Tuesday, November 19, 2013

chickens 101

 Chicken basics.
Like....the very basics.
Like, we are still figuring this chicken stuff out....but here is what we've learned so far. please feel free to add your two cents (or 50 cents!) in the comments.
I love learning about chickens.

Heads up: I don't talk about the coop--we picked ours up for free (along with a hen, remember?) and added on to it a bit.....and works for now. Someday we will build one and I'd do things differently, but for now it's good.
I don't talk about getting started--I never documented much of that last spring. I promise to do a "getting started" post next spring when I get more babies. It's very easy and anyone can do it, promise.  
If you want to see how cute our girls were as babies--check out THIS post.
Remember those old commercials--
"The Incredible Edible Egg"?
I didn't realize how truly incredible they were until our ladies started laying.
They make an egg. Inside their body. Every day. And we eat it!
And eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Check out all the juicy nutrition info HERE.
And did you know that pasture raised eggs have 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, 40% more vitamin A, and 400% more omega-3 fatty acids. Also, an egg from a pastured hen has 30% more vitamin E. Pasture-raised eggs produce positive HDL or good cholesterol and lower “bad” triglycerides.
[source is HERE. along with some great egg facts.]

Here is some very basic information, and answers to a few questions I've received over the last little while.
And yes--our girls have names......Fanny (Delaware), Wilma (Plymouth Rock), Goldie (Rhode Island Red), Hermione (Ameraucana), and Millie (Orpington).

General Care
How easy are chickens to take care of you ask? Suuuuuuper easy. How's that for an answer? They really require very little hands on attention. When we leave town we keep them locked in the coop with plenty of food and water and we are good to go. Most days they are out in the yard eating for several hours a day and I give them all of our table scraps--they will just about anything. I keep food in their coop but they eat alot less when they spend the day out grazing.
HERE is a great list of what chickens can/can't eat when it comes to scraps.
I use pine shavings inside their coop and nesting boxes and add a fresh layer as needed. Every now and then we get out the shovel and scoop everything out of the coop/run and mix it into to our garden "soil". I'm hoping to make our lousy desert brick dust soil a little bit better than this past summer....fingers crossed.

Free Range?
My girls are so happy when they are out wandering the yard. When I go out to the coop they gather around the door waiting to be set free. They spend a big part of the day out roaming. I do have to be able to keep an eye on them--they like to wander over into the neighbors yard.....and he's not the biggest fan of that. So as long as they behave they get to say out as long as they like. We lock them up in evening to keep them safe from the crazy country nightlife.
So far we have only had a little bit of winter--I'm anxious (and nervous) to see how the next few months play out. There is a big debate in the chicken world over supplemental light. Chickens need about 14 hours of daylight to lay eggs, so in the winter egg production slows waaaaaay down, or stops completely. 
We have a heat lamp on a timer that comes on about 3 hours before the sun comes up. With this extra light/warmth we are still getting 3-4 eggs a day (we have 5 chickens). Some people choose to give the chickens a break and not add light throughout the winter. Supposedly chickens will lay longer if they take it easy in the winter, but we decided to add the light this year. It also makes me feel better knowing that they have a few extra hours of heat in the morning as our temperatures continue to drop.
For water so far I am just hauling out warm water every morning to melt the frozen layer on their water bucket. We'll see how things go as it gets colder, but I'm eyeing one of THESE for water if it gets too nasty.
Washing Eggs
Another big debate in the chicken world is to wash or not to wash. When eggs are laid, they have a natural coating covering them called "bloom". This prevents bacteria from entering through the porous eggshell. If you wash off the bloom, bacteria has a better chance of entering the egg. Most of the time my eggs are pretty clean. Every now and then I'll get a poopy egg--so I do gently wash those. The rest I leave as is.
When a chicken goes "broody", she sits and sits and sits on her egg.....and really, she doesn't do anything else. The poor thing wants so badly to be a mom and hatch that egg. Our hen Millie that we got with the coop wasn't laying when we got her. Her previous owner said she never did lay. She was at our house for less than two weeks and started laying--we were beyond excited. I never knew why she started laying so suddenly, but then two months later she stopped laying....again.
She was broody. She never left her nesting box, ever.
I'm thinking that was her problem before we got her--and I think having little baby chicks around snapped her out of it.
Weeks went by without an egg and I started researching what to do. There were so many ideas--throw a bucket of cold water on her. Put a basket over her for 3 days (sad!?).
But I decided to block off her nesting box. She only sat in the middle box (we have 3), so I blocked it off to see what would happen. Within a week she started to lay again--woohoo!
She's never consistent, but her eggs are giant and beautiful.....thanks Millie!
What to do with the girls after they are done laying.....
Who knows.....I haven't thought that far ahead. I don't know that we'd eat them--laying hens aren't really meant for eating. They are pretty small, and from what I understand, the older they get the tougher and chewier they will be. In the next few years I might want to try my hand at raising a few turkeys to eat.
My friend Meg shared THIS post with me--how to butcher your own chicken.  
(DON'T look at this post if you get queasy.....it's step by step with photos).
So for now we'll just be happy that they are laying.
So all these eggs.....what do we do with them?
Scrambled. Fried. Baked. Hard Boiled.
Farm Fresh Egg with Kale and Goat Cheese
Chop kale into large pieces and saute on medium heat with minced garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes.
Add a splash of balsamic and salt and pepper.
Make a little "nest" in your kale and crack an egg into it.
Cook until your egg is done--I like the yolk just a little bit soft.
(Stir the kale around a bit as the egg cooks)
Sprinkle with goat cheese, and salt and pepper to taste.
(See more egg recipes on my recipe page HERE)

