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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Chicken Pen V2.1

It's been a busy month here on Hearthfire Hill. Hex orders just keep coming (Thanks be to my customers and to the Gods for their support!) but so has the rain and strange weather. Like much of the country, we scratch our heads almost every day and wonder "what now?" In some ways, the earth is responding as if it were an early spring: we have picked two (count 'em... it wasn't hard) asparagus spears... a month earlier than usual and were seeing lilac bushes in our area opening their blossoms by Mother's Day, a good two weeks earlier than usual. It is easy for me to remember this natural season marker, as my girls always picked lilacs for me when we lived in eastern WA and now that they live in Utah, they still pick them for their own tables. We've had discussions and shared photos over the Internet for Mother's Day... they of beautiful, lovely scented bouquets and me of the tightly curled, dark purple buds that have just barely begun to form.

As noted in the two previous posts, (Fowl Deed Indeed and Fowl Pen Fail), the biggest project/challenge of this spring has been the design and construction of a low-cost, easily movable large pen to contain the chickens and another for the ducks. The ducks have been contained through the winter in a makeshift pen which would be very difficult to move and the chickens wintered in three slightly crowded "chicken tractors" which we moved close to the house and surrounded by a "fort" of baled mulch hay (straw not being easily available or affordable here) that we had intended to cover. The cover part never happened, and thankfully we had a less snowy winter. By the time the ground was beginning to show the hens and their companion roosters were more than glad to be allowed to roam. But I was less than glad to have them in the garden. The minute they spotted the seedling broccoli and cabbages, the winged crew attacked and only covering the seedlings with Agribon kept the birds at bay.

Chicken Pen V2.0, with fowl
After discovering the weakness of the first design I tried using a combination of a 45 degree elbow, a very short length of pipe and then the T with the vertical support to repair the first, failed, pen. That repair held, so I moved on to collecting materials to build Version 2.0, a larger, 8-sided construction with the 45-degree elbow-pipe-T design at each joint. Tractor Guy was concerned that the larger diameter would make the design weaker and harder to move, but that proved not to be the case.

Flight Proofing Detail
I had hoped to find bird netting sufficiently large to put over the pen to keep crows out and the hens, who do like to fly, in. Unfortunately I have not yet found such a large piece of netting. The outside diameter of the pen is 26.2 feet and the area 483 feet (no I did not do the math... ). Birds were wanting to fly out, though... so I used a 4' wide netting that I bought for the pea trellis, securing it around the perimeter, initially with clothes pins, making pleats at the corners to take up the slack and holding it out, horizontal, with fiberglas poles topped with electric fence insulators, which we happened to have on hand.
Mostly this works. We have one Aracana hen who insists on flying out and she will get one wing clipped next time I catch her. The netting has been secured with cable ties, both to the tops of the posts and to the perimeter pipe, as our brisk winds have a tendency to knock it loose both places.

Now, I can get on with serious planting; the occasional hen who has gotten out has not damaged the garden. And we have hauled the other two chicken tractors to the same area where the big pen is, populated each with a rooster (keeping them from fighting for now) and are rotating the hens through a brief separation from the flock. Hopefully, this will allow us to determine who is laying and who is eating eggs, as we do have a problem with that.

None of the hens has gone broody, but three of the ducks are currently setting. One is brooding a handful of hen eggs along with several of her own species. Fingers are crossed for a good hatch. I  hope to trade a few ducklings for some turkey poults; one of our friends lost all their ducks to predators and have a broody turkey!

Growth hex, 24" diameter on exterior plywood
for outdoor display, $240 plus shipping
On the hex sign front, I showed my new design, Growth, at an art show in Belfast, Maine this past week. During the artist reception, I introduced the art form to several folks who were unfamiliar with the concept and meaning of the tradition hex sign, and met several other people who had lived in, or visited, Pennsylvania and fallen in love with the signs. Many of my brochures were taken so my fingers are crossed for more local sales. I am currently painting two signs for the owner of Maine Sacred Practices and have two other large signs on order.

Maine Rock Hex
I have once again begun painting on local Maine rocks. This rock sign, with the Growth design, was requested by one of my daughters in Utah.

Rocks being one of our main crops, look for more of this application of hex to rock as time permits. They CAN be shipped (the smaller ones... this example is about 14" across), and for local folks I can paint them on any rock on your place, or that you are able to deliver to me for painting!