We know it's fall by looking at the calendar, but here in southeastern Virginia it can go either way temperature-wise. Sometimes the heat of summer continues well into October, while other years it's like Mother Nature flipped a switch and we are dragging out our heavy sweaters and turning on the heat just after Labor Day.
But regardless of the temperatures, here are some sure signs that it's fall on our farm that never waver year to year.
1. Reduced Egg Laying by the Older Hens/First Eggs from the Pullets. As the days grow shorter, our laying hens slow down their laying considerably. A hen needs approximately 14-16 hours of daylight for the ovaries to be stimulated to release an egg. It takes a lot longer to accumulate that much daylight during the fall and winter months, so we collect fewer eggs each day. On the flip side, the pullets that hatched the prior spring are now starting to lay, so they take up some of the slack. By winter, egg laying will all but stop though, so this time of year I start freezing some of our extra eggs to use through the winter.
2. Time to Plant the Cold Crop Garden. Our tomatoes, squash and cucumbers are long gone. Fall is the time to plant cold crops for the chickens to munch on. We often don't get a hard frost until January, so there's plenty of time for kale, Swiss Chard, peas, beets, carrots and all kinds of lettuce to mature and be harvested. It's also time to start harvesting our pumpkins. Pumpkin seeds are thought to help combat intestinal worms in chickens, so they are a big part of our hens' fall diet. [read more about that here]
3. Molting. Fall brings on a molt, triggered by the shorter days. That means we have a scraggly group of hens for a few weeks, as they lose their old feathers and new ones grow in. The run looks like there's been a pillow fight. Additional protein is helpful to them at this time of they year, so I bake them Molt Meatloaf, which has become a flock favorite.
4. County Fairs. One of the highlights of the fall is the Isle of Wight County Fair that we attend each year. This year, the Grand Champion of the entire fair was a beautiful white Cochin rooster. Seeing him was worth the price of admission! He really was gorgeous.
5. Time to Dry Herbs. I plant a large herb garden each spring. Not only do I cook with herbs, but I use them in our nesting boxes and coop for their fragrance as well as natural pest repellent properties and other health benefits to setting and laying hens. I brew herbal tea for the chickens year round and make Mint Ice Pops for them in the summer. It's wonderful using fresh herbs all summer, but before it gets too cold, I harvest the remaining herbs and dry them to use through the winter.
Of course the leaves start to turn colors and fall to the ground, and the chickens love rummaging through them looking for bugs.
We don't quite get the beautiful foliage that the New England states get, but some years we do ourselves proud here in the South!
Fall is my favorite time of year. Summers here in Virginia can be brutal, both on us and our animals, and we all breathe a sigh of relief as the mercury as well as the humidity drops and nights become cool and crisp, while days are cooler as well. Soon enough it will be cold and damp and we'll be dealing with ice, freezing rain and sleet, so we enjoy fall for as long as it lasts.
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