This has been an exceptional winter for my laying hens. This is the first time we have not had to buy a single store bought egg all winter since we have had been in the chicken business. Now we have gone from one egg every other day or so to a two egg day. It may be some of the coldest weather of the year, but two eggs in a single day is a sign that we are on our way to spring.
As fall progresses here in southwest Montana our egg production has reached new lows. Our flock is the smallest each year at this time. Chickens ability to lay eggs is directly related to the number of hours of light, aka length of days. This can often be compounded by a fall molt.
Egg farmers today often light their chicken barns to ensure that they lay regardless of what is happening in nature. I raise my chickens more naturally and work with what light nature sends my way. I allow the natural rhythm of the seasons of life to cause my chickens to slow down and even take a break from laying eggs.
Molting is that time when chickens decided that their feathers must be replaced. For my birds it is usually happens during the fall and winter months. It seems to be one of those things that is counter intuitive to mother nature. Why would birds naturally lose all their feathers when it is getting colder out?? Who knows but molts traditionally occur in fall and winter.
With a small flock then compound in the shortening days and the loss of feathers eggs become a precious commodity.
This weekend Mr. Ranger Sir and I had plans to to cull the roosters from our not so tiny flock on his only day off for the next few weeks. Instead of the wonderful early summer weather we had planned for, we had wind, rain, and cold temperatures. We decided that we were not going to stand outside and butcher under those conditions just to get rid of the roosters.
No one needs as many roosters as we have. We have leftover packing peanuts from when our baby chicks were shipped to us. After years of never getting a wrong sexed bird, we got two this year. So we are feeding lots of chickens for no other purpose to fatten them up. Our roosters were finally just large enough to butcher. Now seemed like a good time because their personalities have not turned nasty towards humans, dogs, one another or the hens. Except for two of them, they are big ugly roosters, the male counter part of sex linked hybrids. Ok…ok…ugly might be to0 harsh of a word but they are definitely not handsome roosters like the barred rock or the gold laced wyandotte. The fact we decided not to put ourselves out in such adverse weather conditions means the roos have received a reprieve not a pardon. Next date the bus leaves for a freezer camp is sometime after the 7th of July. Lets hope everything stays peaceful until then and we don’t regret our decision.
My new chicks are now nine weeks old. They are fully integrated in with the existing flock. Sort of. The existing flock will not tolerate them for the most part, but the newbies dodge their way around them just fine. Each morning I open the coop and let them all out. When confine to the chicken run the newbies lay low, but as soon as the gate is open for free range time my adult flock heads out, leaving the newbies full run of the coop. You will often find the newbies sitting on the stairs outside the little door enjoying the world.
We are feeding a flock raiser without calcium and providing oyster shell for our layers. Life isn’t to bad for the chicken farmers. No more separate feeds, or spaces. We get to treat them all the same. It is just a wee bit early to start thinking of butchering.
My meaties are huge and we are starting to think about sending them to freezer camp. Our packing peanuts are not far behind. Last night one of the roosters was mad and pecked at my husband when he put them away last night. It means their days are numbered.
This year when I could not tell the packing peanuts from the keepers, I ended up with 20 baby chicks for the first time. My normal number of chicks is between six and ten. When you have as many birds as I do this year the are too many to name, and “really get to know.” So they are a flock of little chicks. This has been a learning experience
They are living in a brooder in my studio space and in less than a week I am ready for them to move outside. They have generated more dust and are already getting stinky. Unfortunately the weather is still so cool here that I don’t feel I can set up an appropriately warm brooder yet outside in the shed. This flock is almost 4 weeks earlier than usual, and this inability to move the out to the shed and keep them healthy really sucks. But I am charged with their welfare so for now they will continue to live in my favorite personal space. .
Twenty chicks in a brooder, means the weaker chicks have less chance of survival. On the first night I had one chick who by all outward appearances looked fine, never found her groove. She was by far the smallest. No matter what we did, she would not drink or eat. She passed away the first night of what I call failure to thrive. It has been several years since I have had that happen to me, but it does happen. I now have a chick that arrived in good shape, but some other bigger bully or maybe it was just curiosity picked at her eye and she is now blind in one eye. She isn’t doing so well any more. She is not putting on weight, and is hanging in the corners. The human nature in me says isolate her and work with her, but a single bird taken from the flock is hard to reintroduce and much harder on the bird. We are keeping an eye on her and trying to coach her along to eat and drink. If she continues to fail, the humane thing to do may be put her down. This really sucks too.
