Monday, March 30, 2015

How to Make a Dust Box for Chickens

Chickens naturally take dust baths as a way to get rid of external parasites. They throw themselves down in a dusty spot and roll around until they get dirt in all their nooks and crannies. Dust baths are very effective but even so, chickens can still suffer from lice and mites. You can soup up your chickens' dust baths by providing them with a box filled with pest repellent materials. Here's how to do it.

Go and get the biggest litter box you can find. 

This giant litter pan is 34.5" x 19.5" x 10". Two chickens could bathe in here at the same time. The depth is the most critical dimension. You want all your bathing materials to stay in the box when the chickens do their thing. (Ever watched a chicken dust bathe? They can go kinda crazy.) 

Adding the first layer of peat moss 

You can fill your dust box with any number of materials. Harvey Ussery recommends peat moss, dried and sifted clay, and/or small amounts of wood ash.  I used peat moss because I had some on hand plus some sand I had left over from another project. 

Food-grade DE. Do NOT use any other type of DE with your poultry. 

Now for the good stuff. You can add garden lime, food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE), or elemental sulfur powder to really sock it to those parasites. Remember to wear a good dust mask whenever you work with DE. It is really fine and you'll breathe it in and irritate your lungs. 

I should mention that Gail Damerow, author of Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, doesn't think you should use DE in dust boxes for parasite prevention. Chickens can be prone to respiratory problems and breathing in DE is not a good thing for anyone. Damerow thinks you should only use DE and other heavy-hitting anti-parasite products when there is an obvious infestation. Herbalist Susan Burek has also been outspoken about her opposition to DE in her articles in Backyard Poultry Magazine. Harvey Ussery, on the other hand, routinely uses a small amount of DE in his dust box. You'll have to decide where you stand on this issue. I do generally use DE as part of my dust box mix. 

I also mix a little DE in with my chickens' feed. Some people claim that feeding DE to poultry will serve as a natural dewormer. Gale Damerow has a negative opinion of that as well. She says that DE only works to kill worms, etc. when it is dry. Once it has made its way through the chicken's digestive tract, it is not dry and no longer has any of the microscopic cutting edges that serve to kill the bad guys. I still do it on the off chance that it will work!   

Peat, sand, and DE, ready to be mixed

The dust box should be placed where it will stay dry. 

If the mixture gets wet, it defeats the purpose. You should place it in a sheltered area or in your coop if you have room. 

That's it! Pretty simple for something that can really improve your chickens' quality of life. 


1.The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery
2. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow

Note: Links included in this post are affiliate links. Click here to read our disclosure statement. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

What is Permaculture? Our Farm Goals

I've always been interested in homesteading. I'm sure it is partly the result of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's books over and over as a child. Milk a cow? Preserve jam? Make cheese? Yep, that sounded like fun to me from a young age. I clipped articles out of magazines on growing citrus trees in pots and sighed over the descriptions of the heady scent of old-fashioned roses that I read about in library books.

And now that I am an adult with a few acres of my own to play with, I've already made quite a few of those childhood fantasies come true. The plan our permaculture designer (Steve Moring of Vajra Land Management) came up with will take us to the next level.

Some readers might be unfamiliar with permaculture and I think the easiest way for me to explain it will be to list the farm goals Lee and I gave Steve as we started the design process. Permaculture will make all of these possible.


- To create a resilient, food productive landscape. We know that through good design it is possible to work smarter, not harder. We want to use our land to the utmost, especially from the standpoint of water conservation. With the climate growing hotter and drier, we believe this is critical.

Our current kitchen garden is composed of raised beds surrounded by chicken runs. The chickens
really help keep bugs down and they benefit by the close proximity by getting lots of garden goodies. 

 - To create a more sustainable system that utilizes our poultry. Currently we are buying lots of inputs (poultry feed, fertilizers, compost, etc.) We'd like plants we could use as forage for poultry (and possibly the cattle we are getting in the future). Once we sort out fencing arrangements we plan on allowing our geese to free-range full time and our other birds (ducks and chickens) part-time. Since we breed several rare varieties some birds will unfortunately will not be able to free range (I refuse to allow coyotes to eat expensive birds), but most should get at least some range time.

The barn we built in 2014. The breeding pen fencing will also serve as a trellis for
grapes. The grapevines will provide summer shade and of course food.  

 -To create pond area for the waterfowl.

There will be a small pond that will be fed via a swale system through the orchard.

 - Going along with the idea of working smarter, not harder: to create areas for perennial vegetables as well as more areas for annual vegetables, compost crops, etc.

