Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Wintertime Chicken Update

As temps plummet into the negatives around here, a lot of people have inquired about how our chickens are doing.  We currently have 11 laying hens, housed in a structure attached to the barn.  When deciding on breeds for our laying hens, we factored in temperament, tolerance to cold-weather and laying ability.  After doing a bit of research, we settled on Black Australorps and Barred Rocks.  Both breeds are known for being friendly, tolerant of cold weather and phenomenal layers.  As a bonus, their dark feathering helps camouflage them from predators.  This has especially come in handy a few times when one chicken has missed curfew and ended up outside the coop after dark.  Searching has always been futile at night but in the end the missing chicken has always shown up in the morning, ready to be fed!

We first got our chickens about 8 months ago.  You can read about our early chicken adventures here, here and here.  They started laying eggs in October.  
E with our very first egg
We didn’t really know what to expect as far as their laying habits.  The first few weeks, the eggs were very irregular.  We would get one here or there at different times throughout the day.  The first eggs were VERY little but delicious.  We enjoyed frying our very first egg and splitting it four ways to each get one, very small bite!  

Cooking our first egg
Within a month, the laying became more regular, usually happening between 10 am and 1 pm and the eggs were a more typical medium to large size.  Because this is their first season of laying, we are lucky to enjoy eggs all winter.  Usually during the wintertime, egg production slows (a neighbor’s layers have only produced 1 egg total in the last 3 weeks!).  On average, we are getting about 6 eggs a day at this point.  

Since they are usually done laying by lunchtime, I open the coop around 1, feed and water the chickens and collect eggs.  Our 11 chickens eat 6 2-cup scoops of feed a day (comes out to 12 cups a day) during the winter.  Feeding them isn’t like in Cinderella when she happily throws feed out to the gracious chickens.  It is more like feeding 11 angry teenage boys who haven’t eaten in a week.  They swarm around the feed bucket and try to fly in and have even knocked my scoop out of my hands a few times. 

Since it is so cold right now, I often will go down a couple of times a day because the eggs will freeze and crack really fast.  It is pretty funny because you can tell how recently an egg was laid by it’s warmth.  Just "pooped" (E's term for it) eggs are surprisingly super warm.  
Eggs ready to be collected from the box
All of the eggs are brown, though we are surprised by the slight variations in color from light tan to dark brown.  

Brown eggs do not indicate that they are fresher or better (so stop spending your money on brown eggs at the store)- they are brown because of the breed of chicken.  Some chickens lay white eggs, some brown and some even green.  It has nothing to do with farm-raised or feed and everything to do with breed!  The biggest difference we have noticed in our eggs compared to store eggs is taste.  The yolks in our fresh eggs are very yellow and usually larger than what I find in store eggs.  When cooked, they have a great taste that require no extra seasoning.  

So far, we have been keeping our eggs in the fridge, though this is not necessary.  Eggs come out of the chicken with a natural, protective coating.  When we get the eggs from the coop, we bring them right inside and don’t wash them off.  (Sometimes there is a little poop or feathers stuck on that I knock off with my glove).  The coating keeps them fresh longer- as long as 8 weeks even if they are left in a cool basement!  We have noticed when we crack the eggs that the shells are much tougher than eggs from the store.  I don’t know if this is the breed or the fact that they are farm-raised but it was a surprise to us.  So far we haven’t had any “bad” eggs but it is always a good idea to crack your farm eggs into a separate bowl to check them before putting them straight into your cake batter.  

The chickens seem to be surviving fine in our arctic vortex.  Their coop feels a good 10 degrees warmer at all times because it is out of the wind and we have at least 7 inches of bedding on the floor at this point.  
Floor of the chicken coop with bedding and lots of poop.  They are not clean creatures.
The chickens will still come out of the coop during the day, even with snow on the ground to wander and peek but they don’t like coming out when it is windy.  The one modification we have made in the winter is getting a water heater to set their metal water bucket on.  

Andy hooked it up to a switch so when the temperatures are below freezing, we just turn the switch on and keep the water from freezing.  So far, even on the negative 30 degree days, it has kept their water from freezing. 

The chickens all (typically) find their way back to the coop by dark and Andy locks them up again at night to protect them from predators.  8 months in and we still are loving the chicken experience.  They are so incredibly low maintenance and it is enjoyable to see them around the yard in the snow.  On really cold days, draw straws or rock/paper/scissors who has to feed or close up the chickens but even then, we are still loving them!

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