An All-Cement Chicken House

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As the co-editor of a blog that has way too many subjects for its own good, I take great comfort in the eclecticism of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Magazine. In the pages of the Craftsman you’ll find poems by Carl Sandburg, and critiques of Maxim Gorky next to practical tips on the construction of chicken coops.

As to this particular coop, from a 1916 issue, I agree that, “Beauty certainly cannot be claimed.” And the production of concrete is an environmental nightmare so I, personally, would not build a concrete chicken coop. But the anonymous architect of this coop should get a few points for coop innovation.

Pasture Standards for Laying Hens

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This weekend Kelly and I and our friend Dale attended the massive Natural Products Expo West, a convention where grocery and health food stores go to find the latest quinoa chip. While the vast majority of exhibitors are peddling highly processed vegetarian junk food, in recent years I’ve spotted a positive trend: pasture raised eggs and meat.

Having witnessed agricultural fraud first hand and even collusion from mainstream journalists (wish I could tell that story, but Root Simple would need an investigative division and lawyers), I’ve come to view animal husbandry claims with suspicion. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at the standards for pasture raised laying hens.

As usual, food marketing claims are confusing and often misleading. In fairness, assessing a farm’s “humaneness” isn’t a simple question and there’s no oversight from the government. The USDA does not have a pasture raised designation. Pasture certification is done by third party organizations. Thankfully the Animal Welfare Institute has a guide to animal welfare claims.

I thought I’d take a closer look at the designation I’ve seen the most, Certified Humane. One important thing to note is that a company can have the Certified Humane designation and not raise poultry on pasture. That said, the non-profit that adjudicates the Certified Humane label has pasture standards. Here’s an excerpt from those standards relating to exterior access for laying hens on pasture:

R 1: Pasture area
a. Must consist mainly of living vegetation. Coarse grit must be available to aid digestion of vegetation.
b. The pasture must be designed and actively managed to:
1. Encourage birds outside, away from the popholes, and to use the area fully;
2. Prevent and/or minimize heavily degraded, muddy/sodden, or worn areas;
3. Minimize any build-up of agents (e.g., parasites, bacteria, viruses) that may cause disease;
4. Prevent hens from coming into contact with any toxic substances.
c. The minimum outdoor space requirement is 2.5 acres (1 hectare)/1000 birds. Land used for cropping (except grass or hay) is not accepted as part of the Pasture Raised space allowance and must be excluded from space calculations.
d. The maximum distance that a hen has to walk from the perimeter fence of the pasture to the nearest door into a fixed or mobile house must be no more than 400 yards (366 m).
e. The pasture must be rotated periodically to prevent the land from becoming contaminated and or denuded, and to allow it to recover from use. A written rotational grazing plan must be in place. The written rotational grazing plan must be submitted with the application.
f. Water temperature must not be less than 50° F (10 C) or greater than 100° F (38 C).
g. Birds must be outdoors 12 months per year, every day for a minimum of 6 hours per day. In an emergency, the hens may be confined in fixed or mobile housing 24 hours per day for no more than 14 consecutive days.
h. Shade, cover and dust bathing areas
1. There must be sufficient well-drained, shaded areas for hens to rest outdoors without crowding together.
2. Cover, such as shrubs, trees or artificial structures, must be distributed throughout the pasture to reduce the fear reactions of hens to overhead predators and to encourage use of the pasture.
3. The pasture area must include patches with loose substrate suitable for dust bathing.

These standards seem reasonable to me though there are other things to consider such as de-beaking. Personally, I feel good about buying pasture raised eggs with the Certified Humane designation. But I wish that the USDA would step in and clear up the confusing and misleading egg labels such as “cage free,” and “free range.” as well as putting together a standard for “pasture raised.” I’m not holding my breath. On the positive side, we vote with our food dollars and those votes are beginning to be counted. Unfortunately, there’s going to be a few years of wading through the marketing manure and the current anti-regulation political climate.

Will We Keep Keeping Chickens?

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One of our eggs on the left and an egg from Vital Farms on the right.

I love our current flock of chickens. They’re a strikingly beautiful genetic mashup of Barnevelders and Americana hens that we got from the folks at Winnetka Farms (Craig was a guest on episode 56 and 57 of the podcast). They’ve proved to be a healthy, peaceful bunch who are still laying eggs after five years.

