The eggs are coming fast and steady now. We’re getting 5-6 a day, and I’m thinking there’s still 2 hens yet to start laying. I think they’re all still learning to some degree, though, as evidenced by the varied sizes of eggs we find. (The ones to the sides of the carton are close to store-bought “large” eggs.) We’ve also found a few eggs that have only a soft membrane around them, which are pretty gross, and some that look like an egg had been cracked right into the laying box, with no signs of any shells. I think their bodies are still just figuring out how to produce and eject an oversized, hard, protein-bomb every day. We’d like to invite anyone in the area who wants some of these protein bombs to let us know. There’s plenty, and the mini ones make the cutest little fried eggs you’ve ever seen.
We lost our second chicken a few days ago. The first was a meat bird about the 3rd day we had them, so it wasn’t as sad. This was one of our brown layers. Not sure what happened. Mark let them out in the morning before he left for work and all was fine. I found her face planted under the laying boxes when I got home 9 hours later. She was, as they say, stiff as a board, so she must have been dead for a while. No sign of mayhem or manhandling by any other critter. We’re guessing she had a spastic episode, as they seem prone to do, flew into the bottom of the laying box, and brained herself. We had another layer show up with a big gash on her head a few weeks ago, we’re guessing from the same type of thing. That one’s fine now, though.
It’s sad but, all in all, I think we’ve had a pretty good mortality rate, so it’s hard to be too terribly upset. We’re not going to have any shortage of eggs, so that’s no concern. She had a good life while it was here, and then became food for whatever might have been prowling the ditch down the road the other night.
We had our first egg today! I was in “straightening” the coop and decided there was enough chicken poop in the laying boxes that it was time to clean those out too. I made a very excited, very nerdy little gasp when I saw the little white egg sitting in one of the boxes. I should have had enough wits about me to get my camera, but instead I grabbed the egg and ran to show Mark, and then called my family to share the news. My mom told me not to call back until it was a human egg I wanted to tell them about, but my chicken-rearing brother and sister-in-law were thrilled.
Our egg is on the left. A standard large store-bought egg on the right. The eggs should be up to normal size soon, though. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the egg we got is just the faintest shade of pink, particularly next to the white store egg.
We switched the hens over to a laying ration, even though it’s probably a bit early for most of them. I think the egg probably came from one of our white birds, which I’m guessing are some sort of Leghorn hybrid and reach production age earlier. The others will take a few more weeks, I think. Which, really, is probably a good thing because I don’t quite know what we’re going to do with the 7-8 eggs were probably going to get every day.
Oh, and our rooster has started his strangled attempts at crowing. That’ll be fun.
We’ve started to let the chickens roam the full yard when we’re home. They’re slowly getting more courageous, wandering farther and farther from their coop. This is a good thing, since it was getting a little unpleasant having their poop concentrate in a few square feet in front of their coop door. The white ones are especially brave, and have even taken to running up to us when we walk out, probably wanting cracked corn. Cracked corn is well named, we’ve decided, not because of its manufacturing process, but because of the clear signs of addiction the hens now demonstrate.
We’ve tried introducing Bucky to the chickens more and more each day, too. He doesn’t immediately charge them now, and we consider this a sign of progress. After a few minutes of watching them, though, it’s more than he can handle and he just has to give a little chase. We’re working on it.
There are a few other drawbacks to letting the chickens roam. Once they start laying in a few weeks, we’ll probably have to make some changes so we’re not hunting for eggs across the whole yard every morning. And, though they all stay relatively close and grouped, once in a while the final count when we close them up for the night is off. Then, we have to sweep the grove and pasture, hoping a hawk or fox didn’t grab one, or that we forgot to watch Bucky very carefully. Tonight, after a sweep, we found one perched in the rafters of the center of the coop and had to chase her down with a pitchfork. Luckily, most seem content with the perches we’ve provide, and we don’t have to conduct search and rescues too often.
The laying hens have had a life of ease since we butchered the meat birds. We had a divider up in the coop, but by about 6 weeks the layers could easily jump/fly over it. They stopped doing so as the meat birds grew to about 4 times layer size and easily got annoyed with the smaller, faster, altogether more chirpy layers. Now that the meat birds are gone, the layers have the whole coop to themselves, plenty of straw to scratch, and a new old set of laying boxes that we picked up at a farm sale.
