Backyard Chickens (Keeping & Care)

Backyard Chickens (Keeping & Care)

In 2010, after living on our 1/8 acre for a couple of years and before transforming everything into the mini farm it is today, we decided to get a couple of chickens and try our hand at the keeping and care of our very first farm animals.  See, we dream of acreage…of wide open spaces…of quiet nights and farm-work filled days…of growing all of our own food and caring for animals that provide food and fiber.  Right now, though, we are smack dab in the middle of the city on a postage stamp sized plot surrounded by people and businesses and the sounds of sirens and traffic.

So, until we find what I like to call Our Eventual Farm, we decided to start where we are and work with what we have…

Enter Backyard Chickens!

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That first spring, we purchased five Ameraucanas from our local Feed Bin and brought them home in a tiny cardboard box.  We purchased five because all of our research told us that, statistically speaking, one would probably die early and another would probably be a rooster (which we would have to either find a new home for or dispatch), which would leave us with three.  We thought three was a good starting number.  However, all five thrived and all five remained hens!  So began our adventures in keeping backyard chickens and the beginnings of this blog!

We kept them in a makeshift brooder and built a small coop using plans from the internet.  We then figured out, within the next year, that neither worked very well.  So, we went back to the drawing board and Tool Lady built our Chicken Mansion.  This coop, with it’s large enclosed run and plenty of space inside, allowed us to feel OK about purchasing a few more chickens.  First though, we needed a new, functional brooder for our four new chicks, so we built this more functional brooder (which we still use today).

brooder drawer

 

Our newest batch of chickens included two Rhode Island Reds and two Ameraucanas in the spring of 2011 as we attempted to diversify our flock and figure out our favorite chicken breed.  Unfortunately, we weren’t as lucky with this batch as we were with the first one!  One of the Rhode Island Reds was a rooster, and he was a mean, mean rooster.  The other Rhode Island Red was born with a funky foot that we couldn’t straighten out for her.  She struggled and struggled and by the time summer came, we knew she wouldn’t survive the heat because she kept getting stuck up in the coop (being unable to come down the ramp).  So we continued our farming journey into the experiences of culling,   Luckily, some good friends helped us with the process!

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2012 brought us a second attempt at diversifying our flock as we brought in three Buff Orpingtons, three Black Australorps and three Ameraucanas.  These nine little chicks quickly grew out of our little brooder in the garage, so we went about building a new outdoor brooder using the remaining materials from the first coop we built in 2010.  Since the new brooder sits right at the end of our chicken run it works as both a safe space as well as a sort of transitional housing as we allow the Newbies to get introduced to our existing flock from the safety of an adjacent/separate space.

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Of the nine chicks we purchased in 2012, only one turned out to be a rooster.  Now, technically, we are allowed to have roosters in our backyard flock.  However, we choose not to so as to play nice with our neighbors (who are amazingly supportive of our flock).  So, despite this rooster’s kind tendencies, we culled him in his first summer and, this time, did it on our own.  This culling brought our flock total to 15.  Holy moly!  We’d become The Crazy Chicken Ladies!!!

The spring of 2013 brought us five new Buff Orpingtons which we decided on based on their gentle nature and gorgeous feathers!  Again, all five survived and stayed hens!  Then, after the mystery loss of one of our Original Five, and facing limited space and cost concerns, we fulfilled our original promise to ourselves and decided to downsize our flock to a more manageable count of 15.  We did so by choosing which hens would go (two of the Original Five, One Mean Hen from our 2011 additions and one super broody, not very nice hen from our 2012 additions) and again asked for help from some friends.

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This brings us to today. ..15 laying hens and the promise to keep it at 15 until we live on Our Eventual Farm and they can have all the space they want to free range daily.  Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t purchase new chicks next spring, it just means we will cull one to bring one in.

So, what have we learned from our chickens over the past few years?

Chick Care

  • Baby chicks are the cutest, messiest creatures on earth.  Make sure they have plenty of food and water and be ready for them to waste plenty of both with their hopping and kicking and falling over into it all.
  • Fluffy bottoms attract poop which isn’t good for anyone.  Gently clean off any stuck poop daily with warm water and a soft cloth.
  • Always keep new chicks and chickens away from your existing flock until you are certain they are healthy.  One sick chicken can take down your whole flock!  We have not experienced this directly, but always keep it in mind!

Brooders

  • A brooder with a removable bottom is the easiest way to keep things clean.
  • Adding a small, sanded branch to your brooder will make for the cutest roosting chicks ever.  Promise.

