Poultry Management

Earlier today I heard from someone who bought turkey eggs from me last year.  She hatched a Bourbon Red tom, of whom she had recently sent photos.  He was in full strut – looking just like his sire – and appeared to be a gorgeous bird.  Unfortunately the message this morning was that he had died.  He looked fine yesterday; today he is dead and she doesn’t know why.  This has left me pondering.  Her poultry do not free-range.  In order to maintain purebred eggs, she pens each breed separately.  By contrast I have almost no pens.  A hoop coop is my only means to separate birds and I use it sparingly – for a broody hen sitting on eggs, a group of juveniles to help them transition from brooder to main coop, or short-term when I too, need to ensure eggs are fertilized by a particular rooster.  Otherwise, my birds all sleep in the main coop at night and have the freedom to range anywhere on our fully fenced property by day.

I do this primarily for ease of care.  Fewer pens means fewer feed and water bowls to maintain.  Less hassle with heated bowls and extension cords.  Less time spent building coops or shelters and maintaining runs.  Substantially lower expenses for materials for all of the above.  And, in the event I am sick, injured or on vacation, it is easy for someone else to care for them.

I enjoy lower feed bills as a result of the birds foraging.  They eat grass, clover, dandelions, burdock, compass plants (to name only a few) along with all the bugs they can find.

In summer they are able to seek out the coolest spot they can find to hang out – under bushes and behind objects that cast shade.  In winter they similarly have the freedom to find a place to stay out of the wind so they can keep warm.  When keeping birds in pens, it is hard to provide them with the conditions they require due to changing weather patterns and many of the losses of penned birds can be attributed directly to their inability to keep warm and dry or to stay cool.

But over time I’ve started to wonder if having the birds free-ranging isn’t only advantageous to me, but to the health of the birds themselves.  I’ve noticed that after birds have been sequestered in the hoop house, their priority upon release isn’t to flap their wings and run or fly.  It isn’t to seek out buddies (or in the case of roosters, hens to be mated).  Their priority is to eat greens.  After the door is opened, they run immediately to greenery and start eating almost desperately.

Clearly there are nutrients in the greens and bugs they find for themselves that are absent in prepared grain formulas.  And I believe those nutrients are essential to their well-being.  My birds are exceedingly healthy.  I haven’t dewormed in a couple of years because I haven’t seen any evidence of the need to.  And it has been years since I’ve lost a bird to illness or disease.  By contrast, birds raised in pens often don’t thrive – and, as in the case of the turkey who died this morning – their deaths are sometimes unexpected and the cause undetermined.

I’ve always found watching the birds foraging, peaceful.  But over time I’ve become convinced that the freedom they enjoy doesn’t just make my birds happy or lucky – it helps keep them alive.

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Well, Poop!

I’ve long imagined myself self-sufficient.  I envisioned an idyllic setting, perfect weather and beautiful pens filled with well-behaved animals.  At the end of each tremendously gratifying day on the homestead, I’d head inside to dine on a meal prepared entirely from food I’d grown and raised myself, then sit in front of a fire burning wood I had chopped, and read a book.  Probably about homesteading.

I dreamed the dream while living in the city and going to college and raising kids and finally achieved the reality when we moved out here to our little homestead a few years ago.  Now my days are as idyllic as I always dreamed they would be.  Oh wait.  There is one little thing that never featured in my day-dreaming.  Poop.

It turns out that homesteading is really 98% dealing with poop.  There is a book entitled “Everybody Poops” that is popular with parents of toddlers.  I may have even read it to my own kids.  Sadly it did not prepare me for the reality that Everybody Poops.  Including animals.  And it hit me the other day that homesteading really isn’t about self-sufficiency or producing food or going off grid.  It’s about poop.

