I kind of feel that keeping chickens is a fairly thin-veil for needing to build things out of doors.  It is an excuse to fire up the earth auger, drill holes into the dirt and put in supports and fence posts.  It is an excuse to use power tools – drills, impact drivers, pneumatic nailers, miter saws, and so on.  In the end, however, we get a nice structure that can be home to a one or a few birds.

To say we overbuilt this coop-addition is probably spot on.  Insulated 2×4 construction, ventilated, concrete floored, and complete with a winch-powered liftable roof.

We never really intended to make another coop structure.  The converted dog house (beyond/next-to this new coop in the photo) was thought to be enough.

Earlier in the year, at the end of spring, we placed our last-of-the-season orders for meat birds.  Along with the fifteen cornish roasters, we added a silver laced polish chick to the order.  Melissa is fond of the white polish we had included with an earlier order of egg layers.  We figured, we would deal with getting her acclimated to the rest of the flock when the time came.  She could be brooded with the cornish roasters in the garage.

A week into September, the silver laced polish, now named Agnes, was injured.  We had introduced her to the greater flock a few days prior.  She is not the most cunning chicken; she ducks her head and runs straight into things — namely, other, larger, more aggressive hens.  She got stuck in the fence once, which resulted in the other hens pecking at her.  By the end of September, she was effectively a house chicken.  We brought her into the house to recover.  She had been pecked on at the base of her tail feathers, and had also gotten cut up by getting stuck hardware cloth covering one of the windows.  Missing lots of feathers, having cuts and pecks all over, she took up residence in a modify dog crate in the dogs area in the house.

Chickens are dusty creatures.  And they poop…a lot.  And their poop smells.  Agnes was on the mend, and we were tired of the dust and smell (even though we cleaned her cage twice daily, the general area still smelled).

### Agnes needed her own coop.

We started with scoping out how to build on to the existing coop structure.  The only free-of-obstruction side was the east side.  The south side has the green roof-covered run area, the west side has the covered run exit into the main chicken yard area, north has the man door entrance to the main coop structure.  East side it was.

Two support posts sunk into the ground, secured with concrete.  The insulated-plywood-on-each-face base was next.  Insulated walls, complete with an opening out of the front for a chicken door, were next.  Tile backer board with concrete poured over the top, then the insulted and hinged roof was built.  Roof vent and shingles followed with cedar shake siding (to match the existing coop) rounded out the bulk of the build.

We could have stopped there, but the roof proved to be a bit over built, and because of the weight, impossible for Melissa to lift.  The roof needs to be liftable to get into the coop for cleaning, and, once Agnes starts to lay eggs, we will want to retrieve them.

I noodled on the problem for a couple days.  Hand crank winch – like the ones used to pull a boat onto a trailer?  No, I need something with a bit more control when letting cable or rope out to lower the roof.  I imagined losing my grip on the crank handle and having it whip around quickly as the roof dropped.

Hydraulics crossed my mind, but, a bit over kill for this project.  I would need a reservoir tank for hydraulic fluid, pumps, and possibly more power than what we have available at the coop (remember, the coop is solar powered).

Garage door springs and other sorts of assists crossed my mind, too.  The winching idea kept coming to mind.  Maybe a 12 volt winch could be a solution.
We started to investigate winches.  Price seemed to be driving factor at first — what’s the cheapest winch on the market that has received decent reviews?  A number of winches fit this criterion.  A bit more reading and research revealed that many entry level winches have power in (pull), but no power out (push).  We needed both power in, to lift the roof, and power out to lower the roof back down.  A bit more reading, and having a brake on the winch would be ideal.  No brake, and the load of the lifted roof might just pull the winching cable back out.

### Brake. Power in. Power out.

These were the must haves for the project.  Superwinch’s UT3000 model fit the bill.  We also probably ended up spending almost as much on random pieces of hardware – heavy carabiner clips and chain for a safety line, threaded long anchor eye bolts, steel quick links, self-tapping lag bolts, a couple pulleys, and so on.

The pulley system we arrived upon puts an anchor near the outer corners of the roof.  Looping through the two pulleys, the end of the winching cable is attached to the existing coop structure just above the east side’s window.  The winch is mounted at the upper, outer corner of the existing coop structure.

