When you are trying to live self sufficiently, it’s often a good idea to only invest your time, money and energy in things that provide multiple benefits.
When considering whether to raise livestock, you really need to look at raising chickens.
The average hen is a versatile little bird, even just one can provide various benefits at different points in its life:
Eggs – A hen can normally provide a fresh egg every 2 days or so for about 2 – 3 years (every 26 hours if conditions are perfect). Eggs are a wonderful source of nutrition containing a wide spectrum of vitamins and nutrients, plus a decent source of protein.
Fertilizer – Chicken poop is a very effective fertiliser. It’s all natural and your crops will definitely benefit from it being applied, even if it is a little smelly to handle.
Meat – Once a chicken is starting to get long in the tooth (well, beak) and is no longer producing eggs, it’s time for the chop and a lovely roast chicken dinner!
Feathers – Not all feathers are suitable for bedding, unless you like it itchy, but you can still use the feathers as insulation in other areas such as wall filling (just keep it dry!).
Bug eaters – This is especially useful if your chickens roam free, as contrary to popular belief chickens will happily eat bugs and have been known to even kill and eat scorpions and snakes!
Chickens then are a good all round animal to raise in your homestead. Not only do they provide a wide range of uses but they are quite easy to raise, even in a fairly limited amount of space.
Before you rush out and buy some chickens, you need to do some research, because like anything there are important decisions to be made that will affect other things.
The first thing to think about is whether to get a rooster or not. Hens will lay eggs regardless, but having a rooster around will enable those eggs to be fertilized and produce more chickens!
Without a rooster you will need to purchase more chickens as yours begin to age and stop producing eggs.
They also have the added benefit of helping protect the hens from predators, or at the very least making such a fuss that you can head on out with a shotgun!
There are a few downsides though, chiefly being the noise. Unless you are in a rural area the crowing early in the morning might drive your neighbors mad. You will also need to check with your local planning office as while most don’t mind chickens, some do, and a whole lot of them won’t let you house a rooster within the city limits.
The second downside is space. You will likely want to segregate the rooster most of the time, to keep from being overwhelmed with chicks, and the rooster will need enough space to roam.
Next up is choosing a breed of chicken. There are so many breeds of chicken out there it can be dizzying to choose from.
Each breed is different but there are some factors that you should take into consideration:
- Is the breed docile or flighty?
- Is it a noisy breed?
- Is the breed dual purpose (good for eggs and meat)?
- Are they high laying?
- Will they cope with higher/lower temperatures?
- Will they cope with confined spaces?
Research is key here, you don’t want to end up with a breed that is noisy as heck, when you desire a nice peaceful homestead.
Some of the best all rounders are:
- Rhode Island Reds
- Plymouth Rocks
- New Hampshires
Chick(en) or the egg?
Generally you’re not going to buy adult chickens. This is not to say you can’t, but as value for money goes they are usually not that great because they are already into their egg laying cycle and it’s really quite hard to age an adult chicken!
You can buy adolescent chickens (pullets), which are generally 15 to 22 weeks old. These teenagers will require a little less work than chicks and begin laying quicker as well.
You can also buy chicks. I think this is generally the best way to do it unless you need eggs right now! The chicks will grow up knowing you as their mama and will likely be more comfortable around you.
The main flaws with chicks, is that they do require a bit more work; when setting up they will need a heating system, and there is added time in checking up on them, though to be fair you can keep this quite limited.
As well as that unless you pay extra to get your chicks sexed, there is a chance of having roosters in with the bunch, often several of them. If you can’t keep roosters, return them or eat them!
You can also buy hatching eggs, which are fertilised eggs. These of course will take the most work to get started as they need to be incubated in order to grow and hatch.
Which to choose?
Well if you are only going with a few chickens, I’d recommend pullets as these will get you your eggs quicker. If you are looking to have a dozen or more, buying chicks is definitely the most cost efficient, though you will likely have to return/segregate/eat any roosters that come in the mix.
All cooped up
The next item on your list to look into should be your chicken coop (also called a hen house).
A coop doesn’t have to be a fancy affair: so long as it has a place to keep the chickens warm and dry, and a place to feed and water them it should suffice.
