No Homestead Is Complete Without Chickens
Getting started with a flock of chicken can seem daunting, especially if you've never owned livestock before. Don't fret! Chickens are the easiest livestock to keep - and extremely intelligent! The set cup can inexpensive (aside from the cost of the actual chickens) - but the payoff is well worth it! There's no comparison to TRUE fresh, freerange, cage-free eggs from happy chickens!! They're wonderful for controlling insects, spreading instant manure, turning soil, and the entertainment can't be beat.
This article is about chickens, but don't let that stop you from branching out - turkeys, pheasant, quail, ducks, geese, peahens - even emus are an option. It all depends on the space you have available, and how much variety you like in your eggs (and meat - optional). With just a little knowledge - chicken are the perfect and most affordable starter livestock for small-scale homesteaders.
RULING THE ROOST
The main reason chickens are so easy to keep is their housing can be very simple (in comparison to other livestock). Chickens are incredibly hardy (except for the odd hybrid variety), and as long as they're protected from extreme weather (strong chilling wind, freezing rain, blazing sun) and predators - they'll do fine.
You can buy a premade or kit coop, but you're looking at a god chunk of change. Where keeping backyard chickens has become popular, and crosses into that territory of family member/pet - folk have gotten way ornate in their coop designs. You'll see them with curtains, heating, shutters, gingerbread trim, and tiled or vinyl flooring. All that is for the owners! The chickens' couldn't care less. Left to their own devices they'll roost in any nearby tree and lay their eggs under bushes. Somewhere in between these two extremes is reasonable.
Chickens need an average of 3 sq ft per bird when designing a coop. More room means a healthier flock. Chickens roost at night, which means they like to get up on perches to sleep - add this to your design. Laying hens need nesting boxes to lay their eggs - at a minimum, these should be 12 inches square and deep and filled with clean straw. Hens will share boxes, so don't worry about having one nest for each.
There are tons of free plans for chicken coops online. Be creative and resourceful, and you can build one practically for free. Your coop design will be based on how many birds you'll have, the climate you're in, and how much space you've got to work with. Unless you're only going to be keeping a couple chickens - I strongly advise (if possible) to build your coop on the ground with an earth floor and follow the "deep layer" (deep litter) method (below). This will save you lots of work, and keep your chickens at their healthiest.
Start rounding up wood pallets, and nailing them together in box shape on level ground - and your half done with your coop. If you have space - go larger with your design. It's nice to have room to walk into your coop, stand up, and around. Plus, keeping extra straw and food dry and safe. And, if you want to expand your flock - it won't be a hassle.
Winter Cold & Summer Heat
Chickens don't need heating systems or even insulation - not even in northern climates where temperature drop down below freezing. As long as the coop is protected from drafts, but still provides good ventilation (typically at the top of the coop where the methane and ammonia migrates). Occasionally, cocks (male roosters) suffer frostbite to their combs and wattles, so if you live further north, you might consider breeds like the chantecler, which have minimal combs and wattles.
During the darker winter months, hens lay fewer eggs. You can simulate longer days by using artificial lighting in the coop. Add an automatic timer and set it for the early mornings. Allow the rest of the day and evening to be natural sunlight. Personally, I don't agree with this tactic and feel it's better to allow nature to do its thing. I'm probably over thinking things though. It won't harm the chickens in any way - and if you're relying on those eggs....ya gotta do whatcha gotta do. A single 40- or 60-watt bulb should be adequate.
If you're handy with yarn - you can find instructions for chicken sweaters online. Just note - they're not necessary and they make it much easier for predatory birds to spot and pick up your chickens!
Chickens are more apt to suffer from extreme heat. Make sure plenty of shade is available, and design your coop so you can open it up on hot days. Always provide fresh water (daily) - keep it cooled down by adding ice cubes, or better...float bottles of water that are frozen solid (last longer). Chickens love frozen treats in summer - freeze up containers of canned corn, peas, carrots, berries, sprouts, seeds, etc. and watch your chickens go nuts!
Every once in a while you'll find a chicken with an uncontrollable taste for eggs (typically with cocks). This is a hard habit to stop once it starts. Design the coop so the nesting boxes are off the ground, and they're large enough for comfort. Collect eggs regularly to stay one step ahead of them.
