What about plastic housing? – a head to head with the market leaders – Part 1

Some years ago I wrote an article about this new-fangled plastic poultry house I just been sent to try out. I recall at the time thinking there was potential in the idea, there were limitations too, however I could see the value in using them particular for the back garden keeper with a flock of 3 or 4 birds. It was quite an innovation though all the same and warranted a closer look

Time has passed by and this year I decided to pull together the top four most well-known manufacturers (and their entry level sized housing) and have put them through their paces in a 6 month long trial. (Since my original encounter with recycled plastic housing there are more and more players emerging so now seemed a good time)

At the time of blogging I’ve just heard that we could well be in for a really hard winter and as such I intend to keep the trial running until next spring so I can genuinely comment on their respective performances should the weather really turn hence I’ll be release this gradually as I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, so to speak.

You might be wondering why now and why little plastic houses? Well I have been and quite be very vocal about the mass produced b*ll*cks housing that’s flooded the market over the last decade; most of it genuinely is rubbish and so frequently results in a negative experience for the keeper and often in welfare issues for the birds. Sure, you pays your money and makes your choice but by the same measure I’m a Yorkshireman and, despite that idiot David Camerons comments about us, I will say we hail from the ‘short arms and deep pockets side of things’ and will avoid excessive spending where possible. As a result though I’ve been quite keen to find out if the advantages of plastic really do mean the price tag is worth it, particularly as I’m frequently asked “what about plastic houses?”

 

The Runners and Riders

Just so we are straight on one thing, I’m not claiming plastic is the way forward just yet. If you want housing for more than 8 to 10 birds you would be better off with wood; it’s cheaper, easier to customise and easily repairable. Plus if, like me, you have multiple coops of breeders and growers then affordability and practicality will drive you down the wood route no matter what any cash rich hobbyist will claim.

This is about the one or two coop backyarder who is keeping chickens for a few eggs and the enjoyment and therefore is willing to make the investment in their housing as a balance against reduced ongoing maintenance costs. It’s because of this that at the end of the day it’s precisely why plastic beats wood hands down on these little houses. Zero ongoing maintenance and cleaning that can involve 30minutes, a pressure hose and an old bath towel even in the depths of winter. Add on the fact that purchasing one second hand has a massively reduced risk of bring pests or disease into your little flock you can perhaps start to see it makes sense.

So who are the runners and riders? They are

the Eglu Go UP from Omlet,

2015December Eglu GO

the Green Frog Designs Chicken House,

2015December Green Frog

the PetzPodz Chicken Pod,

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and finally the Solway Recycling Eco Hen Loft.

2015December Solway

The price of each can depend to an extent upon the optional extras but in many respects they all land within £100 of each other when bought new other than the Solway house which tends towards the most cost effective end of the market (however doesn’t come with a run option.)

Check back soon when you’ll find out who fairs best in the field trials on the Welsh/Shropshire borders against a set of criteria that I think will sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Gardens & Chickens… Do they mix?

Mar2014 Sabelpoots

 

 

I’m an avid gardener; in fact I’ve been gardening both in terms of flowers, fruit and vegetables since I fell out of a pram, I’m not a precious gardener though who needs everything in rows unless it’s in my vegetable plot. Call me old fashioned but I like my Mar2014 Naturalistic borderonions to all be in one place, spuds somewhere else and carrots as a collective rather than scattered everywhere. On the other hand I don’t mind organised chaos taking place in the rest of the borders (or the naturalistic planting look as it could be called).

To me a garden is simply an outdoor room and like indoor rooms it should never be static.Instead it should evolve as you and your life evolves. I have a pond for example, I spend many hours sitting near it and watching the wildlife make use of it, be it the frogs in the spring, the dragonflies in summer or (without fail every year) the grey wagtails in the autumn. I gain an immense amount of pleasure from my garden and from the flora and fauna within in it so why then would I put a flock of chickens in there; especially given one of the frequently said things about chickens and gardens it is that they don’t mix?  Well this isn’t an untrue statement but then by the same measure it’s true to say children and gardens don’t mix, or dogs and gardens don’t mix.

A good garden is one where thought and design have been applied according to its use – take the pond I mentioned earlier, 15 years ago I would never have had an open pond in my garden. Why? I had 3 children under 4yrs old and the effort of keeping them out of the pond would have no doubt taken a lot of the joy out of having one in the first place.

Many of us have or have had children and or dogs romping around the garden and we’ve made compensations to allow for it, and so by the same measure it’s not impossible to have chickens in the garden, and for that mix to be enjoyable and beneficial for both the gardener and the flock; you just need to plan and design accordingly.

Why Free-Range?

For many people keeping a backyard flock is synonymous with providing higher welfare and thus being secure in the knowledge that the eggs you are collecting are not from a factory farmed source. The trouble is though that keeping the three of them ‘cooped up’ in a run 3 metres by 3 metres is in fact a stock density greater than that of a commercial free range flock. In other words they have less space per bird, so if better welfare is a motivation for you keeping chickens then you may need to reconsider the space you allow them, or look to giving them a bit more of the garden.

