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There is a huge backyard chicken movement sweeping the country. It seems everyone now is raising chickens! And for good reason. Chickens are awesome! There is so much advice and differing opinions on how to best care for the little fluffy butts. Do you want to raise chickens but don’t know where to start? I have some helpful advice for you, all right here in one place!
I have been raising chickens the whole time I’ve had my little homestead, and I’m beginning to really love them. Since getting them, I have been asked so many questions about chickens. I decided I needed to write a post about the things that new chicken owners need to know. If you’re adding chicks, you should check out my post about raising chicks here.
I will be the first to admit that I’m a little hooked on chickens right now. Maybe I’ve got chick fever, or I’ve just turned into a crazy chicken lady, or whatever, but I have added about 50 chicks and 30 ducklings to my farm this spring! Of course, I’m not keeping all of them. I have decided to start selling chicks and young chickens as a source of supplemental income. And my original 14 hens are getting into their 2nd and 3rd year, so they’re not laying as much as they used to. So of course I had to get new layers…..and a couple new rare breeds to sell! I got Buff Orpingtons for new layers, and Lavender Ameraucanas and Deathlayers to breed. Oh, and some Jersey Giants….and some Australorps for really cheap to resell! The Hubs is really starting to think I AM a crazy chicken lady! Good thing he’s still out of town so my “secret” is somewhat safe..for now!
Raising chickens isn’t difficult, but there are some things that you need to know to be successful. Here are some things that first time chicken owners must know.
Raising Chickens – Q&A
Do chickens need a rooster to lay eggs?
No, this isn’t a stupid question. There are no stupid questions with chickens! A hen will lay an egg with or without a rooster, but if you want fertile eggs that you can hatch babies from, you need a rooster. Think of it as a woman’s cycle. She cycles year-round, with or without a man. Same thing with a hen. Not all chicken keepers decide to have (or allowed to have) a rooster around, but they do have some advantages. Roosters help take care of their hens. They are great protectors, and will show their “girls” where some delicious food is. I have heard of roosters chasing hawks away from their hens!
What’s the difference between white and colored eggs?
Chicken eggs come in all different colors, from your standard white, to brown, blue, or green. Some even have a pinkish hue to them! All chicken eggs should taste the same, though, and there is really no difference in them. Some people make the mistake of thinking that farm fresh eggs are brown, and that white ones aren’t farm fresh. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! Egg color is determined by the chickens’ breed. Chickens such as Leghorns lay white eggs, Barred Rocks lay light brown, Marans lay dark brown, and Ameraucanas lay blue eggs.
Are fertilized eggs okay to eat?
If you do have a rooster and you get fertilized eggs, they are still perfectly fine to eat. You probably won’t even notice! A fertilized egg only has a little white spot in the center. The eggs you buy from the store are never fertilized, but if you have had farm fresh eggs, chances are, you’ve eaten a fertilized egg without even knowing!
Do eggs have to be refrigerated?
Unwashed farm fresh eggs don’t have to be refrigerated. When an egg is laid, it has a protective coating on it that’s called the bloom. If this bloom isn’t washed off, fresh eggs can safely sit on the counter at room temperature for up to 2 months. Some say even longer! Of course it’s not a good idea to have them in a very hot location, but normal room temperature is fine. In most countries besides the U.S., eggs are never washed. I don’t wash my eggs. If they are washed, however, they need to go in the fridge. All store-bought eggs in the U.S. have been washed, so they need to be refrigerated. These eggs are often as old as a month or two before they even get to you!
How long do chickens lay eggs?
Although chickens can live for 10 years or more, they really only lay eggs for the first 3-5 years. After that, their egg production goes significantly down, or even stops altogether. New chicken owners need to think about that when getting chickens. What will you do when they stop laying eggs? Some people fall in love with them and keep them for the remainder of their years. Others just deem it not cost-effective to continue to feed chickens that don’t lay. I’m in the second group. But I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who just keeps old hens around as pets! Just for my family, we need our animals to serve a purpose. We just can’t afford to feed animals that don’t give back.
What causes egg production to drop?
When raising chickens for eggs, you will find that some times of the year are more productive than others. New chicken keepers often question what they are doing wrong that has made their chickens stop laying. Sometimes it has nothing to do with what the owner is doing or not doing. There is a lot that goes into egg laying, which would also be good for a future post. But here is the basics.
