After we sent the last of the Daisy Poppy puppies home, I promised the kids we’d have the summer for chickens. No puppies, the dogs settled and happy, and we’d just do birds.
And so, kind readers, we have DONE BIRDS.
Our first challenge was the sharp drop in egg production and fertility we’d seen in our older egg-laying flock, which is now coming up on two years old. We were getting only a few eggs a week from the hens, though we were getting plenty of sunlight and the molts were all over, and our incubation success was WAY down. Conventional wisdom says that chickens are only “good” for two years and so what we were seeing was exactly what to expect. We should (ahem) “remove” them all and start over.
I wasn’t ready to do that, so I thought for a while and did some research and said “You know, it’s always food. ALWAYS.” I know perfectly well what happens when you feed a dog low-quality processed stuff, so why was I expecting the chickens to thrive on “grain protein by-products” and “wheat middlings”? That’s what’s in even the best of the commercial foods. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians, and they actually eat very little of what we’d call cereal grains in the wild – and they eat absolutely none of what we’d call floor sweepings!
So we turned every grain supplier in the area upside-down and shook them hard, and put together a whole-seed diet that’s pretty close to the way I formulate the dogs’ food (looking at the evolution of the animal and trying to match feed to the way the wild species eats). We add a proportion of their old food, because they DO need some stuff that their crops don’t have to grind (sort of like a dose of dessert in the food). But for 2/3 of the ration they now get a mix of about fifteen dried fruits and seeds, including four kinds of dried peas, sorghum, millet, vetch, flaxseed, and so on. Nothing processed and very little that’s intensively cultivated (no feed corn, for example, but they do get some popcorn). They also get meat every week, usually our table scraps.
The first thing we noticed (aside from the fact that our feed price doubled – gulp!) is that they stopped billing out most of their feed looking for good bits. Now they just stand there and cluck delightedly and eat big mouthfuls. The second thing we noticed is that the eggs went from one a day to three a day to six or seven a day for the nine laying hens that are out there.
About two weeks into it, we began to set test batches of eggs. When you set eggs, you are looking for three figures – the fertility rate (meaning the number of eggs that start to develop), the number that make it past the second candling (meaning that they’re healthy enough to develop into chicks), and your eventual hatch rate. The last batch we set from before the food change had about 50% fertility and about a 30% final hatch rate. Our first batch post-food change was 90% fertile, and 85% survived through the second candling (we’ll see how they hatch in another ten days or so). Second batch post-food change was 95% fertile. Third was 100% fertile.
After we finished congratulating ourselves on figuring out diet issues (which should keep our older flock going for at least another couple of years), we still had to make the next step and get them all breeding toward a set goal rather than just randomly. Our big Jersey Giant rooster, the sole carryover from our original chickens, has had access to his few daughters that we’ve kept, so we didn’t want to have him breeding his granddaughters as well. And we knew we needed new blood for the Serama, our tiny hens that Honour breeds. From our original quartet (one rooster and three hens) we’d grown to about fifteen birds, but they were all very closely related and we were becoming alarmingly aware of why so many people start breeding Serama and then give up. They’re SO tiny that they don’t want to survive properly. They get egg peritonitis, they have heart issues, they have hatching issues, and they start to swing wildly from extremely tiny (sub-A size) to very large in the same hatches.
So it was time for A Plan. I’m going to detail exactly what we did in another post, but the short version is that we added a lot of new blood and are going to be hatching out several hundred eggs this summer.
The end result, we HOPE, will be a lot of this:
We’ll keep you updated – and may or may not call for help from underneath a giant pile of fluffy chicks!