Every egg has a personality

I used to buy my eggs in the store. You know what they look like — when you open the box they are all the same size and same color. It looks like they came out of a factory mold.

That’s how they all look, right? Well, not so much. Turns out that every egg has a little personality, a reflection of the hard-working, red-blooded hen that cranked it out. When you buyimg_1142 them at the store, you’re buying a sanitized and organized version of the chaos of egglaying.

I’ve been selling eggs for years, and when my customers open the box it’s always a bit of a surprise for them. All sorts of shapes, sizes and colors are inside. That’s part of the charm I suppose. When you buy eggs from a local smallscale producer, you are getting the real deal.

During a recent week for example, I got a marble-sized egg, an enormous double-yolker, a blue egg, a beige egg, a light brown egg, a nearly white egg, and what poultry farmers call an “egg fart” — an egg with a super soft shell. Each one comes from a different chicken, but they all go into the same carton. Each chicken gets the job done in a different way.

There are over 175 breeds of chickens. But of those, only about 5 breeds are commonly used to produce eggs on large-scale egg farms. They are specially bred chickens — primarily leghorns and crossbreeds such as red stars — that lay an enormous quantity of eggs in their first year, then quickly taper off. Once they taper off, they are sent to slaughter and are commonly used to make chicken stock and cat and dog food. The egg farms sort the eggs by size and weight (medium, large, extra large and jumbo), thus ensuring a uniform appearance when you open the carton.

On small scale farms like mine, you’ll find unusual breeds of chickens, and thus a much wider variety of egg shapes, sizes, and color. Most of the small scale poultry raisers I know like to have a variety of chickens, as each breed has a distinct personality and lays a different sort of egg. Some breeds are particularly calm, or well suited for cold weather. Some are known to be protective, and that’s important when you don’t have a rooster. Oftentimes one hen will step forward and act as the flock’s leader and defender — defending against predators such as hawks.

Each egg is a reflection of the chicken that laid it… in fact I can tell which hens laid eggs on a given day by the size, shape and color of each egg. Blue eggs, for example, come from araucana hens, a South American breed that is said to be the most highly skilled chicken at foraging. Chickens that forage a lot have a much higher concentration of Omega 3 than the factory hens that are fed corn and soybeans. So the eggs are better for you.

One other thing about hens… they get pretty giddy when they lay an egg. I wasn’t really aware of how the whole process works until I witnessed it a few times in the henhouse. Typically they sit on the nest for awhile, patiently waiting and carefully placing a piece of straw on their back. When the egg comes, it’s not a delicate process. They usually shoot it out as if shot out of a cannon, and occasionally the egg will roll around the nest for a moment. Oftentimes the hen will then go into a “happy dance,” racing out of the henhouse and “singing.” The song is always the same. Here’s a video of what it sounds like.

“Farmer John” Macone operates a neighborhood organic farmstand in Amesbury. To keep up with what’s happening on the farmstand, check out the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/ 

May update: the spring that barely sprang

May has finally come to an end, and here’s an update on what’s going on at Farmer John’s Organic Foods.

I heard somewhere that there’s this thing in the sky called “the sun.” It made a brief appearance a couple of weeks ago. Looked impressive.

The plants seem to think the same thing. They’ve been huddled down close to the ground, with all but the peas and broccoli deciding they are better off staying put. This is one of the poorest springs for seed germination that I can recall — too much rain, not enough warmth. That means the soil isn’t heating up enough to allow for germination of most of the seeds that gardeners plant at this time of year, like cucumbers and beans.

On the other hand, plants that love a moist spring, like tomato seedlings, are doing well. Certain kinds of cold weather crops are also thriving, like spinach.

The biggest project that’s underway is a 30% expansion of the vegetable area. We’re adding about 1,100 square feet, primarily for sweet corn and fall crops. Our super sweet and hyper fresh corn was a huge hit with customers last year, and we sold out every time we put it on the stand. In fact, one guy was so excited about it he chased me all over the farm, hoping to get every last ear. So this year we’re hoping to keep our customers happy with full shares of corn.

The field-clearing exercise is hard work, as the sod here is extremely robust and requires a frontend loader to strip it off. Otherwise, a rototiller just bounces off it. That will take several days to complete.

