Posts Tagged ‘laying hens’

A Little Hen Science

Feeding my hens is expensive and sometimes I wonder how much it matters whether I gather the large heap of alfalfa and other greens that they eat every day during the growing season. Then I remind myself of one of my favorite nutritional sayings:

You are what you eat and you are what what you eat, eats.

I don’t mean to be dramatic about it, but it’s a core concept. I first read a serious article about nutritional changes in eggs according to the hens’ diet back in about 2008, and would like to bring that article up again. It details the difference in LDL oxidizability in people who eat eggs, depending on the diet of the hens producing the eggs. Here’s a Science Daily summary  with a link to the original article if you would like to read it. Note especially their paragraph exerpted below:

“There were vast differences in outcome among the treatments. Daily consumption of two industry-standard eggs, high in omega-6, caused a 40 percent increase in LDL oxidizability in participants. After eating two per day of the specially-composed eggs, with both high anti-oxidant and low omega-6 levels, however, LDL oxidation levels were similar to the control group eating only two to four eggs a week. Surprisingly, with the “healthier” eggs, we might be able to eat more than twice today’s generally recommended egg intake and still maintain a healthy level of LDL oxidation, Dr. Shapira concludes.”

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110802162807.htm

So I will continue to feed my hens to produce the product that I want to eat. There is no substitute for greens and bugs in a chicken’s diet. It’s what she evolved to eat, and I too evolved to eat them but greatly prefer to eat the bugs indirectly. If you have chickens, devote some garden space to growing greens for them. An alfalfa patch is a good source of the most nutritious greens imaginable for the ladies. And any edible weed from a location that hasn’t been sprayed with anything noxious is a bonanza for the coop. Fresh grass clippings are welcomed as long as you don’t spray your lawn. And eat the resulting eggs with relish, knowing that they are as good as eggs can be.

Urban Livestock I: Hens

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Many people love the idea of urban farm animals and wonder what’s practical on a city lot. So I’ll spend a few posts ( not necessarily consecutively) talking about laying hens, meat chickens, and goats. There are other urban/ suburban possibilities, including bees, rabbits, small pig breeds, and even mini-cows. I may explore these in the future, but for now I’ll stick to what I know.

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Laying hens are easy and delightful but need to be thought out. If you start with chicks, it will be 5-7 months until your first egg. Started pullets are available in many areas but of course are more expensive. Check Craigslist if you want to find pullets. I suggest two hens per egg-eating household member. That should provide enough eggs for eating, baking, and giving away occasionally. Many people who get hens fail to realize that they don’t necessarily lay every day except during the spring glut and don’t lay at all when they are broody or molting, or in midwinter unless you supply supplemental light.

Housing doesn’t need to be elaborate but does need to be safe. Raccoons are a concern in most urban areas. In my area we also have urban coyotes who can get over 6 foot fences, and they wiped me out of laying hens before I had the chicken run roofed over with sturdy welded wire. A safe coop at night is not enough, since I regularly see coyotes during the daytime. So no free-ranging for my ladies. I cut grass and leaves to bring to them instead.

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Feed the hens to produce the best eggs possible. I like a laying pellet with flaxseed that produces high omega-3s in the egg, and I also provide daily heaps of greens for three seasons of the year, usually including fresh alfalfa. Extra calcium is a must, and in addition to oyster shell I save the shells of all eggs used in the kitchen. They can be briefly dried in the microwave and kept in a paper bag to be ground when they accumulate and mixed into leftovers of various kinds to be fed back to the ladies. If you have some spare time in the winter you can sprout seeds and grains for the hens, but I seldom bother. I did invest in a big bag of organic food-grade kelp meal a few years ago, and I dry some kale every year to make “kale meal,” both good winter supplements for hens.

