Posts Tagged Chickens

Getting Started With Chickens

Chickens are, as I like to put it, the gateway animal.  You start out with chickens and then all a sudden you have your eye on a few goals, a couple pigs and maybe even a mini Dexter cow.  I have had chickens several times through out my life and always loved having them around. Even years ago when I got my first chickens I made a lot of success very quickly and the entire process was a lot of fun.

starting with chickens

The nice thing about keeping chickens is they are quite easy to take care of, requires a few minutes a day to tend, in a pinch can be left for a long weekend and if you travel you can teach someone to take care of them quickly.  Of course as with any animal, owning chickens you need to take it seriously and make sure you understand that their welfare is your responsibility, so make sure to consider it carefully.

Know Your Local Laws

The first thing you need to do before you do anything is make sure that keeping chickens is allowed.  You’ll need to check with the local authorities, see if you have any rules in your home owners association or deed restrictions and then also consider your neighbors.

golden comet chicken In my city I’m allowed to have up to 50 birds per acre, the coop must be offset from any property line by 15 feet and obtain a permit for $10 a year.  Your city or town may be different, so make sure you do your homework!

Learn All You Can

Obviously if you’re reading this post, you want to learn about starting a chicken farm and it may even be because you’re thinking about getting chickens of your own (go for it!).  Use this post as a jumping off point to learn as much as you can about the various aspects of chickens.  You’re going to make mistakes and that is okay, we are learning, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re doing your best to care for these animals.

Get Setup Ahead Of Time

Once you’ve researched your local laws you want to get setup with some basic infrastructure.  You’re going to need a few things so you can be ready for your chickens.  You should consider the following

Brooder

If you’re going to raise chickens from freshly hatched babies (chicks) you will need what is called a brooder.  A brooder is like a nursery for the chicks where we protect them a little bit more, give them some added heat and let them grow a bit before you let them out into the real world.  I typically do this in a large Rubbermaid tub with a heat lamp and some bedding.

We have a whole post on how to set up a brooder and raise chicks. Below is a video I have of some baby quail I raised a few years ago from eggs. Their setup was a bit simpler, but you get the idea.

Build A Coop

A coop is just what we call the house we keep our chickens in at night.  During the day we will let them free range (go were ever they want) or let them into a run (a fenced area that provides some protection).  The coop needs to be about 2 square feet for each chicken you have.  Much more than 2-3 feet per bird assuming they have more room to range during the day doesn’t do much because they all like to pile on a roost and cuddle up with each other anyway.

chicken on roost in coopA roost is just a bar that chickens like to sit on, usually about a foot or so off the floor of the coop or ground.  I’ve had chickens that all piled onto a single bar leaving several empty and then I’ve had others that didn’t use them at all.  I usually add them because it seems like most chickens like to roost because it makes them feel a little safer.  The top most roost is often taken up by the alpha hen and the rooster if you have one, but some flocks don’t get too tied up in pecking order.

You want to make sure that there is at least some ventilation, but make sure it hardware cloth over it so predators can’t get in. The rule of thumb is around 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 square feet of coop.

The last parts of a coop are your nesting boxes for the chickens to lay their eggs in (usually one box per 3-4 birds) and some sort of bedding to catch droppings from.  Chickens put out a lot of droppings and they tend to concentrate under the roost bars.  However you plan to handle droppings, make it bomb proof because it can get messy quickly and if you build your coop to easily clean out, you can make your life a lot easier.  More on coops coming soon.

Chicken Tractors And Chicken Runs

Many people who want to get into raising chickens want to try a mobile chicken tractor, which is basically a coop with no bottom that you move to fresh grass every few days.  I’ve done both a fixed coop and chicken tractors and I think chicken tractors are my favorite because it cuts down on the cleaning (no floors, the chickens just poop on the grass) and it reduces the amount of feed I need to buy.

Here is my old chicken tractor:

chicken tractor

There are a few things you need to consider if you decide to go the chicken tractor.  Whatever coop you design it should be able to be moved easily by the smallest person in your household, it makes it difficult if only some of the people can actually move it each day.