Don't wash eggs that appear clean. Clean dirty eggs with damp sponge or rag and a water with a splash of apple cider vinegar. Never immerse eggs in water to wash them - this can actually drive bad bacteria in through the shells. Eggs have a protective coating to keep them fresh. You don't want to be washing that off.
Please do yourself and your birds a favor and don't confine them to the coop and small run! It makes more work for yourself (to keep clean) and keeps them from doing their job (hunting for bugs, driving off snakes and rodents, spreading manure, and turning the soil! A healthy happy chicken is one that's allowed to roam free. If you have an urban homestead (in a residential area) you probably want to have a fence in place or someone home during the day to keep an eye on them. I've kept chickens while living in a couple urban locations - one place didn't have any fencing at all, and the chickens seldom left the yard - only in spring bcuz the neighbor's grass came in before ours. I built a nice solid coop out of pallets and would let them out when I woke up (around 6am) and leave the coop door open. We didn't have a landscaped lawn with grass - more raw land - so the chickens were busy all day long foraging. As soon as the sun started to set -they'd all make their way to the coop and roost. All I had to do was remember to close the door!
Where we're at now - is an acre lot - still with lots of wild overgrowth, and only fencing to either side (none front or back). I still haven't had any problems with the chickens wandering off into other people's yards. Although I am home all day and can keep watch. I don't think twice about running errands while the chickens are out. We leave and come back, and they're still doing their thing - foraging or laying about.
Electric net fencing is a solution for allowing your chickens to freerange while confining them where you want - and protecting them from predators. Electric net fencing is a plastic mess with interwoven fence posts. The horizontal strands of mesh have a very thin stainless steel wire running through them. Attached to an energizer that's properly grounded - the fence puts out an unpleasant jolt of electricity (non-lethal to chickens).
Just make sure they're closed in tight before nightfall, as most predators are nocturnal. The above outline changes depending on your individual situation and location. Feral cats and even large pet cats can attack chickens. Dogs will kill chickens if it's in their blood. Raccoons can destroy an entire flock if given the chance. They eat them, but they'll leave them chewed up all over your lawn. Foxes, of course, are notorious chicken thieves, and then you have snakes (usually their only after the eggs), and birds of prey.
Chicken feed is the same as any other type of "feed". You get what you pay for, and even then it can't be trusted 100%. You'll be paying extraordinarily high prices for organic feed, bcuz it's trendy. Not that you shouldn't be feeding your chickens organically, but the question is.....what do chickens prefer to eat when they're left to their own devices? Chickens are scavengers, much like vultures or gulls. They'll literally eat anything, and they LOVE meat! They love all sorts of grasses and plants, and the seeds from them. They love worms, insects, slugs, snails, lizards, small snakes, mice. This is their organic foods of choice.
I urge you to let your chickens forage for as much food as possible. My chickens actually sustain themselves 90% on foraging and hunting, and okay....some table scraps. Depending on where you're located (midwest) - you might have affordable access to a range of organic grains that you can mix up yourself. If you happen to live in the southeast as I do - all you'll find is corn and soy. Chickens love cracked corn but it should be fed sparingly (like candy). Avoid soy.
I urge you to take the feeding of your flock into your own hands. A willingness to experiment, a bit of research about nutritional needs and access to whole ingredients available in your area are the only requirements.
Whether you buy prepared feeds or make your own replacement mixes (from whole corn, oats, wheat, field peas, kelp meal, etc.), the heart of your feeding program should be maximizing your flock’s access to whole, natural foods. If you pasture your birds, they will find a lot of high-quality food on their own. If you practice vermicomposting to recycle kitchen wastes or manage manure, you can harvest the worms to feed your flock. If you live in an area “blessed” with lots of Japanese beetles, collect them to feed your eager birds.
Putting the Chickens to Work
There are many ways to enlist the natural behaviors of the flock to achieve key homestead goals.
Before the era of Monsanto and Cargill, free ranging poultry flocks helped control excess insect populations in orchards. We can utilize our flocks in the same way, confining them to their work if necessary with electric net fencing. Another useful service the flock provides in the orchard is cleaning up dropped fruit, which can harbor disease or overwintering insects.
Though chickens could destroy an established garden with their constant scratching (and they like ripe tomatoes as much as you do!), just prior to the garden season I net my flock onto the garden for two to four weeks. The birds eat sprouting weed seeds as well as slugs and snails.
