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!
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.
GOOD WITH CHILDREN: Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, Wyandottes, and Ameraucanas.
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.
This is a picture of an Ayam Cemani (black roo) from Indonesia. This is a rare breed prized for being all black - inside out (black meat). They once fetched about $1500 per bird, but popularity and competition has gotten the price down to around $400 each (sexed). There's a colder-climate cousin called the Swedish Black that sells for around $300. This is an extreme version of a rare breed. Other rare breeds include Shamo, Carolina Blues, Andalusian Blues, Swedish Flower, and many more.
Typically these breeds are bought for show, not production.
Big Producers (Commercial/Industrial/Hybrid breeds)
Understand that modern breeds have been bred for industry farming. They get big fast, or lay lots of eggs, but only for a couple seasons. They tend to get stressed and sick easier and also tend to be more temperamental. They aren't bred for their personalities or a long life. Plus, they're less likely to forage = more feed. On top of that - the hens aren't good with incubating or rearing their young.
Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, White Leghorns and possibly White Wyandottes. These breeds are the preference of "practical" farmers, with all others being "hobbyist" breeds.
Slow White Cornish, Red Broilers, and Black broilers.
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. These breeds are livestock - not family members. They're bred for high-turnaround, and not for long life. 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).
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 hobbyist/poultry fanciers keep their birds just for "show". "Performance" can easily be bred out of these strains/stock as a side-effect of breeding for beauty alone.
Buying Pullets and Hens from Dealers
Do your homework!
Your options for chickens are Craigslist, local ads, feed 'n' seed stores (typically only in spring), local farms, breeders, and hatcheries - both local and online. When ordering online - research and check customer ratings/reputation, and always go with a reputable company. If you can find a local source to pick up your birds in person that's all the better. Make sure you can visit/tour the farm, and go early on in the day when you have enough daylight to inspect the chickens and watch them interact with each other.
Place new chicken additions in quartine before introducing them to the flock. Feed them plenty of probiotics - adding raw apple cider vinegar to their water, and offering them fermented grain. This builds a healthy and strong immune system. You should be doing the same thing for yourself as well <wink wink>!
Stages of Production
Any chicken less than one-year-old. Typically sold through farms and hatcheries as chicks in a "straight run" (mixed group of cockerels/males and pullets/females). You can order "sexed" male or female pullets, but this adds some to the price, and there is no guarantee. Most reputable places offer free exchange (once you find out you have the wrong sex), but the shipping is hard on the live birds. Try your hardest to find hatcheries or suppliers that are local. Most hatcheries don't ship in the dead of winter or summer bcuz survival rate is too low. In case you might try fertilized eggs from a local farm or breeder. Pullets can run anywhere from $2 to $5
This is the cheapest route to go averaging about $1 per egg (any breed). Survival rate depends on conditions during shipping, and you won't know at first what they've been through. You have to wait and see if they're still viable. You also need an incubator (watch DIY incubator for $20), brooder box, and other fixins. There's more time and effort involved, and it will be a good 5 months before you see any eggs. You also end up with a mix of roosters and hens - so take this into consideration. Do you live somewhere where roosters are allowed? Are you prepared to cull the extra males for meat? If you're a humanitarian - you could end up with a dozen chickens to feed and care for, and only one or two that lay eggs.
If you're in a rural location, have space, and have children - for sure consider this method that will be wholly educational and fun for your kids! It teaches reproduction, life cycle, tenderness, and responsibility. And at an appropriate age of your choosing - please involve your children in the culling process as well. A child that fully aware of where their food comes from develops a deeper maturity and holistic appreciation for life.
These are female hens who have begun to lay "pullet eggs" (small). Typically 15 - 22 weeks old. Prices can range from $15 - $50 with rare and exotic breeds getting upwards of $100. The advantage here is not having to lay out 6 months of feed before you see any return on your investment (eggs)(and meat depending). Some breeds start laying earlier, some later.
POINT OF LAY (POL)
This is the approximate time at which your hens should start in full production of eggs. This 22-week range 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. It’s important to remember that all hens egg laying rate is affected by variables such as daylight hours, type of feed, and stress.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!
Be aware that the hen may not produce any eggs for a few weeks after relocation and transport. The stress of a new home and surroundings can delay things for a bit, so be patient.
Note: When ordering online from a hatchery or breeder - the typical minimum order is 25 chicks. This better ensures their survival rate by keeping each other warm. For any chicks that don't make the trip, most places will offer a monetary refund, but they will ship replacement birds (less than the minimum).
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.
YOU'VE GOT YOU CHICKENS NOW WHAT?
