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Warm chickens without burning your coop down

chicken-coop

It’s cold weather time, and that means a lot of chicken keepers are worried about keeping their birds from freezing on their roosts.

During this time of year, there’s always a few fires in chicken coops where well-meaning owners put space heaters or heat lamps to keep their animals toasty.

But, it doesn’t take a fire marshall to explain the issues with putting heating elements in a small space made of dry wood, lined with straw and filled with flapping, unpredictable animals.

There’s not a lot of officials safety information regarding chicken coops, but these common sense tips, along with barn fire safety tips from the USDA will go along way toward keeping your lovelies safe this winter.

No smoking in or around the coop

Sure it’s a no brainer, but it still needs to be said. If you’re smoking around a coop, an errant spark or hot ash can send all that dried straw and feathers up in a flash. An ember can smolder for hours too, so even if you’re careful and check around the coop often, that ember may sit for hours unnoticed, only to flare up in the middle of the night.

Inspect your electrical systems often

Lights and extension cords in a coop can lead to frayed wires and electrical sparks inside a coop, especiallay considering all the rough edges. Sparks lead to fires. So make sure any electrical wiring or outlets in and around your coop are well insulated and secure. A quick visual inspection can save a lot of time and heartache down the road.

Secure your heat sources

If you just have to use a heater in your coop — we suggest you don’t, see alternative heating methods below — then make sure it’s secure. Bolt it in place and make sure your animals can’t get to it. It’s a good idea to have a designated area for any heat source fenced off to keep your birds from flinging straw or wood shavings on the heating elements.

Alternative methods for keeping your birds warm

Perhaps the easiest way to prevent fires is to avoid electricity all together. No electric heat, no electric lights means no source of electrical sparks. But you may be worried that your feather babies won’t be able to survive a cold winter’s night.

But, chances are, your chickens will do better in the cold that you think. Most breeds can survive temps down to 0 degrees Farenheit (-17C). But, there are some parts of the world that get even colder.

How do you minimize electric heat in those situations?

Insulation

Insulating your chicken coop when you build it is a great idea. Even after it’s done, however, you can still use foam panels, reflective foil barriers and straw or wood shavings on the floor. This lets the heat the birds produce via body heat stay inside the coop. Just make sure you don’t give up ventilation for insulation. It may seem like sealing a coop up is a good idea, but even in the winter, your birds need fresh air more than ever.

Deep litter heating

You can also use the deep litter method for heating a coop. The idea is simple: Put straw or wood chips down as normal, but instead of cleaning it out when it gets soiled, add more clean straw or wood chips over the top. This material composts in the floor of the coop and the heat produced during the composting process helps keeps the birds warm. Fair warning: When the Spring comes, you’re going to have a bad time cleaning that mess out.

Compost heating

You can also use compost piles to heat chicken coops. This method is almost identical to using the deep litter method, but it involves using a mobile coop placed over a compost pile to produce heat. This method has something over the deep litter method, since there’s no cleaning at the end. But, if you don’t have a mobile coop then this one is going to be hard to pull off.

Build a solar collector

A solar collector can be built cheaply and easily. Essentially, it uses the sun to heat air in a glass encased chute that rises into the coop. Coupled with good insulation and maybe a thermal mass (see below) that warm air will be enough to keep your birds from turning into chickensicles. Check out this link to find out more about solar collectors and heaters.

Thermal mass

A thermal mass is a material used in construction to absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night. Usually made of brick, concrete or rock, these A thermal mass can be built into your chicken coop during construction, but if not, then there are other options. You can spray paint milk jugs black and fill them with water and put them in windows (or in front of your solar collector). At night they’ll radiate the stored heat into the coop, just like any thermal mass would. If your coop is small enough, this is an easy way to keep the temperature of your coop just high enough to prevent frostbite.

If you just take a little time, you’ll be able to baby your birds through the winter without incident. And there’s a bonus. Warm birds eat less. So if you do any one of these tricks, you’ll wind up with a cheaper feed bill at the end of the season.

Links:

Using compost to warm chickens

Barn safety tips from the Humane Society

What’s a thermal mass?

How much does it cost to produce a dozen eggs?

A recent thread on a homesteading group in Facebook got me thinking. The question asked by a homesteader was a common one: How much should she charge per dozen for eggs?

The thread garnered all sorts of answers but got me to thinking about the advice I once received from an Agronomist during a class.

He said, and I paraphrase here:

“You should charged based on how much it costs you to produce your product, not how much the other person at the Farmer’s Market charges.”

Basically, the idea is if you don’t at least cover the cost of production, plus a touch for profit, you won’t be able to produce whatever it is you’re producing for a long period of time. In this case, you won’t be able to raise chickens for as long as you might want to if you don’t cover your costs.

Another user on the thread pointed out that many chicken keepers aren’t concerned about the money: It’s a hobby they enjoy and get pleasure from. And that’s fair, and a perfectly valid reason to keeping chickens.

The entire conversation, however, got me to thinking, how much does it cost to produce a dozen eggs?