Finally make sure you have enough room, if you have more than a few chickens you’ll need to move that coop most days so that the chickens do remove all the vegetation in that one spot to the point that it can’t bounce back.  You want the grass to get roughed up a bit, but no more.  This will let the grass bounce back and grow stronger.  Having enough space is easier in the summer months because things grow so quickly, but in the winter you may find that a spot where the chickens were takes 30-60 days to heal.

Life And Death On The Farmstead

With any animals it’s great to have animals around your yard, it can bring a lot of good energy, fun and happiness.  The other side of the coin is that with life comes the end of if.  Sometimes chickens get sick, sometimes a predator circumvents our fences, or they might just grow old and die.

hens and a rooster

For good caretakers these days are few and far between, but it is a reality of this lifestyle.  When I bought my first chicks I ended up with several roosters despite me trying to avoid it.  As they grew they began to struggle for dominance as the alpha rooster.  It was at that point I had tried giving them away, but couldn’t find anyone that would take them even for free.  As they fought I knew the only outcome was that there would be only one alpha and the rest would suffer injuries or death from the skirmishes that were taking place.

It was then I realized they would end up being pecked to death by the alpha rooster.  I wasn’t comfortable with a prolonged and painful death, so I made the decision to process them for meat.  It was a difficult and somber affair as I did the deed, and while I was resolved in my mind, it didn’t make it any easier as I placed them in the kill cone and nicked their artery with a knife.

Just understand that it’s mostly good, but there are a few bad days too.

Self Sufficiency

Not only is keeping chickens pretty easy and a lot of fun, but the eggs and potentially meat are a solid first step into self sufficiency.  If you think about it, we grow a lot of things in out garden and while they are loaded with nutrients, vitamins and minerals, they are often very low in calories or protein.  It’s great to eat healthy, but if we want to make our way to self sufficiency, we need to figure a way to cover our caloric and protein needs too and eggs help in that goal.

nutrition in a farm eggAs you can see an egg has some good calories and a fair bit of protein and you get an egg per chicken each day in many cases.  Compare that to a tomato which can take 90 days to grow and only has 22 calories.

Having a few eggs a day for breakfast or a quiche for lunch or dinner is a great way to start making up some of the calories that we need, which means we don’t have to rely on the grocery store as much.  Eggs can even be a way to make a few bucks to cover the cost of feed and if you ever need a chicken sitter, them keeping the eggs is often compensation enough.

Letting Chickens Work For You

my chickens in my gardenNot only are chickens a great source of food, but they can be helpful in reducing your work load.  Chickens by their nature scratch at the dirt, root for bugs and grubs, and till up the first inch of soil.  We can utilizing their natural tendencies to get things done in our gardens. Setting chickens loose on compost piles will be like letting a child loose in a candy shop.  They’ll turn the compost, peck out any grubs and bugs (breaking the pest life cycle) and add their manure to the pile all in one fell swoop.

I’ll often move my chickens to my garden area before I begin to prep the garden for a new season.  Since my garden area is fenced in for deer, I set them up there for a month and let them take everything to bare dirt.  If there are any perennial plants or plants I want to keep, I’ll just fence them off so the chickens can get to them.  After a few weeks the ground is often removed of weeds, bugs and a fair bit of manure has been scratched into the soil.

Chickens are a really great first step into bringing animals into the mix on your land and they have a lot of upsides.   So if you are thinking about chickens, check out some of the other post here on the site and let us know in the comments what your plans are!

Your Turn!

  • What seems like the biggest challenge for you when it comes to chickens?
  • What are your chicken plans?

 

How To Build A Chicken Coop

When you’re starting out with chickens you need to have a place to lock them up at night.  Building a chicken coop will be one of the first thing you need to do before you order your chicks or pick up some pullets (young hens).  I love how chickens just naturally gravitate to their little home when the sun starts to go down, roosting inside all on their own.

how to build a chicken coop for your chickens

The coop is an important part of your plan to keep your birds safe from predators that lurk in the night.  So we want it to be a sturdy structure that keeps the bad things out, the chickens in, provides a place for them to nest and lay their eggs.  First a few bits of terminology so you can get caught up to speed if you’re new.

