Starting around this time of year, many backyard farmers start making their plans for spring. This backyard farmer is starting her own flock of chickens! I ordered 9 Rhode Island Red pullets, 5 White Plymouth Rock pullets, and 1 Black Australorp cockerel for a total of 15 chicks.

We’ve have great history with egg production in Rhode Island Red hens so I knew for sure I wanted the majority of my flock to be that breed. But since I decided to order from a hatchery this year I browsed and found a couple other breeds I was interested in trying out. White Plymouth Rocks are medium to large bodied and are generally chosen for laying, but they also make good meat birds. I am fairly familiar with Barred Rock hens and I think the White Rocks are a relation, so I ordered a few just to see how they would compare to my much loved Reds.

Now what about the Black Australorp? I am not usually a fan of having a rooster around because I think that sometimes they stress the hens. However, I also had considered a couple factors in building this flock… A rooster should help in protecting the hens a bit. The last time there were chickens in this property some of them were picked off by coyotes. So hopefully at the very least the guy could be a sentry. The other factor being, that if I did in fact decide to brood my own chicks, this breed is also supposedly known for its egg laying abilities. Maybe I would even get better producing birds if I cross bred. If I do decide to try brooding a clutch or two I am sure there will be a post involving experiments with possible hybrid vigor and different phenotypic and genotypic outcomes. But, that won’t be for awhile.

While I have been explaining this exciting and somewhat nerdy news to my friends and family, I’ve been getting a lot of general questions about chickens and how their physiological processes work. So I thought I would answer some of these questions while I was on the subject!

Chickens are monogastric animals. This means they have one acidic stomach. They require higher quality feed sources as apposed to ruminant or cervid animals such as cattle or rabbits. Common ingredients in a bag of chicken feed will be corn for energy, soybeans for protein, and vitamin and minerals additives. Calcium is an especially important additive for laying hens as that is the main component of egg shells. Many times ingredients like dicalcium phosphate or limestone will be added to laying hen formula for this reason. Another interesting tidbit about the digestive system of a chicken is that they have no teeth. Instead they have a tough muscle in their throat called a gizzard. They swallow and store small pebbles in this muscle to aid in grinding the food they swallow into particulates.

A modern day, laying hen can lay upwards of 300 eggs in a year. They will lay an egg every day in what is called a sequence until they have a clutch. If the eggs are removed from the nest as they lay, they will continue to do so for an indeterminate amount of time. Sometimes they will have a pause day in laying in between sequences. This does not mean they are going to lessen or cease in egg production. It is merely a part of their natural ovulation cycle.

Egg laying is determinate on day/night or light/dark cycles and many things within a hens females reproductive process can be predicted and even controlled with this in mind. Many times as the days begin to grow shorter in the fall, molt is triggered. This is a period of feather loss and regrowth. It can also cause laying for some hens to stop as their body preserves nutrients to grow new feathers. Some molts last 3-4 weeks and others can last a couple months. Breed selection and nutrition are big contributing factors to how long a molt lasts.

Some other questions I’ve been asked…

  • What determines egg shell color?
    • From my knowledge, egg shell color is determined by the breed of chicken.
  • What determines egg size?
    • Egg size is in large part due to the age of the hen. The older a hen gets the large her eggs tend to get.
  • What determines egg yolk color?
    • Egg yolk color depends on what the chicken eats. Usually backyard farm and free range hens will have a dark yellow yolk due to having access to a variety of forage and insects. Some farms add things Marigold to feed rations in order achieve a golden colored yolk. There is not a nutritional difference in eating a light colored egg yolk verses a dark colored egg yolk.
  • Do you need a rooster for the hens to lay eggs?
    • No. Hens will ovulate and lay eggs in the same way they would with or without a rooster.
  • Do you need a rooster to have chicks?
    • Yes. You need a rooster to have chicks in the same way a woman needs the presence of a man in order to have a baby.

So, what other questions do you readers have about chickens? I would love to hear what you have to say about your own flocks!

Until next time…

The Ag Wife

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