I don’t think there is a single day – and I am talking 365 (sometimes 366) days of the year – that I don’t deal with poop.  I scoop the poop from the horse run at least once, usually twice or thrice each week.  I use a pitchfork to shovel cow poop out of the barn and from around the round-bale feeder every morning.  I shovel the poop-saturated bedding from the chicken coop on an as-needed basis – the need arising much more quickly than would be my preference.  I scoop poop from the cat litter boxes that the barn cats use at night between their rodent patrols, and each week on trash day (so that it can immediately be hauled away), I take a pooper scooper and scoop up as much dog poop as I can find from the area around the house where we spend the most time.  Before guests arrive, I scrape free-range chicken poop off the porch,  and before sitting in a lawn chair, I check that turkeys weren’t there first.  Every time I step outside the back door, I step over messes left by the ducks hanging around the downspout.  And mice poop, well, everywhere.  Amazingly – and contrary to all my fantasies – even the adorably cute lambs and goat kids poop – they really do.  Most of their poop becomes fertilizer for our pasture but their sleeping area needs to be cleaned and raked out regularly.

So it turns out that “homesteading” is really just a very nice word that means “dealing with $#!#”

Lest you think I’m having a down day or experiencing a more encompassing change-of-heart about homesteading, I’m not.  But I laughed aloud this afternoon when I hit me how much of this life I so enjoy is, ultimately, dealing with poop.

Processing

Warning: For those squeamish about where their food comes from, this is a post to skip over.

I’ve been asked many times what method I use to butcher or “process” my birds.  I won’t go into the “how I feel about it” in this post as that is summed up pretty well here.  Rather, this post will be a straightforward how-to of my method, which has evolved over several years.  Like any skill there is a learning curve and each person has to find the way that works best for them.  Not too many generations ago, most people grew up watching Grandma butcher a bird each week for Sunday dinner, but in a short space of time we became so accustomed to buying our meat in styrofoam trays at the grocery store that when HWA and I first agreed to raise chickens and process excess males into meat, the “how” was something of a mystery to both of us.  Without Grandma to teach us, we turned to YouTube, and spent several hours poring over a variety of videos, searching for a way that seemed the most humane and doable.  We settled on a method wherein the bird is placed into a cone upside down, with the body securely held by the cone and only the head and neck emerging.  From there it appeared to be easy to take a knife, slice across the artery, and the bird bled out quickly.  This seemed humane since a single cut with a very sharp knife is almost painless initially (think about cutting a finger while slicing vegetables and how you can watch the blood start to seep before the pain is felt).  By the time the brain has sent the message to the bird to say “Ow!  That hurt”, it is largely unconscious.

So we set up a cone, sharpened the knife, caught the first bird, got it positioned…..and then each stood back to watch.  You see, while watching the videos, we had each pictured the other doing the cutting.  Neither of us was mentally prepared to make that first cut and while HWA did eventually do it, I can’t say either of us enjoyed it, or that we got it perfectly right that first time – or even over the next few tries.

After the first half dozen birds, there came a time HWA was unavailable and I had no choice but to do it myself.  The learning curve started anew but since then, I have done all of them and over the last several years have honed my technique to one that I now feel confident will work every time – one cut – meaning a quick and painless demise of my bird.  The key for me was learning that the best place to cut is immediately above the jawline.  To this day, I gently hold and caress the bird’s head with one hand, while feeling up the jawline with a finger of the other.  Once I have identified the best spot on each individual bird, I bring out the knife and with one swift – and quite forceful – cut, I slice and watch for the spurt of blood that indicates the artery was severed.  I say forceful because the first few times, not wanting to hurt the bird, I was too gentle with my cut and only barely pierced the skin.  I learned that it takes quite a bit of strength to cut deep enough to both penetrate the skin AND cut through the artery, so now I give it all I’ve got in order to cause the least pain.

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Her bill is just sticking out the bottom. Usually I have to gently pull the head out a little further so that the neck is exposed.

 

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Here is a duck going into the cone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It takes several minutes for the blood flow to stop, but the bird is only conscious for the first 20-30 seconds.  I have found that in most cases there is a fluttering of wings at around the 20 second mark and a second about 20 seconds later.  These are a muscular reaction to the loss of blood and NOT the bird’s attempt to escape – despite how it may sometimes look.  After the second flourish, I walk away to complete a few chores, leaving the bird to thoroughly bleed out.

Once the bleeding has slowed to the occasional drip, I remove the bird from the cone and take it into the kitchen.  Some people like to plan a butcher day and process multiple birds at once outdoors.  I prefer to incorporate processing into my day, much as Grandmother did a hundred years ago.  So I work at my kitchen sink, the height of which does not cause me to stoop, and where I have warm running water available when I need it.

