When I started with chickens, I spent 5 months raising them before I got my first egg. Three of those months the chicks were in a brooder, in our house. For several weeks the brooder had to be heated. For the entire time, the brooder had to be cleaned daily to keep down unwanted aromas.
I learned a lot of things from that experience. The most important lesson was the fact that I never, ever want to raise chickens in my house, again. I am not the only chicken keeper who has these thoughts. That’s why you’ll find endless plans and ideas for making stand alone brooders to incorporate in your coop or use in outbuildings.
If you have never raised chickens before, I want to save you a lot of time and trouble with these three words of wisdom.
Buy laying hens!
The simplest way to start your flock is to look on Craigslist, or whatever farm classified ads you prefer, and find yourself hens that are already laying. Sexlinks, Rhode island reds, white-egg laying chickens, other hybrids or heritage breeds, whatever kind of laying hen you can find will make a great starting point — as long as they are healthy and already laying eggs.
Often the chickens you find on classifieds are layers in their 2nd or 3rd year of egg production. Their production has slowed down. Instead of 5-6 eggs a week, they lay 1-3. Their keepers want more eggs, but don’t have the heart to kill them. So they sell them cheap, hoping someone else just wants chickens for company. Sometimes you can find younger chickens offered for sale by people who realized they weren’t really chicken keepers. Occasionally, you can find people who just like to raise chicks and not keep the chickens.
Frankly, any of these chickens are fine because your goal with your first flock is not peak egg production. It’s to learn how to care for chickens, experiment with raising methods, and to keep them alive.
Nearly every chicken keeper I know lost chickens their first time through because they didn’t even know what they were supposed to worry about. Even if egg production is low with your first flock, you’ll still get manure which is one of the best fertility sources for your garden. Plus, this starter flock is your chance to gain experience through trial and error without going to great expense, or becoming inordinately attached to your first flock.
Benefits of a Second-Hand Flock
If you start by building a fancy coop and picking heritage breeds from a catalog, raising them from chicks, treating them like pets instead of livestock — you’re chances of being heart-broken by your first flock are very high. Trust me. Something is going to go wrong.
- Your dog will sneak in when you feed the chickens and take 5 of them out in under 60 seconds.
- You’ll forget to close the coop door one night and a raccoon will gut your most beautiful, favorite layer.
- Or instead of a raccoon, a wide ranging weasel may come by and take out your entire flock because you were a little late closing the door.
I could go on. But I think you get the point. Until you raise chickens, you can’t anticipate the kind of things you need to be ready for. Many new chicken keepers end up feeling guilty and sad because they invested so much effort and care only to fail in devastating ways.
By starting with a second-hand flock, you can off-set some of that emotional anguish with the knowledge that you did your best to give unwanted animals a second chance. Also, more mature chickens have been around the block and aren’t as likely to make dumb mistakes. So, they tend to be a bit more durable than birds raised in a brooder by an inexperienced chicken keeper.
Hopefully I’ve persuaded you of the benefits of starting with a second hand flock. Now, here’s what to look for when you buy.
- Ideally, aim for the youngest layers you can find and make sure they are in great health.
- Don’t buy chickens that have poopy butts, have irrigated skin in their rear area, make you itch when you hold them, or are missing lots of head feathers. These chickens will require mite removal and health care before you move them to their new coop.
- Squat down with the chickens and see if they come near you. They may not let you touch them. But, they’ll usually come close, out of curiosity, if they are healthy and well-adjusted.
- Don’t buy chickens if they run up on you or peck you when you squat down. They usually can’t be broken of those bad habits and will make caring for the rest of your flock more difficult.
Trust your gut instincts on chicken buying. If the way the chickens are kept or their health condition makes you feel a bit queasy, don’t bring them home. In my experience, our stomachs often notice things that our minds choose to ignore. There’s a reason why “trust your gut” is an enduring expression!
