The reason this is all relevant is that I needed the hens to do some weeding and tilling for me this fall. I knew the Cuckoo Marans would never be easily moved from one spot to another. Getting the hens in and out of the poultry schooner requires twice daily handling, since the schooner must be positioned over each garden bed and maneuvered carefully around beds that still have plants on them. The hens go back into their mobile coop each night, leaving me free to reposition the empty schooner. Dealing with hens that were terrified of me wasn't on the agenda. So the Cuckoos met their end with the last of our broilers, and went on to a useful afterlife of chicken stock, schmaltz, and a hearty dish of chicken and knefles, which I may tell you about sometime if I find the time.
The remaining hens, our Red Stars, are now earning their keep by clearing a large weed infested area for me. This is the bed we referred to as the three sisters, where we meant to grow the three sisters crops this year: winter squash, beans, and corn (maize). That came to nothing when labor was spread too thin and the bed never made it close enough to the top of the list to get weeded. What the squash vine borers didn't kill, or the birds pluck out of the ground, or the long summer dry spell didn't kill outright, was overwhelmed by weeds of every stripe. It was a jungle in there. With the help of some garden caging that is easy to move around every day or so, the hens have weeded and lightly tilled this area into submission, while adding their own manure and mixing it into the soil. Which is great; saves me a lot of time and prepares the area for some heavy-duty, remedial lasagna mulching. It also gives me a chance to see the fanciful nesting box in action. I banged this thing together this spring in anticipation of hosting a broody hen with some eggs. The hen never materialized, but the nesting box was ready to go when I needed it for this project. If they aren't earning their keep by giving us eggs, at least the hens are contributing labor and fertility in the form of their manure.
|Weeded and yet-to-be-weeded areas are clearly distinguishable|
The afternoon feeding doesn't work with the mobile coop and pen we've been using most of the time since we got chickens four years ago. In that system, the hens go into the coop in the evening and are locked in until I let them out the next morning. I always try to let them out close to sunrise so that they're not literally cooped up and unhappy. The time before I release them each morning is the only time during the day that I have access to the pen without them in it. So I always provided their food and water first thing in the morning. I like the late afternoon feeding not only because it gives me a more leisurely cup of tea in the morning, (though it's grand, let me tell you) but also because I think it saves money on feed. The hens eat less when they've scrounged for themselves most of the day, even though they're currently regrowing their feathers. This was precisely Deppe's reasoning for the afternoon feeding time - to conserve money when times are tough. Seeing how well this works is encouraging me to consider ways of making this standard operating procedure for the hens next year. I have to think on it some more over the winter, but we'll likely need to build new housing for them next spring anyway. So it'll be a good opportunity to change things up.