Showing posts with label Chickens 101. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chickens 101. Show all posts

Feb 5, 2019

4 Things I Wish I'd Known about Backyard Chickens

What I Wish I'd Known about Raising Chickens
I grew up with a pet chicken and have now consistently had a laying flock for about seven years (barring a short period of hen-lessness when we sold our suburban home and moved to the country). I vividly recall trying to convince my husband that having backyard chickens in the suburbs was totally do-able - and worth doing. He was difficult to persuade, but now he might be even more pro-chicken than I am!

So, needless to say, we think chicken-keeping is worthwhile. Still, if you've never had chickens before, there may be some surprises in store for you. Here are some things that surprised me when I first started keeping chickens as an adult.

1. Some hens lay a lot less than others. Actually, I did know this before I got my first flock of hens, but it took a while for me to realize just how dramatically the choice of breed affects egg laying. For example, we once had a neighbor who chose fun, fancy-looking hens, and even though they were in their prime, they only laid one egg a week. On the other hand, the chickens we kept at the same time (which were Plymouth Rocks) typically laid an egg a day. At one point, we also adopted some fully-grown Silver Wyandottes; they were sweet, mellow hens, but they weren't nearly the layers our slightly more ornery Plymouth Rocks were. (Nowadays, we're loving our Australorps; they are sweet and gentle, but excellent layers.) So before you buy, be sure to check out a good chicken breed comparison chart that offers an idea of how well each breed lays.

2. Free range birds lay fewer eggs than birds in a smaller run. At least typically. We started out with hens in a small run, letting them free range for perhaps an hour or two most days. Six birds laid six eggs a day. Then we expanded our run, and suddenly the egg production dropped to just four eggs a day. This isn't uncommon. Chickens expend a lot of energy scratching around, and may receive less balanced nutrition if they don't eat much feed; hence, they lay fewer eggs. On the other hand, hens that are given high-quality land to free range (i.e., there are lots of different kinds of bugs and plants for them to eat) produce healthier eggs. Click here to read more reasons why we no longer free range our hens.

3. You really don't have to buy store bought eggs again. It's common to read that despite having backyard hens you'll still have to buy some store-bought eggs. Assuming you don't have severe restrictions on the number of hens you're allowed to have, and assuming you don't have a huge family, this simply isn't true. Choose your breed carefully, selecting excellent layers. Keep in mind how many eggs you currently use before determining how many hens you keep. Plan to store extra eggs in the fridge; if you don't wash them before storage, they last for at least 6 months in the refrigerator. Or, freeze extra eggs instead. Then, when your hens begin molting (and therefore stop laying), you'll have plenty of eggs in the fridge or freezer to last until they begin laying again.

4. Backyard eggs are actually cheaper than store bought. Again, before we got our flock, I'd read repeatedly that keeping chickens wouldn't save us money on eggs. This definitely wasn't true; read about our .06 cent eggs here.

A version of this post originally appeared in August of 1012. This post was featured at Farm Fresh Tuesday Blog Hop.

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Nov 3, 2018

Raising Chickens: It's SO Easy!

How Easy Is It to Raise Chickens Hens
This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site! 

Once upon a time, not that long ago, most Americans grew a bit of food and raised some chickens...even if they lived in the city. (Yep, that's right!) We can argue about why that changed, but my point is simply that raising a little food has long been considered smart: more frugal and more self-sufficient.

Today, it's also perfectly possible to have egg-laying chickens in nearly any setting - though I doubt you'd get away with it in a modern city. (Ha!) I know a lot of people living in the suburbs and in rural areas who've thought about raising hens, yet are convinced it's just not worth the effort. But not only are home raised eggs cheaper than store bought, but they are also much healthier and better-tasting, too! (For more about the differences between store bought and backyard eggs, click here.) And, contrary to what many people believe, chickens are super easy keepers.

Day in the Life of a Chicken Keeper

I don't think there's a better way to explain how easy chicken-raising is than to give you a glimpse into our homestead chicken life.

1. In the morning, sometime after the sun is up, open up the hen house so the chickens can get out.

2. Take a quick peek at the chickens' waterers to make sure they have enough clean water for the day.

3. Go do other things.

4. After dinner, head back to the coop and feed the chickens and check their water again.

5. Collect eggs.

6. Go do other things.

7. When it gets dusky and the chickens are all back in the coop, close and lock the coop door to keep out predators.


Yes, it really is that easy! In all, I don't spend even 10 minutes a day caring for our hens. Check out the video below to SEE my chicken-keeping day for yourself.

Additional chores that need doing once in a while include removing manure from the hen house and adding fresh bedding. Tough stuff, there! (wink)

So if you've been thinking about getting chickens, I encourage you to do it right away. Fall and winter are great times to get set up, searching Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for coops and gradually buying other chicken supplies online or at local feed stores. Then, come spring, you'll be all set to buy chicks or hens!

To learn more about keeping chickens, see these posts:

Setting Up the Hen House & Run

Buying Chickens & Caring for Chicks

Getting Ready for Chicks

Getting .06 Cent Eggs (or Feeding Chickens on the Cheap)

May 1, 2017

8 Common Chicken Keeping Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site! 

Recently, someone my husband and I know made a huge newbie chicken raising mistake: He added pullets (teen age hens) to his existing flock of adult hens. The next day, he discovered every single one of the pullets dead - killed by his grown hens. It's a terrible story - but just one of hundreds I've heard or witnessed that involved a perfectly preventable chicken keeping mistake. Here are the mistakes I see most often - and how you can prevent them in your flock.

