This is another guest post from The Crazy Chicken Lady … if you missed the first part of her backyard chicken article, check it out. I’ll wait!
If I’ve convinced you to give some chickens a try, there are a couple of ways to start a flock. If you want eggs right away, you may be able to find some older chickens locally.
Many hens are culled at two or three years of age when their production slows down, but one of those girls may tide you over till your chicks mature.
If it’s meat you want, look for young cockerels being culled from a flock. Often they are at or close to butchering age when they are declared surplus in a flock with too many roosters.
Procuring Baby Chicks
Baby chicks are found in feed stores in the spring, and can be ordered from hatcheries all year round. Chicks are sold “straight run” or “sexed.” Straight run chicks are mixed males (cockerels) and females (pullets) and that’s a gamble, which may not matter if you’re buying them for meat. But if you want only laying hens, you can buy sexed pullet chicks, which cost a bit more than straight run.
New chicks need a draft-free high-sided container to live in. Their first home can be as simple as a large cardboard box, plastic tub, or metal water trough lined with pine shavings.
Babies should have a waterer that they cannot fall into, and a feeder that they won’t tip over. A heat lamp is a must, as they need to start out in a 95 degree environment.
Chick starter feed can be purchased with or without medication to prevent disease. Most of these items can be found locally or bought online from hatcheries or stores.
The Babies Grow Up And Move Out
When the chicks outgrow their nursery, they’ll need a larger home with roost, feeder, and waterer. At about four months of age, pullets should have a quiet dark place to lay their eggs.
There are several types of chicken abodes. A crate to use inside a garage or barn can be constructed of a wood frame and sided with chicken wire. A draft guard along the floor is helpful, as are doors for feeding, watering and tending chickens.
A chicken tractor, similar to a crate, has no floor and can usually be moved around on grass to give the birds a fresh smorgasbord when the old one has been consumed. It also can be used as a night shelter for free-ranging chickens. An outdoor tractor or shelter should have some solid sides and roof for sun and rain protection.
Finally, a coop is a building structure of any size, usually with solid walls and windows or vents. Ventilation is very important for the health and well-being of chickens.
A Chickens Gotta Eat!
In addition to good quality feed, laying hens usually need calcium supplements such as crushed oyster shell. To aid in digestion, chickens need to have tiny pieces of gravel, sand or purchased grit available unless they have access to outdoor soil.
Chickens enjoy many garden and kitchen scraps such as breads, fruits, vegetables, cheese, and cooked eggs (really!). They do have opinions though, and may turn up their beaks at one food or another. Some are also great foragers and enjoy access to grass and plants as well as bugs and worms.
Keeping Your Chickens Safe
Be aware of the predator situation on your property. Large and small mammals, rodents, snakes, and birds of prey are all potential raiders.
If the risk from predators in your area is low, your chickens may be able to free range and wander all over. If allowed, they will cover a large territory of more than an acre, maybe including your patio, porch and even your home if they can find a way in. If you have aversion to doodoo on your lawn chairs, you might want to confine the birds!
We like to allow our chickens some freedom, but I like to sit down on a clean patio chair. Our compromise is 48” fences, which keep in most of our birds (a few know that they can fly) but allow them some freedom to wander in specified grassy areas. For grass rotations without using tractors, portable fencing is available.
Once chickens have bonded to a home, whether it’s a coop or field shelter, they will naturally put themselves to bed when it gets dark out. So some people opt for a pre-dusk release outside the fences or in the fallow garden or orchard for bedtime snacks. The birds can have a bit of adventure for an hour or two without wandering too far and then go back to their home at dark. I always find it entertaining to watch chickens jump at flying insects, stalk bugs crawling on the ground, and chase a flockmate that found a juicy tidbit.
The Crazy Chicken Lady, Poultry Doctor Extraordinaire
A number of diseases, ailments, and behavior issues can afflict backyard chickens. Do some research and become aware of potential problems and their remedies. Gather a few medical supplies like antibiotic ointment for abrasions, electrolytes for recovery from illness or injury, real apple cider vinegar for general health, BlueKote or pine tar for pecked skin.
Get to know your chickens, observing them in various everyday situations, and you’ll see signs when one is not feeling up to par. A dog crate or kennel makes a great isolation ward for a chicken you want to observe or treat.
Time To Eat!
Many people think they couldn’t eat, let alone butcher, their chickens. I have to say I purposely don’t get attached to our meat birds and I may not want to eat my laying hens when they get old. But thinking of chickens as food and not pets, it is not too hard to learn to process the birds.
After reading books and watching videos, our family set up a butchering station on our property. We learned by doing how to slaughter, scald, pluck, and eviscerate.
We have also taken some chickens to a poultry processor to take advantage of the large equipment and experienced hands. The best way to learn is probably to find someone who will let you watch them and maybe even participate while they tell you and show you how they do their processing.
But I’ll tell you, just as there’s nothing like an egg fresh from the nest, no store-bought fryer or roaster can compare to the one you raised yourself.
I promised you I’d share the identity of my experienced mentors. My favorite online chicken forum is www.backyardchickens.com. The poultry sub-forum at www.homesteadingtoday.com is not quite as busy but is also very helpful, as is www.thepoultrysite.com.
Several hatchery websites can be found online, and our pal Mr. Google has introduced me to many other chicken references and resources that have answered lots of questions for me.