## Main Street Project – Northfield, MN

A few of us took a half-day of vacation from work and headed 45 minutes south, to Northfield, MN.  Northfield is home to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, but it is also has a pretty interesting integrated farming endeavor called the Main Street Project.  We visited two sites, one with meat chickens, and another which used the manure from the chicken operation to fertilize rows of hazelnuts, popcorn, elderberries, onions and black beans.

(Videos courtesy of Alex M.)

## Winter Chickens

Recently, I have had a few people -here and there – tell me, “I want to hear more about your chickens!” It has been a while since I posted anything about them.

I think the last time I mentioned them in a post, they were in a sort of adolescent phase; they had not bulked up, yet, and they were not fully grown; a friend in Oregon said, “they look like teenagers!”

The teenage chickens have grown up, and two of them began laying eggs in late September.  By mid-October, however, they had stopped laying due to the decreasing amount of daylight.

But, it’s not like we need them to be producing prodigious quantities of eggs for us.  For starters, if they were merely creatures of production for us, we would have likely not built the coop we built.  There is my penchant for aesthetically pleasing structures.  But, we would have built something less expensive and not something with a swank green-roof over the run area; we certainly would not have sided the building with cedar shakes; I probably would not have designed and built a curved-top solid cedar door either.  Needless to say and by no stretch of one’s imagination, the birds are spoiled.

The chickens could care less about their posh surroundings; as long as they have water, food and shelter from winds, they seem happy.  During the cold snap at the start of the new year (I was conveniently in the tropics – 10.03 degrees latitude, no less), Melissa heated up oatmeal and mix in a few left overs for them to eat.  It is also probably beneficial that we picked birds that would be good in our area; heavier bodied birds with good feathering.  No naked-neck birds in our flock and no overly fancy combs, either.  We just have araucanas, brahmas, a speckled sussex and a Rhode Island red; there might be a silver laced Wyndotte, too.  The brahmas are probably the best suited for cold weather.  They are a larger bird – about seven to nine pounds – with feathers down their legs and even over their feet.  The nieces call them “fluffy feets”.

## Chicken Run

I have a particular fondness for placing a video camera on a tripod, and just letting it record things for a while – usually honeybees, the dogs or birds in one form or another.  Often, I will speed up the film to add that bit of hilarity that things often lacks.

I think the point-the-camera-at-something-and-leave is a throw back to my childhood and watching PBS. The PBS station that we had in Hibbing came out of Duluth, and frequently, in between shows or segments, for some reason or another, they would simply have a very long shot of something from nature. In the early spring, the station would use footage of water rushing over ice – most likely, filmed up the North Shore. Last fall, I filmed a robin in the backyard completely by chance; the resulting video, to me, has that same WDSE feel from when I was a kid.

This evening, with the weather being so pleasant and the chickens being out and active in their run, I put a camera on a tripod and set it out there.

A bit of post-editing, an overlay of banjo, and you end up with a bunch of fast moving chickens.  If you watch carefully, you can see one of the hounds making a cameo appearance in the video.

## Chicken Coop Redux

It was toward the end of April, last year.  I received an email from my-now-boss; the email contained an offer for the  position I now have at the Minnesota Population Center.  It was one of the first things that hit me – our flock of twelve chickens would have to go.

Within twelve hours of posting to local chicken forum, our flock took up residence on forty acres outside of Carlton.  The flock leaving was just a series of anticlimactic events that took place prior to our move south.

I was somewhat disheartened that we had taken the time to research chicken coop designs, taken the time to source materials for the structure (we purchased used palettes from Loll Designs in Duluth), built the coop (pictured above), only to move and the leave the thing behind.

Now, in the Saint Paul, we have settled in to our new [to us] place.  We fenced in about two-thirds of an acre last fall – for the hounds; we have a nice vegetable garden in the backyard; we have also planted nearly a dozen different fruit trees – this is in addition to the existing apple and pear trees.

