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grasshoppers love kale

Because the chooks love grasshoppers…

chooks-love-grasshoppersAnd I love eggs….

egg-salad

My favourite lunch at the moment – salad from the garden with a soft boiled egg – aka grasshoppers – aka kale – through it as dressing.

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australian-game-chick

Isn’t she the prettiest little chick?  She’s an Australian Game, a tall long-legged breed, excellent mums, decent layers, decent meat birds, and very good at foraging for themselves.  They are not the least bit lazy, but spend most of the day scratching in any mulch or leaf litter or ground, finding insects and seeds and larvae.  They are also good at escaping from predators.

We have a little flock of them now, in electric net fencing that we move around the orchard and “Zone 3” area. I still have my other flock rotating around my garden beds, clearing and fertilizing for me but there’s a niche in zone 3 that needs a scratching omnivore to turn over leaf litter, keep ground cover plants down, balance up insect populations, and the Australian Games are proving a good breed for it.

The garden rooster is Mr Fluffy Feet.  He’s a bantam cross, very pretty, with feathered feet.  He has a motley mix of girls, some bantam cross, some ISA brown cross, one Australorp cross.  He must have some Silkie in him, because there are no Silkie hens and yet several of last year’s chicks look like Silkie crosses, and the white babies this year look like they migh turn out the same.  The “Out” rooster is Mr Tough Guy. He’s tall and very elegant and very protective of his girls.  He has a dozen Australian Game hens.  We put a dozen eggs from both pens under this mum, and she hatched ten of them.  Her sister has hatched another twelve out of fourteen eggs.  It will give us roosters for the pot and new hens for eggs, and some very pretty chickens for admiring.

chickens

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They had been living in a little backyard pen with a baby bath for water.  It was the best fun I’ve had in ages, watching ducks discover water.  The dived and fluffed and preened and splashed and put on several R rated shows.  You have never seen an animal so happy!

With  geese (there are eleven of them now, fully grown, and unfortunately all named – so much for goose dinner, at least this year!) and chooks we now have quite a collection of poultry.  We have had ducks before and found them rather too vulnerable to goannas, foxes and wild dogs.  These muscovies are a bit bigger though, and with two drakes and a floating island in the middle of the dam to escape to,   I’m hoping they will survive.

I’m dreaming duck eggs this time: they already have names (Sir Francis, Sir Walter, Daphne and Simone) so I think they’re already off the duck dinner agenda. And though the geese managed to successfully raise a clutch of goslings, I’m not too hopeful about raising ducklings.  Just too tasty for the wildlife.

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This is the bed the chooks are about to go onto, when I get a moment to move them.  I have to intensively fence my garden beds anyway, to keep out bandicoots, bush turkeys, padimelons, wallabies, possums, bush rats, bower birds – the list goes on.  I haven’t planted anything new in there for the last three months, and just about everything is now harvested, though I shall have a look through before I move the chooks on – I think there are still a few beetroots, carrots and leeks hiding in there.

There is a feast for chooks in there – brussels sprouts infested with caterpillars, a tromboncino vine gone rampant, self seeded bok choy, some old silver beet gone to seed, the first round of beans now finished and the last of the vine, with the beans not worth picking still on it.

This is where the chooks are now, happily clearing and fertilizing a bed for me. They sleep up on their artificial tree – a moveable roost that stands in a bit of galvanised pipe donged into the middle of each bed. I found they liked roosting in a real tree, and they were right about it being safer than any cage I could provide. But free ranging chooks are just too destructive in a garden, and I have work for them to do!

So they have a moveable roost, and a water bucket and laying box, and an old kids “shell” pool propped up to provide bit of shelter from heavy rain, and I have a fresh new chook run, complete with a few weeks supply of greens, every month. I throw the chooks the weeds, household scraps, azolla, grass clippings, and any other organic matter I can get my hands on, along with a few bags of horse or cow manure which they scratch through looking for insects and in the process mix nicely with all the other organic matter.

This is where they were last, a couple of weeks ago. They’ve created a good 30 cm of sheet compost over the bed by scratching through all the organic matter I’ve thrown to them, and they’ve very diligently scratched right over the surface soil searching for any insect larvae or eggs.  I’ve been able to plant advanced seedlings straight into it.  (But I should get around to top dressing with some more mulch sometime very soon).

And this is where they were before that, about two months ago.  And where they’ll come back to again in about another 8 or 9 months. By planting advanced seedlings, I’m harvesting in a matter of weeks.

