I have wanted chickens for several years, now. The fear of the unknown is always a little intimidating for me, so I spent that time reading about owning chickens (blogs, books and articles) and visiting a friend’s nearby farm regularly – he raises chickens.
Occassionally, we are the beneficiaries of his all natural, free range eggs – they are delicious! So much so, that whenever I can, I try to buy the organic eggs at the store, although they are still not the same as the farm fresh eggs from Marvin’s chickens. I would also love to buy more free range chicken meat, but it is very spendy and hard to find in my local area.
This year, I decided I just needed to take the plunge and make it happen. My husband gave me 20 chicks for my birthday. 6 are larger breeds, intended to supply meat. The other 14 are egg laying varieties, intended to supply eggs that will be white, brown, blue and green.
I would like to state, for the record, that this little chicken operation of mine would not be going quite as well as it is if it were not for my wonderful husband. And Marvin – my husband’s farmer friend. He even called to check on the chicks after their first night with us – how cute!
We have now had the chickens for 3 months, and I would like to share what has worked and what we have learned thus far.
The chicks need a small, warm place to hang out for the first few weeks of life. We made a small box in our garage, put a red light over it for heat and raised it up as the chicks grew larger. We had a small feed trough and water supply that Marvin lent us, as he did not have chicks this year. We used shredded paper (that we made ourselves from our recycled mail, etc.) as the bedding. All the chicks survived this early stage.
Chicks are ADORABLE. Try not to think too much about the fact that you will be eating some of them.
It is best not to name them. My kids named one particularly cute chick “Chestnut”. The next morning, our seven year old came down crying, saying he had a dream that we ate Chestnut. Needless to say, Chestnut has a stay of execution and will enjoy a long and happy life at the Schahn Family Farm. Our rule since then: Stop. naming. the. chickens. Unless you pick names like “chicken nugget” and “chicken chow mein”.
Chickens are messy. They are animals, after all. They poop where ever and whenever they want and you have to clean out the bedding regularly, wash off the water containers regularly and so on. Logically, the bigger they get, the worse this situation gets. And the summer heat does not help the situation, either.
Chickens need a place to live. Since we are just venturing into chicken farming, we did not want to lay down a ton of cash or effort on a chicken coop. We decided to repurpose a play house for the kids by making screens for the window, moving it up on blocks, adding a door and building a fence around it. We spent $20 on the window screening and used salvaged wood and fencing from some friends for free.
Chickens need room. Turns out, as the chickens have gotten bigger, the play house is on the small side. The meat chickens are destined for the freezer in the next 6 weeks, so we will see if it is better after that. We may send a few more the to freezer, we will have to see. Eventually, should we decide to continue with chickens, we will probably build a bigger coop and have a larger fenced area. Even if meat chickens are not with us forever, they are around for a while and all the chickens could use more room. And even if we have fewer chickens, we will still struggle to get our adult sized rearends through the kid sized playhouse door. It’s not pretty.
Chickens are fun. They have personality. They come to recognize your voice and check you out. They don’t love to be picked up, but once you catch them, they relax and hang out with you. It has been a great experience for our family.
Chickens eat. A lot. Be prepared to buy a lot of chicken food. I highly recommend a chicken feeder.
Chickens start laying eggs when they are about 24 weeks old (we are around week 13 now).
Chickens need protection. Larger birds, fox, other critters are all a threat to your chickens. We buried wood around the base of the fence, put wood above ground around the base of the fence and we close up the coop at night (we open it up in the morning and let them hang out in the coop or the fenced yard until dusk). Despite our best efforts, one of our dogs… well, let’s just say there is now a bit more room in the coop. And the current chicken count is 19.
Water is essential. It is very important that chickens have access to clean water at all times. Now that the chickens are older, we have a 3 gallon container that fills up a drinking rim automatically. On really hot days (100 degrees or so), we need to fill this daily. On normal days (85 degrees or so), we have to fill it every 2-3 days.
You won’t get rich raising chickens. No big news here, but we will come out at least even once the chickens start laying eggs and when we eat the meat, even at store prices for non-organic eggs and chicken. If you compare what you would spend for free range chicken and eggs, we will definitely come out ahead. A huge plus is that I know what they have eaten and how they have lived. And we will probably have enough eggs to share with friends, which I would love to be able to do. When we invest in a larger coop, it will takes us longer to recover our costs, of course. It really is about the experience – I would not do it just to save $100 – $300 per year.
You get over the idea of eating them. Once they leave the cute chick stage, it is not as hard to imagine eating them. Now, I have never, ever killed or butchered anything other than a zucchini, so stay tuned. I am not looking forward to it, but I do recognize it as a responsibility that comes with raising the chickens. I am prepared to give it my best shot and I am secretly praying that my husband will spare me a tiny bit in the process. Both my mother-in-law and father-in-law grew up on farms, so they are adept at the whole process and are happy to teach us the ropes. I plan to put on my brave face and march forward.
I will post an update on the chickens once we process the meat chickens and start getting eggs.
In the meantime, if anyone is further ahead in the chicken raising process, I would love to hear any tips, ideas or advice you might have.
And, if you are like my coworker who “prefers to hunt for his chicken under plastic wrap in the grocery store”, I get it :-). Chicken farming is not for everyone. But, try to keep in mind that animals that are not put under undo stress (or animals allowed to run around, forage for some food, etc.) are healthier and better for you to consume. Your chicken and eggs come from somewhere. You really do vote with your dollars.