Geese in the garden eating weeds

 - To continue to develop our orchard, adding both more of the types of trees we have now as well as new varieties. I have been following the spray protocol established in The Holistic Orchardby Michael Phillips.

Spring-time cherry blossoms

 -While we'd like to have a long harvest season, I'd prefer plants that yield their harvest all at once. For example, everbearing strawberries drive me crazy; a summer of harvesting a handful of strawberries every week is not my idea of fun. I much prefer June bearing strawberries. I can, freeze, and dehydrate the surplus before moving on to the next berry, fruit, etc. that is ripe.

Cucumbers, carrots, zucchini, and cabbage from our kitchen garden

 -To provide habitat for beneficial/predatory insects and pollinators. We hope to keep bees in the next year or two.

We had five of these spiders take up residence in our raspberry patch last year. They definitely kept bug damage to the
fruit to a minimum and helped me work through my arachnophobia. 

-To minimize the effects of wind and our colder microclimate. We don't have the time or desire to cosset plants that are not hardy.

- We confess that we both like plants in straight lines and everything looking neat and tidy and that sometimes permaculture landscapes look rather unkempt to us. I would like the plantings to be neater and with a bit of an eye towards ornamentals close up to the house and driveway.

Borage planted with tomatoes is beautiful and useful. Bees love it and it is a truly effective
repellent for tomato hornworms.

Our farm goals encompass the ethos of permaculture: using land in a way that is productive, good for the earth, and good for the inhabitants.

A gorgeous summer evening

I will share the plan Steve Moring came up with in detail in a future blog post. In the meantime, here are some resources that I have found helpful as we go through this process:

Note: Product links are affiliate links. Please read our disclosure statement here

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brooding waterfowl: Some tips and tricks I've learned

When I was a new duck keeper, the difficulty of keeping our ducklings' brooder clean and dry nearly made me give up waterfowl entirely. Fast forward a few years and I added an additional breed of waterfowl, the Pilgrim goose, to our homestead. In the years between I learned some tips on brooding waterfowl that will help you avoid a sticky (not to mention stinky and wet) situation. 

How we brood small groups of waterfowl at Gust Front Farm: 

The main difference between brooding chicks and ducklings/goslings has to do with water. Chicks may kick up shavings (and poo, if we're keeping it real) into their waterers, but they are relatively neat drinkers. Ducklings and goslings, on the other hand, absolutely revel in water. It's one of the characteristics that makes them such fascinating creatures. They splash, play, and generally make a huge mess. Water + poo + shavings = a test for the sturdiest stomach. Trust me on this one.  

This is my solution to the problem. 

I use a high back litter pan(this one was actually designed for ferrets) and fill the bottom with a layer of pine pellets. The pine pellets are a type of equine stall bedding and are available in 50 lb bags at any feed store. They are FAR more absorbent than any bedding material I've tried with my ducks, and I've tried many. The combination of the pine pellets and the litter pan keeps the water mess contained to one area. I cover the pine pellets with paper towels for the first few days while the ducklings learn to eat their duck chow, not the bedding. If you keep up on maintenance in this area, you've already won half the battle. 

This particular brooder set-up would work for up to 10 or so ducklings. If you want to use it for more, I highly suggest installing more watering stations. 

Another key to my brooder system is the recycled sour cream, cottage cheese, and similar containers I use for their water. I cut a hole in the lids in the shape of a half-circle; this enables the ducklings to get their whole bill under the water, but prevents the entire container from being splashed out. Just be sure to use small containers for the youngest ducklings and gradually increase the size as the ducklings get larger. Do the school kids in your area sell those tubs of tasteless cookie dough for fundraisers? We don't care for the cookie dough, but the tubs are the perfect size for older ducklings. 

When ducklings no longer need to be kept in a brooder, all water should be kept outside, not in their housing (unless you like cleaning your duck house every day - I don't!).

Other differences between brooding waterfowl versus chicks: 

Ducklings and goslings can eat chick starter if, like me, you can't find waterfowl starter in your area. There are, however, two important considerations if you choose to feed chick starter. 

1) Waterfowl should NOT eat medicated chick starter. I do not use medicated feed for any of my poultry, but it is crucial not to feed it to waterfowl as it can be poisonous to them. 

2) Waterfowl needs additional niacin to support strong leg and neurological development. I use brewer's yeast as a supplement to the chick starter and it provides this key nutrient. 

-We cut the chick starter with rolled oats starting at about 2 weeks of age. This decreases the overall amount of protein the birds get. That may sound like a bad thing, but it actually helps prevent a problem called angel wing that results in deformed wings.  

