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December 4, 2012

Photography lingo for Straight Out Of Camera, farm lingo for Straight Out of Chicken :)  I think the benchmark for good eggs for most people is a dark, hearty looking egg yolk and a firm white.  I also think most people only believe that is made possible by having a free-range flock.  I don’t really want to debate free-range vs. confinement here in this post.  Long time readers know that I confine my flock, and I don’ t have any incentive really to free-range them, so maybe a post about our deliberate, husbanded food supply would be more useful.  There are so many half-truths and fallacies out there on the interwebs these days I would like to interject my two cents now and then.

Winter eggs

Deliberate eggs

Obviously, my confinement eggs look a lot different than those available in the store.  And yes, they are different.  Confinement when it comes to chickens causes many folks to become apoplectic at the mere thought of Henny Penny not being able to run around and do her scratching and pecking when ever she so desires.  If you only look at the word confinement and never at the word husbandry you may be missing out on what is really important.  To get eggs like those in the frying pan, I have to husband my chicken flock.  So rather than make them fend for themselves, I provide shelter, feed, water and an egg laying place.  In turn, they provide eggs and copious amounts of composty material for the gardens.  In other words, they are part of a farm system.  If they were free-ranging they would be more part of the wild system that our farm exists in.  Another way to look at the free-range chicken idea is to apply that template to other things in your life.  Do you throw your garden seeds out in the grass and expect them to make a crop during the growing season?  No, you carefully prepare your soil, and you nurture your seeds into plants and help them along by weeding, watering and fussing.  Then you harvest your bounty.  I view the hens the same almost as the garden, it would not exist without me, and without them I may not exist either, at least in farming form.  That’s where holistic resource management comes in.  Each part must be managed in such a way as not to take away from the other parts.  If I spend time hunting for eggs, or chickens, that time is taken from something else.  Family, other livestock, job, all important but in serious danger of getting the short straw if we get lost on tangents like only free-range eggs, or grassfed cows, or _______________ you fill in the blank.

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To that end, our confinement hen set-up is scaled down version of our pastured egg business.  We’ve kept some methods and discarded others to come up with what serves our objectives well.  We never free-ranged our pastured flock, we intensively pastured them with four sections of electric netting, moveable housing and feed.  The whole she-bang was moved part and parcel every three days like clockwork in a carefully crafted pasture rotation during the grazing season.  A good system, but very labor intensive, and definitely not worth doing for a family sized flock.  During the winter months when the land needed a rest from chicken feet and chicken manure, we housed the chickens in a greenhouse on deep bedding.  All the nest boxes, waterers and feeders moved inside with them.  Chores changed from fence moving to laying down bedding.  Of course, feeding, watering and egg gathering stayed the same.

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Many of the items that we used for our egg business work equally well for our own eggs.  Hanging nest boxes that are easy to move and clean are a boon to the chicken wrangler.

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With the nest boxes hanging (out of rodents reach), the hinged perches provide the hen a landing place when she flies up to the nests.  The hinges also allow us to close the perches off at night so the hens do not soil the nests.  I open them after dark, so any early risers can get in the nests to lay their eggs.

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Another item we have continued using are hanging feeders and waterers.  They are very user-friendly for the human and the birds, they stay clean and are easy to service.  Hangdog fashioned tensioners with adjustable toggles from scrap wood and rope and they are great.  The height of the feed and water can be changed with a simple hand movement to accommodate the growth of the chickens.  They are also easily removed for cleaning if need be.

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A simple S hook is attached to the feeder and hooked through the loop on the tensioner.

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The waterer is attached in the same fashion.

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Having lightweight, durable equipment that is easy to use and maintain really makes a difference with husbandry chores, and allows me the freedom think about ways to make the hens diet more varied.  I do have the hens on full feed, but I give them greens daily from the garden, and they work through the household generated compost every day.

