This is an entry in the 2014 Aug./Sept. writing contest with a combined prize value of over $1066. Be sure to rate this article – your vote is important!
In 2004, we moved from the rapidly expanding suburbs to a place in the country in central Texas. We soon discovered that we would have to deal with grasshoppers. They ate our garden right down to the ground. My neighbor had peach trees, and the grasshopper got so bad one year that they ate the peaches, leaving the pits hanging on the tree, then they ate all of the leaves, then they ate the bark. That killed the trees. When we built our house, we specified that the window screens would be aluminum, because we saw how the grasshoppers had chewed through the fiberglass screens on my neighbor’s house!
I found the answer in the book Gardening with Guineas (ISBN 0739202502) by Jeannette S. Ferguson, and the associated website at http://guineafowl.com/. Free range guineas eat lots of grasshoppers. We decided to get a small flock of guineas, to see how it would work out.
Why Guineas instead of Chickens
Guineas patrol the garden and eat the bugs, but leave the fruits and vegetables alone. They don’t scratch in the dirt much, especially if you give them a nice bare spot outside of the garden to take dust baths, which they use to keep themselves clean and free of insects. Guinea droppings are much dryer than messy wet chicken droppings and have hardly any smell.
Which came first? – The Keets
Guinea chicks are called keets. They can be ordered through the mail from several different on-line poultry suppliers as day old chicks. We live close to Cameron, Texas, where one of the largest suppliers is located, so we were able to pick up our keets directly from their office. This helped the keets avoid the stress of being mailed. We ordered twenty-four keets and received twenty-eight, since the hatchery always provides a few extra, just in case. We purchased them near the end of June, so that they would not be exposed to cold weather while young. Most guineas are some shade of grey or lavender in color, but we purchased white ones. We wanted to be able to spot them in the tall grass. Their first home was a cardboard box on our enclosed porch. The bottom of the box was lined with straw, to prevent spraddle-foot. That is a crippling condition that can be corrected if treated immediately with a band-aid hobble. I have used this method successfully several times.
Water was provided from a quart size poultry water font, purchased at the local farm and feed store. I put marbles in the water tray to prevent drowning. Feed was un-medicated 20% protein starter from the same feed store, provided from a quart size feeder. I put a heat lamp on a table edge so that it would shine in one corner of the box. The keets move into the heat when they are chilly and move away from it when they get too warm. I used two heat lamps with low wattage bulbs, so if one burned out, I wouldn’t lose the keets in the cold. They have to stay around 95 degrees for the first few days, as they would if they were under their mother.
Movin’ on up
The baby keets grow very quickly. After a week on the porch, mine were moved to my homemade brooder. I made the brooder from an old baby crib purchased at the thrift shop. I removed the mattress. I lined the bottom and open sides with doubled chicken wire to keep them from getting out. I made a roof for it out of chicken wire also. I put a layer of straw on the bottom. I set each leg of the crib into the middle of an empty plastic butter tub which was half filled with water, with a drop of dish washing liquid added. This keeps fire ants from climbing up to eat the chick feed and bite the keets, since ants can’t swim. The brooder included two heat lamps and gallon size feed and water dispensers. The brooder was kept inside a shed, to prevent cold drafts from chilling the keets, and to keep them safe from predators. I improved the design by making a rectangular cage from hardware cloth, which fit inside the crib. This made it much easier to remove them when I needed to clean the crib. I put a plastic tarp and several inches of straw under the crib to catch the droppings and spills.
The permanent home for my guineas was a poultry house that I built. The poultry house has no floor, to eliminate the problems of droppings and spilled water damage to a wooden floor. The house was built by first driving steel fence posts into ground where the corners would be, then attaching the lumber to the posts so that no wood touches the ground. This prevents rot and provides good ventilation under the walls, which is important for disease prevention. I have never used any antibiotics or medicated feed, and I have never had a disease problem with my guineas. The poultry house has a roost made from four 2×4’s, six feet long, turned on the side. They are hinged at one end, so they can be lifted for cleaning under the roost. Poultry feed in 50 pound bags is stored in plastic trash cans. Non-medicated 15% protein grower/finisher feed pellets are provided from a gallon size feeder, which hangs from a chain to keep it away from ants.
