Pastured Chicken: Huge Potential for Your Meat Birds

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So this was “big news” – all over the Internet a few months ago. The story was picked up by news outlets worldwide. And it was a good story:  A 12 year old  4-H kid,  in Texas who raised this huge, 23 pound chicken. It made me curious – the stories claimed it might be the world’s largest chicken.

I wondered who held the record? What breed of chickens were these? What’s the story behind this? And when I began to dig into it a little more, it got even more interesting…at least for us chicken people.

It turns out, Dakota’s 23.47 pound chicken (named “Big Mac”) did not break the record. The record was considered to be held by “Big Boy”, weighing in at 24.18 pounds, raised by Sue and Don Ritter. It was mentioned they raised him as pastured poultry, on grass.

Now in case you aren’t familiar with it, pastured poultry is where your chickens are in movable cages and every day (or every few days) you move them to a fresh area of grass. This way, they’re raised eating the grass, weeds, bugs as well as their feed, which is generally organic. You can do this with chickens raised for meat or for eggs. There’s a lot of benefits to doing it this way:

  • Healthier birds
  • Healthier meat
  • It can be more cost effective
  • Cleaner
  • More environmentally sustainable and more natural for the birds
  • If you’re raising a hybrid meat bird, bred to gain weight quickly, they generally don’t do well free ranging. This is a great way to keep them safe and get them the fresh “pasture” to eat.

Now all of this stuff I find really interesting but it’ll take too long to go into it all here so we’ll have to save that for another blog post! This is something being used by farmers and backyard people because it makes a lot of sense.

But let’s move on to the record holding chicken, shall we? Sue and Don raise chickens for meat and eggs and have a thriving business. One unique aspect is they raise chickens for Thanksgiving instead of turkeys. They decided they liked the taste better (I’m in agreement here) so every year they raise some birds to a dressed weight (meaning what they weigh when you buy them) of 10 to 18 pounds, enough for the holiday dinner. Customers claim this is the sweetest, best tasting chicken they’re ever had.

Now this is not something your Perdues and Tysons can do. They’ve got a strict schedule in the factory: the birds reach a certain age, they should be within a weight range. They’re butchered. Done! Next batch, coming in! It’s an assembly line process because that’s the only way they can keep their profit margin high. And we’re talking thousands and thousands of birds at a time.

The Ritters weren’t trying to break any record. They noticed Big Boy was 18 or 19 pounds and they decided to see how large he’d get. The thing is with broiler type chickens, they generally are known for a lot of health issues. They gain so much weight, so fast they tend to have leg problems; they love to eat and can even die from overeating. People usually butcher them at 6-8 weeks of age when they’ll weigh out at about 5-7 pounds. These breeds aren’t meant to live long.

But obviously the Ritters are doing something right – and different. Their pasture has been free of pesticides and fertilizers for over 35 years. Their feed is certified organic with no animal by-products and the chickens have constant access to the earth, bugs and sunshine. No antibiotics are needed. Don is adamant that grass is the building block for food. Because of all of these factors, Big Boy lived until 18 months old and died when it got a bit too cold in Pennsylvania and the grass stopped growing.

12036394425_7145a69443_zDespite documenting Big Boy with photos and videos, he was sadly not accepted by the Guinness Book of World Records. They no longer keep records for livestock weight. But the Ritters have started their 2016 season.  And what about 12 year old Dakota and his chicken? Dakota’s Dad said he was probably giving up chickens, due to the early morning feeding. And they planned to use “Big Mac” in gumbo.



For more information on things mentioned in this post go to:
Sue & Don Ritter’s website:
Dakota’s “Big Mac”:
Pastured Poultry information:
Chicken photo courtesy of:
Gumbo photo courtesy of:


Chick Hatchery Guide: Get Started With Day Old Chicks

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Hand in hand with our previous article about armchair gardening we put together a handy list of hatcheries for those looking to start raising themselves some fine feathered friends. Believe it or not, hatcheries routinely ship chicks across the country via USPS — you just have to be willing to order a minimum number required by the hatchery.


Now is a great time to start raising baby chicks provided you have a warm, draft-free environment. We’ve made sure to include the name, address, phone number, URL, and any thoughts we have about the assorted hatcheries listed below.

