Ever thought about raising chickens?
If so, you’re in good company — raising chickens have become one of hobbyists’ fastest-growing events. How often can you raise healthy food and start an easy business, all in the space of your choice?
That’s chickens for you.
We’ve been raising chickens for more than three years; in fact, our fourth batch of chicks is due to arrive any day now. Ten chicks a year has translated out to about 20 chickens in a backyard coop. And that means about 8 eggs a day: more than enough to have all the eggs we want, plus enough eggs to sell. ($3.75 a dozen — in our area, fresh eggs go for $5 and up!) In fact, the egg sales have more than paid for feed, special equipment, and even part of the coop costs. If all goes well, we’ll have paid completely for the coop by egg sales in just a year or two.
That doesn’t even include the delicious chicken meat we’ll gain when we cull out older hen. (After three years, they lay fewer eggs — or stop altogether.) Two appeared for Christmas dinner this year, marinated with garlic and olive oil, and flanked with roasted vegetables. That beautiful roast chicken on your table is not only beautiful — but good for you, too.
It’s not difficult to get started. First, you’ll need the chickens! There are all sorts of breeds to choose from; many feed and grain stores are stocking chicks right now in the spring, and can tell you about the best type for your area. In Colorado, our neck of the woods, weather is hot and dry in the summer, and cold in the winter — very cold. We needed breeds that could handle the extreme temperature changes; we can go from sunny skies to rain and snow in just a few hours.
We began with Black Austrolorps, a Buff Orpington breed perfected in Australia. These big girls have black, iridescent glossy feathers, a placid temperament — and are great layers.
They get along with each other, and other breeds — like the Rhode Island Reds we added a few years ago. The Reds are bossier, but lay more regularly, and aren’t as “broody” as the Australorps. (I.e., trying to hatch eggs, instead of laying them!) You can get the same breed for all your chickens, or mix and match — they don’t seem to mind. (Do look for brown egg-layers, though — they sell much better. Some people like the Araucana “easter eggers,” too The eggs are smaller, but come in blue, green, tan and a pale pink.)
We started with a small coop, purchased for $45 on Craigslist, a large plastic storage bin, and a dozen chicks. (You can mail order these, but local stores will sell you female chicks for as little as $4-5 each — and replace any chicks that turn out to be roosters, instead.) A lamp stayed on over the chickies, keeping them warm, and a feedpan plus a quart jar waterer kept them fed and comfortable. Every week, the lamp was raised a little higher — and within a month, our peepers were outside in the coop, pecking and looking for tasty bugs.
It was time for a larger coop, also purchased via Craigslist. (The smaller coop protects the newest batch of chicks until they get used to their larger sisters.) We expanded the yard, using wood pallets and a chicken wire-covered library table. The wire mattress guards from our kids’ old bunkbeds provided usable gates, until we found cedar fence boards for free to build a separate yard. (Yes, Craigslist again!)
A heatlamp, mounted inside the coop, keeps the chickens comfortable during the coldest night (up to -15 F in our area), and a regular bulb on a timer gives them 12 hours of light, all year-round. (Chickens stop laying when the seasons shorten, when they’re not exposed to enough light.)
A regular supply of feed “crumbles” and cracked corn (kept in garbage cans), a fresh water supply, and a clean out of the coop every few months, and the chickens do the rest. They’re surprisingly easy to care for — open their coop in the morning, and close it at night, to keep predators at bay. Collect the eggs, check on them…that’s it! We didn’t have to advertise to sell our eggs — people came to us, once they heard we were raising chickens. (We even have a waiting list.)
Are you ready for chickens? You’ll have to answer a few questions first:
*Does your area let you have chickens? We live in an unincorporated area, so can raise as many as we like. (the town near us limits backyard use to 3 or 4 chickens — enough eggs for personal use.) We could raise more, I guess, and sell more — but we like to keep enough hens to give us eggs, and sell 3-5 dozen a week. (In our case, that ranges from 20-25 chickens.)
*How much do you want to spend? Chickens can be raised in pallet-built sheds you can build for free…or fancy pants coops with windowboxes and decorative trim that cost hundreds of dollars.You will need nesting boxes (they like a private place to lay), and a small fence or ladder inside for them to roost on at night.
Mail order feeders work well — but Youtube is also full of videos that show you how to build a useful waterer or feeder from scavenged wire, metal cans and plates. (Keep a de-icer in the water during the winter, so they can drink all they want.)
*Is your yard fenced? Letting the chickens out gives them a wide area to run around, eat greens (and worms, on rainy days), and generally hang out together. They’ll scratch up a little dirt for refreshing dust baths, and keep your yard free of snakes, nasty bugs (grasshoppers and such)…even mice!
There are a few negatives to chicken-raising. For one, keeping too many — or including a rooster — will make your neighbors unhappy. (A gift of eggs now and then certainly helps.) For another, chickens do a good job of scratching up plants and greens — far too good. They’ll decimate your garden and flowerbeds, if you aren’t careful. (Fencing them in a smaller yard solves that problem.)
Also, when you’re on vacation, you’ll need to arrange for someone to come in to take care of the flock. We use the same teenager who feeds our dogs while we’re gone. He gets paid — and his mother luxuriates in all those fresh eggs!
Another ‘negative’ of chickenhood — those droppings — are actually a positive. They smell less than you think (given that you shovel out the poop and put in fresh straw now and then). And they make excellent fertilizer for growing plants, We waste very little since we got chickens — they’ll eat leftovers, spoiled food and vegetable scraps, plus a can of mackerel now and then. (They love protein.) We also gather up, after Oct. 31, every jack-o-lantern we can get our hands on — they love pumpkin.
Backyard Chickens.com is one of the easiest places to explore the idea of raising chickens, including basics, coop plans…and even a wet-chicken photo contest. (Oooh…) If someone in your neighborhood already has a coop, ask them for advice on the best breeds and care for your area.
You may find, like we have, that the quiet clucking and busywork of our feathered buddies is a real pleasure…and surprisingly fun to watch. Especially when we know that every ‘announcement’ means another fresh egg omelet for us!
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