Hens lay well for one or two years, moderately for another two, and very little after that. This means that after the first two or three years you have to have a plan to bring in some new ones each year and move out the oldest ones. Old hens are not good for most cooking methods but make the best broth or stew imaginable, full of flavor and collagen. To manage your flock well, you need to be able to tell fairly reliably how old your hens are. I start a few new hens of a different breed and color each year, so for instance the Rhode Island Reds in my flock are all four years old, the gold Pioneer hens are three years old, etc.  This way I know that at the end of the upcoming season the Reds need to go in the broth pot and some new color of hens needs to be started. You will need to learn to butcher or be prepared to sell the old hens very cheaply to someone else who wants real chicken soup

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Consider whether you want a rooster. They are beautiful, protective of the hens, and also very loud indeed. In some areas they are actually illegal. In my area it’s legal to have one, but legality doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are unhappy. I keep enough hens to supply my immediate neighbors with eggs, and that helps a lot. A few neighbors now have hens of their own, so be aware that you may start a mini-epidemic. Roosters can be aggressive, but most of mine have been fairly easy to handle. If they do get aggressive with you, a broom is a good humane instrument for shooing them away with no damage done.

If you do have a rooster your eggs will be fertile, and if a hen goes broody, she can be allowed to hatch out the eggs. A separate small coop should be provided for the hen to sit the eggs and rear her brood. Have a plan for what to do with them, and bear in mind that the young roosters should be butchered or otherwise disposed of the minute they start to crow. But it is a real delight to watch a mother hen care for her little family.

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Sometimes I get questions about the “best” breed of hen. I have had Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, leghorns, Pioneers, buff Orphingtons, and several of the layer hybrids like black sexlinks and red sexlinks, and they have all layed well.  For purely aesthetic reasons I prefer brown eggs and usually choose layers that produce them. Heritage breeds like Welsomers and Barnvelders go broody too easily to be great laying hens, but they excel at hatching eggs and caring for chicks, and I keep two elderly heritage hens just for the purpose of raising several chicks each year. I usually have an Americauna or two around to add soft sea-green and blue eggs to the egg basket. If I were more organized than I am, I would keep a rotation of Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, black sexlinks, and red sexlinks, since these are the best layers that I have found among the brown-egg breeds. My roosters are either Pioneers or Red Rangers, both large meat birds whose chicks, even when crossed with the laying hens, will be large and meaty. Personally I look at the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog each year to see which breeds are designated “best” for laying, and I never bother with chickens bred for appearance rather than production or with flighty little bantams.  But if a flock of strangely alien-looking Frizzles pleases you and you don’t like eggs that much anyway, well, this is your flock and should gladden your heart in addition to its other benefits.

Independence Day


I am not a locavore. I love Italian olive oil and cheese, Belgian chocolate, South American coffee, Spanish ham, Alaskan salmon,and wine from all over the place. I am not an extremist about anything, and I think that cutting oneself off from the rest of the world makes less than no sense at all.
That said, it’s a lovely feeling to be able to produce a lot of what you need yourself, with the imports as luxury add-ons for variety. I value the concept of food independence and intelligent localism, and Independence Day weekend is a great time to take stock of how we’re doing at meeting our own needs, and celebrate with a local feast.
My current inventory looks pretty good. I’ve grown vegetables for years, but in my new location I’ve greatly expanded my vegetable garden and added laying hens and a dairy goat. I’m raising a batch of chicks for meat, and I have good local sources of grass-fed beef and humanely raised pork. So far this year, the only vegetables I’ve bought were potatoes and avocados, and not many of them. I can get flour from upstate New Mexico and southern Colorado. Not bad for a desert.
So, my 4th of July will start with a brunch of “yard salad,”homemade bread or cornbread, and eggs from our hens. Dinner is likely to include a grass-fed steak, more salad, and homemade egg pasta made from Sangre de Christo flour and backyard eggs. Midafternoon, we might snack on goat cheese from Magnolia, our “yard goat.” We’ll drink my own homebrewed mead, and drink a toast to our beautiful country and our own joy at being part of it.
This year I’ll ask my readers to consider having a local Independence Day feast, or as close to it as works for you. There are farmers’ markets this weekend, and some time to plan, so please leave a comment about how you plan to celebrate our local abundance.

