The earthbag chook house- rubble stem wall

I know… I haven’t finished the bathroom walls yet. It has been years since I had any time or energy to attack the building of the bathroom. We have showered outdoors through another two Winter’s of cold wind and frosty toes. However… the chook house needs to be built, and I really want to build some fire resistant animal shelters. Once it is rendered, earthbag walls are fire proof and roof structures can be made fire safe (if not totally fire proof), so I decided to build with earthbags again.

The basic chook house design criteria is as small a building as I can make and still be functional (I only want to keep a few chooks now we are using fewer eggs). I decided on a curved shape (like half an egg) with a high ‘window’ for the chooks to get in and out of, and a small, tight fitting door on the Southern side (facing the humpy) made from thick, solid wood. I will probably make a space in the wall that can be accessed from the outside as nesting boxes (with a solid wood, tight fitting hatch) and include some pipes near the ceiling with wire mesh covers to act as ventilation. This will be a fairly dark, dim space for the chooks to sleep in and lay their eggs, which is what they prefer anyway, there should be enough light to see when dawn comes though.

I decided to use a rubble/rock stem wall, just because I wanted to see how it will perform with earthbags stacked on top. I spent a few days collecting rocks from our property, then my daughter and I dug a shallow trench in the shape we wanted the chook house to be.

The start of the trench
Loads of rocks on the farm ute
Waiting to become a wall
My daughter has a talent for building rock walls it seems
The trench for the rest of the walls was dug slowly
Ready for walls
Nearly there
Stage one complete

Hopefully the earthbags will lay on the top of the wall, this should be high enough to keep the rain water off the earth rendered walls. The gaps between the rocks will allow mice and snakes to get into the chook house (to be avoided if possible), so I am planning on rendering over the rocks with something that will seal the gaps, maybe a cement based render?

The floor of the house will probably be an earth floor, similar to what we will have in the house. It will give me a chance to play with the concept and learn how to make a good, hardwearing floor.

I am planning on a living roof on the chook house, this will hopefully insulate the chooks inside from heat and cold, be more fire proof and will allow me space to plant pumpkins. I will have to find a way to seal the eaves of the roof so they are less likely to burn, but that problem is in the future. For now, I have finished the stem wall, the bags for the wall come next, then I have to think about how to frame a door, an access window and nest boxes.

Aggressive rooster – Pickett

Baby Pickett

Pickett, our current flock rooster, started life as a struggling chick hatched by the school chooks. His mother had abandoned him in the nest and he was in danger of freezing to death. I picked him up and popped him into my pocket for the day while I taught maths and science. He came home with me and was raised by himself in the humpy.

Adult Pickett

He eventually became a beautiful rooster and we decided to make him the flock rooster after Big (our previous rooster) died. He has always been a friendly rooster who takes his job seriously. Recently we have raised two more roosters who have been released into the flock, which seems to have changed the dynamic a little.

Daffy, one of the newer roosters

Now Pickett has begun to be really defensive of his girls, even with me. He has developed some long spurs and is not afraid to use them. He recently attacked my legs while I was feeding the animals outside and did some damage to me.

In response to this, once the blood was cleaned up, we caught him and trimmed the ends of his spurs so he can’t do so much actual damage. I am also trying what my daughter calls ‘cuddle therapy’ with him; essentially, when he approaches me in an aggressive way I simply pick him up and give him a cuddle. He sees this as me asserting my dominance over him (which is nothing but the truth) and it helps me to still see him as the appealing little fuzz ball he was as a chick. We will see if this helps to retrain his brain.

You can see his spurs in this photo

Roosters are naturally protective of the flock (after all, they have to prove their worth to the hens) and this can easily turn to aggressive behaviours towards humans. There is little that can be done to calm an angry rooster, and I have found the best strategy is to try to pick them up and hold them until the storm passes. Running away only makes them worse, as does hitting or kicking them. I have heard some really horrifying stories about roosters; from putting a bucket over them to kicking them to death, and I can’t help but feel sad for both the rooster and the human involved. The rooster is obeying an instict to protect himself and his family and the human is obeying the same instinct. Once a rooster sees you as a threat, it is very hard to win him over again, but we can at least try.

Sadly, the fact that Pickett is aggressive now means that we may not be able to allow him to breed another generation of chicks as aggression tends to run in blood lines. We try to keep only gentle souls here, but we always give everyone plenty of chances to turn their behaviour around.

