A Flock of Chickens?July 7th, 2008
If you are thinking about keeping any type of livestock, I would start off with a flock of hens. They will require less time and expense than any other animals you might raise.
This article is to let you know the considerations about keeping a home flock of Chickens. It is meant to help you decide if you would want to have your very own fresh eggs, and fertile manure for your garden. Some may even want to raise chickens for meat as well. In the long term, I think a laying flock is far more practical, but that is just my opinion.
The most common way to start a flock is to order day old chicks from a mail order hatchery or a local Feed store.When chicks are sent through the mail, a minimum number must be in each crate, so they keep each other warm. This is usually 24 birds, and that is quite a few for a home laying flock. By pooling together orders with neighbors or friends, or at the local feed store, you can get a smaller number. A good layer will produce nearly an egg a day for roughly a year. Then she will need a break for a number of weeks, before she begins to lay again. The number of eggs she lays each week will be less, but they may be slightly larger. This pattern will continue as your flock gets older and older. If you start with a dozen hens, you may still have a few living after ten years. Each time they stop laying, they will be getting less efficient at converting feed into eggs. To figure how many laying hen chicks to buy, I would order about twice as many the number of eggs you can use each day. This will allow for some bird losses, and you will still have enough eggs when the flock is several years old. You can also have two separate smaller flocks, started a few years apart. Mixing flocks of birds, of different ages is rarely successful. They will need separate housing, but it doesn't have to be expensive.
The young, day old chicks will need close attention. They require artificial heat constantly, and the temperature will need to be reduced weekly. If you can set them up in a basement area, which has a relatively constant room temperature, a simple heat lamp, or an old oil fired brooder heater can be used. If they are in a barn or coop, you will need a thermostat to control the heat, as the temperature in the building changes. You will need to do this precisely, and continuously for weeks. Here in Southern New England, I started chicks in my basement, and moved them into my barn after about six weeks. You have to plan the time you order the chicks to arrive, so your coop or barn will be warm enough for them. If it is not, you may need a source of some heat for them in there permanent housing too.
Here is an opportunity for a Cottage Industry. It takes little more time to care for a larger number of chicks, than it does for just a few. But first master the art of brooding chicks, and line up customers who have paid a sufficient deposit to cover all your costs of starting the chicks for them. Around here they are called 'Started Pullets' at this age. If you can buy your flock as pullets, you have saved a lot of work and fussing.
Once your flock is in it's new home, you still won't have eggs for a while. Like many things about your hens, there are many variations among different breeds of chickens. My favorite breed right now is Golden Comets, seen in all of the photos on this page, except the last one. They are among the earliest to begin laying eggs, they have a very calm and quiet disposition. They have a plump, compact shape, which helps them tolerate our cold winters. They also lay brown eggs, which bring a better price in our part of the country. Chickens which lay white eggs are more efficient at converting feed into eggs, and better able to tolerate the hotter Southern temperatures. As a general rule, the highly efficient modern commercial breeds are more susceptible to disease and health problems, and were never bred for a long life span.
The Hatchery catalogs are full of descriptions about the best features of each breed. Some are for show, some for meat, and some for eggs. Choose what ever you like. You can order 'straight run' chickens, which should be about half roosters. They are cheaper, and you can butcher the males when they begin to fight for dominance. If they are from a white egg laying breed, they will be quite bony, and more suitable for soups. If the are roosters from brown egg laying breeds, they will have a reasonable amount of meat on them, but they will not be the meaty birds like you buy in the grocery store. For a laying flock, you can order all hens. The flock will be better protected if a rooster is with the flock. He will crow early every morning, and he can be heard for a very long distance.
Most all full size breeds will no longer set on there own eggs to hatch them naturally. You wouldn't want many of your layers to do that anyway. We used to keep a small flock of Bantam hens just for that purpose. You have a rooster in with your layers, so they lay fertile eggs. It is then easy to substitute those larger eggs for the smaller ones, in the Bantam hen's nest. Don't put more into her nest than she can cover with her body, to keep them warm. Once in a while, we have had a Bantam hen who is an outstanding mother, but otherwise you are taking a chance with those eggs. She will need a quiet pen, or may want to find her own spot to nest.