With only ten layers, we actually probably only need about a third of the boxes we have, but we couldn’t have built or bought new boxes for the $12 we spent on this set. The hens are still spending most days out in their tractor, but when it’s especially windy or rainy we leave them in the coop. They’re getting lots of kitchen scraps now (here, they’re investigating some applesauce trimmings), plus whatever they forage while outside. They get most excited about corn cobs, zucchini, and especially watermelon. It seems like their growth has slowed since we’ve moved them outside and they eat less feed, but it’s hard to tell. They still have roughly 5-8 weeks until they start to lay, and since we’re not in it for profit, we’re fine with letting them be outside filling up on weeds and bugs.
We’re still not entirely sure what breeds we ended up with. The black-and-white one is a Speckled Hamburg, one of our prettier birds, and hands-down the stupidest of the lot. The whites are probably some sort of leghorn mix and are fairly spastic. The two black ones (maybe Black Australorps or Black Giants) are the first to peck at whatever we throw in the coop, the little red ones are Rhode Islands, New Hampshires, or Red Stars, and I’m leaning toward the rooster being a Golden Laced Wyandotte. He was the surprise free chick that came with our order, and we didn’t realize that they’d throw a rooster in with a laying mix. He’s started chasing the hens a little, but the white ones especially are happy to dish it right back at him. We’ll have to watch how things develop to see if we’ll be able to keep him. The way he’s feathering out it looks like he’s going to be pretty handsome, so we’re hoping we can make it work.
The past two Saturdays have been butchering days. We were already almost two weeks past the standard butcher date for the type of chickens we had purchased (although 10 weeks for a chicken to go from the size of a tennis ball to the size of a basketball still doesn’t sit quite right), and so we could no longer afford to put it off. We threw together a makeshift outdoor kitchen, filled some tubs with ice water, strung up some twine nooses, and were ready to go.
We were definitely nervous at the start. Neither of us having ever butchered anything before, we were worried about making sure we did things in a humane and sanitary way. We sure looked like amateurs, reading aloud from Storey’s Guide to Keeping Chickens at each step. It was a learning experience in many ways, and with each chicken we became more confident and self-directed: gauging on our own how deep to make the slit in their throat, how long to scald the bird for feather removal, how to tell by feel a gizzard from a heart from a lung.
I think we were both surprised, or at least I was, at how quickly the nervous reverence of the first chicken gave way to a mechanical duty with the remaining. The chickens swiftly transformed–literally and figuratively–from a living animal to a meat. It probably didn’t help that, as we both later admitted, neither of us really liked the meat birds as we were raising them. Compared to the layers, the meat birds were dirty, lazy, and boring. Not that it’s their fault that they were bred to do nothing but gain weight as quickly as possible, but their characteristics combined with our remembering that we had bought, sheltered, and fed the birds for one reason only certainly made it easier to get through the butchering.
It was quite a process on both days, definitely an all-day affair of feathering, gutting, and breaking down. But, it was an activity we were committed to doing, and I think we’re both glad we took part in each step of raising the chicks through eating the meat. We’ve already decided several ways that we’ll want to change both how we raise and process meat chickens in the future, so we can chalk even our mistakes of this year up to a learning experience. Our freezer is now full and the layers seem happy to have the permanent coop to themselves. We’ve had our first few meals of home-grown chicken, and are looking forward to many more, and to most likely bringing in another batch of the meat chicks next spring.
This weekend while Lilly’s family was here we decided we better find something to do, and being that we had been thinking about building an outside chicken coop, we figured that would be a good project to work on. After much debate we decided to go with a portable coop that would allow us to move the chickens throughout the yard and pasture, rather than having them mow down a spot right off the building. We consulted numerous sources for ideas, but ended up with a hybrid of a few different ones. Once we decided on our basic design, Lilly’s dad, brother, and myself went to work.
The basic design we went with was a 8ft. x 4ft. coop that runs on skids. This design gave us the size we were looking for in terms of square footage for the birds, and size that allows us to move it around easily either by hand or by pulling it with the lawn tractor. In addition, part of the design has a brace in the middle that acts like a yoke on a canoe, allowing me to lift from inside and carry the coop on my shoulders. We wanted to make sure it was easy to move, otherwise we figured it would end up sitting in the same place all the time whether it was portable or not.
Lastly we ended up with a set of swing doors on the front and a lowering door in the back. This allows for easy access to the chickens, and the ability to get in from either side once laying boxes are added. As for the materials, we happened to have everything around the farm except for the chicken wire. We went with a heavier type of wire often referred to as cage wire or wire cloth. This type of wire is very strong and is much harder for predators to get through. We figured the extra security and durability was worth the extra cost. The only thing left will be a coat of barn red paint to match the rest of the buildings, but until then the chickens seem to be enjoying the outdoors regardless.