Our young Australorp hens have started to lay. We placed a dozen fertilised eggs in an incubator back in May, and the girls have just laid their first eggs. From egg to egg took six months. I appreciate the humble egg more than ever.
Seven eggs hatched. Three girls and four boys. The boys must have sensed they were destined for the stock pot. We lost one to wry neck – a condition that caused his neck to twist. Another jumped out of the brooder, where he encountered our two dogs.
Chickens raised without a mother hen need to be kept warm for their first few weeks. Home-made brooders are easy to make. I made two.
Our chickens spent their first week in a small brooder made out of a plastic tub lined with wood shavings.
Their second, more spacious brooder was made out of an old timber cot. I lined the base and sides with cardboard and made a roof out of chicken wire.
The brooders were heated by a heat lamp, hung above. The temperature was adjusted by raising or lowering the lamp. Infrared bulbs (available from pet shops) are ideal, although they are relatively expensive, and in my experience, blow easily. I now use red-tinted outdoor flood lights from the hardware store. They are a fraction of the price and work just as well. White lights aren’t a great idea, because the chickens think it’s daylight 24 hours a day.
The temperature in the brooder on day one needs to be around 33 degrees celsius. The temperature is gradually decreased until the heat lamp is turned off after three to six weeks. I used a thermometer and also watched the chickens’ behaviour to ensure they were at a comfortable temperature. If they crowd near the heat source and chirp loudly, they are too cold. If they move away from the heat source and pant, they are too hot.
Once fully feathered, at around seven weeks old, our chickens moved out of their brooder. They moved into a small pen next to our main coop. This allowed them get to know the other chooks, but with the safety of wire between them. They moved into the main coop once they were full size and more able to cope with being informed they were bottom of the pecking order.
Now five months old, our hens are laying delightful small eggs. These tiny "pullet eggs" have bright orange yolks and will gradually get bigger in the coming weeks.
They are laying the eggs haphazardly all over the ground. I’m training them to lay in the nesting box by leaving at least one egg in the box at all times.
The whole process has given us insight into what is involved in getting eggs to our table. Having to deal with the roosters has been particularly insightful. Roosters are an unwanted byproduct of the egg industry. In commercial hatcheries, they are killed by maceration or gassing shortly after hatching. It seems such a waste. I like the idea of breeding our own flock of old-fashioned dual-purpose breeds. Keeping the girls as layers and raising the boys for meat.
Our two beautiful remaining boys – Soup and Stock – are now six months old. One should be heading to the pot. But to cut a long story short, we’ve decided our flock deserves two boys. I have chickened out this time.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 10th November 2014.