How to Wash Chicken Eggs

Chicken eggs

Photo by Sharon Kristoff

What’s the best way to clean dirty eggs? Should they be washed when you first gather them, or is it better to wait and wash them just before use? Before we answer these questions, let’s go over some basics.

Bloom Protects the Contents

A nearly invisible waxy substance called “bloom,” or “cuticle,” covers the surface of each freshly laid egg. Egg shells are porous, each shell having thousands of tiny pores. Bloom seals up those pores, allowing the egg to breathe, which is important for eggs that are going to be hatched. Bloom also seals out contaminants and bacteria.

Washing an egg in water removes the bloom, which is the egg’s best defense against contamination. If you plan to use the eggs right away, washing them first is a good idea. But if you plan to store eggs for a few days and if they’re not excessively dirty, then it would be best to delay washing with water until just before you plan to use them.

Prevention Is Best Cure

The best way to have clean chicken eggs is to prevent them from getting dirty in the first place. That’s not always possible, but in another article, we give some tips on how to keep eggs clean.

“Dry Clean” the Eggs if Possible

For eggs that have only a little dirt or manure on the surface and that aren’t deeply soiled, you may be able to clean them without water by using a little sandpaper. 320 grit will work well. (Higher numbered grits, being smoother, tend to be harder to get the egg clean with, and lower numbered grits, being coarser, tend to be too aggressive and can easily scratch away the bloom.)

By gently sanding any dirty spots on the egg, you can remove dirt while leaving the bloom mostly intact.

Washing Your Eggs

Some eggs, however, are too dirty to “dry clean” with sandpaper. For those, you’ll need water and/or detergent. When washing eggs, it’s best to use water that is 10-20 degrees (F) warmer than the egg. The reason for this is that each egg contains a small air cell. When air is cooled, it shrinks, so if you were to wash the egg in water that’s colder than the egg, the air cell would start to shrink. As it shrank, it would create a bit of a vacuum inside the egg shell, and this vacuum could actually pull contaminants through the pores and into the egg.

Warm water reverses this, causing the air cell to expand, thus creating slight pressure inside the egg that helps to keep contaminants out.

For washing eggs, we offer several different products:

  • Egg Wipes — These are soft, biodegradable wet wipes made for cleaning eggs. Just pull an egg wipe out of the container and thoroughly wipe down the eggs. Each wipe is good for cleaning about a dozen eggs, depending on how dirty they are.
  • Egg Soap Concentrate — This is a concentrated powder that makes a chlorinated egg washing solution.
  • All Natural Egg Cleanser — This all natural, chlorine-free, concentrated cleanser removes dirt, manure and unwanted bacteria from the eggs. One bottle of concentrate makes more than 60 gallons of wash water.
  • Egg Washing Kit — If you’ve got a lot of eggs to wash, this egg washing kit will save you lots of time. It works together with an air compressor and can wash about 8 dozen eggs in 15 minutes or less.

Eggs Not to Eat

If you find an egg with a broken eggshell, it’s best to avoid using it for human consumption, since the crack can let in contaminants. If you have a dog or cat, you can cook up the egg and feed it to them instead. I would also recommend that you not eat eggs that have become so deeply soiled that the shell remains discolored even after the eggs have been washed thoroughly.

Other Tips on Cleaning Eggs

Do you have other tips on how to clean eggs? Or favorite approaches? Post a reply in the comments below this article.

Posted in Chicken Eggs | 13 Comments

Reduce Stress for a Healthier, More Productive Flock

Photo by Pamela Steppe

Photo by Pamela Steppe

Reducing or limiting stress is one of the best things you can do to keep your flock healthy and productive. Similar to how stress affects us as humans, in poultry it can lead to many problems. Reduced egg production, poor rate of growth and development, greater susceptibility to disease — all of these can result from stress.

According to Gail Damerow, author of The Chicken Health Handbook, chickens are always undergoing some level of stress. Our task is not to totally eliminate stress, which would be impossible, but instead to limit and reduce stress.

