Carrying capacity

“Why don’t you have more of these gorgeous orange and delicious eggs?” say the customers. “Because 35 hens approach the carrying capacity of our land,” I say. And the same is true of our roasting chickens and our pigs and our goats. Carrying capacity.

So what is carrying capacity? Carrying capacity is the number of an organism that a given piece of the environment can support indefinitely without degrading the land or negatively affecting the organisms. So, if you can raise 35 hens on a given piece of land, and then you add another 25 in order to provide more of those delicious and beautiful eggs to your customers, suddenly the dirt starts to show between the grass leaves, then there is more dirt than grass, then there is no grass, then the dirt starts to wash downhill. Since our beautiful farm is on a steep hillside, the law of gravity works harder here than if we were on a flat piece of land. So when the dirt starts to wash downhill, that is some washing!

We found our carrying capacity for hens by surpassing it in the third spring we were here. Our hens like to roam, and they will easily go 100 yards in any direction foraging for the bugs and plants that make them hale and hearty. So we found that they denuded an area about 50 yards in a radius from the door of their henhouse. The back yard was just dirt and shale bits. The washing was significant. So we did two things.

First we built a new henhouse about fifty yards down the row of old barns so they would have fresh ground. Well, we had no idea how demoralizing it is to hens to move their base of operations. They took weeks to recognize their new henhouse as home. When we opened their door in the morning, a line of desperate hens would trudge up the hill and around back to the closed door of the old henhouse. Then in the evening when it was time to go to roost, we had to carry them one by one back to the new henhouse. We would close them in for three days, which is supposed to be the amount of time it takes for hens to become at home in a new place. But they didn’t. It took a couple of weeks for them to settle down, and their suffering was obvious.

So then we decided to let natural pruning take its course. The fox was happy to assist us over the next few months, and we also sold some of the older ones, who still laid a few biiiig eggs each week, to friends looking for a few hens to help out in the yard and give a few eggs. So over the course of time we returned to the carrying capacity of that piece of land. It was very hard work toting unhappy hens every evening, and we hated to see them being so upset. So we are going to build a mobile henhouse to move them about the farm without so much suffering. But it has to be light enough to move without a tractor because we have decided not to have a tractor for various reasons.

So in a lot of ways, as you can see, it is better to hold the line on carrying capacity rather than go overboard and have to back up. That’s the lesson for this week.

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