Chickens, chickens, chickens!
Although it is great that such a large number of people have become interested in the ‘backyard chicken’ movement, there are many that are not as well informed as they should be before jumping in with both feet. Raising chickens can be fun, but it also means work and effort that the average person may not have to spare. The time, money, and dedication that should be devoted to your chickens may just be too difficult to manage.
Can I manage as a chicken hobbyist? What should I know before I get my chickens?
This will vary with each situation, but, in general, the bare minimum to properly care for chickens will involve the following;
- Construction of a secure coop, and an area for the chickens to roam freely, or a chicken ‘tractor’, which allows the chickens to graze in whatever area you pull it. (In my opinion, whenever possible, chickens should be permitted to roam about freely, in an enclosed/protected area…it will help keep them healthier, and is simply more humane)
- Providing protection from predators. Racoons, foxes, weasels, coyotes, dogs, cats, hawks, owls, and other predators LOVE fresh chicken! If you think this won’t be an issue where you are…you are likely unaware of the wildlife that quietly surrounds you. Even within busy city surroundings, racoons and other chicken-loving critters are a danger to your feathered friends. We live in the ‘burbs’, in Northern Ky. and just last week we saw a coyote in our front yard! Racoons have been an issue here, and hawks/owls are always a threat. Just a few miles from us, a fox killed a friends entire large flock, plus four gorgeous white peacocks, in a matter of days. A few miles in the other direction finds a fellow chicken hobbyist with his entire flock killed by a weasel. Snakes can be a real problem with chicken predation as well. We have lost at least 4 chickens to neighborhood dogs, and two to snakes that found a way to enter the ‘safe’ area (oops!)
- Being certain that food, water, and oyster shell bits are always available to your chickens. This should include checking food and water levels at least daily, and providing a heater for the water in colder months so their water doesn’t freeze.
- Retrieving eggs as often as possible (every day is certainly best), to lessen the chance of chicken poop on eggs, and reduce the possibility of creating ‘egg-peckers’ that will peck and eat the eggs. In winter the eggs can freeze if not gathered quickly, ruining the texture of the eggs. They can still be used for cooking, and all nutrition remains intact, but you won’t be able to sell them, if that is your intent.
- Checking/getting to know your chickens to more easily detect signs of lice, disease, etc. early on, and properly treating for any problems. Preventative care can include dusting all living/nesting/roosting areas with diatomaceous earth and keeping those areas clean.
- Be aware that if you are close to your chickens (you name them, give them treats, hang out in the yard with them etc.), it can make it difficult for some, if not impossible, to eat the chickens. If you are just getting chickens for fun, company, and eggs, this is not a problem, but keep in mind that most chickens have their best egg-production in the first 2-3 years of life, so you may need to ‘get rid of’ the chickens, introducing new chicks regularly if you want to keep costs down and egg production up.
- Who will be doing any of the home-based medical bird treatments? Sometimes birds come down with illnesses that require separating the bird from the flock for treatment, including cleaning/bandaging wounds, administering medication, etc.
What about children and chickens?
Let’s be realistic, here…just like puppies, day old chicks are super-cute! Children love them, and make all kinds of promises to care for them…just as with a puppy. Experienced parents will know that they (not the children) will probably end up doing most, if not all, of the chicken husbandry required…at least after the initial appeal has faded. With children, this time window can be exceedingly short. Another thing to consider when introducing chickens to your children is that they can carry salmonella, among other bacteria and germs/diseases. These things are much less common in a backyard flock than in commercially raised flocks, as there is generally no issue with overcrowding, but still should be considered. Many authorities recommend that chickens not be introduced to homes with children younger than five years old. At that age it is easier to be sure the children wash hands well after handling any chickens, or chicken-related items/areas, to avoid harmful bacteria. Another thing to keep in mind is that when children play outside where chickens ‘go’ (and they ‘go’ EVERYWHERE!) anything they touch can be contaminated with chick-poo. If keeping the chickens segregated from play areas, obviously this is not as much of a threat as letting them roam the entire area. Of course, children have lived in areas with chickens for ever, and the vast majority have had no problems. It is something to be weighed carefully, though, when chickens and children come together. Children can be great caretakers of chickens, if they really have the desire to do so. Chicken keeping can be an excellent opportunity for children to learn responsibility in general, and the rewards that can come from dedication to, and caring for, animals.
If this hasn’t ‘put you off’ the concept of hobby farming with chickens…
…you might just be ready to take the plunge. What now? Have you determined the budget you wish to allow for your new hobby? First to consider is the cost of your brooder, coop, shelter, protective fencing, etc. It may be possible to find many of the supplies second-hand, as there are (unfortunately) many people who found chicken keeping too much to handle. Any second hand chicken items should be cleaned well before use. Remember, if ever you introduce new chickens to an established flock, you MUST keep them absolutely quarantined (no contact at all, not even through fencing…and chick-poo from the new chickens cannot be touched in any way by the established flock. One ‘free’ chicken can cost you an entire flock.) for a month or so to prevent spread of any diseases they may be carrying. For the budget, you should factor in the monthly average feed cost. Recently, the cost of ‘layer pellets’ has doubled, making it extremely difficult to realize a profit, or even make up your costs. The cost of litter for the floor of your ‘chicken house’ must be factored in as well. Vitamins, insect treatment, and any unforeseen ’emergencies’ should be considered as well.
