More Power to Them...

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Powercuts in our part of the world are pretty uncommon these days, thank goodness.  But, on the rare occasion they do happen, you become acutely aware of just how much we've come to rely on electricity.  Well, the same goes for our hen houses - it powers the lights, the nest boxes, the feeder motors, the timers, the sensors which regulate the feeders, the water lines, the master electronic control unit which regulates the whole thing - it's pretty essential to the smooth running of the farm.  This week, we're putting our electrician's hats on...

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For the twenty or so years we've been an organic egg farm, all of our hen houses have been run on 12V power.  Back then it was far more energy efficient than 240V and, therefore, more environmentally sustainable as everything from the light bulbs to the motors drew a lot less power.  Today the technology has advanced far enough that the power draw is now virtually the same, and there are some significant advantages to converting our sheds over to 240V. So that's what we're in the process of doing.

One advantage is that it's getting increasingly difficult to get the parts needed to maintain the old system.  Things like motors are simple enough, as they're not much different to the motor that your windscreen wipers use.  But others, like the feed sensors and electronic control units, are not 'off the shelf' parts and they're getting increasingly difficult to find.  On top of that, while we're pretty good at servicing and dealing with any small to medium problems ourselves, anything more serious needs a specialist and they too can be hard to come by (especially at the times of day we're likely to need them).

So far about 50% of our sheds have been converted and, before the next flock comes in, we're in the process of upgrading this one.  So today it's feeder motors and nest boxes...

On each side of the chicken shed is a line of feeders with a motor on the end.  A timer starts the motor 5-6 times a day and feed is drawn from the hopper outside by a 'flex auger' filling each feeder down the line. Then a touch sensor at the end of the line stops the motor when all the feeders are full.

With the nest boxes, a central motor opens them at sunrise and then slowly closes them at around 5pm to make sure the birds don't go to bed in the there.  Not only does it stop them from fouling the 'laying mats' which go on the floor of every box, but it also stops them from getting broody if they were to stay in there over night.

This kind of work can only be done when the hen houses are empty obviously.  So it's not something we can do all in one go or even simply between flocks.  Because we use mobile hen houses, as we believe it's better for the land and therefore the birds, there's a lot of other work that needs to be done to prepare each house before every new flock.

As with so much of what we do it is, by necessity, an on-going process.  But, when timing permits, each shed is getting converted and the parts from previously converted sheds we can use to service the other hen houses until they too can be converted.

So that's what's going on at the moment: converting another hen house from 12V to 240V...


Nobody Lets Babies in the Corners...

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... but sometimes they just gravitate towards those corners all on their own, and now you have to come up with a way of communicating to them that corners aren't necessarily the best place for them - not the easiest when it's someone of the same species, but try telling a chicken! 

Why is this a problem?  Well, we recently welcomed a new flock of sixteen-week old pullets to the farm.  This is something we do every few months but, as with any group of teens, no two flocks behave exactly the same.  And in the summer, particularly a summer like we're enjoying this year, you have to really be on your toes.

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For the first few weeks they're here, they don't lay any eggs as they're still too young.  They don't even really go outside that much at first, although we still open up the pop-holes at sunrise every day, so they can venture out if they want to.  Outside of summer we have a certain amount of control over how quickly they 'come in to lay'.  

Chickens naturally lay most of their eggs first thing in the morning. During winter months, because we can control the lights in the sheds, we can incrementally step-up the light in the mornings so new birds start laying nice and gradually over a 3-week period or so - you'll get a few eggs, then a few more and a few more...  But in the summer, with so much daylight, they can 'come in to lay' without warning.  

For laying, chickens like nice cosy, cubbyhole type places, which is why they don't need to be trained to use the nest boxes - they naturally gravitate towards them (you can see how this is all supposed to work right here).  But if they 'come in to lay' suddenly, and haven't had a chance to discover the nest boxes yet, they'll lay them pretty much anywhere.  And corners present a very attractive alternative... and that's a problem!..

...Because once one goes there, then another will go there and pretty soon that's just where they lay now.  So you get eggs laid on top of eggs laid on top of eggs which, apart from being inconvenient to say the least, is not conducive to keeping them whole. And this new flock of birds seem to really like corners, so it's time to McGyver something...

As you'll probably realise if you keep up with 'What's Going On' here at the farm, to get our eggs to you requires a number of different, not always obvious, skillsets.  Today, it's carpentry and metalwork...

The plan is to craft a number of angled plinths that essentially turn all the corners into slopes.  Then, to further drive home the message that corners aren't for nesting, we'll fix some tubular steel in front of each board so they have somewhere to perch instead.  We'll measure up - fit & finish is important as we can't risk creating somewhere for them to get trapped - cut everything to size in one of our workshops, then load up the buggy and drive it the mile or so to the chicken shed for assembly.

As you'd imagine, the sheds aren't the best spaces for this kind of work either - they're designed to suit chicken's, not us. Apart from the nest boxes that run through the centre of the each shed, the feeders and drinking lines run down each side.  And then of course there are the chickens... 

With young birds like these, they can be a little 'nervy', so it's important to move slowly so they don't get too alarmed.  They're incredibly inquisitive creatures though, and it's not long before they're sticking their beaks in and keeping an eye on things.

It's taken a couple of days in all but, so far, it seems to be working as intended.  They're still heading for the corners, but now they're making do with perching instead of nesting.  Crisis averted, and onto the next job...

So that's what's going on at the moment: boarding up all the corners, so the babies can't lay eggs in them...


Hen's Teeth...

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You've no doubt heard the expression "rare as hen's teeth" and not given it a second thought.  In the unlikely event you have pondered it any further, maybe you concluded: "they obviously don't need teeth if they're just eating grain, worms and the like," or simply, "if they needed teeth they would have evolved to have teeth and not just beaks" - valid points, and true to a degree.

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Well their Archosaur ancestors did have teeth but, for one reason or another, they evolved to become the creatures we know today.  And, while they may not have teeth, they do have a digestive system that gets around the problem in an pretty ingenious way.  Because, while chickens that just eat grain are perfectly capable of digesting their food without chewing, organic chickens like ours eat both grain and whatever they forage in the fields, so they need a little help. 

Long story short, hens do have teeth (but they're rocks), and they keep them in their stomachs (not their mouths). 

Chickens use their beaks to pick up food which gets stored in a large sack called the crop.  It then gets moved along to the proventriculus which produces digestive enzymes that start to break it down.  The food and enzymes then move along to the gizzard, and it's here that more fibrous material such as grass gets broken down.  The gizzard is just a really strong muscle though, and it relies on grit, stones and small rocks that the bird has eaten when foraging to grind the food into small enough particles to be absorbed later in the intestines.

While they may well get the grit that they need simply by foraging in the fields, it's really important that younger birds have access to plenty of grit as it's essential for the development of a healthy gizzard.  So, while it may seem strange, we regularly add a little Flint Hen Grit to their feed to keep their digestive systems in a good, healthy condition.

The type of grit is important too.  Too small and it will pass straight through their system without aiding in digestion, too large and they won't be able to swallow it.  So, if you keep chickens at home, grabbing a handful of gravel from your drive won't do it - you need to pick the right kind of grit for the size and age of your birds

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So that's what's going on at the moment:  checking up on our 'hen's teeth'...