Cackle Hatchery
411 W Commercial St
Lebanon, MO 65536

Fairly old and well-established hatchery that is smack dab in the middle of the country. They frequently have sales and have a good reputation. They also have a wide selection of bird types including many rarer ones.

Country Hatchery
P.O. Box 747
Wewoka, OK 74884

A nice, friendly little hatchery that loves to help you select the very best for where you are. They state that they are an old-fashioned business that answers phone calls and they’re right!

Ideal Hatchery
P.O. Box 591
Cameron, TX 76520-0591

Email is manned by real people who actually know about chickens. Very helpful and friendly. Quality is great. Carries: chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, bantams, guineas, pheasants, partridges.

Meyer Hatchery
626 State Route 89
Polk, OH 44866

This is pretty much the standard, go to hatchery on the East Coast and Midwest. That being said, they’re good and they will ship small numbers of chickens during the warm season. They have great customer service by phone, never emailed.

Murray McMurray Hatchery
PO Box 458, 191 Closz Drive
Webster City, IA 50595

Carries started pullets, meat – everything, including “special packages” – a specialty order that contains several types of poultry geared towards a specific purpose, such as the Frying Pan special or the Top Hat.


And here are some other well known hatcheries that we haven’t personally dealt with:

Belt Hatchery
7272 S. West Ave.
Fresno, CA 93706
Phone: 559-264-2090 / Fax: 559-264-2095

Phone, fax and email orders (no online orders). There is an extra charge if you order more than one breed to meet the minimum requirement. They maintain their own breeding flocks.

Dunlap Hatchery
Box 507 – 4703, E. Cleveland Blvd.
Caldwell, Idaho 83606

Established in 1918, they have a store as well and do phone orders, MO and checks.

Hoffman Hatchery
P.O. Box 129
Gratz, PA 17030

Started in 1948 with one small Sears-Roebuck incubator. Family-run business. Only accepts checks and money orders. Orders must be mailed in.

Hoovers Hatchery
P.O. Box 200
Rudd, IA 50471

Established 1944. Free shipping, rare breeds, meat birds, bantams.

Ideal Poultry
PO Box 591
Cameron, TX 76520

Minimum order $25.00. Accepts Paypal. Claim to be the largest supplier of backyard poultry in the United States, shipping close to 5 million chicks annually. Offers surplus chick bargains and make your own mix.

Moyer’s Chicks
266 E. Paletown Road
Quakertown, PA 18951

Started in 1946. They hatch out year-round. They sell their own hybrid cross chickens.

Myers Poultry
966 Ragers Hill Rd.
South Fork, PA 15956

150+ varieties. Payment information must be phoned in.

Purely Poultry
PO Box 466
Fremont WI 54940

300+ breeds of chickens, bantams, ducks, geese, turkeys, guineas, peafowl, pheasants, ornamentals, chukars, swans and quail.

Ridgeway Hatchery
615 N. High St., Box 306
Larue, OH 43332

In business 93 years. Orders are placed online and then you call in your payment information.

Sand Hill Preservation Center
1878 230th Street
Calamus, Iowa 52729

“We are doing this as a hobby business service and we work as fast and efficiently as the time allows. If you are impatient and absolutely have to have something by a certain date, please do us and yourself a favor and order from somewhere else.” Linda and Glenn run this as a labor of love.

Schlecht Hatchery
9749 500th Avenue
Miles, IA 52064

Smaller selection but they do all of their own breeding.

Welp Hatchery
PO Box 77
Bancroft, IA 50517

Started in 1929. Broilers are specialty. Accepts money orders. No additional shipping charges.

Do you have a favorite hatchery or have a comment about one listed here? Tell us about it in a comment below!

Superbowl Most Valuable Player and Chicken Farmer?

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Von Miller final

In my family, we’re football fans.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it but I grew up rooting for the NY Jets. When we moved to North Carolina the year the Carolina Panthers became an NFL expansion team, we decided it was only right to root for the local team. I love the game but lately the headlines that come along with it – the concussions, the insane amount of money involved, the bad choices and behaviors often exhibited by players off the field – can make me question the morality and wisdom of this as a “fun” sport.

