Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Farm Tale: Chickens and Eggs

Chicken and egg tales (1) - washed farm eggs air drying before packing up to sell - FarmgirlFare.com
Farm fresh eggs: they're what's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Ever since a kind friend brought Whitey the Chicken a dozen fertile eggs to sit on six years ago when she went broody for the first time in her life at the age of seven, our chicken population has expanded each spring.

Whitey died last year at the ripe old age of 12 (when I checked a few years ago, the world record for oldest living chicken was 14), but her legacy lives on. She raised seven chicks during her one and only stint at motherhood, and we kept one of the roosters, which meant that we now had fertile eggs—and our hens have been taking advantage of that fact ever since.

I once read an alarming statistic that said something like 95% of hens in the United States have had the instinct to sit on a nest of eggs and hatch out some chicks—known as going broody—totally bred out of them. So despite the fact that we don't really need any more chickens, I've never discouraged a hen from doing what she's naturally supposed to do. Plus it's always fun having baby chicks around.

Last year, though, six of our hens hatched out a total of 40 live chicks. Lokey alone was responsible for raising 20 of them. A friend says she's worth her weight in gold.

More photos and a lot more story below (hover over each image for a description). . .

Chicken and egg tales (2) - five happy hens on the run - FarmgirlFare.com

The short version is that we ended up with a whole bunch of chickens living night and day out on the loose in the farmyard, which is not something I recommend. Because of our livestock guard dogs they were perfectly safe—except for a couple of young chicks I'm pretty sure were devoured by Kit Kat—but everything else was not.

Chickens prefer to sleep off the ground on some sort of a perch so they're out of reach from predators, and unless they're confined to a coop, they'll perch wherever they want—on the hay baler, above your gardening supplies, or way up in the ceiling rafters of the (thankfully unoccupied at the time) cat cabin. They do a lot of their pooping at night, and they turned everything into a chaotic, chicken manurey mess.

Chicken and egg tales (3) - Mr. Fancy Pants and his girls in their pen next to the kitchen garden - FarmgirlFare.com
Mr. Fancy Pants and his seven babes in their spacious outdoor pen

At one point we corralled 15 of the young chickens into a makeshift outdoor pen, along with a few older hens (who were busy hatching out their own chicks), and this worked well until they caught onto the fact that, once they'd eaten dinner, they could easily fly over the short sides and escape back into the cat cabin, which makes up one wall of this pen.

We've since added 7-foot deer netting attached to bamboo stakes all around the perimeter and that's been working really well, though it does make it look like we live in some sort of wildlife park.

Nature dictates that in most cases about half of all babies will be boys, but I know for a fact that this statistic doesn't apply to chickens. The only time I've ever mail-ordered baby chicks from a hatchery, I paid extra for all pullets. Nine of those 27 guaranteed girls turned out to be roosters.

As soon as way too many of last year's adolescent chickens began to crow, which, contrary to popular belief, doesn't only happen at dawn, we knew it was time to get serious.

We hauled two batches of roosters up to the (only) store in town and set them on the Everything's $1 table out front (they went fast). Then we put 11 more roosters into our own freezer (homemade rooster and dumplings tastes great, but you have to cook it for a really long time). That still left us with 26 hens and three roosters.

Really Lemony Lemon Bars (2) FarmgirlFare.com
Deep yellow egg yolks are what give these Really Lemony Lemon Bars their beautiful color. Depending on what the chickens are eating, sometimes the yolks are so dark they're actually orange.

By late winter the remaining young hens were starting to lay, and suddenly we were getting a dozen eggs a day. Farm fresh eggs are a delicious source of healthy, easily digestible protein, but there are only so many eggs that two people, four dogs, and six cats can consume on a regular basis. And over the past few years the price of chicken feed (along with all other livestock feed) has gone through the roof.

So I picked out seven of the biggest young hens (figuring the smaller ones eat less yet don't necessarily lay smaller eggs), along with Lil' Rooster, and we hauled them up to the (only) store in town. I had already negotiated a price of $7 per hen with the owner, which, for those of you interested in such details (I always am), was less than we'd spent feeding them during the previous 8 months.

I told him that the hens wouldn't lay eggs without their gorgeous Lil' Rooster, so I was throwing him in for only another four bucks. He paid me in cash, and the entire flock was sold before we even unloaded them off the truck.

But spring is when egg production really ramps up (there's a reason for that whole Easter egg/baby chick thing), and our 19 remaining hens living in three separate coops were still giving us at least a dozen eggs a day.

Years ago I used to sell our extra eggs to a small natural foods store 35 miles away, where the owner paid 85 cents a dozen and retailed them for $1.10. This was in the early 2000's, when gas was about $1.50 gallon, and chicken feed was one-third of what it costs now.

A few weeks ago I realized that our stack of full egg cartons was taking over the kitchen, so the night before we were headed out in the direction of the natural foods store to run errands, I washed and packed up seven dozen eggs and then somehow crammed them all in the refrigerator. I'd heard that the owner is now paying $2.00 a dozen.