Mistake #1: Not reading up. Almost every chicken raising mistake can be avoided if you just do a little reading. You'll save yourself tons of time, money, and aggravation - not to mention suffering on the part of your chickens - if you read up on caring for them before you bring them home. Internet sources are useful (see my Chickens 101 posts, for example), but I recommend reading at least one book on chicken care before you buy chickens. Better yet, read a few! If money is tight, look to the local library. Or buy used books for cheap off Amazon. (Spending a little money on books will save you money in the long run, friends.)

Mistake #2: Not having everything ready for the chickens before you buy them. It's tempting to pick up chicks and think, "I'll worry about their coop (or their feeders, or whatever) later." But the truth is, those chicks have immediate and important needs right now - and before you know it, they'll be needing a coop and run, too. Prepare for the chickens before you bring them home, and you'll ensure the animals stay healthy and happy.
Have all supplies ready before you buy chicks.

Mistake #3: Trying to skimp on supplies. Frugality and homesteading go hand in hand; however, there are some things you really can't skimp on. For example, all chicks require a heating lamp and chick waterers and feeders. Trying to use, say, a bowl as a waterer will result in disaster. (Chicks drown in water bowls.)

Mistake #4: Not knowing how to introduce new birds. You cannot just throw chickens into a new flock and expect anything less than blood. New birds should, first of all, be kept in quarantine for 4 weeks, to ensure they are not contagious. Ignoring this rule may kill your entire flock. Then, new birds should be kept in a caged area immediately next to the old birds; this allows the animals to get to know each other without letting them kill each other. Don't co-mingle the birds until they've had at least a week to get to know each other through the fencing. And while you're at it, don't add a single hen to any flock. She will be mercilessly attacked, possibly killed, and at the very least, ostracized.  P.S. Chicks should be kept separate from the flock until they are almost grown. Put them in an attached but separate run when they are pullets. For more advice on adding new chickens to a flock, click here.

New chickens should be separated by a fence. Courtesy

Mistake #5: Allowing chickens to free range. At least without understanding the consequences. Free range chickens scratch at everything. They will destroy your lawn and gardens, and poop everywhere. If you're fine with that, then by all means let your birds free range. Otherwise, let go of the idea of true free ranging, and consider a chicken tractor, a rotating run, or a permanent run.

Mistake #6: Not feeding your birds. Some people think they can let their chickens free range and not give them poultry feed. But even if you have excellent forage in your yard, all chickens should be given feed, too. They will lay more consistently, have stronger egg shells, and will generally be healthier hens.
Free range chickens are a handful. Courtesy

Mistake #7: Not keeping chickens safe. All chickens require a predator proof coop they get locked into every night. When outside the coop, it's a good idea to protect chickens from predators, too, especially hawks and other big birds. This means covering the chicken run or having the run where there is plenty of tree cover.

Mistake #8: Getting too many chickens. Don't overcrowd your birds. This will make them fight, and will make them more prone to disease. At bare minimum, chickens require 3 square feet of indoor space (including 1 foot of roosting space) in the coop, and 10 square feet of outdoor space. But more space is better!

Mar 9, 2017

Why I Don't Wash Our Chickens' Eggs

One thing you'll quickly learn when you add chickens to your homestead is that backyard eggs don't look like store bought ones. Oh sure, they're that classic egg shape and come in all the same colors (and then some). But, unlike store bought eggs, backyard eggs aren't always clean.

This is especially evident during wet seasons, when the homestead tend to be muddy. But the mess on chicken eggs isn't always just mud. Often, there's poop involved, too.

This happens for several reasons. One is that chickens, like all birds, poop on the go - so sometimes they step in their poop, or the poop of one of their sisters. In addition, some hens will poop in the nesting box, or may have manure on her rear end that didn't fall off. (Hey, we're homesteaders, here; there's no use being squeamish on the topic!) Some of these things can be controlled at least somewhat by homesteaders; click here for my tips on getting cleaner eggs from your hens.

But then there's the inescapable fact that the physical passage used for egg laying is the very same one used for pooping. (My husband once had a friend who'd recently bought backyard hens. He loved them...that is, until my husband happened to mention the above fact. The friend was so grossed out by this, he gave away his hens...But he still eats store bought eggs!)

Now, obviously we don't want to get any of that poop in our food. And the natural inclination is to clean those dirty eggs as soon as we collect them...but that inclination is, in my opinion, WRONG.

Why Egg Washing is Bad

You see, eggs naturally have a protective coating, called "bloom," that prevents bacteria from entering the egg shell. This is God's creative way of keeping chicks healthy enough to hatch - and humans healthy enough they can continue to eat eggs. As soon as you wash eggs, that bloom is typically removed - and the part of the egg you eat is now totally exposed to lurking bacteria.

What About Store Bought Eggs?

Why do store bought eggs look so clean? It's certainly not because of the crowded, dirty environment commercial hens are raised in. Instead, it's because those eggs are washed before going to market.

Yep, you read that right.

The FDA requires all commercially sold eggs to be washed in detergent. A fact, by the way, that would make them illegal for sale throughout the European Union. Because Europeans understand that washing away the egg's bloom makes it easier for bacteria to enter the egg and make humans sick.
THIS is what real backyard eggs look like.

Once upon a time, American farmers applied mineral oil to egg shells after washing, in order to create a sort of artificial bloom. This is rarely done today.

