Happy spring, I think! (Despite last week's 8 inches of snow, we're going to at least pretend it's spring now!) Since one of the first things we do on the farm in spring is move our chickens onto the pasture from their winter hangout in the yard, we thought we’d celebrate the start of April with a story and photo journey through a day in the life of the Hartwood Farm hens…
Sometime between 2:30am and 5:30am: The chickens wake up.
Chickens wake up really early. Like way earlier than we want to get up early. Chicken brains are super light sensitive, which is both cool and creepy—they're so sensitive to light they absorb it through their skull even with their eyes closed! Chickens need 14 hours of daily light to lay eggs, so in wintertime we enhance the length of the day with artificial lights run off of solar panels. Since we want our hens to go to bed naturally as it gets dark, this means that in the middle of winter, the lights go on as early as 2:30am (!) to get those 14 hours of daylight. By the end of April we start getting long enough days that we can cut off the supplemental lighting.
Because the chickens wake up so early and are extra hungry in the morning (especially if it’s cold), we prepare their breakfast as part of evening chores. We also finally tricked out their house this year with an automatic chicken door opener which opens the door for the ladies at sunrise so we don’t have to wake up at 5am (an excellent investment to have better rested farmers!).
Morning Egg Laying Session:
When they wake up, the hens start their day by alternately eating breakfast and laying eggs. Our hens tend to be pretty productive layers and average 5 or 6 eggs a week per bird. The hens like to lay in a dark, private space (I always feel like I’m barging into their private bathroom space if I disturb the late layers when I collect eggs). We have one laying box padded with clean shavings for every four birds, but for some reason all the hens want to lay in the “cool chick” boxes, which means that some boxes have zero eggs and others get 20!
Most hens lay their eggs by 8am, but we usually check and get some stragglers at noon. Our chickens are excessively friendly when we are doing chores and eggs, which forces us to do some chicken-avoiding agility drills while we are balancing baskets of eggs.
Most days the chickens just go right out in the morning, but once a week is moving day. We currently have two mobile houses that we drag around the farm with the tractor so the birds always have fresh pasture. In the winter we go to one house with 30 to 60 chickens, and in the summer our flock is between 80 and 130 chickens. We'd love to expand to better meet egg demand and add another house in the next few years.
As part of each move we erect an electric net fence to contain the birds and ward off predators. Normally we don’t hook up the power (unless we have a fox or coyote that’s visited) since the fence is mainly to contain the hens and keep them from following us around the farm. The hens can’t generally make it over the fence (despite their belief that one day if they flap hard enough they will be able to fly!).
Our main goal for chicken raising is delicious eggs, with a nice firm yoke, that come from chickens that are happy and outside being allowed to be chickens. We’ve worked with most farm animals over time and chickens hands down are the most amazingly active animals of them all, so it's important to us that they get to be as active as they want to be.
Mid-Morning to Mid-Afternoon: Breakfast, Grazing, and “Project Time:”
The next part of chicken keeping is making sure they have a delicious and nutritious diet.
We are big proponents of the chickens getting to be chickens, which means are outside wandering around on pasture every day except when there’s snow. The chickens get a good chunk of food from stuff they find in the fields, including bits of grass and other plants as well as bugs, slugs, and other stuff that you might actually not want to think about. The chickens are great hunters and almost look like mini feathered velociraptors as they stalk their grasshopper prey.
In addition to what they forage outside, the hens also eat grain. We feed them a local conventional mix of several different grains and seeds as well as some organic vitamins and calcium to help make sure the eggshells are sturdy. The chickens are particularly fond of black sunflower seeds, and love when we make them wet mash on the hot days in summer (to make sure they have plenty of moisture).
The chickens also get fresh water three times a day. In winter this water goes on a heater to prevent freezing, while in the summer we use these nifty gravity fed waterers so that it stays fresh and clean.
After eating, laying eggs, and grazing, the hens switch to “project time,” which is what we call the time after eating when the chickens start lounging around and working on their projects. These projects involve excavating giant holes for dust pads, splashing in the mud if it's wet (because our current chickens think they're ducks and really like to go in the water), and lounging in the sun.
As the light gets low on the horizon, the hens began the deeply involved process of getting back into their prime roosting locations on the roosting sticks that line half of their house. There's definitely certain spots that are preferred and each chicken has her special bedtime spot. However, every night at least one bird goes in the wrong spot causing all sorts of kerfluffle.
Sleepy chickens are actually super sweet. They have all sorts of vocalizations as they bed down and usually a few even snore. You can tell if they’ve had an extra good day outside because they totally get tired and conk out a few hours early. Chickens are also a little sad in the dark—darkness renders them totally blind and helpless against predators. We always cruise around outside the fence and house before locking them in for the night to make sure nobody gets left out.
Behind the Scenes: Processing Eggs:
The chickens don’t see it, but lots of our time is spent in the daily cleaning and packaging of the eggs. This process is actually the bottleneck that keeps us from not being able to (yet) fully meet demand (sorry for folks who haven't gotten to the market before our eggs sell out!)
Our egg handling starts by us working to keep the next boxes super clean so that the eggs are clean to start. One unfortunate downside of pastured hens with an affinity for mud is that they can get the eggs dirty with their feet.
When we're cleaning the eggs we try to not wash them any more than necessary because chicken eggs are laid with their own protective coating that serves as a barrier to keep bad stuff out. In Europe, for example, most eggs aren’t washed and are stored at room temperature! Chicken shells are naturally permeable, so when we do clean our eggs of any mud, we make sure to use hot water and never submerge them so that they can’t absorb any water. Once washed, we do a final check for cracks and the box and chill! We do take back and reuse clean containers that come from our farm, but can’t use containers that aren’t ours (sorry!).
Behind the Scenes: Predator Protection:
The final HUGE part of raising chickens is managing and preventing predators. Just like people, everything that eats meat seems to like chicken. On our farm we have great wetlands, but that means we live in prime mink territory. Mink are like giant weasels and can fit into super tiny cracks in the house, which is why we prefer our raised house on wheels, though we still aren't sure that the house is totally mink proof! Other predators include runaway dogs, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, owls, and hawks. So far we've been fairly lucky on these other predators besides mink, but we try to be good about shutting the door right when the birds get to minimize temptation.
If we do start to see signs of predators around, we fire up the electric fence surrounding the house. For flying predators, the chickens are generally fairly aware of danger and will hide under the houses. Interestingly enough, if a hawk tries to get a chicken and misses, it may try to chase the bird on the ground. Last year we saw this twice and were impressed at how much more agile the hens were than the hawks, and how viciously they defended themselves against the hawk—in both cases, the chicken won the battle!
We hope this gives you a taste of the hens' life on the farm! We are struggling a bit to keep up with egg demand (a good problem), but hope to get more hens in the flock in future years so everyone can enjoy their yummy eggs!