A rooster hit me the other morning.For some that would sound like the start of a joke. However, for me that was just the start of my morning. It was a morning that included an exercise replete with spring fever, the drive for procreation, layers and of course roosters. I will explain later.
When we began raising free-range organic eggs, we started slowly. The first flock was seventeen weeks old when we got them (which knocked them out of the organic category) and there were six of them, all layers. One of the first things we learned was that you did not need a rooster in order to get eggs from a hen. After reading and then hearing stories about insane, violent behaviors of attacking roosters, having hens was just fine by us. We had gotten comfortable with cover cropping, field rotation and mixing grasses and legumes for the chickens to forage. Family and friends truly liked the taste of the eggs so we felt we were ready to expand.
In order to sell eggs as “Certified Organic” you need to get hens when they are less then two days old. Because we did not know any better we expected that we would get layers when we ordered fifteen one-day-old peeps. I had seen how they sex chicks (i.e., determine male or female) and some chicks are known to be hens based on their color (they are called sexlinks). We have Rhode Island Reds, because they are a Heritage Breed and a recovering species, and apparently, they are not as easy to sex as one thinks.
When you get day old layers, it is inevitable that you will get a male. It has happened every time we have gotten day olds. The number of chicks does not matter, we have gotten 15, got a rooster, got 100, ended up with four roosters that time. We purchased 50 this last time two are roosters. The very last purchase was for 100 and we ordered a “straight run”. There are three categories of peeps, cockerels, straight run and layers. Cockerels are all males and least expensive, straight run is a mix with no sexing (if you order 50 you may get 10 layers and 40 roosters), that is the chance you take with a straight run. Then there are layers, which are the most expensive but at least 90+ percentages of all of them are layers.
I am a shining example of why city people are made fun of in rural areas. After our first purchase of day olds, I called the farm store and asked about our recent chicken order. "Did we get a rooster with the hens"? I asked. "No, probably not" was the answer then followed by "but we can't guarantee all hens at sale but probably not". So I described the chicken that was more developed then the rest and said that it sounds like it is trying to crow. "Yep," she said, “you got a rooster.” Without even thinking when I heard the word rooster I blurted out a question that, as the words were forming in my mind and my lips were audiblizing the errant thought, I knew it was the dumbest question a supposed farmer could ask.
You can do two things with a rooster on a farm. One is to eat him. The other is to let him fertilize the eggs. That is it; they also protect the hens but those are the only things roosters can do on a farm. Anybody having heard the birds and bees speech knows this.
Of course, I knew this, once the words were ringing in my ears, but as I was forming the question, and the sales clerk on the other end was hearing it, I couldn't stop myself. When she told me it was a rooster I was dumb founded "What am I going to do with a rooster," I blurted out mindlessly. There was dead silence on the other end of the phone line or maybe muffled laughter I do not remember. What I do remember is questioning why I had just asked such a simple question. She composed herself enough to say that indeed we could eat it or we could you use it for its reproductive capability. Neither of which were planned nor wanted, so I ended the conversation quickly. So the damage was done, at least I hadn't given her my name
We never wanted a rooster, we were not at the processing stage and we did not want to hatch chicks or deal with crazy violent birds. With our luck if we hatched chicks we would get more males then females. Roosters were not a thought until we started seeing and hearing the signs. By that time it is too late, it is yours. We tried to sell it, then offered to give it away but had no takers. Over time, we have found a fourth function a rooster can serve on a farm and that is ambience. We love to hear them crow as do our customers. Our customers see a beautiful Rhode Island Red in all his plumage and in full throat. We still keep roosters around to have a run of the yard, hens to keep them company, and protect.
I have learned when it is spring and you open the chicken house door the last thing you want to do is be between an amorous rooster and a flock of hens. The rooster leaped from his high perch and flew out the door way. My head was down as I was looking at the hens and my body was in the door way. The rest they say is history, the rooster is okay, I got scracthed a little bit. So far their have been no signs of insanity, violent behavior, or unprovoked attacks. Oh, and the roosters have been fine too.
