Friday, May 11, 2012

Saturday Market Story for May 12, 2012

Although it makes for a fair bit of work, we love raising chickens for their gorgeous eggs.  We often get asked what we mean when we say we have free range eggs and it usually causes us a little bit of a chuckle.  There seem to be many terms and definitions circulating now but we don’t play word games. Our birds are truly free ranging.  We have over three hundred chickens that meander over about fourteen acres here.  I am sure that makes us a fairly inefficient egg producing facility but it is nice to see them busy all around the farm.

When we first moved to the Upstate nearly fourteen years ago we wanted chickens.  They were just a fixture at my childhood home in Ohio and we’d even had a few in the suburbs where we lived in Florida.  We went to a flea market where someone suggested we could find a pair.  I carefully picked out two pretty hens and waited for the fellow to crate them up in an old box from a liquor store.  When we got home and opened the box we realized that he had swapped out one of the chickens so that it was not the gal I had chosen.  We named her Oops and loved her anyways.  From then on we only ordered our chickens from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.  We always order their day old chicks and raise them up here on the farm.  The children were delighted the first time we handed them the pretty catalog and told them how many chickens they could pick.  I don’t recall how many different breeds the children chose but we started with lots of colors, sized and personalities and have kept it that way since.  Although we’ve always leaned toward ordering chickens classed as heavies who are good layers, we’ve also slipped in everything from a few Phoenix roosters with long flowing tails and a tiny Golden Seabright hen who was barely bigger than a pigeon.  Mrs. Seabright lived to be about nine years old and was a precious gal who, as a little old lady, went to sleep on her roost a good two hours earlier than any of the other birds. 

We currently have about two dozen different breeds of chickens.  They range in age from several months to six or seven years of age.  We do not cull our birds when they stop laying but allow them just to live their lives out here.  Again, not an economically good plan but after all that they have given us it is hard to do otherwise.  We are accommodating a fair number of old ladies who eat, nap, take dust baths and perhaps lay an egg a week.

The hens have four different buildings that have nesting boxes in them.  The two main buildings that they use have fencing around them but the fencing has huge chicken-sized holes in many places at the bottom so that the birds can come and go without the goats and sheep entering the yard to eat the layer feed we always make available or allowing the dogs to raid the nesting boxes.  A good number of the hens come and go throughout the day but there are some that never leave the huge bird yard.  They are content to scratch around the yard, nap under the oak tree or in the doorway of the house where a nice breeze always seems to be blowing and take turns arguing over who gets which nesting box.  The main building has over 50 individual nesting boxes but there seem to be some preferred spots.  The gals who want to set for a while prefer a nest box with a view out the door.  In the cool weather they want to be in the nest boxes against the south wall where the sun warms them and in the heat of summer they prefer the boxes closest to the fans.  There are often two gals pushing at each other for the same box.  Others will sit quietly on the roost waiting for their favorite spot to become available.  There are a few hens who don’t care much one way or the other, even just hesitating long enough to lay their egg on the ground and keep scratching for something interesting. 

Gathering eggs can be interesting as well as slightly treacherous.  If you notice my right hand and arm you may see small bruises and scratches.  Some of the hens peck as I gently reach under them to pull out the still-warm eggs.  Others not only peck but will pinch, twist and hang on for a second or two just to make a point.  I currently have a Buff Brahma hen who marches up and down the perch in front of one set of nesting boxes.  She threatens me as I begin down the row, ruffling out her feathers to look big, squawking and sometimes grabbing at my arm. Most hens simply let me reach under and then readjust themselves in the box after I pull my hand out.  And then I have at least four hens who are my favorites as they will stand up when I begin to reach into the box.  One will even glance down to be sure I am finished before puffing out her feathers and settling back down.
We feed a simple layer feed with no weird additives or antibiotics.  We have found that we just don’t get sick chickens and attribute that to the fact that no one is crowded unless they choose to huddle up with their buddies.  They range around so always have plenty of fresh air, exercise and green grass.  We have a great arrangement with the Hyatt who saves their daily kitchen prep scraps in the cooler for us.  These cans of peelings, stalks, leaves, rinds and other goodies add even more to the daily diet of grasses, bugs and interesting windfall fruits that they glean here.

Jeff and Kim of Iszy’s Heirlooms are precious friends who also contribute lots of goodies for the birds.  We get the bulk of their cull lettuces, tomatoes and anything else from their farm that the birds will eat.  We have laughed about getting our eggs tested for their lycopene levels in the thick of heirloom tomato season when we feed several bushels of tomatoes a week.  Years ago when we first started feeding tomatoes I would find myself checking birds often to try to figure out who was bleeding.  As soon as I picked up a sticky bird I would realize that the funny red on it was simply tomato flung around in the frenzy of discovering a new basket poured out on the yard.  But the mother in me always needed to check just in case!

I visit the birds many times each day and process many eggs.  Our middle child, Eric, started a small egg business when he was a boy and we took it over when he began to work a full time job.  I enjoy our daily chicken routine and it is always a treat when those eggs are appreciated by our wonderful egg customers.

Find us on Face Book – just search Merciful Hearts Farm.

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