Pick an Animal Day – The Common Chook (Episode 1)

This one is mainly for the “City Kids”

– apologies to the chook owners from way back….something might still be new to you in the “Did you know” bit??????

My experience:

I never thought I would care about chooks.  It’s true that I would care if they were poorly treated; or got hurt (either through their own lack of thought or if a predator got in), but I did not think I would get emotionally attached.  I’m a mammal pet type of person.

It turns out that some chooks can behave like dogs…. we had a lovely lady (Chook, Chookie, Beautiful Gal and then later Old Gal) for about 6 years.  She was one of a group of 4 Hy-Line Browns who kept us well supplied with eggs.  Whilst they were housed in a yard about 2m by 5m with a home-made penthouse apartment, many days were either (a) spent wandering about the garden freely or (b) when the seedlings were coming up (needing protection) and the grass was getting long (needing trimming) they would get to play in the chicken tractor (see below – believe me its not gory!).

Later in life, the Old Gal was well and truly free range, enjoying the fledgeling permaculture oasis 24 hours a day.  She would run to us as we came out the back door, walk around with us inspecting the other animals as they got fed, and learnt to (almost always) do her business away from the back deck.  She was an intent observer in many workshops from her vantage point under a convenient attendee’s chair as well as actively participating by providing live demonstrations of “passing the older, less tasty weeds through your livestock to return the minerals as manure to your garden”. (Blog note – edible weeds topic in the near future!)  Some of the course attendees might still remember her.

She is pictured below with my eldest daughter when the Old Gal first arrived many years ago (excuse hand me down boy clothes…. Chook did not seem to mind!).  She was a great ambassador for the whole chook community:

Chicken with Indi small

ONTO THE FACTS….

When we first got chooks some years back, I remember being fascinated with both the questions I had never thought to ask as well as the answers that normally made perfect sense, but some that were just plain bizzare!

Did you know…. ‘cos “a friend of a friend of mine” didn’t!

MAKING THE EGGS:

  • Interestingly the “egg” starts its journey as just the yolk (or oocyte) from the ovary and, as it passes down the oviduct, all the other bits get added in layers (the membranes and the white) until finally the shell is put on and it is laid. A mini egg production line.
  • Depending on the breed, a hen can have a series of eggs developing within her at various stages of completion.  In other words, the egg does not necessarily go from start to laid and then the next one starts.
  • Even once a rooster has been removed from the enclosure, a hen may still produce fertile eggs for up to 10 days. (The egg is fertilised in the infundibulum which catches the yolk as it is released from the ovary and directs it into the oviduct – i.e. before all the other layers are added)
  • Once a fertile egg is laid, if its temperature drops significantly below the hen’s body temperature (i.e. the eggs are left in the laying box) then the development of the embryo will cease (hen’s warmth ~42˚C, development stops < ~27˚C). This does not kill the embryo, only puts it on hold!   Then once there are enough eggs that the hen thinks it’s worth her while to sit on them (or you think there is enough to be worth putting them in an incubator), up goes the temperature plus humidity and the embryo starts growing again…
  • Unless the hens sits on the egg (or it gets warm by some other means), there is unlikely to be anything more than a speck of red in the yolk and they are still perfectly fine to eat.
  • Without a rooster, the hens lay happily, but obviously whether she elects to sit on the eggs or not, there is no chick created.

KEEPING AND EATING THE EGGS

  • If you open up an egg and the white appears thicker and holds together more like jelly than liquid then the egg is very fresh! The older it is the more runny the white.  Unfortunately all store bought eggs have both been washed and are partially aged just to get to you, so they are runny and have shorter life in your fridge.
  • Unwashed eggs last longer – the eggs have a natural thin layer of sealing agent called bloom, which provides an antibacterial and air-ingress limiting coating. – New info for me – there I was cleaning them as I brought them in from the laying box rather than just before using them!
  • Putting eggs in an air tight container at a temp of 2-4˚C is the best way to store eggs (leading to a possible “fridge-shelf” life well in excess 6 months).

TESTING YOUR EGGS

Eggs can usually be kept for months and months, and, with the effort the chook puts into laying the egg, it would be sacrilege to throw out perfectly good eggs!

If your eggs reach their used by date (OR you muddle up the fresh ones with the older ones OR some kind soul supplies you with eggs of indeterminate age) then filling a large bowl with water and submerging the eggs will tell you. (Of course if you are doing this with fresh eggs then you are “washing” that sealing agent off. Hmmm, rather that then rotton eggs, hey!)

