MMP wrote a comment about chicks that really deserves to be a blog entry. Hope you don't mind my liberties with your comment, MMP.
"... We ordered chicks last year that arrived in late March. We didn't have eggs until September and they didn't really get up and going until into January, waiting for the light to change, I think.This year we hatched our own in January so they will start laying in June."
That's basically the math that I did. The only problem I've run across with ordering chicks early is that if you order them early enough (like in November 2008) they'll molt the next year (November 2009). My goal is to order them as late as I can, but early enough so that they are laying during the peak egg laying/farmers market season here, which turns out to be summertime. July/Aug/Sep
"... It's our prediction that laying birds will fetch a premium in June. "
I agree with you. I get $22-25 per hen at point-of-lay, which sounds unreasonable, but you can see what my calculations are about cost here - about halfway down that post. I also offer a no-rooster guarantee and I health-guarantee the birds -- if they die I ask that they freeze them and bring them back and I'll trade them for another bird. If it turns out to be a rooster I trade them for a hen. This seems a little insane, because the customers are caring for the birds, and there's predators and so on, but last year I sold 3,000 birds, and only had to replace 17. There were some questionable replacements, (when a dog kills a bird it really doesn't do much to the body, just holding it tightly in its mouth will do it) but it's a tragedy for someone to lose a bird, and I'd rather have the good relations than a few bucks. Most of my bird sales are referrals.
What I'm really selling is convenience. They get eggs in a week or two, there's no special equipment needed (no brooding, no heat lamps, no chick starter, etc) and they don't' have to deal with the hatchery minimums or roosters.
"I thought I was getting a reasonably early start in March last year, but when I did the math and realized I wasn't going to see eggs till into the fall, I was disappointed with my planning. "
I had this same problem over and over again until I started putting everything on a calendar. I've written about it here, and it's really a tip that I wish someone had given me.
" We'll probably sell some of our older birds (still only a year old) and keep a few of this winters hatch for our own summer eggs. "
Pricing differently sized eggs
I've found that the older birds lay larger eggs, and you can sell those larger eggs at a slight premium to the 'regular' eggs. Think "medium" or "large" vs "extra large", and charging an extra $0.50 or whatever for them. The extra money helps to offset the slightly lower production. Some customers will pay it, some won't. Means you need to sort your eggs by size though. You can do this by weight if you have a portion scale. The older the bird the higher the percentage of double-yoked eggs.
"One of the difficulties I am facing is maintaining good genetics. We hadn't intended to hatch our own eggs, so I didn't get a specific rooster, we held onto the rare breed rooster MMH included free with the order. Most of the fertilizin' was done by a Buff Cochin, a big fella. Some of the results make us think that extra Americana hen is a him, though. There are a couple of chicks we can't explain as a coupling with that Cochin Buff. I have been casting around for a good quality rooster who would compliment our hen breeds. I think I am going to have to cast further, though, as I am coming up empty handed."
Breeds I like
The barred rock was the most popular bird on American farms 80 years ago, and I think I know why. they're good on pasture, they are calm and easy to handle (well, with the exception of some roosters, who I consider to be volunteers for chicken dinners) and they have a good sized carcass for later eating. My all-time favorite for an egg layer is the pearl white leghorn. They are amazingly efficient at eggs, do great on pasture, and the smaller body means we're not supporting as much chicken, so the conversion of feed to eggs is great. But I cannot for the life of me convince people that white eggs are pastured.
If you've got eggs for sale, consider chicks, too
There's another crop you can consider, too. Chicks. Chicken chicks sell for $2.50 to $3 each here. Which means that a doze eggs is worth $30 - $36 a dozen. Turkey eggs are worth even more - $72-$108/dozen, if you hatch them. You can buy a good quality hatcher, used on craigslist, for $150 to $200. I use GQF hatchers that were originally made for emus because I got them cheap. This year I purchased a new GQF sportsmen hatcher with all the goodies. It makes hatching about as simple as it can be. You pour 5 gallons of water into the bucket, put the eggs into the machine, and 18 days later move the eggs into the hatching area. 21 days later you've got chicks. Works great for turkeys and chickens.
With chickens people mostly want hens, and most people when they start cannot sex chickens. The easy way to do that is to get a rooster and hen flock that will produce sex-link chickens for you. More information on sex-link chickens here. This allows you to sort the chicks by color or markings immediately after hatch and know what you've got and give the customers what they want. Straight-run birds don't sell for as much, so by being able to sex them you can set a rooster price, hen price, and a straight run price and be pretty accurate about your deliveries. Remember that MMH only guarantees 90% so if you make a few mistakes, well, so do they.
To do a sex-link you'd have to pick an appropriate rooster.
I have had no luck with americana hens as layers. Their production is uniformly poor for me, and they're not very good at foraging. The carcass size isn't great, either. So I'm happier with barred rocks or buff orpingtons as my own personal base flock, and they sell well retail, both as layers and later as stew birds -- generous sized carcass. I do purchase and brood americana chicks for sale to customers because they demand them, but economically they haven't worked for me.
Finally, you should consider using trap nests to sort out who is and who is not laying. A trap nest is a device that holds the hen until you release her, so that you can note which birds are producing and cull the ones that are not. I've had young hens that would not lay, but they sure do eat. Much better to sell a spring chicken and be done with it than feed it for a couple of years with no production. You can see a design for a trap nest here.
3 hours ago