It is some of the hard realities of having animals. These chicks living in my studio are not some anonymous chickens that arrive in the Styrofoam containers at the supermarket. Yet they are not my pets. I am charged with practicing good animal husbandry. Sometimes that sucks.
One week from today my baby chicks will arrive. I need to start to get my things in order to be ready for the responsibly of baby chicks. I need to get all my brooder stuff out and set up so when they arrive all I have to do is turn on the light. I need to pull supplies out of the garage and shed and get them cleaned up so I can bring it all into the house. I must say in lots of ways I am excited to see what the new breeds bring to my flock. On the other hand I dread the whole process of raising baby animals and the knowledge that more will have to be butchered. It is the cycle of life and keeping a flock of chickens brings it up close and personal.
Chickens are sort of like cowboys. There is a lot urban beliefs on what is based on TV shows and Hollywood movies. If you live in true cowboy country you know many westerns are just plain crazy with things that are preposterous. I am a transplant to Montana, and though I grew up in rural Illinois, my cowboy IQ before moving west was shameful. After living here for a number of years I have friends who own ranches, are married to true cowboys, help out during branding, love to help bring herds down in the fall, lady friends who have barrel raced for years, and neighbors who have arenas on their property so they can practice their team roping skills. I know so much more, but my cowboy IQ is still pretty low. Some of favorite urban legends about the west are: horses whinny and talk all the time, you can get off your horse and if you don’t tie it up it will be there when you come back twenty minutes later, all cowboys are sexy except the old chuck wagon cook, and none of them chew.
On the other hand I have had my own flock chickens for quite awhile and my chicken IQ is pretty high. Here are some of my favorite chicken fallacies.
You need a rooster. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and a chicken needs a rooster about as much. Unless you planning hatching chicks, there is no need for a rooster. A rooster like a man is need to make babies, without it the female gender will produce eggs and slough them off.
Brown eggs are better, more nutritious, better flavor, you pick. Brown eggs are a genetic egg shell color period. Nothing more exotic than that.
Chickens scratch and wander around the “barnyard.” Some chickens are great forager, meaning the scratch around looking for good food.. Others have no interest in moving around beyond going to the feeder. I pick my birds for their forage quality and I can tell you some are rock stars going out and finding the first green grass of the spring and others well they will get there, but if they miss out on a tasty morsel or grasshopper they don’t care.
Chickens are fed hormones or steroids to make them big faster. The poultry industry doesn’t need to do this. After years of selective breeding they have developed a bird that will “naturally” grow from egg to maturity in just about 6 weeks. This breed is extremely efficient turning everything they eat into body weight. They sit in cages and have food available to them non-stop. They grow so big so fast, their legs often can’t hold them, and can get congestive heart failure.
- Technically yes cage free means exactly that the chicken that laid your egg was not in a cage. It doesn’t mean it had a lot of space or could wander around the chicken coop, it just means it wasn’t in a pen. I am not sure if that is any better, chickens have a pecking order and can be quite mean to one another when allowed to be free, and in crowded conditions things always get worse. Cage free generally is just a bunch of free chickens crowded in a coop.
- Free-range is a term that means the chickens had the opportunity to go outside. It doesn’t mean they have a wonderful green lawn with bugs, slugs and seeds for them to eat. It just means there is a door in case they want to use it. There is no standard that says each free range bird must have at least two square inches of outdoor space. It doesn’t mean they ever have to be so uncrowded in the coop that they could make their way to the sunshine. Keeping chickens myself I can tell you it takes no time for them to denude green space, so odds are this free-range space has long since been picked free of any green material they might eat.
Organic or vegetarian eggs are better. Organic just means they at organic food, it does not speak to how they were treated or raised. The only advantage of organic in my mind is they are not fed food that was not raise with pesticides, but probably more importantly to me no vaccines or antibiotics. Vegetarian eggs on the other hand is plain insanity. Chickens are omnivores, like us they eat meat and veggies. Vegetarian and free range are mutually exclusive. You can’t let them egg bugs like they naturally do and call them vegetarian.
There are many more, but these are some of my favorites fallacies about chickens and cowboys.