Try Chicken Starter Livestock for the Homestead

Getting started with a backyard or homestead flock of chicken starter livestock is simple and inexpensive. If you have your own hens, you’ll get the freshest, most nutritious eggs possible! Plus there are so many ways that chickens (and other poultry) can help in the garden and around the homestead. Following this advice on housing, predator control and flock management will get you off on the right foot.
By Harvey Ussery
December 2007/January 2008
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Not all chicken breeds have a strong instinct to hatch eggs and nurture young. To foster these traits, the author is working on an experimental cross of old English games and rose comb Dorkings.
Photo by Harvey Ussery
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Try chicken starter livestock, these easy-to-keep chickens will provide delicious eggs and meat, plus bug control, fertilizer and tillage. Includes two viewpoints on selecting the right breed of chicken for your situation!

Try Chicken Starter Livestock for the Homestead

Eggs from backyard flocks are of a quality and nutritional density that those dependent on the supermarket can only dream of. Necessary culling (of excess males and non-productive females) graces the table with flavorful meat. But backyard flocks can contribute to self-sufficiency in more ways than simply putting food on the table. They offer bug control, tillage and great entertainment.

Poultry are incredible starter livestock for most homesteads, because their needs are easily and cheaply met, and the homesteader can start on a small scale.

Coming Home to Roost

One reason poultry are the easiest livestock is that their housing can be simple. All domesticated poultry are hardy and will do well if given protection from predators and the extremes of weather. Any housing that protects the birds from wind, rain and snow will be adequate for your flock. (Remember, too, their need for shade on the hottest summer days.) You should provide a minimum of 3 square feet per adult bird — 4 or 5 would be even better.

Chickens, guineas and turkeys all have an instinct to roost at night and will be more content if given perches to do so. Any structure that allows them to sleep perched above ground level will satisfy their urge to roost.

If there are laying hens in your flock, you should provide nests. I make my own (12 inches high and wide, 16 inches deep) and fill them with straw, leaves or other clean, soft material.

Almost any structure can serve satisfactorily for housing poultry. I strongly advise leaving an earth floor in the coop and covering it with a deep layer (up to 12 inches) of organic matter (see “Deep Litter System: The Best Plan for Chicken Poop,” below).

All domestic poultry are quite cold hardy. They don’t need added heat here in Hume, Va., (with temperatures down to 10 below zero) as long as they are protected from the wind in the coldest weather. I make certain that their house is tight against drafts, while at the same time providing essential ventilation. Occasionally, cocks (males) suffer frostbite to their large combs and wattles (the red, fleshy protuberances on top of and hanging from their heads). If you live further north, you might want to consider breeds such as the chantecler, which have minimal combs and wattles that are almost impervious to frostbite.

Another winter care question is whether to use artificial lighting to mitigate the natural drop in egg production during the dark winter months. My own practice is not to use such lighting. We simply adjust to a greatly reduced egg supply in the winter. But if your flock is in good health and you are feeding them well, you can certainly keep lights on them in the winter without major ill effects. It is most convenient to put the light on a timer. Set the timer to provide earlier light in the morning for a total of 14 hours a day. Allow only natural light in the evening so the birds aren’t surprised when the artificial light suddenly shuts off. A single 40- or 60-watt bulb should be adequate.

Chickens will eat eggs in certain situations; once they start, it’s a difficult habit to break. You can prevent egg eating in the flock by mounting the nests above floor level to keep the cocks from pecking at eggs curiously, providing enough nests (one for every eight hens or so) and collecting eggs regularly.

We never wash eggs if they come from the nest absolutely clean. For cleaning up those with a smear or stain, we use a paper towel dipped in a half-and-half mix of water and white vinegar. Immersing eggs can actually drive bacteria through the shells.

Pasturing the Poultry Flock

I strongly urge you to avoid the conventional homestead flock, with the birds confined to their coop and a small, static chicken run. The birds quickly consume or trample all vegetation, and droppings accumulate. It’s better to get the birds out onto healthy, green pasture where they can enjoy the sunshine, fresh air and exercise, and forage a significant part of their diet.

Some flock owners have good results allowing their birds to range free during the day, then penning them up at night for protection, since most predators are nocturnal. For others, different levels and types of predation (your neighbor’s dog, or even your own) or proximity of neighbors’ gardens or flower beds prohibit this approach. Does that dictate a return of the flock to their wretched static run? Not at all. Electric net fencing is a solution that has been a fundamental management tool for me for years. I cannot recommend it highly enough for providing the benefits of pasturing the flock, confining them where you want and protecting them from predators.

Electric net fencing is a plastic mesh with interwoven fence posts. The horizontal strands of the mesh are intertwined with almost hair-fine stainless steel wires. Attached to a fence energizer that’s properly grounded, the fence carries an unpleasant (but not harmful) surprise for unwelcome curiosity seekers. (Search for “Electronet” at Premier 1 Supplies.)

