In May of 2011, we purchased 25 one day old Barred Plymouth Rock chickens. In October 2011, we got our first egg. So, to answer, once and for all, that age old question: the chickens come first, then the eggs.
Dual Breed Chickens
Barred Plymouth Rocks are considered to be a ‘dual-breed” chicken (as opposed to a non-dual chicken). Dual-breed means that this breed of chicken is a pretty decent egg layer (although not as prolific as the White Leghorn which is used in commercial egg operations) and a pretty decent chicken to raise for meat (although not as cost efficient per pound as the Cornish Rock Cross which is what you buy in grocery stores).
Heritage (non-hybrid) Chickens
Barred Plymouth Rocks are also considered a “heritage” breed which means that they have been around for a long time as an established breed and they have chicks that breed true to form. In other words, chicks hatched from a flock of Plymouth Rocks will mature to be recognizable as Plymouth Rock. I know this sounds like a truism, but Cornish Rock Crosses, for example, do not breed true – they are an unstabilized hybrid and the chicks will not look like their parents. We intend to raise future replacement layers from our home grown chicks.
We purchased a “straight run” which means that one is statistically likely to get about as many males (cockerels) and females (hens). It’s possible to order just females, which is what many people do, but then the unwanted day old males chickies are condemned to the grinder. So we bought a straight run, raised 12 layer hens, kept one extremely handsome rooster named Elvis, and raised the remaining cockerels to near maturity before “processing.” (Processing is a polite parlor term for the actions required to get the teenage chickens from the pen to the freezer.)
For the laying hens, we built a moveable coop on a 5’ x 8’ trailer with a two foot forward overhang for the roost area. The walls were built with 2” thickness of Styrofoam insulation sandwiched between to layer of thin plywood. The coop has the expanded wire mesh floor that came with the purchased trailer. We wrapped the outside of the coop with thin aluminum roll sheeting to keep out gnawing predators. The vents have galvanized wire hardware cloth coverings with sliding vent covers which we close in very cold weather. We use pine shavings which absorbs the nitrogen in the poops very well and really does eliminate any oders in the coop. We have four nesting boxes each 13” x 13” that protrude out one side of the coop with an outside access door.
The purpose of having the coop on wheels is to give the chickens a fresh area of pasture to graze every couple of weeks. Two hundred feet of 48” high portable electrified poultry netting on fiberglass posts define the grazing area. The fence is kept charged with a small (12” x 12”) solar panel and a small battery.
Tilling the Raised Beds
Last winter we allowed the chickens onto our raised beds which we had covered with aged cow manure and rotted hay and seeded with winter wheat in October. In about two weeks, a dozen chickens thoroughly roto-tilled three 50 foot long raised beds. The hay has been shredded and completely mixed in the top 6 inches of soil. We may have lost more than a few worms in the process, but it was definitely worth it.
A fresh egg from your own pastured, organically fed chickens bears only superficial similarity to store bought eggs. A real egg has a firm shell, a white that will not run all over the fry pan and a yolk that is a deep orange, not yellow. A real egg is a thing of beauty!
In 2013, we are raising three dozen Red Ranger meat chickens in a “chicken tractor”. Red Ranger chickens are a hybrid chicken that reaches maturity in about 11 weeks. These are not as fast at Cornish Rock Crosses (which are what you buy at the store and which are the commercial breed of choice) which reach maturity in about 7 weeks. However, the Red Rangers are better foragers, are generally healthier birds, and can be kept to breed (I think).