What Causes Chickens to Be Stressed?

Lots of things can cause stress to your flock, most of which are easy to correct or prevent. Some of the obvious causes of stress are inadequate nutrition, lack of water, poor hygiene and extreme conditions, but there are others, too. Let’s look in more detail at things that can cause chickens stress.

  1. Water problems. If your chickens ever run out of water, that will cause unnecessary stress. Poor quality water — water that’s not clean, or water that’s not very palatable (perhaps due to dissolved minerals or additives) — can cause stress. To reduce stress, give them a continual supply of clean, fresh water, and clean their watering equipment regularly. For more information, see our article on the importance of water for chickens.
  2. Inadequate nutrition. Chicken feeds are designed for specific applications and ages. Feeding the wrong type of feed can lead to inadequate nutrition, as can not supplying enough feed or letting feed get spoiled. For example, newly hatched chicks should receive a chick starter that supplies adequate levels of protein, not a lower protein ration intended for mature birds, such as layer ration.
  3. Excessive or Rough Handling. Handling chickens stresses them to some degree, particular rough handling. Sometimes children can unintentionally cause chickens a lot of stress simply because they haven’t been taught how to properly handle the birds. On the other hand, proper handling of your birds can actually reduce stress overall. If you rarely handle your chickens, they will not be used to human contact, and then when you do need to handle them, for example, to check for mites, it will stress them more than necessary. The solution is to handle them gently and frequently enough that they get used to it, but in moderation. Just spending some time in the coop or pen with them for a few minutes on a daily basis helps. (That’s why I prefer a coop or pen that is high enough to get into easily). Picking up a hen or rooster, holding it for a little while and then setting it down gently helps the chicken learn that you aren’t going to harm it, and with regular handling, they will get tamer (some breeds more than others). Tamer chickens will experience less stress when you do need to handle them.
  4. Fear of dogs or predators. If your chickens are being threatened by predators, of if dogs are able to run around the coop, they may frighten the chickens, which will obviously stress them. If things like this are a problem in your area, you may want to consider some kind of perimeter fencing that can keep animals like these well away from the coop. Electrified wire can help keep dogs and predators away.
  5. Overcrowding. Having too many chickens in too small of a space increases stress, exacerbates tendencies toward pecking one another, makes good hygiene more difficult and can increase the risk of diseases and parasites. Make sure your chickens have plenty of space.
  6. Parasites and disease. Diseases, internal parasites such as worms and external parasites such as mites place stress on chickens. Also, stress weakens chickens’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease.
  7. Extremes of Temperature. Heat stress is one of the most commonly discussed types of stress for chickens. In another article we discuss things you can do to help your chickens stay cool. Excessive cold can also be a problem. One thing to keep in mind is that chickens are typically much better insulated than we are, so what feels cold to us is not necessarily that cold for them. See also our recent article on caring for chickens in cold weather.


One of the best ways to recognize sources of stress and other problems is to spend time with your chickens and observe their behavior and their living conditions. (This is also a great way to notice not just problems, but things that are working well.) It’s easy to see when the living conditions aren’t clean enough. It’s not difficult to smell the harmful ammonia build-up that can result from inadequate ventilation. Beyond that, chickens’ behavior will change — not unlike how our own behavior changes — when they experience higher levels of stress. If you spend time with them and watch them enough to recognize what their normal behavior is like, then you’ll be able to more easily notice when their behavior has begun to change as a result of stress. Then once you’ve determined the cause, you’ll be able to make changes to fix the problem and reduce their stress levels. That will lead to a happier, healthier and more productive flock.

More could be said about stress, and perhaps we’ll cover that in future articles. For now, I’d like to hear back from you. Have you noticed signs of stress in your flock? What was the cause? And what worked best to reduce the stress?

Posted in Chickens | 9 Comments

What type of poultry feed should I use?

The nutritional requirements of chickens differ somewhat at different stages of growth. Also, broilers have different nutritional requirements than layers. When selecting a feed, it’s important to understand how the manufacturer intended the feed to be used, and make sure that its intended use matches your use.

