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Posts Tagged ‘butchering hens’

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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Tuesday, December 27:

   Dark and cold and no fresh grass and bugs means the hens have just about shut down for the winter.  Even more significantly, Brer Fox carried off most of the flock of Speckled Sussex we started last spring –for “good foragers” should we read “suicidally adventurous”? – and except for seven SS hens, our mature laying flock consists almost exclusively of three-year-old Rhode Island Reds, definitely birds past their prime.  For two weeks the little girls have delivered me a daily egg count of just four eggs.  It is time to cull the flock.

   There are a number of ways to cull a flock, that is, to reduce its numbers according to some criterion or other.  We have read several ways to determine the laying status of a hen, some of them contradictory; we usually do a quick examination of the bird’s vent, and if it is small, dry, and puckered, we decommission her.  Another way is to see if her pubic bones, which are not shaped like those of a beast but have long projecting points to them, will allow you to fit two fingers between them (my fingers – Shawn’s are too big).  Birds whose pelvic bones are close together are assumed to be moulting, or past laying altogether.

   The problem with these methods, and with any others we have ever tried, is that they are not fool-proof.  A hen you are ready to take your oath is out of lay will turn out to have tomorrow’s breakfast egg nestling in  her now-dead innards.  This is very discouraging to the chicken-herder, and if it happens two or three times one is tempted to turn out all the other condemned in the crate and give up culling.  Yet, when one is feeding a flock of fifty and realizing only half a dozen eggs a day, one may be excused for thingking someone is not pulling her weight.  In this case we tend to be less scientific and more sweeping.

   On St. Stephen’s day we went down to the chicken house determined to reduce our numbers no matter what.  We took fourteen, and found eggs in three.  One we turned loose on second examination. In the final analysis we had enough quart jars of chicken parts to fill two canners, and all the backs and necks to cook down for broth and bits, giving us nineteen assorted quarts of chicken, old layers, the best for stewing, and a big bucket of scrappy bits for the pigs.  When the rain stops we will do a dozen more.  Ladies who are only laying an egg-and-a-half-a-week, beware.

   The bill for hen feed should soon assume more reasonable proportions.

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