Chicken Class Action
A Few lucky Students in Wisconsin are Raising Chickens in School as Part of the Core Curriculum
Story and Photos By Dennis Carlson
It all came about in the usual way. The fifth-sixth grade teacher at Beautiful Savior Lutheran School, Glory Jansen, asked me, “Do you know anything about incubators? I need one fixed if I can find it.”
I said, “No, but I can fix it.”
Turned out, she didn’t have one at all, so I volunteered to make one and set about finding out how to raise chicks. Glory then told me she was planning to give them away. I got an idea, and volunteered to build a coop if the fifth- and sixth-grade students would help and research how.
We decided to form a “company” to hatch and raise chickens and sell eggs. At the first meeting with the students, two names were suggested: Coop City, meaning a coop with residents; and City Coop, meaning city jail. City Coop won unanimously, and the chicken of choice was the Barred Rock with its black and white striped inmate garb!
The student body was divided into four departments: Marketing, Engineering, Manufacturing and Finance. An “IPO” of “Chicken Stock” was sold to help with financing. Investors would get two dozen eggs. We were off and running!
We wanted the incubator to embody the best practices for hatching. A digital temperature controller was incorporated to provide precise temperature control, forced air was used to uniformly mix the air, humidity was monitored constantly, and the eggs were turned hourly about the long axis, making one-and-one-half turns using a method similar to billiard balls turning in a rack.
The coop was to incorporate the best practices for raising chickens and would do double-duty as a brooder. The primary objective was to make the coop mobile to be able to “free range” on the south lawn and be as self-sufficient as possible, so the chickens could be left to themselves for a couple of days.
All of the parts were designed to fit within a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of 23/32-inch plywood, and fit through a double door so that it could be built inside our gym storage room and rolled outside. The chicken population would be limited to eight, providing four square feet per chicken.
Regulated heat was required to do double duty as a brooder. The coop would be enclosed within dog-run fence (the courtyard) that could be moved with the coop to allow “free ranging.” The door opening and closing would be automated using a programmable logic controller (PLC) to eliminate the need to be there. The PLC would be used to turn the camera and lights on and off to conserve power. A manual chicken door was included to provide for the unlikely event that the automatic door did not work.
Activity in and around the coop would be monitored and shared with the public using a webcam. Solar panels would be used to power the PLC and chicken door since there is no power available on the south lawn. When water heaters would be required, the coop would be relocated next to the school building and plugged into 110V AC power.
Access to inside the coop is provided with a removable roof, vertical sliding rear door, two vertical sliding windows, two chicken doors and the nesting box lid. Three nesting boxes were provided. Chicken watering nipples provided clean water inside and outside of the coop using a single reservoir.
The “electrical room” is above the nesting boxes and spans the width of the coop, with access by sliding the roof forward about a foot. It contained the PLC, lead-acid solar battery, battery charger, 12V DC to 120V AC inverter for the camera, a heater control for the brooder, and relays for reversing the door direction.
Chicken pellets were to be supplied inside and out using a single reservoir. The roosts are two horizontal 2-by-4s, spanning the inside width of the coop just in front of and behind the side windows. Double-hung widows were installed backwards on each side of the coop to provide a view outside and let in sunshine and fresh air. Home heating vents with adjustable louvers were used to provide ventilation.
And We’re Off …
The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. The incubator was set up in the fifth-sixth grade classroom to allow students to constantly monitor the temperature, humidity and egg turning. A heat lamp was hung from a frame the students built over the cardboard classroom brooder to provide 100°F on the brooder floor.
The fertilized Barred Rock eggs arrived and each student was given an egg to hatch and name. A webcam was put in place to monitor the operation and share the event with the world. The eggs were candled on Day 8 and all looked well.
However, only egg one and two hatched (Chica and Pollo). Unfortunately, Pollo had a deformity called cross-beak and died after two weeks. The students made a headstone and buried Pollo. Post mortem analysis showed that in the 3-by-4 matrix position, egg one developed completely and diagonally across the matrix and egg 12 developed for only about one day. The level of development increased from egg 12 to egg one, which indicated that the supposedly uniform temperature was extremely non-uniform.
After a quick trip to a hatchery, we were at nine chicks — one for each of our students, who promptly gave them names. The chickens have names and can be identified by the band(s) on their leg.
The students were divided into Marketing, Engineering, Manufacturing and Finance. Each department elected a vice president, who was responsible for providing updates at periodic stockholder meetings, which were 10-minute presentations to the congregation.
Marketing made publicity posters and a logo. Engineering calculated the amount of paint needed, the volume of shavings needed for bedding, the feed and water tube calibration in ounces, and solar panel angles. Manufacturing fed and watered the chickens as well as monitored the amount of feed and water used, and Finance kept track of the stock sold, deposited the money and updated stockholders via email.
When the chicks outgrew the cardboard brooder in the classroom, the students transferred their chicks to the heated coop next to the school. A schedule for feeding and watering was set up.
Summer eventually came and the system was deployed on the “south lawn” in all its glory. The whole school would come out to see the chickens during recess and parents stopped by with fruits and vegetables. The chicken’s favorite was watermelon.The coop was moved about every four weeks to a new spot of grass, after the current spot started looking kind of ratty.
The coop was even taken on tour to participate in the City of Waukesha July 4 parade, minus the chickens, because the parade officials would not allow animals in the parade. It was a bittersweet event in that even though everyone enjoyed the parade, it meant that the chickens were left without the protection of the coop for one night. That night a raccoon took one of the chickens through the fence and injured two others.