Water is provided by an automatic water bowl, attached to a garden hose. Adult guineas don’t need any heat in central Texes, where the coldest temperatures may reach the teens occasionally. The poultry house is located inside a 20 foot by 30 foot enclosure made of chain link fence covered with chicken wire, with a roof made of chicken wire. The roof is held up by bows formed of PVC pipe. This keeps out predators like hawks, raccoons, skunks, owls, coyotes and feral dogs, all of which we have in our area. The bottom twelve inches of the chicken wire on the sides of the chain link fence is buried in the ground and curves out at the bottom, to keep anything from digging or squeezing under. There is a gate in the fence to allow cleaning, adding straw bedding, gathering eggs, etc. We put the used straw bedding from the cage directly onto the garden, since guinea droppings are not “hot” like chicken manure.
Can you eat the eggs?
The eggs are about the size of a medium to small chicken egg, and they taste great. We have males in our flock, so the eggs might be fertile or they might not. There is no way to tell, even after cracking the egg open. From time to time we get an egg with a blood spot in it, but we make sure to crack one egg at a time into a bowl before pouring it into the skillet or cake batter. You can’t ‘candle’ a guinea egg because the shell is too thick to shine a light through. You can eat the meat from the guineas too, but then who would eat the grasshoppers?
Lay Lady Lay:
Guineas don’t lay their eggs in individual nest boxes like chickens do. They prefer a secluded corner of the floor. All of the guineas will lay their eggs in the same nest. Usually one or two guineas will sit on all of the eggs. We call her Mary, since she is “on the nest”. If the guineas are outside of the cage when ready to lay, they will lay the eggs in a nest in tall grass and you may never find it. Even if you do, you have no idea how old the eggs are. We found that most of our girls lay before early afternoon, so we keep them penned up until then. We put a couple fake ceramic eggs in a secluded corner behind the feed cans where we want them to lay their eggs, and it works just fine. They lay between seven and fifteen eggs a day. A fifty pound bag of feed costs about fifteen dollars, and it lasts about a week for twenty eight guineas. You can do the math, but we figure that the value of the free range eggs just about pays for the cost of the feed. In general, we consider the eggs to be a bonus. Their real job is to eat the grasshoppers.
It’s a wild world:
When we let the guineas out to free range, they will chase down grasshoppers and gobble them up as fast as possible. They are very fast and fun to watch. They tend to stay in pairs or small groups, and will travel about 500 feet in every direction from their roosts. This can be a problem if there is a road within that distance, since guineas yield the right of way to no one! They can fly short distances of fifty to one hundred feet, very low to the ground. Guineas are tough! One neighbor, who raises cattle, had to get rid of his guineas because when they pecked the bugs off of the calves, they sometimes drew blood. Guineas are only aggressive to people when protecting their eggs. We just shoo them away with a plastic lid from a feed can until we finish picking up the eggs. They can be very mean to each other, and will draw blood and even kill each other by pecking. If one guinea is being pecked too much, we have had success in isolating her is a small fenced enclosure for a week or two, then releasing her again. We don’t have dogs, but a friend of mine who does, told me that his dogs killed some of his guineas before he was able to train the dogs to leave them alone. Cats and guineas will ignore each other. Children are ignored by guineas. When it is time for the guineas to roost at dusk, they will head for the cage. We count them every night to make sure we don’t leave any outside before locking up. To herd the stragglers toward the cage, I just carry a long piece of ¾ inch white PVC pipe, cross-wise in front of me. They move away from the white pipe and I can steer them right into the cage.
Hatching your own:
Over the years we lost a few guineas due to predators, accidents, and guinea-cide. We tried letting a couple hens sit on their eggs, but when the chicks hatched, the older guineas in the flock pecked them to death. We hatched a few eggs in an incubator. We were able to introduce our keets from the incubator into the existing flock by moving them, inside of their cage from the crib, into the poultry house for a few weeks before we released them from their cage. Next year we will purchase more keets, to introduce fresh blood into the flock.
Guineas are loud. They are supposed to make good “watchdogs”, but ours are just loud most of the time. If you have neighbors, make sure it won’t be a problem. Guineas know no bounds, so if the neighbors are within 500 feet of your roost, the guineas will come to visit. Guineas are supposed to keep away snakes, but that doesn’t seem to work for us. Chickens can be forced to lay year round by providing light in the winter, but guineas don’t lay eggs in the winter.
So how well did it work?
Keeping a flock of guineas has worked out very well for us. We still have lots of grasshoppers, but the guineas keep them under control. We have harvested beautiful juicy peaches from our own trees, grown a garden that produces more each year, grown whatever flowers, shrubs, and trees our climate will support, all thanks to our guineas. Guineas are great!
This is an entry in the Aug./Sept. 2014 [Grow] writing contest with over $1,066 in combined prizes. Please be sure to rate this article your vote counts!
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