A summer morning bounty: Blackberries, wild field mint and eggs from our hens.
One of the first things we wanted to do after moving to the ranch was get a few chickens because, really, nothing says farm life better than chickens. But with an expanding menagerie comes feed bills and it was (and still is) important to us to be able to live within our current means. In other words, there has to be a benefit to offset the cost of pretty much everything we hope to accomplish and the chickens are no exception. So, in return for food, shelter, water and bedding the chickens provide a few eggs, fertilizer (manure), pest control and weed management...or at least they will as we grow our flock. Pastured eggs in our area run about $5 a dozen and require a drive into town and since we want to follow the permaculture principles synthetic fertilizers and toxic pest control products are not items we wish to use.
But first things first.
We had to build a coop. It gets really cold here and our hens would need refuge from the elements. We also live in a area with predator birds and I think I would be scarred for life I witnessed a poor, fluffy hen being whisked away by an eagle or hawk. We also have our fair share of foxes, skunks and even a cougar or two. Having immersed myself in the study of permaculture, which included reading a crap ton of books of the subject, I had ideas...big ideas...about how to build our coop and a chicken tractor!
Because our property already had a free-standing shed of sorts it made sense to try to use it for the coop. However, it was kind of an eye sore and it's more ramshackle than we'd hoped but, it's what we had so in the spirit of thriftiness we devised a plan. We would build a hay bale chicken coop! Why hay bales, you ask?
Picking up a load of free hay from our neighbor (and admiring his views). It's a symbiotic relationship...we get the hay needed to build our coop, add to our compost and mulch new trees while he gets space cleared for his new cuttings.
Here's our reasoning:
Hay bales (much like straw bales) are generally cheap. As a matter of fact, I sent an email to all of our neighboring farms asking if anyone had old bales they wanted to get rid of for cheap...stuff that maybe had been rained on and were no longer sell-able as feed but weren't rotten or moldy. Instead, I got several offers for FREE hay as long as we could pick it up ourselves. We hooked up our trailer to the Jeep and ended up with 38 bales of free hay, some of which was actually feed grade!
Hay bales act as great insulators. If you've read anything about the straw bale house movement then you know that the thick, compact bales are better insulators than most other building materials. Many houses made of straw bales require no A/C or cooling units and are cheaper to warm in the winter. Our chickens were going to be comfortable!
Hay bales are great for composting and mulching! Since we're pretty sure we will want to tear down and eventually rebuild the entire ramshackle shanty we didn't want to invest in expensive lumber only to tear it all out one day. The shanty really does need to be rebuilt but that will be a project for another year. It appears to have been pieced together and repaired over the years and nothing really lines up. It wouldn't pass any building codes to be sure. The good news is all those hay bales can be put to great use in the garden with absolutely no waste!
Hay bales are quick and easy to install. Okay, so maybe not as quick and easy as we first thought. It requires some muscle to hoist the bales high enough to reach the ceiling. And there's a little bit of forethought that has to go into the whole thing...like where you're going to put a door and how you're going to attach the roosts (we reassembled our coop several times before we got it right). But the hay was much more forgiving than measuring and cutting wood. Bales are held together with either plastic twine or baling wire so it is possible to cut these, remove some of the hay and then retie the twine in order to customize the fit.
How we built it:
Stacked bales. Clark is shortening a bale by cutting the wires, removing a few flakes and then twisting the wires together. We ended up having move the bales in the foreground once we decided where we needed to install the door.
Basically, we just stacked our hay bales in an offset pattern. Since we had a few 2x4s laying around we used those for bracing but you can also drive lengths of rebar through the bales for more stability. We actually ended up using rebar to "nail" our door frame into the ground and the surrounding bales of hay and it's held up really well. We stacked our bales to the ceiling, packing "flakes" and loose hay in any gaps both to keep predators out and for additional stability. Then we wrapped the outside of the bales with chicken wire (can you tell we were worried about our chickens safety?).
Attaching the laying boxes to the frame.
An old screen door gets re-purposed.