To add insult to injury, commercial American eggs are always refrigerated. But refrigeration can lead to condensation, which can lead to bacterial growth.

What About Farmer's Market Eggs?

Rules about the sale of eggs at farmer's markets and similar venues varies from state to state. But generally speaking, small market farmers are not expected to wash eggs the way large commercial farms are. Instead, they are usually allowed to simply sort through their eggs and not sell dirty ones, or use a brush or sandpaper to gently remove dirt from eggs, or lightly and quickly dampen the eggs to make dirt removal easier. Sometimes, however, small farm eggs are washed by hand, using FDA approved detergents.

How I Handle Our Eggs
I don't really take our egg cartons out to the hen house :)

Though we've had backyard hens for many years, and though I grew up with chickens, I am not an expert and the law says you should not take my advice as you would that of a scientist.

But I can tell you that on our homestead, dirty eggs go into egg cartons, and then straight into the fridge. When I'm ready to cook the eggs, I wash them immediately beforehand. (How to wash eggs: Under cool, running water. Pat dry immediately. Do not soak eggs.)

Some people are totally grossed out by the thought of putting poopy eggs in the fridge - or anywhere else that's near food. But in my experience, egg cartons protect any other food nearby, and the bloom protects the eggs so we don't get sick.

Now...shall we talk about why I refrigerate our eggs, even though it's not required? I think I'll leave that for another post. Until then...happy homesteading!

Sep 13, 2016

Why We Don't Have Free Range Chickens

Last weekend, we put the chicks outside, in the hen house. Thank goodness! Chicks are cute and not much trouble when they are little fluff balls; but as they start growing feathers, if they stay inside in the brooder, they become noisy and very, very smelly. We've thought a lot about how best to keep our new hens. We have land now; should we let them free range?* Or should we keep them in a run, as we did with our chickens in the suburbs?

To be honest, it wasn't much of a debate. There's no way we're free ranging our chickens.

First, Why Would You Want to Free Range Chickens?

There are three main reasons to free range hens: 1) It can save money (because the hens don't need as much commercial chicken feed). 2) It cuts back on bugs you may not want in your yard (in addition to some you may find desirable). 3) And their eggs taste better and are healthier for you to eat. In fact, eggs from free range hens have:
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta carotene
  • 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D

Courtesy of Svklimkin and Wikimedia Commons.
Why We Don't Free Range Our Hens

Let me count the reasons...

* Free range chickens get into and destroy everything! That includes the vegetable garden, the flower garden, the trees (chickens scratch at their base, which could kill trees, especially young ones), etc. They also scratch up the grass and can turn it to dust.

* Free ranging chickens are much more vulnerable to predators, particularly hawks and other predatory birds.

* Free range hens may not lay eggs where you can find them. Instead of using the nesting boxes in the hen house, they tend to lay their eggs in bushes where they will end up either rotting or being eaten by other animals.

* Free range hens are difficult to control. They may not come home to the hen house at the end of the day. Instead, they might roost in trees, making them vulnerable to predators. And you can't control where they scratch around, either.

* Did I mention that free range chickens destroy everything???

Solutions to the Free Ranging Dilemma

If you don't want your hens tearing everything up, eating your garden-fresh food, and turning the lawn to desert, all is not lost. There are several ways to get the benefits of free ranging without letting your chickens totally take over your yard.

Simple chicken tractor. (Courtesy of wisemandarine and Wikimedia Commons.)
1. Use a chicken tractor - basically a small, moveable chicken run. The idea is to move the tractor every day or so; the hens benefit from scratching around in that confined area, but they aren't in one location long enough to do permanent damage. In fact, hens in this setting can help you, by eating bugs, mowing the grass, and leaving behind a little bit of fertilizer. Using a tractor, you can even release them into your vegetable garden and have them till the land a bit, remove undesirable bugs and plant debris, and fertilize a little. The downside to this arrangement is that tractors really only work on flat, level ground. Plus, they can be difficult to move unless they are quite small. In addition, it can be tough to get hens in and out of the tractor. Also, hens in a tractor are more available to predators who dig than they would be in a well built, permanent run. (Though this is less of a problem in the suburbs than in a rural location).

2. Supervised free ranging. We did this for years when we lived in the suburbs. Basically, I'd let the hens out of their run when I was in the backyard doing other things. This way, I could keep them out of the garden and in our yard (not the neighbors'). Read here about how we controlled and trained the hens using sprays of water and a toy garden hoe. The downside here is that you have to pay attention to the hens, and it may take time to get them used to being herded back into their run or hen house.

3. Make the run huge. This is how we're handling our current flock, and it works best if you have a little land (although I've seen it plenty of times in the suburbs). You simply make the chicken run quite large for the number of birds you have. Better yet, you design things so you can change the location of the run; for example, in the spring, the run might be in front of the hen house, but in the summer, you move it to the back of the hen house; in the fall, it's on the right hand side of the hen house; and in the winter, it's on the left hand side. This keeps the hens from turning their run into nothing but dirt, and makes it possible to keep the chickens in fresh forage. The downside is that it takes some skill to build such a run and hen house, and it requires more space, too.

If none of these things work for you, you can still improve your hens eggs!

The trick is to provide them with plenty of forage. You can do this by giving them yard clippings such as grass, the weeds you pull from the garden, less than ideal veggies from your garden, and table scraps (meat and vegetables...and yes, cooked eggs, too). You might even try wetting a small area of your yard and covering it with cardboard for a time; worms and other bugs will flock to the area - and once you remove the cardboard, you can let your hens have at them!

