Ok, back to farming. This next series will be about animals. More specifically, our learning about, and developing relationships with them. Dani grew up with dogs, cats, and a horse. I had a dog once. Those are the animals we knew. So now that we have had sheep, rabbits, dogs, cats, laying hens, broiler chickens, pigs, and have a milk cow (Jersey) on the way-we have learned a lot and developed a very different relationship to animals than we had previously. And we will start with chickens.
Birds have always been kind of creepy to me. They are fluttery and unpredictable. They have pointy beaks and sharp toenails or talons or whatever they are technically called. They pee and poop out of the same hole. And those beady little eyes… But they are tasty. And they lay eggs. And they are tasty. We purchased our first bunch (flock) of laying hens from a lady on Kijiji which, along with Facebook, is the hotspot for small scale livestock nowadays. 5 buff orpington hens, one rooster to match, and an extra barnyard-mix hen (mostly danish leghorn, we think). They were 4 weeks old, so they were no longer chicks and had all their feathers but were a long way from laying any eggs. For most chickens, laying doesn’t begin until they are 17 to 24 weeks old (depending on the breed). Waiting for a bird to mature-feeding and fencing it, and keeping it safe for 4 months before it gives you that first golden orb of breakfasty nutrition-flies in the face of one of the chief tenants of our North American culture: immediacy (also known as convenience). Instant coffee, payday loans, microwaves, speed dating, fast food, buy-now-pay-later, airplane travel, high speed internet downloads; ours is a society built on instant gratification, on getting now what generations before would have had to wait for. And I’m as addicted to it and reliant on it as the next guy.
Conversely, there is a lot of waiting in farming. There is a lot of waiting in real life. Waiting for animals to mature, for crops to grow, for fruit trees to produce, for seasons to come and go, for your kids to grow out of diapers… When it comes to the natural world or human relationships you generally have to put in a lot of time and effort before you get any results. There is a very little (maybe nothing) that is immediate. But when ‘convenience’ is what one has become used to, waiting around for results can be excruciating (for example, we are presently making daily trips to the mailbox to see if my kids’ lego shipment has arrived).
But I digress…
Some basics of chicken raising. They need food. They need water. They need shelter. Sounds easy, right? Well, for the most part it is. We have a dilapidated old chicken coop on our farm that took fairly minimal work to put our spring chickens into. We picked up a feeder from UFA, and some layer ration, and a bag of oyster shell (calcium supplement to keep the shells nice and hard and the birds healthy), oh, and a chicken waterer, and figured we were in business. But, like our kids, we also wanted our birds to have plenty of room to roam, and unlike our kids, plenty of bugs and grass to eat. We liked the idea of totally free range, but because we had a family of black bears living in the bush beside our house, we needed a dog. And sometimes dogs eat chickens (coincidentally, so do bears). We discovered electric poultry netting thanks to Joel Salatin, and have made good use of it since. Electric poultry netting has slightly bigger spaces than wire-based chicken fence, but is portable and electrifies, which is really effective for keeping predators out. It is about 1m high (40inches) and deters most of our birds from flying over, unless they are stressed (say, by an aggressive rooster- side note: roosters mate up to 40 times per day. 40. 4×10. Per day. Enough said.) in which case they can and do fly over. This problem could be fixed by clipping their wings, which is something that we have not yet learned, and haven’t really needed to do, as we have only lost one chicken to this problem (and he was a redundant rooster named Joseph). Everybody learned really quickly to respect the yellow fence. The dogs, the cats, probably some wild passers-by. The sheep are the only ones that have given us trouble with breaching electric fence, but more on that when we talk about sheep.
The only real difficulty we have had when it comes to our layers is winter. Which is only really a problem about half of the year. Probably 7 months. Winter problems: keeping water from freezing, keeping chickens from freezing, giving the chickens enough day light. First the water. We haven’t really gotten our heads around a fix yet here, mostly because we are cheap. I’m sure that a heated waterer exists and we just might buy one this winter. Last winter we used one of those heated dog dishes. What a joke. Chickens can poop just about anywhere. Including their heated dog dish. We have seen some DIY solutions but haven’t settled on any yet. Thankfully, we both have work off the farm and aren’t reliant on farm income to splurge on things like heated chicken waterers.
Next, keeping chickens from freezing. Our coop is drafty. This is problematic because chickens seem to be quite susceptable to frostbite. Especially their combs, wattles, and feet. Moisture, breeze, and cold can give them a lot of trouble. We had all three problems in our coop last winter and had some unhappy birds for a little while. Then we moved them into the barn and their egg production tripled and the little bit of frostbite that a few had on the tips of their combs seemed to stop and even seemed to go away. We still had to battle humidity a little in the barn, but there were no drafts, and it was quite a bit warmer. Third, light. Chickens need about 12-14 hours of light to keep laying. So, if you want them to lay in northern Alberta in December, when we have a pitiful 7 hours of sunlight (0920-1620), you will have to use additional lighting. Not a problem in the barn, which has electricity, more of an issue in the coop, which has a really long extension cord running to it under the snow, which we try not to catch with the snowblower. This post is getting long, so suffice it to say, the barn is easier, and snowblower+extension cord=bad.
We will try some new things this year and see how they work and then do a Laying Hens 2.0 post in the spring. At that time, we will also let you know about the different breeds that we have that are maturing right now. We just had our first couple of americauna eggs (greeny-blue shell) which was very exciting.
Thus far, laying hens have been one of our easiest and most rewarding livestock ventures.