Friday, August 12, 2011

August 12, 2011: Recipe for Happy, Healthy Chickens


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These days it seems even city dwellers are interested in owning their own flock of chickens. It just makes sense; chickens are easy to take care of and they produce cheap food – always important but especially so in today’s rotten economy. Then again, with so many salmonella and e.coli scares, it’s comforting to know where your food is coming from, too.

I’ve been raising chickens for over two years now (I’ve got a total of 6 right now) and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I want to share those bits of wisdom with you:

A Home for Your Chickens

A chicken coop is easy to make for anyone who is handy with a power saw. My husband made ours without using a plan but forgot to include one thing that would have been really handy – a way to open the top of the coop to clean it out!

Our coop is about a foot and a half off the ground, has 3 nesting boxes filled with straw, a chicken wire floor, and two roosts. The cover over the nesting boxes is hinged so I can easily retrieve the eggs. There’s a front door that closes to keep predators out and a ramp leading up to it. The chicken wire floor is important to keep air circulating through the coop; chickens poop a lot and you don’t want to risk nasty bugs being attracted to an enclosed space.

The chickens live in this home year round, without any type of special provisions for seasonal changes. I was worried last year when it got down to 20 below that the chickens wouldn’t survive – but they did. I didn’t see much of them when there was a lot of snow on the ground; they stayed on their roost and huddle together to keep warm. One of our hens actually got frostbite on her comb but she’s recovered nicely, with no permanent damage.

Egg Production

Chickens will start laying eggs when they are somewhere around 7 – 8 months old. So, chicks born in early spring should start laying by early fall.

Your hens will lay one egg every 26 hours or so, no rooster required. They will continue to lay eggs until there is less than 10 – 12 hours of sunlight in a day. Before they stop laying, they will molt (lose some of their feathers). Although it seems contrary to God’s perfect plan, losing feathers right before the weather turns cold is normal and not detrimental to your hens.

You might hear your hens getting very vocal at times; usually this means they are getting ready to lay an egg. They’ll go to the nesting box and lay there; they like their privacy but don’t mind sharing a single nesting box. In fact of our three older hens, all lay their eggs in one box.

Replenishing Your Flock

Hens will lay for about 3 years or so (sometimes more, sometimes less) so it’s a good idea to introduce new chicks to your flock annually. But don’t just toss the new chicks in with the hens. You’ve probably heard of the term “pecking order”; it comes straight from the barnyard. There’s always a dominant hen in the group, followed by the next most dominant and down to the one at the bottom of the pecking order. New chicks are lower than the lowest hen and they’ll get picked on. It’s best to introduce them to their new digs gradually; set up a small, temporary pen close to the coop so the chickens can get to know each other through the wire first.

When your older hens are no longer laying eggs, let them enjoy their days in peace. Put them out to pasture on a compost heap – they’ll pick at it and distribute the contents nicely.

Feeding Your Chickens

Chickens will eat just about anything – including bits of protein now and then. We buy laying mash and scratch at the feed store and supplement this with kitchen scraps. My chickens’ favorite treats? Lettuce and onion. You’ll always have onion ends and the core from a head of lettuce left over so toss it to your chickens for a treat. Mine will also eat potato peels, apple peels, stale bread, tortillas, rice, pasta – like I said, just about anything!

We used to keep our chickens in a smaller, enclosed pen around their coop but this year we opened up an unused corral for them. They are very happy pecking at the weeds and ants there – and they are truly “free range”!

Roosters

I’ve had roosters before and honestly, I can’t think of a single redeeming quality they have, other than allowing you to raise chicks, if you wish (it takes some doing to nurture a fertilized egg so you’ll probably want to stick to edible egg production at first).

I highly recommend only buying sexed chicks. You are very likely to get a large percentage of roosters from a dozen or more chicks. While some may be tame, others can be downright mean – and you certainly don’t want a ratio of more than one rooster to about six hens or you’ll have cockfighting going on in your coop! And I can personally attest to this: roosters are not good for eating.

So, there you have it – a recipe for healthy, happy chickens (and owners). If you have any questions, feel free to post them here and I’ll do my best to answer. Good luck with your chickens!

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