* Never imagine that "free range" eggs you buy at the store come from hens who have a large yard to scratch in. In fact, they have extremely limited access - perhaps one small door to get outside, among a flock of hundreds - to a tiny (often hen sized) plot of dirt.

** Title image courtesy of sasastro.

Jun 11, 2014

Predator Proof Your Chicken Coop and Run

This spring, I've heard too many sad stories about chickens being killed by predators. Whether in an urban setting or in the country, keeping chickens safe from predators is a top concern. In the suburbs, your chickens are in danger from cats, dogs, rats, opossums, raccoons, skunks, snakes, owls, and hawks. In more rural areas, add to that foxes, cougars, bobcats, weasels, wolves, and coyotes. The good news is, with a little know-how, you can do a lot to protect your flock of chickens.

 Predator-Proofing the Chicken Coop

* Any doors - including those on nesting boxes - must have locks. But not just any locks. Raccoons, in particular, are amazingly adept at opening locks, so make sure it's a two step lock, like the one below.
This lock requires pushing to one side and lifting.
* Do not use any chicken wire on the coop. Despite it's name, it's entirely inappropriate for a chicken coop or run because raccoons, especially, can reach through it. Though they can't pull the chicken out through the holes in the wire, they will strangle chickens or pull out their heads and bite them off. Instead, use hardware cloth - which is a very fine wire mesh (with no larger than 1/4 inch openings).

* Put hardware cloth securely over any openings in the coop. Snakes, weasels, and some other predators can get through tiny holes. Use hardware cloth (not window screens) over ventilation windows or any other openings not secured by a door. Don't use staples to attach the hardware cloth; it's too easily pulled out by raccoons and other predators. Use screws and washers instead.

A raised chicken coop.
* Some animals will dig under the walls of the coop and try to get inside a coop without a secure floor; to prevent this lay hardware cloth down at least 12 inches below the soil, then put the coop on top.  If, for some reason, this isn't possible, dig a trench around the coop and bury the hardware cloth into the ground.

* Some chicken owners also like to use a strand of hot wire around the bottom of the coop. Predators who try to get under the coop will receive a shock that will deter, but not kill, them.

* Lift the coop off the ground by at least a foot. This discourages rats, snakes, and skunks. (And if you raise it a few feet, the chickens will enjoy this shady area on hot summer days.)

* Always make sure your chickens are locked up in their coop no later than dusk. A little before dusk is better, since many predators come out the second dusk occurs.

Predator-Proof the Chicken Run
This chicken run is covered not only by netting, but by the cover of a tree.

* Don't leave food in chicken run overnight. This just invites predators nearby.

* To protect chickens from hawks - and from the mingling of wild birds that might spread disease - cover the run. This can be done with bird or deer netting, or with hardware cloth.

* As additional protection from predators, and to give the chickens some shade, consider covering part of the run with vines (of a type that aren't poisonous to chickens), or place under the limbs of a tree.

* Consider a hot wire for the run, as well.

Protecting Free Range Chickens
A simple chicken tractor.

* Consider putting free range chickens in an ark or moveable run. To make it even more secure, you can put a hot wire around the bottom edge.

* Offer chickens cover, where they can flee hawks and other predators. Good cover includes bushes, piles of branches with small openings for chickens to run into, and dog houses.

Dec 11, 2013

How Much Money Can You Save Gardening and Homesteading?

Have you ever wondered if you're saving money by growing your own food? While saving money isn't the only reason for gardening and homesteading, I still like to keep track of expenses. A great many people are under the impression that gardening and homesteading cost more than buying food at the grocery store. And while I've proven before that both chicken keeping and vegetable gardening are frugal, I haven't checked costs in a few years. So this year, I kept a careful record of the food we produced.

But before you read on, you should know:

* My estimates are conservative. Quite conservative. Although the food we produce is organic and ultra-fresh, whenever possible, I compared the cost of our produce with prices at our local chain grocery store. Yes, it would be more accurate to compare what we produce with farm fresh, organic produce (or even grocery store organic produce), but frankly, we can't afford to buy organic. But if I did use farm fresh organic or grocery store organic with what we produce, this would greatly increase the value of our home grown food.

* When I couldn't find a particular food locally, I looked for a price online - always trying to choose the lowest price I could find. I did not include the cost of shipping I would have to pay if I chose to buy these items online.

* My garden is small: The main bed is 12 x 14 ft. with wide pathways; I also have a bed about 33 x 3 ft.) (To see how I laid out the garden this year, click here.)

* My garden is still producing! I still have carrots, parsnips, collards, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, in the ground. And, of course, the chickens are still laying eggs. I used totals from December 8, 2013 for my calculations.

* I didn't harvest as much of certain things (like herbs) as I could have, simply because I couldn't use as much as I grew.

* I had to exclude the value of certain items that I can't buy locally and couldn't find online.

2013 TOTALS:

Total Pounds of Food Produced: 538.12 lbs.