  • Roost: a bar that chickens sit on and sleep on at night
  • Run: the fenced in area that chickens walk around during the day
  • Nesting Box: a separate area where hens sit to lay eggs in
  • Hardware Cloth: metal mesh that has very small openings
  • Bedding: saw dust, wood chips, hay or saw

So those are some of the basic terminology, now let’s get into some of the details.

The Coop

my chickens in my gardenYou can build the coop out of whatever building materials you have on hand or repurpose shelters to suit your needs.  When I built my coop I just went and bought a few sheets of plywood, created a box and sealed the entire inside.  Whatever you build it out of, the coop needs to be about 2 square feet of floor space for each chicken you have.  Much more than 2-3 feet per bird assuming they have more room to range during the day doesn’t do much because they all like to pile on a roost and cuddle up with each other anyway.

Height wise I usually build the coop so that I can easily clean it and room for at least 2 feet above the upper most roost.  If I have a lot of chickens I’ll make sure whatever it is, I can stand up straight if I need to go inside.

For the floors of my coop the biggest piece of advice is to make the inside as easy to clean as possible, really think ahead on this part.   I design mine so all the corners inside are not 90 degrees and no little nooks.  To do this I build my coop, then lay in a 2×2 cut at an angle so when I lay it in with glue all my corners are 45 degrees, which is much easier to clean.

Once I have my coop inside done I always sealed with a super heavy polyurethane. I coat every surface several times, making sure to soak it into the corners.  I put several layers on all surfaces then let it dry.  Next I focus on adding more layers to floor and the first foot of the walls.  You want a super thick layer of poly covering every inch of your floor and sealing every crevice and seam.

I let the whole thing dry and off gas for at least a few weeks.  If you build your coop before you even order your chicks, you’ll have a lot of time for all the fumes to escape by the time the chicks are grown up and ready to be put in the coop.

Roost Bars

chicken on roost in coopA roost is just a bar that chickens like to sit on, usually about a foot or so off the floor of the coop or ground.  I’ve had chickens that all piled onto a single bar leaving several empty and then I’ve had others that didn’t use them at all.  I usually add them because it seems like most chickens like to roost because it makes them feel a little safer.  The top most roost is often taken up by the alpha hen and the rooster if you have one, but some flocks don’t get too tied up in pecking order.

The roost bars can be branches cut from your woods or a 2×4.  You want your roost to be about 2 inches wide and not metal if you can help it.  You want a flat level surface around 2 inches wide because chickens like to sleep flat footed.  They can grip if they need to though.

Ventilation

Many first time coop builders forget that coops need to breath, even if you live in very cold climates.  This is because their droppings put off a lot of moisture and ammonia, so you want a way for that to vent well.  You want to make sure that there is at least some ventilation, but make sure it hardware cloth over it so predators can’t get in. The rule of thumb is around 1 square foot of ventilation per 10 square feet of floor space in the coop.

Nesting Boxes

You want one nesting box for every 3-4 hens you have.  All a nesting box needs to be is a small more enclosed area roughly 1 cubic foot in size with some hay on the bottom.  I’ve done everything from milk crates to 5 gallon buckets on their side.  Just make sure you can easily get into the nesting box to grab the eggs as they are laid and they you can clean them easily.

Make sure you can see well into your nesting boxes because sometimes you find things other than hens in them.  Here is a black snake that snuck into my nesting box.  The joke was on him though, that egg was a plastic egg that we were using to teach the hens to use the nesting box.

snake in nesting box

A Chicken Door

This door only has to be about a single square foot, maybe a foot and a half tall so that a single chicken can come and go into the coop.  The door should be able to be closed up tight at night with a lock that raccoons or other critters can open.  Some people build in a sliding door that operates on a motor with a special sensor that closes when the sun goes down.

golden comet chicken

When I did my permanent coop I had it so the chicken door opened directly into a fenced in chicken run.  The run was covered too and the whole thing tied into the coop itself so that I didn’t have to be there each night to lock the door.  Even if you have your coop in a protected run like I did, its still good to have a door because sometimes you want to shut them up in coop for you to clean things or if a predator is spotted.

