Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Critter Cam Captures Daily Routines

Well, we didn't get the date or time set right but that motion sensor camera took over a thousand pictures in the span of a week. We had it trained on the central staging area behind the BeakHouse coops. It was fascinating to watch our daily routines unfolding..... we actually forgot it was even there! Unfortunately the predators managed to escape detection. PS It was the last week of June - one of the hottest this year.

Gallinas Urbanas - Urban Homesteaders in Puerto Rico

I found these very cool folks who helping people get started keeping backyard flocks in PUERTO RICO! I'm really enjoying the fact that people are doing the same thing there as we're doing here....simply trying to stay connected with our food supply.  

 Love the logo, love their site :) 

(when you get to their website, right click & you'll have the option to translate the page - it's worth it) 

Gallinas Urbanas



Sunday, September 1, 2013

Colloncas are NOT Tuft-less Araucanas

I've been tinkering with rumpless blue egg layers for the past few year. The first few years were spent working towards fibromelanistic, rumpless, blue egg layers. Finally, last fall year I was able to tease apart my flock into those with muffs and those that are clean faced. I began doing some hardcore cyber sleuthing about South American chickens, blue egg layers, and history. I've come to realize we have an unprecedented amount of knowledge and amazing tools at our disposal to actually use that knowledge.

That's a bit of a long winded introduction to this summary of what I think I know about the birds in my backyard.

Technically speaking, Araucanas are a hybrid of two unique South American chicken "breeds", the Colloncas and the Quetros. Over time Araucanas have become prevalent enough to be a designated and standardized breed. However, the Colloncas and Quetros never reached enough prominence to be formally recognized beyond perceived indigenous colloquialism. There are distinct differences between these two land races.

There are many websites detailing the history of the Araucana breed, the differences between what North Americans call "Araucanas" compared to everywhere else in the world, and why Ameraucanas aren't Araucanas and Easter Eggers aren't Ameraucanas. (Woe be to Gertrude Stein who wrote, "A rose is a rose is a rose by any other name.")

The fine tooth comb of poultry politicians seemed fairly pedantic until I began seeing well educated, experienced Araucana breeders saying that a Collonca is simply a tuftless Araucana. That makes about as much sense as saying Holsteins are Texas Long-horns without horns.

When two animals are crossed, their genetic material is picked apart with roulette wheel precision, and then stuck back together with velcro-like accuracy. Breeders don't get to pick and choose qualities a la carte. Herein lies the true art of animal husbandry. Over time the breeder can manipulate the frequency of various phenotypes and eventually be able to reliably produce more or less perfect specimens.

This is where genetic conservation becomes critical because genes and specific combinations of genes can and do get lost without stewardship. The original stewards of the early Colloncas were lived in remote Andean mountain villages. They required animals that could evade jaguars, monkeys, and condors while thriving on minimal supplemental feed. Special birds may have been kept for purposes other than food supply but they would have been tightly coveted.

It has been a mere handful of years that the indigenous tribes of these areas have even been recognized by their governments. Maintaining pure lineages of their chicken flocks has been a very trivial concern as these people tried to just stay alive.

Additionally, in situ preservation is going to be a tremendous challenge thanks to genetic contributions from the industrialized world. High production birds with their genetic homogeneity have found every nook and cranny of the chicken keeping world.

At this point there are two ideological camps among preservationists. The first emphasizes temperament and behaviors and the second emphasizes stabilizing the phenotype of the birds. It is much easier to create a standard for phenotype than behavior.

I would like to think that my approach will ultimately be a complete failure because these birds are so special that they transcend my pale North American capabilities. Perhaps that's true. More than likely I'll eventually have something that merely approximates the work of South American preservationists.

Every time I sit down at my computer and surf the web I find new initiatives, new information, and new knowledge working it's way to the surface. I'm comfortable tinkering with my flock as I know more and as stronger genetic contributions become available. In the meanwhile, I whole heartedly encourage people to start thinking about their chickens in a broader social context. It will make every egg you collect a bit richer, every feather a bit brighter, and every cluck and crow a deeper in meaning.

Some References You May Enjoy





Saturday, July 20, 2013

Happiness Sunny Side Up

Earlier this summer a research review published by the University of Bristol called "The Intelligent Hen Study" summarized years of experiments that quantify what flock owners know, chickens are smart.

The long of the short is chicks can count higher higher, have better self-control, and superior spatial awareness than human toddlers .  They also recognize symmetry...the free form builder in me wonders what they think of the coops I make....

