Our small flock of laying hens are the lynchpin of the farm. The way we use our birds is heavily influenced by Justin Rhodes of Abundant Permaculture. We got hens to provide us with delicious, nutrient-dense eggs that aren't full of latent hormones and pharmaceuticals, and haven't been bathed in chlorine like those from factory farms. They're so much more than just egg producers though. They tie together many different elements, close loops of fertility, and perform at least five key roles for us.
Our flock is progressing towards a barnyard mix, as our original flock are succeeded by new hens hatched on-farm. We're not so much into special breeds, but more into birds that will thrive and produce well on pasture, and most importantly stay inside their fence!! We started with a variety of good egg laying breeds, and are selecting for docile, good laying, good mothering hens, and gentle, long-lived roosters.
Raised on Pasture
We've got a family of foxes, a valley full of coyotes, some highly efficient barn cats, and a yard full of delicious vegetables, so true free-ranging is not practical for us. Our hens live on pasture from early spring to late fall, protected a moveable electric poultry fence, and roosting in a mobile "chickshaw" coop that doubles as a shade structure, and a hiding place from aerial predators like eagles and hawks.
Our chickens are "rotationally grazed" - meaning we're moving them to new pasture before they wear out the old one. The coop is moved every morning, to give them a clean patch of ground, and to spread their ample night manure around the pasture. Their fences are moved to a fresh piece of pasture every 7-10 days, depending on how quickly they finish their current patch. This keeps them off of their own manure, and the pests/pathogens that can be present. Plus, we harness the power of their natural instincts for a number of different functions:
2. Pasture Recovery
Nobody has farmed this land for the past 25 years. The pasture has lots of woody and weedy species dominating it. There's also a TON of wild grapevines everywhere. The chickens don't care. They eat grass, leaves, and seeds, their scratching breaks down previous years' duff and woody material, and they knock down tall weeds, and strip the leaves and bark from wild grape. They also uncover trees, asparagus plants, and raspberry canes we never knew were there.
It takes grass about 3 days to resume growth, so on the third day after we've moved the birds, we follow with the scythe and take down whatever weeds and woody plants the chickens didn't. We then seed the scratched bare patches with pasture seed - clover, vetch, alfalfa, grasses - that chickens and herbivores will like. This way, each time the chickens pass through, there will be a little more of what they like, and less of what they don't.
Chickenshit and feathers are great fertilizer. A little hot for the garden when fresh, but perfect for a pasture with lots of carbon-heavy duff on the ground. We put the chickens in the place, they do the rest.
4. Pasture Sterilization
Chickens are omnivores. We cringe every time we see eggs advertised as having been "fed a vegetarian diet". That's a one-way trip to a malnourished bird, and Tasteless Egg City USA. Our birds spend their days searching for bugs. They'll hollow out an ant hill in a day, then spend the rest of the week having dust baths in the crater. Grasshopper season is a bonanza. They reduce our tick population wherever they go. If (when) we have cattle rotationally grazing the land, the chickens will follow four days behind them to eat the fly larvae from the manure.
Once their laying days are over, they're destined for the stew pot or the stock pot. Their blood and feathers will fertilize the gardens, and their guts will go for pig feed. No such thing as waste.
We feed primarily an organic, GMO-free layer feed, which we soak and ferment for three days to reduce waste (dust), and increase the available nutrients. Unfortunately, the price of organic feed has become so expensive that we do feed some conventional feed. Fermented feed has been shown to increase the lay rate of hens on pasture. It also reduces the amount of drinking water needed.
Their feed ration is supplemented with garden waste, and food scraps. They're partial to nubs of corn, cheese rinds, trimmings from home-made pasta, and animal fat.
Of course, they get all the forage they can find - and sometimes they'll hop the fence to gobble up our pasture seed. During the season, we'll put them in the orchard to clean up the windfall and rotting fruit, and eat the bugs before the overwinter. We'll run them through the gardens to clean up in the fall, and same with the asparagus patch.
Their feed is supplemented with kelp meal as a full-spectrum vitamin, and ground oyster shell for calcium
As our neighbours well know, we keep roosters. They too work for their ration. Their role, aside from maintaining a natural social/pecking order in the flock, includes predator protection, and fertilizing eggs. Without them, our flock wouldn't be self-sustaining.
We're working towards growing our flock the old-fashioned way - by letting mama hen hatch a clutch of eggs ,and raise her chicks as only she knows how. We may swap some hatching eggs with other farmers to get some genetic diversity and bring desirable breed characteristics into our flock - good foragers, high lay rate, winter hardy. Many genetic lines of laying hens have had their mothering instincts bred out of them in the name of higher egg production, so it's taking some time to find the good mothers in our flock. In the meantime we may have to build our flock by buying in birds.
Chicks hatched on farm are brooded with mama hen on deep litter. Mama hen does all the work - keeping them warm, teaching them to eat, drink, dust-bathe, and forage. When they outgrow the brooder box, they get moved outside into a chicken tractor until they're big enough that they can't easily slip through the electric fence. Then we'll integrate them with our current flock. Most of the boys are headed for the freezer. The girls, we wish a long and productive life.
Eventually we intend to overwinter our flock in a greenhouse on deep wood chip mulch.
In the meantime, we converted the old milking shed into a chicken coop, and have an outdoor run to use by day. They're on deep bedding in the coop - at least 30 cm of wood chips - for them to dig through and fertilize. We turn the bedding weekly, to keep them off of their manure.
By the time mid-March comes around, the ground should be thawed and we can get the girls back on pasture, to make room to brood our first batch of meat birds.