Outdoors/Adventure

Egg prices got you down? Here’s how a longtime Alaska chicken farmer has maintained his family’s supply

Chickens come to mind again, brought on by recent news of the egg shortage. The news outlets say that 52 million chickens have died in the bird flu outbreak this year. Farmers are saying that they are producing plenty of eggs, but the wholesalers are not wanting to pay the higher prices necessary to cover the increased feed costs. Whatever the reason, some supermarket shelves are pretty barren. Some outlets are limiting sales to a carton or two per person. U.S. consumption of eggs is more than 1 billion annually. That’s almost 300 eggs per capita. So if you have a backyard flock, keep them laying.

There are quite a few families that keep chickens in the Interior. I am not certain about Anchorage. Anchorage has some strange laws about keeping birds. No noisy birds, i.e. chickens, turkeys etc., may be kept outside. Lots 6,000 feet or less may only have five hens on the premises; roosters are considered too noisy. For every additional 1,000 square feet, you get one more hen. With a little preparation one can keep chickens laying through the winter. If you can only keep a few, it is important to get it right,

When a chick is hatched, hens have 15,000 — or more — microscopic eggs in her ovaries. She will not actually lay that many eggs as an adult. The average lifetime egg production of a pullet is in the 600 range. Commercial birds, such as white Leghorns, will produce more than 300 eggs in their first year of production. When they fall off to to 275 or so, they are culled. Our backyard flocks are different. Everyone that keeps chickens has their favorite birds that are kept long after the most productive years have passed.

[A real scramble: Alaska suffers an egg shortage]

Hens will lay into their fifth and sixth year of life. Production may drop to a couple eggs per week instead of the five you are used to. What type of hens are the best layers? Leghorns are the best — speaking strictly for production. They are flighty birds, which makes them iffy for a small chicken house with birds loose on the floor. They also have large straight combs and are a bit light on downy feathers, which makes them susceptible to cold chicken houses. Rhode Island Reds lay well and are well-feathered, but again, the chicken house should be kept from freezing because of the large combs. Barred rocks are excellent layers. They are very personable and easy to handle. Also, they set easily if you want to raise chicks without an incubator. Some folks are set on Australorps. They are one of the tamest breeds. Egg production is superior, at 300 per year. The hens are easy keepers. The roosters a bit tougher to keep, again the straight comb is susceptible to freezing.

It isn’t easy to keep a chicken house from freezing on those 40 below days. Most chicken pens are cobbled together quickly when the family says, “let’s get some chickens!” The first cold days arrive and dad rushes out with some insulation. Put some more thought into the operation if you want unfrozen eggs. Research has showed us that a chickens need approximately three square feet of space to optimize flock production. Sixty-plus years of keeping chickens has convinced me that bigger is not better for winter egg production. Nor is bigger, better, the answer for happy chickens.

Chickens like other chickens — summer is a different season with different answers. One rooster for every 10 hens. You can keep two roosters in with your hens without fights if one of the roosters is introduced into the flock as a young bird. The old guard will keep the upstart intimidated for at least a year. Rosecomb birds are less trouble on cold days. We have Buckeye crosses that lay very well and are tough enough to forage and take mudbaths at minus 20. Buckeyes are good mousers also. These nine-pound birds chase down every mouse they see.

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Insulate your chicken house. An eight-by-eight chicken pen with a six-foot ceiling, insulated with R-21, without auxiliary heat, will not freeze at the egg boxes at minus 40. Twenty chickens. Egg boxes are 12 inches above the floor. The waterer needs a 15 watt heat pad on it to keep it from freezing when it is colder than 20 below. Keep the floor clean everywhere away from the roosts. Two inches of cushioning in the nest boxes will keep eggs from breaking. Lights. The book says about 15 hours a day. We do 24 hours per day. I know that lights will have to shut down to let them molt. Molt can be controlled by the amount of light. The birds will stop laying for a couple of weeks during the molt — but since we hatch 100 chicks in March, they need to lay through that time period.

We feed 16% layer pellets, mixed 50-50 with oats. Six pounds a day. Small gravel works for grit. Some folks feed crushed egg shells for added calcium. Should you choose to do that, be sure the shells are crushed very well or you may create some egg eaters in the coop. Eighteen hens with two roosters have produced us an average of 15 eggs per day since early October. The extra eggs we sell to help pay for their keep. A hen will produce an egg every 24-26 hours.

Feed prices have not increased dramatically. The egg shortage will not affect backyard poultry owner. Follow a few common sense guidelines and the eggs will come. Tame birds lay better than wild ones. Sometimes red lights are more effective than white. Experiment with growing your own forage during winter months.

Chickens can be fun. They are a good, out-of-the-house activity for the entire family during the long winters. Whether you eat eggs every day or only once a week, there will be considerable satisfaction in producing your own food.


John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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