Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tiller Hens and a Reconsidered Routine

Our hens moulted about five or six weeks ago, and are slowly regrowing their feathers.  This is a calorically intensive process, and so our egg supply has fallen off a cliff.  On a good day we get two eggs from four hens; on the not so good days, one or none.  It doesn't help that we slaughtered the two Cuckoo Marans hens that were the more consistent egg producers with the last of our broilers at the end of September.  The Cuckoos were younger birds, but my experience suggests that their egg laying becomes pretty sporadic after the first year of laying.  Aside from that, the Cuckoos were much flightier than our Red Stars, who I'd made a point to handle regularly during their winter sojourn on deep litter bedding in our shed.  While the Red Stars aren't exactly thrilled about me picking them up, they tolerate it pretty well instead of panicking as the Cuckoos did.  I suspect it's all down to conditioning and handling rather than reflective of innate disposition of two different breeds.  The breeder we got the Cuckoos from didn't habituate them to being handled.

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 hens eagerly hone in on each new slice of territory when I move the caging every other day or so.  That must mean that they've picked over the ground they've had access to pretty well.  In order to encourage them to scratch and till the ground I've adopted a feeding strategy gleaned from Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, which I reviewed a while back.  Namely, I don't feed the hens in the morning while they're on tilling duty.  Their hunger early in the day motivates them to scratch down the weeds to look for grubs, worms, and other choice bits in the three sisters area.  I add plenty of garden cullings and whatever kitchen scraps we have.  Then late in the afternoon I provide them with some of their purchased grain feed.  That way they don't go to bed hungry and they have something to look forward to most of the day.

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.


judy said...

that is a fanciful nesting box and I thought I heard of everything but kneffles,so I will wait patiently for a full disclosure

Jennifer Montero said...

It must be the time of year for poultry contemplation. Chickens are definitely an underrated garden tool. I'm interested in your idea of afternoon feeding. Ours are ad-lib hopper fed, but most still choose to wander off and fill their crop on other things. Their favorite haunt is any patch of tilled soil - easy worming and grubbing I suppose. Still loving the poultry schooner!

Dea-chan said...

This is off topic, so I apologize. I am trying to figure out what to do with my backyard and am polling my "network" of those who's blogs I follow. I want to use my 20'x20' backyard for food, yet there is a HIGHLY invasive vine with taproots crisscrossing the entirety of the neighborhood, not just my backyard. I have every intention of chopping back every single shoot that the vine puts up next spring, yet is it worth it to still work on the soil knowing that beast is hiding? Should I just build boxes on top of the soil? Perhaps a really thick lasagne mulch? I just have no clue.


Chili said...

Am thrilled to have found your blog. Although I'm rural and it sounds like you are urban, our "goal" is the same - simple living in Pennsylvania! You are not alone in your interests. I retire in two weeks and am very much looking forward to a very simple lifestyle. Food production is top of the priority list. thanks for the inspiration. Looking foward to perusing your blog more often.

Kate said...

Judy, I'll see if kneffles can work their way to the top of the potential blog post queue. Thanks for the interest.

Jen, I suppose that a daily ration of food is more workable at the micro-scale we're at than for a large flock or flocks, such as yours. Since the hens need daily attention anyway, it's just as easy for me to give them a set amount each day.

Dea-chan, no worries about off-topicality. I'm mulling your dilemma. Give me a little while to think it over.

Chili, nice to meet a fellow Pennsylvanian, blogger, and PASA member. There are a few of us about. Will you be at next year's conference? I'd love to make your acquaintance in person.