Tips on Keeping Chickens
Obviously there’s a lot more to keeping chickens than just buying them. Before you bring home chickens, you need a secure space ready for them and a plan for how you’ll care for them. Then, later you’ll be experimenting, researching, learning, and making more permanent decisions about what works well in your environment.
The tips that follow are meant to help you get started. In future posts, I’ll get into more ideas about how to use and keep chickens as part of a homestead system. At the outset though, start with simple systems and focus on learning as much as you can about your flock, about yourself as a chicken keeper, and about how chickens interact with your environment.
Tip 1: No Right Way to Keep Chickens
No matter what anybody tells you, there is no single best way to keep chickens. They are adaptable, intelligent animals that are durable in some ways and can thrive in lots of different conditions. Every environment is different as well.
Try not to get too tied to particular ways of raising or using chickens early on. Be open to learning about all the different ways people raise chickens in your research. Then, later make the decisions that feel right to you, work well in your environment, and compliment your lifestyle.
Tip 2: Conditions and Care Needs Change
Also, we now live in a rapidly changing world with wildly unpredictable weather threats and climate changes. Pests, pathogens, and diseases are proliferating and spreading in ways no one expected. New risks emerge constantly.
For example, I got away with safely free-ranging chickens for 5 years until terrible flooding reduced the rat, mice, and rabbit populations on our landscape. Then, hawks took an interest in my chickens. Shortly after that, a fox family moved in. I had to completely re-think my chicken keeping practices based on those new predator concerns.
Even highly controlled industrial chicken care environments, fine-tuned with scientific precision, are susceptible to risks from our evolving conditions. Floods, diseases, feed problems, and more have made even supposedly invulnerable “engineered environments” danger zones for livestock.
It’s important to understand at the outset that chicken care is a moving target. You will never come up with the perfect plan for all time. There will always be tweaks and adjustments and even wholesale rethinking at times. Now, more than ever, you need to be flexible and responsive in your approach to chicken care.
Tip 3: Coop and Run Security is Key
Chickens need a secure space to spend their days and nights. Until you know your predator risks, you won’t want to let them out of their coop and run except under your close supervision.
So, you need to plan a large space to keep them secure. There are many different ways to go about this. They key is that you need to build them an effective refuge that keeps digging, aerial, and strong or cunning predators out.
– Hardware Cloth v. Chicken Wire
Generally, you want all openings less than an inch wide. So called “chicken wire” is the right size, yet it’s not durable enough for protection against strong predators. Hardware cloth is a better choice.
– Full Protection
Make sure your coop and run has complete overhead, underground, all around protection. Here are a few things I’ve learned about coop security.
- Buried fencing can keep out diggers. Yet, it’s often easier to just tack hardware cloth over the whole floor or use a solid plywood floor for protection.
- Self-locking latches and sliding bars keep out raccoons. Those crafty predators can open less complicated latches or pry up corners of light weight openings.
- Ventilation is a must. But screens are easily clawed open by climbers. Instead use hardware cloth on your window openings.
- Wood rots and swells. Nailed boards can be pried loose by stronger predators. Protect wood from moisture or use treated wood (e.g. stained/painted). Use screws rather than nails for more security.
- Roofing materials should provide weather and predator protection. Plastic or dark colored roofs can make coops hot in summer. Tarps can be easily chewed through and lose durability quickly when exposed to the elements. Metal roofing tends to work best.
Tip 4: Try Temporary Coops
Your first time through, I suggest you make something durable yet temporary. For example, hoop coops made with cattle panels and hardware cloth can be cheaply and easily built. They also create a lot of space for small flock of chickens. You can stand up inside which makes cleaning and spending time with your chickens easy.
You can also easily re-purpose all the materials later when you are ready to build a formal coop and run. You can turn the hoop coop into a greenhouse by covering it with plastic sheeting. Or you can use those cattle panels to make curcurbit tunnels in your garden later.
There are a number of hoop plans out there to choose from. This will likely not be your final coop design, so if I were you, I’d go for the easiest design possible.
Here are two easy tutorials to consider.
