Archive for the ‘Chickens’ Category

Chicken House Built on Hay Wagon Running Gear

We’ve been through two main iterations of chicken housing. The first houses were portable, sort of, and short. These were very difficult to work in because of the height, and our primary lesson from those was to make the roosting area tall enough for us to stand up in.
Our second design was stationary, around 10 feet square, with around 8×10 of auxiliary “annex” space for storing feed in cans, empty egg cartons, etc. This also gave us an “air lock” to be able to enter the space one door at a time, in case someone got ambitious about escaping in the wrong direction. This system worked out well for many years, but the biggest drawback was not being able to move them. This wasn’t the end of the world, because our property was small enough and had topographic constraints that meant we didn’t really have anywhere else ideal to put them. But the ground around the entryway was pretty well beat down.
When we moved to our new larger farm, we knew we needed to have a chicken house on wheels. There are some common mission requirements that apply to all of our chicken housing:
-It is a sleeping area, because they will be out of the house during the day. If the birds are going to be confined, then the space requirements increase by an order of magnitude.
-There will be an automatic door that secures them after sunset and lets them out after sunrise, because those are the times that I’m asleep.
-It would need good ventilation capability while not being too drafty
-There will be an automatic water system that collects rainwater and dispenses it to the birds via drinking nipples
-We need space for the feeders that are made from 55-gallon drums
-It needs to be easy to clean out for the couple times per year of litter refresh
-It doesn’t need to justify its cost in the business sense because the housing serves us. Poor housing costs us time and frustration, and our time is very expensive.
-Preferably, we can collect eggs from outside of the structure
-We need storage space for things that aren’t in the chicken area, like feed (we use steel trash cans to store bags), bedding, empty egg cartons, etc.
Our starting point for a mobile house was a hay wagon. Hay wagon running gears are built for plenty of weight. They have high ground clearance, and thankfully they are available. We found one on Craigslist, or maybe it was Facebook Marketplace, and went to check it out. The one that we were there for would have worked out, but the seller also had a larger wagon in better shape, which we were able to purchase instead.

This wagon was in good shape but it still wasn’t perfect. We don’t know how old it is, but I’d guess at least 50-60 years, maybe more. The length is established by the center pipe. The first step was to take everything apart and refinish the steel. The easier way to do this was to haul the parts down to the powder coating place, where they did a nice job for us. It was a little hard to get the center pipe removed. After securing one end to a big tree and the other end to a vehicle didn’t work, I used a rosebud tip on the O/A torch to apply some heat. The heat combined with the first method worked.


From there we laminated some pressure-treated 2×8 lumber to make the two front-rear beams, staggering the joints to end up with an overall length of 20 feet.

Then we used steel Simpson ties to attach the 8′ pressure-treated 4×4 posts every 24 inches, topping it off with a 3/4 exterior plywood. Some of these material choices were based on what we had laying around, though the 8′ width was useful for the plywood floor and siding.

From there it was just like building a shed, or at least sort of like building a shed. We used the new wagon deck as a work surface, making a template to build the roof trusses. These were made from 2×4 lumber gusseted with OSB.

The floor plan included some built-in cabinets in the chicken area. The lower portion of the cabinets were intended to be nest boxes, though we haven’t fully developed those yet. The upper portion is sized to fit a bale of floor shavings. We found the doors at the local Habitat for Humanity store, which sells reclaimed materials.



The wall with the cabinets is solid, and the opposite wall and back of the wagon are ventilated with half inch hardware cloth. The lower hardware cloth sections on the side are hatches that can be opened for cleanout. There is a strip of siding in the middle of the wall, to help act as a wind break in the winter.
We coated the floor with a material that is intended to go on RV roofs, though I’m not sure that was a great idea. Time will tell I suppose. We are hoping to delay the inevitable rotting of the floor.



The roost is hinged where it attaches to the side wall, so that we can hoist it up for cleanouts.


We found a used set of retractable RV steps to add under the side door, and installed a gutter and a rainwater collection system.






