And now for the last installment of the January “On the Farm” post, our most asked about feature of the farm: the chickens! We lovingly refer to them as “the ladies” of the farm…
How about those hens? Our hens have a very rough looking shack that houses their laying boxes and provides shelter, while still providing free access to pasture. There are no cages at all. In January, they are pretty chilly and complaining that the days are just too short. Chickens lay the most eggs when they are not stressed and have plenty of light. For us, the chicken house is not heated nor does it have lighting. That means that they are a bit stressed by the cold and roosting through long dark nights. We just accept the fact that egg production is going to go way down in the winter. It is the natural cycle of birds. Soon enough the ladies are going to get busy with their spring egg laying.
This is the time when we are looking at the hatchery website and deciding how many and what type of new baby peepers to add to the flock this summer. Every year we lose a few hens due to predators or because they get too old to lay prolifically, so we replace them in the early summer. Although the old hens are not good for roasting, they do make beautiful bone broth and are a great addition to our CSA, market, and restaurant offering. Bone broth, or stock, is very healthful and the same people who are committed enough to their health to join a CSA, are very likely to be interested in making broth. This year we are considering selling a bone broth package that will include the hen, vegetables, and herbs for beautiful broth. Waste nothing!
Making the balance between keeping the flock safe, while also giving them free
access to the outdoors and ideally green pasture, can be very challenging. Our hen house opens to the front into a 50×50 chicken yard. It opens to the back into a two
acre pasture. When we first started growing chickens we idealistically thought the
best situation would be to allow the hens free access to the small chicken yard as
well as the pasture. Problems happened immediately. First of all, it is very hard to
adequately secure the fencing on 2 acres so we had hens out all over the place!
They were in the vegetables, roosting up by the house, and worst of all, getting
killed by predators. It never fails that chickens are genius at escaping and absolute
idiots when it comes to getting back in! When a chicken gets out, the first thing they
do is head for the tastiest looking vegetables they can find. It is very easy for only
one chicken to destroy an entire line of vegetables by simply taking a single peck
out of nearly every plant or fruit. Then in the evening when it is time to go roost up
in the safe hen house, they can’t figure out how to get back in! So, they roost
on the fence or in a bush or even just on the ground near the chicken house. This is
not safe for them. They normally end up eaten by a predator. Not only that, having hens out unprotected seems to even attract predators. During our earlier years when we were struggling with this, we lost our entire flock. We had several hens that we just couldn’t keep in the pasture and they seemed to be a magnet for night time trouble. Eventually the trouble maker dug under our fence and did its dirty work in the chicken house under the cover of darkness. None survived. The utopia I read about in some book, of chickens coexisting happily in the vegetables eating the bugs just is not possible. The solution is to limit the space they are allowed to roam, while still keeping them safe and happy.
Additionally, it is important to us that the hens are given plenty of green grass or vegetation to eat. We accomplish this by limiting them to the smaller but secure chicken yard most of the time. Then we dump all of our vegetable trimmings and culls into the chicken yard for them to eat.
They seem to love it! They are safe, happy, and their yolks are bright orange from all the healthy vegetables they eat. (And by the way, chickens are not vegetarians as many seem to believe. They love to eat bugs and worms and other “meats”).
In the chicken yard, we create several areas that they can hide under in case of hawk attack, as well as driving wooden stakes all around the yard to prevent hawks from getting a good angle on grabbing a chicken. Any hawk big enough to grab a hen is generally not able to navigate its big wingspan through our obstacle course of tomato stakes. Some people make this balance by using chicken tractors. For us, the hens seem freer and happier in their shady yard than stuck in a tiny tractor.
Next month we plan to create a new chicken yard where we will allow a rooster and
several hens to live, have fun, and raise babies. Buying peepers is expensive and
troublesome. The plan is to see if handling the flock more naturally will work and be cost effective. Stay tuned for next month’s update and photos. This area will be in a beautifully peaceful area in the woods behind our barn. If they don’t like it, I might move in!
Next up: what happens around the farm in February…
Eat Your Veggies, and orange yolked eggs,