Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Herding Chickens

We've lost more chickens in these past two months then we have in any other contiguous 60 day period.  I guess we are lucky though, we almost got to three years before having to deal with our first large casualty loss. Fortunately, we know why, we know how and we are trying our best to reverse the course.

We've lost eight productive layers, two to a combination of age and sub-freezing temperatures (I know your asking, how they can be old and be productive egg layers? But, they were and that’s the cool thing about RIR.  They lay prolifically the first two years, as do most chickens, but then they start to decline as do most chickens, but not as fast.  So, instead of getting an egg a day, you get an egg every other day or every three days.  They just keep laying.)  

We were told that the kind of hawks we have need a nice glide path to get to their prey.  So with that in mind we try to place the pen with as many obstacles around the radius as possible. Within a week we lost six of the youngest because they got to be too free range.  We have landscaping such that we can provide between one-hundred and eighty and two-hundred and seventy degrees of tree cover for the hen houses and fencing. 

For three years that has worked.  This past winter though we got over six feet of snow, although it melted within three weeks the third flock got use to having no fence.  Now they just fly over the net and really roam free and it is a problem on two levels, safety and nutrient management.   Safety hit home Saturday morning.  We were heading out to plant and I saw a large clump of feathers.  By the time we got to the production garden we saw three more piles of feathers.  Before closing them up that night we took count and came up two short.   The next three days four more were picked off by a family of hawks.  They weren't getting the chickens in the pen, they were picking off hens that were roaming free.

We put up seven foot deer netting around the pen in an effort to keep them in.  We knew they could fly but clearing a seven foot fence, we thought was out of the question.  That worked for less than twenty-four hours.  Much to our amazement they flew up to the top of the netting balanced themselves, then flew away from the pen.  If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I just stood there slack jawed.  We were left with cutting their wings.  They are not debeaked and they looked like they enjoyed the little flights they took so the decision was not made lightly.  Then again when it comes to death the feathers can be sacrificed.  For the most part the hens tend to stick inside the pen.  There were at least nine so now we are down to three.  If we could keep the three in thew pen that would be great.

The other problem, but slight when compared, is keeping them concentrated in one area to maximize their soil nutrient potential.  We rely on them to provide the right amount of nutrients per square foot of space they occupy.  If they are roaming all over the place they are fertilizing all over the place.  When contained, they are on grass for a couple of days then moved to fresh grass.  Because the root system is not deep when the chickens get moved onto new grasses they eat the rye and hairy vetch and tear the ground apart scratching and digging.  We are left with fine loamy soil that is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potash.

There are those three that just refuse to stay and we’ve marked them as the “Three Stooges”.  Each time they get out we would clip there wings and put them back.  After about three days of this we decided on behavioral conditioning.  If they flew out they got put in the barn stall with food and water.  We kept them there for a couple days and then put them back with the flock.  Our hope was to get them to dislike the barn and want to stay outside.

First day back outside they lasted maybe an hour in the pen.  Even though we have a lot of RIR we’ve only clipped the wings of three birds, so they are kind of easy to tell apart from the others.  The first one came out, she got her wing clipped a little more and placed in the barn.  Then we found another out of the pen by the strawberries.  We did the same thing, clipped a little bit more of the feathers and placed her in the barn stall.  A bit later as I was working in the barn the third stooge showed up.  I kid you not; I heard the clucking, turned around to see the last one inside walking to the stall.  I opened the stall door and she just walked in and joined Mo and Larry.  So much for behavioral conditioning and trying to change them. 

So by losing eight birds our egg production has dropped an average of six eggs a day.  Every two days we lose a dozen eggs, which hurts.  However, to date it seems our effort in protecting the birds is paying off.  We have not lost any more hens but you never really know until you count them at night and close the door.  Of course we still have three that are potential hawk food but we are trying our darnedest to stop that from happening.

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