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Starting From Scratch: Chickens in transition can be real drama queens

Egg production here at Oxbow Farm has decreased slightly over the last few weeks because the hens are once again in transition mode. The process of moving the laying hens from their movable coop in the pasture, into the barn for their winter housing was more complicated than originally anticipated. But who am I kidding, isn’t that how it goes around here? Complicated is my middle name.

Chickens are creatures of habit and when you disrupt or change their way of doing something that they are programmed to do, it can take them a long time to create new habits, no matter how small the change may be. Let’s face it, hens can be small drama queens at times, getting upset about the littlest things. The moveable coop was not designed with the intent of using it for winter housing during the really cold months of the year. The walls are not insulated or thick enough to keep out the cold and it is also not big enough for the chickens to stay inside when they don’t want to venture outside in the snow. Not to mention the floor has a couple of large holes due to design flaws.

The first step towards moving the laying chickens into the barn on a permanent basis was to park the movable coop beside the barn where they could venture out into the barnyard. Relying on extension chords, we were able to give them light and water heaters to keep their water from freezing at night. This was a great first step because it got the hens used to the barnyard and their new surroundings.

It is so nice to pull into the driveway and see all of our free-ranged chickens foraging for food. It is not so nice, however, to have 50 chickens rush at me in an attempt to be the first one to be fed food scraps, or to jump in front of my feet as I try to walk in a straight line. It is not so nice either to have the dogs smelling like chicken manure after they’ve eaten it or, even worse, rolled in it.

In the last couple of weeks it has become apparent that the chickens have worn out their welcome, venturing around outside in the driveway and inside the barn itself, which by the way makes more of a mess than the turkeys ever did due to the sheer number of chickens I have.

Chickens gravitate towards light. The easiest way to get a chicken to move from one place to another, without physically moving it, is to create darkness around them and light where you want them to go. Friends of ours who were chicken-sitting over the summer called me to ask how to get the chickens into the coop at night. They tried chasing them, picking them up and placing them in the coop and tempting them with food, but nothing worked. They did not want to be responsible for loosing any of the chickens to a nighttime predator. After a few questions, I realized that they were trying to put the chickens in the coop before nightfall. I told them to go back at dusk and see if it was any easier. Sure enough, when they went back later that evening, all chickens were snug inside, blinking blankly at the humans without knowing there had ever been a problem.

Getting back to the recent chicken coop transition, it was time to move forward with the second part of our plan. I enticed the chickens into the barn with pastries and closed the door behind them. Surely now, if the bay lights were turned off and the coop light inside was left on, they would see that this was their new home and naturally gravitate towards the light and the comfy one-inch square roosts. Oh, what a romantic idea it was to think that everything would turn out according to the plan. Most chickens stayed in the dark in the bay, but some did go in to roost in the coop. When I opened the door to escort some chickens into the coop — humanely with a rake — more chickens came out to see what party was going on in the bay. This never-ending process lasted for more than a couple of days.

At last, I remembered it is really easy to catch rogue chickens roosting in the trees at night when it is dark with only the tractor lights to see what I’m doing. I knew this could work for my problem now. The final stage of the plan of having all of the chickens in the barn was in motion. (Well, all of the chickens except for about 100 chicks in my basement).

One day last week during morning chores, I donned a headlamp and kept all the lights off inside the barn. It worked! I could walk up to a chicken, grab it before it even knew what was going on and carry it to its new location. Perhaps this is why chickens are such easy prey at night if left outside? They don’t seem to be aware of their surroundings in the dark. I was able to move 25 birds that morning back into the coop. There are a few that are still wandering about; they are the really “gifted” birds that have figured out my scheme.

I can now circle back to my opening sentence of this column stating that egg production has slightly decreased. When the birds move to a new location, it disrupts their production and they lay less often. Maybe it is every other day or every third day instead of every day. Not only that, but eggs may get broken if the hens do not have a soft, easily accessible location in which to lay their eggs. Production was down so much this week that Denise, who works at Roy’s Market in Peterborough, offered to come and help at the farm in the hopes of increasing production.

I may keep that offer in my back pocket and pull it out when I need it, but for now I am positive — because of my keen farming skills — that on the next delivery day we will be back up to almost 40 dozen eggs a week, and our customer’s holiday baking and entertaining will not be disrupted.

Kim Graham lives in Dublin with her husband, Jim, and their two children. The couple hails from New Brunswick, Canada. This column chronicles their first-ever adventures in farming. For more about the farm, see www.oxbowfarmnh.com.

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