A Mixed Half-Dozen

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mixed half dozen

When you picture half a dozen eggs, what do they look like? Are they brown? White? Do they have a little smiley face on them in blue ink?

Are they all the same?

Open any carton of eggs in the supermarket and most likely they will all look pretty much the same. Same colour, same size, same shape.

The photo above is the six eggs I brought in this morning. Two duck eggs, two eggs from large brown hens, one from a bantam Australorp and one from a Silkie. Different colours, sizes and shapes. Silkie eggs go great in toasties, duck eggs are excellent for baking.

So, if eggs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours, all of which are useful, why can you only buy white or brown eggs around 60g in the supermarket?

The eggs you buy in the supermarket, whether they are cage, barn or ‘free range’ laid, come from patented crossbred laying hens. Some of these crosses are sex-linked for colour, so chicks can be sexed and hatching and the males disposed of. Brown-egg layers are preferred because customers prefer brown eggs.

These industrial crossbred hens are capable of laying huge eggs. But in intensive situations they have their feed intake restricted to keep the eggs to a fairly uniform size. If you have ISA Brown hens in a real free range backyard environment with access to as much feed as they like, they will lay eggs closer to 90g than the factory-standard 60g.

Known as ‘Commercial Hybrids’, varieties such as the ISA Brown, Lohmann and Hyline are derived from heritage chicken breeds. In some cases, the actual cross is a secret as closely guarded as KFC’s 11 herbs and spices. They are bred to be autosexing and to produce large eggs of uniform colour for 300 days without going broody. A broody hen is a hen who isn’t laying, so the instinct to hatch and raise chicks is generally absent in these birds.

I had an ISA who gave me eight eggs a week for a year and a half before her first moult, and then laid every day for almost another year before I lost her to a fox. This heavy production takes a toll on the birds, and they generally slow down their laying in their third year and stop altogether soon after. A heritage breed layer might take a couple of months off over winter, or sit on eggs once a season, but she may also lay regularly for seven or eight years and never completely shut up shop.

So a big part of the reason why supermarket eggs look like they do is for ease of production. Another part is because that is what people want to buy. I have already mentioned a preference for brown eggs. How would the average consumer feel if they opened up their carton of eggs to find a blue egg? Or eggs that were of odd sizes? They would put the carton down and pick up the dozen on the next shelf that were all the same size and colour.

Supermarket eggs are also not susceptible to the same seasonal variations that home-grown eggs are. I once had a visitor comment that the yolks in my eggs were pale, and that perhaps I didn’t feed my birds as well as the ones on the commercial farms. Bright orange yolks can either come from green feed or from additives in a commercial ration. It was the middle of summer, with little green pick available, so the yolks from my hens were much paler. By contrast, duck eggs tend to have deep orange-red yolks, as they eat quite a bit of grass.

When it comes to backyard eggs, I have commented aloud that I get a much better yield from ducks than from hens. Ducks generally lay in the morning, with their eggs ready for collection when I open up the pen. This means I can collect the eggs before the crows steal them. Ducks lay plenty of wonderful big eggs, are placid, many domestic varieties don’t fly, and the drakes are quieter and less aggressive than roosters. So why can’t you buy duck eggs in the supermarket? The main reason would probably be that ducks are messy and take up more space. To be happy and healthy, ducks need access to enough water to dunk their heads in. They are water birds after all, and where you have water and poultry, you have mud. Hens can be kept in a dry environment. The other thing ducks will do is take a few days off if the weather goes cold or conditions don’t suit them in some other way. Hens will just keep laying as long as they have the requisite hours of daylight to prompt them.

Supermarket eggs are one of the things that I never buy. If I am having an egg-drought at home I have a couple of places where I can buy genuine free-range eggs. It is not just the methods of production that I disagree with, I also object to paying for eggs with watery whites, artificially-coloured yolks, and no taste. But of course, the poor chooks on those farms.

My birds live in families. They pick through poop to eat the undigested grains. They come running to the call of ‘chook chook chook’. They can dust in the cool dirt amid the tree roots and scratch for bugs in the farmyard. The ducks swim in the dam and roam the paddocks for the best grazing. And they produce amazing eggs, in a range of colours, shapes and sizes.