-Waterfowl may eat greens starting at hatch. I finely cut tender grass, chard, dandelions, etc. and sprinkle it in their waterers. They go crazy! Don't forget to offer chick-sized grit. I generally sprinkle some grit over their feed when I fill the feeders and that takes care of it.

- Ducklings may love the water,but they still can drown. They aren't particularly waterproof until their oil gland kicks in, so if you want your ducklings to swim before they are fully feathered, I recommend supervised swimming time only. Keep swimming sessions short at first and towel them off before placing them back in the warmth of the brooder.

Let me know if you have any questions about brooding waterfowl or chicks. I'm happy to help! 

Recommended resources:

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Getting chicks for the first time? A new chicken keeper's primer

If you walk into your local farm/feed store during this time of year, you are likely to be greeted by the sound of peeping chicks. Beware! Do NOT go and look at the chicks (or ducks, turkeys, rabbits, or whatever cute and cuddly creatures the store might be selling) unless you are prepared to bring some home. It has been scientifically proven that it is impossible to see baby poultry in a feed store without birds coming home with you. Just ask my extremely patient husband. ;)  Or maybe you decided to purchase hatching eggs. I know a great lady you can buy Cream Legbar eggs from (wink).

However you decide to obtain sweet, fluffy chicks, you will need a few basic supplies and a little bit of knowledge. I will lay out those essentials in this post. Part Two, my primer on ducklings and goslings, will be out later in the week. Brooding waterfowl is different in some key areas.  

Supply list: 

1. A brooder - A brooder is simply a confined area where baby poultry can be safely raised under controlled conditions. It can be as simple as a large cardboard box, an old stock tank, or a plastic storage tote. Hatcheries also sell brooder kits like the one pictured below.

That brooder was fine for 17 chicks for about 2-1/2 weeks. After that time, I gradually increased the size  of the area they had to roam. Day old chicks can do well with 6 sq. inches of space per bird, but you will need to increase that to 1 sq. foot by the end of the first week and 2 sq. feet per bird by 2-3 weeks of age. Chickens need 4 sq. feet of coop space and 10 sq. feet of run space per bird as an adult. They grow quickly so have a coop or at least a plan for a coop in place before you commit to getting chickens. 

I should also note that chicks are dusty creatures. I started out brooding baby poultry indoors, but now that I have other options, I no longer do so. My kids are also happy to have their bathroom back.   
Note: Chicks can and will fly. You better have a plan to keep your birds inside the brooder once they can fly (about 2 weeks of age or so for chickens). Take it from me that it is not fun to step on a pile of poo because your chicks decided to be adventurous.

2. Brooder light – Mama chickens keep their babies nice and toasty by snuggling them under their wings. Assuming you don't have a broody chicken kicking around your place, you will need to be the mama for your birds and give them heat. Brooder lightsare very inexpensive and easy to adjust for the correct temperature. You want the area directly under the light to be 95 degrees at chick level. Decrease the heat (by moving your light up) by 5 degrees every week until the temperature inside the brooder is the same as the ambient temperatures. 

Place your brooder light at one end of the brooder so that your chicks can get away from the heat if they get too hot. I always make sure the food and water is in the cool zone. The best way to tell if the temperature is correct is to watch their behavior. If they remind you of a day care run amok, things are probably just fine. It is normal for them to sack out in a pile under the heat lamp every so often. All babies need plenty of sleep. 

Some folks claim using a red light decreases incidences of picking, but as long as the chicks have adequate room and don't get bored, that is not likely to be a problem for you

3. Bedding - You need an absorbent, non-slippery material for your chicks to live in. I use pine shavings, which are sold in compressed bales in any feed store. They smell nice and are very absorbent. I put about 3" of shavings in the bottom of my brooder and then cover it with a layer of paper towels for the first four days or so, changing the towels daily. After the chicks have learned to eat their starter feed and not pine shavings, the paper towels are no longer necessary. Do NOT use sheets of newspaper as bedding. They can be too slick for baby chicks and can lead to leg problems. Do NOT use cedar shavings because they cause respiratory problems.

4. Chick-sized feeders and waterers - You will want an appropriate-sized feeder and waterer for your chicks. I like to start out with the small quart-sized or gallon ones and move up to larger containers like these as they grow.


When you bring your chicks home, it is a good idea to gently put their beak in the water and make sure they take a sip. You can also put marbles in the rim of the waterer to make sure the chicks can't get in and drown.   

5. Chick starter - Chicks need to eat food especially formulated for their rapid growth. I buy bags of chick starter/grower, though some feed companies separate out those two categories. Each chick will eat about 10 lb of starter to reach 10 weeks of age, so buy accordingly. I try to keep a month's worth of feed on hand at all times, but no more than that lest it grow stale.

