Chickens and Turkeys

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This free-range flock includes hens, turkeys, and Freedom Rangers. Here, I have just arrived at the farm and they are chasing me down for their dinner.

Happy hens lay the best eggs.

Here’s the Lowdown on Erma’s Farm Layers:

  • We keep a variety flock of hearty cold-weather tolerant brown egg laying hens.
  • Erma’s flock ranges from between 25-75 active laying hens. Hawks and other predators abound. Currently we have approximately 50.
  • Our chickens live with our turkeys (which is down to four now) in a 25×40 industrial plastic covered hoop house.
  • Erma’s Farm takes the term “Free-range” seriously. Except for nasty days that no self-respecting bird is going to go outside anyway, when we open the door to let them out, they have access to all 35 acres of the farm.  However, they prefer to confine their activities to my forbidden vegetable garden, the compost pile and our also off-limits perennial gardens.
  • In addition to their pasture forage, they eat cracked corn, layer feed, spent brewer’s grain. The feed comes from Ottawa Lake Co-Op and is not organic. Feeding amount varies based on quality of forage available.
  • Eggs keep for over 60 days in the refrigerator and for over two weeks unrefrigerated.
  • We wash eggs directly prior to sale. Eggs have a protective coating that helps keep them safe, but they also sometimes come with a coating of unpleasant debris that needs to be washed off before cracking the egg.
  • Our hens keep company with nearly a dozen gentlemanly roosters (no thanks AT ALL to Meyer Hatchery who sent us eight males out of what was to be 100 females). Point is: the eggs are probably fertilized, if that means anything to you.

 

Taking the first step to becoming a ‘little bit country’ always begins with getting a few chickens because they are incredibly simple additions to your yard.  In fact,  70 years ago it was perfectly common for city-dwellers to keep a few chickens out back for fresh eggs, as well as maybe a rabbit hutch for bunny burgers.

Chickens require meager accommodations – just a secure indoor area to perch at night for their beauty sleep and some grass, bugs, and dust to work at during the day.  Throw some grain or kitchen vegetables scraps their way and they are delighted.  In return, they lay lovely eggs with orange yolks.

They don’t do it quietly.  Some girls patiently, stoically, lay their eggs each day without making a scene about it, but others cannot do it without clucking it up into a high drama and then become positively pissy when you reach in to take the egg.   If I had an extra-large brown egg coming out of me every single day, I have to admit I would probably make a little fuss about it.  And, sure, if some jerk came around every single morning, took my egg and threw a potato peel at my head, I’d be pretty pissed off.

Eggs are very easy to sell and I cannot keep up with orders.  Selling to friends alone, we could dispatch ten to 12 dozen a week.  We also have a local organic deli, Organic Bliss, who would buy at least 20 dozen weekly.  I have recently become the “Egg Lady” for the lovely ladies at Willow Creek Salon.  And we’ve met area chefs who are trying desperately to ‘keep local’ and they have said they would take all of the eggs we could get them as well.

Finally!  A way for our hobby farm to contribute toward the grain bill.

Unfortunately, eggs are definitely easier to sell than chickens are to keep alive.  And, chickens like to hide their eggs.   Yesterday, for example, we found three.  Three eggs; not three dozens.  Just enough for one little omelette.

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This fierce owl crept in to the hoop hen house in the night, killed three chickens, and couldn’t find its way out again. We had to remove the plastic roof on the hoop house and chase the extremely angry owl out with a broom. I was on the ladder holding the plastic up, waiting for a killer owl to fly past. It was a good morning.

We are trying to build up our hen house to include up to 100 chickens, but throughout the summer predators have trimmed that number down to 30, and they haven’t even started laying eggs yet.  (See my post on Emus to find out why. )  We keep a motley range of brown-egg laying girls that includes but is not limited to Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, Golden Comets, Buff Orpingtons, Wyandottes, Colombian Whites, Speckled Sussex (scratch that; they’ve disappeared), Dominiques, and Barred Rock.

Why brown eggs and not white?  Brown eggs are not healthier than white eggs, the egg is literally as good as the grass the chicken eats,  but they are much prettier.  A carton of our girl’s eggs is filled with a color chart  that ranges from a soft flesh-tone beige to stark pantyhose tan.

Meyer Hatchery in Ohio does a great job getting us healthy and hearty day-old chicks, although we have also incubated our own eggs and hatched them out in our basement.  The only problem with this is we end up with both hens and roosters, and a farm can only put up with so many roosters.

Each spring we also order enough Freedom Ranger chicks to raise for our year’s supply of chicken.  The breed is a brown-feathered meat-chicken that still offers the big plump breast meat we have all become used to, but on a bird that is much more natural than the typical Cornish Cross.  We like to raise our birds completely free-range (hence the free lunch for predators) and only shut their door when they go inside at night.  The whole idea of raising our own meat birds is to eat a chicken that has had the best chicken life a chicken can lead, which means that they eat grass, bugs, grain and can take long dusty naps in the shade when they are weary from foraging.   The Cornish Cross breed lives only for the feeding hour.  They are slaves to grain and have absolutely no interest in grass or bugs.  The Freedom Ranger, on the other hand, is simply mad about grain as well, but spends the rest of the day foraging and eating grass, which makes it healthier to eat as well as a far greater pleasure to have around for half the summer.

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