A thing of beauty is a joy forever – look at that beautiful tidied chip yard! On Saturday I spent most of the day cleaning up the run and house for winter and for the addition of five 16 week old poulets to join our current flock of 8 laying hens. Eight is just not enough, as it turns out, to keep four “Paleo” eaters in eggs. Thriteen will be enough to have some to sell too. If I sell a couple of dozen eggs a week, that will subsidize the cost of organic layer pellet ($30 a bag). There are many ways to encourage hens to forage and feed themselves too. I am always trying to figure out how to make “suburban farming” practical and sustainable, a way to bring fresh organically grown food to suburban kitchens, cheaper.
In the photo above right you see my All Day Roadkill Diner bucket, which used to hold a dead racoon I found lying in the middle of route 301. The idea (from Paul Wheaton’s website video) is that the straw on top will manage the odor, the flies will populate the dead carcass with their eggs as nature dictates, and the subsequent maggots squirm out the holes at the bottom of the pail into the mouths of waiting hens. Thus voila, a municiple problem becomes a healthy and free food for hens. Chickens are not vegetarians – their eggs are more wonderful the more they are able to get bugs. One problem: that straw on top is not really up to the task. So, depending how much space you have, the Roadkill Diner may not be practical for your suburban backyard… Next year I hope to grow sunflowers, dry them, and store in a metal can for the chicks to pick apart themselves. I also plan to plant “gardens” specifically for them in their run areas.
Chickens who are handled by humans become quite tame (depending on the breed – I’d like to see someone tame a flighty Italian Leghorn!). But chickens are not all that nice to each other, again depending on breed. When introducing the young group to the old it is generally painful to watch. I have become tougher after 6 years of doing this – eventually the hens decide who’s what I call the Bitch Chicken, and who comes next and next. We currently have a scapegoat chicken too – everyone picks on her, no one will sleep near her. My challenge is to introduce new chicks to old in a divided run and house, so Saturday I staples chicken wire (recycled! I knew that old wire would come in handy!) thru the center of the house and the length of the run. If they are side by side long enough, the theory is, they will become accustomed to each other. I will let you know how that goes.
Our current layers were raised by an adoptive mother, set under a broody hen last spring rather than in a box under a heat lamp. A broody hen is one whose “mother” switch has flipped on, who sits and sits on infertile (in our case) eggs, in the mothering mode. The hen adopted baby chicks in trade for the eggs without a problem. (Watch a video to see how to do this – link below)
And all seemed magical, as she taught them to scratch and to roost, until one day she decided they weren’t her babies any more. Then she began to treat them as competition and pick on them. I guess the chicken “mothering” hormone shuts off kind of abruptly. She also turned out to be kind of unbalanced herself, and would randomly run across the yard and jump on another chicken’s head. I suspect that she taught these aggressive behaviors to the chicks. She herself was one of a flock of Wellsummers who were aggressive to each other, and tended to pick on her. The best way to break general chicken bitchiness is see it coming, and redirect them – give them compost piles to dig through, weedy gardens to scratch up, leaf piles to break down, dig up some dirt for them to work over instead of each other. Hens like to have something to do. But a hen who attacks has to be got rid of – or that cycle of domination and fear just keeps repeating. Animals and humans both tend to treat others the way they have been treated… So I will do everything I can to ease the creation of this new flock.
I talked to a farmer about chicken woes last spring, and she suggested hanging old CD discs (PS why not those bird seed balls used to feed wild birds?) to distract them from pecking each other. Some turkey farmers do this she said. In commercial poultry farming a common practice to solve the problem of chickens pecking, damaging and killing each other, is “de-beaking.” The breeder clips the beaks of very young chicks, blunting their ability to do damage to each other. But only chickens (animals) who are confined to too small a space, without any chicken-like things to do would engage in tissue-damaging levels of pecking. Given some space to spread out in, they would rather hunt bugs in the grass.
Our new five hens are now installed and seem to be getting comfortable in their part of the run. But yesterday as I watched them settling in, I realized that they are victims of debeaking. I called my friend at The Feed Store and told her that if I’d known I was supporting debeaking I wouldn’t have bought them. Since they are here, I will have a chance to learn how debeaked hens function – and let you know. But how they look is ugly. Hopefully they can still enjoy foraging. I count on my hens to find some of their own food. And entertainment!
Does the idea of supporting the mutilation of animals bother you? Then redo your life and budget to accommodate buying organically raised meats. And try raising your own eggs, from chickens in your own backyard.