Hoop coops are not the only option out there. But unless you have carpentry skills and a lot of tools, they are a great beginner option. You can also buy second hand coops or find a local builder making low cost coops in some areas.
Tip 5: Pay Attention to Pet Peeves
I know you are going to read a lot of posts, magazines, and books before you bring home your first flock. Make sure to pay attention to all the nuanced little details chicken keepers share. Paying attention to pet peeves, in particular, can help you save time. Here are a few of mine.
– No “U” Nails
Personally, I am not a fan of U nails. Instead, I like to sandwich hardware cloth or wire fencing between two pieces of wood connected by screws. This makes taking it apart later much easier than having to rip out a bunch of U nails. It also saves on smashed fingers.
– Pass on Movable Coops
Movable coops, except those on trailers, only work on flat land. I’ve tried several drag and drop designs on our hilled landscape and they quickly warp and fall apart quickly.
Even on flat land though, the only chicken keepers I know who actually move their coop often enough for chicken health are farmers. They use tractors to tow them.
Instead of a movable coop, I recommend that you use deep bedding. Alternatively, use a shovel to scrape and then sweep up manure weekly to keep chickens from spending too much time on accumulated manure. Then you can also use that manure in your garden as fertilizer.
Tip 6: Start With What Works
For your first few months, start with the things that work universally.
- Use pelleted layer feed before you try to make your own or start fermenting feed.
- Use an $8 hanging chicken waterer cleaned and refilled every other day.
- Don’t use supplements that may or may not be helpful to your chickens.
- Put out oyster shells to ensure access to calcium.
- Bring chickens your fresh kitchen scraps and anything from your garden to use to build rapport with your new flock.
- Collect eggs at least once daily so you know they are fresh.
- Let your chickens lay naturally without using electric lights to induce winter laying.
- Store extra feed somewhere other than inside the coop so you don’t attract scavengers who might also eat your chickens (e.g. possums and raccoons).
- Clean your coop at least weekly.
- Spend time observing your chickens from a distance to learn more about them.
Tip 7: Experiment Carefully
Just like people, chickens need time to adapt to changes. When you are ready to start making your own feed mixes, fermenting your feed, using herbs for their health, offering probiotics, trialing Diatomaceous Earth (DE), give them yard access, use them in the garden, etc. – do it slowly.
For example, let chickens sample new foods. Watch their reactions and monitor their health. Only make full changes when you are certain your chickens will benefit from them.
If you give chickens access to your yard, keep an eye on them to make sure there are no unrecognized hazards. Start free-ranging them in the evenings so night will drive them back into the coop in case you have trouble rounding them back up.
Pay attention to what they eat and don’t eat from your yard or garden on their own. Then look up those plant properties to find out why chickens might favor them or avoid them. This will tell you a lot about whether your feed program is working.
Becoming a Chicken Keeper
Learning how to keep mature chickens safe and healthy is a great place to start your journey of becoming a chicken keeper. The real fun though comes with giving them purpose on your homestead.
Chickens actually enjoy being put to work scavenging their own food, controlling weeds, conditioning soil, and keeping you company when you work outside. Once you know how to care for them, then you can find meaningful ways to direct their natural abilities and integrate them into your homesteading life.
Then, later as you perpetuate your flock with new chickens you can make all those important decisions about whether to brood your own chicks or let a broody hen handle it. You can also try lots of breeds and narrow down your breed preferences.
Homesteading isn’t just about the activities that provide you greater resource self-sufficiency like eggs, meat, manure, and livestock labor. It’s also about thinking for yourself and deeply understanding all the aspects at play in the environment you inhabit.
Taking time to become a true chicken keeper, rather than just being someone who keeps chickens, takes more time up front. But doing so will make you much more skilled and help you effectively integrate long-term chickens into the life you are creating.
You may also decide chickens aren’t right for you. And if that’s the case, then by starting with a second-hand flock, you’ll sure be glad you aren’t stuck with an expensive coop and a sense of guilt over selling off those chicks you raised in your bathroom or basement.