Preparing for your day-old chicks
First, you must either provide an outdoor ‘brooder’ that stays warm enough, and draft free, for the baby chicks until they are old enough to do well in cooler temps, or raise them inside until that time.
If raising indoors, you will need a large box, preferably with some sort of cover to keep warm air in, and drafts out. A heat light that won’t touch/burn the chicks will be necessary to keep the area warm enough. In the first week the temperature should be kept at a fairly steady 95-99 degrees, with the temperature dropping by approximately five degrees each week. At about four weeks the chicks will have begun to feather out and can often be introduced to the outside temperatures, if it is warm enough. If outdoor temps are still cold, supplemental heat will have to be provided, or the chicks kept in the brooder a while longer with the temperature reduced a bit further each week till they are ready to go out. You should be aware that the chicks produce an amaaaazing amount of dander, and it is a huge mess if the brooder is inside the home, not to mention allergies…those with allergies will have a terrible time with this, and you will be dusting FOREVER, as your heating/cooling system continues to circulate the dander.
The next step is to determine where to purchase your chicks, how many you wish to begin with, and when you want them to arrive. Do you want to start your hobby in early Spring, so that your chicks might begin to lay towards Autumn? Would you rather get them in summer, to reduce the length of time in the brooder? Would you prefer pullets? Pullets are adolescent chickens that need very little coddling , and the sex can be determined before you acquire them, but they cost more than day old chicks. If you want all, or mostly, egg layers (hens) determining the sex is important, to avoid roosters that fertilize eggs, but of course lay none, simply adding to the cost of keeping the chickens fed.
Do you have a hatchery anywhere near you? Be sure to do a computer search, since there are often hatcheries nearby. If you live close to a hatchery, they may allow you to personally pick up your birds, and buy a smaller order than when you mail order them. There may still be a small handling fee, but there won’t be any shipping costs, which can, at times, be prohibitively high. The shorter trip to their new home will be less stressful. Be sure that your brooder box is ready before you bring your chicks home.
A note about roosters…
Roosters, although beautiful, can present many problems, the first of which is the noise. They crow all day, and sometimes at night, not just in the morning. If your neighbors can be ‘bought’ with free eggs, maybe this isn’t an issue, but not all folks take kindly to suddenly having the constant crowing.
Something I never would have considered is that, if you have small dogs or other small-ish pets, the roosters will probably jump them when they are trying to mate. We had three wonderful, carefree dogs that were around five pounds each…they suddenly became so terrorized by our rooster that we had to get rid of him. Even after he was gone the poor doggies were afraid of going outside, and had to be re-trained. At that point, they still had to learn to avoid the hens, which will peck at them without ill intent, just curiosity. 20/20 hindsight tells me that we should have segregated the chickens from the dogs (and yard) at the very beginning of our chicken adventure.
Chickens in the garden? Chicken-proof plants?
A few other things I was not prepared for…we had a prize-winning, beautiful lawn and garden before we got our chickens a few years ago in Spring. By the end of summer, they had scratched up and eaten EVERY BIT OF GRASS and most of our ornamental garden plants. Even plants that were supposed to be chicken-resistant were eaten to the ground, and often dug up completely, as the birds searched for delicious bugs to eat. We still have not been able to re-grow the grass, and a large portion of our ornamental plants, acquired over many, many years are gone, some of them irreplaceable. You may as well forget any fruit/vegetable gardening with chickens around. We now have half the backyard for the birds, and half for us. Their area is on a slope, and they keep pulling all the soil to the bottom, necessitating a constant dirt replacement project by carting it up to the top again. Needless to say, the chickens have cleared out all vegetation there now. On the plus side, we keep our compost piles there, and the chickens keep them turned and actively composting (and of course adding their own ‘fertilizer’ in the process) in the constant search for edible plant material and insects. This Spring we plan to attempt terracing there, in hopes of reducing the constant erosion caused by the chickens.
If you have gotten this far into this article, and you still have not been put off by all the requirements and perils of being a backyard chicken hobbyist, you may be ready to jump right in! I don’t regret getting into hobby farming of our chickens, but it is more involved, and more expensive, than I had initially thought.
After considering all these factors, and learning a bit about what NOT to do, maybe chicken keeping is for you, and you will truly enjoy it. Best of luck to you with your backyard chicken hobby farming!
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This is a well-written article, with a wealth of information! Thanks for putting it out there for “newbies”.
Thanks! I hope it helps! 🙂