After an extended period with no egg production from our chickens, last week we finally got some more eggs out of them. Despite our regular supply of layers pellets and plenty of corn for the long, cold winters nights they had obviously decided to close the egg production down until the days start getting longer.
As a result we’ve not had our own eggs for many weeks and eventually had to buy some which was a real novelty after all this time. The pleasure of eating eggs from our own hens was becoming a fond but distant memory.
In the past we have bought a few new point of lay hens in early Autumn with the idea that they might produce some eggs during the winter months when out older birds have stopped. This worked well for the last couple of years but unfortunately we never got around to buying more hens last autumn and we took the opportunity to adopt some locally as their owners were emigrating to New Zealand.
The adopted chickens – Colin the cockerel plus his 3 hens – settled in very well and fairly quickly integrated into our existing flock with very little trouble. They all share the same hen-house now without any problems although some seem to prefer the next boxes over night and don’t want to join the rest on the roosting bars which are higher up.
Perhaps they’re too tired to flap up to them at night or maybe they’re just scared of heights?
The last couple of months have seen a few changes that have been a bit of a distraction from the blog updates but now it’s time for a fresh start with more regular postings. Hopefully now we’re finished with the Christmas and New Year period things can return to something like normal – whatever that is!
A Quick Catch-Up
The recent events that somehow never made it on to a proper blog update before include a few successes but also a number of “failures” which I prefer to consider as lessons learned.
There was a successful AI attempt for the first Tamworth sow – Sissy – and she is expected to farrow sometime on or after 12 January. After enjoying this success for a month or two, it was time for more AI with the second sow – Esther – but sadly I think my timing was wrong on that occasion and it didn’t take.
The second attempt with Esther was almost 3 weeks ago now so I’ll find out in the next few days whether that was successful or not. Immediately after that it’ll be time to move Sissy into the shed nearer the house ready for farrowing partly for her comfort with the weather but also for our convenience as it’s closer to the house. This time we’ll keep sow and piglets in there until the piglets are weaned at about 7-8 weeks old, it’s easier to catch them in a shed rather than chasing them around the woods.
While I’m on the subject of failures, there was an attempt at a TB test for the cows and calves but things didn’t go to plan and a minor escape attempt meant that we had to postpone the test until later this month. In the meantime I have reinforced the defences and, as usual it seems, I’ve learnt a lot more from the problems than the successes.
The cows are doing well with their extra homework when I get a chance to work with them. This mostly involves getting them used to being penned in for a while and being moved one at a time through a cattle crush. I think that they’ll always be able to spot a vet at 50 paces so I need to be sure they’re securely penned in first before they realise what’s happening.
On a brighter note, the third “pet” chicken has started to lay eggs at last. This is the Columbine which lays a different coloured egg so it’s easy to spot when she delivers the goods. Admittedly she’s only laid 2 eggs so far – one on Christmas day and another on New Years Eve – but it’s a start. There are usually 1 or 2 eggs each day now which is as I’d hoped when I bought these 3 chickens a few months back.
When we have enough it’s nice to give some to the guests in the holiday let but the supply is a little unpredictable at times. This will improve with the longer days as spring arrives though so perhaps by then we’ll be back to filling the freezer with quiche…
An update on the chickens is long overdue and particularly relevant now that spring is arriving in the North Pennines.
This last winter has been a real eye-opener because both flocks of chickens went through a fairly drastic moult. We hadn’t seen that at all during the first winter here so it was a bit of an education.
I’d spotted that the British Hen Welfare Trust had some hens to re-home in our area and last Saturday was collection day. I’d been considering doing this earlier in the year and decided against it but now the time was right – particularly given that our existing flock haven’t laid any eggs for quite some time!
Following the instructions provided, a cardboard box was quickly adapted and after the short journey they all arrived safely in their makeshift chicken transport. A little ragged right now perhaps but they’ll hopefully soon get back to full fitness.
These hens were intended to provide some company for our solitary remaining “pet” hen – Adele – who has had separate quarters ever since an incident with our other white chickens which resulted in losing the use of one eye. She has been quite happy sleeping in a coop on her own and during the day she will simply hop over the stone wall to visit the other chickens when she feels like it.