So I read with great interest a story about Von Miller, Denver Bronco’s linebacker and Superbowl Most Valuable Player, and his chickens. What??! Turns out Von attended Texas A&M where he took a poultry class because it was supposed to be easy. He had planned on sleeping through it but the professor got him so interested he graduated college with a minor in poultry science. He now has a flock of 40-50 chickens and plans to expand this to a full time business when his NFL career is over.

When he got the first chicks, he joked he had named them all after his teammates. (I can relate after naming two big, blocky Cornish hens after Carolina Panther running backs Biakabatuka and Floyd). He keeps the birds on the eight acres he owns in Dallas, where the weather is a bit milder than Denver. He’s named it “Miller Farms” and acknowledges he’s just starting out. But he feels he’s found his calling and, as he told the magazine Business Insider, “… I just feel like, ‘Man, this is for me.’ It’s just something I can see myself doing and my family and my children doing for a long time.”

Von has also noted that even though we use the word “chicken” as an insult, he feels they’re actually brave and courageous. Hmm…I’ve never quite considered them in that respect but perhaps I should. He plans to grow 3-4 flocks a year and when his NFL career is over, he feels he can make a good living, and be happy, with a second career as a poultry farmer. And I think you’ve got to admire that.


Sources: Photo courtesy of:

Wild Chickens In Hawaii Part II

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We did a story about the wild chickens in Hawaii a little while back. We decided to see what new developments have happened since then.

chickens-hawaiiAt the end of July, an army barracks decided to offer the 150 wild chickens living in their parking lot to anyone interested in adopting them. They offered several caveats, though: chickens may have lice, mites, fleas and other parasites; chicken droppings can cause respiratory diseases. In spite of those dire warnings, Jennifer Alexander, an entomologist at the U.S. Army Health Clinic-Schofield Barracks, urged people “They can be raised to become loving and affectionate just like any other pet, and the hens produce eggs. They’re fun to watch and good at keeping bugs and pests out…Actually, they can be pretty awesome – just not at a health clinic.”

They noticed the population began growing since the beginning of the year. They’ve now put into place a program to trap the chickens using baited cages or nets. Any not adopted will be euthanized by lethal injection.

Meanwhile, in Honolulu, the mayor has hired a private pest control company to begin what they call an “Integrated Feral Chicken Management Program”. Targeting city properties, including golf courses, they’re trying to trap 1,500 wild chickens. The birds will be euthanized with carbon dioxide. Animal rights advocates have countered, saying the chickens should instead be given a bird contraceptive called Ovocontrol. Either way, private property owners are on their own in figuring out how to deal with the chickens.

Roosters Crow In Pecking Order

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red jungle fowl crowing

Believe it or not, there’s still a lot we don’t know about roosters crowing even though, according to recorded history, they’ve been doing it since 2600 B.C.

We all know about the pecking order of our chickens – certain ones are the “top” in the group and tend to get to the food first or get to have the best roosting spot but according to a study published in Scientific Reports in July, the top ranked rooster is the first to crow every day.

Chickens are very social animals and the theory is crowing helps to announce their territory and avoid aggressive moves from other roosters.

Tsuyoshi Shimmura from Nagoya University in Japan studied groups of roosters and determined that the rooster highest in the pecking order determined when to begin the daily pre-dawn crowing with each rooster following after in order according to their rank. When the top rooster was removed from the group, the second in charge took over and filled his job, with each subordinate rooster, again in order, crowing next.

The timing of the crows is regulated by an internal biological clock, called the circadian clock. Although it can also be influenced by things like light and the crowing of other roosters, it’s mainly this 24 hour internal cycle that determines the time of the first crow each day. The scientists concluded that when in a group, roosters suppressed their own internal clock to accommodate the social rules of the group – in other words, the pecking order. So even though the second or third ranking rooster might feel inside “hey, it’s dawn and time to crow”, they won’t do it – not until the highest ranked has started the group off. The team also noticed that the highest ranked rooster crowed more often than the others.

Wild Chickens in Hawaii

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We recently received an email from a listener in Hawaii who mentioned that where he lives – on the main island – there are thousands of wild chickens. He said they have eight hens and ten roosters who drop by daily for food!

