I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide a word or two about our chickens. To be honest, we get no greater daily pleasure from the animals on the farm than we do the chickens. We LOVE fresh eggs. From the excitement of our first egg…
…to egg overload. Which, resulted in an overly ambitious attempt at a soufflé . (Who was I kidding?)
…to a total egg black hole. I have no pictures of this because, well, there was nothing to show.
Our chicken population varies: from a high of eleven chickens at one point to a low of two. Since spring of 2015, we’ve bought a total of 21 for our egg laying flock but with four separate predator attacks and two that died of unexplained illnesses, two years in and we are now at seven.
Our “black hole” period followed a nasty fox attack in 2016 in which the fox dug a hole under our property perimeter fence and took us from eleven to just two: one that was known for her looks (definitely not her egg laying capability) and one that survived the attack but was too traumatized to lay. After we got over the trauma, we ordered more chicks and then waited the five months before they would start laying. It was totally foreign to me, at that point, to buy eggs at the grocery store – and frankly, I was a little grossed out eating eggs from chickens I didn’t know. Yeah, I realize I sound like the chicken equivalent of the crazy cat lady but back to our core reasons for starting this farm…we like to know where our food comes from.
Thankfully, by last Christmas, we started getting eggs again and now appear to be in a “good place” in terms of egg production. From an egg laying vs. consumption perspective, it is about finding the right number of chickens. We are at seven, at the moment, and it works for us, but that can change in the blink of an eye as we have experienced.
I fondly remember our very first batch of chickens in April 2015. We had constructed (and argued extensively over) a beautiful coop. I was a little obsessive and wanted to ensure the chickens were going to live a good life in spacious accommodations. My husband is much more practical and since he basically built the coop, he won out. Being newbies, we thought long and hard about how many we’d need and (I) questioned if we had enough square footage. We ended up with seven in about 100 sqft: two Swedish Flowers, purely because they are cool looking; four Barred Rock females; and one Barred Rock male (because we thought we needed a rooster…). We put the chicks in a dog crate in our mudroom where we could keep them warm and everyone enjoyed watching them grow…
…until they started roosting on the top of the crate and pooping on my mudroom floor.
Fortunately, the outdoor penthouse suite was completed, with the exception of the front door so I would take them out every day for some fresh air, just using a piece of plywood as a door to keep them in. An easy, (not-so) MacGyver-like solution until a gust of wind blew it in and all but one chicken vanished. After a lengthy investigation, it was determined that our dog had decided she’d had enough of being taunted with fresh meat being paraded in front of her every day. We were heartbroken. The sole survivor was one of the Swedish Flowers, who we named Scaramouche.
Scaramouche was soon joined by Batch #2 in July 2015. Although we lost the first batch before they could lay eggs, we decided we needed MORE. So, this time we bought nine: two more Swedish Flowers, six Barred Rock females, and one Barred Rock male (hoping this one would be tougher and stand up to any predators). And then there were ten…
Lessons learned: 1) Don’t trust, even, your pet dog with the animals. Their prey instinct just takes over. 2) There is no need to keep chickens indoors…we started the next batch in the barn in an old plastic baby pool with a hardware cloth cover. Goodbye poop in my mudroom.
By the time Batch #2 was ready to relocate to the coop, it was complete, door and all, and ready for its occupants.
All was good for about six months until we had our second predator attack. Very sadly, the only one we lost was Scaramouche. I went over and over it in my mind, did I let the dogs out while the chickens were in the yard? Through a little forensic investigation, we finally figured out it was a fox that had dug a hole under the perimeter fence to get at the chickens. We were lucky it only got one but we were sad to lose the one that had been with us from the start. (Who am I kidding…the “start” was only eight months prior?!) Anyway, we were down to nine chickens.
Surprisingly, later that same week, we grew the flock by two. We live on a quiet country road and someone thought it would be a good place to dump a couple of bantam roosters. I assume people don’t realize how loud roosters can be so once they start crowing, people think it best to dump them in the woods. This has happened three times now, only once did we take them in. There are a host of reasons not to take in strange chickens, first and foremost is the potential for diseases they could introduce to our disease-free flock. Second is, they are most likely roosters. Too many roosters covering too few chickens creates a problem with aggression. And, lastly, roosters can make an awful amount of noise at all times of the day and night. If only it were a classic crow or two at sunrise, I could handle it. It isn’t.
These were some cool looking roosters though and in a total lapse of judgement, we caught them, quarantined them for two weeks, and then introduced them to the rest of the flock.
Unrelated, six weeks later, our Barred Rock rooster got sick and between that and the unusual cold, he didn’t survive. I actually took him to the vet where we decided the most humane thing to do was to put him down. Because of the State’s concern over avian flu, we were able to have a necropsy (chicken autopsy) done for free. Diagnosis…heart disease. Who knew?
About four months later, we got hit with another fox attack. This time, our flock really suffered. I have to hand it to the two roosters, I imagine they went out fighting as they had taken over protection of the flock. Devastatingly, we went from ten down to three chickens: two Barred Rocks and one Swedish Flower. Sigh…
We took a different approach with Batch #3 which we acquired in July 2016. We decided we wanted to raise meat birds so we ordered 25 New Hampshire Reds. And, to replenish our egg layers and to experiment with new varieties, we got one Speckled Sussex and one Silver Laced Wyandotte. I’ll write about the meat birds and the lessons learned in a subsequent post.
After almost five months, we processed 20 of the New Hampshire Reds for meat and we kept four to add to our egg laying flock. Today, we have seven egg laying hens: one Barred Rock, one Swedish Flower, one Silver Laced Wyandotte, one Speckled Sussex, and three New Hampshire Reds. (Not that you’re tracking this, but along the way, we lost one Barred Rock to an illness and one New Hampshire Red to a hawk attack.)
This post turned out to be much longer than expected and took a bit of a morbid turn with all the talk about those that have made their way to the golden coop in the sky but I’m pretty sure this is how it goes with chickens. We’ve learned many lessons and have tried to be good stewards. I truly feel responsible for their well being and it hurts when we lose them, either through illness or predators, and I am hopeful we’ve learned enough to minimize future losses. For now, I am content knowing that they peacefully and happily coexist with everyone on the farm. Oh, and if you think you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, our dogs now are the first line of defense when it comes to foxes and hawks!