A Light

Many people put lights for some heat in the colder months.  Unless you are in a very cold part of the world, I wouldn’t suggest this.  Experience has shown me that if you put a light in a coop and then one night it gets broken or burns out, you’ll end up loosing all your chickens.  I live in North Carolina and for many parts of the US I wouldn’t worry about it.  For colder parts of the US, I’d just build a bigger coop so you can keep them inside for a week if you have to when it’s super cold.  Chickens are pretty hearty.

lights in a coop

The last parts of a coop are your nesting boxes for the chickens to lay their eggs in (usually one box per 3-4 birds) and some sort of bedding to catch droppings from.  Chickens put out a lot of droppings and they tend to concentrate under the roost bars.  However you plan to handle droppings, make it bomb proof because it can get messy quickly and if you build your coop to easily clean out, you can make your life a lot easier.

Chicken Tractors

Many people who want to get into chickens want to try a mobile chicken tractor, which is basically a coop with no bottom that you move to fresh grass every few days.  I’ve done both a fixed coop and chicken tractors and I think chicken tractors are my favorite because it cuts down on the cleaning (no floors, the chickens just poop on the grass) and it reduces the amount of feed I need to buy.

Here is my old chicken tractor:

chicken tractor

There are a few things you need to consider if you decide to go the chicken tractor.  Whatever coop you design it should be able to be moved easily by the smallest person in your household, it makes it difficult if only some of the people can actually move it each day.  As you can see above there are wheels on this tractor, I later switched them to larger wheels because some of the bumps and lumps in the grass would catch the edge of the coop or the wheels.

Consider where you’re going to store feed and how you’ll get water to them.  Where is the closet storage spot?  Where is the closet spigot and will your hose reach to the far corner of the yard?hens and a rooster

Finally make sure you have enough room, if you have more than a few chickens you’ll need to move that coop most days so that the chickens do remove all the vegetation in that one spot to the point that it can’t bounce back.  You want the grass to get roughed up a bit, but no more.  This will let the grass bounce back and grow stronger.  Having enough space is easier in the summer months because things grow so quickly, but in the winter you may find that a spot where the chickens were takes 30-60 days to heal.

Waters

There are three main types of water devices for chickens: Bell, nipple and standard waterer/fountain.  Larger operations tend to use the bell style, I don’t have much experience with those.  The older style of waterer or fountains work pretty well, but I’ve found they get dirty pretty easily.  That leaves my favorite type of waterer which is the nipple style.

chicken waterers

These are just a little valve with a shinny metal tab sticking out that the chickens peck at to get water.  Sometimes you need to show your chickens how to use them, I just take one or two of them and hold it right in front of the nipple.  Basically chickens see something shinny, peck at it and get wet.  Eventually they figure it out and the rest of the flock follows suit.

The nipples are cheap and can be installed into a 5 gallon bucket or into a run of pvc pipe.  This means I can do long runs of these that are tied into a water system so I can set it up for several days of water without any extra work.  An important side note is that you can’t uses these on chicks.

Feeders

There are several types of these, I still haven’t found a favorite type, so let me know what has worked for you in the comments.  I am looking for something that will feed the chickens easily for a few days automatically.  Right now the best option is a vertical PVC pipe about 6″ wide with a opening cut at the bottom.

So that’s some of the key things you need to work into your design when you build your own coop.  Let me know what you plan to do for yours in the comments!

Your Turn!

  • What kind of coop do you hope to build?
  • What tricks have you learned?

Backyard Chickens: Which Breed is Best? What Else do I Need to Know?

Chickens bring so much happiness to our homestead. I could watch them scratch and pick in their yard all day. They clean up bugs and weeds and turn my kitchen scraps into beautiful eggs that nourish my family.

We have been keeping chickens for about 10 years now. While we are always working on improving our set-up and coming up with new ways to manage our flock we have a pretty good grasp on the basics. Here are a few tips for getting started with backyard chickens.

buff orpington

Room to spread their wings

Chickens are very easy to care for as long as their basic needs are met. The first thing to consider is how much room they require. Adequate space both in the coop (house) and run (yard) will keep them from pecking at each other and make it easier to keep things tidy.

