Monday, March 26, 2012

Chicken Farming-- Take Two

I have a dream. In my dream, my free-ranging chickens roam about the yard, happily plucking insects from the grass, their soft clucking signaling their contentment as they follow me around. They greet my delighted son at the back door as he exits with a basket to collect their fresh eggs. At night, I shoo them into their cozy hay-lined coop where they nest safe and sound until morning.

Last summer’s attempt to attain this dream of pastoral perfection perished tragically.

In April, in accordance with my specifications, my husband built a beautiful sixty-four-square-foot chicken coop from bits of leftover lumber, complete with a flip-top roof for easy egg collection (protected properly with shingles left from our latest roofing project) and chicken wire floor so no predator could dig into it.  

In May, I bought six, six-week-old “pullets” (note skeptical quotation marks) from the local tractor supply store and asked when they would begin to lay: about twenty weeks was the answer I received. They lived in an open plastic bin lined with sawdust with a heat lamp overhead for six weeks or so until finally they were ready for the great outdoors.

In mid-June, they moved into the chicken coop (keep track of the math here; that would make them twelve weeks old). Every day at dawn, I fed and watered them and opened their door so they could get out and start picking those tasty insects off the lawn (soft contented clucking would surely follow); each evening at dusk I shooed them back into their coop and locked it up so they could indeed nest safe and sound.

In mid-July we had our first run in with the fox. Out to dinner one evening with friends, we came home a little after dusk (okay, it was firmly dark) to encounter a terrible turn of events had occurred.  We found four very scared chickens in the garage rafters; we found two very large piles of feathers on the lawn. Chickening fail.
We mourned, and then I bought ten more.

At first we would only see him skulking about in the evening, but as the corn grew higher and as August progressed, the fox grew braver. Finally, he was hiding just inside the first row in broad daylight. He started attacking and dragging them off, one by one. I started let the chickens out when I was out too, and shut them back in when I went inside. This was not the glorious free-ranging situation I had imagined.

Meanwhile, still no eggs. They were well past their twenty-week mark. Their combs however were quite developed. I became convinced we had a flock full of roosters.

And then there were two. These two were the perfect fowl-friends I had envisioned: I noticed the Japanese beetle problem I had had with my roses disappeared as they duly plucked and gobbled insects. They did indeed cluck contentedly while following me around. My twelve-month-old son would toddle after them declaring “Tchichtens!” If we could keep these alive, at least, I would be happy. We had planned to eat them in the late fall when it became too cold for them to comfortably roam, but I began to make plans to overwinter them, eggs or no eggs (though we were still in a no-egg state).

In mid-October tragedy struck. When I made the decision to run inside for just a minute, I left two contented birds happily picking at the front yard. When I emerged not three minutes later I found two pathetic piles of feathers. Hoping against hope that at least one of them had managed to run back into the coop, I raised the door and looked inside. I didn’t find chickens; I found three small white perfect eggs. It was a sad day in chicken farming.

This year will be different. Unfortunately, free-ranging is right out. My neighbor, who also raises her own fowl, has told me that if the fox doesn’t get them, the coyotes will and there really is no way to prevent the predators from coming. So my husband is building me a fortress: a huge box around the coop made of two-by-sixes and walled with chicken wire. The bottom frame is buried eight inches into the ground, and the chicken wire will wrap underneath the board and extend horizontally underneath the pen area. I am even thinking about electrifying it. Bring it on, fox.

My chicken purchase, like the spring, was early this year. Once again, I went to the local tractor supply store to buy my little hatchlings and asked specifically for hen chicks. The cashier looked at me blankly.

“Or I can look. How do you tell?” I asked her, trying to be helpful.
“Um… you can’t yet,” she told me, plainly confused.

So I picked my chicks (nothing wrong with a few roosters) and left. And then, of course, I started doing my research. Surely there must be some way to sex a chicken.

I talked to people who swore you could tell by the shape of the chick’s egg or the behavior of the chick. One experienced farmer cited body shape as an indicator. While there seemed to be no foolproof way to sex a chick (apply desired human sexual metaphor) there is apparently a best way: look at their cloacae.

This is the method, as I understand it: First take hold of the chick with its anus pointing toward you. Then, gently but firmly, squeeze it like a tube of toothpaste and get out of the way. Whatever feces it is holding on to will come out. Then quickly, before those intestines fill up again, repeat that motion with its anus right in your face. You will see places for three possible bumps. If the bump in the middle is pronounced, the chick is a male. But some male chicks don’t have pronounced bumps. And some females do. So if you’re confused you might want to let them grow a bit and try again. Alternatively, you can just wait for their secondary sex characteristics to emerge.

Yeah. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, but I think I’ll take that latter course.

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