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At first. some people flinch when they hear the price of our eggs. Even when compaired to local organic eggs the price is still high. However, it cost us four dollars and fifty-four cents to produce one dozen eggs. We are small and do not have the economies of scale that would help keep cost down and allow us to be price competative. How we raise and treat our layers is not conventional but more in synergy with a balanced eco-system for soil health, pest management, fruit and vegetable production and environmental sustainability.
Organic Hairy Vetch seed, when we first started buying it in fifty-pound bags, cost twenty-eight dollars. That was four years ago, today that same fifty-pound bag costs one hundred and twenty dollars. Organic winter rye has gone up about forty percent. Organic chicken feed cost fifteen dollars for fifty pounds, now it is twenty dollars for the same fifty pounds. Diesel prices went up and never came down as well as, everything else that we need that is delivered to us, via freight or is made from petrol derivatives.
Add insurance costs, fees for certification and licenses, egg cartons, labels, boxes for bulk delivery and more. You need a license to sell eggs; the eggs must be weighed, dated, and graded. The scale you use to weigh the eggs needs a license and is inspected. We need to document how many eggs are layed each day, any bird losses or gains per year and we are suffering losses again. We think it is a neighbor's dog. Under State and County law I am allowed to shoot the dog and still go after the owner for economic losses. Here is one of those philisophical mores being tested against the almighty dollar. I will have to explore this one later.
Each chicken cost about one dollar as a day old peep. Because they will be organic, you need to spend the first three weeks of their life keeping them from getting Coccidiosis. Until that time, their immune system is under-developed and cannot protect themselves from their own fecal matter. This labor and all labor associated with their daily and long term maintenance is charged at eight dollars an hour.
Next is tilling and preparing plots of land for the chickens’ new home. This is a year round function, below is a piece of land that was used to grow corn in 2009. We tilled and what you are seeing is hairy vetch, some winter rye and some brown leaves.
We will move the chickens onto this field eight feet at a time. The electric fence gets moved, then the chicken house winter set up and all goes with it. This brings me to another cost, electricity for heating the water buckets and a heat lamp when temperatures drop below freezing. Another interesting note is that the land that has hairy vetch and rye freezes last. When we move the fence, each post has a spike to go into the ground. If you are outside the perimeter of the seed mix, the ground is frozen solid and impenetrable. A few inches into the mix and the spike goes in no problem. Eventually even the best grass is frozen solid but until it does, we use the fence when moving the pens.
What you see below is the soil after the chickens have been on and moved off. It looks bad to the untrained eye, but what you are seeing is some of the greatest naturally developed soil a farm could ask to have. The layers eat the vetch, a legume, and the rye, which in turn affects the taste of the egg. At least that is what we think our customers are talking about when they say, "These are the best eggs we've ever had". A humbling statement that makes me blush but the fact they are repeat customers is what really confinced us to stick with this particular production model.
The ground is fertile, devoid of weeds, most subterranean and low flying insects, good and bad are gone, and there is a natural tilth and humus. The ground is soft and on relatively flat land. Other parts of the farm we change the model a little bit in order to stop soil erosion.
The layers eat all the grasses, scratch up the soil and leave nutrients behind. At the top right of the picture is our Rooster and two-three of his companions. In the spring I will come again, surface till and lay down hairy vetch. red clover and rye. If need be we can put chickens back on it but we have other areas that need attention too.
This is a cyclical process; we plant vegetables, and then let the soil rest by planting nitrogen fixing grasses and winter rye that develops a deep taproot making the soil expand. The layers are moved on, and then off to another plot of lush fresh green garden. We then use the land that has been resting the longest to grow the season's vegetables. While the other three pieces of land are naturally recouperaring the nutrients and minerals helps us reduce our fertilizer needs.
Then there are the costs associated with medical supplies to take care of wounds and do examinations. It is not much but it is a cost.
After most all of the costs are added up for the month we then take the total dozen count and come up with our revenue. Our last calculation came out to $4.54 a dozen. When laying production drops, there are fewer eggs to sell and that cost number rises. You still have the same amount of layers eating the same amount of food; you just have less revenue potential that makes the loss greater. Did I mention that I graduated from business school? I have said we are in it for the health but I even wonder if I need to get a check up from the neck up.