Total Estimated Cost of Purchasing that Food: $1,770.89

Total Cost of Producing our Food: $278.00

Money Saved: $1,492.89


Seeds: $75
Seed starting containers: free
Seed starting soil: $10
Fertilizer: $10
Compost: free
Water: $80

Chicks: $9
Chicken Bedding: $10
Chicken Feed: $84 


Eggs, 815 = $163
Chicken meat, 20 ½ lbs. = $40.79

Apples, 13 1/4  lbs. = $25.00
Basil, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Beets, 1 lb. = $2.49
Blackberries, 3 lbs. = $15.84
Blueberries, 7 1/2 lb. = $79.20
Buttercup squash, 2 1/2 lbs. = $2.22 (I can't find this type of squash locally, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Butternut squash, 44 1/2 lbs. = $39.60
Cabbage, 6 lb. = $2.94
Calendula flowers, 8 lb. = $48.00 (online price)
Carrots, 4 1/2 lb. = $8.37
Chives, 6 1/2 lbs. = $64.48
Cilantro, 1 1/8 lb. = $4.74
Collards, 14 1/2 lbs. = $144.42
Dandelion flowers, ½ lb. (I could not find these locally or online)
Dandelion greens, 35 lb. = $52.15 (online price of fresh leaves)
Dandelion Root, 2 1/8 lb. = $17.50 (online price)
Garlic, ½ lb. scapes + 1 lb. heads = $3.00 scapes (online price listed by local farmers);$3.49 heads
Green onions, 1 lb. = $2.36
Ground nuts, 1 lb. = $50.00 (online price)
Kale, 17 lbs. = $169.32
Kohlrabi, 1 lb. (I couldn't find a local or online price)
Kiwi, 1 lb. = $3.99 (for common kiwi, not the Arctic kiwi I grow)
Leeks, 5 lbs. = $25.00
Lettuce, 11 lb. = $36.19
Mint, 3/4 lb. = $7.44
Oregano, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Pattypan squash, 44  lbs. = $39.16 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I used the average price for summer squash)
Parsnips, 2 lbs. = $1.99
Passion vine, 1 lb. = $6.00 (online price)
Peas, 5 1/2 lbs. = $13.69
Potatoes, 11 1/4 lbs. = $11.14
Radishes, 8 lb. = $9.44
Rosemary, 1/2 lb. = $4.96
Sage, 1 1/2 lb. = $14.88
Spinach, 1 1/4 lb. = $1.98
Squash blossoms, 3 1/2 lbs. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Sunchokes, 40 lbs. = $360.00 (online price)
Strawberry, 3 1/2 lbs. = $12.32
Tomato, 38 3/4  lbs. + 28.25 lbs. green = $96.49 red, $70.34 green
Wild onion, 2 lb. (I couldn't find these locally or online)
Wonderberries, 1 lb. = $16.60 (I couldn't find these locally or online, so I compared them to the online price of huckleberries - a close relative)
Zucchini, 60 1/2 lbs. = $78.05

This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.

Sep 23, 2013

Tips for Getting Clean Chicken Eggs

This post contains affiliate links. All opinions are my own. Please see FCC disclosure for full information. Thank you for supporting this site!

Once you start raising hens, you quickly discover eggs aren't always clean when you gather them. In fact, sometimes they can be downright disgusting! The good news is there are some things you can do to encourage cleaner eggs.

1. Make sure the bedding in the nesting boxes is clean and plentiful. Also, if broken eggs are a problem, line nesting boxes with outdoor turf (the kind that looks like plastic grass) or nest liners.

2. Keep the bedding in the hen house clean, too. Chickens who walk in muck and manure get it on their feet - and on the eggs they sit upon.

3. Make sure there are enough nesting boxes for your hens. Experts generally advise having one box per four hens. Granted, hens have some funny ideas about nesting boxes. Mine, for example, usually decide only one nesting box is egg worthy, and ignore all the other boxes. Sometimes hens also take a hankering to laying on the floor of the hen house. (In my experience, this usually happens because a hen decides she wants to use a certain nesting box while another hen is in it. Pretty soon, she can't hold it any longer and the egg ends up on the floor. Over time, this problem usually resolves itself, as the hens learn to take turns.)

4. Check for eggs regularly throughout the day, until you know when your hens lay. Unless your hens are new to laying, they usually have a set schedule for laying eggs. Typically, this happens in the morning, but it may change as the seasons change. Prompt removal of eggs tends to mean fewer hens walking on the eggs, hence cleaner eggs. It also reduces the chances of broken eggs - and of hens learning to eat eggs.

5. Make sure hens have clean bottoms. If they are dirty, just wipe them with a warm, damp towel.

Despite all your best efforts, you will probably sometimes find dirty eggs in your nesting box. (Frankly, my experience is that some hens are just tidier than others - just as some people are pig-pens and others are neat-nicks.) The question then becomes: Should you clean dirty eggs before storing them?

Before you laugh and say the answer is obvious, you should know that egg shells have a natural coating (called "bloom") that prevents dirt and germs from being absorbed into the egg itself. Once you wash an egg, that protective coating is gone. Therefore, in my opinion, it's best not to wash eggs until you're ready to use them. I place all my eggs - dirty and apparently clean - into egg cartons; when I'm ready to cook them, I wash them under warm, running water. (Cool or cold water draws germs into the egg.) Other people like to rub obviously dirty eggs with a rough cloth in order to help maintain the egg's bloom.

Feb 18, 2013

Getting Ready for Chicks

Two years ago, our chicks came home almost fully feathered.
Last time we brought home chicks, they were almost fully feathered and basically looked like mini-hens. I actually think that's a good thing. It means spending less money feeding the birds before they start laying - and no worrying about more fragile babies.

