Poultry


We occasionally get asked the question, “Since brown eggs cost more at the grocer, are they more nutritious?” The answer is “NO!” Commercial egg producers often try to set apart eggs with labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” by having brown egg laying hens. They look different, so, to the average consumer, they must be different, right? It’s just a brilliant marketing ploy, and nothing more.

I was making deviled eggs the other day, and thought it was a good example. Notice in my photo, I have all sorts of colored eggs….brown, white, cream, tan, green, bluish, speckled, you name it! The color is only tinting and only on the outside of the shell. In fact, if you scrub, most of the tint will come off! Once peeled, you can’t tell the difference. Even the yolks look the same. The grey on the outer edge of my yolks simply means I steamed them a bit too long.

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Now, I should mention that there ARE differences in the make-up of different type of poultry eggs.  For example, a duck egg is well known for being better for baking, while a turkey egg has a milder flavor.  Like chickens, however, the differences in nutritional content have nothing to do with color of these birds or their eggs, but everything to do with diet and management factors.  In fact, to my knowledge all turkey eggs are the same color, as those birds haven’t been so carefully selected for egg tint like chickens have.

So there you have it. An egg is only as nutritious as the hen’s diet. If you want more nutritious eggs, buy from a pastured poultry supplier….whether it be chicken, duck, turkey, or whatever.  Even in winter, we give our hens leafy green hay to keep up their chlorophyll intake, which contributes to those nice looking yolks and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

If you read my last post about our new, open-ended, tarp-covered, layer hen hoop house, you may have wondered how we sheltered them for winter.  One option is to move them into another shelter for winter.  We didn’t like that idea, though, so we opted to kill two birds with one stone (but we didn’t kill any hens, don’t worry!).  We chose to recycle some old hay bales someone offered us, and use the natural heat supplied by the sun and by compost to protect our girls through our bitter winters.

When the temps got cold enough and the grass died off enough, we pulled the Hen Hut up to a spot near the barn, and parked it for the winter.  We then brought in around 120 bales of old, moldy, rotting, otherwise useless hay and straw.  Unfortunately, we were so busy building the structure, I totally forgot to take photos, so the “after construction” photos will have to suffice.

First, we jacked the skids of the hoop house about a foot off the ground, to allow us room to build up deep bedding over the course of the winter.  Next, we stacked the bales in a rectangular shape around our hoop house and feeder, and secured them with cattle panel and t-posts to ensure they didn’t fall on any chickens as they decayed over the winter.

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The winter fortress, as viewed from the outside. S is walking towards it, for scale reference. The peak is actually the top of the hoop house inside.

On one end, we left a small gap between two hay bales for a chicken and dog-sized entrance, and then stacked a few more bales around the hole to provide a wind block.

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The chicken entrance, hidden under these bales, allows our hens to still come and go as they please through the winter, while still protecting them from the elements.

Then, we added a man-sized door made of scrap lumber to the other end, so we could easily get in and out to tend the birds and collect eggs.

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The man door, open, with the view to the inside of the winter “solarium.”

Finally, we built a simple rafter system out of scrap lumber, and covered it in plastic sheeting–nothing special, just some scrap stuff we had in the barn.

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The simple plastic roof can be seen here, spanning the distance between bales.

The layers did absolutely awesome with this design!  We added fresh bedding about twice a week, and watered the old bedding down a bit every other week or so to keep it just damp enough to compost.  The combination of composting deep bedding and composting bales, kept the interior of the fort-style structure a very comfortable 60+ degrees F on even the coldest (negative temps) winter nights.  The plastic sheeting provided a small amount of insulation to keep the heat from escaping out the roof, in addition to allowing solar heating during the day.  In fact, on warmer winter days (over 20 degrees F), we had to actually open the man door to ventilate the structure, or it would reach over 85 degrees F in there!  In addition, the large expanse of clear plastic and the white roof of their hoop house allowed them to get as much natural light as possible during the winter months, which is critical for egg laying.  As a result of the heat and insulate qualities of this design–ugly though it may be–the hens layed steadily throughout the winter.  There was about a 3 week period in January and early February where S added a solar-powered light (seen in the photo above) to give them a couple more hours of lighting, as a result of our egg count declining somewhat.  This popped it right back up where we needed it to get us and a few customers through the winter, without going overboard.

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Happy hens (most are outside free-ranging when this photo was taken). Notice the heated waterer hanging from the ceiling–which never froze once, and thus never had to be plugged in! What a waste of $40!

When winter was over, we simply disassembled the structure, recycled the bales once again to build water-retention berms on steep slopes in our pasture, and hauled the coop back out to pasture.  The system worked so great for us, that we are already working out a source for old hay/straw for this winter!

