Friday, February 24, 2012

Chickens- basics

Spring is in the air! It's the best time having farm animals, it is when all the babies are born or bought! Two years ago we purchased our first chickens as little peeps. Tiny, yellow, puff balls. Who could resist?

Chickens are an easy and fantastic addition of any household. They offer eggs, meat and poop! (best compost you can use in a garden for free!) Most cities are even willing to allow pet owners to have up to 6 hens in their backyard.

The manor in which you house your flock can easily vary. A chicken tractor (a moveable house to allow them fresh grass and keep mess to a minimum), a coop or free range roaming. Coops can be build out of nearly anything! I have even heard of someone using an old truck topper to keep chickens and letting them out in a fenced yard during the day. We have had two chicken tractors, allowed them to free range on our 1 acre and after needing more land for growing food we build a coop with a fence around it. It cost us $10 dollars and a couple of afternoons. We found scrap lumber at the dump and around our garage from previous projects to use, keeping the cost down.

Choosing a breed is sometimes the biggest decision. They are simply broken down into three categories: fancy, egg and meat birds. The fancy breeds are for beauty and show. The egg breeds lay eggs in a variety of colors: white, brown and shades of blue and green. Then there are the meat variety. Some chickens cross over into egg and meat categories they are referred to as dual purpose. For us, we have kept Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, and Brahman. Most can be used as dual purpose.

A hen will usually start laying eggs around 18-22 weeks old (also called a pullet up until this point). She will continue to lay about 1 egg per day for about 3 years. In the winter however, when there is less sunlight hens can stop laying. Many people who do coop their chickens put a light in the coop to encourage laying all year round. If you are looking for mature laying hens, check their bottom to tell layers from liars. A good layer will have an oval, moist vent (bottom) and messy looking bottom feathers around the vent.

And just for the record, unless you have a rooster mating with your hens, your eggs are not viable. You will not crack one open and find a chicken inside! I have never had this happen (yet) and we do have a rooster, but unless the hen decides to sit on those eggs to hatch them (called being broody) you will not get baby chicks.

Keeping meat birds can be a humane and healthy way of raising natural or organic meat for your family. Meat or dual purpose birds are usually butchered around 8-12 weeks. (We will attempt to post a video at some point on how to butcher.) Unlike commercial chicken farms that cram as many birds into one small space, pump full of antibiotics and medications, you can raise happy free range birds on natural or organic feed. Remember what goes into your food goes into you! If you have a hard time with eating your "pet", use the rule of "name and claim it." We do not name our food, only the egg birds. We had a rooster named Doomwalker who crowed all the time and we end up having him for dinner one Sunday night. It was a long, sad dinner. So, don't name your food!

Feeding chickens can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. Feed for chickens bought at a feed store or a Tractor Supply usually has two categories as well, scratch grains and ration feed. Scratch grains encourage chickens to do just that- peck and scratch. This is usually a ground or cracked corn or wheat, which many people are moving away from. Commercial feed rations come in either mash, pellets or crumble and a variety of protein levels depending if you are raising laying hens or meat birds. Meat birds usually need more protein (about 21%). I prefer using pellets because they seem to waste less. A typical 50lb bag of feed can run between $12 -$16 dollars. For my nine hens a bag last about 2 weeks. They also love kitchen scraps of fruit and veggies!

For more detailed information check out Story's Guide to Raising Chickens or Backyard in the Barnyard both by Gail Damerow

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