Monday, May 26, 2014

Pastured chickens on a permaculture farm

There are two chicken flocks at our permaculture farm right now. The egg layers and the meat breed chicks live separately, their life paths and destinies diverging. The egg layers are free ranging, while the meat-breed chicks are raised on a diverse pasture, roaming free over a large piece of land, but enclosed none-the-less. Chickens are easy to raise, if  you have some spare space and good protection from predators.

It all begun with little baby chicks arriving via mail order from our local Privett Hatchery. The mail carrier called us to announce that she was delivering the little peeps, to be sure someone would be at home, so they would be received and taken care of immediately. Fifty little chicks, each size of a tennis ball, occupied the box, hatchery-born, unaware of the existence of a mother hen, or green grass, or any part of the big wide world.

At our permaculture farm, we are always searching for ways to reduce our ecological footprint - and our dependence on ecological wealth located outside of our bio-region. Our gardens provide us with bounty of foods, through the seasons. And growing our own raw milk, eggs and meat is another step that makes a lot of sense to us, ecologically speaking. And so meat chicks are here, to be humanely raised and ethically harvested, and to provide us with food that is local and ecologically raised.

For some weeks the peeps were kept in a nursery, a room in the chicken house where they had warm water and protection from the wind, cold and predators. Lacking a mother hen to keep them warm, the chicks spent most of their time under a heating lamp. Once their first feathers appeared, and the spring weather became a bit warmer, it was safe to move them outside. It was really time for some life-giving sunshine and a healthy snack of grass, too!
Our chicken house is located at a distance of about 60 feet away from the nearest grassy area. So the question of transportation was to be resolved. Two-week old chicks are too young to understand who to follow - or why. Had they have a mother, they would easily navigate with her help. But raised under a heat lamp, such chicks are basically little orphans, and don't have any instructions provided to them as to where to go and what to do.  Turning them loose would result in fatalities due to many dangers that await baby chicks in life - barn cats, other chickens, dishes of water in which to drown, and obstacles behind which to get stuck and lost. In addition, ravens and magpies predate on baby chicks in day hours. Without a mother, babies must be protected at all times. Enter the chicken tractor - a tight and light enclosure (a large rectangular box wrapped into wire), their destination for the next few weeks. But how do we get them there?

Chicks entered the world in style - hand-picked individually (50 times) and placed in a large Haitian market basket (that is a whole other story) - and then carried out and to the grassy area near the coop.
And here the chicken tractor awaits, safe haven for grazing and sun-bathing.The entertainment factor of a chicken tractor is high, and the chicks are irresistible for all who walks nearby, drawing lots of attention and admiration. Eventually a few escape, after finding a low spot that created a tunnel of sorts - and our own dog, the little fluffy dear creature, killed 5 of them within minutes.

Dog on the leash detention, chicken tractor repositioned, and the life goes on. Chicks are getting bigger, fast. They are harder and harder to catch twice per day, and the nights are still too cold to leave them outside. Plus it is dangerous. Luckily, things evolve on their own sometimes. Chicks outgrow the little chicken tractor in about 2 weeks, but they also fledge out  and thus are ready to face the elements. They also develop some intellect and learn to run towards humans, as they figure out that humans bring their food and water.  That means they are ready to follow! That means, they could be lead places. And here comes their big promotion - a very large (and thus unwieldy) chicken tractor #2, located in the fenced goat pasture.

As ravens and hawks watch from nearby trees, we release the chicks from their little nursery chicken tractor. One of us is equipped with a feeder, and a song of "Chip-chip-chip-chip" that works as a call out, gently leading the chicks to their new location, about 100' away. The other person observes and walks behind the chicks, assisting any that are confused.

The flock quickly forms and follows the lead person, racing forward. All are in within a few minutes, 100% success rate. The door of the chicken tractor is closed and new chapter begins. The birds sleep outdoors. Their night-time protection from coyotes, racoons, skunks and others is a duty assigned to our Great Pyreneese dog. The dog has no idea what is expected of him, but looks and acts like he knows his business. So they all now sleep in the pasture - chicks and the great white dog.

At about 6 weeks of age, chicks are beginning to fight. They are "straight run" birds, meaning that about half is male and the other half is female. The males have territorial disputes and it is clear that keeping them in a chicken tractor is no longer possible. They will terrorize each other.

The tractor door is opened, and the birds are promoted to free range on the 1/3 acre fenced pasture. The dog is there to keep hawks and ravens away. Though he is not aware of this job, the predators back away, assuming an encounter with him is not worth the risk.

And the rest of the summer shall go on, with chicks grazing grass, alfalfa, clovers and other plants at this diverse pasture, catching flies and grasshoppers, finding an occasional earthworm. They are growing into fine organic meat birds. Come fall, harvest time arrives, and birds will become our food. But that is still a few months away.

Here are some practical tips for raising chicks on pasture:
- consider working with heirloom breeds only. They are more predator alert, faster and healtier.
- diversity is everything, when it comes to pasture management. Plant things that will offer a range of forage options. In general fallen berries and seeds from trees and shrubs make a good forage supplement. And alfalfa and clovers offer more protein to your birds than many other plants. Tree logs will host insects, which in turn make a very good snack for your birds.
- chickens are forest birds, in their ancestral memory, and when it comes to their preferences, they will seek cover and avoid open pasture. Plants - trees and shrubs - provide such cover and safety from hawks and ravens. Plant more trees.

And don't forget to share your questions and experience here! I am looking forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes
- Arina

No comments: