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Chickens Arrive

Garth Brown |

One of the joys of farming is coming to fully appreciate the differences between the various species of livestock. Cows are incredibly hardy, requiring nothing but decent grass, clean water, and minerals to thrive. They’ll grow faster on lush pasture, but they can do just fine bulldozing through the occasional patch of overgrown, shrubby ground. So long as they have full bellies through the winter and some shade in the height of summer they are content.

Sheep and especially growing lambs need better grass than cows, and they are very good at daintily nibbling just the most succulent, nutritious plants in a paddock. They have a stronger flocking instinct than cattle, and their collective movements look choreographed as they group up to move.Their woolen sweater keep them warm when it’s chilly, and hair sheep like my Khatadins are clever enough to shed them off in the summer.

Pigs root, and unlike ruminants, they need some grain in their diet, at least while they are young and growing fast. Although large pigs are quite hearty their cold tolerance doesn’t match that of cows or sheep, and so they require real housing and lots of bedding to comfortably get them through the winter. They have a reputation for intelligence, but they are far slower than the cows to learn how electric fences work.

Chickens resemble pigs in their impact and maintenance - they scratch up bugs and roots as much as they peck at the green parts of plants - and to be productive they too require grain and housing, though laying hens aren’t so delicate as broilers. Their reputation for vindictiveness has entered the vernacular (cockfight, henpecked), and it is at least partially deserved. They definitely have a hierarchy, and to me it mostly looks like every hen for herself.

I find it interesting that while chickens and pigs are more productive on a per acre basis, they also have more particular nutritional needs and require much more extensive infrastructure than cows or sheep. In conventional agriculture this efficiency of feed conversion just means that pork and poultry are cheaper than lamb or beef, but i can imagine a far more synergistic system, with cover crops and forage for cows and sheep planted in a complex rotation with feed crops for pigs.

But that’s a topic for another day. Right now I’m just happy that we have a laying flock of one hundred hens. They’re living in a hoop that can be pulled around by the tractor, so once the grass starts growing they’ll have plenty of access to it. They are contained by electric mesh fencing, which actually does as much to keep predators out as chickens in.

I searched all over the area for truly pastured eggs, and I didn’t have much luck, which makes me hopeful that this experiment with hens will go well enough to be expanded in the coming months and years. But now the weather has finally turned warm, so in the short term I’m just looking forward to a meal of bacon, ramps, and farm fresh eggs.


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