The rainwater system uses pieces and fittings of 4″ drain pipe to catch the gutter downspout, then flow into a 55-gallon barrel inside the annex. The water flows from that barrel into another 4″ drain pipe with the orange drinking nipples, and there is also an overflow tube that vents overboard once the barrel gets full. All of those systems are heated with an electric pipe heater, though last winter I don’t think we plugged it in. We also installed LED light strips in the roost area and annex, which are powered by a 100ah lead acid battery. This battery is charged by a 100w solar panel and a cheap MPPT controller. This system could also power an electric fence charger, but at the moment we haven’t needed it to.
We added an automatic door from Ador which is also powered by the 12v system. The electric door leads to a 2x6x12 board, which we have to remove when relocating the trailer. Experience has shown that we also need to drive a stake in the ground right next to where the ramp reaches the ground, so that we can anchor the lower end of the ramp. Otherwise the goats play with it and knock it off, because naturally the 12′ of leverage is too much for any attachment options. Occasionally small goats have been motivated to climb the ramp and enter the house. Our goats can’t speak English but I suppose if I asked them why they would want to go in the chicken house, they would probably ask why not?
I didn’t fully appreciate how difficult the hay wagon would be to maneuver, at least in reverse. A typical single or double axle trailer is rigid from the coupler back to the axle, so backing it up is just a matter of turning the wheel the right way. But with the hay wagon, the tongue is attached to steerable wheels, so in addition to all of the usual difficulties with backing up a trailer, we have the added challenge of it always wanting to jackknife. Backing up with the pickup truck is nearly impossible, because I can’t see the tongue well enough to preempt this. It is much easier (though still hard) to use the tractor with a 3-point hitch adapter, because at least in that case we can see the tongue. Moving it in a forward direction is no problem at all, once we remember how tall and wide it is, so we can miss the trees.

Premier 1 Electric Net Fence Tips

Over the years we have really come to appreciate the temporary electric fences from Premier One. Honestly I’m not sure how we would be able to operate the way we do without this type of fence. In 2020-2021 there have been some difficulties in getting the fence because it isn’t in stock, but it’s worth waiting for. Set up an email alert! They haven’t provided us any compensation for this post, though, they’d certainly be welcome to. As much as we’ve bought, you’d think we’d be eligible for at least a free hat or something!

Selecting the Fence

We have several different varieties that we’ve acquired piecemeal over the years, including the 42″ and 48″ heights, the single and double spike, regular poles vs drive-able poles, and the closer vs the normal pole spacing (Poultry Net is the standard, Poultry Net Plus is the narrower spacing). We even have some of the very widely-spaced fence for larger animals, which allows the chickens to pass through. Our smaller goats can get through it also, so we don’t use it for them. The LGD respects it, but I’ll be very disappointed if any of you tell her that she could easily jump it! So far she hasn’t thought to try. We had one cow for a while and the fence worked fine for him too, but I think he would have been happily contained by a strand of yarn honestly.

For us, the only variety that we want any more of is the 48″ dual spike, either the Poultry Net or the Poultry Net Plus. These two can both be useful depending on the terrain and complexity of the routing. If it’s going to be a fairly straight run over fairly even terrain, we use the standard Poultry Net. Both types have the same number of poles per bundle, so the standard provides a 10-foot pole spacing for a total length of 164′ per roll. The Plus has 6’8″ spacing for a total of 100 feet per bundle. The closer pole spacing really shines if you are needing to introduce curves, maneuver around obstacles, or hug more rolling terrain, but naturally the reduced coverage makes it less economical. It can be nice to have some of each, deploying the most appropriate piece for the task at hand.

The dual spike is the only way to go for us, because it makes it easy to step the post into the ground under normal circumstances, or if the ground is really dry, we can use the flat portion of the double spike to hammer the post into the ground. I don’t think we’ll buy any more of the single spike.

Effectiveness with Poultry

As one would expect, the Poultry Net keeps in the birds just fine, except for the ones that fly out. At that point, we let them assume their own safety from predators. This is part of our selective breeding practice. But in their defense, if they can fly enough to get over the fence, they can probably also fly enough to roost in a tree. We have never lost a single bird to a ground-based predator, as long as the bird was inside the fence. Aerial predators like hawks do occasionally pose a problem. The only tip I can offer for aerial predators is that you have to break the habit- shut down the buffet by putting the birds away for a few days, or the predator will come back for one at a time until they are all gone. This is especially true with chicks, adolescents, and silkies.

