Friday, May 25, 2012

To have or not to have chickens...

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of field preparation (rock picking, compost spreading, rototilling, mowing), seedling starting, direct seeding and sheep pen moving. Last week, the farm suffered the loss of 3 of the 4 chickens I had kept over winter at the farm. Over the winter, the chickens had become completely free ranging, even choosing to roost very high up in my drive shed. And no predators came. But last week, that changed. One night, the little silkie rooster (Yeti) was taken. Jeremy and I followed his feather trail up the ridge and found his carcass. The next day, 2 hens were taken, one from the little nest she was sitting on, brooding an egg (I was looking forward to a chick) and the other from the barnyard, in broad daylight, right where Jeremy and I walk back and forth to the field throughout the day. That night, I put a large dog crate into my enclosed front porch, caught my last remaining hen, and put her in there for the night.

Her new overnight roosting spot on my porch keeps her safe, but each day when I let her out, I worry that something will get her. That something is most likely a raccoon, but I can't be sure. My last remaining hen is a smart one though, and tends to stick closer to the house and hangs around underfoot when Jeremy or I are around. The other day, I potted up garden plants with the hen hanging out right beside me. And after a couple nights of being put in the front porch, she now comes in on her own, usually around 7:30 pm.

So now I'm debating if I will get any more laying hens this year. They couldn't all stay in my front porch, and there would still be the risk of predation when they're let out during the day. A predator proof outdoor area for the chickens would involve purchasing enough electrified poultry fencing to give them a large enough area to roam (likely a few hundred dollars in cost). Getting a farm dog to keep away predators would incur the cost of the dog, vet fees, and a whole lot of discipline on my part to train it properly not to eat the chickens or run out onto the road. And I would still probably have to trap and kill any predators that came sniffing around.

Last year I lost 7 chickens to a raccoon after many different attempts to secure the chickens' environment. Jeremy and I managed to tree it one day when it attempted to take another chicken, and spent hours trying to shoot it out of the tree with a slingshot. It eventually got away, but we saw a raccoon as roadkill just up the road from the farm that afternoon, and didn't have any more chicken killing attempts after that. I'm considering borrowing a live trap from farmer friends, but then if a raccoon was trapped, I'd have to figure out how to kill it humanely. Not an easy thing without a gun :(

Right now, I'm inclined towards not having chickens. Last year, since so many were killed, I actually lost money on them. But I so very much enjoy eating eggs from my own farm where the chickens free range for snacks. The egg yolks are brilliantly orange, rich and tasty! So I'm torn right now. If I do want to keep laying hens, I would have to invest in a few rolls of electric poultry fencing, a cost which could not be recouped with a flock of only 20 chickens. Selling the eggs really only covers the cost of their feed. And I'd still have to trap the predator...and any new ones that come after the first one's removed. Sigh...how much is it worth to me to eat eggs produced at my own farm? I'll have to decide soon as the farm I usually get my second year layers from will likely be selling off that flock at the beginning of June.