Starting With Chickens
I should start by saying I really like chickens. Even with that bias, chickens are one of the easiest kinds of livestock for a new homesteader to start with. Another plus is the huge array of breeds in so many colors laying eggs of different colors.
Therein is another plus as chickens produce eggs, meat and manure. They are small and have smaller building and fencing requirements. They are relatively inexpensive to purchase and maintain. Chickens are an excellent introduction to animal husbandry.
Many homesteaders do jump with both feet into keeping livestock getting several kinds right away. This is not a good idea unless you have raised livestock before. Making a mistake and losing a chicken hurts the ego but isn’t a financial disaster.
Animals are a responsibility. They depend on you for food, water, shelter and protection. Veterinary care is expensive so a serious homesteader will learn to do much of the health care on the homestead. Each kind of livestock will have special needs and it takes time to learn what they are and how to meet them.
Start small. Start with chickens. Find out why home eggs become your only eggs.
Preparation 1: Build Before You Buy
Foxes, owls, hawks, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, weasels and mink all love chicken dinner. Black snakes find chicks and eggs tasty. The best defense is a well built house and yard.
Chicken houses come in many shapes and sizes, even portable. The only real concern is a house big enough for your flock. Even though chickens want and should be outside much of the day, bad weather, especially snow, will keep them inside and they want more than standing room. They get cabin fever quickly grouchily picking on each other.
Besides room for the chickens, the inside of their house needs roosts for them to sleep on, nests for them to lay eggs in and a feeder to hold feed for them. The water fount doesn’t need to be inside much of the year but will need to be inside during cold, snowy weather.
The house needs windows, preferably pointing east. It’s nice to open those windows during hot weather to keep the inside cooler. Regular window screen is not sufficient. Use quarter or half inch hardware cloth.
For those new to this, hardware cloth is not cloth but a wire grid. It comes in short ten or twelve foot rolls two or three feet tall. It’s easily cut with tin snips. This is nailed over the windows so they can be left open without inviting unwanted visitors in. It lasts for years.
A chicken house needs two doors. One is sized for the chickens and is fastened open in the morning and closed at night. A spring screen door hook and a couple of eyes work well.
Your chickens must be locked up every night. An occasional lapse may not matter, but more than a night may leave you with little more than feathers in the morning.
The other door is sized for people. It should be wide enough to shovel droppings out. Since I use a wheelbarrow, the door is wide enough to back the wheelbarrow up to the door.
This door also needs a good latch and fit. It gives you easy access to fill the feeder and collect the eggs. Other visitors don’t need that easy access.
Electricity is very useful in the hen house. I use lights, incandescent bulbs, to extend the day in the winter. My chickens slow down but still supply me with eggs all winter. Six month old pullets will often start and continue to lay all winter using lights.
Build the chicken house before bringing chickens home. Baby chicks less than a week old are noisy, smelly and dusty in the house. Big chickens are a disaster.
Decision 2: Chickens or Chicks?
Most people start with chicks. They are not terribly difficult to raise. The hatchery sends out day old chicks. You supply a warm place (brooder), chick started feed and water. You should have a thermometer you can put on the floor of the brooder.
A cardboard box with newspapers on the bottom makes a good brooder with a heat lamp hanging over it. Incandescent light bulbs give off a lot of heat. I start with a 100W or 150W bulb. Set the brooder up including feed and water before the chicks arrive placing the thermometer on the floor. Move the light up and down until the temperature stays at 100 degrees.
When the chicks arrive, take each chick out, dip its beak in the water and let it stand there. Happy chicks will get a drink then go off exploring. They will find the feed. The group will lie down together to nap. They have a quiet cheep used for talking to each other.
Wet chicks get cold and die. Cold chicks make a loud piercing cheep while huddling under the light. Hot chicks crowd the outside wall trying to get away from the heat.
Change the papers daily. Keep the feed and water filled. The chicks grow fast.
