With the questionable safety of the meat products available at the grocery store, my wife and I decided that we should try to create a supply for ourselves. We had four acres of property and minimal cash to spend, so large animals like pigs or cows would be out of the question. We decided that something like rabbits or chickens would work out well. We ruled out rabbits (for the time being) for several reasons including higher maintenance, higher initial costs, and the fact that I had already raised rabbits as a kid.
We settled on chickens for the following reasons:
- There is a lot of information available on the web
- They are cheap to purchase
- They can provide both meat and eggs
- You can let them roam around so their poop isn't concentrated in one place
We were surprised by a few unexpected benefits:
- Insect control - our small flocks of chickens eliminated most of the pest insects around the house.
- Greener grass - the chickens' scratching removed the dead undergrowth and mixed in their poop. They also liked to eat small weed seedlings and dandelions.
- Entertainment - chickens are just goofy and amusing to watch.
Our plan was to pick up a small flock of chicks in the spring, raise them to egg producing age, collect the eggs, and then butcher them when it starts to get cold.
You can purchase chickens through the mail order or through a local feed mill. Other less desirable options include county fairs or a local farm. I prefer a local feed mill.
When buying through a feed mill, you can look at the chicks to get an idea of their health. Often, you will get one or two chicks that will die through mail order. A fair will get you good chicks, but they usually are scheduled for the summer. You won't get eggs until well into the next spring.
Farms that have chicks are few and far between nowadays. Most hens have had the brooding instinct bred out of them. You might have good luck if you can find a farm that keeps antique breeds.
You can buy sexed chicks or straight run. Buy sexed hens. You probably do not want any roosters - they are loud, and if you have more than one, they will fight to the death once mature. Some folks buy twice as many straight run chicks and butcher the roosters once they start crowing or fighting. I just buy hens. Some people will try to tell you that you won't get eggs without a rooster. This is a myth. An egg is produced by the chicken's menstruation cycle. You only need a rooster to help produce chicks.
We buy our chicks on St. Patrick's day. That way, we can calculate how old they are (usually they are already 2-3 days old). This will put egg production starting around the beginning of August. Hens start producing eggs at 18-20 weeks.
To get started (assuming 12 chickens) you will need the following:
- Chicks - $15/dozen
- Water fountain - $3
- Starter feed - $10/25 lbs
- Feeder - $3
- A small pen - an old laundry basket works well, cardboard box will work until it gets wet
- Heater light - $15
- Wood shavings - $5/bale (no sawdust - it can cause respiratory problems)
- Possibly two clean 1-quart glass canning jars for the water fountain and the feeder - one of your relatives is bound to have these laying around.
In all, you are looking at about $50ish dollars to get started. These supplies will last for about a month. The food shouldn't run out and the equipment shouldn't wear out. Your chickens will outgrow it. During that month, you will need to buy/make the following:
- Full size feeder - $7-10
- Full size water fountain - $7-10
- More food - $10/25 lbs
- 5 bales of wood shavings - $25
- 3 5-gallon buckets - free or $5-8 at a home center
- A 4'x8' chicken coop - as much as you want to spend
The coop is probably the biggest sticking point. Our first year, I just caged off a part of our garage. We only had four chickens. The next year, I built a coop out of scrap lumber and some corrugated roofing purchased at the home center. You can google for plans. The following are some suggestions based on my experience.
Make the coop 4'x8'. Chickens need 2 square feet each and plywood comes in 4'x8' sheets. This will minimize cutting and waste. Create a post and beam structure. Basically 4 upright posts with a rim of wood around it. Create a shed roof. A shed roof is easy. Do not use treated lumber or anything you wouldn't want to eat yourself. I had the great idea of using rigid foam insulation. 12 chickens had a 4'x8' sheet picked to nothing in three days. Find a nice 4'x1" thick branch to use as a roost on the high end of your shed.
You probably also want to use some leftover plywood to create a ramp up to the roost. Make sure you have some footholds on the ramp so your chickens don't slip (basically, some thin strips of wood spaced approximately 3"-4" apart).
Make sure that the coop can be closed securely at night. Do some research online, get some construction books at the library. This is an easy project that a beginner can tackle in a weekend or two.
So you have the initial supplies and a bunch of peeping chicks - now what?
Once you get everything home, find a quiet place away from dogs/cats/small children/whatever for your new chicks to reside. The area should be free from drafts and readily cleanable. These guys are messy. Make sure that there is nothing that the chicks can get hurt on if they get out. Once they start escaping, it is time for the coop.
Set your pen on the floor, place 1-2 inches of wood shavings down, and fill their food and water. Go ahead and put the chicks in while you set up your heat lamp. Chicks tend to be self-regulating as far as the heat lamp is concerned. Place it so that they can get totally under it but also be able to back away entirely. You shouldn't have to bother with a thermometer with this type of setup.
