Why raise Chickens?
You’ll find that chickens are very resilient, and will forgive you quickly when you do something wrong. You don’t need much space, to start with a small flock, and the learning curve is pretty small. In fact, it can be so easy, that you won’t have a problem teaching a friend or neighbor to take over chicken chores if you need to be away.
It is very easy to get this great food item from your own flock. Everyone knows how easy it is to grow a tomato, but for just a little more work, you can have eggs!
If you’re starting from chicks, it will take you from 18 to 22 weeks before your hen will start laying her first eggs. These first eggs will be small, at first. Then you’ll get giant, double yolkers, odd shaped paper-thin-shelled eggs, and every other variation. Eventually the new hen will settle down and start consistently laying normal eggs.
After about a year of laying, the hens will go into a molt, and take a break from laying for several weeks. This is normal, so don’t freak out. They may also stop laying due to illness, lack of water, low feed quality, or other stress. Do freak out for those things.
You can expect about 2 eggs every 3 days from a freshly laying heritage breed hen. At 2 years of age, egg production goes down hill. You’ll still get eggs, just not as many, and quality will be more variable. You’ll get about 4 eggs a day from a flock of 6 hens.
Feed quality affects the egg count. A hen needs a certain amount of calories and protein to maintain her weight. If she is going to be cranking out eggs, she needs to go above her own maintenance needs to keep up with production. Keep an eye on her weight to see if this is the problem, if laying ceases. She should be lean, but not skeletal. Too fat a hen may run risk of prolapse or other health issues.
Nope, but it doesn’t hurt. Hens lay without a rooster. Having one will allow you to breed in the future, which is fun and a cheap way to keep your flock going.
If you think of your chickens as pets, close your ears for a bit, because this could get disturbing.
As long as you can wait. As they age, they become more flavorful, but less tender. For heritage breeds, 15 weeks old is a good size. They may clean to 4 pounds. They’ve had time to put some meat on, but aren’t so old that they are terribly tough. Old roosters may clean to 7 pounds depending on breed. Old hens can get roasted and go into great soups. They vary a lot due to age, and body condition, but you can expect in the 4 pound range cleaned.
For meat breeds, and THE meat bird, the cornish-X, 8 weeks can be enough to get a really nice sized, tender chicken. I’ve cleaned 8 week cornish-X and had them up to 8 pounds. At 20 weeks, we had one clean out at 16.5 pounds.
There are two distinct types of chickens, those raised for meat, and those raised for eggs. There is a third type that’s kind of a blend called a dual purpose breed. Most heritage breeds were dual purpose, but as industry picked up, breeds became more focused, and cornish rocks became mainly meat birds, and rhode island reds became mostly egg birds. Then industry took it a step further, and got the cornish cross meat bird that weighs 8 pounds in 8 weeks, an the white leghorn that lays 4 eggs every 5 days.
I’ll leave you to look at Henderson’s Chicken Breed Chart to find your favorite type of bird.
There are lots of different ways to house them, so I won’t dwell on this topic, but will detail how we do it.
Heritage breed chickens are pretty hardy. For survival,they only need a roof to keep the rain off and 2 or three walls to block the prevailing wind. They handle cold very well when they are feathered out (at about 8 weeks of age), but don’t handle heat as well, so the shelter should be able to stay cool in the summer. Shade and ventilation are key. I say ventilation, not to be confused with wind blowing right through.
They should be able to get water in whatever shelter they have. Food can, and should be, outside to prevent raccoons and rats getting in. For egg production, you’ll want to add some nest boxes. As chicks, you’ll want some way to power a heat source, and need better wind/rain protection.
We keep our chickens in 7′ x 12′ x 4′ tall movable coops. The chicken sized doors stay open all day, and feed is kept out doors. The doors close at night to keep predators from having our chicken dinners. People sized doors in the top allow us the change water, move heat lamps, access hens at night, reach nest boxes without getting into the coop.
Moving the coops keeps us from needing to shovel poop, or worry about parasite build up. If weather is bad, we do leave them in place, and add carbon, in the form of hay/grass/saw dust litter to offset the nitrogen from the chicken poop. After a while, or at the next move, we scoop this all up into a compost pile, and use it in the garden.
Mature chickens will eat about ..25 pounds of grain feed a day. By letting them free range, you can lower this a bit. You’ll need to keep an eye on their condition to be sure they are getting the right stuff. If you’ve got only a small area they can forage on, or a bare area due to having too many chickens in too small an area, then you’ll need to be sure feed is available at all times.