This year, for the first time, we offered seedlings at the farmstand. Thanks to the many customers who stopped by and bought from us. We specialize in rare/heirloom tomato seedlings, and I’m happy to report that nearly all of them sold out. Next year we’ll be expanding our selection.

The best news of the spring has been the near collapse of the winter moth population. Those nasty little creatures wiped out the blueberry crop 2 years in a row, and did tree-mendous damage to the trees. It appeared in the late fall that we’d be pummeled again, given the number of adult moths that were flittering around. But something happened over the winter that savaged them. I have 2 theories — we had an extraordinarily windy winter, with at least 2 storms with wind gusts exceeding 60 mph. Those storms blew down hundreds of branches, and no doubt also dislodged many winter moth eggs. The other factor is the poultry plundering. I set the chickens out all year to feast on the moth’s larva. I know it sounds gross, but the chickens loved it and the moths didn’t. The chickens took a big chunk out of their population.

The net effect is a happy one for our customers. This year we’ll have a good crop of highbush blueberries, in addition to the raspberry crop that looks to be very robust. The blueberries will be on the stand around the end of June, and the first crop of raspberries should be available a couple weeks later.

 

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Spring chicks racing around the yard.

 

Lastly, we have increased the size of our poultry flock, with 6 pullets. They’ve been integrated with the older hens, and I expect that by September we’ll be seeing a substantial increase in egg production. These are true “free-range” chickens, wandering all over the place to get the proteins they need to create the best tasting and healthiest eggs you can find. Can’t wait to get “the girls” up to full production.

The farmstand will be sort of dormant for awhile, as we wait for the much-delayed produce to ripen. I expect that by mid to late June we’ll have a great selection of organic produce to sell at our wicked cheap prices. Stop by!

John Macone operates Farm John’s Organic Foods, an organic fruit/vegetable/egg farm in Amesbury. To keep up with what’s on the farmstand and in the fields, like his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

The perfectly ordered world of the chick

Yesterday I got my biannual restock of spring chicks, and within moments I was reminded that nature loves a pecking order.

We got 6 chicks — 2 blue-egg-laying auracanas, 2 golden comets, and 2 sturdy Rhode Island Reds. At this point they are about 3-4 days old, furry golfball-size puffballs on spindly legs with oversized, curious eyes.

Their activity varies between racing around madly on their tiny legs, to suddenly falling asleep and awkwardly toppling over. They are incredibly cute, yet even at this nascent furball stage they are already setting the order of their world. That became obvious after watching them for just a few minutes.

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A golden comet pecks at wood shavings next to its food container.

 

The “pecking order” was set within 2 hours of their arrival at our coop, and individual personalities became apparent. Both my wife and I noticed that one of the auracanas (the one in the photo at top) was establishing herself as the leader. She moved quickly from chick to chick, pecking each around the eyes and head. Most just cast their heads downward and accepted their leader. But there was one that showed a slightly rebellious streak — she waited until the auracana walked away, and then when its back was turned she jumped on it and knocked it down. Twice. So we’ll be keeping our eyes on those two.

One other personality trait is apparent in the auracana. It tends to wander from the flock to explore its surroundings and gets close to humans, looking up at us with its big eyes. It’s far more curious and much braver than the rest of its flock. It will be a good leader.

The process of setting a pecking order is an incredibly important component in a poultry flock. If a rooster is present it will take the lead role, and if there’s more than one roster, they will fight for dominance. It usually gets settled quickly, though not always bloodlessly.  Roosters are fascinating to watch, though they are usually a lot of trouble. They rage with male hormones, they are noisy, and often they’ll challenge humans for dominance. They also tend to herd their hens to keep them orderly and safe. And as I’ve seen on one occasion, they’ll fight to the death against a predator to protect their flock.

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Chicks require a steady and high heat in order to survive. The red glow comes from a heat lamp. The chicks tend to stay near the edge of the light, an indication that it’s too hot directly under the light, but too cold in the far reaches of the brooder. So they tend to stay where the temperature is just right. As time goes on, they’ll be less dependent on heat, and we’ll raise the heat lamp to lessen the heat.

