For the last four years Pixie and I have been raising chickens for eggs. We began our foray into the poultry world by purchasing eight pullets (a female chicken under one year of age) which were about 4 months old. I wasn’t confident enough to start with day old chicks and this was an ideal solution. We are now living in the capital city of our state with a small flock of hens which do wonders to keep the tick population down. We have new predators here that we did not have in our former rural home. The following is a primer for anyone new to poultry raising.
To begin: A small flock is always ideal for first timers, consider your location and surroundings when choosing breeds. Here in New Hampshire we get very cold winters, the heavy breeds are best suited for this region (we started with Plymouth Barred Rocks and NH Reds, both thrived very well). Day old chicks are a lot of fun but a tremendous amount of work. They need a warm, dry and clean place to live for the next 6 weeks safe from cats, dogs and small children. We added a splash of apple cider vinegar to their water everyday (each time it was changed) for good health. We used a large cardboard box with bedding and to an old broomstick we used our lamp from the coop which was a metal dome and the bulb went into the centre. I used a 60 watt bulb as the 100watt that had been recommended was far too hot for the wee birds. It hung about 8-10 inches from the bedding and the top flaps would fit over the top keeping the heat in when needed. It worked well for us (we were forced to board our chicks in the cellar because of our three cats) though I recommend getting a beginners guide to raising chicks for all the ins and outs.
If you love the bantams please consider the local hawk population, hawks love wee birds and will make off with the banties in no time. A “chicken tractor” (a movable pen which is completely covered in chicken wire) allows to “free range” your birds without exposing them to predators. Covering one end will provide shelter from the elements and will keep your birds from roaming too far. Ours measures 13′x4.5′x2.5′ and is ideal if your yard is not fenced in, you have predators who could easily grab your chickens or garden beds that you wish to remain intact. It’s also useful to keep them in one spot, gardeners will appreciate the scratching and digging these birds will do along with the removal of pests and plenty of chicken manure to feed the soil! Should you choose to house your chickens here keep in mind that predators will (and do!) dig under the frame. Last Summer (2007) we had to keep our small flock in the tractor and early one late Summer morning I woke to skunk stench and chickens hollering their heads off. Skunks will kill chickens, they only want their eggs but will kill chickens for the heck of it. We were very lucky that the skunk that found it’s way in to the tractor was a young skunk only intent on eggs. Apart from smelling of skunk spray our girls were unharmed.
Coop: A solid, sturdy home at night is essential for chickens if you wish to have them the next morning! They have a long list of predators, bears being the largest and strongest around here. The first coop I built was a box 4ft wide and 6ft long. I built it up on cinderblocks which lifted it about a foot and a half off the ground. It stood 6 ft high in the front and 3.5ft in the back (where I had a door I could access the interior with). Inside I added a wooden ladder, a 2 in diameter fallen branch for roost and on one side two nest boxes. the top of the coop had slats to the east to allow Sun and air (but nothing of the predator kind) and on the north and south sides vents, both of which were meshed and had a metal flap which shut down on the bitter and windy days. Air circulation is essential, however drafts are deadly, so it’s a fine line to walk. To this coop I built a frame for a pen which was completely encased in 2 in turkey wire. this extended to wrap around the based of the coop so the chickens could have a space under the coop. This wire was buried 12 inches into the ground (predators do not dig deeper than that). I added a small door and ramp for them to get out of the coop. Come winter this was wrapped in two layers of heavy duty clear plastic which kept it comfortable all winter and allowed them space and protection from the wind. When building a home for your birds keep in mind the tenacity of many nocturnal predators. The earlier mentioned skunk spent several nights digging under the tractor before finding the one area that was not covered in chicken wire (I had wrapped the underside with chicken wire as well but left a 2ft wide strip bare).
