Once “chicken-less” people learn I have chickens, they believe me to be an “expert”. I’m not unless you’re talking about my own chickens. Chickens are amusing to watch, can come when called, and eat ticks and other illness causing insects. They supply the garden with nitrogen, and mix our compost pile for us. Plus, there is that whole egg and meat thing. However, there are basics that everyone should know before buying a chicken.
Should You Keep Chickens?
If three hens singing the egg song at the top of their lungs results in neighbors banging on your door brandishing pitchforks, I would say no. If you often forget to feed your cat – again, no. If you hate cleaning up after animals – no.
If you like farm fresh eggs, control of your food supply, aren’t allergic to feathers (or don’t care if you are), organic insect control, have thought it through, have food allergies that seep through store-bought eggs, then why not?
First and foremost: chickens are living creatures who will be dependent upon your care. They should not be shoved into cages for years. They are a commitment just as any other animal is. How long that commitment is for depends on why you have them. Egg layers generally start to taper off about 2-3 years of age. If your goal is a working farm or homestead, then that is the end of their life. They go into the stew pot or sold as pets. Most don’t keep an animal that doesn’t serve a purpose. If you want a pet, prepare for about 8-15 years depending on the breed.
Are Chickens Allowed?
Just because you want chickens doesn’t mean you can have them. Check zoning laws and HOA regulations. Also check any other laws and regulations. We are allowed them, but our coop must be at least 10 feet inside our property line. The latter fell under building regulations. A good friend in South Carolina was allowed to have chickens. What she didn’t know is the chicken coop had to be 150 feet from her well. It was listed under environmental regulations. There was no way to accomplish this, and she was forced to give them up by government officials. Another friend isn’t allowed roosters. You can, of course, “fly under the radar”, but be prepared to accept the consequences if caught. No, I’m not advocating it.
Free-range or Contained?
This will depend on the regulations in your area and your personal choices. Do you want them to roam or do you have to keep them contained? 40 acres and want to free-range? You’re pretty much set. Suburban backyard and must keep them contained? You’re going to need a chicken run or some type of fencing. We do a combination of both. If we’re going to be gone all day, we will lock them in the run for safety. If anyone is home, they are roaming all over. Any neighbor that is “trespassed” upon receives free eggs. Neither care, because it’s free tick and ant control but in the interest of good neighbor relations, they get eggs.
The coop will depend on several factors: how many chickens, weather conditions, storing feed or not, what kind of style you want, etc. Some don’t have a coop like my friend in Connecticut. She has a large barn that her goats, veal calf and chickens share with barn cats and a livestock guardian dog. Several do this if they have the room. Others prefer a fabricated coop. Pre-made coops are expensive for what you get. A simple one at a farm store can cost several hundred dollars and be so flimsy a sneeze would blow it over. The really nice ones can go upwards of $1000. I wanted this one, but couldn’t afford it.
You can make it yourself. Plans and ideas are all over the internet. We built a full shed-sized coop, because we don’t plan on taking it with us. It needed to be “next owner” friendly. I also wanted a place to store food, maybe put a brooder inside plus have room for 10 chickens. Ours looks like a shed with nesting boxes on the side. We built it for almost half the price of a pre-made one. It’s also insulated which turned out to be a very good thing this past winter when we hit -34.
How Many Chickens, What Kind and Where?
Not all chickens are created equal. What type you buy will depend on several factors: weather; meat, eggs or both and how much room you have just to name a few. Don’t have much room? Eggs laid year-round? Love white eggs? Brown eggs? Green eggs? Sorry, no ham. Cold hardy? Hot hardy? Every chicken has certain characteristics. You need to research and find which works for your area and what you want. We needed cold hardy chickens for our New England winters.
How many chickens is another question. A chicken takes approximately 24 hours to lay an egg. Instinct prevents them from laying at night when predators roam. Most prefer 12 hours or so of daylight. During winter, due to temperature and lower daylight hours, many breeds will stop laying; others will continue but may take an extra day to process the egg. We have a variety of cold hardy chickens. In fact, we have too many. I chose chickens who would most likely not lay in winter. Surprise! Our lowest month was January with 56 eggs gathered. By the end of March we were already back up to 212. Good thing eggs can be stored outside the refrigerator.
“Fed a vegetarian diet” is often found on packaged chicken. There is one problem: chickens are not herbivores. Last summer, a huge fight broke out between mine over a toad. We want toads, so I tried to rescue it, but it was too late. I stayed back as they ate and fought over it. Chickens will eat mice, worms, bugs and moles. Free-range is obviously best, but not always possible. Sprouting seeds, organic grain, pellets and fodder have all been successfully used by chicken farmers for years. It will depend on what you want, can afford and how much time you want to invest.
Allopathic or Homeopathic?
How are you going to deal with the health of your flock? Do you want to raise your chickens using current veterinarian medications and treatments or would you prefer to go a more natural route? Are you willing to learn herbals and essential oils, or would you prefer to get a script for medication? An even better question: is there a vet in your area that treats chickens? I don’t have one around me, but due to our sensitivities we have to go homeopathic with our livestock. Most problems can be controlled with good flock management and keeping the coop clean.
The hard part is making these decisions. Once they are made, it’s pretty easy and fun – at least I think so. If you’re someone who likes to be prepared, chickens are a protein supply that can be easily replenished.