 

When the flock is composed entirely of hens, it’s a slightly different story. Just like humans and every other species, chickens are hardwired to establish a leader. One hen will step up and take on that role, usually taking on some of the masculine traits that are typically reserved for roosters — like guarding the entrance of the roost at night, getting between the flock and a human, and occasionally even challenging a perceived threat. One of my good friends swears that one of his leader hens grew small spurs on its legs — a feature  usually reserved for roosters.

These 6 new chicks will mature fast, and in about 3 months I’ll be integrating them into my existing flock of six 2-year-old hens. That flock already has a dominant hen leader, a wiry, undersized, and very scrappy Rhode Island Red. Auracanas typically grow up to be big, heavy birds with a thick coat of feathers — potentially a real bruiser. They’ll have to blend 2 distinct “cultures” into one. It will be an interesting melding to watch.

  John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury that sells seedlings, fresh eggs, vegetables and fruits. For updates on produce that’s available, “like” the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

 

 

Time to think spring (chickens, that is)

As the snow continues to pile up outside my window, it’s hard to imagine that in less than a month one sure sign of spring will emerge — spring chickens.

Right around the beginning of March the local farmstores will start to get their first deliveries of chicks. Cute, chirpy, endlessly entertaining to watch… they’ll sell hundreds of them in a short period of time. I’ll be one of the people lining up to get a few, to add to my small flock.

But don’t let all the cuteness and the chirping lull you into a false sense of  cuddledom. I’m a big advocate of the “chicken in every backyard” concept, but raising chickens from day-old chicks has some tricks to it.

Here’s a few tips for people who are thinking about raising chicks:

Buying your chicks: How many and what type? If you are starting out, get no more than 6, and not less than 4. There’s a huge variety of chickens available. I’d start out with some of the more reliable and hearty types — Plymouth barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, buff orpingtons, golden comets, and Ameraucanas. These are large and calm birds that are easy to manage, and Ameraucanas will produce something that many people find interesting — colored eggs, usually green or blue shelled. Many people also buy leghorns, because they produce a tremendous number of eggs when young. I’m not a big fan, as they are very skittish and they “burn out” on egg production at an early age. Also be sure that you buy from a trustworthy dealer, and that the chicks are indeed hens — you don’t want any roosters around.

What you need: You’ll need to spend about $20 or so on essential equipment — an infrared lamp and bulb, a watering station (the best option is a 1-gallon plastic watering station), and a covered feed trough (the plastic ones are fine). You’ll also need a brooder — basically an enclosed area to keep the chicks safe and contained. You can get by on the chirp, I mean cheap, with a plastic container such as a recycling box. Keep in mind that the infrared lamp is very hot, so you’ll want to have a fireproof setting (voice of experience here). You’ll also need feed for chicks (usually a 25- or 50-lb bag will do for 6 chicks for a month or 2). Eventually you’ll also want something to cover the bottom of the brooder, such as pine wood shavings (don’t use cedar as these are toxic to birds).

 

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A few homegrown eggs. Note the blue egg in the corner is from an ameraucana. The brown eggs are from Rhode Island reds, and the light colored eggs are from buff orpingtons. The light brown colored egg in the upper right is from a barred rock.

Where to do it: Chicks are incredibly messy and loud, and stinky. Put them in a garage, or better yet, a shed. As they mature they create an incredible amount of dander/dust. It’s nasty stuff, gets all over everything.

 

Daily care: You’ll want to check on them frequently — a few times of day to start. Chicks require a strong and hot light source to keep them warm, and access to plenty of clean water and food. Your brooder needs to be large enough to allow them to race around without knocking over the food tray and water (or the light). Keep it as clean as possible. Also, keep an eye on their temperature — if they are huddled under the light they are too cold; if they scatter far from it they are too hot. Adjust the light accordingly. As time goes on, their need for heat will diminish.

Timetable: Within a week of buying your cute chicks, they’ll morph into fairly ugly/gangly teenagers. So enjoy those handful of chick days. Their growth rate will astound you. By the time they are 4 months old, they are close to being full adult size. At about 5.5 to 6 months, they are laying eggs. The brooder will be needed for about 2 months. After that, you’ll need a coop for your birds. We’ll get into the henhouse requirements in another blog.

Are you thinking spring (chicken?) If so, start researching your breeds and check in with your local farmstore. Come March 7 or so, the store will be peeping like crazy.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury.