Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Chicken and the Egg

The 2011 Egg Season is officially open -

I repurposed a broody coop, adding legs and painting a blackboard sign on its front, to make an 'honesty box' for selling eggs at the bottom of our driveway.

The hens are laying with enthusiasm now that the days are getting longer. The don't always cooperate with me by laying them somewhere I can find them before the dogs do. The sheep trailer - currently acting as our hay storage - is their new favorite nest -

Even after the dogs take their cut and I bake a week's worth of cakes, I have a few dozen eggs left to sell. And that's not counting the bantam eggs which I reserve for hatching new stock.

Well, I used to anyway.

The cost of feed has risen significantly, and I can't justify keeping fancy hens for my...well...fancy. Hence, the leftover, un-purposed broody coop. I'll keep my current stock but I won't be raising any more. 

I should say that I will attempt to keep my stock. Another deciding factor in giving up the bantams is loose dogs. Not ours, but visitors' dogs. The estate has many walking trails and weekends bring an influx of "townies" (as they're disparagingly known). Most have very well-behaved dogs and, as usual, it's only an handful of miscreants that wreak havoc: killing lambs, chasing deer into fences and mauling them, and of course chickens.

Ours are free-range and sometimes cross the road to scratch in the paddock across the way, or turn over leaf litter on the side of the road. That must be a terrible temptation for even the best behaved dog. But it's the dogs that come tearing into our garden trying to catch the chickens, with no sign of an owner, that are exasperating. In the past few months we've caught 3 separate dogs - all bull terriers, oddly - running around the garden in hot pursuit of their prey, which I've explained to the owners is also our livestock.

I shut the gate to the garden, but short of building more pens and keeping the chickens in permanently I am unable to protect them. One dog attack can decimate the breeding stock for a whole year, by the time you source replacement eggs, hatch them, raise them, and wait for them to reach sexual maturity. Then it's another cycle to produce their offspring for sale.

I'm going to streamline the poultry operation, and keep only meat chickens and hybrid layers. Both are easy to source and replace. Meat chickens are ready to harvest in three months. Generic brown hens start laying earlier and lay for longer, and they seem to be more successful escaping the rogue dogs. Neither succumbs to diseases that readily take down my fancier breeds. Between disease and dogs, it breaks my heart to watch the little bantams die.

I wonder if it's practical reasons like these which cause some of these rare breeds to become rare in the first place.


Murphyfish said...

Hi Jennifer,
I guess I'm what you'd be calling a 'Townie' myself but it takes little effort or thought for people to respect the countryside and the people's property who live in. I understand fully where your frustration at these 'weekend country folk' it's just a shame that they don't realise or for that matter care what harm they can do.

Kate said...

That sucks. I wonder if the traditional ways of American farming communities appeal to British farmers. Over here, it's pretty widely accepted that a farmer is entirely within his or her rights to shoot a loose dog threatening livestock and ask questions later, if ever. I know gun laws are entirely different over there, I just wonder how far sentiment differs. I love my pets, and would have serious qualms about shooting someone's pet. But livestock are livelihoods.

Do you ever get compensation from dog owners for the livestock they kill?

I could use your broody hen equipment, but it sure is a pretty thing you've done with it.

Jennifer Montero said...

Murphyfish - Most are lovely people and I'm glad they get a chance to enjoy the estate too. Like you say, it's a lack of understanding of a few.

Kate - We're covered to shoot a dog killing livestock too (as long as we can prove we caught that dog doing that damage) but I wouldn't be able to do it. The dog pays the price for something that's the owner's fault. And I love dogs.

Owners never compensate, although they should by law as it's part of our registered livestock business which I earn income and pay taxes on. I read David Kennard's book The Dogs of Windcutter Down, and he tells a story about vacationers repeatedly letting their dogs run his sheep over a cliff. They said "Hey, it's just a sheep." and no compensation was offered. And that was for a couple of dead sheep! I felt so sorry for him.

Maria said...

That sucks! Although I admire your pragmatism in deciding to keep more easy to replace breeds, it must be frustrating...
hmm.. random townie thought - can you get insurance against dog killing your hens? I'm not sure if it would be worth it or if it's even possible, but it would be an alternative to owners compensating you...

Poppy Cottage said...

I am sure that is why rare breeds are just that - rare. For some, the cost of feed isn't a factor, they like seeing something pretty wander around their gardens. but when it is a business, you need to make money from your livestock it is a different matter. We have all been warned, when we keep live stock, that where you have live stock, you have dead stock, that's expected, but not for the pointless reason of some Hunter wearing 4 x 4 driver who can't control his/her dog!!

