Background: As we’ve mentioned previously, in May of 2015, Murray McMurray Hatchery brought a truckload of 3,700 newly-hatched chicks to Joe Claborn’s farm in Texas for safekeeping as Avian Influenza was spreading in the U.S. and in Iowa. The project has informally come to be known as the “Noah’s Ark Project.” This interview with Joe Claborn, gives more information on the current state of this project.
Q: Can you give us an update on the Noah’s Ark Project?
We’re seven months into caring for these chickens now, and all of the breeds are laying. From fourteen of the breeds we’re collecting eggs daily, which we then ship to McMurray for hatching. We keep these fourteen breeds in our barn on deep bedding. The rest of the birds we keep in our two hoop houses.
Q: Have you’ve learned anything unexpected from this project?
Well, probably the most unexpected thing I’ve learned is just the experience of raising so many different breeds and learning their different characteristics. I’ve never raised so many breeds before, and being able to care for them side-by-side, you really get to see the differences.
For example, White Cochins. They will go broody with no eggs under them. They are so broody — it’s amazing! Every day I go in to look for eggs, and there’ll be three to five broody hens, sitting there with no eggs under them. I’ll move them to look for eggs, and it turns out that they’re just “brooding” the dirt, like they think it’s going to hatch.
I’m thinking of taking eggs from some of my other breeds and putting them under the White Cochins just as an experiment to see what will happen because I think they’ll probably hatch them. And people say that a hen raised by a broody hen is more likely, herself, to go broody.
Another breed that really interests me is the Speckled Sussex. I’ve really grown to like these. Their natural speckling makes a good camoflauge, which I think is going to help make this a great homesteading bird, and they’re prolific egg layers. The downside is that they eat voraciously — they eat probably twice as much as any similarly-sized bird. (They get four scoops of feed a day instead of two — all my other pens get two.)
And then some of the breeds that I would have just thought of as “eye-candy,” like the Golden Polish …. It turns out that the Golden Polish are very good white egg layers. They’re still kind of unusual to raise because when you walk toward them, a lot of times they can’t see you coming — the feathers block their vision, particularly of things above and behind them. And when they realize that you’re standing right beside them, they get a little startled. So that makes them kind of interesting.
Another breed that surprised me is Buff Cochins. They lay like crazy. I’m probably getting more eggs out of their pen than any of the others. And the Buff Cochin hens … there are several that want to go broody. But they’re not like the White Cochins — when I move the Buff Cochins off their nest, then they stop being broody, so I don’t know that these would actually stick it out long enough to hatch out eggs.
Q: You mentioned earlier about using deep bedding. Can you explain that more?
About two months ago, we switched from cleaning the pens about once a week to using a deep litter (or deep bedding) system, and this has really helped. It cuts down on the work, and it also provides a very clean, healthy environment for the birds.
Down at the bottom of the bedding, we’ve now got several inches of pretty well-composted material, and the bedding on top is less composted. In the mornings, when I feed the birds, I go through and sprinkle some feed across the top of the bedding. This accomplishes two things. First, the roosters think that it’s their job to show the hens where the food is, and so they get all excited and start clucking and scratching. And all that scratching is mixing the litter up — aerating it for me. We still go in about once a week and aereate it by hand, too — we just take a pitch fork and fluff the bedding up a bit. This gives us a chance to make sure there are no undetected water leaks, and it adds more air to the bedding, which helps it compost. Basically, the deep litter is just a big compost pile, so it needs some aeration to stay active.
Q: What are the plans for this project?
For the next couple of months, we’re going to just keep maintaining the status quo. We’re here to supply eggs to McMurray hatchery, and we’re here to supply breeders if they run into any problems up there.
Longer term, I think we’ll be doing this for another year. Earlier, it looked like we might not have a bird flu season this year, but with that recent break in Indiana, we see that it just takes one break and 500,000 birds are gone. It doesn’t take but one break close by you, and you could be in danger. So, I think we’re going to continue for one more year down here, then we’ll re-evaluate about this time next year and decide what to do from there.