Basics of Raising Chickens
As recently as a few generations ago the practice of raising chickens in order to provide eggs and meat for your family was a fairly common one in rural, suburban, and even some urban areas of the country. The site of a chicken coop out behind a home with a flock of hens pecking around in the yard was a common one. Gradually, though, we became more dependent on groceries stores for our food as our population increased and neighborhoods became more crowded.
Now we have come full circle as many people are returning to organically grown food for our families and searching for fresh “farm to table” sources within our own communities for produce, meats and dairy products. In our desire to return to the basics our family, to our surprise, has become trendsetters as we turned to keeping chickens. The truth is that my whole family has discovered that keeping chickens is something we really enjoy. It’s a lot of fun to watch our chickens and the things they do. The children are learning to respect and love animals as well as take responsibility for their care and well-being. The chickens give back by providing eggs and fertilizer. It’s a win-win for all of us.
Before ordering baby chicks or young birds for your own yard, there are questions you need to ask yourself. The first one is absolutely crucial. Is it legal to be keeping chickens where you live? Check with your local county extension agent about local and state laws regarding keeping chickens in your community or your HOA about regulations in your neighborhood concerning livestock. Do you even like chickens? If you can’t stand to be around them or are nervous with them, it won’t work. Do you have the necessary time? Chickens are by far the most low-maintenance of all farm animals. That said, you still have to do daily chores for them and have someone take your place when you are out of town. Do you have enough room in your yard for keeping chickens? If you plan to manage them with a coop, you’ll need 10 square feet per hen if they live in it full-time. If they range or have a run, you need to provide two to four square feet per bird. Finally, can you afford the cost? Chickens must have feeders, waterers, a roosting area, nesting boxes, a coop or chicken trailer with fencing, and feed.
After answering all the questions if you are still committed to keeping chickens consider which of two basic management styles you will use with your hens. One is Coop and Run management. The chicken coop is a small shelter that contains nesting boxes in which hens lay their eggs and perches where they roost at night for sleeping. Outside around the coop is a fenced pen, or run, that the chickens access through a small door in the coop. The fences is usually of four foot high chicken wire and metal T posts, with the fencing material set a foot deep in the ground to protect the birds from predators. Some runs are netted on top as well to protect the birds from hawks and aerial predators. This is the most common management method.
Your chicken coop should have certain features including plenty of light, nesting boxes with easy access for retrieval of eggs, plenty of perch space for each hen (ten inches per bird is recommended) and plenty of insulation. Coops need to be easy to maintain and clean as well as well ventilated. The bigger the breed of chicken you raise, the more space it needs. Most aggression problems in chickens (pecking, angry behavior) can be solved with more space. Plan to provide the largest coop you can accommodate and afford for your flock.
The other method is Chicken Tractor and Electronet management. A chicken tractor is a moveable coop that can be transferred to a fresh patch of pasture or grass when needed. This is the method to use if you want to allow your flock to range but not to be completely free. Some are used with an electronet fence. This is a light and easy to move fencing of electric net that is powered by a battery and grounding rod and is quickly installed. Place it around the chicken trailer to define the ranging area.
Chicken trailers have roofs and sides but no floor so chickens have direct access to fresh grass, seeds, bugs, weeds and grit as well as a shady place for their waterer plus roosts for sleep, keeping chickens protected from predators. If you have laying hens, their nesting boxes are placed inside the trailer. With wheels on the front end, they can be picked up by a hitch and dragged by an ATV or tractor to a new spot when needed. Your birds leave fertilizing poop behind when they move and you’ve kept them from tearing up your flower beds and vegetable garden.
There are other supplies you need for keeping chickens such as waterers and feeders. The number of each depends on the size of your flock. Use hanging ones to keep the feed and water free of poop and shavings while preventing the hens from roosting on them. Bedding (straw, hay or pine shavings) for the nesting boxes is also necessary. Provide one nesting box for every two or three hens and make the beds cozy and fairly dark inside. If each has a trap door on the back it’s easier to gather eggs. Chickens also need perches where they can roost to sleep. When well-rested, they lay more eggs.
Feed for Chickens
Chickens love to eat growing grasses, especially clover, Kentucky bluegrass and buckwheat. They eat seeds, weeds and dine on insects, earthworms, slugs and crawling things of all kinds. Feed them Scratch, which is a combination of grains (oats, corn, rye and wheat) to be sure they are getting all their nutrients. Cracked corn is like candy to chickens. Berries, grapes, frozen cranberries and kale leaves are a great treat. Chickens also need to consume some grit (sand, coarse dirt, small bits of gravel) for their gizzards to help digest all the wild foods they forage and eat. Household scrapes are appreciated but don’t feed them garlic, beans, onions and citrus or their eggs will taste odd. Raw potatoes and the leaves of tomato and potato plants are poisonous to chickens.
Buy Chicken Feed
Steps to Start Keeping Chickens
Your local county extension agent has a lot of helpful information and can put you in touch with local poultry farmers and other people who are keeping chickens. Learn all you can from them about which chicken breeds to raise and whether to start your flock from egg hatchlings, chicks you purchase or from young birds. Having a local mentor will be a big help as you start raising chickens. Keeping chickens, whether for eggs, meat or just as a hobby, is fun as well as useful. Our family could not imagine our home now without the sight and sound of a flock of chickens in the yard.