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hen pecked compost

hen pecked compost

And, last but not least – the beautiful material for the gardens.  Which really in turns takes us full circle husbandry-wise.  Farmer, chickens, fertilizer, garden, eggs, all are inter-connected and so important to each other, and that’s the way it should be.

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46 Comments leave one →
  1. cookie roscoe permalink
    December 4, 2012 1:01 pm

    Dear Matron,
    Thanks again for the small University course. I’ve lived in a city all my life, but I’ve become a manager for a farmers market, and one little thing you said prompted me to write today. You spoke of folks getting apoplectic at the mere thought of (a chicken) not being able to free range. Honestly, I would not be one of those people. But, that’s only because of your thoughtful and I would imagine very time consuming posts. I often am so grateful that you seem driven to share your intelligence like this with us, and marvel at how you find the time. As a market manager, I’m often stopped by city people wanting to know what the practices of various farmers are, and though I know them to be thoughtful and purposeful, often when people hear “confinement” they are done listening. The image they’ve had drummed into their heads is of course the one of battery cages and cut beaks, which has been useful to small scale farmers on some levels, to help to educate people that THESE eggs are not THOSE eggs. I’m always dismayed when my neighbours in the city don’t take the time to listen when the explanation is offered. Sadly, I see too many examples of the explanation not being offered, but assumptions being made that the person asking will not understand the whole dialogue or won’t listen. I’m sure they often don’t, but it doesn’t give us permission to stop offering. There are many miles to go before people understand where food comes from, and how important it is to everyone involved. Please don’t give up on those of us who don’t get it yet, and keep on explaining.

    Many thanks.

    • December 4, 2012 1:57 pm

      Cookie, you’re very welcome!

      • December 5, 2012 10:08 am

        Do you think it would make any difference if there were pictures of the happily confined hens, to show people the difference between what they are thinking about and the reality?

        • December 5, 2012 1:56 pm

          No but maybe if we put up some pictures of muddy chickens in the snow and slush with dirty eggs in messy nest boxes…

    • December 5, 2012 10:02 am

      I was thinking the same thing Cookie. Great comment. I have recently become fixated on how determined people are to only hear what they want to hear. I sell grass-fed beef, and am a believer, but only because it works well for my herd and my land. I’d be the first to give my cows grain if they weren’t thriving on the grass.

      There are some beautiful meat centered cookbooks about buying sustainable meat that offer checklists and questions for farmers that kind of annoy me. I can tell people are following the cookbook advice like a Bible when they ask certain questions, most of which few small producers like myself are capable of answering because we can’t afford the scales and processes to collect the data, nor can our small family owned processors.

      I’ll bet if Matron opened the door to that greenhouse, those girls would not want to be outside for long. Just like humans have come to love our warm, dry houses, animals feel the same way about their shelters.

      I have long believed that everyone should have to work on a farm for at least a full year as part of their human education. They may hate every minute, but they’d learn where food comes from and why it costs what it does.

  2. Marilyn permalink
    December 4, 2012 1:05 pm

    So funny – your hens are “confined” like I have a CAFO ;-). Lucky chickens!

    Thinking of you – my milk cow is bagging up. The whole farm is looking forward to this!

    • December 4, 2012 1:56 pm

      Marilyn, ooh just when Jane is bagging “down.” Everyone here loves milking time and all the dairy products, even the chickens are getting some cheese and whey.

  3. December 4, 2012 1:08 pm

    It’s funny – I’ve always considered your hens to be “free range.” “Confinement” to me means six hens in a 2’x2′ box.

    • December 4, 2012 1:55 pm

      Emily, yeah, just like free-range here equals bobcat scat… I can’t really say though that being against the wrong type of confinement is a bad thing. Those battery cages are awful, but if people want cheap food then that’s how it’s going to be produced, too much labor involved otherwise.

    • December 5, 2012 10:04 am

      I agree with Emily – I’ve never considered your hens to be confined. I also think confinement means wall to wall birds and/or 2 x 2 boxes.

