Winter is not an easy time of year for the Kiwi Homesteaders. The coughs and colds come out in force, with three kids in kindergarten. We’ve also been house-sitting for Grace’s parents, and that has at times felt like a mission, with maintenance items coming out of the woodwork and a lot of floor space to deal with.
So this blog took, once again, a back seat. I’m sure that, like exercise, blogging requires a slog of commitment until a habit is formed.
Less than halfway through winter, though, our Araucana hen, Mary Hen, decided to start laying very pretty blue eggs, and our rooster, Robbie (yes, based on Robin Hood and the maid Marian), rose to the occasion. So we had high hopes that we would welcome a batch of pure-bred Araucana chicks.
But, alas! Disaster and disappointment were our lot! Grace had bought an incubator off Trade Me in April, and it passed its first test, but when she turned it on again it failed badly, going into an endless cycle of rebooting, and shocking me while I attempted to investigate the problem. Time to invoke the warranty.
So what to do with the eggs? Eat them, or try something else? Well, in business, there’s no sense doing anything by halves.
So off to Chook Manor we drove, to equip ourselves properly. We spent about five times as much, but instead of a product of indifferent quality that could just as easily have died in the middle of a batch of eggs and lost us hundreds of dollars worth of livestock, we now have a Brinsea Ovation 56 EX, reputed to be one of the best on the market for small to medium-sized batches of eggs. And because it has a thermostat and a hygrostat, we don’t need to worry about the temperature or humidity, once we figured out one or two knacks to operating the equipment.
And so, between Mary Hen’s contributions and a number of Waipahi eggs (the Waipahi being a recently developed breed from Southland), we started our first incubation batch of 20 eggs. It turned out that four of the eggs were duds — infertile, perhaps, or the avian equivalent of a miscarriage — and another two were stillborn, and a seventh died a few days after hatching. But the remaining 13 are healthy and happy, and we moved them into our chick coop today at four weeks old.
And Mary Hen, not content with her efforts, is still laying. She seems determined to be a mother one of these days.
At last, I bring to you our tale of the journey over the mountains to the West Coast of New Zealand. We had bought two chicken coops on Trade Me, and they were for collection by the buyer. Victor got up bright and early, and nipped down the road to collect a car transporter, as there was no way our ordinary trailer would hold even the bigger of the two coops by itself, let alone both together! Would we be able to collect them both and bring them back in one day? Would they fit, and would our vehicle be up to the task?
Our drive over was uneventful, except for a heavily laden cyclist on a tricky hill, but we were happily entertained by the use of the age-appropriate children’s radio broadcast Adventures In Odyssey by Focus on the Family as we drove through sunny hill country, grand beech forests, and remote farmland. We had a few stops for toilet breaks and for food (plus one to collect our old chicken water barrel), but our adventure didn’t really start until we arrived in Stillwater, on the outskirts of Greymouth.
We stopped to pick up our first coop, the larger of the two, and were asked to wait around fifteen minutes for the front loader to come from next door. We spent the time mostly looking over our purchase and talking to the man who built it. He is a retired builder, and we could tell that he puts his heart and soul into whatever he does. His other coops, dog runs and other sorts of small but well-designed buildings were all over the small farm section. He even offered us some extra things like a bag of clean wood shavings to line the coop when we got it to our home. When the front loader arrived, the builder took time to make sure that the coop was properly loaded, and he and his grandson helped to secure ratchet tie-downs and add orange flags to the coop to make it stand out more on the road. He offered a little advice on driving such a heavy load that was also very much appreciated. We left feeling very happy with our purchase and wondering strongly if we might see the kind old builder again.
Our second big stop was to pick up the little colourful “maternity coop” as Victor calls it. We waited what seemed like forever to find someone who could help us load it. We had tried to call in advance to tell them when we would arrive, but no one had picked up. We certainly had arranged to pick it up that day in any case.
Honeybee and Stargazer spent their time wandering around looking at the ponies, climbing random things, swinging on the little two-person swing and generally having a good time. Duckie spent most of the time waiting asleep. Victor and I wandered around mostly just talking about the big coop. It wasn’t that the little coop wasn’t nice… it just isn’t quite as grand as our big coop. Eventually, the landowner was able to get his forklift and helped to load the coop.
By now it was getting dark, even though the West Coast is supposed to be only three hours drive from home and we had left at ten o’clock in the morning. By mid-April, the days here are getting noticeably short. We certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go on such an expedition any later in the year!
We had originally expected to be home in time for dinner. In typical Kiwi Homesteading style, where everything takes longer than expected, that didn’t happen. So it was dinner in Greymouth, where the golden arches came to our rescue, and then off down the highway. Ducky’s cherished blanket toy was a casualty of war, sadly, lost (we think) on the side of the road.
Now there are two main roads over the Southern Alps between Canterbury and the West Coast. The longer, gentler, more northerly route is the Lewis Pass, which we took on the way over. Since it was already so late, we decided to come back over Arthur’s Pass, the more direct route. As we headed east along Highway 73, we passed grim signs: “Ye who bear heavy burdens, beware the road ahead,” and, “Turn back now, lest thy carriage prove unworthy,” and finally, “Fly, you fools!”
Well, actually the sign may or may not have been more mundane like this: “STEEP GRADES. NOT RECOMMENDED FOR TOWING VEHICLES.” But this is Middle-Earth, after all.
At first, we wondered what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t until we left the gentle valley of the Taramakau and started up the Otira Gorge itself that it became evident that the warning was not in vain. Victor watched as the gear counter, which started at a healthy 5 out of 6, went inexorably down to 4, then 3, then 2… the accelerator was on the floor… the engine toiled manfully as we crawled, inch by inch, up the perilously winding road and the long slope of the dreadful Viaduct.
Just as we thought that the engine was at its final gasp, we started to climb faster, and I exclaimed that it couldn’t be the car doing this, it was God pushing us up the hill! The girls and I all praised God as we continued to gain speed in our climbing efforts. Each time the car seemed like it would slow we in earnest prayed loudly something like “Please! push this car up the hill, God!”. Stargazer yelled “You can do it, God! I know you can!”.
Not long after that, the slope lessened, and we soon saw, standing tall in our headlights, the Dobson Memorial, marking the summit of the high pass.
There were two remaining questions for us. The first and most vexing was that of fuel. There are very few petrol stations in the Southern Alps, and even though we had filled up in Greymouth, our car needed lots to drink to get over Arthur’s Pass and the gentler but higher Porter’s Pass, and on the further side of Porter’s there was still a long road over the plains. Mercifully, the petrol station at Springfield was still open. It is fairly rare petrol stations to be open late at night in the country. Victor certainly sighed in relief when we pulled up and noticed that it was actually a 24/7 pay-at-the-pump type petrol station.
The second was whether we would fall asleep, especially Victor, whose eyelids were starting to droop. I wasn’t in any better shape myself, and my eyes were sore and my vision blurred. The roads were almost deserted, and the river mist lay thick on the land. The music was either grating on our ears or sending us to sleep. Finally, we were resorting to trying to name animals, chemical elements, books of the Bible… anything to keep our minds alert as we drove those last few miles.
We made it home in one piece, and after cleaning up a carsick Ducky and putting to bed the older two, we were only too pleased, after a successful but very tiring expedition, to collapse into bed ourselves.
I hope you have enjoyed our story for the evening. We will follow this up with a post with more photos of our coops and the work we have done to set them up. Please follow us on Facebook if you haven’t already as we will likely post quite a few more pictures there than on here. You may also get a few sneak peeks at our new animals.
Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
(Warning – this post contains a video which may not be suitable for all viewers)
Let me share another helpful lesson on raising chickens. I last left off telling you about our chicken breed, “Brown Shavers”. We chose this breed mainly because of the high egg production and highly regarded good health. There are many other good options out there which have unique characteristics. One negative about the brown shaver breed is that they are not very good mothers. They do not sit on their eggs reliably and rarely go broody. This fact leads us to today’s topic!
So we have a brown shaver who’s name is Reep-i-Cheep (yes, I am a fan of Narnia). She fell broody sometime earlier this year which means her instincts made her want to raise chicks. She started to steal all the other chicken’s eggs and hide them so that she could sit on them all day long. It also means that she was not producing any eggs and not eating much food. She seemed depressed that her clutch (a nest full of eggs) never seemed to hatch.
Broody Hens and what to do
There are many ways to “break” a broody hen. A broody hen’s body temperature is much higher than a non-broody hen because eggs need heat to start the incubation process. Methods to break this cycle often revolve around reducing the chicken’s comfort and warmth. Some people talk about putting them in a wire bird cage with no “secure” or comfortable place to sit. Others have suggested a dunk in a cold water bath or a block of ice in the nest.
We are not running a commercial farm, and we have more eggs than we need so we decided to give Reep-i-Cheep some fertile eggs to sit on instead of breaking her.
When a broody hen sits on a clutch of eggs, she needs to do so for a minimum of 21 days to complete incubation. An excellent broody hen will then take care of the chicks she has hatched until they are fully feathered and able to take care of themselves. It is okay for a chicken to get up a few times each day to eat, drink, and scratch about but it is vital for a broody hen not to be gone too long or else the eggs will get cold and will not survive. Reep-i-Cheep sat on her eggs for 23 days. At 22 days 3 of her eggs hatched. The remaining eggs were a combination of apparently unfertilised eggs and blood rings.
A blood ring occurs during the incubation of chicken eggs when the fertilised egg starts to develop but then later dies. When the blood vessels begin to form, and the embryo dies; the blood vessels decompose and rather than remaining attached to the embryo, they float in the yolk and form a circle which spans the circumference of the egg. You can see this if you shine a very bring light through the egg. Though there are many reasons for a blood ring to form, the sight of a blood ring always means death.
