Friday, March 27, 2015

Poultry Slam

Since we are approaching the date when we will have hen chicks on the farm once again, we thought we'd do a Poultry "Slam" and answer some questions about the hens on our farm that people have asked us.  Some of these have been posed over time and others have come in via email.  We will focus on our laying flock in this one. So, without further ado...

Do you raise your own hen chicks at Genuine Faux Farm?
The most accurate answer to your questions is that we HAVE raised some chicks on our farm that were from our farm.  But, this has only occurred ONCE so far.  We bought a small incubator in 2012 when we were unable to sell any of our eggs for eating after the chemical spray incident on our farm.  We were successful in hatching a couple dozen birds.  More than half were roosters.  Hm.  Last we checked, roosters don't lay eggs, so that isn't helpful.
Hatching in our incubator.
We may try this again, but for the most part, we are content to purchase day old checks from Hoover Hatchery to replenish our flock.  All of our turkeys and broilers are purchased as chicks.  Maybe, someday, we'll do more with this.
A few of our chicks soon after hatching.
What are the most eggs you have collected in a day and what is your average number of eggs in a day?
The most eggs we have collected in a day (all laid that day) is 87.  But, it is quite rare to cross the 70 egg mark.  We use a pretty safe estimate of 4 dozen eggs a day as an average collection for the entire year.  Our birds tend to cycle through high and low egg laying periods.  The hens are especially sensitive to very cold and very warm weather.  When we have conditions like that, their egg production usually drops.  So far in 2015 (as of Mar 23) we have collected an average of 52.7 eggs per day.  But, we just went through a peak period with several 70+ egg days, so it is a bit higher now.
One of the egg boxes is to the left of the door.
Where do chickens lay their eggs?
 Believe it or not, it is true that hens prefer a slightly confined space to lay their eggs.  A nest box that is about 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot and enclosed on all but one side works well.  It is very rare that we will find an egg that is not in one of these spots.  Occasionally, birds will determine some other enclosed space (like behind a nest box) will work.  When that happens, the humans sometimes miss eggs for a period of time.

The hen room in the middle of a nice day
Do you have to herd the entire flock back into their room every night?
Thank goodness, we do not.  We do, however, need to go out every night once the sun sets and close the doors to their room.  If we fail to close the doors, predators can get in and kill chickens.  Of course, the birds go in at their own pace.  They do not care if you actually want to go inside a bit earlier on a given day, nor do they care if you want to go see a movie or meet someone elsewhere at the end of the day.  Only rarely do we try to herd them into their room before they are ready.  But, when we do, we have to stay patient and calm or they will make it more difficult.

We have found that the trick to getting them to go back to their 'room' is to put them into their quarters for the first time at the beginning of the night.  After they spend a night there, they will tend to come back to it as their 'home base.'  If you want to be more certain that they will imprint on that space, keep them locked in for the first day.  And, we have learned to "hide" their prior home form their line of sight (see below).

How do you introduce new hens to the flock?
Hen chicks getting their first taste of pasture.
We do not introduce the new, young hens to the flock until they are close to the point of laying eggs.  Since we get chicks in April, integration usually occurs in September (approximately).  So, as you can see, we have a different home that is surrounded by electric fence for the young birds.  We have learned that the young birds may try to go back to their old home if they can see it.  So we make sure the portable building is out of their line of sight once we move them.

We introduce the young hens at night (after dark) and we put them all in at once.  The older hens will try to establish dominance on the younger birds, but a larger number of young birds spreads out the picking that is bound to occur.  There is something to be said about safety in numbers.

If you have to move birds, how do you do it?
 This depends on how many we intend to move, how far they have to move and what the purpose is for the move.  For example, if we are transporting birds some distance (for example, taking young birds to another farm), we put them in cages such as the one shown below.

Ok, there are ducks in there, but you get the point.
If we are moving young birds into the main room with the laying flock, we will carry them from one place to the other.  It's just as efficient as any other method given the layout of our farm and the number of birds.  Before you get any ideas, we don't carry them one at a time and we don't take time to scratch each one behind the ears...

