Expectations about Eggs and Meat
Fresh eggs and meat are two of the main benefits the come from raising chickens. This section will discuss some of the expectations you can have about egg and meat production.
Regarding egg production, your goal should always be to make your chickens happy and healthy so that theyíll lay. Make sure they have food, water, and shelter. If chickens are stressed out or upset, theyíll lay fewer eggs. The more you can make them feel secure in a routine, the more likely they will lay eggs for you.
To start with, most chickens will begin laying eggs when they are somewhere between 20 and 24 weeks old. Some breeds begin laying sooner than others, and you shouldnít worry too much if your chickens donít start laying until theyíre a little older. Itís difficult to predict with total accuracy exactly when your chickens will start laying. Also, the eggs might be a bit small when the chickens first start laying, but the eggs will get bigger as the chickens continue to grow.
As far as how many eggs to expect, most chickens at the height of production will lay 5 to 6 eggs a week. In other words, theyíll lay an egg almost every day. Chickens will be the most productive when they are 2 to 4 years old. Typically chickens will live to be about 7, and some will make it to 10. A well-cared for chicken can continue to produce eggs for their entire life, but you should expect production to drop about 20% each year.
Itís also important to note that egg production is tied to the seasons. Chickens will produce fewer eggs over the winter and might even stop altogether for a few weeks. Chickens need about 14-16 hours of daylight in order to be stimulated to lay eggs. As the days grow shorter in the fall, you can put an artificial light in your chicken coop to simulate a couple more hours of daylight and encourage your chickens to continue laying. However, as winter sets in, you should give your chickens a break from laying and allow them to use their energy to stay warm. As chickens begin laying fewer eggs in the winter, donít worry that there is something wrong with your chickens. This is a natural part of their annual cycle, and production will increase again once spring rolls around.
You should collect the eggs your chickens lay promptly. Ideally you should collect eggs a few times throughout the day. After you collect eggs, you can use a damp cloth to clean off any manure or dirt that is on them, but avoid thoroughly washing them. You shouldnít submerge and scrub them. Eggs have a natural coating called the bloom that protects them. Egg shells are porous, and the bloom will stop bacteria from getting into the egg. You might be tempted to thoroughly clean all of the eggs, but you will actually better ensure their safety by not washing them. As long as you donít wash the bloom off, you can actually store eggs at room temperature. However, most people feel better storing eggs in the refrigerator, and youíre not going to hurt the eggs by storing them there. Do whatever makes you feel most comfortable.
As you use your eggs, make sure you come up with a system so that you eat the oldest eggs first. Maybe you want to put eggs in cartons and date them so that you know which eggs to use first. If youíre ever concerned about whether or not an egg is fit to eat, you can use the float test. Put an egg in a glass of water. If the egg sinks, itís fine to eat. If the egg floats, this means that it has spoiled and shouldnít be consumed.
Just one final note on eggs. Youíll probably notice that your homegrown eggs have a richer and better flavor than eggs that you buy at the grocery store. However, if you do notice that your eggs have an unpleasant flavor, you might need to be careful about what you are feeding your chickens. For example, if you feed your chickens kitchen scraps, you should avoid things with strong flavors like garlic, onions, and fish. Foods with strong flavors can negatively impact the taste of eggs.
Most people seem to raise chickens for eggs, but some people raise chickens specifically for meat. If you are raising chickens for meat, you will want to buy a breed specifically for this purpose. Chicken breeds that are ideal for producing eggs typically donít produce the best meat. Chickens raised for meat are referred to as broilers. Broilers efficiently convert food into meat. There are two different types of broiler breeds you can choose between: hybrid and heritage. Hybrid breeds will reach their target slaughter weight faster than heritage breeds will, but heritage breeds typically produce better meat.
The target weight for broilers is around six pounds. Most hybrid breeds will reach this weight in only 6 to 11 weeks. Heritage breeds will reach this weight in about 16 weeks. Once broilers reach their target weight, you will need to slaughter them relatively quickly because they will start to have a difficult time moving around. They often canít support additional weight. When it comes to slaughtering the chickens, it is usually easiest to find a local business that will humanely and quickly kill and clean your chickens. You can do all of this work yourself. Slaughtering and butchering a chicken doesnít require a lot of equipment, but it will require some extra effort and learning. If you decide that you want to slaughter your chickens yourself, youíll probably want to find someone who has slaughtered chickens before to help you through the process the first time.
Slaughtering chickens is an issue youíll eventually have to address even if youíre mainly raising your chickens for eggs. As egg production decreases, youíll have to make a decision at some point about whether or not itís worth it to keep a chicken around. Youíre going to have to deal with the end of your chickensí lives at some point. As is the case with broilers, if you want to have your egg-laying chickens slaughtered, itís probably easiest to find a local business to do this for you. Keep in mind that egg-laying chickens usually donít produce the best meat. The meat is often lean and tough. If the meat from your chickens isnít great, you havenít done anything wrong. Youíve just been raising chickens for their eggs and not their meat.
Whatever your reason for raising chickens, make sure you have realistic expectations about what theyíll produce, whether it be eggs or meat. Enjoy taking care of your chickens and then enjoy the payoff of your work.