Chanticleer strutting his stuff
When I tell folks that I live on a farm, they inevitably ask, "What do you farm?" My first and joking response is, "Children!" After we share a good laugh at the expense of my large family we finally get around to talking chicken. While we live on nearly 30 acres, the only farm animals we are allowed to raise are chickens and rabbits.
Chickens are an excellent entry into raising animals for food or profit. Pound for pound, chickens have one of the best conversion rates for feed to pound of finished meat. Chickens are also fairly easy to handle, do not require a large expense to start raising, and are easy to butcher at home. While I have been a part of a large-scale commercial poultry operation, growing poultry on the small scale for home consumption is where it is at.
Do you have an acre of land? Does your borough or homeowner's association allow chickens on your property? If so, I encourage you to start with a few chicks and try raising them. Here are a few keys to starting on the right foot:
1. Decide if you want to raise "broilers" (for meat) or "layers" to have eggs. Modern broiler birds can be full grown and ready to process at 8 weeks old. Layers on the other hand must be raised much like a family pet for possibly up to 6 months before they begin laying eggs. While you can start with both as chicks, for your first attempt I would pick one or the other. If you choose layers, you can also purchase 16 week old birds that have gone through the brooding phase and saves you the hassle of handling chicks. These birds cost a bit more, but can be worth the expense so you don't have to set up a brooder (a warming box for the young chicks)
2. Decide how many birds you can handle - considering housing, feed, your property, and caretaking. Six broilers are nearly as much work as 30, but at processing time the quantity can present a big challenge for the inexperienced. Having six laying hens for a family will produce about 3 dozen eggs a week during full production. We made the mistake once of raising 50 laying hens. That meant 300 eggs per week...which meant gathering, washing, and crating 300 eggs per week. In the end, it was just too much for our children to handle and so we ended up giving away most of the birds. To start, it is always best to start small.
3. Build your coop. There are multiple sites online where you can find plans. If you are able to build a movable "chicken tractor" it will provide the chickens with fresh ground to forage on. Broilers simply require ground, and so a perch is not necessary in their coop. Layers on the other hand need laying boxes and perches. To get some ideas - check out Backyardchickens.com
4. Gather your supplies. You will need feeders, waterers, feed, and something to store your feed in (otherwise you are inviting rodents to a feast, for they love chicken feed). Stores like Tractor Supply and Agway carry a supply of both chick feeders as well as feeders for the full-grown birds. Waterers are a little more complicated as you can choose from manually filled, where you would need to constantly tend it, to the automatic, which can run off of gravity from a large bucket, or off of your garden hose. As I use a fixed coop, I love the automatic waterer because I can be sure the birds will never run dry, especially in the hot summer. Again, Backyardchickens.com is an excellent resource here.
5. Find your feed supplier. This can be a real challenge depending on where you live. I am blessed to live near Lancaster County, home to numerous Amish farms. I happen to live within a few miles of one of the best feed mills in Lancaster County...with the best pricing on chicken feed. Since feed comes in multiple varieties for the different stages of a chicken's life, you will want to ask for the appropriate feed for that stage. Chick, pullet, layer, finisher, etc. come with different protein contents for the different needs of the chicken. You can also choose between mash and pellets, which simply comes down to a personal preference and your style of feeder. I prefer mash for broilers and pellets for laying hens. My supplier in PA is here.
6. Plan your timing. If you are ordering broilers, you will raise them for about 8 weeks from day old chick to processing weight. This means if you want fresh chicken for July 4th, you will need to have your chicks arrive no later than May 9th. Depending on the hatchery, you may need to allow a few weeks for them to ship your order. Call your hatchery and see what their schedule is like. Also consider brooding time. Newborn chicks require heat in their first few weeks with no draft. This means starting them around 95 degrees and decreasing it by 5 degrees each week for the first four to five weeks. Ordering chicks to arrive on January 1st in the frozen tundra of Minnesota is not a good idea. Also, ordering chicks in the heat of the summer in Georgia can quickly turn into a disaster for the chicks are also susceptible to heat exhaustion and dehydration. This year I wanted to process my broilers before the heat of the summer so I ordered early and my chicks arrived at the end of March. This works for me since I have a barn that is fairly secure and I use heat lamps to brood my birds. Layers take anywhere from 4-6 months to start laying, however winter can throw that cycle off and they may postpone laying until spring.
7. Order your birds. With the myriad of breeds available, it can be hard to decide what to order. I prefer a good producer so I use White Cross Rocks for my broilers and Rhode Island Reds for my layers. Don't be afraid to experiment and order something different, unless you are frugal like me and just want solid meat and egg production. You will also need to decide on "straight run" (males and females mixed) or a male only or female only order. A straight run is less expensive, but if you are ordering chicks for laying eggs, you may want a specific quantity of females, and one or two males if you want that handsome rooster waking you up at 5am! On that note, roosters can be both a pain and a savior. They protect their hens and are a necessary part in creating more chicks, but they also can be ornry, mean, and foul (ahem...) I have had roosters that I loved and despised. But in the end, they always realized who the bigger rooster was!
8. Consider the downside. Rodents, flys, odor, caretaking, etc. These are all important things to consider. Your chicks will arrive and you must pick them up at the post office asap. There is no waiting until you are done with work, or until it suits you to pick them up. Also, the birds will need to be fed every day for the duration of their life...no exceptions. This means either being home for that duration, or having someone fill in for you if travel is necessary. Rodents are probably the biggest problem facing the backyard poultry farmer. We have lost chickens to foxes, raccoons, skunks, and believe it or not, hawks. I have had family members loose an entire flock in one night to a family of foxes. In our area this has forced me to rely on my barn rather than a portable chicken tractor. Electric poultry fences work wonders on rodents, especially for the movable coop. Flys and odor are just part of the process, but can be kept down using portable coops, fresh litter, and keeping coops fairly clean. I recommend avoiding chemicals to combat these problems, for they create worse problems.
9. Jump on in. In the end, can you really go wrong with trying out growing a few chickens?