Our unofficial survey of keepers of laying hens continues to return the same result: no one’s hens seem to be laying well. People consistently report that they have not seen fifty percent lay (half as many eggs as hens, daily) in, oh, a long time, yes, it might be two or three years. Not scientific data with a double blind, but anecdotal evidence at least, supporting our own experience that hens have been laying unsatisfactorily for quite a while. We suspect GMO’s and soy in the feed, as both have been indicated in low fertility in lab animals. In the interim we have tried a number of tactics to increase production, including: demolishing our old scrap wood-and-recycled tin shed and replacing it with a dry, clean (relatively), airy and light shed with adequate, not to say ample, space for all our birds; trying new breeds said to be better foragers; feeding more, feeding other, feeding oftener. We have carried them warm water on cold mornings and set a timer on their light so they had an extra three hours of sunlight in the winter. None of these tactics has significantly altered the basic outcome, that, while we get a reasonable number of eggs, approaching fifty percent lay, for a few weeks in the early summer, by mid-summer the rate of production has dropped off significantly, and by October it is almost non-existent.
Numbers are not official but a rough estimate says that there are rising sixty hens and about seven roosters sleeping in the hen house every night and showing up for scratch and layer mash at mealtimes. At 2 oz. of feed per animal per day — half a hen’s ration, with the other half available in the form of grass, clover, bugs, worms, and undigested grain from the pigs’ manure — or about fifty pounds of feed a week, that means we are spending something in the neighborhood of fifteen dollars a week on chicken feed, and all we have to show for it is a couple of dozen eggs. Free-range eggs at seven-fifty a dozen is too dear a bargain, no matter how good they are.
Consequently, we are on a campaign to overhaul our chicken department, and it’s about time. Who was it said, “The best revenge is revenge”? Fifteen assorted hens were decommissioned this morning. Our selection process was simple: as each hen exited the little chicken door this morning, we examined her for signs which should indicate whether or not she is laying. These you can look up for yourself, and if you look up more than one source you may even find contradictory advice, as we have in the past, such as that a hen which is laying will be scruffy and have a dry, scaly comb, or, conversely, hens which are presently making eggs are smooth-feathered, glossy, and have red, full, moist combs. We find this sort of research strangely unhelpful, and will tell you here that while we cannot from our own experience inform you whether either piece of information is true, we can say that we get a fairly high average of eggless birds if we cull for hens with vents small and puckered, not full and moist; pubic bones close together (less than two average fingers’ width); legs bright yellow rather than bleached — but of course this is not helpful with black-legged birds like the Australorps.
It was no trick at all to collect fifteen or so hens of the above description. We brought them up in the old wooden hen crate and dispatched them with a big cleaver, dunked them in a canner of one-hundred forty-five degree water with a drop of detergent in it, and tossed them in the picker the boys built two years ago, a wonderful machine, not fancy, but saves us about fifteen minutes a bird because they come out almost perfectly clean in about ten seconds and we can gut them and cut their feet off in another five or so
. We are determined to reduce the flock to a couple dozen of the youngest birds and three roosters. When this is done we will take a time when they are all out foraging and thoroughly clean the hen house, whitewash it inside, scatter half a bale of cedar shavings on the floor, and cover the windows for the winter with six-mil plastic sheeting. We will order expensive, GMO- and soy-free chicken feed, and barley for sprouting, and perhaps install a sound system in the hen house and pipe in classical music. Bach seems appropriate, somehow.