The Chicken or the Egg? Part II
There are three other topics I wanted to touch on: harvesting the eggs, what to do when your hens stop laying, and how to care for the chicks (yep, at some point you are going to let one of the hens have a brood).
Like most other foods that you harvest and then eat right away – fresh eggs are so much better than store bought. You will notice the difference in taste and wonder why you waited to start your own chicken operation.
Collection: I liked to feed the chickens in the morning and again in the afternoon. They are always hungry it seems and I enjoyed watching them eat. So that meant I was out around the coop twice a day and this is a good time to grab any eggs. Look around to make sure your hens haven’t found any hidden spots to lay their eggs. Although we all hope they use the nesting boxes, it can be a bit of an Easter Egg hunt every day. BTW, the color of the eggs don’t matter at all – they have the same nutritional value.
If you can provide some calcium supplement in their feed, they need it for the egg shell. You can give them egg shell but you need to grind it up. As omnivores, if they start associating their own eggs as food, they will pick at their own eggs. A chicken that starts doing this will not stop (put her in the pot!) and others may learn from her habit. If you have access to some ground up oyster shell that will do the trick. But you may end up giving them ground up or pulverized bone from other animals you have eaten.
Storing: Eggs will keep for about a month in the frig or your root cellar. Eggs have a coating (called “bloom”) that keeps bacteria out so avoid washing the eggs (unless you are eating them that day). Use a dry cloth to wipe them down. If there is manure on the egg, you can use a damp cloth.
When the hens stop laying: Once the days get too short, the hens will stop laying for several months until spring when the days grow longer again. You might try putting a light in the coop to keep them laying a little longer but this is the natural cycle of things so you might have a couple of months without eggs (unless you built up a surplus during the year).
You will also find that as a hen gets older, her production is going to drop off and is no longer a productive member of your coop. It is time for her to go in the pot! There are other reasons you might kill a chicken (too many roosters in a brood, or a chicken gets sick). So just like with your other barnyard denizens, you have to kill it.
You can wring its neck or use the axe. I prefer the latter. Hypnotize the chicken holding them down and moving a bright object in front of the head from the nose to about a foot or more away and repeat. They will calm down and you can give them a swift chop. Hold them up by their legs and let the blood drain. Yes, there will be flapping of wings and you could let them run around (like a chicken with its head cut off…) but the bird is most assuredly dead.
Have a pot of scalding water (140-160 degrees) ready and dip the bird in by its legs for 20-30 seconds. You can then wipe the feathers off with a gloved hand. Done properly, there won’t be many or any feathers that you have to pluck by hand. Chop off the feet and cut around the anus (hens use the same opening for manure and eggs) and scoop out the innards without nicking the intestines. Meat is on the menu tonight!
Since you are going to have replace some members of your flock eventually, you are going to need to raise some chicks. You can get an incubator and then watch them hatch and then raise them up slowly. Or you can let a hen do all this work! If your hen gets “broody” (that is when she sits on her clutch of eggs and doesn’t want to get off or doesn’t want to let you take the eggs), she is ready to be a mom. She will sit on the eggs with only taking a few minute breaks for the 21 some days it takes to hatch.
So what if you don’t have a broody hen? You will need a ventilated incubator where you can control the temperature and humidity (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit and 40-50% humidity). The eggs also need to be turned – a hen does this by fussing over the eggs each day but you would have to do it by hand. You can mark the eggs to denote position (an “X” on one side) and then turn them at least three times a day until day 18, the chicks are viable at this point and you should see some movement without turning.
The chick will knock a hole in the shell and then need to rest for six to 12 hours before he/she finishes the break out. Don’t be tempted to provide an assist, this process helps them build up their strength. Once they are fully hatched, they need to dry out so leave them in the incubator for a little bit.
You can now move them to the brooder where they will spend the first six weeks of their life. A box with the waterer and feeder on one end and the lamp (a 100watt incandescent bulb will do) on the other is all you need. Put some wet pine shavings on the bottom and some newspaper over that. The first week you want to keep the temperature 95 degrees. The chicks will let you know if it is too cold or too hot. Too cold and they will huddle close to the lamp. Too hot and they will move as far away from the lamp as possible. If they are moving around the box freely, the temperature is right. You want to adjust the temperature of the brooder down by 5 degrees each week until their feathers fill in and they can tolerate the cool night air. Do this by raising the bulb up higher each week. At the six week mark, move the brooder to the coop and let them start to get used to the rest of the flock.
You have to keep the brooder clean if they foul their food or their water and change the newspaper or pine shavings as needed. Chick starter feed is available but after the SHTF, you might want to let the mother hen take over incubation and brooding the clutch the natural way….