Take one egg at a time and place it on the bottom of the bowl under a reasonable depth of water:

1) If the egg races to the top and floats enthusiastically – it’s likely to be dodgy. Recheck by holding egg at top of the water and letting it go, then push it down a few times. If you’re just learning the technique, break it into separate bowl (perhaps outside!) to make sure so you confirm you’re on the right track and not wasting those that might be okay – with the amount of effort those hens put into each egg, its sad to see one go to waste!

2) If the egg floats slowly to the top – it may be still okay, but use it soon. Again recheck by holding egg at top of the water and letting it go, then push it down a few times. Suggest you use these as soon as possible and break into separate bowl as you use them, just in case.

3) If the egg stays on the bottom or floats slightly, but does not rise – you have a winner….DO NOT recheck this one as when you let it go at top of the water, the healthier it is, the faster it will sink and the more likely you are to break it on the bottom! Eat whenever you like.

We tried this with about 4 dozen turkey eggs which we brought up from the farm after who-knows-how-long sitting in cartons. The main problem we found was with false positives when it came to dodgy eggs, but this was okay as it just meant a little more care when cracking eggs and selectively working from dodgy to good over time.

Of those classified as (1 – Likely to be Dodgy) about 50% were still okay. Those classified as (2 – may still be okay) about 90% were still okay and those classified as (3 – you have a winner) were all fine. But we were learning too. At least if you have a “floater” you are prepared and can avert a disaster on the cooking front before that cake becomes an H2S soufflé!

Chicken Tractor – high density, high impact, managed duration.

This picture is of our chooks in a home made chicken tractor.  The tractor is essentially a mobile cage with an open bottom that allows you to move the girls around in a timely manner (the tractor grew wheels later to assist in mobility).

Untitled-1

If there were new seedling out which could be destroyed by real “free range” chooks or one of the gals had been particularly destructive, then their daily outing from their normal enclosure would be to go in this tractor.  They love their outings and would come to the edge of their normal enclosure, jostling for position to get picked up first!

The idea being as mentioned above – high density, high impact, managed duration:

  1. High density – several animals in a reduced area
  2. High impact – chooks doing what they do has a significant effect on the ground, whats below the surface and its covering.  I.e. scratching to turn the soil over; eating the grass, unwanted seeds/plants and topsoil life (good bugs and pests); ripping out the plants to get to the life; and, of course, pooping the whole time.
    1. As an aside mother hens make a particular sound to call their chicks over when they have found something delicious – the girls would call to each other continuously and would confuse each other as to where to work on first!

  3. Managed Duration – the key to it all I am told!
    1. For short periods of foraging, you can expect the grass to be trimmed; some turn over of soil; good creatures and pests eaten; and a couple of bald spots.  There are also a few droppings which can be watered in to provide a highly soluble nitrogen fertiliser.
    2. For long periods of foraging, you can expect the plant material to be gone along with any seeds; the soil to be raked thoroughly; the topsoil life to have been harvested (good bugs and pest); and it will look like a bald, churned up ready garden bed.  The pooh has been “blended” into the soil making a cultivated bed.  However care must be taken that this activity is not overdone as the decimation of soil life, too much poop and the destruction of the soil profile (the integrity of the layers of the soil which house different bacteria, fungi, etc) will be detrimental to the productivity of the system.  This is stepping away from the “no-dig” philosophy.

Whoops got a little into detail there, sorry! Back to the fluffy stuff.

This tractor also had a laying box and perches (which you cant see as they went across up in the pine covered section for added creature comfort – not only do they not have to lay their eggs in the dirt, but also, if there happens to be a sick looking chook for example, the tractor can be used as an intensive care / isolation unit.

Chooks on the move _ Laying Box

Other uses of the tractor are for the introduction of new animals within a non threatening environment – not the effeminate horse, the brown rabbit to our resident back and white rabbit – Frankie.  (You will see more of him in the future as a part of our waste / fertiliser system).

Chooks on the move _ Intro of new animals

More on chooks in the future to come as we investigate more closely their use in gardening (soil, bugs and fertiliser) plus as part of a household waste disposal system.

Some References:

http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/01/how-hen-makes-egg-egg-oddities.html

http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/birds/info/chicken/egg.shtml

 

 

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