But this season, as we prepare to buy chicks to replace our older hens, we decided to go with chicks only a few days old - little fluff balls, as we
Little fluff ball chick, just a few days old.
affectionately call them. Yes, they are a bit more trouble, but the kids want the experience. I don't blame them.
Whether you bring home fully feathered chicks or little fluff balls, you'll want to be prepared to keep them well and happy. Here's how.

The brooder we use.
1. A brooder. This needn't be fancy. We use a Rubbermaid box with some wire cooling racks (like you use for baking) on top. Other people use cardboard boxes or large, clean aquariums.

2. A light. Chicks can't regulate their body temperature very well. Especially if you're dealing with little fluff balls (but also with older chicks who have most, but not all, their feathers), you must have a warming light to keep them healthy. You can buy brooder lights at feed stores or online, but we just use a silver gooseneck lamp with a 100 watt bulb in it. Whatever you use, the height must be adjustable. When chicks are too hot, they hold out their wings and pant. When they are too cold, they try to fluff up and hunker down. Adjust the temperature of the brooder by lowering or raising the lamp. It's also a good idea to keep one area of the brooder light-free; this allows the chicks to seek cooler or warmer locations, if needed.

3. A thermometer. Keep the brooder between 90 and 100 degrees for the first week or so. Afterward, you can reduce the heat by 5 degrees each week, until the chicks are fully feathered. Again, adjust the temperature by moving the lamp closer or further away from the brooder.

4. Bedding. Lots of it. Chicks poop a lot. Never use ceder shavings, as they cause respiratory problems (including those that lead to death) in chickens. Newspapers are really the best, in my experience. Some people shred them, because the littlest chicks may find them slippery, otherwise. But I just lay down sheets of paper and watch the silly little critters peck at the news type. It's very important to change bedding often - I usually do it every day. Don't allow the chicks to sit on damp bedding.

5. A proper waterer and feeder. Don't use a bowl, or a feeder/waterer designed for full grown chickens because the chicks will fall into them, and yes, sometimes drown in them. A feeder and waterer designed just for little chicks is what you need. Again, the feed store or online are your best sources. Chicks drink a lot of water, so check the water level regularly.

6. Starter feed. Don't feed chicks anything but started feed. It's designed to give them the correct nutrition for their growing needs. When they are about four weeks old, you can give them occasional bugs, but not without giving them grit first. Chickens can't chew, so they ingest grit (pebbles) instead. Chicks need chick-grit, which is smaller than grit for full sized hens. Don't give chicks that aren't fully feathered greens to eat; this may cause diarrhea, which in turn can lead to other health problems.

As you can see, chicks don't require a lot of stuff. My only other recommendation is to hold them daily (to help tame them) and to check their vents (bottoms) at least once a day. If you see any poop or goo on their bottoms, wipe it away gently with a damp cloth. Soon you'll have a happy, healthy laying flock!

This post featured at Homestead Abundance.

Sep 14, 2011

Worried about Kids & Chickens?

Occasionally, someone asks whether I'm worried about my kids getting salmonella from our hens. My answer? Not really.

First of all, the eggs themselves have only a 1 in 20,000 chance of carrying salmonella, according to the American Egg Board. That's a 0.005% chance of one of our eggs giving us the bacteria.

A bigger concern for me is our hen's manure. After all, the birds don't use a litter box; they poop wherever they happen to be standing or sitting. For this reason, we have a strict policy of using sanitizer after handling the hens or dealing with their run or hen house in any way. We keep a container of hand sanitizer right next to the chicken coop to help facilitate this, and already both my children (6 and 2) know and follow the rule.

What about manure on the ground, from when the hens free-range? Well, they don't leave much manure behind. I've never yet noticed where they've pooped outside of their house or coop. I figure it's no worse than having wild birds landing their droppings in our yard. I just try to be sure my children wash their hands after being outdoors - and especially before they eat.

I also tend to look at things historically: Kids and chickens have been around each other for thousands of years. Before the 20th century, the vast majority of families had chickens - and it was often the kid's' job to care for them. This was also before people washed their hands much.

Finally, it's important to remember our hens are well cared for. They aren't over-crowded (like commercially raised egg layers) and we clean their house regularly. I don't think they are any worse than a cat who uses the liter box, then walks around the house, or a dog who eats (or plays in) his own droppings.

What about you? If you have chickens, do you worry about disease?

Jun 17, 2011

Why You May NOT Want Chickens

I've never seen a website, blog, or book discuss the negatives of raising chickens. Given that backyard hens are trendy now, and since I'm seeing some people unpleasantly surprised by what it's like to raise chickens, I thought I'd go out on a limb and talk about why you may not want to raise chickens. This is not to say I'm anti-backyard chicken; we have five of our own and enjoy them a lot. But it's important for potential chicken owners to have their eyes open before they invest their time and money into raising hens. So, without further ado...

1. Chickens poop. Everywhere. This is the #1 thing the former chicken owners I've talked to complain about. Chickens aren't like litter box trained cats, or even like dogs who tend to poop in the same locations repeatedly. Chickens poop wherever they happen to be standing or sitting. If you're holding a hen, she might poop on you. And you're certainly going to find poop in the waterer, feeder, and nest boxes. The good news is, the poop isn't smelly unless you let it sit around for weeks at a time. (I have five hens and I remove the manure from their hen house every two weeks or so. I have yet to remove the manure from their run; it decomposes into the soil and isn't smelly.)

