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Some Thoughts On Keeping Chickens

By   /  January 11, 2016  /  14 Comments

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I don’t claim to know all there is about keeping birds. Heck, I don’t claim to know anything at all. This is a post about what I think I know about chickens…and I have given this topic some thought.

Egg Eating

All chickens eat eggs happily. All chickens. Just break an egg open in front of your flock and see who comes running. I THINK this is a normal, instinctive behavior. Birds don’t want messy nests so they clean up broken eggs. And believe me, I have some experience in this matter. I have heard and read that egg eating is contagious and the only cure it is to cull the whole flock. I believe this to be false. I believe the contagion is the end-result of nutritional deficiency in the flock or of unclean nest boxes.

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There. I said it. This is total heresy in the farming world though.

My birds have had trouble with this from time to time (keep in mind I have a flock of four year old birds). Most of the time the cure has been to keep oyster shell in front of the flock free-choice. When that runs out, eggs start breaking. The other possibility has been packed or dirty nesting material. If we have a prolonged period of rain I may not be as disciplined as I should be about cleaning next material. Wet birds with muddy feet do bad things to clean nests. The final reason I believe I have had periodic trouble with broken eggs is because we are sometimes delayed gathering eggs. Things work better if we collect eggs at 11am and at 4pm, not just when we tuck in the birds at night.

clean-nest-boxes

In summary, I THINK you should keep oyster shell in front of your birds keep your nesting material clean and fluffy and collect eggs frequently to prevent egg eating. And I don’t think you should cull the whole flock when you notice the behavior.

Old Birds Don’t Lay Eggs

I think there is some merit to this idea. I do. I have a flock of NH Reds that have passed the 4 year mark. This is a small flock. Survivor birds. They have been here since the beginning. They survived the mink, several skunks, hot, cold, rain and dry…these birds have seen what Macoupin County can throw at them. I say I keep these birds as breeding material to build my own flock of acclimated birds but, really, I’m not hatching any eggs. I just have the birds because I want the birds. They seem to lay well in the spring and summer but things slack off noticeably in the fall and winter. I suspect one should start chicks every six months and rotate out flocks every 18 months. But that’s a lot of work.

Revenue

How much money can you make selling shell eggs? It depends. How much money do you have to spend to keep your birds alive, healthy and how efficiently can you pack eggs? I think layers provide two main benefits to your farm. First, they add and manage manure on your behalf without any training. Second, the eggs you do sell provide ongoing customer exposure. Every yummy dozen eggs you put in someone’s kitchen is a chance for more. Maybe they want a chicken. Maybe they have a neighbor who wants to try your eggs. You need exposure to get word of mouth. Eggs provide constant exposure.

But not a lot of profit. If Henderson couldn’t make shell eggs pay…

Sick birds

I am not a veterinarian. I can not afford to call a veterinarian. If I have a sick chicken I just make a decision on the bird and move on. I don’t spend a lot of time on this topic because I keep my birds well fed and healthy (and I do think you feed health into your livestock). But I also don’t waste a lot of emotional energy on this topic. When it’s time to do something I just do it. Make a decision and move on. For example, we found four turkey poults were having trouble walking and put them in a hospital pen. One bird was looking particularly rough, the other three were recovering. What caused the problem in the first place? Maybe too crowded? Not enough Riboflavin? Too much protein in their feed? Dunno. I’m monitoring the situation. But that one bird? Compost. No second thoughts.

Also, and I know this seems uncaring, sometimes birds just die. No apparent reason. Just a dead bird. Was it defective? Did it break its neck getting on the roost? Did it choke on a grasshopper? Dunno. One dead bird is not cause for alarm. It is going to happen. 20 dead birds in one night is a problem to be solved.

