We’ve kept chickens on our little farm since our 2nd or 3rd year here. Some years we have more than others, but once we tasted truly fresh eggs, it became impossible to go back to store-bought. So even when I didn’t want to farm anymore we still kept about 10 layers to provide us with eggs. When our hens stop laying for part of the winter, we try to find another local source for fresh, farm-raised, eggs, because store-bought ones just don’t taste right.
Like all of our animals, our chickens have a varied diet. During the spring, summer and fall, about half of their food is a commercial feed for laying hens. But they also have free run of our entire yard, plus the fields surrounding our yard – except during planting so they don’t eat the seeds, and the time surrounding a few events to reduce the chance of walking in chicken poop. They eat weeds, grass, flowers, and bugs. Since we have a gravel driveway and road, we don’t have to supply them with grit for their gizzards. They just eat the driveway! They also clean up the bad apples and pears that fall off our trees and we’ll toss them food from our garden that is over-ripe or too buggy for us. It’s a bonus for them – veggies AND bugs – all at once! When we get tomato hornworms, the chickens get a special treat. (Unfortunately, though, that means I have to pick the worms off the plants. I really don’t like tomato hornworms!) Also, we’ve had hardly any grasshoppers since we’ve had chickens running free. When the winter is very cold, the chickens don’t venture out much, so we just close the gate to their pen, mostly to protect them from any predators that may venture near. They have both an inside shelter with roosting poles and nest boxes off the ground, and an outdoor pen. The outdoor pen is smallish, and they’ve destroyed every green thing that used to be in it, so when they are penned up we make sure to give them some type of living food now and then so they’ll be healthier – extra produce I’ve purchased or seeds I’ve sprouted in the house. But the majority of their winter diet is a layer ration.
I’d like to tell you what breed we have, but we aren’t entirely sure. Currently we have a mix – some are pure breeds from the “colored layers” mix that we bought from Murray McMurray Hatchery. Some have been hatched from the variety of breeds we have, so they are mixed breeds. Our goal has been to keep a variety of hens that lay different colored eggs – white, brown, blue, green – so when we and our customers open their cartons, it’s always a different combination of colors. Some of our newest hens are White Leghorns (we think). They kept laying through this winter except for about 1 week. Usually we get no eggs at all for about 2 months, from end of November through the beginning of February. It was very nice to still get a few eggs every day all winter, so in the future I think we’ll always keep a few leghorns – even though we now consider white eggs to be boring. We generally have 3 generations of hens at any given point in time. Every year or year and a half we raise a new batch of layers to replace the ones that will be “old” next year. When our hens get to be about 3 years old, we butcher them and use them in soups and stews. They are too tough for anything else. We we can have the new chicks, some that are a year or so old and in their prime laying time, as well as some that are 2-3 years old and starting to slow down production. For roasting chickens, we raise heavy breeds designed for meat production. They grow very fast, compared to layers, and are ready to be processed and go in the freezer at about 10-12 weeks of age, which means they will still be tender.
We have enough hens to supply ourselves, as well as a few friends, with eggs. If we have extra, we feed them to the pigs, which love the treat.