Options for Chicken Feeding

It is convenient to buy bagged feed for a flock, and we’d like to think that such “scientifically formulated” feeds are the best diet we can offer our birds. Ask yourself, however: What would the chicken eat if completely on her own in a natural setting? Though we do not think of chickens as grazers, they actually eat a fair amount of grasses, clovers and broadleaf weeds. They relish wild seeds of all sorts and live animal foods such as earthworms, insects, slugs and snails. All of these foods (plants, seeds, small animals) are alive and unprocessed. Commercial feeds are anything but alive or unprocessed; they are made from highly processed ingredients.

I urge you to take the feeding of your flock into your own hands. A willingness to experiment, a bit of research about nutritional needs and access to whole ingredients available in your area are the only requirements.

Whether you buy prepared feeds or make your own replacement mixes (from whole corn, oats, wheat, field peas, kelp meal, etc.), the heart of your feeding program should be maximizing your flock’s access to whole, natural foods. If you pasture your birds, they will find a lot of high-quality food on their own. If you practice vermicomposting to recycle kitchen wastes or manage manure, you can harvest the worms to feed your flock. If you live in an area “blessed” with lots of Japanese beetles, collect them to feed your eager birds.

Putting the Chickens to Work

There are many ways to enlist the natural behaviors of the flock to achieve key homestead goals.

Before the era of Monsanto and Cargill, free ranging poultry flocks helped control excess insect populations in orchards. We can utilize our flocks in the same way, confining them to their work if necessary with electric net fencing. Another useful service the flock provides in the orchard is cleaning up dropped fruit, which can harbor disease or overwintering insects.

Though chickens could destroy an established garden with their constant scratching (and they like ripe tomatoes as much as you do!), just prior to the garden season I net my flock onto the garden for two to four weeks. The birds eat sprouting weed seeds as well as slugs and snails.

I usually assign tilling chores to my chickens. If I need to develop new ground for a garden, I net a flock of chickens onto the plot and let them do what they love best, scratching away at that tough sod until it is killed and turned into the top few inches of the soil, in the process boosting soil fertility with their droppings.

The Integrated Flock

There are so many ways our flocks can be integrated into helping us develop food self-sufficiency on the homestead. The examples I have given only hint at the possibilities. The key is liberating them from an isolated corner and making them part of the broader, interwoven patterns of your homestead endeavor.

 


Which Chicken Breeds are Best? Two Experts Offer Advice

Climate, housing situations and goals for the flock all play a part in selecting which breeds (or hybrids) of chickens to keep. Each situation is unique. Here are two expert opinions on breed selection.

Harvey Ussery raises cuckoo Marans, old English games, silver spangled Hamburgs, and an experimental cross (the boxwood broody) for personal use on his homestead in Virginia. Here are Harvey’s views on breed selection:

Recent poultry breeding has been geared toward ever greater specialization — fast-growing meat hybrids ready to slaughter in as little as 44 days or egg-laying hybrids that begin laying at 17 weeks or less and lay impressive numbers of eggs (at least for a couple of seasons). In my experience, such “souped-up” hybrids are less hardy and long-lived, and are apt to succumb to disease or environmental stresses. They require more purchased inputs, both of feed (because they have lower foraging skills) and medication (to compensate for breeding that has emphasized maximum production over robust immune systems).

I much prefer the traditional farm breeds of earlier generations, many of them dual purpose — good layers, usually of large brown eggs, with good rates of growth to table fowl size, though they do not match the super-hybrids in either category of production. Such breeds represent a priceless part of our agricultural heritage: Wyandottes, buff Orpingtons, Plymouth rocks, New Hampshire and Rhode Island reds, buckeyes, Delawares, dominiques, Jersey giants and more.

You may want to choose older historic breeds out of which the modern breeds were developed. Dorkings, which harken back to Roman times, are gentle, elegant birds that are a joy to work with. Old English games are a breed with a 1,000-year history as utilitarian fowl. If given enough space to forage, old English games feed themselves almost entirely on their own, and the hens are among the best chicken mamas on the planet.

Keeping a breed because it’s better at foraging its own feed is eminently sensible for homesteaders. Keeping sturdier breeds likely to have more robust immune response is also practical. Using hens that still remember how to incubate and rear their own young — while not so practical for someone operating on a larger scale to produce income — is the most practical choice for the homesteader who can just set the willing hen to her work and let her get on with it: “Let mama do it” with no management of incubators or artificial brooders.

