The first spring on our farm, I asked Ray about welding me a frame with wheels that I could use for a chicken coop and move from paddock to paddock behind the sheep. My idea was to let meat chickens scratch around and eat any parasites to help keep the pastures clean. Then, when the chickens matured, we could sell the ones we didn’t eat ourselves.
He said, “I can do better than that. I have a van back by the woods. I was going to cut the engine out of it and make into a chicken coop, why don’t you take it?”
It was perfect – an old ambulance high enough inside to stand in, off the ground, critter tight, with lots of doors and windows. We removed the engine and all the useful parts and added a tongue for hauling it away. Then I drove my tractor down to his place and towed the chicken van home.
But, after reading a book or two on chickens, we decided on laying hens first instead of meat birds. In May, Susan and I fashioned an insulated enclosure in the basement with a 100-watt light bulb to keep the temperature at the 30° C that chicks need until they feather out. We covered the floor of the pen with wood shavings and peat moss, then we bought a gravity chick waterer that was basically a big white plastic jar topped by a red screw-on water tray. We filled the jar with fresh water, screwed the round tray onto the top, then turned the jar over so the water ran out a small hole in the jar and into the tray. We added an old metal chick feeder we found in one of the barns and our chick hotel was ready for our first guests.
We ordered day-old Barred Plymouth Rocks from the feed mill – twenty females and two males, all black balls of fluff with a white spot on their foreheads. They came in a cardboard box with holes punched in the top. I couldn’t believe the noise they made on the way back to our farm. Their high-pitched cheeping both thrilled me about our new venture and set my teeth on edge. I had heard of people raising chicks in their kitchen next to the wood stove for warmth. I was glad ours would be in the basement.
We found out why “bird-brain” is a insult. We had to dip the chick’s beaks in the water to make sure they knew where it was. They discovered their food all right, but we were constantly rescuing them from being stuck facing into corners like misbehaved schoolboys.
After four weeks, the chicks began to mature into the old-fashioned pullets with grey and white striped feathers that used to be found on every nineteenth century farm. When they started escaping from their enclosure, we figured they were ready for the van.
Susan, Conor, Charlotte and I built a yard out of chicken wire, nesting boxes and roosts but stopped short of promising to tow them to the lake in the summer for a dip. We carried the pullets out in plastic buckets. Conor named the largest and best-crowing rooster Lenny. We had chickens and it was beginning to sound like a real farm.
Every morning I opened the back doors of the van to let them out. Then I’d fill their feeder and waterer and shovel any grain spilled onto the floor of the van out into the yard along with kitchen scraps. The pullets wouldn’t touch the spilled grain inside but would dive after it in the yard. I guess presentation is everything.
Grit went into their feed because chickens don’t have any teeth to grind their grain. They swallow small stones that gather in a small sac called a crop in their digestive system. The grain they eat goes into the crop where it’s ground up against the stones by muscular action.
Our pullets became hens when they began to lay after twenty-five weeks. They continued for a full year before their first molt, when they lost their wing feathers and fell out of production for six weeks or so. After the molt they lay for another year, but never at the level of the first year. Laying hens make their eggshells out of calcium, so I added oyster shell for calcium to their grain. I could tell which hens were laying well because making egg yolks pulls carotene out of their bodies. Their feet and beaks turn grey instead of orange.
We learned about diseases like blackhead, bluecomb, and bumblefoot; feather-pulling; egg eating; winter lights to keep them laying and petroleum jelly to keep their combs from freezing. Like most things, it turned out to be more complicated that I had thought.
One disaster happened when our Labrador pup, Major, got into the yard one day while we were gone. He reminded us that he was a bird dog when he proudly dropped Lenny’s rival rooster at Susan’s feet when we returned. We weren’t nearly as proud as he was, especially when we found six more dead layers in the front yard, wet from dog slobber.
Another time the sheep broke into the grain shed and ate a whole bag of our 100% organic grain. The original idea was for meat chickens to clean up after the sheep and now the sheep were trying to push their way to the head of the line.
It was Charlotte’s job to collect the dozen or so daily eggs. I always liked eggs, but I didn’t really know what a good egg was until I started getting them fresh, not factory-raised and a month old. Our eggs had thick shells that took a good whack against the side of the pan to break, then they stood up and stared back at me with their richly deep yolks like big orange eyes.
Lenny grew into a magnificent red-combed strutter twice as big as the hens. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs, but he took care of his girls. He shooed them inside if a hawk flew over and kept a wary eye on Charlotte when she gathered eggs. It was worth keeping a wary eye on him, too. When a friend from Los Angeles visited with her children, ages five and seven, they all wanted to gather eggs. We never turn down help, so I gave them the egg bucket and drove the tractor out to the drive shed to hitch up the mower.
On the way back, I saw our friend standing in the driveway with her head down and spots of blood on the ground. She had bent down to peek into the laying boxes for eggs and Lenny flew at her with his spurs up in the air and nailed her good. It was pandemonium as she fought him off while trying to get her kids out of the van so Lenny wouldn’t nail them, too.
We laughed about it later, over omelets, but even a simple task like gathering eggs contains some surprises on the farm