The technique of viewing the process of egg incubation with light is called Candling.
Reep-i-Cheep was pretty upset and continued to sit on the dead eggs while trying to be a mum to the three freshly hatched chicks. She also refused to eat and drink. Her instincts prevented her from seeing that these eggs would never hatch. She was pretty malnourished at this point too.
At this point, we decided to try to replace the dead eggs with more fertile eggs. We thought Reep-i-Cheep would sit on them again, but we decided to go with a better supplier. Unfortunately, the day after we got the next batch of eggs Reep-i-Cheep chose not to sit anymore and only continued to care for her three chicks. We found ourselves with nine partially incubated eggs and no broody hen and no way to get an incubator fast enough to keep them alive. The only chance they would have was to try to incubate them with the electric hen, much egg turning, and a spray bottle. Unfortunately for us again, the power went out at a point, and the eggs did not survive. We still tried to see if they would hatch but after 25 days had passed, we had no new chicks. We decided to film the results to see how far they had developed before they died. Have a look at this video below if you would like to see the results.
Today I thought I would share our first encounter with homesteading. Victor and I decided early on to try to raise a few chickens in our suburban house. In our town, you can keep poultry (apart from noisy roosters) on your residential property. Whether you take in rescued battery hens or try out a fancy breed, keeping healthy, productive poultry can save you money — plus you’ll enjoy the great taste of home-grown eggs.
Finding suitable housing
We knew we wanted at least 4 good healthy chickens and we knew we wanted to hand raise them from day olds. So that gave us the approximate space requirements that we needed to house them comfortably. We looked around for an inexpensive option but purchasing a coop or building one from scratch was out of our budget range. Luckily for us, Victor’s parents were trying to get rid of their old coop. So we took it home and remodelled it to remove the broken bits and add some new wood to the areas that needed it most. This saved us heaps of money in the beginning because a standard kit set Chicken Coop and run can cost a lot! The prices vary depending on how many chickens you want and any extra features you desire. I think our expenses to fix it up were around $100-200. A brand new one could run you into the thousands for a perfect setup.
A good coop needs an ample amount of run space unless you know you can free-range and are happy to block off any areas you don’t want them to forage in. It also needs enough nesting boxes for all your chicks. Since our chook house has 3 boxes, we can have up to 6 chickens inside comfortably.
Also, you need to have a perch which is flat on the top so that their feet are flat to roost. I highly recommend getting a small bit of 4×2 or something like that rather than using dowels which hurt their feet!
Choosing a Breed
Chickens come in all shapes and sizes. From Bantams, which are your smallest breed to your heavy breeds like Australorps and Orpingtons there are plenty to choose from. I could write for days on the different pros and cons of the various kinds, but I will leave that for another day. All you need to know right now is that we chose to get a favourite New Zealand variety called “Brown Shavers“. We got ours from a local hatchery called Heslips Hatchery. Heslips is a great place to go if you want a highly productive flock like ours. They were shipped to a local distribution point where we picked them up. You can also order and pick up directly from the hatchery, but that was farther away for us.
When raising chicks for the first time, you need to have specific items to care for them. You need a broody box to keep them contained which has access to water which is shallow enough that new chicks can’t drown and it should have a small shallow feed dish too. For feed, I highly recommend the chick starter that Heslips offers when you buy the chicks from them. It’s excellent quality, and you can usually pick it up at the same time. You’ll need to provide them with an ample heat source if you don’t have a broody hen to raise them from eggs. You can choose to buy a standard heating lamp like they use for reptile aquariums but we personally prefer the use of a specialty poultry device called an “electric hen”. An electric hen is a ceramic heating element that the chicks stand under when they are cold. You can find these online as well as at some stock feed stores and hatcheries in New Zealand. The benefits of this form of heating are that it is cheaper to run, that it allows the chicks to manage their own temperatures, and that it doesn’t interfere with their day and night routine by adding excessive amounts of light.
As you can see our chicks had everything they needed to grow up. It takes about 18 weeks for an average flock to go from chicks to Point of Lay (egg production). Ours took a little longer because we purchased them too late in the year and they were delayed by winter. On the other hand, this meant that our first year of production was actually much stronger and we had an average of 1.5 eggs per 24 hour period which is more than what the breed is usually capable of. We feed our fully grown birds a premium grade feed called “Natra-lay”. It’s the highest protein food we could find and is made with non-GMO seed mix. It isn’t medicated, and it is free of all pollutants and pesticides, and though it does not have the paid certification of “organic”, it might as well be. We also give our girls scratch seed and occasionally mealworms when they don’t get enough from our yard. Our girls are now nearly 2 years old!
We hope this has been helpful to you. We plan on writing more about raising chickens very soon. Thanks for reading and have a wonderful week!