Well, things got worse.
I keep trying to remind myself that everything we're doing is an experiment. I don't know anything about anything, so every time I try something, it's usually with hesitation and an open mind. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don't. Either way, I learn something.
Paging through the manuals on chicken tractors, it seems that most people have had good success keeping ten grown hens in each tractor of this size. Assuming the birds have fresh pasture, they shouldn't display symptoms of stress or sickness. Way back before we started this process, I expressed reluctance to confine my girls in any way (short of penning them in at night). But the manuals say that hens usually do just fine with this situation. Supposedly they have enough room to exercise, they can establish healthy pecking orders, and with regular rotation they have access to fresh greens, insects, and other fortifications. Supposedly.
This has not been the case for our birds. Though we have moved the tractors regularly and the girls aren't even full-grown yet, they have expressed serious stress, in the form of pecking each other to death. Each morning and night we'd find another dead bird. The girls would irritably peck out each others' tail feathers, and then peck at the exposed skin, and when a bird starts bleeding the rest of the flock go nuts at the sight of blood. Before we knew what was happening we'd lost five chickens.
We tried to isolate the injured birds, thereby reducing the number of chickens in each tractor, but it got to the point that half of the birds would need to be individually isolated, and no matter how few chickens were in each tractor, they attacked each other. We just weren't sure what to do. Obviously our chickens were unhappy. Obviously we were making some big mistakes with the tractors. Obviously they needed to free-range. But how could we make that happen? There is such a serious risk of predation here that half of our Delawares were killed in one night.
On Saturday morning Jeremy and I were discussing the situation, worriedly, while making breakfast. I told him that I'm simply exhausted by the chickens, hopeless about their situation, and wish we could just give them away to someone who can let them free-range. I said, "We're basically running a small-scale CAFO here. How did this happen?"
He said, "It's not quite that bad, is it?"
I said, "Well, this is why factory farms slice off chickens' beaks. We're observing it, right now, why they do that."
I turned back to the skillet then, and Jeremy went outside. When I looked out the window to see what he was doing, this is what I saw.
He had opened the tractor doors and the chickens were wandering freely. So I went outside, spatula in hand, and called out, "What are you doing?"
He looked up and shrugged. "What else can we do?"
I was in a panic, because we hadn't planned for this at all. Are chickens susceptible to electric fencing? Would they stay in the fenced area? No, and no. They stepped lightly through the fence wires and headed off in every direction. And as I watched them peck the earth happily, at ease for the first time since we brought them home, this is how I felt.
But I also thought, "Wow, chicken tending just became fun again."
Like I said, we hadn't planned for this. We hadn't planned for Tuna's predilection for chicken dinners (and breakfasts and lunches and midday snacks). We hadn't planned for predation, or getting them back home at night (we didn't know if they'd go back in their coop by themselves, being so young -- they did, by the way). But seeing my girls getting along, having the space to escape an altercation, establishing a truly healthy and normal pecking order, made me impossibly happy.
I spent the rest of the day grinning like an idiot, and saying over and over again, "This is the way to raise chickens. This is what we should be doing."
It wouldn't be right to say that I lost sight of this. I have always believed that chickens should range freely, but I was also committed to the tractor project, which is supposed to be the best of both worlds. I kept waiting for it to work out, and changing things to make it better, but this project just has not proven true for us. So for now our girls are running wild, and the boys, too.
And y'know? we're probably going to lose some birds, to hawks or coyotes or skunks or Tuna. But we're definitely going to lose most of our birds if they stay confined full-time in the tractors. They'll kill each other from stress and misery, which can't be better than being snatched from a green and verdant hillside.
There are still serious concerns that we need to address. But for now, I'm just happy that my girls are happy. This is how it should be done. Why did I ever think otherwise?