Beltane Fire


Beltane, May Day, has long been one of the most important festivals of the agricultural year, when our ancestors danced around maypoles, leaped across fires, and chose mates or thought about it. It’s easy to see why. The earth is fully awake and full of the promise of the year’s abundance. Flowers are everywhere. Salad bowls brim with the first fruits of the soil. The frosts are largely past, and we can entrust ourselves to the splendors of the unfolding season. Hens lay, cows and goats give milk, and urban homesteading is briefly and exquisitely simple.
This is also the main planting season, and there’s so much to do in each lengthening day that I seldom feel like making fussy meals. The hens are laying mightily, and eggs can be turned into a series of light fresh meals. Here, scrambled egg tacos combine great eggs from your hens or the farmers’ market with good soft corn tortillas, avocados, and your favorite fiery red salsa, either homemade or bought. This is too simple to be called a recipe. For two people, prepare eight corn tortillas by your preferred method; I toast mine briefly on a hot comal and put them in a clay tortilla-holder to keep hot. Have the salsa ready at room temp. Cut two good ripe avocados into chunks and dress them lightly with lemon juice and salt. I like to mash them into a very rough and chunky puree. Saute’ half an onion or the white part of a green onion, chopped finely, in butter or oil until cooked. Pour in 5 eggs and scramble them over medium heat, throwing in about half a teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of ground toasted cumin (a kitchen staple if you do much Mexican cooking, but you can omit it if you don’t have it or don’t want to make it.) When the eggs are done to your liking, pile them on two small plates and serve immediately with the tortillas, the salsa, and the avocados. Roll some egg, some salsa, and some avocado in each tortilla, and eat messily.

Books Worth Reading: food gardening and the chicken micro-flock


The New Food Garden is the newest volume by Frank Tozer, an author I admire for his complete and knowledgable gardening books that don’t seem to get the attention that they deserve. This book is about how to create an integrated property producing vegetables, fruit, and pleasure. He uses permaculture principles but doesn’t get dogmatic about it. There are good sections on garden design, fruit trees and trees generally, “hard drive” infrastructure garden stuff such as paths, buildings, and greenhouses, and lots of information about outdoor living areas that assumes you will want to live in and enjoy your garden as well as harvest food from it. There are brief but interesting sections on a variety of subjects that give you a good framework for more detailed reading, such as fencing, water features, and use of human urine and humanure. It doesn’t include much info on growing specific vegetables, because he’s already written an entire book about that (and a very good one, by the way.)
This and Mini Farming are my favorites of the scads of new gardening books that I’ve looked over this winter. What’s the difference between them? MIni Farming emphasizes very precise soil amendment techniques and concentrates on maximizing returns in small spaces. Tozer takes a more relaxed approach in which compost, mulch, and other organic techniques are used, parts of the property are used as living areas rather than producing a food return, and fertility builds at nature’s pace. Please also note that Mini Farming has very detailed info on integrating chickens into the small layout for meat and eggs, while Tozer is a vegetarian and includes no information on food use of animals. The best solution is to get both. They won’t go unused.
Best tip and best quote: “You probably never realized that you are a walking plant fertilizer factory and that every day you are literally pissing away money.”

City chicks is a very good collection of information for the chicken owner who plans to have a micro-flock of laying hens. There is lots of information about every aspect of keeping a few layers, clearly organized so that beginners can find what they need. If you plan to have a dozen hens or fewer and don’t plan to produce any meat, I would recommend this book above most others. Do be aware that there is zero information about butchering and meat production, so if you plan to replace your hens every couple of years to keep production up, you’ll need another source of information about how to get them into the stockpot.
Best tip: Use plastic laying mats inside the nesting boxes. These are like stiff artificial turf, and droppings don’t stick to them. They can be hosed clean. They keep the eggs clean and dry. The hens can’t scratch them out of the laying boxes as they will with other types of bedding. This matters, because they then lay on the bare floor of the box and the eggs can be cracked, which renders them useless and introduces the hens to egg-eating. They cost about $4 each. I got mine from Murray McMurray, but other hatcheries have them too.