Check their water and food at least twice daily. Fresh, cool, clean water is the most important thing for chickens. Keep their litter clean. I usually will dump it on the compost bin every other day. One bale of shavings should last until they are ready to go outside.
Once the chicks get most of their feathers in or are consistently escaping from their pen, it's time to go outside. You got that coop done, right?
Use several bags of wood shavings and fill the floor to 6"-8". This litter will need to be raked to mix in the poop once a week (or when it starts to smell) and replaced around once a month (or when mixing doesn't fix the smell any more). Get the chickens out early in the morning and you may be able to last longer. The used litter makes a great mulch for your garden. Once it gets out in the open, it won't smell anymore. I use it under shrubs and raspberry bushes.
You will probably still have most of your bag of food left from the indoor days. Use it until they eat it all. Once it is gone, you will want to buy "grower" food. It has less protein than the chick food. After one bag, move on to "finisher".
One note on food: Keep it sealed airtight always. The first year I simply rolled up the bag and kept it in the garage. I had a huge infestation of moths that lasted for over a year. Since then, I buy 1-gallon ziploc freezer bags and divide the entire bag into these. One bag will usually fill the adult feeder, so this works well.
Keep the heat lamp in the coop until you see that the chicks don't use it any more.
Once outside, check their water and food levels. I find that I need to fill/change them both every other day as they grow to adult size. A 25 lb bag of food will last around two weeks once they get to adolescent size. Let them run outside as much as possible. Bugs are free food!
Chickens like to be let out early and will come home to roost around dusk. Once they are all inside, you will want to secure them for the night. This should keep them safe from raccoons, dogs, foxes, and other animals.
We have had some trouble with raccoons. People will trap them in the city and release them by our house. These animals can be very aggressive. I have had one growl at me through the screen door. We had a pack of three raccoons that I ended up having to trap and euthanize.
With any luck, August should roll around and you should have a dozen healthy, amusing animals running around. One morning while checking food and water, you will find a little egg in a small depression. The egg will be really small - it's called a pullet egg. It is fine to eat and will be followed by larger eggs. Our Rhode Island Reds consistently gave us double-yolked eggs and some triples!
Once you see the first egg, take your three 5-gallon buckets and fill them to the top with clean wood shavings and place them upright and out of the way (not under the roost) in the coop. They will use them for nesting boxes. You will need one bucket for four chickens. My chickens preferred buckets over the nesting boxes I built. The birds will kick out what they don't want. If they don't seem to be too interested, you can scoop out a couple of inches and make a small depression (like a nest). You will sometimes find three full size chickens squeezed into one bucket.
Check for eggs a little after you let them out in the morning and before you put them in for the night. At full production, you should get around 10 eggs/day. The eggs will keep in the refrigerator for 6 months - no joke. We put a basket in the fridge, and collected enough eggs to last until February. We also gave a lot away.
I find fresh eggs to be really strong so I let them sit in the fridge around 1 month and they start tasting like store bought eggs.
Eggs are real nice to have, but with the cooler weather and shorter days that autumn brings, egg production will start waning. Once spring comes and the days get longer, they will molt their feathers and will not produce eggs until well into the summer.
Because we don't want to take care of chickens in the freezing winter as well as pay for heating and food when they aren't producing eggs, we butcher the entire flock around the beginning of November.
We have found a small farm that specializes in butchering poultry and rabbits. They charge about $1 per bird. I have done butchering in the past, but the mess is worth a dollar a bird. We drop the birds off Sunday night and pick up the meat Monday night.
The meat is very flavorful. It is, however, very easy to overcook as water (and who knows what else) is not injected into the meat. I recommend doing a slow-cook casserole-type dish.
One of the more difficult things to deal with is what to do with a sick or injured bird. Usually the most humane thing to do is quick euthanization. Often, if chicks are sick, they will succumb before you can do anything. Other times they will pop back and be fine. I don't usually euthanize a chick unless they have a broken leg or wing. The quickest solution is to wrap the body in a towel and decapitate quickly with a sharp knife. That is really the worst case scenario and I hate putting down chicks.
Decapitation is usually best for adult birds, too. Last year I had a rooster (sometimes you will get one even though you buy all hens) who broke his leg. He was limping around when I found him and you could see the bone trying to work it's way out of the skin. I quickly placed him in a paper grocery bag, dug a hole in the back lot and placed the bag in it. When I had summoned up enough guts, I opened the bag enough to let his head through. When he popped his head through, I popped it off with my .22 rifle (garden branch shears work well, too). He flopped around for a little while (hence the bag). Once he was done, I filled in the hole, went inside and cried.
Chickens are a very enjoyable animal to have around. The gentle clucking is very comforting to listen to and their antics are enjoyable to watch.
If you can stomach some of the unpleasantries involved, the chicken can provide a good source of healthy food for your family.