Raising chickens: The Basics
March 19 is National Poultry Day. It’s a day set aside to honor the myriad of poultry that we benefit from: Chickens, ducks, turkeys, quail, peafowl, pheasant — even pigeons!
In honor of this great day, we give you a breakdown on how to raise chickens, the gateway drug of homesteading.
Check it out and leave us your tips on raising fowl in the comments below!
Raising chickens is fun and easy, but not for the faint of heart. Before starting out, you must know chickens prime egg laying years are in the first three of adulthood. So, if you want to raise them for eggs, then you’ll need to be aware that chickens live for 8-10 year — sometimes longer — so you’ll get diminishing returns as time goes by.
Many chicken keepers deal with this by eating their birds. Others, like ourselves, grow a bit to attached to the animals, and keep them around for as long as possible. The choice is yours, but be aware, raising chickens can get expensive.
First: Buy your chicks
Find a reputable hatchery, or a local chicken keeper whom you trust, and buy chicks from them. While you can buy adult, laying hens, I find it better to raise the birds from just a day or two old. It’s more expensive to feed them for the first bit, but you’ll get to know the birds better. If you buy your chicks from a hatchery, pay the extra cash to get them sexed. You don’t want to raise too many roosters, as they get aggressive with the hens when there are too many roosters to compete with. A rooster isn’t required to produce eggs.
If you get your chicks locally, take the time to visit the farm where they’re hatched. Look around. Make sure the place is clean and organized. Make sure the adult birds are healthy. Look for bright-eyed, curious animals that are calm and active. If the birds are listless, or stressed, it could be indicative of health problems that you don’t want to deal with.
Second: Brood your chicks
For the first weeks of life, chicks will need to live in a brooder. You can purchase one or you can build your own. Either way, make sure the birds stay warm. The chicks aren’t big enough to generate enough body heat to keep themselves warm. The brooder ensures they have enough heat and light to grow up big and strong. Make sure the brooder stays clean. Young chickens are voracious eaters and they’ll make huge messes in the bottom of their brooder. Make sure you clean it regularly (for us, once a day was just enough).
Third: Feed your chicks
At the early stages of life, chicks need to be fed starter feed, for at least 8 weeks. After the eight week mark, switch them over to grower feed until they turn about 20 weeks old. Then finally, layer feed. You can buy all of these things at your local feed store or, if you’d prefer non-GMO feed (we do!) then you can buy it all here.
Most chicken starter is medicated to prevent coccidiosis — a parasite that can kill young chickens. However, many chicken keepers prefer to avoid medicated feed, as it can increase the parasite’s resistance to drugs over time. And if you’re going for organic certification, you’ll may have to use non-medicated feed. If you do decide to go with all natural feed, which is what we use, then you’ll have to do a little more research. Add diatomaceous earth to your feed and organic apple cider vinegar to the chick’s water. It’ll boost their immune systems, fight the parasites and the DE will help kill the parasites. Make sure they have plenty of clean, fresh water available at all times. (check out Corid (Amprolium) for Chickens)
Fourth/Third: Get your chicken coop ready
Chicken coop designs are as varied as people. Everyone has their own way of doing it.
Basically, you’ll need a place for your chickens to sleep, stay out of the wind, rain and cold. If you want to build your own, here’s some designs on Pinterest.
Make sure your coop is big enough for the number of chicks you have. A good rule of thumb is you’ll need 2 square feet for each bird. Bigger is mostly better, as long as your coop is warm and dry. If you chickens aren’t free range, then you’ll need a run — basically a place for the darlings to run around, socialize and get some exercise. Make sure the run is open to the air, covered to prevent predation from hawks, has shade and grit. (you can check out: best chicken coops here)
Grit is a product that allows birds to digest food. It also supplements their diet with calcium. You can buy it at feed stores, or online. Again, make sure your chickens have free access to water and food. It’ll keep them happier. Happy chickens produce more eggs.
Fifth?: Enjoy your chickens
While you can get tons of eggs from your chickens (average laying rate is two eggs for every three chickens daily), you’ll also get tons of joy from the little darlings. You’ll have to feed and water your chickens every day, but after the novelty wears off, it’s easy to forget to take a little time to just sit and watch them. So whenever you have a free minute, I advise you to go and grab a bucket or foldable chair and just sit and watch your birds. They’re surprising complex animals with a sophisticated social structure (the proverbial pecking order). Bring some treats! Enjoy.
Make a fodder system: A fodder system, either purchased or made, can provide supplementary nutrition for your birds. And it gives you a chance to know everything about what your chickens eat.
Here’s a video:
Insulate your coop: If you build your coop, insulate it. The extra effort and expense will keep your birds more comfortable. Comfortable chickens are happy chickens. Happy chickens make more eggs.
Close your flock: Once you get the number of chickens you’re comfortable with, don’t get any more! This is called “closing your flock.” By not introducing new birds into your flock, you prevent disease and infection from coming into your coop. New birds can bring parasites and disease into your flock. If you just have to buy new birds, make sure you quarantine them for at least a few weeks before introducing them into your flock. It goes a long way into keeping your birds healthy. (you can read Backyard Chicken Books for Beginners)