I thought I might begin a mini-series.
A series where I will try and describe more in depth the why behind our farm. Why do we pasture our laying hens? Why do we move the broiler chickens and the pigs almost every day? Why do we use wild-leavened sourdough instead of commercial yeast?
But. Before we begin, I just need to say this: we are not experts. We are merely beginners on this journey of farming. Our dream was to create a thing of beauty: to raise animals humanely and the way nature intended them to be raised. We dreamt of gardening and baking and raising our children on the land. And this year, we have begun! For years we have been researching, and dreaming, and learning and this year, we have put our boots to the ground and we have begun. But every day we find ourselves learning. Every day we are making mistakes, and undoing the wrong we have done, and beginning again. We love it, yes. We are passionate about it, yes. But we are not experts.
That said, let's begin.
We will start first with our laying hens.
Did you know that in the commercial laying industry, most chickens never see the light of day? Did you know that almost all of the laying hens in our country spend their lives within metal cages that do not even allow them the room to stretch their wings? Did you know that these living situations are so stressful to the chickens that they end up pecking one another to death?
Did you know to make matters worse, the industry leaders decided to "de-beak" the chickens so that they wouldn't be able to cause harm to one another?
I had never heard of this term until a few months ago when we were in the market for our laying hens. We were searching for the first girls that we would welcome to the farm and in our search, we came across an amazing deal. Too good to pass up. We placed our order for 40 chickens. We told our friend who in turn ordered some and who in turn told his Grandma, who ended up ordering some as well. Thanks to the wisdom of Grandma, she called the farmer just to make sure the chickens were all in-tact and sure enough... they were all without beaks. No wonder it was such a good deal. We were getting chickens without beaks! On the pasture we were going to be putting them on, these chickens would have died, being completely unable to forage.
Needless to say, we found some other chickens that were fully prepared for the environment we were creating for them. Needless to say, metal cages, without beaks was not the way we were going to be raising our flocks.
Now, let's talk about some definitions. "Free-Range" vs "Pasture Raised". What are the definitions of each and which is best?
There are several different definitions, but the USDA's definition of Free Range is as follows:
The HFAC's (Humane Farm Animal Care) definition is:
I didn't find any definition for the USDA for Pasture raised birds, but the HFAC's describes it as such:
From the USDA's definition of "free range", a chicken could only have the ability to stick her head out of a little hole... and she would be considered a free ranging chicken.
Well we wanted to provide a little bit more for our chickens. With many late night discussions over lattes and after many pages of Joel Salatin's books read, Daniel and I decided we would like to pasture raise our chickens. For us, that looks like our 49 laying hens all together in a rather small fenced in area (more explanation on that to follow) with a large chicken coop where they can lay their eggs and where they can have protection through the night. The chickens stay in that paddock for about 5 days and then we move the fence to allow the girls access to fresh new pasture. Now, why?
Daniel and I thought it would be best to pasture raise our chickens for the theory looks first to nature as it's model. The Lord created the animals and the land to work together in a beautiful way. A way in which each helps and benefits the other in countless ways. Watch the birds of the field, or the large wild land animals. They travel about in flocks/large herds. They find an area that will provide enough food, eat all they can in that one area, and then travel to another area. While they are in a certain spot, their waste fertilizes the earth and then when they leave to travel to another area, the land is given rest to regrow itself. A thing of beauty, really.
By trying to mimic nature in the "pasture raising" style, we do several beneficial things for our animals and for our land.
1) We provide safety for our flocks. The electric fence protects them from predators, the coop allows them to roost in safety, and there is safety in larger numbers. Our farm is surrounded by forest with many different types of predators lurking nearby... bears, coyotes, raccoons... if we chose to free range our chickens here, we would probably not have very many left by now.
2) We are increasing soil fertility. So much of our country's growing and farming practices are, sadly, destroying our land. Each and every year, our country alone is losing acres of top soil due to our agricultural malpractice. Let me share:
By keeping our chickens in one area for several days, they trample down the grass and then spread a nice even layer of their fertilizer over top. Their waste alone has wonderful benefits for the land including vitamins and minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. When we rotate them off of the pasture, these beneficial properties are mixed with rain water and seep into the ground, and then are allowed the time to rest, and to regrow. We will not visit this one section of pasture again, ideally, for two months (when just chickens are using it), and when we come back around the grass has regrown and is even fuller than before.
3). With rotating the fences, we give our girls fresh new grass and insects to enjoy, providing them with the best "organic" food they could have which in turn, provides us with the best possible eggs.
I hope this, in a nut-shell, sheds a little more light on the why behind our laying hens.
If you have any questions or thoughts, please don't hesitate to send them our way!
In the next post, I hope to talk about our piggies...
Enjoy your weekend!