Last year, we increased our number of layer hens to roughly 100, and plan to increase further over the next few years.  We needed a new coop!  Once again, S returned to the drawing board to come up with a design, while I jotted down my thoughts of things I had and had not liked about the previous, smaller designs we had built over the last few years.

We finally had a plan and set it in motion.  We decided to build a hoop-house style coop, with open ends.  Since we have guardian dogs, we don’t need to close our coop up at night.  Since S had oak available from his lumber mill, that’s what the coop foundation and roosts were built with.  Yes, oak is very heavy, but we had our team to move it, so heavy wasn’t a big deal.  Oak is also sturdy, so we didn’t have to worry about the weight of all the chickens piling onto roosts at night.  We used cattle panel to form the hoop shape.  We had some wood scraps and thin plywood pieces we used to build the nest boxes, which were designed to be removable.  We ordered the cover custom made from a company specializing in tarp-type covers for farm buildings.  It was far more secure and sturdier than standard tarp material.

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First, we built a solid, stable foundation on skids, and bolted the cattle panels between wood layers.

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Next, we added end pieces and upright supports to maintain the shape of the panels.

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Next, we added roosts and the removable nest box sections (4 total, though only 1 is pictured here)

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Finally, we painted it all to protect it, and added the custom made cover.

The next step was to build the feed and water station.  We decided to make this a separate structure, which could be attached and towed along behind the hoop house.

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The feeder was built out of scrap lumber and plywood.

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Next, we installed a linoleum-style cover inside to help the feed slide down the sides into the side openings where the hens could eat. We also built the platform for the waterer, which is a 30-gallon drum with a gravity-style water bowl. We painted it all up and added a roof.

Finally, we put it all together, hauled it out to the pasture, and when the weather warmed enough, we moved the hens from their winter quarters to the new Hen Hut.  They totally approved!

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Happy hens!

We now have roost capacity to easily house around 170 hens, and more if they pack in a bit snugly.  When filled, the feeder holds the equivalent of about 2- 50 pound sacks of feed and lasts 100 pastured hens about 4-6 days (depending on bugs and other available feedstuffs).

Stay tuned, and I’ll tell you how we winterize the Hen Hut soon!

We looked at our budget and chicken expenses for the last several years, and we looked at our goals for the future.  One of our big animal expenditures was purchasing layer chicks each year.  It was also one LESS thing we were doing that moved us toward God-sufficiency in our lifestyle.  Thus, we decided to take the plunge into hatching our own chicks.  Instead of purchasing our planned batch of layers this spring, we used the money to buy a nice, 50-egg incubator.  After lots of research (what else is new?) and a number of phone calls to ask questions, we settled on the Hova-Bator incubator with circulating air fan and egg-turner.  Next, we stole about 21 eggs from our layers over a few days.  One Saturday afternoon, we placed them all in the incubator.  The below photo is actually the day before they hatched, so the egg turner had already been removed.

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After 5 days, we candled them, using the incredibly inexpensive, all-purpose, highly modern…..flashlight.  Whatever works, right?  We were able to see the air cell, the yolk, and in most cases, a little chick embryo.  2 eggs were clearly not fertile, and 1 egg had an early demise (indicated by a reddish ring around what started as an embryo).   That left 18 eggs.

We then candled roughly once a week, added water to the humidifier tray every 2-3 days, tried to maintain a constant temperature, and hoped for the best.

On day 20, about 4 in the morning, we heard peeping.  One perfect little chick had hatched, but was very weak and clumsy.  He couldn’t stay upright.  We tried a few things, but eventually moved him out and into the brooder, where he later died.  I think he was, literally, a premie, who just couldn’t thrive.

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On day 21, as scheduled, 16 eggs pipped (made a hole in the shell to start the hatching process).  One at a time, they began hatching.  This lasted over 24 hours.  Finally, around mid-day on day 23, we removed all chicks from the incubator.  The final result was 15 healthy, happy chicks, 1 chick that died after pipping, 2 chicks that died about a week before hatch (they still had their yolk sack attached).  The kids had a fun biology lesson cracking those 3 open to see what was inside.

If you look closely, you can see of the other eggs that are pipped.

If you look closely, you can see of the other eggs that are pipped.

This was several weeks ago, and the 15 chicks are still alive, well, and beginning to feather.  We have no idea yet if we got hens or roosters, but I am assuming it will be a standard 50/50 for the most part.  We did learn, however, that the feathered-leg trait is dominant.  Our rooster is a feather-legged Dark Brahma, and the hens were a mix feather-legged and clean-legged breeds.   All chicks are feather-legged.  We found it interesting. We also got at least one pure Brahma (our favorite), though it is a cross between light and dark.  We are looking forward to our next hatch, and quite thrilled that we had about a 78% hatch rate (15 out of 19 fertile eggs), which is apparently above the desired 70% that the “pros” consider ideal.

