I can't believe it's been almost nine months since I started my little flock of laying hens. While that doesn't seem like a long time, it has taken me that long to really feel like I know what I'm doing.
Living in a semi rural area in Utah makes having chickens seem almost a requirement just to fit in with the neighborhood. So many of my neighbors either have now or have had in the past raised a flock of backyard chickens. Still, I didn't want to seem like a newb. I have my pride ya know. Having been the daughter of a former farmer's son, and with relatives that are all about farming, I have always figured I would be a natural at raising any kind of barnyard animal. Well....the learning curve was pretty steep given the fact that none of these farming relatives live anywhere near me.
And for that matter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Bloggers everywhere.
So, this is what I learned that hopefully will save you the stress and confusion I have had to go through in my first few months of raising chickens, and turkeys, too.
First, and this is the most important in my book, you have to know your local ordinances.
If you live in a city, a suburb, or a rural community, the rules may surprise you. There is no rhyme or reason to the way each area constructs their rules. You could find yourself just as likely to be able to have eight chickens in a big city as you are to be able to have only a few or none in a suburb. It can be dependent on your lot size, or any city covenants, or just because. Many groups have been formed to lobby their city councils to allow backyard chickens and have had great success. The number of backyard flocks has grown quite a bit in recent years as the popularity of raising chickens has become more and more popular.
This article on the WorldWide Institute website published on November 3, 2015, details some of the figures and statistics.
So, find out your particular city ordinances, and then make your plans. Either you will be able to forge ahead with your plans, or you may find yourself attending your next city council meeting to work towards changing that ordinance. If you find yourself facing a battle, you may want to search sites like backyardchickens.com to find other like minded people in your area that may be more than anxious to help with the battle.
Second, research chicken breeds.
I was actually in the middle of doing just that when my husband called home from an errand run that took him into one of our local feed stores. It was March, and of course there were bins full of cheeping baby chicks of the usual assortments, and he made the mistake of telling me to come up and see them. I was actually surprised that he took such a huge leap when he had been reserved about the whole idea before that day. Suddenly he was on board in a big way. I can't tell you why. I still don't know.
So, trying to be logical and intelligent in the whole process, knowing another feed store, on the way to where my husband was, had baby chicks, too, I told him I would stop there first and see if they had a better price. You know, a little comparison shopping. As soon as I could hear the cheeping of those little fuzzy babies I was hooked. Yes, the price was better, but, I was determined to go to the other feed store before I made my final selections. I knew I wanted egg laying hens, no roosters. I knew a little about Leghorns, and Rhode Island Reds, and a few others, but, the breed I was eager about was the blue egg layers, the Ameracaunas. I thought I was educated enough to know what I was doing, and then I was faced with a new challenge when I arrived at the second feed store. Bins after bins of a much larger variety of breeds than I understood.
I figured I would just tell the sales person that I wanted egg layers, and they would make sure that is what I got. I trusted them. Relied on their "expertise" in the industry. Bad Idea!
We left the second feed store with what I thought were two Ameracauna hen chicks, one grey and one black and brown.
We named the grey one Hazel, and she was mine, all mine. You see, she "chose" me. Or so I thought. Whenever I put my finger up to the glass of the aquarium she was in, all the others ran away, but, not her. She would follow my finger and peck at it as if she knew me and wanted me to take her home. I spent many an hour sitting holding Hazel, bonding with her, and making her my pet. I told everyone that she was a blue egg layer and that even after she was old and didn't lay eggs anymore, we would still keep her because she was special. Oh she was special alright. She was a he.
The black and brown one we named Chief Running Fluff, or should I say my twenty-three year old daughter did. Her thinking was that the markings around her eyes looked like war paint, and that girls can be Chiefs, too. Chief was a hen, so, we were at a 50% accuracy rate for the "expertise" of the employees. I should actually be clearer. The employees really didn't do anything that helped us choose, and in hindsight, I don't think they really cared that much. It was more just "tell me which one you want and I'll grab it for you". No real guidance involved, plus, even in the most experienced hands the accuracy rate of chick sexing is only about 90% at best. It's mostly a crap shoot unless you get a breed called Sex Links, where the color of the chick is indicative of whether it is a hen or a rooster.