There as as many hen houses available as there are varieties of chickens!
Size is a key factor: how much space can you provide for the chicken coop? The size will also affect the number of chickens you can keep, as ideally each chicken should have it’s own nesting box in the coop.
The coop should provide shelter from the elements, and a space for them to wander around.
It should also be secure enough to protect the chickens and eggs against predators.
Some coops are even mobile, allowing you to move the coop to fresh grass should you need to, though this will usually limit the size of the coop.
Buy or build?
Depending on your time, patience and skill set, you may want to buy a coop rather than build one.
There are so many different types available that you generally will find one suitable for your location, needs and taste.
You can likely find coops at your local pet or farm store, but Amazon also has a wide selection at very good prices:
|There’s a massive variety of chicken coops out there!|
|You can find more on Amazon.com|
If you can’t find a pre-built chicken coop that you like or you need something custom then you could look at making one yourself.
I would strongly suggest following some plans though, because the last thing you want is for the coop to be unusable or to collapse or let in predators.
Chickens, like humans, need a varied diet rich in vitamins and minerals and balanced with enough protein and calcium to offset what is used when laying eggs.
Adolescent and adult chickens need about 15 – 17% of their diet to be protein, chicks need a higher percentage, around 20%.
Most farm suppliers sell commercial chicken feed, look for the layer pellets, or the specific chick pellets (layer pellets are not good for chicks).
These are relatively cheap and supply a balanced level of nutrition for your chickens.
It is possible to simply feed the chickens waste grains and household food scraps, but as the diet is more haphazard that way, their egg laying will also become more haphazard.
That being said, you can still use household scraps to supplement the chickens diet. They will eat most anything but be careful to avoid giving them the following:
- moldy food
- avocado (fruit and plant)
- rhubarb leaves
- raw green potato skin
- anything high in salt
- raw eggs (they can eat these but you don’t want them to get a taste for it!)
- anything high in sugar
Allowing the chickens to roam free and peck and scratch is also ideal as this natural behaviour helps them use up excess energy and also supplement their diets with bugs. Chicks benefit from this too as it helps build up their immune system.
While most layer feed contains enough calcium for the chickens, it may be worthwhile giving them access to additional calcium in the form of crushed oyster shells. This is especially important if their diet does is not dominated by layer feed. You can also use their own eggs shells as a replacement to the oyster shells, just dry them first and then crush them to a coarse grind.
Water is also important, so make sure they have constant access to fresh, clean water. If your location freezes in winter, you may need to add a heat source to keep the water liquid.
Grit is another important part of a chickens diet. Grit is used by the chicken to aid digestion. Free range chickens might pick up enough grit as they go, but having a source nearby is always useful in case they cannot get enough or simply don’t roam enough.
Some people mix the layer pellets, oyster shells and grit together, though I think it’s easier to keep track of what’s being used by separating them.
You often see in films etc. people heading out and feeding chickens by spreading food on the ground. While this is a viable option, it’s often simpler and easier to have bird feeders and let the birds self regulate their own feeding – you can still give them treats the old fashioned way!
|Bird feeders can be as simple or as complex as you like.|
|You can find more on Amazon.com|
Treats – high protein food like mealworms and low nutritional value foods like cracked corn are good treats for the birds, but like with our own treats they must be given in moderation. If they are not moderated they can easily cause dietary problems in the chickens. A spoonful of one treat per chicken per day is a good cap, less is even better. Remember these are treats and should be treated as rare finds for the chicken.
Raising chicks isn’t that hard but it does require some time and patience early on.
Before you even order your chicks, you need to get some things setup.
The brooder is a special hutch designed for raising chicks. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy but it does need the following items and requirements:
Size – Ideally the brooder should give 2 and a half square feet of space (or more) per chick. It also needs to be draft free.
Heat lamp – A brooder lamp helps keep the chicks warm. Ideally it should be placed in the center of the brooder, leaving the edges slightly cooler. The heat lamp should also use red light. This will help avoid pecking incidents.
Thermometer – Used to monitor the brooder temperature.
Litter – The bottom of the brooder should be filled with pine shavings or similar and covered in coarse paper (not newspaper). The litter should be change regularly, daily at the very least.
