Meet My Egg Flock

Philosophical Considerations

Carol Deppe (in “Food in Uncertain Times”) argues that survival depends upon access to just 5 foods: corn, potatoes, beans, squash, and eggs. Of course she’s thinking of homegrown produce, both because in “uncertain times” we need to be able to provide for ourselves and because homegrown, organic food is considerably healthier than commercially produced, store bought. To make homegrown food even more resilient and healthful, heritage plant stock is to be preferred to modern (post-1950s) hybrids – which have been increasingly bred for ease of commercial harvesting, ability to survive long distance shipping, and extended shelf life rather than for nutrition and taste. Most often, the trade-off has been an increased reliance on synthetic soil conditioners and pest control products. The results are store bought vegetables that have less nutrition and taste than their earlier versions, rapid soil depletion, and chemical residue on the produce.

We choose to grow only heritage versions of popular vegetables, and constantly explore new-to-us old favorites – some discoveries are truly delightful! We also actively select seeds to save that breed plants that fit our particular ecological niche because, in Vermont, summer food production is really the task of producing the next winter’s food: squash, beans, corn, and potatoes are among our core crops. We want core crops that grow really well, year after year, under our very local conditions.

Applied to Chickens

When it came time for us to add eggs to our core production, we followed the same strategy of focusing on heritage breeds. We want nothing to do with modern breeds that are selected for quick growth and heavy meat content, nor for early, heavy layers that burn out in a year or two. Again, the trade-off for quick growing, heavy meat, and high egg production is more disease, a high risk of broken legs and weak internal organs, and a reliance on chemicals we can only get from off-site. Selected for commercial purposes, such breeds have not been selected for flavor, winter hardiness, or nutritional content of egg and meat; they also presume penned lives, “scientific formulations” of food, and regular medical intervention.

None of that suits our purposes, so we chose from among heritage breeds that can serve us as sources for both eggs and meat, that can be fed from the resources we can generate on-premises, and that are very cold-hardy. Because our Vermont winter nights can dip below zero Fahrenheit for days on end, and in a pure survival situation supplemental heat would not be available, the chickens need to be able to snuggle down in hay or wood chips and survive our frigid conditions without catching a cold or freezing their toes or combs.

Since we have been raising chickens just since last summer (2015), we do not yet produce the grains and cereals we need in order to provide for their needs wholly on our own. This summer we will take strides in that direction. We have also opted for an oversized coop rather than let these birds range free because we have a rescue bulldog-boxer mix that, while generally well-mannered, tends to forget herself when she’s either bored or excited. We know that in a moment of either, she would happily grab a chicken as a new play toy. And even if she didn’t, our rural location means we are regularly visited by foxes, coyotes, bears, and other opportunistic predators.

Our Selections

In choosing our birds, we selected among heritage breeds for winter hardiness, high egg production, reputation for meat quality, docility, and plumage. Knowing nothing practical about chickens (having never raised them), we also decided to purchase several breeds as a way to spread our risk that some might fare worse in our weather and under our care than others. As we go forward, we will likely propagate our own flock of egg layers, and reserve the ability to propagate additional birds for the table, if necessary. We don’t plan to maintain breed purity; rather, we will select for broodiness, hardiness, egg production, bird (hence meat) size, and comfort with human interaction. Meanwhile, we plan to raise several flocks of purchased heritage meat birds this summer, both for our own use and to sell to waiting neighbors.

Our flock consists of 7 hens and a rooster. Here is a rundown of type and characteristics:

009a (POTUS)Golden-laced Wyandottes – a beautiful bird with red-gold feathers, the female sizes up at 6½ lbs, and the male reaches 8½ lbs. We have one of each. Our male, ‘POTUS,’ has gorgeous tail and neck feathers, and a sheen that’s breathtaking. He’s mildly aggressive – meaning we’ve had one run-in which consisted of me having to backhand him across the face a half dozen times (which sent all the hens scurrying out of the way). I’ve since learned to distract him with food while I conduct my search of the henhouse for eggs (about half my ladies seem to drop their 012a (FLOTUS)eggs wherever they happen to be, while the other half regularly uses the egg boxes; at least one hen has built her own nest in the wood chips that thickly line the henhouse floor – that’s a broody girl!). I like the rooster’s protectiveness, even when he’s eyeing me for a potential attack – which hasn’t materialized since that one encounter, but which I expect will come. The female, named ‘FLOTUS,’ of course, is very docile, and just as pretty. These birds are very cold-hardy and the females are said to be only occasionally broody.

[Just in case you don’t know, POTUS is Secret Service talk for President of the United States, and FLOTUS refers to the First Lady of the United States. Even though my POTUS is not monogamous, and will take his turn at any female near him when the mood strikes, I figured that makes him just that much more like too many of our human POTUSes, and puts FLOTUS in a suitable comparison to a number of White House “first wives”.]

 

006b (a Tweedle)Silver-laced Wyandottes – like the golden-laced, the silver-laced Wyandotte is a beauty, featuring silvery-white tips to her feathers. My two, virtually indistinguishable hens are named ‘Tweedle-dee’ and ‘Tweedle-dum,’ and it really doesn’t matter which is called by which name – they are that similar in both appearance and behavior. (I usually report on them by saying, “one of the Tweedles” did such and such.) They are very easy-going, extremely docile, and typically weigh in at about 6½ lbs. Regular layers, they are very cold-hardy and only sometimes broody.

007a (a Thing between Tweedles)Speckled Sussex – a mahogany-colored bird with white spangles on its feather tips, these chickens were bred in England over a century ago, and were the island nation’s go-to meat bird before the introduction of modern commercial hybrids. Their meat is said to be superb, though I have not yet eaten any, and they lay the most consistently of my birds. My two hens, ‘Thing One’ and ‘Thing Two,’ weigh about 7 lbs each, are said to be broody, and are very cold hardy. Unlike the Tweedles, my Things have distinct personalities: Thing Two is consistently the first to explore something new, or to come up to humans; Thing One is a constant mid-pack bird.

018a (Mad Maxine)Black Australorp  – a glossy, all-black bird with a green sheen, the females average 6 lbs when fully grown, and produce large brown eggs (even in hot weather). ‘Mad Maxine’ is neither skittish nor overly friendly around humans, and seems to delight in running about with her tail in the air like a little jib sail. She’s both heat and cold hardy, and reputed to be broody.

015a (Lizzy)Delaware – a white bird with black highlights at her neck and at the end of her tail feathers, she typically weighs in around 4½ lbs. Bred as a dual-purpose bird, our ‘Lizzy’ is descended from what was once the most common U.S. commercial meat bird (until the faster-growing White Broiler was bred in the mid-20th century), and is a prolific egg layer. She’s definitely broody and very hardy in both cold and heat. An all-around excellent bird, I think.

How They’re Doing

While winter 2015-16 has not materialized either as snowy or as cold as last year, in January we finally have some sustained below-freezing temperatures. The birds are doing fine, bedding down in a foot of fine wood chips at night in a hen house with narrow gaps between horizontal boards, and spending daytimes in a run of the same construction with a foot of 3-year-old chunky wood chips for a base, and a long wall made of chicken wire. To slow 020a023athe north wind, I have stretched a tarp across the edge of the west-northwest-facing long eaves, which yet allows about 3 feet of space to walk between the tarp and the fence. That also allows daylight into the run, which helps maintain the mental and physical health of the birds. I also added the heat lamp we used when the birds were just chicks. I plug it in when the temperature drops into the single digits or we have sustained icy wind. It adds a few degrees to a section of the roost. I’m not convinced the chickens need it – they are, in fact, very hardy – but it does let me and Willow feel better about their circumstances on nights when we are huddling under double comforters!

First “adult” eggChickens that are less than a year old don’t lay full-sized eggs, nor on a regular schedule, I’m told. And most of our 3-4 eggs a day are on the small side; however, one of the hens has been laying full-sized grade-large eggs from the very beginning. I haven’t figured out who to credit, yet, although I suspect ‘Mad Maxine’ or ‘Lizzy.’ Whoever it is, she gave me an oversized, double-yoked egg the very first day I collected any eggs at all! So far that’s the only double yolker I’ve received, but I do get a full-sized egg from her at the rate of at least 2 in 3 days. In general, all of the eggs are slowly growing in size.