Guess Who Flew The Coop

 In Chicken Coops, Egg Producers, Grazing Fields

So, Jane, tell us about chicken coops.

Well, chicken coops are a unique architectural feature on any small farm that you would see out driving in the country. They come in all sizes and shapes but they’re all meant to be a safe place for chickens to come in and out to lay their eggs and cluster.

Most coops look like sheds, with flat roofs. They’re built to keep rodents out—usually with a solid, cement foundation. And they typically have a “human door” and a “chicken door” that can be shut. (Most chickens are shut up at night to keep out predators.) Traditionally, most coops faced south and had south-facing windows, because it’s light that stimulates the chickens to lay eggs. This is especially important during the low-sun part of the year, because that light stimulates them to keep producing.

Regard it as just as desirable to build
a chicken house as to build a cathedral.
– Frank Lloyd Wright

Even though they may seem like a relic of the past, they are vital to our mission at Grazing Fields. You see, our goal is to take small egg production and revitalize it on local farms. To do that, we’re trying to take care of both the chickens and the humans on the farms. We don’t want the chickens, as the old saying goes, “all cooped up.” And we don’t want the humans “all tuckered out” because of all the hand labor. So we are intentional about simultaneously enhancing humane standards for the chickens while, at the same time, introducing appropriate laborsaving techniques for the farmers.

Interesting. So, how are your contemporary coops different from traditional coops?

In the old days, chicken coops didn’t have electricity running to them. Modern coops have lights to stimulate production. They don’t have to face south anymore. The lights are on 12 hours a day, which is really beneficial for consistent egg production…stimulating the hens’ egg-laying hormones.

Another difference that’s really cool is how the hens get their water. Instead of having a pan of water on the floor, where it can spill and get fouled by dirt and droppings, the water is hung up in containers with nipples, where each hen can take just the water that she wants. It’s a very good delivery system—efficient, sanitary, and water saving. Feeders are up off the ground, too, so they’re not getting soiled by the hens.

What are the hens’ cages like?

We don’t use cages! That’s something the large, industrial egg factories started doing back in the ’60s, cramming all the hens into what they called “battery cages,” with five or six hens to a cage. The birds would spend their whole life in a cage. Not so good for the life of the chicken.

In our coops, the hens come and go freely from the coop to the pasture, and we use nest boxes instead of cages for them to lay their eggs.

So, in your coops, a hen will go up onto a nest box, lay an egg, and then pop out of the box?

Right. In certified humanely raised chicken coops, we have at least one nest box for every 10 hens, though a lot of the hens will use the same nest box. Their natural instinct is to stick together for protection and they usually like to lay their eggs in just a few nest boxes. Then they can go out into the pasture, or perch and roost inside the coop.

Another great innovation is the “roll-away” nest box.

Yes, this way we don’t “keep all our eggs in one basket!” Instead of eggs piling up in the nest box, they roll gently down onto a simple conveyor belt. When it’s time to collect eggs, the farmer turns on the conveyor belt, and instead of having to collect the eggs from under the chickens, the eggs come to them. That’s a huge laborsaving technique that isn’t interfering with the quality of the life of the hen in the coop at all. It’s just a smart way of collecting eggs.

If there are no cages, where do the hens sleep?

There are perches in the coops, above the nesting boxes. They’re simple dowels that the hens can perch on any time and roost on at night.

So, Gladys will say, “Jenny, get off that box! Come on up to roost! Sally, you’re next!”

[Jane laughs.] Yes, there is a pecking order, you know, within chicken flocks. Somebody’s the “head hen.” She’ll keep order. It’s very subtle, but it happens.

You’ve been able to make these improvements along the way—partly because of technology, partly because you’ve just put your heads together and said, “How do we improve?”

That’s right. We’ve tried different systems along the way. It’s just ingenuity—good old farmer ingenuity. One farmer will come up with a better way and others will implement the change, too.

So, you’re not against technology, as long as the hens are protected and their lives are the best they can be. Does this, in some way, contribute to the quality of the farm community?

Yes, it does. It’s doing several things at once. It’s maintaining a good quality of life for the chickens, giving them the freedom to express all their natural tendencies inside and outside of the coop in a sanitary environment, and it protects them from predators. This results in high quality eggs.

But it’s also good for the farmer. The quality of the farmer’s life is just as important. We’re going for laborsaving techniques and taking out monotony. Raising food sustainably is all about labor, but we’re always looking for small ways to make it a bit more interesting and doable in small production. We want to work smart, using innovative technology where appropriate and helpful. But we don’t want to mechanize everything.

We want to keep the human touch, because that’s how we love our chickens better. And they give the love back by laying the tastiest eggs in Michigan!

Be in touch with Jane if you’d like to learn more.

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