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Having my winter eggs and eating them too

December 2, 2010

chestnut leaf in gate-keeper.

Growing your own food is a balancing act.  Finding your way to growing what you actually want to eat is even more of a tightrope walk.  Everywhere you look, someone is telling you to what, how and why.  The guilt trip is a well-traveled road these days.  If you’re not doing “it” yourself, saving a minor breed or long forgotten vegetable, and doing it organic, green, or off-grid it doesn’t tally up too well.

This post has been rattling around in my head for weeks, actually ever since I slammed the trailer door shut on Thelma and Louise.  I like seasonal farming.  I was glad to see the pigs go.  I was growing weary of them and I wanted to eat bacon and sausage.   I was tired of buying them feed – after a certain point if you aren’t raising breeders, it is like pouring money down a rat hole.   They had reached the point of no return.  They were like Dillinger, WANTED:  DEAD or DEAD.  Sounds cruel doesn’t it.  But really they did live a pretty good life, and I did buy them to eat them, not provide them with a retirement home.  The, “I feed you – you feed me deal.”

But, while we’re on the subject of seasonality and bacon I have to bring up eggs.  And the subject of DIY’ers.  I am an avid DIY type A kind of person.  But, you can’t do everything yourself.  You can change your oil, but someone still needs to build the car, you can take vitamins ’till the cows home, but if you break your arm you probably would like to have a doctor set your arm for you.  So that means you have to patronize your community.  Buy from professionals or businesses that are good at what they do.  Keep the small guy going, he is probably keeping other small guys going too.  So, I buy my chicks each spring from a hatchery at the time I buy  my meat chicks.  I can raise 25 pullets right alongside my meat chicks since the eating and heating requirements are the same.

So, what’s your point Matron?   Well, the point is I want eggs all year round just like everyone else.  Even though I say seasonal farming is what I like, I draw the line at the fritatta.  Of all the animals that lend themselves to “season extension” growing and husbandry,  raising chickens for eggs is the way to go.  Simply because, ovulation is not as hard on a female body as pregnancy and lactation.  Ask anyone who is nursing a baby which takes more out of you?  Ovulating/menstruation  or making milk?  But with the store at hand 24/7/365 we forget all that pesky high school biology stuff.  That is why I don’t think it is a good idea for winter mammal babies, it’s cold, it’s been a long time since we have seen the sun and despite our wanting milk and dairy all the time, it is hard on the cows and goats and their babies.  I have met more new farmers and even seasoned farmers who feel sorry for their poor old hens having to lay eggs in the winter, but yet turn around and plan for a fall or winter calf because of vacation schedules, wanting milk for winter, too hot to milk, well the store has milk…yes, and the store has eggs too.

My 11 hens are now laying 8 – 10 eggs a day.  How is that possible?  Because I raise replacement pullets every year and I time it so the pullets begin to lay before the days are too short.  And the kicker?  I sell, give away, or eat my 18 month old hens at the time my next pullets are starting to lay.  My pantry experiences a gap in egg size, but not a gap in eggs.  I know hens can lay eggs for many years, but it does get expensive to feed hens that aren’t laying eggs or laying very few eggs, and it is hard to cull individual chickens, you can look at a whole lotta vents and still not know if you made the right decision.  (Side note:  for low stress animal raising, I have not met a chicken yet that liked being held upside down and having her butt inspected.) And since I don’t live close to a store it would be expensive and time consuming to buy eggs.  And even with my hens in confinement, organic, free-range, omega-3, vegetarian, natural, blah-blah-bland eggs don’t even come close to my hen’s fresh eggs every day.

My reasons for eggs in the winter:

♥  I don’t believe it’s a hardship on chickens to lay during cold weather.  If their energy needs aren’t being met they will stop laying until you get their feed back up to par.  That is a quick indicator of your feeding skills.

♥  If there is a long time lull in eggs, and you buy eggs from the store, there is still a chicken laying that egg, it may as well be your chicken that is doing it, instead of a hen living on a mega-farm.

♥  You can defray the costs of raising your pullets by raising extras and selling them as ready-to-lay girls.  A niche market for the farmstead.  There are always people who have gotten stung on the pullet thing at the local urban feed store.  It’s pretty disheartening to raise your 3 allowed “pullets” only to find out one of them is a rooster.  By laying age, it’s pretty apparent that you have pullets or not, people will flock to your ad on Craigslist. 😉

♥  You can further defray your egg costs by selling your 18 month old hens.  They can go on to lay at a gentler soul’s coop, become an Indian curry, or feed for yourself and your pets.

