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  • Chickens for Eggs

    We have currently have eight laying chickens on our place. They are the same as the hybrid egg laying machines that have been developed for commercial egg farms...with the exception that ours have not been debeaked. Our chickens are managed according to the waste transformation process that prevails on our micro-farm.

    We're currently averaging about 6.5 eggs per day. We provide eggs to 3 other households with a view to paying for the feed and replacement chickens...and we eat the rest.

    Our eggs qualify as both organic (because we feed them an organic ration) and free range (because they have access to about 36 square metres (about 400 square feet) when they don't escape...at which point their range area expands to about 650 square metres. We supplement the organic ration with kitchen scraps, BSF larvae and duckweed.

  • #2
    About four weeks ago, chicken feed consumption suddenly went through the roof...to the point where we were well short of cost recovery.

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    At the time, we were using this Royal Rooster feeder...and it had served us well for at least two years. I don't understand, at this stage, what caused the increase...but here's some possibilities:
    • food was being consumed by flying visitors - like the native doves that like to get into the pen. The argument against this option is that it would have to be a lot of wild birds to account for the increase...and, while I've had anything up to six doves (in the 'bird-proof' netted yard) in a day, the increased feed consumption suggests that it's not the doves.
    • the chickens were flicking the feed out of the feeder...which they will sometimes do through boredom. This was difficult to confirm because, while there is often some feed on the ground, the exact amount that falls would be obscured by the fact that the birds scratch up the area around the feeder. The question that the wasting theory prompts is..."What triggered the behaviour?"
    We changed from a dry mash feed to a coarse mix with lots of wholegrains. It was almost like the chickens decided that the fine stuff was concealing what they're used to...a nice coarse smorgassbord of grains and seeds heavily dusted with vitamins and minerals and other high value ingredients...so they'd sort through it looking for the seeds and grains.

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    • #3
      In an attempt to rule out the unwelcome visitors, I replaced the original Royal Rooster feeder with something that would deny access to birds, rats and mice.

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      When a chicken is hungry, it approaches the feeder...and steps onto a treadplate which opens a flap...to reveal the feed. When the chicken has finished feeding, it steps off the treadplate and the flap shuts...and the food is secure from non-paying guests. The food, this time, was the coarse mash.

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      The new feeder proved to be a bitter-sweet thing. The chickens quickly cottoned on to the idea that they needed to step on the treadplate to access feed. Once they were clear on how to open the feeder, they set about flicking their beaks along the length of the feeding trough. As the feed built up at either end of the trough, the treadplate locked open allowing the chickens to flick the feed out to their hearts' content.

      The silver lining to this cloud is that the side panels of the feeder restricted the movement of the spilt feed so that it collected in the mesh infill of the treadplate...where it suddenly became much more difficult to flick.

      To prevent it from being buried in the foot-deep holes that the chickens dig everywhere, the feeder was mounted on several cement blocks and capstones.

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      The immediate effect was that the feed consumption dropped...like a stone. The birds were also able to feed...and get the whole nutritional package again.

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      • #4
        The Royal Rooster feeder served us well for quite a long time...and then a bunch of bored chickens decided to use it as a plaything...so we've been forced to match wits with them.

        The treadle feeder is a great feeder for those with well-behaved chickens.

        Mongrel chickens, like those that were responsible for the increased feed consumption - at our place....because they were bored due to boredom-induced waste...apparently need something a bit more tailored to the problem.

        As a stop gap measure, I attempted to fill the Royal Rooster feeder with the finer ration. The bucket of feed slipped from my grasp and spillled into a heap beneath the feeder. By the next morning, there was little sign of the food having ever been there...which simply underpinned the waste theory.

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        My current trial feeder is a short section of 100mm PVC drainage pipe, a U-bend fitting and some zip ties. What we end up with lacks the aesthetic appeal of the Royal Rooster but it stops a chicken from being able to to flick the feed enough to waste it. That's the theory, at least. It may also benefit from the attachment of a 90 degree bend...to prevent stormwater from entering the feeder (for as long as that was going to be an issue)...and to further guard against waste.

        Anyway, we won't have to wait long to find out the effect of this latest option. Researching a better backyard chicken feeder has been on my agenda for a long time. I'm certain that people have been using PVC pipe and fittings for a long time, but I want to know...quickly...if my feed consumption problem is fixed. To that end, I've built a simple "U-Bend" feeder and put three scoops of feed into it. It's my contention that the wastage thing should now be resolved. To that end, I'll monitor it on a twice-daily basis.

        If you prefer something a little more elegant, google "PVC poultry feeder" and you'll get enough pictures of DIY feeder options to keep you going for hours.

        At this point, aesthetics is giving way to function. I'll worry about what the feeder looks like when I have one that meets my wastage need.

        Of course, the whole ball game is going to change again when I move the chickens to their new night quarters...soon!

