Tag Archives: Winnebeggo

All About Eggs; Part 3: Chicken Behavior and Other Miscellany

23 Sep

Since raising backyard chickens has soared in popularity, there are many blogs about chicken behavior. A lot of that is different when you are raising large numbers of birds and moving them between homes in summer and winter. We are constantly learning how best to deal with our chickens.

Winter is not a fun time for chickens. They don’t really like getting out and about if there is too much snow. Because of this they spend a lot of time with the coop doors open, but very few venture outside. This can cause some stir crazy chickens. When chickens get stir crazy, they start pecking on each other. (Think of your kids being cooped up in the house too long.) Pecking can quickly get out of hand. If blood is drawn on a chicken, everyone joins in and can peck a bird to death.

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Inside the winter coop.

We have tried many things to keep our chickens entertained in the winter, some kind of silly, but the best seems to be having scratch grains available all the time. Enter; barley. We have been feeding free choice barley for the past year and sprouting it in winter for fodder, and have had very few pecking issues.

When spring arrives and we move chickens from their winter home to the Winnebeggo, they are really befuddled. We prepare to move the chickens in early spring, by parking the Winnebeggo next to the chicken coop the day before, then wait until dark when the girls have roosted for the night. Andrew and I then don headlamps, catch sleeping chickens, and put them in the Winnebeggo. Early the next morning, we move the Winnebeggo and accompanying gear to pasture. We have to make sure to move the Winnebeggo far from the chicken coop, or the chickens will find their way back to the coop and we will spend much of our summer trying to catch chickens in the coop and shuttling them back to the Winnebeggo. It doesn’t matter to the chickens that living conditions are far better on pasture; they are creatures of habit.

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Winnebeggo’s maiden voyage.

One of the first issues we encounter when moving to the Winnebeggo, is that the first few days in it, the chickens are clueless about where to roost at night. They figure out the nest boxes fairly quickly, but when night falls we are faced with chickens roosting mostly under the Winnebeggo. We spend several nights crawling under the Winnebeggo, catching chickens and putting them inside. In an earlier post I explained there is usually a manure buildup under the Winnebeggo, therefore, catching these chickens is not a pleasant job. Luckily, after a few nights of doing this they start to figure out we would like them to roost inside.

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Chickens roosting under the Winnebeggo.

Egg eating can be another problem. Like us, chickens love the taste of pasture raised eggs. If an egg breaks, which they do sometimes, they will race to eat it. This can develop into a habit of chickens breaking eggs themselves and eating them. We try to control this by keeping next boxes very dark, so they can’t see the eggs. They prefer dark nest boxes to lay in anyway, so this seems to keep egg breakage and eating to a minimum.

Because they are allowed to free range, our chickens like to find other places besides nest boxes to lay their eggs. I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out where they might have lain their eggs and have found clutches of eggs in some unbelievable places. These eggs can’t be used for human consumption, so when this happens, our dogs usually get a treat. We had a chicken hatch 8 chicks last summer because she hid her nest too well in an abandoned pig waterer.

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Broodiness, or a hen trying to hatch a clutch of eggs, is a problem we deal with regularly in spring and summer. When a hen “goes broody” she doesn’t lay eggs, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest box. Some breeds are more prone to broodiness, so we take that into consideration when choosing a breed. We have tried many methods to try to break a hen’s broodiness, but what seems to work best is Chicken Prison.

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Chicken prison is built with a small mesh wire floor to allow for maximum air circulation. When chickens are broody, their chest/breast area is very warm to the touch due to hormonal changes that prepare them to incubate their eggs. The theory is that if you can cool them down and not allow a comfy dark space to nest, they will get over being broody. Usually a week in chicken prison will do the trick. We also use chicken prison for injured birds.

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Someone on this farm is a comedian.

 

Last in the Series: Part 4: Predator Problems and Solutions

All About Eggs; Part 1: What Kind of Chicken Lay Those Eggs?

26 Aug

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We get so many questions about eggs, I decided it was time to do a series of posts on them.

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Let’s start with the chickens. There are three basic types of chickens, meat birds, dual purpose, and layers. Although meat bird breeds lay eggs, the birds are not long lived and the number of eggs they produce are not conducive for using them for egg production. Dual purpose breeds can be used for egg production or can be butchered for meat. They will not lay as many eggs as breeds in the layer category, and won’t be as heavy as a meat bird, but serve backyard farmers well. Laying breeds tend to be smaller bodied birds that require less feed, but because of their smaller size are not desirable for meat production. We keep mostly dual purpose chickens, with a few layer types acquired for other qualities we desired which I will explain later.

When considering what breeds we want as layers, there are several factors to consider. Since we use pasture based system, we want chickens that are good foragers. Because we live in Minnesota, we also need to think about how they fare in a cold climate. Do they lay well during the winter? Do they have large combs, which may lead to frostbitten parts? Are they gentle? Also, because we are in the egg “business” their tendency to broodiness is important. When a hen is broody, she is trying to hatch eggs. She doesn’t lay for many weeks, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest boxes so other chickens can’t lay. Egg size and number is also breed determinate.

We currently have 3 breeds of chickens that seem to work well for us. Our main breed is a Rhode Island Red. They are a gentle, dual purpose, hardy, brown egg layer, that does well on a pastured system.

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We also have Ameraucanas. These chickens lay the blue or green eggs you see when you get a dozen of our eggs. They don’t lay as well, but forage well, endure our winters and are gentle. We put up with fewer eggs and their tendency to broodiness because we really like having diverse colors of eggs.

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(Note: All three of these chickens in the foreground are Ameraucanas. They have extremely diverse coloring.)

Our third breed is the dark Leghorn, which lays white eggs. White Leghorns are typically used for industrial egg production. We chose the dark Leghorns so their coloration wouldn’t make them as much a target for predators while out on pasture, but also because Leghorns are very nervous birds and we hoped they might act as an alarm system for the rest of our flock.

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We are adding a fourth breed to the line up for next year’s eggs. It is the Cuckoo Maran, a breed that lays a dark chocolate colored egg. This will expand our color variations even more. Think of how cool this would be for natural Easter eggs.

Our Cuckoo Maran are not laying yet. On average, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to start laying.  Chocolate colored eggs beginning this winter, folks.

Did you ever wonder why sometimes all the egg vendors have a lot of eggs and not many at other times?  There are several reasons for this.

Most hens lay efficiently for two laying cycles. However, after two years, there is likely to be a decline in productivity. Once they start, good layers will keep laying for about 60 weeks in their first cycle and then perhaps 50 weeks in the second cycle. Between those cycles they will molt (lose their feathers and grow new ones), during which time laying ceases or drastically reduces. The molting cycle can last anywhere from 4 – 12 weeks.

During winter, once daylight drops below 12 hours, production can decrease and may stop altogether. To prevent this, some farms install lights in sheds to maintain light for 12 – 14 hours a day and trick the birds into thinking its still daytime (so they keep eating). That’s not a farming practice that we think is appropriate. Daylight in Minnesota starts increasing early in the spring (March) and decreasing early in the fall (September). So natural egg production stinks between the months of September and March.

Stay tuned for Part 2; What Makes Our Eggs Different?