We knew we wanted six chickens, certainly no more than eight, so we took our two new chicks, and all the supplies we had gotten, home, stopping off at the first feed store to get the remainder of our flock. This feed store kept it's chicks in several large feed troughs, some breeds combined with other breeds. Again we stressed we wanted only laying hens, and the young man that climbed in to grab our chicks just pointed to a couple bins and asked us which ones we wanted. I pointed, he did his best to get the ones I asked for, and in the end we had six chicks. Two Leghorns, two buff Orpingtons, and two Cornish Crosses. Here is where it gets sticky.
The two Leghorns were truly hens. We let the children name them, and that gave us Nia and Mochi. The Buff Orpingtons were named Tikka, she is a hen, and Cleo, a rooster, who was later renamed Marc Antony.
The two Cornish Cross "hens" were 50-50. Desi was a hen, and Aria was a rooster, but, it' didn't really matter what they were in the end, as a Cornish Cross is a meat hen, not a laying hen. They are a breed entirely intended to grow very quickly, put on a lot of meat, and be butchered at no more than twelve weeks.
Lesson three learned, really know what you are getting when it comes to breeds, and understand you may get some roosters,
Have a plan for what you will do if you find some of your flock are starting to crow. We re-homed Hazel at 12 weeks to a farm that specializes in fostering unwanted farm animals. Cleo/Marc Antony was becoming very aggressive with our other chicks, beating up on them and chasing them, some lost feathers, and most were just afraid most of the time, so we butchered him at twelve weeks. He was skinny so soup broth is all he is good for. Desi and Aria were also both butchered at twelve weeks, but, we should have probably done it sooner as they were both so large they were having a hard time just living life. Meat chickens typically do not have strong enough legs to support that kind of weight, and don't really run or roost. Some cannot walk at all. It's part of their genetic makeup. Aria stopped roosting a few weeks before Desi did, and the amount of weight they both put on was amazing. If only I had known what a Cornish Cross was, I wouldn't have gotten them, but, at least we know we gave them a good life while it lasted. Most meat chickens are raised in mass groups, crowded and inhumane, and they never see the sun or feel any kindness. Desi and Aria were loved. So, while it was sad to have to end their life, we felt good about how they lived. They, along with the others, were free ranged, and spent much of their time in the green grass, and under shade trees.
After our first experience of starting with eight chicks and ending up with four surviving hens, we set out to have a group of four hens to replace the four we lost, and this time we were going to be much more informed at making the selections. The first group were now thirteen weeks old and living out in the little coop, free ranging most of the day. The new batch would be brooded inside, and moved outside when they were feathered out.
We knew we still ran the risk of getting at least one rooster, but, we did our best to choose more wisely. I wanted a couple of Rhode Island Red chicks, but wasn't decided entirely on the other two. I figured we'd just get all RIR's, but, as we were standing looking at the bin of beautiful red and gold chicks, my husband noticed a pair of Silver Laced Wyandottes all by themselves. He fell in love with them, go figure, and so we brought two RIR's that were in a bin labeled Pullets (pullet is a term used for baby hens), and the two little SLW's also in a bin labeled Pullets. This time we were lucky, all four were hens. Again I say we were lucky, because while the hatcheries do the best they can,, there is still a percentage that just slip through.
We decided to name these girls for some Anne of Green Gables characters. The chatty little golden red hen is Anne, and the dark red hen is Cordelia.
The two little Silver Laced Wyandottes are Diana and Lacey (for the Lacey of Shallot, see what I did there?)
The weeks passed and the four new additions feathered out and moved into the little coop with the older four. I was careful about integrating the two groups by using my version of a grow out pen, basically a garden spot that was small and completely surrounded by chicken wire. This way the littles could play and acclimate to living outside, and the bigs could interact with them without risk of pecking or chasing. At night they slept in a part of the coop that I fenced off so they all got used to sleeping in the same coop. When the day came that the littles had figured out how to escape the fenced area and were fine with the bigs, and vice versa, I removed the fencing and they established their pecking order. Once that was well handled it was time to complete my flock.
