Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Backyard Chicken 101

It's that time of year again! CHICKEN TIME!

You can actually order chicks at any time of year, but right now is when Tractor Supply stores and farmers co-ops and feed and seeds have hundreds of adorable peeping day-old chicks for sale.

A friend recently asked for advice on raising backyard chickens and I wanted to share a bit of what we've learned in the last two years of chicken ownership. Let me say right off the bat that there are hundreds of backyard chicken tutorials online. My advice is nothing fancy or especially comprehensive. These are just my top advice points when I'm asked about having chickens.

 1. Chickens are messy and will destroy your yard. 

There's really no way around this. Chickens produce copious amounts of poop. And chicken poop is gross. It is stinky. And yes, it is fertilizer and all that, but still. Stinky.

We utilize the "chicken tractor" method but this method has drawbacks. The first of which is getting a coop that is easily mobilized (ours honestly takes a little grunt work to move, so we move it about once weekly). The second of which is making sure you have the space to use this method effectively. Chickens will tear up everything they can get to. Our five hens have a 6x4 coop and are allowed to free range most days and by the end of the week that their coop has been in the same spot there is nothing but bare dirt and piles of poop left over. Moving our coop around is fine here on the homestead because we have a two-acre pasture to use, so having some bare spots isn't a big deal. If we had a regular sized yard I think I'd reconsider moving the coop around because the yard would be completely destroyed in very little time.

Personally think the best option for a backyard coop is one that is immobile, with cleanliness achieved through using the deep bedding method: keeping a bale of straw handy and using it to cover the ground of the coop / chicken run weekly or as the top layer of straw gets dirty, then doing a deep clean and hauling all the straw out to the compost pile every month or so.

 2. Predators of chickens are abundant and clever.

Raccoons, opossums, coyotes, stray dogs, stray cats, hawks, foxes, weasels, skunks. All these animals love a tasty chicken dinner and some will go to great lengths to get it. Most of these predators are not strictly limited to living in the country. I actually think there tend to be more chicken predators in urban areas than in the country.

In our two years we've lost a chick to our own dog, a hen to a stray dog, and a hen to an unknown predator, probably a possum. All but the first loss were due to lack of security with our coop. In both cases our coop was resting on uneven ground (which we didn't realize) and the predator scooted under and had their way with the hen.

Coops need to be on level ground and be well-reinforced. Just chicken wire may not cut it -- a stray dog or even a determined raccoon can tear through chicken wire. Our coop is reinforced with hardware wire plus chicken wire.

Here's some more great information on preventing loss from predators, with specific information on deterring different types of predators.

3. Hens don't lay forever. 

The hard fact is that a hen will not lay consistently forever. Hens' production gradually drops and each year after the first year they will molt, a period of up to four months where they lose then regrow feathers, during which time they will not lay a single egg but will still eat as much as before. Either plan to have a mostly non-functional animal after a few years (in other words, a pet) or know what you are going to do when your beloved laying hen stops, well, laying.

You can either slaughter and eat your chickens yourself once they're past their prime (stew hen is delicious in dishes such as chicken & dumplings) or it would be easy to find someone else who can do dirty job for you. We took in some roosters a few months ago from folks who knew they'd be slaughtered, but didn't want to eat the birds themselves.

Our plan is to phase out hens at around three years of age, so this year we're getting new chicks to grow up to replace our current hens who are just turning two.

 4. Count the cost.

Folks often dream of raising hens with the benefit of "free" eggs. This is a little bit of a myth, in my experience. Backyard chickens don't necessarily equal massive savings. In fact, your home-raised eggs will likely cost at least as much as standard grocery store eggs (around $2/dozen these days I think?) and may be closer to the cost of farmers market eggs ($4-$5/dozen).

Some of the costs that should be factored into the "price" of your hens' eggs: 

Coop: $50-$300 (or more, like these crazy chicken mansions)
Chicks: $3-5/each
Feeding chicks/pullets until laying age: $10/hen
Waterer: $10-40
Feeder: $5-40
Heat lamp: $10-25

Our total startup cost, including feeding the chicks/pullets until they reached laying age, was about $200 which is actually on the low end of the scale. We only spent $50 on our coop, so that was a major part of our savings. It still takes a lot of eggs to make up that startup cost.

Every month our five hens go through a 45 lb bag of organic feed (which we purchase from Windy Acres in middle-Tennessee, though we are transitioning to our own whole grain feed soon) that costs $25. They lay about 10 dozen eggs a month when they're at the top of their game, so each dozen breaks down to about $2.50 when only factoring feed cost.

With all these things said, we get a lot of enjoyment from having chickens. Their fresh eggs are delicious and usually plentiful. The hens all have funny personalities and are amusing to watch as they roam around taking dust baths and scratching around for bugs. Once the initial work of setting up for chickens is over, they don't take a whole lot of work. We probably spend about 5 minutes a day taking care of the hens -- feeding them, giving them water, and letting them in and out of their coop to free-range during the day.

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