This intrigued us so much we had to find out more!Chicken on the Beach

In May, Hawaiian TV station KHON reported Honolulu was trying to find a solution because the problem had become so widespread people were complaining. This is in an urban and suburban area.

But where did this exploding population of wild chickens come from? Some people theorize that many of the chickens are descendants of birds that escaped when hurricanes hit and destroyed chicken coops. Annual bird counts done by the Audubon Society confirm the numbers jumped after the hurricanes. Others speculate the birds are wild ancestors of the original chickens brought to Hawaii from the Polynesians and relatives of the Red Junglefowl.

Eben Gering, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University has been studying these birds, specifically the chickens on Kauai Island,an island even more overrun with the birds than the big island, maybe due to the lack of mongooses, a natural predator, on that island. He published his findings in April. Analysis of the birds’ DNA reveals lineages from both our domesticated chickens and wild Red Junglefowl from Asia.

Dr. Gering and his researchers are hoping the interbreeding might help us improve our domestic breeds. They hope that by studying these chickens they can find out how and why an invasive species establishes itself somewhere new and at the same time what happens when a domesticated species goes feral.

Most of the wild chickens look like Red Junglefowl, with striking red, black, and green plumage. Others are speckled with white and reddish-brown, more like most of our domestic breeds. Their feather patterns match their calls: the ones who look like red junglefowl crow like wild birds, while the ones birds with more chicken-like feathers sound like domestic chickens.

But what about the residents of the islands who are complaining about crowing roosters at all hours of the day and night? Legally speaking, the chickens are protected by state law and residents can trap them but can’t kill them.

Apparently the chicken problem has been growing since the early 2000’s. In 2005, the Honolulu Advertiser reported volunteer trappers had captured more than 700 feral chickens around the island. A city contract was granted to The Hawaii Game Breeders Association, paying them $40,000 a year to catch the chickens. Birds that were healthy were given to people interested in eating them. In 2007, there were an estimated 20,000 chickens running loose on Oahu (the “big island” in Hawaii). Then in 2013, the city budget was cut and the program ended.

Meanwhile it’s been suggested that the Game Breeders Association had connections to cockfighting and routinely shipped birds all over the world for both legal and illegal forms of cockfighting.

Since 2013, the problem has gotten worse. This year, Honolulu has $80,000 budgeted to take care of the problem but the city so far can’t find someone to take on the job. In the past few weeks, owners from two condo complexes and an elementary school got together and hired a private exterminator to take care of the problem in their neighborhood.

And as for our listener in Hawaii, he’s planning to build a coop to protect the chickens from the main predators there, mongooses and rats. Apparently, despite all of the wild chickens roaming around, the price of grocery store eggs is six to seven dollars a dozen!


This post was written by Kim Torchy, for those of you who haven’t been in touch with Kim yet here are a few words from her:

“Hi everyone – my name is Kim and I’m lucky enough to be working with John. I’m very excited that’s he’s asked me to write a post! Let me tell you a little about myself: My husband and I moved from NJ to 15 acres in the mountains of NC and decided we needed chickens. We started with a flock of 8 laying hens and, well, one thing led to another (as it so often does). We ended up getting eighteen more plus raising enough meat birds yearly that we completely stopped buying chicken and eggs. I’m also Mom to two daughters, ages 24 and 8, and two beautiful grandchildren, Rylan and Sophia.”


Spring Cleaning – Chicken Edition

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Pretty much no matter where you are, it’s now fully spring (and if you’re in Kentucky, Derby Day generally is when you know to set your plant starts outside). The air is warming up and your tender crops are usually safe by now from any polar vortex coming through. This is a time when I think back to Chaucer and the beginning of his epic tales:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye

Your own little birds are ‘maken melodye’ right about now, aren’t they? I know mine are. The happy little clucks and purrs of my birds as they scratch around in the new grass is a wonderful thing to hear after such a brutal winter. It really struck me this year that this is probably how folks in past centuries felt in the spring; a huge sense of relief and almost giddiness now that the hardest part of the year was over. There’s a reason why spring is immortalized down through the millennia as an almost magical time of year.