Goats

We have tested the poultry net extensively with the Mini Lamancha dairy goats and with a few full-size Alpine dairy goats. Sometimes it is said that we only successfully contain goats when they want to be contained, and I tend to agree. Once during a breeding visit, one of our mini does managed to jump over the 48″ fence to get away from a buck that she didn’t like. She didn’t exactly sail over it, but rather picked the saggyest looking part (around 40 inches actual height), and managed to get over with minimal leg entanglement. The whole situation was sub-optimal, but honestly I think she would have challenged just about any fence from the look of her demeanor.

We have also had small goats manage to shimmy under the fence, especially if the ground is very dry. These type of electric fences depend on the shock to flow from the charger, through the fence, through the animal, and then return back to the charger through the actual earthen/dirt ground. When the dirt is dry, that final link in the chain becomes weak and the shock is less effective. Our only way to break this habit, other than a nice steady rain every week or two, was to install a “cone of shame” on the offending kid. As with the birds of prey, sometimes it’s sufficient just to break the habit.

Chargers

Speaking of chargers, naturally we can’t depend on the “acres” or “miles of fence” ratings that chargers are marketed with. Those numbers are for a single strand of wire, and these electric net fences are energized on every horizontal strand, which is 12 strands for a 48″ Poultry Net. A stand-alone solar charger is almost certainly going to be worthless. They are typically a quarter or half a Joule, and aren’t going to successfully power much more than one length of fence, if that. We have better results with using a ratio of one joule per length of fence, more or less. Sometimes we violate that, and it may work fairly well for a while, but then that’s when the more curious of our goats start to challenge it. If the fence isn’t always hot, the goats will figure it out really fast. You’ll likely not be able to find a charger larger than 3 joules at places like TSC or Rural King, but we were able to order a 12-Joule from Cyclops with no trouble. Here’s more info on our solar setup.

Pigs

We do also have one length of the knee-high pig fence. That worked great when we had our pig. It ships in a positive and ground configuration, but we converted ours to positive only just to simply things. Like most non-goat animals, once he experienced a single shock, he didn’t really challenge it again, except for one time that his feeder got plugged up and he got hungry. After that we learned to check not only the level of feed in his hopper, but also to clean out his lower portion of it every week or two. It’s funny how the farm has a way of teaching us these small lessons. We did try to use this fence with adolescent poultry, intending that they could come and go through the fence but still retreat to safety. This didn’t work very well.

Drawbacks

The one hazard that threatens these fences more than any other, at least for us, is moving water. At our first farm we routinely had major floods, and came to expect them. The fences would often get swept away and buried in sand and debris. Thankfully our current farm isn’t subject to such torrents, but we do get occasional heavy rains, and the fence does a great job of keeping in anything that would have normally floated by. We’ve found that a short scrap of fence (left over from a fence that was damaged beyond reasonable repair in a previous flood) can make a nice sacrificial barrier for debris, keeping the primary fence functional. This can make the difference between keeping the animals in or not, especially if we aren’t on site right away to deal with problems as they arise. The same philosophy could be applied with a second length of fence, if you don’t have the good fortune of already having ruined one.

Also, though we went many years before we started using gates, now we use them often and have come to appreciate their simple and effective design. That is, once you fix them by gluing on the ends!

Finally, we have found it easy to integrate the short pig fence with the 48″ chicken fence. In this video, you can see more details about the moving water, the gates, and the pig fence integration:

Moving Water to Remote Parts of the Farm

Whenever possible, we try to establish rainwater collection systems that directly dispense water to the animals. This is the case especially with poultry. But when we move the goats around by rotating their pastures, sometimes we need to transport water to their troughs. Our friend the IBC tote is great for this. A small tractor like our Mahindra 1526 can only lift 1200 pounds, which means a tote that is about 1/3 full. But that’s plenty of water to make it worth the trip. And the front-end loader makes it easy to lift the tote high enough to gravity feed. Here’s a video of what happened when we tried to fill the calf’s bucket. He was part of the 2020-2021 Catawba County 4-H Dairy Steer project, in which our older daughter bottle fed him from when it was tiny enough to pick up and carry around, until he was old enough to graze. By the time he left our farm, he was almost 600 pounds, and still only half of what would likely become his final weight. He was a big one!

Portable Solar-Powered Fence Charger

We like to rotate to fresh pasture for the animals, which means it’s hard to build a permanent infrastructure for fence chargers. This is our favorite way to power a big fence with a big charger:

Caring for Eggs, and Why We Don’t Wash Them

Folks often ask us how long eggs can last, or how they should care for eggs. The simple answer is that refrigerated eggs will stay food safe for a long time. The long answer turns out to be a bit of a rabbit hole.

