We do a lot of research in order to learn what we are doing be it right or wrong. Farming is one of the few professions that I know of that is backed by University researchers, extension services and educational knowledge resources. We do contact and communicate with subject matter experts from around the world and are currently doing some field research with a local University.
One of the things that I like about what we do is that there are many variables in determining how to handle a situation or problem. My thought is to keep an open mind and run through them as best I can. I always have in the back of my mind "what if"?
I look to the future 200, 300 or more years from now; people will still be writing books, songs, movies, plays and doing farm research. My next question is what will they be studying? What will they be writing or singing about? How will layers and broilers evolve? What will organic standards be and materials used? So I read and try to become as knowledgeable as possible on the topic at hand, but I don't constrain myself to what I've learned.
I don't mean to imply I re-invent the wheel every time we have a problem or a situation arises but I always question if there is a different way to the same outcome. The hens would be my best example of what I mean. Who's to say that we can not communicate with the birds and in turn they communicate to us?
You can find the minimum square footage of space for the bird (inside and out) roosting and nesting space, feed and water space and optimal temperatures. You can find out about bird behavior and characteristics. All that goes out the window with us, mainly because we exceed all maximums when it comes to housing, feeding, watering and foraging. We touch our hens often, picking them up, moving them, inspecting them or just stroke their backs. Some run, most once they know you are after them just kind of squat, push their wings out some and wait to be picked up.
Behavior is another thing, we know there is a pecking order and we try to discourage pecking. We don't de-beak so it takes extra attention to make sure all are calm. If there is no compition for resources they usually don't have a reason to enforce the pecking order. Happy is a human emotion that at the begining we never associated with our hens. We just thought there was healthy and unhealthy. But we have learned that the hens are indeed happy. We talk to our chickens and they respond.
Just by walking towards the pen the flock comes to us and it is one of the funniest things I've seen. All of a sudden one bird will see us and come running, wings flapping dust flying, and then another and another until you got the flock running flopping wings and all. Some get about two feet off the ground others kind of skip and fly. It always brings a grin to whomever is watching. It is not just us either; I've noticed customers walking over to one of the flocks to watch. They can be at the other end of the pen but when they see someone they dash to inspect the voyeur. The Pavlovian crowd will say it is a learned response because of us bringing food and water. Maybe, but we go there more often empty handed getting eggs than we do with food and water.
We replenish stores every other day, however there is enough water and food for four days (in case of emergency like we get caught at work). Can the hens associate food with us even though they have a constant supply? I don't know the answer, all I know is we can call them and they come. We talk to them and they calm down, even during the most stressed of times. When we had the dog attack we had two badly wounded hens and we had to clean and dress the wounds, frequently. There was some agitation as would be expected but we kept shushing them and they would calm down. I could feel it as their body relaxed and hear it when the squaking stopped.
Then there are the times that a hen will go to far and loose her way back to the hen house. At dusk it is in their instinct to get to the highest point and roost there, much like wild turkeys. When the hen count doesn't add up we'll start to walk the grounds and talk. Inevitably the hen will respond back with a low gurgling clucking. We'll keep talking until we find what tree and what branch she occupies. We'll then just pluck her off the branch, she'll squawk but when we say shish, in that soothing tone and cadance, she calms down and goes along for the ride. Once back at the house we place her inside and close the door. Of all the research that I've done I haven't come across all the behavior we observe with our flocks.
But, we talk to our hens from day one. You spend a lot of time with them at the beginning making sure their food and water supply is clean and they are warm. I keep from anthropomorphizing but by observation I know they have decision making capacity and can tell the difference in voice, tone and timber. Broody decided to stay with flock one, cognitively or not she made a choice to stay instead of going back to the barn and being alone or going to her own flock which was stressful. She apparently was less stressed with a new flock than she was with her own and went there.
As I've written before we are a humane farm and that philosophy transfers to the animals themselves. Fights are not allowed and are mostly stopped by me yelling. The tone, timber and reflection in the voice are enough to break their attention which in turn settles them down (see: My Neighbors Must Think ...). Most of the time that works, then there are times that I need to just get in between them. I've actually taken to placing the most aggressive, of the birds outside of the pen and let them forage. This in turn has helped a lot on flock behavior.
For the most part there is harmony among the flocks and they are healthy, energetic specimens. But, the time is coming for the first six. They will stop laying and we will have to process them in order to cut costs in an attempt to be profitable. Yes, profit, we are making a decision based on the profit motive. But, it is not at the expense or safety of our customer’s health.
As has been written on these pages before this is a very personal, agonizing decision for us. We keep putting the decision off because the birds keep laying two to three eggs a day. There will be decisions made that monetarily and emotionally will be hard but not now, that is still in the future.
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