Reduced heat and light
Most chickens lay much less, or stop completely, in the wintertime. Part of it is that in the cold, the chickens devote more of their energy into staying warm. Another, and probably bigger reason, is less daylight hours. Chickens need 14-15 hours of light every day to stimulate egg laying. If they get less than that, their “baby clock” tells them that it’s not a good time to have babies. So they usually stop laying. There are two ways of dealing with this. One, you can just let your hens have a break during the winter months. Just make sure you stock up on eggs when they are laying well, or be prepared to buy eggs! Two, you can try to get your girls to still lay. They will need a light, and you will need to make sure they get enough protein in their feed. Most people supplement with mealworms, suet cakes, and corn.
After their first winter (so around a year and a half old), chickens will naturally molt once a year. Molting is the process of losing the old feathers and growing new ones. Chickens who are molting look like they’ve been beat up. They’ll be missing feathers all over the place. They also don’t usually lay eggs while they’re molting, since they need to devote more of their energy into making new feathers. Molting usually happens in the fall, with most of the feathers generally growing back before the cold of winter sets in.
You can help your chickens through molt by giving them more protein. Mealworms are a popular choice for chickens, so people love to treat their hens to those a lot during molting. Feather Fixer is also a good layer feed to give during molt. It has increased protein and added nutrients to help your girls through molt. Many people, including me, even supplement their chickens’ feed with dry cat food. It has up to 30% protein so it shouldn’t be the sole food, but it is good as an addition.
Sometimes chickens decide that they want to hatch eggs, which is known as being broody. It’s a hormonal thing. Much like a woman with baby fever. Broody hens stop laying. They will stay in the nest box for days on end, rarely even coming out for food or water. They keep a stash of eggs under them, and will take other chickens’ eggs. It is their instinct to sit on the eggs to keep them warm. They will do this whether the eggs are fertilized or not. And they will turn the eggs up to 50 times a day!
You will know when you have a broody hen. She will be in the nesting box almost all the time. When you try to move her from the nest, or even get very close to her, she will growl at you like a Pterodactyl! There are few things you can do for a broody hen. One, is you can just let her be if she has fertilized eggs under her. She will happily sit on them for the 21 days until they hatch, and then she’ll be one proud mama when she hatches those little fluff balls. The second option is to try to break her of her broodiness. The best way to do this is by putting the broody hen in a wire cage that is raised off the ground, for several days. The idea here is to lower the temperature of her underside. There are other ways of doing this but I have never had to break a broody hen so I won’t cover that. Almost all of our eggs are fertilized, so when I have a broody hen, I let her go for it!
Do chickens need heat in the winter?
Adult chickens don’t need heat in the winter, unless it’s EXTREMELY cold (in the Fahrenheit negatives). In fact, there have been so many coop fires due to people putting heat lamps in their coops. Some breeds are more cold hardy than others, but most chickens are generally just fine in unheated coops. Make sure that your coop is ventilated but not drafty. Vents should be close to the top of the coop, not under the chickens.
I also use the deep litter method for bedding in my chicken coop. It keeps the coop smelling fresh (as long as it doesn’t get too wet), and actually adds some heat to the coop from decomposition of the bedding. I like to think of deep litter like composting in the chicken coop. Pine shavings are the best to use in the coop, and are relatively inexpensive. I use about a half a bag (that I buy for $5 at Tractor Supply) every two weeks to freshen the bedding. I don’t scoop poop! It just gets mixed into the rest of the bedding. I only clean the coop out twice or three times a year. You can read more about the deep litter method here.
Is chicken manure good fertilizer?
Chicken manure is a great fertilizer, but it is considered a “hot manure”. Because of the high nitrogen content in it, chicken manure can and will actually burn your plants if you don’t compost it first. That’s where the deep litter method comes in, again!
When I do a thorough coop clean-out twice a year or so, all of the used bedding goes into a pile to compost. I don’t use a composter or a cage. I simply make a pile about 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Water it occasionally, and turn it at least once a week. After a few months, I have great compost for the garden. If you need your compost sooner, turn the pile more frequently, and put a tarp over the pile to hold in the heat. The heat that the decomposing material creates is what breaks down the compost faster. Keep it damp, keep it hot, and keep turning it, and you could actually get great compost within a month.
Getting Started with Raising Chickens
First, you need to decide what you want to raise chickens for. Do you want eggs? Meat? Both? It’s also perfectly fine if you just want chickens as pets! Once you know why you want chickens, then you should do your research on what kind or kinds of chickens you want. Different breeds are for different purposes.
There are heritage breeds, which are the traditional breeds that were raised by our forefathers. Heritage breeds typically lay a good amount of eggs, for a longer period of their lives. They usually mature more slowly, but live long, productive lives. Heritage breeds breed “true”, which means that the traits (size, color, egg color, etc.) of the chicken carry on to her chicks, and her chicks’ chicks, and her chicks’ chicks’ chicks. Of course this is only if you breed your chicken to a rooster of the same heritage breed. Examples of heritage breeds are Orpington, Rhode Island Red, and Barred Rock. If you want to know more about heritage chickens, this is a great article by The Frugal Chicken.
