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Posted: July 20, 2009

Entirely Homegrown: Lack of eggs a concern

Spock the cattle dog complicates backyard experiment

Mike Taylor

This update is about my four young Rhode Island Red hens that so far have consumed about 120 pounds of “Egg Maker” chicken feed but have yet to make any eggs. Eleven days till my month-long all-backyard diet kicks in, and no protein source to speak of, although I have managed so far to harvest and freeze 11 small plastic bags of spinach, broccoli, peas and yellow squash.

But as I said, not much protein there. This is not a problem I expected to be dealing with at this late date, July 20. Back in the early spring I had a different quartet of hens and was getting four brown eggs every day – so many eggs that I was bringing them to work to get rid of them, and co-workers were helping me out by bringing me empty egg cartons to fill up for them.

Enter Spock, a 7-month old Australian cattle dog I adopted from the Denver Dumb Friends League four months ago.  He’s smart and curious. He has boundless energy, and from the outset he’s displayed an amazing knack for figuring out what a human might value and destroying it. He’s severed extension cords (somehow avoiding electrocution) and garden hoses (about five times so far -- any time I forget to detach the hose from the spigot), he’s chewed the covers off books and gnawed most of the stems off two lilac bushes I bought from a local nursery.



And then the hens.

They used to have the run of the yard where they’d forage all day and return to their coop at the instant the sun dipped below the mountains. Before he died, my previous dog, Opie – also a cattle dog – was completely indifferent to the chickens. The hens could even peck at his shiny dog tags, and he’d do little more than turn his head or get up and find a different spot in the yard to nap.


Spock looks inside the chicken coop

Still, I spent about 10 days observing Spock with the hens before leaving them together unattended. I’ll spare the details – OK, a fox got one of them, so it’s not all on Spock -- but let’s just say he took to sport hunting with great zeal, and as a result I’m starting over with a new young flock I can only hope will start producing eggs real soon. I wish there were a way to communicate to these four hens a sense of urgency. And to let them know I will get my protein one way or another, whether it’s eggs or barbecued chicken.

