Our chicken-keeping path started a little backwards: First, we dreamed and wished to start raising chickens for a long, long while. Then, my husband came home one day with a box of baby chicks in his arms; and then we figured out how to build a coop and make it safe and comfortable for our new feathered friends.
So perhaps you’re like us — you wish you had chickens and feel that your sustainable, self-reliant life wouldn’t be complete without some hens clucking and pecking around your back yard. However, you’re a little intimidated by actually jumping in. Here’s my two cents, after several years of raising chickens under our belts:
Figure out what you want. Do you want to grace your breakfast table with some fantastic home-grown eggs? Are you into keeping some birds for the prospect of humanely raised meats? Are you fascinated by heirloom chickens and would like to try your hand at breeding them and selling chicks? Or maybe a mixture of all?
Think about this as you select your breed. At first we thought of nothing but eggs, so we went for Leghorns. Later on, we developed a taste for fancy breeds, and have raised Brahmas, Cochins, Silkies and Polish.
Also, in the beginning we only wanted some laying hens and weren’t at all interested in keeping a rooster, but now we value our roosters as an important part of the flock and enjoy the excitement of baby chicks each spring.
Educate yourself. Read anything you can get your hands on about keeping and breeding chickens. Sign up on forums. Better yet, get some hands-on experience at the coops of veteran chicken keepers. There is a wealth of information out there — avail yourself of it!
Start small. We started out with only four chicks, which is a very small number — but it was just as well, since we had a lot to learn about keeping chickens. My advice to any new chicken owner would be to start small and gradually expand as your time, inclination, and abilities allow.
Build a coop. Of course, you need to figure out how big a coop you would need. This depends on the number of birds you intend to keep. For example, do you want just enough eggs for your family, or do you want to have some extra to sell?
Also, do you intend to free-range your birds or keep them cooped? If you free-range, like we do, you can get away with a smaller coop.
My suggestion would be to build with the idea of expanding — that is, make your coop so that you can easily add to it later, when your flock grows (which, in our experience, it almost invariably will).
Protect your garden. One morning, we planted two rows of strawberries. In the afternoon, I saw only shreds of the plants, and one chicken hardly able to breathe after having gorged on the fresh leaves. It taught us an important lesson: You want to keep your plants safe, you protect them by fencing either the plants or the chickens.
However, experience has shown us that there are some plants chickens don’t really care for, such as mint, lemongrass, and other herbs with a strong odor. Fruit trees are also generally safe, though chickens love to eat young grape leaves.
Prepare for setbacks. There are diseases, predators and various accidents that will threaten your chickens. There are disappointments in the form of a hen who abandons a clutch of eggs, or an incubator that stops working at a most crucial time for a hatch. It’s easy to become discouraged if you don’t mentally prepare for that sort of thing as part of a chicken-keeper’s life.
At first, I used to actually cry over every chicken that fell prey to a fox or a stray dog. Later, I learned to rally myself up with more constructive action, such as examining the coop to figure out how to make it make predator-safe or preparing emergency batteries for the incubator.
Take the plunge! It’s easy to delay a project thinking you’ll do it later, when you are better prepared, but there is really no such thing as being perfectly prepared.
Jump into chicken-keeping with both feet, knowing there will always be some things that you can only learn from experience (such as, for example, that chickens don’t like to share a coop with guinea pigs, or that watermelon rinds make their poops runny). Good luck with your new venture!
Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook, find her as SmallFlocksMom on Earthineer, and read more about her current projects on her blog.
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