Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
My husband and I have been keeping chickens for the last seven years, and we've learned a lot in the process. You can jump-start your own chicken learning curve by planning around these top ten tips.
Don't use an old-fashioned coop-and-run combo. Chicken tractors are a great way to house chickens and provide fresh grass for small flocks. For larger flocks (especially if you have a rooster), I recommend a rotational chicken pasture.
Chickens shouldn't stink and you shouldn't have to handle fresh manure. If you make a chicken tractor and move it daily, the manure issue takes care of itself. In a permanent coop, we're big fans of deep bedding, a system in which you keep topping off the floor of the coop with straw, leaves, or other organic matter whenever manure builds up. The result is a warm compost pile on the floor of the coop that smells good, provides your chickens with supplemental food, and fertilizes your garden. Choosing the right chicken waterer will also keep the mess factor way down.
Keep chicks close to home as long as possible. Baby chicks are delicious...and stupid. If the wildlife doesn't eat them, they'll get stuck away from their heat source and perish. Some people keep newly hatched chicks inside for a month or longer, but our house is tiny and I get sick of the bustle within a week. My compromise is to raise our baby flock inside a very tight brooder no more than twenty feet from the back door when they're young. I can hear their alarm calls from my desk, and as a result we now rarely lose a chick. As a bonus, we can let them out on warm days to forage in the lawn.
Learn chickens' calls. Speaking of alarm calls, a good chicken-keeper knows what her flock is saying when a ruckus comes from the coop. I ran out to check on every egg being laid for a while, but eventually came to realize the difference between a proud cackle and a scared squawk. The latter is a sign I need to chase away a hawk before he can consume my prize egg-layers.
Don't leave an injured chicken with the flock. As terrible as it sounds, chickens will peck an injured flock mate to death. So if that hawk gouges out a gash in your chicken's neck, she'll need to be separated from her sisters for her own safety until she heals back up. Unfortunately, if she doesn't heal properly and ends up with some kind of deformity, chances are good she'll never live in harmony with the flock again.
Don't mix up the flock. Chickens have a pecking order, but once the hierarchy is established, they usually live in harmony. However, if you take a chicken away and then try to reintroduce her to the flock, the pecking order has to be reestablished and much squawking ensues. In some cases, this is worth it. Recently, I prepared for our spring chicks by adding a great egg-layer from our tractor to the main flock so she could mate with the rooster and pass on her genes to the next generation. For two days, the ex-tractorite was hassled, but now she runs with the other birds with no problem. But sometimes the reintroduction doesn't go as smoothly. If you want to have peace in the chicken coop, it's best not to risk it.
White chickens will get eaten (and not by you). I've tried several different breeds over the years, and I've finally decided not to raise white chickens again. If you keep your flock in a tractor, this won't be a problem, but white chickens are a beacon for predators, especially when the birds are free-ranging in the winter woods. Of all the hawk attacks we've had on our chickens over the years, 90% have been on white hens.
Chickens will need to be fed. I hate to say it, but chickens are one of the more expensive livestock to keep because they're omnivores like us, not herbivores like cows. While you can supplement with kitchen scraps and get creative with other food sources, chickens will probably require store-bought feed. The juice is worth the squeeze, though, especially because chickens require much less space than most herbivorous livestock.
Homegrown eggs are delicious. My husband and I barely ate eggs before we started keeping chickens. Now, we like to consume at least half a dozen a day between us. Our flock keeps growing to meet the demand.
Chicken TV is the best channel! Watching your chicks learn about the great outdoors is one of the most fun parts of homesteading. Be sure to put your chicken pasture in view of the porch so you can watch hens fighting over a rotten tomato while you dine. Good luck with your new flock! You'll probably soon be wondering how you ever lived without chickens.