Some broad categories of feed are:

  • Chick Starter is a feed that you would start to use when your chicks first hatch. Generally you would use it for some number of weeks (specified by the manufacturer) then switch to either a layer feed for pullets that you are raising to become layers or a broiler feed for meat birds. Chick starter feeds are available in medicated and non-medicated varieties.  The medicated variety is intended to help the chickens develop an immunity to Coccidiosis.  If, instead, you have chosen to have your chicks vaccinated for Coccidiosis, then you should use a non-medicated feed.
  • Chick Grower. Some manufacturers make a Grower feed and others do not.  Grower feed is used once the chicks are a few weeks old until they are ready to transition to a layer feed. The manufacturer will have specifications as to what age range the Grower feed is intended for. If you are raising layers and you use a brand of feed that is not supplied in a grower ration, then you would switch directly from starter feed to layer ration at the age specified by the feed manufacturer. Similarly, if you are raising broilers and a grower ration is not available, you would switch directly from chick starter to broiler ration or broiler finisher at the appropriate age.
  • Broiler Finisher is for feeding to your broilers until they are ready to  be processed. We sell an organic broiler finisher that is designed for use beginning at about 5 weeks of age.
  • Layer feed is formulated for hens as they approach laying age. Some layer feeds are designed to be used starting at 16-18 weeks, while others are designed for use beginning at 10 weeks. Some layer feeds are complete feeds, meaning that you do not need to supplement them. Other layer feeds are lower in calcium and need to be supplemented by giving your hens access to oyster shells in a separate feeder, free choice.

Feeds come in different forms, including:

  • Mash, which is a ground up feed,
  • Pellets, which consist of mash that has been processed to shape the feed into pellets, and
  • Crumbles, a feed which contains pellets that have been broken up into smaller pieces, making them easier to eat.

Pellets can help to reduce feed waste, but are not as easily digested as mash or crumbles.

Posted in Feeds and Feeding | Comments Off on What type of poultry feed should I use?

7 Ways to Get Cleaner Eggs from Your Chickens

Chicken eggs

Photo by Steve Taysom

Raising your own flock of layers is a great way to get fresh eggs, but particularly during wet, mucky weather, the chickens will tend to get their eggs dirty. Here are a few things you can do to minimize that:

1. Encourage hens to lay in the nest boxes

Put nest boxes in the coop before your hens start laying. This will give them time to explore the nest boxes and get comfortable with them being there.

Hens prefer to lay nest boxes that are dark and somewhat secluded, so place them away from the main paths of traffic through the coop and orient them so that sunlight does not shine directly toward the box’s opening.

Ceramic Nest Eggs

Ceramic Nest Eggs

If you have difficulty getting your hens to lay in the nest boxes, you can put in a few ceramic eggs to train them where to lay. The idea is that they’ll see the eggs and recognize the nest box as a safe place to lay eggs.

2. Discourage roosting in the nest boxes

Since chickens produce manure all night long while roosting, you’ll want to prevent them from roosting in the nest boxes. They’ll tend to roost in the highest places that they can get to, so place roosts higher than the nest boxes to encourage roosting on the roosts rather than in the nest boxes.

3. Gather eggs daily

Eggs are more likely to get dirty the longer they’re left in the nest box. Gather them once or even twice a day if possible.

4. Have plenty of bedding in nestboxes

If eggs get accidentally cracked in the nest box, it can be a real mess to clean up, and it soils the nest box, the bedding in the nest box and other eggs in the nest box. To reduce the chances of eggs being accidentally cracked keep plenty of soft bedding material in the nest boxes. Pine shavings work well for this.

5. Have plenty of nest boxes

Aim to have at least one nest box for every five to six hens. If you have too few, sometimes more than one hen will try to occupy the nest box at a time, and that can lead to broken eggs. Plus, with too few nest boxes you’ll have more eggs in a nest box, increasing the likelihood that eggs will get stepped on or jostled around and broken.

