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So, you'd like to get started raising chickens? Be sure you're ready to commit! Here's the first post of a beginner's guide. Let's "start from scratch," so to speak.
There’s a lot to like about raising your own chickens.The eggs are a real temptation—tastier and fresher than any store eggs and better for baking, too.The shells, along with the chicken poop, can be tossed right into the compost pile. Much of the day, the birds entertain themselves, picking at grass, worms, beetles, and all of the good things that go into making those yummy farm eggs.
Remember, though: Nothing good comes easy.
- You'll need a coop. It has to hold a feeder and water containers and a nest box for every three hens. It should be large enough that you can stand in it to gather eggs and shovel manure.
- Chickens need food (and water) daily. Feed is about $20 per 50-pound bag at my co-op; how long a bag lasts depends on the number of chickens that you have.
- 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.
- All year ‘round, you’ll have to shovel manure.
- If you go away, you need a reliable chicken-sitter, and they are scarcer than hens’ teeth.
Chickens are sociable, so plan to keep four to six birds. They’ll need space—at least 2 square feet of coop floor per bird. The more space, the happier and healthier the chickens will be; overcrowding contributes to disease and feather picking.
The birds will need a place to spread their wings, so to speak: a 20x5-foot chicken run, for example, or a whole backyard. (My hens had lots of outdoor time. They had places to take a dust bath and catch a few rays.) Either way, the space must be fenced to keep the chickens in and predators out. (Did you know? Predators include your own Fido and Fluffy.) Add chicken-wire fencing and posts or T-bars to support it to your list of equipment.
All of this costs money. The materials to build and furnish a coop and a 20x5-foot run are going to set you back $300 to $400. If you can’t do this work yourself, you'll also be buying skilled labor. Want to increase your flock? Young chicks need a brooder lamp for warmth, but don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.
In my next post, we'll talk about choosing the right chicken breed.
Choosing a chicken breed is important. Here's the second post in a beginner's guide series to finding the right chicken breed for you.
When it comes to choosing your chickens, there are more breeds than you can shake an eggbeater at. One of the delights of this step is learning some of the breed names: Silkie, Showgirl, Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Rosecomb, Redcap, and Russian Orloff, to name a few.
Some things that you’ll want to consider include the number and color of eggs produced, the breed’s temperament, its noise level, and its adaptability to confinement. If you can’t let your chickens range free, the confinement factor is important for a happy, healthy flock. Noise level really matters if you do not reside in the country. Some sources advise against mixing ages, but I’ve never had trouble with older birds picking on younger ones.
Most varieties thrive in all climates, although some have special needs: Phoenix and Minorcas need heat, for example, and Brahmas and Chanteclers prefer cool conditions. Every breed produces eggs, even the so-called ornamental breeds, but egg size and production vary. Medium-production layers are plenty for a family. Bantam eggs are small; to complement their yolks, you’ll need more whites than most angel food cake recipes call for.
I kept Rhode Island Reds and Barred Plymouth Rocks, both of which are usually available from a local hatchery. These are docile, not particularly noisy, high-laying, dual-purpose breeds that take confinement well. They gave me 75 percent egg production—that is, a dozen chickens produced nine eggs a day while they were laying.
Another favorite of mine is the Jersey Giant. It is black or white, and large. (My black Jersey Giant rooster was 16 inches at the saddle!) The hens are medium- rather than high-laying chickens, but the eggs are larger than those of the Plymouth Rock or Rhode Island Red. This breed is calm and docile but needs more room because of its size.
Araucanas are flighty (not docile), but they thrive in almost any climate, take confinement well, and are quiet. Plus, the green-shelled eggs are a novelty. (One of my Rhode Island Red hens mated with an Araucana cock and gave me a hen that laid olive eggs!)
My dream team would include Easter Eggers. (Yes, that’s really the breed name!) They’re similar in temperament to Araucanas and lay blue or green eggs. It may take me a while to track them down, but—hey!—the dream team is worth it.
Next, we’ll address the nuts and bolts of building a backyard chicken coop.
Learn how to build your own chicken coop for your backyard. Here's beginner's guide to building a poultry palace!
(This is the third post in our Raising Chickens 101 series.)
Building a Chicken Coop
The housing for your chickens can be as simple or fancy as your imagination and budget permit. The basic criteria will be dictated by the birds.
First, decide on the size. You will need 2 square feet of floor space per chicken, and one nest box for every three hens. Nest boxes should be about a foot square. For instructions, you might want to check out this page. For larger breeds such as Jersey Giants, allow an additional square foot of floor space per bird.
Sketch the coop on paper, with measurements. (Don’t know where to start? Check the plans for any size of flock here.)
It might also be helpful to mark the ground where the coop will be erected, taking into consideration its location relative to the sun (southern exposure ensures greater warmth and sunlight); any nearby structures (will you attach it to a garage or barn?); and the need for a run, fenced or not (more on that in a moment). Build your coop and run on high ground to avoid battling water and mud problems!
Do not forget to include a door and a floor in the plans. A door can be as simple as a piece of plywood on a frame of 1-by-2s, with hinges and a simple latch—make it large enough for you to enter and exit easily with eggs in hand or a basket. A dirt floor is perfectly adequate. However, if you build a wooden floor, plan to raise it 6 inches off the ground. A third option is poured concrete, if your time and budget allow. Also consider whether you will bring electricity into the coop: A low-watt bulb will prolong the day during winter months and keep egg production figures constant.
Coop ventilation is more important than insulation. Plan to have openings near the ceiling for air circulation. (While chickens enjoy moderate—around 55°F—temperatures, ours survived nicely in the barn through –40°F winters. Their feathers kept them warm.) Also plan to install a couple of 1½-inch dowels across the upper part of the coop; this will enable the chickens to roost off the floor at night.
