Red Wicket Market Farm is a small farm 25 minutes from downtown Columbus, Ohio, near Slate Run Metropark. Breeding Black Copper and Blue Copper Marans to the Standard of Perfection.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Facts on Chickens

Last week, I tackled some myths that I hear about eggs. This week, here are some facts about chickens that you may not have known!

Myth: A rooster is needed before a hen will lay eggs.

Reality: A hen will lay eggs whether or not a rooster is present. The eggs will not be fertile without a rooster, however.

Myth: White chickens lay white eggs and brown chickens lay brown eggs.

Reality: While our best white egg layers are indeed white, and our best brown egg layers are indeed brown, you can't tell egg color based on a chicken's feathers. We have some white chickens that lay brown eggs, and a brown and black hen that lays white eggs. And our blue- and green- egg layers are all sorts of colors, from cream colored to brown to bluish gray. Interestingly, you can get a hint of what color egg a hen lays by looking at her earlobes: hens with white earlobes do indeed lay white eggs, and hens with brown earlobes lay brown eggs.

Myth: A hen lays the same size egg her whole life.

Reality: Egg size changes with the age of the chicken, the season, and the weather. Young chickens tend to lay more and smaller eggs, while older hens tend to lay fewer and larger eggs. We get larger eggs in the spring, and smaller eggs in the fall. We get larger eggs in nice weather, and smaller eggs in cold, wet weather. This is why our cartons are sold "mixed size."

Myth: Chickens are vegetarians.

Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth. While we feed a vegetarian based feed that does not contain animal by-products, chickens are natural omnivores, just like the songbirds visiting your feeder and looking for bugs in your yard. One of the great things about having chickens out on pasture is that they can catch insects to supplement their diets. There is nothing funnier than a chicken trying to catch a butterfly! They try very hard, but the butterflies always seem to elude them.

Myth: Roosters are mean.

Reality: Some roosters are aggressive and some aren't. Rooster aggression seems to be genetic, and aggressive roosters often have aggressive sons. An aggressive rooster is a dangerous animal (Bruce's spurs are 3" long and sharp), and we will not keep an aggressive rooster and would certainly not breed from one. Our current roosters, Bruce, Billy, and Blue, are all non-aggressive towards humans and very sweet to the hens.

Myth: Chickens are dirty.

Reality: Chickens are fairly clean animals, if they're allowed to be. They preen their feathers, and dust-bathe to keep clean. A properly kept hen house does not smell like manure (although it does smell a bit like chickens).

Myth: A hen will lay one egg per day all year.

Reality: Different hens will lay different numbers of eggs per week, and some breeds of chickens are better at laying than others.  A hen from an excellent egg-laying breed will lay an average of six eggs per week.

Hens don't lay eggs all year long. During the spring and the fall, they moult. A hen who is moulting will lose some of her feathers, and she will not lay eggs while she grows them back. During moulting season, you may notice that we have fewer eggs available for this reason.

Myth: Eggs that are labeled "free range" come from hens have access to pasture.

Reality: While better than battery cages, the terms "free range" and "cage free" can be somewhat misleading. While cage free hens have more room than battery cage hens, they are still all crowded into a building and never see the sun. The term "free range" simply means that the birds have access to the outside. The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside or the amount of space available to them. In some large "free range" layer operations, there is a single door to a small outside gravel lot available for thousands of hens. This counts as "access" and satisfies the labeling rule.

Photo of cage free layer hens from USA Today
Here is a photo of a commercial cage free, free range layer house from a USA Today story. If you read the story, you'll notice that an egg distributor,when asked about outdoor access for his hens, says that "Most don't [want to go outside]. They are very squeamish birds; they're very defenseless. They know they have predators out there." Our birds line up at the pop door to be let outside every morning. Could it be that his hens have never been outside, and that's why it scares them? Check out the photo below. All of those red hens are the same breed as the birds in the cage free layer house photo, and we bought them from a major commercial hatchery that supplies chickens to layer houses.

Our hens enjoying some tomatoes Fall 2012
This is why we prefer the term "pastured," even though it does not have a legal definition. Our pastured hens have the choice to go out to pasture during daylight hours. The pasture is planted in grass, and there are trees available for shade. There is a large pasture waterer so they do not run out of water. The hens hurry outside every morning to scratch and catch bugs, then come back inside the hen house to roost in the sun coming through the large windows, eat some chicken feed, and lay their eggs. In nice weather, they often spend the entire day outside, napping and dust bathing under the trees, only coming into the hen house to lay their eggs and roost at night.