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        • #5
          Feed consumption has normalised so it's almost certain that the problem was caused by our change of feed coupled with chickens that didn't approve and a feeder design that allowed them to vent their opinion. Feeder design should always avoid feed waste but I was surprised at the scale of the problem.

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          • #6
            While our chicken operation is working relatively well, it's a long way from being as efficient as it could be.

            At the moment, the egg production system comprises a 9' x 6' (2.7m x 1.8m) chicken tractor.

            Currently, we house our birds in a static chicken tractor. We load chopped materials like grass clippings, bamboo trimmings and gum leaves into the rear section. This carbonaceous material functions as litter in the pen. We feed kitchen scraps and plant residues...and the chickens poop all over the dry mulch and scratch at it...breaking it down into a finer mix...which gradually makes its way out into the soil pit...as a great compost component.

            By supplementary feeding of kitchen scraps, duckweed and BSF larvae, we're saving feed...when it's not being eaten by wild birds or wasted. The use of mulch materials (like sugar cane mulch, grass clippings and shredded bamboo) as bedding provides a no-cost substrate for the chickens' manure and uneaten feed. Chicken manure and carbonaceous materials are the stuff of an excellent compost...or worm bedding.

            Eggs....and an excellent soil ammendment...at modest cost...is the outcome of the current operation.

            This system is good...but it's still much less than it can be. Like all of our processes, egg production is subject to an ongoing process of continuous improvement.

            Proposed changes include:
            • A new night quarters...one that permits collection of the manure for use with BSF larvae. A change to new night quarters frees up the chicken tractor for broiler and duck meat production.
            • New feeders and waterers - to save labour and eliminate wastage.
            • Feed fermentation and daily feed preparation - to extend the feed value.
            • Irrigation of soil pit...as an aid to composting in the soil pit.
            The new night quarters has been on the To Do list for a while...and it only requires a few finishing touches before can be put into service.

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            • #7
              Egg production seemed to have stabilised around a week ago...but has taken a dive again in the past few days.

              We have the potential for 8 eggs/day. Taking account of a probable 260 eggs/year...the likely daily average (assuming that all is well) is going to be around 6.5 eggs per day.

              Three days ago, it dropped to three eggs...yesterday we got four...and today it was four again. One bird is broody and the others may have been upset by the change of feed again. I'll put the broody chicken into a plastic crate to re-focus her on the reality that she is a laying chicken and not a breeding chicken. As for the change issue, it's a waiting game to see if things settle down.

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              • #8
                Egg production is still all over the place...with the change of feed type and routine, the hot weather and one broody chicken all likely factors.

                Here's a sneak preview of the new chicken night quarters. It will replace the chicken tractor that currently houses our eight laying chickens. It has yet to be fitted out with nesting boxes, roosting perches and feed and water points. One of the key reasons for this structure is to enable us to capture that part of the chicken manure that is produced overnight. This will be fed to BSF larvae...and will create another waste transformation loop.

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                • #9
                  For the past several days, we've been getting just two eggs a day. We trade 3 dozen a week to recover our feed costs. Last week, we only supplied half a dozen to each of our three customers...and, this week, is looking even worse.

                  The precise cause still eludes me...but I suspect the heat and humidity.

                  I'm ad lib feeding an organic mash supplemented by kitchen scraps and green feed when it's available. The chickens eat most of the supplementary food but onsumption of the organic mash is well down.

                  My next move is to wet the mash to see if that will help. I'll also begin fermenting the mash...to improve its palatability.

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                  • #10
                    Egg production has been an issue again during the past couple of weeks. I'm guessing that the ongoing heat and humidity is the reason for the drop in productivity...but I can't be certain.

                    One thing is certain...feed consumption has dropped considerably. If the chickens don't eat, they won't lay.

                    I've decided to ferment their feed to enhance its palatability,

                    Three days ago, I set up five little buckets...each containing 800g of feed (8 birds x 100g each/day = 800g). I added enough water to cover the feed...to initiate fermentation. I'll use one bucket each day...refilling it with the mash and water...to establish a 5-day cycle.

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                    • #11
                      My workshop has the distinctive sour smell of fermentation. It's not strong enough to be offensive...indeed it signals that all is well with the fermentation process.

                      Feeding the wet mash seems to have stimulated the chickens' appetites...with a corresponding increase in egg numbers...now at 6 per day.

                      One broody chicken has been placed in a transport crate in my workshop. This limits her movement and is slightly uncomfortable and will snap her out of her broodiness.

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                      • #12
                        The golden rule of experimentation, it seems, is to never change more than one variable at a time when comparing different ways of doing things...otherwise you won't know which change produced the result. My rush to find the reason for the fluctuating egg production had me dashing all of the place like a bipolar bat. I changed feeding times, feed types and feed supplements...while acknowledging that the chickens could just have been suffering in the prolonged heat and humidity of last summer...or they could have just undergone a moult (the most likely explanation).

