Fermenting Feed for Chickens

In our constant quest here at The Welcome Homestead for better quality and cheaper, more sustainable ways of doing things there has been some research done regarding chicken feed. Currently, we feed a complete layer pellet along with scratch grains (corn, barley, wheat, oats) in a basic 50/50 mix. This has worked well for a few years and the birds have been healthy, happy and the egg production has gone well. Last summer we had a high of 22 eggs from 25 hens one day and an average of 17-20 eggs a day for most of the summer.

However, feed costs have exceeded the income from selling eggs and this situation had to be stopped. Unsustainable activities will sink the boat eventually if allowed to continue so we have taken some steps to turn things around.

Mixing the grains in the same feeder and leaving the feeder on the ground allowed the hens to scratch around in the feeder looking for their favourite goodies and spreading feed over a wide area around the feeder resulting in a huge waste of feed. The feeder was consequently hung from underneath the coop by a hook where it was still sheltered from the elements and only pellets were put into it. This had the dual purpose of getting it up away from their feet so they couldn’t scratch in it and they showed less of a tendency to search through one type of food.

Secondly, we started fermenting the grains by soaking them in water for three days. Fermentation has been used for centuries by people to preserve and enhance feed. Yogurt and sauerkraut are two examples of fermented food that we eat regularly.

This has a few advantages over dry grains:

-soaking the grains softens the husks allowing easier digestion

-the fermented grains swelled up resulting in less feed being eaten due to the larger bulk of the grain. These pictures show the same grains before and after fermenting.

-soaking the grain results in more moisture being ingested by the birds reducing the need for water consumption which would help them out on hot, dry days.

-the fermenting process increases the acidity of the feed which helps the digestion process and helps the bird’s digestive tract fight off harmful bacteria that can enter through the esophagus.

-the fermenting process also results in higher protein, increased vitamins B, C and K and probiotic bacteria needed for better digestion. In this picture you can see the bubbles produced by the bacteria’s digestion process.

Overall, we’ve been very happy with the end result. Compared to last summer, our feed costs have gone up about 20% but we have twice as many birds here now. There is a feeding frenzy when the fermented grains are set out and there is usually a small amount of pellets left in the feeder so we feel we’ve figured out the right amount of food to put out for the number of birds we have. In addition, when crops are checked during evening chores they are always full so the birds are evidently getting enough to eat. Their feathers are thick and full, they look and act healthy and the eggs seem thicker and heavier.

As always, we continue to research and try to find ways to keep everything we do here as healthy and sustainable as possible but we’ve been very satisfied with the changes in the feed program so far and enjoy seeing our eggs and meat come from a happy, healthy and well cared for flock.

Building Rabbit Nest Boxes

As with everything else here on The Welcome Homestead we try to build everything solid and with good quality material but time and wear and tear still have their effect on everything. We build the rabbit nest boxes out of ¾” plywood for durability and the thicker wood has a better insulating effect than thinner wood. We build them out of wood to also give the rabbits something to chew on as their teeth never stop growing and they need to constantly wear them down to avoid over growth. It’s also easier to screw thicker wood together without it splitting. Some of our nest boxes have been around since we first got rabbits in the winter of 2008 so some are in need of repair or replacement.

We start off with precut sections. The nest boxes for New Zealand rabbits will be about 12” wide, 12” high and 24” long. This gives the doe room to turn around in there but is still small enough to keep the kits in a confined enough space that they can easily find each other to group together for warmth.

When the box is completed we cut a piece of cage floor wire for the floor. It is ½”x1” 14 gauge galvanized wire which is strong enough to hold the weight of a 10-12 pound doe and her kits and the wire gap is small enough so the kits won’t fall or crawl through. It is screwed to the box with 1 ½” deck screws and washers. This will also let any urine drain out of the bottom of the nest box so the bedding will stay drier.

When the floor is fastened to the bottom of the box we need to keep it off the floor so any poop or straw won’t stick to the bottom of the box and any moisture has the ventilation it needs to dissipate. We have no idea what the brackets are from that we used for the front of the box but they are plastic and do the job nicely. On the rear of the box we used the plastic caps from water bottles. After some use we will see if they hold up but they can be replaced with something sturdier in the future if need be. They just happened to be what we had lying around and in the interest of doing things as cheaply as possible they did the trick for now.