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Our first meat birds of the year moved out of the brooder and into the chicken tractor this week.  It was a greatly desired move, as meat birds just smell, and short of adding fresh bedding to the brooder more than twice a day, there isn’t much else we can do about it.  They still smell a bit on pasture, but the breeze, the daily moves to fresh grass, and the natural soil decomposition process helps control it much better.

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These chicks are only about 3.5 weeks old, so it is still a bit cool outside for them be able to regulate their body temperatures.  They have more muscle than standard breeds at that age, which helps, but it is still a big risk.  To minimize our risk, I installed heat lamps in the tractor temporarily, and we give them fresh straw or hay under the lamps to give them a dry place to lay in wet weather.  In addition, if it is windy or cool, we have a clear plastic sheet over most of the open front to provide a bit of greenhouse-effect heating and reduce any chilling by wind, while still allowing sunshine to penetrate.  The sides are left partially open to ensure plentiful ventilation.  So far, so good.  The chicks seem very happy, and since this move also means they are being watered via our 5-gallon bucket gravity-drip system, it means I am also very happy to have my twice daily water-container cleaning chores eliminated.

If you are concerned about the crowded look of this tractor, this is actually planned for several reasons.  First, meat birds don’t walk and move around like standard breed chickens.  The eat, sleep, and poop, and not necessarily in that order.  They usually lay down as they eat, and they poop where they lay.  They get up only when they have to.  To encourage some exercise, we position their water, food, and the heat lamp in different areas, so they are forced to move around if they want sunshine, food, water, or warmth.  It’s like trying to get the worst couch potato you know to exercise!! No easy task.  They simply don’t need a whole lot of space to move.  We also supplement that limited space by moving them daily to new ground.  By moving the tractor to fresh ground each day the birds always have fresh air and sunshine, green grass, bugs, and soil to scratch and peck at, as well as clean lounging areas.  These frequent moves mean we don’t have to use any type of preventative antibiotics or “crutches” to keep the birds healthy.  We simply supply them with a well-balanced diet and some grit, and nature provides everything else they need. The fresh bugs and greens also encourages them to walk around a bit more than they might otherwise.  Because there are currently almost 70 chicks in the 36 sq ft tractor, it will become crowded quickly.  Right now, in the cool weather, it is safer to keep them together for increased body heat.  In the next week or two, however, we will be splitting them into 3 groups, with each group getting 36 sq ft.  This will allow their personal space to expand as they grow, further ensuring health and exercise.

 

Over Labor Day weekend, we harvested our first meat birds and rabbits since we moved.  We actually decided, based on our future goals, to go ahead and invest in a Featherman Pro poultry plucker.  Oh, that is worth its weight in gold!!  Not just because I may never have to pluck another chicken, but some of its features make plucking and clean up so much easier than the Whiz-bang version we used last year.    We are hoping to rent it out a bit in addition to using it around here to help pay for it.

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We harvested 25 chickens, start to freezer, in 3 hours.  I know that’s pretty bad compared to the pros, but considering we were having to figure things out and use a lot of make-shift and new equipment this year, as well as a new location entirely, we were pretty happy with it.

In addition, S and JR harvested his 5 kits born shortly after we moved.  JR has watched many times, and assisted a few times.  Since the rabbits are technically JR’s venture on the farm, S decided it was high time he take the next step in his little rabbit business.  So, S instructed JR on the first rabbit, and, except for the dispatching, JR did the next 4 almost entirely by himself.  He was so proud, and being the perfectionist he is (yeah, he gets that from me), he did an excellent job!

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Hanging and cutting around the vent

Skinning was a little tough....

Skinning was a little tough….

...but JR got the hang of it pretty quickly.

…but JR got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Nothing makes a boy feel like a man more than eviscerating.  Good thing I'm a woman, as I am more than happy to hand that job off to the men!

Nothing makes a boy feel like a man more than eviscerating. Good thing I’m a woman, as I am more than happy to hand that job off to the men!

The finished, frozen results of the day--shrink bags full of chicken (on left) and rabbit (on right).

The finished, frozen results of the day–shrink bags full of chicken (on left) and rabbit (on right).