Robert Plamondon generally raises commercial hybrid layers (usually red sex-links from Privett Hatchery) and modern hybrid broilers. He sells his pasture-raised eggs for $4 per dozen and grass-fed broilers at $3 per pound. Here’s Robert’s take on breed selection:

Standard-bred chickens are and have always been over-hyped. Many breeds are being promoted on the same extravagant claims that were made 100 years ago, when the bar was a lot lower. In fact, the only egg breeds that have ever had any commercial significance in this country are barred Plymouth rocks, Rhode Island reds, New Hampshire reds, white Leghorns and possibly white Wyandottes. Before the introduction of these breeds, the American farmer made do with breeds such as English game, Houdans, Hamburgs and dominiques — low-performing breeds that were abandoned by practical farmers in the mid-19th century. Most breeds, however, never had a following among practical farmers — they have always been hobbyist breeds.

All these breeds grow slowly compared to hybrid broilers. The last time I did the math, I calculated that you would need to charge three times as much per pound just to break even, and I don’t think there’s enough difference in quality to support this; there’s nothing about these broilers that’s worth paying three times as much for. You’d get better results with a “slow-growing” commercial broiler strain (which grow a lot faster than standard breeds), such as Privett Hatchery’s “slow white Cornish” or the “red broilers” and “black broilers” sold by most hatcheries, which are a cross between a modern broiler and something like a New Hampshire red or black australorp, respectively.

If you insist on heritage breeds and want to make a profit, you need to find the highest-producing “egg strains” of these breeds. Because poultry fanciers hold competitions that are essentially beauty contests, any breed can have its performance bred right out of it as a side effect of selecting for beauty alone. When in doubt, call the hatchery and ask the manager for recommendations.

Temperament is always important. I tried at least one new breed a year for many years, before I settled on Privett Hatchery’s red sex-links as the best combination of performance and docility. This is a good strategy for heritage breeds as well. Some of them are nice, but others are nasty.

If profit isn’t a motive, then temperament is key. I’d start with barred rocks. They’re the gold standard of pleasant hens, and they were always a favorite of the American farmer. They’re attractive and most strains lay pretty well. Buff Orpingtons are also a safe bet; though they probably won’t lay as well.

If you don’t plan on selling your eggs, then it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the production of even a small flock, so choosing high-producing chickens might be more of a curse than a blessing. I’ve always suspected that this is why backyard poultry breeders have such inflated opinions of their flock’s performance. If they’re drowning in eggs, their flock must have great production, right?


Deep Litter System: The Best Plan for Chicken Poop

If you use a non-movable coop, I strongly advise leaving an earth floor and covering it with a deep layer (up to 12 inches) of organic matter. When coops cannot be moved to fresh ground frequently, the deep litter system is the best arrangement for safe and less labor-intensive manure management. Chickens, constantly scratching, quickly work their droppings into the litter where decomposition is driven by microbes similar to those in a compost heap. Metabolites (byproducts of the microbes’ life processes) include vitamins and immune-enhancing substances, which the chickens ingest as they peck up little critters they find in the litter.

Materials for litter should be as high in carbon as possible and include leaves and wood shavings. Sawdust and wood chips can be used, though they should be aged first. I avoid straw because it can support the growth of harmful molds.

The microbes use nitrogen in the droppings as an energy source as they break down the litter into simpler elements. As the carbon in the litter is used up, the nitrogen can no longer be utilized efficiently by the microbes and begins outgassing as ammonia. Ammonia is bad for your birds’ respiratory tissues, so that first whiff of ammonia is your signal to add fresh material or clean out the litter. Materials higher in nitrogen, such as hay and soybean vines, don’t work as well for litter, because they decompose too quickly.

Deep litter also is labor-saving. You might need to shovel out the equivalent of finished compost once a year or so, and you can use it in the garden without further processing.

If you need to use an existing building with a wood or concrete floor, that’s OK. You can still use a deep layer of organic material as the foundation of proper manure management (straw in this context is fine, since it stays drier). In this case, the litter does not break down as completely and will need to be composted before use in the garden.

There is one potential problem with deep litter over an earth floor — the exposure of your flock to digging predators. It’s a grueling initial chore, but it’s imperative to dig a metal roof flashing or half-inch hardware cloth barrier 18 inches deep around the perimeter of your poultry house.

Visit our online forum to discuss any questions, concerns or advice about legalizing or keeping chickens.


Harvey Ussery is committed to helping revive small-scale backyard poultry production. Visit his website here.


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Post a comment below.