      • December 5, 2012 11:33 am

        AMF, I guess I am going by neighbors who think my chickens have it pretty bad, and don’t hesitate to tell me. Although they have lots of chicken crap from their free-ranging hens on their hay in the barn…no thanks.

  4. December 4, 2012 1:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing that. I’m struggling to keep my (8 week) chick’s poop away from the waterer (similar to yours, but with a reservoir on top). Oh, and the grit, and the food, and everything else. If they can perch on it, they will; if the can’t, they’ll try anyway.

    I recently read a story praising a poultry farm for their awesome sensitivity, down to gas knocking out the birds before slaughter. Their free-range yard is a quarter acre for hundreds of chickens, and they’re a model of great chicken raising. We’re marketing chickens like deodorants and lipstick anymore. It’s more about feeling good than about the product quality and the real practices that go into it. I don’t think I’d get more customers if I advertised “Zero chickens lost to vicious weasel or raccoon attacks!” But people buying free range don’t envision the carnage of predation.

    On the other hand, I might market the girls as pre-composters! I used to put big scraps in a blender, but now I have chickens to grind and liquify them. :-) I figure 10 years of animal com-poop-post in our heavy clay soil will turn it into something beautiful to behold (at least for a farmer).

    • December 4, 2012 1:52 pm

      Harriet, every little tip helps. Our water reservoir is outside so I can fill it without going inside. Birds are birds though, I have to keep a lid on the outside water bucket to keep wild birds out of it!

      Re your compost additions, every little bit helps. And chickens are great for turning garbage into eggs and poop!

  5. December 4, 2012 1:30 pm

    I have seen the set up before and remember that I was super in love with the hoop house as hen house idea – especially in the winter months here when the constant drizzle makes any chicken run a mucky quagmire. It makes it easy then to hang a light and manage the deep litter as well.
    I keep mine in an enclosed run with a chicken house that gets locked up every night. I believe in husbandry exactly like you do – take care of them and they will take care of you. Plus – I look at the area they are allowed to scratch around in as free range – just not free range enough to get eaten by the neighbors Rottweiler!

    • December 4, 2012 1:47 pm

      Lindsey, you’re so right, the deep litter and keeping it dry is the key. I shade them in the summer, and with the shade cloth off, they don’t need lights, or at least I don’t provide them ;) Yeah, it only takes a few bites (from a Rottweiler or owl) and the chickens are compost themselves :(

  6. Barb in CA permalink
    December 4, 2012 1:32 pm

    Quick question… how old is the compost when the chickens get it? My daily kitchen compost looks very different than that, so I think I’m missing something there. But thank you for sharing WHY you do what you do. Always very enlightening!

    • December 4, 2012 1:44 pm

      Barb, that is what they turn the bedding and whatever else that comes their way into – ready to spread compost. The stuff they get from the house is eggshells, coffee grounds, popcorn duds, and whatever vegetable trimmings the dogs or cows won’t eat. I guess I should have been clearer in my post, that’s the finished product.

  7. Nick permalink
    December 4, 2012 2:05 pm

    Pretty eggs! And they look tasty. A quick question. What is the most recent half-truth you have seen or heard?

    • December 4, 2012 2:31 pm

      Nick, they are tasty!

      The most recent thing I saw was a “poster” or whatever you call it on FB, you know where someone sees something they just have to share with other FB’rs? Anyway the poster shows a yellow cube of butter and a white cube of butter side by side, the captions read, One of these cows were fed corn. Can you guess which one? It implies that cows eating corn only have white butter and cows that eat grass have yellow butter. Well…my cow eats grass and corn (insert horrified look here) and her butter is yellower than the expensive Ireland stuff in the photo. So I would say half truth, there are so many other factors to take into account with butter, like breed and feed for starters. But it sure gets people who don’t know what they are talking about in an uproar. There is one thing worse than people not knowing where there food comes from and that is people who think they “know” where food comes from that start farming and become experts in a season or two, and then getting a facebook account ;( I did a little backtracking on that poster too, and read that the grassfed butter from Ireland is so good that it spreads even when taken out of the refrigerator – unlike the other white butter that has to come to room temperature. Hmmmm, must be something wrong with my butter then, because it is pretty hard to spread right out of the refrigerator.