The new hens soon found the layers pellets and were eagerly tucking in but I’m not sure their company is as welcome as we’d hoped. There has been a few instances of pecking and a little blood drawn but nothing unexpected. Mostly I find that Adele wanders off on her own and ignores them a lot of the time!
My master plan seems to be working though and after just two days they must be settling in well because they’ve come up with the goods already. That is a life saver as we needed some eggs for Christmas morning and I couldn’t bear the thought of buying some when we’ve got so many other hens!
Unfortunately our chickens are now well up to speed with the egg laying and we’re in danger of disappearing under a pile of eggs.
In trying to deal with this glut my quiche making has improved, I’ve perfected a banana cake recipe and I’ve even had a go at making ice cream. However it’s not easy to get through 7, 8 or even 9 eggs every day!
We can give some to friends and neighbours but I think it might be time to look at selling the spare eggs. At least that way the chickens do something to pay for all the feed they get through!
No amount of regular cleaning, dusting with red mite powder, fresh straw and even the use of china fake eggs seems to make much difference. Most of the hens are just not interested in those nest boxes although we do occasionally get a token egg or two.
I’m starting to wonder whether our hens can hold their eggs in until we aren’t looking before popping them all out in one go somewhere in the woods as soon as one of them decides to sit on a batch.
For the moment we are getting relatively few eggs with no idea why but we are able to check them all in at night so at least none of them are sneaking off to a hidden clutch of eggs somewhere else!
The current dilemma
It was entertaining the first few times to follow the development from hens sitting on eggs through to hatching.
It’s one thing understanding what will happen but quite another thing when you actually see it unfold before you.
After that the big surprise was the speed at which the new chicks grow. It doesn’t take that long before you have difficulty telling the chicks from the grown ups!
However eventually it slowly dawned on me that there are two inevitable outcomes for us once the chicks have all hatched and grown:
There will be a lot more chickens in need of housing
At least 50% of the new chickens will be male
The first problem is relatively easily solved while we still have a little money left in the bank. As a treat for us and the chickens, we splashed out on a new chicken house from Steve Fisher Woodworking who are just down in North Yorkshire.
After some initial concerns over damage on arrival and an error during manufacture which stumped me for a while, some excellent customer support (and prompt delivery of replacements meant that the assembly was soon completed. Just in time in my opinion as the newer chicks were growing fast and the existing housing was starting to bulge at the seams!
I am also hoping that providing a shiny new house with brand new nest boxes will help the hens see the error of their ways and they will start leaving their eggs in the preferred location.
Introducing a fence round their housing is another trial to see if we can encourage egg laying in the nest boxes by containing them for the first part of each day. It’s worth a try and putting it up was relatively easy given that we’re only trying to keep them in for a few hours. It must be much harder putting up something strong enough to deal with a more serious problem like keeping out predators!
The second problem with the excess of male chickens is still not completely resolved but there are two obvious solutions. We can either find new homes for the unwanted cockerels or learn a new skill – how to “dispatch” a chicken.
It seems that re-homing them is not a simple task because there are always lots of spare cockerels and it many cases you can’t even give them away.
This means that we’re left with the difficult but necessary task of dispatching and processing our unwanted cockerels – something I’ve not done before but it’s all part of the experience I suppose.
I’m off now to build up some badly needed will power before I do the deed – luckily the two chicks that hatched from the first batch turned out to be one male and one female so I have my first “volunteer” at some point near the end of October or early November!
It occurred to me the other day that I had no clear understanding of the term “free range” or even if there was a commonly agreed and legally binding definition.
Although we do occasionally have a few more eggs than we can easily use at the moment, we definitely aren’t at a stage yet where we have eggs to sell. However this could happen in the near future so I thought I ought to find out whether “free range” can sensibly be used to describe our poultry system and the egg production.
As with most things these days, you can always start by checking on Wikipedia which has a definition for free range. At first glance this seems to be quite authoritative but in reality is just a dictionary definition of the term rather than an explanation of the requirements.
Reading further through this article soon becomes confusing as it deals with different international terminology and varying requirements for free range in different jurisdictions.