Following the same order each time allows me to work efficiently.

  1. Remove the head
  2. Remove the wings from the “elbow” joint out
  3. Remove the feet from the “knees” down
  4. Remove the skin
  5. Remove the innards

I start with the head because my cut already has that started.  With scissors I cut the remaining skin, then use the knife to cut through any muscle, and then simply twist off the head.  For the wings and feet I use the knife.  Feeling for the joint with my finger tip, I cut the skin at the joint, and the knife slips effortlessly through the cartilage connecting the joint, to quickly sever it.

Then, using the scissors, I cut the skin from the neck opening, down to the back.  At this point pulling the skin off the body is not unlike undressing a baby.  The skin separates easily – especially if I push my fingers between the skin and the flesh as I work.  I pull it off the wings and legs as I come to them, until eventually I have a “hide” attached only at the tail.  I sever the tail and voila.

At this point I rinse any loose feathers off the carcass, wash the knife and prepare to cut open the abdominal cavity.  I make this cut laterally across the bird, close to the vent, cutting quite carefully through the flesh in order to avoid cutting into the intestines which lay close by.  Once I have an opening large enough for my hand, I simply scoop out the innards in one big scoop.  The lungs hug the rib cage closely and I use a finger to scrape them out, one lobe at a time.  Each lung should come out in one piece.

Once the bird is empty, I rinse the cavity several times, then place the bird in the crockpot.  No water, oil, spices – just the bird.  The lid goes on, it is set to the “low” setting and for the next 8 hours it cooks down.  By the end of the 8 hours, the meat is – quite literally – falling off the bones, into the liquid that has collected in the bottom of the crockpot.  Once cool, I separate meat from bones and bag it in ½-pound portions in ziploc bags.  These are “freezer ready” portions that are used in a variety of meals, from casseroles to sandwiches.  The liquid is a protein rich broth that will cool into a jelly-like substance in the fridge.  I use this as soup base, to cook rice or couscous, or in place of water or stock in many recipes.

And what of the innards?

  • Heart – this is rinsed and goes into the crockpot to cook along with the bird
  • Gizzard – I cut this open, dump the contents into a bowl, peel away the lining, rinse and this also goes into the crockpot
  • Testicles – into the crockpot
  • Liver – this goes into a ziploc bag into the freezer along with the livers of the previous few birds.  When I have a half dozen collected, I cook them up and enjoy a highly nutritious and very delicious meal (recipe to follow in a future post)
  • Kidney – birds only have one.  This is also collected to be used at a later date when I have enough.
  • Intestines.  The intestines are really a marvel – when stretched out they are quite long, but in the bird they loop around and between the loops, fat collects.  As the bird ages, the amount of fat stored between the loops of intestine increases.  I unravel the intestines (carefully because I don’t want to pierce them and have the contents contaminate my work) and peel off all of that lovely yellow fat.  This is rendered down in a fry pan until it is liquid, and then poured into my grease keeper to be used for future cooking.  Once the intestines are free of fat, I place them in my “scrap bowl”.
  • Feet.  These I clean thoroughly, trim the toenails off and place in a pan covered in water.  Simmered on low for several hours they make a very rich chicken stock.  The toenails are placed in a container along with crushed egg shells, to be offered to laying hens who need supplemental calcium.
  • Lungs go into the scrap bowl.

And what happens to the scrap bowl?  It is fed back to the birds.  I know this sounds cannibalistic but it is only we humans who think about such things.  When I offer this bowl to the birds they don’t shun it because it used to be their flock-mate.  They simply look at it as a high protein treat and there is fierce competition among them to get the “best bits” for themselves.

At the end of the day there is very little waste.  The carcass – including the neck, which most people discard – is eaten by us.  Any innards not eaten by us are eaten by the birds.  The feet are turned into stock and once thoroughly cooked/simmered, are given to the dogs.  The only waste then is the head, the wing tips and the feather-covered skin.  I suppose I could try to save the feathers but we only need so many feather pillows.  Even the bones get a second use.  Once I have removed the meat from the bones, I put them back into a stock pot, cover them with water, and simmer for several more hours.  The result is another nice pot of stock, which I use as a base to make soup.  Only once the bones have been used twice, do I throw them into the compost, where they will be used a third time to enrich the soil for our veggie garden.