We let our hens live out their natural lives which can vary between just a few years and a decade or so. Lately, I’ve found myself pondering the day we have to decide to either get more chickens or close up poultry operations. There’s a lot of negatives for keeping chickens in our small, urban backyard. We have lead and zinc in the soil, so many predators that the hens have to live in what I call “chicken Guantanamo,” and a small irregular piece of property that makes using a chicken tractor impossible. While I built a generous run for our four hens, I really wish that they could wander more freely, but that’s just not possible where we live.

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Another big change that’s happened since we started keeping hens ten years ago is the wide availability of pasture raised eggs. As most readers of this blog know, the supermarket egg labeling game, “cage free” and “free range”, is a load of . . . chicken poo. Cage free and free range supermarket eggs are from chickens crammed in huge sheds. These chickens never see the light of day and live in appalling conditions. You might be able to get eggs from chickens that live outdoors at a local farmer’s market, but beware of unscrupulous vendors.

A number of companies, such as Vital Farms and Red Hill Farms, have responded to consumer concerns and are marketing eggs raised on pasture. These pastured eggs are expensive when compared to the “cage free” and “free range” alternatives but probably cheaper than my feed and coop costs (though an accountant would argue I’ve already sunk the money into that coop!). And check out the yolk color in the photo above–the pastured eggs I’ve bought at the supermarket (during the winter–I don’t put a light in our coop) have a much darker yolk color than our ladies’ eggs. I should note that while I have spoken to Vital Farms sales reps I have not done full due diligence on any of the companies marketing pastured eggs.

I’m pleased to see our food system respond to the concern that motivated many of us backyard chicken keepers in the first place, namely the inhumane conditions in factory poultry operations. Perhaps the pasture raised eggs we can now buy at the supermarket would not have come to be without so many of us taking the extraordinary step of welcoming poultry back into the city.

What do you think? Do you keep chickens? Why?

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How to Rodent Proof a Chicken Coop

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One morning I opened the metal trash can I used to keep the chicken feed in and plunged a scoop into the feed. In that cup of feed there was some additional protein in the form of a small, freaked-out mouse. I shrieked and the mouse jumped out of my hand and dashed off. Then I peered into the bag of feed. Like the plot of a rodent horror movie, I found two other mice running around along with a dead and bloody mouse. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the mysterious details of that story. But I knew it was time to deal with the problem.

Thankfully, like Dr. Maurice Pitesky mentioned in the podcast on Wednesday, most chicken pest problems can be taken care of with simple sanitation. In my case that meant putting the food away at night and investing in rodent proof feed containers.

Every night I put the entire feeder within the trash can you can see in the picture on the right (it has a much more secure lid than the larger can I used to keep the feed in). In the morning I put the food out again for our four hens. It means that I have to get up just a few minutes earlier than I usually do but that’s not a big deal as I’m one of those tedious and boring morning persons.

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Some folks use rodent proof treadle feeders. These feeders open when the hens step on a small metal platform. I was sent a treadle feeder like the one above but my skittish hens would not get anywhere near it even with the treadle kept open. I probably could have trained them to use it but I’ve found that putting the feed away at night is no big chore. I gave the treadle feeder away to some other chicken enthusiasts whose hens are less afraid of the contraption.

As to rodent-proof feed containers I’m using two Vittle Vaults, one for the feed and the other for scratch. They have a locking, rodent and water proof lid. The small trash can in the picture (that I put the whole feeder in at night) seems to be working.

For more information on controlling mice and rats see UC Davis’ Integrated Pest Management information for rats and house mice. We used to have mice in the house but the cats have taken care of that problem. As to the issue of rodents eating fruit, I’m still working on that problem.

076 Keeping Your Poultry Healthy with Dr. Maurice Pitesky

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Our guest this week is Dr. Maurice Pitesky and our topic is keeping your backyard poultry flock healthy. Dr. Pitesky is an Assistant Specialist in Cooperative Extension for Poultry Health and Food Safety Epidemiology at the University of California Davis where he researches disease surveillance, food safety management, and other topics related to poultry health. He also does education and outreach to backyard and commercial poultry owners. During the podcast he mentions the UC Davis poultry resource website, a backyard poultry census that you can take part in, and the UC Davis pastured poultry farm research project. We also discuss some simple measures you can take to keep your poultry free of disease as well as how to safely cook eggs and meat.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You cansubscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.