Chickens are a great example of something that seems really difficult to do until you actually do it (it did for us anyway). Every time I’m skeptical about trying something new, I just remember the anxiety I felt when we first got into “chicken ranching”.
Believe me when I say that we lost some sleep over these chickens, especially since neither of us had raised them before, so we were relying strictly on book knowledge and tips from the girl at Murdoch’s. Chickens are actually quite easy to raise and keep happy, we even free-range ours during the warm season and they put themselves to bed in their coop at night!
They’re so cute! They’ll be cute for a while, and the best part is at this phase they are not only easy to please, they aren’t big enough to get into mischief. To take care of hatched chicks you just need a brooder, food and water dispensers, and bedding. A brooder is a box, with a heat lamp hanging about a foot above it. Chicks have a fuzzy coat of downy feathers that keep them very warm, so set your heat lamp up above one side of the box. You’ll notice the chicks regulate their own temperature by moving closer to, or further away from, the heat lamp. You’ll also notice it’s just super cute they way they fall asleep standing up every few minutes, they’re so tired from growing! Just make sure they have plenty of food and water (some sources recommend spreading feed in the bedding too to give them something to scratch for).
Five or six weeks in you’ll notice your cute chicks have grown into awkward teenagers. Chicks grow really fast, you’ll be surprised how much they change from week to week. Watching them grow up under your care is rewarding and fun, and by this point they are quite hardy. Their cute downy coat will be replaced over time with real feathers, and at this stage they look a bit like they have the mange. At this point we had ours in a coop running around and they loved it, although we did keep the heat lamp in next to their nesting boxes until their adult feathers had come in all the way.
It can take around six months for chickens to fully mature, hopefully by this time you’ve identified all your roosters and given them away on Craigslist (just kidding). Most urban areas that allow chickens don’t allow roosters, but if you can keep them we recommend one, he’ll protect the ladies and provide some order. Having more than one rooster is a gamble, we had three total, and two of them ganged up on and killed the third. Roosters are aggressive and “cocky”, and will chase and attack even large things like you…, or a truck. Roosters’ natural “attitude” is something to consider if you have small children or other animals, but it was our experience that ours eventually learned we were above them in the pecking order. Ready for eggs? Now’s the time! If your chickens get to this point and they aren’t laying there are some things to consider. Is something stressing them out? Is their diet sufficient? Is it too late in the year? Chickens will naturally stop laying in the winter months when the days get shorter, you can trick them into laying all year using timed lights in their chicken coop! Do some research before you buy your chicks if you want differently colored or sized eggs, different breeds all have different characteristics, including number of eggs per year and even how much they’ll tolerate children. If you aren’t handy OR want a head-start, buy a pre-built chicken coop with nesting boxes that are accessible from the outside, OR use a chicken tractor!
When feeding your chickens, remember that they’ll eat most table scraps (even egg shells, which are a great source of the calcium they need to make more…egg shells.). Instead of throwing vegetable cuttings straight onto your compost, we recommend feeding them to the chickens. This will improve your compost AND save money on feed. It is NOT recommended to put large amounts of chicken droppings straight into your garden, it is very high in nitrogen and needs to be composted or “aged” a bit before use.
Chickens are surely worth the effort, after coddling ours all summer we now get up to five multi-colored eggs per morning! Chickens are a great first step into homesteading and will become a valuable part of your homestead’s ecosystem, providing food, insect control, great compost, and a safe healthy alternative to cable television!