Paris in April. May Day. Twitterpated. It’s hard not to get lost in all the joy of this new season. Especially knowing that summer is coming in (you folks out there who are middle English literature nerds like me are probably laughing loudly at this point) with trips to the beach and lazy days splashing in lakes. Fireworks. I’m seriously excited here!

But before all the play days and fun time, there’s a whole heck of a lot of work to do.

Every time the season changes there is work to be done. By the time spring comes around your coops are probably a dirty mess, possibly damaged by the winter weather, and the honey do list gets longer and longer.

  • Get inside the coops and scrub every available surface with a mixture of white vinegar and hot water. About half and half usually does it. And if you happen to be making lemonade or something similar, my wife usually tosses the used lemon halves in the hot water to soak overnight before adding vinegar and straining them out so you have a solution that is cheap, effective, and anti-bacterial. Use this to wash and scrub EVERY inch of your coop, inside and out. I usually make and use about a gallon of this stuff. The vinegar smell evaporates after a few hours and leaves just a clean coop. While you do this, it’s good to have your hens sunning themselves somewhere in the run. Make a point to scrub the walls as well as the nesting boxes.
  • Check over the coop for any repairs that need to be made or items that need to be replaced. Are the sticks you used for perches beyond a good scrubbing? Did the wind blow off part of your coop roof? Did the chickens scratch holes through anything? How about their feeding and watering equipment? Does it need to be replaced or will it survive another season?
  • Is the temperature above 35 degrees fahrenheit at night yet? If so then it’s time to retire the heat lamp until late fall.

Now that you have the spring cleaning done, it’s time to take a look at your chickens and make sure that they came through the winter healthily.

  • Look at their legs and nails. Do their legs look scaly and dry? How about their nails? If they’re always in the grass they won’t grind down naturally so if the nails look too long then you may need to take care of it.
  • Feathers? Do you need to clip their wings again? What about the appearance of the feathers themselves? Are they still smooth and glossy? Have they lost feathers anywhere? Check at this time for parasites like fleas and lice as well.
  • Do any of the chickens have watery eyes or a crust around them? A normal chicken’s eyes should be bright, shiny, and curious.
  • Are they acting funny? Kind of laying around or changed behavior suddenly?

Follow up on any and all concerns about your chicken’s health with a vet (or an old farmer who knows chickens works well, too).

Taking one day out to accomplish all of this is very much worth the investment. Generally, unless your flock is very large, it’ll only take you an afternoon to clean, repair, and check the health of your birds. You will save time and money in the long run and your chickens will thank you.


Winter Feed Alternatives II

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I thought this was a wonderful video that demonstrates a very simple way to fresh greens for your flock over the winter. They get fresh growing plants for very inexpensive and you get happy chickens and some very tasty eggs.

Just be careful of what seeds you use. I’d ensure that they’re not chemically treated or GMO.

Common Egg Layer Health Problems

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Photo by: HA! Designs – Artbyheather

No one buys chickens imagining images of sick birds, death, and heartache. Yet this is a real risk involved in owning animals of any type. If you’re ever owned a pet, you know firsthand how traumatic it can be when your beloved friend becomes seriously ill and/ or passes away. Yet, don’t let the fear of sickness and losing birds keep you from keeping your own flock of chickens. Prepare yourself that things might happen and that a chicken death will happen eventually (even if it is just old age). Also, educate yourself about common chicken health problems and how you can avoid or alleviate these issues. There’s a good chance you’ll never run into chicken health problems of any kind. It’s still a great idea to be prepared. Here are a few common problems to get you started.

Egg-Bound Chickens

Sometimes, in humans, a baby grows too large to easily and naturally fit through the birth canal. Before the advent of modern medicine, this was often a fatal complication. A similar conundrum sometimes occurs in chickens. Sometimes, an egg becomes too large to fit through the chicken’s vent. A chicken who is egg bound will often be lethargic. She may be straining and doesn’t feel that great. If the bound egg is not removed, she will die. 48 hours is as long as you have. It’s time to act.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to help your hen out of this painful situation. Wearing a glove, lubricate your finger and gently insert it into the chicken’s vent, gently squeezing or massaging the hen’s abdomen with the other hand to help ease the egg out of the bird with slow and steady pressure. Be very careful not to damage your chicken’s insides! If at all possible, avoid breaking the egg. Egg material left inside your chicken can cause infection and/ or death.  If you have any questions or cannot help the egg dislodge, call your vet or an experienced chicken-raising friend.