When they free-range, the chickens will be eating green grass, bugs, grain heads, small reptiles and rodents, compost, shiny things, and rocks. All this is okay! In fact, they need the rocks. Get granite grit from the feed store, small to large as they grow. They are omnivores, so don’t be surprised that they are eating everything. The grit helps them “chew” their food in the gizzard.
You can get 25# or 50# of commercial feed in the feed stores, but you’ll end up paying lots for it. You’ll get better deals if you buy in bulk, or get it custom milled. Be careful buying in too big a bulk, since the feed will be losing nutrients over time, and maybe rotting or feeding mice in the mean time. If possible go in with friends and neighbors, or get a larger flock.
Commercial feeds are broken down into categories for the age range of the chickens, and also for the protein content.
Egg type chickens will need a 18% starter from weeks 0 to 8, 16% grower from 8 to 15 weeks, 15% layer from then on. I alter the protein higher in the winter when they are getting less bugs. Keep an eye on egg production and raise the protein if you think eggs are down due to going to low.
Meat type chickens that you’ll be cleaning before old age need more protein. 23% starter fro the first 4 weeks, 20% grower after that, lowering to 18% if you keep them beyond 8 weeks of age.
Make sure clean water is always available. Nothing shuts down laying like missing water. In summer, never let the water run out, as they have a hard time keeping cool. Also, if you can keep the water cool in the heat, all the better. In winter, make sure it isn’t frozen. Rubber pans are the best for this.
When hens are laying, they may also need a calcium supplement, usually in the form of oyster shells from the feed store. The hens eat this free choice and it helps keep the shells solid.
DON’T get them from Tractor Supply. Health is compromised. You can’t be sure of sex, breed, or age. On-line hatcheries are great, pretty inexpensive for large orders. Very expensive for small orders or lots of variation in one order.
Look for local guys on craigslist. Look out for introducing them into your flock though. Think about quarantining them until you’re pretty sure they aren’t harboring bad illness.
Chicks need to be at 95F for the first week. Each week after that you can lower the temps 5F a week until they are feathered out. Listen to them. Loud squeaking and huddling behavior indicates they are too cold. Contented chirping and bouncing around indicate they are just right.
Use 125W or 250W heat lamp bulbs from Lowes. Otherwise, just keep the wind and rain off them.
As for figuring out which sex you have, at 8 weeks old, it is usually very obvious. Girls will have a tight little comb while the boys tend to have much larger combs. Boys have longer, thicker legs. Females tend to stand a little lower to the ground, while boys are very upright. Boys tend to be the explorers early on, while the females tend to stay near home.
Not much to say… they are very awkward in this period.
Cockerels become true Cocks around 15 weeks of age. They’ll start crowing and begin trying to mount each other and pullets.
Hens begin laying from 18 to 25 weeks of age.
Hopefully this happens when you choose. Chickens will live to be 12 years old, if left to their own devices. Hens will either cease laying or lay very infrequently. You’ll need to prepare yourself for the options, eat, bury, or give away.
Starter 20% from 0 until feathered out, around 7 weeks
Grower 16% from 7 until roosters start trying to mount at around 15 weeks
Layer 12% from 15 to laying or 22 weeks
Layer 16% while laying
Starter 23% from 0-6 weeks old
Grower 20% for rest of life
Buy in bulk for lower prices. Expect $.30/lb at least for 50lb bags of commercial feed. You can cut costs in half by getting it in bulk. Try feeding whole grains side-by-side with a milled feed, what ever happens to be cheapest at the moment.
Generally chickens will fight a bit when you introduce new birds into the flock. This is normal and will usually be settled within a few hours if you keep out of the way. They need to establish their own pecking order. As long as the birds have a place to retreat to, and are of similar size, the fighting shouldn’t be fatal.
Your best be is to introduce new birds at night time when all of them are calm and docile. If you try to introduce a very aggressive type of bird, like some of the game birds, you might be better off keeping the new bird in the same coop with the old, but keep the new bird enclosed in a small dog crate for a few days. Then on a later night, open the door and let them mingle and maybe fight it out.
Reading: Chicken Health Handbook for diagnosis and treatment options
Small flocks generally don’t have illness problems. When stocking rates go up, so does illness. Coccidiosis is the one you’ll read about most. Ignore it if you have few chickens, or can keep them clean/moved. Coccidia build up in wet places, but moving, or keeping dry eliminates the problems, and you aren’t medicating your food supply.
Consult the CHH for other oddities.
Fox, raccoon, opossum, hawk, owl rat, weasel, you name it. Everyone loves a chicken dinner.
Further Reading on Raising Chickens
- Chicken Health Handbook
- Henderson’s Chicken Breed Chart: http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html
- Poultry in the homestead: http://www.themodernhomestead.us/article/Poultry.html