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Chicken Basics – Getting Started Raising Your Own

Many people, even some in urban environments, are interested in raising chickens. If you have been wondering about the best way to get started with your own chickens, Patrice Lewis from Rural Revolution would like to help. 

A reader named Christopher had some questions about chickens:“I am about to retire from the Navy and move back to Texas. My wife and I plan on being as self-sufficient as possible, and one of the things we really want to have is chickens (for the eggs – wife and daughters won’t eat anything they have ever named/looked in the eyes).“So my questions are: are chickens purchased as chicks and if so, at what age will they start to produce eggs? And does there have to be a rooster present for them to start laying eggs?  I know you have experience with this, and I admit to having read many books, but I have never raised livestock at all.”I thought some good basic chicken information was due, so here’s the skinny.Most people start by buying day-old chicks from feed stores. Let me clarify: the feed stores receive day-old chicks, and you buy them shortly thereafter. You can also order chicks from catalogs such as McMurray Hatchery, but unless you’re looking for a specialized breed, it’s cheaper to buy them from the feed store because you won’t have to pay shipping.Chicks are best purchased in late spring to early summer (at least here in north Idaho) because otherwise it tends to be too chilly for them (check with your local feed store about when they recommend you buy chicks for your area). Tiny chicks do not yet have feathers but instead have fuzz, and their ability to retain heat is limited. Prior to buying chicks, you’ll want to get a heat lamp, and a chick feeder and waterer. These are fairly cheap and can also be purchased at the feed store. You’ll also need either a large box (with a plastic trash bag lining the bottom to waterproof it) or a large plastic tub or other means to confine the chicks, since they’ll be indoors at first. (If you have a dog which seems the type to eat chicks, you’ll have to put the chicks in a closed bedroom or cover the container to keep the dog out.)

I’ve used an ordinary gooseneck lamp with new chicks and it’s provided plenty of heat. Here’s the rule of thumb to tell if your chicks are adequately heated.

• If the chicks are huddled in the farthest corner of the tub away from the heat lamp, they’re too hot.

• If the chicks are huddled directly under the heat lamp, they’re too cold.

• If the chicks are halfway between the lamp and the edge of the tub, they’re juuuust right.

Most people buy a bale of wood shavings (fairly cheap) and spread a layer of shavings in the box or tub. The chicks will foul the shavings fairly quickly, so you’ll want to spread a thin layer of fresh shavings every day (it’s not necessary to remove the old shavings, just spread clean stuff on top). The chicks will also kick shavings into their water, so you’ll have to put the feeder and waterer on a block of wood (about an inch high) to help keep it cleaner. Despite this, however, you’ll be changing their food and water a couple times a day.

Be sure to buy chick starter feed for the chicks. This is finely-ground food with necessary nutrients chicks need for proper growth. Many years ago in Oregon I thought I’d save some money and merely grind the adult food into finer grain for a batch of new chicks we got. Big mistake! The poor babies grew misshapen and malformed. Many died, and my husband had to shoot many others because they were so crippled. Only about a quarter of our chicks survived to adulthood. So buy chick starter to feed them!

Speaking of which, expect to lose about ten percent of your chicks for no particular reason. This seems to be the norm, and unless you make a stupid mistake like not getting them the proper chick starter food, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. So err on the side of a few too many chicks rather than too few.

If you don’t want a rooster, buy sexed chicks. However don’t be surprised if you end up with a rooster or two anyway. I haven’t the faintest idea how people sex baby chicks, but it must be difficult to do because it’s not always accurate.

What breed(s) should you get? I like having a mixed flock just for fun, and some people will advocate certain breeds over others, but here are my favorites.

• Rhode Island Reds are considered the best overall chicken (meaning, good for both meat and eggs). They’re your classic brown hen and lay brown eggs.

• Barred Rocks have black and white stripes and are also excellent dual-purpose birds. They are actually “breastier” for meat than they look. They lay brown eggs.