Goodbye Big rooster

Big in his younger days

It rained last night…we got about 20ml in a storm just after dark. The joy around the humpy was unbelievable, every animal is celebrating this miracle. Except Big the rooster, he has had a very painful leg condition for months now and our attempts to treat him have all failed. Yesterday afternoon we decided that he is in too much pain to keep trying to save him and we called the vet for an appointment to put him to sleep. At least he got to see the rain and hear all the happy chooks one last time.

Big eating his last breakfast

We don’t have many photos of Big; he was always in the crowd but not often on his own. He was about nine years old and had the most amazing nature (just like his dad; Ryan); he would look after babies, not just chicks but ducklings and rabbits too. Hearing Big call over babies and hens to eat was the high point of many days.

He slept inside almost every night of his life, just because he felt the cold and he often had babies to care for. The silence at 4:30am, where Big’s joyous good morning crow used to be, will sound deafening and I would rather hear him crow and know that all is right with the world than have the silence with no happy greeting.

He fathered a lot of babies in his long life, and we are happy to have his grandson as our current flock rooster; Pickett. Big became our retirement cage rooster for the previous few years where he kept the older or disabled hens company. Until this morning he had Delilah (a sussex with a broken hip) and School chook (another sussex with a broken hip) as his girls. Over the rainbow bridge, on the other side of death, there are a multitude of wives waiting patiently for him. I hope he enjoys the reunion.

We will miss him a lot, but at least he is no longer in pain. Goodbye Big, good luck on your new journeys.

We planted him in a big pot with a red paw paw planted in it. He will have a new life as a plant now. He joins Lizard the chook as a lemongrass plant and Sid the sheep as a mandarin tree.

Eggs everywhere- it sure is Spring

There are three people living in the humpy at the moment; one can’t eat eggs, one won’t eat eggs, then there is me. We have 8 laying hens, about 6 laying ducks and 2 laying geese; we collect about 8 eggs a day, or about 66 eggs a week. If you compare both sides of this scale you can see that a lot of eggs get wasted, and I hate waste.

I do attempt to use all our eggs, but have failed miserably in the task so far. Some of the methods we use are;

Fried eggs on weekends (for me)- this uses up about 4 eggs a week

Trading them to friends for veges- about a 12 a week

Using them in baking – about 6 a week

Making quiche (not every week)- about 8 a week

Giving them to a friend with an incubator- about 6 a week

All that gives me a total of, at most, 36 eggs used. I did freeze 2 dozen for use when they all stop laying, but that was a temporary reprieve. I don’t want to sell eggs (too many regulations) and most of my friends have chooks and are in the same predicament as I am (but if you live close and want eggs let me know, especially duck eggs).

So, to address some of the extra eggs, I went looking for egg recipes that could be made then frozen. That way we use the eggs and I have another meal that can be heated up for dinner. This is what I found;

Scrambled eggs, beans and sauce in a burrito; love the sound of this one.

Blueberry scones with icing; sounds delicious

Baked French toast sticks; okay we’ve drifted away from the idea of dinners, but they do use eggs.

Egg and vegetable noodle slice; freezable and good for lunch or dinner.

Halloumi, cheese and egg hot pot; sounds good, but I’m not sure it will freeze.

Broccolli and feta strata; whatever that is.

I’m not going to try all these recipes in one day (I do hate to cook), but I think I can manage one each weekend. That should fill the freezer with breakfasts, lunches and dinners for the first frantic weeks of school.

We also take some of the excess eggs out to the edge of the firebreaks for the goannas and possums. In these dry times all our native animals are searching for food and water. The sheep water troughs and the occasional water tray around the outskirts of the humpy provide water for wildlife and the excess eggs provide just a little nutrition for struggling beings.

I know this sends a mixed message; we don’t want goannas in the house yard and the possums can be very destructive too. I do it because I can see a day, not too far in the future, when animals that are common now will be rare and endangered. I do it because I don’t want any being to suffer and if I have the means to ease suffering, it is my duty to do it. I do it because I love to see the variety of animals who show up to take advantage of the free food.

Eggs show up in the strangest places.

Preserving eggs for winter

 

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We have a lot of old girls in our flock; I feel that a life time of service providing eggs, compost and weeding shouldn’t be rewarded with death when laying starts to wane. We always have a few younger hens coming up to lay too though, so our egg production during peak spring laying is about five eggs per day from a total of ten adult hens. Five eggs a day is just too many for our needs these days, there being only two of us most of the time (and my daughter can’t eat eggs, even when she is home). So I have been looking for ways to preserve eggs for years now.