Even with plenty of nest boxes, hens may develop a preference for a particular nest box, or often they will prefer laying in a box where there are already some eggs, even though there are other, empty nest boxes.

6. Have plenty of bedding on the coop floor

This helps in two ways. First, if the hens occasionally lay eggs on the floor, they will be cleaner when there’s plenty of fresh, clean bedding there. Second, it helps their feet to stay cleaner, reducing the amount of dirt and manure that they’ll track into the nest boxes and onto the eggs.

7. Washing eggs

Even with doing all the above, you will encounter some dirty eggs. Eggs that are lightly soiled can be cleaned carefully with sandpaper. Eggs that require a more thorough cleaning can be washed, as long as they’re not broken and not too deeply soiled. We offer several products for washing eggs, and we plan to go into more detail on how to wash eggs in a future article.

By following these steps, you can maximize the cleanliness of your eggs and minimize the amount of extra work you have to put in to cleaning them. Do you have additional ways to ensure that you get clean eggs from your flock? Please post your ideas in the comments below.

Posted in Chicken Eggs | 30 Comments

How to Start Your Flock

In this article, we’ll discuss several different ways to start your flock.

Buy Day Old Baby Chicks

new chicks from McMurray Hatchery

New day old baby chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery

Most of our customers buy day old baby chicks. They’re called “day old” because they’re shipped to you the day that they’re hatched. Amazingly, newly hatched chicks can survive for up to 72 hours on the nutrition gained from absorbing their yolk sacs.

Day old baby chicks can be shipped throughout most of the United States. Since the chicks depend on each other’s body heat for warmth during shipping, there is a minimum order size of 15 or 25 birds, depending on the time of year.

When the chicks arrive, they’ll need to go into a brooder, which is a place that will keep the chicks warm while they’re young, much like a mother hen would have done had she hatched them, only it’s done with heat lamps or heating elements. The chicks will need water right away and food. (If you’ve never raised day old baby chicks before, see our instructions on brooding day old baby chicks.) The chicks will need to stay in the brooder for several weeks as they grow and feather out. Once they no longer need supplemental heat, they’ll be ready to go into an outdoor coop.

Hatch Fertile Chicken Eggs



A second option is to start with fertile eggs and hatch them yourself in an incubator. Depending on the type of chickens you want to raise, you can buy hatching eggs or get them from a friend or neighbor and hatch them yourself. It takes about 21 days to hatch chicks from eggs, then once you hatch them, you’ll be starting with day old baby chicks just like above.

If you have access to an incubator and a good source for the kind of eggs that you want to hatch, hatching is a rewarding learning experience that requires a little more equipment (namely, the incubator) and a little more attention and care than starting with day old chicks, since the eggs will require fairly close attention during the 21 days that they’re in the incubator. If you’ve never raised chickens before, we recommend starting with day old baby chicks or one of other options below.

Buy Started Chicks

Barred Rock

Four week old Barred Rock

A third option is to buy started chicks — chicks that have been raised in  a brooder until they reach 4-9 weeks of age. When you buy started chicks, you’ll receive them at about the age when they’re ready to come out of the brooder and be placed into a chicken coop. If the weather is moderate, they’ll be ready to go directly into your chicken coop without the need for supplemental heat. Beginning with started chicks can save you the extra effort, attention and equipment needed to care for young chicks in a brooder, but the cost per bird will be higher because of the extra care, feed and equipment needed to raise them to this age, and shipping costs are higher for these larger chicks.

Buy Started Pullets

Started Delaware pullet

Started Delaware pullet

A fourth option is to buy started pullets. These are female chickens that are approaching laying age (18 weeks and up, typically). In most cases, they won’t have started laying yet, but they’ll be ready to lay soon. Started pullets are essentially young adult birds that are fully ready to be placed into an outdoor coop. If you’re looking to start getting eggs from your new flock quickly, this is a good way to start. Because of the additional care, feed and housing that it takes to raise the birds to this age, started pullets cost more per bird than started chicks, and because of their larger weight and size, shipping costs are higher.

