Friday, October 5, 2012

Raising Chickens - things you need to know.

I could name this post: "The ups and downs of raising chickens" or perhaps "Just when you thought you had it figured out about chickens"- we've had a good/bad year as far as poultry goes and I thought someone could learn from the misfortune and the triumphs in regards to our little feathered friends.

We've raised chickens for several years now and really - it's a piece of cake - except when it isn't. This year we decided to expand our flock in two ways.  We needed to raise chicks to replace and expand our egg layer flock and we decided while we were at it to raise some meat birds for the kids to sell.  

The egg layers have been much less stress by FAR.  Our original flock is a colorful mix of breeds - brown, black, black and white, white with black necks - they look beautiful running around the yard in all their glorious feather-finery.  The problem has been that they don't all lay regularly   The oh-so-cool Amerucauna's did well for less than one season and have pretty much quit laying - I haven't seen a blue egg in weeks. The Barred Rocks seem especially susceptible to being eaten by predators. Some of the chickens we got from a neighbouring farm started a new game in the hen house - egg pecking - not good.  The Leghorns - scrawny-things-that-they-are - like to lay their eggs all over the barn but otherwise are the troopers of the gang .  The Red Sex Links are doing the best overall but production has slowed down drastically this summer and the quality of the egg shells has also been effected.

Everything was going so well.  We totally didn't see this coming.  I guess I knew we would have to replace them sooner or later but later sounded better.  My oft repeated phrase around the farm is: THIS CANNOT BE A RETIREMENT HOME FOR ANIMALS - If they don't produce something for us besides WORK and POOP we have to let them go.

We figured out this spring that the layer chickens were on their last legs and decided to purchase 100 chicks to replace them - the problem is the time gap in between.  It takes 18 - 20 weeks to go from chick to laying hen...that's FIVE months. We have limped along trying to get eggs to some of our regular customers - never so happy as when they went on holidays - because we were having a very difficult time filling orders at all!  We still have at least 6 weeks to go before the newbies are laying.  Thankfully our customers have been very patient when we haven't been able to deliver as promised.

You might ask why we have so many chickens to begin with.  Two of our kids are still at home and selling eggs and meat is a source of income for them - when it all works out - and a always a good education for me.

Of the 100 black sex link chicks we bought in the spring we figure we have at least 90 left.  That's pretty good.  We lost a few as chicks but they are very hardy and have fended very well for themselves free ranging all summer.  They seem smarter than the meatie birds for some reason - maybe because they are quicker and able to avoid trouble better. In a few more weeks we'll have eggs coming out of our ears and not enough customers.  I have my favorite egg recipes on standby!

The meatie birds have been a complete disaster this time around.  This was our third batch of White Rocks and each experience has left us thinking - WE WILL NEVER DO THIS AGAIN!  We've said that EVERY time we raised them.  Our first batch was last fall - they were the biggest fattest laziest birds you ever met.  We had a hard time getting them out of the coop and into the fresh air. The coop was a little on the small size so they didn't get too much exercise while cooped up - we thought this was a bad thing but it turns out maybe it wasn't.

This spring we fixed up the :"Jesus Tomb" and went through great effort to make them the nicest chicken coop ever!  They shared the house with the 100 egg layers but they still had tons of room.  So much in fact that no matter how much we fed them they just wouldn't gain weight.  They must have been the healthiest birds on the planet - lean mean NOT-growing machines.  White Rocks do not like hot weather and in mid summer they would just stop-drop-and-die. They ate us out of feed at record rates and failed to gain weight at all.  We decided to lock them in for a few weeks to speed the process up and have something to deliver to our ever patient customers. (who were promised chickens at the end of August but had to wait an extra month) Our most recent loss came in another form - theft.  Someone made off with 15 meatie birds while we were out one evening.  That was perhaps most disappointing and frightening of all.  We will be installing some security upgrades in the next few months.  Of the 100 we started out with we may have 45 to bring to the butcher by the end.  That is not typical at all but it is our sad results this time around.