From The Guardian UK June 19, 2013 According to a new report, chickens appear to be much more intelligent than previously thought, with better numeracy and spatial awareness skills than young children. "The domesticated chicken is something of a phenomenon," Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at Bristol University, told the Times. "Studies over the past 20 years have revealed their finely honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead."  

My hamster-speed computer was not able to find the original research online but here's the most detailed article I came across. http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/the-intelligent-hen8217-chickens-smarter-than-toddlers/story-fnet08ui-1226666106781

The research review was underwritten by international free-range egg producer Happy Egg Company to help guide facility development.  

I'm very curious about what Happy Egg will do with the information and how their facilities will address flock enrichment.  While this may seem odd, awkward, and impractical in the eyes of the battery cage industry, I'm sure follow up research will happen over the next few years.  Sparky's Related Article on Friendships in Commercial Flocks

 Happy Hens Company's Natural Hen Habitat   (Out of detest for common industry practices I have resisted the urge to point out all the reasons why a nicely manicured park-like setting with a flock of genetically identical birds really doesn't look very natural. However, you should visit their website, it's actually quite interesting!)

And, BTW -  In 2011 Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (VIVA!) called out Happy Egg Company, salaciously documenting something else flock owners already knew -  chickens poop...and they die...and when they're little they need more supervision, and when they're older they need to leave the work force.  I wasn't shocked by VIVA's findings; I was terrified by how little people know about the reality of the food they eat. Photoshop may be able to hide those bare spots scratched into the carefully mowed pasture by Happy birds looking for tasty treats, but all the digital manipulations in the world won't take away the fact that people actually expect those to be completely real.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Girl and Her Cow, 1965

I've had a life long interest in children and how they interact with their environment - especially in a historical context.  From time to time I'll post an especially poignant picture I've come across.

I found this special piIcture a few years ago. It was taken by Dennis Stock (the man who made James Dean live forever) at the 1965 Iowa State Fair.  For me it brought back all the sights, sounds, smells, and sweat of the county fair livestock barns. To be honest  I didn't show any cows myself but I had enough friends and family who did to know it just wasn't the thing for me.  They would sleep in the barns with their animals and primp and fuss over their animals exactly like the girl in this picture which Stock titled "Beauty contest for cattle at the Iowa State Fair, 1965".

I imagine that somewhere at this very moment a cow is haltered and tied in a dark (hopefully cool) stall inside a creaky old barn on a quiet farm in rural America. A teenager toting a bucket of all the best beauty supplies is trying out all the tips and tricks she's learned about making her cud chewing cow ("Trixie"?) look good.  By fair time in August they'll have a well practiced routine for morphing Trixie into a moo-ing dreamboat cloud of hairspray with a bright white tail and shiny hooves.  

A girl and her cow, 1965
(PS I wonder what the cows are saying to each other...)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Taco Party

Is it a taco box or.....

or an upcycled nest box?

Do not disturb for the next 21 days!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Standing in Stink Stew Part 2

As it turns out the theory that the dirty coop litter would slow down storm water was actually pretty accurate. The problem was that the "Berm of Brilliance" was more like a 10' x 20' sponge right over the walkway. Storm water runoff was still a problem but a much slower problem - instead of fast water cutting channels through the barnyard and carrying silt out into the driveway, I had a thick toxic batter that just kept getting deeper every time it rained.

Just getting from one coop to the next was a major nightmare. Scraps of lumber became stepping stones until I was able to lay out sheets of cardboard.  That lasted all of maybe two days.  The cardboard sank.  The scraps of lumber sank. If I stepped off whatever slippery, precarious perch I was able to find, I sank....like up to my knees.  It was bad and only getting worse because it just kept raining.

Eventually I was able to get close enough to the "Berm of Brilliance" to place to throw down some straw and grass seed and to cover it up with pallets.  To keep things interesting Mother Nature threw some more rain and snow and even nights below freezing well into May. Instead of coop cleaning, I had to focus on just creating a way to *get* to the coops.

(I had a pile of shipping crate dregs with really long, menacing nails sticking out one side. I pounded them into the ground as stepping stones.  All things considered, they look pretty good!)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Chicken Soup Magic

An ad I wrote last spring for our processed chicken..... at the time we were getting $6/lb on the regular birds and $9/lb on the dark birds.  -AR

Free-range heritage breed and dark flesh chickens locally grown and processed for your culinary creations. This will not be a typical grocery store eating experience! 