Posted in Chickens | 5 Comments

Keeping Eggs Fresh

Chicken EggsObviously, the freshest eggs are the ones that come straight from your chickens without being stored at all. But often, you do need to store eggs for a few days, or even a few weeks. So, what’s the best way to store them so that they’ll stay fresh the longest? Should they be put in the refrigerator or left out on the counter?

First, let’s look at refrigeration. In America, any eggs you buy at the supermarket will already have been refrigerated. The reason for this is that these eggs have already been washed in order to meet U.S. health requirements, and washing eggs removes the protective outer coating known as “bloom” or “cuticle” from the egg shell. Egg shells are porous, which allows them to “breathe,” and bloom is a waxy substance that covers the egg shell to seal out contaminants.

When you gather eggs from your own chickens you can choose to leave them out at room temperature or refrigerate them. If you plan to store them for a long time, it’s better to refrigerate them, because they’ll stay fresh longer that way. But if you plan to eat the eggs soon, within a week or so, you can refrigerate them or store them out on the counter, as long as you haven’t washed them yet. Once you’ve washed them, you should either go ahead and use them or store them in the refrigerator. (We’ll go into more detail in a separate article about how to wash eggs.)

When refrigerating eggs you should aim for a temperature between about 36 degrees (F) and 40 degrees (F). Much colder than that, and the eggs and other food in your refrigerator are liable to freeze. Much warmer than that, and they’ll spoil faster.

Since eggs can absorb strong odors from other foods in the refrigerator (like onions) it’s best to keep eggs in an egg carton rather than store them in the open-topped egg tray that came with or was built into your refrigerator. It’s also best to store them on one of the shelves, where they’ll stay at a more constant temperature than if you were to store them in the refrigerator door. Eggs have an air cell at the large end, so store eggs in the carton with the large end up.

If you’d like to learn more about long term storage of eggs — what works and what doesn’t — read the following informative article from Mother Earth News: How to Store Fresh Eggs. It goes into a number of different “old time” methods for preserving eggs. Having experimented with a large number of eggs to test the effectiveness of these methods, they concluded, among other things, that:

The very best way we’ve found to stash eggs away for long-term storage is in a sealed container at a temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Their whites may become somewhat runny over a period of time, but even after seven months [the eggs] … stored in this manner smell good, taste good, have a good texture, and — in short — seem “almost fresh”.

Posted in Chicken Eggs | 12 Comments

How to Tell if an Egg is Fresh

Photo by Swen Bos

Photo by Swen Bos

When your chickens are laying well, sometimes you can start to get more eggs than you’re able to use. When you go to use the eggs in your recipes, it’s good to be able to tell which ones are getting old and which ones are still fresh.

Although it’s not obvious to the eye, eggshells are porous. Each egg has thousands of tiny pores in its shell. This allows the egg to “breathe,” letting out carbon dioxide and moisture and taking in air. When you consider that the role of an eggshell to protect and help provide a nurturing environment for a developing baby chick, then it’s easy to understand why eggshells are porous: a developing chick needs to be able to breathe.

When you get eggs from your chickens or from the grocery store for eating, ideally, you will store the eggs in such a way as to keep them fresh. A fresh egg that has just been laid has either a very small air cell or none at all. But as it first cools and then ages, an air cell will form and increase in size. The size of the air cell gives a good indication as to the age and freshness of the egg. A smaller air cell indicates a younger, fresher egg.

This makes it easy for you to test how fresh an egg is. Take a chicken egg and place it into a bowl of slightly warm water. If the egg is very fresh, it will sink and lie on its side at the bottom of the bowl.

An egg that sinks but doesn’t lie flat on the bottom isn’t as fresh, but it will still be okay to eat. Actually, eggs at this stage are ideal for cooking as hard boiled eggs (but not ideal for use as poached eggs). It’s hard to cleanly peel off the shell on a very fresh egg that’s been hard boiled, but if you let your eggs age a little, then hard boil them, they will be much easier to peel.

