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Wading Through a Sea of Chickens


Happy hen on pasture

My first major job at Quails-R-Us was to set up electronet fencing for the laying hens.  The nearly twelve hundred Red Sexlink hens had been inside for the first part of the year and were ready to begin the ‘free range’ part of their life.  QRS doesn’t rotate their chickens on pasture, but instead has large semi-permanent runs accessed through chicken-sized doors in the barn wall.  The food, water, and nest boxes are inside, but the bugs, grass, and sunshine are outside, and most of the hens spent at least part of their day taking dust baths and stretching their wings.  Some of the hens had never been outside before, and required a lot of coaxing to become comfortable with the idea.

Every morning for my first two weeks I had the responsibility of caring for the layers.  The process of feeding them and collecting eggs took me about two hours, but for the farmhand Ramone or the owners, it might take one and a half.  I had never spent any significant time around chickens before and while I wasn’t necessarily afraid of them I was a little overly cautious.  The layers I cared for this summer are very curious about human activity, and will readily crowd around your feet and refuse to move out of the way when you’re trying to walk through them.  They constantly peck at any shiny object on your boots or hat or wrist.  At first I was afraid of their beaks, but I quickly learned that being pecked by an overly broody hen isn’t that painful. As time went on I became more comfortable shooing them out of my way and being the dominant creature in the coop.


Hens swarming over me and my irresistible boots.

The chicken feeders, which are used for the meat birds as well as the layers, are basically hoppers you fill at the top, and as the chickens eat, more food falls down into the tray. Their water comes from permanent piping with a movable nozzle, and they can drink by using their tongue to push the nozzle up so water drips down, similar to a hamster waterer.  Hoppers full of oyster shells were provided but rarely needed human attention. Feeding the chickens took a while because buckets of grain are very heavy, and I often had to make eight or more trips between feeders and the grain wagon.  But egg collecting took longer.

The QRS layers have developed the unfortunate habit of refusing to lay in their nest boxes.  Partially it’s because there are not enough nest boxes for the number of chickens. Usually you want one nest box for every five chickens; we needed about 250 nest boxes and were short by about 80.  Additionally, many of the nest boxes had no backs, making them too bright and too open for the comfort of the chickens. Many laid their eggs instead on the floor in the darkest room of the coop, which had no nest boxes installed.  Every day was an Easter egg hunt for me, as I got on my hands and knees to peer into dark corners and under feeders looking for eggs partially buried in the wood shaving floors.  We tried many different strategies to get the layers to use their nest boxes.  Some eggs collected from the floor were placed in nest boxes to get the hens to associate the boxes with egg laying.  We put extra hay bedding in some boxes, both to make the boxes seem more inviting and to keep the eggs that were being laid inside cleaner. We put large rocks and boxes in the really problematic corners to deter laying.  We put in pigeon nest boxes, which are shorter and shallower. We put some nest boxes flush with the floor.  And we tried to remove eggs from the floor as soon as they were laid to disassociate the floor with egg laying. Our attempts were moderately successful…more eggs were being laid in the boxes when I left than there were when I arrived.

An example of an abnormal egg

An example of an abnormal egg

The collected eggs – about 85 dozen a day – were washed and packaged soon thereafter.  After removing poop, dirt, hay pieces, and other non-delicious items in warm water, the eggs are air-dried then packaged in cartons stamped with the date of lay and stickered with the farm’s information.  From my counts, about 7% of the eggs collected broke before packaging, either due to shell abnormalities, jostling of the buckets during collecting and transport, or simple human error. Broken eggs are fed to the pigs. QRS sells their eggs nest run, meaning they do not weigh them for size or grade them for quality.  I still learned a lot about commercial egg selling, though. Sizes of eggs are based on weight of the entire carton together, rather than each individual egg.  Every day we’d have one or two very small eggs and six or seven jumbo eggs, which often contained two yolks.  The rest were large or extra-large. The variation in egg shell color, texture, thickness, and pattern was astonishing. Grading in eggs is done by candling – holding a light behind the egg to get a shadow view of the contents.  While our eggs were never graded, our customers always come back raving about how good their breakfasts were, so I have to assume they are at least grade A.  One thing is for sure: my farm fresh omelets were always delicious.


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