Of the plethora of problems we face with our chickens, one is that the biggest group of layers tends to be too "free-range". I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but any situation that invariably leads to, or creates problems is not good. The layers are supposed to be in a concentrated area so we can maximize their fertilizer potential. Flock three thinks that free-range means they can go wherever they want. We have seen some chickens at least a tenth of a mile from their house. I have read (from multiple sources) that when layers roam they tend to hang around their shelter or within the immediate area.
Flock three, apparently remembered last year when they were by the barn and must think that the grass tastes better or something. We moved them to newly certified land behind the barn. They were on fresh winter rye and hairy-vetch.The trailer is at least seven hundred feet away from the barn and down a hill. They cannot see the barn but, they fly over the electric fence and walk up the hill to the barn. The barn is but one of many stops they will make in the day, they walk around the barn, then past the barn to the house, they walk around the house, then head down the hill in front of the house and into the old abandoned railway. I found this little fact out quite by accident. I was driving up to the house from the street and I see this lump in the middle of what we call the “causeway,” My first thought is terror in that it looks like a small dog. We have already had one dog attack and it was not pretty or easy to deal with.
The causeway is an old railway bed that separated one side of the property from the other. As I got close and had a better look, it was three chickens, probably the three stooges, but I did not check, come to think of it, we never did go after them. Sometimes you get into a routine and the unusual goes forgotten. Nothing happened to them and they did find their way back. When we close the layers up for the night, a head count takes place and the numbers were correct. Predation is a major issue for free-range farmers as is when hens start laying outside the nest. When that takes place, you have an old-fashioned egg hunt on your hands. We learned it was vital to get them into the routine of laying eggs inside a nest before letting them really roam. With flock three, the first year of their life, they stayed inside the electric fence without a hint of flying the coop. Today, they epitomize the term free range like none other we have raised. They roam everywhere, as long as they are near the woods, they are relatively safe from hawks, other hazards not so much.
I see things from the layers sometimes that make me think they have memories, decision-making capacities however slight and some have their own personalities. No, I am not anthropomorphizing, as much as pointing out that some of them act different from the others and they remember where they have been. Then sometimes their behavior just has me shaking my head and mumbling to myself. There are now twenty-one hens in the trailer with the rooster and ten nesting boxes. The rule of thumb is two to four hens to a nest. You would think that there would be no waiting when it comes to nesting boxes but for some strange reason one layer will always pick a nest already occupied.
There would be nine other empty nests, but the best nest was the one with the hen inside. When that happens, they start to cluck at each other. I am standing there watching the one hen outside the nest clucking, while the one inside waits until the first one is quiet, then responds with her own. This goes on for a bit until the one on the outside goes to another nest or the one on the inside lays her egg and leaves. Sometimes, one will just go into the nest box even though another hen is there. This is especially true when you have a broody hen; the other hens sense it and lay eggs in her nest. I do not know this to be a rule but when a hen gets broody, we often find most of the day’s eggs are under her.
Memory is another thing. Periodically, we have had to place birds in quarunteen or the hospital pen. It is a stall inside the barn with a window, food, water, nest and roost. I've written about the three stooges and their penchant for staying inside the hospital pen. We have had to have the doors closed at all times this summer because these things just refuse to stay out. Henrietta, as she is called, has some magical gift of hearing. She will be no ware in sight, as soon as I open the front barn door, she appears. That would be fine, but she insists on getting up on my work bench, kicking most of the light stuff off and lays her egg on the wood shaving by the mitter saw. She has also become territorial, she believes her place is in the hospital pen and she is determined to lay claim.
She did spend time in there when we were trying to get her to stop flying out of the fenced area. But that was over ten months ago and she still thinks that is her home.
We do have a very social and inquisitive group of hens, which is great when kids visit, not so great when a worker is here and the bird gets in the van to check things out. We have gotten into the routine of asking people to check their vehicles before they leave the farm. It saves them an unwarranted re-visit just in case.
