Yeah, I know, 2017 is the year of the rooster. But your humble farmers apparently skipped ahead a year.
Although we had big plans to finally tackle some long-overdue pig fencing, we ended up spending most of the year dealing with chickens. As it turns out, scaling from 175 laying hens up to 450 hens is kind of a big change.
We had several big chicken-related projects planned for the year, from a hoop house to brood chicks in, to new pastured poultry pens. We got all those projects done, but we never could move on to the other big items on our to-do list. As soon as we were done with one chicken project, another issue would raise it’s head. So this year I got to design, build and troubleshoot a few different chicken feeders (one of them even works!) waterers and nest boxes. The running joke around the farm is that this is all research for our book “Idiots guide to raising chickens.”
One semi-interesting thing that has kept popping up this year is the number 500, as in a flock of 500 hens. In all of my research this past year I ran across several disparate sources that all talked about a 500-hen flock as being the biggest flock that you’d expect to find in a pre-industrialized-ag egg-laying operation. I found it while looking through old books for feeder ideas. It cropped up (chicken pun alert) when talking to our new egg-carton guy; and it popped up again when shopping for an egg washer.
It seems to me, having been around the 500-hen mark all year, that it’s a pretty good number. As we’ve been discovering, starting with a flock of 50 hens, if you take all the same equipment and scale it up to 500 hens you’re going to have a bad time. Sure, the equipment is cheap, but the labor costs get out of control pretty quickly. Cleaning all those eggs by hand is not exactly a winning proposition once you cross the 400-hen mark.
We’re planning on keeping our flock at about the same 500-hen level for another year before we expand again. We’ve got most of the kinks worked out, but we need to focus on other things for next year (like that darn pig fencing) before we get too carried away with chickens. Thanks to a recent MDA rules clarification, we now know that we can go as big as 3000 hens without incurring any extra regulation. Three thousand hens sounds like more than enough to me, but I could see going up to 1000-1500 hens in a few years once we get our system all figured out.