all we caught (and released) was an angry goana :( so we were stuck with option 2 - deter the fox.

We took three approaches to deterring the fox, and so far the combination is working.  First we got foxlights on the recommendation of a friend who swears by them for protecting his sheep.  This is a battery operated LED light that flashes white and blue at random.  We got two of them.  They are well-constructed, water-proof, robust and seem to confuse the fox as long as we move them around.  Pete made a stand from a piece of C-Section and a cut-off star picket.  I made a video of our place at night so you can see the random flashing.  They have a light sensor and come on automatically as soon as its dark enough.  Its taken a while to get used to the random flashing outside!

We have had one fox attack about six weeks after we got the foxlights, but we hadn't been moving them. Now we move them a few metres every night.  The foxlights are around $90 each, which is not cheap, but neither is replacing chickens, so far I think they have been worth the investment (although I can't be sure as we changed a couple of other things after that attack).

eight acres: outfoxing the fox that has been attacking our chickens

eight acres: outfoxing the fox that has been attacking our chickens

Chicken Tractor Modifications
When we had the fox attack after we got the foxlights, we decided to also modify the chicken tractors a little to make digging under more difficult.  We (Pete) welded a frame and more mesh onto the floor of the tractors.  We previously had an open floor, and I wanted to keep as much open as possible so that the chickens can scratch, so we just added mesh around the back where the tractors sit higher off the ground due to the wheels.  With 500mm of extra mesh around the base it would be a bigger task to dig under in one night, so we just have to check for digging each day.  

I actually forgot to take a photo of the finished work, just the chickens inspecting their tractor turned on its side!  Just imagine extra mesh welded around the inside edge at the back and sides.  A few people commented on this photo on facebook that they put mesh on the outside around the bottom to stop digging, that would work too, but it would have made our tractors too wide and impractical.  Something else to consider when designing a chicken tractor!

eight acres: outfoxing the fox that has been attacking our chickens

Guard Dog on Duty
Poor Taz thinks of herself as a lap dog these days and had started sleeping curled up at the end of our bed (now that is cute).  So it was a bit of a shock to her when we decided she would have to sleep outside on the veranda.  She does get Pete up every time she hears a chicken get attacked, but that is one chicken too late, we need her to notice the fox in our yard.  I have read that dogs just get used to foxes, but I don't know about Taz, she gets pretty mad if she sees the fox in daylight and she's very protective of the chickens.  I told her she's doing a very important job and she can have lots of eggs for breakfast.

eight acres: outfoxing the fox that has been attacking our chickens
Poor Taz thinks she belongs inside at night

Do you have a fox problem?  What have you done about it?

Find out more about chicken tractors in my eBook Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why you should consider using chicken tractors

If you haven't seen it already, I've written an article for FarmStyle with six reasons why you should consider chicken tractors.  This includes:
  • No more cleaning coops
  • Better eggs
  • Protection from predators
  • Less likely to attract rodents (and snakes!)
  • Simpler and cheaper to build
  • Take it with you when you move

Find out more on this link.  FarmStyle has a range of useful farm articles and a forum for small farm discussions.

eight acres: six reasons to consider using chicken tractors

By the way, my chicken tractor ebook is now available if you want to know more about designing and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Chris from Gully Grove

Going Grey and Slightly Green