For the past several years, Mike and Alecia Gamble of Springfield have raised chickens in their backyard.
The Gambles currently have seven chickens who supply enough eggs to feed their family of six an egg breakfast every other day. They also give a lot of eggs away.
“It’s kind of neat that you know where it’s coming from,” Mike Gamble says. “The eggs in the store are usually six to eight weeks old when you’re getting them. Chickens lay on a light-cycle, and so (mass-production farms) turn the lights on and off four or five times a day to get them to lay more and more eggs. (With home grown eggs,) usually the shell is harder, and the yolk is a lot brighter in color because the chicken is not over-producing.”
Gamble gathers the fresh eggs every morning from the coop in the back corner of their backyard. The wood-paneled, fully enclosed roosting area makes eggs easily accessible through hinged-doors on two sides of the roost.
“They like a dark area to lay their eggs,” he says.
The roost is the most important area to keep clean. Gamble uses a hand-shovel to scrape the area and change out the wood shavings of nesting material.
On the other end of the coop is a much larger fenced-in area open only on the bottom where the chickens can forage on the bare ground. This area also holds their food and water containers.
Gamble built a chute on the side to pour their daily food down through a pipe without having to open the coop door. A rope hangs from the ceiling where the Gambles attach left-over garden vegetables, plants and food scraps. “It gives them something to do,” Gamble says.
“You’re not supposed to give them uncooked beans, or anything acidic, so no tomatoes, and no potatoes for some reason,” he says. “But they love gourds and all the squash, the insides of Halloween pumpkins, most fruits, watermelons. They eat weeds and grass, but I don’t give them a lot of grass because we put fertilizer on our grass.”
As Gamble speaks about his chickens, he calls out to them, “Here, ladies,” and then tosses them a large handful of meal worms, something he adds to their diet to provide more protein and help in their egg production.
“They’re very curious animals and so they’ll check out anything,” Gamble says as all the chickens rally toward the fence to check out a long strand of grass his 9-year-old daughter Malina offers through the fencing — quickly gobbled up — first come, first served.
The Gambles purchase their chickens and feed at Wilco in Springfield, and say the employees are a great resource when it comes to information about the animals and the feed.
Last summer, Gamble collected all the leftover watermelons from his local church events, and cut them into chunks to store in the freezer. Frozen watermelon makes for a welcomed chicken treat during hot summer days.
“When it’s super-hot I spray them down,” he says, “they kind of bathe in it and do their thing. But they’re pretty low maintenance. You don’t do a lot with them or to them. You just feed them and keep them watered and they’re happy. In the winter, even when it got super cold, they just got in their roost.”
Egg production goes down during cold winter months.
“The chickens naturally shut down for the winter,” Gamble says. “If you put a light in there to heat it you can keep them making eggs, but it’s kind of a natural thing to shut down so we just let it go that way. We may get like one a day instead of five, six, seven a day.”
A chicken’s peak for egg-production only lasts about two or three years, so the Gambles regularly rotate out the older chickens and replace them with new ones.
They have a pen in the garage for raising up baby chicks, which must be kept away from the larger chickens until they are grown.
“They won’t lay for about six or eight months,” Gamble says. “If you get baby chicks (in April) then you’ll probably get eggs in August or September.”
Alecia Gamble brings out a carton of eggs ranging in shape and color.
“Store these with the point up because there’s a little bubble inside, and it helps to keep them fresh,” she says. “You don’t have to store them in the fridge. You can leave them on the counter and they can last for a couple of weeks. If you would rather, you can wash them right away and put them in the fridge, because once you wash them you take off what’s called their bloom and so then they’re more susceptible to bacteria. So, we usually don’t wash them until we’re ready to eat them.”
Roosters are not allowed within city limits due to their crowing, but most hens are unobtrusive.
“Early in the morning we’ll kind of hear them squawk because I think that’s when they’re laying their eggs,” Gamble says. “But we haven’t had any complaints or anything, they’re fairly quiet. And all the (neighbors), we give them all eggs, so that probably helps.”
The Gambles spend about $20 in chicken feed about every five weeks.
“So, you’re definitely not profiting at this level,” Gamble says of his small brood of chickens. “If we didn’t have eggs available, we wouldn’t eat eggs every other day like we do now. If we were to buy eggs from a store to eat every other day then it probably would be a wash. But we’re eating healthier and better and more, instead of eating Cocoa Puffs. But when eggs are only a $1.20 to $2 a dozen they’re pretty cheap; but you get what you pay for in the store.”
The Gambles have found the clerks at the local farm supply stores who sell chicks to be very helpful, but they have found nearly everything they need to know through online searches and YouTube.
“Some people treat their chickens like pets, but ours aren’t really pets, they’re farm animals,” Gamble says.
Perhaps the hens hold a bit more fondness with Malina.
“I know all their names,” she says. “I named them … the spotted one is Spotty. The white one is Tail Flapper. The big orange one is Cuddly. The small orange one is Jumpy. The black one is Blackberry, as in pie. The one with the big horn, with yellow spots down its neck, is Big Horn. The other one that looks exactly the same, but with the little horn, is Little Horn.”
So, perhaps even better than knowing where your eggs come from, is knowing from whom.