I admit, I have become the Crazy Chicken Lady. I waited for over 20 years for chickens, and they are every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped. I’m a new empty-nester, and the chickens in my backyard really help me deal with the empty nest syndrome (no pun intended)!
Though they are naturally fairly low-maintenance, they tolerate my nurturing and meddling and even micro managing.
When it comes to raising chickens, I’m no expert by any means. While I have learned a lot of information, I have others to fill gaps in my experience (I’ll tell you who they are at the end of this post). But I can give you a good viewpoint of the joy and relative simplicity of raising chickens in the backyard. The year we moved to our farm, we dove right in. We brought home 17 laying breed chicks and 26 meat chicks.
Of the laying breed chicks, 5 were cockerels that helped us learn how to butcher chickens. We later processed 17 of the meat breed cockerels, keeping 2 boys and all 6 hens for future breeding. Sadly we had some casualties: one meat chick and one of the keeper roosters didn’t survive.
We also bought 5 turkey poults, two of which died the first weekend. One died a couple of months later. We learned that turkeys are delicate and somewhat challenging, but a 24# tom and a 13# hen graced our Thanksgiving tables that year.
All and all we ended up with 18 chicken hens a-laying away, providing us with plenty of delicious fresh eggs.
Basic Requirements For Backyard Chickens
Chickens have a few requirements: shelter from wind and rain, protection from predators, good quality feed, and fresh water. They can tolerate heat and cold as long as they have shade and windbreaks, though young chicks do need a heat lamp to keep them warm. “Most” chickens love a roost so they can sleep up off the floor or ground, and “most” hens prefer a dark box to lay their eggs in.
That said, we personally have four hens that prefer to sleep huddled together on the floor, and several that are usually too busy or lazy to go over to the nest and will stop and lay an egg wherever they are. And in spite of their nice nest boxes, we often find two or three eggs together in a corner of the coop or run.
A joke among chicken owners is that the first egg costs hundreds of dollars and the rest are free. The value of that first egg depends on the cost of the digs you build or buy for your chickens. The egg’s price tag can be quite reasonable, as chickens do not really ask for much, but I’ll admit it is fun to create a cute and cozy home for them. We started with simple wood and chicken-wire crates and summer shelters. As winter approached we built a coop to keep them warm and dry, with outdoor pens which they enjoy on all but the bitterest of days.
Once you’ve gotten your initial hens and at least one rooster, it’s possible to become sustainable and not have to buy any more chicks. If you have one broody hen, you can hatch baby chicks the old-fashioned way. A broody doesn’t care who laid the eggs, and you can give her as many eggs as can fit under her breast and wings. After the chicks hatch, she will also mother and teach all of them. A mechanical alternative is an incubator, but don’t expect it to raise the chicks after they hatch.
The incubation phase, whether under a mama or in a machine, is 21 days. Most breeds of hens begin laying at about four months of age, and meat chickens may be ready to butcher as early as two months of age, depending on the breed. If you’re looking for fast-growing meat birds, be sure and do your homework before ordering. Some chickens bred for quick growth are ready to eat in 8 or 9 weeks, but they may tend to be sluggish and vulnerable to leg and heart issues.
Breed Selection Basics
For personal reasons, we have chosen to raise a hybrid that grows a bit slower (processed on the average from 11-13 weeks) but does not have major health problems. Standard dual-purpose or meat breeds take several weeks longer but if you have patience, they’re very tasty!
There are more common breeds of chickens than I could recite. We have had ten different breeds ourselves. Our most faithful layers are the White Leghorns—each of them lays one white egg a day without fail. They are also surprisingly clever and inquisitive. Slender little things, they would not be very meaty.
Most of our other breeds are dual-purpose: good layers that also fill out well for the dinner table. Our Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds fall in that category, each laying an egg almost every day. Also well-rounded are the Easter Eggers, who lay pretty green eggs, and the Barred Rock.
I wouldn’t call our banty hens meaty at all, but they do lay cute little bite-sized eggs. On the opposite end of the scale are our meat bird breeders, Freedom Rangers that have to be over ten pounds each. Two of those girls consistently lay jumbo double-yolkers. If you have a tiny area to keep chickens, I’d stick with banties.
Look for part two of this post later on this week!