Chickens On The Homestead
If you are anything like us, you enjoy eggs for breakfast. Sure, you can easily-enough purchase them from the store, but do you really know what you are getting, how old they are, how far they’ve traveled, and what kinds of lives the chickens who laid them are living? If those birds who produced the eggs you just purchased in the supermarket are organic and free-range, you were set back anywhere from five to six dollars. Of course, there are always those white eggs that you see for a couple of bucks, but they just are not the same. Some are quite old. Trust me on this one. Once you’ve been eating fresh eggs, and I mean eggs that were laid the day before, from chickens that roam the backyard in search of insects and worms, you will want your own hens.
Many small towns in Maine allow a family to have up to six chickens and no rooster. In rural parts of the state the sky seems to be the limit. But your own flock of chickens requires much extra infrastructure, right? Not really. We have eleven hens, and we retrofitted our garden shed to accommodate the group. Also, we have an area of back lawn fenced in with one-inch hex chicken wire and two-inch hex wire over the top, all this to keep the chickens safe from predators, both walking and of the flying type. Although we originally let the hens roam freely and they had access to the entire backyard, my neighbor had his flock killed one chicken at a time by a red fox, and I was always nervous that it would happen to our birds next. Even though ours are now fenced in and protected, they still have a very generous run area and they seem quite content. There are pros and cons of letting chickens loose, verses keeping them fenced in. One issue is security; they seem more protected with a fence system. Also, they aren’t as apt to get into the garden and do damage. I recall last fall, after I had planted garlic, the chickens came in several times to dig it all up, even with a layer of straw over top. They also enjoyed eating seeds that had been sown. One time I found four of them in the greenhouse; they had dug a hole to bask in. Those are some of the reasons I don’t let them have access to the entire yard now. On the plus side, they are good for insect management. And something I used to love was that they would follow me around the campus, just to be with me. That was all good fun but nowadays I play it safe and conservative, and restrict them to their own area.
I am writing this blog at this time of year because by the time you read these words the agricultural businesses who sell farm supplies and feed will be selling day-old baby chicks. We pre-ordered ours back in January of last year, for end of April pickup. They were just a couple of dollars each, so for thirty bucks we had our little flock.
You will need something to hold their water and feed pellets. We like the special baby chick feed troughs and water devices sold at farm and hardware stores. You will need a box in which to take the little peepers home. On arrival, we placed them in a larger carton with pine shavings in it, and a warming light above. A word of warning about heat lamps: I have one that I use for baby chicks, and for baby goats when they are first born. It is best not to get the type of fixture made from plastic. I prefer the ceramic type. There have been several fires with loss of home and lives in Maine lately, due to inferior heat lamp construction. Once the baby chicks are two weeks old they are really too big for the carton, so I transferred them to the barn in an enclosed area. You will be feeding the newborns a chick-starter feed for the initial ten or twelve week period, then graduating on up to layer pellets.
An alternative to acquiring your baby chicks from the feed store is to buy them from a private breeder or hatchery. I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are scores of people hatching outstanding chicks in the state of Maine. Look on Facebook under “Maine Poultry Connection” to find people who sell high quality baby chicks and they also offer a lot of outstanding advice.
You might begin seeing an egg or three when your hens are eighteen to twenty-two weeks of age. Once winter sets in, we were getting maybe eight eggs from our flock of eleven and now that winter is over, eleven eggs per day is not at all uncommon. Batting one thousand percent. Yes!
We do not heat the chicken coop, but we have a window on both the east and south walls. Some folks use heated watering devices for winter, but we use several waterers that we switch out several times during the day. I am always walking the property perhaps every other hour checking the chickens and the goats, making sure everyone has water and feed, and that nothing is broken or otherwise needs attention.
Our chickens are what is known as ‘multi-purpose’ birds, meaning that when their prime laying days are over you can slaughter them for meat. That’s what they say, anyway. I tried this once when I use to live in New York, but I did not care for the taste that much. But that might have been the way I cooked it. I am sure there are some of you who have had great luck in this department. Nowadays I do not consume meat. You can, however, order little hens that are meant specifically for eating. The Cornish type hen comes to mind. I’ve known people who would purchase maybe fifty of these critters each spring and raise them till they are six weeks old if you want fryers, or eight weeks for broilers, and then have them slaughtered and frozen.
Other types of poultry are popular. Turkeys, for example. Nothing quite like raising your own Thanksgiving turkey. Ducks and geese are other popular choices for backyard poultry. There are also some very fancy breeds of chickens which are quite beautiful. And for the advanced poultry hobbyist there is the joy of hatching your own eggs. And let’s not forget how useful the litter from the coop is for making compost. For the homesteader, or anyone else, having a flock of chickens is a win-win situation. It’s hard to understand why more people do not have laying hens.
There you have it. Raising a backyard flock of chickens is both an easy and cost effective way to acquire some truly fresh and delicious eggs. They are about as easy to care for as the family dog. No homestead that I know of would be without chickens. Thanks for reading, and make sure to find this blog next week when I talk about Goat Kidding Part Two, as I share our second goat birthing experience, which is imminent.