By Ryan Heinen | With the warmer spring weather we moved our young flock of 115 laying hens from the brooding pen in the machine shed to their permanent home in the lower level of the granary. The new coop includes multiple roosting bars, nest boxes and lots of room. It has access to a pasture area, where, once the grass starts growing, you will see the hens out foraging. We expect eggs to start coming early to mid-summer.
Sending Chicks by Mail
Initially the day-old chicks arrived in February on a cold, below-zero day, shipped in a vented cardboard box and straw bedding inside with a pocket-type heater to help keep them warm. When I went to pick them up at the post office, from the counter I could hear them chirping loudly in the back room. The cheerful sound of baby chicks in the post office during that cold winter day brought a lot of smiles and seemed to put everyone in a good mood.
Day-old baby chicks can be sent through the mail without food or water because just before they hatch, the chick inside the egg absorbs all the remaining yolk, providing all the nutrients and water they need for the first few days of life. Historically, the first chicks to be shipped from a commercial hatchery was in 1892. It became very popular starting around 1915 when the newly formed parcel post service accepted live chicks for delivery. This also helped to promote rare breeds and small farm flocks around the country.
The Gwenyn Hill flock of laying hens are made up of a wide variety of breeds. We are raising a mix of traditional heritage breeds as well as some newer production birds. This mix of old and new breeds is a way to benefit from the traits of traditional breeds, such as efficient foraging on pasture, disease resistance, and ability to survive harsher conditions, combined with the larger number of eggs produced by the new breeds.
We have chosen five traditional breeds and three modern breeds of laying hens. They are: The Dominique, which is the oldest American breed and considered one of the most endangered breeds. The Golden Laced Wyandotte, also called Winnebago, is a breed developed in Wisconsin in 1880 by crossing a Silver Laced Wyandotte with a black and red patterned fowl called a Winnebago. The Buff Orpington is a large English breed originating in the late 1800s. Another heritage breed with Orpington genetics is the sleek Black Australorp. Perhaps the most exotic is the Cuckoo Maran, a French breed from the mid 1800’s known for its dark, chocolate egg color.
The modern Red Star breed is a high egg production breed made by crossing a Rhode Island Red with a Delaware. And, just to throw a fun surprise into the egg cartons, we have chosen two other modern breeds, the Whiting True Blue and True Green, which lay pastel blue and green eggs. No, they do not look or taste different on the inside.
Mixing Modern and Traditional Practices
Our colorful flock will not only provide great tasting and healthy organic food, but also an interesting variety of traditional and modern breeds, each with a unique history and unique characteristics. A mixing of tradition with the modern is emblematic of Gwenyn Hill Farm. A peek into the hen’s coop reveals ancient field stone walls laid up by hand more than 100 years ago contrasting with modern nest boxes fitted with auto-timers designed to keep eggs clean and unbroken.
In all aspects of the farm, we mix both modern and traditional practices. We grow modern hybrids alongside heirloom produce. I use modern, moveable poly wire fencing to improve the tradition of pasturing cattle. Gwenyn Hill has many beautiful, traditional and historic barns and buildings. Some will be restored to historic use, such as housing livestock, while others, such as our CSA barn, will be repurposed to meet the needs of a new type of farm. To me this mix makes our laying hens, our crops, and our farm a great thing to see.
Ryan Heinen is Gwenyn Hill Farm’s Land and Livestock Manager and can be seen driving a team of Belgian draft horses and a skid loader on the same day.