At Dragonwood Farm, we sell eggs. Pretty pretty eggs, inside and out. Except when we don’t, which is pretty much from mid-October until around the middle or end of January. This confuses people sometimes, because most other farms around here continue to stock the local food co-ops with eggs, so why doesn’t Dragonwood?
The answer is tied up in another aspect of Dragonwood’s egg production… our happy, free-range chickens. The sticker on our egg cartons says “truly free-ranging happy chickens”, and we stand by that. More than once, a customer has looked at that claim and asked “How do you know whether they’re happy or not?” The answer’s not all that easy to fit in a nutshell, so let’s try a long blog post instead.
This redhead is a happy chicken. That’s her little coop in the background, our Chick School, where we raise our free-ranging chicks. She’s an Auracauna pullet, about 3 months old, and just about ready to be moved out of the chick coop into her new home, one or the other of our two big coops.
Chick School is our boarding school for chicks. It’s a safe place, with an elevated chick home (so we can see under it and they can hide under it) and about 500 square feet of netting-covered outdoor classroom for learning to free-range.
She’s been free-ranging by day since she was just a few days old… after about 2-3 days on our porch in a box, we move them into the Schoolhouse with a brooder lamp hanging from the ceiling that allows them to adjust their temperature at night (closer = warmer: these are autosensing, autoadjusting smartchicks, no thermometers needed). During the day they run around in the outdoor classroom scratching and nibbling and learning about bugs and seeds and grasses and lamb’s quarters.
The school has two full-time teachers. Mrs. Buff is Head Schoolmistress, she’s a big Buff Orpington hen, and her assistant is a half-pint black bantam hen named Puff.
These two rule the roost, take the attendance rosters and above all else keep their eyes out for trouble. Especially hawks flying overhead. These two are dedicated teachers, and they run a tight ship, nobody gets out of line. Very often.
Unless I come into the yard. We two-legged folk are welcomed and shunned at the same time. We are known for our largesse (local mill chicken feed in the morning, garden greens and the occasional grasshopper or tomato hornworm at odd moments throughout the day), but also for our attempts to herd and scoot them out from under the schoolhouse at dusk and into the schoolhouse for the night. Peep! Squawk! So they jitter back and forth between running to us and away, many times a day.
During the morning feed, I always try and feed thems that wants to by hand. I get a small crowd who prefer eating out of my hand to picking it up from the ground or the feeders. And in every crowd there’s one or two who like the daily contact more than normal… and that’s how this happened. Two days ago she hopped onto my back and perched on my shoulder and then clambered down onto my forearm and ate from my hand. Today, in the rain, she started eating from my hand with everyone else, then I watched her leave my hand and walk around behind me. Sure enough, up onto my back again, but then Hey! up another notch. Glad I have my dad’s old shit-resistant Elmer Fudd on. After a minute or two (and after the self portraits), since she wasn’t getting any food up there, I saw her upside down face peering in at me from my hat’s bill. I bent down again and she hopped down and ate from my hand again with everyone else.
So that’s part of the happy chicken answer. There’s a lot more to it though, and it helps answer why we have no eggs to sell, so I’ll keep going.
WHY MY HENS NO LAY?
It’s common in the chicken egg farming business to maximize egg production in several ways. I’m not going to belabor the “what does free-range really mean?” question here… our chickens truly live out of doors, foraging for much of their daily caloric intake, mostly only going inside to lay eggs in the nesting boxes or get a cool drink or to roost at night. But even farmers with great free-ranging practices still push their chickens hard to maximize egg production, because if the hens don’t lay, ya get no pay!
Hens want to follow a seasonal pattern for their laying that’s based mainly on the length of daily daylight, and to a lesser extent on temperature. In addition, after a hard season of laying eggs, chickens molt… for a period of a couple months they lose most of their feathers, lose a good bit of weight, and internally and externally have a rejuvenation period that gets them ready for a new laying season.