6. Chick-sized grit - The chicks won't need grit until they start eating foods other than chick starter. My chicks get treats of mashed hard-boiled eggs, torn dandelion greens, and other healthy goodies starting at about one week of age. At that time I give them access to a container of grit.

Three week-old chicks enjoying a snack of mashed hard-boiled egg

That's it! It's really not difficult to get started and it is extremely rewarding. 
Good luck to those of you embarking on raising poultry for the first time this spring.

Resources I recommend:
  1. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery 
  2. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow

Note: Links included in this post are affiliate links. Click here to read our disclosure statement. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

How We Monitor Fertility in Our Hatching Eggs

Before I sell any hatching eggs, I have to insure that fertility is high. Shipping hatching eggs is already a risky business and I want my customers to have happy experiences. If fertility isn't close to 100%, I won't sell hatching eggs.

So how do I know if an egg is fertile? There are two easy ways to check.

The first and most obvious way is to stick the eggs in an incubator. After seven to ten days, you can tell if a baby chicken or duck is developing inside the egg by candling it. Candling simply means shining a light into the egg, and it enables me to see if there are veins in the egg. Veins = a growing embryo and a fertile egg. Here's a link to a page that shows what I'm looking for.    

I tend to use a quicker method to monitor fertility at the beginning of the season and as a spot check throughout the year. Here's how I do it:

First, I break open the egg/s I want to check. It helps to check fertility at breakfast time so I have something to do with all those eggs I break open!

A very fresh Ancona duck egg. Look how firm the white is! 

Take a look at the yolk in the above photo. Do you see white dot in the middle of the yolk? Notice that it is surrounded by another circle of white like a sort of halo.

A closer view

Here's a closeup of the same yolk. It looks like a bullseye, doesn't it? When I see the bullseye, I know my drakes are doing their jobs - this is a fertile egg. The white spot is technically called a blastoderm and it would develop into a duckling if I had incubated it.  

 Infertile eggs do not have a bullseye. You can barely see the blastoderm at all; it just looks like a tiny white speck on the yolk. 

At the beginning of the hatching egg season, I break open and examine all the eggs my ducks lay. I only sell hatching eggs when fertility is fabulous and the ducks have started laying like gangbusters. I will never be the first person to sell hatching eggs each season, but I promise you that anyone who buys hatching eggs from Gust Front Farm will never have reason to complain about fertility! 

~Emily, Resident Crazy Poultry Person 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Tuppence's Tale, or Why You Should Name Your Animals with Care

We recently were given the chance to add two more Ancona ducks to our flock and, me being me, I simply couldn't resist. One of the new ladies is this gorgeously marked blue duck named Tuppence. My #1 daughter is currently reading through all of Agatha Christie's novels and thought it would be fun to name a duck after the character of Tuppence Beresford.

We should have known better.

Invariably, our animals have all exhibited the character traits of the people they are named after. Doofenshmirtz the Buff Orpington rooster? He's evil, all right.  Aragorn the Cream Legbar cockerel is definitely in charge while Faramir plays second fiddle.  Lita Ford the Easter Egger was unfortunately a one hit wonder much like her namesake; she is our one and only loss to a predator, cut off in her prime. Of course, there is the conspicuous exception of our Mini Lop rabbit, Snuggles - she's neurotic rather than cuddly - but for the most part, the rule has held true.

I always shut my birds up for the evening right at dusk, but last night I didn't go outside until it was already pitch black. Most of the ducks in my main duck pen had already put themselves to bed. I shone a flashlight around and under the house to make sure there weren't any stragglers and locked them in for the night.

Then I went to the pen where the two new ducks are currently living. Although I have no reason to suspect that they have any diseases, it is still good practice to keep them separate from the rest of the flock for a few weeks. I shone my light around the pen and quickly found Bluebell. Tuppence was no where to be seen.

I felt absolutely sick to my stomach. Had a predator somehow grabbed Tuppence and pulled her through the fence? Did a hawk make its way through the fishing line strung like netting over the pen? The Man of the House and I searched all around the pen's perimeter, looking for any gaps in the fencing. We even lifted the duck house off the ground in case she had somehow wedged herself underneath it.


The Man of the House and I looked at each other with perplexed expressions. (So I assume. It was too dark to see if his confusion matched mine.) Then he asked me if I had counted the ducks in the main duck house when I locked them in.

Well, no, I hadn't. We rushed over to the main pen and shone the flashlight through one of the ventilation windows. The ducks freaked out at the unexpected beam of light, but we were able to count nine ducks.

