Spring and Happy Chickens!

It’s getting toward spring and my chickens are definitely happy about it. I’ve discussed winter egg laying beforeproduction really does decrease. This is the point in the year where things start to turn around. My twelve birds really have become much happier and are now starting to lay six eggs on average per day. Some of those eggs still have calcium nodules, but I’m finding that even the number of calcium nodules is decreasing. The point is that they’re laying more eggs. Of course, this is the human view of happiness.

The chicken view of happiness is different. I can let the chickens out on most days now. When I enter the coop in the morning, I put down their food and then open the coop door. Now, you’d think the chickens would eat breakfast first and then run out of the coop. However, that isn’t what happens. They forget all about the food and fight each other to get out of that door designed for two birds at most as quickly as possible. It really is quite insane looking. They go out and stand around the water bucket discussing chicken events of the day (not that I quite know what to think of their discussions).

Of course, there is always an exception. Violet, the oldest chicken in the coop, just watches the fracas bemused, waits to be petted, and then calmly enjoys the quiet while she eats breakfast without the jostling of other birds to contend with. It’s hard to believe that chickens can become wiser with age, but somehow it happens. This old bird has gotten set in her ways over the years and many a fledgling has felt her beak where the feathers are fewest. Just watching my chickens each day reminds me of how individuals appear in every environment and that the need for individuality is universal. Let me know your thoughts on chickens with wisdom at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Calcium Nodules on Eggs

At some point during your time of working with chickens, you might encounter eggs that look like they have insect eggs on them. The view can be disquieting at first—all sorts of images could go through your mind. However, it’s more likely that what you’re actually seeing are calcium nodules that merely look like insect eggs. Here is an egg that has such nodules on it.

An egg may have harmless calcium nodules that look like insect eggs deposited on it.
Calcium nodules can look like insect eggs.

These nodules are completely harmless. In fact, you can wash them off the eggs quite easily. When crushed, the nodules feel gritty, much like crushed eggshell would feel. These nodules typically appear for two reasons:

The first reason is the one that occurs most often. Five of my hens are now four years old and one is five years old. The five year old hen (a Black Australorp) laid this egg, so the nodules aren’t unusual at all. (Most factory settings keep laying hens for one or two years after they start laying eggs, I’ve found that four years in optimal settings works well.) This spring I’ll replace two of the hens with new layers (the other four are pets and will die of old age). I also had one hen eaten by hawks and another died of an impacted egg, so I’ll actually get four new layers this spring.

I’m thinking of trying Barred Rocks (a kind of Plymouth Rock) because I’ve never had them before and they’re quite pretty. According Henderson’s Chicken Chart, they’re cold hard and produce large eggs. A friend of mine has them in her flock and feels that they’re a good investment. The point is that when you start seeing these nodules on one or two eggs and not on the eggs of your flock as a whole, you may need to start thinking about replacing the bird that laid it. Let me know your thoughts about keeping a healthy flock at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Pullet Update – Current Egg Sizes

The fall brings a series of events that make for interesting visits to the coop looking for eggs. Because I have a mixed flock, there is a combination of pullets and hens out there. The hens haven’t been laying many eggs as of later because they’re molting. The pullet eggs are just now starting to get big enough to really count for something. I still get super jumbo eggs from my Buff Orpingtons. These eggs peg my scale and don’t actually fit well in the carton (even with jumbo cartons, I find I must exercise care in even trying to close it). The Buff Orpingons are the only birds who lay these rather huge eggs.

These super jumbo eggs don't quite fit most cartons.
Super Jumbo Eggs Peg the Scale

The Americauna eggs can get quite large too. The advantage of the Americaunas is that they produce more eggs and eat a bit less than the Buff Orpingtons. Plus, they have these really pretty blue eggs.

The Americaunas produce extra-large to jumbo eggs on a regular basis.
Americaunas Product Beautiful Blue Eggs

At this point, I’m getting eggs in every possible size. You can see the difference in sizes from small on the right to super jumbo on the left. The eggs are always measured by weight. In addition, I check my eggs individually, so a carton that is listed as having large eggs has all large eggs in it (when you buy eggs in the store, the eggs are measured by overall carton weight, which means that you might have a mix of medium, large, and extra-large eggs in a single carton).