We move them at night, typically, when they are asleep.  It is far easier to catch and move them at this point.  We grab them by their feet and carry them upside down.  They squawk just a little bit and calm down not long after.  If they are not upside down, they tend to struggle longer and the whole event is actually more traumatic for all involved.  As long as they are all facing the same way, Tammy and I can carry three per hand this way (though one of us has to be able to open or hold open a door).  If they are all facing the same way, it is easy to lay them back down on their belly/breast, which makes it easy for them to orient and figure out their surroundings.

We've seen pictures of your chicks with a metal wall. Where is that?

Oh, like this picture?
When we first receive chicks, we need to find a safe, enclosed space for them to live.  This space has to maintain an appropriate temperature and it needs to be able to keep critters out, such as rats, cats and ummm... well, not bats, but it rhymes.  We also need to keep the baby birds from jumping out of their safe space.  After a period of time, they are capable of jumping out, but they don't have the body weight or feathers to maintain the body temperature and they will die if we don't notice it in time.  This picture shows the bird in a stock tank we use to start our chicks.  We put old screen windows on the top and we have polycarbonate plastic to put over that if the weather is cooler.   The nice thing about the stock tanks is that we can put them wherever we need to that has access to electricity for the heat lamp.

Are your birds always on pasture?

Hens in the front, turkeys in the back
You certainly know how to ask a question that isn't as easy as it sounds, don't you?
The birds are always inside at night to protect them from raccoons, owls, foxes, coyote and other predators.  They are outside during the day most of the time UNLESS it is Winter.  Our hens do not like to walk on snow and simply will not go out - even if the food is only ten feet away from the door.  Ok, some of them will fly to the feeder.  But, we've had birds land in the snow and just sit there until we went and got them.

Also, we want our birds to have some of their adult feathers in before we start letting them outside.  Of course, on nice days they would do fine, but there are other issues with keeping them safe.  And, it is not like we have the time to stand around and baby sit them all day.

One of the downsides can be seen in the picture above.  During a drought period, the pasture can look pretty rough. We do various things to try to move them around.  But, with our small farm, there are some limits.  We do our best to give them quality pasture, keep the pasture healthy and maintain security for the flock.
Tarp can provide good wind protection
 Sometimes, we will split the flock - taking some of the older birds out to their own pasture.  We use a portable building with electric fencing surrounding their pasture area.  This allows us to move them to different areas of ground and relieve some of the stress on the main pasture areas.  In fact, we can put them on areas that are in our vegetable plots that are not scheduled for veg until the next season.  That way, we get manure spread without having to shovel.  We like that.
What the pasture looks like late in the year.
While the picture above shows the turkey pasture after they've been taken to the park, you can see that the plants are pretty short.  The birds do like to forage and the hens like to scratch.

What do you feed the birds?
Feed us!  Tuppence a bag!
We do have a grain based feed that is put together by a local feed producer that comprises the bulk of what our birds eat.  However, people notice that our eggs have more yellow and more substance than most grocery store eggs.  This is a direct reflection of the health of the birds.  They are healthy because they are active and they have a diverse diet that includes insects in the Spring/Summer and Fall as well as clover and other plants they find in their pastures.  We also provide them with vegetables that are not suitable for sale/CSA and scraps from our kitchen.  They LOVE bread that Tammy and I have decided has gone stale.

People who visit will notice that the birds will come to the edge of the pasture when humans approach.  It's not so much that they think you are all great (of course you are), it's more the fact that an approaching human on the farm often means treats of some kind that fly over the fence for their approval (and consumption).

Thanks for asking - do you have more questions?  
We would love to do more postings on our blog of this sort.  Do you have additional questions about our hen flock?  If so, please comment here or send us an email!  We'll "make you famous" and put your question on our blog with the best answer we can come up with (without making it up!).

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