It makes sense that egg longevity varies with handling. Temperature is the most important variable, but another is washing. Did you know that eggs are naturally covered in a water-soluble protective coating? This is called the cuticle, or bloom, depending on who you ask. The egg shell seems hard and solid, but it’s actually more like a mesh at the microscopic level. This mesh allows moisture and gasses to pass through the shell, along with things like microbes and contaminants that may be around. The natural bloom coating helps seal that mesh and limit contaminant passage through the shell.

When industrial eggs are collected, they are washed. That washing process removes the natural protective layer. Some industrial producers apply a replacement layer, and some don’t do anything. Isn’t it just like our high-intervention food supply chain to remove a natural barrier only to add a synthetic barrier back? We don’t think this is natural, so we don’t wash our eggs.

But what if they have dirt, or mud, or poop on them? Well, we don’t sell those to the general public. Often we eat them ourselves, or share them with folks who understand why they are dirty. But doesn’t that impact profits? Yes, which is why industrial producers do wash their eggs. We strive to provide management practices that help minimize egg contamination, such as giving the hens a path to the nest boxes that will help clean off their feet. We keep absorbent materials in the laying boxes.

In our own kitchen, sometimes we wash the eggs right before we use them, so that exterior dirt doesn’t fall into the bowl that we are cracking the eggs into. We almost always crack our eggs into a separate bowl before adding them to a recipe, just to be sure that the eggs are good.

If you’d like more reading about how egg handling impacts longevity, see this article:
http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/how-to-store-fresh-eggs-zmaz77ndzgoe.aspx

How Big are Our Eggs, and Are They Going to Get Bigger?

One of our customers asked about egg size, expressing concern that they are smaller than others. With eggs being a natural product, there are going to be variations from one to the next. A recipe might call for eggs by count, but what really matters in making a consistent product is the weight of the egg.

In the past, we have not bothered sorting our eggs by size, being that we just don’t have very many to deal with. But since one of our favorite (and largest-volume) customers brought it up, it inspired us to reconsider. Perhaps we should sell to them by weight instead of by count.

The first step was to collect some data. What do our eggs weigh? Being that we don’t have one of these, the next best option was to weigh them on the scale we use for shipping. But what should eggs weigh anyway?

Fortunately, the USDA gives us some guidance on what eggs should weigh, or at least what we should call them based on their weight:

Size or Weight Class Minimum net weight per dozen
Jumbo 30 ounces
Extra Large 27 ounces
Large 24 ounces
Medium 21 ounces
Small 18 ounces
Peewee 15 ounces

Armed with the standards, we set out to weigh ours and get some averages.

We used a postage scale to weigh 40 eggs at a time. The eggs alone weighed 5 pounds and 3 ounces, which works out to an average of 25 ounces per dozen, not counting the cartons. In case you were wondering, our paper fiber carton weighs 2 ounces. The USDA numbers say “large” is more than 24 and less than 27 ounces, so we are comfortably in that size range.

Egg sizes do change throughout the laying cycle of the hen. The newest layers usually start with smaller eggs, as I would certainly prefer to do if I were going to take up laying eggs. The egg size increases as the hen gets older, but to a degree, the total number of eggs begins to diminish. My guess, which I can’t yet cite to be backed up by science, is that a hen only has the physiology to produce a relatively constant amount of egg mass. This is often the case with fruit trees, which have the roots and leaves to only yield a finite amount of fruit mass. It’s up to circumstances and management to determine whether that mass will be delivered in many small pieces, or fewer large pieces.

Are we required to collect North Carolina sales tax for backyard eggs?

I spent far too long researching this topic, so my hope in writing this post is that other North Carolina egg producers will be able to skip some of that research and answer their tax questions.

The most important point to take from this article is that it should not be considered tax advice! Ask your accountant. If your accountant doesn’t know, point your accountant to the resources below. Or, do like I did and call the NCDOR.

The answer comes from North Carolina General Statute 105-164.13, Retail sales and use tax. It says: The sale at retail and the use, storage, or consumption in this State of the following tangible personal property, digital property, and services are specifically exempted from the tax imposed by this Article:
Section 4b says: “Products of a farm sold in their original state by the producer of the products if the producer is not primarily a retail merchant…” and then carries on about ice used to transport those products. This seemed to indicate to me that we were not required to collect sales and use tax on eggs from our chickens.