Size of flock

How many birds should you have? More. Always more. Too few birds and you don’t have enough to sell and I would suggest a minimum of 50 birds to make it worth the management effort. If I had 100 birds/acre I would be a busy boy but I don’t think I would overload my farm. My current marketing reach could not move that much product but it would be fun to solve that problem. But the more birds you have the more efficiently you can operate. Every 250 birds or so will need a range feeder and a couple of drinkers. You should probably have 80 nest boxes for each 250 birds. And once you crack 250 you need to aim for 500. Then you can start getting bulk discounts on egg boxes and selling eggs by the case to larger buyers. I’m not there yet. I, personally, may never get that far. But I suspect the next generation will expand what I have started. I think you need more birds. Yes, I’m talking to you. Yes, you.

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Bird Breeds

It’s no fun to work with flighty birds. A reader, Eumaeus, suggested that his experiences with Silver Laced Wyandottes were negative…mostly that the birds were flighty. I find that I agree. SLW are flighty, lay medium eggs but they appear to winter well. Customers invariably ask me for Large eggs instead of Medium. It’s a problem.

We bought a flock of Rhode Island Reds from Central Hatchery some years ago. When I sold the aging birds they each weighed 10-12 pounds. Those were big, big birds. They were also pretty chill and gave fair numbers of large eggs.

We have also had good luck with a number of red sex-link breeds but our favorite, by far, are New Hampshire Red. Those are large birds but not as big as Central’s RIR. They lay dependably and tend to tip toward Large eggs.

Years ago we had Barred Plymouth Rock. Those birds didn’t do well with our heat here and I prefer not to raise them.

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We have also kept large numbers of Americauna chickens. For years we would pack a blue egg in the front right of every egg box. But we stopped. Americauna seem to stop laying entirely in October and don’t pick up again until April. Their eggs tended to be medium, they don’t do well with the heat…not worth the novelty.

Housing

chicken house chism heritage farm

Our recent chicken house is, I humbly submit, a work of genius. We insulated the top and left the upper two feet open, wrapped with chicken wire. That is a cool structure for the birds to sleep in through the hot summer nights. Dad even wrapped the top in plastic over the winter to keep the birds warm in sub-zero weather. It worked very well. Predators seem to be reluctant to climb the ramp up to the chickens too. It’s a win all around.

It beats our other chicken housing attempts in every imaginable way. We have tried to close the birds up tight and they suffer in the heat. We have tried to leave them completely open to the elements and predators and they did a little better, though owls would pick them off as they roosted on the roof. The wheeled chicken house is highly portable, convenient and safe. 10/10. Would chicken house again.

Those are a few of my somewhat random thoughts on keeping chickens. Even if you don’t agree, please comment with your thoughts below. I can take it.

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About the author

Chris, his wife Julie, and his kids work together to retain and enhance a portion of the farm that has been in the family since the 1840s. They're renovating pastures using hooves, claws, snouts, beaks, teeth and time, along with all the wildlife around them. Chris says, "It's the coordination , planning, and unexpected nature of..erm..nature…that keep us hoping." Currently they sell eggs, chickens, turkeys and hogs, but those are just their tools. Their real goal is not financial, rather they want to make sure the next owners take possession of more fertile land than they bought.

14 Comments

  1. robin ashley says:

    i’ve got those 250 birds — in high season i get 12 dozen eggs/day in freezing temps we go down to 8. i like heat lamps with red bulbs in winter and find if they are cozy a quantum number of birds will lay all year long even without artificial light. i keep dominiques — a great friendly bird producing medium/large brown eggs. i NEVER wash the eggs!! tell your customers chickens lay an egg with a natural, protective-anti-bacterial coating so embryonic chicks can survive the hazards of a dirty nest. washing denatures the coating and the eggs become vulnerable to contagion from salmonella, etc. educate your buyers and save the washing step, sell the eggs unrefrigerated — the way they do in much of the rest of the world! the eggs taste way better and last just as long on the kitchen counter as a store bought egg. last money-saving trick: keeping good foragers like my dominiques lets us with hold bought feed all day long in summer. have never called the vet. these free range, warm and dry girls have an iron constitution! If they look sick i isolate them, feed water treated with apple cider vinegar (which we offer to everybody a few times in the summer for worms and general health) and lots of house treats and then hope for the best. if i find a broken egg i toss it on the ground and — yes — they all come running. only issues with full on free ranging is you could never identify the non-layers or egg eaters to cull them. so i carry more dried up old birds than i should. chickens are a treat. train them by yelling ‘snack’ and offer up something special (rotten tomatoes, etc.) to eat. that way if you see a fox in the field you can yell snack and rustle everyone up to safety. just a few tips.

