Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Great Eggspectations

A common misconception about chickens is that they require roosters in order to lay eggs. This is inherently wrong. Chickens need roosters in order to lay eggs just as much as women need men in order to ovulate.

No, when it comes to eggs, the only thing hens need roosters for is to fertilize their ova to create baby chicks. Perhaps hens and women have more in common than previously believed.

In fact, the ovulation process begins for both females in relatively the same way: at a specific time in the reproductive cycle, an egg is released by an ovary. If it is not fertilized, the egg eventually makes its way out the birth canal. The main difference is that hens' eggs are much larger than a woman's eggs and much, much tastier.

Hens' eggs are also released with much more frequency, ranging from about one egg per week for ornamental breeds to about six eggs per week for heavy laying breeds. Breed also determines when a hen starts laying eggs, with most breeds producing their first egg at about 22 to 24 weeks of age.

With 40 chickens, we could potentially look forward to more than 240 eggs per week. Even with keeping a dozen or two per week, we'd still be averaging about 70 dozen eggs per month in season (many breeds lay fewer eggs during the winter; some don't lay at all). Seventy dozen equals a nice chunk of egg money.

J already had plans on how we would market our eggs. Apparently several co-workers of his were already clamoring to buy them, preferring the taste of farm-fresh eggs to that of store-bought ones. J also planned to barter eggs for poultry essentials such as pine shavings, hay bales, and feed at our local farmers' supply store. In addition, he planned to hang a sign by our studio, alerting students to the fact that eggs were available for purchase.

"Why not just put a sign saying 'Fresh Eggs' out by the road?" I asked.

"Don't be ridiculous," J replied. "We don't want strangers pulling up the driveway... This is our home! Besides, most people drive too fast and would miss the sign."

I did manage to get J to agree to donate one or two dozen eggs per week to the local food bank. I also put my foot down regarding what J was calling the FMA Farms signature dozen: 11 brown eggs and one blue egg.

"The blue eggs are rarer," I reminded him, "and we'll have many more brown egg layers than blue. Besides, we could probably charge a little more for a dozen 'Easter eggs' than for the brown ones."

J couldn't find any fault with my logic. J also didn't put up too much of a fight when I proposed my plan: breeding and selling baby chicks.

"This way, we're raising the next generation of layers ourselves instead of having to order more chicks from the hatchery," I explained. "And I'm sure there are people around here who'd prefer to buy healthy, local chicks instead of getting them shipped in the mail. And have you seen how much some of the breeds sell for, and how fast they sell out?"

"Maybe some day," J replied. 

But some day was coming soon. Our hatchery chicks had been ordered and the Silkies were straight runs: gender unknown. McMurray Hatchery also adds a free rare chick with each order, and who knew what we'd be getting, genderwise or breedwise? Also, the three Columbian Wyandottes I'd added to our order? One was a male. 

I had just read a fabulously informative article about roosters and their role in a flock. I'd previously held the notion that roosters were noisy rutting machines, crowing all day and having his way with the hens. This turned out to be true, but dependent on breed. Some breeds yield quieter, docile roosters that actually coordinate and get along with their fellow males, even those of different breeds. Silkie roosters were so gently disposed that they often served as surrogate mothers.

The article also went on to describe how it was the roster's job to forage for the hens, digging and scratching the ground to uncover a tasty morsel, then summoning the hens to come eat. More than anything, however, a rooster serves as a flock's security guard, strutting the perimeter and cawing to keep animals aware of the fact that he, the rooster, was on duty. If several roosters are in a flock, they split the yard up between them, periodically relaying status reports to each other.

Roosters have been known to take on predators such as hawks, coyotes, snakes, foxes, raccoons, dogs, cats, and weasels, often sacrificing their own lives so that the hens and chicks could escape to safety.

With state woodlands and other farms surrounding us, we certainly had all of these predators and more. Roosters would keep our flock safe and protect our investment. And roosters would breed chicks. Plus roosters had stunning plumage, in a variety of patterns, colors, and tail-feather lengths.

I did my best to explain all this to J when he asked me exactly why I'd purposely ordered a male. After a few moments, however, he put his hands up in defeat. "I suppose you're going to want a rooster of each breed we want to raise," he stated more than asked.

"Well, we'll probably have at least one male Silkie," I reminded him. "The Columbian is an uncommon Wyandotte so we'll be set there. The Buff Orpington will take care of the Orpington hens..."

"What Buff Orpington?" J cut in. 

"The one that's escorting the Cuckoo Marans chicks from Meyer Hatchery," I replied without missing a beat.

J shook his head. "Well, don't go ordering any Araucanas or Ameraucanas," he told me.

"Why not?" I asked.

He pointed toward the brooder. "Because we don't know what we've got in there," he explained. "And chances are that Eggbert, Blazekin, and Barbara are Ameraucana roosters, and that Gloria might be a Lavender Orpington rooster. All of them might be roosters!"

He had a point. I hate when that happens.

No comments:

Post a Comment