Weighing eggs individually is the only way to get consistent carton size.
Eggs Vary Considerably in Size

Even though the medium egg (second from right) looks similar in size to the large egg (directly in the middle), they weigh differently. It’s not always easy to tell just by looking at an egg how much egg you’re actually getting. Of course, the size of your egg can affect the outcome of a recipe (which is why I’ve gone to weighing my eggs as described in Pullet Eggs and Cookies. Let me know about your experiences with various egg sizes at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Hen Decorated Eggs

My hens, it seems, are now into crafting of a sort. They’ve started decorating their eggs for me. Now, I’ve seen speckled eggs aplenty and even banded/striped eggs are somewhat common. I’ve seen eggs in a multitude of colors as well. However, what I’ve never seen before are eggs with swirled lines on them like those shown here:

 

Two blue eggs with a swirled green stripe on them.
Blue Eggs with an Artistic Green Stripe

Just one pullet is laying these eggs and she seems to want the world to know it. Right now they weigh in at a small egg size. I keep hoping that she’ll continue to lay these incredibly unusual eggs from now on, but something tells me that she probably won’t and that I need to enjoy them while I can.

Given a chance, laying hens can prove to be quite entertaining and add interest to anyone’s life. Artistic eggs are just one of many ways in which my hens do their best to make my life happy. What sorts of unusual hen behavior have you seen? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Pullets Eggs and Cookies

The chicks have become pullets and are laying what I would term as pullet bullets—smallish eggs that are sort of bullet shaped. I’m talked about pullet eggs before in the Pullet Eggs post. They’re quite tasty as a snack or even as a breakfast, but you don’t want to use them for baking unless you find it acceptable to weigh the eggs carefully.

I recently started experimenting a bit with pullet eggs because they’ll be a part of my life as long as I have laying hens. A large egg usually weighs between 2 and 2¼ ounces. Pullet eggs sometimes don’t even register on my scale, making them smaller than the 1 ounce peewee eggs. By using a really accurate scale, however, you can gather enough pullet eggs to work for baking purposes. For example, one of my cookie recipes calls for 5 (nominally large) eggs. What it really means is that you need between 10 ounces and 11¼ ounces of egg. In this case, that actually added up to eight pullet eggs (a total of 11 ounces). Because of the extra shell involved, you want to err on the high side of the needed weight.

Initially I was concerned that the yolk to white ratio wouldn’t hold up when working with pullet eggs. After weighing the yolks and whites for several recipes separately, I’ve found that pullet eggs provide slightly higher amounts of yolk, which may make a difference for really sensitive recipes, but hasn’t affected any of the cookies I’ve tried so far. To date, I’ve tried pullet eggs in chocolate chip, oatmeal, and peanut butter cookies, and haven’t noticed any difference. However, I’d love to hear from anyone else who has used pullet eggs for baking at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

As the chicks, now pullets, lay more eggs, the eggs slowly become larger. That’s why it’s important to keep weighing the eggs out if you need a precise amount for a recipe. Always keep the larger amount of egg shell in mind as you perform your calculations and the fact that you get slightly more yolk. The difference is really quite small (it varies) and I don’t know that it actually matters, but it could. For me, the real test will come when I make homemade tapioca pudding, which uses the whites and yolks separately.

The older hens are laying few eggs right now. In fact, three of them look downright horrid because they’re moulting. I’ve noticed that the hens require more time to recover from moulting as they grow older. They most definitely don’t lay eggs during this time. One of my older hens has taken upon herself to sit atop the pullet eggs, so she also isn’t laying eggs right now. Some hens, such as my Buff Orpingtons, are especially prone to being broody. The shorter days are also taking a toll on the egg production of the two remaining older hens that are laying. In short, most of the eggs I’m getting now are from the pullets, which is why I’m inclined to experiment a bit to find the best ways in which to use them.

Now that the pullets are mostly full sized, there is peace once again in the coop. My 13 hens and pullets will spend their first winter together soon. On warmer days they’ll go out in the run, but colder days mean a lot more time in the coop, so I’m pleased to see everyone getting along better.

 

A Chick Update (Part 10)

Sometimes chick behaviors can be a little more than interesting. Of course, you saw a few of those behaviors in the previous post, A Chick Update (Part 9).

This week was special in many ways. One of the Buff Orpington chicks has taken it into her head that she needs to sit on eggs. However, the egg she wants to sit on is the super jumbo sized eggs laid by the Buff Orpington hen. The super jumbo eggs are so large they actually peg my egg scale. My customers love them, but I have yet to figure out what this chick is thinking about because she’s truly not large enough to sit on anything quite that large—at least not comfortably. I had a good chuckle the first time I saw her doing it and must admit that the laughs haven’t ended. Well, if it helps her become a better hen, then more power to her. None of the other chicks has shown the slightest inclination to lay on any of the eggs laid by the hens.

The chicks can be even messier than the hens and the hens won’t lay eggs in a nest box fouled beyond a certain level. With that in mind, I’ve been replacing the hay in the nest boxes every week or week and a half.  I’ve also been scraping accumulate fecal matter off the horizontal surfaces each day. This past week  I decided that the coop needed a lot more than a touch-up. Unfortunately, that meant locking the hens out in the run while I did the cleaning. Chaos ensued while the hens staked out various territories and decided it might be fun to chase the chicks around for a while.

Even the best fun wears out after a while though and the hens soon decided that they absolutely must get into the coop at this particular moment. At first the pecking at the run door was light and somewhat sporadic. It soon grew much louder and more spirited. Eventually, the hens decided that the hen pecking at the door at that particular moment (only one can fit in front of the door) wasn’t doing a very good job. So they took turns knocking each other off the ramp, with a new hen pecking frantically at the door. All this happened in about 45 minutes mind you, so I really wasn’t taking very long to clean the coop, but you could never have convinced the hens of it.

When the coop was finally cleaned, the hens came strutting in—fuming. They gave me a piece of their mind. A few jumped in the nest boxes and began to pick at the new hay. Violet chose to provide me with the full onslaught of her upset by screaming at me (in chicken no less). Rose decided to peck my boots. Let’s say that the hens were definitely not impressed with my cleaning job—it fell well below par.

At this point, the chicks began to look inside the run door, but they seemed most determined not to come in. They seemed confused, “Is this the right place?” After a few seconds one of the chicks screamed and ran back down the ramp, followed by the others. They refused to go into the coop until it was time to put them up for the night.

Chickens are suspicious of everything. It’s a natural behavior that keeps them alive in the wild because everyone loves a good chicken dinner. However, in the coop, the behavior often leaves me belly laughing. If you get chickens for no other purpose than to get a good laugh, you really could do worse. Let me know your thoughts about all things chicken at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Spring Chicks

I’m still getting up to speed after Rebecca’s loss, so I chose not to raise meat chickens this year. However, my egg customers definitely want more eggs. Over time, my coop has lost a few hens and it never was up to full capacity. I currently have six hens in there and they just can’t keep up with demand. As a result, I’ve purchased eight new laying chickens to add to my coup. You can see them here:

Eight chicks will make the coop fuller.
New Layers for the Coop

The eight new chicks include three Americaunas (multicolored brown in the picture), three Buff Orpingtons (light brown/yellow), and two Barred Plymouth Rocks (black with gray bellies). I’ve had good success with Americaunas in the past. They lay eggs three or four times per week, the eggs are usually large to jumbo, and I’ve only had one get broody on me once. Of all my chickens, the Americaunas are actually the friendliest and seem to demand the most attention.

The Buff Orpingtons are the most consistent winter layer in my coop. I have had them get broody on a regular basis, but they make up for their vacations from laying by laying more eggs when they do. The size range of the eggs from this chicken goes from medium all the way up to a super jumbo that pegs my egg scale. Although they don’t demand attention, the Buff Orpingtons are quite friendly and get along with the other chickens really well.