One thing that seems strange to me is that North Carolina refers to us as “producers” when it comes to eggs. When I called the NCDOR to ask if my understanding of the statute was correct, the fellow on the phone said “Are you the producer of those eggs?” I said “Well, I didn’t lay them…” Once we determined that we were considered the producers, he agreed that our egg sales would be exempt from NC sales and use tax.

It is important to note that just because the egg sales are exempt from tax collection doesn’t mean that we can disregard sales tax. The correct way to account for the sales is to include them in line 1 of the E500, and then “back them out” on line 3. So if we have $100 in egg sales for the quarter, they don’t want to see a zero on line one, but rather 100 on line 1 and 100 on line 3, which will equal zero in the end.

Another important note is that the exemption does not apply if the producer is primarily a retail merchant. So the way I understand that, if we had a country store and happened to keep chickens in the yard behind the store, we would need to collect sales tax on the eggs that we sell, even though we would still be the producer.

And while we’re on the topic of compliance with NC laws concerning poultry, don’t forget to apply for your free poultry dealer license if you are going to sell any live birds in the state. Even though we don’t regularly sell birds, we keep ours current for the occasional flock thinning sale.

Are Our Eggs Organic, Free Range, or Cage-Free? Ire over the Food Labeling Mire

Most of our friends and customers are concerned about where their food comes from, and some are concerned much more than others. In our age of industrial food production by big agribusiness, I am very concerned about it too! These concerns lead to questions from egg buyers about whether our eggs are organic, free range, etc. These questions always make me sigh, because I know that my answer to their short question is too long, and they probably don’t want to hear it all! Life is easier when answers come as a binary yes or no. Life is too busy, and too short, to hear a whole dissertation about whether or not the eggs are organic, especially when eggs are just one thing that we eat. This is the appeal of modern-day food labeling: keep it easy, I’ve got other things to do.

Industrial Egg Production vs Back Yard Egg Production
The industrialization of food production is a topic for a series of books, not a blog post, but I should say that I’m not an agribusiness hater. There are many reasons that large commercial producers operate the way that they do, and the main reason is consumer demand. Their consumers want a homogeneous product, available any day of the year, for the lowest possible price. Our eggs fail on all three counts! Our eggs are a variety of sizes, with the smallest being half the weight of the largest. Our shells vary in shape, color, and texture. Our hens lay on their own schedule, which means that our production has seasonal variations that include not laying at all sometimes. And as far as price goes, our current price is 2-3 times as much as the cheapest eggs around.

These variables would not be acceptable to an industrial producer, and they would not be acceptable to many consumers either. As such, industrial producers use techniques to smooth out the spikes. The chickens are all the same breed, and they live in laboratory conditions. They eat a carefully managed ration of food that is provided to them, and nothing else. Visitors must comply with strict biosecurity regulations to ensure that no outside microbes (good or otherwise) are admitted. The temperature and light levels are managed. Eggs are washed, inspected, and sorted by size. Homogeneous inputs produce homogeneous outputs. They are doing their job, and they are doing it well. The cost of eggs has fallen relative to inflation, this summer’s spike not withstanding.

Many things that might concern an educated consumer aren’t concerns to the industrial producer. It doesn’t concern them that the layers are usually terminal hybrids. This means that if you hatch the eggs of the usual commercial layer, you get a different breed of chicken from the mother. The only way to replenish the industrial layer stock is to buy more chicks from the big business that engineered them, and they likely have intellectual property rights to the stock anyway. The back yard producer is usually more concerned about sustainability, which means mating two of the same breed to produce an offspring of the same breed. The industrial producer isn’t concerned that the chickens are all the same type. Here’s an article about why we are, though that article doesn’t address the valid concern of genetic diversity and resistance to new diseases that may come along.

These are just a few of the differences, but I’m sure you see what I mean. I bring it up to say that a backyard producer like us is just marching to an entirely different drum than an industrial producer. So is it any surprise that we have a hard time fitting into the industrial producer’s food labels?

The problem with “us” using “their” labels
Some industrial egg producers serve the special markets like “organic” and “cage free.” This is probably good, because these products are made with more sustainable practices. But having said that, in most cases these producers are still approaching the business with the same laboratory mindset. They can take the USDA guidelines for organic production, check all of the boxes, and label the eggs accordingly. We would say that those chickens still don’t live a very good life though. We’re less concerned with checking boxes, and more concerned with keeping happy and healthy birds, which should in turn produce better eggs.