If the egg floats in the bowl of water, discard it. It’s unlikely that it will float on top of the water, but even if it just floats up toward the top of the bowl, it’s not very fresh, and you shouldn’t use it.

As a second test and a safeguard against ruining your recipe, if you’re getting ready to make something that calls for eggs and you come across an egg that’s questionable, crack it into a small, separate container, then look at it and smell it. If it smells rotten, discard it. If it smells okay, and if the yolk is holding together and the whites aren’t too runny, it should be fine to use. Egg whites that are cloudy are not at all a cause for concern — on the contrary, they indicate that the egg is very fresh. The egg whites become more clear as the egg ages.

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An Interview with Joe Claborn, Part 3

Joe ClabornBackground: Joe Claborn has worked with McMurray Hatchery for many years and currently raises started chicks and started pullets for McMurray. Joe is also involved with a project that Bud Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, initiated to start backup flocks for many of McMurray’s rare breeds during the current Avian Flu outbreak.

This is part 3 of a three-part interview (see part 1 and part 2 of the interview).

Q: What prompted you to start raising birds on this scale?

McMurray's sebsite circa 1997

McMurray’s one-page website in 1997
(from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

Joe Claborn: Part of it is that I’ve had a long and very fruitful relationship with McMurray Hatchery. Years ago, when we first started to look into raising chickens, my dad and my sons had built a coop in our little backyard, and we looked online to try to find a place to buy chickens. At the time, McMurray Hatchery had a little one page website.

I was working for a small internet company at the time and I said to my manager, “We should build them a new website. If you can sell chicks online you can sell anything.” So we did. We built them their first e-commerce website, and I’ve been working with them ever since.

Filling watererBut eventually, I got to the place to where I wanted to do more than work at a computer all day. I really wanted to be able to do something where I could express care — not only care for the chickens, but also care for the people that would receive the chickens. And I wanted to do something that involved more of my family so that I could express more care into their lives, and transfer my passion for care into them, teaching them to care.

I was talking to Bud Wood, the owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery, and found out that there was an opportunity to raise three breeds of started pullets, and I said, “We’ll do that.” So we learned — we cut our teeth on that. Then people began to want younger birds, and they wanted smaller orders. During much of the year, to ship day-old birds, you need at least 25 birds in a box to keep them warm enough during shipping (there are times in summer you can ship 15). But many people that want chickens live in the city, and they only want to order 5 birds. The U.S. Postal service will ship day old baby chicks, and they will also ship birds that are 4 weeks old or older.

By the time the birds are 4 weeks old in most parts of the country you don’t need any auxiliary heat to ship them during the warmer months of April through July. In the far North, in the earlier part of the year, you’d probably still need a heating pad for a while. So we just kind of started with these three breeds (White Leghorns, Red Stars and Black Stars) and then we just saw a need and started moving to meet that need, and the business has just kind of grown.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about doing this?

Well, it’s very satisfying when the day after you ship, you get a text message from someone that says “We just picked up our birds. They look great. We love them. We’ve already picked out names.” That gives you a good feeling.

While we’re shipping each week, my wife makes a big breakfast. When we’re done shipping, we all come sit down and eat together. That’s a feeling that’s very hard to beat.

And when you spend the morning cleaning out brooders, that’s not the most pleasant task, but then when you look back afterwards, and everything’s clean and well cared for — that, too, is a feeling that’s pretty hard to beat.

Q: What was one of the most unexpected things you’ve learned while raising chickens?

{Laughs}. I think one of the most unexpected things I’ve learned is that taking care of birds is a lot different than computer programming. Working with computers, if you make a mistake, you can just press Control-Z (Undo) and try again. It’s easy to get into a rut of just trying something, testing it, and if it doesn’t work, just press Control-Z and try something else. There’s not really any long-term consequences to your mistakes. There’s no real consequences to a trial and error approach. You’re just thinking about problems, testing theories and trying things out until you come up with something that works. Because there are no real consequences to your failures, you don’t really learn or grow.