 

TROY GRIEPENTROG_2
12/1/2008 10:12:10 AM
From the author: I can't address the question as an expert, since all my experience with poultry has been in much warmer climes--I'm in northern Virginia, Zone 6b. Couple of things come to mind: Northern "flocksters" often prefer breeds with minimalist combs--that is, combs (and wattles) that are much smaller than for example in the single-comb breeds. Those big exposed combs (especially on the cocks) tend to get frostbite in really cold winter temperatures. A good dual purpose breed you might consider: Chantecler. They were bred in Canada, and the combs are almost non-existent. They're also considered good winter layers. I've worked only with Partridge Chantecler, but there are other colors/patterns as well. PC hens have a tendency to go "broody" (set a clutch of eggs to hatch out chicks). You may or may not consider this a plus--some folks find broodiness a pain. An excellent source of info for helping make a choice of breeds is Barry Kofler's "feathersite": http://www.feathersite.com//Poultry/BRKPoultryPage.html ~Harvey Ussery

Hawaiian Healer
11/15/2008 11:10:41 AM
what would be some good breeds for southeast idaho. In the summer it can reach 95-100 degrees in the winter it can reach -30F and I'm at 5,700 feet above sea level. I'm just wanting a few chickens around the yard for eggs mostly. thanks in advance for any help

Tammy_1
8/21/2008 1:58:02 PM
Nice article and comments. We have been raising chickens for the past 4 years in portable poultry shelters(chicken tractors)We have raised several batches of broilers as well as keep hens for eggs. The best shelter on the market today is from Easy-Garden. See the web site at www.easy-garden.com. The shelters are used at Bee Heaven Farm in Florida as well as the 4W Ranch in Washington as well as several other sustainable farms and hobby farms.

Michaeline
1/22/2008 2:18:45 PM
I'm planning to start a flock in the spring. I am looking for a coupe that can be moved so that I can have my flock graze more of my land. I have a small orchard and a large garden area. They are not close to eachother so I was hoping to find a way to make thier coupe mobile. I had seen mobile coupes in this magazine I thought. I also plan to have a perminant larger coupe. I would consider open range if it weren't for the dogs and cyotes, racoons, owls and DOGS. My neighbor has to many! Anyway, we live in the very northeastern part of Washington, today it is in the single digets tempature wise. How do you care for your birds in this type of weather?? Where can I find plans or recommendations on building a coupe? Thanks!

david_119
1/2/2008 12:05:25 AM
I begin raising chickens 1 year ago.I have cucu marantz, white and black leggorns, and 5 other breeds.The biggest deal with chickens is they do not like change.If you change their feed, bring in a bunch of other chickens or move them they will quit laying eggs for a while.We keep ours fenced in and put wire over the top of the pen because here in arkansas the coons, possums or owels and chicken hawks will eat them all up.

bobbear43_4
12/8/2007 8:09:28 PM
I forgot to mention that our chickens were free-range. Their fenced yard was about 30' x 60'. We never had to worry about weeds in there. If anyone doubts that chickens are omnivorous, you should see what they do when they find a mouse nest in the compost pile, or a baby bird falls out of a tree. We also had a 3-super bee hive in their yard, and they ate the dead or dying bees the hive would discard. We have great horned owls here, and had to have bird netting above the whole yard. Otherwise we would find the wings of some poor hen clipped off, and her gone missing. Eventually our chickens fell prey over time to raccoons after our dog began to get old. But our RI hens lived for about 3 years and laid prolifically the whole time. Auracanas were also productive and long-lived.

bobbear43_3
12/8/2007 7:54:47 PM
It's been 20 years but when my kids were young and on a "we won't eat that because raising poultry is inhumane" kick we had a flock on purpose so that they could see that it could be done humanely. We started with 24 Rhode Island Reds (some "sex-cross" variety). We raised them for 12 weeks, at which time they were the size of small turkeys! At that time, we also decided to keep the "girls" because some had already started laying .... big brown healthy eggs. The "boys" dressed out at about 6-7 pounds after slaughtering and cleaning. We used a killing method from Mother Earth News in the past .... hang them upside-down in a cone, and bleed them out .... very calm. The kids helped with the slaughtering. Our 12 RI hens laid a dozen eggs most days. Later my son wanted more chickens, so we had a wide variety of breeds. At one time we had 50 chickens on a one-acre city lot, and supplied grandparents and friends with eggs. Our chicken coops were an a-frame elevated type with a deep litter area underneath, and a hinged nesting box on the back. The design was from 4H for use in our Tucson climate.

Vivienne
11/24/2007 1:52:10 PM
Re: Chicken Breeds We have a mixed flock of up to 60 chickens with 3 roosters. We have had buff orpingtons, wyandottes, (barred & white) rock, lakenvelder, australorpe, leghorns (brown & white) Rhode Island red, hampshire and a few other sundry breeds. The one we like best is the Transylvanian Naked Neck - often called turken. They have most of their neck bare of feathers. That are early, consistent layers and are the first out at dawn to forage and the last in at night. Despite their lack of neck feathering, in our higher altitude Oregon climate, they are the first to get under the snow to forage for whatever they can find. I thought that they would be cold sensitive but apparently not. They like to flock together (we have 2 groups - 5 in one and 9 in another) and they stay together - we have to clip their wings because they will fly over fences for better foraging opportunities. - Vivienne








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