I haven’t found anything remotely workable before, but this technique looks like my style; easy, cheap and effective. Water-glassing is a method which uses good old chemistry to seal the shell of an egg and prevent bacteria from penetrating the shell and causing it to go bad. I found a particularly good recipe for making water-glass (this version is actually lime water, but apparently they are all called water-glass) here. 

Most sites and books seem to state that the lime chemically seals the shell of the egg so that no oxygen or bacteria can get in and this preserves the eggs for up to eight months or so (some sites say twelve months). For this reason it is very important to make sure your eggs are clean, with no mud or chook poop on them, it is also really important to not wash the natural protective layer off the egg before preserving. All the older sources recommend having your lime solution ready to go and placing eggs into it each day as they come in from the chook pen.

Water-glassing solution

30g hydrated lime (slaked lime)

1 litre clean water

Combine water and lime, pour into a light proof container with a lid. Carefully place clean unwashed eggs into solution and store in a cool place.

Eggs will keep for 8 months.

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I will leave this dozen eggs here on the bench until January or so. Look forward to an update when I open the first preserved egg. This could be one very smelly experiment.

The season’s first chickens hatching; it must be Ostara

Happy Ostara to all; it is the spring equinox, which means that day and night are equal, due to our planet appearing to have no tilt at this stage of its orbit around the sun. It also means that my hens will bring forth chickens (and they have, right on cue), the sheep girls will cycle for the first time since they birthed their babies at Imbolc (it’s driving Stag the ram crazy as he is locked away from them until Mabon, at the end of March) and daffodils flower in the garden. In the bush the kangaroos all have bulging pouches and the wattle is flowering like little golden suns.

At this time of year the world is new and fresh, new life springs forth from every corner and the potential of the summer is revealed. This time of year is so inspiring.

This year we celebrated by taking a Cheese and Garlic tour. We visited some market gardens in the area and a cheese factory and ended up at a brewery for lunch (of course). It was a brilliant day. Unfortunately all the photographs I took of the day were lost when my phone threw an SD card (that’s how my partner phrased it). Instead I will share some photos of Ostara at the humpy….

This is Steve; he comes to the ‘Retired chooks’ pen for a feed when I refill their feeder. He is a King Parrot and his mate’s name is Kerry.

We have two batches of chickens at the moment; one lot was hatched two weeks ago and one hatched on Ostara morning (20th September) 

There are some chicks from each hatch in this photo; our hens tend to mother all the babies together.

The zucchini are beginning to fruit.

The cabbages are hearting up

The Hugelkultur beds are looking green and productive

Yes, we planted lettuce, even though they will bolt to seed after a very short pick. I love lettuce at this time of year.

The last planting of snow peas are fruiting. The other two plantings were eaten by chooks so this will be our first harvest.

I also went to a spring garden tour in my mother’s garden, I have a lot of photos from that, but the garden is so awesome it deserves its own post.

What did you do for Ostara?

Salmon Faverolles update

The Salmon Faverolles are all grown up; they are passing the scrappy, teenaged stage and becoming full grown chooks. I think I will see some eggs this spring, maybe we will set some under a clucky chook and have more adorable babies. I have found them to be very quiet, docile chooks with lovely natures.

Here are some photos to refresh your memory;

Newly hatched Salmon Faverolles

At a few weeks old

At that awkward teenage stage
One of the little pullets, all grown up.
Another pullet with one of the minorca pullets behind her

I love watching my babies grow up.

Salmon Faverolles update

I let the Salmon Faverolles out for a run in the yard for the first time this morning; they were so excited and happy to be treated like ‘big chooks’. There are only seven of the original ten left; all three died from the same mystery Marek’s like disease we seem to have acquired. Treatment with St John’s Wort tincture prolonged the life of one chick but he ultimately died and the other two were fine one night and dead the next morning with the characteristic neck drawn back, splayed leg posture.

The seven remaining chicks are growing fast and have reached that awkward adolescent stage between chick and chook when they are scruffy and disproportionate to look at, but these chicks somehow manage to make that stage look cute (I really am in love).

In their pen, waiting to be big chooks.

Three days later, they are big chooks and the pen is open.

Foraging for bugs with mum.

I will let them out for a few hours every day for a few weeks to let them learn to forage and enjoy being chooks. We will need to build them a pen of their own soon as I am a bit worried that my cross breed flock will be too aggressive for them; they really are gentle and docile chooks.