Here is a link to a nice description of some of the common egg claims, produced by the Humane Society. You’ll find that a producer can label eggs as “organic” even if the hens never see any green plants. They can be de-beaked. De-beaking is a “management” practice that makes it harder for chickens to injure each other when they have been housed too densely. Just like people, if you put too many chickens too small of a place, they will injure each other. Cutting off their beaks helps to mitigate the injury. We prefer to just give the chickens more space.

Organic chickens are required to have access to the outdoors, unless there are health reasons or environmental reasons for them not to. Is “potential interaction with wild birds” a valid health reason for denying outdoor access? We don’t think so, but I suppose that would be a question that may vary from one producer to the next. “Outdoor access” doesn’t mean rolling hills of green pastures. It can mean a hole in the wall covered by a fence. Maybe the roof opens up for an hour a day. There are many ways to satisfy the letter of this requirement and fail to satisfy the intent, at least as we see it.

We are not prepared to label our eggs as organic, because the USDA organic standards require that the chickens only eat organic food. We don’t control the food that they eat, because they are not confined. They can eat live or dead bugs, mice, snakes, voles, moles, or anything that they can catch. Sometimes the cat will catch a mouse and leave it in a place where the chickens will find it. We feed them kitchen scraps. Chickens are, for us and dozens of human generations before us, animals that eat things that we do not want to eat and turn them into things that we do want to eat. Any time I see a claim on an egg carton about the diet of the chickens, such as “vegetarian fed” or “no animal products,” I know that either those chickens were confined in a controlled diet environment, or the producer is exaggerating the claim. Neither of those is a good reason to buy those eggs. This is why you should not be persuaded by any claims about the diet of hens. Natural chickens are true omnivores that can and will eat anything that they are in the mood for, that they can reach. Chickens that are raised as vegetarians are chickens that are not given access to “real outdoors” to eat what they want to eat.

As you can see, it is nearly impossible for a finite list of requirements to create a happy chicken living environment. Similarly, just because we don’t comply with one item on that list doesn’t make us feel like our eggs are any less good or our chickens are any less happy than those in industrial “organic” production. We think about it this way- if you like our eggs but are concerned about the welfare of our chickens, get in touch and schedule a time to come visit them. We’ll provide the lawn chair. Bring a glass of lemonade if it is hot, and bring two if you are generous. Stay as long as you’d like, and decide for yourself if they are living the life that a chicken should naturally live! You’ll have a good time, they are very entertaining.

How do you feel about these issues? Feel free to leave a comment!

Rainbow Chickens? Why is There More Than One Kind of Chicken Breed Anyway?

Sometimes egg customers want to know what kind of chickens we have. We refer to them as “Rainbow Chickens,” because we have several different types. Here’s an article about why there are different kinds of chickens, and why we have selected the ones that we have.Happy Rainbow Chickens
In the Beginning
The domestic chickens that we think of are said to be the great-great-manymoregreat-grand chickens of a particular type of jungle fowl. Over the many years, people domesticated them and began to selectively breed for traits that they liked.

A discussion about breeding and genetics should start with a discussion about the “birds and the bees” as they say. When a rooster and a hen love each other very much… well, let’s just skip to the part about genes. Hopefully everyone knows that when an offspring is created from the genes of two parents, the offspring will be similar in some ways to both parents, and different in some ways from both parents. What is less intuitive is how this relates to real life. For example, if you love Pink Lady apples and would like to grow your own (disregarding the trademark infringement issue) you might try planting the seeds that came from an apple that you purchased from the store.

Apple BlossomsThe problem with that strategy is that the seeds will produce offspring, not parents. You see, when the boy parts of an apple tree and the girl parts of another apple tree love each other very much, they get together and hire a bee (for the small fee of a drink of nectar) to carry genetic material from the boy parts to the girl’s flower. The site of the flower then becomes an apple, which carries the genetic material of the offspring in its seeds. That offspring will be a new-to-the-world apple. This is why there are anywhere from 7500 to 40,000 different named apple varieties, depending on who you ask.

