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Posts Tagged ‘culling hens’

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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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, September 25:

The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold.  The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.

Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden.  Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence:  whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit.  The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small.  The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat.  They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.

The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers.  Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately.  The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning.  The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.

They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining.  We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped.  Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay.  These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they?  The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen.  If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers.  If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay.  So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.

We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.

There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately.  And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs.  And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.

We killed a snake by the pond today.  S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it.  I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead.  It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.

Moral:  if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.

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