Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Which Comes First, the Chicken, or the Egg?

It all began so innocently.

Ma has more than an acre in the country and adorable granddaughters. It's almost Easter and those chicks at the local Tractor Supply sure are cute. Wouldn't it be great to have "real" eggs from hens who have real lives?

Like I said, it all began so innocently. Now nearly three years, countless sacks of feed and a construction project later, I'm firmly committed to my laying hens.

Or, I should more accurately say, my laying flock. The individual hens may be subject to elimination for nonproduction, once the laying season gears up again in the spring.

During those three years, I've learned a bit about hens, some by experience and some from a good book or two. I've done a lot of trading. I've had a few fatalities. I think this far in that I'm ready to take stock, but I could be wrong.

That first early spring day, we picked out six nondescript yellow chicks with no idea what they would be -- gender or type. Easter was late that year and the store was shooting for clearance of the leftovers and there had been the general Easter rush. E1 was the only child big enough to care, and she picked one of the larger chicks and called it "Duck" after her favorite toy. I purchased all the support items as well and brought them home to care for.

They were soon housed in an outdoor cage with a heat lamp and a plastic cover to keep them warm and, strangely enough, all survived to adulthood. Out of six chicks I had three white Leghorns and one large white hen (Duck) and two large white roosters. Although the birds were supposed to be of the egg-laying varieties, the big birds acted more like the ones that occasionally fall off a chicken processing truck. They were ungainly and Duck fell ill to some malady and died before ever laying her first egg. The roosters, however, decided to do what roosters do and after one of them went after E1, they were given away.

Of course, by that point in time I had found someone with chickens to sell and had bought a pair of silkies and a pair of Rhode Island Reds. A friend had a Buff Orpington take up at her house and I went over one evening and wrangled the hen off the hood of her car where she spent most nights, leaving a gift that wasn't an egg in the morning when she awoke. I had a decent sized little flock that had taken over the fenced back yard which had previously housed dogs and never been a very attractive asset. I could listen to the roosters grow in the morning and go out and hunt the eggs scattered under the shrubbery.

Addicted, I decided to amp up my flock and start selling eggs. I ordered 15 newly hatched heavy layers who were overnighted from West Virginia and delivered to my local post office in less than 24 hours. A friend bought four of the chicks once they were big enough to go outside, and at that time I discovered there were actually 16. They were, however, all hens as promised. My big red rooster fell ill and died. I found a group of Bantam Cochins someone wanted to give away -- and I kept them about a year, successfully raising one male chick from the broody hens before I got tired of fighting the roosters and gave them away again. Then I added three Brahma hens and a rooster, after I read they were supposed to lay best in cold weather when the other hens take a break. The Buff Orpington, after laying faithfully for a year or so, died. An occasional hen decided to roost on the fence at bedtime and woke up on the wrong side of the bed, jumping the fence and disappearing into some wild carnivore's stomach without leaving so much as a feather. A piece of plywood lingering from removing the small henhouse while building the new one blew over in a gust of wind and crushed one of the leghorns.

There is a lot of fluctuation in my flock, and no one has a name. Of the original Leghorns, which I've decided are the most productive despite their lean and lanky looks, only one survives. There are also two White Rocks, three black sex links, three Brahmas, four Wyandottes and the silky, who appears to be ailing and hasn't layed many eggs since hatching a chick that drowned way back in the summer. There are also three roosters who have shown their intelligence by never attempting to flog me or the little people who enter their domain.

By rough calculations, that should mean about a dozen eggs a day, when the hens are not molting and the weather isn't too extreme. That's where the problem comes in and where, unfortunately, I'm going to have to do some flock management.

Although I'm feeding all those birds and getting some beautiful eggs -- enough to supply me and several friends with free range, too big for the carton eggs -- even during the best days of summer there were nowhere near a dozen eggs. I have slackers in my midst. Worse than that, I have egg eaters, although I realize that may be the result of a cracked egg during the fight over prime laying spots.

I've decided on no changes this winter, even if I only get an egg or two some days. But come spring, these girls had better amp up production or someone is going to disappear from the flock.

I know, they're not prime meat birds any more, but I've already researched killing and dressing. You know you can find a YouTube video for practically anything? (My cousin found one on how to skin a bear after taking possession of one killed by a truck.) I won't be doing any plucking either -- don't eat chicken skin so don't need to preserve it. I've already got the pistol and ammo to get started. I've tried to warn them, but of course, they're chickens and pay me no mind.

I think I can figure out who goes and stays with a game camera mounted near the nesting area, and perhaps a sharpie to make it easier to tell those white birds apart. After that, well, they may be too tough for frying, but I'm betting they can go in the freezer for a good chicken stew next winter. If the experience isn't too horrible, I may try my hand at raising a few for eating.

Depending on my goal number, during spring chick days I can also go back to Tractor Supply for some more Leghorns. After all the learning and experimenting, they're the absolute best at consistent production. Because at my house, while a chicken may be required, the eggs come first.

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