Ten Commandments for Raising Chickens, Part I

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RANDY KIDD
Back in the nest box, Mom announces another egg.

Chickens are, in my opinion, ideal livestock
critters for the beginning homesteader or backyard farmer.
More and more folks are discovering that raising their own
poultry can provide them with all the fresh eggs they could
ever want –and lots of tasty fried, roasted,
or stewed chicken as well–frequently for a
fraction of the commercial variety’s cost!

What’s more, the homegrown cluckers won’t reach
your dinner table filled with growth stimulators, hormones,
antibiotics, and whatever else goes into storebought
poultry these days. And their eggs will actually be
fresh with rich yellow yolks that stand
right up in the frying pan.

In addition, a backyard flock can provide a good supply of
manure for the compost pile or garden, and you can even use
your friendly fowl for pest control (especially in
the fruit orchard).

And, perhaps most important of all, raising chickens is really pretty
easy. In order to establish your
own flock, you’ll just have to set aside a bit of space,
build a small coop, obtain a few birds, and follow my ten
commandments of poultry care … five of which are given
in the following paragraphs.

I. Recognize Your Market

The kind of chickens you select will depend upon your
purpose in raising them. Today–thanks to the
ingenuity and selective breeding efforts of scientists and
poultry fanciers–the birds are available in all
sizes, shapes, colors, and feather patterns (there’s a
total of 350 different combinations). But generally
speaking, chickens can be divided into four main
classifications: the egg-layers, the meat makers (broilers),
the dual-purpose birds (meat and egg producers),
and the exotic or exhibition breeds.

Each general type of fowl is represented by
various breeds, which in turn comprise several
varieties apiece. Breed is a term used to
categorize a group of individuals whose characteristics can
be passed on to future generations. A va
riety–on the other hand–is a class of birds,
within one breed, that differ from other
varieties
of that breed … usually by only one
characteristic. For example, the Buff Orpington and the
Black Orpington are of the same breed (Orpington),
but are different varieties within that breed (the
differing characteristic in this case is color:
one variety is black, the other is buff).

Egg-laying breeds have been developed specifically
for that single purpose. A good Leghorn (the most common
“egger” breed) will lay 250 to 300 whiteshelled breakfast
treats a year … but don’t expect to use such a
bird as a fat fryer or plump roasting hen. These barnyard
fowl will barely tip the scales at four pounds … no
matter how much you feed them!

Broilers, on the other hand, will often weigh in
excess of eight pounds … and you keep pouring
feed into them, the roosters may reach 17 to 18
pounds. Such tasty grain-peckers can be butchered when they
are anywhere from 5 to 24 weeks old, depending on how much
meat you want from each bird. (In fact, Cornish Game Hens
are nothing more than smallish, five-week-old hens of the
Cornish Rock “broiler” breed.)

The chickens most often found on supermarket fresh meat
counters are probably eight-week-old broiler-type birds,
either male or female. (The roasters that are
displayed in a grocery store’s frozen food case are birds
that were allowed to reach 11 to 15 weeks of age before
being butchered.)

Dual-Purpose breeds fall somewhere between the two
aforementioned groups in size and characteristics.
They will not only lay a goodly number of eggs (about 200
to 250 per year), but will also grow into fairly hefty
birds … weighing five to six pounds when they reach
maturity (within six months).

Exotic or exhibition birds aren’t bred
for egg or meat production specifically. These
fowl are most often unusually colored chickens, decked out
in brilliantly hued costumes of head-to-toe feathers.
They’re primarily show birds and are exhibited in various
“poultry pulchritude” competitions.

II. Build a Good Chicken House

Like most living creatures, a chicken sometimes needs a
place to get in out of the rain, wind, and sunshine.
Besides four walls and a roof, your birds’ coop should have
a roost for the sleepyheads to doze upon (most
bantams won’t use a roost, though) and a secluded
place for the hens to sit while laying their eggs.

Day-old chicks will need about half a square foot of indoor
floor space per bird until they’re about six weeks old.
(The young birds will also need a brooder–either the
hen that hatched them or a heated enclosure–to keep
them warm. Techniques for raising chicks will be discussed
in Part II of this article.) Adults require three square
feet apiece. (If you provide an outdoor run as
well, the “indoor” figure can be cut in half.)

Every bird should have ten inches of roosting space. A limb
that’s about two inches in diameter works well as a perch,
or you can simply round the edges of a length of 2 X 2
board. Place the roosts 24 inches from the floor, spaced 13
to 15 inches apart.

Mama hens need nest boxes to hide in while they’re laying
eggs, so make a number of the simple “open-faced”
shelters–each about 12″square, with a perch in
front–and situate them 24 inches off the floor. (Not
every hen will need a box … one for every four
biddies should be plenty.)

As you build your coop, keep in mind that ventilation and
sanitation are both extremely important. For that
reason, the easier the shelter is to clean, the better.
Always keep plenty of fresh, dry litter on the
floor (there are a number of good inexpensive materials
that can be used, including sawdust, wood chips,
straw, old hay, and leaves).

Several times each year–using a wire
brush–scrub all the roosts, nest boxes,
feeders, and waterers with a solution of one tablespoon
chlorine bleach per gallon of water. [EDITOR’S NOTE: There
are differing opinions as to how frequently a chicken house
ought to be cleaned. Some sources even suggest that a coop
should never be completely emptied of droppings, as the
biological activity generated in soiled litter is helpful
to the chickens, and may prevent cannibalism. Let your own
judgment be your guide, but never allow the coop to
become obviously dirty!]
You’ll find your cleaning chores
easier if you put a shallow wire-covered pit beneath the
roosts. (Use a scrap wood frame covered with 1/2″ wire mesh
for the “lid.”) The pit will act as an easily cleaned
collector for droppings, which can then go directly
into the compost pile.

