Egg-cellent chickens

The hunt is on to find golden eggs. That is, golden-yolked, farm-fresh eggs from your own hens. What better place to make it happen than Ontario’s Cottage Country?

by Lisa Harrison | photography by Danielle Meredith

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, the answer depends on whether you choose to start your coop with incubators or go straight to the purchase of laying hens. It’s entirely up to you, the newest poulter on the block.

In fact, the trend toward homesteading has grown rapidly in recent years, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. More of us are living off the grid, growing our own produce, even raising our own livestock – especially chickens.

Suppliers such as Minden Mercantile and Feed Co. Inc. have definitely noticed the spike. In March, it was already scheduled to send out thousands of chickens over the next few months and the earliest availability for the next orders of laying hens was August.

“(We’re seeing) a lot of first-timers,” says owner Marc Wilkens. “A lot of people have got extra time on their hands because they’re not allowed to go out as much because of COVID, and perhaps they’re concerned about economic futures, so they want to do their own eggs or have their own meat birds.”

Sue MacDonald of Killara Station in Minden feeds her brood.

Local poulterers cite numerous benefits to homegrown eggs.

“You know where your food comes from, you know what your chickens have been eating,” says Susan MacDonald of Killara Station, a multi-business homestead in Minden. MacDonald and her husband, Randy, keep a flock of 300 chickens and sell organic eggs.

Commercial eggs, even the organic versions, just can’t beat the flavour of fresh homegrown, adds MacDonald.

Hens are easy to raise, and they help with pest control by eating insects, adds Melissa Poulstrup of Fur and Feathers Muskoka, a livestock, feed and equipment supplier in Bracebridge.

There are also more intangible benefits, according to Poulstrup. “Raising chickens contributes to good mental health as a result of caring for them. They can give you stress relief by being a distraction to daily life.”

Which comes first?

Before you start on your new venture, research the regulations, costs and time requirements to make sure it’s right for you.

Check your municipality’s regulations and those of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). Regulations generally govern areas such as permissible locations, management and treatment, housing, environment and feed and water.

For example, the City of Kawartha Lakes has traditionally limited chicken coops to properties of 10 acres or more. Recently, rising interest in raising hens in more urban areas led to a Facebook campaign to change this. In March, the city council directed staff to amend regulations to permit “backyard chickens” in certain residential areas for a two-year pilot project.

If regulations are favorable to your project, consider your budget and schedule against your fixed and potential costs, including brood stock, housing, feed, electricity, veterinarian fees, and your time – including post-COVID timing.

Finally, have a Plan B, says MacDonald.

“I end up with a lot of hens where people go, ‘I thought it would be a good idea, but you know, I just don’t have the time.’ ”

Don’t count your hens before they hatch

It’s less expensive to buy eggs or chicks to raise on your own than to buy laying hens but starting from scratch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Egg incubation is a game of chance. How many of the eggs will be viable? What will you do with any unwanted roosters? It’s back to the mercantile for more eggs and another spin of the roulette wheel.

Chicks require special equipment due to their size, in part because they’re remarkably good jumpers, according to MacDonald. If a chick lands in an adult dish and can’t get out, it can drown in the water dish or defecate and/or die of thirst in the food dish.

MacDonald highly recommends first-timers start with laying hens, usually about four to six hens for one family.

Keep in mind that not all breeds lay daily, and laying slows in winter when hens take an annual rest period or are channeling energy toward keeping warm.

As for the care and feeding of chickens, Poulstrup describes a typical day for a poulterer.

“Feed, water and collect eggs at close to the same time. Observe the chickens for behaviour changes. Look for injuries or health concerns on chickens caused by environmental factors or other chickens pecking them. You will need to segregate the injured or sick chickens.”

Clean the coop as needed and examine it for signs of predators and for holes in walls and floors. In winter, look for signs of frostbite on combs, wattles and feet, shovel the entrance and roof, thaw the water, add extra bedding if needed and increase artificial light for egg production, Poulstrup adds.

Windows may need to be adjusted for proper air flow to eliminate the ammonia buildup from droppings.

Owners often hold and pet their chickens, which adds to the time required for daily management.

Why the chicken crossed the road

Chickens instinctively know to run for cover when a predator such as a hawk appears, but they’re not always successful and they’re less aware of other threats.

You’ll have to protect them from all Cottage Country predators, which include some dogs and cats as well as foxes, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, minks, fishers (the weasel, not the angler), owls and even crows.

MacDonald allows her sizeable brood free range on the property. She keeps roosters, known for their noise, and a chicken-friendly herd dog to protect the hens. She says the only time this didn’t work was when a band of foxes drew the dog away so a lone fox could grab a hen.

Guinea fowl are also good guardians, says Wilkens.

“One of the first lines of defence for an animal is making a lot of ruckus, a lot of noise, and chickens for some reason, unless they’re being attacked, don’t necessarily do so, but guinea fowl make a lot of noise and they also go up into the trees for nesting, so they can see everything going on from a distance.”