Note: We’re going to do a really basic start up operation for this thought experiment. We’ll use whatever the cheapest feed available at a nearby place involving tractors and the means to supply them, but said retail establishment will go unnamed as I only give free advertising to organizations, companies and groups that I feel deserve it. The methods described in this thought experiment will not be organic and may not be the method you prefer, but h the most common methods I’ve seen that doesn’t require a huge start up cost.

Well, first you have to get chickens. Most people i know buy chickens as chicks, and raise them to laying age. Let’s start with about three chicks.

So, we’ll have to start with a brooder for an enclosure.

If you’re a little bit handy, you can make a brooder all on your own with ease. If not, you’ll have to buy a brooder, a heat lamp, bulb and some wood chips (pine works fine). It’s probably a good idea to buy a waterer and a little feeder, but, to save some cash you can use a pair of shallow dishes.

Wood chips will be a surprising expense. A bag of wood chips from a big box store costs about $3. That bag will have about 1200 cubic inches. You’ll need at least 2 inches of wood chips in your brooder, and it will have to be changed out at least every 7 days (I prefer four inches of wood chips and changing it out more often, but we’re trying to save money here).

So that means you’ll use two bags of wood chips every 7 days, as the brooder we’re using is about 3 feet across, which means at 2 inches deep, we’ll need about 2000 cubic inches of wood chips.

Luckily, you’ll only have to keep them in the brooder for about six weeks. That means you’ll have to have about 12 bags of wood chips, for a cost of $36.

After we have all that, we can buy our chicks. I tell everyone to get their brooder set up before buying chicks. It makes life a lot easier for chicken keepers if their chickens have a home before they arrive from the store.

Again, we’re going to buy our chickens from the store that shall not be named. And at that store, sexed pullets cost about $3.50. We’re going to buy three chicks, which will cost us about $11, after taxes and whatnot.

That brings our list of materials and cost (costs are approximate and don’t include shipping) to:

  • Brooder $30
  • Heat lamp $11
  • Bulb $11
  • Wood chips $36
  • Chicks $11
  • Total cost $98

We’re off to a great start!

Now, we’re going to save most of our feed costs for later, but, for the time being, let’s go ahead and calculate the cost of starter feed for our baby chicks. Again, we’re going to assume you’re buying medicated starter feed, because it’s the most widely available and most often the first type of food purchased by first time chicken keepers. It’s widely recommended that a bird eat starter feed for at least the first 8 weeks.

The starter feed purchased at the store involved with the supply of mechanized farm equipment cost about $18 for a 50 pound bag.

You’ll need 10 pounds per bird of feed per week, according to most popular feed manufacturers. In my personal experience, I usually wind up feeding them more. That means you’ll need about 80 pounds of feed per bird for the 8 week duration. Since we have three birds, that means we’ll be buying 240 pounds of starter feed for our little babies. That means you’ll be buying 4.8 bags of feed. The cost will be about $87.

So, new total:

  • Supplies for brooder $98
  • Starter feed $87
  • Total $185

Now, after 6 weeks, it’ll be time to move our baby girls into a coop. They’re probably already escaping the brooder by now, so it’s definitely time. Again, we’re not handy in this thought experiment, so we’ll have to buy a little coop.

My favorite coop company is the Urban Coop Company. Their starter coop, with a run extension, is probably the best coop you can buy for the money. It’s about $450, which is a surprisingly good price for the coop.

You’ll also need to purchase a feeder and a waterer.

That’ll cost about $80, if you add it to your Urban Coop package.

So, you’re looking at a cost of about $530 total.

Bringing up our new total to:

  • Supplies for brooder $98
  • Starter feed $87
  • Total coop cost $530
  • Total $715

Now, the biggest cost, feed. After the first 8 weeks, you’ll switch your chickens over to grower/finisher feed. That cost will be about $16.50 per 50 pound bag. The darlings will continue to eat about 10 pounds of feed a week during this time. They’ll need to be on grower feed for at least 10 more weeks while we wait for them to start laying.

So, 30 pounds of feed for 10 weeks equals 300 pounds of feed. That’ll be only six bags, for a total cost of $99

So, new total:

  • Supplies for brooder $98
  • Starter feed $87
  • Total coop cost $530
  • Grower feed $99
  • Current total $814

Finally, it’s time to calculate feed costs. We could calculate the cost of feeding the chickens for the first dozen eggs, but this isn’t accurate.

Many chicken keepers put their hens into semi-retirement after the first three years of life. Chickens produce the most eggs during their first year of laying, decreasing about 20 percent or more every year (this isn’t a hard rule, as some hens lay very well almost their entire lives. Some, on the other hand, lay much less.)

This site puts the average number of eggs laid by a single chicken at 265 per year.

We’ll assume that we won’t be getting enough eggs to bother with after the first three years. Mainly because I’m running out of math steam and I don’t want to have to figure out how many eggs an ancient 8 year old hen might actually lay and how much she’d have to eat. So we’ll just cut our girls off at three and go from there.