We expanded our flock the next year which meant building a larger coop. I transformed a lean to attached to the back of the shed and there we housed 22 chickens that year. It faced east but lacked proper air circulation so it got rather damp and stale which resulted in a small outbreak of illness which cost us a couple of birds. Keeping the coop clean is essential. I shoveled mine out in the Spring and Autumn, spraying it down with a vinegar/water solution (I prefer to stay away from toxic chemicals) and lay fresh bedding which will sometimes get shoveled out halfway through the year if it gets too wet. Tossing in scratch will encourage the chickens to scratch and dig the hay up therefore helping to keep the bedding from packing down too much.
Our chickens are free ranged, they have the run of the yard and keep the tick population way down thankfully. In the three years of keeping chickens prior to moving we had only lost one (sadly) to a predator, a vacationing neighbor’s dog. Free ranging is ideal for chickens as they are foragers however if you have predators (and chickens also scratch up everything, especially beautiful flower beds so fencing them may be the best option. Instead of a permanent chicken yard you may wish to fence them in with movable fencing so they don’t completely strip a section clean of grass (which can happen in a matter of days) move the fencing as needed around your yard (or use a chicken tractor). Free-ranged chickens lay the most gorgeous and delicious eggs, yolks are bright yellow (though more typically a beautiful bright orange) and not the anemic yellow found in store-bought eggs. Even the chicken meat tastes better, I had the opportunity to taste a recently butchered rooster we had (I’m too much of a wuss to eat my girls) and it was unlike anything I’ve ever had from a store.
Feeding: We feed our flock with layer pellets and any garden or table scraps (no citrus or raw potato or their peels!!). Chickens are omnivores will (and do!) eat everything, I find vegetarian raised chickens a ridiculous concept. My chickens happily gorge themselves on snakes, insects, slugs, mice (yes, one hen actually grabs and eats a mouse from our outdoor cats should they catch one), they love their grains and veg too but they love their meat. Scratch is a nice seed and corn blend that is like crack to chickens, this is ideal to use as a training tool, to toss to them on a frigid morning or evening to get their body temps up. Too much will leave you with a fat, unproductive chicken so don’t overdo. When temps are relatively comfortable I toss out a bit of scratch in the mornings only, winters I will give it to them three times a day.
Winter feeding: The past two winters I noticed that our chickens got rather mean and cranky due to a lack of variety in their diet (and too much protein), to offer a variety of fresh greens I will start a tray of seed (the disposable metal turkey pans work well). If you are familiar with growing sprouts this is pretty much what the practise is like. If not google “growing alfalfa sprouts” and that will give you a nice how to. I use lettuce, broccoli, alfalfa, kale seeds and grow baby greens which I will feed to the chickens (who go absolutely insane). Another idea is to gather grass seed heads in the mid-late summer when they are ripe and full and store them in a brown paper bag in a cool dark place. Sprinkle out on the coop bedding throughout the winter as desired. Your chickens will love you. Other ideas for food “treats” is warm leftovers. I will sometimes scramble up eggs and mix with rice, cranberries, peas, whatever I have on hand and bring it out to the coop before they are settled for the night.
Health: We raise our chickens as organically as possible. They are treated with garlic and apple cider vinegar (added to their water). After an outbreak of illness I added a crush clove to their waterer and mixed apple cider vinegar to their feed (and added it to water I had in a plastic waterer as it would corrode the metal of the main waterer). This cleared up the remaining illness in no time and I actually noticed an increase in eggs after!
Laying of eggs: Healthy pullets will begin laying eggs between the age of 5 to 6 months, depending on their breed and the time of year. We have always had pullets born in April or May so the eggs don’t usually start coming until October or November. Our youngest batch was born in late May of last year and the Buff Orpingtons began laying in late October and the Ameraucanas in mid to late November.
Copyright © 2006-2013 Stephanie Lowell-Libby
Stephanie Lowell-Libby is a writer, a longtime organic gardener and former farmers’ market gardener living in New Hampshire where she is raising her beloved wee girl “Pixie” (who has recovered from her 2010 diagnosis Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and subsequent treatment and is healthy and thriving once again). A photographer, passionate cook, genealogist, licensed massage therapist, reiki practitioner, aspiring homesteader and spends much of her time outside enjoying all nature has to offer.