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 [email protected].


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 [email protected].


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 [email protected].


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 [email protected].


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 [email protected].


Preparing Eggs for Sale

It may not seem like a particularly important topic at first, but if you plan to sell some of your eggs, you must prepare them for sale properly. Otherwise, you’ll quickly lose your customer base. No one will say anything to you about the reasons for not buying your eggs—they simply won’t buy them. After a while, you’ll be left with a lot of eggs on your hands and no buyers.

When you get the eggs from the coop, make sure you wash them. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but some people have actually tried to sell unwashed eggs, which is hazardous to a customer’s health, as well as unappealing. I normally use Dawn Antibacterial soap to wash the eggs and then rinse them thoroughly. The soap ensures that the outside of the egg is free of pathogens. Of course, you need to perform this process carefully or else you’ll end up with a lot of unsellable eggs.

After you allow the eggs to air dry (or dry them carefully with a towel), you need to inspect them carefully. Any flawed eggs go into my personal pack. Eggs with cracks are cooked thoroughly and fed either to the dogs or cats. There isn’t a good reason to waste good protein, but if the egg has any cracks at all, you can’t vouch for the integrity of the content. A mix of egg, rice, and leftover meat makes for a dandy addition to your pet’s daily food. Sometimes I throw in a few leftover vegetables as well.

We don’t have any roosters. If we did, we’d also need to candle the eggs to ensure there were no embryos inside. Because we buy our chicks from other places, we won’t ever have roosters for our laying hens. You need to decide on whether to keep roosters based on your particular egg laying needs. However, it’s still possible that our eggs could have a blood spot in them. We simply offer our customers a replacement egg should this happen. So far, it never has, but it could happen given that our chickens are free range. Theoretically, you can candle the eggs to find this sort of problem, but it’s still possible to miss it, so having a replacement policy is the best way to go.

At this point, you have a number of washed eggs that lack flaws. It’s time to weigh them using an egg scale. I generally keep small eggs for my personal use. Medium-sized eggs are sold at a discount, traded for something I need, or given to friends and neighbors. The large and jumbo eggs are placed into cartons and sold at full price.

Create an attractive display for your eggs. For example, I’ve set up kid friendly egg cartons. The cartons will contain an attractive mix of blue, green, brown, tan, and speckled eggs (the range of colors the hens lay). Placing the eggs in some sort of pattern also helps. Even though the inside of the egg is the same in all cases, the eye catching patterns really help to sell your eggs to the public. Of course, adults may prefer a less colorful display, which means grading the eggs by color and placing like colors in a carton. The point is to make your eggs look especially nice.

Preparing your eggs properly will help keep you in sales. In fact, a combination of high quality and classy presentation will usually net you more customers than you can accommodate as long as your prices are also in line with what the market will allow. Let me know your thoughts on egg preparation at [email protected].