A portable coop (that is, a shelter on wheels)
will enable your poultry to serve more than one function … because, with a movable house, it’ll be easy
to transport the chickens to a fresh “pasture” every week
or so. On each site, the birds will scratch and dig and eat many of the pests that are getting ready to attack
your garden. Then–after they feast on greens and
bugs–the hens will deposit a layer of fresh soil
fertilizer. So, in essence, the birds act as miniature farm
implements. They remove weeds, turn the earth, kill the
bugs, and fertilize the soil!

Of course, if you have the space, it’s possible to let your
feathered friends “run the range.” Free-roaming birds are
able–by choosing their fare everyday –to
balance their own diets. (And giving them the run of some
pastureland is certainly easier on your budget than having
to purchase all their food. However, most “range” chickens
need to have their diets supplemented with commercial feed
containing 5 to 15% protein.)

Furthermore, unconfined birds can take daily dust baths, which will help keep the critters free of mites. One word
of caution, though: Roamers can be active and aggressive
garden destroyers. They’ll love all your
succulent, newly emerged seedlings. So either fence your
chickens’ pasture in, or fence the birds out of
your garden!

And while you’re building enclosures, keep in mind that
you’ll need to provide some kind of protection from
predators. Make your range fencing–and the
coop–rat-proof, and strong enough to restrain roaming dogs,
raccoons, coyotes, and other possible predators. (A
two-foot-wide band of small-mesh welded wire, secured to
the lower portion of the chicken wire fence and extending a
good six inches underground, should do the job.)

III. Know What Normal Looks and Feels Like

A healthy, normal chicken is bright-eyed, alert, and
active. If you spend some time with healthy chickens,
you’ll soon be convinced that they’re smarter and cuter
than most humans!

In contrast, a sickly bird will have dull and
expressionless eyes, and will sit with head drooping and
feathers fluffed out. (A hen that’s “broody”–that is,
one that either is trying to hatch eggs or thinks
she is–will often look about the same. It’ll take a
little time to learn how to recognize which chicken
“symptom” is which.)

IV. Buy Only the Best!

There are several ways to purchase chickens. Your situation
will likely determine how you choose to start your
flock.

Most folks get started by buying day-old chicks and raising
them at home. The babies can be bought in batches of 25,
and you can purchase sexed chickens (all roosters
or all hens … depending on whether you want meat or
eggs) or–if you don’t particularly care about the
gender of the birds–“straight runs.” (These are sold
just as they come out of the eggs, at about a one-to-one
ratio of males and females.)

Sexed chicks will cost around twice as much as do straight
runs. Of course–as always–prices will vary from
area to area and from breed to breed. (I’ve seen sexed
chicks costing anywhere from 35¢ to 75¢ a bird.)
But young roosters of egglaying breeds
should cost next to nothing … five cents each is more
than they are worth to most poultry raisers.

If you’d prefer not to raise the chicks yourself,
it’s possible to purchase older birds that’ll be ready to
lay eggs a few weeks after you receive them. These
pullets, as they’re called,
are usually from 18 to 20 weeks old and will cost five or
six times as much as will straight-run chicks. (You can
probably figure on paying $2.00 to $3.00 per hen.)

It might also be worth your while to purchase mature hens
from other raisers. Older biddies won’t cost much, because
they’ll likely be past their egg-laying prime and therefore
aren’t considered very valuable. In our area, such hens run
from 50¢ to $1.50 a head.

V. Be Aware of the Chickens’ Cycles

An egg-laying chicken has only one year of peak egg
production. After that 12-month period, she’ll molt, (lose
her feathers) and stop producing. In about six to eight
weeks the hen will regrow her plumage and begin to
lay again, but the number of eggs will be at least 10%
lower than during her first year. Keeping in mind that a
non-producing chicken will cost you almost as much time and
money as will a good layer, you’ll probably want to
consider managing your flock in the following manner:

In the spring, purchase a batch of day-old, dual-purpose
chicks (straight run). When the young’uns reach 20 to 24
weeks of age, you can butcher the roosters and expect the
hens to begin laying.

Then, the following spring, buy a
replacement batch of day-old, dual-purpose babies
and begin again. (Because many commercial breeds are
hybrids, it’s usually best not to attempt to hatch your own
stock’s eggs. )

During that second (and each succeeding) year, when the
time comes to kill your 20- to 24-week-old roosters, you
can butcher the previous season’s hens (for
stewing purposes) as well! And by the time you’ve put the
roosters and old hens in your freezer, the remaining
young biddies will be about to begin
their laying duties.

A good hen, in peak egg production, will lay about once
every 30 hours. She’ll produce best, however, when
she’s exposed to 14 daily hours of daylight. So in the
fall–when the sunshine hours decrease and egg
production tapers off–you can keep that hen fruit
rolling in by setting up an inexpensive light timer, to
keep the coop bright for the recommended 14 hours per day.

All in all, keeping a backyard flock of rooster(s) and hens
can be a very rewarding experience. You’ll be .treated to
fresh, wholesome food and the opportunity to watch the
often fascinating social interaction of your birds. And if
you keep a rooster around (it isn’t necessary to do so to
get eggs, but having one of the old boys in the coop does
seem to lend an air of completeness to the flock),
you –and your (we hope) tolerant
neighbors–will be treated to the early morning
crowing chorus that has wakened humankind for centuries!