Hybrid chickens are a newer development. These breeds have been developed since 1950 through the result of cross breeding different heritage breeds into a new breed that has the desired characteristics that the breeder was looking for. Most of these hybrids are known for their stellar egg production, but some hybrids are for meat production.
Please note: these are not the same as “barnyard mixes”, which are really just mutts. Hybrids are a specific breed that breeders have selectively developed for their particular qualities. Egg-laying hybrids can lay over 280 eggs per year, but for a shorter period than the heritage breeds. Most hybrids are done laying by the time they are 3 years old. They are also usually cheaper, which makes them a good choice for beginners wanting lots of eggs from their chickens. Examples of hybrid laying chickens are Golden Comet, ISA Brown, and Red Sex-Link. Hybrid meat chickens include Cornish Cross and Red Ranger.
Dual purpose chickens
Some chicken breeds are known as “dual purpose”, which means that they are good for laying eggs, but are also big, meaty birds. Dual purpose chickens are the type that our grandparents raised. These types of chicken are very beneficial, and have many advantages on the homestead. The small homesteader can raise these types of chickens and have both eggs and meat taken care of for their family. If you choose to hatch eggs from these chickens, you will of course get about a 50-50 mix of cockerels and pullets. Most people don’t like to keep cockerels, so these can be butchered when they are big enough. The pullets are then raised to maturity, allowed to lay for at least their prime egg producing years, then they can be used for meat.
This way of raising chickens is the most efficient way for the small homesteading family. Keep in mind that older chickens tend to be much tougher and have a stronger flavor. So older chickens aren’t normally roasting birds. You can pressure cook them to make them more tender, or you can stew them and make some lovely broth or chicken soup. Examples of dual purpose chickens are Barred Rock, Orpington, and Wyandotte.
It is super important to do your research before getting your chickens. If you want lots of eggs, you will be very disappointed if you get a Sultan or a Houdan. And if you want big or at least standard size eggs, don’t get bantams!
I promise you, when you get into researching chicken breeds, you will find yourself in a rabbit hole of information. You’ll probably change your mind a few times on what breed you want. Just try to narrow it down to a few of the best choices for your family. And there’s also nothing wrong with getting a mixed flock, with different breeds!
Second, you need to decide how you want to acquire your birds. You can try to find mature, already laying birds, or you can get chicks. If you decide to get chicks, you need to check out this article. You can usually find chicks at your local feed store or hatchery, or you can order them online. If you want adults, you may not be able to be as picky on the breeds you want, since it’s harder to find people who will give up their good laying hens. Look on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist for people selling or giving away their adult chickens.
Third, make sure you have everything ready for them before you bring home your new chickens. If you are getting chicks, you can of course buy, build, or set up your coop as they are growing. But if you are getting adults, you want to have their living situation already figured out before you bring them home.
Bringing adult chickens to a new home is very stressful for them, and you want to make the transition as easy as you can. Most chickens will stop laying when they are moved to a new home. Our first chickens didn’t lay for almost a month when we got them. We thought we bought duds! Then we found out that it is extremely common for well-laying, adult chickens to stop laying eggs for up to several weeks after a move. The more prepared you are for raising chickens, and the more comfortable you can make them, the quicker they will resume laying for you.
Raising Chickens – Basic Needs
Chickens need a secure coop to protect them from predators and the elements. The coop should be an enclosed structure with some form of ventilation (preferably near the top of the coop) and at least a chicken-sized door that leads to the run. A coop should have at least 2 square feet of space per chicken, and for ease of cleaning, it should be taller than you and have a big enough door for you to go into.
- Roosting bars. Chickens like to roost (sleep) up off the floor, so the coop needs roosting bars. You should allow for 10 inches of horizontal space per chicken on the roosting bar. Some chickens like to roost higher than others, but as a basic rule, the bars should be about 2 feet off the ground. The best roosting bars in my opinion are 2X4’s, set with the wide side facing up. Chickens don’t like to curl their toes around a round bar like other birds. Plus, if they can lay their feet flat on the board, they can more easily sit on their feet, which protects them from frostbite when it’s cold.
Nesting boxes. Hens also need nesting boxes in which to lay their eggs. For most standard size layers, a 12 inch cube is sufficient. Of course if you have bigger hens, you need bigger boxes. There should be at least one nesting box for every 3 to 4 hens, but don’t be surprised if they pick just one or two favorite boxes. Make sure the nest boxes are placed lower than the roosting bars. Chickens love to perch on the highest spot, and you don’t want them perching and pooping on the nest boxes.
