I live in Las Cañadas (www.bosquedeniebla.com.mx), an education center for sustainable living. For 20 years, we at Las Cañadas have been dedicated to conservation of the rain forest, one of the scarce and biodiverse forests that exist. We are also committed to finding and demonstrating ways to live a simple and ecologically viable life.
From the start, we knew we wanted chickens to be a part of our center. In our country, egg consumption is an important part of rural life. Eggs offer protein of excellent quality for those who cannot or do not want to consume other products of animal origin. Raising chickens ourselves would mean we could consume antibiotic-free eggs from happy hens. We built a small hen house and purchased chickens from people in surrounding communities. We kept the chickens in the hen house for the night, fed them whole corn in the mornings, and let them loose during the day. We waited for them to produce eggs...
…except that they did not. Yes, the hens were free and “happy”— but they laid eggs when they wanted and where they wanted; they were eaten by predators; they suddenly became sick and died; and we did not know for how long they would lay eggs. Since we still ended up buying eggs despite having chickens, we decided to learn how to care for them so that they would be healthy and free but also productive. Below I cover the six most important lessons that have allowed me to keep my henhouse healthy and productive.
First: Few hens in enough space. Good animal husbandry requires knowledge of animals’ nature and behavior. Hens like to walk and scrape all day, they frequently groom themselves, they bathe in the loose earth, they need shelter from the sun, they sleep on trees, and, although they prefer to live in groups, they require enough space to not be stressed. Hens will naturally peck others’ combs to establish hierarchy in the chicken coop, but under conditions of stress caused by overcrowding, this same behavior can lead to cannibalism. Since predators like to eat our birds, we cannot allow them to be totally free, but they are able to "graze" in fenced-in pastures. (See Table1 for details).
|Table 1. Living Space|
|No. of animals||40 laying chickens and 4 roosters|
|% average production per year||50%|
Second: A well-equipped chicken coop appropriate to the number of hens. Although hens like to go out and sleep on trees if possible, they benefit from a well-equipped henhouse that provides protection from predators, comfortable sleepers, access to clean food in feeders, and warm nests with straw to lay their eggs. Provide enough henhouses and equipment to avoid stressing the hens. Layer dry material on the floor of the henhouse, to help keep it dry and to manage the waste. Extreme temperatures affect hens negatively, so if possible, control the temperature by ventilating the henhouse when it is hot and covering it when it is cold. (See Table 2 for details).
|Table 2. Equipment and Installations|
3 rotational pastures / 3m2 per bird
|Nests||1 for every 5 chickens|
|Perch||25cm linear per bird|
|Eateries||3 eateries (1 per 15 birds)|
|Water dispensers||1 with 4 lids (1 lid per 10 birds)|
Third: Improved “Criollitas”. Chicken varieties serve different purposes: layers (for eggs); dual purpose (for eggs and meat); meat birds; and creoles. In Las Cañadas we have creoles, which are hens of different colors and characteristics; because of their genetic diversity, they thrive in a variety of conditions. These “Criollitas” are not as productive as layers, but we have discovered that with good management they increase the number of eggs they lay. Thanks to their genetic diversity, during the 10 years that I have raised chickens, no illness has devastated the chicken coop. We do have to deal with the fact that our hens always want to have chicks, which means managing the “broody hens” so they do not stop laying eggs. When hens are brooding but it is not the proper season to raise chicks, I lock them in a cage for three days and they finally give up brooding. Our “Criollitas” have been improved and made more productive as we have raised our own birds adapted to the conditions of the place. We put one double-purpose rooster in the henhouse for every ten hens, to secure fertile eggs.
Fourth (and most important): A good diet. Chickens like to eat anything, but they love grains and insects. To receive good service from them, we have to give them a balanced diet; this will help them to start laying eggs at five or six months of age. Sunlight stimulates a hen to produce eggs, but the process requires carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals. Our hens eat homemade feed made from organic grains grown on the ranch. This feed contains corn, soy or canavalia (depending on what was most recently cultivated), calcium carbonate, burnt and ground bone, and salt (see Table 3). Every day they each receive 100g of feed, plus fresh forage: nacedero (Trichanthera gigantean), ramio (Bohemian nivea), comfrey (Symphytum officinale), cow tongue (Opuntia engelmannij var. linguiformis), and clean water. The hens are able to eat insects from the paddocks and compost.
|Table 3. Homemade Feed|
|Ingredients||% of the diet||Quantities in 10 kg of feed|
|Wholemeal Soy||10%||1 kg|
|Calcium Carbonate or Egg Shell||5%||500 g|
|Burned and ground bone||4.5%||450 g|
Fifth: Achieve animal welfare and hygiene of the chicken coop. In production systems, human intervention is most important. How we manage and treat the hens will largely determine what we get from them. A sustainable system must include attention to animal welfare. Hens like gentle and routine treatment; sudden movements frighten them. Because they are susceptible to infectious diseases, the henhouse must be cleaned frequently, to keep the "bed" free of smells and stuck excreta, and to keep the inside of the henhouse ventilated, dry and light. We have found it helpful to give specific supplements during seasonal changes. We put a teaspoon of aloe in the water in the summer and a clove of garlic in the winter to help prevent digestive and respiratory problems. A teaspoon of homemade apple cider vinegar added to the water during stressful situations can help prevent and even heal. Deworming with epazote in March and October has kept us from using medications. We cull our chickens every year and we do not keep individual birds for more than two production cycles, which helps to maintain stable production, allows the cocks to develop better, and helps avoid diseases. We breed our own birds, because we have seen that sometimes bringing chickens from the outside invites diseases.
Sixth: Observe, keep production records and maintain financial accounts. In order to share the experience with others and to know how the hens’ production and care can be improved, we must keep records of how many eggs hens lay, at what age they start producing, our costs, how much we need to feed them, what we produce, how the hens behave during the year, which are the best hens, etc.
In addition to yielding these six lessons, maintaining an egg production system based on agro-ecological principles has led to reflection on a number of questions: What is the appropriate scale for an agro-ecological production project? What ecological and social repercussions does the great consumption of animal protein have on our society? Is it realistic and possible to ask a system that produces healthy food to also generate enough money to be a business? Could it be that less is more? Can small be beautiful and sustainable?
The answers to those questions are not easy to come by. But raising chickens has helped me understand the natural cycles of life, and has offered me opportunities to intervene in these cycles in an efficient and respectful manner.