      • December 5, 2012 10:12 am

        Did you see the one recently with four photos of udders – two of beef cows, obviously just nursed and two of dairy cows just before milking. The point was the horror of industrial dairy and what it does to a cow’s udder… compare and contrast.

        Pretty misleading and inaccurate. And the comments showed that people bought it without question and it was complete justification for why everyone needs to become vegan.

        Sigh…

        • December 5, 2012 11:31 am

          AMF, I haven’t seen that, but I’m not surprised. People will believe anything, I just saw some grassfed only raw milk advertised on CL and the cow is pictured standing in a field with no green grass anywhere! And a one month old baby calf to boot. That cow hasn’t had much grass this lactation, and if she rebreeds she’ll be dry the next lactation when the grass in Oregon is at it’s best :( Of course, someone will fall for the ad and believe the cow is grass fed :(

      • December 6, 2012 12:08 pm

        I have encountered spreadable-from-the-fridge grass butter in the Netherlands, in May. Butter with the same claim bought in fall did not spread when cold. The heavenly stuff was from the regular supermarket.

        • December 6, 2012 1:56 pm

          Len, interesting, I have never had butter that did that no matter what time of year it was. Sure would be nice sometimes though :)

  8. Dana S permalink
    December 4, 2012 2:07 pm

    How long do you go between hen house clean outs? I’ve heard some say they continue to layer on more bedding, but how long can you do that before you have negative effects of too much chicken poo?

    • December 4, 2012 2:17 pm

      I clean it once a year, and during the growing season (garden) I am mining it for finished compost for garden projects. I add at least a flake of straw a day, and periodically add a wheelbarrow load of cow manure or a wheelbarrow load of horse manure/shavings. It is not straight chicken manure by any means, and deep bedding actually creates it’s own natural antibiotics once you reach a certain thickness and keep it from the elements. What makes this work is that it has a dirt floor, and the chicken area is dry, so no mud forms, no nitrogen is lost due to improper carbon/nitrogen ratio etc. It also gets at least a 30 day rest between flocks too, so it is a system, not your traditional chicken house full of chicken shit, carbon is the key.

      • December 5, 2012 2:06 pm

        I have to butt in here. MoH used the word “Flake” above and I always think that kind of thing is funny. A flake is a rough measurement. It’s kind of like saying a dash of salt. Flakes change based on balers and windrows. I catch myself saying things like that to friends from the city and they have no idea.

        Q: How many flakes will you need to bed your chickens? A: It depends.
        Q: How much carbon should I add to my compost pile? A: It depends.
        Q: How many logs will I need to heat my house with a wood stove? A: It depends.
        Q: How many dates will I have to go on before I find that special someone? A: It depends.
        Q: How many lottery tickets do I have to buy before I’m a winner? A: You already lost.

  9. Batina permalink
    December 4, 2012 2:34 pm

    I am planning on getting chickens next year for the first time. I have followed your writing for a while, and I have learned a ton so far. I am curious why you keep a rooster? I hear a lot of different advice on whether to have a rooster or not. Thanks again!

    • December 4, 2012 3:00 pm

      Batina, my theory on roosters is that they are pretty but not really necessary, others may differ on that. But Russell Crow came in a batch of pullet chicks and he is a pretty nice guy, so he gets to stay. He behaves himself and as long as he does that he’s welcome. It’s not unusual to get males despite ordering females, so when we used to raise more chickens and had many more roosters, we ate them at about 5 months of age – Delicious! But a rooster is not necessary for eggs, unless you want fertile eggs for hatching or in the case you believe fertile eggs are more nutritious.

