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!
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).
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!
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.
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.
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?
- 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!
- 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.
Food & Water Supplies we love (or wish we had)
- 5-Gallon Galvanized Poultry Fountain
- 125 Watt Water Heater Base HB125
- 12lb. Galvanized Hanging Poultry Feeder
- WISHLIST – BriteTap Chicken Waterer Gold Package
- WISHLIST – Precision Pet Wood Treadle Chicken Feeder
- WISHLIST – Hanging Metal Poultry Feeder Cover
- 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!
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.
- 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.
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).
- 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.
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!