- Bedding. There is much debate on the ideal bedding for chickens. From my experience, and through lots of advice from seasoned chicken keepers, this is what I suggest. Pine shavings is ideal in an enclosed coop. Lots of people use straw, but straw tends to stay wet and harbors mold, mites, and lice. I like to use fine pine shavings, and use the deep litter method year-round. Barn lime is good to use occasionally to help dry up bedding and keep it fresh. Barn lime helps neutralize any ammonia odor that may build up in the coop. Use a shovel or pitchfork to fluff up the bedding at least every week, and add fresh shavings when it is too damp or needs refreshing. My coop doesn’t smell, and it’s very minimal work. Like a half hour every week! If you would like to learn more about the deep litter method, check out my post here.
When raising chickens, the run is a secure area where the chickens can get sunlight and forage for bugs. A chicken run should have at least 8 square feet per chicken, but more is always better. A run helps to keep your birds safe from predators. Chicken wire is usually attached to a basic frame, as chicken wire is one of the most inexpensive materials for a run.
If you have a high predator load in your area, however, chicken wire may not be sufficient. Raccoons can reach through and grab your chickens, weasels and mink may be able to squeeze through, and bears will just destroy a simple chicken wire run. If this is the case for you, you may have to spring for hardware cloth.
A secure, well-built chicken run should also have some kind of top on it to protect from aerial predators like hawks and owls. You can just do plain chicken wire, but I would actually suggest wire, then some sort of rain-proof covering such as a tarp. This will help keep the run from becoming a muddy, mucky mess.
If you put the “roof” at an angle, or even better, a curve, the rainwater won’t build up on the tarp and make it sag and drip. I have seen people use a cattle panel or two, bent into an upside-down U shape, with a tarp on the top part of the curve. This seems to be very effective, and I will be using this method for at least one of my breeding runs.
Please note, I do not suggest pine shavings in an uncovered run. If there isn’t a roof over it, the pine shavings will get and stay wet and nasty. It is nearly impossible to fluff it up, and it can collect mold and stink. It’s also lots of work after the shavings get saturated. They get very heavy and are difficult to clean up.
I like to have perches in my run as well, and like to have more shade available to them. You can use shade cloth or tarps for a quick solution. If you have more time, it may be a good idea to plant bushes around the run, or vines to climb it. I am going to experiment with growing hops on my main chicken run.
It is nearly futile to try to grow bushes, plants, or grass in the chicken run. Chickens like to pick at greenery and dig in the dirt under it, so they don’t usually stand a chance.
I have seen people build a shallow box with wire on top, that they plant grass or herbs in, inside the run. This box protects the plants while they are growing. When the plants get tall enough that they poke through the wire on top, the chickens can enjoy some nibbles. But they can’t mess with the seeds or the soil underneath while it is growing. This is something that I will do in the future.
Some people prefer to free-range their chickens, and I fit into that category too (much to the displeasure of The Hubs) . Free-ranging isn’t always an option, for one reason or another. I have been lucky enough with a lack of predators that I have been able to free-range my chickens. I will note, however, that I have lost a few to something, I think probably owls. The only chickens that I have lost this way have been the ones that refuse to sleep in the coop. So if you do choose to free-range, you should definitely make sure that all the chickens go into the coop at night. Some chickens just don’t seem to get it right away, and you may have to carry them into the coop yourself every night for a while.
Food and water
There is so many feed choices and options when raising chickens. Pellets, crumbles, non-GMO, chick starter, grower feed, layer feed, mash, medicated, fermented, sprouted, the list goes on and on! It’s enough to make your head spin! There’s enough variety that it could be a blog post in itself. For now, I’m going to just focus on the basics. I might expand later. 😉
Chicks 6 weeks and under should have chick starter. Starter is usually smaller, finer crumbles that are more easily digested by chicks. Chick starter feed has higher protein, usually between 20-24%. The higher protein is very important for the development of chicks.
Chicks over 6 weeks but under 20 weeks (or when they start laying eggs) should be fed grower feed. Grower is lower in protein than starter, closer to the protein content of layer feed at 16-18%. This is like “teenager” chicken feed.
Chickens over 20 weeks, or currently laying eggs, should have layer feed. Layer feed typically has 16-18% protein as well, but also has added calcium for strong eggs. This feed usually has other vitamins and nutrients that mature chickens need.