  2. Brian Nichols says:

    I like the chicken house! Do the chickens go inside at night on their own? And how big of a pen do you give them?

    • Chris Jordan says:

      Pen size depends on a couple of things. Mainly the number of birds and the season but also our intent. If we would like the birds to act intensely on a smaller area (like the manure pile after we clean out the barn) we use less fence.

      But on range for 200 birds, four lengths of permanet does the trick. Time varies by season. Generally, if the grass is growing fast, the cows are moving fast and the chickens are following fast too.

  3. Steve says:

    Great article. As a kid we had lots of chickens, and those days are some of the best of my life. I always say you aren’t a chicken farmer until the shit starts to smell like chocolate. It still smells like chocolate to me! I’m hoping that soon I will be in a position to have a place for a small hobby flock, as I want my children to experience the glory of a flock of birds running toward you coming out of all the nooks and crannies when you yell “Here chick, chick, chick, chick!!!”

  4. Heather says:

    Dunno. Love this. Sometimes you just don’t know and that’s ok. We move on. Get more chickens and go with it. Mother nature is always going to throw the curve ball. Thanks so much, this was great.

  5. Donald says:

    I need more chickens too. But, I want to talk about the breed descriptions and share my little bit of experience. The saying “There are more differences within a breed than there are between breeds.” holds true for all species. Which hatchery and then how the chicks were raised probably makes more difference than the breed. Granted, we had 100 Brown Leghorns and 50 White Leghorns and when they weren’t fluttering around like crazies they were pecking each other to death, so some breeds are CERTAINLY flightier than others. We have some 2 yr old Barred Rocks that have been the best hens we have had. They were raised for the first two weeks in our living room because of 20degree icy weather and they are very calm around people and lay well in South Louisiana through the summer. We have a chicken tractor full of Silver Laced Wyandotte pullets about 4 months old and they have gotten used to me moving the pen everyday, but they did run to the back of the pen for the first month. They also pecked some full grown broilers to death. But now they are calm and if a few get out I can easily grab them. I am not disputing your general breed traits, I just want to remind everyone and support your thoughts that upbringing and conditions have a significant affect. Cheers! More Chickens for Everyone!

    I agree wholeheartedly that you feed health into your stock because the Barred rocks have never missed a meal and always have oyster shell and they have returned the favor. Early on when we tried to do too much with too little I was metering feed to the flock “by the book” and all it got me was skinny birds and no eggs– for months.

  6. Heather Ayers-Pauley says:

    We’re getting ready to leave our urban, cubicle-based routine and try our hand at homesteading. Definitely appreciate the advice and insight into chicken-keeping!

  7. Jess Jackson says:

    Good article. I worked with a cow-calf grazer in Iowa that got a running school bus and uses that for 300 year old laying hens behind his cow herd for fly management, fertilizer, insect management and eggs. Hens go by when the snow fly. These free range, and organic but not certified jumbo eggs sell really well. I have pictures: e-mail me at jess.jackson@wdc.usda.gov

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      Jess,
      Please send us a picture of the 300-year-old chickens. Those are REALLY old birds! 🙂
      We’re extremely impressed that they are still laying. You should definitely breed them.
      Rachel and Kathy

      PS Kathy and I are cracking up!!! But we do know what you meant. We just like it better as ancient birds.

  8. I need more chickens!

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