Our poultry in the barnyard November 2016

Our little flock of birds

Several weeks ago I posted on Facebook about our new geese, saying that they were “our last new species for 2016”.  And then a few weeks later an opportunity to acquire a breeding trio of ducks arose – so I had to take it. And just after we got them, a scraggly headed “refugee” duck flew over the fence into the barnyard and appears to have settled in with us... anyway, here’s an introduction to our birds and bird related “stuff”.

Light Sussex Chickens

The foundation of our poultry flock, this breeding trio of beautiful birds from Dave Brunger adapted very quickly to life at our place when we got them back in August.

Gordon and his girls - our trio of Light Sussex Chickens
Gordon and his girls – our trio of Light Sussex Chickens

There were originally 5 of them (we got 2 additional cockerels in the “deal” but they are now in the freezer) and they were locked in the coop for a week as soon as we got them. They took to the coop well and clearly love roaming around the place, spending a lot of time in with the pigs immediately scratching over wherever a pig has been digging, eating, wallowing, ploughing or pooping!

We were getting one egg a day from the day they arrived but since we slaughtered the two surplus cockerels we’ve been getting two eggs most days, with an occasional “double yolker” as a treat. It has turned cold now but we are getting eggs about 3 days a week, so they are doing well.

Gordon the cockerel was not the biggest of the 3 males we got, but he certainly makes enough noise when he is let out in the mornings to be noticed (and when I am late to let them out). I named him “Gordon” after Flash Gordon – simply because of the name I gave to our Gander – sometimes “Brian” sounds like he is honking “Gordon’s Alive!”. I find it hard to differentiate between the hens so they don’t have names yet – they are just “the girls”.

Oh, one of our biggest surprises one day while “fluffing up” the deep litter in the coop was a dead rat that clearly (judging from its injuries) had been recently killed and partially consumed by the chickens – GO CHOOKS!!!!

Pomeranian Saddleback Geese

These beautiful, majestic birds have a great presence and are really stunning as they march around in a tightly knit group.

Our Pomeranian Saddleback Geese - Brian and his ladies. Photo by Toby
Our Pomeranian Saddleback Geese – Brian and his ladies. Photo by Toby

I have named the 2 year old gander “Brian” after Brian Blessed, who is not only an amazing English actor, mountaineer, adventurer and classically British eccentric famous for his incredibly loud voice and propensity for swearing, but he is also a very keen animal / rescue enthusiast. “Brian” is incredibly handsome and regal looking, his head held up very proud; and he is bloody loud – his previous owners Angie and Chris Sheppard said that we got him BECAUSE he was so loud. However, his early morning calls have just about soaked into the ambient noise around the place so they don’t wake me up – but when all three kick-off at the same time it means that something is definitely going on down in the livestock area.  Brian’s “ladies” are both very beautiful too with their fluffy feathery skirts puffed out as they waddle around, but I haven’t given them names either as they too are hard to differentiate.

On the day we got the geese back in October  Chris and I made the mistake of not putting them straight into the coop to establish where they should sleep at night. I did manage (after a long hard battle) to herd them into the coop with the chickens a few days after they arrived but that evening there was an almighty noisy fight with the chickens and the geese literally “flew the coop” – Brian flew past me, through the door, at chin level which was quite unnerving – when I went in to see what was going on. So now they live outside all the time and certainly seem very content.  For several days I went out to check them throughout the night and found they were always out on patrol, grazing the grass and alfalfa and paddling in the pig’s muddy wallows and water troughs – so now I don’t bother to check them at night, they will let me know if something is up.  They seem to like the floodlight left on in the barnyard at night, which is OK with me.

Gordon, our Pomeranian gander, having a flap about something
Gordon, our Pomeranian gander, having a flap about something

This stunning trio of birds were raised by Tabitha and Peter Grey from eggs laid by Dave Brunger’s Indian Runners. Unfortunately due to a change in circumstances they needed a new home in October and we were lucky enough to acquire them – completing my “planned” (hoped for) initial poultry flock. They were locked in the coop for 3 days after arriving and there were no issues with the chickens, which was reassuring.

Indian Runner Ducks

Our Indian Runners at rest in the poultry house. Picture by Toby
Our Indian Runners at rest in the poultry house. Picture by Toby

The Indian Runners are amazing birds – always on the go and literally “running” most of the time – but at rest, sitting down, they look like any other duck but upright and on the go they are very distinctive and they do like to come up to us if we are in the barnyard or the coop.  Toby named the very handsome drake “Albert” and his beautiful girls are called Doris and Delilah (the lighter colour one with the patch of almost white feathers on her wings is Delilah). I really hope that they will raise us some ducklings next year to grow the flock.