Chicken and egg tales (4) - Rooster Andy likes to stay close to his girls when they're free ranging around the farmyard - FarmgirlFare.com

Depending on the time of year, we currently spend $2 to $5 on purchased chicken feed for every dozen eggs our chickens lay. This is in addition to all the kitchen and garden scraps we give them, as well as whatever bugs, seeds, and greens they eat while out free-ranging. (Pastured birds actually require more feed than those confined in a pen because they get so much exercise.)

I love having chickens, but I can understand why some people around here choose to save money and work and simply buy eggs from other people's hens. (Look for real farm eggs at farmers' markets or search on Local Harvest.)

Freshly laid eggs are covered with a protective coating, and if you keep them dry, you can safely store your eggs at cool room temperature for at least a month. Once the coating is washed off the shells become permeable, and the eggs need to be refrigerated.

Unless it's muddy outside, most of our eggs aren't usually very dirty, so we store them on the counter and rinse any dirty ones off just before using them. But if you're going to sell your eggs, they all need to be sparkling clean, which is where the photo at the top of this post comes in.

I scrub each egg gently with a little coarse-bristled vegetable brush under cool running water and then lay them out to dry on a flour sack towel (these are so handy in the kitchen) because if you set them in the dish drainer, the part of each egg that touches the plastic wire will stay wet, and even if you carefully turn every single egg over, that last bit of water will run down to the bottom of the egg and do the exact same thing again.

Washing eggs isn't difficult, but it's kind of a pain in the butt.

During the winter the natural foods store owner puts a one dozen per customer buying limit on local eggs because the supply is so limited, but in spring, everyone with chickens is looking desperately around for ways to get rid of their extras. There were at least 20 cartons of eggs already for sale in the cooler, and they weren't buying any more.

I ended up giving three dozen of my freshly cleaned eggs to the chiropractor and his office manager, and on the way home I offloaded the other four dozen for $1.50 each at the local general store where we'd sold all the chickens. I could tell from the look on his face when I asked him about buying eggs that he was already fully stocked and really didn't want to buy mine, but we spend a lot of money there and he was nice enough to take them off my hands. Plus he keeps hoping I'll bring in more hens.

A few days later I told my hunky farmguy Joe this egg thing was getting out of control and I was willing and ready to cut the flock down even more. I rounded up another five hens and sold them to the store owner for $7.50 each. He put them in a cage on display out in front of the store and said if they didn't sell in a day or two, he would keep them for himself.

When we stopped by later that afternoon on our way back home from running errands, he announced that he figured he had himself a free breakfast for the next morning because my chickens had already laid three eggs, "and two of them were green!"

So now we're down to 14 hens and our two goofy roosters, Andy and Mr. Fancy Pants, living in two coops instead of three. They're still allowed to free range (we alternate days so the roosters, who will fight, are never out together), but it happens during the day and on our terms.

Our chicken chores have been reduced, our feed bill is lower, and despite reducing their daily ration of purchased feed, we're still getting 7 to 8 eggs a day, which is more than enough.

My word for the year is simplify, and as far as the chickens are concerned, we're definitely on the right track.

Chicken and egg tales (5) - It looks like Lokey, our star mother hen, has gone broody again - FarmgirlFare.com

The only thing is, Lokey appears to have gone broody.

More farm life tidbits? 2011 and 2012 and 2013.
More chickens? Here and here.
Cute baby chicks? Here and here.

© FarmgirlFare.com, the cluck happy foodie farm blog where there is nothing funnier (and more pathetic) than the sound of a young rooster learning to crow—and things would be a whole lot easier if we could just wash all the eggs in the washing machine instead of only using it to dry them.

18 comments:

  1. quail!!!!!! im a convert. i still have chickens but only 8 hens in 2 chicken tractors in the veg garden that i move around my raised beds. and i turned the coop and fenced area over to the quail. they dont kill my plants, they eat bugs like crazy, they barely eat any feed, they reproduce fast, they start laying at 5-8 weeks, and they taste delicious. im also a convert to giant chinchilla rabbits. im foraging them and they seem to be doing fantastic. i so love your blog and hope you get lots of good rain this summer.

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  2. I totally understand. We have eight hens, and three female ducks, and we can hardly give the eggs away. (I sometimes think they lay more than their allotted one per day.) The ironic part is that we don't eat eggs! I just like chickens (and ducks).

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  3. Another great fun blog post-thank you. My hubby came from the kitchen to see what I was laughing at when I got to the "and two of 'em are green" line. I love fresh eggs and have a couple friends with live chickens and bless their hearts they are generous with the layings. I'd love to have a few birds in my own yard but we've been "ordinanced" out of live chickens here in our community so close to the big City of San Francisco.

    Asparagus has come into the markets and I can smell a Hollandaise sauce in my immediate future... can you ?~!

    Thanks for the fab pics.

