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Guineas, chickens and the persistent setting pullet.

My homestead is located in Brazoria County, Texas on the Gulf Coast in an area known as "Old Ocean." There is an Old Ocean, Texas post office, but the Sweeny post office serves my homestead. At 52 years young, I sold my house in town and moved to my acreage in the country in 2002. I would describe the ecosystem here as most nearly a "wetlands-type" hardwood forest containing mostly oaks in the red oak family. I have always wanted to have chickens as part of my homestead operation. But as there is always a lot that needs to be done, I had not gotten around to building a chicken coop, and I had not gotten around to getting any chickens.

The guineas

One day I read an article in Mother Earth News in the local library about using chickens in your garden for insect control. One or two issues later, it was the letters to the editor and an associated article on guineas that caused me to impulsively order 30 Pearl Gray guineas from Stromberg's Hatchery in Minnesota in August of 2003. The gist of the letters to the editor was guineas, not chickens, are what you want for insect control. I did this because of all the additional benefits and attributes associated with guineas, such as snake control, "watch dog of the barnyard," and predator alert. Copperhead snakes are common here. Several letter writers mentioned that their pets had ticks, but that several weeks after free ranging their guineas their pets were tick free. One writer added that, in addition, their pets were free of fleas within a year. It was also mentioned that guineas did not scratch up your garden as badly as chickens did.

At this point, for anyone considering guineas, one of the writers said if you intend to free range guineas, you must get the newly hatched "keets" because adult guineas will probably stray off once they are released. A neighbor related that a friend had that experience with adult guineas he purchased. Keets can be free ranged as early as five weeks old. It is my experience that troublesome insects, including mosquitoes, have been significantly reduced last summer compared to the summers of 2002 and 2003. I believe that my guineas may catch mosquitoes on the grass when they begin their morning foraging. I have observed a couple of my bantam chickens hang around my goats and eating mosquitoes off them, even hopping up on their backs like cow birds.

I brooded my keets in the kitchen (having impulsively ordered them). This is not recommended, however. In the meantime, I built a portable coop and moved them to it at about three weeks. I began free ranging them at five weeks old, and did lose many to predators, but my survivors seem to have acquired the necessary survival skills (survival of the fittest). They soon refused to enter the coop in the evening (even with the temptation of food in the coop), and to this day, still roost in the trees above the coop. My guineas are far ranging--they go into the woods all around my one acre clearing and even graze the homesteads of my closest three neighbors across the road. I consider my guineas to be my organic insect control.

As a side note, I wanted to use only organic methods when I began homesteading, and one of the books that I read was Howard Garrett's The Dirt Doctor. I was impressed with the success of a couple of methods that I tried from the book and bought my own copy. I have never had tick problems with my dogs except when I took them hunting, but have always battled with fleas. Using the teaspoon of vinegar per gallon of drinking water method of flea control from the book, my dogs were free of fleas within a few weeks of moving to the homestead and they remain flea free to this day. His web site is www.dirtdoctor.com.

The chickens

With plans to build a full size chicken coop, and because of my original desire for chickens, I ordered 30 chickens from Ideal Poultry in Texas. Hatched on October 8, 2003, I received them the next day. I received 20 Golden Laced Wyandotte standard size chickens and 10 Old English Game (OEG) Black Breasted Red bantams.

The OEG bantams were ordered purely for their looks. My grandfather, Norberto "TenTen" Ledesma had raised game chickens and I wanted chickens that looked like those that I remembered from childhood. I selected both breeds based on them being breeds that would forage and likely to have broody hens. My personal experience is that the OEG bantams are superior in both traits.

I didn't expect my pullets to start laying as early as they did in March of 2004. I started to find an egg a day, then two or three. I built nest boxes and placed them in the chicken coop. It took an idea from Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (available from the Countryside Bookstore for $18.95 plus $2.50 p&H) book to finally get the pullets to lay in the nest boxes instead of their chosen nests here and there around the homestead. I placed curtains on the nest boxes and they quickly began to use them. In the meantime, I noticed a clutch of eggs in the corner of a storage room; expecting that one of the pullets might brood them, I left them there.

The persistent pullet

On April 30, 2004, one of my Wyandotte pullets began to brood the clutch. Some of the eggs were probably about a month old. I told my Dad, Luis Ledesma, about it and he told me that fresh eggs would have a better chance. But as she had started, I left them with her hoping for the best. About three days later one of my two bantam hens disappeared. Only two bantam hens had survived brooding and the predators. I thought I had lost her to a predator, but about a week later I saw her feeding when I threw some scratch and followed her to her well hidden nest. On May 24, 2004, the bantam hen hatched seven chicks. By May 26, I realized that none of the eggs the Wyandotte pullet had brooded would hatch. In fact a couple were rotten and had popped. I placed 10 fresh eggs under her at 3:00 in the morning. She would not quit. I could not see how she could stand the odor of the broken rotten eggs. I did not expect her to complete the brooding period a second time, but as she had not quit, it was worth a try. By the morning of June 18, I knew that none of these eggs would hatch either. I had prepared a cardboard nest box with fresh litter and ten fresh eggs. When she went out to feed, I quickly cleaned out and disinfected her natural nest and placed the box with the eggs in the same spot. I realized that bacteria from the bad eggs had probably infected the fresh eggs that I had placed in the old nest.

I did not expect the pullet to keep brooding. She never quit, on July 8, 2004 she hatched six chicks. Only four survived the first couple of days, I again cleaned out her nest and placed fresh litter in it for her and the young chicks. Today those four chicks are three weeks and three days old.

Lessons learned

Lessons in the school of hard knocks are not fun. I am sure that many homesteaders, unfortunately, have learned too much in that school. If a hen begins to brood, I've learned to be sure that she has a clean nest and fresh eggs. I have observed that while my guineas range far and wide covering several acres in their daily roaming, the chickens confine themselves to the perimeter of my one acre clearing. I suppose it's because the guineas prefer insects where the chickens are willing to eat grass and the other ample vegetation. As far as the original idea of chickens for insect control in your garden, I've learned that you need to keep the chickens out of the garden until the plants are mature, because they wreaked havoc on my young garden plants this spring.

Each of my two OEG bantam hens has hatched seven chicks, the second brood having hatched on June 13, 2004 which was my birthday. One of them is now brooding a second clutch of eggs. I have experimented with leaving a clutch of eggs in the nest box and have recently allowed two other clutches of eggs to be laid in hen chosen natural nests because I thought that this meant a hen might be about to get broody. But, as yet, of my 12 Wyandotte pullets, only the one persistent pullet has brooded. If anybody has developed a nest design or method that encourages brooding, I would appreciate any information or tips.

I have observed that my chickens are early to bed and early to rise, often going into the full size chicken coop while the sun is still up,early in the evening. The guineas wait until it is almost too dark to see before they fly up into the trees above the portable coop. They are still up in the trees when the chickens begin their morning grazing. My guineas and chickens put a smile on my face every day. I believe poultry are an essential element of the homesteading state of mind.

The photo (on page 72) shows the persistent pullet with her chicks free ranging and in the portable coop. All my other chickens go into a full size chicken.coop in the evenings (except the OEG bantam hen brooding her natural well protected and hidden nest on a storage shelf behind a door.)

LUIS LEDESMA, JR.

TEXAS
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Title Annotation:The henhouse
Author:Ledesma, Luis, Jr.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1660
Previous Article:Putting poultry manure to good use.
Next Article:Health care for the small flock.


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