How to Raise Your Own Poultry Flock
Chickens are not hard to raise. They will eat almost anything, including bugs in your yard, scraps from your kitchen and of course chicken food. I have had chickens most of my adult life. Growing up I use to love to go to my Great-Grandmother house as she had a large chicken flock. I would spend hours looking for eggs and chasing the chickens around the yard, (ignoring my great-grandmother scolding “Don’t chase the chickens, it will make them quit laying.”) Now in my adult life, it is really relaxing sitting out on the back porch and watching the chickens peck the ground. You don’t need a large area to keep a few chickens and if they have a sheltered place to get out of the weather, a place to roost at night and a quiet place to lay their eggs, they are happy. I can’t think of anything better than fresh eggs scrambled or fried on a Sunday morning with some bacon and homemake bread. Fresh eggs are always better than store bought as you really don’t know how fresh the eggs are you buy in the store. By raising your own chickens you can have fresh organic eggs as close as your own back yard.
Starting Your Flock
To start your flock you will probably start with baby chicks. In the spring look at your local feed stores or on-line to buy your chicks. Most feed stores have a nice selection of different breeds to chose from. Ask for the egg producing type unless you want meat chickens. I don’t have a preference on breeds and I have had both the larger and smaller breeds. Most hens will start laying at 6 months old so if you want eggs sooner you will need to buy older hens. However, be warned that old hens will quit laying after they reach a certain age. If you buy older hens try to buy hens not older than two years old. If you are just starting out with your flock (in a small area) I would purchase 6 to 12 hens. You don’t need a rooster to produce eggs only to produce more baby chicks. Also, be sure to check your city ordinances about livestock in your area. You don’t want to go to the trouble of raising these chickens only to find that your neighbor has turned you in for raising livestock and you have to get rid of them.
Here is a good article on raising your chicks: How to Keep a Small Poultry Flock
Chickens are a sunrise to sundown type of animal. They will get up early in the morning (some of my roosters have started crowing at 4 a.m.) and then bed down for the night at sundown. They prefer to roost in the same spot every night and they like somewhere high off the ground. Chickens are also quite blind at night so if you need to catch your chickens for some reason, wait until sundown when they roost. They can be caught by their legs and held upside down if you have more than one to catch or held with two hands around their wings. Don’t grab them by their heads or wings unless you want an injured chicken. Most birds will calm down when their heads or eyes are covered by a soft cloth.
Caution: Do not hold the chest tightly as the bird will not be able to breathe and could die quickly!
Chickens are scavengers. You can throw out your vegetable peels, scraps from the table, (bread, corn on the cob, watermelon rinds, etc.) and they will love it. Also, be sure to remove eggs every day from the chicken’s nest as they have been known to eat their own eggs. Chickens need water every day, especially in the summer months. Make sure your chickens have fresh water every day. They will also need a cool place in the summer and a warm place (away from cold winds) in the winter. They prefer not to get wet and they can’t swim so don’t leave large open containers full of water as I have had chickens drown themselves in water troughs.
My flock is free roaming meaning that they wander around my property. But keep in mind they are prey animals so dogs, coyotes, foxes, etc. can come in and kill or crippled your chickens if you don’t have a fence to protect them. My chickens roam around seeking out bugs and forage but always return to their roost each night. The eggs from my chickens always have a deep rich orange color, not that pale sickie yellow color you see in the stores. When cooking with fresh organic eggs my recipes seem to taste richer and cook up nicer. My chickens get fed every evening with a commercial chicken scratch and whatever they can find while wandering the farm. Most of my chickens have lived for 5 to 6 years before they have either quit laying or died from natural causes.
Your chicken coop should have an area where the chickens can roost for the night away from predators and weather. They like to fly up above the ground to roost so you can have an area above the ground in your chicken coop with some type of boards or perch are fine. They also prefer to lay in a quiet, secluded area so have your laying nests off the ground where they feel they are hidden. My hens roam around my back yard and even though I have a laying box, I have found eggs in the bottom of empty trash cans and in the hay stack that looked hardly big enough to fit a chicken. If you keep your chickens in a stationary chicken coop then you will need to clean it on a regular basis. Don’t let the chicken waste get piled up. This can cause diseases in your chickens and it will collect flies. Your excess chicken manure can be added to your compost pile for garden fertilizer. You can also build a chicken coop that is mobile so that your chickens can be moved to different areas of your yard.
