Friday, January 04, 2008

How To Raise Chickens - Part 1 - selecting egg layers

Anyone can raise chickens, even in urban neighborhoods. While chickens live best in flocks, you need only have at least two of them to thrive. Companies that ship require an order of 25-30, so homesteaders may wish to shop the local feed store for standard breeds. We have a local organic farm that sells mature hens for $10. Compared to $2.50 for a day old chick that you have to feed for 6-8 months without it laying an egg, this is a great deal.

We decided to raise chickens because we love to eat eggs. We don't have the time to deal with, or an expansive front lawn in need of fancy, ornamental birds. To select varieties, I searched the McMurray online catalog, chose some, and then had to re-choose when the kinds I thought I wanted weren't going to be available until later in the summer. I ended up with rare varieties of laying hens. While I knew chickens laid different colored eggs, I am embarassed to say that I didn't know that chickens lay different amounts of eggs, different sizes, and had more or less resistance to our Vermont cold and to winter coop confinement.

The catalog listed many rare birds, and some were interesting and even pretty. But some chickens are rare for a very good reason. For my uses, I was buying hens to lay eggs, not unlike buying an ice cube maker to make ice. What I really needed was a variety that lays lots of large eggs, is tolerant of close confinement in the winter, and is cold hardy. Early maturing would be nice too, since I found out that you can wait more than 6 months for some to lay a single egg.

I recommend the heirloom varieties for vigor, but you should take the time to make sure the varieties have the qualities you need. Other qualities to be considered are feed to production ratio. Those interested in becoming more self sufficient want to maximize the production of food for the effort and cost involved. The more you have to feed a hen to produce an egg, the more waste involved. The more times you have to fill the self waterer and self feeder in a week, lugging heavy buckets of water and 50 pound bags of feed, the less you see the sense in just having a fancy bird that doesn't give you eggs.

Take a look at this chart before you start:
http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html

In detail, my rules for selecting a breed of laying hen:

1. Pick a chicken that lays eggs well -
I have 10 chickens that give an egg once a week, and 7 hens that lay an egg everyday. I didn't know you could buy a hen for its ability to lay lots of eggs. There are dual breeds, but if you want to raise meat birds you probably should just buy breeds developed solely for this use. Pick a laying hen from a variety known for production of lots of eggs.

2. Large Eggs -
Choose a laying hen that lays medium to large eggs. Small eggs aren't bad, but don't go as far in feeding a family. There is some variety here though, bird to bird. I have a breed that is known for medium eggs, and they regularly lay 3 inch eggs.

3. Early Maturation -
Pick a hen that matures early, since some can go 8 months without giving you an egg. That's you feeding them regularly for 8 months with no return.

4. Tolerant of Confinement -
Pick a pleasant bird that won't kill your other birds when confined to a coop all winter long. Also, give young birds something to do by hanging pie plates for them to peck instead of each other's heads. They can't learn this type of play when they are older, and I tried. Start early.

5. Cold Hardy - Heat Hardy -
In cold climates, smaller bantams will not do as well as standard chickens, and many chickens with large wattles or combs are subject to frostbite. Some of the chickens are particularly favored by farmers in cold climates are: Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, Chanteclers, Orpingtons, Langshans, Sussexes

6. Ornamental and Single Breeds -
Don't pick a bird with a lot of frou frou on its head or feet. They don't do well in foul weather. A White Polish sent free as a bonus surprise bird was mostly blind because of the tumble of feathers in its eyes. Even when it was one day old, the others recognized it as the odd man out and almost pecked its eyes out. I wouldn't check the box to receive the surprise chick again from McMurray. Having a single bird of a breed spells trouble since birds of a feather do flock together, even in a hen house.

8. Roosters? -
You don't need to have a rooster to have eggs, but you do if you want chicks. Typically because it is difficult to sex a chicken before it is hatched, you will receive a few male chicks even if you order all females. We ordered 30 hens and received 8 roosters. Usually the statistic is more like one male in eight females. The roosters grew up, fought and scared the hens, and we ended up having to cull them out. ("culling" - a nice way of saying that you have to kill an animal, something I'm never prepared for).

9. Broody Hens -
You need broody hens to sit on eggs, so that they can hatch to make baby birds. Some broody hens like the Jersey Giant placidly allow you to remove the eggs beneath them. Our Fayoumis chickens were culled because they pecked us violently when we took the eggs they were sitting on. The personality of your chickens is important.

Here are some varieties that more or less fit these requirements - some are pretty rare:
Ameracauna, Andalusian, Australorp, Chantecler, Delaware, Dominique, Faverolles, Jersey Giant, La Fleche, Leghorn, Minorca, New Hampshire, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island Red, Sussex, Welsummer, Wyandotte

5 comments:

Lynn said...

I like the red sex-link chickens sold by Murray McMurray. They lay and lay, and they are active birds who will forage like crazy. They are milder mannered than the white-egg hybrids. They are smarter, too, and I didn't lose any to predators this year.

The other nice thing about them is that the hens are red, and the roosters are a different color at birth, so they are easy to sort. The bad thing is you have to buy new ones every two years, since, as hybrids, they don't breed true.

They start laying at 12 to 16 weeks, which is very early, and if you give them light in the winter, they will lay for 18 months before they need to be replaced.

I have heard that red birds are more likely to peck one another, but I haven't found it to be true of the egg layers. It does seem to be true of meat birds.

The other nice thing about this breed is that they yield a nice-sized stewing hen when you are done with them. I did a poule au pot, stuffing one with sausage and simmering in white wine and chicken broth and vegetables. Yummy! Many egg layers are too scrawny to eat.

Lynn said...

If you don't want to do a hybrid egg-laying bird, try a production Rhode Island Red. Production birds are bred not for shows but for production of eggs and/or meat. The Rhode Island Reds that are bred for eggs are very similar to the Red Sex-Links. You'll need to incubate the eggs, though.

Lynn said...

I'm sorry, I meant you will need to incubate the eggs if you want replacement chicks. Murray McMurray sells the production strain of Rhode Island Reds. mcmurrayhatchery.com

Also, the reds sex-link chicks are called Red Star.

Chasing Solitude said...

I'm a homesteader in Montana looking for good info on raising farm animals, and found this little jewel on google. Thanks for sharing your experience!

mary said...

dear chasing - check out our later entries too. good luck - it's not easy!