The Barred Plymouth Rocks are a new addition. I wasn’t happy with the Delaware hens I purchased. They do lay regularly and the eggs are quite pretty (the only speckled eggs I get). In addition, they seem to be the least likely to have problems during the winter months and they lay almost as often as the Buff Orpingtons do. They also tend to waste less food and eat less as well. However, the eggs tend to be a bit smallish and range toward medium. The Delaware hens also tend to get a bit rowdy with the other hens and the worst part is that they tend to be egg eaters. After talking with a number of other people, I decided to give the Barred Plymouth Rock a try.

Because I don’t have meat chickens this time, I had to set the brooder box up a little differently. There are only eight little chicks in a great big box so I set both of the heat lamps at one end of the brooder box. I also placed a metal cover over the other end to help keep the heat in better. The new arrangement is working fine—the chicks are staying quite warm and cozy despite the lack of companions (normally 75 of them).

Brooder Box with Heat Lamps and Cover
Brooder Box with Heat Lamps and Cover

The big thing I’m watching for now is that the chicks continue to remain active and don’t show any signs of being cold. Of course, that means getting up at night as well. At this point, I’m getting up two or three times during the night hours to check on them and I also check on them regularly during the day hours.

Handling your chicks at this point is a good idea. Don’t hold them for long because you don’t want them to get cold or to have other problems that come with a bit too much attention. You do want to pick each chick up every day so they get used to being handled. Make sure you talk with your chicks as well so they get used to the sound of your voice. Tame chickens are most definitely easier to care for and a real delight as companions when you work in the yard. Let me know your thoughts about laying hen chicks at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

All Cooped Up

I normally let my chickens run free during the entire year. They get outside and play games outside while pecking around for things to eat. They really are quite funny at times. One of their favorite winter games is Queen of the Hill. I put a french fry or other treat on top of a snow hill and the chickens race to see how gets it first. The chickens knock each other off the hill and grab the french fry until it’s gone. Of course, the game continues as long as I have french fries to offer them. The outside time is important because it allows the chickens to exercise properly and to gain access to alternative food sources, such as bugs. In addition, getting out of the coop provides them with fresh air and time to interact with their environment.

After seeing my egg production (and subsequent sales) drop to nearly nothing this past winter, I decided to try something out. On truly cold days, I’ve been keeping the chickens in the coop. I’m not talking about a coop with the door open, but with the door closed so that the coop stays significantly warmer. On the coldest days, I’ve been putting a pot of hot water in the coop to partially heat it. As a result of this change, my chickens are laying more eggs—a lot more eggs. In fact, egg production has increased threefold over egg production last winter at this time. Mind you, I’m getting this increase without disturbing the chicken’s natural light cycle by using a heat lamp or other light source.

The results seem consistent. In addition, the only thing I’ve changed is the time the chickens spend in their coop. I did note that there is no increase after a certain point. Keeping the chickens in their coop six days a week didn’t provide an appreciable increase in production over four days. What seems to be the most important factor is choosing days that are especially cold. Right now I’m keeping the chickens in their coop when the temperature falls below 20. However, I plan to keep playing with the temperature to see what effects I can come up with. The chickens might actually do better if I keep them in the coop anytime it’s below freezing, but something tells me that they’ll begin fighting if I do.

What I’m trying to figure out now is how cold is too cold for the chickens. They survive just fine, even if I let them out in relatively cold weather. The thing that changes is the number of eggs they lay. The cold stresses the chickens just enough to stop laying almost completely. I’m still experimenting to find the trigger temperature for this effect. Figuring out the correct temperature is important because the chickens really do need the outside time to remain healthy.

Like many topics related to chickens, trying to find specific temperature guidelines online has proven impossible. However, there must be others who have experimented in figuring out just the right temperatures for letting chickens go outside to play. Let me know your thoughts on the topic at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Winter Egg Production (Part 2)

I thought I had exhausted this topic with the first Winter Egg Production post. I had known for a long time about the effects of light on chickens. Farmers typically use lights to keep chickens producing during the winter months. Lamps are even used in smaller operations because the electricity is usually less expensive than letting the chickens stop laying. However, the first post pointed out the reasons that I don’t use lighting.