Here are some Chicken House plans from the Cooperative Extension Service – University of Tennessee:
Chickens can fly for a short length of time. If you build your chicken coop with a run, make sure to cover your run or make your fence high enough (over 10 ft) so your chickens don’t fly out. Also, chickens will fly from level to level to reach an area. My hens roost in my barn and they fly to different levels of the hay stack until they get to the top (sometimes over 10 feet).
After Chickens reach maturity (over 1 year old) they will often molt usually in the fall. During this time they will lose some of the feathers around the head; neck; feather tracks of the breast, thighs and back; wing and tail feathers. Don’t panic, they will grow their feathers back but don’t expect any eggs from your necked looking hens as they are going through hormonal fluctuations and will be putting all of their energy into growing their feathers back. Also, if notice your hens are losing their feathers on their back and they’re not in a molting cycle. This means you have an over-zealous rooster that is running your hens down from over-breeding. When this happens I usually get rid of the rooster to save the hens the anxiety. A good rooster will keep his hens looking good with all their feathers intact.
Chickens are very social creatures and very clannish. If you try to introduce a single adult hen to a flock of already established hens you can expect some problems. The other hens will peck and run the new hen away from the flock, often drawing blood. If they draw blood, then they will continue to chase her and inflicting wounds until a new pecking order is established. Avoid adding single birds to an established flock. The act in which chickens establish social dominance is called a “pecking order.” Pecking order in chickens is a natural behavior in which status determines which birds eat first and have right of way privileges. Excessive pecking can lead to bleeding sores and even death if allowed to get out of control and is referred to as cannibalism. Cannibalism can be difficult to stop once it begins so prevention is the best and most successful treatment. Controlling cannibalism can be achieved by not crowding the birds, keeping light levels reduced, providing adequate feeder space, and insuring proper nutrition through a well balanced ration. When I start a new flock I usually buy several new hens or chicks, isolate them till they get established or old enough to introduce to the flock. Then I turn them loose with the others. They keep to themselves usually following the older flock around until they are accepted.
Chicken Diseases – A healthy bird will be alert, move easily about the pen or cage, and will readily eat, drink, and defecate. All changes from “normal” should be heeded and the chicken isolated from the flock. No matter what is wrong with a bird, it will generally show the same type of signs. The sick bird will look depressed, hunched up with its feathers fluffed out, the wings may slightly droop, and the head may be carried a little lower than normal, or tucked under a wing. If you feel that one of your chickens is sick, isolate it and contact your local veterinarian. Here is a good fact sheet from the Ohio State University Extension Office: Preventative Medicine for Backyard Chickens
Selection of An Egg
Eggs are great for stretching your food dollar. They can be used in so many different ways. Fresh eggs are always the best choice when cooking but how do you know when an egg is fresh. When choosing eggs choose shells which have a dull bloom. A shiny shell means the egg is older. The color of the shell, which may be white or brown, has no influence on the egg white and yolk. However, free ranging or organic fed chickens will produce a brighter, more orange looking yolk. An egg should feel heavy when lifted and a fresh egg will not rattle. Eggs should be kept cool. Always store eggs in their egg carton as they can pick up odors from your refrigerator if stored in an open container. Eggs when properly refrigerated can be stored for months.
Here is a good article on: “Your Guide on Strong Eggshells – by Patrick Biggs, Ph.D – Flock Nutritionist provided by Purina Animal Nutrition.
Money Saving Tip: How do you know if an egg is fresh? Fill a large bowl (3/4 from the top) with cool water. Gently place the egg in the water. If it sinks to the bottom of the bowl, it is FRESH. If the egg floats to the top, it is OLD and probably not very tasty. I usually throw these eggs out or give them to the dogs. If the egg stands on its end, then it is still good but on its way to being old.