Thursday, October 9, 2008

Chickens and Fresh Eggs

We now have 20 cage free chickens and one rooster. We started with a doz hens and the rooster then recently added eight more hens to make an even twenty. They are all red sex-link chickens - a blend of "Rhode Island Red" which are great eggs layers and "White Rock" which are good meat birds, making them "dual purpose". They are called this because they can be "sexed" at birth by their colouring. We are getting approximately18-20 large brown eggs every day. We sell them for $2.50 doz/large. If you are in the Barrie/Innisfil, Ontario area and are interested in purchasing eggs from us, please just send us an email. Our chickens are penned most of the time, although we do plan to let them free range some under our gaze, usually every evening after work. We have the Simcoe County Forest on two sides of our property and we have hawks, eagles, coyotes, wolves, foxes, skunks, raccoons, minks and weasels in this area, all of which eat chickens. There have also been recent cougar sightings. They wouldn't last very long if we let them run free all day and all night.

Did you know that eggs from hens raised on pasture compared to factory-farmed hens contain more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff? They have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, 7 times more beta carotene - Source:

Our chickens get a varied, natural and healthy diet. They free range, weather permitting, for a few hours at the end of each day while we are home. Even penned, they get a natural and varied diet. We feed them lots of greens daily. They love fresh green grass and dandilions. They have learned to like the tractor and lawn mower because those loud machines blow fresh cut grass into the pen. We also have an abundance of "Queen Anne's Lace" (wild carrot) that they like. They get the shaggy mane mushrooms that get too old to eat and they LOVE those! There are a lot of grasshoppers and crickets and tiny toads/frogs that cross that pen on a continuous basis, that make excellent snacks for them. It's quite intertaining to watch the chickens run after them. Those gals gobble up anything that comes into their range! They get a lot of the zucchini that we don't use. We let any extra zucchini (and there are a lot of them) get really big and seedy, then pick them and slit them in half. The gals will have those shells cleaned out in a matter of minutes - ditto for watermelon and squash. They get all the dried out old breads that have not begun to go moldy yet (mold will kill a chicken fast!) and clean up from the garden. They really like bean leaves. They have eaten an 8" row around the outside of the fence. That's as far as they can reach through the fence and they keep it trimmed. All of this to say that our chickens are very healthy and couldn't get a better diet if they did run free 24/7. This makes for great eggs! Large, hard shelled and very tasty! This isn't all they eat, of course. We do make sure they get the calcium they need to meet their daily nutritional requirements whilte laying eggs.

We have one rooster and he is beautiful, with a personality to match. He is still young, only about 8 mos old right now, but he does his job. He is quiet and unassuming, always giving way to the hens, never pushy or agressive. He eats when he's sure it is safe to do so and watches over his ladies as they eat.

His lovely crowing song is beautiful to hear in the early morning. He crows, not only in the morning, but at any alarm or announcement, all day. We are hoping that he will retain this sweet personality as a full grown adult with spurs. His spurs are not quite 1/2" long yet. He has twenty hens to himself, so, hopefully, there won't be any mating injuries to the hens from the spurs. Time will tell.

The rooster is not necessary to have eggs. Hens lay eggs every day without a rooster. Because we have a rooster, doing his job, our eggs are fertilized, but an everyday consumer of eggs would not be able to tell the difference between fertilized and non-fertilized eggs. Baby chicks only form in fertilized eggs under specific conditions, and room temp, or cooler, is not warm enough. Fertilized eggs need to be under a heat lamp or a hen for three weeks in order to hatch baby chicks. If the heat is not there and constant - no baby chicks form and the fertilized eggs are no different than the others.

We have one hen that lays huge, double yolked eggs. We get a few of these every week. You can see the difference in size in this picture. These eggs don't fit into the cartons. We give these as "special" gifts to friends and regular customers.

Our chicken house is a large wooden shed with a wooden floor and insulated. It was here when we came and very well built. We actually have two of them, side by side, both attached to the outside pen with a door. We only use one for the chickens. The other one is for dry, clean storage of food and bedding for the chickens and other things we want to keep dry and clean, like kindling.