 

Free ranging invariably results in happier, healthier chickens in so much that their lifestyle will be much more akin to their natural habitat. In fact there’s many a ‘jungle of a garden’ out there which would make a perfect haunt for a flock of hens. In fact anyone who has observed a hen that’s escaped from a fixed run will have witnessed the vigour and energy in their behaviour (and the fact they will continue to try and escape to experience it all over again!).

For me I use chickens as helpers because for all their ‘misplaced enthusiasm’ in the garden, they are in fact quite useful. They help in the control of pests, eat weeds, mow the lawn, compost green waste and improve soil condition. As a collective they quite possibly do the work of one person in the garden throughout the year and lay fantastic healthy eggs too. I won’t wax lyrical though and claim they are no problem at all as I do need to control where they go and protect some plants and crops from the attentions, but compared to the benefits they deliver coupled with beauty and movement they bring to the look of the garden, it’s worth it.

Tip
Keep the flock size appropriate for the space you have. A 25m2 to 35m2 garden space would suit 5 average sized chickens which in turn should easily keep the average family in eggs with sufficient surplus to sell and cover upkeep costs

Your garden is an ecosystem which the balance of, to many extents, is under your control, and if that ecosystem is to remain healthy then you need to observe and understand the way it works. Adding an appropriately sized flock of chickens introduces another aspect to the ecosystem but one which is most definitely within your control and under your management. Making sure the flock compliments and contributes towards the balance of the garden is key and stocking too heavily or ranging too intensively will lead to problems, so take your time and you will find chickens and gardens can mix.

Mar2014 Brahma under a shrub

The UFO & New Blog Sponsors

Last year one of the magazines I write for (Your Chickens) ran a competition for readers Smiths Logo 2to design their perfect chicken house. I was asked to be one of the judges of the entries along with to-be manufacturers of the house, Smiths Sectional Buildings who are based on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border and are known for the range poultry housing, mobile field shelters, horse stables, goat houses and bespoke timber buildings they produce.

Philippa and the crew there made me feel most welcome (the cake was to die for!) as we set about reviewing the designs. In fact it was a bit of an honour for me to be there as I’m the proud owner of a Sherwood 100 bird house  which has served me well (and its previous owner) for the last 20 years, so to see the roots from which it emerged was great.

In fact whilst I’m on the subject of Smiths Sectional Buildings I’d like to say firstly welcome to them as a new sponsor of my blog and secondly that, whilst I can be quite guarded about what I will and won’t recommend I have no issue at all in recommending these guys. They know their poultry housing and ensure the basic needs (which I frequently rant write about) are incorporated. The result is a functional and practical product that in my experience provides two decades and counting of service – not to be sniffed at given the stack ‘em and flog ‘em cheap poultry products that litter the market these days.

Anyway back to the comp. As would be expected there was quite a range of designs submitted but what we were looking for was something that broke the mould a bit, something that would be worth prototyping, something that perhaps we could learn about or pick up new concepts from. The result was certainly conceptual and took quite a bit of construction and design skill to bring together.

Dubbed “the futuristic hen house” or “UFO” (Unusual Feathered Occupancy) I think you’ll agree it’s not like anything seen on the poultry market before.

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Designed as a four pen four house ‘high-rise’ its primary purpose in the brief was to provide a way of keeping four groups of bantam fowl for small scale breeding or exhibition stock rearing.

 

 

 

 

20141006_123832 (863x1024)The designer and winner has had the house for almost a whole season now and when asked for a progress report they replied

“I love my coop, it’s working really well. At the moment I have a hen and her chicks in the bottom layer. Quail in the highest layer, and the other two have had growers in until earlier this week when I released them to free range.

I love having all the pens so close and organised. And it is great for teaching chicks to use a ramp as you can start them on a low one then gradually move them up…..it is a 20141006_123847 (863x1024)brilliant coop that has become invaluable to me this summer. It is quick and easy to clean out and I know the chickens are always safe in it.“

Obviously it was a prototype and head room in the lowest coop is an issue as is the steep nature of the top coop but like any design, it’s a process of reflection and refinement.

Will we see it on mass production? Not yet but who knows, a tweak here and there might just mean we see a few more UFO’s in our countryside.

 

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9 out of 10 Birds Prefer a Close Shave

Aside

9/10 Birds Prefer a Close Shave

It’s true, I have the photo to prove it.

9 out 10

 

Chickens prefer grass to be short and mowing it so in the area the birds are ranging provides access to the fresh new growth, better access to insects and grubs and also means the birds are less likely to ingest long coarse grass lengths which could lead to digestive problems such as impacted crop.

Other plus sides which your chickens might not be aware of is that short grass leaves few hiding places for the smaller almost microscopic pests such as parasitic worm eggs which don’t survive well when exposed to UV light rays. It also means the area is a little more exposed and less welcoming to larger predators so keeping some of the grass and scrub in check will helps number of counts.