My birds sacrifice their life to feed my family – I don’t want any part of their sacrifice to have been a waste.

Pile of cute

I never wanted ducks. But, several years ago I was swayed to consider Muscovies when told of their positive attributes: they are good layers, good meat birds, good mothers, don’t need water the way other ducks do and don’t quack. That last one really sold me because one of my objections to ducks was how noisy they can be.

I’ve had them now for 2-3 years and they’ve lived up to their reputation. While they only lay during the season which runs from about Feb through Oct, when they are laying, they are compulsively regular. Chickens lay on a cycle: several days in a row, then take a day or two off. Not so ducks. They lay first thing in the morning every morning like clockwork. By about 9am, I’ve collected all the duck eggs I’m going to get for the day.

For meat, they are phenomenal (if you like duck meat). They grow to eating size in only about 14 weeks and the males are huge – almost twice the size of the females. I butchered a drake a week ago and got so much meat I had to use a large container just to keep it all in the fridge. I’ve never had a chicken that rendered nearly as much meat.

They are excellent mothers. Four weeks ago I had a duck start to hatch in the coop and at the end of that day I decided to move her to a broody pen. She was under a quarter barrel in the coop so I couldn’t see her or the ducklings, but raised it enough to grab 2 ducklings, carried them to the temp coop and went back for more. I kept making trips back to the coop and they just kept coming. In the end I found she had hatched 13 ducklings! Four weeks later all 13 are still alive and well. Not only that, but I had two duck eggs in the incubator and they hatched 10 days later. Not wanting to set up a brooder for them, I asked the mother duck to add them to her brood. She was reluctant at first, but ultimately adopted them and when one got stuck a few days later, she anxiously waited for me to free it and return it to her, clearly as nervous for its welfare as if it had been one of her originals.

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They have loads of personality. The people door of the chicken coop is on two gold hinges that reflect light. I had it held open one day and the chickens just walked in and out of the coop through the open door. Then along came a duck and on passing over the threshold, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the hinge. She peered at it, tilting her head one way and another, then walked around to the back of the door to find the other duck! This lasted several minutes and required several trips to the back to assure that there was no duck hiding there. She eventually moved on but before long, along came another duck. And another. Each one had to examine its reflection and look for the duck behind the door.

The ducklings are growing fast.  Since hatch, they have tended to pile up together when resting – safety in numbers.  BOF saw this one day and deemed it to be a “pile of cute”.  Its hard to believe there are 15 ducklings in this picture, isn’t it?
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The Meat I Eat

Producing as much of our own food as possible is gratifying – and sometimes hard work.  But, while watching babies grow up is fun and rewarding, the day comes when they are no longer babies.  I process all of my own poultry.  Is it easy to take a bird I watched hatch, and lovingly raised, and end its life?  Certainly not.  But I do it because I want their life – and their death – to be as beautiful and stress free as possible.  They know me.  They are relaxed around me.  While walking them to the killing cone, I talk to them and I can feel them in my arms – relaxed and happy.  What more can one ask, but that death be fast, almost painless, and that in one’s last moments, one feels happy and relaxed?

We have a few pets, but all the rest of our animals are destined for the table by way of the freezer or crockpot.  Some people have problems with that.   But, hell, to live well and die well and know that there was value in both the living and the dying?  Isn’t that as much as any of us can hope for?

I’m not claiming I do my fowl or livestock any favors by killing them — clearly I don’t.  The point is that while I do not enjoy the killing, neither does it distress me; my animals live better (warm, watered, protected, and fed) and die better (quickly and without suffering) than if they lived wild.  The birds are free to fly or roam wherever they please.  (Some turkeys choose to spend the night atop the sheep shelter roof.  Some ducks spend the night on the pond.)   The goats and sheep are fenced, but that is more to keep them safe from coyotes and cars than to restrain them.  (Even when they are let out they stay close to home.)  So to whatever extent they have the capacity to choose, my animals seem to prefer the life I give them to the more feral or wild existence they could have anytime they wish.