Food & Water – Obviously the chicks need top eat and drink. Keeping the food and water separate will help stop water spillage into the food and vice versa. It’s also a good idea to keep the containers raised slightly to help prevent birds falling in and pooing in them. Keeping the food and water fresh is essential to avoid disease.
Keep the brooder area dry! Chicks can suffer from a disease called Coccidiosis which flourishes in damp conditions.
Check the chicks butts a few times a day for pasty butt which can block a chicks orifices and kill it. If found, gently remove with warm water and pat dry. Make sure you check the butt (under the tail feathers) and not the belly button. It’s easy to mix them up and if you accidentally pull on the remains of the umbilical cord you risk disemboweling your chick!
Once clean, dry the chick with a hair dryer on warm, or keep them out of the brooder until dry. If you put them back in damp they could get a chill and if they have any exposed red skin other chicks would peck at them.
When the chicks are first in the brooder, keep the temperature at 90-95F.
Each week reduce the temperature by 5 degrees until the chicks have feathered out (normally 6-8 weeks).
If you are using a basic heat lamp, raising it by 2 to 3 inches will reduce the temperature by 5 degrees or so.
Up until 6 weeks, the chicks should be given chick feed (high in protein). After 6 weeks swap them to a grower mash, and a more varied diet.
At this point you can swap them over to the coop.
Collecting and handling eggs
Collecting eggs isn’t that hard though you may get a peck or two from an overly broody hen!
Fresh eggs are good for 2 months if cleaned and refrigerated, though they can also be left on the counter top for a month too.
When cleaning an egg, merely wipe it with a dry cloth. You can use a slightly damp cloth for stubborn spots, but you don’t want to clean it too much as the egg has a natural coating to protect it against bacteria which cleaning can remove.
If you must clean it in water, use warm water only! Cold water can shrink the contents of the egg and potentially allow bacteria in.
If an egg is cracked on collection, trash it – it’s likely got bacteria in it already.
If you drop an egg, or a chicken breaks an egg, remove it and clean up any eggy pine shavings (or whatever floor covering you use) immediately. Chickens can get a taste for egg, and once they become an egg eater there’s no turning back – it can even be “taught” to the other chickens if it isn’t stopped early.
Killing a chicken
At some point you’re going to need to kill a chicken. It could be because of a few reasons:
- The chicken has finally stopped laying eggs
- The chicken is ill or injured and needs to be freed from it’s misery
- You have too many roosters
- The bird is attacking other birds or eating eggs
- You’re hungry!
Whatever the reason, killing the bird quickly and painlessly is the prime objective.
Calm the chicken and take it away from the rest of the flock. Hold the chickens legs in your weakest and and the neck in the other hand with your thumb under the beak. At the same time, tilt the head back and pull on the neck. You should hear a popping sound.
Over a container, cut the chicken’s neck where the spine and head separated and bleed the chicken.
The broom method
Similar to the above method but for those that may not have the hand strength for dislocation.
Put the chicken’s neck under a broomstick and stand on the broomstick, then pull on the chicken’s legs until dislocation occurs.
Calm the chicken and lay its head on a chopping block. In one quick motion, bring an axe down on its neck to sever the head from the body. Hold the chicken until the nervous reaction has stopped unless you want chicken blood spraying everywhere.
Running around like a headless chicken
With any of these methods, it’s likely the bird will start flapping and even running around should you let go. This is normal and is a reaction of the nervous system, the bird is already dead at this point and feels nothing.
TOP TIP: once slaughtered, dunk the chicken in a pot of hot water (about 140° to 160°F). Dunk it, and leave it for 20 seconds or so. After that pull it out and pull a single large feather off. If it comes off easily then the bird has been scalded and plucking will be easy as pie. If the feather resists, repeat the scalding (but for a shorter time, say 5 seconds) until you can pluck a feather with no resistance.
This is of course, only the basics. Nothing beats experience, especially when handling livestock.
Expect to lose some chickens: illness, predators and inexperience can all lead to a chickens demise.
Just remember though that once you have a healthy flock of chickens you are one step closer to self sufficiency!
Do you have any tips or tricks for raising chickens? Let me know in the comments below.