Archive for the ‘chickens’ Category

Our average temperature over the last few weeks has been about ten degrees – that’s Fahrenheit, for our friends in Canada – and the impact of such low temperatures reaches into every aspect of our days and nights.  Life becomes a response to the weather, maybe like being on a tall ship in a big storm, where there is some overall plan but also constant adjustment to event.  This morning at five the thermometer said it was 31 degrees, and we are relaxing into the lull.  The chickens, after dropping way down for the cold spell, are picking up again – today thirty-four hens gave us seven eggs, about twenty percent lay.



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Poultry serve multiple purposes on our farm, moving over pastures and gardens in (at the moment) four different flocks of from ten to thirty layers and a couple of roosters.  Some of the birds clean up after the grazing animals, but about half of them are pastured in garden areas where we want to apply some high-nitrogen fertilizer, clean up insect pests, scrap out weed seedlings, or flatten a grown-in-place mulch.  In the fall, though, when laying slows down, we cull non-layers so we don’t carry so many birds through the winter.  This isn’t done on the basis of age, at least not solely — some twenty of our birds are in their fifth year and still productive — but according to a physical examination that considers the space between their pelvic bones, the space between the pelvic bones and the keel bone, the color of their feet and legs, and the condition of their vent.

Two fingers or more space between the pelvic bones, four between pelvis and keel, bleached legs (not yellow), and a moist, open vent are what we are looking for, and three out of four of these will usually win that hen a reprieve from the hatchet.  Last week we went over all the birds; seventeen didn’t make the cut.  A very busy morning for three of us, and (for one) an afternoon with a couple of canners.  Only two birds had eggs in them, which we would consider a good score; the older birds we kept seem to be laying at about sixty percent, not bad for November.  We’ve had a lower rate of lay, but much better luck with longevity in our layers since we switched from commercial laying mash to fermented whole grains with no GM or soy; and our mix of whole grains, supplemented three or four times a week with milk or meat scraps, is much cheaper per pound than commercial feed.

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The new chicken tractor is as easy to move as a wheelbarrow, making it a good choice for use by our oldest grandchildren.  It holds five birds comfortably (27 square feet of space) and creates good impact on the pasture we are presently renewing.  In the winter it will be a great tractor for use in the garden, where we put chickens over the dormant raised beds to clean up weeds.  In the fall, they will be followed by a sowing of winter-hardy greens, or else a green manure of rye; when the weather turns really cold, bare soil will be covered by a good mulch of hay or shredded leaves.

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what are the odds

(our answer to another person concerned about GMO’s in the food supply)

    Good thoughts.  I think BIG-ness is a characteristic of many of our problem systems today.  Leaving aside the three-thousand words with which I might be tempted to defend (or obfuscate) this statement, I draw your attention to studies in Austria and Russia, among other places, indicating that genetically modified grains were associated with infertility in lab rodents, and not just a little infertility, either, but extremes of non-reproductivity.  Maybe one would overlook this in feeding a pig for slaughter — if one assumed that the fertility issues would not apply to the consumers of the pork — but in animals intended for breeding (dairy cows, etc) it is a serious issue.

    As for scientific studies, the day is long past when I could look at the “results” of a study and consider it information on which I could base an opinion, let alone a decision in favor of one or another courses of action.  Our society generates studies the way a road-kill coon generates maggots in July.  For every definitive study to demonstrate X, there is at least one to demonstrate, definitively, negative-X.  Moreover, studies are expensive things, even when the methods are bogus (after all, the researchers’ salaries must be paid, mustn’t they?), and they aren’t usually funded by unbiased philanthropists.  I may be cynical, but I make the assumption that behind every study is an investor with something to gain by the outcome.  The citrus growers want us to believe that a day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine, and Kelloggs wants us to think eggs for breakfast will give us heart disease.  To heck with studies, say I.  Your premise that people ate local foods for the first few thousand years of man’s tenure on the planet, and imported and/or processed foods (I exclude natural processes like fermentation and dessication) only recently, and that (I infer) people who believe in a provident God may be justified in assuming that what He makes most available (not what Kroger makes most available) is probably good to eat, I agree with.

   In the area of GMO’s and infertility, ask around and then get back to me:  can you find anyone whose chickens are laying well?  if so, ask them 1) how old the hens are, and 2) what they are feeding them.  In a couple of years of asking around, I have not found one person whose flock has laid well in the second year, and almost no one who is satisfied with even the first lay.  Mine have been increasingly unsatisfactory for three or four years, despite many efforts to improve all areas of their care:  new, light and airy hen house, covered in winter for warmth, lights in the winter, sprouted barley in the winter, more food, new breeds, etc.  They lay poorly or not at all.  Last September when I butchered forty laying hens one and two years old, there were NO eggs in any of them, and partially formed eggs in only two or three.  If you’ve ever butchered layers,  you know that fifty percent of them should have had eggs in them.  What is this but a fertility issue?

   My advice would be to avoid GMO’s.  I’m ordering chicks this spring from a hatchery that feeds no GMO’s, and growing my own feed this summer, supplementing with sunflower seeds, sorghum, and other things Monsanto has not extended its long arm to grab.

    God bless —


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Thursday, January 2:

Our informal survey of laying-flock owners, carried out over the past year, to date presents results of unqualified unanimity:  not one of the farmers we’ve spoken to has seen an even remotely reasonable second lay.  That means that their young hens, after a first few months of laying and a moult, do not go on to a second year of egg-laying.  In other words, they become sterile.

When the girls and I butchered forty one- and two-year-old hens in September, not one of them had a fully formed egg in her, and only two had partially formed eggs.  Until the past couple of years, we would have seen eggs in at least fifty percent of them.

Go look up the article in the Huffington Post on GMO’s and infertility, and then check the ingredients list on your poultry feed.

And if you want to know why, then, the egg-factory farmers aren’t complaining, perhaps it’s because in their operations, a hen never gets a chance at a second lay — she’s shipped to the soup cannery.

Time for new chicks and home-grown feeds.

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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.

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Saturday, September 7:


   I hate ‘em.

   Okay, sometimes I hate them.  Like when they keep getting and keep getting into the garden.  Danged birds.  The half-grown Australorps – good foragers?  good marauders! – can slip through the smallest gap in the fence, and will search assiduously to find it.  They can slip through three gaps, where we have layered woven wire over broken spots, and find each break in succession, like overcurious Greek youth tiptoeing through the Labyrinth.  If only I had a Minotaur to frighten the feathers off the – blessed – birds when they did get through.

    Sunday I sat down on the dry, packed garden path – no real rain in weeks – and just howled.  Sobbed.  And threw rocks.  Because on Saturday I built three of the most beautiful, symmetrical, richly-composted, smoothly-raked, painstakingly-seeded beds of carrots, a total of nine hundred row feet of Nantes-type, and, not being unaware of the diabolical cunning of those Australorps, carefully laid short lengths of chicken wire over each bed to foil any invaders.  And on Sunday, yards and yards of those beds had been scratched out from underneath the wire and strewn hither and yon.

   No.  We did not kill all the chicken.

   My loving husband came down and patched the fence for two hours.  And when the chickens continued to get in – curse the cunning of those black chickens! – he bought me three hundred feet of woven horse fence (bust the budget – price it), and over the rest of the week the boys pulled down the old wire and put up the new, resetting loose posts, replacing broken rails, and covering all the gates.

   And the small people are threatened with dismemberment if they so much as think about entering the garden without leave.

   Next year Shawn wants me to think about Leghorns.

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