♥  It’s not a bad thing to keep local hatcheries in business by buying from them.  Expertise is expertise.  If you want to raise your own that’s fine too.  And if you feel bad about roosters not being as popular buy some of them too.

♥  Remember that refinement of any system is always something to work towards.  Hatching your own chicks or having good hens to brood and raise them is an admirable goal, but it doesn’t have to be where you start.  There is nothing wrong with supporting your local hatchery, or even one not so local.

53 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2010 12:51 am

    I enjoy reading of every post here and learned so much…
    There are many moral dilemmas in animal farming. You are phrasing some of them and Your answers so clearly… like I’m reading sort of “Farmer’s Bible (moral code)”. You are a really good person, Matron. Thank You!

    • December 2, 2010 8:29 pm

      Linbul, thank you for the kind comment – I am sure my cows think I am a good person, or their slave I haven’t figured out which!

  2. December 2, 2010 3:11 am

    Thanks for all this information, Matron. I am trying to learn all I can so that hopefully I will have a clue when we can finally have chickens of our own. I’m looking forward to it and I thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  3. December 2, 2010 4:34 am

    Loved this post Nita 🙂 I have 11 hens laying right now too, we are averaging around 10 a day! Yesterday it was snowing here just a little, and it was so neat to still be able to go out to the chicken coop and get our eggs 🙂

    • December 2, 2010 9:40 am

      I should have said “we are getting UP to 10 eggs a day”…..some days we are getting as few as 6 or 7….but still thankful for those 🙂

  4. December 2, 2010 4:48 am

    My Jersey Giants are just now starting to lay eggs and I am getting five a day! That is one thing that I love to get during the winter months and that is eggs. We keep a timer in the hen house so we can give them more light during the winter months. I also do only seasonal gardening, busy enough during those months without having to add it to the whole year! Nice eggs by the way!

    • December 2, 2010 2:10 pm

      This year we added 5 Jersey Giant hens to our flock. I suspect most of them are laying. Not gotten 13 for 13 yet, so not sure who’s laying and whose not.

    • December 2, 2010 8:31 pm

      Lisa, it sure makes a difference having fresh eggs at your disposal. It would be hard to go without – or worse with store eggs. 🙂

  5. December 2, 2010 5:23 am

    Great post with lots of things to consider for a novice! My husband and I would like to get egg layers next year and we don’t know much at this point. I appreciate these posts 🙂

    • December 2, 2010 8:31 pm

      Allison, you won’t be sorry when you get that first egg! Having your own hens is definitely a worthwhile endeavor. 🙂

  6. December 2, 2010 6:49 am

    I totally agree. I would much rather have eggs from my happy girls in the winter than buying eggs from some poor miserable hen. They aren’t the same in the winter, but they’re sill a far cry from the grocery store eggs.

  7. Janna permalink
    December 2, 2010 7:26 am

    Great post, thank you! I’m sorry if you’ve discussed this elsewhere, but I was wondering, do you have a rooster and hatch your own eggs in the spring, or do you order from a hatchery for your new birds?

    My husband and I live in the suburbs and are getting ready to have our own small flock this spring, but I always assumed we would make them pets. This would mean getting two now and then adding two more every few years, but the economics of this is just not efficient, and I don’t think we have room for more than 6.

    After reading this post this morning, I’m considering whether I have it in me to harvest them every couple of years. I killed my first pheasants this year, so I think I could do it. I think it would always be an onerous task, but I’m excited by the idea of creating a much more effecient system! And there is always a market for ready-to-lay pullets here in the San Francisco bay area, that’s a great idea too. Thanks!

    • December 2, 2010 2:14 pm

      We send several of ours to freezer camp, along with the broilers each year. Before the broilers go, we cull all the broiler hens for the best layers, to replace the ones going to freezer camp. (We raise heritage breeds for broilers.)

      It’s definitely not one of our favorite jobs, but does mean we know exactly where our chicken comes from. As we built our own butcher shop, we also know how clean it is.

    • December 2, 2010 10:22 pm

      Janna, I do buy new pullets each year when I buy my meat chicks and I raise them all together. Of course, the meat chickens aren’t here too long, but the chick brooding phase is all the same.

      It’s not so bad doing a few at a time, and if you’re squeamish you can always sell them as 18 month old laying hens. Lots of customers for hens that are youngish but not old. I think the minimum order for chicks at a hatchery is 25 but they are easy to sell, even at the 6 – 8 week stage, meaning you could sneak a few more chicks in at that stage if you have ordinances prohibiting the number of birds. Lots of ways to work it – and still end up with some hens for yourself.

  8. susan permalink
    December 2, 2010 7:55 am

    Ah, I wish I had read this post two years ago! I am going to have to recycle most of my hens – at last count I have 30 (2 roos and 6 pullets included) and get possible 6 eggs a day. A total drain. This spring will bring a lot of changes in the hen yard.

    • December 2, 2010 10:23 pm

      Susan, I know how you feel, it is tempting to keep them and deal with less, but larger eggs, but it can get expensive fairly fast, and then you still have to buy or barter for eggs. 😦

  9. December 2, 2010 8:01 am

    Much as I’d love to keep hens the old hen house now houses the fencing equipment and I’ve been getting free ones from the neighbour…….can’t beat that with a stick either 😉

    • December 2, 2010 10:24 pm

      Linda, that’s for sure! I used to get eggs from several different old ladies around here – but they are gone now, so I guess I get to be the old lady 😉

      • December 4, 2010 6:15 am

        That’s so funny 🙂 I guess we all get to step into that role sooner or later if we are willing! 😉

    • December 2, 2010 10:25 pm

      Linda, that’s for sure! I used to get eggs from several old ladies in the neighborhood – now they are gone, so I guess I get to be the old lady 😉

  10. December 2, 2010 8:12 am

    Do you use a light to help keep your girls laying through the winter? I never have, and this year for some reason it feels like the days got shorter all of a sudden. My girls are all completing their moult but I haven’t gotten a single egg in the past week. Wondering if I should break down and add a light on a timer…

    • December 2, 2010 2:16 pm

      Did you add any animal protein supplementation to help them through the molt? If not, it may also be the reason they have not resumed laying. Feathers take a lot of protein to grow and there’s nothing left over for eggs.

      But lights would probably help.

    • December 2, 2010 10:29 pm

      Amy, no we don’t use a light, but mine are in a greenhouse, so they gets lots of natural lights, and they are pullets, so once they start to lay in early fall, they usually don’t stop until they molt next year. I have one from last years batch and she hasn’t quit laying yet, so she has been laying since Sept 09 and still is doing pretty good 🙂

      We did use to use lights when we sold eggs though, with the timer set to come on at 3:oo am or so, to keep the daylight at about 14 hours. Other things to consider are a higher protein feed as Pam suggested and free choice oyster shell at all times. We offer oyster shell and I give all the shells back to the hens to eat. Probably the timing with that cold weather snap and molt has been a double whammy on them. Luckily in a few weeks the days will get a little longer. 🙂

  11. michelle permalink
    December 2, 2010 8:12 am

    You bring up a very good idea for me- feeding the dogs with the old layers- I don’t love eating the layers as they are stringy and tough; too used to the supermarkets version I guess. It made me think though what Do you feed your dogs? The same food you eat like way back in the day before dog food? Or do you buy food for them? I’m pretty sure I know the answer 😉
    Great post as always-

    • December 2, 2010 2:18 pm

      We grind our old ones for ground chicken. We use a lot of that in all kinds of things: soups, casseroles, burgers, salads, etc.

      A crockpot for 8-10 hrs til the meat falls off the bones also works around here.

    • December 2, 2010 10:33 pm

      Michelle, actually for the last few years I have sold or gave away all my older hens. But when we had more chickens, our dogs ate a lot of chicken – like the typical American these days! I can’t say that I miss them digging up their prizes, all green and slimy and oh so delicious to dogs! Of course, they liked to get them out when we had company! 😀

      But I do keep some kibble on hand, and they get what we eat plus beef scraps, raw egg yolks, cooked egg whites, and just about everything else. They’re still eating on our last bull – he was worth more for dog food than at the sale barn!

  12. December 2, 2010 8:34 am

    Oooh, selling point of lay pullets is a good idea. I am patiently waiting for my first chickens to finally decide to lay.

    Do you sell extra eggs? Feed them to the dogs? Manage to eat them all?

    • December 2, 2010 10:35 pm

      Funder, ready to lay pullets are an easy sell. I don’t sell eggs anymore, but it isn’t hard to go through 10 eggs a day with the dogs, cats and maybe a gift or barter here and there.

