With all this rain lately (which I am SOOOO thankful for), the grass has been growing. I have a few very small patches in the backyard (among the native grasses) that are not worth mowing. But it is good for chicken snacking! Chickens love to eat grass and scratch around in the dirt. The grass and grubs provide extra vitamins and minerals, apparent in their much deeper colored eggs. I’d say it’s a win-win!
If you’ve talked with me anytime in the past, oh, say, four months, you might have heard me describe my chicken situation. The situation being that my five backyard hens were not laying. In fact, they have not been laying consistently since early summer (consistently meaning 3-4 eggs per day). Unless you are living in a hole, you know how horrible this past summer was with record-setting heat and drought conditions. This definitely took a toll on the ladies–they’re laying capacity dropped dramatically to a trickle. I would get maybe two a week, if I was lucky. Then starting in September (when the high was only 100 degrees), the 2 wyandottes started molting. Chickens generally start molting in the fall. And molting = no eggs–it’s just too much stress on the body for them to produce eggs. Slowly the other three climbed on the molting bandwagon, making it so none of the chickens were laying. As the months wore on…and they had stopped molting….but had not begun laying “normally”, I started looking more seriously at my large stockpot…..What the heck? Why are they not back to laying?? What could be wrong especially given their plush life? I give them organic food! And supplement it with extra proteins (I read they needed extra during molting)! And greens! And cuddle time! And it’s not 115 degrees outside!
Two weeks ago while shopping at the SFC Farmers’ Mkt, I talked with one of my favorite farmers about my chicken conundrum. Becky Ottmers suggested I add a timer and light to their coop. I had already known that less light in the winter coincides with decreased egg production. However, last winter, I saw no decrease in their production, so I didn’t think it would matter this year. But being as desperate as I was for my hens to lay again, I heeded their device and set up a light and timer. The light comes on at 4 am and goes off at 7.30 am.
And so I waited a week with the light and timer. No eggs.
And then yesterday there were two eggs! And today there were three eggs!!! Maybe, just maybe, the extra light is helping! (I already ate the three they laid today–I made two sunny side up with homemade bread and used another one to make mayonnaise).
As frustrating as it can be not having all the answers when it comes to raising urban chickens, I love how it challenges me to figure out the ins and out of nature and learn to have some patience (which I will be the first to admit I need more of). And given that the State of the Union Address was tonight, I thought this was a fitting cartoon!
One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog is it’s like a journal for me charting my progress cooking, gardening and tending chickens. I certainly don’t claim to know everything, and today’s entry is a case in point.
For the past two months, I thought my chickens were still recovering after a long, hot summer and refusing to lay. But then I realized (duh) that there were feathers all over the coop and the run; Sherlock was a little late in figuring out they were molting. One reason I didn’t completely think they were molting is they don’t look that scraggly–nothing like the molting chicken pictures I had seen.
From my informal research, I’ve read that chickens shed their old feathers and grow new ones usually once a year. This is a fairly resource intense time for the chickens, hence why they stop laying (two of the five are laying one egg each, every other day). I’ve also read it takes 7-9 weeks for the feathers to complete their growth cycle. Apparently it is good, though, that they are molting in the fall, which is a chicken’s natural molting time after egg laying through the spring and summer.
Because this is an extra stressful time, and because feathers are mostly made of protein, I’m going to start giving them extra protein–plain yogurt, sardines and cat food. Unfortunately, I don’t really know when they officially starting molting. Another unknown, is I don’t exactly know how many are molting. As I said earlier, two are laying every other day or so, but they too could be molting and laying, potentially, whereas their sisters have stopped completely.
So, it’s a waiting game. Let’s see if the extra protein helps!
As I’ve shifted my diet to exclusively cook locally and sustainably-raised meat, my interest in the butchering process has grown. Honestly, I am fascinated. Maybe it’s the anatomy lesson. Or the fact that this type of butchering is no longer the norm in our food system. The irony to it all is that I’m a little squeamish when it comes to blood and guts. I remember career day in high school when I visited a vet clinic; I saw Fluffy the cat spread open for surgery and I just about passed out.
