Our chickens stopped laying. They went from thirty a day to four literally overnight. We did have one quite cool day, but that couldn’t have sent them into a molt already, could it? If not, and I think not, where are the other 26 eggs? We were kind of counting on eggs till September, the usual molting season. Our new ladies won’t start laying until sometime in the fall, and I’ve noticed it’s really hard to get by without eggs.
Each year, we hatch a couple hundred chicks in our incubator. Thirty of them become next year’s laying flock, and the rest are put out on pasture to eat and grow for about four months. When they are grown, we harvest them, preparing them for the table.
We have dabbled with eight or ten different breeds, but we always come back to the one we began our chicken adventures with: New Hampshire Reds. This is an old-fashioned, dual purpose breed. They are excellent layers, but still gain well enough to be very good table birds. And because it takes them around four months to fill out, they are also extremely flavorful. Once you’ve tasted real chicken, you won’t know how you stand that bland, mealy, grocery store version!
The only other breed we may experiment with in the future is Australorps. We tried a small batch last year and ended up sending them through our processing line because they were quite small. They fooled us, though! The finished Australorps weighed in consistently at 3.5 lbs dressed! They weren’t big, but they were compact little meat producers. I think I’ll get some in the fall to mature for spring laying, and we’ll see how they work out.
We keep one other breed of chicken on our farm: Cream Legbars. They are an endangered breed, and we were gifted with two hens and a roo a couple of years ago. I have a significant number of them now, after our spring hatch, and I intend to raise up a flock of them in the house we built for the ducks. (The ducks never use it!) Why Cream Legbars? Well, they lay blue eggs! And I have to say, their disposition is far and away better than other, more common, blue egg layers we’ve met. I shant mention any names.
We’ve got 114 birds out on pasture right now, and I’m really, really happy with the amount of food they’re consuming and their rate of growth. We’re feeding them a combination of grains and scratch feed (which is primarily corn, but also contains various seeds) along with about a half gallon of naturally occurring yogurt each day. (More about that yogurt tomorrow!) The yogurt has noticeably improved the health of the flock, so I’m really glad we have that surplus milk supply. They’re also doing a great job consuming the weeds which are choking out our forage grasses. I think the pasture should be much improved for having had chickens on it.
We plan to harvest the first of the birds in July, and I’m hoping that they’ll dress out to around 4 pounds each, but I think it’s more likely they’ll be between 3 and 3 1/2. Because we’re aiming for a sustainable farm, we need to be able to produce our own birds year after year, so our biggest, bestest birds at slaughter time will be held as breeding stock for next spring. Another hope: After a few years of breeding, we’ll have a homogenous hybrid flock of faster growing, well-fleshed, heritage birds.
The photo above is Pen #3 with the youngest birds, mostly Wyandotte-Brahma or Wyandotte-Faverolle crosses, with a few New Hampshire roosters thrown in for good luck. In the background, you can see Pens #1 and #2. The birds in #1 are nearly ready to harvest. I’d hoped to process all 114 birds in one day, but there is such a difference in their sizes (though only about a month in ages) that I think it’s more likely we’ll have two. We can currently process them at the rate of about two birds every six minutes, which isn’t too bad, actually. However, with this volume of birds, that’ll take us too long on processing day, resulting in reduced morale and possible mutiny of our work force. Which is why I plan to train two more children in the art of chicken gutting. With four at the gutting station, we can double the speed of our line. The kids are excited.