2. Chickens aren't especially bright. Evolutionists say chickens are the closest living relative to the T-Rex. As my husband puts it, "If chickens are any indication of how bright dinosaurs are, then no wonder they are extinct." For an example of the frustration this level of intelligence can bring chicken owners, see #3.

3. Chickens peck each other. Ever wonder where the phrase "pecking order" came from? Chickens. Your hens will peck each other. That's a fact that can't be changed. And sometimes they will peck each other so much they bleed profusely and you fear for the life of one or more of your hens. I've even seen hens pecked by their flock turn around and peck themselves into more serious injury. There are ways to reduce pecking (like making sure hens aren't bored, being sure they get enough protein in their diet, using commercially prepared lotions to deter pecking, never introducing just one new chicken to the flock, etc.), but know for certain they will peck.

4. Chickens might destroy your garden.
If left unsupervised in the average suburban yard, chickens will probably eat or otherwise decimate your garden and lawn. Much of the time, your chickens should be in a run. When you want them to free range, you'll need to either set up a portable fence to contain them or take up babysitting. We do the latter, and so far, we think it works fine.

5. Not all chickens are cuddly. You improve your chances of having hens that like handling if you raise them from a few days old and hold them frequently. But some chickens are flightier than others, and not all chickens enjoy being held. Similarly, know that not all hens are friendly. Choose your breed carefully, bearing in mind which are generally more friendly. (This chart at Back Yard Chickens is really helpful.) But know that some chickens - like some people - are just more cantankerous than others.

May 16, 2011

Chickens 101: Chicken Care (& How Kids Can Help)

Once your chicks are big enough to go outdoors, care for them gets easier. (For information on caring for chicks, click here. For information on preparing the hen house and run, click here.) I think you'll find caring for chickens isn't much trouble - perhaps easier than caring for a dog and about as easy as caring for an indoor cat - and that it can be a real family operation.

Kid-Friendly Every Day Care:

* Check the water. There should be plenty of it, and it should be relatively clean. You don't need to make the waterer spotless every day - it will get dirty again almost immediately. But you should remove any dirt, grass, etc. that's in the waterer. (If it's particularly hot, you'll want to check water levels several times a day.)

* Check the feed. Unless your chickens tend to get too plump, it's fine to leave feed out all the time. Once or twice a day, check to be sure there's plenty in their feeder.

* Check for eggs. Once the hens begin laying, check once or twice a day for eggs. Morning is usually when hens lay, so checking in the early afternoon makes sense.

I also recommend holding at least one chicken every day. This keeps the birds friendly.

Other Regular Care:

* Clean waterers. To prevent a build up of algae and other nasties, completely empty and refill the waterers once a week or so. If build up occurs, wash the waterers in soap and water before rinsing and refilling. All except the youngest kids can help with this chore.

* Replace the bedding. The bedding used in the nesting boxes and on the bottom of the hen house should be changed when it becomes soiled. This definitely is not a daily chore. Most chicken owners do it every week or two. The nesting boxes can stay as is as long as there is enough straw in them to keep the eggs from breaking and not enough manure to soil the eggs. The floor should be cleaned if the hen house gets smelly or is well covered with manure.

Older kids can definitely help clean up the bedding; it isn't difficult. Use a tool (I like a hoe, but a shovel works, too) to scrape the bedding out of one of the access doors. Then shovel the bedding and manure into a compost pile or bin. This makes wonderful stuff for the garden, as long as it isn't over-applied and is allowed to age before applying in large doses. You will likely have much more than you need for your garden, however, so you will need to either throw away some or sell or give it to other gardeners.

* Let the chickens roam. I also recommend letting chickens free range or go to a different part of the yard in a movable fence at least a few times a week. This keeps the chickens healthier and happier, cleans up bugs in the yard, and offers light fertilizer to the soil. Unless you have tweens or teens, I recommend this be an adult-supervised task, less the chickens escape accidentally.

* Offer supplemental food. I do this daily; plan on doing it at least a few times a week. Appropriate food includes weeds (roots and all), grass clippings, and table scraps. Chickens are carnivores, so don't be afraid to give them meat scraps (including meat fat). They absolutely love it, and it gives them a boost of protein. Backyard Chickens has a helpful list of things chickens can eat. My kids have a grand time feeding the chickens - but I've had to instill a rule that if they don't finish their fruits or veggies, the chickens don't get them, either. (My 5 year old was not eating all her food so she could feed it to the hens!)

And that's all there is to it!

May 11, 2011

Chickens 101: Setting up the Hen House & Run

When your chicks are fully feathered and weaned off the heating lamp, it's time to finish preparing their run and house. (Click here to learn about buying and caring for chicks.) Notice I say "finish;" I really recommend you have a hen house and run ready to go before you buy chicks. This is because it can be expensive and/or time consuming to set up a chicken home, and you don't want to leave your nearly grown chicks in a crowded brooder longer than necessary.

Where to Get the Hen House

There are three ways to obtain a house suitable for chickens:

1. Buy one, either used or new
2. Build one from scratch
3. Modify an existing structure (like a shed)

#1 is the easiest, but buying a new hen house can be costly, especially if you'll have more than two birds. It is generally less costly to scour Craigslist for either new hen houses built by a handyman (I've seen some really beautiful ones for about $400 to $500 - half what they'd cost from a different source) or a used one. I ended up purchasing our hen house and run via Craigslist. It's only a year old, needed little modification, and cost $150. I wouldn't expect to pay less than that for a hen house in good condition.

