Chicken Challenges & Changes
For those of us involved with the chickens here at Brookford Farm, 2017 is a year for reflection and learning. We have made great improvements over the past few years in the way we raise them on pasture such as a watering system that keeps the water as clean as possible, a well managed schedule for moving the coops. We have also developed a new way to set up their fencing in the pastures to reduce the sag in the lines and keep them as strongly electrified as possible. These ideas have been brainstormed by the farmers managing the chickens and it has been remarkable to see the solutions they have for adapting to the challenges of raising chickens on pasture. Despite this incredible experience our observations have led us to the conclusion that THIS year we will raise our laying hens in the 100’x35’ hoop barns that house the heifers and dry cows during the winter and we will not raise any broilers.
Why will we raise our chickens in the hoop barns?
In our time raising chickens on pasture we have had some really great eggs and meat, but also a lot of frustration and even heartbreak. We have seen excellent pastures filled with legumes and high quality grasses develop dead patches due to the chickens scratching. Field productivity is further reduced from being driven over repeatedly by the vehicles we must use to feed, collect the eggs and move the coops. We have been in the middle of the field with the chickens sympathizing with them as they huddle in whatever shade they can find inside and under the coop. We have watched hawks swoop down and kill chickens right in front of us. During attempts to scare the hawks away we watched them fly across the field to the other coop. Additionally it seems that we are experiencing a coyote population explosion. In the mornings when we do our rounds we are seeing increased evidence to the presence of these nocturnal predators.
To ensure the safety of our birds from predation issues we have enlisted the help of two Maramma guardian dogs, Doc and Wyatt. They instinctively guard livestock but like all puppies need some training. The most realistic way to train them is to keep their first year with the chickens close to the farmyard. This way they will have less pressure from the predators and it will be easier for those of us raising them to give the puppies guidance.
How is this going to be different from pasturing?
The obvious difference is the reduced amount of grass they will be consuming. We are giving them a substantial run behind the barns that is already devoid of grass due to the fact that it was the winter run for the cattle we kept there. The other real difference on the positive side is that they will have many more places to hide from hawks and other birds of prey. There will also be much more shade due to the white tarp that covers the hoop barn which reflects some of the sunlight keeping the area it protects cool and shady.
How similar is hoop barn raising to pasturing?
There are many similarities. We are and will always be committed to raising the chickens cage-free with no antibiotics. Additionally they are truly free range as in our case these barns only have 3 sides. Some people don’t trust the term “free range” because they have heard that the standards can be quite lax. Rest assured that the barns we will be using have the entire 35’ wide by 30’ tall south facing end open to the sunlight and a giant roll-up door on the north end to allow for a great cross-breeze. Due to increase of the cost of organic grain, we will be switching to a local non-GMO grain. They will also feed on as many insects and tiny critters as they can find.
Compost makes the hoop barn ideal!
The chickens’ backyard will feature giant compost heaps that we are depending on the chickens to scratch down and fertilize. Hopefully the compost heaps will become a good food sources for them because of the rotten veggies, insects and worms that the compost will host. Their scratching will also push the worms deeper into the pile allowing for more aeration and better decomposition. This arrangement is exciting for us because, while in the field, the chickens are too far away from vegetable processing inhibiting our ability to provide them substantial amounts of rotten produce.
The other major benefit is that if the chickens are closer to the farm, we will reduce our fossil fuel use for their care and upkeep. Typically we drive everything out to them: food, water (which is also pumped with a gasoline powered pump), nesting material and drive back with their eggs. We also use the tractors to move the coops around the fields which burns diesel. Hoop barns are low-cost structures with automatic waterers that use a very small amount of electricity. We can set our grain bag so that we just have to use a wheelbarrow to bring the buckets to the feeders. This will also save one of the most scarce resources we have on the farm: time!
We looked through each area of our production and had to make a difficult decision of not doing our broiler operation this year for the summer and fall/ winter. We decided for 2017 to not do the broiler operation, just rather strengthen our other operations first. There is always time to get back into broilers. Maybe with a different system and some more head space.
Jeremiah Vernon, our farmer friend, offered to us to grow the broilers for this years CSA. He, his wife and 3 children are farming a beautiful farm in the seacoast. He specialized himself with growing pasture raised chicken. He is using a Cornish Cross (very productive) and feeds non- GMO feed.