Increasing the Fold

Big day here at the Hillhouse Coop. We acquired sixteen new laying hens from Elihu Farm. Bob and Mary Pratt run this lovely hillside farm which produces eggs, meat birds and lamb. Named for its homesteader/builder and Revolutionary War patriot (so fitting for this Veteran’s Day!) Elihu Gifford – who lies a few paces down the road in a family plot – we first found the place several years ago through a quick Google search for anything “Elihu” in our new neighborhood, and we soon came to learn that this farm is well-known in the culture of the area farmer’s markets. We’ve visited Mary at both her farm and her farm stand over the past few years, and she’s given us some very helpful information about the raising of hens. She’s been very kind to us as we fumble our way into the next level of chicken farming.

Today we learned how to tell the difference between a hen who’s currently laying eggs, and a hen who’s taking a short hiatus from the job. In the fall, with the loss of daylight, a hen’s system often switches gears; her system slows down a bit and among other changes, she often shuts down in the egg department. There are physical indications; her comb is dry-ish looking and more pink than red, her legs may be less colorful, she molts all over, and finally – and most importantly – her ‘vent’ – that is to say, the hole where everything (yes, everything) exits her body, is much more constricted during this phase. Mary showed us how to informally ‘measure’ the vent to see whether it was in shape for passing eggs or not. She flipped a gal on her back, and kinda held her fast between her knees, bird head up and back, vent end up and forward. Mary showed us how two of her fingers easily fit between the pelvic bones and how the vent itself was much larger on the gal who was currently laying. Another hen also so checked, showed a much smaller vent – quite easy to see at a glance – and the fit was much tighter between the pelvic bones. For now, this hen was considered a bit of a ‘free-loader’ as she was eating but not producing. (She’d most likely be a stewing chicken fairly soon.) I’d thought it would be some messy, wet-ish, esoteric, veterinarian kinda challenge to see the difference between the birds, but it was easy. Invert bird, inspect vent. Done. Give the gal a couple weeks to get back in the egg laying game, and if she can’t get it together, she’s retired. Retired gals will be thanked for having contributed their wonderful gift of eggs thus far, spoken to ever so gently as we box em up and drive them to the Amish farmer who’ll have em dispatched and bagged up half-frozen all in less than a half hour. (I must remember this time to have them quartered. And to save those giblets. !)

Elihu hasn’t been this thrilled, happy, nor deeply contented in a good, long while. The very essence of joy was all about my son this evening as he stood in the middle of his flock, stopping to handle each and every one of his birds, new and old, to look them over, talk to them in a low, reassuring tone before returning them to their roost. We have 48 birds. Four are grandfathered in; two roosters, one male guinea fowl, and one white gander (Ya only need one rooster. Our neighbor’s offered to lend out his Roo as a stud service in the spring, thereby making our old boys redundant and quite unnecessary. Elihu won’t have it. He’ll send the old gals off to the butcher, but he can’t see these boys gettin done in. Oh well.)

The sounds of a full house – a full coop, I should say – are gentle and pleasing sounds. I think they’d soften even the hardest of personalities. As you stand in the coop, rows upon rows of birds before you, sitting on their roosts, getting comfortable for a good night’s rest, they make all sorts of quiet little purring and cooing noises. It’s a peaceful place to be. Elihu can simply stand in the presence of his roosted flock for literally hours. Literally. There’s a spiritual quality to this quiet time; there’s a true communing with the birds that seems to take place. The coop is an oasis, separate and apart from the buzzing, high-energy output of human life.

Today’s acquisition was not an impulse; we took a look at some numbers before we made our move to increase the flock. Our prices are far too low, our egg output lately has been the worst ever, and it’s been a while since we’ve donated to Heifer International (one of the founding principals of Eggs of Hope), so we had planned this addition for a while. We’d added a few hens here and there over the past few months, but hadn’t found a true solution until Mary told us she was selling hers. So, calculator in hand, we ran by some different scenarios til we arrived at what we think will be a profitable number of birds. We will have to step things up a bit; get some new customers, announce our new price for a dozen ($3.50 – still a steal!) and work our way up to our new price for Spring of $4 a dozen. At that point we’ll be solidly in the black, and perhaps able to save. Whew.

(Now if only folks wanted piano lessons like they do fresh eggs!)