Keeping a flock of backyard hens makes sense for a lot of us. Chickens require very little and the reward of fresh eggs certainly outweighs the time and commitment. In addition to those delicious farm fresh eggs, chickens are excellent garden companions providing compost and entertainment. They do, however, have needs and preparing in advance of bringing a box of chicks home from the farm store will allow for an easy, enjoyable experience for both bird and farmer.
1) Water. It may seem obvious, but all creatures need this basic requirement, fresh everyday. At first, set up your brooding box with a small, jar waterer. To keep bedding material debris from contaminating the water, set it up on a small stand.
Once you've moved your babies to a larger space, buy them a bigger water container as well. I'm partial to the metal watering fountain because they are cuter (that really is a priority for me) and because in the winter, we must have a heater to keep it from freezing. Plastic and heat just don't mix well. I'm sure water nipples with a hose work for many folks, but since night-time temperatures were just 16 degrees Fahrenheit this last week of April, I'm sticking with what I've got. It's a hassle to deal with frozen hoses and thirsty birds. 20-25 chickens will drink 1-2 gallons per day; so my small flock requires a small fountain. In the summer I fill up the larger container to be sure my birds don't dehydrate in the heat. We hang an old coffee tin above the fountain to deter roosting on the container and so folks can ask why we have an old coffee tin hanging from the chicken run.
2) Heat. A good brooder box is essential when starting chicks. The box should be kept warm with an overhead heat lamp. A dresser drawer will work. The key to a brooder box is really about holding in heat and birds and keeping out sharp puppy teeth). Babies need extra care; they are fragile. My daughters learned early on having livestock means having deadstock - especially when it comes to the weakest little creatures. While they don't require quite as much as human babies, taking care of chicks will require time and attention and this includes cleaning off their bums.
As chickens mature they are able to withstand cooler weather without lights. Chicken feathers provide superb insulation from the weather, but we've had chickens freeze to death in the cold winter of Montana, inside the heated coop. They require heat lamps when the temperatures drop below freezing. You must be cautious when heating your coop, however, as chicken manure creates heat too. I unplug our heater when the temps are above freezing as the water heater provides some warmth and otherwise my chickens get too hot. Additionally, many chicken farmers warn using lights throughout the winter will increase egg production at a time when your birds might need a little self care. Bottom line chickens prefer the spa to the sauna. Pamper them a bit when the weather is harsh. Likewise, when the summer sun is in full play, be sure to provide shade, sand and cold, fresh water.
3) Space.There are so many creative ways to house your chickens. Pintrest is filled with DIY options and of course your local farm store offers a number of choices as well. Some folks even decorate their coops and while I am not sure if the chickens care, a pretty coops sure is fun to look at. I enjoyed designing my chicken coop and then watching my husband and daughters build it out with me. Here's the rub: raising a flock of chickens is probably NOT going to be cheaper than buying grocery store eggs. It's true -the cost of a suitable coop and fencing would buy a lot of cheep eggs. But darlin', I'm going to tell you some times it really isn't about the money.
Three essentials of a coop include a place for clean food and water, a clean dry nesting area and a good area for roosting. As a general rule chickens should have a minimum of 2 square feet per bird. The number of chickens you house will determine your coop size, but remember birds are social creatures and will want some friends.
I have witnessed foul debates over free-ranging vs caged birds. To each her own I say, but a responsible farmer will consider the safety and logistics to determine the best fit for their situation. For me, it doesn't make sense to free range my birds all day. For one, my pups are bird dogs: Cedar, Cedar chicken eater... my girls will tell you how that works out! In addition to the dogs, there are skunks, raccoons, coyotes, hawks, bald eagles and bears who would all love chicken dinner. To protect my birds we've buried chicken wire several inches into the ground around the run and then used a stronger wire over the chicken wire (because Cedar can grab a chicken's head through the wire - I'm just saying ladies raising chickens isn't all chicks in teacups and rainbow colored egg photos). I digress. I know in the winter, when my girls can't roam around for bugs and stretch their wings without ruffling coop-mates' feathers, my hens get a bit grouchy. They start to pick at each other. They squawk. They'd need Photoshop before an Instagram post. Girl, they look BAD. So, as often as possible, we let them out to dance and play while we watch from the chicken couch- an antique metal daybed we plopped down near the garden. Who needs TV when you can sit out in the backyard, giggling at these silly creatures, and watch the sun paint the mountain pink.
4) Feed. I hate to come across as a know-it-all because frankly I don't, but can we just set the record straight here: chickens are naturally omnivores. If you are hoping to raise vegetarian chickens, I hate to break it to you- it will be basically impossible. And a good thing too - while those girls are busy picking at grass, they are also nibbling at beetles, gobbling worms, and munching on all sorts of bugs. They've got keen eyes for insect pests. You go, girl! So I guess if you think bugs are vegetables, well then... Even their organic feed in the bag, I hate to tell you, will contain some ground grasshoppers and all number of bugs. It's really part of that farm-fresh egg thing.
I hang a feeder full of pellet feed which is fortified with nutrients for laying hens. There are options for non-GMO and organic feed if those qualities are important to you. You can also buy feed in crumble form. There is nothing wrong with this, but whatever you buy, be consistent. Animals thrive on a consistent diet, so don't change the brand or style of feed if you can help it. I've heard people worry their birds or horses or pigs or whatever will be bored with the same diet, but studies show that just isn't the case. And be sure to keep your feed dry and safe from pests - I keep my feed in a weather-proof garbage can. Pick up a scoop to make refilling your feeder simple.
I also offer my girls my own seed scratch and a nutrient block as well. My chickens love, I mean run as fast as I can love, to dig in my compost pile. I let them - and thank them- for helping me turn that big ol' pile. And if you garden, in the fall, let them forage in your patch. They’ll do so much work for you including uprooting stems and stalks of weeds. They'll demolish any damaged or overripe vegetables that remain. They’ll gobble up any weed seeds or insects they find in the soil, and will peck apart and digest vegetable remnants, especially broccoli stems, carrot tops, chard, and kale. After that, they’ll scratch the ground and peck out hidden worms or insects, mixing up the soil in the process.
5) Eggs. Expect your chickens to begin laying at about 6 months old. Hens will lay through spring and summer and into the fall, as long as they have 12 to 14 hours of daylight. Expect to collect eggs daily, or even twice a day. Keep your nesting boxes clean to help reduce the spread of bacteria. The slanted roof of a nesting box will also reduce manure in the compartment as well. I know lots of folks who say don't wash your eggs! Perhaps chicken poop never gets on their eggs or their ladies avoid stepping in mud (aka wet chicken poop). Good for them. That's not my life, so I wash our eggs with a gentle, natural soap and warm water. Last year my Elaina tested the bacteria growth, or freshness, of our eggs in comparison with the growth of bacteria in store-bought eggs. It was an amazing, month-long test. The experiment proved to us that washing our eggs ensures bacteria won't grow in our eggs - protecting us , our family, and our customers from getting sick. We couldn't say as much for those store bought eggs, which is why despite the work of feeding, cleaning and caring for our flock we are happy to raise our own flock.
I know we just scratched the surface of all there is to know and learn about raising your own flock of chickens, but I hope you found this list of essentials a great place to start.
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