Just be mindful if you have close neighbors who don’t want the noise or the birds in their trees, too.

All cooped up

Building plans are readily available for hen coops and pens, from tractors (mobile combination units) to large coops with extended pens. You can also choose to purchase ready-made coops, with some urban-style models running over $20,000.

MacDonald recommends building your own by reusing old materials.

“You can upcycle a building that you already have or a small structure,” says MacDonald. “And then you’re not spending the money if you’re going to find out a year or two later that you don’t really want to be doing it.”

Poulstrup agrees. She suggests a wooden building with a 6/12 hip roof to support the snow load, raised off the ground to deter rodents from burrowing under the ground and up into the floor of the coop.

“Make sure the size you build or buy can be realistically maintained by you.”

Include window(s) with screens to allow ventilation and natural light and nesting boxes and a perch.

Also have “a door to secure them at night against predators, a motion light and/or a radio to deter predators and an electrical source to allow a heat lamp and water heater.”

If you’re building a run pen rather than allowing your hens free range, create a fenced-in run, preferably with a roof and a ramp to allow the chickens to walk in and out, and metal fencing two-feet high around the sides to prevent predators from chewing through to get at the flock, says Poulstrup.

Electrified fencing is more expensive but is a better deterrent. Running chicken wire under the pen, seamed with the fencing, will keep predators from burrowing.

“The size is dependent on the number and breed of chickens,” adds Poulstrup. “The larger the fenced-in run, the happier the chickens will be.”

Be prepared to chicken out

Despite their best research and plans, some new poulterers find they need to fly the coop early on (hence the need for a Plan B).

Managing a brood isn’t all fun and games. For instance, chickens don’t like rain or snow. They tend to get parasites and must be inspected and treated. Keeping a sand bath handy helps the birds flush insects out of their feathers, and infections are more common in winter when the hens crowd together for warmth.

MacDonald says her sand bath mix includes diatomaceous earth, which is ground from a silica-based sedimentary rock that is fatal to a variety of insects.

Other challenges include maintaining good air flow in the coop, which requires more time in winter to adjust windows and find the balance between sufficient air flow and sufficient heat. And of course, more hen time in the coop means more poop to scoop.

Perhaps most difficult is the need to deal with illness and death in your brood.

Get to know your local veterinarians, MacDonald advises. Your brood may need occasional veterinary care and, if you’re in this for the long haul, you and your family will need to deal with euthanasia many times. Depending upon several factors, the current average lifespan of a laying hen is estimated to be five to eight years.

Feathering your nest

If you decide to share your golden bounty by selling eggs, you’ll find few restrictions so long as you remain on your property (known as a farmgate sale). Be sure to check out local and provincial regulations before you begin.

“They should be $6 a dozen minimum to cover your costs and make a little bit for your time,” says MacDonald.

A new venture, new animal companions and a little egg money. The life of a country poulterer can be golden.

How do you like your eggs?

The world of chickens contains hundreds of species. This gives owners significant choice in areas such as hen colour, size and productivity, egg colour and size and yolk colour.

The red sex-link is the most popular laying breed as it has high productivity, according to MacDonald of Killara Station.

Poulstrup of Fur and Feathers Muskoka notes that ISA brown chickens “are great commercial chickens” that have a stocky appearance, lay consistent medium brown eggs and are inexpensive”.

However, her first recommendation is heritage breeds.

“Heritage breeds are known to live longer, mate naturally and have larger egg size and quantity,” says Poulstrup. “They are known to adapt to more severe environments, are a dual-purpose chicken in that they provide eggs and can be butchered for meat, and are distinctly coloured and shaped differently than commercial chickens.”

Specifically, she points to the ameraucana and chantecler breeds.

“Ameraucana chickens have beautiful green eggs and have multicoloured feathers and markings. Chantecler is a true Canadian chicken, is dual purpose and lays large brown eggs.”

She also recommends silke chickens.

“They are a fancy breed that are docile, are fun for adults and kids due to their “furry” feathers but lay a small egg. They have five toes on each foot and have black skin.”

Those who prefer white eggs can order white leghorns. Those looking for the unusual may want to choose the azure blue, which produces blue eggs.

Whatever breed or breeds you choose, keep in mind these tips and answers to a few frequently asked questions from MacDonald and Poulstrup.

• Heritage breeds cost more than commercial layers.

• If you want brown or green eggs you will pay more for the hen.

• A vaccinated hen will cost more than a backyard farmer chicken.

• You do not need a rooster to have a hen lay eggs unless you want fertilized eggs in order to produce chicks.

• If you’re mixing breeds, remember that chickens have a pecking order and smaller breeds can be injured or killed by larger birds, so they will need to be kept apart.

• Hens take a rest period from laying for a few months in winter. MacDonald suggests splitting your hen order. For example, one order in March and another in July so that the birds don’t all enter their rest period at the same time.

Hundreds of breeds are available from mercantile stores and breeders. Order as early as possible to avoid disappointment due to high demand.