The finished nest boxes were taken out to the colony and stuffed with fresh straw. Now all that needs to be done is the does need to fill them with baby rabbits and all will be well!

Pop Can Solar Collector

Here at the Welcome Homestead we have electric baseboard heating. Yup, that’s bad! The only advantage is being able to heat individual rooms on their own but it is still pretty pricey. Being hooked to the grid leaves us dependent on the prices and reliability of others. We have been exploring alternative ways to power and heat the house and it seems that we have to return to older technology in order to control costs and achieve independence. Sure, power generating stations give us reliable power on demand and generally aren’t subject to the whims of nature like solar and wind power generating systems are but at what cost? Nuclear plants have incredibly toxic waste to dispose of, coal and natural gas plants have carbon emissions issues and hydro plants flood vast swaths of land in order to provide enough water to power the turbines. These plants are also very expensive to build and maintain and the transmission network needed to deliver the electricity to the customers is expensive and soaks up power along the way so what you put in to the line at one end isn’t what you get out the other end.

As with everything else we consume, this leaves us with three choices: Status quo, change or do without. Since it is difficult to get along without electricity and maintain the lifestyle and technology that we are used to the last option is out. Sure, a lot of us would love to go live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere and enjoy the peace and quiet but we humans are social animals at heart and most of us would at least like to communicate with our friends and loved ones from time to time and that’s a bit difficult without some sort of power. We could go with the status quo, pay what the power companies charge us and have our convenient power any time we need it. If people are happy with that, more power to them (pun intended). It is nice to have the convenience to flip a switch and cook, do laundry or turn up the heat whenever we want. However, for some of us who would like to save a few bucks and perhaps be independent of big business there are a few alternatives we can explore on our quest for peace and self-sufficiency.

This project is the pop can solar collector. It’s by no means new technology, in fact it’s basic physics that we have known since man (or woman) first stood in the sunshine and felt it’s warmth on his (or her) face. Touch a rock or some pavement that has been in the sun for any period of time and, of course, it’s hot. The sun shines down on our heads for free and we fail to utilize this amazing resource. The solar collector is simply a way to gather that heat and distribute it in an orderly manner. There are companies out there who manufacture solar collectors like this, in fact one buys pop cans from a recycling facility and reuses them in their units. However, we are doing this on the cheap so we are trying use as much scavenged materials as possible.

This particular project will be fitted into a window. Others are self-contained units which we will explore at a later date. We start by measuring the window that will be the new home of our solar collector then build a box the size of the window and deep enough to accept the width of the pop cans. There is a piece of wood cut to contain the rows of cans on the top and the bottom and holes cut in these pieces to accept the tops of the cans. Each can is washed in dish detergent so the paint will stick to the can and a hole is punched I the bottom of the can so air can get through when the cans are placed end to end like tubes.

After the cans are placed in the box they are secured with wires and then the entire unit is painted black with high temperature frame and roll bar paint. Once the paint is dry the unit is placed in the window, secured and sealed and the fan installed on the bottom. As the sun heats the cans air is blown through the unit, picking up heat and distributing it to the room. Pop cans are used because of the superior heat transfer qualities of aluminum. This particular project has hardly been professional and still needs some tweaks such as improving the seal on the box but it is operating in principle as expected. It does keep the kitchen a few degrees warmer than it would be without it although we don’t have official temperature stats at this time. The temperature inside the unit gets off the scale of the thermometer which tops out at 120 degrees F. The fan is a bathroom fan which is rated at 70 cfm and draws 100w of power. If that fan can prevent the 1500w baseboard heaters from coming on it’s a big savings right there.

Some improvements would make this unit more efficient, for example, we plan on blocking off the two doorways out of the kitchen to prevent heat from going into other parts of the house which should make the kitchen warmer due to only having to heat a smaller space. Sealing the unit better would make it more efficient and putting a duct from the unit to the center of the room may distribute the heat better. We fully appreciate that it only works in direct sun but anything that can reduce our costs and environmental footprint is a step forward.

This idea can also be built to work without a fan, using only the convection of the air inside the unit to power it. As air is heated it rises and exits out the top of the unit and draws cooler air in from the bottom. Slits as wide as the unit would have to be cut where the holes top and bottom currently are to make this work. Some in the real estate profession have been using ideas similar to this in unoccupied houses to keep the house temperature above freezing so the pipes don’t burst.

