Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Henpecked? Ouch (Windsor Dairy Pt. 2)

Last weekend I mentioned that we went to check out the raw milk Windsor Dairy. I didn't go into much depth because there was so much to talk about, I had to control myself and ration it out. This installment? CHICKENS!!!

Why am I devoting yet another blog post to chickens? (see my previous series on free range chickens) I'll just come out and say it ... because they are really weird.

Ok, as I've confessed, I'm a hard-core offspring of suburbia. I have seen maybe a handful of chickens in my life. I've eaten a lot but haven't actually seen them in their feathers.

Windsor Dairy has a few thousand chickens, most of which are wandering around. Around the parking lot, around the road, around my car, chasing my baby, chasing the dog, being chased by the dog. You get the idea, they were everywhere.

The dairy only just started raising chickens recently. They were setting themselves up for raising a much smaller number of two breeds, one egg-laying hen breed and one breed of roasters, when another organic farm turned down an order of 1600 hen chicks. They decided to accept the chicks, leaving them with a serious housing problem.

Ultimately, all of the chickens will be not just free-range but pastured. They will live in portable chicken coops, currently being built, which will be rotated onto pastures recently grazed by cows so that they can clean the field of bugs (attracted by the cow manure) and fertilize the field by scratching the cow and their own manure into the ground. Some time later, the fertilized soil will be covered in new grass, ready for more hungry cows.

Not only will the chickens be providing free labor in the fields, but their eggs and meat will be rich and delicious because their current diet of organic feed will be supplemented heavily by grass and live bugs.

But the chickens aren't quite on the road yet because they need some free-range education.

Apparently, chickens don't automatically know that they need to go back into their coops at night (and if they don't, they're chances of survival are not good). Even chickens in pens have trouble finding their way back at first.

So how are they trained? Initially, they are raised to a certain size in a closed, heated coop. After a little while, they're released into a pen. Later they're released into a larger enclosure, and finally released out onto the farm. The dairy hasn't tried actually moving the coops from field to field yet, but I have a feeling the chickens might be running around like chickens with their heads ... well, you know.

When we saw them, the chickens were in various stages of training, some still inside, some in pens, and many more than I can count living out of a trailer and having the run of the whole farm. Not a bad life.

All of this doesn't explain why I think they're weird. First, there are just so many of them, everywhere, crowding, strutting, squeezing into small spaces. Check out the picture up top of them pushing each other in and out of the trailer. These were the completely free chickens ... they were doing this by choice!

And the way they carry themselves. They're cocky (!), completely oblivious to the much larger size of the people, goats, and cows that they seem to love to annoy.

And finally... I had no idea what the term henpecked meant. According to Webster, it means "to subject (one's husband) to persistent nagging and domination," but I have now seen with my own eyes that it literally means getting pecked by a hen. I would have thought that the life of a rooster in a hen house would be great, but not so. A rooster gets pecked and pecked and pecked, not just by one hen, but by as many as can crowd in close to him. Perhaps the attention is nice, but is it worth the pain?

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