It really does not matter which came first, the chicken or the egg. As far as David Esau of rural Hillsboro is concerned, they are both good to eat and present a capacity for quick turnaround if cared for properly.
“Chickens really are a miracle,” Esau said. “If you think about it, three weeks after an egg is laid, it can turn into a chick. Then just a short time later, in 4 to 6 months, you have an adult bird ready to lay more eggs or be butchered for supper.”
Esau has plenty of farm experience. He grew up raising hogs on a farm near Whitewater and Elbing, then as a young adult spent a year in Europe as an Inter-Mennonite Farm Trainee. Married to wife Aileen and father of two grown sons, Esau also has 22 years under his belt as Dairy Herdsman for the Flaming Dairy west of Hillsboro.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different animals and types of poultry,” Esau said. “But I guess I like chickens because they give the quickest turnaround for food.”
Esau got started with chickens when his older son, Evan, was in 4-H and raised poultry.
“When he lost interest, I just kind of kept on going with the chickens,” he said. “We also had rabbits, but they weren’t as good to eat.”
Through the years, Esau learned a few tricks to making better eggs and raising productive chickens.
“It’s the protein that makes the egg,” he said. “I feed old grain, like corn that has spilled during harvest, but unless you add the high protein commercial chicken crumbles they won’t lay well.”
Esau also believes in free-range pasture for his hens, at least he did until they scratched out a nice brome field and predators started taking their toll.
“Now I only let them out when I am here now,” he said. “The coyotes and raccoons were getting too brave, even in the daytime. Plus I don’t like it when they scratch down to the bare ground.”
In order to make up for the lack of fresh grass and insects the hens normally got from a day of free ranging, he substituted chopped silage and alfalfa into their diet, salvaged from waste at the dairy where he works. Those additions keep the yolk of their eggs nice and yellow.
Predators continue to be a problem though, often attracted as much to the grain he puts out for the chickens as to the chickens themselves.
“The raccoons are too smart,” he said. “They pried apart chicken wire on the door on the west side, and lifted up a plywood panel and went under on the east side.”
Esau currently has a tight and safe chicken house for his hens, where they each lay one egg daily. But his 5-year-old rooster prefers to be out and about, finding his own roost and alerting the barnyard of danger.
“I’ve had this old rooster for five years,” Esau said. “When I come home at noon for lunch I whistle at him and he always crows back. We get along real well.”
While the rooster ranges free on the yard, Esau lets the hens out when he is home, then pens them up at night for their own safety.
“Something I learned about chickens, unlike other poultry, is that they are attracted to light,” he said. “When it is time to pen them up, I just turn on the light in their barn and they all go in.”
Esau also has a light on a timer in the hen house, so that they continue to lay eggs year-round, not seasonally in accordance with longer nights and shorter days associated with winter and early spring.
He keeps the timer set so the light comes on at 4:30 a.m. every morning, then shuts off when daylight is in full effect. Since he also gets up early for 4:30 a.m. milking chores at the dairy, it makes sense for the chickens to work at the same schedule.
Esau said the average life span or productive laying cycle of a hen is only about two years. For this reason, he hatches out several chicks each year to keep his flock’s egg production steady. He also provides chicks for several community events such as Agri-Urban’s Day-on-the-Farm and Goessel’s annual Threshing Days or for children’s events at his church.
“Chicks are pretty easy to care for,” he said. “As long as you keep them in a warm, dry, and draft-free place until they are fully feathered, they do pretty well.”
Esau keeps young chicks in a cardboard box with two to three inches of straw or shredded paper as bedding. He provides a heat source, like a 110-watt bulb to keep them warm at 95 degrees, gradually decreasing the heat by 5 degrees per day until they are fully feathered or the temperature outdoors is about 70 degrees.
Esau feeds his chicks 24— percent protein chick starter and provides plenty of water, making sure each chick knows how to drink and find the water.
“You have to dip their beaks into water twice daily for the first few days,” he said. “This prevents any pasty problems on the other end.”
Other care tips include providing a minimum of light to prevent them from pecking on each other. He makes sure to position the light so it dries up any water spills to keep their cage from getting overly messy.
Also an avid gardener, Esau said chickens fit his lifestyle better than turkeys, geese, or ducks.
“They don’t cause as much trouble and they are easy to care for,” he said.