My preference is to keep the chicks in the house for about a week to make sure they are doing well. After that, the chicks are growing feathers and shedding dusty down everywhere. They get big and much noisier. The box will have an odor no matter how often you clean it. At that point the chicks are ready to move into their new house with the heat light, their feed and water and a cardboard wall around an area to keep the chicks warm.
As the chicks feather out, they need less heat. You can raise the light, lower the wattage or both. The chicks will tell you if the brooder is too hot or cold. Once the chicks are feathered out, the light is needed only at night, if it is cool. The chicks are also ready to occupy the entire house and go outside into their yard. Grass and bugs are good for them.
Crows will kill up to half grown chicks. If your coop like mine is not wired over, an easy way to discourage both crows and hawks is to tie twine pieces between the posts. The predators don’t know what the twine is and are evidently afraid they will be trapped if they go into the coop so they leave.
The problem with chicks is the time. Leghorn types start laying fastest at about four months. Most of the other breeds take six months. The advantage of chicks is choosing your breed and knowing how old they are and how they were raised.
The other option is to buy grown pullets or hens. These are very expensive in the spring and cheap in the fall. Many people don’t want to bother with chickens over the winter when they don’t lay as many eggs.
Younger hens will have slim, smooth legs. Their bodies will be slim too. These get bigger and coarser as a hen ages. Try to find someone who knows chickens to help you look over any chickens you buy. The flock may have lice or other problems.
Considerations 3: Chickens For the Long Haul
The more you handle chicks and work with your chickens, the friendlier they will become. They can become pets. They live an average of five years.
Different breeds have very different personalities. Of the breeds I have raised, Buff Orpingtons and a good beginner breed. They are pretty, fluffy, friendly, calm and good layers. Standard sized cochins are all of these but lay fewer eggs. They also get bigger.
I grew up with big, old-fashioned Rhode Island Reds. The present breed has become much more like leghorns so I avoid them now. Red Hampshires are nice chickens.
Barred Rock and Dominique are the black and white chickens. These are friendly but hustle, getting into everything. Otherwise these are nice breeds. Gold and Silver Wyandottes are good too. Black Australorps are pretty, tame, friendly but tend to stop laying in cold weather.
Arcana chickens are cute with their cheek puffs. They are smaller and lay the green and blue eggs. They are flighty.
Most people like chicken dinner. Home raised chicken is much tastier than the store version. Order some cockerel chicks of heavier breeds and raise them for meat dressing them out at eight to twelve weeks of age. If pulling feathers doesn’t appeal to you, skin them.
I once heard it said: If you have livestock, you will have dead stock. There will be times you open the chicken house door and find a dead chicken. Why did it die? You may never know. If a number of chickens die, you need to consult a veterinarian or another chicken owner about it.
Chickens are long day birds which means they lay most of their eggs in the spring to early summer. They molt, dropping their old feathers and growing ones in the fall then stop laying for the winter. This is where I use a light.
Since I milk at night, I turn the light on in the barn and chicken house in the late afternoon. It stays on until I finish milking around eight. This fools the chickens into thinking the days are still long so they keep on laying. They do slow down as the weather gets cold but I do get enough eggs to manage.
The light I use is an incandescent. The energy saver bulbs did not keep the chickens laying. I haven’t tried the LED lights. It has to do with the spectrum or colors in the bulb light. Once the chickens stop laying, it takes six to eight weeks to get them started again.
Don’t leave bits of plastic twine or other debris around. It gets stuck in the chicken’s crop or storage area their food goes into first and can kill them as there isn’t enough room for food left.
A chicken coop will go sour in a few years of constant occupation by chickens. You can rig two yards up and alternate between them. Till and plant the resting one with grass. This is safer than letting the chickens free range like mine do. Besides, the chickens start getting bold and go places they shouldn’t.
Gateway to Livestock?
Like all livestock, chickens need attention daily. If you travel a lot, reconsider having livestock. Chickens do help you get a routine going and introduce you to feeds, the feed store and extra chores such as cleaning out the hen house. Asparagus loves chicken manure.
If you enjoy having those fresh eggs and don’t mind the work and being tied down, then you can consider trying you hand with some other more demanding livestock.