So a flock as a whole lays the most eggs in the spring and early summer (increasing day length),with peak egg production before the summer solstice, and then gradually declines toward laying the fewest eggs during late fall and early winter. For our hens, that means egg production falls from about 50+ eggs per day (from 80 or so hens) in May to only about 5 eggs per day (2-8 daily range) in late October til early January. But since the winter solstice is quite early in what we call “winter”, we see an uptick in the ladies laying by early January. By late January we’ll be back up over a dozen eggs a day (enough to sell a few dozen each week) and rapidly rising from there, even though it’s damn cold out there. The days are getting longer! Let’s lay!
But a lot of farmers seem to feel this long resting period is unnecessary. And this whole molting business, can’t modern agriculture do something to fix that too?
Length of day solution: Let them have light! The solution seems easy enough… they want light? Give them light! By turning on lights in the coop, and carefully adjusting the length of “day” for hens, farmers can shorten the downtime and get more eggs out of the ladies.
Molting solution: Force them all to molt at one time. Hens don’t all molt at the same exact time, so a given flock will have a lengthy downtime, even with artificial lighting. A common practice for decades on commercial farms is to withold food in the autumn to starve the chickens and stimulate the molting to start. Yep. Starve them, no rations for a week or more. It’s not a pretty thought to most of us.
There’s another way to minimize or eliminate completely the molting problem. And that’s to sell “stewing hens”. It works like this:
1. In the late-summer or fall, you divide your existing layer in half: keep the best layers, get rid of the lesser half. Cull and sell these birds as “stewing hens”.
2. You replace the culls by purchasing ready-to-lay pullets in the early fall (or raise them yourself, from eggs laid four-five months previous).
3. Thus while the existing flock molts, the new hens take up the slack, giving you eggs to sell during the winter (do keep those artificial lights on, though).
4. In the spring you’ll have the older birds starting their new laying cycle as the pullets slow down. Keep track of who’s who because then…
1. Repeat the cycle by culling the older birds and the weaker of the last year’s new hens. Replace with more new pullets and keep it going.
So… you never have any birds older than about 18-20 months (two cycles of laying with one molt). You only keep birds while they’re at their most productive. And you sell eggs all year round.
The Dragonwood Happy Chicken Way
For us, molting and winter downtime is just part of the life cycle of our ladies. We don’t do any of those stimulation tactics up there! Oh, on a really cold winter night we might turn on a heat lamp… we have done that a few times, but just for the warmth. We feel that artificially stimulating the hens to lay more eggs than their bodies tell them to probably shortens their lives, and that’s not what we’re aiming for. We know our older birds can keep laying daily right up until the last few weeks of their lives… we’ve watched it happen. They molt when they want to molt, and they take as long as they want to doing so.
We raise new birds every year, putting them through rigorous training with Mrs. Buff and Puff. This year enrollment was roughly 20 from chicks we hatched (here’s Puff with one of her younguns) and 30 more from chicks we purchased, plus another 30 meat birds that graduated early (yum). Then after graduation we integrate the new pullets with our existing flocks. We lose up to a dozen or so birds each year from predators, and another dozen or two that die from natural causes. So far our flocks have grown a little each year, and our oldest hens and one rooster are more than five years old now, and still laying (the roo lays hens, not eggs). The pecking order in each flock fluctuates a bit when we integrate new birds into them (from Chick School’s graduating class), but the social order survives and life in the coop goes on.
We feed them well, give them a lot of freedom (one flock has it’s own pasture, the other its own woods), and let them feed us in turn. What eggs we don’t eat ourselves are sold to friends and market shoppers who value darn good food. In fact, that’s the real nature of Dragonwood Farm. We grow food that we like to eat, and share what we grow with others. We try to grow it all with love and care, from the choices we make with our soil and land to the very headgear we wear (photo at top). Our goal is to have truly happy chickens, because that makes us happy. That’s why we’re here, and you’re welcome to share with us. But not til after solstice. Hang in there another couple months.
“The people who give you their food give you their heart.” - Cesar Chavez
Postscript: In case it’s not perfectly obvious from reading this post, the Dragonwood way is not the most cost-effective way to produce eggs. We feed lots of chickens for months of non-production! But we end up with some of the very tastiest eggs from some of the very happiest chickens around. At a price that’s affordable when you want really good eggs. See you in the spring!