Some Thoughts on Keeping Chickens

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.

Eggs

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

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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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5 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Keeping Chickens

  1. Right on about the egg eating issue. Exactly my thoughts.

    Old hens. Four years old and still getting decent production? I”m impressed, and it probably speaks to the nutrition and lifestyle you’re providing. Up till this year, I’ve replaced my flock every two years, raising day olds for the new flock (I used to buy in point of lays but after bad experiences two batches in a row (lice infestation on one batch, sickly and runty the second batch). This year, I’ve gone to raising my own chicks from eggs produced by the main flock, the goal being to raise 8-10 hens a year to replace poor doers in the flock. It’s a plan with a number of flaws – half the chicks at best are roosters, delicious but not useful for eggs. How do I tell which of the main flock are the poor doers? It’s a work in progress. I guess I could go to keeping the hens for years, but I do find the production drops off significantly after the second moult, which is why I do what I do. Unlike where you are, eggs are a profitable business for me, so production matters.

    Egg size. Agreed. Another reason old hens aren’t necessarily an advantage though – the eggs start getting TOO big…hard on the hen, and I can’t sell them because they don’t fit the carton. Good for family of course..

    Breeds: I used red sex link birds for years. For whatever reason, even the day olds from the hatchery seem to me to be overbred (maybe it’s just bias on my part) – they were getting smaller every time, they seem to drop off of natural causes fairly frequently and they were getting egg bound a LOT. Over the last 15 years I’ve tried ISA Browns (the sex link bird), Rhode Islands, Plymouth Barred Rocks, Red Rocks, Red Sussex (both the reds are hybrids), New Hampshires, and Columbian Rocks. My preference is for Rhode Islands or Red Rocks. Both are hardy, resilient birds, produce brown, large eggs and are fairly consistent layers. I found the Plymouths to be flighty and the eggs were too small and almost white rather than brown (a selling point locally), the Columbians to be docile but not productive and the Red Sussex and New Hampshires to produce smaller eggs than the RI and RR, the otherwise I like both.

    Deeply envious of the egg mobile housing. Super well designed. But I’m curious about the shutting in/not shutting in thing. It really caused that much heat build up with all that ventilation around the walls? What about a wire door to put in place during the summer then, to minimize the smaller attackers then? (wouldn’t do a thing against foxes or raccoons, I admit).

  2. I have a small flock but plan to have egg and meat birds when we finally move out to our farm full time, so I read lots of books and blogs and try to think about my personal experiences with my flock of 12 (11 hens/1 roo) and how that might scale up. I really appreciate this post – actually all of your posts on your actual experiences – good or bad. The reality and the dream of farming are two very different things.
    6 of my flock are in their 4th season of lay, 2 are in their third, and 3 are in their second. I get almost 4 dozen a week during peak times, so think my older girls are still making a contribution and am happy to keep them around, but when we do it as a business – there will have to be a different management strategy. Feed is too expensive for one, but I (like to think that I) will deploy the hens after their second year of lay to other jobs on the farm – I wrote a post on our chicken plans if you are interested (it’s titled Chicken Food Forest) – although some will be delegated to the stew pot and as food for our dogs and cats. We also hope to grow most (if not all) of our own feed to help make eggs and meat birds more affordable to our customers and maybe even a tiny bit profitable for us. As chickens are not our main focus – we plan to have a market garden, fruits and nuts, and pastured pork as well – they may do just as well as a value-add or an attractant to get customers interested in our other products.
    I haven’t had any egg eating in our flock except in the case of a brooding hen – she cleaned up a broken egg and a chick that didn’t quite make it. I was impressed. Also – when I’m gone on the weekend and the eggs pile up – an egg will occasionally get broken. My hens have oyster shell in their feed plus I offer them oyster shell free choice. I think you are spot on with this – proper nutrition, clean nests and collecting eggs should keep that problem at bay.
    As to breeds – I chose dual purpose breeds (Buff Orpingtons and Barnevelders) that seemed to do well in wet/cold, but I’m thinking when we get down to business I will probably choose a laying breed for the egg producing and would love to be able to do something similar to what Adam Klaus has done in developing our own meat bird breed specific to our farm/climate. (See http://www.permies.com/t/30881/chickens/developing-homestead-chicken-breed plus there is much more interesting discussion on this topic if you care to poke around the permies.com site. I’d do a search for Adam Klaus and chickens.)
    Love your egg mobile – having the height is a good idea – something I hadn’t considered before.
    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this subject – all of it is very helpful to me as I plan out our future chicken management plan.

  3. Maybe we’re off a bit, but we grind up our used eggshells and feed this to to our birds as a source of calcium. We used to use oyster shell but changed. No apparent problem with egg eating.

    • Nothing wrong with that. Not sure you even have to grind them up. But we sell 50 dozen or more each week and eat maybe 2 dozen…so we would have to have an egg shell rental agreement with our customers…

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