  13. December 2, 2010 9:19 am

    We have about 18 chickens – very old ladies – 4 – 6 years old and get about 2 – 4 eggs/day through the winter – My daughter loves them too much for us to slaughter. But we are so looking forward to new chicks at the end of April:)
    Warm wishes, tonya

    • December 2, 2010 10:36 pm

      Tonya, yeah, sometimes that can be hard to part with the pets 🙂 She will love the new chicks though!

  14. December 2, 2010 9:24 am

    Lovely photos as always, I do add in new hens every year to my flock, sometimes hatching my own and sometimes bringing in fresh blood by the Hatchery, I tend to butcher out most of my older girls, unless she is a good solid broody girl who has proven herself to set and hatch little ones, then she gets a pass, I still have one of my first girls I got as a young layer when we moved to the farm, and every year, she sets and hatches out 8 to 14 little ones most years twice. Given the cost of day olds, she earns her keep in this way.

    I noticed that someone asked about feeding the older girls to the dogs? Do you do this or do you make stock from them?

    • December 2, 2010 10:41 pm

      JTODOTHF, your hen is doing a good job. I wish we could do that and have chicks raised the proper way by their mama, but we have too many predators to let the chickens range. Day old pullets are over $2.00 apiece and it takes quite a while to get them to lay age, so you girl is earning her keep.

      I would feed them to the dogs if I had them, but they are pretty easy to sell to others that want a mature hen to lay – lots of people don’t want to mess with babies. I make stock every week with my broilers so I don’t have a use for more. But the best stock I have ever tasted came from 6 month old roosters, and the meat was delicious!

      • December 3, 2010 6:43 pm

        I wish we were able to get that kind of price for a day old at our local hatchey, I am paying basicly 5 dollars each, by the time you add in shipping and handling on top of the chicks price.

        There is a couple ladies locally that will hatch eggs for you, you just match up your girls with the roo you want and they will hatch out the chicks at 4 dollars a peice, min set of 20, but its a local pickup, and I have used them a few times, they sure seem to keep busy and hatch nice strong little ones but it does not give you any new blood to the flock.

  15. December 2, 2010 9:36 am

    As I’m sure you’ve found out that some breeds of chickens are not all they’re cracked up to be. For instance someone told us that Orphingtons are a good heavy breed to deal well with our MT winters and they did quite well, but when you figure feed costs verses production they weren’t so good. They ate like “pigs” and their laying slowed way down. So lesson learned and we experimented with a few other heavy bodied breeds and found that Barred and White Rocks, RIR and Austrolopes all handle our frigid winters as well as keep up a high egg production. We do have some “mutts” and they typically end up in the freezer.

    Supplimenting our chickens with squash, rootcrops, alfalfa hay and garden grow grain crops, not only help the pocketbook, it also gives the bird something to do, so they don’t begin picking at each other due to boredom( during long cold spells and they don’t wish to venture outside the coop)

    Thank you for sharing this, I always pick up something from your helpful blogging. :o)

    • December 2, 2010 10:43 pm

      Kelle, when we had our pastured flock we switched breeds each year so we could tell how old everyone was, and the best for our conditions/needs were Barred Rock, Australorps, and Rhode Island Red. Now I have been getting the Sex-Links, and I really like them. They are smaller and lay very well and they are calm.

      The extra goodies from the garden really make a difference on the feed bill, and now with the pigs gone the chickens get the house scraps too.

  16. December 2, 2010 11:58 am

    So- knowing that you and I are in the same general quadrant of Oregon, who is the local hatchery and where are they?

    • December 2, 2010 10:48 pm

      Paula, these two are good, but you have to buy 25 minimum, but it’s easy to get rid of the extras. And I don’t like buying chicks at the feed store, because it is just one more stop in their early life. Chicks in the mail get to your house pretty fast, usually the next morning after hatch. I have even ordered chicks from Virginia, and they got here the 2nd day and did fine.

      Shanks in Hubbard

      and Dunlap in Idaho

  17. December 2, 2010 4:42 pm

    you make good points – I always was of the “chickens need a rest” camp but the truth is I just don’t have any electricity in my barn. No light.

    • December 2, 2010 10:49 pm

      Aimee, I’m not sure why you think you need light? We don’t use lights on the chickens. It’s the timing of when they begin to lay, unless they are old and are molting right now.