Momma-mia!  I'm sure by now we've made every mistake possible but then I said that last year.

So - what have learned from this comedy of errors??

We really don't like White Rocks.  They have been bred to gain weight to go from chick to freezer in 8 weeks.  Growing them with our method - free ranged and larger pen - took longer but resulted in much healthier birds (well - the ones that survived!) but the fatality rate was still too high. We didn't have the most common leg problem with the free ranged White Rocks either which was a plus.  But we still need more durable birds!  This is something ELSE I say every year and we have yet to make a change!

Raising meat bird chicks in mid summer makes the best use of the heat when the birds need it and allows them to grow in the somewhat cooler part of the summer and early fall.    

I will be doing more research on a heritage meat breed that will do better for us under the same conditions.

Raising egg layers from chicks is time consuming and we need to  raise them every other spring so they are ready BEFORE they old ones stop laying regularly.

Although I LOVE seeing the multicoloured flock running around our yard we decided to go with the color coded system using the best breed we have found so far for us - Sex Links.  We'll switch off between red and black every two years and then we'll always know who-is-who.

Purchasing year old chickens from other farmers has been mostly a bust for us.  We ended up with someone else's problems on more than a few occasions.  If you are buying ready-to-lay hens the best quality and healthiest we ever had came straight from the farm store - you might be more fortunate that we were but especially when starting out that's what I recommend. 

Buy large size feeders and waterers right from the start.  Buy good quality and think BIG.  The bigger they are the less times they need to be filled resulting in less chores for you!

Keep the feed close to the coop if possible in tightly closed containers - garbage cans work great.

Make sure there are no holes in the coop - we lost 5 full sized chickens to weasels.  At night the chickens sleep on the ground (the layers roost when they are older) and predators have no trouble attacking because chickens can't see well from dusk till dawn so they don't know enough to run away.  

Don't use spray foam to fill holes anywhere the chickens will be - they will peck at it until it's gone - obviously that's not good for them!

Collecting eggs is a daily chore and we forget the egg basket on a regular basis so we just grab a clean pail and add a handful of shavings to cushion the eggs for the ride to the house.

When you bring kitchen scraps out to the the yard where you feed them have a certain call - chick chick chickie - works for me. (Think about the lady in the movie Babe - ha!)  The chickens will recognise the call and come running! This is good training if you're free ranging so you can get them to go back in the pen before their regular bed time. 

Make a compost pile near where the chickens spend most of their time - for us that's the barn yard.  We just throw in the scraps and the rest gets composted in place ready for the garden.  Some people allow their chickens access to the compost pile in or near the garden but I prefer to keep the process separated at this point since most of my garden is not fenced. I have enough holes in my tomatoes by other means!

Keep the pens as fresh as possible by allowing air circulation.  We removed a window in the coop and covered it with hardware cloth.  It seems counter intuitive because we think they would rather be warm but without good quality air they can succumb to respiratory problems. In the coldest part of the winter I cover it loosely with something that still lets light in, stops the snow and yet allows for air flow.  When you have more than a few chickens they will help to keep each other warm.  You can also drape canvas over the area where they roost to catch and hold some of the body heat.  This is only necessary in extreme cold situations - chickens are generally very hardy - they tend to do better in winter than summer.

After some trial and error we use the deep litter method in all the coops.  The shavings are allowed to collect and are kept dry by raking or stirring them regularly.  I admit this works well for about 9.5 months of the year.  In the winter we keep adding shavings and stirring as best we can but everything freezes pretty solid.  In that case we just add fresh shavings every few days and throw some chicken scratch on top to encourage the birds to do the job.  We used to clean the coops right out but there is some compelling research that says that leaving some of the dirty litter inoculates the clean litter with a vitamin for the chicken that actually keeps them healthier than clean litter alone!  It's also a great money saver - much less shavings required and less work too.

