Living with poultry has been an illuminating experience. Turkeys are friendly, smart and curious. Ducks are flighty creatures, easily spooked but very industrious in their search for food. The two ducks we have left lay one egg each per day and these are delicious. They are larger than chicken eggs, very tasty and are great in baking.
Two years ago we got some adolescent chickens for eggs and they quickly settled into the enclosed lean-to off the shed and soon were laying enough eggs to supply several branches of the family. Recently we switched to all organic feed and are paying a premium for it but sometimes it costs to do the right thing. Not to be too preachy but organic starts in the field and doesn’t wind up down stream polluting the rest of the world. The eggs are wonderful, fresh and I don’t want to know if they cost more than we would pay in a grocery store for the same quality. Even if we did buy organic grocery store eggs they wouldn’t be as fresh. Many days the eggs go from coop to frying pan the same morning.
Mother Earth magazine did a seven month study on eggs some years ago and found that unwashed and never refrigerated eggs will last on a counter top for several months, under refrigeration for many more months. Eggs can be pickled and last for years and they can be coated with paraffin (petroleum product) lard, or veggie oil and will also last a very long time as long as they were unwashed and never refrigerated. There is no way to tell how truly fresh grocery store eggs are. Local eggs can be quite fresh and the eggs can be sold for four weeks after the ‘pack date’ or ‘Julian date’. This is put on the carton as the number of days since January 1, so ’32’ would be Feb. 2. The sell by date is four weeks after the pack date.
It also depends upon how the eggs were handled. If they stayed at room temperature for several days before packing they would not be as fresh as eggs that were refrigerated the day they were laid and packed cold.Commercial eggs, no matter if organic or not are subject to certain regulations about washing and it is important what is used to wash the eggs and even what temperature the washing solution is. Generally, the runnier the egg white, the older the egg. Really fresh eggs are very perky.
The real miracle is that so many eggs, 75 billion per year according to the American Egg Board, are delivered safe and fresh. Well, mostly fresh.
Are these chickens a lot of work? No, not really, but they do need to be tended at least twice a day. In the morning we prop open the door to the coop against any breeze that might blow it shut, replenish water and food if necessary and collect eggs. The ducks roost with the chickens and all of them pile out of the coop in the morning tumbling in their haste to get out and forage for tasty tidbits in the yard. They especially like it after a rain when the worms come up to breath. We collect the eggs and either eat them or put them in the fridge and some go out to children and neighbors. When the sun hits the top of the trees the chickens gather by the door of the coop and when it is a bit lower they all go in to roost. The ducks would happily roost on the lawn but that is not safe. Mostly the ducks go in but they get shooed in if not. And that’s all there is to it!
Except for cleaning out the pen….. We use a deep litter method for our hens. This means that we do not obsessively clean the pen. When it looks like it needs it, when the litter is packed down but not quite wet or totally befouled with droppings, we put another layer of litter on top of the old one. We continue this all winter and a deep layer builds up with the bottom layers composting where they are. The ducks make a clean nest in one corner where they lay their eggs and the chickens lay in the nest boxes, mostly in just two of the six we provided.
Cleaning the pen is my job. I am short and can get into the coop easily. I use a rake and a shovel to pull the litter into the center of the coop and then Eric and I put it into trugs and haul it out to the garden. In the past we have just put it on the raised beds but this year we have a brand new, three bin composting system that is just begging for some chicken litter. I take a shop vac into the coop and plug it into the handy socket Eric put in there, (which also is where we plug in the water heater for the winter) and I vac all the spider webs, dust and what-all from the beams and ceiling. We repeat this in the late Autumn.
We use a variety of litters, hay, old saw dust from my brother’s workshop (so we know where it comes from) and purchased wood shavings. We start chicks on wood-shavings from the feed store but we switch to hay. If the hay is kept dry until it is used and is not moldy it is fine to use. Many people say this is a bad idea and only straw should be used but straw is expensive in the East where we do not have a wheat growing industry. We do have a hay industry and good local hay is available throughout New England. So far, we have had no problems at all with our litter. Harvey Ussery in his fabulous and comprehensive book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and other Fowl… , says that the deep litter method is the best, even for chicks. In fact, he says that if you are starting chicks in a pristine pen and leave the litter for the second batch of chicks, the second batch will do better. The immune systems of the chicks must be challenged in order to develop fully, just like humans. We are challenged by organisms that like to live on and in us and it is the same for the chicks.
We just put in fifty meat birds called Freedom Rangers. They will be raised in the pen on organic feed and in the field in moveable pens later on. We don’t yet know if we will process (slaughter) our own birds yet or not but we have some time to think about it. More on this later.
Erma Bombeck, a comedienne of yesteryear once said, “The trouble with having a baby…is that then you have it.” The same is true of chickens, as it is for the family dog or cat. Someone has to be there to feed and water the animals every day except for cats which can be left for a day or two. Unless you have a trustworthy and totally automated system of doors opening and closing, shunting food and water into the pen, some human is going to have to tend those birds—no exceptions! This can be a neighbor’s child if they have been carefully taught, it can be a local 4H kid who does chicken sitting for cash, a family member who knows the drill, but it must be someone.
Freedom Ranger birds ranging freely…
Many people are now keeping a few chickens, city folks, too. Small pens can be purchased or build for little money and chickens will happily make their home in your back yard. If they do not range on grass you can toss them greens and that will keep them happy. We have found that we really like living with other species, it livens up the place. Good luck to all who venture into the coop!