Monday, March 11, 2013

Backyard Chickens: Tips for Getting Started

Welcome back, and I do apologize for the lack of posts last week - after week's lack of sleep, I was struck down with the flu - the first time in almost 15 years! And it was NOT fun. Thank goodness that's over, and today it feels like spring, and I'm back with some more great stuff about living the organic sustainable life! This week's topic is backyard (or city) chickens!

Chickens in the chicken tractor at an organic ...
Chickens in the chicken tractor at an organic farm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A few years ago, it seemed a little bizarre that someone would keep chickens in their backyard. These days, no one bats an eye at this inexpensive and rewarding way to feed the family.

There are a few reasons why people raise chickens:

- Obviously, for the fresh eggs
- Natural removal of weeds and bugs
- To save money
- It’s pretty easy, once you get started

Of course, always check local laws about raising chickens in your yard and ensure you’re in compliance before you start. You can purchase chickens from a variety of suppliers. You can actually hatch eggs or raise chicks, but they are more work than just getting already grown chickens.  Keep your climate in mind, the egg size you want and whether or not the chicken will be raised strictly for eggs. You can use the handy tool here to select a breed appropriate for your purposes:

One chicken will lay about 4-6 eggs per week, but they generally lay less in colder months, so keep this in mind when planning their space.

To raise chickens, you can have them running free, but a coop provides protection from the elements and predators, so make a plan to build one. A coop should provide about 2-3 square feet per hen, and for the outside area, each hen should have about 5 square feet of space. In a coop they can peck each other without enough space, so never try to cram them in.

As you build, keep seasonal temperatures in mind. Make sure air can get through in summer and keep it from going through in winter. You can even use a tarp to keep it warm, and remove it as needed. Use a slanted roof to let rain roll off, if you live in a rainy area.

Inside the coop, use pine shavings for the flooring. This makes it comfortable for the chickens and easy for clean up as you scoop out and replace the shavings. Provide plenty of roosting space. They will also need nesting space. Wooden boxes work well for this.

Chickens ranging. (Photo credit: Allie's.Dad)
You can feed chicken store-bought feed pellets. They also love vegetable scraps, bread and bugs, and they'll love foraging around outside as much as possible. Having access to grass and bugs will also cause them to produce much healthier and more nutritious eggs, so make sure they do have access to the outdoors! Give them fresh water regularly, keep their area clean and you’ll have happy chickens. Check on them daily and collect their eggs each day as well. Eggs can go bad quickly in warm weather and in cold weather; they can freeze, expand and crack.

If you have young children, always supervise them with the chickens. Chickens will peck to defend themselves and although it won’t take a child too long to learn this, you need to be there to ensure proper handling of the chickens. In addition, live poultry can carry salmonella. Everyone should wash their hands thoroughly and immediately after handling the chickens or being in your chicken’s area.

Overall, having chickens can be a very rewarding experience and many people come to see chickens as part of their family. It is a long term commitment because chickens can live for 12 years or more. Just care for them, protect them and they will serve and feed you well!

On Wednesday we'll discuss building a chicken coop in more detail, so be sure to check back!
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