Wednesday, October 07, 2009


When we first moved in, it didn't take very long at all before we'd added a 'few chooks, just for eggs' to our family. It didn't take long to discover what amazing and social creatures they are, each with their unique personality and my 'few chooks' quickly discovered the importance of heritage breeds in poultry, many of which are now endangered and many genetically valuable lines have died out as most people get their eggs from the grocery or else keep commercial hybrid layers like the IsaBrowns. It was love at first sight when I saw standard partridge coloured Wyandottes. It took me some months and several hours drive to track them down but they're strikingly beautiful, friendly, docile and good layers and mothers. It wasn't long after that we ventured into ducks with the beautiful Aylesbury and Brown Chinese and Embden geese.

Many people don't consider the benefits of keeping a few chickens in their backyard - something that is legal even in many suburban areas. Chickens actually make excellent pets as well as being useful - they produce lots of fresh, tasty and healthy free range eggs. They also clean up virtually any kitchen scraps minimizing waste, scratch in the backyard and provide 'fertilizer' and compost (used bedding) as well. The eggshells can be dried and crushed and put back into the garden or given to the birds for calcium. Having your own layers will help reduce your carbon footprint as all that money isn't spent in producing and managing a large scale chicken farm or transporting the eggs from farm to factory to stores.

In addition, most eggs are produced in a manner that most people would find highly objectionable. Heidi of Operation Gloria, covers some of the conditions of battery cage hens with her rescued girls. Commercial hens are burnt out after a season of laying and disposed of rather than the expense of reconditioning them being paid when they will not be able to lay the same maximum number of eggs for minimum amount of cost input as they do their first year.

However even the supposed 'free range' eggs are not terribly humane in most cases as the requirements for being able to be labeled free range are nothing like the idyllic farm most people imagine when they picture it. In Australia, other than the Qld's basic protection laws there is no legal definition of what free range is. Some companies adhere to the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia or RSPCA's standards, where the requirements are no more than 7 birds per square meter and no more than 1000 birds per shed or per FREPAA 10 birds per sq metre up to 1000. The 'pasture' these birds have access to is to be shared by the whole lot of birds in the shed. While it is required to have shade, shelter and palatable vegetation, the maximum range density is 750 birds per hectare at 25 DSE [300/acre at 10 DSE].

THIS is a free range system that is being introduced into the EU. This has been rejected in NSW as being 'too liberal' in space. Compare that to the average backyard chicken who is free to engage in the full range of behaviours natural to a healthy chicken and in many cases is only locked up in a shed at night to protect them from foxes. (Who are a real danger even in inner suburban backyards.)

Here are some of my eggs from today... the rear ones are duck eggs, the middle pale brown ones are 1-2 year old Wyandotte eggs and the dark one on the right is from Tiger, a 3 year old little silkieX who is one of my best mums. These eggs are fertile (well, we hope!) and going to be set in the incubator to produce chicks and ducklings.

I began breeding and planned to set up a larger shedding and pens (you can see one a few posts back) for my birds and got an incubator to hatch out more chicks than the mother birds can do by themselves. My incubator is a fairly small, fairly basic one which will take 60 hen eggs at a time. The eggs are set in a batch every week, after which they must be turned several times a day to prevent the embryos from being able to turn. Just like a human baby must turn in the mothers womb to get out, chickens must turn around in the shell in order to pip, tie off their 'umbilical' cord and hatch.

Here are some of the current eggs in the incubator. Below the grate is a little well filled with water to provide the correct humidity for the eggs. The shells are porous and breathe, allowing the exchange of oxygen and water in the form of humidity. The embryos must loose a particular percentage of their weight from day 1 by the end of hatch, which is determined by the humidity and porosity of the eggs. The wrong amount will hinder the embryos from being able to pip and hatch correctly. EG The air cell size is affected, too small an air cell can prevent the chick from being able to inflate it's lungs once it's punctured into the air cell.

The lines you'll notice on them are pencil marks to tell me which side to turn them to. They go from line up to line down and around again. When I collect the eggs from the nests I write the date of collection on the rear (fertility declines in eggs older than 7 days) and on the side where the lines are I write the date they were set. About 8 days into the setting, the eggs are candled - which means they're held up against a bright torch (flashlight) to see if there is any development or if it's clear. At 8 days you can see a little embryo developing and a bit older than that you can see the embryo move around. Clear eggs are removed as they can go bad and explode in the incubator... NOT very nice!

Here is the whole incubator with the lid set back on. The temperature is a bit low here as it's just been set back on after turning the eggs which temporarily lowers the temperature. The eggs require a temperature of 37.7C and 21 days, longer with ducks.

And speaking of ducks, this is our most recent addition - Honey aka Dini (as in Houdini), a little bronze and white muscovy duck who found her way to rescue and then to me. She is a cheeky little thing and an escape artist!

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