The two injured chickens survived, but it made us keenly aware that even in the city we were not free of predators. Several weeks later, a hawk was seen bouncing off of the dog-run fence. Later we added •-inch wire cloth to the bottom of the fence to keep the chickens from stretching their neck through the fence to snatch up morsels of food, which put them in precarious positions.
We now have six chickens. Some of the students volunteered to help take care of the chickens over the summer. Research brought up the need for the chickens to take dust baths, so we made a concoction of equal parts of garden dirt, sand and ashes and put it in a shallow 2-foot by 3-foot plastic box. They loved it! We now enjoy the comedy of watching them wallow in the dirt to get as dirty as possible and then get out and shake themselves like a wet dog, creating a massive cloud of dust. We have since built a cover for the dust box so it wouldn’t turn to mud when it rains. The dustbox has become their favorite hangout.
On the first day of school in the fall, the chickens presented us with our first egg. The full circle of life, from egg to egg. What a miracle! The chickens are now presenting us with five eggs a day.
Our eggs are personalized by writing the lay date and collector initials on the egg. The chickens now enjoy daily fresh lettuce, corn, carrots and green beans from school lunch when there are leftovers. They love lettuce, corn and green beans and don’t like carrots, but will eat them.
The lettuce comes in serving-size plastic bags that we just open up and let the chickens peck out the lettuce. In addition to some scratch, one of the grandparents brings cases of unsalted mixed nuts that we ration out to the chickens.
The coop control has been updated by programming in the equations for sunrise and sunset, so now the door automatically opens at sunrise and closes an hour after sunset when we know they will be in roosting.
The same programming is used to turn the inside light on so that the chickens get 16 hours of daylight to keep up egg production. The coop now has an infrared webcam on the inside so we can watch what they do when they are roosting in the middle of the night as well as a webcam on the outside.
We have found that the chickens absolutely hate fresh fallen snow and will stay in the coop all day until it is gone. In the same breath, they love to be outside even in zero degree weather despite the fact that it is 5°F warmer in the coop.
We have found that the chickens put out about 30 watts of heat each. When the chickens are in the coop it is about 5°F to 6˚F warmer in the coop than outside. When the chicken water feeding nipple froze, we put a 200-watt water heater in the coop that raised the temperature another 5°F to 6˚F, indicating that the six chickens also put out 200 watts of heat. Therefore, we must have 30-watt chickens.
Each of the students is given a job within City Coop and chores are assigned according to what department they are in. Jobs are rotated each trimester and the students apply for the position they want and are interviewed.
CITY COOP STUDENTS SAY …
In addition to raising chickens for eggs, the students also decided to help out the chickens’ cousin, the wren, by building and selling wren houses. A simple design was found that required only cross-cutting and drilling a 1-1/8” hole. The cedar houses did not require painting, but Marketing decided to try using the lower cost pine and painting. Ten wren houses were hand sawn using a miter box. In the end, 12 cedar and 12 pine houses were pre-cut and assembled.
“My name is Alivia. In City Coop, my partner Ben and I work in the Marketing department on flyers for wren houses. We also work on stockholder presentations for updates for all the departments like Finance.”
“My name is Kaden and I work in the Engineering department. Engineering is building the needed items for our company. We have built wren houses, a coop, incubator, and a dust bath cover. We are constantly updating to make our chickens happy. We helped build the fence around the coop for the chickens to free-range. We built the coop with just wood and the incubator with wood and a heater. We are starting to turn a light on at 12:30 for 16 hours of sunlight. We are updating our incubator to hatch new chickens. We will be expanding the coop for six to seven chickens.”
“My name is Justin, and I work in Manufacturing. I go outside with Isaac and Maddie every day and check on the chickens. We check their food, water, body count, temperature of the coop, and voltage. We also built and painted wren houses. Surprisingly we have had 60 dozen eggs since September. We will be getting new chickens. All of the chickens lay their eggs in a nesting box, which is two small boxes filled with straw. When we get our new chickens we are going to update our incubator.”
“My name is Spencer and I work in the Finance department. I help City Coop by counting and managing money. My partner Emily and I count money, make deposits and see how much money we have to spend to make City Coop bigger and better. I hope you have the same love for animals as I do.”
“Hi, my name is Emily. I am in the Finance department with Spencer. I used to be in a group called Manufacturing. We work with money and we tally up all of the receipts and figure out how much money we have in the bank. I love dealing with money because I love math. We love having our chickens.”
“My name is Konner. I work for City Coop as the president, and am also in the Engineering group. As the president of City Coop, I go to all of the groups like Engineering, Manufacturing, Finance and Marketing. I make sure that everyone is on task and doing their work properly. We made about 30 wren houses and will stop production until they are all sold.”
“This is an awesome activity because it helps with science, math, engineering and constructing. We will be expanding the coop and will be getting 12 eggs. We are updating the incubator. We would love to show you around if you come!”
THE PROJECT OUTLINE
In January of 2015, City Coop began as a fifth- and sixth-grade class project at Beautiful Savior Lutheran School in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and has been expanded to become the core emphasis of their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program. It is continuing to develop. The goal is to provide practical life experiences planning, building, and doing. Beautiful Savior is a parochial school with about 60 students.
Check out their coop’s webcam by going to www.bslc-lsmc.org and clicking on City Coop at the bottom of the first page.