Two Years Later…

Aside

I’ve just noticed that it’s almost 2 years to the day since I started this blog of random ramblings about poultry (in particular chickens) and gardening projects. Back when I started I recall saying at the time that some of the stuff would probably be best put in a book and oddly enough it is now, in fact in two books with another going through the editing process as I type… there’s also a bit of a cameo on a DVD due out soon. It’s been an interesting evolution that’s for sure.

So, a quick thanks to those of you who subscribe to the blog, I hope I haven’t bored you too much and thanks too to the sponsors I’ve had over the last couple of years and here’s to the almost 100,000 visitors who have dropped by for a read. It’ll be interesting to look back in another couple of years.

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Feeding scraps & growing your own chicken feed (the way it was)

A couple of posts ago I blogged about my perspective on the EU legislation relating to the feeding of kitchen scraps to your chickens.

As a result quite a few people contacted me wanting to know a bit more about how folks fed their feathered livestock prior to the ‘meddling EU’ getting involved.

The premise behind it all really was to create chicken feed from the kitchen left overs, in other words food we would not eat ourselves due to it being less palatable (which today at best would be composted, at worst thrown away into a landfill site). These ‘scraps’ would then be converted by the chicken into something far more appealing such as an egg or meat – it seems a simple, frugal and sensible way of recycling, no?

As I’ve mentioned before, within the EU the feeding of kitchen scraps to livestock is regulated and strict guidance is provided on what can and cannot be fed to animals, such as chickens, that sit within our food chain. Prior to this legislation however it was common place to feed chickens scraps and in fact was encouraged as an economical way to convert kitchen by-product into eggs and meat by the very same organisations that no prohibit it.

Back in the old days common sense would be applied and no meat other than fish, or any non meat product that had come into to direct contact with meat (other than fish) would be fed to the chickens. (Sensible, and a bit of shame we didn’t remember that point, it could have saved a lot of hassle with mad cow disease and the like)

Most raw vegetables would be minced first before being fed to the chickens and a few, such as potato peelings would be cooked or steamed first in order to make them more palatable. Even the water from this cooking exercise would be made available to the flock as it contained valuable vitamins and minerals.

 

It might be against the law today to feed kitchen scraps in this manner however it isn’t against the law to grow your own chicken feed which would certainly supplement any commercially obtained feed or feed ingredients. Legumes such as pea, broad, French and runner bean are particularly beneficial being high in protein and are also mostly liked by chickens. It is best to dry them and then mince or grind them before adding them to the chickens feed. Other vegetables such as maize, brassicas (sprouts, cabbages), kale and sunflowers all provide an excellent source of supplements.

During the winter feeding sprouted seeds provides another excellent source of protein for your chickens giving the flock a welcome boost.

It is however important to note that if you do elect to grow your own chicken feed then do make sure you weigh up the space taken to grow the plants against the value of the food you get in return from the chickens. This is perhaps why in the past we made the best economical use of the waste from allotments and vegetable plots in the old days…..

Leghorn-Brown-Chick 2

The Edible Garden Show 2013

It was my first time at the Edible Garden Show this weekend gone (15th-17th March) and I was along there with NFU Countryside Magazine offering Chicken Surgeries, in the ‘Potting Shed’ interviewing Genevieve Taylor about her excellent new book “A Good Egg”, hanging out with Victoria Roberts in the Smallholder marquee and sitting on the “Ask the Expert” desk answering questions on chickens and gardening (although I was probably asked if I knew where the toilets were more often than any other question)

It’s the third year the show has run and the size of the crowds on all three days (despite Friday being Red Nose Day and Saturday being the crunch match in this years Six Nations Rugby) were testament to the huge numbers of people who are electing to grow more of their own food.

For many years I’ve understood and appreciated the value of poultry as part of a productive garden and a self supporting lifestyle, and I’ve long being saying that the large increase in backyard keepers is not some fad but simply the fact it’s a natural step to take when you are a grow your veg sort of person. The amount of floor space & talk time at the show dedicated to poultry was a reflection of that, and the fact the planned surgeries dissolved into a full on, flat out Q&A session seemed to prove the point too. People are hungry for knowledge and are keen to get the best out of their birds and ensure the birds get the best out of their land.

Some of us are even dreaming of more land and more chickens (my apologies to Alys Fowler, it was a momentary lapse in concentration)

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Recognise these characters?

Aside

I get sent quite a few bits of poultry paraphernalia from kit, to houses, dietary supplements to books as I’m always more than happy to give things a field trial on my own flocks.

I’ll always give the stuff a good go and let the supplier know my thoughts, no matter how candid. Lets face it, there’s a lot of chickenailia hitting the market, some of it produced by people trying to make a quick buck but by equal measure a fair chunk is produced by people or firms genuinely trying to aid the backyard keeper and only when give some good honest constructive feedback will they be able to improve or enhance the product.

It’s nice though to be simply sent something that needs no testing, doesn’t need dragging through a field or pouring on a pile of red mite and that’s just what I got sent from Sarah McKenzie at Stopham Garden Poultry (@stophampoultry). Sarah is an illustrator who takes on commissions for pet portraits but also produces greetings cards which I have to say I rather like as they do capture the attitude of one or two chickens I know! Here’s a few of her pictures.

HEN3 HEN2 HEN1