Luckily for UK poultry keepers, DEFRA has a handy booklet on the subject with the snappy title of The welfare of hens in free range systems but as with many government websites there seems to be many different places to get information rather than a single point with ALL the information you would need.
For example, the DEFRA site has the following text about “free range” in a section on Poultry Housing:
If you do not keep your flock in a building (and let them range), you should make sure, where necessary and possible, that birds have protection from adverse weather conditions, predators and risks to their health. They should also have access to a well-drained lying area all the time.
Your flock must have continuous daytime access to open runs, mainly covered with vegetation, which have a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare.
Birds should be encouraged to use the outdoor area by the provision of adequate, suitable, properly managed vegetation, outdoor scratch whole grain feeding, a fresh water supply and overhead cover, all sufficiently far from the house to encourage birds to range.
This is all very well but it seems to be mostly aimed at the larger poultry farming operations and is still not a particularly concise definition for an amateur poultry keeper like me. I can barely comprehend the idea of having 2,500 birds on any amount of land never mind that number per hectare!
I had somehow expected to find that all animals have some sort of clear understanding for what I had always considered to be a generic term that implied good treatment for the animal concerned.
According to the RSPCA page this is the legal definition of FREE RANGE when discussing poultry:
For meat chickens:
there should be no more than 13 chickens per square metre
chickens must be 56 days old before they are slaughtered
they must have continuous daytime access to open-air runs, comprising an area mainly covered by vegetation, for at least half their lifetime.
For egg-laying hens:
each bird should have at least 250cm2 of litter
there should be no more than nine hens per square metre
birds must have perches, allowing 15cm of perch per hen
there must be at least 10cm of feeder for each bird and at least one drinker for every 10 birds
there must be one nest for every seven birds, or 1m2 of nest space for every 120 birds
water and feeding troughs must be raised so food is not scattered.
That seems to be about the most concise and readable definition of free range that I have found so far. At least it’s reassuring to work out that our relatively small flock of 13 laying hens and a rooster can quite definitely be termed “free range”.
If you know of a more concise or clearer practical definition for “free range” as it relates to poultry then please let me know via the comments below.
There has been a certain mystique in my mind around making quiche and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it seemed a little complicated or possibly because I believed my mother who always said it was easier to buy one than make it from scratch.
Now that I’ve successfully completed my first attempt I think it’s safe to say that buying one is definitely easier, possibly cheaper and certainly less messy! Despite all that it was great fun and fairly quick to make, especially when using ready-made pastry from that nice Mr Sainsbury.
This was loosely based on a recipe for Quiche Lorraine from the Hairy Bikers pie book but the only changes were to increase some quantities as I thought I needed more than they suggested. As usual I was wrong and the recipe was right so I have some mixture left in the fridge will have to be the basis of a new experiment tomorrow.
The results for my quiche can be seen in the photographs – although the spare pastry was used to make some extra mini quiches and they didn’t last long enough to get their picture taken!
Very impressive looking and extremely tasty. I had planned to keep this for lunch tomorrow but I had to be sure it was properly cooked and tasted okay first…
From time to time our fridge fills up with eggs even though we only have 3 chickens and there are 3 grown adults in our house. Some days we open the fridge door and there are eggs wedged in almost every available space – in fact it’s amazing they don’t fall out!
I know we could probably pass some on to No.1 or No.2 daughter and they would be glad of some free food but somehow that doesn’t always happen. It might be a lack of egg cartons or just simple forgetfulness but the result is 3 more eggs in the morning and the fridge soon fills up.
Obviously we must be more efficient in our egg handouts I guess and we should palm them off give some to work colleagues, friends and neighbours as well. However my first reaction when this glut appears is to wonder what other options are available for cooking with eggs.
On many occasions we have an excess of eggs simply because we’re bored with scrambled, poached or boiled!
This led me to http://www.eggrecipes.co.uk/ and an interesting recipe for Ham And Egg Cobbler which looks very quick and simple to prepare although perhaps a little plain. I like “quick and simple” as much as the next person but when I attempt this recipe I will probably be adding some extra ingredients to add “interest”.
Ideally I would like to work with something from the garden but I’m not sure that carrots would go with this and I don’t have time to wait for the leeks to get bigger. However I could try an early harvest of some garlic and even an onion perhaps to liven things up.