Thursday, September 30, 2010

Keeping Chickens

It has been a busy summer, and we have lots of stuff going on with the chickens. One of the fun happenings is a new book: Keeping Chickens by Ashley English.

This is a nice, accessible book. The content is great for beginners or anyone that wants to get a personal perspective on keeping chickens. I think this book is a great introduction what it is like to have chickens and provides lots of guidance for the beginner to get going.

The book is beautifully laid out and is full of beautiful photos. In fact, the photos are how I became aware of this book.

I was contacted by Lark (the publisher) a year ago about using some of my chicken photos that they had found on Flickr. In particular, they were interested in my photos of "Bill" our Pearl White Leghorn rooster. The ended up choosing to use one of the photos (check it out on page 29). This is my first photo I have had published. Buy the book (through the link)! [Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and so will receive a few pennies for the referal on anything you purchase from Amazon when you are brought there by one of my links.]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Production Costs - Winter

I am running my egg production business as just that: a business. You may want to look at your own operation as a business too.

My production costs are highest during the winter at exactly the same time that my egg production is at its lowest. Costs are high due to lack of free foraging, higher caloric requirement due to cold weather, electricity for water heaters and lights. Production is lower due to short days and cold weather.

During this critical time of winter, I want to analyze my profitability.


  • Food
  • Egg cartons
  • Shavings (bedding)
  • Electricity (water heaters and lighting)
  • Amortization of chicks, raising chicks to production age and housing

I used four bags of feed (200lbs, $39) during the past ten days. Egg cartons cost $0.20 each. Shavings are about $1 a week. I have not tried to calculate my electricity costs. During the past 10 days, I have harvested 22 dozen eggs that are suitable for sale (we cannot sell the jumbo and double-yolk eggs - they are too big for the cartons; nor can we sell the bantam eggs as they are too small).

Therefore, my per-day cost (ignoring electricity and amortization for the moment) are $4.50; including electricity, my daily cost is probably close to $5.00.

My customers prefer that I keep my pricing consistent rather than having it vary during the year. I currently charge $2.50 per dozen. That means my daily revenue during this period has been $5.50. That is pretty thin profit (and only a profit because my labor is "free" and I am ignoring amortized costs for the moment). Fortunately, my costs are much lower in the warmer months (free-ranging is awesome) and my harvest is better. During the warmer months, I have to recover the startup costs (chicks and feed for the first six months before they start to lay consistently).

I will also note that my existing coop is large enough to hold more chickens, so I could easily scale up my operation modestly. An increase in scale would give modestly better pricing on feed and would require no more electricity for lighting and heating water.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Winter in the Coop

Here in the north, all the chickens stop laying in the winter. The problem isn't the cold, but rather a lack of light. The hen's pineal gland is photo-sensitive and is the primary control for egg laying. When the days get short, the pineal gland doesn't get enough light and the hen stops laying eggs.

This means that it sucks to be an egg farmer in the winter. You get the expense of feeding the chickens, but no eggs in return. To make matters worse, they cannot free-range forage to cover some of their nutritional requirements.

My solution is to fake them out. I installed florescent shop lights in the coop. The lights are on a timer, and I give them about 15 hours of light each day. While they are not laying as many eggs as during the summer, we are still getting eggs. On average, we are getting about four eggs per week from each hen (about 25-30 eggs per day). If it is really cold out, you will want to gather the eggs a couple times a day - if you don't you will find some frozen and cracked.

The other winter issues include:

  • Frostbite
  • Frozen water
  • Boredom

You need to have a well-ventilated coop, or your chickens are going to get sick and die. Of course, the ventilation means it will be cold in the coop. Of course, you don't want it to be drafty (no strong winds whipping through the coop), but you want plenty of fresh air.

There are a few things I do to make sure the cold is survivable. I make sure the chickens always have plenty of high-quality food and (liquid) water available. For feed, I use Blue Seal layer pellets. More on water below.

Chickens are susceptible to frostbite on their extremities: combs and toes. The hens seem to be smart enough to tuck their heds under a wing while roosting - I have yet to see any of my hens with comb damage from the cold. The roosters are another story. Apparently, they take their jobs as lookout pretty seriously. All my single-comb roosters end up with frostbite on the tips of the comb (and no tips by the next spring). If you live someplace cold and don't want to see roosters with frostbite, pick a breed with a small comb!

Hens and roosters alike can get frozen toes. I have not had this problem at all, because I did some research and figured out a sure-fire solution. Chickens love to roost on branches, and lots of people use actual branches or round dowels for roosts in their coop. It seems like a good idea and very "natural." The problem is that a 2" diameter round roost allows the chicken to wrap their toes around it and hang on. In the cold, they hunker down with their belly on the roost and fluff out their feathers for warmth. This keeps their legs and the tops of their feet warm, but their toes are exposed on the bottom side of the roosting bar.

My solution is to use a 2x4 piece of lumber for a roost. I mount it so the wide part of the board is parallel to the ground. The chickens stand on this wide, flat roost and when they hunker down their whole foot, toes and all, is covered with their nice, warm feathers. Mmmmm...snuggly....

As I mentioned above, plenty of liquid water is required in the winter. My chickens seem to drink more the colder it gets. Fifty chickens are drinking about five gallons of water each day. I use a standard five gallon metal font, sitting directly on a waterer heater (available anywhere chicken supplies are sold). Yes, this means you need electricity at the coop (run an extension cord out there, but don't run it over with a snow blower!).

The final winter problem is boredom. My chickens are used to getting out every day during the better weather, but in winter they are confined to the coop. They tend to pick on each other more in the winter than other times of the year. Patches of missing feathers are the most common sign of them picking at each other. If one starts to bleed, then the wound becomes an interesting target for more pecking.

I don't have a great solution for boredom. Unfortunately, chickens don't seem to go for "toys." I try to bring some food scraps to them every few days. They really enjoy it. For instance, we go through a lot of bread, and the chickens get the ends. If I toss a few ends around the coop, every gets excited and chases and pecks the food (rather than each other), at least for a few minutes.

How do you deal with bored chickens in the winter coop?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Chicks, Day 2

Originally uploaded by codebetter
So the chicks are settling in. Of course, they arrived during a snowstorm. And the temperature has been dropping below zero every night. It was a hard trip and we lost 4 Black Stars, 4 Phoenix, a bantam Gwen had ordered, and 4 big yellow chicks that were added for extra warmth (two of the six survived).

Everyone that is left is looking good.