April 15, 2014

Backyard Chickens 101

Why get chickens?
We got them because we like eating eggs (and chicken), we like eating for optimal nutrition, we don't like going to the grocery store and we like to be self-reliant. We also are frugal, but depending how you approach having chickens, you may or may not save money. We figure we about evened out when we started with a cheap scrap coop and four chickens that gave us 12-14 eggs weekly in warm seasons. But we don't care to spend our time tallying those details anymore, and have since gotten six more chickens and built a fancy chicken condominium of sorts.

Baby chicks just a few days old.

Starting Out - Baby Chicks
If you are going for ease, then just go buy new baby chicks in the Spring at the local IFA or similar store (about $3-4 each). (Or you can hatch them from eggs, but that is more difficult...like planting a seed vs. buying a transplant.) These baby chicks will need to stay warm under a light, in a box, for six weeks or more until ready to transition outside. So buy a heat lamp ($15 ish) to stick above the container, and Which you will raise each week about an inch more, until they are ready for the outside weather. You will need basic chick water and food containers that aren't just open containers ($3-5 each). Chicks are messy and poop all over everything and knock things over. So you will need some type of pine shavings for the tub or box you put them in so they have a soft bed and so it can soak up some of their crap, literally. We just used pine shavings ($10 and lasts a year) and a Rubbermaid type container (barely held four for 6 weeks by the time they get large). And it stunk if we didn't change the pine shavings regularly, so we put it down in our unfinished basement.

There are also different breeds. You will want to decide why you have chickens: for eggs or meat, or both (dual purpose). All of ours are dual purpose. Thinks about egg production, temperament, egg color, feather color, broodiness (some breeds tend to sit on their eggs a lot when they get in certain moods....not fun). I purposely chose four different dual purpose birds of different colors that gave me a good variety of color eggs and pretty good production. (California leghorn--can be a little feisty, white egg, 4-5 a week, white feathers; Plymouth Barred Rock--light brown eggs, black and white spotted feathers, 3-4 a week; Buff Orpington--super passive and friendly, light brown eggs, orange feathers, 4 eggs a week; Americana--brown with black feathers, dark brown eggs (typically green or blue eggs), assertive, but not aggressive. (As seen below in photo)

This next batch we have is different, but I will post on those breeds once they are full grown.
These are 6-8 week old chicks...so still not full size.

Transitioning to Outside
Between six and eight weeks old the chicks are old enough to go outside. Sometimes putting different ages chickens with each other could present a social problem, so beware. We will put our new chicks into our mobile coop for the summer and then the big coop once they start laying eggs. Egg production doesn't start until about 6 months old. So we don't put in a nest box until then. 

Laying Hens
So, a brief lesson on chickens. Hens are female chickens. Roosters are male. Hens will regularly lay eggs for almost two years, after which they slow down production. These eggs are edible. However, if a rooster gets to the hen....watch out! That is when you will get fertilized eggs--new chicks--instead of eggs to scramble. So...if you don't have a rooster, no worries, and more eggs for you to eat. As for accommodations, they will need a roost to sleep on (some type of raised horizontal pole--one foot per bird, space-wise). For laying eggs, they will need a nesting box with pine shavings about 1x1foot and one box for every 2-4 chickens. It needs to be nice and clean. We put a golf ball it he box to teach the hens where to lay the eggs. Each time a chicken lays an egg it sings its little bauwck, bauwck song for a few minutes and then you know they have laid. This isn't that loud and its the only real noise they make. So I wouldn't consider chickens very loud (roosters are another story, however). Our chickens normally lay between 10am - noon.

Egg Handling
We collect our eggs each late morning. Our four lay 12-14 a week generally. We put them in an egg container and leave it on top of our fridge. Yes, I said on top. We don't put them in the fridge because they don't need to, unless they have already been refrigerated or washed. The eggs have a protective layer on them which keeps them safe until washed. So don't wash until ready to use them, or if you are  going to put them in the fridge afterwards. And I wouldn't use hot or cold water, just room temperature water and mild soap for a quick wash/rinse. Always wash your hands after handling eggs and chicks. Chicken poop is not pleasant for your tummy, so don't take a chance eating with dirty hands (or eggs). And eggs should last a few weeks, but the way to test is if the egg floats it is old and should be discarded. Fresh eggs should sink.

Coop Design
If you want to have a minimal effort coop, design it smart. My first i used scrap everything the only thing i bought was screws and green paint. But it can really be as cheap or expensive as you want to make it. The basics are four feet square roaming room per chick minimum. One foot roost space to sleep (the robot should be elated off the ground). One nest box per few birds. The design should be draft free, but also include some ventilation from all the poop that sits inside between cleanings. We like to just clean our coop once a month. The poop and pine shaving work great for compost. You need to decided the purpose of your coop and chickens. Do you want them to roam and free range around your yard eating up plants and pooping everywhere? We have ours in a stationary coop in a fenced off area to roam and eat whatever in there.

The Mobile Coop to put over garden beds.
But we have a mobile a-frame we put on top our veggie garden beds when we want the chickens to clean up camp after harvest, in our nice part of the yard where we don't want poop everywhere. We also knew free range would be better for us not having to clean the coop so often. So...figure out your priorities and design around that.
The Big coop.
Egg Door from back deck (taken before we put the door on)

Another maintenance issue besides cleaning is how often to fill food and water. At first i was changing those little chick food and water containers daily. if chickens don't have water they can die in as quick as that same day. Food isn't quite as big of an issue. We ended up building in a big box and trough to pour a 50lb bag of food into. We refill food only once a month. And the water is a hanging six-gallon bucket with a hose attached to the top and three chicken water nipples hanging from the bottom. We just turn on the hose for a minute or two each week to fill it higher.

Chickens can jump quite high, so I would suggest five feet tall fence with small holes. Chickens can squeeze through surprisingly small areas if they really want to. Chicken wire is great. And you can always clip the chicken wings quite easily if you don't want them to flap and try to fly a bit.

The chickens will get through the winter fine. They acclimate. Although you do need to have a basic draft-free coop for them. A heat lamp ensures better egg production. And you will need something to keep the water from freezing. There are expensive water heaters, or you can put a bulb in a cinder block under the water container. Or we use the metal piece that hangs into the water bucket and plugs into a wall. So keep this all in mind. We didn't our first winter and we didn't get eggs and had to change water daily.

Anyway...this is what you need to know for starting your chicken journey. I highly suggest it. They are fun to have and our kids love taking them down the slide, chasing them and collecting morning eggs. And since we won't have dogs....this is a good, practical alternative. :)

Let me know if you have further questions. I'd love to help you start.

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