These ducks love mud – not just water, it seems it has to be mud – and watching them pick up food, take it to a muddy patch, dunking it then eating it – is quite fascinating.  They seem to have no problem being in with the pigs and they hop in and out of the paddocks all day where I’m sure there are plenty of bugs and little critters.  They are lovely to watch and they are very inquisitive when we are around.

Bruiser the “Refugee” Duck

We think this is a duck as opposed to a drake (haven’t got hold of her to try and check physically) and probably of the Muscovy type although she could well just be a Bulgarian hybrid. We called her “Bruiser” because she looks like she has had a bit of a hard time, with very few feathers of any sort on her head – i.e. she’s a pretty ugly bird, but cute anyway!

Bruiser, our refugee duck
Bruiser, our refugee duck

Before we got our own ducks she followed the geese around like a desperate orphan and never went anywhere near the coop or us. However, she now pretty much sticks with our ducks and occasionally follows the others into coop at bedtime. I’m not too worried about her as clearly she knows how to get away from anything that is bothering her.

Bruiser hanging with the geese
Bruiser, hanging with the geese

Anyway she seems good natured, doesn’t get in any scraps and seems to come and go every few days – perhaps she goes back “home” or just has somewhere else to be and things to do.  If Bruiser is around I probably talk to her more than the other birds – maybe I just have a soft spot for the underduck!  Whatever happens, if she stays she will be very very welcome, especially if we get eggs from her next year. We will see!

Our take on keeping the flock…

Just like with our pigs: we have asked for, received and listened to a lot of very valuable and generously offered advice from trusted and experienced poultry keeping/raising folk here in BG; I’ve also done quite a bit of research on the internet (where of course there are 6 opinions and/or arguments about every method / system or piece of advice that is on offer). And all that advice and research has been tempered by our wish to give our critters as much of a “natural” life as we practically can, with not too much human interaction or intervention – we have learned from our pigs that natural behaviours will definitely come out (a) if they are allowed to (b) if we don’t try to “humanize” the critters and (c) if we fit into their “world”, not them into ours.  Furthermore their natural behaviours definitely do not seem to be at odds with our need to be able to handle/manage the critters when necessary.

The coop for the chickens and ducks is a mudbrick walled room in the barn.  We are using deep litter in the coop, we started it off with a layer of thin twigs, dried nettles, thistles and other weeds we cut from around the area, then layered it up with straw and woodchips.  We fluff it up a couple of times a week and pull the poop from under the roosts and mix it into the rest of the bedding and replace it with material from the centre.  Each week we have been adding either fresh hay, straw or wood chips on top.  There’s no nesting boxes for the hens – we tried that but they seem to have decided to dig into some hay bales to make nests and lay their eggs.  The ducks have a large mound of loose hay and straw where they seem to sleep judging from the 3 hollows in the mound, in the spring we will see where they decide to lay their eggs.  We started the deep litter bed back in August and I will probably leave it until the New Year before cleaning it all out for the compost pile and starting again.

Having been effectively derelict for many many years there is an established rat population in the barn walls that initially dug through into the coop – all these holes were filled with crushed wire, expanding foam then concreted over.  We blocked with bricks any holes at floor level then put in a concrete “skirt” around the edge that rises about 35cm up the wall from floor level.  We also put in a concrete platform that their feed and water sits on.  We had completely replaced and sealed the hayloft floor during the renovation, but we have also wired the coop ceiling with recycled small gauge chicken wire to reduce the risk of anything coming in from above. We still get the occasional rat coming up under the edges of the concrete (persistent little critters) but we block up each hole as we find it – we can’t use poison in the coop so I am thinking of getting one of those sonic rodent repelling devices and giving it a try.

Geese and goats!
Geese and goats!

The risk of predators here is of course very real, and for sure some time, some day, we are going to have to deal with the aftermath of a visit from a hungry fox or bylka (pine marten) – that’s pretty much inevitable I think.  But, the predators have as much right to be here and have to survive in the sometimes harsh conditions here – a painful reality that we as livestock keepers need to be aware of and, I think, respect.  But that won’t stop me being well upset when it happens to us!