So.. slaughtering my animals is not a pleasant task, but I do it comfortable in the knowledge that the life I gave them was safe, spacious, warm, and well-fed and that the death I give them is quick, painless, and stress-free compared to the death by disease, injury, predation, exposure, or starvation suffered by their wild kin.  

Building an Incubator

A couple of years after I resumed keeping chickens, I started thinking about how cool it would be to hatch my own chicks.  I researched incubators and was shocked at how much they cost, so researched how to make my own.  With design help from HWA, here is what we came up with.

I started with an Omaha Steaks cooler.  This is important because there are grades of styrofoam and the Omaha Steaks coolers are much thicker and sturdier than your standard styrofoam.  I’ve never ordered from there, but I put a post on Freecycle looking for one and had two people contact me, so I ended up with two for….free.

For the heating element, I used a ZooMed heat mat.  I already had this because I also keep snakes but….they range in price from about $10-35 depending on size.  I use one that takes up as much “real estate” in the bottom of the incubator as possible.  The nice thing is that these come equipped with their own power cord so there is no wiring to do.  Simply make a hole in the side of cooler big enough to slip the cord through.  While you are at it, make more holes in the opposite side to allow for good ventilation (details below).

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The thermostat I also had already.  This thermostat is completely awesome because is designed to keep a herp habitat at a precise temperature and it does it very well.

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For a fan to keep the temperature uniform, I bought the fan made by Little Giant.  It is really easy to wire with a couple of wire nuts.  I first tried using the fan from an old PC but could not get it wired so that it would run.

thermometer and hygrometer report the temperature and humidity in the incubator.  I’ve spent a small fortune on these over the years.  What I can tell you from my experience is FORGET DIGITAL.  They are notoriously inaccurate.  What you want is a plain old analog readout.  Conveniently, analog is  far cheaper than  digital.  Calibrate the hygrometer using the salt test.

Finally, we need a dish to hold water (provides humidity) and a mesh cover (prevents chicks from drowning).  I went to the dollar store and bought a set of two wire baskets (2/$1).  I also bought a couple of cat food bowls ($1/each).  The wire baskets fit perfectly over the cat food bowls.

Okay, now that we have all of the component together, here is how they go together.  

To start, place the heating pad on the floor of the cooler, and slip the power cord out through the hole in the side.  Place the fan on the heat pad and slide its power cable  out through the same hole.  Having the fan just inside the larger hole allows it to draw in fresh air.  (You can see the probe here sitting on the heat mat.)

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Here is the outside of the cooler.  I used a bolt to attach a small plastic basket to the side, that holds the thermostat, and keeps the cords contained.  You can see the wire nuts I used to attach the fan to a power cord I cut off a non-working appliance.  This is the only wiring required and is so easy a kindergartener could do it 🙂

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Next add the water container(s) and cover with the inverted wire basket(s).  Although perhaps not completely necessary, I inverted wire baskets over my water dishes, to provide a solid base for the hardware cloth which comes next.  The goal is to create a platform on which the eggs sit and to protect hatched chicks from falling in the water or injury by the fan.  

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The H-cloth is not attached to anything; it is rigid enough that it sits on the wire baskets, creating the “platform”.  There is a 1/4″ gap on all sides of the hardware cloth  as if it fit too snugly it would be difficult to get it in and out.  Also, leave room for the thermostat probe since it needs to sit at egg level.

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Next add the rubberized mesh shelf liner, again making sure to draw the probe up to sit on top of it.  Note that I cut it slightly too large.  This allows me to tuck it in around the sides so that the chicks have no way to get a leg stuck in that 1/4″ gap between the hardware cloth and the sides of the cooler.

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Here is the opposite end of the cooler.  Note the large hole, and several smaller holes.  The smaller holes were made using a pencil – the sharp tip allowed me to just push the pencil right through the styrofoam.  The larger hole is sized to fit a cork, in case I ever need to plug a hole. (That hasn’t happened yet.)  By placing the ventilation holes on opposite ends of the cooler, the fan is able to draw in fresh air on one side and vent it out the other.

