After working on finding the right combination of grain and water, I have concluded that in the summer it is necessary to feed the hens at least 20% protein grain and maintain access to cool/cold water several times a day. While all the hens free range it is not a practical source for all of their nutritional needs. The process of laying an egg require a lot of energy and much like an athlete they need to keep their nutrition up. If you don't like buying the prepackaged bag mixes I recommend reading up here about putting together your own mix. We have kept the hens at full production over the last few weeks and are very pleased with the results.
To answer a few questions that have come up since we started with chickens I will post my response here. I had heard great things about Buff Orpingtons when I was first looking to get chickens and we paid a premium when we found a group of layers - the first batch. I do not recommend this breed if you are planning to sell eggs. I discovered (after I bought them of course), that these pretty ladies lay about 3 eggs a week. They are dual purpose birds, so they do get nice and plump but by the time they plump up they have a TON of (beautiful)feathers to deal with. They are excellent free rangers and you will need to check different spots that they may lay.
If you don't care what color your eggs are then I highly recommend the white leghorn, the lay and average of 5 eggs a week, extra large white eggs. It is amazing that such a huge egg can come from suck small birds. They are very efficient in terms of feed conversion. They are a bit feisty though. These girls will free range far and wide so be sure to look for eggs anywhere you may see them hang out, even if just occasionally.
The black australops are the egg record holder - I have not had the pleasure of having many in my brood. Instead we have a very large number of Rhode island reds, they also lay about 5 times per week, medium to large brown eggs. They are also a bit of a feisty breed IMO. They are very much affected by heat but as long as they have a constant supply of cool/cold water and get their grain they will lay well. These ladies will not stray very far but will get around and lay faithfully in their laying boxes.
Finally meat birds, we have really enjoyed the Cornish cross chickens. We are not big on the chick to table in 6-8 weeks concept. We are very big on growing these birds to about 5-6 pounds, but by feeding them lots of fruits and veggies and bugs and so much more. Once they get past their chick stage we take them off the exclusive grain diet and allow them to forage. I read somewhere that chickens are merely pigs with feathers, and it is very true. They will eat just about anything that you would/could feed a pig. Unlike layers that can have their egg production thrown off by the introduction of different foods, meat birds do not share this limitation.
I love the Cornish cross and would highly recommend them if you are looking to keep some meat birds that you will process at home. Because of their fast growth rate they are hardier than the other breeds during the chick stage. Be aware that you will need to keep an eye on them if you decide to move outside of the 6-8 week time frame as they are not bred to stay alive so long and can have issues - heart and leg are the top 2. You may need to schedule the butchering all at the same time over the course of a few days but once they are ready, then they are all ready.
Well that's my .02 cents on chickens and surviving the summer heat. I'm off to figure out how to keep them alive during the winter. :)
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