Mystery disease in the flock

My Salmon Faverolles now.
Everyone who keeps chooks has occasional unexplained deaths in the flock, I had some a few months ago; I had ‘chook sat’ another small flock for a few weeks at my house last New Years, and I (stupidly) didn’t keep the two flocks separate enough. They were in different but adjoining runs. Some of the other flock died (two of them) and I lost six from my flock. Since then I have had one or two getting sick for no apparent reason.
The symptoms ;
Weight loss with no loss of appetite (I wish).
Cloudy eyes with no running or ulceration.
A limp develops in one leg followed by a drooped wing and staggering gait.
Eventually the chook is paralyzed in the legs and one wing and develops a scoliosis (curved spine) with the head twisted.
Even at the later stages the chook is bright with a good appetite and wants to live. Because it only appears very occasionally since the first six deaths I had thought it was something they ate or a tick causing it and tried changing their brand of mixed grain and watching what goes into the house scrap bucket, I have limed the chook pen and shelter repeatedly and replaced the mulch in the deep litter yard. Although it doesn’t explain the other flock’s deaths, I also decided it could have a genetic cause as I haven’t introduced any new chickens into the flock for five years; the whole flock is interbred to a large degree so I may have inadvertently introduced a genetic flaw, so I introduced a new rooster (an Austrolorp) and got some fertile eggs from other sources to bring in some new genes. 
The chooks who were sick got to live inside, in a box (changed twice daily) and were fed a special ration of chicken crumbles, rolled oats and chopped herbs (comfrey, parsley and stinging nettle, also chick weed in winter) to boost their weight gain. All of them eventually died, until one night I had a dream; I watched my flock suffering from this disease, suffering paralysis and losing weight ,one by one they died and as I woke up from this nightmare I heard a voice say ‘Mareks’. The first thing I did when I woke up was to google Mareks (because that’s what we all do with nightmares, right?). I found that the symptoms are a pretty close match to what my chooks had but that the age range was too big (the usual age for chooks to die of Marek’s is 1 – 10 weeks) and the rate of death was too low (most flocks suffer 70 -80% loss).
 Marek’s is caused by a herpes virus that attacks the nerve endings and sometimes the eyes and skin and usually results in death. Even though my chooks were only occasionally suffering and the sufferers were of different ages, I decided that it was probably Mareks. Some more reading about Marek’s you might find interesting.
My daughter, who is studying Veterinary Technology at uni, text me one day with a link to a research study into Herpes treatment; apparently St John’s Wort has shown promise as a herpes treatment in humans and other mammals, it was worth a try with avians too. I picked up a bottle of St John’s Wort tincture from our local Co-Op and had it ready to go when the next chook got sick.
Wobbles is a four year old hen who suddenly became paralyzed. I treated her as usual but added 1 ml of St John’s Wort and echinacea tinctures to her water a day as well. After a week she regained most of her motor function and is back to laying and running free in the yard, although as tinctures are made with vodka, she retained a deep love of anything alcoholic (hence the new name, Wobbles).
The clip below is of Tonto, he is six months old and his first symptom was the staggers as the video shows.
The clip below is from YouTube and it shows another chook suffering from Marek’s.

I treated Tonto with the same diet and medication as Wobbles and he is now on his first day back in the yard. He is a bit weak and wobbly (another one) but he seems to be recovering.
If you have Marek’s disease in your flock, give the St John’s Wort treatment a shot, it might save a few lives and we can gather some anecdotal evidence for  it’s use.

Salmon faverolles chicks at last

My chook flock tends to be very eclectic; I gather unwanted chooks of all breeds who tend to have chicks of unknown parentage. We haven’t had many new editions lately, so I bought a dozen fertile eggs (from my friend Milton) to set under a clucky hen. The new chicks are Salmon Faverolles; reputed to be quiet (not noisy) and docile (very dumb and trusting). 
What beautiful babies they are.
They hatched a week ago and I am in love.
They are very quiet; I can barely hear them cheeping in the pen, and very docile; they don’t get out of the way when I take food in to them. They have cute little fluffy bodies and a bouffant hair style to go with it. 
I will be keeping a rooster and some hens from this lot and taking a rooster and two hens to school for the kids to look after too. I may need to build a separate pen for them though as I think my wild, feral flock would be too rough on them (they really are very trusting and dumb).