The last two weeks here on the farm have been filled with moving chickens. It’s one of the first true signs of spring here at Polyface! Before winter – usually sometime mid-November – we move all of the egg layers to the hoophouses. With the snow and not much grass growth, the hoophouses create a very warm friendly environment for the birds. We don’t have to worry about weather extremes or freezing water lines. The birds are going through their molt due to the shortened daylight hours. During their molt they lose last year’s feathers replacing them with a new set for the following year and as you all know, they drastically cut back on their egg production. This time is used to preen and condition their bodies for the next season.
Once March rolls around and the weather starts turning to spring, we move all the birds out of the hoophouses and back onto pasture. We do this right at dusk. When chickens go to sleep at night, they sleep hard. You can literally walk right up to them, pick them up by their feet and they hardly make a sound. Hence the reason that we close the egg mobile up at night and post guard dogs. A fox could come in and wipe out the entire flock in one night and not one of the them would wake up enough to sound an alarm or run away!
We have 4 hoophouses here at Polyface. On Monday night of last week, we moved all of the birds from one house to their summer home – the Eggmobiles. Then last Tuesday night, we started the training process of the birds to the eggmobiles, moved the remaining birds out of the hoophouses to the feathernets, and moved the young pullets from the brooder to one of the hoophouses. The pullets will stay in the hoophouses until they get just a little bit bigger. Right now they would be a yummy one-bite snack for racoon, opossum, skunk or fox.
The Eggmobile is our pasture sanitation program. This house-on-wheels follows the cows allowing the chickens to scratch through the cowpies and clean up the fly larvae. The goal of these birds is to clean the fields. They are completely free-range – no fences for protection or to keep them in. These birds roam during the day and go back to the eggmobile at night.
But first we must train them to go back in at night. At first the birds have the tendency to sleep under the wagon rather than taking the time to actually climb up into it. So at the beginning of the season we go out and shimmy up under the eggmobile and gently push any chickens wanting to sleep there out. The slight disturbance is enough to make them take the time the climb up into safety. We do this for several nights in a row to ensure that they all get the idea that under the wagon is not a good place to sleep. It usually takes about 3 days.Each morning, the eggmobile is moved to a new and distant location to keep the birds from becoming too aquainted with their surroundings and taking up residence there. This teaches them that the eggmobile (which is always right there with them) is home and not the nearby barn, woods, or backporch. The eggmobile continues to move behind the cows every day for the entire season. The birds roost in the wagon at night. We move them in the morning to a fresh location; they come out, scratch through cowpies, chase grasshoppers, take dustbaths and lay their eggs in the eggmobile. They proceed to go back in at night, are closed up, and the cycle continues. And this creates the best eggs in the world!