Your new day old chicks will need a special grain mash from the feed store at first. After so many weeks, a different special feed is used. It depends on the Mill preparing your feed. There will be 2 or 3 different feeds used before they are on the adult formula. These feeds may be higher in protein, vitamins, and minerals. The texture will also change. You need to know if grit is needed to be fed alongside the grain product or not. Follow the directions exactly, and don't shop around for different brands of feed. The whole program is designed to work together. I strongly recommend you start with a commercial ration. If that is not possible, hard boiled eggs, mashed finely, shell and all, and milk can be added to finely ground cooked grains and beans. You will have to experiment with how much of each to offer, and they will suffer from doing that. It's only a last resort, and your knowledge from closely observing a flock started on a commercial ration will help.
A laying flock needs about 16% protein feed. The commercial grains are very carefully developed for good results. But Chickens can harvest part of there own food from foraging on the ground. If it is safe to have them wander in your yard, or if you fence in a chicken run for them. Actually you will be better off if you fence several, and rotate them. With two runs, you can be growing feed for them in one, while they eat in the other. With several, you can grow some of your food in one too. You can also make a movable runs, and use them in your garden. Fenced runs under fruit trees will help solve insect problems too.
If you want to grow some or all of your feed, start with the most widely grown American grain, corn. Its yields are much higher than any small grain. Most common grains will need a high protein supplement fed with them, in order to average 16% protein. Dry Corn kernels are too large for chickens to eat whole, but they can be shattered or cracked into several pieces in a steel bur grain mill, set very coarse. Soy beans are the most common way to increase the protein in commercial feeds. They are around 35% protein. Home grown dry beans are around 25% protein. I believe all dry beans must be cooked in order for chickens, other livestock or humans to digest them. Some high protein sources are Sunflower Seeds, around 22%, the grain Spelt, also around 22%, and Flax Seed which is over 30%. I can grow those two grains in Southern New England, and the chickens will gladly thresh them. It is too wet here in the Fall for Sunflowers. They almost always mold before they are ripe.
Oats are around 14% protein. That is better, but still not quite high enough to keep your flock laying well. Normally Oats have a very hard protective coat, which must be removed by machinery, in a series of steps. However there are new varieties of hulless oats you could grow.
Rye grain is easy to raise and Millet is even quicker to grow. I sell all three of those seeds. All whole grains other than corn can be sprouted to increase the nutrition dramatically too. Beans can be sprouted and fed as well, instead of cooking them. Sprouting grain was very popular on smaller chicken farms prior to World War II. My grandparents used an old bathtub, but you can use something much smaller, and have several batches growing all the time.
Other large grain kernels may also need to be cracked in a grain mill, which is much easier and quicker than grinding into flour. The old fashion way to raise chickens was to offer the various grains in separate feeders, and let them choose what they need. In addition, a home flock should have daily access to a fenced run. If there are no predators, you may allow them to roam outside. They will constantly be finding insects and worms to eat, as well as tender shoots. If you have a dairy herd, you will have waste milk products to feed them too. Orchard, Garden and table scraps can all be fed in reasonable quantities. If the chickens don't finish up the food that day, it may draw rodents though. Years ago, we used to be able to sell half our eggs, and buy all our feed. It could be we would need to sell 2/3rds of our eggs now to buy all our feed. I like to grow our animal feed, and someday we may have to.
Your chicken coop will need to have feeders, waterer's,and nest boxes. I think it is worthwhile to buy these made buy a poultry equipment company. They have developed designs which prevent the birds from wasting feed and getting there drinking water dirty. The nests make it difficult for the hens to damage the eggs, and allow the correct amount of ventilation. You could build your own if you have to for some reason, but it is unlikely you will save money in the long run.
Your coop will also need a roost. That is simply a pole or board on end they can sit on at night. Most of the manure will be deposited under the roost. If it is along an outside wall of the coop, cover the area below it with woven wire, and let the dropping fall below that. Then construct a clean out door, so you can collect the manure, while the chickens are in the coop, and they can't escape.
Now you have an overview of what you will need to raise chickens. If you are still interested, I would buy a reference book from a reliable source like Storey Publishing [see links to the side of this page]. You can also get local information from your State or County Agriculture service. Either source will tell you about diseases and problems you COULD have. A book is written for use anywhere in the country, and will cover problems seldom or never seen in your State. Don't be overwhelmed. A small flock is much less likely to have problems than a large, crowded commercial one.