Freerange Foraging & Feed
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. Open the door to the coop when the sun comes up (pre-dawn there are still some predators about). They'll keep themselves busy all day, and before the sun starts to set -they'll be back in the coop to roost. Just remember to close the door!!
Chickens won't stray far from their coop. They're completely aware that it's their home and safe-zone. It's also where their regular feed and water is, and their nesting boxes, which they'll use throughout the day. 90% of the time they're going to stay within eye-shot of the coop. The only downside to free-roaming chickens is when one of them finds a better place to lay eggs! One day you'll be cleaning up, landscaping or something..and you'll find a nest with about 3 dozen eggs in it!! Ohhhh, so that's why! You can't break this habit really - you just need to add this spot to your checklist. Hopefully, you find the spot before the raccoons, possums, or snakes do! Sometimes it wise to just sit back for an afternoon with some tea and a book, and watch your chickens go about their business.
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.
If your decide to let your chickens roam - one thing you should consider investing in is poultry fencing - especially if you want a vegetable garden and chickens in the same space! If your area is already fenced in - the electric fence will protect your garden. If you don't have property fencing - it's an affordable way to loosely contain your flock, and easily move it around from place to place. It also works to protect them from predators. Electric net fencing is a plastic mess with interwoven wire. An energizer needs to be attached (and grounded) either plug-in or solar. There's also a non-electrified version that's more affordable and works just as well. As usual - check eBay, Craigslist, etc for used items.
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.
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.
Every once in a while you'll find a chicken with an uncontrollable taste for eggs. The culprit can be a young pullet, cock, or even older hen. Once an egg is broken open by an egg-eater (or by accident) others have the opportunity to sample this tasty treat, and it can set off a chain reaction where you end up with an entire flock of egg-eaters. Some say this habit is impossible to break, and the only solution is culling or debeaking the bird (before the habit catches on). If you're in it for the profits - that might be your logical solution, as rectifying this behavior requires time and patience.
Firstly, you've designed your coop so the nesting boxes are off the ground. Secondly, you're on top of collecting your eggs on an early and regular schedule - so they're not sitting around being enticing. Thirdly, you're providing your chickens a nice rounded, nutritionally complete diet and where possible - allowing them to get out and roam-free. I believe this habit has a lot to do with boredom and mineral deficiencies and/or lack of variety in diet. If on top of all this, you find yourself with an egg-eater try the following...
- Empty out several egg shells by poking holes in both ends and blowing out the contents. Fill the shells with yellow mustard or dish soap and reseal the ends by dripping candle wax on them. Place one in the culprit's nest, and set aside the others for the following days. Chickens detest mustard and hopefully, that will do the trick. The other eggs you made are for reconfirming the fact that 'eggs taste bad'. It can take several attempts to get that message across.
- After gathering eggs, place a golf ball or fake egg in the nest and let your chicken wear themselves on trying to crack it open. Frustration and a sore break is the result for this poor addict. Not quite as effective a tactic, but sometimes subtleness and consistency works best.
- More protein. This problem can be caused by a lack of protein. Use cat kibble or fish meal to supplement the diet - mixed into daily feed, or spread out as a treat. You want to address this issue in your feed by researching other brands or reformulating your recipe.
If your chickens are confined to their coop/run and don't get enough stimulation/adventure - boredom can result in bad habits. Add trays of sprouted grain and seeds, apples, melons, grapes, etc. Do a Google image search for "chicken toys". Through rotten logs full of insects into the run, hang a head of lettuce on twine, make a chicken swing, grow giant sunflowers and throw heads in the coop, and offer them up bowls of expired or homemade yogurt and other ferments.
WATCH DIY ROLLAWAY NESTING BOXES - Youtube video on simple, low-cost hack to already built boxes. Lots of other versions of this that can be incorporated into your coop design before hand, and will depend on if you're gathering your eggs from the inside or outside of the coop.
You want to keep nesting boxes as clean as possible, so your eggs are clean. Eggs have a protective coating that keeps oxygen and bacteria out - keeping them fresher longer. Ideally, you don't want to wash your eggs. If you're worried about bacteria, etc. wash them just before using. Dirty eggs should be cleaned right away with damp sponge or rag dipped in a solution of water and apple cider vinegar. Use these eggs sooner than later. Never immerse eggs in water to wash them - this can actually drive bad bacteria through the shells.
If you've calculated your flock to provide just enough eggs for your family - they don't have to be refrigerated and can last at room temperature for a couple of weeks. If you have an excess of eggs you'll have to store them someplace cool. If you're a prepper or avid camper - learn how to dehydrate and store extra eggs. Mix them in with pet food. Make pound cakes for friends and family, or pickle preserve them.
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