So Greenbranch is into chickens. They’ve been raising egg-laying hens on pasture supplemented by chicken feed a la Joel Salatin in a movable roost unit.
“Salatin calls his the ‘eggmobile’, but I think Cluck Wagon is better, don’t you?” said farmer Ted as we gathered eggs neatly nestled in roosts one fine spring day. I did.
“This is based on Salatin’s design, but we’ve actually made some improvements,” he explained. Like the outward opening doors that make easy access to the roosts for the egg gatherers. “There’s really no need to go crawling up in that wagon. It’s nasty in there. I mean, sometimes you have to do it to get a stray egg or something, but you want to minimize your time in there.” See the picture below for why that’s decidedly true. Also note improvement #2, the branches for perching.
The cluck wagon provides mobile shelter and roosting space for pastured hens. Pastured hens are pretty much as close as you’re going to get to “free range” unless you raise just a few chickens yourself and don’t rely on a constant and consistent production to feed the hungry masses known as your customers. At Greenbranch, we move the birds to a new slice of pasture every couple of days to ensure they get a fresh piece of ground to peck at, ensuring their diet is full of tasty things like grubs and grasshoppers. Of course, they also get some chicken feed, because there just aren’t enough easy-access bugs and seeds to go around on a defined piece of pasture. Why not just let them roam, you ask? Why bother with stringing electrified polywire poultry fence every few days? Well, because there’s these things called foxes.
The chicken fencing isn’t so much to keep the chickens in as it is to keep the foxes out. Apparently, plenty of chickens were lost last year when they tried the free range thing. And those foxes, they killed indiscriminately, but then ate very discriminately. Chicken heads only. Left the rest of those carcasses for the buzzards and what not, apparently. So managed intensive pasture raising of livestock it is.
The particular kind of egg-layers raised at Greenbranch is Australorps. They’re Orpingtons, or “Orps” from Australia. Hearty, attractive, decent producers, and can also double as a “meat bird.” Apparently not all chickens make for good eating. These do, if you get them while they’re young. But it’s still more efficient to raise “meat” birds for market, and those are the subject of my next post… The egg-layers at Greenbranch average around 175 eggs per year, with the bulk of their production in the spring and summer. Hens don’t lay when it’s cold.
“So, I see a few roosters, right? With the hens. Why are there roosters in with the hens,” I asked Jeff, the patient, font-of-knowledge-of-all-things-permaculture-and-related farm manager.
“Yeah. They’re basically there to keep the hens in line,” he answered matter-of-factly, while pulling up a fence post. “In what way?” I countered, always interested in gender roles in the animal kingdom, from humans to chickens. “Well, the roosters are just more alert to danger. They don’t let their hens wander off too far, and while the hens might stay out in the field scratching at sunset, the roosters kind of get them to go inside the truck (as in cluck wagon) a little earlier,” he explained. “The harems are just a little easier to control, and it increases their safety.”
I can see how that would work. Now that I’m married, I no longer go out walking by myself at night, and I’ve promised not to take the short cut by the railroad tracks when I walk to work. I have more in common with a chicken than I thought. Squawk!