I usually assign tilling chores to my chickens. If I need to develop new ground for a garden, I net a flock of chickens onto the plot and let them do what they love best, scratching away at that tough sod until it is killed and turned into the top few inches of the soil, in the process boosting soil fertility with their droppings.
The Integrated Flock
There are so many ways our flocks can be integrated into helping us develop food self-sufficiency on the homestead. The examples I have given only hint at the possibilities. The key is liberating them from an isolated corner and making them part of the broader, interwoven patterns of your homestead endeavor.
Breaking it down as simply as possible...you've got old world breeds, heritage breeds, and modified hybrids. They can all be broken down into breeds that are good for meat, good for eggs, or dual purpose (both). When doing your research you're going to hear a lot of opinions on which are best. Just like breeds of dogs - you choose chickens based on your own personality, your needs, and what sort of environment they'll be coming into.
- Modern/Commercial/Industrial/Hybrid Breeds
- Heritage/Traditional Breeds
- Heirloom/Old World Breeds
- Rare/Exotic Breeds
Understand that modern breeds have been bred for industry farming. They get big fast, or they lay lots of eggs, but only for a couple seasons. They more sensitive, and get stressed out and sick easier and also tend to be more temperamental. They aren't bred for their personalities or a long life. They're less likely to forage, so they also require more commercial feed and medication. And the hens aren't good with incubating or rearing their young.
These are your best bet, bcuz most are dual-purpose (meat & eggs) - good layers of big brown eggs, with a nice, steady growth rate. Though if you're used to eating industry birds - you'll have to adjust to organic reality! These chickens are rugged, hardy, and have a good disposition. I've found the Buff's to be very sweet natured and great with young children - where they will allow to be picked up and cuddled without any problem.
Breeds include: Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, New Hampshire and Rhode Island Reds, Buckeyes, Delawares, Dominiques, Jersey Giants, Houdans, Hamburgs, and more.
Heirloom/Old World Breeds
Tend to be gentle and level-headed. Old English is a breed going back a 1,000 yrs in history,and Dorkings date back to Roman times. These birds are self-sufficient survivors. Given enough space to forage, they'll pretty much feed themselves, and their immune systems are strong, all-around hardier and more intelligent (less work). The hens have a good strong maternal nature.
Modern (industrial) breeds of hens have literally had their maternal nature bred out of them, and have no clue how to incubate or rear their young! That means buying incubators, and more time and money invested in doing work your hens should be doing.
Big Producers (Commercial/Industrial/Hybrid breeds)
Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, White Leghorns and possibly White Wyandottes. These breeds are the preference of "practical" farmers. They consider all other breeds to be "hobbist" breeds.
What Are Your Trying To Achieve?
Are you looking for chickens that will simply feed your family, round out your homestead, and be fun to have around? Or, are you looking to create a no-nonsense stream of revenue for your homestead? Perhaps both, but one will take priority. The concept here is that hybrids grow fast, and start producing quickly and at a high rate. You don't get attached to these birds as members of your family. They're livestock, and you don't keep them around long. Less than 6 months for meat varieties, and a couple years (most) for layers. This means you're feeding them less to maturity. Less feed means less expense - less expense means you can sell your (organic/freerange) eggs and meat 'competitively' (say $4/doz and $3/lb compared to $10/doz and $8/lb).
Slow White Cornish, Red Broilers, and Black broilers sold by most hatcheries.
If you insist on a heritage or old world breed and want to make a profit, you have to find the highest-producing “egg strains” of these breeds. Many chicken hobboyist/poultry fanciers keep their birds just for "show"....and winning competitions based on beauty alone is what's important. "Performance" can easily be bred out of these strains/stock, as a side-effect of breeding for beauty alone. If you're ordering from a hatchery - call and ask the manager for recommendations.
Temperament is always important. I tried at least one new breed a year for many years, before I settled on Privett Hatchery’s red sex-links as the best combination of performance and docility. This is a good strategy for heritage breeds as well. Some of them are nice, but others are nasty.
If profit isn’t a motive, then temperament is key. I’d start with barred rocks. They’re the gold standard of pleasant hens, and they were always a favorite of the American farmer. They’re attractive and most strains lay pretty well. Buff Orpingtons are also a safe bet; though they probably won’t lay as well.