Chickens can also have treats like mealworms, vegetable scraps, and bread. But in order to digest those things, they need grit. Grit is a sand-like substance that helps chickens digest their food better.
Some people like to ferment or sprout their chicken feed to help stretch the food budget when raising chickens. I have done a little sprouting, but haven’t gotten around to fermenting yet. Maybe soon. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms there, better left to a future post!
All chickens, whether chicks or full-grown, should have free access to water at all times. Laying eggs takes a lot of water, and chickens can become dehydrated easily. Yes, raising chickens means that you may have to break the ice in their waterers in the wintertime! Or you can figure out a way to heat the water to keep it thawed.
Some people like to put apple cider vinegar in their chickens’ water. It’s supposed to be good for their digestive systems. Another thing you can do is to add Probiotics regularly to their water. Electrolytes can be added to the water when your chickens are sick, stressed, or very hot.
Fresh air and sunshine
Fresh air and sunshine for chickens shouldn’t be overlooked. Like us, chickens need sunshine for the production of Vitamin D. And fresh air is vitally important as well. Chickens get respiratory issues pretty easily. The chicken keeper needs to be careful to keep molds and ammonia at bay. Chickens that are kept mostly indoors develop nutritional disorders. It can even stunt their growth. Make sure when you are raising chickens that they are comfortable, have enough room, and are able to scratch around in the sun, the way chickens are supposed to!
Ok, this one isn’t a need per se, but if you asked a chicken, she would probably tell you it is! Chickens love to take dust baths. A free-range chicken will find any dry, dusty place that they can (usually in a place you don’t want them!) to flop around in. They will scratch the dirt and throw it all over them. They might not know it, but it’s actually an instinct to do this. Dust helps control mites and lice, and helps keep the chickens cool. Thus, it is a good idea to provide a dust bath area for your chickens.
You can use a few different substances in a dust bath, but this is what most experts recommend. A good dust bath should include dirt, sand, wood ashes, and Diatomaceous Earth. Diatomaceous Earth has become a hot button of controversy nowadays, but it is still believed to be very beneficial in controlling mites and lice on chickens. Here is a great article by Backyard Chicken Coops that covers Diatomaceous Earth and chickens. If asking around, you will get all kinds of advice on using or not using Diatomaceous Earth. Just do your research and decide if it’s right for your chickens.
Raising Chickens – Basic Terminology
- Chick – a baby chicken
- Pullet – a young chick or chicken, under 1 year old, that doesn’t lay eggs yet.
- Hen – a sexually mature female chicken.
- Rooster, cock, or roo– a sexually mature male chicken.
- Cockerel – a young male chicken.
- Broody – when a hen decides she wants to hatch eggs. She will sit on eggs and puff herself up when you try to disturb her.
- Sexing – the process of determining the sex of the chick.
- Straight-run – when the sex of the chicks is undetermined or not guaranteed.
- Autosexing – certain purebred birds that you can tell upon hatch if each chick is male or female.
- Sex-link – same as autosexing, but more used to describe hybrid birds.
- Bloom – the protective coating on an egg.
- Comb – the fleshy growth or crest on top of the head of the chicken.
- Wattles – the fleshy growths that hang below the chicken’s beak.
- Vent – the opening where the chicken expels waste and passes eggs.
- Crop – part of the esophagus that starts to digest the food.
- Gizzard – similar to a stomach, it grinds up the food after it is passed through the crop.
Fun Facts About Chickens
Chickens are the closest living relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
They have great memories.
Chickens have full-color vision, and they actually dream.
There is more chickens in the world than any other bird.
There is also more chickens on earth than humans.
Hens actually talk to their eggs.
Chickens have their own language, where each different sound has a specific meaning.
Roosters don’t have penises.
A hen can eject sperm from an undesirable rooster.
After mating, a hen can store semen in her body for up to 2 weeks.
Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch.
Fresh eggs can be stored at room temperature for up to 20 days or more before putting them in the incubator.
Some breeds of chickens are autosexing, which means that you can tell the sex from hatch.
Other breeds of chickens are very difficult to sex, and you may not know if you have a pullet or a cockerel until it starts to crow or lays an egg.
Some chickens can lay over 300 eggs in a year.
It is believed that chickens were domesticated 8,000 years ago.
Chickens do flop and/or run around after their heads are chopped off.
A chicken known as Mike the Headless Chicken lived for 18 months after his head was cut off.
Chickens don’t urinate, it is combined with the manure.
In conclusion, raising chickens can be such a fun, rewarding adventure. You may end up paying more for your eggs this way, but you know what you are getting. Raising chickens allows you to control what goes into your food, and it’s a great way to increase your family’s self reliance.
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