Ducks and chooks in the coop, getting ready to settle down for the night
Ducks and chooks in the coop, getting ready to settle down for the night

Our objectives for having the birds are for eggs and natural reproduction to grow the flock, not meat production (unless we have a surplus of males of any species in the future) – and of course the geese provide another valuable addition to the security services! And as with the pigs we are walking an experimental,  alternative, non-commercial  and definitely non-Bulgarian path that may or may not work. I guess we won’t know how it works out for several months or even years.

What we feed and other stuff…

Please remember that chickens and ducks are OMNIVOROUS, designed and equipped very well to eat meat and vegetables and geese are 100% HERBIVOROUS.

  • The ducks/chickens get hard feed at bedtime when, if not herded in, they will take themselves to bed at almost exactly the time of dusk predicted by Accuweather!  And the geese get their pellets and corn broadcast in the barnyard after all the other critters have been fed and the other birds have gone to bed.
  • We only feed half the quantity of hard feed recommended or suggested by previous owners, breeders, experts, friends (this is also true for our pigs which have nonetheless flourished, really). This we hope encourages them to forage around the place – having said that they do get a regular supply of extras.
  • The treats mentioned below gets fed either in dishes or scattered around a couple of times during the day, usually late morning (10am ish) and again mid afternoon (about 2-2.30pm), depending on what we have got and what we are doing.
  • Fortunately we eat very well, and so there is rarely any food waste from our meals to share with our critters.   But we continue to be given, or we scrounge, or we buy very very cheaply any stale bread, waste fruit and veg and trimmings from neighbours and our local market whenever we can to help provide variety and (maybe? one day?) reduce our feed bill costs.
  • The birds get exactly the same non-meat treats as the pigs and goats i.e. stale bread, corn, cut greens, weeds, expired plants/roots, pumpkins and squash, any old fruit and veg and peelings from the kitchen except onions, leeks and parsnips. Since the weather turned chilly we cook up veg trimmings with oats and/or pasta and things like dried peas and lentils a couple of times a week and mix in with their evening meal – perhaps when the snow is down we will do it more often as a breakfast.
  • The chickens, ducks and pigs all get the same animal protein extras – meat trimmings, boiled eggs, fish waste/trimmings from the fishmonger at our market, milk and yoghourt, old cheese pieces, dog biscuit, bugs and maggots from fly traps, bones to peck on. They will also probably get offal and slaughter waste next year and we always keep our eyes open for any fresh roadkill – a few startled pheasants have come close in the past week!
  • There is free choice hay and alfalfa always around – and even if there wasn’t the geese and chickens graze in our tree nursery which was an old alfalfa field and also seem to have no problem hopping up into the hayloft to help themselves.

We don’t have a dedicated dust bath for the chooks or feed separate “grit” – the chooks get all of our egg shells crushed into their daily feed (and we eat a lot of eggs). There’s the remains of a pile of sand and fine (very fine) gravel waste near the barn that they sometimes nibble into and we occasionally put down the ash from the fire on dry days – but we haven’t seen them make a big deal about that. They have such a wide range of soils, ground, clay, rocks, gravel, sand, chips, etc. around that they should find everything they need…. hey, when their ancestors lived in the wild nobody put down anything special for them did they!

All our dogs, livestock and poultry are periodically wormed with a similar mixture of ground tobacco, diatomaceous earth, roasted ground garlic and turmeric added to their feed. The livestock and poultry have also (these past few months) had a pretty consistent supply of pumpkins with seeds in, which is also meant to be good for worms.

Next year we plan (hope) to experiment with growing a range of fodder and forage crops to supplement our animal feeding and hopefully reduce the amount of bought in feed; hopefully there will also be more grassy areas for them to range over as we seed the paddocks when we rotate the pigs around.

I also hope that we can get a few more hens in the Spring, possibly ex-battery, and even a few more ducks of one variety or another – because we want the eggs.  Our pigs (adults and weaners) need good animal protein to grow and be healthy and eggs are a great way to do that… and the dogs love eggs… and we use a lot of eggs.  So some more good layers will be very welcome additions to the flock – whatever species they are.

Last year we “did pigs” through the winter, spent a lot of time with them and learned an enormous amount about them, what they like, how they behaved, what they ate, how they dealt with the weather, etc.  This year we will “do poultry” as well and we will be making time to watch and learn more about them and their natural habits and behaviours especially during the very cold weather. And then in the Spring we hope that they will bless us with some naturally occurring additions to the Promises Poultry Flock as well as a regular and abundant supply of eggs.

Breakfast with our birds

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