The cost of this project came out to about $70. There were extra screws and brackets left over and can be used for other projects. It’s built of ½” plywood for light weight and the fact that it is mounted inside the house means it doesn’t need insulation. Self-contained units meant to be mounted outside would need to be built of thicker wood and likely insulated to keep the heat inside the unit.

This is just a basic project and is not meant to be the end all and be all of alternative options. We plan to build on this idea and hope it can inspire others to think a little outside the box so we can move toward a more environmentally friendly and sustainable world.

Turkey Processing

As we move forward on our journey toward peace and self-sufficiency here at The Welcome Homestead we take on projects that we find out later we were not properly prepared for. Turkeys were something that fit this category nicely. To be more specific, the butchering of turkeys was what turned out to be the real challenge. It was not only the actual processing procedure but the size of the kitchen itself. Oh to have a large processing kitchen with lots of counter space, cutting, grinding and vacuum packaging ability on a large scale and refrigerators and freezers big enough to contain all Nature’s bounty. The turkeys this year greatly exceeded our weight estimations which is both good and bad. It’s good because we ended up with a lot more meat than anticipated but bad because it pointed out the lack of proper processing facilities.

The procedure starts off with “bagging” the birds with a feed bag by cutting a corner off the bag and slipping it over the body with the head sticking out of the bag, thus containing the wings from flapping wildly at the time of the kill. This worked out fine for the hens which were noticeably smaller than the toms but when it came time to process the first big guy the bag would not fit over the body. This left the unpleasant option of holding the large bird down by hand which turned out to be rather… unpleasant. With my neighbor’s help we were able to actually get the bags over the second two birds but it took the two of us and a bit of a struggle to do so. They are dispatched with a pellet pistol then hung upside down and the throat cut to bleed out then the head is removed prior to dipping in the hot water.

Water is heated up to about 150-160 degrees and the bird is dipped in this for a minute or so until the large feathers pull out easily. This is done primarily for ease of feather removal as it is a lot more difficult to dry pluck. A metal garbage can was purchased for this as the birds wouldn’t fit in the big pot that is used for the chickens. Again, this wasn’t too bad for the lighter hens but when it came to the toms it presented a real challenge. They butchered out to 41-44 pounds table weight so their live weight had to be upwards of 50-55 pounds. Lifting a bird that big into a garbage can full of hot water that was waist high was no picnic and I was sure glad to have my neighbor here to help with the second two. Lifting it out of the water was even more of a challenge because now it weighed a couple of pounds more with water in the feathers and was hot! The problem of lifting it up to hang for plucking was solved with the purchase of a small winch that is meant for the front of a boat trailer, just a small 1000lb hand crank winch that works great.

After plucking the bird is laid out on a table and the legs cut off at the knees. Then the crop is removed from the upper chest through the neck opening. The bird is then turned around, a cut is made around the tail and the anus, making sure to get the oil gland on top of the tail and the entrails are removed from the bottom end, hopefully without nicking the bowel or intestines. Everything usually comes out pretty clean with only the lungs needing to be scraped from the inside of the rib cage. The body cavity is rinsed out with cold water and the carcass is put into a container of cold water to cool down as quickly as possible.

Packaging was another unforeseen challenge. The vacuum packager that is used for the rabbits was entirely too small for the turkeys and it was difficult to find actual bags big enough for a whole bird. The hens had the wings, legs and neck removed and packaged separately and were actually packaged in the small vacuum packer. The body was put in it’s own bag. The big toms also had legs, wings and neck removed and the breast meat was either cut into steakettes or ground and frozen in individual bags. Turkey bags were ordered from Amazon which turned out to be too small so goose bags were ordered from the same company and proved big enough for the job. However, they were too big for the vacuum packer so a search was on and, thanks to YouTube, a solution was found using the household vacuum cleaner to suck the air out of the bags then they were twisted and sealed with a zip tie. This is a picture with one of the hens after it was vacuum packed.

Here is a picture of the first tom after processing.

The turkeys have been quite entertaining although not the brightest bulbs in the box. They usually hang about in a group and can be quite curious when they feel they’re not in danger. Once they got to be adults their peck could be quite painful if they got you on a sensitive area such as the back or the back of the leg. Their gobbling laughing sounds were hilarious and they would all break out in a chorus if a motorbike went by. Over all, they have been a great addition to the Homesteading journey and we look forward to getting more in the Spring.