I wanted to add some very specific chickens. I knew from my research that I wanted Salmon Faverolle's as they lay pink eggs, have feathery feet and are social. I also wanted some more Easter Eggers (Chief turned out to be a very common breed of Easter Egger and she lays green eggs, not blue). I still have hopes that one of them will lay blue eggs. So, I looked on some hatchery sites, and found one that would send a small order in the summer months and they were having a special on chicks. So, I placed my order, but, it needed to be at least $25 of chicks so besides the two Salmons and the two Easter Eggers, I ordered two black Cuckoo Marans, and since my husband had seen a black chicken he really wanted I ordered two black Austrolorps.
Word to the wise, when you order such a small batch of chicks, even in the summer months, you will get what the hatcheries refer to as packing peanuts. These are a random selection of chicks to help keep the others warm in transit. I didn't find this out until after I placed my order. I read on a chicken keepers blog about it, and was a bit freaked out, but, it was too late, and we would just have to deal with however many we ended up with.
When my box of babies arrived it contained the two Salmons, named Pipi (for pipi longstockings) and Winny (for Winifred Sanderson of Hocus Pocus), and the two Easter Eggers, Bunny (for the Easter Bunny) and Rosie (because she is a pretty rose red), and the two Marans, Loralei and Sooki (in honor of my favorite show Gilmore Girls), and the two Austrolorps, Morticia and Wednesday (because they are both dressed in black, in honor of The Addams Family). There were also six little packing peanuts that are possibly golden sex links, or possibly RIR's, but, either way, they were adorable and it was so hard to give them away, but, twenty chickens was way over our limit, so, we gave them to a neighbor that has raised chickens before and was willing to take the risk that some or all of them might be roosters.
Wednesday was very social and whenever we put our hand in the brooder she would come right up to it. Hence, no surprise when she started crowing. He was a rooster, and we were planning on rehoming him as well, but, tragedy struck. Our typically docile dog got a bit too frisky with Wednesday and Sooki, and they were found dead one night when the kids were out getting the flock rounded up for bedtime. All the other chicks were hiding, terrified, and since then we have seen both Loralei and Morticia become so much more timid. I think they were traumatized by the experience. Which brings me to lesson number four.
Lesson Four-Stuff happens.
No matter how prepared you are, no matter how careful you are, you probably will experience some losses, and some tough challenges when raising chickens. That's true of any animal, so, knowing that while chickens are one of the easiest type of livestock to raise, there can still be challenges to health, safety, and management. The sooner you adopt a policy of being prepared for the worst and enjoying the best, the better off you'll be as a chicken keeper.
Lesson Five, chickens poop a lot.
Sure, you know chickens poop. And you know that a lot of chickens will poop a lot. But, did you know that a sleeping chicken is a pooping chicken? Did you also know that flies love to eat chicken poop? And that some dogs love to eat chicken poop? And that your chickens will poop on everything, absolutely everything, they come in contact with? I kind of knew that. Logic dictates that what goes in must come out. So, why was I so unprepared that I spent way too much time cleaning up the inside of the coop and run? The feed store said use pine shavings, so I used pine shavings. That wasn't a bad thing. It was fine when the chicks were in their brooder, and the process of cleaning it up was to dump out the old and pour in the new. Then they moved into the coop (which is lesson six, by the way), and the whole pooping thing became more of an issue because it was spread out over a larger area and in harder to reach places.
Now, granted, our coop was woefully inadequate, at least for the number of chickens we were putting in it, but it was all we had, and I had this grand idea that it would be perfect, which it was at first. That is until the first coop cleaning experience. The coop was too small, and the birds were pooping everywhere, and it was such a process to rake out the pine shavings and pour in more, and then transport it all to the compost heap, and add to that cleaning the roosts, and the exposed areas of the coop, and geesh. What a chore. I hadn't discovered the deep litter method yet, but, still the coop needed to be upgraded.
