I had this conversation with a friend who manages a cattle ranch that borders our property. Well not exactly this conversation. It was about cattle instead. As I pondered the things we talked about, it dawned on me that it was pretty much the same whether you had goats, sheep, or chickens. It was just that large numbers of animals equal large costs which made a very clear picture. When he took over operation the ranch was switching from a yearling steer feeding operation to a cow/calf. The cows had all been purchased as heifers and then calved the next year before he arrived.
Heifers have a larger percentage of problem births versus cows and a glance over the herd every 4 hours, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with all heifers equal far more sleepless nights stripped down freezing in the cold night air pulling calves. Their mothering ability isn’t honed either so lessons sometimes have to be taught. This means extra hours beyond what a cow requires.
Then down the road your whole herd needs replaced all at once. If your calf crop that year is 50% heifers and not all those are replacement quality, then OUCH, it’s going to cost as you start from scratch once more. And heifer don’t produce a cash crop of calves until their 2nd year.
I began to think maybe I’d be smarter to manage my livestock more like I had 50 or even a 100 of each species. They aren’t just pets, they feed our family and they aren’t cheap on our scant budget which has been shrunk greatly the past couple years. I believe that time is money for if I wasn’t spending so much time on them, I could maybe finally get around to producing an income. So I decided to make a comparison to my flock of chickens to cows to emphasize ways I was wasting time and money then turn my attention to rabbits and goats.
Prime age for egg production is 2.
After three years old the amount of eggs produced drops greatly. So if eggs are my main reason for chickens then I need to look at my breed of hens to make sure they have high egg production but at the same time are setters and good mamas too for self-sustainability. Mine average 250 eggs per year. So I counted the number of eggs I use on an average day. Actually I didn’t, not yet anyway. Instead for this post I’m throwing in a ball park figure of 3 eggs a day. 365 days a year times 3 equals 1095. Divide by 250 eggs a year gives me 4.35 chickens, or 5. So let’s be cautionary and do 6 hens because unexpected death happens too.
I need replacements which requires 6 more chicks but not all chicks will become suitable hens so lets say 10 then cull to 6. I can always eat the extras. The ball park age for maturity is 18 months old. The time in which they molt which is typically 16 – 18 months of age. These you will need to feed through but your 2 year olds when they are done with egg laying and molting, it is a good time to butcher rather than pump them full of feed for 8 – 12 weeks. Keep in mind that a hen lays more eggs their first year but the second year the quality and size are much better. These are prime and what you want under your setting hens.
Prime butcher age is 3 to 8 months depending on breeds and feed program.
Not all chicks born are hens and not all eggs under a hen hatch. I have observed though that the spring time hatches produce more roosters and the late summer hatches more hens. No guarantee but I can see scientific reasoning for this and so will continue to experiment. I like a bit of both though so we get different molting times which means a more steady egg production rate. We find free-range chicken far more palatable so no problems there for having a few extras to eat. But this next year I’m just going to concentrate mainly on getting my laying flock core numbers inline as my flock’s main goal is laying eggs. I’ll figure the number of chickens I want for meat and I’m sure this will fluctuate a bit from year to year. No worries if the age is not prime for butchering as they are super tender if canned and we love it mixed with mayonnaise, pickles, and celery salt in a sandwich or the meat used in cooking.
Keep in mind your weather. Hot summers and cold winters stress chicks and often cause death. Some of you can hatch much of the year but we have a window in spring, in late summer, and sometimes early fall.
Older hens are better setters.
If I’m to have self-sustaining then I need setting hens. Some breeds have the setting and mothering instincts bred out of them. Others do a good job. My observation is that the older hens hatch more eggs and are experienced mothers which means you have more chicks reach adulthood. One hen sat twice last year and did a better job the second time than the first, a real keeper especially since she was just 1 years old. 2 seasoned setting hens I figure is about right since some others will volunteer now and then. Since a good setting hen is often but not always older, she may or may not be figured into the laying hen numbers.
You don’t want all your hens molting at the same time.
One of the problems with chickens all the same age is they molt at the same time which means few to no eggs during this 8 to 12 week period. Self-sustaining to me includes a more steady production of eggs too. So I want them hatched at different times of the year from early spring to fall to spread out this barren time. My goal is to record each hen when she molts and how long so I can keep the ones who have shorter molting periods. This will be genetic I’d guess so a shorter period is preferred. All chickens molt annually, their first occurs around 16-18 months of age. Molting typically occurs in response to decreased light as summer ends and winter approaches but I’ve had them molt other times of the year also. Probably since I often use a light in the coop.
My core flock will be:
6 laying hens age 2 years old kept until after egg laying season and they begin to molt. They then become meat for the table.
10 replacements hens born from spring to early fall will be culled to 6 no later than 8 months old. They will be yearlings the following spring.
2 setting hens (various ages)
12 – 14 hens total
One rooster and a spare is preferred but is bedlam when your flock is so small. This leaves me vulnerable if my rooster dies but I’ve borrowed a rooster or bought one if needed. You can see this plan means a differing number of chickens are running around during spring through fall but I have a core number to overwinter. More if predators have been a problem like a couple years ago with fox numbers high for 2 years.
The hope is to lower feed costs, work, and eggs not being used to their fullest. It has definitely helped me to see a clear path to better management. Yes, this may need adjusting but at least it is a starting off point. Success is in the details which have flexibility built in.
How do you figure your core flock numbers?
(My father passed away last Wednesday and this coming week will be full as we gather to celebrate his 88 years of life. This will be the only post for the week of March 17 – 23, 2019. I will be back the following week. Know that I’ll miss you.)