I never ever thought I would like this chicken business so much. I knew I'd love the eggs--but I never thought I'd be so interested in the chickens themselves. They fascinate me. They each have their own quirky little personality and they are just so funny to me. I am already excited for spring--we'll be getting a few more babies to add to our flock.

Backyardchickens.com has lots of helpful information--it's like the Chicken Bible.

Do you have chickens?
What's have you learned from raising your own flock?
Oh--and point me to your favorite egg recipes.

Still have questions? Ask them here and I will do my best to answer them in my next Friday Q&A


Unknown said...

I don't raise chickens, but my grandparents did. They had laying hens all the time, and then in the spring they'd get chicks for butchering. It was so fun playing with the babies every year! Then they'd get older & eventually we went to visit & help on butcher day. I'm actually a vegetarian now, but I still look back on those memories. It was so much more humane than what mass produced chickens go through. Plus it was fascinating that they can still walk around without their heads. Good luck in your hen raising!

Unknown said...

I LOVE my chickens, have had different flocks for several years, and currently have one Wyandotte hen and an Americana rooster- (You can read about him here- http://thebusinessofhome.com/?p=286.) I lost 2 recently to a bobcat :( We built a new shelter, and I just added 2 ducks to the henhouse. I love them. Can't wait to get more chicks next Spring.

Meg said...

I want to kill one and eat it. Just ot know how. I want to SOOO badly! But I just can't. It's not killing them that's hard. Yes, they're are babies, but it's also life and they are chickens and I'm ok with them dying (I was NOT ok with this until this year when they quit laying). But then I saw the "how to" process article and I am not ready. I want to be ready. I will be someday. Not yet though. it's so much more than "chop off it's head and cook it up" like I'd hoped. LOL!

Your girls are beautiful! I need a fence. My girls haven't been out in months. It's so so SO sad. They will get out soon though.

Good post! Glad you love it. They are awesome and gross and easy and fun. and gross. (did I mention gross?) Once it rains, the eggs are super muddy and poopy and that part is lame, but the rest of the year they're all fresh and pretty looking. yay!

Meg said...

Great post! Glad you are enjoying your chickens. They are pretty fun aren't they! Thanks for the link on what you can and can't feed chickens. We've been feeding them our table scraps too. Sometimes we go on grasshopper hunts and my husband and son collect a bunch and the ladies LOVE THEM! I still can't watch them eat them, but glad they are happy ;).