Chicken Lessons

In May of 2014, Leafhopper Farm acquired pullet hens from a local feed store. The tradition of chick raising happens each spring, and the excitement of baby birds in metal stock tanks stumbling around under heat lamps is irresistible to watch. Sometimes impulse buys can happen, but on the day I fell under the spell of yellow, brown, and black puff balls, it was a planned purchase. 12 babes returned to the farm with me in a box, placed lovingly into a larger pen of broken down boxes, where more heat lamp induced relaxation supported the growth of these tiny birds. IMG_0612 Raising chickens is not rocket science, but the finesse around how to maintain healthy, productive animals in all livestock categories is a never-ending journey of learning. I’d taken care of lager chicken systems in the past, mainly 400-600 bird flocks in large barn facilities. The birds in these houses were stressed, often bullied, and missing feathers. It was obvious that the birds were not happy or thriving, just surviving. I wanted my chicken system to be better, more holistic, and well planned. From the start these Leafopper Farm hens were destine to be egg layers, my first flock, and they were going to be healthy, free range chickens. Very quickly the chicks grew large enough to spend time on sunny days outside where they learned to glean and react to the natural world, their home. The chicks were on grassy earth as soon as they began jump testing their wings. Their daytime enclosure was covered with a tarp to keep out ravens, too much sun, and cold rain. The little pen was easy to move around, giving fresh pasture to the young birds every day. I’d always be home when they were outside. I also spent a lot of time talking to them, getting the hens uses to my voice and commands. They quickly taught me their language of food calls, predator alerts, and simple social communication with pecks and pushes. I recommend spending time observing chicks and noting their behaviors so you become familiar with the range of a bird’s habits. You’ll be able to better steward the animals and recognize if a hen is stressed. IMG_0696 By late spring, the hens were free ranging around the farm and living in an old chicken house on the property. The coop is secure enough, though a raccoon or opossum could tear it open if they wanted, thankfully, that has not happened yet. I’ve seen rats around, and set traps, which minimize the rodents, but grain and other feed is sealed in metal bins. Mice are present, but minimal, and the birds roost happily in their dry home. My housemate brought home a free rooster in July. The mature male established dominance in an aggressive way and so we named him Sid Vicious or “Sidney” for short. It took only about a week for him to be top bird and realize he was all alone with his harem of ladies which suited him just fine. The hens began to understand that he plays a protector role and also alerts the others to areas of good brows when they move through the landscape together. I appreciate his guardianship, not to mention his fancy looks. I’m hopeful that he’ll encourage broody hens to produce a flock of youngsters at some point. IMG_1704 For the past nine months as the farm grows, the chickens have been free range. It was not really a problem as main garden spaces are fenced, but this spring, with seeding and planting happening outside the gardens, the birds were becoming a challenge. I seeded two swales after fencing them in to protect against foraging birds and goats. Those seeds have sprouted and I realized to continue seeding, I would have to get more fencing, or fence in the birds. Well, the birds lost in this argument, there is too much space under construction and seeding to let the birds wander freely now. I cover cropped one area on steeper slope, thinking the birds would avoid the unstable angle of ground, but the seeds were too much temptation and the ladies gleaned my whole crop. Now the hens and rooster are penned in an area around their coop. I’ll keep rotating them around the property until we get a chicken tractor or two designed and built. These containment facilities can be larger, as I will use the goats to move them around. The portable fence will continue even though they have to be move frequently. 100 yards of electric poultry fencing caters to this flock for about a week if I stress the land a little bit, but the recovery time of gleaned landscape is high, and the poop makes a noticeable difference in fertility of the grass in the areas they forage.

Here i would like to mention how important your flock’s diet is for them, you, and most importantly, the land! I was going to spend hours amending my soil with kelp meal and other amazing minerals, then I realized the birds could do it for me, and much more efficiently, by eating the minerals first. (this is not a new realization) However, the thoughts around skimping on organics because it’s just chicken food is the overlook that is a small symptom of a much bigger problem. Most of our soil is seriously lacking in the fundamental minerals and microbial action that healthy plants need to be nutritious and healthy. By amping up my animal feeds with hight packed nutrients, my soil will get a great dosing too. Everyone wins! Thanks chicks for being such great soil amenders too!

I am not very happy about penning the girls in. It’s very important to let the seeds germinate without disruption, and have space to plant young starts without the fear of hens waylaying them in the nursery areas. However, the hens have become more vulnerable in my opinion. They are now concentrated in one area without the ability to flee. Sure enough, the other day one of the hens had gone missing and I still don’t know what happened to her. Soon the chicken tractors will be built and more fluid movement of the hens around the property can start again. Still, I wonder about keeping them in, and continue to weigh the options. With warmer weather, the girl’s laying is picking up. I entered the coop this morning to find 7 eggs and one broken one in a nest box area that had over crowded. Now that the hens are pinned into an enclosure, they are all forced to the same nesting box area. That is good for the sake of egg collecting, but bad because it’s too small a space. When a hen breaks another egg in the nest, the box is overcrowded, which will lead to more broken eggs. Keeping ahead of laying by expanding the next box numbers is crucial. It’s spring again and I am now looking into the investment of a meat flock. This would be ambitious, considering my current hens are still adapting to the design of the landscape. The chicken system model of Pollyface Farm strikes me, but the terrain here is not completely flat, and honestly, I would like my hens to have more room in their habitat design. Another model I’ve been exploring would involve a permanent henhouse and coop turnouts on a set rotation around the central living space. This design is great for ease of movement, but staged on the same piece of ground. The ideal here at Leafhopper Farm involves lots of rotation to keep the land healthy. When the hens were free, they rotated as needed and responded to the landscape and habitat instinctually. Their stewardship focus was much better honed then my own as they could detect and scratch out invisible bug predators in the soil that my eyes could not see. They would also target areas I’d recently disturbed, including mulch areas around fruit trees which was good and bad. Most of my mulch piles are now spread across the yard, but the parasite count in the orchard is way down. What is the perfect balance? I think time will tell, as always. There is no perfect model, and I am not reinventing the wheel by any means. I can see that the seeds are germinating safely, but the birds are frustrated and pacing the fence line. IMG_2399 fenced hens and a soon to be seeded swale on lower right

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