Last year was NOT a good year for laying hens on our farm… and that is an understatement. Our sheep and goats were sold the previous year and with them, the livestock guardian dogs. We had not realized the extent of their influence in keeping predators at bay even around the chickens, who they were not trained to protect, till they were gone.
Starting out the year we had 225 chickens, mostly hens but also a few roosters. I had raised more than I needed because I believed there was a market for young hens. About the time they began laying in the early spring I sold 60 hens, leaving me with 165. I thought that would be more than enough hens to supply the market for pastured farm-fresh brown eggs but decided to wait to sell any more till I could see how sales were going to level out. Maybe I should have sold them all knowing what I know now, but hindsight is 20/20.
The hawks were the first to hit the hen population hard. Apparently they had been picking off one or two a day for a while before I realized what was happening. I estimate 40-50 hens were lost to hawks by the time I knew there was a problem. (It is hard to count chickens when they are wandering around inside and outside their house.)
A 25′ X 100′ piece of bird netting was ordered and it arrived within a week. Through trial and error we figured out how to attach it to posts around the hen’s paddock to form a netting “roof” to deter the hawks. Thankfully that seemed to stop the attacks except on the occasional chicken who was unfortunate enough to think that outside the pen would be nicer than inside and managed to get out. Those birds didn’t last long.
Life and laying went along well for a few months as the hens grew older and their egg size increased. 25 of the original chicks I had raised were the Americana variety. Americana’s are beautiful birds ranging in color from black and white to multi-colored browns and reds. They lay gorgeous eggs in an assortment of colors from “pink” (looks more like a light brown) to blue and deep green. It was a ton of fun to go gather eggs and find “Easter” eggs among the beautiful brown eggs.
Our henhouse is movable so once every week or two we move the house and paddock to give the hens fresh grass. Eggs from pastured hens have been shown to be healthier for us to eat than eggs from hens raised conventionally. (see this Mother Earth News article.) Even when the grass is not green we move the house to give the hens a fresh patch of ground to scratch in. They love to look for bugs and seeds and the sunshine is good for them too.
As the weather warmed and then turned to hot summertime, we gradually moved the house closer to tree cover so the hens would have shade from the summer heat. This presented a dilemma though. In the past I have surrounded a tree or grove of trees with the paddock fence to allow the hens to get under the trees for shade. If I was to do this, the bird netting could not be left on the top of the paddock for protection from the hawks. I opted to “park” the henhouse between two trees and extend the paddock out between the trees. This gave the hens shade over the house and part of the paddock though the hens could not get directly under the trees next to the trunks. Unfortunately this was not enough shade on the hottest day of the year, a day that made the record books. 25 hens died from the heat on August 2. The temperature had reached 112.5 degrees. Several more hens died from the stress over the next few days. Those were sad, sad days.
I decided that day to take the bird netting off the paddock and surround the trees with the poultrynet giving the hens access to the relatively cool ground right next to the trees. I figured if they were going to die, they might as well die a quick death by hawk rather than a stressful death by heat. There was evidence that hawks were taking hens out over the next month or two but the remaining hens seemed to really enjoy being able to have access to the base of the trees.
Autumn brought cooler weather and we were able to again move the henhouse away from the trees and cover the paddock with bird netting. Over time though I was noticing there seemed to be fewer and fewer chickens in the house. It appeared that other predators with thick fur were likely going under the electrified poultry netting at night. We ended up catching the remaining chickens and bringing the henhouse up close to our house thinking that predators would be less likely to intrude in an area closer to the house where we allow our pet dogs to run.
Thankfully this seems to have stopped the losses for now. We only have 19 hens and one rooster left from the original flock of 165. 2011 was not a good year for chickens on our farm.
Hope springs eternal though. Deciding to proceed with caution, I purchased 50 chicks to raise this year. They have been growing in the cozy brooder till just recently we moved them out to the henhouse. A divider is keeping the pullets separate from the older hens for now. The old hens have been through so much in the last year and have proven themselves to be survivors. I don’t think I can part with them so the plan now is to eventually put the two flocks together.
Stay tuned. Sometime in February the young hens should begin laying and if we can keep them safe from the predators, Mitchell Family Farm will have healthy, delicious eggs from pastured hens once again.