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  4. Thanks for the fabulous rundown on your chicken adventure. I remember when your friend brought you the broody hen and her colored eggs! My oh my, how time flies!!! What an adventure it has been for you too. Last Spring we bought 12 chicks (all supposed to be girls ;)), 6 Buff Orpington, 3 Aracauna and 3 Black Jersey Giants. One crows... My dilemma is selling the eggs. We live on a country road and have a fair amount of passersby, but I am a little bit shy about selling eggs from my house. I've got to get over it soon as there are about 6 dozen in the overflow fridge and I just gave 2 dozen to my neighbor who has lots of kids to feed. Spring has just begun... Eek! :)

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  5. It is really easy to let a chicken habit get out of control! I know - been there. We can't let our chickens free range because of the predators around here and our guard dog Winston (a Great Pyreness) who thinks chicken is great (fun and tasty). I have a chicken run built of chicken wire but it has a lid on it because of the hawks that were flying away with my chickens.
    I'm with you on the grain cost - crazy. I too have downsized and then Winston further downsized me and left me with 4 hens, 3 roosters (1 was supposed to be a hen) and 2 guineas. It is much cheaper and I don't have too many eggs anymore. Tell me why I just ordered 12 more aracaunas then?

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  6. Great post! Love the engrossing tales of farm life. Us city folk dream of things like chickens but the nitty gritty details of actually keeping them is a mystery. I admit I laughed when you surmised that Kit Kat was responsible for the disappearance of two chicks. I'm sure my kitty Mao Mao would love some fluff ball "friends" too!

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  7. Such a great story! I probably needed that dose of reality before I go crazy buying too many chicks. A friend of ours always jokes that we really should pay him about $25 for a dozen eggs because that's the true cost :) And I totally noticed that adorable bead board and vintage-style faucet on your utility tub, so so charming!

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  8. I bought 3 chickies 6 weeks ago and we just moved them in to their new digs. We bought a pre-fab coop and put it in our old dog run that the boys don't use anymore. I had to laugh at your story of too many eggs. Right now since it's so new to us, all of our friends are clamoring for eggs when the ladies start laying. I may be naive but we are in the city so it may be easier to unload eggs, although I don't any plans to do so. We are having so much fun with them (and our two year old loved the chickies) I could see us having a few more, but I'll learn from your chicken tale!

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  9. We have the same issue with too many eggs! Thankfully I have a chest freezer and since we only had the 3 babies this year (too early to tell gender yet!) we won't have a lot of eggs this winter ... i have been freezing eggs like crazy. I recommend it :)

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  10. SusanNaperville4/29/2013 11:08 AM

    Too bad you don't live closer to Bernice from a Place to Bark. She comes up here to Naperville all the time now. She could take on another job at our Saturday Farmers market :) I know I'd pay $4 a dozen for some of your eggs.

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  11. It's great that you still have chicks hatching the natural way. I didn't know that 95% of American chickens won't go broody, but it doesn't surprise me. My guess is that well over 95% of the chickens in this country are hatched in incubators.

    We have two hens sitting on clutches right now. Hoping for lots of new chicks over the next two weeks. :)

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  12. Eggs are selling for $3.50 to $4.00 a dozen at the Farmer's Markets here, when they sell. It seems everybody and their brother keeps chickens now and a LOT of them give their eggs away. If they only thought about how much it cost to feed them...
    One of my Buffs was broody and I was going to let her hatch out 4 or 5 chicks but after only four days sitting, there was a broken egg under her. I'm not sure if she did it on purpose because she was hungry but I evicted her nonetheless. I'm hoping to try again if another hen goes broody.

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  13. Great post, Susan. You know, I almost always learn something when I read your postings and it's always something very interesting. For example, I had no idea that eggs had a coating on them that would let you store them for up to a month at room temp - and that's just one of several things I learned here.

    Anyway, thanks so much for sharing this info and I have to say that those birds are really beautiful!

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  14. I like having fresh eggs and eggs to give away to friends - never kept a rooster until this year when we also ordered hens only and got two roosters - gave away one and other is about to either be given or butchered - he is far too rough on the hens and SO noisy. He has learned the hens' "song" after they lay eggs and sings that at top of his lungs when he isn't crowing all day! I'll buy new chicks every couple of years rather than put up with the rooster (who eats more than twice as much as a hen)as you've said - feed has gotten SO pricey - my "free" eggs to friends really means they are getting a heck of a gift every couple of weeks!

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  15. Your eggs look gorgeous. I can not believe how cheap your eggs are! Where I live, in BC Canada, at the grocery store organic eggs are $7.00 a dozen. At farm stands they sell for $5-6.00 a dozen. Wish I lived near you!

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  16. Yeah - that's a scary amount of eggs. So glad our neighbors have chickens that I can cuddle and get my dose of eggs from. Even though YOU KNOW I'd love to have my own chickens. Bubba says NO. NO WAY. GO PLAY WITH YOUR BEES.

    He has a point.

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  17. I had six leghorns anf a roo named Ron. They ate one bag of feed a month. Someone gave me two brown.hens and theyate a bag a month between just the two. Im sticking w leghorns!

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  18. Why dont you.use the eggs in your recipes and sell the stuff at the farmers markets in the big city? Yoi sre missing out on some serious money and it appears you have a commercial kitchen setup!

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