To continue our tutorial on chickens, today we will focus on hens.
At Salt Fork Farms, we raise two different rounds of hens at a time. As we have posted before, the chicks come by mail. Eric usually gets a call from the Wiley Blvd office in Cedar Rapids around 5:30 in the morning letting us know the chicks have arrived. After the phone call he will go turn on the brooder heater. The heater is the thing hanging right in front of Eric, Annie and Kristin. The heater warms the room to right around 100 degrees.
When Eric first started raising chickens he used a brooder hood. Here is a photo of chicks under the hood.
In fact, this is the very first round of chicks Eric every raised in Iowa, and one of the photos he used to convince me to visit and take a look at his farming operation. But that is a story for another time.
Here is what the hoods look like from above.
The hens stay in the brooder room until they are large enough to take on the Hen Mobile.
Eric has built two hen mobiles using old hay wagons. Our dear friend Tim has help build both of them.
The sides open up and the ladies hop into a lovely bed of straw and lay their eggs.
Henmobile in action.
Once the ladies are big enough, the Henmobile is moved to the field. The life of a hen is pretty interesting. Our hens spend their day scratching around a large field, fighting off roosters, and laying an egg. The hens start laying eggs after 24+ weeks of age. Each hen has an ovulation cycle of about 26 hours. She will lay an egg every 26 hours as long as it is during the daylight hours. So, after about 12 or 14 days, she will be at a point in the day when she will skip laying for that day. If left to her own devices, she will sit on this clutch of eggs for 21 days until they hatch out. The chicks are then referred to as a brood. Thus the term, “broody hen.” Since we gather eggs multiple times a day, there is no brood for the mama’s to sit on, and the mama will continue to lay eggs.
Hens laying patterns are greatly influenced by the amount of daylight. As the days grow longer, egg production is crazy! As winter draws near, we see egg production decrease dramatically.
Now, we do keep two rounds of hens. But we start them at different times. One round tends to be 18 months older than the other. It would seem logical to put the two rounds of 300+ birds together, right? No. The term “pecking order” came from just this situation. If we mix older birds with younger birds, in great numbers, the older birds would turn into alpha chickens and peck the younger birds. Sometimes to death. Thus we keep the birds in two different Henmobiles, in two different fenced-in areas of pasture.
Each set of hens will continue to lay eggs at various rates over the next two years. After two years, egg production really begins to slow. This is when we take the older hens up to Greene, IA for processing. The hens are now stew hens. The meat on these birds is tougher, as they have developed more lean muscle over two years. We often use them for chicken tacos, enchiladas or any other recipe that calls for pulled chicken. The flavor of the meat is remarkable, and the fat is even better!
We really love our hens and feel fortunate to provide such a happy life for them, and wonderful eggs for you all.