It’s a horrible day to be a chicken – rainy, 40 degrees, and two more days of rain predicted. I just slipped off the chicken house roof (thankfully cushioned by a 3 foot wide raised garden bed covered in leaves, and not skewered by the garden stake that I broke in half with my fall) trying to close up the hole in the screening there to the sparrows, who are ever ready to take food and leave parasites behind, to say thanks.
At least our run has metal roofing panels on it, and straw covers the run floor, so the girls can scratch out of the raindrops and off the mud. Chickens should never be left to stand in mud – nor should any animal of course. It breeds disease. I learned long ago from a chicken lady that to keep suburban chickens odor-free you keep them on mulch, which they keep on turning their poops into, in their endless quest for seed and buggy snacks.
Now that our chickens are ‘paddock method chickens” rather than free-range–and-destroy-the-backyard-chickens, our strategy has been to keep on throwing in more piles stuff for them to work through: straw (winter), or mown grass and weeds (spring/summer), or leaves (fall), or chip mulch if necessary. We shovel off the old composted stuff it when we need some dirt. I also have a compost pile for veggie scraps that I am not actively feeding to the chix that they can dig through – if they get bored.
But today they seemed happy to have me leave them in peace, after I hoisted a couple more panels up over their heads (rattle crash!!) to keep them dry, and after I fell off the roof I was happy to leave too, feeling stupid and lucky. And lucky to be warm.
Before I give you the baby chicken update – got to have that! – let me digress a minute to stand on my soap box . I know that given who is likely to be reading this, I am likely preaching pointlessly to the choir. But as I look into the nesting box on this dreary day to find six eggs in a swirl of straw, I am smitten again with amazement for these creatures who with so little attention from me or Edward, kick out day after day this nutrition- packed oval of deliciousness in its own porcelain carrying case.
How can it be that humans feel justified in buying eggs at rock-bottom prices, from hens kept in cages, out of sunlight, or clean air (imagine the ammonia), unable to engage in scratching? How can it be that humans, who couldn’t pull this trick of an-egg-a-day off if they tried, feel not only justified but smarter if they get the cheapest price a dozen, knowing that it is a blood price? Good eggs cost $4-5 to produce (with no profit to farmer). If you are paying less, someone is getting hurt – either the farmer, or the chicken. Or both.
Now, if you have lots of pasture to let your chickens really free range, you can get your eggs almost free, fed by what they can find for themselves. Chickens love to forage anyway. My sister’s farmer keeps his flock this way, providing some additional support in the form of cracked corn, in order to produce soy-free eggs for his customers. But this requires lots of space, preferably rotating pastures, per chicken. Not very possible in suburbia.
My chickens used to have my whole yard, (sometimes my neighbors’ yards, with eyes on our whole development, and it’s woods) to roam. We tried that, and it means I don’t get to have much of a “gardens and people yard.” Plus the neighbors were not into chickens roaming their lawns, and were worried about dogs hurting them. Domestic animals make the trade of freedom for safety. Last summer the hens who insisted on freedom in our back yard trees to enjoy their summer nights fed the fox. I lost ten last summer, and ten the summer before that. The fox has been hungry since…but the chickens get restless. Life is compromise.
The thought of better supporting my chickens leads me on a quest this blustery rainy day. In order to find out more about feed, I called Nick’s Organic Farm in Potomac Maryland – find him here www.nicksorganicfarm.com/. I used to buy my chicken feed from Nick, and would love to again, but I don’t love making that drive around the Beltway to Potomac to get it. The young woman who answered the phone told me that the soy Nick grows is organic and GMO free, he grinds it himself, and it forms the protein base for his chicken feed. Soy-free feed exists, she said. Can chickens digest soybeans, though? I queried. Is it natural for them? Well, chickens are from Asia, and so are soybeans, she responded. In this mix they may encounter more of it, but it is something early chickens would have eaten. Obviously a well-prepared employee.
My searching lead me next to Geoffrey and Sally Fallon Morrell’s website for their farm in Brandywine, MD (not too far from me) where I read that they give soy-free feed to their poultry. But – where do they get it? When a representative later called me back, I learned that they create their own feed, but so far do not sell it. The woman I spoke to also reassured me that soy isn’t bad for chickens, but can be bad for soy-sensitive people who eat their eggs (or meat). Find Morrell’s farm here – http://pabowenfarmstead.com/farm/
All this brings me back to the soapbox I stepped up on today, that giving our chickens good nutrition so that they are healthier and happier, so they can pass good nutrition on to the people they feed, is not a walk in the park. Does it matter? I have to say yes. The closer we can come to imitating what nature does and what animals do in nature, the better things will work out for growers and eaters of vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, and meat.
But you have been patiently waiting — the baby chicken report!
Our late October babies are young ladies now, not quite to point of lay. The young flock and the old still have not incorporated into a one – they tend to hang out and feed separately. But I plan to mix them up at night, on the roost, to help that process toward one flock along.
We introduced our old hens to the new chicks slowly. They shared a henhouse and run dived in half by chicken wire, for a long time before they were allowed access to each other by day – and then by night. The key is to create places where the little ones can escape the big ones, who have to prove dominance at the feeder and the water bowl. I’ve been adding simple visual barriers in the run with cardboard — good for chickens all the time, not only when introducing two flocks to each other.
Making the barriers of cardboard is lazy – of course it would be better to make them from wood, or metal, so I don’t have to do it again. But what in life is perfect? Maybe watching chickens root through straw or fresh dirt happily in the sunshine? That’s pretty close to perfect.
PS: Inspired by my rainy day reading about the value of grass/pasture to chickens, I went back outside and let the chickens out on the grass. Somehow, some way, we will keep improving what we can offer to our little flock in our suburban growing landscape.