If you don’t plan on selling your eggs, then it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the production of even a small flock, so choosing high-producing chickens might be more of a curse than a blessing. I’ve always suspected that this is why backyard poultry breeders have such inflated opinions of their flock’s performance. If they’re drowning in eggs, their flock must have great production, right?
Stages of Productio
- Started Pullets - A hen that is 15-22 weeks old.
- Point Of Lay (POL) Chicken – A 22 week old hen.
- Pullet - A hen that is less than a year old.
PINT OF LAY is the approximate time at which your hens should start producing eggs. Hens are not mechanical though, so the point of lay is an estimate only!
Some breeds lay earlier than others- Rhode Island Reds start to lay around 18-20 weeks, Orpingtons can wait up to 28 weeks before they start laying! You should have some idea of how productive your bird is likely to be in advance.
If you want a good reliable layer you want something like a Rhode Island Red or production breed.
However it’s important to remember that all hens egg laying rate is affected by variables such as daylight hours, type of feed and stress, to name but a few things.
Be aware that the hen may not produce an egg for you for a few weeks. The stress of a new home and surroundings can delay things for a bit, so be patient!
It’s actually better for the hen to lay later rather than early. Pullets that start to lay before their allotted time, often suffer from prolapses and other ‘egg machinery’ malfunctions.
Buying Pullets and Hens from Dealers
Do your homework. Don’t pick up the local flyer and buy from the first person who advertises. Craigslist can also be hit and miss, again, try to check out the seller beforehand.
Be aware that just because a place has many breeds to choose from, it doesn’t make them a good source. Ask about their reputation, Google for reviews.
Do you know people who have chickens? Ask around and find out who is a reliable source of pullets. Go knock on some doors- chicken people are very friendly and love to talk about their birds!
Join a local poultry club/website. Many national sites have local connections – use them to your advantage, ask questions, look up local breeders.
When you find a supplier, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Have they been vaccinated for Mareks? Any health issues with the flock?
Also, take a look around- is the place clean, tidy or it is messy and filthy? A chicken farm is not a spotless palace, but it shouldn’t look run down and seedy either.
Look carefully at the birds- do they have lice or mites? Are they perky or dull and listless? Don’t be afraid to walk away if you are unsure. Always try to buy birds during daylight hours so you can fully inspect them. If you are a ‘newbie’ try to take an experienced person with you.
If any of them have the sniffles – walk away! You don’t need unhealthy birds to start with.
I cannot emphasize enough to be very cautious if you decide to buy from an auction. You have limited time for inspection of birds (if at all) and you don’t know any history about them. Often, the birds will have been ‘sold on’ at several auctions recently with the seller just trying to make money. This means the birds are highly stressed and have been subjected to all sorts of disease. My advice is- don’t buy from auctions, unless you have a very experienced person with you.
How Much Do Pullets Cost?
This varies depending on many things. Most ‘common’ chickens can be bought for $2-5 each, and you will pay an additional $7-10 for pullets.
You can pay anywhere from $5 to $100+ depending on the breeds you want. The rarer the breed, the more you will pay. Also, true heritage breeds will cost more from a breeder than a hatchery. Their stock is usually purer and usually more robust.
Without a doubt you save on feed, bedding, heating and lighting by buying pullets. The downside is you miss out on the chick ‘cuteness factor’!
In my experience, I have found that raising my own birds from chicks usually results in friendlier birds, but this may be coincidence.
Giving a home to an ex-battery cage hen is a worthy cause, but be aware they will need some special treatment.
Initially they will be in generally poor health- feathers missing, may have been de-beaked and will likely be very timid.
They certainly can be re-habilitated, but it takes time and lots of effort and understanding on your part. Many have gone on to provide eggs for their saviors for a few years.
They will cost you time, effort and money initially, but your reward is far superior in giving them a home. However practically speaking, if you want eggs for minimal outlay, don’t get ex-battery cage hens.
If you already have hens and are introducing new hens to your flock, make sure to read our guide on introducing new hens to avoid any problems.
It really pays to do your homework before buying new birds. Read as much as you can about your chosen breed and their care requirements. You need to be sure of what you want in a breed and then scout around for reputable breeders.
The vast majority of breeders are honest and helpful; however there are still some suspect breeders out there.
If you are unsure whether or not to buy the bird(s), trust your own instinct- if in doubt don’t. As hard as it is to walk away, you will be better for it in the long run.