When it comes to people and chickens, the same is true. Would you expect that your best friend’s kid would grow up to be your best friend also? Maybe, or maybe not. You’d expect that your best friend’s kid might have some similarities to your best friend, or at least the UPS guy, but they aren’t going to be identical. The kid might be very awesome, or might be a total jerk. This is where the apple analogy falls away from the discussion, because apple trees can be vegetatively propagated, meaning that a cutting from one tree can be grafted to produce a genetic clone of the parent. So far, our society has not considered it ethical to apply this technology to humans. The verdict is still out on the public opinion of cloning domesticated livestock. Industrial producers who strive for a consistent product tend to be quite in favor of it.

Getting Back to Chickens
We humans use chickens for several purposes, and different chickens have different traits that better suit them for each of those purposes. The traits are often mutually exclusive. For example, a chicken that is a very good egg layer is probably not going to be as good of a chicken to eat. The egg layer is going to have a slim body type, sending more of the inputs into egg production and less into increasing body weight. The meat bird is going to look like a body builder, and cluck with a deep voice. That case seems obvious enough, but there are plenty of other traits that matter too. For example, a producer who keep a chicken in a giant building with 19,999 other chickens would prefer that the birds be as inactive as possible. If those chickens are walking, scratching, flapping, or playing cards, they are burning calories that have to be replaced by food. Food is neither inexpensive nor free. That activity increases the temperature and humidity, which is insignificant until it is multiplied by 20,000. Then those must be mitigated by systems that are priced similarly to feed. He wants a bird that will just sit there, eat, and convert as much of that food as possible into meat.

In contrast, someone who has a free-range chicken wants that bird to be active. It needs to be out in the yard scratching, digging, and looking for bugs to eat. Naturally-occurring insects are both free and inexpensive, and when chickens are eating them, they are getting a diverse diet with nutrients that may not be found in the feed that they may have access to. And they are eating less of that feed! The free-range chicken needs to be able to defend itself, getting out of the way of predators.

Apply this concept to each of the hundreds of traits that you might like to think of, such as egg shape, shell color, feather type and color, color patterns, tendency to want to raise offspring or not (go broody, as we say), body size, hardiness (disease resistant without medication), skin color, foot color, temperament (tame vs wild), and you can see that there are many things to choose from. What about the ability to tell hens from roosters on the day that they hatch? That sure could be handy. The more of these traits that a breeder selects, the less likely he is to be able to excel in all of them.

Say that a breeder wants a flock that is active and hardy, with good egg and meat production, with gold and black feathers. He can do that; it might take a few decades, but he could produce his ideal chicken. It would not be a breed listed in the APA’s Standard of Perfection, but he might try to change that. It would be almost certain that while his chickens would be better at laying eggs than a specialized meat bird, and better at meat production than a specialized egg bird. It would be equally certain that they would not be as good at meat production as a specialized meat bird, etc. You get the idea.

Getting to the Standard, Named Breeds
When we tell you that we have two Rhode Island Red hens (as of 6/2015) for example, you know what that means. The Standard of Perfection has a listing for that breed, which includes a detailed description of the type. Folks who go to poultry shows will bring the bird that they think most conforms to that description, and the judges will bestow awards on the birds that the judge feels most conform. Then breeders can ask higher prices for the eggs from those award winners. If, for example, a breeder knows that his birds generally conform very well on feathering and foot color, but fall short on comb type, she might make some changes. Maybe she’ll get in touch with another breeder who has birds with more conforming combs, and hatch some of his eggs. Over time, she can use a mixture of art and science to produce a line of chickens that will win awards for conforming to the standard.

This is not what we do. Not that we have anything against those who do, it’s just that breeding and showing is a separate hobby. Our late friend James Keeton was able to make significant money at it in the early 1900s in fact. Many of our chickens are what we call “easter eggers,” because they are descendants of a few different breeds. They have been bred with emphasis on egg laying and hardiness traits instead of conformation to a standard. As such, they don’t really have an official breed name.

Rainbow Chickens, Finally
We refer to our flock as “rainbow chickens.” Our flock perfectly serves our own priorities, which include that each member is, for example:

  • Active and foraging
  • Hardy and healthy
  • Tame enough to handle
  • An active layer
  • Comfortable in our climate
  • Not a risk to the others

None of those priorities lead us to a particular breed, or even a named breed. In fact, our preference is that each egg carton has a rainbow variety of egg types and shell colors, so an additional priority is that our chickens come from different breeds. As of today, half of our flock includes Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Rhode Island Reds. The other half includes the easter eggers, one mixed rock that we call “dirty bird,” one mixed Black Ostralorp and Welsummer, one half welsummer and half easter egger, etc. We have two roosters for predator mitigation. One is half easter egger and half Dark Brahma, and the other is half of that mix and half Welsummer and Black Ostralorp.