So, after 18 weeks, we’ll assume our hens have started laying. We’ll have to switch them to layer feed, which runs about $13.50 per 50 pound bag. Now, once chickens reach adulthood, they only need about 1.5 pounds of food per week, per bird. That means our three chickens will eat 4.5 pounds of feed per week. That means for the first year of life, they’ll only need 153 pounds of feed (34 weeks x 4.5 pounds of feed). For the rest of the three year life cycle we have planned, that equals out to 468 pounds of food, for a total of 621 pounds of layer pellets through our three chickens’ egg laying career. (If you’d like to try organic layer chicken feed, this is hands down the best company: Non-GMO, all natural layer feed).

That will cost $168. Which is kind of a steal.

So, where does that leave our budget?

Well:

  • Supplies for brooder $98
  • Starter feed $87
  • Total coop cost $530
  • Grower feed $99
  • Laying pellets $168
  • Total $982

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re going to take care of your chickens, and I’m also going to assume that you’re going to sell your eggs. If you do this, it’s actually quite important to consider the cost of your labor. If you’re going to do an agricultural business you should at least consider the cost of labor.

I’m going to put a low number on the time you spend taking care of your chickens, and say it’ll average out to about a half hour a day (it’s going to be more).

So, 3 years, 365 days in a year, one hour a day, 547.5 hours of labor in caring for your chickens.

Just assuming your time is worth about minimum wage, which as of writing this, is set nationally (in the US) at $7.25 per hours.

That’s just under $4,000 in labor costs.

So, the grand total of cost of production is going to be $4,982 over three years.

During that three years, you’ll get about 265 eggs per year per chicken. Three chickens then, will produce 795 eggs a year. Over three years, that’s 2,385 eggs. For a cost of $4,982. That means each egg costs about $2.09 cents. So a dozen eggs cost about $24 to produce.

That’s a lot.

But, let’s assume that you don’t want to pay yourself. You don’t really count that 30 minutes a day (it’s going to be more), and don’t feel the need to pay yourself.

So, we’ll deduct the $4,000 in labor costs.

That means the new cost for our 2,385 eggs is $982 or about 41 cents per egg.

That means a dozen eggs costs about $4.92.

So, final tally:

  • $24 per dozen counting labor costs
  • $4.92 per dozen without labor costs.

So, the next time you see a farmer at the market selling eggs for more than $3 a dozen, know that she’s giving you a bargain.

What do you think? Check my math and let me know if you get different numbers. Comment below for your tips on saving money raising chickens.

Grandpa’s Feeders

Grandpa’s Feeders

At Sunshine Sisters Farms, we have about 50 full grown birds: 15 ducks and 35 chickens, depending on when you count them.

Originally, we started with about 12, but as time went by, one of the Sunshine Sisters decided to become a crazy chicken lady full-time.

When we started, we scattered the food on the ground. It worked fine. As the flock grew, however, this method became rapidly untenable.

Chickens require about a quarter pound of food per day. Ducks require a similar amount. With so many birds, it meant we had to scatter about 50 pounds of feed per day. Even then, the animals appeared stressed. Without a permanent food supply on hand, they would react to the slightest noise. Even walking buy sent them into a frenzy.

So, we started looking around for solutions.

At first, we used pipe to construct feeders and put three inside the pen.

This calmed them down, but each feeder only held about 15 pounds of food. So, by our math, they needed to be fed twice a day.

This turned out to be wildly successful, as our chickens grew calmer and settled down a bit.

Then it rained.

The construction of our chicken run meant the pipe feeders were exposed. While a cap on top of the feeders prevented the bulk of the feed from getting wet, splashing water from the ground got into the feeders, clogging them.

We had a long run of rain this summer, with what seemed to be a month of rain nearly every day.

Our pipe feeders stayed clogged, and at this point, we decided it was time to seek out another solution.

That is when we found Grandpa’s Feeders.

Made of galvanized steel, these box-type, gravity feeders can hold 20 pounds or 40 pounds of feed. We got the larger, 40 pound option.

The design of the feeders meant they can sit on the floor of our chicken house so they can stay out of the weather.

The really unique thing about the feeders is the lid. The lid covers the food until a chicken steps on a plate, which works a lever that lifts the lid off the feeder.

While the feeder comes with instructions on how to train the chickens to use the lever action in about three weeks, we actually did in in three days.

On the first two days, I locked the lever in the open position. Then on the third day, I closed it entirely. I then scattered feed on and around the activation plate. The chickens, trying to eat the food around the plate wound up stepping on it and opening the device.

I stood by them for a few minutes, pushed them off the plate and watched as they climbed back on it.

After a few repeats of this process, I noticed other chickens watching.

The chickens who watched the process copied their companions and learned how to use the new feeder (proving that chickens are smart creatures.)

Since getting the feeder, we do less work, as it needs to be filled much less.

Since we feed our chickens table scraps and forage, they consume less food when they are not looking at it, so using Grandpa’s Feeder seems to have cut our food bill by about 10 percent.

We still use the pipe feeders as a back up, but since Grandpa’s Feeders stay clean, dry and free of flies, we do not see any reason to go back to using anything else anytime soon.