When our egg co-op got its start in 2007, we were able to jump-start egg production by buying a flock of 10-month-old hens. They were fully in to their peak laying period, and their delicious eggs, available to the first shift of volunteers the morning after we got them, certainly made for a sense of immediate gratification. We knew, however, that buying full-grown hens would not be a sustainable method of flock replenishment, nor were we planning to keep hens past their laying prime. We would need, sooner or later, to come up with a flock rotation method.
Rotating a flock involves two steps: Acquiring new birds, and getting rid of the old birds. As of December 7, we have one working method for each step.
Acquiring new birds
After much debate, the co-op decided that the best way to get new birds on to the farm was to raise our own chicks from day-old birds from a hatchery. We would have co-op members raise the chicks in batches in their own homes, for the first six to eight weeks while the chicks are still very fragile beings. After the chicks got their feathers, we would move them to the farm into a pullet house, where they would spend their days until they were old enough to lay (around six months of age). At that time they would be integrated into the main laying flock.
In early October we held a chick-care training workshop with the families who had volunteered to be chick tenders. At that workshop we distributed feeders, waterers, bedding and chick starter feed to all the chick tenders. The volunteers all generously agreed to provide their own chick housing and heat lamps.
In late October, we were the excited postal recipients of a box of fifty peeping chicks.
Over the course of a rather thrilling day, all of the volunteer families came to our house and took home their batches of chicks. We had eight families volunteer for chick care, with each family taking from six to ten birds.
During the month of November, while the chicks ate and grew, a few of us engaged in some fevered chick-house construction. The weather was too unpredictable to plan any formal work parties, but when we saw a good weekend, we grabbed it.
With the help of Craig and Amy Clark and Craig Giffen, we hammered together the basic structure while enjoying some fall sunshine. We improvised a design around the structure afforded by a piece of cattle fencing, which we manipulated to form a kind of hoop house. Around this form we added a wooden exoskeleton and a skin of tarping and hardware cloth.
We had initially planned on the chicks staying with the chick tenders until they were around 8 weeks old, but we were getting regular calls from folks noting that the chicks were getting too big to keep in their basements and garages. We knew we needed to wrap up the pullet house, and get the chicks on the farm.
We set a date for final construction and chick delivery on December 7. In an example of perfect timing, in early December we got a chance to buy a passel of young hens, who had just started to lay. This was an opportunity to get some fresh layers into the rotation; in effect, it was like doing the whole chick-raising thing back in April. But in order to take delivery of twenty new hens, we had to figure out how to get rid of some of our older hens â€” and a little sooner than we’d anticipated.
Getting rid of the old birds
The traditional thing to do with spent laying hens is to slaughter and butcher them for the stewpot. We asked our co-op members if they would like to learn how to do this, and if they thought this was an appropriate final destination for our birds. The answer to both questions was a resounding “yes.”
Our flagship flock of forty hens will be fully replaced by new birds by the time we launch into our third year on Summer Solstice, 2009. We will butcher some of them ourselves, and we will teach our co-op members the ways of this crucial practice. Eventually, as our expertise and facility allows, we will offer classes on home poultry butchering to the general public.
But for now, we needed to get rid of some older hens quickly. I had heard of a nearby family who was interested in buying old hens to butcher and sell as stewing hens. Over the course of a day of phone calls we managed to contact the family and make arrangements for them to pick up some of our old layers. We also contacted the farmer who had the laying hens to sell, and arranged for the delivery of them. We timed it all to happen on the same day that we would have the volunteers bring the chicks out to the farm â€” and kept our fingers crossed.
The big day
The big day arrived â€” rainy, of course! We had everything slotted for a four hour window, and werenâ€™t really sure how it would all fit, but we got out there early to wrap up the construction on the pullet house and were joined over the next couple of hours by one household of chick tenders after another.
The coop had some construction to complete, including the door and securing the tarp. We got most of the sawing and drilling done before the rain started in earnest.
Two folks from the local butcher operation came by and picked up 20 of our older hens. A group of volunteers peeled off to help catch chickens in the field and load them into the truck.
Pretty soon after that, the young layers arrived, and we carted them out to the field in the transport cage and set them loose in their new home. At this point, the feathers were truly flying.
We were happy that a lot of the families raising chicks had brought their kids, to help see their pullets in to their new home. They had a great time running around between the chickens in the field, the barn and the pullet house, and helped out by tagging all of the new pullets with leg rings to help identify them when they are integrated in to the larger flock.
We moved the coop into position next to the barn, and a couple of volunteers raced to put in the roost bars, while others got bedding, feed and water into place. By this time, it was really raining, and we called everyone together and started piling bin after bin of pullets into their now cozy new home. After all had had a chance to peek in and assure ourselves that the pullets were happily eating, drinking, scratching and exploring, we wrapped up the work and repaired to the farmhouse for a post-chick-raising feedback meeting and some pizza.
It’s now nearly a month later. The chicks are growing up quickly and we’re now focused on getting their fencing procured and set up, so that we can have them out and about during the day, just like the layers. Thanks to the diligence and dedication of our volunteers and the folks at Zenger, all of the chickens, and all of us, survived Snowpocalypse 2008. We learned a few things from that time of crisis, and will be making some preparations for next time.
2009 looks like a good year for our co-op. We plan to further fine-tune our efforts, continue maintain a healthy and productive flock, and explore ways to utilize the co-op as a platform for education and urban-agriculture advocacy.
Happy new year to you and yours, and see you around the farm.
Patrick and Holly