Over the past year, I have seen more animal butchering than I had ever seen before. And really I have only seen two–I watched (and helped where I could) my friend’s father field dress and then butcher a deer Andy hunted last Christmas; and then of course there was the more recent feral hog harvest in San Saba in May. Also, one lazy evening, Andy and I watched a cable TV show that showed how to butcher a cow (from bullet to ribeye).
I recently came across these two chicken butchering videos via the Austex Poultry Yahoo Group to which I subscribe. (There are two parts and they last about 25 minutes, combined.) As I started to watch the first video, I had my hand hovering above the stop button just in case I couldn’t take seeing the chicken being killed. But, the process all happened so smoothly and the narrator’s voice is so calming, that it really wasn’t a problem. In fact, the woman who does the butchering is awesome. I especially liked her comment that butchering animals is “not about being brutal and macho” but rather it is about “understanding that you kill things…and eat them; that’s how the world works.”
When I think to myself that here I am learning to butcher a chicken by watching a YouTube video….I can only think what my Great-Grandmothers Frey and Casnovsky are thinking…
With the daily temperature reaching 100+, my chickens look more like dogs than chickens–they pant with their mouths open and they hold their wings away from their body. Poor girls. I ended up buying a “personal mister” that I put in their chicken run. This helps lower the temperature and also moistens the dirt, making it that much more inviting for them to roll around in.
Heat stress doesn’t bode well for egg production. The two Wyandottes have not laid a single egg in about 3 weeks. Before I got the mister, the Americaunas weren’t laying much either. In addition to the mister I also started propping open to the side door to the coop every morning to create air flow in the nesting box area. Both of these changes have seemed to help, as I am now getting about 2 eggs/day. This is definitely down from the usual 4-5/day, but hey, I’ll take what I can get. Their eggs have definitely become a hot commodity now!
Remember last week when I had a broody hen? Well I ended up quarantining her in my bathroom for about 10 hours to break her “broody spell;” I had read that this would do the trick. I decided to put her in my bathtub (with food and water of course) rather than creating a separate area in the chicken run because of the heat. The next day the “spell” had broke and she was no longer broody. Good tip for the future if another gal goes broody.
Well, I knew it would probably happen sooner than later–one of my 5 hens has gone “broody.” Broody means that they want to sit on eggs like they are going to hatch. Basically, she’s being a good baby mama, but there ain’t any babies. (You have to have a rooster to have babies, and I don’t have one.) The interesting thing is that she hasn’t actually laid any eggs. In fact, with the record setting heat here in Central TX, my ladies have slowed their egg production way down–they’ve only laid about 4 eggs this week (I usually get 4 eggs per day).
I was thinking that maybe she was egg-bound, which I checked for, but didn’t feel anything. She seems to be eating and drinking ok (when I remove her from the nesting box to do so), so I don’t think she’s sick. And because I’ve eliminated these possibilities and because she just wants to sit in the nesting box, I’ve concluded that she has in fact gone broody. I’ve read that I can separate her from the flock to “break the spell”, but not sure I want to do that.
Why do hens go broody you ask? Well, it’s a biological. Many hybrid and production layers (the hens that lay supermarket eggs, for example) have had the broodiness bred out of them since they won’t be raising babies.
Some people with broody hens find fertilized eggs for the hen to incubate and then raise the chicks. Maybe I should give that a thought…
The 3rd Annual Funky Chicken Coop Tour is next Saturday, April 23, 2011 here in Austin, TX. And your’s truly is #15 on the tour! The Tour is self-guided and features a range of different types of urban chicken coops within the City limits. Urban chicken-keeping has grown tremendously here in Austin over the past several years and this one of a kind tour is a great opportunity for those looking to start their own flock. The past two years I went on the tour, knowing I wanted chickens, so it feels pretty neat to now be one of the stars of the tour.
My boyfriend, Andy (who also built my coop; made with primarily recycled materials), my friend, Rebecca, and I will be greeting visitors and talking chickens all day from 10 – 4 next Saturday. I’ve already told the girls, so they are busy primping and putting on their best feathers.
Hope to see you next Saturday!