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at

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Readers Respond

Oops. Here it is: By Mike T. on 2009 07 28
Here's a little update on the eggs that you all already know about. Did I get the tip on vitamin E in here? If so, my bad for not citing the specific source. I couldn't remember where I read it. By Mike T. on 2009 07 28
Well, congrats, but shoot I'm jealous. My oldest is perhaps 18 weeks, so I have a ways to go, even with roosters around. Forgot to mention, went to the 4-H poultry show Friday, and got tips for extra bulk and such: Flax seed oil and you can even mix Sheep feed (has lots of corn and flax) with the chicken feed. I'm off to the Co-op Wednesday to pick up a bag of the sheep feed. And if you have small kids you want to entertain: give your chickens some Jell-o. It's hilarious, and once it melts the birds love the juice. By Vicki on 2009 07 27
Oh yeah, I don't know how much it helped, but I did start feeding the hens some vitamin E. And I was told wheat germ contains vitamin E too and I had some in the cupboard so I mixed some of that into their feed. I also started letting the hens forage around the yard (supervised, of course). I don't know if the more varied diet and extra sunlight and increased exercise helped. By Mike T on 2009 07 27
Big news on the egg front! I got home yesterday afternoon and found a small brown egg! Not in one of the nesting boxes but on the ground. I was so relieved it was unbroken. So now I should get an egg a day from that hen, and the other hen the same age should begin producing soon. And then the other two younger hens. What a relief. Looks like I won't have to slaughter any chickens (or dogs). I told our editor Mike Cote about the egg this morning and I said, "I'm home free!" To which he responded, "No, your chickens are home free." By Mike T. on 2009 07 27
Wow, that's cold. I'm sure, however, that the Dumb Friends League made Mike sign a contract about Spock's future and it probably didn't include making him the guest of honor at dinner. Check the fine print, Mike. So how did the rent a rooster idea turn out? Send me a 1-way ticket on that new pets-only airline and I'll send you Hecliff. By Vicki on 2009 07 27
Okay. I wasn't going to go here, but ... You know, Spock looks like a pretty good source of protein. His ears alone should provide two or three meals. And let's not forget who was responsible for creating this mess in the first place. Just a thought. By Pam Burrell on 2009 07 27
I don't know about the other rentals, Pam I found someone selling chickens in Arvada on Craigslist and was going to buy two hens from him that are either laying or close to that point (he's getting eggs but isn't sure from which hen or hens). So I'm just going to ask him if I can rent one of his roosters for a week or so and bring it back. By Mike T. on 2009 07 23
Would you rent a rooster from a stud farm ("Rent-a-stud"), or is there a "Rent-a-Rooster" franchise in your area? Man, do they have the life! By the way, if they rent out other varieties of males ... By Pam Burrell on 2009 07 23
I can help with the vit. E. We have the gelcaps, I punctured five of them and squeezed the oil out, then mixed it in with the yogurt. Easy. Predators: found out Tuesday we had a bear up in our neighborhood (we live on bluffs above the Gunnison River). We almost always have a bear or two but this one was actually coming into backyards and looking in windows. DOW trapped her Tuesday and unfortunately put her down, she was a two-striker. So, now we ponder, is our 8'-high-fence and three dogs enuf to deter THAT? Not to mention snakes...another subject. Seems there are several reasons why chickens aren't in every backyard (brighter note, my neighbors two doors up got three laying hens last week, so far so good, free ranging with their two dogs. But, another lesson: when hens molt (once a year?), they don't lay eggs.) By Vicki on 2009 07 23
Thanks for the encouraging feedback, Pam. No, Joe didn't have any suggestions for chicken predators (maybe plastic forks around the coop and all over the yard?) Regarding my hens' still not laying eggs, I bought some vitamin E, but darn it, I bought gel capsules and they don't mix very well with the chicken feed. I guess I'll go buy some vitamin E in pill form so I can grind it up and sprinkle it on the food. Also, somebody in here said a rooster's presence would get hens laying earlier because it would stimulate their hormones, apparently (like women at a Sting concert?) so I'm actually thinking of renting a rooster to put with the hens for a few days, or until they start laying. By Mike T. on 2009 07 23
Mike, Another great column and video! Both of my grandmothers were avid flower and vegetable gardeners, and your tips and info are helping me keep this family tradition alive. I immediately clicked on the link to Farmer Joe's website, "The Organic Backyard," after viewing the video. There's a wealth of useful information and "Colorado Biz" fans can sign-up for his free e-newsletter. By the way, did Joe have any suggestions for keeping Spock and feral cats out of your hen house? By Pam Burrell on 2009 07 23
OK, I will too, I'll include it in with their yogurt salad tonite. By Vicki on 2009 07 21
Good one, Vicki. I just read that vitamin E will get hens laying earlier. I'm going to try it. By Mike T. on 2009 07 21
That's great! May the forks be with you. By Vicki on 2009 07 21
Vicki, That's really interesting about roosters accelerating the onset of egg production by a few weeks. Makes sense, though. Speaking of plugs, I did a video with a guy who has a consulting business helping backyard gardeners, and I touted your plastic fork technique for protecting corn: By Mike T. on 2009 07 21
Hi, Mike, so sorry to hear of your dog/chicken problem, especially since you were my almost-sole encouragement to integrate my chickens with my three dogs (everybody else said no way it would work). They get along, well, famously. Of course, if I introduced a puppy, it might be a different matter, right? I'm still a maid-in-waiting for eggs, too. However, since I still have two roosters to find homes for, I was told by my 4-H chicken savant (from whom I just bought two Black Stars) that having a rooster around for a while will actually accelerate egg laying by 4-6 weeks. Makes sense, what with getting the hormones up and all. My oldest hen is about 17 weeks old or so, she thinks I should be getting eggs in the next 2-3 weeks. I'm hoping mid-August, I'll let you know. By the way, here's a plug. Your local 4-H community can be a really good source of info for a lot of things ag-wize, and county fairs are gearing up around the might learn a lot just by wandering about. p.s., I did find a home for my 'first' rooster; anybody want a beautiful New Hampshire Red rooster, let me know. By Vicki on 2009 07 21
I wouldn't set foot in your back yard either by the looks of Spock. By Buddy on 2009 07 20

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