There were supposed to be eight ducks in that pen! And there was Tuppence smack dab in the middle of the frantic huddle. We had no earthly idea how Tuppence got into the pen, but we were just so thankful that she hadn't become a coyote's dinner that we didn't over think it. We put her back into the proper pen with Bluebell, said good-night, and locked them in.

The ingenious little Tuppence tried to play the same trick the next morning, but this time I was there to see it. She squashed her skinny little body through the tiny gap between the gate and the rest of the fence and decided to go check out the chickens' premises. Thankfully this happened while I was doing my morning bird chores so I was able to intercept her before Wile E. Coyote did.

We moved Tuppence and Bluebell into the pen we raise our youngest ducks in. The extra reinforcement seemed to do the trick... or so I thought. The very next morning I witnessed Tuppence fly six feet into the air, which is easily enough to clear the gate. Anconas are not supposed to fly like that and I've never had one get up more than three feet off the ground.

We've never had a duck do shenanigans like these before. But then again, we've never had a duck named after a very impulsive spy from a detective novel, either!

Take note, animal lovers: name your friends with care.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How Dorcas Got Named and Became a Part of Our Flock

Although I am the main person in charge of our poultry projects, our whole family is definitely involved. I try to be the more business-like, scientific person when it comes to choosing which birds to keep and breed from and which others to sell. Sometimes it is a lost cause because a family member has become sentimentally attached to a particular bird. Such is the case with the little Ancona duck we call Dorcas.

Dorcas at hatch

Dorcas is the product of mating between Hyacinth, an over-marked blue drake, with a bevy of blue and black females. I wanted to see if I could get some blue, lilac, or lavender ducklings using Hyacinth's genetics, but without his over-abundance of color.

When Dorcas (then called "little purple duckling") was born, it was obvious that she had too much color; the goal is to have no more than 75% of a bird either colored or white. I was intrigued by the color she had, however. I hadn't hatched any lavender ducklings before, and I thought the little purple duckling matched the description, but I really didn't think I should keep such a strongly marked duck.

All of these ducklings had the same daddy! Hyacinth has since been re-homed.
"Little Purple Duck" is in the middle. 

In general, we sell our ducklings straight-run. For those of you new to the poultry world, that means we do not sex the birds ahead of time, so buyers will on average receive 50% male, 50% female ducks. We do, however, vent sex the ducklings we keep for ourselves. We are over 95% accurate with our vent sexing, which I think is pretty darn good.

Vent Sexing is usually not hard as long as you have good light and a gentle touch. (Learn more about how to vent sex waterfowl here.) It does not harm the duckling as long as you are careful.

That is the way it is supposed to go. This is what happened when The Man of the House (TMotH) and I decided to vent sex "Little Purple Duckling":

As per our usual routine, I held the duckling and pulled the tail back while TMotH gently pulled back the tissue surrounding her vent and examined the vent under strong light.. No penis popped out, so we knew that Little Purple Duck was a girl. At that moment, my #2 daughter walked in and shrieked, "Why are you beheading that duck?!"

That was confusing because #2 daughter had seen us vent sex ducklings numerous times and, of course, we weren't beheading the duck.

Then I noticed that Little Purple Duck was dangling lifelessly in my hands. I gave her to TMotH. He proceeded to give mouth to beak CPR and pump up and down on her little chest. He later told me that he gently blew into one of her nostrils so that the strong force of his breath wouldn't damage her tiny lungs. I was amazed that he could think about the difference between duck and human anatomy at such a time. I guess that's why he's an MD! I grabbed another duckling from the nearby brooder in the hopes that his peeping would help stimulate the Little Purple Duck.

A few tense moments passed and then she started breathing again and made a full recovery.

We still don't know exactly why the duckling passed out while being vent sexed. It has never happened before or since. Needless to say, TMotH feels a strong bond with this particular duck and absolutely refused to allow me to sell her.

We named her Dorcas after this story from Acts 9:36-42:

36 Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas.[a] She was full of good works and acts of charity. 37 In those days she became ill and died, and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him, urging him,“Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter rose and went with them. And when he arrived, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and showing tunics[b] and other garments that Dorcas made while she was with them. 40 But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. (ESV)

Dorcas and her brood mates at about 2 weeks of age

Dorcas at 1.5 months of age

Dorcas is still over-marked like her daddy. Unlike her daddy, however, she has a permanent place in our flock. Saving an animal from death tends to bond you to it pretty strongly! She is growing into a pretty lavender duck and, paired with the right, lightly-marked drake, she will give us lots of pretty Ancona ducklings.