I came across this great article last night at kellythekitchenkop. Three Tips on Knowing Your Farmer... it outlined questions you should ask various farmers. I've decided to answer the 5 questions suggested for asking your poultry farmer. The questions are:
- How are your chickens raised? On pasture, indoors, confined? Are they caged?
- How much time do your hens spend outdoors each day?
- Are your hens force molted?
- What are your hens fed?
- Are your hens given antibiotics?
After the questions there is also a paragraph that talks about exposing chickens to hormones via being fed animal protein.
I would add to Kelly's list to ask what breeds your farmer raises and why. Heritage breeds are breeds that lend themselves best to permaculture/sustainable farms, and many of them are in danger of extinction. We are focusing on heritage birds; which may mean their eggs and meat look or taste different than you are use to from the grocery store. Asking that question will likely lead to your farmer explaining how to best prepare the items she offers.
We have a flock of less than 30 chickens; about 25 hens and 5 roosters. We also have 5 Pilgrim geese, and 4 sub-adult Narragansett turkeys. We have several coops, but only 3 are in usable condition. Our farm was a family homestead 20 maybe 30 years ago, we're slowly restoring and repairing everything. What we call the back coop houses the turkeys. It is 2 rooms, one that is completely enclosed from the elements and one that allows good air circulation and is constructed primarily of chicken wire. At this time the turkeys are confined almost all of the time. They were allowed to range for about 2 months when we first began raising turkeys. That is until we lost 2 of the 8 birds we started with to predators and had to start herding them home daily from approximately a quarter mile away. The confinement is temporary. Building an enclosed run is on the To Do List right after finishing the pole barn that is currently in construction. Two of the adult roosters have taken up residence in the side coop. The side coop is actually a broody run, 5 individual runs with a nest box in each. The doors to this are never closed, and the two bachelor roos retire to runs in the evening and leave of their own accord as soon as the sun is up in the morning. Side note: Did you know that you can learn to ignore a rooster crowing while perched on your window at 5am and continue to sleep? Well I can, because I am an expert at sleeping. Another rooster has claimed my pony as his flock. He spends most nights in Ariel's corral sleeping in a covered area by her hay shed. Occasionally a hen or two will choose to sleep out there too. The geese and the remainder of the flock use the front coop. This is a two room enclosure that is approximately 20' by 8'. We open the doors around 8a and it is kept open until around 10p most nights. The hens tuck into their perches long before then, but our geese seem to think they are owls. Since we tend to be night owls too, we send them to bed around 10. The front coop is at maximum bird capacity, which means cleaning more often than I would like. The nest boxes have clean shavings or straw added every other day or so, and are cleaned out with the rest of the coop weekly. When we expand our the flock of geese this spring, the geese will move to their own coop & the hen house will hopefully go to a bi-weekly cleaning schedule. The chickens and the geese are allowed to range all of the 3 acre yard and the 12 acres of forest. They also help keep down the bug population of 2 neighbors' yards. Neighbors who have each told me not only do they not mind, they enjoy watching our chickens play. They also sometimes sneak across the street to the barren corn field. This is not allowed and fencing is also on the To Do List. They are never caged. The only time we confine birds in any manner is when they are a new purchase and undergoing quarantine. They go into one of the brooding runs, not cages. We only purchase groups of flock-mates, so they are not alone during their quarantine period. They have access to fresh air & sunshine during that time too. We never force molt. Egg production has been down to 3 eggs daily from 20 for over a month now. Our girls did not simultaneously molt as we hoped. There seemed to be about a 3 week lag from when the first started till when the rest joined in. So molting is dragging on & on here, but that's OK. We know production will slowly pick up too, and before we know it we'll be up to our ears in eggs again. We do not give routine antibiotics. And knock on wood, we have not had to treat any illness with antibiotics either. I actually offer free-choice probiotic treats like kefir & kombucha often. I hope that this coupled with good husbandry will keep our flock healthy & strong. At this time of year they are getting about 65% of their diet from foraging; during the spring, summer and fall foraging accounted for up to 90%. Their diet is supplement with organic "scratch" which helps them to stay warmer, and during warmer months they are given an organic layer feed to round out their foraging. Next spring I want to try planting gardens for the birds. A mixed garden of greens, beans, peas and squashes in the hopes that we can feed them exclusively from what we grow here. They are also given the trimmings from the gardens, sprouts and appropriate table scraps. Which brings us to the last piece of advice from the article. It suggests you ask if the hens are given meat and explains that this could lead to the hens being exposed to hormones, then it explains that it is not known whether this would in turn mean that you would be exposed to hormones via eggs or meat. Our chickens are given meat scraps from our table. Mostly in the form of bones that have been processed multiple times making bone broth. I follow a Weston A. Price-like approach to feeding my family, and we go through a lot of bone broth. By the time I am finished with stock production I believe I have extract every trace element and mineral from the bone except the last of the calcium that will crumble into dust from finger pressure. Calcium that I can't access but the hens can, and they need it. We also offer shells from clams, oysters and crab whenever we eat those foods. Sustainable wild harvest shellfish are not given hormonal growth treatments :P At this time the bulk of our family's meat is coming from other local, ethical family farms, a small amount is from our livestock and a still smaller amount is from the grocery store. For the sake of full-disclosure, yes they may be exposed to trace amounts of hormones infrequently and it is unknown whether those hormones than pass into consumers. Please keep in mind that hens fed a vegetarian diet are exposed to incredibly high levels of phyto-estrogen from their primarily soy diet, as are you when you eat non-fermented soy products.
As I was reading the original article, I thought of several questions I would add to the list. I didn't include them here to keep the entry to a manageable length. But please, if other questions occur to you ask them in the comments. I love what I do, and I love sharing that with others. This is an exciting time in farming. All across the country we are seeing people from all walks of life slowly returning to (or finding their way for the first time to) real foods, local foods, nourishing foods. Through your questions & feedback we can guide you as you embrace a healthier life style and you can show us what you need as a consumer.
Please check out our Indiegogo campaign. It details our upcoming plans for the farm and if you wish, you can help us accomplish these goals. If you are unable to financially contribute, that's OK- there are many ways you can help and the most important one is by sharing the campaign.