Photo by Pixabay/capri23auto
Given the past crazy year of pandemic and food shortages, many people are deciding it would be wise to raise some of their own food. But most of us don’t have the land to grow our own grain, nor raise our own livestock. What’s an erstwhile hobby-survivalist to do?
Once you’ve started a small vegetable garden, one of the easiest ways to provide some of your own food needs is with a small flock of backyard chickens. You can raise them for eggs, for meat, or for both. But you need to know a few things before running off to the farm store for chicks.
Following is an overview that will help you think through some things before you get started. You should also consider purchasing Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens which discusses the birds in more detail.
Quite a few municipalities allow chickens (at least hens) these days - even in towns and cities. While hens will cluck when they lay eggs, only the roosters crow. Check with your local town or city government to see what the laws are in your area. If you live in a development, also check with the home owners’ association.
Roosters only crow at sunrise. Nope, not true. Roosters crow because they like to, and they like to morning, noon, and night. Roosters aren’t a good idea if you have neighbors close by.
Home-grown eggs have baby chicks in them. Not necessarily. You need a rooster to fertilize the eggs, otherwise you just have egg white and yolk inside the shell – no chicks.
You need a rooster to get eggs. Definitely not true. Hens lay eggs all on their own. Roosters only fertilize them.
Brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs. You don’t eat the shell, you eat what’s inside of it. An egg’s nutrition is determined by what the hen eats. The color of the shell is determined by the breed of chicken, much like feather color.
So Many Chicks, So Little Time
Before deciding which chickens to purchase, you need to know what you want them for. If you are looking for maximum egg output consider Leghorn, Ancona, Golden Comet, and Minorca which lay a higher number of eggs per hen per year.
If you are more interested in meat, then consider larger chickens such as Brahma, Cochin, or Cornish hens. Freedom Rangers are a lovely meat bird that will still forage while growing out as broilers. This is always our choice for broiler chicks. They take an extra 2-3 weeks to grow but live a much healthier life out on grass, producing more nutritious meat.
If you want the ability to have a reasonable number of eggs, while still being able to use the spent layers and excess roosters for meat, then purchase a dual-purpose breed such as Orpington, Wyandotte, or Plymouth Rock hens.
Personality matters. More docile breeds include Cochins, Dorkings, Orpingtons, and Rocks. Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds are more flighty. Not as good a choice if you have small children. If you want pretty eggs, consider Araucanas and Americanas for blue, pink, and green shelled eggs. Or look at the lovely Cuckoo Marans for dark brown eggs with speckles.
Where to House Your Chickens?
You need to consider a variety of factors when making this decision:
- How much time do you have?
- How much yard/land do you have?
- How much money do you have?
- Will you keep your flock over the winter?
To pasture feed your chickens (letting them scratch out a portion of their existence in a larger fenced area) your chickens will still need a safe indoor area for night time protection. But they’ll only need a couple of square feet per bird. The same goes for completely free-range chickens that roam your property at will. Completely confined birds will need two to three times the amount of coop space per bird.
Amish-built chicken coop
Your coop needs to have adequate ventilation, nest boxes, and access (both for the birds and for you to clean it!). Most farm stores sell pre-made, and quite lovely, chicken pens that you can set out directly in your backyard. The chickens can roam from there or you can surround it with fencing so they stay within a set grassy area. If you want to build your own coop Mother Earth has you covered with a simple design that is perfect for keeping just a couple of chickens in your yard or part of your garden. Or you can try a sturdier shed coop. If you plan to keep the chickens over winter than the coop needs to be big enough to keep them inside for longer periods of cold (combs and wattles tend to freeze below about 17 degrees).
Chickens are omnivorous. That means they will eat anything. I do mean anything! Although they don’t seem to be big fans of citrus. For meat birds, use a broiler bird feed mix and allow them access to grass and bugs if you bought a forager breed like the Rangers. To make sure your laying chicks grow well it is advisable to start them on a balanced chick starter/grower food. Once they reach 16 weeks old switch them over to layer/breeder mix.
Packaged chicken food can be purchased at farm stores, some pet stores, and specialty shops. You can buy medicated or un-medicated, non-GMO or standard, no-meat-products or otherwise. It all depends on what matters to you.
Chickens making compost
All chickens benefit from having the ability to peck at grass/weeds and dig for bugs and worms. If at all possible, give them some area of lawn or unused garden to dig in. If you generate even a little bit of food scraps, throw those into a pile in the chicken run. Chickens will peck at the scraps and turn it over and over to create compost for you. If you struggle with stink bugs or Japanese beetles on your plants you can collect and give the bugs to the birds for an exciting treat. Just go out in the early morning with a jar of water and knock the bugs into it. Dump the bugs and water into an open tray in your chicken run. Mmm…mmm…finger-lickin’ good! They’ll disappear in seconds.
It’s Really Quite Easy
Chickens are fun to raise and very entertaining to watch. Eggs from your backyard chickens will be full of nutrients and really fresh. If the birds get grass and bugs, notice how the yolks will be much more golden. You’ll know where your meat came from and how it was raised. Whether you have a little money or a lot, a bit of time on weekends or free afternoons, you can be raising your own delightful mini-flock of chickens this year. Give it a try!
Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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