Wednesday, January 9, 2013

How To Get Started With Chickens - 10 Tips for Success

One of my favorite parts about living in the country are my backyard chickens. I have been through 2 coops, numerous coop renovations, breeds and have learned a lot in the process. If you are looking for a place to start, this is a great time of year to begin preparing and researching the best way to build your own backyard flock.

So, why keep your own chickens? Well, if the cost of eggs and meat are not enough of an incentive, think about the difference between raising your own birds and buying from someone else.

If we are what we eat, what are your chickens eating? See the yolk on the right? Don't be alarmed. That is perfectly normal. It is a healthy, beautiful and fresh egg. All the fresh plant material and insects make for healthy hens that lay amazing eggs. The one on the left is pale, weak and purchased from the store.

In the past I was frustrated with egg recalls, rising prices and eggs that were not so fresh. Most eggs take a week to 10 days from farm (or plant) to store shelves. My baked goods come out amazing and the only drawback I have found has been peeling those fresh hard boiled eggs. Older eggs peel easier, so I reserve a few specifically to boil.

Okay, are you sold, yet?

Okay, let's get started.

Tip #1 - Check the zoning in your area if you live within city limits. More and more areas are allowing backyard coops, but there may be restrictions on roosters or flock size. You can be fined or forced to get rid of your birds - this is not always easy to do quickly. If you live in the country this shouldn't be a problem, but you might give your neighbors a heads-up if you plan on keeping roosters (I ended up with 7!).

Tip #2 - Know your environment. This applies to everyone. If you live in the country, do you have a lot of raccoon, fox, skunks, or other unwanted critters hanging around? This will change how you build your coop. Some folks even fence in large runs (top and sides) to provide safe places from predatory birds and other animals looking for an easy meal.

If you live in the city you are not off the hook. Are there a lot of stray animals or predators in your neighborhood? I have seen first-hand how much damage a feral cat or loose dog can wreak on backyard birds.

If you are worried, use stronger gauge chicken wire, sink it down into the ground, nail trim over rough edges of wire to prevent animals from getting in, etc.

We have a lot of predators out here. I have made sure my coop is secure and I have small, well ventilated runs available if my hens need added protection. I also make sure I have extra hens in my flock. Part of life out here is losing a bird or two a year. It just happens. But, I don't let it decimate my hen house.

Tip #3 - Do your research. This applies to both your coop design and the birds you choose for your flock.

You can find many online coop designs to build your own, or even buy one from your local feed store. The latter is more expensive and the set-ups are often small, but it is an easy way to get started. My husband built both our coops and as my understanding of the birds grew, my desires for housing changed.

As for birds, think about why you want chickens. If you are looking to add some natural pest control to your backyard, any breed will do. If you want a good laying hen there are several breeds prized for their egg production. The Buff Orphington, pictured above, is a well respected layer. These hens lay almost every day and began to lay at a younger age. They produce a beautiful brown egg.

Most of my laying hens are more business than friendly so this past year I ordered  a trio of Cochin hens, one pictured below, which were more lap-pets in China. They are fluffy, friendly and are full of personality, but they are not known for being productive. This little lady is more of a pet than anything else.

Tip #4 - Build for ease and cleanliness. The first coop I had was hard to get into and clean, so the second version is pictured above. It is a cupboard style with two levels of nest boxes. This is much easier for me to open, clean and collect eggs from. It is also divided in half with the option of keeping two sides separate. This is handy for a new batch of young girls, or if you have some sick or injured birds that need to be quarantined. Chickens do have a pecking order and younger or weak birds often get pecked or plucked if they don't have a safe place to go. As the birds mature I slowly introduce them into the big group and things eventually settle down.

If you build a walk-in style coop, make sure you add plenty of ventilation. No one wants to inhale the dust as they scrape out their coop.

I also love the coops that allow for egg collection outside of the hen house. My only word of warning is, some hens will lay anywhere! Which means you might still have random eggs show up in a corner on the floor, etc. Some hens just don't make good brooders.

Always have a roost somewhere for hens or roosters to sit off the floor. This allows them to stay out of dirty nest boxes or broken eggs.

Tip #5 - Use Diatomaceous Earth inside your coop. You can find it online, at garden stores or at your local feed store. It is a natural pest deterrent and will help to dry out droppings. I sprinkle a little in the nest boxes and on the floor of the coop, then cover with wood shavings. It keeps things amazingly clean. I used to use straw in the boxes, but the dropping never dried out and just smeared. Diatomaceous Earth can also be mixed with water and "white-washed" inside the coop walls to keep away mites and other chicken pests.

