Hickety-pickety my black hen
She lays eggs for gentlemen.
Gentlemen come every day
To see what my black hen doth lay.
For the last part of my series on raising chickens, I'd like to give you a look at what your chicks will be when they mature into laying hens, producing the precious "country egg" that we all desire and love so much.
You will notice how very quickly your chicks will mature. They will begin to sprout their pin feathers quite soon--within a week or so of delivery. They won't stay fluffy and cute for very long. As they mature, they will need more space in the coop and more ventilation. It is good to have windows open during the day and slightly closed during night if the weather is warm. It is very important to put chickens inside over night. They need to know where "home" is and they need the protection from predators. If you leave them outside or do not close them up at night you could lose the whole flock. One year I lost all but about 10 chickens of my 50 in two nights. Someone forgot to close the door on the coop and raccoons got in and dined very well. Once predators start coming around and finding those delicious chickens, they'll be back for more and will bring their family and friends along with them! Even the screens on the windows of your coop should be predator-proof. That summer I had to put a heavy mesh/screen over the coop windows because the 'coons kept trying to get in and they can easily rip regular window screen off to gain entrance.
When the chickens are around 6 weeks old, I open the door to the the adult laying hens' coop and also leave their outside door open so they can venture outdoors as they see fit. They will do this on their own gradually. One minute the pullets will scurry up to the open door and then race back into the coop. They will run up and down to the door continually until one brave chick decides to step out into the sunshine and the rest will follow.
The young pullets will continue to get a commercial feed called grower pellet or laying pellet, and I will add in other grains like wheat and cracked corn. Some people like to buy a combination of several grains called Chicken Scratch which is fine too. Otherwise, I allow my hens to free-range all day long and then close them up in the coop each night before sundown. This makes for very happy chickens. They love to forage about in the weeds and grasses and eat grasshoppers and worms, and they also appreciate a good manure pile to scratch and dig in. I told one of my customers when he asked what I fed the chickens, that my laying hens get only the best feed -- picking in the manure piles. And yes, he still likes my eggs.
Table scraps is another excellent feed source for your laying hens. I have found that they will eat anything but citrus fruit rinds. Some people say you should only feed vegetable and grain scraps, but I feed them everything that comes from my kitchen. Do NOT, however, feed them egg shells unless you first dry them and crumble them up so they do not look anything at all like an egg. The crumbled egg shell will provide them with good calcium, but if you allow them to start eating eggs shells that look like eggs, they will begin pecking the fresh eggs in the nest and then you have a big problem.
In the winter months, I leave my hens inside their coop unless the temperature goes above 32* F and if there is bare ground for them to walk on. Hens do not do well in the cold nor do they like their feet cold. During spring/summer I don't let my hens out of the coop until after 9:00 a.m. or so unless it is unbearably hot. I want to give them time to eat the indoor feed and drink plenty of water before free-ranging outdoors. They will continue eating and drinking all day long, but they won't be dining on wheat, corn, and laying pellet. I leave a tub of water outside the coop as well as one inside so I never have to worry about my hens getting enough water which is so essential for good egg production.
Perch and Nesting Boxes:
Make sure your hens have a perch up off the ground where they can roost for the night. This is a hen's natural defense against predators but you will want your perch inside the hen house. Allow 4" of space per bird with roost poles at least 6" apart. My perches are only about 3-4 feet high off the ground. They can be staggered in height like stadium bleachers if you need perches for lots of hens.
You will also want to have nesting boxes where your hens can lay their eggs. I have mine on one side of the wall in the coop. They look like little shelves with slats between and little ledges on each box so the eggs won't fall out. The boxes are about 1' by 10". You will want to put some clean straw or hay inside the boxes. It will help to keep the eggs clean and the hens will appreciate a dark nest to lay in. I usually have old hens which will "teach by example" the new pullets where and how to lay. If you are starting with brand new laying hens you can put a couple golf balls into the nests so they see that there is something in them that looks like an egg. They may begin laying on the floor of the coop at first, but eventually they should go up to the nesting boxes to lay.
Hens taking a dust bath
Cleaning the Chicken Coop:
Keeping the chicken coop clean is very important. During the summer months the coop stays fairly clean since the hens will be outdoors most of the day. I don't put much of anything down for litter in the summertime except for some wood shavings underneath the perch. In fall and winter, I begin to put down fresh litter. They do better if their feet aren't cold and they can walk in some clean straw or hay. If you put down some fresh straw or hay every couple weeks, they should do fine. I like to clean my coop with pitchfork and shovel every fall before winter sets in and again sometime during the winter when I get a nice, warm day. In early spring when it gets to stinking and you've added about all the litter you can, it's time to clean it again in April or May. Keep litter down on the floor during the colder months of the year and reduce it during warmer months. Chicken manure is great for the compost pile, but do let it age and mellow. It is a "hot" fertilizer that you don't want to put on the garden while it's very "fresh".
Once a year in the summertime, I like to spray the inside of the coop down with soap and water or with some Pine Sol and water to give it a good cleaning and disinfecting. It's also a good time sprinkle some Sevin garden dust or any garden powder underneath the roosts and in the areas where your hens like to take dust baths. When your hens are fluffing through the dust, they will be giving themselves a treatment for mites and insects that attack them.