Paula said...

That's a quandary. I love dogs too, but I'm protective, and I'm not sure that I wouldn't shoot a dog that was killing my livestock. I would be so incredibly angry that I think I could do it.

l'm seeing that living in the country isn't all that it's cracked up to be. You have to worry about deer getting into your garden, and dogs or foxes getting into your hens or sheep. What a constant fight! It's making my quarter acre with the solid privacy fencing and only the occasional raccoon or skunk look pretty good!

I'm sorry about the chickens. Can you grow some of their feed to offset the cost? I hope your honesty box works and that you get regular customers for your eggs.

Harvest Kitchen Sisters said...

It is sad but true. There is something to be said of the hybridized breeds because they are so efficient but the beauty and the connection to the past is missing with these varieties. I get what you are saying, I have some hybridized hens here and they are really great layers (and feed converters) but maybe you could just keep a few of the heritage ones as well. I find people love the different colours and shapes in my easter egg dozens and I can charge a bit more to reflect the cost. I go for half and half (some commercial hens and the rest a mix of heritage birds). To watch them die at the cost of disease and dogs that is another consideration. I lost all my hens and meat birds one year to a weasel and that super sucked. Two steps forward, three steps back with farming sometimes and THAT is the most frustrating part. You have to do what is best for the pocket book sometimes and decide what makes the most sense. I go through this every season....Good luck!

alke said...

Love your blog and sure am glad that you're back.

Hazel said...

I live in a small village, and a near neighbour has a small holding. A villager (who is the dentist in the next vilage!!) lets their dogs run out of a field into the road (never mind about traffic) and straight through the next hedge into the field full of chickens, ducks and geese. They killed birds twice. Twice. I mean, as you say even the best behaved dogs can be unpredictable, but wouldn't you then be extra careful? I don't think the smallholding friend will have any qualms about getting his shotgun out next time.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

We've spotted rogue dogs on our property exactly twice in the three years we've been here, and neither time were they going after our chickens. I wouldn't shoot them if they were, but I might be tempted to take them hostage and demand ransom.

We were just looking at the chicken chart, deciding which breeds to get this year. As much as I like the silly-looking fancy-pants ones, it came down to cold-hardiness, infrequent broodiness, and egg production. Our Rhode Island Reds aren't the most engaging chickens, but they're hassle-free, they never brood, and they lay like champions.

I think the rare breeds are rare because they're livestock that's been bred like pets -- for looks or temperament. That's a basic incompatibility. Although I fully appreciate their charm, and there's real value in a chicken that makes you smile, it's the workhorse chickens that pay the rent.

Jennifer Montero said...

Maria - I don't know if our farm insurance covers chickens. I expect the deductable would cancel it out. Though we have to be insured for public liability in case any of the owners hurt themselves on our land while retrieving their errant pet.

PC - I know you had similar problems with dogs worrying your sheep in your time. It's one of those country conundrums.

Paula - Most of our chicken feed is grown on the estate by a tenant farmer so we can buy it straight off the combine, which makes it a heck of a lot cheaper. The positive side of walkers and visitors is that they're the main customers for my honesty box!

Jennifer Montero said...

HKS - Spoken like true farmers! We get weasels and even polecats decimate pheasant sheds so my heart goes out to you. Mustelids do huge damage for such a small critter.

I am going to keep the Buff Orpingtons. I think we can make room for a dual purpose bird and they are good feed converters too.

Jennifer Montero said...

Alke - Glad you're coming along for the ride! And thanks for the kind words.

Hazel - It's all too common. We recently found two spaniels killing neighbor's lambs. It went on for weeks. They got into a pheasant pen and killed 100 of our adult birds.

The owner was letting them out to "run free and be dogs" while he was at work. He didn't realise what damage they were doing. We were in a position to shoot them, but in the first instance we used our contacts with the local police (very country friendly) to track him down and tell him what was happening.

The police told him if it happens again, he was going to be presented with a not insignificant bill for all the livestock. It's cured the problem.

Jennifer Montero said...

Tamar - I like the basic brown girls too, for their placid nature and dare I say intelligence. I suppose going from pet chickens to workhorse chickens means we're getting more serious about our products.

For some reason, the fancy ones always remind me of those toddlers that get entered into beauty pageants.