This truly is my secret for having clean eggs and healthy birds. A little goes a long way, so don't be put off by the price. A $20 bag will keep my coop clean for around 3 months. By using this I have cut down on the amount of time I spend cleaning my coop and nest boxes daily.

Tip #6 - Buy from a reputable seller. Of course you can always find free chicks from ads,  neighbors, etc., but I like to buy my birds from our local feed stores or even mail order. Usually they will have a limited guarantee in case there is something wrong with a chick.

You can also buy pullets from these stores - female chicks. Though it is not 100% accurate, the chick sexing will keep you from coming home with an entire box of baby roosters. Sometimes the price is a bit higher, but worth it.

My local Co-op and feed store both carry common breeds of chicks. In order to find the Buff Orphington and other varieties I wanted this past Spring though, I ordered from a hatchery in Texas, Ideal Poultry. They didn't have a minimum order. Most mail order places ask you to buy 25+ birds, which is a lot. Go in with a friend, or try to find a place like this that allows you to buy as you need. I had great success and only lost one bird, several weeks after arriving.

Tip #7 - Buy more hens than you need. How many hens would you like to have? I like to keep around 10 hens. This gives me plenty of eggs with some extra to give away to family. Does that sound like too many?

Not all hens will lay an egg every day. For 10 hens I would expect to get between 6-9 eggs a day during the Summer. Some eggs may end up getting cracked, and some hens may produce less than others. Hens lay the most eggs during the months with the longest daylight hours.

In the Fall and early Winter, birds that are over a year old will molt, or loose their feathers and grow in new ones. During the molt the hens will produce less eggs and some will stop laying completely. All of their energy is going into those new feathers that will keep them warm, dry and healthy over the cold Winter months.

Do you see where I am going with this?

There seems to be no shortage of people who would love to buy fresh eggs, but it is hard when you have a backyard full of chickens and not enough eggs to feed your family. I tend to run into this problem over the holidays when I have the greatest need for fresh eggs.

Also don't forget about predators and illness. Seems like every year I have lost a couple of birds to foxes or other pests in the area. Since most feed stores don't carry chicks all-year round and mail order hatcheries won't ship when the weather is too cold, that could leave you with no hens in your hen house. That happened to me one year and I vowed to be better prepared. So I always have a few more than I really need and our friends know where to come for great eggs!

Tip #8 - There is more to eggs than color. There seems to be an idea floating around that brown eggs are better than white. Did you know it is just the breed that determines egg color and size? Nutritionally they are no different inside the shell. But of course the brown eggs cost more at the Supermarket.

All of my hens from the Barred Rock to the Buff Orphington lay tan to brown eggs. There are even some hens that will lay green, chocolate brown or blue eggs. It can be fun, but don't get hung up on the color of the shells.

Tip #9 - Seek Local Knowledge. There will come a time when you have a chicken question, problem or concern. The best reference is to connect with local resources. Now, there is nothing wrong with the internet, but you might be surprised how much first-hand knowledge is available in your community.

Try the local feed store, Co-op, Extension Office, or local poultry clubs in your area. Sometimes illnesses or known outbreaks might be going around in a specific region, talking with knowledgeable locals can save you a headache later. Of course, this is also a great connection for getting started with your birds. Don't be shy and ask around.

Tip #10 - Keep on eye on your flock. The best way to prevent problems is to notice things early. I usually note if a hen is acting differently, not eating or is hurt. There are simple antibiotics you can use to treat problems, but it is best to catch them early and prevent problems from spreading.

I also do a coop check every evening when I close up my hen house. I walk around and look for piles of feathers, tears in the chicken wire or signs that predators have been around. Many predators will stalk their prey for a while, so you might even be able to thwart a future attack.

One night we returned home from dinner and a few of my hens were on the back porch. My girls usually go into their house and to bed without problems, so I was puzzled. As I went out into the chicken yard there were hens on the fence and hens in our apple tree! They acted very stressed. I called for my husband to help and we discovered there was still a fox in our chicken coop! Our rooster had it penned into a corner. If I hadn't noticed all the hens on the porch, I probably would have gone inside and taken care of my children first. Who knows how many hens I would have lost. Fortunately I only only lost one that night.

Well, I hope that helps you get started with your own backyard chickens and gives you some things to think about. I have used my hens for eggs for the past several years. We recently had a new processor open up near us and so this next year I hope to raise a small batch of birds just for meat. I am currently researching which breed I want to try. And no, we will not be eating any of my beloved layers!

What are your backyard plans? Will you be putting up a coop this Spring?
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