These are extra roosters from hatches last fall. We've been tinkering around with ways to increase carnosine (ie chicken soup magic) in meat birds. There's a relationship between darkness of flesh (melanin levels) and carnosine levels but the challenge is the birds with the highest (by far!) carnosine levels also happen to be small....as in silkies. While we're waiting for the research to tease apart all the different aspects to fibromelanism, we're exercising a bit of homegrown selective breeding - on behalf of chicken soup lovers wherever they may be 

Dark flesh chickens have a slightly different flavor and have high levels of taurine and carnosine - ie "chicken soup magic".  Information about cooking heritage meat is below.

We hatched these birds and then fed and watered them daily for the last 5 months - trudging through wind and sleet snow, pouring rain and deep mud. They've slowly grown eating a diet of hand blended whole grains through the winter and wandering about eating tender grass and dandelion greens (and the occasional tasty worm) this spring. When the time was right the birds were taken to a small USDA inspected, family operated processing facility in Garnett, Kansas

I typically squeeze 3 meals of of each bird - baked chicken for meal 1, pulled chicken for casseroles for meal 2, and a rich soup made from thick chicken jelly for meal 3, plus several quarts of high quality broth for comfort food.  

Cooking traditionally raised chickens is different from cooking with industrially raised hybrid broilers. Recommendations from Heritage Chef Steve Pope

The US Ark of Taste is a catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction. By promoting and eating Ark products we help ensure they remain in production and on our plates. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/ark_of_taste/

Slow Food KC http://www.slowfoodkc.org/


Friday, May 10, 2013

A Berm of Brilliance

Things were going beautifully one day in March when I decided it was the perfect day to clean out my biggest enclosure. To sufficiently accomplish this task, I had to remove a wall and the roof. (a humorous topic for another day) It took surprisingly little time to completely deconstruct the coop and scatter all its parts and pieces in the yard surrounding the foot deep layer cake of rich, juicy, fermenting compost. I brought out my favorite implement, the pitch fork, and began filling the wheelbarrow in earnest.

The wheelbarrow had about 200 lbs of wet soppy manure in it by the time I decided to call it full. It was then that I realized that between me and the compost pile was an assortment of now super mud encrusted lumber and boards haphazardly laid out like pick up sticks.   This was not good.

I told myself the official compost "structure" was really just a place to hold the fermenting goop so the dogs wouldn't rolling in it. It wasn't like I was actively turning it or trying to speed the decomposition process. Then it occurred to me that all sopping wet layers of straw, leaves, shredded paper, feed dregs, and "barn dirt" would compost just as well in a long berm as it would in the declared compost pile. Plus, the berm would slow down storm water run off and maybe catch some of the confetti and sludge before it hit the driveway.

As I pitchforked it out of the wheel barrow I flipped each piece so the hard crusted side was down and the  stinky juicy side was up.  It seemed like a good way to get the fumes to disperse. The problem was that to build up the berm I would have to stack the pieces. The ammonia would stay trapped between the layers and burn anything I tried to plant.

The Berm of Brilliance would have to wait.  I spread out the pieces intending to come back after the bedding was drier and more manageable.  And then, it began to rain....and it didn't stop for a week.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Standing in Stink Stew

Everything was already muddy from snow melt and when I added shredded paper, it would just dissolve like cotton candy. I used entire bags of paper until it didn't dissolve anymore. The coops began to fill inch by inch with pulpy mash. Eventually we started getting warm winds that started to dry things up. A hard crust of dried barn mud paper mash formed over the top of the now swollen and oozy layers of stinky muck.

The ducks seemed to think it was pretty terrific because they would dig their bills into it and jab up and down until they scored a tasty treat.  The other birds were light weight enough they didn't sink.  It was actually rather springy and sometimes I could even hear a slosh when I stepped.   It wasn't a horrific problem unless I stepped in an especially wet area hidden beneath the paper mache mud. Then, it was like walking along in crunchy snow and suddenly losing a leg down into a snow drift.

Except it wasn't snow and I had holes in my rubber boots.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Seriously Shredded Part 2

Out for a quick stroll
after being cooped up
during the blizzard

Last winter we had lots of snow followed by lots of rain. Some of the  breeding coops would turn into swamps. I would throw alternating  layers of straw and leaves on top of the mud so it wasn't miserable. I  got a few coops cleaned out mid-season but then in February we got  like 14 inches of snow in like 2 days. Over the course of the next  week, inside each open air coop, the snow slowly melted until finally the birds were walking around wet with nasty mud half-way up their legs.

My supply of leaves was paltry - given the exceptional drought, leaves  turned to dust instead of getting raked and bagged. Straw was not  sufficient alone and the coops were simply too big for wood chips be  particularly useful.

I was at wits end when I stumbled upon a large  and steady supply of shredded office paper. The birds could at least  come out of the houses and kick about the paper. The first layer of  paper worked like a charm and seemed to sort of meld together with the  barn dirt forming a nice paper mash not unlike homemade paper. I was  pleased and I continued to add layers alternating straw and shredded  paper.