Food and Water

  • The more chickens can free range, the better.  our Ladies free range during the cooler months when the garden isn’t in full production mode.  Not only do they eat lots of bugs and seeds while free ranging, they also turn the soil and leave some fertilizer for us, too.
  • Our chickens and our bodies like it better when they are fed organic, non-GMO feed.  We would all prefer no corn, no soy feed, but just can’t afford it.
  • Chickens love Scratch, but it should be used as a treat, not as feed.
  • Chickens love pests.  Find a hornworm on a tomato?  They’ll eat it!  Find an aphid infested brassica?  They’ll eat every last nasty tiny aphid.  Worms?  Yep!  Got mice?  Yeah…they’ll eat those, too!
  • Chickens are not vegetarians.  Don’t let the advertisers on TV fool you.  Vegetarian fed chickens could not ever be free range chickens, plus, they probably wouldn’t be happy chickens and who wants to eat sad eggs???
  • Fresh water is imperative.  Chickens are even messier than chicks when it comes to their food and water.  They love to scratch around and send stuff flying everywhere, including their food and water.

buff orpington and feed

Food & Water Supplies we love (or wish we had)

Eggs

  • Happy chickens lay delicious eggs.  There is no comparison to factory farmed eggs.  Plus, there’s no guilt.
  • Chicken eggs are not uniform and their diversity is phenomenal.  From the color, shape and size of each egg to the calcium deposits and the speckles on some, I am still amazed and grateful every single time I collect eggs.
  • People love fresh eggs.  They will beg, barter and pay happily for them.
  • Have too many eggs? Crack them open, scramble them up and freeze them in ice cube trays for later use in baking, pancakes, waffles, omeletes, whatever tickles your fancy!

2011 eggs

Coops, Runs and Free-Ranging

  •  The more room chickens have, the happier they are.  If they are “cooped” up in their coop or their run, they will pick on each other and it’s not pretty.
  • Chickens hate rain and snow.  Give them a safe ,warm, dry place they can hang out that is not up in their coop so they can still stretch their legs when the weather is bad.
  • Again, the more you can let your chickens out to free range, the happier they’ll be.  Just make sure they are safe while out and can always access their coop if they want to.
  • We use the deep bed straw method for the coop and run which basically means we throw down a thick layer or straw and let the ladies kick it around for a long time before shoveling it out into the compost and starting over again.  the straw keeps down the smell of their poop and breaks down with their scratching.
  • We use pine shaving for the nesting boxes.
  • It’s important to clean out your coop regularly in order to keep the smells and the bacteria from taking over.  The drier your climate, the longer you can wait, but don’t wait too long between cleanings in order to keep everyone as healthy as possible.

Breeds

  • Choose breeds that will do well in your climate.  All four breeds we have experienced so far (Ameraucanas, Black Australorps, Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons) are good layers, gently tempered and have fairly small combs.  A smaller comb is best in climates that get cold in the winter so as to avoid frost bite.

buff orpington and watermelon

Summer Care and Winter Preparations

  • We have placed a big piece of shade cloth over 1/3 of their run  to help keep them cooler in the summer.
  • We generally place two waterers at opposite ends of the coop in the summer so they always have water in the shade no matter where the sun is.
  • Chickens love, love, love watermelon.
  • We insulate the coop with some extra straw in the winter and choose not to add artifical light or heat to our coop during the cold months.  The one exception to the heat lamp came a couple of winters ago when we experienced record lows (as in ~15 below zero…which never happens…it was crazy).

Dust Baths

  • Given our dry climate, we have not created a special dust bath for the Ladies.  It doesn’t take much pushing around of straw for them to create their own dust baths and they do so daily.  Dust bathing helps them clean their feathers and keeps away mites, so it is a very good thing even though it looks quite odd.

dirt bath

Supplements, Meds, and Interventions

  • Aside from baked and crushed eggshells, we don’t supplement our chickens diets with much beyond our kitchen scraps.
  • We have been very lucky in that our chickens have been remarkably healthy…meaning that, aside from a torn toe nail in a fight with a broody hen, none of our chickens have required any extra/special attention.  Knock on wood.
  • When the Ladies are molting (losing and replacing their feathers), we give them some special snacks (peas, cottage cheese, extra egg shells…)

The truth is, keeping backyard chickens has been such an amazing and rewarding experience!  From their personalities and lessons to their phenomenal eggs, I really don’t understand why everyone doesn’t have a few backyard chickens of their own!

Whew!  Are you dizzy yet…or just super excited?!

Now, please tell me about your backyard chickens!  Do you dream of having them or have a few (or several) to care for right now?  If you’re dreaming, tell me about it!  How many chickens would you like to have, what breeds, what kind of set up, etc.???  If you have chickens (or have had them in the past), what tips and tricks did I miss?  Let’s learn from each other!

xoxo,

M

Linking up to Frugal Days, sustainable Ways #99 and The HomeAcre Hop

Written by Melissa @ Ever Growing Farm

24 Comments

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  3. Tee

    We are on our first flock. It’s an even split of 9 full size and 9 bantams. The big girls were all red pullets, but we think one turned out to be a roo. The comb is bigger, redder and it’s a lot bolder than the others.

    We lost one and replaced her with a white leghorn. She was older than the rest by a week or two and has remained the chick in charge. She gets the highest roost in the coop.

    Of our straight run, mixed bantams we know we have one black roo with feathered legs and a hen of the same, unknown breed. We have a silver seabright and possibly three silkies.
    Tee recently posted…Rain Barrel LoveMy Profile

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  5. Trina

    I have 2 acres with lots of trees. I have a coop and a 5 foot fence around it. After I figured out my dogs weren’t going to hurt my 5 girls I let them out to come and go as they please even during our growing season which IS hugely frustrating but I barely had any weeds and barely seen bugs. Still I need to keep the chickens happy and me happy at the same time which is impossible when they rip out all my veggies and flowers. They get so upset if I keep them locked up in there pen. I’m still trying to figure out what to do next growing season. Do you have any suggestions? I have had the same 5 chickens for 2 years now ” Rhode island reds” very friendly, large eggs and winter hardy. I may expand my flock this spring.

