*Self-Supporting Poultry Farming*
There was a time when I raised chickens. It was a hobby, really, never intended to support me. It was something I had always want to do - since I had always lived in a city. Probably from all those old "Lassie" episodes where Timmy and Lassie were always tasked with collecting the eggs from the hen house each morning.
Once I moved to the country, the first "farm-like" thing I went out to get were chickens. It fit. I enjoyed the big birds and gave many of them names. My husband was a bit miffed when I named one of the roosters after him because the bird had a strange array of feathers on top of his head - resembling my husband's hair first thing in morning. Oh well.
Chickens were like Lays potato chips - I couldn't stop with just one - or two - or three. I kept getting more and more chickens - many times ordering chicks from catalogs and raising them from day-olds. Within the first year, I had well over 100 hens, My husband and I both liked eggs - but 70-90 eggs a day is a bit much. I asked people at work to save egg cartons for me. They did. And of course, since many knew I was over run with eggs, offered to buy the eggs. I wasn't interested in going commercial with my hobby, though, so I gave them away - but would gladly accept donations to help feed the hens. The donations started pouring in. Requests for eggs mounted.
Egg cartons started appearing everywhere. I couldn't keep track of who wanted eggs and who was just donating an empty carton to the cause. The sorting was simplified when I told people to put their names on the cartons if they wanted eggs. If they didn't, the empty carton didn't need a name on it. Donations would appear in the emptied cartons - when they were returned to the company refrigerator.
Then the owner at the feed store I frequented asked about my chickens and what I sold the eggs for. I told her the same thing - customer provides the carton and I accept donations to feed the hens. Hers was a different need. She had a few teachers come in from the local elementary school looking for fertile eggs which had never been refrigerated - for hatching in the classroom. Since I had more than my fair share of roosters, there was no doubt in my mind that most or all of my eggs were fertile - and offered them as such. She wanted to start with six dozen eggs - three to refrigerate and three for teachers.
The following week, she wanted ten dozen - and paid a dollar a dozen. As luck would have it - the vast majority of my eggs were indeed fertile and the classroom projects were a huge success. Word traveled fast. More teachers wanted to start incubators in their classrooms. More donations came in - and the ones who wanted eggs for hatching were willing to pay more for eggs guaranteed to hatch. So the feed store owner "donated" more. Even with 35-42 dozen eggs collected every week, I had a waiting list.
It was time to expand my hobby. I bought another 200 chicks - 50 at a time spaced a month apart. That was a mistake. I was thinking about maintaining the layers, devoting time and space to the brooder without being overcome with the operation that was always intended as a hobby rather than a full-time occupation. What I hadn't taken into account was that the chicks are pretty well feathered and developed at 30 days. With the new arrivals each month, I had to have that many more areas set aside to care for them all. They could never all be in one place at one time because the pecking order among chickens is nothing short of brutal.
With the need for space for the youngsters, I decided to allow the layers to become free-roaming hens. That was another mistake. Aside from having an "Easter egg hunt" every morning, I found that free-roaming dogs posed a serious threat to my operation. Scared hens don't lay eggs. Neither do dead ones. So I had to build additional coops for my hens. Coops that were sturdy enough to thwart the advances of determined dogs. The donations still paid for the hobby - even the materials to build more coops. Those extra coops were built with dogs in mind - not hawks. How many mistakes was I up to? The coops all needed roofs. Fortunately, chicken wire was good enough to keep the hawks out.
Then there was the relentless heat of Florida summers - and not a single tree on the place. My "pets" were uncomfortable. So I threw some loose straw on top of the wire over the coops, then placed shade cloth over the straw. Once a day, I would mist the shade cloth and the straw beneath it with the hose. That would allow refreshing water drops to reach the hens and keep them relatively comfortable. The straw acted as insulation for the shade cloth roof. Letting the shade cloth drape over the East and west ends of the coop, the sun was pretty well thwarted from baking my layers. Best of all, it was an easy coop to devise using only a bare minimum of materials. Most of it was already on hand. That seemed to resolve all the issues. The youngsters grew up and started laying long before I expected them to - and I was able to eliminate the waiting list - until winter.
Hens don't generally lay eggs in cold weather. Not that Florida is noted for harsh winters, but there are many evenings to mornings that are uncomfortably cold. And the prolonged overnight freezes have historically destroyed entire citrus groves. On such mornings, I was lucky to collect a mere couple dozen eggs.
And then there are the moults. Hens will lose all their feathers and get all new ones in. It's called moulting. Hens don't lay eggs when in a moult. In northern regions, moulting may start in autumn and last through the winter. In Florida, it may last a month or more. The fortunate part is that they don't all normally moult at the same time. Much depends on the breed, climate and even the pecking order. There are ways around it. Keeping a light on in the coop helps keep the hens laying. The light makes them think it is still summer and the days are still long. If more than one light is strategically placed in the coop - the lamps will add warmth in the autumn or winter coops. Adding sheets of plastic to the outside of the coop will hold that warmth in. A warm and well-lit coop will increase productivity.
Before you start seeing dollar signs, there are a few things to remember that helped me along. I work for a company of thousands - that's THOUSANDS - of employees. Word travels fast. Most are city dwellers with no hope of living on or near a farm. These were the people I could reach - on a daily basis. Without that avenue, I doubt I would have done as well just by word of mouth. In fact, I had tried to introduce my coutnry neighbors to my hobby and fell flat on my face - everyone had chickens or had neighbors who had chickens. They key is to have access to the city folks who rarely travel out to a dirt-farmers territory.
However, aside from the money-making potential of raising layers, hens are an excellent homesteader's livestock. They eat just about anything, will produce eggs even without a noisy rooster around and when money runs low and/or TSHTF, they can be put into the freezer for later stewing or the backyard barbacue. A coop of about 20 hens should keep even a large family or group well fed. And what about too many eggs? Is there such a thing? Add eggs to the diets of your other livestock and Fido, too.
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