Sunday, November 11, 2012

Raising Chickens at Home

My family has been raising chickens since 2006 for eggs and fun. We were intimidated to get started, but once we took the plunge we found it was surprisingly easy. Chickens are low maintenance and take up little room. A small flock of hens, say 4, can keep most families in eggs year round. Not only that, there is the reward of knowin exactly where your food is coming from and raising it yourself. Chickens are also a great way to teach children to care for animals and learn about real food production.
Most cities will allow even urban dwellers to maintain a small flock of chickens (but no cocks which are ALWAYS loud and can annoy neighbors). We started our flock in a dog pen on our urban lot long before we moved to our farm.
Small chicken coops are readily available at farm supply stores and are even fairly easy to build yourself for novice carpenters. All chickens require is a bit of ground to scratch for feed, a box or nesting area to lay eggs, and an enclosed structure with a roosting bar for sleeping securely at night. They require very little space to be happy and healthy, though adding runs or making your chick coop mobile will keep them in fresh grass, allow them to control pests, help your eggs be leaner, and fertilize your lawn or garden.
Chickens eat just about anything, including table scraps, grass, weeds, bugs, worms, even small snakes and reptiles. You will need to purchase scratch grains, available in 50 lb bags for about $16 a bag, and mix them with layer crumbles, a calcium fortified chicken feed to help boost your layers' production and keep them healthy. You will also need to make another source of calcium available on demand such as calcium grit (available in pet food sections for bird care), or even DRIED, ground up egg shells. You do NOT want to give them while shells as this may lead to them eating their own eggs!
That's it! We mix up all the food and supplement into a big trash can and give them some each day. The can full will last us about 3 months for our small flock of 6 girls.
There is all kinda of info out there for those interested in taking the chicken plunge. Some of the best sites are:

Other considerations:
- to start with chicks or mature birds (sometimes called pullets if they are still juveniles). Chicks require warmth and protection 24 hours a day for several weeks. We generally start our chicks indoors in a regular birdcage with a heat lamp. This can be a messy proposition but no one can deny how cute a baby chick is! Another benefit is that frequent handling when they are young will make the birds les skittish when you have to handle them as adults. We've even had a couple of downright friendly girls over the years.
-to rooster or not: we were told early on that we needed a rooster to protect our flock. So we got one and ooooh was he MEAN! The noise we could get used to, accepting it as a quaint part of farm life, but when he attacked our 2-year-old, jumping into her back and pecking her repeatedly he had to go. An of course you can't make baby chicks without a rooster. But have no fear, your girls will lay eggs faithfully without a man around.
-what kind of chickens to get? There are some breeds that are jut good solid egg-layers. Our first chicken, Henrietta, a red comet laid faithfully every single day for 5 years. Unfortunately she was killed last year when raccoons broke into our coop. There are a number of fun breeds to though: breeds with long silky feathers, miniature (bantam) breeds, and even breeds that lay eggs in an array of colors from pink to green and even blue (Americaunas), these last are commonly called "Easter Eggers".

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