Incubation Tales

Chicken Egg Incubation

We are on day 15 of our incubation adventure here at Raggedy Hen Farm. This means, we only have 6 days to go until hatching should begin. Of course, we’ve all heard the wisdom about not counting one’s eggs until they’ve hatched, so we remain cautiously optimistic. While we haven’t had the winter storms and power failures like last year (fingers crossed), we have had some incubating adventures…

We candled the eggs early on (around day 5) and since this year’s eggs are rather dark-shelled, it was difficult to determine whether all the eggs were viable and developing. We’re still novices, but we do our best. We did a second (and last) candling on day 14 and it was a little easier to see the dark shadow and air sack on most of the eggs. Those green Ameraucana eggs are a challenge, however!

Later in the evening on day 14, we went to turn the eggs and found one of the eggs had little droplets of a very sticky, syrupy substance on one end. From all of our reading and research, we knew this was NOT a good sign.

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When incubating eggs get this oozy substance, it is because the embryo had died and the egg is basically rotting from the inside. Gases are building up and if left unattended, these eggs will explode and cause quite the contaminating mess in the incubator. Then we’d have to discard all the eggs and start over.

So, we pulled the egg immediately and carefully, putting it on a paper towel. After it cooled, we took it outside (just in case it had an awful odor) and broke it open. It cracked with a bit of tension–meaning there was some gas build-up inside. Sure enough, there had been an embryo developing in the egg, but it looked to have died around day 9 or 10. It could have been from something genetic, or bacteria (more likely) that got into the egg.

We’re feeling wary now, hoping that this egg did not contaminate any of the other eggs in the incubator. It is certainly a possibility and since all the eggs came from the same place, there is always the chance that they could have similar problems. We want to make sure we catch anything that might be going wrong before lock-down on Day 18–the day we stop turning the eggs, boost the humidity, and leave the incubator closed for the possible hatch!

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We started with 9 eggs this time around…now there are 8!

A Year’s Worth of Eggs

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Here we are…the very first day of 2015. It finds us with exactly twelve hens–even though 2014 saw a few more chickens coming and going from our little flock. We keep track of our eggs, expenses, and the little bit of income we make from selling our eggs and we thought we’d share last year’s results!

Our food expenses for the chickens came to about $142. This does not include straw or table scraps. We earned exactly $34.50 from selling eggs. Of course, we gave away dozens and dozens too!

Our gals laid us 120 dozen eggs over the course of 2014 and they cost us right around $1.12 per dozen. Not a bad price for fresh, organic eggs from very happy hens.

What we haven’t really calculated is the value of the chickens who ended up in freezer camp, or the value of having a broody hen hatch and raise new chickens, or the value of all the tilling, fertilizing and compost management our gals do. Of course, there is our labor involved in caring for the chickens, but it has also provided us with an active hobby and a grand urban adventure!

Autumn Again

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Fig preserves, freshly canned, and cooling on the counter.

Growing our own food keeps us well-tuned to the seasons. This past summer has been a bit of a blur as painful realities of life demanded our full attention. The garden got a little raggedy, Hilda managed to hatch three chicks without much attention or fanfare from us, and before we knew it, it was time to plant the the fall and winter veggies!

We currently get 4-7 eggs a day from 10 laying hens, but it seems the eggs are starting to taper as the daylight hours shorten and the temperatures cool. We are expecting some serious molting to start any day. We have started to evaluate our little flock and think about any changes we might want to make as we head into the Fall. We’ve learned that keeping the flock healthy and thriving sometimes means making tough decisions about who stays and who does not.

We like to use the fall to make repairs, changes, and additions to our garden beds and this year we’ve been replacing some of the wood edging frames around the beds and tidying up the layout. Now that most of the summer garden has been harvested and we’ve planted the winter veggies in one big bed that is fenced off from intruders, the chickens are allowed to free range again. They are great helpers in tilling up the beds, weeding away any weeds, and fertilizing the beds for next year. So, as the leaves start to fall, we rake them into the beds and let the chickens break them up and work them into the dirt. It’s a great system!

Some of our last harvesting tasks involve the fruit trees. There are still apples on the apple trees, and we are just starting to harvest the ripe figs to make the delicious fig preserves we use as a marinade for pork and hams throughout the year. The persimmons are just starting to turn a pale orange, and while the leaves are starting to fall from the persimmon tree, the fruits won’t be ready until the weather gets a bit colder. Meanwhile, everything else has been harvested, canned, dried, or frozen!

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Hilda hatched 3 chicks in late August (she was setting on 4 fertile eggs) and proved to be a fantastic mama hen!

Heat Wave!

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We make sure there is plenty of water for all the critters as the temperatures soar–including the honeybees!

 

It is unmistakably summer and the toast temperatures are a bit more than we’re used to this time of year.  We normally get a brief hot stretch in August, but we are into the third week with temperatures in the eighties and nineties with the promise of possibly hitting 100 later this week. That’s a lot of sunshine for us Pacific Northwesterners!

For us, it means extra attention to the critters and the garden. While there are those plants (like tomatoes, squash and beans) that love the hot stretches of heat, there are others (like lettuces, broccoli and chard) that don’t take too keenly to the hot, hot days. We pay especially close attention to the chickens, and take some precautions and steps to make sure they stay as comfortable as possible and survive those 85+ days!