Although we stayed small this year due to all the changes, we hope to increase our chicken and rabbit raising and processing venture substantially next year.  I am thrilled to report that it looks like we FINALLY have found an organic rabbit pellet, which we now have on order, so our entire farm will be only grass or all natural/organically fed.  We will work on all the necessary permits over the winter, but at this point, we are planning 3 separate batches of chicken, a batch of turkeys, and at least 5 batches of rabbits.  Based on inquiries I’ve already had, I am hoping they will all be pre-reserved quickly.  If you are local to our area in IL and are interested in reserving some for your family, let me know via the comments feature, and I will get in touch with you.

At Red Gate Farm, we value every single life.  We treat our animals with love, respect, appreciation, and stewardship.  Even those designated to be our dinner one day are given the best life we can manage to ensure their health, happiness, and allow their instinctive behaviors.  That being said, we are also a practical, frugal farm.  From that perspective, everything must be designated a monetary value that helps determine it’s value to us.  This helps in the rare times a medical situation arises.  If a vet bill would cost more than that animal’s designated value, then we don’t call the vet.  I either use home remedies, or we put the animal down humanely to eliminate suffering.

Recently, we were losing some of our chickens–both big layers and our smaller replacement pullets.  Leftover feathers suggested they were being taken when they ducked under the fence to forage in the woods, and the dogs can’t protect them out there.  One day, I walked into the barn to discover Iris, our livestock guardian dog, with a young pullet between her front paws.  The pullet was just laying there, and looked as though it had been licked a few times, but as soon as I called Iris off, the pullet ran off and began acting like a normal chicken.  Upon closer inspection, however, we discovered the skin covering the pullet’s entire breast was ripped completely open, leaving her crop and breast muscles totally exposed.  There was no blood, and nothing hanging out.  It was like a skilled surgeon had sliced open the skin from top to bottom, an incision about 3 inches long, gently peeled the skin back to each side, and there was the breast bone, muscles, and crop all sitting there, ready for the next step.  It was completely bloodless.  My first thought was that we were down another chicken, as there wasn’t much I could do for such an injury.  Around our farm, as much as we like our animals, a chicken is valued at a maximum of $20 (what we sell good layers or meat birds for).  Seeing as our vet charges almost $50 just for the farm call, we don’t call a vet for a chicken.  Instead, I stood there watching this pullet for a bit, as she ran around the barn, pecking for food, drinking water, and acting completely normal.  It didn’t look like she was suffering at all.  I knew such a wound was wide open to infection (literally), so even if the injury didn’t kill her, the infection would.  I also had trouble with the idea of dispatching her since she seemed fine otherwise.  Then, I remembered some stories I had read years ago in the James Herriot (a British veterinarian) books about crude home treatments that had worked.  I figured I had nothing to lose but a chicken, and it could be invaluable learning experience.

Now, mind you, I believe God blessed chickens (and a few other animals) with fewer pain receptors than humans.  I’ve never read anything to support that, but chickens seem far more vulnerable to having a heart attack from fright than reacting from pain.  I went into the house and got a sewing needle and some cotton thread (in the hopes cotton would be easily dissolvable by the body).  I got some Scarlet-X antiseptic spray I always keep on hand for injuries to the larger animals.  JR held the chicken, I cleaned all debris out of it’s open chest, sprayed the muscle with the antiseptic spray, pulled the skin together, and proceeded to sew it up.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take any pictures until after I was finished.

You can just see the vertical line where the skin joins together, a bit of proud flesh at top and bottom, and if you look really closely, the pretty pink cotton thread.

You can just see the vertical line where the skin joins together, a bit of proud flesh at top and bottom, and if you look really closely, the pretty pink cotton thread.

Amazingly, the pullet just layed there for the entire procedure–never struggling once.  I thought sure she’d be dead by morning.  Nonetheless, as a precaution, I sprayed a bit more antiseptic on her wound after I finished suturing, then turned her loose to run with the other chicks.  Roughly 3 weeks later, the pullet is still foraging happily in our fields. Only the closest inspection, in just the right spot, will reveal any sign of what she went through.

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I am still puzzled as to what transpired the day of her injury.  Although Iris looked awfully guilty, she has never killed, or even played with one of our chickens before, and I know we were losing them to something in the woods.  We have had one other episode where a full-size hen was attacked by something (again no marks, but lots of feathers on the ground indicating a struggle) outside the fence, ran back into the pasture, and died.  All I can figure is one of two scenarios.  Either Iris decided to play with the pullet, and possibly ripped the skin with her dew claw, or perhaps the pullet was attacked by something outside, ran back into the field, and Iris found it and was protecting it when I found her.  I guess I’ll never know, but I can’t believe my home treatment actually seems to have worked so beautifully!  I think I will be ordering real suture material if possible with my next supply order.  You never know what might come up!

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