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We’ve only been raising Rhode Island Red hens for the past four years. In that time we’ve harvested close to ten thousand eggs. Some eggs are perfect in shape, size and look. Smooth brown shells, no blemishes, no extra calcium, no spots. Just beautiful looking eggs if I say so myself. We’ve learned that as a hen gets older the eggs she lays gets bigger.
Flock three has been laying almost five months now. Out of the twenty-five hens in flock three we get anywhere between eighteen and twenty-four a day. The eggs weigh out between twenty-seven and thirty-one ounces a dozen, which is extra large and jumbo respectively. It seems that they are laying bigger eggs sooner then the other two flocks but that is more observation then quantitative analysis.
We’ve had a hard winter this year with upwards of sixty some inches of snow and did suffer the loss of one of our oldest hens, Gladys. We called her Gladys Kravits for Bewitch’s neighbor. She was always in every body's business and starting trouble. When a new hen was introduced it was Gladys that tried to enforce the pecking order. But, she had her special side.
We have a customer that has a child with autism, one day when they were here I asked if David wanted to walk over to the pen to see the chickens. Once there I asked his dad if he wanted me to pick one up so David could see it closer. I got to the pen and Gladys was near by. I picked her up and walked over to David and his dad. I asked if he would like to touch her. His father said he wouldn’t but it was a nice gesture on my part.
He then asked David if he would like to touch Gladys. I was holding her a safe distance from them. Much to his dad’s surprise, David stuck out his little hand and I brought Gladys in closer. He touched her head with his finger. She put her head down some and he touched her again. She would let you pick her up and pet her without squawking or making a fuss. Much to his parents surprise Gladys was the first animal that their son touched and actually petted. Each week when they came back I made a point to take father and son to wherever Gladys was. Once in the pen I’d pick her up and David would pet her. I was just amazed at her, each time she would do this and never did David get scared. She will be missed.
With all this snow, we had to shovel around the houses so the hens could get out. They can get cabin fever too. We laid down pine shavings so they’d have traction and some protection for their feet. We put heat lamps inside the houses so they get some warmth at night and that seems to have helped tremendously. They get let out of the houses everyday and closed back up at night. A lot of times they will not come out unless the sun is out, their no dummies. Flock three, on the other hand, is in a converted horse trailer and no matter the weather they come out, it must be youth.
So out of ten thousand eggs we’ve seen some anomalies; like extra swirls on the shell, knots, spots, soft white in color, no shell at all, odd shapes like ovals and points on both ends, different shades of brown you name it, we’ve seen it. Sticking your hand into the nest is always an adventure when collecting eggs. Sometimes you get a soft surprise others are just to gross to describe. Just recently I was collecting eggs when I felt a large egg. It was dark out so I couldn't really see the size of the egg but by its heft and girth it had to be the mother of all eggs. That egg was huge. I mean off the charts huge. The amount of space it took up in the palm of my hand was incredible. I ended up cutting a hole in the box to close the lid of the egg carton. We took it on the road showing anybody interested and eventually sold it to a long time customer. We took a picture of the egg with eleven other jumbo eggs (below).
We can't take any credit other than providing them with a stress free, healthy environment. They do the rest and I'll let the picture speak for itself.
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I read that more and more of us are starting backyard chicken pens. If you've ever had a fresh egg you can understand why. We read a lot about raising chickens, specifically layers, before we actually took the leap. As I've lamented before mortality bothers us and was one of the main reasons it took us so long to incorporate hens into our farm model.
But I have to tell you it has been an experience that I wouldn't change. We've had some sad times but the hens have brought us more joy than sorrow. We've picked up veterinary tips and tricks and have become quite adept at handling situations as they arise. One on the most important things to know when raising hens in your backyard is what to look for in terms of health and how to detect unhealthy situations as quickly as you can before the problem spreads to the entire flock..