We ended up finding an old screen door on the property that worked perfectly for the coop. In the summer it allows for the flow of air and, now that winter is coming, we've covered it with a sheet of plastic we saved from our new mattress (it came wrapped in heavy duty plastic) to keep drafts out. We also found scrap roofing joists for cheap at our local Habitat for Humanity ReStore which were perfect for making the laying boxes. And, because we have so many trees on the property we opted to use their branches for the roosts but I keep my eyes peeled at the ReStore for old wooden railings so we can eventually add more.
For the exterior pen, Clark cut in a little door/ramp so the chickens could come and go at their leisure (however,we do lock them in the coop at night). We obtained some free pallets from our local hardware store and stood them on end to act as a fence base for the pen using more scrap rebar to "nail" them into the ground. A few scrap pieces of 2x4s attached to the pallets enabled us to make the pen tall enough for us to walk around in. We stapled chicken wire around the whole thing and built a small door (for us) out of an old full-sized headboard (stood on end).
We now needed some chickens!
I was scouring the local Facebook sale and swap groups, keeping my eye out for anything that would be useful on the ranch, when I came across someone's trying to sell two white silkie hens. Now, I'm no chicken expert and I had idea if silkies were laying hens but they sure were cute. Often called the kittens of the chicken world I convinced Clark that these two hens would bring us much joy (and maybe a few eggs). We immediately contacted the seller and picked up our new family members a few hours later.
Within an hour of arriving at Mutiny Ranch one of the silkies crowed. If you're not sure what that means I'll tell you this...only roosters crow. And only hens lay eggs. Now, before you guys think we must be big dummies buying a rooster I need in explain...the guy who sold these silkies to us was in the chicken business so when he listed them as "hens" in the sales ad we believed him. And when we went to look at said chickens he claimed they had recently started laying eggs and his son offered to go get some out of the fridge so show us. Sadly, we declined. Also, silkies aren't like other breeds of chickens...the roosters don't grow big combs or fancy tail feather or any other telling characteristics. Really, go ahead and Google it.........See! It's almost impossible to tell a rooster from a hen in the silky world.
Being the positive people we are we tried to turn this trickery into hope. Hope for the future. If one of our silkies was a rooster and the other a hen then that would mean we could raise our own silky chickens! We'd have dozens of adorable baby silky chicks running around. I don't even know what they look like but they must be super cute!
A week later the other silky crowed.
I'm not even joking.
We had been duped. We had two freakin' roosters (and we paid for them...most people in these parts give roosters away!). There would be no eggs, no baby silkies, no nothing. Silkies aren't even exactly edible (their bones are black, their flesh is grey and they are small birds). We were also attached to them already. We went back on the hunt for some hens and found some from a tiny house living, homesteading couple just down the road from us. Brittney and Matt were kind enough to gift us two beautiful Brown Leghorn hens who actually laid eggs for us the same day we brought them home. Gerty and Frida are beautiful, friendly ladies and I love them to pieces (well, not as in breast, legs and thighs...I mean as family members).
Frieda (closest) and Gerty.
Heckle and Jeckle,, our roosters, are another story. Cute and comical but kind of a$$holes. However, all four birds are bonded now. The hens give us an egg a day each (production is slowing down now that the days are shorter) and the rooster are good protectors for being little guys.
The Chicken Hay Fort completed!
The coop is holding up well and we're happy to report that we've had no predators as of yet but we're also not fooling ourselves that they are a reality of farm life. The chickens spent most of their summer days in the chicken tractor (there will be a separate post on this), helping till the future garden plot and eating lots of grass and weeds.Now that winter is here they are enjoying kitchen scraps and freeze dried meal worms.
We spruced up the laying boxes with some homemade flags.
We're so happy to have our little flock and it really does feel like a farm. We weren't going to get any roosters for fear of their early morning (and sometimes all day) crowing but we enjoy hearing Heckle and Jeckle calling out to the world that they better not mess with their women. Thankfully, they are late sleepers and, being on the small side, they don't crow very loudly.
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Note: Since we basically built the chicken coop as a room inside out existing shed we ended up only using hay bales on the two interior walls. This helped us preserve floor space for our chickens, especially since we hope to get a few more. We needed to keep room in the shanty for storing our equipment (ATVs, mower, attachments, etc). If it this design proves to be too cold over the winter we will either add heat lamps and/or redesign the coop next summer with all four walls made of hay or straw.