I found out over a period of months reading every blog about other chicken keepers experiences that the best material for coop floors is not the all touted pine shavings, but, plain ole contractor grade sand. So out I went and got some, poured it on the floor, and tried going with just that for a week. It was easier to sift the poop out of the sand with a rake, and it cleaned up quickly. I just maintained it every day or so, and it was so easy. Then I got the idea to top it off with pine shavings, which added a nice scent to the coop. I just rake the top layer off if it gets full of poop, and push the rest around to freshen it. Once every few weeks or so I replace the pine shavings with a new batch, but, the sand stays and has been my favorite medium so far. I also mix into the sand a few cups some dried mint leaves. From what I've learned the mint is a natural fly repellant and it improves the overall health of the coop environment. I won't be continuing the bedding changes once the new coop is built. The sand itself will be deep, and it will work really well at keeping the coop warm in the winter, cool in the summer, dry overall, and healthy. The litter change for now is only because my coop is really too small for my girls.
I plan to follow the deep sand method just like the Chicken Chick does
check out her blog, she tells about it in greater detail than I have
As far as the pooping everywhere else, like the gardens, the backyard, the patio, the RV pad, well, I am kind of philosophical about it. This is the first year we haven't had to fertilize and heavily water our backyard. It is green and beautiful, and I just have to attribute that to the poop. I have learned that chicken poop, unlike dog or cat poop, breaks down quickly, so when it rains or we water the lawn the poop just disintegrates and washes into the soil. So what if I have to hose off the patio every day, so what? Those chickens are saving me a fortune in fertilizer and water.
Lesson Six: build a better chicken coop before they need it
We didn't learn this one in time before I tore my LCL when I was cleaning out the beginner coop. My grand idea to use the old playhouse our children never used as a chicken coop seemed logical. It should have worked, except for a couple of very crucial details. First, it was built for little kids, and second, it was not big enough for more than just a few chickens.
The playhouse is solid cedar, with a pitched roof, and victorian details. It's beautiful. It has a small door and some windows, and a ventilation opening at the top. It is also four feet by six feet, and almost six feet tall in the center. We put screening over the windows, attached an old cabinet onto the back for the nesting boxes, and a door on one window to be the door to the run. We put roosts up high and started out with two buckets converted to nesting boxes tucked into the cabinet, and added an access panel on the back of the cabinet for us to collect the eggs. If we had only four, maybe six chickens, we would have been fine, all except for the cleaning part. Getting in and out of that little door, and navigating around the roosts and ramps was painful (ask my knees, elbows and head), not to mention time consuming and something I wish I could avoid.
About the time I tore my LCL we were already hard at work making plans for a bigger coop. We looked at pre-built sheds that we could use for a coop, and some kits, too. We thought we could just divide the building in half, use part of the coop and part as a storage area. What we ended up doing was taking some plans from the internet, and a basic design idea from one of the kits, and adding our own modifications we came up with a plan for a coop/shed. The first 6 hens are now all laying, and we added two more buckets on the floor, as some of them prefer a lower arrangement, but, they are all still sharing that little playhouse for now. The younger 6 are about halfway to egg laying age, so we have some time yet. They're all in the little coop and we have had to part with Anne and Diana in order to make room for everybody. We rehomed them both, so, they are still together.
The weather is turning colder, and that's gonna mean rain and perhaps snow while we are building. Still, we are forging ahead. The foundation is in, which promised to be the hardest part anyway, so now we need to get the walls on (and by we I mean my husband with only a little help from me), and then the roof. The new building will be eight feet by twelve feet, with seven and a half foot height at it's lowest point. The coop area will be half of the building, divided by fencing and a gate so I can easily walk in and clean it, gather eggs, visit my girls, and they can access the run through a smaller door on the side of the building.
So our coop will go from shanty to fancy. I'll update the picture when the whole project is done.
So, while those are not the only lessons I have learned, those of the ones I really wish I had been prepared for before I embarked on this journey.
I'm a mother of eleven children, wife of 37 years, Latter Day Saint, and 911 Dispatcher and a budding homesteader. Come along with me as I journey toward self sufficiency, one baby step at a time.
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