We have had the good fortune this spring to have housed a fairly nice rooster that has now left his legacy in our 17 adorable, fluffy chicks. Although it is always fun and rewarding for us to raise chicks from our own hens, we usually make a point not to have a rooster available in the spring to make this possible. This time it worked out well for us!
I learned the hard way that roosters don’t make good pets. I still have the beak-shaped scar on my arm to remember the day that I tried to talk to my “pet” rooster, Mario about his rude behavior to our guests. He was not in the mood. It was spring. He had only the hens in mind and scoffed at my perceived friendship.
As we stared at each other in contempt, I wondered what I was thinking. He is an animal that acts instinctually. Of course he would be nice to me in exchange for food during the off-mating season. He even let me pet his pretty feathers. I remembered how my mother once made “pets” of some wild raccoons that were vandalizing our garbage cans nightly. They completely turned on us when the Ritz crackers ran out and Mom had to call the animal control people.
That was years ago, when our flock was small. Since then, I rarely keep roosters past 5 months of age. I don’t befriend them either, preferring to keep them a bit leery of me and other humans. Mature roosters will challenge visitors and small children and can be very aggressive with our dog, Leo as he simply goes about his evening chores of herding the chickens into their housing.
However, last fall, as we sorted the roosters from the flock, we apparently had one that was left behind due to his remarkable quiet, hen-like behavior (and hence; disguise). His breed (Cochin) and slower development played out in his favor. He was allowed to spend the winter months with our young pullets* that had not started laying eggs yet early in the season and that worked out just fine. In February, the pullets began laying eggs and the rooster became sexually mature which resulted in the majority of these young hen’s eggs being fertile.
The development of the embryo doesn’t start until the egg incubation temperature is brought to around 99°f; the temperature that a hen will keep them at when she begins sitting on the eggs. That is why a hen can lay several eggs in a nest over a week or more and then have them hatch 20-22 days after she begins setting on them. As an alternative to a setting hen, we us an incubator. When our rooster found a new home last month, we set an incubator’s worth of eggs aside to hatch. With no rooster on the farm now (except perhaps in the brooder right now!) none of our eggs are fertile anymore and there is no chance for them to ever become chicks.
Although there is little difference between a fertile egg vs. a non-fertile egg other than a cloudy spot on the yolk or in the white, our fertile eggs have been used for our home use or sold to customers that ask for fertile eggs. We do this for consistency in our egg quality; non-fertile eggs will keep longer than fertile eggs and sometimes, even the cloudy spot causes some concern to people that are not accustomed to farm fresh eggs.
The High Meadow Flocks
We have and still do raise several different types of birds on our farm. Different breeds will meet different goals when we are raising chickens and the same goes for turkeys and ducks. We like to have some diversity in our laying flock, but the majority of our laying hens are Rhode Island Reds or a similar breed. Although Rhode Island Reds can get broody* at times, this trait has largely been bred out of the breed, but they are prolific egg layers. The ones that do choose to set on eggs often have very short attention spans for the task and may end up abandoning their eggs before hatching. Other breeds that we have in our laying flock are Auracana’s; bearded ladies that lay blue and green eggs, Dark Cornish (pinkish eggs), White Rocks (white eggs), Barred Rocks and Delaware (brown eggs) and Lackenvelders (small, white eggs). All of these, with the exception of the Lackenvelders are nice dual purpose breeds, meaning that they are good for both egg laying and as meat birds. We also raise a few flocks of Cornish Cross chickens that are raised entirely for meat.
Our flock sizes more than double in the warmer months as the chickens have access to outdoors and are allowed to forage and graze, but the flocks are never so large that the hens are stressed, crowded or more than our farm dog, Leo and I can enjoy caring for or manage to round up in the evening. In the winter, we reduce our flock size, bringing a smaller percentage of our laying hens into the barn with access to the outdoors when weather permits.
Some of our hens are acquired through mail-order as chicks or from a local hatchery. They are raised organically from the time they hatch, allowing their eggs and their meat to be certified organic. We usually order “straight-run*” which provides us with a number of roosters in the mix. As the chicks grow, the pullets will join the laying flock and the roosters will become meat birds (before they become mean birds!). If we do decide to keep a rooster for breeding, we often hatch our own eggs in the incubator. We also will switch a hen’s unfertile eggs with fertile eggs if she is broody and we believe that she is up for the task of setting on her clutch* for 21 days. Usually the hen that we depend on the most to hatch a clutch of chicks is Mother, our tiny little Banty hen who is 12 years old and can still lay a nest full of eggs when she is in the mindset to hatch them. She is the best mother chicken that I have ever known and we love her very much.
The best time to collect eggs for hatching (if you have a rooster) is in spring, when the grass is green and the days are getting longer. It is also a time when you can notice the greatest change in the yolk color and flavor of the eggs! The chickens are busy and happy and all of this is reflected in their eggs. The eggs get larger in spring, too; often resulting in eggs with double yolks!
If you are still curious for more information about how the chicken got into the egg, there are more egg facts and a few definitions if you click HERE.
To see what a fertile egg looks like click HERE.
To see a nice chart on the developing stages of an egg, click HERE.