Sample chicken tractor
I have never used a chicken tractor, but I think they are a very clever invention for free-ranging chickens. A chicken tractor is basically a portable chicken yard that can be moved around the so chickens can graze freely and evenly over your land. For some excellent pictures of various styles of chicken tractors, click here.
I have to tell a funny story in this section. One day my young children and I were watching a broadcast of the Martha Stewart show on television. Her feature was on laying hens so I thought I might learn a thing or two. Martha was out gathering eggs in her very chic hen house when she came to one nest where a beautiful Buff Orpington hen was sitting. She reached under the hen and pulled out 3 eggs. "Well, look here," remarked wise Martha, "this hen layed three eggs today!" My even wiser country children laughed and said, "Martha Stewart is a fake! Doesn't she know hens can only lay one egg a day?" They have never trusted Ms. Stewart since.
Your hens will begin laying eggs at approximately 5 months of age. Their eggs will be smaller than your "grade A large" grocery store eggs, but in time they will get larger as the hens mature. I gather my eggs every day in the late afternoon. If you are having very cold weather, it is best to gather them in the early afternoon so they will not freeze and then crack. I know some people who gather eggs in the morning and afternoon.
How long will my hens lay?
Usually your hens will produce an egg a day for a year or a little more. After this, they will continue to lay, but will not shuck out an egg a day as before. If you keep your hens for over a year, you will get what the store calls "jumbo" eggs. These are more expensive in the store because they come from older hens which only lay an egg every other day or so. I have had some hens for 3 years. They will lay a few eggs here and there, but their egg production days are coming to a close. It is wise to replace your hens (or part of them) each year by raising a new set of chicks every spring. While the chicks are maturing, you are still getting eggs from your mature hens and when the pullets begin laying, you may decide to start butchering your old hens gradually or keep them on as old friends as I sometimes do. Laying hens really don't live long lives. I have rarely seen a hen live over 4 years.
What do I do with an old hen?
The best thing to do is to butcher your old hens and roast them for a LONG time in a covered dutch oven. Coq Au Vin is the name of the recipe you will want to make. Old hens are not very tender, but if you cook it slowly at a low temperature until the meat is falling off the bone, you will find it "good eating." You can also keep your old hens around as friends until they die a natural death.
How do I butcher a chicken?
This is not for sissies or the faint of heart. Grab the chickens you wish to butcher in the early morning while they are still on the perch. It's easier to catch them this way. Stun the chicken first by hitting it in the head with a stick or side of a hatchet. Chop off their heads with a hatchet or place the head between a board and stick, step down on it and pull up to pop their heads off. They will run or flutter around for a few minutes. Next, you may either pluck or skin the chicken.
To skin a chicken, first make a slit in the skin with a sharp knife between the breast and wing. Next begin to peel off the feathers and skin. This happens fairly easily. When you get to the legs and wings, you will want to cut the legs off and very end joint of the wing.
To pluck a chicken, you will need a big pot or wash tub with boiling water. Dip the chicken by the feet into the scalding water for a few minutes. Then you remove it and begin to pluck the feathers, plucking "with the grain" of the feather growth. Be sure to get all the pin feathers removed. If the chicken gets too cold, dunk them again into very hot water to help the feathers release as you pluck.
I do my skinning or plucking outdoors near a burning barrel or tub so I can toss the feathers/skin into it. When this job is done, you will need to gut the birds. Make an incision below the breast bone (there's a hollow there). Do not poke your knife in too far to nick any organs. You should be able to nearly break your chicken in half from the back in order to put your hand inside. Next you will reach your hand inside and pull all the entrails out. There is a clear sack-like covering over all the organs which makes it fairly nice to pull them out in one fell-swoop. But you will also want to feel around for the trachea, lungs which are against the breast bone. I like to take my knife and cut the yuk around the chicken's rear out and cut off some of the neck.
Now plop your cleaned chicken into a washtub and wash with cold water. It's nice to do some of the washing outside. Feathers and dirt will float to the top. Rinse several times. Then bring into the house and wash several more times in a large sink. I do put a drop of dish soap in the water once and scrub the chickens with my hands a little. Then rinse several times until you are satisfied with the result. Now you can either cut the chicken into pieces or leave whole and sack up for the freezer or to roast for supper.
Washing Eggs and Storage:
I wash eggs every day. Some folks say you should never submerge an egg in water, but I do. I put my egg pail under the sink and pour a little dish soap and water over them. Then I wash them carefully with my hands and set them on a towel to dry. I'd rather have my eggs clean than risk the alternative of ecoli or some nasty bacteria being on the shells. If you have any cracked or broken eggs, it is really safest if you feed them to the dogs. A friend told me once that her nephew got food poisoning from eating the cracked eggs since the bacteria can get into the membranes of slightly cracked eggs. After washing and drying your eggs, store them in egg cartons or clean pails in the refrigerator.
Can You Eat This Egg?
If not sure you ought-ter,
then place it in water.
If it lies on its side,
then it's fresh; eat with pride.
After three or four days,
at an angle it lays.
But, it still is a treat,
so go on and eat.
Ten days, stands on end,
in your baking 'twill blend.
'Cause it's definitely edible,
in your baking, incredible.
But, if it floats on the surface,
that egg serves no purpose.
'Cause a floater's a stinker!
Out the back door best fling 'er!
Additional chicken keeping websites: