Monday, November 17, 2014

Here Chick, Chick

chickens are considered the "gateway" to livestock ownership
I'm here to tell you
it's true!

I distinctly remember getting locked in the henhouse as a small child and the only way out was the tiny “chicken door”.  I didn’t think twice about slithering out that little opening and ending up face first in the chicken pen.  I was pretty proud of my creative thinking and didn’t mind that I was indeed covered in chicken poo.

hanging out in the henhouse

While I wasn’t keen on our children repeating that particular performance, we did want them to have the fun and learning experiences that a flock of chickens can offer. So, when the girls were quite little, we (the Boss) built a new henhouse and got some pullets. The girls were in charge of our small flock and watched over them as they grew.   A game called “chicken restaurant” was invented where the hens were trained to come and take offerings from small outstretched hands.  This could entertain for hours.  Apparently, the hens were appreciative of this treatment and provided us with more eggs than we could use.  We would sell the extras to folks in our homeschool group or at church.

Unfortunately, those hens stayed put when we made our move to the Valley.  We left them with the new owner who was fully prepared to have his own little homestead and he envisioned himself with mountains of eggs. I think he was a little disappointed to find out that each hen would only lay one egg each day. He hadn't read this.

Shortly after our arrival, we got some black Australorps from a neighbor. And “Rhoda”.
"Rhoda"- the Rhode Island Red barn chicken
I know there’s a story behind “Rhoda”. But, alas, it has been forgotten over time. As I recall, she had at least one other poultry friend, but, again…ancient history has been forgotten.  I do remember the Australorps (and Rhoda) were quite possibly the worst egg layers in history.  I don’t think some of them EVER laid an egg.  And, while they did add to the ambience of the barn, and we weren’t raising eggs for sale (yet) the lack of eggs was frustrating and costly. They made me wish we hadn’t left our old flock with the new owner of our old home!

But things were about to change.

One of the ventures we decided to pursue was to sub-contract eggs for a neighbor who had sales accounts with white-tablecloth restaurants on the other side of the mountain.  Demand was beginning to outweigh his supply and he was looking to expand.  It seemed like it would work out well for all involved. He’d be able to meet demand, and we’d have some steady income. The hens would be  the "centerpiece" our our very diverse operation.

300 day old chicks are in those boxes

Soon, 300 day-old Rhode Island Reds arrived at the Post Office.  (a big jump from the dozen we had in the past!) They were tucked into the newly finished hoophouse, which had been built specifically for winter hen housing, and we were on our way.
chicks at 3 or 4 days

By early spring, the pullets were big enough to go outside into their pasture pens where they would be moved daily to new grass. 
taking chicks to pasture

pullets in a field pen

A number of things escaped our notice when we first considered this venture. 

field pens on "chicken hill"
The first being our hilly, hilly terrain.  Moving field pens could be a nightmare.  The pens were heavy and unwieldy, the land unforgiving with its hills and hummocks. (eventually, the Boss added retractable wheels, making the job somewhat easier)

In order to keep the birds safe, the pens needed to sit flat on the ground.  This was next to impossible. Any sort of gaps exposed the entire pen to predation.

…and predation can be problem. A BIG problem.  (More on that in another post)

barrels for chicken feed had to be hauled and filled
and then hauled back to the hill

We also didn’t allow for the fact that the projected earnings were just that…projected.

Or all the time and effort that was going into procuring chicken feed and transporting eggs that could have been directed elsewhere on the farm.

Our egg sub-contracting days came to an end when we realized that the rate of return wasn’t anywhere near what we had figured when we first started the project.  As a sub-contractor, we were bound to follow the model, use a specific feed ration and sell at a set price…that was understood, but it ultimately didn’t seem the best use of our small space and it was time to branch out in new directions.

hens over-wintering in the hoophouse
While we couldn’t imagine the farm without chickens, they just weren’t going to be THE focus of the farm. When it was time to replace the flock, we chose to down-size instead, thus starting the evolution of henhouses, more chickens and even more lessons to learn.

To learn a little more about our chickens, read this.

Lessons Learned:
Some breeds of chickens lay better than others. When you are in the egg business, it is important to have a consistent, quality supply. At present, the one that works for us is a brown egg layer/sex-linked breed. (A sex-link breed means different colors for each sex, in our case the hens are red and roosters white)

Personal experience is…well, personal.  What works for one may not work for another.

There is a big difference between a “backyard flock” and a commercial enterprise. (even a small commercial enterprise) This is not a bad thing.

Eggs are an amazing source of nutrition, especially protein…and a very “hot commodity” at the Farmers’ Market.

Follow along with the other Ag bloggers during the 30 day challenge. Here is the link.

1 comment:

  1. The farmer has just read this over my shoulder and agrees with every word. He says Hybrid, first cross birds are always the best layers. I only keep a few but usually buy half a dozen hybrids and a couple of fancy ones - marans or something like that, just because I like the look of them. They roam in the fields all day and come into the hen house at night and we shut them in at dusk. We feed them on corn, poultry wheat and scraps from the kitchen. We give the eggs to friends and neighbours. But I love my hens and don't have to consider them as a commercial enterprise as you do. Interesting reading Barbara.