Keeping waterers from freezing in winter can be done several ways.  The first is to have more than one waterer and defrost one in the house and switch them out morning and night.  When you have more chickens it gets more complicated.  Last year we experimented with old tires packed with manure.  We set the waterer on top.  I wish I could say the composting action of the manure was enough but without direct sunlight to warm up the tire it didn't help very much.  It is a good idea for outdoor waterers for larger animals!  We finally bought heated dog bowls and use them for just the very coldest weeks.  It's messy and it's not perfect but it's the best we've found so far.

Cleanliness is next to godliness as the saying goes.  We keep a dish brush and dish soap at the water pump to scrub out the waterers.  Our "cleaning station" is a re-purposed cooler with the lid missing.  Adding apple cider vinegar to the water is good for the birds and helps to keep the algae growth down especially in the summer.

Chickens are a curious bunch so if we lock them in on inclement weather days it's a good idea to provide some entertainment - a cabbage will do!  For an extra does of fun hang it from a rope and let the pecking games begin!

I remember wanting to raise chickens and reading everything possible about them.  I nearly read myself out of the idea!  The more you read the more terrified you can become of something going wrong.  All things are possible but in reality raising chickens is one of the easiest farm animals you can choose.  I've probably come across nearly everyone of those problems over time and I am here to say - YOU an do it!  Despite all the problems we had this summer I still LOVE my chickens.  The eggs and meat you raise yourself are second to none - for taste AND the feeling!

Feel free to add your own tips in the comment section!


  1. If you are considering meat birds, try raising some white orpingtons. We added a handful to our last flock of layers. They have become our favorite chickens. They are very smart and inquisitive. No health problems. They may take a little longer to gain weight, but that just means a tastier end product. Don't stress if your plucked birds don't look anything like the plump roasters you get at the store. Free-range birds are always leaner, but they have a much better life and taste so much better!

  2. White rocks have always been a problem for the "normal" farmer. They were bred for the commercial farms that cram them into incredibly small areas. Buff or White Orpingtons are a good all around bird because you can raise them for eggs or meat. They are such consistent layers that you can use them as layers first then use them for meat and replace with younger birds and their skin and feathers are a good color for butchering. They are also not as affected by the shorter day length when it comes to laying but added light in the coop will help with any bird. I sell eggs but not meat but if I did Orpingtons would be the bird of choice. I feed mine a good feed and free range them during the day but they get all the kitchen scraps I can find. Including the ones that my customers bring. Melons and tomatoes provide lots of water filled food (eggs are about 90% water) and when I make cheese the whey goes to them. Boy does that make a difference. If they are molting I feed those birds dry cat food or calf manna for the added protein. This helps them along faster. Feathers are mostly protein and it is pretty hard to produce feathers and eggs at the same time. As far as predators go I have a guardian dog that barks and chases the "bad birds" and barks at anything else that moves along with a radio out in the yard during the day for coyotes. The man built me a coop several years ago that is bullet proof so far and I have only lost one chicken to a predator while it was free ranging. (before radio)I make sure there are also lots of places for chickens to hide if need be. They aren't as stupid as people think and the rooster has the sharpest eyes in town. He calls when there is something amiss which also puts both me and the dog on alert. What a system, eh? I have a mixed flock and as some of them go to ch-icky heaven I will replace with Orpingtons. They are the best birds with great personality plus I really want a lavender Orpington. Black Australorpes do well too because they were originally bred from Orpingtons in Australia. But they are black which is harder to pluck. Did I mention Orps are also great mother? Let a few go broody and raise your own chicks. That's always fun. Take a look here. Next to a Silkie (which can sit on just so many eggs) this moma does a bang up job. I gotta hand it to ya for doing so many chickens. Love hearing about your adventures.

    1. Thanks to both of you for your recommendations on Orpingtons..I'm not sure how easy they will be to find but that's half the fun! I AM really interested in some broody hens. We had a Silkie for awhile but I think she was too old - she never did sit on anything :) I think a trip to a farm auction is going on the schedule for the spring!

  3. Interesting read sister. As you can see, I'm catching up on your blog posts. ;). Xoxoxo


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