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Now for the lid.  You can see where I cut out the large “hole” in the lid.  You can also see in this picture just how thick the styrofoam is!  I purchased the picture frame from the thrift store in order to get a piece of glass that would fit, and then I cut the hole and “picture frame” to fit the glass.

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When the incubator is running, I place the cut out Styrofoam piece over the glass.  This helps to keep heat in, and keeps moisture from condensing on the under surface of the glass.  When I need to peek in, I push it to the side or remove it altogether.

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Total cost:

Omaha steaks cooler: FREE
Heating mat (Large): $20.99
Fan: $29.99
Thermostat: $34.69
Thermometer:$7.00
Hygrometer: $4.99
Cat food bowls: $1/each, $2.00 total
Wire baskets: 2/$1, $1:00 total
Hardware cloth remnant: (nil)
Rubberized mesh shelf liner remnant: (nil)
Thrift store picture frame for the glass: $2

Total cost: $102.66

I was fortunate to have the most expensive components already on hand but, even if buying everything new this makes an incubator that performs well for low cost.  I know others have used hot water heater thermostats; these are cheaper at around $10 but more difficult to program and users report difficulty maintaining consistent temperatures.  The fan is optional but I found it invaluable for maintaining a consistent temperature throughout the incubator.  The heating element is certainly more expensive than a light bulb, but creates a more consistent heat, and there isn’t the concern about eggs that are too close to the light bulb incubating at a higher temperature than those further away.

My first three hatches in this incubator were 90%, 100% and 100% successful from my own eggs.

Poultry Coops and Interior Decorating Thereof

Having completed the external shell of Coop Knox, it was time to outfit the inside for me and my birds. First, I built an internal wall, dividing the space into a 10×10 coop and a 4×10 storage area with 2×4 framing including framing in a door.  (More on the door below.)  Next, I used a sheet of OSB to create a solid lower portion, and chicken wire covering the remainder.  The solid lower half prevents the birds from kicking bedding through while the open upper promotes good airflow and allows me  to see through.  I used chicken wire here since it is cheaper and doesn’t need to be predator proof.

Dividing the Birds and the Storage
The storage area has a large plastic shelving unit at one end (visible in this picture) and metal garbage cans as feed bins at the opposite end.  Having my feed and other supplies right there at the coop has been one of the best features of the coop.

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What the picture doesn’t show is a) the external door 4 feet on the other side of the internal door and b) that the internal door is hinged to open into the coop area.  That latter bit is a problem.  My original thinking was that the storage area was already small and I’d rather have the door open the direction I’m more often carrying items.  What I failed to consider was that the birds’  bedding would block the opening of the door making it, effectively, more wall.  Ooops.  Fixing that is on the “someday” list.

Nest Boxes
Next up was a place to lay eggs.  I built nest boxes from scrap lumber and installed them by screwing the back directly into studs.  The hens don’t seem to have any problem jumping directly from the ground to the top row of boxes.  Each box is 14x14x14.

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The very next morning my hens demonstrated that they recognized what the nest boxes were “for”:

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Roosts
The last internal item was to build roosts.  BOF and I completed this in an hour or so using more scrap lumber.  The  roosts consist of 4 parallel 2×4’s that are 3′ off the coop floor (less as the deep litter bedding layer builds up).  They are attached to the studs using lag bolts, allowing them to be raised up for cleaning.   An eye hook in the middle of the front roost, attaches to a cord hanging from the rafters, and holds them in the up position.

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The picture above shows the west-side roost.  Later HWA constructed a similar roost on the east side which incorporates some lessons learned on the first roost.
1) The roosts (2x4s) are screwed into the bottom of the supports extending from the wall; this change allows the roost to be folded up flush into the wall framing.
2) Where the roost goes all the way to the wall, it is supported by a length of 2×4 nailed to the wall rather than a leg extending into the litter.

These pictures show those details and also a) how the “rounding” of the roost support rail and the lag bolt design at the “hinge” permits the roost to be folded up into the wall, b) “framing out” sections of roost to avoid interference with the nest boxes, and c) the the space and ease of working provided by folding the roost into the wall. 

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The final element of Coop Knox is the absolutely fantastic, so-good-I’d-ditch-my-family-and-run-away-with-it-if-it-had-a-penis, automatic door, but let’s save that for another post.