What does a day on a pasture raised farm look like if you are a hen? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? We thought it would be helpful to draw the picture. Jacob Weaver is one of our Kentucky farmers and is broadly representative of our more than 70 farm partners that contribute to Handsome Brook’s network. This is an average day for one of the hens on his farm.
It is dawn on Jacob Weaver’s farm. Nestled in a Kentucky valley in the heart of the state, the dew hangs on the leaves of trimmed grasses like the fog hanging on the rolling green mountains. The light comes well before the sun crests the top of the hills and the hens in the barn are already stirring. They have been roosting, sleeping on wooded ledges in the barn, all of them off the ground where instinct tells them they are safer. Now, though, they are looking for their nest boxes.
The nest boxes run the length of the barn in two parallel rows and are comfortable, cozy and private. A little taller than the hens themselves and wide enough to fit a few hens at a time, the boxes provide the safe, accommodating space where our hens go to lay their eggs. It’s part of their morning ritual. After a seven- or eight-hour rest, hen’s bodies have completed the process of developing and forming an egg. Before heading out to forage, they will need to lay.
Within the first several hours of the day, about 85 percent of the hens in Jacob’s barn will settle into a nest box and lay on the soft, grass-like surface covering the floor of the box. The box floor gently slopes to the center of the barn, allowing each egg to roll down onto a long central floor between the two rows of boxes. Later in the morning, Jacob and his family will use this central channel as a conveyer belt, bringing the morning’s eggs out of the barn and into the room where they will pack the eggs into stacks of flat trays and store them in the refrigerator until the Handsome Brook Farm truck comes to pick them up.
Now that their morning work is done, the hen’s day can begin. The barn is fully awake, and the shades that covered the windows through evening rise to let in the sun. The barn doors are open: a large door on each of three sides of the barn, plus pop holes running the long sides of the barn offer the hens access to the pasture.
The first steps on to pasture are tentative and almost never alone. It’s an enticing world out there, but the flock provides safety and security. Better to go with friends. As the sun warms the grasses and clover, the hens move further from the barn and into the rich fields where the bugs live and the fresh new grasses grow.
The pasture is rather large, about 12 acres, enough for about 400 hens per acre. The hens don’t use the whole acreage at once, so Jacob rotates access using temporary fences. Out on pasture, hens search the ground for insects and grubs, fresh shoots and grasses, flower buds and fallen seeds.
As the sun rises, the temperature on pasture rises too. Fortunately, there is shelter and shade. Jacob has constructed multiple structures on pasture out of spare wood to provide shade for the day’s warmth and protection from hawks. Hawks are always a risk, and a hen who strays too far alone are in danger. The shelter offers them a refuge; so does the flock. A flock of hens has been known to go after a hawk who preys on one of their own, chasing it off.
Jacob has fenced the entire pasture to keep predators out and hens in. Jacob also regularly trims the grass surrounding the barn, which makes it easier for hens to move through and harder for predators like foxes to hide.
It’s already been a long morning, and the hens are thirsty. Water lines run out to the shelters and beyond. Using well-spaced nipples, the hens drink. It’s not unlike what you would see in a gerbil cage, strung on a long water tube. Thirst quenched, the hens return to the day’s primary goal of snacking.
As the sun dims, and the dust near the barn is well worn and loose, it’s time for a bath. The dusty areas near the barn are pock-marked already, and hen-sized divots dot the ground. Good bathing spots are hot commodities and they are regularly frequented by other hens. A brisk shake in the dust loosens the oils and dirt from their feathers, leaving the hens’ underbelly dry and clean.
By the time night is near, the hens have all come in from the farthest reaches of the pasture. Turns out coming home to roost is more than a saying for these girls. The day was a good one, and there was plenty to eat. But that doesn’t mean our hens aren’t still hungry. During the day, Jacob has put out a mix of milled grains in feed bins hanging through the barn. The hens peck at a blend of organic corn, wheat, soy and alfalfa, along with some crushed oyster shells for calcium.
Extra food isn’t just a nice evening treat, it’s important for them to have enough nutrition for the night ahead, when their bodies will be producing an egg for the next morning. Jacob uses a blend that has been designed to provide all the protein and amino acids hens need to support them in every stage of their life.
The organic feed mix is important. On pasture days, this feed supplements what the hens find on the field. But not all days are this nice. On severely stormy days Jacob keeps the barn doors closed for the hen’s safety. Indoor days mean the milled feed must support the hen’s complete nutritional needs. Jacob wants his hens happy, healthy and safe.
Soon after dark, Jacob walks the barn, sometimes accompanied by his children. It will be the third or fourth time he has been in the barn today, checking to make sure all his girls are healthy, active, and well-fed. After checking to make sure all the hens are in, he secures the barn doors and drops the window shades. The hens now perch on their roosts, ready for the night ahead. Outside of sporadic clucking and purring from the flock, the barn is quiet.
We hope this gives you a little insight into the life of a pasture raised hen. Compared to a caged or cage free hen, it’s pretty much like winning the chicken lottery. Of course, this day is slightly romanticized. Sometimes it rains. Some of our farms have more woods than pasture, which our hens love. But broadly speaking, this is an average day for any of the four seasons. Even in snow, our girls like to go out and poke around. We believe this is the humane way to raise laying hens and we are committed to animal welfare in all we do.
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