Chooks and vegetable gardens are such an elegant arrangement.  I’ve tried lots of ways of combining them, from domes to compost making down a slope, but I’m really liking the current solution.

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Chooks are such a good way to double the harvest.  These bok choy were self sown and if I’d been pressed for space I would have fed them to the chooks as greens much earlier.  We ate a few leaves, but then since I had nothing desperately needing the spot I let them go to seed – which they did very happily, producing lots and lots of seed (which is why I had self sown bok choy in the first place).

I have hung these upside down in with the chooks, and it is wonderful to watch their enjoyment.  A plant a day, along with our household scraps is providing them with all their feed and I don’t have to go to the produce store.  And in return, they will give me eggs with very golden beta carotened yolks.

I also aim to give them a barrow load of mulch or weeds or horse manure or azolla  most days, and if I can keep up that rate of organic matter for a month, the chooks scratch it in with their own poo and turn it into compost for me.

 My garden beds these days are fortress fenced against the wildlife – bandicoots, bush turkeys and possums being the most demanding of serious fencing. It does impose limitations – one of these days I’ll get around to a post about the inherent challenges in reconciling love of wildlife with serious scale food production. But it also has benefits – ready made trellising for one, and ready made chook fencing for another.

The ready made chook fencing is wonderful. If you keep chooks fenced in, they quickly denude their run, and diseases and parasites start to build up.  And you can’t go away even overnight without chook sitters. But if I let them free range, they do enormous damage to any garden they can get at, and they are vulnerable to foxes, goannas, and eagles even in the daytime. Being able to rotate them around fenced garden beds means I can keep them on new ground, with access to greens and enough space to be happy and safe.  The roost design means they can put themselves to bed, safe from carpet snakes, foxes, quolls, powerful owls and other night hunters, and if we don’t come home till late, or even if we go away for a day or two, they’re fine.

About once a month I move the chooks into a new garden bed, and then they can feed themselves for a week or so, cleaning up all the spent plants, scratching for insects, and clearing weeds.  Moving them is as simple as moving their carpet-snake-fox-and-quoll-proof roost to a new bed, along with their water bucket and mower catcher laying box, and a tarp that gives them a bit of extra shade and rain protection. Every bed is fully fenced anyway, and they all now have a metre length of galvanised pipe   donged in the centre of the bed, standing about 40 cm out of the ground, into which the roost just slots.

My timing is never perfect – I won’t plant anything new in the next two beds the chooks are going into, and only quick maturing things into the one after that, but there are always a few stragglers.  I have a bed they will move into next that has had spuds and broad beans and peas and carrots and beets, now all harvested, and broccoli, brussels sprouts and cabbages all gone to seed and cabbage moth caterpillar ridden, and overmature silver beet attracting grasshoppers, and some gone-to-seed rocket and amaranth – all of which the chooks will relish. But it has some spring onions and leeks that I’ll be picking a bit younger than I would otherwise, a chili bush that the chooks will probably denude, and a whole lot of self seeded mizuna that we’ve been eating. But I just factor in a bit of crop sacrifice to the system, and they more than make up for it with the yield from a bed after they’ve had a month cleaning, manuring, and sheet composting it.

It’s a system that’s working well at the moment – I’m very happy that it’s already half way through summer and the new roost design is still keeping them safe. I’m daring to believe I’ve reached a new plateau in the co-evolution of a system that feeds snakes, eagles, quolls, bandicoots, bush turkeys and humans all at once.

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Super cute, eh. We had all but given up on raising chickens – just too vulnerable to our rural suite of things looking for a chicken dinner.  But the geese are proving to be pretty good guard-geese.  So when Jenny Craig decided to go clucky, we let her sit.  This morning she had hatched four of the eggs and was still sitting on another three, so we shall see how many there are by this afternoon.

If they survive, the roosters will become poule au pot – my favourite way to cook a chook.  The  hens will join my crew of garden workers come layers, rotating around my fenced and netted garden beds, clearing, fertilizing and doing pest control for me.

A side benefit to intensively fenced garden beds is ready made chook runs.  I can move the chooks around them to break the breeding cycle of any parasites or diseases. At the same time they clear spent plants and weeds, slugs, snails, grasshoppers, and bugs.  I throw them household scraps, weeds, azolla, mulch, cow and horse manure, and a bit of shell grit every so often, and they scratch it up into a lovely layer of sheet compost.  The new roost is working well so far for adult chooks big enough to fly up, but it will be a challenge to keep chickens safe.  Here’s hoping this guy doesn’t become goshawk dinner.

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