Thursday, May 19, 2011

The laying hen

Lets say you were in the market for a new car would you go to the dealership and just pick one off the lot without knowing anything about the car? No? Why the heck then would you walk into the store and pick an egg carton off the shelf without knowing anything??? Knowing the safety of the car you are going to put your family in is just as important as knowing about the food that you are going to feed your family. Maybe it is just me but I think people want to know more about the food they eat, they are just not sure where to start. So lets talk about laying hens.

Before talking to your local farmer it is important to know some facts about chickens. The first and most important- chickens are omnivores, lets review a little of our grade school science. There are herbivores meaning green eaters, then carnivores, they only eat meat, and lastly the omnivores they eat both greens and meat. Laying hens are omnivores- they need to eat animal protein, along with greens.

Okay so I know what you are thinking, how natural is it to see a chicken picking at a hunk of meat, and besides where the heck would they get that? Well as much as they would like a big hunk of meat, insects are meat too. We have even seen hens running around the pasture with a mouse they caught, while several other chickens are chasing after. So if the farmer tells you the hens are vegetarian-fed, these hens are probably undernourished. What does that say about the health value of the egg?

It is important to ask your farmer where the hens get their animal protein. If they are pastured the protein will come from the insects that they eat- that is when they are on pasture. If they are confined that protein will come from their feed. Most laying hen feed has animal protein mixed in, I like to know what that animal protein is. When we farmed we did not give them supplemental animal protein in their grain we gave them bones (with meat still on) from the animals that were butchered on the farm, pigs, lambs and beef cows. We never fed the laying hens chicken, not to say they would not eat chicken I just felt weird about that.

Chickens eat grass, okay so they are not ruminants (animals like cow, sheep, or goats), but I once read that they will consume 30% of their calories in grass, that is a lot of grass! The one time we raised meat chickens and butchered them on the farm, it was very evident that they eat a lot of grass. The crop would be full of grass, bugs and grain.

What does pastured mean, this is where it is important to go to the farm so you can see with your own eyes. We had a movable hen coop the coop would move behind the cows. The idea being that you would move them after the fly larva would hatch the hens would scratch the manure to find the larva. The chickens would help us with our fly control. To me this is pastured, our hens had almost 20 acres to run around on.

Some farmers have a coop that has a fenced area attached to the coop, this is considered free range. The problem that I see with this is that the grass won't have time to regrow before the chickens eat it down. Over time you will have a bare area with no grass and few bugs, not only does this make for unhealthy soil, the hens don't benefit. That being said there are some farmers that have multiple fenced in areas that they can rotate, some call these fenced areas runs.

Another farmer might have hens that run around the yard eating grass and bugs, they have free range of the farm. Not pastured just able to run free. This I see as the same benefit as pastured.

Next we can talk eggs.


Anne said...

Great post! Very true people are starting to want to know where their food is coming from, and many even are trying to grow some of it themselves. Always a good thing!

Also why I have 36 cheeping peeps in my bathroom. lol They hopefully will be the start to my bug-eating brigade on a 20 acre farm and with any luck.. adding some on the 80 acre farm next year.

The Peterson Family said...

Thanks Anne!
Good luck with the chicks! We also used to have ducks, I loved seeing them waddle all over the farm- and their eggs were fantastic for baking!

Anne said...

*Sigh* I really wish we could just adopt you guys. We are attempting to do a similar thing, but unfortunately also the same situation in that the family farm is not ours... and worse lol.. we have to commute.. to both farms. Your working knowledge and ethics are inspiring, amazing, and how things should be. I love reading your blog and I really truly hope you guys get a farm of your own.

One keet discovered how to fly out of the brooder.. at 4am today. Now all of the guinea hoodlums are out.

Just trying to get one farm going sometimes seems impossible.

The Peterson Family said...

Thanks Anne- maybe we should put ourselves up for adoption!!
I had this romantic idea how the family would be so proud of us and want us to be successful. I am finding that there are so many people who are finding the same thing with family farms. I really don't understand it.
I hope you do not have to commute far.
Those guinea hens are crazy! We had 14 at one point! They were so fun to watch. Are you planning to eat them?

I hear ya, I can't imagine two farms!!

Anne said...

It goes against the teachings of the agricultural colleges. To step outside the combine has become an alien concept, but that is starting to change.. slowly. I think part of it is their sense of a loss of control. It breaks away from open fields in favor of smaller areas that are more productive.. although it seems all "the family" see is what has to be undone vs what has been achieved. That's what we are up against too. We're going at it in baby steps.. mainly due to finances, limited resources and family constructed hurdles. Yay.

Should we have a big enough flock.. they could be on the menu. The buffalo gnats have made it so we can't have them outside yet, and they are little Houdini-birds so we have to check on them all the time. This morning for example.. the brooder is still in our bathroom. I had to use the "throne" lol and the toilet paper is on a stand like holder. While reaching for the toilet paper.. I was surprised by Keet Richards (KR is a pied keet) who was busily unrolling it. Very Fred Flintstone moment. KR escaped yet again and was exploring. They also bust out and get on top of the shower curtain rod when you are in the shower.. and Kate (white keet) got into the cupboards in the bathroom as she loves shiny things like tweezers, mirrors, nail polish, and because cotton balls are exciting to run around with.

We're trying really hard to figure out what housing we can make with what we have. The old barn wood we intended on using.. we discovered much is too far gone due to rot, bugs, etc. Birdies may end up with a log cabin.

Did you have to deal with buffalo gnats? What set up did you have for your birds?

The Peterson Family said...

I have never heard of buffalo gnats- but the sound horrible! The laying hens had a movable coop- somewhere on the blog I have pictures. We took an old wagon, Chuck re-enforced the floor and the walls. Then he added a roof, roosts, and nest boxes. For the meat birds Chuck made a Joel Salatin type house. I can not imagine sharing my bathroom with the birds! When we raised our chicks we actually made a brooder and put it in an old silo- it worked perfect.