                        Oh, and I bought four more point-of-lay pullets...bring my total chicken numbers to 12.

                        Anyway, things cooled off a bit (me and the birds) and egg production began to improve.

                        Once my obsession with egg production lapsed, I decided to resume my quest for 'chickenomic' efficiency...getting the most/best eggs for the lowest cost.

                        In recent days, I've stopped using the demand feeder in the chicken pen...and I've cut back on the fermented feed (which I had stopped using)...to try and establish what the optimal feed regime looks like. Initially, the chickens didn't seem too keen on the fermented feed but, since I tightened things up a bit, they are eating all that I give them...to the point where they could probably do with more. I'm also doing my best to ensure that they get duckweed each day - and also BSF larvae when they are available. They also receive greenfeed daily...usually moringa leaves.

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                        • #13
                          The fluctuating egg production caused me to revert to ad lib feeding of the organic ration...supplemented by kitchen scraps, green feed and BSF larvae...when available.

                          I decided to calculate the amount of feed that my chickens are currently consuming. It turns out that each bird (and there are currently 12 of them) is eating about 85g (for a total of 1.0kg a day) of the organic ration per day. Google revealed that the average feed consumption of a chicken is around 120g per day. The likely explanation for the difference is that four of our birds have not yet started to lay (and may be consuming less feed)...and that we are providing supplementary feed in the form of kitchen scraps, green feed and BSF larvae...and that they may be finding some food in the soil pit.

                          We're getting six eggs per day...from the eight chickens that could/should be laying.

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                          • #14
                            At the time of my last post, I was feeding an organic, coarse layer's mash...supplemented by kitchen scraps, BSF larvae and green feed (usually duckweed).

                            Things were fine, for a while, but then egg production started going up and down again....down to as little as three eggs a day.

                            The only change was that, as the weather cooled, the BSF larvae numbers started to decline...and the duckweed no longer grew as quickly. The birds were still getting kitchen scraps - usually stale bread, plate scrapings and vegetable peelings.

                            I didn't worry too much about the declining BSF larvae numbers and the reduced amount of duckweed since the organic feed was a complete ration.

                            Or was it?

                            I went onto the feed manufacturer's web site...and the penny dropped.

                            It turned out that the organic feed was far from a complete ration...having a protein level of just 12%...nowhere near enough to support egg production without some supplementary protein. Cheap poultry feed often has low protein levels (although I'd never seen any of them as low as 12%) but this was a premium organic ration...for which I was paying a premium price. There was no mention on the feed bags (or the website) that the feed required supplementation.

                            The problem was now very apparent. When I stopped feeding the BSF and duckweed supplements, the birds were getting insufficient protein. When the larvae and the duckweed was available, egg production resumed...and it went up and down subject to the availability of the supplements.

                            I sourced another organic ration...this one having a protein level of 15%...still not as high as it needed to be...but that was acknowledged by the manufacturer who stipulated that it was a feed for chicken who had access to free range where the chickens could scratch for insects and other high protein snacks. I cooked up some lima beans and minced beef - and fed that...in addition to the proprietary feed.

                            The change was almost immediate...egg production from the eight older birds is now at 6 - 7 per day. The four new pullets have also produced their first couple of eggs, too.

                            The old adage about wisdom coming with age is clearly bullshit in my case.

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                            • #15
                              This week, I've made some significant changes to our chicken operation.

                              This is what we had...a 9' x 6' chicken tractor...parked in a static location...and connected to our 'free-range' soil pit. It had become crowded and was difficult to work within our circumstances.

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                              I considered using a former quail pen as a chicken night quarters but, with the recent purchase of four more chickens, it quickly became evident that it wasn't going to be large enough.

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                              The existing chicken tractor, with some alterations, was going to be large enough so, consistent with my determination to put what I already had into service (rather than buying more farm equipment), the chicken tractor was slated for an upgrade. It was a decision made easier by the fact that I wanted the quail pen for another project.

                              At my age, getting around stooped is do-able...getting around on your hands and knees, less so...so my first task was to raise it enough that I can walk around in it when I need to. To that end, I created a base from treated pine sleepers and, with the help of a friend, lifted the chicken pen up onto its new foundation.

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                              The next thing I did was ensure that all of the things that might require me to enter the pen were located on the outside of the pen. That created more overall space in the pen, increased the number of roost...and eliminated most of the reasons that I might need to enter the pen.

                              I built a new nest box. It's probably over-engineered...but the plywood was left ofter from another job so it gets a new lease on life and I don't spend any money.

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                              I finished the nest box at dusk, so the chickens' first exposure happened this morning. They appeared to grasp what the new boxes were about without any instruction from me.

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                              Where previously, I had to enter the soil pit to open the gate to allow the chickens out of their pen and into the pit, I now have a convenient trapdoor arrangement that I can operate from the other side of the structure.

                              But wait...there's more...

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