Chickens adjust easier to the frosty colds of winters than they do to very warm weather. With all those feathers, there are some breeds (the wirier, Mediterranean ones) that manage warmer weather better than others (the big, fluffy, heritage English and American ones.) Chickens with larger combs and wattles are better able to cool themselves down because that is the purpose of the comb, to circulate cooled blood away from and back into the body.

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Dust bathing in the cool ground is another hot-weather coping skill.

 

Here’s some other ways we keep the chickens as cool as possible:

  • Lots of fresh water: we have 3 big water founts for 9 chickens in the run (the two nuggets have their own) and on hot days, we’ll empty and refill these with cold water a couple times a day.
  • Spraying the henhouses and coop: When the temps are in the high 80’s and 90’s, we spray the roofs and sides of the henhouses with cold water during the hottest part of the day and give the coop ground a light spritzing. Even though the run is shaded by fruit trees, this helps to bring the ambient temperature in the run down.
  • Plenty of shade: Our coop/run is located in a shady corner of the yard–there is lots of shade and protection from the afternoon sun.
  • Cool treats: Instead of giving the chickens scratch grains this time of year as a treat, they only get a little of this in the morning. The rest of the day, we give them plenty of greens, melon rinds, frozen berries, and other cooling treats.
  • We also arrange the water and feed stations to the chickens don’t have to travel far to get what they need. When the temperatures are very warm, chickens move as little as possible and we try to arrange their space to accommodate this.
  • Straw mulch=cool ground: We keep fresh straw mulch over the run as this helps to keep the ground underneath cool. When the chickens dig their little holes for dustbathing, they actually get to roll around in cooler dirt.

Of course, we still keep a close eye on the birds to make sure they are not overheating and, alas, laying does tend to go down when the temperatures get really warm and stay warm. Many of the heritage breeds don’t lay quite as well when the temperatures get up over 85 or so and we just have to adjust. As long as the hens stay healthy, active, and happy, we figure we can tolerate a little dip in egg laying!

July at Raggedy Hen Farm

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We’ve been busy with travels and adventures and meanwhile, the garden is full of life here at Raggedy Hen Farm! This year’s pullets are growing up and the summer crops seem go grow several inches every day.  Here’s a little peek at what’s going on…

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Pumpkins and winter squash! With plenty of pollinators, we are getting plenty of growing squash.  Last year was a good pumpkin year for us and this year seems to be shaping up quite nicely too!

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Zucchini anyone?  We came back from a trip to the East coast to find nearly a dozen zucchini hiding among the big squash blossoms. These vegetables grow fast and we should be seeing daily harvests for the time being. We need to get busy finding ways to eat or preserve these beauties!

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As the tops start to brown and die back, we have started to harvest the onions and garlic.  If we let the tops die back all the way, we won’t be able to find the onion bulbs!  The weather is warm and dry–perfect for allowing these to dry so they’ll be ready for storage.

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Meanwhile…the pullets are turning into almost-full-grown chickens. The two nuggets are 14 weeks old and we’ve been letting these two gals out for a bit of free ranging. Teri’s little bantam, Minnie, is still quite tiny, but full of so much sass. Since they can’t do too much damage, and they are a pair for now, they enjoy their play time foraging in the clover!

The days are long and warm and that means plenty of time for us to spend trying to keep up with our abundant garden. Of course, at this time of year, it is quite the challenge and we are often tempted to pour a glass of lemonade and just sit and watch the world go by.  Ahhhh, summer!

Broody Update

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Hilda is all puffed and fluffed and her comb and wattle have faded a bit–a broody hen will instinctively make her feathers big and fluffy and, when a hen is not laying, her comb and wattle lose some of their bright redness.

 

Well…it hasn’t exactly been successful convincing our Buff Oprington, Hilda, to get un-broody.  She’s a stubborn one! After repeatedly removing her from the nest, putting her in with the teens, and even giving her a few dunks in a bucket of water, she’s still got the strong urge to set. Of course, there are no fertilized eggs for her to set on, but she doesn’t care. She just wants to brood!

After about a week and a half of trying all the other methods, we finally decided to remove her from the henhouse and run and keep her OUTSIDE–she now has roam of the yard and no access to the henhouses and nests. We are hoping the distraction of having all the glories of free range, will distract her and  get things back to normal. But a determined broody hen is not easily deterred.

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Hilda comes beak to beak with the nuggets–Dudley is letting her know he’s in charge of this little trio.

Hilda is not straying too far from the other chickens and their home turf. While the others are envious of her being outside the run, she just wants to get back in and get up on that nest! After a day roaming the yard, we let her back in to the coop for the night to sleep in safety. We put two big ice packs in each nest box to make them less inviting but, alas, Hilda spent the entire night setting on an ice pack pillow!  We took her out again the next morning and after a little breakfast and wander, she decided to create a new nest…

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Hilda’s decided this bale of straw in the wheelbarrow will work just fine for a makeshift nest. Never mind it is right out in the open and there are no eggs to be found!

 

Stay tuned!