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Measuring Success

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With goats, so it seems, those days where you wonder why you put yourself through the stress of keeping them happen to pretty much everyone, and fairly regularly.

Keeping my Anglo Nubians healthy is a juggling act of observation, preventative measures and learning. You watch their body condition, their growth, their milk output and of course you monitor their poo. Few things put a smile on my face like a healthy output of goatberries from all the goats. Yet this seems to be frustratingly difficult to achieve sometimes.

In the beginning, a successful kidding season was one where I got a good proportion of doe kids. I have since amended that qualification and lowered my expectations. First of all, I want all my does to live. Then I want my does to be healthy before, during and after kidding. Then I want all the kids to live. Or at least, all the good ones. So this season, three nice doe kids from seven live, healthy kids born without assistance to four live, healthy does was a success. Until one doe got mastitis. And another was diagnosed with staph in her udder. But these are things we can fix. Success. For now. Don’t turn your back on them…

My bucks have been a different story. Normally a happy trio of easy-care, low stress fellows, for the last month or so they have been plagued by persistent scouring. This distresses me greatly. And in the absence of other symptoms it is incredibly frustrating. The younger two are still growing well, they have all gained body condition since winter, and they are otherwise showing no signs of disease. I have tried different wormers as well as bi-carb therapy. They have had a course of antibacterial injections. They have had mineral supplements. They are currently shut in their small paddock on a diet of home-grown grass hay to see whether there might be something in their big paddock causing the problem. On a good day, it looks like the latest thing I tried is working, and I smile. On a bad day they are passing puddles of poop and I feel so defeated. My mood is linked to what comes out of the back end of these goats. I have a few more tricks up my sleeve, some tests to do, but I just want my boys to be well, and hopefully to find out what is causing this so I can keep it from happening again. Meanwhile, what is the opposite of success? Because that is what this feels like.

Milk production is another measure of success. My oldest doe gave 3.5 litres in her first lactation, but has not gone anywhere near that since. This year I found out why. High cell counts on her milk tests led me to have cultures done on her milk, and a staph infection was diagnosed. Well, that explains that. So now I look at treating her and hopefully curing it after her doe kid is weaned in six weeks time. Then maybe her milk production goes back up next season. Stay tuned on that one.

My little doe came in with an alarming 5lt of milk per day after kidding triplets. This was alarming because she is such a little girl and I really worried about how she would manage to keep that up for her whole lactation. She has settled down to produce just over 4lt per day and do it with relative ease. She didn’t pass her 24hour test at the Royal Melbourne Show, but is on her way to a 12-month production recording award. So stay tuned on that one too. I’ve got very bold plans to attempt to run her through, that is, milk her continuously for two seasons without kidding. That is a real leap of faith, but she has shown a tendency to milk on well after weaning her kids, so I have decided to give it a try. If it works, I’ll be over the moon. If she dries up after the first 12 months then at least we tried.

Showing sounds like an easy way to measure success, but it doesn’t always work that way. I rely a lot on the comments of show judges to help me see the points of my goats and how they compare to others. Winning is fun, and broad sashes are nice to hang on the glory wall, but it really is mainly a learning experience for me. A season of showing helps me know what to look for when selecting which bucks to put over which does. This is not only from the does themselves being judged, but also their young daughters. When a judge discusses the faults and virtues of a doe kid, he or she is evaluating last year’s mating for me. For goats of all ages, as far as I am concerned, the more comments the better and don’t sugar-coat it. I have done better than I expected in the show ring this year, but a Champion Milking Doe award still seems a long way off. When that finally happens, you’ll know by my jumping for joy.

With goats, there are so many things to consider. They are an all-encompassing lifestyle, and managing a herd is a huge undertaking. From planning matings, formulating feed rations, and keeping up with the paperwork, to the routine maintenance of hoof trimming, vaccinating, worm treatments and blood tests, there is always something to be done. Holidays are for other people who don’t have to be home to do the milking, and following the show circuit through spring uses up a lot of fuel.

One day maybe I’ll have a roster of milk-awarded does, effortlessly producing over five litres per day, sporting neat udders with tidy little teats. Maybe one of these does will gain Australian Champion status and give me triplet doe kids. For now I can dream, and face each challenge as it comes, even if some days those challenges make me question what on Earth I am doing.