Since I have a number of different breeds of chickens, I need to pen up breeding stock separately so I'll know the eggs I'm setting will be purebred Barred Rocks or Ameracaunas, not just mixed breed chicks of unknown origin. The back of the main hen house can be closed off just by keeping a door shut, so I moved the Barred Rocks back there about 2 weeks ago. I do hate penning them up where they cannot go outside, but it's temporary, and the back part of the pen has two windows covered in wire so they get sunlight and fresh air, and the space is more than roomy for the 10 birds I have in there. Being February, there isn't a lot to forage outside, and on cold, snowy days the chickens prefer to stay indoors anyways. Plus I supplement their diet with heads of tasty sunflower seeds I harvested from last year's garden and stored in the small seed starting greenhouse. This not only gives them extra nutrition for egg production, but pulling the seeds out of the head and cracking them open to get to the delicious insides gives them a little extra something to do.
But it's exciting to me to feel as though I'm making strides forward into a better, more controlled chicken breeding program. I love hatching. The incubator is fairly automatic, but it is no small task to monitor which eggs need to come down from the movable racks into the hatching tray, especially when I have quail, chicken and turkey/duck/peafowl eggs all in there at the same time, as they have different incubation times (quail hatch in 19 days, chickens 21, and the others at 28 days). Three levels of hatching trays each hold 66 eggs each, plus quail eggs can be placed on top. Once I turn the incubator on, it stays running from February into June, hatching baby birds of one kind or another every single week. Some will be farm replacements, but many others go to new homes. It's a nice way to earn a little money at a time when the farm has a lot of expenses. And it's also fun to see the excitement when folks come to get their new birds. Sometimes it's one person, other times it is a family affair. For some, it's their first try at keeping poultry and they look to me for some guidance. Others are excited to try raising a heritage breed, like me they value the traits that make them great for the homestead or small farm. It's awesome to think how many small flocks of Barred Rocks or Bourbon Red turkeys I've helped to start. Part of the thing that drew me to heritage breeds was their rarity, that some were literally in danger of disappearing from the Earth forever. Raising them here helps to steward these lovely creatures into the future, but it's even more important to help others raise them too, so that they can continue to be part of the agricultural landscape for years and generations to come. Like any job, sometimes it's easy to get lost in the day to day, slogging through the mud and snow and breaking ice out of water buckets, and take for granted the bigger picture. The start of hatching season is always a reminder to me of this bigger picture, the feeling of being a small piece of a great big puzzle. I'm excited to turn the incubator on and set in the first eggs and set the process in motion for another spring of fluffy chicks and breed conservation!