We had never thought of chickens as being happy but I guess like most things you are either stressed or not stressed. If not stressed then I guess you could consider the bird to be what we would call happy. You can tell signs of stress and negative stress affects taste if a bird has been stressed for extended periods. Anything subjected to long periods of stress is going to have problems. That's why cows, pigs, chickens or any animal raised on these confinment farms are pumped up with anti-biotics, hormones and other synthetic substances. They were not meant to live that way. Evolution has prepared them to be grazers, hence the term ruminant. Not in confinment yards where they stand and sleep in their own excrement laden pens with no hope of getting on grass.
First and foremost you must know what signs to look for in chickens and you must be able to compare it to what a healthy chicken looks like. The first signs of any problem with a layer is that they will not be themselves. We have learned that if we see any anomally whatsoever we need to act upon it. Meaning if there is the slightest change in the bird, isolate her from the rest of the flock and give it a health check. You should always have a hospital pen available. This is usually an enclosed area that has food, water, a nest and a roost. I've seen a little 2 chicken box setup for this purpose. The last thing you need to worry about if you have a sick chicken is where are you going to put it when isolated from the flock. Even if you do not have a special place at least know what you will do if isolation is needed.
We've lost a chicken or two because when we saw a problem it didn't look like a problem to us. Like counting 11 chickens when there should be 12. Then the next day counting ten hens when there should be 12. Then coming outside on day three in the morning and seeing the neighbors dog in the pen. Or you see a hen in the nesting box that doesn't sound right. They normally are vocal when laying but this is an agitated kind of squawking. I guess the rule of thumb should be if in your mind you question ANYTHING then do something about it. Isolate the bird and examine it. This action also protects the rest of the flock.
A healthy chicken will be active, pecking and scratching and chasing anything that flies within its eyesight. However, they are not constantly active and you will sometimes find them taking a dirt bath. They will scratch up the soil making a nice indentation in the earth which has all of this fluffy dirt they just created. They'll sit in it and roll and flap there wings and just have a grand old time. When they get up watch out, much like a wet dog they will shake and a mini dust shower come's extruding from their body.
Healthy birds have clear eyes, beak and nostrils. There should be no discharges dried or otherwise. Their combs and wattles should be red. There should be no limp or what's known as bumblefoot in their gate. Their vent should be pink and the feathers around the vent clean. If the feathers around the vent are dirty then she could have diarreha. Food intake varies by stage of development, weather and species. I've found the following site to be very helpful; http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/poulsci/tech_manuals/small_flock_resources.html
During the winter chickens eat more because eating helps them to stay warm. It seems water intake is constant but in warmer times it does go up. It is important to note that they should always have plenty of water and food. The last thing you want to do is promote competition in the flock.
There should be plenty of roosting, nesting and roaming space. If any of these things are lacking you will promote competiion within the flock and only the strongest will survive. If there is plenty of room( a good rule of thumb is at least four square feet per bird inside (at night) and eight outside), water and food, your entire flock will be happy and even the runts will get enough to eat and drink. Productivity, in turn, will be higher if the bird is happy. You'll get more eggs and tastier meat.
If you are raising meat birds there is a strong belief that a bird rasied in a stressful environement will not taste as good as a bird in a stress-free environment. If you don't believe me do a taste test yourself. buy a store bought chicken and a free range chicken. Prepare them identically and give your family and friends a blind test taste. You will pay more for a free range chicken but know that it cost us more to raise them. But a free range chicken will be free of hormones, steriods, anti-biotics and other synthetic substances that do come with chickens from the industrial food complex.
See what your family and friends say. Let them vote and then send us the results. We'll compile and post what we get.
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When a chicken lays an egg the shell is covered with a protein outer covering known as the "bloom". The bloom quickly dries and seals the egg from pathogens from the outside world. This is a good thing especially if the egg is going to be incubated or remain fresh. Because the egg is sealed nothing penetrates the shell and gets into the inner part. However, before you sell them you must wash the bloom off.
The logical question that comes to mind is why do we have to wash the egg's protection off creating a permeable shell? If the bloom keeps pathogens out of the albumen (white) and yolk why would we remove that protected coating? Not only does it keep things out it also does not allow the inside to dry out, keeping the egg fresher longer. A commercial egg left in the refrigerator will slowly dry from the inside. It will also absorb the odors that are in the ice box too.