The chickens – day old chicks actually – arrived in late April.  They are now sassy adolescent chickens that have been living in a make-shift brooder in the basement.  But, later this week, they will be moving out to their own place albeit still on our property.  It will likely be similar to the episode of Growing Pains when Mike Seaver moves out of the house only to live above the garage. The chickens will be out of the house, but close enough to feel like they are family.

What did we do?  We leveraged an existing structure on our property – it appears to have been a dog kennel in a former life – and we jazzed it up a bit.  Jacked it up, put a course of blocks to get the lumber off the concrete; redid the windows and added more support to the structure in general.  Check here to see the transformation from just an eyesore to something more palatable.

## Chicken Report

Silver-laced Wyanotte Laying Egg

The twelve hens are egg-laying machines. Since I am a well seasoned data-whore, I took it upon myself to collect and curate data on the hens’ egg-laying. Shortly after the girls got into their groove of consistently laying hard-shelled eggs (we had a few eggs that were just a soft membrane without a shell), we took to maintaining the record. Three hundred forty-eight eggs, and counting (as of this writing). Why would I keep an accurate record of egg production? I guess it is just how I am; I like data and I like to know things; combine the two and you get a clearer picture of the world around you.

By collecting data, we have learned that the production curve, when put onto a ten-day moving average, followed the curve of the amount of day late as the winter solstice approached, occurred and passed. This is a well established characteristic of chickens and their laying patterns; less day light will usually correlate into fewer eggs laid. Even with all the theory and general rules, we are currently getting nearly ten eggs each day and we only have twelve hens. With 83% of the aggregate hens laying each day, and the general rule that it takes a hen 26 hours to form an egg internally, squeezing out many more eggs creeps into statistical impossibility territory.

Egg Production Graph

## One Season Ends

Rhode Island Red on the Roof

Honey & Bee season has closed. The Ahrens’ bee-yard was winterized a week or two ago, and the hive (yes, singular) here in Proctor was winterized yesterday. On the honey production curve, when looking at the number of hives that we had going into the summer versus the honey produced at the end, it would be seen as a terrible year. The caveats abound, however. We generally do not pull honey from new, first year hives; that would have ruled out eleven hives. We did have a bit of a swarming issue with our experimental Russian bees, and I hope to detail that in a separate post. In the end, we harvested sixty pounds (27.2 kg) of honey from our two hives at the Proctor bee-yard.

Prior to just a few days ago, winter was no where to be seen; the snow, frost and freezing daytime temperatures were stuck to the north of us in Canada. We had been taking advantage of the oddly nice (by our standards) weather. We were in a sort of weather purgatory; it was nice out, but it would have been great to be nicer but it is not going to stay this nice very long. By January-weather-standards, this sunny and 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) is fantastic, but the recent weather was much like April weather; while we are able to comfortably work outdoors with a light shirt, jeans and regular shoes (no boots), it was still dropping below freezing at night. I look at photos of the yards, and of the grass and foliage from June, and all are lush and deep green; a deep green color that only comes with countless "applications" of nitrogen rich urea from the hounds. With daylight each day, getting shorter by minutes, we leave for our day jobs in the dark, and arrive back home in the dark. This arrangement is not conducive for working outdoors and often results in worm tunneling around with a flashlight in the dark trailing hounds in an attempt to keep up with their "deposits". I have been tending to sit inside, with a hot cup of coffee and my laptop.

When the cold weather arrives, I tend to tinker with this or plan for spring about that. Spring seed catalogs have started arriving in the mail, as well. But, the recent nice weather did allow for a very strange sight: gardening, in northern Minnesota, in mid-November. We actually put in another garden.

There had been fencing around a row of grapevines, but having since removed a large, ramshackle compost bin from one end of the stretch, the hounds had found ways of getting into the vineyard area. This was unacceptable. Three feet (one meter) out from the wire fence, we sunk new fence posts into ground and secured them in concrete. We stretched new wire fencing, and fill the new enclosure with black dirt. With a couple hundred crocus and allium bulbs on hand, Melissa set to work making a nice flower-border that should look nice in the spring.

As the honey & bee season closed out, a new, hopefully continuous season started: eggs. The chickens started to lay last week, and are currently at a plateau of four eggs per day.