Raising chickens for egg production is an important part of a long term plan for health, barter, and survival purposes. I will share with you my experiences with raising chickens, and you will find that they are very easy to raise, require very little care, but will produce a valuable commodity right in your own backyard. They are also great to have around because it gives young kids an opportunity to help take care and raise them and they will grow up with some basic knowledge.
First of all, decide what type of chickens you want to raise. It’s a good idea to choose chicken breeds that are good natured, mild mannered (non-aggressive), and are good egg layers. There is a lot of information on the internet about different chicken breeds
that will supply you with information on the most popular breeds and their individual traits (breed size, purpose, egg production, egg size, egg color, comb type, climate hardiness, broodiness, and temperament). You can order chicks on the internet for home delivery, get the chicks at your local feed store, or try Craigslist in your area to see what local breeders have available. You may want to get a couple extra chicks than you actually need since it is not uncommon to have a couple that won’t survive or they end up being roosters. If you live in a rural area or have property with some acreage, you probably won’t have any problems keeping roosters, but if you live within the city limits (wherever you are), you most likely will not be able to have a rooster (they are noisy). I got my first chicks (also called pullets, which are female chickens that are under one year old) almost 3 years ago from a local feed store when the chicks were a day old. You can purchase them when they are older (they’ll be more expensive), but I prefer to get them when they are just born so I can raise them the way I want. Newly hatched baby chicks range from $2.50 - $3.00 per chick. Older ones can cost anywhere from $7.00 to as much as $20.00 per chicken. The second batch of chicks I got from a local breeder that I found on Craigslist. I was looking for a specific breed and this local breeder happened to have what I wanted.
The breed of chicks I chose are red and black stars (also known as red and black sex links), and marans because they are mild mannered, non-aggressive, and good egg-layers.
The ‘equipment’ you will need to begin raising your chicks are a small feeder and watered, some type of bedding (shredded newspaper, sand, dry leaves, or wood shavings - chicks love to root around in the litter), starter feed, a heat lamp to keep the chicks warm, and also at this stage a box or a small container.. You can get almost all of these items at your local feed store.
The first batch of chicks I got I kept in a box inside the house for a couple of days, then transferred them outside into an enclosed area of a home-made chicken coop. The second batch just got put directly into an enclosed area of the coop.
However you start to raise your baby chicks, you will eventually need a chicken coop. Chicken coops come in all shapes and sizes, can be homemade or store bought, and can be stationary or mobile. If making a homemade chicken coop, you can design your own, or go online to find schematics to build from. The main elements are to have a place for them to roost at night, lay eggs during the day, a place for the food and water, and have enough room to move about. Even if your chickens are free range, they will need a place to go to for sleeping and laying eggs.
An important thing to know when getting brand new, just born baby chicks is that you have to keep them warm. I use a 250 watt infrared light bulb that I hang up in the coop to keep the baby chicks warm.
You don’t want to use a halogen bulb for this as it will get too hot for the chicks. The infrared bulb puts out nice even heat that will warm the area sufficiently without harming the chicks. The temperature needs to be kept at around 95 degrees for the first week, then decrease the temperature by 5 degrees every week until they are six weeks old and are fairly feathered out. If the chicks can’t be kept warm for the first weeks of their life, they will die. The nice thing here is that you don’t have to do anything with moving the bulb around - the chicks will simply sit in an area of warmth that the bulb puts out that they are comfortable with so they self-regulate what temperature is good for them. It is important to note here that when the chicks become adults, they can withstand freezing temperatures, but will not do well in extreme heat.
For about the first month of their life, the chicks should be kept in an enclosed area if they are outside so that they can be kept safe from predators, and also to be kept warm. If they are kept inside, you can just keep them in a box or container with the heat lamp on them. Keep in mind, though, they grow pretty fast so getting them used to the environment they will be living in as quickly as possible is preferable. For the first few weeks of the chicks life, all you will have to do is make sure the chicks get starter feed, plenty of fresh water, and warmth. They will grow rapidly during this time.
There are several types of chicken feed: starter feed
(1 day to 6 weeks old), grower feed
(6 weeks to approx. 20 weeks), then layer feed
after that. Each type of chicken feed has the proper balance of protein and calcium for each stage or development. Additionally, chicken feeds come in three different forms: mash, crumble, and pellets. Mash is powdery, pellets are made of compressed mash, and crumbles are made from broken up pellets. I have found that mash is a waste of time and I never use it. I give the younger chicks crumbles, and the older chickens pellets. That way, whenever they kick it out of the feeder (which they will), they can still pick it up to eat. There has been a lot of debate about whether to feed your chickens table scraps to supplement what you give them in their feeder. As for me, I feed my chickens table scraps every chance I get. Not only does it cut down on the need to purchase feed, it also helps you get rid of extra food that would normally just go to waste. What did people feed chickens before there was chicken feed? !One thing you must do, however, is supplement your laying chickens’ diet with extra calcium. The layer feed has extra calcium in it, but you can also add oyster shells (from feed store) or crush up egg shells and put them in the feed or table scraps. Chickens love this, and it is good for them. However, do not give oyster shell to baby chicks as it will cause bone development problems in young birds. You also need to feed chickens grain (usually cracked corn, which is available at the feed store) and you can start adding it in at the grower feed stage (6 weeks +) at a ratio of about one-third grain to two-thirds grower feed. When they get to the laying stage, they will need 50% grain and 50% layer feed. The feeds nowadays generally do not have hormones but may contain antibiotics. Feed stores carry organic and medicated feeds as well. As you would expect, the organic feeds are more expensive and are better for egg producing chickens so that any pesticides don‘t pass from hen to egg and then to you. Most medicated chicken feeds have amprolium
, which is a chicken feed additive that helps prevent coccidiosis (coccidiosis is a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract caused by microscopic organisms called coccidia. The disease spreads from one animal to another by contact with infected feces. It is most severe in young or weak animals and often causes bloody diarrhea). There is a lot of debate about whether amprolium is an antibiotic or not, but it is an additive nonetheless and you should decide whether it is something you want to feed your chicks or not. Many say that chicks need medicated starter feed, although there is a lot of discussion that says home or small farm environments do not need it. Generally, if you keep your chickens in a clean environment, then you won’t need antibiotics in your feed. You will have to decide what works best for you however you decide to feed your birds. Chickens are great - you put food in one end, and they poop out eggs at the other. It’s a very efficient system.
