On Monday afternoon as I finished an easy move of our small gaggle of new pullets, I was struck by how much they had learned in the 10 days they had been on the farm. It may seem strange to talk about chickens learning, after all many consider them not the brightest bulbs in the animal kingdom, but the transformation had been shocking. Or perhaps what was more shocking to us, was what they didn’t know when they arrived and how much we took for granted with the chickens that we had raised on the farm.
Ok, quick back story.
We didn’t raise new pullets (chickens to be hens & egg layers) this season and were going to be without hens for the first time since we started the farm, but had made peace with that given challenges of making the farm work overall. Then we saw a message on the Vermont Pasture Network listserve offering 28 pullets. They were from the 10 year old son of a consultant to farms in Vermont. His little business is to raise chicks through the summer until they are about to start laying eggs and we had bought some pullets from him several years ago. With just a village backyard and a drought-stricken summer, the pullets didn’t get “pasture” or even “yard” this year, that was reserved for his brother’s business, the egg layers. So when we picked up these beautiful pullets they had only been in their simple clean coop, fed organic grain and garden scraps, but not out roaming about. What we took in as relevant at the time was that there were not yet trained to electric fence, a key piece of our system.
When we got the pullets home, it was well after dark, so we settled them into the high roosts in our hen wagon and closed them in, so they would imprint on the wagon and so we could set a good tall, tight electric fence for them to learn our system. In the morning, once the fence was set, we opened up the doors on the wagon and set up the ladders. For our past hens, the result would be a rush to the doors to get out to new pasture.
But that morning, nothing.
Not only didn’t they come streaming out, they didn’t get off the roosts. They just stayed put. It was puzzling at first. But we figured, ok, this was a big transition. We gave them some time, did other chores, called them like we did with all our chickens, offered scratch – a real treat. Nothing. Not a single chicken moved off the roosts.
So, into the wagon Laura went to get them off the roosts. That worked and then they just moved around a bit on the floor the hen wagon, having no sense that the 3 open doors meant they could go outside. Now it all started to fit together. These chickens had been happily in their clean coop all summer with everything they needed brought to them. People came in through their door, but they didn’t go out it. They didn’t know about doors and what might be outside. So we had to move them to the doors and encourage them out..a few figured out how to get down from the door, others needed a nudge and a push.
Once outside, they were a bit uncertain but fairly quickly settled into picking at the clover and grass and scratch — things somewhat familiar and didn’t seem to challenge the fence.
So we fired up the fence good and hot and hoped for the best, getting on with other work of the day. But we feared that we’d have to put them back into the wagon one by one at night. Fortunately, their instincts were strong and half of them figured out how to get through the doors, inside the wagon and up on the roosts, we were thrilled. The rest wanted to join their flock, but couldn’t figure out how –trying to jump up through the floor from under the wagon, jump up to the side where there was chicken wire, etc. Those got put in one by one.
On morning two Analiese found them all still in the wagon, up on their roosts, just like day 1. Kindly, she climbed in and started taking them down off the roosts. But learning had already occurred — once down on the wire floor of the wagon, they made their way to the doors and went out. They had learned doors and up ladders, but not how to go down a ladder to get off the roosts.
But by day 3 they were all getting in and out of the hen wagon on their own and by day 4 they were getting a sense that we farmers came with food. By Day 6 they clearly had imprinted on the wagon and when we expanded their space and moved the wagon, they moved to the fresh ground.
On day 10 at our farm, watching them move into new pasture I realized that in 10 days these hens had learned:
- What a door was and that it lead out to pasture and in to roosts
- How to go up and down a ladder
- That our call meant good treats and to follow us
- To respect electric fence
- To follow the wagon to new pasture
- And on day 10, at least 2 hens had learned that the egg boxes were for laying their eggs!
Hurrah, we had arrived.
Fortunately, John installed solar lights in the hen wagon this summer, so the pullets are getting longer days than the rest of us and should be producing well soon and through the winter!