Broody Hen with ChicksMany of our mixed breeds came from our own hatchings. In fact, if we were to only sustain our flock by hatching our own eggs, our flock would eventually homogenize. It might take several decades, but they would settle in as a previously unknown breed, all with similar egg colors (olive green), and who knows what kind of feathers. These little mongrels would still do what we prefer on the whole, especially if we were to only hatch the eggs of the parents that we liked, but they would definitely not be a recognized breed.

We keep chickens primarily for entertainment and education, with egg sales just being a means to offset the cost of feed. (There are certainly more productive ways for us to make money!) Since we enjoy our chickens more when we can appreciate them as individuals, having different types also allows us to more easily keep track of which one is which. So having the rainbow also meets our needs in that sense, making the flock more interesting. Breeding and perfecting a particular line of chickens is hard work. The chickens almost certainly have to be confined, or at least separated from each other somehow. For us, it’s just not worth the trouble, because that’s not what we think of as fun.

There you have it, more than you probably ever wanted to know about why we call the hens at the Happy Egg Farm “Rainbow Chickens.” Leave us a comment about what kind of traits you like to see in chickens!

30-Gallon Barrel and Pipe Automatic Chicken Feeder

We saw a few great ideas on Youtube about using PVC drain pipe parts to make a chicken feeder out of a bucket or barrel. I found a good local source for 30-gallon blue barrels that came from the soda bottling plant. Just as with the many 55-gallon barrels that I have used for rain collection, I don’t buy used barrels unless I am confident about what they were last used for. In this case it was easy to tell, since the barrels still had the markings from the soda bottler, and they had a distinct smell of Mountain Dew.
The theory is to set the elbows so that they stick through the sides of the container, requiring the chickens to stick their heads into the 4″ hole to eat. This should minimize waste and make it much harder for mice and other critters to get to the food.

Looking Down Into the Barrel

Looking Down Into the Barrel


Each elbow is attached to a block of wood with a screw like this one:
Attachment Screw

Attachment Screw


And then I ran a second screw up from the bottom of the barrel into the same block. For a second feeder I used a slightly cleaner method of one block to serve all four pipes.
A Cleaner Option

A Cleaner Option


I used a 4-1/4″ hole saw to make the holes in the barrel. This is the outer diameter of the drain pipe, though not the outer diameter of the flange on the elbow. This made it necessary to use a 3-inch long piece of 4-inch pipe to protrude through the barrel.
Before attaching the elbows to the wood, I cut a section of the lower flange off to allow the feed to flow into the opening. I had to guess about what size to use, and went with about an inch on the first feeder. This proved to be not quite enough, especially for a pelletized feed. 1-3/4 inches worked a little better.
The barrels that I purchased were “closed top,” meaning that the only way in or out is through the small bung hole. To build the feeder I had to cut the top off with a reciprocating saw, just as I usually do when making rain barrels. This left us with a need for some type of top. What we came up with was a storage cover like this one:
Plastic Barrel Top

Plastic Barrel Top


The cover is about 3″ larger in diameter than the top of our barrels, so it is a pretty loose fit. On one feeder I secured it with a bungee cord, but on the second I just used a brick on top. You can find the covers here.
One idea that we tried, but do not recommend, is to put a lip on the outside of the short length of pipe, like this:
Don't do this!

Don’t do this!


We thought this might reduce waste further. Instead it created a place for young ones to get stuck. One little hen that we named “Chuck” because she kept getting stuck eventually died because we didn’t realize that she was in there.
Chuck is too small to use this feeder safely!  She kept getting stuck.

Chuck is too small to use this feeder safely! She kept getting stuck.


If the chicks are small enough to get both of their feet into the elbow, then they are doomed. We have also had a chick get stuck on the feeder with the larger bottom opening when it ran out of food. She got into the elbow and stuck her head through the slot sideways, which she wouldn’t have been able to do if the feeder had been full. I would say that the safest bet is to keep these feeders available for full-grown birds, and not use them with chicks.