    1. Bee Girl

      Ah yes, keeping the hens happy while not ruining all your hard work on the garden! Well, I personally keep them “cooped up” during the growing season and keep them happy by bringing them treats daily (weeds, bugs, leftovers, etc). I have run into issues when I didn’t cover my garlic properly in the winter…they just dig it up over and over again! Might you consider putting up some PVC pipes and bird netting…like a hoop house, minus the plastic? That would allow everything to breathe and get sunshine, but the hens would have restricted access. That is my new plan for the spring and summer for a few of my beds.

  6. Debbie

    We had chickens on my grandfathers farm and they were my my only playmates outside of school. We never used any heat, had a simple coop with eight nesting boxes and an elevated platform for roosting. We let them out during good weather but never during winter. Only fed them pellets and water. Never had any problems. I want to raise them but people seem to do it so different than I was taught. Do you think my way would work?

    1. Bee Girl

      Your way sounds wonderful! I think that people over complicate things these days…they want everything to be perfect and they want to treat their hens like pets. In my opinion, if your hens have proper shelter, food and water and you care about them and for them, they’ll be just fine. One thing that is different now than when your grandfather was keeping chickens are your feed options. Look at them carefully and make the best decision for yourself knowing that what goes into them goes directly into their eggs within a day and then into you 😉

  7. Miki

    My city doesn’t allow backyard chickens :(. It irritates me that anyone can keep countless barking dogs and outdoor cats but I can’t have two chickens. I’m considering doing it anyway and making a deal with my neighbors for some eggs. Can you give me some feedback about the noise level of hens? Also, can I let them roam the fenced yard when I am outside? Will they try to fly away?

    1. Bee Girl

      Hi Miki! I’m sorry to hear that your city doesn’t allow chickens! I agree that it’s the silliest thing when dogs and cats are everywhere! I would just be careful and research what the consequences could be…a fine? removal from your property? You’d just have to weigh it all 🙂 To your questions…chickens are actually quite noisy with all their clucking around. Mind you, they aren’t like roosters with their loud and crazy calls, but they do chat with each other all day long. Depending on where you are situated in your neighborhood, you might be able to get away with it. We are on a corner so everyone knows that we have chickens because they hear them when they walk by (we have a couple of teen boys in the neighborhood who call out to them every time they pass by on their skateboards….it’s pretty cute. Also, depending on how high your fence is, you should be fine. I’d say 6 feet is ideal as long as they can’t get up on one thing and then over the fence. Hope that all helps! Good luck!

  8. Jeanne Sager Wallace

    I am excited about getting started with chickens. The coop is a work in progress, to be roomy enough for 6 little ladies, (that is all our city ordinances allow…I live in a subdivision in coastal GA, in a small house on a 1/3 acre lot). Plan to start with 3 pullets, not wanting the complications of chicks right off the bat. Can’t free-range as we are in hunting territory for a (beautiful) red-tailed hawk, so will get our first girls when the coop and run are completed. Have been focused on this initial step, and have done some reading about the deep-litter method, but no clue what else we need to get started. Welcome all comments and suggestions.

    1. Bee Girl

      I am so happy to hear that you are planning your adventure into chicken keeping as carefully as possible! There will always be surprises but it sounds as though you’ve done some research! I also love that you are aware of (and appreciative of) your neighborhood hawk! Keeping chickens doesn’t have to be complicated, which is why I love it so much. Start with your coop, nesting boxes, roosts and run, have fresh water and food available at all times, use the deep litter method and provide a space for dust bathing. Most importantly, spend time with them…go out and see them every single day, sit with them, talk to them…they’ll love you and trust you and won’t be so jumpy when your working in their space 🙂 Good luck! Please keep me updated!

    1. Bee Girl

      Oh YAY!! Congratulations! The first egg is absolutely the best egg…but amazingly, it gets better! There really is nothing like keeping your own chickens and gathering eggs every day!

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  10. BeckiB

    I am DREAMING day and night about chickens in the spring. I’m reading as many different things about it as possible, and trying to get ready. Today, I deadheaded my marigolds (I’m in CA, so the weather has been really warm this fall), saving them up for chicken treats for my flock-to-be, for lovely yolk color (tip from Fresh Eggs Daily). There are so many beautiful chicken breeds, but of course, hatcheries are sold out until spring, so I’m filling online shopping carts, waiting for January 1st so I can submit the orders! I really, really appreciate blogs like yours that show pictures along with your advice!!

  11. Ms. Ladybug

    That sounds pretty much like my chicken raising except I started on a farm and they free ranged for 8 months and then I moved to town and now they are in a coop and run. I LOVE my girls and they have afforded me hours of entertainment as well as delicious eggs to use in my culinary creations. Happy farming.

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