When my husband built our coop he made sure there was enough space for us as well. It is our job to collect the eggs and keep the coop clean. I am thankful every time I go out to there that we can freely walk around and work in their coop and run. In southern climates, you can get around this a little easier with wire floors but not up here in the frozen north.

Giving your chickens 3-4 square feet per bird in the coop and 10 square feet per bird in the run will keep them happy and healthy. A flock of eight chickens would thrive in a 4’x6’ coop and an 8’x10’ run.

garden chickens

Choosing chicken breeds

Starting out with some of the standard, all-purpose breeds is an easy way to ensure you will have good layers that can handle most any climate. They will be good-natured birds that are easy to raise and easy to keep. Here are some great options.

  • Barred Rock – Black and white, has a very sweet temperament, and lay brown eggs.
  • Rhode Island Red – Dark red, easy to care for and lay brown eggs
  • Buff Orpington – Buff (golden), often very lovable and lay brown eggs
  • Ameraucana – These are like calico chickens. They come in a wide variety of colors and striping, sometimes a little flighty and lay blue eggs.
  • Leghorns – White or brown, a bit aloof, high egg producers that lay white eggs. Leghorns have very large combs so they are not as well suited for cold climates where they can easily get frostbite.

chicks

When our first batch of chicks arrived in the mail we were enamored with the mix of colors and sizes. We ordered an egg layer assortment that would yield white, brown and blue eggs. Little did we know that the different breeds all have different temperaments. We got some of the standard breeds but we also got some flighty little hens that managed to jump out of every fence we put up. They also preferred to roost in the trees rather than in the coop.

That sounds so sweet to let them roam and roost in trees, especially to my rebellious heart that loves to see animals in their most natural habitat. But I could not keep them safe and every last one eventually got taken by a dog or a coyote. It was heartbreaking.

A roof over their heads

An effective chicken coop will protect your flock from the weather, give them a safe place to sleep and home their nest boxes. This can be accomplished in so many different ways. Some people go all out and build what looks like a fancy doll house, some are built from salvaged materials and some have even been made out of old vehicles.

No matter how you choose to house your chickens here are a couple things to consider.

Ventilation: This is the most important consideration when setting up housing for your flock. In the summer, chickens can overheat very quickly. Make sure that there is adequate airflow to keep them from getting too hot. In the winter you would think the house needs to be buttoned up tight. While you don’t want a draft it is very important to have good ventilation. If the bedding in the coop is damp then your chickens will be much more susceptible to catching a cold or getting frostbite.

hen

Clean Bedding: We love the deep litter method where you lay down fresh bedding regularly without removing the old. If managed properly your coop won’t smell and your chickens will stay cozy and healthy. Another way to manage the coop is to take out the old and lay down fresh as needed. Both methods are very effective.

Chickens bring endless joy and add so much to a homestead. They can help you clear the ground in preparation for planting, keep pests at bay, and of course those delicious, and nutritious eggs. They ask for very little in return. A place to spread their wings, a clean house, food, and water. We will always have a flock of chickens whether we are in town or out in the country.

Your Turn!

  • How would your family benefit from backyard chickens?
  • What chicken breeds suit you best?

Chickens In Their New Home

Recently I have moved the chicks, who are now all grown up, to their new home in the coop I built.  The first day was an adjustment for them because it was soooo hot outside, but they are doing well and seem very happy.

Baby Chicks

So about 2 years ago I started a long term goal of mine: to gradually grow most of my food on my own.  Today I am taking a huge step, I am adding animals!  I just picked up 6 Rhode Island Reds baby chicks!  I have built a coop for them when they get a bit older, but for now here is a quick video in their new home.

I choose this breed of chickens because they are known for laying large eggs frequently, which is what I primarily want them for.  They don’t get broody, generally quieter, aren’t too jumpy.  The other upside is that they do pretty well as a meat chicken in the event that I have to do so.  This is kinda a big step in the process that I am working on and I hope I am doing it right!  Anyway, there is more to come on the chicks in the coming weeks.


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