Prolapse Vent

Sometimes, such as if a hen has laid an unusually large egg for example, the lower part of a hen’s oviduct turns inside out. It protrudes visibly through the chicken’s vent. A prolapsed vent is quite serious and likely to recur, but it is also quite treatable if treated immediately. Should the prolapsed vent be left out, it is possible that the chicken’s oviduct and/or intestines will be pulled out  or that it will become cut and infected. The chicken will die. Sorry for the graphic nature, but it is true. Exposed wounds simply ask for trouble; your other chickens will peck at her. Should you notice a protruding area of pink or red behind your chicken’s vent, manually push it back inside and apply hemorrhoid cream. Carefully watch for a reoccurrence and handle the issue immediately.

Respiratory Infections

Just like people, chickens can suffer from a wide range of respiratory infections. Severe respiratory infections can be fatal if not treated (others clear up on their own). Infectious bronchitis, fowl pox, avian influenza, infectious coryza, and swollen head syndrome are just a few of many examples. This is a great source of information about chicken respiratory infections and diseases: read more here.  The Poultry Guide also offers an excellent guide about common chicken diseases: Poultry Guide.

Interesting Facts About Chicken Eggs

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The egg is a pretty simple thing.  Full of protein and very inexpensive, the egg is part of human diets worldwide and has been for thousands of years. Its smooth and unassuming texture and taste lend it to usage in cooking styles of innumerable variety. Yet, have you ever sat and contemplated the egg? It may be more interesting than you think.

Why Do Some Chickens Lay White Eggs and Others Brown Eggs?

The color of the chicken, and specifically the color of the chicken’s earlobes, determines the color of the egg. Sounds strange, right? Yet, according to NPR, it is absolutely true ( According to the American Egg Board, feather color also determines egg color. If a chicken has white ear lobes, its eggs will be white. If it has brown or reddish ear lobes, its eggs will be brown. There are always exceptions to this rule, but in general the ear lobe rule works well. Egg color is a breed characteristic. Neither white nor brown eggs are healthier. An egg is an egg.

Egg size, just like color, is dependent on the breed of chicken. Egg size is also determined by the age and weight of the chicken.

Have Chicken Eggs Always Been About the Same Size?

If you read a recipe from Colonial America, one thing will stand out right away. They called for a ridiculous amount of eggs, such as 7-8 per recipe! Why? The eggs laid by the typical colonial backyard chicken were considerably smaller than the average supermarket egg of today. As chickens eggs entered the mass-produced, grocery-store market, consumers sought large, generally white, and uniform sized eggs in their prepackaged dozen. Breeds that produced these large, white eggs, such as the Leghorn, were chosen over traditional breeds. While many egg colors and sizes exist, the large, white Leghorn egg has become a standard in modern society.  If you have a variety of backyard birds, don’t expect your eggs to all be the same size and color. You’re sure to get a much more eclectic mix!

Did Sailors Really Bring Chickens on the Ships of Old?

Yes! It was extremely common to find small chicken coops on sailing ships throughout history. There was no better way to provide the crew with fresh eggs than to keep some low maintenance chickens on board. Other ships carried huge amounts of livestock to meet the needs of passengers. The Great Britain (1852-1876) carried 550 chickens on its 1861 voyage from Melbourne to England, as well as lambs, oxen, 30 pigs, 250 ducks, 55 turkeys, and 150 sheep. Now that’s one full ship (including, of course, the 750 passengers and 130 crew members) (

Egg-Laying Has Nothing to Do With A Rooster

One last egg-related thought for you: Do you have to have a rooster in order for your hens to lay eggs? No. Hens will lay eggs whether or not they have ever seen a rooster in their life. A rooster is not a necessary part of your flock if you want eggs. If you want fertilized eggs and thus chicks, a rooster is required.

Who knew eggs were so interesting?