Raising Chickens – Part One
Spring is just around the corner, and this Farm Wife’s fancy has turned to raising chickens. Every year around this time we start working toward rebuilding our flock, and are usually trying to order way more than we can handle. It’s like being in a candy store, and wanting a fist-full of everything!
It’s hard to whittle it down to just what is needed and to keep the numbers in line with what our coop can handle. Too many and it wreaks havoc. Too few, and we can’t meet our egg orders. What to do, what to do? Are you having the same problem? Well, here’s how we handle it.
First Things First when Raising Chickens
The first thing that needs to be done is to determine why you want chickens. Our primary aim is for the eggs. We have to take into consideration what our customers want – which is the largest brown or white eggs possible. Most of them love finding a blue egg in their carton, so we automatically know we will get Ameraucanas. That leaves us with the white and brown layers.
In doing my research several years ago, I came across a great website that lists out the various breeds, their varieties and sizes, origin, egg type/size/color/amount, their brooding/hardiness/maturing level and their behavior. I keep a copy of this chart handy and refer to it often. The name of the site is Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart and it can be found at http://www.sagehenfarmlodi.com/chooks/chooks.html. I check out each breed according to our needs, and then narrow it down to about six to eight different varieties that will work for us. From there I head over to the poultry sites.
White is actually the normal color for an egg. In order to get white eggs, you need to breed a white layer to a breed of Roo (Rooster) that lays white eggs (a Leghorn to a Leghorn, Minorca, Lakenvelder, etc.). A brown egg gets its color in the last stage of laying from the hen’s abdomen. The color comes from the hemoglobin, and the color can be washed off (rub or gently scratch a brown egg and see what happens). Think ‘paint’.
The blue or green coloring cannot be washed off, as it is in the gene oocyanin, and is part of the shell. A green egg, such as the Olive Egger lays, is in reality a blue egg that has been coated with the brown ‘paint’ from a brown egg layer. I’ve seen, and am still trying to figure out, lavender eggs. If I could only figure the breeds that would combine to do this on a regular basis!
Where Do Chicks Come From?
There are several good places where you can purchase your chicks, but not many will let you order as few as one or two. Before you think in terms of a flock that small, it is not a good thing to have just one chicken. If you ask me I would say you should have at least three to five. Some hatcheries require a 25 bird minimum, and unless you plan on using your chickens for egg sales and have the room to house them, you may want to rethink this, or go in with several friends who also want chickens.
Our coop is designed for up to 75 chickens. Rather than overcrowd, we try to keep it to four dozen. When we order, we first determine how many we have and how many will need to be replaced. Our order is placed for enough chicks to maintain our numbers. So far, we’ve only ordered from Murray McMurray Hatcheries in Webster City, Iowa, and have been very happy with them.
Once we’ve chosen our hatchery, we compare our list to what they have available. This year, we are ordering a dozen each of Buff Orpingtons, White Leghorns, Americauna and Delaware. With this combination, we have two brown egg layers (Buff and Delaware), one White (Leghorns) and one blue (Americauna). Out of just a pure love for them, I’ve also tossed in an assortment of Polish Crowns, which are chickens that sport the most fun top hats of feathers! Truthfully, we can’t really use their eggs for sale, but oh, the chicken yard has so much aplomb with them in it!
Note: If you are ordering from a hatchery or buying chicks locally, be sure they have been vaccinated for Marek’s Disease. Marek’s is a highly contagious viral neoplastic disease that is fatal and can rapidly spread to all your other chicks.
Hatching Your Own
Once you have a flock established, consider investing in an incubator. This is a much more economical way to increase your flock. We bought a Reptipro 6000 and love it. It is advertised for reptile eggs, but it works perfectly for chickens and other birds.
An incubator allows you to hatch eggs in small or large batches. If you want purebred, make sure you keep a rooster and at least two hens in a separate area. Otherwise, your chicks will be a mix of the breeds you have on hand.
If you are thinking of getting some backyard chickens for yourself, take a few things into consideration before you buy. First, you need to check with the zoning in your area. More and more cities are rezoning to allow them, but there are still a few holdouts. Shreveport, Louisiana has zoning laws that are somewhat awkward. It is legal to have chickens in the backyard, but having the smell, noise and manure in your backyard is not. If your city does allow them, make certain you read and follow all of the rules and regulations. It would be pure heartbreak for you to fall in love with your ‘girls’, only to have to give them away.
Decide why you want to start raising chickens. Do you want them for the fresh eggs? If so, then determine the size you want – eggs come in sizes from very small to huge. Go to Henderson’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart and do your research into what breed you want. Do you want them for pest control, and the eggs are just lagniappe? Just about any chicken will do – they help to keep ants, fleas and other small pests at bay.
To Bantam, or Not to Bantam?
You may want to think hard about choosing the Bantam chickens. Bantams are too small for meat, and their eggs are tiny, so not really marketable. They do just as well as large eggs for cooking – you just need a chart on the ratio of large to small eggs. Bantams can fly better than their larger sisters and could all too easily end up in the neighbors’ yard or the road. Randy, however, loves the Banty Roos, and we always keep one or two on hand for his amusement.
Do you want chickens for meat? Look for broilers, or meat birds, often referred to as Cornish X. Cornish X is a specialty cross of breeds designed to grow and gain weight quickly. These will not give you the eggs you may want, simply because they are ‘given a train ticket’ (as we say here on Paradise) between 6 and 8 weeks of age. They do not get old enough to lay eggs.
Regardless of why you want them, chickens do make great pets and contribute toward lowering the grocery budget. To me, there is nothing better than fresh eggs in the morning, or using them to bake a great pound cake. If you have enough, you can also sell the eggs you and your family don’t consume, and that helps contribute financially to their upkeep!
Stick around for Part Two: How to raise your baby chicks.
Want some great books on Raising Chickens? Check these out!
How To Speak Chicken: Why Your Chickens Do What They Do and Say What They Say – by Melissa Caughey
Gardening With Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and your Hens – by Lisa Steele