If you're handy, you can build a hen house from scratch. However, if you purchase all the materials new, the house will likely be as expensive as buying a ready made one. If you have sources for used, free or cheap lumber, then you may save money making your own hen house. Do a Google search or look on eBay and you'll find a wide variety of hen house plans.

If you have an old shed, playhouse, or other structure - or you know where you can get one cheap or free - this may be a real money saver. Just remember chickens have certain requirements (more on that in a moment) and accordingly you'll have to build around and in the structure.
Hen House Requirements

* A minimum of 2 square feet per bird. Most chicken owners say 4 to 6 feet is far better - and it's true that crowded hens tend to peck at each other and may be less healthy overall. However, do remember the hen house is primarily for sleeping, so huge amounts of space aren't required. (Bantams chickens need a little less space because of their smaller size.)

* Access doors. The hens need a ramp leading out of the hen house; at night, the ramp should securely fold up to keep the hens safe from predators. You'll also need a way to access and clean the inside of the house and it's best to have small access doors to the hen's nesting boxes. All doors should fasten securely, to keep smart predators like racoons away.

* A clean, dry floor. Typically this means a floor of wood or concrete. Ideally, wood floors should stand above the soil, on legs.

* Ventilation. Air flow is really important and will keep the coop dry, breathable, and (in the hot months) cool. This is usually accomplished by having small windows near the top of the house, covered with screening.

* Nesting boxes. Since you won't want to go searching for eggs each morning, you'll need nesting boxes for your hens. The birds actually enjoy sharing nesting boxes, so one for every two or three birds is fine. Line the boxes with non-skid shelf paper to help prevent egg breakage, if you like, then put a nice pile of fresh straw on top.

* Roost. A simple 2 in. wide pole across the top of the hen house will do the trick. You can also give chickens something to roost on outside, if you like, but don't neglect to give them a roosting place indoors. Also, if you need more than one roost because of flock size, don't place one above the other (chickens will poop on each other) and keep them at least 12 inches apart.

* Heating. In most climates, chickens don't need additional heat. However, if you live in an area that gets sub-zero temperatures, you'll need some heat source to prevent frost bite. In addition, if you have immature chickens outside, molting birds, or birds with feather loss, extra heat is necessary. Just set up an inexpensive heating lamp (found at farm supply and pet stores) in the hen house. You;ll need an appropriately sized extension cord to plug the light into the closest available outlet.

* Lighting. You do not need to give chickens light in the dim winter; however, they may produce few, if any, eggs if you don't. An ordinary light bulb set near the hen house door will perk the girls right up and start them laying again.

* Waterers. Although you could use dog dishes for watering chickens, you'll find them difficult to maintain. The birds will roost on the edges and generally get the dishes filthy. It's better to buy chicken waterers, which are available in many price ranges. The cheapest are simple plastic contraptions selling for under $10. A hanging waterer - placed at the chicken's head level - is ideal, since the chickens are less likely to get it dirty. You may also need to purchase more than one waterer, depending upon how big your flock is; you don't want the chickens fighting because they can't get to the waterer. If you live in a very cold climate, you'll need a heated waterer in the winter, to prevent the water from freezing.

* Feeders. Again, it's a good idea to buy an actual chicken feeder. You can either raise it up to their head level by setting it on bricks, or you can buy a hanging version. (Hanging hog feeders work, too.) Again, make sure you have enough feeders for the flock, and keep all feeders in the hen house where the food will stay dry.

* Bedding. The floor of the hen house needs some sort of absorbent material on it to keep odors down and make clean up easier. Pine and cedar shavings are not a good choice, since they can irritate chicken lungs and cause infection. In addition, cocoa-based products are highly toxic to chickens. Straw then, is the popular choice. You could potentially also use shredded newspaper, dry leaves, and dried grass clippings.

* Grit. Chances are, the soil in your yard (or under the chicken run) has pebbles in it. But it's still a good idea to give the chickens some grit. Chickens need small pebbles in their body to help them digest food. You can either buy grit at a farm store, or simply make sure there are small pebbles where the chickens can get to them.

Free Range or Run?

If you have lots of space, let your chickens free range. This simply means they can go wherever they like on your property, feedings on weeds, bugs, and so on. However, if you have a garden (ornamental or edible), the chickens will destroy it. For most urban dwellers, then, a chicken run is a must. The run should have no floor (so the chickens can scratch around in the dirt), but should have sides and a roof made of screening or fencing wire. At least 4 square feet per bird is recommended for a run.

The run doesn't have to attach to the hen house if it can fit very snugly to it, not allowing predators in or chickens out. However, the chickens must be able to get into it easily, and there should be an access door for you, too.

In addition to the run, consider letting the chickens out to free range once in a while, under your supervision. Fencing around your gardens will keep chickens out - or make a movable chicken yard with wire fencing and stakes. The chickens will get the benefit of exploring new territory (and all the bugs, weeds, and soil that go with it) and the area will get a light application of beneficial fertilizer.

Chicken Arks or Tractors

Chicken tractors (sometimes called arks) are popular right now. These combine hen house and run can be rolled around the yard to give the chickens new feeding grounds. By all means feel free to use one, but if the tractor has a solid roof, I would still use movable fencing once in a while so the chickens can feel the sun on their backs.

Ideally, the hen house and run should be not too hot and not too cold. This means it shouldn't be in full shade all day, nor should it be in full sun. If a fence or tree shades the spot for part of the hottest part of the day, that's an ideal location.