Cracking the Code on Raising Happy Chickens

Cracking the Code on Raising Happy Chickens

Chickens have been a staple of farm life here at Kinghaven Farms for a few years. And, while we may not have a large flock, we sure do love the ones we have. We sat down with our Office Manager AND resident chicken specialist, Ashley McGibbon, for a cluck-ersation on all things poultry-related.

What breed of chickens do you keep at Kinghaven Farms?

Ashley: We buy our chickens from a local hatchery, and they tend to come to us somewhere between 18 and 22 weeks when they’re old enough to start laying eggs.

We presently have around 65 chickens in our flock, including four distinctive breeds with some noteworthy names. For starters, we have the Red Sex-Link. They’re a hybrid breed, which means they’re the result of crossing two different breeds of chicken. They tend to be good layers and produce brown eggs.

Our Barred Rock chickens are a heritage breed. They have lovely black and white striped plumage and bright red crests. They’re also inclined to be calm and are great egg layers.

Like their name suggests, the Azure Blue hens here at the farm lay baby blue eggs which are quite lovely. These birds exemplify the stereotypical chicken with white bodies and red crests on their heads. Their wattles, the appendages that hang below their beaks, are also red.

Finally, we have Columbian Rock hens. This breed tends to be good-natured and lays large, brown eggs.

Birds aren’t always thought of as good to interact with, so you might be surprised to know that chickens are pretty responsive to people. They recognize individuals and they’re reactive to your energy. Some will even let you pick them up and pet them.

And, contrary to what you might think, they don’t just cluck and bawk. Scientists are beginning to discover just how sophisticated chicken communication can be. The birds are actually quite vocal, and have about 30 different noises that they make. They use these to communicate everything from danger to the excitement of laying an egg. Some even make a specific noise when they see a human they recognize.

What do they eat?

Ashley: If you guessed grains, you’re right, but that’s not the end of the story. Chickens are omnivores, just like humans. And like us, they can eat almost anything. However, here at Kinghaven we don’t feed them just anything. 

The bulk of their diet is layer mash, which is a mixture of seeds and cracked grains. It’s all natural, with nothing added, so no antibiotics or medications. We also grow sprouts to give them as an extra treat — lentil sprouts are some of their favourites. And, of course, they scratch and forage in the grass and dirt for bugs to eat. In addition, they get dried mealworms and black soldier fly larvae as treats. They love these so much they come running when they know they’re being given out.

How many eggs do you collect?

Ashley: The number of eggs our flock lays depends on the season. Since egg laying is correlated with the number of daylight hours, the longer the day, the more frequently they lay. In winter, we’re able to collect between three and a half to four dozen a day. In the spring and summer that increases somewhat to about five dozen a day.

The hens lay every 24 to 30 hours, so it’s not at the same time every day, and they don’t lay overnight. Since we don’t have any roosters on the farm, none of the eggs are fertilized, so there’s no worry that any will hatch into chicks.

What do you do with your chickens when they stop laying?

Ashley: The prime laying years for a hen are about two to three years old. After that, they tend to produce fewer eggs, and eventually stop laying completely. This is known as going “off-lay.” A practice at some farms when a bird goes “off-lay,” is to use them for meat, or, more commonly, to kill them.

However, we don’t cull our chickens. They’re allowed to live out their natural lives here at the farm, even if they stop laying entirely. When they do die, we drive them out into the bush and let the coyotes take it from there. Like everything we do at Kinghaven, a lot of effort goes into making our process as sustainable, natural, and waste-free as possible

Where do you keep the chickens?

Ashley: In winter, the birds stay inside the barn to keep them safe from predators. We punched doggie doors between each stall in the former horse barn so that they can run free in there.

Now that the nice weather’s here, they spend the entire day outside and earlier this summer, we reconstructed the outdoor enclosure to make it bigger. They love to wander around in the grass and scratch. This way, they can also eat bugs when they find them.

Do you see the farm adding more chickens anytime soon?

Ashley: Our main focus is on offering farm-fresh eggs to anyone in the community who appreciates local and sustainable produce. And, because we operate as a farm-gate business, we have to stay under 99 birds. But, while it’s true that we don’t harvest more than a few dozen eggs a day, the pleasure that we get from having these birds is immeasurable. And the eggs are delicious.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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