• Black Australorps are handsome all-black birds that lay brown eggs. I just like the look of them and like to have at least a few in our flock.
• Buff Orpingtons are heavy birds with buff-colored feathers. They lay brown eggs.• Golden-Laced Wyandottes are extremely handsome gold-and-black birds which lay brown eggs.• Silver-Laced Wyandottes are also handsome white-and-black birds which lay brown eggs.• American Araucanas (called “Americanas”) are often called Easter Egg chickens because they lay beautiful blue or green-blue eggs. Lots of fun. They vary in appearance (though most have feather “sideburns” on their cheeks) and tend to be smaller birds, so they’re not great for meat but are wonderful for those beautiful eggs.• Cornish Crosses are strictly meat birds. They gain weight with a speed and seriousness awesome to behold. Do NOT get these chickens unless you plan to butcher them at a young age.Once you have your chicks at home and snug under a heat lamp in a tub or box, you’ll want to start constructing a chicken coop right away. Young chicks need protection against drafts until they feather out, but they start feathering within a couple of days from hatching. Within about two or three weeks, you’ll be able to put them in an outdoor coop as long as a heat lamp is available. And believe me, you’ll be ready. Newborn baby chicks are the most darling things on the planet, but within a short while they start to stink and they get noisy (while indoors, that is). You’ll be more than ready to move them out to their coop at about three weeks of age.

You might want to fence (with chicken wire) a run or yard for them as well, to keep out predators such as raccoons, coyotes, or skunks. Despite any fencing, I also suggest you lock the chicks inside the coop at night (closing off all access to the chicken yard) because predators can be very wily about slipping inside and raiding the chicken coop. However we don’t have a fenced yard and instead let our chickens roam free-range. It’s up to you. (We still button up the chickens at night though.)

Chickens are diurnal birds (active during the day) and will usually train themselves to come indoors at night, especially with the enticement of some comfortable roost bars and fresh food and water inside. Even with adult birds, I suggest you keep a light bulb on at night or at least in the evening, to encourage them to come inside. (Unless you’re in a cold climate, it doesn’t have to be a heat lamp for older birds, just a light bulb.) We layer our chicken coop floor with hay. It gets dirty quickly, so just layer more hay on top. We give the coop a good deep cleaning about twice a year.

You don’t need a rooster for hens to lay eggs, but it goes without saying the hens won’t lay fertile eggs, which means you’ll never be able to hatch your own chicks with an incubator or a setting hen. Personally I enjoy the lusty crow of a male and watching him strut around the barnyard, but I understand others may not. If you do get a rooster, a good ratio is about one rooster for every ten hens (give or take).

Hens will start laying at about five months of age. For the first couple of weeks they won’t lay every day, and their eggs will be very small. After awhile they get the hang of it and will lay regular-sized eggs, usually about five per week per bird (give or take). At this point you want to make sure they have laying boxes available. They’re easy to make with just two lengths of pine boards partitioned into about one-foot units. Spread a little hay in each unit and you’ll have happy hens.

When they start laying, you’ll want to either feed them layer crumbles or at least supplement with ground oyster shell for extra calcium (for shell strength). I’ve been known to keep empty egg shells, let them dry for a few days, then finely crush the egg shells and mix them back with the chickens’ food for extra calcium.

I just love having chickens and have been known to take a lawn chair, book, and glass of wine on a peaceful sunny evening and sit outside among them. “Communing with the chickens,” I call it. Chickens will become fond of you, especially if you toss them your vegetable or rice scraps (hint: call them every time you feed them – “Chick chick chick chick chick chick chick chick!!!” – and they’ll soon start running toward you whenever you call) and will cluster companionably around you in the heat of the day or the cool of the evening.

Don’t be intimidated by chickens. Frankly the best thing to do is just GET SOME and learn as you go. They’re the easiest livestock you can get, and nothing beats a breakfast of uber-fresh eggs from your own birds.

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