I'd been using shredded paper for about two months when I realized I was no longer being as careful as I had been.  Little pieces would get stuck on my feet when I walked into the coops and I would track them all over the yard.  The chickens would scratch about and paper would end up in the yard.  Open a door on a windy day and paper would blow out into the yard. It was getting out of hand.

And then it began to rain.....

Friday, April 26, 2013

Seriously Shredded

Blue Bell and Her Chicks
 on Shredded Office Paper
A few weeks ago I had an absolutely fantastic revelation!  I was dropping my daughter off at school when I noticed bags and bags of shredded office paper.  What a clever way to get clean bedding in the nest boxes....  I cautiously took a bag and quickly squirreled it away in the backseat - afraid that at any moment someone would come running from the building to yell at me for taking their recyclables.

The first place I decided to try it out was in the brooder where a momma and her chicks were cushioned on nice, safe brome.  (At that point brome was $10 / bale so I was pretty selective about who got the good stuff.) The paper was clean and soft and the chicks could pick at it without me worrying about them choking.  I patted myself on the back for being so willing to improvise.

Over the next month I took a little more paper each week and by then people were beginning to notice.  I finally got to where I was rather cheekily asking passersby, "Wanna know what I'm gonna do with all this?"  Their responses ranged from amusement to getting my phone number for when they see an especially robust cache of shredded paper.  I got more bold with where I was using the paper and I got more generous with the amounts I would use at a time.

My Mixed Mallard Project
(notice the ducklings on the left :)

Inside the 6 week brooder
(Painted White Plume Project chick)
Shredded paper for the nest box and
 a couple inches thick on the floor

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Free Range Fractures

March 2013
Skeletal health in laying hens is a major welfare and economic problem with up to 80% of hens suffering bone breakages in some free range systems. A new three-year study hopes to reduce the fracture rates in laying hens thanks to a grant of £532,000 funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and supported by industrial partner, Noble Foods.
With the 2012 EU ban on battery cage systems, as many as 30 million hens will be housed in alternative systems, mostly free range. This means a possible 24 million hens suffering bone breakage each year in the UK, which the industry and government view as unsustainable.

Sparky's editorial reaction:  80% of the free range hens have broken bones - from collisons with other  birds?? What?? And this research is to figure out what to do to solve the problem?? I was very nearly compelled to pull up my user name for World Poultry (barndirtisaeuphemismforshit) and leave some snarky comment about how warped it is to need a study to prompt common sense. BUT, then I realized that this kind of study is absolutely necessary because the established poultry industry is amazingly removed from the reality of chickens. They're still trying to figure out an entirely new business model. So be it if it takes some absurd study to come to grips with what the rest of us already knew....free range is completely different from battery cages.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Milk Jug Saga

For complicated and situationally irrelevant reasons I have LOTS of plastic water jugs at my disposal.  These came in handy last winter when the water lines froze.  I would fill 10 jugs with hot water and haul them out to the barnyard to thaw out waterers.  Thank heavens that only went on for a week....  (It was a long week though.)

But then, it happened.  It started snowing and by nightfall we had several inches.  By morning we had over a foot and it just kept coming down, a cold and windy white out, all through the day and into the next night.  Schools closed, stores closed, roads closed, even the state closed.

Everyone in town was stuck in town; everyone in the country was stuck in the country. By then the birds had been cooped up for nearly 36 hours.  There was no way around it;  I had to dig out the coops and get everyone fed and watered. That's about BeakHouse coops & SparkyCrows houses spread across about 2 acres.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Feathered Friends...or not

From World Poultry January 2013A Royal Veterinary College study has found that hens reared in commercial conditions do not form friendships and are not particular about who they spend time with.  Full ArticleThe research published by Applied Animal Behaviour Science and funded by BBSRC, was carried out to discover if the welfare of chickens could be improved by taking advantage of 'friendships'. ************************************************************************************
Inseparable Cousins....yeah, really, cousins.

Sparky's Reaction: Do they truly have no desire to form relationships?  This is quite contrary to research done on birds in the past and goes against everything I've ever seen.  If it's true and not a research flaw,  what do we do with the knowledge that with selective breeding we are capable of eliminating social structure?  

PS I'm sure I'm taking this way beyond the researchers intentions...at least I hope so but, isn't there something a little slimy in thinking about how to take advantage of friendships in terms of food production.  Like, the birds with the most friends taste better?  Is the next step to genetically isolate and replicate popularity.  Eew.