I recently spent a week at home on the farm over the summer which finally gave me a chance to get my hands dirty again after spending far too long at university. One of the things I got to do while at home was look after our chickens. We raise chickens for meat, which are known as broilers.
Compared to other livestock such as dairy cows or pigs, chickens can be a relatively lower maintenance animal, but they still do require proper attention and care. The most laborious part of the job is preparing the barns to receive new baby chickens. This preparation involves cleaning out all the litter from the previous group of chickens, disinfecting and sanitizing the barns, then laying down new fresh bedding for the baby chicks. We use straw for bedding, but other farmers use wood shavings instead. Straw is the part of the wheat plant which isn’t harvested as grain. Since my family also grows wheat, we can easily collect the straw from the fields which means we don’t have to pay for bedding like some other farmers.
Once the barn is prepared, we heat the barn up nice and warm to 34 degrees Celsius. It might feel pretty warm for us, but the day old chickens absolutely love it. From there, we raise the chickens until they are 2.8 kilograms, which takes about 6 weeks from the time they arrive at the barn. Over those 6 weeks, we walk through the barns two or three times a day to check that they are receiving adequate feed and water and to ensure that they are healthy. We try hard to make sure the chickens are happy and comfortable, so if something is wrong we correct the issue immediately.
After the 6 weeks are up, the chickens are loaded onto specially designed trucks and taken to a processing plant. When this happens, it means the barns are empty and the cycle starts again!
The photo in this story is of what my barns at home look like. The chickens are about 5 weeks old at this point and are calm, quiet, and enjoying the warmth of the barn.
For egg farmers, the most important thing after making sure their hens are healthy, is making sure that they are producing Grade A eggs. The biggest factor in this is egg shell quality.
Eggs are graded based on size, shell quality, and yolk quality. When an egg goes to a grading station they are washed, candled (see what this is here: Why ‘Candle’ An Egg?), and then sorted by size to be put into cartons. It is during candling when egg shell quality is assessed and when cracks would be found and removed. There are many factors (besides just a clumsy farmer) that can contribute to a cracked egg.
As a hen ages, the quality of the egg shells that she lays will eventually decline, causing more cracks to occur as the shells are more fragile. Creating an egg takes a quite a bit of calcium and so we increase the amount of calcium in the diet as the hens get older since she is not able to use the calcium as efficiently as when she was younger. Usually at around about 60 or 65 weeks old, we increase the level to the maximum level that it will remain at for the rest of the time we have them. The calcium in the diet it mostly oyster shell.
Another factor that can lead to cracks is equipment malfunctions. To get an egg from the hen to the carton is a process that involves transporting the eggs quite a distance. To see how it happens on my farm check out this video: Getting Eggs to Your Table. If one little thing is off, it can mean the eggs are transported rougher than normal or allow an egg to hit an edge faster than it should and it can cause a crack. So as farmers, we are regularly maintaining and upgrading our equipment to ensure safe and happy hens and a good quality product.
Of course the biggest factor of cracks is the most important – breaking them into a pan to eat! So next time you crack open an egg, you can be sure you know how the farmer ensured it was Grade A.
Have you ever cracked open an egg and found not one, but two yolks? Don’t worry, the chicken that laid it is a-okay, she’s likely just fairly young.
At 25 weeks of age, my flock is still fairly new. When we get our hens at 19 weeks of age, they are just starting to lay, and although our chickens are currently laying mostly small and medium sized eggs, many of the large and extra- large eggs that are laid are double-yolks. The reason this happens is because as a chicken is starting to lay, she still has irregularities in her reproductive system just like any other animal as they move into full maturity. So, a double-yolk egg simply occurs when two yolks rather than one are released in her cycle and then the membrane and shell form around both, giving you an egg with two yolks.
On my farm, we grade and sell some of our eggs to neighbours, and nearby stores and restaurants (the rest go to a large grading station about an hour away), and our customers LOVE double yolks. Not only does it provide more yolky flavour for breakfast and can make for fluffier pancakes, but it’s also a pretty cool way to impress and amaze breakfast guests. In my family we also love double yolks. My mom’s famous cookie recipe requires one double yolk egg and one large egg (please don’t tell her I told!) which makes the cookies a bit more moist and tasty. But unfortunately for my mom’s cookies, as our chickens get a little older and wiser, the amount of double-yolk eggs will begin to decrease as the hen’s reproductive system becomes more regular, but some still will be laid. As a hen ages, her egg size naturally increases as well, meaning that the doubles that are laid later on in her life are typically bigger. These eggs are usually called Jumbo size, which is any egg that is greater than 70 g (for more information on how eggs are sized, check out the DinnerStartsHere YouTube Channel).
So next time you are in the grocery store and see Jumbo eggs, or crack open an egg and find two yolks, you now know how it got there. And you perhaps now also have my family’s secret to moist baking – sorry mom!
Spring is moving along nicely, our crops are all in and with that task done comes… more work! Like most egg farms in Ontario, we keep each flock of chickens for only one year at a time. The reason for this is mainly because as a hen ages, the shell quality of the eggs that she lays decreases. By the time the year period is over, the egg shells are very fragile which means the eggs are not strong enough to put into cartons and ship to the grocery store, so they are typically sent to a breaking plant to go into commercial use. The fragile shells also mean quite a bit more cracks and more mess for farmers to clean up every day at the end of gathering.
The transition between our flocks is a week long process. Once the chickens go out with the help of a catching crew, we must clean the barn very thoroughly. On the first day we pressure wash the whole barn in order to remove any dirt. This means I get to spend the day in a rain suit which, as they only come in large men’s sizes in our small town Canadian Tire store, means that I am actually wearing a rain dress and trying not to trip over my too long of rain pants while I wash everything. We wash the cages, the walls, the ceilings, the belts, the escalators, the fans, and everything else you can imagine.
The next day, once everything has dried, I get into a clean rain dress, this time to disinfect the barn. This ensures that everything is clean and bio-secure for the incoming flock. The rest of the week the barn is left alone to let the disinfectant work and to let everything fully dry before turning on equipment again and receiving the new flock. This week is a mandatory time period set up by the Egg Board (a provincial and national group that helps regulate egg farmers) in order to ensure bio-security remains tight. This 5 day period with no eggs to gather is my family’s “vacation”. We were able to spend these few days finishing up other work on the farm that had been put on hold during cropping. This year it included splitting wood, planting our garden, outdoor clean-up and various other jobs.
Then early one morning in comes the new flock who, at 19 weeks of age, are ready to start laying and I get to go back to being an egg farmer for another year.