An egg that has not been washed can remain unrefrigerated for up to three months. Wash the bloom off and the egg cannot last a day with temperatures above 45 degrees before it starts to develop salmonella and other bacteria harmful to the digestive tract.
There has been a fight to get egg producers to date stamp individual eggs, this is required in the UK but not herein the US. I saw a news show awhile back that did an expose on egg producers recycling old unsold eggs back into the food chain. If you've ever bought a carton of eggs and get them home and crack one open and the white is very cloudy you've probably gotten one.
When you buy a fresh egg the albumen should be clear with the exception of the chalaza. The chalaza is the strand that anchors the egg to the shell. This strand will be solid white. The yolk should be standing tall and proud. The yolk color from a free range or organic egg will be dark orange, hence the high beta carotene content. Its commercial counter part will look yellow to pale yellow if it has been recycled. Because the shell is permeable the egg white can be smaller do to shrinkage and the egg can take on the properties of what it has absorbed.
If eggs were individually date stamped then they couldn't get recycled the way they are doing now, creating a safer egg supply. Let’s get this straight; people get sick because of bad food in the industrial food supply. Other people point this out, document the abuses and lobby their leaders for change. What happens is people with more money hire insiders or just give money directly to campaigns and our leaders end up doing nothing. Sure there are counter arguments that they will point to and the will of the people is of utmost consideration, they'll say. Yet this is the same group that says we must wash eggs before we sell them.
Why? Because we as consumers can't be trusted to safely handle the eggs and we'll contaminate ourselves. In the interest of objectivity an egg does come from the chicken's vent. The vent is used to expel everything from the chicken. So the outer shell of the egg is contaminated when it comes out. This is important to note, the outer shell is contaminated not the inner shell or the albumen or the yolk.
Sometimes our eggs do have particulate matter on them but because of the bloom it does not come in contact with the inside of the egg. Can an unwashed egg make some one sick if not handled correctly? YES, it can. Will it make us sick if it is handled properly, NO. Is it hard to safely handle an unwashed egg, no. Wash the egg and your hands before use and your fine. Chicken itself can cause more cross contamination and illness than a dirty egg but I digress.
I'm sure I'll wrap my head around this someday but until then I'll keep raising chickens for their eggs. For the record we are a registered egg producer and all the eggs we sell are washed per regulations. The eggs we keep for ourselves are not.
Eat safe fresh vegetables purchased from a local farmer, not a chain hard selling that fact.
It’s the third week of August and flock three of our Rhode Island Reds have just started to lay eggs. They are so small you can hold half a dozen in your hand. This is a big day for us, a day we've been looking forward to ever since March 19th, 2009. They have made it this far healthy, happy and vigorous. The one rooster we got (by accident) has grown to be quite the leader. His problem is he is too big and the hens are smaller, thinner and faster.
Here they are at a day old.
You spend a lot of time with them making sure they are ok, that they don't get Coccidiosis, that their pen is clean and water free of foreign objects. If you look closely at this picture you will notice that the feed trough does not have bird droppings in it. That was an anomaly; as soon as they got enough strength the crap hit the fan.
They are energetic, inquisitive and love tomatoes. We have them outside and they can't resist flying the coop and raiding the garden. We know this not because we caught them but we started noticing peck marks on the reddest tomatoes. We have these huge German Queen heirlooms. They weigh in about 1.5 to 1.75 pounds each. These are bigger than the Mortgage Buster we had a couple of years ago and they are tasty. So the new chickens have found out too.
We finally figured it out when we saw an egg sitting in one of the rows between tomatoes plants. We packed up the electric fence and moved the house out behind the barn so they wouldn't be tempted, for all the hard work seeing a picture of them at a day old and seeing them now full grown you can't help but feel a sort of elation at the accomplishment. .
I am by nature a pessimist with a type A personality, I'm ok with that. But it is times like these that make me a laid back optimist. To have nurtured them to this point is time to celebrate the good fortune. But being a farm you don't want to crow too much because good times are not always around the corner.
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