  18. December 2, 2010 5:48 pm

    You make some very good points, and have given me things to think about with my own tiny flock of three… They were laying, but stopped and decided to molt just as the weather got really cold (silly girls)

    Also – is there any way to make the cute “falling snow” on your blog be optional rather than ubiquitous? Something in how it is programmed makes the navigation bars at the top and sides of my screen flicker maniacally up and down, which makes reading your wonderful blog very difficult. (I use Firefox as a browser, if that makes any difference. ) I’d hate to have to wait for the year to turn to spring to be able to continue reading what you have to say. I recommend your blog to many people, as I have learned So Much from reading it.

    • December 2, 2010 10:55 pm

      Alison, yeah those silly chickens! They usually seem to know what their doing 😉

      To get rid of the snow, go to Appearance, Extras, and look to see if Snow is selected. I use Firefox too, but I haven’t had any problems with the snow. Hope that helps 🙂

      • December 3, 2010 2:34 am

        I have looked for an appearance area to try your suggestion, and have been unable to find it. I have written to Firefox help for assistance. Is the “Appearance, Extras” anywhere obvious that I could have missed?

        • December 3, 2010 6:09 am

          Alison, I misread your comment late last night and thought for some reason the snow was on your blog. Sorry, I don’t know why it would cause that to happen, I’m using Firefox too, and it doesn’t cause any problems here. I’ll look through the WordPress forum and see if I can find anyone else with that problem.

          The snow will disappear on January 4th for the year.

          ETA: there were problems from several folks with Firefox and the snow on the forum, I couldn’t find where anyone had a solution except all where complaining about how much processing power FF takes, so I guess the snow hogs the power. Can you subscribe in email for the month of December? Just a thought.

        • December 3, 2010 4:52 pm

          Thank you for taking the time to try and track down a remedy for me! I havn’t gotten any response in the Firefox help forums yet. I shall simply have to read your December writings at the Library computers, instead of at home, which is not a terrible hardship.

        • December 3, 2010 9:47 pm

          I hate these nested comments… if I didn’t like the snow so much I would take it off for you 😦

  19. December 2, 2010 7:26 pm

    Funny, I was just pondering what to do with some hens. I’ve got 21, none of them laying right now. 8 are this year’s pullets, the rest range from 18-42 months old. 2 of the older hens have names and they’re not going anywhere (mascots) and 1 is a banty that I think is cute. The other 10, well, let’s just say that I’m wondering why I’m feeding them all winter…

    My older girls are just finishing up molting and then they’ll get a light to get them laying again. I think we’ll be culling some older hens in the spring to make way for new chicks. I like your system, maybe I’ll sell this year’s pullets when next year’s start to lay. Hmmmm.

    • December 2, 2010 11:05 pm

      Laura, it works pretty good really, because as you know, it is pretty easy to brood a few more per batch. We used to color code with different breeds each year so we could easily tell ages when we put them up for sale. It’s nice to have eggs all the time, and not near the hardship (for animal and human) that milk all the time means 🙂 They need to be about 18 -20 weeks by early September for this to work. We also feed 20% feed until laying age, it adds to the expense but it insures that they hens really get to size in time. I don’t believe even 20% feed, organic or not is always 20% protein these days. Unless you have each batch of components tested, most 20% feed is probably more like 18% and could be lower.

      I have one chicken with a crooked back so I didn’t sell her, and she is able to lay, she just walks around like a goober…

  20. December 4, 2010 4:10 pm

    Our chickens lay all year too. Some of them take time out to sit on eggs and during their broodiness, they don’t lay then but I see that as a kind of natural holiday for them. I agree with your comment about their nutrition and keeping the chickens well fed, it makes all the difference.

    • December 4, 2010 7:46 pm

      Rhonda Jean, I love having fresh eggs year round – so useful and so essential for scratch cooking, and many times when we’re in a hurry a good egg has been a meal.

  21. December 7, 2010 11:33 pm

    I have a flock of australorps as well. They’re supposed to be broody, have you considered letting them hatch out their own chicks? That’s what I will do eventually with mine, but I keep selling the eggs as hatching eggs. I also have a flock of Delawares.

    • December 8, 2010 9:41 am

      VGC, I am not interested in hatching chicks at all, and would rather leave that part to a hatchery and patronize them. A side note on Australorps we didn’t really find them to be too broody at all, about like a Rhode Island or Sex-Link, compared to our Barred Rocks that loved to set. Now that we’re not selling eggs, I have settled in to these Black Sex-Links, they are really nice hens, calm and beautiful to look at.

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