When you’re ready, bring your plans to the lumber yard. Someone there can help you to determine how much stock and what tools and/or equipment you will need. Plan to frame the coop with 2-by-4s and use sheets of plywood for the walls. The roof can be a sheet of plywood covered with roof shingles or simply a piece of sheet metal.
A 5x20-foot run will keep a small flock—six to eight hens—happy. More space is better if you have the room. If predators are a problem in your area, bury a layer of chicken wire 6 inches deep under the coop and run to foil diggers like foxes, dogs, and skunks. Mink and weasels can slip through standard 2-inch wire. To keep them out, use a couple of 2-inch layers offset or 1-inch wire instead. Plug any holes in the coop walls as well.
- You’ll need to accessorize the coop, at least rudimentarily: Waterers, available from farm suppliers, keep the chickens from fouling their water supply. Get one for every three or four chickens. Also get a feed trough long enough to let all of the chickens feed at once (or get two smaller ones). Have enough wood shavings (pine) or straw to put a 6-inch layer on the floor and a couple of handfuls in each nest box and your chickens will have a perfect home. Change the bedding about once a month or if it starts looking flat.
Remember, a chicken coop doesn’t need to be complicated. Our first one was a small shed built with recycled wood. The run was screened in chicken wire and built onto the side of our house. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job. Just keep in mind the two simple rules “Measure twice, cut once” and “Pointy end down,” and both you and your hens will be happy.
Next, we’ll address chicken care and bringing up those baby chicks!
Learn what to do when your chickens stop laying eggs. The final chapter in the oval of life.
(This is the sixth and final post in our Raising Chickens 101 beginner series.)
Sooner or later, your chickens will stop laying eggs. When depends on the chicken. Most of ours went “off lay” as the days grew shorter. They laid fewer and fewer eggs until one day they simply stopped. One or two continued to lay sporadically throughout the cold, dark days of winter, although most of those eggs froze and cracked before we got out to collect them. (We gave them to the dog, usually raw and right on the spot. He had a lovely, shiny coat and produced sulfurous gas at inopportune moments.)
You can extend the laying period for your hens by putting a light hooked to a timer in the henhouse. This will give the hens a couple of extra hours of artificial daylight, but the natural pattern for most hens is to stop laying in the winter.
As the hens go off lay, you have two ways of dealing with them. One is to resign yourself to a lot of chicken stew over the winter. Year-old hens usually aren’t tender enough to roast. The other way is to give them the winter off and wait. They’ll begin laying again in the spring. (I’ve heard people say that they couldn’t keep chickens because “you have to kill them when they stop laying eggs.” Not true. We never killed a hen simply because she stopped laying.)
We found that our older hens usually produce fewer eggs, but larger ones. In a production flock, this is a problem because consistency of supply and size is important. In the home flock, who cares? (Another advantage to older hens: They’re used to you and are less flighty and panicky.)
Even if you decide to keep your laying hens until they die of old age, you will eventually have to dispose of a chicken. Maybe you’ll have a sick bird, an overaggressive rooster, a hen injured by a predator, or a chicken that eats eggs. Maybe that mixed batch of chicks will turn out to be half cockerels, and who needs six roosters for six hens? Trust me, the hens won’t thank you!
The simplest way to kill a chicken—so I’m told as I’ve never done this and I’ve never seen it done—is to wring its neck. You have to be quick and forceful to avoid causing pain. We used the traditional chop: cutting the chicken’s throat. As far as I understand, these are the two main ways to kill a chicken. Shooting is also a possibility, but it’s noisy and probably also illegal in most places.
An axe and a block (a stump or upended round of firewood will do, as long as it’s stable) are probably the simplest method for people new to this age-old practice. There are a couple of ways to hypnotize or calm the chicken. One is to place the chicken breast-down on a flat surface while holding its legs. Wave a piece of chalk in front of the chicken’s beak until you have the bird’s attention, then draw a line straight out from the beak for 12 to 18 inches. The bird will focus on the line and not move or flap.
As most chopping blocks aren’t that long, you might want to use an alternate method. Lay the bird on its side, with one wing under it. Tap your finger in front once at the point of the beak (but not touching), then about four inches in front of the beak. Repeat alternating taps until the bird calms down and holds still.
If you’re worried about your aim, you can pound two long nails into the stump, far enough apart to span the chicken’s neck but close enough together to keep its head from slipping through. Lay the chicken on the block with its neck between the nails and apply enough tension to the legs to stretch the neck and keep the bird in place. Then use the axe. If you intend to eat the chicken, hold it up by the legs to let the blood drain. There will be flapping, but rest assured that the bird is dead and doesn’t feel any pain.
Have a pot of scalding (140° to 160°F) water ready. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell that the water is hot enough if you can see your face reflected in it. Dip the bird for 20 to 30 seconds. Afterwards you can wipe the feathers off with your hand. Chop off the feet, then cut around the cloaca (anus—chickens use the same opening for excretion and egg-laying), being careful not to nick the intestines, and scoop the innards out with your hand. Rinse with cold water. If you can get all of this done in 20 minutes while the oven preheats, you can cook the bird immediately; otherwise, let it rest for 24 hours, until rigor mortis relaxes.
People who raise their own food know where it comes from, what’s gone into it, and how it’s been treated. Whether your chickens are ultimately intended for the table or killed simply to end pain or illness and then buried in the back forty, remember that this is a responsibility that comes with the job. Doing it, and doing it well, means that you’re doing your best by your birds.