There are plenty of chickens out there so don’t be pressured into buying. Sometimes a breeder will tell you it’s a rare bird and you are getting a good deal. Occasionally this is true, but more often it’s a ploy to get you to buy the bird in question.
If you can take an experienced person with you to the buy, that would be ideal, especially if they can ‘educate’ you on the birds you are seeing or buying. An experienced eye can help you avoid making mistake
Sizing Up: Age & Health
There are several things to look for when buying poultry or fowl...
A pullets’ comb should be bright red and full, not dull, worn or ‘spotty’.
Note: The one picture above/center of the chicken with black tips on the comb is frostbite. I've included this bcuz healthy bird will heal from this.
Beak should be Straight, well aligned, with no discharge. Avoid the entire flock where even one bird has discharge.
Feathers should have a nice glossy sheen and be tight. There should be no looseness to the feathers, or excessive bald patches or broken feathers. Check for mites, lice, or eggs in clusters around the chickens bottom, and under wings (prefer warm areas).
Bright, alert, curious, wide open. No deformed pupils. No discharge. Not saggy, baggy, bumpy, scaly, or half closed.
The crop is a pouch that feels like an Adam's apple. It should be about golf ball sized. It should not be saggy or empty - could indicate digestive issues.
In younger birds, legs have better color, not fade - no raised scales. Legs should feel smooth and be straight. Older birds can have swollen joints.
The glory hole where everything comes out. Like any healthy, fertile female - it should be clean, pink, bright and glossy, wit no strong smell. Older hens will be pale pink/white/gray and likely dry. Also, the feathers around the vent should be clean with no poop or discharge.
Young birds will be energetic, alert, vibrant - curious and busy. Older or sick hens will be slower, more sedate, not as active. Flock dynamics are important - watch how the birds interact with each other, which are the aggressive/dominant, and weaker ones. Look for the pecking order and choose birds in the middle.
Deep Litter System
If you decide to build a coop that's stationary - leave a dirt floor to make your life easier and your chickens health better.
Cover the dirt ground with a deep layer (up to 12 inches) of organic matter. When coops cannot be moved to fresh ground frequently, the deep litter system is the best arrangement for safe and less labor-intensive manure management.
Chickens are constantly turning up the ground beneath them - working their droppings into the deep litter. Microbes work beneath the surface to quickly decompose the matter into rich fertilized soil. Metabolites (byproducts of the microbes’ life processes) include vitamins, probiotics, and immune-enhancing substances, which the chickens ingest as they peck through the litter.
There's much debate over suitable materials for what the litter should be made of. It should be high in carbon and be a mix of leaves, wood shavings, sawdust and/or straw. Some suggest wood materials should be aged first. Do not use pressure-treated wood materials. Other say straw promotes the growth of harmful molds. The problem arises with moisture. You need to experiment to have a good mix of absorbent and non-absorbant materials. Pine straw is not as absorbent as wheat straw, pine chips are more absorbent than hardwoods. Some leaves (like oak) are non-absorbant and take too long to break down. Sawdust is great for sucking up moisture. Layer in some sand as well for drainage. All this works the same as a compost pile. It won't take long to find a healthy mix that works well.
The microbes use nitrogen in the droppings as an energy source as they break down the litter into simpler elements. As the carbon in the litter is used up, the nitrogen can no longer be utilized efficiently by the microbes and begins outgassing as ammonia. Ammonia is bad for your birds’ respiratory tissues, so that first whiff of ammonia is your signal to add fresh material or clean out the litter. Materials higher in nitrogen, such as hay and soybean vines, don’t work as well for litter because they decompose too quickly.
When topping up litter - you can unbind a straw bale and toss out the leaves/layers of straw around the coop. The chickens will do the rest of the work - spreading it out nicely in no time.
Deep litter also is labor-saving. You might need to shovel out the equivalent of finished compost once a year or so, and you can use it in the garden without further processing.
If you need to use an existing building with a wood or concrete floor, that’s OK. You can still use a deep layer of organic material as the foundation of proper manure management (straw in this context is fine since it stays drier). In this case, you may want to further composted the litter before use in the garden.
One word of caution on dirt floors for a coop - predators. You must incorporate wire mesh hardware cloth or similar around the perimeter of your coop - a good 18" or so to prevent burrowing animals from digging under the base. You can layer different size mesh to help deter rodents and snakes as well.