Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples
We have a small flock of chickens (currently a mix of old and new, the plan is a dozen layers). We have kept a fair number of heritage breeds - breeds that are better suited to a free-range life on a small farm than the standard bird used in commercial egg or meat production. We have significant predator pressure (mostly coyotes and foxes), as well as a large expanse of vegetable gardens that a few dozen chickens could destroy in hours, so we try very hard to keep the chickens inside their own yard. Thus, our ideal chicken doesn't fly over fences, is friendly to chickens and people (but still wary enough to keep an eye out for hawks), and can tolerate being "cooped up" during the long, cold winter. Oh, and lays eggs steadily without totally hogging down that super-expensive organic grain!

Our general strategy is to get six egg-laying chicks each spring, plus around a dozen birds to raise for meat. When we butcher the meat birds, we usually butcher a couple of hens who are not laying. This gives us fresh layers every year so we have eggs in the winter, and in the summer our older birds lay so we have enough eggs to share with family and neighbors. We are slowly dropping our flock size to a goal of around a dozen layers. We use electronet fencing to keep the chickens safe from predators, which we can easily move for mowing, and to get the chickens on fresh grass.

A collection of our girls, including Australorp, Delaware, and Sussex pullets, and the adult Millefleur bantam and Partridge Rock hens.

Here’s a little bit about the breeds we have kept:

Red and Black Stars: These are our primary egg layers at this time.They are hybrids of different breeds, selected for excellent egg laying, and for different colored male and female chicks. While there are many things we like about the heritage breeds we have kept, we have heard a great deal about sex links being incredibly reliable layers, so we thought we’d give them a try. We got our first egg from the Red Stars at 4 months, a full month before I expected any, so the hype about their egg laying abilities is true! They proceeded to lay incredibly well all winter and summer. However, they are markedly shorter lived than the heritage breeds; a third of the Red Stars have died in the 1-2 years since we got them.

Black Australorps: All black, these hens are considered a heavy breed, but seem somewhat lighter than other heavy breed birds that we have. These hens are good layers, tolerate winter well, and seem very hearty. They can fly better than some of the other heavy breeds, but most can be persuaded to stay in the fence via wing clipping (we have one hen who sometimes chooses to live outside). They definitely tend toward broodiness, which is a bummer as far as egg production goes, but don't turn into attack chickens in the process. When they are not broody they lay well, even at age 4.

Delawares: These white hens are heavy, outgoing birds. They are supposed to be slightly better layers than Barred Rock hens since they are crossed with Rhode Island Reds, and we have not had the trouble with cannibalism that can go along with the RI Reds. They are a bit pushier than the other hens, and are not afraid of much of anything. Their heavy build is great for getting through winter, and for keeping on their side of the fence - these are not the flyers of our flock. We have never had one go broody, but several have gotten sick and died in the last 3 years. They probably eat a lot, too.

Speckled Sussex: A very ancient breed from England, these brown hens are beautiful and friendly. They don't fly so they stay in their yard, they seem to lay well. Unfortunately, they may have a tendency to get picked off by predators (they are not at all vigilant) - the only bird we have ever lost to a hawk was one of these. A number died during winters, and they are the first to stop laying when it gets dark/cold. I don’t think they are quite hardy enough for our location.

Silver-spangled Hamburgs: These have a lovely black-and-white pattern - each hen is different. They are a medium-sized bird, so eat less than the heavies we have, but seem to do fine in winter - ours have made it through 6 winters with no trouble. They are very good layers (they are referred to as the "Dutch every day layer") of medium-sized white eggs, even at 6 years old they lay all summer. They are probably very good birds for truly free ranging - they seem very good at taking care of themselves, can fly very well, and some have a strong tendency toward brooding eggs. We have had one hen successfully lay, brood, and raise three sets of babies. Amazingly, many of them do spend most of their time in the chicken yard, but they do leave when they feel like it so probably not the best breed if you need them to stay in the fence. Our mama hen and most of her daughters often refused to live in the coop or fence, though they did lay in a basket in the barn! I would get this variety again, especially given how long they lay eggs.

Barred Rock: This was the first breed of chickens we kept, they are a wonderful heavy breed, the New England standard. I'm sure we will have these again, once we have tried out some of the other available breeds. We have had several of these roosters; one was attacking people as a juvenile and we ate him, but the ones we kept were good with people and with their hens.

Belgian D'Ucle Millefleur bantams: We had a trio of these pretty, speckled light-brown birds ("Bantasaurus" and his little hens). They would be great in a yard - they use a very small range, don't destroy gardens the way the bigger chickens do, eat very little, and even at 4 years old our hen was laying for most of the summer. They do have a strong tendency toward broodiness, and despite their tiny size one hen made it through 5 winters, and the rooster 7 and counting. Also, we had two roosters but one had to go, since he tended to follow around our 3-year old son and attack him.

Partridge Rock: We ordered 6 of these pretty brown hens, but 5 were killed as pullets on one morning by a coyote. Not a good choice if not protected from predators! They seem a lot like a Barred Rock (good in winter, solid layers, stay in a fence well, nice hens), though I swear the remaining hen’s personality was not the same as a barred rock. Possibly being the only one of her kind had something to do with it - many of our chickens seem to prefer the company of their breed, and she didn’t have that.

Light Brahma Bantam: We received one rooster of this breed as our "mystery chick" from McMurray's hatchery. His name was Mystery. He was a bit smaller than our heavy hens, but a lot bigger than the other bantams (the non-bantam version of this breed is HUGE). He was a real scrapper, taking on every rooster except The alpha rooster Bucky despite his tiny size, but he never had a moment of aggression toward humans. He always stayed in the fence; a few hens of this variety or the larger size might be worth a try. He lived for 5 years before succumbing to some unknown ailment.

: Our pullets and rooster for 2014 are this green and blue egg-laying breed. They are beautiful birds, stay tuned for egg info.

We also have had a number of Hamburg-Barred Rock crosses, thanks to the Hamburg broody hen. Despite the contrast between the parents, the offspring look amazingly similar - barred feathers like dad, body size and egg color like mom. These chickens were raised by their mom largely outside of the fence, and we had real trouble keeping them in the chicken yard. We lost three hens one spring as a result - I think they were sleeping in the apple trees, and got picked off at night or early in the morning. And eventually I couldn’t take the damage they did to my gardens, so we don’t have any of these anymore. People extol the benefits of mom-raised chickens, but that might be a better thing if mama is not totally feral herself.

Cornish Cross: These are a meat breed, which we have raised several times. Timing is important in raising these birds, as is having an easy way to move them around. Our current system is to keep them in a chicken tractor that is easy to move to new ground every 1-2 days, and we are careful to butcher them at 8 weeks. We have butchered them too late in the past, resulting in a much lower feed-to-meat ratio. These birds were healthy, active, and happy, and dressed out at 5-7 lbs of lean meat.

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