These are our hens going to bed at night. Most of them sleep on the roosts but there are a few who prefer the floor. The nesting boxes are in the corner behind the camera. We shut them in at night to protect them from predators. Most chicken predators are nocturnal, thank goodness. We let them out into their large pen every morning at dawn or earlier in the winter months, provided the day is warm enough in the wintertime.

We believe that raising chickens on deep litter is the healthiest and easiest way to keep the hen house from building up ammonia. It needs cleaning a lot less than anything else. Keeping 4-6" of wood based litter on the floor of the chicken house helps to absorb the nitrogen from the chicken waste, since wood uses up nitrogen as it decomposes. We often use shredded computer paper as bedding. Shredded and dry autumn leaves make good bedding too, when wood chips or shavings are not available. Both computer paper and leaves are wood based. The chicken manure and wood litter decompose together. I rake it over and add more wood litter as the weeks go by, keeping it turned and mixed, just like I would a compost bin. The hens help with this too, scratching in it for food bits. As long as there is wood based litter added to it every couple of weeks and it is turned regularly once a week or so, there is no ammonia smell. I can tell when it needs to be raked and more added, when I open the pen door in the morning. If I can smell ammonia outside the pen, it needs attention. The warm farm manure smell is always there, but it's a healthy natural smell. Other things to keep in mind when keeping the smell down are the number of chickens per sq ft of housing and enough ventilation in the hen house. The deep composting litter on the floor will also help to keep the hen house warm in the winter. We clean out the chicken house litter approximately once every 4-6 weeks. After it is aged for a season, it is fabulous in the garden!

We have one chicken who is free-range. She is a lot younger than the others and is not laying yet, so they pick on her. There is a definate hierarchy among the hens. Also, the hens who have more aggressive personalities get what they want more often. Our one free range hen is not laying yet and that puts her on the bottom of the "pecking order". The older hens chase her away from the door, not letting her outside and they keep her away from the food and water. She has such a sweet personality and is totally non-aggressive. She just hides her face in a corner and stays in a nesting box all day, if allowed to stay with the other hens. This makes the nesting boxes dirty and the eggs poopy when gathered. Normally, hens don't foul the nest and usually keep them clean. Until she is old enough to hold her own and she is laying eggs, she stays in the porch entrance to the hen house during the day. She has a nesting box there but doesn't use it yet. When it is time to shut them up for the night, I put her on a roost inside the hen house where it is warmer and do some training by protecting her and teaching the other hens that it is NOT FUN to pick on her. Then I turn the light off and leave them. She is always still on the roost, pacing, when I let them out in the morning after the others have gone out or are eating. I don't think she has the confidence to get down by herself yet. I put her back in the porch and leave the door open some for her to free range. She is not as safe during the day while we are gone and I worry a little about that but she stays in the cover of the porch a lot and she can fly. She visits with the other hens through the pen fence. She stays nearby and follows them around the perimeter of the pen. So far this seems to be working out. The older hens seem to have accepted her presence outside the fence but still chase her away from the entrance to the hen house. This is a picture of our free range hen in her porch home. She is quite tame and seems to enjoy sitting on my arm where she can hold on.

We have several nesting boxes in the chicken house. One is two story with four on the bottom and two on top, but they don't use the top two. I think this is because there is no roost at the front for them to land on, and then walk into the nesting boxes. I may add this at a later date, if needed. Currently they seem happy with the ones on the floor. I recently added two more to the four they had on the floor and a few hens are using them. The others use the first four, standing in line, waiting for their turn.

I can find 6-7 eggs in one nesting box. I have put some smooth rocks, approx egg size, in all the nests. This was to help train the chickens to use them. The chickens don't know the difference. I have heard of people using golf balls for this and the chickens roll the balls under them and sit on them. I have left them there and added some to the two new nests, as well. Hopefully more chickens will use the new ones in time.

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