But when you’re taking care of birds, and you think to yourself “Oh, I checked them four hours ago — they don’t really need to be checked again before I go to bed,” and then you get up the next morning and find out that a skunk got into them because you didn’t check to make sure everything was locked up tight, you realize right away that there are consequences to my failure. Any time when I fail to care, it has consequences.

For me, coming from a technical background, being faced with the fact that there are consequences to not caring, and that these consequences come home to roost pretty quickly, that’s been really good for me. I feel that has affected all areas of my life as I’ve learned how to care more, and to care more consistently. It gets me up and moving in the morning, and it keeps me moving until bedtime, because if you don’t care, then problems are going to happen.

That, for me, has been an unexpected lesson, an unexpected change in my perspective in life.

Posted in McMurray Hatchery | 8 Comments

An Interview with Joe Claborn, Part 2

JoeClabornBackground: Joe Claborn has worked with McMurray Hatchery for many years and currently raises started chicks and started pullets for McMurray. Joe is also involved with a project that Bud Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, initiated to start backup flocks for many of McMurray’s rare breeds during the current Avian Flu outbreak.

This is part 2 of a three-part interview (see part 1 of the interview). We plan to publish part 3 of the interview in the next few weeks.

Q: In addition to caring for the chicks that Bud brought down from Iowa, I know that you also raise and supply started chicks for Murray McMurray Hatchery. Can you tell me more about that?

We raise both started chicks (available for purchase at 4 to 9 weeks of age) and several breeds of started pullets (available for purchase at approximately 15-22 weeks of age) for Murray McMurray Hatchery.

We start by getting an order of chicks from McMurray Hatchery once a month. We normally get somewhere between a thousand and fourteen hundred chicks at a time.

new chicks from McMurray Hatchery

New day old baby chicks received from Murray McMurray Hatchery

When we get the chicks, of course, we do the same things that an owner at home would do. We water each chick and feed them. We always give them some boiled eggs to start with because that’s a very good feed, and it’s what they’re used to. An egg is the last thing the chicks ate before they were shipped, so we start them off with another egg to eat. When the weather is cool, we use warm water in their waterers so the chicks won’t lose body temperature when they first drink. We also use a nutrient supplement in their water to help them get off to a good start.

introducing chickens into the brooders

Before turning chicks loose in the brooders, we dip their beaks one by one to teach them where to find water

After we set them up in our brooders, we watch them and take care of them. In four weeks we begin to ship them to customers. We ship them at four weeks, five weeks, six weeks and seven weeks of age. Normally we’ve sold out (or nearly so) by seven weeks, so we’ll do our brown egg layer special on the last week to sell any chicks that remain. Then on the eighth week we’ll have another batch of 1,000 to 1,400 chicks come in and we’ll start all over.

Of the chicks that we brood, we raise three breeds to adulthood: the Red Star, the Black Star and the Pearl White Leghorn. We buy extra of those to make sure we will have enough, since we also sell these same varieties at four, five, six and seven weeks of age. When they get old enough to take out of the brooders, we move them out into our field. There we keep them in ten foot by twenty foot hoop houses. We move these portable coops each week so that the chickens will get fresh grass and soil. We feed and water them and care for them just like somebody would at home — we just have a few more to take care of.

Hoop coops for raising started pullets

Hoop coops for raising started pullets

Q: How many different breeds do you raise?

Different times during the year, we carry about twenty-seven different breeds.

We don’t carry all of the breeds all the time, but there are a handful of breeds that have the most demand for, so we carry those nearly all of the time. We nearly always have Ameraucanas, Barred Rocks, Pearl White Leghorns, Black Australorps, Cuckoo Marans, Rhode Island Reds, Red Stars, Black Stars, Buff Orpingtons and Silver-Laced Wyandottes. Most of the time we also have Golden-Laced Wyandottes, and we usually have several varieties of Polish.

Four week old Ameraucana

Four week old Ameraucana

Q: How long have you been raising chickens for McMurray?

We’ve been doing it about three years now. And we’ve been raising birds for nearly twenty years, but not nearly as many birds as we’re raising and shipping now.

When we first started, we’d consider ten orders to be a huge week. It was challenging for us. The shipping boxes we were using at the time were one difficulty, so it was a big improvement when we worked with McMurray to design a shipping box that would be better for the birds and easier to work with. The box we came up with has more ventilation for better air flow. It has dividers so the birds can’t peck each other. And it has more room.

It’s also very easy to work with. We can pre-attach the lid halfway onto the box so that as soon as we put the bird in we can close the lid, and unless the bird is very vigorous and really wants to get out, there’s enough friction to keep it from opening. Then after we’ve put the bird in the box, one staple and the box is sealed. Since then, we’ve also developed a smaller box for shipping the four-week-olds.

Nowadays on a big shipping day we ship 100 to 140 orders. It’s nothing like what a large hatchery would ship, but for a small family operation, I feel like we’re doing pretty good.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about your shipping process?

Well, today we shipped out forty-nine orders, which was almost 300 birds. In our cycle of raising chicks, this was our second shipping week, so these birds were five weeks old. We also shipped about 120 started pullets (of the three breeds I mentioned previously). We ship on Tuesdays, and we start preparing the shipping boxes the Friday before to save time on the day of shipping.

Monday night, a group of us — my nephew’s working here now, as are my sons, daughter and daughter-in-law — will look at each order and figure out, based on how many birds are in the order and their ages, how many boxes we’ll need. We put bedding in the boxes and attach the invoice and a bar code that later tells us which order each box is for. By the end of the evening, we have a mountain of boxes that are all ready to go.

Shipping boxes

Boxes that have been prepared prior to shipping

The day we ship, we’ll get an early start. Today, I went out to my office at 5AM to begin downloading the shipping information from McMurray into our shipping software. Around 6AM, one of my sons starts cutting cucumbers and cantaloupe to put into the shipping boxes to give the birds the hydration that they’ll need.

Next, I start selecting the birds that we’re going to ship and transferring them from the brooders into small cages that we’ve made, so we can easily transport them to our shipping room.

Started chicks

Started chicks that will be soon be loaded into shipping boxes

Once we’ve gathered all of the young birds, we go out into the field and select the started pullets. By this time, it’s about 7AM, and the temperature’s about 80 degrees (F), so once we get the pullets back to the shipping room, we turn on a fan to keep them cool.

We work together to fill each order. We put strapping on the boxes to secure them. We weigh the boxes and print and attach shipping labels. My daughter-in-law inspects each order to make sure it meets our quality standards.

Filling orders

Filling the orders

Once we’ve packaged all the orders, we load our van and drive the birds two hours north to the postal service distribution center in Coppell, just past the Dallas-Fort-Worth airport.

We load the boxes of chicks in our air-conditioned van and drive them to the postal center by the airport.

We load the boxes of chicks in our air-conditioned van and drive them to the postal center by the airport.

We drop them off inside the distribution center there because if we just took them to the local postal center, they’d sit on a hot loading dock waiting to be loaded onto the truck, get transported in a truck without air-conditioning and then sit on another hot loading dock in Coppell. By transporting them ourselves in our air-conditioned van, I figure that we save the birds from five hours of unnecessary heat stress.

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Moving Chickens to Texas

chickens-in-truckAs Avian Influenza (AI) has continued to spread in the United States and Iowa, in particular, we began making arrangements in May of this year for how we could start some backup flocks.

Although the strains of AI found in the U.S. have not affected or posed any direct risks to humans, AI has caused the loss of millions of birds — both chickens and turkeys — since December 2014. Many of the breeds that we raise are somewhat rare, and if we were to lose a breeding flock of one of those rare breeds, it would take a long time to find good breeding stock again and then build our flocks back up to the size needed to maintain the breed’s genetics and to provide adequate numbers of chicks for our customers.

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