When the chicks are about a month old, you will notice that you will be having to give them much more water and feed than you did at first, so switching to a larger waterer and feeder will be necessary.
Chickens are messy and that is why a lot of feeders and waterers are designed the way they are so that it will keep the chickens from getting into the feed and water. You can get as simple or elaborate as you want, you can purchase commercial feeders and waterers or make your own. The pictures provided in this article are but a few. Find out what works best for you, and whether you want to automate any part of the operation.
The chicken coop will need a supply of litter, and there are several ones to choose from. You can use straw, leaves, sand, wood shavings, etc… You can clean out the coop regularly (every week or so) and use the litter in your compost pile (good source of nitrogen which helps break down the compost faster), or you can ‘deep litter
’, which is when you spread clean litter material over the old litter and let it build up. I use the deep litter method, since it is much easier and less costly, plus I think it is healthier for the chickens.
Some of you may only have a small area in your backyard for a coop and will keep the chickens in the coop at all times, and some of you will have a larger yard that you can let your chickens roam around in during the day (free-range chickens). Whichever way you keep your chickens, you will notice that they are constantly pecking the ground for food. What they are doing is looking for bugs, which are a great food source for them (lots of natural protein). You can always supplement their diet with a treat now and then with some worms, or whatever bugs happen to be around your yard. They will love it.
Chickens like to perch (or roost) on things, so you will notice that they will climb on top of fences, chairs, wood or rock piles, ladders…whatever is around. It is important to have a roosting bar for them to get on at night since it is their nature to sleep while being slightly elevated. They do this because it keeps them safe from some predators, so create a place in your chicken coop that they can go at night to roost and feel safe. Again, this can be a very simple set up, or you can make it as elaborate as you wish.
It is preferable to keep baby chicks separate from the older chickens at least until the babies are a couple months old. Older is better, but if you are going to be mixing baby chicks with older, laying hens, the best way to make sure they both get the right feed is to make a smaller sectioned off area in the coop for the babies and cut a small hold in the chicken wire so that the babies can go in and out to get their food, but that the older hens won’t fit thru. The older hens will peck at the younger ones (this is normal and where the term hen pecked came from), but they will eventually establish their own pecking order and unless you have a really aggressive chicken that is being overly abusive, it is just best to leave them alone to create their own system.
As mentioned earlier, chickens can handle a wide range in temperatures, from freezing winters to hot summer days, but when the temperature is above 90-95 degrees, they will struggle and you will need to provide a way to cool them off in the heat of the day. A popular way to do this is to freeze water in gallon milk containers at night, and put the frozen containers in the chicken coop during the day to offer the chickens a way to keep cool. What I have done is to purchase two misting stands, hook them up to a garden hose, and turn the water on for most of the day.
The chickens like to hang out around the misters and it will keep them cooler so that they can survive. I lost three chickens to the heat the very first year I had them, and this was an efficient way to provide a cooler environment for them. If chickens get stressed, their egg production decreases and worse, they may get sick and die. So keeping them healthy and comfortable is important.
As you can see, there are some basic things to know about chickens such as what kind of feed to give them at certain stages of their life, creating a safe environment for them to eat, lay eggs, and sleep, and basic hygiene in the area in which they live. But chickens are a great addition to anyone who would like to learn about raising and keeping them, or simply to have some healthy, organic eggs of their own to add to their diet or barter system. I would encourage anyone who has the space to get some chicks and start going thru the process of raising them. Even if you can only have a few chickens where you are, it’s a start. There will be some initial output for the supplies (feeders, waterers, coop supplies, heat lamp, etc…), but once you have those items, you can re-use them each time you add another batch of chicks. You will find that chickens are very easy to raise and don’t take much time at all to take care of. The benefits far outweigh any of negatives, so go get some chicks and get started!
This article was published in the August 2011 edition of the Freedom's Phoenix e-Zine and I thought it was a good resource, so I decided to publish this again. When I went a got another batch of chickens just last week, I went back to this article for some refresher points. Here are the new chicks: