It’s that time of year when feed stores are littered with litters of bunnies and chicks, those commercial harbingers of Easter. Overpowered by the temptation to buy those cute balls of fluff, well-meaning folks plunk down a few dollars, buy one for the kids, and delight in the squeals and hyper-focus on the new arrival… for the first few days. Then the newness wears off, and before you know it, you’re the absentee owner of a full-grown chicken. So before you fork over those few dollars for a newborn fluff-bundle, please consider the following regarding the ins and the outs of raising egg laying chickens.
1. Consider the end. This will seem an odd, if not morbid, place to begin ownership of chickens, but I really do believe it is the most important if only because it is the least discussed: What are you going to do with your chicken when it gets old? Hens are at their most productive as egg layers during their first two years of life, especially their second year. After year two, their egg production generally declines, usually by half of the peak, and steadily more as they age. You should decide now before purchasing a chicken if you’re looking for a pet that lays eggs, or are looking to own productive chickens that produce lots of eggs. It really does make a difference. I can’t tell you the number of people I read about, folks on Craigslist, who have chickens past their prime. They’re feeding birds that aren’t laying like they used to and don’t know what to do because they’ve become so attached to “Beaky” that they couldn’t bear killing it, but they also miss those breakfast burritos with home-laid eggs. I’ve literally seen ads on Craigslist seeking homes for older birds to live out lives in “chicken retirement.” Basically, these folks are tired of the feed costs for birds that no longer lay like they used to. You need to look ahead to that point several years from the time they are cute little chicks, and decide what you’re going to do with your chickens when they reach older age: keep them and just make them pets, or make a meal out of them. That may seem callous, especially if you have young children involved, but that’s the responsibility of owning and stewarding another living creature, and you need to enter that decision with eyes wide open.
2. Housing. Just as you need to consider what your hen’s final days will be, you also need to protect her during the days till then. A coop’s primary function is to protect your girls from predators, usually those that strike at night, like raccoons and skunks. I understand that you may live in a suburb, and you don’t think there are raccoons or skunks where you live. You would be surprised, however: I have a friend who lives near Oakmont High School in Roseville. He recently summoned Placer County animal control to remove a trapped skunk. That skunk joined 15 others and a half-dozen raccoons in the officer’s truck that day – all trapped in the suburbs where such critters aren’t “supposed” to live. Add on the neighbor’s dog – you know, the chocolate lab that has been bred to chase birds – and you have another animal that would love nothing more than to pluck your prized egglayer to pieces. So regardless of what you think is or is not living in your neighborhood, you need to prep your birds’ housing with the intent not just to keep the birds in, but the chicken-eatin’ critters out.
The form / construction of your chicken housing usually takes one of two forms: mobile tractor or stationary coop. Each has its pluses and minuses. For both, terminology should be addressed here: the coop is where the birds actually sleep at night. A run is where the bird(s) get to run and roam during the day when not in their coop. Some chicken housing, like both our tractor and new coop, have runs, areas where the birds have space to run, scratch, and flap.
chickens in their mobile home
A mobile coop, or tractor as they are often referred, is one that you can move around the yard. You can click this link to read more specifics about chicken tractors. We like this type of coop because we have lots of space, and this coop allows us flexibility with our birds. We can “park” the tractors on the garden beds for some chicken tilling because the bottom of this style of coop is open-bottomed; they can house different flocks of birds; they can house a broody hen who needs to be alone during the incubation period; they can also house mama and baby chicks until the chicks are old enough to not be snatched up by prowling hawks.
The stationary coop, as the name implies is located on a fixed point in the yard. In our case, the coop is large enough – 5′X12′ of floor space plus 20 feet of coop space, plus ramps and perches. 12-15 birds have plenty of room without getting too claustrophobic. This design lets us keep the birds in a coop/run for extended periods, like inclement winter weather or when we are away from the house for a few days, or just at night for protection until release in the afternoon for foraging around the yard.
In our new coop, we have added an 8 inch layer of wood chips to act as a “carbon diaper” as Joel Salatin calls it. The model is a “deep litter” system in which the wood chips act as a means of neutralizing the stink of the chicken feces. The chickens are forever scratching, including the wood chips, so they are continually raking in their manure. This removes the tell-tale odor (read: stench) of chicken poop on bare dirt. This litter will last for up to a year, at which time it can be shoveled onto the garden as an excellent compost. Yet another example of chickens earning their keep.
In addition to the housing, and depending upon your yard situation, you might consider letting the chickens roam, or free range. Again, consider your yard situation carefully if you want to try letting your chickens roam the backyard. I assure you, if you provide access to areas that include your prized outdoor furniture, they will crap on all of it. Guaranteed. They’ll also wreak havoc on any veggies they view as edible: Your summer tomatoes will get pecked, and your spring greens will be plucked up. Just remember that the chickens are discriminating eaters: They will seek out and eat whatever it is you don’t want them to. So before you open the coop and let them have at your yard, look around to see what they might get into, and know that they will.
3. Food and Water. Aside from the eggs they produce, this is my favorite part of owning chickens: They eat what I don’t. Chickens are living garbage disposals. They’ll happily devour that leftover fried rice you didn’t quite get to; the crusts you cut off for your 7-year-old daughter’s PB&J; the oatmeal your toddler refused to finish. In other words, they’ll eat what you would ordinarily throw out or perhaps deposit onto the compost pile. The better option is to let those hens turn those leftovers into eggs for you. Can your hens live entirely on food scraps? No. But depending on the size of your family and the number of hens you own, the food scraps will make a sizable dent in the feed cost for your birds.
That cost, depending on your flock, will not be insubstantial. You’ll have the choice of organic or not, the organic being more expensive. As of right now at Douglas Feed and Ranch in Granite Bay, a 50 pound bag of non-organic feed will set you back about $17.99. The organic will run you about $20.99 for the same amount. That 50 pound bag, if that’s all your birds are eating, will last about six weeks for 3 birds. If you’re giving them scraps, that feed will last longer. Longer still if you can let them range the yard to scavenge bugs, worms, and grass/weeds. Personally, we let our birds roam as much as possible, for the health of the birds, the nutrition of the eggs, and the cost of feed. Each situation is different, so your “results may vary” regarding feed options and monthly costs.
There are several options out there for watering. We just use a plastic dishtub in the tractors, and keep it full, occasionally cleaning it out. Yes, they do have a tendency to poop in their own water. They just do, don’t ask me why. At any rate, the plastic tub model works, poopy water notwithstanding. Also available is a hanging waterer that can be filled with a gallon to several gallons. These work well because they keep the birds from pooping in them, and the water lasts for several days (again, depending upon how many birds you keep). We have this for our new stationary coop. They’re simple to install, and made of metal so they will last a long time. Plastic ones are made, but they would have a tendency to succumb to the disintegrating effects of UV sunlight. More advanced systems involve hook-up to a hose bib and nipples that allow the water to flow to the birds as long as your hose bib hasn’t been turned off by your three-year old.
4. Eggs. Yum, the eggs. The best part, the reason you want to keep chickens. All the different culinary permutations of what to do with all those eggs. Your lips smack at the possibilities. You’ve had a friend’s eggs from his backyard flock and know what to expect from your tasty ovals. Eggs that taste more… eggy. Then you’ll get your first egg, see poop on it, and freak out that you’re going to get salmonella. A way to avoid or minimize the poop factor is to properly set up your nest box. I can almost promise you that your birds, as stupid as they are in crapping in their own water if provided the opportunity, will crap in and around where they will lay their eggs.
Our tractors have nest boxes that actually stick out from the coop. The nest “areas” in our stationary coop are inset inside the coop with an access door built into the wall of the coop. We placed 2X2′s inside to encourage the hens to treat these as nesting areas, and to prevent the eggs from rolling around the coop. Our experience has been that hens will tend to lay in the same spot. So of the 6 hens we have in a tractor, they’ll all lay in the same box, even though they have two sides to choose from. So even though you have multiple birds, there’s not much need to create a nest box for each bird. One next box per 4 birds should be plenty.
A few things you can do to help minimize the poopy eggs is to provide a nest box with straw/hay, and check/clean it regularly. Another option is to learn to live with the fact that no matter how filthy your eggs may look, they are much cleaner and more sanitary than whatever you are buying at the supermarket. Debates rage about the best practice for soiled eggs: wash… don’t wash… sandpaper… soap, no soap…. We try to change the straw regularly and just wash with warm water anything that looks poopy. We’re still alive to tell this tale….
5. Breeds of Birds. You will of course need to choose a breed of chicken. Obviously, an egglayer will be high on your list, but avoid the temptation to just buy the one that lays the most eggs. Leghorns are noted for being the most productive egglayers, but they’re also noted as being the flightiest. After reading and asking around, we decided upon Buff Orpingtons as our first layers. They have a reputation as being very mellow hens, solid layers (5 eggs per hen per week), and dual purpose, which means they are large enough to offer up their meat when they had reached the end of their egg laying prime… which they did. The BO’s lived up to their reputation. They faithfully produced their 5 egg average per week, more than enough for our family with the 4 birds we began our flock with. They were easy to handle, friendly, following us around the yard in hopes of treats being dropped for them. Over time, we have had a several different types of birds, including Barred Rock, Americauna, and Marans. So far, we have enjoyed the Buff Orpingtons the most. Still the friendliest, solid layers, as well as providers of tasty meat and stock when their time finally came. The Silver Laced Wynadottes are on our radar, as we have read and heard excellent reviews as layers and personable birds. We currently have two Black Copper Marans, and two “barnyard” mix chicks. We don’t yet know their genders, but we’re hopeful.
And gender brings up another issue. You can purchase your chicks straight run or sexed. Straight run chicks have not been sexed, so the laws of probability say you’re going to get 1/2 males, and half females. Or, chicks can be sexed at the hatchery, but that sexing isn’t 100% foolproof, so the possibility of a boy in your henhouse exists. What to do then? You have a chicken you don’t want. You either have to find someone who does want it, or devour him yourself. A way to avoid this is to buy pullets, hens that are less than a year old. This will allow you buy a bird of known gender and already laying eggs. These birds will cost more, but you know you won’t be getting a rooster. Exercise some judgment when buying a pullet. There isn’t much difference between a pullet and an older hen, so be sure that your source isn’t selling you an old hen – one that isn’t going to be very productive.
Please give the above points careful consideration before you give in to the temptation of plunking down bucks for some chicks. Owning and keeping an animal of any species is a responsibility, and its condition is a reflection of the steward. Though it may seem a bit odd to say when considering that we eat the animals we raise, we care deeply about the treatment and living conditions of our animals. From living space to feed to habitat to handling, our responsibility is to provide for these animals because they provide for us. It may seem paradox, but we really do think that the fact the we raise our animals to be eaten is a reason we value them so highly and care for them as well as we can. We think anyone making the decision to own chickens should demonstrate an equally responsible view of these birds before taking the actual step of owning them.