  10. Bev permalink
    December 4, 2012 2:44 pm

    Tasty looking and wonderful colored eggs. Yum! Isn’t it a joy to crack your eggs open when cooking. I have a friend who thinks there is something wrong with my eggs when she comes to visit, but she sure changed her mind when tasting them. I agree with Emily, confinement is in a 2×2 box. Your chickens look so healthy and well cared for. With all the rain we have been having your pics show that their care is A+. Great post.

    • December 4, 2012 3:02 pm

      Bev, I know people are shocked at the color, just like the Jane’s butter. You can see in the pan though that some chickens either don’t eat their veggies or they aren’t assimilating the greens in the same way. We have a couple of lighter yolks every day.

  11. December 4, 2012 6:08 pm

    Hi Matron, I love your nesting boxes (and I bet my chickens would too). We keep ours in “tractors” which we move once a week or so, and they come out and free-range all day. I do miss out on that lovely compost, but we have seen huge improvements in our pasture instead. We are lucky that we don’t have any day-time predators, so the chickens can roam freely and we don’t have to move any netting (as long as they stay out of my garden its fine, they also wander into the neighbour’s property and where-ever they want). They are usually pretty good about laying in their boxes, but they also like to sleep in the boxes, but I don’t have time to shut them out every night, so I just top up the wood shavings in the box once a week to stop the eggs getting messy. We find that when the chickens are free-ranging they eat less of the grain we feed them and they lay just as many eggs, so that brings down our costs. I suppose its all about assessing the cost/benefit for each situation, the compost would be a major benefit too if we had set it up that way. We feed our tame house cattle a little grain each day to keep them tame, so they’re not 100% grass-fed either, I don’t know how you get the protein high enough to have 100% grass-fed dairy cows, but they do it in New Zealand (we visited a dairy there while on holiday, of course), must have better grass than Australia…. I always buy NZ butter too because it tastes better than Aus butter!

  12. Chris permalink
    December 4, 2012 7:53 pm

    Perfect system, perfect eggs!! ;)

  13. December 4, 2012 10:02 pm

    Your eggs look so good. Our hens are on hiatus right now and we miss the golden yolks! Last summer we had to confine our hens for about a month as the garden was going in and they wanted to prune the peppers. So all hens were confined with a wonderful run the length of the barn in full sunlight and plenty of green grass to eat, sheltered scratching area, and inside coop area with fresh water, feed and goodies from the grass and garden. What we found was the eggs paled and paled some more. Once the hens were free to roam outside of the confined area, it took about a week for the yolks to return to the deep golden orange that they usually are and I wonder what the difference was between our run and confinement and yours. Yes, our free runners have been taken by predator and our eggs are sometimes hidden like it is Easter. Thank you for a great and informative post.

  14. December 5, 2012 10:21 am

    How do you house the chickens at night? Do they have perches? Do How cold does it get where you are? Sorry lots of questions :)

    We have ours in arks (kind of like a chicken tractor I guess) but that is partly in case something got in (we haven’t got electric netting) and partly because of the cold, so we can shut them up into a wooden box at night. So far they have been pretty happy when it has been -9C (16F) at night.

    • December 5, 2012 11:27 am

      Joanna, they stay right where they are in the hoophouse. No perches, they sleep on the deep bedding. It doesn’t get down much below 10F, but even in a colder area the deep bedding would help keep the chickens warm.

      • December 5, 2012 12:12 pm

        Okay thank you for taking the time to reply. Well so far that sounds good and how many chickens do you keep in that area?