All of my chickens are cold hearty breeds, such as Americanas and Australorps. So, I don’t heat the coop in winter. If it’s an especially cold day, I keep the coop closed. Even though the coop isn’t insulated, it’s extremely wind resistant due to the construction methods used, so it really has to get exceptionally cold to affect the chickens. If you don’t have cold hearty breeds, you must always heat your coop to keep the chickens from dying in extreme cold conditions.

I keep track of the coop temperature as part of monitoring the birds. The trend I noticed is that chickens will lay more eggs when conditions are warmer, even if the amount of daylight falls below the 12 to 14 hour level. In fact, egg production can get to near half levels. For example, my chickens will typically lay 248 eggs in August. With the right winter temperatures, egg production can near 124 eggs, instead of the 63 I normally get. This fact was borne out recently during a warm spell when egg production unexpectedly increased.

My personal research led me to look for verification online. One article, What Minimum Temperature Do Hens Need to Lay Eggs?, actually sets temperature levels for egg laying. The information doesn’t completely coincide with my own statistics, but the author seems to be talking about chickens in general and mine are definitely cold hearty. The eggs you get will depend on all sorts of factors, including the amount of time that the chickens are allowed to wander around outside foraging. Mine are free to roam my properly as long as I don’t see any hawks circling overhead.

There are a number of articles that also discuss the effects of humidity—something I haven’t measured to date, but intend do start doing. So, it appears that my earlier post was a little light on details. Yes, you need appropriate light to obtain decent egg production, but chickens also appear to need proper temperatures and humidity as well. The environment also has an effect on egg laying, as well as the quality of the eggs you receive.

As with anything, the output you receive is directly proportional to the input you provide. Egg laying is a science that is misunderstood by many people who raise chickens. Understanding how to help you chickens produce better eggs is essential if you want to obtain the maximum benefits from your investment. Let me know your thoughts about chickens and egg laying at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Winter Egg Production

Chickens are affected by the amount of daylight available. In fact, layers typically need 12 to 14 hours of light each day to lay eggs consistently. Commercial egg laying operations will provide this amount of light artificially, if necessary, to ensure the chickens keep laying eggs. Of course, commercial egg laying operations also heat their coops and keep chickens in conditions that reduce the quality of the egg that you get in the store. Part of the benefit of raising chickens in natural conditions is that you obtain a high quality egg that actually contains more good elements and fewer bad elements (such as cholesterol and fat). However, there is a cost involved with getting this higher quality egg and that’s a reduced winter production.

A number of sources online mistakenly say that egg production stops completely during the winter months. However, my own experience says otherwise. Yes, the production is greatly reduced, but we still obtained 63 eggs from our ten hens during the month of December. This is contrasted with 248 during August, which is a typical summer month. So, you probably won’t have enough eggs to sell in December if you bake and eat eggs regularly. However, you also won’t have to go completely without eggs.

Of course, the question is why you wouldn’t provide a light in the coop if it will induce the chickens to lay more eggs. The problem with using a light is that it robs the chickens of important nutrients they need during the winter months. The chickens need these nutrients to stay warm during the winter, especially if your coop is unheated. Heating and lighting a coop is also expensive, so you’d need to consider the tradeoff in additional costs. When all is said and done, most small operations will be better off letting the chickens have a bit of a rest during the winter.

You can improve egg production by ensuring your coop has south facing windows so that the chickens do get the maximum light available. This strategy will also keep the chickens warmer because the sunlight will heat the coop during the day. Given the experience we’re having with the chickens, I credit the south facing window for getting any eggs at all.

One of the things you can do if you really must have more eggs during the winter months is to freeze your eggs. That’s right, you can freeze eggs during the late fall (as production is going down) for use during the winter months. You can whip the eggs up and freeze them for up to 12 months.  It’s also possible to freeze just the whites.  Unfortunately yolks don’t freeze well, so you need to choose how you plan to use your eggs as part of your strategy.

There are tradeoffs for nearly any self-sufficiency strategy you use. We’ve chosen to follow a natural path when it comes to egg production by giving our chickens a bit of a vacation during the winter months to ensure that we continue to get quality eggs when they do lay and also to extend the life of our layers by not overtaxing their systems. What is your experience with winter egg laying? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.