Raising Chickens : Learning As We Go
We love our chickens!
Our First Flock
We got our first flock of chickens from parents of a friend of ours. They were young bantam chickens. There were seven all together including a white hen. The white hen was in poor condition on account of their rooster being too fond of her, if you know what I mean.
As the young chickens grew, the white hen, who we named Louie, was getting her feathers back and looking so pretty. She even had feathers on her feet. It almost looked like she was wearing slippers. Louie was my favorite. Since she was still working on getting her feathers back, she could not make it onto the roost at night. Instead she made a little nest in the shavings on the ground.
Which brings me to the next topic, predators. I cried over a chicken! I know that sounds stupid, especially because we eat chicken almost every week! What happened? Well, this was our first loss due to a predator. We were out of town for ONE night. We left the pet door open and mistakenly assumed the chickens would be safe in the run. We were wrong. We came home to find our beloved Louie, nothing left of her but a pile of feathers. I was heart broken! I kept thinking about her horrible death. Again, we eat chicken! Somehow this was different. Um, and just between you and me, the boys still think she ran away. I didn't have the heart to tell them!
Watch out for the hawks! I found one of our chickens (George) with a hawk on top of her (yes, George was a girl) biting at her with its sharp beak. I was able to scare the hawk away. He didn't go far though and flew to a tree nearby, keeping an eye on his meal. I got a towel and scooped up George. She was alive but in shock and seemed to be comforted with me holding her. I let her calm down before I examined her. Unfortunately the damage from the hawk's talons was too much. Since then we've had many predators TRY to make a tasty meal out of our chickens. I even had a hawk dive after a chicken right in front of me! And we've had a opossum make himself at home in the coop.
When you raise farm animals you will most likely deal with injuries. You have two options when this happens. George was so badly injured we decided to put her down and end her suffering. We've had a couple more that had injuries that they could not recover from. This is not something that we like to do, but part of raising livestock.
Pasture Raised Method
We open up the coop at 7:30 am and let the chickens out. They are free to roam our acreage from sun up to sun down. They often roll in the dirt under the evergreen tree. On hot days you'll find them under the deck cooling off in the shade. They eat lots of plants and bugs. They love raspberry season and even jump up in the air to get them. In the evening they make their way back to the coop for bedtime.
Adding To The Flock
We added a couple rhode island reds and four goldstar sex links to the original flock we had. We kept them separate, but allowed them to see each other. We did this for 4-5 days. Then one night we put them in the coop with the rest of the flock. When you put them in at night, they don't notice that there are different/new chickens sitting right next to them. The next morning when they wake up you may have a little pecking, but that is to be expected with all chickens. There truly is a pecking order and it's only natural for them to establish that. If you have a big run or free range or pasture raise your chickens, the ones being pecked will be able to get away before getting injured. We later added 6 new chicks and did this same method and added them to the flock when they were about the same size as the other hens.
Every year the feed store has a ton of chicks for sale. I've always wanted a barred rock. They are the big, beautiful black and white chickens you see in pictures and décor. I grabbed four. I liked them so much I went back the following Monday and grabbed two more. This time I got a black sex link and a rhode island red. I almost grabbed a couple ducks too. Maybe next year.
I used a large plastic tote and filled the bottom with shavings. We also used a small feeder and waterer, chick feed, chick grit, antibiotic powder and a heat lamp. I positioned the heat lamp over the bin in one corner so the chicks had an area to cool off if they wanted. I watched them for awhile to see if I needed to raise or lower the heat lamp. If they all went to the area to cool off, I needed to raise it and so on. Each week we raised the heat lamp by about 6 inches.
Chicks are messy. I changed the shavings out about once a week. They spill food and water everywhere. They also scratch like adult chickens, which is so cute, but it stirs up a lot of dust.
They grow so fast!! I originally did not have anything covering the tote. It wasn't long before they were jumping out of it! I had some plastic netting that I placed over the top to keep them from escaping.
At around 4 weeks when they all had feathers and the weather had warmed up we put them outside in their new coop, which was nice and cozy. We moved the heat lamp to the new coop also. I was happy to have them out of my house! You can see their little yellow coop here. They lived there for about two months, then we added them to big coop with the rest of the group. To see more about what you need for a coop, click here.
Chickens eat a variety of things. Bugs, grass, berries, plants, gravel. They also eat feed. We like the pellets better than the crumbles. You can go to any feed store and pick up chicken food. Just make sure to get the kind that is for your type of chickens. You can also feed them treats. We feed them all types of table scraps. They love corn, peas, tomatoes, even meat. Just don't feed them anything with onion or garlic. It will make the eggs taste bad!
For feeders we used a heated waterer in the winter and regular plastic ones in the summer.
If your chickens are kept in a run, you'll need to add chicken grit to their food. This helps them digest their food.
You do not have to have a rooster for you hens to lay eggs. So if you would prefer not to have one, you don't have to. Can you have more than one rooster and will they get along? We have two roosters. No, they do not get along. In fact, once they are out of the coop, Bob, the bantam rooster goes off with his flock and Bobby, the giant barred rock goes off with his. Sometimes they will come together to eat, but they mostly stay apart. I mentioned before a pecking order. Bob, although he is a little guy, is the boss of everyone. His behavior is very different from Bobby. When we toss out treats, Bob will always alert his hens and not take anything for himself. Bobby fights his hens for a piece. What a classy guy.
We enjoy having both roosters. We like hearing them crow, which is another thing. They don't just grow in the morning. They crow all day long. I would probably not have more than two though. And the only reason we have two is because two of the six chicks we got turned out to be roosters. We sold one, but the other guy was so pretty we kept him.
How often do they lay? It depends on they type of chicken, weather, daylight, molting, a variety of things. We have some that lay almost every day, some every other day. With 9 hens we get 6-8 eggs per day. Hens don't start laying until they are around 18 weeks old. When they first start laying the eggs are small but will get larger as the chicken grows. Our gold star sex links are egg laying machines! They lay almost every day and have huge eggs! Farm fresh eggs are so much better than store eggs. Also, if you are paying more for labels like Vegetarian, Cage Free, Free Range, you should do some research on what those labels really mean. Chickens are natural omnivors for one. Seriously, do the research. Or support your local farmer and purchase eggs directly from them. Believe me, they will be much fresher and have a lot more flavor than anything you buy at the store.
There are farmers and hatcheries that trim the beaks of the chickens. Sometimes, when this is done, the beak does not grow back. I understand why they do this, but do not agree with it. I think it disfigures the chicken and makes it harder for it to peck around and eat and drink. Some of our chickens came to us that way. One of our hens was trimmed so much that she barely has a top beak. We've never trimmed beaks.
Children and Chickens
Our kids have really enjoyed this experience. It has taught them about respect, responsibility and the circle of life. They enjoy helping with chores. They love to gather eggs and feed them treats. My only regret is that we didn't start raising them sooner.