        • December 5, 2012 12:26 pm

          Joanna, I have 5 feet walled off for supplies, feed storage etc, and there is 15 x 20 for the hens. I currently have 13 chickens and have housed as many as 25 this way. Industry standards recommend a minimum of 5 square feet per laying hen, but I think that is too low. A dozen hens keeps us in eggs plus extra for puppies, etc. We originally built this hoophouse for brooding chicks and now we use it for either growing or hen keeping, still worth every penny.

  15. December 5, 2012 11:09 am

    Are you telling me these chickens live indoors? Or just confined in a yard? I gave up poultry for years because I was getting so disheartened by the predation, even inside a fenced yard. Meanwhile the fenced run needs to be rebuilt, a daunting chore. In 2011 I had laying birds again for a summer, and just kept them inside, on straw, supplemented by daily kale, sprouted wheat, etc. They have lots of room. Are you telling me that’s OK?
    I felt a bit guilty. But the eggs were great.

    • December 5, 2012 11:25 am

      Len, they live in a small hoophouse, 20 x 20. Well, it’s OK with me. My chickens are alive, and they happily lay eggs and make lots of compost for my garden. :) I would happily free-range my chickens if someone besides me would provide me with unlimited pullets.

      • December 6, 2012 12:11 pm

        Thanks! If it is good enough for you it is good enough for me. The floor of the barn is dirt, they can scratch and all that. I just might have bigger windows put in. I really appreciate your input.

  16. December 5, 2012 4:55 pm

    Great post, thanks for all the photos as well, they are very informative. I’m loving that tensioner thingy your HD fashioned, and if I’m right thinking it’s just a simple not on the back side of that lower hole, well then I think I could make one of those for myself.

    You also caught my attention with the hinged perches in front of the laying nests – that you close after dark. What genius. I’m going to pocket that idea and use it in my next poultry house iteration. Poopy eggs are so… well, poopy.

    • December 5, 2012 7:23 pm

      TD, they are simple, just make the rope longer than you think you’ll need and it is a knot on the end, he added the frapping to make it pretty on the loose ends, but that’s not necessary, I don’t think the chickens have ever noticed it ;)

      Once you have closed off nests, you’ll never go back. You might be able to find old metal nest boxes pretty cheap if you dig around on Craigslist – they are the bomb :) New ones are getting pretty spendy – but clean eggs are definitely worth it.

  17. Kristin permalink
    December 5, 2012 5:20 pm

    The color of those yolks tells me you’ve got it right, Nita. I need to have my hubby make up some of those tensioners. My daughter cares for our flock & sure could use them. Thanks for posting the picture. :-)

  18. December 8, 2012 7:17 pm

    So much changes when you attempt husbandry, instead of only reading about it. ;)

    I will say this for pasture fed eggs though – they taste better. I’ve had my flocks on both systems and I really notice the difference. For various reasons we can’t keep them on pasture much nowadays, but I understand why those who are committed to it, love the taste.

    If you can manage that kind of system – do it, if you can’t, home grown confinement eggs are still better than store bought ones, by far. They’re fresher for a start.

  19. wondering permalink
    December 12, 2012 6:47 pm

    I’ve got a dozen hens that live in a 12 x 32 deepbedded hoophouse in the winter. In the spring and early summer they are in chicken tractors and in late summer and fall they range freely around my garden, since I need my hoophouse for the tomatos and peppers. They go inside in the winter because we’re knee deep in mud as soon as the rains get going in earnest. In fact, if didn’t keep adding bedding the hoophouse would get pretty soggy from all the rain seeping in under the walls. (Dirt floor) We let them out into the garden on sunny winter days though – they’ve gotten quite good at following us to and fro between greenhouse and garden lol

    I definitely notice the difference between summer and winter coloured eggs, even though we are supplementing their winter feeds with kitchen scraps and cabbages and so on.

    FYI – a lot of smaller veggie markets will let you take their old greens for chicken feed for free – all you have to do is ask! I get a lot of free beet tops, carrot tops, outsides of lettuce, abused, battered this and that veggies, etc that way. My chickens looooove their free beet tops.

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