HillTop Highlight – Sara the Welsummer

Hello from the HillTop!

As I have previously stated, I have become the crazy chicken lady.  I’m embracing that title with pride.  I want to introduce you to our flock.  Being that we have nine chickens, that could take some time.  I’m starting with what is the most logical order, I’d like you to meet Sara.  Sara is named for, yep, me.

We had talked for a few years about getting chickens.  It seemed like a good idea when it was in the “distant” future.  There were several people at my job that had backyard flocks.  I had started buying eggs from them a few years ago.  One, because I liked the idea of supporting someone with a small, local business.  Two, it was utterly convenient, which didn’t hurt.  My friends would bring the dozen or two to work and I never had to remember to grab them at the store.  It was a great deal.

In time, due to career changes and retirement my work-related egg sources dried up.  Little did I know that it almost coincided with us getting our own flock.

After our March visit to a local Tractor Supply, which spun us to getting our flock, I threw myself into research.  I talked to different people who had chickens, varying in size. I researched purchasing at hatcheries vs. farm stores, breeds (production, egg color, disposition and cold adaptability) and housing.

In the end on April 1st (yes, I remember the date because the hatchery we order from lets you order as few as three on that date), we placed our order from a “local”, as in a state over local, hatchery.  We decided on (3) Buff Orpingtons, (2) Plymouth Barred Rocks, and (3) Welsummers.

We picked these breeds because they all had docile or friendly dispositions.  That was HUGE because we have young kids and we wanted breeds that were not aggressive.  Before having chickens, I never would have known that chickens would be aggressive.  However, just like dogs, the breeds and their temperaments differ widely.

Another important factor, all of these breeds are cold hardy.  There was no way we were going for a breed that would not deal with cold weather.  We live in Western Pennsylvania…need I say more?

Also, since this endeavor was new to us, we wanted to make sure that we got breeds that had solid production rates.  I’m not looking for a marathon chicken, but I wanted at least a breed that would produce 3-5 eggs a week.  Because otherwise, we’re talking these would be glorified pets.  And that was not the track we were going for.

Lastly, in researching chickens, I learned about broody chickens.  I went for no more than one breed that would go broody.  Broody is the act of a chicken wanting to hatch eggs.  Basically, they want to sit on a nest until the eggs hatch.  Not only does it take a serious toll on their bodies, but unless you break them of it, the natural way is the sound of chicks peeping.  Without a rooster in our flock to fertilize the eggs, the eggs would not hatch.

If you are ever considering chickens, I highly recommend the book, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, this book answered any question I ever had, didn’t know to ask and more.  It is a very resourceful book and an easy read.

Our little ladies arrived the day before Good Friday.  We allowed my daughter the honor of naming our new peeping friends.  Our original order of (8) chickens were all named for a women in our family.  My daughter declared this was the only thing that made sense.  So we had:  Thelma, Kelly, Sara, Shannon, Shay, Leah, Blake and Jameson.

While you are all probably laughing, I have to tell you, it became a comical conversation on our family.  Everyone would ask how their namesakes were doing.  The best was when we started to see similar personality traits to the human counterparts!

Sara, the chicken, is a Welsummer.  She was one of three Welsummers we ordered 20170413_165608initially.  However Kelly didn’t make it past the first 48 hours.  As sad as this was, one major hatchery estimates only a 1% mortality rate for chicks shipped across country.  Ironically, we hit a low percentage opportunity.  Our hatchery was fantastic and helped us every way they could remotely and then made it right with their policy on shipping day old chicks.

Thelma, the chicken and also Welsummer breed, was found outside the coop one afternoon in late summer.  It appeared she had no markings of struggle on her, but our best guess was she ventured outside the gate (occasionally when excited they could fly over the original 4 foot high fence) and met one of our boxers.

Neighborhood dogs are the most common and dangerous predators for chickens.  Unfortunately, we have no proof that this is what happened, but in piecing the afternoon together, this seems to be the case.  And we have since upgraded the fencing to avoid this happening again.

Besides the reasons I listed above for picking the Welsummer breed, I also decided on Welsummers because of the color of their eggs.  Although a brown egg layer, Welsummers lay very dark, rich, red-brown egg.  They can also vary to a light brown with dark brown speckles.  This was not something I saw in local eggs, and thought it would add a uniqueness to our flock.

After loosing two of our three Welsummers, and one within weeks before they were to begin laying, I was disappointed.  I was anticipating this breed’s eggs the most.

The average chicken will begin laying between 18-24 weeks old varying on the breed.  And yes, there are exceptions to every rule.  Sara, the chicken, was showing signs of maturing…but still missing a key element…the submissive squat.  I’ll spare you the details, but generally we found that as our other girls prepared to lay we could actually start to pet them because of the submissive squat.  After about 3 weeks old, most of our chickens don’t want to be petted until they reached close to laying.

Sara was a different chicken.  She was visually the most developed with a larger frame, and a brilliant red comb and waddle.  If anything, she was not the most friendly to us, she generally wanted nothing to do with us and stayed a fair distance from us.  Sara did seem to take the role of rooster almost and kept the squabbling within the flock down to a minimum.  The weaker hens, lower on our small pecking order, tended to hang around her.  They were able to eat in peace around her and nobody messed with them.  I, occasionally, witnessed her “tidbitting” or  showing the other hens where food was.

She is also VERY vocal.  Even after a year, she is the one that clucks when she sees us coming or sees food, or wants to just be heard…which if often.  (I told you each chicken showed characteristics to their human counterparts!)

Sara never did begin to lay last fall when all the other girls did.  She was one of the remaining five we had and should have been laying early to mid fall.  But September, October, and November came and went with no eggs from her.

As the months moved from fall to winter, we transitioned not only our flock into a larger coop and with four additional hens we ordered in late August.  The new girls were expected to start laying in January.  I resigned to the fact that Sara was an important member of the flock, but would not be a layer.DSC_0278

My husband called her a free loader.  She kind of was, but truly I liked this chicken.  Sara was my namesake and I liked being greeted by her each day.  Even if I couldn’t hold and pet her like the others, we very much had a friendly vibe between us.

In mid, almost late, January we kept watching closely for our “little” girls to begin laying.  At 5 months, it was going to be anytime.  As a few of our younger girls began to squat, and to our surprise, so did Sara.  She became friendly and let us pet her daily.

I began to have hope that she’d lay.  And wouldn’t you know it, at 41 weeks of age approximately, we got our first egg from our Welsummer Sara.

It seems odd to some I’m sure.  But there is an aspect of having livestock that gives you a whole new look to life.  While in some cases, Sara would have been a prime subject for a cull, it never was a thought to me.  I thought she found a good spot within the flock and still added value.

Sara taught me patience.  Funny, a chicken teaching this, but she did.  I had to be patient for this one and only Welsummer of ours lay her first egg.  I had so much anticipation, as a first time flock keeper, to see what she would produce.  Now that she is laying, she does not disappoint.  I can always tell her eggs because they have wonderful speckles that nobody else does.

This chicken, yes again, realizing it’s a chicken, but taught me to look for hope in little things.  Our lives are so very busy and full of the unnecessary.  And to some, I realize this would fall into that category.  Yet, I got to watch nature in it’s own time find when was the right time for this girl.

How many times do we count someone out because they don’t follow suit when expected?

Sara, the Welsummer chicken, is my favorite girl in the flock.  While I acknowledge I love my flock as a whole, she holds a special place in my heart.  As odd as it is for me to admit, I learned a lot from this vocal little chicken.

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